Less than week later, we would remember the bitter cold of that September night, and regret how the Council meeting at Choma Base ended. How we let Obara push his plastic seat backward in a burst of fury, get up and leave. I would remember how he clicked so hard I almost thought he bruised his palate. Time was moving fast. After campus there was really no other way to survive if we had not arranged ourselves properly. Nobody wanted to leave a legacy behind. At least not me. I did not want to be remembered. In any case history is just a rewritable past.
Against my advice, the rest of the Council dismissed him; classified him aside as an insignificant threat, as we waved our hands over the chunks of nyama choma to chase away the diligent Choma Base houseflies that worked overtime.
Everyone knows Choma Base’s choma is the best. Goat meat roasted with salt, oil and a kienyeji mastery that lifted us to heaven when we chewed. We went there every Friday for a tipple. Everyone did. Rather, everyone who was not attending the Christian Union’s late Friday service. Beer was cheap too. Its close proximity to the campus hostels also made it a regular stop for washing away the troubles of CATs with something toxic. Sometimes football lovers walked in wearing knock off Manchester United jerseys to watch the game, because chicks in the campus TV room were drooling over Mexican men on horsebacks.
That night there was no match showing. Choma Base was rather silent. Very few students were drinking. Most of the tables were empty, with chairs overturned onto the table tops. I watched a familiar girl in a little black dress and high heels strut in and perch on top of a stool, a few paces away from us. With her back straight, her lips glossed, and her legs crossed- knee upon knee- she let the hem of her dress ride up her yellow thighs that shone like neon signs. And with her braided hair held back, she sat pretty waiting to be seduced. The waitress, a plump lady with an insane donkey approached her table. Minutes later, a couple of Smirnoff Black Ices stood in front of her.
Ah ha! I felt a slight smile curve from the corner of my lips. Black Ice. So typical. A fitting drink for a university girl. A drink that says she is a good girl minding her business. Just here to have innocent fun, when we all know innocence was left in the hostels, together with the rest of her dress.
The Council sat around a table. Two tables actually, because one was not enough to fit the assembly. Bottle of Tuskers punctuated every station that a council member sat. At the assumed head of the table was Kauria. A candidate. He spoke gently, as if trying very hard not to wake up an invisible genie. I found this part of the speech boring. I had heard it all from the candidate who bought us nyama before him, and the candidate before that.
They all wanted the same thing. They had all crammed the same script.
“Wakubwa. I will not play with words when speaking to you. I understand that when I approach the table of the elders, I should not come with policies and promises. You are not freshers. I gathered you here today so that we can eat, and in so doing, you will bless me with your saliva. All I want is your saliva.”
I cringed. He went on.
“Elders, today a goat lost its life. For you. As you eat this, as your tongue tastes this meat, I will know that I have your blessing to be the next Governor for Westlands Campus.”
Stitches fiddled with his phone and passed it to me under the table. This one’s father is an MCA in Kiambu. Twenty thousand each minimum. NO MERCY!!!
When he was done speaking, Wiseman cleared his throat and asked him to leave. The elders had to deliberate.
“Don’t call us again, we shall call you.”
“This one we have to wash him properly. He has money.” Stitches said as soon as Kauria exited the bar.
“We will not just wash him. We have to bleach him.” I said.
I liked Kauria. Strange. I did not like anyone whose father was anything in the government. They had this foul sense of entitlement that hung around them like a warm fart. They felt like they just had to get whatever it is they wanted. Throw a couple of notes in people’s faces and it is done. Money to them was a butler they sent to clean up after their mess. When they were caught with mwakenyas in the exam room. When they hit a lady outside the campus gates and fled off. When they wanted a girl who was already spoken for.
So the first time I met Kauria, I badly wanted to hate him. I wanted him to be a snob- to tell me something along the lines of “You see that slick, black Merc over there? My dad bought it for me for my birthday.”
He wasn’t like that. He was all right.
Only problem is, this is business. There is nothing personal about siasa. In as much as I liked him, I still had a guitar to buy, a music career to launch after campus, a few radio presenters to see aside- and there was Bella. We had to move in together after campus. Kauria would understand if I eased my palms with something small from his wallet. That is why when I heard that he had summoned the Council for a kanyama at Choma Base, I knew I had to show.
