Some of the best stories ever written begin with so there is this girl, right and this one is one of those. She moved into our neighborhood when I was in Class 7. She was my agemate, but for some reason, she was two classes behind me, and it did not make sense because her wits were sharper than a serpent’s tooth. She and her elder sister moved in from shagz – I think – to come live in with their cousin, Derrick, who we’d basically grown up with. And the moment they did, everything changed. Up until that August holiday in 2003, nobody really cared about what they looked like, unless it was Christmas. We played football in the dirt field next to the market, pulled ourselves in the chest of the estate barefoot, played bano and track until our palms were caked with soil, settled duels like men in Pab Remo, and raced on bikes with the madness of childhood.
Then these two girls showed up in the neighborhood, and all of a sudden everybody wanted to be seen. We started showering twice a day, stealing colognes from our elder brothers, wearing Sunday clothes on Wednesday, and God forbid you were seen barefoot ever again.
I do not know how it happened, but Irene became my girlfriend. No, I did not ask her out. I was too scared to be out in the sun at the same time she was. I could not look at her in the eyes. I could not look at those eyes. It was like staring at a solar eclipse with your bare eyes; only the bravest and stupidest dared. And God knows I am neither of those. So when I say she became my girlfriend, I mean some neighborhood council was convened in my absence and it was somewhat decided that she was mine, and I was hers. An arranged union, you could say. The boys in the hood looked unto themselves and decided that I was the boyfriend Irene deserved.
We were what, 12 years old?
So this is how the relationship looked like. We’d be sitting at a popular spot called The Slab, and Irene would appear in the distance, and my heart would start pounding like it has been paid to, and I would re-evaluate myself to see if I was at least wearing sandals, and the boys would start saying eeeeish George, si ukasaidie manzi wako kubeba makaa bana. And then when she passed by, everyone would go silent, our eyes would meet, and if you listened carefully, you’d hear us falling in love. That eye-lock is all we ever needed – it said everything we needed to say without saying anything at all. Then when she had passed and was long gone, the boys would burst into laughter, tap my shoulder and say things like, lakini George huyo dem amekulove!
Now, because that was 2003, 12 year olds did not own phones (hell, they could not even afford airtime; holding those big green Safaricom scratch cards felt like you were holding the world’s economy in your hands). Neither did they rock up at a girl’s home and tell her father Nataka kuona Irene unless he’d written his final will and testament. The adults were not supposed to know we were pushing. To talk to her, I had to send Derrick’s smallest brother. And that didn’t come cheap. He demanded a packet of chips in lieu of the very arduous feat of whispering in Irene’s ear, George amesema nikuambie mkutane kwa gate ya Kenya Re saa kumi na moja. Or if she was too busy – on the days when her folks are around – she get a note full of plagiarized Westlife content.
It was perfect, except for one thing. She went to boarding school. Meaning, I would see her for a month every three months. And when I got to Class 8 in 2004, classes started at 6.30am and sometimes ended at 7pm – with only a one week break. That didn’t leave much room for a relationship, now did it? And then some dude (I forget his name) moved back from sijui majuu – he spoke smoother, dressed better, did not own a string of mtumba, and was essentially a shinier 13 year old than me. One day, one of my boys said Irene and the dude were pushing – and many things stopped mattering.
Good thing is that the next year, I was in Form One, then the old man passed away, and then we moved from Migosi to the bushy hills of Riat. To put the distance between the two in perspective, when you stand in the middle of Migosi Site and look into the horizon where rain comes from, the hills you see touching the skies are Riat Hills. It was easier to deal with heartbreak from afar, because she wouldn’t have the privilege of seeing it.
But you know what Ben Howard said about depth over distance, yes? About how distance can mean so little when someone means so much. Hata wao waliachana tu, and once again, word got to me that Irene was single again. And so one day I picked up the phone and called. I was in high school then, so of course this was during the holidays. Derrick – her cousin – had a cellphone. However, these were those days that were terrible in hindsight. One SMS cost sijui 8 bob. And phone calls were kitu 15 bob a minute. Meaning, you had to be creative to send a message, because you did not want it to go past one page. That is how we killed vowels in messaging, and introduced numbers, and looking back now, it seems like we were texting in Algebra.
I lv u bby. Sty by d 4n 2nyt frm 9pm ntkukol.
Well, that and the fact that texting with my mother’s Nokia 3310 meant that if I wanted to type the letter S, I’d have to press number 7 five times.
