The movers were still carrying our furniture off the back of the pick-up truck and into the new house in Zimmerman when my mother laid down the first rule of our new life without my father. She brought Kendi and me through the building’s gate and into the street. She instructed us to open our ears wide, so we pulled at our earlobes.
“Let me never hear you have gone past there and there alone.” She pointed first to the fundis making chairs at an open-air workshop up the street and then down at the swamp through which the street cut. Between those two points were many buildings on either side of the street, the kind called plots, enclosed in three-metre-high stone walls topped with broken glass. Each plot was only accessible via a small door in a metal gate topped with spikes – the architecture of maximum security prisons. The plots shared a garbage heap, the stray goat that lorded over that garbage heap, a general store on the ground floor of plot eight, and a row of shops collectively known as Ebenezer Shopping Centre.
I was eight years old. Timid among adults but loud-mouthed among my friends and a bit of a bully too – an expert at the game of mchongoano, known for my cutting and creative insults. I did not look the part of a bully though; I was thin, which caused my mother and our housegirl, Scholastica, much distress.
“Where does all the food he eats go?”
They made me drink a bottle of dewormer every three months and whispered conspiratorially when my body refused to fulfil their dreams of glowing plumpness.
I could not have added weight if I tried. All my energy went into the various misadventures I partook with Sammy, of which the women in my house had no awareness. My mother worried about how I would turn out now that my father had abandoned me to the exclusive care of women. Sammy was a relief from this constant care, a rough stone on which I bruised myself and bled. Had my mother known, for example, how often we had stuck copper wire into sockets at his house, she would have separated me from Sammy long before I broke her first rule.
He was some months older and slightly shorter. The third-born in a family of five children. His only brother was much older, a teenager at the time. His two younger sisters had each other for company, and his older sister was the de facto house girl at their house, hardly ever to be seen skipping rope in the street or throwing her body about while dodging a ball in Kaati. But Sammy hardly lacked playmates. He gathered other children to himself easily. He was, in fact, in the middle of telling a preposterous story when I finally escaped my mother the day we moved in.
I found seven, maybe eight, boys around him as he stood on the quarry stones left over from the construction of Ebenezer Shopping Centre.
“I saw it. The glass cut off his head shaaa,” he said, imitating decapitation with a finger across the throat.
Some of the boys hid their eyes behind their hands.
“You, stop lying,” protested a boy, a twin, whose name I would later learn was Edwin.
“I swear.” Sammy bit his finger and flicked it to seal his oath. “And then his head continued talking, saying, ‘Hee, that was close. Haiya, I almost lost my head.'”
The children laughed, and I experienced a clenching of the stomach, a diminishing. I wanted what this boy had, although I did not know why.
“Only that?” I said and drew attention away from him. I could see the fascination on some of the boys’ faces at my having dared to belong among them without any introduction. I had overheard one of my paternal aunts telling a curious tale to my parents the year before and now regurgitated it with wild additions. “One time when we were going to ushago at night, my dad saw this old man walking up a hill and gave him a lift. He said he was going just here. We drove and drove and when my father asked the old man where he was going, he said, just here, keep going. Finally, I looked down at his feet. I almost screamed.”
“What? What did you see?” asked the other twin, called Eric.
“He had feet like a goat. He started laughing. Then he told us that if my dad had not helped him, we would have had an accident, and he would have drunk all our blood. But now, he would not hurt us. He just disappeared.”
“Waah. You met a djini?” asked Sammy, wide-eyed.
We soon exchanged toys: his self-made wire car for my store-bought red truck. There would be terrible quarrels later on, physical fights too, but that afternoon we fell into easy harmony and even withdrew from the other boys to gorge ourselves on more gruesome stories. Sammy and I were of the same spirit; we reinforced each other’s curiosity and daring. It was inevitable that we would go looking for trouble.
