Three Tortoises and Other Stories

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To create art is to embrace the seduction of solitude. To dare to be different. However, to create amazing art, to create with your mind and then hands, is to invite all the demons of being different and be comfortable with it. This is as true of Mcbull as it is with any other artists of extraordinary skill and talent. 

He lives in a one-bedroom cabin on a four-acre farm near a forest in Nanyuki. His wooden cabin sits against a hill, surrounded by nothing but the soft murmurs of the wind blowing from the thicket of trees behind it. It’s owned by an acquaintance who let him use it. The only other person who lives there is a farm-hand who lives in a simple house farther away from him. For the most part he’s all alone and quiet. The wooden floor sighs when he walks over it. His furnishings are sparse, sparing, with everything either serving the purpose of making his life easier or happier. He keeps only what he needs. He built most of the furniture in the house. The bed he sleeps on. The doors of the kitchen cabinets. The shelves. Picture frames. The table he rolls his smokes on. He built his sofas in a week. He painted the paintings on the wall. There is no electricity, he uses solar lanterns. When the weather allows he can see Mt Kenya clearly. He doesn’t get tired of it but neither does he stop often to stare at it with the same longing outsiders do. It’s many things to him, a silent looming force. Sometimes it’s a metaphor for life; that what will be will be. 

He lives with three tortoises. 

They  don’t have names, these tortoises. They are not his pets or anything, but rather uninvited housemates. They came and they never left, which is exactly what a tortoise would do. How he found himself in this living arrangement with tortoises is very cliché if you have ever moved in with a tortoise. One day he came home and found a tortoise at his doorstep. He thought, ahh, a tortoise, I wonder how many years it took him to get here. He placed a saucer of water on the balcony for it and went to bed. The following morning he found a second tortoise on the balcony. Funny thing was, it looked exactly like the first tortoise. Maybe they were siblings or spouses, he thought to himself, or even twins. He let them be because what’s a tortoise going to do, steal your battery powered blender? He left for work. That night he came home to find a third tortoise, a third!, and wondered, what in the tortoises is happening here? So he Googled, is a tortoise entering your house good or bad? Google said it was good. That tortoises in homes offer stability and wealth and that if you place it at your doorstep it protects your home from negative energy. There was no negative energy in or around his cabin, only grace. So he let them stay, rent-free. Good thing they don’t leave things lying around. Or forget to properly close the fridge door. Whenever anybody comes over to visit and yelps, ‘Oh my God, you have tortoises! What’s their name?’ He simply says, ‘Tortoise.’ 

‘What, you named a tortoise, Tortoise?’

‘Yeah.’ 

‘All three of them?’

‘Well, I didn’t name any of them, I just call them Tortoise so that I don’t call anyone the wrong name.’ 

‘Of course, and risk hurting their feelings.’

Anyway, that’s how he came to live with Tortoise the three tortoises. 

How does it feel to live in a cabin house at the edge of a forest? It’s cold, which means you can’t sleep naked if you are like me. Late at night, the deep silence is only punctuated by the distant sound of a barking dog. Or the shy sound of a night bird. When it rains you can smell it through the wood. Most mornings he awakens to mist rolling down from Mt Kenya, which is really nothing but God’s breath. He loves tea, so he usually lights up his stove and makes a strong cup of tea which he sips slowly while leaning against a column on the balcony. The tortoises are usually mostly still asleep at this time because those buggers are lazy and imagine they are the custodians of soft life. At this time of the morning, the air is usually crisp, fresh and cold. Mostly it’s silent with only the mooing sound of the handful of cows kept in the farm. He hardly ever sees anybody. Nobody just walks up to his door asking for directions. Or salt. He’s alone out there which is perfect for him because he’s a solitary animal. “Being alone forces you to be honest with yourself,” he says, “and being honest with yourself brings you clarity.”

His means of transportation is a motorbike that he bought as scrap in a yard and rebuilt himself. He acquired a new engine, fixed up the tyres, customized the trunk, and literally welded the whole frame. Took him a week, Monday to Saturday, never left his workshop, slept there. It moves but he wants it to be perfect so he still works on it because men like him are obsessed with perfection. 

