Everyone has at least one inappropriate friend; the one who replies loudly when you whisper about someone who is within earshot, the one who uses swear words in front of your church friends and you have to pretend you are not together and you are trying to bear witness to the Truth. The one who, when you upload a photo of you and a lady you’re showing interest in, will comment, ‘What happened to Nyambura?’ Inescapable friends. They will find you wherever you are. Even if you switch off the tv and radio and lock the door so that people think you’re not inside, your friend will knock and knock and knock for twenty minutes, until the neighbours start peering through the windows. They don’t give up. You will have to open the door with a story about how you ate a giant ugali of Luhya density and it knocked you out cold.
Enter Felo. Man darker than I am -and I’m really dark (I used to be a yellow yellow baby, but I had no video games, so I played outside and the sun burned me black)- with a big voice and imposing physique. For some reason, girls swoon over him and not me. And I can speak French. Felo never even combs his hair. Life is never how the movies say it is. In reality, it is the men with visible cracks who get it all.
Felo is always trying to hook me up, and he has no bias. At one time it was my landlord’s daughter (I don’t even know how they got talking yet Felo lives across the city), and another it was a waitress at Café Deli, a lady who was clearly older than me by several years. No offence to the new-age open-minded folk who say age is just a number, but I’d rather not date anyone close to the retirement age.
Now, I have to travel with Felo to Kakamega for a wedding, and it scares me. Not the wedding – that’s the groom’s headache, thankfully- travelling with Felo.
We arrive at Easy Coach early enough and stand waiting for the bus a couple of meters away from the booking office, at a spot where we could see lots of activity: passengers arriving, hugging their folk goodbye, handcart pushers, taxi guys, mechanics fixing buses. It is an untidy scene. Luggage is everywhere, hawkers try to sell eggs and samosas to mothers who came in with little children holding on to their skirts. I remember Mama making me do that when I was a kid. It is a safe way of not carrying your child while ensuring that the child never leaves you. Presently, two ladies arrive.
“Eeeeeeish, my guy! Look at them! They are fiiine, thank you!” Felo says in a voice which he thinks is low, but carries far enough to make a couple of other heads turn. I want to dig a hole and bury myself. It is true, the saying: when a mad man walks naked, it is his kinsmen who feel shame. I’m not saying that the ladies are not beautiful. They are. They are so beautiful I could turn in the street and look at them, and I do not turn for anything except a loud blast, because Al Shabaab. One is slender, not an ounce of fat, fitting blue jeans and red top with just enough cleavage to oil the mind without being too revealing. The other one is in a long black skirt which hugs her hips like a poor man hugs a politician’s hand. She is larger than her friend. Her white top covers everything up to her neck, but her face, my friends! Her face is the arrogance of beauty!
The bus comes and we leave, driving slowly through the incessant Nairobi traffic, past Kangemi where some buses pick up people travelling to the Western region. I never settle down until somewhere around Uplands, where the ‘great wall’ separating the highway lanes ends. Then the journey begins. The ladies are three seats away from us, all prim and proper, drinking yoghurt and laughing neatly, like if they let it out as heartily as Mbinya does, they might rupture an intestine. One speaks in Swanglish, that really horrible Nairobi slang:
“You know, that guy kujad at my jobo and wanted me to peleka him to ana’a place.”
“Guuurl you keep slaying! Kwani where had you patanad?”
“Mercy kwani you forgot the storo?”
Then, from the seat next to me, very loudly, “Have MERCY on me!”
For a moment, there is a pause in conversation. The ladies are not sure if Felo is cheekily referring to them, or is talking to me. I hit Felo in the knee and tell him through my teeth to hush it.
“Man, it’s a long journey. Today you must get a number,” he says.
“I don’t want to!”
“I don’t care. I’m going to switch seats with one of them. And don’t be a bore and keep silent when one of them comes.”
“Now.” Felo makes as if to stand up.
“What? You are just a coward. Today-”
“Ah, listen. Wait until after Nakuru.”
“Because if you talk to them before Nakuru, they will make you pay for refreshments when the bus stops.”
