Celebrating East African Writing!
Her name was Atieno and she lived in an area of Nairobi called Kibera. She was aged twenty-three and had recently gotten married to a young quiet man she’d met in church. The young man was called Otieno and was two years older than her. Otieno and Atieno and their three month old child, Auma, lived in a humble but comfortable two roomed mabati (iron sheet) house. Otieno worked in the Industrial Area of Nairobi as a security guard for a large manufacturing company. He spent most of his day in the gate-side booth checking the credentials of all vehicles and persons who entered or left the compound of the manufacturing company. Though his salary was paltry, Otieno was able to meet most of his wife’s and daughter’s basic financial needs.
One Sunday afternoon after attending mass at the local catholic church, Atieno decided to walk across the Kibera valley to the Nairobi National Park in Langata. She was dressed in her Sunday best dress, a sleeveless open-necked cotton dress that had multi-coloured flower prints. The dress flared gracefully in the wind. She’d dressed her baby in pink, a miniature track suit top and trousers, and a wide rimmed hat with a pretty white ribbon bow.
Otieno, her husband, was away working. The thought of spending a beautiful, sunny day indoors alone with the child depressed her. Better to find something fun and exciting to do till the sun sets, she had concluded. By sunset, after touring the game park and watching animals and enjoying a picnic, she and the baby would be tired and ready to go back home to rest. Once home, she’d dutifully prepare a tasty supper for her husband and as soon as he arrived back home, they’d eat together before retiring to bed. Atieno was content with her life and she thanked and praised God for this.
The entry fee charged at the gate of the Nairobi National Park had been lowered by the Kenya Wildlife Service, the administrators of the park, so as encourage local tourists to venture into game parks and reserves and animal sanctuaries. This small fact greatly pleased Atieno when she arrived at the park’s gates and was informed about it. She easily parted with the 100/= entry fee, the cashier behind the window assuring her that all babies got into the park free of charge.
With a big smile on her face, Atieno enthusiastically ventured through the gates into the game park. As she strode, lovingly cuddling her baby, she wondered what kind of animals she’d get to see that day. A pride of lions, a herd of gazelles and zebra, some wildebeests, baboons maybe. She cringed at the thought of the ugly, hairy primates. Their deep set eyes and long snout and elongated, disproportionate arms made for a horrid sight. Their wily nature didn’t help rehabilitate their image. Atieno hated all baboons. Her day at the park would be marvelous if she didn’t see a single baboon.
The park was milling with throngs of adults and children, some sitting on mats spread out on the grassy ground while others, especially children, engaged each other in noisy happy running games. Atieno was at pains to find a good grassy spot where she could spread a mat and lay down her baby for a picnic. Finally she spotted a cool shade under a tree, a short distance from where the other people were picnicking. The cool shade was unoccupied and she wondered why this was so.
Sighing dismissively, Atieno spread her mat on the grass under the shade of the leafy tree. She gently laid her baby down on the mat and sat down to unpack the snacks she’d packed in her kiondo (weaved sisal bag.) Boiled, cubed sweet potatoes and milk was what she’d slated for the picnic. Taking her baby gently on her lap, Atieno proceeded to feed morsels of sweet potato to her baby. Since the baby refused to drink the packed milk, Atieno breast fed her which consequently lulled the baby to sleep. Atieno smiled with motherly pride as she gently laid the baby down to nap. When the baby opened its little mouth to yawn, Atieno couldn’t help but tear up with love.
A gust of wind suddenly blew off the sleeping baby’s pink hat. Atieno hopped to her feet and ran after the hat which was rolling away on the grass. At a distance she turned back to the mat and saw that her baby was still fast asleep. Whenever the baby woke up and didn’t find its mother there beside it, it would cry incessantly. So Atieno always made sure that she was present when Auma woke up from sleep. The baby’s pink hat soon got caught in some shrubs and Atieno ran after it. She carefully pulled the hat from the shrubs so as not to tear it. But when she turned around and gazed at the mat where she’d left the baby, she baby was gone!
Who took the baby?
That area of the game park was a favourite spot for monkeys and baboons. Though feeding of animals was forbidden, most visitors to the park didn’t hesitate to toss morsels of food at the hungry-looking primates. Some monkeys were known to snatch food from children. The kiondo of food was also missing, Atieno noticed.
“Have you seen my child?” Atieno asked the family that sat on the mat closest to hers. Her voice was breaking and she was visibly distressed. “My baby was sleeping on that mat over there.” The family members unconcernedly shook their heads and said they hadn’t seen Atieno’s child.
