The evening sun followed them, casting long shadows, as they headed towards their deaths. They were over three dozen men, in three military choppers; the Soviet-designed Mi 171 Puma. Three monstrous buzzing bees, chopping over the dry wasteland of Dobe, Somali. They were responding to a mayday call from one of their military bases 25 minutes out; the base was under furious attack by a band of gung-ho Al Shabaab militants. This was in 2013, when the Al Shabaab threat was fairly fresh.
He sat in one of the choppers each with six other soldiers who journalists would describe as ‘armed to the teeth.” They were silent during the ride, peering passively outside at the quickly running landscape; lone trees, dry riverbeds, cracked earth, patches of brown grass. They looked calm because this is what they did, just another day on the grind. He was in his late twenties and as the captain, the men were under his command. He wasn’t worried about their competence because after all, they were all in the KDF’s Special Forces; elite fighting force, super-humans, multi-talented, fastidious trained in warfare, insanely fit, and the best of the best. There were men and then there were the Special Forces.
And he was scared.
He’s only telling me this story because I had asked him to remember when, in his life, he had been most scared.
“As the choppers headed towards the action to save our comrades, I was talking to God. I was like, God you will decide whether I will one day be a husband and a father or I will die today but if you decide that today is my day then so be it. As we neared the besieged camp we could see a firefight from above. It was insane. You could actually see the fire from the bullets going back and forth and the explosions. A minute before we were to jump out I told my men in sheng, these were local boys, you know, young guys in their early 20s. I told them, “Wasee, wakati imefika…tunajijua, tunajiamini. Whatever happens down there, leo lazima turudi home. Sisi sote tunarudi home, sawa?” Then they all shouted, “Tunarudi home!” I can’t explain to you the kind of relationship you have as an elite unit. People talk of brotherhood but this is not even brotherhood, this is something much bigger and stronger than blood, we are all connected to one another by life and by death. People always say, I will die for you until death arrives at their doorstep then they hesitate. In special forces, you will die for the man next to you without even thinking. The Special Forces operate in small units and we are called only when shit hits the fan or as an advance team to clear everything before the infantry shows up. We are normally very fast, very discreet and very professional and we hardly make any mistakes. Ukiona the special forces have arrived, just know they will get it done. We had a motto in Special Forces; leave no man behind, no matter what, dead or alive. So if I was to die, I was sure my body would be handed to my mother. My comrades would ensure that.”
Anyway, safety off. Final checks. The choppers don’t land, you have to jump from about three or four meters from the ground. You land flatfoot to avoid breaking your leg. Guys started jumping off. I was the third to jump from our chopper. The fighting that day was insane. We got right into it, crawling on your knees and elbows, with heavy gear on your back. That bag is about 27kgs. You would hear bullets passing over your head, sometimes thudding next to you.”
“What’s the sound of bullets passing over your head?”
He chuckled and shook his head then he paused. “How do I even explain it. It’s insane. It’s death basically. It’s…I dunno..it makes this sound that I can’t describe..but it’s not a nice sound at all. The enemy was using AK47s which are great for close combat but we were using G3s, which are badass rifles with a range of like 600m. The kick of a G3 can break your shoulder but these guys were super fit. You could find a guy who is skinny, but he’s hard as granite. Look, I played rugby for Nondies and I was very very fit, I never thought I would ever meet anyone fitter than me until I joined the special forces and met chaps who were half my weight but were superhumans. We could do insane things. We could walk for 340 kilometers with almost 30kgs of gear on our backs in the heat of Somalia, wearing full gear.
Anyway, we had air support, the choppers had the 50 caliber machine guns. All of us have to go through that training course to learn to shoot that machine gun from a moving chopper. These guys on choppers helped a great deal. That day we managed to kill many of the enemy. Only a few escaped. All of us went back home.”
It’s a Saturday and we are having breakfast. He’s having eggs, bacon, baked beans and completely ignoring his bread. [Bread is for the weak and the needy] He’s a big man. He had wide impressive shoulders that filled half the booth. Massive forearms. Biceps the size of a blender. And his knuckles… I know people who have faces the size of his knuckle. Next to him I looked like Jughead in the Archie comic. His deep rumbling voice shimmered the cup of tea on my table. He had a healthy beard running around his face. I could never grow a beard on my cheeks, it comes out like pubic hair so I’m always lowkey envious of people who are blessed with cheek beards. I always fantasize lighting their beards with a lighter. On his right bicep was this unique and large tribal branding that he got in a remote village in Turkana where their unit met Turkana warriors and men being men, always comparing their cajones, they had accepted to do their traditional version of tattooing. It was a painful process that involved a thin unbreakable reed or stick that they tapped on using a camel bone to make marks on the skin. It’s a slow and painful process that draws a lot of blood. It lasted eight hours and the result is stupefying and beautiful.
