And then I was flat broke, seated in a matatu going fifty miles an hour towards Kangema, where my dad was born, where my grandfather, the one I’m named after is buried. I had been lost in the melee of trying to be somebody in a city that seemed out to sabotage my every move and it had now boiled down to running. My rent was unpaid, my water and electricity switched off. I could barely put food on the table and most days I had to make do with githeri and ugali. As the matatu left Nyamakima stage and the city rushed behind me. I had a feeling of relief. I was leaving it all behind.
When you are flat on your back like I was you realize how little human beings need to survive. Five hundred bob could get me through a week as I buttered up a potential client. I was so broke that I couldn’t even show up for meetings. I remember sending a friend the presentation and asking her to stand in for me because I had more pressing business. A presentation that was sent after walking two hundred or so meters from my house because that was the only place with unprotected WiFi.
Presentations, however, can’t feed you. My gas was the first one to throw in the towel. It betrayed me in the middle of making ugali and I was left with a ridiculous mix that was neither porridge nor ugali. I went outside and collected a few twigs and put them afire in a bigger sufuria and placed the smaller one with the contents on top. A minute or so later the house was full of smoke and I had the same mixture. Neither porridge, nor ugali. I ate it like that.
When you’re belly up you also realize that money is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. The first thing I sold was my coffee table. I carried it awkwardly behind a boda-boda heading to this unscrupulous carpenter who had assured me he would buy it if my claims that it was in sound condition were true. After saliva-drying negotiations, I parted with it for fifteen hundred bob—a coffee table that I had bought for five thousand bob. That bought me gas and two weeks of time until the landlady knocked on my door.
My electricity bill had apparently fattened to forty thousand bob. Which was ridiculous because I owned neither a Posho-Mill nor an electric car. My meter number was read every month and I paid five hundred or so regularly but now my landlady was telling me my meter number was inactive and I had been using my neighbor’s meter all along. The neighbor who had vacated the house three months prior. I tried to wrap my head around paying forty thousand bob for electricity I had not consumed when putting food on the table was already a problem and I was left with a mind-numbing migraine.
As the matatu rushed past Thika toward Murang’a my phone rang. It was my mom. She pleaded with me to turn around. “You won’t like it there,” she cried, but I couldn’t listen to her. Not with the devil singing a dirge of fear and shame in my ear. To me shagz was the lighthouse that would save me. Turning around was the albatross that would destroy me. The second person to call was my dad. He tried being commanding and tough, like he had been when I was a boy. When it didn’t work he resorted to pleading like my mom, “There is no bed nor a mattress there, where will you sleep, what will you eat?” I told him I would be fine, I had money.
After my coffee table, my thirty-two-inch LG TV screen had been next. When your stomach is rumbling you realize that you could do without seeing Swaleh Mdoe or Victoria Rubadiri in your living room. I sold it to a Nigerian man in Roysambu who I found on OLX.
“Send me money for fare and I will bring it straight to your door,” I had told him desperately.
“No, get an Uber and I will pay,” he had said with a voice full of angst, probably remembering all the times he had been swindled in this city for trusting people he shouldn’t have.
“Then at least send me money for airtime so I can call when I get there.”
He sent me fifty bob, “Remember to come with the TV’s receipt,” he had said sternly.
I found him at the roundabout next to Shell petrol station, he paid for the Uber without a fuss. He was of average height, dark and built like a bull. He introduced his brother who had similar features then went on to tell me in his thick Nigerian accent that we had to get out of the road quickly because the police were always harassing them, looking to make a quick buck.
His house was empty but it had a homely feel unlike mine which was vacuous and wilting. Yellow light streamed from a bulb above my head giving it a peculiar warmth. There was a table where I placed the TV and a velvet purple couch at the corner. The door to the next room was open and from the corner of my eye I could see a lone mattress on the floor. The house smelled of paint which suggested that they had just moved in.
I remember he took a photo of my ID and a photo of me holding my own TV after I failed to produce the receipt. I had looked for it everywhere in my house. That house that was once bursting with life, a girl sitting on the couch, Maisha Magic East playing on the screen and the fridge humming to the tune of milk, sausages and fruits. Now it had the look of someone nursing a hangover and the smell of regret and poor choices, and the receipt nowhere to be found. I parted with the TV for fifteen thousand bob, a TV that I had bought for twenty-five thousand bob. That paid my house rent for the previous month.
