BILLBOARDS – Creative Writing
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No doubt there will come a time when posterity will look back at our age and wonder what purpose billboards used to serve. For the time being, however, they are on the cutting edge of advertising.

Those who frequent Nairobi can be forgiven for thinking that adopt-a-light is part of the natural landscape. There are sections of Uhuru Highway, Lang’ata Road, and Waiyaki Way for example, on which a billboard flashes by every second; and they are so ingeniously mounted as to tell a story, a roadside soap opera if ever there was one.

Long before I heard the phrase “beer wars”, I was already familiar with the “look of the king” on roadside billboards. Then came the war over mobile telephony. Even as I write billboards continue to crop up everywhere, telling us about the “new shape of communication” or extolling us not just to “ongea story yote” but also to “ongea bila ubaguzi.” And this message is strategically placed along all the major roads in as many different ways as there are languages in the country.

Internet service providers are equally visible. The words “broadband”, “V-sat”, and “connectivity” are now household names even to people who have no idea what a computer system looks like. Needless to say, advertising and public relations (PR) companies are minting money. And money is the name of the game. In fact, this year was going to be the year for banks. The entry and success of Equity Bank into the Kenya market has done for Kenyans more than a hundred Donde Bills could have done in a hundred years. The “big” banks that used to insist on royal references and five-digit bank balances are not only matching the “small” banks zero for zero, but taking the war to the great outdoors. Thanks to the power of competition, the 1 + 1 of financial freedom is now within the grasp of all Kenyans, including those once considered “unbankable.”

In a few short years we’ve been treated to just about everything: from beer wars to milk wars; from broadband to wireless; from connectivity to convenience. And finally we have arrived at the pinnacle of power – the war for the presidency. The politicians have overtaken the banks in the quest to be seen. Not so long ago, my sense of decorum was rudely assaulted by a larger-than-life billboard proclaiming “Raila for president”. The proliferation of political billboards since then has long dulled the pain though. In fact, I have come to think that a picture of the candidate (as if we didn’t know what he looked like!) is more direct and less susceptible to misinterpretation than some billboards, strategically and meticulously mounted, yet so thoughtlessly crafted as to give mileage to the opposition.

I have in mind one such billboard at Kiserian. It is so strategically mounted that if PNU had any supporters in the area, they have lost them all by now. The slogan on the billboard is “Mamlaka kwa jumuia ya wafanyakazi.” It pictures four men smiling at the camera. The men are wearing tough overalls and protective helmets: all very appropriate for a construction site.

In the middle of these men, however, is a woman. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m all for affirmative action and gender equality, but not to the point of absurdity. The woman is bending over the half finished wall with a loaded spade in her hands. That’s when I began to ask questions. Question number one: Have you ever seen a woman actually doing the heavy-duty stuff on a construction site while the men just stand around? Question number two: If this picture does represent a reality that I have missed, don’t the women get to wear protective overalls and helmets too? Question number three: if they don’t, how does proclaiming such a discriminative practice aid the cause of the candidate?

Just how insensitive can we get, considering October is the month Kenyans mark the anniversary of Stella Awinja’s death? Stella Awinja was a promising university student until a falling stone on a construction site accidentally hit and killed her twenty-five years ago. And as if all that was not enough, the woman in this picture is dressed in such a way as to suggest that she is a Muslim. Since when has Islam openly allowed women to work so closely with male strangers? While I believe in freedom of expression, I have also heard it said that “it is better to let people think you’re a fool, than to open your mouth and prove it.”
© Katheu Mbithi, October 2007

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