Mathare Valley in Kenya is what Middle-earth would have become if Lord Sauron had won a scorched-earth war strategy. Vestiges of a deformed, defiled, distorted and wounded sublime Shire are much in evidence: the shadows of softly rolling hills, landscapes that were once terraced, a natural amphitheatre interwoven with streams, and a once-splendid conflux where two Nairobi River tributaries merge, the Mathare meeting the Getathuru. The vapour and spray, now darkened, from that falling-into-each-other of rivers suggest a long-ago season of light-hearted beauty. The tributaries that once exchanged fish species are now slow-moving swamps that compare sewage notes.

Among the 750,000 occupants of this dystopian Eden – the internally and, mostly, permanently displaced of Kenya – is a choir of voices tinged with a nostalgia for lost beauty mingled with despair at inestimable loss. The former hustler who recalls how clear the waters in which he swam as a child used to be, fishing for tadpoles, the colours of the lingering birds – honeyguides mainly, and the dragonflies of many colours. ‘The river was once an endless song.’ We stop to gawk at what humans have made of the river. It is a dark, dense green sludge carrying the detritus, debris and dirt of Upper Nairobi. Condemned plastics have created eyots midstream. The ‘bridge’ that links the two sides of the valley is, appropriately, a giant dull blue sewage pipe carrying Upper Nairobi’s excrement into and over the lives of Kenya’s discarded souls. If the river makes a sound now, it is a drawn-out moan. Here is the dirge of what structured, systematised violence woven into governance structures produces, this horrible transmutation of life, this negative sacrament.

 

The most resilient evil in the valley is one called ‘extrajudicial killings’. Every day is hunting season, and you are a target if you’re a male within the thirteen to forty age range. The national blood sport, the thrill-killing season often coincides with the rising of political temperatures in Kenya. Yes, there are young men and women who, backed into a corner watch their peers cruise past in Lamborghinis and later drop three million shillings in one nightclub hour. Some decide to seize for themselves the benefits of Upper Nairobi living, the violence has deep tentacles: carjacking, robbery with or without violence, rape, sodomy, slaughter.

After the private funerals, the stunned mourning, there is always the special Kool-Aid of collective amnesia. The security apparatus in this valley is intricately committed to the delivery of death, sometimes for no known reason, operating under a gruesome ‘moral’ code that is able to plaster over the evidence of state absence and neglect. The valley dead do not count; they are barely registered. At least five funerals take place in the valley each day, and three of the corpses are more often than not young ones, and two of these are almost always young men in the prime of their lives. The keening of the wretched rises and falls only in the valley, as the rest of Nairobi loses itself in a hamster-wheel life of hustling, hysterical night-partying, and hapless pontifications on social improvement programmes that are never going to be implemented.

 

Along a harrowed river’s banks chugs an alchemical and menacing presence; large, round grey-black vessels belching fire and vapour. These are tended mostly by men, who move like agile phantoms. They shuffle inside, along, into, out of the green-black putrid stew that is the Mathare River. In intervals, a dramatic hissing erupts, spewing brown steam into the atmosphere, perfuming the atmosphere with an unexpected sweetness. And then the passing wind mixes the aroma with the stench of human disorder emanating from the river and drives it into our nostrils. At least we now know what Nairobi really smells like. Pipes and tubes lead into other black-brown metal canisters, these former oil cans. This is ‘The Base’, a restricted area. The elixir being distilled is called chang’aa, in regular Kiswahili. In the valley, it is known as ‘cham’ or ‘steam’. The set-up is mesmerising.

Ubiquitous yellow plastic containers, in all sizes, former cooking-oil vessels, now serve other functions that extend their lives: water carriers, sitting stools, storerooms. Walking down precarious steps into the valley, the yellow plastic containers are impossible to miss. The valley is a place where things acquire new forms, habits and purposes. Recycling is a fine art here. And like the Inuit with their fifty names for snow, there are many ways of water here, categorised by the water cartels: cooking water, drinking water, clothes-washing water, cutlery-washing water, plant and tree water, chang’aa water, bathing water. Different costs. There are also water-support services: delivery, transportation, distribution, fetching, carrying. Yes, there are pipes leading to blocked taps that are meant to carry water. But nobody knows who shut the water off, or why in a city of at least 20,000 plumbers the blockage in the pipes cannot be fixed.