It didn’t stop there. My fridge was next. It had been a big source of pride when I bought it; a two compartment fridge almost the same height as me. I would look at it and feel arrived, feel like I was becoming somebody in a society that valued material things, but now I was seated in a Toyota Fielder with the back seat folded, holding it so it wouldn’t spill out, heading towards Kimende to sell it.
The new owner wanted a new fridge to store his dog food because the double door fridge he had was not big enough to hold both his and his dog’s food. Life is ridiculous, isn’t it? While you can barely feed yourself another person is turning in his bed with a headache because his dog food is going bad. I parted with the fridge for eighteen thousand bob, a fridge that I had bought for thirty-eight thousand bob.
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back and now I sat on the single seat on the left side of the matatu,not wanting my hopelessness to brush against anyone else, a big green bag at my feet. The greenery of Maragua rushing past me in a blur as I thought about my grandfather. I was very close to him. When I visited as a kid, he would get outside with a small wicker chair, his smoking pipe between his lips, and tell me stories about his time in Nairobi. His death hit me hard. If anybody had the key out of my turmoil it had to be him. I felt ease as the matatu’s wheels ate up the tarmac. I was getting closer to him, his memory, his person, the lighthouse that would illuminate my darkening life.
My big sister was the third one to call. She had the same message, “Turn around, please, please.” And when she did not succeed my other sister, the second-born, took up the mantle. Her voice was so low and morose that I started contemplating sleeping in a lodging and taking the first matatu back to Nairobi the following morning. My dad called before I could make a concrete decision. This time he did not fight me. He told me it was alright; he had spoken to his brother and I could stay as long as I wanted. I felt relief at his anointing. It meant I could find myself and if I didn’t, it meant I had a place to hide from myself.
I stayed in shagz for a week. My landlady called me the entire time.
“I didn’t tamper with the electricity,” I argued to deaf ears.
“I go to church and serve a living God young man, if you steal from me God will avenge you on my behalf,” she cried.
“I showed you all the receipts, I have been paying my bills,” I said trying to placate her.
“Then why are you running?”
There was a heavy silence, my words caught in my throat for a second. I couldn’t possibly start telling her the demons I was fighting.
“At least come back and pay your rent and remove your things.”
I had all these conversations away from my relatives’ ears. I had told them that I had taken a break from my job and I was just visiting. They are good with gossip, it’s the first thing my dad warned me about. “Don’t tell them anything,” he had cried, the emotion in his words betraying his, ‘I’m serious,’ voice. Thinking about it now, he had fears too. Mine were failure and shame, his were bigger and darker yet he was not running.
I stayed at grandpa’s house the whole time I was in shagz. The first thing we did was clean up the cobwebs on the walls and dust the place. Everything looked the same way it had seven years ago, untouched and unmoved except for the new mattress and bed sheets I had bought. There was a photograph on the wall with grandpa and a couple of Europeans. I asked my older cousin who the white men were. He told me grandpa used to work for them, splitting wood to heat up their water and chimneys and that’s why his hands used to shake like a leaf in the wind whenever he held something.
There was another photo of him as a young man with his late wife, Nyambura. I looked at it for a while. There was nuance in his posture. He stood so that more weight rested on one leg than the other. I looked at the photo and wondered what was going through his mind then. Did he have things figured out or was he lost like I was? That night, with the help of a torch, I opened drawers and scattered everything on the floor looking for something, not knowing exactly what it was, and finding nothing but old clothes, decaying papers, heaps of dust and little about the man I’m named after.
Kangema is picturesque with vast greenery and coffee shambas that have been abandoned because of measly pay but my cousins still show up for work because it puts sugar in their tea. While we were picking the berries I asked them what kind of a man grandpa was. The eldest, without preamble, told me he was a drunk who fought with all his sons. He told me he was frugal to a fault and he denied himself basic necessities so he could put away money for his children. Money that sits in the bank. Money that has never helped anyone because his children’s differences won’t allow them to sit down and come to an agreement.
