Babu’s phone is locked. He got it on credit and he thought that with his boda-boda, he would be able to make the 100 shillings daily payments. He did not anticipate the economy shooting through the roof and now, he is having trouble feeding his family let alone paying the phone’s installments. There is a job he has been sitting on; if it goes wrong, he could go to jail but it can also go right. He thinks.
He looks at his phone. The only solace is that he can no longer receive texts and calls from the people he owes money. “Baba Enock, umelala,” his wife, Daima nudges him. He taps the phone screen. Time is the only thing they have allowed him to check. It’s 5 am in the morning. He has been awake for the past 3 hours. “Watoto watakula nini?” his wife continues after seeing the light on her husband’s phone.
“Andika kwa kitabu ya Chebet,” Babu groans. Chebet owns the kiosk where they take goods on credit and she has been complaining lately that her book is full to the brim with their debts. “Chebet amechoka! Duka zote Kawangware zinajua hatulipangi madeni.” There is a silence after Daima’s words. Babu had thought of taking them to mashambani but his uncle sold all their land. He curses him under his breath then remembers he bought a motorbike with his share of the money and ponders the job he has been sitting on.
“Baba Enock, umelala?” his wife nudges him again.
Babu looks at his phone, it is 7 am. “Wekelea maji narudi na unga ya ugali,” he says while getting out of bed. He watches his wife getting the jiko, charcoal, and sufuria stealthily so as not to wake the kids, and feels a great sadness. The clothes that used to be tight on her now hang loosely on her body.
Daima stumbles and a spoon falls into the sufuria, startling their son awake. “Mama niko na njaa,” Enock whimpers. “Mimi pia,” their daughter, Eunice follows.
“Nakuja na chakula,” Babu says with uncertainty in his tone while putting on his boda-boda garb.
He pushes the boda-boda out of the house while trying to see the silver lining in all of this. At least he has his health and his family, he thinks as he arrives at his local petrol station. When the attendants see him, they pretend to be busy. He approaches the one he has built a rapport with.
“Ntarudi na pesa yako hapa in the next one hour,” he tells him.
“Ulisema hivo juzi,” he barks back irritated.
“Watoto wangu hawajakula,” Babu says.
“Na hio ni shida ya nani?” the attendant retorts sarcastically.
“Liter moja tu,” Babu implores.
“Siwezi shinda nikikulipia mafuta, Babu. Pia mimi niko na shida zangu.”
Babu pushes his boda-boda to the side of the petrol station. He thinks of calling a friend but then remembers his phone is locked. Good riddance, because he probably owes that friend money too. He surveys his motorbike and realizes he doesn’t need the side mirrors. He removes them and drops them at a shylock for 450 shillings.
He buys a 2KG packet of maize flour for 150 shillings, fuel for around 200 shillings and gives Daima the remainder to buy food for the family.
His first customer comes at noon because nobody wants to climb on a boda-boda without side mirrors. He makes 300 shillings from the trip but as he is getting back, a bus pushes him from the side and he bruises his knee. He stops at a nearby chemist and the wound is dressed for 500 shillings.
“Ntakuletea mia mbili nikipata customer,” Babu says.
“Jinunulie side mirrors na hio pesa,” the physician says after seeing his desperate situation.
Babu rides his boda-bada back to his local petrol station which doubles as the place he waits for customers. He looks at the fuel tank, it’s almost empty. He feels as if the world is caving in on him and he decides to take up the job he has been sitting on.
He revs up the engine and within 10 mins, he is at Kimani’s Hardware. It is a front for everything but what it presents itself to be. Babu’s work is simple. Ferrying containers of what looks like paint from one point to another. Making 5,000 shillings with every successful delivery.
Paint The Town Red
He will only do 20 deliveries, pay all his debts and he will be done, he decides. After the first delivery, he buys his side mirrors back. 900 shillings, Shylocks really have no manners. He thinks. He clears some of the debt at Chebets Kiosk and at his local Petrol Station. He pays the arrears on his phone and it is unlocked. All the messages from his debts flood in and for a moment he regrets unlocking it.
The next 10 deliveries roll in and he clears his debts, completes the payments for his phone, and for the first time, the smell of meat wafts from his single-room mabati house in Kawangware. “Eh, baba Enock, you are really chapaing work,” Daima says with a twang. She often speaks in English when she’s excited. “Biashara is good,” Babu says. “Amen!” Daima exclaims, the color having returned to her face.
