Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Tale of Horror, Heart and Humanity

Whose body is this?

Leaving Nairobi on Thika highway
"They are going to kill us in Thika. Thika is far. I will need to be identified..." That's exactly what was going through my mind as the hijacked matatu sped down Thika highway at breakneck speed. I was working out logistics of my final moments, what would be needed post-disappearance.

I wanted to ask the skinny guy with the gun to my head to return just one form of identification - my passport or credit card - and place it in my jeans pocket. That way, after they had dumped our bodies, someone could identify mine and allow my husband some closure- whatever that means. Right this moment, I really needed assurance that I would be identified.

But I stayed silent. They had set the rules: one word out of anyone's mouth and you get shot right there and then. I knew they meant it. They were cold-blooded killers. I wasn't about to give him reason to pull the trigger.

The inefficiency of traffic police allowed the hijackers to drive as fast as they wished without fear. Memories of a time when matatu hijackings often ended with all passengers killed and dumped in maize plantations flashed across my mind. This happened enough times during the Moi era. You think things are bad now? You must not have been born during the one-party police-state dictatorship era of dungeons and disappearings. We survived that.

"Unaficha nini, eh?? (What are you hiding?)" Skinny-guy gunman next to me barked as I reached into my pockets to empty them, as per his own instructions. "I find you with anything and I'll blow your brains out right now." He so desperately wanted to pull that trigger. In a flash, his colleague behind him, equally drunk with the excitement of the moment, suddenly struck out and landed a steel-knuckled fist right on my cheekbone. The force was so strong I thought I was about to black out.

Some weeks later, I recall narrating to my young nephews how this guy hit me so hard, "twaaarf!" I had to snatch back my head from where it landed after flying off my neck. They laughed so hard. Times when tragedy takes on the mask of comedy, and laughter allows you a sliver of closure. I really didn't think I had any closure issues to deal with. Or did I? This hitting part of the story always got my adult listeners asking, why, why did he hit you?? I could write a whole book on the "why".

"Habari Mzee"

"Leo naskia kuua, haki tena!" Steel-knuckles behind me said. What on earth were these guys on? His friends, a gang of four all together, told him to quit his bad habit, that lately he'd been killing ovyo-ovyo, and that last time he killed without orders. Well, that established it. These guys were at work, and they were trying to establish best-practice.

"Give me that ring!" Skinny-guy yelped, trying to yank my wedding ring off my finger. It annoyed him that it wasn't coming off easy, as if it was my fault. The ring had lived on that finger going on nine years; it had a right to protest dislocation. The man pointed his gun to my finger, He was about to blow it off and free the ring. I closed my eyes and waited for the blast. I pulled my finger while he made a final yank. Pop, the ring came off. Small mercy. I would be identified with all my fingers intact. One day, I'll tell you about that ring.

The getaway driver, a mature man with enough gray hair to qualify him an African elder on a good day, steadily pushed the gas peddle to its limits, zooming past traffic while the night's drizzle danced its nightmarish patterns on the windshield. Were I to meet this thug driver the next day at the bank while he deposited stolen money, I would not remember his face, and I would greet him respectfully, "habari mzee" on account of his elderly look.

"Miguu juu! Yote, yote!" Skinny-guy screamed at me. He lifted my legs and forced my feet onto the little platform that projects behind the driver's seat. He wanted to make sure I was not hiding anything under the seats. Kenyan matatus have a quarter of the leg-room you find when you're flying economy class. They are made for nine passengers; they fit sixteen. My knees came up to my face so that my whole body formed a poorly twisted pretzel, my butt barely resting on the seat. The thugs had thrown the real driver one row back so that he now sat squeezed up next to me. With all the discomfort, my mind was alert to the moment, calm, just concerned about the lack of identification on my person.

My mind raced back to the moment I boarded that number 23 matatu at Odeon. I'd been in the country all of 2 months, having traveled to produce my latest play at the Kenya National Theatre. On this particular day, I had come from a rehearsal session at Kenyatta University, preparing my cast for opening night in about a week's time. My husband and I had taken some insane risks to get this production on stage. It was terribly lonely doing it without him around, and phenomenally unsettling to walk the tight unsecured rope of dream-weaving. Little did I know the rope was about to get even tighter and snap right beneath my feet.

