At the final moment, it all boils down to a vital decision: Do you floor the accelerator, continue overtaking the bus and hope to make it back to your lane on time? Or do you brake and abort the now perilous process of overtaking? This is a split second decision, an estimation of speed and risk. Russian roulette. Unless you are drunk, your adrenaline spikes, your heart gallops off, leaving your body through your nose. The oncoming vehicle snarls with its angry horn, maybe even furiously flashing its headlights at you. You are distinctly aware of being suspended in this holding area between life and death. Your life hasn’t started flashing before your eyes because you want to live, even desperate for it, and so you are fighting to stay alive even as your fate bears down on you, counting the seconds before the difference between being called by your name or just ‘the body.’
Michael reached this moment on the night of 14th August last year. The road was a slow climbing dark stretch in an area called Kipkelion, on his way towards Kericho, en route to Kisumu. It was past 2am, dark shadows from plants and trees loomed around the road. The night held the mystery of darkness. The bus he was overtaking was Uganda-bound, almost all of its occupants now asleep, not aware of the life and death struggle happening right next to them. A man was trying to save his life to see his two-month-old baby and a wife he’d only been married to for four years then, all asleep back in Nairobi. He was driving his wife’s car.
He must have thought; I can’t turn my wife’s car into my coffin. The engine must have revved like crazy, the car choking in it’s strain and then the horn from the trailer barreling down the hill to meet him grew louder and nearer. Then driver of the trailer suddenly realizing that this bugger was not going to make it on time and he was going to kill himself, the people in the bus and possibly him, tried stopping this 70-tonne mass of steel without losing control, leaning on the horn, gnashing his teeth, strained face lit by the harsh light of Michael’s headlights. Some of the passengers in the bus are now rousing from sleep, looking around confused, craning their necks to see what the hell is going on, and the bus driver realizing what predicament the driver of the salon car has wedged himself in – between his bus and a hard place – starts immediately bringing the bus’s speed down from 130kms/hr to allow him to overtake him.
Our guy, the car probably now at 140kms/hr, has made the decision to make a run for it, there is no turning back and he just about makes it back to his lane when the trailer whizzes past in a blur of smelling brake pads and furious horn. But death isn’t done with him, death still stalks him because with that speed, the car lurches further into his lane, he tries to correct it and in this instance, his front wheel or his rear wheel, hits a kerb, and there is an explosion as it bursts. The car loses control, flips off the road and there is that moment when it’s midair, twisting like a leaf in the breeze, this acrobat of death, suspended by the unknown. A small window that looks out into the other world, our guy, now upside down, the belt tightening against him trying to keep him in his seat, God trying to keep him in the car, and it hits the ground in grinding metal and rolls out severally into the abyss darkness below.
All this while, as the car – crashed and written off – lies in that ditch, Cristian, his two-month-old son, sleeps in bed next to his mommy, completely unaware that he’s an inch from growing up without a daddy.
Of course Michael doesn’t remember the event this way. The guys in the bus remember it that way. The bus driver remembers it that way. Michael doesn’t remember anything apart from leaving Jiweke Tavern at 10pm that evening after having a bite, calling his wife and telling her he would be driving to Kisumu immediately. Could she pack a small bag for him? Then in the car driving from Jiweke, calling his brother-in-law and telling him he was 10mins away, to please come down with the bag because he was in a hurry and couldn’t go upstairs. Then he remembers taking a leak at that last petrol station as you leave Nakuru. After that he doesn’t remember anything else.
The bus driver saw it happen. How the car bounced off the road into the dark thicket below. He’s told that the bus driver brought the vehicle to a standstill a few meters away and after everybody had stopped gasping and calling out God’s name, he and his turn-boy ran down below with an old torch with weak batteries and found the car on its side, the glass shattered. No way the driver survived, they thought, going around the car. He shone light inside the wreckage and saw Michael, slumped away from him, cuts on his face oozing blood. The bus driver was in his 50s, but the guy he was looking at seemed much younger. Michael was 32. Still is.
Everybody from the bus gathered around the car, some taking pictures, mothers murmuring prayers, men wedging open the door of the car as the men dragged the seemingly lifeless body of Michael out. They lay him on the wet grass. One of his shoes was missing. A man placed his ear against his nose, as if listening to his life and said, “He’s still alive.” They retrieved his phone from his breast pocket and placed his thumb on it to unlock it. Then they called the last number dialed, his friend Moses, in Kisumu. It was one of those phone calls in the middle of the night that start with, “Unajua mwenye hii simu?” and you just know you are not going back to sleep.
