Five Knives

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A guy comes to my gate in the village. He’s young, wearing a shirt with torn-off sleeves like a scrapper in a low-budget flick. We speak through the gate. He says, “I once did some work for you.” I don’t remember him. I don’t know him or the work he did for me. I want to ask him if he was the one who helped bury the last body but I’m playing my cards close to the vest. “I helped spread manure, down there by the fence. You were not here.” I’m not here a lot. But even when I’m not here, I’m here, you know what I mean? His wife is sick, he informs me. Her leg is ruined, she can’t walk. She spends her days in bed. They have tried everything. He needs help. 

“What happened to her leg?” I inquire. I’m standing next to a row of stunted bamboo plants. They simply refuse to grow. They are obstinate, insisting on taking their paths, walking their own lives at their own pace. Plants are like that, though. They do what they want. They are like cats. Screw cats, man. 

He says “She crossed a bad path,” of course, this is a very rough translation from Dholuo, which loses all its inferences and nuances that I can’t get into here with you guys. I ask him what this “everything” is that they have tried. He says they have tried all the traditional medicine; roots, plants, and someone – possibly a very old woman with a weak chin – spitting on the wound or whatever. Nothing doing. Someone referred him somewhere where they might seek help, he says. He’s wondering if the hands of our Lord might massage me enough to part with 3K for this urgent cause. 

“What do you do?” I ask him. He says he often goes out fishing, other times he does odd jobs in odd homes. Like spreading manure. He works with his hands. He does what he can because he now has a family. He has three children. He looks 23 to me. “What’s your number, I will call you in an hour.” He says he has no phone. His phone fell into the lake. By the way, I’m not making this up; it happened a few days ago. I tell him, wait here, and I go find the shambaboy. I find him tidying up the area around the campfire pit from the previous night’s activities. It’s morning, it rained last night and the grass is wet. A gang of birds chirp on the trees. The earth is wet and healed. Nature breathes softly all around. If you cock your head you will hear a bunch of loud fishermen dragging their fishing nets from the lake, shooting the shit. They have potty mouths, these fishermen. They smoke weed and they talk trash and their lewd analogies tumble over each other for applause. You won’t stop cackling and blushing if you are a girl, maybe covering your mouth with horror at the filthy language. 

“Do you know that fellow at the gate?” I ask him. He stands, leaning on one leg. He says he often sees him down at the fishing village. He lives somewhere around the massive fallen tree. Does he have a sick wife? He says Yeah. Her leg is the size of that tree trunk. I look at the tree trunk and realise the tree trunk is the size of hyperbole. I called Dr. Seth Kagia, a clinician I had met when doing some health stories at Homa Bay Referral Hospital. He helped one of my ex-shamba boys, Steve, who was suffering greatly from TB and alcoholism. He said, “I’m not in Homabay now, I’m in Sindo, but I will refer you to a colleague of mine in Homa Bay who can help them.” By the way, one of my characters from my book THURSDAYS comes from Sindo. It’s a notorious township in Suba, at the shores of Lake Victoria. 

On my way back to the gate, I stick a blade of grass in my mouth because that’s what one does when one is in the village. It’s an appropriate accessory for village dwelling. I think it gives you gravitas. It’s the equivalent of having a pipe in your mouth. 

I tell him that we have a solution. I will give him fare to take his wife to HomaBay where he will meet a doctor friend who will handle his wife’s leg. I notice his body language changing while I talk. He’s averse to this idea, I can tell before I finish my explanation. True to my fears, he tells me he prefers not to take her to the hospital. I ask him, where do you prefer to take her?! He says, to a Rangila, a medicine man who comes highly recommended. “Do you know him?”

Do I know him? Do I know him? Where the-?…No, I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of making this medicine man’s acquaintance. 

I tell him, if you guys have seen several medicine men and women and there is no result, how sure are you that this one medicine man will heal her? He says he is very good. I tell him I can’t give him money for a medicine man but I’m happy to send them to a doctor and pay for the bill. He says he prefers the medicine man over the doctor. I said, no, sorry, a medicine man won’t work for me. We stand there in a brief but uncomfortable silence. He’s probably thinking to himself what a narrow-minded city idiot I am. Believing in Western medicine. They put poison in you with antibiotics and penicillin and they give you water on a drip and take your blood pressure with a gadget that squeezes your arms. And that thing they point at your forehead to supposedly take your temperature? That shit causes cancer. I have it on good authority. 

