We are on a rough road that swirls past my dust stung eyes, torn shirt and receding hunger pangs. It’s the early hours of the morning sun when usually the road is teeming with petty traders but not today. I am trying to make out our position from what some hours ago was home so far behind in the reddish thick dust trailing us. All these feels like a drunken man trying to sober up. It could be a failed philosopher who is trying a treatise beneath the shade of some tree of foolishness in the sweltering heat of drunken wisdom. There is a slender metal rail on which there are strips of dangling khaki ropes. It is beneath a leaf-like covering of a stuffy tarpaulin with branches of more rails from it that hang with other ropes. This is the stiff midriff of a Bedford M-Series military lorry’s flapping jungle green tarpaulin with the insignia of the Kenya Defence Forces-Our Messiah from imminent ethnic cleansing.
I affirm my staunch grip on one of those ropes close to my mother who sits among some women on the lorry floor crammed with mattresses, gaping suitcases, and utensils wrapped in sheets. His is missing in the forest of men’s grips. This is a consoling beast that in its jerking and roaring belly has swallowed discomfort like the biblical whale that swallowed Jonah. We-the disconsolate- are light baggage for the droning military whale. But his grip is missing in this discomfiture.
“Oh! What madness from bad farting stomachs! Madness that is as stubborn as a goat. Madness like that of beer in the drunken heads of randy old Kaburus in happy valley Nanyuki barracks. The music has been played then raped, the goats have been untethered and the noisy birds from lakes and mountains have been caged? You accept-The new world. The world of mine is mine before you flee to wherever you and your delusions meet your father who told you lets go back to the farms and till this paradiso.”
I ponder over a tipsy stranger’s resolve. He who tottered then fell. He was attempting to catch salvation on our messianic military lifesaver, in the reddish dust somewhere on this road but failed. How like a skiff on rogue Indian Ocean waves our lorry swerved around potholes. He barely missed striking his head on the side of the lorry falling into the dust like forgotten luggage behind us, his wit with him. We went our dusty way, the lorry belching with our grunts, curses, and fears. Dejected and distressed, foreign birds, which had perched for a long time on native trees, sucking on the fruit of the natives’ land-saving years of bile in the livers of these natives.
Who can rise against wisdom from despair! I spit out into the dust on the road and wipe my lips with the back of my hand. I have ravished three more slices and I feel temporarily eased.
“Here is some bread?”
“Thanks, ma but I’m fine,”
Of course, I am not fine. In this treacherous sea of misery in which we are drowning, there is a soldier afloat. His face is tattooed with patriotic scars. I am confident the price of his valour for standing in the way of Alshabaab terrorists’ bombs somewhere in the thorny bushes betwixt the Kenya Somalia border. A 450mm barrel G-3 rifle is slung over his stiff shoulder. The killer machine’s butt almost cushions a cliché square perfect jaw. He blows spirals of pensive smoke into the women’s song and my curiosity. Two of his comrades each on his side unnervingly watch the road.
He is as tall as three of the G-3s vertically on top of each other with a combat-hardened air around him. I can discern beyond his face, there is concealed, an experience of the kind that would conspire repulsion in those who profess the pen as the more powerful. He looks like he is a jolly likable man of combat though; with the sole conviction of defending his nation’s morsel of honour still in existence. Unlike sleuths, I am confident military men are famous for not wearing poker faces. What you see is what you get. Immediately from this conviction, I decided that I like this other face of our troubles.
As he mechanically leans forward puffing, I notice his steady intimate not less fetish grip on the rifle. Upon both arms of his fatigues, there is a tired double stripe of rank which evidently has had its unfair share of better days. It definitely is yearning for a rank higher; which it certainly deserves. You can call the observer naive.
“I hope you are fine?”
Why are people, especially a military man, asking funny questions at such times?
“It has always been like this,”
Who has asked him for an apology?
He tags at his rope which is the first and closest to the entrance.
“History repeats itself again,”
He clicks. The truck farts. He puffs. I am amused.
I pretend to search among the faces on the floor but I know he is tagging at my attention. He has turned so that he has a view of the road and my face. A common way to strike a conversation and strangers become familiar acquaintances. They attack a subject without familiarities to feel the reassurance of we are in this together in the frigidity of a tragedy and an uncertain end.
“…88’, 92’, 97’ and the game is a ghost,” he outlines in a deep indifferent baritone garnished with laces of huskiness.
“It’s not so much a game.”
