I was nimble child, shrunken by rheumatic asthma and spoilt by an overacting mother, on a slope cut out in Kisumu that dipped from Tom Mboya estate into the squalor of Obunga below. We were the no-man’s-land between the plush lawns of cross wire fences and gates towards the plunging of salty yellow stone, where pregnant women assembled for a feast of baked earth, into mud hut slums. We were under instructions not to go to either side, stay in Usaid (You said) said in that luo accent that does something to letter ‘s’. Our unsecured houses that parched on the slopes in different angles, gave us a lesson in respecting fences. The best was when once playing bringicho-banture- Hide and seek, whatever that meant one child hid near a hedge with an electric fence and learnt shuddering lessons without cold. The fences were also marked warning plates mbwa kali and the thought of a rabid dog setting upon you proved more efficient than our mothers’ warning.
My nimble senses understood border along that line, it meant a fence, a wall, a separator and sitting on the fence meant practically having to withstand the gashing spikes of thorns or glass on stone walls, throes of indecision.
On the day my father decided we were going to Busia, I slipped out a blue Atlas that had fascinated me with its attention to details and it lurid landscape impressions. I located where we were, in Kisumu and went West to Busia. This presented a great discovery, the dot was invariably split by the international border line.
Would we belong to two countries? How would we live so close to the border? Would there be rabid dogs or even rabid police and electrocuted wire fences? I did not grasp what to expect and my father had not bothered explaining. Probably because the consultations were well above my league and I was just part of the ceramic cups to be packed last minute.
My sisters got this old picture of a huge stone house from an aged photo album that had my father’s pictures drinking tusker or dotting an ‘Aliko Kenya’ shirt or with a football team much slimmer in an afro and bell bottom trousers. This house is where they said we would live, twice the size of our two bedroomed squat. Our Kisumu watchtower was suffocating in the acquisition of new property (My mother never threw anything away she still doesn’t, OLX probably is something I should introduce to her). In the sepia aged photo my father then thinner and sprightly youthful posed with some men, proud owner of a new house, a huge metal tank above the house. So we had a house in Busia and we would go live there, I eventually grasped the magnitude of the decision.
We were on holidays so I would not get to see my classmates ever again which was tragic. What about the neighbours, the playmates. Habib and his wisdom of adult things to whom we consulted like an oracle of truth, who knew how babies were made. Syombo with whom I had just struck what looked like a promising friendship since they had DSTV that showed more TV channels than our one KBC. What of the whole pack; we had even started a football team and in fact had a match with Okore estate the next week.
When I told my cousin the news he gave me UGSh1000 Ugandan note that his father who had been to Busia had given him. We could not spend it in Kisumu but now I had a chance to, slipped it between my attempt at a diary I was keeping. Slipped it between the crevices of my packed clothes, sure that I was the only one privy to the buried treasure.
Busia became a fascination that woke me up, after coming to terms with the expected loss, I was facing something unique and exotic. A life outside the imagination of all my friends, something even Habib, the sage of adult things did not know. All he knew was that the Ugandan president ate people. Idi Amin Dada, the huge black man in a movie he had watched about Uganda. But that was not the man on My UGSh1,000 and I was not going to raise that fact and let them know I had so much money.
I imagined a secured border with police on either sides marching along its stretch to keep watch complete with bowl huts.
I was hoping to walk along the perimeter wall, like Berlin or Greatwall of China and see what strange people lived across it whose president had eaten people and dumped lame men into Lake Victoria that when you fished you were more likely to get a watch or a ring in a fish, so fish were carnivorous? I was learning fast.
I asked Bab Paulo, whose face was a shape shifter between a smile and sternness. He had a face for all situations, the one to greet my parents so coyly and the angered look with which he withdrew Paulo from the play pack.
He told me I would have to learn Kiluhya. It took a lot of explaining to comprehend the enormity of the insinuation that I had just transformed from a luo speaking boy to a luhya. I had not really appreciated what it meant to be a Luhya or why we were going to Busia. We had suffered the inferiority of an English and Swahili speaking parents and carried the handicap as we were going home, to our people. So Baba Paulo gave me introduction to Kiluhya 101 classes that included greetings and basic curtsies. I never benefited enough from his free classes since we had to pack and go.
