Dead man walking
It was Kamandu who brought the daily newspaper to Nderitu on that fateful day. It was evening and Nderitu was resting on his bed with his eyes open.
"Nderitu? You need to go home and see your family, now!"
"Why? What's going on?" Nderitu sat up quickly.
"Take a look at this paper," Kamandu said in a concerned voice. "You have been declared dead by your village!"
Nderitu grabbed the paper and stared at the obituaries page with a puzzled expression. "I don't understand. Why would they declare me dead without evidence?"
“Your own family would never declare you dead,” Kamandu said. “Your family would never give up on you.”
Nderitu stood up and paced the small room. “So if my family did not post this, then who did?”
"There's only one explanation," Kamandu said. "And you are not going to like it. I've heard of this type of thing before."
Nderitu waited anxiously, his grip tight around the paper. In his mind, he saw himself and his sisters running up and down the green hills. The thought stirred up deep emotions buried within.
Kamandu sat on the bed and placed his eyes on a spot on the wall. "After independence, and as you already know, much of the colonial era 'Crown Land' has been categorized as government land," he explained. "The native reserves have become Trust Land, but are still under the County Councils and Commissioner of Lands. The Kenyatta government has also established a Settlement Fund Trustees (SFT) to facilitate the purchase and distribution of settler farms to landless Kenyans. These government systems to date continue to undermine the customary tenure system."
"What's that got to do with me?" Nderitu asked impatiently.
Kamandu sat on the bed and faced him. "Your father's land sits on the very edge of the White Highlands, initially occupied by the white man. These lands are customarily owned, and people are placing claim on them. Those who have money and connections are getting title deeds. Those who have claim to the land but have no money, loose their property."
"My sisters have money," Nderitu said, suddenly understanding what was happening. "They can pay to register the land."
Kamandu pointed at the newspaper. "I could have agreed with you were it not for this notice declaring you dead. According to the law your death has to be gazetted for a certain period of time before someone can set claim to your property. As a man you are the sole heir to your father's land. With you dead, the land is free for the taking since women in the Kikuyu custom do not inherit or own land."
Nderitu clenched his fists. "I have to go home! Now!"
"Yes you do," Kamandu agreed. "You have to resurrect from the dead. Take the bike."
Nderitu was surprised by the offer. Kamandu and his motorcycle were inseperable. "You want me to take your motorcycle? I may be gone for a long time."
"I understand," Kamandu said with a grin. "You are like a brother to me Nderitu. I trust you. Everybody in your home village thinks you dead. You have to make an entrance they will never forget. I wish I could be there to see it."
Nderitu liked it, and took the offer. “You are like a brother to me too,” he said, locking eyes with Kamandu.
He left for Nyeri Town the following day with a heart thumping from fear and anticipation. He had searched the world for meaning and found nothing. The motorcycle would cover for his failures. The human voices that had lingered in his mind for years were now loud, drawing his attention, resonating in a way he could understand, making him want to listen. You are Nderitu, the son of Ribiru!
He had never ridden a motorcycle for that many hours before. The wind was harsh on his face, and the old bike broke down twice along the way. The countryside was beautiful; the lash green vegetation capable of leaving any nature lover breatheless. There were very few cars on the road and coffee Lorries zoomed by heading away from the factory. He roared into Nyeri Town in a cloud of dust a few hours later and heads turned to admire the cool stranger in a black riding jacket.
There were cars in Nyeri Town but motorcycles were rarely seen. A motorcycle was an expensive luxury toy and not somethng that could bring income. Nderitu parked the bike outside a shopping center and chained it to a concrete pole. He wore blue jeans, dark sunglasses and no helmet. A young boy with holes in his shoes stopped to stare at him, and bare footed children crowded around the bike to admire it.
Nyeri Town was growing fast but there were still no skyscrapers and the short buildings were covered in red volcanic dust. The way the people dressed up distinguished them from those in Nairobi City. Women covered their bodies with long dresses and many layers of clothes. The sun was hot here, but colourful sweaters dotted the streets. Men wore old blazers and second hand clothes and still managed to hold their heads high. The smell of freedom was rich in the air and people spoke in whispers no more.
