There’s a heavy clouding hanging precariously when he gets out of his little house built at the edge of the village. Being the eldest of his mother, he had long left the village, in the cold lands of Nyahururu, to go into the big city to scour for a living to emancipate his family from the shackles of poverty. Believing not in the winds of fate, he much believed in hard work, and luck on the way. Behind him were three siblings, the ones he had to play a big brother to. A role, of being a good example, which landed thunderously on his shoulders.
This was back in the 80s, a time when the eldest in the family was highly regarded. He always carried the home, having the responsibility to guide his younger siblings and supporting them whenever need arose, which was often. Bearing that in mind, being born with a burden to be the torch of those who came after him, he naturally felt he had more to prove, and that could only be achieved in a land far away. As he’d heard from rumours, and stories that rent the air of the village about those who’d been to the big city, he was thoroughly convinced that luck awaited him there, and he hoped that his star would shine if he moved there.
Carrying the little he had, amounting to a small sisal bag, he bid his family goodbye and took a long trek to Nyahururu town to catch a bus to the city. As it would have been by that time, most roads were poor and buses raggedy. A bus travelling from faraway places would only outrun a tortoise coming from the same place by a few hours. On his way, there was much to admire, yet couldn’t sustain the admiration for long because, instead of comfort that comes with travel, weariness caught up with him and his body hurt like hell. He spent most of his time anticipating of reaching his destination, as well as praying that they reach quick and well.
He got to Nairobi in late 1980s. Here he was, green, lonely, hungry and homeless. He had no relatives in the city to house him or give him some food to survive on. He had, however, been saved a few coins that amounted to 200 bob to get him started. His parents, relatives, siblings, and other villagers had come to see him leave, wishing him well, blessing him and asking the gods to take great care of him as he wandered to yonder lands, where none of them had been to before, except a few who weren’t present at that very moment.
New to the city, with no friend or place to call home, he wandered here and there without seeing a friendly face. He strutted across the streets, crossed one avenue after another, without knowledge of where he was going. In his entire life, he’s never been to a big city; everything in it was amazingly huge, different and unfriendly.
Having been to school, without much success, he was able to read signs with less trouble. That is how he ended up at a small hotel where he requested for a warm bowl of porridge, matoke, plus meat stew. He cooled the pangs of hunger that were ravaging his stomach. Everyone seemed to know that he was not from the city. He smelled and looked different. Moreover, there were several people who smelled such people from far away, with the intention of being hospitable, and at the same time, wash them clean of the little that they had.
After having the meal, he parted with five shillings. Whether he’d been taken advantage of or not, he had no idea because things in the city were expensive. At the time, you could eat a whole meal with just two shillings. However, since it was Nairobi, things were pricier, he concluded.
The night was setting in quite fast. He had arrived at Nairobi in the afternoon, burdened by exhaustion and agony. He had wished for a cold shower and a deep slumber, but those luxuries, as he came to later discover, we hard to come by in the city by a man of common means. He wasn’t willing to spend his fortune on just a shower and a bed.
He left the hotel and strolled a bit while looking at the buildings for a sign of a lodging house. A young man in corduroy, a hat that he wore sideways, and an oversized coat with folded sleeves approached him.
He talked to him in Swahili.
“ Niaje budaa!” His voice was coarse and it suggested a non-friendly tone.
Njogu moved back a bit because this stranger had come so close that he felt it was awkward. Neither did he understand what the stranger had said to him. He talked back in Kikuyu, in the hope that he might understand him.
“I am Njogu, who are you?” Said Njogu.
Out of no expectation, the stranger replied in Kikuyu, “I am Karanja. What are you doing here?”
Njogu was really excited. Back in the village, if you met someone on your travels and he spoke your language, that was enough for you to be friends. So when he heard a stranger talking in his tongue, his face immediately shone with excitement. And he gladly told Karanja that he was new in the city from Nyahururu, that he’d come to rake a living so that he can turn his life and that of his family around.
Karanja listened with utmost curiosity, whether out of earnest concern or out of an attempt to make friends for later, Njogu had no idea, but he took it as a friendly gesture. At the end of the exchange, Karanja told him that he knew a good place that charged cheaply for a night.
He silently followed Karanja like a faithful dog does to its master, and were swallowed into darkness. From the way Karanja operated, he seemed to have extreme knowledge of the city and its landmarks. They entered an alley after another, cut one street after another, occasionally stopping for the passing cars, heading into a place only Karanja knew.
Finally, they bustled into an old building that had a bar. Men and women were arresting bottles of beer gleefully, making merry and dancing. It was a place of merrymaking, except the occasional sights of men seated quietly by themselves nursing drinks in silence. The rest seemed to have a knack for music and merry-making. It was here he first saw women interacting freely in the open with men. It was even a miracle that women had skimpy skirts and scanty blouses, something he’d never witnessed in his life. There was a lot to worry about, especially women drinking like men, and men having no problem with that kind of lifestyle.
