Home away from home
Mr. Ferguson accompanied by Kamandu came to see Nderitu in the staffing houses the following morning at 8am. Nderitu lay on his back, hands resting to his sides. He watched the white man pacing the room with a red face. The old man breathed heavily and the room was filled with the scent of his cologne. It felt crowded.
Nderitu had slept all night, woken up to take pain killers, then went right back to sleep. He couldn't remember how he had gotten into his bed. Every joint in his upper body ached and his head felt heavy.
“Are you sure you are okay?” Mr. Ferguson asked for the hundredth time. “I can have my driver take you to the hospital.”
“I’m okay,” Nderitu said, hating the position of weakness he was in. There were bruises on his hands and back. The sight of clothes on the floor made him cringe at his own untidiness. He prayed the white man would not venture into the kitchen where dirty dishes were stacked up high.
"Unbelievable!" Mr. Ferguson exhaled the words. "A whole month without an incident and now this." He pocketed into his Khaki shorts with his left hand. The cane in his right hand jerked in every direction, confirming his frustration, and Kamandu moved back against the wall to avoid getting hit.
"What exactly did you see?" Kamandu asked.
Nderitu tried to raise his upper body and failed miserably. His head fell back on the pillow with a bounce and air was pushed out of his mouth. He turned his head and stared at the half open window. The men in the room pretended not to notice his weakness and allowed him the dignity of bravado. Bright light filtered into the room and confirmed a sunny day outside. The sound of conversation drifting through the window told a story of workers carrying the burden of a white man's empire. A man could be heard dishing out chores.
"I heard the sound of an engine, but when I got close, all I saw were the rear lights as the vehicle sped away," Nderitu said.
Kamandu nodded to encourage his friend, but Nderitu said nothing else.
Mr. Ferguson raised both shoulders as he spoke. "I had my men scour the forest with tracker dogs and they managed to find a dead zebra covered with branches in a ditch. You must have scared them off because they left their kill behind."
"A zebra? Meat poachers?" Kamandu said. "Why?"
"I can't explain it." Mr. Ferguson walked over to the window and looked outside. He was blocking the light and the room became darker. "There are very few elephants here and no rhinos whatsoever, so selling ivory to be exported to China is not an easy hunt. Game meat can be sold to restaurants and five star hotels for exotic meals."
The ranch was deemed as private, with land rights belonging to Mr. Ferguson. Poaching was not illegal in the country but trespassing was.
"Did you find tire marks, snare traps or nets?" Nderitu asked.
"There were no traps or nets, but we did find tire marks," Mr. Ferguson replied. "The grass is however too thick to figure out the type of vehicle. Going by the rough terrain though, I'm thinking it had to be a four wheel drive vehicle."
Nderitu orbiting the white man's words until he finally came for a landing. "This may sound crazy, but I think it was a jeep. The sound of the engine was really powerful … I have heard the sound before … in the forest as Mau Mau. I think it was a military truck."
"What would a military truck be doing in the forest?" Kamandu scratched his head.
"Not military," Mr. Ferguson said, one hand massaging his chin. "Game rangers."
The silence that followed drew out for a long time. Kamandu whistled and Nderitu didn’t blink. The thought that the very people who were supposed to protect the animals, were the same ones killing them was mind bogging.
"It's no wonder you have never caught them!" Kamandu exclaimed, throwing up both hands. "The people around you have been lying to you. We have to keep this to ourselves until we have something substantial."
Mr. Ferguson agreed and words poured out of his mouth like he was talking to himself. "I have heard rumours of corrupt politicians and poachers working together. It's a serious, dangerous and high level operation. It’s all about the money. Mark my words. One day poaching will be illegal in Kenya and these people will be put away for a long time.”
Nderitu felt sad thinking about what the game rangers were doing. The rangers had a duty to themselves and the animals, to keep them safe; to embody honor and integrity in a life of service. To make the right decisions and put the life of the animals first. They were not doing that.
Kamandu pointed at the bed to get Nderitu's attention. "You are going home for a week until you are fully recovered."
Nderitu jerked his head in surprise. "I’m what? I want to help here. I belong with the men."
"No," Kamandu said firmly. "This is the month of December and we both know that bad things happen in December. The holidays bring joy but also road accidents and burglary. I have a feeling things will get ugly on the ranch. I'm going to need your 100 percent when you get back."
Mr. Ferguson took a step forward and gave the injured man a hand. "My driver will take you home. You did good last night."
Nderitu shook the hand without looking up. "Thank you," he said, glad that the white man was showing gratitude as opposed to sympathy.
White people were fascinating, Nderitu thought. There was something distinct about the way they carried themselves; with a straight back and a raised chin. It was the way they took charge when they walked into a room. Most Africans worked better as a group, urging each other forward with work songs and dances, drawing strength from the numbers.
