For four years Fred and Donanne Hunter lived in Nairobi from where he covered sub-Saharan Africa for The Christian Science Monitor. One weekend they visited an anthropologist friend working on a rural district north of Nairobi. One of the pleasures of that trip was to talk about the district hearing local lore and meeting our friend’s informants. Here’s part three of their report:
Continuing our circuit of Mbere, David led us toward Riandu Primary School. The homestead of Philip, the elder of one of Mbere’s 50-odd clans, was there. David wanted to check in with Philip to learn what had come of his desire to sell another piece of land.
The Mbere were a small tribe, clients of the more numerous and influential Kikuyu, the tribe chiefly responsible for Kenya’s push to independence. Philip’s desire to sell the piece of land stemmed from his determination to acquire yet another Toyota. He wanted the Toyota even though he could not drive. His son chauffeured him around the district.
This would be Philip’s second Toyota. He had already sold one piece of land to Kikuyu outsiders. They had paid 20,000 shillings (then a bit less than $3000) plus a Toyota valued at Shs. 10,000 (about $1500). The bargain had turned out badly for Philip, for the Toyota proved to need constant repair. Even so, he maintained brand loyalty.
In fact, Philip bought the first Toyota in a deal in which each side cheated the other. If the Toyota was a lemon, well, Philip did not really own the land he sold. It actually belonged to his entire clan. Even as an elder, he had no right to sell the land. He assumed that when the long-promised land adjudication process got under way, the Kikuyu speculators would discover that their title to the land was invalid. The adjudicators would tell them to return it to the clan and do what they could privately to repossess what they’d paid for it. By then Philip would have another Toyota bought in the same way.
Probably the land speculators understood the game. As Kikuyus, they were counting on the advantages of belonging to a numerous and influential tribe. At the end of the day the adjudicators, probably brother Kikuyus, might well give them title to the land.
At Philip’s homestead Anas saw Johnson, his age-mate. They had reached manhood together through the crowning event of their lives, their circumcision. This rite, which Mbere girls as well as boys underwent, symbolized successful passage through tribal testing into adulthood. Afterwards a girl was ready for marriage and usually soon entered one. A young man would build and live in his own house and refrain from the work of women and boys.
Anas teased Johnson because he still carried water for his mother. Johnson shrugged, reluctant to admit this failing. “It’s so much easier for me to carry,” he mumbled. “Anyway isn’t that what they’re teaching us at school?” he added. “To respect women?” Anas rolled his eyes: obviously a white man’s notion!
As we continued David’s circuit, driving toward Siakago, the colors of Mbere Division shone fresh and intense in the rain-washed air. Its green terrain rolled expansively into the blue and purple distances, promising fertility, but failing to deliver it. Clouds still hung dramatically overhead. Except for the car’s motor the countryside was clothed in a magnificent and all-pervading stillness.
Siakago was a small place: about a dozen commercial buildings, several of them bars, and an open-air market built at a fork in the road. David stopped the Land Rover not far from where a young man, spare and loose-jointed, leaned against a tree. Glasses rode his nose to mark him as an intellectual. The blue suit he wore indicated that he was no stranger to places like Nairobi. But he was very thin. The belt encircling his waist continued halfway around his body; it suggested youth and many meals missed. But the adoring young girls crowding about him suggested star-quality; they seemed content merely to behold his bashful being. To show that he was not cowed by white men, he said to David: “You are late.”
David acknowledged this fact and introduced us. “This is Barnabas,” he said. “Quite a celebrity hereabouts.” The young man nodded. He had passed his Higher School Certificate examinations, tests sent out from England and graded there. He had done so well, in fact, that he qualified for a four-year government-paid course at the University of Nairobi. Only a dozen Mbere boys had ever achieved this accomplishment. It accounted for Barnabas’ star power.
“What will you study at university?” Donanne asked.
“Med’cine.” Barnabas told us that although traditional doctors still practiced in Mbere, people no longer believed in their cures as they once had. When he qualified as a doctor, Barnabas said, he would probably work for the government.
In the late afternoon we drove Barnabas back to his homestead in Kiritiri. On the road we picked up his younger sister. As we approached the homestead, Barnabas gave her his packages to carry; she took them proudly. We entered the homestead walking single file, Barnabas leading us, moving easily and empty-handed toward the thatched mud houses in his blue suit.
Watched by large-eyed children and heralded by barking dogs, we passed between the houses of Barnabas’s relatives. We met his father, Stephen, a man with a gentle and intelligent face. It was alert, alive, etched with character developed across a long life. Stephen had eight daughters and a son. Unlike most peasant fathers, he had educated all of them. Barnabas showed us the new house he was building himself and led us through his father’s farm: a four-acre patch of subsistence crops – cow-peas, finger millet, sorghum, and maize all laid out in precisely straight rows – and a two-acre patch of cotton, his cash crop.
This homestead proved to be a place of celebrated men, Stephen setting the example for his son. Some time earlier Stephen had defied tribal tradition. When his first daughter entered puberty, he announced his opposition to clitoridectomy, female circumcision. He declared that no daughter of his would undergo the operation. Mbere was shocked. His parents opposed him. No Mbere female acceded to true womanhood, his mother claimed, unless she underwent this test. Without it no daughter of his would ever find a husband. The opposition was so strong that Stephen moved away from Mbere. But things had harmonized again. Stephen’s brothers had settled with him at his homestead. His mother also lived there.
Barnabas came back with us as far as the Land Rover. As we drove to the road, he stood blue-suited in a crowd of children, waving against the cloud-dark sky.
Next post: How it’s easier to get to Mbere than to leave it.
This visit to Mbere served as the basic material for Fred’s story “North of Nairobi” in the collection Africa, Africa! Fifteen Stories.
Fred has just published a new romance mystery novel JOSS The Ambassador’s Wife, set in southern Africa.
Check out both books at www.FredericHunter.com.
