Benz and I trickle into a lousy joint along Luthuli Avenue at around 1 pm. The joint is annexed to the corner, facing two shops because it occupies a bigger space. The size of it could make a one bedroom crib in Roysambu with the toilet and shower squeezed into one small room. This means that your toilet floor is ever wet, sometimes from the faulty tap under the shower that keeps leaking. This obligates you to have slippers at the door, and at night you can hear the water drops as they hit the hard surface of the floor. That sound is the signature of your house, and if by chance you wake up in the middle of the night and you fail to hear it, you panic. Even in your deepest slumber, you can hear the drop that echoes like bell rings of death along a long, quiet and mysterious hall where death and its cousins reside.
At the entrance, a small tank rests on a wooden stool. The tank has a diminutive tap that drips a thin strip of water even when turned on fully to minimize water wastage. Under the tap, a black bucket is used as a sink, only that it also collects all the dirty water. There is a bottle of liquid soap that is placed carefully on top of the tank’s cover. The bottle’s lid has a small slit through which the slimy liquid escapes when the bottle is squeezed. This is to say that the bottle has and keeps enduring the grips and squeezes from men’s and women’s hands. It is always ready. Between it and rest is a five-second reprieve, eagerly waiting for the night so that it can hang its coat and retire to its bed- the tank top. It will not pull its blankets because for people like it they were made to sleep blanketless. It doesn’t have a family; it thrives alone to serve men and women.
I shove myself into the line and get my hands wet, scrub them briefly before I step cautiously into the joint. There is no affinity within me for contemptible eat out joints. My stomach is a delicate place for food from such joints, but sometimes you can’t be too careful with life. In the end, it fucks everyone up and hands us over to death to exercise its will. More often than not, I drag my feet into them to serve my stomach things it can’t afford in a big hotel.
Benz sits directly opposite my seat. I let him order first. Their la carte is pasted on the wall. You have to crane your neck and squint to read well. But that is for those who care about menus. Before you even sit, a waiter pulls up by your table and asks you what they can serve you. You take the liberty of asking them what they are serving. If you’ve been to a kibanda, Dorinha isn’t any different. Ugali matumbo, mushere ya mix, mbosho na sembe and other funny names are common.
Some people do not even wait for the waitresses to lodge themselves at their tables, they shout to the kitchen which is three metres away. Someone on the kitchen counter will catch the wind of the order and make it available for delivery by the waitresses. Often, there are more waiters/waitresses in such joints. It is because it is a busy joint and service is required asap.
We both have matumbo and ugali. My buddy happens to come from Western while I come from the Kisii Highlands. Our love for ugali is undeniable, so bad that when we eat something that doesn’t have ugali in it, we don’t count as having eaten. It is in such places that I happen to eat matumbo, and meat and fish. Normally, I’d forget that such food exists when I cook at my small house. Suddenly, something reminds me of their existence once I step into food joints. There is a certain kind of aroma that wafts through the air to my dead senses that awaken my hunger for this kind of meals.
The matumbo is cut into huge pieces that can choke a grown-ass man if not chewed properly for three minutes. I count them because I am that petty. I thrill in small things. There are six pieces in count and a sea of well-cooked soup which can move two mountains of ugali, the ones that cover your face so that you only get to see the other person’s face as he attacks the mountain from the other side. You only chat without seeing each other until you are three quarters down. Unfortunately, they don’t serve that kind of mountains here. Instead, they serve a slice which my friend can look through and see my crooked smile on this side. Thus, you have to keep ordering more slices until you feel that food is about to come out of your throat if by any chance you lean.
There are men and women, all relishing their food in utter devotion, one that leaves you wondering if they have the same loyalty to their work and relationships. In here, a friendship develops easily as food is synonymously known to unite people. At some point, someone is going to ask you to pass the salt shaker or the pepper which they usually refer to as teargas. To understand why it bagged that hypocoristic, you need to see how it makes people’s eyes wet. In its green state, it is cut into small pieces and served raw in a metal bowl. If you are having food that you suspect might not augur well with your stomach, teargas is the prospective antidote. But you do not rush into it if you are new, it will ruin your meal and you’ll cough like someone suffering from Tb, and worse, cry without a reason.
There are murmurs as well as loud noises. Men with bellies as huge as my forehead roar with laughter as they tear through the meat. Such men don’t know how to keep quiet. They talk to anyone close to them, and sometimes the extra body weight pours into your seat making you uncomfortable. Their shirts are unbuttoned two buttons down so that you can see their chest hairs struggling for the sun and some fresh hair. Their breast pockets are hanging to one side, probably from the weight of the wallet and phone. Some don’t trust their butt pockets with their wallets.
