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I was running late for this poetry shindig that I had helped put together. I had told them to start without me, but I was on the way. Somewhere in between KenCom and Latema Road; in between street children following you with hollow, hungry eyes, some clutching onto your hand demanding attention, others money; in between the high pitched touts grabbing my hand to board a vehicle whose destination I didn’t care for and their impatient drivers haggling for parking space; in between the sly conmen shuffling cards begging me to give him Ksh. 200 so that he would pray to the gods of ace and give me Ksh. 2000 in return and the unsuspecting believers who wilfully open their wallets; in between the lies and the half-truths of the Nairobi dusk, I had lost Ksh. 500. I do not know where it went, but one thing for sure is that by the time the conductor was asking me for fare, I could not find it. It was the only note I had. This was that time of the semester when the stars refuse to align themselves for your fortune.
But thank heavens for my side pockets, and their uncanny ability to produce a fifty shillings note when it really counts. It saved me the embarrassment of having to beg a conductor in Nairobi to understand that I didn’t have money.
“Pesa kijana,” came the call. I was on my phone, checking our Arts Club Facebook group page to see how many performances I had missed. At that time, the matatu was on River Road. There was no cop to control the traffic at Khoja, so the roundabout was at sixes and sevens. The small personal cars would not let matatus pass. The flamboyantly painted Githurai buses, fitted with speakers hell bent on raising the dead with noise, are driven by men who accept social graces by a pinch of salt. One of them stops just next to our matatu. It jerks into fits and starts, revving its engines to choke us with black smoke from its failing heart, which by the sound of it, must really miss its mechanic.
I am on Facebook. I have heard the call of the conductor, but I am too pissed off. The world has conspired to drive me up the wall. It’s my bad hair day. I want him to ask me again. I ignore him.
“Wewe kijana weka simu mbali. Hapa ni pabaya, itaenda,” he warns. “Na ulete pesa masaa ni mbaya my fred.” First, I am not Fred. But even if he meant ‘friend’, I am still not his friend. I do not even come within an ace of making his acquaintance. At that time, I find the possibility of such friendship vile. But this is business, so I give him the fifty bob and go back to scrolling. The performances have begun. I am supposed to be on stage next. Shit.
And then he emerged from the shadows of the tiny ghosts of Nairobi’s Friday dusk. He slid open my window and then reached for the phone, but my senses detected his intentions from a mile away. He wasn’t just saying hi and then he would be on his way. He wanted my Alcatel One Touch. He didn’t know that my anger had made me sharp, so before he got to it, I hurriedly swung my arm under the matatu seat before this scumbag gets to it. But this was no ordinary scumbag. This was a scumbag with balls. One who grit adamantly wanted my phone. His resolve told him to follow my hand, and he did. He put his head through the window in pursuit of my Alcatel One Touch.
What he forgot was that in doing so, he had exposed his cheek right in front of my itching fingers, which clenched into a fist. Finally the rage that had been brewing inside me found an outlet, and with one monumental swing my bare knuckles landed on his unprotected mandible. My mind was icily clear. I put all my weight behind that punch. In that eternal moment, I felt a sweet release of steam. When it landed on his cheek, it exploded, and the girl next to me gave Jesus a mention. He scampered out, and while on his way, I am pretty sure his last whimpering thought was that he was the painful disappointment never getting my phone. Not today.
That was about two months or so ago. Right now, deep down in my very heart of hearts, in the poetry of my soul, I feel sorry for that boy today. I bet if you dusted his cheeks right now for finger prints you would find a museum of my knuckles’ impressions, historically embedded on his skin as a stark reminder that you do not mess with goons on a bad hair day.
I remember this ordeal now because I just finished reading a book that took me back to that evening. By a show of hands, how many of you know of Kinyanjui Kombani? One..two…three..four..Okay put your hands down. How many of you have read his book, Den of Inequities? lesser hands Figured as much. Well, you should.
