Celebrating East African Writing!
It is half past six in the evening. The Indians and the Kikuyus and the Arabs have all closed up shop as the Man with No Name shuffles his way down Accra Road to his workplace. He is ageless, his face stoic, partly hidden in a sweaty balaclava and set against the world’s assault on his existence. He wears a well used uniform that was handed down to him by the company he works for. The boots don’t quite fit but they are comfortable. In the large Nakumatt paper bag slung over his shoulder is a thermos of tea, half a loaf of stale bread and tired New Testament Bible from Gideons, those diligent propagators of the Word.
He nods greetings to a few people he knows as he proceeds down the steep hill towards Kirinyaga Road, or Grogon as it is still known to many. He knows it’s actually Grogan, named after that fractious colonial bugger, but convincing the masses otherwise would not be worth it. The traffic builds up, bolstered by swarms of matatus trying to beat the jam out of town. They cluster down here like roaches in a dirty kitchen, scurrying over the sidewalks, dispersing pedestrians with air horns and sheer insolence. The Man with No Name remembers back when after six, this place was quiet, except for the occasional chase involving a pickpocket and an unlucky mark. This has changed.
He reaches his post, a spare parts shop. No surprise in this part of town, three out of five shops sell spare parts. The rest sell alcohol and flesh. He greets the guards who stand watch over the shops on either side of his. He places his bag on the dusty sidewalk and pulls a stool from a hidden recess in the wall and sits down. His feet hurt from the walking he’s been doing for the past forty five minutes and so he takes off the ill fitting boots, ignoring the fetid stench that rises from within, and rubs his feet with his big workman’s hands. The relief is incredible. A rabid matatu whizzes by a few feet from where he’s seated, raising dust and shattering the cooling evening air with a triply rapacious blast of sound from its horn, its bass and its modified exhaust. The Man with No Name sighs and shakes his head sadly.
Half an hour later, the traffic has cleared. The pedestrians, however, are still headed home, alone or in small groups. They are all in a hurry, escaping the city that has held them captive for the past ten or so hours. The Man with No Name is not in a hurry; his day, night, whatever, is just beginning. He reaches into the bag and pulls out the thermos. He unscrews the cap, which doubles as a cup, and pours. Half a cup will do for now. The tea is black and it is cold but he doesn’t mind. It’s not like he has a choice. The streetlights blink on, casting their initial feeble glow on the dark street. The Indian teenagers from the houses perched above the myriad spare parts shops should be coming out about now. He’s watched them grow, three generations in fact. The current bunch is the most rotten he’s experienced. They are vulgar louts; smoking, drinking, whoring and driving their father’s cars too fast up and down Kirinyaga Road. He sips his tea and watches the street.
The streetlights are brighter now, bathing everything in a soft orange glow. The dust is not so much now, the piles of paper and plastic clogging the gutter are not so visible either. There is purity that comes over the hard mean streets after dark, softening the edges. The Man with No Name almost smiles before a high-pitched scream emanates from somewhere to his left. Two street urchins are headed his way at full tilt. A figure is hobbling behind them, falling hopelessly back in the chase. It’s a woman who has lost one heel. She is yelling at the fleeing boys who have clearly appropriated some of her property without her consent. She is yelling at the few pedestrians to Stop them! Catch them! Beat them! The boys, who are laughing, scurry into an alley and, along with her handbag, disappear. The Man with No Name takes another melancholy sip of his frigid tea and sighs.
It’s late now, some minutes past eleven. The Indian kids came out, made a ruckus and went back inside, but not before someone knocked the side mirror off their daddy’s Legacy. The earful that boy got was audible even from where the Man with No Name is seated. The noise from Kiragu’s Pub up the street has been increasing steadily from about ten-thirty. The neighbours don’t seem to mind though, they’re used to it. There’s a hub of activity around the pub’s street level entrance; prostitutes, men and a few of the Indian kids mill around aimlessly, trading in things. A man and a woman share a joke and laugh, a bit too loudly, then walk off together. Kiragu’s is a little Sodom and Gomorrah and the oldest profession is rife here. They also sell drugs and guns to complete the picture and the Man with No Name knows that soon, the police and elements of the provincial administration will be along to claim their percentage. They usually show up just before midnight.
To his delight, the Man with No Name discovers a cigarette stub in his jacket pocket. He smokes it now as he watches the police Land Cruiser stealthily roll down the street, parking opposite Kiragu’s entrance. The bunch of people at the door does not run. They know the drill. Soon, someone from the establishment dashes down the stairs bearing an envelope. They chat with the officers for a bit and a loud laugh is shared by all. One cop hops out of the back and swaggers to the door where he seemingly propositions one of the girls there. Her posture suddenly changes, her left arm moves to her hip and her body takes on an akimbo assumption. She says something to the cop in a loud harsh voice, like a raven’s. Her friends laugh and jeer at the hapless man who beats a sullen retreat back to the truck. The Land Cruiser drives away in the same fashion it arrived, slowly, stealthily, and disappears into a light mist that is swirling in from the Nairobi River. The envelope bearer from Kiragu’s waves cheerily at the departing cops.
The Man with No Name gets off the stool and pulls his heavy woolen and something jacket from the paper bag, wears it slowly and settles carefully on the second step outside shop he’s guarding. He arranges his balaclava around his face and folds his arms over his knees. He takes one last look up, then down the street before he puts his head down. He sleeps, fitfully though, as he waits for dawn.
Somewhere near the river, a dog barks viciously. There’s a hollow thump and then the dog howls, a sad painful sound that rises in the sir and somehow merges with the Man with No Name’s budding dream. In it he is flying.
©Steve Mwangi Ichungwa 2009
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