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I admit I was more accustomed to rowdy seedy bars in backstreets. Unlike the one I was in which oozed elegance and splendour. It was marble-floored, air-conditioned, the walls were not smudged and the seats not moth-eaten. The music didn’t assault one’s ears and the air was pristine. No vile smells of sweaty bodies and stale liquor, or choking marijuana smoke, and hands were not reaching for the large-bottomed barmaids in their lovely black and white uniforms.
Even the ladies-of-the-night were formal and proper. They sat with their backs straight, their legs crossed, laughed with their mouths closed and drank their wine with the utmost panache.
I was here with my two good friends to celebrate my first ever royalty check. We drunk our overpriced drinks quietly, daunted by the fact that we were just visitors to such classy places.
Two tables to my right was Kamanga, a man well known to many residents of Nairobi. In the tabloids he was often seen shaking hands with the high and mighty. Kamanga was a fixer who also had his finger in many shady deals. If one wanted a competitor intimidated, or had a pregnant mistress who was refusing to get an abortion, he was the man to call. If one’s daughter was dating a loser who refused to let the girl be, Kamanga made sure he saw reason, courtesy of a few broken bones.
Kamanga was in the company of three other men. Similarly pot-bellied, and by the way they spoke to the barmaids, with massively inflated egos as well. The four kept talking in a conspiratorial manner while staring at three young women who were seated at a table a bit further off. These women were engaged in rather animated talks and seemed to be in celebratory mood.
Kamanga urged a member of his posse to go talk to them. The man stood up, slightly agitating the well-stocked table, and strolled to the three young women. Without a word he pulled up a chair to their table. Once seated he outstretched his hand to the bewildered women. They hesitated before shaking his hand.
The man commenced introducing himself and concluded by stating he was a lawyer and that the blue BMW outside was his. The ladies didn’t seem impressed at all. As a matter of fact, there was a lot of irritation showing on their faces. He went on and on about how beautiful the ladies were that he just had to come over and introduce himself. My friends and I watched on amusedly.
“Listen, sir,” said one of them in curtly, “we are just here for the drinks, not to mingle.”
The man, unperturbed, singled out the one of the three women who seemed least hostile. He bombarded her with cliché upon cliché: eyes like cowrie shells, smile of angels, most beautiful woman he had ever laid his eyes on, and so on.
The lady tried to fend him off without seeming rude. The other two would tell him to get on his bike, but he would very calmly reply that he wasn’t talking to them. The polite lady’s “Thank you, but I’m not interested”, “I’m sorry, but you’re not my type”, “I’m just here to have fun with my girlfriends” all went unheeded.
Finally, resignedly, she said she had a boyfriend. The man sighed disappointedly and angrily walked back to his table. It seems the only thing that can get a woman from unwanted attention is to claim she is “taken” by another man.
When the man sat down I heard some choice words thrown at the three women by the gang. It reminded me of my usual watering holes, where barmaids hurl unspeakable words at touchy-grabby customers.
“I once knew a woman like these three girls,” said Kamanga, “who think they are too good for some men. Just because she has much book and can speak the Queen’s English and drive a German car. All that don’t mean shit. She is still a woman and must never forget that.
“Her name was Njeri,” continued Kamanga, “prettiest thing you ever saw. Big titties, big ass and exceptionally curvy. Every time I saw her she left my mind and loins aflame with unsatisfied desire. Njeri and I lived in the same apartment building in Eldoret Town. She worked for an NGO that paid her really well. Which made her think she could look down on everybody.
“Njeri was insufferable. I recollect her haughty tones, her phony English accent and the way she shook hands as if the other was infested with leprosy. Regardless, I really wanted to smash that. Time and time again I tried asking her out but she laughed me down. I’d rather hang than let an uncultured, uneducated fisherman between my thighs, she often said. I gave up when she said well-bred ladies did not fraternize with sewer rats.