I cannot really remember who recommended this book to me. If you are here please stand up. All I know was that it came highly recommended. And the thing with me is that anything that comes highly acclaimed, be it a movie, book or lady, it usually disappoints.
Den of Inequities didn’t. That is because it is not often that I read a book which speaks to my everyday life. Especially when it comes in a simply written language that allows me to gobble it down in one sitting. People who know me know that I am not much of a book lover. Movies are my guilty pleasure, and the more epic they are, the better. But when it comes to this book, I found myself skipping an assignment deadline to finish it. I did not know just how far I had gone until I turned the last page, and my time for supper was way past. The only other books that have had such a deathly grip on me was James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and Ellen Sussman’s On a Night Like This.
In Kombani’s book there is a scene that replays my exact same ordeal in the matatu. Only that in the book, the character in my shoes is a lady who loses her phone to some ragamuffin, who again loses it to a cop who had been standing by, waiting for the crime to happen so that he would eat from it.
In his book, Kombani explores the filth that our criminal justice system has become. It marries this to its rightful bride; the life of criminals living in the ghetto, and it’s sort of mischievous squeeze (this is my best part) the position of campus students in universities today.
With Gosti, Aileen, Omosh and Kisii spearheading the garden path, I was dragged into a world of Kinyanjui’s making. It was really something, diving into a figment of his imagination. He tells a comical story in which characters get erections while shooting pool, tales of woe that leave a lump on your throat, stories of skullduggery, betrayal, romance, the corruption of power and power of corruption- all these intertwined in scenes that follow each other precipitously, written in unfaltering vivacity.
Here is a word of caution; if you are going to read Den of Inequities, hoping to be bewildered by turns of phrase characteristic only of international best sellers, then you are better off not reading it. You will probably not get past the first chapter. Telling a story with a message is Kombani’s only vanity.
But if you are interested in a tale, whose twists and turns take your mind on a spin, one that creates a whirlwind in your head, and then finally leaves your mind in a knot, then this book fits the bill. It plays its part. It shows you the fault lines in the best laid schemes of mice and men. It wakes you up to the realities that we like looking away from. It makes you question what it really means, when the amatory ladies with tablets report that two ruffians were killed in a shootout between thugs and police, from which several toy guns were recovered. Den of Inequities is the story behind the story.
Given the recent spate of events, its crystal that we are at war. We are told that someone opened fire in a church. Another planted a bomb in a matatu. Pictures and videos of limbless people hanging despondently from the shell of metal that used to be an automobile are bandied about. A car forcefully driven into a petrol station explodes. Four people are reported dead. The next day, an undetonated bomb is found planted in another car. Blood is flowing in the gully. Children are dying. Parents are not supposed to bury their children, unless we are at war.
The president flies out, and an angry deputy condemns the terror attacks. No more does he shed tears at pulpits, and little attention is paid to his bibs and tucker. There is no time for superficialities. The gloves are off, he says, we are getting down to brass tacks. He makes a stern promise that ‘they shall deal with them’. There is smoke in his voice when he says that the suspects in custody should not be allowed bail or bond. They are criminals. Never mind that he too is a suspect facing even more acute charges for having a hand in ethnic cleansing. The man is playing to the gallery.
The only words I hear falling from his bawdy, highly colored, Janus-like mouth as he speaks to the terrorists is “Hello pots, my name is kettle.”
But since parents are burying their children, and since loved ones are dropping dead like gassed flies, emotions are clouding judgments. The brains have delegated reasoning function to the heart. And the avalanche of pain burning our chests, makes us to train our guns at them. Them with soft hair, fair light skin. All of them who call their God differently are guilty. They who worship on Fridays. All of them have to go. This is war, and we are giving no quarters.