Mr. Ferguson turned towards Kamandu. "I need you to take me to town to see the Chief."
"Sure," Kamandu said as he walked to the door. "What's on the agenda?"
"I finished the draft policy for the traders at the market. I'm meeting the representatives at the Chief's office at the police station."
Kamandu glanced over his shoulder. "See you later Nderitu." And with that, both men left the room and Nderitu was left to himself. He took two more pain killers and went right back to sleep. Pain was a part of his life now, and it made him feel alive.
Wanjau, Mr. Ferguson's driver used the jeep to take Nderitu home the following morning. At Nderitu’s request, the jeep's retractable roof was kept intact to keep the cold morning breeze at bay. He sunk deep into the passenger's seat as the vehicle drove through the gate and headed for Amka Town.
Wanjau looked like he was wearing uniform; the same white shirt and brown pants. It was his identity – the part of his life that people recognized.
“You don’t look well,” the driver said. “Are you sure you don’t want to see a doctor?” The tires made a crunching noise as the car drove over gravel.
“I hate hospitals.”
Nderitu's heavy coat was buff and buttoned up to the neck. There were veins on his forehead and a painful look in his eyes that betrayed his condition.
"Did you catch a glimpse of those poachers last night?" The driver asked, casually glancing at the passenger.
"No. I fell."
Wanjau shook his head. "People are hungry. They will do anything to put food on the table."
Nderitu sensed something in the man. It was hard to place it but the driver wasn't condemning the poachers.
"You agree with what they are doing?"
"No. But I understand it. You are from Nairobi so you may not understand this. Here in Amka Town natives are angry and bitter at the white man. The locals squat on land and are forced every day to beg the white man for a job. The people want complete freedom from further European colonialism."
"Transition takes time," Nderitu said. "There are hardly any white people left in politics and that’s a good start."
"It's not enough." The driver grinded his teeth. "They must withdraw from public service and parastatals."
"This is their home too." Nderitu softened his voice. "A lot of white people were born here in Africa. You can't completely expect them to crawl into the shadows?"
The car picked up speed as the tires connected with asphalt. "The things I have seen while driving,” Wanjau said. “I have driven the white man for many years and I have seen things beyond your wildest imagination."
Nderitu waited patiently. Up ahead, a small car appeared and seemed to be going very slowly. It tried to pick up speed but that did little to deter Wanjau from honking. “Get off the road grandma!” Wanjau yelled. He sped forward and overtook the car like it was park. Then he slowed down and searched his mind to continue the conversation. Leaves floated in the breeze and landed on the windshield.
"I have driven the white man to exotic restaurants where they sell zebra and crocodile meat,” the driver said. “I have driven the white man to fancy night clubs in Nairobi and taken them for a swim in the Indian Ocean. Trust me when I tell you this, we don't live in the same country with these white folks. I have been to the white dominated schools and they look like America, with paved walkways lined with colourful flowers. Meanwhile, the natives live in mud houses and go to schools furnished with broken furniture."
Nderitu chuckled at the analogy. The driver was right to a certain extent. The black population was increasingly getting angry about the proportion of the white-owned land. It always came back to the issue of land – the root of all problems.
"They must give up land or possibly face a revolution," the driver said.
A white man had been killed a month ago in his farm. The story had been in the paper. He had been shot in the middle of the night and no arrest had been made. The killing conveyed the mood of the people towards the few white privileged and brought up questions about life. Was it enough? Freedom.
"We are not talking about confiscating white people land," the driver continued in a less tensed voice. "Laws should be passed to challenge how white people acquired their land."
Nderitu nodded dutifully and looked at the driver with a different eye. Wanjau had been working for the white man for too long. He had seen what the white man owned, the life white people lived... the life Wanjau wanted but would never have, and he was bitter. The idea of pushing the white man from livestock and farming though appealed to Nderitu. The land could be given back to the people and the white man could take up jobs where Africans fell short ... like finance, import, air transport and hospitality amongst other sectors.
Nderitu fell asleep on the drive home, mostly because of the painkillers he had taken.
Two days later in his apartment, he was asleep on his bed when his watch started beeping. He opened his eyes, turned off the alarm and groaned loudly. The watch always startled him. He lay silent and tried to remember where he was.
Two days in bed was a long time and he felt better than he had since his accident. Some parts of his chest hurt more than others, but mostly it was his whole body that felt weak.
Two days in bed and all he had done was think about his neighbor Claire. A few times the sound of the gate opening had excited him but without the strength to wake up he had stayed in bed and imagined her walking to her door. The thought of seeing Claire made him quiver with desire to the point where he thought he would explode if he didn't see her. Claire had become more than a dream for him; she was the house on a hill and the sound of music. She was the life he wanted.
