A bulb flickers, vomiting brown light on my desk, giving my writing pad a brown hue, like an old Nation paper at the National Archives. I’m seated, pencil in hand, hunched for three hours and nothing seems to give. So many half-finished poems. Most are skeletons, inadequate, and need flesh to give them a spirit and a path. The night folds her sleeping mat and stands it against the wall then swings open the door and welcomes the day. It is 6AM.
I moved here last month. It is better than my former boxed space and there is power. I write and write into the wee hours. I want to take a dump but there is no water so I contract my anal muscles and pee, stooped at an angle to avoid knocking my head on the shower head. Hot urine bathe the blackened bowl, die to a trickle, a drop, then I zip up. I kick an empty bottle of Harpic power cleaner when walking out. It rolls and rests beneath the rusted taps. A pile of unwashed utensils sits on a sink just outside the bathroom door. I pinch my nostrils to escape the stench of rotting onions, tomatoes, and sukumawiki from a black polythene bag under the sink. Cockroaches scurry from the sink to the polythene. A few travel all the way to the back of a large third-hand Samsung bridge leaning on my desk but it is empty and damp. They rejoin their nibbling fellows on the sink.
I live here with my girlfriend. She is asleep now. My girlfriend is always sleeping. Her hair is long and spread-out on her naked shoulders. She has the allure of Middle-Eastern beauty. Her hands are henna’d. Her nails are manicured. She cannot cook Ugali for fear of ruining her hands. I do it myself like Mom taught me twenty two years ago. Ours is a queen-and-drone affair. I do all the work while my dainty Somali queen sleeps. I cannot complain. She is an Arabian charm, very portent. She is witches’ brew. Her sweetness is mysterious like the Summoning Powers of Alladin. I cannot afford to lose her so I just ignore her laziness. I’ve since ripped my father’s ‘Guidelines on Choosing a Good Wife’ and burnt the pieces.
I look at my incomplete verses and worry. My Editor did not like the recent submissions.
“Most are wingless and boring,” he said “the rest are dead.”
I stood numb watching his right hand poke a biro into a bush of white hair. His left rubbed droopy eyelids beneath round spectacles. When he was done with scratching his scalp, he dug deep into a drawer and pulled a brown envelope.
“These are the edits,” he said “animate the boring and resurrect the dead.”
I picked my drafts and left.
I walk to the window and see thin rays of flight jostling for space between trees and buildings. On the streets below, humans emerge from apartments and pour onto the streets.
I’m very hungry but the pile on the kitchen sink, ah! It is simple to wash a plate and a mug, but not very easy to scrub Ugali cemented on Sufurias. My girlfriend is still sleeping, snoring, short rapid snores, as if a black rhino is chasing her. She hates rhinos and warthogs. She thinks they are ugly and she hates ugly things. She hates bats too for the same reason. If there were eggs in the house, I’d have sacrificed to scrub one Sufuria, heat some water – one part for washing a mug and plate and the other part for tea – and fried eggs. I tiptoe to bed and join her. She turns but does not wake up. I pull the duvet to my shoulders and snuggle close to her. It is warm than at the desk. Her face is turned away from me and my crotch is on her bum. Her rapid snores come back. I close my eyes and surrender to sleep to escape the hunger.
The room is brightly lit when I wake up. I can tell it is midday from the weird screams from children, clashing of plates at Mama Nekesa’s house, loud storying from the verandah and barbarous shouts from Majengo guys. A new apartment is being constructed opposite and will block my view of the streets and increase my electricity bills by cutting off natural light. There is no water for bathing, only for cooking and washing utensils. I get out of bed quietly not to wake her, use her towel to wipe my face and neck, put on a tee and a pair of jeans, ease my feet on plastic sandals, grab the backpack, quietly open the door, close the door, and walk out.
An eatery is just four blocks away, one of the many stand-at-the-counter-pay-and-wait-to-be-served fast food joints. I whisk out a two-hundred-shillings-note from my breast pocket and order a plate of fries and chicken thighs. It is a small thigh. My girlfriend distrusts small thighs. She thinks they are vulture thighs. Sometime back a journalist captured street children hunting vultures at Dandora dump site, slaughtering, throwing away the head and legs, and selling the rest as chicken to the public. I don’t care whether it is chicken or vulture. I sit down and feast. It is a tall stool and my feet hang. But when your mouth is full with chips and chicken/vulture thighs you are a happy man. I smile at me on the mirrored walls. The mirror smiles back.
