This guy’s a bit of an ass. That’s what I thought when I interviewed him for the newspapers in 2017. He was a big shot. The cock of the walk. He had on a very crisp white dress shirt—the whitest of whites—and turquoise suspenders. On either wrist were two watches. Two. Like one told the time and the other told his time. He ran an important company listed in the securities exchange. He had a pep in his step because he was at the very pinnacle of his career. He came with his massive trumpet and a lung full of air to blow it. He was hella cocky.
A day after the story ran, an acquaintance who happens to know him (six degrees of separation) called me and said, Now why the hell would you interview that fella? I said, what fella? She said, That man pulled a gun on my sister! I said, Who is your sister? His wife! She said. I was flummoxed. But he waxed in the interview how he had a fantastic marriage. Why would anyone lie about that when their wife and anybody who knows them would read that story? I asked her. He’s a psychopath, a terrible husband, she wailed. Is this gun thing in the public domain? I asked. She said no. I said, Well, now there is no way I could tell. Also, the story wasn’t about his marriage.
We had a back and forth that got unnecessarily raw. She was upset at me, like somehow in a male psychic way I should have known he was a bad husband who pulled a gun on his wife. I said there are tons of excellent CEOs who are lousy husbands. And wives. Who am I to know if they are lousy partners? We are not the National Inquirer. She was texting me from abroad, somewhere in wintry Europe. I was lying on the carpet on a warm Sunday wondering when the guava season would start. She said, you are a lousy journalist. I was bruised. I said, first I’m not a journalist. Second, you are rude and we don’t know each other. She said, Actually second, frrk you! I said, Well, frrk you too. We’ve never spoken again.
Anyway, a few months later Tamms said she wanted a pet. A hamster. [For Godssake]. A hamster is just a rat you can’t poison. I never imagined that my offspring would one day want a rat for a pet but fatherhood teaches you open-mindedness and great tolerance. Besides she was still in a period of mourning because her previous pets had gone belly up, literally, in the aquarium. She woke up one morning and she found them floating on the surface. And they weren’t sunbathing. They were called Baddie and Goldie. They died together, a great love story of tragedy.
I found a hamster but I couldn’t find a cage, so a reader here, said, come over, my son has a hamster cage he isn’t using. He’d outgrown it. When I went over she told me, You know the fella you interviewed? I said, What fella? The one in the newspaper, she said. Oh, the topman, I said. She said he lived next door. I looked out the window as if I would see him walking by. I said, what a small world. He owns many expensive cars, she said, why do men need many cars? Is he a good neighbour? I asked, on a fishing expedition. She sighed and said no. There is a lot of drama there, big loud drama, she said, he’s not very nice. I said Damn. Her son, a very tall handsome boy with fantastic hair, brought out the hamster’s cage. Tamms mumbled a shy thank you.
Two years later he called me out of the blue. It wasn’t a common occurrence given that we hadn’t spoken since the interview. He said he had a story for me. Now, understandably I didn’t want anything to do with him lest the angry hordes attack me. I said I would look for him. I didn’t but then one day I ran into him at a bar and he said, Biko, don’t you want this story? I said what’s the story? He said, look for me, but I didn’t and we kept bumping into each other and it would be the same conversation. He looked less sharp each time I ran into him, the clothes sat on him like a pet monkey on a clown’s shoulder. He looked troubled, tired.
This one time I ran into him sitting on a high stool with his mates sharing a bottle of whisky. He was in over his head. His eyes danced in his eyes. He put an arm around my shoulder in a show of bonhomie and said, this is a good story, I have been to hell and back, Biko. Hell! I said, how does that look like? He said he had lost everything just before he turned 40 the previous year. He had lost his cushy job. His wife had long left him. His kids went with her. He had lost everything. From grace to grass. He said his 40s were giving him a hiding. Life humbles you, he said. I was piqued. I like things that bleed, that’s where real character is built. I wanted to poke that wound with a stick and find out what he had learned. If he had learned anything. The universe corrects evils. He said, No no, not here, let’s sit and talk, let’s sit and talk, this life, man, you never know, you never know. We never sat and talked. I still run into him at bars and he keeps saying, Let’s talk, let’s talk.
