Headlights appear in the dark and we edge closer to the tarmac. She is the first one to lift her arm, and then I do as well. From that far, you cannot really tell whether it is a matatu, a bus, or one of the RPF trailers chugging to Eldoret. But at this point it really does not matter who is coming, all we need is a ride to town, and it is not that easy getting one of those from the Ukweli stage at that time of the night. It is well past nightfall. Crickets are disturbing the silence of a night with their angsty melodies. We should have left the house earlier but Mother Karua insisted that there was no way I was going to leave her house without eating first. And now here we are, standing in the cold Kajulu Hills dusk, the scent of supper escaping in tufts of white air against the light of an oncoming vehicle, hoping that this is the one that will get me town. Otherwise I will miss that 9pm Easy Coach bus, and I really cannot afford to.
It is not as if I even want to leave. But if you were brought up by a mother like this one, to whom education means so much, you cannot just be sitting at home after completing high school. You need to be doing something. Deo is at Strathmore doing CPA, so why not you? Here in Kisumu, you are just wasting daylight, building a workshop for the devil. That is why as soon as the letter came in that I my application for a scholarship had been accepted, I knew there was no way I was staying in Kisumu any longer. That is how I ended up here, with a mother so eager to send me away so far away from home.
The pair of lights slow down, drop an inch to the left and then a door that sounds like it is nursing a beastly hangover struggles open. The metals complain, but nobody gives a damn.
“Nyon uru ka wadhi madhe,” the conductor says to Mother Karua. There is nowhere to step, leave alone sit, but a full matatu is a strange concept in these neck of the woods. Soon, we are bent over, clutching onto the steel of the matatu seats, chills of wind flapping the hems of our coats outside.
On that day, I left Kisumu, promising her (Kisumu, that is, not Mother Karua) that I would be back. That I would always be back. That this thing…this education thing…would not keep me away for longer than was necessary.
I do not know many people from Kisumu who came to Nairobi and fell in love with it at first sight. Actually, I know none. I mean, sure, the tall buildings that occupied too much real estate in the sky made us wonder. We gawped at how so many buildings could be made of glass and stand. Those were things we saw in the movies. We marveled at staircases that moved up and down. And then there were the lights. The city never really seemed to fall asleep. People did not turn off their lights. Back home, we only used security lights when going to open the gates in case someone visited at night. Here, they were left on all night. It was almost as if this is where Kenyans were allowed to waste electricity.
Granted, this glitz of this city was new to us. Lakini the wonders of Nairobi did little to compensate for other things that made us loathe it. The weather was often too cold. Matatus never really got you to where you were going. That you could pay different fares from one destination to another depending on the matatu you climbed pissed us off. People were constantly in a hurry, bumping into you with bags as big as corruption scandals. They laughed at you when you got lost, or when you realized that Afya Center is actually not a big MPESA shop. Then there were the lies. Those of you who grew up in Nairobi do not understand. We knew Nairobi through songs (and the news). Krupt told us about Nairobi West and South C, Ukoo Flani about Dandora and akina Mr. Googz about Githurai. I do not know why, but in our heads, these neighborhoods were hallowed ground. Kwanza Githurai. You listened to that song and the hype made you think that that is where our war heroes are buried. So you can imagine the disappointment when we finally got to see it. And even worse, to realize that those guys WERE NOT EVEN FROM GITHURAI!!!!
We did not like it at all. Or rather, I did not like it. I could not wait to get my education and leave. But there is something this town does to people to make them stay. I came here in June of 2009 and never left. Slowly, Kisumu diminished in my eyes. It became small. Or rather, my ego had grown. I resented Kisumu for the same things I hated Nairobi for not being. Too small. Too slow. Too… too… too…too… uhm… inadequate. I nipped in for a few days – nothing more than a week – for Christmas or a wedding or a funeral.
It is incredible how easily lovers can become Longfellow’s ships in the dark. Speaking to each other in passing. Only a signal shown and a distant voice heard.
Only darkness and, again, a silence.
Then these elections happened.
If you must understand the number that the polls did on Kisumu, ask Google. It was in that mayhem that I heard her call from about 500km away. Perhaps she had been calling and I just could not hear because I had refused to listen. However, it can also be argued that I had been crying out for my hometown, because by the time I packed my bags and left, Nairobi had also poured me out like a drink. But it does not matter now, who called who. What matters is that Kisumu and I, we reunited.
On the night bus back, I sat next to a man whose body spilled over to my seat. He had one of the most incredible snores. Starts slowly, making sssshhhzzzz noises like a phone looking for reception. Then it grows and manifests itself into a farm tractor whose engine has known kinder fortunes. The day opened with my eyes still awake. My left shoulder on the brink of getting a hernia because an uninvited guest used it as a pillow every so often.
When I tell my girlfriend about this man, and how he denied me sleep, she laughs, ignoring my troubles. Almost as if I did not deserve to sleep that night. Perhaps I did not. Perhaps that is what you get when you abandon home for so long.
In my foolishness (or was it arrogance, not sure), I came back to this city thinking that I would find it exactly how I left it. I imagined that it had stayed stagnant since 2009 and nothing of substance that had happened to it. As if I was the one holding her hand, showing her the way. As if it was I who turned her cogs and made her move. Kisumu had moved on. It did not wait for me. Or any one of us who left with the promise of coming back. I had forgotten how replaceable we all are. I had forgotten how dangerous it is to love something that time can touch. I could barely recognize this place.
There is that flyover that cuts across Kondele all the way to the Kisumu Airport. Sorry, Kisumu International Airport. I had been to segments of it, but not the entire stretch. And now there is a huge roundabout beneath it under construction, waiting to be connected to another superhighway exiting Kisumu towards Kakamega.
