“Did you have a graduation party?” she asked. We were on our way to a graduation party for one of her friends in Umoja. I was driving, and she was riding shotgun. This car I inherited from my elder brother still needs a few things done before it can be in confident condition, so at first, when she said we should just fuel and go instead of getting a cab, I hesitated. I like driving to places around tao and my neighbourhood, so that just in case something happens, I am not too far away from help. The sun was out, the windows were rolled down, and the radio isn’t working. So we filled the space of silence with conversation. I turned the nose of the car to take the third exit at the University Way roundabout, and pressed the gas as the car eased into the third lane on Uhuru Highway.
“Because I regretted having mine,” she went on, “spent a lot of money on it.”
“What else would you have spent that money on?”
“I don’t know…it just felt like a lot to have spent a party, you know?”
“Actually, I don’t. Weren’t you happy?”
“Your friends and family too?”
“Then there is nothing to regret, please.”
If I was being touchy, it is because my graduation is still a touchy subject for me. It has been five years since, but it still smarts. I did not have a graduation party, not because I did not want to, but because it came at a time when I was alone. As it happens, when you finish your undergrad, your family holds a bash for you. You are just fresh from college, you have air in your pockets, so your family comes through for you. Barely a year before my graduation, my brother Deo had also graduated with a First Class Honours from Strathmore Uni, and my mother threw the mother of all bashes for him. Yaani, she even told me to get girls from my campo to attend and dance at his bash. Pretty girls, she insisted. And she paid for everything to get them there.
Then when my turn came to wear the black hat, all I heard was silence. Silence and a sentence I will never forget; “what will we be celebrating and he has refused to be a lawyer?” Mother Karua said those words when speaking to someone over the phone – don’t recall who. I remember wondering whether graduation parties are supposed to be in celebration of a remarkable achievement, or carnival in anticipation of what I was going to be in future. I mean, I had graduated with Second Class Honors, Upper Division. 64 points. That meant nothing for as long as I was not going to practice what I had studied?
I turned the car into Haile Selassie, and as we got to Muthurwa, heading towards Jogoo Road, I could not look at Achamin in the eye. I did not want her to notice me blinking back the waters in mine.
Lakini I am not writing this now because I still hold beef against Karua. We are good now. Or because of the question Achamin had asked me in the car two days ago. Truth is, I would not have written this if I had not woken up today to the news of Bob Collymore’s death. This is supposed to be a tribute to him, and here is why.
Maybe things have changed, but the way they used to work for us in 2014, was that we finished coursework and exams in May, and then wait to graduate in Dec. So in between, some people went to look for internships in law firms, others went back home to rest. By the time I was leaving campus, I knew I did not want to practice. I had fallen in love with writing. Of course, my mother took it badly. And in her defence, it is because she did not understand what the hell blogging was. To her, bloggers were people who went online to insult the president. Her definition shaped by what she saw in the news and papers. She knew bloggers to be akina Robert Alai and Dennis Itumbi – people who, in their own way, made it their sole mission to embarrass the government.
We got into it. She said if I thought my balls had filled my hands, then I should leave her house. She meant it as an empty threat. I did not take it as that. But by around September, I knew I was already done with this mess. I had a job as a copywriter for my cousin’s husband’s new ad agency in Upperhill and took home 25k every month. By then, my cousin and her husband were getting heat. Karua did not like that they employed me, because that only added to my confidence to not go to law school. My cousin’s dad (Karua’s brother) – as I was told when I was called into the boss’ office one afternoon – was siding with his sister. What they were trying to say, was that I needed to be let go.
Then one afternoon in late September a phone call came in, from a person I did not know with a number I did not have.
“This is Brian Mung’ei from Safaricom.”
Shit, what had I done? Si deni ya Mshwari nilikuwa nimelipa? I looked at the phone again. It was a strange number with many zeros.
“Do you have a few minutes to talk?” Turns out I did. He wanted to know if I had heard of a project called Capture Kenya. I had not. He explained it to me. He said they wanted to take me out for an all-expenses-paid tour Northern, Eastern and Central Kenya for a week and write blog posts. “But there is a catch.”
“You need to be available as from tomorrow afternoon.”
“Like tomorrow tomorrow?”
I had a job that I was trying to keep, because I needed its money to move out from all the pressure at home. My dismissal was imminent, but I did not want to give my bosses an excuse to do it.
I told Brian that the notice was too short bana. He said he was sorry, but someone else who had been chosen for that gig had just pulled the plug from his end, and they were looking for replacements, and I came highly recommended.
I wondered how high that recommendation went.
Then he said, “we will be paying you two hundred for the job.”
“Two hundred per day?”
I was already doing maths in my head. Two sok per day for ten days is two thousand. Kwani these people think writing ni kazi ya mjengo bana? I was not going to ask my boss for ten days off so that I can go earn two thousand. Thao mbili? Ai bana.
“No,” Brian said, “thousand.”
“Oh, two thousand a day?”
