By The River
The phone was ringing, that he was sure of. What he wasn’t sure of was if it was his phone. He could hear it from afar, like it was ringing from 1987. Like it was ringing behind walls and beyond time and a yawning chasm. And it was ringing incessantly, unabatingly, like a wailing baby startled awake by the oppressive afternoon heat, and now wants to be lifted from the cot. But then as he rose from the bed of semi-consciousness, he realised that the phone was ringing in the very room he occupied, and that it was his phone. He groggily turned his head towards the lit screen on the dresser and reached for it in the darkness.
Truecaller said it was his mother-in-law. It was 3am and he was at a lodging and he was still high.
I don’t suppose you know where Rongo is. It’s in Migori County. This is irrelevant information to this story, but their official football team is Sony Sugar FC. I don’t know how they perform in the league, but then I also don’t know if Bata Bullets still play. These are mundane questions we can always explore when we have more time on our hands. Anyway, Rongo is a typical small town in the country. There are goats and hawkers and men who have leaned their bicycles against walls and trees and are gathered around a newspaper guy who gives a very false and skewed political review. There is a bus station where buses emit hoots from their bellies and manambas chew sugarcane while talking loudly. Cows chew cud under the tree shades. I have never been, I’m just imagining all these because I suppose it’s something like my own shags.
He was in the lodging because he and some friends had travelled to Rongo to attend a church Harambee earlier. They were three chaps who you wouldn’t normally see in a church choir or a church committee. You wouldn’t refer to them as Brother Mike or Brother Timothy. These are men who never left the streets. Luos call it “Pap.” After the Harambee they had gone to a local club/ pub and mowed down a few bottles of whisky and finally retired to their rooms.
His mother-in-law never called him. They didn’t have that kind of relationship. Where he comes from, you don’t fantasise about your mother-in-law. You don’t engage her too much, you give her a wide berth. So when he saw her call he rose up on his elbow and wondered if it was a butt-dial. But still, your mother-in-law butt dialing you at 3am? There must have been trouble.
So he cleared the sleep off his throat and answered in a voice that sounded like one who attended a church Harambee the previous day.
“Yes mum,” he could smell the whisky in his breath.
“This is Mama Miriam,” she said. “Sorry to call you this late, but Miriam went into labour and was rushed into the theatre.”
Mirian was his wife. They were pregnant but she wasn’t due for another month or so. She lived in Nairobi and he lived and worked in Kakamega. He came to Nairobi as often as possible. It was a long-distance marriage which often is the type of marriage that lasts longer because then you don’t waste time fighting about why one of your socks is in the blender.
“Is she okay?” He was now sitting up in bed, his heart hammering.
“Yes, you are the father of twin boys. Miriam is also fine. God be praised.”
“That’s good news.”
“You have to come to Nairobi tomorrow.” She said.
He hung up and lay in the small stiff bed. He could smell the curtain from his bed. It smelled like hooves. He couldn’t go back to sleep. He stared at the ceiling, waiting for dawn to pack it up and leave for Kakamega. He could hear the things that one hears in a lodging; doors opening and slamming, laughter muffled by walls, a dog barking outside in the distance, someone dragging something across the corridor, maybe a carcass, maybe a bad decision. A drunken lady shouting at an open door, “By the way, huwezi nipeleka mahali, Dan! Nyasachiel, huwezi!”
At 7am he knocked on his pals’ doors and woke them. It’s hard to wake up people who are hungover and so they didn’t set off until 9am. An hour later they stopped to grab something to eat at a small town called Oyugis. There are a lot of bananas in Oyugis, and a lot of manambas chewing sugarcane and speaking loudly. And cows chewing cud under trees. Two hours later they set off towards Kisumu. The roads are now great.
“I was very full from the lunch and coupled with the fact that I had barely slept, I was feeling quite sleepy.” Joseph—not his real name—said. When they got to Ahero, just before the bridge under which the indomitable River Nyando flows, unable to fend off sleep anymore, he nodded off. For anyone who has nodded off behind the wheel, it’s hard to tell how long exactly your eyes were closed for. Normally, although it feels like a minute, it’s actually a second or so. When your eyes close, the car invariably becomes an uncontrollable weapon. Or a moving coffin.
A loud bang woke him up with a start. “The first thing I saw was a man from a motorbike flying over the car as if in slow motion,” Joseph said. The man disappeared over the roof and when he looked in the rearview mirror he could see him, legs flailing, arms flailing, shoes flying, dropping like a stone. He could also hear someone screaming, a collection of gasps in the car, people running towards the man, some standing shocked, mouths agog, frozen in O shapes, more pointing with looks of horror. He brought the car to a stop immediately. They all turned in their seats to look behind. “My heart was pounding so loudly I could taste it in my mouth.”
Suddenly a group of men started charging at the car. You haven’t been to Ahero. Like all small-town centres, it’s boisterous and loud, with mostly fairly tall or well-built men who won’t shy away from confrontation. In those necks of the woods it only takes someone to say, “Onge bwana! Ongee!” then shit quickly hits the fan. An angry mob started approaching the car. They were shouting. “One of my friends said, ‘they are going to burn us in this car, drive! So I drove out of there fast. We drove to Kisumu in stony silence, wide awake. There, I reported it to the police station.” The cops called Ahero and they were informed that the guy had died on the spot.
It’s amazing how you can close your eyes for one second, open them and find that your whole world has shifted. Now he had someone’s blood on his hands. He had killed someone. Also, he wasn’t supposed to be driving that car to a goddamn Harambee in Rongo because it was a company car, so if it got to the bosses he would be jobless. He sat on a bench at the police station and wondered what would befall him. His friends, who were also shaken, tried to console him. They said, “It was an accident, it could happen to anyone.” The first thing they did was fix the car at a garage. Turns out the man he had killed was in his mid-20s, a boda rider. He lived with his mom and sister. When he hit him he had just started his shift because he worked until 10pm.
