No one is above a deep male voice. You know that voice, deeper than a sapiosexual’s mind. A baritone so smooth and so rich it sounds like Mediterranean bourbon or kahlua. A voice cloaked in persona, charisma and even has a scent. Something strongly masculine like Yves Saint Laurent or Gucci Guilty. It doesn’t even have to ooze machismo, it’s not raw sexy like Usher’s bare chest but it will hold your attention. It will command that you listen. A Mandinka voice that could don Valentino suits and keep a beard. A voice that feels like a he goat – what Okuyos would call a ndurume. Take a moment and muse over that voice.
That is what I heard when I first called Ekai Nabenyo. It was not sultry. But it was sure. It was poised, it had a firm handshake and it demanded that I listen.
I sat waiting for him at Java TRM facing the entrance; at the exact same spot I had been when they’d stolen Jason, my laptop. On my computer screen was the green grants page detailing stories of their beneficiaries. Number two on the list was Ekai Nabenyo from Turkana who was building capacity of his community and bridging the gap between the literates and illiterates in his village Lorengelup. My team and I from Survival Media were to produce 4 very short videos -2 minutes each – telling stories of Ekai and his community to motivate other young people at UNFCCC’s CoP 21. Don’t pretend you get that jabberwocky.
So I thought, “mmmhh, this might be bull. Bridge the education gap? In Turkana County? HA!”
But to shape a story and tell it to completion in two minutes, you need to get a feel of the protagonist. Feel his heart and watch his eyes. See what makes them dance and what makes their blood pulse faster. What gives them the mental hard-on that keeps them awake to type proposals at 3 am in the morning. Proposals regarding other people. That selflessness. You know, like foreplay between youngsters, totally giving. I expected an older guy – at least 35.
He walked in, blue shirt, unsure but unfaltering stride towards me (It was easy, I was the only lady without company). We shook hands, he sat and I offered him whatever he wanted to feed on. It was my date. He picked tea and a chicken pie. There is a drop of Luhya in every man.
Me: So, you are bridging the education gap huh? How?
Ekai: Mostly just capacity building for now.
Me -thinking to myself (that’s hard to measure, a little obscure)
To him: And this education thingamajig (pointing at screen)?
Ekai: There’s this school I helped build.
Me: You don’t look like you visit those makeshift gyms. You jengad? Volunteered ama?
Ekai: I did a proposal that got us 8M to build us six classes plus furniture. Then I did another to push for installation of solar power.
Me: (Veiling shock) Wait, Just how old are you?
Folks, let’s be real with each other here. What were you doing at 22? Smoking shisha at Psys? Chasing yellow thighs in Sheba lounge? Those once worn by Wanja Kavengi before she went 50 shades darker. Competing over who among you would have a sponsor rich enough to pack a range rover sport outside your hostel? Graduating school? Fretting over employment? Signing up or doing your masters? Fretting over heartbreaks? Planting trees? Not those kind of trees silly. Pushing weights in your makeshift gym with Ratemo as he broke wind every 20 minutes? Catching plays? Getting pregnant? Pushing for a greencard? What?
Over more tea and pies at Alliance Francaise two days later and as Chris Adwar and the Villagers band pushed that Lupita tune with such elegance, that got an okuyo like me singing “aweri Lupita nyongo nyadhiwa”, Ekai met my team. John Wambugu our filmmaker is this cool cat you’ll love to meet. He has the same demon that wanders in most photographers you’ve met. The dark evil that makes them squirm, climbing trees and hanging over cliffs looking for that one shot. John has two of these because he is a filmmaker and a photographer. Then Joel Lukhovi, this young lad that explores his tuff for so long looking and waiting leopard style until the light and subjects fall in place. Then and only then will he jump in for the kill. His trousers have gotten torn too many times in between shoots when he gets excited and bends in angles only meant for gymnasts. And women fall for him when his trousers tear. Women with long necks. Women in lorengelup. But I digressed.
We got to Lorengelup, my team, Phillip our driver, Ekai, a security officer whose real name was, wait for it, Polisi. Winnie Asiti was from Global Greengrants and it is she that first identified Ekai and recommended his grant. Now, Lorengelup village is not a place you go to take selfies, create a hashtag and hope to garner support for the community. Not at all. It lies in the Turkana about 100kms from Lodwar. It’s all brown sand, shrubs, wild fruits and oblivion from Pokot to Ethiopia. I immediately loved it. This place had one promise, an absolute omission of the selfie stick.