One Saturday afternoon, some eight or nine months after the move to Zimmerman, I came out into the street to find the boys playing hide-and-seek. I joined them but was agitated. My mother had denied me permission to leave the house all morning. She’d wanted to spend time with Kendi and me, having arrived home after the prime-time news each night that week. She’d sat with us through our morning cartoons and shows, asked innumerable questions about our lives, and then had Scola feed us excessively.
I wished to run, to enact my desire to escape the fussing of the women in my house. I soon convinced the other boys we needed a competition. Kevin volunteered his mfaraa, and we took turns riding it up and down our section of street, cheering whenever one of us managed to keep the circular loop of metal (a former clothes hanger) upright and in motion without getting the attached string and stick tangled.
But the day was too hot for such vigorous activity, and one by one, the boys left in search of shade. Most went home to watch TV. Only Sammy and Tim remained outside with me.
Tim was smaller than both of us although he was eight too. He went to the same school as Sammy but had repeated class two. At one point, Sammy stole one of his exercise books to show the rest of us the sentences that veered off the ruled lines, and we laughed at Tim mercilessly and pushed him around. He only smiled, unfazed by our calling him ‘mkono kombo’ and by the ngoto we rapped on his skull with our knuckles; he even seemed happy for the attention.
He was often ill and dripping snot, which he then disgustingly wiped off on his sweater cuff. Few of us liked him. He was attached to our group only because we needed him to be the goalkeeper when we played football. I did not have the language then to explain what made him repulsive to me. Today, I would say that he was too eager, too willing to please, too insistent on being included. He was an easy object for my meanness.
“What do we play now?” he asked when the other boys left the street.
“Who is playing with you?” I said.
But that did not make him go away. He followed Sammy’s gaze to the festering garbage heap and then looked back at me. I did not want to go home. My mother and Scola were selecting stones and chaff out of several kilos of rice and whispering about the happenings in the building while my sister sat nearby, colouring. Furthermore, the TV was off limits until 4pm.
Sammy’s house was no haven either. My family lived right below his. We’d heard his parents shouting at each other the previous night as they did every few days. While my mother made no comment about these occurrences, Scola and her housegirl friends had much to say. Sammy’s mother, as a stay-at-home mum, held them all in contempt, dressed better, and was always keeping tabs on what they did and did not do when their employers were away at work. She often made seemingly harmless remarks to these employers. The housegirls called her Kishetani and revelled in watching her marriage shred.
Sammy had pounded Eric the twin once for a mchongoano that mentioned his parents, so we knew to never talk about what went on in his house. Besides, his mother was an excellent cook and won us over with the largest, fluffiest mandazi to be found in our neighbourhood. They were made of air. We ate and ate and had to then suffer through actual meals in our own homes where we had been expressly forbidden from eating food from other homes.
Sammy ignored Tim and wandered off onto the veranda of the Ebenezer Shopping Centre. To eavesdrop, I knew.
“How about Banoo?” Tim tried again, producing marbles from his pocket.
Luckily, two men appeared at the top of our street then, moving from one electricity or telephone pole to the next. One man carried a bundle of papers and the other a tin. They stopped at a pole, the man with the tin applied whatever was in the tin to the pole with a brush and the other plastered on one of the sheets of paper.
“What are they doing?” asked Tim. His voice was thin and nasal and grated on my senses.
The men arrived at the shopping centre soon enough, and we stalked them as they visited the tailor, barber, baker, and hardware manager, seeking permission to put up the posters on their doors. WaJoyce, the tailor, who was religious, said no, she would not have ungodly messages on her premises.
“It’s only a fun park, madam,” said the man with the tin. “People need to relax.”
“And what is this relaxing? Dancing to dirty music and drinking beer?”
The men went away, shaking their heads. The posters depicted swings, slides, and merry-go-rounds. Whole families sat around tables laden with nyama choma and bottles of soda and beer. A band of musicians armed with guitars stood on a stage. Children smiled out of faces painted with butterflies and Batman masks. There was even a swimming pool.
