This interview happened on an insanely wintry morning. The type where you occasionally blow into your hands. We sat at a window. Outside, the grey clouds refused to shift, the sun a faded memory. It felt gloomy and desperate, like the end of something significant. Apart from Kiganjo, the police training school, he can’t say where else he trained and with whom. He’s vague about it. He’s protecting people he worked with, he’s preserving some honour. There are unspoken rules to these things, he said.
He’s wearing a sweater. A proper sweater. I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone wearing a sweater. It felt a bit like 1980 again. It felt like Michael Jackson was still alive. He was a hard man, you could tell. A man who could still scale a high wall if he had to. Or jimmy a lock. His knuckles look like he punched a buffalo’s forehead. A few times. He also looked like he built himself from dust, brick by brick and now he’s here and he isn’t sure what to do with himself. He kept most cards close to his chest, as men like him should. The nail on his pinky finger was missing, in its place a black mass. If I had a nail like that, I thought darkly, I would point it at people and say ‘your days will turn into dew.’ Women would have described him as a “man’s man.”[Whatever the hell that is] perhaps because of how you felt something run under his silence. He was also a tiresome cliche; a caricature of how cops used to speak Swahili back in the day. Only this wasn’t a comedy.
“Did you ever watch The Sopranos?” I asked him, already knowing the answer. He reminded me of a character called Bobby, I told him, a mobster. That is, if Bobby was black and less heavy. ‘Hmm,’ He scowled. He wasn’t interested in Bobby or any of them Hollywood fantasies. He sat wedged in the corner of the booth we sat in, as if shrinking away from the room, and scanned the cafe a lot. Old habits, I guessed.
He tells me that if it wasn’t for the late President Moi, he wouldn’t have become a cop.
I was in class six when two tall and shifty men in suits showed up at our house. One spoke to my dad at the door while the other looked around our boma. It was a Sunday evening and it was already as cold as Londiani could get. We lived in two simple wooden houses and had a small stone kitchen. It was only me, my dad and my younger sister who never knew our mom. My mom lay buried in the corner of the compound, next to a stunted fruit tree.
I overheard the man ask my dad questions; who else lived there? Where was his wife? Was he expecting anyone else? Did he have any sort of silaha that he needed to declare? What did he do for a living? Had he seen any new faces in the village lately? It was mostly an amicable conversation, maybe even warm. They were speaking in our mother tongue. The man stepped into the house and quickly scanned the rooms. The other man had peeked into the kitchen, into the latrine and the room I slept in.
After they had gone my dad told me they were police. Moi was visiting a nearby primary school the following day and they were making sure there were no enemies of the state around, my dad told me. It fascinated me that there were policemen who didn’t wear uniforms. My dad, a teacher, told me that they were called the Special Branch. I liked that. I liked the idea of having the power to go into people’s homes, strangers’ homes, and look around, while wearing a suit. I asked my father if they had guns and he said, yes in their pockets. I liked that even more. Having a gun in my pocket.
I became really fascinated by the idea of having a gun in my pocket. I didn’t want to become a doctor or a lawyer like most kids. I wanted to have a gun in my pocket. To open doors of people’s homes and look inside. To wear a suit. To be one of the president’s men. I didn’t know how one became this man. My dad said he’d ask my uncle in Nairobi who worked for the government. He knew people. After high school my uncle sent for me.
I went for basic training at Kiganjo then I went for another form of training and became a different kind of law enforcer. I wore uniforms for a while before I went for another training and became a different type of cop – the type who wore a suit. I did that for a while, doing this and that. I loved it even though I barely had time for myself. I was always away. I wasn’t one of the president’s men but I carried a gun in my pocket, as my dad would say. I loved it. I was happy outwitting bad men.
I reconnected with a woman from my village. We didn’t have much time to court so I asked her to be my wife straight away and she agreed. She eventually gave me two children. I went abroad for a bit, learnt how to do more things with my mind, learnt how the enemy does things with their minds, I learnt more about guns and how to shoot them and how not to get shot and how to survive in tricky situations. I came back, worked for a few many more years in sometimes very dangerous situations but mostly unmemorable ones, and then I asked to be let go because I just wasn’t going anywhere in my suit. I was also bored, to be honest, amongst other things. Plus, my father fell sick and he was hospitalised but I wasn’t able to get time to see him, so he wallowed in his hospital bed, asking for me, until he died.
I was finally allowed to go bury him and at his burial I thought, what use is this if I can’t tell my sick father goodbye? I also realised I was becoming a different person. I was moving farther and farther away from the boy from Londiani. I was becoming removed from everyday realities. I wasn’t a normal father or normal husband. I longed to be normal but my job was full of peril. My job exposed me to a world that sometimes got so dark your eyes could never adjust, so you navigated it with instinct and prayer. Also, I realised that you can’t be normal if you carry a gun everyday, like you carry a wallet. You just change. Some people can live with the people they have become but I was always somehow scared of becoming that person. The kind of person who carries death in their pocket because when you carry a gun in your pocket – as my dad said – you are carrying death. You are either dead or you are also dying.
