Stories from Wamba, Kenya

Babu in his bedroom

Babu’s stories center on the life in the Samburu district of Northern Kenya. They are about the villagers of Wamba, and about the Samburu who live in the countryside with their cattle — their goats, cows, sheep, and camels. I first recorded stories by Babu, the owner along with his mother, Rose, of the now defunct Quick Service Hotel in Wamba, Kenya, in 1995. I asked Babu to tell me about a few of the characters I had seen wandering around town. We sat under a tree on the edge of town and he told me the stories of “Omar,” “Goat Woman,” and “Two Sons.” Over the years I have recorded over sixty stories by Babu, a few of which are included here.

Several people have asked me whether they can meet Babu. The answer is, yes, if you go to Wamba you can meet him. Unfortunately, however, Babu ‘s health has been seriously impaired by the local distilled beverage, changaa, and this has negatively affected his previously brilliant ability as a storyteller.

During the height of his powers Babu was famous all around Wamba and even deep into the mountains on the path to Maralal. I used to joke with him that he must be the most popular person around and could easily win an election as MP. I always hope that my friend will regain his narrative skills, but he will first have to wrestle with the devil changaa and win; as so many people who have poisoned themselves with alcohol have learned, it is not so easy to become whole.

The stories that I include here are selected from approximately 60 stories that were mostly recorded over a period of three weeks in the late 1990s. I would like to acknowledge the brilliant transcription of the stories made for me by Sashi Gajendran. I recorded the stories in the field which means wherever we were at the time, whether indoors, sitting on his veranda, or on a walk. Babu was  rarely  situated to optimize the quality of the recording and his English, though fluent, has its eccentricities. Sashi negotiated the technical defects in the recordings and was not phased by Babu’s English.

Inevitably, some of the stories are told more fluently than others and thus the degree of my own editing varies. Babu performed in an improvisational theater group when he was in college. In reading, some of his English makes us associate his prose with the language of young children, such as, “the piece of the hand falled down.” This is the prejudice we bring to the text and it can get in the way of finding the power in his stories. Aspects of his prose require dramatic presentation. “The man felt very very very very pain” reads poorly, but when Babu performs it he uses the repetition to wind you up for the explosive pain that hits the reader with the shock of it probably about the same time it hit the poor thief as there was likely a delay in his comprehending what had just happened to him.

Okay.. the man put his hand inside.  The one inside took the panga, panga is a sword.  He chopped the hand, he chopped his hand, he cut down and the piece of the hand falled down.  The man felt very very very pain.  He put out his hand and he ran away, but he never wanted anybody to know that he is the one.  Because you know, the oozing bra… blood coming out of his hand, the oozing.  Now, we have the dots, so he did’nt want anybody to know where… where about he is going to, so he went to the toilet.  He took out his shirt, he tied the place which was cut, he went into the toilet and he put the half .. the half hand inside the toilet so that the blood will do what…will go into the toilet.  Instead of going to the hospital, he was crazy.  He went to the toilet and slept there, letting the blood ooze inside the toilet so that nobody will know why he is about.  Now, the blood oozed, all the blood he had went into the toilet.

I keep changing my mind regarding how to best represent his stories. I had hoped to have Babu’s help with this but when I returned with the transcribed stories his mental health had deteriorated to such an extent that he couldn’t help and unfortunately, on more recent visits, his mental health has only deteriorated further. When it was possible to let Babu’s exact words speak for themselves, I have let them. When, for the sake of translating an oral tale to writing its been necessary to edit his words I have done that. Where I go back and forth is with the stories that need heavy editing as they offer multiple options for the editor. I’ve tried to  remain true to what I perceive to be Babu’s vision. I include the raw transcription when there is one  so that  you can make up you own mind  and in any case, so you can superimpose his words over mine.


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