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.

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!