“It’s exactly a game I tell you to ask any connoisseur of our History.”
“It’s a heinous bloodbath.”
He stumps out the cigarette under a beige hot weather combat boot. I follow him with my eyes.
“You must be young.”
My convictions are not my age?
“I am thirty.”
“Thirty is the baby’s milk.”
Is it really?
“I firmly believe it is a stubborn goat’s madness like that of beer in a randy old Kaburu’s drunken head somewhere in happy valley Nanyuki barracks.”
Laughter rattles in him through an outlandish crackle of a decade’s, maybe beyond, smoker’s huskiness. I hope he gets nightmares over the gory advisory pictures of roasted lungs on the packs when he softly fondles his cigarettes.
“The old Kaburu’s are the Old Testament we the New Testament that started in the chapter of 1963 when they left.”
The lifesaver jerks and we swing like involuntary dancers of the 80’s twisty song.
“Egalitre, liberte, fraternite…”
The lorry charges into a new gear.
What I’m am I even plunging into?
“What?” he sniffs.
“The people we need to rise up,”
“What are you preaching?”
“Equality, liberty and fraternity,”
“What caliber of nonsense is that I hear?” he cynically chuckles adding a stinging afterthought, “or is it some magic abracadabra golden fleece from some secret society?”
He is definitely a man who is unafraid to speak his mind.
What can I say?
“Nonsense that is of a political awakening nature,” I am fired up, “the kind of which will annihilate the mutiny and death our five years have degenerated into,” I notice a wise grin begin to crease his face on the sides of his eyes and lips, “The kind of nonsense that happened ages back in France and people were emancipated from tyranny. The kind of tyranny we contain here. It is called Power to the people.” The grin extends outlining a set of brown teeth and I proceed with more fire in my belly, “Because the trouble we have, forget land squatters and land, the real trouble is our politics of cutting throats.”
“Hahaha! Now I see.” he chuckles again dragging his final word into a long syllable.
“What now? You are not better than Okumutu the madwoman in my village. First, this is not France my friend if you have balls. Second, you must be university clay that is the only place you can collect such toilet moisture. As a matter of fact, are these people you want to be awakened conscious that they are dead more than the necklaces around their necks and the hair on their heads? Do we have a country or our blood-stained shirts? Boy, you wouldn’t dream the same if only you knew how we sleep. Do you know how you sound?”
A college looking lad with a bloody shirt turned turban around his head and has been wheezing laughs in a fit of coughing. Some women have stopped singing out of fatigue but some are indefatigably going on with the song.
“No.” I reply interrupting the young man’s coughing fit.
Why the many whys?
“You sound like one of those University bearded professors under the influence of smoking political science.”
Why poke fun at custodians of knowledge?
Bewilderment creeps up my spine but why I’m I not startled? Why is everything familiar? My ignorance deserves this unsavory shot of sarcasm, probably. Do I really need to know what they mean even if I sound the way he swipes?
“Yes, I am a graduate.” I choke out the undeniable.
“Now my friend the fruits of politics is a honeymoon. Even Stalin to his people was once a messiah,”
What does he mean?
“You are like a stirred up windbag or a careless government chief’s command in the jaws of the chief’s dog, swallowing ignorance. And that is the problem with your book people.” he is wagging a judicial finger as the gun rattles. He is staunch in his verdict.
“Most of you,” he goes on, “are too idealistic, hypothetical and living in between esoteric pages. Do you ever ask why those girls, age mates of yours, prefer older stuffy men? The world out here is a world of action, not social contract yaga yaga (nonsense) theories. You cannot get a woman by only writing sweet nyokho nyokho (more nonsense) poems, talking about the weather and singing shiombo maalum (you are special) bullshit love songs high on booze to her. You see she needs to see some action man. She wants to see the world not the words. Even the word says faith without action…you know better,”
We both chuckle as he flashes a myriad of interpretable gestures.
The wheezing young man adds his voice before he coughs again this time with a whistling sound. He must be really sick this half-passive third party. He probably won’t last the whole stretch.
“Money!” I imitate the soldier’s last gesture.
“Yes boy. Money is action, money is the world! It is not all plain.”
“And the world is money.”
“And money is the world.”
“And round and round it goes.”
A brief consensual silence of mutual interpretation prevails.
“Only a theorizing university buffoon is the blind bat flying around in utopian documentary people revolutions. Only money calls the deaf and they hear otherwise you are used underwear shouting your voice hoarse,” he pauses.
