They dragged his ass to court. He was shoeless, penniless, and out of luck. He stood in the dock, blinking in the bright light of justice. The judge, a stern lady of the Vioja Mahakamani disposition, never once looked at him. Head bowed, she read whatever judges read in a dead voice. He was supposed to eschew humility and remorse but he was hungover and all he thought about was the drink he would chug upon his release. With slightly trembling hands, he clutched the wooden railing like a sailor who had run into a mad storm.
The lady judge was saying something about him being ‘mlevi kupindukia” and being a nuisance and a disruption to public peace. An exhibit had earlier been held up for the whole court to see; a jerrican of changaa. Sure, he and others not in court had been arrested in a seedy drinking den in Juja but he didn’t recall disrupting any public’s peace. Actually, they were doing pretty okay alone until the cops came and disrupted their peace. Also, he had never seen that jerrican of changaa in his life – one of the crooked coppers with watery eyes might have planted it on him. Anybody who has drunk changaa knows that you can’t own a jerrican. Nobody walks around with a jerrican of changaa. Screw this kangaroo production, he thought, get it over and done with.
“Unakubali hayo mashtaka?” the judge asked, head still bowed, scribbling something. He said, “Ndio, mheshimiwa.” He thought of saluting her but thought the better of it.
Female judges are like female cops; you don’t try any smart-ass -monkey business with them. I was once stopped by a female cop. Unbeknownst to me, I had crossed an unbroken yellow line or some inane shit like that. I rolled down the window and said cheerily, “Habari ma’am?” She barked back at me, “Unaita nani mum?” I said, “hapana, sikusema mum, nimesema ma’am.” She wanted to punch me. She truly wanted to punch me. She was very light-skinned with plum-like pinkish cheeks and the temperament of a buffalo to match. The life of the party. “Mimi usiniite mum,” she snarled, moving closer to my window “mimi ni afisa, na niko kazi.” OK, then. I said, “Sorry bas, officer. Sina ubaya.” I should have left it at that but silly me, felt like I needed to dig myself deeper into this hole so I said, “Lakini, unakaa umekasirika, I hope sio mimi nimekukasirisha?”Just polite harmless banter between two Kenyans. Let’s just say she kept me there for a long time, chewing my ass. Now if a female cop stops me, no small talk, no smarty-pants remarks, no chummy-chummy. It’s yes, afisa, or no afisa, and I do as I’m told.
The female judge delivered the sentence of possession of illicit brew; a fine of 1,000 bob or “kifungo cha mwezi moja.” Then she rapped the gavel. He didn’t have a 1,000 bob. A cop held him by the arm and led him to a door that opened into a long corridor like the type you see in a cattle dip. The corridor was full of men with stricken looks. The escaping air hit him in the face; it smelled of urethra. As soon as the door closed behind him, rough hungry hands rummaged through his pockets looking for money, cigarettes or whatever. It felt like he was being raised up in the air as this very brief but furious violation ensued. Later he realised that he was in the holding area for men waiting for their hearing or those like him who would be ferried to jail to start serving their sentences.
They were ferried to Thika prison-like cattle where he was handed a prison uniform, the infamous stripes. His uniform barely fit, he floated in it like a ghost. A warder loaned him old bathroom rubber sandals. What can one say about prison? Prison was prison. They did chores during the day. At night, packed like omena, they slept on blankets spread on the floor of a big hall. “You slept sideways and you only turned if the person next to you agreed to turn.” There were all sorts of characters in there; pickpockets with fingers that looked like they had fungus, petty muggers with missing teeth, burglars with scars on their faces, small-time weed runners with small feet, folk who fought in bars, aliens from neighbouring countries who had dyed faces that now looked like medium-rare steak…these and other forms of small-time flotsam and jetsam of humanity. They all had one thing in common; they had lice. His arms and thighs looked like he had been licked by the devil’s cousin. He truly didn’t belong in this prison. Or any other prison. He was a failing engineering student at JKUAT struggling with alcoholism. He had failed to graduate. He had been discontinued. He spent his days drinking in dingy holes around Thika road.
