He is seated on the passenger side of this old automobile I have been driving around for a couple of days now. Ladies and gentlemen, I am not the type of man who has stacked words like “automobile” in his vocabulary, but it just felt right to use it. To hide who I am. But sooner or later, all that’s hidden comes to light. At least that’s what the Good Book used to tell me back when I had the backbone for religion.
Now I am just a wandering wanderer, like the rest of you. Difference between me and you is that I understand that I am lost. Irredeemable. Unapologetic.
We are driving down from Pangani through Mlango Kubwa towards Huruma and my passenger has rolled down his window to catch a breath of fresh air. It is 9:47pm.
“Does it scare you?” My passenger asks, his eyes resting on the tarmac ahead.
“Does what scare me?” I have one hand on the wheel and the other out my window. My mother says I drive like my father. I guess to her I never really was my own man. Never really discovered who I was meant to be. To her, I’ll always be the boy who did what his daddy before him did.
“Killing people. Kicking them out of town. Being…” he shrugs helplessly. “You know. You.”
The corners of my lips stretch in a smile that I feel doesn’t quite reach my eyes. I hope he doesn’t notice that. I hate it when people notice that my smile is a little forced. “It’s a dirty job brother. But if I don’t do it, someone else will.”
There is an unfinished building in the area where people congregate to smoke marijuana, chew khat and tell stories. Normal things for the unemployed among the Children of Eastlands. But at this hour, they have all dispersed because of the rampant cases of arrests if they are found hanging around the place at this time.
I pack the car in front of this building and turn off the engine. The whole place looks a little haunted especially seeing as how there is only a half moon up and the light it showers onto these deserted grounds doesn’t quite erase the haunted feeling it carries.
I wonder what happens when people leave their buildings incomplete. It is the saddest thing I allow my heart to feel. The pain, the loneliness associated with a structure left incomplete. Naked. Vulnerable to the vermin in the society. This is where people stand to urinate in their hurried walk to town for another construction job. This is sometimes a marijuana open air market. This is where loot gets divided up among thieves. But I like what this building represents in that regard. The place where loot gets shared out. It means there just might be honor among thieves.
But this incomplete building is a picture of somebody’s unachieved dreams. And nothing saddens me more than unachieved dreams. My father had an old pickup truck once. He had dreams of getting rich by commercializing it. He’d use it to ferry people’s avocados from their shambas to Nairobi, milk from farmers to dairies. But the old vehicle kept breaking down and every time that happened, my father would break down with it. Because with every engine stall, every starter problem, every issue with the clutch meant a step further from achieving his dream. So nothing saddens me like dreams left unachieved.
And this building represents shattered dreams. Loss of hope ingrained deeply in the cobwebs stretching from ugly wall to ugly wall, urine stains representing men literally taking a piss on your dreams…disillusionment. Like my job, this building is a dirty bit of the society. But it is necessary. There is a reason why prostitution is the second oldest profession in the history of mankind. And I use the word profession loosely. It is a lousy job. Women (and now men) are objectified. A very beautiful aspect of human existence is reduced into a cheap commercial transaction. But it is necessary.
I can’t see the half moon from where I’m seated, so I step out of the car and lean against the bonnet. I remember a long time ago when I was shot. I was very new in the Police Service. Back when they used to call it the Police Force.
It was almost six months into my stint with the Special Crimes Prevention Unit when my unit was informed that a gang which the SCPU had being pursuing for almost a year now had been spotted in Parklands in a Pajero Super Exceed. Of course words like “Suspicious” had been thrown around.
We made our way to Parklands and there was the vehicle. With four people in it. Three men and one woman. If I’m to be grammatically on point 100%, I’ll say three boys and one girl. I doubt there was anyone of them older than twenty three.
“We should ask them to surrender, right?” I asked the group commander who laughed like everyone else in the car.
Rifles were corked and prrrr! We came out guns blazing. I felt like I was in a Second World War movie scene. But it was all over in three minutes and when the smoke cleared, the four suspected criminals were lying dead on the tarmac and I was lying with them dying from a gunshot wound in the gut. Being shot in the stomach is hell. It hurts like hell but it takes you forever to die. I guess if it had been a head shot I wouldn’t be penning this story today.
And I wasn’t even shot by the criminals. I don’t even remember them shooting back. My case was just shelved as “Friendly Fire” under “Stressful Circumstances.”
In the hospital while recuperating, I told the OCS that I didn’t remember the suspects shooting back. That it was just us pelting that Super Exceed with bullets. That it was just our muzzles spitting fire and their bodies dancing around in their fancy car. It was just us taking them out like they were Bonnie and Clyde. And the OCS said, “But you were on the ground dying. How can you tell, huh?” And he winked at me. Other people just tell you “keep your mouth shut or the friendly fire won’t be so friendly next time”, but not this OCS. This one smiles at you and winks and the point is home.
The official statement, “They opened fire on the officers and the officers fired back” was read in the news and the whole thing was swept under the rags as another case of criminals attacking police officers and police officers having to defend themselves. Hail Mary.
When I was shot, my fellow officers drove me to the hospital in the Super Exceed inside which we had shot four people. I remember lying on my back on the backseat at 11:46pm. The sunroof was pulled back and as the car drove at 140km/h, I remember sticking my eyes on the half moon above through the sunroof, concentrating on not dying.