“Do you want to sleep on it?” I urge, “Then tell me what you decide tomorrow.”

He sighs and says he will. We shake hands through the grill. He had a firm grip for someone who believed in cowrie shells and amulets. 

I go back and watch Emmanuel feed my pigeons. They have a baby pigeon. Wait, let me Google what a baby pigeon is called in English. It’s called a Squab. We have a Squab in the family. She’s still in the pigeon house, her dad and mom bring her food from outside and brood over her. She’s dark with tiny uncertain eyes, bewildered at this new life she finds herself in. In Kiswahili, they are called Njiwa, but then you must know that already. 

The pigeons have brought around more birds up on the acacia trees near their house. Yellow birds with tiny legs; shifty and seemingly uncertain of the safety of the ground they find themselves in. I also got two guinea fowls; a white and black one. They go everywhere together but nothing has come out of that closeness. Maybe the female is on contraceptives, which is not news I love to hear because I want babies! Lots and lots of Guinea babies. Wait, let me Google what a baby Guinea fowl is called. It turns out it’s called a Keet. Look at that, you learned two new things before lunch. 

I intend to get two peacocks and when I do we shall Google what a baby peacock is called. For now, let’s just save it for next time, shall we? 

I then go down and stand over a Bougainvillaea and Lady’s slipper vine. I once saw an arched garden entrance encircled with plants at Talisman in Karen and I was taken by it. I thought I’d do the same in the village. I liked the idea of passing through the archway, it felt mythical like you were gaining entrance into another life’s dimension with a completely different experience. So I had some bougainvillaea and Lady’s slipper vine shipped down to the village. The Lady’s Slipper Vine is pretty special to me. It represents many things at the same time. It will flower after two years. They haven’t grown an inch since they were planted a month or so ago. They don’t even look like they will grow. But they will. Plants are like that. You only have to give them love and time. 

This is not about botany. This is about giving things time. “Give time time,” as my brother likes to say. Everything needs the benefit of time. And even though I’m the most impatient bugger you will ever meet, I have tried to give my grass time and they have finally rewarded me with beauty. 

Here is a thumbnail version of it if you don’t already know my grass story. If you do, I apologise. This is my last entry about grass.  

Like all stories like these, it starts with a bushman called Macharia. He runs Pinklakeman’s lodge down at Elementaita. I was once sent to write a story about the lodge by a magazine way back circa 2008. I was enthralled by the wooden cabins, the freedom of the land, and the energy of Lake Elementaita. I loved how the weeds stood in defiance of only what they knew, and the smell of algae and flamingoes. At night Macharia drove you to the hot springs at the foot of the Sleeping Moran and there, in a darkness pierced by the glow of his headlights, you slithered in the hot spring water under a wide, endless chasm of sky. If you were lucky it was cloudy, very dark, and ominous. If you were very lucky there were a million stars and maybe the full face of the moon. If you were really really lucky, you had a naked girl in the water who kept asking, “Are you sure there are no hippos here?” and you growled, “I’m the only hippo you should be worried about.”

I kept going year after year and watching the transformation of the place, how he worked with his hands to change nothing to something. He would say, “I’m going to do that over there,” and when you went back, like magic, he had done it. Or was doing it. I liked the charmed life of the bush, the freedom, the work one had to put in to turn plain land into something that represents who you want to be inside. Over time I got a place in the village, an hour from my ancestral home and there was nothing there but fishermen drying their fishing nets and cows basking. It was dry and desolate and it was perfect. I knew I’d turn it into my version of paradise. Something Macharia would look at, nod, and say, “Yeah, I did well with this one.” 

I wanted grass. Lots of green grass. I wanted a thick carpet of it. I wanted grass that was so healthy, they’d turn vegetarian. Grass that never missed cardio. Grass that fasted intermittently.  There was one big problem though; I was naive. Actually, there were two big problems, I was naive and foolish. I imagined that if you have some little money stashed away, you’d get anything you wanted. Not grass! Grass is heartbreak. 

Anyway, I got a handful of villagers to till the land. I bought a pump for water. Then I said, Lord, do your thing, I’ve done my thing. 