“Forget this one. We have another important matter to settle.” Obara said.
A silence descended upon the table. I looked away. The girl in a black dress had found company. A man with a belly spilling over his trousers was sitting awfully close to her, saying something in her ear that made her giggle. Occasionally he would put his hands on her lap, and she would push it away giggling the more. He would put it back, even higher this time, as if trying to chase after the hem of her dress. I envied his resilience.
“Obara bwana. This was not a meeting for that discussion,” Wiseman said.
“I know wewe na Mama Yao are planning to wash me that position. I will not allow.”
I did not want to get into this. Stitches did not seem like he wanted to either. We were both comfortable with the positions we had been assigned by tradition. It was a long time handed down tradition that the outgoing MUSO officials oversee the elections. The higher you were in the hierarchy, the higher your rank as an election official.
That is how Wiseman ended up calling all the shots. He was the Governor, thus the Returning Officer. Mama Yao and Obara were fighting over Presiding Officer, and as the outgoing Governor, Wiseman was the one in charge of appointing one.
Innocent, the mild one who had not said a word all evening, and I were Halls Representatives. The lowest rank in the system. We had to be clerks. Which was fine by me. Stitches had to be the Head of Security, undisputedly. He was the biggest motherfucker in campus, with a nasty scar across his face he picked up from last year’s riot, where he was televised beating the shit out of an antiriot policeman.
Also, he had a gang of loyal campus goons on his whim. The CDF. Comrades Defense Forces. They protect students from police during riots. But then if you, for the sake of argument, happen to be in need an opponent to step down from the race, maybe have his room ransacked mysteriously, or his posters torn, or his supporters beaten within an inch of their last breath, these are your people.
Together, we formed the Council of Elders. Anyone who was interested in winning any election had to see us aside. You bring your tax, buy us nyama, then be on your way, hoping that we will in a good mood while deliberating your case. We dealt in cash only. There were no assurances.
“I have made up my mind to give it to Mama Yao. That is the way things have been, and I am not planning on changing anything. That’s the end of it.”
“Omera you are joking with me. I have been your deputy all this time you were Governor. It is my right. Otherwise mtaniona. I will make sure none of you runs these elections.”
He paused for effect. Looked around the table to see if anyone was going to come to his rescue. We focused our attention on the goat ribs before us. Chewed the nyama choma in a collective silence, unbothered.
That is when Obara had clicked hard and stormed out.
At that time, it seemed as though he was bluffing. We thought he would come around. Quite frankly, I did not care. I was not like Mama Yao or Wiseman. I had no political ambitions gawking at me with breathless eyes, begging to be touched. Such peccadilloes visited wanasiasa only. Not poets. Not musicians. Just politicians.
The girl with a familiar face was gone by the time I checked again. The waitress was cleaning that table. I sipped my Tusker.
My lips tasted an oncoming rain, just as my phone buzzed. The battery symbol was red. It was running out of juice. That is when I saw it. A message from Bella.
Babe we need to talk.
The previous semester.
I was not even planning on going for that party. Being a student leader, and a fourth year, there was a front that I was expected to put up; a façade that forbids me from attending bashes thrown by Second Years. But I could not stand being in Kamaloka Hall either. I was thirsty for a cold Tusker in the house of the Lord. Which did not feel right.
He’d understand, I presumed. After all, didn’t He turn water into wine as his very first miracle? He could have healed a blind boy or exorcised a few demons to grace His glorious debut on earth. But no. He chose to brew.
Obara had dragged me to church. It was a Friday night, in the middle of the semester when most of my student loan had run out. A budget proposal for Health Week was still stuck at the Finance Department. The cashier also wanted a share. The fucker refused to process the release of money from the students’ kitty. Until that proposal passed, I was broke.
For two weeks, I had been eating at the Mess; the common cafeteria where they sold bland, university subsidized food. All the stews served in that place were not as thick as the ones in the Poolside Café. By some unknown Mbalariany University culinary standard, they put carrots in everything. Sukuma, Beef Stew. Undercooked carrots that dug craters of cavities in your tooth, and left evidence in between your teeth. Sneaky bastards that gave your teeth a disgusting yellow tint.
