Kenya’ll Never Heal
I am on my to hospital and walking along one of Nairobi’s populated downtown streets and for no specific reason I notice a trio – two guys and a lady standing facing each other talking while partially blocking the sidewalk; the lady glances about and I see that it is Marylyn, my last girlfriend in Kenya just before I left the country for the next10 years. Marylyn had been my second girlfriend after Janet, who was about two years older and who we’d been together with during my high school years. The age difference had meant that Janet finished school a year ahead of me and joined secretarial college going on to get a job as a school secretary while I was still repeating classes and finally managing to join A-levels in a rural school. In effect my older girlfriend was working while I was still a student and that created distance between us. The distance was exacerbated by the fact that although we’d both grown up and met in the same Eastlands Estate, her father who’d been in political exile in Norway had been pardoned by the Government and invited back to the country to assume a major journalistic position with the pro-government newspaper which had resulted in an immediate change their family’s financial fortunes - they had moved from Eastlands to one of the new upcoming gated apartments in south-C. Being dependent on my poor mum, a single parent, who was working her fingers off trying to get the eight of us through school, meant that I never had the bus-fare to visit her new home and never did over the next two years. Thus when I came home for December holidays at completion of first year of A-levels I gravitated towards Marylyn, a 15- year-old chick who’d been a little girl as I entered my troublesome teenage years but had now blossomed into a pretty (at least in my eyes) girl with a deep yearning to belong to someone. She was from the hood, her social status was one I could fit within, and my being 4 years older made me feel much more in control than Janet and therefore Janet slowly quickly faded from memory that December. This was before the advent of mobile phones and one had to know how to Whistle and signal their beau that one was around and she should find an excuse to come outside to meet. Marylyn knew my special tone and would rush outside like a Rottweiler terrier welcoming back its owner; she would sashay breathtakingly toward me in her long gait (she was tall) and hug me, then wait coyly to hear all the sweet nothings I’d have prepared to tell her that evening. Two years later I left Kenya for studies in India and I still recall Marylyn, who was then in Form 3 in kisumu girls asking me, “So, what happens to us?” I mumbled something about coming back regularly for holidays and seeing her but she was much faster than I at the game of love- she played the same card I’d dealt Janet about two years before. Two days later I was passing by her hood and noticed her talking to a dude in the early evening and their posture indicated it was clearly a romantic liaison – I winked at her and walked on with the last image being her broken smile suggesting apology as well as guilt at the same time. I was now seeing her 10 later a bit more grown up and she waved and flashed the same smile I last saw as I passed by – she still looked good but I discerned no feelings or emotions at meeting her; I realized I’d really grown up and changed over the last decade – gone was an lingering feelings of puppy love of idyllic romances, I was now in the hard world of reality.
The last time I visited Kenya’s main referral hospital, The Kenyatta National Hospital was a dilapidated structure where funding from both donors nations and the government had all but dried up after the then President, Daniel Arap Moi, fell out with western nations. I was just back from 10 years of stay in India and even just from the haggard look on many of the faces on the streets of Nairobi one could easily discern that this was a nation on its financial knees. I remember praying incessantly to God to help me not end up with the same dazed look I was seeing everywhere – a blank mindless stare focused on avoiding staring up to meet eye-to-eye with anyone one might know denoting hopelessness.
I immediately knew that there was no hope of getting employment any time soon but was totally unprepared when a sharp pain began manifesting around one of my kidneys somewhere on my lower back right side. My immediate suspicion was that it was a stone from the decade of eating rice in the sub-continent where incidentally Punjab region was the kidney stone capital of the world. Without medical cover and no income I was only saved by the appearance of my Aunt Jane, mum’s sister who had gotten a pretty good job working with nomadic people in Kenya’s northern frontier districts of Marsabit and Wajir where they were distributing relief supplies to the needy. She gave me Ksh. 2,000/- which I used to make the payments for medical attention at the only place I could afford – Kenyatta.
