Nairobi is unashamedly brutal.
Gitonga thinks so, and quite frankly, I agree.
Why? I’ll explain in a bit. Let me begin by telling you how I met Gitonga…
The Nakuru Whole sellers Market has not changed much. It is still the market of my childhood. My siblings and I would fight for a chance to come to the market to help mama with Saturday shopping. Not that we loved the experience. If anything, it was quite tiring, but the allure of a Lyons Maid ice-cream treat after shopping was incentive enough. My visits here are now far and in between, mostly in December when I am home for the holidays. I am here today to buy some fresh green maize for nyoyo, a popular Kenyan dish made by boiling a mixture of maize and beans. I am trying out mother’s recipe, replacing beans with chick peas. It is healthier and a welcome reprieve from the beans that always leave me bloated. I ask a woman wearing an apron in a material strangely similar to my primary school uniform where the maize section is.
Habari Madam? Naweza pata wapi mahindi mbichi?
She points out and adds. “Na uchunge usifungiwe huko ndani” I look at my watch. 2:30pm
As I make my way towards the maize dealers, I suddenly become aware of my look; too clean. I am conspicuous in my orange knee length dress and sea blue sandals. One does not simply clean up this well when heading to a farmer’s market. The more well dressed you are, the more you will be charged. It is a proven concept. The sellers size you up from head to toe then determine the market price. Reminds me of the Engarasha (also bend over boutique) hawkers who change the price of the shoe as soon as they see my number 9 self approaching. One minute he is hollering “Mia biri, mia biri! Kiatu mia biri. Camera!” As soon as I express interest in a rare No.9 shoe he did not even know he had, the story changes. “Msupa si unajua tu hii size vire ni ngumu kuget? Nimekufanyia bei poa. Chukua na soo nane. Nayo ni kitu sawa. Itakuserve.” How the price shot up from Ksh. 200 to Ksh. 800 is not quite the mystery. Shopping for us #BigFootInc, a team I have chaired since I was 10, can get quite frustrating. Anyway, I make peace with the fact that today, I fall victim to that misguided formula. But it is Sunday, the 1st day of January 2017. One must hope. The seller is probably a Catholic faithful who visited the confession booth this morning and told the priest how sorry he was for taking (read stealing) from his brothers and sisters this past year under the economy dip guise. The priest, after listening patiently had assured him that his sins had been forgiven.
“Go and sin no more.”
This side of the market is mostly abandoned. My nose soon gets used to the smell. It is a fusion of fresh onions, rotting tomatoes, sweet overripe mangoes and dampness. A light breeze throws my rosy perfume into the mix. For a brief second, I notice a man doing I don’t know what. I keep moving. The men at the maize section do not seem too eager to make a sale. Maybe it is the heat. Though offering some reprieve, the heat under the iron roofed shelter is almost as unforgiving as the one beyond. I ask again and someone points me to a small hill of green maize.
“Tatu twenty-five hapo madam, Chagua.” Three cobs for twenty-five shillings seems fair.
A young man speaking with a slight lisp offers me a gunny bag for twenty shillings. I decline. I start my selection process. I want maize worth a hundred shillings. I pick one, part the fresh green covers and feel the maize inside. If it is too hard or too soft, I throw it back. I put the chosen ones next to my right foot and repeat. That man I saw doing I don’t know what approaches me and offers to help. I know he will ask for some sort of payment when done, so I tell him I am alright. This is the season Kenyans like to call ‘Njaanuary,’ loosely translated to mean ‘a starving January.’ The hustle is real. The wallet dry spell is common during this first month of the year, coming hot in the heels of an extravagant festive season.
“Ah, utaninunulia tu chai.” He says with a smile.
I know that he does not literally mean chai. Who, except my brothers and sisters from Western Kenya, can drink tea in this heat? Anyway, it is New Year’s Day; I should be able to buy a stranger a cup of tea.
“So what’s your name?”
Minutes later, he offers to carry the load for me, again, ‘free of charge.’
“Wewe hukuenda nyumbani mwaka mpya?”
“Aii. Going home between Christmas and New Year is a waste of money. The fare to Meru, my home is double the normal price. Then when I get home, everyone expects this working class of a man to share his wealth. What wealth? Anyway, I would rather go when status quo resumes. These matatu guys will soon be begging us to travel home.”
I nod in agreement, thinking of the extra two hundred shillings I had to pay from Nairobi.
“Haiya! Georgie amefunga gate!” It is a few minutes past three. The gate is closed. The woman had warned not me to stay too long.
“Georgie is a stickler for rules. He will not open this gate till 3.30pm. We’ll have to wait.” Gitonga adds that the wholesale market hours have to be regulated to allow the retailers to sell their goods. Customers are aware of the price difference between the two sections so naturally, they throng the wholesale area deserting the retailers.
