At one corner of Jeevanjee Gardens, where Muindi Mbingu meets Moktar Daddah street, under three of the largest trees in this part of town, is a smoking zone. There are less than a dozen spread across the CBD since the Tobacco Control Act outlawed smoking in public. This is your best. Three cigarette sellers sit on a stout wall off of what seems the remains of a structure torn down or a construction project abandoned before getting off the ground. All three sell the same brands at the same prices but you and your friends almost always buy from N, at the far left, and join the tens of smokers sitting or standing in a rough square around the smoking zone. You’ve been trying to quit. Again. You are making progress, again. Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances. You didn’t need the graphic warnings even as you started rolling tobacco with the weed. Your gums and the insides of your lips began to darken by the time you were at a pack in thirty-six hours and breathing heavily up the stairs. But still you light up, relishing the sighs burning through your insides. Your friend says it should be easy to quit because most of N’s Dunhills, like many cigarettes sold across the city, are counterfeit. Kitu Sewer alisema unajaribu kula gas ushibe. ‘It’s the most pointless vice there is,’ a friend bursts out more than once during your cigarette breaks. ‘As in, you don’t even get high saa unajiuliza ni ya nini?’
Of all the vices you‘ve stacked over the years, cigarettes remain intriguing. Like that time, years ago, watching a small troupe of acrobats perform, with each doing a solo at intervals of the synchronized performance. One of them, shirtless, lit a cigarette while balancing an empty liquor bottle on his head swaying his hips and jerking his shoulders to the increasing pace of the drumbeats. Suddenly, he opened his mouth wide and in a sharp flick of his tongue drew the half-lit cigarette clenched between his teeth into the darkness of his mouth and clasped it shut. He flicked it out, letting it dangle at the tip of his tongue and repeated this twice or thrice before taking a long puff, a cloud of thick white smoke drowning out his wide eyes.
This haunting memory is at odds with your understanding of cigarette burns. A lit cigarette against the skin for 1-3 seconds leads to 1st to 3rd degree burns and explains the fetish in toture chambers. Kamau Munene, a journalist with KNA, was one of thousands they arrested thirty years ago as part of a crackdown on political and intellectual dissent and tortured for days to confess affiliation to an underground movement. His father was admitted at Mater Hospital and news of his son’s detention and thought of his ordeal hastened his death. Despite torture from seven police officers who included a brown woman who used a lit cigarette on his private parts, Munene survived.
Waweru Kariuki, another victim, corroborated Munene’s testimony of the deadly woman torturer with a cigarette. Kariuki was picked up in Diani by approximately a dozen Special Branch officers who walked him to his house where they found copies of Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Devil on the Cross and I Will Marry when I Want as well as Ruth First’s When Bullets begin to Flower, Alamin Mazrui’s Kilio cha Haki and a copy of Beyond magazine. He was detained for eight days and driven to Nyayo House in a Peugeot 504, blindfolded for much of the 500-kilometer journey. Kariuki said a brown woman with a Kikuyu accent came to his cell, started fondling him and when he pushed her away, summoned her colleagues.
In Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust, the brown woman at the other end of the lit cigarette becomes intelligence officer Petrus Keah, whose state secrets include torturing the condemned and cleaning up massacres in Northern Kenya. Petrus, now retired, has quit smoking but is tormented by his methods from yesteryears. He walks around with a pack of cigarettes, fidgeting with each unlit stick during difficult conversations until it disintegrates. Petrus’ unlit cigarettes shine light onto the dark past from which he seeks atonement. Like Denzel Washington’s detective John Hobbes in Fallen, pursuing the medieval demon Azazel that possesses humans through air and touch, driving them to murder and death. He learns the secret to destroying the demon is to starve it of a host, a suicidal mission. A former smoker, Hobbes drives to a secluded cabin with a pack of poisoned-laced cigarettes to destroy Azazel. In the end the twist comes through that phrase smokers are familiar with, ‘I thought you quit.’
