Witness

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A group of girls outside McMillan Library hand out balaclavas and Kenyan flags. Everybody asks: How much? And they say something you don’t hear often in this economy; It’s free. When you look up at the looming pillared doorway, McMillan Memorial Library doesn’t look like a library. It looks like an old place where a wicked old white man with a beard reaching his chest lives with his numerous feral cats. 

Banda Street is already heaving with protestors. There is chanting and gnashing of teeth. No, just chanting, for now, the gnashing of teeth will come later. In the distance, we can hear loud gunshots- sounds of teargas being launched. The sounds seem to be coming from Moi Avenue. We can see smoke rising behind the Nation Center. People walk by in groups, carrying bottles of water and placards. The weirdest thing I will see today is a young couple holding a dog. A radicalised dog. Too radicalised to walk like everybody else. 

I’m hungry but can’t tell the people I am with this fact because who admits to hunger when people are protesting more grave matters? What are you, five? In my defence, I only had a smoothie. Don’t drink a smoothie before a protest. This is not yoga. 

I pull up my balaclava mask and I immediately feel different. I transform. A balaclava mask makes you feel like a Palestinian standing before an Israeli tank. You feel like Che Guevara. Like Dedan Kimathi. Batman. You start to walk differently, like Kinjikitile Ngwale. Only, you aren’t any of these people. You are just a Generation X with a rumbling stomach and a right knee problem. 

More young people march past us in groups wearing jeans, sneakers and masks. They look like they could be coming from a club. Or going to church. Only they don’t like the church very much now. They are – and I want to use a word I’ve been meaning to use for ages – disenfranchised. They have been wronged by the church, by their parents’ political inertness but mostly by the government. And unlike us, who moan from the safety of balconies and over our cocktails in bars, they aren’t taking it. They’ve had it up to their hairlines. They have one mantra; if you want something done, you gotta do it yourself. So here they are, carrying placards and bottles of water and a dog. 

We gather at the corner of Kimathi and Banda Street. It’s coming to 11 am and there are now hundreds of people in the streets, running up and down saying a variation of the same thing; Ruto must go. It’s an echo that rises over each street like a fog. A war cry. An indignation.  

Further down, at the Stanley Hotel, riot police are already lobbing teargas at the crowd. Groups of youth run back and forth. An ambulance wails in the distance. The streets are charged. The riot police are barricading roads that might lead to the parliament. There are thongs of protestors on Kimathi and Muindi Mbingu and Koinange streets surging down. We don’t know it but before today is over, the parliament will be breached for the first time in history, MPS will flee from parliament through tunnels like rats fleeing a burning ship and a young man will grab the parliament’s mace. Before this day is over they will teargas President Obama’s sister, (Obama’s sister!). Before this day is over brothers in the fight will carry the body of 25-year-old Kyalo Mutisya’s body draped in the Kenyan flag and sing the national anthem. And before this day is over someone will slap Boniface Mwangi in the face. 

However, for now, an ambulance screeches to a stop at our feet, and an injured person is quickly loaded inside and the ambulance is gone, screaming through throngs of people. Something explodes up Kimathi Street. People scatter into alleys. It’s getting hot. In the words of no one, “shit is getting real.” There are sirens and people shouting and cars, private cars, zooming through streets. Who the hell comes to town in their car during protests? 

I’m with my friends Ben and Emmanu. I know Emmanu through Ben. I know Ben from Sailor’s Bar in Hurlingham. I have to tell you the story of how I met Ben some, what, 15 years ago now? 

When I was 31 years old I used to drink and drive. This particular night I was hanging loose with my cousin Jack, who many years later would be snatched by security forces and disappear completely from the face of the earth and be known as one of the Kitengela Five by the media. Sailor’s had an underground section where we were with Jack and a TV newscaster friend of mine who had taken a shine to Jack. She thought he was cute. At about 2 am, I bid them goodbye and was making my way out of the main entrance when someone suddenly shouted over the blasting music: “Bikozulu!” 

I turn. Stumbling towards me from the bar is this fellow I don’t recognise. Skinny fellow. He’s high but who isn’t? He walks up and stands close to me – too close for two drunk men to be standing close to each other – and he pokes a finger at me and says, “My wife reads you.” Like he is accusing me, not complimenting me. 

My ears are freezing from the cold. 

“Who is your wife?” 

“No no, that is the wrong question,” he slurs. He’s a bit unstable on his feet and I briefly entertain the thought of pushing him over with my finger and watching him keel over like a doomed ship.

“What’s the right question, then?” I asked. 

“Now, what you just asked is the right question.” He grins, wagging a finger at me. “The right question is…the right question is… how did I [points at himself] recognise you? [Points at me]”

“Yeah, how did you recognise me?” I was now intrigued and amused. 

“Because my wife showed me a photo of you.”

“Your wife has a photo of me? Who is your wife?”

“Gypsy.”

“I don’t know any Gypsy.”

“I know you don’t. She got it online. Anyway, focus.” He says like I’m the one who has lost focus of the night. “She keeps sending me your articles to read. You are a good writer but I’m tired of reading your articles. Tired! I don’t want to read one more of your articles. Done. Tired…not one. ” 

I laugh. He’s swaying like a reed in water. Or maybe I’m the one swaying. 

“Anyway,” He waves his hands dismissively. “That’s not even important.”

“Okay.” 

“Do you know what is important?”

“No suspicion at all.”

“What is important is that we went to the same high school.”

“You went to Maseno?”

“Where else would I have gone to?”

We have been friends since.  How could we not?

