A long time ago, in the city of Dar es Salaam, the road that passes where the revered Mwalimu Julius Nyerere lived was called Old Bagamoyo Road. Then, one day, a very important man from Kenya — the president in fact — visited the city and the road got renamed in his honour: Mwai Kibaki Road.
It was an odd gesture as we are not in the habit of naming major roads after non-Tanzanian presidents who are not of the glorious African Liberation Era.
I looked at it, refused to make the change as is my habit of denying that Dar es Salaam will not remain the static and romantic little town of my past, and forgot about it all.
Mwai Kibaki, the third president of Kenya, died on April 21 this year. May he rest in peace.
As I read various obituaries about him I tried my best to remember what had stood out for me during his time in office. The clearest thing that I could remember about him was that he had a pattern of speaking that Kenyan Kiswahili in which he would repeat himself, giving endless fodder for the comedians and smart alecks. And more colourful anecdotes about his life partner who predeceased him and which can remain implied rather than stated.
But otherwise? Nothing. Nothing in a region that is so filled with such political noise and periodic horror that we have developed some of the sharpest and quickest senses of humour in the world as a survival tactic.
Nothing: like the taste of fresh water.
So, I was surprised when I saw images of the late Kibaki lying in state. He was laid out simply, in a suit, on a bier with a pillow under his head. He looked mildly undignified, as he did in life with those oddly flappy suits. It made me uncomfortable and then comfortable and then I smiled and then I laughed.
That is when I understood that what I had always mistaken for the “nothingness” of Kibaki’s time in Kenya wasn’t nothing so much as relaxation. As someone who has visited Kenya for years, Nairobi residents were a lot less angry and bitey than they had ever been before Kibaki’s term.
They made jokes. They had something that smelled like team spirit. They asked with genuine puzzlement why Tanzanians were kinda cool — which we are —and I was at the time at a loss to explain it.
But here it is now: when your president is genuinely a relaxed patriot, a country gets to shine a little bit through its people.
Of course, for this article, I made the mistake of researching Kenyan opinions and wider opinions to find out about what the general consensus was of the late Kibaki.
In a nutshell, it taught me that the mastery of having absolutely no opinion on Kenyan politics aside from confusion is the pinnacle of Zen in life. It also showed me that there is a softer side to this neighbour of ours. There was a certain unexpected restraint from the Northerners for once. Dare I say perhaps even… kindness? Don’t quote me on that.
Here is the real reason I ended up laughing, though. I found out that, far from being the only Kenyan president laid that way, Mwai Kibaki was the third. Witnessed in death as in life and simple as can be.
Whatever else happened in life, in death them there, Northerners lay their great men just so. It is very unexpected to smile about that about Kenyans. Maybe even more so about a man so relaxed that in repose he looked exactly like he did in life: Approachable. Human.
The part that was harder to take was his throwing me back into memories of a time when it was absolutely fine to jest about our heads of state.
The times when one could shake one’s head at old men nodding off during speeches and best of all — ignore speeches? Where nobody bowed to anyone and we all just sort of lumped along.
His Excellency Mwai Kibaki was a lumpenproletariat and he made it perfectly okay for the rest of us lumps to have a place in this world.
Don’t worry. I am just as confused as you are as to why this man ended up invoking a fondness and sense of home for me. But he did. Ain’t that something? We say rest in peace. I say, thank you for the peace he let us rest in, for a while. Sigh. Mwai Kibaki Road it is then, for me, officially, from now on.
Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]