Father is snoring. Sometimes he growls and whistles through the nose, sometimes he sounds like the train. Mother used to say it is like sleeping next to a posho mill, that she’d never get used to it. But she is sleeping now. I can hear her heavy breathing. Even when she is asleep, she breathes as if she is breathing fire, as if she is about to beat someone, as if her chest is too small and she cannot get enough air. There is blue light seeping through the uneven space between the door and the floor, so I know it is morning. And I know it is time to fold up my slice mattress and put it under my parents’ bed and leave before noise from the neighbours wakes them up.
Things are a little different now. When they are awake they talk to each other, but when they talk to me, it is always ‘wash the dishes’ or ‘bring water’ or ‘disappear’. I don’t know; I just feel like I am a burden, like they don’t want me around. Then one day Mother grumbled, “Even the Bible says if you don’t work, you won’t eat.” I was hungry but pretended that I had no appetite. Then she later said, “So you think the food I cook is not good enough? Why don’t you buy your own food then? Maembe ii.”
Since that day, I try not to be in their presence if I don’t have to. I wake up when the sky turns blue and fold my mattress and leave the house and go up towards the bus stop where there are a lot of eateries. Obura is always there, drunk and asleep under his mkokoteni.
“Obura, wake up bwana. Give me the mkokoteni, the women are almost awake,” I say. Obura opens one eye, then shuts it again. “Obura! Obura ebu songa. You are spoiling business.”
“Get your own mkokoteni. Bloody come on!” he says but it sounds like ‘common’.
”Obura you know if we find the women at the tap today we will sleep hungry.”
Obura moves and I pull the handcart and pick fifteen jerry cans from an eatery and rush down to the communal tap. There are only two women there. The problem with going to the tap late is that if you will find the housewives already there and you would take two hours to fill fifteen jerry cans because they all insist that each person can only fill one jerry can at a time. The one time I tried arguing with them, I was pinched and told to respect elders and I should go home and suckle until I grew a beard. So I always go as early as possible. I have to make three rounds because there are three eateries which order water from Obura. At the end of it, Obura gives me fifty shillings and keeps two hundred and fifty for himself. Sometimes the eateries give me tea and chapatti for free, sometimes they don’t. It all depends on the mood of the owner.
By the time it gets to noon, there is usually no work left for me to do and I spend twenty shillings to buy githeri then head to Highmax to watch movies. I never spend all the money because I want to buy the watch that has a crowing rooster. Sometimes Oti tells me to make more money by peeling potatoes, but with fifty shillings in my pocket, I don’t see the need to. So I watch Bruce Lee until Surgeon comes to collect tax. These days I light his weed as if I take it myself.
“You are my boy. Let no one disturb you,” Surgeon says. “If you need a job, you can come collect tax for me.”
I smile and leave.
By the time the year ends and I am supposed to go back to school, I do not want to. Once you taste money, once you are used to having some of it in your pocket, you never want to go back to having nothing, to having to wake up every morning to go and just sit in a crowded class and listen to teachers and get beaten. I tell Mother I do not want to go back to school. I expect her to beat me up, but she just cries and cries.
“You have killed me!” she says. “George Ouma, you have stabbed me in the heart. What have I done to you? Oh God, what sin have I committed? I am not your mother. No, I am not. If you do not want to go to school, then just leave and do what you want to do with your life. Mayoo, Nyasaye. Akoso ni ang’o?”
I hate to see Mother cry, but there is nothing I am doing in her house. I am not eating her food, I am not talking to her, I am not wearing her clothes, I am not making her laugh, I am not doing anything. In fact, I think she will have more peace if I just leave, so I go to Highmax and find Oti.
“Oti, I am in trouble, man,” I say.
“When are you ever not?” he retorts. “What do you want?”
“I have been kicked out of home. Please help me. Let me sleep at Highmax for a while. I promise I will not bother you.”
“With my T.V. in there? Never. You don’t have relatives?”
“My parents have told them not to take me in,” I lie. “You are all I have.”
Oti looks at me while thinking. His weakness is that he is too kind. He says I can sleep at his house as long as I buy my own food and not bring visitors.
For two years, I live with Oti, sometimes sleeping at Highmax whenever he has a woman home. Then things change in the third year. Oti wants to start a family, so that means I have to move out. He says that at seventeen, I am old enough to lie that I am an adult and get a job as a casual labourer. I am told that factories at Industrial Area pay five hundred shillings a day. Imagine that. Five. Hundred. Shillings. If I worked for a day, I could watch movies at Highmax as if I owned the place, I could buy the Casio watch with the crowing rooster and have enough money to buy Gloria chips. Industrial Area was better than being a collector.
The next morning I wake up and join the path leading away from the main road, away from those who wear shirts to work; and join the hundreds of ‘others’ who follow the railway line to Mbagathi Way, and down Lang’ata Road, past Nyayo Stadium. Walking and walking and walking, past vehicles parked in morning traffic, feeling the chill of the morning and the lukewarm morning sun on my skin; walking and wondering how frequently people buy shoes, wondering why people walked instead of boarding buses, but a quick calculation told me that if you’re stupid, when you earn five hundred shillings a day, you will spend a hundred and fifty shillings on the road. So I walk on down Lusaka Road, and branch off into Enterprise Road and suddenly I am swallowed in the belly of Nairobi’s Industrial Area.
There are people who have arrived earlier, standing outside factory gates, waiting to gain entry. I stand with a group outside a matchbox-making factory. They are strong men. Hard men. Men who give the impression that no work is too hard for them. Two guardss are standing outside the gate, talking about a fire that broke out in one of the factories. I walk up to them.