The outside veranda was deserted when Nderitu stepped outside his apartment a few minutes after silencing his watch. It had rained the previous day explaining why there was no laundry on the line. While in bed he had read the Bible and memorized a few verses just in case he needed to impress Claire. She had given him the Bible and he had completely forgotten about it while at the ranch.
Jeremiah 7:22-23 was a good one to memorize. “For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that I may go well with you.”
Nderitu walked slowly, using the wall for support. He opened the blue gate and noticed the wet earth. A cool breeze found his face and pumped energy into his body. The day was winding down with a setting sun and the sound of evening traffic. Nderitu closed the gate behind him.
Two minutes passed before the whistle from the police station pierced the air. He imagined a policeman lowering the Kenyan flag and folding it. He imagined the significance and how different the world felt after independence. The whistle sounded again to confirm that the flag was down and Nderitu relaxed.
"We seriously need to talk," a familiar voice said.
Nderitu tensed and braced himself. "Claire?" He had waited for this moment, imagined it in many ways. He held his breath and turned slowly.
“Yes, Claire. Who else?”
“Hi!” he said in a high pitch voice that betrayed his nerves.
She did not reply. The muscles around her mouth were tight in a purse, and yet it did nothing to lessen her beauty. She wore a relaxed red dress that reminded him of white sand and blue oceans. But she wasn’t smiling and that sobered him a little.
"You ran out on me," Claire said with a frown. "One day you were here and the next you were gone. I worried that something bad had happened to you." She looked like a shark orbiting for prey.
"I'm sorry Claire," Nderitu said, and tried to look like he meant it.
Claire took a step forward and studied his face. "No you are not. As your neighbour it’s nice to know when you are not home so we can look out for your apartment. As a friend, it’s polite to give me a head's up when you are about to vanish from my life."
Nderitu couldn't meet her eyes, but noticed the warm light bathing her soft brown skin. Claire was a black girl who had grown up under a shade.
"I'm sorry Claire. I promise it won't happen again." Nderitu bowed his head and tried to remember the last time he had seen her. It had been the day before they had beaten up Lumumba and his men, and then gotten arrested. Things could have ended up badly and that's why he hadn't told Claire anything.
“You made me feel like a stalker.” Claire wagged a finger at him. “The only thing I know about you is that the alarm on your watch goes off at this hour every day. I’ve been coming home at the exact same time hoping to catch you.”
Claire was carrying her shopping basket and a suspicious look on her face. "So?" she said. "Are you going to tell me where the mysterious Nderitu has been hiding?"
Nderitu chuckled and pointed at the grass. "Do you want to sit down Claire?"
"No I don't," she said, sounding impatient. "The grass is wet if you haven't noticed. I know it’s none of my business but where have you been for a whole month? Really."
"I got a job," Nderitu said. "I got a job at the Nyati Ranch."
Her face lit up. "Praise be to God. That is wonderful news. What kind of job?"
He feared the next words would scare her away. "Security," he replied. "People have been breaking into Mr. Ferguson's home and stealing. Our job is to discourage it."
She looked concerned. "Is it a safe job? I would hate if something bad happened to you."
"It's very safe. I've been there for a month and we haven't had a single incident."
Her right hand covered her heart in relief, and then her face lit up. "Have you met Mr. Ferguson in person? I mean, how does it feel to meet a man as famous and as rich as that?"
Nderitu laughed. A tender moment. "I work for him Claire, and yes, I see him every day. He's a good man and thanks to us, he has stopped looking over his shoulder."
Nderitu liked that the ice had been broken. Claire spoke with her body, her hands pointing and flapping, her neck shifting from left to right. She smiled with her eyes and looked happy to see Nderitu. Nderitu felt excited, and new life pumped into his blood. He leaned back and searched for the wall with his back. He miscalculated the distance and hit the wall with a thud. "Aaaah!" the scream tore free before he could suppress it. Pain shot through his backbone and distorted his face. Claire watched in horror as Nderitu dropped to one knee gasping for breath.
"Nderitu? What is it? Are you okay?" She moved towards him but he raised a hand and stopped her.
"Give me a second," he said. "The pain will pass."
The pain did not pass and Nderitu struggled to his feet. "I just need to rest."
"Let me help you."
"I'll be fine," he said, refusing to become completely hopeless. Claire opened the gate and watched with concern as he limped through. She walked ahead and opened his apartment door too. Nderitu breathed heavily as he walked into the living room. There was an emptiness about the place that was filled as soon as Claire stormed inside. One second she was in the kitchen, and the next holding a glass of water in front of him.
"Do you have any pills you need to take?" she asked.
"I have to wait till 7pm," he replied. "I take them twice a day."
"I will bring you some food at seven to take with your pills," Claire said without asking. "I'm cooking for my parents so it shouldn't be a problem."