Crammed at the back of our old covered pick up truck, the family was transplanted to its new nursery where we should flourish as new people having acquired a new identity. Where I would be expected to remember greetings for all occasions, Bukhiere in the morning, Bwakhera in the afternoon, there was still, Mulembe and Orie so many versions for mere greetings.
Watching Busia through a small window as we entered it, rancid air after a tropical afternoon rain, dissipated my big ideas of the place and reinforced the fears that we had been brought into the back waters.
There was only one tarmac road peeled at its sides like a moulting snake, jagged and unkempt. Storey buildings were separated with patches of greenery thick and unattended, even abandoned. Matt paint faded of the virgin luster, done when probably the buildings came up. Only one aspired to reach above the rest, and even the Ambitious Amukura Building was contented to be tall among dwarfs and bathe in this ‘short’ victory.
Swathes of boda bodas flounced past each other in blue uniforms with more bicycles than I had seen before, completely ruling the tarmac. The people were easy, a laziness settled squat on their ongoings with little impetus in the way the peddled on the metallic frames. An occasional fight between two bodabodas would attract a crowd and the news would spread far, a typical smallness that made trivialities prominent.
The town had countable buildings that showed the decay of a foiled attempt at setting up the magnificence of a District Headquarters. The president’s office that had ignored potential tribal claims, now at the centre of a row between Busia and an ambition to create Tesso District, hid among aged shade trees.
An old monument, a peeling pyramid with the message of ‘Peace Love and Unity’ barely recognizable stood misplaced at the side of the road. An open red dusty field named after Kenya’s monumental Kasarani stadium served more of a shortcut to Kasarani market than as a soccer pitch.
The white Jogoo house, slacking of a flailing political power housed an old national commercial bank and some of its empty offices prying its broken windows. The famous Scorpion pharmacy sold brackish pills in a building with incomplete first floor that it looked a jagged crown of brown porous stone.
Our house also disappointed, its renovated insides doing little justice to the ten years its old outside espoused, singled out between shrubs and farms next to neighbours in small one roomed houses like a sore thumb. Hidden in the foliage of Bulanda where a dirt road that had scuttled through Karibuni and Marchi, (the most populated area of the town) to the junction where a hospital had attracted a few settlements opened up. Bulanda had only two shops one with gaping shelves un-stocked yet attracting no qualms from the old woman who sat on its pot holed veranda and watched boda boda riders pass ferrying smiling faces waving frantically Njia Busia-Am going to Busia. The other owned by an ambitious man known only as Mjaluo at least had essentials in the smallest sizes that they could be possibly divided including brownish cake soaps cut into tiny pieces, powdered soap divided and tied in tiny knots of transparent polythene. The rest of the merchandise smuggled from Uganda especially the cigarettes, oil, sugar, salt, toothpaste. Smuggled through the absent borders by bicycle crews known for their sweaty fearsomeness led by one unloaded bribing guide.
Busia was land unbothered with the bustle that surrounded it, and the future it would be forced to hold, too unprepared for the like of our family strangled from other towns by World Bank dictated retrenchment. Unprepared for the majimbo proposal, its ambitious plans, to scuttle people from the city with the promise of devolved wealth.
The Border too disappointed I met a gate, then nothing. No fence on either side but slouched tracts of farmed land joined at the spine with a river, unguarded. Here their land stretched, panned down and rose up, split by rivers and ownership, but no line nothing air kaput. Here they called Uganda Ingerekha -the Other side, vaguely, there and not here. The clan is everywhere the other side and here and there.
There were four old gates two to each side. Kenyan policemen wore jungle Administration Police jacket and their Ugandan counterparts wore plainly boring jungle green khaki. This was no border no fence, no strange people in fact they were too familiar, spoke my own language better.