That’s the first strange interview I have done. There are three of them. The second one faked his wife’s death. He took me on a wild goose chase, a great odyssey of fiction and hyperbole, the stuff of Stephen King. Then the wife got my number and called and said, “I’m not dead, I’m alive. That man is sick.” I don’t know if you ever watched Sanford and Son, the 80s sitcom, how Fred Sanford would grab his chest and stagger back in mock surprise. That’s how I reacted when the wife called from the dead.
The last and strange interview is even more bizarre.
Someone who knows someone who knows me called me and said, this guy is doing some pretty amazing things, perhaps you want to interview him? I Googled him. He was in the entertainment/ hospitality industry. There was little to nothing on him personally online. He was like a big cat online, with no footprints on the ground, just lurking in the shadows. He had never been interviewed before in the media, I figured he was those media-shy chaps who didn’t like tooting their own horns. I was going to break his media virginity.
We met at Nairobi Serena, in a small moody meeting room where men and women with serious mugs sipped tea, their legs folded. He had that low, almost stooped walk of a prized boxer. Wide shoulders. Very soft-spoken. To sip his tea, he leaned forward to meet his cup. He was deliberate and meticulous in mannerism. Normally there are those first few minutes before the recorder goes on when we just banter. Breaking ice. Most people arrive a bit tense; like they are about to get an injection. So you have to loosen them up a bit. So you might ask them, “Why do you like hot chocolate, it reminds me of high school. Did you go to boarding school?”
They might say something like, yes, they went to Kakamega Boys High school.
“Oh I remember them. They’d come to our school to play rugby. They were massive. Giants. Like the size of that pillar.” You point at a pillar in the middle of the room and that hyperbole might make them chuckle. Which is a great thing. Nothing like laughter to thaw them out. He’d probably ask, “Which school did you go to?”
You’d say, “Maseno School. So yeah, your boys were so massive. They looked like they went to the village and picked a couple of 35-year-old farmers and told them, “tutawafundisheko kuchesa Rugby mukikupali kufunja mifupa.”
He’s now chuckling. “I’m sure it didn’t happen that way.”
“Of course not. It’s just that your drinking chocolate reminds me of high school. We’d have what’s called Cold Power, at night. That’s cold water mixed with drinking chocolate. Tasted horrible but then at 16 years you can put anything in your body.”
“Oh yeah. We did that too,” he’d remark. “Is that why you don’t drink chocolate?”
“No, I just don’t like it”
“You also don’t like milk, I see.” He points at your black tea with his chin.
“Milk makes my stomach rumble,” you say trying not to sound like a bourgeois brat, “speaking of which, have you seen a cow give birth?”
He’ll laugh loudly and say, “No, not particularly.”
“When you say not particularly, does that imply you might have seen it once but you forgot or you haven’t at all?”
Still laughing and perhaps now questioning why the hell he agreed to the interview, “I haven’t. I didn’t grow up on the farm, unfortunately. Have you?”
Then you’d say with a playful smile, “No. Not particularly.” He laughs. He’s ready now. He’s been seduced.
That kind of thing.
Anyway, back at Serena. We found a common topic to chat about. Polite conversation, like two good taxpayers. Then I leaned over my phone and said, “There is only one rule. If it’s off the record, you have to tell me it’s off the record.” He nodded. I put on the voice recorder and we had an hour’s conversation. I don’t remember the conversation or anything about him that jumped out. He was mostly very middle of the road, giving middle-of-the-road responses, not ruffling or creasing. It was an unmemorable interview at best. Something that meets the deadline. I wrote the story and met my deadline and went about my life. Guava season came. Birds rejoiced.
