Earlier that cold October morning when I sat in my home office and began writing a few paragraphs of ‘Green Decisions,’ a book that am writing, it occurred to me that based on the confidence that I had seen rippling through La Reine’s eyes as she drove, time was ripe for her to drive the entire 17 kilometers from Donholm to Karura Forest. Yap, she could.
Two hours later, we drove into Shell Outering Road to refuel. I beckoned a plump, kindly looking fuel attendant who usually fuels my car. ‘Explain to her about the basic car components in the bonnet,’ I told him as his colleague fueled The Growler (my Subaru Forrester). He did so with quiet aplomb, gently explaining about the engine oil, gear oil, power steering oil, coolant container and more.
After the impromptu lesson, we drove off. The Growler’s gigantic exhaust pipe emitted generous steam behind us. Exactly two minutes later, I stopped by the side of Manyanja road, told her that it was her turn to drive and matched out. That smile of hers, not the playful one but the bring-it-on confident one, lit up her face as she jumped out of the co-driver’s seat. Side mirror, check. Hand-break check. Safety-belt, check. At this early stage in her driving, she still has to run this checklist that comes as second nature to seasoned drivers.
“I have a surprise for you today,” I told her when she turned left from Kayole Spine road into Kangundo Road. This prompted the playful smile. It always comes with a twinkle.
“What is it?”
“If I told you it wouldn’t be a surprise.”
One hundred meters later at the roundabout that merges into Outering Road, I told her to turn right, not left as would have been the case if we were going home.
Lets pause here briefly and talk about Outering Road. This road, together with Jogoo Road, are the arteries of Nairobi’s Eastlands. Outering Road snakes its way from ThikaSuperhighway to the vicinity of Mombasa Road. More than a decade ago, Outering Road would meet with Jogoo Road at the Donholm Roundabout, where Jogoo Road would arrive after a five-kilometer journey from City Stadium Roundabout. These days, these two roads don’t meet at all since Outering Road sprints beneath Jogoo Road in the Donholm overpass.
She will have to know about all these roads because a good driver must have a proper awareness of the roads that she drives on.
When we arrived at the finish line of Outering Road at the All Soaps area, I told her to turn left. Then I told her what my surprise was all about.
“You are going to drive all the way to Karura Forest!” I said with my smile number five. The one reserved for special people.
“That’s the surprise I was talking about.”
A Volvo SUV, earthen in color, powered past her with a low growl.
“Indicate left and slide into the left lane,” I told her.
“Why?!” She protested.
“Am training you to change lanes.”
“Why can’t I just stick to one lane?”
That’s La Reine for you. She doesn’t just do stuff but will want to know why she should do that stuff. Or why you can’t do it yourself. Or why that particular stuff and not some other stuff.
In one of the corners at Muthaiga Road, she gave me a fright when she took a sharp corner at a rather high speed. For a split second, I was sure that we would smash into a beautiful, rugged tree that was standing guard at that corner. My right hand shot out and gently pushed the steering wheel to the right.
“Slowly!” I shouted, “never take sharp corners at a fast speed!”
Two minutes later, my right hand shot out again. This time, it was to stop her from turning right into the driveway that leads into Karura Forest.
She had indicated right and started making a right turn when I saw a black Range Rover racing towards us. We let it pass, in the process avoiding what would have been a resounding bang.
“But I had indicated!” She shouted angrily, “why would he just race by yet I had indicated that I was turning right.”
“Always use the side mirrors to decide whether its safe for you to make a turn or not.”
By the time she drove into Karura Forest’s Gate A, both our hearts were thumping loudly.
I was proud of her. Despite those two incidents - the sharp corner and near-fatal turn - she had driven with confidence and professionalism for the entire 17 kilometers.
She is La Reine (The Queen), so am actually not surprised that confidence runs in her veins.
When you embrace confidence, it will always drive you to a better place.
Find out about the river that is nearest to you. For me it is Nairobi River. Take a walk to that river’s riverbank. Etch your feet into the soft ground and fix your gaze on the river’s flowing waters. As you do so, whisper this to the river, “am deeply sorry for having let you down.”
Listen keenly to the river’s flow and continue with your riverine confession, “am sorry for allowing your purity to be compromised.”
Because the river cannot voice words like you can, there will be only one way of knowing if you have been forgiven - restoration. The day that you walk to that same riverbank and find that the waters are no longer colored by the black of industrial effluent or by the brown of human waste; or by any number of pollutants that keep harming it, you will know that the river has forgiven you.
Let us restore our rivers. Let us restore that transparent color that reveals our reflections when we gaze into the river; let us restore that gentle, yet powerful flow that never, ever ceases. Even better, play your part in restoring that awesome river that flows nearest to you.
7.30AM. I start reversing, eager to get started with my trip to western Kenya. The rearview mirror reveals a little boy walking towards my car, a blue plastic chair on his head. That lady, in black leggings and a black top matches into Mburu’s shop with a pink non-plastic paper dangling in her left hand. When I drive into the Southern bypass fifteen minutes later, I find cyclists all over the place. It must be a popular cycling route. I should try it one day.
Half an hour later, I refuel at a Shell in Lari then speed off past Lari town. This road here has taken a whole two years to fix and it seems far from over. Why do our roads take this long to complete? It’s because of me. Corruption whispers into my ear and I frown at it.
On the right hand side, I see Soko Mjinga. It looks different. One hundred meters later, I notice that there is a new Soko Mjinga. Am certain the traders don’t like is as its further from the road, not next to the road like the original Soko Mjinga. On the left I see a safaricom mast. I wonder how much Safaricom invested in these masts that dot the country! Billions probably.
The Growler, my beloved car, roars into Kinumbi, that infamous climbing stretch that can drain even the strongest of cars if they are having a bad day.
Nakuru. Java Coffee House. I am responding to Ofhani, sending her a quotation of her latest order and sipping Fanta, because it is the cheapest drink. And now am taking off. See you tonight.
If you live in Nairobi or any other urban center in the country and are able to access water through the taps of your house, you are among the lucky fifty percent urban residents with piped water in their houses. According to the World Bank, barely half of Kenya's urban population has such access to water.
