I: For a Bowl of Porridge

And so has Lenana Olesakaja wrestled with his God, sprained many an hamstring, lost many a match, and still he goes back to the same battleground of a mind in turmoil.

He has begged and waited for an explanation to God’s silence over the myriad mind-boggling injustices within and around him. He has demanded to have his share of the blessings, not curses; to be whole, not diseased; to be a leader, not a slave; to be a giver and not a beggar. He has demanded respect, not abuse; wit, not docility.

And still he wrestles.

“When shall the valley of the shadow of death cease to be my abode?” His God sits silently watching him from a keyhole.

For many decades now, a biblical heritage has trickled down to Lenana. He regrets that he has such little knowledge of his people’s oral scripture, most of it lost in the floods of colonization. But he calls himself a spiritual man of historical relevance. So he reaches out for a vestige of a hand-me-down which presently lies on his table, a King James Version bible. It has lately become a constant companion, more out of weariness than faith. He searches through the printed grain and chaff, finally landing on the fascinating account of good old Jacob, that co-founder of a nation called Israel, that chief snatcher of birthrights, that run-away self-exile. After some reading, he sighs deeply, puts away this book that has caused genocides and revivals through human history, and looks out at the snow that now begins to fall softly across Minneapolis.

“How well I understands this patriarch!” he says to himself, “He that knows that a time comes when the clay must wrestle with the potter, when the powerless must wrestle with the powerful, when the last-born must wrestle with the first-born. That time is always now, and there’s no giving in until the blessings are mine!” Lenana pulls the flaps of the woolen skull cap tighter down the side of his face as his lonesome thoughts bounces between his ears. The snow comes down in thicker flurries mocking the man from the tropical plains where the sun forever tickled his skin and the shade beneath the thorn tree soothed his heavy thoughts. But that was another land far away.

A weak smile lingers for a while on Lenana’s tired countenance. He turns to look at the framed picture of the little girl with a big, radiant smile displaying a pair of rabbit teeth on his bedside table. He reaches out and tenderly touches the glass.

“Yes, I do understand him, sweetheart”, he says to the girl in the picture. He seems to be listening to her.

“No, little one, Jacob was not a bad man… no, not better than daddy, but he was a clever man.

‘You see, one day, in his wily ways, for as cheap as a bowl of porridge, Jacob bought himself a birthright from his hungry brother, Esau. Esau had no use for anything that came with the burden of leadership and responsibility. He was a man of the wild, a man of the moment. Vision does not come easy for a man of the moment. A man of the moment is often ruled by the passionate hungers of his flesh. He needed porridge, now! Jacob, the deprived second-born, saw his chance. Power, honor, opportunity, recognition – a birthright for a bowl of porridge! You do not get that kind of a bargain even in a garage sale.

“Then… this is where your daddy’s heart weeps,” Lenana looks closely into the face of the little girl. “After successfully carrying out a bloodless coup in his own home, after outwitting his father, the incumbent President Isaac, after taking the seat of power from Esau, that designated short-sighted successor, after the crown was irreversibly stamped with his name…” Lenana pauses, a wave of sadness washing over him in the silence of his room, “after all that effort, fear gripped him, and he ran away and slaved for someone else for many years… You will understand someday, sweetheart.”

Lenana’s gaze shifts again to the falling snow outside. He goes to the window and looks out at the distant world he has lived in for so long. Still at the window, he continues to talk to the little girl in the picture.

“Yes, little one. Fear ruled the man of vision, the man of strategy, the man of results, and made him a slave. For fourteen years, he slaved to earn Rachel in a foreign land. And one day, his eyes were opened, and he made his way out of the long tunnel of travails, toil, and turmoil,” he turns to look at the picture and swallows hard,

“As I surely will, honey. As I surely will… someday soon.”

In the fifteenth year of his self-exile in the US, Lenana Olesakaja’s eyes have been opened, and it dawns on him that he has become a slave in a foreign land. He is 39, going on to his deathbed.