“Have you seen my child?” Atieno repeated the question to another picnicking family. Her heart was beating and she was panting with panic and desperation. “My baby was sleeping on that mat over there.” They too shook their heads and said they hadn’t seen Atieno’s child. Everyone in the park went about their business, the adults chatting animatedly and the children shrieking in their genial games. No one seemed concerned with Atieno’s plight. Amidst the cheerful picnicking families, Atieno felt forsaken and lonely.
Who took my baby?
Crestfallen, Atieno wandered slowly back to her spread mat. Involuntarily her knees buckled and she sat down. Her chest was still heaving from the panic attack. She closed her eyes and held her palm to her forehead. She could feel the thrust of the vein on her temple as it throbbed. “Good Lord, good Lord, good Lord: please take care of my baby,” she heard herself whispering, almost singing, under her breath.
Atieno heard a faint ethereal cry; the cry of a baby. She opened her eyes. The cry came from high up, or far to the right, or was it to the left, where the baby’s pink hat had been caught in the shrub. Was she imagining the cry of her baby? Was her imagination replaying the countless times that she’d heard Auma cry? The echoing cry of a baby sounded again.
This time it was as clear and real as the sound of ruffling leaves and the whistling wind and the shrieking children and the chatting adults in the park.
Adrenaline rushing, Atieno shot to her feet and desperately began to rush about the park yelling the baby’s name, “Auma, Auma, Auma!” while searching for the location of the cry. After a minute or so of this frenzied yelling and rushing about, Atieno happened to look up to the lower boughs of a large tree and saw her baby, Auma, clasped under the long, hairy arm of an ugly, hideous female baboon. Other baboons, over thirty of them, hang around the matriarchal female baboon. The baboons had stolen her baby!
Give me back my baby!
Atieno’s climactic, terror-ridden shriek attracted the attention of two Kenya Wildlife Service rangers to the scene of the abduction. Though armed with rifles, the rangers said that they could not shoot the baboon in fear of harming baby Auma. Atieno shrieked some more. The attention of the people in the park was now trained on the shrieking Atieno, the KWS rangers, and the gang of rogue baboons. Picnics were abandoned. Young children were held close by their worried parents. The promising, sunny Sunday afternoon was ruined!
“Let’s throw stones at them and scare them away,” one of the two KWS rangers suggested to his colleague. “Yes, that’s a brilliant idea,” said the other ranger in response. The pair laid down their rifles and hastily ran about gathering stones for the said task. The rangers then pelted the baboons with stones. But the baboons were not only greater in number than the rangers, they were also much more dexterous in gathering and pelting stones. The two rangers soon abandoned their quest, snatched up their rifles, and scampered for safety under a hail of stones. Atieno saw this and shrieked helplessly. Having failed to scare the baboons away and retrieve the abducted baby, the two KWS rangers finally decided to radio their superiors and inform them about the abduction saga unfolding at the park.
A television station crew soon arrived at the park in their remote broadcasting van. One of the people picnicking in the park must’ve called them. Hastily setting up their equipment, the crew began to broadcast live pictures from the park. The TV station’s affiliate radio station also did the same. Throngs of Kenyans tuned in to the popular TV station to watch the shocking incident in the park. A battalion of KWS rangers were filmed hastily arriving at the park in their green Toyota Land Cruisers. The newly arrived rangers were restless and brandishing rifles and were clad in green fatigues. The baboon quandary would soon be resolved, it seemed.
Otieno, Atieno’s loving husband, was at work that Sunday afternoon, nestled in the gate-side booth of the manufacturing company listening to his pocket radio. He habitually carried the pocket radio in his pocket so as to listen to news updates and his favourite music called lingala. Sunday’s were slow days at the gate. There were sparsely any cars or people coming into the manufacturing company’s premises. But still his employers required him to report to work. Otieno’s insistence that he was a staunch Christian and thus needed to spend his Sundays embedded in church fell on deaf ears. “Work or church: choose one!” the company’s personnel manager had once scoffed at him. And since he needed to keep the job, and thus draw the insulting salary, Otieno subserviently obliged.
The radio station crew interviewed several of the people who’d been picnicking at the park before the baby’s abduction. A radio journalist holding a microphone was soon directed to the shrieking woman who was the abducted baby’s mother. “Are you the baby’s mother?” the journalist asked a tearful Atieno, holding the microphone close to her face. She nodded but didn’t say a thing. “Tell us what happened. How did the baboons take the baby? Did they attack you before taking the baby?” Another journalist holding a video camera and accompanied by a microphone-wielding reporter soon ran to the site to record Atieno’s testimony.
