Nearly a month ago, a West African and former lecturer at Moi University but now a resident in a Western European city exchanged emails with me about the immoral uses of hands in Kenya. As a typical Kenyan whose staple diet is politics, my mind raced to the famous handshake of friendship and reconciliation between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga in March 2018.
I was, however, sorely disappointed because the next sentence in the very first email simply catalogued the many obvious and negative things hands have done in my country. She placed Kenyan hands on so many issues I can’t exhaust here but only summarise.
She said, for example, that Kenya enjoys a long history of shooting dead and dumping their politicians’ bodies in the bush. He cited Robert Ouko’s case in 1989 and the preceding ones. Perhaps more gory, he said Kenyans spend a lot of energy on spouse-bashing, shooting, throat slitting and male and female genital mutilation.
I had not intended to make the conversation public until she later sent late-night emails and WhatsApps a few hours after the catastrophic landslides took tens of human lives in West Pokot County. She thought Kenyans were taking too long to respond and rescue their stricken compatriots despite their nearly universal penchant for demonstrating intimacy and sense of caring by shaking hands almost as many times as the hours that add up to a day.
In retrospect, I recalled her irritation with Kenyan culture and practice of shaking hands every instance familiar people met at the workplace or elsewhere. As for women meeting one another, shaking hands and hugging repeatedly, she thought they should be roundly condemned for “shameless public lesbian love making”. People should do such things in absolute privacy and secrecy, like Gikonyo and Mumbi, in Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat, she always opined in the Senior Common Room.
That was decades ago when, as a self-confessed fan of Ngugi wa Thiongo’s writings and ideas since high school, she had tirelessly argued that the Gikonyo-Mumbi love affair was one of the best illustrations of positive political, social and economic relationship anywhere in the world. She attributed the couple’s heterosexuality to godliness and, therefore, a divine example for Kenya.
I still remember that she couldn’t shake hands with known or rumoured gays at the university because they were being “evil and unnatural”. As far as she was concerned, all acts implying or denoting homosexuality were satanic and Kenyan women were particularly guilty.
Secondly, she marvelled at how Gikonyo and Mumbi love and hate one another in equal measure but finally seek reconciliation and achieve an intimate relationship that symbolises Ngugi’s vision for a united Kenya at peace across gender, ethnic, economic and political differences. It is this kind of relationship she wished Kenyans every time they fought and killed one another over land and political issues.
Third, was the natural ambience in which the love was brewed, and climaxed. “The earth held them together and glued them in the bush until Gikonyo carved a wooden stool of reconciliation and reproduction of human life. Theirs is a life of struggle and sweat unlike their Member of Parliament who literally steals land without working for it,” she wrote in an unpublished high school essay she showed me in the mid-1990s. According to her, Kenyans simply didn’t know how to respect, exploit and seek inspiration from nature.
Thus, and not surprisingly, she accused me and my compatriots of being “unnatural” in our slow response to disasters. And disasters like landslides need not be there in the first place if only we could share the safe terrains equitably. Only a few people had “stolen” the best chunks of land and abandoned the majority to the vagaries and whims of nature.
As if rejoicing and mourning in one breath, she celebrated Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai for warning Kenyans that nature would hit back one day if we persisted in abusing the environment. We had gone against nature and God and whatever had happened in West Pokot was a practical affirmation and retribution for moral laxity and would be replicated all over the country.
A few days ago, she said, alluding to the non-existent diamonds the State once paid millions of shillings for, that we had lied, not only for our country but had defiled her.
And for the tenth or more time, she cited the Mumbi-Gikonyo tryst in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novel. In the love triangle, Karanja curses and fumes with rage on reaching the railway station ahead of everybody else only to realise that, in spite of being the fastest and therefore a hero, Mumbi is far behind in the bushes and writhing on the grass with love in and between Gikonyo’s “rough carpenter’s hands”. He believes he deserves her most because of his perceived higher class in life with richer tender hands. Or so is the reading by my former colleague, who maintains that Ngugi is ahead of the few Kenyans who fearlessly tell the truth about the yawning class divide in Kenya.
Thus she claims that when Ngugi fled Kenya in the early 1980s, he left a huge moral vacuum in the country in general and the university system in particular. His stature and commitment to the production and packaging of knowledge that would mould an egalitarian society cannot be disputed.
The intelligentsia are, however, a total let-down for her. Unlike Ngugi, they are bereft of nation-building ideas. Most try to be more English than the English people by defending and trying to speak and write the Queen’s English and parrot medieval British mannerisms over 50 years after independence. All they do is harvest air or nothing and expect to earn for it.
She, however, reserved perhaps the worst and most damning statement for the latest email. First, she attributed her confinement in a wheelchair to the surgical carelessness of a very experienced Kenyan doctor she refuses to name.
The old surgeon didn’t care much for her life so long as he got his millions of shillings. She proceeds to claim that most of his patients die in the theatre but that he detains corpses for long periods until he is paid. For her this is like being rewarded for murder, while in her case her employer paid for attempted murder. She insists that the doctor typifies the corrupt Kenyans who thrive on earning for doing nothing.
And on sighting a fully trained doctor on social media acting as a hired goon for a politician in the October Kibra by-elections and aiming boulders at an opponent, she concluded that in a country where some health workers can maim and kill, there is certainly no value to live by. When the selfsame doctor remarks that he dare not run away from an uncircumcised man, implying that such a person isn’t human, then there are no morals left in the country and the brains have sunk and drowned in the loins.
I insist, though, that my country isn’t totally amoral, having personally survived five surgeries by my compatriots over the years. The country can still be redeemed by the Gikonyos and Mumbis who believe in honest and creative living.
Prof Amuka teaches literature at Moi University in Eldoret. Email [email protected]