How can I ever forget that year? It was the year I had a rare glimpse into the complexities of human nature. Shortly after, I ditched my fledgling career and turned to farming. Hell, I figured plants were easier to understand than humans. Though my memory has become quite hazy, the happenings of that particular year have remained deeply etched in my mind. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning.
I was a junior police officer, posted in the dusty little town of Kilifi, along Kenya’s coast. It was one of those places where not much goes on. The weather was hot and humid and the atmosphere decidedly dreary. I craved for action, fulfillment. It never came. It was not what I signed up for. “Kevin! Kevin!” I opened my eyes slowly. It was my boss. He had caught me napping again and the sneer on his wrinkled face told it all. He was not too pleased.
“What do you think you’re doing?” He asked in an incensed tone. “I er…I was saying a short prayer…” I said and vaguely tried to make the sign of the cross. He was not to be fooled. “You have been praying a lot lately Kevin, if only your praying ritual did not involve drooling all over your desk!” My colleagues snickered audibly. They found my run-ins with the boss absolutely hilarious. This is what I had become: a joke.
My numerous blunders on the field had left inspector Hassan with no other choice than to relegate me to the front desk. My main task was to receive complaints and book them on the Occurrence Book. It was supposed to be easy work. In truth, I felt like an over glorified receptionist. I nodded off quite frequently. The sweltering heat did not help matters.
Charo was a casual worker at the station and also the village wag. He was a chatter box. He would pitch tent at the reporting desk after finishing his work and strike up a conversation with me. I was never good with small talk. Sometimes I would doze off and wake up to find him still talking. Either he was oblivious of the fact that I had just missed a big chunk of his story or he did not mind being ignored. He was indefatigable. Getting rid of him was a Herculean task. “Listen, can you loan me a hundred bob? I am in a bit of a fix.” I would say. He would contrive a very urgent errand and depart hastily. Yes, I had finally found a chink in his armor.
After work I sat outside my rented shack smoking and gazing steadily at nothing. Watching plumes of smoke rising towards the sky gave me great pleasure. “That’s for you Big Guy.” I would say with a silly grin on my face. I could almost see him looking down on me and feeling sorry. “Oh, that’s very classy of you Kev,” I would imagine Him saying. “Let’s see how cool you look when you’re speaking through a hole in your throat.” The grin would disappear and I would snuff out the cigarette. Not for fear of the Big Guy, no. My landlady was approaching; another addition to the growing list of those who did not approve of my habit.
Today she was in a somber mood. The fact that she took no notice of the smoke floating around me was telling. She got straight to the point. “Someone saw him.” She said. “Saw who?” I asked, trying to search my memory. Ah, I remembered. Mrs. Salim as she was known had lost her husband about eight years back. Lost here was used in a very loose sense because nobody knew exactly what happened to him. He just vanished one morning without a single trace. Having hit a dead end, police could only offer conjecture.
He owned a string of successful hardware stores in Kilifi, Mombasa and Malindi. On mornings he walked from his home to his shop in Kilifi town, from where he ran his affairs. The tale of his disappearance confounded many. It left the local police scratching their heads. They had closed the investigation not long after. Mrs. Salim had nurtured the hope that her husband was still alive. She told and retold the story to anyone who cared to listen. “Someone thinks they saw him, my husband.” She was saying. “I see.” I replied. In all honesty, I could not see where this was going. Why me?
She was silent for a long while. I tried to look for words to console her. Mercifully she spoke first. “Can you to help me find him?” She looked at me with eyes begging, pleading. Here she was at fifty-something years of age, terribly tortured by the memory of her husband. It did not help that random people came to her with news that they “saw someone who looked like him” at such and such a place. This had led her into wild goose chases with lots of resources wasted. Now, bereft of strength she was asking me for help. “Honestly I can’t see how I can be of any help.” I told her. “Nairobi is very far away. The best I can do is to ask my colleagues over there to look into it.” She was grateful, but something told me she was not exactly satisfied.