Atieno was unnerved by the sudden attention that she’d drawn from the journalists. She’d never been interviewed before. “Err… I was having a picnic with my baby. My baby’s name is Auma. She’s three months old,” she said, starting to move away from the two microphones being shoved into her face. For every step she took backward, the journalists took one forward. Other people, both adults and children, milled around her, straining to hear what she was saying. “Err…Auma’s hat was blown away by the wind. I got up to fetch the hat. When I returned to the mat where the baby was sleeping, I didn’t find her. The monkeys had snatched her!” Upon uttering this last sentence, Atieno broke into a fit of sobbing. A woman shoved a handkerchief into Atieno’s hand. Atieno used the handkerchief to wipe the tears and blow her nose. “Asante…(sob, sob)…thank you,” she said to the woman.
Otieno was lethargically leaning back on his chair in the gate-side booth. He was dozing when he half-heard the news item concerning a baby who’d been snatched by some monkeys in some park somewhere. Otieno yawned in boredom. He rubbed his belly. He was hungry. He thought about his pretty wife Atieno. He closed his eyes and pictured her sitting on a stool by the kerosene stove preparing food; ugali and fish soup – his favourite meal. His stomach growled in protest. Once a week, only on Sunday evenings, did Atieno prepare this scrumptious meal.
The news report coming from the radio interrupted Otieno’s thoughts. He sat up abruptly to listen. “Err… I was having a picnic with my baby…. My baby’s name is Auma….. hat was blown away by the wind…. I got up to fetch the hat…. When I returned I didn’t find her… The monkeys had snatched her!”
That’s my wife’s voice on radio, he thought in alarm. Otieno immediately deserted work. He hopped into a matatu (public transport vehicle) heading for the Nairobi National Park. Fifteen minutes later, Otieno arrived at Nairobi National Park and had to grudgingly part with a hundred shillings to be allowed through the gates. Rushing to the crowded scene of the abduction, Otieno desperately ran circles around the throng of onlookers searching for his wife. Behind a cluster of journalists wielding microphones and video cameras, Otieno saw his sobbing, distressed wife Atieno. Roughly Otieno cut a path through the crowd and finally reached his wife. Otieno and Atieno embraced and he recited impassioned, comforting words to her ear. “Everything will be ok; everything will be ok; our God will help us,” he cried.
“Look! The monkey is doing something to the baby,” one KWS ranger yelled, pointing at the thick bough of the tree where the primates were. All eyes, and TV cameras, turned to the baboons. Otieno and Atieno looked up in time to see the female baboon, which was clutching the child, hold its hideous breast to the baby’s mouth and feed baby Auma baboon milk. Urgh, it was disgusting! Atieno and Otieno, who were still clinging to each other, instantly fell to the ground. They’d fainted! Swiftly a KWS ranger telephoned the St. John Ambulance to provide medical assistance. The St. John Ambulance crew arrived and administered first aid to the couple. The baboons stirred agitatedly whenever the driver of the ambulance, a tall, bulky, hairy, dark man, stared up at them.
The director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, an errant man named Kipsang, was having lunch at a roadside food kiosk several kilometers from the park. The kiosk was packed with customers, each one scraping his plate of food with a spoon and chewing enthusiastically while chatting with colleagues. Kipsang had ordered fried matumbo (cow entrails) and a large chunk of ugali. He was chewing rapidly and was almost about to empty the plate of its hot contents. The food kiosk had a TV mounted above the counter shelf. The TV was tuned in to the channel broadcasting live pictures from the national park.
As he scooped food from the plate and stuffed it into his big eager mouth, Kipsang looked up at the TV. “Turn up the volume,” Kipsang suddenly yelled at the proprietor of the food kiosk, a big woman called Mama Rhoda who was usually stationed behind the counter adjacent to the door. Mama Rhoda did as told and cranked up the volume. Kipsang listened to the TV report for a moment and then ran out through the door, Mama Rhoda pursuing him and demanding him to pay for the food he’d consumed. Kipsang hopped into his KWS Land Cruiser and sped away, ignoring the angry woman’s pleas. When Mama Rhoda returned to the kiosk, all the customers had finished their food and ran away without paying. Mama Rhoda fell to her knees and wept loudly and bitterly, cursing the customers for escaping with her money. “This is a business! Not UNICEF!” she cried. Her Sunday was ruined!
