Money cannot buy you happiness. But it will build you a castle in the middle of the wilderness, which should make you happy. Especially if you once owned the Steadman Group, and then sold it. That is what you will be told by George Tafaria Waititu, one lazy afternoon, while sitting on the steps of the amphitheater of the Tafaria Castle Country Lodge. If you do not get distracted by his hairstyle, you will get his point right, and perhaps take his word as faith.
He will not exactly use those words because he is a modest gentleman. He does not stick his successes on people’s faces to show them who is boss. But you will sniff those words from the aura he leaves in his wake, in his simplicity, and you will hear it in the story he will tell you about the Tafaria Castle. From that story you will raise your middle finger at that primo teacher who caned you for building castles in the air. Because there is no such thing as ‘building castles in the air’ when you really put your skin in the game.
You are about thirteen writers at a writers’ boot camp. But since writers are vain people, they will call it a creatives’ workshop. Those are just details. Point is, you are among a group of scribes chosen to write stories for consideration by Kwani? in their new issue dabbed Your Country Needs You. It is an intense workshop, all you do is read and write. But once in a while, when your fingers ache from banging your keyboard, you will take a breaks and walk around the castle.
Tafaria Castle is a vast expanse located in between the greenery of Nyeri and the dryness of Laikipia plains. You will choose secluded spot on the gentle, manicured grounds; or lie next to the swimming pool. Either way you will allow the frustrated sun to beat you, and remember how much you envy your kiuk friends. Because whenever they say they are going ocha, they call one or two hours later to say they have arrived safely. You will be jealous because for you, going ocha means booking a ticket, and travelling for 8 hours, sometimes having to share a seat with a goat or a chicken or both. You are always jetlagged from travelling in Mbukinya.
“Okuche have it easy,” you will mutter beneath your foggy breath, towel wrapped around your dripping body.
Since it is at the center of Nyeri and Laikipia, Tafaria easily gets the best of both worlds. During the day its gets so hot you will feel your brains melt. It’s the leeward side of Mount Kenya. There is no rain. Just a cold fart of dry winds. It is a wilderness. But when the sun, hyped on adrenaline and pent up exhaustion from splitting rocks all day, glides over to finally call it a day, icy winds blow across your skin and a colony of Goosebumps sprout from underneath. It gets so cold that a witch cannot even run out at night.
However, during the day, when the sun is not on your face, you will look to your right and see the Aberdare Ranges. They go up and down in an orderly series like contours of a model’s biceps, stretching all the way to where the last of the hills kiss the sky.
If you are lucky, you will find a cool bloke named Joe at the entrance. He is a tall, dark dude in a wrong profession. The moment he greets you, that is when you will know why he is a wrong profession. He has a deep baritone that sounds better than Nick Odhiambo’s. He can easily make a good radio presenter, or a brilliant voice over for commercials, but he is trapped in the sweltering plains of Laikipia and Nyandarua. Welcoming guests to the castle with his signature “Oh yes” response to everything.
Tafaria Castle will disappoint you though. When you were selected to attend the workshop, you went on Google to see where you will be staying. From their website, the castle looks like something from a Game of Thrones scene. You will be disappointed because you expected to see King’s Landing, with guards dressed iron metal knights on horses. Maybe a brat on the Iron Throne, proudly seated on that cocky throne, ordering people around- his tone boasting the personality of a used toothbrush. You had expected to see maidens with dresses that sweep the floor; beautiful maidens with a sense of humor so ugly it could stop a clock.
But there was just Joe, and Jeff. The two waiters, dressed in kawaida plain clothes, and dripping courtesy up their sleeves.
Lucy is the lady chef you want to find. She makes kick ass Spanish omlettes. More kick ass than Biko’s nonexistent logo. Your friend Mucatha will have a crush on her. He thinks she is graceful, and he will only speak to her in Kikuyu. You will watch as an ill-starred crush ensues. They will never be together. Mucatha knows that too.