The situation is even worse in rural Kenya, where hundreds of thousands of people struggle to find water every single day. They are among the 2.2 million people in the world who safely managed drinking water.
Indeed, Kenya is thirsty and there is barely sufficient clean water to quench this thirst.
In 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) produced a report that revealed Kenya’s grave water situation. According to the Report, 9.4 million Kenyans drink water directly from contaminated surface water sources, which is the third highest in sub-Saharan Africa.
Think about it. One out of five Kenyans cannot access clean, piped water either in their houses or the vicinity of their houses. They depend on contaminated seasonal rivers or stagnant pools of water. Is that not a national emergency? If Kenya were to be attacked by a foreign adversary, we wouldn’t just go on with business as usual. Rather, we would urgently and decisively marshal all resources at our disposal to fight the enemy.
We should do even more to fight the enemy of water scarcity in the country. It is not acceptable that half of urban dwellers cannot access piped water in their houses and that one out of five Kenyans cannot access piped water anywhere in their localities and have to drink contaminated water.
It is therefore unsurprising that about 19,500 Kenyans die yearly from diarrhea. Among them are 17,100 children below the age of five. Almost 90% of these untimely deaths are directly attributable to poor water, sanitation and hygiene. This was revealed in a study by the Water and Sanitation Programme, a multi-donor partnership that is part of the World Bank Group's Water Global Practice.
So far, 670 Kenyans have tragically lost their lives from Covid-19. Every year, more than 17,000 Kenyans die because they consumed contaminated water. Every single life is important and one life lost is one too many. As such, we must address water scarcity in this nation with even more fervor, urgency and resolution than we have addressed the Corona virus.
Our very own Vision 2030 seeks to ensure that improved water and sanitation are available and accessible to all by 2030. We only have ten years to achieve this. If we continue at the current pace, then we shall actually be worse off in 2030 than we are now. It is therefore time for urgent, decisive action. Such action is not a favor for politicians to brag about but a right for all Kenyans. Our constitution states that access to safe and sufficient water is a basic human right.
Kenyans must therefore enforce their right to safe and sufficient water. Article 5 of the Kenya Water Act 2016 further states that, ‘Every water resource is vested in and held by the national government in trust for the people of Kenya.’
The people of Kenya should therefore not watch idly as more than 17,000 of their fellow Kenyans die annually because of contaminated water. They should also not accept as normal a situation where most of them do not have access to piped water.
Our wildlife, which is our national heritage, is also suffering greatly from water scarcity. The International Fund for Animal Welfare revealed in 2009 that 40 percent wild animals in Tsavo West National Park died due to drought. While hard data for more recent years is unavailable, anecdotal evidence suggests that our wildlife are still dying from drought and its accompanying water scarcity.
The solution lies on protecting and replenishing water at the source – in the water towers – then ensuring that it is distributed through technically sound, durable infrastructure to every corner of the country, including national parks like Tsavo West. While we are at it, we should also revamp all our boreholes. Although we have nearly 6,000 registered boreholes in the country, sixty percent are not working. The Ministry of Water should inform Kenyans about their current status and urgently repair those that are still in a state of disrepair.
Water is life. Let us not deprive millions of Kenyans life by depriving them of water.
Decision. Incremental. Consistency. Go back to the beginning and read those three words again.
Now pause, close your eyes and imagine that you are writing those three words on the blackboard of your mind. Let them sink in because they can catapult you into a powerful present that births an equally powerful tomorrow. In short, those three words can change your life for the better.
Decision. A decision ignites decisive action. Will I turn left or will I turn right? Will I go faster or slower? Will I take this one or that one? Will I go here or there?
Every morning or the night before, you have to make a decision about what clothes you will wear. The black top or the green one? The striped shirt or checked one? However long you remain undecided about what to wear, you eventually have to make that decision. Unfortunately, critical life decisions are often left unmade because of fear, procrastination and complacency. For instance, we often delay making a decision on healthy eating until a disease forces us to finally do so. Such forced decisions are in some respects like a car that is being pulled by a tow truck as opposed to one that you are driving yourself.
Incremental. I have struggled with this word a lot, especially when am pursuing my passions.
In mid-August 2020, I made a decision to go for 12k runs four times a week and for 40 kilometer cycling once a week. That would leave only two days for rest and recovery. It was quite a tall order since I usually ran twice a week and cycled once.
On the second Monday of August, I dashed out of the house and ran for 12k. My legs were in good shape and I notched a good average speed. I rested on Tuesday, then ran another 12k on Wednesday. On Thursday, I cycled for 43 kilometers in Karura Forest. The following day on Friday, I arose early as usual and matched out of the house ready to run.
As always, I had switched on my running app at Kamuti’s butchery and started running. It took exactly one minute for my body to remind me of that vital word - incremental. Essentially, incremental means ‘one step at a time.’ Come to think of it, that’s how we all walk. Nobody can walk two steps at a time. The stride length may vary, but it’s always one step at a time. Even if you skip and hop, you still have to take one step at a time. Not even Usain Bolt, the fastest man ever, is exempted from this principle. He also had to run one step at a time.
That Friday morning after running for barely a minute, my legs seemed to turn into both sponge and steel. They became rigid, yet mushy. I stopped running, took a U-turn and walked back home. It had been my shortest run ever. I should have increased the frequencies of my runs incrementally, not just made a radical shift from two runs to four runs.
Arrogance and impatience are sworn enemies of incremental. Arrogance whispers in our ears that ‘rules of gradual progress don’t apply to you.’ Impatience whispers in the other ear that, ‘why take one step at a time when you can simply cut corners?’ I had listened to these whispers and assumed that my muscles didn’t need to recover at all. After all, five years ago, I used to run every weekday. I told myself. Well, that was five years ago. That’s where the third word - consistency - comes in.
Commitment (decision) gets you started, incremental keeps you going one step at a time and consistency gets you there. Inconsistency robs us of our progress and takes us back to square one. Inconsistency always engages the reverse gear. It pulls you back, then you have to start again, then it pulls you back, then you have to get started again. Tragically, most people become entangled in this back and forth dance for their entire lives. Don’t be one of those people.
