At first, I figured that perhaps it could be that the Canon 7D had finally began to fall apart. Which would be unfortunate because I did not have another hundred and fifty thousand browns to get another body. I still do not. I have more than enough quarter life crises to not simply have that kind of stash gathering dust in some account. For the longest time, I used to imagine that this 7D was a wasted investment on Jaber’s part. She had it shipped in in 2009, not because she is interested in chasing the sun or capturing light, but because some charlatan who worked with her in a production company convinced her that she would make a killing hiring it out to other production houses. She bought into that lie and bought the camera jointly with another friend of hers. But just like any other, camera technology changes like quicksilver. Nothing stays hot in the industry long enough. The youth of the 7D waned before they managed to get back their investment, and in its place, other Ds came up and robbed it of its position. And so when I finally met Jaber in 2014, this DSLR was a constant source of confusion. What was a girl like this doing with equipment like that? Fast forward to 2017 and my writing has decided to share the real estate in my heart with other interests. Chief among them being photography. That is how I end up peeping into the viewfinder of a DSLR pointing towards Ngong Hills one mid-May afternoon. The sun was sliding down from the sky like a drop of rainfall on a windscreen, and there I was, firing firing firing shot after shot through a window’s glass. Damn! I wish you could have seen that sunset. If someone had told me that it was the byproduct of Donald Trump having unprotected sex with an orangutan, I would not have believed her, but I would have understood where she was coming from.
I had been shooting for like what, three weeks? The first thing that photography teaches you is how to wink. If you cannot do not that, you are better off sticking to your day job. You have to shut one eye, while looking at what you are trying to capture. And there is no way you can do that without wrinkling up your face and transforming into an avocado that has stayed idle for too long. If I cheat I hate God. Look at a photographer using a DSLR the next time. Watch them as they bring the body of their camera to their face. Some even end up showing their teeth. It is one of the most unflattering things you will ever witness. It does not matter whether the photographer is male or female, bearded like Sebastian Wanzalla or penguin buttock-chinned like Mwarv, experienced or rookie, young or old, whether you are using a 1D or a point and shoot. Photography does not respect any such binaries. At the end of the day, when you finally find yourself at that moment of reckoning, you will turn ugly.
However, that single moment of ugliness is not anything peculiar to photographers. Come to think of it. Have you ever seen an athlete or footballer or farmer or even a pornstar at their moment of want? The faces they make. Be it when Usain is dipping at the finish line, or Cristiano going for a header or a man in the throes of passion. That is the moment their vanity becomes most vulnerable. In that second, they do not care about looking good. Hell, in that second, they do not care about anything else other than making history, making that moment count, because chances are high that they will not get another opportunity to leave a footprint in the sands of history.
If you had seen me with that 7D, face washed orange by the evening sky, furtively squinting to take what in my head was a money shot, you would imagine I was one of the greats. The Muhammad Ali of landscape photography. You would not have believed that I was merely weeks into this thing, and, like an excited child with a new toy, I was all over the place.
What you may have noticed, however, was the confusion in my eyes when I changed my view from the right eye to the left one. How, in an instant, the world decided to stop making sense. I did everything by the book. Kneeling down like I am about to make a proposal, folded elbows tucked to my chest for stability, and fidgeting with settings in Manual Mode after every shot. Lakini when I shut my right eye and used the left to chungulia into the view finder, everything became hazy. Blurry. Like a stubborn dream that refuses to come back to you, yet lingers at the edge of your reminiscence.
I did what everyone else in my position would have done. I wiped my lens and then tried again. Still nothing. No clarity. In panic, I thought that the 7D had finally embraced its mortality like an old friend, which would not be so good for me, because then I would have to face the wrath of Jaber; in her mind, she lent me the camera when it was working and now it was broken and so was our relationship. The sun was now halfway into Ngong Hills with no intention of slowing down. With only a half of it now visible to the rest of us, it looked like a half dipped sacrament waiting to be swallowed. I wiped the glass in front of me, thinking that maybe there was a smudge ruining my view. Then tried again. Still, everything before me seemed as if someone had accidentally besmirched the air with Vaseline. On the verge of giving up and looking for lines to feed Jaber following the demise of her camera, something asked me to try again with my right one and bam! Everything was back in focus.