Felo sits back. He is a stingy old hyena. But still, girls love him. Such a paradox.
I don’t alight. Felo nips to the gents, then stands and waits for the ladies to leave the washrooms. They come and start looking at the menu on a huge board over the cashier’s booth. Felo approaches them and after a few uncertain seconds, the ladies laugh. Then Felo points at the bus and the ladies wave at me. I wave back, cursing under my breath. I know I will need to have stories all the way to Kakamega, but I am an introvert. This will be embarrassing.
The driver revs the engine and honks the horn and passengers climb back in. The woman with the child who won’t stop asking questions, the middle-aged man who was chewing on a cob of boiled maize back at the Nairobi booking office, the old Muslim man with the prayer beads, the couple who look newly married (they are too young to have been married more than three years), and others. Felo sits with Mercy, and her friend, the larger one, comes over to his seat.
“Hi,” I said.
People from Nairobi, they are too lazy to say , ‘It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.’ It is just ‘Pleasure.’ Do you want to be pleased? Are you pleased? Do you want to be pleasured? But I have more pressing problems. What do people say after introductions? And, Aisha is a Muslim name. Some Muslim ladies can shake your hand and even hug you. Some, like those in Garissa, cannot touch your hand. You never know who is more liberal, so I have to keep things safe.
“So, dark night, huh?”
She laughs at my colourless conversation.
“I hear you write?” Bless you, Felo.
“Hardly. I’m random. What do you do?”
The bus slows behind a trailer and the engine quiets a little. From three seats in front, Felo’s voice says, “…babies with you…” then hushes. Goodness, they are already talking babies while I’m still at introductions.
“I’m a psychologist,” she says.
“May I ask a silly question?”
“I have a feeling there’ll be a lot of that tonight,” she replies, smiling.
I am warming up to her. Easy sarcasm always advances conversation to those who recognize it. Some people don’t get it, though. Like that time when a lady asked why I was not making moves on her and I said she was my pumpkin. She laughed and sent me those emojis which have round faces and hearts for eyes. She didn’t realize that pumpkins are healthy but bland. When she had a running nose and asked me what to do, I told her to put a tampon in there. She did it. I swear. I even have a photo.
“You want to know if I go around psychoanalysing people,” she says.
“See? You’re already in my mind.”
“Maybe I am.”
“What do you see?”
“Many things. I might need to feel your pulse to confirm.”
“On my chest or my wrist?”
“You want me to feel your chest?”
She laughs. I am not doing too badly. Making a girl laugh is as hard as a comedian doing stand-up. And I am quite happy I got Aisha. Felo would have made a fool of himself. I doubt Mercy is as sharp.
“Speaking of which,” Aisha says, “that ‘have Mercy on me’ comment…”
“It was intentional. My friend had his eyes set on you two the moment you arrived at the booking office.”
“And you didn’t?”
I smile. How far can I go with this conversation? I have had severe crushes on Muslim women before. Maybe it is the hijab that makes the face so perfectly round. Maybe, in seeing the beauty of the face only, there is nothing else to distract the mind. But no, men will always find something in their minds to distract them from the face. Like the woman in a hijab and a buibui on the Likoni ferry on whose behind a man masturbated. Like the boys in Zanzibar calling out to a group of hijab-clad girls, and when the girls ignored, a boy shouted, “Snob me now, you’re not even beautiful.”
But maybe it is also because those faces are truly glorious. Big, clear eyes, full cheeks, a nose stud, thick lips, small chin. And smiles that make me wonder why a man would want to leave all this beauty here on earth and die and go to Jannah to find seventy two virgins who have large, round breasts that are not inclined to hang, appetizing vaginas, hairless except the eye brows and head. Non-urinating, non-menstruating, non-defecating.
I have fallen in love before. With a Muslim lady that I could not figure how to date because of religious differences. She was the liberal type that could shake my hand and hug me in greeting, but in order to marry, one of us would have to convert. If she dared, her people would probably kill her. And me, I don’t know. My religion is love. Taking up a whole new doctrine and forcing myself to believe things I do not want to and live by a whole new, more restrictive code is something I do not have the energy for. So I let her go.
