We get on a small plane. We land in Lamu. A smiling, diminutive swahili man with a stubble loads our luggage onto a kart. Twenty minutes on motorboat we dock at Majlis Resort. I whatsapp a picture to a friend whose husband is turning 40 and asked me for romantic place to take him. I write. “I picture him lying on this hammock, cold beer in hand and thinking about his life and your lives.” I whatsapp the same picture to the owner, Federico, and write, “I’m back home.” He replies, “Great, how long are you there for?” I ask him where he is, because he is a wild one Frederico; he could be in Saudi riding a camel, or cycling up the French alps, or mooring off a coastline in Spain or running shirtless next to a hill in China.
The hostess shows me to the exact room I stayed in the last time, I can still smell the perfume of the ghosts that live there. Later, I eat a burger at the restaurant while reading ‘M Train by Patti Smith’ as the rest of the boys splash water in the swimming pool, one of them wearing ugly swimming shorts. That night I sleep naked against the white sheets, under the rotary fan with blades chopping away at the air like a boxer on his 10th round. The AC is at 30. When I lose sleep at 3am, I stumble to the balcony and sit, on a lounge chair overlooking the ocean and the blinking lights of Shela across the channel. I open my kindle and read for an hour.
The next morning we get onto the same motorboat and we go all the way to a port where we jump into a white 4X4 . Off we go. The sky is blue and the ground is still soggy from last night’s rain. We pass army personnel with their massive artillery. There is a sense of pride that seeing an army guy evokes that doesn’t happen when you see an Administration Police, or worse, a traffic cop. As we pass Mpeketoni area I roll down my window to try and listen to the souls of the departed.
We get to Witu and load lapdesks on our cars then set off again, driving deeper into the heartland of Lamu until we get off the road and drive further into the interior. Poverty that had been subtly rising all around us becomes more bold. There are less and less children wearing shoes then less and less adults wearing shoes. Houses turn into mud huts and tin roofs become browner, then they turn into grass.
We stop at our first school. It’s not even a school. It’s two blocks of mud houses, with gaping holes on the walls. There are no doors. No desks. No seats. Children cluster together curiously, these dirty children with torn clothes hanging from their bodies like they survived a bomb explosion, which is what poverty seems like, an explosion. And it singes your conscience. The boys have pieces of clothes for belts. The girls uniforms are so torn they have to wear other old clothes underneath to remain decent. I shudder to think of the ones getting into puberty and dealing with menses. Almost all have barefeet. The teachers, these poor professionals who are entrusted with raising a generation, don’t look any better than the children they educate; they look resigned, hanging onto a very thin sliver of intention. They sit silently under trees marking dog-eared books. All around us poverty stares back at you with unblinking snake eyes.
The headmaster gathers his cast of desperados. We hand them these lapdesks called the Tutudesk, these improvised desks that children from poor schools without desks can use to read and write from. Easier to write on them than balance your book from your knees. We also hand them special footballs that don’t deflate, which seem to excite them more than the desks because they are children after all. A few scatter off to play, laughing. Group pictures are taken. Someone gives a small touching speech while squinting in the sun. The children clap for us and it evokes such guilt in me, I turn away. We don’t deserve the claps, they do, for their stoicity.
We bundle in our cars, an entourage of four, and off we go go back into the bushes and narrow paths that we came from.
We have five schools to visit, a whole day’s work, then we have another six schools in rural Kilifi. In total we have 4,000 lapdesks to deliver and hundreds of balls to give away. At the schools I try to talk to the children; “What is your name?” How many children are you in the family? Do you like Arsenal or Man-United? What would you like to be when you grow up? How old are you? Can you remember when you were last happiest? Who is your best friend? Why are they your best friend, what do you like about them? When did you last dream and what did you dream about? I’m shooting in the dark, looking for an angle, a narrative, that elusive golden thread, but the children have the confidence of a fridge magnet; poverty has subdued them, held their confidence in a headlock until it’s turning red in the eyes. They don’t know how to engage me, they are weighed down by inferiority complex, they see me as a unicorn, a completely different animal from them because I have shoes and they don’t. I constantly come up short. They stare at me blank-faced.
I mostly watch them play. Or I stand at the back and watch the team give another ball, another lapdesk and give another speech and take another picture that elicits another applause.
Funny things happen. For instance after a lapdesk is handed one of the drivers says to the gathered:
The children all scream together laughing, “Tosha!”
“Jameni nyinyi ni vibogoyo? Mbona hamna raha, aah, jameni?
The children giggle.
That shit makes me so happy.
Then we pile in our cars and we move to the next school.
Then something odd happens.
As we are headed to the fourth school we stop at a fork in the road not knowing whether to take a right or left. At this junction is big fig tree and from it hangs a signage: Mganga wa Kienyeji, written in red and a phone number in blue. It’s the traditional medicine man. I take the number. I don’t know why, but I do. It’s one of those things you do and you can’t explain, like when you open the fridge and you stand there thinking, “what did I want in this fridge?”