I have been struggling to find the best words to tell my girlfriend about my intentions to make a pilgrimage to the streets to resurrect my poems. I have not found the right words. I’m afraid she may scoff it off. She dilates her eyes when she picks my writing pad, reads a line or two with a pout, sighs when she hands it to me. I wish she could say something. With the last piece of chicken/vulture thigh safely deposited in my stomach, I text her about this pilgrimage thing and she replies ‘when?’ and I say ‘it is supposed to start today’ and she says ‘k’ and I think she goes back to sleep.
I walk out into overflowing pavements filled with hardworking Kenyans and feel guilty for not building the nation. I enter Mututhos. A bar of falling paints and dim lights. It is four-thirty and Kamande wa Kioi is playing. Muthoni gives me a bottle of Napoleon brandy, the ka-quarter one, and a wet glass. Professor Mutua walks in. He is a one coat man. He sees me and grins. I grin too. He comes and we fist-bump. He sits across and orders a glass. Muthoni gives him a wet glass. We share Napoleon brandy. Glass after glass. It burns the chips and chicken/vulture thighs in my stomach. Sweat flows from my forehead to the tip of my nose. I wipe it with the back of my hand before it drops on my Napoleon.
Mutua is in his late fifties, lives in hotels and never married. He was my lecturer at the University of Nairobi, African Literature class. When I first told him of my plans to have a short stint on the streets, he said something like “there’s freedom on the streets because such a patched existence forces one to embrace fate. When one is at peace with their fate, they have conquered destiny.”
“This is the day Prof,” I remind him.
“It always worthy to sacrifice for what you love,” he says.
I remember him saying these same words in class five years ago.
“Muthoni!” Mutua calls and points to our table. Another Napoleon arrives. We burn our livers.
“Do you honestly think it’s worthwhile?”I ask.
“Don’t concentrate on the act of writing itself. Look at the stories that will grow out of the experience. You’re humanizing poetry.”
Muthoni brings the bill and places it between our glasses. Prof picks it and naturally drifts to mental mathematics. The tally is accurate. He fishes a one-thousand-shilling note from a notebook in his breast pocket and clears the bill. He downs his glass.
“I have to go. I have a makeup class very early in the morning,” he says and adds “be safe.” He rises and leaves.
I down my glass too and leave. Last week when looking for a safe spot to pitch a tent, I made new friends – Tonsil and Mikael, and ignited an old friendship with Patience, a woman I met at Mututhos bar.
I wrote this poem to describe them.
A potpourri of inner city delinquents
hunched over empty bellies – reminisce
about dead lives and rainy days.
My idea was to live with them long enough to hear their stories and map their lives on poems. I pitched the tent and Tonsil and Mikael agreed to live in it and protect it. I also gave them some money so they don’t sell the tent.
I text my girlfriend ‘heading to the tent now’ and she replies ‘k’ and I type ‘have you eaten’ and she replies ‘not yet, don’t feel like’ and I reply ‘miss you’ and she replies ‘miss you and love you. Be safe’.
The streets have thinned of people and not many can dare the alleys at this time of the night. I pass a few street boys, storying on the bridge, and locate the tent. The air is foul. It has not rained for awhile and Nairobi River boasts of raw waste flowing at a painstakingly slow speed. I look at the sky bathed by city lights and glimpse darkening clouds. If it rains the waste will be diluted and the air cleaned.
Three boys are sitting inside the tent, smoking a joint. Tonsil and Mikael and … I don’t recall ever seeing the other boy.
“Ah vipi buda?” I say fist-bumping Tonsil and Mikael.
“Si mbaya” Mikael says.
Tonsil says ‘Zak’ when my eyes and hand turn to the third. I sit down.
“Toa mbao nibambe ki-stick hapa kwa bridge?” Zak asks.
I rummage through my pockets and locate a twenty-shilling coin and give it to Zak to get himself a joint.
“Thanks bruh. Poa poa maboys?” Zak says bidding farewell and giving me a pat on the back.
“Sasawa” Mikael replies and Zak walks out.
We light a tire outside the tent and sit on concrete blocks around the flames.
Tonsil is a large man. His eyes are jicho nyanya and his nose is wide and conspicuous. His neck is a trunk of a young tree and his torso protrudes forward aggressively. But Tonsil’s heart is a flower. His voice, though booming and rough on the edges, has a caressing quality about it. He is slow in speech. Words crawl from his vocal cords tired and unprepared for the long flight to a listener’s ear. Out of fifty or so words his vocal cords creates, only a handful – let’s say ten – succeeds in entering the conversation.
“Naona umeamua kucome at last. Vipi lakini? He says.
“Niko good,” I say “nimechapa Napoleon kiasi hapo juu ndio nipate psyche.” I say.
I pull out my writing pad and try to get a few conversations rolling before these guys zonk out.
“By the way I was not born here on the streets,” he mutters “I came here after getting tired of the many Approved Schools dad was taking me.”
