Tale of a Path

A century ago, a man appeared in this village following what was more of an animal rut than a footpath. He wore an animal skin, the standard wear of the day, before colonialism came to Africa and the colonized adopted the Western attires. Legend has it the man was a messenger, and was only armed with a sword tied to his waistline which was for self-preservation from wild animals than for antagonism. He had a headgear where coloured feathers, purportedly from an ostrich or peacock, were stuck. Anyone who witnessed him from far off knew him as an emissary of a tribal chieftain more than a spy heralding a raid.

  And as he approached a cluster of huts that calm morning, young men on lookout noticed him and gave out the warning whistles that any able bodied man within the clusters of the huts armed himself with whatever weapon he could get. The man with feather plumed headgear kept on walking making every effort not to reach for his sword or make any hand movement that would be misinterpreted by the village warriors who were now taking strategic positions. Then he suddenly broke off his walk, stood still, and raised his right hand up with the palm showing and waved. It was a gesture he was coming in name of peace.

  It was the custom of the people of the day to welcome strangers and wayfarers alike if they happened to pass by their abodes. But this man was a curious spectacle for the villagers. Communication was a great barrier, and the stranger had difficulty explaining he was an emissary for Arabs and was looking for a way to the land of Buganda to deliver a message to Kabaka of the kingdom. The words ‘Buganda’ and ‘Kabaka’, coupled by his gesticulations meant to ask for directions, assured the villagers who more than willingly pointed him to the right way, and packed his empty bag with a good food ration to fortify his body for a couple of days on his arduous trek to the north of the unknown Bugandans.

  Back then, finding direction was through inquiring as one passed by clustered homesteads that formed villages. The pastoralist communities like the Maasai were the widely travelled of the tribes that would later be lumped together with others to form the nation of Kenya. And they are credited with town names, which, from their dialect, signifies something associated with the place. If back then you passed by this village and asked for, say the way to Nyahururu or Nyeri, you would have been pointed to the right way and likely be told how many days on foot, provided no mishaps happened along the way, you were to arrive.

  Decades later, after the villagers had forgotten the emissary with the coloured feathered headgear, strangers began to be sighted. Some who passed by said nyakeru (white man) had indeed been spotted armed with a ‘cooking stick’ that was spitting fire as prophesied by the great Kikuyu seer, Mugo wa Kibiru. The first nyakerus, with porters drawn from local communities, were doing explorations and mappings, which would subsequently lead to the invasion of the land. Colonization began that way.

  The path the emissary had used was to prove crucial. (Although the villagers of the time were using it, it was then of not much significance other than being a path to the communal grazing lands.). When the settlers first travelled down it and eyed the land, the first thing they did was to widen it and assign it the status of a road after forcibly evicting the villagers and resettling them in what came to be known as ‘native reserves’ – mainly regions of low fertility. This road served as a demarcation line separating two estates of two settlers, who, on the either sides of it, owned hundreds, if not thousands of acres individually – and which comprised parts of what was known as the ‘White Highlands’.

  After years of colonial suppression, and the coming of independence (or sense of it), and either resettlement of the locals in the formerly white settler lands, or grabbing of same by well connected politicians, the road had stood tall and continues to serve as a key transportation artery. And since independence, its status has remained the same – a dirt village feeder road.

  Despite the coming of the devolved government units, and the formerly provincial administrative blocks coalesced into counties, the road is yet to see an upgrade to the bitumen standard to be at par with others of same class in adjoining or other counties. 

  But there is a catch about this road. It is a cash cow for a local politician and contractors whose prayers are to see its status remain the same. Any upgrade to a permanent status, which would spur developments anyway, would see the millions of shillings allocated to its maintenance diminish. So long as earth graders roars to life every six months and jobless young people are conscripted to spread murram with shovels as a 'youth empowerment initiative', then everyone is happy, or so. ‘Everyone’ here being the legislator, the rural roads board officials, the connected contractor (who must pay a percentage of allocated amount to the legislator), and the jobless village wastrels. (Owners of public service vehicles plying the route to town are at times forced to pool resources and patch up inaccessible sections at the height of rainy spells.)

  Maybe one day, if at all, when another ‘emissary’, wayfarer of stranger will pass through this road, it will not be a cratered, lunar surface like, but a smooth one that finding directions will be through the help of GPS or following the signage along the route.


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