Jaba

C.K.R. Mose

“Hmm, you see that woman getting out of that car over there? Yes, that Uber. She has recently just been dumped by her Sponsor after being caught with a Ben Ten in her house. Red-handed,” Kevo, the young man chewing jaba, regales his friends as they while away the hot afternoon in the estate baze, near the car wash where young men sit and count the hours before the evening rush hour calls to them to fulfil their roles as beat touts, kangez who work the evening shifts. Jaba, or khat, or miraa is a sweet leaf, at least to those that love to chew it. An ancestor’s gift from the green, rolling hills of Meru County, jaba is loved everywhere, even majuu, as these kangez, some of them kamageras, or baze touts, all agree. I mean, everyone knows of the famed jets of Tigania and Igembe, Probox and Toyota Hilux vehicles that fly from Meru to Nairobi in three and a half hours flat, a distance a normal, reasonably-fast car would need seven or more to do, depending on traffic. 

These Meru jets fear nothing – not the speed bumps, not the potholes, not other motorists, not even the police. They are driven by special drivers whose brains were long ago fried by the jaba itself, or otherworldly entities that give them balls and hearts of cold stone. And these cars rarely crash, though they have been known to smash into mince the odd jaywalker as they cruise past the different townships that line the road between Igembe and Nairobi. Rumour has it that the co-drivers of these cars usually have bundles of cash with them, and if they hit anyone, instead of stopping to waste precious time over a corpse, they just throw the bundles out the window without braking or slowing down. That is how serious the khat business is taken. The miraa is dashed from Meru like this so that it arrives at the airports as fresh as when it was harvested from the shambas, where it is then rushed to its main markets in Somalia, the Middle East, and the United Kingdom. So good is this jaba that some mlami scholar from some United Kingdom school has made a name for himself writing about what he calls “the khat nexus”. Of course, the local chewer of jaba is usually ignored in the rush for the big moneys from foreign lands. The local men and women, but mostly men, get the lower-grade one, like the tired leaves that now lie inside a bright blue muslin bag in the middle of the circle the young men make as they sit together to while away the hours. 

The young men occasionally reach for the leaves and throw them into the mouth to chew. This is baze ya jaba down near the Total petrol station at Sunton as you start the stretch towards Mwiki. It is a noisy place, with hooting matatus, shouting touts, bellowing women peddling uji and tea in large flasks. But baze feels like a refuge of sorts, oddly cut off from the hullabaloo. The few metres from the road to the abandoned construction site gives it that illusion of distance.

The frequency with which one reaches out to fetch leaves with dirty fingers is measured. All the men seated here contributed something small to buy the bag of jaba to share. So even the eating is equitable. José, the de-facto leader of the group, and the one who collected the money and bought the jaba from a friendly vendor at a small discount, is keeping an eagle eye on the frequency of dips per person. He is the quietest of the group, and he glances at Kevo, the one still rambling about the juicy titbit about the woman being caught with a Ben Ten by her Sponsor. 

“Eeeh, wacha hizi.” Gatesh, another of their number, speaks up, chastising Kevo, drawing the words out in the customary way he usually speaks. He is thin as a wire, with his dreadlocks piled high up his head and tied with a Bob Marley cloth dominated by greens and yellows. It is tied with such beautiful precision that the face of Bob Marley sits at the front of the hairdo. “Nani alikushow huyu mathe ako na sponsor, na unapenda hekaya za Ben Ten aje sasa wewe?” He wants to know why Kevo is obsessed with Ben Ten stories, that famous cartoon character who, in local parlance, has come to mean a young, virile man who enters into an entanglement with an older woman for sexual favours. 

“Si ni mimi nakushow,” Kevo says with the comic “I’m the one who is saying”, which is proof of no proof, and therefore proof that the story is likely made up. His lips are working hard, green froth collecting at their corners. “Uliza hata wasee huku utaambiwa.” He taunts Gatesh to ask around and confirm what he is already telling as fact. 