“It was the year 2007 and that December there was an election. The general election that most Kenyans avoid talking about. On D-day we went and voted and went back to our homes to await the results. Everything was peaceful until the presidential results started streaming in. It was evident the out-going president had rigged the election. Like some constituencies had more votes for the president than the actual voters. Despite the irregularities, he was quickly announced the winner by the electoral commission and was sworn in at night.
“The opposition weren’t having any of it and violence erupted in many parts of the country. Eldoret town amongst them. As most of you remember the president was from the Kikuyu community, and you all know we vote along ethnic lines. Tribes supporting the opposition party started venting their anger and frustration on tribes that supported the president. Members of the Kikuyu tribe who lived in opposition strongholds had it worse. Many were beaten, raped, killed, had their houses burnt down and property stolen.
“It was a devilish time where neighbour turned upon neighbour, friend upon friend and even in-laws. It was also a time when old scores were settled. Many Kikuyu began fleeing from hostile territories. And their travel was full of peril. One group fled to a church and the church was razed down killing many of them. A woman fleeing with a mattress and other odds realizing the child on her back hadn’t cried a while, turned the child to her front to find arrows sticking in its back.
“Others met with roadblocks manned by enraged youth who would board the buses and tell everybody to hold out their National Identity cards. If it bore a Kikuyu name you were pulled out of the bus, and the driver ordered to drive on. All these was broadcasted in the evening news.”
Seated there sipping my beer I remembered those unforgettable days that forever changed Kenya. I was sixteen years old then. My family and I lived in Kikuyu land, therefore we were safe from the aggression of other tribes. Each evening we watched the ghastly news of death and destruction, and it felt like we were watching carnage in an alien country. Kenya had always been billed as one of the most stable countries in the continent. A country that had never experienced civil war or a coup. A country whose transition of power from one president to the next was always peaceful.
Schools were suspended, and every day in the streets of my village refugees streamed in by the dozens to their relatives. Haggard, hungry, devastated, clutching onto their little bundles. The refugees gave harrowing descriptions of what they had endured at the hands of colleagues, schoolmates, fellow church members and neighbours whom they had borrowed from one another the odd cup of sugar.
Odhiambo was a man I knew all my life. A bicycle mechanic who was slightly mentally challenged. Regardless of this, he was easily the best bicycle mechanic in the village and all the surrounding villages. It seemed he had a secret language with the bicycle tribe. They could speak to him and inform him exactly where and what was ailing them.
One morning in the midst of all this post-election madness, as I walked to a shop for some bread. I heard many people shouting and yelling. It was coming from Odhiambo’s shed. I rushed. Odhiambo was on the earth in his greasy overall. His face was all bloody. The angry mob was kicking him left and right.
No one was shouting “thief”, but I knew why they were beating him up. Odhiambo was a man who rarely talked, who mostly kept to himself and never did anyone any harm. He was the most peace-loving man I am yet to meet. He was a man who always had his radio tuned to one station, Radio Citizen. A man who spent his days at his shed repairing bikes and haggling with customers who wanted to take advantage of his mental challenges. They were beating him up because he was Luo. Retaliation against their kinsmen who were being persecuted in other parts of the country by tribes such as the Luo and Kalenjin. Odhiambo hadn’t done anyone any harm. He had woken up, worn his overall, and carried his tools and radio to his station like any other day.
A woman yelled that he should be circumcised since his tribe didn’t traditionally circumcise their men. Hence the Luo are seen by tribes that use circumcision as a rite of passage to manhood as forever immature.
A neighbour pulled me away towards home. I went crying.
“Why do you cry for these animals?” he asked. “You know very well what they are doing to our people in their homelands.”
Odhiambo didn’t live to see the next day. He was either beaten to death or bled to death from the circumcision. That is the one person close to me whom I lost during the violence. But I couldn’t grieve him, I wasn’t supposed to grieve him. He was the enemy.
We stopped killing each other after forty-five days. Only after the intervention of former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan. He brokered a peace treaty between the president and the opposition leader who was to become prime minister, a newly created position. The two leaders formed a government based on a fifty-fifty power-sharing agreement.
Someone coughed loudly and brought me back to the bar.
