Tuesday, 24 August 2010


In the past two days I’ve been busy sorting through two decades’ worth of letters and postcards written home to my parents in Southport. They cover the period from 1976, when I went up to Cambridge, through to the late 1990s when I was working in Iringa and internet access changed all of our writing habits. I’ve rarely had the time, energy, or desire to write a narrative diary, so letters and now emails are often my only record of events (internal as well as external) that haven’t found their way into fieldnotes, notebooks, and my decidedly duff memory. On more than one occasion when researching this weekly blog I’ve been confronted by evidence of my own misremembering. And that’s why I asked recently if I could have all those old letters back: I need all the help that I can get.

I haven’t had time to read all of this correspondence, only to dip into it while marvelling at the diversity of postage stamps, franks, envelopes, writing papers, letter headings, inks, and typewriter prints that it’s made of. Sometimes I wrote letters on the obverse of photocopies of documents or newspaper articles of interest, and one of these in particular has caught my eye. It’s a partial copy of the front page of the Daily Nation dated Thursday, 16 July 1987, with the bold headline Echakara: Underwear mystery deepens. Stephen Achirya Echakara was an Assistant Minister in Moi’s government who died some days after being violently robbed of his Peugot 404 pick-up in Langata, Nairobi. His female passenger, a Ugandan, was also attacked, and she reported that two of their three assailants had tried unsuccessfully to rape her. The police later recovered everything that had been dropped at the scene of the attack, apart from her panties.

Much was made of this detail when she was cross-examined during the trial of two of the alleged attackers, and it was this scurrilous angle that the newspaper ran with. I assume that this was part of an attempt by the defence to cast aspersions on her character and evidence, linked to the admission that she was having an adulterous affair with the Assistant Minister. Alas I didn’t copy all of the article and can’t now remember more details of the case, though I can see from a quick search of the internet that the two defendants were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death (so much for that below-the-belt defence strategy), only to be acquitted many years later as the victims of a miscarriage of justice. There are also a number of rumours in circulation suggesting that Echakara was in fact assassinated on the orders of business and/or political rivals, and that his erstwhile mistress was part of the plot.

The Daily Nation’s titillating headline reminds me of another (but mercifully less consequential) underwear mystery from my time in Kenya. This found its way into my fieldnotes when I was studying the entrepreneurial achievements of Amkeni, a women’s group in Chilulu, Jibana Location (Walsh 1986), just down the road (or up the path) from the pseudonymised site of David Parkin’s Palms, Wine and Witnesses (1972). One Saturday afternoon (this was in October 1986) I was sitting with a housemate listening to records on a battery-operated player, when we were joined by a young Giriama man – let’s call him Charo – who had clearly had a drink or three of palm wine and was bursting to tell us his story.

Charo and another man, Kazungu (also not his real name), worked as live-in farm labourers for a neighbouring Jibana family. One day Kazungu had to give up his room and bed to a visitor, and so moved in with Charo for the duration. Charo took pity on Kazungu – who would otherwise have had to sleep on the floor – and invited him to share his bed So they slept at different ends of Charo’s bed and did so without incident until one night Charo was rudely awoken by Kazungu, who was thumping him with his fists. It transpired that Kazungu had woken up earlier to find that he was completely naked and that his underpants were on Charo’s head. Hence his unannounced attack on Charo, who managed to calm him down, telling him that they’d discuss matters further in the morning.

But Kazungu wasn’t mollified, and subsequently spread his account of what had happened. He then confronted Charo with the claim that he’d consulted several local diviners who’d pronounced that Charo was a witch. Charo countered this accusation by denying that he’d played any part in the removal of Kazungu’s underpants and their translocation to his head. “Show your evidence!” he exclaimed, before taking out some money and offering to visit any diviner to check out whether the accusation would stand or not. Kazungu refused, and the result was a stalemate.

When he told us this story Charo was quite excitable and evidently very upset: he’d done Kazungu a favour by giving him space on his bed and in return was being accused of witchcraft for no good reason. I remember thinking at the time that Charo could just have easily accused Kazungu of witchcraft for kicking his underpants off and onto his head; indeed it seemed to me that he had a stronger case for suspecting his bedfellow’s behaviour. But the obvious interpretation to a sceptic is that Kazungu’s wardrobe malfunction was a purely involuntary and innocent act.

I should emphasise that there was no explicit suggestion at the time that sexual desire or impropriety was a factor in this incident, except of course in the humour that I saw in it – which draws on the same tradition as that mischievous newspaper headline. I don’t have a database of Mijikenda underwear walkabouts with which to compare this case, and don’t know what happened to Charo and Kazungu afterwards, and whether and how their dispute was resolved. With hindsight I can now think of a number of penetrating questions that I could have asked. But this is one underwear mystery that I’ll probably never get to the bottom of.


Muhoho, Paul and Catherine Gicheru 1987. Echakara: Underwear mystery deepens. Daily Nation (Nairobi), No. 8274 (Thursday, 16 July 1987): 1.

Parkin, David 1972. Palms, Wine, and Witnesses: Public Spirit and Private Gain in an African Farming Community. London: Intertext Books.

Walsh, Martin 1986. Amkeni Women’s Group, Jibana Location. In Martin Walsh, Interim Report for a Study of Income Generation and its Effects among Women’s Groups in Kenya’s Coast Province (Report to World Education Inc., Boston). Mombasa, June 1986. 44-76.

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