Kindness and the City


Dear reader, I open with a hard and shameful admission for any writer. Maybe if I release the genie from the bottle, it will lose its potency. I, Muturi wa Njeri, confess that the act of writing, the very act that I honestly claim to be passionate about, has become fairly difficult. As terrible as it sounds, I began writing this piece six weeks ago. And guess what, the heart of the intro was the same then as now. Six weeks ago, I bemoaned my ‘laziness’ in practising my personal writing—my putting it off to another day, to that perfect moment when forces beyond my comprehension would collude to make dem words flow (spoiler alert: it never comes!). Six weeks ago, I decried my becoming a non-writing writer, an oxymoron because the precise act of writing is what makes a writer a writer. Maybe you exist as a ‘writerly individual’ but certainly not as a writer. The temperament that predisposes you towards writing remains—you still enjoy reading voraciously (or bookmarking items into the to-read folder, or to Pocket if you fancy like moi), you still have 13346 (hey ‘gate fam!) streams of thoughts buzzing around your head at any given moment (what the meme generation are calling a thousand open tabs in your head), well-chosen words and meticulously-rendered stories still titillate the core of your being, you still sketch headlines of ideas you’d like to ‘explore in writing’ in your notebooks (or in your Evernote, if, again, you fancy like moi). But you simply do not get yourself to that emotional, mental and physical time and space to concentrate and do your damn writing!

And yes, it troubles you. And no, self-doubt doesn’t pounce on its prey like a lion on a swara, it crawls in surreptitiously like that cold, slimy snail you find on your bed one morning (Eww!). Self-doubt seeps into your psyche like kerosene seeps up the wick of a lantern, slowly but steadily, by capillarity. If a matchstick was lit at your psyche, it would burn with mocking self-doubt. When did I start procrastinating on stories on procrastination? You ask yourself. A freaking meta-procrastinator, is that what I am now? When you read what other people have been writing as you meta-procrastinated away, you brim with jealousy—you feel like a pretender, like the leading presidential candidate in RISP (the Republic of Impostor Syndrome Patients). The cheers from the gallery, from those that believe in you more than you believe in yourself, ironically feel like taunts. How dare they say I am good? Deep down, you know they are right. It’s not like self-doubt obliterates your capability to do it—but it sure does a goddamn good job of cock-blocking you from exercising that capability to fucking do it. Self-doubt is an ugly thing that blocks your shine but can’t shine itself. It is Aesop’s dog in the manger that won’t let the cow eat the grass but can’t eat grass itself. The consequent cognitive dissonance gnaws at your mental wellness. Suddenly, self-censorship creeps out of the darkness and bites painfully into you like a leech. Vulnerability, something that came naturally to you—the very lubricant of good, honest, real writing—rapidly drifts into the realm of unfathomability. The corporate-induced psychological claustrophobia (psychological claustrophobia is a fancy phrase I connected with when reading Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom when he talks of how bans by the apartheid government caged not just the body but the spirit too) chokes any trace of creativity that fights to germinate. Stay under the ground where you belong! Psychological claustrophobia screams at your creativity. You read your past personal writing and a voice within persuades you your best is in the past. And there is nothing worse than feeling that way, that your best is gone—for what is left to live for? Frantz Kafka—a non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity—never made more profound sense.

Rumination aside, this piece is a tapestry of fragmented thoughts and mini-stories I’ve been clutching to in my bulging head; I free them to the universe lest they force themselves out, pyrotechnically. Mostly, they concern kindness in a world where it is impossible to be kind enough. At first, I felt the intro paragraphs had little to do with kindness; but on second thought, I realize that is where the story of kindness begins. With the self. With allowing a tinge of gentleness to one’s own rough edges, with forgiving oneself for not living up to one’s potential, and for not believing in that potential in the first place. With not letting self-disappointments determine the heights you can scale. With dusting yourself off after a tumble, tenderly bandaging your own wounds, and trudging on. (And asking for help when you need it.)