“How do you know the Ben Ten was not the sponsor?” Owen, the fourth member of the crew asks. Even sitting here, Owen is impeccably dressed, his black jeans obviously ironed. His afro is combed straight, his Nike shoes white and spotless, the tick mark facing the wrong direction because he bought these shoes at a shop on Taveta Road in the Central Business District (CBD) for an amount equivalent to less than 15 dollars. Even his black Beatles tee-shirt shows signs of being ironed, neat lines marking the centres of the sleeves. 

At his question, everyone, including him, bursts into loud, uninhibited, prolonged laughter. This is the laughter of carefree men, of men who are not in a hurry to go anywhere or do anything, and are determined to milk every last drop from that moment of mirth. 

“Weeeee baaana! Mumama wa kukuliwa tena anapewa dooo?” Kevo asks why an older woman, a “mumama” who is being serviced sexually needs to be given money, stressing on the word “kukuliwa”, or “being eaten”, and giving it a very suggestive meaning. The laughter intensifies at the thought of a younger Ben Ten giving his ostensibly older and wealthier entanglement money. This is the essence of stories shared over jaba, and how preposterous they can get, and just how much they are enjoyed.

“It depends,” Owen says after finishing his own laughter. He leans forward and picks a few leaves of the jaba, inspects them with keen eyes, folds them one by one, arranges them on one palm, and then picks them and places them inside his mouth as though they were dainty and full of sugar and honey. The rest watch him and say nothing. They are already used to him. They sometimes call him myuro behind his back, a reference to a white person. Behind his back, though. Owen is not one to tease like this because he gets very sensitive about these things. He catches feelings too quickly, despite his neat mannerisms and precise ways. A true myuro.

“Depends on?” José asks, chewing his own jaba, a bottle of water in a banged-up plastic Quencher bottle with a dirty dark blue bottle top nestled on his thighs. His dreadlocks are shorter, just above starter length. He doesn’t like people asking about it, especially the people that last saw him some years back when his locs reached the top of his buttocks, but he has a few months ago come back from Kamiti Maximum Prison, where he spent three years on what he insists was a fake rape conviction, and there, they shaved his thick and long tresses down to his bare scalp. He was initially given 11 good years by a judge who was having a moody day, but he benefited from amnesty the current president offered inmates on petty offences during the previous Jamhuri Day celebrations last December. He never speaks about how a rape charge was considered a petty offence by the head of state, and nobody dares to ask him anyway.

“The connection between you and the woman in question,” Owen says, chewing as neatly as he dresses and talks. 

“Have you been a Ben Ten before?” Kevo asks, laughter on the tip of his tongue. 

Owen shrugs and keeps chewing, his face a mixture of mystery and secrets. That shrug tells José that Owen will be saying nothing more about this story, and that yes, he does have a story to tell. Kevo taunts Owen, and even Gatesh cajoles him to say something, shed some light. “Huwezi tuacha tu hivo, Owen!”

“All I’ll say is,” Owen capitulates, “the best relationship I ever had, and will ever have, was with an older woman.” 

“You cannot call something the best when you’re so young!” Gatesh protests. “Eish, you’ve just hit 30; you’re still eligible for the Youth Fund another five years.”

“You can,” Owen says. “No one will ever love me like that again.”

“So why did you let her go?” José asks. Owen shrugs again and falls silent. His silence is infectious, and the four continue to chew their jaba. 

“At first I thought she only liked me for the sex,” Owen says from nowhere. “She was older, and I, younger. Si older women only want the sex? So at first I dished it to her and others, even told her she was the only one when she wasn’t.”

“Eheee!” It is Kevo, sipping the juice of the story already, ready with the teasing. “Owen mwenyeweee! The player of players!”

“Wewe, Kevo, shut up and let’s listen!” Gatesh is becoming invested in this jaba story he has never heard before. Owen’s lips are usually as unimpeachable as his dressing. Of all the boyz in the baze, he is the one most trusted with secrets and things one would rather say only once and never again; you know, things men say when they are drunk, or heartbroken, or just having a very bad stretch and thinking of ending it all. 

“Anyway, something happened and I ghosted my older mama,” Owen goes on, and Gatesh can tell that Kevo’s teasing has made Owen cut short his story, and that that is the end of it. He is right, and wrong. “But over the next months, I kept thinking about how she had been so kind to me, so considerate. She didn’t deserve this, and the guilt was hot, man. It burned me from inside. I reached out to her some four months later.”