I remember thinking, “If only dad owned a new car, he wouldn’t be so stressed up by his old one. If only I hadn’t been a cop, my mother wouldn’t be so worried about me all the time. Saying I only joined the Service because my father had been an officer before me and I just wanted to please him by being him.”
I remember thinking, “If only I had a woman, I would have a child and I would keep this whole police business away from him or her. That way, my child would have the space to decide what they wanted to be when they grew up.”
And I remember thinking; “I hope to the Man Above that I didn’t wear my torn vest and my faded boxers today. Would be a shame to die in a torn vest and faded boxers.”
Now here I stand eight years later, under the moonlight thinking about an unfinished building. A moonlight that reminds me of how easily one can die. You think you have a plan. You think you’ll be seeing that girl again for coffee later this evening after work. You think you’ll finally finish reading Chimamanda’s “Half of a Yellow Sun” tonight and find out if Richard got to find his wife. And then a bullet lands home and pff. You’re gone like a snuffed out candle light. There used to be a madman in the market where I come from. He said, “If you want to tickle God’s funny bone, tell Him your plans.” I agree with him. Mad as he was. But hey, I guess I’m mad too.
“What are we doing here?” My passenger asks sitting beside me on the bonnet and staring at the grave silent incomplete building.
“I don’t know.” I say folding my arm across my chest. “Sometimes I come here when I need to think.”
“Think about what?”
“Everything.” My voice reflects assurance but then my brow folds in doubt. “Nothing.”
“You should be laughing.”
“Funny as in weird.”
Funny as in weird. Last I checked, ‘weird’ means ‘strange’ not ‘funny’. But in these streets, people use dictionaries to wipe their shoes and other dirtier things.
“Tell me again what the plan is.” I say and fumble my pockets. I find what I am looking for not in any of my pants pockets but in the breast pocket of my light shirt. A cigarette now broken in two. I fish it out and look at it with frustration.
“I don’t know why you remain in an abusive relationship with those things pal.” He says nudging his head in the direction of my broken cigarette.
“Same reason why your mother sticks with your father.” I meant that as a ‘mind your own business’ retort but his brow folds and his eyes sadden. He is twenty and he has seen his drunken father in the slum clobbered his mother half to death more than just a few times. Now I feel bad for him.
“One day I’ll kill him.” He says, his jaw tightening with anger.
“You do that. Then let me know so I can arrest you myself.” I toss one end of the cigarette back in my breast pocket and put the end with the filter attached on my lips. I find my lighter in my pants pocket, fish it out and try to light it up. But there is a strong breeze going and it keeps blowing the fire out.
“Why would you arrest me? You’ve seen what he does to her.”
“Murder is murder kid.” I say, trying to light up the cigarette again. “What do you want from me? I’m a cop.”
“And I’m your informer. I have given you information that has led to the arrest and conviction of over forty criminals in the last one year alone.” He is a law student at one of these cropping up universities. Universities which would have been laughed out of the market twenty years ago when education was education and not business.
Twenty first century. I think as I spit on the gravel on the ground. I might be thirty two, but I still feel too old for it.
“Kill the old man” I say cupping one hand over the lighter which I have brought real close to the cigarette on my lips, “And I’ll pat you on the back as I slap the cuffs on you myself. You have my word.”
In an ideal world, I would want the best for the kid. I would want him to finish his university education, succeed in his post graduate training, become a full blown advocate and make lots of noise against human rights violators in this country. But in case you haven’t noticed, these streets aren’t an ideal world. They take you, they chew you and they spit you back out.
He slaps the cigarette out of my hand and I watch as it painfully lands at my feet. “What did you do that for?”
“The whole universe has conspired against your lighting up that cigarette. I’m only joining them.” He says with a self important smirk on his face.
“Yay!” I mock. “You have saved my lungs from cancer! Congratulations!” The mockery in my voice vanishes and is quickly replaced by my normal tone. “Now I can live in these streets long enough to die of a bullet.”
Frustrated, I stuff the lighter back in my pocket and fold my arms across my chest once more. “Run me through the plan one more time.”
“Before I do that, please promise that you’ll do something about my father.” There is genuine plea in his young eyes. Poor slum-dog, just trying to do something to make the world a better place. “Please.”
“Your mother doesn’t want to testify against him. What do you want me to do?”
“Come on man. You’re a cop. He is a crazy, stupid drunk. I’m sure you can plant a joint of weed on him and send him inside for three years. It’s not like you haven’t done that before.”
The back of my hand moves. I want to say that it moves independently of the rest of my body, but I don’t know how much sense that will make to you. I just know that the back of my hand connects with his face so hard that he staggers.
“Don’t even go there!” I yell pointing a finger at him.
His face shows pain. Not physical pain, but the kind of pain that comes from inside. Like I have betrayed him. “You crossed the line kid.”
He is sulking now. He palm is on his assaulted cheek. Rubbing it. Trying to ease the pain but I know it’ll take much more than a massage to ease his pain. His real pain. “Let’s just go over the plan.” He says matter-of-factly.
“We will go to Mathare and I’ll take you to Swalleh’s. You’ll find eight guys chewing khat, listening to music and laughing. The floor of their mud hut is not cemented. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that the soil on the ground will appear fresh. Like it has just been dug up, something has been buried in it, and the soil put back in place and stamped upon. That’s because that’s exactly what they’ve done.”