In the background, there is some sweet Lingala music cutting through the air. For those who love such music nod and sing along in silence while they await their orders. Others who find the music disturbingly old school pin their eyes on the telly hanging by the kitchen counter. I sing along with the music. Possessing a pseudo-memory, I am unable to memorise who sings what song. Along the way, the music becomes boring. I dig into my food. The matumbos are extremely hot that I request for a spoon to help myself with, something my ancestors will frown upon as they taught me better. They’d say a real man uses his bare hands to eat ugali. Then, I agreed with them because perhaps the spoons were pricey for them to afford but now I don’t lose my manhood for easing my work with a spoon, am I?
There is no hanging out when you are through with your meals. It is ‘check in check out immediately’ kind of arrangement; space is in high demand. The customers bloom every minute, so you have to get your ass moving once done. Again you line impatiently to reach the small tap that rations water to clean your hands. The bottle with the liquid soap again has to pass through your manipulative hands- you squeeze and jostle through to gain access. Without using force, you can’t get to that tap.
After that, you move to the cashier who hands you a single serviette to dry your dripping wet arms and also wipe your mouth. The cashier sits outside. Before her, there is a table. She sits behind it. From the look of things, she’s beautiful and well dressed. Her hair is shiny and well plaited. She handles the money, perhaps the thing that makes her glow, a sign she has it put together than the rest of the crew who look like they dig charcoal mines for a living. Money has a way of making people’s skin smooth. It beautifies them.
Money is a cure for a number of ailments. When you have it, stress goes off duty. A long face hangs its coat and goes to sleep or uses a long vacation. Money makes you appear important, and it earns you respect as well as reverence in some cases. So she’s in a way the honcho.
On her table, there is also a small bottle of Vaseline, oil for your arms and lips in case you want to keep your dignity. I reach out for the bottle and procure some oil for my arms. It is the first place I have seen such courtesy and magnanimity, that someone can care about how their customers look. I laugh and tell my buddy that ‘this is a revolutionary tactic.’ He also laughs, but he’s no stranger to this. He brought me here, to mean he has been here before. A year back, he took me to another joint at the bus station where they sell food affordably.
He foots the bill, and we leave.
In this Nairobi of ours, life is expensive. Many people depend on fries as they are cheap. Many people suffer because affording decent meals during lunchtime is a fancy affair. Some have to endure pangs of hunger since they are broke. But for those who have lived in this town for long enough, they understand what ‘kuwa mjanja’ means. It implies that you have to carve out ways to survive even when you’re earning a meager salary.
Life for many Nairobians is unforgiving. Many want to keep a dignity that hunger will strip them off. They choose to stay hungry instead of being seen entering joints with wobbly chairs and soot hanging from the ceiling. They think people will talk about them, and that they will lose respect among their middle-class friends. All they care about is class.
In caring for class, they have decided to deny their bodies in order to maintain certain respect in their social circles. These, suffer in silence. Their lunchtime is occupied with the pretense of doing something while they are hurting inside, and when the time is over, they run into the washroom to pat their lips with water or lip gloss to hide their dry lips. Lips will always show when you are hungry.
A crop of others has churned out ways to survive. During lunchtime, they hang their coats and ties on their office chairs, cross several streets, entering one alley and getting flushed out of another, and end up in a joint where they can get ugali matumbo at 120/-. This meal anywhere else goes for more than 400/-. This is a good deal for them. They aren’t afraid of feeding their hunger. A man with a full stomach is a happy man. A happy man is a hardworking man.
Clearly, it is the way you choose to lead your life that will determine what you make out of it. You can choose to make it hard for yourself and kill yourself slowly, or you can decide to let life live in you. It is so hard to please a fellow human being. It is a waste of energy to go down that lane in search of acceptability and identity. To belong is not be within a particular circle of people, but to feel happy about yourself and your decisions, without others becoming part of your decisions.
There is nothing as sexy as living your own life. People will respect you for that because there are a few of us who can do that. Many of us live fake lives, other people’s lives where we don’t belong. So most of our days are spent in constant struggle to impress people that don’t care for us with money we don’t have. To be able to accept yourself is to love who you are truly- that person you are is the best version of you that can live truly without limits.
The world is a tough place for anyone. It needs people who can stand for something, people who believe in something. It cannot be changed. But you can always change yourself. To believe in something, you must believe in yourself first.
It is said that people are the clothes they wear (watu ni nguo). As straight as it sounds, it means the opposite- that people are not what you see them when clothed. They are themselves in their nakedness. They can intimidate you with their two-thousand dollar three-piece suits, but once they get out of them, they are simply people. Wanting to be like them when suited up is a struggle that has no value.
Have you ever asked yourself what would happen if you lived as yourself even if it is for one day?
The supreme hunter in captivity
Where shall we go, we who wander in this wasteland in search of captivity?
Image Credit: YRT