The heart of Garissa is actually green. Not with envy, and not around the gills either. Green with flourish. River Tana makes sure of that. Team Osborne is kitu fifteen kilometers deep into Garissa. Osborne is raring for a shot that he has pictured in his head. We are to make it work. We have to make Osborne happy. Omar is our local guy, the connection. He understands Garissa better than cave men understood hieroglyphics. He regales us with tales of how banal bombs are here. Speaks of them as easily as we speak of traffic jam or overpriced coffee. He shows our driver a route from Meru into Somalia. Ati our driver is wasting himself chauffeuring sponsored local tourists around, when he can be paid a handsome Ksh. 150,000 per day.
We get to a location that Osborne likes. But first, we need to talk to the locals for consent. Karanja, our locations manager accompanies Omar to some homestead by the roadside. Less than five minutes later, they come back. The old man has refused. Apparently, there is an ancient Somali taboo that forbids foreigners from taking pictures of a Somali man’s homestead or camels. Otherwise, they will all die. The old man will not run the risk. He cannot break a custom, not even Safaricom is worth that sacrifice.
Stranded. Now, Osborne is a rather calm guy. He does not speak often. But his face is a white board. Any feeling is splattered across his face. I can tell that he badly wants this particular shot. It is barely 8.00am, and the last thing I want to deal with at this time is disappointment in his face.
The presence of a tour van in the area attracts attention from locals. Five herders in the distance approach. Three are wielding pangas, well ground. Two are swinging clubs. The sight of them mocks my guts. I hate people who bully my manhood like this. I already have no beard at all, so why rub it in my face that you are the man? It’s juvenile.
But they come in peace. My insecurities are flaring. They just want to see what the half toothed goons are thinking parking a van in their back yard. We tell them. More like Omar tells them about the taboo. They leave to hold a brief kamkunji behind a thicket. I do not understand why they have to hide, because for one, we do not understand Somali so they can take swings at my chipped tooth or black skin or bristly hair without me knowing. Two, the thicket practically has four to six leaves, so it is not really hiding. Three, they are so damn loud, so it beats the entire logic.
Omar tells us that they are sons of the old man. They put the question to a referendum and finally disperse to go talk to the old man. They come back to say the old man is an old gourd, firmly rooted in the beliefs his father taught him, and the fathers before him. However, he also understands that the only constant thing in life is change, and that these are new times, and that his fore fathers are not present. So for the right price, he is willing to look the other way. Say, uhm, Ksh. 20,000?
Of course Karanja furrowed his forehead. He stubs out a cigarette to the sand and pulls them aside. It does not take long before the gods are appeased with an agreeable consideration. Lights, cameras and wires are offloaded. Osborne gets his shots.
It is a hurried session, because the old man says time is of the essence. Then we head back to Garissa Town to meet some artists who we believe are worth a month on the Safaricom calendar. With sand in our shoes, we alight at the cultural centre. Omar knows a guy who manages these ladies. The proposed shoot is along the banks of the Tana.
I have only heard of River Tana in two places; Geography classes and from Mungatana’s mouth. Now here it was. Right before my eyes, and the grandeur in my mind, the thoughts I once had of it withered. No crocodiles in sight. The mass is huge yes, and the fear of its dregs coming out any time is real, yes. But still, no crocodiles. I am disappointed. But who gives a damn? I am not Osborne. This is not my trip. Get your shit together, Mr. Goon.
The Gargar Group sings. They dance. They give us some Saudi Sol. The kind they give when they go to Paris, UK, US and Pakistan. They are bigger than most musicians with Youtube Channels. Osborne is on the ground, clicking. Fortune is taking selfies along the river. Karanja holds the lights and our driver holds another light. Omar and his band stare in awe, constantly asking Osborne if he got the right shot. There is a log in the river. However much I wish it, it still is not a crocodile. Osborne rises. Sand stuck on his skin. His face glistening from the sweat trailing down his face. His breathing is shallow and fast and he is done. Twenty three different smiles on his face. Sunshine in his eyes. They look like Tuesday evenings in Bondo. Bliss in his fist bump, and the shoulder thing Nairobi dudes do because hugs are awkward.
Fortune and Karanja shake hands with the manager. Then some Safaricom branded T-shirts are distributed to a bunch of cheery women. As we say our goodbyes, the manger tells us the he also has his own construction company just in case we need anything. Karanja says sure and thank you.
We drop Omar back in the hotel. He asks me to WhatsApp him the behind the scene images.
“Nipe email address yako nikutumie. Tuko na mbio.”
“Eeeh, si uko nayo?”
“Ndio. Lakini yangu ni kama imevunjika.”
I take his number and send him two images on the promise that he will fix his broken email address and text me.
We begin the drive back from Garissa. Osborne, Fortune and I sleep half the way. The wind gushing into my face from the crack on the window lulled my to sleep. We wake up to find ourselves in Mwingi. Lunch is at some hotel where chicken is hard as if they marinated it with Simba cement. This same place where a young man with a stomach walks into the hotel and an old man with prominent sprays of white hair stands up to greet him; bowing and saying ‘Karibu mzee’ profusely.
The last shot for the day was meant to be some kids driving cars made of sticks and plastic. Karanja spotted them on our drive to Kitui for the night. The sun is on her homestretch. Osborne asks us to turn around and go get them.
“Are you sure? It is getting dark.” The driver asks as he makes a U-turn.
“Yes. I can work with the sunset.”
It has been a good day, let’s just quit while we are ahead. I want to tell Osborne, but he is already reaching for the camera.
Karanja and I go to talk to the kids. They see us coming, abandon their cars and scoot for home. I pray to God for the sun to stand still, nothing. It takes talent to convince their mother that we are only interested in pictures, not the kids. She agrees, but says that she is calling her husband to let him know. Fortune says sawa. Osborne is competing with time, but by the time everything is set, the sun already dipped.
A creamy KBK pick up arrives in under five minutes. It circles our van, revving its engine before parking behind us. Out steps a man blowing smoke, a stick with a red glow end in between his fingers. Its her husband. Karanja explains, Fortune elucidates. He asks for our papers. And when the two are done talking, he looks at the papers, takes a drag and asks, “Lakini kwa hii karatasi sioni stamp ya Safaricom.”
Nobody answers this question. Karanja pussyfoots around it. Fortune simply regurgitates that we have papers and licenses from the government. All they are really saying is that, “Enyewe anyone can have papers written Safaricom Limited lakini just take us by our word. It is our only bond.”
The mother shows him the money we offered. He takes it, counts it, says sawa and then hands it back to her. Her hand disappears somewhere inside her T-Shirt and comes out empty. Then he drives off. We agree to come back in the morning for better shots.
It is thirty minutes to Kitui. On our way we see a KBK pickup parked outside an establishment lighted with red lights, and painted Tusker Lager yellow and black. We drive around looking for a decent hotel. They are discussing which one is best. I am too tired to engage. For the first time, I can’t stand my own armpits. If sore throats had a scent, they would smell of my armpits. Earphones. Brad Paisley’s Whiskey Lullaby is roaring inside my head.
The van pulls up in front of sign written Kitui Cottages.
(Photo: The Singing Women of River Tana, by the Chief Goon)