Every evening they go back home. They will climb the rickety pieces of metal that age has left in what once was a shiny Japanese machine. They will struggle to find space next to the window, and then caught up in the traffic jam they will witness day slowly turn into night, a ritual nature performs every day to remind them that though they wallow through unending murk, this world is still far away from being their home. That a black and white rat keeps gnawing at the rope that suspends them in this abyss. They will die.
Eventually the bus will win the battle. They will get back to the house to find the kids already asleep. They will be dog tired and sweaty. There will be the urge to get a shower, but due to the recent water rationing by the eternally angry landlord, and because there is no more breath left to pick a quarrel with the self-imposed lord, the little that is left in the cans will be reserved for cooking. By Allah, nobody in this house showers tonight.
Just like that. It’s a miracle that with the smell and famine and exhaustion, owners of this civilisation still manage several rounds in the night and make healthy children each with an even healthier appetite.
Every evening when the bus wheezes its way through the jam they hear Patel’s barks still ringing in their ears. The banging iron. The dust of the garage. The oily walls and live wires peeping from the walls. Sometimes they close their eyes and try to not hear this. To forget. To focus. But the thing now comes in full graffiti. The images of sweat-glimmering bodies bent in the scorching sun, knocking hammers, on the welding machine, on the lathe, on the drill, on the smoother, on the grinder. Images of hope and disillusion. The face-to-face confrontation with eternal poverty that has sanitised slavery to a softer thing. Employment.
Then with all the struggle, they think how they will still have to contend with a government officer that steals billions from their tax. Or a doctor on payroll and on strike. A lazy child. A cheating wife. A politician with a belly and buds still peeping on it. Typically bad people who have no agenda of changing their ways.
God, do you exist?
Maybe their women will tell other women how Baba Faith snores the whole night like a dead plank. You know women. They call each other to go to the market and once they find some shade under an abandoned verandah, they stop and start.
“Haya, you say?!” Susana prods, inviting more.
“Imagine! I try to wake him but he grunts and goes back to sleep. Like I am his sister. Am I his sister?”
“And what about morning? Don’t you talk in the morning?”
“Morning where? He leaves the house at four. We can’t talk because the kids are awake. In any case, I leave him the peace to prepare for work as I catch the last piece of sleep.”
“No, wait Sweetie, you mean….”
And as unfair as nature is, the man’s story will be on another talk-show before evening.
“Grace, do you know what Angela does? Angela is very wicked!”
“Ai that woman don’t even say!”
“Won’t scandals just leave her?”
“She can die if she got past a day without a scandal!”
“Did she quarrel her new boyfriend again? This is serious. And the way she was on my neck!”
“No it’s not that. Worse. Our friend is wicked!”
“She tells me she now wants to leave Baba Faith. Imagine after all that struggle! He provides everything. He pays rent. The children, all of them, are in a decent school. Yet she doesn’t even wake up to prepare breakfast for him.”
“But she said the man doesn’t provide?”
“All his wages go through her account. She determines who gets what, why and when. She has all his money. Plus the money the shopkeeper gives. Is it that she has a hole in her purse?”
“Maybe it’s not about the money. I hear that man sleeps the whole night and looks at her as a sister?”
“But that is not reason to make her move into Ben’s house. I hear Ben has two wives at home.”
“She’s moving in with Ben?”
“Shhhh. That’s a secret. Don’t tell anyone Sweetie or else yours with the pastor will also be said.”
Baba Faith’s day begins at 3.30am. Since the water runs through their estate at night, and since his wife has issues with her spine, he gets the cans through the corridors and comes back with water for the family. Depending on the quantity, he quickly takes a shower and opens the door to walk another hour to Jogoo Road, into town, to the Indian. 6.01am is late. So sometimes he has to run and take shortcuts through corridors and openings with fresh steaming faeces to avoid the sneer of Patel whose sneer you don’t want to hear about.
His work begins then and up to six in the evening, he is immersed in a world of rampant orders and violence with metals. After pleading, and threats to report to tax evasion police, Patel now gives them a 20-minute break at one. So he hangs around lying on his back behind the go-down.
Every lunch-hour break, he will join other men in advising and making fun of Filipo. Filipo is the youngest turk on the site. He has a few hairs beginning to take root south of his face and his other source of comfort is a broken voice. He scored a D in the high school exam last year and he has dreams of being a pilot one day.
“Stand over there. You cannot lie down like you are an old man. What do you do at night!”
“Do they give standing certificates at night?” Filipo will answer.