It’s this motorbike that he gets on and rides to work at the Downtown center in Nanyuki, a creative space where he has a workshop. Highly creative, he paints and he does woodwork. He restores old machines. He builds electric bikes. He works with leather, making bags and shit. He can sew. He grows strawberries and other plants. He paints and draws and rolls his own smokes. He collects junk and transforms it into art. He sculpts. He builds houses on trees. Makes signage. He teaches kids art, three kids he trained from St. Andrew’s Turi went all the way to the UK in art competitions. He has been invited as an art judge at the same school for three years. He just made a gate leading into his workshop using old junk. He can fix a broken phone and bring it to life. He makes unique beds and cabinets. He might also be able to go to the moon on a rocket he built himself, no less.

When I tell him, ‘Wow, so you are a craftsman?’ He, perhaps averse to being limited to lazy superfluous tags, corrects me politely and says, ‘no, I’m a maker.’ A maker, that word states like tiramisu in my mouth. He’s not even being arrogant or anything, actually, he’s pretty chill, just confident. He mostly uses discarded materials, scrap and junk mostly and turns them into astonishing items of wonder. “As a kid I used to make my own toys with my dad. I’d scavenge for parts in the scrap yard and so very early I learnt that nothing is too useless to be re-used. When you re-use stuff you’ll never get the same thing again. That’s the beauty of old things, that they can always birth new things. What you dismiss as scrap can make a completely different item that is unique and new in its own way.”

“So you give things a new lease of life?” I said. 

“Yeah.”

“Old things birth new things.”

“Yeah.”

His name isn’t Mcbull, it’s Ndegwa but who wants to ride a cool motorbike, paint, live with tortoises and make Japanese beds with a name like Ndegwa? So he remade his name, tore it apart and put new parts in it. Ndegwa apparently means Bull in Kikuyu, so Mcbull? 

We ran into him by chance in Nanyuki when we went down to shoot a pilot for a documentary I’m putting together. Like my passion project, a first rodeo into directing. My videographer/ director of photography/ Siaya Man, @Paushinki, and I were mesmerized by his level of creativity. I’m not embarrassed to say that we fawned over him and his creative milieu. His wooden tool shed had all manner of tools that whirred and purred. He showed us his paintings and artifacts he’s built in his gallery. Things he’s restored. An old Great Wall TV sits on a shelf in his gallery, and there he did some mambo jumbo shit and you can watch a bloody video on it by Bluetooth or voodoo, I don’t know. Midas touch came to mind. 

“Why is it so important to use your hands?” I asked him and he said his brain doesn’t stop. Even when he sleeps his brain goes taktaktak, like a combine harvester. “I feel like there’s a lot of energy that needs to be moved from one space to the other, otherwise I’ll go mad. So all this is an expression of this restless energy.”

I turned to Pau and said, “He means he’s mad.”

Mcbull laughed. 

“No, really,” I said. “You can’t unlock this level of creativity and be sane. No way God gives you this talent and mind and it doesn’t throw in some madness. Genius is madness. Tell me, what demons do you find come with your creativity?”

He chuckled and smiled in the warm Nanyuki sun. “Isolation,” he said. “When you’re coming up with ideas, most of the time they’re crazy ideas. It feels weird to even share some of these ideas with your friends. I’m thinking of building a moving house and when I told some pals that, I could tell they thought it was some sort of a pipe dream. So you learn to stay with your ideas, in isolation, literally but also figuratively. The thing is, this isolation often comes with loneliness and so you have to try and find how to balance all that’s on the inside and what’s on the outside.”

He grew up on a farm in Mombasa. (Yes Mombasa has farms). He was always embarrassed about growing up on a farm, didn’t want his friends coming over. “I went to Moi Forces Academy where there were cool kids, yet we lived on a farm. We had pigs and cows.  So I used to hide this fact a lot, it was very shameful.” This was until one day a friend visited and went back to school and said, ‘Kina Ndegwa live on a farm and they have cows and pigs.’ “Suddenly everybody wanted to come to see our pigs and cows. I became very popular because of that; I was the boy who lived on a farm. They found it so charming.” Perhaps from that experience he started embracing being different.

He comes from a long line of creative people. OK it’s not that long. His dad grew up on a farm. His grandfather was a chef who worked for white settlers in Nyeri so his father was exposed to a different way of life. There were horses and things. His dad joined the army then resigned, tried racing Safari rally for a while as a co-driver then quit. He then became a deejay while practicing fine arts. After that he moved to Mombasa and started an orchard (yes, an orchard), while also selling electronics imported from China. “He was multi-disciplinary.” 

