Biko has an eye problem. Blurry vision. He has to squint a lot to see anything and when he does, he sees double. He can’t watch movies with subtitles, can’t tell his spices apart.
Basically, he’s going blind.
The ophthalmologist has put him on a no-screen for a few days. No harsh light. That means no laptops or phones for now (If you want to reach him, send a smoke signal. Though I’m not sure he’ll see it.) Ha!
That leaves me (Me being Gloriah) here this week. And in the spirit of taking over, I declare today my birthday (It actually is, so, indulge me), but that’s not the point.
Here we go.
By Gloriah Amondi
Retired Engineer Major Nathaniel, O.N.W, sits in his supermarket, at the corner next to the refrigerator, facing the entrance, with all the day’s Newspapers- Standard, Nation, The Star, The East African– pondering over them, page after page, one after another. Once in a while, he lifts his head briefly – he has a large square head, like you could mount it on the wall of one of those antiquated hotels that are all wood -to look at the shop, or at his wife – a big and brown lady, round-faced, big breasted, slightly flabby at the waist and bored ‘bedroom’ eyes.
Retired Engineer Major sometimes engages a customer who has walked in, mostly on the politics of the day, but he spends most of his time in that corner, alert in a military way to things happening around him but still somehow managing to feign disinterest. The Supermarket is a big store full of rows and rows of goods, the walls covered in pictures of maple trees at different seasons of the year- green in spring; a burst of red and yellow during summer and, bare and frozen in winter. At the corner next to where Engineer sits, is a mini-liquor store, separated from the rest of the store with cardboard, and just above him, CCTV looms- the silent, all-knowing watcher. A few rows away, next to the entrance, his wife sits by the counter, holding small, soft conversations with customers as they pay. On a slow day like this, she whirls away time by staring at the CCTV screen installed on the counter, monitoring the empty store or, perhaps, her husband, with her bored eyes.
“You’re late. We were to meet at 9,” he says when I get to where he is sitting, barely lifting his head from his reading of The East African, although he does not sound angry.
“Four minutes. I’m sorry.”
When Retired Major first joined the army as an engineer- where, he admits, he learned strict punctuality, “to the second, not even to the minute” as he puts it – he was only 23. The year was 1980, and the world was wilding: Ronald Reagan had been elected the president of the United States; Saddam Hussein invaded Iran leading to the start of the war between the two countries and John Lennon had been shot dead. Speaking of (and credits to my dad’s taste in music), has there ever been a year with more unforgettable music than 1980? ‘Please Don’t Go’ by KC and the Sunshine Band. Michael Jackson’s ‘Rock With You.’ His mentor Diana Ross’s ‘Upside Down’ (it is rumoured MJ was trying to remake his face in the image of Diana Ross through his surgeries, but I digress), ‘Call Me,’ by Blondie and Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust.’
Two years later, Engineer Nathaniel, (who was then only a corporal because of the tribalism within the forces that favoured mostly Kambas and Kalenjins when it came to promotions) is caught up in the midst of perhaps the most intense period of his adult life when there is an attempted coup by a faction of the then Kenyan Air Force.
“I was approached because the Air-force coup plotters, junior rank-and-file guys in their twenties, needed allies in the army. No one imagined even in the least sense that I would not be interested. I was young and harmless, but most importantly, I was Luo, which meant I was presumably available. I wasn’t particularly useful to them- I was only an engineer at the time- but they were desperate for any man in the army that they could lay their hands on, in the effort to overthrow the government.”
Major Engineer closes his eyes (he has prominent, large eyelids) as he recites the places and dates of what I will later think of as perhaps the most dangerous pub-hop in Kenya over the last 40 years.
“On Thursday, July 29, 1982, I met some Air-force fellows at Little Eden bar in Umoja. I was staying in the Umoja area at the time, not barracks, as I pursued my engineering course. They were in civilian clothes, and told me they were planning a coup. The next day, a Friday, we met again at the Mausoleum Bar in Buruburu. And drunk long after midnight, and spoke loudly about revolutionary African leaders like Colonel Gaddafi, and their Air Force hero Hossni Mubarak, the new president of Egypt. I remember meeting Sergeant Oteyo that Saturday of July 31. It was in the afternoon, a sunny day at Ongere Bar in Shauri Moyo. He was in high spirits. I remember thinking at some point that he was just bluffing, that they would not go ahead with it.”
