Around Nairobi in One Night
By Mark Maish and CHARLES CHANCHORI
February 7, 2017. 22:49h. Hurlingham, Nairobi.
I have just dropped a young lady off at “The Hood” when the request comes through. An unwanted request because I wanted to go home after dropping this client off.
Before I go too far, let me dispense with the introductions. My name is Daniel and I am an Uber driver. I come from Githurai 45. I wanted to go home at around 23:00h because my wife doesn’t like it when I go home past midnight.
As soon as the request comes through on my phone, it is followed up by the next client’s call which I answer reluctantly. And the client’s name is Charles.
Him: Hello Daniel. I was hoping you could pick me up at the Department of Defence Headquarters ASAP.
Me: Where to?
Him: I don’t know yet. I was thinking Utawala. Maybe Machakos?
Me: Um, Charles, I was actually heading home to Githurai so maybe you could do me a favor and cancel your ride then request another one? Please? Just say the driver asked you to cancel.
Him: Home, huh? And where is home?
I guess it is at this juncture that I start recognizing the confidence in his voice. A certain kind of sharpness and metallic substance that is used to throwing orders around.
In my line of work, I meet many people. Students, lawyers, doctors, business folks, and they all talk the same. Though some lawyers can be a bit arrogant. And students can be irritating especially when they travel in groups and are collectively drunk as sailors.
And there are soldiers. These don’t make requests. They order you around if they speak. Mostly they just ride in silence. Especially those who have seen combat.
Me: Githurai is my home.
Him: Which one Daniel?
Me: Githurai 45.
Him: OK. Then that has just become my new destination. Pick me up right away.
It takes me less than five minutes to drive from The Hood to the Department of Defence (DoD) gate where I find him waiting for me.
As he walks towards me, I notice that he looks different from his voice. Whereas his voice is authoritative and intimidating, his frame is a bit small. He must be about five seven and weighs around sixty five kilograms. Considering he looks thirty, he is of a small build.
He is in a trench coat with the collar turned up, khaki trousers and brown boots like those won by the United States Marines for those who watch movies.
He walks, or rather’s marches stiffly towards my car, leans against the codriver’s side and peers in through the open window.
Him: You’re Daniel, yeah?
Me: Yes. You must be Charles?
Him: Last I checked (He opens the door and climbs in swiftly). Let’s go.
Of course I have questions because obviously, the man in my car has no clear destination. He just wants to go wherever.
I have carried thousands of passengers in my car, but I have never carried one without a destination. Is he running away from something? Is he a criminal?
Me: So where in Githurai do you want to go?
Him: I don’t know. Any sites you might recommend to me? I have never really been to Githurai before. I just see it from the comfort of a car as I drive by.
Me: No. Not really. It is just an overcrowded little place with cheap housing.
Him: I was just joking. (He smiles. His smile seems sad. Lonely. Painful even)
Me: Oh. They must have just invented a sense of humor where you come from.
Him: (Laughing) Where I come from, they only have bullets, guns, bombs, khat and prostitutes. Humor is something they are yet to discover.
Me: Look at that. You just might be the Issac Newton of humor where you come from.
Him: Who’s Issac Newton?
Me: (Lost) Oh. (I cast a glance at him to see if he is kidding. His stone face tells me he is not) He’s the guy who discovered gravity.
Him: I was just kidding.
Me: (Smiling) Really? Coz your face told me you were bloody serious.
Him: Where I come from, we have perfected the art of a poker face.
Me: Yeah? Where do you come from?
Him: So Newton discovered gravity, huh? What does discovery mean to you exactly?
Me: Excuse me?
Him: Gravity. Surely it existed before Newton noticed that apples don’t fly around in the air when they are thrown up but they come hurtling down to the ground. All he did was give that a name. Is that what discovery means? Giving a name to something that already exists?
Me: (Wondering where this conversation is headed) I am sure it’s more complicated than that.
Him: Like this other dirt bag who apparently discovered Mt. Kenya. Weren’t there people who were living around that area when he “discovered” it? Or was it invisible to them? If memory serves, the Kikuyu people used to face it when they prayed because they believed that their god lives up there. Then comes a white guy who sees it and says; drumroll; “There lies a huge mountain that the natives don’t give a shit about. But because I’m the first white guy to see it, I have discovered it and I have named it Mount Kenya!! Yay! Now my name will be in history books forever! I’m awesome!!!”
Me: (Chuckling) Are you always this radical?
Him: Radical? No. What does discovery mean to you?
Me: Finding something that hasn’t been found by anyone else before?
Him: I would say that is kind of right. Then I must ask, have you discovered youeself?
Me: Discovered myself?
Him: Do you know who you are?
Me: (Laughing uncomfortably) I guess I’m just a normal guy.
By now I am driving globe cinema roundabout and then up to Ngara where I speed down Murang’a Road towards Thika Superhighway which starts at Pangani. It is going on 23:00h and there is no traffic around this hour.
Matter of fact, driving around Nairobi at 23:00h can be quite therapeutic.
Him: Just a normal guy, huh? With a normal job and a normal relationship and normal friends and normal beliefs, right?
Me: You question me like there’s something wrong with normalcy.