His mom was a dressmaker. He remembers sitting at her feet watching her step on the sewing machine that went taktakatak, like a very small combine harvester. “I make outfits too. I also make custom made bags from old leather jackets.” Of course he makes outfits and bags from old leather jackets. “I learnt that from my mom because I spent a lot of time with her.” 

His mom was also a cook, she worked at a hotel. She was super strict, a staunch Christian who never spared the rod, especially on him, the first child of three. “My dad was the opposite,” he said, “he’s a rastafarian. He’s one with nature and all that.”

“So he goes about bare feet, to earth himself and that kind of thing?”

“Yeah, he actually does. And holds manure with his hands. I grew up around his eccentricity, thought nothing of it, he was just different. He was tuned to a different vibration.” 

When he was 19 his parents split up. “There was too much noise in the house.”

When we were in Nanyuki  he was building…I don’t remember what he was building, but he had all these drawings in a notebook that he was about to turn into that thing that I don’t remember. He had on a proper overall and things and he was cutting through metal, sparks flying all over. Music played from his Bluetooth speakers in the gallery. He often works till late, or just doesn’t go back home at all, just spreads something on the floor of his gallery, curls into a fetal position and snatches pockets of naps. While he works people often wander into his workshop from the bar in the square, buying things or just wowing over them. Sometimes they ask questions; can you make wooden shoes? How come you can paint and make furniture and also use metal? How old are your dreadlocks? Do you have some weed? (Because of the dreadlocks) How did you end up in Nanyuki? 

He redid this signage. Cool, ey?

How he ended up in Nanyuki is that he dropped out of university. He dropped out because like most men of his creative disposition and drive he found formal education  to be too obtuse, to herding and narrowing. He’s free minded and experimental. He doesn’t need a curriculum or to be tested. He quit because in his first year at JKUAT they were being taught how to solder wires which was something he had learnt to do in class six. So he came to Nairobi and joined his cousin fixing phones. He was so good at it, he opened his own shop in a few months. But then cops started visiting the shop claiming that some of those phones he was fixing were stolen. So he said, ‘no, man, I’m the son of a rastafarian, you can accuse me of anything but not of handling stolen goods,’ so he packed his shit and decided to try it out in Nanyuki. 

“I had been to Nanyuki once before and I liked how chill it was.” He landed with no plan, just a Gucci bag, an old iron box and 13k in his pocket. He moved into a slum, paid three months rent in advance (rent was 700 bob a month for a squalid space), and got a job as a waiter in a police station mess. He then saved up to set up a phone repair shop where he also painted when business was slow. One day a woman walked in and said could you come to my school and give kids art lessons? She was called Stephanie Majuma and she owns a school called  Hamptons School Nanyuki. He became a part-time art teacher, moved out of the dump he was living in and upgraded to a better abode. “I would spread polythene paper over my furniture during the day and paint and things. When done I’d fold it up.”

One day he made a table for a client who came back and asked if he could make him a Japanese bed. “Of course I can make a Japanese bed,” he told them. He couldn’t make a Japanese bed, he’d never heard of a Japanese bed because he assumed Japanese people slept on normal beds. But guess who knew all about Japanese beds? Google! He learnt that they made their beds without nails, just joinery. He made the bed and that client suggested that he might like this space at a place called Downtown. That was in 2020. The rest is history. 

Downtown Nanyuki

We filmed my subject, a sommelier, in his workshop where they hold Paint and Sip events. These are events where a bunch of people sit around a table and paint on canvas while getting shitfaced and drawing sunflowers and clouds. They are great fun if you don’t drink too fast. This particular sommelier (I’m not giving away her name yet) also does wine tastings during the Sips and Paint. So not only do you learn about wine, you can also discover that you don’t possess a single creative bone. 

At some point, he said, “Is anybody up for a smoke?” So we went behind the workshop; me, him and this badass millennial girl/ writer who often stays up all night drinking jaba juice. I was out of my depth. “I will only take one small puff,” I said timidly like a yellow-boned wimp. He shrugged. All the bones on his face seemed to catch all the light from his lighter. 

“When did you know you were an artist?” I asked him, hoping I’d not cough.

As early as four years.” He blew smoke away from us. “I first sketched my dad’s Volkswagen van, in 2D. He then added lines just to create 3D and that’s when I knew I’m gonna be an artist forever. Because I took that technique to school, kids were blown away. They were like, wow! Like a 3D picture at that age for me was too much attention. So I was forced into it.”

