Nostalgia: Between Mombasa And Now, My Sonia

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I pack my troubles in a sigh and stretch them out of bed in half sleepy eyes. I flick on the light. Its flash disorients for a little while. In night shorts, I flounder my way through scattered pieces of my clothing. On the floor, my other shorts have mingled with remnants of chiffon dresses and scarves in a perfect irregular heap. After less than seventy-two hours disorientation is the irregular heap of messed up clothes on the floor. There are paralyzed moths on the carpet scattered in the disorder in which they sneaked in through the window louvres that remain open. A cold streak of wind tickles my ears. On the table sit glossy entertainment magazines partly covering peeping earrings most likely abandoned in haste. The living room is a beautiful mess. I shut the louvres before turning on the TV to scan over a catalogue of international news channels: BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, Sky News, CNN and then back. A significant rush of blood wheels through my veins. I switch from the TV and return my thoughts to the Nairobi railway terminus, three months ago.

*****

I was taking a trip from Nairobi to Mombasa in the modern Nairobi-Mombasa Express train on the Chinese built Standard gauge railway (SGR). The term that starts the year had been a protracted school routine that was as flat as an overplayed FM pop song. So, I breathed an obese sigh when the principal, a man whose black turtle suits were synonymous with his moustache, gave his flowery end of school term speech. We had sipped at Cokes, Fantas and Sprites surreptitiously snacking on bits deflowering the man’s speech. It was in the following Saturday morning after the principal’s stuffy speech that I found my way to the Syokimau railway terminus, having booked my ticket a month earlier in advance. It was the Easter season, and everyone would be flocking to the coast, climbing into a smoky country bus to ocha, driving their loftiness into national parks or singing to the memories of their childhood in nostalgic songs, all for the joy of the season. I had booked my ticket in advance to beat the typical mad rush that was an every Easter ritual as my other sister, whom I was visiting for the fourth time, had advised.

Those very early hours of the morning, I needed company and so I settled for reading a Saturday Nation newspaper from a vendor as I sat on a waiting bench beside my tidy suitcase, and waited for the arrival of my train. Unlike the old man in the cry my beloved country movie that had a wife and villagers bidding him farewell gleefully as he boarded a train, I had myself. I kept glancing at the Syokimau terminus public lobby clock. Its hour and minute hand were close. Departure time was in half an hour. Young families, couples, all ages of travellers most of them, the compact majority of Nairobi’s flamboyant bourgeois renaissance crammed the lobby. I skimmed through the newspaper my long fingers perfunctorily flipping through the pages.

“Arsenal.” a voice cut my attention through.

“Arsenal?” I found my lips responding in perplexity

“My football team.” the voice pushed in boldness.

“You are a disciple?”

“Who are your losers?”

“We never walk alone. We are winners.”

“Liverpool,” she screeched. I straight away knew the newspaper was no match of a replacement for this new company.

I dressed my face in a smirk and bundled the newspaper into her hands. She was the daughter of that growing league of women football fans who for many reasons— like their love for nice calves below handsome faces— loved watching football. She stirred a dead man into life with a flicker in her eyes. She from within depths of conviviality procreated leases of life. In the surrender of the newspaper, I rolled my eyes to an evaluating angle to keenly authenticate everything else apart from those eyes. She was short but not as a Volkswagen beetle’s height and her dimples formed after a smile like the one of a fashion magazine model. Maybe perfect is a castle in the air but I felt a melting from the deepest wells of a hungry soul within like a grieving had been soothed and a yearning stirred. These stirred affections, intuitive though, birthed the path to a conquest. And when we got on the train, I discovered she was sitting some three seats ahead of mine. So far yet so near.

As the train scorched itself into a speed, I let her relish the newspaper as much as I had time to trawl composure from unfamiliar faces. My mind splurged with thoughts of how to broach a conversation. Thick baobab arms swung by and yellowish acacia trees shot past like long-distance runners through the glass windows of the train. I felt like grabbing each of them. I found myself dropping into a vision of time’s passage. I had got here, in the train’s clunking, but how?

A year before this trip there was a journey from my hometown Luanda in the hilly west of the country that I made. The journey to Nairobi, to get a job; any job I could lay my skills on. Though I was a qualified high school teacher of English, I was all in to give up my hands onto anything that would transform my anxiety into money. I arrived at my sister’s house and gave my head, extravagant with expectations, a roof. I poured out my plans to her. Atemi backed me up against the dry visions of nothingness before my eyes, the morbid ambiguities of Nairobi’s prospects. I plunged into the hustle of hunting for a job, with a desperation which surprised her. I earned her husband’s admiration. He was very handy.