Two thousand per day, for ten days. That is twenty browns for a ten-day job. Damn. I earn that much in a month, and they want to give me that for ten days? I was game. If it came through, I could use that money to move in with my friend Oscar like we had been planning ever since the stink with my mother began.
“No,” Brian said. “I mean two hundred thousand.”
“For ten days?”
“No. Nothing. Sorry. Give me a second.”
I hang up.
I took more than a second before calling back, but when I did, I had leave days. That evening, I sent Oscar all the money I had and told him to go secure the house we were looking at in Lang’ata. The next day we went to a briefing, and the people there kept saying this job was important because it was Bob’s own project. Took me a while before I figured out that this Bob was Bob Collymore. It was a photography project. Five photographers were to be taken around the country to capture it in different ways. And we bloggers were to trail them, help them when they needed, and tell the stories behind the capturing of these images. It was said that Bob himself was going to be monitoring it. They said he was a fun guy, looking for exciting stories. Like the ones Owaahh had written the year before. Then they said no pressure, though.
Like how are you going to tell me that my work will be monitored by the CEO of the biggest telecom company in East Africa, and then tell me no pressure? No pressure na umeniingiza kwa pressure cooker?
We left the next day for Garissa. I was assigned to a photographer who was apparently famous, but I had never heard of. Osborne Macharia. I remember saying to myself that I was on this job as a replacement, but this would be the last time Safaricom (or any other client) would ring my cell as an after-thought. I was going to use this to make my name. I was going to kick ass.
I think I did. Because the following year when they were doing the third edition of Capture Kenya, my call came one month in advance. And I have been writing for Safaricom ever since, especially for those projects close to Bob’s heart like Safaricom Jazz – it is not even a secret.
The day we got back from the tour, I went home picked my clothes, stole my mother’s bedsheets and a duvet she never used anymore because it was bought by my late dad, then left. I was going to start over in Lang’ata. I had foolishly thought that the 200k Brian talked of would be sent as soon as we got back. HA! It did not. Took another one and a half months – agency policy. And I got my check on the first week of December. And the moment the money landed in my account, it got swallowed up in debt and bills. But it left me feeling light, yet on solid ground. For the first time, in such a long time, I was happy.
The Capture Kenya calendar was launched the day before my graduation day. I did not even attend my own rehearsal. I was trying to please my client.
On the 6th of December 2014, Oscar and I woke up in Langata, broke. But we wore our graduation gowns, took a matatu to Madaraka to meet Deo, who got us into a cab to the University of Nairobi. I had three passes into the graduation square, but I gave up the remaining two to someone else who had a bigger family coming. We made noise and cheered and had fun, but when the ceremony was over, people departed. And even though Deo was there, I still felt kind of lonely. I kept looking around hoping to see my mother’s face, but I did not. She really wasn’t coming.
All I saw was other people’s mothers. Singing for their sons. Putting those shiny things around their necks. Some families had even hired school buses and matatus from shagz and put leaves on the front, and a board saying PRIVATE on the dashboard.
When I asked guys, “what’s the plan after? Si we go out?” they said “ah men, can’t today. Famo has organized a thing for me at home. How about kesho or the day after?” I felt happy for them, but also jealous in that stinging kind of way. I wished I had what they had.
Deo had reserved a lunch table for us at Fogo Gaucho. Nimrod joined and drove us there in the car that I have now inherited. Then dropped me in Lang’ata after.
If you still do not get how this is a eulogy for Bob Collymore, then let me simplify it for you. Up until my graduation day, I had toyed with the idea of proceeding with law. You know? The what ifs. Then Capture Kenya happened. Someone was actually willing to pay me an insane amount of money for my writing. Someone exposed me to photography and travelling. Someone showed me that it was possible to venture out and get paid. I know it was not Bob who picked me out – it was probably someone down the pecking order. But this was his pet project. And it is not the only that I have benefitted from.
Yet the best part is, I am not the only one. I am one of so many who benefitted directly from Bob’s legacy.
Bob and I never met. At events, he sat on the high table and the others like me sat at the back. But I felt his touch this far down the links of the food chain. He was in my corner, silently occupying the seat other people should have but chose not to. And yet we were both so beautifully unaware of it. When he came back from London for treatment, I wanted to have an interview with him, but I was too late. After speaking to Jeff Koinange and Jackson Biko, he could not do any other interviews.
And for someone who did not even know me, I did not know how best to eulogize the man without coming off as a mourner grieving louder than the bereaved. So I called Sarah and asked her what can I do? I do not know Bob’s personal story. I wish I could write that, but that opportunity has now gone back to the soil with along him. I told her that me telling my story of Bob would sound phony and imposing because if there are people who are supposed to be loud about their grief are his wife Wambui and his kids. And those who lived and worked closely with him. Then I told her a truncated version of this story, and she listened, and when I was done, Sarah said, “you see what you have just told me? Go write that.”
Tomorrow, there will be a private cremation and interment of his body. And even though the flames that will eat his body to ash will eventually die, I can only hope that the ones he lit in the altar of so many people’s hearts will keep burning in memory of a man that truly loved the world he left behind.