The matatu did that thing Number 14s do where they lie ati they will pass through Mai Mahiu Road, and then they do not. Instead, it took us to Madaraka first, before joining Mbagathi Way and dropping us off at that new mall next right across the road from T-Mall. You know it? The one with Charlies Bistro? On any other day, I would take this nonsense. I would have demanded to be taken to Moi Educational as promised, or else be refunded my money. But I was not in the mood for a tussle with kangez so we just alighted, cursed the matatu as roared away into the night. Peter, my little cousin who I’d had come from tao with, stood next to me on that zebra crossing, watching lights come in white and leave in red, then crossed. This is Nairobi bana. Pedestrians do not have right of way anywhere. Not even at a pedestrian crossing.
Just as we had made the first crossing, a hooting tore into the 10pm TMall roundabout darkness. We turned just in time to see a saloon car miss a silhouette by the hair, and a hand emerged from the driver’s seat in disgust. I could not see who the stupid idiot was, but from the shape of her shadowy frame, I could make out that she was a woman. Lakini why was she walking in the middle of a round about? She must have either been crazy, drunk or toying with a death wish. Kwanza with the way motis descend that Mbagathi Way; Nairobians driving like hell almost as if that is where they’re headed!!
“What is she doing?” I asked Peter, “Why is she crossing like that?” Another pair of cars joined the roundabout from Langata Road, and she still insisted on going round the roundabout, walking on the inner lane, headon against the oncoming traffic. Uh-uh. This one was neither a drunk not an idiot. If she was, she would have run back to the pavement after the first close shave. This one had something else going on. Something seemingly more dangerous. She simply did not care. The way she did not even sidestep to miss a vehicle, how she just defined her own path and stayed on course, she seemed like either a badass or someone who had run out of shits to give. That is, if at all there is a difference.
Peter started walking away. “Just go. Nitakupata mbele.” This lady did not look like she was doing this out of bravery. She walked in small bemused steps, hands crossed on her chest, like she was hugging herself, or trying to guard her heart. I jogged up and met her on the other side of Langata Road, the side heading to Shell Langata. And the moment I stood two feet away from her, it all made sense. She was trembling, not from the cold, but from crying. You know, those shudders and spasms that consume your body when you are fresh from a proper bawl?
Deep down, I had hoped that she was merely drunk or being silly, so that it would be easier to just tell her to stop being foolish. But now here I was, with a woman seemingly ten years my senior, her mascara ran down from the salty waters of her eyes, and when the dim street light hit her face, it sparkled with pain.
“Hey madam, are you OK?” I felt stupid the moment that question escaped my lips, because she clearly was not OK, but now what the fuck else was I supposed to say? I had not prepared for this. I am not even the kind of person who knows how to comfort people. Every time someone gets vulnerable in my presence, I get awkward. I do not know whether I should hug or tap shoulders or say ‘there there’ or all of them. I am useless. And that is how I am with people I know. Now you can imagine how clueless I was with a stranger.
She did not respond. Well, she did, just not in words. She just stepped away showed me her hands in that keep off manner and then mumbled something meant for me, but said to herself.
“Listen. I do not know what you’re going through, but it is, like, dark and you almost got hit by a car. Is there any way I can help you?”
“No. I am fine.” She managed.
“You do not look fine.” She kept quiet and kept walking. “There is a place hapa Shell. I can take you there and then perhaps if you have someone you can call to come get you, I will give you my phone to use.”
“No. I am fine. Just….just…leave me alone…Please.”
All this time we had been talking, I was walking a step or two behind her, trying to be helpful while keeping my distance so that she does not get any threatening vibes from me. But the moment she said, “leave me alone” I froze. That was a rather direct instruction. You cannot force your assistance on someone. Charity is only charity when it is welcome, otherwise it becomes harassment. Something in front of me moved, a red cloth, and when I checked carefully, it was a person. A homeless person sleeping just next to the live fence on that foot walk. Looking up ahead, I spotted a few others. Some asleep, others awake, backs on the fence, wasting moonlight. Then all the lights around us went off. Kenya Power grid had lost its fire. Again. Yet the lady did not even acknowledge anything happening. She just kept walking.
Half of me wanted to go away. Clearly this woman had enough to deal with as it is, and the last thing she needed at that moment, was a man she does not know who would not listen. The other half did not feel right leaving her there just like that. So I called Jaber and explained the situation to her, because being the woman she is, perhaps she would know what I could do.
“If she said you leave her alone, then just leave her alone.”
“But…you think she will be OK on this road?”
There was a slight pause, I could picture her forehead furrowing like it always does when she does not know what to do. A heave announced her decision.
“Maybe just walk behind her at a safe distance where you can see her, but not spook her.”
The line disconnected as the lady turned left into Wilson Airport. A hoot came from around that corner, followed briefly by a bodaboda joining Langata Road. I could not see her, but I saw an airport security guard call out to someone who did not respond. By the time I got to the corner, she was already walking down towards the other exit. I went up to the guard, who was about to go after her and explained what was going on. Well, the little portion of it that I could explain.
“Ooooh. Kama ni hivyo, basi wewe andamana tu na yeye. Make sure she gets home safe.”
