Story continued… The man who came to dinner
I needed a pen badly.
One policeman drove the van while the other sat next to me in the back seat.
“You have money on you?” They asked me and before I could reply, the cop next to me roughly dug through my pockets and came up with two Kenyan shillings, my entire life savings. He cursed in his native tongue and tucked the money into his pocket. “He has nothing!” he yelled at his partner.
The van rolled on and I counted the minutes as we approached the police station. My life as I knew it was about to end. Suddenly, the policeman veered left and drove into a quiet neighborhood. He parked the car and pulled out a joint from his pocket and lit it in a dramatic fashion… took a deep drag then passed it on to his partner. They seemed to be in no hurry to get back to the station.
“Wewe ni mang’aa! You are a stubborn boy!” they told me. It wasn’t a question. “Here, have some.” They gave me the joint and I took a cautious puff. At the age of fourteen, it was my first smoke ever in life and I coughed hysterically. They laughed until tears appeared in their eyes. “You are alright Mugo. We will take good care of you,” they consoled.
I finally saw the pen idling in the car and when they weren’t looking, I snatched it with stealth and put it in my pocket.
“We need to shake some people,” the driver said. “My wife will kill me if I show up in the morning without money.”
We were back on the road again, headed for the huge Nairobi City. There were no other cars on the road and the streetlights didn’t work on every street. The policemen parked the van in a dark corner near a nightclub and staked out the joint, waiting for someone to show up… anybody. They smoked some more and cursed at their low government pay. At exactly 3 am, a group of drunken teenagers appeared staggering on the streets. The two policemen jumped out of the car and miraculously appeared in front of the startled kids. I could hear the conversation from the van.
“Where are your ID cards?” The cops asked and the teenagers struggled to look sober as they dug into their pockets.
The policemen continued talking. “Iko mtu mbili natembea usiku. Polisi na jambazi. Nyinyi ni polisi? There are only two kinds of people who walk at night, policemen and thieves. Are you guys policemen?”
I did not wait to hear the rest. Heart pounding, I hit the doors hard and ran into the dark streets of the City. I dared not look back.
Everybody in Nairobi knew the drill and I played it over in my mind as I ran.
“Are you guys policemen?”
“Then you must be thieves.”
“No sir, we are not thieves.”
“Really? Let me see your wallets.”
My run eventually trickled into a walk and my eyes wearily scanned the dark corners of the streets. I knew that the city at night was no place for a boy like me. I needed a safe place to hide till morning. A few minutes later, I walked into the deserted central bus station, picked up a piece of paper from the ground and sat down at the bus stop. I pulled out the pen from my pocket and scribbled down something from my memory. Then I put the paper back into my pocket, stretched my tiny body on the bus stop bench and fell asleep. I dreamt of nothing.
I woke up with the sun in my face and broke into a long yawn. The bus station was a bustle of noises, and after I sat up, I saw crowds of people rubbing shoulders as they hurried on about their businesses. I asked for directions and was pointed to the correct station where I boarded a bus, in what would be a two-hour arduous trip to find my sister. Hawkers yelled through the bus window and tried to sell us their goods: tropical sweets, cockroach medicine, cookies, letters of the alphabet…
“Bus fare please?” The conductor’s voice made me turn and I realized that he was talking to me. The thought of money had not crossed my mind and I realized my folly.
“I don’t have any money sir?” I said in a scared voice. I had lived in the orphanage for too long. Everything in the village was handed to us on a silver platter. It was a good thing, yes, but then again, I realized that the village shielded us from the realities of the world: kind of spoiled us in a way.
“You have to get off,” the conductor said and when I hesitated, he screamed, “Now!”
I jumped to my feet in panic and right before I took the first step, an elderly lady grabbed my hand and pulled me beside her. “Come and sit with me child,” she said in a soft voice completely ignoring the conductor. I glanced nervously at the conductor then joined her. She reached into her purse and handed over some money to the frowning man. The conductor didn’t like it one bit and it showed on his face, but the men on the bus were watching him and waiting for him to say one wrong word … against me… against the woman. Young kids of today were known to be rude to the elders. It was a postcolonial Africa and little boys walked around with sagging pants thinking that they are thugs … mmm… thugs who slept under their mother’s roof to be more precise.