I look at my watch again. Ten minutes past three. Gitonga sits on a dirty crate. He reaches into a black polythene bag he just fished from his pocket. Miraa. I should have guessed. Merus and Miraa are like Luhyas and tea. Inseparable. A green leaf finds its way into his mouth. I notice his dry, slightly cracked lips. Maybe he does need that tea. Unlike other miraa consumers I have come across, he does not have any drink with him. I watch, a little intrigued as he continues chewing on his Khat. I admire his carefree nature. I still have a long way home, so I remain standing. We do not want to mess up our Sunday Best now, do we?
“Miraa is better than alcohol. A man who eats miraa never fails in bed. I can’t say the same for an alcoholic.” He says when I inquire about this habit.
I try not to look bothered by the high jump our conversation had taken. I had simply asked him why he felt the need to eat miraa. Sex drive tena? Ghai! I successfully shift the conversation to livelihood, but not before he makes it clear that Meru men never need a “10 Natural Ways to Boost Your Libido” article because they never fall short in the first place.
“So what exactly do you do here in the market?”
“My day starts early. I am always here by 5:30 am. There are truck loads of food arriving from different parts of the country. I offload the goods then stick around the whole day for odd jobs here and there. Sometimes, these traders give me goods they feel would not be as fresh the following day, at a reduced price of course. I then wait till rush hour when I head over to the bus stages and sell them to the ones who were too busy to come to the market. I can make up to Ksh. 2000 on a good day. On a bad day, I walk home and hope my wife had better luck. She is a good woman, that one. Are you buying anything else? You had better make use of this time. There are tomatoes and mangoes there.”
I assure him I have all I need.
There are three other men waiting for the gates to open. One of them says, “Ni vile tu nina njaa, ningekuwa nimeruka gate.” The other one warns him against it, and goes on to narrate an incident where a man lost his ring finger while trying to jump over the gate.
Gitonga asks why he has never seen me in the market before.
“You can’t possibly know everyone who comes to this market.”
“I know, but you are hard to miss.”
I smile. Gitonga is on a mission.
“I work in Nairobi”
“Really? I have worked in Nairobi before. Weh! That city is not for the weak. Even the strong are not strong enough for Nairobi and her tribulations. I used to be a hawker. We would engage the City Council officers in running battles. When you are caught, you are either beaten to a pulp or shoved into their old rickety vans and transported to the council cells. The lucky ones would negotiate and bribe their way out before they get to the cursed holding cells. When you allow yourself to get to that point, there is no telling what they will charge you with. God help you. But we always went back to the streets. Watoto lazima wakule. You get used to it. I think no one should have to get used to such a life. I’m glad I got out. Weh! Nairobi showed me!”
I have a feeling I have not heard half of what this man went through. Just then, the gates fly open, and a man standing tall at over 6 feet and wearing a faded brown coat calls out, “Haya, watu waende nyumbani.”
Tom Mboya Street is its usual chaotic self. The new year did not bring any surprises. Different commuter buses still pack here. People queue up waiting for buses still stuck in Nairobi’s notorious traffic jams. There is one particularly long winding queue. The Kikuyu one is always like that. There is never a queue with the matatus I use. Only two seats left at the back of the one that’s waiting. I opt to wait for the next one.
I look around to see what wares the hawkers have today. There are fruits, clothes, shoes, toys, among other things. They are all laid out on both sides of the pavement, making it very hard for pedestrians to navigate through. Suddenly, a mini commotion. A group of men, one of them dread-locked, is moving from one hawker to another demanding something. Two of the guys in the group are carrying big polythene bags. If someone resists, they take a few pieces of their wares and move along. They get closer and I hear the guy with the locs, seemingly the leader say, “Fifty bob!” A woman places the money into his palm and he goes to the next one. As they pass by, I see a woman tugging at one of the paper bags. She is screaming.
“..but I have paid! Rasta? Si nimekulipa na huyu amechukuwa vitu zangu. Mwambie anirudishie.”
Rasta is too busy collecting money to hear. Now a few meters ahead, he notices that someone in his entourage is not with him. The woman is still putting up a fight. Rasta runs back, quite agitated and starts roughing up the woman. She is relentless. Rasta is getting impatient. He gives her a final shove that almost sends her to the ground. The group moves on. The woman, not more than 5 ft tall is at a loss. She stands rooted to the spot and says over and over again, “I paid them. 50 bob! And they still took my stuff.” Heartbreaking. Her colleagues just look at her, faces empathetic but mostly helpless. Their loud wooing calls to customers soon drown out her voice.
Meanwhile, rasta is quarreling with a man. They are now standing nose to nose, and I fear a fight will break out. It doesn’t. They both head out in opposite directions. As the man walks past me in a huff, I ask him, “Kwani Kanjo wanafanya job usiku?”
“Hawa si kanjo. Nkt! Mafala hao”
I have seen enough. I get into the bus, now halfway full. If rasta and his troupe are not the city council, who are they? Thugs terrorizing and milking people of their hard earned 50 shillings? Are they any different from Mungiki and other criminal groups who controlled the transport industry in selected hoods in Nairobi a while back? I can’t shake off that woman’s high pitched cry for help. But this is Nairobi. Every. Man. For. Himself. Everyone else is too busy avoiding the trap to help. Even our President does not know what do. Mercy Nairobi, Mercy.