“It’s in Stage Two,” I said.
“Where is that?” asked Tim.
We looked at Sammy. If his stories were true, he and his brother had explored the farthest expanses of Zimmerman – once to witness cars skid, slide, and roar through the muddy course of the annual Safari Rally; another time to swim in a dam; and yet another time to peer into the hole Caterpillars had excavated for the foundations of the tallest building in Nairobi.
“That way,” said Sammy. “Far away.”
“We should go and see,” said Tim.
Sammy’s face lit up at this.
“But you said it’s far away,” I protested.
Sammy began walking.
“Just say you are afraid,” shot Tim.
I was afraid. I thought of the leather belt my mother used to discipline Kendi and me. She aimed at the back of the legs and the buttocks. She seared memory into our bodies. She left us emptied of disobedience and naughtiness for days after. But I also thought of the joy of sliding down those slides, cutting through the air on those swings, getting dizzy on those merry-go-rounds and, of course, beating water in that swimming pool. I could not swim at the time, and none of us considered that the owners of the fun park might not admit three unaccompanied and dirty minors.
“You will get into trouble,” Sammy said when I caught up to them, panting a little.
Sammy stuck his hands into his pockets so that his shoulders almost grazed his large, satellite-dish ears.
I do not remember everything we saw that afternoon, but once we left our street, having taken a left at the first junction we found – because a right turn led to the familiar bus stage at Safeways Supermarket, and Sammy insisted that keeping straight led to the end of the world – I suffered disappointment. I had not expected to see the same plots, the same shops, the same kind of people as were to be found on our street. I too wanted to witness, as Sammy had, KPLC men raising poles and adding cables to them to bring electricity to a new area.
Then a lorry came by and Sammy had an idea. When it slowed to tackle a deep pothole, we ran. Sammy caught up with it first and helped us get onto its underride guard, where we hung, mimicking the conductors we’d seen swinging at the doors of speeding matatus.
Luckily, there was no one in the back of the lorry. As it accelerated again, we looked at each other and laughed, perhaps thinking the same thought. I had never done anything half as dangerous. I had the sensation of rising out of my body. I was separate from even Tim and Sammy, reliving a Wild West movie I had seen on TV a few weeks before, horses galloping, guns firing, the shouts of angry Native American warriors swinging axes.
Sammy nudged me. The lorry was slowing down. It came to a stop, and we jumped and ran, the driver’s insults in pursuit.
“Nyang’au. Mbwa. Jinga sana.”
But we were out of his reach. We stopped to stick out our tongues at him. He shook his fist and drove off.
“You know this area?” I asked Sammy.
The character of the plots had changed. Here, they were packed tight without any empty land between them. They rose higher and were drab, their paint peeling, their walls seemingly weeping. The smell of sewage pervaded the place. Clothes hanging on the many clotheslines along the verandas appeared to swell and flutter with consciousness. The people were no different from the ones on our street, but they seemed caught in a languor, sitting here and there on the street, on stones, on broken stools and upturned buckets. I tasted hopelessness and felt that I was being drawn into it.
The only energy came from a huddle of men in combative conversation.
“The elections are over. Why are people still fighting?” asked one man.
“Are you a fool? How is this fighting? We are being killed like dogs.”
“This name here, this Korir, is he Kikuyu too? Your people are killing Kalenjins too.”
“No,” said another man. “This is the government and Moi punishing those who did not vote for him. Even Luos and Luhyas are being killed.”
“Are you people not afraid? Saying things like this. There are eyes and ears everywhere.”
The man who said this turned to glare at us. I felt his eyes on my back even after we passed the group.
“My father says Kikuyus are thieves. They stole other people’s land. Now they are being chased away,” whispered Tim.
I stared him down. Sammy was a Kikuyu. But he had not heard Tim. His eyes roved the strange street. He was as if entranced, and I could not understand how such ugliness could fascinate him. I caught his arm.
