We are in our late sixties. But we still look like energetic young men. Now we wear orange uniforms. We tie our headgears tightly. I know God Himself cannot tell who we are. Our creator cannot see the difference between me, Ougo, and him, Kamau. The best witchdoctor will still fail. Like the rest we stand here prepared for the mock show which Boss demands of us. That is our new Governor.
The other day he ordered that the fire-fighting show is the only remaining way for Nairobi City Council to see who is a ghost worker and who is not. We know he has gone to the ‘burning’ building behind the Ambassadeur Hotel on Moi Avenue. He will be there waiting for us to reach and stage the mock show (but I have always said that I know how to beat an inspection trap using marriage, my wife, and dowry).
The general foreman standing near the gate blows his signal whistle this morning. We jump into the red lorry. It runs out of the City Council gate. The siren is loud like the trumpet of an elephant. All corners of Nairobi can hear us. Cars scatter and give way.
We are both very old. We are way past our employment age. Our respective villages address us as ‘mzee’ (old man). There is one reason we are uncomfortable in this city: the colour of our heads. Our biggest problems are our white heads. Our hairs insist on telling their white stories no matter how many times we shave in a week. Even if we dye them with black Kiwi Shoe Polish. Soon our backs will be bending.
But that does not worry us too much in way of our jobs. Our national identification documents say that we are each just thirty years old at the Human Resource Office. Let me count well… Yes very good kabisa – that means Kamau and I have forty more years to work. You must agree that ours is a very sweet country!
We needed to have retired five years ago. But we could not have allowed that to happen – we are not fools. How could we? We have seen politicians harvest money in parliament till they are older than tortoises – till they have no teeth in their slack mouths. And when they die and run to the grave it is the children who inherit their parents’ chairs in that house. Which God intended it that way? Why must we be left behind? We old men can be our own children. We too can inherit our own positions at the City Council.
Every first day of the week:
We started doing something under the Globe Cinema Roundabout fly-over when we heard that someone fell at Harare Airport the other year. We began exercising once every week – just to spite those who think both of us should now retire. We want to remain young. So we practise at night. Darkness is good in Africa. It is when the best things are done. The street boys who sleep under the fly-over every night know us these days. They do not disturb us. They let us do what we have to do. We never mind the smell of excrement. Shit is normal. Where do others expect human beings to hide the results of their having eaten food?
The street lights burn. We begin by running from one end of the space to the other. Sweat wets our bodies. We stop. I look at Kamau. He looks at me. We stretch our legs and arms. We do press-ups on our palms. And then on our fists. Sit-ups are challenging. The lungs pain us. Our bodies are too stiff. We crackle and crack like dry firewood. Pain. We feel as if our joints have been riveted with nails – permanently fixed till we die. We breathe hard always. And sweat.
But the most difficult are sit-ups and squats! Kamau gnashes his teeth when we stretch. I too do. It pains our hearts. These are things we did without any difficulty when we were young. But now we cannot. Ah, age!
Let me tell you why we laugh at each other. Our bodies shamed themselves with squats and frog jump. We did not expect it. It was so embarrassing we decided not to stop. That was the very day we began – the day of the airport fall.
We had been standing with our legs apart. Kamau said we must squat also. I went down first. But I heard me farting as soon as my haunches touched my heels. I thought it was an accident. Or one of the street boys was tearing his old clothes. Kamau laughed. He too went down – he farted louder than I had. I paid back his laughing at me.
We tried the second time and shamed ourselves again. And then we found out that we could barely keep our anuses shut. Our anuses were announcing to us the fact of our old age.
But we said we were not going to stop. We were farting in the name of all those crooked-backed presidents who still thought they were teenagers. We went on with the frog jumps. Someone was tearing an old clothe under us with every jump. The street boys started laughing.
‘It make me laugh,’ I told Kamau before we dispersed for the day.
He asked, ‘What make you?’
‘Africans who wants to be presidents forever.’
‘They farts when they squats in the latrine.’
‘They does not.’
‘They goes to executive toilet in State House.’
I said, ‘They still farts when they begin to squat; including executive anuses obeys old age.’
Kamau laughed and asked, ‘They pours urine on their hands the way we sometimes does?’
‘Is what they must does when age come,’ I told him. ‘When they enters eighties and nineties. Do not jokes, Kamau.’
He nodded, ‘They makes me laugh.’
I told Kamau how every time the radio said that an African president was refusing to leave power, I saw an old man with a bent back entering through the latrine door. The moment I heard that an African president was being replaced by his son, daughter, or wife, I saw an old man soiling himself with urine and excrement in the latrine he entered.
And so the two of us have learnt to pay them back.
I, Ougo, the Governor’s driver, kick the clutch of the big Range Rover and we pass under the footbridge which was constructed last year by yellow Chinese men with small eyes (I pretend, but marriage, my wife, and dowry are in my mind). As I drive, a big noise reaches us on Haile Selasie Avenue where the road runs like a mad man, passing Muthurwa Market to my right side, vomiting its people onto Country Bus Station on your way to Gikomba Market. I wonder what is wrong.
