One day you will be walking. Maybe late into the night; maybe earlier – choose your time in the hand of destiny. And the winds of seduction will blow you from the City Centre. They will blow you along a beaten road with hooting motorists. Buses will speed by, making sure that the dust on the walkway rises into your throat. You will pass street signs, street lights and street children. The winds will blow harder. You will see young men dart into the dark while someone shrieks after them. You will see a vagabond beating some tin into a stove. You will walk further and further at the gust of the winds. Continue reading “We All Have a Hand”
The idiot dropped me at Serena so I’m walking. Every time I’m on Harambee Avenue I will always feel uneasy. The stretch from Uhuru Highway to Moi Avenue seems to have been designed to say bad things to Nairobians from the other side of the coin. To remind them where they belong. You may look at the magnificence of the young night and say whoa. We that are from the second side swallow the air and wait to get our freedom from Tom Mboya down.
The bus dropped me at Serena and turned yet I had paid for the trip to Town Centre. Take some time to imagine how good I am I walked away without breaking an idiot’s nose. I think I can make a good husband some other time even without the promise of a love bonus. You don’t come across such a combination of good looks and endurance in every man you meet.
Though have resisted the urge to punch the guy and now the thing is still eating me up like fire. I feel oppressed. Mistreated. Used.
When we were in school I never made it to the upper bracket of our class. But at least the teachers who ate my school fees used to tell my mother that I would make it in life. They said I would take her from poverty. Maybe become a lawyer or engineer or doctor. Or pilot. Hehe. Crafted the lie so perfectly so many times my mother sometimes put a chicken in a carton and sent a cyclist to school. So that at 14 the picture I had about the adult me was of myself living a happy life. I don’t know if cars could make me happy now but I pictured myself driving and having many light-skinned kids in my big house. Like their mother. A good wife who knows how to read and write and who can speak in her nose. Servants to attend to the family. A large residence manned by uniformed guys. A dog to catch thieves. (Sorry. I’ve never liked dogs. A monkey). And many other great things.
None of the dream had a place where I was to be dropped off by a greedy tout before reaching my destination. Or running Patel’s errands till this late. God, I hate myself. Or being rained on on a cold hostile street. When I come back to the world I want to be born me again. The real me with feelings and hunger and with the courage to kick idiots out of my way. So I can tell Patel to his face to go to hell. Or break the tout’s nose and tie him at the back of my bicycle and cycle the expanse of the city without fearing conformists or law alarmists. Just me without traces of the stupid waste of time packaged and euphemised for the poor as education.
I am now along Moi Avenue. For starters, Moi Avenue begins the separation of the Nairobis. It gives the signal that you are about to cross over to the other world. To the east lies the world for us. To the west lies the world we built for them with parking lots for larger cars. There is a no-man’s land between the street and Tom Mboya that stands for a kind of becoming.
I cross over towards the other side and soon I am at Ambassador. Almost the entire population of the sub-Saharan Africa is buying or admiring a thing or two outside Mr Price. Yet half of the humanity outside Lazarus Bar alone can give Mugabe the vote down South. I wade in it, clutching onto my pockets in case I need extra oxygen and military supplies in the crowd.
There is this boy I see as I am about to negotiate to Ronald Ngala. He has that bottle of glue glued to his nose. There is a large but visibly stained and dirty jacket around his frame. He is looking into the restaurant with a stretched hand. Our eyes meet just as he takes another look at the street, perhaps marking where the county askaris are in the rain. There is a way he doesn’t flinch to look away when our eyes meet and I wonder what happened to children being children. He is instead swift into action and before you can think of it he has a hand outstretched to me.
Let me confess. I hate Nairobi beggars. You can judge me but I still hate people whose profession is to go to the streets to beg. People who think it is our duty to wake up deep in the night and walk stretches of miles to Patel’s only for them to wait to wake up at the guard of a midday sun and come to the street feeling entitled, like a birthright, to the little money Patel has given us. Just because you don’t have one leg? Get some life. In any case, it is not like I have your leg hidden in my house to give you all that entitlement. You can always go back to the person who took away your leg because even in the worst court room, he is the only person who could be owing you. So that any beggar and Patel’s worker don’t mix.
But the feeling I have today is so different. I feel the cold in the street, the hunger under Nairobi’s dark cloud, the scare of marauding police bullets, the threat of government officials walking home with too little in their pockets. The drizzle that has been here since morning. What if he is the genuine case?