“And?” Kevo cannot help himself.

Owen shrugs. “She was nice, and she talked to me, ndio, but she had moved on. Nilikuwa nimependa huyo mamaa, na ilinichoma kusikia ati she was planning a wedding, baana.” The boys swallow this explanation. Owen loved her, but she had told him she was getting married to someone else. 

“Aargh, hii ni story gani ama ni jaba ishapanda?” José asks, disgusted by the insipid conclusion of this story. It had started out so well, and had promised some high melodrama, and this is how it was ending? All of them can tell Owen had started out meaning to tell a more personal story but changed his mind halfway. It is uncharacteristic of Owen to even be this open, and José is right that this could just be a jaba-induced lie.

“Ama unataka kulia?” Gatesh says, asking him if he wants to cry, trying to push the thing that has come over them away by taunting Owen. All of them burst into laughter and dig into the blue muslin bag to chota more jaba for the chewing. They are all feeling mellow, maybe even a little maudlin. They know the “something” that happened between Owen and his mystery once-in-a-lifetime love probably has to do with the crazy baby mama he has once said, in another rare moment of unguardedness, he would love to kill.

“I get you loud and clear,” José cuts in, and the rest do not mind. He is equally tight-lipped and taciturn, so they tend to listen when he starts to reveal layers of himself. “I had a woman like that once. She was so nice to me, I just didn’t realise it then. Si you understand, sometimes a mnyama like me cannot sleep in a bed because I’m just used to the jungle, you get?”

There is silence. It has never felt good to tease José. That wall of silence behind his eyes usually spells more than a “fake rape” conviction at Kamiti. Lore in the streets say José once belonged to a politician’s jeshi, private militia hired as goons to intimidate opponents and perceived threats. José, some say in quiet whispers, led one mission where a prominent member of the electoral commission vanished and was found dead some days later, lying in some thicket somewhere, eyes gouged out and privates torn to shreds. Of course, all these are whispers, but the boyz in the mtaa look upon these stories with some belief. It is José, after all, and his eyes are a veil into a sometimes dark and twisted soul. When he calls himself a mnyama, a beast in the jungle, he is being serious.

“I chased her away by being the hyena I am, and she has my kid you know,” he says. “I have been thinking of her lately, bwana. I am not growing younger and this hyena is losing its teeth. Unajua a lone beast is easy to kill, you get?”

His frequent “you get” hangs in the air like a conspicuous cloud. The boyz are not used to it. It is something he came back with from Kamiti, alongside a certain metallic grit round the edges that sometimes makes it difficult for them to relax in his presence. The only sounds, for a time, are those of jaba being chewed and green froth forming at the corners of the mouth. Gatesh spits out green goo from his mouth, expertly, like a cobra. Some residue remains on his lower lip, a fine mist of greenish powder on dry, scaly lip. 

“And you, Owen?” he asks to break the uncomfortable silence that has descended on the group. “What happened to your woman?”

“Si nimewashow she said she was getting married, ama hukushika?” He sounds irritated, asking what part of her getting married to someone else they did not understand. 

“Hiyo ilikuwa story ya jaba, msee,” Gatesh says without irony, telling Owen that the woman saying she was getting married to someone else was a jaba-fuelled excuse. “Women love to talk of marrying other men to see if you will pursue them or give up on them, and it seems wewe, you just believed and didn’t pursue her.”

“Ndio maana hamko pamoja,” Kevo says, mouth busy, agreeing with Gatesh. “That’s why you are here telling us nobody will ever love you the same. You messed, bro. Hii kitu, man, this thing was easy, but you messed up.”

“What do you know about messing up?” There is heat under Owen’s calm voice, the threat of an unexpected fury that has started to quickly boil. “What do you know, when you have never been in a serious relationship, and it is just noise, kelele, here on the daily? On God, hata tunaeza pigana saa hii.” He delivers the “on God” with a swipe of his forefinger across his face like a magician waving a dangerous wand, threatening to fight Kevo. 

