Art by Anton Munar
Kimani lived in a windowless room in a crumbling, rambling unpainted block at South B shopping center. If DHL delivered his passport to the address he had filled in in the visa application form at the embassy they would find a uniformed guard at the gate who would ask them which apartment the parcel was going to, then sign their delivery book for them and see them on their way. It pleased Kimani enormously when he was treated with respect thus.
When you got inside his house, built under the stairs at the end of the stinking narrow corridor by the enterprising caretaker of the place, you had to be careful. If you were still new to the place and forgot the orientation and stood up abruptly you would bang the top of your head on the sloping roof. Because of the funny shape of the place he had had to bring in the local fundi to custom-make a bed for him that was nailed firmly in place against the wall, not to be taken out. That left space just enough for two jerricans in which he stored his water drawn from the tap in the corridor outside. A piece of plywood balanced on these jerricans to make a coffee table. His clothes and documents went into a cheap suitcase that was stowed away under the bed, same to the cheap Chinese kerosene stove that occasionally came in useful.
It was a unique house in the city’s real estate tapestry because three of its walls were made of solid, steel-reinforced concrete, but one, the front, was made of scraps of chipboard salvaged from a construction site in Industrial Area, same to the door. He often took a long hard look at the building, especially lying in bed at night listening to the traffic up and down the stairs above him while in the grip of the fugue of a harsh cheap rye, and got to thinking that were an earthquake to happen in the deep of night and bring the structure crumbling down, he would probably be the only one who would survive; that is if his hoard of water held him long enough for the excavators to dig him out of the rubble. Reason being he lived in the strongest part of the structure; the stairs always remain standing when a building collapses.
Kimani rarely cooked at home, opting to have his meals at a kibanda down the street, or on those nights when he came in late, to bring along some take-away chips and sausage. There was a sink outside for washing dishes, but it was filthy, and the tap had never run all the years Kimani had been living there. The common toilet and bathroom at the other end of the L-shaped corridor fared no better, requiring a stranger to pinch their nose and complete their business in there as soon as conveniently possible. Actually Kimani had never been there, opting instead to use the facilities of the pub at the front of the building. Whenever he needed a shower he carried his towel and a bar of soap to the rehabilitated City Council toilet further down the street, where you paid ten shillings through the cubby hole and were given a length of the cheapest toilet paper that Chandaria Industries manufactured for places like those.
It was an interesting place, that block where he lived. For one, his neighbors were an interesting mish-mash of Nairobians; the kind of fellows who would be found in bed at midday when the rest of the city was at work, mostly single men and women, crammed two or three per room. Come evening and they would all be out, only to trickle in in the wee hours, almost all of them drunk. Fridays were worse. Come evening and the pub at the front would bring in a benga or ohangla band, the high-strung guitars screaming through every nook and cranny of the place way into the wee hours. Friday through to Saturday the corridor outside his door became a busy place, packed with drunk couples from the pub at the front grinding into each other against the wall. Come morning and you had to thread your way through used condoms and puddles of puke and urine to get out.
But the noise didn’t bother Kimani. He was not much of a sleeper, anyway. Most of those evenings he would be ensconced in his abode with a girl; one of those cheap sluts you pick up on the streets after midnight—sex was sex, he philosophized, whether with the Queen of England or a ghetto princess; it was all about sticking your dick in there and squirting. And as they minded their own business in their windowless house, they would be polishing off a mzinga bottle of bootleg Legend brandy.
The only thing that bothered him about his house was that he could not smoke weed inside. There was no way the smoke could get out. And so he was forced to spend his time with the boys at the veve joint across the street whenever he was idle, listening to dancehall reggae and watching the rich girls from the neighboring blocks saunter by.
It is from this house that Kimani, a graduate of Actuarial Science, University of Nairobi Class of 2011, and who was yet to find a job, made his way out into the streets every morning to navigate his way through the complicated urban space in which he lived.
One drowsy afternoon Kimani sat thinking in his house, imbued with the muggy fumes of fermenting drains, stale urine and boiling cabbage wafting in from the corridor. He had had little luck with his hustles that week, and the rent was due. In his pocket he had exactly six hundred and fifty shillings. His M-Pesa account was at twenty-three shillings, fifty cents. M-Kopa account: he owed the mobile phone company five-hundred bob that he had taken out on Wednesday to buy dinner and a drink. He took a swig from his quarter bottle of brandy and lay back on the bed, staring at the spider in the corner murder a fly it had entrapped in its soot-colored cobweb. Suddenly an idea occurred to him and he rose, searching for his shoes under the bed. Actually the idea had been simmering at the back of his mind for quite a while now. There were ways for an out-of-work smart Nairobian to make money in this city.