Him: I have nothing against normalcy. It is what our ancestors fought and died for all those years ago. It is what soldiers are dying in Somalia for. For the right of Kenyans to lead their normal, boring lives. Because that’s what peace involves, you know? Peace is normal. Peace is boring. You wake up from your boring bed in the morning and say “good morning” to your uninteresting wife and she smiles and says good morning to her uninteresting husband.
Maybe you have a quickie before it is time to jump of out bed and grab a shower. Which is quite normal. Or she is on her period and you’re horny so you masturbate in the shower. Which again is normal. Then you have to make sure your normal kids are ready for normally uninteresting school and then they are off.
And you have to come to your uber driving job which forgive me for saying, is pretty boring. If I had to drive around Nairobi for a living, I’d probably turn into a serial killer and follow my passengers home and kill them in their beds just to sweeten my life up. I mean, who’d ever suspect a taxi driver, right? At night, you drive back home to your wife and you’re both too tired to have an interesting shag so you just grab another shower and collapse in bed like a log.
Before you know it, you’re sixty with one foot in the grave. And that’s OK because you have lived an entire lifetime. But the thing about peace is that people forget to live, you know? I mean, when was the last time you smelled a rose and realized it doesn’t smell good? When was the last time you went to watch a performance at the Kenya National Theatre? Leave that. When was the last time you spanked your wife’s ass? When was the last time that the both of you played around like children? When was the last time you chased her around that cheap apartment of yours? Peace will do that to you. You will get comfortable with life, focus too much on earning a living, then completely forget to live. What’s the essence of living then, huh?
Me: So what would you rather we do? Go to war with Uganda over Migingo Island?
Him: No. But forget the rules every now and then. Have fun. Live a little. Because you know what, there are people dying for you to live. Everyday. Because when your life is in danger, that’s when you start appreciating it. When you discover you have cancer or other terminal illness, you start living each day like it means something.
Me: That’s deep.
We are at Survey now along Thika Road and we’re right in the middle lane. Which is why I’m shocked when he says,
Him: Stop the car. I want to take a shit. Do you have toilet paper?
Me: We’re right in the middle of the highway.
Him: Just stop the fucking car Daniel!
Maybe it’s the way he says it that gets me to pull over at the side of the highway. I don’t have toilet paper but I have some wet wipes which he grabs, gets out of the car, walks to the back, pulls down his pants and squats. Right there in the middle of the biggest highway in the country.
He takes one long dump without any hurry or care in the world. I have my ‘hazards’ on but two minutes into his unhygienic business, I decide it might be a great idea to place the triangle on the road for safety. But the moment I step off the car, I’m hit by such a stench that I fall back inside.
It takes him a whooping five minutes to conclude his business and get back inside the car. And I make a conscious decision not to have a conversation about it. But at this juncture, I start wondering whether he is crazy.
Me: Are you a soldier?
Me: Just asking.
Him: You didn’t ‘just’ ask. You must have asked for a reason. What reason was it?
Me: Forget it.
I am growing increasingly uncomfortable with him being inside my car so I press the fuel pedal to the floor because I want to get to Githurai as quickly as possible and be rid of this Charles character.
Him: Why are you driving so fast?
Me: There’s no traffic. Besides, I’m getting sleepy so I need to get home quickly and sleep.
Him: Why did you ask if I’m a soldier?
Me: (Snapping) I said forget it!
Him: OK! But just so for your information, I think any man who drives an automatic car is a coward.
Me: (After witnessing him conducting his “human dignity” business in public, on the highway, I have lost my respect for him. So I have no intention of engaging him in a conversation) OK.
Him: And you sir, have a shitty car.
Me: (I am driving at 140km/h now and we’re just approaching Roysambu) OK.
Him: Have you ever cheated on your wife Daniel?
Me: I doubt that that’s any of your business.
Him: Aww. Are you sulking now because I did something you deem inappropriate?
I turn on the radio and normally I listen to Inooro FM because it is MY radio inside MY car. Currently playing is Sammy Muraya’s “Dictator”
Him: (Pumping up the volume then yelling above the song) I love this song! It makes me feel sad!
I’m surprised that he has an opinion about a Kikuyu song. I didn’t think he knows it. Then it hits me. He’s just jerking me around. So I reduce the volume and press the brakes pedal because we’re approaching another set of bumps.
Him: (Singing along) Dictator wayuni, watuire uthaka waku silaha unyarirage arume… (Dictator Wayuni, you weaponized your beauty and used it against men)Looks like he understands the song after all.
21:08h. Githurai 45.
I pull over at the Cooperative Bank and ask him again where in Githurai he needs to be dropped off.
Him: (Seriously) I have changed my mind. I have decided I want to go to Donholm via Kangundo Road. That means you will travel to Ruiru and use the Eastern Bypass.
Me: (I am beginning to get my first rush of fear. This looks like trouble) Look, just pay me then request for another ride, OK?
Him: You didn’t hear me. (That metallic taste in his voice again) I need to get to Donholm. Now!
Me: (Putting my foot down) No.
Him: (Chuckles and runs his palm down his face. His smile no longer seems sad. Or lonely. Or painful. Now he looks like he’s having fun. Finally) Daniel?
