I was in Kinangop over the weekend. A two hour and 12 mins drive and everything completely changes, tall buildings fall off and are replaced with open land and pine trees and fresh air. One evening our hostess took us for a walk in the village past small, squat kiosks, a coffin maker polishing some gaudy brass handles, a local bar with a reflector mirror, old trees that bend slightly like old, willowy men with hernias. A bodaboda with “fagia kwako” written on its mudguard tutted past, a young man leaned against an electric pole talking to a lady in a manner that didn’t suggest he was telling her about the time he scored B-plus in Biology. And if he was, he was about to start telling her about the biology topic he likes the most – reproductive health. We passed modest bomas with low, wooden gates that you can jump over if you move ten meters back and run at it. We saw sheep covered in thick wool, a cow that looked like a Fresian cow, one of those black and white ones, trotting back home and stopping to snatch a blade of grass. We later stood by a quarry and watched the the orange glow of sunset. A five year old boy, convinced that I was wearing a superhero watch (because I showed him how my watch can call my phone and count my heartbeat) asked me, “Can your watch slaughter a cow?”
“No,” I laughed.
“Can it change the direction of the wind?” he pursued.
We started back. We passed by a boma, a man stood in front of a wooden house, smoking. I stared at his face; it looked like leather that had been rained on for many days. I didn’t think about him then but later at night I tried to imagine what his life is like, in Kinangop. What are his dreams? How does he spend his days?
I wrote small fragments on my phone of what I imagine his life is like.
Most days he works in his small, modest shamba. He grows vegetables and maize and he also has cows and sheep because this is Kinangop and what kind of a Kinangopian would you be if you didn’t have sheep? He also has a small section of the farm where he grows sunflowers because a visiting pastor told his wife that sunflowers will one day be the cure for cancer. He has one child, a daughter, Njambi who is 12. Next year she will sit her KCPE exams. For now she goes to a local Catholic school, a boarding school. One time this kuyu friend of mine told me how he fled his shags and relocated to Naivasha because his brothers had tried to kill his mom over a land dispute. I was gobsmacked, which is different from being shocked. When you are gobsmacked your eyes pop and you lean back and say, “No shit! No, you are lying!” He had told me that in his shags you can get away with many things, but land? Oh, that will get you killed by your own brother. So perhaps when this leather-faced man stands outside his wooden house, looking at his property he’s thinking, “I will die for this soil. I am this soil.”
His wife works in Nairobi, at Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company. She has short hair and a birthmark on her left cheek. Everybody calls her Mama Njambi. She comes over every Friday. He doesn’t like Nairobi, but not as much as he doesn’t like Nairobians. He says it’s a city full of tricksters and marauding thieves. You can’t trust anybody. You can’t leave your bicycle leaning against a shop if it’s not locked. People are always trying to steal from you or selling you something fake. He has been to Nairobi thrice. The first time to visit his sick uncle at KNH. The second time to see where his wife lives and the last time to go for a burial at Langata Cemetery. He will avoid going to Nairobi if he can.
Mostly he cooks for himself, cleans after himself and sleeps alone in his wooden house from Sunday to Thursday. The house has never quite healed from the absence of that delicate touch of a woman. He doesn’t mind though, because the farm keeps him busy. He rises early, at 5:30am, and prays lying down. It’s dark and cold in his house at that time. At 6:15am, at first light, he emerges from the front door. He’s already dressed in his jacket, the type with a hoodie that he never uses because only young people use hoodies. He’s 35-years old and wears a hat like a proper Kinangopian; an old trucker cap written “Ancient Mariner.” That hat smells of all sorts of things; of the sun, wind, rain, hair, dreams, groundnuts in their shells (because sometimes he uses it to carry some).
He emerges from the small tools shed with a silver milking bucket, walks to the cowshed where he sets it on the ground and stops to light a cigarette. He then slaps the cow’s thigh in greeting like a Kinangopian and sits on a stool whereupon he embarks upon the daily task of milking, his cigarette burning from his lips. The cow knows the smell of his cigarette. The cow knows his smell. The milk foams in the bucket. He untethers the cow and it wanders down the slope to search for food. He then opens for the sheep and goats and chicken. He makes tea with some of the fresh milk and drinks it, sugarless, out of a metallic cup, seated outside his house. He’s 5’ 8”, 59 kgs, healthy as his cow. The last time he ate potato chips was six years ago at a wedding. Luckily for him he will die not knowing how pizza tastes like. His only unhealthy pleasure is beer. While he sits there, a villager cycling past will shout a hello and ask him something and he will say, “eee…..acaa!”
He has one brother, whom he doesn’t get along with. He lives in Nakuru and he thinks he knows everything and is always trying to boss everybody around. He spends more time keeping his beard than he spends in shags. He built a big stone house that he doesn’t live in. When he shows up in shags in his big motor vehicle he acts like he knows what’s best for their mother yet he’s not the one who is here, who checks up on her and who knows that her fence needs to be fixed. His wife doesn’t talk to anybody. She’s always holding his elbow, following him around in her wrong shoes; “baby this, baby that”. You speak to her in Kikuyu and she replies in English. He asked him one day, “Kai mutumia uyu waku ata thomithirio kwaria Gikuyu?” and he retorted in a hiss, “Chunga mbuzi zako na uachane na bibi yangu, Nelson.” She mostly doesn’t eat and when she does she wants a fork, not a spoon. She carries her own food that cracks like thunder when you bite it. It’s called crisps or crips or cips. One day his brother had to drive all the way to Engineer (that’s a place) to look for tomato sauce for her. She’s always squeezing a liquid in her hands when she’s around as if she might catch something worse than stupidity.
