El Nino Is Coming

El nino
Photo by Martin Mukangu

In the riveting TV series Game of Thrones, set in a highly fantasy world filled with orgies of medieval European violence, debauchery, fire spitting dragons and intriguing power struggles, there was a recurring line. “Winter is Coming”. For the better part of the first three seasons, the lords of ‘North’ spent their waking hours, worrying about the looming winter season and the suffering that followed in its wake. Well, the lords of “Kenya” have spent the last few months telling the citizenry that El Nino is coming.

The grave warnings have been trumpeted for months now. Between Moses Kuria’s ICC fixation shenanigans and the teachers strike, there was always room for a little warning from the authorities, El Nino is Coming. Newspapers have taken to playing up past images of flooded roads while TV broadcasts continue streaming the last minute, drain clearing activities around the city. The most important El Nino prevention tip as we have all learnt, is clearing public drainage of garbage and debris. Sometime this month, the deluge will be upon us and Nairobi does not cope well in wet weather.

In May 2015, a sudden downpour that lasted a few hours brought an entire section of the city to a standstill. Some drivers spent 9 hours trying to cover a 5km stretch. Motorists slept in their cars. School kids were stranded in a bus all night and the general traffic mayhem was epic. Witnesses claim that a little level headedness from drivers would have abated the traffic crisis but on Kenyan roads, no medals are handed out for courtesy. A whiff of rain and all rational thought is swept away as the repressed matatu maniac gene, goes viral. Everyone drives to the nearest traffic jam because there is company in numbers. A jam is a place where Nairobians make their daily contribution to global warming and inevitable climate change by idling engines and letting off steam on social media and radio talk shows.

I am obviously panicking with good reason especially following news that Sonko rescue team was disbanded and with the knowledge that traffic police men do not like to get wet. A deluge may be great for Kidero’s grass but disaster preparedness has got to mean more than clearing drains. Given the very explicit warnings, the ordinary citizen would have loved to see the government take more tangible measures other telling citizens to “exercise caution while driving on flooded roads”.

Interestingly, the government has already declared El Nino a national disaster before it has happened. I have lived through a few elections to know the smell of vested interests pervading the air around me. The buzzwords are  in circulation. When a government typically known for its inefficiencies and negligence starts to utter phrases such as, “We are sensitizing Kenyans, mobilizing resources in anticipation, constituting a multi sectorial force tasked to put in place mitigation measures’, rest assured there is money to be made. Call me a skeptic but victims of the 1997 El Nino disaster are still languishing in camps.

News reports stated that there was a 12 billion shilling emergency kit already allocated for repair of damaged roads and anticipated cost of destruction. I do not think the teachers were happy to receive that piece of news.

This past month, Eugene Wamalwa the Cabinet Secretary for Water and Irrigation led a team of senior government officers to Laikipia, Nyandarua and further afield to inspect 52 dams built by the colonial government that are badly in need of desilting. In Marsabit, they found Bakuli Dam full of sand and logs. The public was urged not to panic because the National Youth Service (NYS) would be deployed and all would end well. Of real importance, the CS urged, was to ensure that Kenyans made good use of the rain water.

Despite the timely advice, it will be difficult for the low level Kenyan hustler to cash in. There is only so many umbrellas you can sell. El Nino does not offer such clear cut opportunities as say devolved county governments. My advice would be to think smart.

Those who live in perennial water logged parts of Nairobi like Imara Daima estate be should collecting money to purchase canoes and rafts. This is a good time to figure out the high ground you will be parking your car. Crowdsourcing apps like Ma3route will be invaluable. Touch base with the snotty friends who drive 4 wheelers because there is no use taking your Madza Demio out for a swim. Anyone with kids living in a house situated next to a river should send them to bed wearing life jackets for good measure. A few floaters in the boot and snorkeling goggles in the boot of your car could be the difference between life and death.

The serikali saidia mentality will not save you. Do not be a sitting duck. You do not need a natural disaster to tell you what you already know.”Some people create their own storms and then get upset when it rains.”

El Nino is coming.

The Writing Is On The Wall


The construction of the security wall between Kenya and Somalia has begun. 700kms of concrete to fend off Al Shabaab insurgents along the Kenya- Somalia border. The basis of the wall is flawed. The timing, knee-jerk. A good number of the terrorism suspects are Kenyans, living securely within our borders. Their funding networks are embedded in the country. Entire communities have ethnic ties across the Somalia border. Where does one even start? Mega projects are typically conduits for mega corruption and the opportunity to pilfer is written all over the proposed wall. The tender-preneurs must be salivating and rubbing their palms together. We have long list of pending national priorities that could make any patriot want to bang their head against a wall. The security machinery is in need of a serious overhaul. The incompetence on display can be tracked to systemic flaws that are routinely ignored. Corruption within the security ranks is at epic levels.

The reason for a low-key opposition against the audacious construction project must be due to Kenyans affinity to walls. When a Kenyan private developer grabs land, the first order of business is the construction of a perimeter wall.

