You know Oscar Wilde, right? He once said, “‘There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.’ The latter is worse.”
Tom’s tragedy—like all of ours—was that he wanted to be rich. He wanted an abundance of wealth. A cushy life. To have so much money he never lacked. To have the red carpet rolled out for him and the most exclusive bottles cracked in his honour. He wanted abundance and affluence. Poverty, for him, had meant great deprivation and, often, humiliation. Nobody looks at the poor, he said, and when they do, they don’t see them. Poverty makes you invisible, you become a blank wall nobody wants to hang a picture on, dull furniture nobody wants to sit on. If poverty was a colour, it would be nude. Tom isn’t his real name, obviously. He asked to remain anonymous because he doesn’t want anybody to, in his own words, “dance on his grave.”
I have interviewed a lot of people who grew up in poverty. Poverty is the same and it’s also not the same. I’ve heard of people who wore shoes for the first time in high-school then continued to wear that same shoe for the rest of their high school years, even though their feet grew through them, their toes prying the shoes open. Those who lived on one meal a day. Or no meal a day. Or eating the boiled cask of groundnuts. Or having to walk great distances to get to school, sometimes through crocodile-infested rivers. Or wearing only a tattered shirt on their back, shorts so tattered their exposed buttocks took on the shape of air. Of guys who would sleep alongside goats and sheep, in a manger, like baby Jesus. Or under the dark sky, the moon staring back at their desperation with one big astonished eye because their poverty is so dehumanising you can’t dare look at it with both eyes.
Orphans who tell of unimaginable brutality at the hands of evil relatives. Or stepmoms on flying brooms. You read about Ken here, who I wrote about, an orphan, living with his grandmother (who later died) and being tied to trees and whipped by forestry chaps when they found him picking dead twigs to sell. [He has since graduated with a BA in Animal Health, and is working in Nakuru]. I interviewed a chap who told me cabbages reminded him of poverty because he ate so much of that boiled atrocity that he has since banned it from his house. I interviewed a woman who was “sold” off to a wealthy old man in the village to pay a multi-generational debt of three cows. Consider that level of poverty, that you are so poor, your family is unable to pay off a debt of three cows over two generations. Stories that make you gasp. When I think of abject poverty, this is what I imagine.
I’m reminded of the Bible, the book of Exodus. The God of Israel waged a painful campaign against the Egyptians with Ten Plagues, sending painful boils on the asses of the Egyptians. No Egyptian could sit properly for a while, and they moaned and whined, and the pharaoh finally conceded and let go of the Israelites and Moses and his people took off. But once the boil on the pharaoh’s ass healed he said, damn it, that Moses fellow has to pay so he sent 600 chariots to chase after them, a spectacle that got them to the Red Sea where the Israelites were cornered, facing a sea before them and a cloud of dust as the charging Egyptians bore down on them, only held back by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. And the Israelites panicked, they started moaning, “Why did you bring us here to die in this wilderness, weren’t there graves in Egypt? This sucks, Mose. This truly sucks pipe.” And Mose [ that’s what they called him], said, “Oh stop bitchin’ and stop Tweetin’! Don’t you guys trust in God? Don’t be afraid, stand still!” And then he dramatically took a step back and raised his rod. People stared at him like he had gone nyungis. Someone at the back said, “What are you now, a magician?” But then the Red Sea miraculously parted and there was an uproar of Shangwe na Vigelegele!
Anyway, when I think of poverty I think of the Israelites who looked back to see the cloud of dust from the 600 chariots. That, for me, is the representation of poverty; we are constantly running away from it and it always seems so near, a sickness away, a job loss away, but we keep running from it because if we stop we get consumed by its dust and we pray that someone, fate, raises a rod so that we can pass the rubicon safely to the other side.
Tom grew up in a grass-thatched house in Nyansiongo—not too far from Keroka, Kisii. Mother died at birth. Father fell in a pit latrine when he was 12. “I remember his body being pulled out with a rope tied to his leg.” A family feud ensued and his uncles kicked them out of their small shamba. Then it was just him, his younger brother and his grandmother all eking out an existence in a small hut. The boys slept in the mud kitchen with chickens. “In school, I would be smelling of chicken feathers and woodsmoke.”
“I like the smell of woodsmoke,” I tell him.
“I hate woodsmoke.” He says. He’s got a ring with a ruby on his finger.
