Wales: Guess What I was Doing…

When not blogging, this is what I do in the Welsh countryside: wear stupid looking helmets and swing around on wires. This was a corporate retreat and we were doing the skytrek where you get transported for 2km high above the ground from platform to platform hitched to a wire. Then we did an ‘assault’ course and climbed a massive hill where a sheep actually charged us. All the while I kept feeling that my outfit – which is worn by a tank crew – was terribly fashionable and could start a whole new trend if I wore it in London or New York. After the swinging, which involved some moment of terror and burnt palms, it was time to pitch tents for the night. As a city man through and through, I was like a fish out of water and kept wondering why we should choose a cold, damp dwelling when there were perfectly good hotels nearby. A colleague and I then started a snoring war that actually kept the whole tent awake and drove one delicate soul to seek shelter in the truck. What a softie says I. The next morning we headed to the River Wye for a few hours of kayaking. Now as is well known (or at least became well known following my whiney excuses that I needed to stay on the riverbank and read) getting a land lubber like myself into a boat is not the easiest of tasks. Of course like everything I have ever been reluctant to try, it was enormously enjoyable. The thing that made the whole weekend special was that I actually like every single person I work with. Yes, I do, and it never ceases to surprise me what with the cynicism toward offices that I developed in my former job before I made the jump to academia. Now that I have camped, climbed a hill and a small rock face, I have decided to move to the next level: yes sir, next time I am home, I am going to drag myself out of the lovely Nairobi and attempt to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Watch this space.


Africans, Woe unto you, ye shall hunger

I am in a sad mood today having just had an argument with someone very close to me and so have been seeing ill portents and darkness everywhere I look. And so this little story on Reuters caught my eye and seeing as I was already feeling kind of messed up, almost reduced me to hot little tears. Yes, I know, it is rather dramatic. It turns out that there is now food being made in factories just for starving Africans. Some of our societies have failed to the point that even food can no longer be taken for granted and charity has become a way of life. Plumpy’nut – made of peanut paste, sugar and a special vitamin – is not being made to feed people in hunger camps, it is being advertised as a charity intervention before starvation really strikes. In other words, preparations must be made for Africans even before they have started starving since it is reliably known that the need will be there sooner or later. “We wanted a product that doesn’t need to be mixed with water and fulfils all nutritional needs; we also believe food should taste good. Maybe that’s a French thing,” says Michel Lescanne, the creator of Plumpy’nut which is made in a ‘picturesque’ village in Northern France. Nutriset, the product’s maker, though formed as a non-profit, has few corporate rivals. With a staff of 50, its turnover is expected to be 15 million euros in 2005, a 50 percent increase on last year. It will produce some 2,500 tonnes of Plumpy’nut that will feed a quarter million children. So there you have it and good luck to them. If African entrepreneurs will not step in to create cheap food products then their countrymen shall either starve or shall provide opportunity for others. African misery is the greatest natural resource in that continent. While people argue about gold and oil, no one notices that there is far more money generated by the humanitarian industry on the basis of African misery than by mining or drilling corporates. It makes me wonder whether Niger has businesspeople at all. See more on Plumpy’nut.

The Love Affair Between the Maasai and the English

Colonialists like their savages savage in a romantic mould. There is a streak of masochism in having your material world dismissed by people who have little but vanity and some sick cows. Colonialists want to believe their subjugated people were worth conquering…they are also good for a shag now and then says AA Gill in the London Times to much hilarity…more>>

Shooting an Elephant

Written in 1936, George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’ is a classic examination of the nature of colonial power and the curious administrative and moral posture of the colonialist. Go here for more of his essays.

Orwell: “I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing—no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”

IN Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.
All this was perplexing and upsetting. For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically—and secretly, of course—I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos—all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in sæcula sæculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism—the real motives for which despotic governments act. Early one morning the sub-inspector at a police station the other end of the town rang me up on the phone and said that an elephant was ravaging the bazaar. Would I please come and do something about it? I did not know what I could do, but I wanted to see what was happening and I got on to a pony and started out. I took my rifle, an old .44 Winchester and much too small to kill an elephant, but I thought the noise might be useful in terrorem. Various Burmans stopped me on the way and told me about the elephant’s doings. It was not, of course, a wild elephant, but a tame one which had gone “must.” It had been chained up, as tame elephants always are when their attack of “must” is due, but on the previous night it had broken its chain and escaped. Its mahout, the only person who could manage it when it was in that state, had set out in pursuit, but had taken the wrong direction and was now twelve hours’ journey away, and in the morning the elephant had suddenly reappeared in the town. The Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless against it. It had already destroyed somebody’s bamboo hut, killed a cow and raided some fruit-stalls and devoured the stock; also it had met the municipal rubbish van and, when the driver jumped out and took to his heels, had turned the van over and inflicted violences upon it.