(Courtesy of the Word Web Dictionary—the best dictionary for the digital age if you ask me)

Kindness (noun):

  1. “The quality of being warm-hearted and considerate and humane and sympathetic;
  2. Tendency to be kind and forgiving.”

Kind (Adjective):

  1. “Having or showing a tender and considerate and helpful nature; used especially of persons and their behavior.”

There’s one thing you notice when you live in Nairobi–and maybe in most large cities–especially if you’ve grown up upcountry. Striding along these concrete streets, one day it occurs to you that life in the city may be one big lesson in apathy to human struggle. Or to put it more precisely, and crassly, it may be a masterclass in not giving a fuck. The city milieu teaches you to not look, to not see, to not hear–and more importantly, to not feel. It inures you to the pain of others. It teaches you to be selfish with your attention–and with it, anything else you own. In some ways, it is advantageous, this zero-fucks approach. No one owes another unlimited attention, especially when the attention is demanded in the wrong ways. Like, I don’t get why ringing bells to attract patrons to a hotel is a thing in this city. People aren’t Pavlovian hounds! Or why makangas demand that you get into their Eastlands-bound bus, while you are actually going to Westlands, by grabbing your body like they own considerable stock in it. Or when those shoe-polishers point at your shoes as you walk by (um…how do you expect me to give you my business by shaming me into it?). And while as a cisgender male I can complain about these botherations, I must acknowledge that they are—by order of magnitudes—worse for women. I believe anyone is within their right and reason to refuse to offer their attention in these and similar instances.

The tragedy, however, is that this city floods us with a plethora of these annoyances every single day. This city slowly conditions us to walk past, to wave away calls for attention and care—even when they are genuine. We shoo away—more like swat away—that street-boy who needs dinner, siku ingine boss. We wave away that insurance guy who hasn’t earned a cent in commissions for the past two months before he can mention that their company gives us cash back if we don’t fall ill within two years (lol, these insurance people will show us things—it really is hard to innovate around insurance!). We become pros at finger-wagging and the corresponding facial scrunches on these streets. We become deaf to the ting-ting-tings of the silver bowl in the hands the old blind man asking for change near Kimathi Street, day in day out. In small doses, these acts of neglect dim the candlelight of our humanity. Ubuntu gradually becomes more of an elegant word tossed around in TED Talks by pretentious-seeming ‘thought-leaders’ than a living philosophy of a caring society. And Africa becomes worse off for it.

“It’s all been hardwired into us by millions of years of evolution so we can avoid danger and survive as a species,” that’s probably how my Psychology professor would explain some of my observations. And because I am a student of Psychology, a lot of these stories and musings remind me of the old theories on the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility. Essentially, these theories contend that like a layer of oil, which becomes thinner the larger the area it covers, so does our sense of responsibility to act reduce as the number of people in the crowd increases. But it’s not always gloomy because the higher the sense of self-efficacy—self-belief in one’s ability to help (hence the importance of drills, training, first aid lessons, etc.)—and empathy, the more we are inclined to help. Moreover, when one person defies the status quo and does the right thing, more other people are likely to follow suit. Maybe start by being that one person.

Several months ago, I observed a young woman give a fifty-shilling note to a beggar sitting on the walkway next to the National Archives building. Her gesture struck me; it hit me that I had perfected the art of denying attention and cash to those with open palms and cans on the street. A moment later, the same woman bent her body and dipped another fifty-shilling note into another can of alms. In my heart, I gave her generosity a standing ovation. However, the same heart felt guilty and my mind recovered memories of the days I was new to Nairobi and eager to offer coins to street kids who approached me. But how much would the coins really change anyway? Isn’t it our society’s—especially our leaders’—collective mess, why try to clean it myself? Why try treating a broken bone by affixing an Elastoplast on the skin above it just to assuage my guilt? But remember it might be ‘Jesus in tatters begging to be fed.’ Ooh…complicated, right?

