In a small room with 3 way mirrors at Dulles International Airport, Washington DC, three bulky and unsmiling American immigration officials stood over Solomon Wangwe’s open suitcases. This was after they had pulled him off the queue and scanned his bags and shoes and jacket, patted him down with their gloved hands and scowled in his face. He was wearing his baggy jeans, leather jacket and caterpillar shoes because it was 1998 and, believe it or not, that was cool back then. The American Embassy bombing had just happened four months earlier. Master P’s I Got The Hook Up was riding on the charts. So was Tatyana Ali’s “Daydreamin’.” The immigration officials had found what they were looking for and they stared down at the contraband.
“You say you packed your bags yourself?” one guy, the leader, white, big hands akimbo, asked him.
“Yes.” Solomon said, in a voice smaller than he was proud of.
“And nobody told you that it’s illegal to bring these drugs and things into the United States of America?”
“No,” he said. He wasn’t even scared. He was confused. Confused at being in that room and at the sheer size of the men. They were the size of a granary.
“Where are you taking them?”
“Uhm, to my uncle’s son he – “
“What’s his name?”
“Uhm,” his own cousin’s name flew out of his head.
“Son, his name?” the gladiator asked.
“He got a second name?” he bellowed.
“Kavio. Eric Kavio. His father, my uncle, sent me to bring them to him.”
“And what does his father do?” The man picked the sachet of drugs and turned them over in his hands, studying them.
“He’s a professor,” his voice shook. The other three immigration guys stood at the end of the room glaring at him like underfed Rottweilers, ready to pounce on him on cue. About fourteen hours earlier he had been seen off by an embarrassingly large entourage of cousins, uncles, aunts, friends, girlfriend, father, mother, neighbours and high school friends at JKIA’s waving bay for a late night flight. His sisters cried. Now he was in a room with these strange men, who had rummaged through the contents of his suitcase and probed his whole body with gloved hands.
“Uhm, he’s the head of the presidential music commision, my uncle.”
“And what unit is that?” one of the other guys with a neck the size of a Roto tank asked, leaning on the word “unit” with sarcasm.
“It’s a unit that writes the songs that entertain the president during public holidays,” Solomon explained. One of them chuckled.
“Your uncle, who sent you with these things heads a unit that writes songs for your president during public holidays?” the leader repeated incredulously, like it was the most insane thing he had ever heard at the airport.
“Yes, President Moi,” he said hoping that there was a remote chance they might, surely, have heard of Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi. Talk of name dropping in the States. But he wasn’t impressed by the mention of Arap Moi. Solomon, on the other hand, was about to take the rap for what he had carried innocently for someone else. “And this cousin of yours, Eric, you say he is in university in Savannah, Georgia?” the agent asked.
“Yes,” he said.
There was a very short but intense moment of silence as the leader stared hard at him. His massive chest moving up and down slowly.
He then said sternly, “Son, you cannot bring sugarcane into the United States of America. And you certainly also can’t bring these,“ he jabbed at the drugs on the table, “Malariaquin and God knows what drugs without a prescription these are. There ain’t no malaria here. Your cousin and yourself are gon’ be just fine. Now, we are going to hang on to this paraphernalia. You are free to go. Now go on, welcome to America.”
Solomon tells me this story as we drive out of Nairobi at 5:18am. We are heading to Nanyuki. Thika Road is yet to be fully awake. A few matatus are honking at the stage, waiting for the early birds. It’s cold and dark but inside the car – a brand new showroom Land Rover Discovery 4- it is warm and cozy and it smells the way new cars smell, of deep leather and promise. I tell Solomon that I like his car. We talk about it for a bit in that annoying way we men talk about cars. The gentleman seated at the back – Richard Njau – says, “So what year is this thing?” and I have to turn back in my seat to tell him admonishingly, “Please don’t call it ‘this thing’, this is a Discovery 4, some respect won’t hurt you.” Solomon laughs.