They carried Michael to the road and tried to flag down other vehicles to take him to the nearest hospital but none would stop. The bus driver – bless him – did something outrageous but that might have saved his life, he barricaded the whole road with his bus, basically parked it diagonally across the road. No other vehicle could pass. He told the motorists, “I’m not removing this bus until one of you takes this guy to a hospital.” A good Samaritan finally offered to take him to the hospital in Kericho as his friends from Kisumu drove towards Kericho like crazy.
I went to see him in Kileleshwa two weeks ago. He’s since moved into his parents’ house. The servants quarters is now his room. It has a hospital bed. A computer. A window that overlooks the main gate. A toilet and bathroom. A nurse is cleaning the bathroom as I walk in. “Hello,” I tell her. He’s wearing shorts, sitting in a wheelchair next to the bed. The cuts on his face are now scars. Christian music plays from the computer. The type that makes you want to repent immediately. The type where a white man leads a massive choir in a gigantic auditorium and hands wave like reeds in waves, eyes closed, a feverish beckoning of faith.
There is a half-eaten boiled maize cob on a plate on a shelf. This detail is important, so put a pin on it.
I sit with my back to the wall on a chair opposite him. We exchange niceties. The usual; did you have trouble finding here? No, the directions were pretty straight forward, I didn’t know an estate even existed here. Yeah, my folks have lived here for ages. Ahh, I see. Was that your mom I just met at the door? Yeah. I almost cancelled today again, by the way. I have been having a fever since I came back from shags. Pole, when you travel like that, who takes care of you? My wife.
There is a diary and a pen on his bed. “You have been doing some journaling,” I point out. He says he has. “Is it private stuff?” I ask him, “Can I read it?” He says he doesn’t mind. So I take the diary and the first page is written in capital letters; Walking On Wheels. On the first page, he writes a letter to God. “There are many questions I have in mind….why?..why?….why?” He talks about the Israelites leaving Egypt and Moses doing his showy thing (my words, not his) with his staff at the Red Sea. He pleads with God to help him remember His goodness. He asks God to please help him remember His greatness amidst his sadness. He writes on the next page, “Help me remember not to ever complain Lord.”
Apart from the gospel music playing softly the only sound is of me turning the pages of his diary. He remains still, like a predator on the prowl. I continue reading: How I wish I could get the opportunity to kneel and bow and talk to my saviour….and…. Here I am seated and feeding from the feet of Christ and I’m literally seated….what a comical God. He continues. The diary runs into page after page of his ordeal in hospital. I eventually hand him back the diary. “You have good handwriting,” I tell him. “You wouldn’t read mine.”
When he crashed, he broke three ribs and his ribs – R3, R4 and R5 – punctured his lungs and that shit, he says, is the most painful thing he remembers when he came to Aga Khan Hospital in Kisumu. He also fractured his spinal cord. He doesn’t remember Kisumu other than a very brief moment when he opened his eyes to see an AMREF sign when unbeknownst to him, he was being airlifted days later for specialized treatment in Nairobi. When he came to Aga Khan Nairobi where he would end up staying for 6 weeks, he realized he couldn’t move his legs. He tried moving and he couldn’t. He couldn’t feel the whole of his lower body. Later, he learned that he had fractured his T4 to T7, or in layman’s language, was paralyzed from the waist down.
At this point, his brother-in-law walks in carrying the most beautiful baby I’ve seen this year. One of those babies women look at and say, “Oh, I feel my ovaries moving!” I don’t have ovaries but I just thought to myself, “my, this baby is bespoke art.” I wanted to carry him, bounce him on my lap, make baby sounds and smell his hair. I love how babies smell.
“Is this your son?” I ask Michael.
“Yeah,” he says. “That’s Cristian.”
“How old is he?”
“Six months now.”
“What a good looking boy,” I say.
Cristian looks at me suspiciously, adorably, with these round lovely eyes that look like something an astronomer would see through a telescope. Something that isn’t a star or a planet. Something that has not been recorded. I extend my fist in a fist bump and he, wobbly, extends his own small fist and we touch fists and he gurgles in delight then looks away, taking away those enchanting eyes because he knows such eyes have to be rationed.
“How did you feel knowing you couldn’t move your lower body?” I ask Michael after Cristian exits with his uncle.
