I must have been nine years old when I first heard my mother scoff with derisive laughter at my inability to speak Kigiriama fluently. Warning me and my brother, she said that a marauding gang of strangers had appeared on the streets of Mombasa, and that it was going around at night carrying pangas and randomly knocking on people’s doors to find out whether they could speak Kigiriama, or one of the other Mijikenda languages. With a grin, she added that the gang would force people to open their doors and greet them in one of the Mijikenda languages. Violence, she emphasized, would instantly be dispensed at those who gave incorrect responses.
I remember that during the same period, numerous decrepit walls in Mombasa bore graffiti with the acronym I.P.K.
I didn’t know what it meant. But one, even a child, could feel its defiance. The letters were never in a straight line, and they were often illegible, suggesting haste, a lack of time, as if the authors feared detection. Its not-being-permittedness filtered through its own incompleteness.
I also remember my father urging me not to mention the president’s name out loud. That, in some ways, it might get him into trouble. In a sotto voice, he routinely cautioned: “The president’s eyes and ears lurk in the darkest of corners.” Additionally, my father seemed to know almost everyone who appeared on the seven o’clock news by name. Only that he would get upset whenever they appeared on the screen. As the news proceeded, he would sneer, jeer, and throw his hands about, as if he knew them personally, as if, on a previous encounter, he had made deals with them that had now gone sour.
Whatever the case, something in mid-1990’s Kenya felt terribly amiss.
The Wafulas – a family of eight from Kakamega – moved into the next-door apartment. My brother and I immediately befriended one of the kids, Elvis, whom, because of his impressive collection of toys and board games, we nick-named ‘Elvitu’. We were too young to know that at the Port of Mombasa, where both my father and Mr. Wafula were employed, anxieties about job security were high, driven by a newly-imposed regime of contractual labour, which also required a down-sizing of staff numbers. We were too young to know about Structural Adjustment Programs, or SAPs, or what a Golden Handshake actually was. For us – kids born at the turn of the Cold War years – the tumultuous period of the 1990s reared its ugly head when the colour of ugali turned from white to yellow; when teachers stopped showing up for class; and when trips to the shop to get candles became more frequent.
Then it happened. Refusing to stick to his place – the default position most Kenyans adopt during periods of extended crises – Elvis’s dad proceeded to disagree with his new line manager – a former insurance broker heading an electrical department – on procedural issues. He got fired and moved back to the rural village where several months later, he died under ‘mysterious’ circumstances. People suspected witchcraft but would learn years later that he had succumbed to depression. Elvis and his younger siblings were divided amongst their older brothers and sisters who, after searching long for formal employment, had settled in Mombasa in different levels of desperation and informality. It would be decades before I saw Elvis again.
It did not help that my own father’s eccentricism had reached its zenith. His unbridled dislike for the regime, his taking for granted of the modern things his urban existence accorded him, his drinking, all combined to produce a combustible mix that sent his life on a steady downward spiral. Long before he lost his job, my mother had called it quits, and she, my brother, and I had moved into a rented single-room in Kisauni, what was then a growing informal settlement of low-cost Swahili-style houses north of the island of Mombasa. In Kisauni, we met more families sharing similar fates.
From all over Kenya, they came, bearing scars, defeat, humiliation, shame, anger, and disease. We, the kids, formed the microcosm of Kenya’s disintegrating social fabric, the loss in hope of things getting better in the future. Unknown to us was a Kenya where twenty-eight-year olds headed government ministries, where education, from primary school to university, was free, where free milk was provided for primary school kids, where homes had running water, where hospitals were well-stocked with drugs and run by qualified doctors, and where families were stable. We were even more oblivious of the growing tensions in the country. The ethnic clashes in the Rift Valley, the land grabbing, the Nyayo torture chambers, the Goldenberg scandal. As if Kenya existed at two levels.
To swim, we substituted grabbed public beach spaces with more dangerous spots along the ocean. Taking advantage of our parents’ declining ability to control our lives, we clutched onto mangrove poles before tossing our tiny naked bodies into high tides. The freedom, the untamed childhood energies, and the sheer desperation for more adventure, left us unperturbed by the fact that every year, at least one of us would drown in those salty waters. “Magosti ya bahari hayo,” we thought.
In school, our young minds failed to keep up with the boring, fact-memorization and syllabus-driven education system, and some of us would occasionally not turn up for class. Some dropped out. Some got expelled for roughing up the one or two male teachers who dared to care. Out of school, some would secretly fuck their friends’ sisters – after the first sign of breasts – in dark corners. My mother tried to cushion us from this anarchy.
