Boniface Mwangi swings off the road and parks outside a bland commercial building, one of the many that dot the roadside. A woman peers from the grill opening of one of the kiosks. The name of the kiosk is “Fruits”. It used to be Bonnie’s shop, but then he sold it, or gave it away to a relative; I don’t remember the details now. I remember that the woman is called Jane and she’s either bored or we are boring her. Bonnie leans out of his car window and says cheerfully, “Sasa Jane” and makes small talk. We are in the heart of Mathare slums. I have never been to Mathare. I have never been to Korogocho or Mukuru Kwa Njenga, and I have only seen the scalp of Kibera from the southern bypass. I have been to Dandora and Kawangware. Dandora was jarring. Kawangware didn’t leave any impression on me. But there is something about Mathare that makes me hesitant to roll down my window. It seems reluctant to accept me or even recognise me. So I sit in the warm car, it’s a cold mid-morning.
“Right now, two sets of phone calls are being made,” Bonnie says. “One is to the police by the informers. And the informers could be that fellow over there roasting maize or those boys chilling by that shop or it could be Njeri. The other set of calls being made are to the local gang leader of this area, by informers. And his informers could be that fellow over there roasting maize or those boys chilling by that shop or it could be Njeri.”
“Either way our presence here has been noted by the police and the gangs,” he says nonchalantly. He might as well be reporting the weather.
“Is that a good or bad thing?” I ask. I don’t know whose guest I would feel safer being; of the cops or the thugs.
“It’s just how things operate around here.”
A dark, slim boy, just out of his teenage years, in my estimation, runs across the road. He has a cluster of dreadlocks at the top of his head. The rest of his hair is cut off. He’s the kind of boy who you see in traffic and instinctively check if your doors are locked. He has a hard look. He’s in skinny jeans and sneakers. He’s the kind of guy you would see in a Busy Signal video. “Our guy is here,” Bonnie announces, reaching for his door handle. I ask him if I should leave my wallet and phone behind and he resists rolling his eyes, telling me that nobody can dare touch us here. We have access.
The boy greets Bonnie, and they catch up. They are speaking sheng. I get most of what they are saying but certain words fly over my head and I only glean their meaning in the context of the sentence. Of course you know that there are different types of sheng. There is the sheng that guys who live in houses with doorbells speak and then there is sheng from these parts. It’s a dialect with an edge. It’s slightly slurred and slowed down, which means that even when it’s spoken regularly it feels threatening, like it might implode into something vicious if provoked. It’s the language of identity but also of navigation and if you don’t have it, you can’t navigate through the slums or be heard. When you are not heard in the slums you are not recognised……and the slum is the one place you want to be recognised.
The boy is called Leon, a beautiful name for a boy born in this jungle of iron sheets. We all cross the road. Before us the Mathare slum writhes and pulses.
I’m in Mathare to interview a man with 11 children. Bonnie is the guy who knows that man. Plus he knows the terrain, so he’s holding my hand. Possibly, the plan is to ask him why he has that many children and if he, at some point in making these children, thought he should perhaps have stopped at the fifth one or six one or eighth one given that he didn’t have the means to provide for them adequately. I will ask him about family planning. I will perhaps ask him if he sometimes confuses these kids identities, or mixes up their birthdays. I mean, I have two of my own and sometimes when filling their birthdays and year of birth on forms I have to stop and think; was the first one born in 2008 or was it 2009? And you know you can’t make a call to confirm such details, so you just have to use your fingers and count backwards. Now I imagine 11 of them, I’m certain I wouldn’t even remember all their faces, let alone their birthdays.
To get to this man we have to get swallowed by the slum and crawl into its large intestines. Mathare slum, if you haven’t been, is a rambling dwelling of iron-sheets. Iron sheets that converge together. Iron-sheets that separate. Brown iron sheets. Old iron sheets. Children are born under these iron sheets, grow up under these iron sheets, seduce girls under these iron sheets, make love under these iron sheets and get babies under these iron sheets. Three of four generations have risen from under these iron-sheets.