We got a feel of how Ekai worked only seconds after we arrived. Quickly, long necked women gathered quickly under an acacia tree outside Ekai’s manyatta, followed by their men and children. You could tell that although he was young, he commanded their respect. The women looked at him admiringly, most of them, solemnly vowing to keep their daughters in sacristy for him – I can only imagine. The older men, most of them never having been to school whispered developing issues to his ear and he listened patiently as William Lopii, Ekai’s partner in the village introduced us.
That whole day, we danced, held interviews, drove to their shrine and to the lake and shot until the sun’s stunning orange was replaced by a blanket of only stars and calm. We were dusty and tired.
We sat on the carpets and the mattress laid out to us inside the confines of one manyatta fence and under the bare skies looking at heaven. Across from us, the school which Ekai had helped to build shone like an oasis in a desert. It is where their organization; Lorengelup Community Development Initiative, now Article 43, had birthed its first child. Ekai had been 19, in campus sleepless on those beds whose notoriety includes binge watching scrubs and debauchery that is unluckily documented in DVDs on River-Road. It’s during one of these nights that he had started and on another finished the proposal and sent it to three organizations.
One day, Safaricom responded. He told his story. He’d attended Lorengelup primary school with other 24 girls and boys in his school. They studied under a tree, writing on the sand and most days, teaching themselves when the only teacher who taught all classes from one to six was too occupied. Finally in class 4 when they could use the mud hut they called a classroom. It was shared among class 4, 5 and 6 with each class facing three of the four walls. Imagine learning in such an environment? Imagine teaching in that environment? Free education and free laptops? Free indeed, of value.
After class 6, there were no more classes and one had to quit school or join the neighbouring primary school to finish up primary school education. Here’s the kicker, it was 8km away. Now that’s 8km to then 8km back. They were about 12 years. I’ll let that ruminate.
He made through anyway, this Ekai guy. He then went to Lodwar boys high school which was a boarding school and that opened his eyes to the opportunities that the world offered: electricity, internet, travel and empowered communities. He went to campus at 18 and the thought that his brothers, cousins and neighbours would go through the same did not sit well with him. So he formed his organization and through it tried to source for funding to support community work. When Safaricom gave him the coffers, the school got a facelift. For 8.4M, they built 6 new classrooms and furnished all of them with desks. Then he went to the local government in Lodwar, knocked doors until they put up solar panels that would supply free and clean energy to the school for decades.
This same man Ekai, was now fretting over our comfort, even slaughtering a goat. That young man does not even realize when it’s time to stop serving. The story of how we killed the goat is long and we are well over 1500 words. I’ll tell it one day.
He was not done feeding us. Ekai then came to the mat, on his palm a soft, shimmering powder and asked Lukhovi to lick. Apparently, they used it to calm the stomach and babies loved it since it was sweet. It was nature’s own ENO. Lukhovi looked at us. I nodded then he darted his tongue over the powder. I followed suit and just as it was John’s turn, I heard someone spitting then shouting “Sand, sand! Save yourself John, it’s sand!” It was me. The tricks and laughter continued way past 2 am then slowly everyone started to snooze.
I didn’t sleep. I worried. How would I document this man, his village, Lopii, the night under the skies, the women, the dances, the school, the shrine, the students, the young men holding barazas to teach the community against charcoal burning and the goat? John sensed my worry so at 3 am, he was still trying to climb an acacia to get more footage and more shots. Eventually we dozed off. Ekai never slept a wink. The whole night, he kept Polisi company as they drank tea and kept guard of us city folk like we were anything important. Tell you what, we should have been guarding him.
The next day when we woke up at 6 am to start another day of shooting, Ekai and Polisi didn’t show any exhaustion or weakness. I saw a little emotion though as we left Lorengelup for Kalokol. He insisted that we let him sit on the back of the double cab to watch his home as we left it behind. He didn’t want me to look at him longer than necessary and so I excused myself and asked John to sit with him in case he decided to jump. I was emotional. Everyone was, until Lukhovi started passing cold goat meat that a lady friend had packed for us, CoughLukhovicough.