Mc Opondo smoked his first cigarette at 15-years of age, behind a block of toilets at Kakamega School. He wasn’t a brilliant student, Mc Opondo. Neither was he particularly sporty. He didn’t play rugby because he didn’t possess the quintessential big thighs of Kakamega School boys who played rugby. He wasn’t particularly fast or built to handle a contact sport like that. And it didn’t help that by 15-years he hadn’t grown a beard, a struggle I totally understand because by 25 I barely had one. Well, I did, but you’d have to stand very close to me to see it, and that’s something I wasn’t going to let you do – stand very close to me. Unless you were a girl.
Mak’ Opondo is a Luo name, in case you are wondering. Who else do you think would see the need to put a “Mc” before their son’s name? Have you ever heard of Mak’ Moguche? Or Mak’ Mathenge? What about Mak’ Loiyan? And because he’s luo he wasn’t really about that whole circumcision jazz, and that meant that word went round quickly in school that he wasn’t circumcised. Now, that would have been okay if he was in any school in Nyanza like Maranda High School, Chemelil Sugar Academy or Samba Boys (nice name, ey?) because there, the circumcised (very) few were outliers. You were the odd one if you were circumcised. But if you were in Kakamega Boys and you were not circumcised! Oh, that situation presented a few problems in his time. The Wepukhulus and the Omusotsis taunted him constantly, made him feel unmanly and so he walked around with an extended face. (On top of other extensions).
At 15-years old you are battling strange hormones and feelings and you feel the need to grasp at something that offers an identity, something that makes you fit in. So he started smoking. Not because he really thought it was cool, but because some of the mean boys who taunted him about his foreskin were known smokers, bad boys, and he wanted to show them that despite his foreskin he could also be an outlaw like them, he could be a school villian, he could break rules, he could risk keeping cigarettes in the dorm and risk smoking around the dark edges of the school at lights out. He wanted to show that you could be a bad boy and also have a foreskin. So he smoked to belong.
And that’s how Mc Opondo started smoking.
He smoked his way through computer college doing “packages.” The younger folk might wonder what that is. Unbeknownst to them, at some point doing “computer packages” was a right of passage. At some point in our journey to get hotmail accounts you had to learn how to use “Word” documents and “Excel” if you were to be adequately integrated and socialised into the digital age. So, soon after high school, hordes of us gathered in small stuffy institutions above fish and chips outlets to learn how a mouse works.
Mc Opondo then joined the University of Nairobi where, in Hall 9, he upped his cigarette intake to 10 sticks a day. As fate would have it, he met and started dating a girl called Winny who he discovered had an uncle who knew someone who worked in a cigarette company. Somehow he not only convinced her that they could sell bootleg cigarettes for a killing in campus, but he got her to start smoking as well. They sold those cigarettes and they smoked those cigarettes. Business thrived alongside their relationship. Then he fell in love with her. Some people know they are in love when they change their hairstyle to what their woman prefer. Here is how he knew he was in love.
One day after they had had sex (because university students don’t make love) in his cramped abode with dirty socks and stinky shoes under the bed, he realised that they had run out of cigarettes to smoke (postcoital fag). Now, they hadn’t exactly run out of cigarettes, they had the stash they sold but they didn’t keep them in the room because on top of being a very entrepreneurial couple they also were a smart couple who didn’t keep their stash in the room but hid them in the hostel of one of their friends, in case the cops came kicking in the door to look for illegal contraband. So they lay there on those small university beds, their bodies glistening with passion, thirsting for cigarettes. Then Winny stood up and said, “I will get them,” as she slipped into her jeans, probably those jeans that were flared at the bottom because in the 90’s that’s what people wore. Fifteen minutes later she came with the cigarettes and a small packet of juice. “She didn’t light a cigarette on the way back,” he says. “She could have, but she didn’t. That doesn’t sound remarkable for a non-smoker like you, but it was.” When she got to the room, she handed him a cigarette, and propped against the headboard, naked as a gazelle, he lit a cigarette as she sat at the edge of the bed waiting patiently for him, waiting for him to have the first lungful of cancer. Apparently the very act of offering to get them, and waiting for him to get the first smoke in, was how he realised that he was in love with Winny.
