Elijah Koome: "Generation M"
Written by Elijah Koome
The place I call home is not a savannah bedecked with herds of gallivanting wildebeests. It is not a scorched desert where vipers slither with deadly fury. The place I call home is cool and verdant. It has chains of rolling hills, covered with fragrant flowering shrubs. It has trees that shoot skywards like rockets and dozens of meandering brooks. The place I call home affords one a magnificent view of small, gleaming, desert towns on the distant eastern horizon.
But that is not what I see as I walk home every evening. When I stumble upon a stubborn rock, I think to myself: Will I have to wait till Judgement Day before this road is tarmacked? To call it a road is an exaggeration. A muddy path is more appropriate. It has been a muddy path for as long as I can remember. And then there are the gullies which line the path. If I’m not careful in my step, I could find myself kissing the rocks in the bottom. In the rainy season, the risk of cracking my skull on the slippery path is always present, like the sun.
When I look around, I notice that every family owns a small patch of land, rarely exceeding two acres. In this land, I see settlements. I see small, square, houses with corrugated iron roofs. The walls are made of old timber and mud. Two or three of these houses make a home. Five or 10 or 20 people live in these houses. When I pass near the primary school, I notice several brick structures with missing window panes. When I stop to greet the teachers, I notice that the offices are old, tiny, unkempt. When I look at the hopeful faces of the children in their tattered blue uniforms, I think to myself: Do you know what awaits you, you poor little lambs?
My generation is afflicted by a malaise which runs deeper than the roots of the ficus tree. In the place I call home, people of my generation have little to do and few places to go. Schools, which are where young people go in other places, are almost ornamental here. When one is done with the innocent years of primary school, often with dismal grades, a new reality sets in: there is no money to pay for high school. Your parents, who are themselves barely literate, have no money for tuition and other expenses, and if they do, they have just enough to send you to the local secondary school. This is a school where labs have no reagents, where teachers have minimal qualifications or none at all, where salaries are paid intermittently. Should you go to this school, you may expect to sit with 60 or more students in a classroom, to have no textbooks for your homework, to walk several miles every morning just to get there. If you go to this school, you can be assured that your final grade will be in the vicinity of C or D or E, and with that, college and university will remain distant dreams.
One could work. But what line of work? People of my generation own no land, so farming is out of the question. Our parents own all the patches of arable land, and there is nothing they care more for. Our parents decide what will be grown, how it will be grown, when it will be grown. If you are lucky, like my friend Christopher, your grandparents will give you a piece of land when you are still young, and that might give you something to do. But the vast majority of us are not lucky. Our parents own the land, we are mere guests on it. The closest thing to farming that you can do is be a farm hand. As a farm hand, you could help till the land and weed the plants. You could help tea farmers harvest the crop and shuttle it to the collection centre. You could help qat farmers to harvest and sort and transport the stimulant to the small towns where it is packed and sent to Nairobi and Mombasa and Somalia.
Most young men of my generation choose to be farm hands for qat farmers. At the crack of dawn, they get up and meet in a small hotel at the shopping centre. They drink tea and eat two or three or four mandazi. Then they walk or drive to the farm. The mornings are dewy, and the qat trees are slippery. But these young men have become experts at clambering up slippery trees. At the farm, speed and precision wins. The smartest farm hands know the most bountiful qat trees at first glance, and they mark these before anyone else does. As the harvesting proceeds, stories are traded. Someone saw a ghost last night. Someone chased a witch from the back yard. Someone dreamed a terrifying dream which came true.
In the afternoon, these young men spend their earnings, an equivalent of 10 or 20 dollars if you are lucky, at small lounges by the roadside. In their pockets, they carry a sizable bundle of qat, also known as miraa. Qat is a mild stimulant, and chewing it is a terrifically efficient way of killing time and keeping boredom at bay. Chewing qat focuses your mind, it gives you something to do with your tongue and teeth all afternoon and all evening. Qat absorbs your worries and sorrows and fatigues. Under the spell of qat, the world is pleasant and placid.
Young women of my generation rarely work as farm hands for qat farmers. They rarely chew qat by the roadside in the afternoons. Instead of qat, they harvest tea and shuttle it to collection centres in straw baskets. They make the equivalent of two or three dollars a day. In the evening, they go back to their parents’ (or husbands’) homes and cook and clean and banter with their mothers. On Sundays, they go to the church, then to the salon, where they get their hair braided and their nails pedicured.