Running on fumes, there was no way I could go to Choma Base. That is why when Obara suggested that I should join him for the Christian Union service, I figured; what’s the worst that could happen? A miracle could as well come my way. He also mentioned something about an interesting speaker they had invited to preach to the congregation. Obara was also the choir master, and his music was okay. Even though I always thought he was better with the piano than the guitar. Anyone who played the guitar in Westlands Campus was better with another instrument. Except me of course.
Sarah, my then girlfriend, had gone home for the weekend. She would be back on Sunday evening with milk and potatoes from her mother’s shamba. I was alone. I hated it when she left. Yet she had no choice. She was a PK; daughter of a strict Adventist dad who monitored her every move. One time I convinced her to stay, so that we could finish watching Big Bang Theory, and fuck in between episodes. The following day, on Saturday morning, she was too tired to go home. We were woken up by a call at 8 am, from her dad. He was already at the parking, standing next to a white Noah.
A sudden bout of malaria had to attack her within seconds.
The speaker that had been invited, a Reverend Joseph Malago, spoke with vehemence in his voice. Even as he did I kept on wondering what kind of God he was talking to. I was raised a Catholic. I was used to slow hymns, candles and incense, in between reciting the same prayers from a little book. A reverent atmosphere for self-reflection and communication with the creator.
But Reverend Malago served a strange God. One who was okay with people calling his son Jay C. This God was spoken at. Commanded. He was given ultimatums. Rev. Malago told Him that “if you do this, if you grant us this, we will praise your holy name.” I pitied this God. He had no choice but to grant these wishes if he ever wanted Reverend Malago to praise his name. Poor guy.
Thirty minutes into the sermon, I was already missing the choir. Obara and his people led the praise and worship. A session that started with exuberant songs, Obara asking us to get up and dance. The most intriguing part of praise sessions is the way brethren danced. I could tell the girl next to me was in a painful struggle to maintain herself from dropping her ass down low for the Lord. The guy in a black T-shirt at the front, the one whose moves everyone else was trying so hard to emulate, winding his waist in a way I have seen in a Konshens video. Clearly that was a congregation that spent a lot of time on YouTube. Hallelujah!
The worship part made me want to cry. A girl – she was my classmate – took over the lead from Obara. She sang as if someone was scratching her soul. She opened her arms, and with her eyes closed, she opened her heart.
I sent Obara a message. Off to sleep now. Busy day kesho. I lied.
By then Reverend Malago’s face was already glistening, the hall lighting bounced off the sweat on his face and made them glow. The pious fervor summoned from divine inspiration, typically involving speaking in tongues, wild, awkward movements of the body and wiping the forehead every five minutes were entertaining. But after a while, I just got bored
Westlands Campus was the smallest of all campuses of Mbalariany University. The hostels and Kamaloka Hall are just next to each other, separated only by a thin strip of tarmac. Walking around that place on a Friday night, it was impossible not to feel forces of good and evil engaging in a tug of war. On one side was a heavenly saint with an incandescent halo; urging you to go for Friday fellowship. On the other, Johnnie Walker inviting you for a walk to an inebriated destiny in the halls. Especially on a night like that when some Second Year was celebrating his birthday.
I found my way into the party room. I was not invited, but I was there anyway. There is no such thing as party crashing when it comes to bashes thrown in campuses. They are meant for the common heritage of mankind.
Jamaican music was playing from Ampex speakers. As usual, couples danced. I would not call it dancing, because what happened was that boys humped their crotches against the girls’ buttocks continuously. They didn’t tire. At some point a couple got creative. The boy sat on a chair. His date – I assumed – parted her legs as she got on top of the poor guy. Then she began winding the bulk registered on her waistline.
I found a spot, next to the DJ’s computer.
There she was. Sitting, holding a glass of something golden. My classmate. She didn’t look like she was having any fun. Just chilling. Gathering dust and sweat. Probably wondering what her mum would do if she ever caught her here. She said she was here for the same reason as I was. The birthday boy spotted me and passed me something similar to what she was having.
That night, we watched the kids dance. Laughed at the guy whose nuts were being pounded into sterility. Talked. Held hands. Sat closer. Played with each other faces. Sat quiet. I parted my lips. Hers did not hesitate to rush in and meet mine halfway. She tasted like glory. We waltzed into my room. The lights remained off when I peeled her blouse over her head. A bra strap snapped in the dark. Urgent fingers fumbled with my belt. Gravity helped my trousers to the floor. We fucked until she prayed in her mother tongue.