These were the real East Africans. The Baamani clan of the Bakhayo. They are the Maasai across Kenya and Tanzania, the Somali sprawled in space across Kenya and Somalia, they are the Teso on either side of Mt. Elgon, the Hutus and Tutsis and Rwanda and Burundi, the Merile and Karamoja. As Mwalimu Nyerere taught in his Ujamaa ‘no true African socialist can look at a line drawn on a map and say. ‘The people on this side of that line are my brothers, but those who happen to live on the other side of it can have no claim on me’; every individual on this continent is his brother.
Here they shared an even stranger tribal etymology. The Samia who were a sub-tribe of the Luhyas in Kenya but a standalone tribe in Uganda, imperially split by colonists and conveniently merged by tibal politics. Maybe we might still have been the Bantu Kavirondo-warriors who sit on their heels.
They told me what makes one a Kenyan or a Ugandan is an Identity card which Ugandans lacked and Kenyans could have it arranged with the local chief who was the benevolent giver of country of belonging. In fact residence and belonging were rarely a locus thing, it’s where for convenience you think you have a better shot at life. So a son can be a Ugandan a father a Kenyan a brother both. Well it doesn’t change where they live nor what they know about themselves.
A young man I met at Mayenje Primary school where my afther soon enrolled me among bare feet children; five kilometers from the town and practically undefined or uncertain where the real border line crossed. The boy failed in Kenyan form four exams, he went to Uganda for form five and six and became a Ugandan.
Here currency operated like the neon display at forex bureau, you do not have to mind the money which you have as long as you understand the exchange rates and you know a little arithmetic. Either side operates either currencies. Anyway they are both shillings if you get rid of the prefix (Uganda and Kenya)
I saw a man with a wad of notes he could barely hold within his fists; such a secure country, a thought of spending mine overwhelming me. When I fished out the UGSh1000 my cousin gave me I was told it was worth KSh40. Terrible news after I had seen the denim hanging off the shops stacked like a headless millipede on the Ugandan side.
Then there were the moneychangers who hawked currencies for those who did not understand the floating rate of Ksh1 for every UGSh25 (has since gone to 29). They are however vultures on the travellers using their confusing calculations and the bulkiness of the Ugandan currency to their advantage. They particularly slip you less notes or small denomination to astound Kenyans and are known to lie about the exchange rates to defraud Ugandans who are not cognizant with the system.
Here politics is also twofold, with the feeling of lack of democracy felt just within a year of the feeling of chaotic elections, Uganda votes just one year before Kenya. Terse antagonism and a feel of powerless-left-outism on the Kenyan side. Rumoured traded voters who vote in two elections to beef up numbers for local politicians with relations abroad
Their symbol of authority towering democratic dictator playing patron on a yellow NRM (National Resistance Movement) poster above the Ugandan gate as you enter Uganda giving the feel of Big brother is watching and effectively so. Filling Ugandans with fear of gliding back into the entrapments of war ‘He brought us order’ hoping the generation that knows nothing of the war would be scared to tow by the tales passed down. In Kenya, a towering allegiance to the legacy of a political enigma; BABA, overseeing an arranged democracy, merit notwithstanding. A Tesso governor, a Marachi deputy, A Samia Senator, a Mukhayo MP and Manyala MP whose disenfranchised sensibilities are appeased by leadership of parliamentary committee and un-elected party leadership. The absence of tangible say compensated by compromise that even the long held contest for the President’s office between the Tesso and Bakhayo is long forgotten.
Four years in Secondary school another four in University and another two in the city spread a decade between me and the land on red soil and yellow bananas. When I returned this year, Busia was as strange to me as it had been fifteen years ago.
People had changed, acquiring an impetus I had not noticed before, worried about ending up thirsty in an ocean of plenty (only a fool does that). Fences going up where land was rumoured to have belonged to the county council as the prices of land shoot through the roof with parcel after parcel being gobbled up with culture of Luhya’s sole ambition to settle at home. The plush trees and green foliage of its hinterland had opened up like a pod to grabbing fingers as concrete outstripped the farmlands. Churches and stalls, shops and a streetlights hanging like erections on electric poles lined the road to Bulanda. Mpesa and retail shops nudged each other into bars and wines and spirit outlets and young people crouched from under the rocks of their reserved homestead to play billiards and gamble between the cheap gin.
