It’s About Survival

I’m staring outside my window. It’s open, but slightly. A mere crack. We’re in town. Not the affluent parts where men and ladies in suits rub shoulders. Where the air smells of pizza, croissants and Hugo boss. We’re in a part of town where work happens. Men in thread bare shirts and shiny cloth trousers. Only now the shine is gone. Like most of their dreams; so it’s just faded. A part of town where they make things happen. From a straight A KCSE certificate to a pair of tickets to Noah’s ark. They are the wheels of this economy. 

You want to know what the economy smells like? Sweat. Sweat and determination. And crumpled up fifty bob notes. Sometimes decomposing garbage. Because to get work done things need to get dirty. Most of these people probably have no idea why Chase Bank fell. Or if it will get back up. Some may have had accounts but they are not sleeping on the matter. Crying. They are making the next move. Lives depend on it. Theirs. Their children’s. Their spouses. Relatives. They don’t spend minutes on their phones catching up on social media. They don’t have the time. Tell them about a Twitter account and they’ll ask you if that’s the new product at Equity. And how large a loan it can get them. Then they’ll go back to selling the men in suits dreams.

On the streets everyone is in a hurry. There’s no time for leisure walks. Minds are on the next buck. Spinning stories of plots on the moon. They will promise you heaven and have pictures of the pearly gates to prove it. Everything in the chaos is calculated. Njoro received a call from Mutua and his reply was curt.

“Anataka saa ngapi? Mwambie tutatafuta”

And he is out there. Looking for it. Making connections. Making it happen.

Behind me a shut window is opened violently. There’s a slapping of hands and a lady screams.  It’s less than three seconds. A phone has been stolen. She’s hyperventilating. In shock. Even bad sex lasts longer. Some prick at the back proudly announces how he saw the thief from far. Knew it would happen. They always do that. Wait for it to happen to say they knew it would happen. And they wear it like a new jacket. Like it fits well. And looks good. Pricks. The rest of the passengers stuff their phones into their pockets. Double check if windows are locked. And sympathize with the lady. Silently. She’s weeping now.

I decided to take a walk to this part of town. The Wild West. Where the lawless thrive. Where the air is heavy with promise. Promise if you don’t haul ass you don’t eat. And I did. Just as soon as dusk calmly settled I took a breath. A deep one. Probably my last. Let the smell of pizza, croissants and Hugo boss fill my lungs before I ventured out.  I said goodbye to the tall buildings. The men and ladies in suits. The coffee shops. High end electronic stores. And the fashion boutiques.

When you’re inside a car. Or a mat. Things are different. You’re like a tourist. You feel safe. The vehicle offers some sort of comfort. A barrier between you and the world outside. Like a drive in the national park. Not a walk. A drive. But when you’re out and alone. Walking. It changes. You feel vulnerable. You’re suspicious of everything. The stares. The people brushing against you. The color of the buildings. Your shallow breaths. Even your own shadow. You know this is it. You and the streets. You’ve heard the stories. Especially the ones that end up with someone losing everything including weight.

The buildings blurred past as I walked. The pathways became slimmer. The people doubled. Then tripled. Then the triple doubled. Slight brushes suddenly became heavy shoulder hits. No time or room for apologies. No time to look back at the person either. I just kept walking. Quickly scanning around with my eyes. Hands deep into my pocket. My jacket zipper to my chin. Phone on silent. As the fancy shops gave way to stalls, as the swept streets turned into dumpsites, the smell hit my nostrils. Attacked it. Robbed it off its high handedness. Its camaraderie with lovely scents. Left it desolate and gasping. I was here.

I didn’t know what I’d find. I just went. And on these sides everything is at competition. The sounds of matatu horns blaring. The shuffling of worn out shoes. The banging of metal doors.  The grating of metal shutters as shops close for the day. The haggling for customers by desperate shop owners. The loud phonecalls by men and women as they are closing deals. The scratchy music coming out of tired speakers from electronic shops and dingy bars. The neon lights advertising phone charging and mobile money services. The chatter between people as they weave their way in between alleys and shops. It’s chaos. But it’s beautiful. You want to reach out and grab it by its collar and kiss it. And you imagine it would be a very rough. Very sloppy kiss. That it would also you and kick you in the groin right after. And you’d be on the ground sprawling. Gasping for air. Because it has no time for romance. Or love. Love doesn’t pay the bills.

