I ask Eddy Kimani what it feels like to be a on a billboard. A big-ass billboard at a roundabout on Uhuru Highway. Or Waiyaki Way. For a month. For everybody, virtually everybody (and this includes guys from Nyahururu, Gilgil and such like neverland places) to study. Matatus and private cars, vans and minibuses, buses and motorbikes full of people looking up at your smiling face on a billboard, because nobody looks sad on a billboard, not even the guys selling antacids. You up on that pedestal with one expression, one outfit, one agenda; a public spectacle, a profile of recognizability and celebrity. Your image is stored in their faces.
At night that billboard lights up and is the guiding light of night crawlers, the late-nighters, the ghouls of the night, who look at it in passing. Maybe you are on four of those massive billboards that month, spread out in different parts of the borough. You are a constant fixture on the cityscape. Then at night you are suited up on prime-time TV reading the news, looking happy, self-assured and debonair, stirring the pots of desire of a few viewers, your beard looking like it regulates the temperature of its own bath. The next morning you are on radio talking sports because that’s what you love most, it is your true north. Over the weekend you are on stage acting, and on commercials talking and selling, and then you are in a tux MCing in those stuffy events that demand that you wear black or gold. You are MCing light years before the phrase “drops mic” became a catchphrase. And so your face is in our faces and up in our grill. We know your name – Eddy Kimani. At some point, that name starts feeling like one consonant, and then a jingle. Your name seems to transcend the noun and starts being a verb, a state of being.
“How the hell does that feel?” I ask him.
“Popularity and celebrity is a sweet thing,” he reminisces. We are seated so close to each other that I can see the left side of his face doesn’t have the same consistency as the rest of his face, courtesy of the Bell’s Palsy he suffered a few years back.
“Don’t forget that during that time I was in the limelight we didn’t have social media, so I was an enigma of sorts. You could only see me on those platforms,” he says. “When I was a newscaster at NTV, the station was the only other private station besides KTN. We were ideally the first crop of new-age anchors after kina Kasavuli. So it felt like we were the chosen ones.”
“There was a great deal of adrenaline in going on TV to read news. I loved it,” he continues. “For me it was showtime. I felt charged with adrenaline. It’s a – I don’t know how to describe it -…a high. A sweet place.” He was young then, only in his 20s and 30s. He had money, fame, girls who wanted to eat off his palm and strangers who sent him drinks in bars. Complete strangers on the streets would light up with recognition, waiters would say with a smile, “Sasa Eddy?” when handing him the menu, like they have been buddies forever, watchmen would stick their heads in the car and banter about sports before they opened the gate. In traffic jams, he’d look to the side and see people in the next car staring at him, their mouths moving from behind their window. They would be saying, “Si that’s that guy on TV, Eddy Kimani?” In bars with his other media mates, the room would seem to sway towards their table. He’d get recognised in hospitals, government offices and malls. People would always call him by two names; Eddy Kimani, like you would call Calvin Klein or Ozwald Boateng. He was never really Eddy. Or Kimani. You had to mention both names. You couldn’t do him the disservice of divorcing his names. He wasn’t Eddy if he wasn’t Kimani.
“It was also strange at the same time and I didn’t know how to deal with that strangeness,” he adds, “because people somehow assumed you knew them. They approached you with familiarity and you see, much as you didn’t know them, you had to roll with it and act like you knew them. Does that make sense?”
I nod even though it makes little sense to me.
“What happened was people had formed opinions of who I was. I gradually found myself being pressured to live my life according to their formed ideas.” He smiles. “I found myself with another responsibility, feeding into people’s perception of who they thought I was. I wanted to keep that persona even though it wasn’t mine.”
“You play to a gallery…” I mumble.
“Yes! So what that means is that you take loans to buy cars and designer suits to maintain a mega lifestyle,” he says. “The fame came at a cost because soon you start thinking that you are this person who is only playing a role. That’s not to say that I wasn’t having fun, oh I was! It’s the other half that I didn’t like. By the way, I think you are really lucky that you are not keen on being out there. I wonder how you decided on that.”
