I get in bed early – 8:30pm. With a book. Kindle, rather. Nothing like a good book in bed; It never has a headache. It’s been hot lately so only psychopaths and people who hate puppies sleep in clothes. These are the same people who ask, “What if a fire breaks out in the middle of the night?” A fire. In the middle of the night. Of course. Of course. That’s definitely a major cause for alarm when you live in a grass thatched house. I’m re-reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s a somber book, a continuum of impending doom. A man and his son are the only ones left in a post apocalyptic world and they are moving to the coast. I loved it years ago and I love it now even though I know how it all ends. Here is a quote from the book.
“By day the burnished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.”
Sometimes when I read a lovely sentence like that, I don’t want to read anymore. I want to put away my kindle and curl up with that sentence in the darkness, hold it against my chest like a lover and breathe it deep into me, so that it stays there, mine, with the air in my lungs. And if I never rise again, at dawn, I want to go with that lovely sentence in my body.
Last week, in bed, I heard a car reverse into a parking lot. It reversed forever. A door then closed with a solid thud. It was a heavy door. A lady on the phone, her voice sharp against the quiet of the night. The sound of her heels floated above her voice, which eventually faded off as she moved further away. A dog barked in the distance. Not at her. It just barked. I went back to Cormac. After an hour or so of reading, I got tired and sleep seemed like a train that wasn’t coming soon. I had an urge to leave the house. Get some air. Roam the night. Meet strangers and talk to them without asking their names. Sit somewhere that isn’t a bar and watch the night and its pawn that are humans. Maybe try on someone’s hat. There is something about trying on someone’s hat – you get into their head space. I wanted to be adopted by the children of the night. So I hailed an Uber: three minutes away. I wore a tracksuit. Carried my Press Card and ID. No cash.
The Uber guy was young and trendy looking. He had on skinny distressed jeans and denim jacket, faded around the pockets. He didn’t look a day older than 21. “Kenyatta Hospital?” he said, starting the trip on his App. “Yeah,” I said, adjusting my seat. We eased off, down a long empty street, past houses with warm glowing lights burning in bedrooms. A shirtless Chinese smoked from a balcony.
“How’s it working at night?” I asked him.
“It’s better for me. I go to school during the day.”
“Ahh, what are you studying?”
I looked at him. “Is there anything else people study in USIU apart from international relations?”
That made him really laugh out loud. I didn’t even expect it. You know those people who just burst out laughing so loudly without a warning? Reminded me a little of the Joker movie.
There were not many cars at that time of night. The traffic lights blinked constantly. Matatus rushed home. At Yaya Center he said, “Can we use Ngong Road, it’s much faster.”
“I’m in no hurry. You can use the bypass if you want.”
He turned to look at me. “Bypass?”
“It was a joke,” I said.
He grinned. He had dimples. Or dimple, I couldn’t see his right cheek.
“How does this work?” I asked him, because I’m that annoying guy who can’t shut up in an Uber. “Is this your car? Are you employed?”
“My dad gave me this car to use so that I can pay half of my fees and upkeep,” he said. “He believes you have to work for everything you get.”
“So, will you have to return this car one day?”
He chuckled and said preposterously. “No! He gifted it to me.”
“Ahh.” I nodded. “How old is your dad?”
“He’s old.” We turned into Ngong Road from Ring Road. “He’s 52.”
“That’s not old,” I said in defense of all men who are 52.
“It is. Kwani how old are you?”
“You don’t look it.” He turned to look at me. “As in you have children and things?”
“Yeah, I have children and things.” I said, wondering if by “things” he meant things like my desk plant. And grass. I also have grass. Or patches of it. “Here, this is my son.” I showed him a picture of Kim from my phone. He took his eyes off the road momentarily to look.
“Looks just like you.” He smiled.
“He does, doesn’t he?” I said proudly. “And this is a picture of my daughter and me.” It’s a picture that Kim had taken of us standing against a hedge. Tamms is shy, she’s not holding my waist properly, sort of just placing her hand there, self-consciously. On the bottom right of the picture is Kim’s thumb or finger, blocking a bit of the photo. You’d imagine that a six year old born in the era of social media would take a decent picture without putting his thumb in the photo. “She’s 12 now.”
“She’s beautiful,” he said.
“Yeah, of course. She takes after me.”
He laughed again, his surprising laugh, but this time I was ready for his laugh because I laughed too.
He drove with one hand, like a villain in a crime movie. You could tell he thought he was very grown up, very cool even, driving an Uber at night, doing international relations, making his money, paying his own way, being responsible and shit. I thought he was cool. With his window cracked halfway, he squinted against the breeze as he drove. He had a long thin face, an open face of a 20 year old, trusting of the world, courageous even, a heart of the Internet, constantly searching for an open Wi-Fi. His very youthful presence filled the car with hope. I wondered what dreams he nursed, this guy chasing international relations. I wondered about his other relations.
