I am sorry, James Bond

I put on my first pair of shoes when I was fifteen. That is something the streets of this city just reminded me today. That is the story for today.

Walking on these streets will remind you many things.

When you enter the city madness, that noise will remind you of Khangoma-khamoja, your freak of a neighbour. You don’t know his real name; you call him Khangoma-khamoja because he plays one loud track the whole night. You don’t understand his language but you are sure it is a dirge. The only music-free nights at your place are Sundays, and that is because the screaming girlfriend visits every time she gets the Saturday off from the salon downtown. So you look at the shouting touts and remember the way Khangoma-khamoja’s chick disturbs the peace of your weekends.

Sometimes you will look at the screens in pubs and remember your unpaid electricity bill. Then tears will well in your cheeks. How do they misuse electricity when you have your colossal arrears with the power company! You promise to also sell your kidney one day. They are so preoccupied with other business they don’t seem to notice that electricity is expensive these sides. You accept and move on, slowly.

Then there is of course this lady in heels who reminds you of the college model. You feel like kneeling if front of her, hold her palm in yours, pick finger-three and thrust it upwards. Because your class and her class are like west and east.

Anyway, today I am walking past this Tom Mboya statue and all of a sudden hawkers are running all over disturbing the peace of the hero. There is tear-gas following them. As usual, we, the innocent citizens, move to the sides and leave them the street to run as they wish. They are like five hundred and each is running with a sack clasped on the chest, another on the back and other goods on the head. Then comes this woman.

She is healthy and fat. She runs so vigorously and wails at the same time, hitting her bare feet on the ground every time she needs the earth to throw her forward. She almost collides into the crowd at Mr Price. She thinks better and re-aligns her projectile into the corridor before Archives. In negotiating the corner, a shoe falls from her head. She slows down, partly turns, does as if to go pick it but when she sees the approaching city council police, she runs off, killing her voice in the Accra Street ahead.


After the police passed, I looked at the deserted shoe. It looked lonely. It sat there in the July cold and nobody dared to look at it like the most expensive item shoes are supposed to be. Not even a street boy picked it up. Impossible. It reminded me of Machanja and my first shoes.

It had been my childhood dream to cruise in shoes. Whenever December came and the children from the city remembered their folks in the Kingdom, we were reminded that shoes just had a magic of their own. The way these kids talked on top of themselves, trousers midway down their buttocks, the way they swerved in imaginary mud, ran through thorns and hit at stones; was just the thing. I believed that with shoes you could do everything the boys did as well as what those guys did in the movies. And so for a long time my dream was to get those hooves, sag trousers, speak Swahili and act a movie with James Bond. Many are days I wore imaginary boots, stuffed papers in my nose, talked ‘English’ with James Bond and arrested imaginary criminals. I kept promising James Bond how our partnership would help finish the gangs.

So one day the local chief makes an impromptu visit to the school. There is a quick assembly. Mwalimu Olwichi only needs to stand by the flag post and raise his hand in all directions and there we are, jumping through windows to go listen to him. By now I am a full-time adolescent and in class seven, which means I can understand some of the English words he says. I am right, even Ngongo later affirms that the chief has announced the expected visit from a mzungu. The immediate challenge is not the expected language phobia as most will expect. We are rather caught in the scary reality that all the pupils are supposed to wear shoes on that day. How again?

Wearing shoes was a great taboo at school. I still remember how new pupils would be alienated from the main population until they learnt better of putting on shoes. So although I told Nyawando of the need for new shoes, and stressed every time I mentioned the chief and the mzungu, I had my fears too.

We went to the shop of Machanja. Now Machanja was another thing. He owned the only Bata shop at Khushianda, one of the very few in the Kingdom. In my entire childhood there is no person I feared and adored in equal measure as this man. As I dreamt of owning even a single torn shoe, this dude had a whole Bata shop with shoes strewn everywhere. I never saw him talk or smile, and he had this reserved serious look in his eyes. After a customer left the shop, he’d take a broom and sweep the veranda. If the customers were more than one, he’d dash into the back room, return with a mop and a bucket of water. People said that even if you waved him greetings from afar, without nearing the shop, he’d take a fly whisk and dust his counters until he was sure he’d gotten rid of your dust.

This is where Mother took me to buy the shoes. Say walking on the moon. Say James Bond in the making. I was to only wait till my brother was at school, sag his trousers and go sit where most girls from the market passed.

