Off the beaten track: We need new ways of telling our stories

To Chase a Dream in Nairobi, was published in 2018 by Kimathi Kaumbutho.

What you need to know:

  • Life writing can be an investment in the future. It can be used to project the self outwards, to reinvent the self, to prepare the ground for future ambitions; to cast the net out to catch new opportunities.

  • It can also be used to pause and reflect, to take stock in therapeutic ways that renew the self. I was momentarily reminded of this late last year when I bought a memoir at a doctor’s clinic.

Life writing in Kenya is growing in ways that are a testimony to the wide canvas of “pastness” that constitutes Kenyan history.

Last year, Fitz de Souza’s Forward to Independence added new perspectives and forgotten actors to our independence story, and Ralph Palmer’s Kenya Matters gave us insights into the history of laxity in our civil service. In 2018, Kipyego Cheluget edited Fifty Years of Diplomatic Engagement, a collection of essays by retired ambassadors remembering key moments in the evolution of our nation’s foreign policy.

In the same year, Narendra Raval of Devki Steel enriched our economic history with his experience of commerce, industry and the politics of our regulatory environment in Guru: A Long Walk to Success. That autobiography also added to our social history in much the same way that Pheroze Nowrojee’s A Kenyan Journey (2014) and Ranju Shah’s Threads of a Legacy (2016) are family memoirs that trace the intricate paths of migration and add to the complexity of Kenyan identity and belonging.

Kimathi Kaumbutho with his dad. PHOTO | COURTESY

All of these new voices are refreshing additions to the usual suspects in Kenyan life writing: the anaemic rags-to-riches success stories of politicians; the path-breaking tales of a handful of academics; the “brochures” of a few professionals and corporate titans with an eye on bagging political office, or the cream of public service jobs, which many Kenyans still see as the apex of a successful life.

What we haven’t read enough of yet are the dreams of young Kenyans and their ideas of self-actualisation, what success looks like to them and what they have done or have been willing to do, to attain their goals. There are those who will argue that there is no sense in examining a life that has not been lived fully, that autobiographies are the work of seniors in the September of their lives. Because our national archives are so depleted, and state-inscribed amnesia is so entrenched, we need our life writing to fill in the gaps of every facet of our history—– political, economic, social, cultural and intellectual.

However, the “brochures” from ambitious professionals and corporate heads echo a lesson well learnt from Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. Life writing can be an investment in the future. It can be used to project the self outwards, to reinvent the self, to prepare the ground for future ambitions; to cast the net out to catch new opportunities. It can also be used to pause and reflect, to take stock in therapeutic ways that renew the self. I was momentarily reminded of this late last year when I bought a memoir at a doctor’s clinic.

That memoir, To Chase a Dream in Nairobi, was published in 2018 by 25-year-old Kimathi Kaumbutho — whom I have never met or spoken to. His story looks back on the first 23 years of his life, and more specifically, on his love affair with football from the age of seven. It is an endearing and well-told story, not just because Kimathi is so effusive in his childhood dream to play professional football, but because that dream was inadvertently planted in him by his father one Sunday afternoon when Kaumbutho took his sons to a school field to kick a ball. Kaumbutho followed it up every Sunday after that, and his team grew to between 15 and 20 boys. In setting up this weekly recreation ritual Kaumbutho, who is not a professional coach, gave Kimathi something to long for more than anything else, something he wanted to do and to excel at.

The deep emotional connection between father and son is palpable throughout the memoir. Without being didactic, Kimathi paints a picture of what being a valued father is. It is about being present. Not just to pay school fees or keep the lights on, but being present to play a game, to tell a story, to listen to dreams and to nurture them.

By the time he was 14, Kimathi was a valuable player at school. He succeeded in joining the coveted Mathare Youth Sports Association, but it proved not be the “fast track to better opportunities” that Kimathi and many others deserved. Disappointed by the disorganisation and blatant corruption in MYSA’s trials for the Norway Cup, Kimathi’s father resolved to find another way. With the help of his wife, they got their 15-year-old child on the road to fulfilling his ambition in America, and when he got there, he fought against big odds to bag his dreams.

There are many lessons here about the sacrifices that parents make and the roles they should play in shaping their children’s futures. Kimathi says that one of the reasons he wrote this book is to give other Kenyan children the belief and courage to pursue unconventional paths. “Here, they teach us to become lawyers, engineers, doctors … because they consider such professions conventional and serious. ‘They make ‘good’ money and provide a good lifestyle,’ most people will tell you’.”

Kimathi insists that what children need is the space to dream, and permission to do so. Whoever wants to be a dancer, a hairdresser, a painter, a gamer can find affirmation in this story of a seven-year-old boy who chose something unconventional by the standards of his parent’s generation and achieved it. He made it to the professional football league in America. He travelled to many countries playing football, earned a scholarship to university, and was voted the best Centre Back in the 2017 Under-23 Premier Development League. Kimathi’s elated sense of fulfilment is the correct measure of his success.

What Kimathi Kaumbutho is telling us is that the model of success that was courted by our octogenarians, and some of their children, will not work today for their (gran) )children. We must rethink both what we value and how we get to it. One of the big takeaway lessons from this memoir then is that the work of parents is not to select or define the dreams of their children, it is to support them; to train children early to articulate what they want and go for it with fervour, resilience and rectitude.

Secondly, this book demonstrates the fundamental thing that is wrong with our national management of talent. Where are our sports academies? Where are the State-supported clubs and public spaces where children can play and just be children? We are failing the future by robbing our children of the conceptual and the physical spaces that they need to thrive in the 21st century.

Finally, the fact that I bought this book at a doctor’s clinic and paid the writer via M-Pesa, and the fact that it is unavailable in offline bookshops, should force us to think about the bottlenecks that threaten the production of culture in Kenya. But it should also get us to document new ways of doing old things. Happily, those who feel the urge to write and publish find a way despite State neglect. And yes, it’s about the State because when the school curriculum is so thin on literature, publishers and bookshops find little incentive to support writers.

Dr Nyairo is a cultural analyst; jnyairo@gmail.com