I got into executive protection services, a fancy way of saying bodyguard. I was still relatively young and very fit and very idealistic. I was well trained. My resume was impressive so it wasn’t hard for me to find jobs. My former colleagues would rope me in on jobs. My clients were many; politicians, visiting VIPs, VVIPs sometimes, rich businessmen, a visiting dignitary who was not supposed to be in the country but was lowkey so he needed to walk the shadows. My job involved opening a lot of car doors for men, sometimes for men’s wives, carrying briefcases bearing things I had no interest in, hanging outside closed doors, sitting in corners of rooms without windows, behind tinted cars, behind men, watching and saying little. There is a lot of waiting involved. Boredom is the greatest danger in this line of work because when you are bored you get careless. You stop noticing things, even things right before your eyes. I don’t get bored. I never get bored. It frustrates me when I hear people say they are bored. I hear they are careless. You have a whole mind that works, how can you be bored?
Part of being a bodyguard is to preempt what could go wrong. It’s to stay a step ahead of trouble but when trouble shows up – as it usually does sometimes – not to lose your shit. When you panic you make mistakes, when you make mistakes people get hurt. Or even die. My new job was fairly easy compared to my old job. All I had to do was babysit. There was never really any real and imminent danger lurking, except for one time I was leading the security detail of a Chinese businessman who went about with bags full of cash. I never knew how much cash he was carrying but it was bagfuls. And if you are a foreigner carrying bagfuls of money there is someone who knows you are carrying the money and if two or three people know, one day someone might try and grab those bags. And when they come they have to put me down first because they know I’m armed. I have children, I don’t want to be put down, so I have to put them down before they get to me.
The first time I got shot it came as a shock. It never really registers, the moment you get shot. It feels like it’s happening to someone else. I got hit on the leg by a man with a Glock. I was part of an entourage that included the regular police. When you get hit you have to stay calm because the faster your heart beats the faster you will lose blood. It’s not immediately painful because of adrenaline but give it a few minutes then you will want to scream. I was lucky I wasn’t hit in the bone. Or an artery. If you don’t panic you live. We fended the thugs off. They were little boys with toys. They didn’t have a tactic, they wanted to grab and run. They had lousy old toys, some that jammed. When I went home with a heavily bandaged leg, my wife didn’t ask questions. My wife stopped asking questions about my work because she understands that the truth is more complicated than a lie. Also, I don’t take work home. I don’t get into my house with my gun. I can’t have it next to my children because it will ruin their innocence.
It’s stressful. I have always struggled with sleep but when I sleep I dream of faceless men hurting me. I dream of floating down rivers without names, face down. I dream of being trapped in a dark room without a door, men peering inside. I dream of my mother’s face who died when I was six years old. My mother’s face is more vivid in my dreams than it is in my mind. I dream of my old bosses, the good ones and the ones you wouldn’t let your children shake their hands. I dream of footfalls on puddles of water. Sometimes I don’t sleep at all. I just lay in wait for dawn, for whatever sunrise may bring. I normally wake up early, and just lie in bed, listening to my wife snore. When my youngest wakes up [my eldest is away at boarding school] I find him at the table where he’s hurriedly having his breakfast as he waits for the school van. I’m quiet by nature, like my father, and now like my son. We sit in silence as he eats his bread and sips his tea. I watch him. How he takes small bites and holds the cup with both hands. I marvel at how clean his hands are; hands that haven’t touched any sin. Hands that haven’t touched objects of woe. Outside, I pat his head then he gets into the van and I’m not one to be swept by great emotions but at that moment I always wonder if I will ever see him again.
I once guarded the mistress of a wealthy man. Funny because who would want to harm a mistress? [Apart from the wife?] I was her driver, an insulting job to be honest, way beneath my experience and qualifications, but he paid a lot. There was little to no danger involved. I found it dull and uninspiring because her life was dull and uninspiring. I’d show up at her house in the morning and drive her to run her errands. Trips to the country club. Trips to the airport, to the supermarket. You’d see me sat in salon lounges ignoring the old magazines on the table. I’d be there for hours because women stay in the salon for hours. But I never get bored, like I mentioned. I didn’t think one of the hairdressers would rush her with a pair of scissors. Or hair dye. Once in a while I would stick my head around the door to make sure she wasn’t drowning in the pedicure basin. I carried her groceries to the house, a townhouse for the wealthy.
She was constantly on the phone on her Bluetooth headphones that blinked blue. I drove, she spoke on the phone. I listened to her conversations that went nowhere. It was with her friends or her siblings who always seemed to be calling for money. Sometimes she’d switch to her mother-tongue, which unbeknownst to her, I could pick. There was a random conversation with men from her past. She’d tell them she couldn’t see them anymore. When she went on her long lunches I milled about in the shadows or sat in the car. I didn’t read. I don’t read books. I stared out at people, looking for patterns even when there were none. She liked to go swimming at Serena hotel because the pool was warm, I heard her say. I’d sit under an umbrella watching her swim back and forth, freestyle. She wasn’t an elegant swimmer, she hadn’t mastered her breathing and she didn’t keep her head in the water, but she was dedicated. She was beautiful, as mistresses tend to be, very curvy in her bikini.
