He started out as Wafula. He waited until nightfall before slipping quietly into the night. His belongings were his name and a worn King’s collection bag on his back. In his wake, two pregnant women, sisters, not speaking to each other, complicating relations in the household. Their father, numb with anger, dared never again to speak if they kept up the foolishness. The wife soothed him with namasaka boiled long in milk. And hot, steaming ugali. This quelled him. This quelled the word-fights between the sisters. But the silent question Wafula had left behind: would the sisters’ children be siblings or cousins?
But Wafula was on his way.
On the bus, the turnboy, a friend to a friend to a friend of an old friend of Wafula, conferred with the driver before handing Wafula a gurney sack. This was to be his mattress as he attempted sleep on the bus aisle. When the bus made a stop in Nairobi, the official turnboy escaped into the River Road night. Wafula’s career as a turnboy began.
Becoming a turnboy meant he had many hours to retreat into his mind. To chart a path for his life. To see people from many walks of life. To see the possibilities of personhood. To narrow down the possibilities. And then having decided who he wanted to become, to start growing his beard, to watch his beard grow, to hope that soon, it would become something of a burning bush. Red. Or orange. Or orange-red. Like the beards on the Muslim men he saw on Tawfiq and Tahmeed. Men who looked like they were in charge of themselves. Men who seemed to have a plan. Men a little of whom he wouldn’t mind becoming.
When he bothered to count, he found that he had made the Mombasa-Nairobi-Busia trip fifteen times. On the twentieth trip, when they got to Sultan Hamud, he, too, escaped into the night. In his pocket, three thousand three hundred and eighty five shillings. On that new Mpesa thing, Kenya shillings twenty five thousand only. A woman took his hand and led him to the back of her house. It was a quiet night; you could hear the dogs whining. She told him about henna, and then she found a way to dye the beard into a fiery orange-red. Now, a real burning bush. Between her legs, he discovered, the hair was also red. Eagerly, he dived in. The lesos she spread on the bed before they got going were strictly blue. For the smell, an open window. She had two men who must not suspect. They did not know each other but their wives did. This was how it went sometimes; women always had a way of knowing their men’s women.
The first man was on the sea, a professional stow-away, hardened by wind and water and salt, on his way to a foreign port he did not know. The other was on the road, lugging China goods across borders. Her son had a small empire somewhere in the streets of Mikindani, selling quarter gram sachets of heroin on corners called Maeneo and Maskani. Her daughter bought a tub of Caro Light and mixed it with lemon and mkorogo and found herself a married man. She started sending weekly Mpesas to her mother. She told her mother that she had found a job. The mother laughed. She said: ‘Sometimes finding a man is like finding a job.’
After four weeks, in Wafula’s pocket, eighty five shillings. On that new Mpesa thing, Kenya shillings five thousand only. The woman’s lips were black and her hair was always covered. He realized he had never seen her outside the house, never seen her hair. She smelt of rosewater and sandalwood; chepe and parched sand. Her Kiswahili said she was not from the coast but of it: a Kamba woman who simply shook her head at whoever tried to pin her down. She was always eating udongo. Wafula was yet to know what they said about women who, not pregnant, ate udongo. She had a gap between her teeth. Wafula was yet to know what they said about women with gaps in their teeth.
By June, he was still in her single room. In his pocket, zero Kenya shillings only. Removing her headscarf and revealing her soft, silky hair for the first time, she started going out into the night. When the holy month began, she refused to lie with him on the bed, saying she was trying to be holy. On the second night of Ramadan, she sent him to the shop with a list of things she needed for daku and fthari. When he came back, he found a Stolex padlock on the door. He was confused. His was not a wound but a cut. Superficial but wallahi it bled and bled.
He found a way to get to Malaba. His name was still Wafula. Roho juu, he became a truck boy. He supplemented the one-fifty a day by nicking a wallet or two, a handbag or two. It was either death or food, the kind of question you never put to a hungry man. His beard was a burning bush. His skin was still dark. He decided that he would deal with the skin later. When they described him, they said ‘madevu.’ About two weeks from Mombasa to Nairobi to Moyale to Nairobi to Mombasa. Did the road ever end? An endless road connecting country to country, then pouring, river-like, into the sea.