The following morning, she said her name was Bella. A parallel student from my year lucky enough to have found a room in the ladies hostels that semester, because one of my classmates moved back home and leased her room to her. A chini ya maji deal that school authorities did not need to know. As long as no one asked, no one was telling.
That Sunday evening, word got to Sarah as soon as she walked in with her milk and potatoes that some girl had been seen sneaking out of White House – as they called my room- the previous morning. I could have denied it. I could have pointed my index finger at her for emphasis sake and said, “I did not have relations with that woman. These allegations are false, and I need to go back to work for the students of Mbalariany.” I could have claimed that my political enemies were out to destroy me.
But I didn’t.
She called me a dog, a typical campus asshole that couldn’t see logic past a short skirt, and banged the door on her way out. That night, Bella came back with a food tin of spaghetti and minced meat. I let her spend the night, but she never left.
Now Obara commands a small legion of students shouting painful, familiar slogans like it is the only thing they ever learned to do correctly. More students join by the tick of time. A crowd of half-awake zombies, still in their sleeping shorts and slippers. Obara is on top of a table, shouting at students to wake up and join his privileged crusade.
I stand by Kamaloka Hall’s grilled window and look outside. The hedges around the hall and the ground are littered with campaign posters. Different faces smile from these posters. All of them in this pitiable attempt to seduce voters. A few of the posters are glued on the walls and pillars of the hall. They were supposed to be removed today morning, but the grounds men have not yet showed up. Perhaps the scuffle at the entrance scared them off.
Smart guys. They know that the moment Mbalariany University students start calling Comrades Power! it is not a call to rhumba. That is a war cry. Even the policemen that the school hired to protect the hall cannot do anything to stop them. There is no greater power on earth than comrades power.
A face on one of the posters seems to be staring right back at me. Judging me. Taunting me with the words written under it. Living the Promise.
See, I can take taunts. But nothing is more annoying than being taunted by a lying face. A face that the whole campus knows is peppered by a colony of pimples, but has now been airbrushed. It now has the audacity to mock me with this fake, resplendent skin and whitened teeth. Judging me about honesty when we both know we are both alike. That line, Living The Promise, that is nothing more than dreamed up bilge. It is flattery. A cheap distraction from the truth. The truth is if he were me, he wouldn’t have done anything any differently.
If the mob shouting outside Kamaloka Hall really wants the truth, it simply needs look at this face. Its smile. Its skin. Its divine white eyes that are actually blood stained in real life.
Obara goes on.
Everything Obara says is reiterated by the mob. So long as it begins with ‘comrades’. He says Power, they say power. He says comrades and then sneezes, and the crowd sneezes. He says comrade and some indecipherable gibberish. The people yell whatever he says.
“Comrades. You know me. I am Obara wuod Akoyo. I would not lie to you. Donge? Have I ever lied to you before?”
“No baba.” The crowd says collectively. Someone in the middle of the crowd shouts “YOU ARE VERY LOYAL BABA!” with this slight tone of misguided stupidity that comes naturally.
“Now Comrades, our campus has been infected by a plague. A cancer called corruption. Those people inside there have been planning on how to rig in a few individuals on the ballot paper. As we speak, some candidates have bought marked ballot books. Now they need you to vote. But what I want to say is this. These people will not succeed. Comrades power!”
“Comrades, Saitan asindwe!”
“They think that simply because the university has paid the Kenya Police to guard them inside that hall, that now they are untouchable. Comrades, we shall show them that only God is untouchable. Can I hear an Amen?”
They shout. Some break into dance. “Haki yetu! Haki yetu! Haki yetu!” From the window I watch the circus. They are more awake now. Most of them punch clenched fists into the air as they shout. Others, the more old school and experienced in this sort of activity, wave leafy twigs. I wonder why they have to bring Mother Nature into all of this. Is it really necessary?
Wiseman comes up to me.
“Get away from the window, Sibuor.”
I am not sure this is a directive or an advisory.
“This is your fault.” I say in a voice that I am struggling to keep steady.
“Are you going to blame me, or are you going to come back and help us strategize about how to handle this?”
I do not move.
“You should have listened to me.”