I swallowed hard. Grandpa really did live a skinflint life, almost peasantry. Drinking tea without sugar and dressing in threadbare clothes. It all came full circle. I felt tears prick my eyes and I left towards his grave, realizing that I had never mourned him properly.
When the sun dropped below the sky I called my dad and I told him everything. I told him about the forty thousand bob electricity bill, I told him about my unpaid rent, I told him about selling my TV and my fridge and all he said was, “Come home and let’s figure it out.” I don’t remember sleeping that night. I remember heaving and hiccupping, a patch of water forming around my head till the first cock crowed.
After picking coffee berries there wasn’t much else to do beside drink bottomless cups of tea or nap. Our village is in the depth of Kangema somewhere known as Kanorero. It has a deserted feel to it. People there are always in a state of waiting. You’re either waiting to go to the city or waiting for someone to come back from the city. It’s written on their faces. Women with kids on their backs waiting for their husbands to come on weekends, husbands that sometimes never show up for months. It’s a hopeless state of being, always expectant of something that falls short every time.
I hung out with my older cousin the most. He seemed to have an authentic knowledge about our extended family that I couldn’t get enough of but besides that he looked tired and bored. He’s aged, at the sunrise of forty without a family of his own nor any real occupation. The face he wore gave you the feeling life had knocked him down enough times that the strength to get up had ebbed. I heard him on the phone more than once saying with a voice that had long stopped being ambitious, “If you hear anything, even if it’s two hundred a day I’ll take it.” He is a man of the cloth, he wears a milk white turban on his head and I sometimes looked at him and wondered if it was piety that led him there or despair.
He spoke about Nairobi with a sharp bitterness on his tongue. He had been working for a honcho in Westlands as his shamba-boy.He was staying in the aristocrat’s servant’s quarters; opening his gate, washing his cars, tending his lawn, running to the kiosk for his airtime. He told me the shock he got after getting an advance of his eight thousand bob salary and going to shop for his groceries in Nakumatt. “They used to eat chicken and throw away uneaten pieces in the dustbin while I was starving in my servant’s quarters,” he complained as if the city owed him luxury.
“You’ve only been here a week, why are you leaving so soon?” the wife to my brother’s father–my cousin’s mother — asked when I told her I would be leaving on the morrow. She had been a class act the whole time I was there. She’s old. Sixty-seven. Her name day came after she had shed her milk teeth so she’s probably older than that. She walks with a limp but perhaps that’s how you walk when you have given birth to eleven kids. When I was pulling up my blanket to steal a few more minutes of sleep I would hear her in the kitchen making breakfast and when I got up I would find a thermos flask full of tea and a plate covering another plate—underneath it, five slices of bread waiting for me in the sitting room. It was the same presentation for lunch and supper.
“No, I can get my food in the kitchen outside the house like everyone else,” I would argue but she wouldn’t have it. I learnt her schedule and started getting to the kitchen just when she was serving the food because the last thing I wanted were whispers that the boy from Nairobi couldn’t do anything for himself. We fought about the portions of food too. I was frail, a small wind could have carried me away. I think she was looking to rectify that with the mountains she served me.
I had been buying them meat, sugar and bread with my fridge money regularly because those things are a rarity there. That evening I asked her if she needed anything else. She hesitated then said cooking oil. I went and did proper shopping for her and left her some money. The following morning after I was packed and ready, I knocked on her door to say my goodbyes. She insisted that I stay behind for lunch. We argued for about two seconds and she let me be after she realized my mind was made up. I am bad with goodbyes. Leaving in the morning had been by design. I was running again, from faces asking, ‘Why are you leaving so soon, are we that dull?’
On the matatu back to the city I did not think much besides, ‘I need to visit shagz more often,’ and, ‘You shouldn’t have a blanket opinion about everyone.’ There are horrible people in this world but there are also people with beautiful souls. The kind that gleam even in the dark.
Two things happened after I got back to Nairobi. My mom accompanied me to my landlady. It was a sour scene. It resembled something out of a high school suspension where your parent drags you back to school by your ear like an errant child.
“My son wouldn’t tamper with your electricity, he’s not that type of person,” she mourned.
“That’s what all mothers say, even when their sons are rotten.”