At the next school, Bora Moyo Primary School – one mud-walled block, a toilet, a small open kitchen, a big football field – we gather in a principal’s office. He shows us the free laptops from the government of Kenya. He’s holding them like you would a human skull at Kariandusi prehistoric site. Like it might detonate. I’m amazed that the free-laptop project actually kicked-off even though the schools have no power to power those laptops.
So I step outside from the principal’s office because the irony in that office is drowning my lungs. From under a tree, I call the number for the traditional medicine man . It goes unanswered. Ten minutes later as I’m peering into a mud classroom my phone purrs in my pocket. It’s the medicine man flashing me.
I call him back and walk away from the classroom. I tell him I’m from Uganda and I need his help. He asks me where I got his number and never in my life did I ever think I’d answer that question this way because I say I got his number from under a tree. I want to giggle at that but I catch myself because he would find that odd because back in Witu it must be normal to find numbers under a tree. I can safely say it here that very few of you reading this will ever claim, in your lives, to have gotten a number from under a tree. I’m a pioneer.
This mganga speaks like a TV evangelist. His swahili is well arranged like a musical note. I tell him I will try and explain my problem but my swahili is terrible.
Children are now gathering near the principal’s office. Handymen are offloading the lapdesks and the balls. I tell the medicine man that my business is bad and I suspect that there are people who are responsible for it. He asks me what business I am in and I tell him I’m in printing. I print t shirts and posters and I recently bought two massive water tanks which I use to deliver water to rich people’s homes in the city and that has been doing great until recently.
Behind me, Duncan Muhindi of General Motors is giving another speech while holding one of the lapdesks. A horde of children are gathered around him, eyeing the balls. The teachers are all grinning, hands held behind their backs.
I tell the medicine man that lately them rich folk don’t want my clean water anymore, and the printing business is not making me money anymore.
He pauses for a second and says that he knows exactly what’s happening to my business. I press my phone harder against my ear and ask, what?
“Kwanza nitasoma nyota yako, ndio nijue!”
“Nyota? Niko na nyota?” I ask him.
“Kila mtu ako na nyota,” he scoffs. “Ukituma pesa kidogo, nita choma majani zangu nijue shida iko wapi.”
“Majani ya chai ama?” I ask and he makes a sound that could pass off as laughter, I can’t tell though because I’ve never had the honour of hearing a medicine man laugh before.
He says wants to burn leaves and shit to know who is curtailing my success. Seems fair to me. But he says this process is 600 bob, “na ya kutoa.” That makes me smile; ya kutoa. Kenyans and kutoa. Well, 640 to burn leaves to tell me who is cockblocking my business efforts seems about OK, wouldn’t you say?
Behind me, our driver is saying,
“Ahh, jameni, watoto wapendwa, nyinyi wanyonge kweli? Hamna nguvu?”
If these kids ever grow up and buy a Ford truck, it would be the greatest travesty of our times, I think to myself.
I ask the medicine man if he promises to give me a name of that person cockblocking my biashara. He says he will. I M-Pesa him 640 bob. He flashes me (rolls eyes) and I call him and he says he has received and that it will take 20mins to burn his leaves and tell me what is going on with by business. “You will give me a name, your promise?” I ask again he says he will. “Kuwa na imani, ndugu.” That should have been my first warning; him calling me ndugu. I don’t trust anyone who calls people ndugu or dada. But I was in a euphoric state of hope given that we were on a CSR mission as it were.
We pile back into cars and off we go through narrow sandy roads, through small patches of grassland, through small sleepy centers where blank-faced men in shukas sit lethargically under trees. The medicine man flashes me and I wait until we get to the next school to call him back because I don’t want people in the car to hear me speak to a medicine man.
When he picks he launches into a long spiel in his preacher voice. He says there is someone who doesn’t want my success in business (duh) and this someone went to another medicine man who buried my nyota, under a tree and that’s why my water business and printing business is suffering.
I ask him who that is. I need a name.
We are at Moa Primary school now. Muhindi is standing on a football to show how resilient and durable the balls are. The ball deflates but once he steps off it, it goes back to its shape. The children gathered stare in awe at this magic ball! He hands out lapdesks to another group of children, explaining in surprisingly fluent swahili how the desks work. Behind the school, somewhere in the bushes, the biggest lake in the County, Lake Witu flows unbothered by these new visitors.
“Jina siwezi kupa sina kioo ya kuona huyu mtu….” the medicine man tells me.
“Nani ana hii kioo?” I ask.
“Mtu huyu ni mtu ako karibu nawe…” he says.
“Siwezi sema kwa uha….”
“Ni Fred?” I cut in. “Anaitwa Fred sivyo?”
“Ni nani, Benjaps? …Jen? …Hanafi…?”
“Taratibu ndugu yangu…”
“Ama ni Tamms?”
The team is now taking pictures with the teachers and children.
I tell him I have to go, I will call him. I forget to call him.
