I love motorbikes. My favourite part of a motorbike is the swell of the fuel tank. How it humps up, like the back of an aquatic animal…like the potbelly of a former rugby player; it’s hard-ish, sitting there like a reminder of younger days. I also love what the helmet represents; that you can be anybody behind it once the visor is down. You are a ghost, incognito, riding through the belly of a city, unknown, unrecognized, carrying your own secrets. You can see the world but the world can’t see you. My policy on motorbikes is the same as with dogs; if you are going to get one, get a very big one. A big bike is raw power between your legs.
I don’t get people who ride scooters, sitting there like you are in church, waiting to receive the sacrament. Scooters are the poodles of motorcycles. And poodles make me anxious, especially if the owner dresses them up like babies. I love big dogs that breathe hard and leave prints of massive paws on dust. I love monstrous bikes; loud and boisterous, like riding an untamable beast. The ones you see coming in your rear-view mirror, lights ablaze, and they whip past you and suddenly they are a blur like they were never there, something you imagined. I love how the big bike owners stop beside you on the traffic lights, leathered legs planted on the ground. They stare ahead under their mysterious helmets, knowing that everybody secretly dreams of being on that bike but knowing that not everybody can because it takes a different kind of person to get on a big bike, it’s a different kind of responsibility, a love affair borne from a different kind of courage.
I don’t possess that courage. And because of this I will never own, or get on a big bike. It’s like Australia: I love the idea of it but I just know I will never sit in a bloody plane for 24-hours to visit it. Sometimes something happens that cements this feeling; folk falling off speeding bikes, seeing bodaboda riders sprawled under vehicles, a widow saying, “He was just meant to do a quick dash to the supermarket.” Sure, we all die eventually, but I don’t want to go out like that if I can help it. I don’t want to meet the road at 140km/hr, crushing bones and lying there as my brain swells in my skull. If I need adrenaline, I will go on Twitter.
So when, Ben, my friend bought a bike – a sexy, Hyosung 250 GTR – I thought, ‘how cool.’ It was red, sporty and sleek. And it was almost as loud as him. He’d ride it occasionally when he wasn’t driving. All he talked about was “gear and safety.” Sometimes he’d ride it to the bar and have a virgin dawa and on the rare occasion he’d succumb and have whisky and leave the bike back at the bar because like he said, “It takes a millisecond to make a fatal mistake on a bike when your chemical composition is even slightly altered.”
On the eve of the accident, he and his wife, G, watched The Banker on Netflix. They have two couches in the living room; he was lying on one – the one the colour of an egg yolk. G was sprawled on the other grey-ish one. Their two sons had retired to bed. All you need to know about The Banker is that Samuel L Jackson is in it and it’s set in a bygone America that had not yet learnt to mask racism and so there is a great deal of snarling, tie-wearing rednecks calling blacks “niggers.” Samuel L Jackson and his mates are buying prime real estate using the white man as a front. It’s based on a true story. This kind of stuff fires Ben up, stories of business heists and underdogs using their smarts to find fortune. He runs a radio station and dabbles in advertising and communication or anything that has potential to make money.
His wife hates watching movies with him because he’s a “rewinder.” That annoying breed of people who are always rewinding scenes they like. So he kept rewinding the movie when Samuel Jackson said something dope – and Samuel L Jackson says many dope things in The Banker as he does in all his movies. Inspired by the movie, he decided that he would not work from home the following day. He’d go to the office, finalize a detailed write–up of some radio plans and ensure production for projects he had lined up before COVID-19. Basically, working while the country naps.
Next day when he was about to leave the house around midday, his son persuaded him to drive him around in “the purple car.” (It’s a blue car). So they drove around around for a bit while he stared out through the window with the usual curiosity of a three-year old, blissfully unaware how the world he was staring at through the car window had changed. For now, he just loved the seemingly innocuous idea of being in his father’s “purple car”, looking outside at the trees and buildings running along the road. He dropped him off back at the house and as he geared up, G came out of their study/home-office where she was reviewing contracts (a lawyer). “Where are you going?” She asked.
“Office,” he said, pulling on his padded biking gear. “I can’t work with the chaos in this house.”
“Is this trip essential?” She asked. “Are you sure?”
“Yup,” He said, looking around for his keys.
There is a custom they observe when leaving the house without their eldest son. If leaving with the car, you wave at him from the driver’s window as he looks out from the bedroom window. From the bike he’d always have to ride to the parking space beneath the living room balcony, peel off his helmet and salute before riding away. It makes him giddy because he’s a boy and boys like the idea that they are a general in an army and he’s being saluted.