 

He’s turning 30 in September. He’s currently building a prefab house, a camper car.  A three-wheel electric car, complete with a trailer. “Because I really want to travel the world, but I don’t want to do it the traditional way of flying or driving your four wheel drive car. I want to make something and go with it.” 

“Why do you want to travel the world?” I asked, holding onto the wooden fence because I started feeling an overwhelming urge to hug the fence. And hold on to it. 

“I love seeing new things. I want to meet new people and see what people are doing out there.” When his campervan is done he will test it by driving it to Malawi first. He also plans to go to the UK with a friend who just bought a boat and is sailing from Malindi to Egypt. ‘We plan to sail with our bikes onboard. Once in Egypt we will drive our bikes down with my pal, Jeff.” I want to ask, what about the boat? Where will you leave it? What if the Egyptians steal it? But I would have sounded hysterical so I just nodded and said, “this is all exciting, isn’t it?” then I left him with the Millennial badass. 

Oh, this is my painting from the sip and paint. 

If you are wondering what the hell this is then you haven’t evolved artistically to fully comprehend the esoteric emotions in this painting. Only a few of you will. You see that swatch of pink at the top right edge? That’s my female energy coming through, she’s called Jackie. She hates bras. 

Later, I asked him if he was dating. He said he was. 

‘Is she an artist?’

He said she was. 

‘Is it Muthoni, the lady who assists you in the workshop?’

He laughed and said, actually it is. ‘Yeah, we are dating.’

So the love story is that Muthoni came in as an apprentice and for months she worked hard and diligently and one day he saw a frame she had built and it was so perfect he fell in love with her frame and with her. That was almost a year ago. 

“Do you find it hard to sustain a relationship, as an artist?” I asked and I realized I might have been whispering for no reason at all.

“Uhm, well it depends,” he said evenly, “it depends on the artists themselves because I think knowing yourself is very important. And once you do, then you start treating the damage that has been done. Like I’m currently seeing a therapist, it’s been a year and a few months. So it depends on the person. So if you’re willing to fix things, yeah.”

I went over to Muthoni and collared her. “Hey,” I said. “Is it hard dating someone like him, he’s crazy right? Walks around the house half naked in the cold, mumbling things, his tortoises clutched under his arm.”

She laughed. “He’s okay. Ha-ha. You just have to understand someone’s temperament. I don’t think he’s hard to date once you know who you are dating.”

“You sure?” I whispered.

“Yeah.”

“Blink twice if you are under duress, Muthoni.”

She laughed. 

When he’s working he doesn’t get off. He works the whole day and sometimes even burns the midnight oil. Then he gets on his bike and retreats to the silence and isolation of his cabin house. Often he does nothing but drink tea or smoke. Sometimes he gets on his bike and rides all the way to Nyeri. Something about being on a bike on winding roads, the trees running opposite you, your thoughts bouncing off in your helmet. Other times, he wears his boots and walks into the forest behind his house to gather firewood and meditate. He’s often gone for an hour, smoking and brushing his hands against leaves and looking up at how light slices down in shapes and colours. Or sitting on a falling tree, smoking and not thinking. He feels at home with and in nature. He loves being amongst trees. The trees are only silent to those who don’t know how to listen to their language. He loves the smell of wet earth and the sounds of the birds with their tiny feet. 

I recall asking him; ‘if your life was burning and you had one chance to carry one thing out of it what would that be?’ 

He said, “myself.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, all I need is my mind. Good things happen to me in any environment I’m placed in.”

“Energy.” I said, only I was still whispering. 

***

If you are new here, I’m offering creative writing workshops. Register HERE. If you aren’t into groups (it’s a class of 13-15 pax max), and you need private one-on-one classes, you can also register HERE. Next class is in September. 

Otherwise, stay Taliban. 

 

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44 Comments
  1. Being a writer is making peace with the existence of those little sparks of magic you sprinkle throughout your work that few will ever know about: The spine-tingling alliteration in a random sentence, the double entendre title that came to you in a dream, the odes to an experience juxtaposed against this unrelated tale. No one may ever fully appreciate the beat your heart skipped when the machinations of your mind materialised onto the paper, but that’s fine. Maybe they’ll resonate with the right people and make their days a little better. So cheers to Biko’s little sparks of magic; may they never dim.

