Saba Saba and My Political Awakening by Ndungi Gĩthuku

Volume 17, Issue 3  | 
Published 12/12/2020
  |
Ndungi Gĩthuku

A Kenyan human rights Artivist. He uses art to express his advocacy for change.

          On 7 July 1990, Kenyans took to the streets to demand free elections. The politicians who had called for the protests, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, were arrested before the protest day. Other organizers such as Njeru Kathangu, George Anyona, Raila Odinga, etc were beaten up and detained. Saba Saba is the name given to the day of that nation-wide protest against the Moi dictatorship and tyranny.

          Moi took over the presidency in 1978 following the death of the first President of the republic Jomo Kenyatta. I was five, having been born in Pumwani maternity Hospital on 19 April 1973, third to two older sisters, Nyathika and Njeri. They nicknamed me Ka-Bro, Little Brother, and it stuck, so that to this day, those that know me well call me Bro. I can distinctly hear my sister Nyathika talking to my puzzled face: Ka-Bro, Kenyatta has died.

          My mother, Wairimu Githuku, aunts and uncles, and the entire Mwimuto village, where I was born and still live to this day, were wailing. They claimed that the sky had become gloomy and dark. I did not see any gloom in the sky.  Were they wailing for the same Kenyatta who was prominently featured on the walls of  our sitting room?

His picture was the biggest of all the other black and white family photos on the walls. That Kenyatta would ‘follow’ me with his eyes, no matter what angle I took. I grew up knowing him as ‘Mzee’, the supreme leader, King and Emperor of this land, Kenya. I knew him as a fierce freedom fighter who could beat me up if I refused to eat.  A great man!

          It was my late father who first made me question that Kenyatta.  I one day heard him grumble, that Kenyatta had jailed Ngugi wa Thiong’o and other good men, without trial.  I started looking at Kenyatta through the disapproving eyes of my father.  I started questioning the image of the great leader at that early age.

          After Moi was installed as the new King, I heard more grumbling, sometimes with tribal overtones. I could not understand how, he, who gave us ‘free’ milk on a daily basis in school, could be a bad man, a dictator.  In 1982, ‘some’ people from the Armed Forces tried to topple the dictator.

          On the morning of the coup attempt, my father had gone to collect left-over food, at the Devonshire Hotel to feed his pigs. He came back, not with his usual ‘gunias’ of pig food, but with gunias full of new boots. He had found the two sacks of the looted goods dumped in the hotel dust bin. Instead of food for the pigs, he had brought us boots to wear. All my uncles, aunts and even neighbours crowded around him for a share of the loot from the coup d’etat.  Everybody grabbed a pair. It was only after the fitting process that we realized that all the boots were left- legged. There was not a single pair that fitted both the left and the right foot,  they were display shoes meant for window shopping. They must have been dumped in the bin by a disappointed looter. My father was the laughing stock of the village for quite sometime.

          Two years after the shoes incident, my father passed on in his sleep. At 33, my mother was this freshly widowed woman, who needed all the help from her brother, uncle Njoroge, and my cousins, Waruiru, Ndungi, Kang’ethe and Giceha Mungai. They were the sons of my eldest aunt on my dad’s side and they all became my full time mentors.

          I enjoyed their choice of music, from Karubandika by DDC Milimani Park to Mbaraka Mwinshehe. They also introduced me to Rajab Marijani and Remmy On Gala (Sura Mbaya). Somehow, all these artists were from Tanzania. My cousins always debated how the Nyerere government was better than ours, and how Nyerere had managed to kill tribalism unlike in Kenya, where ukabila was the in thing. They used to say that it was Kenyatta, not Moi, who started a well planned continuation of ethnic divisions. They said that Moi was only implementing what his mentor had started.

          But they also claimed that Moi was going to be more dangerous than Kenyatta. That he’d actually started killing people who’d say stuff against him.  So at the age of 10, I was getting free political education from my cousins, in addition to music.

          Sometimes, I would find my cousins writing things for hours on end. They’d have reams of paper and boxes of Bic biro pens. Cousin Giceha, at one time told me, ‘nyandĩkire nginya ngaigua rangi ũkĩnunga (I’ve been writing for so long I can smell the ink). The dreadlocked dude had been copying hundreds of papers the whole night, for Mwakenya distribution. Later I figured out that he was a cadre of the underground Mwakenya movement. I could not, at that time, understand the magnitude of what my relatives were up to, but it did not take long for me to find out.

          In 1986, all my 4 cousins disappeared. We did not see them for the next 6 years! We’d hear that Waruiru, the eldest, was mysteriously still in Kenya, while Ndungi had fled to Australia. Kang’ethe, the third born, was arrested with Tirop Kitur and the late Karimi Nduthu. Giceha went into exile with others in Tanzania. It was not until 1992, after the famous Freedom Corner protests by Mothers of Political Prisoners, that we were able to see them again.

          Fear had now engulfed the entire nation. Matiba had resigned from government: voices of dissent were now getting louder. Even in school, some of us started discussing political issues and actually supported the clamour for multi-partyism. We nick-named ourselves ‘Anyona’, ‘Orengo’, and the like - names of leading political dissidents.

