SAFARI OF DARKNESS
(The morning light)
“I have seen the desperation and disorder of the powerless: how it twists the lives of children on the streets of… Nairobi.”
(Barack Obama, from: Dreams from my Father)
Children play in foetid pools beside dead dogs, rats scurry through cracks in walls, chickens search garbage for maggots and goats eat plastic bags. This is Nyumbani. A place where poverty prevails and resilience prospers; where necessity breeds enterprise, hardship spawns resolve, and humour tries to keep desperation at bay. AIDS is rampant, cholera prowls, and infant mortality is too frequent to merit comment, too alarming to appear on official statistics.
Nyumbani is make-do and ingenuity, where artisans make machetes out of car springs and sandals out of old tyres; mechanics repair cars with stolen parts, and wood carvers shape animals they’ve never seen.
Nyumbani assails the senses. A place of noise: of barking dogs, wailing infants, raucous youths, strident women. A place of haggling, swearing, laughing, crying. Even the flickering candle of life is measured in sound: the panting of lovers, the cries of the newborn, the groans of the dying.
In the heat of the dry season, the smells of latrines and putrefaction mingle with those of food on charcoal cooking-stoves and the sweat of human toil. Together, these scents swirl into the air with the dust and the rubbish.
In the rains, dust becomes mud and maggots become flies.
Each morning, Nyumbani wakes with the sun, stirs and comes to life, and the clerks, cleaners, labourers, maids, mechanics, nurses, teachers, drivers, guards, con-men, prostitutes, loungers and scroungers stream into Nairobi to sustain this flourishing international city and to seek their livelihoods.
Schoolgirls, in spotless white blouses and blue tunics, appear out of the squalor like newly-emerging butterflies, and walk to school. The young and the old stay behind.
Nairobi’s lifeblood flows back in the evening and Nyumbani goes to bed with the sun. People don’t go out at night – and certainly not alone.
Nyumbani brings out the best in people. It brings out the worst. A place of contrast and contradiction, of kindness and deceit, of consideration and greed, of compassion and cruelty. It is hope and despair, laughter and misery. It is life and it is death. And it is home – whether the dwelling is a ramshackle hut, an abandoned car, or a cardboard shelter – home to a million Kenyans, one of whom is Ruth.
The one-roomed hut which Ruth rents from a Nairobi businessman is built of corrugated iron sheets, wooden planks and sun-baked clay. With its leaky roof and absence of electricity, plumbing and sanitation, there is little to distinguish it from countless similar huts set in the intimacy of poverty in one of the numerous alleyways which grope their way through Nyumbani. Ruth, though, has transformed the inside by painting the walls, hanging a family photo and pinning up her children’s drawings. This is the home she shares with her four-year-old son Juma, her seven-year-old daughter Patience, and her mother Njoki, who moved from her own home in Nyeri to help care for the children after their father died. The whispered verdict at the time – ‘slim’ – lodged a thorn in Ruth’s heart.
Every morning, Ruth joins the Nairobi stream on her way to the hotel where she works as a maid, and Patience, her hair tightly braided, joins the butterflies going to school. Juma, whose sharp eyes are invaluable in threading beads, stays at home to help his grandmother make beadwork for the tourist trade.
Scavenging kites and other birds wheel overhead during the day and look down on Juma and Njoki, and on a garbage mountain teeming with people trying to glean subsistence from the waste of their fellow humans. By night, the birds and people sleep, and the mountain becomes the territory of dogs, which roam in packs and thrive on the detritus of human misery.
Tension, though, is building in Nyumbani. The fabric of life is changing, crumbling, unravelling. Even the dogs sense it.
Tonight they run by, whimpering.
Ruth sat up, instantly alert.
Squeezed in the bed beside her, Patience stirred, Njoki snored, Juma woke.
‘Mama, what is it?’
‘Sh.’ She put an arm round him and drew him close feeling the tension in his body as he clung to her.
Footsteps in the alleyway.
She held her breath.
A bird fluttered in her chest.
The sounds drew nearer and… continued past the door and carried on. Ruth tried to control the bird’s beating wings. Shouting and screaming. Juma buried his face in her neck. Patience woke and whimpered. Ruth reached out comforting arms to shield her children from the sound of households being torn apart.
Njoki crept to the door to listen, cockroaches scuttling away from her feet.
The sounds faded but the ensuing silence – fragile and hesitant – was just as agonising.
Only when the footsteps returned and died away into the night, did Ruth relax.
‘Things are getting bad,’ muttered Njoki, shuffling back to bed.
Ruth settled the children to sleep but she lay awake. She hoped it wouldn’t happen, but deep down she knew it was inevitable; inevitable that the unrest which had been building since the election results were declared would spread to the cauldron of tribal tension that was Nyumbani.