Speaking of Mucatha. His real name is Mwangi Macharia. You’ll nickname him Mucatha, because in his story, the characters are always from Mucatha Heights area. Always sitting and chewing and not looking for work. His is also your roommate. A down to earth guy who pokes fun at the rest of us for being caught up in the Nairobi middle class hype. He does not use forks and knives at the dinner table. To hell with outside going in. He washes his hands and digs in with his fingers. He says the rest of you are just beer folk with champagne taste. And he is right.
At night, you will find the room service guys have left you a flask of hot water in between your sheets to keep you warm. Mucatha will use his to make coffee.
When you arrived at the Tafaria Castle, you will realize that they booked you in the Damsels Quarters. You will wonder why folks at Kwani? thought a name as masculine as Magunga belonged to a damsel. When you meet for lunch, sipping steamy Asparagus soup, Alex (another brilliant writer at the workshop with a knack for wordplay) will insist on calling you Lady Williams. He will also say something smart about your broken front tooth.
But you will be quiet. You are the bigger man. He is the guy in the locker room running around naked, slapping other players on the ass with a towel. But do not let him offend you. His jokes are well meaning. And you do not want to be impetuous when amongst a crew of creatives.
That, however, does not mean that you won’t suppress the urge to ask him what ever happened to his lips. Anyone who has ever met Alex has wondered if he once kissed a hot iron box as a kid.
Sometimes in between meeting the sexy accented NoViolet Bulawayo, and reading, writing, editing, riding quad bikes, and being teased by Alex, you will have time to talk to Kate Hampton. She will tickle your fancy, because she is an odiero who chews miraa, and her mind is sexier than NoViolet’s Southern accent. She will teach you yoga, and take you bird watching sometime in Tafaria’s Conservancy.
Since you are a goon, you grew up chasing tail, never birds. Birds were food. Bird watching? Tell that to the birds. So for a moment you will imagine it would be a fun thing to try out the hobby. Why not? Deep down you know you are only going bird-watching to watch the bird watcher.
To your delight, bird watching will not go so well. Birds will be escaping the heat too. To kill time, you will suggest that they go for a brief hike in the hill. And it turns out to be a thorny, thirsty, scary, extremely fun jaunt. Until the trail leads up to a cave and the escort says it must be a leopard’s den. A goat’s skull at the entrance will make you believe him. To you, the den belongs to either a leopard or a witch, both of which you do not tango with. You will turn around and walk away, but with your weather’s eye open.
Before you descend that hill, you will stop and look around. Tafaria Castle will be in the distance. A patch of green against a backdrop of withering dirty yellow landscape. It will look like an oasis. An oasis of stone and grass.
That view from the hill will break your heart because you never imagined finding beauty in such an ugly set of circumstances. You will want to stop and drink in the moment before taking selfies. You will close your eyes, and wish for that simple moment that you were God, just long enough to take his seat and look at earth from his view. At that moment you will envy God. You will not even realize it when you mutter “Lucky bastard!” under your breath.
Then nyar odiero will nudge you back to reality, and you two will lose our way back to the castle. Romantic, aye?
That day before you leave the castle, Mr. Tafaria Waititu will open his cellar to you. And writers are generally drunks with a penchant of thinking with the wrong part of their anatomy. He will throw a ball in honour of Kwani?’s visit. That is because he is a man who respects art. Writers are artists, and yes, Njoki Chege counts. Just because you do not like how makes her case, does not mean she has none. So all of you raising Valhalla, how about you stop pounding tables? How about you lower your voices, strengthen your arguments?
That night the stars will come out to say goodbye. Mucatha will be sitting and chewing and not looking for work.
Kwaito, Naija and Kizomba beats will blare over the banquet. A wispy waist will shimmy against another waist fastened with a huge stupid buckle, and you will feel a little jealous. You will focus elsewhere and you will find Alex whispering things to a birdie’s ears, gathering brownie points, before impressing her with hilarious Ohangla moves.
Free drinks will go round. A fishy pair of white rolls will accompany them, and smoke stink the air.
A raunchy tale of a Belgian lady and a lucky writer bragging Ethiopian roots will be told with valor. Another writer from Machakos will look at the stars and see a woman, and he will compose a poem on the spot in praise of her remarkable beauty. And that this when you will realize that they smoke stinking the air is illegal.
At that moment, you will wonder whether the stars judge us for the sins we committed under their gaze.