In Africa they lynch and stone thieves while policemen watch from a distance. It’s called the jungle law and if you want justice, fair trial and all that crap, then don’t steal. And if at all you have to steal, don’t steal from the poor folks, go rob a bank: bank money is insured.
A word of caution though: robbing a bank is easy, getting away is the hard part and if there was anybody who found out about this the hard way, it was Omondi. He and his friends had robbed the Kenya Commercial Bank at 6.35am on a Friday morning. They had walked into the bank at 6.30am with the employees but hadn’t anticipated an alarm being triggered so fast. And the police response had been amazing: four white unmarked cars, AK 47s firing through the windows… a lot of heat trailing behind them. Omondi’s two friends had been killed and somehow in the haze of the moment Omondi had escaped through a rain of bullets. And now he was holed up in a large bungalow in Karen Estate, a rich neighborhood in Kenya. It was a dead end and he knew, just like everybody else did that policemen in Africa shot first and asked questions later.
The pistol, an old beretta, trembled in Omondi’s hands as he leaned against the bedroom wall. Across the room, a white woman whimpered softly, her face in her hands.
“Shut up!” Omondi yelled at her and she stifled a sob.
Gunshots rang from outside and riddled the wall. Omondi’s heart raced. He was down to one clip, and the clock was ticking. He picked up a broken glass and looked at his reflection: a black mask, angry eyes, hatred… fear. The aftermath! The only way out was in a body bag! He didn’t want to die! The thought of death terrified him. He had to do something. He cursed under his breath, raised the gun to the window and fired twice. A bullet tore through his body and he fell backwards: a sniper on top of a building!
The woman across the room screamed as Omondi fell and dropped the gun. The bullet had gone through his right shoulder and his whole shirt turned red. He gasped for breath and tears streamed down his face. It wasn’t just his flesh that was burning but also his bones… a progressive pain through his whole body that made his brain want to explode. Gosh, it hurt so bad! Being shot wasn’t as cool as it looked on TV. He dragged himself across the floor and leaned against the wall as the image outside flashed through his mind: five unmarked cars across the street, a TV van, policemen in uniform, agents in trench coats, muzzle flashes of rifles and pistols.
So this is how it was supposed to end, he thought as a sad smile cut across his face. So this is how he was supposed to die. He would never have guessed. He looked at the gun on the floor and pulled it over with his right foot. The pain was draining his brain and he couldn’t stand it any longer. He grabbed the gun and looked at it for a long time. An image of his father crossed his mind.
“Hey,” he yelled at the white woman. The woman looked up slowly and Omondi took a second look at her. Her eyes were in shock, her face wet with tears, her sky blue dress wrinkled. Omondi took off his facemask and a look of astonishment crossed the woman’s face and suddenly she stopped crying.
“I’m sorry about all this.” Omondi motioned around the room and at the broken windows. He gasped again in pain and his face turned grim. His eyes were getting heavy, his body colder by the minute…he was losing too much blood too fast. “Please tell my dad that I love him: and am sorry I failed him.”
The woman didn’t understand until he saw Omondi raise the gun into his mouth. “Wait!” the woman screamed. “Don’t do it! You don’t have to do that! You are only a boy!”
Omondi pulled the gun from his mouth as his head dropped to his chest. “I have to… go… n…ow,” he whispered. He was losing conscious. He tried to raise the gun again but he couldn’t. “I can’t b…e he…re.” He began to spasm. “Te…ll my d…ad am…” A rush of warm air escaped from his mouth and then the darkness swallowed him. The last thing he heard was the distant blast of an AK 47 rifle.
A Christmas song was playing in the background. I saw mummy kissing Santa Clause… Did they play Christmas songs in Heaven? Omondi wondered as his eyes slowly opened. He blinked and tried to adjust his eyes to the light. He made an effort to raise his head but all he could do was turn it to one side.
“Oh hi, you are awake.” The voice of a young white girl standing next to the bed. Omondi strained to focus on her face. She was probably ten years old, wearing a colorful yellow dress, a princess ponytail hairstyle. “You like my Pocahontas braids?” the little girl asked. “I got them yesterday in the city!” her words were a rush mixture of American and British accent and Omondi nodded at her.
His mouth was dry. “Water,” he whispered and the girl dashed out and returned with a glass of water.
