The Ghost of Nina Simone; Or the Remains of an Existence Spiraling Towards the Nadir.
I. To Love Somebody
The sky is the colour of a sketch artist’s thumb when the bus sneaks its way out of the bus station, headed for the port town of Kisumu – home; a place so distant it requires at least a week of mental preparation and enough love for those whose existence make up that word. Home; a place that ceases to be a place, and it lingers somewhere between abstract and concrete. Despite my mother telling me earlier on in the day not to leave the Capital in the dark and instead wait till the next day to travel, I tell myself that I am my own person, well capable of making decisions without a hand to guide me. After all, I will be turning twenty four in twelve days. And so on a slightly warm but starless night, when, according to my maternal great-grandmother (now long deceased), witches and wizards come out to dance, I am seated in a bus going home. Barely two hours later, the small-framed middle-aged man occupying seat number thirty three, next to mine, is fast asleep and his snoring is the croak of a bullfrog in some algae-infested pond. I want to wake him up and tell him that he should travel with a pillow for comfort, but then again, I have learnt to stay away from strangers whose backstory I have no grasp of.
The man is tired. He needs to get away.
I plug in my earphones.
‘There’s a light, a certain kind of light, it’s never shone on me.
‘You don’t know what it’s like to love somebody.’
It is five in the morning when I get to Kisumu. I sit at the bus’ waiting lounge and wait for the darkness that has cradled the town in a damp blanket to part and give room for the first streaks of sunlight. The women who sell fried fish by the roadside are still huddled close to the large tin stoves that use saw dust and firewood (do they ever sleep?), and the aroma of the fish as it stews in the oil permeates the dampness in the air. It is not as if I haven’t noticed that I haven’t slept a wink and it occurs to me that it would be a good idea to prop myself on the small seats on the lounge, close my eyes and wait till 6am or thereabouts. A woman screams outside and we all leave our seats to go and check. Her phone. It is gone. He took it. She speaks in staccato between sobs interspersed with ‘my mother’. I stand by the door and stare at her dig her hair with her fingers, grab tufts of it in a fist and yank as if her hair is to blame for the loss of her phone. I want to run to her and tell her, it’s just a phone. That would be utterly stupid. I feel helpless. Since when did this town become run down by predators that deprive unsuspecting travellers of their possession? The three men, perched on their Bajaj motor bikes, just stare in the direction of the woman. I have a feeling they know the person who just snatched the woman’s phone. That is how it always is. They have seen the thief do this for too long, it has become an act so vile yet, so familiar. The face soon becomes an accomplice to the act and then it stops to bother them. They know him. Perhaps even, he is their friend. I turn away to go back to the lounge, leaving the woman still screaming for help.
No one is going to help her. I know it. She knows it. The five or six men, each speaking as if to outdo the other, asking her where the thief ran off to, know it. Even the police, when they later gun down a university student leaving a night club after having fun with his friends and say that he is a wanted criminal, know that in this country no one helps you; not your parents, not your siblings, not your friends, not even…only you.
I leave home two weeks later and promise myself that this is the last time I am stepping here. This isn’t the first fight I have gotten into with my mother (over what exactly?) and I remind myself to stay away. We seem to have become strangers to each other; closer only when several kilometres apart, fighting over anything and everything when occupying the same space. This relationship, it seems, is one that we both don’t know how we got into but with every single day, it deteriorates, leaving only the sliver of mother-child to hold us together.
I am not going back there.
I am back home after a month.
II. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
‘But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good…’
Traffic on Mombasa Road, the stretch between Mtito Andei and Voi, is bad, the driver shouts to no one in particular. His voice is a nail being dragged on glass, and I am glad almost everyone in the bus, except for the girl who has been on her phone for almost the whole stretch between Makutano Junction till here, is asleep so they don’t have to hear all this screeching. I glance at the bright cracked screen that is my phone. 03.27 am.
‘We will have to use the National Park.’ Again, to no one.
I close my eyes and let the music seeping from the white earphones into my ears take me away. I am not one to sleep while travelling but I know it’s going to be a while before we get to Mombasa.
11.20-something p.m. ‘I am on a bus to Mombasa.’ A text message to my friend Michael. As soon as the message is sent, I question why I have sent him the message. He asks me what I am going to do there. That wasn’t the plan.
I need to get away. An escape.
Before then, ‘I am on my way to Mombasa. I will be staying at your place for a few days.’ To my friend Rogers.
And to Gloria, before all this, ‘I need a break from all this. Take me to the station to get a bus to Mombasa.’
