18 May Living Memories: a story from Lokitaung, Kenya
Today, I want to share with you one story. From Lokitaung. There used to be a prison there during the colonial era. After independence it has had little relevance in people’s lives. A few years ago, I happened to be there, and I met an extraordinary man, who told me this story. I heard this past week, that he went to meet his maker in February and I am filled with guilt that he has not seen his story in a book. As I always say, any errors in the story are my own. As always, I don’t use his full real name to respect his continued privacy.
A few years ago, I published my first book, with the support of Muthoni Garland of Storymoja. I had just started doing a project a few months before, where I went to to sit at the feet of old men and women, who were wananchi (common folk) in the extraordinary times of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. I wanted to know from them how they survived what I understood to be very hard times. I wanted to know how they coped.
Let me be honest, I started seeking these stories for entirely selfish reasons – or more accurately one entirely selfish reason: I needed to find myself. The reality that people of my generation live in is that we straddle many worlds, many cultures and they all have relevance and meaning. We understand western cultures and we have swag. We learn English that our grandparents were taught by the British and then we supplement it with that supplied by the Americans.
But we speak sheng’ with defiance and denounce those who twang’. We ‘proudly’ don’t speak our mother tongue – except when it benefits us or when the politics of the day require it. We are well read and ignorant at the same time. We crave for Nyama Choma and cocktails, Designer cloths and the fresh air of “shags”.
We are bombarded with all manner of identities and tags and labels.
The more we become global (blame technology), the more we know about the world (from the movies and Facebook), the more our aspirations converge with those of the rest of the world, the less we know about who we uniquely are, what we are about. Even if this is not your reality, its mine. So I seek out the people who have the best chance of telling me who I am, my ancestors – living and dead. They told me what growing up was like for them and through their experiences in some pretty extraordinary times, I got a glimpse of how I came to be.
I have been writing the next collection of stories (so far I have done 296 interviews and listened to many other stories) – but I have been doing so at a much, much slower pace because of the demands of my day jobs. Inshallah, I shall finish writing them in the next few months. And I hope to retire soon enough to focus on them.
Leipan Ole Kaitani
I don’t know why you want to know about things that happened so many years ago. I want to forget them and I want to live like they never happened. Maybe that is why I have lived here in Lokitaung all this years letting everyone believe I am a Maasai – and I am, I think – a naturalised one.
Even my children have never heard this stories I am telling you – but then you know, they never asked.
I was born in Fort Hall in 1924 or thereabouts. I grew up there until 1938 (this date I remember clearly) when my entire family was killed by my uncle because they would not take an oath against the Mubeberu. Oath taking by then was still new – it really picked up and became popular in the late 40s. But the people who administered it then were even more fanatical about it.
My father had just converted into Christianity and he flatly refused, calling my uncle and his friends evil and backward. At that time we lived around Makuyu not far from the river with the same name. A settler called Watson had the farm and we lived there and worked for him. He was a good man as I remember but it was a long time ago and I was young – maybe he wasn’t a really good man.
Anyway, after my father refused, they told him that unless he changed his mind, he would not survive. Two nights later, they struck.
I used to sleep in my mother’s hut as a boy. The women slept in their own huts that had a small kitchen area in front, with a ceiling of firewood that we called the itaara, a section for the goats and a space for her and her children to sleep on a bed of skin. All this in a hut of about 3 metres or so end-to-end.
On that fateful night, she woke me up with her hand firmly on my mouth to ensure I didn’t utter a word and somehow I knew from the expression on her face, that to talk would mean a good thrashing. Silently, she pointed to the itaara and motioned for me to climb there and to the farthest end of it and be quiet. My sisters were at my grandmother’s in a hut not far away so we were alone.
After I settled up there, she walked out and soon, all I heard were screams and chaos. I couldn’t come out because, I tell you, my mother’s beating was my biggest fear then but also I was just too terrified to move. Then silence. I waited and waited for my mother or anyone else to come but I heard nothing.
Despite my terror, I eventually slept.
