The next day, I commit my first robbery. It is a woman walking alone at 8p.m. Surgeon says I have to start with women to get the feel of things before I could handle men. He slips a rusty knife into my hands and says, “Show that bitch the knife and take her bag. If she screams, stab her so that next time she does as she is told. Then run away because if you are caught, you will be killed, and it will be just sad to die without injuring anyone.”
I puff some weed and follow the woman for a few minutes, watching people, thinking how calm the hood is at night then, when there is no one quite close, I tap her on the shoulder.
“Give me your bag or I will kill you. Scream at your own risk,” I say in a low voice. I can see the fear in her eyes. She breaths through her mouth, a thread’s width from screaming, trying to decide if she should call my bluff or be safe. Mercifully, she hands me the bag, and I melt into the alleys.
The bag has three hundred shillings, a mobile phone, a mango and identification documents. Surgeon gives me a hundred shillings and kept the rest and the phone.
“In less than five minutes, you have made a hundred shillings. If you work hard, you can make two or three thousand a night,” Surgeon says. “There is money out here. Take it. It is yours. When you have it, move out of that shack and find a better house and then go to the railway and shout Gloria’s name and see if she won’t follow you.”
So I do. There is a certain rush about it that is addictive. The fear in people’s eyes, the loot, the adrenaline in my blood. It feels better than being between a woman’s thighs in a threadbare room. This is a feeling of power; and it is the most addictive feeling in the world. Ask any politician.
From time to time, I think of Mother. The last time I saw her at her chang’aa den, she said in a cold voice, “I did not raise my boy to be a thief. I do not recognize you as my son. Don’t ever come here again.” When your mother tells you that, you know you have to make amends. I vowed to make good money and give it all to her. She would take it, because money knows no sin; if you find it, you keep it.
Four months after I start living on my own, on my eighteenth birthday, I sit with Surgeon in dead silence behind a grocery shop near the main road, waiting for office workers who had stayed out late. It is a slow night, almost as if people had told each other to avoid our path. Just when we are about to change location, a lady alights from a matatu and comes our way, walking fast. She sees us and hesitates.
“Good evening,” I say in English. English lowers the guards of idiots. Like her. She approaches.
“Good evening,” she replies, having decided that we were not dangerous.
“Do you need an escort home? The slum is dangerous at night,” I say.
“No, thank you,” she says and walks past.
“Okay, give us your bag, madam. We are thieves,” I say. She shrinks and her breath becomes heavy, like someone contemplating a scream. Then she peers at me.
“Joji?” she asks, surprised. I step closer.
“Joji you are a thief now?”
“I didn’t know it was you. You can go.”
“You stupid man. You left school so that you steal what people have worked so hard for? Foolish! I shall tell your mother.”
Surgeon comes out of the shadows and Gloria freezes.
“You are a cute girl,” Surgeon says, his voice calm and cold, like a man who knew exactly what he was doing. “Give me that bag.”
Wordlessly, Gloria hands it over.
“So I hear you have been ignoring my boy here since childhood? You think he is not worth your time? Well, today you shall love him.”
It takes a moment for me to realize what was happening. I am paralysed. I don’t know whether to help Gloria or remain loyal to Surgeon. This was not what I wanted. Gloria was the one person I cherished, the one that I dreamt of, the one that I wanted to love me.
“Surgeon, please. He has never told me anything,” Gloria begs.
“Surgeon, we could just let her-” I begin.
“Are you going against me?” Surgeon asks. His hand is on the knife. I shake my head no. He turns to Gloria and points at a shop. “Let’s go there.”
“I have HIV,” Gloria said.
“I have condoms,” Surgeon retorts, and holds the knife to Gloria’s throat.
Gloria walks unstably to the shop. Surgeon hits her in her belly so that she bends over. He lifts her skirt and plunges into her with great force. Gloria screams. Surgeon hits her. She screams again, but no one comes out to check what was happening. Surgeon plunges into her again and again, and when he is done, he commands me to take my turn with her. He stands a short distance away, watching the road. Gloria is sobbing. I am behind her, trouser at my knees, wondering if I should do it or not.
