Douglas wakes up and gets onto his beloved motorbike. It’s a small Yamaha. He leans his bike on its stand at the office parking slot at about 8am, stops to chat briefly with the sunny guard at Lonrho East Africa on Uhuru Highway, where he works as a marketing executive. He has a client to see in two and a half hours. After tea and a ndazi at his desk, he gets into the company car, clips in his seat-belt and eases the car out of the parking lot into the 9:40am Nairobi traffic, and drives up to the roundabout where Uhuru highway meets Haile Selassie. The radio is on. His diary lies on the passenger’s seat. His window is rolled down and Nairobi’s sounds waft into his car – hooting cars, street chatter, bicycle bells and matatu touts hollering and banging their open palms against the body of their vehicles.
He sits there thinking of nothing in particular.
Unbeknownst to him, these are the final moments right before he loses his sight. He is 28-years old. He doesn’t think of death or anything bad like that happening to him. He lives in the land of great invincibility where men live and bad things don’t happen to good people. There is a commotion to the right, some men are having an altercation with guards near a building. Gunshots ring out, or what he thinks are gunshots, but are actually stun grenades. He imagines these are Nairobi gangsters who are shooting their way into that building. People surge towards the drama. He sees a man running away from the drama.
There is a big bang.
“What does it feel like to be blown up in a car, by a bomb?” I ask Douglas Sidialo. We are at the Barista Café at Simba Corp’s chic Aspire Center in Westlands. On the floor below us is what they call a Car Spa, a long line of modern service ports where BMW, Mitsubishi and Renault car owners take their cars to be “pampered.” These car owners come up to wait at the Barista Café (cozy, rich tan leather seats) or outside in the very high-ceilinged all-glass house outer café (colourful seats, blue sky through glass above) to wait while reading newspapers, drinking coffee or working from their laptops, like that chap across in alligator shoes, peering at his laptop keenly. Must be a BMW owner. I think only a BMW owner can pull off alligator shoes.
“I don’t know what it feels like to be in a car that gets blown by a bomb., he says. “Actually the only thing I remember is that loud blast and the feeling that the car was shifting, and this happened in milliseconds, not enough for you to be completely aware of it. Then I remember nothing else.”
The chaps who drove the truck into the American Embassy on August 1998, had 400 to 500 cylinders of TNT, ammonium nitrate, aluminium powder and detonating cord, all packed in 20 sealed wooden crates. That means the seismological readings indicated energy of between 3 to 17 short tons of high explosive. The heat from that blast was channelled between buildings towards Haile Selassie avenue blowing up commuters in buses, matatus, sending shards of glass flying, glass that sliced through the body parts and organs of anyone within a radius of 800m. Men and women burned in vehicles stuck in the jam. Ufundi house collapsed into rubble. The devil had descended.
“I woke up two days later at Kenyatta Hospital, with bandages around my eyes,” Douglas says. Ward 7 was like a warzone with people moaning and crying. People with lost limbs and people with glass in their heads and in their tummies, people with legs hanging high, in slings. There were Israeli, German and Kenyan doctors touching and injecting and dispensing and saving. “I actually thought I would see when they removed the bandages. Little did I know that the retina on one eye was damaged and the other eviscerated.” (Who uses such words in conversations?)
“When the late Dr Gondi mentioned that I might not regain my eyesight, I didn’t believe him. People from the Blind Society of Kenya came to the wards to talk to us and I would not talk to them because I refused to see myself as blind. I would say, “Oh, talk to the other blind chaps, I will be fine. I will see soon.”
So the day he goes home after the bandages have been removed, he touches where his eyes were and there is nothing inside the sockets. “I was angry and bitter.”
He had only been married for two years and had one daughter. “My wife’s friends started persuading her to leave me,” he says. “She was young and beautiful and they told her, ‘Why would you throw away your life taking care of a blind man for the rest of your life? It’s a burden. Cut your losses and leave now, you can still get another man to marry you.’”
Our food is set on the table; chicken curry with green vegetables and rice for both of us. I’ve had this meal here before and it didn’t disappoint. Menus are wasted on me. I’m the kind who will order almost the same thing for months then when I finally get tired of it, move on to the next item on the menu and never touch the previous meal again.