Not everyone stays in the village. Many leave, like my brother John who left when I was 13. For many years, he travelled from one city to another, one country to another. He went first to Nairobi, then to Lodwar, then to Juba, then to Gulu. Eight years later, he returned home, jaded and empty-handed. He had nothing but fantastic stories to share with us. Leaving is not hard. For the young men who harvest qat at dawn and chew it at dusk, leaving involves getting into one of the Toyotas or buses which ferry the qat to the city. Once you get there, you stay with a cousin or a friend. Your task in the city will be to sell qat, but as you learn more about the environment there, you get the freedom to pursue whatever you want. Once you are in the city, you should plan to send money back home, even if you are living in the slums. When you come back to visit, you should come bearing gifts – food, clothes and assorted trinkets. Woe upon you if you don’t. Your family will be cold and the neighbours will say unkind things.
A few people make it to colleges and universities. These are often the ones who have a natural aptitude for academic study, or the ones who spend days and nights poring over their textbooks. There is no college or university in the place I call home; the closest one is 25 miles away. When the few scholarly minds in my generation graduate from high school with As and Bs in their final exams, the village comes together and fundraises for their tuition. The villagers do this with a touch of scepticism. There is a popular saying about these scholars, one which my mother is fond of: “They will be blowing dust on our faces with their cars”. Still, this does not prevent people from giving their goats or chickens or cows to the fundraising effort. Jealousy is considered a close relative to witchcraft.
I left for university when I was 19. The university was in the city, six or seven hours away. There, I met more people like me, escapees from provincial villages. There was Stephen and Philomena, both raised outside Marsabit. There was Jacob, raised in Vanga. These others, who became my friends, were bookish and broke. In the city, we felt our lack of means more acutely than we had ever felt in the villages. Some of our classmates, not many, went to the cinema every Friday while we gathered around one laptop to watch Divergent and 3 Idiots. They went to KFC and Pizza Inn for lunch while we pinched every coin to afford rice and beans at the shacks behind the hostels.
The public university is a bog where idealism comes to die. Lecturers go on strike for months because of money, students stone motorists and burn hostels because of money, and grades are revised and modified because of money. Those who thought knowledge and intellectual provocation are the core tenets of a university quickly learn that money rules here – in fact, money seems the university's only raison d’etre. Those who are sharp-witted and cynical enough learn to flatter and keep company with the city politicians who reward them with meagre cash handouts.
There is another group, though. Small in number, members of this group persist in their idealism. They organise volunteer drives to the city’s slums. They act as mentors to high school students in the surrounding locations. They organise charity events and art events. They go to the dean’s office and protest unfair academic policies. They organise protests against laws banning cooking in the hostels. They protest police brutality against civilians. This minority is looked upon with admiration, even by the rest of us who have given in to cynicism, and that is why when they are gunned down by government mercenaries, everyone is willing to risk being tear gassed and clubbed for their sake.
Getting through university is difficult enough – my friend David has been chasing his bachelor’s degree for the past seven years, but getting a job afterwards is an extreme sport. My sister, who graduated three years ago with a degree in education, is yet to secure any kind of employment. Unless you know someone who knows someone who knows someone, your chances of landing a job are as rare as a winged camel. You may have all the qualifications you want, you may be Einstein if you wish, but no one will give you a job unless they know you, or you are a member of their family, or you are willing to part with a hefty bribe, or you are willing to sleep with them.
My generation is afflicted with malaise because we have few opportunities to really live. Brilliant artists, like my friend Daniel, have nowhere to hone their skills, no one to promote their art, no one to encourage their creativity. Incredible soccer players like my friend Jack will never get to live on their talent because there is no chance for them to do so here. The people who should be providing these opportunities are a voracious cabal who hoard and squander most of the nation’s wealth. Members of the gerontocracy which is in charge of our country do not give a toss for anyone beyond their relatives.
When I was child, I kept hearing this phrase: “You are the leaders of tomorrow”. But today, I realise that tomorrow is still far away. My generation – that is, those who are aged between 15 and 35 – constitutes the largest demographic in the country and in the entire continent. But, despite having the numbers, this generation is the most vulnerable and disempowered, and this is why our defining characteristic is a pernicious, exhausting, and spirit-draining malaise.