I always thought if I ever spent any time in a cell it would be something epic. Like a botched robbery. And not just any kind of robbery where we barge in guns flaring, voices shouting, commanding poor souls to lie on the ground. No that’s a bit mainstream in fact if I was a bank robber I would go by the name feathers or tickles. Now say that in an Italian mob voice. Cool right? But yeah, let’s go with tickles. Because as I robbed the bank I would put up a show for the guys and leave people in stitches. The next day the headlines would read something like “TICKLES STRIKES AGAIN: LAUGHS ALL THE WAY FROM THE BANK”. I would be some kind of folklore robber. Banks would line up to get robbed by me.
When that truck finally comes to a stop outside Makadara, I have this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m prepared for the worst but not really prepared; I am just telling myself I am prepared because it is what you do at such moments. In my mind there’s a reel show playing in black and white of all the stories I’ve heard. Half of me is trying to convince myself that they are not real. Another half of me is trying to convince myself that I am tough enough to handle it. No half is winning. It’s futile.
The officer that started this whole shit refers to me; she has my name but she just refers to me as the guy in a tie. Smirks and orders me off the truck. These huge trucks that feel like you are taking a plunge off a cliff. They have this knotted rope to assist you but it looks like it will do more harm than good so I just jump off. I figure if I broke my leg they’d have to take me to hospital. It is way better than a cell. At least there they have nurses. And needles. Here they just have metal doors, walls overrun with mold and cellmates with faces nastier than their attitudes.
At this time the number had dwindled from around 21 guys to 13. We lined up and they wrote us up. Each been told their charges and being asked for some form of identification. I wondered what would happen if you did not carry your ID on you. What would they ask for? Maybe on-top of your charges they would add illegal alien to the list even though you look as much Kenyan as Kericho tea. The guy I hand my ID too reads it, looks at me, reads it again then rattles off my last name. It is not a question, or a statement, he just cannot figure out where I’m from. Which baffles me because if he just flipped the ID he would know. He doesn’t. He hands me back my ID like a snobbish attendant at a make-up store would if your credit card was declined.
“Pale!” He orders. Pointing only with his words. You figure out where you have to go. Which is not as hard as I follow the first three guys in front of me. I wish I could remember much about this guy but his face was not memorable and I was battling my own fears.
You know when I was in the truck I was sort of doing the consoling. The lady next to me heaving and shuddering with tears, I told her not to worry. That this was going to be a quick fix. We would only appear before a magistrate, get charged, accept, pay a fine and move on. Only I was not sure if I was trying to convince her or myself. Because when we got there she was calm, she had reason to. The lady cells were empty. Only three maybe four people including the new entrants. The men’s cells were a different story.
I remember walking into the cell and letting my eyes adjust, but the officer behind me – impatient – kept prodding me with the butt of his rungu, telling me to go all the way to the end. I could hear voices – scruffy voices that seemed to scratch the paint off the walls. I could see some eyes gleaming. There was one narrow but long window at the end of the room with thick metal bars that let in some light. But the light hit my eyes making it harder to see. To the left of the room I could hear some guy snoring. I later came to learn he was a street boy, more like man. Do we have street men? And the cell was probably the only place he’d had a roof over his head in a while.
I bundled myself into a corner avoiding the officers rungu. He said something along the lines of “mjuane” and left. I remember thinking that I do not want to know any of these people. What would I tell them? What would they tell me? Is it even appropriate to ask names? It’s not. Heads up. You just say your name. Like a greeting. And they say there’s back in response to your greeting. I learnt this when the first guy came to me and in an exaggerated voice said “Njoro” fist out waiting for a bump. I hit his fist, hard as I could. I laugh when I think about this. Because of all days that was the one day I decided to try a shea butter lotion. But maybe it was hard enough for his liking as I rattled off my third name. Of all my names it sounds the most gangster. Don’t ask.
Njoro starts talking to me telling me how he they, the cops, (when he refers to them you feel a distance between him and them. Like he would rather not talk about them) got him here on trumped up charges. Touting. It’s a casual conversation and I mention my traffic offense. He laughs and says mine is a walkover. Tells me not to even worry about bribing them. He gestures in the general direction outside the cell when he says this.