“Tulia, bro,” Kevo says, telling Owen to relax, and stretches his thin self, undaunted. “Mimi na wewe hatuwezi pimana kifua na sisi ni wanaume, hatuna matiti, hakuna mwenye ni mkubwa kuliko mwingine.” Baze wisdom at its finest, saying two breastless men cannot measure chest sizes like women. This seems to deflate Owen, who withdraws into his reticence, but the irritation still hangs around him like perfume that has mixed with heavy sweat and a hard day and has now become stale and conspicuous to every nearby nose.

A big matatu with bright colours flashing from the front and decorated with scenes from Game of Thrones, pulls up at the stage about 30 metres away with loud, continuous blasts of its horn. The noise joins the rest of the melee around them, breaking into the sheltered air of the baze. The boyz turn towards the loud horns that sound almost lyrical.

“Ndio hii Khaleesi,” Kevo says, pointing at the purple-coloured matatu called Khaleesi that has graffiti depictions of the famed Mother of Dragons from Game of Thrones. This is the matatu he has been waiting for, because he works his evening shifts on it. “Let me do a squad, then I’ll be back.” He makes reference to the colloquial name for one trip to the CBD and back, what the boyz call a squad. 

The rest watch as he dashes off and jumps into Khaleesi’s doorway as the matatu slows down to clear a speed bump. As Kevo jumps in, another tout jumps out. Kevo will man Khaleesi’s door as the matatu drops off passengers round the estate, then he will help new passengers in and collect the fares as Khaleesi plies the route back to town, letting passengers out and in. At the city centre, Khaleesi will get into a queue, and once it is full, Kevo will return with it back to the estate. He will work the evening shifts and come back to rest after ten o’clock when the mandatory curfews begin.

The kange that jumps out of Khaleesi joins the crew of men.

“Niaje, wasee?” he greets them as he plops on the ground beside them.

“Poa sana Jijo,” Gatesh responds on behalf of everyone.

“Mko juu ya jaba naona.” Jijo observes well. Yes, they are chewing jaba. “Ahem, so tell me a nice story. I hear Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are going to space, or what’s the deal? Hmmm?” 

They talk of the upcoming developments where the world’s top billionaires want to build spaceships and go into space.

“I hear they want to build a colony on Mars,” Jijo offers. “Would you want to live on Mars, the so-called Red Planet, that doesn’t even have air or water?”

“Pipe dream,” Owen says. “From here to Mars is far, bro. If fare to town is a problem for many, how will people get to Mars?” Fair point. Who can afford to fly to Mars if not only the uber wealthy?

“Just the super rich,” Gatesh says, agreeing.

“But they can’t go without us,” Owen says. “Rich people are rich because they have hustlers like us doing the dirty work for them. You think they are going to go to Mars by themselves, a place with no roads, no housing, not even toilets, without us slaves? They won’t. Unless they take us there for free then we spend the next 10 years paying back the ticket fares they paid for us.” The rest, except Jijo, regard Owen as he talks. When he is moody, he tends to go into tirades such as this one, talking about capitalism and how the rich only exploit the poor. Only he could start talking about how the rich cannot survive on the red planet without “slaves” to do the menial work for them. 

“Would you, in your right mind, accept such nonsense?” José asks who would want to become a slave for the rich on the red planet.

“Me,” Jijo says, putting his hand up as if he’s a student in a classroom. “There’s no difference between this life we are living here and going to Mars as a slave. Right now, I’m a slave to the driver of the matatu I work in. If he wakes up one morning with a hard-on for me, that day, I get nothing in my pocket. At least on Mars there could be an essential job, which would give far better prospects than this one we have here as kamagera.” He uses the term meaning beat-tout, a far lower rank than the regular touts on matatus. 

“I don’t know,” Gatesh says. “I disagree. At least here I have some freedom, baana! Like now, we are here on jaba stories! On Mars, would this be possible? Would we have jaba sessions? Would we even have jaba itself? Where would I hang with my boyz? And the distance! If you wake up one day and feel you no longer want to live and work there, what happens? Who will pay your dues and your ticket back?” 

