The street is in its bustle season for the day. You can start looking for a non-hooting car and sure you will go home empty handed. A man darts over there, pulling his cart like it were some featherweight thing. A vagrant, I place him at about fifteen, dashes in swift manoeuvres between bumpers of impatient cars. There is a continuous buzz of a stale day in the background of the active noise. The music of a civilisation mourning for itself.
Lights in the CBD are something in the evening. From disco lights in the commercials to the bare naked fluorescent bulbs, an evening CBD air looks like a painting of midday rainbows. They glow and spectate humanity in the streets. They behold a humanity caught up in the most bizarre endeavour of chasing itself. In silence they behold as tired limbs still drag their last kicks. They sympathise with men and women worrying about the bus to take them home this late, knowing that still the bus will have to take them into queues and queues of motorcades euphemised internationally as traffic jams. It still is a paradox of life: how a Nairobian will be impatient not to give you a minute’s wait, yet sit quietly as the traffic jam takes toll to flip in the books of time and sometimes stop to re-read a catchy line or phrase.
The evening outburst of lights is a silent signal that the city wants to start over once again. A different life that accepts a dark sky up in the clouds, fists, beer, women, and sometimes a few gunshots.
Wading along Ronald Ngala Street in the evening is a tricky affair. In a split second I knock into multitudes. An elderly man trudges along with a rosary and wooden cross. A beggar passes in a wheelchair and she is shaking her cup with coins to alert passers-by that she is passing by. A yellow yellow hurries ahead, struggling to pull down her skirt that seems to have spotted a gold mine up north. In a nearby shop a man is promoting telephone lines and telling Africans why they should all switch to this wonderful network. I bump into an old man and his bag drops, scattering on the street a guava, a shaver, two exercise books and a stone. He collects his goods and rushes on without giving me the chance to apologise. A woman is dragging a younger chap in the humanity. A man speeds by, balancing on his trolley and whistling to fellows to make way. Everywhere, the evening city is trapped in its own dose of chaos and turbulence, painting in the minds of people the deceitful illusions of progress and civilisation.
From the opposite direction, a uniformed cop is walking slowly, posing as a 17th century lord. Which is understandable. In 2016, only people who have everything can walk like that. So he will spend the rest of the month fighting his colleagues and even bribing the boss to be posted at the same roadblock he served today. Otherwise our very own traffic men in blue don’t walk like this. Not with a happy face and stepping with the back of their heels. A day well lived is seen even in the evening.
I am still walking up Lithuli Avenue when I meet Tim. Tim and I have come from far, to put it simple. Primary school. Looking at us today, however, one won’t agree easily. One of us is cheerfully dressed while the other is in anything that was available today. One has car keys, the other might just die without knowing the difference between a clutch and that other thing in the driver’s cockpit. One has a confident step, the other doesn’t. So I report my situation to Tim. Straight and quick. I tell him what life has been doing to me all these days and that I’ve spent all my age today roaming Lithuli and Ronald Ngala for a job. Tim scratches his head and laughs one of those hearty laughs fat guys use to soothe the poor. The idiot hasn’t changed since campus. He tells me I’m not serious I don’t have a job. He eyes me critically while saying so. I tell him I am. I’m even willing to swear to him but I discover he is in a hurry so I let him go. I only lie to give a call later. But as he is swallowed by the street, I don’t know whether I detest or understand him. After all, he was always a good guy.
In the chaos, the events of my day still find time to play at the back of my mind.
Flashback, six hours earlier. My twelfth destination today is this school near Landhies Road. I’m grateful when the guards allow me in without much ado. I ask to be taken to the principal’s office. I’m told to first sign a visitor’s book at the reception. I try to hide my second name by merely scribbling it in a doctor’s handwriting. The lady gets so nosy she asks that I write it “well”. Well, I do. Then hell breaks loose. She asks to search me again. Then she runs that thing round my bag. When she isn’t satisfied that it has not picked a nuke, she asks me to open the bag, much to my embarrassment because apart from the CVs, the bag has a boxer short I don’t remember putting there.
Then she tells me to move back and wait as she thinks. You’ve never seen a woman, uniformed in her security company regalia, just sit down on a bench and start thinking about you. You wonder if she is thinking of offering coffee or planning to rise with a speedy mawashigeri right into your crotch. Or she is thinking to want me: about which I will accept as long as her salary is five figure and she can handle my creditors pronto. She then tells me to leave the bag behind. In fact, sit here on the bench as I book an appointment for you. In the long run:
“We don’t allow people like you in. I’m being frank,” she says. Her tone is so cold you wouldn’t need to buy a fridge.
