It was just after that corner that departs from the Eldoret-Nakuru road that it happened. I was driving, as it were, without a licence. Usually I do not drive. That is the province of Jaber. But then shortly after leaving Nakuru, say, forty-five minutes, she started saying that she was feeling drowsy. So I suggested that maybe I should drive. For like thirty minutes as she rested. I crossed my heart and swore not to push he needle anywhere past 70kph. She let me. But then she fell asleep and I did not want to wake her up, so I kept on driving. Something kept telling me to stop the car and wake her up because her nap time was over. It was the right thing to do, you know, and the safest, because the Nairobi-Kisumu road is infested with roadblocks by traffic police. I did not. Instead, I let greed take the better part of me, and just as we drove up an incline, yellow jackets appeared in the horizon and one of them raised its hands.
Shit! All I had on me was a Provisional Driving Licence. I checked the mirrors to see if by any chance there was a matatu behind us. There was none. Clearly that cop was hailing me down.
“Babe! Babe!” I shook her awake, “We are in trouble.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, not we. I am in trouble. Look!”
Just then the traffic policeman raised his hand again and gestured to the side of the road where I should stop.
“Drive on. They do not have a car. Just do not stop. Let’s make a run for it,” she suggested, and for a moment I considered it before dismissing it. I mean, come to think of it. What if I ran and then it just happens to be my bad day. If by some stroke of ill luck, they just happened to have a van hidden somewhere in the bushes? And then what? They would chase me, and for sure catch up with me. Then now they will have me on Driving without a Valid Licence and Obstruction of Justice. Then they would take me to the cell where they would take away my shoes and give me one slipper three sizes small. I would spend the weekend there (it was a Saturday) in that cold cell, and if I was lucky, I would make it to court on Monday morning. If I was unlucky, those cops who chased me down would have been in a bad mood and my running would make them even angrier because who wants to be chasing down fugitives on a Saturday morning? So they would pin some extra charges on me, perhaps plant a fake gun and a ton of illegal ivory in Sexxxy Boyy (Jaber’s car) and then they would say that I am one of those people who hate animals. Then they would pump my body with lead and then later on tell the press that two enemies of the state opened fire, upon which they responded with fire because dawa ya moto ni moto, after which our car caught fire and exploded and our bodies were burnt beyond recognition. Only for our carcasses to wash up on some river bank one week later, with strangulation marks around our necks. And then, and then, and then, Kenyans on Twitter will create a hashtag for a week – because as we have come to know, lives do not matter these days unless someone can get them to trend. By then, however, I would already be facing judgment in heaven. Saint Pete looking down at us. At me. Disgusted. Asking, “Why didn’t you ask Jesus to take the wheel, son? Go to hell.” Then I would wet my pants at the thought of being doomed to spend the rest of my life with Iggy Azalea’s talent.
I could not deal with such a fate. I held Jaber’s shaken hand and said, “No. I cannot run. Just take my phone and call for me Jamo.”
“Ati Jamo? Why? Does he have a friend in the Force?”
“No..Wait, what? Jamo? No…We need to know how much we are looking at here. The NTSA rules were changed the other day, so did the penalties.”
Sexxxy Boyy pulled up a few meters past the cop.
“Do you want to switch seats chap chap before he gets here?” she asked, overwrought.
“No. He is right behind us. He will see. Have you called Jamo?”
“Yeah, but seems like we got disconnected.”
Strange, because Safaricom has network everywhere. This must be Jezebel, Delilah and Portifah’s wife ganging up on me.This must be the Abaddon’s hand at play. I am sure if you dusted this situation for fingerprints, you would find 666, all of over it.
And let me tell you folks, that moment when a traffic policeman is walking up to your car when you know for sure you have a mistake is one of the most traumatising moments of a man’s life. You start praying. It is a human default setting to remember God when you are in a mess. You pray that this man woke up on the right side of the bed. That his wife warmed his loins real good the previous night, made him breakfast in the morning, and that his kids kissed him goodbye when he left for work. Hell, you pray that his kids are doing well in school and eating their vegetables. You pray that his boss did not pull some nasty paperwork on him. I do not think traffic cops realise just how much we pray for them. Just how many criminals are responsible for the blessings in their lives.
This one came from behind, walked over to check the insurance sticker and then as I was squeezing my buttocks that he flags me off, he came over to my side.
“Act like you are sick…like you are fainting.” I whispered loudly to Jaber, knowing all too well that Jaber cannot play pretend to save her own skin because a) she is a terrible actress, b) lying is the one thing that she has never learned to do correctly, and c) she is Adventist and it was Sabbath.
