I called Alex Shipiri: “My name is Biko, I got your number from a mutual friend, Gacheri.”
“Right. She mentioned you would call.”
He has a deep rich raspy voice, like he just woke up even though it’s after 2pm.
“Great. I don’t know if she mentioned this but I’m starting a series profiling men and women in their 40’s about what it feels like to be above 40; a life lived, lessons learnt, things to do with money, relationships, careers, disappointments, triumphs etc. I’m trying to capture this 40’s zeitgeist. I want people who are not shy to get vulnerable and she mentioned that you are the man I’m looking for.”
He chuckled lightly.
“Where are you going to write this?”
“I have this small blog that I write.” I said. “Listen, my aim is not to embarrass you or anything, just to get the best life’s lessons off you. Ideally you get to choose how you want to appear in the story, I have no angle…”
“Well, I don’t care how I appear. I’m not worried about being embarrassed, it’s my life and I have lived it the way I have seen fit, so if someone doesn’t see it that way then it’s not my problem, it’s theirs.”
I punched the air with glee.
“Can we do lunch tomorrow? On me.”
We meet for fish at 3D restaurant. We sit in a room full of politicians, which is like watching wolves getting fed. Later we walk to Uptown Grill next door – it’s closed for renovations – and sit on the high stools at the verandah. Warm afternoon. He has on a brown coat and brown shoes and what looks like a new haircut. He has a golden ring and a chunky silver chain on his right hand. He’s a tall bulky man with self confidence sticking out of his pores.
He’s 47 years old.
“Do you remember when you turned 40,” I ask, “and what space you were in?
He looks away in thought. “I honestly don’t remember.”
“Wait, I remember,” he says.
“I met my wife when I turned 40.”
“You married late.”
“No, I had been married before, for a year.” He smiles, half ruefully. “It was a quick one; in and out. I shouldn’t have married her.”
“Why did you? Love?”
“I married her because she wanted to get married. I didn’t, to be honest. We were a complete mismatch. We had a great expensive and very lavish wedding, but it was also a very empty wedding.”
“Are you not unfair to her, to say she is the one who wanted to get married and you didn’t?”
“No, she was unfair to me.”
“Oh, how so?”
“Because she probably knew that she wanted to get married more than I did and she kept pushing for it and pushing so I said sawa, let’s get married. Then one day she must have realised that the marriage was a mistake and she walked out,I didn’t follow her. I think marriage is about value, if a woman or man doesn’t add value to your life you leave. She wasn’t adding any value to my life, neither was I to hers.”
“What did she bring to the table then?”
“I thought she was beautiful…”
“And what did you bring to the table?”
“Unfortunately it was my table. I offered her enough for her to want me to be her husband.”
I chuckle at this bare cheek.
“Sawa, then you turn 40 and you meet your current wife. How did you meet her, where did you meet?”
“Well, when I met my current wife I was dating a married woman who lived in Dubai, she – “
“Wait! Wait… “I hold my hand up. “Wait…I suppose you want me to leave that part out?”
“No,” he says. “My wife knows about it, she knew about it then, so it’s fine.”
So he was seeing this married woman who popped into 254 once in awhile. He says it worked because he had the best of life; he was single and was enjoying the freedom that came with it but he also didn’t have a woman knocking on his door frequently or leaving her wet knickers hanging in his shower. The Dubai lady was never down for many days and soon she was back to the Middle East.
At this time Alex was running a dial-a-gas company “before Kenyans discovered the business and flooded it.” And making a killing. This one time a client calls for gas delivery and she says, call my pal she gives you directions to my house because I can’t talk on phone at the moment. So he calls this chick who gives him directions and he delivers the gas but eventually he meets this girl who gave directions and discovers that she was the sister of a former friend who had committed suicide way back in 1990!
“Like a movie!” I tell him.
“This is a true story.” he says.
This girl – Maria – who gave directions later became his girlfriend. She has a daughter. Her parents were not too hot about that relationship, he admits. Why? I ask. He says he was living in Dagoretti at that time while she was on Riverside Drive, they thought I was with her for her money. He shakes his head and stares out at cars passing on Kilimani Road.
“You were making loads of money as per your admission,” I tell him, “any reason why you were staying in Dagoretti?”
