It is always at the end that the beginning comes to mind. Like on lazy afternoon on the Bachelors of LA WhatsApp group, whose tranquility was randomly interrupted by a message. A photo. A strangely familiar face. And a caption. Kuna mwanaume hapa ameoshwa aki. Followed by four emojis of a face laughing so hard that tears drop from both sides. It is incredible how people can never use a single emoji. As if sending just one of those would not rub it in enough. And at that moment, your mind takes you back to how you met Ma. You cannot remember what she said and what you said back, perhaps because you were too dumb struck to say anything worth storing in mind. What you remember is that in your first year of campus, you were the Managing Editor of a campus magazine. The Parklander Weekly. ‘Managing Editor’ is just what you decided to put on there to sound important, because you never really did much of Managing or Editing. You simply collected stories, mostly from the internet, and a few from your friends and put them together alongside pictures. That is all. And then you hawked them for 30 bob each. But then you know how Law students are. In first year, first semester, they are already calling each other learned friends when in sooth, they are neither learned nor friends.
As it turns out, Kevin was not messing around. The campus princess actually wanted to talk to you. That was when you were about to launch the magazine. And in that moment when you stood next to her, admiring how her hair fell over her shoulders onto her chest, and how those fetching eyes blinked behind a pair of glasses, you knew she had to be your cover girl. She was perfect; she was not from around and dudes were tripping over themselves just to stand next to her. So you asked and she said yes and you shouted YES! so many times to yourself, but never showed your excitement to her.
When the paper came out, this Second Year chap came up to you and said, “I am going to report you to the Dean. This is slander!” he cried, waving the paper at you. Next to him was your cover girl, red lips curving ever so gently.
“What is it?”
“You said, in her QnA,” he turned to gesture at her, “that she is in a ‘complicated relationship’. Who told you to print that? As her boyfriend, I am offended and the Dean must hear about this.”
It is not like you are the one who came up with that response. Well, you kind of did. What she had said to you during her interview was that she was not in a position to disclose her status just yet. So, in your new-age Facebook wisdom, you wrote ‘It’s complicated’. And that is why this prick from second year was standing there in front of you, threatening you with words he knew you did not understand like Slander and Defamation, because he knew that you were a fresher and you still hadn’t gotten halfway through the Law of Torts course.
That dude left you sitting on pins and needles for a whole week, waiting for the time when you will be summoned to see the Dean. You kept talking to yourself, rehearsing your answers, picturing a panel of lecturers staring at you, disgusted by this human being who had the audacity to go around breaking campus marriages.
When people read that first edition of your magazine, they marvelled at Ma’s face. She had a pair of eyes you couldn’t believe. I am talking world class. But what piqued your interest most was when she said she was sixteen. You had been shocked because in Kenya sixteen year olds are still in high school, hustling for spots on weekend outings so that they could have a change of diet from beans and ugali to half a loaf of bread and Fanta. She was easily, by your estimation, the youngest in the entire school. She said that back home in Zambia, people finished schools early. That and the fact that she had skipped a class when she was younger because she was smart. But then there are certain curves you can never understand. If indeed she had such a dazzling mind, how then did she end up with that asshole?
That dude was like her diapers. Always on her ass and full of shit. Perhaps you would only say that because of how he treated you on that day, but perhaps it was because of the way he was always a step behind her. Following her everywhere she went, guarding her as if the rest of you were untrustworthy bandits who would kidnap her and then send him a note asking for a hundred grand in unmarked bills of hundreds and five hundreds, no brownies. After every class, he was outside the lecture theatre, hands in his pocket, hips cocked to one side, standing as if the concrete under his shoes were made by his own fucking ancestors. At lunch time, he was always with her. Anyone who came near her would be chewed out like he was the day’s special. But to a sixteen year old, that kind of selfishness was admirable. Romantic even. By the time she had fallen for him, her head was too clouded with love to notice that her head was over her heels.
This one did not last long. His kind never do. One moment, they have the love of the campus balancing atop six inched heels from their arms, the next moment they do not. The last time you remember seeing them together was when Kevin and his Njelumen threw an End of First Year bash at Kabete, where you used to stay. He brought Ma and two other friends to the shindig and then left.
Here is the thing, most of the Module II students never spoke to Module I students. Except maybe for Kevin and a few others who’d gone to the same high school with some chaps from Module I. Otherwise, there is a line as imaginary as the Equator that keeps each faction on their own side of the divide. That is why when Ma and her friends showed up at the party, everyone knew they were your guests. They kept their handbags in your room, powdered their noses in front of your mirror, and made you walk like a god as you escorted them into Room F2 where shit was going down.
The bash was a Luo Festival. The whole class had changiad money to buy fish and bottles of Kenya Cane. They girls cooked the fish and the dudes concocted the cocktails. And it is here that you set yourself up for your first fall. You lost Ma’s phone. It was a QWERTY keypad Nokia phone the size of your palm, that had the coloured screen and a white backlight. This was at the tail of the semester when HELB money was a campus mythology- too much semester at the end of the money.
Here is how it happened.
