(This post is coming a couple of months late, because, well, I’ve been wondering lately exactly what role this blog plays in my life after all these years. But a good friend texted and prodded me about it and he said something like, sometimes an artist doesn’t know that they’re another artist’s muse. And I thought, what a weird-ass statement to just drop into a normal WhatsApp conversation, Boniface? But it got to me, and even though I do not really consider myself an artist in any shape or form or meaning of that word, I thought maybe there’s people who actually pay attention to these random things I scribble down. So I gave myself a deadline, and here I am posting these very random notes on 2020, well into the new year. Better late than never).
Four years ago I almost died.
My closest friends and I decided we needed some escape. We were fourth year students on the final semester of campus life. For nearly the entire duration of college, we had been locked in the veneer of false security and the ‘soft life’ that our sheltered campus life provided, but now we that were about to clear school, that curtain was quickly being drawn. Ahead we saw only a misty uncertainty, and we were desperately trying to hang on to the railings of a life we knew.
We hired a Toyota Noah that was meant to get us to Nakuru; for what purpose I cannot remember now. I was, without saying, the designated driver; because of my possessing extraordinary driving skills, as well as (completely unrelated) the only driver’s license in the whole group. My extraordinary driving skills took us as far as Muthiga on Waiyaki Way, before graciously taking their leave.
We crashed against the barrier, and till today I cannot tell you exactly how none of us got hurt.
In the four years since, I have always had this sense that I am living on borrowed time, and I should be doing more than I currently am. So when 25 sneaked in through the window in 2020, and a friend asked me whether my birthday felt special, all I could think of was that four-year-old question: this borrowed time, what am I meant to be doing with it?
Happiness is: taking a water bus to Takawiri on a warm Saturday afternoon in January and exchanging stories and contacts with a pretty girl you meet on the boat; who you will never meet or talk to after that except for brief glimpses at WhatsApp statuses. But that’s okay; sometimes this life just gives us glimpses, and those glimpses are really all we need.
Cats on the Road
In my sales manager stint in Nyanza last year, I was always surprised at the sheer amount of roadkill I came across on those country roads. Many mornings on my way to Ogembo or Keroka or Oyugis or Awendo or Sirare or Homabay or one of the other dots on the map that is South Nyanza, I would drive past the remains of a dead animal, bones and insides splattered in the middle of the road. A poor cat was probably out at night on its rounds, crossed the road cheerily and carelessly, because no one teaches cats the rules of pedestrian crossing. And the feline met its fateful end in the hands (wheels?) of one of those Nyamira Express buses whose drivers think they are in Need for Speed: Bomachoge edition. And I would always think there must be a metaphor about life to be found in there somewhere, I just wasn’t in a mood to think about it deeply yet.
But then in early March I lost someone I knew to a bad motorbike accident, and then Covid came around and started taking its numbers, and that metaphor finally clicked. We are, all of us, cats on a road, oblivious to where, when and how our Nyamira Express will hit.
Nairobi (but in tiny tastes)
Schooling in Eastlands was so interesting. Some days, walking home from Saturday tuition, my friends and I would get hungry, so one of us with left-over pocket money would decide to buy chipo mwitu from a roadside vendor, and the rest of us poor eleven-year-olds would stretch our hands eagerly in the universal symbol for: nipee (give me some) and in their generosity, our friend would give each of us one piece of fries, and all that did was leave us hungrier and craving for more. Good times, those.
Anyway, that’s kind of how my relationship with Nairobi was for the better part of 2020: tiny tastes.
2020 was the year I became a tourist to Nairobi; stealing time on weekends to stretch out my palm and receive a tiny piece of Nairobi, of family, of friends, of the many other activities that defined my life, and that only left me craving more. And then suddenly time is up and I have to take an 8-hour bus back and the small pieces of Nairobi mwitu were just never quite enough. Tiny tastes.
