My first political memory

Inspired by (no longer fellow delinquent blogger) Mama Junkyard.

I grew up with a father who was a politics junkie – no surprise that I become one myself. He did not live long enough to see the end of the Moi era, so most of my memories of political discussion in my household involve epithets being hurled at Moi or at the news (which especially in the 80s was really Moi). Also have memories of me helping him find the BBC or VOA on the shortwave radio, because this was the closest Kenyans could get to independent media. And you had to listen with the volume low, with copies of Gitobu’s weekly paper hidden (and my mother in a panic), because you didn’t know who was spying and when you could get labeled as a Mwakenya member.

My very very first vivid political memory though is of the coup in ’82. I was five years old, schools were closed for August holidays.

I had been sent to the duka (store) to buy bread and milk in the morning as per the norm. The store closest to the house was out of milk and I really wasn’t going to be the bearer of that news to my mother (a did you check all the other dukas “conversation” would have ensued) so I walked a bit further to the next duka. As I’m paying for the milk, I hear gunshots. At first we – me, the duka guy, people milling around as they do in estates – we surprised, it was so out of the blue and bizarre. Next thing, we’re all in a panic and running for cover. I ran back home, I think leaving the change behind at the duka.

TV only came on at 5:00 pm, so everyone turned on their radio to try and figure out what was going on. In the meantime, soldiers from Lang’ata barracks were flooding the estate (we lived in Madaraka not too far from the barracks) looking for good knows what. I think the coup plotters had taken over KBC radio by then and were announcing the coup/playing martial music. The soldiers (army) I believe started shooting people indiscriminately. We were all instructed over loudspeaker to lie down in our houses. Anyone caught peeping outside their windows would be shot. It was terrifying.

Meanwhile, we had no clue where my dad was. He worked the nightshift at the airport – target number 1 in any coup. We found out later than he had run smack into the soldiers when driving back home and had been arrested in held by them for a couple of hours, because he didn’t have his idea. He was later released under circumstances which I now forget.

I remember being cooped up in the house for a day or two, and then leaving to go and see the bodies of people who had been shot within the estate – most for having not having an ID, wrong place/wrong time, looking out through their windows. My uncle worked at the Air Force and was charged with treason like all Air Force officers it the time…it took his siblings months to find out if he was dead or alive and where he was being held. He eventually did five years even though he had zero to do with the coup. It was a scary scary time.

What was your first political memory? Please indulge me.

19 comments to My first political memory

  • lilalia

    My family was in Grenada in 1974 on vacation. This was an island we had lived on for a short while when I was a child and where we continued visiting yearly since we’d left. It was a place I associated with peaceful sunny memories. On this visit, we got caught up in a riot of protesters demanding independence. My father hid us under some bleachers, but we saw some horrific sights that day. Later my father explain why independence was a good thing, but I couldn’t really understand how people who could hurt their fellow citizens, could be good.

  • Interestingly enough, it is the coup as well. We lived in Buru Buru and I remember seeing Land Rover after Land Rover packed to the brim with soldiers driving past Buru Buru Phase One Outer Ring Road right past our house that had a fence on the street from my upstairs bedroom. There was sporadic gunfire all evening right into the night.

    That combined with the non-stop martial music on both the TV and the radio made for a tense evening.

  • Gakosh

    My first political memory is of the Ouko assassination. His family lived in our neighborhood. I found out he was our neighbor when I saw him at a New Year’s church service, and I remember being awed because it was the first time I had seen a senior member of government up close. I remember reading about him in the news, and how impressive he was as a cabinet member and a generally highly intelligent figure in the government. I used to read about him and feel a thrill of pride. That same year, the year I first saw him up close, he was killed. His assassination was very traumatic. I remember hearing the news, seeing the TV footage of the place where the burned remains of his body had been found. Seeing his wife and famly on TV. It was a hideous spectacle: I didn’t know him (or them) personally, but I remember the experience personifying for me the horrors of repression in a way that all the other things that were whispered about before had not been able to do. I found the press conference (or whatever it was) where the police said he killed himself and burned himself particularly horrifying: I guess it really embodied to me the nightmare of non-accountability and complete disrespect for life or justice. In an eerie way, I felt that exact same sense of surreal horror when Kibaki was sworn in in 2007: the exercise of raw power, and damned be the consequences.

  • KR

    The 1982 coup definately. I was outside our house sitting on the pavement with my next-door-but-one neighbour facing a little estate roundabout. Two 6 year olds just talking aimlessly. Then a van full of soldiers with their guns pointing outside came round this little estate roundabout. It stopped to pick/drop an air force officer who lived just a few houses away. My Mum saw this from outside her bedroom window and immeaditely got us off the street.