 

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor Distilling Existence
Small breweries producing liquor along the Mathare River. Distillers often burn rubber sandals and rubbish to save money on firewood.

 

 

Vapour from the chang’aa brewery, ‘The Base’, taints the area with an eerie mist. It has been raining in the city so from where we wander we can see how the river has breached its boundaries. The sun is up today, fierce and focused. There are souls flitting by the river, shrouded in smoke, shadow beings darting to and fro. We make our way towards our destination, leaping across narrow streams with pockets of clear water; a startling, oddly hopeful sight. Glimmers of old purity, future possibility. Four goats browse on a green patch over which twelve eucalyptus trees loom. We are waiting for mpishi, the Chef. It was he who planted these trees eight years ago.

A man lopes towards us.

It is he, Wilson ‘Amush’ Amunga. He is a beautiful man by any human standards. His eyes are probing and direct. It is this that a person first notices. He is a slender, sinewy man with glowing midnight-dark skin and high cheekbones. He has a firm handshake and appears a little shy. His is a reassuring presence. This is conveyed by how he stands in his world. Unintimidated. Alert. Whenever an emergency arises, there are the ‘run-to’ people whom others turn to automatically. Amunga is a ‘run-to’ person.

Karibuni.’ Welcome, he says, shaking hands with us all before he leads us to his home. Just then, a long-limbed woman, youthful, with large eyes and angular cheekbones that somehow mirror Amunga’s, appears. Amunga’s voice acquires light. ‘This is my wife, Caroline Medeva.’

We gather around to greet her.

Medeva’s faded flowered skirt and loose white blouse do little to reveal how arresting she is. She wears a stillness that should suggest serenity, but is belied by the intensity of her watching, her barely restrained restlessness.

Amunga and Medeva are each other’s protector, a carapace of family for each other. They have made of their relationship a bulwark against a mad, bad, capricious world that does nobody any favours, that would destroy the most vulnerable without blinking. Their children have inherited the character of family quietness. The gentle atmosphere in that odd-shaped home softens our own voices, simplifies our questions.

 

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor Distilling Existence

Coming home means returning to a one-room shanty. Neighbours have helped after rioters burned Amunga’s old house during the 2017 general elections.
 

 

We arrange ourselves on the yellow plastic water containers that serve as stools. The rectangular room is neat. The spaces – kitchen, bedroom, areas for clothes – are separated by a piece of blue cloth. A single light bulb is tucked into the wall. It is not enough space for a man, his wife and three children to occupy. Amunga pays almost 1,000 shillings for the privilege of squatting in this shack.

During the 2017 bloodletting season also known as the Kenyan elections, Wilson Amunga’s house was set alight by those who had mistaken his political affiliation. Amunga is a fiercely apolitical man. A neighbour had rushed to warn him: ‘Toa vitu wanakuja kuchoma,’ ‘Remove your things; they are coming to set this place on fire.’ Amunga managed to escape with his wife and children. He had watched the life he had carefully built turn into ash. He has had to rebuild a new place out of the debris of the former.

Wilson Amunga will start at the beginning in response to questions we put to him. He stumbles, and then speaks more firmly of being born unwanted. He tells us of his abandonment by a mother who deposited him with a cherished but impoverished grandmother before disappearing for good. His voice lowers as he remembers the woman who raised him, his grandmother, as if she is the only soft cushion in a cold, hard universe. He has memories of being treated as a mistake by his immediate family, of always searching and yearning for a father who had never tried to find him, of imagining what might make a mother dump her son and never look back. He tells us of his ache to go to school.

‘But we were so poor.’

