About one and a half months ago, I was informed by my university that I will not be graduating this year, again, because I had failed a course. I got sick at the news and remained in bed all weekend. I spent the following week looking for a workaround to this situation. There was none and a re-sit is the only recourse. When I told my father this, he launched into a full “My son, let me tell you…” advice mode, and said how soft and pampered we have grown up to be, to the point that we feel entitled to having everything exactly the way we want, and sharpish at that!
I could not help but detect a malicious glint of glee in his eye as he said all this. He was clearly happy at this turn of events, this kick in the nuts from life. “It’ll teach you humility… Growing up is painful… Every one fails…” I wish I could stop listening. He was not telling me anything I had not already been thinking about, not that it felt any more comforting coming from someone else. I asked him, naively, whether, he had ever been disappointed despite feeling that he had done everything right and had followed the rules. “Of course! What do you mean?!” Yet, why did things turn out this way, if I did everything right? (and even the wrong way. Another story, this). “Because, my dear boy, that’s life.” Shit happens. Easy to say, when it is not happening to you.
It feels irresponsible, affording myself this luxury of failing, when many people do not have the opportunities I have. This shames me, squandering the blessing of an education that many do not. This and being reminded of my privilege, by none other than its facilitator. If ever there was irony. Recently, I had my privilege checked in a more… raw fashion.
I was walking home one Wednesday evening, listening to a StartTalk Radio podcast, when I noticed him walking ahead of me. In retrospect, trudging was more like it. From behind, he cut the image of one of these recent high-school leavers, all angst and punk: pink marvin with floppy ears, flower-detailed old-school sneakers, sagging jeans, and an all-round “Fuck off!” attitude about him. I walked fast, so I caught up and passed him, and then I paused my listening, slowed down and turned around. I never do this; slow down for anything or anyone.
Niaje, si uniachie ka-kumi. Maze, sijakula kitu tangu asubuhi.
Here we go, another one of those kids with too much free time posing as a street rat.
I said, pretending to be feeling my back pockets for change. There were no coins. I had spent them on chewing gum (my favorite vice), groundnuts and Ginger Snaps.
Sina ka-ten, aki. Lakini, si naona uko na ka-kitu hapo kwa mfuko?
The quarter bottle of Hunter’s Choice whisky. Anyone who can afford that did not need a ka-ten.
Hii navutanga juu ya mashida.
That is when I slowed down further and allowed him to come apace with me. Even after pausing the podcast, I still had my earphones on. It was not supposed to take long, this interaction, so what was the point of removing them. I thought I had not heard him correctly so I took them off.
Mi nakaa hapa Kwa Murogi. Lakini…
Shit, tears. He had started crying, great heaving gushing sobs came tumbling out of him.
Yaani, naomba… hata ka-ten na siezi pata, na sijakula tangu asubuhi…
Mwangi lost his mother… His mother left him, them, his brother and him. He was incoherent on this matter. It was clear, though, that the loss of a mother was involved. At first he said she was killed during the post-election violence in 2007. They were living in Naivasha at the time. I believed this version first. Then, he said she was a prostitute and she had left when he was eight. I also believed this. It could have been both, it could have been none. This latter story was the one he kept repeating. I was too numb struck to try and decipher any inconsistencies. Both likelihoods of events were equally tragic. Or it could be that the memories, whatever they were, were too painful to recall, and the equally painful, although not entirely accurate, story was the resulting reason for part of his predicament. I suspect that the only truth here was that they were victims of the violence, and had been chased out during the fracas.
His brother, a porter in Nakuru town, Duke is his name, is his only family. They live together in a house they rent for Kshs 400/- a month. He lamented on the indignity of being a man, and being forced to beg for the barest essentials, of being hated without reason, of being called chokora (street child). And he does look like a child: smallish, and according to him, he is eighteen. He has never held a pen and he dreams of going to school one day.
Siku moja, nitapaa. (One day, I will fly.)
