Hat on Nail
Four years ago his wife was at the market when a school van lost control, veered off the road, and headed straight in her direction. She was pregnant and was holding onto the hand of one of their daughters. People scampered away from the path of the oncoming machine. To save her, she pushed her little girl out of the way as the school van tipped over, careening towards her. Then, in the final moments of desperation or love, her primal motherly instinct kicking in, she jumped on her, covering her little body with her own, sheltering her from the wrath of metal and death. She survived. Their daughter survived. He’s a blue-collar guy, he ran a small kiosk in Kangemi. The type that sells cigarettes and things.
When his wife was admitted to Kenyatta, he went to visit her carrying a bag of fruits and a soda. When he entered the ward, a grisly sight awaited him. There she was, her legs split into two, the pieces hoisted up like meat with braces and tongs. He looked around, the whole place was full of people with broken limbs. They lay there, staring into space or at their phones, or just staring blankly towards the open window. She sipped the soda and asked about their daughters; were they behaving, doing their homework, was the little one finishing her food? She needs to finish her food.
“I will have to sell the kiosk to raise money for the hospital bill.” He told her. She winced and said nothing. Her leg throbbed, the pain shooting straight to her brain like a sword.
He sold the kiosk for 50K. The whole damn thing. His life’s work. There was no ribbon cutting, no signed contract, no witnesses. Just a handshake. For the longest time, when he passed outside the kiosk he felt a weird longing and sadness boil in him, to see another man behind the grill, leaning into the window. It felt unfair. It felt like a stranger had taken over his house and was using his toothbrush and putting his own children to bed. When the hospital bills kept coming, he emptied all his savings on the bill; another 30K. Then he had nothing left. The nothingness people describe as, “sina mbele wala nyuma.” So he spent his days hanging out at a nearby hardware store, helping out, working with his hands, whenever there was something that would fetch him a little money, enough to go home with because the only thing worse than not having a job was going home empty-handed. You felt the pitiful looks and it burnt like acid.
A few weeks later he brought his wife back home on crutches. The girls were excited to see her. They gathered around her, all talking at once. Their youngest touched her cast curiously as if it was a new member of the family. He watched this bitter-sweet reunion while standing at the doorway, glad but apprehensive, happy but saddened because he knew she had come home to nothing, to a jobless man, to a house that lacked, to a future that seemed to evaporate in the heat of the current circumstances. He looked at his girls, four of them, all talking, laughing, teasing, oblivious to the feeling of inadequacy that had engulfed him.
A few months later they got a baby boy. Their first boy after a string of girls. He was elated, of course. He had been secretly praying for a boy. Another male to break the female monotony. Around the same time, a guy told him about someone who was hiring a driver. He met the employer, a man with thick spectacles and one missing front tooth. “Ever driven a matatu before?” He asked him. He hadn’t driven a matatu before, but he had driven a bus once for six months. He held a licence that allowed him to drive all manner of vehicles, including the heaviest trucks. Driving a matatu had never been something he would have jumped at, but neither was watching his children sleep hungry. So he took the matatu job.
“You need to be a different kind of person to drive a matatu,” he told me recently. We were seated at the rooftop of Sarit Center’s new section. “It’s a thankless job. You have targets. You are constantly dealing with the police, passengers, other matatu drivers and other road users. It’s a high-stress job. Maybe younger people can do it, but it’s not for everyone. There is a lot of anxiety in it. There are a lot of angry drivers, men who are frustrated.” He talked about the drivers who came onto the road and poured out their frustrations there. Drivers who were under the influence for no reason other than to numb their desperation. The job required you to be gung-ho, to be abrasive, to be a brute. Gentlemanly drivers perish on the roads. He also suspects it’s easier to be a matatu driver if you are single.
“Anytime I had a small tiff with my wife in the morning I’d have a bad day. It was a given.” He said. “It was bad luck because then the bad energy would follow me to the road and nothing would work out that day. I’d get into accidents or fights or the police would hold the car. Or little incidents with other vehicles. It would be a mess.”
So whenever he woke up, he’d try not to speak to his wife for fear of starting something. He’d wake up very early and leave before any exchange happened. Sometimes trouble would follow him.
“Why would an exchange happen every morning?” I asked.
“Because when there is no money in the house, when you have a wife on crutches who can’t leave to make her own money, she looks to you for financial support but you are barely making enough to sustain the home, so you are constantly stressed and testy. And defensive, qualities that don’t make for a happy marriage.”
For instance, she wakes up to find you washing your face and says, You said you would get a new school bag for Lavenda. It sounds like a question but it’s actually an accusation. So you respond in a very mild voice and note that Lavenda’s bag is still okay for another two months. She says Lavenda’s bag is old and you promised her that you would get her a new one last month. Well it’s now a new month, which is getting old, and it will end without you fulfilling your promise. You tell her that if Lavenda’s bag is still good enough to carry books, why can’t she just use it until you run into some money to buy a new bag?
That’s not the point, she says.
What’s the point?
The point is you never keep your word! You say you will do something and you NEVER do it.
I want to do all these things, you say, but you of all people should understand that I can’t at the moment. I am not able to. But I will.
