Two or so years ago, I packed my bags and moved to Iten in Kenya’s Rift Valley, where I lived on our family’s farm for a year. It was the first time for me to live in Iten exclusively since ‘escaping’ it by going to university in Nairobi (primary and secondary school had been a mere five minute walk from home). In the nineties, as a child, Iten, to me, became a place to move away from as life improved, a viewpoint reinforced by aspirational rhetoric from well-meaning teachers in primary school who believed that by studying hard, we would get plum jobs in Nairobi. Having been persuaded that I needed to leave, I would stare forlornly at the tarmac that led away from our town; or trace it on the map of Kenya, using either my eyes or fingers to follow large-dotted spots that marked Eldoret, Nakuru, Naivasha, Limuru, till I reached Nairobi, the biggest spot. In my readiness to leave, I developed a dislike for Iten, but being there in November was the worst. It was dusty and dry, fields were bald and red with the maize shaven off; grass dried into flaky blades and cut the skin.
Nairobi eventually offered its imagined relief to me, first as a university student, finally on my own and learning to be an adult. After campus, as I worked in one place or the other, the city became an ideal place for me—a young writer—to burgeon. Amka Space, a monthly writers’ forum supported by the Goethe Institut and facilitated by Dr Tom Odhiambo, grew me. We convened every last Saturday of the month in a large-windowed room upstairs and while seated on lime and candy-colored plastic seats, read each other stories we had written. We laughed, critiqued, argued and fought over them. We took breaks to calm ourselves down with the tea and mandazi generously offered by the space. Through Amka, I was introduced to Gloria Mwaniga, with whom I’m very close, Faith Oneya, Alice Gicheru, Ndinda Kioko and many others who became my writing family. Nairobi was now a place for us to honor our impulse to tell stories. It added the beat to our literary aspirations.
We started meeting outside the forum, in obscure tea and coffee joints, and as the years went by, we gossiped and discussed craft, talked about the books we read and loved, literary journals we were starting or walking out of. I remember a dimly-lit restaurant Gloria took me to, somewhere upstairs, near a petrol station, claiming it had good samosas. We discussed our literary hopes and analyzed the friendship between Chimamanda and Binyavanga, and compared ours against theirs as we yearned to be agented (we now are). We also coughed and choked as the air thickened with teargas thrown outside to chase off hawkers.
Our time in Nairobi was colored by Eric Wainaina concerts at The Elephant, by plays and Spoken Word performances at the Kenya National Theatre and the Aga Khan Auditorium in Parklands, with evening dinners by Zukiswa Wanner and James Murua at their home, where we met writers from across Africa who they hosted. We drank beers with Binyavanga and Billy Kahora. I hung out with Dalle Abraham, a sharp-witted writer from Marsabit in Northern Kenya, who got me deeply invested in Marsabit’s history. Dalle introduced me to Barbara Wanjala, a keen reader and astute writer who was remedying the language used around mental health in Kenya and reimagining her experiences of being an Anglophone African in France.
Gloria moved out of Nairobi first, to go and teach at a rural school in Baringo. She’d tell me about the wooden cottage she lived in, next to a forest. She said she now had all the time to read, write and reflect, and this showed in how prolific she became.
By the time I was leaving, I had lived in Nairobi for over 15 years and it had become predictable. Its fizz had dwindled to a boring everyday routine with nothing actually happening. I realized just how much it was robbing me of time, how much of it I spent stuck in traffic, in meeting and hanging out with other writers to talk about writing without actually writing. The expenses of moving around a city not designed for people to move around were too much, a taxi here, a coffee there, leading unexpectedly to a beer or dinner somewhere else, ensuring I got home late.
Then there was that feeling of heaviness about Nairobi, an invisible weight I lugged along, maybe because of its polluted air or the dubious sources of its groceries. In Nairobi, people were always going up and down, in every corner, hustling, harried, such a frenzy of movement that had me cheekily wondering what would happen if a person with preternatural authority held up their hand and demanded everyone to stop. There was obvious class stratification. You knew who you were and where you belonged based on where you could afford to live. I disliked Nairobi’s strait-jacketedness, how it tied the artist to a place, chaining them as it promised a clichéd freedom.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, I spent months without visiting Iten. When the country finally opened up, I moved back with what I owned, including a mountain of fiction books I had acquired from inama bookshops. By this time I had developed a fondness for the memories of the years I spent in Iten. There was the forest that slowly thickened from the river where we fetched water, in which I would walk till I was lost in its darkness and sound, as up above, in its canopy, colobus monkeys swung from tree to tree in quick dashes of black and white. There were the wild Abyssinian bananas on whose fleshy leaves I wrote names and dates. Back in Iten, I walked round our farm, searching for the sentiments behind these memories, the luxurious bougainville that had swallowed an entire fence, the old lemon trees which I once used to climb to eat only the rind from the fruits and nothing else.
Living on the farm meant caring for sheep, cows and chicken, and getting to know each of them individually and intimately as I had as a child. I learned the best brands of wheat bran and dairy meal, how to trail my fingers on the springy hair of a calf’s back, watching out for scabs and lumps. I learned the various names of pesticides, what I could use on tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers and collard greens so they would flourish, undisturbed by bugs. I learned about Girolando, a new dairy cow breed from Brazil and asked the vet to inseminate a cow on heat with its seed. I sieved and collected finely-grained manure from the compost heap, felt the thrill of touching and working directly with soil. I lost the comfort of being in a community of writers (one of my biggest concerns) but I got more time to write. My mind relaxed and allowed me to imagine better.
I started running. I woke up at 6 a.m. and met professional athletes on the road, and for a few meters, did my best to match their phenomenal paces. From them, I got to know about running routes that went through a forest near Sing’ore High School, long wooded trails with nothing but cool forest air on my back and the delightful shapes sunlight sculpted itself into as it dripped through the canopy. There were no wild animals now, unlike in my childhood when I would have heard a hyena laugh, or gotten puzzled by a suggestion of a leopard hiding and waiting. The forest was now occupied by children going to school, by belled goats and sheep nibbling about, with fallen logs of wood and a whistling wind. I would lean on the stem of a tree and look up, meditating, praying, trusting the serenity around me as a sign I was in a sacred place.
There was a swamp just before the forest, where I saw and was redeemed by my first wild ducks. A man from the Kenya Wildlife Service was counting and writing them down on an old columned exercise book. I asked him whether anyone or anything ever harmed the ducks. He said they were rather OK but for a creature that swam under the murky water each evening and pulled them down. That day I stayed until 4 p.m. and saw this creature move under the water, causing a ripple. I saw it lift its snout to breathe and watched the ducks scatter in a rush of flight. I watched. I did not move.
Iten had waited and encompassed me with its allure, and when I had to leave the place again, it was no longer because of a need to escape.