Me: (Hoping he’ll say, “I was just kidding”) What!
Him: I am going to dip my hand inside my trenchcoat. Then when I pull it out, I will be holding a 1911 Colt .45 semi automatic sidearm. I will cork it, then I will slowly lift it to your head (points at my temple) right here and I will not even count to three. I will just shoot you dead. (He looks right into my eyes so severely I am downright scared now. And he seems so calm like he has done this a million times.) Do you want me to kill you right now Daniel? Because trust you me, I will kill you. Then I will drive myself to Donholm with your headless body bleeding in the seat I’m occupying right now. Because that’s what a Colt .45 will do to you. It Will Behead you.
I don’t even pause to ask myself if he really does have a gun. I start the car immediately and drive fast towards Ruiru because the last thing I want is for him to ask me to take him home to where my wife and children are. So I drive him out of Githurai as fast as possible.
Him: So, why did you ask whether I’m a soldier?
Me: I um… I um… I just saw your boots.
Him: Come on Daniel. I thought we’re friends. Friends don’t bullshit each other. If you answer me honestly, I’ll answer your question honestly.
Me: Well, if you must know, I asked if you’re a soldier because I wanted to know what I’d be dealing with if you posed a threat to my life. Guess now I know..
Him: Why do you think I’d pose a danger to your life?
Me: Because you had no destination. I thought you were a criminal. A fugitive.
Him: And what would my being a soldier have anything to do with my being a criminal?
Me: I would have asked if you’d seen any combat. Then maybe I could conclude that you’re probably suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Him: I’m Captain Charles Gachora. And yes I have seen combat in Somalia. Do I have PTSD? I have no idea. Maybe. Maybe not. Ask me that question that you really want to ask
Me: What question?
Him: Don’t think I am an idiot. Ask!
Me: Will you kill me?
Him: No. I’m done killing civilians. But am I done killing? I don’t know Daniel. Am I?
I cast him a defiant look and maybe that’s what prompts him to dip his hand inside his jacket and pull out a pistol. And this is the point where I realize that I am very scared.
Him: Just in case you’re wondering, yes I have a gun. You’re driving too fast. Slow down.
(I am driving at 110km/h. I slow down. I have just left Kahawa Sukari and now I’m driving up the Kenyatta University hill and driving at 100km/h, I should be in Ruiru in a minute or two.
My feet and hands are trembling and I’m feeling cold all of a sudden.)
Him: You didn’t answer my question.
Me: Which one?
Him: Have you ever cheated on your wife?
Him: Do you love her?
Him: When was the last time you had sex with her?
Me: What? Why?
Him: (Frustrated) OK Daniel, here are the rules. If you don’t answer my questions, or if you answer with an attitude or if I realize you’re lying to me, I won’t even warn you. I’ll just shoot you in the head, throw your body out of the moving car and drive on like you never existed. And do you know how they’ll report your death on the morning news? (Imitates a newscaster) “The decapitated body of an unidentified male was found dumped along Thika Superhighway last night. The body which is unrecognizable because of being ran over by motorists, was taken to Kenyatta University Funeral Home. The police suspect that he was trying to cross the busy highway when he was struck down by a speeding vehicle. The areas OCPD Mr. Reginald Omwamo has requested pedestrians to be extra careful while on the road. We’ll take a short break and return with the sports news shortly.”
Me: It’s been a few months.
Him: How old are you?
Me: I will be forty in an hour.
Him: Aww! Daniel!! Happy Birthday!
Me: (Mirthless) Thank you. You’re far too kind.
Him: (Smiling) Look at you! Even with a distinct threat against your life you still have a sense of sarcasm. Good for you.
Me: Please. I have kids. I have two young kids who rely on me.
Him: Oh, really? (Meekly) I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize that a man of your age had kids. Oh my bad. Please turn the car around and drive home to your kids. I’m so sorry for the inconvenience Daniel. (Grabs his chest) I have broken my own heart. How dare I carjack a father?! I must be a terrible terrible person.
I realized he was being sarcastic five minutes ago so I keep driving. I’m now speeding down towards Outering Road along which Donholm lies.
Him: How long have you been married?
Me: Twelve years.
Him: And in all that time, you have never had sex with a woman who wasn’t your wife?
Him: Well, well, well. You’re one of the good ones, aren’t you? Are you happily married?
Me: I.. I… (At once I ask myself, “what does happily married mean? As opposed to what? Sadly married?”) I like to think I am.
Him: Yes or no, Daniel? Yes or no?
Him: Have you ever been tempted to lie with another woman as you would with your wife?
Him: Tell me about them. These other women.
Me: There was only one. Her name was Sharon. We went to the same church.
Him: Did you ever attempt to act on your temptation?
Him: You’re lying to me.
Me: I swear on my life I am…
Bang! The gun goes off and in my terror, I swerve the car to and fro all over the road and fight really hard to regain control of it. Charles is screaming at the top of his voice;
Him: By all means, fuck up the car! Crash it! Crash the car! See if I care! Go on! Drive us both off the road! Kill us Daniel!! Kill us both!!