At another place they told me the staff was full. Another told me to drop the CV and wait see if they’d call. Another asked why I had not included my marital status in the CV, before asking me to go write a “full” CV. A gate man told me not to waste time because there were no vacancies for people like me. Another told me the earliest I could talk to the management was today next month, by which time I’d have died of hunger or Nairobi cold or anything that kills a person without food and shelter.
Another secretary just offered laughter. She even put down her mirror and face brush. Then she gave me that look. “Here we don’t hire.” But why didn’t you just tell me that instead of laughing? “Your name sounds coast, and don’t you see it funny a coastlander seeking a job in Nairobi? Actually, though there are no vacancies now, the policy here is also too stringent a coastlander has never ever landed a job.”
Maybe I should start rehearsing Kimvita or Kingazija so I pass as a son of a sheikh or sharif and gate crash religious ceremonies where there is free food and incense. I’m told religion is the third most profitable business after drugs and politics. The name has already done half the job. But I can still prefix it Alhaj or Mawlana. Alhaj Mawlana Bakari Selemani Al-Sanduku bin Sheikh.
Last week I made a career threatening mistake and I regret. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here. I was welcomed well. Then the boss must have been fascinated by my CV because the next thing I was told was, let’s discuss the salary. And they began at 6 effing K. I said no. I didn’t tell them I was expecting at least 35 starting. I said 20. In the full hour of our negotiation, they had only managed 5 hundred on top of the 6K. My travelling and lunch expenses would total to 7K. So I declined. And left. But on the way I decide to come back to take it. Just to fool hunger, fear, the landlord and other collective enemies of being. When I come back, I’m told the young man leaving has just taken the job already. That is the week I also learnt that a man can cry in the escalator, soak in the tears and dry before hitting the ground floor.
I ascend Landhies Road, leaving Race Course, and take the child born of Landhies Road and River Road towards Kenya Cinema. It is called Ronald Ngala. The city sun is so wild today it should be taken to a game park. I try to ignore. Those who know Nairobi well also know that its evening sun always picks a fling with the face as you climb RN towards Kenya Cinema and no matter how indifferent you pose, you will always blink first. I eventually give up at Temple Road. I off-shoot to the left.
I am to come back to Ngala’s street a dejected man. I’ve just fired my 19th and last round of ammunition and nothing has come of it.
They don’t take anyone with less than a four-year experience. There has to be a way I could buy on River Road those four years so I see their next excuse, those idiots.
So here I am on the queue. The latest bus left almost one and half hours ago and we continue to hope. A school girl has collapsed for standing too long and she is receiving first aid (only reason I put on clean underwear). A street acrobat has performed and left. I look at the fast food shop next to us and it reminds me the last time I took a meal. Lord, yesterday can look so distant. If I land a job, I promise to make to God burnt and fried offering in the name of GMO chicken everyday till I die.
A man comes. Looks like a mental case until I hear him speak. He preaches that we should all go to live in Kibera or Mathare. One, there is no queuing to wait for a Mathare bus for three hours. Two, and here he points at a madam behind me, you can always save on your rent and fare surplus such that at the end of the year you can buy your own X-Japan Probox or at worst Hitler’s Volkswagen. The lady is initially stone-faced but she cracks a big laugh as the queue joins in. See, humour at last. I try to do the maths. I think the man has a point. Only that, wait, and where is his car now? He answers this almost immediately. Night boys. Night boys have been on his sleeves all the years he has struggled to save towards buying one. From his tone, I’m sure there is not even a bicycle wire to his name and if he died now we would have to plead with the county government to buy him a shroud. Or if he is Christian, a second hand casket and shirt. But one thing is clear. There are thieves on both ends of the road. When you come to the city you only need to choose which thieves you prefer.
As we await the bus, and pray to God to remove obstacles from its way, my reality slowly settles in. The debts, the pledges, the responsibilities, the expectations. I may really want to go back to that house and rest. Spread myself on the floor or couch and air off the small molestations the city has done me. But again, every metre towards home is a metre towards my landlord, towards that shopkeeper, towards the water guy, towards an empty house and an even emptier stomach – another metre towards the depths in the coals of hell.
As the bus finally zooms to life, ready to fight for space and time on the road, I sigh and call it a day fairly spent. Tomorrow, if God so willeth, I’ll be back.