Lenana has known the emptiness of slaving for ‘Rachel’. She was that elusive dollar that constantly winked at him, and whose desire boiled in his blood sending him into a frenzy of harsh labor day and night. ‘Rachel’ had been Lenana’s bowl of porridge that purged his pangs of short-term hungers. ‘Rachel’ had made Lenana feel important and successful when the stories eventually made their way to Kajiado. ‘Rachel’ had helped Lenana hide his deep sense of loneliness in a foreign land. ‘Rachel’ had helped boost Lenana’s pathetic ego crushed under many insults as a black man from savage Africa. He had known poverty and the shame of it. He had thought then that ‘Rachel’ would help him purge this shame. And so he slaved and slaved in a foreign land to earn her. All along he had failed to realize that like Jacob’s Rachel, she was barren. She could not bear him the joy he sought. Now memories of his chase begin to flash across his mind. It was ten years ago when he first met Shanni…


“I love you too”, Lenana said, trying his best to gaze into the eyes of his newfound bride.

“What have I just done?” he silently asks himself, “the end will justify the means. I need this green card thing,” he chastised his conscience.

Shanni Williams, just turned Shanni Williams-Olesakaja, was beside herself with matrimonial bliss. She could not believe her luck. At 34, she had given up all hope of ever finding the love of her life, or whatever came close. Then from out of the blues, this 29 year-old irresistible moran turns up. Her very own Shaka Zulu, her warrior in shinning spear, to love and to hold. He had told her how in his tradition, a man must kill a lion with his bear hands in order to be initiated into manhood.

“You really have killed a lion with your bear hands??” she had asked, a tad awestruck by this man from wild Africa. She thought his mind was such a deep well of intelligence she often felt lost in its swirl whenever he went off on a topic.

“Yes, I have”, answered Lenana, as humbly as he could, and showed her the deep scratch marks on his arms to prove it. They were injuries sustained from a part-time job he had done two summers ago reinforcing barbed wire around a ranch in Texas. Well, at least it had helped pay his rent after graduating from the University of Texas. He had decided not to go back home after earning his degree. His J1 visa was limited; it required him to go back home immediately after completion of his studies. But he decided to gamble with life in the land of dream-chasers. Having overstayed his welcome in America and crossed over to the illegal alien zone, he had hopped from one off-the-books job to another, getting frustrated as time went by. He needed a green card. Well, he could afford to tell a lie or two to Shanni, for the greater good, he told himself. He reasoned that he was rescuing her from a life of loneliness, being five years older than him and all. “I’m also accomplishing a braver feat than killing a lion. Keeping myself alive here and still managing to send some money to my folks in Kajiado is no mean task.” With that, his conscience was cleared.

“Awww…” Shanni had cooed, as she rubbed the moran injuries soothingly.

“Maybe I’ll grow to love her”, he thought, trying to ward off any sense of guilt. Right now, he must play his rescuer role right and keep his eyes on the prize – the almighty green card. For three years, he had played the green card lotto without success. Until Shanni, this beautiful African American woman whose aggressiveness he could not understand, fell in love with him and proposed. He didn’t know what hit him; he just said yes. He had won the lottery after all.

“How many kids should we have, hon?” asked Shanni had excitedly.

“Oh, maybe five, seven… My mother had seven. Together with the children of her three co-wives we are all seventeen” Lenana was sharing information he hadn’t had time to share during their very brief courtship, if it could be so called.

“Seventeen!” a mixture of horror and excitement sent Shanni into peals of laughter. “We shall have Shaka, and Kenyatta, and Neffertiti, and Sheba… “

“And Laibon Lenana for our last born” said Lenana. Her excitement was infectious. He also did not understand her constant craze for African heroism, but it had a nice ring to it. He thought it must be a spin-off from the Harlem Renaissance and the Negritude movements. After all, she was a graduate in Literature and a creative writer of sorts. He thought nothing of his own ignorance of black reality in the United States. He was so far removed from Shanni’s deep hunger to belong, to be identified with roots of strength, respectability, and dignity. A hunger carried through generations of her own family’s mixed bag of psychological struggles in spite of education and modest material success. Lenana applied his book knowledge of the black struggle to Shanni and spiced it up with a typical post-colonial male chauvinism. Sometimes he treated her with the pity a brother would upon seeing his sister get off the White Lion in Jamestown. Other times he would be thoroughly impressed by her work as an amateur writer, as if she couldn’t possibly be capable of it all by herself.

“Laibon Lenana?” asked Shanni, “never heard of that one.”

