I am home.
We sit in the dining room, and talk from breakfast to lunch, plates with congealing eggs littering the table. Every so often my mother will grab my hand and check my nails; a finger will reach into her mouth and emerge to lick a spot off my forehead, smooth my eyebrows. She stands to clear the table. She is swivelling her radar, like she used to do when we were children, half asleep, shuffling softly in her kaftan, disturbed by something intangible.
They are worried about me, and for the first time in my life, worried enough not to bring it up. I have not spoken to them about my stalled degree in a long time. They know. I know.
I am racked with guilt and am avoiding Baba. He has been gracious so far – has said nothing. All that wasted money on my degree.
I don’t know how to explain my situation to them. I walk past the line of jacaranda trees that line government houses. I turn off the main road and follow the path, avoiding the path of Baba’s morning drive to work. There is a small faded house here, right at the corner, with a large rocky garden that stretches downhill to border State House.
It used to have a swimming pool – which is now grey and green and empty. It is one of several houses that were given to the children of Old Man Bomett, whose sister was married to the president.
There are stories about the rising jets of steam, that they are the ghosts of old Masai warriors trying to make their way to heaven, and being pulled back, by the gravity of hell. I heard them come in last night, the Masai moran, and their cattle. The strong smell of urine and dung flooded our house; and old throaty songs, and the cowbells. They sang the whole night, and for a while I could pretend that time had rolled back, and I sat among them, as a biblical nomad, or much as my great-grandparents would have.
I decide to spend some days travelling around, to avoid my parents, to follow a road and think about things other than what is wrong with my life. What a wonderful thing, I think, if it was possible to spend my life inhabiting the shapes and sounds and patterns of other people.
I have a part-time job. Driving around Central and Eastern Province, tasked with convincing farmers to start growing cotton again. I have been provided with a car and a driver. Baba and some friends have invested in an old government cotton ginnery which is being privatized. He asks me if I want to do some agricultural extension work for them. I say yes. They are starting to have some confidence in me. Up until now I have been helping my mother in her small florist’s shop and running errands. I promised myself that I would not read any novels while sitting behind the counter. Sometimes I dash across to the club and sit on the toilet for half an hour with a book and a cigarette, but mostly I have been present in the world. Last week, at breakfast, I was expounding some theory or other, and Baba burst out: I don’t understand, I don’t understand, you are so intelligent, I don’t understand why you are so . . . Mum sent a sharp warning to him across the table, and he stood up and left.
My colleague Kariuki and I are on the way to Mwingi town in a new, zippy Nissan pickup. The road to Masinga Dam is monotonous, and my mind has been taken over by the bubblegum music playing on the radio, chewing away, trying to digest a vacuum.
I donever reallywanna KillTheDragon . . .
It zips around my mind like some demented fly, always a bit too fast to catch and smash. I try to start a conversation, but Kariuki is not talkative. He sits hunched over the steering wheel of the car, his body tense, his face twisted into a grimace. When he isn’t driving he is usually quite relaxed, but cars seem to bring out some demon in him.
To be honest, Mwingi is not a place I want to visit. It is a new district, semi-arid, and there is nothing there that I have heard is worth seeing or doing. Except eating goat. According to the unofficial National Goat Meat Quality Charts, Mwingi goat is second only to Siakago goat in flavour. I am told some enterprising fellow from Texas started a goat ranch to service the 10,000 Kenyans living there. He is making a killing.
Over the years I spent living in South Africa, I drove past goats that stared at me with arrogance, chewing nonchalantly, and daring me to wield my knife.
It is payback time.
This is why we set out at six in the morning, in the hope that we will be through with all possible bureaucracies by midday, after which we can get down to drinking beer and eating lots and lots of goat.
I have invested in a few sachets of Andrews Liver Salts.
I doze, and the sun is shining by the time I wake. We are thirty kilometres from Mwingi town. There is a sign on one of the dusty roads that branches off the highway, a beautifully drawn picture of a skinny red bird and a notice with an arrow: Gruyere.