“Where are you going child?” the woman asked me. She pulled out a pair of knitting needles and worked them around with skilled precision. I realized that she must have made the blue sweater that she wore. I pulled out the piece of paper from my pocket and gave it to her. Her eyes widened.
“You are going to Narok?” she asked as she stared at the paper.
“Yes ma’am. Am going to visit my sister in Maasai Land.” It was the address I had found in the director’s office that night. I had memorized it and sang it over and over like my life depended on it. Every child in the orphanage had a file in the office that contained his or her detailed biography. But even though I had found my sister’s file, I was still worried that her dad may have taken her elsewhere.
“I’m afraid I may not be able to find her,” I told the woman. The radio in the bus was tuned to a native language.
“Hush child, you have to believe it.” She pulled out a blank piece of paper and drew me a fresh map. “You will find your sister here,” she pointed at the map, “and when you do, give her a big hug and tell her that you love her. Life is precious my child.”
My face lit up in a smile that made her smile too. Behind the smile, I saw the worry in her eyes. She knew that something was wrong for a kid like I to be traveling alone. But she didn’t want to commit herself further and so she let it go. The thought that God would take care of me comforted her. “Son,” she said in a wise tone. “Do you know what comes after a hurricane?”
“A rainbow,” I replied as I sunk deeper into my seat. “A rainbow ma’am.”
“Yes child, it’s a rainbow.” She looked pensive for a moment. “Don’t you ever forget that.”
“Yes ma’am,” I replied with a yawn. Adults talked weird sometimes, I thought. A few minutes later, fatigue took over and I fell asleep with my head on her laps. She gently massaged my back as the bus skidded along the bumpy road.
I alighted two hours later and walked for six miles through arid land and rough terrain. The map the lady had drawn for me was very helpful because it outlined landmarks that I quickly pointed out. Along the way, I met a lot of monkeys and a few snakes. The monkeys made me giggle; the snakes made me run. The sun burned down like a lens. I finally saw my sister’s village and dashed for it.
The Maasai are among the best known of African ethnic groups due to their resistance to government instituted programs that try to encourage them to abandon their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle. I strolled through the village amazed at this new world. My orphanage in the city constituted of brick houses, golden green grass, a playground, a soccer field and an electric fence. This village was unlike any other I had ever seen. The earth was dirt brown, the houses were made of mud, the children and adults wore traditional Maasai clothes and there was no fence around the village although the houses were clustered close together.
I walked around aimlessly and small kids and their dogs ran along my side playfully pointing at my clothes and nice shoes. I waved at them nervously. Suddenly a big boy appeared and cut me off. He looked like he was in his late teens and the countenance on his face reflected authority. Five other rat faced boys appeared behind him.
“Who are you?” the boy asked me. He wore long red hair.
“My name is Mugo. I came all the way from Nairobi to look for my sister,” I said, as I felt slightly intimidated. The boy in front of me wore a red Maasai tunic and held a spear in his right hand. But when I appraised him further, I noticed the Jordan shoes on his feet. It was the same for the other boys too. Each of them had something on them from the western world: a watch, a hat wore backwards … one of them wore sunglasses. This was the new Africa I realized. The white man had come and gone, but really… he had never left.
“My name is Eroptu,” the boy said. “I’m the son of the chief. Can you fight?”
What? “Yes, no I can’t.” I wasn’t sure what he meant until one of the other boys dropped a machete on the ground in front of me.
“Pick up the machete, Mugo from Nairobi City!” Eroptu commanded as he pulled out a big knife.
I picked up the machete and stared at it in disbelief. I didn’t see him move but the next thing I knew, the machete had been knocked off my hands and onto the ground.
“You hold the machete like a girl.” The big boy snarled and I quickly picked up the big knife and held it tight. I felt the anger stirring inside me.
Eroptu attacked with a feeble blow and I blocked it with dogged determination. I felt the vibration course through my bones as metal clanked. He attacked again, in the same simple manner and I blocked again, this time with more certainty. He changed direction and did the same, and suddenly I realized that he was teaching me. A thin line of perspiration appeared on my forehead and I felt the excitement well inside me, the anger subsided.