My entire life, mum had used Kenyatta as a reference point for pain and suffering, so that all of us in the house came to associate that hospital with terror. ‘Allan, just continue climbing that dangerous tree. You’ll have to get yourself to Kenyatta if you fall” , became a daily refrain all through my formative years. “Keep playing with that dangerous catapult and when you get injured in the eye I will neither take you to Kenyatta nor be there when they declare you one-eyed” was another regular warning from. The eight of us, her children, grew up so careful of getting injured and ending up in Kenyatta that nobody ever got any serious injuries that other kids in Jericho managed to suffer multiple times. I remember a young guy nick-named ‘Otot Michael’ broke his left arm twice – once from a tree fall then from a bicycle fall. ‘Mboga’, playing a game of leaping over a barbed wire that was increasingly being raised higher got his thigh and buttocks ripped of and bleed so much that 26 stitches were needed to restore his posterior to some semblance of normal. ‘Kamu’ (his actual name was Kamau) was feared for his expertise at ‘karate’ when that new art of fighting emerged in the 70’s but somewhere along the line he broke his leg and was in a cast for almost a year and had to hobble about in crutches half of that time. Davey got hit in his left eye by a stone shot from a catapult and spent all his life with one dead eye - looking like a pirate. Funny enough he was one of the people in our estate to play rugby professionally – a regular rough guy Davey was. His brother ‘Shoto’ jumped from the roof of their house and landed badly one school holiday when many of the boys in the neighbourhood were in dare-devil mood; he broke a leg and stayed in a cast for the entire holidays (he later on became a very talented footballer and played for the Kenyan national team as John “shoto’ Lukoye, the son of the legendary KBC actor Mzee Tamaa-bin-Tamaa). I cannot remember who it was who got his arse mauled by a group of mongrels kept by ‘Solo’, a local boy; this resulted in a major altercation between the parents of the kids involved necessitating the City Council dog unit coming in to take away the mongrels. Being a bit younger than many of these ‘victims’ I saw what careless playing can result in and coupled with mum’s repeated refrain of ‘Kenyatta’ I never got any serious injuries and neither did any of my siblings – in fact the first to break her hand was Monica my sixth-born sister who when around 30 years and now independent, went out on a binge with one of our cousins , and their car rolled almost killing them; that she only ended up with a fractured arm and facial scrapes was a miracle of sorts.
Well, I got myself to Kenyatta and somehow made it through the rigmarole of lining up with hundreds of other patients who show up there for treatment from all over East Africa. I expected to be mistreated by staff that had always been portrayed in many conversations as being heartless and just one stepped removed from demons but was surprisingly well treated by staff who worked very diligently in an atmosphere that might have overwhelmed lesser mortals. Theirs was a herculean effort at getting things to work in a hospital where there were too many patients coming in with all manner of complaints and in terrible pain. I guess being well dressed and speaking very confidently made me stand out so that within about three hours I had already been x-rayed, after which a pretty lady intern informed me that from the images she’d seen there were no stones in my kidney and that the cause of my pain must be attributable to something else. She then explained that I’d need more procedures and test to determine cause of my pain. It was as I was seeking to know how much all that would cost that there suddenly came the strident and steadily rising wail of an ambulance klaxon as it delivered an emergency patient to the hospital that was followed by another and another – apparently there had been a major ethnic incident between Luos and Kikuyus in Mathare Valley that had resulted in death and injury for many of the residents of that dense slum – Red Cross ambulances were hauling in some of the victims and therefore the hospital went into a major emergency mode. For about ten minutes there was a lot of bustle as staff kept wheeling in stretcher after stretcher of injured people in various degrees of pain and badly mutilated from machete slashes. Now, remember, I’d been away in India for 10 years in which time there had been ethnic clashes during elections in 1992 and again in 1997 all of which I missed seeing. I had know that the two antagonistic tribes tended to engage in periodic confrontations arising out issues that started at independence but I’d never been present when these happened – so I was pretty shocked to see the kind of violence they could inflict upon each other; Many of the victims had horrible head injuries and also cuts on their bodies and limbs which bled seriously as the groaned on the stretchers while waiting to be attended to. It was a scene right out of Rwanda I imagined, that was worsened by the calm demeanour of earlier patients who surveyed the scene nonchalantly and took it al as if this was an everyday occurrence. I on the other hand was mortified! How could people in a modern nation do these kinds to each other with the hope of attaining any objective at the end of it – seeds were just being planted for future altercations out of need for revenge I felt.