Despite his size and his big aura, he was surprisingly very polite and gentle to a fault. He was all ‘Yes, please” and thank you” to the waitresses. He kept referring to me as “sir” even when I asked him very unfair questions like, “Do you remember the first man you ever killed?” He did, begrudgingly, because there is no joy recounting such things. It’s duty to country, he said. It’s war. Bad things happen. When you are trained in Special Forces you aren’t trained to rescue cats stranded up trees. You are a killing machine. You eliminate the enemy. His first kill was in Boni Forest. They had been stalking the enemy for days, walking day and night, in the rain and dumbness of the forest, barely sleeping, heavy backpacks on back, guns in hand, eating biscuits avoiding making open fire, often not talking for many hours, using sign language, moving soundlessly, shadows. Then finally capturing a dangerous man who upon intense interrogation and running out of lies to tell turns out to be an Al Shabaab spy. His unit normally carries these long daggers on them. He unsheathed his and it was so swift the guy was gone before his face hit the ground. I ask him if it disturbs him and he says there are worse things that happen when you are fighting terrorists.
Many of his brothers died in the fight against terrorism but he didn’t. What eventually killed him, it turns out ironically, was love.
Growing up, his older brother was a navy officer. A beautiful man in uniform. He would show up after the passing ceremony during public holidays in his crisp white navy uniform with medals on his chest. He looked handsome and regal and distinguished. “I admired him, his statue,” he said. “I always felt like serving your country was a calling and he was serving a higher call, a sacrifice.” He studied engineering out of the country before he came back and joined the Kenya Defense Force as an officer. He then found his way into the Special Forces. “Getting in the Special Forces isn’t easy. It reminds me of that camel through the eye of a needle saying in the Bible,” he said. “Of the 200-plus soldiers who went through the training selection for special forces, I think only 10 of us were picked.” When AMISON happened, they were the first few units to go across.
The previous year he was playing rugby in a tournament, Driftwood Sevens, when after a game he saw a fine petite girl with a crippling smile seated with his friends. On his way to the shower room, he stopped by the terrace and told her, “I’m going to have a shower, can I see you after?” They met after. She was studying medicine. They talked for a long time. They started dating but then the military started getting busy, he got in the special forces and then got really busy. He was always away on missions; Garissa, Moyale, Lamu, Garsen…riding in choppers, in Land Cruisers, on foot, sleeping in tents or against tree barks, gun in hand. He would be off the radar, incommunicado, for long stretches of time, sometimes many weeks.
“In 2014 or thereabout we were in Somali. I don’t know where we were going, maybe patrol, or a mission but I remember being seated in front in a Cruiser and my men behind. It was a very risky time, you could get ambushed anytime, so you always had your gun cocked, between your legs, ready, tensed. We were driving in this very dry area, Somalia is very dry, when suddenly one of the boys seated at the back said in a deep voice, “Wasee hapa kuna network. Full bar kwanza.” So I put on my phone and messages started pinging in quickly and one of the messages was from my babe. She had written a long message saying this wasn’t working for her, that she was tired of the distance and absence and she couldn’t do it anymore. I felt like someone had shot me in my heart and it was bleeding.”
He sat looking out the window at the barren land and he felt his heart break. He felt breathless and nauseated. He wanted to come out of the Cruiser and vomit. “I didn’t think I would ever love any woman like her. That it was even humanly possible. I didn’t think there was someone else for me but her. When you are in battle if you get distracted you get killed so I tried to push her and this situation out of my mind, but it was so difficult. Back in camp, I lay down in my tent and I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I couldn’t stop grieving for the loss of my heart” A few days later, in a cloud of sorrow, he asked for leave to go home and perhaps save his relationship. When you are in the bush you don’t send emails for leave, you go to the signaller who is this guy with satellite enable communication gizmos who sends your leave request through this machine and then you wait for days for a reply. “When it came, I was told no leave for now. Nobody was going on leave, not when Al Shabaab was running wild.”