Luckily for him, prison warders took an interest in him; they said he didn’t look like the type of guy who ended up there. “Mtu kama wewe unatupa maisha yako hapa kwa nini?” They asked. One warder got his dad’s number and called him a few times. Dad didn’t want anything to do with him. He’d washed his hands off that story. The warder then called his mom a few times. Get this boy out of here. This was no place for a young man like him, they said. She was reluctant at first because they were supposed to be a united front, teach him a lesson, but then she relented because mothers’ hearts are made from sukari nguru. His brother was sent to go pick him up, halfway through his sentence. He brought him some open shoes and paid 500 bob. He walked out into the sunlight of freedom. His mom had then come from the village and was staying with her sister. When he saw her, she looked sad and discouraged. Food was set before him and he ate as she watched him silently, piteously. She had thrown a green leso around her shoulders to ward off the chill of disappointment she felt. When he was done eating she said, “You have to go to rehab.”
He was shipped to Asumbi Treatment Center in Homabay.
I travelled to Asumbi while doing research for my book DRUNK. I remember parking facing the fence, exiting my car and turning to find some chaps seated under a tree following my movement with very bland interest. I remember talking to someone in administration, being shown the schedules and programs and my request for a tour of the facility being turned down politely for obvious reasons. I remember being saddened to be there, looking at how the patients looked like they were waiting for something good to happen to them but also looking defeated at the same time. Like an oxymoron of a place.
“I was there for three months and in that period I was visited once by my mom.”He tells me. “It wasn’t that bad. At this point in my life I was in bad shape. I remember my university roommate leaving me because I would get so drunk, I’d pee right there in the room when drunk. At Asumbi I met brilliant guys and mad guys. I don’t think rehab helped me the first time but what it did was it made me aware that I had a drinking problem. What rehabs does is that it brings structure into your life. When you are drunk you don’t have any structure. It made me realise that unlike other people, I couldn’t control my drinking.”
“Does heavy drinking run in your family?”
“First time I used to think hii kitu ni urogi,” he chuckles, “but it’s in my family. My uncle died from booze complications. He died on his seat outside his house, his head just rolled to the side and he was dead. Other uncles and cousins are struggling with it. I think it’s in the genes, this alcoholism thing because all the first born boys on my dad’s side have struggled with it. My father on the other hand thought that learned people, people who were smart and who went to university to study courses like engineering, medicine or law were immediately immune to alcoholism so he didn’t understand my problem.”
In rehab, he was appointed the overseer. The guy in charge of other men. “I was mkubwa wa walevi,” we chuckle at that. “Can you imagine the irony? When I was outside, I was a mess, but inside I was a leader!”
Three months after he was discharged, his mom was there to pick him up. A month later he was drinking again. “You can go to rehab a million times but if you don’t internalise the program in your heart it won’t help you. I internalized the program, but only intellectually. It was in my head, not my heart. You need to embrace it here,” he points at a point I’m pretty sure is his lung, but who am I to say where a man’s heart is?
“How bad was it?” I ask.
“Pretty bad,” he says.
“How pretty bad?”
“You drink, right?” he asks.
“At some point you say, ok, let me go home now.”
“Yeah.” I want to add, ‘then I get on my horse, and say, ‘whoa boy, let’s go to mama!”’
He continues. “So when I drink there is no internal mechanism that tells me to stop and go home. I’m in free fall. I leave my senses. I’m mad. I’m walking on a precipice. I do mad things; I stagger into highways. I stagger into walls. I wake up in police cells, in ditches. I’ve woken up in a dingy room someone paid for and locked me in until dawn. One time I was travelling to Kisumu. I was thrown out of the mat at night because I was drunk. They left me in the middle of nowhere, just after Nakuru but I didn’t know where I was. I walked and walked in pitch darkness until I started hearing the birds, it was morning. I asked someone where I was and they said, ‘Kericho.’ That’s how I drink. It’s like nothing you have ever seen.”
He resat his exams in JKUAT in 2009 and passed. Actually, he was the best. He got a job in an engineering firm. When his first salary landed in his account, he went on a bender and ended up in Kenyatta Hospital where he was put on a drip. He stayed a week. In November of the same year he went back to rehab in Ngong and stayed for two months. When he came out sober he got a very good job. His drinking started again. It got worse. He got warnings from his boss. They said, “We like you, you are brilliant at what you do, but you gotta watch this drinking.” They let him go eventually.
