Alone in the Dark

In the past few months, my little brother’s eyes have grown somewhat…older. In many ways, Terence is still the same. He’s still dwarfed by many of his classmates, and still hides behind the nearest wall when visitors come over until someone drags him out into the open, then, after a bashful ‘Hi,’ flies up the stairs and slams the door of his bedroom shut. But even though gaps still show in his mouth where little teeth used to be, and he still finds sweet things irresistible and study a recurring nightmare (sometimes, when he’s told to revise for his exams, he even cries), there’s something different about him nowadays.

Ever since my youngest sister, Eleanor, was born, he’s had to give up the lastborn privileges – she is now the two-year-old queen of the Nyiha household. Her subjects? A doting father, a caring mother, a wise, cheerful maid and five insane siblings. For my part, I can’t help it: her innocence just shines out from her, glorious and pure and unpretentious, digging deep into my heart and, by the contrast, so vividly showing me my own interior darkness and complication that I feel ashamed. Often, I turn away so the tears don’t well up; maybe you’ve felt the same way before. And nowadays, when Terence looks at her as they run shouting all over the house, there’s a hint of a protector inside his boyish eyes.

I still remember those nights when he and I used to sleep in the same room. He’d yank the door open and patter across the landing to my parents’ bedroom.

“I’m scared!” His wide eyes would glisten in the half-light coming in through the curtains.

My dad would murmur in a voice thick with sleep, “Mm…what are you scared of?”

“Monsters!” He’d think he’d heard them lurking in the dark …

Remember your old childhood fear.

Alone in the darkness, surrounded by her emptiness, your clothes and your own body heat the only sensations against your skin, she would haunt you. She’d echo every distant sound and long after the silence had settled, she’d whisper it in your ears. She’d compel your imagination to fill her emptiness with all sorts of strange noises and movements. She’d set your heart racing with fear. She’d slow down the passing of time itself. But worst of all was the blindness, and the thoughts that came along with it, that anything could be hiding in your wardrobe, under your bed, right next to you, and you’d never know until it was too late.

Alone in the dark, you yearned for light.

For anyone who’s seen a bit more of life, though, that fear has a slightly different tone. Ask anyone caught out of his home after 7:00 p.m., and you’ll realise that darkness is to be feared. Only, it isn’t monsters we’re afraid of now…

Darkness, coldness, emptiness… it’s all the same, isn’t it?

Well, I used to think so too, until I started noticing kids more. Working in a school makes you notice them, no matter how aloof or absent-minded you may be. I like to look at the boys falling all over and screaming their heads off (just the younger ones, mind you; the older ones have lost their innocence). Every morning, they shout like it’s the first day of school, they play football with bottle tops and paper bags, they climb onto the monkey-bar and race each other back and forth, their eyes shining with delight, fear, and the thrill of being 1.5 metres above the ground – I guess that’s a huge drop for the little guys. And I think, “All of these also came from darkness.”

For nine months, they were sheltered in their mothers’ wombs where they were never alone, not even for a single moment. The darkness was never empty. There was no chilling silence because, even while she slept, her breathing accompanied them in the blackness. Though they could never see her or feel her touch, they knew she was there. And she always loved them.

The world is a mother’s womb.

We are inside it, immersed in darkness, in emptiness, in cold, in bitterness, in lies. You don’t need to go as far back as the World Wars. You don’t even need to go to the morning paper. Just look inside yourself, and if you’re honest, you’ll see it’s true.

Yes, in the world we find laughter, excitement, adventure, beautiful sunsets, the ocean’s hiss on the shore, the rain’s whisper in the trees… There are also tears, hatred, corruption, anguish, cynicism and despair. But we are not alone.

God looks upon us with a mother’s love.

… Then, why do we suffer?

Well, when I hear this question, I remember two closely connected things:

The first is a smile on a black face. (When I say black, I mean black.)

Joy coaxes all that darkness into gentle curves and sets the eyes gleaming with a light all at once familiar and mysterious. It seems to have no source, but suffuses the whole face, the way the twilight sun lights up the sky even though the sun has disappeared beyond the horizon. All sternness, all scars of time disappear in that strange glow of youth, vigour, hope and life.

Suddenly, a light fills the darkness.