The first grass I planted was paspalum. I remember her because she was my first heartbreak. I got bags of it from Simlaw on Kijabe Street. That bastard never grew or if it did, it grew in disrespectful patches like people (me) who insist on growing beards. It was a pubic growth. I said, Lord, what is this? Is this your thing? What do we do? A voice came to me in my sleep and said, “Omera, that’s the wrong grass bwana. Change the grass and change the narrative.” So I called the village people again and said, we have to remove this grass and plant this other grass. I had earlier consulted in bars about the right grass to plant (refer to the foolishness mentioned above) and someone with a beer in hand told me the best grass to plant in Nyanza, is Kikuyu grass. (Don’t let the irony hit you over the head) So I bought some seeds from a Kikuyu: Kwanza hii itashika sana kwenyu. 

Kwetu was like, hold this beer.

Kikuyu Grass was disastrous. It hated shags. It complained all the time, then it became listless. Maybe because the chap who was tending it was not serious about watering it. Maybe the gods of grass had put a kibosh on it. Maybe there was something in the water. In between dealing with the grass I also had some drama with shamba boys. (The bane of my existence). Still, my grass was struggling. Then by chance, I got an opportunity to throw away the baby with the bathwater. I was introduced to a gentleman who would change the trajectory of this story: Duncan Wang’ombe, the grass whisperer from Nyahururu. Changed the game for me. 

He took a bus to the village to look at my floundering project. When he came back he put his cap on the table (always in a cap) and said, “First, you have the wrong grass.” I groaned and said, Not again! “Second,” he continued, “that land is not burrowed enough, you need to burrow it and manure it. Then plant a new grass called Maadi River. It’s drought resistant, it will do well in the village.” 

I got villagers to burrow the whole damn place and got manure in the bagful from K’Otieno who has many sheep. A bag is 50 bob. Oh, by the way, I didn’t have a bagful of money just sitting to do these things. These events are spread out through months of putting together funds; writing, holding up banks, highway robberies, things like that. 

“Now, for the next phase, which is very sensitive,” Duncan said. “We get grass from Nairobi then I will need to send down some professional grass planters from Nyeri to plant them.”

“Why don’t we use local labour?” I cried, thinking of the cost.

He said that not anybody can plant grass. These women will use knives and plant each shoot in the ground. It’s painstaking. Also, he added delicately, the work ethic of your labourers is a bit wanting. “They take too many long breaks and they complain a lot. We need to do this quickly and professionally.”

So I got Maadi River from the Gigiri area, stuffed in gunias sprinkled with water, filled a lorry with it, and transported it overnight. When it landed five women from Nyeri were waiting for it with five knives to stick them in the ground. Took them a week, working from sunrise to sunset, with a hour break at lunch. [They were fascinated by Omena and just how hot it was]. Just workhorses. 

Then the long grass journey started, which means that the aforementioned drama with the shamba boys commenced. You have a pump that’s supposed to water the ground, but they don’t water it daily. They water it when they feel like it. I show up in shags and I’m either annoyed or I’m half-impressed, there was never any middle ground. It doesn’t help that I’m not very patient, I’m impulsive, and prone to making knee-jerk decisions. I don’t dither around severing ties, so a few times I showed up and the grass was rubbish and the ground was bone dry and the excuse was washy, so I said, “Here is your fare home, we are done here.” I once sent one shamba boy home because his wife was running my shamba, not him. Influencing him. I have a spy. You have to have spies to look over your fence and see what’s happening. He told me, “Oh that woman drinks a lot with this guy. That’s all they do. She is always sending him to look for other manual jobs.” So I went to the village and gave him fare. I told him, “Go work on your marriage. Let me work on my grass.”

Speaking of spies, you can’t have just one spy, he can send you on a wild good chase, so you have to have two spies in case the first spy goes rogue. And spies go rogue. Of course, it’s easier to install CCTV cameras, but guess what, are you going to install cameras to look over dead grass? You work on the grass first but you can’t work on grass from the comfort of your house in Nairobi, that’s why the Shamba boys are crucial in this journey.

I always tell them when I’m hiring them, “Your job here is to do only one thing; water the grass and tend to the trees. That’s all.” I warn them about the local girls from the fishing villages. They are little temptresses. They go about without panties, shaking their ample Luo behinds. “Avoid them. They will distract you from your job here. Then you will die of AIDS.” [Homabay county has the highest prevalence of HIV in Kenya.]

The shamba boy before my current one was the tall, cool kid. Kim said, “He looks like a teenager.” He was in his early 20s. He looked like he could be a member of Wakadinali. He was so soft-spoken, sometimes I had to lean in to hear what he was saying. Things were going well until his chick came over from Nairobi. I’m re-reading Patti Smith’s book ‘Just Kids’, and they reminded me of Patti and Robert. Young love. At night, they showered together in the open outdoor shower. From the campfire, I’d hear her giggles and his low deep murmur. Then she’d run to their house on her tippy toes, giggling, holding the towel around her. Just kids. 