“I’m selfish,” I say, “I want to live for myself, in my small world and not in anybody’s world.”
So for 12-years he was a man about town. Life was good. No, life was very good. He started dating Nyambura, his current wife, and at some point they started going steady. In 2005, she got pregnant “for him” as they say in those dreadful Tanzanian soaps where the English subtitles are so completely different from what the cast is saying, you could as well be watching a cookery show.
“I started off as a bad father,” he says. “At 27, I was at that point where I was resisting responsibility. I was still enjoying this life of a celebrity while also facing this life as a guy with a child and I felt like being a father was intruding in my fun. I didn’t accept that I was now a father and needed to step up. I was always making excuses for not taking responsibility, choosing to engage as a father when it suited me. I couldn’t locate the pulse of my conscience. [I love this] I wanted to have my cake and eat it. I think lots of men find themselves here, where they don’t know how to take charge and be responsible. They don’t know how to handle being first-time fathers.” He pauses. “ Of course this caused constant fights between Nyambura and I.”
So their relationship forged ahead like a car with three wheels – a Subaru on three wheels to put it aptly, because there has never been a car that aptly metaphorizes youthful hedonism in this neck of woods. In 2013, they got another baby and then got married. “Marriage for me was like a walk in darkness,” he says. He fumbled through it, feeling his way in the darkness, bumping into wooden things, grabbing at strange objects and realising it’s a blender and thinking, What the hell is a blender doing in my marriage? [He-he.]
“I had no manual. Everything I knew about marriage was from seeing how my parents’ marriage was,” he says. “I come from a close knit family, yeah and although my parents’ marriage was not ati the best, it wasn’t also not bad. There were the constant disagreements, but there was never anything overtly over the top. But the thing is, nobody tells you how to be a man. No older man sits you down and guides you on how to be a father, a husband and a man, so you just wing it. I think fathers should guide their sons on how to be men. Otherwise our sons will grow up with their own version of what a man should be and sometimes their version is so removed.”
He struggled through his marriage. He was Eddy Kimani the celeb, then he was Eddy Kimani the husband and then he was Eddy Kimani the father and he wanted to feed all these in equal measures. He didn’t know how to juggle the three. Often, the last two suffered. “Nyambura is conservative. She didn’t quite understand why I was out there working late MCing, attending functions and drinking. She didn’t understand how the media works. Her expectations of me were to be there as a husband and a father. She must have also felt that I was kichwa ngumu because of my celebrity status.” He smiles. “This caused constant friction between us.”
“Were you drinking then?” I ask.
“Oh yeah. Heavily.” He thinks about it for a second. “Yeah, there was heavy drinking involved. It never really got in the way of work though, maybe a few times, but it was never a problem with my job. But then in 2014 I received a call.”
“Oh I like stories that begin with a phone call, I say.
You always feel like when someone says, “But then one day I received a call” you know that story is taking a tangent. Shit is about to unfold. Even the soundtrack changes. Now it’s some low bassed music, when something is about to jump out of darkness and lick your neck.
Anyway, the guy calling was a former chief of staff of Nakuru County. He needed someone to establish a department of Nakuru county. There was still excitement and opportunities in devolution. Although Eddy was newly married and enjoying doing his radio sports show, he was restless. He’d been restless for a while now, wondering what next thing he could sink his teeth in. “And so I was excited to hear from this guy. I thought this was exactly what I needed.”
Only Nyambura said, “Zii!’. Zii for those reading from Zambia means no. I could have just written “no” but that isn’t the same as zii. Zii conveys a refusal in a very Kenyan way. It’s even better if you put “aii,” before the “zii.” That means that there is no way this is happening. Nyambura didn’t say “aii” but she said “zii.” Zii can change into a yes but aii zii is final.
