My class five teacher was called Weje. As the name might suggest she wasn’t really a teacher who smiled. You know the phrase, “to put fear of the Lord”? It was meant to be “to put the fear of Weje.” You wouldn’t describe Weje’s style of discipline as subtle. She would hold both your ears with the tip of her nails, pull them in opposite directions and then she would whack you across the face with one open palm. And she had palms the size of a banana leaf. From that sheer force, your neck would snap to the side, and as your ears rang with bells and melodies and chirping birds and just as you were trying to figure out if you still had all your teeth and how far your brain just shifted, she would whack you again on the opposite cheek because Jesus said we should turn the other cheek, even involuntarily. This savagery would be carried out in the full glare of the rest of the classroom to act as a deterrent to the rest of the miscreants. It worked like the public beheadings in the more primitive societies.
After this whacking, you would be so confused walking back to your desk in a fog of white, your ears clanging, your face flushed from the pain and worse, from the humiliation. And because in Class Five there was always a girl in class you liked, this humiliation would completely kill your ego and shrink your self-esteem to the size of a green gram.
Weje wasn’t the only teacher who disciplined us (assault is a word only born in the late 90s), others made you kneel in the sun for hours with your hands raised above your head, or had you sweep the football pitch, or run around the school field until they told you to stop, or caned you on the back of your legs, or on the arse, or across your palms until they were red and swollen. Weje was not respect, she was feared. When she was on duty the school toed the line. Her punishment was famous for being as instantaneous as it was violent. Her palm-marks would remain on your cheeks for hours- a Weje Tattoo. Which meant you didn’t go for the 10 O’clock break because everybody would know you were slapped and everybody would laugh at you because children are generally insensitive shitheads.
Of course this was in the mid-80s when beating other people’s children was allowed and encouraged and even enjoyed. Who could blame adults and teachers when forms of entertainment were so few and rare? A teacher would beat you, send you home, and when you came with your mom (because father’s never had time for such trivialities as raising children), the teacher would beat you again in front of your mom and then your mom would beat you in front of your teacher. Mothers never forgot for us like mothers fight for their children now. And it didn’t help if your mother was a teacher like mine. The 80s were the decade of savagery. Unless, of course, you went to St Andrew’s Turi where, I suspect, children were listened to and no voice raised at them and when they erred their backs were rubbed lovingly as they were asked, “How can we make this work for you and for us, mmmh?”
In my class there was a boy who was never touched by Weje. He was the apple of her eye, it seemed. He was called Odipo. Slimy character. A smooth criminal. But Weje never hurt him. For the longest time I wondered why, and that coin didn’t drop for a long time. His trick was that he, at that tender age, understood the delicate art of charm offensive. When say Weje was writing on the blackboard (I suspect it’s called a whiteboard or chalkboard now?) and the chalk snapped in half and dropped he would scamper from his desk and rush to hand her a new one. In class he was about the only one who dared make a light comment when she asked a question. If he saw Weje carrying books from the staffroom he would run and offer to carry them for her. We would snigger at this act. But he knew something we didn’t. Watching him handle Weje was like watching a snake-handler play a flute to a venomous cobra. What this meant was that if you found yourself in shit and Odipo was amongst the culprits, the punishment would be very lenient for the group or would be thrown out all together.
Well, Odipo died. Not in primary, but later in life. Alcoholism. Weje also died. Not in primary, but when we were in high school. The good ones die. The bad ones vie for public seats or start Youtube channels. If there is anything I learnt in class five – and, mark you I didn’t learn much in class five – it was that kissing ass has its place in society. But you have to be very selective on what ass to kiss, and when. So it’s by this mantra that I found myself at Nairobi Serena last week, because there is a little bit of Odipo in all of us.
“I’m bringing someone important over for lunch,” I had told David Shitaka, their F&B manager. “I would like a quiet table. Discreet. Bells but no whistles. I want to try hard but I don’t want to come across as trying too hard, you know what I mean?”