I am curious, and decide we should investigate. After all, I think to myself, it would be good to see what the Cotton Growing Situation is on the ground before going to the District Agricultural Office.
It takes us about twenty minutes on the dusty road to get to Gruyere. This part of Ukambani is dry, a landscape of hardy bushes and dust. Here, unlike most places in Kenya, people live far away from the roads, so one has the illusion that the area is sparsely populated. We are in a tiny village centre. Three shops on each side, and a large quadrangle of beaten-down dust in the middle on which three giant woodcarvings of giraffes sit, waiting for transport to the curio markets of Nairobi. There doesn’t seem to be anybody about. We get out of the car and enter Gruyere, which turns out to be a pub.
It looks about as Swiss as anything could be in Ukambani. A simply built structure with a concrete floor and basic furnishings. I notice an ingenious drinks cooler: a little cavern worked into the cement floor, where beer and sodas are cooled in water. The owner walks in, wearing a kikoi and nothing else. His skin is sunburned tomato red. He welcomes us and I introduce myself and start to chat, but soon discover that he doesn’t speak English or Kiswahili. He is Swiss, and speaks only French and Kamba. My French is rusty, but it manages to get me a cold beer, served by his wife. She has skin the colour of bitter chocolate and is beautiful in the way only Kamba women can be, with baby-soft skin, wide-apart eyes and an arrangement of features that seems permanently on the precipice
When I ask her what brought her husband to Mwingi, she laughs. ‘You know mzungus always have strange ideas! He is a mKamba now, he doesn’t want anything to do with Europe.’
I can see a bicycle coming in the distance, an impossibly large man weaving his way towards us, his short legs pedalling furiously.
Enter the jolliest man I have ever seen, plump as a steaming mound of fresh ugali, glowing with bonhomie and wiping streams of sweat from his face. Gruyere’s wife tells me he is the local chief. I stand up and greet him, then invite him to join us. He sits down and orders a round of beer.
‘Ah! You can’t be drinking tea here! This is a bar!’
He beams again, and I swear that somewhere a whole shamba of flowers is blooming. I try to glide into the subject of cotton, but it is brushed aside.
‘So,’ he says, ‘you go to South Africa with my daughter? She’s just sitting at home, can’t get a job – Kambas make good wives, you know, you Kikuyu know nothing about having a good time.’
I can’t deny that. He leans close, his eyes round as a full moon, and tells me a story about a retired major who lives nearby and has three young wives, who complain about his sexual demands. Parents in the neighbourhood are worried because their daughters are often seen batting their eyelids whenever he is about.
‘You know,’ he says, ‘you Kikuyu can’t think further than your next coin. You grow maize on every available inch of land and cover your sofas with plastic. Ha! Then, in bed! Bwanaa! Even sex is work! But Kambas are not lazy, we work hard, we fuck well, we play hard. So drink your beer!’
I decide to rescue the reputation of my community. I order a Tusker.
By eleven, there is a whole table of people, all of us glowing under the chief’s beams of sunlight. My tongue has rediscovered its French and I chat with Monsieur Gruyere, who isn’t very chatty. He seems to be under the spell of this place; as we drink, I can see his eyes running over everyone. He doesn’t seem too interested in the substance of the conversation; he is held more by the mood.
It is midday when I finally excuse myself. We have to make our way to Mwingi. Kariuki is looking somewhat inebriated, and now the chief finally displays an interest in our mission.
‘Cotton! Oh! You will need someone to take you around. He! You are bringing development back to Mwingi!’ He volunteers to come with us.
We arrive at the District Agricultural Office. Our meeting there is blessedly brief, and we get all the information we want. The chief leads us through a maze of alleys to the best butchery/bar in town. He, of course, is well known here, and we get the VIP cubicle. Wielding his pot belly like a sexual magnet, he breaks up a table of young women, encouraging them to join us.
He whispers, in a conspiratorial aside: ‘You bachelors must surely be starving for female company, seeing that you have gone a whole morning without any sex.’