The second is the Pope’s address to the youth in the Kasarani Stadium during his visit to Kenya two years ago.

Manuel, one of the youths chosen to ask the Pope a question, asked, “How can we realize that God is our Father? How can we see God’s hand in the tragedies of life?”

Visibly moved, he replied:

“There is only one answer: no, there is no answer. There is only a way: to look to the Son of God.

God delivered his Son to save us all. God let himself get hurt. God let himself be destroyed on the cross. So when the moment comes when you don’t understand, when you’re in despair and the world is tumbling down all around you, look to the cross!

There we see the failure of God; there we see the destruction of God. But there we also see a challenge to our faith: the challenge of hope. Because that story didn’t end in failure. There was the resurrection, which made all things new.”

Goodness from evil.

Life from death.

Light from darkness.

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Bittersweet

Recently, maybe mid-February, I was having dinner somewhere with some friends. I wish that I could say more about the place – the lighting, the decorations hung on the walls, the general atmosphere, the general atmosphere – but none of those things struck me that night. I didn’t notice any particular attention to detail in the folding of the napkins, in the choice of colours (not that it wasn’t there, though.) What did strike me was the dessert: a spongecake, golden brown, topped with coconut shavings dyed green, like a field of grass. Bright strawberries stood blushing at its corners, and in the warm light, you could see their juicy wetness.

As it went round, I tried to start some small talk with the man next to me, resisting looking at the thing, but in between words, my eyes kept darting left, as if drawn by a magnet. I’ve never lived a longer three minutes in my life!

Finally, it arrived. I served a (*ahem) reasonable portion onto my plate. Slowly, I dug in the spoon; the cake gave in under the pressure, I felt its airy softness. Then, the first taste. At once, a warm sweetness filled my mouth – the strawberry’s tartness was a burst of soul and vigour. But underneath it all, whisky’s bitterness rose, full and fiery, engulfing everything. It was so…poetic!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about that dish: bittersweet, and yet the bitterness was so full, so rich! It was like a little slice of life served on a plate…

It’s there in youths thrilled by the brilliant glamour of their dreams of success. For some, the bitterness comes when they take their first few steps and, dismayed at the realisation of the sacrifices they have to make, they falter and fail. Others endure, then encounter setbacks and fall,never quite mustering the strength and courage to get back on their feet. A few make it all the way to the end, but over the years, grow tired of it all, of working aimlessly all their lives, of having all the money they desired, and they begin to wonder what the point of life is if all you do is work for no reason for half your life, then retire, then die and leave all that effort behind… They seek something…fuller to satisfy that inner restlessness.

It’s there in newly-weds burning with ardent passion. At first, their bliss dwarfs all challenges and fears, and before its splendour, pain, sorrow, loneliness, and suffering seem to be just so much dust. But after a few weeks, reality slaps them hard in the face. Frictions that their passion had smoothed over become like sawblades digging deep. Pockets run empty. Stress kicks in. The in-laws enter the mix. They’re overwhelmed by a loss of that (so-called) freedom they used to have… The time has come to let go of the tinsel of good feelings and find that something deeper.

It’s there in Kenya, this country of ours, born of rivers of blood and countless tears, of soaring hope, borne in the memories of our elders and dying in the hearts of so many of her children. The skies in which their hope soared have clouded over, their horizons are veiled, the sun has sunk and in the darkness of corruption, hatred and cold, they fumble for light.

But what makes life’s bitterness full and rich, like whisky?

In the words of a wise priest, “Love is the best reason for doing anything.” Love makes everything worthwhile. Only in forgetting ourselves and thinking about others, about those next to us, in trying to serve them (all of them, even that person you just can’t stand, everyone) do we begin to find happiness.

Yes, life is bittersweet, and in her bitterness, we can find that deeper sweetness.

To Burn Again…

Though alive with deeper fire,
youth’s inflaming haunts me still;
For the hearth where once it burned now lies
in a half-light faint and still.

Yet if, by chance, a gust should blow by there,
o’er the ashes cold and grey,
the embers all at once are roused.
From underneath the ghost of fires past
there surges ardent flame,
sweet as mayfly cloud does from the earth
when showers deign to fall;
strong as whisky draught,
and whispering as gently as the rain.

