A man is mirrored by his car. You can tell a man’s character by how he drives his car because how a man drives his car is almost reflective of how he leads his life. How a man drives his car is also synonymous with how loves his woman. The choice of color of a man’s car is an indication of his psyche- and sometimes, his tribe (I swear this is no reference to Kambas!). And so the type of car a man drives will more often than not offer glimpses into a man’s life. The man is the car and the car is the man.
Here is a somewhat flawed theorem. Ferrari guys are guys who love attention, Mercedes guys seek class, the Volvo guys really fear death, the Toyota guys, well, these guys are a dime a dozen, most guys who drive Toyotas drive them not out of choice but out of necessity. Most lust after German cars and it doesn’t help when Toyota makes that snide comment that I detest; The car in front is always a Toyota. Nothing like rubbing it in! Passat guys hate to pay taxes like everybody else (now with the new constitution, tough luck) and the guys who drive them new model lime Volkswagen Beetles are men who refuse the realities of manhood, men who refuse to be men. And – saving the best for last – Range Rover guys are guys who really understand the language of cars. They are guys who are serious about their machines. Range Rover guys are –to use a cliché – too cool for school. It’s obvious where I lean, it’s
obvious that I think Range Rovers are the epitome of fine motoring.
But my point is; a car is the center piece of a man’s life. The cars we drive are an extension of us. Our cars not only define us but they tell our stories, because indeed every car is a story.
While I was down in my boy’s shags – Ugenya – for his mom’s memorial I had a chance to go to their local shopping center called Bumula to charge my phone. Bumula is about 15mins away from their quaint boma and about 18kms out from the Uganda border. Allow me to digress a tad and talk about this phone charging business. To charge a phone you need 10bob, and the guy who charges these phones – some Luhya guy – does it from this kiosk. He is arrogant and aloof and he treats you like a leper. He is the Kenya Power of Bumula, and because he gives life to your phone which then allows you into the communication world, he is the mobile network there. There is a sign scrawled where phones are charged that reads “Kuchaj ni 10/=, pay first,”
Now the moment I plug in my phone the guy speaks up. “Hiyo itakuwa shilling ishirini,”
I’m thinking, like hell it is!
So I point out at the sign and ask him if the rates went up by any chance. While flipping through his newspaper he nonchalantly says no, the rates are still the same but I have a “big” phone and so I will pay more. Of course that’s ridiculous! I have a slightly big phone, yes, but I don’t suppose it uses more electricity than any other phone to charge. But since I’m a polite guy I smile and point out that my phone doesn’t use any more power to charge than the next phone. Without looking up from his paper he mumbles with chilling finality; “It does!” So here I am having this conversation with this man’s forehead, a man who has clearly decided to be an ass because I’m in his neck of woods.
I’m then presented with a few options; pay 20bob (which I can) and walk away from trouble or stick my oars in and tell him to kiss my ass or lastly, look for another charging place which I suspect is at the Uganda border. One little thing; this guy is a Luhya with a big arm. His knuckles looks like an army of rats tried eating them- and failed miserably. He looked the type who didn’t mind making a crater in someone’s face with those fists. I mean this guy could take me down by just staring at me. So clearly I was reluctant to start something that would end badly for me.
I silently paid Ksh 20 for the phone if you want to know and that is something that nibbled at my insides the rest of
that day. It wasn’t about the money; it was the fact that he had bullied me into paying this money and I didn’t do squat about it because, well, because I was afraid he would punch me in the face with that fist that looked like a pit-bull. I believe people call this cowardice. I just didn’t want to mess the features on my face. Same difference I guess.
But you know what? It’s far from over, I shall be back. And when I go back there I will pitch up with three hired goons from Kondele; high on pot and ready to engage in a bloody fisticuffs. Let’s see how he loves that! And if you are reading this, Mr, Tough Luhya guy, know that I will be back and I will hang you out to dry. Or rather, my goons will.
Now I feel better.
Anyway, this post is not about violence, it’s about cars. While at this shopping center I noticed many old cars- I mean really old cars – parked outside shops. An old car is like an old man; a sponge that has absorbed a lifetime of wisdom and tales. Old cars have stories dating back decades. If old cars could talk they would tell you stories that men wouldn’t tell. And so I sought to find out the owners of these relics and I ask them to talk about their cars and I noticed that when they talked about their cars they in turn talked about themselves. And talking about themselves slid them down these richly nostalgic places. And they pulled me in with them.
But the thing is in small towns people are suspicious as hell. I was stranger with a camera. Some shook their heads and refused to talk. Some asked me if I was from KRA. But most were forthcoming when they realized that I was interested in their rickety jalopies. And when they talked about their cars they smiled, or frowned or ran their palms over their cars’ rustic and peeled out bodies like they were an animal, a pet. But they did this with a deep pride that often belied the expressions on their faces because every man is mightily proud of their car no matter how old and dilapidated those machines might be.