"That will be lovely," Nderitu replied. He downed the glass of water and sprawled out on the couch. Claire helped him settle in with eyes full of questions.
"I fell off a horse," Nderitu offered reluctantly.
"Oh my goodness," she exclaimed. "You could have been paralysed or worse. That's dangerous. Where does it hurt most?"
"In the chest," he said. "A tree branch slapped at my chest."
"I will make some soup for you. It will help with the bones." She headed for the door. "Get some rest Nderitu. I will be back shortly."
The paradox about Claire was that she made him happy and afraid. How that was possible was beyond his understanding. Claire was like a candle in the wind and Nderitu was afraid of disappointing her. His life was like a kite in a hurricane while hers was of a great upbringing and high moral standards. Nderitu felt like he needed to re-evaluate the choices in his life, but did not know where to start.
Claire came back at 7pm as promised and found him napping. Nderitu opened his eyes as soon as she walked in, the smell of stew filling up the room; the black Bible under her armpit was hard to miss.
"That smells good," he said trying to sit up.
She placed the bowl on the coffee table and went into the kitchen to get plates. She came back, sat next to him, took his hand and prayed for the meal. She also took a few extra words to thank God for Nderitu's health.
"Amen!" Nderitu said shortly after.
She served the soup first and told him to take a sip.
"Oh men!" he exclaimed licking his lips. "Is this what I think it is?"
"Yes," she said laughing. "Bones. Real cow bones. I ran to the butchery and got you some. You like it?"
"It’s the best thing I have tasted in a long time. Thank you so much Claire."
“You are welcome.”
She served him ugali and sukuma wiki on a separate plate. The collard greens were mixed with fried beef, the onions and tomatoes giving the dish a colourful appearance. Nderitu forgot to wash his hands and dug into the food with the seriousness of a man who had arrived home after a long day at work. It was only when he was halfway through when he realised she was staring.
"You are not joining me?" he asked pausing with a mouthful.
"I ate when I was cooking," she said, looking away so he could eat. "Where are your medicines?"
"On the top shelf in the kitchen."
She got the medicine and another glass of water and placed them on the table in front of him.
"I haven't had a good home cooking in a while," Nderitu said smirking his lips. He had felt disconnected for so long, and mostly it had been on purpose. His violent life was not something he was proud of, and definitely nothing to share with his family.
"Who cooks for you at the ranch?"
"We cook for ourselves and sometimes the rancher invites us over. My cooking is not very good."
Claire sighed into the couch across from him and spoke slowly, giving him time to chew and swallow. "You cooked for me the other night when I locked myself out. It wasn't so bad."
"Yes," Nderitu said laughing. "You must have been really hungry not to notice how bad the food tasted."
Claire joined him in laughter.
After dinner, she made tea without milk and they both drank a cup. Darkness descended outside fast and the night grew silent by the minute.
"I can't stay for long," she said. "I told my parents you are not feeling well."
"I'm glad you came," Nderitu said. "The ranch is like a country within a country. We rarely get out and sometimes that can be confining."
"Do you have time for God over there?" she sounded concerned.
Nderitu lowered his eyes. "It's hard, but I promise to keep trying."
Claire nodded. "Religion is not just about going to church on Sunday. It’s a lifestyle. How you carry yourself every day of your life should reflect God. The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve."
"You are good with the Bible."
"It guides me.” Claire’s face lit up when she spoke about God.
Her face. Nderitu felt close to her. She radiated happiness and life that touched the people around her. “I want to see you again Claire, if that’s okay with you. When can I see you again?”
“Come on Nderitu. You should know the answer to that by now. Come to church and I will be there. It will also give you a chance to meet my parents.”
Nderitu looked thoughtful. "Tomorrow? Are your parents going to like that I work security for a white man?"
Claire frowned. "Is that what you always wanted? To work security?" She cushioned her words so as not to offend him.
He shrugged. "I didn't really have a choice. One thing in my life led to another and ... I don't know how I got here. Protecting people is what am good at."
A smile curved her lips. "We all have a choice in life Nderitu. That's what I believe. That everything we do today is for tomorrow. If doing security makes you happy then that's what you should do. In life, we do what we love until we can't do it anymore, and then we do what we must. You must be true to yourself and follow your heart. But anyway, about tomorrow, just be yourself. We are a reflection of how we were raised. I like you for who you are and not what you do, and also taking care of another human life shows that you have heart. "
He grinned sheepishly. "You always look for the best in people and that's amazing."
"I don't believe in coincidence," Claire said meeting his eyes. "You came to my life for a reason. Life doesn't ask of you what it thinks you can't handle."
And that was all Nderitu needed to hear; that he was welcome in a world of pure hearted. He nodded with a solemn expression. "I would love to go to church with you and meet your parents.”
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...