          In 1988, I joined Jomo Kenyatta High School in Bahati, Nakuru. One day, we were told that Moi was going to visit the school and I was selected to show him around my Press Club exhibition room. I was the chair of the club. I had planned to tell the president to release my cousin Kang’ethe Mungai. I had planned to tell him to forgive all my cousins. After the tall majestic figure entered my classroom, everything I wanted to say evaporated.  He was intimidating. His voice was hoarse and his eyes had blue rings around the pupils. My planned speech collapsed the moment he gave me his first look. Up to this day, I can swear that Moi did not hear a word of my Press Club presentation.

          I am also not sure I’d have been alive today, had the words I had planned to utter come out of me. The name, Kang’ethe and Mwakenya in the same breath ? Those would probably have been my last words on this earth.

          In 1991, I was part of the student leaders who led a protest in 1991 in our school. I was fourth form.  Our demands were simple. We needed more food rations on our plates and long trousers instead of the ‘colonial’ shorts which, to us, looked undignified. They did not protect us from the clamour especially at night, in the hills of Subukia.

          I was identified as the ring leader and duly expelled from Jomo Kenyatta High. So I was back home as the country continued to clamour for change. No school could accept me as we had already been registered as exam candidates for the final fourth form examination. It is around this time that I started hearing about Saba Saba.

          I’d follow the scanty events around the country. I started feeling that I was part of the popular budding movement for change. My mother would be on the look-out, to ensure that I did not join the campaign for political changes.

          I was eventually admitted at Afraha High School as a private candidate, where I sat my exams that year. In between my studies (Afraha was a day school), I’d attend illegal rallies with a few ‘radical’ students, where we saw the likes of Bahamriz, Gitobu Imanyara, Wangari Maathai and Martin Shikuku. Matiba and Rubia were now languishing in jail.

          This was the Nakuru,  now named the ‘hotbed of politics’, where Wilson Leitich, a KANU politician had sworn to chop off the now popular two finger salute by those agitating for political reforms. We’d enjoy the sound check of these rallies. Reggae music preceded the meetings! I had no doubt in my mind that this was my political side. I had a position. We started composing songs with my friends. We’d take melodies of Don Carlos and others, with our political lyrics replacing the original ones.

          If you run away from the prophecy

          You can’t run away from the Almighty

          You can’t run away from me

          Moi: One thing I want you to know

          You’ll never run awaaaaaaay If you run away from the prophecy

          You can’t run away from the Almighty

          You can’t run away from me

          You’ll never run awaaaaaaay

We’d enjoy the speeches of these new and veteran oppositionists, who inspired us, with their fiery speeches.

          After clearing school later that year, I would find myself in the company of older childhood friends like Beauttah Munyua, Onyango Odenyo, Charles Thairu and others, in different political rallies. Tear-gas and police batons were the order of the day. Apart from my belief that Multi-Partyism would free Kenya, I was certain that my cousin Kang’ethe would be freed, and his brothers would return home from exile.

          On the first Saba Saba Day, my friend Cege ‘Shei’ Karori from Gathiga village, was shot in the leg, in Wangige town. His family feared to take him to hospital, as it was rumoured that Moi’s people would go for him and finish the job. He died of bleeding, on his bed at home. In total, 39 were reported dead, 69 injured and 5,000 locked up in jails. 1,000 people were charged in different courts around the country.

          In 1992, I joined the Kenya Polytechnic. I’d spend half my time on campus and the rest at Freedom Corner. Sometimes I’d see fellow classmates in the streets, as I was leading a protest of the RPP (Release Political prisoners) Brigade. My aunt, Wanjiru Mungai, was now at the Freedom Corner. I’d spend part of my days and nights there. My political awareness got clearer by the day. We’d interact with top opposition politicians who’d come to give us support. It was now getting clear that change was coming. The political prisoners started being released. All 52 prisoners, except Apiny Adhiambo, were now free. We continued to fight for the release of Apiny, who was serving life for participating in the 1982 coup, until he was set free on 17 November 1997. When we took him to the arms of his lovely mother, Beldina Adhiambo in Nyakach, a bull was slaughtered in our honour. We were also showered with a huge ‘barrel’ of Machozi ya Simba, which we sipped in between RPP songs of freedom.

Our celebration of the repeal of Section 2(A) that had declared Kenya a one party state, was short lived. During the ’92 elections, Moi came back to power. We heard that he had rigged the elections. He continued being in power until 2002, when Kibaki succeeded him after defeating Uhuru Kenyatta, Moi’s preferred candidate.

In between the years, we’ve been commemorating the Saba Saba events. The same tear-gas, bullets and police batons that were used against us in the early 90’s are the same ones being used to kill us today. On the 30th anniversary of the Saba Saba, the Kenyan police unlawfully tear-gassed and arrested activists who had taken to the streets to demand for basic rights. Among other things, they are asking for clean water, good housing and an end to abuse from those who are in power.

It will take a brave generation of conscious youth and committed activists across generations to return this country where it needs to be. More Saba Sabas need to happen everyday, until we take down this oppressive system that cannot be people -based, until the young and politically woke brigade takes power!    

          More and More Saba Sabas

          More Saba Sabas need to happen everyday

          Until we pull down this oppressive regime

          Only committed revolutionaries can take over this government 

          Only revolutionaries can take over the system

          This one that has never been of the people

          This that cannot be

          Will not be people based

          Until revolutionaries of this country

          Dismantle tribal Poli-Tricks

          It will not take long from now

          When a woke’ brigade of revolutionaries

          Take over the reins of power

          Our Power

          People Power

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