If you met Kisumu back in the day, you would know that the road leaving the city towards Busia used to have this beautiful canopy of trees. As a child, I would know we had arrived in Kisumu when we drove through that shade. Now those trees are not there. They had to build the roads. A sad compromise, but a different kind of beauty came about. A line of street lights was put in their place. They stand behind one another in smooth succession and order like soldiers at a state function. You should see them in the evening. When the time is right, it is one of the best places to view a sunset. The sun turns into this perfect round ball, you would think it was drawn by a compass, then eases its way down through the lamp posts. Then when darkness comes, the lamps light up and the highway beneath them is washed to orange.
That Oginga Odinga Street, the one that starts from the top of the hill at KCB Bank, down to Lwang’ni has found a strange adrenaline boost. Remember the University of Nairobi? The one in town? You should see it now. They built this glass building around it, that brings the sun to your eye during the day. And Mega Plaza? Now that is the one place I cannot understand – how it morphed. The Mega Plaza I remember was not a 12 storey building. It had sijui two floors with a space in the middle – a sort of a lawn – where a perennially green tree blossomed. Nakumatt would start decorating that tree for Christmas in November. As soon as Dec checked in, they wrapped it up with running lights and fake cottons of snow. Walking inside that plaza yesterday, I felt as if walls were closing in on me. What happened to all that space? But up on the rooftop there is a view that tries to make up for it.
Growing up in Kisumu, Imperial Hotel was the place not everyone went to. Only select few. It was the iPhone of Kisumu’s golden era. You did not just lothni alotha into Imperial fwaaaa and those jogweng’ who happened to drink water here did not let us breathe for weeks. You can imagine my surprise when I went back and saw that it has been unseated from that throne. Other players checked in. Wigot Gardens, for instance. A gorgeous snack tucked away in the hills of Kajulu, whose name means head of the hills. When you sit at the poolside of this establishment, that is when you will understand how well Wigot wears its name. The rest of the city is dwarfed below Wigot. The big becomes small and the small, even smaller. Kisumu humbles itself, almost as if in worship of its magnificence.
And surely, nobody can blame it.
Then, get this, there is Home Internet. Internet connection to homes was not something we even dreamed of. Internet and water are not stuff we got at home. At least water we went and fetched from Kapenesa, but even then we had hope that someday our taps will be brought back from retrenchment. Lakini internet? Naaaah. Even cyber cafes were not for surfing the net; they were for playing video games.
Yet Safaricom Home internet has reached Kisumu. If you live in Lolwe Estate – that neighborhood that used to be a massive thicket called Museveni – then you have Safaricom Home. Which makes me jealous because this service has not even reached my ploti in Nairobi. While on the road to Carwash from town, just before you get to Kondele, there is a billboard over there announcing it. Combine that and the Safaricom 4G and you can never want for a fast connection. These chaps decided that they were not going to be left out of Kisumu’s narrative, come what may. It has not been an easy year for this relationship, but they seem pretty determined. It is almost admirable.
Then came in the uppity young crowd that grew up listening to Jay Z and Whitney. Those who do not mind Franco Lwambo Makiadi, Oguta Bobo or Emma Jalamo, but would rather be jamming to the more urban stuff. The stuff of their generation. Elani and Sauti Sol and Arianna Grande. This is the kind of crowd that calls chips fries, and have taken to mixing Swahili and English mid sentence, saying things like Chief, si you okolea me a thao. Will lipa you in a month? This new burst of life abandoned Radio Nam Lolwe and its ilk a long time ago. They listen to Urban Radio 90.7FM. Grace Makosewe, God rest her soul, moved to Kisumu to be a presenter here for a while. She was a spice of the Kisumu airwaves during her time there. There has also been Edward Kwach. And now there is this chap on the breakfast show called Chris Okinda.
I know I sound like one of those old people in shagz who marvel at how tall you have grown every time you visit. Yet, the more Kisumu changes, the more she stays the same. There are certain nuances about her, the ones that make her, her, that refused to change. That unfinished building in Kondele is still there, incomplete. There is still a spell of mystery around it. Its story still spoken about in rumours. I doubt it will ever be finished, that building. In fact, it shouldn’t. Kibuye Market – still the biggest open air market in East and Central Africa. Those guys who sell shoes on that Kisumu Boys High School wall have never left. Visitors who come to this town still run to Lwang’ni for fish by the lake, and almost none have ever tasted Anti-Theft nyama at Kakwacha. Nobody tell them. Spaces like Dunga Hill Camp, Kiboko Bay Resort, Hippo Point, Impala Eco Lodge and Kisumu Beach Resort – chill spots by the lakefront from where you sit in the evening for sundowners and feel the breeze of the lake kiss your face and hear hippos yawn, have never moved or closed down. And remain unknown to people who refused to pay attention.
And if there is one thing about Kisumu that has not changed, it is her people. This mass of human beings who talk as if they speak on behalf of God himself, these people who are unapologetic about how they spend money they have earned by their own sweat, these misjudged, highly volatile, explosive, and wonderfully created creatures with big stupid noses, vast chests and skin the colour of midnight. They are still here. Still waiting for the day a president will arise among them. Still hopeful. Still misunderstood. Still holding on to ngware – the original bicycle bodabodas. Still loyal to a fault. Still refusing to be ignored. They still come kanyakla to make big things happen. They still occupy this space with the kind of love that people are supposed to occupy spaces they call home.
And they still insist on calling the bus station stend.
I am one of those people owada.