His landlord was a wizened 6’5” bushy-maned white guy with three dogs the size (and faces) of hippos. He rented his small wooden house built at the corner of his big compound in that strange area that isn’t Langata or Karen. It was initially a tool shade of sorts but he turned it into a one bedroom house, built American style with an open kitchen and wooden floorboards that sighed when you walked over them. He liked that on any given day the house trapped a lot of light and it smelled of a forest starved of rain. And the fact that he didn’t need curtains because there was never anyone around but him and the landlord at any given time. The landlord – retired and widowed – lived alone with his dogs. He hardly saw him, which worked perfectly for him. He paid 25,000 bob rent for this privacy, a real deal. He lived there for four years. “The old man didn’t seem to need the money.” He tells me on Zoom. His phone is placed against something I suspect is a verandah pillar. Half his face isn’t in the frame. He’s smoking a cigarette.
He liked the quiet of the place. How the trees rose all around the compound like silent sentries. The garden that never turned brown even during the hottest of seasons. The peaceful nights when he’d only hear the sound of the landlord’s music, strange folksy music that he later told him was 70’s pop – Bob Dylan, Bee Gees, Carpenters and that kind of crowd. They both hated noise and the other thing they had in common was that they smoked weed, in their respective houses, and it’s that fact – he now says – that perhaps saved his life.
He worked in the hospitality industry by day and ran a small suppliers business by night. You know, like everybody else in this city, juggling balls in the air to connect the dots of life. He ran the business with his childhood friend. Thick as thieves, they were. Unlike him who was quiet and reserved, his childhood friend was loud, charming and full of sugar and spice. He was good with logistics so he did the day to day running of the business – meeting people and shaking the bushes. He was good with numbers, so he took care of the books. His major in uni was finance – he understood numbers. He loved numbers. He knew all the car number plates of everybody he knew by heart. All he had to do was look at it once then it would never leave his head. He understood complex financial trends. He subscribed to the Financial Times. He read the Business Daily – and that’s how he reached out to me. He’d never read my blog. Never heard of it. He isn’t on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. He only just joined Whatsapp recently on the insistence of his girlfriend. He was in love and was/is engaged to marry a girl, the said girlfriend. She’s three years older than him and works in the financial sector, his “dream job”, he says. He likes her because she understands the understated seduction of numbers and figures, but also because when she stands tall in high heels she looks indomitable and illicit with her bootleg ass.
Often he’s the kind of guy who’d forget his phone at home and spend the whole day without one and not feel bereft. He doesn’t need external stimulation. He – 32-years of age – was happily living his sequestered life in that cabin house in that no-man’s land with a white man who seemed to like humans more than dogs. (Who can blame him?). His life was perfect.
Until it wasn’t.
“In the past two years we would make a profit of about 250K every month, sometimes more,” he says. “Decent enough to sustain a lifestyle and also take care of extended family.” He looks away at something in the distance – maybe a dog or chicken. I study his side profile; he looks ragged in a shirt that also seems to be his pyjamas. His eyes are white as cotton and framed with long girlish eyebrows. I guess he’s the kind of man women call “cute.” I’m surprised he’s not on Instagram looking moody and mysterious, squinting into the camera scandalously, evoking a range of emotions, all sandwiched with libidinousness. “My mom fell sick at some point,” he continues, “and [she] was not able to continue doing the farming thing, so I was taking care of her as I have been others.”
His business model was supported by hotels. To mean, their business – unbeknownst to them – was sitting on quick sand. This is because in Asia someone ate a bat. Or a rat. And then got onto a plane and then got a sore throat, a fever, coughs and started feeling like they were drowning then died. Covid started unraveling like a bad horror movie.
“I grew up in the village. I can look at the sky and tell you when it’s going to rain. I’m a clouds guy.” He grins. “ When I heard of Covid, I thought naah, that’s like Bird Flu, or Mad Cow, not really our problem, it will blow over. It was rain that wasn’t going to come down here in Africa.”
But then he had misread the clouds because it started drizzling and it wouldn’t stop. Shops started closing. Things tumbled. We masked everywhere. The future looked grey and hazy and wet.
The hotel industry started getting an immediate pounding and because he worked for a small independent hotel, it soon balked and closed its doors by the end April. He was sent home on half pay. Then, not long after, he received a letter of termination. “At least I had the business going.” He says. Then he didn’t have the business going. “Of course soon our business started floundering because nobody was going to hotels or restaurants anymore and nobody was paying us. So that also ground to a halt. So in a short span of a few months, I had no job and no source of income. But I wasn’t panicking because I had savings and I knew this would blow over by July, the very latest.”
“You have to understand one thing, Steve.” He continues.
“Biko.” I correct him.
