When he was 25 years old he shared a small shack in Kariobangi South with Andre, a friend he had met in university. He had a dusty degree in commerce and three year old dreadlocks. His dreadlocks were a protest of sorts, a defiance against society, against life, to all the times he sent his resume and nobody replied, to death that snatched his unknown mother at birth, and then his father when he was 12; and to the doctors who said his leg would get worse as he grew older. To his university girlfriend who went off and married someone else – some baboon with a hairline that started just above his eyebrows. His degree was a metaphor of how little formal education can do for you.
Every day they’d gather in some patchy bar, adjacent to a butchery, and have cheap brandy or beers whenever they could afford it. The bar featured wooden benches and tables stabilized with folded paper under one leg, a blue wall with peeling paint, Guinness emblazoned on it, a cage from which the owner – a pensive, old man – sat, passing drinks through the metal mesh with impressive nonchalance. Men smoked and laughed and shared drinks that lay on their side on the table like discarded bottles on a beach. There were women regulars, but not too many. The women who patronised the bar saw themselves as men, or the men saw themselves in them. They were brassy. They were not the type to be intimidated. They drank beers from the necks of bottles. They swore. Nobody fought in that bar. Never. There were all manner of people there; small-time hoodlums, matatu drivers, men who worked with their hands, small time brokers, jobless chaps, men with university degrees and men with degrees from the streets. It was a motley broth that bubbled with character.
One day a guy who dealt in scrap metal told Mark that there was someone looking for a driver. “Can you drive a truck?”
“Yes,” Mark said. Mark had never driven a truck in his life but he had learnt quickly in life that when you say no, the world says no back to you.
“It’s my cousin,” the man said, his nails had dirt underneath them, “he transports goods from Mombasa to Kampala. Cooking oil and things.”
“No problem. I can drive that truck.” Mark said.
He got the job.
“Because you are on the road all the time and you have nothing to do on the road but think,” he said. “I never imagined I’d be driving a truck with my degree. I thought I’d work in an office but there I was. You get to a point where you realise that your education is just paper. You stop being bitter and you start seeing life for what it is. The question I asked myself was: “How do I make it?”
A year into the job, he pulled over at a small stop center just after Nakuru where he liked to spend the night because there were never more than 10 trailers parked there for the night. It was safe. The rooms were clean. Plus there was a regular girl there he liked who would warm his bed occasionally. She was unlike the other girls there in that he could talk to her. She listened. He parked the truck near a culvert for easy departure the next morning. Sometimes idiots would block you, so you would have to go knocking on room doors at 5am, asking who the frk owned the Chevrolet KCW with a yellow tarpaulin. It wasted your time.
When he climbed down from the truck, two men were standing there. He knew immediately that they weren’t there to borrow his lighter. It was a bit dark, but he could smell them. They smelled of tobacco and old people’s feet. To this day he doesn’t know why he resisted, but in the scuffle, a gun went off and he got shot in the stomach.
“The bullet went through here,” he raised his shirt to show me a small beautiful scar that looked like a cigarette burn, “ and came out on my back here.”
I think I have mentioned here that I like scars. I like scars and stretchmarks. I like to feel scars with the tip of my finger. Sometimes when you run your fingers over a scar, you can almost hear its tale.
He was in hospital for a couple of weeks. The doctor said he was lucky that the bullet didn’t do a lot of damage. In the two weeks he was in hospital his roommate Andre was the only one who saw him. He brought him food and tea in a flask. He would come at night after work and sit by his bed and they would talk until 11pm before he slipped into darkness to catch the last matatu home.
When he was discharged he had lost his job, of course. He went back to sitting in the bar. The bar was like a noticeboard of jobs. It’s where you heard who was looking for what. He was 27 years old. He had no phone, having lost his phone in the robbery. He had lost all his contacts except for the ones he had written in a notebook. He shared Andre’s phone, but he’d had to wait to use it until after he came from work. He got small gigs through contacts at the bar; he carried equipment for a musical band. He turnboyed to Wajir a few times. He sold honey and got burnt. He supplied liquid soap to fast food restaurants. One time he accompanied other massive boys as a bouncer for an up and coming politician who had a homecoming. Never mind that he had never lifted any weights in his life. “You never say no, always say ‘I can do it’.”
One time someone in the bar had a lead for someone looking for a matatu driver plying the Buru Buru route. “I can drive a matatu,” he told the fellow. He had never driven a matatu in his life. So he got the job and off he went driving matatus. It was a great gig. The owner of the matatus was a man in a wheelchair, a slumdog millionaire who owned houses in Kayole and other slums. Legend had it that he had been a thug once and been shot in the back, paralysing him waist down.