“And you would understand why,” Eddy says. “She had a career here in Nairobi, we had children, it seemed unfair to just uproot the whole family and move to Nakuru, disrupting their lives. Oh, the job was also not offering what I was making. So on top of this I was taking a pay cut. I on the other had was very keen to take up this job. It was a chance to do something different, a chance to go serve my county, my people, because I’m a Nakuru boy.”
They went back and forth with Nyambura. Deliberations. Eventually she accepted reluctantly. So he packed a bag and
was on his way to Nakuru to take up a government job. His title was Communication Director for Governor and County Government of Nakuru.
“Did you have to wear a broken suit?” I ask.
He laughs for the first time. “Gava is a different ball game! It’s a 360 degree shift from corporate. Whereas in media I could dress casually, I had to wear suits for all meetings. Then set up a communications department from scratch, alone. I also had to learn the politics that comes with that office, because politics is a huge part of that role. Basically, I was thrown in the deep end and had to find a way of not drowning.”
“Did you have an office with those screaming red carpets?” I ask because the things that I’m curious about are very trivial. I’m that person who, when someone is telling an intense story, will ask, “Do you remember the colour of shoes you were wearing?” and people always stop to ask, “What?! Colour of shoes? How is that important?” But it is for me and now that story won’t be complete until I know the colour of shoes they were wearing and if they refuse to tell me it will haunt me for the rest of my life. I will wake up in the middle of the night and think, what if they were blue shoes?
But the reason I ask him if he had a red carpeted office is because I never know how anyone – read government officials – can work in an office with those blood red carpets, a cruel democracy of appearance. [Read that phrase in The New Yorker recently.] I would get constant headaches. My mood would always be so murderous. I’d be constantly shouting on the phone and picking fights with people who can’t fight back, like the tea boy and the interns or the lady who delivers fruit salad. I would be so unhappy saying things like, “I have noticed that nowadays you don’t put enough pawpaws in my salad. Why do you do this to me, Mariam? Have I not been anything but kind to you? Have you now joined the opposition to take away my pawpaws?”
Eddy says, “Oh no. I didn’t have a red carpeted office, I had a small office with old hand-me down desks.”
Anyway, like any Nairobian, Eddy Kimani had side hustles. He had a mobile advertising business and a photography business back in Nairobi. He closed it down and opened the business in Nakuru.
“I was confident that it would work. After all, it was working in Nairobi and Nakuru is not only a small town, it’s my town,” he says. “Shock, the businesses failed. All of them.” Nakuru, it turned out, was a different kettle of fish. “I started taking more loans and opening businesses. Each of them would fail and my debts started piling. My salary had 80% servicing loans to businesses that had already closed. Things started spiraling out of control very quickly.”
By this time, he wasn’t even coming back home to see the family often. He wasn’t coming often because he was not pulling his weight as the man of the house. He wasn’t sending money because he was in debt. He couldn’t explain to his wife – who, as the record shows, didn’t exactly do a dance over this Nakuru gava job – that he was broke because he had kept his (failed) businesses a secret from her. As the debts grew bigger the fights became even bigger.
“I wasn’t providing. I wasn’t being a man. I was failing as a businessman. I started getting into this dark place, of beating myself up, of self pity, of drinking a lot, of missing important family dates, milestones in my children’s lives, milestones in my wife’s life, I was becoming a stranger to her, day by day and a stranger to myself hour by hour. I got kicked out of my rental twice because I couldn’t pay rent.”
“How much was rent?”
He chuckles thinking about it. “20K.”
“Did you talk to anybody about your situation?”
“How could I?” he asks. “I was Eddy Kimani. I hid my problems from everyone because I was ashamed of myself. I didn’t want people saying, Eddy is broke, he’s asking for help. I was that jamaa from the TV, how could I be broke? I mean, all my ex-schoolmates in Nakuru saw me as Eddy the guy who had made it, amefika. There was no way I was going to ask them for help when they thought I was doing well. I hid my problems well, by drinking a lot. But I want you to mention one guy who stood by me this whole time, without judgement and with great humility and patience. He’s called Allan Githinji. When I was chased twice from my house, he housed me without question. He had a family of his own but still extended himself and his family to keep housing me. He never judged nor gave up on me. Even when I was finally kicked out of my rental for good, he still took me in.”