And so you feel walled in by iron-sheets. Framed by it. We duck through narrow alleys, step over sewage water, duck under tin roofs nudging onto the pathway, pass outside doorways inside which there is only darkness. We hear the sounds of radios coming through tin-walls and sounds of TV and of children crying and men talking loudly and women laughing and someone frying something. We pass drunks and men who are going to get drunk. We get off narrow pathways and walk down wider paths of a thriving kadogo economy; women selling cooking oil and frying chips, men roasting mutura or “African sausages” on jikos, we pass miserable looking dogs and dirty ducks. Goats stare. Slum goats that probably know more about the art of survival than you and I put together. Goats that understand sheng.
We pass a small boy without shoes or shorts peeing on the street without holding his member, he just stands there peeing, both hands holding a piece of boiled maize. I find that fascinating. I make a small mental note to try and pee without holding my member later when I go home. Women laugh outside kiosks. Men stumble out of drinking dens, squinting in the midday light. I see lots of dirty water bubbling out of a little structure, Leon tells me that’s a toilet. The biggest business in the slum is toilets and water, he says. Nobody has private toilets. The man I’m going to see hurt his leg in a car accident so he can’t walk. One of his children always carries a small bag of his shit to throw away. I don’t ask where. I don’t ask how often. I don’t ask which child’s duty that is because I don’t want to add to the indignity of poverty. We pass two gentlemen walking in the opposite direction, Bonnie tells Leon, “Hao ni makarau” and Leon confirms it. I turn to look at the men and ask him how the hell he knew and he says, “Their shoes, you can always tell a cop by his shoes.”
We take a detour to a chang’aa manufacturing den by the river where men supervise boiling drums and explain to me the chemistry behind making chang’aa. There are a few chaps hanging around, obviously inebriated. Someone offers me a burning weed joint. I politely decline. Another offers me a taste of their changaa. I decline again, because the cup looks like if you placed it on your lips you would contract foot and mouth disease or God-knows, leprosy or something that penicillin can’t treat. The man insists and Bonnie urges me to try it, saying it’s like fine whisky and I’m feeling the peer pressure even though Bonnie hasn’t led by example and everybody there, including Leon is looking at me like I’m a spoilt bloody man who is too good for their product in the slum. Finally I think, f**k it, the worst that can happen is I get drunk and fall in the river. So I place that dodgy cup against my lips and the chang’aa touches the tip of my tongue. It doesn’t taste like fine whisky, I can tell you that. The cup, on the other hand, smells like athlete’s foot. The alcohol is sharp, my first taste of chang’aa. It’s underwhelming. They laugh and ask me how it is.
The river is significant, I’m told. It’s a Them Vs Us river, a tribal river. Different tribes predominantly live on either side. When war breaks out – especially when politicians have worked up emotions during campaign periods – you don’t want to be on the wrong side of the river with the wrong last name.
We leave the brewery, walk up the hill, get back under the iron-sheets. Eyes follow us. “They can tell you are not from around here,” Bonnie tells me. “ You can wear your oldest clothes but they will tell you are not from here.” I ask how and he says, “It’s how you smell. You don’t smell like them. They can smell you.” An ageing man stops us. He knows Bonnie. He’s probably 60-years old. He chats him up. I watch a few women sitting by a shop point at Bonnie. They must be saying “Isn’t that the guy who painted pigs on TV?” Or maybe they are pointing at my forehead.
Bonnie turns to me and tells me that the old man used to be a thug in his heyday. The man nods proudly, because being a thug must be a virtue, or it’s a sign of being tough. The weak die. I ask him if he used to be a robber with a gun or a knife. He says no, the type that chokes you and steals from you in the CBD. The ngeta type. But now he’s old, he says, he stopped that life a long time ago. He wants money from Bonnie. Everybody wants money from Bonnie. Bonnie tells him that we will be back and then as we walk away tells Leon to give that “mzae” 100 bob, later. Leon, I have figured by now, is an influential boy. I don’t know if he belongs to the police side or the gang side, either way, I get the feeling that nothing can happen to us so long as we are with him. Plus he has that streetsmarts swagger. You know when people say, “I know a guy”? They mean Leon.