“Why not normal schools?” I ask.
“I had mad temper. Always got me into shit. And I was huge even in primo. Beating kids up and down. I got expelled.” Words crawl out of his mouth.
“Wapi! If Approved saidiad I’d not been here. Kwanza it made it worse man. I become a beast. They threw me to those delinquent prisons. Messed me up big time.”
Mikael was younger. I think less than 15 years from the looks. I turned to him and even before I said anything he was onto it.
“I was the brightest student in the class,” shouts Mikael elated at the opportunity to advertise his childhood achievements to a willing ear.
“We all were,” Tonsil rapped “hakuna mjinga hapa.”
“Envy! Envy!” says Mikael in a brotherly taunt. “I was tops in KCPE but no fees for High School,”he adds.
“Tops in your class huh!” I ask, bemused.
“Top of the class! But my Certificates burnt down with our house. Mom fled thinking I’d been burnt to ashes. I’ve never seen her since.”
We all make faces and burst in laughter.
Small men have an unnatural propensity to balloon their achievements, but this is what I needed. Real lives. Prof Mutua used to say poetry is a nude form of literature, unembarrassed about its wanton demands. One day he said something like “good art is like fart, it must be convincingly loud and pungent to cause mass effect.” The whole class laughed until ribs hurt.
“I think the raw experience of living homeless on the streets can inject you with the kind of experience you need to write loud heart-rending and socially-pungent poems. Poems that cannot be imprisoned, executed, or un-memoried by society.” He said the first time I talked to him about my Editor’s comments.
After a long silence Tonsil says, “If I had a son, I’d be the greatest father in the whole world. I would try to give my son what I was not given.”
“But you could have a son” I say, “You could marry. I have seen families here.”
“I’ve never had it easy with women, Smokescreen.” That is the nickname Tonsil had branded me. “I’ve never really been in what you can call a relationship. The only time was close is when I used to storm some house for free sex every single night.”
“Free sex or rape?” Mikael inquires.
Despite his exuberance, Mikael is a dying animal. During the day, he shuffles his spindly frame tossed about by the city’s gust. His clothes have ceased hugging his body. They fall off for fear of being grazed by his thorny shoulder blades. Sometimes his clothes fall off him, exposing his limp flaking penis. Everybody ignores him but he lights up every time one treats him like a human being. So he shares his misfortunes with random people on the streets hoping to find someone to talk to.
“I had loved her so much. I had loved her so madly.” There is a new fervency in Tonsil’s voice. “ Good Lord! How I loved the woman!”
He is earnest. The slowness of his vocal cords does not interrupt the fierceness of his fervour. He pulls his concrete seat away from the shouting flames and lies on his back.
A heap of black ash around the tent tells of stories from hundreds of such conversations. I listened and documented them over the past week. Without knowing a day has turned to a week. My girlfriend is okay. She texts ‘I miss you. love you. be safe’ before she sleeps every day. I miss her and love her too.
It is my turn to scavenge for the family today. I walk out of the tent and see Patience. We have not talked much since I came here. I need to talk to her again.
“Can I drop by later in the evening?” I ask her
She inspects my bushy moustache and smiles.
“You know you can always drop in anytime Smokescreen!” She replies with a noncommittal tilt of the neck. Her daughter cries and she walks back to the shack.
I walk towards the line of shops on Kirinyaga Road. Behind the Car Parts and Spares shops are garages. A residential apartment is squeezed between every four or five shops, only identifiable by heavy wooden doors spotting Hindu gods. I pass two other apartments and find a big blue bin, three-feet tall and stuffed to the brim. Its insides boast an assortment of tropical fruits. Oranges, mangoes, and bananas, are half-bitten and mixed with Kothimbir Vadi, Rajma Chana Salat, and Murgh Tikka Masala in various states of decay.
I go back to the tent and we eat until food flows to our beards.
Guided by the roaring flames, I write:
remnants of dead experiences,
laugh at the vanity of our desires.
The nights are either cold or warm. On warm nights we sleep early. On cold nights such as this, the concrete blocks inside the tent are always occupied. But today only Mikael is here. I listen as wind gobbles his coughs and snores. It rains. The tent dances. Mikael sleeps through the splatter. I unclothe and walk into the rain. I have not bathed for almost two weeks now. An evil pool has collected on the roof. I push my finger on its belly and smile as the tiny rivulets flow on the sides to collect in poodles at the base. Clothed, I ease myself on the damp sleeping mat. Every wisp of wind nibbles my cold flesh pulling my skin taut. I don’t know when I slept but when I wake up, the sun has a smile on his face.
I sink into my writing pad.