“How far is Stage Two?”
We could not have travelled more than a kilometre from home, could we?
“Go back if you want,” said Sammy.
“Yes, go back,” mimicked Tim.
Still, I followed them down that closed-in street. Sammy seemed to be guided by the music coming from further on. An evangelical crusade. Men and women were two-stepping and singing themselves hoarse and off key into microphones on a stage erected in an empty field that also served as a garbage dumping site. The banner above their heads read “Jesus Miracle Worker Apostolic Centre”. A large crowd had gathered around the stage, some participants, others spectators. I was Catholic then, raised on hymns, incantations, and hardly any body movement. I knew nothing of the ways of the Pentecostals.
One song involved stomping the devil into oblivion, another declared victory in the name of Jesus Christ, another rained down riches on the believers. I felt uncomfortable in the midst of the joy plastered on the faces I saw. It was unnatural.
A man in a worn suit raised his hand and chopped through the air. The music died, and he, wiping his face with a cloth, thundered into his microphone, “Praise the Lord, brethren.”
“Amen,” shouted the crowd.
“God is good…”
“All the time.”
“And all the time…”
“God is good.”
“Hallelujah. Brothers and sisters, God has not forgotten us. These times may seem difficult, even impossible, but the Lord is on the throne. Amen?”
“With our human eyes we see problems, but Jehovah is our Deliverer. We will walk through the valley of the shadow of death and He will be there. So do not worry about how you will eat. The economy will not defeat Jesus.”
Voices rose in shouts. The drums sounded. The keyboard rang out. The people on the stage began praying.
“What are they saying?” I asked.
Rabaraba boshakara nana ya sasotiso banayakara boshakara…
“They say that when the Holy Spirit enters them,” said Tim.
I was surprised he would know such a thing.
“How does the Holy Spirit enter them?”
Sammy elbowed me in the belly. “Kwani you want to get born again?”
I elbowed him back. He kicked me in the shin, and I chased him down. Yet, even as I ran, I felt that I had witnessed something I should not have – the conversation of the men, the joy of the crusade, all seemed to expose a certain vulnerability in adults. I was perturbed. Something was wrong on that street, and I began to suspect on ours too: Sammy’s parents who shouted at each other; the baker who hated children; the men at the barbershop who spent all day whistling at every woman passing by; and the meanness of the tailor who I now understood was a born-again.
Sammy and Tim made a game of taunting me with “Kim is born again”. Most infuriating was seeing them collaborate to make me the outsider of the group. That was Tim’s role. I ran hardest after him. I grabbed his collar and yanked him down. He let out a scream.
I got a kick in before I noticed Sammy standing very still nearby. He seemed about to cry.
“He was only playing,” he said quietly.
My anger evaporated, leaving salty shame in my throat. And the shame made me detest Tim even more. He got to his feet and dusted himself down.
“I am going to buy a soda,” he said.
“You have no money.”
He showed me a 20-shilling note.
“Where did you get that?” asked Sammy.
“He is a thief,” I said, but that did not stop me from following when Tim led us to a kiosk, a wooden structure jutting out into the street and narrowing it. It was dark behind the aperture through which a hand appeared to take money and give out products. Again, I felt surveilled by strange eyes. Tim bought a Fanta Orange. I expected him not to share it, but after taking a gulp, he passed the bottle to Sammy and then me. Since we did not have an empty bottle to give the shopkeeper in exchange, we had to stand outside his shop, passing the soda from mouth to mouth. I tried not to feel guilty for taking his soda.
“I don’t know the way to Stage Two,” Sammy said halfway through the soda. He spoke remorsefully. I was surprised. Sammy was a macadamia nut. You had to bash him quite hard to break through his outer thuggishness. I knew that his parents’ fighting was affecting him. This resigned version of him disturbed our equilibrium and made me angry. Tim was calling him a liar and pointing, dancing about. I snapped, “Shut up or I will beat you, cockroach.”
