I don’t like this life. Every day I must be up very early, sometimes 4, sometimes 3. I need those hours with myself to get the lines right. My director is one quick guy who does not like what he calls sluggards. So I get up and pace in that room, repeating the new lines and making sure the old ones remain intact. On weekends I talk alone. The shopkeeper says I need a wife.
But do you just marry because you are talking alone? Will the wife eat your words? That shop keeper is crazy. Nowadays even words cannot sweet talk a woman. Wads do. Marrying just because you speak words is foolish, and it is more foolish if the words you speak are also foolish. You fix yourself in a problem you can’t buy yourself out. You get stuck like rich people get stuck in the traffic jam at the Jogoo Road – Outerring Road junctions.
For those who hate jams, being at a Jogoo Road – Outerring Road roundabout is not the friendly thing you’ll keep a straight face over. Every second that comes carries with it a long painful drag in the heart. You feel He was sadist to create man without wings so they soar you in the air and take you home on Thursday evenings. But again wouldn’t there be bird jams in the air? Like, you are only as little as a sunbird and we have eagles from Kakamega with big chests and muscular legs. Or rude vultures from Mombasa meeting the hornbill while all are running from the storm. It’d be hell. We would knock heads upon heads and that doesn’t hurt, yes?
So better just to remain humans without wings. Humans without wings can talk and greet each other. They can persevere the loud music in a bus at a Jogoo Road – Outerring Road roundabout. They can turn to the seatmate, see their own frustration in the seatmate’s face, smile, and think silently: we are one.
That’s the jam where you choose to pass time by staring outside through the window. You find comfort in seeing that frustrated look on other motorists also stuck in the same fix. A small smile curves at the edge of your sad lips. They, these people, took loans and bought click cars, but here we are, all consumed in the shit. It doesn’t matter where we shall each spend the night – what matters is that presently we are equal and humbled, the tall and the short. God, I don’t want wings.
At such moments you will look outside longer. You particularly fix your look at the young driver in the Toyota Prado on lane two. The metal has a commanding presence in the jam and this power sieves itself into the lone occupant. You can’t see her face very well in the dark glasses, but you place her at 23, which is the age of all city chics anyway. You try to imagine what she is thinking. Is she going to see her parents or she is going to her house? Is she called Laura? Can she love a man from Kayole still dodging his landlord at midmonth? You take in one deep breath and decide that she is good looking, in a league of her own, and that you can’t get her. You frown and look away.
Then you spot Erickson.
Erickson, if that is his name. He sits in his wheelchair and wears a beaten look. I know wearing a beaten look for a boy yet to reach ten is illegal, but? In his right hand is a plastic bowl that contains a few coins. The sun is setting and so you can’t really tell if those coins are shinny or not. But Erickson’s look is not shinny at all. His face is gray from the sun and the dust. He has a faded brownish-yellow shirt slightly torn at the edge of each shoulder. The wheels to his Beast are slanting outwards on the upper part. He looks down.
Right above Erickson’s head is a manila paper written Erickson’s name and the call to help raise his school fees. Even the handwriting is tired, mixing upper and lower case and with tails of Q and G going in the wrong directions.
My seatmate touches my shoulder and points her sad lips at the woman pushing the wheelchair. I look at her and feel the hopelessness she must be going through. Waking up with the daily realisation that it is another day to take care of Erickson. Perhaps Erickson’s father is dead. Perhaps he ran away from the trouble of being father to a wheelchair lad. They do. They will run away many times. I am not a religious person but I know the stories of temptation.
Perhaps they have no place to live. If she spends her days pushing Ericson’s wheelchair for school fees, where does she get the time to hustle her landlord’s dues? Those words on the manila paper must have been written in haste, probably from a city council toilet and the security guy just couldn’t allow Mama Erickson to complete writing. And food? Erickson himself looks like his last meal was taken some recent day, if he had any. An awful sight, to cut the words.
It is the woman next to my seat that wakes me from this dream. She taps at my shoulder again and this time points at Erickson’s mother with her index finger. Then she funnels her palms around my ears and leans to shout above the noise of the bus.
“Look at this woman,” she says. Even in the loud music of the bus, you can feel the contempt in her voice.
I look at the mother pushing the wheelchair. I see it.
Unlike Erickson, Mama Erickson is clean. Her hair is neatly done, stretching back to form an average but neat ponytail. She has a white shirt and a black pair of trousers. Her shoes look about three weeks old. Her body, I now see, is different. Looks like she had two lunches today. She is either lower middle or upper lower class. That is the contrast I did not initially see.
“It is unfair to use children. Chances are that that is not her child in the first place,” shouts my seatmate above the noise.