I don’t know if I’m being rude, but I lead his right hand to the cutlery and then tell him where the juice is. It’s hard to know when you are being helpful or annoying when you are in the presence of people with visual impairment. He touches the rice with his left thumb to locate it on the plate, then scoops it with a spoon. The curry is in a white bowl, and he repeats the process. On one of the lenses of his sunglasses is a label – Ross – which, throughout the interview, I resist the urge to peel off. I can see the guy who sold it to him, telling him, “Douglas these are original Boss sunglasses,” because this is Nairobi. It’s a bit twisted; someone sold him Ross instead of Boss.
“Did she leave you?” I ask about the wife.
“No. She didn’t.”
We both chuckle at that question.
“There is a history here,” he says. “There was a time I wanted to become a Catholic priest because I was very active in church activities. We were dating then and so I left her because I wanted to become a man of the cloth. But my parents weren’t keen on it and they convinced me not to. So I went looking for her but she didn’t want anything to do with me because I had broken her heart. She couldn’t trust me not to leave again, so she said no. I kept trying until she said yes and we dated and later got married and had a child.”
His hands move towards the juice and I watch, ready to grab it in case he knocks it over.
“After I got her back, I vowed not to leave again and I became this man who basically did everything for her. I washed clothes, I cleaned the house, I bathed and fed our daughter and I didn’t mind helping her go shopping for groceries in the market. I helped around the house and really took care of her. Basically I did what is considered unmanly. What I didn’t know then is that I was investing in the marriage and in my relationship with her, I was building a very stable foundation for the marriage and when I lost my sight and the storm came, I realised the foundation I put up is what saved me; it kept the marriage solid.”
“She could have asked herself, why would I stay with this man? And she counted the ways…which included; he washes dishes.” I say tongue-in-cheek. It’s meant to be a joke but he doesn’t laugh.
“Teresa remembered all these things I used to do and decided that I was worth sticking with, in spite of the lack of eyesight.”
“So your investment paid off.”
“Yes. Because sometimes when push comes to shove you will be judged by not how much you have in your pocket, but who you are, because who you are doesn’t change but what you have does.”
The chicken has butter. I can never tell what’s in food. There are people who can eat and say a dish has capsicum or green peppers or whatever. I never can. I can only tell for sure if it has salt or not.
After going through rehabilitation he – together with some victims of the bomb blast – formed an organisation to champion the cause of other victims and their families, and he was the chairperson. That came to nought after three years, he says. In 2000 he led a team of Kenya’s bomb-blast survivors to Oklahoma City after the bombings to offer support to the victims of the blast. He then wrote a book – When Tears Unite A Country – and started speaking in churches and universities. “I was a man of interest,” he says between mouthfuls. Then September 11 happened in the US and a year later and to mark the first anniversary he was invited to Ground Zero to ride a tandem bike from there to the Pentagon, a 500km stretch – that’s easily from here to, well, a little past Mombasa.
Then the bug bit.
He started pushing the envelope. In 2005 he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, making him the first blind African to reach the summit, 5,895 meters above sea-level. One day, sitting in his house he thought, why not do something more challenging? So he went and did the Old Mutual joBerg2c, a nine-day off-road mountain biking exercise that starts from the south of Johannesburg and ends at Scottburgh on the KwaZulu Natal coast. In 2007 he cycled the length of Africa, through ten countries in 95 days in Tour D’Afrique. That’s 12,000 kilometers in case you are wondering. He was the first blind person and the first African to achieve this feat. He has also participated in all top cycling majors in Kenya. This year he also participated in Sani2C mountain bike challenge as the only visually impaired participant. Next year he is doing the toughest mountain race; the Cape Epic, which attracts all the big girls and boys of biking from all over the world. It’s a monster of a trail that starts and finishes in the Western Cape of South Africa, lasts eight days and covers 700 kilometers. That’s like cycling from Nairobi to Busia, having a quick cup of tea and cycling back to Nakuru. In most of these events he is the only one with no sight.
“Why are you doing all these crazy things,” I ask him as the plates are cleared away. Alligator shoes, meanwhile, is looking at the menu, maybe thinking of having a dessert. The gigantic TV screen covering a whole wall plays adverts of beautiful BMW cars meandering around a picturesque mountainous locale that looks like the French Alps with happy, laughing and smiling people in them. Even the dogs with their heads out the back windows are happy. Car manufacturers make us believe in commercials that cars can make us that happy. I haven’t seen one guy in a posh car smiling that hard in real life. People in big luxury cars are always frowning. Maybe you have to go to the French alps to be happy; something to do with the altitude.