Consistency is the wind that keeps blowing momentum into your sails. That momentum generates even more momentum. Whatever you do, don’t lose this momentum.
Have you ever held a honeycomb in your hands? If not, try and do so one day and you will catch a glimpse of Nairobi’s concrete tenements that are known in Nairobi simply as ‘flats.’ They dot the eastern part of Nairobi and host hundreds of thousands of people.
There is a twitch in my left ankle but am hopeful that it’s nothing serious. At Kamuti’s Butchery, the usual starting line of my morning run, I fish out my black Samsung phone and click on mapmywalk, my running app. In my mind, I hear the starting gun and start running at a mid-pace. I feel good. I almost wave at three ladies who are standing at the roadside, conversing in low tones. One of them has a kikoi tied around her waist. It reminds me of the seven kikoi fabrics that I bought a few days ago from It’s Kadzo’s Line in Malindi. They are for Charlotte, our Sasafrica.Shop agent in Namibia.
These thoughts meander through my mind as I keep running at mid-pace. I am controlling my breathing and not just breathing haphazardly. Apart from the sound of my breath and the patter of my footsteps, there isn’t a single sound to be heard.
The time is 4.57AM, August 29th, Saturday. At the first junction on this Rhino stretch, I increase my pace slightly, aware that I can’t just sprint in the final two hundred meters of the first kilometer and expect to notch a good speed. After a minute, I increase the pace even more. I can see the finish line of the first kilometer. I resist a temptation to run faster and save my fastest pace in this kilometer, for the final one hundred meters. My running app informs me that I ran this kilometer in 5.19 minutes. Great! My target today is to run the first three kilometers in an average speed of below 5.20 minutes per kilometer.
My breathing is great. Even and steady. My stride is also longer. Thank God for the Yoga that I have been doing every day. It has greatly helped my hip flexor muscles that had been misbehaving a couple of weeks ago.
I feel like peeing. But there is no way I will stop to do so. That will mess up my momentum. I can now see the finish line of the second kilometer. So just like Eliud Kipchoge did when he saw the finish line at Vienna, I increase my pace drastically. There is a guy in front of me who is running fast but I catch up with him and overtake him at the second kilometer’s invisible finish line. Interestingly, I have run this second kilometer in exactly the same time as the first kilometer. 5.19 kilometers. So far so good.
This third kilometer is my favorite part of the race. Partly because it takes me right through Umoja 2, where we lived for many years. I run past the matatu terminus. Today, I can’t hear the booming voice of Owish, the former newspaper-vendor-turned-matatu-tout. I run on and increase my pace as soon as Kayole Spine Road comes into full view. I can hardly wait to reach the footpath that runs adjacent to this road. I christened it Usain Stretch because it has the feel of a stadium track - straight and bereft of any bumps or potholes.
This is it. I tell myself once my worn out running shoes hit the Usain Stretch. This is the time to run a consistently faster pace. Time to step up the gear. And so, unlike previous occasions when I usually hit high gears in the mid-section of the stretch, I increase my pace from the get go. Keep going man! I silently cheer myself on. Faster! Faster! I smile at this particular cheer, as it reminds me of stuff. Sweet stuff. When I cross the third kilometer’s finish line, I am informed that I ran this third kilometer in 5.13 minutes. Great! Looks like that sweet memory came in handy.
I can now see Kangundo Road. After a ten-second walking rest, I begin running at a medium pace. Once I hit Kangundo Road shortly, I will increase my pace. I tell myself, and proceed to do exactly that. Due to the success I had with the silent cheering words - faster! Faster! - I repeat them to myself and smile again. Interestingly, my legs respond and move faster. My heart rate also follows suit as does my breathing.
When I realize that my breathing is becoming uneven, I slow down slightly as my arms swing gently, next to my chest. I can now see the finish line of the fourth kilometer, so I run faster. I complete this third kilometer in 5.19 minutes. What! I smile into the darkness. That’s awesome! I had expected something like 5.28 minutes but obviously, the consistently faster pace plus those sweet memories are paying dividends. I punch my fist into the increasingly cold air and fist-bump an imaginary running guardian angel.
Time for the fifth kilometer now. This one is usually rather tricky. The road linking Kangundo Road and Kangaru Road in Komarock has too many potholes. The road’s footpath is even worse, with many rocks and mounds of sand. So I usually run slower here and with much more caution. That’s exactly what I do today.
But as soon as my feet land on Kangaru Road, I discard my Nissan car for an Alfa Romeo sports car. There was now a need for speed. Enter Malewa Road 2, which slopes downward. This is one of three sections where I run my fastest speeds. This particular section is the sweetest of the three because of its gently downward incline that stretches out for about three hundred meters. Today, the leopard in me emerges fully in this section. My strides are long, fast and confident. Just like Eliud Kipchoge’s. Of course the main difference between us is that he maintains those strides for 42 kilometers! I take my cap off for you bro. You are the G.O.A.T marathon runner.
I complete the fifth kilometer in 5.18 minutes. Unbelievable! I smile happily as I shake my head. Never have I run this section in such fast time. However, I don’t have much time to congratulate myself since I am now in the sixth kilometer, the hardest. It is the longest uphill incline in the route, so most of my worst times are usually in this kilometer. But I want today to be different. I will not allow the sixth kilometer to drag down my overall time. I will not. I narrow my eyes in determination and start running up at a moderate pace. My plan is to drastically increase the pace once the land levels out. This happens after three hundred meters and I instantly recall the leopard from the depths that it had recoiled into. It pounces back and hits the cold tarmac with a get-out-of-my-way growl.
I glance into the glass walls of a restaurant that sits in the final one hundred meters of Malewa Road 2. Those glass walls usually provide me with a clear reflection of my running frame. Good, I think with a faint smile. Watching myself run always gives me a clear indication whether I am running like a leopard or a warthog. If I notice that my shoulders are drooping and that my upper body is leaning forward too much, I know that the warthog is in the house. Thankfully, today the warthog is nowhere to be seen. I take full advantage of the downward incline and run faster.
The air is thick with intense hope that I will finally conquer this sixth kilometer. I turn left into the Kenol Petrol Station then right, then take another right that brings me back to Malewa Road 2. It is time to run back to Highbury apartment, home sweet home, following the same route.
