Reading Reading “Washikadau (Patrons)”

(Fredrick Bosire, Swahili Lecturer, Shanghai International Studies University)

This comments and attempts to read out aloud Washikadau(Patrons), an interesting piece of poetry from Nairobi that I recently encountered. I dare presume that, the composer’s Chinese socialisation, study of Swahili and African Studies plus his studying abroad and immersion in the city life of Nairobi, which he thematises here, interplay uniquely as it externalises in this piece of work.

The terse piece of poetry Washikadau(Patrons), may look like a conventional narrative poetry but it is rather an unusual handcraft of a foreigner depicting the life of Nairobians, which is coded with many linguistic and cultural specifics of the city. Quite distinguishing is that the narrator deliberately left the poetry tradition of the Swahili coast aside, thus he did not obey the measured metre system, which determines form; as in, the number of lines (mishororo) per stanza (ubeti), syllables and rhymes. I think it is therefore fair to say that, the narrator’s aim is not reproducing a poetic tradition but rather exploring his own creativity. I presume that he mixed many poetic forms while composing this writing.

The poem is made up of three large stanzas with small stanzas nine line each. The large stanza is made of a one-lined heading, two main and one-lined question alteration at the end. Within the stanzas, there are rhymes of o, a, and i respectively. Interestingly, the penultimate line of each stanza hints the rhyme of the next stanza. The narrator did not use standard Swahili and so mixed it with the urban language called Sheng as well as a few Kikuyu expressions all contributing to the repertoire of its linguistic devices. The syllable structure is unknown to me – usual for free verse – except that the last lines of each stanza contain fewer syllables than the rest.

The poem begins with him telling in a very humbled mood, how he decided to break the silence and register his presence in the city. He used the rather mockery Sheng label Mchinku (Chinese) to introduced himself to the city dwellers and explained that because of his modest background of ushago (rural home) he can relate with Nairobi’s ever migrating communities. He further stated that, he had in his young age gotten used to the intriguing and deceitful nature of city smarts (mapanga), whose progression of experience reminds of how China emerged economically from the so called third world. He considered the street boys as ordinary people just without dreams and there’s no difference between them and the merciless thieves, who he himself occasionally encontered (ka mwaliko niko nao “when I have the invitation”).

He was exited as a newcomer to the city and experienced it as a big casino where people, who have kasoro (imperfections), gamble all their belongings. He described the street boys dying every day in kioro (Kikuyu: toilette or sewer) while the others just celebrate without care. Concerning business, which is the only competing ground, social care and justice are nearly non-existent. The ending lines, “I greet the drivers, the blind cannot respond to this” remain utterly ambiguous. Doubtlessly, the drivers refer to operators of the famous means of transport of Nairobi, the matatu. Because the drivers can surely not be blind, I would guess blind refers to be the passengers. Nevertheless, using the singular form suggests that passengers are fewer than drivers which is impossible. This contradiction may allude the debate of whether Kenya has been put into an autopilot mode in the year 2019, since in the new constitution the size of the government is overproportioned to her taxpayers’ economy. With the summarizing questions throughout, he inquired whether meaningful communications between people in this city or country still exist.

In the first stanza of the second paragraph, the poet lures the reader with the famous Jambo Bwana song. The narrator samples Nairobi’s socioeconomic anatomy through time and space. He illustrates a number of the city’s emblematical pop culture, landmarks, religion and extraordinary occupations. He puns the irony in the popular and enduring Jambo Bwana Hakuna Matata song with Hakuna mapesa (there is no money) since independence. He exemplarily highlights the inventiveness of Tom Mboya Street’s small-scale petty traders who typically make very little profit. The capriciousness of some religious leaders who despite professing religiousness are in reality involved in a gold rush or quick buck (kazi kuchimba “the work is to dig”). High society ladies are, according to the author, mistresses of city’s economic survival game. They acquired multiplicity of roles, which they use depending on circumstances, for instance, education philanthropists, capacity building teams, some tourist consultants or environment promoting agencies (leo kwenye mashule kesho kwa wanyama “today in big schools tomorrow with animals”). In reference to the economic fortunes awaiting new immigrants to the city, the poet notes that while Nairobi is famed for being the city in the sun “Nairobi jiji juani” yet not everyone enjoys its warmth (hujui utajua kali kubali haliingii “you don’t know you will know that it is not enterable”). Sarcastically he expresses his amazement at how those toiling under the sun can even afford to laugh at donkeys “punda“, the real beasts of burden.