He took himself to class after class, having put together different versions of a school uniform. He recalls how he sat in different school classrooms until he was thrown out, sent to fetch parents who were unavailable, sent to raise school fees when none was to be had and none were offered, of time passing and leaving him behind. Still, Amunga is proud of his mathematical ability. ‘My arithmetic skills are good,’ he states.

Silence.

And only then the hint of a dream held so close to the soul that it has grafted itself onto the man: ‘What I would have become had I gone to school.’ He returns at once to his default stoicism, looking away, embarrassed, as if he has been caught dreaming in public. His voice is tight. ‘My children go to school. They will study. As long as I live, my children will go to school.’

The next part of the telling becomes unexpectedly difficult for us, the observers, the eavesdroppers, the story-gatherers, the citizens of Kenya. Amunga says, ‘There are days when the family must choose between having a meal and paying school fees.’ Amunga’s smile is wry. ‘Sometimes school must win.’

In the rectangular home we have crowded, our silences are specific and loaded. A quick glance around; all our heads are lowered. One of us scratches the ground with a twig, studying the plastics covering the floor as if they are the oracle. There is no way any of us can escape a sense of indictment. There are no innocents in the fact that even one citizen in the Republic of Kenya has to undergo an hourly existential battle to garner for his family the basics of life. This is a country where, with allowances included, the average parliamentarian takes home at least seven million shillings a month, where one of the chief executive officers of a national bank earns 27 million shillings a week. Where oil and rare earth minerals exist, a country that delivers to the world the finest rubies and the most exclusive tsavorite. Where salaries are taxed at 45 per cent, and a minister’s son can spend one million shillings buying drinks for acquaintances in a Nairobi nightclub, where seven-million-shilling billboards advertise SportPesa gambling opportunities over the valley; in a country that moves billions of dollars borrowed on public goodwill into private bank accounts, a nation that squandered the treasure of its supposed ‘independence from colonial rule’, in such a country there is no excuse, no reason, no justification for a citizen, almost sixty years later, to daily have to choose between living and dying.

We look away from Wilson Amunga and his son, and from each other, because his is the face of national betrayal. In the years that now exceed the season of the British sojourn that developed the Kenya idea, a ‘post-independent’ leadership has managed to oversee the wilful destruction of the nation-building ideal, has predated on the country’s most vulnerable, generation after generation, and devoured the future of its best souls. The one time the Amungas and Medevas of this country count, is during election season when they become useful numbers in a ballot count.

We citizens pretend that we do not know what the smoke rising from the burning shacks of Mathare means. We pretend that the wheelbarrow ambulances that rush the valley’s mortally wounded to clinics and hospitals are justified, as are the hardened backs of men, boys and mothers that carry the dead to be mourned in the hovels they are forced to call house and home.

 

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor Distilling Existence
Wilson Amunga, at home.

 

Wilson Amunga has found a kinship with soil. He loves the earth. In his words, ‘It rewards the work of my hands. Soil is honest. Soil gives you back what you give to it.’

In 1999, he had his first work assignment as a gardener in Kitale. He earned his first salary, and used to store his earnings under his mattress. He lived and worked on the farm for three years before one of the friends he had made, Arif, convinced him to come to Nairobi, where he would make his fortune.

Uko na fare, twende,’ ‘You have the fare, let’s go,’ Arif said.

Amunga had saved 750 shillings. He used it all to travel to Nairobi.

He disembarked in the city that evening. He recalls his shock at the sight of the famed city.

‘I had expected a magical place, a green city of wealth. I thought everybody in Nairobi worked. It was a disappointment.’ He shakes his head at the naivety of that young man. He soon realised that he needed to find work, or die. He moved to Mathare and settled in the Sokomoko area, Hospital ward. On his way to the first of his dwellings, he watched people hurry up and down the hill hauling water. The Mathare water crisis would give him his first job.

