Celebrating East African Writing!

Fifth Street

By Namunyu H. Molenje

Its 7.45 a.m, a chilly July morning and the city is bustling with life. The drizzle at dawn has created small pools of dirty water slowly turning into dents of mud on the spontaneously potholed tarmac. As is the culture in the great city of Nairobi, the person behind is trying to outpace the person in front as the road fills with humanity emanating from every corner of Shanty-Ville, people jostling for space with vehicles and at the same time trying to make sure the previously shining black leather shoes now turned mud-brown don’t leave their soles on the path. Nevertheless, the mud-splashes by taxis don’t bother any of the drivers despite the loud clicks and protests from the unlucky ones. Everybody has to look busy and almost late for whatever schedule they have.

At such hours famously referred to as peak time matatu fares are ridiculously high. Most of the ladies have also dressed ridiculously in high heels and struggling to keep balance and pace, others in white maxi dresses almost touching the knee or spaghetti tops and shiny hippies hugging them so tight and revealing some sort of strings beneath them. All of them carry enormous handbags.

I will neither join those who rushed so early to come and pitch tent at the matatu stage and wait for fares to go south, nor pay a visit to the busy and smiling shoe-shiners at the other end. An unregretful idiot stepped on my shoe and soiled the hem of my trousers from behind despite my angry reaction. He might have sized me up and seen one little bastard wasting other peoples time by pulling his legs like a fatigued tortoise.

On the other side of the stage under a chain of shops lies an old man draped in old rugged blankets like someone resting in a tomb save for the visible movements in his eyes. A dirty plate with some few coins was placed by his head. I have seen him there every morning and every evening since I moved to this estate five years ago.

I ignore pleas from two or three makangas and board a matatu of my choice, preferring comfort for my knees and legs rather than enjoy some music blaring from a well fitted home theatre complete with an LCD flat screen. I also ignore this voluptuous woman who throws herself next to me with a huge gunia of carrots. Her weight destabilises the seats for three to four seconds making them squeal terribly. I usually have a feeling that it would be fair to everybody if such passengers boarded buses instead of squeezing others like me against the wall of the vehicle.

Before long the 14-seater pulls away and whizzes past two overturned heavy transit trailers.  Two roundabouts and we hit the traffic jam. Five minutes without hope of a little movement, two women wearing long flowery old rindas with whitish scarves covering their heads and some two little people safely draped on their backs make their way to the Toyota Prado in front. From the look of their face, the Prado driver must be so mean. They hobble to a Range Rover in the fast lane and a smile splashes on their faces only to sublime when they come to the Lexus behind it. I have lost count of the number of times and years I have travelled on this road, and each of those times these women have never been invisible. Surprisingly, those poor little beings on their backs never seem to grow.

As we start at a snail’s pace with frequent halts thanks to the traffic lights and the boys in blue at the round-about(it is rumoured that when the traffic lights fail and the boys in blue are nowhere to be seen traffic usually moves faster), I notice another gentleman on a wheel-chair rolling as if he was at some Paralympics. He packs at one of the turn-offs connecting the two sides of the highway. Since vehicles must stop before entering the other side of the highway, his choice is very intelligent. Looking at him reap from the Mercedes and BMW’s turning off there make me feel so stupid for wasting twenty years reading the geography of Ethiopia or the Agrarian revolution or the Second world war, and still struggling to survive. The other day I worked for a guy whom it took so long to convince that four people should get Ksh 215 each from Ksh 860 after washing cars. Today I woke up so early to deliver some toners and papers for a friend to some of the printing and photocopying stalls in down town. I sometimes feel like giving up but I realise the alternative is to die, beg or rob and be killed. It’s exactly an hour when I reach my destination, a fifteen minute drive without the traffic snarl-ups.

The habits of the city, or unwritten rules, commonly referred to as mtaa mentality, apply to every Nairobian. Walk fast or give way; never look confused or lost; never ask just anyone for directions; never display your wallet; never wear a heavy jacket in certain streets lest cops mistake you for a robber, for they will surely gun you down; never accept a lift lest you be lifted forever; and that which many people have failed, never buy a mobile phone a particular street when you are new since it will never work even when demonstrations were done in your full view.

As I make my way towards the street where you must never buy a mobile phone if you are new in the city, I come across a group of four blind people; two men and two women and a little healthy girl of about four years playing on guitars, kayambas and drums and churning out gospel tunes so enthusiastically you could mistake them for original composers. Some of the passers-by hold on for a few seconds to have a feeling of those tunes and majestically match away while others drop coins and notes in the kasuku can without bothering to appreciate some talent. The little girl stashes away the larger currencies as soon as they drop in the can leaving one shilling and five shilling coins. Though that singing gives me some little hope, standing there any longer would make me lack bus fare back to Shanty-Ville. People are opening their premises and Kimani has been waiting for me with a box of toners and papers ready to be delivered. There are khaki envelopes of different sizes too.