In disbelief, I took the viewfinder to the left and again, shit was acting all weird. Ah. Kumbe I was worrying over nothing! There must be sleep-crust in my left eye, I thought. Rubbed it. Licked a thumb and ran it over the precipice of my eyelids, blinked repeatedly, and then tried again. Still nothing. Oh hell. The sun has already set anyway, I told myself. This must just be something stuck on my lashes or I must have slept badly yesterday.
Just to be sure, I figured I should to wash my face to see what happens. Climbed down the stairs one floor and into my house. It was a Sunday so that means we had guests over to shoot Y Do We Do It. I did not speak to any of them when I walked in. Just unhung the camera from my neck, placed it on top of the shelf my books used to imagine was unshared territory, then called Jaber to the bedroom. She did not come immediately. By the time she did, I had washed my eyes with soap, rinsed them like they were being prepped for surgery and then patted them dry with a towel. She found me lying on the bed with the lights on, my right eye blocked by one palm and a copy of Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi in the other.
“What is it?” she offered. I did not answer. Instead I pulled the book so close to my face, I could smell Makumbi’s words off the page. Negative. Then pushed it away, extending my hand as far as possible, throwing my head back and squinting hard; the idiosyncrasies of my old man when he used to read newspapers without his glasses. Still, negative.
“I cannot read.”
“What do you mean?” You have got to understand her question. Unexplained, my statement could rightfully imply that I had instantly become illiterate. That perhaps someone, most likely in a fit of vengeance, took things too far and slept outside for me; took a white cow and a green goose, a sack of yellow charcoal and a boatful of browns to a Mganga Kutoka Tanga, who then summoned Black Magic to take away my ability to read.
When I looked up to the direction her voice was coming from, my right eye still covered by my palm, what I saw was not what I am used to seeing. Not the girl with pale African poetry sclera, skin smooth as water and a head full of locks that used to be burning orange, but have now died down slowly, simmering in the embers of a faded blonde. Instead in her place stood a sort of apparition. A white silhouette, if you may. A milky figure, made obscure as if on purpose, a la a protected eye witness giving video testimony, asked what I wanted from it. If circumstances were different and I was in the Old Testament, I would have sworn Yahweh had appeared to me.
“I mean, I cannot see. This eye is not working.” Immediately I said that, I regretted it. If there is anyone who takes to panic faster than Bruno Mars to a line of cocaine, it is Jaber. By the time I let go of the right eye and allowed it to adjust to the light, her face had already been painted with worry. “As in, everything is grainy. Si Samora wears specs? Hebu ask him to give them to you for a second we try?” She turned to leave. “And Aggie too.” I did not know what the problem with these two people’s eyes are, but Aggie’s glasses are as thick as thighs. Hopefully, one of those two could rectify my vision and then we would know what the hell was going on.
They did not.
I have a confession, and please try not to judge me. Up until a month ago, I used to think the professional name for an eye doctor was an optician. Clearly, school fees were wasted on me. It is ophthalmologist. This I know from Troy Onyango who also sports some Baus spectacles so thick, I have always imagined they can help you see an idiot’s point during an argument. Which must be why he engages so much in online debates about African literature; writing and responding with essay-length commentaries in the comments section. I think it is cheating. Clearly, he is unfairly advantaged. Yet, he is the one who inboxes me after I post about having been diagnosed with cataracts. Cataract is not the kind of thing anyone wants to be told he has in his eyes. The first time this ophthalmologist (aki I still cannot pronounce that word) told me I have cataracts, I picture ballast floating in my left eye.The first thing they do to you when you go for an eye checkup is return you to nursery school. They tell you to sit down and a man points at letters of the alphabet, asking you to say them out loud. The only difference between Lions SightFirst Eye Hospital and Majapo Nursery School is that the former has letters diminishing in size. But still, as I sat on that chair, a palm plastered over the right eye, I could not help but feel stupid. Because I got none of the letters correct. And so it came to pass that after sixteen years of schooling Magunga Wuod Meja could not spell out the letters of the alphabet.
The dude kept running his hand up and down the scale and at some point, pissed at my own inadequacies, I told him, “Dude, I can’t see shit.”
“What about these?”
“My fingers. How many am I holding up?”
