A Mad Bunch

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It rained in such thick drops it felt like it was raining wet sausages. Dusk was descending and the band at Geco Cafe was starting to fiddle with their instruments when I ran out, head bowed, into torrential rain. Out in the parking lot sat a silver SUV with hazard lights blinking furiously in the rain. Inside a lady with no voice waited. Instead of a voice, she had a whistle hanging from her neck. This whistle is important to this story, so keep an eye on it. In hindsight, that whistle was perhaps the first indication that I was biting into more than I was going to be able to chew.

“The hell happened to your voice, Martha?” I asked her as I shut the door to the sound of the wet world outside. Inside her car was warm and safe as a womb. She croaked something about dust and construction workers. She sounded like she was speaking through a long dusty tube, cracked in several places. Her car wipers waved persistently. We sat there briefly as I added our destination on Google Maps before we edged out of the parking lot and joined the stalled traffic on Mbaazi Lane. It was only a few minutes after 7 pm but it felt like it had been dark half our lives.

Soon we were on Ngong Road, then the Southern Bypass. I want to be honest here and say that I was a bit scared for my life because Martha was driving a bit like my older sister. These are drivers who have such great faith in their brakes, that they only apply them when they can see the pores on the neck of the driver ahead. This kind of faith disturbs me. So I was constantly pumping my imaginary brakes while acting like what was going on was normal. What I have learned – the hard way – is that when a woman is driving you and it looks like she might kill you with her driving you learn to say boo and accept that something must kill a man. She was pressing that bugger in the rain and the wet road, really pressing that bugger. I could barely see shit, especially in the parts without streetlights; trees looked like stains, and houses were smeared into dark spots. I didn’t want to be the scaredy cat snivelling on the passenger seat, a grown man like me sucking his thumb. So I held my breath and held tightly onto my seat.

“This road is notoriously dangerous,” I volunteered, pretending to have a casual conversation while hoping she would get the cue and slow down. “There are often stalled trucks on the road. You don’t even see them until you see them…” Something passed us in a blur of brown to the left and I whipped my head around to follow it only to find out that it was Kibera.

Thankfully, gospel music was playing in the car. It seemed unlikely that I was going to die with gospel music playing in the background. If I was going to die in this car it would likely be to Bobby Brown and Ralph Tresvant, not the bloody Hillsong Worship, surely. Or maybe this would be the perfect night to die, with gospel music playing. Perhaps this was a sign for me to repent, I thought, trying not to panic.

“You love gospel music,” I said.

“Yeaah theeees ceeer, I heeonly pleeee goseeel.” She croaked.

[For the slow guys at the very back she just said ‘in this car, I only play gospel.” I think.]

I said, “Stay on the right lane, that left lane takes you back to town.” I don’t think she knew where we were. We took that incline over Mombasa Road, curved right, and got to the MTC lane on the Expressway together with the rest of the world. A woman of stature, I imagined she had ETC access. Turns out she had never driven on the Expressway before. It was her first time. “Next time get the ETC device so that you always use that express lane, no waiting,” I told her.

“Wheeeer do I geetit?”

“Here, at the Expressway. There are always Expressway chaps selling it. Load it with money and off you go. No queuing.” I was fascinated that she didn’t know all this. It was like meeting someone who doesn’t use MPESA. This goes to show that there are two types of people in Nairobi; those who have relatives in Syokimau and those who don’t.

We drove through. It had stopped raining. She took a call from her cousin who was already waiting for us at the petrol station at Gateway Mall in Syokimau. Like us, he also didn’t know where we were going. At the JKIA exit, I shrieked, “Take the right exit! The right exit! That left one will take us to the airport!” We met her cousin at the petrol station. They spoke briefly in Luganda and she said, “Kale.” He said, “Kale.” Then we eased back onto the road.

Her cousin followed us over the bridge, where we took a right and then a left, then down this deserted road, past trailers and things, a right turn, a winding road, another right, a gate, a parking lot in Wildside Park Recreation Center. Under the glare of floodlights, a small clutch of skinny Somali boys chased a ball on a fenced-off football turf. She reverse-parked smoothly into a slot and killed the engine. I swallowed. We were alive.

I remember looking up at the sky when we got out of the car and it looked like an old wet towel. “The meeting must be up there,” I told Martha, motioning at the noise coming from a container structure that seemed to be the Wildside Park Lounge. We went up the steel staircase into a room with a bar (it wasn’t a lounge) and a long table full of very loud Ugandans. This was the book club.

