Celebrating East African Writing!

P-O-V-E-R-T-Y by Simon Nduati

It’s another hot Saturday afternoon in my Kamkam Estate  – read slum if you must. ‘KamKam’ is a vast area full of very roughly, and very cheaply, built stone-houses that make it appear a stony estate. But it’s not. In fact, KamKam is a collection of precarious houses whose fragile posture spells p-o-v-e-r-t-y.

A good rain can dig out the building stones and effortlessly pile them up on the ground. A healthy wind would piteously render the brown-with-rust roofing sheets (plus their hapless owners) airborne. Anyway, thanks to the manufacturer of KamKam dwellers these calamities have kept off the place. And so KamKam has remained KamKam, a place of wonders and wanderers, good and evil, poor and very poor-no rich. In short, it is so cosmopolitan a ghetto that even Satan has his say. God…traces of him.

This is a ghetto where you died yesterday, resurrect today only to die again tomorrow. I say, here you lack yesterday, get today and lack again tomorrow. Life in KamKam is made up of dark and light moments. Obvious, you say. It’s that way everywhere, you insist. You’ll continue disagreeing with me about Kamkam’s toughness until you join the crew here. Man, they are a hardened lot. The ground we trend on is too dry for a cactus. The water situation here is so harsh it portrays Sahara desert a swamp. If the earthlings here were camels, they would not stand the thirst. What a ghetto! Yet, we survive.

I can’t really tell you where the name KamKam originated from. And of course, I know you are not interested. But one fact I can’t help revealing, KamKam is as happy as it is tough. Every episode here can only be defined as a ‘come one, come all, come and see’. The drunkard goat, the dancing granny and the 80-yr-old grandpa with a 20-yr-old chick securely under his arms; the monogamous man with three wives and the church vestry that brews chang’aa. Surely with all this and infinite times more, KamKam qualifies as a rose, only that it’s among thorns. You can’t bear the challenges; you can’t resist the free shows.

In KamKam, we suffer from economic crises year in year out. Here, credit crunch is commonplace. See, right now I’m unemployed.  So are 90% of my fellow youth. Nay, the employed 10% are threatened with unemployment. We still long for the day the unemployed 90% will be threatened with employment. A threat, of course, as existent as the hips of a serpent. My friend Kinyash says he has been unemployed for so long that if today a Good Samaritan (where is Samaria?) offered him a job, he would have an acute heart attack.  It would be a case as glorious as that of the child king who was born in a manger.

As if having cash is not evident enough in the way I live, I come across this self-proclaimed queen of my heart. Her name is Karen. From the way she treats me, there is no doubt she believes I can mint notes and coins; only that I’m lazy. She gives my younger brother a small piece of paper (cut from what was some time ago a packet of maize flour) with the words: Honey, remember this weekend’s picnic. And it’s a rainy season – get an umbrella. Man, I feel like visiting some police station to report an extortion case. But I don’t. I got more important matters. Karen is mortal alright, but she can wait.

I end up in my friend Oti’s house. I meet him (so dead drunk I wonder whether he recognizes me) outside his two-roomed home made of tree cut-offs. The home is as expensive as a loaf of bread but compared to the neighbourhood, the owner is rich. That Oti feels rich can even be seen in his posture; one hand in a pocketof his corduroy trouser as the other supports a stub of the cheapest cigar in the tobacco market. He’s devotedly drawing at it you’d think he’s adding better days to his turbulent life. Or maybe accomplishing an order from the high court. Ask him why he smokes-he tells you there is light at the end of the cigar which even non-smokers can see. He gives no more explanation.

Once upon a time, he had bought me a packet plus a light and even offered me a smoking zone behind his house. In addition, he had stood by with a bucket of water that is, if I feared smoking posed a fire risk.

On top of being able to delete a cigarette jam, this guy a self-discovered philosopher. According to him, life’s not about being stranded-it’s about doing anything (in fact everything) within your reach. I suppose including chasing and sentencing to death innocent butterflies like he does when not sober. Though he is not completely negative, he’s generous. Right now I know he’s just brokered a bull, and that’s why I’m here.

After a thorough study of his brown-with-rust roof he turns his attention to me. I try to read his dark face for any signs of a philanthropist’s image. I have just told him I’m in dire need of Kshs. 500 -to be returned on a date only time will tell, I’m sure of that in my heart.

Oti removes the stub of cigar from between his dark lips and talks, “You know Kijana (that’s what they call me in KamKam), these are worldly possessions.” He brandishes a Kshs. 500 note before absently pushing it against my chest.

Unexpected warmth spills all over me as I stuff the note in my pocket. My creditor, with my eyes toxic red, watches me indifferently. I grab this opportunity to bid him goodbye. I somehow fear he’ll suddenly turn sober and demand the note ‘before it’s split into expenses.’

As I leave his palm-sized compound, I here him stammer, “Eat and let eat.” I smile to myself and wonder what would happen if I used the cash on Karen instead of the two hens I intend to buy. I even fear thinking about such turn-of-events. Currently, what is ringing in my mind is chicken chicken chicken. I want to be a poultry farmer in my ghetto. And Karen, my girl, can’t lay eggs. So she’s out of the picture as far as the Kshs. 500 is concerned. To begin with, I’ll buy two mature hens, ready to drop eggs like they are hot. And the sooner they start submitting the oval shells, the better. Otherwise, I can’t think of how else I’ll ever be able to settle Oti’s debt.

© Simon Nduati 2010

If you would like this piece to be the Story of the Week, please vote below on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being weak, and 10 being excellent. The numbers will be tallied on Friday and the story with the highest figure shall be Crowned Story of the Week. Be sure to fill in your name and verifiable email. You can include your critique/comment after the vote.


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