I cannot allow this sixth kilometer to steal from my overall speed. I think and hasten my pace. The beauty of this return trip along Malewa Road 2 is that the same uphill incline that makes life difficult when you are running upward is now an extended downward incline, which now makes life easy. I throw everything into the run and hurtle down. Picture a lean rhino hurtling down a hill and you will see how I was running that cold morning. 5.31 minutes. Yes! I clench my fist and punch the air, fist bumping my running guardian angel. Yes! I have conquered this sixth kilometer. Never before have I run it this fast. My sixth-kilometer time is always upward of 5.4 minutes.
In life, conquering one challenge often paves the way for yet another challenge. You complete secondary school with unbridled joy, especially if you were in a boarding high school like me, only for college to sneer at you. You walk down the aisle and celebrate the conquering of singlehood, only for marital life to chuckle at you with a low growl, ‘if only you knew what you have gotten yourself into?!’
I only had about five seconds to celebrate the conquest of the sixth kilometer. Staring at me, was a gentle uphill climb of about 300 meters, the toughest part of this seventh kilometer. The gentle upward incline of these 300 meters makes the section, in some ways, to be trickier than the steeper incline whose descent I had just concluded. When you can see a clearly steep ascent, you prepare psychologically and tackle it accordingly. In similar fashion, if the source of a conflict with your loved one is clearly evident, you will address it in a very definite and hopefully decisive fashion. But when little things have piled up over time to create a conflict, you don’t even know exactly what you are addressing.
Those initial 300 meters of the seventh kilometer are like little things that had piled up. For the first fifty meters, I run it like it as if its flat land. This slows me down substantially, so I inject more energy into my strides just to restore my pace. About twenty meters before Kangaru Road, I try to run even faster but decide against it, afraid that I will run out of energy and mess up an otherwise good run. At Kangaru road, I turn right, slow to a brief five-second walk then resume the run. This is usually a bittersweet stage of the run. On one hand, it’s thrilling that the distance I have covered by this point is now marginally more than the distance remaining. On the other hand, am usually acutely aware that despite my decreasing energy, I must maintain or even improve on the pace so that I can finish in decent time. Interestingly, this realization can be rather unnerving as it places onto your shoulders a huge load of responsibility. I push on and turn right into the potholed-road connecting Kangaru Road and Kangundo road. I decide not to rest at all and run on, eager to finish this seventh kilometer in a time below 5.4 minutes. I must hit that target. I must. Twenty seconds later, my weary shoes land on Kangundo road and I turn left.
This is it. I think with a faint smile. This final 300 meters will determine if I finish this seventh kilometer in a decent time. Because I am now running on a flat footpath that goes in a straight line for the entire Kangundo Road stretch, I hasten my pace drastically and sustain it with gritted teeth. I engage a higher gear and increase my stride length. A minute later, I finished the seventh kilometer in one of my best times for that kilometer - 5.31 minutes.
This time, I don’t shout, ‘yes!’ or punch the air. I am panting like a bulldog, so I just smile into the darkness. There are moments in life when you work so hard for something that when you finally get it, you don’t even have the energy to celebrate. But make sure you revel in the moment and later on, be sure to acknowledge and celebrate that triumph.
Now there is trouble ahead. The eighth kilometer. This is one of my three slowest kilometers. It has a stretch of about fifty meters with footpath bumps that usually slow me down, and a matatu stage that also forces me to slow down because there are usually two or three matatus right in front of me, waiting for passengers. With that in mind, I make a determination to run the fast half of this eighth kilometer before that matatu stage, in a consistently fast pace. But after about half a minute, I feel a slight twitch in my front, right thigh. Quadriceps muscles live in that section. I don’t want to antagonize, them, so I slow down a bit. The quadriceps return the favor and the twitch disappears. I complete the kilometer in 5.32 minutes. Great! I fist-bump my guardian angel and walk for ten seconds to catch my breath.
I sniff the cold air, smelling victory. I have run eight kilometers in superb, historic speed. Am determined to ensure that the remaining three and a half kilometers will not let me down. Because the upcoming tenth kilometer is usually my slowest kilometer, I purpose to run this current ninth kilometer as fast as possible.
It is time to switch on the Eliud gear. And so engage my mind and imagine Eliud running the final kilometer of the historic INEOS 1:59 marathon. I imagine him beckoning to his pacemakers to make way for him. He bursts forth. The finish line is in sight. The arms of history are outstretched, ready to embrace him.
As I imagine Eliud Kipchoge racing down the final four hundred meters of his historic marathon, I realize to my surprise that I am also racing past Naivas supermarket on Kayole Spine Road. Ordinarily, I would have slowed down here for another ten-second rest. But not this time. Momentum is on my side. So I race on in long strides. I see from the corner of my left eyes that I have just overtaken a cyclist across the road. I smile, wishing that one of my friends would see me at this moment overtaking a cyclist!
I am now in the final 100 meters of the ninth kilometer, so I switch on the Usain gear and pull out of my legs their best possible sprint. 5.22min/km. Yes! Another fist bump to my guardian angel. I can’t recall having run this ninth kilometer this fast. Now for the tenth kilometer.
I do not like this tenth kilometer at all. Just as I don’t like the Downward-Facing Dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) in Yoga. The thing with this tenth kilometer is that: Firstly, I am at this stage tired as I have already been running for nine kilometers; then secondly, it is the stage of the run with the most human traffic. Most of the tenth kilometer is run on a footpath that is sandwiched between the busy Manyanja road and the populous Umoja 2 estate. So even though the time is 5.25AM, there are already people striding down the footpath and I have to maneuver between them as I run.
Since I already summoned Eliud Kipchoge to get me through the ninth kilometer, this time I summon David Rudisha. I instruct my mind to recall his historic 800 meter run in the 2012 London Olympics. In that epic run, he had led the pack for 600 of the 800 meters. In the final 300 meters, he simply rocketed ahead of everyone and smashed the World Record. He finished the race in 1:40.91 minutes. I finished the tenth kilometer in my fastest ever time for the tenth kilometer. 5.36 minutes. Another fist bump to my guardian angel. Now for the eleventh kilometer.