Tim cowered. I thrust the remaining soda into his hand and nudged Sammy. “Leave this one. Let’s go home.”
We should have gone back as we had come, but I led Sammy down a side street that seemed to travel diagonal to the street we were on, thinking to shortcut our way home. Tim trailed us, always there when I looked over my shoulder. Sammy had his hands in his pockets and kicked stones absentmindedly as we walked between buildings.
“Don’t worry. You can come live with us,” I said, throwing my arm around his shoulders.
Sammy smiled weakly. “You pee in your bed.”
This was true, but I denied it. He shook his head and seemed to bite the inside of his mouth. I felt stung by his refusal and took away my arm. I secretly wished him even more parental fights.
Then the path suddenly poured into a large, barren field with smatterings of grass growing in red soil and incomplete stone buildings like forlorn teeth. A dry field that spanned as wide as my imagination and held a single stunted tree. Only in the far distance was it bordered by what appeared to be plots. All we had to do was cross it, and we would be home, I was sure. Now I began worrying about Scholastica coming out into the street to call me in for my evening bath. If she did not find me, if any of the shop owners told her that they had seen me leave with Tim and Sammy, I was going to face my mother’s belt. I quickened our pace.
Sammy soon found an empty tin to kick, and thus began our game of kicking, each of us trying to kick the tin farthest. We soon had dusty shins and shorts. Tim did not join us, and I pretended not to hear him sniffle as our shadows travelled that terrain. I had made him cry. The thought made me both guilty and hateful. I wanted to flee, but it was Sammy who took off suddenly, rejuvenated. I pursued him. I pumped my arms, I extended my legs, I gulped air through my mouth. It was very important to me that I not lose the race. I ran even when Sammy stopped.
“Hey,” he said. “Hey. Where is Tim?” he asked.
We swept our eyes over the wide expanse and found nothing but the jaggedness of rocks and incomplete buildings. A theatre of emptiness and wind. When we called Tim’s name, our voices traversed the field without echo. I knew that Tim had run away, and it was my fault.
“He is hiding. Leave him. We go,” I said.
But Sammy began walking back, calling Tim. I watched him with resentment until he approached the nearest incomplete building and vanished into it. I should have left them both behind. Instead, I followed.
I heard Tim’s voice first. “He is not my friend.”
It came from the upper floors of the building. I crept forward through damp rooms with holes for windows and doors. The builders had never cleared away the poles that temporarily held up wood and metal when the concrete slab roof was first poured. I squeezed between them to find stairs. The poles had rotted in some places and obstructed light in others. Shadow and light. I followed Tim’s voice. There was laughter as I reached the fourth floor. Tim sitting in a large room between two men on an embankment of sand – men who seemed immediately wrong. Sammy stood closer to the doorway, watching them.
“We go home, Tim,” Sammy said.
“They drank my Fanta, but they are not my friends,” said Tim.
“You have very many friends,” said one of the men, a scrawny figure in a faded T-shirt and jeans that had been sawn off at the knees, sprawled on the sand. His eyes were red and even from where I stood, I could smell the alcohol on his breath. The other man was chewing khat and gum and flicking a penknife. He wore sunglasses, but behind them, I knew there were evil thoughts.
“Boys, why are you not nice to your friend?”
He beckoned Sammy and me. We did not look at each other but both stepped forward. Sammy, like I, must have sensed that Tim would be in danger if we fled and left him there with those men. We sat down where the second man pointed.
“Friends are all you have in this life,” said the penknife man. “Your father will call you useless. Your mother will look at you like she did not give birth to you. Your sisters and brothers will have money and refuse to give you even a shilling. And the government will call you a gangster and shoot you dead. Isn’t that true?” he asked his companion.
“Friends will save you, man,” said the red-eyed man as he reached into his small T-shirt pocket and brought out a pinch of something he snorted up his nose.
