He was never the guy to cause a ruckus. Never the guy who was suspended from school. Always knowing when to walk away from trouble, like that country guy Kenny Rogers crooned about. Never the guy who drove around with an expired driving licence. Paid rent on time. Paid his children’s school fees on time because the thought of receiving a letter from finance embarrassed him. In 15 years of marriage, he had never gone back home in the morning from the bar, like his mates. Never even drank at the house because his wife disliked it. [Of course, he’s a beer guy]. He sent his mother money every month even when his other well-to-do siblings always made excuses not to send any. And never went against his father’s demands, even the most ridiculous ones – and there were several. He worked hard and he kept his nose clean most of his life, living like a bloody monk. The term goody-two-shoes fit him like a second skin. Some people would describe him as boring. Or pious. He didn’t mind. It was just who he was.
When he turned 41 years old it slowly dawned on him that he wasn’t happy. He was grateful, yes, because he had a fairly decent job and a good family and both his parents were alive – but he wasn’t happy. He felt like he was coasting along, cutting through life like a swordfish through water, never causing any ripples. Something was missing and he yearned for something else but he didn’t know what. He just knew he wanted it. Being who he is, he didn’t interrogate these urges, because he wasn’t one to cause bubbles in water.
Before Covid19, his father invited them to the village, for a harambee to fund a livestock project he was involved in. His other brothers were too busy with their lives to make time for cows and cattle dips. He was also busy with his life, but he was also sensitive. He never wanted his father to feel abandoned in his hour of need. His father was in his 80s but was still very lean and agile, very engaged in matters of the village. Especially matters that didn’t involve him. In his head, he was the chief. He decided to go because it meant a break from the domesticity of life in Nairobi. He loved his family but what he loved more was an opportunity to leave the family for a few days and stay away from the loudness of his life and from everybody who seemed to start their sentences with, “Dad I want…” He felt like he was a piece of bread in water and he was constantly being nibbled at by a school of fish.
He looked forward to the long solo drives; listening to music, munching on something. He liked to snack. His wife was a health freak who never allowed snacks in the house. Snacks were always carrots sticks and pieces of dried fruit. The kids were allowed chips and pizza once a month. If you dared to sneak soda into the house, you’d be hanged, drawn, and quartered and then, for good measure, dragged out to the backyard of the apartment block and shot in the back of the head. By her. “Junk is cancer of the body and the mind.” She liked to say. She was also into outdoor activities. He didn’t care for her hikes and meditation and gym. She gave up trying to get him to the gym or meditation. Once in a while they would go for walks at Karura forest on Saturdays but he preferred to go alone because she hated silence so much she always filled the two hour walk with talk. Yadda yadda yadda. She would not stop. So he preferred to go alone and just walk in silence. He was also a bit overweight. His BMI was 31.
So, any opportunity to drive to shags was welcome. He would hit the A104 to Nakuru. Maybe stop there for a bite, depending on the time and his mood. He’d then take the B4, up north, the sky suddenly so blue, like there was an ocean above. Past Kambi Ya Moto. C55 past Machege, B53 at Eldama Ravine, Chemosusu, maybe stop at Sawich shopping centre, then up Kamwosor Centre, past small naked little towns with nothing to hide; Kapchebelel, Kaptagat, then C50 up the droopy-eyed Sergoit, then at Cheptongei, he’d stop to say hello to his cousin who ran a kiosk there, selling anything from bread to sewing needles. Maybe they’d share a cup of tea and mandazi and shoot the breeze.