“I saw you. And I liked you. You are quite beautiful.”
“Thank you, Anthony.”
“I won’t be surprised if you had already noticed that. And please, call me Tony. Anthony sounds so aristocratic. What did Felo tell you girls in Nakuru?”
“That you liked me. And that you were too shy to do anything about it.”
“You’re not shy?”
“I’m not. He just wanted to sit with Mercy.”
We are approaching Kericho. The roads wind up the hills in long curves. During the day, the view of the tea plantations is breathtaking. Miles upon miles of green bush all of even size, with people scattered all over, cautiously picking the tea leaves that make Kenya world-famous. But at night, there is only darkness and a lonely road that looks like a scene from a video game.
“Allow me to nap for a while?” Aisha says. It must be the smoothness of the road and the turns.
“Am I that boring?”
“Oh, shut up.” Then she lays her head on my shoulder.
I feel good. I feel so good I could be James Brown right now. There are few conversations going on in the bus, but I can bet no one has had a nice one like me. I am enjoying this journey.
After the long curves on the road, after the neat rows of staff houses against the green of the tea fields (you shall see this during the day), you come upon Kericho town. Years ago, it was too sleepy. It still is, but not quite as much. You will see electronics shops owned by Indian merchants (seems they control the electronics business in Kenya) and houses with clothes hung on the balconies above these merchant shops. I have always wondered why Indians always live in the central business districts. Even in Nairobi, on Kirinyaga Road and surrounding areas, you will see them walking casually in bathroom slippers. For a long time, there were were only single storeyed buildings. Now, there are high rise commercial buildings like the ACK Business Park and the Ministry of Lands building, which had a failed launch. Apparently, the official in charge of the construction ate the money for four floors, and when the government people came to check if the building was ready for opening, they asked, “Who ate the rest of the building?”. They had to add another six floors.
I love Kericho with its greenery and the weather and theatrics. A friend of mine -a nurse at a local hospital- told me the men have no time for romance or wooing. No use for poetry or dates. They just walk up and ask, “Will you give me tonight?” Perhaps this might be the reason commercial sex workers flock the small town on the very day the tea farmers get paid their hard-earned money. The lighter the skin, the more the money. Easy pickings. Just like tea leaves.
The bus rumbles on, Behind us, someone turns on the radio on the phone and puts it on loudspeaker. It is an Islamic radio station. It is probably the old man with the prayer beads. I can never understand these people who put their phone music loud in a bus. The sound is always horrible, and they are the only ones enjoying it. They created ear phones for such.
Then the old man starts singing along. Loudly. Somewhere in the back of the bus, someone lets out a really strong click and complains about etiquette. If I can hear the complaint, then the old man can also hear it, but he behaves as if he hasn’t. He sings on. Maybe his is one of those one-track minds that respond to nothing they are not concentrating on. Maybe if he shuts up, I might enjoy the music.
Aisha’s phone rings. It is a song I have watched on YouTube before and loved for the music of it: Bismillah by Salim Sulaiman. Aisha is definitely a Muslim. Déjà vu. The music stops.
“As-salaam alaikum, Ma,” Aisha answers. “We are at…” she looked at me.
“Kericho,” I whisper.
“…Kericho. (Pause) Sawa, asanti. See you in the morning.”
She hangs up.
There is movement behind us. Then a face appears over our seat. It is the man with the prayer beads.
“My daughter, are you a Muslim?”
“Yes, I am,” Aisha answers, startled.
“Then why are you not in a hijab in public? Is this man your brother?”
Aisha looks at me. I can tell she is fighting back a sarcastic answer because she can’t talk back to an older man. I clear my throat. Religion is my pet peeve.
The old man is bending so that his head doesn’t hit the luggage rack. His breath smells funny, like he munched on garlic and peanuts.