About 10 a.m. ‘We are here.’ To Rogers. We. As if I had been travelling with other people. With the woman I asked not to recline her seat too much so as not to hurt my knees ‘because I have long legs’. With the man travelling with his three children and only got two seats. With the girl who was on her phone almost all through the journey. With the man who was stringing out sentences in crisp Swahili that made me feel ashamed of calling myself Kenyan.
‘Yes, I speak Swahili.’
‘Okay. Let me hear you say a sentence.’
‘What do you want me to say?’
‘Anything more than five words.’
We both burst out into laughter that boomerangs in my head whenever I am cornered to speak Swahili. Language differences, a mockery to the social contract theory.
I have forgotten who was seated next to me. Only the scent of their perfume lingers, tickling the hairs of my…atchooo!!
The sweltering heat as we wait for the matatu to fill up. Certainly, this must be how it would feel to be in a coffin. I am unable to hear whatever Rogers is saying; work, school, the heat. I blink and a drop of sweat falls into my eyes. Hurts like a…I wipe my eyebrow with a dirty handkerchief.
We are here.
From the open windows I can see a big part of the town. Large brown roofs stretching as far as the eye can see.
‘That’s where all the drugs come from.’ He points at a network provider booster.
‘Kisauni?’ I am distracted.
The creaking sound of the fan as it rotates from where it is fixed on the ceiling.
When am I leaving here? I can’t stand the heat. No, I don’t want to go to the beach. What is that smell? Mombasa and its rainbow of smells.
Rogers leaves for Nairobi the next day. I have the house to myself.
Sweat. Two bodies gyrating. Sin. Sinner. Incantations in the absence of a ritual. Invoking the name of a deity I no longer believe in. Oh God! Oh God! Fuck!!!!
Bodies collapsing like two deflated balloons.
‘But don’t you know that no one alive can always be an angel.’
The news of his death comes in trickles. On a motorbike, above the noise of the engine as we race on the highway towards the home, I ask: Is he dead?
“I don’t know.”
The narrow corridors lead us through rows and rows of houses that make it seem we are in an estate designed, planned and built by Daedalus. Further on, groups of people sit on the steps of the low-roofed Swahili houses, oblivious of the lump of grief riding on the motorbike past them. But then again, I have learnt that grief is not something we share.
The spacious living room is empty, save for the old sofa that rests against the wall away from the door; there are two doors and no windows. As soon as we get in, the soft moans from the three ladies seated on the floor and clad in three-part lesos grow in courage as if we have come loaded with more grief. I stand near one of the doors in confusion. I feel like an intruder to this moment of grief.
He is dead. The bus he was in rolled down a hill.
The accident is mentioned on the 1pm news. Three people, one of them being the one we are gathered here to mourn, dead. None of the victims is acknowledged. A survivor with a bandaged head recounts the horrors of the night. Is it accurate?
What if it had been the bus I was travelling in?
My heartbeat is inside my head as we mount on motorbikes and head for the morgue. On the way, we meet two other guys (friends of the deceased) headed to the home we have just left. They make a U-turn and join us instead. I am neither friend nor family to this person. As I wait for the body identification, I log on to Facebook, search for the deceased’s name and see that he has been tagged in a post that is meant to announce to anyone who knows him or cares that he is no more. I scroll through his profile, to posts dating three years ago. Why? I don’t know.
Later, when one of the women at the morgue turn to me and tell me, “He died so young.”
III. Ain’t Got No, I Got Life
The motor boat’s propeller splits the waters as we move fast towards the red light that seems to be suspended from nothing and supported by nothing either. The red glow, struck by the light of the full moon, reflects on the ocean and the water seems like an endless pool of blood. And yet, the hairs on my arms do not seem to rise in the way they do when I am tense. From across me, is a lady of Asian origin – Vietnamese, she tells me when we meet next – whose hair, blowing in the wind in that way, is the flag of a country whose people went to war and never came back. The roar of the engine. The young Swahili man in a pair of khaki pants tightening his grip around the steering handle stares at the milky trail we have left on the water. Perhaps, past that, into nothingness. He doesn’t seem to share in my fascination. There is nothing striking to him about the way the water parts and comes together when the motor boat hits it.
The jetty, finally, close to eleven hours after I got into the bus from Mombasa to Lamu. Carol, small frame, thick Kikuyu accent, asks to help me with my bags and I say no. Tells me she manages the hotel. I nod. I just want to get to the hotel and sleep.
