Faculty Profiles
Turn boy

Turn boy

If words could be relatives, invincible and invisible would have shared the same grandmother. Invincible is what Shaka Zulu felt, swaggering about in the village, pointing at women with his Assegai and saying, ‘you, come to my Indlu when the sun retires,’ or impaling men to death and emerging from battles unscathed, emboldened. Invincible is Shaka never imagining that the sun would ever set on his reign. Invincible was what Kinjeketile and his warriors felt when they thought that German bullets would turn into water during the MajiMaji uprising against the Germans. Invincibility is young men driving Mark Xs at 150km/hr while sipping Jamba juice. It’s thinking you are immortal, that no harm can ever befall you. That you can not only walk on fire, but that you actually are fire.

Invisible is different. It’s the shorter, sadder cousin. It remains in the shadows, unseen.

Our man today is called Bush. Yes, for some reason his parents thought it was fit to name him after George Bush. Or perhaps he was named after the burning bush. Sometimes the names we are given set us on a path already beset by the spirits of the previous owners. But sometimes a name is just a name. Whatever the case, Bush was an invisible bush in his village of Webuye until he came to Nairobi. Then he became a footnote in his own story.

But for him to come to Nairobi, someone had to first die in Nairobi. He didn’t know the guy who died other than the fact that he was “rich.” I put rich in quotes because rich in the 90s meant one had a “permanent house” with red tiles. [A permanent house is a house that isn’t going anywhere.] He doesn’t know what killed him and quite frankly he doesn’t care, all he knows is that during the man’s funeral, a big lorry bearing his belongings—furniture and things—ferried his things to shags and the driver needed someone to help him offload. So he took the job. One has to take the job that brings in pennies.

As he and another boy offloaded the dead man’s belongings, Bush chatted with the driver who supervised this task while smoking a cigarette. He had finished high school two years before and had about zero prospects of raising the money for his university so he did manual jobs in the village to get by. His parents were peasants – as with most parents in the village. Chances were very high that he would end up steeped in peasantdom; building a squat house in the small patch of shamba, marry a small village girl with a smaller patch of hair, then bring to this desperate theatre a number of small doomed children with bewildered looks and no hair, grow old if he was lucky, die and get buried at the edge of the small patch of shamba. Smallness was his destiny. However, something the driver said altered the course of his life. He said he was looking for a turnboy to accompany him back to Nairobi because he planned to pick up and drop some goods on his way back. Did he know anyone who could do that job?

Without thinking he threw his hat in that ring even though he had never been to Nairobi, never imagined that it was even possible that Nairobi would have space for someone like him. Even worse, he didn’t know anyone in Nairobi, well, with the exception of President Moi, but it was unlikely Moi would host him. Most importantly, he didn’t have “the clothes” for Nairobi. He had one pair of trousers and a shirt for church and occasions that required him to clean up. Those clothes didn’t seem appropriate for a big city. He had never left Webuye but he liked the idea of riding in a lorry all the way to Nairobi. It seemed like the greatest adventure. He would see the country. He would leave Webuye. He’d never left Webuye in all of his 20 years. Plus the man was offering him 1000 bob for his trouble, which was more money than he had ever seen in one go. The plan was to arrive in Nairobi and take the next bus back.

They arrived in the evening. So many vehicles. So many people already marching home from work. They didn’t smile. Nairobians didn’t smile. It all seemed so loud, the city; loud music pouring from matatus, honking, boisterous men hanging from matatu doorways, slapping the body of said matatus, women in high heels clutching their purses, the famous women of Nairobi he had only heard about. His bones were tired but these scenes rejuvenated him. He plugged into the electricity of the city and it filled his whole body with a life he didn’t know possible.

How could he go back to Webuye? So he convinced the lorry guy to give him a temporary job as his turnboy. The man set him up in a small keja in Dagoretti. A keja is a one-room, communal toilet, a drunkard who fights with his wife in House 4 and a nameless and homeless mbwa koko, Bosco, that naps in the communal area. He bought a mattress not any thicker than pizza, and a blanket. Life started.