This eleventh kilometer should be one of my fastest. After all, it is the final full kilometer, a sure sign that am about to complete the morning run. So I should be able to run quite fast at this stage knowing that I will soon be in my beloved Highbury apartment. Highbury is the name of Arsenal Football Club’s old stadium. When they moved out of it in 2006, I decided to name my house Highbury, in honor of all those great Arsenal moments at Highbury.
Despite the thoughts of my warm house and its cordial delicious aura, the eleventh kilometer has remained a pain in my side. I suspect that because of bad pacing, am usually completely worn out by the time I hit this eleventh kilometer. As a result, since July, my time for this kilometer has consistently ranked amongst the third worst.
This Saturday morning, am so tired as I set off on the eleventh kilometer that I can’t even summon another great athlete to spur me on. So I lean back on my on dogged determination. I urge my legs forward. You are on the verge of setting your own personal history. Don’t screw it up at this stage. I tell myself and inject a little more pace into my legs. My heart rate has drastically increased. Come on Bwak! Am now panting too much. Am aware that since my breathing is all over the place, my pace is being affected. But I can’t help it. Sometimes in life, you just have to keep pushing yourself even when every ounce of strength in you is pulling you down. That’s what am doing at this stage. 5:39min/km. Yes! But am too tired to fist bump my guardian angel.
This is it. I just have to run the remaining half a kilometer at a faster pace. I tell myself. You are almost there Bwak. You are almost breaking your personal record. Give it your best shot. That’s exactly what am doing now. Firing from all cylinders. I break into a sprint that delivers me to the Whitehouse finish line in an average speed of 5.33min/km. When I skid to a stop, I feel a joyous anticipation as I fish out my phone, confident that I am about to glance at history. 05:25 min/km. Yes!! This is my new fastest ever speed on this morning run.
One of the best things about setting goals and pursuing them diligently is that when you do achieve them, the joy that floods your soul lifts you to heights of deep satisfaction and unbridled inspiration.
It started with a drop of water that landed on top of the white headscarf of her head when she was cooking sukuma wiki (kales) on her rusty, green stove. She didn’t feel that drop. But when several drops landed in her plate ten minutes later as she was eating, she realized that her roof was leaking.
No worries. I will just move to another corner of my room. She told herself. She didn’t have many options in her ten square feet room that doubled up as a living room, kitchen and bedroom. Whenever it rained, she simply shifted location to an area of the room that the raindrops had spared. Until Monday 8th 2020.
On Monday May 8 2020, Naomi Wangari Kamau, an elderly lady in her seventies, watched helplessly as the massive cold teeth of bulldozers razed her house to the ground. She couldn’t believe it.
Her lamentation rose into the putrid atmosphere, ‘this is our home. We have been forced out and our houses demolished.’
As the TV crews gathered to cover the demolition recorded, she proceeded to call out to Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta to come to their rescue.
Naomi was among at least 5,000 residents of a locality in Kariobangi North, a low-income neighborhood in the eastern part of Nairobi. The simple structures housing these residents were supposedly located on land that belonged to the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company. But the residents begged to differ, insisting that the land had been allocated to them in 2008 by the defunct Nairobi City Council. We even have allotment letters. They said. Unfortunately, their voices didn’t matter to the authorities and the bulldozers that rendered them homeless within hours.
This wasn’t the first such demolition in Nairobi. Click here to view Amnesty International's photo essay of demolitions in Nairobi.
Sixty percent of Nairobi’s five million people live in informal settlements. These two words – informal settlements – provide a linguistic sanitization of their slum dwellings. Here is the brutal truth of a house found in an informal settlement in Kenya: its walls are either made of mud, timber, tin, or iron sheets. It’s roof is mostly made from iron sheets. It’s floors are mostly cemented but sometimes earthen. That’s it. One room comprising of four walls, a door that can collapse after one strong kick and a window. Plus the roof. A mostly leaking roof. Because it’s just one room, its often partitioned by a curtain that separates the living room area and the bedroom. Any of the room’s four corners serves as the kitchen area.
Many of these informal settlements are built on land that doesn’t belong to the residents legally. Such illegal abodes are often the only homes that they can afford to live in, until those cold-teethed bulldozers come calling.
In 2013, these bulldozers descended on City Carton, an informal settlement where about 400 families were living. They were left homeless. Three years later on Friday 08th July 2016, those bulldozers descended on Deep Sea, an informal settlement that had been part of Nairobi’s residential fabric since 1963 when Kenya attained independence.
When the bulldozers finished crawling through Deep Sea, many of the slum’s 12,000 residents were homeless. Their leaking roofs lay smashed and tattered at their feet. What next? Where do you go after this? Where do you find another roof? The one lying at your feet may have been old, rusty and leaking, but at least it was firmly in place, above your head, keeping away 99 percent of the water when it rained. The 1 percent that made it into their single rooms of houses, only came in drops that brought with them the aroma of the skies from whence they had come. They had learnt to live with those leaking roofs and the raindrops that made it through the roofs. The bulldozers, when they came, didn’t care about these living arrangements.
Clad in metallic caps and stony faces, the drivers of these bulldozers, are just doing their jobs. They are paid to drive these bulldozers. But what drives those who sent them? Are they familiar with Article 43 (1b) of Kenya’s constitution, which states that every person has the right ‘to accessible and adequate housing, and to reasonable standards of sanitation.’
These words are as clear as daylight. What isn’t clear is the motivation of those who give the orders for the bulldozers to raze down shelters of people whose leaking roofs are the only roofs they can afford.
Naomi Wangari Kamau and the more than two million Nairobi residents who live in informal settlements are either unemployed or working in the informal sector, which accounts for 70% of employment in the country. Covid-19 has battered this sector so much that it has bled hundreds of thousands of jobs.
What Naomi needs even more urgently than a job is a roof over her head. Unfortunately for her, the 500,000 housing units for low-income households like hers are yet to materialize even though the Government already allocated Sh.6.5 billion for that particular project.
This project is extremely urgent not just because of a growing population but also due to rapid urbanization. In 2005, only 1 out of 5 Kenyans lived in urban areas. By 2030, 6 out of 10 Kenyans will be leaving in urban areas, which will further strain urban housing.