He stepped out onto the street and looked left and right, surveying the garishly pimped matatus rushing past. There was a place further down by the petrol station where he knew you could rent a ride for two-thousand bob a day. He had once rented one for a friend who wanted to go impress the people of his fiancée for the weekend upcountry. He sauntered over and was examining a modest-looking Toyota Corolla parked outside when the owner saw him through the mesh window and came out. It was a fairly common model on the road, neither too loud nor too out-moded; the type of car you can use to get in and out of a place without being noticed or raising attention.
“Hey, Kim, long time!” said the guy, bumping fists. “Is it your turn to go to the ruraćio?”
“No, Ben. I need a ride for a meeting I have with a client on Sunday morning. I think I will take this Toyota. Same rates?”
“Same, for you. Cash up front, together with the deposit. You collect the deposit when you return the ride.”
Kimani paused, scratching his cheek. “I need it for just about six hours on Sunday, but I don’t have cash on me now. I’ll settle everything after I’ve met the client. He’s paying me for a job.”
“Now, you know that that’s not how it works, Kim,” said Ben, his expression changing.
“Look, I will pay three K for the six hours, cash.”
Ben considered, his face screwed up. Kimani watched him and knew exactly what he was thinking. If the deal worked out then that would be an extra K for him that the boss needn’t know about; good drinking money. Slowly his face crumbled.
Next Kimani took a matatu to town. He needed to get a crisp new suit and black wing-tip shoes, a replica Rolex bijou and a snazzy phone, the type a young successful Nairobi businessman would own. He knew places where he could get all those things on loan for a few hours; the many ‘exhibition’ stalls on Tom Mboya Street. Only problem is he needed to leave a deposit. He told himself he was going to talk his way out of the situation. Lastly he would buy a stick of office glue. When he returned he would go to the fundi who had designed his bed and give him a quick job, specifying exactly what he wanted him to make.
That Sunday Kimani woke up very early and went about preparing for mass. He kicked out the slut who had spent the night and did his toilet in a plastic bucket beside the door, brushing his teeth thoroughly including his tongue such that there was no whiff of yesterday’s drink on it, before giving himself a passport bath in the groin and armpits using a wet towel. The previous day he had had a haircut, and was looking dapper in the reflection in the cracked piece of mirror stuck on the wall by the door.
He brought out his suit and took his time dressing, taking care not to get anything dirty because they would have to go back to the shop. Satisfied with what he saw in the mirror he fished into his suitcase and brought out a thin gator-skin briefcase—the type insurance brokers, real estate agents and shanty-town pastors carry to meetings to leave an impression. He placed the briefcase on the bed and popped the clasps. Inside was a huge black Bible, King James Version, together with a curious item; a long, thin wooden bar on which was attached a blue satin pouch. The wooden bar was highly polished, a narrow hole about five inches long drilled in the center. He placed this on the bed and delved into the trunk and found an old porn magazine and a pair of scissors.
Working deftly he tore out all the leaves from the spine and arranged them together in a pile. He then cut the bundle neatly into quarters, the scissors snipping through a giant pair of shiny Botoxed boobs that were shortly going to tempt a man of God. He gathered the stack of quartered porn, crinkled them a little in his hands in order to loosen them and started inserting the pieces one by one through the hole in the wooden bar such that they settled in the satin pouch underneath. Again he reached into the suitcase and brought out a jam jar full of old coins; the loose change he usually tossed in there for a rainy day. He took all of them and squeezed them through the gap into the pouch. He held up the pouch by the bar, jiggled it left and right, mixing up the contents and was satisfied. He put it into the briefcase. Before he closed it he checked that another item was present; a long thin wooden stick the length of two Bic biros. He put everything in the briefcase and rose to go, remembering to rub a layer of Vaseline on his hands and face to put a sheen on the street in him.
When he arrived at the car rental to pick up the car Ben looked outside his mesh-wire window and his eyes almost popped. From a common-place hustler in mitumba street clothes and scruffy sneakers Kimani had suddenly transformed into a flashy young Nairobi professional making his way steadily up some money-lined corporate ladder in one of the city’s many glass-and-steel skyscrapers.
“Wah! Kim, kwani what meeting is this you are headed to? Are you selling a plot on Uhuru Highway or what?” asked Ben, sizing him up from head to toe, thoroughly impressed.
For answer Kimani peeled back the sleeve of the rented suit and glanced at the glinting imitation Rolex. “The car keys, boss. I’m getting late.”
When he switched on the car he glanced at the meter. The tank was empty. “Mean little bastards!” he muttered softly to himself, backing it out and steering it to a pump at the petrol station where he had them put in four-hundred shillings worth of juice, which was all the money he had left in his wallet. With the fuel gauge jogged back to life, he engaged the shift and drove out of there, his elbow hooked over the window as if he owned the car, a soft whistle playing on his lips.