I am David, he says, looking emptily into the street.
Then I think: here are God’s bits of wood. A perfect piece of God’s art suffering at the neglect of religious men who are in a hurry to go castigate people’s sins, pay tithes and wait for the kingdom of heaven. Men and women worked up to go to their houses before some jerk wields a knife over their throats. What crap.
We are going back to write stories where we shall expect fans to congratulate us even when we’ve written the most legendary nonsense since legends came. (I know a guy, a former friend, who won a girlfriend because of his words. We even stopped being friends after the accomplishment). We shall hope that they call us good names and insert emojis. Clean emojis without a trace of dirt. Emojis that don’t sniff glue. Those which even when sad still shield us from the ugly image of a tattered life without food or a roof over our bones. We shall sit in the bus and grow our silence till we get home. Those with car loans will sit behind the wheel and think how the interest rate has been a thorn in their ash. Perhaps a thought of our death will come, and we shall quickly push it back to where it came from because, who doesn’t know the devil is a confused liar! We shall want to think of life. Our life. Happy life. Endless life.
I ask him if his father can take him back. He asks me which father. I say your father, father. He says the man will beat him again. I don’t know if it’s the guy in Kawangware or back upcountry. Which fathers beat their kids from the streets? Or who doesn’t beat them up?
The street is wild. You can think without getting an answer who gave birth to Nairobi drivers. Because it is only them who understand the thing they do hooting and honking like we are in some Nazi affair. Touts are all over calling, outshouting each other.
I check in my pockets. I haven’t forgotten I have only a hundred bob for the week. It’s just what faith sometimes does to you. You check your pocket expecting that God has added something. This time though, God has left me in the rain. I know I should, will have to part with something though elsewhere I feel I need the money more. A beggar dressed differently and with a morrow to fear for.
The drizzle has people hurrying past. In Nairobi everyone is late. One day there will be a very tragic accident where speeding pedestrians will collide head-on. There is this time I knocked into someone so bad but he did not have time to stop and be told sorry. One other day an idiot dropped his wallet and when I followed to give it to him he ran even faster. So when they hurry by I understand their haste. They have been chasing time since Stone Age and will keep chasing it into the Apocalypse. Some spend half their adult life trying to be home early because mademoiselle will be mad, and using the other half apologising and explaining.
They are going to see a magician. A spouse going to cheat. And a girl going to abort. A man going to a dentist. A kid going to die. A tout taking home the loot from services not delivered.
The street clock reads 9:37pm.
The drizzle is now increasing in tempo. Street families are forced to migrate their bedrooms to other rooms with a favourable climate. I rub my palms to get over the biting cold. This is the time I wish I was born rich. What do rich people do at 9.37pm?
At 9.37pm, big people have already thought over simple decisions like whom to fire. Or whom to arrest. They lie in their beds cuddled in the hands of their young lovers. They don’t think. They feel. Love. Away from the drizzle. They are preparing to make money while they sleep. Their name will be mentioned all over the empire, and children of a lesser God will keep feeling their omnipresence miles away from their bedrooms.
While it is drizzling on the sons of men, people like Patel are listening to chants. See who is unfair here? An idiot has his wife paying dowry on his sadist head and the same woman dedicates all 9.37pms in her world chanting under the foolish ash of the overweight loser. And you talk of fairness in life? Please.
And one night in the middle of 9.37pm God rewards them with a flower. A flower who will take the long curly hair and red lips of Mrs Patel but will be made to sit in the noise of her father’s garage and be forbidden speech to good workers like myself; we who don’t go shouting about our royal lineage that stretches in the night drizzle all the way to the grand noble Farao of Misri. Tso.
Suddenly there is a scuffle. I first hear a loud cry, followed by a push and shove in the crowd. Then there is a gunshot and the humanity disperses in 12 different directions. I think David takes the third route while I take the tenth. Perhaps God’s way of saving a worried African from the test of giving what doesn’t exist. And let every goat eat on the size of its rope.
Afterthought YEAR: 2099 MATCH: African vs Time FULL-TIME SCORE: 0 – 10
You have no idea why Stella’s face keeps coming again and again. Like this is the 27th time you have tried to shove away the innocent smile tonight and it keeps coming to tell you you did not even count the tenth and eleventh time. Continue reading “Breeze in a Nairobi Night”
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.