But I manage to focus on regaining control of the vehicle and as soon as I bring it to a screeching halt at the side of Kangundo Road, I turn to him screaming as loudly;
Me: What do you want from me Charles??!! What the hell do you want from me??! Do you want the fucking car? You can have it! You want to kill me? Put the gun on my head and do it right now!
Him: Do you want that? DO YOU WANT ME TO KILL YOU?
Me: Yes! Do it! Do it!
He points the gun to my head without any hesitation whatsoever and I am sure he will kill me without any second thoughts or regret. This is a man with nothing to loss. With no conscience at all and no regard for human life. So I scream;
Me: Wait!! Please wait!
Him: (Pressing the gun against my head so hard that my head is being pushed against the window on the driver’s side) For what Daniel? For what? Do you want to pray? To what God? To the one of the Jews? Or the Christian one? Or Allah? Or Buddha? Or do you want to turn to Kirinyaga mountain and say “Thaai Thathaiya Ngai Thaai” to the God of your ancestors?
Me: (I’m confused. And scared. I’m thinking of my children and my wife.) Please don’t.
Him: (He’s still pressing the gun against my head really hard) Huh?
Me: Please don’t kill me.
Him: I can’t hear you begging Daniel! Beg Daniel, beg!
Me: Please don’t kill me. Please. For my kids. Please don’t take my kids’ daddy away from them. (I don’t know the point at which tears roll down my face.)
Him: Have you ever cheated on your wife?
Him: You’re lying! (He must be pushing the gun against my temple with all his might now because the hot muzzle starts cutting into my skin.) NO!
Him: YOU’RE LYING DANIEL!! YOU DONT DESERVE TO BE ALIVE!! No soldier should be in Somalia dying for you!!
Me: (I figure he’s about to shoot so I yell) She is the one who cheated on me, OK? She cheated on me. (The pressure of his gun against my head relaxes) She cheated on me, OK? (Then the weight of my words hit me) OH my God. She cheated on me.
Charles gets the gun off my head in silence, puts it back inside his trenchcoat and pats me on the shoulder like we’re buddies and asks me to get out of the car. He doesn’t order. He requests nicely like he genuinely cares about me and I find myself appreciating the gesture. Maybe I’m developing a case of the Stockholm Syndrome.
I get outside the car and he sits behind the wheel as I walk around and sit beside him.
He starts the engine and drives slowly and in silence towards Donholm.
February 8th, 2017. 00:15h. Donholm, Nairobi.
Charles has stopped the car outside Steers because he has a craving for Pizza.
Him: Let me grab a pizza in there. I hope it’s as good as I left it when I left for Somalia. But if they put pineapples in my pizza, I’ll kill them all. Wait in the car, OK? And if you try anything weird, I’ll kill you then kill myself. That way I can spend eternity in hell terrorizing you.
I want to say “I’ll go to heaven” but I’m in no mood to make jokes. Not that me going to heaven is funny but because I don’t want him to think I’m joking by saying that.
So he disappears into steers with my phone and the car keys and after having locked me inside my own car like I’m a family pet.
To make sure that my wife doesn’t call me endlessly, Charles made sure we talked (through a “supervised call”) and he made me explain to her that I had just landed a client who needed to be taken around Nairobi in one night and who would tip generously at the end of it all.
He comes back carrying an extra large pizza, a two liters bottle of soda and plastic cups. He puts them all at the backseat, sits behind the wheel and drives slowly at 60km/h along Jogoo Road towards Nairobi Central Business District.
As we approach Buruburu, he changes the channel to Classic 105 and the song playing is Lonester’s “Let’s Be Us Again”
Kirinyaga Road, Downtown Nairobi. 00:46h
Charles stops the car at Shell Petrol Station along Kirinyaga Road facing Globe Cinema Roundabout and turns to me.
Him: I am hungry. We have an extra large pizza. You could join me if you aren’t in a sulky mood.
He grabs the pizza and the soda, gets out of the car, places them on the bonnet, leans against the car and starts enjoying his meal.
I join him silently and I don’t know what to feel about this whole night. Part of me wants to make a run for it, but he’s the man with the gun. He could just shoot me in the back.
Me: When we started dating, my wife and I, she had an affair with this choirboy which I came to know about. When I confronted her about it, she broke down and apologized profusely begging me not to leave. A few days later, she made me listen to that song, “Let’s Be Us Again.” I can still hear her voice in my head singing, “Tell me what I have to do tonight, coz I’d do anything to make this right. Let’s be us again…”
Him: And you forgave her and went ahead and married her. I dare even say that you married her because she cheated.
Me: Yeah. Two months after we got back together, I bought a nice ring for her and popped the question. She said yes amidst a stream of tears on her face and that sweet voice. “Yes baby. Yes. I’ll be honored to be your wife.” I guess I didn’t want to lose her, you know? She was the only thing that meant anything to me. My whole lifeline. Without her I felt like I was nothing. Do you know what I was thinking about as I went down on one knee to propose?
Him: Not really, but I can imagine.
Me: Yeah. I was thinking about her and the choirboy having sex behind the church. I was thinking about her facing the wall with her skirt up her waist, her panties around her ankles and him…
Him: Yeah yeah Danny. I get the picture.
