By Kuria Sam
I think of home often. I believe that in this far land one should sometimes thinks of home. If one doesn’t, not only has one lost his or her hopes but oneâ€™s mind and soul as well.
As I unlock the complexity of this story, I must admit that I miss my â€œcucuâ€ (grandmother) but mostly her younger brother Isaac Mwangi, a.k.a Chairman. He’s known all over the villages in Mukwereini for his legendary proficiency in current news and storytelling.
The last time I was there I had brought him a box of Marlboro cigarettes, a brand he only once saw on one of those square newspapers he uses to â€œsokotaâ€(roll) tobacco on. He plucked one of the packets and hid the rest in my grandmotherâ€™s kitchen to come back for them later. He had been tempted to chuck a cigarette from the pack but upon seeing my grandmother who wore her â€œAtumia a Anglicanâ€ (women of the Anglican church) head scuff, the idea was quickly dismissed.
He asked me to escort him off the compound so that he could freely exercise his smoking rights. Said goodbye and that we would soon return. Â As we walked through the small path leading to the madam road, he held his walking stick together with the pack of cigarettes to showcase his new found status in society.
His walking style is quite extra ordinary since he uses his cane to support his kind of limping legs due to infestation of jiggers in his early days. He blames it on the white man and according to his theory; Africa was free from cockroaches and jiggers before the whites docked on this land.
He stopped, paused and lit the long awaited cigarette as soon as we got to the road. He puffed two big puffs as he exhaled the last saying â€œMuthunguâ€ (white person). Imagining the experience they feel after smoking the Marlboro cigarettes.
As he continued talking, I came to realize that he was now changing a few words into English, a language he frequently used in his thirties as a beer taster in a brewing company, but soon got fired for the most obvious reason (tasting too much).‘Ndakwira’ soon became,’let me tell you’. â€œNiwakionaâ€ became ‘â€you seeâ€ and â€œriuriâ€ became ‘nowâ€™, as he explained to me why he will be voting back the former member of parliament since the younger one he had last voted for had not done much.
I asked him what had happened in the city when he last visited his son Mwangi. His mood drastically changed as he put off the totally consumed to the filter cigarette with his fingers. He stopped and put his cane behind on his right bottom chick and leaned backward for support. I had earlier heard of his ordeal from my grandmother but I wanted to get facts of what had happened from him.
Apparently on his last visit to the city he had faced one of the most horrifying experiences of his life. On arrival at the Commercial stage where the matatu had left him, he decided to take one of the square news papers on which he put a big pinch of tobacco. On the opposite side of the road, were the Nairobi city council men who had been keenly observing him as he spit on a few of his fingers and licked the edges of the paper to perform the dreadful skill which he later wished he hadnâ€™t.
He searched for a matchbox in many of his coat pockets as he put the handmade cigarette in his lips. At this time the city council men were bursting into laughter. And like hyenas that had smelt meat, they pointed at him in anticipation of what would happen next. Chairman had seen them as he got his â€˜Rhinoâ€™ brand matchbox from one of his pockets. He had even opted to cross the busy road after lighting his cigarette to ask why they had been laughing so excitedly and pointing in his direction.
â€œshwaaa…..â€ he lit the matchbox, and was now quenching his smokerâ€™s â€œthirstâ€.
Innocently, the damage had been done. The council men abhorrence had dawned on him. His body and mind were suddenly in a perplexed daze as the only puff he had inhaled was exhaled in different directions depending on where the â€œ makobiâ€ (heavy slaps) from the men directed his already wrinkled face as they landed.
They gripped and lifted him from the back of his trousers in crane like position well known as â€œJekiâ€.(commonly used by law enforcers to apprehend law breakers and makes most men hurriedly walk as directed in swimming or tip towing position depending on their heaviness). This brought commotion that even the hawkers around fled for their lives.
Unsuspecting, was quickly tossed into a waiting pickup truck which was overloaded with others of his kind. Just like â€œMigunaâ€ in his recent incident in the coastal city, his right shoe had also disappeared on him revealing his river washed dusty red sock.
Later his son paid his fine after he pleaded guilty to the â€œmachafuko ya jijiâ€ (dirtify the city) offence. His face was unevenly swollen and patterns of the evil hands remained. Even after being released he still looked like a Mau Mau veteran who had been captured by Ndirangu- (the Officer who was responsible for the shooting which led to the capture of Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi).
He looked like a clown in the city as they walked side by side with his son. Shoeless, everyone they passed by wondered what had happened and the ones who dared ask were answered with only two words. â€œKiraikoâ€(hand make cigarette) and â€œKanjoâ€ referring to the city council policemen.
I am not defending Kenyan smokers, but I must admit that the rules are too strict and rigid, yet we are not solving the problem. Here was an innocent old man who hasnâ€™t been to the city for a decade, but in total disregard to his innocent ignorance, he was being held to the by-law standards that have evolved in his absentia.
Smoking, I believe, is a freedom of choice issue that even though harmful to health, should be better addressed through rigorous public health education rather than harassment through inhumane collection of sin taxes in blatant breach of the rights of the smoker. Yet these sin taxes are yet to be used to deliver services to the Nairobians. They pretend to protect city dwellers from second hand smoke through disproportionate show of corporal force, but expose them to typhoid through corrupt and inept water system management. This is hypocritical!
In the state where I reside, the law under section RCW 70.160 prohibits smoking in most public places and workplaces and requires that smoking occur a sufficient distance from entrances, exits, windows, and air intakes to ensure that smoke does not enter a protected space. Smoking is therefore in designated smoking places behind buildings. The only difference with Kenya is that in Seattle, WA, people have smoking etiquette.
I think we should address the smoking etiquette as an issue rather than condemning the urban smoker into vibandas.
They have rights too.
That’s my opinion, so what’s yours???
By Kuria Sam
Kuria Sam is a Kenyan born American who lives in Seattle, Washington