The first time George Kevin Jeki Jnr got married it was in a small church, in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. It was one of those small chapels they have in hospitals, like the one at Mater Hospital. Only, this one was on the fourth floor and windowless, so the light of high noon could not even bear witness to this peculiar union. It was a minimalist chapel; wooden pulpit, a handful of structural wooden seats, not more than six, and a heavy, wooden door. There was no picture of Jesus, or angels or a hand from heaven. There was no piano. He was marrying his girlfriend of one year, an African American girl named Tamika. There was nobody else in that room, except for Tamika’s sister and their pastor who, incidentally had come to visit her daughter who had just given birth at that hospital but then decided to join the couple in holy matrimony. She was called Pastor Pedie. Their church – a black non-denominational church – was a congregation of 20 people.
Twenty black folk that hollered and clapped and cupped their hands towards God every Sunday in a small church somewhere in Arizona.
This was 7th July 2007. Kevin had been in the States for seven years, had dropped out of college due to lack of fees and moved states to look for a better job that would accept him with his status as an illegal alien.
They didn’t say any vows back in that small chapel the size of a fridge magnet. Nobody looked lovingly into the other’s eyes, even though Kevin says they were in love. Nobody sang. There was no old auntie from shags ululating. No uncle with his one crumpled suit from World War 2. Nobody shed tears of joy. There were no proud flower girls with their cinderella frocks. No Best Man carrying the ring in one pocket – and all of the groom’s skeletons in the other. Kevin’s mother was already dead back in Kenya, buried before he came to the States to study Artificial Intelligence. He wasn’t really in communication with his father. He had a step-mom in the States whom he was living with at the time, but she wasn’t in that chapel because she was working like everybody always seems to be in America. He had a sister, but he doesn’t recall when they last spoke. So just him, Tamika and pastor Pedie.
“Marrying Tamika was going to solve two problems,” Kevin Jeki Jnr says, “ we were devoted christians and the marriage would ensure that we wouldn’t live in sin anymore. That and the problem of my papers and my status in the US.”
He remembers her sliding the wedding band on his incorrect finger (the wedding finger on his right hand) and the pastor pronouncing them man and wife and it was over. No paperwork. No after-party where relatives got drunk and danced in a circle. No speeches from parents talking about how just amazing their child is and how much lucky you are to be married to them. None of that cliche. The only ceremony was Kevin kissing Tamika on the lips and that was that. Then they moved into her apartment, another mistake. Why? Because Kevin didn’t have a job and Tamika had a job and soon she felt like Kevin was like all the black American brothers she had grown up around who do nothing the whole day but wait for manna from heaven. He couldn’t secure any employment because of his status and his Green Card application wasn’t going through. He was in limbo. An African house husband to an African American working woman.
The fights started.
I once interviewed this gentleman called Solomon Wangwe of Goshen Acquisition, an ex-diasporan who sells land, and he said that he believed that women were “not designed to financially support a man, especially when they are not married,” because it put an “unnatural burden on them.” (Read his story HERE) Of course any sane person would agree with him. Kevin didn’t know this at that time and soon the bickering started, the dissatisfaction, the little tensions in the house where she comes home sulky and snappy and irritated by his breathing or him flushing the loo. There were many nights the newly weds slept with their backs to each other, the honeymoon long fractured. Then the full blown fights started. And Tamika was the full hurricane. The “beautiful, 5’7” girl with brown curly hair and gorgeous brown eyes” started shouting and throwing things at him and finally it got physical, with her punching him. It didn’t help that they were expecting a baby.
“She started saying that she wished the child could die!” He says. “Then she started talking of abortion and I was shocked and completely against it because of my faith. But then the fights got worse, I wasn’t beating her, but she was very physical towards me, and finally we decided to separate because she was struggling with the rent and I was jobless, so I moved back in with my step-mom, to a house that we were both paying mortgage for, and Tamika moved in with her sister. A month later she told me she had lost the baby. It was a boy called Joshua.”
Tamika then asked for a divorce and he refused because the Bible didn’t believe in divorce. Unless there were grounds, like unfaithfulness on either part. So Tamika started seeing someone and told him as much. Problem solved. One day she knocked on his door with divorce papers and a small bump on her stomach, evidence of her unfaithfulness if he ever needed evidence for divorce. So he signed the papers. Then he started nursing suicidal thoughts. “What was there to live for? I had no papers, and I couldn’t get them because I didn’t have an education which I couldn’t get because I didn’t have money, money which I couldn’t get because I couldn’t get a proper job.” He says. He spent days in a dark cloud, thinking about his hopeless life, thinking about ways that he would kill himself and how nobody would care. Most likely he would be buried in a public cemetery, with strangers with odd names like Byrne Quaid, his funeral attended only by his step-mother and pastor Pedie and the gravedigger in overalls standing restlessly to the side with his shovel, because he has a date after with a girl with almond eyes and lips like grapes. A girl called Plume.