Am I the only one who enjoys having my painstakingly polished shoes stepped on in matatus by people who don’t even pretend to notice their fault? And am I the only one who admires those puff-chested (and make-believe puff-chested) folks who turn walking on these streets into a rugby match with their brusque, unapologetic movement?

Things aint that different with drivers on these roads. Aint nobody got time to give way! Piii! We pay taxes too! Piii! We got things to do! Piii Places to be! Piii Money to make!

The ensuing cacophony paints a portrait of a city struggling with mounting entitlement and waning kindness.

There is a middle-aged man who feeds a family of six-or-so beautiful cats in the sparse, round enclosure next to the Hilton, right opposite the Kencom bus terminus. He does this every single morning, unfailingly. Whether it rains or a lion escapes the national park, he will be there. When others dutifully report to offices their bodies and souls palpably detest, he reports dutifully to his cats in his green cap, combat jacket ‘uniform.’ He also speaks to them—he speaks to the cats. I don’t know if I am the only person incredibly intrigued by this man. There are a hundred, if not a thousand street preachers in Nairobi, but there is only one man who feeds—and speaks to—a congregation of six cats in the heart of the city! Do you know how hard it is to retain the attention of one cat for a minute? My dream is to one day have a conversation with this man; I think he is a hero—the president may not have given him a national commendation; he may not even have a degree or an acre to his name but to those cats, and to me, he is the manifestation of the God’s Grace that never fades an iota, ever.

“Ngai! Aki nitasema nini nyumbani. NGAI! Aki mimi kwisha!”

Have you ever seen a mother chicken bawl after a hawk snatches her little one?

Like the mother chicken, the young man bawls. Gleaming under the dim matatu light, his skin is smooth and dark; his hair nappy and short. His teeth are browned, the infamous Nakuru-water brown.

And like the hawk that watches from a distance before striking, and is gone before the mother-chicken can say thitima, the thief snatches this chap’s phone seemingly at the speed of light.

The setting: a July dusk in the belly of a Thika Road bound bus just departing from its Tom Mboya Street stage next to Eastmatt Supermarket. Our browned-teeth lad sits next to me to his left and next to the window to his right. Before the viper strikes, we don’t exchange a word—just like in most matatu rides, except the ones the great woman is involved in (I don’t know where I got these introversion genes from as they’re unmistakably not hers). Both of us have our cellphones on our palms, browsing away—mine, an iPhone so old it’s enjoying its pension, his, a pretty new Tecno-something. You know that not-so-old joke about how Tecno brands change every week.

The remarkable thing is that when the thief snatches his Tecno-something, the crook doesn’t run. He literally strolls until he blends into the crowd. The guts! The fucking impunity! Our browned-teeth lad screams as he projects his hand outside the window, gesticulating as if to reach the sauntering thief—but in vain. Kilio cha kuku hakifikii mwewe, rings true. The hawk never heard the wails of the mother hen. The bus is full and moving. De Makufu is probably doing press ups, preparing to tesa. The matatu occupants couldn’t care less. A few make perfunctory sounds to show they noticed the lad lost his phone but I cannot sense a modicum of empathy in them.

At first, I am shocked and can’t make a sound myself. It literally could have been my grey-haired iPhone. The two phones were less than a foot apart, both exposed. Victim-blaming folks might call our lad negligent, but was I more vigilant? A few minutes later, I gain enough composure to speak with him—or, precisely, to comment on his on-going monologue of sufferation.

I learn that his mother gave him the phone the previous day and warned him against losing it in the city. (Ladies and gentlemen, the reign of Mothers Are Always Right continues unchallenged). I learn that he is in the city for university pre-orientation. He is to start his schooling at the University of Nairobi in a month.

It also comes as no surprise that he comes from Nakuru. The surprise, though, is that he is from Bahati, a few kilometres away from the village I grew up in. He even knows the primary school I went to—no mean fete.