Later, we head off to the butcher, who has racks and racks of headless goat carcasses. I am salivating already. We order four kilos of ribs and mũtura, blood sausage.
The mũtura is hot, spicy and rich; the ribs tender and full of herbal pungency.
After a couple of hours, I am starting to feel uncomfortable at the levels of pleasure around me. I want to go back to my cheap motel room, to settle into a book full of realism and stingy prose. Coetzee maybe? That will make me a Protestant again. Naipaul. Something mean-spirited and bracing.
No, no, no! says Mr Chief. You must come to my place, back to the village; we need to talk to people there about cotton. Surely you are not going to drive back after so many beers? Sleep at my house!
Back at the chief’s house, I lie down under the shade of a tree in the garden, read the newspaper, and sleep.
Wake up! Let’s go and party!
I am determined to refuse. But the beams from the old chief’s face embrace me. By the time we have showered and attempted to make our grimy clothes respectable, it is dusk.
There is only space for two in the front of the pickup, so I am sitting in the back. I console myself with the view. Now that the glare of the sun is fading, all sorts of tiny hidden flowers of extravagant colour reveal themselves. As if, like the chief, they disdain the frugal humourlessness one expects is necessary to thrive in this dust bowl. We cross several dried riverbeds.
We travel so far away from the main road, I have no idea where we are. This lends the terrain around me a sudden immensity. The sun is the deep yellow of a free-range egg, on the verge of bleeding its yolk over the sky. The fall of day becomes a battle. Birds are working themselves into a frenzy, flying about feverishly, unbearably shrill.
I spend some time watching the chief through the back window. He hasn’t stopped talking since we left. Kariuki is actually laughing.
It is dark when we get to the club. I can see a thatched roof and four or five cars. There is nothing else around. We are, it seems, in the middle of nowhere.
‘It will be full tonight,’ says the chief. ‘Month end.’
Three hours later, I am coasting on a vast plateau of semi-sobriety that seems to have no end. The place is packed.
More hours later, I am standing in a line of people outside the club, a chorus of liquid glitter arcing high out, then down to the ground, then zipping close. The pliant nothingness of the huge night above us goads us to movement.
A well-known dombolo song starts, and a ripple of excitement overtakes the crowd. This communal goosebump wakes a rhythm in us, and we all get up to dance. A guy with a cast on one leg is using his crutch as a dancing aid, bouncing around like a string puppet. The cars all have their interior lights on; inside, couples do what they do. The windows seem like eyes, glowing with excitement as they watch us onstage.
Everybody is doing the dombolo, a Congolese dance where your hips (and only your hips) are supposed to move like a ball bearing made of mercury. To do it right, you wiggle your pelvis from side to side while your upper body remains as casual as if you were lunching with Nelson Mandela.
I have struggled to get this dance right for years. I just can’t get my hips to roll in circles like they should. Until tonight. The booze is helping, I think. I have decided to imagine that I have an itch deep in my bum, and I have to scratch it without using my hands, or rubbing against anything.
My body finds a rhythmic map quickly and I build my movements to fluency, before letting my limbs improvise. Everybody is doing this, a solo thing – yet we are bound, like one creature, in one rhythm.
Any dombolo song has this section where, having reached a small peak of hip-wiggling frenzy, the music stops and one is supposed to pull one’s hips to the side and pause, in anticipation of an explosion of music faster and more frenzied than before. When this happens, you are supposed to stretch out your arms and do some complicated kung-fu manoeuvres. Or keep the hips rolling, and slowly make your way down to your haunches, then work yourself back up. If you watch a well-endowed woman doing this, you will understand why skinny women are not popular among many in East Africa.
I join a group of people who are talking politics, sitting around a large fire outside, huddled together to find warmth and life under a sagging hammock of night mass. A couple of them are students at university; there is a doctor who lives in Mwingi town.