He stayed for 19 months in Somalia. When the particular mission ended he landed in JKIA one afternoon in his dusty boots and bag on his back. He switched on his phone and called his babe. The phone rang twice. She picked. He said, “Hey babe. It’s me.” There was a pause. Then a sigh. She then generally said it was over. Don’t call me again, she said, because now I’m seeing someone and he won’t appreciate such calls. He was stunned. Right there, under the bright sun of Nairobi, it felt worse than being killed in combat. Rejection burnt a hole through him. Jealous scalded his heart. A deep sense of loss drowned his lungs. In the cab home he remembered her words, “Please don’t call me again, my man is here.” The words “my man” played over and over in his head like a broken record. She had a man who wasn’t me? My man. My man. When did I stop being her man! Still in disbelief, because he was a fighter and a lover, he tried texting her but he realised that she had blocked him. It’s only that he let go, slowly.
He moved on with his life. Or tried. He carried his fractured heart to more missions locally. In different forests, through swollen rivers and mucky swamps and dark mysterious valleys. His backpack felt heavier, his soul older. Sometimes after a gun battle, seated down, his muscles still vibrating from the tension, his heart trembling, she’d cross his mind fleetingly. He’d picture her standing at the kitchen sink. Or bent, spreading the bed. He’d wonder if she would feel remorse if he died in battle.
Time passed. Time heals.
In 2015 he was drinking at Jamhuri Showground with some rugby chaps when his phone rang. A number he didn’t know. He picked it. It was her. He walked outside, phone pressed on his ear. “I told her ‘Babe, is this really you. Tell me I’m dreaming. Tell me this is not you.”
She laughed, that laughter of hers that sounded like a sound that came from a banjo. It was Feb 14th, 2015. “I thought you didn’t want anything to do with me?” He asked her. She said she was sorry. That she had broken up with ‘my man.”
“Sweet Jesus! I said.”
I laughed when he said that. Sweet Jesus! It was funny. The jubilation. The triumph and relief. There is a Gospel song by Steffany Gretzinger [why that face, can’t I listen to gospel music as well?) called Defender where she sings, ‘you go before/ I know that you’ve gone to fight my war/ You come back with the head of my enemy, you come back and you call it victory/ and all I did was praise. All I did was worship.” It’s a lyrically arousing song of praise. God goes to war and he brings back the head of our enemy. Oh, sweet Jesus! Ha-ha. Love it. In the parlance of Kenyans online, Mtaachana tu.
“I told her, ‘Tell me where you are babe. I will come right now and get you. Where are you?” He said. But babe was travelling to Nairobi from Uganda. They met the following day. He held her small face in his big hands, the hand of a warrior, of a soldier, now rendered tender and brittle with love, and he told her, ‘Babe, I have been in great darkness without you, no lamp, no candle, lost and gutted but now you are here and my heart is lit with the bright fire of your love.” OK, he didn’t say that. They met at a Java at 9am and had breakfast and talked, then had lunch, still talking, then had dessert at 4pm. They left shortly after 4pm. “She said she loved me but she had a problem with my job; it was risky and I was never there. I assured her that things will somehow work themselves out.”
They got back together and started dating seriously. But there was a hitch. Her mother didn’t like him. Her mother didn’t like him because he was from a different tribe. At first, she was subtle about it but then she started showing her teeth. “You know, madharau. Like when I’d call her mom, she’d snap, I’m not your mother. I would never be your mother. Or asking me what I would give her daughter, a mere soldier. Things like that. It got very bad, man. Outright disrespect and animosity. But then my baby got pregnant and we did a hush ceremony at the IG.”
They got a daughter, a preterm daughter because she was under a great deal of stress. [I was never home, I was always out on mission”] He tattooed her daughter’s name on his bicep. Less than a year later, she called him when she was in Northern Kenya and said, “Babe, I’m pregnant.” He was shocked. Their baby was only a few months old! “I couldn’t handle it, so I switched off my phone and for a week or so I was just in the field. In the meantime she was making frantic calls, looking for me. She called the base and my boss called me and said, ‘Your wife is looking for you. Call her!”
Then his mom-in-law found out that they were married. “She was furious! Oh my God she was so mad. She said some very terrible things to me. She was plain nasty.” Anyway, this spilled into the marriage and they started having issues. “She hated that I was away and she was the one remaining to raise the kids while I was away and eventually I decided that I wanted to make her happy, and if this job was standing in the way of her happiness, I would quit. So eventually, I quit my job.”