Along A109, he saw towns spawn. He started to whisper bismillahi before he let himself be led away into dark rooms. For an extra two hundred bob, the women would do it without protection, but you couldn’t stay too long inside. He learned how to drive. He learned how to sleep with one eye open. Watching the truck drivers, he learned how to think his way out of the hunger, the lust, the boredom, the loneliness. He learned that when you were thirsty, the road could become something like water. Just drive. They let him drive the truck. He became a serious trucker. He started to chew miraa, a professional hazard. His tongue learned how to enjoy bitter coffee. The trick, they told him, was to slurp it. He heard some of those who spent another week from Moyale to Addis would chew on coffee beans to stay awake. Fascinated, his curiosity about coffee turned into a pure addiction.
For a little adventure, they harassed small cars on the road. A lucky man, he only had seven accidents in his trucking career. Then they listened to the radio until it became static. They knew they were getting close to a town when they heard voices on the radio. They laughed. They were silent for hours. They smoked. They chewed strain after strain of miraa. They compared notes. There was a truck driver who only touched kangeta; the rest eased their hearts by singing the praises of kolombo. Wafula learned there was such a thing as moving and moving and going nowhere. Just you and the road. Meanwhile, in the places you drove past, life went on. On the way to Moyale, someone had one story. On the way back, he had another. Wafula learned that it was not the truth that mattered. That was between a man and his God. What you got and took from people were stories. And a man was only in charge of his story.
One day, after they had driven on in silence for hours and hours, the truck driver simply stopped driving. Killed the engine, got down from the truck, and started to walk. In the air behind him, he threw the words to a puzzled Wafula: ‘Drive until you see a police station.’ Wafula had been a fool. The first rule of truck business: always ask what the consignment is. He went to the back of the truck and raised the tarpaulin. Kumanina. It was sandalwood. Hadn’t there been a ban? In a frenzy, he got behind the wheel. He drove until he saw a police station. Then he grabbed the Quran and walked till he saw a mosque. Quietly, he walked up to a man who looked like he knew things and asked what they called sandalwood in Kiswahili. He dropped Wafula and became Liwa. With his burning beard, it sounded like the kind of name that would allow him a day or two in the mosque.
Ustadh Liwa, he started to call himself. At night, he slept in a room at the back of the mosque. Some evenings, he sat on stoops and listened to the men talk. Liwa and his miraa. Liwa and his miraa and his packet of Big G. Liwa and his miraa and his packet of Big G and his Coca-Cola. After much thought, he decided his team was Arsenal. He only watched a game when he knew Thierry would be playing. At the maskani, he pretended he knew much by not saying much. Then he heard someone say that in Mombasa, business was booming but ‘kwataka ujanja.’ Ujanja tu? Liwa figured he could manage a bit of ujanja. He sat up and paid attention.
Outside most houses in Mtopanga, a long stoop. As if as a rule. Sometimes painted red. Sometimes not painted red. Men and women defying the neat division between inside and outside to seat on the stoops and watch the streets. If you could call them streets, that is. Slowly taking it all in. Lao jicho tu. You want to know something? Yes, everyone saw it happen but ask and nobody knows. Every visitor marked. Plans came and fell apart on the stoops. Sometimes, entire afternoons and evenings passed like this. In gumzo. In kutia story. Here, the mzee wa mtaa was the closest many would ever come to the government. Here, with a thousand a month, and another thousand for deposit, Liwa could live in a room in a long house with a passageway like a street down its center. The neighbour’s fish stew mingled with your sima-na-skuma. All the cooking was done outside the door. Everyone knew your life. Everyone knew what you owned. The electricity bill was split among the residents. The tenants took house squabbles to the landlord’s living room. A man with a persistent cough kept hearing ‘watu wala,’ whenever he got into a coughing bout. After two weeks, Liwa thought he couldn’t take it anymore. He asked for his deposit back. The landlord kept asking him ‘to come back tomorrow.’
This was Mtopanga.
The slightest rain turned roads into mud. Around the corner, boys stood dazed. Blue tongues. Heavy eyes. Knives stuck in Hilfiger jeans that had been bought for blue at Kongowea, or stolen off hanging lines. Long, curved nails growing on pinkies. Early mornings and late afternoons spent walking the beaches with stumbling Italian and French and German. Most of them had never spent a day away from this Mtopanga heat. Still, their favorite season in Europe was winter. Soon, the wazungu would be on their way. Till then? Kaa square or your handbag would go. Your wallet would go. Your slippers outside the door would go. Your unmanned clothes on the line would go. And if the residents found the thief, he too would go. The mtaa policy, unquestioned, was weka tyre.