“They have hidden the money and the guns in the ground in their house?” I ask trying to contain my excitement.
“Yeah.” His voice is calm. Collected. He wants to be done with me so that I can drive him back to campus. “You might want to take the entire crew with you. Those guys are heavily armed and they don’t mind playing a little rough every now and then.”
“I do rough very well.” The confidence in my voice is much more than the confidence in my heart.
A long time ago when I was still living at home with my parents, I got into a fight and lost. Badly. I went home and my mother beat me for fighting. My father beat me for losing. On my way to school the following morning, he told me to pick a fight with the boy who beat me and I told him I wouldn’t.
And he said, “Why not?”
And I told him that I was afraid of getting beat up again. And my father said, “Of course you’re afraid. Everybody is afraid of something. But let me tell you something kid, don’t let the world see your fear. He’ll be afraid of you as much as you’ll be afraid of him. Well” he said nudging his head to one side “probably a little less since you let him beat you yesterday, but if you don’t show him your fear today, that in itself will be a small win.”
Yes. My father encouraged me to fight. And taught me that it’s OK to be afraid, but it’s never OK to show it.
I take my phone out of my pocket and press the power button. The screen lights up and informs me that it is 10:33pm. There night breeze is still running and my passenger cum informer is hugging his arms. It is getting a little cold for him.
“Get back in the car.” I say nudging my head at the car. “I’ll be right with you.”
“Where are you going?” He asks as I take a step away from the car, heading to the unfinished building. “To a place where I can smoke without your paws trying to save my life.” I say over my shoulder.
Behind me, I hear him open the passenger door and heave himself inside the car where it is warm. I hear the gravel at my feet crunch crunch beneath my feet with every step I take. The building feels cold and abandoned, like the hearts of many people I know. But it is comforting in its dark solitude.
I dated an Italian doctor when I was a university student. Dated is a stretch considering we were together for all of three weeks, but it was the best three weeks of my life. Mostly we met in hotels, big hotels in the city with spacious rooms, large beds with bright bedding, large flat screen TVs, thick wall to wall carpets, room service, tiny little refrigerators with alcohol in them, the whole nine yards.
She loved hosting me at these hotels, showing me how the other half lives. Things is, I hated being in these large artificial rooms because they never felt like home. Sure they were beautiful. Sure the beds didn’t creak when you made love on them, sure the air conditioner kept the rooms at an appropriate temperature at all times and sure I could get used to room service, but that wasn’t home, you know? It all felt too artificial.
I remember lying on the bed one Sunday morning at one of those posh hotels in town. It must have been one of those cold March or April mornings when it won’t stop drizzling. And the Italian lady lay asleep on my chest and I just lay there with my eyes fixed on the ceiling. There was the continuous blinking of a small red light on the ceiling. Smoke detector.
There was a painting on the wall which I couldn’t quite make out and the air conditioner hummed with what felt like an exaggerated breath today. There was a large glass door which opened into the balcony but I couldn’t go out into the balcony because it was cold.
There was loud a Amos & Josh featuring King Kaka song called “Baadaye” streaming from gargantuan speakers stationed at Kenyatta International Conference Centre. “Safiri salama, msalimu Maulana, tutaonana baadaye…” (Travel safe, say hello to the Lord and I’ll see you later….”) I hummed along to the music and suddenly felt it.
The darkness. The unfamiliarity of where I was. Just how lost I felt. These rooms weren’t me. I always wondered why I never looked forward to spending nights in these five star hotels, eating their five star expensive meals with unpronounceable names and laying on large beds with white bedding; beds that didn’t creak when you made love on them. It was all so beautiful, but so cold. And I don’t mean temperature wise. It’s just, there wasn’t going to be a neighbor knocking on the door, asking if they could borrow a movie. It was all so bright, but felt so dark. And not the kind of darkness that diminishes sight, but rather the darkness that settles in your chest like a mushroom cloud, darkness every hint of happiness inside of you.
As I walk towards the dilapidated building tonight, I think of my Italian lady and those beautiful ‘unhomely’ hotel rooms. The building makes me feel what those rooms made me feel. Lost. Like I don’t belong here. But I keep walking. There is an empty space where the door is supposed to be. I lift my foot and enter.
My eyes scale the course walls, jagged edges jutting like giant acne on what should be a smooth face. I run my hand on the course walls and tiny wall particle fall on the ground with little resistance. I am humming that song again. That “Baadaye” song that I heard so many years ago while in bed with a woman who made me happy, but rendered me so lost.
“… tutaonana baadaye…” (…I’ll see you later…)
Something crawls on the ground and I turn in that direction in time to catch the sight of a large rat scurrying across the floor to a darker corner. Same thing that I am doing. Scurrying on this earth in pursuit of a darker corner. No much difference between me and the rat.
I want to light up the saved part of my cigarette but I talk myself out of it. I should probably quit now. No much use taking a perfectly healthy lung to the grave, but no much use being taken to the grave by an imperfect lung either.