Nairobi’s first experiences were strenuous. I jumped from one office door to the next. Putting up with acidic-face-slamming, wrapped in the candy of mellow diplomacy, “We will get back to you as soon as we have assessed your documents.” I soldiered on, abating none of my desires. I walked with my father’s cautions, that Nairobi was the house of all tricks and the bed of all dreams, crammed in my fist. There was sweat, but no gnashing of teeth; or tears, only a couple of skipped lunches and a slap in the face, once or thrice, of despair. Many times I haggardly sunk innumerable hollow groans of desperation into one particular sofa I preferred. My sister’s piteous heart came to her face every of these times. But her husband fired me on: “Nairobi constructs men out of boys.” Something electrifying in those words ignited me. I grabbed that fire right into my arteries from his deep, thoughtful eyes.  Hadn’t I come to be a man, to be a lion of the lions of the concrete jungle of Nairobi? Then if it constructed men, wasn’t I mortar and concrete enough? I was. Then to be among them, counted among the brave at the fronts, not the weaklings on the fringes, was inevitably something my spirit had a yearning for. I endured the hell of rush hours, in the daily grime of traffics, in the sickness of the cut-throat hustle, and leant to smell conmen who fronted their opportunities in the disguise of employment agents. They hawked promises like their first class visas to the Emirates of the Middle East on scruffy placards in dingy River Road alleys, some promising magic, and some selling untold miracles of profound magnitudes. Nairobi. I was vigilant. Finally, I beat it at its game. I lucked on a temporary teaching job in an Indian owned private school, as an English teacher. The salary wasn’t much, but it allowed me a few luxuries like infrequent visits to the shopping mall. I counted my luck and life started. It was something. I got myself a modest apartment whose rent wouldn’t leave me sleeping hungry or crawling back to beg from my sister. I send my father a message and he said he was happy for me. I was happy with everything.

Recycling memories on that train, the girl on the train in my head, I felt deep satisfaction. I figured she could be anything. Only it was too early to think her a wife: it was too grand, in my mid-twenties, I judged myself too inexperienced for marriage. I reclined on my velvet seat let my mind travel in the clunking of the train and waited for the next stop. There I would unload whatever my mind’s baggage was.

Mtito Andei, the next stop before my final stop, and the train groaned and puffed into its first stop from Nairobi. Some tourists— two ladies and a man, all with splotched sunburnt skin— joined incumbent travellers. The man who had glasses pushed back into his hair wore khaki shorts; he held a safari hat in his hand. He covered his awkwardness with a public relations smile as he took his seat. The ladies whose linen trousers flapped their scent around the passengers in the cabin looked discordant beneath their baggy kitenge shirts. They joined their younger faces in seats adjacent to his. He was probably their father. They sat clutching at their backpacks and conversing in German. They reminded me of German classes back in Musingu High school.  Auf wiedersehen Mtito Andei the German goodbye leaped in my head, refreshing my fantasies of making a trip to Berlin, as the train jerked into a fresh motion. In its new chugging, I dozed off.

When I woke up there were activities all over the place: hawkers selling, travellers dragging suitcases, and pockets of tourists getting into creaky old taxis. She was right there before my sleepy red eyes.

“We are in Mombasa,” she chimed. I stirred in my seat.

“This is it.” I managed a phrase.

“So this is it?”

“Mombasa Raha, easy to enter hard to leave.”

She chuckled. I floated in that chuckle. The sun sparkled in the early afternoon. I picked my suitcase as the two of us started disembarking in a body. The humid Mombasa air hit our nostrils with the smell of the sea. My nose caught crustacean odour in the thick air that clung onto our skin as we walked against an incoming breeze from palm fronds that rigidly stuck their tallness in the searching eyes of tourists.

“It’s my first time here,” she opined.

She fumbled to keep in check her very long braids. We wended through masses of human traffic, cars, trucks, buses, honking tuk-tuks and motorbikes outside the terminus’ expansive gates.

A tingle of nervousness struck in her words. I guessed it was our unfamiliarity digging at her sense of guard. My pulse was calm, my eyes intermittently roamed around searching for nothing in particular, and a cough came up my throat from nowhere.

“I’ve come here every year.” The lie popped at the end of my cough, “It is a magnificent place, and the people are friendly. Only don’t bring your Nairobianism of cunning and boisterousness. Mombasa is a Swahili lady, Nairobi is an English conman.”

She smiled. Successfully, I had chunked away monstrous lumps of uneasiness. Perhaps even flattened unfamiliarity into a plateau on which we were both going to walk familiar strangers.

“So many chilling stories about this place have been told to me.”

I looked at her knowingly. She, most likely, was about to reach into a hidden bag of stories. Maybe, fascinating bits of the Mombasa majini tales hidden in there, half-fiction, half-truth. Stories weaved from a variety of experiences.