I was to write a business story but business stories excite me as much as milking a camel does. Instead of sitting at a café with him telling me about how he started his business and how he has struggled with it, and the sleepless nights and the business books he’s read and all the cliché business spiel, I had asked him to let me shadow him on his typical day to get his persona because I believe people do business with your persona, and not your product. Turned out he had a trip to Nanyuki to show some clients some land. He has a company called Goshen Acquisitions. They sell land, mostly in Nanyuki.
The way he does business is unique. If you want to buy land he picks you up at 5am from Nairobi, drives you to Nanyuki, buys you breakfast at Barney’s – the quaint cafe at Nanyuki airport, he shows you land at Karionga, close to Ol Pejeta Conservancy, then later he buys you lunch at Le Rustique restaurant, maybe with a glass of wine or whatever, then he drives you back. I liked the wine and whatever part most.
Suffice it to say, his cousin never got his sugarcane or his dawas, he tells me as we pass that exit that takes you to Thika. The sky is lighting and the car moves soundlessly, like we are driving on a ball of clouds. It’s like it isn’t a physical car and we are seated in the spirit of the Land Rover.
Solomon joined Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) to study architecture. It’s one of the best art schools in the States. He loved drawing and the plan was to have a master’s degree in five years and start designing kick-ass structures, maybe win some awards, make money and a beautiful life in America.
But then Moi was bundled out and Kibaki took over. Unbeknownst to him, his father, like every civil servant over 50-years was then retrenched by the Kibaki government to pave way for the youth. His school fees started coming in very late, then it started coming in dribs and drabs. “We will send more,” his dad would promise, “please just talk to them to let you attend class.”
“It was a long, drawn out period of money struggles. Eventually I had to drop out of school. In many ways I wish it was like, ‘Okay, this is it, there is no more money left to send.’ That extended hope was not easy at all. In fact, scripture says ‘a hope delayed makes a heart sick.’
“That’s nice,” I say and then add, “not that it’s nice you dropped out of school…the scripture…it’s a nice one.” He chuckles. Solomon is born again. But he isn’t one of those that fill your head with verses and stories about Jesus. I love Jesus, but I don’t want to sit with someone and feel like it’s Sunday School or that I can’t accidentally say “shit.”
There is that expansive farm on the right after Thika, just before the dual-carriage ends. When the sun is just rising and the greenery there is lit up, it’s the most beautiful view you’ve ever seen. You want to park on the side and run between the plants and taste the dew on the leaves.
So he drops out of college and he’s crestfallen, of course. His plans were now on quicksand. He was, at that time, dating this girl, also from SCAD, called Aika. A very intelligent, very brown, very driven, very focused Tanzanian girl whom he says had the best (and very brown) legs he ever saw on a woman. She was a Chaga, from a good family and didn’t have any trouble with fees and so when he dropped out, that presented a new dynamic in the relationship. “That was tough because as a guy you’re concerned about how that impacts on your relationship. She’s financially stable but you’re having issues, is she gonna hang around?” On top of that there was the social stigma amongst his friends who couldn’t understand why his fees couldn’t be paid. “And mostly I was worried about my two sisters back home. Thank God they finished school and have done relatively better than I have.”
He moved out of the hostels to a 150-year old townhouse in the historic part of downtown Savannah, with one Kenyan and one Bohemian. The house was made of wood. The floorboards creaked and groaned when you walked on them. Downtown Savannah is known for its haunted houses. The part of the city was one of the main depots for slave trade. A lot of the ships from West Africa that brought slaves to the southern belt plantations, docked in Savannah and from there slaves were distributed and auctioned. It’s part of Savannah’s ugly history. A lot of the homes had underground tunnels connecting them to the river stream to ferry the slaves to their plantation when they arrived because they didn’t want them seen in the town. It is believed that the place is haunted by the spirits of the African slaves. They actually have haunted home tours for tourists.
Solomon’s house was part of three old townhouses in a public square where 500 year old oak trees and weeping willows grew over the windows. Spooky as hell at night. He got a job as a busboy at a famous Italian restaurant owned by an Italian called Pino. A bus boy is one rank above the lowest rank- the dishwasher. His night job was to clear the tables after guests and set up for the next guests. During the day he painted houses for his landlord, a wealthy American lady who had inherited a massive real estate empire from her father – over 60 townhouses. He spent the whole day painting these houses around town and in the evening he would break his back for Pino until midnight.