The scene before me of utter chaos and bleeding bodies was more than I could stand and that was when I asked the pretty doctor to just provide me with a strong pain-killer prescription that would enable me at least sleep and then I’d report back to hospital for the tests when I’d gotten the required money. I took my prescription, rushed out to the bus stop and went back to mum’s house. That night I took my pain-killers, went to sleep and woke up without the pain – which never recurred. That was my last visit to Kenyatta until last week - 11 years later.
My neighbour has been in hospital diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, an aggressive kind of cancer that manifests the gall bladder causing jaundice, intestinal blockage and in many cases death within a relatively short period. The man moved in about three years back with a wife and his two pre-teen daughters and immediately just became a wily character who drove into the compound everyday in a different car, kept company of various slutty women, thuggish looking men and had a job that enabled him keep flexible time. He’d appear for three days then disappear for a week with his kids providing evasive answers as to the whereabouts of their father. It was the landlord who first became alarmed when he sought to know from the man which specific vehicle among the many he kept coming in with was his? The man answered and explained that he was part-owner of car hire business that had a small fleet of saloons which he at times used for personal transport; hence his showing up in various vehicles. The landlord accepted it with doubts but from then on viewed the man with a large degree of suspicion. This was only heightened when a short while later word went around that the man, in company of one of the women he used to appear regularly with (he insisted she was a business partner in a private school business), had been car-jacked in the night and the woman gang-raped by the thugs; I wondered what he’d been doing with a business partner after midnight when work ought to have been concluded for the day and it being a weekend night? A month or so after that his wife collapsed one morning in the compound and really took a nasty knock to the forehead. The fall knocked her out for sometime and when she came too she kept muttering that her husband was causing her stress and giving her high blood pressure due to dalliances with women. That disclosure was made in the hearing of both landlord and landlady which only made their dislike of him that much acuter; I had always given him distance and only used to wave to him or muttered quick ‘hello’ as I passed him by and that resolve now became stronger – more so as my wife who kept an ear to the ground- kept updating me of the happenings in the compound. A couple of months after this incident I finally got ensnared into the guys web of scheming by way of my wife who he had somehow charmed into becoming friendly with him.
One early evening at about 7:30pm my wife’s phone rung while she was in the kitchen and I was watching evening news; I was engrossed in the television and paid scant attention to the conversation she had and only became aware when she approached me the way she usually did when seeking to inform me of something difficult. From her face I could tell that she had some kind of news I’d not like and was therefore not surprised with what she said. Apparently the man had called her requesting that I drive his wife to a nearby petrol station to meet him for a car-buying deal. She had the money in the house and since it was already night and unsafe to walk around with a large sum of money he was requesting I help out. The picture seemed a bit skewed to me because most car-buying business is usually conducted in broad daylight and payment is usually through cheque – nonetheless because my wife had in a way already committed herself to convincing me I agreed but insisted that she’d have to accompany me as there was no way I was driving around in the night with neighbour’s wife who I hardly knew. We went to the designated spot near a busy bus-stop that was teeming with people waiting for matatus to their destinations, once there we informed the man by phone and he replied he was enroute. He showed up about twenty minutes alert and surprisingly was in car driven by another of his regular female consorts (this one he’d passed of as a fellow worshipper at church). I wondered in my mind why he’d not just come home, picked his wife and gone together to purchase the car he wanted. The reason became apparent after he called his wife over and they had a chat with a heavy-set man who was the seller of the Peugeot 504 saloon that was to be acquired. He left his wife viewing the car and sidled to where my wife and I were waiting and in a quiet undertone complained that although the car was being sold for only 150,000/- shillings by the heavy-set man who was a mechanic and who therefore had it in great working condition his wife was resisting the idea of their purchasing it because she wanted a bigger vehicle he’d mentioned they’d buy earlier – a massive Musso that would make them stand out.