Kipsang’s Land Cruiser crashed through the gates of Nairobi National Park and he sped crazily to the site of the abduction where he screeched to a halt, almost knocking down some rangers. He hopped out of the four-wheel-drive Toyota and grabbed a junior ranger by the collar and glared at him. “What did I see on TV about monkeys and milk and a human baby?”
Unable to speak, the junior ranger raised his hand and pointed at the tree where the rogue primates were lounging. Kipsang followed the ranger’s hand and could not believe his eyes. Kipsang shoved the ranger aside and grabbed a pair of binoculars from his car and looked at the baboons closely. A horde of baboons, not regular monkeys, were milling around a matriarchal female baboon that was clutching on to a human baby. Though the baby seemed unharmed and sedate, the baboons seemed determined to hold on to it. It was not immediately clear what the grievance of the baboons was or the motive for abducting the baby. “Shoot that baboon!” Kipsang began to yell hoarsely. “Shoot that baboon!” he repeated, addressing the dumbfounded KWS rangers. The armed rangers sneakily ran around the tree where the baboons were sitting and surrounded it. Kneeling on one knee and with their rifles raised and trained on the baboons, they waited for direction from their erratic director.
“Shoot that baboon! Shoot that baboon!” Kipsang yelled, pointing at the primates which had meanwhile sensed danger and clustered close together. Now that they’d clustered close together, it would be impossible to shoot any one of them without hitting the others or even hitting baby Auma. It didn’t matter to Kipsang if all the baboons were shot dead. But it mattered to him that in the milieu of shooting down the baboons, the baby too was killed. The scandal that would erupt after the shooting of the baby could not only end his career as KWS director, but it could also land him in jail. Kipsang was claustrophobic and hated being in tiny spaces – especially crowded jail cells.
For several minutes the baboons squeaked and squealed and chattered amongst themselves. It was as if they were in conversation, strategizing on how to repel the uniformed humans who’d surrounded them. The metal objects which the uniformed humans were aiming at them, the baboons presumed, were malignant. The objects, which had long hollow nozzles, appeared to have the capability to shorten the life of a baboon. The large male baboon scratched its beard and contemplated on the future. Mating season was coming up in a couple of weeks. He yearned to participate in that frenzy of baby making. I have to do everything in my power to survive, the male baboon told itself. I cannot, will not, let the humans violate my right to life; my right to enjoy the little pleasures of life. The big male baboon lowered its long hand and positioned it under its raised tail. The baboon raised itself slightly and went ahead to defecate on its palm. The male baboon then broke away from the others and swung its hand and catapulted the feaces, smelly beige feaces, at the KWS rangers.
All hell broke loose. The normally valiant rangers nimbly scattered in diverging directions, each one hunched over to evade being hit by the stinky baboon excrement. The gathered onlookers and journalists also scampered to a safer distance. The journalists though still managed to record footage of the male baboon’s sordid action and the resultant stampede. The footage was soon aired on TV with clips showing a handful of rangers being hit with excrement and tearing off their soiled clothes while in full flight. “Water, water!” the KWS rangers were captured crying. “Bring us water and wash this stinking shit off of us!” A water tanker truck was summoned to the scene in the park and its high-pressure hose was used to clean the rangers who’d been smeared with baboon waste. Kenyans sitting in their homes watching the footage were shocked and nauseated.
“Send in the army,” some enraged Kenyans opined in the call-in radio show. “Those KWS rangers are nothing but dastards!” A picture of a grinning Kipsang, the KWS director, taken earlier in the year, was shown on TV accompanied by his brief biography. Somebody, probably his wife, called him and informed him about the TV report about him and the horrible things angry Kenyans were saying about the Kenya Wildlife Service.
“Shoot that baboon!” Kipsang yelled in a fit of rage. “Somebody, anybody, shoot that blinking, bearded, badly-behaved, baba baboon!”
It so happened that an American tourist, a scientist by profession, was lounging in his hotel room at the Utalii Hotel, Nairobi, sipping a cold drink and keenly watching the TV station which was broadcasting the unfolding saga at the national park. The American scientist worked at the Primate Research Centre, in the University of California. He had studied primate psychology for several years and, after watching the TV footage of the abduction of the baby by baboons, he thought that he could help resolve the shocking saga. His name was Gerry Mandering. He arrived by taxi at the gate of Nairobi National Park and swiftly paid the tourist entry fee (which was much more expensive than that charged to locals.)
Going through the gate, he made haste to get to the site of the abduction. Once there, he studied the scene and saw that the KWS rangers had retreated and effectively given up on rescuing baby Auma. “Who’s in charge here?” Professor Mandering started to ask the rangers who were hiding behind their vehicles. “Who’s in charge of this rescue operation?” The hiding rangers pointed at a stocky short-necked little fellow who was perched inside the cabin of his Land Cruiser with his legs dangling outside the open door.
