He drops three ice-cubes in his glass. They tinkle. A tinkle that announces a tipple. A sound that arouses your tongue. He then – like a chemist- fleetingly waits at the ice cubes to mist up the glass.
Even though the music is loud, and the bustle swirls all around, there is an inexplicable silence borne from the deliberate way with which he goes about mixing his drink. It’s almost ritualistic. Sacred.
The clock ticks away as he stares at his drink. I regard him. He’s shaven inches away from his skull, his scalp is oiled. The greenish light from the overhead lights bounce off his skull in a shard of rainbow. He’s in a white dress-shirt, un-tucked over blue jeans. On the wrist gleams a watch I wouldn’t wear if you threatened me with hair loss. Not that there is much left to lose. Loafers step on the rail that run along the edge of the bar. He’s neat, too neat. Like he’s hiding a flaw. Most very neat people are hiding something. Those guys who move around with a comp in their cars. Or cologne. They are hiding something with those layers and layers of impeccable self-grooming.
Now he lifts the other glass containing the double of the greenish gold liquid, and as he tilts the glass slowly, the liquid’s viscosity shifts and surrenders to the pour. The ice immediately gets wet. Then they sigh, as if they have been released from their own prison of longing. John Jameson, would be proud.
“I love that song,” he now turns to tell me, as if only coming aware of my presence and also in total disregard to what just happened with that mixology demonstration. That song is some Rhumba song. The bar is Caribana. The day is Wednesday. And the guy, this guy who treats his first drink like it’s a virgin, is Farouk, my cousin. Hustler extraordinaire. Debaucher. Ex-convict. Father. Lover. Bullshitter.
You will be pleased to know that Farouk’s life after his prison debacle isn’t as depressing as it looked initially. Fine, there have been some major adjustments here and there. There was that stint in Bujumbura that didn’t go so well; the weather was crap and everything was just slow paced. Then there was the baby mama saga who met someone else while he was in jail and moved on. You would imagine your woman would wait for you as you pay your debt to society. Oh no, they will run off with a Congolese, as it happened in Farouk’s case. I remember joking with him that I’d rather a Bukusu ran off with my woman while I was in jail than a Congolese. I think it would hurt less, it would be less insulting. (And Bukusus, please take your seats, no offense, it’s just an example. I could have said Kikuyu, but I’m not allowed because folk here will go politically ballistic on me. It’s safer to say Bukusu or Pokomo.) He had laughed and said that it could have been worse for him; his son would have come out bleached. Touché.
Now he’s settled in Kigali, Rwanda. He bought an old Canter that he uses to transport “things” between Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. He’s slowly building something from nothing. He’s starting from the bottom. I was in Kigali two Fridays ago, and I had called him but he was in a border town called Bukavu shaking the bushes. We didn’t meet, but he recommended a few places where I could hang my coat but which I didn’t have the pleasure of sampling. He said he would be in Nairobi soon, to check out his tot.
Back to Caribana. He’s telling me about his small rented house in Kigali and his neighbour’s dogs that he thinks smoke weed (long story, this). He tells me about living far from his kid, who is probably being socialised at Kuche Kuche or those clubs in West where Congolese guys sing in. He is really distraught about a Congolese raising his kid. Probably more than he is distraught about a Congolese snatching his woman. And he should be damn it!
He tells me his struggle to gain acceptance from the businessmen in a foreign country and how he has to keep his head low and his nose clean lest Kagame’s men come knocking on his door late at night. He tells me it’s not uncommon for foreigners suspected of dabbling in shoddy dealings to get night visits from government agents who ask them to either leave voluntarily or be shipped out in a wooden box. I like that straight shooting. The hell with human rights. I’m a big fan of Kagame because he chooses when to show the UN the finger. And Kagame should. It’s easy for those double-chinned plutocrats in $1,000 suits to swing in their swivel chairs at the UN-Security Council and snivel at Kagame’s dictatorial tendencies. You have to walk into the dark and haunting Genocide Museum to see that Kagame is holding together a very delicate and fractured nation, one that can’t be run by the textbook democracy that the west bandy. OK, I’m done.
Farouk then tells me about Ruterana. His first real girlfriend after jail. Ruterana. What a name. Sounds like incense. Sounds like a gurgle of spring water between rocks. Ruterana. He met her as some large wholesale shop, where he had gone to pick merchandise to transport to Moroto, Uganda. She was crunching numbers in accounts, and turns out the place is owned by her father.
He says he first noticed her hair. I always wonder how that works out with guys. I mean, you will hear someone say, Man, the first thing I noticed was her hair. Or, I don’t know, her fingers or something so abstract. I mean, is that a figure of speech when someone says “the first thing I noticed” or are they making small talk, or do they mean it literally. It makes me wonder whether I’m abnormal or shallow because the first thing I notice is a woman’s ass. Or lack thereof. I mean, how would you notice a woman’s hair the first thing if, say she has large pouty lips? Or a large forehead (like mine) or some very brittle looking legs? I mean, shouldn’t things like hair, nails, and teeth come later?
So, fine. He noticed her hair first. It’s an ex-con thing, I think. When you are incarcerated for years, it opens your world to subtleties of life; a scent in the wind, a rustle of a cloth, a sneeze of a bee. Such like things.
So anyway, he asks for her number and she refuses. But he comes back a week later and asks for the number and she refuses. He then comes back days later and asks for the number and she refuses. Next day he asks her father for the number by giving him some cock and bull story and he gives him. He calls her and the rest is history.