“What did they want you to do?”
Major Engineer Nathaniel opens his eyes, large in a charcoal-black face. His teeth are very white, and his voice as indifferent as the look on his big-bosomed wife’s face.
“Oh, they wanted me to plant a bomb at the Seventh Battalion Brigade in Langata. Oteyo told me the army in Nakuru was with them, and would take over the town as we (they) secured Nairobi. He said they would bomb both State House and the Parliament buildings with their fighter jets. And that is when I got scared.”
“Did Oteyo give you the bomb when they launched the coup?”
For the first time, Major Engineer Nathaniel laughs. It is a brief bark of a laugh.
“You think Oteyo brought me the bomb inside the pocket of his Kaunda suit?” Then he says, less harshly: “Those boys were in their twenties, just like me. They thought that because I was studying Civil Engineering, I knew all about TNT and how-to blow-up bridges and battalion HQs.”
In the end, as the coup unraveled the following day, and the two coup leaders hijacked an Airforce plane (a Buffalo 210 aircraft) to take them into temporary safety in Tanzania – Mwalimu Nyerere a few months later would hand them over to Kenyan Special Branch in Namanga, who would eventually hand them over to the Kamiti hangman Wachira Kinyatti wa Warugungu (although with such a name, had young Wachira any other choice than to become an executioner?) – Corporal Nathaniel spoke to a ‘Colonel O. Mbogo.’
“O. Mbogo was close to top CID officers like Kibati, who were already hot on the trail of the attempted coup plotters, though they struck a fortnight before the detectives thought they would, when President Moi would be away in Tripoli at the OAU. I told Colonel O. Mbogo everything about what I knew. Maybe that’s what saved my life.”
By the end of ’82 when everybody’s life around him was crumbling and careers were destroyed by being imprisoned or disappeared for participating or organizing the coup attempt, his was blossoming like maple trees in spring, for being a snitch.
Again, Major Engineer closes his eyes and recites his promotions through the 1980s.
“1983, Sergeant. ’84, Staff Sergeant, 1985, Warrant Officer. ’86, 2nd. Lieutenant. ’88, First Lieutenant, 1990, Captain. 1991, Major …” he hesitates when he realizes he has run out of ladders.
In 1992, he left for Canada – Montreal – for training with the Canadian forces. Two years after his arrival in the program, and just about three months to the end of it, he married a French-Canadian woman from Quebec and got Canadian citizenship. A year later, they got their first daughter, and two years later, the second.
He never returned to Kenya. In effect, though he doesn’t say it, he was a deserter.
Canada may not have been such a popular destination at the time for those seeking to relocate abroad (compared perhaps to the USA, which in the mid-1990s, following the devastation of our economy following the Goldenberg scandal, I’m told was a wildly popular destination and aspiration for middle class Kenyans). But Canada was an okay place. Although their winters were long and frozen and summers are still sort of cold, Canadians were (are) nice and welcoming. Downtown Montreal particularly was full of cool liberals, perhaps because of its large university students’ population, and summer nights there were always party nights. It was a city of flair and joie-de-vivre and life was a blast.
Major Engineer fondly reminisces about a pub called ‘Copacabana’ on the Rue St. Catherine in the mid-1990s. “It had a very nice barman called Carlos at the counter.”
“That’s what you liked about the Copacabana?”
He hesitates briefly then mutters: “It is where I met my wife.”
But the blast only lasted in summer. Winter came with dark nights and ungodly temperatures and- for Nathaniel, now in his mid-thirties – winter depression.
“I felt empty after a while. My life rotated around the same things- an office job, a wife and two girls. Same faces, same conversations, same routine. Work, home, home-work. After a while, it was mostly boring, with only occasional bursts of life like a BBQ. But I, we, really didn’t have friends. Winters were the worst. Like living inside a refrigerator. People think living abroad is fun. It’s not. Nowadays, I advise young people to stay home and work hard to better their lives here. Build something for yourself here, there’s nothing to go abroad for.”