Read the story “North of Nairobi” right here:
NORTH OF NAIROBI
At Embu the asphalt paving ended. I did not go far along the murram road before I hit patches of standing water and mud. Once I traveled beyond the area where most people spoke some English, the car slid onto the shoulder and would not move. It was not badly mired, but I could not budge the car myself. I sounded the horn. No one came to help. I was stranded. I paced on the road and swore at everything in Africa that does not work.
After about half an hour a teenaged boy came riding along on a bicycle. He had two long planks of wood strapped to the carrying rack. I waved to him and called, “Could you help me?”
“It is all right,” he answered, slowing and dismounting. “I have helped to push many people from mud. My father often gets himself stuck.”
The teenager carefully laid down his bike so as not to damage the planks and came toward me. “Does your father have a car?” I asked. There would not be many car-owners in this district.
“He borrows a Toyota.” The boy smiled behind his glasses, shyly, but with a knowing resignation. Then he added, “But he does not drive very well.”
The boy examined the position of the car. He smiled and said, “I will look for some people to help us,” and trudged off into the bush. I liked his openness and the curious feeling of confidence he gave me that he would shortly resolve my predicament. And he did. After about twenty minutes he reappeared with half a dozen Africans he had found somewhere. They pushed the car free of the shoulder on the first try. I thanked them all and offered the boy a ride.
We lashed his bicycle and the wooden planks to the rear of the car. As we started along the road, he asked, “Are you the American journalist?” It turned out that he knew my anthropologist friend Edgar and had heard from his father that a journalist was arriving for the weekend. “He is Edgar’s great friend,” said the boy.
I acknowledged that, indeed, I was a journalist. Wanting to be friendly – he had, after all, been friendly to me – and seeing a certain bafflement about me in his eyes, I explained that most overseas journalists reported only on events in places like Nairobi. Nonetheless, I had a hunch that the real life of Africa was in the countryside. So I had come to take a look.
“Will you write about us?” the boy asked.
I said that perhaps I might find something to interest American readers, but perhaps not.
“It is all right,” he told me once again.
“I take it you can direct me to Edgar’s house,” I said. “I’m not sure I can find it from his directions.”
The boy smiled as if with a knowledge that directions were not Edgar’s strong point. Then he said, “I am sorry that it took me so long to get help. But when I speak their language, they hear my accent and they do not trust me.”
I glanced at him. “You are not Mbere then?” I asked.
“I am from Nyanza.” He spoke a sentence or two in a tribal language and watched my reaction. “That was Luo,” he said. “Did you understand it?”
I shook my head. “What are you doing here?”
“I live here. My father is the government officer.”
“You mean the district commissioner?”
The boy laughed. “He is really the agricultural assistant. But he calls himself the government officer to seem more important. The Mbere laugh at him for this.”
“Do you think it’s funny?”
“Yes,” he said after a moment. Then he added, “But in Africa we do not laugh at our fathers.”
“Do you like it here?”
“It is all right.”
“But you’d rather be in Nyanza?”
“Yes, it is my home. My mother is there with my brothers and sisters.” After a pause he added, “My father has taken an Mbere wife.”
“It is difficult,” he said. I glanced across at him. He was looking straight ahead through the windshield and I wondered if he was glad to have someone to talk to about it. “She is no older than I am, and she does not really want me to live in the house.” He fell silent. Then after pointing out a turning, he continued, “She does not speak Luo and she is not happy when my father and I use our own language. But if I speak Mbere, she laughs and calls me ignorant.”
“Do you go to school here?” I asked. He nodded. “And you have friends?”
“A few. But more and more it becomes complicated with them, too.” He gazed pensively at the road. “Last summer all my Mbere friends were circumcised,” he explained. “We Luos do not circumcise. Now my schoolmates think they have become men while I am still a child. And I do not think that Mbere men like it that an uncircumcised child-man like me lives in the same house with one of their women.”
We reached the long, rutted drive to Edgar’s house and I invited the boy to come in and say hello to my host. But he declined. He said that he might come by later in the afternoon. He untied the bicycle and the planks from their perch on the rear of the car and retied the planks to the carrying case. As he was about to ride off down the road, I asked, “Would you mind if I took your picture?”
The request surprised him. Why would I want his picture? Then he smiled shyly, “Will it appear in a magazine?”
“Maybe in a newspaper.”
He seemed pleased at being connected to America in even so tangential a way and posed beside his bicycle. I withdrew the notebook from my jacket pocket and got his name – Stephen – and his age which was 16. Then I asked, “Have you talked to your father about these problems with your schoolmates?”
Stephen nodded. “I asked him to let me go back to Nyanza. Edgar has told him that he should let me return. But my father says that we are all Kenyans now and it does not matter where we live or who is circumcised.” Stephen said nothing for what seemed a long while. “The school fees he would have to pay in Nyanza are higher,” he explained at last. I asked Stephen once again if he would like to come in and say hello to Edgar; perhaps we could have some lunch together. But he refused again very politely. “Perhaps I will come by later on,” he said and rode off.
Edgar’s house was large and stood on a rise of land. It was the former residence, so he’d told me, of the European foreman of the now-defunct British-American Tobacco Company processing plant. It was past 2:30. Hungry and quite thirsty, I was glad to arrive.
But the house was deserted. The doors were all locked. I walked around the house trying them. I hallooed, but no one was about, not even a servant. I was surprised to find the place deserted. Edgar had told me on the phone that he’d be there, drafting a report. But no matter. I took out reading I had brought and made myself comfortable on a porch overlooking the countryside.
In fact, I did not know Edgar well. The first time I met him, shortly after I’d been assigned overseas, he came to lunch with an historian specializing in pre-colonial Africa whom I’d called for a briefing. Edgar was then acting chair of the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. As we ate together at the Faculty Club, a preoccupation intensified the school-masterish formality that he had picked up in some non-California life. He had grown up in English-speaking South Africa, I learned, and without evidence I attributed his fuss-budget quality to the schooling he’d received there. After attending university Edgar had joined the British Colonial Service during its last years and had served as a District Commissioner in what is now Tanzania. Later he received a PhD** in Anthropology from Oxford; his dissertation detailed how life was lived and organized in a small town in the hinterlands behind Accra. During our lunch Edgar said quite frankly that he was fed up with California. Wistfully he mentioned more than once that he still owned land in the Ghanaian town and hoped to retire there.