But the military refused his resignation. They spend almost 10million training one Special Forces officer, it’s a big investment, he said. They weren’t going to roll over easy. They tried talking him out of resignation, they stalled his clearance but he was adamant. He wanted to leave to be a husband and a father. His mother was furious. “You are the most foolish person I have ever met!” she told him angrily, “Who quits their job for their wives? Did I give birth to an idiot?” His mom cut ties with him.
He stayed home and became a househusband. It was not easy. He had PTSD. His wife left for work in the morning and came back in the evening, finding him in his shorts and his t-shirt. Gradually, she got anxious and testy, they started fighting and he got more and more hopeless. He felt like his life was stalled as hers was taking off. She had a purpose, she woke up to something while he had a whole empty day facing him with no prospects. He missed the military, he missed fighting for something he believed in, for the country. “I reached out to my superiors and said I wanted back in. But it was all too late. I was seen as a deserter. I had abandoned the brotherhood. A disgrace. You don’t leave your men no matter what.”
The fights at home became more and more. The shoutings, her coming back home late drunk, the bitter words that would ensue. “I felt disrespected. I felt like she was openly disregarding me.” One day she came home drunk at 1am, he stood behind the grill and told her to go back where she was from. She was furious, she shouted, “I pay rent here! You can’t lock me out!” She called her three cousins and there was some verbal altercation between him and them. When he opened the door he punched one in the chest and broke his limbs. Cops came and he was hauled away.
“When I came back home later I found she had burnt all my school certificates, passports, clothes, everything. Then she kicked me out. Then she got a restraining order, saying she feared for her life and her children’s lives that I was a violent man, maybe even unstable. I couldn’t contest it; I had beaten up her cousin, and broken his limbs. I was barred from seeing my kids or getting anywhere near her or them.” When she left he called his mom for the first time in a very long time seeing as they weren’t talking. She was ailing now. He said she had left him. She sighed as if she saw this coming all along. He begged for his job back but the army – like a scorned woman – had turned its back on him. He didn’t have his papers or a job or prospect of getting a job. He has applied to jobs abroad, private security contractors to no avail. He’s at the rock bottom of his life. He lives with friends now, couch surfing they call it? He can hardly sleep for more than two hours and when he does he dreams of tunkers rolling towards him as he lies tied to a railway line. Or of beared turbaned men standing over him with a long dagger. He has waves of fury, he punches walls with his fist in anger. His right wrist was only just healing when we met. He’s broke and broken and each day when he lies in bed and morning light finds him staring at the ceiling he tries to be positive, to be less bitter, but it’s insurmountable.
Often he cries.
Here is how we got to meet. Eddy sent me a screenshot of a DM he had sent to our Instagram. It was a Wednesday, I was seated on a high stool like Bogi Benda, listening to Rhumba in my local and nursing a Fernet-Branca. He wrote that he had just read about Josh, the very sick gentleman I wrote about who was looking for a kidney.
He wrote in part: “People are going through some crazy shit in this life. My life has not been perfect either, I have lost everything; my job, family, kids etc. Anyway, this is not about me. I want to donate a kidney to Josh, I’m blood group O-positive and giving this kidney could just be the best thing I have done in my entire life.”
I read the message and told Eddy, get me his number asap. Forty minutes later we spoke. When we met I asked him why he was giving his kidney to a stranger. He said, ‘It’s the irony of our lives with this Josh guy. He is very sick and probably doesn’t have a lot of time and all he wants is a kidney to help him live long enough to see his son grow. I’m very healthy and maybe I have more time and healthy kidneys but I’m unable to see my kids. So why not give him one kidney and time to do the things he wants to do with his son that I can’t do with my children?”
He talks about the desperation that his life has come to. Having to ask for handouts. To live under people’s mercies. The indignity that his life has come to now. His greatest regret, he says, is quitting the military. He shouldn’t have. “Nobody should quit what they love doing for their spouses. It comes to haunt you.”
“My ex has since moved on with her life, “ he says. “She seems happy. She posts pictures of her new guy on social media. Pictures of them with my kids.” His eyes get red and he gets teary. He pauses and looks up at the ceiling to avoid crying. “It makes me so sad.”
Tomorrow he will start doing a series of tests to certify if he is fit to donate a kidney. In the meantime, he is also looking for work. Any work that suits his talents. I will do anything, he says.
On behalf of Josh, I would also like to thank everybody who offered to donate their kidneys. The response was overwhelming. He now has 51 potential donors that they are also considering. God bless your hearts.
PS: The registration of the Creative Writing Masterclass is ongoing HERE. Limited slots available.
This story has further developments. Buckle in, and read more HERE.