Squatting Near the State House

Not 200 yards from the front gate of the mysterious and ornate State House, where security is prime and the president "eats ugali" with dealmakers and sellouts, an undeveloped swath of land cuts a shallow valley between the apartments of State House Crescent, and the pricey private Moi Girl's School across the ridge. Deep among the arrowroots and sugar cane, a small band of squatters survive in their own miniature slum, unseen, unheard from, and hence uncared for by the world around them.

The mzee who runs the property and is allowing others to stay with him is a wily old character named Mureithi. He, along with another man called Chege, their "wives" Nyambura and Rosemary, and assorted other characters such as Simon the laborer and Ndungu, are just barely existing in tiny, collapsing shacks made of mud, wood, corrugated tin, cardboard and polythene. Their settlement is obscured by sugarcane stalks, which they freely offer us-- much more than our teeth can stand. They wash themselves with water taken from an open drainage system by standing in the lids of tin trashcans, splashing water on their legs. Garbage and insects are everywhere, they cook on a small charcoal fire, sleep in filthy beds, live in tattered and dirty clothing.

Our lives have become intertwined, starting with the concern we had for Mureithi, who was hit by a car some months back and was relegated to his musty bed with a painfully swollen leg. Kenyatta Hospital's treatment was poor, and we were certain his leg was still broken, so we started bringing him food, cigarettes, even a few beers now and then. Finally we took him back to the hospital-- I borrowed a stretcher from AMREF, and Simon and I carried him out of the small valley up to my car. Millicent, Mureithi and I then experienced Kenyatta Hospital at it's most disorganized and incompetent: being sent in several directions, interminably long waits, finally the x-ray, then back to the original ward where they told us to leave him as he would be re-admitted. To my chagrin, I came home from work that evening to find that he was not admitted after all. Chege had literally carried him a good deal of the way home on his back.

The poorer you are, the more you're at the mercy of nature. Countless peasant farmers are rejoicing in the fact that these short rains have now extended past their normal duration, bringing the early promise of good harvests. But to visit the leaning mud and stick squatter shack of Mureithi, inundated by rain to the point where any venture out of bed means encounters with cold mud and puddles, is a sharp return to the flipside. Our short visits to pick up a hoe, or drop off supplies present sobering reminders of life for the impoverished. Only the portion of roof directly over his bed is well insulated, and water erodes entire portions of the mud walls. One wonders how long this shack will stand. A makeshift table at bedside does not escape the drippings, nor does the dirt floor, which turns to ooze. Outside, weather-beaten sufarias catch fresh drinking water from the sky, while Mureithi's dog recently watched her puppies die of an unknown cause, one by one.

Mureithi claims his once-broken leg has improved markedly, and with the pain in his knee subsiding, we hope it won't be long before he can discard the crude, makeshift crutches. Lately he's been complaining of an intense aching somewhere inside or behind his ribs, particularly on one side. He has countered this by rallying himself to do a bit of stretching each day, if only to break the monotony of lying in the tiny shack. Next door, Chege and Nyambura, strange but compatible bedfellows, laugh to us through the cracked wall, arising with jokes about their drinking exploits the night before, and thanking us for our food gifts. Kikuyus on the short end of the stick, they are scrapping by with a bit of drinking, a touch of craziness, and what is becoming more obvious with each passing encounter, dependent idleness. While I deal with Chege's requests and listen to his bravado, Nyambura has been showing up at our door, peppering the hapless Millie with rambling monologues, delivered with a sharp tongue and a rapid fire delivery of Swahili I can never quite catch, and shameless requests for clothing, drinks, and so on.

Living in predominantly agricultural Central Kenya, I've found myself more and more attracted to the idea of small-scale farming. Finally I asked Chege, who was at my home one evening looking for work, if there was a piece of that land not being used. He told us that Mureithi had agreed to allot us a small corner for our planting. So as of last Sunday, when for the first time I took a jembe into my soft hands and started clearing the land, I became somewhat of a neo-squatter in Kenya.

Once Chege realized how serious I was, our small garden was expanded to include nearly half of an acre of Kenya's fertile reddish-brown soil. We took to the land with a fury, clearing most of it the first day the blisters that cover my palms and thumbs badges of honor. At first it was just Millicent and I, along with Mureithi's woman Rosemary, a roundish, gap-toothed, lady of around twenty-five, who did the digging and slashing under the warm afternoon sky. The barely literate Rosemary, with whom I could only communicate in Swahili, seemed the stereotypical African peasant woman. With or without us she would depend on this type of very small-scale farming just for survival, not as the cultural experiment or educational experience as I can make it. Wearing a permanently beaten-down facial expression, her dress too old and small to hold her frame, her unsupported breasts heaved as she beat the ground with her jembe, her bare feet unaffected by the rocks, branches, or bits and pieces of glass and trash that littered the fallow urban shamba.

Millicent, with a plastic shower cap in place of the traditional scarf, worked with the joyful seriousness of a woman with a natural feel for farming, and is something of our leader, without a doubt the hardest and most skilled worker. A path to downtown passes along the bottom of our land, and when she catches a passerby gazing curiously at the sight of a mzungu involving himself in what is normally the work of Africans, particularly women, Millicent startles the spectator with a crisp, "We! Unafanya nini hapa! Kuja kutusaidia!" (You! What are you doing here? Come and help us!) By the end of the first afternoon, Chege and Nyambura showed up, a bit tipsy as usual, along with Ndugu, a quiet, younger man, to pitch in. Soon, we had a huge fire going; burning piles of trash and old maize stalks. The fire was fanned by the wind and caught the nearby scrub brush, threatening to spread throughout the small valley. Chege beat it down with a large branch of leaves, as we threw dirt to help control the blaze.