Yes, he should have listened to me. You know what? I do not even remember anyone appointing him the head of The Council. Now after fucking up all our plans, he still has the audacity to give me orders.
I steel myself and stare out. Past the gathering crowd of insurgent students. Past the men’s hostel that stand four floors high to steal a piece of the sky. Past the faces peeping from the windows to catch a glimpse of the action happening outside the hall. I look at the sun. Its morning orange rays that once soaked the men’s hostel walls when we walked into the hall are fading. Now an intruding whiteness is taking over. Now the walls look like an overwashed mutumba T-shirt.
They should have listened to me.
That Sunday night after Obara left Choma Base, I pleaded with them. They should have listened. All Obara really wanted was a small position. The proceeds from our side hustle were to be shared equally anyway.
“So what? He just wants to be a Presiding Officer, right?” I said.
“But I already promised that to Mama Yao.”
I turned to Mama Yao.
“What would you get from being Presiding Officer?”
“Salary from MUSO of course. That is 20k I cannot let go just like that.” She said, as a matter of fact.
“This guy will cause us trouble guys. Look at the bigger picture. It is just good math. If he goes ahead with his threat, all this will crumble. Tutahata hii pesa bwana. You guys are fighting over 20k, yet we can pocket each at least 80k easy.”
“Cheki, JaSibuor. This Council will not kiss anyone’s ass. Personally, mimi silambi haga ya mtu.” Innocent said. Someone must have died and left this one a pair of balls for him to take that tone with me. Or anyone for that matter.
Mama Yao jumped in before I could say anything.
“Uh-uh. Sibuor. Kama hataki, aende. Kama wewe pia hutaki fuata! You and Obara are just bickering. Do you want my skirt?” She went on before I could say something smart in response. “Uh-uh. Let’s eat bwana. This food is getting cold. After next month you guys will be eating sukuma all month like rodents.”
Wiseman spoke up. “My friend, if this MUSO salary is not as important as you say, why can’t Obara let it go? Mama Yao is a whole Women Rep., bana. That friend of yours gave me headache all year long. And you know it. You know the way he plays with those C.U. chaps. Don’t be scared bwana. If he brings his head, we have Stitches here.”
During all this, Stitches had not breathed a word. He just sat on there, draining his bottle with one hand. On the other a cigarette. He took a drag, exhaled smoke through his nostrils like a tired dragon.
“Me I don’t want trouble with anyone. But if anyone interferes with my money…” He took another drag from the cancer stick. This was a reason he was head of security. He could promise to give the walls of Wambugu a fresh coat of paint with your brains, and mean it like it would be no hardship for him. His inflated muscles would clear any doubt.
I didn’t say anything more.
I got into The Council because of Wiseman convinced me I would get enough money to buy my guitar. Where was I going to get that kind of money when I did not want to go slave in a law firm after leaving campus? Those mean bastards. We have all heard the stories. They flood you in a shitload of work, yet the pay sucks; not even allowance for transport.
I was not going down that road. Wiseman knew that. Even as we sat in that dark corner, he knew that was the main reason I was getting into this. The promise of money was enticing, and to be fair, more money is always welcome. But I had more skin in the game. Yet he said nothing, adjusting his sitting position on occasion, because of his tight checked shirt that brought his chest features to the fore. He wore it like a second skin. Pretending not to notice me looking at him. Telling him with unspoken words that this was going to end in a cataclysmic failure for all of us if Obara went through with his threat.
The studentry would ask for our heads for sacrifice, if they got wind of any of our plans. In fact it would be their especial pleasure to see our heads roll.
He looked up, avoided my gaze and lifted his hands at the waitress. She hurried to our table.
“Msupa, give my boys another round of whatever bitter stuff they are having. Tutulize hii mioto.”
She took the empty bottles from the table and left. Her rumbustious ass followed, rolling, trying to catch up.
We can pretend that there is something we can do to salvage the situation. But I am in no mood for another charade. The noise from the rioting students fades into the background. Another voice begins to speak. It is Bella’s voice. For the past week it has been replaying in my head. “I am late,” she says.
The fairly tall, svelte, slit eyed man in a dusty lab coat along River Road comes to mind. He came highly recommended from Wiseman. That is when I remember it. The small brown envelope that I had given me two days ago.
