• Caleb Atemi

From a Dusty Beginning

Updated: Apr 25, 2019

My entry into the world took place in the dusty and at times filthy estate of Kivumbini, Swahili for The Place of Dust. Tucked in the southern fringes of Nakuru town within the Great Rift Valley, Kivumbini’s only claim to fame is in the fact that it sits a walking distance from the Lake Nakuru, home and sanctuary to millions of the beautiful flamingos.

It is here in a single room we called home; at house number 158 door number one; that my mother delivered me into the world. Alone with traditional birth attendants, she used her experience to usher me unannounced. There were no ceremonies; no shouts of joy; only a mother’s tears.

Had all her earlier deliveries survived, I would have been the eleventh born. However, miscarriages and death ensured that I became the fifth child of this strong and determined woman who gave birth to all her children in the bushes, banana plantations or inside some shelter. Mama Ruth Nyangasi Okalo rarely visited the hospital to give birth to any of her numerous children. We would have been 16 in number, but only nine of us survived into adulthood.

When I was nestled inside her womb, she would later tell me, her pregnancy was dramatic. Though her health was bubbling, she still continued with her struggles for survival. Fetching water in River Wandacho at Musikangu village in Vihiga district; ploughing and weeding our small family farm; fending for her children and occasionally visiting her husband in Kivumbini.

My only Home

Kivumbini became the only home I would know for years. It had its own joys and sorrows. Like its name suggests, most of the seasons were covered with hurricane of dust. As children we would scamper to shut the windows each time the dusty whirlwinds came blowing down roofs tops. Kivumbini became our training ground; training in martial arts and combat wars; training in survival tactics; training in perseverance and endurance; training in gang wars and all.

My elder brother Robert was my first teacher in street combat. He taught me how to clinch a fist, throw a punch and to kick. He taught me hunting skills and how to trap birds and rodents. However, our tall, dark, burly neighbour called Wanegi (Dholuo for killing) was the real martial arts expert. It was rumoured that he could fight ten armed men. Wanegi would assemble us in groups; subject us to physical exercises, before teaching us various forms of self-defence; boxing, judo and karate. It was in karate however that he was a real expert. The end of every training session would consist of sparring. A full body throw or a nose bleed would mark the end of a fight and the winner would be carried shoulder high. I fought countless battles.

Our parents turned a blind eye to the fighting and the injuries we earned. They knew that their children would eventually have to reckon with the real world. In Kivumbini self-defence was essential for any child’s survival. Without the fighting skills, I may never have been able to go to school. For there were always bad boys waiting for one along the lengthy route to the school. They would be after your books, uniform, a fight just for fun or out to prove themselves tough.

Whenever I was sent to the shops to buy food, I knew that the safe delivery of the shopping depended mainly on my ability to fight off assailants.

Of all my fights, one remains engraved on my memory. One hot afternoon, I walked towards a group of my age mates at one of our favourable arenas. Two boys were locked into a tight grip. Their sweaty brows, their panting, their wheezing kept the agitated group shouting and cheering. At last, as I joined the gang, Gathii, the stronger of the two, threw down his opponent to a great applause. Wanegi then beckoned me. It was, he said, my turn to fight. I hesitantly entered the arena. To my astonishment, it was not my usual rivals that were pushed my way. Wanegi pushed into the ring a tall, beautiful girl called Muthoni. I was bewildered. I had never fought a girl before and I was not ready to fight one, especially not one I secretly admired. Muthoni must have read my hesitation. She used the best weapon of war, surprise. Before I knew what was happening, she clawed at my face sending me reeling. The group shouted and cheered. My nose was bleeding and I had, according to the rules, lost the fight.

I was ashamed. Despite the many fights I later fought, despite the numerous boys twice my size whom I floored, the estate stigma haunted me. I was referred to as the one who was beaten by a girl. For months, I walked downcast. I think Muthoni must have realised the shame I had been washed in. She became friendlier and before long she was being referred to as my girlfriend. We were soon playing hide and seek together and our artificial enmity vanished. This restored my pride and confidence.

House number 158 was a simple stone structure with a wooden door and two tiny windows. We had a large wooden table, and four stools one which belonged to the man of the house. Being caught sitting on it would attract his wrath. Occasionally in my father’s absence, we would sit and play on it.

Our parents had a wooden bed. The children slept on the floor. My mother, who had learnt some knitting and sewing during her teenage years at the Mission Church of God in Kima, Western Kenya, knitted together curtains to break the room into sections. Her artistry was amazing. Most of our clothes were hand made.

