Celebrating East African Writing!
On the way back from an emotionally wrought visit to Migori, we get a puncture. It is Tuesday 20th January and our driver is rushing to ensure we arrive in time to catch Obama’s inauguration on air, live. The section of road between Narok town and Mai Mahiu enjoys a dramatic constellation of potholes and craters. We assume it’s this that causes our hired 4WD’s energetic veering. We hear a pop, grind to a halt, realise that we have a puncture. Strips of tyre are literally hanging by a thread. Strips being parts of a whole that would add up to kido 30,000/. Mid January.
We emerge from the car, two ladies, one male driver, and are almost mowed down by a 5-ton lorry loaded with standing workmen who yell, ‘Bure!’ On other days, we might have been stupefied and swallowed helplessly, but on this one historical day epitomising hope beyond all understanding, we yell back, ‘Obama!’. And they shout back ‘Obama!’ Alleluia!
Despite the fear of causing irreparable damage, the driver reverses the car well into the bush. Savannah scrubland in natural glory. The ground is covered by a chalky dust, and the occasional baby-height acacia – the younger the acacia, the thornier it is to make itself less appetising for herbivorous predators (maybe that explains why teenagers can be such pains in the…neck). Here, like in much of the country we’d left behind, rain is an ancient memory. Dust swirls up with every step. Dust blows beneath the car, gathers steam, swells as it greets our faces. It is just after five.
Thoughts that should really cross one’s mind before proceeding on a long journey, take this opportunity to visit. I hope we have a spare. I hope we have a jack. I hope we have the special nut cracker. Yes, as it turns out, to all the above. Alleluia.
The jack sinks. We search for stones on this side of the road and then on the other. Mostly we find hardened mud-balls that disintegrate when we step on them. Here and there, dust swirls up from the chalky ground like phantom plants. An acacia thorn pierces through my sole, enters the meatiest part of my heel. I yelp as my friend eases it out. I hope it is not poisonous. How do giraffes eat this stuff, anyway? Is its tongue tougher than a tyre?
In a distant ditch bordering a concrete culvert, my friend finds stones. The idea is to use them to leverage the jack. But the stones are too large and weirdly shaped. For 20 minutes we fiddle. Then we decide to lift the car to a height that will accommodate a jack atop an unwieldy stone. Have you ever tried to lift a 4WD? It doesn’t take long before my back refuses all instruction.
We manage to persuade one of the 3-ton trucks that slows down to gawk at us to actually stop. Three men emerge. We root in our bags in the car for a 200/ note, and then lock the doors. In Kenya today, it is safe to assume that strangers posing as Samaritans are just as likely to be thieves. Their driver mumbles at our driver, and they nod in a manly way. When we ask our driver what the jamaa said, he says he couldn’t make it out and waves off our follow-up questions. Some moments of confusion follow. Perhaps the jamaa doesn’t have a jack and is too embarrassed to say. Perhaps he only stopped to gawk even closer. He agrees to help us lift the car, however, and soon it is sitting on the jack atop a large stone. Exit the three gentlemen. They leave two ladies, and one driver who surely must feel the heat of responsibility that no amount of our not blaming him can erase.
It takes the three of us working in concert – one holding the spanner in position, one jumping on it and the other grunting in encouragement – to finally loosen the nuts. Clearly, the tire has not been changed like forever. And we should have loosened the nuts before we raised the car. Still, the team spirit is high. We remove the rim holding together the shredded strips that are all that left of the tyre. We lower the spare from its lofty vantage back left and position it, but the raised car is too low for us to align the holes to the screws of the hub. The car needs to be raised higher, lifted onto a higher bed of stones. We try to flag down other cars but nobody stops. They are probably racing to catch Obama’s swearing-in.
We fan wider to find more stones. A herd of zebras passes by. They seem in a hurry. Why? The wind is blowing in the direction the zebras are racing away from, carrying our smell with it. We giggle, shrill with nerves. It focuses our search. We find the stones. Now to find manly help to lift the car so as to reposition the jack. My friend, an ex-model, wriggles her hips as she waves but it still takes a while before someone stops, a man in a nondescript pick-up brown with dust. Just like us. Thankfully, the man is not only strong enough to lift the car virtually by himself, but knows exactly where to best place the jack. My friend offers him the 200/. When he refuses, (cleverly, in hindsight) she slips it in his pocket, tells him to buy bread for the children, that she is a parent herself and knows how tough times are. He smiles – sort of, cracked lips – the man is not a natural smiler. A bond forms. Instead of leaving right away, he watches as we align the spare tyre, tighten its nuts. Alleluia.
The spare is flat.