“I ordered two colour toners and two bales of photocopy paper” says Dick my final client at the other end of Tom Mboya Street. I check on the order sheet which confirms he ordered four bales. “Or you can leave those two too and invoice me later.” Many times Dick just acted like his name. The beautiful blonde in the next stall seems to know this as she pays for the two bales and places an order for tomorrow’s delivery. It’s almost mid-afternoon when I finish my rounds and decide to rush down to Gikomba to purchase a pair of jeans at fair price.

Within an hour I am back squeezing my way through the constantly suspicious crowd, with anyone reacting so angrily should they imagine a touch on any part of their body. Kimani should be waiting for me impatiently, so I use Fifth Street where you must never buy a mobile phone if you are new. I have to be vigil to reassure any company that am among the smart ones. I go past myriads of lays-about and some human beings spread along the streets covered partially so that only their ailing parts can be seen. There is one with a part I suspected to be the back uncovered. I could not tell whether it was a man or a woman, but the back was similar to a badly mutilated ripe water-melon. It was so traumatising. I wished I had something to drop on the chart that described this particular ailment which I couldn’t figure out because unlike some few courageous ones I couldn’t stand the scene to read.

Every few metres on Fifth Street are many other sick people. Some of them have been here for several years while others are new. A few have completely disappeared. The passers-by on Fifth Street seem used to them.

My thoughts are disrupted by a crowd gathered between two towering blocks further up Fifth Street. Gospel music again. This time from a powerful public address system.  I forget about Kimani for a while in order to catch a glimpse of a scenario I have ignored on so many occasions. There were two fully grown little dreadlocked men the size of five-year olds mounted on the back of a pick-up doing a dance thing in harmony with the music. The MC, a middle aged man of average height kept the crowd abuzz with histories of the dwarfs who would time and again perform gymnastics and gyrate their bodies to the amusement of the crowds. The MC then turns attention regularly to a little child lying in the bosom of its forlorn mother seated against one of the walls. The child suffers from an ailment only the MC can explain and from the choice of his words it must be a very alien disease. Some of those in the crowds are touched and drop some coins in a coral leaf basket manned by a mean looking hunky.

I am also touched this time to give but something suddenly holds me back. A car, a powerful PAS, well kept dreadlocks, the MC in a P Miller t-shirt and Gucci jeans and that broody  hunky who seems to own a gym. I must be an idiot. The crowd is full of idiots too. With my twenty bob still held in the right hand I rush to Kimani’s. Its 3p.m and I must board a matatu before fares hike, so a shortcut through a deserted street will do.

I have to go past a group of street dwellers who are scrambling for something. A torn wallet lands at my feet and releases some ID and ATM cards. I am scared but I keep calm till am safely away.  I am almost running. Unfortunately as I make a turn I crush into a poor fellow in a wheel-chair. I first have to convince the agitated crowds that I am not a snatcher but not without some few knocks here and there. It’s the guy in the wheel-chair who saves me. Fortunately, despite the tugging in my clothes no hand has managed to get to Kimani’s money. I roll with the poor fellow in the wheel-chair to somewhere convenient where I donate to him a fair share of my day’s earnings.

Kimani takes his share while I remain with some few coins and the pair of jeans from Gikomba. It was lucky that I forgot my mobile phone at his stall. As I get back to Shanty-Ville, I pass by the greens open market just like every other person coming from a busy day at work does here. I don’t want to receive the many calls that are suddenly coming from people who have never called me. I lie on my small bed and later turn on the 14-inch for the 9p.m news bulletin. “Ati!” I react as I discover why the many calls were coming in. That was me on television purportedly busted buying some drugs from that guy I knocked off a wheel-chair. He saved me from the public’s beating because I was a client. “Damn you Kimani. Gadi is not coming to town tomorrow,” I mumble as I lie on my bed waiting for sleep to steal me away.

© Namunyu H. Molenje 2010


If you would like this piece to be the Story of the Week, please vote below on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being weak, and 10 being excellent. The numbers will be tallied on Friday and the story with the highest figure shall be Crowned Story of the Week. Be sure to fill in your name and verifiable email. You can include your critique/comment after the vote.



One comment on “Fifth Street

  1. evesreflections
    October 13, 2010

    I vote 8. I saw myself in Nairobi with this one, could almost pinpoint the exact spots being talked about – ok, maybe similar ones. Makes me wonder about the stories we see on news too…


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