“There are thousands of those Swahili tales and more twisted ones. There is one old one told of a man from Nairobi who drove a lorry down here to deliver some cargo. On his way back home, he huddled some stray goats roaming the streets into his lorry, to make a quick buck. Do you know? As he drove, people in the street stared some laughed knowingly. Then a bold man, he was sympathetic and stopped him and asked him why he was carrying so many weeping women on his lorry. Imagine what the poor man of big business did? The guy jumped out of his lorry and run out of his senses. He now roams the streets of Mombasa today eating from piles of trash and bleating like a goat. He had huddled stray goats from the streets in the night only to discover they were not goats.”

“But a bunch of women who were goats?”

“Huh! Genies that turned into goats that turned into women.”

“Is it just fables?”

“Who knows?”

“You know, right?”

“Me? No. I just collected the story.”

“You tell it better than the man himself would have told it.”

“No. You are a keen listener, and keen listeners are good storytellers, and…”

“And?”

“Good storytellers are prominent liars.”

She giggled. We stumbled into chatting about ourselves. I learnt that her name was Sonia, a journalist on her first very significant assignment as an intern of the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC). She was going to cover a story on the toxic child sex rings in Malindi, Kilifi and Ukunda. A dangerous assignment, I thought (unless she was lying to me). And she was alone. Drugs were, in many instances, involved in running those rings. Mombasa and its environs had numerous hideouts for drug kingpins. Some had been smoked out of their hibernation and extradited. Others were untouchable with power broking influences that extended to the high echelons of intelligence forces and law enforcement. I didn’t want to scare her kitten face, so I talked about the Mombasa heat and humidity. And when she got to the point she was to board her matatu, to Mtwapa, I let her go in peace as I stood in the confidence that we were not hearing from each other for the last time. She was all over my mind.

We met several times over some seafood lunches; we tried octopus soup once or twice; it could as well have been thrice, and we got close. She was a cautious bird. I took her to Jomo Kenyatta public beach once or twice. We sipped in breezes from the rustling of palm leaves, enjoyed madafu the famous coconut drink. She animated me with stories about her cousin’s husband, the cousin she was putting up with in Mtwapa, she told me about his prurient advances on her.  It boiled me over with jealous when she confided about those lascivious advances from a man I hardly cared to know. Immediately, I knew that was the signal of being in love. Sonia, this stranger I had met on the train, was sending palpitation up my heart.

We kissed in the night before I was to leave for Nairobi, the night I also confessed my affection. She did not push me back; neither did she say a thing. But the expansive Kenyatta public beach spread before our warm breath. And the ocean water gently rushed in waves back and forth in regular intervals under a benign moonlighted Indian Ocean evening sky. A ship cut its way to the Kilindini harbour some miles into the west of the ocean, its magnificent lights floating away. I smelt Sonia’s perfumed braids in the rush of a breeze that blew into my shirt and on my skin. I was holding her close, my hand around her shoulder. The awkward clamminess in my hands slightly discomforted me; my voice staggered out groggy as I tried to disorient my discomfort with some platitude. Then we melted into sudden silence.

Three days afterwards, as I jumped into my train back to Nairobi, she was there with me. I saw her wipe a tear and my hands shook, my throat hardened, I gave my tiny suitcase handle a tight grip such that were it a person it would have protested of my unkindness. I was moved by the power of raw emotion that travels with electrification in the hollowness of a long time’s emptiness being filled. My feet numbed for a few seconds. Here was a girl who had finally beaten me into emotional pulp. But I couldn’t climb down the train or go crazy; I was comforted because she had promised to find me as soon as she returned to Nairobi at the end of her internship. The train jerked into motion as if begrudging my new-found enchantment and she blew me a kiss. I blew it back through the window near my seat, unbelieving my Easter luck, and waved. We attracted some disapproving stares from spectators, and clearly, I was in my world performing for no one, I didn’t care. Blood was some fire in my veins. This fire burnt until I got miles into the jerking that had evolved into droning far away from Mombasa somewhere in the Tsavo savannahs.

*****

It has been three months and now two significant weeks since we met. Sonia has given me many nights. She has driven away loneliness in these nights. But tonight is a different night. I’m not on the train to Mombasa. I am on the train of my thoughts. Sonia is all over my mind again but not like the first time. She is gone. She has been a sweet girl all along, but, something is the hot blood with her. If she is pregnant—well? Why didn’t I think about these things? In the throes of passion who thinks? If she is pregnant, I have to—well, do what? I have no clue. We’ve been having sex. A familiar equilibrium nowadays, however, that doesn’t take away my responsibility. It doesn’t. And I am guilty. But all these are my midnight speculations—Imaginations—Probably unfounded. Is this how Nairobi constructs men? It’s only a matter of time after which everything will be crystal clear. And what is everything? I don’t know. A few minutes to 1 a.m., I hope I will find sleep. I hope the irregular rubble of chiffon dresses will regain order when Sonia shall return and we shall have our wedding. But for now, I must switch off the TV and return to bed.

First published on writingisonthewall