In Mtopanga, Liwa found a ready market. The man with whom he came from Taru was not a bad man. He did not ask for much. ‘Sell everything and yours is a thousand,’ he said. ‘No questions there. Sell half and yours is five hundred. If you sell a quarter you get nothing. Sell nothing three times and you have no job. A bangili round your fingers and you are on your own. If you mention names, you will understand why they call me Seng’eng’e.’
Never before had Liwa been this rich. Liwa mwenyewe. The man with the fez. The man with the burning beard. Manning the men at the maskani. Conquering the maeneo. In this kind of business, a man who says little and smiles even less is a man who’ll taste success. And when success came, it was across the Kilindini Harbour.
The midnight ferry to Likoni. Aboard MV Mvita. He was not a stranger to water, but he had never been across it. In a quarter in Likoni, the legend of the Digos and the buzzing bees and the third president was alive and well. ‘Ogopa sana,’ they said, the men hanging about him, naked menace ringing their red eyes. But who was he, Liwa? A man. A man taking home two thousand a day on a good day. Started out as Wafula. Wouldn’t be here if he had listened to those who said ‘ogopa sana.’ His red fez on his head like a poised revolution. Ready for liwe liwalo.
At the maeneo the boss put him, they saw he didn’t say much and thought he was a fool. One night they accosted him. ‘Wewe msenge,’ one of them snarled, left cheek bulging with miraa. ‘Ever heard of kaya bombo?’ A curt laugh, the kind you don’t want to hear from a man standing too close to you under a starless sky. The edge of a machete to his throat. ‘Let’s not see you here tomorrow.’
The next day he was the first one at the maeneo. Kwani nini? They waited until night time and surrounded him. A scuffle. They were too high to be coordinated. Then a neat slice through skin. That was the first time he felt a man’s pulse go dead. Felt how warm human blood is. No one dared touch him after that. To scare away those who feared nothing they could see, he started saying he was Digo. The bees. To Digo he added an n. That became his name. Dingo. Kwani iko nini?
They say each thief and his fourty. That one is written. And when it is written? It must pass. So it came to pass that Dingo’s boss was accosted. He’d gotten too arrogant and pissed off a middleman in Dar. When the police caught up with him, he couldn’t bribe his way out of the hole he was in. He found himself in another hole. Shimo La Tewa Prison.
They kept the business going for a while but it was too difficult from behind the prison walls. Dingo crossed the bridge into Mtwapa. They told him about the nightlife, the Germans, the living legend of Barnoff and Casaurina. He asked about the name, where it came from. ‘Mtu wa hapa,’ they said. He became mtu wa Mtwapa. He had a bit of money. He did not have an income. He stayed in his one bedroom house and thought hard. He had one or two networks. When he met them they all paid for the coffee but shook their heads. ‘You need a corner,’ they said. But Mtwapa’s corners were claimed, servicing people from as far as Nyali, from as close as Utange. He gave the growing town his back.
In Mzambarauni, he learned that better a weakness for women than a weakness for a woman. She went by the name of Zulfa the landlady, and she offered him two rooms for the price of one. No need for deposit. Rent due when he had it. He was intrigued. What was all this kindness? The woman had three gold teeth. A corner smile that glinted. Pure sensuality. Adept at the art of suggestion. Someone ought to have warned him about these ones. Well past five decades. Heavy with the years, her step was anything but slight. She turned her nose at gold, loved her copper and brass. Chewed cardamom seeds and cloves. She knew what to do. And with whom. By fifteen, she was already bringing home the daily two-kilogram packet of maize. With what words do you, as a mother, as a father, address such a girl? By sixteen, she was on the arm of an old white man. ‘Ampata mzungu,’ whispered the village from which she came. A person could be an opportunity. A white person? A hell of an opportunity. Quick, to a swahiba who knew a swahiba who knew a woman who prepared the mkorogo. A lot of money: finje every day. She did it anyway. Her skin turned yellow, which is to say, she became beautiful. But that had been five lifetimes ago. Two husbands ago.