Oh, but I digress. I had asked Douglas why he keeps doing these crazy things.
“Life without challenge is life at a standstill,” he says. “That’s my philosophy in life.”
“So given that having to go about without your eyesight was a challenge you overcame, is it that you are always on the lookout for the next thing to overcome?”
He cocks his head for a second like he’s thinking about that, and says, “Yes, plus I want to also show people that what’s in you is much stronger than what’s in your way.”
“I love that,” I say. “What’s in you is much stronger than what’s in your way.”
He also travels the world as a motivational speaker representing companies like Proctor and Gamble, Unilever and Nestlé. He started a Kilimanjaro Blind Trust after conquering the mountain. He has also given a TED Talk.
“So that bomb going off when it did enriched your life in many ways,” I tell him. “Do you ever imagine how your life would have been had you not been in that car at that moment near the American Embassy?”
“Let me tell you a story,” he says. “Way back in 1994 there was a madman who used to hang out near the Riverside footbridge, at Chiromo,” he begins. The madman would chase passersby. Douglas became close friends with this man because he used that road daily when walking from home (Riverside Drive, then) to Consolata Shrine in Westlands. He’d take this mad man his old clothes. (I just wrote that in my head as clodhez, as Ugandans say). One day the madman fell seriously ill; a boil in his stomach had burst. “I spoke to our priest who organised for him to be taken to Consolata Hospital in Limuru for medical treatment,” he says. “But three days later he died.”
He didn’t have relatives, this madman, and the only person who knew him was Douglas. He filed the necessary papers with the police and talked to the fathers of the hospital to have this man buried in their cemetery. “They buried him in this same cemetery where fathers and sisters of the hospital are buried.”
“He might not have led a dignified life but he got dignity in death,” I say, because I love to make these commentaries which I suspect must annoy the hell out of some interviewees.
“You know what I think?” he says.
“I think – and many people who know this story say the same thing – I wouldn’t have survived that bomb blast, given my proximity to the embassy at that moment. I think my deeds towards the madman saved my life.”
I ruminate upon that.
“I think the deeds of man,” he proceeds, “ the good acts of man, are rewarded in ways that we can’t start imagining.”
“True.” I say.
The waiter asks if we want desserts and we say no.
Waiters are always trying to get you to eat dessert. I suspect the pastry chefs must lead such miserable lives now that most people are always saying, ‘no dessert for me.’ At the end of their shift they must look at their tableful of untouched and rejected desserts and feel a deep sense of failure. At home in the evening their wives must ask gently, “Did anyone eat your desserts today, baby?” and they shake their heads and start sniffing. “Why don’t they want my dessert? What have I done?”
“It’s not you, babe. It’s not you. You are a brilliant man…with beautiful biceps.”
“So why don’t they eat my desserts?”
“I love your desserts. I think you make the best desserts in the world.”
“You are just saying that because you love my biceps…”
So anyway, we turn down the dessert offer and as our waiter recedes to break the news to the chef, Douglas says, “You know had that blast not happened I would have continued with marketing. I’m glad it happened because life is so much better now. The things I have done now I wouldn’t have been able to do with my sight.”
“I’m running the Stanchart marathon next month,” I blurt out. I don’t know why, maybe I needed validation now that I’m not cycling 700-Kilometers.
“Oh great, I was the Seeing is Believing advocate from 2013 to 2015, Stanchart Rift Valley Odyssey,” he says. He was also the chairman of the Kenyan Paralympic team of 2008 that scooped 5 gold, 4 silvers and 4 bronzes.
You will be relieved to know that when he was not climbing mountains he was also making babies. His daughter who was two years when he lost his sight is now 21, a big girl who just finished uni. He has another daughter who is now 17-years old and a boy who is 4-years old.
“When your children are born and they grow up and become cognisant of their environment, what kind of conversation do you have with them when they realise their father can’t see? How quickly does that happen?” I ask.
“Of course at some point they will realise that daddy keeps walking into things or missing things he wants to hold. My son asked me; ‘Daddy why can’t you see, what happened to your eyes?’ and I told him told him I lost my eyes in a bomb blast and that got him really curious, what is this bomb thing that took away my father’s eyes. They are fascinated by this white cane. [Chuckles]. But they grow up and they accept it, children accept people much easier than adults do. They love me like this because this is how they know me.”