Sitting beside me is the Governor himself. He wears his black pair of spectacles. His good black suit also. From the way his face looks serious, the Governor must be fighting with something in his head. I know it is the matter of retrenchment, which he began last month, to reduce the number of City Council workers. I Ougo, I have heard very big English about that matter here in Nairobi. The newspapers, TV, and radio call it things that reach my ears this way: ‘bloted wej bil,’ ‘efisiensi,’ ‘manejebo wak fos,’ ‘savis delivari,’ ‘strakchorol adjastmen’…and many other things which my tongue cannot tell.
My nick-name is ‘ling’ berne’ – silence is good. I hold my mouth. I look, not speaking to the Governor, as the car in front leaves the road and beats the metal to the left. Something like a human being flies over the windscreen of the car which left the road.
I worry in my mind, Ah, now that car has killed another pedestrian! I step hard on the brake. My Governor catches his lips. I hear the brakes of many cars stopping behind me.
I take down the window. Looking outside, I see people holding their heads. Others curse. As always, all of them stand on both sides of the road, waiting to jump over one another like sheep, and run on the zebra crossing when all the cars have passed. But I know that is always very dangerous. Cars kill people under that footbridge each day.
I turn my face and look at the damaged car. What jumped over its windscreen falls on the other side of our road with easy thud like a piece of polythene. We wait to see a dead pedestrian. No. That will not occur this evening. The same way it did not the other week. We all see how the polythene turns to a black cat. It is looking at us with big yellow eyes. Now it is licking the lips with a red tongue. It turns and starts to walk. The cat climbs and gets lost behind the fence of St. Peter Clavers Catholic Church. The streets whisper that the cat has been doing so since 1899, the year Nairobi was born.
‘Well,’ the Governor tells me. ‘Let’s move on.’
His English is sometimes too difficult for me to understand. He talks like a person suffering from the disease of hiccups – the way many English people say their words.
I tell him, ‘Thank you, Boss.’
Cars blow their horns. Every driver is looking for the correct lane.
‘That was strange – wasn’t it?’ the Governor asks me.
I tell him, ‘It happen sometimes, Boss. Here in Nairobi.’
Our Range Rover takes the roundabout. We see handcart people sweating under hills of banana they are going to put in the old warehouse. The Governor calls the handcart people ‘Motherpaedias’. He says they carry encyclopaedia about everybody’s mother and can open any page for you if you do not give them way. They can tell you what you had never heard about your Mama.
The car grabs Jogoo Road. I drive east to Buru Buru. The Governor’s mother lives there. From there we will run to Muthaiga Estate where the Governor lives. Our Range Rover beats all the cars on the road, like a cheetah kicking many Thomson’s Gazelles in Maasai Mara.
The streets say our Governor returned from a place called Oxford two years before the new 2010 Constitution. He stood for election and beat his enemies. They say he went there to read for Master of Public Administration.
Wi mast liv within awa mins, he keeps telling us Council workers. Wi wil strimlain the wakfos to manejebo levls and kik aot ol gost wakas.
I agree with the Governor. But that does not mean he will succeed. One job cannot take care of you if you belong in my grade of a driver. You need two or three. That is why Kamau and I do two jobs at the Council. Only one person knows it. The Human Resource man because thirty percent of my salary is his. Kamau is a fire-fighter and a ‘driver.’ I am a driver and a ‘fire-fighter.’
‘Oh, that was interesting – wasn’t it, Ougo?’ The Governor is talking to me about the ghost accident as we run to Buru Buru.
‘Yes, Boss, was too interesting.’
‘And people like you here say it’s the ghost of Father Claudio Comboni come to drink blood?’
I tell him, ‘Is what they say, Boss.’
‘Is it true?’
I reply, ‘Not clear to me, Boss, but sometime true.’
He tells me, removing his spectacles and wiping his eyes, ‘It might be true.’
I ask, ‘Why, Boss?’
‘Because our City Council has two times the number of workers we actually employ – meaning half are what we call ‘ghost workers.’’
‘Ghost like Father Claudio Comboni?’
‘I don’t know if all our ghost workers resemble your Father Claudio Comboni, Ougo.’
‘But you fight ghost, Sir?’
‘Yes we do.’
‘Can you see ghost, Sir? Ghost is not possible to see.’
He curses me, ‘You don’t have to see a ghost to fight them, Ougo! All the same I’ve fought them in vain. As you know, we’re dealing with the Fire-Fighting Department tomorrow. But we can’t catch even a quarter of them. If it’s possible for ghost workers to exist, then the ghost of that Father Claudio Comboni is also possible. What d’you think, Ougo?’
I reply, ‘I hear people say, Sir, and I am tongue-tied.’