“Habari zenu, soldier? I am looking for a job,” I said. It was always good to call watchmen ‘soldier’ so that they feel you respect and fear them.
They size me up.
“How old are you?” the first guard asks.
“Eighteen,” I answer, adding a year to my age.
“Njuguna, do you believe he is eighteen?” the first guard asks his colleague.
“You know children these days eat Weetabix and soft-soft things so even when they are old they look like babies. But he doesn’t look weak.”
“Where is your identity card?” the first man asks.
“I forgot it in the house,” I say.
“Then you have no luck. We cannot allow you in the gate without identification.
“Please, soldier, help me out,” I beg.
“That is the law here. Where do you live?”
“You have come all this way for nothing. Go back for that identification. You can’t get work without it.”
I leave, walking slowly, stopping at several factories to ask, but the response is always the same: I had to have an identity card. Dejected, I make my way back to Kibra, tired of being a collector. I am hungry for more money. School is not even on my mind. No way I was going back to homework and canes and sitting with children in class. To make money, it would take years of reading and reading and looking for jobs which I would not find. I need to make money. I find Oti at Highmax preparing to play a movie. He looks at me coldly, knowing that because I was back that early, I had done no work.
“Look, Joji. My woman is coming to live with me today. So you can watch this movie then you’ll have to look for somewhere else to stay. You know I have treated you like a brother for years, but my life also has to go on. Why can’t you go back to your mother and ask for forgiveness?” he asks.
I have not seen Mother in months. The last time I saw her, she had passed outside Highmax on her way to the railway, and she didn’t even greet me because I was with Surgeon and he was busy smoking weed. Mother must have thought I was also taking it. No, I can’t go back to her.
After the movie ends, I go to Oti’s house and put my few possessions in a green plastic bag and go past the railway line, where there are more houses than traders, where the smell of weed is stronger than the smell of sewage, and find Surgeon.
To be a criminal, you must be part of a gang.
The house I share with four others is small, just enough to fit a double-decker bed and a table, which we stand on one end and lay a thin mattress on the floor on which the fifth person would sleep. The walls are made of mud and the roof is rusty iron sheet that leaks when it rains and creaks in the sun. There is no toilet close by, so whenever someone wants to do a number two, he has to wait until there is no one in the house then do it in a plastic bag, tie it and throw it up over roofs, not caring where it lands. The other four are not very happy to accommodate me but Surgeon told them they had to host me until I learned the ropes and could stand on my own.
Which has to be soon.
Surgeon starts me off by sending me to collect ‘tax’ from traders and houses. This is all I do for two months. Knowing who has paid and who has not, who has started a new business and who has closed down, who has moved out and who has moved in. All the money has to go to Surgeon, then he distributes it to each of us according to seniority and how much work each of us had put in. I always get the least because the only thing I do is collect tax. At night, after taking a drink or two at the nearby chang’aa den, my four housemates send me back to our house and they disappear until morning. They never tell me where they had been to, but I see bloody hands and instinctively, I know it isn’t good.
Then one evening, Surgeon tells me to take a walk with him. It feels good, having everyone avert their eyes when we pass. There is something raw about that power; something that makes you feel invincible. Even without a weapon, people still fear you because they knew your reputation. Surgeon gives me a roll of weed and I light it for him.
“No, that one is yours. You are about to graduate,” he says. I have started smoking weed, but I don’t like it very much. It is only for the sake of inclusion that I sometimes smoke. I hold it in my hand, then, knowing that I can’t disobey, I draw it in. My head spins a little. “Have you ever been between a woman’s thighs?”
“No,” I say.
“We have to correct that.”
We get into an alley. A woman is roasting peanuts, and another selling chips. Down the alley, women sit on stools, some plaiting each other’s hair. We stop, and all eyes are on us.
“Which among them do you think is beautiful?” Surgeon asks.
I looks at the women. None of them look as beautiful as my childhood crush Gloria. Some look old, some have horrible hair that stands like sisal. Most of them have dry skin. I point at one with plaited hair and wide eyes. She is in a black skirt and an old t-shirt. We walk up to her.
“Make my boy here a man. I’ll handle payment with your boss,” Surgeon says to her.
The woman stands up and I take another puff of weed to show her that I am not so naive, but deep down, I am tensed. Surgeon takes another lady and enters one of the rooms while the woman leads me to hers. The room is bare, save for a bed. I doubt she lives there. She locks the door and smokes my weed, looking at me intently, studying me. Then she removes her t-shirt and there is no bra underneath. My heart starts racing.
“Touch me,” she says.
I reach out and hold her breasts. I am panting.
“Grab them properly, they won’t explode.”
I tighten my grip. My head is light. I want her. I want to be in her. She slides a hand into my trousers and starts squeezing my manhood and suddenly, I feel nice and wet and dizzy and weak. It is the most beautiful feeling. I open my eyes and she is wiping her hand on a rag.
“You’ve never been with a woman, I see. Next time, if you don’t come so quickly, I’ll let you put it inside,” she says.
I put my trousers on and go outside. It is a whole twenty minutes before Surgeon came out, smiling. He bumps my fist.
“Women are yours to take,” he says.
It is getting darker now. The wave of people coming home from work is thinning. Surgeon lights up another roll and gives it to me. Somehow, the thrill of touching a woman and ejaculating, the thrill of being publicly seen with Surgeon and the weed gets me high. I don’t know how I get there, but I am at the railway shouting Gloria’s name, and Surgeon is slapping me and laughing and telling me to get myself together, that I had to get the money to take a woman out before I shouted her name in the middle of the night.