I was a guest author as you may have gathered by now. It’s not enough that you write a book, you have to hawk yourself to sell it. I don’t enjoy going to Book Clubs because I don’t enjoy sitting before a group of people and talking about my books. It fills me with anxiety before and then overwhelms me during, leaving me so drained after. Normally at the end of it all, when I have nothing left in me, depleted of words, I go home, crawl into my bed like a sick puppy, and cover my head. [Of course, I shower first]. Not that I don’t like people. I like people. I just don’t like people in groups. In groups people evoke a feeling of vertigo; when they gather together and they are all looking at you to say something. Quite intimidating. It helps if they are drinking, though. It helps even better if I’m drinking.

I had had two double whiskies at Geco but after Martha nearly killed me on the road, I was now annoyingly sober. I scanned the whiskies at the bar but there was nothing that tickled my fancy. I figured there was a lesson here; that God had saved me so that I could face these bands of howling Ugandans sober and perhaps learn something from the experience. God wanted me to have a clear head for this experience. And He sent His servant Martha.

They were not expecting me. It was some sort of a surprise, like a gender reveal. Martha, a member of this book club, thought to knock them over with a feather. I didn’t mind. I love Ugandans and I love Uganda. I attended Uni there. I have sweet memories of going for a drink at a notorious pub called Capital Club in the redlight district of Kabalagala and a hooker saying, “Ssebo, you touch my breast for two sousand.” I said, “Nsonyiwa, I’m not a breast guy.”Then she pouted, “Bambii,” and I said, “Kiki, Nnyabo?” I loved their accents, the piousness of their women, and the mildness of their men. There was a restraint in them as a people that I admired, they didn’t indulge their impulses and whims without thought. They are polite people.

The Book Club was not mild or pious in any way.

Picture walking into the eye of a storm, with a strong wind ripping anything that’s not nailed to the floor. They were loud, raucous, and ungovernable. And hilarious!

The table was creaking under the weight of bottles of beer and plates of food, bones with meat gnawed from them, plates of half-eaten chips, grilled and stewed chicken. For safety, I sat next to Martha (the irony) who after setting her tu-purse down just slid into the conversation at the table without a preamble. They were discussing my latest book, Let Me Call You Back and it was heated, I tell you! The book evoked great debate because it spoke to the relationship between men and women. Of husbands and wives.

Two minutes in, before I had warmed my chair, someone said something and Martha, who was saving her voice, croaked, “I don’t know, why don’t we ask the author here.” Heads turned to look at me and there was a brief moment of dead air when this was sinking in, like a stone dropping to the bed of a lake and when it finally dawned on the room that the author she was referring to was me, it was a bit of bedlam. OK maybe not bedlam, I’m being dramatic, but maybe great excitement. The room rocked with oohs and aaahs and whaaat and nooo! I wanted to hide under the table, away from the attention.

The lady seated next to Martha said, “Is it really you!?” I nodded coyly. “Oh my God. I’m a big fan. No way it’s you. It’s not you.” I started questioning myself. I started feeling like an impostor. Was it really me? Maybe it wasn’t me. Maybe I didn’t write this book. Maybe I wasn’t in this room masquerading as a lounge, sitting before a plate of ignored nyama choma. Maybe Martha had killed me along the Southern bypass and this was heaven. But why would there be so many Ugandans in heaven? Where the hell were the Kenyans? It was flattering really, the reaction. It was a great welcome.

This is one of those very serious book clubs that really dig deep into books. They had a list of questions that they were already working through:

  • What character did you identify with the most? Why?
  • Did the book change your opinion about anything, or did you learn something?

new from it? If so, what?

  • Did you have a favourite passage, line, or quote? If so, share which and why.
  • From your point of view, what were the central themes of the book?
  • Up to what extent did the women in Samora’s life contribute to his

predicament?

  • “Life is a sum of all choices” – Albert Camus. Having read the book, state one thing it reveals about the book club reader who chose it.

The session was led by the host Sandra, a witty, stern lady of great presence. She kept hollering, threatening, and shutting people down to order; THIS IS MY MEETING, I DECIDE WHO TALKS! This is the only way she could manage those guys because they all had strong personalities and opinions and they were not used to being told to shut up. They looked to be in the middle to top management, which meant they were accustomed to running shows. They weren’t scared of Sandra and her big stick. They had opinions on the book and by God, they were going to get heard. It was a bit like an unruly parliament; riotous and passionate. Martha, unable to speak over everybody else, voice drowned, would occasionally blow her whistle loudly, the shrill sound cutting everybody in half. It was like a Gor Mahia match. I sat next to her, so you can imagine how my head rang from it. It’s Monday 11 am as I write this and I can still hear Martha’s whistle in my head. This woman has damaged me more than she knows. When she blew her whistle, someone said, “Guys, let’s give the voiceless a voice!” That made me giggle.