Two weeks after the story ran I got an email from a reader. It said, in short, “Biko, the man you interviewed murdered his wife.” I read this email from my phone and said loudly at my phone, “WHAT?!” No way, I then whispered. I had Googled him, there was no mention of a murder. When did he murder his wife? Was it after the interview? Was it before the interview? He didn’t mention a dead wife. He mentioned a much older daughter and a very young child. And a wife. I emailed this person and said, “Are you sure about what you are saying?” So they sent me a link a few hours later. Then I realised what had happened. Let’s say you are called Kipkorir Onyonka Onyango Macharia but because you don’t want your name to draw attention you introduce yourself as Macharia Onyonka. So when someone Googles Macharia Onyonka they find bee farmers, printing businessmen and a picture of a guy in an oversized suit who sells real estate. That’s what he did. His business was legit. His names were legit, only they were in the wrong order.
I WhatsApp him. I said, Boss, do you have a court case? He said he did. I said, what’s the case about? He said murder. I said, murder? WHAT?! Who did you murder? He said, I didn’t murder anyone, it was manslaughter. You never thought I needed to know this during the interview??? I asked with ten question marks. He said, it just never came up. Never came up? Never came up?? My goodness. As if this was some small incident when he got a flat tire one morning when he was late for a big interview. Or the time he had cerebral malaria. Someone died. In your hands! I was shaken. This was way pre-Covid and I couldn’t believe I had shaken the hand of a murderer. The same hands that had strangled his wife to death. I was horrified.
I asked him; Did I not ask you about the wide age gap between your two children (22 and 3)? Was that not the time to mention that they had different mothers, one who you had killed accidentally? Oh, I was astonished. And cross. Apoplectic even. It seemed surreal. I told my editor, The guy we interviewed murdered someone. I sent her the article from Kenyalaw.org. She wrote back and said, ‘Holy shit. This guy is a psycho.’
The next day, after I had calmed down, I texted him and asked how this accident happened. At first he was vague, I pressed for details, he said they were having a physical domestic fight, he wound an iron box cord around her neck and she died. I had now read up on the case. This horror happened at night and in the morning he presented himself to the police station to report the case. The cops found the body in the store. I said, That’s not an accident. But why didn’t you tell me? He said he was sorry. Why would you agree to an interview when you have a pending murder case in court? He repeated that he was sorry. Then after a year or so, I texted him and asked him how his case was going and he said he was in Kamiti Maximum Prison, a guest of the Government of Kenya. The judge had thrown the book at him.
Every time I think of these people I think of how normal they all looked. They looked like me and you. Every time I tell someone these stories I marvel at the fact that we are not one person. We are many things. An empathetic and caring head nurse could be a despicable wife. A charismatic leader who gives rousing speeches could be a terrible husband and father who shouts at and demeans his wife and kids. A good boyfriend who pulls chairs and drapes a coat over his woman’s shivering shoulders in public could be an emotionally abusive one in private. Within heroes roam villainy. Great evil lurks in the hearts of good men. Bad men are capable of great acts of kindness. It’s a Rubik’s cube, an oxymoron, a paradox. You never know what or who you are dealing with. It’s like that movie, whatchamacallit, The Usual Suspects.
On a very nippy morning two weeks ago, a businessman friend of mine and I were huddled over our hot cups of coffee, when a man stopped at our table to say hello to him; a diminutive fellow dressed very conservatively in a drab coat, the kind of man that looks like he was bullied in high school, read a lot and preferred to stay alone. He seemed very pleasant, curious and showed no sign of hubris. I liked his disposition. I did. As he left, he placed a hand over his heart, bowed a little and said, “So nice to meet you, my brother.” After he was gone I asked my friend if the fellow was in the same biashara as he is and my friend said, “That man is with an anti-terrorism unit. He’s extremely ruthless. His job sometimes involves killing men.”
I felt my earlobes shiver.
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