As we enjoy our pizza and soda, a couple of street kids start hovering around, then their number grows to four, then six. So I start getting nervous.
Kirinyaga Road is lonely this time of the night. And when robbers commit their robberies, this is where they come to divide their loot. When cheap hookers get cheap clients who won’t pay for a room, it is not strange to see them having coitus under a lamppost along Kirinyaga Road. And here I stand with a complete stranger, enjoying dinner.
Me: Maybe we should drive up to Kimathi Street or something. It doesn’t feel so safe down here.
Him: Are you nervous? Are you afraid that a bunch of street children will eat our pizza?
Me: (Annoyed because he has this way of belittling everything and I find this irritating) No. I’m nervous that some armed gangsters might steal my car and shoot me for good measure.
Him: I am armed too.
Me: Great! It will be just you and six gangsters shooting it out. And you will be victorious, obviously because you’re a big bad soldier who has been involved in a big bad shootout in Somalia, right?
Him: (Chewing his pizza nonchalantly) No. I will emerge victorious because I’m the big bad soldier with the big bad hand grenades. (He fishes two hand grenades from the insides of his Trenchcoat and places them carefully on the bonnet) Do you feel safer now Danny?
Me: No. Not particularly. (Voice lost in various degrees of terror) Who are you?
Him: (Waving off the subject like it doesn’t matter) Thing about sex with many people Daniel is, it starts to lose value after a while. You meet a woman in the morning, you have a conversation during which some chemistry is realized, you have lunch and supper together and you spend the night together. Next week, same thing happens with another woman and before you know it, you’re sleeping with three women in one week. And since you have realized that sex comes easy, you stop valuing it. It becomes something you expect from every woman on the very first night you meet her and if you meet a good one who doesn’t want to give it up on the first night, you walk away to another tree where the fruits are lower and more accessible. You even become too lazy to go on an actual date because your objective is to get laid and you know you can and will get laid by someone without even having to buy her a cup of coffee. Soon, you find yourself thinking you should get laid by any woman with whom you have some sort of chemistry. Like it’s your right. I mean, you’re clicking four or five women in a week. And they are not prostitutes either. No. They’re just women who you meet at work, or during a night out or at a training in some big hotel. It starts getting to your head. You Are special. Especially because the reviews you’re getting are along the lines of “You’re amazing!” If even three out of the five a week decide that you’re good in bed, it must be true. Then one morning you wake up feeling empty and sad and you can’t call any of them for a chat because you don’t even like them. You evaluate yourself and your life and come to the conclusion that you really are nothing. You belong to any one who will open their legs for you. You’re not special. You are cheap because you can be had by any one. We’re you currency, you wouldn’t be a thousand shillings note. You’d be a twenty shillings coin. And there’s nothing worse in a man’s life than to wake up realizing you don’t value sex anymore. When sex is just another thing you do, like brushing your teeth or taking a shit or shaking someone’s hand in greeting. You find that you have grown cold, emotionless, inconsiderate. You find that you have turned into something you thought you’d never be.
Me: Is that who my wife is? Someone who doesn’t value sex with me anymore?
Him: I don’t know your wife. You’d have to tell me.
Me: She has been carrying on an affair for the last three years. She thinks I don’t know about it but I do. I keep waiting for her to show up with the divorce papers but she never does.
Him: You’re still desperate for her. She’s still your entire lifeline.
Me: Yeah. At first I thought I was sticking around for the sake of the kids. But truth is, I can’t stand being alone.
Him: But you’re already alone. But who am I to act marriage counsellor? I’m not married. Just do whatever you want. Spend your boring little life however you want to spend it. It’s your life. That’s what freedom means.
By now, we’re full and Charles passes a huge chunk of the pizza to a few street children hovering around. I notice that he passes the slices to the youngest of them and warns the older and the bigger ones not to steal from them.
I am now the one behind the wheel and Charles has instructed me to drive to Alliance Francaise where he just sits in the car and stares at the place blankly.
Him: To me, this place is the soul of Nairobi. When I was younger and before I enlisted in the army, I used to come here to recite poetry. One night I met a girl. Wangu was her name. She seemed so exotic, you know. Her hair was short, she wore no make-up and was always dressed in something African. Made of Kitenge. Either her trousers, or top, or headgear… She had to have something African.
First time I said hello, she smiled and gave me a peck on the cheek. Then she asked to rehearse with me because she would be performing in a jiffy. And her poem was about her. About who she was, how she felt one with the soil of Mukurue-ini where she came from, how she respected the elders who had informed her of Wangu wa Makeri. How she was this true African empress, endowed with all the honor and glory that came with that. When she recited the poem, she received a standing ovation that lasted about five minutes. And I knew I loved her. Especially when later she rushed into my arms, hugged me and asked how she had done. Like my opinion meant more to her than the five minute standing ovation. And that Daniel, that was the last time I cried. She saw in me what nobody else had ever seen.
Me: What became of you two?
Him: I ran away from her. She seemed mystical. Like I didn’t deserve her. She was too good for me and if we started dating, one of two things would happen. (A) I would want to change to be better so as to deserve her. Or something. I know it doesn’t make sense but relationships change people. (B) She would change and be more like me. I don’t want A to happen and I would have hated for B to happen. So when the army opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t take it fast enough.
