In 2003, I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed intern at Ayton Young and Rubicam along Mombasa Road. (They have since been discarded into the wasteland of failed companies, swallowed by the black pit of ruthless competition). Back then interns weren’t like they are these days. In today’s workplace, interns actually have opinions. They sit in during important meetings and offer their thoughts, and people actually listen to what they have to say. They are invited for Friday drink ups. They hung lanyards around their necks. They are people. Back then you fetched coffee and you kept your head bowed low and hoped that you would learn something useful. You were like a soundless warship with a broken fog horn, just gliding past the port.
Internship at an ad agency back then was particularly grueling because you were in the presence of creatives with their unpredictable moods and colourful egos. Some came to work on loud bikes. Others in loud shirts. They wore jeans around their hips and emotions on their sleeves. Dreadlocks were not uncommon. Boots were the norm. The room constantly reeked of coffee. From every corner, graphic designers played music at illegal decibels, sulking behind machines whose sizes reflected their imagined position in the food chain.
These people all seemed completely unearthed; social renegades, drinking, smoking, creating, disrupting organised thought and constantly trying to fit squares into circles. The women handling accounts held glowing cigarettes delicately between two blood-nailed fingers and uttered sentences like, “Sawa, this idea has legs but let’s bounce it off a bit more over drinks jioni.” So urbane and cool. They were aloof and worldly and they laughed out aloud. They wore high-heels and when they brushed past you, you were left engulfed a whiff of cigarettes, perfume and brevity. I was sure these girls never cried a tear in their lives. Were they even capable of orgasms, I often wondered, did they even have the time? Even though they were feminine they somehow managed to be just as masculine as the men they drank and smoked with. I found them so goddamn intimidating.
The agency was also the first time I ever saw an office with a bar in it. A freaking bar! With booze and corkscrews and shit. After work the employees would mill around there, drinking and smoking and engaging in banter that was always peppered with wiseass remarks. Everybody seemed so witty. (Even the tea girl) They stood there with client briefs in their heads and half-finished storyboards in their hearts and they looked like they didn’t have a care in the goddamn world other than who had the next smoke.
I remember chaps like Eric Wanjai or “Doaaz” and Oscar Abuko because they didn’t make you feel like an intern. I remember the receptionist, an ageing lady with a staggering eloquence and efficiency. She had a strong voice over the phone, almost manly, but in person she was soft as peach. I remember Joe Otin, formerly of Ipsos Synovate, now founder of The Collective, an interactive ad agency. Joe was a different animal then. He was like a fuckin’ emperor. An account manager or something, he was much younger of course and yet somehow more bold and invincible. I remember Joe because he generally never said much to anyone and even less to us interns.
And he was a character. Instead of a tie he tied a chutzpah around his neck. He always wore crisp well pressed shirts and his shoes were so spit shined I could have seen my future as a copywriter in them had I been bold enough to look. He remained aloof, seeming to rise above the creative fanaticism of the agency. He spoke like the Queen’s butler, always pacing around, a cell phone stuck against his ear, shaking a client for more money, selling smoke like the rest of them, wheeling and dealing like Stu from the movie Phone Booth.
One day last year, after so many years, I saw him amble into Explorer Tavern (best whisky bar in town, if you are looking) one evening. I saw his hair first – some sort of an 80’s funk thing -and thought to myself, “I know that hair.” So I asked the waiter to call him over and when he walked up with a blank expression, I said, “Joe, right?” He had on a bowtie and was holding some cigars and a silver lighter. The crown of his head now shone with saltiness. I asked him to join me for a drink and ordered him a whisky. “I was an intern when you were at AY&R,” I told him, “you probably wouldn’t remember, it’s a long time ago.” He couldn’t, and he wondered how I could remember all that after over a decade. “I remember you because you were removed.” He laughed and repeated that word, “removed,” like it was a strange Xhosa word. He handed me a business card and a week later I interviewed him HERE.
The other thing I remember from that short agency stint is this book that the creative director, Kilimo, handed us interns to read. (I was an intern with Kajairo, by the way, whatever happened to him?) It was an A4 size, white cover, solid spine, and weighed more than the cover models on Couture Magazine. Across the cover, the words, “ADVERTISING” ran across in silver. It was a book about the best copywriters (about 40 of them), creative minds and their skills in writing ads. It was like a secret tomb of copywriting knowledge when men and women wrote long beautiful copy. It was written well, with unraveling witticism.