The Burmese sub-inspector and some Indian constables were waiting for me in the quarter where the elephant had been seen. It was a very poor quarter, a labyrinth of squalid bamboo huts, thatched with palmleaf, winding all over a steep hillside. I remember that it was a cloudy, stuffy morning at the beginning of the rains. We began questioning the people as to where the elephant had gone and, as usual, failed to get any definite information. That is invariably the case in the East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes. Some of the people said that the elephant had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in another, some professed not even to have heard of any elephant. I had almost made up my mind that the whole story was a pack of lies, when we heard yells a little distance away. There was a loud, scandalized cry of “Go away, child! Go away this instant!” and an old woman with a switch in her hand came round the corner of a hut, violently shooing away a crowd of naked children. Some more women followed, clicking their tongues and exclaiming; evidently there was something that the children ought not to have seen. I rounded the hut and saw a man’s dead body sprawling in the mud. He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and he could not have been dead many minutes. The people said that the elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with its trunk, put its foot on his back and ground him into the earth. This was the rainy season and the ground was soft, and his face had scored a trench a foot deep and a couple of yards long. He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony. (Never tell me, by the way, that the dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I have seen looked devilish.) The friction of the great beast’s foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit. As soon as I saw the dead man I sent an orderly to a friend’s house nearby to borrow an elephant rifle. I had already sent back the pony, not wanting it to go mad with fright and throw me if it smelt the elephant.

The orderly came back in a few minutes with a rifle and five cartridges, and meanwhile some Burmans had arrived and told us that the elephant was in the paddy fields below, only a few hundred yards away. As I started forward practically the whole population of the quarter flocked out of the houses and followed me. They had seen the rifle and were all shouting excitedly that I was going to shoot the elephant. They had not shown much interest in the elephant when he was merely ravaging their homes, but it was different now that he was going to be shot. It was a bit of fun to them, as it would be to an English crowd; besides they wanted the meat. It made me vaguely uneasy. I had no intention of shooting the elephant—I had merely sent for the rifle to defend myself if necessary—and it is always unnerving to have a crowd following you. I marched down the hill, looking and feeling a fool, with the rifle over my shoulder and an ever-growing army of people jostling at my heels. At the bottom, when you got away from the huts, there was a metalled road and beyond that a miry waste of paddy fields a thousand yards across, not yet ploughed but soggy from the first rains and dotted with coarse grass. The elephant was standing eight yards from the road, his left side towards us. He took not the slightest notice of the crowd’s approach. He was tearing up bunches of grass, beating them against his knees to clean them and stuffing them into his mouth.

I had halted on the road. As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant—it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery—and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided. And at that distance, peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow. I thought then and I think now that his attack of “must” was already passing off; in which case he would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and caught him. Moreover, I did not in the least want to shoot him. I decided that I would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home.

But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd—seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing—no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted to. (Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal.) Besides, there was the beast’s owner to be considered. Alive, the elephant was worth at least a hundred pounds; dead, he would only be worth the value of his tusks, five pounds, possibly. But I had got to act quickly. I turned to some experienced-looking Burmans who had been there when we arrived, and asked them how the elephant had been behaving. They all said the same thing: he took no notice of you if you left him alone, but he might charge if you went too close to him.

It was perfectly clear to me what I ought to do. I ought to walk up to within, say, twenty-five yards of the elephant and test his behavior. If he charged, I could shoot; if he took no notice of me, it would be safe to leave him until the mahout came back. But also I knew that I was going to do no such thing. I was a poor shot with a rifle and the ground was soft mud into which one would sink at every step. If the elephant charged and I missed him, I should have about as much chance as a toad under a steam-roller. But even then I was not thinking particularly of my own skin, only of the watchful yellow faces behind. For at that moment, with the crowd watching me, I was not afraid in the ordinary sense, as I would have been if I had been alone. A white man mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives”; and so, in general, he isn’t frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.