He moved to the village in 2011. He shows me his Simba that looks exactly like my Simba. They could be twin simbas. He was depressed in that simba, in the village, how villagers called him “engineer,” as if mockingly. He drank in hovels that sold changaaa, drinking with men who had nothing left to lose. 2011 turned into 2012 and then 2013. He got a job again, a decent job and the drinking continued. I have to say here that for all that drinking he describes he doesn’t look like your typical drunkard; red-lipped, saggy-faced, tired looking and bony. He is healthy and coherent. He could be anyone.
“What would trigger your drinking so much?” I ask.
It’s the same story of alcoholism. Only for him it was the stretches of sobriety, a year or so, then one drink and the bottom falls off and he’s sinking into the chasm. He was now in the village, his contacts in Nairobi dried up, his prospects thinned, his friendships even thinner. “Your phone never rings. Nobody calls you because nobody wants anything from you. Nobody wants anything from you because people have written you off.” He had had no notable female relationships at 39. He occasionally would drink a lot. Mostly he helped his father around the boma; milking cows, helping in the farm, or helping mzee with his projects. Kept him busy. He’s getting gigs to do, odd gigs that require a sharp engineering brain. “My dream has always been to work for the government but I think my prison record has gotten in the way of that,” he says.
But then something peculiar happened to his life at the beginning of this year.
His drinking changaa base is called Kwa Mama Fei. With exception of Cliff The Tall (your wife makes dope birthday cakes, boss. Thank you, Lisa) I don’t suppose many of you have been to a changaa den. There is no barman. There is no parking. There are no ice cubes. Or mixers. You pee against a tree or in a bush or on the leg of the guy who never buys anyone rounds. Mama Fei’s belongs to Mama Faith. Faith is the girl you don’t dare talk to.
There are two sitting areas; in a small poorly lit house or behind the house on benches. The people with village money – the VIPs – sit inside the house. The rest of the hoity-toity sit outside. Inside, a glass is 100 bob a pop. Outside in the cattle section it’s 50bob. It’s a bit like the Titanic; inside is full of stiffies who think they are still somebodies. They speak a lot of English. Outside is like the ship’s lower deck where all the fun is. This is where you find the storytellers, the quick-witted and the comedians. There are a lot of laughs outside, and people falling off benches and just dozing off there, folk stepping over them as if they are logs.
Outside is where Engineer would drink.
“Often when I’d lose sleep in the middle of the night I’d call Mama Fei at 3am and tell her I’m going over. Then I’d walk there in darkness and I’d find her awake with my drink ready. That’s how desperate drinking makes you. You drink not because you enjoy drinking but because you are thinking a lot, a sinking stone.” He says. “During one of those nights Mama Fei told me, ‘wewe bado ni kijana, mbona hujaa oa bibi? Nikutafutie bibi?’ I didn’t want her to bother me any further so I said, sawa, mlete. A few days later she told me she spoke to a lady and she would be coming in a few days.”
A week later, a lady showed up at his mom’s house together with Mama Fei and a church lady. She said, “Haya, mschina ndio huyu.” She was slim and beautiful. Engineer likes slim curvy girls. She was dressed very neatly even by shags standards. Well coiffed. A 27-year-old Bukusu girl with rich skin. Her mother – also a Bukusu – was curiously very excited. “I was still high. Normally it would take about ten days for me to completely sober up. So when this girl came to our shags it didn’t register to me.” He says. They all sat in the living room making small talk as a child ran after a squeaking feathery lunch behind the house. It was a meet and greet so she didn’t have a change of clothes but his mom didn’t want to let her go back. She offered to buy her clothes in the market the following day.
That night she moved into his small Simba. Man and wife.
“Was it awkward?” I ask.
“No, not at the beginning, remember I was still drunk?”
“Did you get laid?”
“Yeah…eventually.” He laughs. “It had been long time since I was intimate with a woman… a year plus…maybe even two.”
“I didn’t have anyone but also I just didn’t have the urge, you know. When you drink like that the urge goes away and women are just effort which you don’t have..”
“What did you guys talk about those first few nights?”
“Not much, the first few nights because I was slowly weaning off alcohol, so just small talk…nothing that I can recall in specifics.”