The wage was just enough for food and rent. It wasn’t an easy job. It paid little. He was on his feet all the time. By midnight he was bushed. Phone calls back home were always a mixed bag of angst and worry and sustained love. “You miss them, you know they love you and they can’t do much. I didn’t want them to worry or handle my baggage on top of theirs,” he says. “But there was always an underlying sense of disappointment on both ends of the phone, a sort of ashamed conversation. It almost felt hopeless.”
The voice of his mother on the phone from thousands of kilometers away always was both soothing and worried: Are you eating anything, my son? Have you lost weight? What kind of house do you live in? Why don’t you move to a cheaper state and try a cheaper university? Can you try and get a scholarship? Is it possible? “I’m okay, Mom,” he’d tell her. “I’m eating okay, I’m not thin. I live in an okay house with two other boys. I will be fine.”
But he wasn’t sure he would be fine. After his shift, he would lie in bed, bone tired, not able to sleep immediately. He’d think about how screwed up things were, and what kind of future he would have in America when he didn’t have an education. He felt the American dream drift further off into the unreachable mist.
“Where was Aika all this time? The girl with the lovely legs?” I ask him.
“She lived a few houses from mine. She was holding down two jobs; working at an Indian friend’s restaurant – waiting tables there at night and working during the day as a graphic designer. She was patient with me and supportive of my state but you know as a guy you just have that feeling of inadequacy even though the person you are dating doesn’t seem to mind your status.”
As if by coincidence we are now just going over those annoying small multiple bumps at Sagana town. I don’t know if it’s just me, but whenever I pass Sagana I think of Afro, the lady from Sagana who Les Wanyika sang breathlessly about and I wonder what became of her after that song made her the poster child of Sagana’s beauty. Did she grow a big head and walk around the village like a peacock, not talking to other village girls now that she was in a famous song and the apple of the eye of Les Wanyika? Did she tell everybody at Sagana, “You can’t talk to me like that! Me? Afro? Heee! Nobody would have known about this little sleepy town had it not been for me, mtoto wa Sagana. I made you guys and I can destroy you guys!” Did she ignore all the suitors in the village who could carry a jembe and not a tune? Or did she finally marry the songwriter Les Wanyika because that guy seemed hella sprung on her, saying things like, “Afro kaa ukumbuke/ penzi hugeuka/ leo kwangu, kesho kwako/ utanikumbuka/ uliniweka pembeni, mama/ ? He also sounded like a sore jilted lover. Where is Afro? We need to know how that love story ended. Afro, we have sung your song for many years, surely, you owe us closure.
Because fate is cruel, Aika got a job in an architectural firm two states up in North Carolina. “I helped her move and I never went back to my house,” Solomon says with a chuckle. To mean he moved in uninvited. Now jobless, he would spend the day vacuuming her house, cleaning up, doing dishes and all those things that house husbands who are in-between jobs do. He isn’t proud of this cohabiting period. He then, by chance, stumbled on the property market boom. “I figured since I had dropped out of architecture college I could buy houses, refurbish them and sell them at a profit, the guys who did that are called Bird Dogs. I did that for three years until Aika kicked me out of her house.”
“ Oh, she did?” I say with more glee than I intended.
“I think at the time we found ourselves taking a very spiritual slant to our outlook of life. Staying together was not kosher,” he says. “That I was not bringing home the bacon played a part. I was the man yet I wasn’t being the man, you know what I mean? My theological position is that God didn’t design women to provide for men, not when they are not married at least. This doesn’t mean they can’t have the resources or don’t have it, it’s just that you lose respect if your woman provides for you for long stretches of time. Aika was also frustrated because there was no future for marriage and she wasn’t the type that gets into such a relationship for the kicks of it.”
At Kiganjo, right after that market, we pass a massive cow that stops chewing to raise it’s head and stare at us drive by. It’s probably thinking, “That Discovery smells of leather!”