After six months he heard that an Indian family was looking for a groundsboy. He had experience in gardening and farming by virtue of the fact that he grew up in the village. Everybody in the village is a gardener. It’s inbuilt software, with automatic updates. He figured he could do it in his sleep. But when he got to the residence of his employer in a leafy part of the city, the edge of heaven, he was taken aback by the sheer scale of the house and the grounds. He had never seen such opulence. Such wealth. The gardens looked like the Garden of Eden. They had sprinklers! Of course he’d never seen sprinklers before. They had lights in the garden that came on at night because the plants couldn’t sleep in complete darkness. He’d never seen a lawnmower before.

He was set up in the servants’ quarter which sat in the corner of the house amidst some long trees. It was a small house but it was the best house he’d ever lived in; one room, toilet adjoined, a washing sink and a store for keeping the farm implements. He shared the one room with a driver, a much older man called Omosh, a real prick. He barely spoke to him when he arrived. He looked at the plastic paper bag that bore his clothes and asked, “Uko na nguo mbili?” He couldn’t share the wardrobe.

He quickly learnt how Indians live. There was a boss, the man of the house, but there was another man, the main patriarch, the godfather, a very old man who he only saw once when he was brought out to bask in the sun. This was the boss’s father. However, everybody was called “boss” in that house.

Let’s call the boss Patel because it’s the first name that came to mind. Patel ran the family business. He was the first son and had grown children; two sons and two daughters. Patel had another brother who lived in the west wing of the residence with his family. He was called Viraj. Viraj hated the idea of being in the family business and to express that, he drank a lot and played loud music. He also smoked a great deal of weed. Fine, Patel also smoked weed, but he was discreet about it. Never in his car and never in the garden. They both had wives, Preeti and Sita, who seemed to tolerate each other.

Patel and Viraj’s two sisters lived in the big house too. The first one—Vanita—was strong headed and wild spirited; didn’t give a shit about rules. The other one—Kirisha—was devoted, traditional and focused. Their mother—the matriarch—was a very thin, mysterious lady who said very little but saw everything.

The children spoke English to the parents and the parents spoke Hindi to the children. They mostly ate together at the long dining hall on the ground floor. The house constantly smelled of incense. There was occasional tension but mostly they seemed to get along in this labyrinthine living arrangement.The patriarch was listened to, the matriarch was revered.

They lived in a Victorian house, imposing columns, rising three floors up. At night it lit up like a luxury yacht. There was a day and night watchman who opened and closed the gate. An electric fence surrounded the premises. At 11pm each day, four big dogs the size of cows were released to roam the grounds. They had several cars in the parking lot. Viraj went about in his loud motorbike that his mother hated.

“The wealth of this family shifted everything I thought I knew about riches,” Bush tells me. “My idea of ‘rich’ was a permanent house with red tiles. This was insane. This was an unimaginable scale of riches for a boy who had never left Webuye. I was completely mesmerised.” The family owned a manufacturing factory or two in the Industrial area.

“Apart from Omosh, there were three maids—two who lived in the adjacent house. They did a lot of work; cleaning, serving, cooking, tending to the mzee. My job was to take care of the grounds; sweep the leaves, cut the grass, tend to the flowers in the garden but also in the house, and wash all the cars. They had big potted plants spread all over the house and in the courtyard. That’s the only time I was allowed in the house, to water the plants and polish their leaves. Patel’s mother was very very big on plants. She often supervised my work. We worked all the time. There was never any time off. You were on call all the time.”