As was clearly articulated in Vision 2030, Kenya’s national development strategy, although a total 150,000 housing units are required annually in urban areas, only an estimated 35,000 are produced. Out of this, only 6,000 units cater for low-income households, far below the number of housing units that they need. That is why thirty-year old Moses Ojwang has lived in Kibra for fourteen years. In 2006, he migrated from his rural home in Kisumu to Kibra and has lived there ever since then.
“The living conditions are not easy,” he says, “firstly, it is a hotspot of violence during conflict. Then there are the living conditions. They are not easy at all.”
Moses lives in a one-room temporary structure with his wife Hellen and one-year old son Ari. He has the unfortunate distinction of being a trained entrepreneurship coach who can’t afford to be an entrepreneur himself. For almost two years, he was an entrepreneurship trainer in the World Bank-funded Kenya Youth Employment Opportunities Project.
He has a business management diploma from the Kenya Institute of Management. These days to make ends meet, he works as a loans salesman for a Firm that provides loans. He is only paid on commission. This job doesn’t make much use of his leadership and entrepreneurship coaching skills. But it provides him with some revenue of about Ksh10,000 ($100) to keep him going. Although his wife is a trained primary school teacher, the Covid-19 pandemic has stripped away her previous monthly salary.
One night in April, those raindrops that had visited Naomi knocked on Moses’s roof. They didn’t wait to be ushered into the house but instead squeezed through numerous gaps on the roof. They kept coming until they became not one, not two but several constant water drips. Within minutes, they formed water puddles on his low coffee table and the tiny space that it stands on. Soon, a little pond materialized in the room and flowed beneath the bed, assaulting the shoes and other paraphernalia that lived down there.
Here is the shocker – 60 percent of Nairobi residents live in such one-room dwellings. Dwellings where living rooms mesh into bedrooms and into kitchens to form singular multi-purpose rooms that they call home. Rooms that are sometimes razed down by cold-teethed bulldozers because the land in question belongs to this or that entity, often the government itself.
The country at large and the Kenya government in particular has let Moses down. Low-income households like his need half of total new houses required in Kenya, yet eighty percent of all new houses in Kenya are for the middle and upper classes. Because affordable decent houses for low-income households are simply not there, Moses continues to live in Kibra, in that one-room that is better than no room. That’s what he can afford.
There is need for urgent but systematic action. I have an idea that will place a decent one-bedroom house into the hands of Moses and at least one-hundred thousand low-income households, within six months.
There exists construction technology that can enable construction of an entire secure prefabricated two-bedroom house within two days. If the labor of the people who will occupy those houses is enlisted, 100,000 units can be completed within a maximum of three months. This has already happened in Hyderabad, India, where Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation constructed 6,240 houses over a period of a few months.
The houses will cost between Ksh 500,000 ($5,000) and 1 million ($10,000). Lets go for the halfway mark – Ksh750,000 ($7,500). Using this cost, Ksh1 billion ($10 million) will construct 1,333 houses. Ksh100 billion ($1 billion) will construct 133,300 houses. Considering that Ksh600 billion ($600 million) is lost to corruption every year, 100 billion is totally manageable.
And you know what, we don’t even have to go the prefabricated route. Millions of subsidized bricks can be sourced directly from Kenyan youth, which would lower the cost of constructing brick houses and provide livelihoods for thousands of Kenyan youth. I suspect that such brick houses can even be arguably cheaper than the prefabricated houses, as long as we construct them innovatively.
This idea can be – indeed, it should be – refined accordingly so that we can enable enterprising, hardworking Kenyans to live in an affordable house whose rent or even eventual ownership they can afford. We owe it to Naomi Wangari Kamau. We owe it to Moses. We owe it to his precious wife Hellen. We owe it to baby Ari. Over to you now Mr. President. And fellow Kenyans.
Wrinkles. They were folded all over her face and breasts. Her chest was bare and she didn't care. No one cared. Dangling around her neck was a set of nearly two dozen necklaces that were enjoined together. The bead necklaces, which were black, green, red and blue covered her entire shoulder and part of her upper chest. But the wrinkled breasts were fully exposed yet it didn't feel like she was exposed.
I smiled at her but she didn't smile back even though she was looking straight at me. My green safari shirt had photos of zebras and giraffes emblazoned on it. It was dripping with sweat. I reached out my right hand in greeting but hers remained by her side. Her face remained expressionless as her bead necklaces dazzled in the hot sun. Again, I flashed my famous warm smile but the only thing that she was flashing were the beads and breasts. Her old, wrinkled face remained completely expressionless. Her eyes... I looked at them closely and realized for the first time that she was blind.
I was deep in the desert land of East Pokot meeting with almost a hundred residents. Many of them were elderly. Even the young looked elderly, thanks to the hostile environment. Although we were meeting below three huge thorn trees, the sun was raining down mercilessly on us.
The meeting had been organized by my friends Carol, Steve and Ann from the Kenya I Care initiative. We had zero funds to offer the Pokot people but were working on a documentary that we hoped would assist us in fundraising for food security projects in the area.
What an area! Hot, dry and rocky. I was sitting on one of the small three-legged stools that also doubles up as a pillow. Next to me was Omari and Lomada, our two young hosts who were also interpreting for us. Carol and Ann were sitting with a group of women on the rocky ground. They were both smiling and looking completely at home. Ann was a vivacious and upbeat girl while Carol was a silent, dark, smiling beauty. She was a professional potter and saw beauty even in the hostile desert.
'Don't you just like the random formation of those rocks,' she had told me earlier as we walked to the meeting venue. It takes a creative like her to see beauty seated right in the middle of a searing hot desert.
I was about to give my speech and was going through it in my mind. We are your friends and will stand by you all the way. God has blessed you with land. It may be dry but it is still a blessing from God. We shall help you to find ways of turning this dry land into a blessing. The sun chose that moment to unleash particularly hot rays. My green safari shirt was soaked in sweat.
I could hear clapping and for a few moments, I joined in the clapping before I realized that I had just been invited to address the gathering.