“Panic,” he says. “A lot of panic. I was very confused. Initially I thought something had gone wrong during the surgeries and they would eventually fix it. I hang on hope.” Hope slowly waned. He remembers the excruciating pain in the hospital when he had to be lifted off the bed by four guys (he weighed 115kgs) with sheets like luggage. He remembers friends coming in when he had an oxygen mask, bilateral chest tubes, the worry and sadness in their eyes. Him asking his father to pray for him when the pain was insane. Him begging for more morphine. Catheters, diapers, the indignity of not being able to control his bowel movements. “The moments my diapers were being changed were the worst,” he says. “I couldn’t have ever imagined myself in this situation, these are things I had only heard happened to people; now it was happening to me. How life changes. I was most humbled during diaper changes. One time they were doing a diaper change and after stripping me naked and turning me sideways, my bowels suddenly opened up and I heard one of the nurses say, ‘let him finish before we clean him up’ and I was so embarrassed! So embarrassed and undignified. I closed my eyes and cried. Have you ever wished you could just die? I wished I’d just died. Life wasn’t worth living like that. Of course I sort of started accepting this me, and sometimes I’d fart during physio and we would both laugh and it made it better.”
He recalls his harrowing moments at The Spinal Injury Unit, where nurses cared little and treated you with contempt. But it’s also there that he met Peter and Anthony, quadriplegics who couldn’t move anything below their necks and who would be laid out in the sun to dry like wet goods. They taught him to appreciate his status. “God left me with my hands,” he tells me. “I can write! I can point at something. I can push myself.”
Do you always get a feeling when someone is staring at you? I felt someone staring at me, and when I turned, I saw the half-eaten boiled maize. I love maize and it was there enticing me. I had been deliberating with myself wondering if he was going to eat it later. Was he saving it for later? I hadn’t eaten boiled maize in ages. You don’t want me visiting you in hospital because if you say you don’t feel like eating I won’t say, “No, just try, you need your energy.” That’s not me. If I’m hungry I will say, “Sawa, let me eat it. There are people dying of hunger.” Recently my brother was in hospital for a few days. I’d go visit him and if I found him eating I’d join him, shamelessly. If you have been to Princess Zahra Pavilion, you can’t blame me. That’s a hotel. I find no shame eating a sick person’s meal and because of that when people burn in hell, I suspect Lucifer will not be very kind to me.
“Are you going to eat that maize?” I asked Michael eventually. He was as surprised as I was. He looked at the maize and said, “Of course, no, no, please have it. Actually there is more in the main house, I can have them bring you warmed ones.” I said, no, this was fine. So I washed my hands and dug in as he told me about life as a paraplegic. About losing your legs, your livelihood and moving back home. How life changes. How he has to rely on people to do things for him.
He spends most days indoors. He reads the Bible. He goes online and researches his condition, stem cell trials. He reads up on cars because he loves cars. He reads about animals because he wanted to be a vet. He is bathed by the nurse in the morning and the night nurse at night. He can’t sit for more than three hours so he has to be moved to the bed. There, he lies on his back and listens to gospel music and sometimes the chatter of neighbourhood children playing outside or the inane banter of garbage men over the sound of the reversing garbage truck. He hears gates opening and closing. Sometimes it’s quiet, just the sound of his breathing. Sometimes he follows up his old debtors. He had an office in Hurlingham, now closed. It’s hard enough getting debtors to pay you when you have legs. He goes for physio twice a week. Mornings he is wheeled outside to bask in the sun. It feels good on his face.
“What do you think about when you are alone with your thoughts, basking in the sun?” I ask him.
“Things. I loved travelling, so I think of places I could have visited. I loved driving,” he says. “I think about my son who is now growing; I miss spending time with him, teaching him how to walk…” he trails off. I stop chewing, because it doesn’t seem right in this circumstance.
“That day, that night you had an accident,” I say, not sure if this question will offend him, “the night you were at Jiweke, did you drink alcohol?”
“No,” he says. “I hadn’t eaten, so I had a meal.”
I chew on that. Or rather, chew on the maize.
“Why didn’t you go up to say bye to the wife?” I ask him. “I’d imagine if you were travelling, you’d go upstairs and, you know, say bye….kiss the baby…stuff…”
“I was in a hurry. I spoke to her on the phone and we said our goodbyes – so there was no need to go up.”
At this point, a lady passes outside the doorway to get into the main house. She looks in and smiles and maybe says a hello, I’m not exactly sure.
“Is that the wife?” I ask.
“Yeah. That’s Millicent.”
“How has being paralyzed affected your relationship?”
“Millicent has been extremely supportive. She has been there for me from the word go, she has been my strength, man, very dedicated. In fact, when we were in shags it was just me and her, I didn’t go with a nurse, so she was my nurse, doing everything for me. This state has brought us closer, she is more hopeful than I am.”
