Celebrating East African Writing!
They arrived past midnight, and the memories of that first night in Eastleigh permanently imprinted themselves on Mohammed’s teenage brain. Neon lights vigorously flashed from every passing matatu, as if competing with the almost unbearable music booming inside. Girls walked alone, even the ones in hijabs – unaccompanied, confident and with so much make up. Some even spoke in English!
Mohammed held tightly onto his uncle’s hand – the uncle seemed to be very familiar with the multiple alleys and corners that led to his mother’s house; a small two roomed but neat place tucked between a crowded mall and a textile bazaar that he later learnt acted as a front for illegal money changers. That first night, Mohammed watched television until three in the morning, marveling at the many channels available though he could not fully comprehend the English programs. Though he really missed Mogadishu, he was truly glad to get away from the constant shelling and the forced madrasa classes and difficult school lessons. Being reunited with his mother truly warmed his heart, as he felt a strong urge to take care of her especially after his father abandoned them and joined the insurrection.
His mother slept in the bigger of the two rooms, while his uncle and his young wife took the smaller room. At night, four women from their clan would come to spend the night at their house, spreading tired mats on the floor of their sitting room, and leaving very early every morning. His mother said they all could not fit into their much smaller house, and would therefore be spending their nights with them. Mohammed was very comfortable to sleep on the floor at the kitchen outside, which doubled as a kraal for his uncle’s two dairy goats. Even with the crowding and the goats frequently disturbing his sleep, this was heaven as compared to their shack in Mogadishu.
For the first few weeks the boy spent a lot of time watching television and taking self regulated walks in the neighborhood to familiarize himself with the famous Eastleigh. He started walking with a swagger, showing off the jeans and Chelsea T shirt that his mother had bought him. As time went by, he found himself wondering how much she had changed in the last three years since she left home for Eastleigh. She still wore the hijab, but had dropped the bui bui except for occasional functions like marriage ceremonies or special prayers held at the Biafra mosque. He wondered about the men who came to their house on some afternoons and spent long hours with her in her well decorated bedroom…….who were they and why did she not encourage them to stay or even introduce themselves? He wondered why she rarely said her prayers five times a day as she had done back home…..why she did not even bother finding him a school or insist that he joins a madrasa class. Was life in Eastleigh supposed to be like this? Was it entirely upon himself to determine his destiny? Every night he retreated to his kraal in the evening, he had fresh questions that no one could answer, so he just kept them to himself. Sometimes he wondered aloud, the the two goats would look at him, sometimes as if comprehending and sympathetic, other times as if irritated by his tardiness in catching up with the reality of life in Eastleigh.
The first time he was stopped by policemen patrolling in a mahindra, he literally ran. Racing through the narrow streets with gigantic pot holes, he for the first time experienced and reflected on the limitations of his freedom as a Somali boy in Kenya. Lying down in his kraal that night, memories of the constant hiding and running away from the marauding militias back home flooded his mind. The goats seemed to understand his fears, and the older one actually licked his neck consolingly as he lay on the mat. The following morning his uncle introduced him to several boys in the neighborhood and advised him to hang out with them as much as he could, apparently for his own security. And that’s how he met Ali, the young, stylish and independent boy whose charm and power were so irresistible. When he first went to Ali’s flat, he could hardly believe that a boy who was barely twenty years old could have so much going for him. Ali stayed in Calif estate, with a big room to himself but sharing the bathroom, toilet and sitting room with three other guys who had their own rooms. His room had everything Mohammed could ever dream of. A fridge, a four burner cooker, a 41 inch original Sony flat screen, a massive 5 CD changer music system and a fan. His wardrobe had all the trendy designs of the age, and Mohammed could only salivate at the breadth of choice. Since that day, Mohammed summarized his life’s main goal as wanting to be like Ali, whatever it took. For once he almost despised his kraal.
Within a few months’ time, Ali started inviting Mohammed to assist him and his friends in what they called missions, and more often than not, he would just wait somewhere in a local canteen or at a bus stage as advised, as Ali and his peers went out for the mission. The routine was so consistent. Ali and company would come back after a while and hand over a leather bag which they referred to as cargo, to Mohammed for him to carry home, and they would go their separate ways. Ali and company would then come for the cargo at his kraal late at night. For his simple role, he would be given as much as 3,000 shillings per mission, and the more he saved, the more he felt that his life was headed somewhere good, and the more he wished he could play a more significant role in the missions. He had no reason to check the cargo, until the day Ali warned him never to talk to his mother or uncle about the missions and the cargos he carried home. Mohammed’s curiosity was instantly aroused, and he immediately decided to open the cargo that he had to take home on the next mission.
It was a hot Friday afternoon when Ali came for him and requested they go to Huruma for some mission. As usual, Mohammed was left hanging around some bus stage as Ali and his three colleagues went to bring the cargo. By the time they came back, Mohammed was getting rather anxious, as darkness was falling and he did not want to disappoint his mother by getting late. Ali looked a bit restless and he gave some impatient orders to his colleagues, who immediately disappeared into the large crowd at the stage. He then put Mohammed into the next matatu and told him to go home straight home and wait. As Mohammed boarded the matatu, he felt an unusual weight on his chest. For the first time since the missions started, he wondered what business he had gotten himself into, and interrogated the rationale of the secrecy around the missions, Ali’s unexplained money…………….and in a funny way he missed Mogadishu and the consistency of them madrasa classes, the erratic school program and even the endless chaos. He realized that the mother he had come to rejoin was no more than a stranger who probably felt obliged to offer him accommodation and the minimum basics, just like any other fleeing refugee. And all of a sudden he despised his kraal and the noisy matatus and the neon lights and the liberty that seemed too cheap.
He alighted from the usual stage and had barely taken four steps from the matatu when he heard the firm voice ‘Kijana simama hapo na uinue mikono juu.” He did not wait for the two approaching officers to remove whatever they seemed to be struggling to urgently remove from their hip pockets. He ran. Just before rounding the bend that stretched towards their small house, he heard the two loud bangs and some warm feeling spread across his lower back. He came down in slow motion as the illegal money changers scattered from their benches on the sidewalk. He heard his mother’s scream – so distant and yet so clear. As he lay there for what seemed to be a lifetime, he saw the officers open the cargo and as if in a dream, slowly unwrap old newspapers to remove two shiny revolvers….. he passed out.
When he regained consciousness, he looked up from the stretcher. “Kenyatta National Hospital – Casualty” read the sign. He tried turning around as he was wheeled towards the entrance of the massive building, but his whole body felt numb and dead. He felt as if he was in Mogadishu all over again. The ambulance sirens and neon lights drove him crazy even in his hazy state. He recognized the man who had ordered him to stop walking next to the stretcher. As he struggled to open his eyes wider and examine his surrounding, the man took out shiny metallic handcuffs and chained his left hand to Mohammed’s left. He passed out like he had fallen, in slow motion, imagining how the goats would react to his sudden departure from the kraal.
©Pascal Mailu 2011