Every now and then, my mother hauled my brother and I to spend time with wealthier kin who lived in one of the few formal neighbourhoods of Mombasa. There, our energies were redirected, our universes expanded. Long before it was easy for many in Mombasa to access these, we watched countless Hollywood movies, spent whole days catching up with the latest in the hip-hop and RnB world. We danced a lot. We deejayed. My cousin, Fred, honed his deejaying skills, making mix-tapes that I would carry back home with me, listening to Brandy, Aaliyah, Dru Hill, R-Kelly.
“My mind is telling me nooo
but my body,
is telling me yeeeeheesss!”
We read cheap American novels that Fred’s father, my uncle, had bought in the black market at the Port of Mombasa. Slowly but surely, I assumed membership in an alternative cultural universe. I tried to change my accent a little. I began selecting friends more carefully.
In Kisauni, where we lived, my childhood friends were not interested in such projects of cultural appropriation. I was dismissed as ‘mtoto wa makochini’, chiding directed at kids with middle-class affectations, and which carried undertones of subtle communal banishment. “Muone vile ajifanya mzunguuu!” A couple of years later, I collected my newly-acquired ethos, rudimentary English-speaking skills, and somewhat impressive examination results, and set out for formal Kenya in the capital. I began life outside Mombasa as an undergraduate student at the University of Nairobi.
It took me close to fourteen years, a bachelor’s degree, and a career as a writer, to understand that the marauding gangs of 1997 on the coast that my mother had made reference to constituted some of the earliest local responses to declining opportunities after 1990. The violence that had begun after an attack on the police station at Likoni, spread quickly, leaving destruction and death in its wake. The violence had targeted families which had migrated into the Coast from other parts of Kenya, especially the up-country people driven from their homes by declining rural incomes and a widespread collapse of public services in large cities. An unresolved land problem on the coast had been heightened by these movements as locals feared displacement by newcomers.
In neighbourhoods such as Majengo that hosted large Muslim communities, low levels of education, lack of IDs and passports, and declining alternative sources of income had created a burst of youthful activism. A group of imams in Mombasa had suggested the formation of an Islamic Party of Kenya (the IPK), to champion those issues largely felt by Muslims; which were also part of a wider agenda of political reform that had gripped Kenya after the repeal of section 2A of the constitution – allowing for the formation of multiple parties. The government refused to register the IPK, claiming that it would become a harbinger for Islamic fundamentalism, a term that most Kenyans knew little about at the time.
Occasionally, I go back to Mombasa, and especially to Kisauni, to visit family, and at times, to conduct research. My mother did not live long enough to see the new, shining, and sleek shopping malls that have sprung up around Kisauni. The spacious apartments that have sprouted along the edges of the island, and on the spaces we used to swim in as kids. She did not see the luxurious and exclusive hotels patronized by multiple shades of foreign and local tourists. This expanding, service-oriented industry has driven property values above the reach of many locals. North of Kisauni, a new enclave housing a class of young, upwardly mobile professionals from Nairobi has emerged. Its owners call it Nairobi Estate.
In these spaces, it is difficult to come across any of my childhood friends: the once impressionable children, the wild-dreamers, the adventurers. It’s almost as if they have been erased from the face of Mombasa by the violence of capital and development. Almost every participant in this new and robust economy, including men standing behind supermarket counters to help shoppers pack their shopping into branded plastic bags, are recent arrivals from outside the Coast. During my visits to the new nightclubs found inside these shopping malls, conversations with members of this new class of recent arrivals almost always end up with some sort of stereotyping of the ‘coastals’. Akin to old white-settler bigotry, complaints range from Coastal indolence to incessant whining.
“These people will never work,” a quip.
“There is no culture here,” another declares.
“Why?” I ask.
“There is no Blankets and Wine,” he responds.
A cursory analysis of media coverage from and about the Kenyan coast over the last seven years will reveal that the region is in some state of flux. Nairobi has maintained its iron fist. A formerly powerful and highly centralized administration is being dismantled by processes set in motion by devolution. However, the central government sees the region’s political leadership as a nuisance that won’t go away. This government has interests in the region’s land and minerals, and is building a new port in Lamu, putting up a coal-power plant, and planning a number of other extractive projects that the locals have firmly rejected. The phrase, ‘wapende wasipende’, sits firmly at the centre of its governmental logic.