I want to see a picture of Ruterana, this girl with a name full of G-clefs. Farouk fingers the touchscreen of his phone and fishes out the best picture. She’s leaning on a railing of sort, like a viewpoint, one leg stepping on the pole behind her, head tilted to her right side. There is light on her face. Half the picture is filled with her hips, the rest with her laughter. She’s laughing so hard you can seem her last molar. She is in a dress, which rides up just above her knee because her leg is up. Behind her a hilly green landscape spreads out, juxtaposing her white flowered dress. A Tutsi girl. Or “Nyar Kagame,” as Farouk calls her. Her hair is long, all right. Quite long. But it’s not the first thing I notice.
“What was she laughing about?” I ask Farouk.
He seems surprised.
“Uhm, I don’t remember. It could have been anything,” then adds with a cocky smile, “She’s always laughing around me. I’m a fun kinda guy.”
“How tall is she?” I ask handing back the phone.
“So she’s taller than you,” I smile.
He laughs. “I’m 5’8’’ you fool.”
“I could have sworn you are 5’6’’.”
“Have you told her you were in jail?”
“No. I don’t have to.”
“Of course you have to.”
“What if she finds out?”
“Chief, how the hell is she going to find out? Unless you tell her!”
“I don’t know, what if you say something in your sleep.”
He looks at me incredulously.
“In my sleep?”
“Yes, uhm, you know, I hear these things come out in your sleep. You could say something about prison or you could wake up crying curled into a ball, asking Njoro not to make you his girlfriend. Then you will have to explain why you are dreaming about other men.”
He laughs. “You are a twisted [censored word], aren’t you?”
“All I’m saying is that one day you could dream a confession, man.”
“Boss, I dream in Luo.”
I laugh at that.
“Nobody dreams in Luo. Not even Otieno Kajwang.”
We cackle like wild dogs. We are always making fun of Kajwang.
“Look, I’m not telling her I went to prison. That is classified information that she need not know. At least not now.”
“Look, maybe if you told her you went to prison she will find you a bit risqué and rough, some chic dig that.”
“Or she might hide her purse from me!” he screeched. “And she isn’t that girl who likes roughnecks, she is a tender girl, a tender Roni.”
“…yes, until she meets a roughneck, then you are out and wish you told her you was in jail.”
“Chill, she isn’t meeting anyone else…”
“Let’s hope not, especially not a Congolese,”
“She is an accountant, aren’t those boring?” I ask. And you can tell by now, I’ve had a few doubles so really; I’m not going to ask him politically correct questions.
“This one isn’t. She is funny and smart and she has great hips. In fact, if she was boring, deaf and bald but she had only those hips going for her, I would date her.”
I’m laughing now.
“I thought you loved the hair most?”
“I said, I noticed the hair first, I didn’t say I loved the hair most,” he smirks.
Farouk then tells me that he wasn’t happy that I wrote about him here. OK, he was fine with it, only he felt that some details about his life weren’t necessary to be revealed, that it cast him as a “gangster and a social misfit.” I told him that it was all very light storytelling and that nobody really read those posts and thought he was a bum. Or a gangster.
He was also concerned that one day “Nyar Kagame,” will Google me up and run into those posts about him. I told him not to ever tell her my first name because then she will be Googling “Steve Biko,” and that will only land her in SA.
Anyway, so we agreed that I would muster good sense and judgement the next time I wrote something about him. This is because he doesn’t want to be judged by his prison history. He says – like everybody else – he made some wrong choices; only difference is that his choices had bigger risks. And he is averse to small risks, he states. He is a different kind of breed that believes in everything or nothing. He doesn’t settle for the in-betweens. He doesn’t know how to live life halfway. So he goes to the edge. Keeps him alive.
He’s settled in Rwanda because it represents a clean slate. He wants to build a transport dynasty with dozens of those monstrous 36-wheeler trucks. I believe he will, because he is shrewd and he doesn’t ever believe that nothing is beneath him. Unlike many of us, doesn’t mind getting dirty even with his good education credentials. So he toils driving that beat-up Canter, getting under it to fix it when it spurts to death by some roadside in Western Uganda, or hauling goods out on his back like a blue collar. He does it because he says it has to be done and that only him can do it the way it’s supposed to be done because only him knows where this will end. He says hard labour won’t last, that one day he will be drinking his old whisky in his beach house in Diani as he monitors his fleet on a computer.
If you sat down with him for an hour, you will be infected by his self-confidence and his ever buoyant hope of a better tomorrow. You will also feel – beating through his shirt – his restlessness, which you will easily confuse for his recklessness.
We climbed off our stools shortly before midnight. I dropped him off at Hurlinghum where he was to pick a cab. Before we parted he asked if I was going to write about that encounter and I said, most likely, I would. He asked if I would write about some detail that I have omitted in this story today and I asked him if I should. He said I shouldn’t, it’s a bit personal. I said I wouldn’t. Then he asked me who reads this blog. And I said, nobody knows. They are faceless, they stand in the dark and they wait like piranhas in their pyjamas. “You had once mentioned that a few mamas had expressed interest to meet me. What kind of chicks were they anyway?” I told him I don’t know, that they were mostly progesterone heavy emails from anonymous women who I have never met.
I added with a smile, “They could even be men masquerading as women, you going to jail perhaps made some of them imagine that now they had a chance with you.”
He laughed. “Will you please write in caps on that post that I’m straight, always been?”
“If there is space, I will squeeze that in.”
He jumped into the cab and they drove into the night. And I remembered that he didn’t say goodbye, he never says goodbye. Our conversations are always left inconclusive. We could be chatting on Whatsapp and he is gone, no announcement. He’s like that character De Niro describes in that movie Righteous Kill. That guy who is ready to walk away from everything he has in a few minutes flat. And never look back. Or even come back.