50 Years by the River Bank

I’m home, taking a walk around Jombo village in Mwatate, Taita. It is Jamhuri Day, Kenya’s 50th Independence Day. I encounter a sudden piece of paradise, children blissfully playing soccer on a dry riverbed, completely oblivious to all that hullabaloo about Kenya@50. No celebratory bells have tolled for them.

A child’s paradise, before the waters fill it out

The land is a gentle green, the air so fresh you could grow an extra set of lungs just breathing it in, the hills show off crowns of mist as if waiting for me to bow down and pay homage, not a spec of the dry dust that chokes up the hopes of many a farmer’s beaten brow.

It has been raining, but the waters haven’t come this far down the riverbed yet. Only a month ago, the tongues of Taita mothers were feverishly ringing up a host of prayers for the rains. The hills responded with a steady downpour, making the season more festive that the ritual ceremonies of a certain nativity tale, more hopeful than the suspect promises of a nation’s jubilee.

I instinctively raise my camera. I love this Jubilee generation, age 0 to 15; they have no problem being photographed. In fact, they invite the camera with gusto, unlike the older Kenyan generation that can smite your sorry neck and its attendant head right off of your shoulders for taking a random harmless picture of them. I go click-click, imbibing the moment, thinking- a child’s paradise in the midst of Jamhuri day’s shadowy revelries dotted with a nation’s uneasy successes, squeezed out of festering wounds left unattended for 50 years. These kids will make it alright.

The next day, I walk by the same spot to see what Kenya looks like the day after celebrating its 50th birthday with international guests and cheap spectacle. I make it to the market and start walking back home. In those few minutes, the riverbed flooded! The daily rains came rushing down the mountains and burst its banks. The place is impassable. People are gathered on either end, discussing the furious waters, their about-town business suddenly truncated. The bodaboda taxis can’t take their passengers any further, and the fare has to be renegotiated. I stand there and start going click-click, the children’s forlorn faces looking on at the loss of their riverbed playground that had made a perfect field only yesterday. I call my mother.

The dry ground now a river

“Mao, I’m stuck across the river. I can’t get home.” Even grown women become babies when they know mama is around to solve the impossible.

“Wait just a little while, the tide will ebb enough for you to cross.”

“I don’t think so, the waters are furious at something,” I say.

“No more than half an hour. The accumulation from the hills comes in a flood but disappears pretty quickly beneath the sand in the lowlands.”

My mother was confident, unmoved by my concern. So were the people around. One woman had earlier lost her shoes to the river, but she was still poking the river belly about with a stick, as if she were agitating an errant python to give up her footwear. In a moment of surreal expectance, I watched for a minute, half expecting the river to vomit out a pair of Bata sandals from its riparian jaws.

Superwoman river-crosser poking the belly of the river

Stories flew about, of a drunken man who went gobble-gobble down this very river, fished out dead-sober the next morning, never survived to tell the tale; a woman who lost her footing at this very spot because she did not know she needed to wade through the sandy bed without raising her feet, and down she went flailing frantically, calling out to the ancestors at a moment of deathly crisis. Had she called out to Jesus, one woman said authoritatively, she might have survived. Nuh-uh, I wasn’t crossing this beast, for I too would most certainly call out to my ancestors.

I wanted to tell the children that it’ll be alright, that those who have been here before them know the ways of their land, their rivers, their hills, their winds, rains and scorching suns. They know that any disaster will eventually dry out at its tyrannical source or dissipate beneath the protesting sands that receive its rage, eventually pouring out the waters of discontent into the oceans.

The children contemplate turning the river into a new playground

I thought, many are the waters of a present national discontent, and like the river sands, the people, heavy with unresolved burdens, will rise up to quiet down that which brings death, damage and disappointment, leaving only that which nourishes. They must look up, even as they flail about trying to keep a steady footing, and notice that the farmlands are still the greenest green, the dry northern bellies bubble with oil and buried lakes, and right here in Taita, the wilderness teems with gemstones, the ranches await joyful toiling, the hills stand steady, a fortress of protection and cultural privilege.

It wasn’t long before the first person dared a crossing, a lady at that, while the men looked on in trepidation. I even dared a young man to cross, told him if he’s washed away we would know not to cross. He didn’t think it funny, and he spat out the crushed pieces of his twig toothpick with umbrage. I kept my dry river humor to myself. After the daring lady triumphed, an influx of men followed, crossing the river chest forward, wading through the waters with exaggerated sumo-wrestler waddle, acting as if they started it all. Ms Missing-Shoes crossed to the other bank, looked back at me, and asked:

“Would you like me to come back and cross you over?”

“Yes, sure.” I said. I indulged Superwoman and her shoeless self to display her heroism. From the moment I arrived at the river bank, my mind had been racing a thousand miles trying to figure out how I could mobilize this community to build a new bridge. It was a doable task, but I knew it would take a heck of a lot of people-tact and unwavering leadership. I learnt later that dad had actually initiated that very move, bringing a truck-load of stones for the bridge’s foundation. But he’s old, and he needed the young leaders to take the baton and run with it. They never did.

After being crossed over, with Superwoman holding my hand and no CNN to capture the moment, I looked back and saw that the children had now jumped into the river, not to cross but to play in it. The waters had ebbed, and they created a new game with what the heavens had wrought, a child’s paradise.

The mountains respond to mother’s prayers for rain.

December 12, 2013

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