I confess. When I was flat broke I tampered with the water meter. You would too if you had to sit three days in a house without water. Your skin becomes sticky with layers of sweat and odor to the point that you could grow arrow roots on it. And the toilet? Let’s not start with the toilet. Nothing helps, not wrinkling your nose, covering it with the front neck-drop of your t-shirt nor opening all the windows. You still can’t take your own shit. So you see I had to tamper with the water meter.
I could no longer rely on rain water. By virtue of dirty corrugated roofs the water was always dirty and only good for the toilet. And, because it was around September, it was unreliable. I also couldn’t borrow from my neighbors anymore nor walk three hundred meters or so to a nearby car wash that gladly filled up my mtungi. So I had to tamper with the water meter.
It’s not what you think. I didn’t tamper with it so that the good people over at Nairobi Water could charge me less, no. After they had switched it off and left, I simply went back and switched it back on. It was a trick I had learnt over a period of time of not having money for the water bill. They usually carried the water thingamajig that opened the taps and it was cheaper to replace than to pay the bill—the bill was three thousand bob, the thingamajig four hundred bob. The only problem was that I would usually get a full-blown shower when replacing it and the whole time my heart was racing because I had to be the lookout as well as the plumber.
I confess. When I was flat broke I tampered with the water meter but I didn’t tamper with the electricity meter so it’s ridiculous that it was the one that got me in trouble. How could I tamper with the electricity meter when I heard stories of people who had died by its cruel hand? The craven in me wouldn’t even allow me to get close to the switchboard. When they switched off my lights I usually picked a stick and walked to the main socket board, hands trembling, poke the stick inside the thin iron bars and turn my juice back on.
After months of flipping the switch on after they had switched it off, Kenya Power finally got tired of the Tom and Jerry games and carried away my fuse. And to think we were having so much fun, haha. That forced me to pay. They brought down one of their technicians to fix it but that’s not what got me into trouble.
You see the main socket of my house used to make these noises. As if it was full of bees. (Irony for a house that smelled like a honey sucker truck.) I never paid too much attention to these sounds, not when I was busy trying to earn a living. The noises came and went and after two years my neighbors left and the noises with them. Did I mention my neighbors had a clan of people leaving with them?
After they vacated, the grapevine was rank with rumor that they had left behind a hefty bill, one that rung to the tune of forty thousand bob. When the rumor first touched my ears I thought, “Wueh, glad that’s not my problem,” and slept like a baby that night. God was probably smiling knowing that in a cruel twist of fate I would soon be on the hook for it.
Turns out, my other neighbor, the one who lived downstairs, was also not diligent enough to pay her electricity bill and it had climbed to a figure of twenty thousand bob. She would bribe Kenya power every so often to have her juice turned back on. That news got to the landlady’s ear and she came down with a technician in tow to put a plug on the madness. It was then that I was told that the meter that I was paying for was dormant and the one that I was using was my neighbors’, the one with forty thousand on its tab.
A kind of vertigo overwhelmed me, as if I had been smacked on the head with a brick. Fat chance I was going to pay for that, not when I was flat broke and selling household equipment to get by.
I still remember that night. I was on my sofa, I think reading a book or wondering what else I could sell. My two-seater sofa? The carpet? The doors? They were looking especially attractive. Did I really need three doors in a one bedroom house? You see I’m generally a good person but you will be surprised to what extremes the carnal need for survival will push a human being.
I was having these thoughts when my lights went off. “Goddamit, I just paid for that,” I thought. I got up, pushed back my curtain and other houses were illuminated. Come to think of it, did I really need curtains? I knew someone was playing peekaboo with the meter so I stormed out, my anger rising, ready to fight them. Okay, I’m not a fighter so, cough a small roar at them.
“Sorry, Kevin,” my landlady, a middle-aged light-skin woman who drove a RAV4, apologized. “We are just doing a routine check, your electricity will be back shortly.”
I turned my back but before I could put one foot in front of the other my landlady asked me to bring her a pen and paper. I still insist that I’m a good person; even when I was tampering with the water meter I was doing it for a higher cause. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, not my words. I went back into the house and came out with the pen and paper. It was when I was going down the stairs that I realized I might be bringing the stove that was going to cook me.