There are plants trying to grow on the ground and a pile of ash at a corner. Someone lit a fire here for a while then they stopped. Maybe a homeless guy found a home. It is a beautiful thought to tolerate, but I know I’m only lying to myself. He didn’t find a home. Pneumonia finally got him. Or his dirty body finally made contact with a speeding bus. But hey, the afterlife is a home in itself, right? So yeah. I let myself think he found a home. A home where he doesn’t have to light a fire at the corner of an incomplete building to keep the cold and the rats away.
A mosquito dances close to my ear and I slap it away. Or try. It dances right back so I slap it back off. I face the car and see my passenger waiting for me patiently. He is busy on his phone. These millennials and their gadgets. They’re going to be the death of them.
I take a deep breath and remember my father’s words. You can be afraid, but you can’t let the world see it. I have a gun. It is not mine. I have tucked it safely at the base of my spine, held safely in place by my waistline and belt.
I fish it out. A Beretta. I take out the magazine. It is fully loaded. I push it back in and cork the gun. There are fewer chilling sounds in the world than that of a gun corking in the dark on a silent night.
I take a deep breath and kick the plan in motion. I take casual steps out of the building towards the car. The passenger is still on the passenger side, scrolling on his smart phone. Maybe he is on Facebook or Instagram.
There must be thirty steps between me and the car. Between me and the passenger.
As I close that gap casually with the gun in my hand, I hope, pray, that he is on Instagram looking at the picture of a beautiful woman.
Twenty eight steps.
I hope he is thinking favorably about that beautiful woman. I hope he is thinking about a lot more than just placing her in one corner of his room and her clothes on the other corner. I hope he wants to feel that unreasonable connection with her. That…thing. Those lost like me call it love.
Twenty one steps.
When I was his age, I fell in love faster than I could take off my jeans. I would see a beautiful girl and I would make a fool of myself trying to talk to her. my hands would be shaking so badly and I would stutter so much that those women who didn’t simply walk off would smile at me like, “Aww. You’re cute. We can be friends.”
I didn’t want to be friends!
I hope that his story is the same as mine. That he has never been afraid of confronting his feelings head on. That his heart has ached for another human being with much more than just lust. That he thinks of someone when he goes to bed at night, dreams of them throughout the night and wake up still thinking of them. I hope he has had that.
I hoped that he called his mother earlier. Of course he didn’t tell her he loves her. African boys don’t say that to their mothers. That would bring mountains of awkwardness in a home. But I wish that we could do that every once in a while.
Because in the morning when they discover his body, his mother wouldn’t feel the awkwardness anymore if her son had told her he loved her hours before I put a bullet to his head.
I stand right beside him. His window is down. I point the gun at his temple. He barely has time to look up from his phone but before I pull the trigger, I see he was on Instagram, checking out the pictures of a girl in his class.
Bam! And the African boy is no more.
I move fast. I use a cloth from the car to wipe my finger prints of the vehicle. I wipe his side of the door after I open it and put the gun in his hand. But only after I wipe the gun clean off my fingerprints. I cross over to the driver’s side and wipe down the door and the steering wheel and the gear stick and anything else I might have touched.
Then I take one last look at him. The bullet entered his head through his left side temple and exited through the top of his head. Weird angle. His chin is resting on his chest and there is a line of blood oozing from his mouth. He died with his eyes open.
Once the car is wiped down and the scene reads as I would want it to read, I take out my phone and dial a number.
“Is it done?” The voice on the other side asks.
“Yeah.” I say, walking casually from the scene. “Send a car down for me.”
I can see how the headline will read.
“Gang Member Commits Suicide.”
The Police Commandant will issue a different statement. A departure from the traditional “They shot at my boys and my boys returned fire” statement. This time it’ll be said, “The young man was a police informer who turned to crime and when it was discovered that he was playing both sides, he committed suicide so as not to be arrested and also not to face the wrath of his fellow criminals.”
These streets will chew you up and spit you back out. And as we pace them, we know that every soul comes with an expiry date. His just came early.
I am standing at the highway waiting for my ride out of here. There used to be streetlights around these parts but the city council doesn’t appear to be interested in replacing the burned out bulbs anymore. Here is one thing I have come to realize. And yeah I know I sound a bit like a broken record here. A walking, breathing, murdering cliché. But it is what it is. When you don’t have money, you don’t matter. When the streetlights near you burn out and you live in a slum, you can be assured the city council will re-place those in the suburbs first, second and third before they come to you during the next election year.
The half moon doesn’t do much in the way of illumination but the headlights from passing cars help. A homeless man approaches me with a dirty sack flung over his shoulder. He is holding the sack with one hand and shadow boxing with the other.
There appears to be an invisible enemy in front of him, at whom he throws punches and mutters, ‘I’ll get you! I’ll get you, you hear me?’
I ignore him. I’m good at minding my own business. It is midnight. The air is chilly and whenever we breathe, a cloud forms at our mouths and noses. I cast him a casual glance and notice that he is heading right for me.
I want to back up, maybe get away from him before he hurls rocks at me but I remember I have another gun holstered at my waist. My service weapon. A CZ 75 9mm semi automatic pistol. Everybody just calls it a Ceska.
His long hair glistens with oily dirt in the semi darkness. I can almost see the lice from where I stand. He reduces his speed with every step he takes towards me, muttering something under his breath. His glare is on me with the intensity of a fiery preacher.
