On evenings when I leave Patel’s early enough, I spend my time on the mattress basking in the dark and musing over the sins I’ve committed under the sun. Some of them amuse me and I laugh. Some remind me that I am stupid and I really feel it. I am that sentimental that something I did in 1927 still haunts me and makes me ashamed even when alone and in the confines of this thing whose rent I pay myself.
Maybe that is how I should live. It looks like the perfect life cycle of a poor man. Do good, regret the good all your life, die, get forgotten, reincarnate as a dog, get beaten up for bones you didn’t steal, get knocked down by a truck, die….
Our classrooms had so many entrances every pupil could get in and out of a lesson without sharing the same route with anyone. Sometimes it was impossible to know which classroom you were in; even the walls that were supposed to separate the rooms had been destroyed by ants, night-runners and a stubborn stray dog that also left its poo on the teacher’s desk often. In fact, I have spent most of my post-primary years finding it funny we always laughed at children from Mwichina Primary. We would always laugh at them whenever we met during the zonal games where the hapless Mwichina and Musango still had to contend with coming last in every game including the walking race.
If you stood at the Baptist Hospital and looked in the direction of the school, you saw pillars of grey and faint blue and black silhouettes in between. As you moved closer, you began to realise that the pillars were no longer pillars but the little walls that ants, for lack of a better joke on generosity, had decided to leave standing. And the blue traces were the uniform that we wore ever since the school had been incepted by Mwalimu Sakaria Omusikoyo Esq those many years before. And the black, the black was of course our faces – and it was said that our class had the darkest black because we were in-laws to water and soap.
But Musenda was a school of peace for so many years that there was the fear that it would be converted into a sisters’ convent. This should not insinuate that there was no violence. There was too much war and violence, and this is what resulted into the great order and organisation the school and its environs enjoyed. Especially during the afternoons when the teachers had been fed and now sat under trees to pass wind and let digestion have a stint with them. There would be much calm in classes where teachers skipped lessons and you would find the prefect (a young African dictator) taking charge of the entire class. Ours was a short boy called Kong’ai and he would order us all to sleep on the floor and those who managed to sit on a desk would spend the peace of the afternoon snoring and feeling good.
One such calm afternoon the tranquil of the school was disturbed by the noise from class-seven. It was Eshikwati the bully and self-declared bell-ringer whom I saw first. The rags or threads that had remained from his shredded and ever unbuttoned shirt flailed right behind him. It was not a big mistake that Eshikwati immediately became the school athletics team captain and served at the district team as a regular for the three years he was in class-seven before finally throwing in the towel on the wisdom from Britain).
After the shirt trailed the entire class. All were running and yelping and so their disturbance was immediately felt in the school. Even Mwalimu Maikol who was teaching us Mathematics had to pause. He rushed to the mud office-cum-school-kitchen he proudly forced us to call Fort Jesus. (It had no link to a fort though, and the only connection it had to Jesus was the part where the son of a Jew was caned.) Mwalimu Olwichi almost knocked Maikol from behind, and when they were in the fort, they locked it from inside and my thinking now is that they spent the entire afternoon peeping through the numerous cracks that decorated their office walls.
So we all stood and looked at the rear of the pupils’ run. In my mind I expected to see a cow in their pursuit. Or a snake. But it was not a snake or cow or even goat that came out. It was a man without a shirt and whose large khaki shorts must have been cut by a rake and stitched on his waist. In his hand was a big cane and one of his legs had a shoe. This man was Kweyu. Kweyu Marinda Isakale of Eshitoto.
For starters, our village has like thirty-six million Kweyus. And though other names like Wanga or Makokha are shared without a fuss, Kweyu was and is still a name whose sharing must be distinguished. We had Kweyu Kuruka John, Kweyu Ketse (Let-More-Beer-Come), Kweyu kwa Tsimoni (The-Big-Eyed), Kweyu Akhayoni (The-Bird), Kweyu Likondi (The-Sheep) and other Kweyus. Kweyu Marinda was however the most famous of them all because nobody even knew why he was named after a woman’s cloth.