Amunga hauled water, day in and day out. He carried water for the workers at ‘The Base’. For every circuit he made he earned 20 shillings. He also took up other odd jobs, to earn some extra survival money. His water-hauling introduced him to new neighbours, and one day, it brought him the woman, Caroline Medeva, who would become his wife.

‘I was at the water point, fetching water, dressed in rags. She saw me and thought I was a chokora – a street child.’ He laughs. He mimics her voice, ‘You are a mess, a bum.’

“No, it is just work,” I told her.’

Medeva giggles and grins over her shoulder at him. She is seated on the floor, facing the door, seemingly basking in the afternoon sun. But she is listening to us, protecting her husband in her quiet way. Her other two children play by her feet.

Amunga’s eyes are distant, remembering. ‘She then told me to continue with it. She liked that I was a hard worker.’

His son strokes his face. He looks down at the child.

We wait.

‘And soon we were together,’ he adds.

Another soft laugh from Medeva.

‘Everything changed. Together, we decided to stop drinking. I stopped because of her. She stopped because of me.’ Amunga glances at me. ‘But I still like miraa.’

Amunga seemed to be settling into life. Soon after, again through Arif, he obtained work with a tailoring company and quickly acquired sewing skills. ‘I am good. I have an eye for design.’ His clothes proclaim the truth of that statement. Amunga is not boasting. He is a man with no time for false humility or wasted words, who understands what he knows and what he does not. ‘And then Caro and I had our firstborn.’

Amunga goes suddenly still, as if the import of his words and their meaning have struck him anew. It is as if all his existence had been leading to the moment when a new life would arrive, life that was dependent entirely on him. That child clings to his father’s thighs.

 

Trouble pounced on Wilson ‘Amush’ Amunga in 2006. At the height of one of the now-normalised Kenyan blitzes against its able-bodied young men. Amunga was in a matatu returning home from work when it was stopped by the police. All the young men in it were forced to disembark and were arrested and charged with being members of a ‘proscribed criminal gang’, in this instance, Mungiki. Amunga’s cultural origin and profile are as far from Mungiki as the east is from the west, to use a biblical analogy. Mungiki, a pseudo-religious-political gang, is strongly associated with those from central Kenya. Its methodologies, rituals and allegiances would be abhorrent to a man of Amunga’s orientation. There is no pretence or shade of grey about this. Still, such is the nature of justice for the targeted voiceless; a miscarriage of justice would occur. Wilson Amunga was found guilty and was fined 200,000 shillings, or prison for two years. His grandmother would struggle for more than a year to raise the fine by selling her pride, the cows she had worked to raise for her upkeep. After Amunga was finally released, his employer at the tailoring company wanted nothing to do with him.

The story is appalling for far too many reasons, yet there is no anger in Amunga. Here is a citizen who has no illusions about the extent of the law or justice for the likes of him. Here is a man still anguished at the thought that his grandmother, the only mother he had known, had to give up even the little she had saved to pay for the laziness of a judge, the amorality of a prosecutor and the venality of a system that is indifferent about grinding the bones of its young men into dust.

After Amunga left prison, he retreated to his shack and found refuge in Mathare. He had a family to support, and not enough to support them with. The memory of his season in Kitale came to his aid. There was a neglected patch of space in the valley that was filled with debris. It was a mess. Amunga cleared it, centimetre by centimetre, and planted vegetables and trees. He supplemented his gardening and the sale of his produce with his old water-fetching job. He reserved some of the water for his garden. Amunga teased life into the plants and trees that, to this day, stand tall and green and provide shade and aesthetic relief to the many.