“Why not?” he asks. “I stayed there because I could. Don’t forget I was the pioneer of that gas business, I had a big client base there. I was called Alex The Gasman. I would deliver gas to many households in that area and beyond, Kile, Kili, Lavi…making a profit of about 300K a month. I didn’t have any responsibilities, no school fees I was paying for. I grew up in a fairly well to do family in Woodley, the last born in our family so I was not paying any fees for my siblings, I was cruising in life. I didn’t drink booze or smoke weed. My money was my money, I had a lavish state of the art apartment. I wouldn’t be mooching off anyone. Didn’t need to.”
So they got married. Then the wife quit Mumias Sugar where she was working because it wasn’t working. The morning after she had arrived in Nairobi, while Alex dressed up to hit the streets begging for his gas, he asked her to join him. He told her, “bring that brain to my business, we can make a killing.” So she joined his gas business and in one month the revenue doubled to 600K. Later they started running a restaurant which made more money. “In three months after leaving Mumias, she was making thrice what she used to make in salary.” he says. “She’s a brilliant woman with a brilliant mind, everything she touches flourishes.”
Then she got a big job with an international outfit that took her to Morocco. He sold his gas company and joined her in Morocco as an expat husband. Now, most men don’t do that; they wouldn’t uproot their lives to join their wives in their new postings, it’s always the other way round. Why did he do that?
“Because money has never meant anything to me, Biko. if you pick anything from this conversation it will be that. Money means little to me. ” he says. “I mentioned that I didn’t grow up lacking and so money isn’t something that was going to ruin my relationship with my wife. I didn’t see it [ moving to Morocco] as a big deal, I saw it as going to be with the person I love. Plus there was always something to do as an expat husband who, for your information, was being paid half her salary wherever we settled in. I wasn’t just sitting in the house doing dishes waiting for her to come home in the evening. I always found a job to occupy me.”
I figured I’d quickly strike that iron while still hot, so I ask. “Who makes more, your wife or yourself?”
Without hesitation. “My wife makes so much more.” he says. “Listen, the stage where my wife has reached in her career, she doesn’t earn anything under a million. I on the other hand have an income of 600K from all my biasharas, whether I’m in Nairobi or Burma, that’s the amount that will come. Surely it makes sense for me to ‘disrupt’ my life for the sake of my wife’s career. This is the price you pay to support your wife and I don’t even see it as a sacrifice. I see it as my commitment and promise to the marriage.”
“Has the money difference ever been an elephant in the room?” I ask.
“Why should it? The male ego is not a product on its own existence, it’s a product of our interactions with other males who mislead us. I don’t spend a lot of time in bars because I don’t drink alcohol and quitting alcohol 17-years ago was the best thing I ever did because men lie to each other in bars. Men sit and high-five each other and feed into each others’ egos. I saw a friend’s marriage dissolve because of ego. Men telling other men that they are henpecked by their wives; ‘how are you left to take care of the baby? How dare she tell you what to do? Put your foot down!’ Then when the marriage goes south – and it normally does – when she leaves and goes back to the democracy she knows, you start crying about your kids. Where are the chaps in the bars who used to puff you up with ego? They are with their wives and children at home.”
He pauses as he waits for me to continue writing those thoughts down.
“The reason it didn’t bother me following my wife abroad was because I didn’t have anyone feeding me this ego claptrap. I didn’t go to bars where men would have told me I’m a pussy for leaving things behind to follow her abroad; it’s hard for anyone to tell you these things in a coffee-shop. My decisions were and have always been between my wife and I, not between me, my wife and my friends in the bar. Once your marriage becomes your friends’ marriage it’s already ending. Thankfully, the friends I keep are highbred friends who understand me, people who were socialised differently, men who are confident about themselves. If you keep friends who are confident on who they are, you will never feel the need to prove anything to anyone.”
When Alex sold his dial-a-gas company he gave his wife the money from the sale. “ I told her, use this to pay Wendy’s [her daughter’s] school fees. She was joining Michigan State University in the States at that time.”
“Kwani how fast did she grow?” I ask.
“My wife had her when she was 19.”
The wife – a HR practitioner – started moving up the ladder, she was moved to different stations in the world; Togo, London, Ghana, Switzerland…Alex says he transited between these cities and Nairobi where he was setting up a real estate businesses.
“You have been together for 7-years, do you plan to have kids?” I ask.
“Well, at some point I wanted a child but she said she was building her career. But then she said sawa and we tried for a baby unfortunately she got several miscarriages. So – frustrated – she told me to get a woman who could get me a baby and bring that baby to her and she would raise it.”
