She comes straight to my office from work. She’s an English teacher, which means she’s got a studious air. She’s bedecked in a light green one-button coat, of course fastened deliberately because she’s a teacher and the world expects something from teachers. Her shoes are proper – the type you hear clanking importantly down school corridors, sending kids scampering to their desks. Teachers seem to have a walk that accountants don’t. “Aren’t you dressed like a proper mwalimu? I feel like I need to behave!” I tell her as she walks through the door, because with English teachers you always feel like you have to mind your Ps and Qs.
“I look too serious? Will this make me more approachable?” She unbuttons her coat and lets it hang loose.
“Better,” I reply.
She sits and looks through the glass walls of our office, to the sweeping vistas of windmills on Ngong Hills, right down past the meandering Southern Bypass and the skyline where planes disappear to land. “This is a beautiful view,” she remarks.
“You should see it at night when the lights come on,” I tell her perching myself at the edge of my desk. “Tea or juice?”
I send for juice from Java. “Where is Fred?” she asks looking at Fred’s unoccupied desk.
Well, Fred has already left. See, he just got back from his beach honeymoon. He’s now a proper husband, so he’s probably at home now, having evening tea with Mama Zenani, talking and cackling.
Her juice comes. She says, “Where do we begin?”
Her story goes back ten years when she had just started her teaching career and was living in a bedsitter in a block of apartments along Thika Road. On this block were shops on the ground floor where she’d often stop by after work to pick up something; bread, milk, eggs, a matchbox, tissue paper or cooking oil. Seated outside the shop, on a long bench, were chaps just whiling away time. Most of these chaps would sit outside the second hand furniture shop talking boisterously as men do when they are sitting on a bench outside a second hand furniture shop. She had a young son, but since she was barely scraping through life, she had sent him to live with his grandma until she settled down financially.
Whenever she would go to the shop these boys would holler at her. They’d say, “Sasa Mueni.” “Mambo Mueni?” “Leo unakaa poa Mueni.” “Mueni utakunywa soda leo?” You know, just guys shooting in the dark. Harmless banter. She was always friendly but she wasn’t about to fall for any of those monkey tricks again. The last time she fell for them she got a baby and the baby daddy jumped ship. So, no, Mueni was not going to have a soda.
But there was this one chap who caught her eye. He stood out because of his silence. “He would never say anything to me, a very quiet guy. Always very smartly dressed,” she says.
She could tell that he was different. How he sat there, legs crossed, clean sneakers, shirts that looked well taken care of, his hair shaved and oiled. While most smoked or occasionally drank alcohol, he didn’t. “He was a head taller than the rest when he stood, dark and good-looking,” she says. “He had a slight limp when he walked but you wouldn’t notice it unless he was walking fast. He also had a scar running under his arm.” Later he would tell her that he got cut by iron sheets in upcountry when he was a boy.
He didn’t have the courage to speak to her but he somehow got her number and rang her one day. He said he was Ng’ash from the shop and she immediately knew who he was. He sounded hesitant. “He said he wanted to see me, but not at the shop,” she says. So they met after school.
“He was the inquisitive type. Very interested in knowing about me, my job, my family. I told him about my son who was staying with my mom. He asked why I couldn’t stay with him and I told him I couldn’t afford it,” she says. Soon he started walking her home from school after work. “He would call me at 4pm after classes and say, ‘I’m outside the gate.’ Then he would walk me to my flat,” she says. He was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. He never rushed to invite himself up, like most guys we know. We won’t mention names here today. He would chat her up downstairs and end by saying, “Sawa, see you tomorrow?” It happened for so long until she thought, aii, kwani is he waiting for the lunar eclipse?
One day she invited him up. He stood in the middle of her one-room digs looking around at her meagre existence. His head almost touched the overhead bulb. It was evening, so the light from the bulb hit the middle of his head giving the impression that he was the one emitting light. She had a meko in the corner, utensils, a bed and a makeshift wardrobe on which her teacher-clothes hung. Shoes in a corner. There were no seats. The bed was the seat. “I think you should be staying with your son,” he said, taking a seat on the edge of the bed. He had long legs and bony knees. She made him tea and they sat next to each other on the bed, sipping tea from cheap porcelain mugs and talking. Rather, she talked, he listened.
Eventually she gave him a spare key and not long after, she came back from work one day to find she had new furniture; a cabinet, a big flat screen television, a small carpet, more utensils. The house looked different. When she called him excited and confused he said, “I think you should look for a bigger house. I want you to bring your son to live with you.” So she got a bigger house in a new block of flats. He paid the three month deposit and rent for a couple of months. After a month she brought her son over.