While we waited for coffee, Edgar acknowledged that he’d become a center of controversy on campus. He had reprimanded a young social anthropologist; “dressed him down,” was his term. This colleague was an iconoclast of romantic reputation who lectured barefoot wearing only khaki shorts and a tank top. Sometimes he did not appear for his classes at all. It was not surprising, Edgar said, given the nature of students, that many of them rallied to the instructor’s defense. But I felt that it had surprised Edgar. I sensed that he still expected to be treated like a DC**. Apparently students had picketed his classes; they had written angry letters to the student newspaper. Edgar merely said, “We soldier on.”
After reading on the porch for about fifteen minutes I no longer felt alone. Looking up, I saw an African with a studiedly tweedy look staring at me through the glass of the porch doors. He wore glasses, a tie, a rumpled shirt and suit trousers. He was smoking a pipe and a copy of the Economist hung from his hand. We stared at each other for a moment.
“Is Dr. Pettys around?” I finally asked, rising from the wooden chair.
“No, he’s not,” said the African through the door.
A pause. We continued to stare at each other. “This is his house, isn’t it?”
“Yes, this is his house.”
The African gazed at me without expression, and I noticed that he stood in stockinged-feet. “Dr. Pettys told me he’d be here.”
“He’s in hospital.”
“Is he all right?” I tossed my reading aside. “Look, could you open this door? What’s happened to Dr. Pettys?”
The African smiled, unlocked the door and opened it. “Perhaps I meant ‘at’ hospital,” he said. I felt that he had taken some pleasure in needlessly arousing my concern. “Edgar’s quite all right. The houseboy had an accident, and Edgar has run him to hospital.”
I explained that I had come as a weekend guest and asked if I might come inside. “Yes, please come,” the African said finally. “Have you had any lunch?”
“No, as a matter of fact, and I’m starving.”
“Let’s nip into the kitchen and see what’s there.” I brought my overnight case inside and found the kitchen myself. The stocking-footed African was there, getting beer for us. “There’s tinned meat in the fridge,” he said, “and bread there in the plastic. Make yourself a sandwich if you like.”
I asked, “What happened to the servant?”
“He was putting my bicycle into a shed I use when I don’t come by car. A large pane of glass fell on him. Nasty business.”
“A pane of glass? How did that happen?”
“I’ve no idea. Curious kind of accident, isn’t it?”
“Will the man be all right?”
“Oh, I expect so. These fellows are quite hearty. Here’s to your health.” He lifted his glass to me, drank some beer and padded back into the main room of the house.
When I joined him there, he had settled onto the couch; he had apparently been napping there when I arrived. He was rattling his magazine and noisily sipping his beer. Standing over him I introduced myself, giving my name; I hoped to elicit a corresponding introduction from him. He offered his hand, but without otherwise stirring and then indicated a chair across from him.
“I’m afraid I haven’t any idea who you are,” I said, sitting down.
“Oh,” he replied, “I’m Quentin Owino, the government officer here.”
“Ah ha!” I said, taking fresh interest in the man. I wondered if Stephen had refused my invitations to come inside the house because he knew his father would be there. “Edgar has influential friends.”
My flattery pleased him. He looked up from his paper and smiled. “I am the second most important man in Mbere,” Owino said. “After Edgar.” I smiled at this compliment to my host. “We are great chums,” he added.
“Government officer?” I asked. “What does that mean: District Commissioner?” Owino would know that this was the position Edgar had held. I wondered if he saw himself in the same role, the civilizer’s role.
“One does many jobs in a small place like this,” he replied.
“I think it must have been your son who rescued me from some mud.” I described the boy.
“That would be Stephen,” Owino said. “A jolly good chap, if I may say so.”
“Yes, I quite liked him. I suppose he must miss Nyanza.”
“Did he say that?”
“He merely said his mother was living there.”
“He gets there often enough,” Owino said. “It is best for him to know more than one village.” He smiled. “Travel broadens, as they say. Don’t you agree?”
“I suppose it does. People here accept him, do they?”
“Of course. Why not? We’re all Kenyans now.” He smiled again. “Actually this is great experience for him. Look at the British. They sent their children off to school at the age of six. And they conquered the world.” He laughed. “Stephen is happy here.”
I drank some beer and looked about the room. Owino filled his pipe and continued to watch me. “It must be a great challenge,” I said, wanting to draw him out, “being the government’s officer in a place like this.”
He shrugged this off. “Mbere is not much of a place,” he said. “A small tribe, no political influence, clients of the Kikuyu. Most of the people are ignorant and want to stay that way.”
“But it was chosen as a target area for rural development, wasn’t it? Isn’t that why Edgar’s here?”
“Yes, but how much has been accomplished? Edgar can tell you about that.” Then, perhaps recalling that I was a journalist, Owino fussed at the lighting of his pipe, watching me carefully, wondering if he would be quoted. “But, of course, government service is challenging anywhere,” he commented for safety’s sake.
“You’re being too modest,” I said, pushing him a little. “You are a Luo and that can’t make you very popular here – even if you are all Kenyans.”
He shrugged again and smiled half to himself. “Indeed, there is still some truth to that, regrettably,” he acknowledged. “But I am perhaps unusual. I do not leave the division every weekend, for example, like most government officers. The people respect that. It means that I am less a stranger to them.”
“You and Stephen live as bachelors, do you?”
“We Africans do not make good bachelors.” Owino smiled and punctuated the smile with a shrug. Surely I understood. “I have taken an Mbere wife,” he said. “A year ago. I needed a wife to cook my food and give me sons. Why should I have the expense of keeping a servant?” We laughed together. “You will say I am an exploiter,” he giggled, “but it is not true.”
The sweet scent of his pipe tobacco began to fill the room. Edgar’s house was starting to seem more like the faculty club where I had met him than a living room in rural Africa. Owino smiled with a touch of bravado that masqueraded as pride. “She has already given me a son.”
“You must be very proud of yourself,” I said. “Congratulations.”
