21 days in the City

Kate was no ordinary woman. I decided that after our second, maybe third encounter. The day she said she doesn’t keep a TV in her house.

You know Kate, right? Kate Getao. Columnist for the Saturday Nation Magazine. Kate can’t have run her Flakes column for over fifteen years being an ordinary woman.

Kate was my lecturer for a course I took in my sophomore year; Automata and Languages 219. And it wasn’t until the second, maybe third lecture when she said she doesn’t keep a TV in her house that I truly saw her.

Kate was no ordinary woman: She wasn’t a laugh-out-loud sorrta person. Kate grinded her teeth, shut her eyes and cackled. Her head like a tapped bobblehead’s. Kate laughed quietly to herself. Nah, strike that. Kate laughed quietly with herself. She wasn’t about humour, she was about sarcasm. Sarcasm is a private joke, a wicked and witty private joke. She had a throaty voice, choose her words carefully and never wasted any. Her hair, natural and kinky, was done up in cornrows or a finger-combed ‘fro. On the bad hair days, there was the odd wig. Fashion wasn’t her forte.

Kate was a woman of bohemian appeal.

I saw Kate twice last year: the first time in April, the day after I stopped working. And again in December, at the StanChart Bank on Kenyatta Avenue. That December, Kate was arguing with all the wit and sarcasm only she could master. The customer service desk, defeated, directed her to one of the meeting rooms in the far corner.
It was 3PM. Sunlight pouring into the banking hall caught the glitters in her sari. Kate was glowing, her sari flowing behind her. She turned her head in my direction, it was bobbing. Heehe. We caught eyes for a brief two seconds before she floated off in slow motion. And then just like that, Kate vanished right before my eyes. I swear I am not making this up: Kate Getao vanished.

I shivered.

Like I told you, it wasn’t until the second, maybe third lecture when she said she doesn’t keep a TV in her house that I started to pay keener attention to what she said. Not attention to the stuff she said about Kleene’s Theorem and Charles Babbage. But stuff she mentioned as footnotes, as intellectual treats. Stuff like the lizard brain. Like Dr Seuss. Like the belly button window. Like Occam’s Razor. Like finding his soul in a man’s eyes.
Like the 21 days of habit. Form or break a habit in 21 days, Kate quipped.

Why did I tell you that story? I told you that story because the title up there, it partly belongs to Kate. It has also been a year since I started writing. And in that year, I have been idle enough to observe the men and women of this City carry themselves tonic through their routines and habits. Myself included (Did I get that right, Capt Jecinta?)

Let me tell you how the days go.

There’s a cab driver who parks his car right outside the main gate of my hood. It’s an old Nissan Sunny. White. KAC. The type that has a skinny ass and a petite body.

And every morning for an hour, I have seen him seated in his car staring into his laps. When an hour lapses, he steps out to shout to the guards and his pals across the hood. He is unquiet, unhandsome and unkempt. Too rough around the edges for my liking.

Everything about him – his unquietness, his unhandsomness and his unkemptness – had me steer clear of him until a rainy Tuesday morning last November when he called out to me.

Madam, unaenda pande gani?

I told him I am headed to the City.

Karibu lift.

I get his car for the ride he offered. He cracks a joke about how useless my kikoy is in the rain before he introduces himself. He tells me they call him Mister Mic. Cheesy. I don’t tell him what ‘they’ call me.

I hadn’t realized how unhandsome Mister Mic is until this morning. Sweet heavens. This man has been punched for all of Nairobi – listen, if you are one of those chaps who is constantly running their smart mouth and talking tough, always looking to start something but have never been punched in the face. It’s not because you don’t deserve to be punched, but because Mister Mic has already taken that punch for you. Mister Mic’s face tells the man he is: a punch bearer.

We talk. Or rather, he talks, I listen.

Mister Mic tells me he’s one of those reformed chaps who found Jesus later in his life. And he has since dedicated the work of his Nissan Sunny to make things right. He isn’t religious but he prays, doesn’t ask for grace but for pardon. Grace, he tells me, is for the man too weak to bear the burden of his own sins. Pardon is for the greater of men, the braver ones who ask for forgiveness for the burdens of theirs and their wrongdoers’ sins. I don’t understand his philosophies but I am wowed he has some. Mister Mic: A man of philosophy, a punch bearer and a sin bearer, eh?

His unhandsomeness starts to wear off.

We continue our ride to the City.