I remember accompanying her on several trips to the industrial area to rummage through the waste in search of factory rejects of clothing materials. Though at first they looked unsightly, after hours of patience she would produce shirts, dresses, coats and even blankets of many colours for us. Other children would laugh at us but Mama had taught us to ignore their taunts.

My children, God loves you. The clothes they are laughing at are beautiful to my eyes and in the eyes of God.” The mention of God would assuage any fears, anxiety or anger that I might have harboured.

Today I recall with tears several trips that Mama and I made to Indian shops in town to literally steal clothes. With my little sister Tabitha strapped on her back, Mama would stuff clothes for some of her children between her back and the little baby. I would enter the changing room to try on various clothes. Occasionally I would walk away with new clothes safely tucked under my old filthy ones. Only God knows why we were never caught. Later on with tears flowing down her cheeks Mama would kneel down in prayer and ask God for forgiveness. She was doing this to keep her family alive and dignified.

On Saturdays, I would accompany her to the only abattoir in Nakuru town. Tucked in the south eastern fringes of the town, the slaughter house sat between a public cemetery and an estate called Abong Oloweya which was inhabited mainly by members of the Turkana community. It was said that they had been settled here after their role as soldiers in World War II. They had fought gallantly side by side with the British colonial forces to defeat the Germans.

The ‘thankful’ colonial government abandoned them in this God forsaken estate where most of them wasted away on local brew. On our way to the slaughter house, I would marvel at the luck I had. At least I would enjoy a meal of fermented porridge and occasionally some roast potatoes for breakfast. Children in Abong Oloweya would join their parents in sipping muratina or busaa for breakfast before trotting off to school. Many had thin legs and bloated stomachs a condition I later learnt was known as kwashiorkor.

We would have to walk through drinking groups of elders. At times we were forced to skip over men and women too drank to walk and sprawled in muddy and dirty trenches.

At the slaughter house, we would patiently wait for Onyango, a watchman, to sneak out tripe’s (matumbo), tongues and other edible parts of the cow in his gumboots. I shudder each time I recall Onyango’s dirty and cracked feet. My mother would occasionally squeeze some coins in his hand and off we would go to enjoy a rich man’s meal. It took plenty of patience to wash the matumbo clean, cut it into tiny pieces before it was boiled.

There were days however when Onyango would be absent. On such days we would strategically position ourselves near some trench that carried out the slaughter house wastes into the lake. Once in a while we would scoop out pieces of meat.

I recall one day we went home with our biggest meat harvest ever. I helped hold the meat as Mama cut it into pieces. My mind was racing. Suddenly I blathered out: “Mama When I grow up, I want to be a butcher.” A heavy blow landed across my face: “Why are you cursing yourself you stupid child!” My mother shouted. I was too stunned to cry. I could not understand why I was being punished for dreaming great dreams. My ambition was to be a butcher so that my mother would no longer have to beg for meat. With my own butchery, I reasoned, I would give her and my children a daily supply of nyama. I would be a dignified man. Meat was after all a symbol of wealth and wellness.

Later I heard Mama sob while in prayer. She was asking God to forgive her for beating me. She beseeched the Almighty to help all her children grow into employable, God fearing and dignified individuals. I could never understand Mama.

House number 158 was on one block with three other houses. Two houses faced the opposite direction with a middle door joining them. We could always hear what our neighbours were up to. House number 158, 2 was occupied by an old bachelor Mzee Muigai. No one knew his family or where he had come from. He rarely received visitors. All we knew was that he was many years older than our parents. He could have been our grandfather since I never had the opportunity to see any of my grandfathers. They died many years before I was born. I therefore secretly admired Mzee Muigai whom we nicknamed Ndakwera. I longed for a grandpa.

Mzee Muigai was famous for his thunderous burping. His burping was so loud that it would wake up the entire neighbourhood. He actually became our alarm clock. Every morning at exactly 5am, he would let out a loud Burp with the shout of: “Ndakwera Selina

He was a real mystery. Who was Selina? Might she have been his wife, daughter or mother? No one could provide answers and no one had enough courage to engage this Mzee in a conversation.

He would leave his house with a tiny sufuria, fetch water at the public watering point, light his jiko and make some tea. At exactly 6.30am he would leave on his bicycle shouting Mali Mali; Mali Mali. For Mzee Muigai bought and sold anything old from bottles, tins to clothes. However, his speciality was metal.

