In Kenya, politics is life

Kenyans at a past political rally Photo: Courtesy

The shopkeeper across our estate opens for business at 7am up until 9pm, Monday to Sunday.

Sometimes he’s closed on Sunday, because, like everyone else, he needs to pray and he needs to rest. But sometimes, he also decides he won’t show up on a Wednesday.

This (the shopkeeper’s absence on a random Wednesday), is a particularly frustrating affair, because, these are the Wednesdays when Murphy (he of Murphy’s Law) will decide to pay me a visit, and Murphy will be accompanied by an impromptu guest. And just as the guest arrives saying “What’s up?” I’ll realize I don’t have salt.

I’ll temporarily fool the guest with mindless banter, some Kapuka music for old times’ sake, as I count the available Shillings from the coins container.

I’ll excuse myself for “just five minutes,” hoping Mogaka can rescue my tragedy with a 15bob packet of salt, but Mogaka won’t be anywhere to be found.

The windows to his kiosk will be shut. The brooms he occasionally sells will have been tied to a corner. And the only thing that will receive me is the white text against the shop’s red background: “Coca Cola.”

I will be frustrated, I will be sad, I will be mildly annoyed, and I will vow to see Mogaka first thing Thursday morning before work, and ask him not to do that again. Not to go to the rural area, shags, to have Matoke, mid-week and mid-month. It’s unacceptable.

He will ask me: “What do you mean I can’t go to shags? It’s my shags.”

I’ll say: “I know, but still, you need to give notice.”

Him: “Notice? What notice? What does that even mean, notice? Madam, what can I sell for you today?”

Me: “Nothing Mogaka. I don’t want to buy anything today, because I wanted salt yesterday, and your shop wasn’t open. So I walked all the way to the supermarket at 7.30pm, with my guest. We pretended we were enjoying the Nairobi lights at night, but it’s only because you decided to go to shags. This is why you can’t just go to shags mid-week anymore. And especially not mid-month, surely, Mogaka. Don’t do this again. Okay?”

Him: “Madam? Is everything okay? Are you okay? What can I sell for you? Please tell me what I can sell for you? Or, is money the problem? If it is, it’s okay. As you’ve said, it’s mid-month, I understand . Ask for whatever you want, you’ll have it on credit.”

Me: “Mogaka you’re not listening, why don’t men listen? What I’m saying is…”

I’ll decide not to finish that statement. I’ll make a mental vow to always re-stock the salt and sugar when the open packets are a quarter full, so that this doesn’t happen again. But I will forget. And it will happen again. And at some point, I’ll find myself without salt,

Last week, as I returned a two-liter bottle of soda to Mogaka, I found him listening to the radio.

It’s those old school radios that shh and shhhh every five minutes.  With his kerosene lamp lighting up the kiosk, he tried to find me the Sh20 deposit he’d kept provided I returned the bottle.

On radio, they were discussing political scandals: Justice Tunoi. Governor Kidero. The Judicial Service Commission. Sh200M.

Mogaka had the coins in his hands, as he closed the drawer, he said: “But, people in this country really have money, eh?”

“Huh?” I asked, absent-mindedly. “Say that again?”

“I was asking. But now I’m saying. There are people in this country who really have money.”

“Mmh.” I said, with a slight giggle.

“200 Million Shillings. Seriously. 200?”

“Yes.” I said. “Politics is the name of the game.”

“200M? How can one person deal with 200M?” Mogaka asked. Handing me two 10 Shilling coins.

“Mogaka, what would you do if, a month from now, someone told you that you’d inherited 200M? What would you do with it?”

“I don’t know. I really don’t know. I can say school fees, and rent and land investment, but I really don’t know what I’d do. Maybe if I got it, I’d be wishing I had another 200M. But these politicians, they definitely know how to get it and what to do with it and how to squander it and how to get more of it . Eh, our politicians.”

I told him not to think about politicians too much. To sell some salt to a few people who may come after me and then go home for the night.

We wished each other a good night, and, as I walked back to the house, that’s when it occurred to me. In Kenya, politics is life.

Love it or detest it, politics is the fiber to which most of our social conversations are formed. It is politics, that has people like Mogaka motivated to sell (when he’s not in Kisii having Matoke). It is in politics, that others, in their corner offices, read the day’s newspaper and mentally escape their boss’s unending mood swings. It is in politics, that a cobbler, an artist and an engineer can come together, and share ideas and await the next day’s happenings.

It is politics, that will have a few Kenyan taxpayers converging at Mogaka’s “Coca Cola” kiosk for their lunch breaks. These people will sit on rugged white plastic chairs and have mandazis and sodas. They will discuss Eurobond (whether or not they know what Eurobond actually means is irrelevant).

As they sit, and have mandazis, and talk politics, they will get stimulated, and angry, and happy and irritated, but mostly, they will be energized. They will, at this point, have graduated to the status of political analysts.

Later in the evening, they will go home and eagerly await the 9 o’clock News. And when tomorrow comes, they’ll do it all over again. Because, in Kenya, politics is life. And we are all active participants. 

Yvonne Aoll is a writer and freelance journalist. You can read more of her work here