When he turned into the gates of Nairobi Baptist Church a while later the guard saluted neatly and directed him where to park. He squeezed the Toyota in between two sleek four-by-fours and sat there a while, composing himself and surveying the place. He had been here previously on a reconnaissance mission and knew exactly where to go and what to expect. He opened the briefcase and took out the tools he needed for the first job and slipped them into the coat pocket. Then he grabbed the briefcase and stepped out.
He stood in the parking lot for a while, examining the church-goers passing by as he adjusted his jacket lapel, a smug smile playing on his face. It had drizzled slightly that morning and the cabro blocks in the lot were wet and shiny. An elegantly-dressed couple nodded at him as they went past and he nodded back. Then he set off slowly towards the church building, still whistling softly to himself.
He didn’t walk straight up to the church entrance but turned to the right, following a cement walkway that led up to a little box attached to the grey wall. He knew a bit about Nairobi Baptist Church. It is at this church where Hart, the group that had revolutionized church music in the 90s had started, after young people got fed up with the tired church hymns and decided they wanted to make gospel music speak to them. It is this church—together with computers— that had opened the Pandora’s box, resulting in the mushy music now coming out of church, and which made it difficult to differentiate between gospel and secular. He occasionally caught himself listening to Willy ‘Pozze’ and Bahati and wondered, what the hell are these kids singing about?
Anyway, it is not the music that had brought him here but the little wooden box on the wall. This church was popular with mostly a middle-class crowd, the majority of the faithful having attended the church alongside their parents ever since they had been in their diapers. Often members of the church found themselves too busy chasing chinky to stay for mass. While they were allowed to skip a sermon, the church leadership had decided that it was not ok for them to forfeit the offertory. Which is the reason the little wooden box that Kimani was standing in front of had been put there. It was for the faithful who were in a hurry to place their offertory before they left. It was a nice place to collect some of God’s money.
Kimani glanced casually around him. Noting that no one was paying attention to him, he reached into his coat as if to take out his wallet and brought out the long stick and the stick of glue. Working deftly, he turned the cap at the base that caused the screw inside to push out the glue stick. He rubbed the glue carefully all over the lower end of the stick and returned the glue stick to the pocket. Glancing casually around he inserted the stick through the slit on top of the box through which the offertory went and turned it quickly back and forth, rubbing it between his flattened palms. When he pulled it out it came away with a loot of God’s money sticking on it in various denominations.
He deftly extracted the money and stuffed it into his inside coat pocket. He added more glue and repeated the exercise, turning the stick inside there to churn up the notes. Again he pulled it out and it came away with more loot. He was about to have a third dip when, from the corner of his eye, he saw a beefy man in a striped suit approaching. He quickly stuck the stick inside his coat and picked up his briefcase, cursing. When he turned he smiled at the man, who was standing by waiting to drop an envelope into the box. The surly man barely acknowledged his nod.
“Stupid bastard,” muttered Kimani softly to himself. “You should have come ahead of me on the queue. I would have loved to find out what is in that envelope.”
He was about to step through the church doors when he noticed that the stick was poking above his jacket lapel. He also noted that his hands were clammy from the glue. How was he going to greet the faithful when the pastor asked them to turn and shake their neighbor’s hand? Sticking to your neighbor’s grasp would no doubt be most hilarious in the circumstances. And so, thinking rapidly like the sewer rat that he was, he pulled out the expensive phone that he had hired and mimed a hundred-dollar cross-border call to a long-lost cousin in the US, tactfully drifting away from the church entrance towards the parking lot.
When he was inside the safety of the car he took a hand towel out of the glove compartment and cleaned the glue off his hands. Then he dumped the stick and took his briefcase and went back into the church, sitting himself in the second-last row next to a fat woman whose flesh, spilling out of her fine garments bought in London, felt as cold as a duck’s next to him, her labored breath asthmatic—why did all these rich folks assume that they could gorge themselves on all the fat of the land and starve off everyone else, and yet expect to live to be a hundred years old?
He had seen them on the highway, whenever their lives were threatened, the ambulance shrieking like a banshee for the traffic to let them through to hospital. And yet the poor, who wiped their poop and prepared their meals and took their kids to school, popped off quietly in their hovels in the shanties, without drama. Couldn’t they at least exercise once a week—leave the car at home on Sundays and walk to church? He briefly wondered how the fat woman’s husband got it on in that ice; but then remembered that he was in church; so he looked upfront and behaved himself.