Other times he’d opt for the A104 from Nakuru through Burnt Forest all the way to Eldoret then turn the car east and drive up towards Chepkoilel, past ancient Chevrolets, their exhaust pipes kissing the road, loaded with people carrying goats, chicken and the occasional sheep. Mostly the weather would be less than perfect. He liked to wear a jacket [chaket in their parlance] and feel his body retain the warmth against him jealously. He liked to crack the car window periodically and feel the wind stroke his cheek with the back of its fingers. His mobile would always be on Airplane mode. He’d randomly stop at wide shoulders of roads with vandalised signposts and stare at the landscape. He’d say hello to women briskly walking by on their errands or going home, or school children in worn uniforms kicking a ball made from waste paper bags. He liked the silence of the valleys, the mystery of the hills. He liked the anonymity of the moment, as if he was re-introducing himself to the world. He was envious of the small lives of the people he saw. He wondered if that would have been him had his father not put so much value on education and sacrificed everything to send them to school. He wondered if he would have married a village girl, probably one who taught at a nearby nursery school, someone who put her needs before his. He wondered if that would even make him happy. If he would be happy with the slowness of village life, the lack of crippling ambition, the pressure of acquisition, of materialism, or constantly carrying all your childrens’ dreams on your back, afraid to lay it down to stretch your back. Leaning against his car in those remote places he’d light a cigarette and look around longingly.
OK, the truth is he doesn’t smoke but I’m the one telling this story and I like the idea of my main characters smoking. I really do. Male or female. My alter-ego is a smoker. It’s a bit of a problem, this thing where I force a cigarette into the hands of my characters. I think they exude more character with a cigarette burning from their lips. I like to make them lie on their backs after having sex and smoke a cigarette while looking up at a rotary fan that doesn’t work, the blades stationary, immobile, like the blades of a wrecked submarine. I like these characters to violently crush their cigarettes in an ashtray with intense concentration. Or even better, toss them into a glass with some little water left in it. So yes, this guy is not a smoker but for the sake of this story, he is. I mean, can you hear those names he stops his car at to stare at the landscape; Kapchebelel, Sergoit, Chemosusu…come on, who wouldn’t want to light a cigarette before those vistas?
For this particular trip he had decided to go through Eldoret. He doesn’t know why, it was a whimsical decision. “I had 105K in 200 shilling denominations because when you are going to shags for a harambee and you are from Nairobi and you have a job they think is good, you carry cash and the more it seems the better.” He didn’t stop in Nakuru, but at Burnt Forest he pulled over at an unfamiliar roadside hotel to have a bite to eat. It was headed to 2pm and school children hurried past from lunch. The restaurant was smoky but warm and inviting. It was sparsely patroned. A few guys in jackets sat at a table having beers and meat. He sat on a plastic chair and a big-boned lady in a stained apron stood over him to take his order of meat with ugali and kachumbari. He also ordered tea because, come on, he’s Kale. Shrill music played from a knot of bodaboda chaps clustered outside. He wasn’t tempted to switch on his phone because he wasn’t ready to let his real world back in again. “Sometimes it just feels good to be off the grid. Do you get that feeling, that you want to be anonymous, nobody knows you, nobody wants anything from you, just another face in a small kibanda?”
All the time, I tell him. I tell him that one day I plan to be an apprentice fisherman in the village. Go fishing at night with those men. Eat and smoke weed with them in the hollowness of the boats, staring up at the dark sky and wondering if you can walk naked in heaven.
He noticed a lady sitting at a desk in the corner of the cafe, under an old calendar. She had a perfectly round baby face and a serious look, almost sour. When she stood up to go through the entrance leading into the kitchen he realised that she was not only very tall – a foot taller than him – but also very voluptuous. She wore a thick sweater that looked handmade by her grandmother and well-worn Ngomas on her feet.
She brought his tea and placed it before him without a word of acknowledgment. It wasn’t with rudeness but with a sense of duty. The pockets of her apron bulged with folded bills. He sipped his tea, facing the entrance. Outside, boda bodas tore past on the main road, blasting Kale music from Chelele, Junior Kotestes, Msupa S and Lilian Rotich.
His pieces of meat came on a plastic plate. The kachumbari looked to have been cut by a saw. He ate in silence, chewing his food slowly.
The men left. More men came in. A couple came in and sat at the next table. The woman held up an X-ray result and peered at it through the blue smoke of the room. The man sat there, blowing his tea. He had sharp, beautiful cheekbones that looked cold to the touch. The baby-faced lady took their order in Kalenjin. Her voice was tender and patient. He felt warm just listening to her say they had run out of chapatis. She moved gracefully, with very feathery steps – as if she was pouring herself into the room. Her sensuality was undeniable to her. She looked like she either owned the place or balanced the books.