“Going to Mars is just like going to work in Saudi Arabia,” Owen says. “You know our sisters go there a lot, and I hear they are even forced to go with dogs, eh? They are forced to do unspeakable things, and you cannot come back because you have no ticket, and you don’t even have your passport, which they take from you. No. I can’t.”

“There are no dogs on Mars, baana!” Jijo says. There is loud laughter.

“Yes. But you never know what has replaced that dog!” Owen says. “It could be an alien attacking you from all your holes – you’ll even wish for the dog!” 

They all laugh loud, raucously. They shake off the stories of Mars, and slave labour for billionaires on the red planet, of stories about Saudia Arabia and how local women end up there forced into bestiality, trapped in violent jobs without pay, and with their passports confiscated, unable to return home. They dip into the blue muslin bag, one by one, to scoop more jaba. Jijo takes what would have been Kevo’s share, since Kevo left abruptly without scooping a few leaves for the road. In any case, with the new pandemic directives, it is pretty difficult to chew jaba and spit while on the job because of the damn masks. Jijo stands up. His appears to have been a short visit.

“Nafika kejani niingie job ingine kutafutia watoto,” he announces his departure, and the rest burst into animated laughter, throwing hands and legs into the air with mirth. This is how he always takes his leave, saying he is going to his second job to look for money to feed children he does not have. Jijo is a contradiction. He is light-skinned and short, a little on the hefty side. Yet, he is agile, hardworking, and animates easily. He only works the midmorning to early afternoon shifts on the matatu Khaleesi, preferring to operate his boda boda in the early morning and late evening rush hours, where he gets more money. He does not work on Sundays, though. He is a devout member of the Anglican church, and he is a member of the All Saints Cathedral choir, where he plays the piano twice a month during services. He dedicates Saturday afternoons and weekends to practise, then drives members home on his boda boda for a fee. The All Saints area can be dangerous at night for those walking, with thieves, pickpockets, street urchins, and rapists lurking about. When they want to talk behind his back when he gets a little too sanctimonious for their liking, the boyz call him “Pastor”. 

A tall-ish woman walks past, her jeans tight in all the right places. The boyz stare at her hips and bottom in silence. 

“Ni aje, Ras?” Jijo dares to venture and say hello to her, making reference to her dreadlocks by calling her ‘Ras’, short for ‘Rasta’. Her dreadlocks look new and fresh, still in the baby phase, so even his Ras is delivered with some irony as she has not yet earned the title.

“Poa sana,” she responds, and the boyz raise their eyebrows in surprise. The ladies do not care for their kind, those who ride in matatus and not their own cars. Even saying hello back is something they do not bother with. Jijo has scored points here.

“Eiii, pastor mwenyeweee!” Gatesh teases under his breath, sending the rest of the boyz into chortles. The woman does not turn back to see why they are snickering. Jijo does a mock wave at her departing back, then turns and winks at the rest.

“Plans for tomorrow?” José asks the departing Jijo.

“Tomorrow I’m in Khaleesi for my morning shift, then in the afternoon I’m in the church choir.” Jijo says. “Why?”

“Ah, ni sawa, ntakuchapia later. Kuna kitu nataka,” José says, making the rest look at him briefly, curious as to why he would wish to see Jijo on a private matter, especially knowing that Jijo is usually incommunicado on Sundays when he goes full-on pastor. 

“Hey Owen, I saw your woman in the news last night,” Jijo says as he walks away. “The nice one you let go of. Eh, kumbe she was a filmmaker? Her script apparently made it to Hollywood baana! Had you stayed with her, you would be sipping gin and tonic with Zack Snyder!” 

“Wacha jaba wewe!” Owen shouts, mortified to have his business out in the air in such an unexpected way. He accuses the departing Jijo of being impaired by the jaba they have all been chewing.

“You saw her in the news?” Gatesh exclaims, surprised. “Haiya!”

“Check online!” Jijo leaves, running after an old matatu going in the opposite direction. He will not be charged, and it’s a free ride for him. One of the perks of being a tout. Behind him, the boyz erupt into more laughter despite the looks of anguish and death on Owen’s face. Jijo has revealed, quite inadvertently, something they did not know about Owen’s mystery love..