I don’t know if she came to shags pregnant or if it happened in that shower, but soon he told me, “I’m expecting a baby.” He was dropping many balls by this time. I had a long chat with him about being a man, a father, and the responsibilities that come with that. How he had to work double hard because now too many people depend on him. How he wasn’t pulling his weight. We were standing by a kitchen garden, or what I was hoping would be a kitchen garden but he hadn’t done much on it. I told him I wanted him to win here but he couldn’t win if this grass wasn’t winning. “If you take care of the things that are dear to my heart, ” I told him, “ I will take care of the things that are dear to your heart.” In my head, I was speaking like the Godfather and this was my movie. 

Then the baby came last year, a very handsome boy. Real cute boy. One night when I was down visiting, he brought him to the campfire where I was having a drink and he placed him in my arms. Flames lit his innocent face. I had found the place in shambles; hedges not trimmed, grass half cut, weeds everywhere, four of my pigeons had been ‘eaten’ in circumstances he couldn’t entirely explain. I was pissed. I had asked him, “What’s your excuse for the boma looking like this?” and he had said, “I have no excuse.” There and then his fate was sealed. Now I was carrying his good-looking baby and feeling guilty because his dad was going to lose his job. I sent him away the following week. Of all the shamba boys I have sent home, this filled me with sadness. Because he’s 24 and with a baby. But then I thought that maybe this is what he needed, a little jolt. Maybe one day he will say, “Oh things turned around for me after this mad guy with pigeons and his silly grass fired me. I thought to myself, I’m not one to look after grass. I’m going to be better.”

My new shamba boy is called Shimechelo. Everybody in the village calls him Wa’Jakoyo, I suspect because he smokes a lot of grass. I like him a lot. Dutiful fellow. He works twice as hard. He puts his back into it. The grass is happy. The trees are happy. The pigeons are thriving. The guinea fowls are living their best lives. We were down last week to visit, the place looked immaculate. The grass is finally where I want it to be. Duncan has continued to make trips to the village. If you need a Grassman holla at him at 0726810517. However, because this shit is an ongoing journey, because the trees are growing taller, the shades are more, Maadi River whose tolerance for shade is low, is now growing weak and sparse in those areas. Yeah, you guessed it, I need to plant a different strain of grass there again. Pemba Grass. Rinse repeat. 

The fellow with the sick wife came back. He was wearing a different sleeveless shirt. I think he knows his biceps are giving. We stood under a tree next to the farm store. He said he’d thought about it and discussed it with his mom and they don’t want to see a doctor, they would prefer to see Rangila, the medicine man. Now I have nothing against Rangila and his hustle, but this wasn’t something I was ready to do. I said I wouldn’t be able to help him. His shoulders sagged. Birds chirped incessantly above us, filling the awkward silence. If you change your mind let me know, I told him. We shook hands again, firm grip on the young fellow. 

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57 Comments
  1. Your write up on Pinklakeman made me visit the place. And I happened to be alone in the entire place over a period of 3days. Got even bonus tourist visits around the area, Kariandusi accompanied by the resident chef.
    If you recreate a similar place in your area, I will definitely venture out to see.

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  2. Leave the cats out of this please.

    I hope the young man with the firm grip comes back and reconsiders the medical offer. I wonder what his wife thinks about it, after all, she’s the one ailing.

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  3. “These events are spread out through months of putting together funds; writing, holding up banks, highway robberies, things like that.” Really! 🙂 🙂

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  4. I love how this story has like a million little stories in it. Started with a medicine man, down to grass and now I’m gonna spend the next two hours finding out what babies of different birds are called. Well in, Biko.

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    1. I was thinking about the 1 million sub-stories all blended to make one superstore hahahaha! Beautiful writing

  5. Got to use Duncan after your earlier story of grass – he is good and his choice of plants is great. Our place looks like paradise.

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  6. Its amazing how you can write so well about anything and everything… The grass is actually greener on that your side.