School was tough. Long walk to school, long walk back. Lack of uniform or shoes. No meals the whole day. When he was in class seven his grandmother died and a month later, his brother started coughing and on a rainy dawn he also died on his grandmother’s mattress. “I sat next to his body for 24 hours before I worked up the courage to walk to one of my uncles to break the news.” He was buried in a soggy grave near a young banana tree a few days later. Then he was alone, living in his grandmother’s hut. He had inherited six chickens, his worldly possessions. Soon, someone started stealing his chicken; one by one, when he was in school. Maybe it was a mongoose, maybe it was a thief, who knows. When his third chicken disappeared, he decided to lock the chicken in the kitchen when he was away at school. But then the three chickens started looking sad and withdrawn because perhaps they needed light and worms or chicken interaction. Then one died. So, to avoid heartbreak he did what any of us would have done; he ate the remaining two. “I cut them up, then preserved them by roasting them lightly over an open fire and then strung them to smoke over the three-stones.”
He was bright academically. He could do quick math. He was fast on the uptake. He struggled to say “sixty-six” which still comes out as “sigisti six” But no matter, he worked hard. Teachers loved him, the headmaster paid for his fees. He farmed on the small piece of land behind his grandmother’s house and from there got his produce; vegetables, onions, bananas, tomatoes. He took manual jobs around the village; digging boreholes, mending roofs, fetching firewood, tilling land. He bought more chicken and had a little baraza with them, he told them, “I can’t suffer any more deaths. Please don’t die, if you die, I eat you.” The chicken listened. He was the poorest of the poor in the village. “I was the outcast, people say I had a curse on me, that’s why everybody was dead around me. So I didn’t grow up with many friends in the village. Other villagers often pointed at me. I spent a lot of Christmases alone. I learnt to keep away, to mind my own business. I don’t seek people out as a result. I don’t mind solitude. People say I’m secretive but Biko, I have seen what people are capable of. People are selfish.”
We are in his sparsely furnished apartment, a blue sofa that one would find in a high-end strip club, a threadbare carpet, an ornately-carved Lamu coffee table, a lonesome dining table on the raised dining room, a big-ass television set and a router, and big windows overlooking a patch of grass outside. We are eating groundnuts and sipping tea. It’s 11am, in case you are wondering, the best time to eat groundnuts and drink tea—I have it on good authority.
He struggled and passed well enough to gain admission into a national school in Nairobi. “It’s there that I was introduced to a new world. Of affluence. There were boys whose parents were who’s who in Kenya. They spoke differently. Their uniforms looked different. Their attitudes were different. They were courageous, speaking boldly about the future as if they owned it. They belonged. Then there were boys like me from poor families. I think it’s in high school that I knew that I wanted to be like those kids’ parents. Drive big cars, have my children speak with great conviction and courage. My scent for money was aroused.”
“Your scent for cents.” I mutter, tossing a few nuts in my mouth.
Between form one and two, he would go back to the village to work in farms over the holidays. In form three and four, he devised a way of rooming with another poor friend in a one-room in a scruffier part of Ngara while they hawked all manner of things downtown, from umbrellas to sweets. They barely made enough for fees. “We would be those guys who started their term almost halfway in because we were out there raising fees but also learning Nairobi.” But he would excel in studies and it wasn’t long before another teacher took up his fees issue. Over time, they got into printing and then spare parts for vehicles and when the internet arrived they got into computers big time. He stopped going back to the village. His grandmother’s hut crumbled and rodents started living there. His uncles took over the land.
“By the time I was in the University of Nairobi, first year, I was making some decent cash. I was barely on campus. I was out wheeling.” His network grew in tandem with his greed. Soon he would often find himself at tables with lowly government officials with information, budding politicians or people who represented politicians. Men in suits and sometimes firearms. Men with two or three mobile phones on the table. Men who controlled budgets or knew people who controlled budgets. Big deals were often made at those tables. There were kickbacks. He sat behind a man, then he sat as his own man after having made his bones. He then got into road construction even though he knew diddly squat about roads. Then real-estate as a middle-man. He supplied medical equipment and steel and he did landscaping.
“I was running away from poverty. I was damned if I was going to go back,” he says, “and where was I going to go back to? I hadn’t been to my village in many years, I had nobody to go back to, nobody to wait for me. I had cut off my thieving uncles. I never went back for funerals. I was a man apart. I wanted nothing to do with my past that only reminded me of hardship and pain. Money, I believed, would cure me of poverty.”
He was married at this time. He had a nice office in Upper Hill which he rarely sat in because he was always in hotels, sipping tea, making promises to influential people. “It’s exhilarating to lock down a major deal. The celebrations were usually over the top. You sent what you hadn’t earned. Thankfully, I don’t drink. I have never been attracted to alcohol since it turned one of my uncles into the village laughing stock. I think alcohol degrades you. Plus, remember I had a mission; to be wealthy and I don’t think buying a bottle of whisky for 30K as my associates would, makes one wealthy. So while everybody would be getting drunk, I would be sober, picking subtle cues, looking out for these people’s weaknesses because when people drink they let go.”