So he fell in love with Winny but then Winny fell in love with America and she soon left the country for a place called Jamaica Plain in Boston. I googled Jamaica Plain. I liked it. Old charming brick houses. Waterway. An unattended bicycle leaning on a street lamp in spring. Wide, empty streets. It’s a place you could see yourself lonely, loveless and walking a big dog called Bobo who is deaf in one ear.
He recalls standing at the airport long after her plane had departed, smoking cigarette after cigarette and crushing the butts underneath his sole, staring at the sky that had swallowed his Winny. Those were the days you were still allowed to smoke cigarettes at the airport. University was never the same again without Winny. He missed her. He would hunch over a computer in an internet cafe to check his mail to see if Winny had written. Sometimes he would walk all the way to town for cheaper internet (two bob a minute) only to find that Winny had not written an email. Or had written a few lines, because she had been working the whole night and going to school and by the time she sat at the computer she would be too knackered to write more than “Hi baby.” Some days he would print out her emails without reading and read them in his bed while he smoked. “Winny was from Embu,” he says, “a place called Nembure.” (I also googled Nembure). Don’t take my word for it but he says that girls from Nembure will kill you with love. They dropped everything to love you. They took you as you are. And Winny took him as he was, including his foreskin. Where do you even get a girl like that again?
He was bereft.
After Winny’s departure he lost all appetite for other girls. He tried getting it on with other girls to fill the sense of loss and desperation that shimmered in him, but it didn’t help. He also found himself broke most time because his illegal cigarette business died with Winny’s departure. Her uncle didn’t take to doing business with people he didn’t know.
Anyway, what does Mc Opondo do? He gets a visa to the States. His visa reads “student visa” when it should have read “love visa.” He follows Winny to Jamaica Plain in Boston. Remember that song “Stella” where some guy laments about his chic coming back with a 4-foot Japanese chap in tow? That wasn’t going to be Mc Opondo, no, sir. He was going to be with his woman. Only when he got to Jamaica Plain, in Boston, he found that Winny was no longer his woman but the Christ’s woman.
Winny had gotten saved.
And had stopped smoking.
She also started saying things like, “We can’t live in sin.” And “We can’t succumb to the weaknesses of our flesh.”
She didn’t want to do anything sinful in the eyes of the Lord. Which meant that she didn’t even want to sleep with him. She wanted to wait until marriage. She didn’t specify that the marriage was to him, she just said marriage. It could have been to Shekhar Mehta. Or Abbas Magongo. The world will never know. Look, I know I’m making light of this issue, but he was devastated! He was heartbroken. Crushed. His world spun off its axis. He recalls spending hours in her small apartment and seeming to always be waiting for her to come back from work or school or from that cold corner she had receded to. He filled those empty periods smoking outside her house because she didn’t allow him to smoke in her apartment because she didn’t want the cigarette smell on her curtains. It is during this time that he upped his smoking to one pack a day. Some days more. He remembers the loud bouts of silence that he and Winny would stew in after yet another argument. She had changed. America had changed her. She wanted different things, it was apparent. They were two ships passing each other in the dark.
Look, there are men who will try to take away your woman and you will fight to have them back. Then there are men who will take away your woman and you know without a doubt that she’s going, that you don’t stand a chance. Jesus is one of those men. If Jesus holds your woman’s hand and settles in her heart, you are toast, my friend. That story is dodo.
So Mc Opondo packed his bags, together with his broken heart, and left, tail between legs.
I have never been to The States, but I checked where Boston is, geographically. It’s on the East Coast. Now, Mc Opondo moved from Boston to Utah, which is as close to the West Coast as you can get. That’s like six states across America. By bus. Greyhound, or something. Took him almost a week. He showered twice over during that time, in small Inns that smelled of old white men. Once in Kansas and the next time in Colorado. “I wanted to move as far away as I could from Winny and heartbreak,” he says. He remembers that week on the road vividly, the long week of heartbreak. If you saw a black guy with his head rattling against the window of a moving bus, with a blank stare, mist formed against the window where his face lay, that was Mc Opondo. He barely saw the landscape of America that ran past. All he felt was heartbreak. It felt like someone had taken your heart, put it in a Nutribullet, sprinkled some Spirulina on it and blended at a very slow speed, such that as every blade cut through your heart you felt it. (That’s how I remember mine, at least.) He barely ate. When the bus would stop on those breaks, he would suck furiously on a cigarette, staring in the direction of Jamaica Plain in Boston and wondering what Winny was doing.