The second stanza starts with the poet poking fun at the contrasts of Nairobi’s seemingly many opportunities, A place to become someone “pa kwenda bwana” for which you only need to have access to public procurement money – tele tenda (many tenders). The narrator believes that the habit of misappropriating public money is deeply rooted in the unhesitant attitude whereby even poor ordinary citizens strive to steal from each other, and when they make it in life this way, the young people kidosho (small bird) who have made it are adored. The narrator does not begrudge for their success but he can neither help nor watch them for longer. He noted that Nairobians standard dress code sare (uniform) actually masks its vast inequality, one can not tell whether someone comes from poor neighbourhoods: (Ma)thare short for the big slum area Mathare, zima for Zimmerman estate, a middle to low class neighbourhood, famous for 24 hours transportation. Though as a foreigner, he is not entirely unfamiliar with such quick-rich, he sarcastically urges the listeners to be weary of the shilling (money) if they could, because the others are already all over with providing sponsors and high-standard meetings.

The third paragraph tackles the arrogance of Nairobi’s elites specifically exemplified by diplomatic lifestyle. He mocks the now familiar routine in which the expatriate community go about ingratiating themselves with local peoples. Many pretend “wengi kufanya pose” by spattering some Swahili. This inkling is drawn from the poet’s presumed mission in Nairobi’s balozi (ambassador) and bachelor (academic or single). The ambassador we are told sings in Swahili “aimba lugha hii” simply performs a diplomatic duty and the mastery of the language is limited to a few functional vocabularies habari (Hello), asante (thank you), kitangulizi (maybe one-two words prologues of their speeches). We are told of the seemingly countless functions and projects diplomats attend before they are moved elsewhere. Forked tongue – the poet commends their efforts and wishes them success but also point out that at the grassroots the same problems persist unchanged it is not helped by the thousand or hundred shillings the entitled envoys simply give out to clear their own face.

In the last stanza, the poet “praised” the supposedly hard work of hustling (wararura kila mahali “hustle every where”, wajanja natural “natural cheaters”) and even their alertness since they can not be coned- not even when high or intoxicated (hata ulevini hawatapeli). They are not shy of fights, biting words and manipulation whenever they reside “wagongana wamenyana ndipo wanashishi“. Yet they do not mind their helplessness in the hands of ruthless drug dealers or cartels (walanguzi) thank mng’aro (Sheng: alcohol) and chuma (Sheng: a bullet) an effective antidote for their pains. At the end the narrator politely stated that he was not trying to lecture anyone (singedhani … napiga firimbi “I did not expect refereeing”); but as a parting shot, he asked for the caution against the dangers of pombe (alcoholism) and mboko (Sheng: promiscuity), otherwise the so aspired future would not be.