We stopped briefly at the city mortuary roundabout. He looked right, at the oncoming vehicles from Mbagathi Road, then went round the roundabout, getting out on the second exit. We drove down Ngong Road, the valley of two contrasts. To our left was Nairobi Hospital. Somewhere in there, a CEO was watching TV in the presidential suite, recovering from fatigue. He probably had freshly squeezed juice and just finished eating a dinner of risotto, maybe even fresh lobsters airlifted from Lamu just that evening. In there, they only spoke one language; money. To the right was Kenyatta National Hospital, weary looking even from the outside, with its infamous reputation and it’s grit and the men and women who toil there in dismal conditions and the corruption, hope, passion that abound. The road literally separates the haves and have-nots, life and death, hope and despair. Here, Ngong Road is the Rubicon.
“So what do you want to do with your degree?” I asked him as we drove past Nairobi Area Traffic Police Headquarters.
“Maybe work in a foreign office.”
“Like an ambassador?”
“So you are good with people.”
“Yeah. I have been told.”
We got to Kenyatta and he eased the car to a stop in the now deserted parking lot.
“Are you unwell, or are you going to visit a patient?” He asked as I unclipped my seat belt.
“No,” I said. “I couldn’t sleep, so I’m just going to hang out here for a bit.”
He gave me that puzzled look. I could tell he wanted to ask more questions, but I didn’t give him a chance. I already had one foot out the door. “Be safe and good luck with school,” I said. “And stay away from weed and girls who don’t wear bras.” I closed the door, imprisoning his laughter in the car.
At one of the tuck shops adjacent to the parking lot, I bought a bottle of mineral water and zipped up my jumper against the cold. A few men and women sat on stools outside the kiosks wearing heavy jackets. They looked like they came from shags to see loved ones and they intended to spend the night there. From their sweaters, I could guess they came from Kisii. If you have been to Kisii you know the kind of sweaters they wear down there, it’s different from the sweaters in say Nyeri or Kiambu. Luos generally don’t wear sweaters, just jackets. Unless they are from Koru. The long pathway to Casualty was deserted, barely lit. I texted a doctor friend of mine: “Are you working today?” She said she wasn’t working. “Are you at KNH?” I said, yeah, “I’m going to Casualty to see what’s happening there.” She wasn’t far, she said she’d pass by.
Casualty wasn’t busy. At least not as busy as I imagined it would be. I didn’t know what I was expecting to see. Opposite the entrance, under some palm trees, a few ambulances waited. I leaned against a pillar and watched as a man in his 50s was helped out of a saloon car. A heavy man. Two men struggled with him. His shirt was unbuttoned. He was barely conscious. Someone’s father. Or grandfather. They lifted him and tried to heave him onto the stretcher but the stretcher started rolling away, he started slipping so I ran and held it firmly. They finally heaved him on top. His pants – like his shirt – were unbuttoned. He had adult diapers on. A plastic bag full of body waste dangled against the stretcher. Sickness comes with great indignity.
I resumed my position by the pillar. Ambulances came one by one, sirens off, strobe lights blinking red. They came from Kitui and Naivasha and Narok and Nakuru, bringing suffering and sickness, men and women with broken bodies, maybe even broken souls. And when the doors opened, I could see them lying there. I had a front row seat at this theater of life and death. All those people who are brought there to live or to die. Ambulance attendants wearing gloves and passive faces stretched them out. As they pushed them past me, I tried to look at their faces. One person, a man, stared back at me and we locked eyes as he wheeled by. I couldn’t read the expression on his face, but it wasn’t fear. He looked at me like one would look at a boiling kettle; with great disinterest.
The ambulances kept pulling over. I could never guess what I would see once the doors opened. From one, a mother came out holding a small toddler in her arms, swathed in white. An attendant walked next to her carrying a small oxygen tank that ran to this baby’s face. She had been crying, the mother. She was in a leso and sandals. She had left in a hurry. She was accompanied by what looked like another female relative, carrying purses and a small bag.
Ironically, there was no sense of urgency at the Accidents and Emergency center. This was not the TV show, ER, where bearded model-looking doctors run out with stethoscopes hanging from their necks asking, “What we got here?” There was no high drama. Nobody came with a knife lodged in their buttocks. I would have loved to see that.
