Walking down Eastlands in Nairobi with my head bowed and my hands pocketed at 3am has always been such a beautiful thing to me. The occasional bark of a dog, the sniff of alcohol streaming from the river in Mathare and on to the road, the stench of garbage from tens of forgotten compost pits…the general smell of the walk from Pangani, down Mlango Kubwa, through Mathare all the way to Huruma has always been the best thing that’s ever happened to my nostrils.
Walking down Eastlands in the slums of Nairobi at 3am…I don’t know why it’s so beautiful. Its inexplicability is probably its allure. I am known in these parts. I don’t know since when but one day I was suddenly famous. Njoroge the posho mill attendant in Mlango Kubwa suddenly knew my name and said a jovial “Hello Charlie” to me every morning at 3:12 am when I passed by his place of business, Ochi the dreadlocked reggae artiste knew me too and so did Chep the chapati cook with a beautiful gap between her teeth and everyone else between Pangani and Huruma.
My name is Charlie and I am a bus driver. My bus pries route number 46 from Huruma to town. Early risers pay 10 bob from Huruma to any stage but from 6am, the fares hike. My life has always been pretty much the same. I wake up, prepare, walk from Pangani to Huruma where my bus spends every night, spend the day behind the wheel and enjoy Daisy’s company. Daisy is my conductor and she’s the best thing that’s ever happened to my nostrils. Daisy. She is really dark – not Sudanese dark but the kind of dark that makes dark sexy – she has this big bright eyes that brings out the Goosebumps in me even on the hottest of days and there are simply no words in any recorded language to describe the beauty of her smile. Latin could’ve come close but it’s a dead language. And no I am not sleeping with Daisy and neither do I have a crush on her so get your head of the gutter.
We work tirelessly Daisy and I and day in day out, everything is the same. Everything is the same everyday but today… Today Huruma is on fire. There are gunshots everywhere, balls of smoke are snaking their way to the clouds from various spots in the ghetto, and there are occasional dead bodies, screaming women and children and more gunshots.
“What’s going on?” I ask Daisy when I get to where the bus is touched and she replies “Looks like hell’s finally raining down on us Charlie. It might be time to up and leave this life.” For some reason, my bus is a safe haven for all who come to it. Men, women and children scram for safety in my bus and for a moment there, I am Noah and the bus is the ark. There are only two seats left in the bus and those are filled by two people in black suits and hats.
Suit Number One is male and Suit Number Two is female. They sit beside each other at the front of the bus and I put the old thing in gear and drive off this Hell’s kitchen. From the door Daisy is still yelling, “Kumi tao! Kumi tao! Tao kumi! Tao kumi!” (Ten shillings to town!)
“Bado haijajaa?” (Isn’t it full yet?) I ask as we drive fast and she replies, “Hii ni basi ya kwenda binguni! Unless binguni kujae, haitawahi jaa!” (This is a ride to Heaven. It’ll never be full until Heaven is full!) As she says that, I spot a huge banner hanging on the chief’s camp’s wall reading, “THE WORLD IS AS REAL AS IT GETS IN EVERYONE’S DREAMS.”
“What do you think that means Charlie?” Suit Number Two asks me referring to the banner, prompting me to wonder how she knows me.
“Have we met?”
“No we haven’t, but then that’s because it wasn’t time yet.” She replies and queries, “Haven’t you ever wondered why everyday in your life is the same?”
I laugh and ask what she’s talking about.
“What is the date today Charlie?” She asks and without a second thought, I reply, “February 26th, 2016.”
“You are wrong mate.” Suit Number One interjects. “It’s February 26th, 2021 and today is the fifth year of your death.”
“Yeah. Right.” My tone of voice has never been more dismissive. “Why don’t you crawl back to the mental hospital rain man?”
“You better believe us Charlie. You are dead and it is time you allowed your soul to move on to the next world.” Suit Number Two is seated right beside me. She places her hand on my lap and looks me straight in the eye. When she speaks, her voice is calm, direct and almost commanding. “Five years ago today, you were a victim of a violent crime…”
“What violent crime?”
“You were stabbed to death outside a friend’s gate in Mlango Kubwa.”