The stocky little fellow was the same one he’d earlier seen on TV yelling “Shoot that baboon! Shoot that baboon!” Prof. Mandering walked up to the fellow and introduced himself. “Good afternoon, Mister. I’m Professor Mandering from the University of California, Primate Research Centre. I know everything there is to know about baboons, chimpanzees, orangutans, amongst a host of other primates. Let me get close to the baboons and I’ll surely retrieve the baby.”
A saviour, thought Kipsang in jubilation. He sat up and glared at the tall, grey-haired, ageing American. This white character has been sent by the heavens to salvage my career. By rescuing the baby from the baboons, all accolades will be heaped on me – the director of the KWS. And not the white tourist. The government might even extend my three year contract to six years.
“Go ahead, professor,” Kipsang grinned indulgently at the weathered scientist while gesturing at the tree where the primates were sitting. “The baboons are all yours.” The baboons stirred and squealed amongst themselves when they saw the pale man approaching them. They’d communicated a certain message amongst themselves. But the professor, who’d studied primate psychology for fifteen years, wasn’t smart enough to decipher the message that the primates had passed amongst themselves. The massage was malignant. The baboons waited till the craggy professor was close enough and they all lowered their long hands and positioned them under their raised tails. Methodically they lifted their hind quarters and copiously defecated on their palms. The American professor was now standing directly below the bough where the primates were poised. He was waving at them and making strange monkey noises. The baboons found the monkey noises offensive. The baboons’ long hands began to swing. Lavishly the baboons splashed the professor with copious amounts of beige soupy feaces. The smell was ineffable!
Overwhelmed by the powerful stench, professor Gerry Mandering fell to the ground groaning in anguish. He’d never smelled anything so foul. Urgh! His Sunday, and his African tour, was ruined. I made all the correct gestures and facial expressions and noises, he thought to himself. How come the baboons didn’t respond positively to these? The primates at the Primate Research Centre in California always responded positively to his well-researched gestures and facial expressions and noises. This episode would prove to be the lowest point of his lustrous career. “After this, I am going back to America. I’ll never, never ever, return to Africa!”
Two St. John Ambulance medics were dispatched to offer medical assistance to the groaning, fallen American. One of the two medics was the tall, bulky, hairy, dark driver of the St. John Ambulance van. As the medic, accompanied by his colleague, dashed towards the fallen professor, five baboons fearfully jumped from the bough and fled into the vast wilderness of the national park. It soon became clear that the baboons had a special fear of him alone and not anyone else. This fact was proven right when the burly medic’s colleague approached the baboons and they didn’t stir or scamper. Any other man approaching the baboons seemed to embolden them to fight back. But when the burly medic took a few steps towards the tree where the primates were, ten baboons squealed in terror and jumped down from the bough and onto the ground before swiftly melting into the thickets of the vast park.
Being gregarious and understanding what was happening, this medic began to make all sorts of crazy gestures and facial expressions and noises. Ten more baboons saw this and squealed in fright and fled from the scene. The medic’s ears then heard the sound of music playing from one of the Land Cruiser’s stereos. The music was of the lingala genre, a form of up-tempo modern rhumba sang by gaudy musicians from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Turn up the music,” the tall, bulky medic yelled at the cluster of four-wheel-drive cars. It was Kipsang’s car stereo which was playing the lingala music. Kipsang cranked up the volume of the stereo.
The medic began to dance to the up-tempo beat and rhythm of the lingala music. A further five baboons fell off the bough in horror and melted into the bushes. Only the large male baboon and the large female clutching baby Auma remained on the bough. The heat from the sun was oppressive. After a minute of spirited creative dancing, the medic started to sweat and so he decided to strip off his shirt. In excited terror, the male baboon observed the bubbling concupiscent flesh of the dancing medic and couldn’t stand it any longer. The large baboon squealed and jumped down from the tree and melted into the wilderness. The female baboon remained alone on the bough, nervously clutching baby Auma. When the obese medic removed his trousers and resumed his bubbly dancing, the female baboon hastily climbed down from the bough and gently placed baby Auma on the grassy ground before squealing and scampering into the thickets.
Atieno and Otieno, who had meanwhile come to, dashed forward and gathered up baby Auma in their arms. Mum and dad and their baby wept together in joy. The Sunday was salvaged!
Denis Kabi (2009)