“It’s a lady,” he chuckled.
So he got me a table at Mandhari Fine Dining Restaurant upstairs, a table by the window. I get there 15 minutes earlier than her and I’m seen to our table by a maître d’. As a napkin is spread across my lap, I catch a whiff of the maître d’s hair, a sweet smell of hair oil and overripe pineapples. I stare out the window to the sparkling blue swimming pool below. Two men are swimming. One is black. The other is white. The black guy has thick arms and he uses them to chop the water in slow motion. The white guy is a stronger swimmer.
Wayua Muli arrives 16 minutes later. I stand as she approaches the table with that bouncy walk, like she has springs under the balls of her feet. She’s carrying with her a big bright smile. Now, I never know how that three-cheek kiss thing goes. I never know which side goes first, is it the right cheek or the left cheek? And are your lips supposed to touch the cheeks or are you just supposed to blow the air over her cheek? And is it supposed to make noise? What about your hands, do you hold her arm while you kiss her, do you hold her waist or do you let them hang by your side? Why do hands become such liabilities at time? Life is complicated enough without worrying about such things, so I hug her. She smells fresh, of shower and perfume and skin.
She says she’s sorry she’s late as she looks around the room appreciatively. A hand pulls her chair and spreads her napkin across her laps. She’s placing her purse on the floor against the window and smiling brightly. Her dreadlocks look clean. “You look lovely,” I tell her. And she does. Her skin is healthy, I know she is a black girl but her cheeks are rosy, I think you guys call it blusher or something. Whatever it is, I like it because it makes her look healthy and happy. “Did you do something to your locks, there were not this colour the last time, right?” She says they weren’t and I think I score my first point because girls like it when you notice their hair.
She has on a necklace with a round african pendant made from silver or something. Matching earrings dangle from underneath her dreadlocks. A ring with some colourful stone gleams from a finger on her right hand. Another with a blue stone on her left hand. She’s saying something about how long it has been since we last hanged out. Walter, the restaurant manager, comes with the menus and also to take the drinks orders. Walter must be 60-years old. He looks like someone who might enjoy a conversation with my dad.
“Can I have a wine?” Then she looks at me and asks coyly, “Is it okay for me to have alcohol?” And I say, “Of course you can have anything your heart desires, Wayua, this lunch is your lunch.” She laughs, a small laugh that sounds like a hundred beads falling and rolling on the floor at the same time. I’m turning the charm on, but slowly and gradually. “May I suggest the Casillero Del Diablo?” Walter tells her. She looks at him and says, “Yeah? Is it nice?” Walter says it’s very nice. He turns to me and I say, “Herbal tea for me…I’m cold.”
Wayua has edited my Mantalk column for close to eight years now. She also edited my work in True Love magazine for a couple of years. She’s a brilliant editor; she will beat your copy into shape and she writes the best headers for copy. But she isn’t exactly the kind of editor who will send you a forward on Whatsapp. Or call to wish you a Merry Christmas. She won’t suffer small talk. When she’s in a bad mood she will sometimes write withering emails, frosty ones that you open and you catch a cold from. Sometimes I will start sneezing for no reason and when I open my email I find one from her. There are people who will pretend that they want to be your friend, Wayua isn’t one of those people. She doesn’t want to be your friend. She only wants her copy and she wants it on time. She will write a group email to all Satmag contributors and say, “ Going forward, those of you have regular columns and are consistently unable to meet this deadline will now either share their space with another writer or will be replaced.” Then she ends the email with the irony of all ironies; “Warm regards, Wayua”. I always have to read the emails again to find which regards therein were warm. Was it the “Hello all” at the beginning? Or was it, “If you have any question don’t hesitate to call or email me.”? Was it the full stop after “me”?