Of course he didn’t kill himself because he’s seated right before me, in my office, ignoring his black tea served in our special yellow crockery.
Please allow me to tell you about this yellow crockery. We have a set of them in the office. They are not fine bone China, but they could pass for that. They are yellow with golden inscriptions. They look very expensive but they are not. They are very delicate. If you sneeze too hard they break. Kevin had come the office bearing fruit salad. “I come bearing gifts for you,” He said in a booming voice and a trace of an American accent. He has a great voice. A voice so good that when he had earlier sent me a voice message on Whatsapp (he’s one of those odd people who use Whatsapp for voice messages) I had written back to him and said, “You sound like a villain in Shaft.” I shared the fruit salad with the lovely Ms Leting, our Office Everything. (The office Olivia Pope, she takes care of everything and everyone). I told Kevin, “We have had very beautiful visitors in this office but very few of them have had the pleasure of being served tea in this cutlery. Right, Jen?” Jen, who had walked him in nodded. “But you, my friend, will be served tea in this cup, tea which I will prepare personally.”
The second time George Kevin Jeki Jnr got married was in Aurora Colorado, a small city of less than 400,000 people. He had to run away from Phoenix, from the failure of his marriage, the everlasting feeling of hopelessness and the swirling devils of suicide. He had secured a job at American Traffic Solution at this time, which he had quit to move to Aurora. He had been very lucky to get a job in customer service at a cable company. Things had looked positive. He had even gone back to a college which was sponsoring his education on a football scholarship. It’s at that college that he met Christina, a “very intelligent” caucasian girl. At this point he was really trying to get the Green Card because that would change his tide. He had told Christina that he was not interested in marrying her for status. “I was so conflicted with marrying again and a friend of mine had told me how God would speak to her through the pages of the newspaper and so I tried it out one day but with the Bible. I decided that I would open a page in the Bible randomly and see if God had sent me a message in there. So one day I opened my Bible and boom, guess what?”
“It was the Song of Solomon.” I say.
He laughs. “No. It wasn’t, and I’m not lying to you, Biko, because this is creepy as hell. The first verse I read was, ‘you are not to marry or have sons or daughters in this place.’ Jeremiah 16:2. I almost jumped out of my clothes. This is was the most specific answer I had gotten from God all my life. Of course I share this with Christina and she is saddened by it. I struggle with this revelation for a while, making excuses, thinking that perhaps it was a mistake.”
He married, not in another windowless church again but at the AGs. Which had windows. This time round he had her aunt as a witness. He’s now 29 years old, divorced and married again. They move into these cheap apartments on the college grounds, 8,000 bob a pop for rent. Jeremiah 16:2 doesn’t leave him. He thinks about it. He wonders if it’s a sign. He puts it at the back of his mind. They decide to apply for the Green Card and they get an appointment which sees them travel to Topeka, in Kansas for the interview. They sit before an official, holding hands like the newly weds they are. The interview doesn’t go well, because it comes out that he lied about his status in many job application forms, and he agreed to being in the country illegally. An immigration felony. The official says, ‘look I appreciate that you have been very forthcoming with the questions I have asked here pertaining your legality in this country, but I’m afraid I have to report this.”
What does he do? He doesn’t wait around for a court case. One day he packs up his stuff when Christina is away at work and he flees to Arizona back to his step mom. “I told her I had to leave. I wasn’t going to wait around for the law to catch up with me and get deported, so I tell her it’s better if we divorce and she’s having none of that. She says if I’m deported she is coming back to Kenya with me.”
One day, August 3rd, 2012, his step-mom has just come back from work and made dinner – ugali, veggies and stewed meat – and as they are settling down to eat before the television, there is a knock on the door. He gets off his chair mumbling, “oh what the hell!” and when he opens the door two burly men are standing there. Cops. One is black and the other is white. They look like they have been working out all their lives. They all have their hands resting on their gun holsters, like in the movies. The black guys speaks first.
We are looking for Kevin Jeki, are you Kevin Jeki?
Yeah, yeah. That’s me.
I’m officer Stan and this is my partner officer Hendrick, we are from the immigration department and we know your papers have expired. We are here to detain you.
His step-mom shouts from the sofa, “Who is at the door?”
“It’s surreal. You dream of today, this moment, you think of scenarios of how it will happen and finally when it happens, finally when the law is at your door, it feels like it’s not even happening to you!” Kevin says. He’s thrown off. He asks them what he needs to do. The white cop tells him that if he feels like there is anything he needs to take with him he should do that real quick. His step mom is panicking. She’s asking the officer what she can do; is there anyone she can call? They tell her, “sorry, ma’am, this is just an order we are enforcing, we have to take him with us.” Kevin says he would like to pack a small bag, the black officer says Fine, but I have to come up with you. So they go upstairs to his room and he looks around and thinks, “what am I really packing for? What can I possibly take with me if I’m going to be deported?”