“uko na pesa sindio?” he asks
I am not sure if this is a trick question or if he really cares. But my guard is high. So high it could also be charged with use of illegal narcotics. So I tell him I have no money. He asks if I have a phone. I say yes but I add it does not have airtime. I even take out my phone to prove it. But I feel bad right after because he says I look like someone who has people. That he can get me a phone and I can call my people and they can send me money and I would be good. That’s when I felt like a bad human being. Being apprehensive when I needed not to. He also said some words that have stuck with me till date “in here we are all the same. It’s us and it’s them.” Given, he did not say it in English I just translated it. The sheng version was even deeper.
So there I was; in a cell been dragged into some camaraderie of some sorts.
I don’t think I would have enough words to write about the characters I met in there; but there was this one guy that seemed to know his way around. I think people called him Tosh. He was short, stocky and rugged. His face, jeans and voice. All rugged. He walked around the cell with an air of self-importance all the while grabbing on to his jeans that didn’t seem to fit well stopping them from falling to the ground. Everyone seemed to know him and he seemed to know anyone. I avoided making eye contact with him but it was a small cell so at some point our eyes met, locked for a minute and then he walked over.
He was not like the others, he did not start with his name. He assumed you knew his name already. All he did was ask what I was in for. I stated my traffic offence. Even added ‘bana’ at the end. You know trying to beef things up. He like Njoro laughed, asked if I had money and that mine was an open and shut case. Just don’t be stupid, he said. When they call out your charges accept, pay the fine and move on. It is pointless trying to fight them. He then walked to the cell door peeked out and called the officers saying he needed to pee.
In the middle of the cell was some chap in official clothes. He had on dark blue pants, loafers, white shirt that was striped and a windbreaker. I did not even know people still wear wind breakers. If it were not for his youngish appearance I would’ve assumed he was a deputy principal in a school somewhere in Kirinyaga. So there he was squatting on the floor, afraid to let it touch his clothes and peeping into his phone. At times he would furiously type and other times he would answer a call talk curtly and quietly then go back to his typing. He had a full beard which was unkempt and the top three buttons of his shirt were open and the collar popped. We did share as much as a whisper with the guy. Only once when we sat next to each other at the docks. I asked him what he did and he said simply hit and run. I will not mention his name incase this might be used as evidence. His charges were just as he said. Hit and run. Then on top of that failure to report the accident. The guy he hit was lucky, he did not succumb to injuries so manslaughter was off the table. While the rest of us accepted our charges he denied his. He told me that’s what a lawyer friend told him. When his bail was read out my heart sunk. It was 250,000. Some people at the back gasped. The magistrate did not. He just waved him away with a sheet of paper. And he was hurdled back into the cells.
When my case was read I accepted my charges and was fined. It was a quick process that lasted less than twenty minutes. And this is me not counting the five hours in the cell and the forty minutes the magistrate took to come to court. We all waited for him like a groom does a bride. Then we did the whole standing up thing. Like he was a demi god of sorts; and maybe he was. But it was frustrating.
The whole experience did nothing much to open my eyes as to how flawed the system is it just affirmed my assumptions. First; the officers that arrested us and the ones in the lorry, none had their badges on them. I am pretty sure that that is standard operating procedure. I mean how are they arresting a conductor for not having identification on them while they do not have theirs on them? Fucking ironic. They also did not identify themselves at any point. All they had was the faded blue uniforms, bulky sweaters and attitudes that stank of showered skunks.
Then there’s the bit where I had to sit in a cell for five hours waiting to appear before a magistrate for an offense that could be solved roadside thanks to technology. And then dealing with cell guards that are more interested in frustrating you into a bribe than they are in getting you to the court. The callousness at which the arresting officers treat the arrested. Not caring to hear peoples’ pleas. Which is just underwhelming; anyone is entitled to be given an ear regardless of whether or not their claims are true.
All the same; I do not see myself ever going back into a cell. Well, not until tickles becomes a reality.