Nderitu walked into a supply shop and blinked to adjust to the dim light. The shopkeeper's name was Mr. Njoroge, and the shop had been there for as long as Nderitu was alive. Almost everybody in Nyeri knew Mr. Njoroge. His shop was so famous that it was used as a meeting point and also for directions. "I will meet you outside kwa Njoroge," a man would tell a friend. "Pass by kwa Njoroge and grab two bundles of flour," a mother would tell a daughter.
Mr. Njoroge did not recognize Nderitu, but he remembered his father. "Sad thing that happened to your father," he said, the hair on his head completely white. He moved slowly as he helped customers, but his words came out strong. Nderitu waited between customers to converse with the old man.
"Ribiru would have made a great chief if he had lived," he said pensively. "You have big shoes to fill son."
Nderitu pulled out the newspaper notice of his own death and showed it to the old man. Mr. Njoroge frowned and then looked angry. "You were gone for too long son. This kind of thing happens a lot around here. People kill for land you know? Can you imagine what would happen to your sisters if you were truly dead?"
Nderitu fretted at the thought of his sisters without a home. "What should I do Mr. Njoroge? How can I save my father's land from being stolen?" He was smart enough to know that showing up was not enough. He needed a plan.
"You are facing an uphill challenge against corruption and ethnic favouritism," Mzee Njoroge said. "80 % of the Kenyan population relies on agriculture, yet only 20% of the country comprises of arable land. Land is a source of wealth and power, and also a great emotional attachment. You understand what am saying because you young people don't really know the importance of land."
"I understand," Nderitu said in a tame voice. "Land is life."
"Yes! Land is life." Mzee Njoroge smiled at the young man. "There's only one person who can help you. Chief Wamathai. He was very fond of your father and spoke highly of him."
Nderitu left Nyeri Town and rode into the villages. It was very hilly here and he feared the motorcycle would not make it. It did, shooting black smoke and constantly tossing him in the air.
Chief Wamathai was sitting outside his hut enjoying the midday meal prepared by one of his many wives. He wore khaki pants and no shirt, exposing a round belly. There was pride on his face, and he constantly rubbed his big belly to show the world he was well taken care of. A man with a flat belly was a man with many problems.
"Your father was a brave man," Chief Wamathai said, glancing at Nderitu's motorcycle which was leaning against a tree. "He was never supposed to die like that. It angers me that those who fought for this country remain without land, or compensation for colonial era."
"All land belongs to the people," Nderitu said.
"Yes! That's what your father used to say. And there we were killing each other while the white man laughed from a distance. Your father believed that freedom would be won the moment the killing stopped; the moment people let go off their anger and agreed to converse. He used to say, the wolf will live with the lamb..."
"the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them," Nderitu finished for the chief.
The two men locked eyes and nodded. "Your father believed in a perfect world."
"You liked him very much. My father."
"I didn't know him that well at first. But one night the Mau Mau came for me and he was there with them. They didn't like chiefs very much in those days, and accused me of betraying the black man. They called us traitors. I looked up from my bed and saw the sky covered with machetes - silver. I knew it was over until your father's voice roared into the room. He told them to stop. They were young and they listened to him. He told them there was another way and they followed him."
Nderitu felt pride fill his heart. "There is no peace without sacrifice," he said. “My father used to say that a lot. There is no change without struggle. And yet still, he hated the killings.”
The chief looked again at the motorcycle and motioned one of the wives with a right hand. A plate of githeri, a combination of stewed maize and beans was brought forward and Nderitu accepted the food with a nod. He ate heartily and felt instant rejuvenation.
"You think I can have a ride on your motorcycle?"
Nderitu had anticipated this. "Yes, absolutely. If you are not afraid of falling in front of your wives and children."
