Ipalei Defies life Without Hands to write a Fatalist Memoir

By Alexander Opicho
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When you visit ‘Kenya Wild Life Services Training Institute’ in Naivasha you will obviously run into a jovial strong man in a gangly walking pose, obviously dressed in a well pressed Kaunda suit, putting on sharp-pointed black moccasin shoes, this man will be none else other than Godfrey Ipalei, the Author of Mlemavu si Mimi( the Lame one is Not me) an objectively written autobiography-cum-memoir with each and every desired literary qualities of objectivity, subjectivity, neutrality, truth and social realism , humour, factuality, stark failures and measurable success that normal human life has to go through. Ipalei’s Mlemavu si Mimi is an autobiographical narrative about a conservation computer scientist born without hands. Though the story is written in Kiswahili, but its intellectual texture defies the cultural boundaries in the locality of Kiswahili culture to penetrate all other modern cultures that are conscious about the social fact that physical disability should not be an impairment to productive living.

Ipalei was born in 1967 in Teso District, Western Kenya. He was born with all other body organs apart from the forehands. He does not have forearms, his hands end up at the point of elbows .This means that his fifty plus years on earth has been life without hands, he still goes on in full spirit of living and working, executing intellectual service to the society. Lack of forearms did not handicap Ipalei socially, educationally and emotionally, he went to village primary schools in Teso just like any other child from a poor family, and he went to National High schools for O’ Levels and A’Levels, after which he passed exams then got admitted to regular programs at the public university in Nairobi, to study computer science. Currently, he works normally at Kenya Wildlife Services as an ICT consultant and Trainer. Above all else he has written one of the best autobiographical works in Kenya’s indigenous language, Kiswahili, a language that can easily be read and understood by many, from all levels of intellectual competence in Kenya and in East Africa, Mlemavu Si Mimi is published by the Oxford University Press in Nairobi.

In the book, Ipalei makes one clear argument that each and every human being has some kind of disability. It is only unfortunate that our human society have always had a conventional but very disproportionate outlook or attitude towards the tangible physical disability, even though there are a lot of physically wholesome persons suffering from endless challenges in their lives due to the unseen and intangible disabilities.

Ipalei maintains high degree of humour to communicate a fatalist and determinist literary philosophy that good life comes from one’s attitude not one’s physical advantages, though chances heavily rely on the gift of fortune, diverse providence and love of God. Even though Ipalei does not miss out to narrate to his reader the painful side of growing up in disability, the agonies come and go with cultural exclusion of the disabled, family discrimination of the disabled, institutional un-preparedness for the disabled in Kenya , school resources’ incompatibility with the disabled, love and disability, merciless Police response to students in time of university demonstrations without discriminating in their manner of dishing out club pummels to students with disabilities and as well as employers attitude towards job applicants with disabilities. But still, he does allow emotional prudence to slip through his fingers, he narrates this bitter episodes with literary brio and sense of hope-inspiring-humour by clearly maintaining the course of his initial motif that disability should not prevent one to access intellectual and material success. A point which he stresses by recognizing the courtesy of computing technology in support of ‘industrial ergonomics’ as supported by Microsoft Corporation, an indisputable case of determinism, fatalism and God’s role in human life.

When reading through the book, one can easily think that the title of Ipalei’s Mlemavu si Mimi was inspired by David Anderson and Vigdis Broch-Due’s book on the anthropology of poverty among the Turkana under the title The Poor are not us, but it is not like that. When I talked to Ipalei, he confirmed to me that he has never had about Broch Due. Thus, this revelations leaves us open to a single premise that the stringing and streaming consciousness displayed in Mlemavu si Mimi was basically a pure literary phenomenon of spontaneous actions creativity and chronicling deeply rooted in the silent ocean of childhood experience of living with disability in times of extreme poverty.

Above all else, Ipalei is to be honoured for speaking the truth, for writing down exactly what happened, he accepts all failures and celebrates all the success by putting both under fatalist spot-light that whatever goodness or badness man goes through it is only happening out of God’s favour. This Angelou Maya-like virtue of literary honesty in Ipalei’s book sharply contradicts the sorriest neurosis in most of the recent memoirs written in Kenya like Woman Unbowed by Wangari wa Maathai or Flame of Freedom by Raila Odinga, in which life of the persons being memorialized is depicted as series of very excellent decisions in everything from birth to adulthood without any trace of mistakes usually committed by normal human beings. This is not logically correct, maybe the connoisseur’s literary criticism and experts on literary psychology can forgive such intellectual flaps by rationalizing them away as personality failures that come with emotional commitment in the conscience of the memoir writer to create snobbish difference between the writers and others through self-righteous writing. Fortunately, Ipalei did not fall victim to this snobbish syndrome of trumpet blowing for interminable self-aggrandizement in his memoir.

Let me finish off this review of Ipalei’s Mlemavu si Mimi by borrowing an argument from Rene Wellek’s Literary Theory which argues that disability is not an enemy of literary creativity. Ipalei is not the first person without hands to write successfully, the world is still feasting on the fresh memories of Steve Hawkins, the British black hole physicist who wrote with a knack of a born poet. And in fact, European literary ancestry is extensively in the hands of disabled writers the hunch-back and homunculus Antonio Gramsci and Plato, the seeing-impaired Homer author of the Iliad, the epileptic Fyodor Dostoyevsky author of tomes of volumes like; Crime and Punishment, Brothers Karamazov, the Gambler, the Idiot, the Devils as well as Notes from Underground and or Cervantes who had lost his hand in war before he wrote Don Quixote. Reverting back to Rene Wellek, we still decipher that he went a notch higher to make another related argument by reasoning statistically that ‘there is strong positive correlation between physical disability and good literary creativity but subject to good exposure to literacy and education’.

Thus, the above rudiments are in no way a lesser testimony that the best gift of love you can give a disabled person is the gift of education. And this testimony goes straight to my brothers and sisters from Tanzania living in Kenya that have chosen to earn a habitual living by peddling around or pushing their crippled relatives on wheel chairs to beg along the streets of Nairobi, Eldoret and Mombasa. Very bad. It is not ethically right , if not so uncouth, for a physically whole person to beg by basing his or her excuse to beg on being related to a crippled person, having a crippled family member is not a moral justification nor a legal right for one to become an international beggar. Correct out-look is that, it is morally logical for those of us that are physically not challenged to find work, then toil and moil without bitterness, then passionately take care of our disabled brothers and sisters. Not only taking care of them in a material sense of food and clothing, but by also ensuring that we do not hide our disabled family members in the most secrete parts of ante-chambers of our houses , instead we are all morally duty-bound to bring out our physically impaired sisters or brothers and take them to pertinent schools. By so doing we shall be giving chance to the voice of reason roaring in wilderness that ‘with good education, disability becomes not a handicap, and truly enough, Godfrey Ipalei is clear on this in his enviable work Mlemavu si Mimi.’ Vivam.

Alexander Opicho writes from, Lodwar, Kenya. [email protected]