Ojuala is a ball made of strips of compacted plastic bags and held together by interwoven sisal rope. These balls were well crafted. They bounced off walls and let out a resounding thud when they connected with a striking foot. Young boys reused and recycled in the days of scarcity and kicked ojuala balls around Nairobi estate roads back when Maradona was the big name in football. Plastic bags were not the standard fare in the 70s and 80s. Supermarkets packed sugar in brown bags, chips was served on square strips of plain paper and meat was wrapped in newspaper. Hence the phrase, “Gazeti ni ya kufunga nyama”.
There was an acquaintance I used to know. He was a friend of a friend who I tolerated because I try not to impose limitations on the friends of my friend, especially when he is the host. But I had issues with this chap because he seemed to get a kick out of the shock value from guests who wondered why a burly man with the demeanour of Santa Klaus had to be so lewd. He was basically vulgar. Every second line had some sexual innuendo and he was forgiven because it was seen as a bland attempt at humour. In those social circles he was dismissed as ‘naughty’ even though he was more of the creepy uncle who unconsciously scratches a persistent itch in his nether regions in a middle a family funeral committee gathering.
In the early 90s, I had my first encounter with the unique private taxis of Kisumu known as Kondelez. The name is derived from Kondele which is Kisumu’s version of Soweto township in Johannesburg during the struggle for liberation, the epi-centre of the country’s socio political unrest, second only to Kibera in Nairobi. The taxis would ply from the town centre to Kondele-Carwash and back.
The Kakamega road was potholed and narrow. The taxis, were beat up Peugeot 404 saloons, commonly referred to as “opija”. Passengers would be squashed into them like potatoes in a sack. Five passengers in the back seat plus a tout who practically had his upper torso sticking out of the window. Oddly, looking out for more passengers. Four people would occupy the front seats and the driver usually had only enough leg room to work the pedal. The passenger seated next to him would sometimes be charged with making the gear shift. “Omera!, Rwak ane namba ariyo kanyo” ( My man, engage the second gear).
The last two months have seen Kenyans conduct a long running public debate on rain. El Nino has had the same traction as Obama’s homecoming. It is every third discussion topic after, “The latest (fill the blank) financial scandal and Governor Kidero’s never ending Nairobi county challenges”. Nairobians have been anticipating rain (read inconvenience) for weeks and the anticipation has turned everyone into a weatherman, peering into the skies at grey laden clouds searching for clues. Rain and El Nino are now identical words. Children of this generation will grow up reducing the El Nino phenomenon to long rains preceded by panic. Much like young people born in the 90s who grew up believing former AG. Amos Wako’s first names were Attorney and General.
I love the rain and not in the cheesy “I want to sing in the rain” way. The smell of earth moments after a downpour is one of my favourite natural scents. It conjures up pleasant memories of a time when parents expected healthy kids to be out kicking ball in the rain. My affiliation with water from above has more to do with practical stuff like planting trees and raising farm crops. For any struggling amateur farmer, the cycle of nature is invariably linked to bottom-line figures. Years of subsistence rain-fed agriculture taught me to appreciate rainfall.
In 2008 after the election of Barack Obama, notable avant garde Americans were seemingly awed by his physical presence. Obama had the unique ability to exemplify universal traits, and everyone wanted to define him in their own image. Oprah Winfrey described meeting Obama as the most powerful experience she had encountered. Novelist, Toni Morrison described Barack as a man of our time. Actress, Halle Berry said she would pick paper cups off the ground to make his pathway clear. The most blatant description was by San Francisco SFgate columnist Mark Morford who called Obama the Lightworker and wrote this in his column;
Many spiritually advanced people I know (not coweringly religious, mind you, but deeply spiritual) identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve. They are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.
His observations were mocked with endless parodies around his light worker pronouncement. That column further thrust Morford as the laughing stock of a nation. Meanwhile, way over here in Kenya, common folk understood what Morford meant about those ethereal qualities. Granted, Obama had more of the aura of a super cool celebrity than a politician, many Kenyans readily agreed that there was something ‘out of this world’ about Obama. A trait most people had heard of but never seen before. His qualities were way above average. A man who drew people in, and made you pay attention. Analysts said the Obama fever would pass, once the election hype died down but 8 years on the fever is just as intense. One can forgive the Kenyan enthusiasm. Obama has a living grandmother in a village in Siaya and a Kenyan family that makes him a living national treasure.
When Obama first came to prominence as a Senator for Illinois with roots in Siaya County, every media person of Kenyan descent resisted getting swept away by the euphoria and sought to maintain objectivity. Most of us had seen how Obama’s mere presence made the Queen and other world leaders swoon but there was really no way describe it…. short of gushing apologetically. Even the normally reclusive Mwai Kibaki talked of the ‘special resonance with us in Kenya’ after Obama’s election victory and promptly declared a public holiday.
Many write of this magnificence dismissively as simply his “Swoon Factor” yet we all instinctively understand the brother is just different. I treated the Obama ascension with cautious optimism. He was a pragmatic politician but political interests are murky waters to wade in. But what I always sensed was that Obama represented something larger than his political office. He stirred something deeper in my psyche. He made me question myself.
As any good anthropologist would, I was forced to go back to my Luo tradition to find some context for this thing I was grappling to describe. Barack Obama has what in Dholuo is a trait termed as mbii. I first heard of the term mbii as a child during holidays in my village in Gem, Siaya County. The term was used to describe certain prominent folk who had long passed on. Initially I confused mbii with charisma but it was beyond that. Mbii is more like an aura. An energy field that surrounds a person. Mbii is often mistaken for nyadhi (bravado) which is the national characteristic associated with Luos.
In Kenya, Nyadhi is earned bragging rights and expressed after an achievement. Having a Masters Degree from Harvard in the 60s was considered Nyadhi. Obama Senior was a ja nyadhi. His academic achievements accorded license to toot his own horn. Nyadhi was about touting a mark of excellence and awarded for surpassing an established superior standard. The Mbii essence we see in Obama is something beyond oratory skills, good looks, wit and charm. His brand of Mbii is manifested by sheer presence. The legends of our traditional African folklore were described by their Mbii essence. Mbii in present day has been associated with enlightened persons, super high achievers and spiritual leaders. Nelson Mandela, Lady Di, Dalai Lama, Haile Selassie, Thomas Sankara, Wangari Maathai all had Mbii. The Mbii factor is a trait worth paying attention to.
It manifests in individuals with the ability to affect populations and touch people in all corners of the globe. It is legendary and rare. This is a quality previously only celebrated in myth and folkore. The light worker quality is found in individuals of humble beginning who dedicate their lives to higher ideals of service and compassion and inspire us to seek our inner light and become better versions of ourselves.