I thought I was done. That I’ve had enough. Plus I was getting looks. No one likes a wanderer. I didn’t seem like one of their own. I looked new. New on these streets is bad. I probably smelt of fresh croissants. They’d want a bite off me. And darkness was slowly creeping in. Tiptoeing. Behind the last light of dusk. Afraid to rouse it. Stalking it. Like prey. Before going in for the kill. But what’s the point of leaving when it starting to get alive? I wanted to see where these men and women went to quench the dryness in their throats. What they talked about. With who. Did they have raucous laughs? Or gentle giggles. Slap each other on their backs or just exchange knowing glances.

As I walked back up the road I saw a sign. It had flashing LED lights and a neon sign that read VIP club and rooms upstairs. From a distance I could see guys walking in. Through a doorway that doubled up as a tuck shop. All kinds of guys. In thread bare shirts. Indians from the tailoring shops around in their white shirts, collars open and tucked into blue jeans. Guys with brown jackets. Jackets that had too many pockets. Probably a way to ward off pick pockets. A few women too walked in. Burly women. With large feet. And larger calves. And bad weaves. Loose blouses. Loose skirts that were tight around the waist. They looked rough around the edges. Probably hardware store owners. And they were loud as they entered. I walked in behind one. With a green loose skirt and a cream blouse that looked like it used to be white. And a perm. She didn’t have a weave this one. Just a perm.

Inside, there was no bulky guy to wand me in. The entrance was lonely. Looked like an un-replied message. Standing there waiting. Full of hope. Some guy in the tuck shop called me out. He didn’t know my name he just said “weh”. I turned to look. He had soft features. He looked like someone’s best friend. A blue Chelsea Jersey was what he wore. It was all I could see.

“Enda third floor” he said

I stood there looking at him. Before I could reply some guy walked to his shop and asked for a pack of cigarettes and the usual. I didn’t pay attention. I just walked up the stairs. Narrow stairs; that were as dark as Goth. They smelt irritably of pee. Drunken pee. So I was careful not to touch the walls. I kept going until I was on the third floor. Here the air was lighter. Not pungent. But it smelt of sin. Dirty sin. A  stubborn stain. Sin you’d have to soak your clothes in holy water for forty days and forty nights just to get clean. The music jutting out of the speakers was palatable. Like having to drink brackish tea from borehole water when you go upcountry. Plus the wiring was good. It didn’t scratch your eardrums and make you suicidal. It just churned out, snaked its way into your ears. Made some tea and relaxed.

I took a seat at the corner of the room. Next to some guy in a black jacket. The jacket seemed too big. It did not sit well on his shoulders. It looked ready to run at any moment. It was on edge. Like I should’ve been. A waitress walks up to me. Her tag reads Vane. I’m not sure if it’s English or an African name. She smiles. Brief. Like her red shirt. Asks what I’ll have. I say Faxe. Because it only comes in a can. It’s hard to preopen a can. I’m being cautious. Next to me is a man in a white shirt that has thin thread like stripes. He has rheumy eyes. And large eye bags. He probably gets stopped at mall entrances and asked “what’s in those bags.” What bags?” “Those ones. Under your eyes.” He has a glass that’s almost empty. A bottle, glass, with a red sticker on it lying flat on the table. Our eyes meet. I don’t nod. He doesn’t either. We just acknowledge each other’s presence with our eyes. Cold. Unflinching. If a fight broke out he’d have my back. I’d have his. That was our unspoken promise.