You're far, far away

The matatu from KU had gotten to town late on account of the rains. I got off way-way downtown as the traffic was not moving, and started inching my way towards the city center. It was dark and raining harder. I got completely lost, ended up in a place in the outskirts of the city that I could not believe existed. Dingy street after dingy street, people e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e, thousands of them, in the pouring rain, walking about, laying on the pavement, darting eyes following you, a man jumped in my path to scare me and laughed his head off. I felt as if I'd fallen off the edge of Nairobi into a purgatory of grotesque human forgottens.

I walk-raced briskly, making sure I was a constant moving object. I clutched my back-pack tightly. It had my entire world. I took off my glasses as the rain on the lenses kept blinding me. It seemed to me I was walking endlessly, moving deeper into a Dante's Inferno. I darted into a store and asked for directions to Odeon.

"You're far, far away!" With the directions I got, I got back on to the dense forest of humanity and relentless rain, through the darkness, shady aisles, breathing in air thick with the night's dreadful awakenings. There was an entire city, unknown to the world, that arose in the night. Did you know that! You did not want to be found in it if you did not belong to it. It almost felt like eternity before I saw the familiar sight of Coast Bus station which guided me towards Odeon where I quickly jumped on to the first number 23 Nissan matatu I saw. I was on my way home! A man sat next to me. I relaxed, took out my phone, and sent a text to my husband.

me: honey, you best get down on your knees and thank your God your wife is safe in a matatu heading home

him: [after a while] ok i just did. what happened

me: had a horrible experience... it's about 9:30 right now

As the matatu left town and headed on towards Westlands, I texted on, narrating my walk through Dante's Inferno. Then I suddenly had this nagging feeling that this could be my last conversation with my husband. This is the truth. So I started doing goodbye-speak, telling him what he meant to me, that I loved him, and never you forget that...

him: hon, is everything alright?

me: yes, just a little shaken.

My eyes were glued to my phone as we started texting between two worlds. It was still daylight at home in Baltimore, and at home in Kenya, the last of late-night hard-working Kenyans raced home to rest. We texted on about the mundane- what came in the mail, the fall leaves that needed raking, his discovery of a new omelet recipe that he couldn't wait to make me, the wonderful rehearsal session in KU...

Squinting through chaos

Then suddenly, there was a whoosh. It wasn't a sound. It was the feeling of a dark force descending in a split second. Like being enveloped in a vacuum where not a ray of light or life existed. It lasted but a second, before awareness came in. This must be what evil looked like. So often in life, we touch that line between the physical world and the metaphysical other, but the experience passes so quickly that we do not capture it, we do not let it linger, we move on quickly back to the world of dense matter that is easier to grasp and explain. Back to the moment of sudden chaos.

I had no idea what just happened except that the matatu had pulled up and the man next to me was holding a gun to my head, three voices were commanding that nobody screams and commenced to harvesting all valuables. My phone was snatched mid-text. My bag and all the studio software with complete soundtracks, computer, camera with fresh video clips and photography, voice recorder, scripts, loads of documents I had painstakingly saved up over a period of two years, and all my back-up memory chips - gone.

That morning, I had taken a world of valuables I never carry with me. I had anticipated I would need to be well equipped for my KU session. I had also taken my credit cards and passport so I could facilitate production payments. The thug holding my bag could not believe his luck as he went through his loot. My eye-glasses were in there too. I squinted through the unfolding chaos as it dawned on me that I was in big trouble. I had a production opening in a week, and everything I needed to get it on stage was gone.

I was in pain, my head throbbing from the blow, my limbs numb from bad posture as we cruised through traffic. The whole vehicle with its nine passengers, all in different stages of shock and muffled terror, was quiet as death while the thugs discussed raping the women. They made jokes, asking the hijacked driver lewd questions about women. He trembled, clutching on to his unbundled mukorino turban that had been yanked off while they threw him off the driver's seat. Whatever religious identity that turban held, I suppose it felt both defiled and false, as if a non-existent deity had been unmasked. Times when God became a spectator.

The driver suddenly made an exit from Thika highway and got onto an unlit road that quickly became rugged. We bumped in and out of potholes, and I surrendered to the twisted discomfort of my body as a new normal.

Ruaraka Member of Parliament

"Shame on the MP for this area! He's the one we should kill!" Steel-knuckles barked. Now that was funny. I almost laughed out loud. The killers wanted good roads to ease the hardships of their job.

"Let's not follow the usual route. We get to base from the road further down." Their leader said. Their eyes could somehow do a quick scan in total darkness and decide what route was safe. They were creatures of the night.

As the vehicle made its way into the dingy backroads of an unknown neighborhood, I begun to see shacks similar to those in a slum. Cardboard shelters strewn here and there, and the population got a little thicker. I could see shadows, the wretched of society going about their daily business well into the night.