Mzee Muigai’s only known guest was a mad woman from Abong Oloweya. Amulango was the name children had given her. She was lame, walked with her right hand stretched out and saliva dripping down her lips. Occasionally she would visit Muigai for a night sleep over. Occasionally too they would get into pretty ugly fights. Amulango would leave his house screaming, dash into the public toilet, smear herself in human waste, scoop out some and splatter in all over Muigai’s door and house.

I had become inured to fights at a tender age. Such battles therefore would only amuse me, amuse me because fights were so common in Kivumbini. We would witnesses several in a day. Many were among children, drunken adults, teenagers and at times couples.

Some families were notorious centres of fighting. Children would at times take sides and what would follow would be bloody. Neighbours had learnt never to intervene or interfere. Shouts of Heee, Haaa, Heee, Haaa would always draw us out to catch the glimpse of yet another fight. After several hours, such families would retire into normalcy and silence would be restored.

We had two other neighbours on the same block. Francis was an ever smart, handsome man who we were told hailed from Kitui. His was the only house on the block with a sofa set. It was also the only house with a stove which used paraffin. In a neighbourhood where everyone cooked with charcoal or firewood, Francis was considered a rich man. To his credit he had a gramophone. We would hang around his house listening to music although he mainly played Kikamba songs. I really admired Francis.

My elder brother and I had drilled a hole through the door that separated our house with Francis’. Many a time we would peep through the crack as he entertained his numerous girlfriends. But whenever his wife and children visited from Kitui, which was rare, the girlfriends would vanish.

I always looked forward to the time Francis would travel to the village. He would leave me in charge of his cosy house. I would at least be assured of sleeping on a bed and sitting on a sofa. Unfortunately he always carried his music with him. Francis always ensured that he left behind edibles; bread, assorted cakes, biscuits and fruits. He was a man of style.

Francis worked at some Indian shop in town which dealt in clothing.

Our other neighbour was a quiet man called Karanja. Karanja was married to a beautiful wife and they had two children. It was said that he worked in a bank. However, Karanja was a notorious drunkard. He stank like a skunk and drank like a sponge. Almost daily, he would stagger or crawl home. On arrival he would stumble at the door way, collapse in a heap and throw up. His poor wife would drag him from the doorway, wash him up and struggle to put him in bed. It was rumoured that he was too drank to sire children and that he must have been wind assisted.

I visited Kivumbini years later after I had become an Editor with the Nation Media Group. I shed tears. Alcoholism and drug addiction have ravaged the estate. The poison-spewing asbestos roofs, many cracked by age, still cover the houses.

Now armed with scientific knowledge on the dangers of asbestos as roofing material, I began to question myself whether it was responsible for my parent’s demise. In the late 80s, I helplessly watched as the cancer of the throat ate away my father. I tearfully recall the night of November 8 1990 when he died on my lap at Kisumu’s Victoria hospital. I was literally holding onto the skeleton of a one-time 6 foot giant of a man.

Then in 2005 I lost my mother. She had battled cancer of the colon for years. At last, exhausted and emaciated, she said her last prayer with some of her children and Pastor Julius Omulombi Akenga at her bedside at the Metropolitan hospital in Nairobi. It was on a sunny afternoon on July 1st 2005 when Mama breathed her last with a painful yet happy smile on her face.

The encounter with cancer through my parent’s death turned me into a fitness and diet freak. I pursue Karate, Aikido and dietary behaviour with a passion. If I can help save lives, then I will have played my role in this world. Science had proven the importance of physical exercise and diet in mitigating lifestyle diseases.

Life in Kivumbini taught me many lessons. My father, despite his drinking, had a constant line: “Education is the key to human development.” He would urge me to work hard and through education overcome my struggles. I recall in 1990 when was covering the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the disappearance and subsequent death of foreign affairs minister Dr. Robert John Ouko, my father visited my Kisumu office where I was typing verbatim the commission proceedings. He had come to Kisumu on his frequent medical check-up. It was during the lunch break and I was banging away copy. Numerous secretaries would assemble at our Nation Media Group office to watch in awe men using typewriters at high speed. It used to amaze them. Papa watched me as I banged my last copy before joining him for lunch. With a weak but happy smile he told me: “You see son, education has made you a hero and an important person in society. I feel proud of you.” I swelled with pride. This was the only time in my entire lifetime then that my father or anybody else had praised me.

My mother’s lessons on the importance of prayer and humility is enduring. She taught me honesty and honour. She reminded me to all the time stay humble and loyal to those who helped me in life. These were the virtues of Bushido that I was gradually imbibing through karate from parents who had never practiced the art.

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