The March of Mules

Sight Savers was about two miles from where we lived in Nairobi. One could walk down hill for about an hour along the stretch of Mbagathi Way, or take a matatu from Kenyatta Market. When I sauntered into this organization and asked for a job from out of the blues, I had zero expectations because I was there on a totally different mission; to enquire, on behalf of my mother, on what kind of services they offered to the blind.

There was a lady at the reception desk. She was one of the Project Managers at the organization. She said- Come tomorrow. And just like that, I had a job. The good lady pulled it out of her ear for a total stranger dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. And so the next day I started work at Sight Savers’ Resource Center where I helped organize their research material. To my delight and gratitude, it was temporary, and would allow me to make some good money to finance my hustle as a budding playwright and director. I took no joy in prolonged corporate servitude.

I chose to get to work by walking the two-mile distance every morning and back home. I did not want to have to push and shove with the masses that jammed up the busses and matatus. I thoroughly detested that part of public transportation where you became nothing but one of hundreds of potatoes in a sack, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. You boarded with clean shoes and alighted with mud all over your feet on a rainy day. No, thanks, I’d rather walk.

I was psychologically ill-prepared for my walking-to-work experience. I should have been warned, prayed for and counseled. Up until that first day of my walk from Golf Course Estate to Sight Savers, I had never really known what the word “masses” meant. I had written about it in my college papers with academic authority and educated ignorance. Now I came face-to-face with the masses. They started flowing out of the cracks and crannies of Kibera like an invasion of human cicadas.

They marched silently along Mbagathi Way, and I marched with them, shoulder to shoulder, breath to breath. With every step they increased in numbers – hundreds, nay thousands, until they felt like a swarm around me. Not a single good-morning was uttered, not a smile, not a grunt, not a nod; just a steady march of chiseled chins, battered boots and fractured spines tired of holding up the weight of shattered dignities and distended dreams. I was shaken to the core. I lived in Nairobi and never knew this side of life existed. I knew, but I didn’t know.

As I was slowly engulfed by this sea of broken humanity heading towards their daily labors at Industrial area, jua kali sheds, road-side kiosks, hawkers’ alleys and hustlers’ dens, I started to suffocate. The air was dunk with unsurrendered sweats and decayed hopes. I was trapped, without any place to go except move with the masses, march with the mules; move with the masses, march with the mules; move with the masses, march with mules…

I found myself trying to catch the faces, perchance to see a wrinkle of hope, a resolve to survive, and when I did, my heart raced ahead of the march with shear excitement. I recall getting home in the evening and writing the poem, “Faces.” I so badly wanted to etch for eternity, somewhere in poetry, the humanity therein, the drop of dignity that still clung to a beaten brow, the snap of a defiant spine that would one day march to a beat all its own. I will tell their story; I will tell the world.

Now this old memory from a far-away land comes rushing at me like a river broken at its banks. I’m in another world, thousands of miles away from the sidewalks of Mbagathi Way. I’m a lot older. Today, a Mr. Jacobs who was laying cable in the heat of Washington, DC’s summertime said to me, “I’m a mule. I work long hours, six days a week, sometimes seven, for minimum wage. On the day I get to rest, I feel lost, like a slave looking for his master. That is a sick mind.” Yet some call him lazy for seeking government help to supplement his family’s nutrition, relief in rent, healthcare he cannot afford. I caught a stone in my throat. I said goodbye, but I have no problem finding this man. He streams out of American homes every morning in the thousands, nay, millions. A march of mules.

First published July 2013

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