Any person who climbs and stands at the Haile Selassie footbridge near our Landhies-Ring Road roundabout must be both courageous and strong. Strong because otherwise an unknown friend will smoke you out. And when you reach out there you will discover that the only thing you have left on you is you. Of course people will watch the whole movie in awe. But stand guided that nobody will rescue you because the fate that has you standing there is the same one that says you become the boy-child of nature.
It was here that I met a boy who later broke down when he tried to tell the story of home. I’m not a person who can boast of many girlfriends so the issue of someone breaking down before me was new. I stood staring at him as the world looked from the street down and from the heavens. The child was remorseful. He yielded to heaves and sobs and said things about his family. He told me he regretted stealing his uncle’s shirt and selling it for fare to the new world. A world that he now found to need more than what he came with. I am no expert in psychology but I know sincere regret when I see some.
It is here, at the bridge over Haile Selassie, that most of our action takes place. Yet this is not where it begins today.
It begins on Kenyatta Avenue, by accident. I’ve been at the National Bank ATM and now I’m going away dejected. I still believe I left some money in the account. But the ATM had a different testimony to tell. When I punched in for ten thousand and stood back for the wall to do what other walls do, the machine told me I had nothing like that in my books. Try another transaction? Unhappy that it was little but still hoping that it was something altogether I punched in five thousand and told God five thousand is too little, improve. Like other females the machine took some time then told me in style that there were insufficient funds. Insufficient how? You don’t know what you are saying, Madam ATM. I lowered my dignity and went for two thousand. That too was not there. I went down and down until I reached two hundred. Then I walked out empty-handed and angry. The damaged phone I’m carrying will have to repair itself because sincerely daddy has no cash.
As I cross from ICEA to where those statues of men in shorts are, there is also a group of street kids making it from the direction of the Supreme Court. The city is busy. I ignore them. But as I walk past I realise one of them fixing his look on me. I tell myself I have no money to be stolen so he is wasting his time. When I look back after a few metres, the boy has turned his head and is still looking at me. That’s when I stop.
He stops too and turns completely so that we face each other.
I ask him where my Dadi is.
He gives it a thought then shakes his head. He says he doesn’t know.
I tell him I’m serious. We need to talk.
“About him? I sincerely don’t know where he is and it’s a long story,” he says.
“We should talk, man. Is there a better place?”
He eyes me like he doesn’t understand this language. Then he tells his friends to go. Turning back to my question, he tells me he knows a place we can do that.
He crosses over to Kimathi Street and I follow him. We pass the Dedan Kimathi Statue and someone has fenced him with the flags of the country ahead of celebrations for Independence Day tomorrow. In death Kimathi is full of life than most people I am with. He is polished, he looks healthy and he is well fed. Poses like he can start another Mau Mau to free his people. Maybe from themselves. My chap even salutes him with an Ashanti Bobo chant.
We fight through the dense humanity with the kid bringing me to speed with the city. The governor added that garbage bin there. A driver was arrested here yesterday for drugging his female passenger. They want to get street families out of here. That guy there, the one with a red hood, is not straight. In all the stories I can’t tell whether the boy is happy or not as he has this silent city demeanor that leaves each word to be judged on its own.
When he shows me where to sit at the roundabout in front of Bomb Blast I say no. Too open. My people say the day you walk naked is the day you meet your in-laws. It’s sad I can’t invite him to a coffee so I ask if there’s another place. To which he ungrips from his teeth the glue bottle and replies: No. But after we stand there praying for an angel to come, he changes his mind. Follow me, he says. There’s something to show you.
We begin going down Haile Selassie and I guess we’re going to Gikomba. Impatient drivers look at us with envy and pray for a chance to disentangle themselves from the traffic. The good thing with God is that he knows how to put idiots in their place. Buy a car to boast to us, you only get stuck in the traffic as we walk down the street and even fart and there is nothing you can do bro. The best I can pray for is to go to heaven so I can see idiots continue to be fixed. This being the hour peasants of society leave office it is just as difficult to navigate through the population. Now they pray that some people be made impotent. Good idea; themselves. At this rate we can’t be sure to own even the six-feet-four that children of God need for their eternal bliss. Anyway stranger, welcome to our typical Monday evening. If this jam leaves us with broken ribs please let your women come to our funerals and wail the death of a lover.
We somehow get out alive and walk up the bridge through the Muthurwa market end. I still feel exposed to the world but at least there is space where we can get our thing together. I skip two heaps of shit – someone should investigate what kids eat here – and finally we stop. Funny, it is the very spot I stood with Dadi the day he cried.
I was going for the rehearsal of a play due in a few days. But when you walk from Kayole to town and the only thing in your pocket is three ten-bob coins and you see bananas dangling at shop windows what do you do? So when the temptation grew bigger I said Satan is not very much a liar today and gave in.
When I turned to resume the trek I felt someone touch my shoulder and on turning I met an outstretched hand before a kid’s face. The face looked not like a stranger’s.
“Dadi?” I called.
He started. I knew it was him.
“Do you remember me?” I asked again, removing my cap.
We went to the bridge and my first question was what are you doing here. He told me he was just here. I asked why he was not at home. He said at home they were disturbing him. How? They want me to go to school, he said. That’s not bothering you; they want good for you. He said he didn’t want to go to school. So if we don’t force you to school you will stay at home? He gave it a thought, then said which home; his father doesn’t want him. How? My mother came with me and that my father says I should go back to my father. Mum also told me to go back. But the other father is dead.