My landlady had been very accommodative for all the three years I had been living there. I would call her and tell her rent would be late and she would be okay but now she wore a different skin, tough and combative.
“I serve a living God, if you want to steal my money, go and take your things and leave me in peace.”
“It doesn’t need to get to that,” my mom pleaded. All the while I was silent, my head bowed. I had my chance, I screwed it up and I now stood there, like someone without his wits, like a picture on the wall.
It was agreed that we would pay the rent for the month and my deposit would stand in for my electricity bill. The padlock to what had been my house was unlocked. My mom called a pickup and we removed my bed, my two-seater couch, my two-burner cooker and my 6KG gas cylinder, and headed for home. There were packets of used Durex and noodles scattered on the floor. My mom wore the same look she had been wearing the entire time, a look between confusion, embarrassment and remorse.
“Are you in trouble with any other person, do you owe anyone else money?” she asked as if, like our sitting government, I was eyebrow deep in debt.
“No,” I said, my face firmly on my shoes, sure that it would combust into flames if I lifted it to meet hers.
The second thing that happened was a sit-down with my dad. He’s old now. We just celebrated his seventy-first name day. He used to have a temper but he is more mellowed down nowadays. Before I go on, I have to tell you my history with him. You see me and him don’t talk that often. It has been like that since I was a boy. We are like employees who work in different departments, saying hi on the corridors during lunch-break but wouldn’t say three words if we sat on the same table.
We do not have any common ground. He is what you would call a man’s man and I’m neither of those things. When I was in campus he had bragged to his friends for a while that I was doing finance (I was doing Management Science, don’t ask). That I was going to be a big man in some bank someday. Until it dawned on him that I thought I had a future in scribbling words on a sheet of paper, something that I feel is beyond the scope of his ken.
I looked at him seated across me in his blue suit and dark fedora. He no longer smokes and doesn’t drink as much as he used to. The diabetes is getting to him and he now wears spectacles which make him look like a menacing detective. I looked at him and saw the same nuance I had seen in that photo with my grandfather and his wife but his was polished. It had circumstance.
“You always have to be yourself,” he began. “Life gets hard and that doesn’t mean you run. We have come very far, from a shanty in Kangemi and now we live in a stone house with a car parked outside, who would have thought that could have been possible?” He paused then continued. “It’s very sad when I hear from other people that you are struggling and I can help but I don’t have a clue what’s going on in your life.”
He removed his spectacles and leaned forward as if his glasses were playing tricks on him, making him see his own things. As if he had more trust in his weak eyes than he had on human inventions. To both our dismay it was the same scenario when he had them on and when he had them off, I was still stick thin.
“Listen,” he said staring into my eyes with a grip. “I started by selling fruits in the market, I even thought I had a career in politics. That didn’t work out and I sold newspapers until I got into the matatu business. One of your cousin, for example, has a matatu on the road. He’s always getting in trouble with the police and I’m always bailing him out. What am I driving at? If I can help your cousin what do you think I would do for my son?”
I looked at him. His eyes were full of sadness, they wore a damp film and his face resembled a dark cloud just when it was about to pour. He blinked, nothing came out. I guess he had lived long enough to master himself. He stayed calm even when everything inside him was probably fracturing because he knew he was the pillar that held the house together and the pillar that holds the house together should not fall apart because it would kill everyone on its way down.
He unbuttoned his coat and removed his fedora. He had shaved his hair close to his scalp but you could still see the silver in it, dominating like a field of ash.
“All these things I’m doing are for no one else but my children. If God is good and he is because we have gotten this far, if we die of old age I will be the first one to go and you will be left to carry the torch.” He went silent and gazed at me as if I did not understand the weight of his words.
“You can stay here as long as you wish and if you want help tell me,” he said, got up, picked his spectacles and fedora and faded into his bedroom.
I had been looking for a lighthouse everywhere else when it was right under my nose. We might not have a lot in common but that evening I realized that the struggle of manhood was something we shared. When the door to my room clicked behind me, that room that had a mattress on the floor because I was yet to put together the bed. I sat down, my shoulders hunched, my knees on my chin, water forming in my eyes. I lifted the back of my hand to rub it away before it could spill over. That was like poking a water balloon because it came out rushing, pouring like a burst pipe.
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