They were officially dating. He would spend most nights at her house. He was doing business, at least that’s what he said; a supplier of electronics. “I never really knew where he lived. The first time I asked him he didn’t say exactly where, but he gave me a general direction,” she says. He was not the type of guy who stayed in the house for too long but when he was in, he would cook for them or just watch music videos, mostly Kikuyu Gospel songs or Kikuyu secular music. Guys like Kaka Man, a guy from Kandara who has sung a song called “Clearing and Forwarding.” (I’m not even making this up). There is Ben Githae, Hezeh Ndungu the Akorino star, Muigai wa Njoroge, Daniel Kamau otherwise known as “DK”. This guy kills Gatanga chicks. These chaps calmed Ng’ash.
He never raised his voice, Ng’ash. He moved around the house like he had paws and not feet. Quiet chap. Even though he was only twenty seven years old then, he carried his age with a commanding maturity like he was forty five years.
He would be away on business for several days and come back to her. He was kind, generous and understanding and she was in love with him, his bony knees, kind face and the scar on his arm. “One day he came home from a trip to Kitale and he looked restless, which was unlike him because he was the kind of guy who never wore his emotions on his sleeve,” she says. “He locked himself in the washroom, saying he had stomach issues.” When he came out he went to the door and locked it even though it was barely 7pm and their neighbourhood was secure.
“Under no circumstances should that door be opened for anyone,” he told her in a tone she had never heard him use. A scared tone. That evening he sat on the sofa, saying even less than he normally would. “He looked jumpy,” she says.
Shortly after 9pm there was a knock on the door. He nearly jumped out of his skin. He pointed at her and said, “Don’t open that door.” She was confused. “Why not?” she asked. “Just don’t!” he said, moving to the end of the room. Another knock. The voice of the caretaker came from behind the door, “Mueni, the police are here.” She looked at him. Cops? What-in-the-f**k! Cops?!
“I was terrified,” she recalls. “I felt sick; suddenly having an urge to go to the bathroom.”
The door was now being pounded. A gruff cop voice said, “Fungua hii mlango saa hii!” She felt her knees giving away. She leaned against the wall and looked at him. He was shaking his head and mouthing, “Don’t!”
Above the door was a glass pane. The cops removed the putty around it and wedged it out. Then they showed them a teargas canister and told them that if they didn’t open the damned door they would lob the teargas into the house and smoke them out. “Now I was literally shaking.” Screw it. She opened the door.
They were three cops. Two in civilian clothes with those dodgy baggy jackets that cops wear. They were all big men but one of the cops was the size of Mount Longonot. He loomed large at the door. They had guns. They looked like they were not there to drink tea or listen to DK’s music. The one in uniform had big black shoes that shone in the light of the corridor. They brushed past her, filling her house with aggressive energy. Suddenly it felt like there were too many men in her house. They seemed to fill every space. They had that disposition of men who had been to the darkest ends of the city and they didn’t mind staying if you wished them to.
One guy hit Ng’ash in the face with the butt of his gun and he went down. Then a butt landed on the side of his stomach. He let out a wounded moan. They kicked his ribs as he curled into a fetal position trying to protect his head and vitals. The uniformed cop, a badass with a strong, square jaw planted his boot on Ng’ash’s throat and shouted, “WHERE THE FUCK IS THE GUN?” in Kiswahili. Across the room she thought to herself, Gun? Gun? GUN? What gun?!! You got the wrong house. We don’t have guns here, we listen to Kikuyu gospel music. This is Ng’ash, he’s a good man.
The uniformed cop kept kicking and beating him, shouting that they needed the gun while the rest turned the house upside down. They ripped through the sofas with knives, pulled down picture frames, tore the mattress, emptied drawers, looked in the bathroom and in cabinets and knocked shit over. “They even ripped open packets of flour and rice and poured everything into the sink. I wondered, why would anyone keep a gun in a flour?!” she says.
