Celebrating East African Writing!
I always preferred dealing with the landlord’s wife, Mrs Kamau, as opposed to the husband. The old lady, with her evident rural upbringing and strong Christian faith, pardoned my recurrent lack of cash and subsequent inability to pay rent on time with a lot of sensitivity. With time I found myself learning a lot from the mature lectures she gave me when I went pleading with her not to let the auctioneers from Industrial Area loose on me. She would reach for her Bible, sometimes serve me a cup of tea, and identify an appropriate verse for me to read. I always felt totally humiliated when reading the verses – it was as though she was hinting that some verses were written specifically for me and my lot. Her choices never disappointed, as they were all related to responsibility and planning and the vanity and destructive nature of secular, ungodly lifestyles. After the session she would ask me when I would manage to settle the rent. In my wisdom, I would request to pay between the 16th and 19th by which time I was sure Patel would have sorted out any arrears he owed us. Having reminded me that failure to comply with the agreed upon date would mean that I deal with the husband, she would plead that we finish with a word of prayer. Holding my hand tightly, she would let out a not so short plight to God, with the cross cutting theme that He opens up my eyes and heart to embrace Christ and transfer all my struggles to Him.
Mr Kamau was a totally different ball game. Within the first three months, I had profiled him as a semi-literate businessman who had long stigmatized poor people in general, and the educated urban poor in particular. On the several occasions that I had to deal with him, I left feeling like the most worthless creature in Nairobi and its environs. He always summoned me to his New Huruma Bar and Restaurant via sms.
I would find mzee (as he was widely referred to) at his popular table by the rear door with several beer bottles in front of him. He would listen to my case with seeming disinterest while constantly ordering his bar maids around or receiving numerous phone calls. At times he would cut me short and remind me how difficult it was to amass wealth in Nairobi, and how much he had to struggle in the sixties and seventies when according to him, life was much more difficult in Nairobi than it currently was. He never failed to ask how come I could not raise only three thousand shillings for rent, even with my diploma in Purchasing and Supplies. With time I gathered that he despised me, as in some unexplained way, I seemed to remind him of his failure to proceed beyond class six. He would finalize his approximately one hour liturgy with a serious threat to call in the auctioneers in three day’s time if I did not settle the rent by then. I would painfully load a whole bamba fifty on my phone, and call each and every possible relative or friend who could bail me out with however small a loan that could wait until month end. Once I had to go to Patel’s house in Parklands to request for payment of part of the five thousand eight hundred shillings arrears he owed me then. The sermon I got in front of his Asian clan was not worth the three thousand shillings he ended up half-throwing at me. I picked up the money, and in confused appreciation, performed half a bow before speeding off to New Huruma Bar and Restaurant to see Mr Kamau.
Looking back, I still cannot understand why in the first place I chose to stay in such an expensive part of Huruma, and by extension how I managed to pay my rent for the nine months that I stayed there.
I wonder what would have happened if Mr Kamau had not hurled me at the informal rent tribunal at the chief’s camp on that cold Monday in September. I was woken up by loud bangs on my door at the crack of dawn, got up and opened the door in my shorts as I fumbled to put on a my favorite Sportsman T Shirt. The sight of both Mr and Mrs Kamau in one place at the same time confused me more than it scared me, as this was the first time I had seen them together. The old lady had a very worried look on her face, and as her husband ordered me to lock the door and follow him, she attempted a few sentences in Kikuyu that sounded like she was trying to restrain him from what he had in store for me. I followed them sheepishly, half asleep, partly dressed and bare footed. Within no time I was standing in front of the area chief and a team of five mean looking village elders. The chief’s Administration Policeman forced me to squat before them, as I waited for I didn’t know what. The case took less than five minutes, with the elders asking me questions to confirm if it was true I owed two month’s rent to my landlord, the chief shaking his heavily helmeted head with pity and noting down my responses on a Kasuku writing pad. The verdict was that I either sort out the chief and his elders with a one thousand shilling disturbance allowance and vacate Mr Kamau’s place immediately, or forfeit all my belongings to him and undertake two weeks of community service. As I had only two hundred shillings in my pocket, I had no option but get into the so-called community service.
I had always heard of community service and I thought it was a fancy way of avoiding jail. However, the last thirteen days have been hell for me. Nairobi has rejected me, as I have nowhere to sleep. After the chief’s rent tribunal, Mr Kamau went and sold some of my household goods, burnt some that he claimed were useless, and locked the house. To make matters worse, Esther is gone forever. She came over the other day as I was cleaning the toilets at the chief’s offices, raised a serious storm in public, loudly wondering how a Purchasing and Supplies Assistant at Patel’s plastic factory could fail to pay rent consistently, or even worse, give a one thousand bob bribe to the village elders to avoid the humiliation of cleaning public toilets, sweeping roads and collecting garbage. I had nothing to say, and as a small crowd gathered to hear her out, I wandered off into the chief’s office and started dusting already clean tables just to give her time to get away. Now she knows that for sure I was just a struggling casual at Patel’s, but I don’t really care.
With just a day to go, and as I sweep the chief’s compound for the last time, I draw mental graphs for my future. I shall reject Nairobi and hate her back. Tomorrow afternoon, after signing the community service completion form, I shall board a matatu from the new Globe round about stage and simply return home, where the pattern of life is much more simple and predictable. I shall alight at Kamahuha market and take two beers from Kwa Mzee Pub – I am sure my uncle will afford me two beers on credit as I explain the reasons for my return for the benefit of the extended family. I consider that is the best means of letting my mother know why I am back, since I cannot really face people. I shall walk home at dusk, joyriding on the borrowed power and arrogance of the two beers, and by the time I get to our homestead darkness will have fallen. I shall enter the compound through the farm path, and sneak into my simba. In the morning I will go to the farm like I never left the village in the first place, and I will have no excuses to make or explaining to do. Only I know my pain and I do not wish to share it with anybody.
I will be free of Mr and Mrs Kamau and their spiritual and secular sermons respectively…..free of Patel and the plastic bottles that never gave me enough respect, leave alone money for rent and food….free of Esther who loved me for the Purchasing and Supplies Assistant that I never was and never will be…..free of the community service and sly village elders at the chiefs camp. I will cultivate just two acres of the family farm at Kahihye, and by the end of the year, when the rainy season is done, I shall give the Purchasing and Supplies Assistants at Kamahuha market a lot of work to do in the cereals and vegetable trade. Then maybe – maybe I will replace Esther with a nice, genteel, home bred Untrained Teacher – I am sure they still have several at Little Angels primary school.
And maybe one day Nairobi will appreciate me a bit and look for me – just maybe.
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