“Where am I?” he asked. The girl helped him sit up and repositioned the pillows under his head. Then she pulled a seat next to the bed.
“I will tell you a story,” she said with excitement. “There was once a prison in the 20th Century called the Alcatraz located 1-5 miles off the shore of San Francisco Bay, California.” Omondi opened his mouth but the little girl hushed him with an index finger to her lips. And then she continued. “This prison was an island where all the worst criminals in America were sent. According to record, none ever escaped. The most daring and intricate escape attempt was tried by six inmates on the night of June 11, 1962. They dug holes through the cell walls with spoons for a year then crawled into an unused service elevator. They climbed to the roof and then scaled the prison’s fence: assembled a raft using prison raincoats and contact cement, climbed aboard at around 10pm and shoved off paddling.” The little girl stared into the near horizon with a distant look. “Can you see them?” she asked. “Can you see them rowing away, looking at the shore with scared eyes?”
Omondi shifted nervously not knowing what to say and wondering what the girl was talking about. “Did they make it alive?” he asked, captivated by the story.
“Ha?” The girl turned to look at him. “Oh, nobody knows. They say the wind was blowing in the wrong direction and that the water was too cold: no human being could have survived.” The girl’s eyes brightened. “But their bodies were never found. I like to believe that they escaped.” The little girl turned her eyes back to the patient.
“I like the story,” Omondi said as he looked around. He was in a very nice room: a King size bed with silk linen: a reading light on an end table, a credenza, a mahogany desk and a swiveling chair, a refrigerator and a book shelf. “Why did you tell me that story?”
The girl moved closer. “It’s my mum’s favorite. She always tells it to me and makes me watch the Shawshank Redemption movie all the time. Have you seen it? The movie?”
“Yes, on a black and white TV,” Omondi replied, as he finally understood what the girl was saying. “I’m I in an underground bunker?” His eyes widened as he waited for an answer.
The girl jumped up from her seat, excited. “I knew you would get it! Touchdown!”
The door suddenly opened and an older woman walked in. It was Omondi’s previous hostage. She stood tall and beautiful… in control. “I see you have met my daughter Venus,” the lady said. She walked over to the bed and started replacing the bandage on Omondi’s shoulder. “Why don’t you run upstairs sweetheart,” she said to her daughter. The little girl vanished and Omondi watched uneasily as the woman applied antiseptic to his wound.
“Why did you save me?” he finally asked. “I broke into your house and threatened to kill you. Why did you save me?” His tone was soft with a hint of anger.
“You are only a boy,” the woman replied as she pulled out a syringe. “You are lucky am a nurse, otherwise I would have had to take you to a hospital.” She poked Omondi with the needle and the boy’s eyes slowly closed.
“Thank you,” he whispered. He felt lightheaded. The white lady kissed his forehead long after he passed out.
When Omondi woke up, there was a Christmas tree in the room. “Ho ho ho!” A voice beside him. It was Venus the little girl.
“Is it Christmas already?” he asked.
“Christmas is a few weeks away,” Venus replied as she helped him out of bed. He steadied his legs and staggered around the room. Gradually he found his footing and joined Venus under the Christmas tree. The bandage on his shoulder was a lot smaller than before.
Omondi sat next to the girl. “What you doing?” he asked.
“You wonna play Scrabble?” She pointed at a board game.
“Sure.” The Christmas lights flickered on and off in a beautiful symphony. They played Scrabble and Jenga and other games until Venus’ mum walked in. “Time to move you upstairs Omondi,” she said and the African boy looked at her in surprise. How did she know his name? She must have gone through his pockets while he slept. What else had she seen there? The thought unnerved him. “You can call me Mrs. Viola,” the lady said with a smile.
The trio walked up a spiral staircase and through a rotating wall into a study hall. Omondi was impressed. The house was an old Victoria bungalow with a secret basement. African mahogany screamed from the wooden stairs and furniture, and gave the house an expensive appearance. Sunlight beamed through the maroon curtains and gave the room an iridescent look: a Van Gogh painting on the wall … the smell of baking in the air.
They ate dinner as a family and Omondi felt his spirits soar. “Are you from California?” he asked.
Venus’ mum raised an eyebrow. “Yes. How did you know?”