“What do you think that guy does for a living to be able to swim at 1pm on a weekday?” I ask her, as we watch the black guy swim. He has done many laps. She rests the bottom of her chin on her hand like a fragile character in a French movie and says. “He’s in his late 40s and he wants to lose weight. He isn’t doing this for his wife because his wife doesn’t care if he lost weight or not, his wife wants to know that the children’s fees are paid and the mortgage is not defaulted. So she’s doing it for himself and the realisation that a big gut doesn’t exactly make him desirable to the ladies. And he wants to be desirable. Every man wants to be desirable,” then she looks at me with smoky eyes and asks, “don’t you want to be desirable?” I laugh like a school boy and say, “Yes, I’d love to be desirable.” She goes back to looking at our protagonist and says, “Swimming is what he enjoys. So he takes it seriously; see he even bought matching swimming trunks and fins. Maybe he has even lost some weight.”
“Where did he buy those fins and shit?” I ask chuckling.
“He travels a lot. So maybe Europe. He is an MD, not a CEO, because CEOs don’t get time to swim at lunch time. Do you see James Mworia swimming at 1pm?” she asks.
I tell her I ran into James at a parking lot coming from a gritty gym one cold and overcast morning, one of those gyms where people don’t go to take selfies, but to get to break serious sweat. He was in boxing trunks, boxing gloves dangling from his shoulders, his brow glistened from sweat and his biceps still twitching from the workout. He shook my hand and it felt like holding a Kisii soapstone.
“Exactly, so Mworia won’t be swimming here at 1pm.” She says “This guy is probably stressed at work, he got a call from the main office in Europe and was told that if those numbers don’t improve there would be a problem. So now he’s swimming.” Her wine appears. She sips it as she looks at the menu. Walter walks her through it. I like Walter. My pal, Paul’s son is called Walter but we call him Wally. Which is a very jango way of calling a Walter. I look at Walter taking her order and I wonder how he would react if I said, “Wally, what do you think I should have?” I smile at that thought.
“So, the vegetable soup for starter and for mains I will have this rib-eye steak,” Wayua says, handing back the menu. He says “It’s a good choice, it’s cross-breed steak of Boran and Angus beef.”
“Isn’t beef just beef?” she chides him playfully.
“No,” I say in his defence. “These are special cows, Wayua. They are pampered cows. The truly chosen ones. They are bred in very happy conditions so that they can give nice happy meat.”
She laughs, a thousand metallic beads rolling on the floor. Walter stands there grinning.
“No, really,” I say, warming up to it. “These cows are treated with care. I bet someone comes over once a week to stroke them and whisper in their ears, ‘You are a good cow, never forget that, in fact, you are a great cow and we love you and you make us very proud.’ “ She’s laughing loudly now. “In fact, I read somewhere that even the way they are slaughtered is very humane. These cows never even know they are being raised for steak. They think they are pets, part of the family. They think that they were born in privilege and that their lives will continue that way, being stroked and loved until they die. But even when they are eventually slaughtered, they don’t die scared, they die happy. And a cow that dies happy makes for a happy steak.”
I order the Bhuna Gosht, a tender piece of mutton cooked in indian spices and condiments and naan, the closest relative of chapos on the menu. I order it because the last time I ate there I had it and it worked. I’m not adventurous with food. As Walter takes away my menu Wayua says, “Biko, you need to order a drink. We need to celebrate something.”
“Are you pregnant?” I cry.
She laughs. More beads on the floor.
“Are you getting married?” I try again.
She rolls her eyes and says, “Just get a drink,” so I order a single Caol Ila. When it comes she raises it and says, “Satmag is turning 20-years old, I have been editing it for 10 years. And I have edited you for 13-years.”
Still with our glasses raised I say, “Ati 13-years? How now?” and she says, “Don’t you remember Uganda?”