“I sent my brother and my uncle to find the mother of the guy we had hit. They found her and had a meeting with her, and the deceased’s uncles. They told them that I was very sorry, that it was an accident and that we were requesting to settle this out of court. We offered them 200K.” The deceased’s uncles said that wouldn’t cut it.
The file had been transferred to Ahero and the wheels of justice started moving. Unbeknownst to him, a policeman who took over the case was also talking to the family of the deceased. He told them that the man who killed their son had “a lot of money” and they should clean him out. He would require a small portion of that amount, you know, for his trouble. The family refused to consider an out-of-court settlement. They wanted to go to court. The hearing started, but the family would miss court appearances. One day the cop told Joseph, “Listen, for 100K this case will disappear.”
“I was young and very scared. I knew nothing of traffic laws. I thought I’d be thrown in jail and die there. So I parted with the money to save my skin.” He says.
The case died. He wasn’t fired from work. He continued with his life, a father of twins.
A few months after the incident, the freak accidents started. First, he was driving his own car that he had just collected from the garage. Out of nowhere, a boda guy avoiding a pickup ran straight into him. Another time not long after that particular accident, he was driving when suddenly, another car blindly joined the main road. He collided with that car, whiplashing his neck so badly, it felt like it would snap from the impact. Another time, a Nissan rammed into him from behind. Then there was the time he was riding his motorbike and a car veered off his side and aimed for him, nearly hitting him, forcing him to ride off the road, crashing into a swamp. He was thrown clear off the bike, but luckily, the swamp broke his fall. He sat up in the swamp and thought, this is not normal.
So he spoke to one of his friends. He told him about all these accidents he was getting into. He told him about how a few months before he had hit the man in Ahero, he had ferried his colleague’s body from the morgue in Kericho to his shags in Vihiga in the back of a pickup. His colleague had died from a road accident. His leg and back had snapped like a twig. He drove on for hours, his colleague’s body moving about in the back, just the two of them.
The guy said, there is a bad fate following you. “He told me that as Luhya culture dictates, the relatives of the colleague who died should have given me a chicken upon delivery of the body. I was to release that chicken on the roadside to avoid the spirit of the dead colleague following me. But I didn’t. I didn’t because they never gave me any chicken and because of that the spirit of the man had followed me and was still following me all over. I know it sounds wild, but my life up to that point was pretty wild…all these weird mishaps. It was like evil was stalking me.” Then he remembered something. “Did I also tell you that I learned later that the father of the young man I ran over at Ahero was also run over at the exact same spot a year or so before? At the exact same spot the son died by being hit by a car, his father had also suffered the same shit. Freaky shit was just happening, man. I just knew it was not normal. They should have given me the chicken.”
So he went to his deceased colleague’s family in Vihiga. He met his deceased colleague’s father. They sat under a tree on makuti chairs. He told him they forgot to give him the chicken that he was owed. He said, wait here and left the boma. His colleague came from a humble home, just a small house with a small kitchen out back. A few farm animals. The father came back with two wizened wazees. They asked him questions. They listened keenly. One had heavy hooded eyes, like Derrick, the 80s TV detective. The other looked as grave as a priest who reads last rites. He never interrupted him as Derrick did, just stared at him like you would look at your X-ray results. When he was done with his narration of how his life had gone topsy turvy with accidents, Derrick said, sure, they owed him a chicken and they were sorry it wasn’t given to him earlier. A chicken was brought, it was a normal brown chicken. Its legs were tied. They bade him goodbye and good luck and at the main road he untied the chicken’s legs and released it. The chicken was confused, but as he drove away he saw it pecking the ground for food.
He had also been advised to go to a river in the exact same clothes he was wearing when he had collected his colleague’s body from the morgue. He was to take a bath and abandon the clothes at the river bank. So that evening—when the sun was going down—he went to River Misikhu and changed into those clothes—beige khaki pants, a white shirt and black canvas shoes—then he bathed. He then left them there at the riverbank.
The accidents stopped. No pick-ups rammed into him from behind anymore. No bodaboda guys blind sided him. He didn’t fall off his motorbike anymore or get hit from behind by a lorry. Death stopped stalking him. “For ten years I didn’t experience any accident but I never stopped thinking about that man I hit because as fate would have it, his death coincided with my sons’ birthdays. You see the irony here, every year that I celebrate their birthday I also remember the death of that man.”
Of course he also saw a pastor soon after the event, after the river and chicken, because the guilt was drowning him. He was prayed for. He asked for forgiveness. He continued asking for forgiveness. He also asked for forgiveness to the family of the man he ran over. He gave them a token, some money, through emissaries, even though the case had been snuffled. He also picked the Bible after that and has been reading it committedly. “I like the story of David the most,” he says. “He did many horrible things, sending a man to die at war so he could steal his wife who he had impregnated. I mean, God forgave him, yes, but when Prophet Nathan confronted David, God lifted the sin from David but brought calamities to the house of David. Look at what befell his son, Solomon, he was never really settled in family life; all those concubines and wives. David tried to undo God’s curse with prayer and fasting but still the calamities hounded him. Initially, I wondered if my sons would pay for what happened in Ahero, but then again in the New Testament, Jesus died for all our sins and gave us a clean slate. Also, I have come to accept that it was an accident. I didn’t plan to run over anyone that day. I’m at peace.”
He says, “Things that happen in our lives can be strange and confusing. Some are coincidences and some are engineered in heaven or by men’s hands on earth. We have to stay vigilant in spiritual warfare and always pray for God’s guidance.”