He told me that as he lived with his uncle the only condition was that he goes to school. And that he hoped that they impose a million other conditions save that one. So when it got tougher he had to get away. Here he broke down into the sobs. He said he was sorry for stealing from the only person who stood with him. Life on the street is tough, please. That he wanted to go back home. But there was school in the only home available as there was the guilt of theft. As he sobbed he asked that Uncle forgives him.
I didn’t have a cent on me so I scribbled my number somewhere and gave him the note. We met thrice more (when I also came to know this his friend and brother). Everything was set for him to go back. Then he vanished.
His friend says he doesn’t know where he is.
The street down continues to flow full of chaos. Yesterday they rushed to nowhere and got nothing. Today they run to nowhere and we do’t know what they’ll come back with. In that chaos lies the false hope of life over death, good over evil. But if everyone is pursuing good, why so much pain? There are as many thieves as there are humans. There are robbers and killers trying to make a day. In their self-righteousness they all believe they must live because the world will be a sad place without them oh God of Thunder. If you want to see the real sense of futility, get courageous and strong and come to this bridge.
Perhaps to return us to the present it begins to drizzle. Mortal citizens rush to take cover. My host lifts the sack back to his back and says let’s go. He carries it like that is where his life sits. We skip shit and step into some more but we are moving at least.
We get beneath the bridge for shelter. It’s here that I question the sweat of that bridge over us. If the entire human race came to piss and shit under here it would not smell different. My intestines contract as I shift to look back at the boy who has brought me here. If he has realised the reek he doesn’t show on his face. What is there is the emotionless composure of a boy determined to live.
“Could he have been killed?” I ask.
“He can’t be killed,” he replies.
“How do you know?”
“He can’t be killed. King can’t be killed.”
He says it so casually, but so with certainty it hurts. I’m both hopeless and hopeful. Impatient, but with room that nothing bad has been confirmed. Yet.
“You said there was something here. Why did you bring me?”
He rummages through his sack and his hand fishes out a small paper wrap. He unwraps it in silence and removes a roll. It’s only when he lights it that I know what it is.
“You see that bag there?” he asks, pointing a finger at something in the dark.
I don’t see any bag. I tell him so.
“That bag hanging there. You see it?”
I see the sack he is referring to.
“That is King’s bag. The day he vanished we found the sack there. It’s been hanging there ever since. We always look and say he will come back for it.”
“What’s inside? We can know where he is.”
“We never open King’s bag until he comes back.”
“Almost a year gone and you never opened it?”
He takes another puff. Haile Selasie is night now and drivers honk and rev with impatience. The rain has caught pace. This place smells. And it’s cold. If I don’t get out I’ll die.
“One day cops came to arrest a girl here. Said she had stolen food at Al Yusra. The girl was sitting near that pillar eating, see that pillar? She started crying. She was eight. King told the cops to leave her. We would return the food to Al Yusra if they wanted. The cops said no way, we must go with her. The girl cried louder and people began to stop and look. This road was impassable as people stepped on each other’s toes to have the best look at cops arrest a small girl. (Puff. Puff.). The cops’ car was parked there with its buttocks to us. Now as they lifted her into their car King rushed and pulled her out. He struck one cop with a stone and we saw blood. We joined him. In no time his colleagues were firing in the air and by the time the dust settled no police uniform was here. From then we called him King. Nobody opens his bag.”
I know I’ve lost this chase. I should get back home. If his friend says he’s not here then he’s not. If he says he’ll be back then we can only wait till he’s back. You can’t force fate.
“Would you like to leave the street?”
“Which home? Here is home.”
“You know what I mean. You’ve been a good friend so let me help you out of here.”
“I can’t join your world. If you want to help me help me here. Give me that money.”
“People out there don’t believe there is a thing we can do. They created a world for us and even want to live it for us. Why don’t they just give us the jobs we can do so they pay us instead of taking us to those places for rehabilitation?”
“I mean, you can get a job and live a good life like the rest….”
“Which life is good? Do not be like those cops that said we were thieves. We are not thieves. We are just people whom society rejected. Just that. But we are not thieves. We try to live our lives like the rest. Among us there are thieves. But among you there are also thieves. Let me tell you. The good among us are many because we know what being good means to others.”
At thirteen I was still waiting for my mother to come back with bananas. At thirteen he is thinking of the politics of class. Or he is a liar, not thirteen.
“Maybe they don’t trust you because you sniff glue and smoke weed?”
“That’s just an excuse. Do we plant weed here? Let me tell you. These guys think they are different from us. A woman once dropped her soda bottle on the road and when I picked and handed it back to her, she could not drink. She threw it away. You see that? Like why did she even not give it to me? With my thirst I just handed it back to her because she was in a bus and could not alight in time. What would you do?”
“What did you do?”
“I told her she was an idiot.”
“That’s what I’d have done.”
When the rain finally stops I feel the luckiest man. It’s time to leave.
“Man let me look for you tomorrow. Where can I get you?”
“Evening like today.”
“I’ll be at Gregon or here or anywhere in town. When you don’t get me try the police stations or morgues.”
When I step out there from these chambers of shit and breathe the air of humans, the ATM story will no longer be what bothers me. It is a war between shame and reality.