Take a road trip, savour the beauty
Did a man speaking funny Kikuyu and looking like a ‘wash-wash’ smoothie in a straw hat and khaki cadet jacket mosey to your table in Kihunguro, Ruiru, this past week, wash his hands and proceed to share your nyama choma? We may have interacted, deeply. In fairness, I paid for the beer and I didn’t eat much of your meat—red meat is not good for middle-aged men.
Mr Bernard Mwinzi, a brave man, put me on this “ethnographic” story where I was supposed to melt into the population in eight counties and become one with the people. I don’t know whether I was supposed to get married and have children, grab land and run for office as well.
Participant observation does not yield a story, it doesn’t give quotes, identities or directly usable material. It provides the observer with background understanding and acts as a control in circumstances where the subject behaviour changes once the observer identifies itself.
Investigative reporting—apart from the fact that there isn’t enough money in it, the risk of being abducted by gangsters or thirsty Kirigiti women, or catching H. Pylori in roadside joints in Kagio—is fantastic and I’d consider going into it full-time, not just as side hustle.
Test of skills and experience
It’s a test of skills and experience. The reporter needs to remember that you don’t have to alter your appearance. You are not trying to mask your identity from people who know you but to blend in, to belong. There is really no need for fake moustachioed and excruciating accents. If you stick close to your social, economic and linguistic class, you don’t need to change more than your shoes, socks and two other articles of dressing. It’s disguise, not deception, which, in any case, is not acceptable.
I recall many years ago catching a friend who was then in the, uh, secret business in full disguise and I was taken aback: A full length, snow-white kanzu with starched cuffs, sandals, clean-shaven, a luxuriant Taliban beard and a prominent prayer mark in the middle of his forehead. I think he had also done some work on his bearing; he looked twice his height and carried himself like a sultan. Happily, we are researchers, not military people, and our needs are, therefore, simple.
I’ve been to Kiambu (five times), Murang’a, Nyeri, Laikipia, Kirinyaga, Embu, Tharaka Nithi, Meru and a tiny bit of Isiolo. Two things I can say. First, this region is complex and heterogeneous, rich, beautiful. Those who have an interest in storytelling, and maybe even politics, should invest in visiting and understanding it. It’s rewarding even for its own sake.
Secondly, we have good roads. Gone are the days when if you wanted to go home with your car you had to hire a gang to carry it home and back to the nearest town. Many years of road building are beginning to show. And it’s a good thing; it makes life easier. And you will not believe the kind of industries you stumble upon in Kirinyaga, not to mention Kiambu.
I think the Juja and Ruiru areas are fascinating, but I also think they are dangerous. There are lots of criminals in some of the nightspots, I believe. People forget that criminals are not all in the ngeta business and not all dress rough and talk funny. They will be dressed in chinos, white shirt, expensive brown loafers and blue blazers with shiny buttons. Crime may not even be their main hustle; they might be in real estate or clearing and forwarding and a spot of kidnapping on the side.
As Kenya’s newest expert on bars and seedy nightlife, there is one thing you can take to the bank. If you see a commanding, bossy middle-aged woman, the kind that would be more at home running a hardware store, surrounded by a group of very young, tough college-type boys, please know that they are not discussing construction work. If they’re paying attention to you, go to the counter, buy a drink which you don’t take, and call your police friends to come for you. You will be carjacked.
Finally, I can confirm to you there is no better way than getting in the car, if you have access to one, and getting out to see the country. There are great places to stop and have a meal. The people are easy to talk to. Try it.
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Politics is not a game of emotion; it’s a game of interests. A politician is not your mother or your girl/boyfriend. By the 9th of August, he will change his number and do his best to forget you.
This is not because he is a bad man or woman. There are 120,000 of you in your constituency; he can’t show all of you love. Instead of looking for one who loves you, since he/she doesn’t/can’t exist, look for one who has ideas that you can buy into.
You also need to ask yourself whether the Sh200 you are getting is a good price for your vote. Generally, a politician who has ideas about investing in the future is worth listening to. Education, jobs, technology, security, markets for produce and other benefit for the entire community, rather than just you and your household, are a sure bet.