“Have you ever seen someone and thought, you have known them before even though you have never seen them in your life? That’s how I felt. It wasn’t even ati anything sexual it was just a pull I had towards her. Like we had been through something together at some point in our lives.”
“Like a war.” I say.
“Ha-ha. Well, not that extreme.”
“Like you had waited in the queue for hours to renew your passports but then when your turn reached the clerk closed the counter, went for lunch and quit.”
Anyway, after his meal, he ordered another cup of tea. Then another. “People came and went. I just couldn’t leave. I was aware that I needed to leave but I couldn’t. Eventually, she came over and asked me if I was okay. I told her I felt like I knew her before, that the feeling was very strong.”
“She slowly backed away from your table?”
“No. She said she had never met me. She had only been to Nairobi twice. So no. Anyway, because she wasn’t very busy, we got to chatting. It felt so easy talking to her. She seemed to know what I was saying, like she had context. Like she had already been given my life story. I know it’s crazy.”
She said she was originally from Kerio Valley, a place called Tambach. [I know Tambach] He said he’d been to Tambach. He once drove his father there for a funeral. The kibanda belonged to her cousin who died, now she ran it with the big-boned lady who was also her cousin.
“What killed him?”
He paused. “Strange. I really don’t know. I never asked.”
At 4pm he really thought he needed to get going but he also felt he really didn’t have to go. He was enjoying sitting there in that kibanda with spaces in the wooden wall bringing in sharp blades of bright light. There was the smell of woodsmoke. He had learnt that she was 29 years old. Single. He told her he was married with children. “How is marriage?” she had asked with an innocence that didn’t feel intrusive at all. He told her marriage was good but long and often boring. Why don’t you make it interesting? She challenged him. He said it wasn’t that simple. It’s simple, she insisted. “It’s simple if you want it to be simple.” To kill the conversation he told her that one day she would get married and then she would understand.
“What language were you all speaking, Swahili, English or Kale?”
After a while, she stood up and said she had to go run an errand, that it was nice meeting him. He took her number and watched her walk through the kitchen doorway and remembers feeling abandoned. “I was supposed to get in my car and drive to Shags but I decided to check myself into a small ka lodging. It was the most rebellious thing I have ever done in my life.” He paid cash for the simple room with a very small bathroom with faded pink tiles. At about 7pm he went to the empty restaurant and ordered a beer from a very bored waitress. To avoid getting off Plane Mode he called for the lady from the kibanda who I will call Nandi. She was eating supper. He told her he had decided to spend the night in Burnt Forest. Would she like to come over and have a beer with him? She said she didn’t drink. He said, well then why don’t you come we just hang out. She said she was too tired, that she liked to sleep early. Then she said goodnight. He had his beer alone while peeling the label off the bottle with the tip of his nail.
“I knew folk were worried sick. My parents must have been going crazy. They had probably called all the police stations to find out if there were any reported accidents. I knew I needed to call home and say I was okay, but then I would have had to explain what I was doing in Burnt Forest. It seemed like so much work. I felt like I had been explaining my actions all my life. So I went to bed feeling both selfish and irresponsible but also very free, like an adult.”
The following morning he took a bath with a trickle from the shower and drove to the kibanda. Nandi was there. She didn’t seem surprised or happy to see him, he noted with disappointment. “She was courteous but also not curious at all about what the hell I was still doing there.” He sat there the whole morning, having cup after cup of tea and snatching conversation with her whenever she could get a moment. “It wasn’t love I was feeling. It felt like an out-of-body moment, like I was on auto-pilot.” At lunchtime, he told Nandi he would be back and took a walk. He roamed the small town. At some point it started raining and he sheltered under a verandah with a horde of men with hoodies over their heads who cracked jokes over the noise of the rain pummeling the corrugated sheets.
At 4pm he went back to the kibanda and asked Nandi if they could have supper together. “She was hesitant but then I insisted and she agreed.” The next day he was at the kibanda again. “I couldn’t call home. The window for calling home had passed. It’s easy how one day of inaction becomes two and two become three. I was like someone stuck in quicksand; if you make any sudden movements you sink further, so you stay still and time passes.”
