By Binyavanga Wainaina
Tuesday, February 11, 2014.
1983. It was that time of the day when the
streets of Nakuru seemed to stand still. A Monday at 11 am even the hot dry
breeze was lazy. It would glide languorously collecting odd bits of paper, have
them tease the ground, threaten to take flight, tease the ground.
Every so often there would be a gathering of
force and a tiny tornado would whip the paper into the air, swirl dust around,
dogs would lift their ears, tongues lolling, then burrow their faces between
their forelegs as the wind collapsed, exhausted. Children were in school, long
lines of spittle reaching their desks, as they tried to keep awake.
Even Daniel Arap Moi, Kenyan the president, who usually woke up at 4 am, was
now taking his nap – trying to summon his favorite dream: that the entire
nation of Gikuyus were standing in line at his gate to await execution, cash and
title-deeds in hand, to hand over at the gate.
Idi Amin Dada hunched over Mrs. Gupta Shah like an insistent question mark,
jabbing. She was chewing hard at a bit of blue-gold and red sari, trying to
keep from screaming out loud; they had put on a movie on the video and set it
loud to muffle the sounds: some Bombay song: Chal Chal Chal Merihethi….on the
screen Idi could see a pouty maiden at the edge of a cliff, and a man with a
giant quiff of hair, and sideburns sang in a shrill voice.
She leapt off the cliff, and he followed her in
a few seconds…they lay draped elegantly at the bottom of the valley; their
fingers touched and they died, then the nasal Hindi music escalated in
intensity, went beyond drama, beyond melodrama, and achieved genuine Bombay Belodrama.
Idi Amin Dada jabbed deeper into Mrs. Gupta, his plantain sized fingers digging
deeply into the folds of her stomach, which usually undulated serenely between
two wisps of sari as she hummed her way through the day.
“You want my banana?”
“I vant your banana Idhiii? Give me your banana Idhi…”
“I give you my banana till you are fed up.”
This was Idi's room; was also Idi's afternoon workplace. Had been for twenty
years, since the early 1970s. This morning; every weekday morning, Idi would
drop Mr. Shah at the grain-mill his family owned. At 9 he would drop the
petulant Maharajah at school: The Shrival Manahaval Shah Academy For Successful
Gentlemen Who Will Go To Oxford and Cambridge. We start to train them at 5
years old! Book Now For Half-Price Discount on Swimming.
The Maharaja’s mother would beg him to get into the car,
“Oh my baby Pooti-poo; my Mickey-Mouse; my Diwali Sveetmeat, don’t cry babeee…”
Mr. Shah remained silent; sometimes he tried to imagine this rosebud managing
the Grain Mill and failed.
As soon as the car was at the gate, the Maharajah would wriggle to the front
passenger seat of the Mercedes.
“Idi – buy me goody-goody toffee gum or I tell Mammi-ji that you pinch me
Idi Amin at a function: Taken from Barbet Schroeder's documentary,
General Idi Amin Dada (Self Portrait).
This routine had ceased being
a to-fro conversation. Idi would extract a wad of goody-goody’s and the boy
would stuff the toffee into his mouth and launch into muffled brags about
Sapna’s father’s car’ of Rakesh’s trip to Disneyland.
Idi was once in the army, and was used to handling such humiliations with a
deadpan face and a slight flaring of his nostrils. He always dropped off the
prince without argument before rushing back to fuck the Prince's Mother in the
Piles of freshly ironed clothes sat on a boat-shaped basin next to the bed,
clothes Idi had ironed last night. Vishal’s bookshelf had been moved to this
room since Prince Number 1 left for Oxford: the top row full of Louis L’Amour
Cowboy thrillers; the bottom row had a copy of Heart of Darkness, scribbled all
over with A Level notes and next to it sat VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River.
Mrs. Shah gave a low gnashing answer that blew soft cardamom flavored wind into
Idi’s ear. He grunted in assent. Idi had a lot of questions. Every 11 am he
He loved ironing. Every afternoon he would put on some Bollywood film, and turn
the Shah family's washing into crisp battalions of soldiers. He loved shrugging
shirts into broad, identical shoulders, arranging them in wardrobes, watching
them stand at attention.
They were his to command. A Natural Leader, his
sergeant had called him. The room was once a stable, but was now a Servant’s
Quarter. At 6pm exactly, he would go to the shower, and smoke a joint and dream
of shining brass buttons; dream of the embrace of a Luganda woman - sucking at
his nerve endings like a fish; turning and twisting him around; smelling not of
ginger and tumeric; but of musk and steamed bananas and Nilo beer.
The 1960s were full of landslides: as the British Administration screeched to a
halt those that were waiting for a trajectory to come and grab hold of them
were left stranded. In those days being dutiful mattered; NOT taking initiative
- when they had decommissioned the special forces, afraid that they would
remain to leak what had really happened in the forests and the African
townships in the 50s; some soldiers had auctioned themselves to the new leaders
- as bodyguards; as hired fists: these guys climbed up dizzyingly.
