Everybody has a story.
This is primarily why given half a chance to get to know someone, I take it. Cab drivers are my favorite people to interact with. With the hours lost to traffic in this city, that time feels less wasted if you can learn even one new thing, make a new friend as your life gains a new dimension. One of my favorite cabbies, let’s call him John, hangs around the Ngong Road/Kilimani area quite a bit.
One day we found ourselves waiting for a larger group of people at Prestige Mall and he decided that we had ample time to get his car washed. So into Kibera we went, greeting miscellaneous folk on the road, the old lady that sells fruits, the kids who split into two groups and reenact AFC vs Gor every weekend, that random cop who we gave a ride when his cavalry was late and he had resulted to walk the distance. We waved, exchanged a word or three and then moved toward the “Car Wash”.
It technically wasn’t a car wash, just a place where these 7 or so youngsters hung around washing cars, listening to music and talking shit all day. I had only had the pleasure of talking to 4 of them, but not for lack of trying. They didn’t trust me. I wasn’t from there. They washed the car with no incident and at an extreme discount, returning lost monies – coins and notes alike – that had found themselves under the seats and in between consoles. He told them I would bring my car next time and we parted ways.
A week or so later, I met up with John again and seeing as the person I was going to meet was late, we detoured to the car wash again. A warm welcome awaited us. This time, when I sat down and lit my cigarette, I was joined by two of the other guys. John was on the phone arguing with his mother. We laughed about this.
One of the younger guys scolded as for smoking. He said as good Muslims and good people in general we should not be purposely damaging our bodies. He did not drink or smoke or chew or sniff. He imparted some wisdom about how we all use vices as excuses to escape the harshness of life, when in reality all we do is focus on external negativity to fuel and justify our internal negativity. After quoting a line or two from the Qur’an and the Bible, his boys laughed him off his soapbox. He eventually joined in their laughter and we changed topics.
These were kids. I hesitate to say any one of them was past 25. In fact, I’d be inclined to believe that 2-3 of them were on the wrong side of 20.
They mocked me for not speaking fluent Sheng or Swahili. I explained that I had been travelling for the larger part of my life and that my shitty Swa was still better than their absence of English altogether. The jokes and back and forths went on. The conversation wasn’t very long, the duration of a cigarette, really.
John got off the phone and we had to cut the encounter even shorter. They asked when I would bring my car around and I laughed. It was currently in the garage undergoing expenses I could marginally afford. I laughed awkwardly and waved bye.
Months later, last Tuesday, John was dropping me at home. It was almost 10pm. I was extremely exhausted, contemplating relocating to some place in Upper hill where I could enjoy a good view of the Nairobi night skyline that was so beautifully tragic. I told him this and he laughed. Upper Hill was just inconvenient, he said.
But I still love the night skyline. It’s undeniable. The beauty is in the lights; the outlines they reflect against the ethereal clouds make it seem like we live in a black sea of stars with a thick fog floating above us. The tragedy is in the black. All those dark corners, slums and forgotten places, those dangerous areas we like to forget; and the dangerous things that happen there. The painting of this city should surely qualify as a Memento Mori; a sober, black and white reminder that amid all this life, there is death.
My thoughts were interrupted when my phone rang.
“Where are you?” My mother screamed. She was worried as there had been some sort of carjacking and shootout nearby. I was too tired to be completely concerned about it. So I sent out a tweet just to let the folk know what had happened and then proceed to try and forget it all and fall asleep.
Two days ago, I was talking to John on the long drive home. We were on Mbagathi Way talking about the skyline again. I asked him why he hadn’t washed his car in a while and how those guys were doing.
“They killed them.” he said
“What?” I almost immediately knew what he was talking about.
The phone call I had gotten a few days earlier suddenly resonated.
The boys had tried to carjack a bus and had an encounter with police in which they got shot down mercilessly.
“I know it’s wrong, stealing, but they killed them.” his tone was matter of factly, not as somber as one would expect.
He explained that they had not been using real guns and had not intention to hurt anyone. They just HAD TO do it. I never ask the nature behind such obligations. The tale is usually dark and twisted. If any cause can put a gun in your hand and a balaclava over your face, it is usually a weighty matter. Apparently this one was gang-related.
“They were just boys and they killed them.”
I couldn’t empathize. Crime is a horrible thing. Cops are ruthless. Going up against them is a stupid thing.
Then I remembered that boy. The one that didn’t smoke or drink. The boy who spoke of the ills of the world and vices, how negativity spreads. I thought of his youth and his hypocrisy. I imagined he must’ve been the first to come out of the bus and the first to get ‘mowed down by gunfire’.
I still didn’t empathize, but I felt his pain for a moment. Just for that moment, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he had just fallen victim to his environment. Poverty is a self-sustaining, synergetic factory that churns out more death than life. In the larger scheme of things, he is just another face that has vanished. A fraction of a statistic in a headline in the digital edition of a newspaper that needed an article to meet a quota. They all are.
I realized that maybe 20 minutes had passed in silence since John delivered the news to me. He clearly didn’t need comforting. I couldn’t think of anything to say. Life had clearly already began moving on.
“They killed them?” I asked.
“All of them.” He said and then lit up a cigarette and stared back at the skyline.
The Memento Mori that is Nairobi.