Celebrating East African Writing!
A missive written in officious standard three English – big un-joined letters but perfectly legible – arrived last week from a Michael Oduor announcing that he had found my husband’s driving license and that if ‘Sir’ contacted his brother on the undersigned number, arrangements could be made to return the same. Although government offices generally practice admirable utumishi for all these days, the all are usually far too many and the queues in the necessary offices and at various desks can be seriously off-putting. In short, we were mighty relieved to hear of the potential shortcut represented by Mr. Oduor. 200 bob, I thought, thank you very much and the paperwork, given our very-active traffic cops, is safely back where it’s sure to be soon needed. We did not delude ourselves, or to put a more positive spin on it, we were unprepared for the distinct possibility, that Mr. Oduor’s only intent was to be a good Samaritan. The lined paper torn from an exercise book, the many crossing outs, the missing grammar – Sir, your have lossed which I come across – clearly (mis) spelled to us that this was a person in need of more than a pat on the back for his civil behaviour. The difference was that my husband, the Mzungu in him no doubt, assumed we’d have to part with 500/, maybe even 1000/.
The first call was not a ringing success. The recipient’s English was only marginally better than my husband’s Swahili. But they did hit upon the crucial words – ‘Driving License, you Sir,’ and ’Come to Wispers, huko UN, sasa tafadhali’ – to arrive at a common understanding. We set off on a hot Saturday and drove to the Kenol Petrol Station at the turn-off to the UN complex. I called then, and as we chatted in Swahili, I was surprised by the recipient’s non-Luo accent. He said that it was his brother who’d found the license. His non-excitable pleasant tone, and the fact that he said his name was a Luo sounding 3-syllable Winnington, all served to calm my nerves. Contrary to the ethnic violence we witnessed in 2008, many Kenyans ‘relate’ perfectly well across the tribal divide and for all I knew the Mr. Oduor of the letter might share the same father or mother as this Luhya-sounding Winnington. In any case, it turned out that he was walking towards us from Wispers Estate inside the UN arena’s awesome display of residential affluence. If we drove in that direction, he said, we’d surely meet on the way. With a spike in his voice for the first time betraying anxiety, Winnington enquired if the Mzungu was in the car with me. I was quick to reassure that that indeed the said Mzungu was sitting right next to me. He asked again, and I got the impression that if I showed up alone, Winnington would pretend to be someone else and walk right on by.
He turned out to be a lean and ropey young man, dressed in dark, faded, nondescript T-shirt and jeans, similar to the many men we pass hiking on the city’s roads at unholy hours of the morning. But Winnington had the kind of whiter teeth that Colgate would love to claim credit for. We shook hands, firm – the guy was not shy. He indicated that he should get into the car. We unlocked the door and he scooted to the middle of the back seat and poked his face between us. His brother, he told me in Swahili, had been walking to work one morning, kibarua at a building site, when he spied the license by the side of the road. When he came home at the end of the day, it was decided that they should send a letter to the address written within and who knows, maybe the Mzungu owner would still be in Kenya. This brother had arrived in Nairobi, Winnington said, in a wondering kind of way, only one month earlier. In fact, he’d found the license on his second day. How lucky could one be, seemed to be the subtext. Not to be rude, I said, but where is the license now? Don’t worry, he told me, it is very safe with his brother who was at home in Gachie, and that we should now drive there. Why don’t you call him? Because, he said, the network was useless in Gachie, that they could not receive calls there, which is why he had called from Wispers where he’d gone to look for kibarua.
Suspicious soul that I am, I quelled from visiting a slum with my Mzungu at the behest of a man I did not know to visit yet another unknown. Especially Gachie, which my friend Tony Mochama describes as the car-jacking centre of Nairobi (his hilarious claim that the Gachie Car Jackers’ organisation (GACAJA) had formed a sub-commitee to visit Kilindini to meet driver/touts of ships for tips on pirating now ship-jacking was so much more profitable, was a joke anchored in truth). I suggested to Winnington that he go home, collect the license from his brother and deliver it to us at the Kenol station later that day or the next. I offered him 60/ jav fare (okay, I’m showing off this recently learned sheng word that originated from the way packed commuters hang onto a bus’ overhead rail as though hanging onto a javelin). I also said that we’d offer a reward and mentally doubled the cost of that to 400/ – that is 200/ for each brother.