Amin had waited for his loyalty to be rewarded;
had hung about Nakuru - 10 miles from the Barracks waiting for the call. In
1970, he was about to give up; was about to hitchhike to Uganda and sell
illegal liquor in Arua like his mother had done, when he had found a frail
Indian man being pulverized by a 10 year old parking boy, outside the wholesale
market, with market women cheering the boy.
He had rescued the man. Mr. Shah. And he got a
job. It wasn't bad: Mrs. Shah was exactly the same as Sergeant Jones:
insistent, fanatic about time, a goddess of routine. Infatuated with her power
over this black exhibition of muscle.
Idi had joined the army as soon as age would allow it. It was his way out of a
life that seemed aimless. His mother had sold liquor and her body to army
officers. He loved his mother to distraction. At thirteen, he had beaten a
thirty year old Acholi private who had come to their home to insult his mother.
At fifteen he was six foot four, and when Sergeant Jones had seen him walking
in Arua, he had offered him a place in the army at once. Idi was terrified of
whites; and he could sense that Jones feared and was fascinated with him. Jones
would spend hours with Idi in the boxing ring, teaching him new skills.
He loved to punch Idi softly; to wipe seat off
Idi’s back; to test out Idi’s muscles – always gruffly, always lingering.
During a bout, his adrenalin pumping sweat flying, Idi was like a machine:
looking for every angle to kill; never angry. Clinical. He loved it, loved
holding into himself, loved the control of violence. One day he caught Jone’s
eye, saw the fear in it – fear; and Idi felt like God, standing there showing
his power; the feeling was almost sexual.
Idi rose up the ranks in the Army because he was the dream soldier. He had no
father – had no problem being a boy to his superiors. He took his punishment
with a wry mischievous grin, followed by a YESSIR AFFANDE!
He loved to catch Mau Mau terrorists – it was
all a marvelous game. Most of all he loved the gruff pride that Jones would
flash when Idi had done something exceptional. He shrunk like a child at Jones’
criticism. One day he drunk chang’aa and came to barracks with a prostitute (he
loved older women), the sentry who challenged him was floored. Jones found him
in the gym, thrusting away.
He slapped Idi twice, and sent the woman away.
Idi did not talk to anybody for days. Three days later, after winning the
Gilgil Barracks Boxing Crown for a second time, Jones patted him on the back,
and Idi grinned widely and said,
“ Now I am the bull afande.”
Mr. Shah liked to spend the morning working on his novel: Conquerors of the
British Empire. He was already 1000 words into the novel, and was still finding
it impossible to squeeze characters into the dense polemic. His theory was
simple: that India, already with a foot in the door in Kenya, should take over
the continent, and use this leverage to take over Britain.
It is the only way to make a National Profit
from hundreds of years of British Rule: the more territory we control, the more
we can dictate the cost of raw materials, the final profit will be manned by
our guns. We must be Lords of the Commonwealth, and let the English carry us on
their backs! Why build afresh when we can inherit what is already there?
His first born son, Vishal, was disdainful about the book.
“Rubbish Dad. Pseudo-religious xenophobic polemic Dad. VS says the Indian
Industrial revolution is petty and private. If Nakuru Shah’s and Patels are
fighting over 10 shillings, who will unite us? We are greedy Dad…VS says we are
‘a society that is incapable of assessing itself, which asks no questions
because ritual and myth have provided all the answers, that we are a society
that has not learned “rebellion”. Maybe Daddi-ji you need to read some real
literature before writing this. The Russians…”
Vishal was brought up by Mrs. Gupta to be the Bollywood hero she had expected
to marry all those hazy, plump years ago; to be NOT his father; Not her father.
Vishal treated his parents as if they were trinkets: colorful mantelpiece
trinkets who chimed once in a while, but who were so divorced from any viable
reality they could only be treated with contempt.
It gave his father a twisted sense of pride to
hear his son: what a man I am to produce a son, so un-Dukawallah! A son for
Oxford! But he was hurt when the boy left. Now what would accompany his quiet
mornings at the office?
When he was nine, Vishal had composed a song which he liked to sing at birthday
parties to scandalize everybody (except the Marxist Habajan Singh, who liked
his mettle). He sang it to the tune of a nursery school song about a
Duka-wallah sit by de ole Neem tree
Merry Merry King of da Street is he
Run Dukawallah run
Dukawallah hide your cash and flee
Part 2: The Making
of a Despot
Between 2 and 4 pm
you can find Idi Amin at Nakuru Boxing Club. For years he has been the Nakuru
Boxing Champion. He is getting older now, and some young bucks are challenging.
Modesty Blaise Wekea
is short. Very short. It is said he once lifted a plough over his head while
working as a casual in the wheat fields of Masailand.