Staying with Allan wasn’t sustainable, so he did what he had been avoiding all through; moving back home in his mother’s house. From TV, radio and the bright lights of celebrity to knocking on his mother’s door with only his bag as his personal belongings because he had failed. He had failed as a husband, as a father, as a businessman and as a son. Failure had piled up around him like stones around a grave.
But you know how mothers are. They will take us back in at our worst as they will at our best. They will give us a bed and a meal. “ I had kept her in the dark like I had kept everybody else – but she never asked me questions when I arrived at her door, beaten by life. Mother’s just know. She gave me a room and fresh beddings. When I had settled, she prayed for me.”
He stood there in the middle of their living room, his mother praying and him, shredded by life, clinging onto a tattered dignity, head bowed before God in humility and failure and self-pity, feeling sordid, completely rotten, his lips trembling with emotions. Eddy’s mom prayed for him and then they ate in silence. Settling back home was horrendous. He was the ridicule of Nakuru, or rather that’s what he felt. He felt like people were talking about him and his failure; Eddy Kimani has failed and is back home to his mother. He felt like people were dancing on his grave. He stayed alone in his room, not leaving, stewing in his thoughts. He entertained thoughts about killing himself. How they would break down the door and find him splayed in bed, having bled to death or choked on his own vomit from taking an assortment of drugs. When he left the house, mostly at dusk, he would go drinking with people who couldn’t judge him. People who didn’t have his backstory. Once in a while someone would say, “Aaaah, wewe ni ule jamaa wa TV” and it would feel like someone had stabbed him in the gut. Celebrity had become his incarceration.
Allan kept checking up on him, when he was at his rock bottom. “I honestly don’t know what would have happened to me had Allan not been there for me. I mean, this is a man I met at his restaurant, yet he had become my pillar when I had nothing else,” he says. “It’s very very important for us to check up on our friends, especially if you suspect they are doing badly. Just a phone call is enough to put someone else on a different path. Pick up the phone and call them. Sometimes you can be at a very dark place but just the fact that one person cared enough to call you means everything. It means someone cares.”
To avoid the chatter of Nakuru and the embarrassment of being the laughing stock of his town, the prodigal son who came back with nothing, the golden boy of TV who had cashed in his last chip and had no legs to stand on decided to go as far away from Nakuru and its demons as he could. Away from failure. Away from desperation.
He moved to Diani.
Who the hell would know him there? Who listens to Capital Sports there? He was like a man on the lam. A man on a witness protection program, albeit with his own name. His name, Eddy Kimani, once worth more than a bagful of silver, was now a chain and ball, a skin he wanted to remove and leave hanging on a fence, for birds to shit on.
[Sorry, but a neighbour is cooking ugali. I can smell it from my desk and it’s distracting me. Who the hell would be cooking ugali on a Sunday morning?! How hungry do you have to be to cook ugali on Sunday morning?]
He got a room in a lodging. You know you are doing badly when you live in a lodging. It was a grubby little place with a bed, a bathroom and a small window that overlooked a boma with mango trees. Most days it was hot in there. He would spend his days lying on that small bed over the cheap beddings, staring at the ceiling. Other days he would be in a bar with people who never heard of Eddy Kimani. Once in a while he would get a gig. The little money kept him afloat. Sometimes someone would pay his rent as a pilot once did. He ate when he had to, from the little kiosks by the roadside. He drunk cheap and kept his overheads low. Eddy was off the radar but guilt had followed him to Diani. He ached to see his children and wife again. He thought about his family. But shame kept him away.
One day he met a gentleman called Peter Makuona who ran a very small bakery in the shopping center where he lived. Peter saw through him and for the first time he opened up. Peter prayed for him then told him, “There is nothing here for you, make peace with your family.” “Peter became that guy for me. The guy who turned around my life because through him I called home after a while and spoke to Nyambura. That opened a small window of reconciliation which grew bigger by the day.”
