I found the chef standing outside, waiting for the gate to be opened. He was peering intently at his smartphone, the sun warm against his face. It was the kind of midmorning sun that allowed you to keep your jacket on. He was a young wiry fellow, with no facial hair yet, and with a subtle revelation of his love for clothes. It’s how he wore his clothes, how they sat on him. You could tell he took the time to choose them, giving them a chance to represent him well. He leaned a lot of his weight on one leg, earphones dangling from his ears like strands of spaghetti. Later, in his chef’s uniform, it would take me a minute to recognize that he was the same fella. I would learn later that this was his first day at work. Another young girl, slim with a small pointy nose and sharp eyes, showed me where to park under a canopy of acacia trees.
“You look so young,” I said as I popped open the boot to retrieve my luggage, “how old are you?”
She smiled and said she was in her mid-twenties. I told her she looked 17.
“I walk a lot,” she said.
“Oh yeah? How far?”
Helping me with one small bag, she said, “Well, I walk all the way from Kikopey to here and back every day.”
“Here”, was in reference to Oasis Eco Camp by the shores of Lake Elementaita, hidden under a forest of yellow-barked acacias. A friend had recommended it – he said he liked how “in-the-middle-of-nowhere” it was. I checked it out online and it was just what I was looking for; secluded, quiet, very basic, and next to the shore. I love to stare at water…if it’s not in a basin. There were no other guests in the whole camp, it turned out. Perfect. I had picked Muthithi Cottage, closest to the lake. It had a glass loft facing the lake – which you saw only if you craned your neck. I had requested that management set up a table and a comfortable chair in the loft for me. The triangular roof was thatched. Inside, the room smelled of old wood and grass. The four-poster bed was sturdy and artfully made. A worn mosquito net was thrown over it. The bathroom was large, the showerhead small and curved like an inverted scooping palm pouring water. The room had no frills. It didn’t pretend to be something it wasn’t. Didn’t try to be. It was perfect.
There are travellers who, upon arrival, will unpack their clothes carefully and hang them in the closet (in this case a wooden hanger rack], arrange their shoes against the wall, place their vanity bag on the bathroom counter, drop their toothbrush and toothpaste in a glass, arrange all their cosmetics in a row and then settle in. I’m not that person. I’m messy. I kick shoes under beds, I forget the towel on the bed, I forget to lock the door, my suitcase always ends up looking like a burglar rummaged through it, I toss pillows on the floor, my clothes are always strewn all over. Often, I discover I packed mismatched socks…but I’m a duck in that lake of chaos.
My laptop tucked under my armpit, I climbed the very steep, intimidating, and narrow wooden staircase to the loft where I set it up, then sat there on the small wooden table overlooking the trees. I listened to a group of monkeys laugh at a joke. After taking a deep breath I jumped in and put in about three hours on the laptop, then gingerly went down the treacherous stairs to have a meal. I had requested the staff to serve all meals in the room, and every mealtime, the skinny young chef – now in full kitchen regalia – and the pointy-nosed lady who walked everywhere, would set up a meal at the only table in the room. The food wasn’t memorable, but the portions were massive and I kept complaining about that but they kept piling it on. Maybe they felt sorry for me. It was either fish or chicken or beef. There was chapati and rice. The kachumbari was always enough to feed a whole party. I’d eat, thinking about Mwendwa mostly. I’d think about what he wants. I’d think about what he lacked even though he had everything.
After lunch, I’d lounge in bed and read a bit and as the sound of birds outside morphed, and the light changed how it beamed through the trees, I’d wander up the steep wooden staircase again, grabbing at the railings like an old arthritic man or a man headed to the guillotine, and put in another two hours on my laptop. In the evenings, having done my 5,000-word quota for the day, I’d reward my efforts by pouring myself the whisky I’d brought with me and drink it from a water glass as I went over what I’d written in my head, feeling the whisky warm my chest.
Sometimes the sky would be sullen and bruised in places, unafraid to reveal its grouchy temperament. These were the cold evenings, when a frosty wind bristled between the thick foliage separating the cottage and the lake. During those times, the acacia trees would refuse to sway. The bush in front of the house stood eerily still. Birds slowly circled above, their silhouettes against the dark sky adding to the aura of foreboding.
Then there were days when the clouds would huddle close together as if conspiring. The sky would suddenly rumble, opening to unleash raindrops the size of groundnuts. They would start falling slowly at first, and then with more commitment, pummelling everything in their path. Those were the days when I dreaded being alone in the cottage. I wanted to hear a voice, someone to hear me read out chapters I was insecure about, paragraphs I felt were estranged from the flow. As the rain pattered outside the window, I agonised over the few bad chapters, refusing to celebrate the many good ones. My glass refused to fill up. I took these bad chapters to bed and I cuddled them like you would your sick child.