 

There is one gladiatorial arena where Wilson ‘Amush’ Amunga has implemented a Faustian pact in order to guarantee a different life for his children. It is the place where Amunga has acquired the sobriquet of the Chef, mpishi. This is the chang’aa distillery, at ‘The Base’. This is an open-air ‘factory’ that in another world and culture might be looked upon as an impressive living-art installation. Amunga’s water-carrying excellence, coupled with traits that he repeats as a personal code – ‘bidii’ (diligence), ‘nguvu na kazi’ (strength and hard work), ‘hesabu’ (capacity to count) – secured him the job. Access to the distillery is a privilege. No stranger is allowed close to the site. Those invited in must have a capacity to be steeped in and shelter its secrets. Amunga was called across the threshold – an uncommon vocation – not by God, but by the phantom powers that wield power over the valley. They had noted and needed his focus, intelligence, relentless capacity for hard work and steel will. He took the chang’aa brewer’s job because his children need to go to school and his wife needs to feel safe, and they all need to eat, and he is a man and father who believes he must provide for his own.

Bidii, nguvu na kazi, hesabu.

A code.

It has made of Amunga mpishi. The Gardener is the Chef, distilling a toxic city river into an alchemical potion that the city’s wounded, sad, lost and fragmented can consume, exchanging their souls for a moment of forgetting and carefree laughter. Apart from testing the quality of his brew, neither Amunga nor his wife imbibes the fruits of Amunga’s labour.

 

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor Distilling Existence

Sweet steam makes its way out of the barrels.
 

 

The ingredients: dry firewood to light and keep the fires going. Water to be carried from the top of the hill to the bottom five or six or seven times by a slight man with big shoulders and a will for his children to live another kind of future. A fetid, blackened river that only forty years ago had storks and herons squabbling on its banks as they dove for fresh fish. Yeast (different kinds used; brewer’s secret). Kangara: fermented molasses mixed with water, sugar, ground sorghum and yeast in perfect portions. Light the fires and raise the temperatures. An impressive fire dance unfolds. Mpishi, ‘the Chef’, stirs, tastes, scents, times, watches the temperature, stirs, watches. ‘You must use your eyes, know what to look for.’ Mpishi has his ways of seeing, of noticing colour and the pressure of the steam. ‘There is an art to fire,’ the Chef observes, his gaze lost in the imagination of his alchemy. ‘Fire can make or break a brew.’ Here is a master of the science of distillation. ‘The secret is in the stir.’ Now he ponders colour, swirls some liquid in a glass, inhales the bouquet, sips, holds, spits. ‘There is an art to tasting.’ If he was offered the vocabulary of tastes, he might rhapsodise over flavour palettes. But he is a distilled man with no breath for bullshit. ‘Balance,’ he insists. ‘Always balance.’

He is a man who is fascinated by the technology of production: the pipes, the copper. He explains how the blend heats up and the alcohol steam passes through a distillation system, a rig with copper pipes through which the distillate passes, and through which the vapour is released as if a fire-breathing creature stirs. What remains flows down a coiled pipe into a recycled oil can sitting in the putrid river that cools it down, condensing steam into liquid. A pipe carries the pristine liquid into another of the yellow plastic containers, ready to be graded, distributed and sold. From that moment on, everything is out of the Chef’s hands.

His work is done.

A squadron of middlemen, vultures and proxies descend like migrant locusts and coalesce around the product. The ecosystem of scavengers in action: gurning, grunting, sneaking as they receive their unmerited cut, the benefits from an intoxicating nectar created out of the debris of human souls. The ecology has a coded name for each one of them according to their categories of greed. The Chef must be cautious because it is not impossible that one of these might decide to jail him and his kind.

 

When chang’aa is referred to in Kenya’s official circles, it is prefixed with the adjectives ‘illicit’ or ‘illegal’. The references are accompanied by a wrinkling of noses and variations on the bellows of Old Testament prophets. Nothing turns the officious as apoplectic as decrying the distillation, distribution, sales and consumption of chang’aa. As with many human enterprises, chang’aa has its counterfeiters who adulterate the product with all manner of substances, including embalming and jet fluid either to extend the life of the product, amplify the hit, or make a little go a long way. The consequences are often devastating: blindness, impotence, massive organ failure, death. And still even the adulterated products have their clients. A bottle of beer in Nairobi can cost up to 150 shillings. Half a glass of chang’aa is available for ten shillings, and it is more potent than pure whisky.