“I honestly believe that when a woman provides for you it puts an unnatural burden on them,” Solomon continues. “I feel like I lost her respect on some level. As much as she’d been so supportive ever since I dropped out of school and stuck by me, I think in the end that kind of took a toll on our relationship and created the perfect storm that ended up in her asking me to leave. She gave me two weeks’ notice to move off her couch and out of her house.”
I turn to look at him, “Why were you sleeping on her couch and not her bed?”
Njau laughs at the back and says, “Trust you to only pick that couch part.”
“We were celibate,” Solomon says.
“You stayed in her house for three years and nothing happened?” I ask like the sinner I am. Solomon laughs and says he did. I turn to look at Njau (also born again) to see if I’m the only one who finds this crazy. Njau just grins. Turns out I’m the only black sheep in the car.
“Wow,” I say still struggling with that concept. “But how did you survive three years? You are a strong guy!”
He laughs. “Yeah. Well, looking back, I think it was God’s grace. It was nothing to do with me.”
“Did the eviction hurt your feelings?”
“It jolted me, of course, but I sort of agreed with the decision. She felt that my presence in her life was taking her nowhere given that she was ready to settle down and I wasn’t. Besides that, even though we were celibate, the impression to others out there was different because they didn’t know otherwise and she was concerned about what that meant for our witness, I guess. I agreed with her, it was just tough, not knowing where I would go or what I would do.”
He packed his ka-small ka-bag, kissed Aika goodbye, on the cheek, like a good Christian boy, and headed to Washington DC, where together with his cousin they did some of that bird dog thing until the property market came crashing over their heads nine months later in 2007. He packed his ka-small ka- bag again and went down south to Houston to join a relative where he got a small job selling coupons door to door. But before he moved to Houston he nipped to North Carolina and proposed to Aika. He was surprised when she said yes.
I’m also surprised. I bet Njau in the backseat is also secretly surprised. You must be a little surprised as well, no?
We are in Nanyuki now. At Barney’s restaurant. It’s sunny and bright and nippy. Small planes sit on the tarmac, looking like dolphins. The sky is blue and gorgeous, birds circling overhead. We take a big table in the well tended garden, next to the fence by the runway. We peruse their menus. I order their omelette, which was the best I ever had some years back, but that will disappoint me today. A small plane lands. Another takes off. We bask and talk. An elderly mzungu couple take the next table. The man has a safari hat. The woman has the husband’s heart. It’s a perfect morning and a great moment to be alive.
“Everything that is serving me now in selling land I learnt knocking on doors in Texas selling those coupons,” Solomon says. “It was a commissions-only sales job, no retainer, no safety net, you ate what you killed, and that was tough. It built the muscle, the emotional muscle of handling rejection, managing your time, being productive. At the end of the day you had to produce, there were no excuses. And I hated sales, I hated salespeople, I thought they were scam artists from hell, and so here I was asking people to buy my coupons.” He sips his tea. A bee settles on my honey. Rather, its honey.
“It was the only job that was available for me to take on because I was an illegal immigrant. And so I took it on with an open mind and did it in the hot Texas heat. Summers were rough – you wore a tie and you knocked on dozens of doors. I learned a lot about human beings in general. Human psychology whittled down to this philosophical outlook, that everything in existence in the world today only exists to allow human beings to interact. That’s it. Business exists because human beings need something. If the human being did not need anything, you would have no business. The business is about solving a problem for another human being. So that’s how most people look at it on a base level. But when you dig deeper, it’s a bit stronger, it’s a bit more profound. Yes, I need chicken and chips for lunch. That doesn’t mean I will go to KFC or McFrys, or whoever. I’ll go to someone yes, but why do I go to that someone and not the others? That’s the reason why everything exists – to provide a medium of interaction between two human beings. And all they want, all people expect of each other, is for it to be authentic and sincere. The moment you violate those two sensibilities, they go elsewhere. Or don’t even buy the thing.”
I chew my omelette while listening to him. His head is shaven bald and the sun shines from it.