“Oh yeah, Biko, sorry. I don’t know, in my head you are a Steve,” he chuckles and draws a puff of cigarette then pauses as he recollects his thoughts. “I grew up in the village and only came to Nairobi for university. All my life I have only had two purposes as a man; to be the man my father wasn’t. And to make money. Lots of it.” He draws his cigarette again and leans away from the camera to crash the butt, I presume. “My father drank a lot. He also took to beating up my mother, at some point. When he was not drinking he was a very chill fellow, hardly said a word. But once he drank he was someone else.”
This one time he was back home on school holiday. He was in form three; already deep voiced, thick-necked and hairy on his arms. His father was having a go at his mother and he grabbed him from the back, locking his arms around him, his arms useless. He had been weakened by alcoholism so it didn’t take much effort to subdue him in this position.
“As I held him tight, he said, ‘let go of my hand- or I will curse you.’ He says. “We are Tugens, and in my culture, like most African cultures, you can’t harm your father. It draws a curse. My mother was scared – she pleaded with me to let him go. So I let him go and he turned and spat at my feet and my mother was inconsolable. He died the following year of alcohol poisoning. Died by the roadside, in a ditch, no shoes, like a homeless dog.”
“The curse bothered you?”
“I don’t think you can curse someone when you are drunk.” He says. “I also don’t think one should curse you when you are trying to save your mother from a beating and if that’s the case then God is unfair and I want no part of it.” He pauses as if to briefly absorb what he has just said. “So, anyway, I always knew I didn’t want to turn into him so I never touched alcohol.”
“You preferred weed.”
“Yeah, but weed is a herb. It’s medicinal.”
“Yeah, like piriton – it makes me sleepy asf.” I tell him.
“Yeah?” He’s laughing heartily, probably for the first time.
“Yeah. I can sleep anywhere without warning, it’s not for me.”
“Maybe it’s the strain of weed you have smoked or maybe your system just rejects it.” He puts a match stick in his mouth like a carpenter does before he lies to you. “So, yeah. I didn’t want to be him. He was deadbeat, my mom did everything, you know, fees and all. I wanted to work hard, get a job, start a business and make so much money. Steve I wanted to make so much money, I’d not finish it in this lifetime. There was no deeper thinking around this ambition, just that the end objective was money.”
“Because you grew up humble?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. But I figured having money was better than not. I also thought that it would make me respectable to my peers and my spouse when I got married. It’s easier to be a good husband and father if you have money. So I put a lot of value on that.”
“You are speaking in the past tense,” I say, “does that mean you still think the same?”
He chuckles and pauses. “Maybe I still do.”
He found himself jobless and with no income, marooned in the wooden house. He’d wake up and laze about in bed. He didn’t own any television set (‘lazy box” he calls it) and so he’d fill his day reading, or skipping rope in the evening. Often, the girlfriend would come and cook or bring food or fuss about the state of the house that she likened to something an animal lived in. Then they’d sit up on the front staircase at night, talking about her job while she drank wine and him smoking weed. “Because she worked for a global company, she got busier while I got less busy. I was also not great company, to be honest, I withdrew into myself or made snide remarks about her job. I was bitter and insecure about my future with her and about my life. Remember that everything I defined myself with had been taken and honestly I felt like a loser.” He says. His phone falls because suddenly I’m looking at a rafter and a bit of a blue sky. He repositions it. Now I can see his bushy chin.
“Sorry. What was I saying? Yeah. I didn’t grow up in an environment that appreciated mental health or even recognised it. If you were unhappy, you got over it. It was that simple. But my unhappiness seemed to pile on top of unhappiness each day and one day I couldn’t just be bothered to get out of bed. I’d stay awake the whole night, moving about the house like an animal on heat, feeling very despondent most times and very anxious. Then in the small hours of the morning I’d get into bed and only snatch an hour or so of sleep at 6am. When I woke up, I’d simply stay in bed and light up a blunt then smoke and think and think and think. I stopped exercising or eating properly. I don’t have many people I can call friends. I was never the guy to make friends. I have – had – colleagues and guys I went to school with but that’s who they are, beyond those structures I have never known how to nurture such relationships. Also, if you don’t drink in Nairobi, you don’t make many friends. My childhood -” He stops to light a fag with a matchstick. “My childhood friend, the one I was telling you about? He had put all his eggs in our basket and those eggs were now all broken. He had his own set of problems, so he also kept away.” Pauses. “At least I wasn’t married like him. I can’t imagine being broke and jobless in a house with a wife that leaves to go to work.” He sighs and blows smoke away from the screen. I sigh and also pretend to blow smoke. I’m definitely coming back as a smoker who lights his cigarettes with matchsticks. People who use lighters are douches. Strike a match, boy!