“So what was your weakness, then?”
He grins. “You can guess.”
He laughs. “There are only two things that are men’s undoing; alcohol or women.”
“Or alcohol and women.”
“That’s a loaded one.” He gets up and goes to take a leak. I hear the loo flashing then he’s back.
By the time he was 40 he had a house in an upmarket address, two apartments in Westlands (one of which we are sitting in), and two top-of-the-range cars. He was also occasionally selling high-end furniture from Turkey and prime land on the side. He was liquid. He spent heavily on clothes because clothes maketh the man. He had a beautiful wife and two children. He kept his past in his past because he felt it “brought shame and disrepute.” He was taking extravagant holidays. His kids went to schools with white kids. “I wanted my children to break this curse of where I was from and the desperation that I had lived under.”
“You wanted the white kids to wash away the stain of your black past,” I say.
“Wow!…yeah….yeah….that’s a good way of putting it….that’s really good, Biko.”
“Why, thank you, sir,” I say. “But did they?”
“Well, who knows. I don’t think money changes the person we are. That’s why the aristocracy was never about money but about pedigree. You can’t buy that, you are born with that. But these are things you realise later in life, sometimes in shocking ways.”
He drapes one leg over the other. “I once went to this prominent family’s home for one of those Sunday lunches. My wife, I married up, knew the daughter. Lunch was on a big verandah. And it was extravagant. A uniformed chef served us. I’m a Kisii man, there are things that surely, I don’t know how to eat.”
“Like souffle?” I say. “I honestly just don’t see a Kisii enjoying a souffle.”
He laughs. “Look, do you want whisky, I have good whisky.”
I pass. Too early. Plus who drinks alone?
“Anyway, the patriarch—this wealthy man with old money—asked me casually where I was from and who my family was. I thought this old man might relate because of his age and the fact that he isn’t caught up in this social strata thing. I said I was from a very poor village to show how hardworking I was at having arrived at their table but I realised that after that he wasn’t really interested in me. He barely addressed me after that. He had dismissed me.”
“He made you feel poor again.”
“Exactly!” He says. “But I didn’t dwell on it. I had money. When you have money you feel like you can sit at any table, you know. But there are some tables where even your money won’t get you a seat because there are other things that come into play; like family, your history. When you are asked; who knows your father? What do you say when your father fell into a pit latrine? Nobody knew him.”
Meanwhile, there was the little problem of women. “It’s difficult,” he sighs simply.
“Actually it’s not,” I tell him. I tell him of that fellow I interviewed in the Business Daily who grew up very poor, the one who hated cabbages. Even though his career was always rising meteorically, he had a string of failed relationships. I asked him why. He said, and I quote, “Being an orphan is tough, you are always second or third or last. Nobody prioritises you. What happens when you start making it, when you start breaking through, you strive as much as possible to tell the world that I’m no longer the same. You overcompensate. You become extravagant with your emotions, with your money, extravagant with your time. All to prove a point. But soon you realize you’re still alone.”
He mulls on that, head slightly bowed. “That’s true for him. Women follow money, but also when men make money they want validation from women. But for me there was also the element of greed. I wanted to take everything I could grab; money, pleasures. When you have money, you are more desirable to women, you will agree.”
“Because you can make a decision that changes a woman’s position or experience. You know what I mean?”
“You can meet a girl earning 70K at a small law firm in town and set her up with a small car and an apartment for 40k a month in these parts of town. It doesn’t cost you much, not when a deal brings you 10 million. You get?”
“But one girl is never enough. You will see another who you want to take for a trip in Malindi. Another you want to carry to South Africa because who wants to experience Table Mountain alone?”
“Money makes you avaricious. It’s like…it’s like…” he searches for the words, “it’s this insatiable hunger that demands more, no matter how much you make. So your money-making muscles need to feed the monster, and the more you flex them, the greater your thirst for pleasure. Today you want to go to Malindi, tomorrow you want to go to Morocco. Now wealthy men want to go to space. It’s like a drug that you keep consuming and it makes you hungrier and more foolish and careless but also feel invincible. You don’t think anything can happen to you because money solves everything, right?”
There was a deal on the table. Hundreds of millions. He won’t say much but it looked clean. It had many players, different players this time, people he wasn’t accustomed to doing business with. He was introduced to one of the players at Stanley’s Exchange bar. A white chap, an investor. That built his confidence because he was supposed to invest 30 million of his money which would make him almost 150 million after everybody had taken his cut. I hold up my hand and say. “These figures are giving me a headache.” He laughs.