The matatu came to a stop, and the hijacker-driver ordered his men out. There would be no raping tonight, and no killing, at least not in this matatu. It had been a fruitful raid, all passengers had complied and kept the peace, no need to create inconveniences. They alighted, so that it seemed as if they were just passengers getting off a matatu. They blended in with the moving night figures of the hoi-polloi, no one knowing they were armed hijackers. From the open door, I saw a woman walking by with a big basket on her head, perhaps a hawker heading to her cardboard shack to feed her children.

The real driver got back to his seat and together we started finding our way out. No one knew where we were; we just wanted to get out of this hell. But the driver insisted he has to make a police report, and I agreed with him. After driving a distance trying to find our way out, we were guided to Ruaraka Police Station.

Making that police report turned out to be a lengthy ordeal and gave me a lot of thinking time. I had became aware of being surrounded by a different kind of existence, a world of struggle, squalor and social marginalization not too far away. I thought, if the slums are where the thugs come from, they still did not represent the oppressed proletariat; their occupation was not a protest against the immoral excesses of a capitalistic society.

They were not the disenfranchised youth doing a Robin Hood for their hungry families. They were not the struggling jobless citizens simply doing the only thing they could to survive. They were men who had made the conscience choice to become robbers, killers, cold-blooded terrorists of the night. No amount of poverty, bad politics or misfortune could stand as an excuse for one's inhumanity against another.

I have lived long enough to observe that there is a lot of noble struggle and triumph that rises daily from the lowest ranks of society, from those who refuse to wallow in victimhood and demand dignity through hard work, from the left-out who empower themselves through education and restless protest that awakens the spirit. The slums are also a boiling pot of unsung inventions, rebirths and quiet victories.

The others

My linear thought-track was momentarily derailed by the sound of sobs. I got to comforting a lady, one of the passengers, who couldn't stop crying. She was a student at University of Nairobi, lived alone. I started stitching together parchments of stories from the other passengers.

A young man, a student in Architecture, told me he lost all his homework and had no idea what he would tell his professor. Another had lost his medicine that he picked up from the pharmacy, and how was he going to afford it. A quiet fellow who escaped with his phone shared it with everyone who needed to make a call, the fading battery clinging on bravely until everyone had been served.

I asked the conductor what his story was, hoping he wasn't a part of it all. He looked lost, shaken, said he knew in his gut they shouldn't have done this last trip, now look. The lady who sat by the window next to me told me her day had started off with bad luck, woi-woi, and she broke down and wailed bitterly. There, there, I said, you came off with your life is all that matters. With each passenger, you could see a thin coating of anger begin to build up right above the swollen hollow of violent assault. With time, it could turn to bitterness or apathy or righteous outrage.

"Sir, what is your name?" I asked the police officer.

"Tuta," he replied. Inspector Tuta of Ruaraka Police Station was nonchalant. This was daily routine. He said the hijackings were common, no need to arrest them because they're always released anyway. He was like a waiter, wiping off the table after a meal. Sigh... the gangrened arm of the law. From the recesses of the grotesque, I did a double-take of Inspector Tuta's arm, just the off chance it could actually have gangrene. Insecurity was an epidemic Kenyans had mostly chosen to be silent about. May be if we called it Insecuritephalus-Kenyatosis...

It wasn't until 1 AM that we were leaving the police station.


We got back in the matatu, and the driver dropped us off at our various stops. When I got home, I narrated my ordeal to my sister and my brother-in-law who were waiting on me, puzzled about my whereabouts. I asked for a phone to talk to my husband. It was evening in Baltimore.

"Hi love," I said

"Hi. You went to sleep?"

"No. I almost got killed..."

A few weeks later when he joined me in Kenya, he said to me, "That night, when you told me what happened to you, I lost my faith."

"Why?" I asked

"You asked me to get down on my knees and thank God that you were safely in a matatu heading home. I did. I got down on my knees and said thank you, God, for keeping my wife safe. And soon after, someone had a gun to your head. Tell me, what kind of God does that?"

"I don't know, honey." I too couldn't defend the God that we were putting on trial right then.

My husband got the sordid details, all else that I have left unsaid to the rest of the world. He's a man with an emotional IQ that goes far above the average guy and can handle depths of emotional detail. His presence was the soft rain upon my bruised mind.

"It's ok, baby. I'll find them."

I remembered that the next day after the ordeal, my sister had organized funds, chauffeured transport and medicine. And later, she had brought on my biggest audience. Love surrounded me.