“No way.” I mumble.
“Yeah. She said, and listen to this, “you have raised my child, now it’s my turn to raise your child, so bring me a baby and I will raise them.”
“Damn! Did you consider it?”
“Well, no, but we hired a womb.” he says.
“Like a surrogate?”
They went to the UK for tests etc, found a woman to carry the baby to term and they are due on June 9th- about 9 days from today.
“Do you know this lady carrying your baby?”
“No,” he says. “Never met her.”
“Has your wife met her?” I ask.
“So how will this work?”
“We will get admitted to the hospital the day the baby is due, she will give birth and walk away. It’s a transaction.”
“How much did that cost you?”
“A little over half a million.”
So here is Alex at the threshold of 50 expecting a baby, “what feeling does that come with? “I ask.
“I’m looking forward to it, we are. I mentioned earlier that milestones have never meant anything to me; things happen when they are meant to happen. I don’t sweat timelines.”
[In a terrible twist of this take, we spoke with Alex on Sunday and he mentioned that they lost the baby. He chokes it down to God’s will.]
I peek at the time, it’s 3:20pm, Tamms school is out at 3:30pm. I can almost see her sulking in the car because I’m late.
What kind of advice would he give his 30-year old self? I ask Alex.
“I would have told myself to run, because time runs out. Invest yes, but invest more in people, in relationships. When the curtains close all these things we kill ourselves to get won’t matter if you are alone at your deathbed. People matter more than money, more than another plot you want to buy, another house you want to purchase.
His mom calls his mobile. “ Yes mama….nitakuja…I will come…., just finishing a meeting in the office….how was Moses?….Ehh…sawa…” then he hangs up.
“My mom is 78, widowed and lonely like hell and sickly too.” he explains “ I run her business, I carry her ATM card, she wants me to go pick her up we go withdraw money.”
I ask him what he has learnt about marriage so far?
“Am I a better husband because I married in my 40s? I don’t know. Would I have been a better husband had I married someone else? I don’t know. Is my marriage working because of who we are? I don’t know. Is it fate or destiny? I don’t know. Here is what I know though; if you treat your wife like a lady, with respect and love, she will do virtually anything for you. Anything! At least that is my experience.”
“That’s a very nice thing to say.”
“Do I do the wrong things? Of course. I can flirt. You saw me flirt there at the restaurant, but that doesn’t mean anything, it’s like building your biceps in the gym, does it mean you want to punch somebody? I’m yet to meet a woman I want to cheat on my wife with. Nobody understands the kind of relationship I have with her. People imagine it’s cash, even you picked on that when you asked me if she earns more than I do. I will tell you what, of course her working for these multinationals has exposed me to some luxuries; I mean I’m happy to drive her big V8, but when she changes jobs and the cars are taken away I’m always happy to go back to my pickup. I have no problem with transition because I put little value on things.”
What is your greatest regret at 47, I ask him looking at the time.
“ I’m in real estate. Together with some pals, we have run other businesses like Club Afrique and other biasharas. Currently we are managing this building we are sitting at and other ventures. My regret is that my father never saw my success.”
I ask him what his philosophy on friendship is now at 47, and if it has changed drastically over time as he got older.
“When I used to drink booze I was obsessed with what the next person thought of me, where the next party was and if I was invited and if not why? I was obsessed with pleasing the public…” His phone rings, he cancels the call. “…now it’s about me being happy and being the best I can be. My wife is at the core of my friendships but I also have my friends, some of whom we sometimes make a lot of money with and lose some money with. My philosophy on friendship is be with people who understand you, not people who want you to be something they think you should be.”
I have to run, or Tamms will not speak to me for a year. Maybe even remove my name from her birth certificate. We say goodbye at the parking lot.
Sitting with Alex The Gasman was like eating a fruit with its skin. He was brazen, self aware, unapologetic and deeply reflective. There is something he said as we said our goodbyes. I asked him who Alex is in a nutshell and he said, “ If I was to give birth to a disabled baby, I would never ask God, ‘why me?’. Because who else is supposed to get that burden? Does it mean the person with a disabled child is less deserving than me?”
Do y0u know anyone in their 40’s who wants to share life’s lessons with me? People who want to TALK and go DEEP ? Email me on firstname.lastname@example.org