Now, I’d always known Kweyu as a harmless friend of the bottle and whose bad deeds came only when someone bought him a bottle and sent him to say things they could not say themselves. We also knew he had planted bhang in the fence of the police station and that sometimes Mwalimu Maikol sent a pupil, sometimes myself, to go bring a consignment that was kept in secrecy. We also knew him as a dancer who danced to everything including a running posho mill engine. But the big thing was that we feared him because he was slightly heavy and never talked more than a word to people, never attended the men’s meetings at the chief’s centre and walked in the middle of the road whenever he went to the great market of Khushianda. But he was not a pugilist.
So holding a stick, this was a new one and I now wanted to see how it would end.
Kweyu ignored the shrieking kids and came directly to our class. By the time he arrived all the children had jumped through the windows or snaked out through the numerous holes that made our walls. For an unknown reason, I didn’t run though. When he was convinced whatever he was seeking was not there, he turned towards the staff room where by now the door was also bolted. But before he reached far he turned around and came for me. Like he was seeing me for the first time.
Where is it, he asked.
What, I answered, trying hard to appear calm.
Kweyu Marinda looked at his feet and repeated the question quietly and more sternly, this time striking the ground with his cane.
And where is that boy of Makokha, he barked, and I immediately felt loads of pity for Eshikwati for crossing Marinda’s road.
But I was also so terrified I didn’t manage another word. He scanned me from head to toe and then spat on the ground. Then he ran towards the back of the school where another uproar was heard. And he disappeared.
He came back three days later. This time he wore a vest and the same shorts. A shoe was also in his left leg. It was an afternoon and the drama almost repeated itself. Only that he went straight to a helpless man who was sitting under the same tree Mwalimu Maikol used when marking our books.
The stranger was waiting for a bicycle to take him away. He had just given us pencils and toy planes in exchange of old shoes and sufurias. That morning I had received a pencil eraser for giving him a sufuria I had stolen at home and hit with a panga to give it a genuinely old and dilapidated look.
Without consent Marinda removed all the contents from the man’s sack. He then rummaged through the mess as we looked from our classrooms and repeated a million times that the man was mad. It took him a few seconds before he found what he was looking for. A shoe. Which he immediately put on and stormed out of the school without uttering another word.
Everybody who knew Kweyu knew him as Kweyu Marinda. But the irregular visitor of Khushianda always had no time to master the name of a man they concluded was mad. So they would ask you if the man with a shoe was still alive where you were coming from.
Kweyu had two shoes. But the red one on his right foot was what gave him his identity. It was an old military boot that had succumbed to the complains of the passing time. It had a big gap at the front such that you always saw all his toes, including the middle one that slightly tilted upwards as in protest against the world order. His small toe had found little room in the shoe, and Kweyu had had to cut a small hole to leave breathing space for the member of his leg.
Yet he loved the shoe like a man loves his best child.
One day it was said that Kweyu had committed suicide by drowning in the Lusumu. A search team of halfhearted people looked for his body for days, and when they were satisfied he was dead, they buried a banana trunk to mark his funeral. The little possessions in his hut were shared among those who thought it wise to share. The shoe was given to Kutute who was not just his age mate but also a close person in the lineage.
Thereafter, Kutute spent three days on the run. For Kweyu Marinda had resurfaced and had forgiven all those who buried him and shared his wealth. Except the one who took his red leather darling.
At last it was rumoured that Kutute sent a boy to go drop the shoe at Marinda’s doorstep. And peace returned.
It has been twelve solid years since I left the village. Last week when I arrived, I found a large crowd surrounding a scene at the market centre. At first I wanted to ignore and walk quickly home. But a second thought took me to the crowd. Then I beheld a grey-haired old man dancing to a song none heard. He had a cream cap on his head and the chest was bare. I looked at his face and could not recollect whom he was. Then I looked at the legs. The right leg. And I knew what loyalty in life is.
A bicycle is something I still respect. Go on and grab iPhones, iTunes, iPads and everything else i-, my respect for bicycles remains unwavering.