He kept insisting that he didn’t have a gun and they kept beating and kicking him. When it was clear that there was no gun, one of the cops, the one with a thin moustache said, “Mama, kuja.” She was terrified, she stood there, thinking I’m not going to this cop. “Mama kuja hapa!” he repeated, this time not so kindly. So she went and he held her hand and walked her to the bathroom and told her to get in. She was now shaking like a leaf in a storm. She thought, okay, today I get raped. This man is going to lock himself with me in there and rape me. Or kill me. Her only consolation was that her son was away visiting. But the cop said, “Do not leave that bathroom under any circumstances.” Then he locked her in. From there she could hear her man crying and pleading. It went on for thirty minutes and when the door opened, Mount Longonot was standing there. “We are leaving with your husband,” he announced.
“I asked where they were taking him! He sarcastically said, ‘Tunampeleka Mombasa.’” She laughs. When she went to the living room she saw what they had done to him. He had blood coming out of his mouth and thin, fresh wounds on his arms where they had burned him with the side of a hot iron box.
They left with him.
“The next day at the police station I learned that he was a robber. He and a bunch of other guys were breaking into people’s homes and maybe even worse. A pastor he had robbed came and identified him at the police station. His two accomplices had been nabbed and worked to reveal where he lived. They ratted him out,” she says. “Apparently in one of the robberies he had cut his finger and I remember him coming home with it bandaged. When they sent his blood sample to the lab, it matched the sample from the scene of the crime.”
“Were you shocked?”
“Yes. I was shocked and disappointed and embarrassed that the man who had gone to visit my parents to ask for my hand was a thug. That he’d break into people’s homes and rob them violently. This very quiet man. I was confused.”
At the cop station were his brothers and his mother, who seemed unperturbed by the turn of events. When she was allowed to see him in the cell, she asked him if the allegations were true, if he did what the cops were saying he did. He said, “No. Don’t believe them.”
The case dragged on for months and in that time while he was in remand, he would still send her money for rent and for her daily use. He would call her and tell her, “I’m going to send you money but you have to withdraw it immediately I send it. It’s important that you withdraw it as soon as I send it, okay?” After six months the pastor agreed to drop the case if he was paid back all they stole. Then he was out. He came back home.
“Why did you stay knowing that this man was a bad man?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Love? Loyalty?” She shrugs.
Life continued. He would often have his friends over to have meetings at the balcony. Then they would leave. Sometimes he would be back, other times he would call to say he would be back in the morning. She would find money in the house. “One time he called and said ‘There is money under the bed, please count it for me and arrange it well.’ I went and found almost a million shillings,” she says. She did his banking because he didn’t have an account.
He would come home late at night sometimes and leave early in the morning. He bought a matatu and put it on the road and started a pig farm. Some days he would just sit in the house, watching his Kamaru videos, nodding to DK. She never saw a gun in the house but she saw bullets fall from his pockets when she was folding his clothes to put in the dirty laundry basket. He never changed, he was the same gentle guy who cooked and loved her and her son. When he was not going to come home for the night he would call and say so.
“So, you completely ignored the other side of his life?”
“Well, I once confronted him and he said I was free to leave,” she says. “It wasn’t that simple. I enjoyed the luxury but I also loved him as a person. He was very good to me.”
One weekend in August 2010 he called her and said, “Come to the CBD, we need to shop.” “He loved good clothes and was a sharp dresser. That day he bought me clothes and he bought himself official clothes, which was strange because he never wore official clothes,” she says. “We did our rounds in town, shopping and then we had something to eat and he put me in a taxi to head home. He said he would come later, that he had some things to do.”
She went home with the new clothes. At 6:30pm she cooked dinner then waited for him as she watched television. By 7:30pm he still hadn’t showed up so she phoned him. He didn’t answer. She called again at 9pm, and the phone rang endlessly. At 10pm, his phone was off. She went to bed worried, because it was out of character. She snatched pockets of sleep, expecting to hear the front door open. When she woke up, she checked her phone for any messages or missed calls. Nothing. His phone was still off. She decided to take the day off and wait for him in the house that day. She couldn’t eat. She sat as if waiting for a train. She stood at the window, trying his phone. Whenever she heard footsteps outside the door she would open the door, expecting him to find him standing there, tall and dark. He would say his phone died. He could say the dog ate his phone. Whatever. She didn’t even care what the excuse was, all she wanted was for him to show up. At noon she called his brothers and his mom and said he was missing. They said there was no need for alarm and that they should wait until the next day because he would show up. He didn’t.
“The next day we searched all the morgues. Then police stations. The following day we searched all the hospitals, bed by bed. Nothing,” she says. She waited for a week. Then weeks turned into months. And months into a year. He never showed up. His body was never found. It was like he had never existed. She’d smell his clothes in the wardrobe. A knock at the door would get her flying to open it.
