By Elijah Koome
March 26, 2021
The place I call home is not a savanna bedecked with herds of gallivanting wildebeests. It is not a scorched desert where deadly vipers slither. The place I call home is cool and verdant. It has chains of rolling hills, covered with fragrant flowering shrubs. It has trees that shoot skyward, like rockets, and dozens of meandering brooks. The place I call home affords one a magnificent view of small, gleaming desert towns on the distant horizon.
But these images are not what I see as I walk home every evening. When I stumble upon a rock, I think to myself: Will I have to wait till Judgement Day before this road is tarmacked? To even call it a road is an exaggeration; a muddy path would be more accurate. It has been a muddy path for as long as I can remember. Then there are the gullies that line the path. If I’m not careful in my step, I could find myself kissing the rocks at their bottom.
When I look around my village, I notice that every family owns a small patch of land, rarely exceeding two acres. In this land, I see settlements: small, square houses with corrugated iron roofs. The walls are made of old timber and mud. Two or three of these houses make a home, and five, or ten, or twenty, people live in these houses.
When I pass near the primary school, I notice several brick structures with missing window panes. When I stop to greet the teachers, I see that the offices are old, tiny, unkempt. When I look at the hopeful faces of the children in their tattered blue uniforms, I think to myself: Do you know what awaits you, you poor little lambs?
My generation is afflicted by malaise that runs deeper than the roots of the ficus tree. In the place I call home, people of my generation have little to do and few places to go. Schools, which are where young people go in other places, are almost ornamental here. When one is done with the innocent years of primary school—often with dismal grades—a new reality sets in: there is no money to pay for high school.
Your parents, who are themselves barely literate, have no money for tuition and other expenses. In the rare case they do, it will be just enough to enroll you at the local secondary school, where labs have no reagents, teachers have minimal qualifications or none at all, and salaries are paid intermittently. Should you go to this school, you can expect to sit with sixty or more students in a classroom, to have no textbooks for your homework and to walk several miles every morning just to reach the school. If you go to this school, you can be assured that your final grade will be in the vicinity of C or D or E, and with those, college and university will remain distant dreams.
One could work. But what line of work? People of my generation own no land, so farming is out of the question. Our parents own all the patches of arable land and there is nothing they care more for. Our parents decide what will be grown, how it will be grown, and when it will be grown. If you are lucky like my friend Christopher, your grandparents will give you a piece of land when you are still young, and that might give you something to do. But the vast majority of us are not lucky. Our parents own the land; we are mere guests in it. In these cases, the closest thing to farming that you can do is be a farm hand.
As a farm hand, you could help till the farm and weed the plants or you could help tea farmers harvest the crop and shuttle it to the collection center. You could help qat farmers to harvest, sort and transport the stimulant to small towns, where it is packed and sent to the capital city, Nairobi, and outside the country.
Most young men of my generation choose to be farm hands for qat farmers. At the crack of dawn, they get up and meet in a small hotel at the shopping center. They drink tea and eat two or three or four mandazi. Then they walk, or drive, to the farm. The mornings are dewy, and the qat trees are slippery. But these young men have become experts at clambering up slippery trees.
At the farm, speed and precision wins. The smartest farm-hands know the most bountiful qat trees on a first glance and they mark these before anyone else does. As the harvesting proceeds, stories are traded: Someone saw a ghost last night. Someone chased a witch from the back yard. Someone dreamed a terrifying dream that came true.
In the afternoon, these young men spend their earnings, an equivalent of ten or twenty dollars if they are lucky, at small lounges by the roadside. In their pockets, they carry a sizable bundle of qat, also known as miraa. Qat is a mild stimulant, and chewing it is a terrifically efficient way of killing time and keeping boredom at bay. Chewing qat focuses your mind and gives you something to do with your tongue and teeth all afternoon and all evening. Qat absorbs your worries and sorrows and fatigues. Under the spell of qat, the world is pleasant and placid.
Young women of my generation typically do not work as farm hands for qat farmers. They rarely chew qat by the roadside in the afternoons. Instead, they harvest tea and shuttle it to collection centers in straw baskets. They make the equivalent of two or three dollars a day. In the evening, they go back to their parents’ (or husbands’) homes to cook and clean and banter with their mothers. On Sundays, they go to church, then to the salon, where they get their hair braided and their nails manicured.