When I was growing up manicured hedges lined properties. In most estates, fences were nonexistent and gates were rare. Where gates existed, they were only a few feet high and see-through. In the affluent neighbourhoods, bamboo fence and barbed wire served as a deterrence. Over the last two decades, the population exploded, rogue elements multiplied and the rate of house burglaries increased. In response to insecurity, walls replaced live hedges at a rapid rate. Over time the gates have gotten larger and solid.

I live in a walled and gated city. New residential properties are all walled in. No sensible Nairobian would move into a housing estate that did not have a perimeter wall. Inner walls are constructed within the perimeter walls to separate neighbours who treasure privacy. Sophisticated security alarms are installed within those walls and unarmed watchmen control entry through a hole in the wall. Watchmen and women are the underclass that man the walls and gates, every few meters apart. In suburbs of the city, there is a ratio of a watchman for every ten citizens.

A 100 years from now, Nairobi will be reminiscent of Lamu Old Stone town. Historians will talk of the barricaded buildings, massive solid gates, numerous sentry posts, the narrow roads, of the old city and marvel at fortressed existence of past Nairobi residents who solved problems by building more walls.

Who Are You Calling Native?

Many Kenyans were irked after American Bishop T.D Jakes use the N-word in a sermon in Dallas, USA. The clip that went viral was drawn from a section of a sermon where Jakes criticizes the materialistic lifestyle of the pastors in a new reality hit series ‘The Preachers of L. A” which he dismissed as junk TV. To distance himself from the hyped cast of prosperity pastors, Bishop T.D Jakes emphasized that “The natives all over Kenya drink water because of this ministry. And the hospital in Nairobi survives because of this ministry”. That statement rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Who are you calling native? That word conjures some of the most demeaning colonial era stereotypes that successive generations of Kenyans have had to bear.

As expected, #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) reaction was quick and furious. T.D Jakes retraced and apologized probably baffled by the ‘natives’ enlightened presence online. The statement had all the highlights of the 1st World superiority complex. Africans continue to be identified by their most negative national characteristics and the sweeping statement was not going to be taken lying down.

Often for many African American celebrity figures, going back to Africa has become a euphemism for disease, ignorance, poverty and corruption. For a generation of Kenyans who have lived to witness an American of Kenyan descent rise to become the president of the US, it becomes personal.

The internet has flattened the world and Kenyans are challenging perceived stereotypes. Many have gained a voice and a platform to tell their own version of reality. Kenyans who have traveled abroad to Western Europe and America have tales to share of the daily encounters with the ignorant westerner, the racial profiling and their ridiculously daft questions.

The irony is that for many Kenyans, T.D Jakes was considered one of the pioneers of the prosperity gospel that he vehemently criticizes. His sermons are a spectacle to witness with the stirring of the huge congregation of ten of thousands into frenzy.  He was about the most influential American preacher to hit the mainstream gospel channels and I believe he still a widely known and popular figure in Kenya. Bishop Jakes glammed up the gospel and introduced the breed of celebrity pastors.

Today, Kenya is littered T. D Jakes wannabes. The anointed preacher in a designer suit energetically pacing up and down a stage, using a white handkerchief to mop a glistering brow is a regular sight. We have seen the humble male preacher transform into a personality cult figure where members of new age evangelical churches are drawn to a pastor’s charisma. It is a radical shift from the past where the clergy man wore a simple collar and churches were not run like a business that is focused on turning a profit.

The contemporary TV preacher (also known as Mpesa preachers) has become a showman. It comes down to the basic tenets of the business of media production. Without a show, you draw no ratings and lack of ratings is bad for business.

The church was a relatively credible institution until the new generation of T. D Jakes inspired pastors started to appear on the scene. Nowadays, the pulpits are crowded out by business people masquerading as holy men, flaunting their wealth and rubbing their generosity in the face of the less privileged. The soul searching masses are the fodder this ego-centered version of spirituality and charity is a central part of their bragging rights.

Here is thing…Charity isn’t charity if you have brag about it. I hope the good Bishop has picked up a lesson in humility.


Dying To Go Shags

 The word shags is one of those few slang words that has endured from the 80s. It really should be in the sheng graveyard alongside words like Sonyi  and Wuch from its era. I guess it holds a lot of sentimental value for many Kenyans.  Shags is where the grandparents live, where your parents refuse to go after retirement and from where they emigrated to the cities to raise uppity kids who suffer from a culture shock every time they are forced to return to their roots. Indeed, the Kenyan dream resides in the city where we are programmed to keep reaching for the next rung on the prosperity ladder.

Whenever my former colleague Biko (www.bikozulu.co.ke) calls, he consistently starts the conversation with, “So how’s shags?” His tone betrays a touch of concern. He refuses to let me off with a nonchalant response such as “Shags is good”.  He prods. He wants details. I typically share the routine stuff because living on a farm can be a very hands on experience.