The last pockets of darkness dissolve, the sun pokes the misty morning, the birds join in a disjointed chorus, a flock of vultures descend on the dumping site, and crowded silhouettes in the distance become apartments.
Mikael thrusts his right hand before my eyes. His left hand holds his wooly trousers slightly above his waist. A fraying belt cuts his abdomen.
“How is the day so far?” he says in the middle of a loud yawn.
“Si mbaya.” I say and get back to my writing.
I met Patience last year at Mututhos bar, just after she was fired and Muthoni took her place. I told her I was a writer and she asked me to squeeze her into one of my many stories. I promised, as part of my bargaining strategy to get laid. Two-hundred shillings was what I paid.
“Where did you go?” I asked her when I saw her a week ago after so many months.
“My life went south. I tried to get a job but I was on drugs so things just went down and down then my landlord threw me out so I went to live there,” she said pointing a makeshift shelter not far from where I was pitching a tent.
“What are you doing here?”she asked.
“It’s a long story. We can have a long chat once I’m done with this,” I said. “Do you know these guys?” I asked pointing at Tonsil and Mikael standing at a distance.
“Not very but their names are not bad here.”
Patience is beautiful. Not the beauty of my girlfriend, but a different shade. My girlfriend is a rose, dainty but useless in the sun. Patience is a cactus, succulent but resilient. She walks around with a halo of regality. I enter her makeshift shelter tortured with doubt. My writing pad is wrapped in a manila folder and hidden from inquisitive pries.
“She was not there when we met last year. Tell me about her,” I say my eyes on the little girl.
She smiles at my attempts to win a conversation. There was nothing untoward in her shelter, except a smudge on her bib and used diapers shooting an offending odour from the corner.
“Ah really? Nothing interesting. She is the child of an invisible rapist. I told you my life went south. So there is this guy who came to my shelter when I had blacked out and raped me. Not once.”
“Let me get this clear. So a guy comes here, rapes you every single night, doesn’t say shit to you, and flees into the darkness?”
“Not here though,” she cuts “I used to live further down but in a shelter like this.”
“Lover or rapist?”
“I don’t even know whether rapist is the right word. After the second time I kinda urged him on. I could pretend I was asleep but I was right there participating. You lose so much here on the streets. You stop to care about boundaries. Anything goes.”
There was no remorse in her narration. Just dry facts I could bleed no further.
“Did you ever get to see him?”
“No. It’s dark here you can’t see nothing. But I heard his voice once. I didn’t get what he was saying but he was slow talking guy.”
“Why did you urge him on?”
“That’s a difficult one. I don’t really know why,” she says “first I played dead because he would have killed me if I screamed then I thought why not? You see my life was already dead. What was there to lose? I felt I had lost everything in life and I had lost the power to refuse any kind of human contact.”
I lift my eyes and look at her ashen face. Her voice is carefree, whistling like leaves carried on wind’s back.
“I’m glad he came” she says rocking her daughter. “I realized I could still feel. I was still human. Before I could think of how to put my life together, I had her,” she says “I have no regrets. Having her changed my life. Maybe one day she will know her Daddy.”
Could this Daddy be Tonsil? I thought.
“Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and the world cries with you,” my grandmother used to say. She was right. I pick the baby from her. She is just like her mother. Fair skin, high cheek-bones, and white eyes.
My pilgrimage has ended. I go through some lines I wrote yesterday.
Twice I crossed the river in search of Self
and sat at the foot of the mountain;
The house feels strange for a minute before the pictures begin arranging themselves on my mind. The flickering bulb, lavatory/bathroom at the far end, the shower head and blackening bowl, the cistern, the rusted taps, the kitchen sink, Samsung fridge, and my sleeping girlfriend. Even the foulness of Nairobi River and rotting Kothimbir Vadi is replaced by the stinging stench of rotten onions, tomatoes, and sukumawiki under the sink.
I open the window and dump the black polythene bag on the streets below.
A heap of poems builds at the back of my mind like the city’s dump – nauseating and inescapable. Titleless and jumbled-up, they writhe and wait to be inscribed. Hands, afraid to lose the energies of channeling, hurriedly write stanza after stanza. Intricate metrical compositions cross out blank pages with slanting scribbles of street-dirt and ink drops of human spirit. Like inaudible whispers, unnoticed swirls of imprisoned thoughts break free – taking guarded refuge between faint lines.
There are pots of gold in the city’s bowel
rich human tears and skins that praise the sun;
beneath filth, hope and beauty lives.
I drown into a leisurely wash relishing the memories of street lives.
I have a meeting with my Editor today. The spartanly furnished Publishing House rests on the crest of an old colonial relic. I meander past the swinging doors and take the stairs to the Editor’s office.