After tea Nelson will wash his face and brush his teeth. Then he will boil the milk and as it cools, he will do a little farm work. Digging here, cutting there, cleaning there, scraping and shovelling and wiping his brow with the back of his hand. He will do all these shoeless, wearing trousers with one leg torn to the knee. At 11am he will carry water into the outside bathroom and take a bath using a Panga bar soap.
He is not a man who cares too much about his clothing, but lately he has taken to choosing what he wears more keenly. He even applies lotion. He will put on a fresh pair of trousers with a clean shirt, complete with his cap on his head. He will then pour the milk into a jerrican and set off to the shopping center where he will deliver the milk to Mwaura’s shop. This might sound like village gossip but Mwaura was kicked out of the church recently because he insulted the pastor. He called him “satan with chest hair.” It might not sound bad in english but in Kyuk it’s horrible. The pastor attracted his ire because he has a debt in his shop totaling almost Sh4,000 and he kept quoting the Bible whenever he asked for his money. His wife assured him that God would pay and he waited, not for 40 days, but for four months but God never paid. And there was no way he would ask Him when he would pay. So one day he confronted him after the service and told him he was satan with chest hair. Satan took such offense.
Through the wire mesh he will engage in small talk with Mwaura; the price of milk, the cost of selling potatoes in Kilgoris, this new fertilizer that costs half but does more, whose cow started coughing and died suddenly. He grew up with Mwaura, went to the same school and dropped out a year after him; in form 2. School fees. Like everybody else who dropped out, he got into business; buying and selling and failing and then buying something else and selling and failing and buying something else and selling and failing. Years rolled by and he learnt and grew a thick skin, and then suddenly he found something that could make a profit of 15K a month and he found better ways of doing it and it grew to 25k and then he slowly built a place of his own on land that his father gave him. He never attended Centonomy, but he knew the value of money and he grew his little money because he never saw his money as little.
With some little money in his pocket and a little confidence in his bones, he married the first girl from across the hill who took a liking for him, and they got a child. Life was good until she left for the city of tricksters and men of loose morals. He had to re-learn to cook again but mostly he made tea and slept but if he had to eat something homely he simply boiled beans and maize and also threw into the pot everything that grew on land and couldn’t kill man.
He lights a cigarette and smokes. Mwaura watches him keenly from behind the counter. Mwaura asks him if he’s on his way to Engineer, a shopping center 6 kms away because lately he seems to hang around there a lot. This might also sound like village gossip but word is that he fancies a girl who works in a hardware shop there. A few months ago the lady showed up in the only wholesale shop in Engineer, owned by the local MCA. She’s Gathoni, the MCA’s cousin. She’s the colour of imported oranges and has thick legs. She doesn’t talk to people much and the MCA doesn’t encourage people hanging around his shop. Gathoni has a small son, a toddler. She was married to a mad man in Nairobi whom she ran away from because he was violent and he smoked bangi like all Nairobi trickster men. Lore is that he owned and drove a matatu. The MCA had rescued her from this crazy Nairobi man and brought her to Kinangop to cool her heels. How does he know all this? Because nothing happens in the village that nobody doesn’t know. So, yes, everybody knows Gathoni but Gathoni doesn’t know anyone. She’s always on her phone when not selling, speaking words of English and that corrupted Kiswahili that Nairobians speak.
He likes her and this surprises him because girls have never been something that occupied his mind. It has always been the farm and the fam. Now he lies in his darkened house at night imagining what Gathoni might be doing. Her scent lingers on the hammer she handed to him. He prayed about it, because this is obviously the work of the devil. He’s a simple man, he hates complications. If anything, he stands no chance with her because he knows he would be punching above his weight because Gathoni is sophisticated; she has a nice phone and sometimes she speaks in English on the phone. He also knows that should his wife found out, she will pack and leave. It will be easy for her to pack given that most of her clothes are in Nairobi. Yet, here he is, besieged by emotions.
He got married to the first woman he knew and so he never developed the language muscle to speak to any other women. He knows the language of farm animals and of his drinking friends and of his daughter and village children and of the other church members but he doesn’t know the language of seduction. So whenever he goes to the hardware shop and he smells her from across the counter, he gets so confused that he ends up buying another hammer. Or turpentine or pliers. Things he doesn’t need. He’s throwing good money at a bad problem.
One time his wife came back from Nairobi, she asked, “Are you planning on building something?” He said “No, why?” “Because you have bought so many nails,” she said. He shrugged because he’s a man and in his village men don’t have to explain anything to their wives unless they feel the need to. A shrug is always a good answer. Truth is he has had plans to expand the hen coop but he’s never been a hurry because he’s not a big fan of hens as he is of other farm animals. Hens are nosy. So he’s always eating them. But what his wife hadn’t seen were the rolls of sandpaper that he will never use. Unless to sandpaper his conscience.
The rainy season comes and he plods around in his old gumboots. One of his sheep dies and the local vet comes and injects all the other sheep. He mends his leaking roof. He buys a new woolen hat from a hawker in his local. His mum falls sick and goes to live with his brother in Nakuru. He takes his phone to charge at Mwaura’s and they talk about his mother’s arthritis and bladder problems. The rainy season ends. His mother gets better and begs to come back because she can’t stand sitting in the house the whole day watching TV and eating strange food. He doesn’t see Gathoni, but he thinks of her and when he thinks of her he thinks of her as a temptation from the Lord. In church the pastor preaches about gratification and fulfilment and that night, in bed, his wife asks him what he thought about the word of that day – to mean is he content and fulfilled – and he keeps quiet for a while and says, “I wish you would come back.” And she says nothing. They lie like that in silence, then she finally reaches out and finds his hand in the dark and she squeezes it.