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.


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.

The Politics of Feeling
The Guests