She hardly ever spoke to me, which was fine by me because I hate small talk. Also, I suspected she thought her lover had planted me to monitor her movements which wasn’t the case because he never asked me about her movements, at least not directly. He was an unpleasant man, bloated with ego and self-importance. He wore too many ugly rings. He barked orders at everyone. He was cantankerous. He shouted when things didn’t go his way. He assumed people read his mind. He would occasionally snap at her. She took it all in.
She had a dog, one of those very small fluffy dogs rich people keep in the house. The only thing she seemed to love more than spending money at the salon was that dog. She went everywhere with her. She was called Apples. One day Apples ran out of the gate and was run over by a delivery bike that was delivering weed to her. She smoked weed often. I was sitting in the dining room downstairs, waiting for my shift to end at 5pm. She was upstairs taking her long baths. I could hear music playing loudly from her room. She liked loud music.
The guard came in looking frenzied, saying that Apples was dead. I joined him outside. We stood over what was left of Apples. The bike guy – the poor guy – was shaken. He came out running too fast, I couldn’t stop fast enough, the poor guy cried. Apples lay on her side, tyre marks across her chest. Her tongue and some organs were out. I don’t get sentimental about rich people’s things but I was saddened that Apples was dead.
“Get her out of here,”I told the guard. She carried Apples into his guardhouse by the gate.
I had the boda guy wait in the garden as I went up to get madam. “What is it?” She asked. Her hair was wet. Her cheeks looked like under-boiled meat. Without make-up she looked entirely like somebody else. She looked unfinished, undone. I told her there had been an accident, someone had run over Apples. She screamed and ran past me clutching the towel to her chest. I followed her. She wanted to see Apples. I told her it wasn’t a good idea. That Apples was dead. I felt a bit silly calling a dog Apples. I didn’t grow up naming dogs Apples. She was hysterical with grief. She called the boss. They have killed Apples, she cried on the phone. My phone rang. I explained that it had been an accident. The delivery guy had run over Apples by mistake. What delivery guy? What the hell was he delivering and where were you when all these things were happening? Technically my job was not to protect the dog, or follow it everywhere it went. My job was the lady. I told him that I was downstairs as madam took her bath upstairs, the dog ran out. He started shouting. He told me to hold the man who ran over Apples till he got there.
He showed up after an hour, driving in like a maniac. The lady was crying in the bedroom. I felt sorry for her, I really did but these things happen. Nobody really wants to run over a dog. “Where is she?” he demanded as he got out of the car. I said she was inside the house. They came back together. He was holding her hand, but not in a romantic way, more like leading her to the scene of crime. He started threatening the delivery guy; telling him how he will rot in jail, wagging his finger at him. Do you know who I am? He shouted. His lady stocked him up, said, he has to pay, my poor Apples, he has to pay. I stood aside. This is a neighbourhood where people mind their own business, so nobody came out to inspect. What were you delivering anway? The boss asked. When he learnt that it was weed he blew his lid. Apparently, he didn’t know the lady smoked weed. He knew she smoked cigarettes occasionally, just not weed. He was cross at the delivery guy, as if he’d introduced her to weed. He went apeshit on her then on him.
The delivery guy just stared at the boss as he shouted in his face. The boss took that for disrespect or indifference so he punched him in the kisser. The man staggered back while holding his mouth, tripped and fell on the flowerbed. It happened so fast. I didn’t anticipate it. I ran and held him back. He wasn’t strong, just a fat guy who wore expensive perfumes. He slapped my hand away and said, ‘know your place.’ Now, I’m not quick to anger and I also know on which side my toast is buttered, so I stood between him and the delivery guy and held my palm up firmly. He backed away. He told me to hold the man until he paid for the dog, and then walked back into the house. He said the dog was 100K, the price of the motorbike. He could buy twenty dogs for his lady by dusk if he wanted to but this poor man would have to save for two years to buy one dog.
I went into the house and told him that I had asked the bike guy to leave. Did he pay? He asked. I said no, he didn’t. He was furious. He said I had gone against his orders. I said, it was an accident and that it’s not fair to hold people against their will, possibly even illegal. We aren’t the police, I told him. I own the police, he shouted. And he kept shouting. Why didn’t I tell him she was smoking weed? Er, did I introduce her to weed? He turned on the lady; did he teach you how to smoke weed? It went on and on until I made a decision to either punch him in the face or leave. So I left. Of course he fired me.
I went to the village to cool off, for perspective. I hadn’t had time to myself for so long. It was quiet there. I had built a small simple house surrounded by trees. At night it was so still you could hear the blood flowing in your veins. Nights were very dark but I wasn’t afraid of darkness. For the first time in ages I could sleep without dreams. I discovered farming. I discovered cows. I didn’t miss the city or the paranoid clients. I didn’t miss thinking of mankind as treacherous and calculative and full of intention. I knew all the faces in the village and they knew me and they didn’t want to harm me. However, I didn’t find any freedom until I got rid of my gun legally. It marked a new era in my life. Sure, I walked with a limp but it gives me character, I’m told. When I’m asked what happened to my leg I say I fell in a ditch.
Which is sort of true when you think about it.
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