When I woke up, I looked around for my mother and when I didn’t see her or the fire that would by then be roaring, I knew something was wrong. I crept down from the itaara and out of the hut. My mother was the first wife of my father – he had married three before he met Jesus – and her hut was the furthest from his and closest to the farm which was lower down a slope. My mother loved plants and her hut was surrounded by them and it was slightly apart from the homestead.
When I came out of the hut and looked up at the rest of the homestead up the slope, all I could see was smoke. I walked up and found the most horrific sight.
At my father’s thingira, I found him, his three wives and my 7 siblings – children of all three wives – sitting, leaning against the wall of the hut, in a neat line, with their heads on their laps.
What can I tell you? Even now, I see myself trying to put my mothers head back on so she can wake up.
Eventually, people came and the administration also arrived and I was taken to the mission at Kahuhia which was still small. That is where I was educated and grew until I joined the administration police in 1944. I was a bitter, quiet boy. I couldn’t forgive my own people for killing my family.
My problem with history is that it only tells the story of the winners, never the defeated. When you lose a war, there can be nothing good about you and when you win, you could do go wrong. Our people killed many of our own, ruthlessly. Women and children were killed in their beds by the freedom fighters to force their husbands to join the war and take the oath. That evil oath.
I was firmly on the side of the law and I was convinced that it was right and promoted order. Don’t get me wrong. I did not agree that my people and I were third class citizens, I did not side with the white man for taking our land from our people. I certainly supported my people’s quest for gîthaka and like them I yearned for wîyathi. But I know it was very wrong to kill people – especially our people – to force them to support that cause actively. To me, those forced oaths and those deaths like my family’s, those were contraventions of the same freedom that we wanted.
Can you take from me what you want me to have?
And so as a policeman or homeguard as you would have it, I did my job well and with dedication. Until one day in the early fifties. I think it was 1951 or 1952. Things were getting quite hot and the Gikuyu Central Association, which was very powerful in those days had become quite radical in its messages. The speeches used stronger language than before and the people were getting more and more riled up.
So the government banned their meetings to restore order. But despite the ban they would meet in the villages and do rallies under false pretences.
On this day in 1951 or 1952, we were ordered by the DO to go with him to disperse a meeting that was being addressed by some of the radicals including a fiery chap called Muruthi wa Ngujiri who was my cousin, the son of the uncle who killed my family. Muruthi was not his real name, but an adopted popular name that he was known by among the dissidents.
When we arrived, the DO ordered the meeting closed and for people to leave that market place or we would shoot. Muruthi said in Gikuyu that they must all be ready to die for the country unlike those sons of whores who were sucking at the mubeberu’s balls. He was referring to my fellow homeguards and I. The crowd laughed and jeered at us.
I am not sure who fired first, but I was soon in the fray not worrying about where my bullets landed. When we stopped there were many bodies strewn around the market place. When some rose to their feet screaming, we shot them too.
In the end, the DO turned and looked at us with a gleeful smile and said, “Well done, boys. This is the crown’s best work you have done.”
Something about that smile, made me realise I had lost myself, my sanity. And so I asked for a transfer. I was sent to Maralal and I worked there until towards the end of 1952 or 1953 (I was only there a few months) when the senior chief Koinange was brought there and died.
One day, we were sent to go to the prison in Lokitaung, which was very far away in the desert of the north. It took us many days because the prison was in the middle of nowhere. We were escorting some muzungus who had come to investigate how prisoners were being treated. When we got there, I saw the life that my people were living in the Lokitaung prison and I decided it was all too much for me.
So one morning before the sun came up, I simply left the camp. I did not know where I was going but I was ready even for death. At about ten O’clock, I came upon a manyatta and saw the Maasai elders talking. I was weak from walking and the sun, and they welcomed me and fed me. I never left them. They gave me my Maasai identity and their friendship.
Around 1963, I met with a missionary who set up the old mission at Lokitaung, near where the airport is now. I went to help him with my wives and children and that is where my children went to school. That is when I moved to this compound.
I don’t go to town – I don’t know what Nairobi looks like because I have never been there and I don’t want to go. Sometimes I see the newspaper when someone comes and I see that even now people are killing each other down there. I want no part of it.
Here in the desert, I have found a place for my demons.
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