“Are you a true Muslim?” he asks Aisha. A few heads turn our way. Way behind us, the voice that complained about the music says something about nosiness. I am seething. I have been brought up to never talk back to my elders and to respect age, but I also want to stand up for Aisha. The old man is clearly a stranger to her, and I have many things to say about the hijab. And his breath was sucking the life out of me, so I needed him to sit down.
“Sir, may I ask you a question?” I ask in my gentlest voice. Aisha squeezes my hand.
“Don’t, Tony. This is my battle,” she says.
“Who are you to question me, young man?” the mzee says harshly. “Are you a Muslim?”
“He is not,” Aisha says.
“Then he should keep quiet. What does he know about Islam and the teachings of the Prophet?”
“He has kept quiet,” Aisha says.
‘The breath!’ I think to myself. ‘That breath will kill me before we debate. But he is not going to touch Aisha. If he does, I shall get involved.’
“Aisee, you need help? You need back up?” Felo shouts from three seats in front. By now, I am sure half the bus is awake and paying attention.
“No, relax,” I shout a reply.
“If you need back up, shout my name, okay? Don’t be mango mango. No one should threaten you, sawa aisee?” Felo shouts.
“Sawa,” I shout back.
The bus suddenly slows to go over a bump and the mzee, chest suddenly pressed against the back of my seat, exhales. The breath makes me wish for death. He sits down and I thank the heavens that it is over. Then he stands up again and at that precise moment, the bus swerves to avoid a pothole and the man falls over his seat mate and on to the aisle.
At the back of the bus, the voice says how some people must have been a nuisance from birth.
“Sorry…pole sana,” the man apologizes to his seat mate. Now he is in the aisle and in front of Aisha and I. Mercifully, I am on the seat next to the aisle so he can’t reach Aisha.
“Wear your hijab right this moment. If you were in Saudi Arabia, you would be stoned,” he says.
“But sir, with all due respect, I am on a bus heading to Kakamega.”
I love this girl. Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and Kuwait allow women to dress however they want, I want to add.
“Wear your hijab! You are not a full Muslim until you are properly dressed.”
“I have not travelled with one,” Aisha says, then to me: “I have been brought up knowing that it is not a commandment. It is a cultural thing from Saudi Arabia where there is a lot of sand. Both men and women wear hijabs so that the sand doesn’t get into their hair.”
“Do you now know more than the Prophet? Who are you to talk back to a man? May Allah the Merciful turn you from your path to jahannam.” The mzee reaches up to his bag on the luggage rack. What is he removing? A whip? A belt, to serve the same purpose? I keep my eye on his hand, praying for heavy oncoming traffic to light up the interior of the bus.
“Buda kuna diambo?” Felo the Carefree shouts. I don’t reply. “Man down, ama?”
The mzee removes a shawl and throws it on Aisha’s head. Felo stands up.
“Relax, Felo. I’ll shout if I need you.”
“You child of poor upbringing, cover your head,” the mzee says.
“The Qur’an says that the best hijab is righteousness,”Aisha quietly says, folding the scarf.
“The Qur’an says: And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty or ornaments except that what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty,” the mzee retorts.
“Sir, my bosom is covered.”
“Sir,” I say, “I would like to rest, but you are making so much noise over my head.”
The slap, when it comes, is sudden, unexpected. Not on me; on Aisha. For one long second, everyone freezes. Then everything happens at once. Felo lunges himself at the man as women shriek. I want to pummel the man but in the darkness, I can’t see where Felo ends and the man begins. The voice at the back of the bus cheers, “Box him! Box him kabisa! Woman batterer!” The driver switches on the lights and slows down. I pull Felo off the mzee. I do not want my friend to be arrested for murdering someone.
“I curse you!” the mzee shouts at Felo. “Cursed is the womb that brought you to life. How dare you hit an old man?”
“How dare you hit a woman?” Felo shouts and makes as if to throw himself at the old man but I restrain him. Part of me begins to think that this is a show for Mercy.
“What is going on back there?” the driver asks.
“Nothing,” Aisha shouts, looking at the old man, communicating with her eyes. I don’t understand why she is protecting the mzee. “The problem has been solved.” She hands the shawl back to the mzee and the driver switches off the light.