He shrugged. “It is a way to show that we are all Kenyans.” Then he added,
“There are many sons left in me. It is good for the Mbere to understand that.”
I sipped some beer. “Maybe I’ll have a sandwich,” I said. I went into the kitchen, found bread, peanut butter and jam and proceeded to make us each a sandwich. I sensed that Owino would be happy to eat Edgar’s food, especially if I prepared it.
He soon entered the kitchen and watched me. Then he challenged: “You perhaps do not think polygamy civilized.”
“I have no views on the matter,” I said. “However, I’m sure it’s a lot more complicated to have two wives than to have only one.”
“It is perhaps less civilized than monogamy,” he said. “But the Mbere regard it as a sign of wealth and prestige. So it has done me no harm to have a local wife.”
“Is it difficult for Stephen?”
“Why should it be?” he asked quickly. I answered with a shrug. “There are no difficulties.” After a moment he added, “Some minor irritations, that’s all. The woman wants to feel important and orders Stephen around. Of course, he does not like it. I tell him to be patient. She does it mainly because she is Mbere and knows she is ignorant. She feels inferior to us.”
I cut the sandwiches in halves, put them onto coffee saucers that did not match and handed the larger sandwich to Owino. “Why not send him back to Nyanza?” I asked.
“A son is a joy to a father – especially a son who is so superior.” I nodded. “You think me unreasonable,” Owino charged.
“How could I? I know nothing about the matter.”
“If I send him back to Nyanza,” he explained. “His mother will put him to work. Ever since I married here, she complains that she has no money. I want Stephen here to make sure he does not neglect his education.” Owino poured us each another beer and we took them and the sandwiches back into the living room. “It is very probable that Stephen will pass his Higher School Certificate Examinations well enough so that the government pays his entire university education.” Owino lowered his voice confidentially. “And I tell you his chances of getting a place at the University of Nairobi, which is entirely run by Kikuyus, are better if he passes from a school in Mbere than one in Nyanza.”
“He should be very pleased with himself here then,” I said.
“Well, yes.” Owino shrugged. “Perhaps he does not like the living arrangements. He has his private room. I wanted to put an outside door in it for him, but it is a government house and this is against regulations. He wanted to build a small house for himself like some of his Mbere friends have done, but that, I think, is asking for trouble.”
“Why is that?” I inquired. I remembered Stephen’s wooden planks. Had he intended them for this purpose?
“Mbere boys build themselves small houses once they are circumcised. We Luos do not circumcise; manhood is more than the cutting off of a foreskin, although some people do not understand this. But if Stephen as an uncircumcised Luo builds himself a hut, there will be trouble. The Mbere do not yet regard him as a man. It is not the sort of trouble that cannot be straightened out. I am the government officer here, after all. Still trouble avoided is the best kind to have.”
We now heard a car pull into the drive. “Must be Edgar,” I said. I started toward the door. Owino lagged behind, putting on his shoes.
Outside Edgar was standing before the Landrover, peering into the garage where the glass had fallen. In a short-sleeved khaki shirt and work shorts that matched the sandy color of his hair, wearing desert boots and knee-socks, his arms akimbo, he seemed never to have stopped being a DC**. We shook hands. I said I’d had no trouble finding the place and had had some lunch with the help of Owino.
“Still here, is he?” Edgar’s voice carried an edge of irritation. “We’ve had a real balls-up,” he said. “Owino tell you about it?” I said that he had. “No damn coincidence the glass fell.”
“Bloody booby-trap. Meant to fall. Not sure who the intended victim was: me or Owino. I’m damned sure it wasn’t Kamau.”
Edgar wore the expression of fuss-budget impatience I remembered from our first meeting at UCSB**. I was amused, but did not show my reaction; booby-traps were a serious matter. In fact, I was glad to see him – and not only because a working anthropologist makes an excellent contact for a journalist covering Africa.
When I first arrived in Nairobi, I often wished I had kept in closer contact with Edgar; I wondered if he were still at UCSB**. Then on a reporting trip I saw him at Roberts Field in Liberia. We were waiting for the same plane. I re-introduced myself and we rode together to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where I left the flight.
He had just arrived from the States, he said, after what had been an almost intolerable year at UCSB**. “I have never been so ready to leave anywhere,” he said. “Faculty discipline totally collapsed. Faculty-student communication no longer exists.” He had been forced to fire the young anthropologist who had been such a problem. The action had triggered a campus row. Students had demonstrated; some called him a “fascist pig” to his face. Colleagues had questioned his professional credentials, merely because he was born in South Africa. He shook his head as if still not quite able to conceive of what had gone wrong.
“I’ve never so longed for the order of Africa,” he continued. “Yes, I said: the order. Life in the sophisticated world is too chaotic. That’s why I’ve come back. I may give up teaching.” He had arranged an early sabbatical and would spend the upcoming academic year in Kenya, evaluating an intensive development program in Mbere Division a couple of hours north of Nairobi. The program would be launched almost immediately. He was eager to get started.
Africa had given Edgar a giddy sense of renewal. When we said goodbye on the Freetown tarmac, his joyfulness amused – and also touched – me. “Look at that!” he said enthusiastically. He pointed across the airstrip to a trio of women carrying babies on their backs and clay pots on their heads. They were moving with a peasant grace beneath flowering trees; behind them lay crudely tilled fields and thatched huts. I saw them as elements in an overall picture of stunted personal development and cruel, needless poverty. Edgar saw them as beautiful.
“A classic scene!” Edgar commented, smiling. “Listen to their laughter!” And, indeed, a rich, throaty laughter floated from them through the morning heat and quietude. “They’re in harmony with their environment,” he said. “And their traditions.” He grinned. “How glorious to be back home in Africa!” When my luggage arrived, we shook hands and agreed to meet in Nairobi.
Over the following months we did occasionally meet there. He always invited me to visit Mbere. But whenever I expressed interest in actually doing so, he suggested that I hold off. A few matters remained to be processed through the ministry. “Wait till the project really gets started,” he would say. Behind this excuse I sensed that as a man might want to be alone with his bride, Edgar wanted to be alone with Africa. Since he was unmarried – except to his work – I did not press the matter.