“You say such nice things, Douglas.” I sigh and he laughs. Isn’t that nice? They love me like this because this is how they know me.
“What are you struggling with as a 46-year old man?”
He thinks about this a great deal, smiling hard. “What am I struggling with as a 46-year old?” He says it over and over. “Moving around,” he says uncertainly. “I can’t get to my appointments on time when I need to, and the fact that sometimes I need the help of people to move around in public.”
His answer surprises me because of it’s simplicity given that he’s a man who cycles for hundreds of kilometers and climbs the tallest mountain in Africa.
“What do you fear the most?” I ask.
“Fear is just fear itself.” he says cryptically. “Fear is nothing.”
“Listen, there are some motorbikes here in the showroom, BMW motorbikes. When was the last time you were on a motorbike?”
“In 1998, on the morning of the bomb blast.”
“Would you like to check them out?” I ask.
“Sure!” he says excitedly. So we stand up and he places one hand on my right shoulder as I lead him out of Barista Café. Alligator shoes looks up and stares at us. We go down a ramp and into the showroom where a BMW C600 Motorrad stands. I care little for bikes. I love the idea of wearing helmets, though. I find it very mysterious, like those Daft Punk fellas. If I could drive with a black helmet on, I would.
Douglas touches the bike and as he and the showroom sales executive O’Brien Kipsowe ( his real name) start jabbering about motorbikes I wander away and stare through the windows of the BMW X4. Although great looking cars, I don’t like the asses of the BMW X6 and X4. If a car has a wrong ass, I won’t buy it. But the X6 is a beautiful thing; massive, solid, sexy and its grill appears to have that slight snarl. A little gentle beast with its heart in the right place. It’s a great car with the wrong ass. I see Douglas has climbed atop the motorbike and is handing O’Brien his phone to take pictures.
Later, when they have finished their mad motorbike talk, I ask him to come over. “There are two cars here,” I tell him, “one is on the left and another on the right. I want you to touch both and tell me which you would like.”
“Are you buying one?”
“No, two.” I say and he chuckles.
So he walks over to the X4, and runs his hands on the hood, and moves along the breadth of the body, feeling it with his palms, like he’s rubbing oil on it. He touches the side mirrors, runs his hand up the windows, over the windows. He’s now smiling. He runs his hands down towards the back and onto the curves of the ass, goes round, touches the blinkers and asks, “Where is the spare wheel?” and O’Brien says it’s inside the boot. He goes round the car still caressing this car, feeling its curves and shape and bends and asks if he can sit inside. The door is opened and the smell of a new car, the smell of leather and wealth and privilege spills out as he climbs behind the steering wheel. He is smiling hard now and asks how much the car is. He holds the steering wheel. “Wow.” he says. “Can you take a picture of me?” He hands O’Brien his phone and I ask him, “Why are you taking all these pictures, it’s not like you will see them later?” and he says, “Oh, I will put them up on Facebook for my friends to see,” and we all laugh.
He then comes out and goes to the X6 and just as he starts running his hand on the bonnet and up the curve of the front windscreen he says with a smile, “Oh, this is the one, this is the car….this is the one!” He doesn’t go to the back but asks to sit inside where he says,”This is the car I’d love. I prefer it to the other one.” I ask him why and he says, “Because it’s sleeker, it’s much sleeker. I love how it feels. This is ndege ya barabara.”
Ndege ya barabara.
“Do you miss driving?” I ask him.
“Honestly, I do. I wish there was a field I could go and drive around and around, you know?”
“How much is this car?”
“Anything from 13.5million,” O’Brien says.
“I should get this for Teresa [the wife], and hope that no man runs away with her and the car.” He laughs.
As he waits for his driver, he asks me what my biggest lesson has been from our chat and I say, “That thing you said about turning things around. I think it’s powerful.”
I had asked him the biggest lesson he has learnt in life following his blindness and he had said, “There is nothing a human being can face that he can’t turn around. Anything can be turned around with the right attitude.”
I tell him that it’s amazing how he is living his life now. “You are seeing more without eyes than you did with your eyes.” I tell him.
If you are in your 40s and you have a compelling story you want to share please ping me on firstname.lastname@example.org [By the way, is there anyone out there who is in their 40s who is raising a set of four or more daughters or a set of four or more sons? Children either from their wombs or from their hearts? Tell them I’m looking for them.]