He was in Burnt Forest for six weeks. Six weeks! He moved in with Nandi. She lived in a small house that was part of a cluster of half a dozen houses in a compound surrounded by a low stonewall perimeter. Three houses shared one bathroom and an adjacent toilet. He never called his parents. Never was tempted to call his wife. “I missed my children, of course but I had made this bed and I was determined to lie on it.” His days were long at the beginning but then he befriended the guy who owned the lodging he first slept in, and he lent him some books to read. He read most mornings and spent the whole afternoon at the kibanda and nights at home, the new home, cooking and chatting.”
“What did you guys talk about?”
“At the beginning she was curious and somewhat perplexed that I would stay away from my life just like that. She thought it was crazy. As the days rolled by she started opening up about her life. She had gone through some bad patches. Very bad. She talked a lot. She never made excuses about her life or her decisions. She seemed to have a better handle on her life than I did. And was happier with much less than I had.”
“Did you ever wonder how your kids and wife were doing? How devastated your mother was. She must have thought you were dead!”
He nods and says nothing. “I don’t know what to say,” he shrugs.
One day he went on Facebook on Nandi’s phone and saw a post by his brother who had posted a picture of his mom. She looked so frail and sick. Her eyes looked hollow. “That killed me, man. That’s what made me come out of it. I told Nandi that I had to go back to my life. She said she knew I would leave at some point. She was surprised it hadn’t been sooner. She took it well. She said it had been her fairytale.” He left her all the money he had left over from the Harambee cash and drove to shags. His mom was napping on the sofa when he arrived. She opened her eyes and just stared at him, stunned.
“What’s the first thing she said?”
“She said something like, Laban, is that you? Has God brought you back to me?” Then she slowly sat up and said, “Let us pray.”
They thought he had died. Men from the church came by daily to pray for him. His mom wouldn’t peel her eyes off him. They wouldn’t let him leave shags. They were sure he had lost his mind. He wouldn’t tell them where he had been. On the third day he drove back to Nairobi.
“Were you scared of meeting your wife, your siblings?”
“No. I wasn’t. I just felt like I deserved to live that life for those weeks I was there. I mean, I have always been the guy who comes through for people in my family. I give so much and ask for so little and people assume that I’m fine. That I don’t have needs. That I don’t want to be asked to be helped with something. I had been so good. So available. I was tired of it. Maybe I wanted people to be worried about me. To see how important I was in the family. The marriage therapist said that I was calling out for help. That sounds so dramatic and desperate. I wasn’t calling out for help.”
His wife was stunned. She remained stunned for days. She avoided asking him where he had been and the unspoken question hung in the air constantly. She treated him like an invalid, something fragile. “It frustrated me. I would hear her whispering on the phone with one of my siblings or my mom. As if I was unstable and would hang myself. My kids were happy to see me. They constantly asked me where I had gone and whether I had seen many animals. Ha-ha.”
“Did you see many animals in Burnt Forest, Laban?*?” I ask.
Eventually, his wife asked him what had really happened ‘for closure’ and he told her. “First she didn’t believe me. She said I was making it up. She was convinced that I was in Nakuru or Eldoret. There was no way I could be holed up in a small town like Burnt Forest with a strange girl I had just met. That wasn’t me, she said.”
That upset him, that expression ‘it just wasn’t me.” He felt like people were defining who he was.
To be honest, his story seemed fictitious to me. In fact, had his wife not been the one who reached out asking me to interview him, I wouldn’t have bought the story at all. His wife said that single event changed the course of their marriage. For the better.
They saw a marriage counselor. I asked him if he was in love with Nandi and he said he was “in love with the idea of freedom.” I asked him if staying there for six weeks helped. He said it did. He’s tasted freedom. His family treats him differently now, they don’t presume to know who he is. “And who are you?” I asked. “Even better, this thing you said you are looking for, did you find it in Burnt Forest?”
“I realise now that you will always be looking for something. That thing keeps changing with time and seasons.”
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