The chief suddenly looked around and realised that there were more people than usual. Even the neighbours had come to see the motorcycle. He chuckled nervously. "Maybe another time."
Nderitu sighed inwardly for he did not want to stick around and teach the chief to ride the bike while his father's land was being taken by another. “Yes, another time.”
The chief leaned forward and motioned for Nderitu to move closer. "I will give you a letter that will name you as the sole heir to your father's 4 acres of land, from halfway down the hill, to the river at the bottom. I used to walk through there a lot when we were children and I have nothing but fond memories. You will take this letter to a Mr. Wanyoike at the Ministry of Lands and he will give you a title deed. Getting a title deed takes months but when he sees my letter, he will give it to you within an hour. This, this favour I do it not for you, but for your father."
Nderitu dropped on both knees and kissed the chief's right hand. "On behalf of my father and family, I thank you with all my heart. May Ngai bless you and your home for many years to come."
"Take my kindness and pay it forward," the chief said.
Nderitu rode back to town feeling alive. At one point he looked into the blue skies and smiled. "Father," he said aloud. "Even in the afterlife, you continue to guide me. I love you and I miss you."
He spend another three hours in Nyeri Town with Mr. Wanyoike at the Ministry of Lands before heading home. He was tired, but adrenaline pushed him forward. The thought of seeing his sisters after so long made him breathe fast. He had left a boy and was now returning a man. He was almost eighteen years old, singing 'My Land is Kenya' song a little less loudly. This was courage - going home, and placing himself in the embrace of family love. To finally tell them that he was a nobody in Nairobi, and see the disappointment in their eyes. Fate spins a man in different directions, and that was all he could say about his life.
The motorcycle roared through the village and brought out children. They came running after the bike, happy smiles on their faces and excitement in their eyes. Nderitu waved and rode slowly. They recognized him and started chanting his name. "Nderitu wa Ribiru!" they said. "He has returned home from the forest! He is back from the dead!"
A hero's welcome was what it felt like. Women stepped out and waved with uncertainty, the men narrowed their eyes in his direction. Right outside his father's gate, his small sister Wanjiru came running and screaming his name. "Nderitu! Nderitu is home!"
Nderitu killed the engine and stepped down. Wanjiru approached fast. She looked to be around ten years old with beautiful black hair blowing behind her. He picked her up easily and hugged her tight. She looked at him with twinkling eyes and gasped for breath. "I knew you would come! I told Wairimu and Wangechi you would come home! Everybody was saying you were dead."
"I'm here little sister," Nderitu said laughing. "Very much alive."
Wairimu and Wangechi came running at a slower pace, pausing to look at the other villagers who were gathering around. And then their eyes settled on Nderitu and the rest of the world ceased to exist. The three sisters hugged Nderitu and almost knocked him to the ground. The shock took a while to die and when it did, the air was filled with laughter.
Wairimu was strong. "Don't ever do that to us again," she said between a hug. "I thought I lost you."
Wangechi cried silent tears and held her big brother. "This is a miracle," she said. "God brought you home in the nick of time."
"Who's trying to take my father's land?" Nderitu roared.
"It's Mr. Kamau," Wairimu explained. "He claims to have land rights since he has been working on the same land for many years."
Nderitu shook his head sadly and reached into his jacket pocket. “We shouldn’t be fighting. The war is over. Now we are free.” He pulled out a yellow piece of paper and handed it over to Wairimu. "This is a title deed for our home, keep it in a safe place. Mr. Kamau will never have this land. It officially belongs to our family!"
The three girls hugged him again and more laughter filled the air. Nderitu had saved the day, pumping purpose into his own life. Finally, he was a brother again.
He brought out sweets and gave them to the children who had gathered around. It was an old habit in the village. Going to Nyeri Town and coming home without sweets was a crime. Sweets were rarely seen in the area and so the children ate heartily, telling each other stories about the Mau Mau hero who had returned home to save his father's land. "I saw him first," a small boy with twinkling eyes said.
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...