The other day I was in town running errands for myself when an absurd thing happened. It was at this point where Voi Road pours into Kirinyaga Road. So as I crossed to go take the left side of Kirinyaga Road, this man in a Passat almost made a corpse out of me. I stopped my machine, turned to look at him, and hoped that he’d feel his shame and run away before I fixed him. Or at least, come fall at my feet and apologise profusely before I got the trouble of pacifying angry passers-by who would be on his neck. But the bastard got out of the vehicle and came to confront me. His key words were that I was wrong to use the road instead of the pavement (which isn’t on Kirinyaga Road). When I looked in his face and saw that he meant his words, I so much sympathised with him that I almost called the ambulance to the mental hospital. How could someone in his right senses rate an ‘86 Raleigh bicycle with a plastic car like a Passat! Not even Neelam or the postmodern Hero Jet could beat a 40 year old Raleigh. But foolishness, I realise, has no herb. So I cycled off without a word to him.
When I was growing up, bicycles were symbols of everything good. They were symbols of affluence, symbols of education, symbols of libido, symbols of national unity, symbols of immortality – anything that the schools said was good. Indika earned you respect. Indika earned you a wife. Indika earned you adoration. That is why they were majorly used by the most respected members of our community – teachers.
Teachers were the only people who outdid the local chiefs in being respected. I went to Mukambi Primary School, commonly known to the villagers as Musenda because it was next to the chief’s centre. They should have preferred Mukambi because it was also a chief’s camp for Chief Akaki Kodia, but that was just their choice. So at Muks (which is how we made the name look an equal to Booker Academy) we had these teachers whom we respected to death. If a doctor said you had malaria and a teacher said it was typhoid, the teacher’s word ruled and it would take time before the doctor received any clients. A teacher would tell you to bring to school a piece of firewood on Monday and by Sunday evening a heap would already be deposited outside the school kitchen. If a teacher told you to kneel by the school gate from morning to evening, you knelt. Then before going home you would look for him to say thank you and help carry his bag. And if you saw your teacher on the road, you’d immediately go into hiding. If perhaps you were convinced that he had seen you, you’d run to him, greet him in English and help push his bicycle.
They were Nazis. Pharaohs. Beat us so hard you would come home with zero if you set out to count the number of learners who never farted during punishment. Our fathers would wait by the road and when they saw the strictest teacher, they’d give him a token and plead with the teacher to beat the child even more. Whenever a child complained that Mwalimu So-and-So had caned him, that father would wait for the teacher with a hen tucked under his armpit. The man who took home most hens was one Mwalimu Jairo, whom we all loathed, loved, feared and admired in the same breath.
He donned a neat afro hairstyle, which just took him to another league. Every Sunday he went to the school and sat alone marking our books under a mvule tree. Then he would sample books of those who had done their homework poorly and go with them home to prepare punishment. Word had it that he had employed a Maasai boy whose JD was to go to the forest, cut young guava sticks for canes, rub on them red pepper and salt, warm them by the evening hearth, then package them in a small sisal sack for the school journey the following day. Parents therefore adored this man’s manner and proudly referred to him as Our Whiteman of Musenda.
But he had one weakness.
Ever since he had been transferred to our school sixteen years before, it had always been rumoured that Mwalimu Jairo didn’t know how to ride a bicycle. Now that was enough reason to cause stigma among men. An omusumba – bachelor, an omusinde – uncircumcised man, a man who got whipped by his wife, and a man who didn’t know how to ride a bicycle all passed as one and the same. It was taboo for big men and small children to mingle with women in gossip, but where these four were being discussed, everyone was greatly welcome and one could bash as much as they wished if only they kept their voices hushed. And despite the respect they gave Mwalimu, they sat behind closed doors and laughed how a well-educated man with two wives and an afro could not ride an indika yet even girls like Apedneko’s daughter were cycling well.
So when Mwalimu Jairo was seen that Sunday evening on top of a newly bought Black Mamba, it became everyone’s business. Those who saw him mount it said he had been shaking, sweating, and had needed someone to hold the bicycle and push him forward to start the ride. Those of us who played downslope were denied that rare opportunity of seeing a whole deputy head teacher panic on a Black Mamba in fear. But another opportunity awaited us.
As someone began descending the hill, something went amiss. We were playing marbles by the roadside in the far downhill, but we could still see a staggering bicycle even from far. It went from left to right and right to left. At some point, the man gained stability and we thought all was fine. Then we realised the speed was increasing and the left-right thing was now getting out of control. Then we heard the shouting as he approached. And we knew whom it was.
