When I first met Phyllis, she belonged to my elder brother. I had seen Nimrod with others before, so I knew this one was never going to last either. And she didn’t. Her best days were behind her. She is old, you see, and always had a problem somewhere. Always making those near death noises, the ones that you hear and you know someone needs to be opened up. Again. And so Nimrod – naturally – would leave Phyllis at my place when he left the country for work. But because I wasn’t exactly attracted to her, I would also just leave her there and she would simply gather dust because I didn’t know what to do with her.
Then secretly, I started lusting after Phyllis.
You know that thing they say about sailors at sea? They stay on voyage for too long and all of a sudden the pirate with an eye patch and a hook on the left hand suddenly begins to look like a mermaid. Then the bro got a new, better paying job in some distant Arab country, and by the time he was back, he could not look Phyllis in the eye. The reason, standing right next to him. An elegant, newer thing of beauty that glistened in the sun as if wearing a halo. Phyllis had been replaced, and I could have her if I wanted.
So I inherited Phyllis.
It is a thing Luos do anyway – wife inheritance. When your brother dies, you can take his wife. And inheritance only happens up, never downwards. Meaning, I can inherit my elder brother’s lady, but he cannot inherit mine. And in as much as Nimrod wasn’t dead dead, he was dead to her. After all they had been through together, he was ready to just bounce off on her like that?
I do not know what you think we are talking about here, but Phyllis is my car; a Nissan Bluebird Sylphy, 2001 model. She is grey, apt for her age, and seasoned by the elements thanks to the abandonment. By the time Phyllis and I became official, she had been left parking for almost a year. Rust had started eating into her. Some idiot had scratched her sides. And her bonnet couldn’t close properly. I think Nimrod had bumped into something and the person who had tried patching her up did a slightly better job that what Uhunye is doing with our economy.
In fact, when I got Phyllis, she did not even have a name. I hated the name the manufacturers gave her. Ati a Bluebird Sylphy. As in, even from a marketing perspective, why the hell would anyone name a product something that sounds like a venereal infection? Because whatever the fuck Sylphy is, it sounds too damn close to Syphilis. And so there was no way the new love of my life would be called an STI – not when I had something to say about it.
At first, I wanted to name her Sylvia. But that did not sound like a name I would give this car. Sylvia is too chic. Sylvia is a girl who wears red lipstick that lasts the whole day, works in agency, drinks Savanna from the bottle and floods her IG stories so much it looks like the edges of a condom sachet. I have nothing against Sylvias, but that is not the kind of lady I saw when I looked this car. Phyllis on the other hand is an older lady, probably in her early 40s or fast approaching, but nobody can really tell, she is the kind that 25 year old fellas on Twitter are secretly sliding into her DMs. She is single for the same reason girls her age are single; life’s lemons, likes to mix Guinness and Coke when nobody is watching and still calls fries njiva.
Now that…that is my lady.
Here is the thing about owning a car. I had not envisioned that this would be my first. For starters, I wanted to buy my own first car. It was supposed to be a 4-wheel drive. The type of car you climb to get into. I wanted a machine that I can drive in the city, and can also do well when I decide to go to shagz to show the people of Alego Komenya that their son did not come to the city to look at tall buildings made of glass.
I have never really been a fan of the low ones; the ones you have to do that S thing when you get to a bump. Or slow down because of those potholes on Waiyaki Way. Or a car that, when you drive into a gated community like Nyayo or Ngara, the watchies ask “Umekuja kupick nani?” thinking you’re an Uber.
But then life happened; the way in the grand plans of mice and men it tends to happen. At the end of the day, I am a writer based in Nairobi, and I do not know how many exposures can get me the 2019 Renault Duster. And when I compare myself to this brother who I inherited Phyllis from, a sense of inadequacy enshrouds me, because by the time he was my age, he was already doing all this and much more for himself. He was paying some of my college fees, starting a family, helping Mother Karua with expenses back home, and driving his second or third car. What about me?