We get off the road and walk down a corridor of houses, the smell of illicit alcohol hangs in the air, then we are off that path again and suddenly we are are knocking on an opened door and ducking into a dark living room that smells of what I’m pretty sure is poverty. There are two women seated on the floor of the darkened room, clothes hang from a line in the room, and further inside is even darker, broken by light trickling through small holes in the metal sheet walls. The living room, when we access it, only has a wooden sofa that can seat three people, a table covered with a crocheted tablecloth, a small wall unit with humble cutlery and a small television set which is on but the screen only shows a deep blue There is a curtain separating the living room and whatever is behind the curtain. I take a seat, Bonny sits at the end of the sofa, Leon, being the OG, sits on the table like boss. The man with 11 children – David Msula – is seated on a stool. Overweight. A naked bulb burns dimly overhead.
David Msula lost one of his children a few days ago; he was swept away by the recently raging waters of the river. His body has not been found. So David’s not exactly in a great mood. That isn’t a good thing for my interview. At least not to talk about family planning, I suspect. I can’t ask him, “Form ni Gani?” which is a slang for the family planning campaign. I read grief in his body. It sounds metallic in his words. I can also tell that it would be churlish to ask him why he had many children …when he’s just lost one. But he tells me he has four wives. One is in shags in Kakamega. One took off and never came back. The other two are in Nairobi. His first born is 29-years old, but he doesn’t remember the age of his last born (who can blame him?) so he calls out to his last wife, Maggie, to ask her how old the boy is. Maggie, from beyond the curtain shouts that he’s 3-years old.
“I haven’t worked in eight years after being knocked by a car,” he says. His left leg is swollen to the size of a tree trunk. The wives go out and do menial jobs to bring home the bacon. I ask him how that makes him feel, to sit while his women bring in the food. He says he feels challenged. His dream was to send all his children to school and to work to pay the rent of 2,000 bob a month, in this two-room house. He was born in Nairobi, he lost both his parents early and he never went to school. He got menial jobs, working at a petrol station etc. He says he has a degree in pumping fuel.
I ask him how he spends his days, how he has spent them in the last few years with a bad leg that he can’t treat because they can barely feed themselves (his girth suggests different though) and he says he spends his days seated outside his doorway. What do you think about? I ask him. He chuckles in a manner likely to suggest that if I’m a man and I don’t know what men think about when they sit outside their doorways, then I’m not the man he took me for. He says he thinks about his dead child. And he thinks about life. And he thinks about how will he bloody get help; help to find his dead child’s body, help to get medical attention. He says, “Mambo ya maisha, si unayajua?” I nod, even though I don’t because I’m sure we each think about different things when we are alone with our thoughts.
Finally, slowly I ask him why he decided to get so many children and as Bonnie leaves the room to pick a call he tells me that “Watoto wakikuja wanakuja na kikombe yao.” Besides, he continues, I had to have a baby with every wife I married. His last wife comes and sits next to me. I ask her if she’s using a contraceptive and I immediately realise that although it’s not the wrong question, it alludes to sex and sex is something that she isn’t going to discuss with a stranger. She puts me straight, she asks “Hiyo ni ya watu wawili ama ya watu kumi na moja?”
“Do you want to get more children?” I ask her and she laughs and says, “Hapana.”
I watch Leon sitting on that table, listening to this old man, watching how his life is dwindling into misery, and I wonder if he’s looking at him and thinking, “I hope I don’t end up like him. I hope, if for anything else, I don’t get bogged down with numerous children I can’t feed or take to school.” I hope being a father of a litter of kids at 23-years isn’t his ambition. That he doesn’t need to be 40-years old and asking his wife what his last born’s age is.
As we leave I marvel at the bleak hope in that household. How he said, “Sasa tunaomba tu,” when I asked him what his plan was. He will wake up the next morning, probably eat some breakfast bought by one of the wives, and then spend his day sitting outside his house, waiting for one of the 11 children’s cups to fill up with blessings for the entire family. As you read this he must be in a big old jacket, father of 11, wondering where the body of his son has washed up, but also wondering where the remaining ten will wash up in life and if they will walk in his tired shoes and marry many wives and get more children of their own under other iron sheets.