It was Nyawando who entered Machanja’s Bata as I waited at a reasonable distance from the veranda. The bargaining was fierce; Nyawando’s bargaining powers are another story I’m thinking of. At a point she came out, stood at the veranda in thought, talked to herself, and then went back into the shop just as Machanja was planning to come out with a broom. Another battle ensued, and I could hear mother argue about the laces being this or that. In the end, I was called to measure my leg, and since it was soiled and deformed from years of freedom, I had to first wear a polythene bag before inserting my left leg. Mother immediately said it was my size even though I felt my toes play in there. But who was I when Machanja himself agreed that I’d grow up in them? There was no need to measure the other leg – it was already late and no one wanted to waste time.

It was not until two days later that I discovered our folly: the two shoes were not of the same size. That was the day Madam Doric visited, and I had had to endure a long day of misery: alienation, low esteem and hot toes.

Most of the pupils had stayed at home for fear of being seen in shoes. Majority of those who came claimed they had injuries on their toe or heel or ankle, and indeed everyone walked around in a limp. It was only the head girl, the chief’s son and I, that had stood at Doric’s parade in shoes. And Mwalimu Hatemaster came for me immediately after the function. Up to then nobody, including myself, had realised the size thing. He beat the shit out of me for intentionally wearing shoes of different sizes to embarrass the school. Even those who had hated on me during the day began to sympathise. That was my first day to put on shoes. And the last in primary school. I never sagged trousers even when city dwellers came home that December.

Today I saw the woman run and leave behind that shoe. Maybe she doesn’t know what shoes are. Maybe she doesn’t know our history with shoes. She perhaps has no idea what shoes should make you feel. Those days, rescuing a shoe was like rescuing twins from a burning house. And shoes were kept in the wooden box that also kept best clothes in the bedroom, not on shoe racks at the main door….

Perhaps this city will remind you of the day you broke your virginity. Depending on where you walk and what you see, you might get the memories of the day your grandfather died or the day your mother caught you stealing chicken soup. Some memories will be good and bring nostalgia. Some will make you ask questions, like why the sex you never met James Bond at Hollywood.

I am personally sorry, James Bond.

Where Is Benix?

Sometimes I imagine he could be in real shit. Perhaps he is somewhere in a maximum prison writing love messages and sending nude pictures of Asian women to unsuspecting youths who seek love. Or he could have dropped out of school due to illness and is up to date still bedridden. Or he stole someone’s shoes and the witch made him an herbivore. Or he could have married a boxer wife who punches him every eight o’clock in the morning and eleven thirty at night. Guesswork can make you roam the world!

(Were wa’Shitseswa)

Help me please. I want to know where Benix is.
I’ve looked for Benix for the last many years. I’ve searched on the web. I’ve asked on radio. I’ve checked my pockets and behind the house at home. I’ve done everything. Yet Benix hasn’t popped up and said I’m here nigger.
He came to our school when speaking Swahili and English was stigmatised. Nobody put on shoes. Being very clean was like being a leper. Such obscenities as having a school pullover were unheard of, leave alone having a wristwatch or carrying a lunch box. They were the days when raising your hand to answer a question, one that had not been first translated to vernacular first, was next to being a cruel deity. Benix was all these. Anyone to befriend him would not only have to be alienated from the main population but also suffer the constant language swings.
I singlehandedly took up the challenge.
Now in our school we had bullies. There was Angachi and there was Angatia. They were in the upper class, but there is no way you could walk with a Swahili speaking guy and fail to be known and made fun of by everyone. All the laughter was directed at me because naturally, I was the only of the two who could understand their ridicule. Ngongo would come next to me, hold his nose blocked and say “Ching chong chi”, which might have as well been all the English he knew. Rashidi wa’Ambetsa – Ambetsa of eye glasses, not the village elder – would pretend to be doing something next to us, and so when Benix spoke, and I answered, it was hell. He would laugh loudly, inviting others to the party. Then he would explain the joke to them, and they would all laugh and come to sit next to us to get more first-hand jokes.
It was tough. But Benix didn’t disappoint. For instance, I was the first of the boys to ever reach the Sports Complex in the heart of the Kingdom. It was a long walk from Khushianda, through Khumwitoti, Eshimuli, Nucleus, and eventually Managerial at Bookers. Then watching Nick Yakhama and Barnaba Lumbasi sweet-talk the ball on the ground of the Complex and score wild goals. The nerds “ching-chong-chi-ed” me but still I had stories to tell, especially on weekends when my kin boys were forced by family circumstances to be near me. The stories were so nice that in the subsequent weekends, Wanga, Yusuf, Abu and other dirty boys tagged along. Of course this time we got ‘arrested’ and tortured by the Securicor officers who manned the estates from street children, and on seeing Benix spared, these guys hated him and me the most.
I went through all this. And at last Benix gets lost in the abyss of the world. Nature swallows him like he never existed. His entrance and exeunt in the script is like that of lightning in a veiled night. Nature doesn’t care to even write a certificate of presence. Not even a rainbow in the sky to mourn a lost friend.
What can be the medicine for ridding ourselves of such memories? Where do we go so that we may forget our childhood friends? If friends can get lost, let their memories go with them. But if the memories don’t go, we remain in debt.


