Valentine, activist style... it is time to change things here
Valentine, Kenyan activists style…there are the 10 million Kenyans facing starvation; change must come!
By Philo Ikonya
I stepped out wearing my sackcloth and many cuttings of the starving people of Kenya that have been coming in our main three newspapers in one brown envelope.
It is Valentine and I will also drape a red sash and speak to the ladies in red without alienating them and ask them and the men in town to remember to make a donation to the dying.
I cut out faces of children, old women lying down, old men with long rib cages seated stooping forward with all their flesh turned into little sacks of skin sagging down to their loins. Life petering out in this Kenyan famine of 2009 in Baringo, Ukambani, Pokot. Three dry provinces but also in the dry zones of our more fertile areas such as Ndeiya in Limuru.
And yes, I found her too. The woman my friends and I had called the ‘face of famine.” She demonstrated the plight of this hunger so well as she lay out there in Pokot land; and rising and falling with her bony frame with eyes already wide open with pain and long limbs devoid of flesh, a shrill voice, that told of pain. She hit the headlines for a few weeks and then stopped. Is she still alive? The media had explained that maize had been transported past this woman and many like her to Sudan passing by a road a few kilometers from where she lived.
The stories were heartrending telling of how mothers fed their children on wild berries that kept them from going to the toilet often so that their tummies would hold. Mothers asking their teenage daughters to sleep with truck drivers (this is a live wire of the HIV/virus) to get a meal for the family for the day.
I cut out photos too of our politicians. The famine is artificially created by graft in the country and yet, the president sat with guests from the Diplomatic Corp and others in a sumptuous breakfast one morning to proclaim that 10 million Kenyans were faced with starvation and death. An emergency; he declared. And some 35 billion Kenya Shillings were needed. The good people responded to the appeal with some money. Kenyans too quickly organized interventions such as collection points for maize flour despite the shooting food prizes that other governments in the world were trying to mitigate. Here Kenyans had been arrested before the famine for sounding the alarm that the prices were skyrocketing and that people in Nairobi slums and other places were living on Ugali (maize meal) and salt instead of and vegetables and meat. I cut out their fat and oily faces… and their disagreements on many fronts the latest having been the failure to establish a Tribunal to investigate political violence.
I also cut out faces of ordinary Kenyans struggling and winning in athletics, masses of people under the banner of People Power. These I put in my victory envelope. There were great things to celebrate here and our failures in politics are the exception to the rule in Kenya’s other actions. This is what we have to win. The battle of getting every Kenyan to redeem their vote from association with war and bloodshed and then to vote without considering tribe but looking for change.
Cut out of course, were the scandals that hit the headlines. The stolen and imported maize involving not just the agriculture ministry but also a cross section of our very well paid MPs. I cut out maize stems looking good and full. Kenya never lacks maize because of the rain. And the fuel scandal expressed with a pump over stacks of bank notes. Stolen too.
As I set out with all these cuttings to buy manilla paper and glue and stick them and use them not only to discuss generosity in donations but also the Change our country must allow or fall again, the song; Someone is dying Lord Kumbaya,” came to mind. I remembered the last time we sang it, this time last year, Kenya was on fire.
In the first spot I stopped, someone tapped my shoulder and asked me if she had seen me speaking somewhere. I told her yes, and there was a flow of compliments… I had just been wondering what the town mood would be like when as she introduced herself, I looked into her face and we said it together; Terry Kariuki. The Late Josiah Mwangi Kariuki’s widow. JM.
She stood there looking into my eyes and telling me how voices were important. I felt my skin creep and tears came to my eyes as she spoke of what happened to her vocal and popular husband who so angry about greed in Kenya. He spoke very strongly for the poor and suggested well thought out policies in Parliament. He was assassinated on March 5th 1975. Terry and I parted on the note of how much work remained to be done. I did not lose a chance to speak to people and to tell them to speak to others about our country, and the hope we have for new political leadership.
Here was a lady, clad in wonderful clothes, an expensive coat and shoes, she held a wonderful boquet of roses. The flowers were set beautifully and the flower pot covered with love hearts and a cellophane paper for their protection made a soft swish sound. Angela about 4ft8, looked great, her dark skin beamed delight, a strong and confident woman, after a compliment on the love those flowers told, she spoke to me in the Nakumatt Lifestyle corridor as if we had an appointment. Tears came to her eyes, and I had not yet even put up the pictures on my poster, as she listened to why I was on the streets that day. She was moved to act and she said she would support our cause and left her contact. She understood how important it was for her to get many others in her social milieu to think of change. Later I would weave between wealthy looking men buying flowers, why even some big shots and a reminder of the unga touched them with one I once worked with even hugging me. But in all conversations, it was clear, the middle and upper class are anxious.
At Jeevanjee gardens, a Bunge la Mwananchi session was on. It was about change in leadership. I made my contribution and also talked about flour- the Wabunge were already organized and had a book of goods collected for the poor. I made my contribution as Mumbi and Nduta, two sisters present went to a bench with me to stick the cuttings to the manilla paper. The theme: Corruption = Death.
As we were about to finish, we noticed the return of a big police vehicle ( we had been told it had been driven from there earlier and thought we were safe) and we left the garden as they reversed in. I was doing a solo thing because groups of Kenyans on the streets talking change are often arrested. I have one court case for singing about freedom and that is enough.
Joined by another activist and the two girls we set off carrying our graphic poster. A pair of sisters were eager to know what this was all about and explaining to them, they gave thanks and promised to spread the message: Support the dying today, vote in new leaders tomorrow.
Two seconds into Tuskys supermarket and a former classmate bought flour for contribution, a woman alone with her little one also paid up for more and I bought 20 kilos. Our kitty had started to swell. With the receipt stapled onto the poster we could now stand outside the supermarket and urge others to make a contribution. We paced the Muindi Mbingu Street and in the end we had spoken to about 300 people. They kept coming out to listen to us in little constant groups of between 15 and 30. It was at this point when I looked up and saw activist George Nyongesa in the crowd. He took to this so heartily and when we finished, he asked me to go with him on the following day outside some churches. He told me he believed now change can only come to Kenya if we speak to people one by one with the zeal of missionaries. It was not going to come through organizations. We have started to move.
We have just come from four more hours of activity and we estimate about 500+ people listened and some spoke to three of us, activist Kamotho having joined us. Many said they had given up on their vote but now they would go out and tell others there is hope. Others gave their addresses urging us to stay in touch with them. Many were raging with the desire for change and saying they only wish we could all meet.
You see, on one side of the banner we had a victory message with someone lifting a trophy out of a mammoth crowd with the heading : People Power. Here, hope and victory were discussed and we shared that we would not believe in hopelessness ever but that we would do our best, especially as Christians- most of the people were going to three churches in the area- to move our country ahead. All the people we spoke to were encouraged to speak to many more and to keep doing it. They could not hide their happiness and some of them thanked us profoundly ( even prayed and blessed us) as we thanked them for the work they had prepared to do by stopping to share – just for a few minutes.
It is impossible to forget the faces of the poor men who listened so keenly and spoke of the pain they bear in their hearts and the faces of rich and happy girls. And Terry Kariuki’s? Her look and words will remain etched and recorded somewhere no camera or TV can reach. Her sparkling and searching eyes with a smile of life turned pain will not go away. Will what her husband and: Mboya, Ouko, Bishop Muge died for, one day be achieved? JM is the man who said Kenya will become a country of 10 billionaires surrounded by beggars. Today, 10 million die, they are not just food insecure- that is a polite name for death.