The origin of the word chang’aa seems to have been lost in a retelling that is now accompanied by sound, fury and finger-wagging. It does not mean the ridiculously prosaic ‘kill me quick’, as some alien journalist misreported. Like busaa, another alcoholic beverage brewed in Kenya, chang’aa is probably rooted in one of the cultures that moved into the magnet city that is Nairobi. One anecdote suggests that chang’aa as a word emerged out of an inside joke among illegal distillers and their clients of Luo cultural origin, who learned to ask (with a wink), ‘Cha ngaa?’ – ‘Whose tea?’ Code name for another kind of ‘tea’ on tap. It would also be a homonym for ‘there, who?’

There are many ways of brewing chang’aa, but the core ingredients and its chemistry are consistent. Expertise and precision are required, and a master brewer, like Amunga, even if he is immersed in a stinking river, is regarded with awe.

Climate, quality of water, source of ingredients, temperature gradations and the skills of the distiller inform the output. The output is graded according to colour, sweetness, dryness, smell, flavour, palate, blend, clarity and origin. As with wine, beer, coffee and other spirits, chang’aa connoisseurs exist who can explain with zeal the nuances and advantages of a variety that comes from Korogocho as opposed to the Kibera kind.

The finest Mathare chang’aa has a distinctive smokiness with strong earthy undertones. I am told it is particularly heady. Given the state of the river that supplies its water, and the analogy of the distillation of a city’s sinfulness, I believe this. A master distiller from anywhere in the world would find the chang’aa procedures familiar. The primary differences are in perception management, brand and an effective cover story (myth). Standardisation, scale, detail, public relations and guilds provide the rest of the padding that separate chang’aa from Absolut Vodka. A creative entrepreneur may one day emerge to package chang’aa as a high-value, distinct, revenue-generating base distillate for sale to the wider world.

Kenya’s annual ‘war on chang’aa’ is a manufactured farce, with all the ingredients of a bad theatre play. Everyone involved knows that this is a vast ecosystem whose shareholders and bosses, ‘wadosi’, include those in the highest echelons of the Kenyan state. It is no secret that members of the police, the military, the environmental and health offices and politicians are all in on the take. The real owners of the distilleries are high-end businessmen. The availability of cheap alcohol for the people at the bottom of the pyramid is required to mute the rage of those who would otherwise be on the streets demanding their rightful due from the neglectful state. It is in nobody’s interest to shut down the distilleries that operate in the open, visible on the ground and from the air, and that can be approached from all directions.

The immense profits from this ‘illicit’ business quickly flow from the hands of the distillers on site to those stretched in all directions. The least of the beneficiaries are the men who labour close to the fire, alchemists like Amunga, who are in constant risk of death through explosions (there is no safety equipment on site) or indentured servitude.

Amunga has just emerged from a three-week absence for having lost a drum of the brew as he worked at night. (When pieces in the brewing system go missing or get damaged, the cost is borne by men regarded as being on the lower scale of the cycle.) In debt to his employer, Amunga got into further debt when he had to borrow money from ‘Eastlands Shylocks’, loan sharks in his neighbourhood, to pay rent, feed his children and send them to school. It does not bother him that he had to forgo meals in order to settle those debts. Meanwhile, the distillery runs day and night. It is only inactive on the days of the year set aside for ‘The Raid’.

 

‘The distillery is in the open, there is no secret about its presence.’

‘Correct,’ replies Amunga.

‘But every year, for the past, what . . . thirty years . . . we have been treated to images of dramatic raids on chang’aa dens.’

Amunga laughs out loud. ‘Correct,’ he says, wiping his eyes. He then glances at the calendar on his wall. ‘In fact “they” are late this year.’ His eyes glimmered in mischief.

‘Aren’t you worried? Won’t you be affected?’

Amunga shrugs. ‘We shall hear about it a week in advance.’