America represented heartbreak even before he had unpacked.
In Utah he settled in with a friend he went to Kakamega School with. We’ll call him Maximilian because he asked for me not to mention his real name and because that name sounds like someone who would live in Utah. If you have been heartbroken you will know that you can put six states between you and heartbreak, but that distance will never be enough to insulate you from the pain. Because it’s in your heart and it’s in your bones and no shampoo is strong enough to remove it from your hair and it goes to bed with you and it spoons you and you feel it breath on the back of your neck. Mc Opondo remained heartbroken in Utah. He lost purpose. He lost himself, because see, Mc Opondo is a lover.
Love had lured him to America and love had banished him into loneliness. America might have promised him the mirage of milk and honey, but he never sought it, he never took his studies seriously, his head was filled with the ghosts of Winny. Of course he tried calling her and emailing her a few times in the moment of embarrassing weaknesses, but Jesus was holding it down there like a problem. He even offered to get saved too. She said “No, you will be doing it for me, I don’t want that. Salvation isn’t for anyone but yourself and your God.” I probably picture him whining on the phone, “I love Jesus, Winny and I love you. I mean it. I want to love you and Jesus. We can be a happy family; you, me and Jesus.” But Winny wouldn’t budge. Winny was stoic. Winny’s heart had calcified.
One day – years later – there was a knock on his door. Standing there were two white men; one fat, the other one thin with a dimple on his chin. The fat one said, “Sir, are you, Mc Opondo?” And Mc Opondo said, “Yes.” But in my head, being the luo he is he must have answered, “Yes I am. Mc Opondo, esquire.”
The two gentlemen, Yin and Yang, were from Immigration and Customs Enforcement or some shit like that. Mc Opondo didn’t have time to wear proper shoes. Or pick his cigarettes. He blinked and he was at JKIA.
Of course he doesn’t say he was deported. He never told me implicitly. But I know someone who knows him and he told me that he was deported. It could be false. He might have come back because of heartbreak. I don’t know why people never say they are deported. Maybe it’s their own business, maybe it’s embarrassing, maybe it’s dehumanising, like being kicked out of a party unceremoniously, someone coming to you as you are pouring your drink and telling you, “you don’t belong to this party, you have to leave,” and they don’t even let you finish your drink.
I don’t know but he doesn’t tell me. Of course I ask him the circumstances in which he left the US because when you agree to an interview you agree to uncomfortable questioning as well. So at first I asked him in a roundabout way because I was being decent and he side steps it. Then I ask him again, “would you tell me if you were deported?” and he asked me, “would you?” I said, “hell yeah, nobody cares much for these things, by the way, people have their own problems.” Then he laughed and said, “are there things you don’t write about your life?” I said, “most definitely! I write what I want to write and leave out what I want to leave out.” He chuckled. I said, “so, were you?” and he said, “Biko, don’t kick a man while he’s down.” So I stopped. Had he mentioned that he was deported – if he was deported – I would have made this story about that. I want to know how it is to live illegal in a white man’s land and the fear that one day some overweight government officials will knock your door or come to your office or pull you over on a highway. I want to know how one feels when they get back to JKIA with nothing on them but a prayer.
Back home, Mc Opondo’s starts hustling and smoking. He does this and that. He’s one of those guys you meet and say, “aah, biashara tu.” He struggles. He struggles with his ego and he struggles with his pride. He struggles to make ends meet. A few years down the road (I really hate this expression, down the road) he meets a girl at an ATM of all the freakin places. To be brief, her card was swallowed. She was to buy drugs for her brother who had cut his foot with a jembe back in shags. Long story short, Mc Opondo saved the day and after a few months started dating this girl.
