Fence Culture

Guest Writer
21 October ,2014

This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata: Security in Kenya, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

by Otieno Sumba

The first thing I learnt to climb was a fence, a rickety wooden fence. My friends and I would climb up and jump down all day, and our paper planes flew a lot better when launched from this elevated platform, especially because there were no trees around. Alone, this would hardly have been able to deter intruders, but the fauna that had grown around it was quite restraining. Having had to free my friends from the seemingly endless soft twig clutter on several occasions, I knew. The dry leaves on the ground would rustle loudly when trampled upon, a sound that could be heard adjacent block of flats, acting as a rather cheap but effective alarm system.

This fence had replaced a chain-link fence, which my friends and I had dissected over the years. During the last two play seasons (April and August during the school holidays), Musa, a teenage boy from the neighborhood had developed a new technique for manufacturing his wire toy-cars. While hip-high bamboo steering wheels and plastic mudguards were standard, Musa’s heavy duty cars were said to be able to carry 1 kg packets of Maize flour, and were obtainable at the unbeatable price of 30 bob, provided one brought his/her own raw materials. Straightened wires from chain-link fences in the neighbourhood were preferred. Musa then slit bicycle tubes from questionable sources into rubber bands, which he used to make the tires and to tie the car frame, interior and fittings together. Nobody realized that the chain link fence was gone until the bushes that covered it caved in. Meanwhile, going to the Shops to get maize flour had never been more exciting.

The intruders had long since found their ways around the wooden fence: they were brazen enough to come in through the gate. The red, wrought-iron Gate was flanked by a roofless watchman’s house and stood on slanting wrought-iron pillars.

The chokora mapipa (street kids), curtly called machokosh on the streets, were courteous enough to close the gate as they went in, inconspicuous in their rummaging around in the plot’s trash bins for anything that looked like plastic, ignorant of the flies that frenzied around them, and dutiful in their wielding of gunias (sacks) full of plastics onto their backs on their way out. Occasionally, a house help from one of the houses gave them a packed lunch of leftovers in a tin of Kimbo to eat, hurriedly placing the tin near them and scurrying off, stifling a giggle while the other house helps watched from the windows of the flats they worked in. The unspoken consensus was that the machokosh, despite their stench, were harmless and were therefore tolerated from safe distances. All the house helps would call in the children they were entrusted with when the distinct squeak of the gate was followed by a sack lugging chokosh and only release them to continue playing when a second squeak announced the departure of the said chokosh.

The robbers also found their way in. Like the machokosh, through the gate. Unlike them, at night, and they were less interested in the trash, and much more in the blue Audi saloon that was always parked at the far left corner of the yard. KPLC (Kenya Power and Lighting Company), having conspired to let us sit in the dark for a few hours every Tuesday and Thursday night, offered them a great opportunity to sneak in. Even the gate, which normally would squeak when opened, did not squeak that night. It is still a matter of contention as to whether or not the robbers lubricated it beforehand.

The pastor who lived in the ground floor flat in front of which the Audi was parked, swore he had a revelation that compelled him to look outside his bedroom, upon which he spotted the gang and raised alarm. By the grace of God he was still alive, never mind that the “gun toting gangsters” were not toting anything. The theft was botched and God thanked. Five years on, a self- proclaimed bishop, he was still giving this testimony, to the delight of his growing congregation at Praise International Ministries, some of whom had been attracted by this very testimony.

The second thing I learned to climb was a wall. It was more challenging than climbing the wooden fence, and more dangerous. Over two metres high, there was no getting over the wall without assistance. Friends’ shoulders and heads served well at the beginning, until we learned how to hug the wooden mast that hoisted the telephone wires and wriggle our way up, to the delight of our onlooking friends.

Playing on this wall was dangerous. At the top, it was lined with broken glass: bottles of Stoney Tangawizi, Coke and Sprite had been destroyed specifically for this purpose. Within a month, we had knocked off the glass over a stretch of a metre, so that two of us could stand side by side on top of the fence. Our newspaper jets flew even farther. We jumped down from the wall with open umbrellas hoping to glide, and when that failed, we tied stones to rectangular plastic bags, crumpled them together, then threw them from the wall and watched them glide as they descended, imagining ourselves as the stones. It was a blissful childhood, within the walls.

Outside the walls, our parents required us to walk to school in as straight a line as possible; no unnecessary turns, no stops to play, no stealing guavas over the hedge from a neighbour’s tree – and woe unto us if we talked to a strangers. Rogue drivers and crossing roads were the least of our parents’ worries. It was the thuggery “out there” that they were worried about: the kidnappers, thieves and what not. Soon, we had a carpool with our next door neighbour’s kids, and the following year, my school bought a bus whose services we were enlisted to.