“They beat me sometimes,” Tim said.
“Are you a girl to be beaten up?” the red-eyed man said, pushing Tim’s temple with a finger. The penknife man laughed and took a swig of the dirty-looking bottle they passed between them. I had heard stories of men who robbed banks, hijacked cars, cut into houses at night using power saws. I had heard too of children vanishing and being harvested for organs. I longed for my mother and Scholastica.
The penknife man squeezed Tim’s shoulder until the boy flinched.
“We are going to teach you how to fight,” he said. “Because no one is going to just respect you in this country. You have to make them afraid of you. Slap this one.”
Tim’s eyebrows jumped. But before he could protest, the man slapped him so hard the sound reverberated against the stone walls.
“Slap him,” the man said again.
Tim, dripping tears, slapped Sam, gently. For that, he got another clap, and the red-eyed man cackled so that his body seemed to wobble without any sense of direction.
“Harder, you pussy,” he said.
Tim’s second slap brought tears to Sammy’s eyes. Then it was my turn. Tim held nothing back.
“Now you slap him,” the penknife-wielding man instructed Sammy.
Sammy seemed like he might resist, but the man twirled his penknife before our eyes. “Have your parents not taught you to obey your elders?”
Sammy delivered the slap across Tim’s face and began wailing. The red-eyed man thrust the bottle into my hand. “Drink, for strength.”
I drank. I slapped Tim. I slapped Sammy. They, in turn, slapped me. On and on while the alcohol, cheap cane vodka, made my head swell, my throat and stomach burn. My cheeks hurt from the slaps, but the men would not let us stop, and that penknife kept cutting the air. When Tim finally vomited, the red-eyed man rained blows on him.
“Nyang’au, useless chicken,” he said.
“Calm down. Calm down,” said the other man. “You want to kill him?”
I thought our ordeal was over, but the penknife man said, “Now you are men. And men must act like men. Stand up. Open your trousers.”
I shook, and the red-eyed man saw me shaking and gave me another slap.
“Stand up straight, like soldiers,” barked the penknife man. “Now, listen carefully. We are going to have a competition. The one who can pee from here to there I will let you go. Begin.”
We stood in a line, horrified. We had peed together many times before, even had this very competition.
“Begin,” the man roared.
“Little chicken,” his accomplice said and sprang to his feet like a spider.
We obeyed instantly. But I could not shoot an arch like Sammy or even Tim. Frightened of what would come next, I peed a trickle that went down my shorts and legs.
The men howled with laughter, clapping each other’s hands. This sound was what broke my paralysis. I turned on my heel and ran. I felt the knife glaze my arm and heard it clatter on the floor behind me. I did not care what happened to Sammy or Tim. The men’s laughter followed me down the stairs, across that field and then across two decades.
Even when, an hour later, I made it home, dirty and bleeding, and into the arms of my panicked mother who turned my swollen face this way and that without admonition, asking who did this to me and ready to deliver retribution; even when my answers led to a search party for Tim and Sammy who were found not long after, also stumbling home; even when I fought a boy on our street for making fun of Tim a few weeks later; even when Sammy began inflicting his best insults on me again in games of mchongoano; even after growing to 5ft 11in and being elected head boy at my secondary school and then the President of the Student Union in university; even after I married and fathered a son of my own, that laughter told me over and over that I was and would always be a coward.
Makena Onjerika won the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing, was shortlisted for the 2020 Bristol Prize, and was a 2020 Best of the Net nominee. Her realist fiction work has appeared or is forthcoming in Imagine Africa, Adroit Journal, Granta, Johannesburg Review of Books, New Daughters of Africa and others. Her speculative fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021), Professor Charlatan Bardot’s Travel Anthology to the Most (Fictional) Haunted Buildings in the Weird, Wild World (2021 edition) and Fireside Quarterly.
*Image by Zach Vessels on Unsplash