The jam has eased a bit on lane two, and my good Laura has moved some two or three metres ahead. I can now only see the butt of her metal. It is so big she shouldn’t be riding there all by herself. And why should she when such good men as myself are on offer for free? Laura, I can protect you. I can stand by you. I can sing you songs from the kingdom and massage your toes. I can love you the love a good woman deserves and many things more. But I know. At her age, Laura is perhaps married to a tycoon who comes to bed twice in December, once in February and nothing more. Or she is chasing after a nice gospel singer who is in turn praying for God to give him Beyoncé. Everyone targeting up in an absurd twist of nature.
Maybe I should start a funds drive to get Laura. Call all my folks and tell them I am finally marrying. Then when everyone is still celebrating, I tell them I need a 2M start-up to initialise the campaign. Or I go buy a wooden bowl and tie my heels on my waist for a cripple. Then locate a good street near a church or something. The metal looked too empty with just Laura alone.
“Did you see in the news? A man adopted and used two crippled children to raise funds. Said it was to meet the child’s bills and flight to India for spinal surgery. When he collected 3.7M what did he do? He ran to Guangzhou and his accomplice wife reported to the police after realising how she had been used. People like to misuse trust.” A talker she is, this woman.
I think she is as frustrated as I. All these words and she isn’t tired yet! She is frustrated that she doesn’t have any spare coin to pay Erickson’s fees. We are all poor in this city. Even those who board Flight 520 at JKIA are still poor machines automated by society to run errands for the real owners. We are all poor. Poor. Being on a bus does not mean we have paid rent. It doesn’t mean we can sacrifice a meal to afford paying a poor boy’s fees. It doesn’t mean we can even spare some fare to go check what is up at college ever since they said our marks were missing. I am only an actor expecting my first salary in December. You can’t know who did what for me to be on this bus today.
Why would you use a child to get money, anyway? Children, God’s bits of wood, are citizens that should make us all wake up, roll our sleeves and head to work. It doesn’t matter what the work is. Just get out, walk in the streets: you will find something to do. It might not be decent, it might not be your choice, it might not bring a lot of money. But it will bring something altogether. If it doesn’t bring money, it will bring life, which is what we all seek. Otherwise, go back to the village.
Most of the people in the city are struggling. The population of Emba, Buru, Doni or Umo can a hundred times be outdone by the population of Mathare alone. Yet there are many Mathares in Nairobi’s Eastlands. There are at least fifteen of them for every one Emba. But those people work! They wake up very early in the morning and pour themselves into the frenzy of the city. They work at Indian firms and sometimes the machines eat their fingers. They hawk panties and rat poison along River Road. They roast maize by the roadside. They spend the whole day standing on stage rehearsing lines and pray that the director gives them fare home, and when this happens, they meet needy children looking for school fees.
Last December was not a good month for me. I was broke like Greece. Then one evening I am walking from the CBD to go to Eastleigh where I was living at the time. This girl comes. I am at Jamia, now approaching Nation Centre. She is like five or six. She stretches her hand and asks that I give her something for dinner. I can’t even answer. I have no fare home and still after the walk I will roll my blanket and sleep in the corner on an empty stomach. She insists I give her something. I assume again and walk ahead faster. When she scratches my hand for attention, I get really overwhelmed. I turn and give her a light not-so-light slap on the shoulder. I want her mother who is obviously watching from somewhere to see. Then I shout at her to go tell her mother this is bad manners. Of course she doesn’t even run. She turns and stretches the hand to the next passer-by as if it were a well-rehearsed script.
And why would Mama Erickson need school fees when all public schools are free? In fact, most of the city’s schools for the handicapped offer other incentives to the young lads there. Couldn’t she be creative enough to conjure a better trap? Or does she mean Erickson, son of a beggar, must go to a fancy private school while the sons to the begged go to free public schools?
It is poverty. It is poverty frustrating the potential giver and the given alike. We all know all these cases are genuine, one way or the other. Even if Erickson’s mother isn’t seeking school fees, she is in another battle with poverty. You won’t find a rich beggar on the streets. It is the uncertainty of getting tomorrow’s meal that pushes them there. Every morning she prays that the traffic jam intensifies and holds the passengers longer from reaching Kayole. She must buy that new shoe, you know. She prays that big buses break down so she gets access to a bigger mass. She’s among those that pray we don’t be given feathers and wings. And we all get mad at them because of poverty, ours and theirs. It is the inner shame that we cannot afford a ten bob coin for Mama Erickson to go to the salon in the name of seeking school fees. It is the bitter realisation that we won’t see Laura again, and if we saw her we won’t afford the ring in her ear even with our year’s earnings.