Me: You just let someone you were in love with and who loved you back go? Because you didn’t want to grow up?
Him: That was the idea. But she joined the army too. I didn’t know that until we met in Somalia.
Me: Second chances don’t come to us all.
Him: Let’s drive to Lang’ata barracks.
Me: What’s there?
Him: I’ll show you.
And so off to Lang’ata barracks we go. He asks me not to be in any hurry. That he wants to see the sights.
And as I drive down Uhuru Highway, he lowers his window, puts his hand out and makes waves against the wind. He seems at peace. Like this whole exercise is therapeutic to him.
I drive around the roundabout and up Lang’ata Road. Just as we are going past Nairobi West, he spots a drunk man beating up an equally drunk woman. She is scantily dressed and appears generally dishevelled. Consider it is going on 02:00h, it is easy to conclude she is a prostitute.
Him: Stop the car. Now!
He opens the door and jumps out even before the car has stopped completely. With his Colt in his hand, he runs towards the man and woman, yanks him away from her, kicks him on the stomach, hurls him to the ground and starts whipping him with his gun.
There’s a beat down and then there’s a gun whipping. I have never seen one before and I never see one again.
First a cut appears on the victim’s face. Followed by another. Then the cuts get too bloody. You can’t tell how many cuts there are exactly. Then the victim spits out a tooth followed by another and soon enough, he is choking on teeth and blood. His eyes are rolling to the back of his head and it looks like he is on the verge of dying. That amount of blunt force trauma to the face and head can’t be good for anyone’s brain.
Then Charles stops suddenly and turns to the woman. I’m watching all this from a far. Humans react differently to violence. Fight or flight. That’s what schools teach. But nobody ever tells you that there’s a third reaction. Freezing. Most people freeze in the face of violence. Me being one of them.
Charles takes his trenchcoat off and covers the woman up with it. She is trembling. Whether it is because she’s terrified or cold, I’ll never know.
He then hugs her and rubs her back continuously for a few minutes as her assailant lies on the ground groaning and choking.
After retrieving his hand grenades and other belongings from his coat, he hugs the lady again and joins me inside the car.
His hands have blood all over them. He wipes them clean with my wet wipes and wipes the gun too. But blood is never easy to clean off. After dumping the dirty wipes on the road, we drive off towards the barracks.
02:09h. Lang’ata Barracks. Nairobi.
We’re seated in the car outside the gate and he points to a place among some trees above the gate.
Him: Do you see that structure up there?
Me: (Leaning toward him to catch a glimpse of what he’s pointing at) Yeah.
Him: In that structure there is a .50 calibre machine gun with over a thousand rounds of ammunition accompanying it.
Me: What’s a .50 caliber machine gun?
Him: Well, when I was a kid we used to call them general purpose machine guns or GPMG. They are those huge machine guns you see hoisted in the back of a Humvee in movies.
Me: What’s a Humvee?
Him: It’s a fucking military jeep Daniel! Jesus Christ! You’re a good old pot of ignorance, aren’t you?
Me: Well forgive me for not knowing military jargon. You just picked me off the streets, remember?
Him: Well, a .50 calibre machine gun derives its name from its bullets. If it hits you, it could bloody well cut you in half.
Me: So why are we seated outside the barracks at half past two in the morning staring at weapons of mass destruction?
Him: Wangu and her company were patrolling a village about 100 kilometers south of Mogadishu when they are stopped by a kid. The kid is about eight to ten years old and she is cradling an elderly gentleman in her arms. The man’s legs are missing and from what Wangu and her company can see, his stumps are still fresh. He must have been a victim of an IED. Improvised Explosive Device. Nasty things those are. So she instructs a Sergeant to grab two soldiers and get them off the road. But that doesn’t happen because as soon as they disembark, the man and the little girl go boom.
Me: They explode?
Him: Yeah. They just say “Allahu Akbar” and their little bomb jackets just blow them and a bunch of soldiers to smithrens. Then bullets start raining on Lieutenant Wangu’s convoy like rain and brimstone. It’s a bloody ambush. Of course they return fire but the terrorists have the advantage of surprise and that of higher ground. They’re just raining bullets and missiles on my men like it’s open party. And my soldiers are on the menu. About 85% of them die on that dirt road that day. And those that make it back to base don’t really make it, you know? That night I cradle Wangu in my arms one last time. See, she caught this shrapnel in her throat that just had to come out. And she bled out as I watched. And she said that joining the army was the best thing she ever did because then she got to see me again. That Somalia to her was more beautiful than the most beautiful festival night or poetry slam at Alliance Francaise because I was in Somalia not Alliance Francaise. And the moment her eyes lost their light and I shut her eyelids with my fingers, I knew I was done with this war. I knew I was done being a soldier. I was done with the rules of engagement and the Geneva conventions could go fuck themselves. So I took three soldiers I trusted, put them in a humvee without the Commanding Officer’s orders and we went to that village in the middle of the night. If they weren’t insurgents, they sure were collaborators. And as we drove around that village, I opened fire on everyone and everything I saw using one of those .50 calibre machine guns. I didn’t care about children or women or legless old people. Anything that could wear a suicide vest had to die. And so I stood behind that fast spitting machine gun and pah pah pah pah pah pah pah… And the more you shoot, the more you disassociate yourself from your actions. You just as well might be playing a video game. The more people you gun down, the higher the score. We launch missiles in that village and by the time we’re leaving, no soul is left breathing. I go back to base with over two hundred kills to my name, expecting court martial but that doesn’t happen. I’m issued my orders by the CO and it’s business as usual.