Now, she did not smoke, she quit the whisky—which punctured her voice—but she sneezed on a snuff of tobacco. She was supposed to own the only gun in the quarter. She was supposed to be the grandchild of a renown witch. She was supposed to still wear mahando, and hirizi, and you only messed with her if you were looking for death. Or worse. Yes, there were things worse than death. She had her boys, and they sold her special brand of arosto in the quarter’s alleyways. She sent goons to beat up girls who were seen hanging about the maeneo. Rings on all fingers. She lived with her swahiba, Mwanahamisi, a female companion who kept the loneliness at bay. Three daughters were abroad: two in Yemen, one in Saudi. They said she had the title to thirty acres in Kanamai. Second row from the beach, wallahi. She was looking for an heir. She saw Dingo and liked the look of him. But that skin, they would have to do something about it. She would ask around and find out what those Congolese men in the quarter used.
Hard to be a man but harder, Dingo soon saw, to be a kept man. But he was a patient man. He learned that what he had to do is to keep still. And bide his time. And recite the shahada. He eased into it. Started to forget how he got here. Started to lose the hardness he’d acquired from rubbing along the jagged edges of the streets in Mtopanga and Likoni. Started to put on some weight, to develop a paunch. Business on the quarter’s alleyways was booming. At half the price for double the quantity, they came all the way from Shanzu, and Mtwapa, and Majengo, and Kanamai, and Kikambala. The pills had worked—now his skin was caramel. His beard was fiery. His fez was red. Zulfa cornered him and asked him: ‘What kind of name is Dingo anyway?’ He remembered the warmth in the blood of that man in Likoni. The places to which he couldn’t return. How the man visited him in the night. Sometimes he felt like he couldn’t walk into a room alone. Always, the dead man with him. But he said nothing to Zulfa. Some secrets you carry with you to the grave.
Zulfa kept her own room. Walls plastered white, complete with the zidaka. She had brought a man and his grandson all the way from Pate to come and do the walls. In that room, she conferred with Mwanahamisi. It would be the work of Mwanahamisi to choose the women for Dingo. Mwanahamisi got to work. She sent a whisper around the quarter in Mzambarauni. The women presented themselves. She settled on Tima and Munaa and Maimuna. Dingo went to work. But all of them delivered girls. Tima and Munaa were pregnant almost at the same time. Maimuna did not even fall pregnant.
She started to sigh, Zulfa.
His mind on the thirty acres, Dingo drew a plan. He remembered that once upon a time, there was a village, and in the village a father, and from the father two daughters, and both of them saying they were pregnant. He’d left as Wafula. He was returning as Dingo. This was many, many years down the line. Dingo in a kanzu. Dingo in a kanzu and a fez. Dingo in a kanzu and a fez and a different hue of skin. Many did not recognize him. But some of those who did, with their transistor radios and fingers on the pulse of the country, whispered a word. Al-Shabaab, they said.
It took a lot of convincing. And fifty thousand in cash, more money than she had seen in all her years of working, she who was a house help for one thousand shillings per month, and on a good month. She was on her third marriage, the woman. She had two other sons, in addition to the one who had Dingo’s eyes.
She did not want to go to what she called ‘Mobasa.’ She had heard the stories: people travelled to the middle of that salt water and then came back with things trapped in tiny bottles and then suddenly their businesses were booming. And the cats were not cats: you killed one today and woke up tomorrow to see it turn round the corner, its eyes piercing you. She gave him the son. She said she wanted to see him once a year.
Now, tabasamus all round. Zulfa had her heir. But something would have to be done about that skin. With Dingo’s skin now fully caramel, the boy was the darkest in the household. But no matter: an heir was an heir.
Then she started to cough, Zulfa. Her swahiba asked her to give up the snuff. She said no. Try many things, but do not separate a woman from her snuff. Fights between the two ensued. Soon, she was coughing up things she was not supposed to. Soon, groans in the night. Soon, a funeral, quick, with her body buried all the way out in makaburini.
Then silence in the house. Then the swahiba, Mwanahamisi, leaving as she came: her clothes wrapped in a kifurushi, off on her two feet, to find another swahiba with whom she could wait for death.
Now Dingo was a man with an empire. And an heir. Business on the alleyways was not booming, but it wasn’t too bad either. He took a trip to Mecca. He went as Dingo. Returned as Alhaji Dingo. Took the boy to Sheikh Khalifa. Found recruitment agents to Saudi and Qatar for some of the women in the house. The others he divorced. Then, armed with the title deed he had found cached under her bed, he moved to Majengo Mapya, across the Mtwapa Creek, and across the Nyali Bridge, and closer to the city. There, he found himself a jengo jipya and took what felt like the first deep sigh he had taken since his Wafula days. He had arrived.
