Taken to slave


In my village, if you mention the name Kuresoi or hear people talk about it, don’t be fooled to think that they are referring to a constituency in Nakuru county, they are referring to a place in Timau where more than 208 middle aged men from all over the sub-location had been taken by an unscrupulous contractor to dig trenches for fibre optic cables the name ostensibly having been coined by a fella who saw ‘action’ firsthand in the 2007 tribal clashes.

One Friday evening in Aug 2009, my buddies and I were just relaxing at the shopping center as usual after a day’s work. Word came that there were some gentlemen who wanted to talk to young men at the primary school’s playground. Gichangi was at the forefront spreading the word and asking people to meet at the playground to listen to what the visitor with good tidings for young men had to say. One thing I don’t understand is how Gichangi always happens to be the first person to make contacts with any non-local who calls by with a message to deliver to the locals. Be it a politician, farm input manufacturers and promoters, sports promoters, Coffee Millers, Macadamia people or whoever, he is always in the forefront mobilizing the locals. I wager on him being the first person in the village to spot Jesus Christ in his second coming while going ahead to show him around the village.

A good number of middle aged men hurriedly gathered at the primary school. We were not less than 50. Gichangi called the gathering to order and asked us to allow the visitors a few minutes to tell us what they had in store.

These are the young men I have managed to gather in the short notice but by tomorrow we will have made the numbers you mentioned. That is 400 men right? Asked Gichangi.

Yes we need at least 400 men. Said one of the visitors who, from the look of things, seemed to be the boss.

He introduced himself as Jeff Murigu of Global Systems Kenya and went on to say that his company had been contracted by the government to take part in the nationwide laying of trunk fibre optic cables. Global systems had specifically been mandated to connect three county headquarters that is Nyeri, Nyahururu and Meru Town.

I am particularly looking for youths to take part in digging trenches from Timau to Meru a distance of 54km. This is the only phase that has not commenced. All the other stretches are underway.

I would have opted to go for tractors and excavators for this kind of work which would be quick and efficient but decided against it so that I can offer a source of livelihood to young men. It is unfair to use tractors while young men are languishing in poverty. I believe it is a sin before God.

When I asked around, I was reliably informed that young men from this sub location and specifically from this area are very hardworking; they don’t joke around with work………….

Ndunahenio (you were not lied to), remarked a voice from the gathering.

Ithui tukoragwo twi machinari, (a local corruption of mercenary whose intended meaning leans toward machinery) shot another voice from the crowd.

This is exactly what I was told, that you work like machines. That’s why I purposed to come to this place.

 Now because darkness is already setting in, I will go straight to the point. We asked Gichangi to look for not less than 400 young men to take part in this project. We need you to be ready by Sunday afternoon. I will organize for transport to Timau free of charge so that we commence work early Monday. You will have a place to sleep. You will only be required to carry a Fork, a spade and may be a mattock for those who can get one. Mattocks will not be all that necessary but if you happen to get hold of one, just carry it with you.

It is important for me to mention that we have seen pregnant women do more than two piece-work (known as Ifuti in the local dialect) a day. Leave alone that, you will be amazed to find the kind of money mothers with babies strapped to their backs are making.

Tucucu turakirikia nginya mafuti meri muthenya! (It is an open secret grandmas are completing upto two piece-work a day)

I can see you are all very energetic. Look at this guy here, he said pointing at Mbogo.

Mbogo was and is still very strong. Whenever there was a pig to be slaughtered at the local abattoir, he was the one who hit it with an axe in the head: the local method used to disable the poor animals before slaughter. It was rumoured that the pigs usually died not so much from the knock itself as the violent swoosh of wind resulting from the axe swing.

If you can’t get to do three or four or even five mafutis a day, you will only have yourself to blame. By the time this project is completing, everybody will have made enough money. You will be able to buy that safari boot you have been dreaming of and a good jeans. Some will even manage to start a modest business or buy a bull calf that they will rear for a short duration and dispose it at a good price.

Is there any question so far?

How much are you paying per piece-work? Asked Ngugi.

We are paying 400 kes per piece-work.

What about food? Asked Mbogo. It had to be him asking about food.

There are some women on site who will be preparing food for you at very friendly prices. So don’t worry about food.