If every journey has a moment of magic, this is mine. Anything seems possible. In the dark like this, everything we say seems free of consequence, the music is rich, and our bodies are lent a brotherhood by the light of the fire. Politics makes way for life. For these few hours, it is as if we are all old friends, comfortable with each other’s dents and frictions. We talk, bringing the oddities of our backgrounds to this shared place.
The places and people we talk about are rendered exotic and distant this night.
Warufaga . . . Burnt Forest . . . Mtito Andei . . . Makutano . . . Mile Saba . . . Mua Hills . . . Gilgil . . . Sultan Hamud . . . Siakago . . . Kutus . . . Maili-Kumi . . . The wizard in Kangundo who owns a shop and likes to buy people’s toenails; the hill, somewhere in Ukambani, where things slide uphill; thirteen-year-old girls who swarm around bars like this one, selling their bodies to send money home, or to take care of their babies; the billionaire Kamba politician who was cursed for stealing money, and whose balls swell up whenever he visits his constituency; a strange insect in Turkana that climbs up your warm urine as you piss, and does thorny unthinkable things to your urethra.
Painful things are shed like sweat. Somebody confesses that he spent time in prison in Mwea. He talks about his relief at getting out before all the springs of his body were worn out. We hear about the prison guard who got Aids, and deliberately infected many inmates with the disease before dying.
Kariuki reveals himself. We hear how he prefers to work away from his family because he can’t stand seeing his children at home without school fees; how, though he had a diploma in agriculture, he has been taking casual driving jobs for ten years. We hear how worthless his coffee farm has become. He starts to laugh when he tells us how he lived with a woman for a year in Kibera, afraid to contact his family because he had no money to provide. The woman owned property; she fed him and kept him in liquor while he lived there. We laugh and enjoy our misfortunes, for we are real in the group, and cannot succumb to chaos today.
Kariuki’s wife found him by putting an announcement on national radio. His son had died. We are silent for a moment digesting this. Then somebody grabs Kariuki’s hand and takes him to the dance floor.
We talk and dance and talk and dance, not thinking how strange we will be to each other when the sun is up in the sky, and trees suddenly have thorns, and around us a vast horizon of possible problems will re-establish our defences.
The edges of the sky start to fray, a glowing mauve invasion. I can see shadows outside the gate, couples headed to the fields.
There is a guy lying on the grass, obviously in agony, his stomach taut as a drum. He is sweating badly. I close my eyes and see the horns of the goat that he had been eating trying to force themselves through his sweat glands. It is clear – so clear. All this time, without writing one word, I have been reading novels and watching people, and writing what I see in my head, finding shapes for reality by making them into stories. This is all I have done, forever, done it so much, so satisfyingly; I have never used a pen. Maybe – I am not just failing; maybe there is something I have that I can barter, if only for the approval of those I respect. I have lived off the certainty of others; have become a kind of parasite.
Self-pity music comes on. Kenny Rogers, A Town Like Alice, Dolly Parton. I try to get Kariuki and the chief to leave, but they are stuck in an embrace, howling to the music and swimming in sentiment.
Then a song comes on that makes me insist that we are leaving.
Sometime in the 1980s, a Kenyan university professor recorded a song that was an enormous hit. It could best be described as a multiplicity of yodels celebrating the Wedding Vow.
Will you take me (spoken, not sung)
To be your law– (yodel) –ful wedded wife
To love, to cherish and to (yodel)
(Then a gradually more hysterical yodel): Yieeeeei-yeeeeei -MEN!
Then just Amens and more yodels.
All these proud warriors, pillars of the community, are at this moment singing in unison with the music, hugging themselves (beer bottles under armpits) and looking sorrowful.
Soon, the beds in this motel will be creaking, as some of these men forget self-pity and look for a lost youth in the bodies of young girls. I am afraid. If I write, and fail at it, I cannot see what else I can do. Maybe I will write and people will roll their eyes, because I will talk about thirst, and thirst is something people know already, and what I see are only bad shapes that mean nothing.
Photograph courtesy of Binyavanga Wainaina