He pleaded with us to help him convince her that the Peugeot was a better deal pricewise and cheaper to maintain than a Musso, he wanted us to do so because they’d be travelling to their rural village outside the city the next morning and they needed to have a car for that. I am not sure to this day how he did it – I believe I was just trying to get my neighbours to get along, but I found myself touting all the attractive features of the old car (it had a carburettor engine) and even went as far as saying that I’d have wished to buy it for my old mum to use as a run-around back in the village. The bewildered woman was unable to withstand the triple onslaught from my wife, the seller and myself and she soon agreed to pay, handing over the money in a plastic bag for counting after they got into the car which interestingly somehow had no interior lights so that they had to use illumination from a cell-phone.
The deal having been concluded, I readied myself to head back home but he suggested that since it was an auspicious occasion they together with us and the consort he’d showed up with that day should go and entertain ourselves in a local restaurant. A new joint had just opened up about a kilometre away and our recommending it was accepted so that I drove of thinking they’d be behind me – only to receive a call after about moving half a kilometre to wait up, the new cars headlights were faulty and unable to turn on – necessitating the seller being called back to fix the problem. About 20 minutes later we reached the joint and I realized these guys were so new to me that I did not knew how they’d take to my ordering beers. My wife on enquiring was informed that there was no problem though I still remained a little tense because of the fact that church-going Christians were with us – I need not have worried though because the first surprising thing that happened just after we got in was that the ‘church’ lady who apparently knew the joint’s layout insisted we follow her to a little hidden alcove where comfortable settees were placed that could accommodate a party of about ten. This was turning out to be very interesting particularly when the waiter appeared and the man asked for a beer while the ‘church’ lady asked for wine in a stem glass which she then sipped with the practiced sophistication of a regular imbiber. Incidentally, there was a band present that was loudly belting out local hits that a crowd of young revellers was dancing to. Clustered near the stage was a group of skimpily-clad young girls, obviously hookers, who were suggestively gyrating their hips in a display of being available for picking ; my neighbour had been watching them for sometime as he swigged his bar but all of a sudden he loudly declared ,”Let me go and out-dance them”. I was taken a back and sneaked a quick glance at his wife who I was sure would express some kind of objection to his blatant disregard for her presence but she seemed to take it all in stride. He joined that motley crew in contorting their lithe bodies into all sorts of sexually suggestive movements that left little in anyone’s mind as to what they were all after. In a short while the girls started dispersing as they realized that the man was a little older than their general clientele profile and was also not seriously interested in picking up any one of them for the night. He therefore came back and pointedly sat down next to the ‘church lady, and resumed sipping his beer while taking chunks of barbequed beef from the platter that had in the meantime been brought around by one of the waiters. By this time the lady had sipped her way through two glasses of wine and now with inhibitions slightly dented she declared that she was a better dancer than the man and was ready to prove it by dancing for us. She therefore stood up, staggered slightly and went into a dance routine reminiscent of a style I had seen Donna Summer doing in the 80’s which meant that she was somewhere in her 40’s, fact that was to come to light later in an intriguing way.
We stayed at the joint for about two hours during which time I imbibed about five bottles of beer, all in an effort to generate an alcoholic haze that would enable me maintain an artificial jovial mood with the neighbours I was not really comfortable with. At some point the church lady had begun wondering rhetorically whether she should go back home or sleep over at the man’s house. Apparently, she had a university-going daughter who was home for a short holiday and she was wondering whether the girl would be able to stay alone in the house without her around. As nobody was really interested in her reverie she decided to drive back home and insisted that the man, my neighbour, see her off by escorting her to her car parked outside which to me was a sure sign that there was more between them than met the eye. I once again sneaked a peek at his wife to see if she was cognizant of the game that the two were engaging in and yet again she seemed deliberately oblivious of that little charade. He came back after about five minutes and shortly afterwards we decided to leave at which point it became apparent that our hosts did not have enough money to cover the bill we’d incurred and that our contribution would be required to cover costs. My wife who had fortunately carried some cash saved the situation by covering the deficit and we drove off home, ending that ‘interesting’ day.