He gets close enough to me and stands looking in the very direction I am looking at. The road. His lips don’t stop moving. He is making some wavy movements in the air now with his free hand and his hands and fingers remind me of a mole.
He has these bony hands, cracked with dirt and oil and his long skinny fingers resemble claws. His lips are moving fast. Mumbling something. I think he is praying in tongues. I am not curious. Mad people talk to themselves all the time.
But then he edges even closer to me and I catch the words. “Then because of the dire straits to which you will be reduced when your enemy besieges you, you will eat your own children, the flesh of your sons and daughters whom the Lord has given you.”
I give him an “Ooooooookay” look. It is the look I reserve for special weirdos. “What?”
He repeats. “Then because of the dire straits to which you will be reduced when your enemy besieges you, you will eat your own children, the flesh of your sons and daughters whom the Lord has given you.”
He rests his dirty sack at his feet, opens it and fishes out a hard layer of cooked ugali. That layer that gets left at the bottom of the sufuria once the ugali is ready. I watch him with silent acknowledgement. He is the most interesting thing happening in my life right now.
I watch as he dips his claws back into the sack and fish out cooked but uncut vegetables, what smells like rotten fish and a loaf of bread. He puts all these in his hard layer of cooked ugali which he uses as a plate. Then he sits so close to me that it feels like he is seated at my feet. This is all so surreal. I feel like I’m inside a dream.
“We are in an age where men eat their sons. Women eat their daughters. And all for what?” His voice is soft and it appears to drift away with the midnight breeze.
“People are eating children?” I don’t even know why I’m engaging him when he sounds so mad.
“I doubt that verse was meant to be taken literally.” Our eyes meet and he sees the confusion in mine. “Oh. You didn’t know that was a Bible verse. Deuteronomy 28:53.” And he repeats the verse again. “Then because of the dire straits to which you will be reduced when your enemy besieges you, you will eat your own children, the flesh of your sons and daughters whom the Lord has given you.”
“Now that you’ve mentioned it, it does sound like something the Old Testament would say.” I say my eyes reducing to slits. I am remembering a book I read written by a South African writer. I don’t remember the name of the book or that of the writer, but I remember one character’s name. Deuteronomy Ndaba.
“I read this book once” I tell the homeless guy. “There was this character in it called Deuteronomy. And another character whose name I’ve forgotten. Anyway, this character whose name I’ve forgotten had a mean streak. He tied a little bird to a tree by its neck and watched it hang to death.”
He cringes. Like that really gets under his skin. Then he shrugs helplessly, digs around his food and stuffs a large amount into his mouth. He can have a deep conversation, but he doesn’t give much thought to table manners. Like I said, I feel like I’m in a dream.
“We are under siege my friend.” He says still chewing. He crosses his legs under him and stares into the darkness like he is waiting for it to form a figure. “We have marred ourselves with the blood of the innocent. We have killed babies in their mother’s arms, we have robbed the poor blind, we have killed husbands in front of wives, fathers in front of sons, we have corrupted ourselves and our land and now, in the face of this scourge, what choice do we have but to eat our own sons and daughters?”
His voice is a monotone. Neither rising nor falling. It sounds like it has been taken through a softener. The voice of an artiste.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I say, even though I probably know more about what he’s talking about than he does.
“Yeah.” He says nodding gently. “You’re one of the lucky ones. Those who walk the earth oblivious of the dark side.”
“That’s me.” I chuckle lightly. “The lucky one.” I hope he doesn’t detect the sarcasm in my voice.
“Hey” There is sadness in his voice that I hadn’t detected before. “Do you know who isn’t so lucky?”
“No I don’t.”
His long dirty right hand index finger, now shining with the oil from his rotting fish points in the direction from which I came. “There is a guy in a car over there. I think he blew his brains out. Doesn’t sound like a lucky guy, does he?”
“No.” There is an unwanted casualness in my voice that I hate. I should probably sound more concerned. “No he does not.”
“He is the effect of the society besieged by difficulties. A society that has to eat its sons and daughters to survive.” He takes a dramatic pause accompanied by a deep sigh. “Yeah. Maybe I’m crazy for wanting to keep living in it. Maybe he is the one in his right mind and the rest of us are insane.”
“Maybe.” I see headlights from a far and take a step into the road. “Maybe not.” He scoops a generous amount of his food and as he is about to stuff it in his mouth, he repeats, “Then because of the dire straits to which you will be reduced when your enemy besieges you, you will eat your own children, the flesh of your sons and daughters whom the Lord has given you.”
The oncoming headlights dim and the car slows down as it gets closer to me. It stops in front of me and I look back at the homeless guy. Probably the same guy who used to light a fire in the incomplete building. I want to believe that he is the same guy so I can believe that he hasn’t succumbed to pneumonia or hasn’t been ran over by a speeding bus. Not yet at least. One happy thought a night keeps a guy like me on the sane lane of life.
It is a Peugeot 508. One of those white once that the National Police Service have been spotted driving around these last couple of years. I like it. It has a top speed of 230km/h. Not that I have ever driven past 150km/h, but I like knowing that I have the option.
I make out four figures in the car. I know them well. I have worked with them mostly for the better part of the last eight years. I am the fifth member of this unit. Together, we have stacked bodies in this city that can challenge the Tower of Babel in height. And we aren’t about to stop.