She is old. Very old. Her only friends are the elements of nature; the rain that relentlessly pound her, the sun that smelts her and the wind that sooths off her coat. Seasons pass her while she stands here, waiting for Godot perhaps. This is the first car I saw parked outside some shop and it’s the car that largely informed this blog because it stirred something in me. Something pathetic.
She is a 1975 Datsun B210, I think. When this car was released from the factory I wasn’t even born yet. I was talk. Cheap talk.
The owner of this car is an old man who I traced to the back of some shops drinking alcohol from a jug. He was surprised that anyone would show any interest in this scrap metal. I told him he had a great looking car and he almost choked on his Busaa. He looked at me like I was mad or high…or both. He explained that the car was a hand me down from his brother who has since passed on. He told me, proudly, that he once drove it to Nakuru and it made it. I asked him why he loved Datsuns and he shrugged and said, “I don’t, I love Peugeots.”
This car obviously didn’t mean much to him as his Busaa did. To him it was nothing more than an obscure landscape outside the shop. To him this car perhaps represented an era lost in an whirlpool of banal events which he doesn’t mind drowning these events with their local brew.
“What does your wife think of this car?” I asked him.
He took a sip and retorted angrily, “My wife is dead!” I almost felt sorry I asked. One of the guys he was drinking with spoke up. “My boss once had a car just like that one, and he said it was a car preferred by the Maragoli.”
I didn’t know what he was on about.
“And what are you?” I asked him.
“I’m a Bukusu!” He remarked indignantly as if it was supposed to be obvious to all that he was Bukusu.
“And what cars do Bukusus love?”
They all laughed and one of them who looked like he was going blind from all that booze growled, “Hizi maswali zote utanunua pombe?”
I bought them a round and left, and you can’t believe how little money you
spend when you throw five men drinking Busaa a round. My good deed for that day I guess.
The owner of this Nissan was seated supervising this boy wash his car. He rattled out instructions to this poor boy who dutifully scrubbed and primed and splashed. The only reason I decided to profile this car was because the man obviously still regarded his car with a certain unrelenting pride. Although an old car, the man still felt that his car deserved the dignity of being kept clean. I wanted to believe that a man who keeps his car spotless says something about his own state of cleanliness, both in mind and in body.
Not always, as it turned out.
The man was suspicious of me. He was unfriendly and he seemed totally averse to talking about his car or himself. He had a sooty soul. So when he had left, I talked to this boy, and for Ksh 30 he told me about the man and his car. Technically, the boy revealed, the car belonged to the man’s wife, an inheritance from her father. The man is a primary school teacher.
“How often does he clean this car?” I asked him.
“When school closes? Everyday.”
“How much does he pay you for that job?”
“What do you use with the money?”
“I was thinking you use it to buy your girlfriend a present or take her out.”
“I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Smart man. Ulcers are hard to treat.”
Another blank stare.
“Does his wife drive this car?”
(Little snigger) “No, she can’t drive, but the wife’s brother sometimes borrows it.”
“Do you like this car?”
“I like a Mercedes Benz.”
“That’s not a bad car at all.”
He opens the doors and removes the old tattered plastic mats.
“What do you always find in his car when you wash it?”
“Cigarette butts mostly.”
“Maybe some school books in the back seat?”
“What about knickers?”
“What’s a knicker?”
Have a good look at this man’s face. Look at his eyes. What do you see in them? The answer is nothing. Now forget about all that wind about telling a man’s character by looking into his eyes. You can’t, at least not entirely. But this man’s face is a storyboard and it has that lopsided character weighted from cynicism. This is how a cynic’s face looks like. This is the face of a man who questions things. A curious man. This look here says, “Oh, is that right, son?” This look here is a look of a man who has lived his life believing that not everything is what it seems.
Look at his hat. I like his hat, perched atop his head like an afterthought. But you can tell it was intentional, this hat. You can tell from his hat that he still seeks swag. This hat might not be trendy, but it’s his hat and he never leaves his house without it.
This man was a cop for 35 years, most of which he worked for the Interpol’s anti- narcotics wing. The Narcs, as they call themselves. Who could have guessed?
His name is Mzee Ouma. He is in his 70’s. He is retired, over ten years in retirement. He spends his day sitting in his bar, drinking what he calls “Coffee spirit.” I found his car before I found him and his car led me to him. His car is a 1970 Fiat. Old as the hills. I asked a couple of boys next to it who owed it and they told me to find him in the bar. And I did.
When I walk in, he is seated in his darkened bar. His socked feet are stretched on top of the table, next to his drink. He regards me coldly as I shuffle in and introduce myself. He offers me a rumbled handshake, a weathered handshake, the handshake of an old man. I tell him I love his car and I would like to ask him a few questions regarding it. He motions me to an empty chair.