I had forgotten Uganda. When I was in Uni I used to contribute to this pullout in The Monitor’s Friday magazine called Life or something. It was an occasional gig. Paid a whopping 45,000 bob a month. Relax, that was like a paltry 2,000 Kenya money. One day I heard a new editor from Kenya called Wayua had joined to edit the magazine. I was elated: one of our own! In the next editorial meeting I saw Wayua, she had blonde dreadlocks and I remember her wedges, wooden at the bottom. I thought that if she heard there was a Kenyan writer in the team, we would forge a kinship as countrymen. Nothing. She ignored me. She sat at the head of that table like the high priestess, holding court, unsmiling and conducting the editorial meeting. She was as cold as a barracuda’s kiss. The writers were in awe of this Kenyan expatriate in her wedges. I was in awe of her; she was talented and she was there as boss lady and she was beautiful and she seemed to know a lot of shit about editorial. Later I saw her smoking outside in the courtyard and I walked over to say hello. She was the ice-queen, not giving away anything, sizing me up from behind her wall of cigarette smoke.
But even though she was always aloof, she gave me writing gigs. She assigned me many stories, which means she fed me in Uni. I knew I had to align myself to her so when I would go over to pick up my cheque, I’d pass by her desk and say hello, light banter and try out a few silly jokes but also not stay too long because she always looked so busy and not the one for small talk.
“Why are we here, Biko? What’s this lunch about?” she asks me scooping her vegetable soup that reminds me of a fancy pond.
“This lunch is about lunch,” I say glibly. “I don’t need a reason to buy you lunch, do I? You are a great editor and I like you and you always treat me with respect.”
She titters. “Oh really? That’s so kind of you to say!”
“It’s also a true thing to say.”
I have now turned my charm up all the way. I also have a basketful of jokes under the table and I retrieve them one by one and she, being the very gracious guest and with a sharp sense of humour, laughs at a good number of them and also dishes some in kind. This is what many of your would call kissing ass, which is curious because it is what I call it too.
The black guy slowly raises himself from the edge of the swimming pool and stands there dripping, like a massive sea animal drying itself under the shy sun. We watch him as we start on our mains. He’s a big black man with big bones. His walk is languid. His midsection needs 25,000 laps but he’s getting there. You can tell he’s a boss by how he stands there, like that pool is in his backyard, dripping of self assurance. When he walks he walks like a man not used to being rushed. A man not used to being told where to go. The kind of man who leads other men. “I know him,” Wayua exclaims and mentions a name I have never heard, but can’t repeat here because I have already called him a “massive sea animal.”
But the man reminds me of Idi Amin. Or the guy who played Idi Amin in The Rise And Fall Of Idi Amin. He sits on the edge of the deck bed and checks messages on his phone as he towels his hair. Very few men can multitask. I know I can’t. But I can whistle while I pee. A white girl now takes to the water. She’s wearing an orange swimsuit and is doing that style where you lie on your back and only your feet pedal. It’s like watching a synchronised swimmer warm up. Elegance. She makes the swimming pool look good.
“I don’t think I can finish this steak, can you pack it for me in a doggy bag?” Wayua asks a waiter.
Because I’m facing the entrance guess who I see ambling in? Bobby Kamani! I’m surprised to see him because only a few days ago I had seen his Instagram photo of him standing in a demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. Now he’s in a well-cut blue suit and sleek hair that looks gelled or whatever it is snazzy Asians do to their hair. He unbuttons his suit and takes a seat three tables away. Months ago I had interviewed him and he loved the interview and had said if I ever wanted a holiday or to unwind I should go down and spend time at his hotel – Diani Reef Resort and Spa. Great place. Nice wide and soft beach. Fantastic, I repeat, fantastic chef.
And because he’s the kind of guy who goes the whole nine yards, when I got there I was surprised that he had booked me into their presidential suite! I’m told there is only one hotel with a presidential suite in Diani and it’s them. Massive bedroom, massive bathroom, massive living room, massive balcony – all overlooking the ocean. There were fresh fruits everyday. Fresh flowers. An ice bucket of champagne everyday. Assorted pastry. Since he had placed me on full board, I could drink anything I wanted to drink and eat anything I wanted to eat and at any time. Staff bowed before me thinking that I was a very important person. The GM would find me and ask me if I was doing okay and if there was anything, anything at all I needed to make my stay comfortable. I felt like a fraud. I felt like Khlestakov in the famous play The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol. We studied it as a high school setbook way back in the 16th Century.