I don’t understand why, but I am angry. I know I should be laughing at the stupidity of their story but it antagonizes me so much that I am literally shaking. I pull the bus over at Moi Airbase Gate and demand that they alight immediately.
“Kuna mtu anashuka Charlo?” (Anyone alighting Charlie?) Daisy enquires and I explain to her that a couple of mad folks need to get back to the mental hospital.
“We are not alighting Charlie.” Suit Number One says. “Take a second and imagine that we are vanishing into thin air right in front of your eyes.” The thought of them vanishing comes to me involuntarily… and sure as hell; both suits slowly turn to smoke which is then carried from bus through the front window and out into the morning wind.
“Wameshuka?” (Have they alighted?) Daisy is wondering and I ask her if she can see them. No she can’t. I ask if she saw where they went and she answers that they are standing right outside the military gate. I can’t see them anywhere. Not where she says they are, not beside me, nowhere. They are gone but she can see them.
“Are you OK Charlie?” Daisy cuts into my confusion and putting the bus in gear, I absentmindedly answer affirmatively. Ronald Ngala Street hosts my favorite breakfast spot. Every morning at 6:34am, Daisy and I take breakfast consisting of porridge and Ugali at “Umechelewa Kwenda Binguni Café.” I always thought that that was a weird name for a restaurant seeing as how it literally translates to, “You Are Late for Heaven Café.”
Everything today is confused. People keep bumping into each other out in the streets, waiters keep spilling customers’ orders then suddenly out in the street, two buses ram hard into each other and above the sound of screeching tires, smashing metal, shrieks of shock something even worse happens… An armed man walks into the café, points the gun at Daisy and says “You’re late for heaven” right before squeezing the trigger and splashing her brain matter all over my face. I wake up with a start and find myself laying face down on the tarmac.
Suddenly, my life reverses fast like it’s a movie being rewinded fast on TV. I am on my knees, then I am flying backwards through glass which turns out to be the windshield of my bus then I am seated behind the wheel driving – reversing the bus. My life is now playing at normal speed.
I am driving down Ronald Ngala Street. I see my favorite restaurant “Umechelewa Kwenda Binguni Café” and then something else… something strange… there are two people inside the café… the guy looks exactly like me and the lady looks exactly like Daisy! My eyes haven’t been on the road for a while now. Suddenly a bus hoots forcing me to concentrate but it’s too late. I don’t even have a second to wonder what the other driver is doing on this lane before we drive straight into each other. I am jerked from my seat. I crash through the windshield. The other bus’s windshield knocks me off the road and I am flying hard towards the hard unforgiving tarmac… meters away from a fast approaching Bus Number 45!
I am back in the restaurant where Daisy has just had her head blown clean off her shoulder. The gun turns to me and I close my eyes. In my head I see Suit Number One smiling as he says “It’ll be hell from now on” right before a gunshot then darkness.
I wake up with a start and find myself behind the wheel. The dashboard clock is reading 4:12 am and I am driving out of Huruma. Daisy is saying “Tao Kumi! Tao Kumi! Tao Kumi!” and both suits are seated beside me at the front of the bus. “Ask her ‘bado haijajaa’ (Isn’t it full yet?)” Suit Number Two instructs but I’m too dumbfounded to say anything. Heck im on autopilot. What’s going on? Using my voice exactly, Suit Number two pops the question and Daisy replies, “Hii ni basi ya kwenda binguni! Unless binguni kujae, haitawahi jaa!” (This is a ride to Heaven. It’ll never be full until Heaven is full!)”
The bus is cruising past the banner reading “THE WORLD IS AS REAL AS IT GETS IN EVERYONE’S DREAMS.” “What is happening?” I ask the suits. “You are dead Charlie. You have been dead for five years now and He…” Suit Number Two is explaining and she lifts her index finger up to the sky. “…He is waiting for you to accept that and wake up.”
“Wh…what are you talking about? I am not dead! I am alive! I’m driving to town for heaven’s sake”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Am I am sure about what? Whether I’m driving to town? Of course I am dumbass! What the fuck else do I look like I’m doing?” Suit Number Two does that thing again where she places her hand on my lap and looks in my eyes.
“Are you sure you are not drowning at a swimming pool right now?”