Mrs. Viola bit into a rib. “Venus was born at the Nairobi Hospital though,” she elaborated.
“Omondi? Are you coming to watch my Christmas Carol performance?” Venus asked with expectant eyes.
“Where?” Omondi asked.
“At the Sarit Center on Christmas day.”
He said yes and the little girl ran around the table and gave him a surprise hug. “You promise Omondi?”
He laughed happily. “Yes Venus, I promise.”
Venus’ mum smiled from across the table. After dinner, Omondi was moved to the upstairs bedroom and the view of life outside was breathtaking: birds singing, green grass and beds of flowers. Earth was a beautiful place and Omondi’s brush with death made him appreciate it more.
The days ahead were quiet and relaxing. Omondi and Venus played games and regaled each other with stories of their different worlds. Mrs. Viola was never home and when she did eventually come home late, she was always tired and ready to go to bed. Omondi didn’t understand.
One day, Mrs. Viola surprised him. “You are coming with me tomorrow Omondi.” It wasn’t a request.
It was unbelievably tough waking up at dawn but fun getting out of the house and driving around in a Mercedes Benz: the smell of a new car and expensive perfume in the air. They drove through Westlands neighborhood and arrived at a crowded Marikiti Market at 6am, where Mrs. Viola supervised as her employees loaded groceries into two trucks. At around eight in the morning, they drove to the City Hall to apply for a business permit and here they were kept in line for hours while other folks came and went. “You bribe for quicker services,” Mrs. Viola explained. “Remember Omondi, your integrity is not for sale.”
Noon found them driving to one of Mrs. Viola’s restaurants through a crowded Nairobi City. To Omondi, being in a Benz felt like being on the other side of the world. He watched through the car window as hundreds of folks brushed shoulders on the streets. Everybody seemed to be in a hurry. He heard the muffled noises of hawkers yelling and cars honking. At the restaurant he was shocked to see Mrs. Viola throw an apron over her black skirt suit. She threw Omondi an apron too and asked him to clean the dishes. Omondi looked at his wounded shoulder in search of sympathy but got done. Mrs. Viola walked into the crowded restaurant and bussed tables for two hours until the patrons thinned out. Omondi washed the dishes with the enthusiasm of a watchman standing guard outside a building.
Two hours later and to his relief, Mrs. Viola grabbed him and together they left the building. The time was three o’clock and Omondi was glad to be headed home, he was exhausted. But instead of going home, Mrs. Viola steered the Benz towards Dr. Barnados Childrens’ home, Langata, arriving at exactly four in the evening. As per her instructions, Omondi unloaded grocery donations from the car and took them to the director’s office while Mrs. Viola changed into her white nursing uniform. Stethoscope hanging around her neck, she administered vaccinations to almost a hundred orphan children by injecting each on the arm. The children seemed to know Mrs. Viola and they cried in pain with every needle poke. But before they left, Mrs. Viola gave each a piece of candy and told them how brave they were. The sight of a child laughing with a crying face was beautiful and for a minute Omondi forgot about his fatigue. Finally, the Benz weaved through the Nairobi traffic and headed for Karen.
“I had no idea,” Omondi said as he threw Mrs. Viola a quick glance.
“About what?” Her tone was tired and nonchalant as she steered the big car down Uhuru Highway.”
“I had no idea that rich people worked so hard,” Omondi said as he shook his head. “I have always thought of them as fat and lazy, in a life of servitude.”
Mrs. Viola shrugged. “If you want something done in this life, you have to do it yourself.” Her voice even though tired was full of conviction.
“Mrs. Viola?” Omondi called. “Did those prisoners at Alcatraz ever make it?”
The woman behind the wheels frowned at the question as she avoided a pothole. “I think you are asking the wrong question son. The correct one is this: are you free in this world, am I?”
The answer took Omondi by surprise and he didn’t utter another word for the rest of the drive.
Venus rushed out and hugged Omondi when the car pulled into the driveway. Omondi had missed her smile and her stories. Hand in hand, they walked into the warmly lit house as the darkness descended outside.
The days went by and Mrs. Viola never volunteered Omondi for another trip into the city and for this the boy was relieved. But when she came home tired, Omondi understood and empathized. He did his best to help around the house to the point of cooking and Mrs. Viola acknowledged his efforts with a smile. “I want you to stay with me for a while,” she offered. “Together, we will figure a way forward for you.”