Though the embers simply slumber,
though their burning lingers still,
still I yearn that there may surface soon,
from underneath the grey,
that lively heat, that fervent light
that stirs the soul,
that, in the darkness of the night,
flares high and radiant,
and melts the lifeless
chill.

Youth, your inflaming
haunts me
still.

On Inspiration

Those moments rare, when the veil is lifted,
The old light shines once more,
Not as faded gleam nor glimmer faint
Through the woven fabric’s pores,
But quickening the weary soul,
Illumining the mind;
A sudden burst, a brilliance fair,
Eternity’s bright, tender stare –
Oh, how I languish for those moments rare!

Blinded – Searching (Inner Restlessness)

Outside, the rain descending softly whispers;
Within, the tempest roars.
From the window, into haze like misty wedding veil I pore,
Lifting with my eyes the folds of marless clouds with hope unsure
Of touching with my gaze the peerless face, the radiance of her eyes.
Though now immured, I see her – still she lingers in my mind.
She is Life, she is Freedom,
She is Joy forevermore –
She ventures not within the confines of these walls.

Crying for Rain

It’s been a while since the last rains. You can see it everywhere. The trees don’t rustle anymore; they sigh languidly. The parched grass bows low beneath the sun’s cruel gaze. The flowers have long since fallen, died, been trampled and turned to dust, and when you breathe the air of this long-suffering city, it steals whatever moisture it can take. January ended with a few drops that teased her thirst, but Nairobi was not fooled. Over the years, she has learned to know an empty promise.


People sigh and mutter in her streets as they heave and struggle with loaded carts, as they lift yet another sheet of paper from the stacks in front of them, sign it carelessly and throw it back on their desks with a wistful glance at their windows, as they frown in the fierce glare of the sun burning them through their windshields.

A driver feels a sudden jolt as his car sinks tyre-deep into another pothole in some moonscape of a road. A boda-boda whizzes past him – on the left side. Shock and anger; a heartfelt curse. The rider is already far in the distance, weaving in and out of the traffic, his reflector jacket flapping like Zorro’s cape.

From an old house tucked in some corner of the city, an elderly man stares out through the fractured glass. The dawn struggles past the smoke that always lingers nowadays; faint, it staggers in through the window. Heaps of rubbish tower just outside the four blackened walls he calls home. His eyes grow distant. He shuts them and takes in a deep breath – then sputters, disgusted at the stench. “Inakufa…Inakufa…” He repeats the word like a chant as he mourns the death of the Kenya he fought for so long ago.

Night falls and the darkness is deep. Gunshots sound in the blackness. Nairobi’s children toss and turn, and dream troubled dreams. Over the years, they have heard so many empty promises.



Njaanuary 
is gone, but the air is still restless.

In Rongai, an angry mob surrounds a matatu, rolls it over and sets it on fire. In the fever and the flames, they forget the “why”; he dies, splayed on the road.

MPs drive around in hulking Land Cruisers; doctors, having been forced to carry out operations without gloves, take to the streets in protest. Caught in the fray, countless men, women and children bleed and die. Countless tears fall. They mix with the dirt.

Lecturers, too, leave their posts. Thousands of students are left floating in a vacuum. Maybe they wonder. Maybe they also brood on the past five, ten, twenty years.

Maybe they’re also sick of empty promises.


Looking at all the chaos, the suffering, the anger, the pain, maybe you…lose hope. Maybe you falter. Maybe you feel weak and overwhelmed. Maybe you ask: Where are they, the good ones, in all this? What happened to us? What happened to saints, and miracles? Maybe you wake up at night from painful dreams: the darkness is so deep…!

But what if all this is mostly our fault? After all, we voted. We picked the leaders, and now, when things are bad, we remain silent. Well, we grumble and complain, but only that. We don’t rise beyond mere words. We mutter things beneath our breath about tribalism and fostering unity, and then what do we do? We gossip about each other. We steal from each other. We discriminate against each other. We are cold and cruel to one another. We are fixed on our thoughts and our rights and our opinions and our tribes and our freedom…the list goes on. We pray; we forget that God also wants us to co-operate. Our leaders are nothing but a reflection of the people who chose them. And our complaints are even hollower than their empty promises.