Many of your cigarette breaks at Jevanjee are spent alone. Kitambo, you scoffed at jokes that this profession ranks high in professional substance abuse but today, sobriety shimmers further with each tolerance breach in a new drug and you wonder about memory. Sometimes, if you are lucky to find it empty, you sit on the stone bench nearest the smoking zone, your mind drifting to cigarette breaks you’ve had or passed on in the past. Like that time at a conference at the university currently known as Rhodes. Back then, you drew the line at cigarettes, looking down on smokers with images of diseased lungs and infected body organs from anti-tobacco campaigns playing in your mind. An informed, unwilling second-hand smoker you were indignant: If someone has decided to kill themselves wacha ajiue peke yake. During a break at the conference, a friendly journalist from Zimbabwe offers you a cigarette after opening up that the withdrawal was getting unbearable, and you might have to sit out the rest of the sessions. Insomniac for days, sullen and cranky with a bad headache, you are sweating through your T-shirt in Grahamstown August. ‘You smoke weed but not cigarettes,’ laughs the Zimbabwean journalist when you decline the offer with an air of kufa peke yako. You tell him all you need is a joint and you will be fine. On Facebook, a friend-of-a-friend directs you to Oldies. ‘I used to waitress there while on campus,’ she says. But Oldies is closed and you convince the small crew that the Rat and Parrot, another bar you’d seen earlier, could have some life. Desperate for a night free from terrors, you ask the waitress, Z, if she knows where to get some good stuff. Z smiles and says she’ll let you know and when she brings out your second Castle, points to a tall young man in a grey hoodie standing beside the pool table in the semi-darkness. You pay twice for half of what you usually get in Nairobi, but it is some of the best shit you have had so far and for the first time in days, you drift off to Amy Winehouse, wondering whether Z is serious about going out on Friday.
The next day, restored and mellow, you take a high seat in the Eden Groove Red Lecture Room and all of a sudden a group of black undergraduate students from the university currently known as Rhodes bring the conference to a standstill. You watch, fascinated, as the students hold a silent protest before dozens of journalists, blocking Vice Chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela’s keynote address for close to an hour. The conference director Chris Kabwato, realises the students are steadfast and to break the stalemate, he invites one of them, Thejiwe, to address the conference. Thejiwe confronts Dr Mabizela, seated in the front row just a few feet from the podium. ‘Why did the university call the police on students peacefully demonstrating? Why did the university set dogs on poor students?’ Dr Mabizela’s feeble interjections are drowned by Thejiwe’s colleagues, standing behind her chanting ‘MABIZELA IS A LIAR! MABIZELA IS A LIAR! LIAR! LIAR!’ Kabwato steps in, coaxing Thejiwe off the podium, but not before she makes it clear the university’s colonial system is still working against poor black students. ‘Poverty itself is a violence,’ says Thejiwe, her eyes narrowed to slits. Less than a month later, the university is shut down. Fees Must Fall is bearing down on Johannesburg and a year later you and J are trapped in The Orbit jazz club in Braamfontein, choking from the black smoke off a burning SABC news van and ducking under chairs from falling glass while Ma’Sibongile Khumalo holds her ground on the mike crooning steadily through the chaos.
Sometimes you smoke more than the one cigarette during your breaks at Jevanjee, avoiding the office and trying to still the withdrawal that tugs at your edges, pulling you into yourself. You cannot quit cold turkey, you tell yourself several times, tapering down works with discipline. Jevangee offers release. Sparse lawns a pad for Nairobi’s travellers taking a break. Under jacarandas noon’s heartbreaks roll over morning’s hopes to usher the dark of night as several preachers ply their trade from different corners, their sermon an unholy lullaby. Gabriel Omolo’s Lunchtime for the ragged toddlers tugging at the cuffs of those cutting through the park from the entrance on Moi Avenue through the one on Muindi Mbingu, following them across the park holding onto their sleeves until they yield to pity, shame, or cold indifference. ‘Mbona hauko shule?’ ‘Isn’t primary education free?’ One of your friends said they stopped giving because it makes them entitled, ‘and when they are grown and can’t appeal to your sympathy, they rob you.’ Another said they stopped giving because of a TV expose on street families trafficked from Congo to work for a syndicate that runs the trade in the city.
Nairobi shamba la mawe. The stony wasteland looms over Jeevanjee like rooks on a chessboard. Family Bank, Barclays Bank and Equity Bank blot out much of the skyline in the south, Clarion Hotel to the east, University of Nairobi to the north and to the west, the Hazina Towers stands half finished at the Junction of Mokta Dadar and Monrovia Streets, casting an early afternoon shadow over the smoking zone. A scandal involving the national pension fund, former governor of Nairobi and the Chinese and an easy conversation starter during cigarette breaks.