Next morning she went to see what help she could give to those who’d been attacked: some maize meal, a few vegetables, sweets for the children and comfort for the traumatised.
For Ruth, there was no difference between Kikuyu and Luo, Kalenjin and Kamba; all were Kenyan whatever their tribal background. But others, who’d lived peaceably together for years, looked warily at neighbours whose political affiliations differed from their own – differences exploited by hothead agitators who fanned the dormant embers of tribe and language into flames of stealing, looting and settling of old scores.
Fear prowled the alleyways and encircled the huts. It seeped through shutters, crept through cracks in walls, slithered beneath locked doors. No one felt safe.
The pounding footsteps returned the next night.
The same routine: Ruth’s arms of comfort for Juma and Patience, Njoki listening at the door.
Again, two nights later. This time the footsteps did not continue on.
Whispering outside the door – the door with its feeble lock and flimsy bolts.
The crack of light filtering through the woodwork was blocked.
Juma whimpered. Ruth shushed him.
The whispering stopped. A rat gnawed at something in the roof. A man snored in the adjacent hut. A child called out nearby.
Njoki put her ear to the door.
Ruth and the children cowered on the bed against the wall.
In the distance, shouting.
Juma’s sharp nails dug into Ruth’s arm.
The gnawing rat was silent.
Someone tried the door handle.
‘Go away!’ shouted Njoki.
‘He’s not here. Go away!’
‘Open the door.’
‘There’s no Olembo here.’
A dog barked.
‘Open the door.’
‘Olembo doesn’t live—’
A crash against the flimsy woodwork. The lock and bolts flew off. The door burst open, hurling Njoki backwards. Her head struck the table. She lay still.
Shadowy figures stormed into the hut, ripped pictures off the wall, ransacked cupboards, smashed crockery, turned over the bed, kicked Njoki. No word spoken; their only sound, ragged breathing. When they failed to find Olembo, these silent raiders departed, leaving Ruth and her children frozen in terror. And Njoki lying in an ever-widening pool of blood.
Someone from a neighbouring hut shouted for quiet.
Juma slept fitfully. Every time he woke, he asked the same question: ‘Mama, who is Olembo?’
Every time, her anguished answer was the same: ‘I don’t know.’
He nestled against her and was conscious of warm tears. ‘Don’t cry, Mama.’ He put his arms round her and drifted in and out of sleep. Why did those bad people come? Who is Olembo? Why does Bibi lie on the floor? What will we…?
He woke with the sun shining on his face through a crack in the wall. He clambered off the bed and peered through the open doorway. The alley was full of people. Some were wazungu – white people – and they were pointing cameras and talking into microphones. He’d seen people with cameras and microphones before when an important man in a suit came and talked to a crowd in Nyumbani. Mama said he was called a politician.
A mzungu lady was talking in a loud voice into a microphone but it was hard to understand what she was saying.
“I’m standing here in Nyumbani, Nairobi’s largest shantytown and the scene of some of the worst violence since accusations were made of vote-rigging in Kenya’s recent elections.”
The mzungu man beside her pointed his camera at the huts, at torn posters and at a dead dog. Juma wondered why he wanted a picture of that. The man swung his camera round to the bystanders, and there was Mama with Patience huddled against her. And what was that shape on the ground, under the blanket, with feet sticking out?
Juma ran outside. ‘Mama, what is it?’
“Viewers at home may find some of the images distressing, as tribalism once again rears its ugly head.”
The man turned his camera towards the shape on the ground.
‘Is that Bibi?’ asked Juma.
‘Will she get better?’
‘Of course not! She’s dead,’ snapped Patience, and burst into tears.
Juma wondered whether he should start crying now the camera was pointing at him.
“When politics tears a nation apart, it is the poor who suffer.” The mzungu lady came towards them.
He cowered against his mama.
“I’ve come to interview Mary – not her real name – who with her children was caught up in last night’s violence.” She held out the microphone. “Will you tell us in your own words what happened?”
The man fiddled with the controls on his camera.
“Can you tell our viewers what it was like to have your home destroyed?”
Juma felt Mama silently sobbing.
“I believe your mother died in the attack on your house.” The woman smiled and waited. Then said: ‘Cut.’
‘Does anyone who was attacked speak English?’ shouted the man with the camera.
People shuffled their feet and looked away.
‘Damn,’ muttered the mzungu lady.
‘Fuck,’ said the cameraman.
‘Nothing more we can do here,’ she said. ‘Let’s go.’ She put a sweet in her mouth, a handkerchief to her nose and scraped her shoe against a stone to remove a dog mess.
Juma stared as the wazungu walked away with their cameras, microphones and dirty shoes. A plastic bag, caught in a flurry of wind, followed them. He looked at the sweet the woman had given him and threw it away.
Mama bent down to him. ‘We have to go to Nyeri today,’ she said.
‘Because that is where… where we’re taking Bibi.’