Winnington confessed that could not be sure where his brother was as he’d also gone looking for kibarua. In fact, he said, why don’t we drive to a site in an another estate not too far away where the brother had worked this last week as he might still be there. As my husband negotiated the turns to a building site that turned out to be barely 300 metres from our own house, Winnington made conversation by reiterating how his brother had only recently arrived in Nairobi and how lucky he had been to find the license. He wanted to know why it had taken a month for the Mzungu to call – so long that they’d thought the Mzungu had left the country. I wondered how many conversations he and his brother had held about the license, how many dreams they’d floated on its current, and ultimately, how many ideas they’d bandied about how and what to claim for it. I upped my mental sum to 500/, and told him that we’d been away in a weary tone meant to convey that this incident was not such a big deal so let’s cut to the chase already. But Winnington was in no hurry. He knew enough English to correct the directions I translated to my husband, who at some point in this three-way mix referred to me as darling. After a longish hesitation, Winnington said to me, rather accusingly, “Huyu ni mbwana ako?” and then added, “Hee, umebahatika.”
I couldn’t quarrel with that. Luck does play a role in landing a good husband. But I doubted that Winnington’s interpretation of luck and mine coincided any more then I believed that these convoluted turns would deliver his brother. To him, my luck and his brother’s luck in finding a Mzungu’s driving license, represented the same kind of opportunity. He clearly expected me to understand, to condone, help ease things along. Yaani, he silently accused, weren’t we ‘birds of a feather’ in coming across such luck, me even more so, so why I was giving him a hard time, trying to harakisha him instead of helping him milk the situation for all it was worth?
It reminded me of another incident a few years ago when I’d accompanied my husband to buy curios in a craft market. Despite telling the lady sales man that the Mzungu was my husband, she insisted on inflating the price, so, she said, she could slip me a commission. We argued back and forth, in Kikuyu, both of us with rising indignation before she finally shrugged at my apparent self-delusion. As I did on that day, I began to wonder if I, perhaps, emitted confusing cues about my particular marital status – I am not given to public displays of affection, cues that somehow suggested the Mzungu beside me was actually my (most important) customer. Perhaps I look or talk or give off the vibes of a trader, a hustler, a con. Perhaps the awkwardness arising from wondering if I’m being unfairly judged makes me seem false.
Of course, there was no brother to be seen at the building site. He’d apparently left with the foreman to go and pick salaries in Westlands. Odd, I thought, that it was a newly arrived brother selected to escort the foreman to a bank or moneyman but I did not say this aloud. What is your brother’s name, I asked, so that we can visit him at the site on Monday? Daniel Masinde, Winnington replied, and slowly lost his winning smile. I gave him the 60/ and told him we’d see Masinde, but only if he came with my husband’s driving license to a nearby police station.
To cut a long story short, the following day, Winnington called, verified he had the license with him and that we should collect it from him outside the building site. My husband went there alone. There were three men. Apart from them, the site was empty. No building work on Sundays. Aided by the language disconnect, my husband managed to keep the conversation focused. Once the license was in his hand, he gave Winnington 1000/. At first, he was very grateful, surprised, and then he consulted with his companions, and then he pleaded for a job for him and/or his brother…anything, permanent gardener, watchman, kibarua even. When that didn’t work, Winnington pleaded for more money, since they had to share, you see… My husband listened sympathetically, apologised for not having any job opportunities and drove off.
I never did get to find out who was Michael Oduor. Perhaps he’d been the third man at the site. He might have been a neighbour or one of the men Winnington lived with, perhaps the only one lucky enough to have attended primary school and learned to write in English. Perhaps Masinde had indeed found the license but only his bigger brother was lucky enough to have worked long enough to afford the mobile phone needed to make the final connection. Each piece of attendant luck in this puzzle lent weight to the other. Together they planned, negotiated, just as together they probably left their beds each morning uncertain as to whether luck would favour them with a kibarua job for the day, and with unga that night. Like polythene blowing in the wind, they depended on gusts of luck to keep afloat.
If Winnington had been able to hustle the luck of finding a driving license into a permanent job, it would have been a life-changing experience, not just for him but for the greater community involved in keeping him afloat. This is the naked underbelly of our society, millions of desperate people relying on luck and goodwill. And the most generous luck often manifests in the shape of a Mzungu, as he appears the one easier to appeal to or to exploit. As Winnington silently accused, I, his fellow Kenyan, could see, and he could see that I could see, the indignities he was going through to contort himself to milk his truth, and yet, I had held that against him. He could not be expected to truly trust that loyalty to a ‘foreign’ husband could be greater than my recognition of, or even be in competition with, his more basic needs. I hope that he appreciated that I did not ask about Michael Oduor, and that I did not show up, in the end, to cramp his style. By then I’d realised that the only meaningful difference between Winnington and myself was that I had had so much luck in my life that I no longer depended on it. In the early 1940’s a Scottish missionary found a hungry and motherless boy and took it as his Christian duty to educate him. The famous Carey Francis took him in at Alliance and let him paint school buildings in lieu of school fees. Makerere University paved the way to Cambridge which gave him such a big bursary (in his eyes) that he bought an Omega watch in London I still wear to this day. The boy was my father, the father who ensured that luck would never become the leading architect of my fate.
© Muthoni Garland 2009