“That’s enough for today,” Eroptu suddenly said as he sheathed his knife. I moved to hand back my machete but he stopped me with a hand gesture. “Keep it Mugo. If you are going to stay in my village then you need to learn how to fight.” He smiled in a reassuring manner and I warmed up to him. “Come Mugo, I will take you where you need to be.”
By now the sun was sinking in the horizon as Eroptu and I walked through the village arena. We stopped in front of a medium size hut and he shook my hand pleasantly. “Let me know if you need anything Mugo. You are a guest in my village and we will treat you like one.”
I liked Eroptu very much and found him to be refreshing. I watched him as he vanished around the other huts and vowed to be like him when I grew up. I dove inside the hut.
The inside was dark at first and I had to wait for my eyes to adjust before I saw Chebutso’s dad staring at me in shocked recognition.
“You, what are you doing here?” He was alone.
“I came to visit my sister,” I said as I searched for a seat near the burning fire.
He hesitated. “Did you come alone?”
I nodded and he looked relieved. “You are a brave boy. That’s a long way to travel.” He half stood and poured me a cup of tea. “You must be hungry,” he added. I was.
On top of the red tunic, the old man wore a shuka, a blue and red sheet wrapped around his body and over each shoulder.
“Where is my sister?” I asked as I bit into a plate of roasted potatoes that he had placed in front of me. There was no sign of cutlery in the hut. A tiny wick sitting on a shelf acted as the overhead source of light.
“Now son, get some rest and tomorrow I will take you to see your sister.” He was back in control.
I didn’t argue because I was really tired. He wasn’t drunk but I noticed an emptiness in his eyes, a face aged prematurely by drinking. I thought he looked sad and wondered whether it was because he was alone. He was but a ghost of a man.
The hut didn’t have electricity or running water and I missed the city. The toilet was nothing but a hole in the ground located outside. He walked me into the next room and prepared a bed of straws for me. I fell asleep to the sound of goat bleating.
I woke up late the following day to an empty house. I went into the small kitchen and helped myself to some leftover potatoes then stepped into the morning sunlight. The other children saw me and lured me into the arena for a game of soccer. I asked them where Eroptu the son of the chief was and they told me that he and the other boys were grazing the cattle miles and miles away near the Maasai Mara Game reserve, alongside some of the world’s most beautiful wildlife. They would return late in the evening.
The soccer game became competitive and it felt like I was representing the whole Nairobi City. Every move I made, every mistake… they laughed or applauded… called me a city boy. But in the end, I had to admit that I was having fun, thoughts of my sister shelved for a moment.
In the afternoon, I saw a group of Maasai warriors huddled together near the village entrance and I ran over to see what was happening. It was a war party I realized when I saw the spears and knives glittering in the sun. Were they going to kill a lion? I watched as they jumped up and down a couple of times before they headed into the bushes. I followed them from a distance.
The shrubs and thorn trees provided terrible hiding spots and I feared that I would be discovered. After about two miles, I tripped and fell into a thorny bush and my screams carried across the forest. When I looked up, I was surrounded by mean looking faces, with spears pointed at me.
“What are you doing here?” It was Chebutso’s dad. I hadn’t noticed him before.
I stood up and tried to ignore the pain. “I want to go hunting with you,” I said in bravado. Silence.
The warriors stared at me and tried to understand what I was asking, and then they all burst out laughing. I didn’t know why they were laughing but I was relieved that they were not angry.
“It’s a bad idea Mugo but stay close and don’t fall behind,” Chebutso’s dad said. “Do you have your machete?”
I pulled it out and held it firm, the way Eroptu have taught me. Chebutso’s dad seemed to approve of this. “Straighten your back. Chest out, strong neck!” he commanded and I felt like a soldier being inspected. When he was satisfied, he turned and joined the others. I followed behind and the warriors started singing. I didn’t know the language but the beats and tune matched with our stomping feet. Dust rose in the air and I felt my heart swell with pride. The Maasai were the bravest and one of the most feared tribe in Africa, and here I was, matching with the legendary warriors.