But ministerial delays dragged on. Eventually his invitations became more heartfelt. “You really ought to come,” he would say in a tone of loneliness. “I’d love to talk with an American.” He would add, “I live like a king in Mbere. Really, I’ve begun some ethnography. It’s fascinating stuff.”
By late April annoyance and frustration were sounding in his voice. The ministry had not acted. Misunderstandings, inefficiency and fear of decision-making had delayed the Mbere project by more than a year. His sabbatical was almost over; it had been wasted – at least in terms of his observing a microcosm of rural development and doing scholarly writing about it. Whether or not the ethnography would justify his remaining in Mbere seemed unclear. And so I had agreed to a visit.
“Will Kamau be all right?” I asked now.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “In hospital for a week. I don’t know what we’ll do for chak while you’re here. I cook worse than you do.” He eyed me dryly. “My hunch is that as a chef you’ve given a few blokes the trots in your time.” He looked back into the garage where the glass had fallen. ‘The question right now,” he said, “is what do we do about this?”
A young man now emerged from so deep inside the garage that I had not seen him earlier. He was perhaps twenty, spare and loose-jointed, not tall so much as very slender. He wore a white long-sleeved shirt and dark trousers fastened by a belt so long that it seemed to loop beyond the buckle almost halfway around his body. He had a studious look, emphasized by glasses and a copy carried lightly in his hand of the tabloid-sized Nairobi Daily Nation which he used as a briefcase. He gazed at me without hostility, but I sensed that he was not prepared to accept me merely as a friend of Edgar’s as both Stephen and Owino were ready to do. Instead he would watch to see who I turned out to be. “This is Barnabas,” Edgar said. “The chief informant of my ethnographic study.”
“Hello, Barnabas,” I said, offering my hand which he shook. Since Edgar had not stated the information, I gave him my name and explained that I was an American from Nairobi.
“Journalist,” Edgar said.
Barnabas nodded, but said nothing.
“Barnabas is a local celebrity,” Edgar continued. “Passed his Higher School Certificate Examination. Which only about a dozen boys from Mbere have ever done.”
“Congratulations,” I said, wondering if this were not the exam Owino intended Stephen to pass. I wondered, too, if the time would ever come when Edgar would call a twenty-year-old a “young man” instead of a “boy.”
“Barnabas goes to university next fall,” Edgar went on. “And all the girls in the Division come out to watch him walk by.”
Barnabas smiled and lowered his eyes.
“What would you like to study?” I asked.
“I would like to become a doctor,” he told me. “The people here still practice traditional medicine. But they no longer believe strongly in its cures and so they are not so effective. I would like to bring modern medicine to Mbere.”
“Good,” I told him. “Can you study that in Nairobi?”
“Perhaps I must go to U.K**.,” he replied.
Inside the house Edgar made himself a sandwich in the kitchen while I talked with Barnabas and Owino. Before long Owino went to join Edgar. I could not help noticing the look of distrust that Barnabas cast at him as he left.
“I need a favor, old man,” Owino said to Edgar in the kitchen. “You couldn’t lend me five hundred shillingi, could you?” My conversation with Barnabas had not resumed and we both overheard Owino’s request for what would have been about seventy dollars. I glanced at Barnabas.
“Jeremiah up to his old tricks?” we heard Edgar ask.
“I’m afraid so,” Owino told him. I picked up a magazine and thumbed through it. Barnabas opened his copy of the Daily Nation and shuffled through papers. We both heard the conversation continue.
“You’re going to have to stand up to him, you know,” Edgar said.
“But how?” Owino asked. “If I refuse him money, he calls her home and I have no one to cook my meals.”
“Just now I have no one to cook mine either,” complained Edgar lightly.
“But I sleep with this cook,” Owino reminded him. “So it is very hard.”
“Send her and the baby up to Nyanza. Let her see how good you are to her. Let her see what it’s like to be a second wife.”
“She would never go to Nyanza.”
“You’re her husband. Make her go. In any case, I can’t spare more shillingi.”
I glanced again at Barnabas; he was studying me. Since it was obvious that we had both heard the conversation in the kitchen, I asked: “What’s that all about?”
Barnabas paused a moment as if trying to decide if I merited an explanation.
“How about three hundred? Is that possible?”
“I’m sorry, Quentin. The bank is closed.”
Barnabas and I were still looking at one another. He said quietly, “Owino’s wife is the daughter of a local chief. He keeps changing the terms of the bridewealth arrangement because he wants money.”
“I thought bridewealth was fixed at the time of the marriage.”
Barnabas nodded. “But Owino is not Mbere. So when Jeremiah insists that he owes more money, his kinsmen support him. If Owino does not pay, they go to his place and bring his wife and the baby back to her father’s shamba.”
“Why does Jeremiah need money?” I asked.
“He buys cars,” Barnabas said. “Toyotas. Used.”
“He has more than one car?”
“It is not hard to drive a car into the ground here. Especially a used one, badly maintained. Jeremiah never gives care to his cars and when the local mechanics can no longer repair a car he has mistreated, he buys a new one. He bought his fifth Toyota this week. He’s having a beer party for his kinsmen at his shamba today.”
“The kind of money Owino’s asking for in there: that can’t buy a car.”
“It buys the beer,” said Barnabas.
“What buys the cars?”
“Jeremiah sells tribal land to Kikuyu land merchants. They pay him in used Toyotas.”
“Is tribal land his to sell?”
“No. But he is the chief.”
“Can’t you get rid of him?” Barnabas said nothing. “There must be some process for that,” I said.
“In the old days,” he replied, “when a chief outlived his wisdom, people killed him. We can’t do that anymore.”
I detected the slightest of twinkles in Barnabas’ eyes.