So I’m with him because not only is he a massive Gor Mahia fan, he is also an ODM enthusiast and so he knows the politics of stones and protests. I, on the other hand, have a bad knee and I’m hungry and this is my first hurrah. I had carried a white handkerchief and he had laughed and said, “Come on, what do you think this is a rhumba concert?” He had also given me some cash and said, “Always have hard cash for when you need to jump on a boda fast. When you have cash you move fast. MPESA will slow you down.” This is the only time one could ever say that of MPESA. 

There is a massive crowd at the corner of Muindi Mbingu Street, an apt place for protests. You know about this fellow, right? In 1938 the colonial government enforced a destocking policy in Ukambani, seizing over 2,000 cattle claiming overgrazing led to environmental degradation. The Kambas were pissed off. Muindi Mbingu and tens of others walked 60 km to Nairobi in protest to demand their cows back. The destocking ceased but he was detained, sent off to Lamu. Muindi was released after 15 years but was later killed by the Mau Mau because he was believed to be getting a tad cozy with the imperialists. 

The crowd coming down the street has now swelled, a human tsunami rolling down the street, chanting. To curtail their progress the police on Kenyatta Avenue lob teargas at them. It would be romantic to say that the police lobbed teargas at us, but we are standing at the street corner, the police can’t see us. We are ideally spectators. We are not the proverbial ‘man in the arena’, the one whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly. 

It’s at this corner of the street named after a freedom fighter, where I sniff the first breath of teargas in my life. How do I describe teargas? It’s like attempting to describe the feeling of crashing a small pebble while eating rice. It’s blinding and disorienting. Your throat. Your eyes. In a bid to get away, you stumble on other people who are also coughing and tearing. We sought refuge in Kilimanjaro Café which offered me a great cover to finally eat something. 

As the world burned outside, I shamelessly order their oatmeal porridge served with nuts and honey. This is because I believe in the famous Luhya proverb; whatever it is you are going through; eat first. The oatmeal porridge comes with slices of bread which I toss aside because who eats bread during protests? The oatmeal is excellent, I will report. I eat it while I wipe away tears.  The whole restaurant is full of young people who have run off from the streets; refugees. Yes, many proverbial Baddies have been gassed out of the streets. They had on Airforce sneakers or Vans or canvas shoes and tank tops and they cling onto their weapon; phones. I see BuiBui-clad Baddies, all weeping and sniffing and coughing. 

The great news is that if you don’t inhale a lot of teargas, It all wears off after a few minutes. After I’m full we go back to face the full wrath of the police. I’m ready to be bludgeoned, gassed, and horsed. So we go to Kenyatta Avenue and we stand against a wall. The streets are in pandemonia, singing and chanting and taunting. When the police shoot a teargas canister, I see a band of young soldiers run after it, fearlessly scurrying to haul it back or kick it. I have never understood the science of kicking a canister. I wouldn’t walk for weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised if my foot fell off right there in the streets. And I’d leave it.

A Water Cannon comes barrelling, the crowd disperses as it sprays everyone in pink, a paradoxical colour for an occasion like this. Pink is soft and smiley. Down at Stanley Hotel is a battlefield, covered in smoke and noise. There is a lot of bravery and energy. A lot of zeal and youth. We eventually decide to leave because we realise we can’t sustain the running and the energy for too long. I run in Karura forest once in a while. I swim occasionally. But in the streets, all that means squat. Running in the streets is a different ball game because there you are running for your life and other people are running for their lives. There are no chirping birds or marked trails. And we just didn’t possess the right age for it. So we threw in the towel and walked back home.

The streets belong to these younger folks, they have the wits and the energy for it. They are brave and relentless. They can climb street lights and sit there, unbothered by the Water Cannons or the teargas. In fact, they can breathe through tear gas. Hell, you saw some of them smoke teargas. Teargas is Shisha for them. 

***

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19 Comments
  1. I am reading this from Uganda and we feel our neighbors received our prayer request. Kenya seems to have witnessed not even half of what Uganda has undergone through.
    But against all odds, we are against any injustice in this day and age. Corruption and opulent spending simply never go undetected. This is a woke generation. The guerrilla war tactics have no practical ability and the only way is to turn the streets into the battlefield. What is happening to the leaders who vote yes to this bill are getting a lesson of a life time and a message to the future leaders that they are put in this position to represent the views of the people that elect them into this positions. Kenyans are doing something that every developing country should be blessed with. Putting the leaders in check. Kenya belongs to all Kenyans and they determine how their country is governed.
    We are spectating how this all turns out. But in the meanwhile receive your flowers.

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  2. The guy who stole the mace was aligned in court jana and was released on a Ksh 2000 cash bail and
    that made me so happy. Also, can’t believe it took you 46yrs to have a taste of tear gas bana, wewe si baddie

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    1. When you are aligned in Court, it’s potentially a bad situation. When they arraign you, it could go well, later – maybe.

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  3. hakuna mwengine ame comment, was caught in the rans last Tuesday , having forgotten, X mind is preoccupied with other things,

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  4. Am I reading this at the wrong time or did you blacklist me so that I only see my comment? Could you tell me how there can be no comment?
    Shisha Mondays are back only now they are Teargas Tuesdays. To the Gen Zees the ones in my house and the ones out there. Viva.

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  5. Leave a lone the mask, once you find yourself in the middle of the crowd you start feeling like Lwanda Magere, a hero of some sort, no hunger pangs, ready to charge at a slightest command. I was there at the first “haki yetu” 07/08, that shit can suddenly change from anger, fun to disaster.

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  6. Lat week was suspense at the gate opening, today assumed it would be a continuation, shocker on me but enjoyed all the same as usual

  7. Biko, you first spelled throng as thong but you got the spelling right the second time you used the word . I hope the ladies will forgive you albeit after rolling their eyes !

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    1. Noted it and forgave him – because he is a good boy for supporting the Gen Zs even with a bad knee and an empty stomach.

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