Not too far from here. Make way for the donkey. Don’t step on the mavi ya punda. Turn left. There is no room in my hotel, so I’ve asked my neighbours to host you. Uh? No. It’s as good as my hotel. And it is close; you could just walk over to my hotel. Someone is checking out tomorrow, you can move if you want to be close to your friends. Make way for that donkey.
I lie on the large bed in the hotel run by a German lady. The socket is too far from the bed and so I switch off my phone so it can charge.
There is no water. No, that shower doesn’t work. You have to use the one outside. Let me get you some slippers.
I lie on my bed, in my towel and wait.
The events of the day replay in my mind, in monochrome as it does when I am under stress.
The police officer at the first stop checks all our identity cards. The rise of terror attacks in this region the past few years has prompted this; the lady in a long flowing buibui offers this information to me. She has been seated next to me this whole time and we haven’t talked. Is this an offering to start a conversation? Mpeketoni attacks, she continues, it has never been the same since after that. I nod. I plug back my earphones and regret it immediately.
The next stop, we are all asked to get off the bus. Those of us who ‘look Kenyan’ are asked to get back to the bus without our ID cards being checked. The lady, still standing in a queue under the gaze of the unforgiving sun, looks frustrated. Through the open window, I can hear them being asked to verify that they are Kenyan. I sigh.
‘Do they do that often?’ I ask after we are back on the road.
Either she doesn’t want to talk about it or…I ask again.
‘The police? Yes, every time. After the Mpeketoni attacks…’ Her voice trails off. Maybe she has realized I declined her offer for information before.
‘How do they decide who goes back into the bus.’
‘They just see who looks Kenyan and lets him pass.’
‘Looks Kenyan?’ (That’s where the phrase I used earlier comes from) ‘How do Kenyans look like?’
‘I’m sorry.’ I had meant that to come out as a question, and not the statement that it now is. I mean, I empathize with her but I had not meant to pity her. Still, it sits between us like a fat stranger breathing through their mouth instead of their nostrils. I want to say something but when I part my lips, no words come out.
I am learning, albeit slowly, to stop apologizing for the fuckery of other people. I am also teaching myself that apologizing for the faults of other people doesn’t automatically make things okay. Instead, it allows these fuckers to go on pretending as if they don’t know that this kind of fuckery is what breeds an us vs them mentality and continues to create cracks the size of the Rift Valley between people who otherwise just want to have a place they can call home without the police asking them to prove they deserve to call their home, home.
I belong. They belong.
I have been told that I look South Sudanese…
We talk again after a while. She tells me she studies in a mid-level college in Nairobi, her parents live in Mombasa and she is going to visit her grandmother in Witu. I tell her it’s my first time going to Lamu. She smiles, one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen on anyone.
The braying of the donkeys in unison you’d think it’s a choir startles me and when I open my eyes, the amount light streaming into the room makes me blink hard. I still have the white towel wrapped around my waist. That guy – I don’t know his name – didn’t come back with the slippers. I power on my phone and find it is a few minutes past ten. Breakfast is from 7am to 10 am, Carol’s voice. Fuck! I put on my brown shorts faded orange t-shirt and head downstairs. Carol smiles and tells me she was waiting for me. Phewks!
Shela Island is, in its own way, a paradise of sorts. The palm trees line the beach and form a canopy that shades one from the heat that makes the skin feel like it’s peeling backwards. I am here, I keep reminding myself.
IV. I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free
All the way, and back again. Always back to the point it all started. The illusion of motion; coming into terms with one of Zeno’s paradoxes. With only memories neatly packaged and stacked in a corner somewhere, where you can reach out in a moment and fetch it when, on a bus headed into town, in glee you are telling a friend (a stranger), ‘I was at the Kenyan Coast over the holidays.’ They smile. ‘Then to Kisumu for the festivities with family.’ They nod. You want to tell them that you have never spent a single Christmas away from your family. Instead, you press the plugs of your earphones firmly into your ear.
‘I wish I could say all the things that I should say.’
Troy Onyango is a Kenyan writer and Lawyer. His fiction has appeared in various journals and magazines including Transition Magazine Issue 121, for which his short story ‘The Transfiguration’ was nominated for the 2016 Pushcart Prize. His short story ‘For What Are Butterflies Without Their Wings?’ won the fiction prize for the inaugural Nyanza Literary Festival Prize. He was shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship. Currently, he is the Managing Editor of Enkare Review – a Nairobi-based literary magazine.