That is the extent of Amunga’s contribution on this topic. He needs to keep the trade secrets. But afterwards we will consult with others, the ‘connoisseurs’ who were curious about our visit to the area. They were happy to supply more detail.

Before each raid, an informant linked to the police will alert the brewery ‘owner’ about the impending action. The owner will inform the manager/supervisor at the site. The site manager will activate ‘The Plan’. He will arrange for his crew to collect scrap oil drums, which have been kept aside for just this purpose. They will be placed as if they are in active use. Close to the day of ‘The Raid’, they will be filled with river water. The press will have been tipped off so that before ‘The Raid’ their cameras are already rolling in readiness for the ‘surprise’ action. Young men paid to act the different roles required will take their positions. These include the distiller and the chang’aa clients, complete with red eyes and swollen lips who still have enough wits about them to flee as the police and officials raid the base and chase after them. Crying dragon tears on television, in what might be the finest performance of their lives, are officials from the agencies that for the rest of the year are not to be seen: various security officers, people from the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA), the ill-named Kenyan Slum Upgrading Programme (KENSUP), the National Environmental Authority (NEMA) and any number of non-governmentals and religious groups that need to show evidence of their commitment to Mathare Valley sobriety. Once the lights have dimmed and the pre-packaged story (complete with alarming statistics) has run, the chang’aa business resumes. The gullible public will see officials in action on the 7 or 9 p.m. news. Sometimes a task force is appointed to study the situation and ‘make recommendations’ in a report which will later be stored away to gather dust with the previous reports.

 

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor Distilling Existence

Wilson Amunga returns home.
 

Caught in the jaws of a primal crocodile death roll, Mr Wilson ‘Amush’ Amunga, husband, father, distiller, dreamer, survivor, man has learned to take the blows and he does so to shield his loved ones from ghastly forces that have moved in to occupy the spaces in his life vacated by the Kenyan state. He lives; he has found some sense of peace. There is a steady line of hope in him. Listening to him as he imagines a better future for his wife and children, I am assailed by worry for him. Hope, bloody hope has betrayed Amunga before.

Here is Atlas.

Here is Sisyphus.

Here is an Old World father, one of those who still vow to their children that tomorrow will be a better day.

But a terrible undercurrent runs deep through the valley. It is a moaning thing. Ghoulish violence can and does erupt out of nowhere and at any time. It might be sparked by a look, the suspicion of ‘wrong’ political affiliation – it is always worse during the Kenya election blood-hunt season – links with politicians who have honed the arcane art of dividing people by exploiting differences; it could be the suggestion of transformation, of unexpected bounty, fear that one of those in the death roll might have slipped away, leaving others – the bitter, the resentful, the self-entitled – behind. And so we shall later hear that an older, stronger, troublesome man, a known bully addicted to Amunga’s brew, had been heckling and hounding Amunga, accusing him of benefitting financially from the visit of strangers. The creature demanded his share of Amunga’s proceeds. A few nights later, a little past midnight, he showed up with a machete, screaming and threatening Amunga’s family. And Wilson Amunga gave in to the howl that lurked within his chest. He stepped out of his shack and launched himself on the bully. He beat him to a barely living pulp until neighbours had to intervene. Amunga, family sentinel, ‘the Chef’, gardener, tree-planter, water-carrier, father, husband, man, had to be pulled off and dragged away from the fool he was prepared to kill.

Amunga tries, how he tries, to keep a bright light shining for his own. He minds his own business, yet roaming phantoms still seek him out. He will try to hold them at bay, attempt to ignore them, until they make the serious mistake of reading his preference for silence as weakness.

It has been stated by others before, it bears repeating again. The valley is not what reveals itself at first encounter. It is not ‘a problem’; it is a black scrying mirror inside which churns a potent, wounded, angry river. No human being is immune from its portents. Not one.

 

 

 

 

Caption for feature photograph: Wilson Amunga prepares the cooling pipe for distilling the liquor, Mathare River, Mathare Valley, Nairobi, Kenya, 2018
All photographs © Bernd Hartung

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