“One day I went to visit his mom and she told me about his criminal past, how he was always different from his brothers. He always wanted a better life than them. He never settled for the village life. The village shunned her because they knew she was the mother of a thug,” she says.
At some point she had to confront the question; what should she do? When would be the right time for her to move on? How do you move on when you don’t have closure? How long can you wait? What do you do with these new clothes that you had bought? And his shoes? She tried his phone constantly. She waited. She eventually moved to a smaller house she could afford and started adjusting her life. Weeks passed. Months passed. She started dating again when it was obvious that he was never coming back. Two years after the day she last saw him – 24th August 2010 – she married another man.
She married a man dry different from the one who had disappeared. “I looked for the opposite qualities,” she says. She married a man who wasn’t tall. A man who is light in complexion. A man who isn’t soft spoken, a man who doesn’t mind his voice filling his mouth or the room he’s in. A man who doesn’t listen to Ben Githae or Hezeh Ndungu or even “DK”. If her ex-husband was chalk, she married cheese.
“He doesn’t love me the same, either,” she says.
“How does he love you?”
She searches for words because she has to be careful here. She doesn’t want to sound a certain way, which way, I don’t know. “ Well, my ex was a provider…,” she says. “The thing is, my husband has been out of work for the past three years now and so I’m bearing most of the responsibility. I’m not used to that. I was used to being taken care of.” She takes a beat and says, “There is this thing he used to do every morning. He would sit on the bed and just watch me dress up for work. He came from a very humble background and didn’t really pursue his education. I think he was always proud that he had a schooled woman, a working woman and I would see the pride and admiration in his eyes when he’d be watching me dress up for work. I liked that. I don’t know…it made me feel special.”
“Do you compare them a lot?”
“Yea, sometimes I do,” she says. “He had a way of chasing his dreams and taking pride in providing even though he went about it the wrong way.”
Sometimes she wonders if she contributed to how things ended for him, and if she did enough to change the course of his life. “Sometimes I wonder if I encouraged it, you know? Did my enjoyment of the money he gave me contribute to all this? Was it because I didn’t push him enough to change his ways? Maybe I should have left before he disappeared so that I don’t bear the burden of his disappearance.”
Getting over him took a long time. For the longest time Mueni wondered if she would run into him in town, in a restaurant having tea, in a supermarket picking eggs, in church, in basement parkings, at a bank queueing, in a pharmacy buying Eno….. She wondered if there would be a knock on the door. “In the streets I would look over the heads of men, to see if I could see him because he was always a head taller than most men. Sometimes I would see a man with the same walking style and my heart would beat so fast I could feel my chest shake.” She would constantly look into faces in crowds and if he saw shoes like the ones he liked to wear her heart would stop. For a while he was a ghost that hounded her.
Now she has a daughter with her new husband and the memories of her ex are in the background, like faded paint.
“What if he comes back tomorrow?” I ask her. “If he just shows up?”
It’s a Saturday. You are getting your last born daughter ready to go for a birthday party. The doorbell rings. It’s one of those dreadful doorbells that wake the dead. You walk towards the door as you shout out to the househelp who is in the other room to find the tiara that your daughter wants to put on her head. The doorbell rings again just as you open the door. The first thing you notice is that the man standing there is very tall. And dark. The second thing you notice is that he looks familiar. It takes you a second to realise it’s him. He has put on some weight, but it’s him. He’s wearing a green polo shirt. You don’t know if he’s wearing trousers, your mind can’t register past the green colour. Your mind is frozen. You stand there like a pillar, your mouth agape.
You feel the presence of someone behind you, and you know instinctively that it’s your husband. Your new husband. The one you have been married to for six years. He says, “I’m sorry, can I help you?”
The tall man says, “Hi.” His voice. It’s him! It’s him. You feel your throat clench and your chest constrict. You hear blood rushing through your veins. “Can I help you? Are you looking for something?” your husband repeats, his voice edgy now. You turn to look at him. He’s got a towel around his waist and he’s holding the old toothbrush that you hate.
“I don’t know if you know me, but Mueni does,” he says. “I’m Ng’ash and I’m here to get what belongs to me.”
Your husband stares at him for a while, suddenly recognising him from the one picture you showed him. He finally says in a very calm voice. “I don’t know if you have noticed, but this is 2023. What belonged to you belonged to you in 2010.”
I repeat, “What if he comes back tomorrow? If he just shows up?”
“I won’t take him back.” She says.
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