She stifled a sob. ‘To bury her in her Kikuyu homeland.’
‘How will we go to that place?’
‘A truck is coming to take us.’
Juma waited all day but the truck didn’t come.
In the evening some men moved Bibi back into the hut.
Juma woke after another restless night and lay peering at the shape on the floor. The shape covered by a blanket; the shape that was his grandmother, his bibi.
A rat was sniffing it.
He shouted and the rat ran off. Mama sat up and Patience woke beside her.
There was a knock on the door.
Juma scrambled off the bed. ‘Go away!’
‘Who is it?’ called Mama.
‘Everything is arranged,’ said a man’s voice. ‘I got a message to your father in Nyeri.’
She moved the chair aside which kept the door shut, and Juma saw his friend, Kamau, who sold the beadwork he and Bibi made. He was waiting with two other men.
‘The truck is ready,’ said Kamau. ‘Can we take her?’
The men came in, lifted Bibi and carried her to a pick-up truck waiting in the road at the end of the alleyway.
‘Come, children,’ said Mama.
Juma wore his faded Batman T-shirt and ragged shorts but no shoes because he didn’t have any. He clung to his mama’s hand. A number of weeping women, who’d been waiting, followed. Most of them he recognised as neighbours. Some he didn’t know.
The pick-up had a big dent in one door and one of its headlights was broken. There were red ribbons tied to the wing mirrors. The driver was leaning against the cab smoking. He stubbed out his cigarette as they approached, tossed it aside and undid the tailgate. The men laid Bibi on the floor of the pick-up then climbed in and sat on the sides. Some of the women also climbed in and squeezed into the cramped space, followed by two more men.
The women were still crying and the men talked in gruff voices.
The driver closed the tailgate, then led Juma to the cab and lifted him in. Patience and Mama sat beside him. There was a plastic dog with a nodding head on the dashboard.
The driver lit another cigarette, climbed into the cab and started the engine. Juma asked what the dog’s name was, but the driver didn't hear.
The crowd moved back as the pick-up set off. People called out words of sympathy. Some waved. Others wiped away tears.
Juma waved back and tried not to breathe in the driver’s smoke because he knew smoke was bad for people. He settled against his mama, watched the nodding dog and fell asleep.
A bang, a squeal of brakes, bumping and bouncing. A shout from the driver. Juma woke and stared at thick bushes. The pick-up lay off the road at the bottom of a slope.
‘What is it, Mama?’
‘The car has had an accident.’
‘Will we still go to Nyeri?’ asked Patience.
‘I don’t know, my child. Only God knows.’
The driver swore and said they should get out.
The nodding dog lay on the floor with its head off. Juma picked up the pieces and scrambled down after his mama.
One of the men had fallen out of the back of the pick-up and lay on the ground moaning. His head was bleeding and he couldn’t stand up. Kamau and another man helped him to the shade of a tree. Mama and the other women looked after him while the men studied the remains of a front tyre and sucked their teeth. The driver sat on a rock and lit a cigarette.
Juma inspected the tyre and tried to suck his teeth.
Kamau went and spoke to the driver and the two of them lifted Bibi out and placed her on the ground. The driver still had the cigarette in his mouth and some of the ash fell onto Bibi’s feet which were uncovered. Kamau put his jacket over them.
The driver pulled out a spare wheel and some tools from the pick-up. He and Kamau talked a bit and peered underneath. Then the driver took a machete and disappeared into the bush. Juma thought he’d gone for a short call.
Kamau organised the other men to collect rocks. Juma down put the pieces of the nodding dog and went to help. He jumped back when he lifted a rock and a scorpion scuttled out. One of the men stamped on it. Juma was sorry for the scorpion and didn’t help with any more rocks.
The driver returned from the bush without the cigarette but carrying a long branch. He dumped it on the ground then loosened the nuts of the damaged wheel with one of the tools. Juma stood back as the men pushed rocks into place, levered up the vehicle with the branch, propped more rocks underneath, fitted the spare wheel, and settled the vehicle back on the ground. The women clapped and Juma joined in. The men grinned and wiped sweaty faces with dusty hands. They returned the useless wheel and the tools to the pick-up and lifted Bibi in. Kamau adjusted the blanket over her feet, and put his jacket back on.
Two children, herding goats, appeared from the bush and stood staring and pointing. Juma picked up the nodding dog and stared back.
Kamau called everyone to help with the pick-up. Then, with cries of: “Harambee – all together”, they pushed it up the slope back onto the road.
The man with the bleeding head still couldn’t stand properly, so Kamau and the driver helped him to the back of the pick-up where he lay on the floor beside Bibi. Everyone else scrambled back in.
The children with the goats waved as the vehicle left. Juma waved back.
The driver said the dog’s name was Nelson, and as it was broken Juma could keep it.