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  2. It’s the isolated cabin and 3 tortoises for me!
    I’d love to live like that, only that I’d have cats instead, haha.
    Man is a creative genius.

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  3. i think you smoked more than one puff Biko that painting is doodle. reading this article just made me realize that we comfy too much to what society has taught us this mcbull is living his true self wish some of us could do this.

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  4. I was taken aback by “He’s turning 30 next year”. This dude sounds like he’s been alive at least 72 years.

    Halafu I’d also come to shoot my shot , but Muthoni with the perfect frame (I’m assuming that was a pun) is there.

    I’m usually very envious of people who figured out their life’s missions. He’s definitely one of them. All the best exploring the world and doing all sorts of artsy things!!

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  5. Your female energy called Jackie hates bras?! That was so random, came out of nowhere I couldn’t catch the loud laughter that escaped

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    1. Pwahaha…

      She hates bras, loves to smoke and has taste for the finer things in life like Loubotins. Biko should write more about her, last time she stopped him at Village Market to admire some red-bottoms. She sounds like a Jacqui or a Jacque…

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  6. A man who can build anything with his hands will definitely need to save his ass if the building goes into flames. And, well, there is a fine line between fine art and madness.

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  7. I envy the freedom he has.

    Freedom to do anything he wants at any time. To go anywhere

    Freedom from societal expectations.

    I desire that freedom.

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  8. Nice! Hope to visit his workshop one day.

    And it’s pronounced ‘taw-tis’, not tortoise! (Thanks Mrs. Mwasi, my class 6 teacher of English!)

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  9. Solitude.

    I would wish to just sit somewhere above his workshop and just watch him be.
    Create a narrative in my mind of how he speaks to his tools or wood or leather or just everything before he transforms them.
    Art.
    And the bike.

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  10. Revence Kalibwami. Read about him. This is his kindred spirit. He could draw, write, code, ride a bike and taught himself mandarin. Sorely and dearly missed. Good to see there’s more of him out there.

  11. This story hits home for me as a fine artist. The demons are real. Most of the time no one gets how crazy and complex it gets up there and how unbothered you grow as you create so alone feels like the best company. I envy him since he has that silence to let the loudness in his scream without a muzzle. I am muzzled by my current environment but my goal is to get to Mcbull’s state. Thank you so much Biko for this one I felt it.

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  12. Wow! Ndegwa!

    Sometimes I feel men are more advantaged as artists because; why do I want to do all those things that McBul is doing but I know a urgent clan meeting would be called to haul me to Mathari in order to put an end to my nonsense.

    Such a beautiful piece. I hope I get a chance to visit Ndegwa before he goes on his world tour.

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  13. Wow! Ndegwa!

    Sometimes I feel men are more advantaged as artists because; why do I want to do all those things that McBul is doing but I know an urgent clan meeting would be called to haul me to Mathari in order to put an end to my nonsense.

    Such a beautiful piece. I hope I get a chance to visit Ndegwa before he goes on his world tour.

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  14. 3 people saying they were first to comment :).

    I wonder how or where Biko finds these amazing people…. The Mcbull is turning 30 and yet he already has had such a life. I was just calling my brother before landing here. I told him about how Jesus died at 33 and Alexander the great at 32. 32 and he was already the Great. He has been building a website for me for the longest time and so I told him to finish it up because sometimes I feel I will die young (like for real), and my greatest fear is that I will not have done all that I need to do.

    I have not lived enough. I hope I will get the courage to live fully- because it takes courage to be like Mcbull.

    That was an amazing read. Long Libe Biko.

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  15. “Why do you want to travel the world?” I asked, holding onto the wooden fence because I started feeling an overwhelming urge to hug the fence. And hold on to it. he he he, he he, reminds of my first experience with weed!!

  16. “…to shoot a pilot for a documentary I’m putting together”

    Had to read it 3 times. Automatically knew you don’t go around announcing your intention to do GBH upon a person with an arrow or bullet.
    Second read, thought you were filming a captain or first officer of airborne machines contraptions.

    It’s only on the third attempt that I got that it was your first episode.
    Good luck. Looking forward to seeing this other creative side of you.

    Now let me go back to McNdegwa and his wazeekobe.

  17. Phew! At least someone that schooled in my alma mater. I was starting to wonder whether they eloped after clearing MFA. Have never even bumped into a single soul in town from MFA!

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