Suddenly there are flashlights on me and I turn to look for Surgeon, but all I can see is his fast-receding back as he flees. It is the police. I am hot. My breath is hot. My knees are weak. I cannot escape.
To be a criminal, you must be prepared for jail.
Before you even go to prison, you will see hatred in people’s eyes. They will hate you for just existing. They will look at you like they look at filth. You will not be worthy of a handshake. You will be accorded no respect. No one will talk to you freely. You will not be a human being. You will be just a thing, because people hate criminals. The moment you are in handcuffs in court, even before the magistrate talks, once your charge has been read out, you will see it in people’s eyes. You will be the lowest of human beings. There won’t be that fear that slum people showed you; no, these eyes will be full of contempt.
Then, you will go to the Nairobi Remand and Allocation Prison and you will find that you are less than a thing, that even a thing is better than you. You will alight from the prison bus and find the prettiest female officer standing there, looking more beautiful than Gloria. You will hold her gaze and think prison is not too bad.
“What are you looking at, you thief?” she will bark at you, her voice so loud that everyone looks at you. You will feel extremely embarrassed. “Is my vagina on my face? Even if I am given a million shillings, I cannot sleep with rubbish like you. Move! Do you think your prostitute is here?”
No one has spoken that way to you in years, and certainly not a woman. You will want to shut her up, to teach her you are king, because that is what you do in the slum. You will take a step towards her, and that is where it will all crumble. Male officers will appear with batons and make a beeline for you. Other inmates will take a step back and you will be surrounded. They will raise their batons and you will raise their hands, but they know where to hit; knuckles, knees, elbows, collarbones, shoulders, ankles. Everywhere where there shall be extreme pain but no physical evidence of harm. No swelling, no bruises. Just pain. Extreme pain.
When they are done with you, none of the other inmates will dare disobey or show machismo. You will be ushered into a search room, where an officer will be waiting for the twenty of you. You will stand naked, legs apart, bending, and you will cough as someone looks at your butt hole. That someone shall, at will, shove fingers up your buttocks and poke around, looking for contraband. Then you will go to the documentation office, where an officer will yell, “Your mother should have been done using a condom so that she doesn’t give birth to a fool like you. Place your fingers properly!”
Then when you are beginning to realize that you have no power at all, that you have no dignity, you will hand over your last evidence of freedom: your clothes. You will be given torn, lice-infested uniforms and, officially an inmate, herded to the kitchen where you will be served half cooked ugali, a single kale leaf and a lot of water that they shall call soup. You will not eat it, but nobody will care. Eventually, you will eat, because the stomach makes demands that cannot be ignored. Then you will be thrown into a cell with a very thin mattress. Stony faces will look at you. Some will walk up to you and look you in the eye and dare you to challenge them. You will not. You have already seen what resistance can do. There will be no place to sleep because the cell is overcrowded. The only place available is ‘Cairo’, at the waste bucket spot. There is a toilet, but only for short calls. Long calls are made in the bucket. It stinks worse than the open sewers of the slum. It is a reminder that no matter how tough you thought you were, in reality, you are just waste.
Even then, it will not be enough space. You cannot sleep without someone’s penis pressing against your back, or feet in your face. It is cold. The room is hazy from all the weed people have been smoking.
At 6a.m., you will hear the clang of metal from far. It will get louder and the boss of the cell will hurl insults at all of you and grown men will squat so that by the time the prison officers burst into your cell, there will be three lines ready for a head count. Then you will be commanded to clean up and have breakfast.
The breakfast is tasteless, and so is lunch. The rice has pebbles. You know because you bit down hard on one and chipped a tooth. Yet people fight over that food because there is no luxury of choice. Later, you will go to the Welfare Officer and ask him to call your mother. He will try; he will tell them that their son was in jail, he will listen and hang up and tell you that your parents say they don’t have a son, that the old woman is ailing and weak and no such call should ever be made to her.