I left AY&R after three months of my internship and went back to Uni, found and fell in love with print media and got sucked into that vortex.
I never went back into advertising but I never forgot that book.
Let me explain the relationship I have had with this strange book.
You know how it’s raining dogs and pimps and you are caught in the very eye of it and you are running with your head stooped low until finally you rudely run under the nearest umbrella belonging to this girl with sad brittle wrists, and she turns to you startled, her well tapered chin creasing in fright, her face betraying fear, a face made up of desert brown complexions with warm doe eyes and before she can protest you quickly say, “May I? You wouldn’t let a poor guy catch pneumonia in this rain, would you?” and she holds her purse closer to her chest and grudgingly lets you join her under the umbrella. As you hold the stem of the umbrella’s handle, your thumb brushes the base of her hand. But you don’t exchange a word as the rain patters above you and finally you see a shelter, thank her and run under it leaving her to proceed in the rain, a wide-hipped figure skipping over puddles in her flat shoes.
Then one day you realise that – strangely – you keep smelling her, that lone girl with the umbrella, and you wonder what happened to her, and whenever it rains you find yourself peering under umbrellas, searching for desert browns and brittle wrists wondering if you will ever see her again.
That’s how it was with this book. Every time I walked into a bookshop I would unconsciously look out for it, even though I didn’t know who the author was. Without an author it was like looking for sanity on social media. Whenever in the CBD, I would scan the used books on the streets hoping to see it, like looking for a familiar face in a crowd. Whenever I would find myself out of the country passing through another unfeeling airport, I would browse the massive bookshops looking for a large white advertising book with a bold spine. Looking for a lover a without a name, like looking for a missed connection in Craigslist. Every year I would lazily google “White advertising book”, or “Big advertising Book” or “Copywriters tell of their trade,” and out of desperation, “what happened to omieri …”
I wished I had spent more time with it back at AY&R instead of admiring the office girls in their stockings. I never did find that book, that lost lover. She was gone. Her and her brittle wrists.
Wet strangers with umbrellas aside, what if the angel of death sent you an email saying, “Ahoy Chocolate Man, time’s up buddy. I will knock on your door at 6:20pm on such and such a date.” What would you do?
I would endeavor to have one last amazing time with family, and friends (and maybe you too Jonah) and then call Nick Ondu and ask him to make me a ridiculous ankara bowtie because I’ve always wanted to be that brave guy who wears a bowtie. Then on the D-day, I’d kiss the fam and I’d drive to Kendu Bay, my shags, and sit, feet dangling over the edge of the disused pier by the lake, a relic of a place that smells of oil, faded steel, aged wood and nameless Tanganyika traders.
And as the sky drains of light and big-assed Luo women shuffle in the horizon, balancing yellow jerrycans of water on their heads making their way to their unlit hovels to light kerosene lamps and feed the children, and as the Muezzin calls the faithfuls to prayer from the mosque in old town Kendu-Bay (Hussein Obama was really our cousin hehe), I will check Toni Braxton’s timeline one last time (just in case she has finally sent me a tweet) then toss my phone into the lake and crack open a bottle of 18-year old Chivas Regal and pour myself two fingers of that lovely gold.
(I won’t even get into the beauty and superiority of Chivas Regal because you people will moan ati “Oh, Biko you have been paid, Oh, Biko nyef nyef…” Like where you are seated now you aren’t there to get paid eventually. Like we came to Nairobi to work for free. Besides great drinks don’t need to be touted too much. One day you will wake up and find yourself taking a bullet for Chivas and you will eat humble cork.)
Anyway, I will then sip my whisky thoughtfully as I wait for the angel of the night while wearing my ridiculous ankara bowtie and re-read passages of some of the best books I have enjoyed over time from my Kindle.
When the angel finally arrives and casts a deathly shadow over me and then leans over to kiss my forehead (where else), my short glass will tumble from my hands and roll across the splintered hardwood of the jetty and fall ever so delicately into the lake with a tiny and almost inaudible splash. As I slowly fall and roll on my side and feel life drip from my feet I will smile, my last sight perhaps being of that pink-footed bird – the Black-winged Stilt – as it glides over the orange sunset-surface of the lake.[By the way, is it me or are there so many flies lately? They are everywhere; at the office, at home, in the car. Our house help said that it’s because it’s their season. Like mangoes, flies also have a season. She is Kisii, so I didn’t argue with her, she knows these seasons.]
Which brings me to a boil here.