With a little more money he moved to Umoja with Andre, who was working in a sweatshop in Industrial area as an accountant. It was a simple one bedroom that they accessed through a narrow, damp corridor. They didn’t mind; they had their own toilet and bathroom inside. It was an upgrade from the single room in Kariobangi, sharing a bathroom and toilet with other neighbours. “I started saving money. Putting it away. I wanted to buy land, somewhere I could settle down because I was born out of wedlock, a bastard. My dad had another family and my mum was his side-chick, and so when she died at childbirth, he secretly sent me to his own grandmother to raise me. I’ve been a secret all my life. So I needed somewhere I could belong. A patch of land that was mine.”
He heard that a Maasai mzee was selling a piece of his land in Kitengela. “This was before people started buying in Kitengela. The space was in the wilderness, not a house in sight. There were no roads. Maasai’s cows grazed everywhere. It was going for 250K. He had 180K saved. They agreed on a payment plan. The land was his. Over time he fenced it. Then he built a mabati structure, a toilet at the end of the boma. A gate. “ My own gate.” He said. “I couldn’t believe that.”
In December 2003, he was about to close shop and return the matatu to Kayole for the night. They’d had a great day, it being December. As soon as they left town and were driving past Machakos bus station, the boy who had been sitting on the passenger side drew a gun and pointed at him. “Look, there were a lot of carjackings then but there was always an unwritten rule that some matatus you didn’t jack. Because they belonged to certain people who you didn’t want to mess with. Our matatu was one of them. Only a mad person would dare jack our matatu and clearly these boys were mad, foolish, or both. Either they didn’t know who owned these matatus or they just didn’t care. But I had seen a gun before and I had been shot before, so I knew what it felt like to be shot. Plus, the gun was in the hand of a boy. When you are shot you waste a lot of time in hospital getting treatment and then months recovering at home. It’s very expensive to be shot, deadly even. So, I couldn’t dare lose a week not working. So I did what I was told.”
They ended up in a big dark field past the airport, where the four men relieved them of their valuables and the day’s earnings. When one of them came for his phone, he told him, “msee, angalau niachie sim card maze.” He wasn’t being aggressive. He wasn’t looking for trouble. “The guy might have thought I was challenging him, so he whacked me over the head with the butt of his pistol and down I went. You watch this in movies and people just shake their heads and move on. Oh that stuff is hard. I went out cold. I crumbled like paper. But guess what, that’s what saved my life.”
“Because it convinced the boss that I was not in cahoots with these thugs. My makanga was his nephew, he trusted him. But me? Oh who knows what would have happened to me?”
He was in hospital for the night; concussion, copious loss of blood. “Here is where they hit me,” he touched the side of his head. I touched the scar with my index finger. It was the shape of a small crescent. Felt like touching a small moon.
He continued working as a driver, saving money. He paid off the Maasai and slowly started building a small structure. By this time they had moved to a two bedroom house in Buru Buru because now they had money to spare and women to entertain. But it was all short lived because Andre fell in love [head-first] with a Taita girl with massive eyes and massive boobs and moved out to Langata where everybody seemed to be moving.
Meanwhile he met Carole [with an ‘e’] in the matatu he was driving. She had a specific time she’d board the matatu from town. “Her timing was between 7:30 and 8:15pm” She was often with a loud friend who sometimes would ask him to play a certain CD. “Her friend was interested in me. But I was interested in her. She was calm, mysterious and very observant. I’m a bit on the talkative side. We matched well.”
They always sat at the passenger window, staring outside at the passing houses with lit windows. When she was alone, Carole would prefer to sit at the back and he would ask the makanga to go fetch her. Often she would refuse and when she did he’d go back and plead with her to sit with him. “I’d tell her ‘this matatu will not move until you take your seat.’” He said. “Nobody would sit on that passenger seat between those times. It was Carole’s seat. Everybody knew.” She was working as a paralegal in a law firm. They started dating. “One Sunday evening she was leaving to go back to her place after a weekend at my place. I asked her, ‘do you have to leave? Why don’t you just stay with me? Forever.’ She agreed. That’s how I got married. Ha-ha.” Things were going really well. He was almost finishing his ka small keja in Kitengela. Work was stable, a lot of loose cash. “I’m lucky that I don’t drink or smoke, so that helped a great deal with money.”
Then came the late John Michuki with his big stick and his snarl.
Michuki threw a spanner in the works with his new matatu rules. Suddenly, the revenue was dipping and the boss couldn’t understand why the hell they weren’t bringing in what they used to. “We thought it was a passing cloud, that it would blow over, but it didn’t.” Instead Michuki dug in.
One day he was in Kitengela with Carole, inspecting the final touches to the house. He had been worried about this Michuki furore, worried that the gravy train would come to a grinding halt. “I also knew that I wouldn’t be a matatu driver for too long. It’s just not what I wanted for myself. It’s something you did in your 20s while you found yourself, not in your 30s.”