‘Did they find another tenant after Nakumatt closed down?’
‘I hear they have decided to stop there.’
‘Ata kwa basement kuna cracks.’
‘Yeah, I saw them.’
‘It’s going to be hard to get a tenant at this stage.’
‘They are trying to reinforce the pillars.’
‘You know that’s our money you guys?’
Jeevanjee Gardens has survived several development attempts by various city planners over the decades. Alibhai Mullah Jeevanjee, the man who is said to have donated the park to the people of Kenya at the turn of the 20th Century, migrated to the country in 1890. History books say he built a massive fortune supplying labour and materials for the Kenya-Uganda railway and ended up owning huge chunks of the Nairobi CBD. This unsettled European colonialists who introduced an apartheid-based zoning system that exists to date. Frustrated at Indians exclusion from the ‘white highlands’, Jeevanjee once said, ‘I would go so far as to advocate the annexation of this African territory [Kenya] to the Indian Empire, with provisional government under the Indian Viceroy, and let it be opened to us and in a very few years it will be a second India.’ When he failed at buying the country, Jevanjee bought a small Mombasa-based newspaper, and changed its name to the East African Standard, before selling it to some British businessmen who renamed it The Standard, the newspaper you work at. Years ago, unknown people vandalised a statue of Queen Victoria that was at the park. The statue, unveiled in 1906, was also a clever bargaining chip for A M Jeevanjee; he appeased the Europeans who were bristling at his expanding empire.
All types of people come to the smoking zone at Jeevanjee Gardens but most of them look like you. The same drab monochrome pants and shirts for the lawyer, banker, agent, conman or office type. Sometimes, and increasingly in the past few months, the park is a meeting point for protesters who often form a growing ring beside A M Jeevanjee’s statue and psyche themselves up with solidarity chants before taking to the street. Few women come through, often young with a friend or several but seldom alone, unless it’s one of N’s friends or a regular. A few times a day a small group of young people will come heading to or from the University of Nairobi or the numerous colleges at Anniversary, Hazina, or Ambank Towers. Often with backpacks, colourful clothes, sunglasses and hair pointing to the places they have been, they stand out from other regulars. Loud, their Dunhills move in free arcs to the stories of this morning’s soiree and hardly acknowledge the regulars. When they do, their eyes hold something of pity. Still, you see yourself in them, hear yourself in their stories. But you understand how time works and that a cigarette will bring back your best years as long as it stays lit.
Like that evening M, your childhood best friend, taught you how to roll tobacco in weed at a public playground while in London. M’s mother, a nurse, had moved to the UK when you were twelve or thirteen and a few years later organized to airlift him, his brother and sister. His father, the first chain-smoker you knew, stayed in Nairobi for a few more years before joining the family. You had not seen each other for more than a decade and were both looking forward to a happy reunion. M called on the second week. He has tickets to see Alkaline in concert and you can spend the weekend at their house in Oxford. ‘Who is Alkaline?’ you ask before you can stop yourself. ‘Hujui Alkaline,’ M is surprised and a little disappointed. ‘What kind of reggae do you listen to?’ ‘Zile zetu tu,’ you reply, overly defensive. ‘Bob Marley, Gregory Isaacs, Morgan Heritage.’ ‘You need to listen to Alkaline man. Wait till you see him in concert.’ Thankfully, you never do. The sold out concert is cancelled because Oxford police suspect violence will break out. Your reunion is delayed for another week. The next Saturday morning you are on the black leather sofa in the common room of the Unite Students flat the fellowship director put you in, just off Camden High Street. You have the room to yourself, rushing to meet a deadline to J Cole’s Forest Hill Drive when M calls. He is driving his mother and brother to a clinic just outside Central London and wants to know if you can hang out while he waits and then head back to Oxford for the weekend.