After the salute, he eased the bike out of the apartment gate and up to the main road on King’ara Road, a few metres away. It was a beautiful Thursday afternoon, it had rained the previous night, the leaves were a healthy green and the soil was still damp. His usual route to the office when riding would be to turn left at the King’ara Road/Mbaazi Avenue Junction to James Gichuru Road with a right turn to Ring Road at the roundabout near TACC, then straight on past the Oloitoktok Roundabout, Dennis Pritt Roundabout past Yaya Centre to Ngong Road where he turns left and down to their offices next to Daystar University. He loves it because it has long stretches of disciplined traffic, which is beautiful to ride past. But today, for some weird reason, he decided to turn right into King’ara road and headed towards The Junction Mall, instead. The plan was to turn left into Ngong Road at The Junction and ride the straight length of the road to Daystar.
Unbeknownst to him, the devil was waiting for him at the dip on Kinga’ra Road.
The grim reaper had lit a cigarette and was leaning on a tree by the roadside, smoking and occasionally looking up Kingara Road. He had on an old hat that smelled of wood smoke and paraffin. He had coins in his pocket that jingled when he walked – because the devil won’t change. He hadn’t shaved in a while because, well, nobody is shaving now, so he kept his own stubble to blend in with the rest. He glanced at his watch and saw Ben coming down the road, picking up speed, overtaking a slow moving boda.
Ben – the sun bouncing off the tip of his helmet – squeezed down the throttle and as he picked up speed downhill, was aware of a slow moving car in the opposite lane, its parking lights on. Why would anyone park in the pit of this dip, he thought. Then things happened very swiftly. The vehicle suddenly made a U-turn, getting directly into his lane and at this point his head was screaming, no-no-no-no, what the f*ck are you doing?! He knew he was going to crash into this vehicle and as his body braced for the impact he heard two calm voices in his head. The first was his wife asking him, “Is this trip essential, are you sure?” and the second was his own voice thinking, ‘Oh shit, I’m crashing. This is not how it ends, surely, I can’t die today!” You wear a mask to live against something so small you can’t see only to be killed by a bike so big you can see it miles away.
So he started fighting the devil and fate and death. He veered off to the left, leaning on the bike to avoid the idiot, and perhaps he could have missed this car but it was too sudden. His front wheel missed the car by a whisker but his right leg didn’t and bang, he rammed into the car and flew off the bike, landing metres away. There is that brief moment of shock when you are not sure if you are alive or dead. A moment of great and surreal confusion. Like a scene in slow motion. When adrenaline is coursing through your body so fast, you have no feeling of pain or time. He managed to remove his helmet and get up on his feet, but then he realised that his right leg couldn’t step on the ground, it was like stepping on quicksand, so he fell back down. When he lifted his head to look at his bloodied leg he saw it face an abnormal direction. Suddenly it made sense; his leg was broken. He felt no pain. He remembered thinking; I’m alive and I’m going to lose my leg. I will forever be in prosthetics. I will be the guy who removes his leg to get in bed. And people would avoid using expressions like, “get a leg up” near him.
The devil watching all this sighed in disappointment, crushed his cigarette under his boot and walked away. Well, maybe another day.
He ended up in Nairobi Hospital. He later learnt that a good Samaritan called Aggrey drove him to the hospital. Aggrey had lost his brother who was a biker; he slid off his bike, fell and a lorry ran over him near a petrol station. He has CCTV footage of the incident in his phone, acquired from a petrol station. I saw G in the hospital lounge waiting as he was in a seven-hour surgery. She looked tired. “I have had numerous conversations about this bike,” she said, “this is the second accident he’s had. You guys now have to tell him to stop riding.”
I did. He said he only had three material toys on his bucket list; a sport bike being one of them. “I won’t stop riding,” he says. “I refuse to let my life be ruled by fear and so ride I will. But never too fast, never too slow, never with stunts. I’ll heavily invest in building the rider’s sixth sense. I’ll take those cornering lessons from Motho (another rider) and everything I can glean from his experience. I’ll treat every other motorist as an idiot, especially the ones in cars and give them way every single time. I’ll be looking at cars the way your guys are now looking at every next person as someone who has COVID-19 … and keep my distance.” He says all these as he lies in the hospital bed, his right leg – broken in two places, looking darker than his face.
“This is the second time you are falling off the bike, what if you have one last strike?” I asked him, trying out his crutches.
He grunted dismissively. “ This was not a death strike, Biko. Riding is not a death sport and is not as dangerous as you think. I played hockey in high school, people said the same thing about hockey. Hockey, like riding, is only dangerous to a bad player, a good player with a proper mastery of the stick has nothing to fear.”