You are alone.
You will contemplate escape, because there is no way you will live under those conditions for years. You shall ask around, quietly, and you will be told that someone was caught trying to scale up the perimeter wall, and his skull was split open. Another pretended to be sick and tried escaping from the hospital, but he was caught and rushed back to the prison and taken to a room that evening. That night, all everyone could hear were thuds and the horrified screams of a man. Later, he was brought back to the cell. He died. The officers said it was the inmates who killed him.
You cannot escape.
A year and a half later, you will go to court and be found guilty. You will spend the next twenty seven years of your life behind bars. Twenty. Seven. Years. More years than you have already lived. At Kamiti Maximum Security Prison.
You will be in the bus -a good bus, very nice and clean- on Thika Road. People will stop and stare at you and point fingers and talk among themselves. You will see women in tight jeans and low tops. You will see a man cycle while chewing on sugar cane. You will see touts shouting for passengers. You will want to stop and walk around and just feel what it was like to be scorched by the sun outside. Twenty seven years of incarceration. Twenty seven years of the same walls, same food. Twenty seven years of not saying, “I’m going to Highmax, let’s meet at the railway later.” You will think of Gloria, of the one woman you loved, the one woman you lost and would never have. You will think of Tito and what he had made of his life; whether he finally bought a Casio watch with a crowing rooster. You will think of Mother and her business, and Father and his drunkenness. You will want to go back to Kibra for a day to see them, even if they won’t talk to you; to fetch water at the community tap and sit in the darkness of Highmax.
You will finally reach Kamiti, and having learned from experience, you will not look at any officer in the eye nor respond to any baiting. You will bend and have your anus checked and you will be thrown into a cell, where the boss of the cell will beckon to you. Space will be cleared next to him and he will be brotherly. Other inmates will make do with ‘Cairo’. You will eat the good food that the boss eats. You will smoke his weed and, when he arranges to go to hospital, he will make sure you accompany him so that he also arranges female ‘doctors’ and ‘nurses’ for you who will come and, behind the privacy of curtains, make sure your penis is happy.
He will remind you of Surgeon because of the fear and respect he commands even among the prison officers. His voice will be quiet, and you will not understand why his presence rendered even the most rowdy of inmates calm. Once more, you will start feeling invincible, feeling that there was something in you that these leaders saw that made them want to keep you around. You know nothing about him other than he was in there for murder.
Until one day, while you are alone, listening to music on the iPhone he got you, eyes closed, you will feel hungry lips on yours. Shocked, you will open your eyes and find the boss standing before you, speaking strange words about loving you, strange words about wanting you. Strange, strange words that you will not want to hear. You had seen men get raped, but you have always been safe. You will see his lips moving, but you will not understand the words. He will take the phone when you do not respond.
That evening, prison officers will come and get you and lock you in a cold, dark room and give you no food. Then in the morning, you will be taken to the clinic and be injected with something you do not know. It might be water, it might be a sedative. You do not know. Then you will be taken back to the boss’ cell. He will not welcome you. He will point at ‘Cairo’ and you will know that you have gone too many steps down the pecking order. You will be vulnerable. You shall be picked on. Someone will hint at raping you. You will be afraid. You will be told how the last three men to go up against the boss all ended up dead within the prison.
In the afternoon, the boss will motion you to follow him to the yard. You shall oblige. You have seen the extent of his power. Well-positioned around the yard shall be men loyal to the boss.
“I need an answer today,’ he will say. A few of his men will shift. One shall show you a small knife.
“Boss, this is all new to me. I am willing to try, but slowly. A step at a time,” you will quickly say.
The boss shall smile and hug you. That night, you will be back at his side.
On the day he shall make his demands, on the day you shall lie on your stomach and he gets up over you, on the day you shall let go and block all thought from your mind, a tiny voice shall whisper and say, “You are not a man, Joji. You are owned, like a thing. You are less than a thing.”