We trekked through the forest and emerged into a dry opening. I looked around and saw scattered huts and in the distance, a small ragged town. I was confused. What kind of hunting party was this? I sheathed my knife and followed.
My confusion intensified when we walked into a school compound. A group of teachers ran out to meet us and I could only imagine the kind of scene we were causing: a group of Maasai warriors dressed in traditional attire and carrying weapons. The teachers, I noticed wore western clothes: dresses for women and Khaki pants for the men. I pulled farther back and tried to make myself inconspicuous.
“We are here for the girls,” one of the warriors said in a commanding voice. “You have taken the girls away from us. Now, we have no women to take care of our homes and give us children.”
One of the teachers spoke in an angry voice. “Go away, these girls are only thirteen years old. They are babies!”
The Maasai warriors made war noises and I felt embarrassed at their request. They wanted these children to be their wives! The teachers moved back in fear. I heard the noise of the restless kids in the classrooms and I wanted to tell them to run and hide.
Suddenly, a noise at the gate made everybody turn around and I sighed in relief as three jeeps full of policemen screeched to a halt. The chief of police ran and stepped between the teachers and the warriors. He seemed to have been in this kind of a situation before.
“You have to go back to the village now. These children are protected by the government. They have to finish school first and then this business of marriage can come later!” The policemen’s guns were in their holsters, as they did not want to provoke the warriors into fighting. Things could easily escalate into chaos. “Maasai culture has no room for abduction,” the Chief added. It was true. As more and more girls resisted marriage at an early age, more and more young men ran amok in Narok using the culture as a guise for their personal gains and bringing dishonor to the tribe. The code of honor that guided the old warriors had been hijacked by a new generation of polarized warriors.
The Maasai knew that they were beaten but they pretended to put on a show to protect their pride. And then they turned and started walking away.
“You!” I heard a resonant voice and turned. The chief of police was pointing at me. “What’s your name?”
I pointed at myself then said. “Me? Mugo.” I stood out like a sore thumb… my clothes… a city kid… I didn’t check out.
I watched as the policeman’s face flashed with recognition and then he pulled out a cell phone. “We found him!” he said with excitement. But by the time he looked up, I had vanished through the streets into the ragged town.
I ran like the wind through the forest and back towards the village. The cops had found me! I had forgotten all about them and how I had escaped from custody. I was a fugitive! The thought unnerved me.
I arrived back in the village at dusk and waited for the hunting party to return. I was a nervous wreck by the time Chebutso’s dad arrived. It was dark outside.
“Where is she?” I asked. “What have you done with her?” My patience was gone and the alarms were going off in my mind. My head was dizzy with realization that my sister was in danger.
He pretended to ignore me and I threw utensils on the ground to show him that I was serious.
“Sit down Mugo,” he pleaded. I burned my eyes at him and refused to sit.
“Did you sell her?” I was fuming. “Did you give her away for marriage? Is that why you came for her after thirteen years?” The trip to the school had led me to that conclusion. I knew it now. It had to be. It was the only thing that made sense. Chebutso as a daughter was a liability but as a thirteen-year-old girl, she was fit to fetch a good prize as someone’s wife.
“I’m sorry Mugo,” Chebutso’s dad said with tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry. They were going to take everything away from me.”
“Who? Who did you sell her too?” I stood in his face and looked into his despondent eyes. He couldn’t make eye contact with me.
“The Chief. The Chief’s son.” His voice was like a whisper.
“Eroptu?” I asked in shock. The boy who had taught me how to hold a machete and fight? I couldn’t believe it and before I knew it, I was flying through the dark night headed for Eroptu’s hut and feeling betrayed. His house was the fancy one sitting in the middle of the village. I had walked by a couple of times and admired its uniqueness. Now, all I wanted to do was burn it down.
I kicked the door open and stomped into the dark room, chagrin burning through my veins. I saw Eroptu and flung myself at him, kicking and punching.
“Hey, what’s the problem Mugo?” He held me at an arm’s length and my punches landed in the air between us. “Calm down Mugo, what’s the problem?”