“This is a terrible person. You mean he has switched meters with the neighbor who vacated?” she was telling the technician in Kikuyu. I gulped because I wouldn’t know the first thing about switching meters. Not with my trembling hands and fear of electricity.
“Umekua ukitumia meter ya jirani, eh?” she went off after I presented her the pen and paper.
“Ati?” I felt a pang of pain race across my brain.
“Eh, unajua kenye umekua ukifanya. Nikiwasha meter ya jirani yako stima zinawaka kwako?”
I scratched my head wondering how she had moved from a polite angel to a Tasmanian Devil.
“Sasa ujue vile utajipanga hio bill ulipe.”
“I have been paying my bill.” I switched to English knowing I did not have the misamiati to address the problem in swahili.
“You have been paying the wrong bill,” the landlady was barking.
“I have been paying the bill for the meter number you gave me when I moved here,” I stammered. I usually stammer when I’m livid.
“How does that matter when you have switched the meters, eh?” She pointed a fat, light-skin finger at me. “Ujue vile utajipanga hio bill ilipwe.”
“I have all the M-pesa texts,” I said, her words flying over my head.
“No, this meter is dormant. You have to pay the bill for the meter you have been using.“ Her voice had hit a crescendo.
“I have all the M-pesa texts,” I repeated myself like a broken record, my spirit defeated.
“Forward me those M-pesa texts tupatane asubuhi. Either you pay or it becomes a police case.”
I think I went upstairs mumbling, “I have all the M-pesa texts.” And thinking I cannot survive prison. I mean I’m not a fighter, the much I can do is cough a small roar.
I got into the house and sat down with my shoulders hunched. It finally came full circle. I had bitten more than I could chew. I was barely getting by. I had sold my TV, my fridge, my coffee table and there was nothing else left to sell that could settle that bill. I made the decision to make for the village then.
The following morning I called a taxi. The driver was this ragtag who always smelt of cigarette smoke and looked drunk. I had paid for his services when selling my fridge to Kimende so I knew he would be up for the gig.
It was on a Saturday morning when I moved out. I had woken up early and done the hard work of packing everything into manageable luggage. My books, clothes, cleaning buckets, two burner cooker, gas cylinder, TV-stand, carpet, curtains, mattress and the bed that I had already taken apart. I left behind my two seater sofa and my kitchen table. They couldn’t fit into the Toyota Fielder my ragtag driver drove and besides, my good side insisted I leave them behind to cover that month’s rent.
It was a sixth sense by now, looking out the window to make sure no one was sniffing anything while I was doing sleazy work. This time it was the sleazy work of vacating a house without notice. I think I made around ten trips at lightning speed up and down the stairs and after, my arms and my legs ached. There was no one sniffing around except for a few kids playing outside who I gladly gave the mattress, the carpet and the buckets to ferry downstairs.
“Are you moving out?” one of them asked.
I really wanted to tell the little tot to mind his own business.
“No, I’m just going away for a few days. I will be back,” I heard myself say and he raised an eyebrow, probably already used to adult lies.
I was breathing hard and turning my neck this way and that when the ignition of the Toyota Fielder roared and we left the premises, heading for our construction site in Kinoo where I would offload my belongings. “You should have told me you were on the hook.” The ragtag driver was smiling, looking at me with red-hot eyes full of pride like I was some kind of superhero. “Ungeniambia ningekusaidia.”
“Kanyaga mafuta,” was all I said. All the while in my head the phrase, ‘I have all the M-pesa texts’ was replaying.
I knew that, unlike for the common mwananchi, morning for my landlady meant 10 or 11am. She would be coming to discuss an electricity bill of forty thousand bob with the wind because by then I was in a matatu going fifty miles an hour headed for Murang’a. I confess. When I was flat broke I tampered with the water meter. I tampered with the water meter but I didn’t tamper with the electricity meter.
Read the follow up story here. Get my new book here. Adieu!
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