A week later inspector Hassan sent my colleague and I on an assignment. At last, he had found a modicum of faith in me. We were going to raid two separate illegal liquor dens. That evening we got into the old land rover and roared off. Down the winding, dusty village roads we went, our excitement building by the minute. At the first location, we found a lively binge going on. Sighting our vehicle, some of the participants took off. We rounded up the rest, about a dozen and bundled them at the back of the land Rover. We cuffed them to a rail that ran horizontally along the back, one wrist each.
We then threw in the rest of the mnazi liquor and drove off to the next location. We drove around for about an hour on the bumpy roads, trying to find a short cut. On arrival, we found the location deserted. They had obviously been tipped off about an impending raid. We returned to the station, with half the work done. The next thing was to book our suspects and register the “exhibits” in readiness to arraign them in court the following day. If only we had known the surprise that our suspects had in store for us.
No, they had not escaped. Worse. While offloading the Land Rover we noticed that our evidence was gone. Our suspects had drunk all of it while we wandered on those village roads. Most of them had passed out as a result, with just their cuffed wrists preventing them from falling off. We looked at each other wistfully. Why had we not thought of carrying the evidence up front, or one of us riding at the back?
Just then inspector Hassan emerged from his office. A thorough debriefing was on the cards. There was no sugarcoating this one—we had messed up big time. We came face to face with the full extent of our failure in his office. He asked questions. With each reply he got angrier. Soon it was just him talking, ranting and shouting and cursing till he foamed at the mouth. The scene was reminiscent of Hitler, mercilessly castigating his troops and loyalists on the eve of the Soviet invasion of Berlin. I found a random spot on the table and kept my eyes on it. You do not just look at your angry boss in the face.
He simmered down and paused to think. My colleague was still. He assumed the meekness of an errant pupil in a headmaster’s office. We were both waiting for that time when he would set us free to do our own post mortem of the incident. However, things took a different turn. “You two are some of my best officers, and I am quite short-handed at the moment.” He said. We exchanged incredulous glances. Only one part of that statement was true. He was understaffed. “I am going to be lenient with you. I am suspending both of you for a month, effective today.”
Those words rang in my head for a long time. Lenient indeed! My career had taken a steep, regressive path. I needed to reverse my fortunes or else, I was staring down the barrel. With a month of unpaid leave ahead of me, I started to think hard. I weighed Mrs. Salim’s offer again. If I agreed to help her she would pay me a quarter of a million Kenyan shillings. That was one attractive offer. However, the chance to change my environment was what really sold me into the deal.
Two days after my suspension, I bade farewell to my friends at the station and to Mrs. Salim. I promised her I would do my best. The small assignment was to remain a secret between us. I quit Kilifi in an old, borrowed Volkswagen beetle. The long, solitary drive to Nairobi was something I craved for. It was an opportunity to scream, shout, cry and pump both of my fists on the steering wheel. To summon my deities of choice and register my frustrations.
In Nairobi I checked into a cheap hotel at Ngara. The place was surrounded by Asian shops and establishments. The streets carried an aroma that was a cocktail of Indian spices, perfumes and chewable tobacco. During the day I did what was expected of me. I put my nose to the ground and sniffed around for clues. I kept a keen ear and ignored nothing. I reconnected with and called in favors from friends, most of whom I had met at Police College and who now worked in the city. I played detective, the operative word being “played” because in truth, I got nowhere. I walked the streets with the air of a great sleuth, like Sherlock Holmes. Inside, I felt like a cheap knock off.
After exactly seventeen days, I threw in the towel. I succumbed to the reality that I was pursuing a lost cause. I looked for the nearest phone booth. I was going to call Mrs. Salim and give her the bad news. I stood in a queue of about five early that morning, mentally composing my message to her. The person at the booth was droning on and on. The people in front of me gave up one after the other and went off in search of another booth. Unwilling to do so too, mostly because I was mentally procrastinating the moment, I just stood there.