Days can get quite engaging. Talk of dumb sheep tangled in ropes that need my attention. A vet who was supposed to show up two days earlier to vaccinate the chicken has me worried.  A sudden disease outbreak brought about by the two roadside chickens I thought I got for a good bargain is spreading like bird flu and threatening to wipe out my stock. Meanwhile the cow needs a stronger tether. Second time in a week it has strayed into the shamba and mowed down strips of green maize. Both times, a case of negligence, from an absent minded herder sneaking off again to the shops 3kms away to buy a Bamba kumi scratch card. As you can imagine, the shags life has it highlights.

I was that kid always eager to go shags during the school holidays because it represented a space for endless adventure. I had imagined that it would be greatly fulfilling to live and work out of shags but that desire felt whimsy. However after years of wishful thinking I was jolted into action by events beyond my control. Life basically happened while I was making career plans that would ‘move me to the next level’.

My turning point happened on Tuesday 19th October 2010. It was a beautiful day to be on the motorbike, a Yamaha 750 XTZ even though I was having a day from hell. I had no money and my fuel gauge was reading red. I rode all the way to Langata to find my client had conveniently forgotten we had an appointment. On my way back to Lavington through State House road, I noticed a driver in a Toyota Hilux pick up truck staying a bit too close to my tail. I figured he was another of those arrogant drivers seeking a speed duel with guys on big bikes. As we swung around the bend past the president’s residence, I turned on some gas to get breathing room from the guy sniffing my tail. I realized too late that the car infront of me had come to an abrupt stop. On one end was a raised curb that would catapult me straight to the Statehouse fence and on the other side of the road, an oncoming lorry. I instinctively hit the brakes and in that instance got bumped from behind.

The impact knocked me off the bike onto the path of a speeding car trying to skid to a halt. I took a smash like a train and found myself logged under the sump guard of a pick-up truck. Someone one had the good sense to ask the driver to reverse off me.

Lying flat on the tarmac on Statehouse road, I was actually surprised that I was still alive as I did not register any pain on impact. My only recollection was a deafening bang and white light (the famous white light). It did not lead up a tunnel with a stairway, no hark angel voices came from above, nothing expect a clear conscious pondering, “Is this how I die?”

It promptly hit me that when the body is trouble, the spirit can be very quick to move on. I tried to move but I was frozen. Around me, good Samaritans were tagging at my feet threatening to dislocate my limbs almost choking me as they tried to unfasten my helmet.

Then an angel appeared, a Kenyan mzungu biker called Simon Cox who just happened to be riding through and had previously survived a motorcycle accident.  Simon took charge and immediately diagnosed that I was lucid

“Are you ok?”

Like the typical macho type I replied,

“Yap, just my back killing me. Turn me over”.

He helped move into a fetal position that allowed me to breathe more easily. I took several deep breaths, sucking as much life as I could into my paralyzed body. The next thing I asked Simon was, “How is she doing?” he reassured he had my bike was not badly damaged and I found that hard to believe. I heard someone shout, “Call an ambulance!” and  instructed Simon to get my phone out of my pocket that mysteriously did not crack and scroll down to the name Dorothy, a doctor at the Aga Khan hospital.

“She will know what to do”.

Enter the second angel. Simon called Dorothy using my phone and just laid it out, “Oyunga is lying on the tarmac and says you are doctor. He needs urgent attention”. There was a traffic jam building on Statehouse road as I could not be moved until the medics showed up. I had become another statistic of why it is nuts to ride a bike in Nairobi. The ambulance appeared within 10 minutes. Before I was lifted into the vehicle I turned to Simon to thank him and he assured me for the umpteenth time that my bike would be safe. I was rushed to the emergency unit with siren blaring where I found a friend waiting. Tears of gratitude flowed for it would have probably been a very different story if I had landed in Kenyatta hospital’s casualty wing.  I had an ugly flesh wound that nearly ringed my waist. The miracle was that I did not break a single bone despite being run over literally. This is a strong testament to the fact that proper gear will save your life. I was discharged that same evening to be nursed back to health by my sister and concerned friends who have since forced me to sell my motorbike.  It would take a month for the flesh wounds to heal and another month before I could climb stairs without grimacing.

I would need a place to slow down and let the body recuperate and where I could be fussed over.  It was an easy choice. As soon as I could drive, I hit the road to the place I called shags.

It is now one 1year and seven months since that move. I am a permanent resident in Sinaga village, East Gem, Siaya county. I live out in a farm eking a living, trying to make an honest buck and like all new ventures it comes with its fair set of challenges.

Some have asked whether I was angling for political position? As the educated one, it is assumed that I must have some advantages. I know in some counties in this country, a university degree might be a big deal and little professional clout has its perks. But in Gem a degree only means you went to school. You need at least a doctorate to even claim you are educated.  I hope to build a greenhouse and make a lot of money selling fresh produce in Europe now that Kisumu has an international airport.  Meanwhile, I continue to churn out stories and strive to live a balanced life and make a meaningful contribution to society.

As a jaded city sleeker who finally got it, sometimes it is better to a field rat than a mouse working a wheel. There is life outside Nairobi. Ultimately, shags is what one makes it. The important thing is not who we are and how much money we make but rather what we spend our time on earth doing because our lives are not limitless.