We actually got as far in the first day as starting the nursery for our onions, tomatoes, carrots, green peppers, chili peppers and cabbage. While some went to the bottom of the land to carry water in gallon-sized tin cans to our newly planted seeds, others were slashing the trees branches and grass to cover the seeds. Chege took me to his compost heap, where we scooped up handfuls of natural fertilizers from underneath maize stalks, and filled several tin cans. As the work progressed, I sensed the closeness one can feel when working the land with others. Millicent was especially happy, as she and Nyambura forged a loose mother/daughter alliance. "Nakupenda, Nyambura" (“I love you”), Millicent half-teased, softening up the older woman's hard exterior.

A few days later we returned to the shamba, joined by Rosie and "Mama Juice," the large Luo woman who for months has been selling us fresh-made passion fruit juice, and storing part of her supply in our refrigerator. That is her business, door-to-door juice with a smile and lots of laughter to hide an interior life of struggle. She cares for seven children plus grandchildren, with little income other than her juice profits. Mama Juice quickly grabbed the jembe, and like a woman returning to her favorite childhood memories, began ripping into the remaining portion of uncleared land. This work went on until it was too dark to continue. Afterward we talked through the fence to some workers at the Nairobi University dormitory kitchen, who provided us with drinking water and coffee, friendly alliances built for the future. Everyone loves a well-worked piece of land here, it seems.

While working the land with my squatter friends, I sense that something inside of them is being rekindled. Chege is particularly enthusiastic, already counting in his head the profits we'll make from selling part of the harvest. "When people know of this shamba, they will come from all around here to buy these tomatoes and green peppers," he declared happily through glazed eyes and yellowing teeth. He hopes to extend our fortunes by planting his sukuma wiki in another plot nearby. Swahili for "push the week," the green staple vegetable is among the cheapest and healthiest food eaten by the average Kenyan family. I'm glad to be part of this experience, even though there is a question somewhere in the back of my mind as to why they hadn't done this before. Though they have grown enough maize, sugar cane and sukuma wiki to care for themselves, there is a lot of land sitting fallow, covered by brush. A full-fledged subsistence operation seems to be lacking, for reasons I can't figure. The seeds we bought were not that expensive, by any standards.

By January we'll be able to reap what we've sown. Working without systems of irrigation, we’re still largely dependent on the rains. Until then we continue to cart water in buckets from the open drainage ditch we dammed up. With seven small nurseries and ten planted rows of vegetables, we were, with the occasional but increasingly rare help of the Chege/Nyambura squatter gang, lugging as many as ten to fifteen large buckets of water per day, just to keep the ground moist.

At last, after a few false starts, the season of the short rains arrived in full force. On our knees, and up to our elbows in the dirt, we had planted our last seedlings. Watching my friends, I’ve learned to handle the delicate onion and cabbage roots, as Millicent, in her headscarf, outpaces me at the same work. It was just at the point of sunset that a light mist started to descend. "It's raining!" Millicent's exclamation floated across the shamba. "I like it," she added in her childlike manner, smiling broadly. We dawdled home in a state of bliss, filthy from head to toe, carrying the satisfaction that hard work rewarded by good fortune can bring. I told myself that even if the rains failed somewhere down the line and the crops withered in the hot equatorial sun, I had learned both the toil and the joy of the subsistence farmer. Of course, I had the luxury of getting into my car and driving to the nearest market should that happen . . .

Months later, after harvesting, this first agricultural era came to an abrupt end. When we went to reclear the land and plant again before the long rains arrived, we found sweet potatoes and maize already planted. It turned out that the old man who had allowed us to squat on his territory had healed sufficiently enough to resquat on the land. Old Mureithi is well known for his unabashed greed, so wasn’t really too surprised. He'd taken to showing up at our door, and without so much as a greeting, rub his fingers together, the signal for me to open the purse strings and fork over his beer money. Of course he and his new girlfriend Joyce need the land much more than we do, the general feeling is that he wouldn't have made the effort to clear the land himself. Now he's simply walking (actually limping in dirty boxer shorts) onto a prepared plot and throwing down seeds. Even Chege, who remains living with the ever-crazed Nyambura as Mureithi's neighbor in the mud and stick duplex, has registered disgust at this turn of events . . . oh, this neighborhood. Characteristically, Millicent has just informed me that we must go to Mureithi peacefully with some food to thank him for letting us use the shamba. "Good for good," she calls it.

Mureithi may be beyond redemption, but what about my friend Chege? Both of them grew up as many of their generation did, in the rural farming villages of Central Kenya. Chege, long ago fired from the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife over something to do with ivory, has hit the skids. I’m not able to tell if the drinking is a cause or symptom. All of his kindness, his tokens of friendship and hearty handshakes do not disguise the desperation in his eyes when we speak seriously about finding him work, or about his past or future. He's willing to go anywhere, it seems, except to face his wife and family on what he describes as a big shamba in Murang’a, a victim of the modern African status quo, which dictates that a man should go to the city to earn, while the wife stays on the land. This Nairobi life, he tells me again and again, "is not good for me."

Postscript: Several months after our squatting experience, I moved to the rural village Rironi, in Limuru District. Chege agreed to come along and work as my askari, remaining a good friend and companion. He let me do most of the digging myself, but was very helpful building fences and keeping potential troublemakers at bay. To my chagrin, he once told me that to impress the locals, he would point to the sky when an airplane passed overhead, and tell those within earshot, “That is David.”