He has grown taller and his shoulders and biceps are firm when he slaps your palm and pulls you into a half embrace. ‘You must be getting a lot of pussy with this place,’ he says, looking around as you explain what you are doing in London. He pulls out his phone and shows you a brief, close-up video of a white woman pleasing herself. ‘Tinder,’ he smiles. ‘We broke up but she still keeps sending me these.’ You drive to the JD Sports store at Westfield Mall to shop for a pair of sneakers he’s been looking for and then to Oxford Street and back to Camden with no luck. On the way you take in Central London through all the windows of M’s mother’s BMW 320. M himself drives a 318 and relishes the extra power of his mother’s car as much as he does playing tour guide. ‘Here people are serious about traffic rules,’ he says when you stop for a red light at an intersection with no other car around. ‘Ata uende wapi you can’t get far,’ he points to the traffic cameras. He had recently had his license suspended after a traffic violation and for three months his girlfriend had to drive him around. M’s mother chats almost all the way through the M40, asking about home, your fellowship, and reminding his son to slow down. ‘But what Uhuru is doing is good,’ she says when the small trickle of family news dries up and you start on politics. Back in Nairobi the government has given foreign nationals an ultimatum to review their work permits or get deported and in less than a month Britain would be voting for Brexit. ‘Ata huku ndivo wanafanyanga. Wacha pia hao wakaziwe,’ she says. Let them feel it. ‘That’s the Mini Cooper factory,’ M says, gratefully changing of subject.
‘By the way I can help you get a car from here,’ he says after you drop off his mother and brother and switch to his white 318. ‘I’d want a 318, like yours, or a Mini Cooper, the old model’, you tell him honestly even though you can’t drive and have no prospects of BMW money in the horizon. ‘You can get anything here,’ he says. ‘Guys tell me the specs of the car they want and I look for it in the dealerships and we organize everything mpaka ifike Mombasa.’ He currently works at a pharmaceutical company but won’t say doing what. Before that he delivered parcels for UPS, a job he hated and is glad to be out of. ‘Imagine doing deliveries in winter na ni place hujui,’ he explains with a smile. ‘Saa zingine unapatana na ma dogi and when it is dark you have to walk up close to the house to confirm the address. Imagine walking around with a flashlight from house to house in a white neighbourhood in winter.’
You pick up the weed from the neighbourhood dealer and are disappointed at the small package. Three gramms for £30, a big chunk out of your stipend that could get you at least ten times as much back in Nairobi but a price you were willing to pay to get high. The sweet dank scent fills the car when you free it from its foil and shrink wrapping and M is alarmed. ‘Not in the car. Let’s go somewhere.’ He pulls up at a deserted playground and you start rolling a slim one on the hood of his car but halfway through he stops you. ‘I don’t know how much it costs in Nairobi but it’s very expensive here and guys mix it with tobacco to make it last,’ he explains, adding a few pinches of tobacco from a small packet he’s been rolling his cigarettes from. M smokes a pack a day but does not do weed. Neither of you asks the other when they picked up the habit. ‘I wish ningejua unakam nikutume fegi,’ he says wistfully. Cigarettes are much more expensive in London than in Nairobi. You tell him a friend is flying to London for the Africa Writes festival in two weeks and he could bring along as many packets as his luggage limit allows. The first hungry inhale chokes and it takes two more before your lungs can stomach the tobacco and in a few minutes you appreciate the price difference. M smiles at you through the smoke and for a moment you are two young boys back in Umoja 1, looking for trouble.
Smoking shifts your perspective of life and after months of coming to Jeevanjee Gardens several times a day, you begin to notice things. Like how smokers are friendly, always ready to share a light or a half-life. There is always one or two young men, disheveled, often high or drunk, sweeping the barren, dusty patch at the smoking zone and gathering the cigarette butts and Tropikal wrappers into semi-hills that are burnt in the evening creating several patches of burnt earth. They move from one smoker to another other asking for change or a half life for their services. ‘Hakuna mtu anafagianga hapa na sisi hatulipwi na kanjo. Ni kujitolea tunajitolea,’ one of them recites the monologue while working, stopping long enough to pick his dues.
One day you are standing at the smoking zone and a man walks up to you asking for a cigarette. He looks familiar and answers the question furrowing your brow. ‘Mi nilikuanga nikifagia hapa kitambo,’ he says. He used to sweep the trash when you first started coming for cigarette breaks at Jeevanjee Gardens two years ago. He is cleaner now, more lucid and says he now works at a computer shop in town and offers to sell you a flash disk. ‘Niliona wacha nitoke hii place,’ he explains, with a faraway look in his eyes and you are suddenly uneasy with the elusive flame dancing delicately at your fingertips wondering who will make the call.
Photos by Frankline Sunday
This story appears in the Place issue of dry. Get your copy here.