“Good morning Bwana Mkubwa,” I said, lowering my window before he could ask me to. A trick I was taught by Jaber on how to handle traffic cops; Always be the one to strike conversation. Smile. Big smile. “Kazi iko salama. That yellow jacket looks great on you.” Trick number 2; flattery. Smother them with blandishments. Flattery will get you everywhere reverse psychology won’t. “Where did you get it? Got a guy?”
“Haiya basi, acha tuone licence.” At this point, I have to remind you the other thing about cops and compliments. When you give them too much, it begs the question, what crimes have you committed lately?
“Eeeer, you know, officer…mwenye ako na DL ni huyu hapa and, uhm, she is not feeling well. We were on our way from Nakuru…” I started to say.
“Ati? Sikupati vizuri. Kuja uniambie hapa nje.”
“Ni hivi ofisa…”
“No, my friend, come outside and talk to me.” It is incredible how he calls me his friend when he just about to bust my nuts over this. I step out of the car and follow him. In his hands is a book with yellow pages. It looks like a book I do not want my name on. Pages folded, dog-eared, something like a receipt book that receives very little love and care. “Sasa unasemaje?” he asks.
“It is a long story brathe,” I do not even know why I chose that opening line. He looks at me in that way I usually look at Jaber when she is telling me something and I can hear her talking but I am not listening. Sucks to be on the other side. I keep on talking. “Tumetoka Nairobi…”
“Ala, si ulisema mmetoka Nakuru?” he interrupts. “Kwani sasa umebadilisha?”
“Ndio….Hapana….Skiza…We are coming from Nairobi, but we stopped at Nakuru….”
“Aaah, Okay. Mmm-hmmh.”
“Sasa, madam ndio mwenye gari. It is her car. Lakini when we left Nakuru, she was feeling drowsy, unaelewa? Which is dangerous, sindio? Ndio I decided to drive hadi we get to the nearest hospital halafu tuangalie ni nini mbaya.”
The most believable lies are the ones that are closest to the truth. I tell him that I only have a provisional driving licence and that since I know how to drive an automatic, we decided that it was best for me to drive till the nearest hospital, otherwise Jaber would bring us muhadhara on the road. The truth is, we had no intentions of going to a hospital. The truth is, she overslept and I got greedy. But now here I was, looking at a potential fine of 7Gs. What else could I do? The truth by itself is not sufficient for Kenyan cops. It has to be embellished if you expect any kind of mitigation. Plus, technically, a half truth is not a complete lie.
“So what is wrong with her?”
“Aki sijui. Ni kizunguzungu tu ndio imemshika ghafla bin vuu.” I swear to God, this is the first time I have used ghafla bin vuu outside a Swahili composition ever since 2004.
“Na huyo madam ni dadako ama ni bibi?
“Huyo ni fiancée. Hata ndio nampeleka Kisumu akutane na mamangu.” If you could take a sample of this statement to a laboratory, it would test positive for Complete Bullshit.
“Na umesema ati she felt dizzy?”
Now he was really paying attention. Watching to see if I was lying. Only that I know all those cues they search for. My eyelids do not batter. I do not stammer. I maintain eye contact. I play by the con book of Marty Khan from House of Lies.
“Kijana, let us leave many words. Tuache maneno mingi. Driving without a licence has a three thousand bob fine,” he begins, “Lakini wewe unajua vile umefanya huyo msichana. You know what you did,” he says, nudging me playfully, and for a quick second I do not go where he is going with this line of questioning. I imagine he is accusing me of drugging my own girlfriend. Until it hits me. This chap thinks that Jaber is pregnant.
We both laugh, even though there is nothing funny about a pregnancy-scare to a broke bachelor. However, since he brought it up, I chose to use it as a sword and not a shield.
“So now you see, Mr. Officer, kama ameshika ball, then I need to take her to the hospital immediately. Tuhakikishe mjunior wangu ako timam. Lakini sasa if you take my three thousand, surely, what will I pay at the hospital?”
“How much do you think I should fine you?”
Bas! That is when I knew the tide had changed in my favour. However, this is a trick question. Negotiating money with a traffic policeman is like measuring the amount of salt to add to your food; you are never sure what is exactly enough. What you know is that you do not want to give too much, and even when though it dissolves from your presence, you can still taste the bitterness of its absence.