Pulled from their receding presence and demanding recompense for the raw deal, their short sightedness got them on the bargaining table. They now grumble, that they sold land at half prices and feel invaded. Their election battle cry is to flush out foreigners, out of tune with me when I realized that being a luhya was not enough and as a sub tribe, a Manyala I could also face similar fate. Probably the benevolence of the party leader managed an unsettled compromise in the arranged democracy.
The borders had blurred out the formality than I could ever remember. Shop owners had demolished buts of their shops so that they stared at both ends like a tunnel of merchandise to deal with customers from both countries. Police posts had been reduced to two officers standing any corner of each country not minding the milling of people that went undetected and unregulated. While a government health official in Nairobi maintained raincoat dressed Ebola warriors with fever sensing guns were keeping Ebola and its new cousin Marbug at bay.
The Customs yard that had served as the only reminder of the British partition right through Busia town (into Busia Uganda and Busia Kenya)led the way in encroaching into an imaginary no man’s land setting up towering immigration offices and tax checkpoint to feed off the throes of people that had suddenly invaded the town.
So had branches from almost all know banks and micro finance companies in Kenya suddenly showing an interest in the once sleeping town. Money is rumoured to be everywhere. The County government has heard these rumours and is taxing anything that moves including a handful of clothes from posta market days every Monday and Thursdays.
I had sought to know why Amukura was the tallest building when we moved to Busia Kenya a decade ago, I was told it was the Idi Amin war (with Jomo Kenyatta!), distrust on each side that had scarred investment. No one dared to go past two floors. Then, Amukura must have been such a defiant feat that it attained a deserved landmark status awing people miles away from the town that they would come during Christmas just to see it.
Now columns from each country were reaching for the sapphire skies successfully dwarfing Amukura House and its sole prestige it had held for years. Cranes perched onto mammoth buildings were still lunging up cement for more crates of space towards God like the tower of Babel. Luxury entertainment spots charging more than Nairobi rates are on the mouths of the middle class here, demanding piqued tastes picked up in forays at the capital who in turn borrow the swag from racist magazines and consumerist deluge on social media.
A new phenomenon, a long traffic jam of petroleum cars that dangerously ran through the stretch of the town as drivers wait for clearance filled the one way tarmac. The information office, one of the oldest buildings in the town offers a first row seat to the confusion of clogged traffic playing itself.
New Boda Bodas on motorcycle in multicoloured reflective second-hand jackets were fighting for space with the more historic blue uniformed bicycle porters. The slacked restrictions punctured the dam letting in pink uniformed bicycle boda bodas from Uganda, bleeding their crimson into the mish mash. Lorries and trailers packing and unpacking timber and maize stood rigid at the centre motionless except for the black masculine men darting in and out with merchandise. Personal vehicles making drinking forays away from Mututho to less restrictive Uganda, honking their way painfully slowly. Then the minions of people mucking like disturbed ants in an open anthill darted through each other.
In the evenings travellers flocked the booking offices for Nairobi bound country-buses that line the border next to each other. The huge monsters with an ever increasing promise of unnecessary comfort with little utility packed outside them. This one has wifi a tout would try to entice you, this one has air conditioner, or sockets to charge your phone. Young men whose nationality you cannot tell selling an admixture of sweet smelling coffee to travellers, chips and roasted chicken on charcoal grills make an addition to the organized chaos. Yam spread out in small heaps for Nairobi people at a bargain along bottled water from dubious brands. Chapati rolex Fried eggs laid like a wretch on fried chapatti and rolled hot, a Ugandan delicacy finding home here
The town has opened up to the influx that perhaps started when we came here fleeing the wave of retrenchment. It has build up as East Africa continued to take shape unmasking its potential for trade as a border town. Suffered a momentary setback during 2007 post-election chaos but has quickly picked its feet and simply grown up overnight. But now, it has baffled its authority who did not plan for the robustness who sold off parcels that would have served as roads and room for expansion. It is blood pilling pressure in veins that cannot hold.