hizi vitu naskiza
mtoto wa miezi sita
Prison warden ajue pia yeye ni mfungwa wa kawa
– K Swiss.
“Buda unajua hawa wa siku hizi hawatambui mtu. Ati wee ni boy wa mtaa? Iyo ni yako. Hawatambui. Utatoa.”
Today we are driving through Makongeni on our way home from work in Masha’s new Toyota Fielder. I am seated in the back seat with Jere. This is the night before Urban Zoning, and we are all ready to burn. The full moon is aglow above Jogoo Road’s early evening rush-hour traffic. Jere, a USIU graduate, is telling a story about the estate he grew up in. I listen passively, thinking about Umoja 1, a place from which I am unable and unwilling to move. We drive past Rikana, Church Army, Uchumi, past Buru. I can’t remember how long I’ve lived here, but if I close my eyes long enough I can see the Shell landmark that was central to our childhood lives. Get lost anywhere in Eastlands, and all you had to do was walk towards the Shell landmark, and you’ll find home. A friend told me a story of her neighbour in Buru phase 3, “Usiku kwa 58 amechew lakini anajua mat ikiruka tu hiyo bump ya tatu anaamka, ‘shukisha, shukisha nimefika!’”
We leave Jogoo Road, and join Manyanja, driving on a flyover above a dual carriageway that scales three express lanes of brand new Chinese tarmac that has replaced what used to be the Donholm roundabout. Originally, the 8km Outer Ring road running from Thika Road to Embakasi was supposed to have four lanes but after variations, one lane was left out. The sidewalks are narrow, and if you are walking up from Manyanja towards Jogoo Rd, there are none. The beautiful grass between the lanes has started to grow, and we are getting used to the new road.
“Siku moja nilikua naenda home kutembelea matha.”
We are at Westgate, a local pub in Innercore, having boiled eggs filled with kachumbari and pilipili from a street vendor. Tumekata Konyagi, avoiding our lives, tukicheki manganya zikichapa squodi Moi Drive. Tired neighbours alight under bright streetlights, and trudge into their homes where loved ones are waiting. We are on the other side of Mango Street windowsills and I am waiting for Sonny to get on stage.
“Alafu hata haikuwa ati late, ma saa tu kaa hizi. Kidogo naskia watu wametokea ati ‘toa ile kitu unatoa.’ kiasi naskia ni kaa hii sauti naijua…”
Jere starts laughing, and we chuckle.
We’ve all heard this story before.
Unajua sai najiona ati ohh, niko mtaani so hakuna mtu anaweza nihanda. Saa najaribu kuangalia hiyo sura ni confirm ni nani…
Alafu unaskia huyo boy ananiambia aje aki smile..?
We’ve all heard this story before.
‘Jere wacha hizo bana, tuachie tu ile unatuwachia.’
Enyewe hawa wa siku hizi, bana.
Alafu unajua ni watoi tu.
Unafikiria wamefikisha hata miaka 18?
Saa yoyote wanaweza kutolea twao, eh.
Growing up in late-90s Umoja 1, the saying asiyefunzwa na mamaye meant you were really misbehaving. In primary school corridors and classrooms, the saying was reserved for the things you did that crossed the red line. Get caught selling your classmates’ textbooks in Mutindwa, you get asiyefunzwa. Skip school, asiyefunzwa. Buy sweets with the coins your mother gave you for Sunday offering, and you get asiyefunzwa and hope to God that story didn’t get home. You felt extra rotten when your friends were co-opted after the grownup had delivered a good dressing down.
“Class, asiyefunzwa na mamaye…?!”
“HUFUNZWA NA ULIMWENGUUUUU!”
This was late ‘90s Kenya, and we were smack in the middle of Goldenberg. Unemployment had hit 47 per cent, and Poxi Pressure had just dropped Total Balaa. Almost out of nowhere Nairobi was gripped by an unrelenting crime wave. The violence radiated from Eastlands, and spread through the city but didn’t stray too far. Rasta’s snarling face and Wanugu’s indifferent eyes accompanied our evening meals alongside shaky amateur footage of police shootouts and stakeouts in Dandora and Kayole. When the action was muted in the news, we had Tahamaki. For half an hour every other afternoon, we ran, ducked and dived through City Park with Inspekta Sikujua, hunting and gunning down hardcore criminals. Outside class, kwa stage, kwa mat or outside Mama Mike’s shop where we played shakes, our narratives and imaginations were hijacked by stories of crime and punishment, Kiriamiti style.
Wameshikiwa hapo Jeri. Naskia kulikuwa na shoot out noma.
Na walikuwa tu ma vijana.
One of my best works of childhood craftsmanship was an AK-47 made from black electricity pipes, and held together with black elastic bands salvaged from old brooms. A piece of sponge tightly wound at the tip of a short steel wire was the trigger that loaded and delivered the lethal ammo through a tiny nozzle. In my imagination, the sharp jet of dirty water cut you down where you stood or hid during gondi sinya. Everybody wanted to be the robber, so I was often the police. I was fast and enjoyed the chase. We invoked the infamous Flying Squad newly formed to deal with runaway violent crime. I only ever saw them once in action. In a blur of brown dust and polythene bags (China Road and Bridge Corporation was yet to get the tender to re-carpet the road), they shot down Moi Drive, hapo kando ya market, in their trademark Peugeot 504 station wagons, cradling automatic rifles from open windows. They were going after the bad guys.
Jioni tuliskia watu kadhaa wameangushwa hapo Caltex.
Ata ilitokea kwa news.
Later, young men disappearing in car boots of Peugeot 404 station wagons became a new chilling warning.