    Days after the attempted coup police officers in red sweaters were conducting searches in each house and we had to produce our radio permit or receipt or something like that.

    I am sorry about your uncle. That must have been horrible.

  • What better political memory than the fall of Somalia and the subsequent American Invasion. prior to that everything was local.

  • Sone other guy

    hey Gakosh

    A quick question for you: did you have a neighbor named Raymond who was probably about 12 or 13 when Ouko was killed?

  • lady O

    Likewise mine was the coup of ’82. We lived in Nairobi West not too far from Madaraka and similarly we saw an onslaught of soldiers come into the estate not too long after we’d also heard gunshots.

    I remember my Dad hushing my Aunt who was pretty outspoken. If I remember correctly his reason was quite simple. “You’ll be put in”. That quickly put the ultimate fear into us.

    For the longest time my thoughts of the Moi government and this suffocation of free speech was shaped by this whole incident.

  • Suprisingly, mine was about the same as yours and some of the other guys who have responded. I was a 7 year old in Buruburu and schooling in Madaraka. I think we had just closed school the week before, was sent to shop in the morning but had to rush back when I saw the soldiers in landrovers and shops closing. My mother quickly dashed to the shop to stock up supplies once we got to know what was happening — we ate a lot of chapos in the subsequent days as all she could find in the shop was the chapati flour…

  • Spicy

    August 1st 1982 – The Day I will never forget. It was an eerie saturday morning. As was the usual customary practice, my dad who was a civil servant in Kenya’s government had gone off to work as was per the usual 6 day working week then. But, what was unusual about this specific saturday, was that my dad had tried in vain to get to listen to the KBC radio as was his usual morning habit. He awoke us with his complaint of failing to hear the morning news by his favourite newsman – Mambo Mbotela. Little did he realise that KBC had already been taken over. Despite lack of radio-contact, my dad went to work as he would do every saturday – half day work day we would call it. I was seven years old at the time but I could not escape to notice the air of stillness and an atmosphere of quietness that pervaded Olympic estate in Kibera. Shorly after chai and ‘mkate with blueband’ there was a huge thunder as several low flying helicopters thundered above our house roof. I shook and screamed with fear and lie hiding under the dining table. This fear still haunts me to date. I may say that Olypmic which is a stone throw away from Wilson Aiport and Langata Army barracks was the epicentre of the army and helicopters storm. After overcoming my fear, I left my ‘under the table hideout’ to go outside and meet with the neighbours who all did not know what was going on. It was only moments later that we saw several army men coming down from langata to olmpic looking for coup instigators. They came to search house after house, and came to our house looking under the bed to check whether we were hiding the coup mercenaries. I remember a neighbour mother who was left in tears when his son (Dan) a young bright nairobi university student was arrested and charged for being a coup guy. As helicopters flew loud right under my head and roof, I thought this was the end of the world. We never had a TV or telepehone. We were worried where was dad and where was my older sister who had not come home the previous night. Tension drew as the evening dawned and no sight of dad and sister. It was about 7pm that dad emerged at the door step with dirt filled clothes and in shock. Dad had arrived in town where he worked only to be met by the army. He and others who turned up to work were beaten and surrounded by the army. They were forcd to kneel all day and frog-marched. After a tortuous day, dad was set free by his captives from where he walked from town to kibera on foot. There was no public transport. Thank God. My sister appeared the following day. She had been caught up at Gilgil on his way back to Nairobi on the coup morning. There she endured all sorts of stuff from the army. Such stories awakened me to politics and the Moi era. In Moi’s regime, my dad always warned us from speaking anything about the government – lest a spy was listening outside. The Mwakenya papers – dont pick anything on the streets or read any material you are given. It was fear, oppression and suppression!

  • Yumbz

    ”Moi songa na mbele tujenge Kenya yetu!!!” was the song that filled the airwaves for the better part of 1st Aug ’82. This must have been after the regime had taken control of KBC. I was at Ushago and the announcement by Mambo Mbotela that “Serikali imo mikononi ya wanajeshi” had stirred childish curiosity in me, a 6-year old then. my mom has sought to explain what a coup was and it was clear to me that, in spite of being far away from the epicenter of the action, there were grave implications to all this. My dad, uncles and others within the vicinity of our home had congregated near the cowshed and were having hushed discussions as if any govaa spy would eavesdrop on them. Occasionally they would be asked to go silent whenever anything like an update appeared to be coming through.
    Later on i followed the trials keenly on the print media although it took me a while to read the politics in it.

  • Just wanted to let you know, kenyan pundit :) I love your site, greetings from somalia!

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  • @Agnostic Indian We are not disturbed by the horror stories.

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