The 20th trip arrives, Babu is dressing in suits now and they are calling him chairman. It is time to quit but his appetite has grown bigger. He has moved his family to a one-bedroom flat in Dagoretti. And he has moved from paying a rent of 2,000 shillings to 20,000 shillings. He has moved his kids to private school and he has moved from paying no school fees to paying 30,000 shillings per term. A few more jobs until I set up my fleet of boda-bodas and I will be done, he decides.
It doesn’t take long before he puts the first 5 boda-bodas on the road. All ferrying Kimani’s paints from one point to another. It’s not long before he has 10 boda-bodas and soon after Kimani makes him the chief distributor around the country. He buys a Toyota Hilux and moves his family to a gated neighborhood in Syokimau and then it all comes tumbling down.
It happens by mistake. One of his delivery guys picks up the paint at one of the many hardware’s they have opened around the country as usual. He is oblivious to the contents in the containers and he thinks he is doing the Lord’s work and earning a premium while doing it. He fastens it like he always does but he doesn’t realize that the rubber is worn out and it comes undone at a roundabout being manned by traffic police and the tablets splatter all over the road.
In no time at all; all the hardwares selling the special paint are rounded up. The boda-boda riders are picked up and all the roads lead to Babu.
He is caught at Namanga trying to disappear into Tanzania with his family. On his person, a sum of 50 million shillings is apprehended. Everything he owns is taken by the state besides his boda-boda. His lawyer advises him to plead guilty and take all the blame but that doesn’t take his wife off the hook and Daima gets 18 years behind bars, alongside Babu’s 32 years.
Enock and Eunice end up in mashambani with their uncle and they hate it. While they would spend their free time in the city playing with other kids, they now spend their free time, digging, feeding the cows, and doing house chores, so much so that their only fun activity is school.
Daima gets into a depression in prison. She tries to understand how she is behind bars for something she did not do and fails. She tries to understand why her husband did not tell her any of her dealings and fails. She tries to think about how her kids are carrying on without her and fails for a third time.
She spends most of her time in prison drawn into herself. Rocking back and forth on whatever surface she is on. The color only returns to her face after her kids become adults and start to visit her. Babu rarely comes up in conversation and when he does, there is only resentment.
Things are more physical than mental for Babu. He gets into a lot of fights in his first 5 years and he has his big body to thank for his life. After he has earned his respect in the prison and nobody bothers him anymore, things become mental and he starts wondering why, year after year nobody visits him.
He finds solace in carpentry. With time the wood becomes his friend, teacher, and confidant. The hammering, chiseling, and sandpapering become music to his ears and after a while, he is making world-class pieces, albeit for 30 cents a day.
32 Years Later
Babu just celebrated his 54th birthday. His hair is full of white as he gets out of Kimiti Maximum prison. For all of his 32 years behind bars making exquisite furniture, he only has 3,500 shillings to show for it. He finds himself back in Kawangware trying to make heads of where his family went. His acquaintances and friends look at him peculiarly and so does he. As if they know each other and at the same time, as if they don’t. After the realization, they embrace with cheer.
Inquiries lead Babu to a gated community in Kitengela. His family has done well for themselves but they want nothing to do with him. Both his kids were brilliant in class to the point of getting scholarships. His son Enock is a lawyer and Eunice sells Real Estate. “If you come back here again, I will send you right back to prison,” his son warns him while hurling his boda boda at him.
He gets a room at a lodging for 800 shillings a month where he almost dies of grief. He thinks of going back to the business of delivering paint for Kimani only to find out he died from old age. He goes for days at a time without eating and thinks of taking a rope to his neck. He almost does it but his boda-boda in the background distracts him from the act.
He has a meal, gets it serviced, puts a liter of fuel in it, and buys a phone on credit. His first customer arrives, and then another and another and he is able to pay a rent of 3,500 shillings at a single mabati house in Kawangware.
The days dissolve to months and the months to years and he settles down with a new woman who gives him a child just as he turns 57 years old. The money becomes tighter, and the bills at his local kiosk and petrol station grow in size to the point where he sells his phone and buys another one on credit, and in no time it is locked.
His new wife complains about the lack of food one early morning. “Wekelea maji narudi na unga ya ugali,” he says while getting out of bed and pushing his boda-boda out of the house.
He gets a customer immediately after he gets to his local petrol station and as he takes him to his destination the customer makes him a proposition of making some extra money on the side by ferrying not-so-legal goods for him. Babu thinks about it for a minute. I will do it for a while, set up my furniture shop, and then I will be done. He decides.
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