Didn’t they once say that the new Al Shabaab recruits are ordinary non-muslims? Were they not kawaida Karanjas and Wamalwas and Onyangos wHo cannot point out from a map where Mecca is? Who saw the person that planted the bombs in the matatu? If all Muslims and Somalis are terrorists and belong in the Safaricom sponsored police station along Thika Road, then why are we not putting all Kikuyus in a concentration camp to weed out Mungiki? Why don’t we maroon all luos at Nyayo Stadium to weed out all the bawdy slingers baying for destruction of property? I mean, Coca Cola holds the purse strings that sees the stadium through. Surely, they would not mind sponsoring another police detention camp. You could start with this goon with a blog.
Ah! But never mind. Our sons are dying and all who wear hijabs are guilty by birthright. Terrorism is a Somali’s original sin. We would do anything for a quiet life, so they must go.
Those of us who are privileged enough to be unaffected by the ongoing racial profiling do not care. We wallow in our luck, which to us, feels like an entitlement. Until it happens to you or someone you know, like it happened to a friend of mine.
Her name is Julie. She writes. But she is light. Her skin glows like a million-watt neon sign, like a Somali’s skin. She is from the coast, and so she had hina markings on her skin. On this day, because of the overbearing heat, Julie is wearing a Somali dress called dirac. She is a Christian in a Somali woman’s cloak. She walks into a supermarket. A child, in its innocent curiosity runs to her feet. Her mother rushes towards her, grabs the baby quickly from Julie’s feet. She does so in this manner that would make one think that the kid had touched Hitler’s own underwear. And as she carries her baby away from the suicide bomber, she snickers and then smugly drops a comment: “You stupid Somalis!”
“Excuse me, what did you say?” a shocked Julie asks, she might not have heard correctly.
“I said you stupid Somalis!” she repeats it so matter-of-factly and then goes.
Those words felt cold to Julie. Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Because she was neither Somali, nor is she stupid. Perhaps Nairobi should have an entry sign for all Muslims that reads:“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
Reading Den of Inequities against this backdrop would be refreshing. It makes you appreciate that we are caught up in between the devil and the deep blue sea. It reveals the government as idols with clay feet, blinding us with what we anxiously desire- i.e. bread and circuses. We want to see someone’s head on a pike in order to feel safe albeit for a while. So they give us suspects with no credible evidence to hold their case together.
But what do you expect from a celebrity who runs this town with an iron fist under a velvet glove? He at State House has no idea how we who live beyond the salt depend on each other every day. How we date each other, copy each other’s assignments, lend each other money and befriend Muslims when Eid comes along (mostly for their food, but hey… they make kick ass pilau).
Look, in the end, we have to accept that Somalis and Muslims at large are a part of our existence. They may be different, but it takes all sorts to make a world. What good are we as a nation or region if we cannot stand up for one another?
Case in point. Sauti Sol was nominated for MTV Music Awards. They are the only nominees in that category from East Africa. I doubt they give a flying fish whether the support comes from a Muslim, Christian, Jew or Atheist. What is important to them (and us) is that a Kenyan band has been nominated for the Best African Group award. And we all, irrespective of which day of the week we worship or by what name we call God; regardless of whether we worship at all, need to log in here and vote for them. They are our own, our very own. And we should all throw our weights behind them, if Kenya’s flag is to soar.
Let’s do our noble parts people, and then lay the rest on the knees of the gods.
When I was done with Den of Inequities, these are the sentiments I got. I began to question What If all these things we witness aren’t what they seem. What if it’s not Al Shabaab that plans these attacks, but someone with tall friends in the government, who has a shipment of metal detectors at the port? We might fight, thinking that terror is the greatest threat to our country’s security, until a drink that claims over 100 lives is brewed, and the angels begin to sing whiskey lullabies. The world is a vast tall tale that only an idiot’s ecstasy would accept at face value. The book tore me apart, and then patched me up neatly together at the end. By the time I was through, I badly needed a glass of water.
I know you are thinking that I am taking things too far, being a pansy. This fussy goon. It is never that serious, you wish to tell me. But as I said before, Kombani is only trying to tell a story. What is the harm? Even if I take it too seriously, you do not have to. Just get yourself a copy and have a good time.