In the room were some notable characters, Doreen, a young Ugandan lawyer working in Kenya, a feminist without remorse. She thought Samora, my main character, was an irresponsible man who took his wife for granted. She was tough on Samora. “Why do women have to be blamed for men’s behaviour?” For a change, there were several men in the book club. There was a professor with a great white beard and great opinions. He was also the group’s photographer. There was also a sprinkling of Kenyans who had infiltrated the group because we need intel on the activities of these Ugandans on our soil, don’t we?

Kyobika, a lawyer also, a traditional man who believes a man is the sole provider at all costs and this role can never be taken by a woman who will despise you if she takes that role. At some point from across the table, he said out loud, “I have a question for you Biko.”

Sure.

“Have you ever run into great financial difficulties like Samora?”

I said I hadn’t.

“Have you ever been auctioned before?”

I said I hadn’t.

He nodded and said nothing else. It felt like a brief and intense cross-examination in court. He left his questions and my answers hanging over the table. I didn’t know whether the answers I had given were good or not. I didn’t know if he was a prosecutor or a defense lawyer. Was he on my side or not? What it felt like, though, was as if he had taken all my clothes and asked me to walk home.

At some point, erectile dysfunction was discussed. Samora’s, to be precise. There is a point in the book where Samora can’t get an erection because he’s broke. It started a libidinous conversation. A good number of the ladies on the table seemed to question that; How was being broke tied to having an erection? And how come Samora couldn’t get an erection with his wife but he eventually got an erection with the Help? Are men really that fragile? What’s with men and their brittle libidos? A debate ensued, involving the women who understood the politics of erection. Grant, an engineer like Samora and one of the members in Kampala who couldn’t attend weighed in from Kampala. He sent a message on their WhatsApp group that Sandra read out loud like an Empress reading a decree. In short Grant – who sounded like quite the character – said that one of the times he had great sex (they call it to chew in Ugandan parlance) was when he was making piles of money. In short, libido is connected to a man’s financial worth. Case closed, Grant had spoken.

In the middle of this melee, at the center of the table, amidst the smorgasbord of food and alcohol was a long big bar of Toblerone chocolate. Huge bar, the type you buy a sweet-toothed girl for her birthday. Often I’d stare at the chocolate not because I necessarily love chocolate but…what was that big bar of chocolate doing there unsupervised? Whose chocolate was that? It distracted me so much that at some point I leaned over and asked Martha, “Whose chocolate is that?” like I was enquiring about a lost baby in the middle of a bar. “You want some?” she asked. I said no, even though I could have used some chocolate. Everybody could use chocolate. In any case, Toblerone is a fantastic chocolate. It’s the Tribe Hotel of chocolates.

As the debate raged on, there was a roaring sound that kept rising and suddenly the group was getting up from their seats and turning to the large windows, cheering, holding up their glasses in great celebration. I was confused. I turned around my seat and looked outside to the darkness beyond that was Nairobi National Park. A train appeared, chugging along in the darkness, cheered on wildly by the group. There must have been three or four trains that passed while I was there and each time everything would stop and they would get up and cheer wildly. It was all very funny and strange at the same time, like seeing your very old grandma blowing chewing gum. I was so confused, were these trains going to Uganda? Were they driven by Ugandans? Was I dead and in hell? Were those Kenyans on the train going to hell? Who was I? Why is this lady blowing a whistle so loudly?

Towards the end, I was asked questions. I started by saying that this was the craziest book club I had ever been to. Completely ungovernable. But loads of fun. I never managed to address all the questions I was asked because there was always someone protesting on my behalf. Complete mayhem. For instance, someone said, “Biko. I really enjoyed this book. It was witty and funny and the events in this book are raw. But the book didn’t take me anywhere.”

People started talking immediately, shouting over each other. Someone shouted, “Where did you want it to take you?”

She ignored them, which is the only way you can get a word in edgewise in that group. Their mantra seems to be ‘you can’t react to every mad person who throws rocks at you’.

“I finished the book and said, so what?” She continued, looking at me intently. “It’s a great story but so what?”

More protests.

“What did you want?” Someone asked.

“I don’t know… suspense…what did you want the reader to feel?”

More uproar. Martha brought out the damn whistle and the people around her said, No, no no, Martha, please! We will behave!

I managed to say that I never think of the reader while I’m writing my books. I think of the story.

Eventually, the meeting ended shortly after 11 pm. The mystery of the chocolate unraveled when it was split and shared among the members. One of the reasons I go to Book Clubs is to sell more of my books. I had a boxful of books with me and they bought quite a good number and I autographed them; great sales. I also had chocolate. Bills were added up and paid. The ladies stood up and looked through their purses as ladies usually do. There was laughter and hugs. Goodbyes were had. It felt like a family parting. It felt bittersweet. I was aware that I was going to remember this evening for a long time.