There was only one alternative. I shoved the cartridges into the magazine and lay down on the road to get a better aim. The crowd grew very still, and a deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last, breathed from innumerable throats. They were going to have their bit of fun after all. The rifle was a beautiful German thing with cross-hair sights. I did not then know that in shooting an elephant one would shoot to cut an imaginary bar running from ear-hole to ear-hole. I ought, therefore, as the elephant was sideways on, to have aimed straight at his ear-hole, actually I aimed several inches in front of this, thinking the brain would be further forward.

When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick—one never does when a shot goes home—but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frighfful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time—it might have been five seconds, I dare say—he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did not collapse but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright, with legs sagging and head drooping. I fired a third time. That was the shot that did for him. You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skyward like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay.

I got up. The Burmans were already racing past me across the mud. It was obvious that the elephant would never rise again, but he was not dead. He was breathing very rhythmically with long rattling gasps, his great mound of a side painfully rising and falling. His mouth was wide open—I could see far down into caverns of pale pink throat. I waited a long time for him to die, but his breathing did not weaken. Finally I fired my two remaining shots into the spot where I thought his heart must be. The thick blood welled out of him like red velvet, but still he did not die. His body did not even jerk when the shots hit him, the tortured breathing continued without a pause. He was dying, very slowly and in great agony, but in some world remote from me where not even a bullet could damage him further. I felt that I had got to put an end to that dreadful noise. It seemed dreadful to see the great beast Lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him. I sent back for my small rifle and poured shot after shot into his heart and down his throat. They seemed to make no impression. The tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of a clock.

In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away. I heard later that it took him half an hour to die. Burmans were bringing dahs and baskets even before I left, and I was told they had stripped his body almost to the bones by the afternoon.

Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

Persona Non Grata: Kenyan Athletes After Helsinki

Qatari citizen Saif Saaeed Shaheen (formerly known as Stephen Cherono) reacts to smashing the world record and winning the 3000m steeplechase at the 2005 World Championships. I do not care if he is a citizen of the moon or Qatar, there is nothing better than seeing a Kenyan on top of the world.

President Kibaki recently urged Kenyan athletes to resist the temptation to change their citizenship for money. This is a statement that can only have come from a man with a obstinate Panglossian ‘all-is-well-with-the-world’ streak. The sad fact is that talent or heroism are under-appreciated and downright dangerous qualities to have in Kenya. Kibaki is a leading member of a ruling elite that has consigned talent and integrity to the rubbish heap even while he admonishes those who would rather go where they are more appreciated and respected. And the Kenyan public, bunch of innocents that we are, ever blaming the government for our every national shortcoming even as we look to its for every solution, only notice these athletes every four years at the Olympics. They give us a brief glow of warm pride and are soon forgotten along with their achievements and the challenges that they face. When is the last time that you heard that a civic group of any kind had gathered to honour one of our athletes? How many products are endorsed by them, what schools and streets named after them? The real question I am asking is this: what is heroism in Kenya and how, if at all, is it linked to our national life?

Diary of a Mad Kenyan Woman has recently blogged about David Munyakei the whistle blower who alerted the country to the Goldenberg Scandal and how he has since been forgotten by the public. WM says it so much better than I could:

Who are we that we glorify and protect the avaricious, the gluttonous, and the ostentatiously, graspingly corrupt, the liars and the tyrants (why isn’t Moi in jail?). Who are we that we do this in order precisely to make the shabby, cringe-making, shame-amplifying nature of our complete disregard of those who guard and rescue and restore our sense of self more marked by contrast, more significant by difference? Just so we can underline the dichotomy, in case someone had missed it? To sum: you need to f**k Kenya up, not pluck it out of the lion’s jaws. This is the correct trajectory to follow to fame and fortune; failure to which, you will not even be a footnote in history.

As a career and lifestyle choice, I highly recommend that you strike OFF your list the idea of doing something good for Kenya, since we Kenyans assure and guarantee you that no good deed done for us will ever go unpunished.

This then is the world of the Kenyan hero: either forgotten or destroyed.

Many Kenyans are clamouring to vote with their feet, they want to leave that little paradise we call home. And the runners, like the doctors, the nurses and the thousands of Green Card Lottery applicants, want to step out too. It is at this precise moment when the exit door is beckoning that their international accomplishments have fallen.

When the rhetoric of Project Keenya was strong enough that its disconnect with the lived reality of many Kenyans was not readily apparent, our runners made off with gold medals galore. But since the late 1990s there has been a wholesale collapse of the idea what we are in a collective vehicle called Kenya whose destination shall benefit us individually.