That is how we talk with the Governor. We do each time a car kills a pedestrian under the footbridge. Then the rumour returns that the Italian priest who was killed there by a mad car in 1899 has come to drink blood. People say Father Claudio Comboni stands in the heart of the road with a Bible, closing and opening his eyes. His picture has settled in people’s minds more firmly than concrete even though none of us really saw him die. We tell one another that all drivers who try not to run over the ghost find their cars jumping out of the road, beating the metal, and bursting the stomachs of pedestrians.
My father told me something different. He said under the footbridge is dangerous because the first Asians to come to Nairobi from Mombasa, led by Mr. Jeevanjee, alighted at the Nairobi Railway Station pulling a heifer with them, and tried to cross Haile Selasie Avenue at the spot where the footbridge stands today. The cow belched, fell, and died while crossing that road. The animal it was thirsty. The group of Asians left the carcass there because it was an ill omen. The following day the first group of Muslims to enter Nairobi from Mombasa, led by Mr. Ali, walked past the carcass and saw its hoof looking like a pig’s. They spat and hurried on to found Shauri Moyo Mosque. So it is not cars running over pedestrians; it is the Indian cow punishing living mankind for dishonouring her body that day decades ago.
Kamau told me that his father said under the footbridge is where Ole Lenana, the last Maasai to leave Nairobi when the white man came, stood and cursed the young city before trekking southward, leading his people to Kitengela, Kajiado, and across the border to Tanzania.
The place has smelled rotten for as long as my nose can remember. People’s heads crack on the tarmac. Nostrils give blood. Dogs die there with broken necks. Beside every carcass are overfed crows and marabou stork. But death does not know eaters of the dead. I have seen a crow slapped by a mad car. I blink my eye and the whole bird is mere feathers on the road. When I look again, I see nothing except the black patch where the bird poured its oil.
Cats do not die under the footbridge. Even those that seem to have entered death’s basket jump out quickly, meowing with red mouths across the road and climbing the church fence, leaving cars whistling by. Drivers are awed. They curse.
‘But I don’t understand,’ the Governor says when we leave Buru Buru for Muthaiga.
I ask, ‘Why, Boss?’
‘Here’s a new footbridge which no one bothers to use – even when cars hit and run over them each day! What’s wrong with Nairobi’s people? It wouldn’t happen in London, or Oxford where I was for years, or Europe generally.’
I tell him, ‘There is a sababu reason, Boss.’
‘And what’s that?’
I explain, ‘It is Father Claudio Comboni.’
‘Ougo,’ he calls my name, ‘what exactly did this Claudio Comboni do?’
‘No one know, Boss, but people says it is he who bewitch those who walks the zebra crossing.’
He barks at me, ‘It’s just that Africans are all superstitious and conservative, Ougo!’
‘Maybe is true, Sir.’
‘Pedestrians don’t want to change and start crossing the road using the footbridge. They’re fools, Ougo – nothing else.’
After reaching Muthaiga last evening, I reminded the Governor of my leave which starts today. I told him that my in-laws would be waiting for me to deliver dowry today. It will be the spare driver going for him today morning, when I should have ‘left’ Nairobi for Nyalgunga last night.
I walk into the fire-fighters’ offices before he comes in the Range Rover. I smile in my heart as the guard at the gate salutes, and then the Governor walks like a peacock to his large office. His yellow suit, his black spectacles, and his Oxford English all walk with him. And then the spare driver takes him out again, so he can stand near Ambassadeur Hotel and see how we fire-fighters know how to deal with fire in spite of our unkind age.
Our red lorry arrives. The siren is still crying. We jump down like young men, but take care not to fall awkwardly, lest our real ages be discovered. Nairobi’s people look at us greedily from all corners of Tom Mboya Street. We are in our orange uniforms and big headgear. You see only our eyes. I sprint past the Governor and climb the ladder, pulling the hose pipe connected to the street hydrant like a real expert. We fight the mock fire for thirty minutes. We are tired. We get tired very easily these days. But are we fools to say we are tired?
No. Never. Our politicians never say they are tired of harvesting money in parliament. Who are we to say we are? All we want is money. It is what counts in this country. I am willing to work this way till death itself plucks me out of it – even if I were going to die the next minute. Our friend Hassan has told us what their proverb says: ‘If excrement had money, no one would call it excrement.’
‘That was wonderful!’ the Governor nods when he shakes our covered hands.
‘Dhank yu feri mach, Bos,’ Kamau says on our behalf, knowing I must never talk, knowing I should be very far away driving cattle to my in-laws in Nyalgunga.
We old men know it will be my turn to reciprocate when the Governor begins to inspect the Drivers Section. Kamau will come. I will cover his anus the way he covered mine today. The Governor will never know that he just congratulated the grandchildren of Father Claudio Comboni’s ghost. We who hold two jobs each, with the Nairobi City Council.
Image: Anne Worner via Flickr (modified)