Now there are two types of women. OK, there are many types of women, but there are two types of women in this case. There are women who build you and there are women who break you. This girl, Jessie, was the type that built him. She first fixed his ego which was as old as a poshmil’s cloth. Then she built his self esteem. Then she built him as a man, from the ground. There are women who see things in us we don’t see, and they tap into that. They tell us that we can do it. That we are brilliant (even when we are not). A woman’s tongue can raise you today and obliterate you tomorrow, make you wither and die in your own dust of inadequacy. But under their tongue we can also flourish beyond our wildest dreams. And Mc Opondo flourished. He got more confident. He dreamt bigger. He went for bigger things. His business – hardware and construction materials- started flourishing. They got a baby girl. Moved into their own house in Langata, or lower Karen, if you are Mc Opondo. Life settled nicely.
Anyway, this one time, last year, he parks along Standard street and decides to go sneak a cigarette at that designated smoking area near Huduma Center, Kenyatta avenue. It’s only coming to midday and his meeting is scheduled at 12:30pm at the Java on Koinange street. Amongst other smokers he stands there in the bright day of Nairobi. Sunny day. A perfect day for the devil to completely screw things up.
He’s left handed, Mc Opondo, so he’s holding his cigarette with his left hand, right. He starts coughing, one of those coughs that don’t go. He moves his cigarette from his hand to free it so that he can cough in it. When he unclenches it he sees blood. He panicked. Naturally. He tosses away his cigarette and calls a doctor friend of his, because why else have a doctor friend when they can’t give you a diagnosis over the phone? The doctor pal says, “Go to the nearest hospital immediately.” So he drives to Aga-Khan Hospital where they prodded and checked and then hospitalised him then x-rayed him and took samples from him.
The first day he slept the whole day, drugs coursing through him from a drip. Nobody was telling him or his wife anything apart from he had some lung infection with initials, COPD or something. But they wanted to run other tests in the histology lab “just to be sure.” He was scared of course. He was in his mid 40s and had been smoking for dog years. Of course he was scared. He was scared about cancer. He remember praying at night, asking God to spare him. That if he got out of this he would be a good boy. He would raise his daughter well. He would help the poor. He would help elderly people cross the road. He would be grateful for all the things he has taken for granted and he would quit smoking. As in, forever! He would never even look at a cigarette. Or touch one. Or buy one to anyone. Ever. And if he spelled it, he would spell it with a double “g” just to mess how it read on paper.
The next morning the doctor parted his curtain as he was lying on bed. He had his biopsy results. “Is your wife here?” The doctor asked. “Because we would like someone to be here to explain to them the results.” His heart sunk. LIterally.
He had sheets of papers in his hands. He was those doctors who don’t oil their hands, or maybe they had worn rubber gloves earlier- ashen hands. They felt like a death sentence, those sheets of paper. His heart started beating fast because he just knew this guy was not going to hand him good news. He knew he was going to remember this moment for the remainder of his life. His legs started shaking under the covers when the doctor opened one sheet of paper and squinted. He remembers being so terrified of receiving the news alone. “I remember dying in a million ways,” he says. “I didn’t want to die. I wasn’t ready to die. I had a child surely, was God about to take away that girl’s father?”
The doctor started speaking while reading from the sheet of papers. He had a grave voice like all doctors do when they are saying things you don’t understand. Mc Opondo closed his eyes. His hands started trembling. He held them under the covers. The doctor was talking about medical terms. “…this means there is good and bad news, Mc Opondo,” he said then he paused a little, “the good news is that your cells are not cancerous.”
He felt like a balloon. He felt like someone had filled him with helium and he was floating to the ceiling. For a while he didn’t even care for the bad news, whatever it was. He just started crying. He held the sheets to his face and cried as the doctor stood there. He sobbed in his sheet and thanked God. When he was done he asked the doctor, “what is the bad news?” and he said his lungs were badly off and they had to give him a combination of strong drugs. He will have to stay in the hospital a lot longer. And he will have to quit cigarettes.
He quit cigarettes.
He didn’t quit over time. He quit cold turkey. He doesn’t even miss it. All the things he promised God he continues to fulfill. He exercises – lost 11 Kgs. Every month he takes shopping to a children’s home. He is working on helping the elderly cross the road, that hasn’t happened yet, mostly because he doesn’t know where the elderly cross the road from. “I think God sent me a message in that hospital bed,” he reflects. “He wanted me to know that He can take it away at any time. He was asking me, ‘how badly do you want what you have?”
One of my editors asked me why I wrote this story, was it a story of love or was it a story of a scare. I said I wrote it because nobody dies.