This project I have argued in the past was merely an extension in blackface of the colonial desire to civilise and develop the ‘savage’. Its collapse was inevitable and there is a Kenyan being born from its ashes who is more competitive, self reliant and skeptical of the government and its nonsensical postures and actions. It is only when faced with Kenyan athletes cutting and running that there is a sudden surge of concern and a recognition of their worth. As is usual the government’s position can be trusted to be stupid. Sports Minister Ochillo Ayacko speaking about migrating athletes said, “we will declare these athletes as persona non grata and cannot permit them to enjoy facilities available in the country while they compete against us at World championships.” Eh, these facilities of course being the government constructed hills and trails of the Rift Valley. If you are a European tourist you are welcome to come and run up and down whatever you wish, but dare you be an ex-citizen who wants to do the same…

Watching the Ethiopian athletes power ahead in Helsinki and at the 2004 Olympics, I felt that they were running from a psychological and emotional space that their Kenyan counterparts have not occupied for a long while. And there will be no getting back to that place soon since we must first elevate talent and achievement to the highest dais of our national life. For this to happen, the moral state of our communities will have to be revitalised beyond the church step and into the home and all those other ordinary folks’ spaces. But this is a discussion for another day I suppose. For now, I am sad that those Kenyans who competed in Helsinki did not do better but glad that the negative commentary about the performance might be making us ask tough questions about what our country does to its best and brightest.


(Shaheen or Cherono is just a small tip of the iceberg. Beyond the athlete is Dedan Kimathi still in a Kamiti Prison grave, Pio Pinto, David Munyakei broke and close to breaking and numerous others. Kenya produces heroes as a kettle will release steam to relieve the pressure of boiling water. Our heroism, like heroism anywhere else, is the product of adversity; therefore our heroes by the very actions that elevate them often incur injury. It is in how we deal with these injuries that the esteem we hold them in is revealed. Also revealed is what we think of ourselves since the hero at hand has only become so presumably for our collective benefit: they have borne a load greater than themselves and by doing so have relieved us of an unpleasantness that was ours. To ignore the hero, to leave them by the wayside is to deny the existence of a collective self to which the hero sacrificed himself. If Kenyans ignore or do not care for a Kenyan hero, then there is no such thing as Kenya outside of a geographer’s map.)

The Poetry of Richard Katrovas

One of the most enjoyable results of my visit to St. Petersburg a few weeks ago was meeting Richard Katrovas whose poetry I had never read before. At his public reading, which I managed to get to in spite of the hellish vodka hangover that had me in its evil grip, I was taken by how his poetry managed to be simultaneously intensely personal and engaged in the world. It is no easy thing for me to express admiration for a poet, it is a form whose beauty came under such a sustained assault by a variety of teachers that I have not managed to fully rid myself of their narrow pedantry. But Katrovas’ poetry is honest and funny, and has the wisdom that only comes from someone who has lived and been knocked around a little.

Love Poem for an Enemy

I, as sinned against as sinning,
take small pleasure from the winning
of our decades-long guerrilla war.
For from my job I’ve wanted more
than victory over one who’d tried
to punish me before he died,
and now, neither of us dead,
we haunt these halls in constant dread
of drifting past the other’s life
while long-term memory is rife
with slights that sting like paper cuts… (read more of Richard Katrovas)

Binyavanga: A Day in the Life of Idi Amin Dada

Welcome and thanks to Binyavanga Wainaina who knowing my desperate need for some giggles on this blog, as opposed to the recent diet of rants, has contributed a story. Enjoy!

A Day in the Life of Idi Amin Dada

1983. It was that time of the day when the streets of Nakuru seemed to stand still. A Monday at 11 am even the hot dry breeze was lazy. It would glide languorously collecting odd bits of paper, have them tease the ground, threaten to take flight, tease the ground. Every so often there would be a gathering of force and a tiny tornado would whip the paper into the air, swirl dust around, dogs would lift their ears, tongues lolling, then burrow their faces between their forelegs as the wind collapsed, exhausted. Children were in school, long lines of spittle reaching their desks, as they tried to keep awake.

Even Daniel Arap Moi, Kenyan the president, who usually woke up at 4 am, was now taking his nap – trying to summon his favorite dream: that the entire nation of Gikuyus were standing in line at his gate to await execution, cash and title-deeds in hand, to hand over at the gate.