Not everyone stays in the village. Many leave, like my brother John, who left when I was thirteen. For many years he traveled from one city to another, one country to another. He first went to Nairobi; then to Lodwar; then Juba; then Gulu. After eight years he returned home, jaded and empty-handed. He had nothing but fantastic stories to share with us.
Leaving is not hard. For the young men who harvest qat at dawn and chew it at dusk, leaving involves simply hopping into one of the Toyota trucks or buses that ferry qat to the city.
If you go, you might stay with a cousin or a friend. Your task in the city will be to sell qat, but as you learn more about the environment there, you gain the freedom to pursue whatever you want. Once you are in the city, you are expected to send money back home, even if you are living in the slums. When you come back to visit, you should come bearing gifts–food, clothes, and assorted trinkets. Woe unto you if you don’t: your family will be cold and the neighbors will say unkind things.
A few people make it to colleges and universities. Usually, these are the ones who have a natural aptitude for academics, the ones who spend days and nights poring over their textbooks. When the few scholarly minds in my generation graduate from high school with As and Bs in their final exams, the village comes together and fund-raises for their college or university tuition. The villagers do this with a touch of skepticism. There is a popular saying about these scholars, one that my mother is fond of: “They will be blowing dust on our faces with their cars.” Still, this does not prevent people from giving their goats or chickens or cows to the fundraising effort. Around here, jealousy is considered a close relative to witchcraft.
I left for university when I was nineteen. The university was in the city, six or seven hours away. There, I met more people like me, escapees from provincial villages. There was Stephen and Philomena, both raised outside Marsabit. There was Jacob, raised in Vanga. These others, who became my friends, were bookish and broke. In the city, we felt our lack of means more acutely than we had ever felt in the villages. Some of our classmates went to the cinema every Friday while my friends and I gathered around a laptop to watch Divergent and 3 Idiots. Better-off students went to KFC and Pizza Inn for lunch, while we pinched every coin to afford rice and beans at the shacks behind the hostels.
The public university here is a bog where idealism comes to die. Lecturers go on strike for months because of money, students stone motorists and burn hostels because of money, and grades are revised and modified because of money. Those who thought knowledge and intellectual provocation are the core tenets of a university quickly learn that money rules here; in fact, money seems the university’s only raison d’etre. Those who are sharp-witted and cynical enough learn to flatter and keep company with the city politicians, who reward them with meager cash handouts.
There is another group, though. Small in number, members of this group persist in their idealism. They organize volunteer drives to the city’s slums. They act as mentors to high school students in the surrounding locations. They organize charity events and art events. They go to the dean’s office to protest unfair academic policies. They organize protests against laws banning cooking in the hostels. They protest police brutality against civilians. This minority is looked upon with admiration—even by the rest of us who have given in to cynicism—and that is why when they are gunned down by government mercenaries, everyone is willing to risk being tear gassed and clubbed for their sake.
Getting through university is difficult enough (my friend, David, has been chasing his bachelors degree for the last seven years) but getting a job afterwards is an extreme sport. My sister, who graduated three years ago with a degree in education, has yet to secure any kind of employment. Unless you know someone who knows someone who knows someone, your chances of landing a job are as rare as a winged camel. You may have all the qualifications in the world, but no one will give you a job unless they know you, or you are a member of their family, or you are willing to part with a hefty bribe, or you are willing to sleep with them.
My generation has few opportunities to really live. Brilliant artists, like my friend Daniel, have nowhere to hone their skills, no one to promote their art, no one to encourage their creativity. Incredible soccer players, like my friend Jack, will never be able to make a living from their talent because there is no chance for them to do so here. The people who should be providing these opportunities are a voracious cabal who hoard and squander most of this nation’s wealth. Members of the gerontocracy in charge of our country do not give a toss for anyone besides their relatives.
When I was child, I kept hearing this phrase: “You are the leaders of tomorrow.” But today, I realize that tomorrow is still far away. My generation—that is, those between the ages of fifteen and thirty five—constitutes the largest demographic in the country and in the entire continent. But despite our numbers, my generation is vulnerable and dis-empowered. This is why our defining characteristic is a pernicious, exhausting, and spirit-draining malaise.
Photo by <a href="http://Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@ffrauss?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Francesca Noemi Marconi</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com/s/photos/kenya?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">UnsplashFrancesca Noemi Marconi