My eyes snap open! I can’t breathe! Why can’t I breathe?! I try to draw breath but all I do is swallow more water. I’m sinking deeper and deeper into the water. I try to swim up but my hands and legs are bound. I can’t do much besides sink and drown… and freak out because I read somewhere that drowning is the most painful way to go. My eyelids are too heavy. I can’t think. I can’t feel. I imagine my lungs are full. I let go… …then I open my eyes again… just as Daisy is yelling ““Tao Kumi! Tao Kumi! Tao Kumi!” and both suits are seated beside me at the front of the bus.
“Ask her ‘bado haijajaa’ (Isn’t it full yet?)” Suit Number Two instructs but I’m too dumbfounded to say anything. Heck im on autopilot. What’s going on? Using my voice exactly, Suit Number two pops the question and Daisy replies, “Hii ni basi ya kwenda binguni! Unless binguni kujae, haitawahi jaa!” (This is a ride to Heaven. It’ll never be full until Heaven is full!)”
The bus is cruising past the banner reading “THE WORLD IS AS REAL AS IT GETS IN EVERYONE’S DREAMS.” “Why is everything repeating itself?” I ask the suits. “Why do I keep dying?”
“Because your soul has been alone on earth too long. This is no place for souls Charlie.” Suit Number One is explaining. But I can’t accept it. How am I just supposed to shut my eyes and accept that I am dead? I can’t be dead. I have a life. I have people who’d miss me if I died. I have… I have… I pause. A face fleets in and out of my head so fast I barely catch it. “You are thinking about her, aren’t you?” Suit Number Two asks as we cruise past Moi Airbase where I first commanded them to alight.
The face comes again. The face of a woman. A beautiful woman. It is not Daisy. This one is different. She is smiling at me. Then she is not. She starts laughing and it is the sound of pearls hitting concrete. Her laughter is nothing if not enigmatic. Tears are shooting from her eyes and cascading down her cheeks. Tears of joy they must be… or are they?
She reaches out and touches my stomach. Her fingers have blood on them. I look at her again and her tears are of grief. I look down at my stomach and I am bleeding profusely.
From a distance, Suit Number 2 is asking, “Do you remember that face?” I should. But I don’t. I have lost it. I have lost her. But I had her. The face keeps coming and going. I am confused.
Suddenly I am walking from Pangani to Huruma but I am not alone. My hand is holding hers. She looks at me and says, “Isn’t it alluring? The inexplicability of the beauty of the stench in this walk?” I know her. I remember her. I miss her. I love her.
“She is Angel. My Angel.” I say sotto voce. I had lost myself there for a second because when I come to, I am driving past Ngara headed fast for Globe Roundabout. With a smile, Suit Number One says, “It’s good that you remember her. For she is the only memory you have from your past life. Her name is Angelina – Angel to you – and a part of you blames her for your untimely death. But it wasn’t her fault and a bigger part of you knows that.”
But how can they just expect me accept that I’m dead? I feel alive. I feel happy. I feel… in my denial, I fail to see the fuel truck speeding from Kijabe Street headed for Globe Roundabout and it crashes right into my bus and the last thing I remember before blacking out is the glass flying into my face and the shattering bone from my right arm.
I open my eyes with a start and the now familiar repetition that comes in play after my death is unfolding. “Tao Kumi! …. “Bado Haijajaa!... “THE WORLD IS AS REAL AS IT GETS IN EVERYONE’S DREAMS.”
“You will keep dying painfully and coming back to life until you can accept your fate and move on. It’ll be hell from here on out.” Suit Number One is explaining.
“Just a second.” I say to the suits, pull the bus over and step out. Daisy is wondering what’s up. Is she a figment of my imagination? Is everything in this world real? I am thinking that I was happy. And all I want is to keep being happy. Daisy is standing in front of me asking what the problem is and if I am OK. I head over to the passenger’s door in the cabin; yank out Suit Number One, drop him hard on the tarmac and starts hammering his face in with my fists.
“Who gave you the right?” Bam! Bam! Bam! I hammer and hammer angrily. “I was happy! I was happy here! Who gave you the right to take that away from me?!” Suit Number Two tries to tear me away from her colleague but in my anger, I shove her off sending her sprawling on the busy highway where a matatu runs her over and speeds off.