'God has blessed you with land,' I began and cleared my throat, 'it may be dry land but it is still a blessing from God.' I would pause after every few seconds to allow Omari to interpret. We were both pacing as we talked, locking eye contacts and pausing for effect.
I looked again at the blind lady and paused mid-sentence. Omari looked at me expectantly, waiting for more words to tumble out of a dry mouth. I saw beneath her wrinkles and felt that she was sad and hungry. Her drooping shoulders gave the impression of someone so weak that she could faint any moment. As I gazed at her, a feeling of helplessness and despair began to wash over me. I felt bad that I was giving her hope for tomorrow when she needed urgent help today. She couldn’t boil my hope over fire and eat it for lunch.
Tomorrow will be better. I had said several times in my speech. But would she live to see that tomorrow? The truth is that my life was comfortable while hers was desperate. I ate three meals in a day while she was lucky if she ate one. Yet there I was, telling her to hang in there because tomorrow would bring relief. Omari looked at me, his eyes brown and expectant for more words of wisdom and hope. I wasn't looking at him as my eyes were brown and sorrowful as I continued looking at the old blind lady.
Is it right to promise you a heaven tomorrow while doing little to address the hell that you are in today? I felt like slapping myself because it occurred to me that this is exactly what I was doing at that time in that dry land. Oh God, please help me. I said a silent prayer. I have always felt that the practice of religion sometimes hides and undermines the essence of God. We practice religion in the same way we practice hygiene, with mere habit and sheer indifference. In this regard, our religious practices sink to the same level with our hygienic practices like brushing teeth and taking showers. We forget that it is about the essence of God. God, our loving creator is concerned about our yesterday, today and tomorrow, not just a far-off eternity in heaven.
Oh God, I prayed on as my long pause started making Omari nervous, please help me to give this precious blind lady some heaven today, and not just talk to her about the heaven that awaits her tomorrow.
It has been thirteen years since this 2007 visit to East Pokot, my first ever to the region. Nothing much has changed there. If anything, things have gotten worse because rampant insecurity that has bedeviled the region since then and left scores dead. Even more lethal than the bandits and cattle rustlers who terrorize resident in the area is the ever-present drought and famine. Whereas the bandits lurk in the shadows, hunger is always in full display.
East Pokot’s dryland is part of approximately 66 per cent of land across Africa that is classified as desert or drylands. As a result, 45 per cent of Africa’s population lives in drylands. These fellow Africans are constantly hungry. Food, a basic human right, is a distant luxury for them.
Hunger is a far-worse challenge for Africa than coronavirus. A study by the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF) revealed that almost 60 million children in Africa do not have enough food. Consequently, nearly half of all child deaths in Africa stem result from hunger. This is not a convenient truth because it perpetuates the image of Africa as a ‘poor continent.’ It’s a reality that we have to deal with. That old, blind lady that I met in East Pokot, together with millions across Africa, need the dignity of livelihoods and food today, not in some distant future.
My thigh was shaking as I pressed the accelerator. Truth be told, I was very, very scared.
Next to me in the co-driver seat of The Growler, as my friends refer to my Subaru Forester, was Mutua a young Red Cross volunteer who was also fleeing from Lamu.
Flee. I love the power of this word although I don’t like its implications. Flee. Even if you don’t understand English, you will suspect that it has something to do with running away from somewhere as fast as you can.
Flee. That’s what Mutua and I together with hundreds of others were doing that morning and for subsequent days after that. We were fleeing Lamu because we had been warned that we would be met with dire consequences if we didn’t do so. This warning came through leaflets that were dropped randomly on the island the previous night.
About a week earlier, heavily armed militia, alleged to be al shabaab, had raided the nearby Mpeketoni town and shot dead at least sixty people, most of them Christians.
Within less than a minute, The Growler roared into Mokowe town. Mpeketoni was now less than thirty minutes away and I dreaded the fact that we would soon drive by a junction that led to the town.
‘Oh my God!’
I was about to ask Mutua why he was crying to God but the sight in front of us answered my unspoken question. Just a few meters in front of us was a restless crowd. Some were holding machetes while others were cuddling big stones. They were blocking the road, burning huge logs that they had placed in the center of the road.
‘This is it,’ I told myself, ‘this is the day that I will become a TV news statistic.’
I was wearing my black T-shirt with the word Kenya emblazoned at the front. I wasn't really making a patriotic statement since it was the only clean T-shirt that I could find when I fled from Yellow House (the name of my bungalow in Lamu) that morning. This Kenya T-shirt was sticking to my skin as if pulled by some invisible magnet in my chest. But it was sweat, dripping from a spirit full of fear and a morning full of heat.
‘Rowdy Mokowe crowd burns a helpless Subaru,’ I could already see the beautiful Lulu Hassan, the Citizen TV news anchor, uttering these fateful words just before images of my burning vehicle come onto the screen.
I was determined not to be in the vehicle when it caught flames and as I creaked to a halt, I had already released my seat belt and was in exit mode. Am no Usain Bolt but I was sure that at that moment, my 90 kilos (I was quite heavy back then!) would have given the Jamaican a run for his money.
Dozens of stony-faced young men were inches away from the car. One of them approached my window. He was wearing black jeans and brown open shoes. On his head was a faded cap with the words, ‘Kenya’ emblazoned at the front.
At least he loves Kenya, I thought to myself. Hopefully that means he loves all Kenyans equally. Tough luck. After all, my own Kenya attire had nothing to do with undying love for the country.
As I rolled down my window, my mind was racing. What words should I say to show him that I was in fact on their side? He must be one of those people who had been displaced from their homes in Mokowe and Hindi, the towns that neighbor Mpeketoni.
Unlike my racing heart, my face was calm, genes inherited from my papa. Nothing seems to scare papa. He is always the picture of calmness, especially when storms of life rage all around him.
‘Mambo vipi bro,’ How are things bro, I smiled at the young man as I greeted him.
It occurred to me that my greeting was rather stupid because there was no way things were fine. But in my defense, I couldn’t think of any Swahili greeting that has the neutrality of ‘hi.’ Every Swahili greeting demands to know the state of your life at that particular moment.
‘Mzuri tu,’ just okay. He answered in a surprisingly cordial voice.