Yuning Shen
translated by Fredrick Bosire
(1) hoihoi washikadau hamjambo (1) Submissively I salute you patrons
saa hii kuvumilia kashindwa mtoro
niongeleshe lau dogo nyie mle mboco
mi Mchinku pia toka ushago
mapanga nishazoea nikiwa mtoto
wastreet hawakunitia hata kidogo
maisha bila ndoto ndiyo hivyo
jaa nyumbani kwangu nikupatie kionjo
wenye nia kuiba napongeza
ka mwaliko niko nao
Elusive, I cannot take it any more even for a hermit
Let me talk at least a bit as you eat your beans
I’m also a countryside Chinese
I know machetes from childhood too
Streetboy’s life never drew me
Life without dreams is exhausting
Come by I give you a taste of it
I’m used to cheer thieves up
When I have the invitation
nilofika Nairobi nijiambie kudo
atiriri, Nairofi, town ya zaidi casino
pamejaa hata watu wa kasoro
katoto kapotelee kioro si ndiyo
kila siku au niseme mufti machweo
hata kakufe jana kapigiwe mvinyo
biashara pekee uwanja wa kinyang’anyiro
madereva nawasalimia
kipofu haitiki hilo
Kudos I said to myself when reached Nairobi
Atiriri (what? that?Nairofi a casino town even worse
full of even imperfect people
Kids died in the streets like in their lavatory
Every sunrise and sunset the same
Even die next day, they celebrate
Trading is the field of grabbing
I salute the drivers
The blind cannot respond to this
nasema hivi, ipo mawasiliano? I say this; is there communication?
(2) hekaheka niwaimbie jambo bwana (2) Cheerily let me sing you Jambo Bwana
tangu Uhuru hakuna matata hakuna mapesa
chonga chonga ashalilia Tom Mboya
jina la Bwana mnaimba kumbe kazi kuchimba
madem pia watuwekee masharti matata
leo kwenye mashule kesho kwa wanyama
wakimbizi bebeshwa mzigo wakicheka punda
Nairobi jiji juani hujui utajua
kali kubali haliingii
gutiri kindu wasema
Since uhuru hakuna matata and no monies
Quite inventive but no income on Tom Mboya st.
Lords name sing your lips but underground you deal
strict rules set the ladies
Today it’s on schools tomorrow about animals
Refugees unaware of their loads laugh at donkeys
Nairobi, city in the sun, you don’t know you’ll know
Admit as simple workers the city is not traversable
Gutiri kindu (it’s nothing there) it resonates
Nairobi pa kwenda bwana tele tenda
si hata wanjiku waibiana ili kupenya
ofisi kuvaa sare hujui akae thare au zima
kidosho aruka chini juu watu humpenda
hata mi daima namtakia mema kumfika
nakimbia toka mbali kumwangalia nishachoka
kichomi maumivu sitozifukua
zidi epuka hizo shilingi
sponyo kikao hatakosa
Numerous opportunities in Nairobi, tender monies
Tom, Dick and Harry steal from each other to succeed
Neatly dressed in office, they reside in slams or nobles
Little birds, jumping up and down, lovely they find
I wish them all the best always
I ran from afar tired of looking at them
I won’t unearth the hurt
you ought to keep avoiding the bucks
They will not miss sponsors nor meetings
je, mko tayari kutoka tena? Are you ready to venture out again?
(3) hohehahe wadau kwani hamuimbi (3) Aren’t you singing destitute patrons
sa si balozi bachelor aimba lugha hii
wabamba habari asante na ghani kitangulizi
kujifunza zaidi nawaambia hawawezi
wengi kufanya pose wengine hawasikii
bize huko na kule ati function na miradi
poleni kazi wadau naomba itasaidia kweli
mkibadilishwa kumbukeni ako mashinani
pea ngiri na hata soo
ka kuomba moyo hawafi
The ambassador, bachelors, sing this lingua
Captured by “habari” “asante ”, singing the prologue
I know they cannot learn more
Many are pretending other aren’t listening
Busy here there, having functions and projects
I hope the work will really help
the day you’ve swapped remember they’re struggling
Give a grand even hundred bucks
so the beggars never despair.
watu wa Nairobi wararura kila mahali
wajanja natural hata ulevini hawatapeliwi
wagongana wamenyana ndipo wanapoishi
kunyanyaswa na walanguzi hawaoni
kitu ajabu hawakumbuki na hawahuzuniki
kweli mng’aro na chuma dawa ya machozi
singedhani ni mimi sa napiga firimbi
achana na pombe na mboko
hakuna kesho hamjui
Nairobians do hustle well, everywhere
Naturally smart they are, can’t be coned even drunk
Ruthless, caustic, the way of their living
They don’t notice helplessness under cartels
They don’t remember it nor complain
Surely alcohols and guns dry tears
I would have never imagined myself refereeing
Desist from alcohol and promiscuity
Tomorrow will melt away so, don’t you know
nauliza, mtasema napenda kejeli? May I ask; will you think that scorns?