“Help me! Help me! I am the deputy at Musenda Primary! Help me stop! I am the deputy at Musenda! Museendaaaaa! Help! I am the dep…!”
I had never heard a man cry in such distress. Especially when the bicycle flashed past us and I saw how harassed he was; when I saw the furrows of despair on his forehead; when I saw the terror. His head had been thrown forward in concentration, and the arms tightly held onto the handlebars.
I ran in trail, bringing the best out of my feet. My playmates followed. A teacher was not supposed to fall with a bicycle – not a deputy! If a teacher never went to the toilet and never farted, how now? A teacher bathed every day in milk and warm mango juice, not fell. It would be a sin for his skin to touch down disgracefully. So I surged faster, outrunning my friends and hoping to get hold of the carrier first and slow him down to stop. Who knows, he might decide to remember me when caning those who used vernacular, and perhaps subsidise my punishment.
But I was slightly slower to the metal, which led in rage and contempt.
He lost control and hit a rock by the roadside. Then the shouting stopped for some seconds. For three seconds he was in the air, summersaulting and preparing for a landing. We all saw his whole body soar up into the air, fight gravity and rotate above the Black Mamba. We saw the buttocks turn up and head sweep down. We watched with caged breaths and unwilling eyes. Then he landed. A big thud. He gave two painful groans and went silent that for some time we feared him dead.
Then when we overcame our fear and got the courage to move near the injured teacher, our Whiteman of Musenda coughed and unsuccessfully tried to stand up. The dust that had gone in air was enough to blur one’s vision, though that which settled in his afro was more.
We had been so engrossed in the drama of his moving downslope that we had not noticed what had been tied on the bicycle’s carrier. Now tomatoes, sugar, several class-six exercise books and a hen were all strewn on the roadside beside their master. As villagers helped him to his feet and cursed the mad bicycle, I collected the items on the road and tied them in a heap beside the Black Mamba. I unwillingly put my exercise book back in the others for fear that he would realise if it went missing. But I hoped that come the following day, he’d still subsidise my punishment.
I used to think God a sadist. Killing people in Iraq and blinding generations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; killing parents and leaving behind scores of hungry orphans; denying boys their teenage queens; making uncles flop at the elections; Tsunami; El Nino; many, many things. How does one who is not a sadist leave women barren and insist that so-and-so should always fail their high school exams? He should otherwise not allow the fat Arab downtown to fire me in the middle of the month when he knows everything about the bills to my name.
There are many more. Imagine you decide to pluck that splint part of your nail and thus you won’t have sleep for two consecutive nights. Such a small thing, but, son, you won’t get peace today, God says. And in life such small pieces of shit are what keep our happiness or the lack of it. Only a sadist could automate such a programme as this.
A memory happened.
If you visit my childhood you’ll get this man Indumuli. We all called him Ninja. First, his name was too long and we needed talk about him every day. Second, his ways were the ways of a ninja. Not that he dressed like those Ninjutsu Japs. I think it was because he was a loafer with a very mysterious lifestyle. And everyone feared him just the way they’d fear a dozen hands from Okinawa.
I never wondered why Indumuli was homeless. I think it is because we never regarded him as a living person. Even thinking about him was unthought of. Or because I was small. No one pointed out that he dressed in things that somehow resembled, and went for, clothes. People said his weed had no jokes.
Picture this. There is this guy who is always drunk. Smokes marijuana too. He is very hostile to children and very cold on adults. He sits by the road selling plastic bottles and you have never seen him sell one even on credit. You go through your memory and you can’t remember seeing anyone stand by his shop, which is an ant hill by the roadside where he sometimes sleeps deeply in wait for that miracle client.
Every time you come from school at the lunch break, you will keep passing by him in deep sleep under shelter of the sun itself. In the evening when you rush past, he sneers at you with cold red eyes. If you stare at him, his face contorts deeply as a first and second warning that you should find something better before it is found for you.
As kids we had different narratives about him. But the dominant and most terrifying was that Ninja was a threat to all the menfolk. There was this story that one kid once reported him home over some sin. So when father and son came to confront him, he beat the father up as other villagers looked on and then he forced this father to laugh. So we always feared to cross his line since we couldn’t imagine the fun in laughing when just fresh from a beating.