There is shock from all the passengers as they cry, “Umemuua! Umemua! Muuaji!” (You killed her! You killed her! Murderer!) They are advancing on Daisy and me menacingly and we both know that we will be victims of mob justice if we don’t run away. But if we both run, chances are we’ll both be caught and murdered. If I stay, Daisy has a chance of survival. So I order her to run and though she’s at first reluctant, as she cries and whimpers, her will to live supersedes her affection for me and she bolts as the angry mob falls hard on me with punches, kicks, batons, stones and everything else they can lay their hands on. I am lying on the ground facing the clear sky at dawn.
I think they’ve been beating me for a couple of hours now. Something heavy lies on my chest. I try to sit up but my broken ribs won’t let me. I cough and blood spatters from my mouth. I try to breathe but all I can do is whizz painfully. Why is it taking me so long for me to die this time? Someone produces a tyre and puts it around my neck. A nasty smelling liquid is poured on me and it burns. A match is struck and the whole place smell of gas and burning flesh. I’m beyond pain. I’m beyond any form of feeling. I’m beyond the point of caring. Even as my eyeballs expand then explode, I am past the point of worry.
I open my eyes. I am driving. “THE WORLD IS AS REAL AS IT GETS IN EVERYONE’S DREAMS.” I am losing count of the number of times I have died today. I guess one can only die so many times without it getting to your head. I can’t die again. Maybe I am immortal but I’ve started wishing for a more permanent death.
“Charlie, you are running out of time.” Suit Number Two is saying doing her hands on my lap on eyes on me thing.
“What does that mean?”
“That if you don’t accept that you’re dead in the next one hour, your soul will never move on. You will spend eternity in this world dying violently, coming back to life and dying violently once more. That is what your hell will be.”
“But I’ve only known that I’m dead today.”
“Charlie, what date do you think today is?”
“Are you kidding me?” Didn’t they ask me that just an hour ago? “It’s February 26th, 2021.”
“No son.” Suit Number One says. “It’s February 26th, 2026. It’s been ten years since your death and five years since you first met us.” What! “Time moves faster when you reach this stage. When you die, it could take you months and sometimes years before you can rise again. You can’t afford another death Charlie. Because if you die again, it’ll be months before you come back and by then, we won’t be around to help you ascend. So it’s now or never.”
“But I have already accepted. I am dead!” I am exasperated. I am tired of this weakening process. I just want to move on or whatever.
“No you haven’t accepted. You are just tired of living in denial. Those are two different things.” Suit Number Two explains that for one to accept that they are dead, they have to revisit the day and circumstances that led to their death. “That means that you have to go back to the day when you walked Angel home and got murdered at her gate. You will see your death coming, but whatever you do, don’t fight it and don’t try and change the circumstances because nothing can bring you back to life.”
“How do I go back to that day? Is there like a time machine?”
“Just close your eyes and imagine it.” Easier said than done. I am supposed to travel ten years back in time with the sole aim of dying properly. Whoever said life is unfair should try dying.
I open my eyes and for the first time in a long time I feel alive. It is 10 pm. I don’t remember the last time I saw 10 pm. I am walking. We are walking. Pangani. It is bright, it is lovely, and it is beautiful. I am holding her soft hands in mine and we are walking right in the middle of Chai Road like we own it.
Touts here and there ask if we are going to Huruma and we laugh at them. Her name is Angel and she is without doubt the most beautiful woman God ever created. Sure other beautiful women were created but they all resembled “King Kong” collectively when compared with Angel. If that guy who wrote “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born” were to see Angel, he’d rush home and start on a sequel dubbed, “The Birth of the Beautyful One.” Angel. My beautiful Angel. How I curse the wind that blew you my way.
We laugh at conductors who ask us if we’re going to Huruma because were we going to Huruma, we wouldn’t require their Matatu services. We always walk there. Heck, we walk everywhere except if where we are going is ridiculously far. We stroll mostly, Angel and I, and it is more often than not at night.
It is at night that all the smells float to your nostrils in a concentrated fashion. The river in Mathare has to be a Kilometer from the Moi Airbase Gate in Eastleigh but if one is brewing liquor down there, the smell will find its way to your nose at the Gate at night. The smells from the dumpsters in Mlango Kubwa are more concentrated at night than during the day. You can tell the smell of rotting cabbages in one dumpster from that of a freshly used condom in another dumpster; but Angel and I don’t care. We are young and we are in love and even the worst of smells won’t prompt us to board a matatu when all we want to do in this world is walk hand in hand at night.