Ayayaya slowly morphs to haidhuru. What cannot be avoided must be borne. Our driver goes off in the pick-up with the smiler, 1000/, and the spare wheel. They head to Mai-Mahiu, about twenty kilometres ahead. Before they leave, our new friend mentions that it is unfortunate that the puncture happened near Pipeline, which lies halfway between the police road block nearer Mai Mahiu, and the police post we passed nearer Narok. For that reason, he adds, this is the most dangerous section of the road. He is not referring to wildlife when he warns us to be careful. It does not occur to us to ask them to alert the police where we are – we are just as scared of them as we are of strangers. It is almost seven.
I pop the car keys in my back pocket. If thugs come we will lie that the driver left with the keys. Useless thought with a wheel on stones and no spare but there we are. We stand around, reluctant to add our weight to the 4WD whose backside rests on stones just in case the whole edifice sinks into the savannah (how long do you think they’d look for us, we wonder). We eventually perch on the step next to the doors on the opposite side of the puncture, but the dust! The dust! And the fear of woman-eaters in the shape of lions or thugs! Can sinking in sand be worse than being eaten, hmm? We clamber inside, lock the doors and windows. Fortunately, the stones hold the car hold us. We read newspapers for all of ten minutes before the light fades. Heat eventually forces us to open the windows, and soon, even that is not enough and we prop open the doors. It is dark.
We talk about the young man who’d died the day before, the one who’d taken us to Migori. It feels as though it is his spirit refusing to let us travel away from him. We cry a bit, share family stories about other times of sorrow. Like many Kenyans, of sorrow we’ve eaten plenty. We wait.
Just before nine, headlights from the direction of Narok, not Mai Mahiu where our driver had gone, unexpectedly veer from the road and head towards us. A saloon car stops between where we’re parked and the road, close to our punctured side. We cannot run back into the bush, the thorns or the lions (or fear of the same) would surely finish us. The saloon blocks our route onto the road. I jump out of our 4WD, grab one of the mud-ball rocks that we’d discarded earlier. When my friend attempts to follow, I bark, stay, so she can phone for help in the event that…
I mince crablike towards the saloon. I do not have the presence of mind to call out its registration number. A man in a Stetson emerges. I hold up the ‘rock’. In the tape rolling in my head, it will knock out Mr. Stetson. To ensure whoever else in the car does not block our path to the road, I yell at my friend, USE THE SILENCER. She shouts, WHAT SILENCER? Our driver emerges from the passenger seat of the saloon.
I crack up. Surely, nothing could have stopped the laughter escaping, not even if these guys had been thieves. I don’t remember ever laughing so hard in all my life. We laugh until my friend’s stomach cramps and I have to pee. What silencer, indeed. I try to explain my thinking, that if I’d said use the gun, that would’ve sounded too corny and therefore untrue. That mentioning a silencer made us sound like we were in same business as those accosting us; that we were just as much to be feared. Too much Cobra Squad, my friend concludes.
Our gaiety is as much to do with relief as acknowledgement of our ridiculous lack of preparation. We were safe in the way that people say that God takes cares of fools and little children. Our carelessness unduly placed us in harm’s way in a country where death in no reluctant stranger that one greets with a baffled face, but rather, the kind of shameless visitor who always arrives just as the tastiest meals are served. Our young man in Migori died at fifteen. Dr. James Muiruri died at thirty. The arbitrariness of their selection numbs us. The sheer number of such arbitrary deaths embitters us. In our forty five years of independence, we’ve been raped, beaten, shot, fucked, diseased, stolen from (even food from hungry mouths), machete-ed, starved, tortured, lied to, disrespected and let down by people like us (whether we recognise the similarity or not), by our government, by us.
We are a stoic people with incredible capacity to grin and bear pain – honours graduates in the school of internalising pain, such unfathomable pain that we’re terrified the smallest breach might lead to a torrent of vile expression. But our humanity has been violated to such a degree that our silence is now part of that pain. Put another way, our private pain is increasingly expressed in acts of public rage. ‘Bure’ we shout to strangers who drive a nice car which they surely stole in the corrupt way of big people everywhere. Ignore, the action of nurses who can’t be bothered to ensure a dying young man is cleaned, fed, medicated. Boom, we shoot strangers who dare speak as though they have a right to be outraged by outrages that we’ve had to swallow.
And the fear, the fear that constitutes living this way! Every day we live is a close call – a puncture can kill you – closer in this country than most countries not at war. Maybe we are at war and just haven’t declared it. We’re terrified of being caught outside our little niches, being in the wrong place at the wrong time; terrified of the other – strangers, cops, people of other tribes, poor people, clever people, stupid people, mad and sane people etc. etc. Locks, cages, gates, prisons, guards, tracking systems – these are our homes, cars, offices. Keep them out and if we can’t, pray. And boy, are we praying! We’ve realised that silence can no longer save us. Use the silencer – what silencer? What we desperately need is an awesome dose of that hope beyond all understanding.
Copyright Muthoni Garland 2009