You were never to be seen or heard. You tiptoed around the bosses, making no noise at all, making yourself as small as you could so as not to inconvenience anyone. “When they addressed you, the few times they did, they didn’t look at you.” You were a servant, you served. You didn’t offer an opinion. “Omosh had worked there for many years, he was maybe 38 years old and he had been working for them since he was, what, 22 years?” He said. “He had seen the children grow up and become adults. They would talk to him more because of that familiarity. They were not cruel, I have to say that, they just didn’t recognise you. They just didn’t see you. You were invisible. Except for the mzee.”

Every morning they would bring mzee to bask in the morning sun and each time he would summon Bush over to pluck him a flower. He liked white roses. Bush would get him a stalk and he would rock slightly in his old rocking chair, holding the rose to his nose. He was probably in his late 80s, wizened to the bone but with the keen alertness of a fox. “He was very curious. For some reason he liked talking to me. He would ask me about my village, about my family, about the plants that I tended to. He had a lot of information about the most mundane of things; the evolution of currency in Kenya, the history of the railway, how ships were built, the first motorised transportation in the world.” Bush laughs. “He would talk about India and his childhood there and how poor they were. He would say we are not poor in Webuye [and I agreed with him], that his childhood was the worst form of poverty one could encounter. He would tell me—truth or not—how he made his money. I worked as he spoke in his slow drawl, smelling his rose and sipping what looked like tea. I liked him. He was the only person who saw me.”

Then Omosh’s wife fell sick in the village and he had to go and take care of her. “I had learnt to drive while working as a turnboy but they had brought in a man to teach me to drive a year or so before on the instructions of Patel’s father, so when Omosh left, a new driver was brought in to drive Patel and the matriarch occasionally, while I was slowly promoted to driving the wives of the two men on small errands. The two women—Preeti and Sita—were used to driving themselves everywhere. I didn’t know Nairobi well and my driving wasn’t good in the beginning so I’d get screamed at by whoever I carried. It was terrifying to drive any of those women. They seemed so on edge. I was always so on edge.”

As Omosh’s absence grew due to his wife’s worsening condition, Bush’s driving improved; so much so that the family hired another boy to garden, and he was promoted to driver. That’s how Omosh lost his job.

Occasionally he would drive Viraj, and he was really nasty towards Bush. “He looked like a movie star, had very good features, and dressed very well but I always felt like the reason he drank so much and was always very nasty was because he was angry and unhappy. I found him dissatisfied with his life. I wondered why when he had everything. He didn’t seem to like his children much or his wife. Or his parents. Or living in that house. He seemed like a caged bird.” Bush says. “He was very volatile. He would be set off by small things. Anyway, soon he started asking me to drive him to this house in Karen where he would leave me outside a gate waiting for hours. Sometimes he would come out of this house to send me for alcohol or cigarettes at the shopping centre. He loved vodka. Of course I was no fool; he was having an affair. It went on for a while.”

One day as he drove Viraj’s wife Sita, she suddenly asked him where he normally takes Viraj whenever he would leave the house.

“I didn’t like Viraj. He was always so nasty towards me. Never treated me with respect.” Bush said. “However, I’m also a man. There are things you don’t do even to your worst enemy.. So I covered for him. She didn’t believe me. The next time I was driving Viraj he said, “my wife asked you about my movements, yes?” I said, yes, boss. He bobbed his head from side to side, like Indians do, and asked, “and vat did you tell her?” I told him I said nothing. He nodded and said, “don’t talk to my wife about me again. I don’t like it” I wanted to tell him, “bitch, ask your wife not to talk to me!”

Then the wife started being very nice to him. She got all polite and shit. “I knew what she was doing, she was softening me up, she wanted information but I wouldn’t budge.” Bush says. Then she started begging, telling me that keeping that information from her was breaking up the whole family. “Do you vant to break a happy home?”

I did what anyone would do, I told Viraj, “Your wife is very suspicious of you, she keeps asking me to tell her your whereabouts.” He flipped. He shouted at me. He said, “I don’t care what you tell her, TELL HER IF YOU WANT!”