“Yes ma’am. Thank you ma’am.” Omondi grinned from ear to ear.
One night, Venus walked into Omondi’s bedroom in the middle of the night scared. “I can’t sleep,” she said.
“Hope in.” He patted the empty spot beside him. Her eyes lit up and she jumped in playfully. “Tell me a story Omondi.”
Oh no, he thought. He had never been good at this. It was time to plagiarize. He cleared his throat.
“Her name was Karen Blixen, a white woman who came to Africa to pursue her dream. She lived in a farm at the foot of Ngong Hills.” Venus pulled the covers tight and stared at Omondi with expectant eyes. He continued. “Now the natives were still not used to the presence of white people in Africa and so, everyday at the hour the children would flock to her house to admire the big grandfather clock on the wall.”
“What was so special about the clock?” Venus asked with a yawn.
“That’s the thing Venus, nothing. But at the strike of every hour, a cock would jump out of the clock and cry ‘cuckoo’ and the children would run away laughing.
Venus’ face eased into a smile. Half asleep, she whispered, “cuckoo…”
“Yes,” Omondi kissed her on the forehead. “Cuckoo… Goodnight little Angel.” For a minute, he listened to her soft breathing then walked over to the window and looked into the distant horizon. An ensemble of lights outlined the skyscrapers of Nairobi City. He closed his eyes: yes, he could here it: a tire burst in the night, sirens… the sound of the city beckoning him, wanting him.
On Christmas Eve, Omondi woke up at midnight and splashed water on his face. He looked at his reflection and didn’t recognize the boy staring back at him: a tweed jacket, denim jeans bought by Mrs. Viola. In the next few minutes he was about to do something he had never imagined himself doing in his life. He was about to sell his soul to the devil and there was nothing he could do about it.
He tightened his jaw and walked towards the master bedroom: took a clandestine peek into the room and saw Mrs. Viola knocked out cold after a long day at work. He stealthily crept into the room and took the wedding ring sitting on the end table. The boy pocketed the ring and crept downstairs: cringing with every creak of the stairs.
But as he reached for the front door, a startling voice made him turn. It was Venus the little girl. “Are you leaving Omondi?” she asked with a sleepy voice.
Omondi took a while to recover then walked the little girl into the study room and locked the door behind them. “I have to go home Venus.”
Venus looked surprised. “But you promised to come watch me sing Christmas carols?”
Omondi closed his eyes and inhaled. “Venus, my father is very sick. If I don’t go home, he’s going to die.”
The little girl looked horrified. “Are you going to take him to the hospital?”
“That’s why I have to go,” Omondi explained. “Please understand my little Angel.”
“I don’t want your father to die.” Venus started crying. “Go and help him. Will I see you again?”
He hugged her tight. “I will see you again princess, okay?”
“Okay. I love you!” she whispered and the words tore his heart into two. “I love you too princess.”
It was one in the morning when the cab dropped him in the middle of a deserted Nairobi City where he boarded a bus to Kisumu, a port city in Kenya, a six-hour trip that left him with lots of time to nurse his guilt. He pulled out the ring and admired the gems. He had cased it out for weeks and had been waiting for his body strength to return. The ring had been in the family for generations and would fetch a good fifty thousand dollars, enough money to take his daddy to the hospital.
His dad had been diagnosed with cancer at its mild stages and early treatment would probably lead to complete recovery. It was why Omondi had tried to rob the bank. But that had not worked out so well. Stealing the ring however had been like taking candy from a kid.
The bus arrived in Kisumu at dawn where Omondi connected with a smaller bus and headed for Kogelo Village, the ancestral home for President Barrack Obama, the 44th President of the United States of America. The people on the bus talked incessantly and with emotion about the oncoming Presidential elections in Kenya and Omondi prayed that the ethnic violence that had occurred in 2007-2008 would not recur: 800 hundred people had died, 600,000 displaced.
When he finally alighted, he still had to walk five miles through folks’ gardens and deserted prairie just to get home. The only thing that warmed his heart was the thought of helping his dad and the gorgeous sight of Lake Victoria in the distance.