Out of boredom, I retrieved a crumpled packet of Sportsman from my back pocket and lit a cigarette. The smoke reached the man currently using the booth and he turned around to face me. He covered the mouthpiece with one hand. “Hey! Do you mind?” He bawled. He was obviously not into second hand smoke. I studied his face and went straight into my shirt pocket. I fished out the photo and looked at it. I looked at him and then at the photo. It was him.
“Mr. Salim Abubakar?” I almost shouted. He looked at me, baffled. He spoke into the handset, “I will speak to you later…Yes, I know…I know.” Moments later we were at his office in the sprawling Industrial Area. On his desk was a family portrait. Himself, a woman, and a child of about five years old suspended in between. I told him my business and all the necessary details. Even before he started his tale I was already confused. I will try and tell it as best as I can recall.
Mr. Salim was heading to work on that “fateful” day. Suddenly out of nowhere, a speeding matatu lost control and smashed into the pavement right in front of him. It narrowly missed him. It was a moment of unspeakable horror. Had he been just a second ahead, he would have been crushed to death. The incident, in his words, lifted the lid on his own life and let him see the works. His life had been a sane, orderly affair. Now it appeared that he lived by chance. His life, a routine between home and work could be ended in a second’s notice.
That is when he began to think of making a change. Life, as he knew it could be ended in a snap yet here he was living, oblivious of that fact. He decided to leave and try to set his life on a different path. He loved his family, but he was leaving them in the confidence that they were well provided for. The mutual love, he reasoned, was not one that could make his absence particularly painful. The following morning, he had just got up left.
He drifted around the country and finally settled in Nairobi. With the money he had stashed away secretly over the years, he started a hardware business. Curiously, he married a wife who resembled his first wife. Without him realizing it, he had fallen into the same groove that he had jumped out of when leaving Kilifi. After putting so much effort to run away, he had recreated the same circumstances in another place with different people and different surroundings.
It took me a while to come to grips with this revelation. He implored me not to reveal it to anyone. He offered to pay me for my silence, which I declined. I left Nairobi disoriented to say the least. The long drive back did not give me enough time to think and put things into perspective. Mrs. Salim would be waiting for an answer. I was never a good actor, but I put in my best effort when I gave her my report. “Sorry, I couldn’t find him.”
I resumed by duties feeling thoroughly uneasy. I had lied. She had entrusted me with a duty and I had not been honest. On the other hand was Mr. Salim himself, a man who grew more mysterious the more I thought about him. Patrolling the town one night, I saw a man urinating on a fence. It was unmistakably Charo. “Wewe kijana simama!” (You! young man stop right there!) I yelled. He was rattled. Not that he could have stopped whatever he was doing midstream and taken off; I only did that to scare him.
At that moment an idea sparked in my mind. Charo’s storytelling skills could be put to good use. I led him to a nearby phone booth. I gave him the lowdown in the Mr. and Mrs. Salim saga. Under my instruction, he called Mrs. Salim and gave her clues on where and how she could locate her husband. I had told Charo to disguise his voice. He did a good job, even using an American accent complete with a nasal drawl. Not that it mattered to the distraught voice on the other end.
Mission accomplished. I then promised Charo fire and brimstone if he ever breathed a word to anyone. “Not a word, I swear…” He babbled in a terrified voice. “And for Chrissakes, do look for a toilet next time.” I said. He mumbled some incoherent apologies. I dismissed him and off he scampered into the night.
Post image via African Digital Art
About the Author:
Ndung’u Kimani is a wanna be writer from Nairobi city. He currently split his time between earning a living, reading and day-dreaming but mostly the latter. Other interests include flailing his arms mindlessly to the sound of music, all in the name of dancing. He also writes from time to time and hopes to be a published author in this lifetime.