The old chap in a starched collar upfront was rambling on about stuff that Kimani was not interested in. And so he bided his time, leafing through the thick King James Version that he had whipped out of his briefcase as if searching for the phone number of one of the saints. He thought about what would happen if somehow the roof of the church was to collapse on all those people, computing how much the insurance guys would have to cough out. And it was not an idle distraction, this idea of buildings collapsing. It was actually what this mean city had trained him in at university, and then spat him out onto the streets to earn a livelihood as best as he could. And yet it expected him somehow to service the HELB loan that had seen him through college …
The offertory came around eventually. By then he had whipped out his expensive phone for a third time and glanced at his Rolex. The woman, pretending to follow the rambling sermon, noticed the flashing gold, and visibly relaxed, knowing that she was amongst her kind. She placed her handbag on the bench between them and raised her arms up towards God when the pastor commanded them to do so. Kimani knew the type, it came with a little purse of a similar make, in which the woman would store her chinky. His fingers itched, but he forced himself to be patient. The vultures always had their way in the end.
The offertory came along the pew and the woman reached into the handbag to give her offer, confirming Kimani’s earlier suspicion. She pulled out a little purse and extracted a K from it and slipped it into the offertory bag. Kimani caught his breath as she handed him the offertory bag. It was similar to the phony resting in his briefcase. He opened his briefcase, turning it slightly such that the lid faced his neighbor; and the hawk-eyed usher standing in the aisle pretending to sing along even though all the while his eye was on the church money. He smoothly swapped the two bags, passing the bag with the porn and old coins to the guy in the pew behind him.
“Thank you, Lord, for giving me my daily bread today,” was the little prayer he was mouthing as he thumbed through the King James Version, waiting for the opportune moment to stand up, excuse himself and leave.
After the offertory was in, the pastor launched into a song of thanksgiving that possessed his immediate neighbor, who raised her massive arms and closed her eyes in pure devotion, singing in a piercing alto that jarred into the fluid melodies of the organ. And so, as the spirit of the Lord was falling down from the sky and engulfing her in its embrace Kimani deftly slid open the zipper and delved inside the handbag, his fingertips making contact with the little purse and a cellphone amidst some damp hankies and serviettes. In the blink of an eye they had disappeared inside his coat pocket and the zipper had slid shut.
When the song eventually came to an end and the congregation got their feet back on terra firma Kimani softly excused himself and stood up. The woman squirmed her fat ass around on the hard teak pew to let him pass, a smile touching her chubby cheeks.
Again the guard saluted neatly as he let him out the church gate, and Kimani waved back and hooked his elbow on the window of the Toyota, tempted to toss him a few scraps of the loot he had collected from God’s house. It vaguely amused him that it was so easy to bluff your way through this city of cardboard skyscrapers perched on a foundation of sand.
He returned the Toyota, paid for it, and then sauntered off to his house under the stairs, a satisfied smile playing on his lips. When he got home he kicked off the wing-tip shoes, loosened the tie, and then opened the briefcase to take stock of what God had given him today. And it was a tidy sum. Somewhere inside the loot was a crisp hundred-dollar bill—just how much money did these folks have? There was also a crumpled fifty-shilling note amidst the pile. This he stashed aside, silently asking the good Lord to make the mean bugger who had given that as poor as the fifty the rest of his life. There was also a cheque for twenty-five K . . . phe-e-ew!, he salivated over that, musing. He knew a clever fence on River Road who could cash that. He placed it aside. After he was done taking stock he changed into his street clothes and rose to leave. He was thirsty for a drink. And a girl.
Stanley Gazemba’s breakthrough novel The Stone Hills of Maragoli, published in the USA as Forbidden Fruit (The Mantle Press), won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2003. He is also the author of the short story collection Dog Meat Samosa (Regal House Publishing, 2019), the novel Khama (The Mantle, 2020), which was shortlisted for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize, and Callused Hands, among other novels. His upcoming novel, Footprints in the Sand, will be published in Sweden in 2021. In addition, he has written several children’s books, of which A Scare in the Village (OUP, 2005) won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize.
A prolific writer, Stanley’s articles and stories have appeared in several international publications including The New York Times, ‘A’ is for Ancestors (the Caine Prize Anthology), World Literature Today, and The East African magazine. Stanley lives in Nairobi and his short story “Talking Money” was recently published in Africa39, a Hay Festival publication which was released in 2014. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing Inc, Africa39 features a collection of 39 short stories by some of Africa’s leading contemporary authors. Stanley is also in the process of working on an array of creative literary projects.
Anton Munar was born in Copenhagen in 1997 where he also lives and works. He studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and the Royal Danish Academy of Arts in Copenhagen. Munar’s primary medium is painting, but he occasionally works with clay and video. His personal mythological universe and poetic narratives come to life through dramatic and color-intense compositions.