I rolled my now defunct eye so far back, if it were still in its hey days, I could have witnessed my digestion happen in real time. I wanted to tell him, “Thirty,” because what part of Dude, I can’t see shit tells him that I can see his goddamn fingers?
But I did not.
I just shook my head.
“OK, you can go now.”
I did not need telling twice.
I spend the next hour or two doing tests in preparation for a Dr. Yogesh Panwalla. Nurses come and put drops in my eyes that make them burn. Then they take me to a room where one of them ties a cloth around my arm and then types something on the machine. The cloth tightens around my arm, but not painfully, it feels as though they are inflating it like a football. The machine beeps and the tightening reduces. She writes something on a piece of paper and hands it back to me. I am taken to another room where they ask me to put my chin on this thingamabob that has a little circular screen staring back at me. She asks me to look at it. I do.
“Do not blink,” comes an instruction I fail to follow because I am trying to focus and my eyes are leaking. There is a picture inside that contraption. Something like a house on a farm, I think, but my eyes cannot focus on it, so they leak and leak. And I blink and blink. She puts me on another similar thing. This one has a red spot inside it. “Look at it and do not blink.” I wonder how many people she has dealt with have actually obeyed her. She does not warn me about what happens next. That blahdy equipment spits air right into my eye and I jerk backwards like WHAT THE ACTUAL HELL?
She writes something down and then gives me another paper. The nurse who brought me to her directs me downstairs for a blood test. All the way down, I might as well be walking during a blackout.
I have never liked injections.
By the time I get to Dr. Yogesh, he is almost leaving. I am the last patient. He repeats that thing where I put my chin on a contraption that blows air into my eyes. This time I know it is coming, but the timing still catches me off guard. The old man looks at me, remorsefully removes his spectacles and then asks, “How old are you?”
“And what do you do, Mr. William.”
I got his question the first time, but he did not get mine. My name is not William. It is Williams. Or Magunga. Or George. Or Oduor. Or Opinya. Or even Jakom, Goon or simply G. But not William. I am Williams. With an s.
“I am not sure. I think he just sleeps.”
Surely, what else do dead people do?
Kwani who else are we talking about here?
“No. I mean what do you do for a living?”
“Yes. You. Do you work in a salon…or…construction…or at a factory?”
“No. I wish my job was that fancy. I am a writer.”
It is Dr. Yogesh who says cataracts have invaded my eye. He does not tell me how. He does not tell me why. But cataracts are for old people? I ask. No, he says, people get cataracts all the time. Some are born with them. Others acquire them…like you. Others, most of the time, get them in old age.
“When did you notice this problem?”
While my peers are acquiring land and companies, me I am acquiring cataracts. Congratulations Magunga. Well done, JaKomenya.
The moment he is done, I am rushed to another doctor. Dr. Jyotee Trivedy. She has a corner office that has not seen rest ever since I checked in here at 2. Dr. Jyotee wears her hair tied at the back. A tepid, intentional smile is part of her fashion sense. She asks me if I have insurance and I say no. That I will pay cash. She explains to me, while writing something down a piece of paper, that I will need laser surgery. I still cannot see, thanks to all the stuff they have been putting in my eyes. I mean, they are open, but they are soaked in water. Both of them. She says that the 25th of May is available. But then also explains that this is not an intrusive surgery, that there will be no wound or scar, and somehow in her head that makes sense to me.
“The bill is KES. 95,000,” she says, penning it down for me, as if that is a detail I can forget. 95k that I do not have. What I have are eye drops that I am supposed to use in preparation for the surgery.
I get back to my diggz in the evening, and after about two hours my eyes come back alive. The right one, at least. For the first time, I peruse through the papers from the hospital and in one of them, right under a figure that declares my 4.7 blood sugar level, there is another declaration. HIV – (negative).
Aren’t they supposed to warn me before they test this one? I guess I am supposed to be glad, donge? It is the only positive thing I have heard all day anyway.