“Zack Snyder!” Gatesh says. “Owen, you have failed all of us baana! We would all be doing rounds in Hollywood as we speak!” 

“That story is a lie,” Owen says, his face dark. He is fishing for his phone, a fancy Tecno. The rest of the boyz jump into their own phones, which had curiously stayed out of sight the entire time they were chewing jaba, like they had been taking a break from their TikTok and Facebook selves. Gatesh is the first to spot the news on Opera Mini.

KENYAN WRITER IN HUGE HOLLYWOOD DEAL

“Ayayayaaa, Owen!’ Gatesh says. “This is the woman you were calling old and she looks like she’s in her 20s? This is the woman you dumped?” 

José is equally stunned as he looks into his phone, finding the name of Owen’s no-longer-mystery love and looking at her photographs on Google images. He whistles in wonder and shakes his head. Owen, deep into his phone, is quiet. Even the stalwart José can see he has been severely affected by this news. José wonders for a moment how Jijo came to know something this private about Owen that even the rest of them did not.

“Eiii, Jijo amefanya ile kitu leo,” Gatesh says of Jijo with a lot of glee at how he has outed Owen. It is always a pleasure to find out new things about Owen, the most secretive of their number. The matatu Jijo had jumped into stops a few feet from where he boarded it to let out two passengers. He whistles to catch the attention of the boyz, and they, with the exception of Owen, throw thumbs-up signs at him once he’s aboard the old matatu and laugh the laugh of the young and carefree. There’s a small crowd of people at the stage, close to where they are seated, and they observe people of different calibres and shades coming up and waiting for the next empty matatu to arrive.

“Msee ka huyu na hiyo tumbo yote sasa…” Gatesh starts by teasing an overweight, rotund man who is huffing and wiping sweat from his face with a handkerchief. The rest laugh at the idea of such a man having any relations with a woman. The jaba is almost finished. Their cheeks are bulging on one side as they keep chewing and collecting green goo on the corners of their mouths. The evening rush is about to start, and this little conclave is about to end. 

“Zack Snyder,” José says as he stands up. “Owen, you messed up a big one, bro.”

Owen shrugs and remains silent. Even he knows it is only the unwise who disagree with José.

Another fancy matatu with flashing lights slows down at the bumps to let people off. This one has the black and yellow markings from the city of Gotham..

“Batman amefika,” Gatesh says, talking about the matatu as though it were animate. He picks a few more leaves of jaba and dashes off to go work without a backward glance. He will be back here tomorrow, and they will all be having heavier doses of jaba. 

Another matatu pulls up. Ironically, this one is called Snyder Cut and has markings from the second iteration of the Justice League movie. The side that faces them has the likeness of Gal Gadot playing Wonder Woman. José stands up, shakes free the remaining jaba leaves that are left in the blue muslin, and leaves. Snyder Cut is his matatu. He literally owns it, but never likes to drive it, so he keeps an eye on it by working as one of its kangez. Few people know he owns it, though, especially not the established businessmen of the sacco that all matatu owners must legally join to operate their matatus in the city. After all, he’s a convict, the kind of character that would make the founders of the Hannover Trans Matatu Owners Sacco very nervous. 

Owen is left by himself. He picks himself up and leaves for home. Tomorrow will be another day for story za jaba with his mates. Only he will not make it. Neither will Jijo. Later that night, news will reach his comrades that he was in a head-on collision with a car while manoeuvring his boda boda through heavy rain at the Eastern Bypass, leaving his brains scattered all over the tarmac, and they will be hit by an unsurpassed grief that will take everything out of them.

But that is a jaba story for another day.

C.K.R. Mose is a Kenya-based writer and educator, currently working in an educational non-profit that supports African women scholars. She is also a fantasy writer, having completed her debut novel which is now in the querying stage. It is an epic fantasy with African elements, inspired by her scholarly work in African culture, love for astrology, old maps, ancient African kingdoms, epic instrumental music à la Two Steps from Hell, and music from the kora, marimba, and various horns. She has a published short story in the 2020 Nairobi Noir anthology, and another in Unstamatic Magazine (2022), and aims to continue building her writing portfolio.

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