Their nearest neighbour, his friend Andre’s plot of land, was quite a distance away, and apart from him, there was only a scattering of people who had bought land in that area. Carole, while looking at the brown grassland said, “have you thought of selling this land? I mean, who knows this area better than you? You could buy and sell to your friends for a profit?”
The penny dropped.
“I got a loan from my sacco and started selling land. I would buy land for 500K and sell it for 700K or sometimes 800K. I knew the Maasais who were selling. I would connect them with buyers at the beginning, but then my wife told me that I could make more money if I bought large tracts of land, subdivided them and sold them off. We took a loan together and put it in the business.” It was going very well. Everybody wanted to own a piece of land. He bought an old matatu and put it on the road. Then he bought himself a used car.
After a couple of years he left the matatu business to Michuki. “The day we moved into our house, literally that same day, I got a call that Andre had died in a road accident on his way to shags. A speeding matatu had rammed into him.” The irony. He was crushed by the news. He didn’t have any brothers or sisters, Andre was everything.
Days later, with a clear blue sky above, they laid Andre to rest in Chuka. How do you forget a day like that? “It felt like the only person who I felt knew me, who knew all my dreams and what I feared. It’s funny, I always thought he was the one to bury me, not the other way round.” His widow sat through the proceedings, not saying a word, staring into space. Andre’s son, a mere child, barely capable of comprehending his loss, babbled on, unaware that his life had completely turned on its head. “I looked at him and felt great pain and fear for him. He would grow up without a father, like I did. And at that point I felt like him and I were kinsmen, a family and I needed to protect him.”
When he stood up to give a eulogy, the sun suddenly felt very bright in his eyes. He felt very faint from not eating or sleeping well since his best friend had died, the heartbreak from the agony of Andre’s death taking its toll. The microphone slipped through his hand, he reeled back, staggered, and fell backwards. “I fell and broke my neck in the process.” He was back in the hospital again and had a neck collar soon after. There is no scar to show me this time but he says that he can never “turn his neck fast to look at something on his side.”
It was hard to go on without his friend, but life goes on, as it must.
“We were not able to get children of our own,” he said. “We tried, saw doctors. We were considering adopting. At this point I had also been very active in Andre’s son’s life. I had decided that I would take him as my son because the son of your brother is your son. I was paying school fees for him, seeing him frequently, you know, basically being a good friend, because I’d want my friend to do the same for me.”
He could afford it too. He had moved up the social ladder, had moved to Kileleshwa, driving a Prado, and even afforded to go on holidays.
Then his wife left him.
“My wife discovered that I might have been having inappropriate conversations with Delilah.”
“Who the hell is Delilah?”
“Charming.” I said.
“She was convinced I was having a thing with her. We had been having a strained relationship because of the lack of children in our marriage, so I guess she was insecure that maybe I wanted a child with someone else. Maybe even Delilah?”
“Her with massive eyes and massive boobs.”
In one of the fights after seeing the message, she hit him over the head with a vase which smashed into pieces. “Same side where the guys with the gun hit you?” I asked as a joke.
“No, this other side.” He said.
“Your good side.”
She left him. He pleaded to be taken back. He sent emissaries. He went to her parents, hat in hand. After two months Carole was back. Delilah was blacklisted in the family but “we agreed that the boy would not be punished for my crimes.”
Things were going great again. He was now in real estate, having moved on from land. They had adopted Carole’s cousin’s daughter, whose mother had passed on in 2020, the first victims of Covid.
In January of 2021, struggling with loss of business, a business associate mentioned that there was a deal that could see him a ton of money. When the deal was done he had lost 17 million shillings. “You haven’t lost anything until you have lost everything you have. I betted with all my investments, put them in a deal I thought would fetch me triple what I had. The truth is no clean deal will get you triple your investment. Greed and sex remains a man’s greatest motivator.”
“Of course I never consulted Carole. I slipped into depression. A deep, ugly depression and I have struggled with it since. Nothing has been the same since. I’m slowly trying to come out of it. I’m slowly trying to get back my footing. I don’t come from a school of thought that recognised mental health or even therapy, and for the longest time I struggled alone, thinking I was just sad. But Carole dragged me to see a therapist and it’s helped, it’s helping.”
He had to move back to his Kitengela home.
“Sometimes I go to a local bar nearby because my therapist told me to avoid sitting alone with my thoughts. That they will eat me slowly from inside. And it’s funny, how when I sit in that bar and listen to the younger men talk, it reminds me sharply of the bar in Kariobangi. I feel like I have done the full cycle. That life sometimes is a circle and that sometimes you can be born poor and you do so much to escape it, but you end up right where you started. I’m trying not to think these thoughts.”
The marriage, he says, is on the rocks mostly because he also lost Carole’s money in the deal. She can’t get over his selfishness and recklessness. Maybe the marriage will survive, maybe it won’t and should it end, he will find himself single, broke and visiting another local bar. The full three-sixty degrees.