My street … has no name. It’s a dirt track in a remote, rural corner of Machakos district in eastern Kenya. Were it to have a name, it would be “kamulu”, the Kamba word describing the ash-like colour of the fine dust that clings to your feet as you walk.
And walk we must. It is the only form of transportation here. The first and most important investment those of us who live here make is to buy a pair of good walking shoes. The second is a sturdy pair of gum boots. The alternative, as many inhabitants know only too well, is to dispense with footwear altogether.
This was once an orderly and lucrative ranch, complete with self-sufficient homestead. With the advent of self-rule, it became a co-operative ranching scheme, and the settler farmer moved out. Through successive generations of share-holders, it has today degenerated into an amorphous collection of shambas and plots, some too small to build a decent house on.
Gone, the generator that used to provide power for the whole ranch. Gone, too, the water pumps. Left intact only the concrete water tanks, now permanently empty, and the bore-holes, unused today. And these, simply because they could not be carted away and sold to the highest bidder. So now we rely on the sun and rain to sustain our subsistence farming.
There was once a telephone service. The wooden poles came in handy as firewood. The cables have long since disappeared: used by farm hands as rope, or simply thrown away by local hoodlums in protest; for being evidence of amenities of the modern age, so near yet so far.
Living here does have its advantages. Plenty of exercise and a healthy diet in optimum climatic conditions all year round. That’s not to say we have a long life expectancy. People die all the time: mostly of poverty and ignorance.
Take the young woman we buried yesterday, for example. A mother of fifteen with several grand-children. In her early forties still. Family members, in whispers with eyes averted, say she succumbed to Malaria, that perennial curse of the poor in the tropics. But deep down inside they all know it is the father’s curse.
The old man died two years ago, after ailing for several years. Before his death, he pointed out the place where he would like to be buried. And he warned that if he wasn’t buried there, he would demand restitution from beyond the grave. In the event, he was buried elsewhere. And they all remembered that, of all the voices clamouring for a different burial site, hers had been the loudest.
And so, she was dead. There was no post mortem, of course. Had there been one I suspect it would point to … a lethal cocktail of anti-malarial drugs: different types bought without prescription at the local kiosk, each successive dose being taken before the previous one has had a chance to work. And this when in fact the problem was quite simple: the common cold.
Such is life, and death, on my street.
© Esther Mbithi 2003
Written on 12th August 2003, and aired on the BBC Network Africa radio programme on 13th August 2003.