  7. “They have potty mouths, these fishermen. They smoke weed and they talk trash and their lewd analogies tumble over each other for applause. ”
    Hahahaha…

    I think people should ask themselves why they constantly consult these witchdoctoctor types to solve problems. Saitan will simply introduce a revolving door of problems. Yet a range of folk; from popular celebs, to leaders, to this guy in shags keep going to Saitan for help. Saitan may give people all they want, but much more troubles they didn’t ask for, his evil knows no bounds.
    People should just come to Christ, He paid a heavy price for mankind. He came to set the captives free.

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    1. Medicinemen are not saitan.
      Sometimes healing is more psychological than the actual remedy just like a miracle its dependent on once faith.
      Sad part of this story is that the patient’s wish remains unknown… she is not even involved in decision making.
      Hope she is not in a vegetable state.
      Wish her quick recovery via whichever means.

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  8. I have absolutely enjoyed reading this. The humor is top notch. I was waiting for the last guy to be called Olum .Shimechelo?

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  9. Healing to the man’s wife, wherever it comes from, even if it’s from Rangila. A man I imagine as having a winkled face, calloused hands, and a raspy aged voice.

    I hope the bloke wear a sleeveless shirt to Rangila, to assert dominance and a dash of fear, just in case the medicine man is a charlatan.

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  10. Good job but the guy with sick wife ati rangila, if you think education is expensive try ignorance, goodness it might even cost him his wife

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  11. I have two relatives going through the same problem – one planting upcountry and another in Nairobi – you have captured their frustration!!! It’s not for the faint-hearted.

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  12. He was wearing a different sleeveless shirt. I think he knows his biceps are giving.
    You definately have Gen Z blood in you

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  13. Now that is a labour of love! Beautiful compound, Biko! Worth every Shamba boy who has come (lol!) and gone!

  14. I took the grass journey to homabay and savoured the site’s of hot homabay village with the beautiful luo girls and the reality of hiv, traditions and education. a strange fusion. splendid, my evening is made

  15. And I had to Google what a baby peacock is called… “A Peachick”. class dismissed.
    The stories within a story…who knew grass would be so interesting to write about..
    Great read.

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  16. I have never commented here but I feel we need to get a follow up story on the young man with the ailing wife. Did he go to Rangila? why decline medical attention so severely?

  17. Biko, if you ever get the chance, find out about the trip of the fellow with a sick wife.
    on another note I am seriously considering getting a piece of land for myself and plant grass before I build

  18. congratulations Biko on your projects and one can tell they are close to your heart. Your writing voice is becoming older and wiser, sprinkled with wisdom reflection

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  19. sad for the Rangila… si you had paid that guy who sees the mirror to see for you once chocolate man?
    Maybe you saw the light. May the young man see the light too

  20. the biceps young guy with a sick wife,… quite sad he didn’t take your offer.. Hope Rangila, when or if he fails , will convince him to see a doctor.

  21. As a teacher I love adding to my vocabulary- Keets, Squabs.. As I journey through my personal transformation/ awakening..
    this story resonates. Grass cutting and grass growing seem very relatable. As you said its all about Acceptance (that we need to change the type of grass) Patience (with each new experiences) Time ! Time is everything. I sometimes used to feel that I have figured out Time and life….never! Each type of “grass” teaches you something different about yourself. Some grass may disappoint some may excite you …Key is to recognize that each moment has taught you something about yourself. Wajakoya and I can be pals…sit by the lake, passing and puffing while exchanging varies types of grass stories. BABY PEACOCK is a peacock. (thanks Google).

  22. I enjoyed the read..word for word probably because the village stories are so relatable to me. It’s takes so much sacrifices to create a magnificent home

  23. By the way who have ever planted Kikuyu grass successful weuuh I bought a lot of it ,, well it was pubic or rather missed adolescent

  24. It was worth the effort. Thank the women, and their knives. Pity about the lad with the wife with a bad leg_ I feel he wanted to milk something out of the whole thing; the white coat Daktari wouldn’t afford him that.
    Good read✊

  25. Apology accepted but I bet this isn’t the last entry about grass, I can foresee a thunder heartbreak from Pemba and we all know you will write about it.

  26. We need to DM wife of this man and find out if this man is seriously passing on an opportunity for her to get better…ati he spoke to his mother, really!?

  27. “This is not about botany. This is about giving things time. “Give time time,” as my brother likes to say. Everything needs the benefit of time. And even though I am the most impatient bugger you ever meet, I have tried to give my grass time and they finally rewarded me with beauty”.

    Oh that passage almost made ma cry (go away, Amerix boys) how beautiful, how true, how profound. Give time, time.

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