Later that day outside Jeremiah’s compound, young men sat drinking beer lolling on the fenders or sitting inside the rusting hulks of four Toyota sedans. Because my car was unknown to them, they stared when it pulled up and parked. When our party left the car and the young men saw who we were, they hailed Edgar in friendship, bidding him to have some beer. They sang out as well as at Owino, in a manner that struck me as companionable, but also derisive. His status as government officer won him little respect with this gang. They hailed Barnabas, but he maintained a scholar’s distance from the rowdies. As for Stephen, who had joined us, he too kept his distance. The young men seemed openly scornful of him.
We passed the newest Toyota, bright red and newly waxed. A once-dented front fender, now repaired, had paint of a different, more orange hue. I asked Barnabas about the young men’s taunts. “They say Stephen cannot drink beer,” he explained. “It is not for children. Beer can be drunk only by circumcised men.”
The compound was no more than a collection of mud and wattle huts and granaries with a platform upon which grasses for thatching had been piled. There were also a small, roofed enclosure for calves and a larger cattle corral of thickly packed tree branches and stumps. Edgar led us through it with the measured, imperial pace that I supposed he had used during his tenure as a District Commissioner and had picked up from movie versions of “King Solomon’s Mines.” We moved forward to greet the patriarch – obviously Jeremiah – who sat on a contraption of bent tree branches shaped into a chair and covered with a cowhide. He had gray bristles for a beard and watched us through half-closed but intelligent and suspicious eyes. As Edgar reached him, he lurched to his feet. They bowed to one another and shook hands. Owino bowed as well, taking the old man’s hand deferentially, holding it in both of his. I was introduced and bowed deeply.
Edgar congratulated the old man on his acquisition of yet another Toyota. He accepted beer and waited while Bentley, one of Jeremiah’s sons, brought him a chair. He said to me in a low voice, “Have Owino give you a shamba tour. He’s worked with Bentley. I’m going to give the old boy what-for about the glass in the garage.”
I collected Owino who had gotten himself some beer and asked to see the shamba. He called to Bentley who ignored him until Edgar intervened and in his best DC** manner instructed him to show me around. Barnabas and Stephen tagged along.
As we headed toward the fields, a figure flashed past. Stephen called out, “Anas!” and ran after him. A youth Stephen’s age poked his head around the back of a hut. Barnabas called out to him, a friendly taunting in Mbere. The youth – Anastasio was his name – appeared. He was introduced to me and carefully wiped his hands against his shirt. He gazed at me as if beholding a ghost or some figure of wonder, then offered one of the still-wet hands for me to shake.
“He has never seen an American before,” Barnabas said.
Stephen explained that we were old friends; he had rescued me from mud. “Anas” was impressed. Stephen grinned and asked, “Were you carrying water?”
Anas seemed uncertain what to say. But since his shoes and pants legs were splattered, the answer was clear.
“It is all right!” said Stephen with a laugh. “I won’t tell. Barnabas doesn’t care. And Bentley won’t notice.”
Anas looked up ahead where Owino was walking with Bentley. “It is so much easier for me to carry it than for her to,” he said. “And anyway we are in higher school now and they are telling us things must change.”
“I am going to build my house,” Stephen told Anas. “Will you help me? Or do you have to stay and drink beer in those dead cars?”
“I can help you,” Anas replied softly. “You helped me.”
Barnabas looked concerned at hearing this declaration. He slowed his pace to separate himself from the others and since I was walking with him, I slowed as well. I asked about the shamba’s crops. He pointed out those in a five-acre plot: cow peas, finger millet, sorghum and maize, subsistence crops all laid out in precisely straight rows. A three-acre section was devoted to cotton, Jeremiah’s cash crop. “Owino has made quite a good shamba here for Jeremiah and Bentley,” he said. He added, “It could do with a bit of weeding.”
“What was all that about the water?” I asked. Barnabas glanced at me with a look of either confusion or defensiveness, I was not sure which. I persisted, “Is there something about Anas carrying water that is…” I let my voice trail off.
Barnabas said nothing for a moment, then decided to speak. “Anas is a man now. He has been circumcised.”
“And carrying water: that’s women’s work?” On the drive up from Nairobi I had seen women struggling with large drums of water on their backs. They supported the drums, their necks straining, on tumplines that stretched across their foreheads. In Kikuyu villages I had seen women who had carried water this way for so long that tumplines had formed depressions across their foreheads.
“Traditionally carrying water is the work of women,” Barnabas said. I made no reply. After a moment he continued, “Anas does not like to see his mother carrying water. He is much stronger than she is. But the other men here say that it is her job. So he does it when he hopes they will not see.”
We walked on and I thought of the men drinking beer in the derelict Toyotas. After a moment I said lightly, “Sometimes my women readers ask me exactly what it is that African men do.”
Barnabas smiled, but said nothing.
When we caught up with the others, Bentley was bending over a mesh trap he had built to cover a hole in the ground. Caught in the trap were hundreds of flying ants. They resembled large-bodied balls of fat the size of a little finger to the first joint; to these succulent blobs Nature had attached long, transparent wings. On these the fattened ants flew out of the ground, venturing forth to start a new colony. I had encountered such ants in my own yard. I had even felt terrorized by the fluttering of their wings for the entire experience was like an eco-horror movie come true. But I had learned not to step on the ants. Wherever I squished them, they left grease spots that lasted for months and I could not wear the shoes indoors.
Now Bentley stuck his hands beneath the mesh and extracted a handful of the ants. Some were motionless; the wings of others still fluttered. He closed the trap and transferred the ants into a woven basket he carried. He withdrew his hand with one of the insects held between his fingers. He closed the basket, ripped the wings from the specimen he held and plopped it into his mouth. He closed his eyes. He smiled as a child might with candy. The other Africans gathered around him, begging him to open the basket. When he did, they each reached in, withdrew insects, removed their wings and ate them, chattering and laughing at the pleasure of the delicacy.
After a while Stephen came over to me, carrying several ants in a nest made of his hands. Barnabas and Anas tagged behind him. “Please,” he said. “Would you like?”
I smiled. “No, thank you,” I replied.
“They are delicious,” Anas assured me.
“I’m sure they are.”
“You will not have?” Stephen asked again.
When I declined, Stephen and Anas watched me with fascination, grinning, smacking and licking their lips as they plucked wings from the ants and tossed them into their mouths. Barnabas stood several paces away and watched me as well, eating ants as one might eat popcorn one kernel at a time.