He takes his time before he talks, as if he is stringing the sentences and editing it in his head before he utters them. It’s old age maybe. He asks me what I do. I tell him I’m a scribe.
“Can I see some ID?”
I hand him my press card. He gingerly removes his reading glasses from its case and pores over my Press card, then he does something odd. He asks the lady at the counter to bring the day’s newspaper. “Now show me which article you have written today.”
I tell him I don’t write on the Friday paper, that I write mostly on Saturdays and occasionally on the sister paper. He absorbs this for a while before asking if I’m writing about his car for the newspaper.
“No,” I say, “It’s for my blog.”
“What is that?”
“It’s like a diary.”
“Only women write diaries!”
Some moron seated two chairs away chuckles heartily at that. He finds that really funny, the funniest thing he has heard in a while. I want to ping a beer glass off his skull.
“It’s not like a diary, diary,” I stammer, “It’s like something you write on the internet.”
He grunts. I’m hoping that’s not a sign that he’s about to fall asleep; you know how old people are, if you bore them they will sleep.
“Who reads this, this, thing?”
“Yes. Who reads it?”
You know that’s a question I have been asking myself lately. Who reads this blog? Truth is I don’t know. I know their pseudonyms, but that helps as much as broken clock.
“That’s a good question.” I say reflectively to which he stares, no scowls, down at me obviously expecting an answer.
“Well, the people who read blogs are faceless.”
One of his eyebrows arches up.
“I mean to say, it’s hard to say exactly who reads, but I want to think they are like me.”
“Like you?” he asks.
He cracks the first reluctant smile.
“Do you make money of this, this…thing?”
“No, at least not yet.”
“So why do you do it?” This question is punctuated by a look that implies that I’m sort of stupid.
“Probably the same reason why you sit in this bar daily drinking your coffee spirit.”
He stares at me, an intimidating look that says “Oh, we have a smartass in town gentlemen.”
Anyway, he talks about his car. He bought it for Ksh 17,000n at F. Boyare Kenya Ltd.
“Is it still there?” he asks.
“Yes, it’s outside.”
“I mean F. Boyare Ltd, not my car.”
He says F. Boyare is a motor store at the junction of Harambee Avenue and Parliament Road. Maybe it was, in 1975, not now I tell him. He says he has kept the car for this long because it’s “durable,”. He adds that its spares are authentic, not the knock offs that are sold now. He scorns at automatic cars, calls them “Lazy.” He loves the stick shift because it’s a good form of exercise. He takes me outside and he proudly pops open the bonnet and shows off the engine. He starts the car and revs it, and then while the engine idles he steps out and stares at his car with a pride that is fun to observe.
Back in his bar, he opens this old but cool leather case which contains certificates and land title deeds and all these important papers and there he shows me the receipt he bought the car with. He also shows me the receipt for the first car he ever bought, a Datsun in 1963. As expected with old people conversation drifts to his time at the police force, his long travels in America and Europe. He shows me a medal he earned at Interpol. He talks about the Russia’s KGB, the America’s FBI and the Scotland Yard. He tells me he can tell a druggie a mile away. He can tell the quality of cocaine by tasting it.
“Have you ever shot and killed anyone?” I ask.
He ignores that question like I never asked it. He talks about his son instead, the one who “just died.” I say I’m sorry to hear that and he waves it away dismissively. He talks about another son who went to Makerere University to study but came back without graduating. “Drunk too much in Wandegye, yes?” I say with a chuckle. He talks about his kids who “have disappeared in America.”
“How many children do you have?” I ask.
“Several.” Comes the curt answer. Several could be 50 kids you know, but I don’t want to pursue that.
“Do you fear dying?” I ask.
“Why?” he asks preposterously, a question that acts as my answer.
He has lived his life well, he says. He loves his twilight years. When he talks about his children he harbors little bitterness. He loves to sit in his bar and drink his coffee spirit or whatever. When I ask him what he regrets most about his life, he thinks for a moment and replies, rather dishonestly, “nothing.”
“Not one thing you wish you did differently?” I insist
“I’m happy with my life.”
So I ask him what quality one needs to live a successful life. The maxims of life that can help us navigate life successfully.
“Honest and integrity,” he says, “Be satisfied with what you have. Don’t aspire for riches; make enough to offer decent education for your children, to buy a decent house to live well. Wealth kills; it will bring disease and grief into your life. Greed for money will be what finally kills young people.”
I realized that throughout our talk he never did once mention God. Not to imply that he wasn’t spiritual, but I would imagine that a man in his twilight years would by default throw in God in his conversation. Or maybe he was being respectful not to call the good lord’s name in a bar.