“You are still young you don’t know. Don’t they teach you manners in that school you attended? In fact go bring us water we want to drink. Go quick quick!”
And here another man will join the talk.
“You are wasting your time talking to a boy who does not sleep naked. He thinks he knows the world. Filipo, have you changed your nappies?”
That will not be a big joke. But all the men will break into a big laughter. Big enough to hide them from the fiery embers of poverty for the moment. But this relief will only last within the break. Poverty doesn’t like long jokes.
Like anyone at Patel’s, his work is not clear-cut. He is a hand, and a hand can do anything a hand can do. He will handle the lathe in the morning and take sand paper later in the day. He will press bearings intact using the levers. He will turn screws and drill holes into copper blocks. All along as he keeps his eye on the Indian.
His favourite moment however is grinder time. He calls it that. Our man enjoys every minute the unfortunate thing cries in his hands. It is a moment of power for him. Reminds him that there is still chance to be master and make even metals cry.
Apart from the power, the grinder is his refuge. It comes first as noise. Then there is the absorption. The retreat. With nobody to interrupt, he has a bite of the finer string of his life. The seclusion into his self; to talk to the stranger within.
He presses the handle hard against the metal. With every ounce of energy emitted comes the justice of being head of a family. He gets the time to talk to himself to the depths feared by common socialisation.
GRINDER: Aaaah slowly man, why the rush?
MAN: Relax man. I’m just doing my work.
GRINDER: Which work, this you call work?
MAN: You will understand when that time comes.
GRINDER: Which time?
MAN: I’m more experienced than you.
GRINDER: A grinder job, a four-figure pay slip, an Indian boss, seven children, and a sad wife; that is experience?
MAN: Don’t you touch my family. My wife is happy.
GRINDER: Your three children are also happy to have you as a father?
MAN: You being sarcastic, right? And it is six children. Six! One, two, three, four, five, six.
GRINDER: You found her with three already. Are they the compensation you have for her previous whoring?
MAN: What should I do?
GRINDER: Kill her.
MAN: My wife?
MAN: I kill her?
MAN: And children?
GRINDER: Kill them too.
MAN: Go for lunch. You are tired.
GRINDER: Man your life is so hollow!
MAN: What about you? A bachelor who grinds metals all day. Is that your version of good life?
GRINDER: It might not be the best, but at least I live away from the threat of being broken by a family. I live away from the fear of cheating women and noisy children. Because the day you will realise mischief you will send yourself over the cliff.
MAN: God will take care of that.
GRINDER: Which God? Your politicians?
MAN: You don’t believe God helps?
GRINDER: When I was young I thought I would become a big machine like the lathe. Or a tractor to plough through large fields. God was my formula.
MAN: Then what happened?
GRINDER: Rather, what didn’t happen? I discovered there was no God.
On an evening when things went well at Patel’s and they got a tip-off from a client, they will stand at the bus station waiting for the fares to go down. The rainy season sees the most uncouth conductors come from their hibernation for a season of theft. So the city stands at the stage and hopes Goddot will come with a subsidised bus. And when a bus passes full of passengers, they look at those on board and those on board look back down. They exchange looks of envy and jest.
Somewhere a Toyota Prado heaves on the road in demand for more adventure. The occupant behind the wheel is impatient with the slow traffic. Sometimes he hoots and people pave way because of the car number and the flag on the cheek of the bonnet. The guy on his left keeps filtering through the crowd to pick any suspicion. His eyes dart from left to right and to right to the rear mirror where he sees the suited man in the traditional back left.
He is going back home after a day of serious business. In a year, a multi-billion scandal will be unearthed. An auditor will point fingers at a tender that was illegally awarded, and a contract that never took ground. There will be complains of an office that never serves people, where workers arrive at ten, go for lunch at eleven, and return at 3.55 to collect their jackets and go home. There will be people dying at a hospital because the money for government drugs left Treasury and didn’t go past the gate of the building. And nothing will be done because he will be an occupant of a key office. Raised by votes tallied at poll stations across the region.
He will be working for the people. Legislating over city policies. Which road to be upgraded. To gentrify which people. Whom to retrench to cut lean the wage bill….
Suddenly the lights turn green and pedestrians start crossing. The man in the back seat is impatient. The driver adds weight on the pedal. Then there is a bang. Then screeching.
A man writhes in pain at the side of the road. A small crowd is beginning to collect and watch the dying man from a distance.
The Indian has lost a pair of hands. Faith has lost a father. A body will be buried at the government cemetery because nobody came to claim it. The cycle is complete.
Vehicles keep scampering for the next free space on the road.