Everything seemed so chill. So unhurried. So slow. Almost boring. Through an open window, I could see the room that received these patients. A young doctor wearing a face mask sat at a desk taking notes. At a high observation table, a nurse was attending to a woman with eyes closed. The small room was busy. That doctor is the one who decides how critical you are and what needs to be done and how urgently. When he came out to hand some papers to a guy in a car, I was surprised at how young he looked – late 20s or early 30s. He had on skinny blue jeans and black suede boots underneath the white coat. He was very un-doctor like. I liked how he seemed so unperturbed, so calm, like he was watering vegetables. I bet his heartbeat was at 65 beats per minute. The image I have of ER doctors is bearded chaps, stooped with knowledge, wearing wire-rimmed spectacles and mumbling under their breath. This guy? Oh, he looked like he could remove his white coat and ten minutes later he could be at Onyx Lounge ordering shots. For now, the graveyard shift was his, the decider – by a great degree – of who lives longer or who dies on a stretcher.
I strolled inside and roamed around. A few patients were lying on stretchers waiting to be attended to by the doctor in black suede boots. I walked past scores of people sitting waiting. Behind glass windows, hospital staff wrote from desks, or looked at files. I went down a corridor; more people lying on stretchers; one with a bandaged stump where his hand used to be. A Maasai-looking in traditional garb guy lay sleeping with a bloodied face. A woman with one shoe coughed constantly from another stretcher. I saw what looked like a street boy lying still on another stretcher, his black pants soiled, his face bloodied.
There is a feedback register book by the customer care desk. Hard cover. Bound. I stood there and read it. Complaints and compliments. Page after page. People thanking nurses. People complaining about service. People saying they are surprised at how efficient the hospital is. People saying what horrible experience they had. Some write in big handwriting you can read from the moon, others barely legible. They use their two names. Almost all left their phone numbers. I was fascinated; they took time to say something. And very surprisingly, on every page a doctor signed against the comment and wrote, “noted,” complete with the date. There were signatures from Dr Amina and more recent ones from a doctor “Y. Oduor,” who I later realized is my cousin. I didn’t recognize her name because I didn’t expect it there, I don’t see her as a doctor. And secondly, we just call her “Night” for Yuanita. I called her and said, “I saw your name in a book at KNH, you guys actually read that shit?” She said, “Yeah, we also have to call if you leave a number and write a report.”
“No, shit,” I said.
“Oh you thought it was for show?”
“Of course. Yeah,” I said.
My doctor friend found me with my nose in that book, leafing through it, reading comments. We walked up that forlorn winding staircase to the wards. I saw men with broken bones, their limbs weighted with weights. “They can lie like that for months,” she said. A naked man sponge bathed himself from his bed. He turned to look at us with a grin. A radio played vernacular songs. A man with his casted leg placed on a table, watched TV in a common room. His friend, with a cast on his arm, sat next to him. They looked like extras in a movie catching a break.
I saw children. On oxygen. Weakened by disease. Curled in their beds, poor little things, their bare bellies moving up and down as they breathed. “Most have TB,” my friend said. Some looked so small, the size of a big pumpkin. Their mothers shared the bed with them, looking dazed, exhausted, but still watching over them with as much love as only a mother can confer. Some children played outside a ward, because that was now home. I saw people recovering from burns and people healing from accidents, their heads bandaged, their torsos swathed with bandages. “That one,” I pointed at a man sitting forlornly on his bed, “looks like a mummy.” The night wore on and we roamed the corridors of this museum of human suffering. The hospital was surprisingly clean. There was no stench – apart from the orthopedic wards that smelled of rotting flesh and broken bones. There were no screams. I had half a mind to ask her to take me to the cancer ward for children, but my will was already too small, shrunk by the little I had seen. We passed outside ICU, which opened right into a corridor. It’s a no go zone but when a doctor opened the door to come out I caught a glimpse of a woman lying comatose. Machines beeped. At the desk, night nurses sat leafing through papers.
In the Uber home, the roads now pretty much ghost avenues, I thought about all those sick people, that man lying on his back, his legs hanging on weights like meat. He will be there for months until he heals, not moving, taking a shit in a bucket. And those children who are losing a great part of their childhood in their fight to live. Children playing in hospital corridors in the middle of the night. I thought of the woman in ICU and the boatful and boatful of prayers that her people must have been sending her way.
Then I was in bed, wide awake like I was plugged into an electric socket, not wanting to read a book, just lying there and thinking about those people I’d seen in those hospital beds and those people like us in our own beds and wondering what the hell we have done not to be in a hospital bed, wearing adult diapers. Why our children sleep in their beds with their teddy bears while others are on oxygen. I thought about those people in beds who also had calendars like us, calendars with activities, meetings, trips, reminders, PNL reviews, pitches, Q2 strategy…did they not “block a day and time,” like us? Their calendars are now as useful as a broken hoe. They are now on drips, their veins collapsing from injection, staring at a white ceiling everyday.
These people aren’t able to bask in the sun, open a tap, wait for a lift, unroll a yoga mat, cut an apple, look for the TV remote, validate a parking ticket, wait for a matatu, lace a running shoe, Shazam a song, get a neck massage after a shave, order a drink without ice or say, ‘are you going to eat that?” But we can. For now.