Mister Mic says he has read the same chapter of his Bible every single morning for the past twenty-four months. Which one is it, I ask. He says it’s Psalms 1. I like the part about the tree bringing forth its fruit in its season and prospering in everything it does, he says.
He shows his Bible: It’s a blue one. Gideons International. The type that missionaries distributed for free back when we were in primary school. He flips the browned pages to Psalms 1 with a gentleness I hadn’t anticipated, as if the weight of his fingers would cause it to tear in half.

Why read the same chapter for an hour every single day, I ask. I opened the Bible one morning and it was the first chapter I saw. It spoke to me in a way I hadn’t been spoken to, made meditate. It gave me the stamp to start afresh.

His unquietness wears off.

The car is now silent. The only sound is our breathing. And the sound of Mister Mic scratching his ruff beard. The rain has stopped, and Mister Mic peels off his overcoat. Beneath it is a t-shirt in unstained white. The words ‘POLO SPORT – RALPH LAUREN’ have been emblazoned in blue and red across his chest. Mmmh. I catch a whiff of Mister Mic as he flings the overcoat to the back seat. He smells… yummy.

His unkemptness has worn off.

Every morning at 1030AM, there’s a grizzly old chap who sets up his watch-repairing shop on the front steps of a family bakery downtown. And every day, he is dressed in a faded and old mismatched suit with a tie pulled a tad too tight so that his shirt collar is bundled up into an uneven wave around his neck. The entire ensemble is tacky but in good repair. I call him, the Grizzly Bear.

I can tell Grizzly’s wife cares for him a great deal from the hems of his trouser and the buttons of his shirt. The buttons have been sewn on using colours of varying thickness and threads. Buttons harvested from his unworn shirts of days past. Buttons with different faces. Buttons with different number of holes on them. Buttons she saws on late at night. Do you see her, Grizzly’s Wife, sitting next to the flickering light of a kerosene lamp, a threaded needle in one hand, her husband’s shirt in the other? Do you see her spectacles hanging on the end of her nose, humming a tune as she tightens a loose button or replaces a broken one for the umpteenth time? Do you see her? I do. I see her. I see care. And I see love.

Grizzly sits on a rickety wooden structure that doubles up as his storage unit. Every morning, he unlocks it and removes a brown leather casing which has been folded up one layer on top of the other. He is delicate as he opens the folding leather bag that holds his watch-repairing tools: the dustblower and the screwdriver set. The case-opener and tweezers. The loupe and lubricant. I can tell Grizzly cares for his tools a great deal from the way handles them with such delicateness, such reverence.

I spoke to him once last June. OK, we didn’t speak. I asked him a question because I wanted to know what it felt like to look into those eyes; eyes aged with cataracts, rheumy from occupation. Eyes that caged the love sewed into his buttons and the care caressed into his tools.

Grizzly’s eyes pierced into mine. He shook his head in a weak ‘no’.

I walked away.

That brief yet intense exchange has remained tattooed in my mind for the rest of the year.

Everyday at 1PM, I have left my desk and walked from my office building to an eatery which borders the backstreets of the City. It’s a seedy eatery, with even seedier neighbours – the building to its right holds a prayer hub, a counselling dome, an aerobics centre and a computer college which offers packages in graphic design. The ground floor, a bridal store and a media lab hawking bootleg DVDs at BOGOF prices.
To its left, a shop which sells discounted shoes at 500 bob. They are piled in a wooden crate right at its entrance.

My seedy eatery: It has no cutlery. No crockery. No serviettes. Juice is served in glass tumblers which look like they can hold an old man’s teeth. We sit on high stools and look into mirrors. Mirrors have replaced the walls. We are surrounded by motor vehicle number plates from the United States. Number plates which say things like ‘Hawaii, the Sunshine State’. Or ‘New York, the Empire State’. ‘New Mexico, Land of Enchantment’.
The AC muffles the blasts from the overhead speakers. The radio, as it is every day, is tuned to QFM.

And on most days for the past year, I have asked for the same items from its thin menu, in the same order, in the same flat voice. And every day, my lunch order has been packed by the same cateress. Her name is Jacinta (spelt with an ‘a’ not ‘e’). She runs the lunchtime shift.

Jacinta wears pink lipstick and pink blush, the bangs of her cheap weave peek from beneath her headscarf. An adolescent bead of sweat always balances on the tip of her nose. She barks orders to the kitchen behind her, to the juice stand to her left and the cashier to her right, all the while packing our lunch orders with practised precision. Jacinta. Everyone here knows she’s boss.

Not once has Jacinta met my eyes through the grilled bar that separates us. Not once have we looked into each other’s eyes. Which means that even after one year of packing my lunch, Jacinta and I have not yet met.