A demand that the Coast should be allowed to secede from Kenya was made a few years ago by uneducated, non-English speaking grassroots activists, and it gained considerable public sympathy. At the same time, mosques were identified as hotbeds of radicalization and terror, and in responding like they have always done, the police stormed mosques with guns, interrupting sessions and arresting worshipers, some as young as ten.
In civil society and other professional circles, careers have been fashioned out of a new preoccupation called CVE (Countering Violent Extremism). While such campaigns might be right and proper, its mostly well-meaning purveyors rarely attempt to place the issues they claim to confront within a long duree. The development of interventionist programs not informed by local (hi)stories is common. In this new mission, a number of acronyms have been created to develop a new technocratic grammar that the supposed beneficiaries of these programs don’t understand.
I have refused the often-attractive allure of simplicity.
To make sense of where the Coast is, I read books and articles, some of which have left me even more confused. Yet, I am of the inclination that issues of ‘terror’, ‘radicalisation’, and ‘marginalization’ will better be made sense of using personal stories, social history, narrative, memoir, fiction. I want to understand radical politics, but also the politics of religion. I want to understand alternative socio-political imaginaries that have been at work on the Coast for centuries. Those that refuse to be contained by the logic of power and formality that sits in Nairobi. I want to understand these alternative cosmologies and cultures.
Between 2015 and 2016, I left my keyboard comforts behind and travelled.
In Garissa, I saw an abandoned but heavily-guarded university campus bearing ghosts Kenya should never forget. In Lamu, I spoke to fishermen and boat captains who were worried that plans to construct a port on Manda Bay risked putting their entire way of life in extinction. I left the romanticized archipelago and trudged towards the dusty-towns of the mainland that were still struggling to lift themselves up from the impact of a harrowing overnight attack by Al-Shabaab militants. In Mombasa, I revisited the defiant streets of Majengo and Kisauni, where IPK graffiti had largely been replaced with ‘Pwani c Kenya’, and ‘Kura ni Haramu’. I went to Kampala in Uganda and spoke to victims of a suicide bombing who simply wanted to forget and move on. In Kisauni, I bumped into the once bright-eyed and impressionable Elvis at a matatu stop. Battered and shabbily-dressed, he recognized me and greeted me with a huge smile on his face.
“Vipi Killiani!” The preamble was unmistakable.
I offered to buy tea and mahamri as we caught up.
The more I asked about our former acquaintances, jamaa za mtaani, the more I heard tales of broken dreams, shelved hopes, unfulfilled promises, loss, and brutal dishonesty. A sister impregnated by several married men, a brother who became a drug-addict, a cousin in prison, a former classmate who joined Al-Shabaab, a nephew who heads a criminal gang. Tales from an army of young people haplessly straddling the exigencies of life in informal Kenya. The army that has become useful for demagogues and politicians.
Elvis was himself struggling with drug-addiction, and had been arrested a number of times for petty crimes. He had never completed high school for a number of reasons. Bad grades and a lack of school fees topped his list. Elvis’s trajectory mirrored that of Kisauni.
Its informal origins notwithstanding, Kisauni has become a pale shadow of its former self, inequalities kissing its borders more starkly. Hopelessness reeks out of its poor sanitation, chronic congestion and the faces of youth denied the experiences of childhood many take for granted.
The open spaces we made football pitches out of in the late 1990s have been grabbed. The poorly-resourced public schools are overcrowded. A wave of violent crime, involving targeted killings and armed robbery, was reportedly executed by teenagers. A mosque in Kisauni was closed by the government – for allegations of Al-Shabaab recruitment – and gangs have been known to exist that threaten people who have moved into Mombasa from up-country.
Most of these young people were told that they would be leaders of tomorrow. Told to wait. As they were waiting, they witnessed an ascendancy of others, those who didn’t look or speak like them. Those who eventually came to live in well-secured neighbourhoods adjacent to Kisauni. Those who could afford to party wildly in the new clubs and shop unhindered in the new shopping malls.
Elvis and I parted ways after our brief meeting, and he disappeared into the jungle of stone houses and maze of narrow streets that are a distinctive marker of Kisauni’s informality. I haven’t been able to reconnect with all of my childhood friends like I did with him in my trips back to Mombasa. But this piece is a small token to Kisauni and its lost generations.
About the Writer:
Ngala Chome is a PhD candidate at Durham University and a past recipient of the Commonwealth Shared Scholarship at the University of Edinburgh, both in the United Kingdom. His research explores the politics of militant Jihad in Kenya and the modern history of Kenya’s coast. His work has been published in the Chimurenga Chronic, and Kwani? and included in a number of academic journals and monographs.