Outside, the rain had petered out to a drizzle. The Somali boys were still chasing the ball.

Outside, in the parking lot, some members stood by their cars talking, hands in pockets, or their branded jumpers written The Mad Readers Book Club. That’s the name of this book club: Mad Readers Book Club. You can’t even make this shit up.

I waited in the car as Martha said her final goodbyes in the parking lot. I centred myself and said, “Lord, you have left me in the hands of this mad woman driver. Take me home safely.”

Martha, and her whistle, dropped me back home safely.

***

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216
32 Comments
  1. …there is a point in the book where Samora can’t get an erection because he’s broke… that part took me out

  2. Biko I sent for this book and it was delivered safely to me, personalised autograph and all. This is a sign to get to reading it after a busy few months (where has the year gone??). I love the boisterous nature of this book club, a sharing and challenging of ideas, a social club too.

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  3. Hahaha. I have laughed so hard, eiii.

    Ugandans don’t disappoint.

    I absolutely loved the book. I equally got so many questions regarding Samora and his wife. There is so much to ask.

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  4. A few days ago, I watched someone being interviewed on Lynn Ngugi and I told my daughter, doesn’t this guy remind you of your uncle (my sibling) and we agreed yeah, the voice and mannerisms are to a tee. Then yesterday, another interview, another reminder, sibling no 4, the one who left us when he was knocked down on Mombasa Road. Again the facial expressions, the voice, the mannerisms to a tee.
    I’ve read this imagining the voices of my siblings the crazy and loud ones, one dead one alive.
    Doppelgangers abound.

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  5. Capital Pub, Kabalagala.
    Down the road from Cafe Cafe, De Posh and Three Monkeys.
    It really is a tiny world.
    Great read, Biko.
    Bow I have to have this book.

  6. Indeed!!! There are two types of people in Nairobi; those who have relatives in Syokimau and those who don’t.

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  7. I would like to read the book someday – to see if it will take me somewhere.

    Otherwise, the article makes for an excellent and hilarious reading!

  8. Thanks for my weekly serving of unfettered laughter… ati it was raining thick drops they felt like wet sausages? He he he when do you think these things up?

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  9. “Have you ever been auctioned before?”

    You should have taken Kyoika aside and asked him the story behind this question

    1. I am interested, as well Steve. Once you figure out how, please consider me member number two of our Book Club.

  10. For those out of country and would like to gift someone your book, how I go about that? Is there another payment option apart from Mpesa? Or which bookshops currently stock your latest book?

  11. Had Martha’s initial voice description(or lack there of) not held me back, this comment would’ve decidedly featured among the coveted top two. Or three. I literally had to pause,albeit indefinitely, to go search for some “long dusty tube cracked in several points” just to be sure of the actual sound. Yes, I’m a member of “The Slow Guys At The Back” book club. And doing practicals is among our core mission. I admired Martha particularly wearing her whistle like it’s a badge of honour;which it is,anyhow.
    On matters libido and finances, they’re admittedly inseparable.
    Good read Biko as always.

  12. Naye Biko, I have laughed so much weuh. I like how you added some luganda in the story, very captivating. How do I join this book club?

  13. No, I couldn’t have gathered that you were going to a book club. When you mentioned it rained like sausages, then Syokimau, I thought the story was about floods in Syokimau
    That part of ‘was I I’ is really hilarious
    I also get crowd frights, unfortunately for me, I end up mixing up all my well thought message to distort the whole meaning The curse of introversion

  14. “Something passed us in a blur of brown to the left and I whipped my head around to follow it only to find out that it was Kibera.” This was funny. Anyway I envy your life experiences Biko

  15. Hello Biko,grest piece as always.I haven’t gotten a chance to read any of your books, money problem and whatnot ,hopefully i will get a chance to do so one day.
    Anyone who can lend any of Biko’s books, help out please.

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  16. I got the book after reading this article. I read the book in a day because I could not pause!
    1. I got so mad at Samora towards the end, when he wastes every opportunity to come clean.
    2. I wonder why Ada did not check on him for two weeks after eviction, what if he committed suicide given his circumstances at the time! Wouldn’t she suffer guilt. She is portrayed as a good wife/mom all through, but why did she not take charge and help the husband through the rumbles, as she had a decent job!
    3. Also, has the book really ended? It cannot end like that, the story with the help has just began! How far did it go? Did Samora and Ada ever reconcile?
    4. Biko, gochna wa!

  17. Hahaaa this means there is no hope for me iasking you to MY book.club…I have been gathering courage on how to ask.you but.based on this experience hahahaa….
    I would love.to be a guest at. this book club! The host sounded very much like me.at my book club.