We get to Kilifi after eight pm, bone tired. My room in Kilifi Bay Beach Resort doesn’t have running water in the shower, and no phone in the room, so I have to drag my weary self all the way to the reception and ask to be moved to a new room. I’m irritated, hungry and tired and so when the medicine man flashes me I call him back and I bite off his head. I tell him we are not bloody going to have a conversation until he gives me a freaking name! Find a goddamn kioo wherever you can and give me name. We had a deal. No name, no conversation. I hang up. Then I feel bad. But just a little.
He calls me at 10pm I don’t answer. He sends me a please call me. I don’t call him back. I’m sulking.
I fall asleep under a mosquito net. The AC at 30.
The next morning we are off into the heartland of Kilifi. Kilifi is wonderful and scenic. At the first school I call the medicine man and ask him if he has a name for me. Did he burn his leaves? Did he find a kioo? Who is it? Is it Eric? He says, look, I don’t have a name but what we need to do is make sure that this guy doesn’t curtail your progress any further.
And how do we do that? I ask.
“Uta nunua chupa mbili ya damu ya mbuju.” He says.
“Ati nini?” I ask.
“Uta nunua chupa mbili ya damu ya mbuju.” He repeats.
“Mbuju ndio nini?”
He says Mbuju is some type of animal from the sea. He needs that to do his thing. So I guess I’m to go fishing and bleed this mbuju animal of its blood, not just blood, enough blood for two bottles. Then somehow I’m to courier to him this blood.
“Naenda Nairobi leo, hiyo damu ya mbuju naweza pata Moi Avenue?” I ask him.
He says I can only get it in Lamu. I tell him well, I’m out of Lamu. I wondered how he can’t tell I’m no longer in Lamu, I mean after all he’s a medicine man, he can always burn his leaves and GPS my ass. He says he has a solution; he can buy me the mbuju blood and get on with the business of blocking my enemy’s efforts.
But I need to send him money.
I ask him how much and he says 9K. A bottle of Mbuju’s blood is 9K, so that’s 18K. Now 18K is a bottle of some fine-ass single-malt, instead he wants me to spend that on two bottles of Mbuju blood.
I tell him I will call him back. I type “Mbuju” on Google- 6,600 results and nothing on sea animal. I type “Mbuju sea animal,” 256K results, and nothing on our Mbuju. I call up my friend who speaks swahili sanifu and ask him what Mbuju is and he draws a blank. “Huyo mnyama simfahamu.” he tells me in a way of showing off my saying “huyo” before mnyama.
Tumia “huyo” kwenye sentensi. (Alama 30)
-Huyo dada ana kiuno ya Mbuju.
At the next school in Ganze subcounty, we give out desks. I peer into the mud-classes and it’s heartbreaking; they sit on small pieces of wood set against stones. The floor is dusty. School bags that are plastic bags hang from pegs against the mudwall. There are holes in the wall, as in if you are seated at the back of the classroom and the class is boring you can sneak out of class while the teacher writes on the board and he wouldn’t notice. It’s a heartbreaking way to learn.
The children take one of the balls and run off to the football pitch behind the block. Duncan hands out desks and shakes the hand of their headmaster. A journalist pulls aside one of the teachers for an interview. I lean under a tree and stare at the children laughing and chasing the ball. Amazing how even in this desperation they are able to quickly find pockets of unbridled laughter.
Pictures are taken. The chaps from PLAN International grin. The teachers grin. The journalists grin. Grins all over.
“Ahh, hii shule ya Dulukiza imejaa vibogoyo kweli! Changamkeni majameni!”
The teachers and kids laugh.
“TOSHAAAA!” I also say loudly,
They have brainwashed me. I will come back to Nai, sell my car and buy a DMax and drive it around in a stetson hat and tell everyone that now I’m rearing pigs.
Later I call the medicine man and tell him that I don’t have 18K. He asks how much I have? I tell him I don’t have any money left, didn’t I just mention yesterday that my business is down?
“Unaweza pata pesa ngapi?” he asks. I tell him I can’t borrow money from anyone, besides now I don’t trust any of my friends. If only I knew who is behind my failure then I’d know who not to ask for money.
He sighs like he’s about to do me a favour and asks me how much I have on MPesa currently. I say I have 920 bob but it’s for my gout medicine. He doesn’t know what gout is so I explain to him that it’s a disease that affects people who eat meat and it makes them walk with a limp. He says there is a possibility that my friends are responsible for my gout. Haha.
I tell him no, meat is.
He says meat doesn’t cause such problems, people do. “Hayo ni mambo ya binadamu.”
I say, yes, you are right – butchers!
He says the person jealous about my business is very close to me and that I should be careful.
I ask him how close? Like we have lunch together close? Or is he the guy who washes my car?
We are getting back in the cars. It’s starting to drizzle. The children are off to play football in the rain. Out there my water and printing business is suffering because I can’t afford two bottles of Mbuju blood. Life goes on.