That evening, when we broke the news to mum, she was not upbeat. She maintained that we were better off doing the normal Kibarua locally and earn the normal kes 100 than going to an unknown place to work for unknown people. She particularly stressed that she had once lived in her uncle’s place in Ngare Ndare and the ground there is as hard as iron.

Do you know digging a pit latrine in Ngare Ndare is a nightmare? You can’t dig a foot into the ground.

What do you mean you can’t dig a foot in the ground mum? I asked. You’ve forgotten I worked in a quarry in Gatiki and I could fill a lorry load of stones in 2 days? Besides everybody is going mum why not us?

No matter how hard she tried to dissuade us, we ignored her pleas and prepared to go. We prepared the best forkjembes and spades and ensured they were properly fixed.

The material day came. All the young men in the village gathered for the journey. Even those in Nairobi who had not secured proper jobs were recalled by their kin in the village. Here was a job that was well paying without big a hustle. You could make kes 1200 a day by doing four piece-work. We were a bunch of over 200 young men all armed with forkjembes and spades. Some had mattocks too. We also had small travel bags (for those who were lucky to secure one) and paper bags carrying extra clothes or a piece of blanket. You were not going to be away in a remote foreign land for two weeks with just one pair of clothing. Some mothers were present to see their sons off giving them much needed advice to take the job seriously and not to misuse the money they were going to make while away.

Everybody was giddy with excitement. We had confidence in spades. Rightly so because we were used to being paid kes 100  for a day’s work locally and kibarua was not so regular. You worked 4 days in a good week and the work was strenuous. Here was a contractor offering to pay kes 400 for a 20 feet long by 2 foot wide and 2 feet deep trench.

The contractor arrived in a convoy of three vehicles. His personal car and 4 Mitsubishi FH215 trucks. After some briefing about what was expected of us, we boarded the trucks and embarked on our journey to Timau. The devil conspired to ruin our journey just a short distance from the shopping center. One of the FH trucks swerved dangerously at a place called “kwa Mugambi” tossing to the bushes 10 guys among those who were perched on the roof bars. What a shuddering f*@k? The driver didn’t stop the vehicle despite all our efforts to raise alarm. From the onset of the journey there was a cacophony of noises and singing and screaming and this is probably what prevented the driver from discerning the alarm we raised.

It is at Karatina where the vehicles stopped for refueling that the driver and the contactor learnt of the incident registering their most profound apprehension.

Why didn’t you raise an alarm? Asked the contractor.

We raised enough alarm but the driver kept going. Countered Kariuki.

Why didn’t you heed their calls to stop? The contactor asked addressing the driver.

There was a lot of singing and shouting as soon as we started the journey. I heard them raise the noises higher but I was preoccupied with maneuvering the potholes while avoiding being bogged in the mud.

Maikirio Mitareini morira. (They were tossed into a bush of wild berries and vanished). Shouted some fella.

Jesus! I just hope the young men are ok. Ngoma niatia arenda gutuonia? (Why is the devil trying to throw spanners in the works?)

This discussion went on for a while. None of the unlucky fellows had a phone (90% of the rest of us did not have phones too) that they could be reached on to get us to speed about their state of affairs.

The contractor offered to drive back and check their predicament. A few minutes after he left, we saw the 10 guys from a far running toward us. If they were looking for any mercy from the group, they were mistaken. Guys were already falling about laughing on seeing the 10. Some had bruises all over while others had torn their clothes. Surprisingly, they had flown to the bushes clutching their tools of trade. When the laughter from us subsided, it was their turn to tell their ordeal narrating how they had crawled from the thorny bushes breaking into a run to try and catch up with us in Karatina.

When the contractor came back, he was somehow bewildered on seeing the hapless ten.

Contractor: Muma mitareini iyo ndona? (You mean to tell me you were deep inside that bush?)

Yes were were. Said one of the 10.

Maya ni ma Makmende moka kinya na ndare makiriaga . (These are all Makmendes, they have come munching at wild berries) quipped some class-clown which was followed by a deafening laughter.

Contractor: With your forks and spades? And no one got seriously hurt? This shows we have God’s blessings in this whole undertaking. Without wasting much time, let’s continue with the journey.