Idi Amin Dada hunched over Mrs. Gupta Shah like an insistent question mark, jabbing. She was chewing hard at a bit of blue-gold and red sari, trying to keep from screaming out loud; they had put on a movie on the video and set it loud to muffle the sounds: some Bombay song: Chal Chal Chal Merihethi….on the screen Idi could see a pouty maiden at the edge of a cliff, and a man with a giant quiff of hair, and sideburns sang in a shrill voice. She leapt off the cliff, and he followed her in a few seconds…they lay draped elegantly at the bottom of the valley; their fingers touched and they died, then the nasal Hindi music escalated in intensity, went beyond drama, beyond melodrama, and achieved genuine Bombay Belodrama.

Idi Amin Dada jabbed deeper into Mrs. Gupta, his plantain sized fingers digging deeply into the folds of her stomach, which usually undulated serenely between two wisps of sari as she hummed her way through the day.
“You want my banana?”
“I vant your banana Idhiii? Give me your banana Idhi…”
“I give you my banana till you are fed up.”


This was Idi’s room; was also Idi’s afternoon workplace. Had been for twenty years, since the early 1970s. This morning; every weekday morning, Idi would drop Mr. Shah at the grain-mill his family owned. At 9 he would drop the petulant Maharajah at school: The Shrival Manahaval Shah Academy For Successful Gentlemen Who Will Go To Oxford and Cambridge. We start to train them at 5 years old! Book Now For Half-Price Discount on Swimming.

The Maharaja’s mother would beg him to get into the car,
“Oh my baby Pooti-poo; my Mickey-Mouse; my Diwali Sveetmeat, don’t cry babeee…”
Mr. Shah remained silent; sometimes he tried to imagine this rosebud managing the Grain Mill and failed.
As soon as the car was at the gate, the Maharajah would wriggle to the front passenger seat of the Mercedes.
“Idi – buy me goody-goody toffee gum or I tell Mammi-ji that you pinch me here.”

This routine had ceased being a to-fro conversation. Idi would extract a wad of goody-goody’s and the boy would stuff the toffee into his mouth and launch into muffled brags about Sapna’s father’s car’ of Rakesh’s trip to Disneyland.

Idi was once in the army, and was used to handling such humiliations with a deadpan face and a slight flaring of his nostrils. He always dropped off the prince without argument before rushing back to fuck the Prince’s Mother in the ironing room.

Piles of freshly ironed clothes sat on a boat-shaped basin next to the bed, clothes Idi had ironed last night. Vishal’s bookshelf had been moved to this room since Prince Number 1 left for Oxford: the top row full of Louis L’Amour Cowboy thrillers; the bottom row had a copy of Heart of Darkness, scribbled all over with A Level notes and next to it sat VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River.

Mrs. Shah gave a low gnashing answer that blew soft cardamom flavored wind into Idi’s ear. He grunted in assent. Idi had a lot of questions. Every 11 am he asked them.

He loved ironing. Every afternoon he would put on some Bollywood film, and turn the Shah family’s washing into crisp battalions of soldiers. He loved shrugging shirts into broad, identical shoulders, arranging them in wardrobes, watching them stand at attention. They were his to command. A Natural Leader, his sergeant had called him. The room was once a stable, but was now a Servant’s Quarter. At 6pm exactly, he would go to the shower, and smoke a joint and dream of shining brass buttons; dream of the embrace of a Luganda woman – sucking at his nerve endings like a fish; turning and twisting him around; smelling not of ginger and tumeric; but of musk and steamed bananas and Nilo beer.

The 1960s were full of landslides: as the British Administration screeched to a halt those that were waiting for a trajectory to come and grab hold of them were left stranded. In those days being dutiful mattered; NOT taking initiative – when they had decommissioned the special forces, afraid that they would remain to leak what had really happened in the forests and the African townships in the 50s; some soldiers had auctioned themselves to the new leaders – as bodyguards; as hired fists: these guys climbed up dizzyingly. Amin had waited for his loyalty to be rewarded; had hung about Nakuru – 10 miles from the Barracks waiting for the call. In 1970, he was about to give up; was about to hitchhike to Uganda and sell illegal liquor in Arua like his mother had done, when he had found a frail Indian man being pulverized by a 10 year old parking boy, outside the wholesale market, with market women cheering the boy. He had rescued the man. Mr. Shah. And he got a job. It wasn’t bad: Mrs. Shah was exactly the same as Sergeant Jones: insistent, fanatic about time, a goddess of routine. Infatuated with her power over this black exhibition of muscle.