He speaks of the immense support of his family members, his mom and father, his brother Lawrence and his wife Julie and their family, his uncle Steve, his brother-in-law Chief and his sister Lorna, and Gilly, another brother-in-law, Victor and Ian, cousins Angie and Liz, his church, Lavington SDA and many others. These guys have rallied around him, held his hand, prayed for him.
I tell him that things happen for a reason. I tell him that I believe everything we go through in this lifetime has a reason even though we might never know the reason. I ask him if he wonders why this had to happen to him. Why did he have to leave Nairobi at night, why was he saved on that dark road in the middle of the night, why did that bus driver barricade the road and say, ‘you buggers are not going to pass until someone takes this man to the hospital’. He could have died that night but he didn’t. “Do you wonder about the why?” I pose.
He exhales softly. There is a pause.
“I was living a very fast life. I think God wanted to slow me down,” he says. “I was a spendthrift. I had ten cars at some point. I partied hard. I partied very hard. I’d sometimes leave home and not come back, I’d be gone for days, five days, six days, seven days, gone. I drove fast because I loved fast cars. I would also never stay in one place for too long, always moving, doing this and doing that…busy.”
“You were the life of the party.”
“Yeah. A party wouldn’t start before I showed up. You know those guys?”
“That was me,” he chuckles wearily. “Yeah, man, so that fast life. There is nothing I haven’t done. I wasn’t patient, I was jumpy. Now I’m seriously humbled. Also I wasn’t spiritual, so maybe God wanted me to get close to him.”
“These ten cars,” I ask, “did you like owning ten cars at a go or…”
“No, maybe six cars at one go.”
I look up and see keys hanging from a hook in the middle of the ceiling.
“What the hell is that?” I say pointing up. He looks up and laughs. “I think so that nobody moves it.”
His hustle was he did business with the government of Kenya- tenders. He had countless friends. He’d walk into a bar and know a handful of people. “Now they are all gone,” he says. “This accident happened eight months ago but I can count the number of friends I have left. The rest all fled. It’s all very quiet, man. People just leave. I think maybe 90% of my friends are gone – and I had many many friends.”
After the wheat has been separated from the chaff, the remaining friends are down to three; Obed Moraa, David Ogong and Steve Mogere.
“You think you have friends, but what we have are acquaintances,” I say. “People we drink with.”
“It’s true. Guys just disappear. Nobody calls you, but there are lessons, harsh ones kwanza. I think this situation has taught me to be humble, to be patient, to be slow to anger – something I’m still learning – to ask for help and to talk to God. I share my deepest fears, secrets, pains and desires with God, he’s the one who delivered me, the one who saved me from death.” He pauses. “You know you asked me why this happened, and I could have been a quadriplegic. I was close to it but God didn’t let it happen, I might be physically handicapped but I’m not emotionally handicapped, plus I have hands,” he raises them for me to see, “and so I can write and feel and touch.”
“Always remember that God gives the greatest challenge to His greatest warriors. I believe that I’m a warrior in the army of the Lord. I’m the furnace being beaten and burned as a sword in the fire in preparation for my task ahead.”
“I like that,” I say.
“If I had one wish it’s to walk again,” he says. “But if the Lord sees it fit that I remain as I am, so be it.”
“What’s the first thing you’d do if you could walk?”
He smiles for what seems like the first time.
“What’s the first thing I would do if I could walk?”
“Yeah, right this moment…” I look at my watch, “…at 12:48pm.”
He thinks about it for a bit, the smile now spreading thin on his face, like a moving shadow.
“I’d wear shoes and walk out of the house.”
“It doesn’t matter, I’d just walk in whatever direction my legs take me.”
He’d walk out of this room that’s like his room but with a hospital bed. He’d walk downstairs, now fitted with a ramp, out the gate, down the line of houses, out the estate gate. At Kasuku Center roundabout he’d turn left into Oloitoktok Road, walk up the walkway, up till Methodist roundabout and turn left into Ole Odume Road, turn into Riara Road, then left into King’ara Road, right into Ngong’ Road. Up the road past that mayhem caused by construction, past the world war cemetery where the bones of dead soldiers rest, past men making furniture and pots and gates and selling royal palms and Kikuyu grass, just placing one leg after the other. This act of mobility that we take for granted, feeling the earth rise and fall under his feet, feeling pebbles under his soles, and perhaps when he gets to the Karen roundabout, he’d be exhausted and he’d sit by the road and stare at his legs spread out before him. Then he’d keep walking.
“Like Forrest Gump,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says.