He is copper colored
to Idi’s black. It is his speed – the unbelievable speed of those bowed legs
with thighs the size of a grown man’s waist. But there is something else. When
Amin first exploded into the Nakuru boxing scene people saw a future world
champion, “Aii Alikuwa kama myama!” he was like an animal: the discipline of
the army, added to his natural ferocity to make him unbeatable.
He had no wife: many
lovers: soft, yellow Gikuyu women desperately looking for a man with some
skills – they complained that Gikuyu men were disdainful of frills – saw sex as
a quick efficient drill; wira ni wira –work is work. Idi’s giant physical size,
his soft and gentle eyes and wicked smile; his reputation for controlled
violence attracted many women.
After his sparring
session with a nervous young man with even larger limbs than his; a young man
so scared of violence he could probably kill in fear, Idi had a soda with an
old friend. Godwin, the only fellow Kakwa in Nakuru.
Godwin Pojulu was a
tailor for an Indian family: the Khans. Idi speaks his language badly; he spoke
better in Luo and Acholi and Kiswahili, army languages. But when he was six or
seven his mother had taken him to Yei town in Sudan – and he had fallen in love
with the mango-lined avenues; and the gentle character of his people.
generally a nuisance in the colonial Labour Lines of Arua; in his maternal
grandfather’s home, just off Maridi road, five miles from Yei was heaven. He
was free to run and play as far as he wanted. Adults would swell to accommodate
him – he would eat in the homes of strangers. His grandfather had told him the
history of the Pojulu, his clan:
Generations ago, Jubek was posted to a place that came to be known as Juba
town. Godwin tells me Jubek does not deserve this privilege. He was a coward,
he says. He was reluctant to fight the Dinka, and keep them out of their
The Bari army was divided into six groups. Each bore a secret code-name. The
leaders of the group were determined by their abilities, or character. They
would determine what action to take.
Eventually a group of frustrated soldiers took it upon themselves to defend
Jubek from the North from the Dinka. Mundari was their codename. Mundari means
"a hostile force that act without orders.
Paparrara are the descendants of Jubek. This name was shortened to Pari. This
became Bari, some time after the arrival of the first Turko-Egyptians in 1820.
The letter "P" does not occur in the Arab alphabet. Today, there are
six groups of Bari peoples, named after the six groups of the Bari army: Kakwa,
Pojulu, Kuku, Mundari, Nyangwara and Bari.
The people of Pisak are Pujulu, named after a great hero. Onyanyari was a
leader of one of the six forces. A mild mannered man. Polite. An astute
politician. Because of this skill, he was sent to the Zande kingdown in the
North-West to try to persuade them to let the Kakwa to penetrate the area. His
force was known as Pojulio, which means, Come My Friend. This group of Bari
speakers is now called the Pojulu.
Godwin speaks to him about Sudan. About Inyanya 1 – the war. About old heroic
days; about rumour and gossip coming from Yei town. Idi loved to hear the
stories; would always ask Godwin to repeat stories he had memorized already.
Idi has vowed to die in Yei. One day. They would eat soda and mandazi and talk
till the sun started to set and Idi made his way to his room to do the ironing.
The only person in the household who threatens Idi’s job is Vishal. Now he has
gone. Since Vishal started to sprout whiskers he has been hostile to Idi. After
reading Eldridge Cleaver, he took to calling Idi The Supermasculine Menial. He
once asked his parents if they did not think that a man as animal as Idi would
not one day attack them?
“You need to read VS Naipaul. He understands the black man.” Vishul said to his
As crime has increased in Nakuru, Idi has become more indispensable. Two years
ago he cornered three thugs, and beat them all up, and left with a knife-wound
in his belly. The Shah’s are fearful – scared of the seething Dark out there.
The presence of a
tame Giant Dark is a consolation. Sometimes Idi thinks that Mzee Shah knows
what he does with his wife every afternoon. But maybe he does not mind so long
as it is secret. Mzee Shah is a man of peace – and Mrs. Gupta Shah has been
less bullying, mellower, mewing even sometimes, since she and Idi started
He had caught her wailing one day in the living room, after Vishal had gone to
Oxford. He had tried to slide backwards slowly out of the room; but she had
leaped at him and grabbed him and wept on his shoulder, leaving long
snail-trails of snot on his khaki shirt. Her mood had changed abruptly, and she
attacked him: teeth and nails; her body so incoherent she had come by rubbing
herself on his knee.
He likes to see the fear/desire in her eyes; the surprise at his gentleness;
when she expects the thrust of a lion; of a legend about Black Men, related
among giggles and whispers while samosas are being cooked and Gujarati Aunties
are talking raunchy. He likes to ask her questions: see her eyes answer, Yes.
You are a man.
He does not mind being a HouseBoy.
He is happy.
(c) Binyavanga Wainaina
With thanks to
is a Kenyan author, playwright and journalist. He won the Caine Prize in 2002
for his short story, 'Discovering Home'. His latest book is entitled One Day I
Will Write About This Place.