Outside, the night was always pitch black and mysterious, filled with the sounds and silence of the night. Bats flipped overhead. An owl moaned. A lone hyena howled in the distance. Frogs constantly cleared their throats. When I stood on the veranda, a cup of tea in hand, branches resembled dismembered arms, floating towards me. A choir of crickets rose and fell out of rhythm. The air, now nothing but a black chasm, was always so ripe with mystery. Sometimes an idea would come rushing at me and I’d scuttle up the loft and write something that reflected the mood outside.
When he gets back home it’s about 7.00 p.m. He doesn’t switch on the living room lights. Streetlights illuminate the room, lengthening and shortening some furniture in the house. The coffee table looks like a coffin. The sofas against the wall look squashed by the soft light. The carpet is a pool of dark blood. Where the light ends at the edge of the carpet, meek darkness takes over. He stops at the doorway and listens. JP isn’t home. The house is so still it seems like it’s listening for humans, for sounds of intrusion.
One especially gloomy evening, after it had stopped raining and the ground smelled of wet grass and the tree trunks looked soggy and shivery, hood pulled over my head, I poured a whisky and walked out to the beautiful green camping area by the lake to enjoy the desolate view of nature. A man with a big raggedy 4X4 was setting up a tent on top of his car. He looked Korean or Japanese. His hair fell over the left side of his face. From the top of the car, he pulled and tugged at his tent, erecting his accommodation for the night. The lake was grey, flat, and cold. Suddenly his two dogs came barking at me. He straightened up and said, “They are friendly dogs.” They sniffed my legs and leaped around me, whining playfully, before losing interest in me because I must have smelled like incomplete sentences.
“I know you from somewhere,” I told the man, “have we met?”
He looked down at me from the roof of his badass vehicle. He was in shorts and caterpillar hiking boots. “I don’t know,” he smiled politely, “have we?”
“Were you at Camp Carnelley’s a few months ago?” I asked.
“I have been at Carnelley’s, but it was earlier in the year,” he said.
“Oh,” I mumbled, “I could have sworn I saw a guy like you there.”
“Nah, but it happens,” he said grinning, “we all look like someone else.” He must have wondered how it’s possible that Africans think people of oriental persuasion all look the same.
I sat on a canvas chair, taking very small sips of my drink, and observed him setting up camp as the sky slowly changed colour. It was too cloudy and moody for us to see the sunset. Sleeping Moran, the hill beyond, looked like it would never wake up. The oriental guy’s dogs scurried about playfully, scuttling on the wet grass. A groundsman in uniform silently lit a bonfire while speaking on the phone to someone I assumed was a child. The lake slowly disappeared in the gloom of darkness and the horizon lit up with a string of lights from the dwellings across the lake. His girlfriend came, probably from the bathroom, and the dogs leaped around her excitedly. Later, they sat by the fire in comfortable silence like lovers who had known each other for a while and didn’t think silence meant they were drifting apart. When they spoke, it was in soft bedroom murmurs, a lovers’ dialect. Their dogs obediently settled around them, lying with their heads resting on their front legs, staring at the fire, thinking doggy thoughts.
That night, I watched Bohemian Rhapsody in bed. I loved how chaotic Freddie Mercury’s mouth was, how his teeth rudely filled his mouth and how ill-fitted he initially seemed as a leading man but how later, he carried the movie on his back. It was a beautiful movie. It stayed with me and I wondered how the hell it took me so long to watch it.
Mornings were mostly very cold and dispiriting. I lay folded in the warmth of the bed like an embryo, coming up with many reasons not to leave it. Eventually, before it got lit outside, I’d reluctantly slip into my warm tracksuit, a jumper and socks, brush my teeth and climb up that forbidding staircase to the loft where my haunted reflection stared back at me in the window. Soon, I’d be tapping away on my laptop as the sun rose bright and yellow and suddenly the trees absorbed it and came alive and I’d sit back and take in the most beautiful song from a bird; the cooing sounds of a mourning dove.
I carried a skipping rope. Ominde, my boxing trainer, thinks it’s the best form of exercise — especially since I’d be away from training for a whole week. Every morning, after banging 3,000 words on the laptop, I’d change into my gym gear and set my boxing app then proceed to do three minutes of skipping, 30 seconds of rest, six rounds. Birds watched from treetops, rolling their eyes. The rope would go swish-swish under my feet, sometimes snapping them. Skipping rope is a bitch.
One day, unable to write, I took a walk outside the lodge to refresh my mind. I strolled up a hillock, keeping to the footpath, to my right a forest of acacia trees, to my left a bare landscape with a faded mountain range in the far distance. I stumbled upon a guy, seated on an anthill, herding his sheep and goats. I smelled the weed before I saw it. He was in old clothes and rubber sandals. He hid the weed. From under a tattered cap he peered at me suspiciously. He looked to be in his mid-20s. Keeping him company and seated on his hind legs next to him was his dog that stared back at me with the same cynicism as his master. He wasn’t very keen on small talk, I could tell. He would have loved for me to bugger off and leave him the hell alone to smoke his weed. I was asking him silly questions; does that dog bite? Where do you live? What do you call that hill over there and have you ever climbed it? How many goats and sheep do you have? Can you tell one of them is missing by just looking at them? Who is your favourite goat? Why him?