Me: What? What about the news? What did the press say about the massacre?
Him: I don’t know. What did you hear about the massacre?
Me: So what are you going to do now?
Him: As soon as you drop me off at a yet to be determined point, I will shoot myself in the head and join Wangu in the afterlife if there’s one.
Me: That doesn’t sound like a good plan.
Him: I’m kidding. (He reaches into the backseat where he retrieves an envelop which he hands to me) At exactly 05:00h, you’re going to drop this off at the Nation Center.
Me: (Taking the envelop) What is it?
Him: It is none of your business is what that is. Drive off to Karen. The Hemingsway Hotel.
03:28h. Hemingway Hotel. Karen.
Charles has stashed his gun and his two hand grenades somewhere inside the backseats and he has done it so well that not even the security check discovers them.
He points me to the parking lot where I park and he invites me to a meal in the restaurant.
This is one of those hotels where I only drop and pick people but I have never really been. My job doesn’t get me past the parking lot. So when Charles invites me to the restaurant, I am pleasantly surprised.
We’re not hungry because we devoured huge chunks of pizza along Kirinyaga Road but Charles informs me that though the food here is great, it isn’t much.
And at that time of the night, the restaurant doesn’t have much in terms of food. But the kitchen, after some convincing by Charles, manages to scramble up an omelette, some bacon, pancakes and sausages for us, which we wait for at the bar.
The place is exquisite. The cream walls seem like the walls of Paradise in the morning lighting and the thick carpets, the shiny piano at the lobby, the thick curtains, the shiny furniture… I have never seen anything so magnificent in my whole life.
Him: You know what you need to do? You need to come here during the day and have a cup of coffee at the balcony facing Ngong Hills. With someone you love. Then you need to dress down to your boxers and jump off the balcony and right into the swimming pool right under you. It’s glorious.
Me: Is that something you’ve ever done?
Him: Yeah. Wangu and I did it once. We had come here on a poetry event. Couldn’t really afford it here then. But we had the maximum amount of fun because we were being sponsored by some Dutchmen.
We take some overpriced shots of some Scotch whose name escapes me and Charles asks if I can play the piano. I can’t.
Him: But can you sing?
Me: I can croak.
Him: I’ll play and you’ll croak.
He sits at the piano with his glass of Scotch and starts playing. The tune sounds very familiar and I find myself singing more instinctively than consciously
Me: Tell me what I have to do tonight,
Cause I’d do anything to make it right,
Let’s be us again.
I’m sorry for the way I lost my head,
I don’t know why I said the things I said,
Lets be us again.
Charles joins me in for the chorus and there’s a glint in his eyes that I haven’t seen before. I imagine him and Wangu seated at this very piano singing a different song. A song about Africa. About where they come from and the essence that connects them. The energy derived from Mukurueini wa Nyagathanga that brings them together in a bond that no war, no bullet, no bomb and no distance can separate.
Him and I: Here I stand, with everything to lose,
All I know is I don’t wanna ever see the end.
Baby please, I’m reaching out for you,
Won’t you open up your heart and let me come back in,
Let’s be us again.
Him: Look at me I’m way past pride,
Isn’t there some way that we can try,
To be us again.
Even if it takes a while,
I’ll wait right here until I see that smile,
That says we’re us again.
As he sings, he shuts his eyes and I figure he is picturing himself and Wangu at the balcony of this very hotel sipping coffee and gazing into the distant Ngong Hills. I figure he’s regretting running away from her and joining the army. I figure he’s regretting not deserting with her and running off to a distant country with her. I figure he misses her. And for the first time, I feel sorry for him. Him who is so young yet has lived through such turmoil. I figure he’s only trying to rediscover himself.
Him and I: Here I stand with everything to lose,
All I know is I don’t wanna ever see the end.
I’m reaching out for you,
Won’t you open up your heart and let me come back in
Let’s be us (Ohhh)
Baby baby, what would I do?
Can’t imagine life without you.
Him: Here I stand with everything to lose.
All I know is I don’t wanna ever see the end,
I’m reaching out for you
Won’t you open up your heart and let me come back in?
Oh here I am I’m, reaching out for you,
Won’t you open up your heart and let me come back in?
Lets be us again.
Oh, lets be us again.
I noticed his face shining in the lighting and his eyes shut and I figured he needed sometime alone. If he realizes that he’s crying, he doesn’t do much about it. He just lets them tears flow.
And as I watch him weep and sing and let his heart go out for the woman he loved and lost, I realize I have never felt what he feels. I have never loved my wife with the same intensity that he loves Wangu. It is no wonder thus that she cheated on me time and again.