Then, as if by divine revelation, he asks:
“You haven’t been abroad, have you?”
He does not wait for the answer.
In 2018, a quarter-a-century after he left Kenya, he returned for a funeral – his younger sister’s- who had been married to a man in Moshi in Tanzania. While there, he met someone, his brother-in-law’s niece- a young, nice girl. Polite and pretty in that Tanzanian way (big lips, clear, brown skin and impossible ass). She was 30, not too well-educated, but of viable, marriageable age.
He was sixty.
He returned to Canada to “clear his affairs,” as he puts it.
“They had both finished their university. And our house was now an empty nest.”
In 2019, he went back to Moshi and brought her (the Tanzanian) with him to Nairobi.
But, don’t worry, this is not a love story.
At the time of writing this story, Engineer had just declared his MCA bid. His double cabin pick-up, faithfully parked outside the supermarket, and on one side, the word ‘MBUS’ is inscribed, barely legible, with a brief party motto (in even smaller font) below it, and on the other side, a picture of Raila. The supermarket has buzzed to life with the human traffic, most of whom are there, not to shop, but rather to position themselves to benefit with money and favours from him as we are known to do from time to time whenever we have access to someone vying for a political seat. They flatter him with big words and names, some of which are overly exaggerated, but he does not seem to mind.
“Civic legislation. I want to get in there and make sensible laws. There are so many colonial municipal laws that are still used to manipulate the city dwellers. Look at the General nuisance laws. The colonizers used them to frustrate the Africans who made it to the city. Now, more than 60 years later they are still in operation. But that’s what you get when you elect fools. Most of these people are buffoons. They know nothing. They don’t even know why they are there in the first place. Power has to revert to the people.”
Retired Major Engineer Nathaniel, it would seem (at least from our conversation) was confident of a win. And while it may not have been that obvious to me (there were, at the time, around six other bids for the same post), I did not mind the (over) confidence. After all, it occurred to me that nobody runs hoping to lose. I was, however, intrigued more by his exuberance- that uncontrollably boisterous manner of him in describing even the most mundane of things. More precisely, it astounded me that he had lived in Canada, the world’s nicest, most modest country, but had somehow emerged, over 20 years later, without even a speck of that modesty having rubbed off him. I also wondered whether by “clear his affairs,” he had simply deserted his mzungu wife, the way he had the army 30 years ago, upon going to Canada.
He struck me as the kind of fellow who would quietly resign his office job at sixty, organize for his benefits and life savings to be quietly transferred to Kenya, without Mrs. Nathaniel being aware. Then one day, he’ll leave for ‘work’, and he will board an aircraft, and leave the place that has been his home for 25 years, never to return.
Later, much later, when he will allow me to drive in his pick-up with him as he did a round in the ward, meeting and greeting his supporters, I will see for the first time the soldier in him- a curtness he cannot help as he handled the small throngs around him, the way he shouts “POWER! POWER! POWER” standing at the top of his double-cabin “MBUS”, the way when he alights to dance with the hired isikuti dancers which he turns into a jogging military drill, the utter (admittedly tragic) near-naivety in expecting that the crowd would be eager to listen and even adhere to him, and facial anger as he barks “HAPANA” to anyone who dares demand a handout.
The rest of the time, as we drive around the estates in his pick-up, he plays soul-agonizing political music, some of which he got a barely known young artist to record for him in the studio (the songs, he boasts to me, were largely written by him.)
I went to check on the Engineer two Mondays after the election.
The supermarket had been closed the whole week of elections, and then some.
He was not there, and when I inquired, the wife told me (again, in the carefree Tanzanian manner):
“Ah, hakuweza huyo. Anapumzika bado! Kura ziliibwa vibaya huku mjini. Si uliona hata za MP yule (Mwago) alishinda na hakupewa.”
And instead of the usual ennui of supreme boredom on her face that is her usual look, I thought I saw a sparkle of something-like-glee in her eyes, before she said:
“Nikuuzie Nation au Standard?”