The old man sits down and in a low voice, I can hear the beginnings of a chant.
For an eternity after that, while other passengers keep recapping the situation and giving their expert opinion, Aisha and I are silent. Three seats in front of us, Mercy is trying to calm Felo down, praising his quick action. Taking full advantage, Felo keeps saying how if it weren’t for me, he would have murdered the mzee and gladly gone to jail for protecting a woman. My, the way the man milks every opportunity dry! Mercy is purring like a Runda cat. She is probably rubbing his hand. If Felo had had any difficulty before -which I doubt- now he has a smooth path to Mercy.
I am not sure where my footing is with Aisha, however. I must have seemed a coward. I was right next to her when the old man slapped her, but in my defence, no one could have seen it coming. But I have no excuse for Felo, three seats away from us, attacking the man first. The problem with me is that I am a planner. I plan which part I am going to hit first and how much damage I am willing to inflict. I am not a coward. I just think too much. But Aisha might not see that. I don’t know if she will speak to me again, and I have certainly lost a lot of confidence.
“Are you okay?” I venture a weak query. If she doesn’t answer, I’ll just sleep and wake up in Kakamega, and we will both go our separate ways and never see each other again.
“Yes, I’m okay,” she answers quietly.
“No, it should never even have happened with me right next to you.”
She chuckles. Sarcastic?
“Really, Tony, it’s okay. I’m sure you are a sweet guy.”
“I just need to be a little rough around the edges, eh?” I finish the thought for her.
“Ah, you’re psychic!”
It still feels uncomfortable. Aisha, being the beautiful soul she is, obviously has a lot on her mind but is trying to put me at ease.
“May I hold your hand?” I ask.
“Too soon,” she says.
It stings. It stings as if the old man has slapped me. My cheeks feel hot.
“Okay,” I say, trying to sound nonchalant.
We sit in silence. Behind us, the old man is chanting:
‘There are six whom I curse, Allah curses, and who are cursed by every prophet whose supplications are answered: he who denies Allah’s Destiny, he who adds anything to Allah’s Book, he who rules arrogantly, he who considers what Allah has prohibited to be lawful, he who deems it permissible to treat my family in ways Allah has forbidden, and he who abandons my Sunnah.’
I give up any hope of getting back in Aisha’s good books. It’s either she detests me or she just needs some time to clear her head. I can’t expect her to be as cheerful as before the incident, so I choose to give her some place and keep quiet. But then she lays her head on my shoulder again and sleeps. But I am unable to get excited, knowing fully well that I blundered.
The farther you go from Kericho, the drier it becomes. The hills become plains which flood when it rains, the tea plantations fade away into sturdy plants and the houses start appearing in clusters. When your buttocks start aching, you know you are around Awasi, land of the Luo. I am tired but I cannot shift in my seat because of Aisha. Men make strange sacrifices for women they do not know. But I know it is only a short while before her neck starts aching and she has to wake up. The old man is back to listening to his music on loudspeaker. I cannot even try to will myself to enjoy the music. I always knew that Islam, like most major religions, is highly patriarchal and that whatever an old man tells a woman has to be done, but I had never witnessed violence. I had only heard of it. I had read it in Khaled Hosseini’s books, but Afghanistan is too far away from Kenya.
Just as we reach Ahero, where the Nyando River bursts its banks with such great consistency that fish swim into your bedroom and you only have to scoop them up and put them in your pot, Aisha wakes up with a tired smile.
“I haven’t snored, have I?”
“You were in harmony with the bus’ engine,” I say. She laughs.
“You haven’t slept?”
“No, I had to enjoy every moment of your head on my shoulder.” I am in the zone. The ache in my buttocks is forgotten.
“Liar.” Damn the psychologist. “Don’t think about what happened too much.”
“I hate how you see through me. May I ask just one question?”
“Why did you defend him?”
She was silent for a moment. “We have seen too much discrimination. Look at him; he is an old man. If he had been kicked out of the bus, where would he have gone in that cold at that hour of the night? Someone once said Islam is peace, Islam is ease. Islam is not danger or disease. Islam is love and prosperity, not danger or diversity. Islam implores you with affection.”