One day I was rushing to the chief’s centre to untether and drive home Maridadi, our cow. It was going to rain heavily. Now it happened that as I ran, someone on a bicycle almost rode into me and I had to do the sidestep. There was a trench by the side and so to keep balance and still avoid breaking my leg, I leapt far to the side of the road. You can guess whose bottles I rammed into.
You may also guess the terror and the speed I took off in.
The guy had actually not been asleep. The moment he heard the bottles crack, he shot up, first in fear, then in furry. He needed only a fraction of a second to identify the intruder and device a counter attack. With my daily fear of the mystery that he was, I was already some metres away in that fraction of a second. Even as a kid I understood how difficult it would be to be slapped and told to laugh loud. So I only heard some thunder behind me, and soon the market place was to witness a sprint marathon pitting a boy and a seller of bottles.
Perhaps people thought we were running from the rain too. But here was a matter of life and death. I don’t clearly recall how it ended. What I remember is that I was to change my route of going to school for the rest of my primary school studies. I also had to change the route of fetching the cow back from the chief’s camp.
It is now years later and I’m beginning to think deeply about this man. He didn’t die. Nobody knows where he is. The marijuana and brewer’s glass were not a choice he’d make by himself. It was something society assumed. It was something about being alienated from the rest; being made different.
He was sadist because he was lonely. Of course I have not made up this story. There are trusted guys I can take you to and they will narrate it exactly the way I have.
So back to God and being sadist. Got something about the whole affair? He doesn’t hustle at the bus stop for the congested last bus. Before he travels to another point, he is there already; always been there. He only talks to angels – angels who are very foolish, very mean, very dead unless he gives them wisdom, generosity and life. He doesn’t have a friend to confide in. He doesn’t have an equivalent with whom he can consult. He doesn’t call at the local FM station to ask about El Nino or the coupe in Burundi. What a life of (Shakespeare’s) aloneness!
Yet he is not alone. Yet he is not sadist. He simply plays his cards. He makes us only like the locust to the wanton boy. Every time he lets us loose, we call it a miracle. Widows, the sick, the lonely (etc) keep receiving the miracle. Yet their number of miracles do not supersede that of job seekers in a strange jungle.
Have you ever hustled for a job in six sexing months and then received that call on one hot Friday of October? And the guy on the other side clears his throat and asks if you are Mr Were (insert your ugly name)? And you say you are? Then she asks whether you remember applying for a job and attending the interview some two weeks back? And you start to sweat? And then with a grunt voice you say YES? Then she asks may you come over for salary negotiations? Then you praise God and put it on social media for friends and enemies? Have you?
Last Friday I received a call from Egypt. Hey, let’s all have a moment of silence and visualise where we left Egypt on the map. Egypt! Think of the Suez Canal and Aswan High Dam. Up there in the heart of the Sahara and pierced in the chest by the Tropic of Cancer. Egypt where my grandmothers once lived and whipped the asses of Jews. The cradle of civilisation. Think of the pyramids. Now, my call came from that Egypt. An Etisalat number.
She asked me to confirm my name and country. From the heavy accent on the other end, I knew without doubt it was an Egyptian woman, not some con in a maximum security prison. By the way, why do Egyptians fondle with the /r/’s when they talk?
It was the Director of the college. She asked whether I had applied for a teaching post at her facility. I nodded and said yes. Then she asked if it was me she had interviewed on-line. I said yes, yes it was me.
This came as one of those shocks that throw you to the ground. I had been walking along a street in Kayole checking new routes just in case fire broke out or the boys in the hood became interested in my phone. So I halted, moved to the edge of the streets, put the other hand in the pocket and smiled broadly. Every dog has its way of celebration when dung unhappens. In my mind I have already decided the maisonette I’m moving to when I get to Misri.
So the big message comes.
“We hiyarr-bai regret to info-rr-m you that yua-rr application did not go through,” she says. “Please try again next yia-rr.”
Sometimes the world around you has to stop so you choose how to be sad. This was that time. Everything remained still and mute for a decade. Gaining strength, I walked slowly to the nearest police station, didn’t enter, walked further home past the guy who sells ropes and went to bed for sixteen hours. When I finally woke up, I was still asking what the friend above gets when he makes me go through this. Didn’t I promise to fast if I got the job?