If I know Jaber at all, then I know she has kept that ammunition safe. She won’t use it today or tommorrow, or even this year. But she will. Oh, she will. This is a girl from Kanyamfwa we are talking about. I can hear her polishing it when I am not looking, waiting for an opportune time when she will lock it inside a chamber and pull the trigger. Oh! the pleasure she will take in saying I told you is still in Lucifer’s kitchen, being marinated with paprika and garlic. In 2015, this nyaloka would never stop asking me to take insurance. I did not. “Me I am covered by the blood of Jesus,” I said to her and on that night, she slept facing the wall. With her next windfall, she became Jubilee’s client. Not the political party. The insurance company. KES. 40,000 is what she paid and in return, they agreed to cover up to 10million of her medical bills should anything happen, God forbid.
It was actually in arrogance that I refused to take up medical insurance. Yes, giving away 40k also sounded like a ridiculous amount to part with, but it was not the reason for my adamance. The truth is that I have never been hospitalized before. Everyone else in my famo has. All but me. I have never undergone any major procedure and since I had been blessed with beginner’s luck, I remained steadfast in my conceited optimism that nothing could ever come after me. And now here I was, with a KES. 95,000 bill gawking at me.
Funny story. Just a little over a month before I was diagnosed with cataracts, my biashara partner at the kiosk (the other one you people do not know, his name is David Mabiria), after a brief meeting at my keja, let me in on a conversation he’d shared with someone who works at National Hospital Insurance Fund. Basically, for premiums of KES. 500 a month, we could get medical cover. He implored me to get it. Now that sounded much better than the 4ok from Jubilee. I said, What the hell sign us up.If not for anything, then for the sake of putting Jaber’s mind at ease that at last I got medical insurance. Also, 5sok a month is nothing bwana. David registered us into the scheme and made the first payment on 25th of April 2017, from which I would into an eligible card-carrying NHIF member after paying the second installment. That was supposed to be on the 25th of May. Meaning my insurance cover was going green on exactly the same day as the proposed laser surgery date.
This is not information I gave to Mother Karua when she asked me how my eye checkup faired. It is not info I let anyone in on, because I wanted to have backup in case the hospital refused to use my NHIF, since those dates were too close to call. What I did was to call my elder brother, Nimrod, and he said he could get his hands on 50k. I told him, if he could get 50k, then I could get 45k from my salo and this story was sorted. NHIF or no NHIF, I had planned how to handle this.
But then man plans and God laughs. By the time my surgery dates were merely a whiff away, the best laid fiscal plans of mice and men crumbled like a house of cards in the eye of a hailstorm. First, my jobo delayed my salo, again. It is something they had been doing all year long, and I had sworn that if they pulled this nonsense just one more time, I was going to quit. They called what they though was my bullshit and pulled that nonsense. Kwani iko nini? Utado? Hmmm. That evening I wrote an email, as polite as I could bring myself to be, and then checked out. Just as I clicked SEND, Nimrod also texted saying that landing 50k was going to be a story. Now I was royally screwed. I went to Dr. Jyotee’s secretary and asked her to push the appointment forward.
Thankfully, there was an opening for the 15th of June.
I do not know where this woman got the skill to bargain. She can literally talk down any merchant to sell his stuff at less than half the price. She bargains for everything – from mahindi choma to clothes to her now weather beaten Volkwagen opuk that she managed to get for a song that many years ago. That her children are alive is actually a testament of her willingness to have us around, because I am sure that if she had not wanted us to exist, she would have struck a deal with God a long time ago. This is why when Mother Karua called me, a week to the surgery, to say that she was trying to plead for a waiver from the mufasas at Lions Hospital, to bring down the bill to 45k, no surprise registered on my side.
At 45k, I could pay for the procedure myself. I am not sure she succeeded though, because she said “But wait, let me take a walk to NHIF to see if my cover can sort you out.” I said nothing. She called me back to say that it could have worked, only that I was somehow not on her list. As in, her cover does not extend to me. It only extends to Deo, my other brother. I said sawa, but still felt some type of way. How? Was I not worthy enough of the warmth of my own mother’s insurance cover? This is when I told her about my NHIF. It was well past the second installment and it must have been ready for use.
It was, she found out. All they needed was for me to give them a copy of my passport size photo. This I would have done, had I not been out of town at the time, and did she mind sorting this out for me now that I was not good enough for her insurance? Onge wach, she said. I emailed her the copy Jaber has saved on her email as backup for her to print out and give the NHIF people.