“Aisha, would you consider marrying a non-Muslim?”
“Do you want to marry me?”
“I would be proud to.”
“You are hopeless.”
“I think I have a chance.”
“Confidence is all you have.”
I look outside, wondering how so much can happen in one night, wondering how deeply I feel for a person I barely know. We are silent for a while. I know how tiresome it is to talk every minute of the journey, and at this point, I have run out of stories. Aisha seems to be turning over thoughts in her mind, and I wonder how much misogyny she has endured to this point when she takes it all in stride.
Me, I want to write this story later, so I take in the scenery, the buildings whose outside walls, once plain and roughly finished, now bear branding by Omo and Assa Abloy and Kimbo and Coca Cola, the men in navy blue suits and sports shoes, trousers tucked into the socks, riding their ‘blackie’ bicycles to lord knows where this early. Soon, we reach Kisumu. It has a tangible energy about it. Maybe because the Luo speak their language with such flamboyant Nilotic emphasis, maybe because it is because of the heat, maybe because there exists preciously few quiet Luos. But the sunsets over the lake at Hippo Point are to die for. Now, we see the sun rise in a beautiful explosion of colour. Even Felo is quiet. So the old goat can appreciate beauty outside of women! Speaking of which,
“Aisha, may I have your number?”
“Is that how you ask for a lady’s number?”
“Is there any other way?”
“I need to make you work harder for it. I don’t even know what you do.”
“I’m a butcher.”
She looks at me sharply, then that gentle curtain falls over her eyes again.
“So you know meat?”
“So you can chop me into tiny pieces and nobody will find me?”
“If you continue delaying, it is a thought I might entertain.”
She laughs and says, “You’ll give me your number when we alight.”
We are past Kisumu now, past all those turns that confuse me, on our way to Kakamega. Maseno University is up ahead, where monkeys play around freely, where I once almost had a girlfriend. To hear me speak, you would think I have been in a thousand relationships, but two is not such a big number. Just past Maseno, near Luanda Market (although I cannot tell exactly where) is the place where I once brought my friend for introductions and they made us two huge ugalis and fish and chapati and potatoes and greens and beef and tea and I have forgotten what else. There were only two of us.
When you are in Luanda, you have left the land of the Luo and are now among the Luhya. Home of Jehovah Wanyonyi, the ‘god’ who died, like all the other Luhya gods that died and were replaced with Were. Land of those who eat termites fresh from the ground and hunted quails long before the rest of the country discovered them. We are coming to the end of the journey.
“I think that inherently, you are a good man, Mr. Butcher,” she says. I hate where this is going. I have researched breakup speeches before. “And I think you shall make your wife very happy.”
“Are you breaking up with me already?”
“Hahaha you know, somehow, from birth, the universe made things impossible for us. I like you, and I think you like me, but because you were declared Christian and I Muslim from birth, we cannot be together without offending every blood relation we have. Some walls cannot be broken down immediately. Maybe the children of our children’s children will have a chance. But now, in this Kenya, it is too risky.”
I take her hand and look at her. The old man behind us stands to put the shawl that caused drama back in his bag, which is really just a way of spying. Aisha does not pull away. Maybe I’m euphoric, but I have learned to trust that feeling in my belly. And it tells me that the woman I am looking at shall always be the one I shall regret never dating.
The bus pulls up at the Easy Coach office next to the mosque. Mercy and Felo are all smiles and exchange a hug that lasts too long. I look at Aisha and hug her. It is a warm hug, a knowing hug. She asks for my number. The mzee passes us, prayer beads tightly clutched, and says, “Ibilisi.” We don’t care. Then Felo and I stand and watch Aisha and Mercy as they leave in a taxi.
“Aisee, did you get her number?” Felo asks.
“I gave her mine,” I say. Felo looks at me and clicks.
We start walking away, down towards Scheme. My phone rings. I look at it and smile. Felo holds out his fist.
I bump it.