So why don’t we stop moaning about the empty promises and change? Why don’t we do something? If each of us changed, Nairobi would be different. Kenya would be different. It starts small, in little things: working for all of the time that you should because it’s just, according to the contract you signed; refusing to give or take bribes in your place of work and on the road; sending letters to the newspaper editors when something…off appears; greeting the guards outside your house or office building, getting acquainted; being a true friend to your friends, helping them, pushing them to break bad habits, to go home to their wives instead of spending three, five, seven nights a week in a bar…. Encourage those around you to do the same. Slowly, things will change.

Nairobi has heard enough crying for rain. Nairobi doesn’t need any more hollow words, or bitter tears. She’s had enough of empty promises.

Nairobi needs rainmakers.

When Night Falls…

Every night, Nairobi dies. She exchanges her glittering dress for a black shroud. Her heart slows – the little lights coursing through her arteries dwindle. Her voice is hushed; from within her, only pale whispers and fearful mutterings rise. The life that filled her during the day vanishes. She lies languidly beneath the stars, and a deathly chill steals softly into her. It isn’t strong or fierce, like the cold of a pale and misty morning in July. It doesn’t strike. It has no fists, no bite. It is a gloved, emotionless hand pulling you into the dark, or the touch of an undertaker closing the eyes of one more corpse, before he heaves it into a hole eight meters deep.

But every day, at sunrise, she speaks again: voices coarse and soft alike chatter, argue, laugh, complain; horn blares fill her streets; a thousand cars purr into life;  matatus grumble along and boda-bodas rush past; shouts of “Tao!” and “Todhie!” ring in the air. Every day, at dawn, Nairobi is reborn.


Her children die every night too.

A little girl turns off the lights, slips into her bed, pulls the blanket over herself, and waits silently in the dark.

A middle-aged man, unshaven and unkempt, staggers into a ditch. Together with the stench of cheap alcohol, the darkness surrounds him.

In a forgotten alley, an old man drags the ragged remnants of what used to be a T-shirt as far around himself as they can go. The darkness finds him shivering in a cold and lonely corner where she takes him into her indifferent arms…hers is the only embrace he’s ever known.

 

Lying on the concrete, a youth, barely bearded, moves frantically away from something behind him, a gaping hole in his side, his eyes wide in the weak light of the hidden moon. Tears run down his face and mix with the dirt beneath him. Then, he hears footsteps. In a sudden burst of energy, he scampers deeper into the darkness. He crashes heavily to the ground, his breathing is quick and labored. “Fala wee! Utaniona leo!” He can’t see the policeman’s eyes, but he knows the cruel glint of them – how could he ever forget?
A brutal kick in the ribs. A heavy thud. A fierce, blinding pain… His hands fall into the wet sludge of blood and dust.

Crouching, the policeman clenches the corpse’s fist around a pistol as “evidence” that the man “fired at policemen during an arrest attempt”. Then he gets up and glares at the murdered man. He spits.

 

An old woman lies still in a hospital bed, her eyes closed. The tired cringe on her face looks carved into her flesh. In the drawn-out battle against the ravaging cancer in her side, she has lost much: she is thinner, the lines in her cheek cut deeper, her hairs just sparse, grey wisps. Eventually, the darkness passes by, leaving her body behind. But…her body is strange. Though frail, it looks somehow…regal. Hidden in her weary face, vestiges of courage, fire, depth, compassion and nobility shine out – like rays of Eternity.

 

Somewhere, a child lies defenseless inside his mother’s womb. The blackness throbs gently, and at every beat, nourishment flows from her into his fragile body. Her every breath is shared between them, their hearts beat together. So intimate is their union! But then, she speaks; this time, her voice trembles slightly. It jars him, like a false note. “Yes, I’m ready.” A brief pause. “Do it.” A harsh grinding breaks into the darkness. Something pulls him, pulls him, pulls him… Pain. Wrenching pain. His mouth opens in a silent scream. He thrashes wildly with the two limbs he has left…. Forceps close on his skull and tighten, and tighten, and tighten until – darkness.

 

Yet these too, like all the rest, wake. They are reborn into a Light that does not fade, a Joy that does not wane, a Day that does not die.

A Life that does not end.