“In our building there were several Kikuyu,” said Kamanga. “All fled but Njeri. Initially we didn’t think the skirmishes would reach our affluent neighbourhood. But it did. Gangs were going door to door flushing out the undesirables. Most of the residents in the building were uneasy about Njeri, because harbouring a Kikuyu was putting one’s self at risk.”
As Kamanga talked, I caught up on some history: Eldoret, which is part of the Rift Valley province is the traditional home of the Kalenjins, who voted for the opposition. Part of the reason why some Kikuyu found themselves living in the Rift Valley away from their traditional home in Central Kenya was due to British colonization.
The British took most of the arable Kikuyu land and they were forced to look for land elsewhere through settlement schemes. These Kikuyu were always viewed suspiciously by the locals as grabbers who had come to steal the Kalenjin land like the British stole their land. The second is the Kikuyu are the most entrepreneurial community in Kenya, popularly referred to as a money-grabbing tribe. They are everywhere trying to eke out a living.
After the elections, politicians trumpeted that it was about time they did away with the cockroaches that had occupied their land, and the rallying call was heeded. Those who had been jealous of their rich Kikuyu neighbours took advantage of the situation and kicked them out to take their land, cattle and other property.
“Well, being Luo myself I was safe in Eldoret Town, a Kalenjin town,” said Kamanga, “unlike Njeri who was Kikuyu. The opposition leader was a Luo man, after all, whom the Kikuyu had rigged out of presidency.
“Two weeks in, I decided to leave for Nairobi to stay with my brother’s family till everything had settled down. Njeri too was thinking of ways to skip town. From our balconies we could see smoke emanating from many neighbourhoods. We could hear cries day and night. We didn’t dare to venture out. In the apartment, tempers were flaring up. Many wanted Njeri gone. She was risking their lives being there, they said. They even threatened to direct the gangs to her doorstep if she didn’t leave. So you see Njeri was in a very hard place. She couldn’t stay, and due to the roadblocks erected by angry youth, she couldn’t leave.
“When Njeri heard I was leaving come morning, she knocked on my door that night. She wore a rather revealing nightdress. She didn’t beat around the bush. She wanted me to take her with me but understandably I wanted nothing to do with her. She tried manipulating me with her feminine wiles; using honeyed tones, touching my arms and really playing up the damsel in distress. I wasn’t having any of it.
“Suddenly she grabbed my hand and gently started pulling me towards the bedroom, but I said I wasn’t in the mood. She tried kissing me and unzipping my pants but I flung her away from me. I thought ladies didn’t fraternize with sewer rats, I said. She sunk onto the floor in a heap and began sobbing. I felt so much pleasure turning down her advances. Oh, it was so invigorating.
“The next morning I packed a few things and was ready to leave when a delegation of members of the apartment held me up and beseeched me not to leave Njeri behind. I would be subjecting her to untold horror when the gangs reached the apartment, they said. I held firm to my stand. She always thought I was not fit to shine her shoes, why should she need me now? How dare she ask for my help?
“A few men called me aside and basically said I shouldn’t condemn Njeri to death just because she refused me. Eventually I gave in. I hid Njeri in the boot of my car.
“The streets of Eldoret town gave the impression of the beginning of the end of the world. A fog of smoke blanket everything. Businesses had been broken into and looted. Elephant-sized rocks had been placed in the middle of the roads and tyres were burning everywhere. Vehicles and kiosks were smouldering on the roadside. Young men with bows, arrows and machetes patrolled the streets. Others were carting away television sets, heavy sacks and even fridges. I did see a few bloody corpses by the roadsides, with arrows sticking out of them.
“Every few hundred meters I was waved to a stop. Young men thrust their heads into my car and asked for my ID. But mostly on seeing my face, they could easily tell I was Luo and waved me through. In every stop, the young men chanted that it was time they uprooted the weeds on their land.”
Many people in the bar were listening in to this story as Kamanga’s husky voice carried a far distance. I could tell the three ladies were also listening in. The story was being told for their benefit, after all.