“Friend of yours?” I have opened the back left door and I’m now ushering myself in when the team leader, seated at the passenger’s side at the front asks pointing at the homeless guy I was earlier on talking to.
“Yeah. You know me.” I say as I sit. “I like friends who are friends with flies. Makes for a more interesting life.”
“Is he going to be a problem?”
“He is a bum.”
“Is he a witness?” He turns around to take a good look at me. Everyone in the car is watching me.
“No he is not. Can we go to Swalleh’s now or will you guys feel more comfortable if I just step out of the car and put a bullet or six in his chest?” I ask heatedly.
They laugh. They think I have a short fuse. That I flare up with the temperament of a stick of dynamite. Maybe they are right. My father got kicked out of the Force because he walked up to a guy in Kariobangi South and shot him in the head in front of everybody.
Alright, here is how that happened. My father was in the Criminal Investigations Department. CID for short. Obviously. He was stationed at Pangani Police Station and he was one of those macho cops who show up at your doorstep and go like, “So and so, you have twenty four hours to leave Nairobi. If I see you again after twenty four hours, I’ll kill you.”
And if there was something my father was known for, it was the ability to keep his word. At first he was careful. Sure he’d kill you, but he’d be smart about it. Made it easier for his bosses to look the other way. But one day, he warned some guy who lawyered up.
My father got angry because the lawyer started making him out to be the bad guy. Everybody knew he was a bad guy. He didn’t rob banks or rape anybody, but a murderer is a murderer. But no. My old man was under the illusion that he was a broom. The kind that swept evil from Nairobi. Surely that doesn’t mean he’s a bad man, right? To everybody else, he was a bad man. And that was OK. But to him, he was good. He believed in the cause.
I don’t. I know I’m bad. Period. And I can live with that. The similarity between him and I is that we’ll both put you down like a diseased horse without thinking twice about it. The first time I had to shoot somebody, I vomited from Nairobi to Antarctica. The face of the man I had shot kept coming back to me whether my eyes were open or shut. I swore up and down to all the deities ever bent a knee to by a human being that I’d never kill again. That I had learnt my lesson. And if only they’d forgive me and take the nightmares and the terrors and the panic attacks away, I’d be a new man.
Then I killed again and I didn’t feel as bad as the first time. The third time still felt a little bad, but that came after the fact. The way you drink too much alcohol, enjoy the night all the way to dawn, but only say “I’ll never drink again” when you wake up hangover with a spilling headache. Everybody knows, yourself included, that you’ll drink again.
I killed again. And again. And again. We all did.
Swalleh and his band of thieves committed two big crimes. They robbed from a rich person and they got caught. Robbery wasn’t the crime. The crime was, they robbed from a rich person. But the heinous evil here is, they got caught.
There is a cardinal rule in the crime underworld of this city. If you rob from the rich,
We are in Mathare at quarter to midnight. When I was young, I thought that Mathare at this hour would be noisy with drunks singing, ladies of the night working, robbers robbing and love beds creaking. I thought it’d be Sodom and Gomorrah down here.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 1 Corinthians 13:11
My mother loved that verse. My father couldn’t care less about it. It comes to mind now because now that I am a man, I realize that Mathare is the same as other places at night. People sleep at night. Rich or poor, sleep will get you. Like death. So it is silent. Sure there are dogs barking somewhere in the distance, and sure there is a drunk singing on his way home, but there are no breaking bottles or guns going off or sirens or sudden fires. People live here. Not animals.
I used to have a friend who lived in Mathare slum. One day he was walking home when these fifteen year olds stopped him. They wanted his money and mobile phone. He had two hundred bob and no mobile phone. They flashed their daggers. They opened their eyes wide hoping to terrify their victim. They threatened him. But he couldn’t exactly wish a mobile phone into his pockets out of thin air if he had none. So they attacked. And he cried for his wife and two children waiting for him in their tiny mud hut. But no amount of tears could keep him alive long enough to make it to the hospital.
I went down on those kids with a vengeance. I shot them in front of their friends and planted fake guns in their hands. I made them kneel down in front of churches and executed them in broad daylight. I knew I was wrong. Two wrongs make no right. But when your body count is in its fifties, you don’t think twice about pushing it into the sixties. Hands full of blood can’t get any redder. And the fires of hell don’t get any hotter for people like me. With a police uniform and a gun, I was the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.
I know I sound like someone who kills bad people. A vigilante. Hold your horses. That same mad man in the market where I come from once said something about not judging books by their covers. He was right. He was always right. Or at least, I always agreed with him.
As I should have. He was my father.
I know where Swalleh’s hut is. I have been there a few times before. In this city underbelly, police and thieves have to be friends by nature. There will always be police. There will always be thieves. Sometimes, police and thieves strike an accord. Those thieves will not still without notifying the police. And the police will levy a tax against the said thieves to have the right to steal or control the crimes that go down within a certain area.
If those thieves steal outside their areas of operation, then bad things happen because those other areas belong to other thieves who are controlled by other officers. Maintaining law and order is the job of the police. But in a country of about forty four million people and about a hundred and ten thousand police officers, maintaining law and order becomes a collaboration between police and thieves. And this is always a thin layer of ice. One crack in the arrangement, and bodies pile up.