Back at home, only men drank. Women, on the other hand, were expected to behave accordingly, to respect their husbands, revere the laid down stipulations yet not written rules, of being a woman. She was an accessory to a man, and should only enjoy that which men in that society deemed fit, to keep her in check, and occasionally administering a thorough beating when the man felt her woman was going astray. Women dressed appropriately in long attires, never drank or hurled nasty words at any man. She was curved out for marriage, an institution that she was bound to end up in, whether she liked it or not, with little choice over the kind of life she wanted to lead.
They took a table at a corner. A woman fast approached, she was dressed just like the other women, leaving little for the imagination. Karanja held her hand and slapped her butt as they exchanged pleasantries in a manner that made Njogu understand that they knew each other. Karanja then introduced Njogu.
“Huyu beste yangu Njogu, ndo amefika mjini,” Said Karanja.
Njogu knew some amount of Swahili. The fact that Karanja used broken Swahili confused him. He would later learn that in the city people used slang most of the time. It was the cool language of the time. Njogu stretched out his hand to meet the lady’s, who introduced herself as Mukami.
“Bia mbili, eh, sawa!” Karanja said to Mukami.
Although Njogu had never had the pleasure of drinking beer, he had a few successful occasions when he sneaked into his dad’s room and tasted it. He was only 14 and back in the village one had to earn the right to drink a beer. This was by being a man of his own means. He could not have beer under his father’s roof.
In this place, it seemed like everyone had the right to drink whatever amount he wanted. And his first night in the city was to earn that right by gobbling down four bottles. He associated beer with sophistication. There’s a way men who took beer behaved or even walked, and their personalities, which he so much admired, had for long influenced him to indulge in taking beer when his time came, like this night.
After the four beers, Njogu travelled to a different world. He had never seen so many stars in his entire life. He wondered how they could be so many. The frenzy around him disappeared and after some time he drowned to a deep slumber.
Karanja dragged him upstairs where there were lodgings into a room he’d booked for the night and let the sluggard lie. He also threw himself on a bed next to Njogu’s and drowned himself in the pool of slumber.
When the morning came, Njogu felt refreshed. He took a warm shower, for the first time in his life. He felt more alive after that. They went downstairs where Karanja asked him to pay 20 bob, to cater for the expenses. He gladly did. He was growing to trust Karanja who by far had proven to be a great ally.
Armed with his bag, they left to have breakfast at a hotel across the street. Here, they had a conversation over a number of things. Njogu seemed to have a lot to ask about. And Karanja, in his wisdom, realized that Njogu would be a useful friend because of two things, he had a well-fed body, and he was sharp. They enjoyed their breakfast, a hot cup of milky tea and bread. Again, Njogu had to reach into the pocket. He didn’t feel bad because he felt that he was paying for Karanja’s hospitality like any other person would do. He, however, wondered where Karanja stayed. Even so, he admired his sense of life, never looking worried. He looked as if he had everything under control. To Njogu, this was admirable.
They left for hustle, for they needed to do something in order to survive. And Karanja took him as an apprentice because he saw great potential in him. They headed out, to a place Njogu knew nothing about. They walked for long, crossing streets, jumping over potholes, avoiding honking cars from scathing them and finally ending up in a garage owned by a mhindi downtown Nairobi.
A bunch of black men hunched over vehicles worked tirelessly. Sweat was trickling from their faces in the morning unkind sun. Karanja walked into the office that stood by the gate of the garage. An elderly mhindi sat before a table with a phone over his ear. They both stood to wait for him to finish making the call, which was in a language Njogu had never heard of. The mhindi had an unfriendly, wrinkled face that seemed to eat into anyone who dared complain. If he looked at you long enough, straight into your face, you kind of felt that he had said much with his face, which was get back to work and don’t talk to me you asshole, without uttering any words.
His phone called ended shortly. He spoke curtly. With a lot of dislike. That didn’t seem to bother Karanja at any length. He was cool about it and he wore a calm face as always. He gently asked the mhindi if there was any kind of work to be done by two lads like him and Njogu. He looked at them for a while, perhaps wondering why they were so cool at the face of his harshness. That might have churned his insides because from the look of things, he expected everyone to fear him. There were many reasons to fear him. He had money, notoriety, and a gun.
Although Njogu had never seen a gun at close range, he had read stories about guns. Only that he didn’t know civilians would have one. From the stories, guns had the power to disembowel a man and disable him for life. For that reason, he feared policemen.
The mhindi asked them to follow him to the back of his garage where several car body parts spread, all in a disorganized manner. He directed them to move them to one side and showed them how to arrange them in categories. He stood there as they did the job. He had a keen eye, wary that they might steal his spare parts. Hindis, at that time, had trust issues with Africans. They liked them and disliked them in equal measure. They like Africans because they could provide cheap labour. Due to poor working conditions, low wages and mistreatment, Africans returned the favour by stealing from Indians. That was the relationship, interdependent in different ways, both using ulterior means when possible.
They worked the whole day with no meal. In the evening, they were given five shillings each. Karanja didn’t show any emotion, but for Njogu, he was delighted that his first day after arriving in the city had proved useful. Having already dented his pocket, replenishment came handy.
To be continued next week…
Where shall we go, we who wander in this wastelands in search of better selves?