Anyway, Mother Karua used to go to bed around 9pm, and she often left her phone in the sitting room. I’d wait until she stopped fidgeting in the room and then call Derrick’s phone. On the days when the devil had bent for me, Derrick was not in the house when I called and so I’d have to go to bed without talking to Irene. But on the best days – the days when the ancestor I was named after was awake – I’d call and after the phone goes live on the other side I’d hear her voice. Gentle and soothing like the soft sound of light rain.
We’d talk for as long as Karua’s phone had airtime. Talk until the beep came on, and as we did, I’d picture her in my mind. Her with the cutting eyes, gap between the teeth, hair braided (back then they were called piece not braids) and held to the back with a bunch left free at the front to cover one eye, and how when she got shy she’d look to the ground and push some of it back towards her right ear.
At first Mother Karua was furious at how her airtime disappeared. She knew it was me using up her airtime, but she could not prove it. It also helped my case that when my mother decided to make a phone call, she spoke for forever. So the chances that she is the one who finished her talk time still lingered in her mind. Until one day her phone chimed and a message came in. Her eyes squinted as she read, and she did that thing parents do when they receive a text they don’t understand – where they read it at arm’s length with furrowed forehead, and a smirk on their faces.
Then she said, “George, this message must be for you” as she handed it over to me.
It read Drk nt arnd 2nt. Dis ma dad’s 4n. Dnt kol. Lv u. 9nt. I read it, and gave the phone back and with a straight face said, “No, that is not for me. Maybe wrong number.” But we both knew that – given my history – I was not fooling anyone with that denial.
Some might say the bad luck that followed afterwards was because of that day. Some here being those people who like to speak about love and light and vibrations and energies. They will say that because I flat out denied my girlfriend the way Peter denied Jesus, I sent bad vibrations to the universe that tainted our teenage love.
Whether they are right or wrong, it doesn’t matter. This story ended the way such stories end. Realistically. Because this is not a Hollywood movie where we meet sometime in the future and then get married and have kids. I cannot remember how or why, but we drifted apart, and the love withered off. And it wasn’t because there was no airtime what not. It just wasn’t meant to be.
Every time I think about Irene, that is what I think about – the simple times. The times when you had your ears on the ground for the best available time to make a call. Or send a message. I think about those times and wonder how much worse our parents had it, because before my folks got mobile phones, I’d accompany my mom to the booth. I was not even tall enough to reach the counter, but I could see her pile shillings on the counter, pull a receiver, slip coins into the slit and then wait.
I got my first phone in 2008 after high school. Mother Karua came back home one day with a new phone in a box and handed it over to me. I was not expecting it. It is not like we were wealthy or anything – in fact, times were so hard, all we had was each other. But she brought me a Nokia that she had redeemed with her Bonga points. It was the original mulika mwizi phone. A black one, flatter than the 3310, with the back light on the keypad and a torch at the front.
The line that she brought the phone with is the same one I use till now.
It has been over a decade since I owned my first phone and between then and now a lot has happened. The internet moved from computers and into our phones, Waptrick and Wapdam came and went. I lost that phone in a matatu. A jarateng’ man from my shagz became president of the United States twice. I have voted twice and my guy has never won. I came this close to marrying someone’s daughter. Data has become so cheap that being online is no longer for the rich. Nobody uses rocketmail.co.uk as an email anymore. Safaricom celebrated their 19th birthday last week and they are now on their third CEO – a Kenyan no less. Nobody still calls chips njiva (a tragedy), and that also means nobody still eats njiva by toboaing the corner of the juala and sucking out the potatoes in a paste (a worse tragedy). I moved to Nairobi, and chapo and chicken are no longer Christmas food. There was a time you did not just eat chicken and/or chapo anyhow, and when you did, you did so with respect. These days chicken has lost its ndhandhu.
But you know what hasn’t changed? Irene. Still the same girl with the same eyes. The only difference is that nowadays I can look at those eyes without losing my definition. They are still beautiful, they just do not have the same effect on me. Last I saw on Instagram, she is in Germany. Engaged to be married to a mzungu. Good for her. And for him. Especially for him.
We used to talk sometimes. But those times are now long gone. Just a like on Facebook here and a double tap on Instagram there. It is just absurd, though, how when we had such slim chances of communicating, we did everything to find a way to talk. And now when getting in touch has become so easy, we don’t.
Safaricom came in as the network to connect people. What you do with it is really up to you, I guess.