He speaks Kiswahili with a breaking, quivering voice. He cannot figure out what he will tell his mother. I feel for him. When I was new to Nairobi, I lost two suitcases only for my mother to admonish me for ‘carelessness’ (a story for another day). So I know he fears that if he tells his mother the truth, she will say “I told you to be very careful; Nairobi ni kubaya!” And nothing is more shameful than an ‘I told you so’ coming after things go awry. It makes the pain from the problem pale in comparison because it implies that were you a better person, things would have been better—even when you had little control over the outcomes.

Another problem—which he should probably be worrying more about—is that he is unfamiliar with Nairobi and doesn’t know the place is going to well. He also doesn’t have the phone number of the relative he’s visiting in his memory; so he can’t call him from my phone. He only knows his mother’s number—the same mother he doesn’t want to admit the loss to. I assure him I’ll help him. We talk throughout the journey and alight at the same stage. His relative lives in our neighbourhood but it’s been years since the lad last visited him. Roads and buildings must appear the same to him. In King Kaka’s lexicon, anaona mbili mbili kama kila kitu ni twins.

We have to call the mother. He concocts a lie. He tells me he will tell her he was beaten ngeta. Yaani, he was held in a chokehold and violently robbed. Most of me wants to convince him to tell the truth—the mother will understand, maybe not at first, but they always eventually do—but he tells me his mother has a blood pressure condition and the shock could land her in hospital. I believe him; I let him lie. Astonishingly, his mother buys the ngeta yarn and gives him the relative’s number.

Shida ni: the relative is a bachelor and at work. I invite him to wait for him at my place. Over some quickly-thrown-together eggs with ugali, we share our stories, uninhibitedly.

His mother calls me to thank me shortly after the relative picks the lad from my place. She says I am god-sent; for me, this is enough.

To escape the hustles of the city, and suck at the bosom of my mother’s love—her words—I often retreat to my picturesque home in Subukia. Maybe I am still a village boy at the core because seeing those leafy hills and unobstructed skies still gives me chills. I sincerely don’t understand those people who only go upcountry once a year. I just can’t, truly not with an ushago as scenic as mine. Anyhoo, every time I visit, the great woman generously packs a gunia of fresh farm produce for his son to take back to the city. It always cracks me up remembering how when I was a naïve teen, I’d always shy away from carrying sacks of farm produce for my city relatives but now that I know the price of spinach, tomatoes and avocado, I will shamelessly haul my spinach-potatoes-avocado gunia juu juu along Tom Mboya Street at midday. Thankfully, I’ve never encountered an old schoolmate or teacher in this state. I wouldn’t want them to start spreading rumors of how the boy they envied for earning a scholarship to South Africa (boy wa SA) at 15 became a beba beba guy. You know there are people who just love a grace to grass tale.

Juzi, I had about eight avocados from my village trip ripen simultaneously. I didn’t want them to go bad, so I decided to give most of them away. Charity begins at home, but I am the only one in my bedsitter of a home. Those closest to my home are my neighbors—floormates is perhaps more apt as neighbours connotes some level of symbiotic social relationships where none exist. The first floormate is absent. The next one “doesn’t eat avocados”. The next one but one “doesn’t eat avocados” also but gives me an idea to offer the avocados to “people begging on the streets.” Good idea, I suppose. But what is the chance that two random people who only happen to share a wall in a Nairobi apartment also share an allergy to avocados?

It also happens that the first person who I offer the avocados to the next morning also…you guessed it…“doesn’t eat avocados!” Even with my close to non-existent math skills, I can deduce the probability of all those three people telling the truth significantly tends towards zero. Hahaha, probably ruined that sentence trying to appear geekier than I am.

In the city, we rarely give yet we treat givers with suspicion, like they are creatures from another world. As our culture of sharing unravels, apparently, so does our ability to graciously savor genuine acts of kindness from those around us.

Photo credit

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