We were picked up and dropped off every morning and evening respectively, each child was handed to a waiting brother, sister, house help or parent personally by the driver. If the brother, sister, house help or parent was late, the engine was put off and one of the older pupils was shown where the child in question lived. He was then duly instructed to deliver the child to his/her doorstep. Only then did the engine come on again.

When I got robbed, I did not tell my mother. Fresh out of primary school, I needed my freedom of movement, especially now that my curfew had been extended by two hours to 7 pm. This was unnecessary, since I would have come in to listen to the Top 7 at 7 radio show on Kiss 100 anyway. On my way home from buying meat one afternoon, I was intercepted by an angry looking chokosh on a path through an open field that I had chosen to take since it was shorter and less dusty than the parched murram road that connected to the main street that led to my house.

He lamented angrily about me being one of those “watoto wa wadosi” while forcefully searching and emptying my left, then right, pockets of my Champion sports trousers. Though scared, I managed to secure 50 bob of my pocket money in my back pocket with my left hand, which I later combined with another 50 bob (from my savings of 250 bob) to give my mother her change back.

In retrospect, this was my first adult decision, handling an instance of insecurity by myself. It could have been worse. I could have been beaten, stripped of my clothes or smeared with human scat. Kenyan life is transcended by measures against intrusion, Kenya being one of the few countries in the world where gated communities of various forms are not exclusively a preserve of the rich.

Secure living means living in a walled environment. While gated living may be attractive for reasons that are not limited to security such as amenities, reliable water and electricity supply, solid infrastructure, landscaping and community, for a majority of Kenyans, gated living is a choice that stems from security concerns. While the government is mostly to blame for failing to provide security for its citizens, walling and gating is hardly a solution to the problem. It is a band-aid solution – a reaction to our perceptions of a social problem rather than to the problem itself. Insecurity in Kenya is not the problem, it is a symptom.

In essence, only the poor have the “luxury” of living in “freedom” in Kenya. Slums and poorer neighbourhoods are sprawling and open, while everybody else is walled and locked up, busy creating an adjusted form of social reality – a perfect tiny world where crime and violence do not exist. The more one has, the higher the walls need to be surrounding it. The haves are afraid. Afraid of the day the have-nots will come and demand redistribution (I’ll save the Marxist arguments for another day). For example, for the chokosh who robbed me, I was rich simply because he presumed I lived behind a wall, and while I do not condone his actions I also do not, and cannot, blame him.

We have failed to create a society in which everybody belongs. Enclaves of prosperity by default physically segregate non-prosperous people. The receptiveness for the prosperity gospel preached in our religious institutions does not help matters either. When confronted with these facts, anybody will say that wanting to live in relative safety is a natural thing. Indeed it is, but what is often forgotten is that human beings are social beings, and they compare themselves with others in their environment.

It is therefore natural to want to have what your neighbours, friends or compatriots have, especially if your vicinity is shared. Walls in Kenya try to deny this immediate vicinity, with every slum bordering a “leafy suburb”, as the enclaves of the well-to-do have come to be known. If poor Kenyans have no other way of accessing the wealth that is flaunted to them every day by well-to-do Kenyans, the walls,no matter how high, will not prevent them from wanting it, yearning for it, taking it, or at least trying to.

And so young Kenyans will continue to die. Their bullet ridden bodies will be strewn on the street, again reaffirming the cheapness of African life, and their blood will seep into the soil after yet another botched robbery. Well-to-do Kenyans will commend the police for fighting “insecurity”; for shooting young men in the head without the slightest chance of fair trial, even when they were on their knees, their hands high up in the air in desperate surrender. Pictures of their lifeless bodies will be leaked on social media, captioned “Look at these lazy, sleazy school dropouts who don’t want to work hard for their money and to eat their sweat like honest and hard-working Kenyans!” and liked, shared, retweeted and favourited.

The truth is they did. They worked hard. They worked to build the fence around a villa in which their mothers cleaned, and their brothers tended lawns for 200 bob a day, just like their fathers before them. They worked hard for money that was not enough to take them through school, so they dropped out and looked for menial work to supplement their families’ income. They saw the wealth that they would never earn if they built a wall every day for the rest of their lives.

Peer pressure mounted from age-mates, who had earned a quick bob doing untaxed, illegal “labour” – who were trying to make life for their families worth living. Pressure mounted from their families, who asked them why they couldn’t be more like Jose, the neighbour’s boy who had dropped out of school the same time last year and who, recently, had bought his parents a new sofa set. With each day they hesitated, a younger sibling dropped out of school, a mother needed medication for her broken back, and food for the following day had to be bought.

They gave in, but were not too lucky.

Otieno Sumba is a BA student of Political Science and Sociology who finds fascination in the Akan Empire and African (sage) Philosophy. He reads, rides his Fixie, skates, attends film festivals and dissects Development Aid in his free time. Follow him on Twitter @_Otieno_

This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata: Security in Kenya, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

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