“If we were attacked right now Angel,” I ask, “Would you let my hand go and run to safety leaving me to face the music alone or would we ride or die together?” She doesn’t even think about her answer. She just blurts it out like it believes it with every fiber of her being.
“Ride or die baby! That’s the kind of chic that I am.” She lets my hand go, stands in the middle of the road, waves her hands like a performing artiste and starts rapping,
“He asks if I’ll ride or die,
But my oh my,
Baby I ain’t gon lie,
With you I’ll ride or die.”
And I am laughing my ass off because she is suddenly out of free styling lines so she waves her hands in the air and throws that cliché, “Put your hands in the air like you just don’t care” and finishes it off with “Yipie yeh! Yipie yoh!” driving me right on my goddamn knees right there on the tarmac.
One thing is for sure, Angel always did know how to make me laugh… you know that laughter where your ribs crack and tears stream down your face and you can’t stand on your feet anymore coz you are so happily weak? That’s the kind of laughter she draws from me every time.
“I love you Angel!” I scream laughing.
“I love you Charlie!” She screams back then shrieks. Shit! There is an oncoming car! She grabs my ass off the tarmac and together, we run off the road laughing as the car misses us by inches and drives off hooting angrily. We are at her gate in Mlango Kubwa. It is going on 11 pm and this is the best day of my life. But then again everyday with her is the best day of my life.
She unlocks the gate and asks if I feel like spending the night with her. “It’ll be the best night of your life.” She says but then again, nights with her are the best nights of my life.
“Angel come on!” I say lightheartedly. “If I get inside that house with you, it will be the best night of YOUR life.”
“Oh, like it won’t be yours?” She pushes the gate open and steps inside the compound. Her back is facing me as I am standing behind her. She is saying, “Come on in Prince Charming. Don’t pretend like you’d choose to spend your night with Vaseline instead of me.”
A rough arm clasps my throat choking me and that is when Angel turns around. She sees my predicament and screams as a rough voice says to her, “Ukihepa ntamuua.” (If you run away I’ll kill him.)
My ride or die chic doesn’t even think twice about it. She smashes the gate shut in my face and the last thing I hear before the searing pain in my stomach is the lock turning as Angel locks me outside. The man stabs me again and again… and again… and again… and again… until the pain and the cold are gone.
All that is left inside of me is anger. Angel betrayed me even after she said she wouldn’t, barely 30 minutes ago. I am lying on the hard concrete with blood forming under me. I am facing the sky with a tear of bitterness running over my ear and on to the ground. I am so angry as my assailant turns me over, reaches into my back pocket and pulls out my wallet and then picks my other pockets for other valuables like phones etc.
Suits Numbers One and Two stand beside my body and look down at me. “This is a very important moment for you Charlie. You have to let go off the anger inside.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Because it is that anger that has kept your soul stuck on earth for ten years. That anger has kept you from ascending.”
“But she abandoned me.”
“What choice did she have? Had she stayed, he’d have murdered both you, but he’d have raped her first. Is that what you’d have wanted?”
“How do you know that?”
Number Two points to the sky and says that “He knows all.”
She goes on to explain that the Daisy in my new life is the Angel from my old life and that by keeping Daisy around, I was haunting Angel. Ten years is a long time to haunt somebody. Apparently, I had invaded Angel’s dreams for the past decade. And not a day passed without her thinking about me. And shedding tears. And regretting her decision. And taking fresh daisies to my grave. Hadn’t I punished her enough? Wasn’t it time to stop being angry with her? She had apologized everyday for ten years. And she had been seeing a shrink everyday for the same amount of time. Thoughts of me were driving her crazy. I was punishing her for something even I knew was the right thing. Plus she was my Angel.
Lying there in a pool of my own blood dying one last time, I let all the anger go. I have to move on and give Angel a chance to do the same. A bright light is shining from the skies. Suit Number Two squats beside me and places her palms over my face shutting my eyes. From a far, I can hear her whispering, “You are OK now Charlie. It’s time to wake up.”