There are people who actually don’t read books. They wake up, go to work, maybe pass by the local for one, go home and maybe play with the kids (or with themselves) and then sleep. They never touch a book! They remain completely unmoved by all the beautiful books floating out there, books written by beautiful minds. But that isn’t half as sad as people who borrow books. Or download books for free. People with jobs. Gainfully employed people. (Antalya, I’m talking to you). Adults who drink three 600-bob cocktails in a night but download or photocopy books for free. These people annoy me. They are the same people who say, “Si when you maliza with that book you borrow me?” And you want to tell them “If you bought your own books you wouldn’t say things like, ‘you borrow me’.”
People should buy their own books. Writers slave for years to write books; just do them a solid and buy it when it’s done. If you can buy a Caesar salad (and pack it in a doggy bag) surely you can buy a goddamn book for 1,200 bob. Difference is, a book will stay embedded in your soul for a long time while a great salad will not embed itself anywhere, even in your drainage. I’m not saying salads are bad. I’m only saying that you can’t eat salad and then download a book for free.
Even though I’m a kindle guy I sometimes walk into Bookstop at Yaya Center, and just stand in the midst of the shelves and smell the books. Smell knowledge. Smell great minds. Smell nights that these writers sat up under burning lights, battling plots. Walk up and down the aisles of books and you smell the insecurity that abounds writing. The smell of conflict. And passion. And failed literary dreams. The smell of books that didn’t do well, and dreams that died with it. The smell of lovely writers who remain undiscovered and discovered writers who remain overrated. You smell words. And you smell how they line up behind other words, forming long sentences that run like a belching train that carries imagination to a faraway land.
Then you go to the Used-Book section and you open a book by, say Peter Biddlecomb or Chigozie John or David Lamb’s The African (you must read that) and there you find someone, a former reader, scribbled an obscure note, a little message in a bottle, and when you buy that book, you are not only buying the author’s mind, you are inheriting a small part of the life of that obscure former reader; you are inheriting their dog eared pages, a little stain of lipstick on page 45, a dried tear on chapter 23, a slight and imagined smell of perfume on page 100…you are taking away a piece of their lives that they left in that book. And sometimes you take that to bed when it’s raining outside and you are instantly in a faraway land, in the trenches watching 17-year old Russian soldiers bring down a bayonet to your heart. How can you not read a book?
And it’s here, between these shelves of Bookstop that I finally ran into the hippy girl with brittle wrists. The girl from the rain. The book I had looked for all these years was only a stone’s throw away all this time! I asked the attendant for it and he led me to furthest end of the shelves and there we found the book, albeit with a reprinted cover. [Check it out on my Instagram: bikozulu]. She sat there looking like she knew I’d find her.
Then something extraordinary happened. Chivas Regal called and asked me for a list of my top five favourite books. Which is an impossible task. Why? Because there are books that spoke to me at different times in my life; like The Catcher in The Rye by J.D Salinger when I was in my early twenties and full of piss. Or Mario Puzo’s, Fools Die during campus days when I was full of rubbish ideals and belief in the infallibility of the world, or Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like, because you can’t be called Biko and not be curious about the mothership. Or more recently excellent books that won Pulitzers and National Book Awards, or chaps like Anthony Doerr and Marcus Zusack, Ben Okri, (I know you are waiting for me to say Chimamanda) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (there) and all these lovely books done by brilliant writers.
They picked five books off that list and on the 5th of December they are launching a campaign with Bookstop and myself where they will set up a swanky Chivas readers lounge at Yaya Center where you can buy one of my selected reads (and many more) but also share a whisky with people who love books. I will be talking about those five books on my Instagram and Facebook (bikozulu) and giving away some goodies as well. (For people who don’t drink whisky, I have packets of tea bags.)
It’s festive season and if you are employed and you can have the pleasure of taking leave, perhaps you will take one soon and you will find yourself at home one wet afternoon, lying on the couch lost in a good read, a glass of whisky an arm away, and the doorbell doesn’t ring and you have muted all the Whatsapp groups and you are gone, to France, just as the second world war is ending and the the German boy with white hair has finally found the blind French girl in a house of rubble and as the last rifles crack and the ground shakes from mines going off in the distance, you reach out and sip your whisky as you contemplate the sentence you just read; “But God is only a white cold eye, a quarter-moon poised above the smoke, blinking, blinking, as the city gradually pounded to dust…”
Just read the book: All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr. It’s better than a Caesar salad.