Last Monday morning, the BBC radio, in its Kiswahili programme, carried many big-event reports, like the Oscars, but it also had this short clip on Dandora Estate in Nairobi, Kenya. The clip filled me with sadness and made me think back to jiggers.
Interestingly, if you mention ‘jigger’ in the UK, they will understand a car, a shot of alcohol, part of a sailing ship or a bit of a bother! None will connect it with a burrowing flea that played havoc with our bodies.
And nearer home – no, home! – dol our Americanised youth of Kigali ‘dig’? I doubt many people know that Rwanda owes her being finicky with cleanliness and order to those jiggers, even if figuratively! I’ll tell you how.
But first, how did I make this undesired and unpleasant contact with jiggers?
It was 1960-61 and we were new in exile in Bufumbira, Uganda. Being refugees per se was not bad. What was, was that a family had ‘housed’ us in what they called a backhouse. In truth, it’d go for a goat-pen, to you and me. Still, we had to make do.
Making do meant hanging a long piece of cloth in the roof to partition off our parents ‘bedroom’ and there: a one bed-roomed ‘house’! For a family of fifteen, extracting the other comforts of a house out of what remained demanded highly ingenious improvising. So the rest of the pen doubled – or quadrupled – as a sitting room, kitchen, store and, at night, a bed room for thirteen children and relatives.
After that, converting the ‘hall’ into other conveniences was child’s play. To make a bed for thirteen, we spread the whole area with dried grass, covering everything with ragged cloth or grass-mats. Problem was, most times we did not care to remove the fire’s warm ash debris from the floor before making the bed. That was like rolling out the red carpet for fleas.
The result was: at night while we slept, the fleas went about digging themselves homes – in our toes, soles, heels, any part of the foot available. If everywhere was exhausted, they went for the knees, fingers and elbows. By the time they were through with you, you could not find any non-sore part of your body to lie on, to await the inevitable death.
To our luck, before the sores ‘declared us history’, we moved to then Belgian Congo, where we built our own houses and tended our own compounds. We called our traditional fastidious cleanliness to our rescue and thus became human again. Never would dust be seen anywhere near again. Unkempt bodies, dirty clothes, stagnant water, flabby fleas, malignant mosquitoes, all were declared personas non-grata.
Homes became citadels of hygiene and no-disease. When we moved to refugee camps in Uganda, we made each camp look like a grass-thatched Kigali-of-today.
Unfortunately, jiggers have been reported in those of the EAC countries that still entertain grass-thatched houses.
That’s why I grieve for the Dandora Estate, when a resident reports on BBC that it has become a slum like Kibera, Mathare. Surely, who allows the Green City in the Sun to descend this jigger low?
The same city erudite Mwalimu Nyerere, quick of humour, called the London of Africa? Of course, relations were such that he’d not admit that Nairobi was greener, bluer and better!
I remember when I moved to Umoja Estate, adjacent to Dandora, in 1980. It was a low-cost housing area, then just completed. It was clean and orderly to near-perfection but that was not surprising; after all, it was in Nairobi, the Green City in the Sun.
Alas, what did I see when I went back in 2003 after nine years of my return to Rwanda? Umoja had become a pale, forlorn and derelict shadow of itself, with storied extensions and heaps of garbage extending into what used to be sparklingly clean streets.
It reminded me of the Kigali of 1994. The sight of a stray dog reminded me of the Kigali dogs with blown-up tummies, due to the dead bodies of genocide victims they’d satiated themselves on.
Without the pure green and ‘Lupita-Nyong’o-blue’ of old; the Nairobi sparkling skyscrapers, the ultra modern Thika Highway, the sprawling Silicon Savana, all will count for nought.
Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda should know that the moment they allow their infrastructure to crumble will be the moment they’ll kiss the benefits of the single tourist-visa goodbye.
And the three should know that their luck will receive an even bigger boost with reluctant Tanzania and Burundi latching on. So, why not drag them along – by their bootstraps, if need be?