My rural homeland is purely agricultural. The rolling hillsides are dotted with scenic tea farms, and the occasional field with grazing dairy cows breaking the monotony. The snaking murram roads are littered with rusty pick-up trucks in various states of disrepair, bowing out to the versatile Toyota Probox van.
This van will haul Napier grass in the morning, and grace a wedding in the afternoon. But, I rather wish the van's designers had factored in a sunroof.
For if a man is to stick his torso up the sunroof and wave to pedestrians like a politician on the campaign trail, it’s quite stately. Without a sunroof, the alternative is to attempt waving out of the passenger-side window. It is hilarious to watch.
It gets embarrassing if the person hanging half out of the Probox window is Uncle Tosh. He’s the fun one, your favourite. Uncle Tosh is teetering on the precipice of seventy years, bald-headed and with a few tufts of grey hairs for a beard. He’s drunk as a sailor, and surprisingly good vocals belting obscene excerpts of an ancient circumcision song.
The problem here; is that Uncle Tosh was not being Uncle Tosh.
The new money is from a land sale. The elderly man’s land borders a private primary boarding school hungry for expansion to meet CBC guidelines set by the government. For an acre, the school had tripled the price in their bid. Uncle Tosh had accepted.
Suddenly, his new bank account had Ksh2M - half of the selling price.
Now, Uncle Tosh is the eldest of my father’s siblings. In his earlier years, he had been married, had a son and got divorced just as quickly. Since his early 30’s he’d been living alone.
A typical peasant farmer, Uncle Tosh had made just enough from his ancestral 4-acre land to keep afloat - neither poor, nor rich. Once his son hit 18, Uncle Tosh had bequeathed him half of the ancestral land - as tradition decreed. His mother presently farmed seasonal crops on that section.
So, Uncle Tosh, who never had need for a bank account is suddenly flush with Ksh2M!
Let's talk about ancestral land. This is passed from generation to generation, getting split into smaller portions along the family lineage. Somewhere along that line, someone decides to sell off their portion. It is legal in the eyes of law - but, doesn’t it seem awfully illegal in the eyes of the ancestors?
For everything seems to go sideways when and if someone sells off their ancestral land.
I hardly believe in ancient generational curses, but it is puzzling. Somehow, the seller - otherwise a sober, sane and introspective person flips into a completely different version. They are suddenly reckless, lose their financial sense and launch into a senseless spending spree.
In turn, this decadence leaves their social and family fabric in absolute tatters.
Food for thought: Is ancestral land linked to some sort of curse? For instance, Uncle Tosh.
Why would a formerly laidback introvert suddenly transition into a wild, drunken street soloist?
In a strange way, we all like money in a 'round' figure. That’s why everyone -at least the people I know - has a bowl or piggy bank at home that holds any ‘left-over’ coins. With a large sum, any amount above a round figure looks and feels disposable.
Say, a hundred shillings above a thousand shillings seems insignificant. That idea compounds as the amount rises. A Ksh100,000 after a million shillings seems like a fly afloat on the soup. That's the mindset that befell Uncle Tosh with Ksh120,000 above the Ksh2m round figure.
It seemed alright to treat himself with the 'loose cash'. After all, he needed to make a decision on a proper project for the Ksh2m round figure.
As soon as the deposit notification came, he had called a friend - with a Probox van - to 'escort him to the bank'. His first withdrawal got the disposable amount - Ksh119,000.
He had left a 'nice, round figure in his account'.
The shenanigans began soon after. A friend would join them at the local joint, and they would call another friend. That day, he had been taken home waving drunkenly from the van’s passenger window. It was a quite spectacular homecoming, befitting a triumphant politician with a few boda boda riders as escort.
In the morning after, I had helped Uncle Tosh piece together the previous night’s expenses. He had spent a whopping ksh46,000. It’s a miracle the rest of the cash was not stolen.
No worry, we still had a ‘nice, round figure’ in the bank for an undetermined project. I became his ‘personal assistant’.
For a man who had spent most of the last four decades in near-solitude, Uncle adored the sudden attention. I could tell. His eyes would light up. He would break into a smile and would start nodding even before the request after the exaltation was made.
The hangers on knew it. Every extortionist word you've ever heard, it was used on Uncle Tosh.
Kiongozi, Mkubwa, Sonko, Mdoss....
Early morning, people would start streaming into the homestead. These were random villagers and distant relatives crawling out of the woods. In my mid-30’s, courtesy of Uncle Tosh’s newfound importance, I met relatives I had never met before. The introductions were outright hilarious.
You don't remember me? I was here in 1995. I'm a cousin from your mother's side. She has an aunt married in Makuyu. And so on.
Sheer comedy. It was clear that they had heard of the new money. All this while, their eyes would be trained on Uncle Tosh’s house built a little distance from my father’s house.
I was unofficially his personal assistant (P.A), obligated to a full time gig handling the inevitable questions.
Alikuja saa ngapi usiku? Ataamka kweli saa hii? Unaona kama atanisaidia kweli?
Later in the day, Uncle Tosh would drag me into a local liquor joint as head of his entourage. My main duty would be handling his phone and making payments. I had the password to his mobile phone and bank account. It was a difficult task.
As P.A., I’d still be fielding questions.
Nipewe chupa moja kiongozi? Tulisoma na wewe pale Muratha Primary.
Tosh, si uwe MCA wetu hii raundi inakuja kiongozi? Unatosha.
Despite my best efforts, I could not do anything but watch Uncle Tosh dig deeper into a financial misery pit. By the tenth day of wealth, we had sliced a sizable figure off the ‘nice, round Ksh2m figure’.
We were now slowly aligning to a new ‘nice, round figure of Ksh1m’...
Other than a new professor’s tweed jacket with patches on the elbows, an Android smartphone was my uncle’s other purchase. In a way, it was a befitting indulgence - much like you’d feel indulging on an expensive, lazy holiday in Zanzibar. Problem is, Uncle Tosh neither knew how to use it nor cared to learn.
He had a personal assistant. Cue in the convenience of modern-day banking. In an instant, from the comfort and convenience of home or favourite Sina Taabu at the local - he could move money anywhere you wanted.
For a generous man, this ease worked dangerously in his disfavour. He would order random and unnecessary withdrawals.
Quitting the P.A. Job…
On January 15th, I had to return to Nairobi. The ‘nice, round figure’ in the bank was then getting closer to Ksh1m.
As a personal favour and gratitude for a handsome severance package, I had intentionally blocked my uncle’s mobile banking pin - and, snitched to his sister - my mother.
She had called my other uncles and aunts, planning an intervention.
That intervention had a single agenda. To gainfully enforce an investment plan for Uncle Tosh, for the unpaid amount. He had sheepishly nodded his way through the meeting.
A few ideas came up. First, Ksh1m would secure shares in his name at the local Sacco. It made sense, as the ageing man would be assured annual dividends for self-sustenance. Investment ideas tried to align with his interests. Nothing like a new pub, or such.
Uncle Tosh had a thing for animal husbandry - a dairy project made most sense. A plan to assist him plant cash crops on the remaining parcel: early-maturing avocado and macadamia trees. These crops are on high demand throughout the year.
A bit of the money would be spend renovating my uncle’s main house - little, comfort ends like ceramic tiles and modern plumbing.
The best decision, in my opinion, was to grant my mother administrative powers. Uncle Tosh was finally in better hands than mine!