“Outside town, the story was the same. Broken-into shops, smouldering houses, rocks on the road and people carting away stolen property. I drove down the Rift Valley. Every little town I passed or every village, it was as if the Army of Death had paid them a visit. And every kilometre or so there were road blocks manned by angry young men with crude weapons.”
“But you will have to agree it was quite risky,” said an older gent in a table near to the three ladies, “you risking your life over a girl who wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire.”
“Hold your horses, sir,” said Kamanga, who immediately took a big chug of his beer.
“With every passing of a roadblock I grew angrier and kept questioning myself: What if I find a gang who want to look into my boot? What then? Won’t they accuse me of collaborating with the enemy? Why am I risking my life over a girl who thinks her vagina is too good for the likes of me?”
“But I’m sure you would have easily talked to them, being a Luo,” someone said, “maybe given them a few coins to look the other way, said she was your wife or something.”
“Yes. I’m sure I could have worked something out,” said Kamanga. “All I’m saying is I would’ve easily gone to such troubles if she had been nicer to me.”
He took another big chug of his beer.
“I reached yet another roadblock and pulled over. I handed over my ID, they handed it back and ushered me along. One young man shouted they would not relent until my tribesman, the opposition leader, was made president as he had clearly won the election. The Kikuyu had run this country for many years, another said, it was time they gave the top seats to other tribes to enjoy the fruits as well.
“I didn’t drive off immediately. There’s something about this gang that I liked.”
He took another gulp of his beer.
“I got out of the car, strolled to the boot and opened it. I pulled Njeri out by her hair and informed them she was Kikuyu. They immediately got hold of her. Three of them dragged her into the bush. No one asked me any questions. As I drove off I could hear her screams.”
There was an atmosphere of shock and disbelief in the bar. Even someone dropped their bottle to the floor. Then I heard some murmurs from a few drunken men – served her right, what did she expect?
“It’s been nearly fifteen years and she’s still missing,” Kamanga said, in a manner as if he was giving a toast. He laughed hard, a maniacal laughter, and other men joined him. Including, surprisingly, my two friends. They seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed Njeri’s demise.
“Be nice to that man who shows some interest in you,” said Kamanga, “you might desperately need him tomorrow. That’s the point I’m trying to put across to women here.”
Some clients, mostly women, walked out of the bar in disgust. Including the three young women.
“But that’s in the past now,” said Kamanga, his voice beginning to slur from the alcohol. “Isn’t the government constantly shoving down our throats the forgive-each-other doctrine over the atrocities committed then? So that we can build a more coherent country? So that we never turn into savages ever again… Well, long live Kenya.”
I was mad with rage, and perhaps due to the alcohol in me, I decided the best course of action was to rush to the nearest fuelling station, buy a gallon of petrol and burn his car. But something curious happened. A pretty woman, in her mid-thirties, walked slowly to the posse. She stared at them for a while. I was sure a tirade of abuse would follow. Maybe even a spirited charge at them. Instead, she asked, in a shy flirtatious manner, whether she could sit on Kamanga’s lap since the other chairs were occupied. Kamanga more than obliged.
“You see,” he said boastfully as the woman tenderly sat on him, “this is a woman I would not leave in the cold to be devoured by wolves.”
I couldn’t understand the act. But then again, I have never been one to understand women. The act gave me so many colliding thoughts that I decided not to burn Kamanga’s car after all.
As I huffed in anger and confusion, I asked myself: Why am I this angry? Is it because of poor Odhiambo? Is it because of the thousands that were killed in the violence, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees?
Am I angry because of the rampant tribalism that never seems to ever go away? Or is it due to this woman who is now, by Kamanga’s countenance, whispering naughty things in his ear. Perhaps it’s all down to Njeri, a woman I had never met. If yes, am I angry only because she was a woman from my tribe? Would I be as angry if she was from another tribe? Yes? No? And what does it say about me that I have friends who relish such wickedness?
Later Kamanga and the lady excused themselves. Kamanga was so drunk he could barely stand straight. As the lady supported him on their way out, I heard him ask her if she could drive or whether they would have to hail a taxi.
That was the last time anyone saw or heard from Kamanga.