“He was a great spiritual leader of the Maasai people. Laibon is the title for the chief medicine man, a hereditary office. The British also gave him a political office as a paramount chief for their own manipulation. Through him, they signed a treaty that allowed them to split us into reserves, steal most of our land, and later imposed poll tax in form of cattle to reduce our wealth.”

“Why couldn’t the Laibon see through the tactics of the British?” Shanni was puzzled.

“Beats me. Maybe he needed to purge a personal curiosity. Get a taste of foreign power.”

“Would someone give away his people’s heritage, their own land, out of curiosity?”

“You’d be surprised what a bowl of porridge can do!”

“Maybe he was just a weak Laibon.” Shanni thought, her romanticism of Africa taking a hit.

“Oh no. He was very powerful and visionary. The story goes that when his father, Laibon Mbatiany died around 1890, two of his sons fought for succession. Sendeyo and Lenana. He favoured Sendeyo who was the son of his favourite wife. But Lenana, the son of his first wife, was the rightful heir. On Laibon Mbatiany’s deathbed, Lenana outwitted his father and brother by posing as Sendeyo so he could receive the old man’s blessings as the next leader. Being too old and nearly blind, the Laibon blessed Lenana. Civil war broke out when Sendeyo discovered his brother’s deception. But being the powerful and visionary leader he was, Lenana the throne-snatcher managed to re-unite the Maasai by 1902. But alas, the deceiver soon got deceived by the British. They made him paramount chief and snatched Maasai land from right under his nose!”

Shanni looked at him suspiciously.

“You think I just made that up?”

“Well, if I was not familiar with the biblical Jacob and Esau story, I’d have believed you. After Jacob deceived his father and brother, he fled and later on got deceived by his master, Laban.”

“Actually the story I just told you is older than the introduction of the bible in Maasailand. Strange, huh?”

“Hmm, very strange…” Shanni made a mental note to do her own research, which included traveling to Laibon Lenana’s kingdom.

“So is my man descended from the great Laibon?” She cupped his dark face in her manicured hands and hoped she didn’t see a twitch of discomfort in his eyes.

“I believe I am.” He hoped he looked convincing. He knew he had no Laibon lineage.

“We have to visit your great-grandfather’s kingdom for our honeymoon, or whatever has remained of it!”

“No! I mean… let’s visit places I haven’t seen. I was practically raised there!”

“But I’ve never seen Maasailand.”

“Let’s leave that for our second honeymoon, when we eventually have our own little Laibon.” He hoped he could by then have bought enough time to persuade Shanni off visiting Kajiado. Not that he was ashamed of his people. He just didn’t know where to begin telling the complex story of his life to one so culturally different. Lies were easier to tell. Right now Shanni believed Mzee Sakaja was a rich polygamist with thousands of cattle and an African mansion called a Manyatta. Lenana had no way of explaining his family’s poverty. Most important, he had no way of explaining his uncle’s riches – a brick mansion with several cars and guard dogs, just half a mile from his father’s miserable homestead.

According to a document called a title deed which Mzee Sakaja had no respect for, he was his own younger brother’s squatter. Lenana had no way of explaining how his rich uncle had acquired him a government scholarship to spite his father who had refused the white man’s education. Lenana had no way of explaining that he believed his poor illiterate father was a wiser and more dignified man than his educated sell-out corrupt uncle. There was too much to come to terms with, too much to explain. Something inside him made him afraid that if Shanni saw contemporary African life for what it was, she would see the fraud that he was. Right now, she needed to believe in invincible warriors, laibons and kingdoms.

And so to Spain they went for their honeymoon. After the honeymoon began the toil and the turmoil. Little Laibon Lenana did not materialize. Neither did Kenyatta, or Shaka, or Neffertiti, or Sheba. It did not seem like they ever would. Then one day, two childless years after his marriage to Shanni, Lenana spotted Mumbi. He spotted her in cyberspace on a forum he met frequently with other Kenyans to discuss the whys and wherefores of their beleaguered nation. It was also a forum where Lenana could afford to be himself. He had began to exist in the virtual world more often than in the physical world. Shanni noticed, raved and ranted. Lenana only became more virtual. Mumbi’s essence came crushing through his computer screen and possessed him like a virus.

Ah, Mumbi!

Continued – Part II: By the Rivers of Babylon

Copyright 2000 Mkawasi Mcharo

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