 We arrived in Timau Township at some minutes to 7.00pm. We left the Township and snaked our way to about 15 kilometers into the Interior. We were to spend the night in a primary school that was nowhere near anywhere. We were huddled into four earth floored classrooms without window panes. We had the desks removed and packed in the school hall to create space for sleeping areas. As we had been promised, there was already a number of women with chapatti and beans and rice and buckets of uji ready to serve those of us who were willing to take supper which was in essence, all of us. I took 2 chapatis and beans parting with kes 35. I had with me kes 200 which meant I remained with kes 165 but tomorrow…. tomorrow God willing… I would do 3 piece-work. I would be over kes 1300 richer before sunset tomorrow.

After eating and after much porojo we went to bed or whatever you would call an earth floored classroom. Bodies were stacked next to each other leaving no room to change sleeping position during the night and this was replicated in all the four classrooms. Talking of sleeping positions, they vary as they come. There are those who will lie on their stomachs, those who will lie facing up, lie on the side, lie with knees raised, coil like a hedgehog that has sensed danger, lie with elbows sticking out, lie with legs spreads over other bodies… lie.

In the morning, we walked to the place where work was set to begin. It was roughly a kilometer from the school. We found the contactor already on site. With him were 3 other gentlemen whom we were informed would be our supervisors. They would allocate us work and also record the number of piece-work completed by each one of us.

I was among the first people to be allotted two contiguous piece-work. Two, apparently to prevent the supervisors from having to frequently push people forward in the queue every time they completed a piece work.

Shell Shocked.

 We started working in earnest. The instructions were very clear: Twenty feet long, two feet deep and two foot wide.

When you swung a fork jembe, you got through the first 6-8 inches but below that, there was a black compacted sandy stuff hard as concrete precisely as mother had put it. Her words came hitting me hard. “You can’t dig a foot into the ground”

Mbogo the 110kg behemoth whose toned upper arms were the size of some of our thighs swung his giant four tined fork jembe into the ground. Nothing gave. The Jembe barely went 3 inches into the ground. He wiggled the jembe out of the ground and swung it again with even more vigor. The ground shook and a sound of metal hitting metal ensued as the jembe skidded to the side. There were some sparks and smoke too.

He clutched at his lower back visibly in pain walking away from the Jembe that was tightly stuck in the ground and sat on the ground a few meters from the rest of us. This was an ominous sign. We were utterly astonished. If Mbogo, the SI unit of raw power and unbridled strength, was going to cave in after hardly starting his first piece-work, the rest of us were absolutely anathematized.

By night fall, no one had dug more than 8 feet of their first piece-work. The few guys with mattocks had managed to do 8 feet but the rest majority were doing between 3 and five feet.

We trooped back, heads down, to the school for the night. We were not a happy lot. Things were not turning out to be good as we had envisaged.  We took supper and retired to bed early for we were tired as hell.

At around 1.00 am there was a racket in the adjacent classroom. Some guys scaled the classroom partitioning wall, others climbed on the rafters to check what was going on while the rest ran outside. There were also the heavy sleepers who only woke up as a result of being stepped on by those going out.

To my amazement it was my brother who was grabbing his bff Mose by the neck.

Icio mbeca niwe wabora na no ngukuraga (You are the one who has pickpocketed me and I am going to kill you.)

Ndingikubora atia Muciri? Mundu no abore muratawe? (How can I pick pocket you Muchiri? Who pickpockets their best friends?)

You are the only person who knew that I had such money and besides, Am I not the one who bought lunch for you after you confided in me that you didn’t have any money left with you? How come that you were able to buy 4 chapattis for supper?

It is true Mose had no money during lunch time he became bankrupt after paying for 2 mugs of uji and 3 manadzis during breakfast. This came from a guy in the crowd and it was corroborated by others.

Guys were ready to lynch Mose but my brother inexiplicably came to his defense saying he would deal with him personally. Calm resumed and we went back to sleep.

Day 2.

 In the morning, the women had come early with mandazis and chapatti and buckets of uji. For breakfast, I had two chapatis and a mug of uji. I parted with another kes 30 leaving me with a balance of kes 60. This was enough for lunch and supper but come tomorrow I would have no choice but eat on credit.

