Nairobi: The Dilemma and the Odds

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.

unemployment dilemma

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.

Image Credit

Yes Sweetheart

 Three and half weeks ago, a dark blue police Land Cruiser cruised into our estate. In it were the boss – himself an OCS, his assistant, two other policemen with Kalashnikovs and an ununiformed guy. From the dragging speed the metal moved at, you needed no witchcraft to know they were up to some big state mischief.

It was the ununiformed guy who talked to the housekeeper. Then the housekeeper came to the veranda where I was arguing with Ken over which country has the most foolish men. The housekeeper pointed his finger at me. It looked like the replay of Iscariot and his Jew kinsman. So when I affirmed I was The Teacher, I knew it was over.

I began thinking of the crimes I’ve done. I’ve rubbished government policies. I’ve criticized the governor for stealing money from Mumias Sugar Company. I’ve cursed all university professors with the curse of death. Or could it be that Anna girl? How was I to know she was a minor? Or have they tracked me since we hurled stones at the referee last weekend?

They took me through Manyanja Road, turned left onto Outer Ring Road, past Kariobangi, through Huruma, and when we reached Thika Road right in the face of the GSU camp, my prayer syllabus was over. It was over.


They were giving me work. The fellow said he had got my address from an old client of mine. I was to home-school the boss’ child: one thousand shillings an hour, four hours a week, with the freedom of choosing the hour and day.

I was stinking broke. I began work that day. The girl is an only child who has spent her entire infancy in Europe with her mother. And only-children being what only-children are, the first thing was that I was to deal with her tenderly, calling her endearing names as they do in Hollywood and Mexico. I was to call her Dear when asking her to do an assignment. I was to call her Sweetie if she refused to learn. I was to call her Honey when she eats poo. I agreed.

So last week something happens. Not shit this time. (Chocolate?) We are sitting in the study room and the language lesson is almost over. I want to motivate her learning so I ask her what she wants to be in future. Knowing what she will answer, I go ahead to quickly suggest Doctor, to which she surprisingly says no. I ask Driver. She thinks, then she says no. I suggest Police Officer, with good guns like daddy; she shakes her head and says no. I ask Engineer and a few other cousins to Engineer. A big no to each. She shakes the head furiously. Hey.

Then I change tact. I pose the question again.

“Iqra, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

She looks into the whiteboard ahead. God, when did they start thinking! Her left hand supports the chin while the other rests on the open book on the table. She takes time till I start thinking she is offended. I start cursing my ass. I should have minded my own business. One thousand shillings an hour with four flexible hours a week is not something you want to lose easily in this city. I feel foolish.

Then with the coolest voice, she looks me in the eye and calls.

“Teacher?” she is smiling a bit.

“Yes honey….”

“When I grow big….”

“Yes….”

“I wanna be a teacher when I grow big.”

“A teacher? You want to be a teacher?”

“Yes. Like you,” pointing at me.

That finished me. Completely.

A teacher preparing young minds for the future.
A teacher preparing young minds for the future.

I have heard people say their hearts melted at some point. A desk mate back then used to include that in every love letter he sent to girls and I’d wonder how flesh with blood and arteries could melt. But this day, in the house of the OCS, my heart melted like butter.

And her black eyes were now looking into mine. There was something glittering in there. It was hope. It was admiration. It was utmost sincerity, innocence. She looked into me for reassurance – reassurance that nature would not take away her dear dream; that fate would not deny her the chance to be teacher; that she had not made the wrong decision. Her eyes sparkled in the light and left me searching for my tongue.

Iqra is about eight years old. Hers is not the face of a future socialite or model. Neither is it a bad face. It is the face of a woman who knows what life is and who understands what she wants in life. She is that genuine professor at the department of Literature or Linguistics at some coveted college. Iqra is a beater of her own paths.

Look at her. Nothing extraordinary from a glance. Her upper front teeth are a bit bigger than the rest with a gap in the lower correspondents. Light complexion as anyone else from the horn of Africa and her face is veiled in hijab. Four feet, young, hopeful and happy.

So she’d just said she wanted to be a teacher. A teacher like me. Wouldn’t you have felt high?

Sometimes we do things and take them for granted. We work, get paid and walk home happy. Then come back, work, get paid, and walk home happy again. Never in our endeavours do we ever think of our work from attitude’s point of view. We have made our worlds so materialist that we never consider the abstract way we shape others and ourselves. Drivers see passengers as kilograms of flesh from where to extract coins. Managers see employees as hands to propel the institution into profiting. Teachers see children as empty heads and deal with them as merely that – spheres with eyes, ears and a nose over which the daily bread comes home. We never regard ourselves as being looked at as socialising agents to shape attitudes: perceptions, hopes, fears, dreams etc. Well, Iqra just changed my attitude.

She has given me a reason to worry. Now I work, get paid, and walk home worried. I am worried because she will never be allowed to reach her dream. That spark in her eye will be clipped in the heart before it lights the path. Somewhere along, the superego will come in with their demands. One day, sitting at this very spot, the OCS will declare in a gruffly voice that she be a doctor or engineer. That will be final.

She will enroll at the national university for Medicine. Because of the lack of passion, she will keep hitting the D’s and Supplementaries and then drop out in the third year. Her uncle will suggest she takes Nursing, which the mother will support, and which she will take Nursing and drop out in the second year because of the Latin. Then she will enroll at three more colleges before the father decides to go downtown to buy her a degree in Economics and get her a sad job at the Central Bank because the neighbour to Aunt Samira is a big gun there. And she will become the wife of a sad doctor and raise a sad family.

The dream that I saw in her eyes will die. It will be buried by the cruel world that worships prescriptivism. And no matter how much I worry, I know there is nothing I can do to make Iqra, my lovely Iqra, become a teacher like myself.

“Yes Sweetheart. You will be a great teacher like Mwalimu.”