I know, I know. Some of you are reading this and rolling their eyes at my priorities. Cement Twitter. You are wondering why I am dreaming about owning a car, instead of buying a kaquarter of an acre in Syokimau. One, let us not assume that I do not already have land somewhere, two, even if I do not, it is still my money and I am allowed to do whatever I want with it, and three (and most importantly), I am still a Luo at the end of the day. One from Alego Komenya, no less. The original ones who speak Dholuo that has flavour, unlike those other ones from South Nyanza. Having an automobile is a rite of passage.
It has been three months since I got Phyllis. She was in such terrible shape when I got her; her balancing was off, tyres were worn from being left to stand for too long, her battery had died, she had a pull to the left. I swear to God, when I got this car, it could easily be exchanged for firewood. It is a miracle how she even made it to the garage the first time.
Listen, I do not know shit about cars. There are people who will hear a car pass and they will tell you the name, model, year of manufacture, number plate and the last time that car was serviced. People like Mwirigi. And my little cousin, Peter. And Anne Eboso. I am not one of those people. I relate with cars purely on surface level. When I got this car, I called Anne because I know she owns a spare parts shop called All4Cars Ltd on the second floor of JamPark Plaza, Ngong Road. I wanted her to recommend a mech she trusts, but then she said, “Magunga, mechanics are like Luo husbands, especially from Nyakach. You can only trust them when you are next to them.”
I am lying. She didn’t say that. But she might as well have. What she actually said was that there are very few honest mechs in this city, even for her own car she has like two. Then she said, “Also, I bring in my own parts. Then pay for labour only.”
I said, “Yeah, easy for you, but me sasa sina an auto parts shop.”
“I can do that for you. Just send me your chassis number, I will get the parts you need from my suppliers.”
“What is a chassis number?” I asked.
“The number on your chassis.”
“So which part of the car is the chassis?”
“Oh Lord. Just find the log book. It is written there.”
Then she went on and on about how she only sell OEM parts. And the difference between OE, OEM and after-market parts. But she could as well have been speaking in hieroglyphics. (If you want legit car parts, call her on +254 739 743501.)
She gave me a mech to go with to inspect the car and give a list of items I needed to replace. We went. He dictated as I wrote, then sent the list to Anne. Ten days later, she called me to go for a box in her office. It had spark plugs, rackends, bushes, engine mounts, wiper blades and other things. I looked at it and wondered, kwani we are doing repair ama building a new car altogether?
Now I had a car and parts. What I needed was a mechanic. I called Jaber – the ex. She’d had a car for a little over half a decade, and when we were still together, I used to take her car for service at a mech on Mombasa Road. So would she mind sharing contacts?
“Well, he moved to Industrial Area,” she said. Then sent me his number. “But there is also another mech I use these days.” And sent me that other number too. I did not care so much for the second mech because I did not know him.
Lakini it is incredible the way nobody I know in this Narobi of ours is in a monogamous relationship with their mechs. Everyone is cheating. And I would soon find out why.
So si I go to meet Jaber’s mech? He receives the parts I got from Anne, examines them, then gives me a quote. He says it will cost around 10k and I should come back the next day. I said sawa. The next day at noon he calls me to say the car is ready. I got there and it wasn’t. In as much as I knew fuck all about cars, at least I knew that if the engine light comes on, there is something terribly wrong. I had asked him to take care of it. He hadn’t, but he said the car was OK and I could even drive it to Mombasa if I wanted.
That bothered me, but not as much as what would happen that afternoon. First, he decided that some the parts Anne had sent were not for my car, and that he had to buy his own to fix. Price went up. Phyllis did not have fog lights, I asked “How much would it cost?” He said “Six thao.” You can guess how old a person is when he says six thao. I said sawa. When the lights came and invoice showed up, it said 12k. He had given me a rate for one fog light. Why the fuck he quoted for one fog light, sielewi. The same happened for wiper blades and plate chroming, and by the time I was done, an afternoon that I was to spend 15k, I ended up spending 35k.