I looked for my brother and asked him whether he had dealt with Mose to which he laughed and fished kes 300 from the pocket and asked me

“Ni ura imagine Mose kinjiite mbeca ici ciothe hamwe na iria ndariha breakfast nacio?” (Can you imagine the rascal stealing all this money from me plus what I had paid for breakfast with?)

You mean you were serious he had pick pocketed you?

Yes I overslept and dropped my guard leaving the scalawag to steal from me. I have however taught him a lesson.

How did you get the money back?

After the commotion, I allowed everything to cool down. I didn’t say a word to him and I pretended to have fallen asleep immediately. After about an hour, he was dead asleep and was snoring away even sleep talking. I hooked two fingers right around his collar bone and when he came to, trying to resist I applied more force. This way, I was able to check in all his trouser pockets and the shorts he was wearing inside the trousers. Guess where I found the money?

In the shorts?

Nope, the scoundrel had hid the money inside his torn underwear.

We resumed work from where we had left the previous day. What we were doing was akin to digging a concrete floor with fork jembes. By mid-morning, my hands were aching like hell. Blisters had formed on the palms. I slogged away still.

By evening I had done about nine feet of the first piece-work. I had exhausted the money I had carried with me, my arms especially at the wrists were on fire and I felt pretty much wasted. Neither the contractor nor supervisors had shown up the whole day.

Day three.

After breakfast, 2 chapatis and a mug of uji my friend Kiama came deriding me to put just-a-little-bit more effort. Listening to him,you would have thought he had done five piece-works already.

I felt like I could use my spade to beat the crap out of him if only to release a little bit of stress that had crept in.

You know what? I am done with this place. If I remained at home, I would have my little savings intact plus I would have earned at least kes 200 from the local Kibarua. What is going to happen here is that we will accumulate more debt from food and I swear to God no one is going to finish a damn piece-work.  Anybody who is lucky enough to finish one will have accumulated a bill of not less than kes 500.

Kiama was talking some sense and suddenly I became interested in what he was saying.

How do you leave this place without even a single shilling for fare? Walk all the way home?

 Kiama and I planned and executed a plan to go MIA that same day. We hitch hiked to Karatina town walking the rest of the stretch home. We parted ways (without a lot of Too-ra-loo ) at Iruri where I was tempted to accompany Kiama to their place as it was closer than our place. This would mean coming into contact with food sooner.  It is one one thing to be tired and disappointed but a different thing altogether to be famished, worn out,disappointed and broke.

The darkest part of the night is the hour just before dawn or so they say. I hobbled the final 2km in real pain.  I was to meet mum a short distance from home while on her way to the market. She recognized me from a far and wore a smug face. An I-told-you-so face. My own mother laughing at me in total disregard of what I had gone through. I was not shocked though and I didn’t expect any mercy from her considering the lenghts she had gone to trying to plead with my big brother and I not to go to Timau.

Eku muru wa nyukwa? (Where is your brother?)

I have left him in Timau. I have run away.

Wora niki? (Why would you run away?)

That place is hell mum. For three days I didn’t dig half the 1st ifuti.

Ugakiura niki na aria angi no marakiruta wira kai wee utari mundurume? Urathukumire cigana? (You ran away leaving others at work, aren’t you man enough? How much did you earn?)

Mum, by the time i was leaving, the fastest person had dug about 12 feet. Personally I had done eight. There is no payment for an incomplete piece-work.

Kiinuke uhuruke na wambe urie. Kai kuu gutari irio? (Go home have some rest and eat too. Was there no food in that place? )

At the mention of the word food, I swallowed hard nearly choking as a result. I was looking forward to any kind of a meal that would come in plenty.

By the way, I am past 3600 words more than double a single sitting read. So allow me to wrap this thing up.

No one and I repeat no one out of the 208 completed a single piece-work even those who, like my brother, spent another week in Timau in a bid to complete an ifuti.

The group would later plan and execute an exodus at night trekking all the way from the interior of Timau to home. Like those before them, Kiama and I, they left with unpaid food bills. We asked God to forgive us for fleeing with poor ladies’ money. They were just victims of circumstances. Didn’t the Israelites make away with Egyptians Gold and Jewelry? Business would boom for the local welding guy who embarked on repairing roughly 97% of the Timau fork jembes that came home with handles and at least two of the three twines broken, stubby and and crooked.