Idi had joined the army as soon as age would allow it. It was his way out of a life that seemed aimless. His mother had sold liquor and her body to army officers. He loved his mother to distraction. At thirteen, he had beaten a thirty year old Acholi private who had come to their home to insult his mother.

At fifteen he was six foot four, and when Sergeant Jones had seen him walking in Arua, he had offered him a place in the army at once. Idi was terrified of whites; and he could sense that Jones feared and was fascinated with him. Jones would spend hours with Idi in the boxing ring, teaching him new skills. He loved to punch Idi softly; to wipe seat off Idi’s back; to test out Idi’s muscles – always gruffly, always lingering. During a bout, his adrenalin pumping sweat flying, Idi was like a machine: looking for every angle to kill; never angry. Clinical. He loved it, loved holding into himself, loved the control of violence. One day he caught Jone’s eye, saw the fear in it – fear; and Idi felt like God, standing there showing his power; the feeling was almost sexual.

Idi rose up the ranks in the Army because he was the dream soldier. He had no father – had no problem being a boy to his superiors. He took his punishment with a wry mischievous grin, followed by a YESSIR AFFANDE! He loved to catch Mau Mau terrorists – it was all a marvelous game. Most of all he loved the gruff pride that Jones would flash when Idi had done something exceptional. He shrunk like a child at Jones’ criticism. One day he drunk chang’aa and came to barracks with a prostitute (he loved older women), the sentry who challenged him was floored. Jones found him in the gym, thrusting away. He slapped Idi twice, and sent the woman away. Idi did not talk to anybody for days. Three days later, after winning the Gilgil Barracks Boxing Crown for a second time, Jones patted him on the back, and Idi grinned widely and said,
“ Now I am the bull afande.”


Mr. Shah liked to spend the morning working on his novel: Conquerors of the British Empire. He was already 1000 words into the novel, and was still finding it impossible to squeeze characters into the dense polemic. His theory was simple: that India, already with a foot in the door in Kenya, should take over the continent, and use this leverage to take over Britain. It is the only way to make a National Profit from hundreds of years of British Rule: the more territory we control, the more we can dictate the cost of raw materials, the final profit will be manned by our guns. We must be Lords of the Commonwealth, and let the English carry us on their backs! Why build afresh when we can inherit what is already there?
His first born son, Vishal, was disdainful about the book.

“Rubbish Dad. Pseudo-religious xenophobic polemic Dad. VS says the Indian Industrial revolution is petty and private. If Nakuru Shah’s and Patels are fighting over 10 shillings, who will unite us? We are greedy Dad…VS says we are ‘a society that is incapable of assessing itself, which asks no questions because ritual and myth have provided all the answers, that we are a society that has not learned “rebellion”. Maybe Daddi-ji you need to read some real literature before writing this. The Russians…”

Vishal was brought up by Mrs. Gupta to be the Bollywood hero she had expected to marry all those hazy, plump years ago; to be NOT his father; Not her father. Vishal treated his parents as if they were trinkets: colorful mantelpiece trinkets who chimed once in a while, but who were so divorced from any viable reality they could only be treated with contempt. It gave his father a twisted sense of pride to hear his son: what a man I am to produce a son, so un-Dukawallah! A son for Oxford! But he was hurt when the boy left. Now what would accompany his quiet mornings at the office?

When he was nine, Vishal had composed a song which he liked to sing at birthday parties to scandalize everybody (except the Marxist Habajan Singh, who liked his mettle). He sang it to the tune of a nursery school song about a Kookaburra.

Duka-wallah sit by de ole Neem tree
Merry Merry King of da Street is he
Run Dukawallah run
Dukawallah burn
Dukawallah hide your cash and flee


Between 2 and 4 pm you can find Idi Amin at Nakuru Boxing Club. For years he has been the Nakuru Boxing Champion. He is getting older now, and some young bucks are challenging. Modesty Blaise Wekea is short. Very short. It is said he once lifted a plough over his head while working as a casual in the wheat fields of Masailand. He is copper colored to Idi’s black. It is his speed – the unbelievable speed of those bowed legs with thighs the size of a grown man’s waist. But there is something else. When Amin first exploded into the Nakuru boxing scene people saw a future world champion, “Aii Alikuwa kama myama!” he was like an animal: the discipline of the army, added to his natural ferocity to make him unbeatable.