“Sawa.” I lied. That was not a promise I could keep. Even if I watched over her until she got to her place OK – maybe like a gate or something – there was no way I could ascertain that she was going to be fine. All I cared about was that she did not get robbed or something worse. The rest is for fate to decide.
As we approached the exit spilling off onto the road leading to Deep West, she slowed down, and sat down on a bench. I called Jaber to tell her that I was going to leave her there, because the chances of her getting attacked inside an airport (however flimsy Wilson security is) were slim. She said that was fine. “Come home, babe.”
I walked past her on the iron chair, her head buried into her hands. My heart broke for her. Nobody deserves this kind of melancholy. I tried to imagine what could have led to her kicking off the new year like this – alone, heartbroken, walking in the dark. From the way she was dressed, I could tell that she had left the house to go for a meeting. Not official, not rave. Just a simple dress, flats and the make-up that had now been eroded by tears. Had she lost someone? Had she been left by someone? Money? Family drama? There are a million possibilities that could break someone into smithereens like this, and they all played themselves out in my head.
I only came back to my senses when I saw a kiosk open. It was the only kiosk open, and even then, the man was packing up as well.
“Habari gani mkubwa?” Always call people mkubwa or chief or sonko when you need to ask them for a favour. “Mazee si you help me with a pen and a piece of paper?”
He tore a page from what must be his shop’s ledger, handed it over to me and I wrote down my phone number. I debated over which name to put there, or whether I should even include it in the first place, before settling on George, at first. Then I changed my mind. George is the kind of name any sketchy person looking for a generic name to con people with would use. Magunga was better. It was unique and definitely not a name someone would make up. And also because in my vanity, I reckoned that there was a chance she might recognize it from the interwebs. Lakini since I could not rub off George (it would look shifty), I had no choice but to use both of them. And this is the first time since 2008 that I introduced myself with that pair of names.
She had started walking again towards that Wilson Airport back exit, when I turned to take to her the piece of paper. I waited for her to get out of the airport, hoping that she was not already fed up with me.
“Hey. Again….I am extremely sorry to bother you, aki just forgive me, but if you could just take this….” She did not even look at the paper. “It has my name and my phone number. If there is anything I could help with.”
It would later occur to me that at the time I was making the offer, I had all of 300 bob on my MPESA and like 30 bob airtime. Jaber also had not been paid for Dec yet either (don’t even ask, sigh). Meaning if this woman had accepted my offer, I would have been useless. She did not.
“I do not want your number.” She said. Of course she was not being rude, but another rejection pierced me. Yeah, that was it. I was done. I wanted to leave after that. But just as I was about to fuck off for good this time, she spoke. “Thank you. You are very kind.” And my heart melted into jelly when I heard those words struggle to find their way out of her throat. Her voice crackled when she spoke; exactly the kind of sound that could come only from broken things. Then she broke down again.
“I am sorry for what you are going through. I really am.”
“God bless you.” She said, kept quiet for a like 10 seconds then said, “I have tried everything. I even tried killing myself and failed.” She held her mouth as soon as she said that, like she was trying to block her tongue from spilling any more truths. Halafu she said sorry as if she had done something wrong.
“I stay just here. Pale kwa ile building.” I said as soon as I swallowed the golf ball stuck in my throat, pointing at my apartment block, “This is not an inconvenience for me. Allow me to walk you home just to make sure you get there OK.”
“It is fine. I am already home.” We were at a junction. I stopped. For the first time since we began this chase, she paused too.
“Just hang in there.” She nodded. “Hang in there. Please.” She nodded again and said Thank You with her lips and not her voice. The night swallowed her up shortly after and she was gone, back into the shadows. I did not even notice that I was still holding that piece of paper with my name until I got to the house.
I had not intended for the blog to start 2018 on such a low. In fact, I was already three-quarter way through another piece, but my mind could not let me finish it. That lady stayed in my head, and I figured the only way I was going to get her out of my mind was like this. Even now I am conflicted about sharing this. There are two forces pulling my conscience in opposite directions. One says that it is not for me to make her grief public. It argues that this is to invite unnecessary voyeurism into a person’s private struggle. While another one says it is important that people are reminded of others in their midst. The ones that are alone in the dark, not caring about being hit by a car, because they feel like they are already dead anyway. And if you are reading this, it is obvious which of the two voices I listened to. I hope it is OK.
As for the lady who crossed the road at the roundabout, if you ever read this piece, then you will know it is you. I can understand why you would think your existence does not matter anymore, but if our encounter taught me anything, it is that there are people rooting for you. Cheering for you as you fight whatever demons you are fighting. Keep fighting, if not for much, then to keep a promise you made to a stranger you owe nothing. I hope that you find help. I hope that you find peace. I hope you make lemonade out of this. I hope the darkness fades and dawn comes for you. I hope this because Bernard Williams was right; there has never been a night of a problem that could defeat sunrise or hope. Pain ends.
For someone who makes a living out of words, I am sorry as I am embarrassed that I could not find the right ones to assuage the grief you bear.
And I really wish we had met under different circumstances.
Oh…yeah…Happy new year, guys.