Jack Makau: A story about cutlery and learning exchange

Jack Makau

A story about cutlery and learning exchange

It was early days: we were cutting our teeth with enumerations, so we built a local team of enumerators and one of the team members was [Monika], a really strong activist lady from a settlement called Githarani in Nairobi. She had really fought for land. She was elderly – she was probably in her 60s – and she could be quite cantankerous even in normal interactions, but she was a member of the team. She couldn't read or write, so what she did in the team is that she carried all the material: the pencils, the rubbers, the sharpeners, and the forms. It was great to have her because if an enumerator got a pencil she would remember, and you'd not get another one until it was sharpened to the end. And at the end of the day she collected all the materials. So she was an asset to the team. 

And then we got invited for an exchange visit to South Africa. There was an enumeration happening in a place called Katlehong, near Johannesburg – and it was proposed that I go with Monika and another young man in the team called Chalo, from Korogocho. And so we prepared, and the day came, and we went to the airport and we got onto a plane. I knew it was the first time for Chalo and Monika to fly. It was a British Airways plane, and they put us all on three seats together, but they put Monika on the aisle seat, me at the centre, and Chalo at the window seat. We should have changed it ourselves, but I didn't know that Monika would be so scared of flying. And so, the plane taxied and started taking off – you know the angle where it is gaining height. I'm not sure how she removed her seatbelt but all of a sudden she was screaming: she didn't have a seatbelt, she got up, she started running, she was falling, the whole plane was laughing. I had to remove my seatbelt and go for her; one of the cabin crew was helping me and laughing as well with everyone else. So we got her back to the seat and put her in the middle seat. (I don't think I get embarrassed after that, in any situation.)

And then as we flew she got a bit more comfortable and chatty, and then after meals were served she asked me, ‘So, this cutlery's plastic and the plates are plastic – so what happens when the plane lands? Do they wash them?’ And I said, no they just throw them away. So she was excited and asked me, 'so could they give them to me?' And I said, yeah we can ask. And when the plane landed we asked the cabin crew whether we could have the big bags where they empty all the used cutlery. Of course they had a good laugh and said yeah, go ahead. And for good measure they said would you also like the old newspapers. So we left the plane, each of us I think with two bags and stacks of newspaper under our arms.

So we started driving towards Katlehong and then, as we drove, at some point we were going past a police station and Monika says, ‘Stop, stop’. So the driver stops and then she gets out of the car – so we all get out of the car – and then she looks across and there's a police station. And then she asked the driver, ‘This is the place where they killed Steve Biko?’ When we got back in to the car, I asked Monika, it's your first time in South Africa, how did you pick a random police station? And she said, ‘In 1973 when he was killed I saw it in a newspaper and I cut it out’ – she couldn't read – ‘so I cut out the picture and I kept it’. And for me I understood that her struggle for land was a much deeper struggle – she was illiterate but her struggle was connected with many things, it was a very deep struggle. A lot of respect – not many people connect their struggles in that particular way.

So we got to the place – the settlement where we were going to do enumeration – and they didn't put us up in a hotel, they put us up in upgraded houses, with slum families whose houses had been upgraded. And the first house that we went to, as we put down our things Chalo started talking to the daughter in the house – young, pretty girl – and they decided to take a walk. It was early evening and they just went. And first it was a bit uncomfortable – we had introductions then we sat in the sitting room. I think the mum in the house was cooking. The dad, we tried some small talk, but he was a bit worried, so he asked, ‘So this young man you came with, you know him very well?’ I said yeah, he's in the federation. Then he let it go, then after some time he got a bit agitated. He said something like, is it normal in Kenya for you people to do this? Then he was getting very agitated, and even I was getting agitated. Chalo has not been anywhere out of Kenya and he's gone off with someone's daughter. And at nine they strolled in.

So the next day after breakfast when the SDI car came to pick us, we were asked to leave with our bags. They were very nice, they said we will take you to another house, which they did. So we went for the enumeration and then eventually we ended up in the other house, with our bags and our bags of cutlery and garbage. So that evening, Monika washed all the cutlery, and she arranged it very well and asked for a little box. And it fitted in the box, and then we tied the newspapers so she had a little bundle – the 6 bags had condensed. Some people had not eaten their peanuts, so she kept those aside.

Then – and its very regular that a lot of Kenyans take herbal supplements or medicines, and normally they're in very raw form so you just get a stem of something or some leaves and you boil them or you crush them and then you eat them. But it's different in South Africa. Monika had some herbal things, so she asked for a pan and then she started cooking roots and stems. And I was in the sitting room, and then the mum of the house was screaming and saying we are bewitching her house, and there were neighbours, commotion. Some brave lad from the settlement came and grabbed the pan in a blanket and then ran off with it and threw it somewhere – it was so dramatic. And, of course, then the next morning when they came to pick up, they told us to go with our bags. That was part of how we learned enumerations.

When we got back home, Chalo decided that he can't go back to his settlement, Korogocho, because if you come from a foreign country, that night your house would get broken into – because you must have come with good things so someone will come and take those good things. So Chalo went to stay with Monika, until Monika kicked him out one week later. She was brilliant. She was a real asset.