“I grab my passport and go downstairs and one of the cops say, sorry but we have to handcuff you.”
He extends his wrists and they snap the cold handcuffs on him. His step mom is crying and asking the cops if I’m going to be okay as he’s led out of the door and inside a van where a Mexican who can’t speak English, another illegal, is waiting somberly in his handcuffs. The van smells of human odour and spices and old rubber. The hide and seek is over.
They are taken to an undisclosed center where they are asked to remove their shoelaces, belts and are deposited in a room with two wooden benches against the wall. The room – full of Mexicans – is as cold as guillotine’s heart. So cold that you can’t sleep. He curls on the floor, trying to keep warm the whole night but his mind is a awake as a baby with colic. He’s worried. He’s scared.He’s lonely. He’s cold. He’s confused. He’s in shit. The next day they are processed and given colour coded jumpsuits; brown for those who had had prior felony cases, orange for ex-convicts or people with criminal records in their files and green for those who have no criminal cases. He gets the green uniform and assigned the last cell in the corner which he shares with a 17-year old Mexican boy who cries the whole night.
Then he waits.
The cell is the size of a cubicle. No window. Just a bunk bed and a toilet. The boy took the upper bunker. There is nothing in that room but the souls of those whom America didn’t want, now long departed. You spend the whole day in a public area, where you mill around with other inmates. There you are observed by the watchful eyes of guards and by CCTV cameras. Nobody is allowed in their cubicles during the day because people commit suicide when left alone with the terror of having to go back to where they came from.
Kevin waits in this facility for 35 agonising days.
“The fear kept changing, coming and going like a wave. But mostly I was resigned to the fact that now I couldn’t control my fate. Funnily, I was relieved somewhat, relieved that I wouldn’t have to keep looking over my shoulder, running away from the law. But also sitting there the whole day filled me with trepidation and worry. I didn’t have an education, I didn’t have any meaningful relationships in Kenya. I wasn’t close to my father, I hardly spoke to him. I had lost touch with all the friends I had made in Kenya. I had been 12-years in the States. Where was I going to start? How was I going to start with nothing?”
One day his name was called. He’s led into a room with a desk and two chairs. The officer behind the desk says, “Kevin, you are being deported back home.” He is asked to bring down his beddings. His papers are processed as he waits in another room alone. He is handcuffed on the wrists and on his feet, like those psychotic characters in movies who bite off people’s throats and laugh maniacally. They hop and hobble to the bus, about 200 of them – their chains dragging on the floor and once in the bus they are transported to another undisclosed airport under armed escort. He is in his green uniform and handcuffed as the plane leaves Arizona and lands in California an hour later. In California there is more processing. More waiting in rooms with white rooms with CCTV. He meets a Canadian guy who is also being deported. The irony.
At noon, he’s processed. He’s given his old clothes back, his only possession. He is driven to the airport where a big-ass commercial plane waits. At the airport the officer him tells him, “Listen, Kevin, I don’t want to humiliate you by taking you into that plane in these handcuffs, so I’m gonna remove them here and let you get into the plane with some dignity. But you have to promise that you are going to behave yourself. Do you understand, Kevin?” He nods.
“Did the thought of making a run for it cross your mind?” I ask him. A mad black chap making a run for for it across the runway, tens of officers chasing after him, and him putting a good distance between them, people in the plane rubbernecking to investigate the commotion outside and one passenger sighing, “Kenyans!” and the other asking, “but how can you tell?” and him saying, “only Kenyans run that fast, dude.”
“Ha-ha. It didn’t cross my mind but I was done, man.” He says. “When the officer walks me to the plane, the fear really starts building. I’m in the clothes I had left the house in the day they came for me; grey t-shirt, a Nike Jacket and black pants that came with the Nike jacket. I also have sneakers that Christina had bought for me. That and two books I had left with from the detention center, in a transparent zip bag. This is all I was leaving America with after 12-years. I dont have not a single cent in my pocket. I don’t even have a watch. I can’t describe to you the feeling of loss and emptiness.”
He’s handed over to an air hostess, most likely a flight purser, who signs his deportation papers. She is instructed to keep an eye on me and to hand me over to the next person on the other end. He is then sat at the very back of the plane. He sits there silently, looking out through the window as the plane taxies off the runway, America running faster alongside it, then he feels the plane lurch and leave the soil of milk and honey, a place he had called home for 12-years, a place of hide and seek and of dreams that died before they became clear. He hears the wheels of the plane get tucked into the belly of this beast and below, the United States of America gets smaller and smaller and smaller until it’s just clouds, and he leans his head against the window in desperation and closes his eyes and he’s terrified and so damned sad.