My heart instantly stopped racing. I knew then that Lulu Hassan wouldn’t be reading news about my car going up in flames.
The crowd meant no harm. They had blocked the road as a protest at what they perceived as slow action from the government in protecting them and providing them with relief supplies. After the cold blooded killings in Mpeketoni, scores more had been killed in Hindi, Mokowe, Witu and neighboring smaller villages in the wider Lamu County.
The marauding terrorists would show up and shoot unharmed villagers dead at point blank range, or slit their throats.
I had felt safe in Lamu Island until earlier that morning. The beauty of an island is also its tragedy. The fact that islands are isolated from mainlands means that they can be isolated in both safety and danger. They can be islands of calm or turmoil.
The previous night, papa had called and virtually ordered me to leave the island as soon as possible. I was taken aback, because ordering is not his style. He often lays out options and leaves the decision to someone. But not this time.
‘Take the next flight out of Lamu!’ Papa had ordered me in a brief phone conversation.
I had listened politely but in my heart, I wasn't planning to leave anytime soon. I loved the serenity of the island, not to mention its delicious Swahili cuisine. I couldn't find original Lamu pilau in Nairobi. Or biryani and mahamari. Or vitu vya ngano and matobosho. I don’t think some of these Swahili delicacies have English names. Or the Oh my God delicious seafood like fresh prawns and equally fresh parrot fish.
Of course such food could be bought in select Nairobi restaurants but they just didn't taste the same as they did on the island especially when cooked by Aunt Lei, my immensely talented housekeeper and chef.
Earlier that morning, Aunt Lei was in the kitchen cooking a king size parrot fish when I hurriedly entered the house. She was humming a catchy taarab tune.
‘David asalaam aleykum?’
She interrupted her humming and greeted me in her usual jovial manner.
‘Waleykum Salaam,’ I replied but could barely hear myself.
I was terrified. Terror had visited my being through leaflets.
When Aunt Lei learnt about the leaflets, she dropped the dhania (coriander) leaves that were in her hands.
Aaaaaaaah! She exclaimed as her face fell. It was as if someone had pricked it and let out all joy from her. She had become like a sister to me and I adored her two kids Walid and Warda.
As she escorted me to the jetty to catch my boat, barely a word was exchanged between us.
I was fleeing, unable to stay in my second home as it was no longer safe to do so.
I had never fled before. In fact, in 2007, when Nairobi descended into a pit of turmoil following the 2007 post election violence, I often went where the danger was to prepare radio reports for the American-based Free Speech Radio News.
But this particular Saturday morning, I was fleeing from terrorism. Terror. Although the terrorists were not on the island, they were in my mind. The memory of what they had done in Mpeketoni was knocking violently at the door of my mind and shaking my heart vigorously. The bullets that they had fired, snuffing out the lives of at least sixty Kenyans kept bombarding my mind even as I boarded the speed boat and waved bye to a sorrowful Aunt Lei.
Earlier that morning, I had walked from Yellow House to the sea shore. A few minutes before 8AM, I met up with Mzee Ali, an old fisherman. We met at a rugged sea wall that sits a few feet from his palm-leaf thatched house. I wanted him to start supplying me wholesale fish and seafood on a regular basis. I was so in love with seafood that I wanted to start selling it to the rest of the country and world.
After Mzee Ali and I had agreed on the way forward, I started walking along the seashore marveling at the rustling sound of the ocean and its galloping waves. This beautiful sight never grows old.
My phone rung and I almost ignored it as I sometimes did when I was fellowshipping with God through His wondrous nature. But on second thought, I dipped my hand into the pocket of my big shorts and answered.
I said to Mama Esther. She is one of the people who had welcomed me to the island a few years earlier in 2011 and together with her two children Esther and Edwin, they had become like my Lamu family.
‘The leaflets were dropped in the town square at night,’ Mama Esther continued.
The leaflets she was talking about had been scattered overnight and they were allegedly from al shabaab warning all non-Muslims to vacate the island or face consequences.
It suddenly occurred to me that people around me seemed to be rather tense, talking in small groups, in low tones. I had just reached the jetty and I noticed that the boats were full of people with heavy luggage like chairs, mattresses and the like. It was obvious that they were fleeing.
I felt suddenly sick, like a fever had enveloped me instantly. It was the terror fever and there was no medical prescription for it.
This fever was still weighing me down but it was the least of my worries as 140 kilometers per hour rocketed The Growler past a deserted Mkunumbi town. I might have been fleeing from terror but at that moment, I knew that there was a very real possibility of jumping from the frying pan right into the fire. I was now driving past Boni Forest, a vast forest that the terrorists are said to have retreated into after carrying out the inhuman attacks.
Within moments, we approached the two vehicles that the terrorists had abandoned after their cowardly, yet deathly acts on the innocent people of Mpeketoni. I slowed down, the writer in me keen on observing the scene closely and taking some photos. Mutua, the Red Cross volunteer gave me a stern, shocked and scared look that caused me to drive off after taking only two photos.
Who does this?!
I said angrily, loudly.
Who kills harmless, innocent people in cold blood?!
150 kilometers per hour. 151..152, 159…
A racing car, two racing hearts, hundreds of fleeing people.
Fleeing from evil men who hide behind guns and ideologies.
To these men and women who hide behind terror, I have one message, “you cannot take what is not yours. We all belong to God so stop stealing from Him or you will face His wrath.”
To the government of Kenya and other African leaders my message is simple, “I know that terrorism is a global problem but I also know that people are dying locally. This must stop. Raise your game, change your tactics, fight the ideological warfare too, protect your citizens.”
To my fellow Kenyans, Africans and human beings, I have words for you, ‘don’t turn a blind eye to terror because then you will not see it coming and it will catch you by surprise. Lets us take care of one another.’
When The Growler finally made it to Malindi in record time, I cried as soon as I entered my hotel room.
Tears of joy that we had fled successfully. Tears of sorrow for those who had lost their lives.
Tears of anger at the cowardly terrorists.
Tears of hope that tomorrow will be safer for all.
P/S: Lamu Island remains a place that is dear to my heart. I will be returning there in 2021 to continue with my unfinished business there.