“You have heard of the story of the blind beggar-He who was begging on Koinange Street at night jingling a bowl with some coins. Then a prostitute who had had a bad night and wanted to swindle him by putting paper in the bowl in exchange for the miserable coins.”
“I’ve heard the story of the prostitute. She ruffled some piece of receipt paper folded it and stuffed it in the beggar’s bowl begging to pick the coins in exchange of the same value of the purported note.”
“True story, and before the twilight girl could snatch the coins. The beggar shrieked and opened his eyes. Suddenly a renowned blind beggar’s eyes opened. See the miracles of money. We are born and bred with dirty fingers and money is the electricity that powers the throats of the chief perpetrators,” he pauses and snuffs out some smoke from another cigarette, discards the butt then proceeds.
“I mean those with it have the mouth, the power of money that drives these people’s our people politics- the New Testament identity. Of course that is after who knows who and the rich growing fatter in their bellies and the slums swelling, potholes deepening into dams, babies strangled in the hands of inexperienced midwives and teachers carrying twigs in poor pay protests year in year out. We have accepted this mediocrity and celebrate it every five years. We are hypnotized mutants.”
What a lecture?
“In a vicious cycle of intoxication,” It’s the young man again. This time he doesn’t cough but blows his nose into his vest.
Is this light?
The soldier has dashed to pieces the last vestiges of hope.
“You see my friend; even for us in the army, we want the honeymoon,”
“Those who wash our shirts live under those who stain them.”
The lorry swerves and his convoluted words are thrown off balance for a few seconds. His rifle rattles startling a little girl wrapped around a woman’s chest. Everyone who can afford some concentration besides the wheezing young man, who is clearly a staunch disciple of the soldier’s evangelism, grunts in agreement to his position. The little girl snuggles closer to the woman’s neck wrapping frail arms around it crying.
I’m I in the light?
“Education is Power is utter nonsense. The big dreams are dead dreams. They are ghosts of hope. We are stains…”
“…bloodied by spineless thieves…”
We chuckle in consensus.
Is this light?
“The annihilation of knowledge is the purgatory to the new Jerusalem.”
The soldier laughs.
“You are now plucking your milk teeth schoolboy. All those academic theories you cram at the University will plummet you into the bottomless pit of poverty and ignorance. Pluck some more teeth. Remove the curtains from your eyes to the miracles of money. Crack your skull. With your paper you are like my rifle trigger you need a finger to pull you in for anything to happen.”
“Money is the finger,”
“It talks the universal tongue of pleasures,”
“Every man wants pleasure,”
“And pleasure does not seek man,”
“It is man who seeks pleasure,”
“But few get the money to buy them pleasure.”
“Look at the charred houses you left behind. Look at the groaning and grunting madness around us.”
“Is this the brave new world?”
“The best education is before us out here for any mind to be made up.”
This is it! The man speaks it. He is obviously not your average soldier. He has lifted the curtains. I am basking in the glory of revelation. I can see. There is carnage and dust behind me, there is uncertainty beyond.
“Do you have a wife?”
Does he have to change the topic?
“No but I got a girl who just gifted us a newborn baby girl I have called Jasmine.”
“Don’t’ you have a second name from your people for her?”
“Thinking of any?”
“No. My father approved of the name,”
“One name is trouble enough. My congratulations are in order baba Jasmine. We can only say Jasmine welcome to our world.”
He stretches nicotine stained fingers and grabs mine in a firm grip.
“When you hear them saying they are fighting poverty, disease and tribalism, just know that it is money, money and more money. They are only doing what you youngsters in your sheng’ jargon call ufala (nonsense), stupidity, what your smokers of political science call political rhetoric. Be as a good father as Jasmine would want you to be.”
He exonerates my hand from his grip.
What a promise!
Jasmine, welcome to the world my daughter, the shadow of death now travels with the desolate living souls. An arrow sticks out of Abraham’s (your grandfather’s) chest and a deep hatchet wound gapes from his head somewhere outside in his courtyard in flames. You will never see him, you will hear stories of him perhaps you will love them or hate them. You have just been born into chaos.
The women’s singing has picked a new tempo. The road is still dusty, bumpy and full of potholes. The Bedford bumps into a small pothole and then lurches into a bigger one that looks like a miniature dam. We are swayed from our positions and the soldier is swayed too into new alertness. Sun rays steal through cracks in the tarpaulin.
Adapted from Writings on the Wall