My wallet parted with a brownie. The guy wrote me a receipt. I thanked him profusely, short of promising to name my fictional unborn child after him. Sexxxy Boyy got back on the road towards Kisumu. I checked my phone and found a message from Safaricom .Dear Customer, we noted that your call disconnected. You have been refunded 13 seconds valid for 24 hours for Safaricom calls. KEEP THE CONNECTIONS GOING. A token for me to accept as an apology for breaking the call with Jamo. I suck my teeth at my puerile panic attack. Turns out I did not even need to connect with Jamo after all.
As we appraoched Awasi, I kept wondering about what the traffic cop said, given that even me I did not know why her head felt light. Perhaps he was onto something. So I asked Jaber, “Nyar Kendu, are we OK?”
“Yeah,” she said, eyes on the road.
“Are you sure? Nothing you want to tell me?”
“No. Why?” This time, she looked at me, confusion making her forehead to furrow.
I chose to believe her. I wanted to believe her. After all, no means no. Yes?
I know some people are reading this and wondering why an entire 25 year old like me, complete with hair under his pits and bills to pay every month, does not have a valid driving licence. Well, that is because I have never really needed one. There was never a time when I needed to drive. Growing up in Kisumu, we moved around in matatus, taxis and ngware (bicycle bodabodas). We did not own a moti of our own. Okay, we did. Kind of. It was Mother Karua’s dysfunctional Volkswagen Beetle that we called it Opuk. In hindsight I can only remember Opuk make use of his wheels on four occasions.
The first time was when we lived in White Gate, way before the advent of mobile phones. The second was when my mother took it to Kibuye to get groceries. By then, we had already moved from White Gate to Migosi Estate. Third time Opuk came alive was one Sunday afternoon. Two mechanics who had been burying their heads in its boot, sucking oil from its engine and spitting black saliva all over the ground, took it for a test drive. The last recollection I have of Opuk on his feet bringsto mind Mother Karua and her new Nokia 3310 – she had just bought her new phone and that was a cause for celebration, so she took us out for a spin, then later on we found ourselves at a pub inside Kenya Re Estate wafting flies from our nyama choma.
Those were the times when Safaricom’s sim cards came in a huge round metallic tin the size of a UFO. The cheapest airtime was 250 bob. When you come to think of it, we have come a long way since. Back then, all we used phones for were text messages, phone calls and setting records on Snake. Network was horrible. You had to make burnt offerings to get connected. Today, such hassles seem like distant memories. We no longer have to climb trees to catch network, unless you are not on Safaricom. Hell, we have 4G in all major towns across the country. You could choose to retire in Loiyangalani – deep inside the bowels of Marsabit County, living amongst the El Molo on the shores of Lake Turkana, and still be able to make a comfortable call to guys in the city. You could be in Malindi, sipping a cold drink under a pagoda, or in Kisumu chowing down fish the size of your ego, or Malaba sniffing the scent of matoke from Uganda, or swallowed inside a maize plantation in Kitale….you could be anywhere in this country, doing whatever it is that you want and still be connected. Full bars. What’s more, if a call drops due to no fault of your own, Safcom will pay you back in the form of airtime. You do not even have to call or tweet them to ask for it. They’ll send it to you. Guaranteed. And since this is not the Agrarian Revolution era, you have access to speedy internet connection. Also, you can if you activate the Data Manager option, they will not use your airtime for internet when your bundles run out. Connections are not only kept intact. They are kept intact at your own pleasure and control.
I mean look at all that. These days we are spoilt!
It has been a little over ten years since we celebrated Mother Karua’s first phone at Kenya Re pub. That was the last time I ever saw Opuk in action. Perhaps he moved after that, but not in my presence. When I visited Kisumu the other day, things had changed. As Safaricom’s services got better with the years, Opuk go worse. I found him crippled and weathered. His tyres had been taken off and he was balancing on rocks. His creamy skin had peeled out from being left outside for too long. The harsh elements had beaten him and eroded his once glorious paint job. The seats inside had a brown insulation from gathering dust. You can tell that, however abandoned they may seem, they are still new; only unused.
Opuk looks like a weekend that ended too soon.
I wanted to take a picture of Opuk and share online, but what would I say? How would I rhapsodize about it? That it died long before my mother could teach me how to drive? That if it stayed around long enough then perhaps I would have learnt how to drive earlier and then I would have gotten a DL earlier, and then I would not have had to make my Adventist girlfriend lie on Sabbath?
Oh please, no. Not everything that dies needs to be eulogised. Some things are meant to leave us and create space for more important memories. And then perhaps once in a while when your paths cross, you reminisce for a moment about how you had it nice and perfect for a while. Believe me, you will make other more beautiful memories with even more beautiful things.
Meanwhile, I will be done with Rocky Driving School in a week. Then I will have completed my transition into a proper adult.