The book of Exodus chapter five to fourteen weaves the tale of Moses rescuing the children of Israel from the captivity of the Pharaoh’s slavery in Egypt.
From the very start, Moses felt he wasn’t the right man for the job. Stammering and whatnot. He pleaded his case but God would hear none of it. It is you I have chosen, said God.
That morning, right before he set out for Egypt, I wonder if Moses was in no mood for breakfast. I wonder if his wife, Zipporah, eager to help him in the only way she knew how, laid out his lucky underwear and his favourite caftan, starched and pressed to just the right degree.
I wonder if Moses stood mute in front of the mirror, uncertain to whether the look he registered in his eyes was fearlessness or anxiety. I wonder if he faced his reflection and told himself, “You are the man Mo.” His reflection, unconvinced, stared back. Moses injected some more vim and attempted the attitude-building soliloquy once more, “You are the man Mo.” Each declaration thereafter was a decibel higher than the last. And at some point, I imagine Moses was just a man in a starched caftan and lucky underwear – shifting from foot to foot, balled fists punching the air – shouting into the mirror, “You are the man Mo. You are the man Mo. You are the man Mo.”
Panting, Moses straightened his caftan and regained his poise. The fearlessness was growing, the anxiety dimming. His breathing evened. I imagine Moses tapped the mirror with his open right palm, giving his reflection a high five. Then, nodding for each word, he said with manufactured certainty, “You. Are. The. Man. Mo.”
Moses and his big brother Aaron get to Egypt and meet the Pharaoh. In the Pharaoh’s eyes, these were two harmless and simple chaps with an even simpler request: let the people go.
The Pharaoh didn’t want his Israelite slave labourers to leave Egypt. So he gave Moses and Aaron trouble for days. God gave the Pharaoh ultimatums. The Pharaoh was adamant. More ultimatums. More adamance. Harsher ultimatums. The Pharaoh cracked. Dejectedly, he ‘let the people go’. It had been 430 years in captivity – the Israelites sang in unison as they left Egypt.
The good book says the liberated Israelites roamed the desert for over 40 years in search of the phantom Promised Land. They cursed Moses. They sinned. They threatened to go back to Egypt because there, they had plenty in wine and bread. There, they didn’t sleep in tents amongst the desert snakes and scorpions.
Moses – the luckiness of his underwear and the starchiness of his caftan long gone – ran back to God time and again defeated. What do I do with these whiney Israelites? he said.
Liberation, for me, was glorious on the day it happened. Early April 2013. That Wednesday when all its pomp was unceremoniously crashed as soon as I exited the office building and drove smack into 5PM traffic.
That evening, my head was pounding from a terrible headache (I forgot to have lunch) and the tears were stuck in my eyes, refusing to roll out (the emotion was heavier than I had anticipated). Capital FM blasted from my car stereo; Cess Mutungi’s yapping could not have been any more suffocative than it were at this moment. It was raining. Traffic moved slowly. My cell phone was active with calls and text messages from my 10-minute-old ex colleagues wishing me Godspeed. The car windows were misting up. I rolled my window down and stuck my head out, turning to look at the office building majestic one last time. This was too much.
I needed a drink.
The entrance to Galileo was already behind me. So I swerved off the next exit and took the left turn to K1. When I got to its parking, I opened the door in a mild panic and hang my head out; my face was flushed red and my heart racing. A film of sweat had formed on my forehead. My head was pounding from a terrible headache. I spat. Right there beside me, on the passenger seat, was my orange office lanyard. Its tag was empty. Next to it was an empty bottle of 4-year-old Keringet water and a case secured with a rubber band, full of unused business cards. In my trunk was a boxful of my belongings; one of those fancy ones with slots on its sides to slip your hands in. Egypt, eh? Children of Israel, eh?
I walked in the rain without a brolly. Head hang low and the spring in my step, gone.
At the bar, I slumped on a high stool. I ordered a double and stared at the catfish swimming in the aquarium behind the bartender. My head was pounding from a terrible headache (reminiscing on years past) and my head, Sweet Jesus, my head was pounding from a terrible headache (a significant chapter of my life had just ended). Did I mention my head was pounding from a terrible headache (the double I had gulped was making me feel woozy, worsening my head that was already pounding from a terrible headache)?
“Uko sawa madam?” the bartender asked as he wiped a glass with the white dishcloth that hung from his right shoulder. For a few moments, he looked surreal. The black and white of his staff uniform juxtaposed with the turquoise fluorescence of the aquarium behind him, surrounding him in a haze that softened the features of his diamond-shaped bald head and pointy ears. A mousey man.
His name tag read Mutua.
I wanted to tell Mutua that I wasn’t quite okay. I wanted to tell him I had just left my audit job with no plan for what-next: the only plan I had was to not wash my hair for the next one hundred days. I wanted to tell him I hadn’t anticipated all this bloody emotion; that liberation should come with no such highs.
I wanted to tell him my pals were on their way; that as much as I looked it, I wasn’t in desperate need of company. I wanted to ask him where everybody was; except for the couple seated at the extreme end of the bar – noses touching in intimate conversation – and the three suits behind me following the muted TV images of Discovery Channel, it was deserted.
I wanted to ask him if he knew what it felt like to end a career before it had even begun. I wanted to ask him if he loved his job, his work. If wiping glasses and scrubbing the glass rings off the bar’s countertop was his life’s work. I wanted to know if I would find my life’s work.
I wanted to ask him if he believed in God. If he trusted Him. If he trusted Him the way Moses had. I wanted to tell him Moses was neither fearful nor anxious when he liberated the Israelites. That even he, like the Israelites, wanted in on the Promised Land but wasn’t certain where to find it.
Most of all, I wanted to tell Mutua that my head was pounding from a terrible headache.
But I didn’t. Instead, I offered him a straight smile and nodded I was okay.
“Niongezee double ingine Mutua.”
Life is a see-sawing battle out here, man. I am Moses, and at the same time I am the children of Israel. I am leading but still being led. I am chanting attitude-building slogans while at the same time silently whining the harshness of the desert terrain. I am roaming in search of the Promised Land but have this nagging feeling that this is it. This is the Promised Land. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it Love.
Hey, did you tell you about my head, my head that was pounding from a terrible headache…?