Eager to end this morning skirmish, you towel your face and go to the bedroom. She follows you.
Have you seen my hat? You ask her, looking around. The hat is not where you normally leave it, on top of the wooden suitcase.
I’m tired of you saying things you don’t mean, she says. If you don’t want to do something why do you say you will do it when you know you won’t?
You keep quiet and continue searching for your hat. You need that hat to drive a matatu, everybody knows that nobody will take you seriously if you drive a matatu without a hat. And not just any other hat but this particular hat. The bedroom is puny, three steps in either direction and you touch a wall. Now it’s full of things; bags, old suitcases, heaps of clothes, some hanging from the hangers from the wall. Boxes.
I’m honestly quite tired of this life. Of your lies. She says.
I left my hat here, you tell her, did someone move it?
We can’t keep discussing one thing for years. One thing. I’m tired. She says. If I had legs to walk on I’d not be asking you a million times about a school bag, I’d go out there and get this child a bag, but I don’t have legs. However the people with two functioning legs are only giving long promises that they don’t intend to keep. Promises about sending dowry, promises about building the roof of my old and poor mother’s house –
Mama Lavenda, you stop searching for your hat and turn to her, is this about Lavenda’s bag or this is about something else?
This is about your dishonesty.
My dishonesty? Did I not sell my kiosk to pay the hospital bills? And all my savings? I only got this job last month, am I going to buy a school bag or food for the kids to eat? Will Lavenda eat a school bag? What do you want from me?
I want you to do the things you say you will.
Sigh. I need my hat. I need to go to work.
She fetches the hat, partially concealed under a folded blouse. Men can’t find anything. Nothing. It’s a sad fact of life. Even when it’s right before their eyes. It’s a wonder they can even find a wife.
Here, have your hat. She hands over your hat. It’s all you seem to care about in this house.
The matatu business was cruel and dispiriting. You sit there all day and by 1pm your seat has heated up. You always seemed at odds with everybody. One day, a passenger in the passenger seat asked him if he could drive a lorry. There was a job. “Here is a number,” the man said, “call this guy called Alex and go see him in Ngara.” So he went. The job was to drive a truck to Wajir. A ten-wheeler. The job was better than driving a matatu. It paid 12k a month, plus expenses. He spent long hours on the road, sleeping in small beds in small lodgings or in the truck. It gave him lots of time to think things over. It lasted for six months before the contract ended and he found himself at home again, with lots of time on his hands. With the free time he drove a nail in the wall for his hat. There, that should keep the hat from disappearing. Mostly he left the house in the morning and came back in the evening.
One evening one of his daughters told him that the last born’s eyes, his son’s, were like a cat’s. What do you mean like a cat’s? She said, if you switch off the light they look like a cat’s eyes. He was tired, so he ignored her. You know how children are; always seeing ghosts under the bed. Next time she said it, he investigated. He switched off the light and lit a torch in his eyes. They glowed like a cat’s eyes in the darkness. Or like a cow’s eyes when you shine a torch in them at night. He was shaken. “What do you think it is?” He asked his wife in bed that night. She said it was probably nothing. The following day he shone a torch on it again and it shone – like a deer caught in headlights. So he mentioned it to a friend who said, that’s strange, take him to an eye doctor at Lions Eye Hospital. The doctor did tests. “This child is blind in one eye.” The doctor told him. “We will do more tests.” a week later the doctor said, “Your son has cancer of the eyes. It’s called Retinoblastoma. We can save one eye but the cancer has eaten the other eye.”
“He was too young and innocent to have cancer,” Wamai, the father of the boy says. “When your child has cancer you ask yourself many questions, why him? He hasn’t lived long enough to do anything bad to deserve cancer. Why didn’t I get it? I have lived long enough and maybe did things that God was not happy about. I wanted to take his cancer and put it in my eyes.” Life became very tough after that. It’s hard enough supporting a family without a job, now throw in a child with cancer. “It has reduced me to a beggar, literally. I beg for food, money, and help. It has reduced how I see myself, how I think the world sees me.”
His son has gone for many therapies. He got a prosthetic eye. He joined school and he gets bullied a lot. He gets into fights with other kids who make fun of his eye. They noticed that he has developed anger issues, aggressiveness from being picked on at school. “Because he’s constantly growing, his eye sometimes can’t fit so it pops out and his mother has to rush to school to fix it.” Every week, his wife lines up for food packs with her ruined legs at Second Chances Foundation that assists cancer patients with food packs and NHIF coverage for a whole year. He feels gutted that they are fed by good samaritans. That they depend on alms. He feels worthless that all he can do is sit and wait for something to happen. All hope has drained from him. When a new day starts and he stirs awake, he asks himself, “Why? Why does the sun rise each morning to his pathetic life?” His relatives shunned him, they said cancer is a bad omen, that the bad omen was brought by his wife.
His life has descended into the depths of desperation. Every time his wife comes back home with the donations, he goes to the bedroom and he lies on their bed, facing down. His inadequacy has filled their lives and it hums loudly. He prays for work again, as a driver mostly because he’s very good at it, but as anything really because he is not afraid to work hard, all he wants is to provide for his family.