I cross Tom Mboya Street without thinking or looking, and pay for it with insults hurled by the driver of a blaring Matatu that screeches to a halt inches from me. Ignoring the driver, I hurry on, my mind under the control of a salivating mouth, urging my all to Kamau’s, my favorite cheap food kiosk. “Mwanangu hebu nikuulize” (My child let me inquire from you), a smart looking woman in her early forties strapping a child on her back addresses me. Always wary of strangers, as all tend or end up being conmen; I appraise her in an instant and pass her as ‘semi safe’.
‘I want to go to Kayole and I have no fare……’ she begins. I raise my hand to stop her, already putting her in the class of Nairobery artists, con men and women out to fleece you in broad daylight. She reaches into her handbag and fishes out a brown envelope that she continues to remove hordes of stapled papers before I can walk away. Her pleading eyes exude the sorrow and anguish she is going through. ‘I have walked all the way from Kenyatta Hospital, I don’t know anybody here, and my son (here she intones with a sob), my son has a hole in his heart (she wipes a tear from her eye). Watching her tear glide over her face sears my soul.
I take the papers from her. The date is todays’, yes, even the letter head and stamp show the papers have been issued from Kenyatta hospital, and to tell the truth, I ever have an aversion with anything to do with doctors and hospitals. The papers look genuine. As for the doctors writing, well, only fellow doctors are able to put sense to that scribble, I tell myself as I turn to the woman.
‘What do you want?”I ask the woman, Nairobi style, making a mental budget of my two hundred bob in my pocket. I have another one thousand shillings I am prepared to guard with my life but its not mine. Its for office stationery, which I always shop for along river road where I get the best bargains in the market. “Just enough to get us home”, the grateful looking woman intrudes into my thoughts as she gently rocks her child as if to drive into my head their plural form. Acquiescing to her plea, I suggest we break the twp hundred shillings so I help her with fifty shillings, which I know is enough to get her to Kayole.
Fifty bob or nothing, that’s all I will give her, I tell myself almost aloud. She will have to sort herself huko mbele. Looking for loose change in Nairobi can be frustrating at times. I move from kiosk to kiosk, the woman and her baby in tow and finally settle to giving a beggar the money in excchange4 for a hundred and ninety loose. This is Nairobi. The blind fellow counts gives me money and I can I almost jump in fright as I can swear he just blinked at me. Lol!
She starts to protest as I give her the fifty bob not but I am adamant. Fifty bob is a fortune in this land of scarcity. “No, no no”, I tell her as she starts to open her mouth. “This is for the office”, I shut her up with a finality even she recognizes not to argue with. The money in question is the hundred bob she has glimpsed lying snug in my wallet.
‘My son’ , calmly, she interjects, cooling me down. I even don’t want your money. Show me a place to sell this phone. She hands me a Nokia 26,000. They say the con mans strength is the greed of man to make a quick buck. Am hooked, but I have got to show her I am no mere crook. “Hey”, I start in mock protest.
“Just show me a place I can sell this phone. What use will it be to me and my Jim here if we die of hunger?” the now convincing and reasoning woman coos, giving me a look that tells me she has placed her entire trust in my street smart looks.
“How much”? I ask her, swallowing hard, looking around, as I hold the five thousand five hundred worth phone delicately in my palm. “How much do you think I can get”? She jets back at me, full of innocence and naivety.
With induced rising anger I hand the phone back and inform her she should know the price of her yams before she takes them to the market. “Okay, okay, my son”, she re-collects herself. “If it can fetch two thousand shillings, enough for us to eat for a week I am okay”.
“Hmm mm” I mock her, “you think you can get that much from this mkebe whose keypad is falling off?” I ask, ready to drive a bargain as I have seen Mitumba hagglers do. ‘Ngoja kidogo” (wait), I tell the woman, moving a few steps away from her but keeping a wary eye on her. These days of special police squads, well, you never know.
Reaching into my pocket, I flash out my Nokia 1600 and dial Charlo. Charlo, short for Charles, is the local second hand phone dealer, operating from one of the side streets, those streets that you don’t dare venture into past six without risking limb to muggers. “Unataka nani”? (Whom do you want?) Charlo asks from the other end of the line. I give him my name, which, from having bought several phones that I suspect usually end up with him courtesy of street hoodlums in his pay, inform him I have business, only this time I am not buying.
We haggle the price, and trust Charlo to always squeeze you into a deal that only profits him. We come to an agreement at how much I am to sell the woman’s phone to Charlo. I have to know what I stand to make before I make my final offer to the woman.