He had no wife: many lovers: soft, yellow Gikuyu women desperately looking for a man with some skills – they complained that Gikuyu men were disdainful of frills – saw sex as a quick efficient drill; wira ni wira –work is work. Idi’s giant physical size, his soft and gentle eyes and wicked smile; his reputation for controlled violence attracted many women.

After his sparring session with a nervous young man with even larger limbs than his; a young man so scared of violence he could probably kill in fear, Idi had a soda with an old friend. Godwin, the only fellow Kakwa in Nakuru. Godwin Pojulu was a tailor for an Indian family: the Khans. Idi speaks his language badly; he spoke better in Luo and Acholi and Kiswahili, army languages. But when he was six or seven his mother had taken him to Yei town in Sudan – and he had fallen in love with the mango-lined avenues; and the gentle character of his people. Children were generally a nuisance in the colonial Labour Lines of Arua; in his maternal grandfather’s home, just off Maridi road, five miles from Yei was heaven. He was free to run and play as far as he wanted. Adults would swell to accommodate him – he would eat in the homes of strangers. His grandfather had told him the history of the Pojulu, his clan:

Generations ago, Jubek was posted to a place that came to be known as Juba town. Godwin tells me Jubek does not deserve this privilege. He was a coward, he says. He was reluctant to fight the Dinka, and keep them out of their territory.

The Bari army was divided into six groups. Each bore a secret code-name. The leaders of the group were determined by their abilities, or character. They would determine what action to take.

Eventually a group of frustrated soldiers took it upon themselves to defend Jubek from the North from the Dinka. Mundari was their codename. Mundari means “a hostile force that act without orders.

Paparrara are the descendants of Jubek. This name was shortened to Pari. This became Bari, some time after the arrival of the first Turko-Egyptians in 1820. The letter “P” does not occur in the Arab alphabet. Today, there are six groups of Bari peoples, named after the six groups of the Bari army: Kakwa, Pojulu, Kuku, Mundari, Nyangwara and Bari.

The people of Pisak are Pujulu, named after a great hero. Onyanyari was a leader of one of the six forces. A mild mannered man. Polite. An astute politician. Because of this skill, he was sent to the Zande kingdown in the North-West to try to persuade them to let the Kakwa to penetrate the area. His force was known as Pojulio, which means, Come My Friend. This group of Bari speakers is now called the Pojulu.

Godwin speaks to him about Sudan. About Inyanya 1 – the war. About old heroic days; about rumour and gossip coming from Yei town. Idi loved to hear the stories; would always ask Godwin to repeat stories he had memorized already. Idi has vowed to die in Yei. One day. They would eat soda and mandazi and talk till the sun started to set and Idi made his way to his room to do the ironing.

The only person in the household who threatens Idi’s job is Vishal. Now he has gone. Since Vishal started to sprout whiskers he has been hostile to Idi. After reading Eldridge Cleaver, he took to calling Idi The Supermasculine Menial. He once asked his parents if they did not think that a man as animal as Idi would not one day attack them?
“You need to read VS Naipaul. He understands the black man.” Vishul said to his parents.

As crime has increased in Nakuru, Idi has become more indispensable. Two years ago he cornered three thugs, and beat them all up, and left with a knife-wound in his belly. The Shah’s are fearful – scared of the seething Dark out there. The presence of a tame Giant Dark is a consolation. Sometimes Idi thinks that Mzee Shah knows what he does with his wife every afternoon. But maybe he does not mind so long as it is secret. Mzee Shah is a man of peace – and Mrs. Gupta Shah has been less bullying, mellower, mewing even sometimes, since she and Idi started fucking.

He had caught her wailing one day in the living room, after Vishal had gone to Oxford. He had tried to slide backwards slowly out of the room; but she had leaped at him and grabbed him and wept on his shoulder, leaving long snail-trails of snot on his khaki shirt. Her mood had changed abruptly, and she attacked him: teeth and nails; her body so incoherent she had come by rubbing herself on his knee.

He likes to see the fear/desire in her eyes; the surprise at his gentleness; when she expects the thrust of a lion; of a legend about Black Men, related among giggles and whispers while samosas are being cooked and Gujarati Aunties are talking raunchy. He likes to ask her questions: see her eyes answer, Yes. You are a man.
He does not mind being a HouseBoy.
He is happy.

(c) Binyavanga Wainaina