A party needs music. Akina Kevin had been playing Ohangla songs back to back, and now the rest of the revellers had had enough of Ohangla to last them three presidential elections. So Kevin came to you and asked if you had anything more urban. You didn’t, but you know Ma did. So you asked her to lend you her phone to keep the party alive, right?
She says “sawa” and you giggle at her infant Swahili.
Then Jamo happens. He calls you to guide him to eat his fish because homeboy is a Kiuk who has never eaten a creature from the lake before. Now, Jamo has this ‘fro so thick a comb can disappear into it. He made it taboo for anyone to touch it. And by ‘anyone’ I mean ‘any fella’. He let chicks touch it all the time and got a rush every time one of them swore to God just how nice his hair is. At times such as these, the rest of you who have hair so tough it could scrub off the toughest sins from a pot, sink into your seats and lower your heads in embarrassment. And it is not as if you are into hair or something weird like that. It is just, being a last born, you have grown up being told what you cannot do, and now you badly wanted to touch Jamo’s hair.
That is why when he comes to you and says, “My brother,” (do not be flattered if he calls you brother, he calls everyone brother), “hebu tell me something. Am I supposed to eat the head of the fish too?” you tell him, “Yes. I will show you if you promise to let me touch your hair.” He says OK. Then you spend time showing him how to eat the head of a fish, in between him complaining and yucking and saying shit like, “Ah, my brother. This fish appears to be staring at me bana. Are you sure it is dead?”
“Kwanza the eyes are the most delicious part. Try it. You open up the head like this…” and then you go ahead and demonstrate what you mean.
You are so engrossed with earning your right to touch Jamo’s hair that you are not even the one who notices that there is no music playing any more. Someone else does. One of the chicks from our class who starts complaining that the bash is not happening.
“Relax. I got this.” You say and then go to look at the sub woofer where you had connected Ma’s phone. The speakers are there. The audio cord is there, but the Nokia is gone. Ma walks up to you and finds you holding an empty chord. She realises almost immediately that her phone has found legs. Her two friends, the ones she came with from her hostel, have had a few too many to drink already. They start feeding her bad lines about me. Saying all kind of stuff ati, “I do not believe it. That phone is not lost, Ma. He has it. He wants to keep it and sell it. This is Kenya, Ma, this is Kenya,” and “If he has lost it, he must pay for it.”
A crowd gathers. Somebody saw someone lingering around the speakers area, but they did not catch their face. You start doing calculations in your head. A phone like that would probably cost 8k ish. Which is just about half of your semester’s shopping money. Another solution is found for the music situation. You are left with her to deal with.
“I will pay you back for your phone,” you promise her.
“Do not worry about it,” she says.
“No. I will pay you back.”
“It would not be fair for me to do that to you. These things happen.”
You know her friends are right, somewhat. That this is Kenya. Kenya is unforgiving. Kenya does not take excuses. Kenya does not play games when it comes to people’s money. Good thing this one is not from Kenya. You accept her offer. Not that you have an option anyway, but you vow to yourself that you will find a way to pay her back.
“Do you want to get out of here?”
“Please.” She begs.
Kabete Campus is huge, not like that tiny briefcase campus that is Parklands. First year students are taken to Kabete because there is not enough space to accommodate everyone in Parkie. Every morning and evening, a bus picks them up and drops them back. It is a cold campus that looms large just past the rich suburb of Kabete Springs. Right next to it is the Kenya Institute of Administration. The Law of Torts lecturer, and old relic at the University of Nairobi, has regaled his class before about the whole university not being situated in one central campus like KU and JKUAT, and how that came to be. Legend has it that the administration had trouble with constant student riots. They soon realised that law students are the ones who chochead people into riots, filled their heads with ideas and ideologies. Commerce students on the other hand had the preponderancy to cause destruction. They were the first ones with stones, breaking into shops in the CBD and leading in the causation of havoc whenever there was a strike. So what happened is that the university dons decided to split these schools from the Main Campus. Law students were taken to Parklands (which was a secretarial college) and the School of Commerce was relocated to Lower Kabete – 12 kilometres from the CBD into the then village area where they could riot amongst cattle and throw stones into the river for all anyone cared.
You walk with Ma along the gardens of Lower Kabete. The night is cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. You two nestle together like crows and you can smell her perfume. She is telling you something about Zambia and you are nodding, pretending to be paying attention, when to be honest, you just want silence. You want to be with her and say the things you have always wanted to tell her using everything else possible, except words. Words are a distraction. Words cannot pronounce the softness of her palms. Or the urgency of your pulse. Or the beauty of the night in this gorgeous exile of a campus.
“Are you listening?”
“You are lying!” and she nudges you playfully on your shoulder. You do not respond. “You are still thinking about the phone, aren’t you?”
“Then what?” She stops before you. “What is the matter?”
You pause for a moment before you speak.
“You are. I am in love with you, I think. That’s the matter,” is what you should have confessed, instead “Yeah, the phone thing still bugging me.” is what you say.
Sometimes lies are told in silence rather than words. These are the kind of lies that are necessary when the truth cannot find its way out.