They touch down in Bangkok, Thailand, some 15-hours later, into dawn mist. There he’s to be handed over to someone who will see his transit to Nairobi. “I knew it was going to be Kenya Airways and the problem was my sister, Sylvia, worked for Kenya Airways. We weren’t very close and I hadn’t spoken to her in awhile. I was hoping that the person who was to receive me wasn’t going to be her. Imagine how that would have been!” he says.
He waits for a few hours in another waiting room. He holds his two books whose authors and titles he can’t recall now. His thoughts are filled with the terror of coming back to a place he used to call home. A place where he knows nobody, a place he turned his back on and now that America has turned her back on him he has to come back to his motherland, as a nobody, a foreigner, hat in hand. Kenya Airways waits on the tarmac. Inside, he is sat at the very back again. In front of him are two Nigerians bickering about drinks and making fun of the flight attendant when she says “mabibi na mabwana.” The big bird, the pride of Africa, lifts off, feet off Thailand and soon the seatbelt sign is off. Next stop JKIA.
He sits there unable to eat or sleep. His mouth is dry. Fear runs in his veins.
“I remember finding this song by Drake and Milano on the inflight entertainment unit and listening to it over and over again because the chorus “ I will be there for you” gave me comfort.” he says. It was the longest flight. Just him and his books on his laps. Eight hours later, he looks through the window and sees a glitter of lights in the far distance. It’s dawn. People are rousing from their sleep in the plane. Blankets are being folded. He trembles a little, because of the prospect of home where nothing awaits him. Nobody knows he’s coming. He doesn’t know his father’s telephone number. Hell he doesn’t have a phone. He is starting from nothing.
It’s September 15,th 2012.
There is screeching as the wheels touch motherland.
He is handed to immigration officers who are amazed that he has nobody to call. He borrows one of the officer’s phone and goes on this website of the telephone company which used to keep numbers he used to use to call home. There he gets his sister’s number, which he calls twice, no answer. He finds another number for a lady who was in the states but had come back to Kenya in 2011 and calls it. She’s called Betty Kang’ethe. She’s just from dropping her husband off to work when her phone rings with an unknown number. “Betty, it’s Kevin. Remember me, from the States. No, I’m here at JKIA. I have been deported.”
Betty turns the car around and goes to pick him up.
Coming back to nothing with nothing means you have to start from nothing. From the bottom of the pyramid. Everything has changed. The language of the country has changed. The tempo has changed. Streets have new names. There are roads where there was nothing 12-years before. People have changed. Your peers have jobs, some have careers. They have children and wives and they are settled into their lives. There is shame coming back with nothing. You go to shags. You come back. Your life is feels like you are standing on a canoe. “You realise quickly that it’s about who you know, that you are your network.” he says. So you start building your life. Slowly. Painfully. It’s like laying bricks: you fetch one brick and you lay it. You search for another and you place it on top of this one and another, and another. Then you stand back to look at it and you realise that you laid the brick all wrong because here Kenyans lay their bricks differently. So you undo it and you lay your brick the way Kenyans do. You start to think of yourself as Kenyan which you realise is more than just where you were born or your name, it’s how you think, how you operate, how you see things. You learn to say, “Me I.”
In the process you rediscover and exploit your talents. Music.
You start building relationship with your father. Some of your relatives come to your aid. “ My uncle is Gido Kibukosya. I called his ex-wife, Susan, and she took me into her studio as a manager. I learnt. Then I moved to other things. Odd jobs here and there, mostly in customer service, Kencell, Smart Gyms, a jingle gig for OLX, taking this and taking that, buoyancy that’s what it’s about. You ask me if going to the states was a waste of time, not entirely, because there I learnt to be independent, to survive on my way, and it’s helping now. I won’t moan that I’m suffering, the States teaches you resilience.” He then adds.
“There is this fear back in the States that things are so hard back at home. That if you come back you will suffer. And there are many people back there who can’t even imagine coming back because of this perception. But being here and starting over isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It’s tough, yes, but it’s not the hell I imagined it would be.” He says.
He lives out in Ngong, in a house that belongs to his aunt. There are trees and birds. Birds are his friends. He wakes up and makes calls. He looks for voice over gigs. He looks for anything related to music. Sometimes someone calls back. Mostly the phone doesn’t ring. “I don’t look at yesterday and lament that I didn’t get a gig,” he says. “I look at today and hope that it brings with it something. It’s one day at a time. The hardest part is starting but once you start you are one step ahead, a tiny step but a step.”
Ps: Are you running a book club of more than five people? I’d like to have a chat with you. Kindly email me on [email protected]
A lady emailed after buying my book this morning. She wrote, “it’s my birthday today, I turn 28 and I’m treating myself to your book.” Somehow I found that quite sad. Happy 28th birthday one Charity Njogu of BC Patel. If you guys work with Charity, buy her a cake, guys.