His brother had sent him home that evening. He did not want him idling about town and mixing with the wrong crowd. He says he never does, anyway, and he always keeps to himself. His brother would have none of that, so here he was, walking…trudging home. His brother, who cries in prayer every night over their lot, and an end to their suffering. Those bullshit platitudes about “walking a mile in someone’s shoes” or “trying to understand where someone is coming from” died in those moments we sat at the side of the road. How can you even begin to understand, unless you have been there, and how many of us have? It then occurred to me; that that was not just a bottle of Hunter’s. It was an empty bottle of Hunter’s filled with gum, that toluene-based (that is the stuff that gets you high) ToughBond-type adhesive. I could smell it coming off of him in wave after intoxicating wave as he raged on. How much did he have in that bottle?
I imagined that if one was to light a match near him, he would have been gone up in flames like dry tinder.
No wonder he was in that, now incongruous, navy-blue tracksuit jacket with 1336 printed on the right of the breast. It was probably a handout collected from those church drives where the congregation is invited to donate their old clothes for the less fortunate. Should I still call them sobs at this point? There were no more tears. He pulled out a handkerchief, more as an unconscious habit than because he needed it. There were no tears left. There were none to begin with.
Nimelia hadi sina machozi tena. (I have cried until I have no tears left.)
In all this he had kept repeating,
Kuna Mungu. Mimi najua kuna Mungu, na atasikia maombi ya masikini. (There is God. I know there is God, and he will hear the prayers of the poor.)
True, I did not have a ten. I had more, and I hated myself for lying to him. I will not pretend: I had even thought that I may be taken advantage of. All I saw was a dirty scruffy young man, and in stopping, slowing down, I saw a human being, and I hated myself for being dismissive in the first place.
Hata watu hawanisalimiangi na mkono. Hii maisha tutaishi aje? Mwanaume ataishi aje? Kuombaomba kila siku, kudharauliwa na kutukanwa? (People do not even greet me by hand. How will we live this life? How will a man live? Begging everyday, being hated and abused?
I gave him some money. I gave him enough to ruin my budget for the month, as if buying away my guilt.
Hata ukipewa, unapewa na masharti. Usinunue hii na usifanye hivi… (Even when you are given, you are given with rules. Don’t buy this and don’t do this…)
I gave him the money with no rules (or did I?)
Mungu akubariki, ndugu yangu. (God bless you, my brother) He repeated this many times, sometimes in English, the only bit of English he knows, he said. That and, “There is God.”
Silently, to myself, “You need God’s blessings more than I do.”
In him, I saw pain beyond pain, a pain not many can even begin to comprehend. By now, the sun had gone down, it was getting cold, and in the overwhelm of his emotions, we had stopped walking and he was switching between kneeling and sitting. Passers-by, only slightly curious, kept passing by. How many times have we been those very passers-by, rushing along with better things to do than talk to dirty street people? Hey, sio mimi nalala njaa.
He kept up his prayers, in his tearless sobs,
Kuna Mungu binguni, kuna Mungu binguni. Kuna masikini na kuna tajiri, lakini hakuna masikini na tajiri mbele ya Mungu. Matajiri wengi wako hosipitali, na hawaamki kuona kesho. Mimi masikini naamka kila siku, na ninashukuru Mungu, kunipa uhai. Kuna Mungu juu binguni. (There is God in heaven, there is God in heaven. There are poor and there are rich, but before God there is no poor and rich. Many rich people are in hospital, and they do not wake up to see tomorrow. Me, a poor man, wakes up everyday, and I thank God, for giving me life. There is God in heaven.)
It occurred to me then, ridiculously, that I have never met a poor atheist. Atheism, it seems, is a privilege. Those with nothing left to believe in, believe in a God. Finally, he got up, wiped his hand on his leg pant and held it out to me. I shook it gladly, to remind him that he was human, deserving of courtesies (and to remind myself that I should extend dignity and respect to everyone), that a man with his hand outstretched should never be left hanging. I shook his hand because it was all I could do. He turned, and walked away, into the lights of the traffic, into the dust and the smoke. I watched him go until he disappeared. He had mentioned how he had no use in being alive, and for a moment, I imagined him walking onto the path of an oncoming trailer-truck. He may as well have disappeared. I have not seen him since.