WANJURAH: You think APs are rogue? Try the chief…

WANJURAH: You think APs are rogue? Try the chief...

Even then, I thought it took real courage for the young man to turn up at the Chief’s office as he did.

Long before men blurred the gender lines with relaxed and plaited hair, he had dared to straighten his. I suspect he had turned to the perforated hot charcoal-filled tin that girls used to burn their hair in the days gone by, judging by the rancid smell of a roasting goat head wafting out of his head.

He had donned a red tee shirt with a picture of a naked couple in a tight embrace. But it was the writing beneath it that I thought underlined his daring: “Many ways to love…Best is sex!”

On his feet were military issue boots that were a rave with boys those days. He was next after me in the queue and I was almost getting done with my recommendation letter for ID issuance when he was ushered in. You needed the chief to confirm that he knew you and your parents as a prerequisite to obtaining an ID.

For a fraction of a minute, he stood at the Chief’s door, hands in his pocket while smiling at no one in particular. But the moment was long enough for the Chief to read the tee shirt and turn crimson with anger. From his seat, he turbo-charged at his guest with a surprising agility for someone who was rumoured to have long gone past the official retirement age.

A well-aimed slap welcomed the young man. Apparently not trusting his own hands to deliver enough punishment, the Chief then rushed back to his drawer for a whip while a stream of insults flowed from his mouth. I found them so funny that I began to laugh before his angry stare shut me up.

“Walking cow dung…handicapped donkey…cat’s carcass…sisal juice brain… monkey in a pot… Which cursed mother calls you son? I swear by my grandmother’s ear, you’ll taste my snuff today…. You’ll know why they call me Kivara wa Kombo…”

The young man had by then, wisely, bolted out. By the time the Chief was instructing the Administration Police to fetch his guest back and lock him up, he was safely out of site. In the meanwhile, I was still stranded in the Chief’s office waiting for him to sign and stamp my letter.

It meant I was a reluctant audience for his ranting at the apparent disrespect by the young man. Didn’t the offender appreciate that the Chief was a God-fearing man? How could he appear before him wearing anything written the s-word? And what had he done to his hair? Which stupid mother allowed such insolence on a child?

Next, he summoned his secretary and instructed her to abandon everything else until she traced the young man’s parents. He swore that he would make them pay dearly for the impudence of their son. For as long as he lived, he insisted while banging his desk, the young man would never get an ID!

It was not an idle threat. In the era of a monolithic Kanu, a chief was demigod with unquestionable powers. Some were so powerful they were known to send into exile those they declared renegades and undesirables. The joke was that if the chief snatched your wife or made moves on your daughter, you counted yourself lucky for a chance to get leadership genes in your family!

There were tales of eligible youth denied IDs courtesy of chiefs. An otherwise straightforward exercise had been turned into an intimidating rite of passage. It was not uncommon for chiefs to extort huge bribes as quid pro quo for IDs. Sometimes, they would use the document as an effective disciplining tool against recalcitrant youth.

Yet the ID was not just a means of identity for striplings fresh out of high school with our acne and sprouting beards. The latter must have been the most stroked hairs in the village out of false faith that doing so stimulated growth. That and our fake baritones accentuated our impatience for the recognition of our arrival at the platform of men.

Then, the national ID was pursued with the single-mindedness of an obsession. It is the document that confirmed that you were no longer the lad everybody called Junior or Mboi. There was a romantic value to the ID. For some reason, girls, some scarcely in their teens, took it serious enough to snub your advances if you didn’t have it.

But we were still boys in our minds. You could tell this from the vain defiance at unwritten expectations and the desperation to stand out. This turned chronic on Sunday when everybody in the village, including non-believers, labours to be smart. It also happened on Wednesdays, the day set aside by the Chief for recommendation letters for ID applicants.

Girls would be among the applicants, which explains the boys’ desperation to stand out. Going for the ID was a better outing for the girls than Sundays because unlike then, they did not have to tag along their younger siblings or friends who could be such spoilers. For a testosterone-driven lad, the Chief’s office on Wednesday was the closest to what a wildebeest migration is to a famished crocodile.

The national attention may rightly be riveted on the alleged excesses of the Administration Police following the murder of a lawyer and his two acquaintances. But contrary to common perception, I think we have not yet turned the corner on the era of despotic chiefs. A determined study would likely unearth similarly disturbing instances of human rights violations by chiefs and their assistants and often abetted by APs.

I should confess being a beneficiary of chiefs’ untrammelled powers especially in remote Kenya. Working for the electoral commission not so long ago for instance, I found chiefs effective mobilisers.  We would drive into a village for a voter education session often without notice or prior planning. With the chiefs’ assistance, audiences were almost always guaranteed.

But how they assembled their subjects was worrying. In pastoral communities with a pooled residence, all a chief did was to blow a whistle or send his headmen with instructions to gather everyone by the village meeting point. There were no exceptions and never mind what was keeping the residents busy before our appearance.

I once overheard a woman in a Tana River village plead with the chief to allow her finish her cooking. But the chief ordered her to proceed to the meeting venue immediately or else he would storm her kitchen and pour down whatever she was preparing. She reluctantly came out and joined the crowd. I wonder if she found our session useful!

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Story By Jeeh Wanjura
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