“I learned to smile. You won’t believe the power of a smile in sales. I learned that if I was going to knock on a white man’s door in Texas, me a black man with a weird accent, I had to step back, step away from his porch because you never know who opens that door and what mood he is in. You smile at him and say what you want. I discovered, rather surprisingly that I was very good at sales. I learned about rejection, handling rejection for me now is a non-issue. Rejection is actually a positive. That you have an opportunity to be rejected in the first place is a blessing. There are people who don’t even get that opportunity. I was an an antisocial introvert before, but that sales job really brought things out of me that I didn’t know were in me, like the ability to make connections with other human beings in an authentic way and also being able to read whether or not they were being authentic.”
I excuse myself to go the loo. It’s cold in the loo. I pee and wash my hands and wander away to the edge of the yard where a children’s playground area sits. There, I stare at Mt. Kenya. She’s in a good mood today. Out in a dress and all. Such an elegant mountain and she knows it. She revels in being stared at, bathes in it. After breakfast we pile into the car. Solomon continues with the story.
One day Aika calls Solomon and says her renewal of work documents have delayed and that might revoke her status in the States, something she isn’t keen to do so she is going back home. He’s stupefied. He knew what that meant; they would break up for sure. She would come back to Nairobi and she would meet a man who likes a beautiful mind and great legs and soon Solomon would just be that guy she saw in the states who sells coupons.
“I knew someone would ponyoka with her.” he says. Ponyoka, my God, who still says that? It’s like saying kobole. “Her entire 11 years in the States, she maintained a perfect immigration status. Not a single violation. Which is highly unusual because 85 percent of foreign students never graduate in the US. Those were the statistics, at least when I left. Not just Kenyan, but international students in general. When she left, I was left there grappling with decisions.”
He was a college dropout with no papers, an illegal person with no prospect of ever getting a decent job. What would he come back home to do? Where would he start after ten years in the States? Should he chase love in Kenya or a life in the States?
“It was the fear of an uncertain future. What am I gonna do to make ends meet, to make money if I come back? And if I’m going to marry this woman, how am I going to take care of a family? It had been 10 years, a lot had changed. All my friends were in the states. All my sensibilities and philosophies about life had been sculpted through my growing up in the States when I arrived 19 years old, now I was clocking 30, was I going to start learning afresh? That was daunting. But I had to rationalise coming back. I hadn’t secured this American dream because of my illegal immigration status. I was also unwilling to do things that others were doing to attain the dream. I have friends who paid women to marry them for paperwork, and they had nice jobs in engineering firms and were making 80,000 dollars a year, sending money home, they had their first mortgage. They had all the things that you kind of check off a list as you go along the stages in life. But I was never comfortable taking those shortcuts. And so for me having failed to secure an education or any decent career, the American dream felt like pipe dream. Eventually, I figured that if I was serious about closing this deal with Aika, I had to go back home.”
So he packed his ka-small ka-bag again.
In December 2009 he sold his meagre household stuff, a culmination of ten years in America and got on a flight to NBO, Kenya as a college dropout. It was the middle of winter in Houston but Nairobi waited with sunshine. “Once I made the decision, I had a profound sense of peace that I was going home where I didn’t have to justify my presence which is all you do as a foreigner or immigrant. Especially as an illegal one. So I felt that pressure leave me. I hadn’t seen my mom, my dad, my sisters for 10 years, I had a niece who was 5 years. So overall, I was more excited than I was afraid.”
Over Lake Turkana he woke up to the pilot announcing that they would start descending shortly and would be touching down in Nairobi in 30 mins. He adjusted his seat and looked out at the lake through the window. The sky was blue, a brilliant December morning. “The blue sky and the sun was a metaphor for brighter days, a brighter future and hope as I was coming back home. There was this calming and distinct feeling that I was coming to a land where I belonged, I was not an outsider anymore. This was my soil, my people. I belonged.”
“Would you go back to the states if you were to do it all over again?” I interrupt him. He doesn’t hesitate to say, yes, he would. “But I would do things differently. It’s an amazing country. It truly is the land of opportunity if in no other way except in the promise and hope that comes with being in the country. That is intensely intoxifying. I mean the sense that anyone from anywhere can make it if you just work hard and do the right thing. That’s something I have not felt anywhere else but in the States. That sense of hope and freedom and opportunities.”