So one day he told her. “I only told her because the previous day Viraj had thrown money at me. I had parked the car in town and as he got out I asked him if he could give me parking money and he just removed some money from his wallet and threw it at me. I said, fuck it.”

Next time the wife asked him he sang like a canary.

“She was devastated, bwana. I have never seen anyone so crushed. I mean, women want to know but then you wonder if it’s worth it. I mean, this woman had a good life. She had money, she had everything she needed yet she was chasing after some information that ended up really ruining her. She really cried in the car the day I told her. She became so sad. She obviously knew the house, maybe even knew the woman he was seeing, she just wanted confirmation and details like how often, what time and the more she asked for information the more I realised I needed to protect her, and not even her husband, so I lied about the frequency to cushion the blow. I told her that I didn’t think he liked going there, that he was always so unhappy after he left that house. She would cry at the back of the car as I drove her around, avoiding taking her back to the house. That’s how we started talking, rather me comforting her.”

It’s a bit cliche that they started having an affair.

“You have to be very careful with women, Weso, very. Women are craftier than us. They can plan for three events three Saturdays from now with such great detail you won’t find a mistake. That woman was a master of planning. She never changed how she treated me before people. She still ignored me or barked at me. It made for wilder sex because the bed was the only opportunity I had to dominate her. She was angry and paying back and I was just an instrument.”

She often gave him money—nothing much, a thousand bob here, two thousand shillings there—which she saved. “I realised that she was actually compassionate in person. It was as if she was a different person in that house. However, I knew it was not sustainable. If her husband found out he wasn’t going to kill me, but his brother Patel would. Patel was dangerous. He was a very quiet fellow, very crafty like his father. Have you ever seen those men who just walk around carrying danger with them?”

“No,” I said.

“He was that guy. He just looked like someone who would kill you. I’m sure he would kill for his brother. For honour. I had enough money to start my landscaping business, an idea I got from the internet. I would go to cybercafes and learn about landscaping and what not, plus the experience of working for these guys helped a great deal.”

One day, the patriarch called him as he was basking out in the sun. He had been ailing and had grown very weak. He was now constantly on a wheelchair. Because he was a driver, they spoke less often than when he was gardening. He stood away from the sun in the garden, looking at his frail body bent in the wheelchair, flower to his nose.

“Are you a Christian?” He asked Bush,

“Yes, boss.”

“Do you know the parable of the ten virgins?”

“Yes, boss.”

“How many of them had oil in their lamps,” he looked up at him with his milky eyes. “Do you know?”

“I’m not sure, five, boss?”

“Yes.” He mumbled. “The five were the wise virgins.”

Then he sat there, saying nothing. Bush stood there, saying nothing.

“I didn’t know what that bloody parable meant, or even why it was relevant to me. Hell, I didn’t even know he knew the Bible! Then I forgot about it.”

The next time he met Viraj’s wife he told her about the conversation. She panicked. “Oh my God. He knows! He knows!! Oh my God! That’s how he talks when he knows something. It’s a warning! It’s a warning. They will kill you.” She was really scared. Her face turned ashen, drained of blood. I was scared. “How did he know?” I asked her but she said the old man knows everything. “You can’t stay here any longer, it’s not safe for you or me. You have to leave. I will give you money. Just leave and never come back. Just disappear.”

She gave him 50K the following day and he packed a very small bag, tossed it over the fence and walked out of the gate and never went back. He now sells plants and things along a major road in Nairobi. The landscaping business never started but the plant and potting business started and picked. He only told me this story because I was looking for a bird feeder to send to the village and I asked him how he started a business like that, selling plants and one story opened into another and soon he was telling me about how he started a business.

“But I always wondered how that old man knew,” he said. “He never did anything, never left the house!”


Speaking of flowers, it’s Sally Sawaya’s birthday. You may have noticed that we have removed the special glass plates and cups from the cabinet. We are expecting very important visitors from the city, everyone on your best behaviour. 

RVIBS College

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