A couple of weeks later, I got paid and so I called Nimrod and asked him to give me his mech’s contact. He is one of those jua kali folks who do not have a shop, but operated from a kaopen space in Nairobi West. I went to him because Phyllis had this clanking sound coming from the bonnet, and would he take a look and fix? Fam, I left that garage with a broken windbreaker and window that wouldn’t roll.
I did not even pay him for the bonnet job. I said fuck that dude to his seventh generation.
So here I was with a broken windbreaker and a window on the driver’s seat that wouldn’t roll, and then small small, the fan belt started screeching. This time, I went to Twitter and asked for a mech recommendation. A lovely Muhindi lady told me that her cousin who operates from Westy is a former rally driver and a mech. I asked Anne about it, she said she didn’t know him personally but Muhindi mechs tend to be fantastic. I took Phyllis to him. He said I come back in the afternoon.
When I went back, he showed me the fan belt he had removed. The one that the first mech (Jaber’s mech) had apparently installed just a month before. It was in tatters. I asked if the life expectancy period for fan belts is one month, he said no. He said he had installed an original one; I drove off with a silent Phyllis. But then after just two days, the screech was back.
The Muhindi had gongad me four thao. That night I prayed that the stupid turban on his head would squeeze all the oxygen from his brain. To be fair, though, he is the one who fixed the window that the second mech fucked up. So maybe not all the oxygen. Maybe like half.
People say after the devil, fear tailors and Instagram carpenters. Those people have not met Nairobi mechs.
You know the mech who finally got my baby in shape? It is Jaber’s second mech. I had stopped driving Phyllis for a while because I was scared. So he came to my place, hooked Phyllis on some machine, opened the bonnet and started touching touching things. He asked me, “What is wrong with her?”
I said, “Other than, like, everything? Well, she struggles to rev. I cannot seem to get past 50kph, and she jerks when I ride her too hard. Also, the engine light.”
He buried his head under the bonnet, and listened to Phyllis. No, seriously, it’s like they were talking. This dude – Nicholas of AutoMed Limited on Kiambu Rd – is like Brother Nature, but for cars. He told me, there was nothing wrong with the engine. Thankfully. It was something else I cannot remember now.
Going to the mech is like going to the dentist: you go to get an aching molar fixed, and then when you open your mouth, they start telling you ati you need a cleaning (as if you do not brush your teeth twice a day), and that if that cavity on the other side is not fixed, you’ll be back. And sure as hell, you are back as the Messiah prophesied.
Phyllis and I are holding on. Imperfect as she is, she is still mine. I hate taking her to the mech, because I do not like the idea of another man touching (or opening) her. The first time I saw a mech handling her, I got the same reaction as when my (other human) girlfriend told me about what happens when she goes for a pap smear.
I do not like sharing her. Please do not borrow my Phyllis, guys. When I buy the Renault Duster, sawa, but not Phyllis. I am the only one who knows her. How to pace her. I do not ride her too hard, because the moment we get to 80, she starts trembling.
And then there is the headswell in owning a car that she had elevated me to. Her keys cannot fit into my pocket. When I enter a room, I make them jingle and then dramatically put them on the table. I do not care that other people have cars that no longer need keys to ignite. Ati they press a button. Who has stopped those ones from also putting their fingers on the table if they want? Noboby. Halafu you should see me when I park at a public place, how I walk away in slow motion, raise my hand slightly and activate the alarm chwi! chwi! and Phyllis winks twice in approval.
I have now entered the exclusive club people, if we are at an event and the MC stands to say, “The owner of KBC please come move your car, it is blocking the exit,” I am allowed to raise my head and ask, “Umesema KB what?”
“Uh-uh. Mine is the KBE. Hio radio station labda you ask on that other tent for visitors from Kanyandhiang’”
I understand Phyllis is old, and her back isn’t what it used to be. But she gives me pride, how when I am on the Southern by pass and the wind is blowing, and my right hand is on the window at an acute angle…in that moment, everything seems to be just fine. Just perfect.
And if someone calls her Syphilis one more time…hmmm.