Swalleh’s house is at the bottom of the hill. Mathare is a hill. From the tarmac, you get to see the tin roofs all the way to the river below. Close to the river is Swalleh’s house. It is built so close to the river that when they ‘cook’ chang’aa down there, the black smoke makes it to his walls. So his house is coated with a thick dark layer of soot.
We have left the car a couple of hundred meters away and are now approaching his house fast carrying our rifles handguns. We are taking no chances.
I’m hoping we’ll find the asleep, but the closer we get to the house, the more assured we get about how awake they are. They are in there, telling stories and laughing out loud.
We surround the house. It is not a big structure. Nothing that the five of us can’t cover adequately. We cork our rifles and aim. The leader knocks on the door and someone asks who it is. And the leader says, “It’s me.”
We have all been here before. We have conducted business with these people before. We control them. They assist us in maintaining law and order. A young lady opens the door. She can’t be more than twenty years old. She should be in school, but here she is in the middle of the night in a house with tens of guns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, people who deserve the death penalty, and millions of cash buried in the ground.
He shoots her where she stands. He simply points his AK47 at her stomach and pulls the trigger. And we follow him into the hut. There are no hellos today. No warnings. Just close range executions. Loud gunfire that’ll wake the entire slum up.
From the ground, now drenched in blood we dig out the money using shovels. And they pass me two bags full of cash.
“Take these to the car.” The leader says.
And I grab the bag and skip a body. I’m heading to the car. It is dark outside. A gun goes off and I’m surprised. I thought everyone who could fire against us officers was dead. I’m thinking one of the robbers isn’t exactly dead and is now throwing around the last kicks of a dying horse.
But why do I feel weak? Why is the ground coming up towards my face? Or is it that my face is going down towards the ground? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. All that matters now is that my nose is against the dirt and I’m breathing in the dust.
I have been shot before. I know how that feels. Every soul in these streets comes with an expiry date. Mine just came early.
I see feet surrounding me. I force myself to lie on my back even though my whole body feels weak. And I see it. The half moon up in the clear sky smiling down at me. Actually it feels pretty stone faced but I’m a dying man. I’m allowed to think that the moon is smiling. At me.
A face blocks my view of the moon. It is followed by another. Familiar faces of the unit I work with. All staring down at me guns in hand. They shot me in the back. Why?
I remember my father, kicked out of the police force and forced into retirement. Drinking himself insane. Trying to enrich himself with an old vehicle which just won’t cooperate. Saying, “Be afraid, but don’t show it son.”
And one day he is driving his old pickup truck downhill, transporting yet another farmer’s avocadoes to Nairobi for peanuts, when the old vehicle’s brakes fail. Before the brakes fail, he is stopped by police officers at three different checkpoints. And at every checkpoint, he leaves a fifty shillings note. And at every checkpoint, they let him drive through in his obviously unroadworthy vehicle.
I’m glad that God lives in the sky. If He lived in Kenya, I’m sure we’d find a way to bribe Him into letting us have our way. At least my dad could have. Can you imagine what kind of a world this would be if God took bribes?
Oh boy. I’m lying on the dirt bleeding to death in Mathare slum and I’m busy thinking about what the world would be like if God took bribes. Maybe I’m irredeemable.
But cops aren’t gods. Cops take bribes. And my father gives bribes. So they let him have his way. And his old pickup truck, with thousands of avocadoes in the back, has its brakes fail. The speedometer needle is pointing at 100km/h. Then 110km/h. 120km/h. He is hooting furiously, his foot pressing the brakes pedal with frustration. And it goes all the way to the floor with no resistance. It is like a dead limb.
He remembers his creator now. He says a prayer. He tries the brakes again. And again they fail. He sees the roadside trees whoosh fast past him. The needle is about to hit 150km/h and he it is still a long way to the bottom of the hill, where he’ll find a bend that will lead him into another one hundred meters of steep slope. He won’t be able to negotiate the corner. Not at 150 or 160km/h. Inertia won’t allow him.
When he makes the snap decision to swerve out of the road and live the rest in the hands of the said creator, he doesn’t account for the family van that suddenly materializes from the corner, driving towards him. He doesn’t account for the man, his pregnant wife and their two children.
And when he loses control of the pickup truck, he loses his consciousness. And wakes up in the Intensive Care Unit three weeks later to the news of the death of an entire family. He has been responsible for tens of deaths in his lifetime, but he has never killed women or children before.
Something in his mind shuts down and he becomes hydrophobic. His home doesn’t feel like home anymore. The system feels like it doesn’t need to waste resources convicting a man whose mind has convicted him to eternal damnation already.
He becomes the local market’s madman. Collecting papers. Walking around in tatters. Not recognizing anybody. Not his wife, not his children, not even me. His last born son who worked so hard to be just like him. Head injuries and emotional turmoil sends him crashing in on himself, and when they finally fetch his body from under a truck which ran over him in the morning after he decided to spend the night under it, everyone agrees that it is time for the misery to end and for him to commence life in another realm where hopefully, he’ll make better decisions and maybe face a different fate.
And here lies his son. Bleeding. Betrayed. Why?
“I’m sorry man.” The leader says, pointing his gun at my chest. “But Internal Affairs is on to us. We need a sacrificial lamb on the force to throw the hounds off our scent.”
“And…and…” I can’t get the words out. I can’t breathe. My lung must be collapsing. “You chose me?”