We are picking up his clients – two sisters who live and work in the UK – who are interested in buying land and want to see it because this is Nairobi, you can be sold smoke. (Over 90% of his clientele are from the diaspora). I gather that one of them, Mary, I think, is a lawyer, or both are. They speak so well, these two sisters. There are people you want to let speak and speak without interruption because they sound good.
As we drive to the hinterland of Nayuki (not exactly hinterland, but I want to use this word here because it’s Sunday as I write this and I feel like it) we stop the interview as he briefs them on the pieces of land. They ask a ton of questions. In the distance, hills in the horizon run alongside the moving car. We get deep into the landscape. Solomon sales shtick is sleek. He doesn’t seem overly eager. He doesn’t seem to oversell. He listens. He speaks clearly. He’s knowledgeable about land but when he doesn’t know he says he will confirm. Oh, and he’s the chair of Elementainta Resident Owners Association.
Buying land is tricky because you never know who is having you on. I personally will balk from buying land if the guy selling has a checked coat. Especially green checked coats. Worse if it has an elbow patch. I always just switch off when men in checked coats trying to sell me shit. I always feel like it’s God warning me. Run, Biko, Run!
Solomon doesn’t have a checked coat but I want to ask the girls what they think of him but it would seem intrusive. So I just listen. At the destination – big open sky, vast flatland marked with shrubs – I get out of the car and wander away as Solomon walks them to their parcel. Njau later points at plots Solomon has sold to people who write their status on Facebook as “public personalities.” An hour later, in the car, Solomon and the girls chat about the land. I nod off to sleep.
Lunch is at Le Rustique, in their courtyard. Lovely place, great food. I order slow cooked lamb. That lamb died for a good cause. There, over lunch, Solomon tells me about adjusting back home once he got back after 10-years in America. He was living at his parents house in Rubia, Langata. He noted how his parents had aged. Old friends were scattered like pollen. He spent a lot of time near his mom. Conversations of the fate of his future were skirted. He was home now and that’s all that mattered. He did some small jobs here and there – he tried buying bodaboda to put on the road in shags, together with a friend they tried setting up a laundromat in the densely populated areas of Nairobi, he touched this and that and nothing really stuck. He was trying to stay afloat in the new Nairobi that was different from the Nairobi he had left ten years back.
Then he ponyokad with Aika. I was so surprised. He told me, “Women don’t marry the current you, they marry the future you.” Even as he lay on her couch, his size 11 feet extended over the edge, she saw the diamond in him. So he made a decent woman of her. Put a ring on it in 2010. No more manenos of sleeping on the couch for years. Life started taking shape. Then he met a woman who changed the course of his life and set the ball in motion for the setup of Goshen Acquisitions.
Enter, Rose Muiu, real estate investor. He attended a talk at his church- Mavuno – where she gave a talk on land and on land and investment and he was blown away.He took her contacts later and looked for her a few weeks later with the intention of sitting at her feet to learn as her mentee. Then he started buying land, small parcels, from money borrowed from friends and family. He bought and sold land at Konza City for a start, made some little chums and thought, ala, I can do this. Because it was about sales and it was about people and it was about authenticity and trust.
He then started Goshen Acquisitions and after a while it took off like a bat outta hell, because of God, luck, hard work, opportunity, mentorship, strategy and all the things that could have made this a business story. He doesn’t call it a success, he calls it a “happy accident.” He says,” It all boils down to trust and people.”
Oh, and Aika gives him three wonderful children who hopefully don’t have their father’s legs. I looked up the meaning of the name Aika. It’s a Finnish and a Japanese name. In Finnish it means “time.” In Japanese it means “affection, love” In short, to me it seems to mean love and affection takes time.
I like this story because it ends well. Afro from Sagana might have refused to go to Tanzania to marry Les Wanyika but Solomon did and married one of their own. Love won.
Ps. My hardcopy book – Drunk – is out. To buy it please email firstname.lastname@example.org and admin will tell you how we can deliver it to you. Please indicate if you want me to autograph it. But forgive me in advance, my handwriting is shit. I write worse than an anaesthetist.