“You think we are barbarians, don’t you?” he challenged. “For eating ants.”
“No,” I said.
“Then why not have one?” he asked.
“Not my thing,” I said. “I couldn’t eat snails in France. Or greasy meat pies in England. I don’t like tofu in Nigeria. Or in California.”
Stephen and Anas watched me, grinning and eating. Barnabas studied me, unsure what to make of me. I realized that trotting out the places I’d been only exaggerated the differences between us.
Before I could think of a way to close the gap, we heard Owino and Bentley arguing. “But you must weed if you want good crops,” Owino declared. Bentley shrugged off this advice, fiddling with the trap which he had now completely cleaned out. “If you don’t weed, the worms will eat them, not your family.” Bentley shook his head. He checked the trap again and moved off.
As we followed him back to the compound, Owino said: “He won’t weed.”
“It is women’s work,” said Anas.
“Well, where is his wife? Why doesn’t she weed? They will lose their crops.”
“She is eating right now at her father’s shamba,” said Anas.
“And he is surly to me because he’s sleeping alone?” Owino dusted off his trousers and tightened the knot of his tie. “It is not my fault he’s sleeping alone.” We walked for a moment in silence. “Bentley has a good garden there, thanks to my advice,” Owino said. “But he won’t even do weeding for his own good. What ignorance!”
“It is not ignorance!” Anas said, obviously annoyed with Owino. “It is tradition.”
I was surprised he spoke so forthrightly to a man so much older.
“Traditions are holding you back,” replied Owino. “Time to abandon them.”
“If we abandon our traditions,” Anas replied, “we stop being Mbere.”
“Is that a loss?” Owino asked. “What have the Mbere ever achieved?”
“Why do you say that?” Barnabas retorted. “You are not superior to us.”
“No,” Owino agreed, “I am not superior to you. But education is better than ignorance. Doing a little work is better than being lazy and drunk all the time.”
“Let’s not argue,” Stephen said. “We are all friends.”
“If education makes you superior to us,” Barnabas asked, “why do you make yourself unclean with one of our women.”
“I am not looking for an argument. We are all Kenyans now. We must all work for a more productive Kenya. You know that’s all I meant.”
We walked the rest of the way back to the compound in silence. We found Edgar at the Landrover, showing a rifle to Jeremiah and the drunken young men who watched in confused silence from the hulks of the abandoned Toyotas. I took it that Edgar had told Jeremiah about the glass positioned in his garage to do injury to someone. Now, by displaying the rifle, he was emphasizing that he would take action against anyone caught setting traps at his house. Perhaps this was the way a District Commissioner would handle matters in what, to me, was clearly a bygone era. Glancing at the sullen expressions of the men listening to Edgar, I wondered what their reactions would be to his treating them this way.
When we left, Owino stayed at Jeremiah’s compound. He insisted that Stephen remain as well despite the taunts the drunken layabouts still directed toward him. No one urged the pair to remain, I noticed. I was not certain why Owino insisted. Perhaps it was the availability of free beer. Or perhaps he thought that he and Stephen should try to firm up relations with the locals.
Edgar wanted to give his two informants, Barnabas and Anas, new assignments and took the four of us to a village shop where he bought us chai, local tea brewed as dark and thick as a soup. As Edgar rattled on about the new material he wanted, the two young men studied me. The presence of an American seemed to make it impossible for them to concentrate on Edgar’s instructions. Once we were alone I would apologize for spinning such webs of fascination.
After a time Barnabas asked me, “Will you write a story about us for your newspaper?”
“I’ve been wondering about that,” I acknowledged. I asked what they considered newsworthy about Mbere. What in the Division might interest my readers? They seemed stumped at first, but finally settled on the fact that the situation of their lives was gradually improving. I did not tell them that such a report would baffle my editors, men who thought news should emphasize problems and prophesy crises. I told them I was glad to learn about improvements. But I admitted that some things mystified me. “For example,” I said, “will Stephen ever be accepted in Mbere?”
The two young men looked at one another as if each hoped the other would deal with the question.
“Or is he accepted?” I went on. “His father keeps saying that all of you are Kenyans now. Is that true? Is the problem that I just don’t see it?”
They shrugged. They glanced at one another and then at Edgar. He smiled encouragingly, interested to see how they would handle this test.
Barnabas offered, “Well, we are all Kenyans now. That’s true.”
“So it doesn’t matter that Stephen is old enough to be a man and yet he is not circumcised?”
They were silent. Then Anas said, “Owino is not circumcised and everyone accepts that he is a man.” He added, “Stephen is my friend. I accept him as a man.”
I said I had the impression that the layabouts at Jeremiah’s did not.
“What exactly is the problem?” asked Edgar. “Is it circumcision or tribalism?”
The young men seemed uneasy at the mention of tribalism. It was a subject that must be discussed very discreetly.
“Things are changing,” Barnabas said. “But it takes time. Twenty years ago when it came time for my oldest sister to be circumcised, my father announced that he would not allow this ritual to be performed on any of his daughters. And he had eight of them.”
“Why was this?” I asked.
“Because it’s painful. It hurts women. In male circumcision the body is not really damaged. The pain lasts only a few days. With women it is different.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Quite a famous story hereabouts,” Edgar said.
“My father made his declaration and everyone opposed him. His parents. His brothers and their wives. My grandmother insisted that no Mbere girl achieved full womanhood unless she passed through this test. But my father held firm. When his parents and other villagers insisted it must be done, he moved away.”
“And he’s come back now?” I asked.
Barnabas nodded. “His mother lives with us now in the compound. Some of my uncles live there, too. My father has made things change. Maybe it is not so important about Stephen.”
“What do you say?” I asked Anas.
He seemed unwilling at first to reply. When no one else spoke, he finally said, “My father is a chief. He upholds tradition.”
“Owino claimed you should abandon tradition,” I said.