Our meal is brought to us and we enjoy it without a hurry in the world and in silence. We both figure that we have said all that there is to be said, done all that there is to be done and even though we only met a few hours ago, I feel like I have known Charles my whole life. Like I have been with him through his ups and downs.
At 04:18h, he tells me that I should be getting back to town because I need to drop off his envelop at the Nation Center at exactly 05:00h.
Him: Not 04:59h and not 05:01h but 05:00h. Do you understand?
Me: Yeah. Sure. What’s in it?
Him: My suicide note. (Again, I glance at him to see if he’s kidding and again his stone face informs me that he is not) Is that your poker face or are you being really seriously serious right now?
Him: What do you think? (I’m getting nervous but then I relax when he smiles).
We drive out of Hemingsway after he’s cleared the exorbitant bill and he instructs me to use Ngong Road which I do. The traffic is still light and I can manage to drive at 120km/h comfortably.
Me: So where will I drop you off?
Him: At the DoD where you picked me up. So you better step on it.
And I drive down Lang’ata Road like bats out of hell and up Mbagathi Road right back to Hurlingham where this strange section of the night commenced.
Him: How much do I owe you?
That question surprises me. After his threat on my life, I wasn’t expecting him to pay.
Me: (After consulting my phone) Eight thousand, five hundred shillings.
He takes a wand of notes of his pocket and hands it over to me without even counting it.
Him: That money, use it to live. Do something you’ve never done before. Take a trip. Take tae-kwon-do lessons. Take a dancing class. Do something that doesn’t fall within the parameters of your current boring life.
Me: What about you? What are you going to do?
Him: Me? I’m a soldier. I’ll be a soldier till I die.
Me: Thank you Charles.
Him: For what?
Me: For not killing me I guess.
Him: Thank me by living. Thank all those souls that are lost in war so you can live in peace by living. Don’t die while you’re still alive.
Me: Same case applies to you, right?
Him: (Smiling) So long Daniel.
He steps out of the car and I wave him goodbye. He doesn’t wave back. I guess that would be very uncharacteristic of him. I feel like in him I have just made a friend. We’ll probably never see him again in my life, but I will never forget him. Maybe one day when I’m ninety, I’ll tell my fellow toothless “inmates” at the home for old people where my children will have stashed me that I had a friend once. A friend who I met and together we went on a life changing ride around Nairobi City in one night. His name was Charles. I wonder what became of him.
At 05:00h, I drop the package off at Nation Center as per instructions then I drive on home to Githurai.
Githurai 45. 05:16h
I find my wife fixing breakfast for the kids which they enjoy noisily and rush out into their waiting school bus.
As soon as they leave, I drop the bomb on my wife.
Me: I’m leaving.
Her: Where to?
Me: I don’t know. I will drive to Eldoret, then to Kitale and maybe cross the border into Uganda.
Her: What’re you talking about? Why would you do that?
Me: Because I don’t love you and if I stay with you another year I will do something I’ll regret.
Her: What about the kids, Daniel? You’re just going to walk out on them?
Me: I’ll be back. In a day or a week or a month or a year. I don’t know. But I am no value to them right now. I never even see them. I’m always working. I have busted my ass everyday for the last fifteen years with no leave days and I think it’s time I clocked out for a bit.
Her: I am not even surprised.
Me: I know. And you don’t have to hide your affair with Pastor Jerome anymore. I have known about it for three years now.
Her: Oh my God.
Me: It’s OK. You can keep the house and all our businesses and our farm upcountry. You can keep everything. I don’t want it. I just need the car. That’s all.
Her: And you’ll come back for them?
Me: They’re my kids. Yes I’ll come back for them.
Her: What do I tell them when they ask?
Me: That their daddy has gone back to school to learn how to love himself again so he can love them to the best of his capability.
Her: I’ll just tell them you went on a business trip.
Section 58. Nakuru. 09:00h.
“A body was this morning found along Valley Road and taken to City Mortuary. The decapitated body was badly disfigured after being ran over by speeding motorists along the busy road and the police suspect that the man was trying to rush across when he was ran over by a speeding car in a hit and run accident. Area OCPD Mr. Tom Kipruto has cautioned pedestrians against crossing the road and instead use the provided footbridge. We’ll be back with sports news after the break.”
As I listen to the news and drive to a cheap motel in Nakuru for some shut eye, I remember asking Charles about the contents of his envelop and his answer that it was a suicide note. I remember him saying that a Colt .45 will blow your head clean off your body. In my head I see him watching me drive off and as soon as I’m swallowed by the corner, I see him put the gun to his head and pull the trigger.
I hope he finds her in the afterlife. Hell. I hope for his sake, there’s an afterlife.
When I’m ninety, I guess I won’t have to think of my friend Charles and wonder what became of him. Him whose suicide note was read on national TV and shocked listeners all over the country and later the world. The confessions of a troubled soul belonging to a gallant soldier whose thirst for revenge drove him into the darkest corners of human existence.
Captain Charles Gachora. The man who in one night, changed my whole life. I hope he finally got what he wanted.
(The author, Charles Chanchori, is a graduate of Kenyatta University and Kenya School of law)