And then I heard another voice that made me turn. “Mugo? Is that you?” It was my sister Chebutso. I ran over and hugged her tight then pulled back and studied her. “Are you okay Chebutso? Have they hurt you in any way?”
“No Mugo,” Chebutso replied with a twinkle in her eye. “Eroptu here has been very nice to me.” I didn’t understand so I turned and looked at the chief’s son with a puzzled expression. He shrugged and said. “I do not agree with everything my father does. But he runs the village Mugo. I want to be a doctor one day. I have dreams too you know?”
The words were like music to my ears. Eroptu was speaking my language. I turned and looked my small sister over. I couldn’t believe that I had found her … that she was right there with me! Her head was cleanly shaved to signify a new beginning: her ears were adorned with fancy earrings and a mountain of beaded necklaces graced her neck. She looked like…exquisitely beautiful…flawless… like the daughter of a chief. They were truly preparing her for marriage. Over my dead body!
“You came for me,” Chebutso said. “I missed you so much Mugo.”
We hugged again. “I promised you that I would,” I said.
Suddenly, the sound of gunshots cut through the night and we froze and listened.
“What was that?” I asked with a shudder and before Eroptu replied, the night exploded with the sound of gunshots.
“Cattle rustlers!” Eroptu yelled as he ran to the window and looked outside. “There!” he pointed. I ran to join him and the sight made my blood turn cold. I saw the silhouette of men holding torches of flames and firing from rifles. The village was surrounded! Terrified, I turned to Eroptu and asked, “What do we do?”
He dove under the bed and pulled out two rusty rifles. He threw me one and grabbed the other. He then grabbed two boxes of bullets from a dirty shelf and threw one at me. “Go to that window Mugo. Don’t use all the bullets. We have to hold them for as long as we can. They don’t take hostages!” He then took a few minutes to show me how to shoot and reload. I was too scared to be excited.
My sister cried in the corner despite my reassuring look. I knew that my face was just as grave but her presence added reason for concern. I could hear the other Maasai warriors firing from the vulnerable safety of their homes.
Eroptu fired and I aped him from my window. I fired into the dark night and quickly hit the ground as bullets tore through the mud wall around me. Our shots were ineffective I knew, but they would discourage the cattle rustlers from moving in. I turned back to the window and suddenly saw an arrow of fire flying through the air. It landed on top of our hut and we fell deathly silent and listened to the crackle of fire as the thatched roof ignited.
“We have to go, now!” Eroptu yelled. I grabbed my sister’s hand and followed Eroptu through the door. The dark night was lit with screams and burning houses and I knew that it was only a matter of time before the whole village caved in. The Maasai warriors were fierce, but introduce guns into the equation and the scale is tipped immensely.
We ran to the back of one of the houses and stopped next to the cows. A crescent moon smiled above us, the wind raced between the huts. I wondered what Eroptu’s plan was and when he revealed it, I recoiled in disagreement.
“It’s the only way Mugo. If they breach our perimeter, they will kill everybody except the cows.” It was a plan hatched out of desperation.
He continued to strap my sister underneath one of the cow’s belly and then did the same thing to me under a different cow. It looked like we were cuddling underneath the belly of the animal.
“Come with us Eroptu!” I called from underneath the cow.
“Go now Mugo,” he replied. “As soon as you reach the other side of the village, jump off the cow and run into the forest. Tell the people about us, if we don’t make it!”
I felt the tears finally well up. Eroptu was like the big brother I had never had. All my brothers in Nairobi were the same age as I. He slapped the cows’ rears and the animals started moving away from the village. Gunfire crackled through the night.
“Mugo?” My sister called to me.
“Shhhh… we have to be quiet Chebutso.” My palms were sweaty as I tried to harness my emotions.
The cows moved at a slow pace and they seemed agitated by the extra weight. Smoke drifted into my nose and I feared for the lives of the villagers. I had heard about the raids when I was in Nairobi and the aftermath was never pretty.