He came home for a school event for his son because Nyambura was travelling to India for work. She gave me the spare room to stay in. “I never went back to Diani after that. We started talking. She didn’t want me there because I had hurt her and I had hurt the family and my history was full of irresponsbility. She wanted to know why. She wanted to open these past wounds so that we can consider healing. She wasn’t sure it would never happen again. She didn’t want to go through it again. We talked about it. It’s a long conversation, this path to truth and reconciliation. It’s a long road.”
Then one day he heard Peter was involved in a bad road accident when he was going back to mainland Mombasa where he lived and had his main bakery. “I immediately went to see him in hospital where doctors were thinking of amputating his legs,” he says. “But they saved his legs and he had to close down his bakery in Diani. You know what I think of this?”
“I think it’s divine intervention. I think God made this guy open a bakery in Diani to meet me because when I met him, his bakery was only two or three months old. He set me on a different path of my life then had that accident which made him close down the Diani bakery. I think his work in Diani was not to sell bread, it was to save me and now that his work was done, God made him go back to Mombasa, closer to his family. His bakery in Mombasa is doing so well he’s opened others,” he says.
It makes sense to me. I see His hand. Can we hear an Amen back there, guys?
Eddy Kimani of today isn’t the Eddy Kimani of the billboards. He isn’t up on his feet yet. He’s surviving on small jobs. He’s giving talks about manhood and responsibility as men, as fathers, as husbands. “I always say I’m being re-engineered,” he says. “I’m learning to be an upright standing man, a normal and engaged father. I’m shaking off bad habits and learning fresh ones, skills that can make me a better person. You know, I ran into my wife’s diary one day when I just got back and out of curiosity I read it. In there was a prayer for me. When I was in Nakuru being selfish she was always praying for me. Can you believe that? I was touched reading that. That she never completely gave up on me.”
“You don’t have a stable income right now so I assume she takes care of the big bills – rent and whatnot. How does that play out? How do you feel about her taking care of what you should be taking care of? What position does that place you in?” I ask.
He pauses. “This is also a conversation we should all have as men. We have placed a lot of emphasis on the usefulness of a man being what he provides financially. I’m not providing because I don’t want to, it’s because I’m unable to currently. Had this been many years ago, I think I would have felt differently because of my ego. But now my ego has changed. I’m putting effort and this effort should hopefully take us to where we need to get. But having said that I really respect her for who she is for what she had done for herself and for this family.”
“Do you think one can be a good father if you can’t provide for your children?” I ask.
“I think being a good father is not about the material. I think you can be a good father still. And I’m relearning how to love my children now. I failed before but failure should be your ally, it’s the best ingredient for success.”
“Are you drinking still?”
“Hardly ever, also you need money to drink.” We chuckle at that.
He has to run. I call him an Uber and as we wait, I ask him how much of our manhood is tied to being able to provide for our families and our women. Because it seems directly proportion; the less your are able to provide, the less you must feel like a man and vice versa.
“Someone – a pastor – once told me that there is nowhere in the Bible it is written that a man should provide for the woman. I’m yet to look that up. But there is talk of the man being the leader etc. I think men should take care of their families and I’m not running away from it. Circumstances however, can force a man not to provide for his family. Does that make him a man who has failed by his family and by God? When we are young it’s drummed into our heads what a man should be; a man should not cry, a man should be this and that and so when we lose our jobs we feel like we have lost our manhood. But marriage is about partnership, to help another rise, to support each other.”
The Uber guy calls. He says, “Where are you?” I don’t get why they ask that when it’s already on the app. I want to tell him I’m in Mandera. Under an acacia tree, with a sick goat. Anyway, the Uber guy finds us. I ask Eddy Kimani what he’d do differently if he had a second shot at everything and he says, “Oh so many things. I’d be more accomodating to my wife. I’d spend money wisely. I’d handle fame better….they are so many.” We shake hands.
Have a good and safe Easter Holiday.