In March I return to the town where I was born and raised in till I was nearly 5. Then Covid acquires Kenyan citizenship and I’m sort of trapped there for close to six months. This virus; it waltzes unrestrained into a nation, expecting to evoke terror. And it does, but only for a minute. Then in our typical Kenyan attention span, people seem to just move on to some other thing. In between the daily struggles of trying to earn a living, running from police, not reading BBI, and being completely puzzled by the language in gengetone, no one has much mental space left to spare for a sickness with a strange name. I speak to a shopkeeper in Suneka in July and she asks me “Ni Corona nitaogopa ama ni Watoto kulala njaa?”
By October my brain feels like it was put in a microwave, so I make a trip to a desert to cool off.
It’s incredible honestly, how beauty can be found in unexpected places. Like the lush green forest in Marsabit with a whole park inside it. Or the oasis that looks like a Coastal beach, somewhere in Turkana county. Or sliding down rocks in Ngurunit and splashing into cool water, in the middle of weirdly shaped hills. Or listening to stories from the first college-educated man in an entire village; perhaps an entire Samburu county.
Nairobi (but for real)
At the tail end of the year, the city calls me back to itself, and I never thought i would be so pleased to return to polluted air and tiny expensive apartments and high-rise buildings and traffic jams. No more tiny tastes. Not for now, at least.
The building I move into has a rooftop that lets me see the expanse of the city from the tenth floor, and all too often I like to go up there and look at the world below when I need a change in perspective, because high places have a tendency to make me feel outside of everything, but also to remind me that there is a grand scheme in place, and that my current problems are just tiny dots in the face of the much larger picture, and that I’ve filled too much of my mental space with technicalities of day to day existence and not enough with what should be the real, imperial questions of my life: like what am I meant to do with this time?
Nothing screams “you’re old” like your closest friend getting married. Being a groomsman at a wedding reception in Isiolo doubles up as an opportunity to reunite with college classmates, recount tales of the old days, and how the years since then have treated us, and wonder silently of the unknown future. I find out I should wear Ankara suits more often, and that Nyanza gave me a pot belly.
Christmas finds me on an island that is so wonderfully slow, so wonderfully behind time, that donkeys are still the primary mode of transport. It turns out a little slowness is just what I needed to calm the wreck of nerves that 2020 has been. So I hire a Swahili-style AirBnB with friends, spend a couple of tipsy evenings on the rooftop just staring at an indifferent sea, play with water and sand in Shela, visit a dead town in Takwa, Manda Island, go on a sunset cruise on a dhow, and spend an evening on a floating bar.
I sometimes marvel at how people can figure out incredibly smart things and say them in a casual way without their brains exploding.
Like in a book I read early last year, in which St. Augustine says man cannot seek something unless he has memory of it, that is, unless he has had it before and then lost it. And so it goes for true happiness, he says, that we cannot seek it as resolutely as we do unless we have already experienced it in its fullness before; unless it is imprinted somewhere in our collective memory as man. It really got me thinking.
Or in an Uber ride in January, when I heard Eliud Kipchoge on the car radio, saying: be at war with your negatives. That stuck with me.
So here’s to the year that was 2020. (Or the year that taught me;
I. that my internal compass needs re-working).
II. that I, too, can be selfish in the most terrible ways. And that my selfishness can hurt others deeply, even if unintentionally. And hurt is not the legacy I want to have here).
III. that it’s easier to avoid falling into bad habits than to unlearn them. And that I have an incredibly huge amount of work to do on myself. So help me God).
IV. that I know so much, and yet apply so little. And knowing means nothing if what is known is not lived).
V. that I am so incredibly, incredibly gifted. And it isn’t pride to think that way of myself, as long as I remember that all we have is given, and all that is given should point us to the Giver; and that each of God’s gifts is always also, a task).
VI. that in the midst of all the chaos, there is so much hope. Oh, the things that we could be, if we only tried, just a little).
In 2021; Dear God, help me to try, just a little.