“Could’ve been anyone of us.” His finger pulls back the hammer on his gun. “These streets come with an expiry date for all the souls in them. You know that.”
“Mine just came early.” I try to smile but hot liquid shoots into my mouth and I cough. “Safiri salama…” I start singing. Or croaking. “Msalimu Maulana, tutaonana baadaye…”
The finger squeezes the trigger and the gun goes off. My body jerks as the bullet hits my chest and blood spurts. I hear a sound like stepping on wet clothes as the bullet breaks into my body. I want to keep singing but my voice won’t come out.
The half moon in the sky changes into two half moons. I’m thinking maybe two half moons should make one whole moon, but there is no arguing with a dying man’s sight. If it says there are two half moons in the sky, you agree with it. Because the alternative is to believe that your sight is failing because you’re halfway into the afterlife.
Sirens fill the air. Feet run. There is general chaos. Orders are giving and people scream. I don’t care about all that. I’m more concerned about the multiplying half moons in the sky. They are three, then four…then darkness.
Everything is white when I open my eyes. White walls. White sheets. White clipboards. White white white. A nurse swings by with a large plastic smile plastered on her face. I know it is plastic because I flash one exactly like hers whenever I want to lie to someone that I like smiling at them.
“Which hospital is this?” I ask without recognizing my own voice. It is a weak mess.
“Good question. Normally, people just ask if they’re dead. Or in Heaven.”
“(a) I hear there’s a lot of singing in Heaven. I don’t hear any singing here. Do you? (b) Well, let’s just say it’ll take me more than seven years of eating to earn a ticket to the Promised Land.”
She tells me which hospital I’m in. I try to move but I’m cuffed. I have only been admitted in a hospital once before. And that was the first time I was shot. I need to find a way to start dodging bullets, or my expiry date won’t be too far off. Surviving gunshot wounds the first time is lucky. Surviving it twice is a miracle. Thrice? I don’t think so.
I’m cuffed to the bed. I’m told later that that’s because I, among others, are being charged with fifty nine counts of murder, robbery with violence, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, fraud, perjury…when they let me read my charge sheet, I laugh. Not because it is a funny charge sheet, but because it is the lengthiest charge sheet I have ever seen during my time as a police officer. Apparently, I’m the biggest criminal I know.
Internal Affairs won’t let me have it easy. I’m what they’ll be using as an example. I broke the cardinal rule.
I was betrayed, sure. But I got caught. Not good.
The IA officer in charge of my case shows up with a prosecutor from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and they unleash a heap of evidence against me. Evidence collected over the cause of years. Apparently. But nobody knows about some of the things I’m being accused of except my unit. Somebody has been singing.
“You are going to Kamiti Maximum Prison for a long time my friend.” The prosecutor says. “I don’t know if you know this, but Kamiti is apparently the eighth most dangerous prison in the world. Can you imagine what those guys you put behind bars will do to you?”
“We don’t have to waste time and taxpayer’s money going to a trial.” I say trying to find a more comfortable position in bed. “And you certainly don’t have to waste your saliva creating a picture of where I’m headed. I know Kamiti better than you do. I want to strike a deal.”
“A deal? We have you dead to rights. Why would we consider making a deal with you?”
“You have me. But you have nobody else.” I see the IA agent’s jaw tighten. He’s wondering what I have to say. “But I won’t speak to the Internal Affairs. Send me somebody from the Independent Policing Oversight Authority.”
I trust IPOA more than I trust Internal Affairs. Both institutions make sure every police officer is behaving accordingly. However, IPOA is composed of civilians and IA is composed of police officers. The whole idea of police officers being other police officers’ watchdogs doesn’t go down well for me.
When the IPOA representative shows up, I say “I want to serve no more than three years. And not at a Maximum Security Prison. In exchange for that, I’ll give you my entire unit, my OCS and a whole lot of other rotten apples within the police service.”
“You know I can’t do that. You stand accused of over fifty counts of murder. That’s life in prison.”
“Fine.” I say resignedly. “Put me in a hole forever. Let’s see what good that’ll do you.”
“You’ll do twelve years. I can’t do any better than that.”
“Three years.” My voice commands so much confidence it surprises even me. “Minimum security. And I’ll give you everybody. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it. And in making your consideration, remember that Edward Shimoli got eight years even after escaping from the authorities five times, committing fourteen murders, robbing countless times and raping eighty eight women. And what did you ever get from him?”
Right now I am in a cell, waiting for my three years to pass. I’ll never be a cop again, but who needs a cop like me, right? Even in jail, I’m in witness protection. New name, new identity, new everything. I’ll be out in less than twenty months to start a new life. And in exchange, many bad cops are rotting in prison. But here is a fact for you. Nothing has changed. Other bad cops have already taken their place.
Yes I know it is not fair. It is not right. It just is. I have been a bad cop just like my father before him was. Difference between him and me is I got to tell you my story. He didn’t.
One day, Edward Shimoli said he’d expose the rot in the police service. The other day he said his life was in danger. When they finally found his body, tortured and riddled with ten bullets, nobody got to know for a fact who killed him and why. If they ever find my tortured body in some bushes riddled with bullets like one isn’t enough to put me down, now nobody will ever wonder why it happened. Every soul in these streets comes with an expiry date. It’ll just be mine.