Problem was he didn’t have 30 million lying around. His money was tied up in assets. He met one of his associates and borrowed 30 million at 20% interest. He was still going to make his money back and some, he figured. But then one of the guys on the deal couldn’t raise his 30 million so he was presented with the opportunity to raise half of it. One of his friends was adamant, he told him, “don’t push your luck with this. Leave it.” He thought, big risks, big returns, those who play safe work their whole lives, so he went to another friend who loaned him 15 million. Then the deal fell through. Went tips up; government policy and unforeseeable happenings scattered it to the wind. He owed 45 million to people who are only your friends as long as you don’t owe them. They wanted their money back, not tales. And they wanted it yesterday. “So I started selling my shit, mostly at a throw-away price. These guys weren’t going to kill me, I know that, because dead men don’t pay back 45 million, but they were going to do worse. Where there is lots of money changing hands, there is a lot of heartlessness and violence.”
Anyway, after he was done paying off his debt he only had the apartment left. His wife took off in this mess. “I gave her and the kids the other apartment I owned to live in. I will remain in this one.” Well, a fool and his money are soon parted, the saying goes.
“Why did your wife leave?” I asked him.
“Honest?” he pauses, as if I want the dishonest version.
“She was going to leave anyway, it was coming. I think she had had enough. I was never home. She had also found out about, uhm, some stuff. We were having lots of problems, ironically, that weren’t money-related,” he chuckles.
“The usual, tu, men problems. I was living life with a paper bag on my head.”
I laugh at the imagery.
“Yes. Blinded. With money and raha ya maisha.” Pause. “ Sometimes you can have everything but then realise that you have nothing actually.”
“You know what I mean, bwana.” He says dismissively. But I really don’t know what he means. And I don’t want to assume.
“OK, what was the biggest problem here, how did you get here, according to you?”
“Identity was my biggest problem.”
“Yes. Where you are rooted. What roots you? I didn’t have roots, so I wanted to find it in money. I thought money would get me acceptance and recognition. Money doesn’t give you roots because money is just a tool. It’s like a hammer that you use to make a stool. But you can make a stool with a substitute for a hammer, can’t you? You can use a stone to drive in nails. You aren’t the hammer. The hammer is not the stool. The stool is a stool and the hammer is a hammer.”
“You speak weird, Kisii man.”
“The point I’m driving home, without a hammer, is that I have always wanted to erase my past because it’s difficult and painful and I was driven to substitute it with money. But I still remain who I am. I’m an orphan, my father fell into a pit latrine, I never met my mother, my brother died, I was discarded by my family….I’m alone, that’s part of who I am. No shame in that, or hiding it with trips abroad or girls or shoes, you get? No shame. But here were are now, it could have been worse.” He chuckles.
The “here” that he speaks of is this. His wife left because he had not invested in her emotionally. [My assessment, not his]. He had bought great furniture and curtains and a green lawn, that’s it. He was a prick. [He doesn’t disagree]. He lost almost everything and he went through a period of great mourning and self-pity and fear. Fear that he would slide back into poverty. [Those 600 chariots]. There was a period of six months when he thought he was depressed, sitting in this house, thinking, afraid to face anyone because he had no car, no self-esteem, until finally, he started reading books – The Quarter-Life Breakthrough by Adam Smiley, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Write it down, Make it Happen by Henriette Anne Klauser. He also read Think Big by Ben Carson and that small book about cheese being moved.
“What was your tipping point? When did you come into this awareness of self?”
“It would come in little reminders, like that wealthy man at lunch. When I was trying to raise the debt I owed I realised that although I had accumulated wealth I didn’t have a support system that would bail me. I was still alone. I have always been alone. I think I’m slightly more self-aware now as a person that I have ever been. I’m clear that money won’t heal the wounds of childhood. Remember that story you wrote about that Indian tycoon.”
“Yeah, I like how he said if you took everything from him, his phone and money and dropped him in a dry foreign land, a strange place, he would build another dynasty again in no time without money from anyone. That inspired me. That anybody can start over.”
“What do you want now?”
“I don’t want money. I want fulfillment. Apart from missing my children, I have been very content lately, living in this house like this with very little. I eat one meal a day and my body is used to it. My thoughts are clear. It’s like suddenly I’m back to living alone in my grandmother’s hut. It’s the same thing.”
“The full cycle.”
I went to his loo to take a wee. Hanging on the wall was a tacky painting, the type you buy in traffic. It was of a flower but over it was the poem, Desiderata. I sat on the toilet seat and read it, slowly. When I came out I said, “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste…” He turned in his seat and said, “…and remember what peace there may be silence.”
We shook hands at his doorway. “Good luck,” I told him. Then I hopped down the staircase.
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