But not today
Today is before Kevo and I am inspector Sikujua. Umoja is my territory. I am in charge. No breaking the law here or I’ll come after you. I will hunt you and shoot you down. You can’t hide in Umoja. Built by the World Bank in the late ‘80s, like much of Eastlands, Umoja catered to Nairobi’s low-income families, city workers who earned between Ksh 800 and Ksh 1, 600 per month. Two-dozen small, low-rise and uniformly built housing units each with a small front and backyard formed an oval courtyard. Our house stood at the edge of one such courtyard opposite Mama Mike’s. The small stretch of tarmac between was the most level in the courtyard and best suited for shakes. My first encounter with the banality of Nairobi’s capitalist, me-first violence was finding a fresh victim of mob justice on this very spot as I walked back from nursery school one hot afternoon. The man lay in the gray tarmac bloodied, dusty and half-naked, the bloodied projectiles strewn around his body. A large rock, ugly and bloody must have dealt the killing blow, and now lay beside his lifeless head. I wondered what he had done to end up here.
Outside Mama Mike’s shop where we played shakes.
So close to our home.
Quite often, we demand proof of proximity in exchange for empathy.
Objects in the mirror are always closer than they appear.
Our house help tugged at my hand sharply. This is Nairobi and there’s no time to linger on lost causes. Good kids move along in this mad city. Keep walking.
Leo tumehama tuko kwa Mumbi.
I don’t like Mumbi’s because a bottle of counterfeit Konyagi once gave me diarrhea, but Westgate closes down at midnight and we can’t go home yet. I am still waiting for Sonny to get on stage. The liquor flows faster, and our sentences fight for coherence. Someone is talking about the departed. Maybe this is a good time to tell the story of Kevo. Light-skinned, with smallish eyes, mild curly hair, sharp jaws, and a beautiful gap between his teeth, Kevo was full of life and for several years was one of the stars in our primary school. He was the youngest in a large family, and his four elder brothers and sister (who sported the best dreadlocks you’d ever seen) dropped out of school after their parents left or died, leaving an aging grandmother to raise the family. There were whispers that his sister was going out with a DJ who worked for either Hollywood or Monte Carlo, and so he became our gateway to F2 jam sessions. Kevo was our ticket and our totem, and everybody wanted to be his friend and for a few weeks in Class 5, he was my best friend. Being the only one in our class from the coast province also meant Kevo was the only one who could help shed light on the stories we had heard about the ocean.
Is it true there are half fish women who sing and you jump into the ocean and get lost?
Is it true if you throw a stone at a cat it will ask you to apologise?
Is it true a man gave a woman a lift, found hoofs for feet when he tried to change the gears?
Above all, Kevo was easily the best footballer we had in class. His skills, far bigger than his small size and wiry frame – or maybe because of it – were complemented off the field by a fast lip that made you reconsider tackling him.
Kevo didn’t finish high school though. Despite breezing through everything in life with a charming gap-tooth smile, good grades eluded him and he failed the KCPE exams. His grandmother died shortly after. One mid-term holiday in high school, we came back home and heard that Kevo was no more.
“Aliangushwa na Flying Squad Kangundo Road pamoja na ma bro zake.”
They were either coming or going to a job, and found the Flying Squad waiting at a roadblock.
“Hiyo gari ilifanywa kichungi wakawamalizwa familia yote fph!”
Today we are having supper with my parents in the house they built in Innercore after we moved out of our one-bedroomed house in Umoja 1 opposite Mama Mike’s shop where we played shakes.
My mother is worried about my brother. He has been skipping classes at Technical University College and has made bad friends, she says.
“Marafiki zake ni hao vijana wanakimbilia matatu na wengine si wazuri. You need to speak to your brother.”
“I will, Mom.”
“Have you talked to him ujue nini inamsumbua?”
No, Mom, you know the men of this house don’t talk, I want to say. I don’t know what to say. How do you explain two brothers coming from the same house with similar opportunities turning out completely different? Grades? Circumstance? Luck? Chance?
“Hakuna mtu unajua anaweza mpatia job?”
I remain silent wondering if Esperanza ever comes back to Mango Street.
Comes back for those who cannot leave.
“Naskia baba ya ule rafiki yako…alikua anaitwa nani?… alikufa.”
“Jana tulikua matanga.”
“Kumbe pia wewe ulikua?” I don’t recall seeing my mother last night.
“Ni nini tutafanya na ndugu yako?”
Last night. Four men bound by our familial worry for our brothers lost in these streets chat in the wake of a departed father.
“Mimi sijui ata Simo tutamfanya nini. Alikataa chuo ati biashara imeshika.”
“Si ata mimi bro tu ni hizo tu biashara anafanya. Ukimuuliza anafanyanga nini hawezi kuambia.”
“Hawa vijana sijui nini ilifanyika..”
“Kuna vile walipoteza form.”
“He might listen to you.”
There is worry under my mother’s eyes and I try to make a brave face.
“He will be okay, mum.”
Today I am in on my way to work na tukifika hapo mtish naona bro anaingia kwa mat hapo karibu kwa ma kuku.
I am seated right next to the door, and when the conductor closes the door at Hamza kuanza kulipisha, I meet my brother’s wide smile.
“Ndio kuelekea works?”
“Ata mimi. Huyu ndio bro, by the way.” He tells the conductor who is giving me back my change, and nodding with my brother’s smile on his lips.
I stare out the window as we move fast down Jogoo Road on our way to work.
About the Writer:
Frankline Sunday is a journalist from Nairobi. His work has appeared in the Standard, Daily Nation, Business Daily, Mail and Guardian SA, Guardian UK, Economist, New African and Jalada. His journalism has won several awards and he is the 2016 David Astor Journalism Fellow.
All images courtesy of Frankline Sunday.
*An earlier version of this story misidentified the Flying Squad vehicles as Peugeot 404s