Just as we neared the forest, we heard the sound of a helicopter in the sky. I felt my heart soar with hope and wondered whether help was on the way. The chopper hovered above with uncertainty but when the cattle rustlers fired at it, it turned on them and the sound of a powerful machine gun echoed through the dark land. The cattle rustlers dropped their guns and bolted into the darkness. The helicopter spotlight picked out a few of them and cut them into half before landing outside the village.
I unstrapped myself then my sister and together we ran towards the chopper, relieved that we would live to see another day. With the village behind us, we looked up and saw a white lady jump down from the chopper and I gasped in disbelief. It was Mrs. Britney. I will never let anything happen to you Mugo, her words instantly flashed through my mind.
“Mrs. Britney!” I yelled as I ran towards the helicopter. She saw me and started running towards me. We met halfway in a warm embrace and she held me so tight that I couldn’t breath. It was then that I remembered the woman in the bus and what she had said. Mrs. Britney was rainbow after a hurricane.
“Oh Mugo, I was so scared when I heard that you fled from the policemen.” Her voice shook with emotion and she knelt on the ground and looked into my eyes. “Promise me Mugo that you will never do anything like this again!”
“I promise you Mrs. Britney. I will be a good boy.”
“Are you okay Mugo?” A man’s voice made me look up. It was the director. I hadn’t noticed him before. I took a step back.
“Don’t be afraid Mugo, we are here to take you home,” the director said in a comforting voice.
“And my sister?” I asked.
“Her too,” the director replied as he motioned for Chebutso to come forward. “This place is not safe to bring up a child.”
Chebutso ran up and hugged the director and for the first time, I witnessed his real smile. It made him look different… more attractive and less threatening. I wished he would smile more.
Suddenly, a man stepped from the shadows. It was Chebutso’s dad. “I want my daughter back!” she said.
The director took a step forward and stood toe to toe with him. “You have failed to provide an environment where a child can enjoy the basic needs of life. She’s coming with us. If you come for her, I will see you in court and mark my words, I will use every resource we have to shut you down!”
I warmed up to the director for the first time in my life. He turned to walk back to the chopper and then suddenly decided to say something else to Chebutso’s dad. “You are welcome to visit your daughter anytime.”
Chebutso’s dad looked beat and all air of superiority was gone. I didn’t feel sorry for him. What kind of a man sold his daughter to pay his debts? It was a cruel thing to do and a violation of moral ethics.
“Mrs. Britney?” I tagged at her blouse. “There’s someone I want you to meet.” I led her towards the village. A group of villagers was gathered in the night staring at the helicopter with curiosity and grateful for being rescued from the cattle rustlers.
“This is Eroptu, the son of the chief,” I said and Mrs. Britney and Eroptu shook hands. “He wants to be a doctor,” I added.
“Thank you Eroptu for taking care of my kids,” Mrs. Britney said. “I hope you become a doctor one day."
Eroptu smiled and took a step forward. “Thank you for saving our lives ma’am. The cattle rustlers will be back again. We need help. Tell our story to the people or…” Hesitation. “Or we will be dead next time.”
“I will talk to the authorities,” Mrs. Britney promised. “I will make sure that the village is protected. Meanwhile, try and stay alive Eroptu.” I hugged Eroptu goodbye and we ran towards the chopper, heads bowed low as the downwash of rotors threatened to toss us. I was excited because flying for me was a dream come true. I held my sister’s hand as the chopper rose, and we both looked down as the burning Maasai village faded away. The helicopter dove for the clouds and I felt like a bird soaring through the heavens… unscathed and alive.
And I finally understood why my village in Nairobi had an electric fence. It wasn’t meant to keep thieves out or keep us in. No. The fence was our nest… a safety net. It shielded our minds and gave us peace in the middle of the night. The fence protected our fragile innocence and psychologically reassured us, that we could go anywhere in the world… but at the back of our minds… just like the birds soaring through the clouds…the nest would always be there, ready to welcome us back home. The only home we knew.
“How did you find me?”
She smiled at me. “I posted your face on TV and in every newspaper Mugo. The Chief of police recognized you and called me.”
Note: Nov 2011. Enkare Nairowua all girls school in Narok was forced to hire more guards to beef up security for fear that the Maasai warriors would return if they didn’t find brides.
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...