“How can we do that?” Anas asked. “I think my father is right. If we abandon our traditions, we will stop being Mbere.” He paused for a moment. Then he added, “But Stephen is my friend. I don’t know what to say. I accept him as a man whether he has a foreskin or not.”
Edgar and I found enough tins in the pantry to make ourselves some chak. While eating it, I asked how Jeremiah had reacted to receiving “what for.” “His dignity is offended, of course,” Edgar acknowledged. “But he’ll get the word out. That’s the important thing.”
We talked about his informants and I tried out some of my impressions on Edgar. I said that Barnabas struck me as being one of the new men of Mbere, of Kenya. Whereas, while Stephen and Anas were standing poised on the threshold of manhood, thrilled by the wider world opening before them, Barnabas had already crossed that threshold. He had taken a look at the world beyond it and had seen an alien culture with alien values, Western culture, white man’s modernity. “Going to university,” I said, “he’s about to step out of the tribal culture into the modern one, right? Must be a scary prospect.”
“Yes and no,” Edgar replied. “Barnabas will spend much of his life traveling between the two cultures. He’ll live with two sets of values, two styles of living.”
“Will he study medicine?” I asked.
Edgar thought that unlikely. “The government will tell him what to study and what they need are people trained in agriculture. If Mbere Division is fortunate, Barnabas will practice what he’s learned here. But most agriculture officials gravitate to the high-income areas. He may do that.”
“Will he turn out to be Owino then?”
“I hope not,” Edgar said. “Quentin’s been shunted off to a backwater where he can do little good and little harm. Why, I’m not sure. Must have crossed someone. Or infuriated someone by trying to be a white man.” Edgar assumed that upward mobility for Barnabas, who had an intellectual bent, would come through teaching and advanced degrees. “He might provide the brains for a successful agri-business – if he can partner himself with a man who has contacts. Probably a Kikuyu. Tough getting ahead when you’re from a minor tribe.”
“What about Anas? Always a peasant?”
“He’ll finish school here. Maybe even manage a decent pass for his school certificate. Then he’ll dash off to Nairobi. What happens then is anyone’s guess.”
“A complicated question,” Edgar said. “Barnabas is stuck being forever an Mbere. And there are times when that will seem a real prison. Stephen is going to be what his father has in mind when he says: ‘We are Kenyans.’ We won’t know for a while whether that means he’ll be nothing or a new kind of–”
There was a sharp knocking at the door. Then suddenly Barnabas was standing in the kitchen, panting hard, a look of terror on his face. “Could you come?” he asked Edgar. “Stephen’s been hurt.”
Barnabas looked at Edgar, then at me as if in my presence he could not speak. “You can tell us,” Edgar said. “What’s happened?”
Finally he managed to say, “They circumcised him.”
Edgar and I did not understand. We frowned at one another.
“Please come,” Barnabas pleaded. “They circumcised him. And the knife–”
“Where is he?” Edgar stood. He shoved his plate aside and nodded to me.
“He’s at Jeremiah’s,” Barnabas said. “They slit the top of–”
“Can you drive?” Edgar asked me. “I’m low on petrol.”
We hurried outside to the car. Edgar sat beside me in the passenger seat and Barnabas crawled into the back. I raced over unfamiliar roads in the dark. Edgar gave me directions and questioned Barnabas.
He reported that several hours after we left the compound Jeremiah and Owino argued about the bridewealth payment Jeremiah insisted Owino owed him. The young men drinking in the Toyotas had sided with Jeremiah. They had eventually gone to Owino’s house to fetch his wife and bring her home, intending to keep her at Jeremiah’s until the bridewealth debt was paid. At Owino’s they discovered Stephen and Anas who had begun to build Stephen’s house. The young men objected to this: Stephen was acting like a man, but he was not yet circumcised. They taunted and baited Stephen. A fight broke out. They seized both young men and took them back to the compound. There Jeremiah as chief would rule on whether or not Stephen could build the house. But Jeremiah wasn’t there. The young men had more beer. Eventually they decided to settle the matter themselves. They stripped Stephen. When Anas tried to stop them, they tied him up. Five men held Stephen down, one on each of his arms and three on his legs. The man who wielded the knife sliced through most of the foreskin. Then his hand slipped. The knife had cut into the tip of Stephen’s penis.
When we got to Jeremiah’s place no one was around except the old man. He was dead drunk on too much beer – or pretending to be – sitting in his newest Toyota. Barnabas shouted repeatedly for Stephen. At last we heard whimpering and found him cowering in bushes in a fetal ball. He was holding a cloth to his groin and bleeding. He would not let us see the bleeding. I got a blanket I kept in the trunk of the car and cloaked him in it. When he would not stand, remaining coiled into himself, whimpering, Barnabas, Edgar and I lifted him and carried him to the car. We placed him on the rear seat. We had to leave Barnabas behind; there was no room for him in the car. Edgar held Stephen’s hand. Once we hit the Nairobi road, he climbed into the rear seat. He held the boy like a father while I drove as fast as I dared through the black night.
When we got to Nairobi Hospital, nurses put Stephen on a gurney and rolled him into a surgery. Edgar in high DC** dudgeon insisted on accompanying him. The head nurse telephoned a surgeon. When he arrived and saw me, he waved. He was an American I had met socially. I knew he would do the best he could.
The doctor insisted that Edgar leave the surgery. He joined me outside where the air was cool and the darkness peaceful. “Those infernal Africans,” he said. “Drunken louts. How could they!”
I said nothing.
“I’m fed up with Kenya,” Edgar went on. “This has been an intolerable year. I can’t wait to get back to teaching people who want to learn.”
I moved off and paced. Eventually I found another entrance to the hospital. I went inside and waited near the surgery.
Finally the doctor emerged. Stephen was going to be all right, he said. He had removed the foreskin and repaired the wound to the tip of the penis. “His equipment won’t win any beauty contests,” the surgeon said. “But he’ll be able to father children.”
“That’s a relief,” I replied.
“He may not have as much pleasure doing it as most men,” he continued, “but he’ll be able to do it.”
I thanked the surgeon and went to find Edgar. I told him the news and we went to the car. As we drove to my house through the darkness, neither of us spoke.