“If she waits for longer, it might not work. The sooner you get it over with, the better.” He’d said. “Remember the instructions.”
I walk over to Wiseman and the crew. They are huddled together, trying to lick their grand exit plan into shape. Stitches has unbuttoned his shirt and untucked his vest. Bumps of muscles on his chest pop out. He is speaking to Wiseman. His tone, animated.
“Just say ng’wee. CDF will be here in a minute, we are delaying business bana.” He pauses to acknowledge my presence, and then proceeds. “Cheki, they are already calling asking me what we should do.”
I pull Wiseman aside. The others grumble, but when Wiseman raises his hand and asks for a minute, they calm.
“Is it time?” He does not let me ask for my break.
“Yeah. Your guy said nine asubuhi.” He says a curt sawa, before retreating to the rest of the Council. He would cover for me. Probably tell the rest that I had to pee or something. The rest of the Council members do not say anything as I head for the door, though I can feel their eyes poking my back.
The police guards at the entrance of the hall let me pass, but as soon as I step outside the crowd gets excited. They call me all sorts of names. Names that I would not call a pig when drunk. I ignore them. A group of them come towards me. Angry faces. Obara jumps down from his table, and holds his arms to stop them.
“Hapana. Leave that one alone. The person we really want is still inside there.” He says. I look at him and he curves out a ghostly smile.
My eyes meet Sarah’s on my way out. I had no idea she was also here. But I am not surprised. It is only for a fleeting second that our gazes lock, before she turns her head. I drop my head, embarrassed. My eyes find the tarmac as I elbowed my way out of the crowd.
By this time the sun was well risen. I feel it burn the back of my head as I flit away. A short shadow of myself leads me away from the hall and into the hostels. The voices in my head come back to visit me again. They tell me not to forget the instructions. She shouldn’t eat any proteins or drink milk four hours prior to taking the pills. I am nodding, and mumbling a faint sawa over and over.
I find myself in the toilet, standing in front of a urinal. Trying to pee. Nothing comes out. Nothing but a loyal yellow drop that forms at the tip of my mhoigos and lands on my blue jeans.
A warning on the wall stares back at me. ONYO: Do not urinate here. Urinators will be shot. Survivors will be shot again. It is written in careful blue calligraphy. The mid-morning overwhelming stench of unflushed toilets that I am well conversant with asks me to leave.
Pulling up my zip, I rush out.
I find Bella in the White House, curled in bed in a fetal position facing the wall. She has not moved since I left at six thirty in the morning. She turns as if to acknowledge my presence.
“It is time.” I say. “Have you had anything to eat?”
I squat and kiss her forehead.
“You know you do not have to do this, right?”
“I know.” There is a tremor in her voice. Her words, however terse, shakes.
“I just want you to know that I will be with you if you need me.” She says nothing. “Are you really sure about this?”
“I am sure I am not ready,” she says in a gruff, sitting up. “Has the voting started?”
I reach for the small brown envelope and give it to her. I turn around to pour water into a tumbler from the white five litre jerrican under my reading desk.
“He said it will just be like a normal period, right?” she asks.
I know she can see the doubt in my face when I nod. The struggle to remain emotionless. I watch her open the brown envelope, and then tear open the sachet. She stares at them for a while, the two small oval pellets, before lobbing them to the back of her throat.
She throws her head back when she drowns them with water from the tumbler. Her face cringes and her forehead furrows when she closes her eyes tight as if she is in pain.
She crawls back to the bed.
She curls herself back into her previous position. I take off my shoes and climb in bed with her. I hold her from the back in and snuggle close. I hear a glass break. Two glasses. Three. Sounds like a window pane.
The noise from outside grows louder.
They are chanting Obara’s name. They are yelling Comrades Power! Then they are cheering. Then some girls scream. I can hear a stampede. More screams. Running. Some towards the gate. Some past my door and into the rooms. Others everywhere else.
I do not let go of Bella.
I can tell she is not sleeping. When she sleeps, the sound of her breath is a gentle whistling sound. Now it pants. A drop falls on my arms. I know her eyes are leaking.
“You are going to be okay.”
I know it is a lie. I know in a few hours, her stomach will ache as if she swallowed a boxful of needles. But here I am, spooning the first girl I have ever truly loved in such an ugly set of circumstances. What the fuck do you expect me to say?