I sit in the same section of my seedy eatery. And I sit alone in silence to eat – no magazine, no book, no cell phone, no iPod to keep me company.
Around me, there are waitresses, and there is the AC, and there is QFM, and there are diners from the City all creating a familiar din around me I have come to embrace. Too much in my life had changed in too small a space of time; I needed this unchanging familiarity of my seedy eatery to give me the reassurance that there was a stillness and silence to my new life as a writer I could cling on to. Strange that I found it in a seedy eatery I would never have lunched in my previous life as a fancy corporate cat.

I eat for 15 minutes. Straw my juice for another 15. Then I pick my teeth for 20.

I get off from my stool at 1.50PM. The last thing I hear as I walk out into the street is Jacinta’s shrill voice, “Fresh juice.”

Every day at 4PM, some street hustler I call Deidra steps out into the street with her pack of cigarettes and a spliff for her teatime smoke. Have I mentioned to you the envious frisson I get watching smokers surrender to their thing?

Deidra is an mpesa agent who wears strappy sundresses to work. She’s one of those women who surprise you with the size of their big hips when she stands up to walk. Hips like Grace Msalame’s.

Deidra has a dragon tattoo sprawled across her back. An artist captured it in motion: Picture the fire-breathing creature jumping onto your back to bite the side of your neck. Picture its teeth glared, its spine curved in a lazy S. Now freeze that moment. Now tattoo it onto Deidra’s back. Now tell me you don’t want this tattoo any more than I once did. Now tell me you wouldn’t watch Deidra during her teatime smoke and make up stories about her and her mpesa kiosk.

Deidra, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. What are you about Deidra? Deidra strikes me as the sought of woman who is smarter than her hips and her dragon tattoo portray. I bet she isn’t book smart but street smart. I bet her money – the real money – doesn’t come from this mpesa kiosk. I bet that Deidra runs it as part of a money laundering scheme which finances a string of rackets beyond the City’s borders. I bet she’s had a run-in with the law more than once. I bet I can find a loose thread I can pull to unravel the tapestry of her City half life.
I bet she sees me every day at 4PM strolling the City’s streets on my walk then sitting at the library fence to watch her.

I wonder what she sees when our eyes meet, what she thinks about me watching her watching me. I wonder whether she finds my combination of glasses and buck teeth too prudish for her taste, too proper for her books. I wonder whether she finds me too judgemental of her character.

Deidra smokes for 40 minutes before she locks herself back into the mpesa kiosk.

Every day for two hours from 6PM, five chaps that hang in a alley I pass on my way home sit in a RunX that, last February, replaced the Audi before it.

These chaps, I learnt later, are drug dealers. I’ve seen them through the day: They shiftily stand about – in groups of threes, fives and sevens. Always in odd numbers, never in evens – or they sit on the hoods and trunks of the cars parked in the alley.

They are loutish because they aren’t trying to be loutish – they dress in pale and matted colours, not in oranges and greens and yellows. They aren’t about colour. Colour would mean too much fun. Men of poker faces; nothing about their day job asks for any emotion, not even the privacy of their two hours in the RunX at the end of the day.

And every day, they sit in the same order with the same guys at the front and the three others at the back. When it asks for it, they spill out into the street and hurdle around one of the open doors of their little RunX. Its telling they are ready to scatter at the drop of a hat.

I know nothing about these odd group of dealers. Everything I believe I know about them is either ill-advised, short-sighted or flawed. And it irks me that after one year, I can’t dig beyond their colorless days.

These guys will sit and stand out here for two hours until 8PM.


I will find them and all others here tomorrow. It’s day 21 today. The City, this City, is stuck at day 21.

Makadem and others’ story
The Nairobi Woman

Comments (12)

    • fra

      Thank you JB Ali.
      Happy first anniversary, to you as well.

  1. Lydia

    How have I never encountered you before??? Excellent, just excellent.

    • fra

      Thank you Lydia.
      Hang around alittle while longer.

  2. yosefkim

    The girl with a dragon tattoo… I would love to read her story about “The girl I see through my cigarette smoke”. One of these days she will walk to you, hand you an envelop and say, “You know what to do.”

    • fra


      Did you ever see that movie from 2008, The Vantage Point? It’s a masterpiece how they told that story.

  3. Jecinta

    Fra…this is your Captain speaking.

    “Myself included” is actually grammatically incorrect. Myself is a reflexive verb and must be reflective of the subject.. “Myself included” usually just sounds correct because so many people use it…incorrectly.

    I love the story though, i love the writing deeply. Keep writing, I’ll keep reading.

    Blessings, brightness and beauty.

    • fra

      Aye aye Captain. In that case, I doubt I will ever get it right.

      Blessings, brightness and beauty right back at you ;)

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