Where is Benix?
I’ve tried to ponder where the guy could be. The world is fuckin big. He could be somewhere in Vietnam ploughing in the rice fields. He could be in Bangladesh playing for a second tier football team. He could be a drug baron in Colombia or could have been taken by a rich momo to Johannesburg. He could be a taxi driver in Accra or a gay activist in Kampala. Hey, he could be anywhere on this third planet. Many are times I have looked at the global map and wondered where the African could be.
Sometimes I imagine he could be in real shit. Perhaps he is somewhere in a maximum prison writing love messages and sending nude pictures of Asian women to unsuspecting youths who seek love. Or he could have dropped out of school due to illness and is up to date still bedridden. Or he stole someone’s shoes and the witch made him an herbivore. Or he could have married a boxer wife who punches him every eight o’clock in the morning and eleven thirty at night. Guesswork can make you roam the world!
In life, there are two ways we lose touch with people. The first is death and the second is this. Death is better a loss because you are always sure you know where the lost one is. It is painful, but at least you sit in warmer evenings and know you don’t need to look for them beyond the mound of soil. But there is not a more troubling loss than the loss where your person walks into the unknown. You suffer the loss and so suffer the frustration that they are somewhere, that they need you to find them, that every day you are indebted to their search. Yet the world on its own does not shrink to lessen the space you have to cover looking for them.
Could he be in Kismayu holding the gun by day and transporting contraband charcoal at night? Could his bones be in rubble somewhere along the Indonesian coast? Was he swallowed by a hyena in the hills of Nyang’eti in Kisii (where I suppose he came from)? Was he on board the Malaysian plane and now is a dairy farmer on Pluto or Venus? Where is my friend, oh Lord?
He was the only friend whom my mother accepted. Not that Nyawando had issues with other boys; it’s just that she encouraged me every time to stick to good guys. He had passed the QA test of Nyawando. She would welcome the boy as her true son and ensure he was comfortable. If he didn’t find me, Nyawando would always be eager to report: that young man of Swahili was looking for you.
I still have a book where we used to write new words learnt in other books. It is a 32 page green ‘Flamingo’ and sometimes I take moments looking at the writings. People come from far, I tell you. I look at his neat letters and the diligence they insinuate. I sigh. Nature has this cruel way of disregarding human preference. It cuts ties every midnight and afternoon and you never question. It shuffles us like cards and looks on as we scuffle to holes we think are safe, before it shuffles us again. Shakespeare was right; we are the locusts to wanton boys.
With Benix we did many things. We went to swim together. We went to hunt squirrels together. I taught him how to hold a catapult and he showed me edible leaves from the forest. He taught me good handwriting at school, making his small F’s stand entirely above the line as opposed to how we used to drown them halfway. Through him I learnt that ‘answer’ for questions, ‘anther’ for flowers and the Swahili ‘anza’ are hell different. He was a guy who was literally my teacher, my mentor and, even at that age, my role model.
I don’t remember well how they left town. I think Mama Benix must have fallen sick or something. It is a blurred vision and I don’t have to be right. Or they were going to their rural home for the school holiday. Or they were going to see their father. I remember him telling me he’d write a letter (the LFMAO generation can’t understand what letters were). Then we said bye and he went.
I never saw him again and he never wrote.
Did he die? Did he drop out of school? Can I get him on Facebook? Where do people get their long lost friends? Tell me how your landlord finds you.
Sometimes I walk on the streets of Nairobi and bump into this guy that I saw long ago. Sometimes I meet a girl who takes me to a cafe and gives me her story since we broke up. Sometimes I meet mean people we last saw on campus. Sometimes I bump into the neighbour to the friend of a cousin. These things happen almost every time I go to town. Yet I have never met Benix or anyone who looks like he can write small F’s entirely above the line.
One of you could have seen Benix. He was last dark skinned, had a medium build of a boy, smiled a lot and his name appeared at the top of the class merit list. He spoke with a mild stammer. I remember too little of him: whether he had a scar on his left cheek or if his hairline advanced towards the brows. He had a brother called Oscar. If he grew older than eighteen, he must have been given a national ID. The name is Benix Ochieng Zinkoba.
There must be a favour you can do me without money.