“Okay, a thousand”, but I have to know its working properly, I tell the woman. She starts to protest and I start to walk away. “Okay” agrees to the terms. I hand her my sim card, which she inserts into the phone. ”Phone code”? I ask her. She enters some numbers, muttering them. I catch five uttered five times. Nkt! I almost click aloud. That is Nokia’s default security phone code. “Five five’s” she tells me. I nod as she gives me the code information. I am elated, but I cant let her see it, because in a few minutes I will sell her phone for fifteen hundred shillings, I tell myself, thanking the gods of opportunity for being so benevolent on me.
Thanking me profusely, the woman profusely utters blessings on me. I hit the streets with a new bounce in my step, heading toward Charlo’s base. I intend to sell the phone then instead of going to Kamau’s, today Kamau’s Njahi and rice can stay, take a better meal of rice and beef, I tell myself, trying hard to wipe the smile of satisfaction off my face. Am almost singing rice, my favorite meal, when an intrusion into my mind distracts me from my edible train of thought
“Simamisha huyo kijana” a shrill voice shouts behind me. I ignore the sound. Nairobi is a city of millions. He that doesn’t know me by name can yell as much as they can but I never usually look back. Meru men never look back over their shoulders, I mentally note as I trudge ahead. Something tells me all is not well, and I strongly conquer the urge to sprint. I am looking for openings omn the ground to make myself invincible but miracles only happen to believers.
Shortly after, a rough hand grips me by the shoulders and spins me around. I come face to face with three middle aged men, dressed in fading clothes that speak of hard times. Their hawk - like looks tell me they long graduated from the lower classes of normal hoodlums to a higher school I have yet to identify but I brace for a fight.
“Kwa nini unaibia huyo mama?” (why are you stealing from that woman?) The hood in a faded suit and bushy eye brows asks. I take time to study his rabbit like teeth that I find fascinating, choosing to ignore his question. Easy question, I think.
The woman in question is making her way across the street like a Spanish bull with a mission to gore, her child, Jim, bouncing from her back like he is sitting on springs above her ample behind. “Stop that thief” she shouts as she evades vehicles, moving with a speed that convinces my unbelieving eyes that this woman hasn’t made the trip from Kenyatta on foot and is far from hungry as she had led me to believe.
“I haven’t stolen anything from her. If she wants her phone back its ok. Wacha anipe pesa zangu and presto! She can lie to someone else” I tell the faded suit, sneering with indifference as I extract my shirt from his claw like grip on my shoulder.
“Pesa gani? Nilikuwa na deni yako wewe”? (what money? Did I have your debt?)The woman retorts, stopping to regain her breath. “Pesa gani”? In a shrill voice she shoots at me, going for my shirt color, making a scene. I swallow my heart twice, my eyes bulging as if to ascertain the authencity of this angel in distress turned persecutor. As usual in Nairobi, a crowd of onlookers starts to gather, savoring the action that is unfolding. A trickle of sweat forms on my spine as I look at the crowd for understanding, my eyes darting in fear, not that someone that knows me might recognize me. No, that would be my joy. It’s the knowledge of the murderous acts of crowds such as this, and the crowd is gathering at a rate unbelievable, that sends shivers up my thinking system.
‘Mchome!” (Burn him), a voice, decisive and full of threat, shouts from the crowd. "Nkt!, do you know that is how hooligans like you incite a mob justice"? I wonder toward the source of where the genius call to have me lynched comes from, in a bid to drive my innocence and draw attention to other matters. I am blessed with a slap and the thief that is me told to shut the hell up.
The woman, urged on by the crowd and fully supported in hitting me by her three hooligans, finds renewed courage to smack, beat and scratch me. I am relieved when a stout looking gentleman enters into the fray and stops the woman and her cohorts from using me as a puching bag. “Wait!: the stout one commands. What is going on here, he shoots the questions at the woman. The woman dares me to switch on the phone pin if I really refute her ownership of the gadget.
I thank God, making a mental note to visit Church soon for his mercies, remembering it has been like five years when my shadow last darkened the entrance to any Church. The crowd waits with bated breath as I confidently press the five fives she had muttered as she activated my sim card. “Wacha aweke tuone” (Let her put the right code and prove himself), The woman is boasting to the crowd, fuming like a guard dog wishing to be let off its leashes so it deals justice to unwanted intruders.
I curse. The crowd roars. My failure proves her accusations. A blow to the head sends me sprawling on the pavement, in line a bully’s kick, my fall a welcome for all to have a free punching bag. “She lied about the phone code”, I cry out, pleading to the stout man to help me out. His vicious kick between my legs doubles me up. Pain unlimited shoots up my stomach. I vomit.
I feel my ribs crack as the mob moves in to punish the thief that is me. With practiced ease, the crowd works on me. Furthermore, have they not done this a thousand times, apprehending and punishing culprits? I utter a low moan, a call to my mother, as a stone lands smack on my head with a shattering smacking sound, and I fade into a land unknown, the vision of an innocent world a far off blur……
MUTWIRI GITONGA ROBERT