“Excuse me, let me go say hello to someone,” I told Wayua and went over to his table. “Heey, Biko!! So good to see you! How was Diani? Did you have a good time? We should have a catch up drink again soon…” he smells of Creed by Aventus. I know the smell because when I interviewed him he was wearing that cologne and it’s a cologne you don’t forget easily. It’s like heartbreak, you may forget it but it’s familiar. “I love your tie!” I tell him. It looks green but it isn’t quite green. It looks pink but not quite pink. It looks embroidered but not really. One thing it is though, it’s expensive. I drag him over to Wayua where I introduce them. Like a gentleman he bows slightly when saying hi to her. “He’s a nice guy,” Wayua tells me after he goes back to his table. “I know someone who is doing a project for him.”
We skip the dessert. We chat some more. About life, work, about people we both know. We cackle at some jokes. I peek under the table and realise with a little panic that I have used almost all of my own jokes. You know, someone who used to write for Satmag before they got on the wrong side of Wayua asked me, “How the hell do you get along with Wayua? She is the most difficult person I have ever written for!”
My brother used to tell me that whenever he would accompany his boss for a charged and tense head of departments meeting he would sit quietly behind him and only talk if he turned in his seat and said, “OK, Julius will now tell us more about this.” And if when he spoke he would be careful not to contradict or embarrass him boss before the rest. “You have to know how to lean into the wind.” He would say. “You never ever forget your position in the pecking order.”
I have learnt that very few people get to the very top of the ladder because they have better education qualifications than the rest. Or because they are more talented than than everybody else. Most people get to the top because they get along with other people. They read people and they play on those people’s strengths and sometimes weaknesses. There are tons of people who sit in corner offices they don’t deserve but they are there because they are good with people.
I know sales people who have diplomas from those colleges downtown that sit above photocopy and printing bureaus. But they fitted a great suit and they shined their shoes and they learnt how to talk to people. They remember client’s birthdays and their children’s names and they show up at hospitals with flowers when a client has given birth. They make people feel good. And people raise them. They are the kind of people teacher Weje would not touch.
Because my column is a weekly, she is a constant fixture in my life and I long learnt how to align myself in Wayua’s wind. I send her very silly emails because I know she can’t resist a good laugh. I do a lunch and a drink up once a year to strengthen my bridge with her. Why? Because talent is never enough. There is tons of it out there anyway. She doesn’t have to keep me as her writer. Nobody does. Certainly not the paper I write for, because really, if I stopped writing for the column today there will be someone younger with fresher ideas who will do it for half of what I’m earning, and perhaps even do it better. So, she keeps me in her corner not because I get the job done but because we have a relationship. I’m just not a byline. I’m a person with a basketful of jokes, and we have a history of respect. (And some drunken nights.) But even respect has to be nurtured and tended to like a flower. Otherwise it wilts and it dies.
Also what this means is that when I’m late with my deadline and I’m out of ideas I will email her with an extension of my deadline. I will say, “Wayua, I’m running low on juice today, my tank is reading “E.” Can I have two more days?” And she will say, “Sawa.” Because she’s fresh and because she’s a professional and because she’s a writer and she understands “E” and because I’m more than a byline.
Someone once said that the secret of a happy marriage is a happy wife. When the wife is happy, the household blossoms. When she is sad, even the salt loses its taste. Her unhappiness seeps through the walls, killing plants and your happiness. That’s how I see my relationship with Wayua; get the job done while I also keep her happy. Or put simply; the not-so-subtle art of giving a f*k.
Happy 10th Anniversary, Wayua.