He whistled as he walked into Ambalal house with the title deed. On the fourth floor, he found a lawyer. The lawyer instructed the secretary to make a copy of the title deed and then asked Dingo to return in three days. Cocky, Dingo gave them a week. When he returned, the search showed that the Kanamai property had changed hands three times. It had once belonged to Zulfa’s husband yes, but the map had been redrawn. It now belonged to a company whose directors were under the direction of a group of Malindi Italians.
Malindi Italians? Dingo knew a lost fight when he saw one. So he sent the boy back to his mother. He found a broker who found a Somali tycoon to buy the house in Mzambarauni. With the proceeds he bought the two-bedroom flat in Majengo Mapya. He did everything under the lawyer’s name. One morning, he walked into Ambalal and found the office empty.
In a single room in a mabati house in Moroto, he felt like he had gone back to being Wafula. Slipping-into-the-night Wafula. Sleeping-on-bus-aisles Wafula. Dreaming-of-a-red-orange-beard Wafula. He spent many an afternoon walking from Moroto and hanging around mji wa kale. He tried to get into the circles outside the mosques, the coffee parlours. They smelt him out, like a rotting rat. The skin on his face. The beard he kept picking. The quick dart of the pupils in his eyes. This one was not mtu wa hapa. It seemed like there was an internal logic to the city, a method through which it accomplished its zoning of people. This was the rule, not just here, but everywhere: you were more likely to be accepted if you aped them. And so he aped them, Dingo. How they talked. How they walked. How they ate. How they thought. And they let him in, but only a little, by way of the kanzu, the fez, the counting of beads. Still, he had to stay on the edges. But he was restless, a man not used to being on the edge.
Then they hunted Gadhafi and killed him. Night after night debate at the coffee parlours was heated. Men who had seemed silent all their lives came alive, holding forth about politics in Libya, the USA, Kenya. Dingo felt himself schooled, learning more here about the world than he had anywhere else. Then the cleric Rogo was killed. But night after night the coffee parlours remained empty, abandoned. Remembering the year before, Dingo walked the streets in his kanzu, thinking he would see a repeat of what had happened when Gadhafi died. But silence. The debate seemed to be happening indoors. He remembered he was only at the edge. Crisscrossing the streets of Majengo Mapya, heading back to his room in Moroto, two men stopped him and led him into the back of a truck.
‘Wapi kitambulisho,’ they said.
‘When did you convert?’ they said.
‘Yes, you are from Mombasa, but where are you really from?’ they said.
After a few days in the police cells, they let him go. More spent than scared, he decided to lay low. To figure out a plan. He thought of going back to the night buses. To the trucks. To Seng’eng’e, his old boss, still in Shimo la Tewa.
That’s when the Kikuyu man from Naivasha came to him. He found him seated on a stoop somewhere in mji wa kale, deep in gumzo, in story. Dingo listened as the man talked.
‘They told me to look for Dingo,’ the man said. ‘They said this Dingo would be certain to help me.’
‘What kind of help do you need?’
At the point where Ndia Kuu met Nyeri Street, the man said, there where the buildings stood like sentinels along the streets, he was setting up a café, a little nook that would be something like the cafés he had seen in his travels abroad, a nook dark and cool and quaint, favored by the tourists and flavored by the locals, and depending entirely on the tourist word-of-mouth for referrals. It would be marketed to tourists as the one place that would be sure to transport them to an idyllic Swahili past. He wanted Dingo to come work for him.
And he was not even asking for much, the man from Naivasha. Just that Dingo change his story again. That he become Lateef, a Swahili through-and-through, a descendant of master orators, the son of the son of the son of a griot who once walked from door to door of the houses in mji wa kale, selling stories for a penny. And in the café, tourists in search of enchanting tales and tunes would converge around him every four o’clock evening, and they would stare into his face as he sat there in his kikoi and kettle of coffee, telling stories about the old glories of the place into which the tourists had tumbled.
He gave it some thought, Dingo. But not too much. Isn’t a man in charge of his story? So he accepted the man’s offer. Then he pulled at his beard—now a proper red-orange—and hoped that he would always be Lateef.
Idza Luhumyo is yet another lawyer-turned-writer.
Illustration by Angela Chilufya.