Vane is back. Drink on tray. And a straw. I don’t know what the straw is for. Maybe it’s the last straw. Couldn’t break the horses back so she’s going to throw it away. A useless straw. I’m tempted to ask. But she places it on the table with my drink. But not next to my drink but at an empty spot. She walks away. Doesn’t say a thing. Silence is the language here. I look around and notice a narrow corridor next to the bar. The bar here has more metal than Ugandan ore in Jinja. I can hear giggles and often see a skimpily dressed something peek out and scan the room. I open my drink. Ignore the glass it came with. It has streaks of dry water. Could be drugged. I drink straight from the can. I’m a man. Fuck tetanus.

Not far from me, near the corridor a lady. Medium height and petite build walks towards the tables. The man in a black jacket tries to grab her hand. She pushes it off, smiles and keeps walking. She pulls the chair opposite mine and sits down. The blonde weave on her hair looks tired. I thought it would let out a sigh, or neigh, when she sat. Roxanne. She said stretching her hand out. Mike I lie. I always use Mike when I lie about my name. Michael Njani. The Njani is an anagram. For Ninja. I don’t know why I chose Michael. Maybe because when I do bad things I want to feel like an Angel. And Gabriel is too unisex.

“I’ve not seen you here before” she says playing with the straw.

“I haven’t been here before.” I say mid sip.

“What brings you?”

“Myself.”

“Yourself brought you?”

“Yes my chauffeur was busy.” Okay I don’t say that.

“Yes. Kwani what brought you?”

She laughs. It’s calculated. Precisely five giggles. In quick and short bursts. Like a sneezing baby. She calls Vane. Orders for a canned drink. Like me. And then looks at me. I look back. Now Vane looks at me. Stretches out her hand. I get it. I’m buying the drink. No questions. The new guy buys the drinks. So I do. Outside the darkness is thick as thieves.

“Work.” She says

“Oh. Okay, you work here?”

“Yes. There.” She points through the narrow corridor.

“Cook?” I ask. Assuming there’s a kitchen there. Though I already know. It’s too obvious.

“Not really. But it’s something you can eat.” She smiles.

Vane is back with her drink. A black can with silver writings. It’s a sweet drink. But can be intoxicating.

“I want to show you my work.”

She interrupts my thoughts. In a polite way. Like she knocked first. Like she removed her shoes before entering. It’s a demeanor about her. Very polite. You don’t even notice the hanging cleavage. Or the exposed thighs. You just want to listen to her voice and let it cuddle you. She’s good.

I pretend to look at my watch. I don’t have any.  Then I look at her. Smile.

“Some other day maybe? It’s getting late.”

“Wife? Girlfriend?” She asks

“Fiancé.” I lie.

“Congratulations.” She paused for a few seconds. Looked around the room then added, “I’ll be right back.”

I hear it in her voice. Disappointment. Or maybe just a general fuck off. Her interest slips off. Probably as easy as her knickers. And her thoughts wander. Probably to the guy in a white shirt. Or the group of guys that just walked in. Two had half coats that betrayed what they do for a leaving. Conductors. As she gets up to leave I know I will not see her again. She needs to work. I’m a pass time. Leisure. Luxury she can’t afford.  So I let her leave. I also need to get going. I don’t like the darkness. It has a reputation. Especially on these streets. Streets so sparse with lights. It looks like one of those clothes people wear that are torn at the knees. And thighs. And calves. Torn almost everywhere.

I walk into the darkness. The cold streets. People are still shuffling around. I’m thinking about Roxanne. And a song is playing in my head. ‘We will rock you.’ I should have asked her if it was her favorite song. Tell her to use it as her theme song as she works. I walk briskly. Past the grated shops. Past the guard in twenty five kilos of jackets and sweaters and mittens. Past the lady with a huge white paper bag on her head scurrying home. Into the welcoming lights of familiar streets. I take out my phone. Four missed calls. I get into a mat. Guess what? They’re playing the song. I think about Roxanne. And Vane. And the guy with soft features that told me to go to the 3rd floor. They run another wheel. It’s called survival. this is survival

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4 thoughts on “It’s About Survival

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  1. You want to know what the economy smells like? Sweat. Sweat and determination. and I’m just there like “aww, look at ’em motivational speaker qualities.” or like sounds like the first chapter of ‘Grapes of Wrath’

    Liked by 1 person

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