His relationship got strained. “I thought she [the chick] was judging me. I thought she was thinking less of me. I thought she looked at me as a failure.” He clears his throat. I can see smoke rising up the screen. It looks like his pants are burning. “I became paranoid. I started ignoring her. Sort of. She would call and I wouldn’t pick because half the time I didn’t know that my phone was on silent and the other half, I was lying on the wooden floor in the living room and my phone was in the bedroom. Also, I didn’t want to talk to people. We started fighting more and she started keeping away more and I sunk lower into my unhappiness every day, man. I felt like I had no reason to live if I was going to end up poor.”
The suicide fantasies started creeping in slowly. He once saw in a movie someone stuck a pipe in the exhaust and died in the car with a smile on their face. It seemed effortless and painless. He then romanced the idea of jumping before a fast moving track. “That seemed a bit messy. Especially if you didn’t die immediately, with many broken bones and a punctured lung sucking in air. “Plus, my mom would be traumatised if she came to identify my body.” He thought of rat poison. And of jumping off a high building. Or slitting his femoral vein and lying on the bathroom floor. Six million ways to die, choose one. “The more I smoked weed in my state, the more the idea of death became something practical. It got to a point I started dreaming of suicide almost daily. Daily, you guy! I knew I was going to do it. I started setting timelines like it was a business deal. One day I bought a hosepipe in a hardware shop downtown. I was going to do it that night.”
He tidied up the room. He folded his clothes, put the dirty ones in a basket his girlfriend had bought. He did the dishes, dried them and kept them away. “I was going to wait until I had spoken with my fiance and said goodnight then I’d smoke my last joint and go to the car. I even made sure there was enough ngata in the car.” [Ngata is fuel]. He stops to retrieve a speck from the tip of his tongue, inspects it closely and wipes it away on his shirt that could also be a pyjama.
That D-night, at around eight in the night he heard a knock on his door and a gruff voice calling his name. He also heard the whining sound of dogs and their claws on the wooden strip that acted as a verandah. He suspected it wasn’t Jesus. He opened the door a crack, and standing there was his landlord. He looked larger than normal. He looked like an explorer who had just come down a mountain. His dogs stared at him as if they knew his troubled heart. Dogs can smell pain.
“This guy never came to my house. I can count the number of times he has come to my house the number of years I have lived there. Suddenly there he was.” He says making a face.
“Hey,” the landlord grunted. He wasn’t one to open his mouth large enough for words to come out. So you either understood or you didn’t.
“You have a smoke? I’m out.”
“Cigarettes?” He asked piously to which the landlord snorted, a deep rumbling snort like a reluctant thunder. Problem was he only had one joint. The last joint. Now this man wanted it.
They sat on his verandah and smoked it while he talked about his life as a young man, his choices and all good dogs that he had lost in his life. “He said something that took me aback.” he says. “ He said, ‘if I had my life again at your age, I’d live like I was dying the next day.’ I don’t think he said it as a regret but just a statement between two folks who were sharing a joint. So I told him that I had lost my job and my business and quite possibly I would soon lose my fiance. He turned and stared at me and said, ‘ this is the time to sit still then, to reflect. It’s a good time to start fresh. Go away, answers will come to you – they always do when you step away. A new dawn awaits you but you can only appreciate it with a clear head.’ Biko, it was like something from a movie. Later when I told my mother this story, she cried. Then she said that sometimes angels are sent on earth but sometimes they can live for years before they fulfil their purpose. My landlord, she believed, was the angel sent to save me.”
Anyway, he didn’t kill himself that night. They smoked the blunt until they couldn’t hold it anymore. The next day he packed a bag and drove to the village to be with his mother, where he’s Zooming from. “You can’t imagine how I had planned my next ten years. I drive a 15 year old car – I was going to upgrade my car to something fancier – I was planning on quitting employment by the time I clock 35 to put all my eggs in this one basket of ours. Then get married in a wedding of 300 people; 50 mine and the rest hers. Then work my ass off for five more years and by 40 I would be a landlord, owning some houses – if all factors remained constant.” He scratches his beard vigorously. “Now, I’m here and I feel like I’m about to start from scratch again. But not now, maybe in 2021. This year is gone in smoke, but at least I’m alive.”
He then – on my request – shows me their compound, a place called Tiaty. He built his mom a charming little stone house with a green roof. He showed me a cow munching some grass in the compound.
“What’s that cow’s name?” I asked foolishly.
“Wait, I ask her.” He said and we really laughed at that.
This year has been rubbish. How has it affected you? What have you learnt? How has it changed your life? Do you have a great 2020 story you want to share? Hit me up, [email protected]