Once he realised that I wasn’t going to leave, he decided to smoke his weed. Uninvited, I sat next to him and asked him if I could share his weed. He handed it to me. His thumb finger didn’t have a nail. It looked like someone removed it during an intense interrogation. [OK, I watch too many movies]. When I brought the weed to my lips it smelled of goat fur. I took a drag, inspected it like I see people do [in movies] and handed it back to him. We smoked in silence as we watched the sheep and goats graze. “Have you ever run into a leopard?” I asked. He nodded nonchalantly. “When?” I asked. He said, two weeks ago. It was over there, he pointed at the trees yonder. “Were you scared?” I asked. He said he was. He said that if a leopard decides to take your sheep you can’t do shit. You let them. They are ferocious. And fast.
We talked some more, seated there on that anthill. I felt lightheaded and lazy. I felt like I didn’t have to do anything else with my life. Screw the book. The sun seemed to have smelled the weed and decided to come closer, maybe to catch a whiff, so, to cool off, I pulled my jumper over my head. I craved watermelon. I could smell the red anthill we sat on. I turned and asked him, “Do you know where I can get a watermelon?” He made excuses that he had to leave as his animals were wandering further away. He must have thought to himself, ‘I don’t need this shit, man. This chap is loco. Asking for watermelon out here, smoking my stash. I’m a shepherd, not a nutritionist.”
He stood up and picked his cane. His dog also stood up. I wondered if his dog was a bit high from second-hand smoke. He looked like a sad dog. He had sad doggy eyes. I wanted to pat him on the head and tell him that better days were coming but I was too lazy to reach out. I hadn’t carried my wallet so I MPesad the guy some money for allowing me to share his weed. His name came up as Njagi on Mpesa. I sat there looking at Njagi walking away with his dog. He had a languid walk. I thought, how ironic that a Njagi would be smoking a njaga, which is what we call weed in my mother tongue. It must have been the weed, but I felt very proud of myself for making this connection. I thought of myself as being very smart.
I looked at how far I had walked, the lodge suddenly seemed so far away, and I was too lazy to walk back. I wished I could jump on a donkey to make the trip back, I thought to myself. I’ve never ridden on a donkey before. Wait, I have, in Lamu, once. I sat there for ten more minutes, looking at the sky and the treelines and thinking about the steep staircase leading up to the loft.
When I got back to the cottage, I wrote this paragraph about a character I didn’t like but I didn’t have the balls to have a lorry run him over.
Max Katana has one of those heads that you can’t help but stare at in wonder, asking yourself how he manages to carry it around all day. It’s the kind of massive head which, had it been yours, you are sure you’d have to lay down at lunchtime to catch your breath and give your neck a rest from its burden. There are people who can nap anywhere at any time, and sometimes you wonder how that happens. Most of them have big heads. Big heads are heavy to carry.
Max Katana had a big head. But it wasn’t only in the physical sense. The size of his head matched the size of his ego.
I was proud of that paragraph and I wondered if it would make the final edit. But for now, it amused me, I felt as proud of it as I felt about Njagi smoking his njaga.
The day I wrote the two words I had been looking forward to writing – THE END – I didn’t feel any amount of triumph. I thought I’d pour a drink and celebrate but I had run out of whisky, having carried only a quarter of a bottle from the house. But the end came with a great deal of relief. I’d never have to worry about Halima or Jared or Ruto or Mwendwa. I’d never wonder what I needed to give them or take away from them, or the other supporting characters who I often resented as soon I brought them to life because I felt like I was using them. I had written an ending that I liked, not the ending that the reader would want. I like denying the reader an ending. It’s my final revenge for the anguish and torture of writing.
I felt light suddenly, unburdened. I sat back in the chair, not caring about my posture, and stared out the window. It was just after 9 am, time to skip rope but I said, oh screw it, I ain’t skipping no rope on the day I finish my second book. Ominde can kiss my ass.
We launch the book on the 7th of December. Should you want to buy it now our Mpesa details are below:
Business Number: 596419
Account Number: [Your email address]
Amount: 1,099 [Includes delivery within Nairobi…and yes, Ongata Rongai counts as Nairobi]
Out of town and out of country rates vary according to shuttle/parcel/postal rates.
Email our location and autograph details (if you want) to [email protected]
We shall deliver the book on the launch date, 7th December 2020. It will also be in local bookshops.
We are working on Amazon books for chaps living past Ongata Rongai.
Also, the registration for the Safaricom-sponsored final Creative Writing Masterclass next month is still open; [email protected]