Aki do you know what this woman did? She went back to her office, downloaded the photo onto her desktop, printed it out on those kawaida office sheets, four copies just in case, all in black and white, all with my face filling up the whole A4 sheet of paper. Then confidently went to Upperhill to process my NHIF card.
I would have laughed if it was another woman. Only that this is the woman who in 2004, walked at 4.00am, with me, and a suitcase of clothes on her back, from Migosi Site to M.M. Shah Primary School just so that I would not be late for the bus taking us to a school trip to Mombasa. Only that this was the woman who throughout 2005 to 2008 never missed a visiting day in Maranda High School. Only that this is the woman who in 2009 lied to her boss that she was sick, so that she could give me what would have been her commute fare, to use instead for lunch and fare to ICDL classes. Only that this is my mother. Only that this is the woman who, when I once laughed at her for not knowing how to unlock a smartphone, said to me, “George. Obwongo na ema namiyi emomiyo koro iriek kama.” I would have opened my pipes and lungs and laughed my head off, had this not been the woman who was not shy to remind me that it was her who gave me her brains, which is why I am clever like this.
William is called and I respond even though that is not who I am. I respond because they have taken away my identity. They call me William Oduor in this hospital, and I wish they would have chosen a different combination of names. Even Mother Karua, the first time she hears that name, her body jolts in shock. It opens up wounds that had never promised to heal anyway. She had, for years, heard that name, William Oduor, being called by nurses in man a hospital ward. She was there when that name ultimately evolved from William Oduor, to the patient, to the body, and then finally to the deceased. Even though that was in Mater, not Lions, even though that was her husband, not her last born, the sound of women in nurse uniforms calling out to a William Oduor to prepare for theatre, still makes her heart pause. She does not say it. She does not need to. I see it. My right eye still functions just fine.
The male nurse asks her to stay outside. She cannot get into the theatre. Her younger sister, Jennifer, is here with her, and either by serendipity or design, they are both wearing green. I sit in the company of five old women. Each of them is called before me. The mufasas are gentlemen. These mamas all go in as women and come out as pirates; an unmissable eyepatch plastered on their faces. When William is called again, I go and lie on a bed as per instruction.
“I am going to inject you with anesthesia,” he says, reaching for a vial and a needle. I watch him unwrap the needle, inject the vial with it, pull it gently, allowing the colourless fluid into the syringe. Then he stops, taps the syringe, squeezes a little so that spittle comes from the mouth of the needle.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, where exactly are you going to inject me?”
“In your left eye.” He is so blasé about it.
“THAT thing going to enter my eye?”
I get up, just enough to turn and look at him respond to me. There are certain things you cannot believe unless you are told straight to your face. One of those include a man who does not seem a day older than Twitter telling you that he is about to insert a piece of metal in your eye…FOR YOUR OWN FUCKING GOOD!?
It does not matter, actually. I do not care that he looks deep into my eyes until he sees the lineage of my people all the way to Sinakuru. There is no sharp object entering eye. I am going home. This is madness. Scratch that. This is not madness. This is suicide.
“Kijana.” He drops his hands. “You want to go into a surgery without anesthesia?”
“No.” My head drops in submission.
“Lala chini bas. And do not move. If you move, even just a little bit, this thing will injure you and you will go blind.”
Wow. That is some encouragement. I bet he scored an A in patient handling. He dabs my left eye with spirit. Then from the corner of my right eye I see him crouch, the point the needle near my eye. My breathing becomes short, shallow and fast.
Oh shit. OOOOOOOH SHIT!!!!! That is a needle. Coming for my eye.I imagine all the things that could possibly go Murphy’s way. This man is going to kill me. Magunga, you are a goon yes, but this is too much. Leave right this instant! Look, just how badly do you need that left eye anyway? Just get up and run. Do not pass Go. Do not collect 200. Just run. Your ancestors will understand. They will not be embarrassed because you ran away from a pointed projectile directed at your face. This is not about courage. This is about logic. You still have time to stop this foolishness, Magunga. OK, there it is. No time left now. You had your chance and you squandered it. Now here we go. Choices have consequences. Brace for impact. MAYDAY! MAYDAY! INCOOOOOOMING!!! Squeeze your buttock, wuod Komenya. Squeeze and do not let go, no matter what happens.
The penetration happens just beneath the lower eyelid.
I want my mommy.