Sometimes the Lotto guys ask me to interview someone who has won big. It’s very simple. They send me a number, I call the person up, I do a quick phone interview then I send an invoice. It’s a hassle free gig. Touch and go. The money isn’t too bad either for the amount of work. And everybody goes home happy, right?
Two weeks ago a lady called Beth Wairimu won the Sh10 Million powerdraw. I received an email with her phone number. “Call her up, get her story,” the instructions from Lotto read. Very James Bond-sque. Very covert. I liked. I felt like we were doing something that was going to change how the world operates. I thought they’d send a rider over with a gadget that could do many covert things. Oh well.
Anyway, I called Wairimu up. You know those people who pick up their calls and scream, “Ni nani?” Well, that was Wairimu. But if you have 10-meter in your bank account you can pick up your calls any way you damn well please. It quickly became apparent that I wasn’t going to interview this lady in English. There was only a slight problem, my Swahili is shit. I truly struggle with it. I normally have to construct the sentence in my head before I speak it out and even when I have said it, it always sounds grammatically off. Kiti yangu? Kiti changu?
“Wairimu,” I told her, “naitwa Biko.”
“Ati nani?” She screeched.
“ Biko. B-I-K-O!”
“Oh, sema?”[By the way, you have to read her part in a screechy high pitched voice. I don’t know why people scream on the phone.]
“Nilipatiwa namba yako na Fred, nataka niku interview kuhusu lile shindo lako ya milioni kumi…” [Lile shindo, got that? I was going all Swaleh on her].
“Acha nikupigie…” She said suddenly and hung up. Since I was calling her outside our office parking lot, I had no choice but to hang around there and wait for the call back. She didn’t call back. I called her in the afternoon.
“Sasa Wairimu, ni Biko,”
“Biko, tuliongea asubuhi, ulisema utani-.”
“Sema!” She screamed.
“Sasa nilikuwa nataka nikuuliza maswali nyeti kuhusu lile shindo lako la [ya?] 10million…” [I decided at night that I might as well use the word “nyeti” when I have the chance because it makes me sound like I know what I’m talking about. Plus when else will I ever get a chance in my life to use that word?]
“Ati unanipiga kutoka wapi?”
“Nani alikuambia nime shinda pesa?”
“Uhm, watu wa Lotto…”
“Uliongea na Debrah?”
“Hapana, simjui Debrah…”
“Uliongea na nani?”
“Nilipata email tu, kutoka kwa watu wa Lotto.” [I was tempted to say “email nyeti” but that would be overboard, no?]
There was silence, but a different kind of silence. This one was filled with suspicion. There are silences that are filled with awe. Like when someone says something profound and you pause for a second to digest it. That’s an awe-filled silence. There is also silence filled with cynicism. Like when you pick your car keys on a Sunday and the madam asks you where you are going and you say to the carwash and she doesn’t say anything. That’s a silence filled with cynicism. Then there is this one that is filled with suspicion.
I then I figured what was happening. She thought I was a con artist, trying to get a hold of her money. So I moved to assure her.
“Bett, skiza, mimi naandikia watu wa Lotto, mimi ni mwandishi..”
“Hapana, hii naandikia internet. Kwenye blog!”
“Ati unaandikia blog, hiyo ni nini?”[Oh she got me. What do you call a blog in swa? Blogi?]
“Hiyo iko kwenye internet, uhm, kwenye mtandao!” [Look at me, using big swa words. Is mtandao really internet?]
“Ahh, mimi sijui hiyo, Acha nikupigie.” Then she hung up. I wanted to eat all the buttons on my shirt, she kept hanging up on me. Made me believe that perhaps she thought I was trying to trace her location like they do in the movies so she could only stay on phone for under a minute.
So I call Fred, who got this gig and I told him that the story wasn’t going anywhere. The lady thinks I’m a thug. Then I see her calling back and I tell Fred, “acha I call you back, she is calling me back.”
“Sasa ulikuwa unataka kujua nini?”
“Una fanya kazi gani?”
“Niko na duka hapa Umoja.”
“Uko na watoto?”
“Mtoto mmoja, ako miaka sita.”
“Ahh, bwana anafanya kazi gani?”
“Sina bwana.” She said emphatically. Like it was beneath her to have a husband. Like people with husbands were weak. She said it like she was over that husband shit many years ago.
“Oh, ma’bwana ni shida tupu,” I said lightly, trying to create a rapport. It was us against husbands. We were outliers!
She ignored that quip because for all she cared I could be calling her from Kamiti.
“Ulicheza mara ngapi kushinda hii pesa?”
“Mara mbili, na shilingi hamsini, kwa radio Maisha…ebu ngoja,” she said and then I heard the phone being placed on a hard surface and then another conversation ensued between her and someone buying a cigarette. His voice, faint as it may be, sounded scratched and rough, a voice full of years of smoke. He coughed a few times. There is rustling. Then a little laughter- hers. She was telling him about bringing more trays, which made him a supplier. I stood there with my phone to my face and I waited and listened to a conversation about eggs, which is not so bad because I love eggs, except poached eggs because I’m against poaching of any kind. Finally she came back on phone but her tone has changed. She said, “Nikubaya siku hizi, sijui wewe ni nani…”
I’m thinking, the hell? I just told you I’m Biko. I write for mtandao. I’m one of the good guys. What did that smoker tell you??
“Mimi sio mtu mbaya, mimi ni mwandishi -”
“Aii, ni kubaya haki…acha nikupigie…”
She never called back. I had only four pieces of information: She is a single mother. She has a shop in Umoja. She played Lotto on Radio Maisha. She calls me Niko.
Not much for a story.
But you can’t blame her. This our Nairobi is full of con jobs. There are people who will call you from “Kenya Power” and try con you. There are people who will pose as people looking for suppliers and write you a fake banker’s cheque. (Happened to Fred). When you are done with these characters you have to contend with people from Kamiti shaking your phone for loose change. Don’t even get me started on those land cons. Or mechs who change a kidney for parts. Or unscrupulous car brokers. The city of full of hustlers who want to eat your lunch.
So if you won 10 mil, of course there will be chaps who will want in. Or maybe move in with you. People might even want to be your husband…until the money runs out. Or chaps who will tell you they can double that money if you just place it right here, under this stack of newspaper and you wear this blindfold and sing “macarena” 3 times really fast. When you open your eyes, you won’t even find the dust that was settled under the stack of newspapers.
Suffice it to say, Wairimu’s story will never be told. And if it is, it will be one sentence. “She told the mwandishi to kiss her ass.”