It was Christmas day in Kogelo Village and the reminder came in the form of sweet smelling goat meat in the air. Men had probably woken up at six to slaughter and prepare the meat. Everything was edible in Africa, including the goat head and intestines. However, there was neither snow nor Santa Claus in Kogelo village.
An old man ran out of a mud hut chasing after a little boy and Omondi stared mouth agape. It was his father! The kid cut a sharp corner and the old man turned just as fast. “Come back here, you little rascal!” The kid laughed and vanished through the bushes.
“Dad?” Omondi looked stunned.
“Halo son,” his dad called as he strutted over. “That little brother of yours grows faster everyday. Hey, Merry Christmas son!”
They hugged and Omondi stood still like a statue… perplexed. Finally the words came. “Dad? How come you are not in bed?”
His dad laughed jovially and bared a toothless mouth. The gray of his hair blew in the morning breeze and he looked ten years younger. “That white lady friend of yours took me to the hospital. I feel great!”
Omondi froze and his dad took a second look at him. “Oh, you didn’t know? Very nice lady… come son, lets get your feet off the ground.”
But Omondi couldn’t move: he felt like he had been kicked in the gut by a horse. Mrs. Viola was here! How did she know? She must have found the hospital receipts in Omondi’s pockets. She must have seen the prescriptions and as a nurse, figured them out. She must have tracked his homestead down.
Omondi took a step back and his dad looked worried. “Dad! I have to get back to the city.” His dad looked puzzled. “We slaughtered a goat this morning son, please stay!”
Omondi dug into his pocket and took out some money. “Merry Christmas dad, I will see you on New Years Eve.”
But his dad grabbed his hand before he could flee. “Son,” he said. “I know that look on your face. Remember this: our greatness is not measured in power or luxuries, but by who we are and how we treat each other…”
Omondi retrieved his hand and ran like the wind through the gardens, tears streaming down his face. How could he have been so stupid to steal from a woman who had saved his life and that of his dad? He took the first bus to Kisumu town and then quickly connected to Nairobi. Christmas fares were ridiculously high and the trip was a blur mostly. How much wrong could one person do in this world? How much pain could one inflict on others? The audacity… the luck of moral obligation. Omondi wallowed in a shell of embarrassment… too embarrassed to look at his own reflection on the bus window. His father’s last words as he fled… and we strive to be compassionate, decent… a hopeful society… Mrs. Viola’s question: Are we free in this world? And finally Omondi understood, he wasn’t free. He was his own worst enemy. His legs were heavy with shackles, his mind beyond his control.
The countryside faded and brick houses appeared. Nairobi City was deserted when he arrived at 11pm on Christmas Eve. Venus’ performance at the Sarit Center was scheduled for eleven thirty. Her choir would be performing five songs that would end at exactly midnight. Omondi didn’t have enough money for a cab and so he took a bus and ran the rest of the distance into the big shopping mall.
The mall was brightly lit and decorated when he arrived: he saw a beautiful Christmas tree in the distance, Santa Clause on a sledge, gift boxes around him… and then he saw a group of children down the hall, singing for a crowd to the tune of Rudolph the red nosed rain deer…
She sensed him before she saw him and she looked up. Her faced beamed with happiness and she waved. The choirmaster frowned at her and she lowered her hand quickly, but happiness glowed from her twinkling eyes. Omondi waved back and just for a brief moment felt the heavens open and light trickle into his heart… the look on Venus’ face… the innocent smile … pure bliss … he would trade his life for that. So much wrong he had done in this world … so much anger he had vented at an unjust world… and all he had to do was look at venus’ face and everything inside him melted… his ego, his pride, his anger… all evaporated and he was once again, Omondi, not the city thief, but a little village boy.
A hand was waving him over. He turned and saw Mrs. Viola and a group of guests nicely seated in rows of seats. Omondi hesitated then ambled over and sat next to her. He felt a tremor run down his spine and he knew that he was scared… an unexplainable kind of fear. She smiled at him and pointed at her daughter. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
Omondi didn’t reply. He dug into his pocket, pulled out the ring and placed it into her hands. The air was sucked from between them.
She looked at it for a long time and Omondi held his breath. And then she reached out and squeezed his hand. “Omondi, Omondi… Omondi.” She sighed. “What am I going to do with you?”
Her voice was full of love.
“To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others” ~ Nelson Mandela.
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...