As he slowly sobered up he gradually started seeing her clearly; he learnt that she was a teacher by profession. She was polite and respectful. She was dutiful, he noticed. She slowly upgraded the simba, bought a carpet, a table, and curtains. She always opened the windows. The house smelled fresh and clean. But as he sobered up and regained his senses he also panicked, he thought Oh shit, what have I gotten myself into! I don’t need a wife. But she slowly grew on him. How tender she was. How concerned and dedicated she was towards him. His mother adored her. His father respected her. “There is something about her that has just changed my life gradually. She brings me peace. Some level of order. And love. I have only been in three relationships in my life, never lived with a woman before but I got a very good feeling about this woman. She’s called Brigdett, by the way. I think she was raised to be my wife. I mean if you are looking for a wife, you are looking for Brigdette.”
“Would you say you are happy?”I ask.
“What does that mean?”
“Whatever definition of happiness you choose.”
He pauses. “You know, I’m not really good at processing my feelings and now you are making me do that.” He leans back on his seat, mulling. “Happiness Is not a feeling for me. I don’t talk about love or happiness, it’s about responsibility. I appreciate her presence in my life. Honesty is big for me and she has been open about herself. She has taken me for all these flaws that I have. I now feel like a man. I feel proper. Whereas my self-esteem has suffered greatly I now feel respected. This woman has given me confidence. I see even how my dad deals with me now is different, like a man with a wife, a responsible man. I can stop my dad when he starts saying something I disagree with. I have confidence. Before I wouldn’t. But most importantly I stopped drinking. I haven’t touched alcohol since she came into my life six months ago.”
It worries me, a little; him placing the responsibility of his sobriety on her. I ask him what happens when she disappoints him, as she is bound to at some point because she is human and she isn’t perfect. “Will that send you back to drinking, to drown that disappointment, seeing as your drinking has stopped because of her?”
“If she disappoints me I will send her away. She will go!” He snaps. I know he doesn’t mean it, this initial response. I recognise it for what it is, male conditioning, machismo, a show of might, and authority. I know this because as soon as these words leave his mouth, he takes a small step back and reconsiders his answer, replacing it with another one, a more tempered one this time.
He says he doesn’t know. That he’s taking life a day at a time. “I don’t care what happens tomorrow, if I drink or not.” That disappoints me, breaks my heart a little. As I’m still processing this he asks me, “Have you watched Shawshank Redemption?”
I have. Ages ago. Si Morgan Freeman?
“Yeah. There is a scene where Red faces a parole board for the last time and he is asked if he is rehabilitated. He asks them what that means. He says it’s a bullshit word, a policy word. That he regrets the boy who did all those nasty things before, but that boy is long gone and what’s left is this old man sitting before you. So he says he doesn’t give a shit about that word. They stamped the approval of his parole. That’s how I feel.”
I don’t quite understand the relation of this scene and his life but I don’t ask because the interview has been going on for over two hours and my gluteus maximus is tired of sitting. That was two weeks ago. I called him today morning. I could hear birds in the background. He had sent me some pictures of his shags in Western; rolling greenery, blue skies, fresh air. I pictured him standing under that sky. I asked about rain because now I’m at the age where you have to ask if it’s raining. Then I asked him about that scene in Shawshank and why it’s relevant to his story.
“That scene is important because before I got here I used to play to the gallery. I would say things to please people, someone would tell me they want to give me an opportunity, but can we trust you? I would gush about being sober and changed, a new man and that kind of thing. Now I don’t care. I know myself, I know where I have been, if you can’t take me for who I am, then see you later, tembea na Yesu. I don’t have to explain myself to anyone. I can’t control how people see me but I can control how I see myself. I’m the man I want to be in my mind and in my heart and I don’t know about tomorrow, I know about today and today I’m in a good space, a better space than I was before so I will enjoy today and not worry too much about tomorrow.”
“Well said. Well said,” I tell him, “Listen, if I ever find myself near your shags I will definitely look for you. I would like to visit Mama Fei too.”
He laughs loudly. “Lazima. I will tembeza you in the village. You will see the ditches I have been through.”
The registration for the creative writing masterclass scheduled for next week is closing this weekend. Get the last slot HERE.
Also, do you have a quirky compelling story? Buzz me on [email protected]