 

 

 

 

From the Passenger Seat

“Up with Uber, down with the taxi!” Of late, the number of cab franchises has been on the rise. More and more Uber-owned cabs, ‘Little Cabs’ cars and similar vehicles are pouring onto Nairobi’s roads and topping more and more Nairobians’ lists of preferences. I recently heard someone say over a drink, “Taxis? They’re headed down a one-way street to oblivion!” His companions nodded in agreement. And why should they stay? Uber has made them obsolete, right? Uber has well-trained employees who open the door for you (or so I hear), arrive on time, ask what music you would like to listen to and, best of all, charge cheap, just prices – and if your driver tries to weight his pockets with your money when they feel lighter than would be desired, you can just report it and get refunded! Those other guys, the taxi guys, they’re all thieves, right? Right?

WRONG.

This isn’t an ‘Uber vs. taxi” article, nor is it a call to arms. No revolutions here. No cries of “Out with the invaders!” But it is a plea, an impassioned on, for truth. It is an answer to one question born of the despair that afflicts so many Kenyans: aren’t all taxi guys corrupt?

I know one man who doesn’t fit the mould – to preserve his anonymity, I’ll call him John. During working hours, wearing a simple pair of trousers and with a loose shirt draped over him, nothing sets him apart. He’s lanky but not gaunt and despite his height, he seems to consume a minimum of others’ attention. Stubble creeps in around his mouth, closing in on it as if to seal it off completely before his razor undoes everything a few days later. Most of the time, his lips are shut and when he does speak, he struggles to get the words out; they sputter, like his old car used to before he got the (marginally better) one he uses now. On the surface, he looks just like any ordinary taxi driver. Only his eyes, deep, crinkled at the corners, hint at a difference.

 

Several evenings have come by and found John and me together, sometimes sheltered in from storms that frosted the windows, other times staring at feminine lavender skies mingled with the fire of dusk while car horns blared irreverently below. Occasionally, my sister would be with us too. I remember how she’d chat with John about all kinds of things as he drove. He would ask questions, a rare animation lighting up his face; the words would flow out eagerly. Slowly, she would drift off to sleep. I remember how John looked at her. how he smiled, how the unshaven roughness of his face became so gentle, how the tender fire burned in his eyes as he looked at the little girl, like her father would.

 

John had his weaknesses, as we all do. He’d throw up his hands in vexation when a matte overlapped, drive straight into traffic jams after choosing the worst routes then get anxious and angry, click his tongue at other drivers and murmur at them under his breath…. He was not immune to temptations. He fought them. He stopped at red lights, even though he was the only one doing it; he only overtook on the dotted line; he stayed still to let stranded pedestrians cross the death trap we call Waiyaki Way….

In fact, one evening, John had just dropped me off at home and after he left, I realized my trousers were feeling somewhat lighter than usual. Shock came. Anger followed. I plunged my hand into my right pocket to call him – emptiness. I checked again just to be sure. Nothing. Frustrated, I turned it inside out. A few pieces of lint floated lightly to the ground. Just then, my brother’s phone rang – it was John!

Half an hour later, John was standing outside the house. “You left your phone in my car. I only realized when I got home.” His voice was warm, gentle, simple.

 

Corrupt? A thief? No. An unsung hero. And where there is one, there are many. To paraphrase a certain wise man’s words: where evil abounds, goodness abounds all the more. You just have to look for it.


More “Stories of Nairobi” coming out after two weeks! Stay tuned!

Physical Beauty

…borne by silent wind away.

Awakening, her perfume breathes the wind, sweet reminiscence,
Bestowed upon her morning’s golden kiss, she blooms, she blushes,
Innocent, O queen in candid gown, silken, enchanting,
Beauty, empress of the bleeding dusk, his heart thy chattel:

Blossoms all to death succumb; remain but blackened fragments borne by silent wind
Away.

“Love” – The Feeling

…naught but dust.

Smouldering, O fruit of married spark and withered branches,
Flickering, like sunrise born anew, life’s breath pervading,
Vehement, to frigid limbs and hearts thy warmth imparting,
Ardour, O inflaming of the blood, O sanest madness:

Life’s breath steals away; the embers’ light to mortal pallor fades,
Leaving naught but dust.