Highway Robbery

There’s an audio file on my desktop. It’s thirty two minutes long and it contains everything that was said two weeks ago –when I sat down for a chat with my lecturer.

I was on assignment for Craft It. It was my first serious interview and I was keen on making a banger out of it.

That morning I made sure to put on a shirt and polish my shoes. I already had an intro in my head, and a recorder and a notebook on hand.

Her name is Mrs. Maleche.

That night I went to bed with her voice. I listened to the recording and typed out the sound bites before I slept. Bett had told me to use active dialogue. “Make sure she speaks for herself,” she said.

It took me a week to get the thing down on the page, and then it took a few more days to prune back the edges.

The rough draft ran to 3000 words. I didn’t know how else to trim it without the story sounding like a gaping hole. I rearranged paragraphs and put commas but still.

I submitted the draft and Bett said it read like a dossier from World War 2. (She’s so heartless, gosh). The story wouldn’t fly, and I’m to trim some more.

At the tail end of that audio file is Mrs. Maleche bidding me goodbye. “Let’s see what you come up with,” is the last thing the recorder caught. I wonder if she’d be disappointed to know I made her story sound like a dossier from World War 2.

(Mrs. Maleche if you’re reading this I promise to rewrite that story nicely. Also, I heard that you were unwell, and that’s why you missed class yesterday. We wish you a speedy recovery)

As it goes, my class with Mrs. Maleche bounced. I left school and waddled down to Total, Hurlingum. I sat at Bonjour, all the while wondering what to do with the rest of my day. I bought a packet of Skittles to help me think. I pinched one pellet at a time while watching the ever flowing traffic on Valley Road.

I was seated on the bench closest to the store’s entrance. I chewed idly. The fruity sugars lodged between my teeth and danced on my palate. It was a quiet morning, really.

And then I noticed the yellow security pick-up truck a few meters away. KK Security.

One uniformed guard was standing sentry, hands behind his back. The rest of the crew was in the truck. I could see some movement in the back seat, and I wondered how long they’d been there. The lone guard outside looked tensed, like he was waiting for something.

I dipped a hand in the packet and took out a pellet that was, incidentally, yellow. It slid off my hand and landed on the bench with a soft tap. And that tap gave me an idea for this week’s Dusty Rugs story.

It’s always a blissful moment when an idea comes together. I quickly took out my notepad and wrote: Yellow truck, Yellow Skittle.

What I didn’t know was that the guards were expecting a money shipment. I was still rolling the Dusty Rugs in my head when two BM Security cars pulled up. A Probox and another pick-up.

More guards jumped out. About five of them. These ones wore camouflage and carried AK47s.

One of them –tall and fierce eyed- took a seat next to me as they unloaded money from the truck. He had a walkie talkie on his shoulder. He placed the firearm on his lap and started sweeping the area with a sharp gaze.

I held up the packet of Skittles and he looked me over for moment. I thought he’d turn me down, thinking maybe I was one of the bad guys, sent to poison him with Skittles and break away with the money.

I poured the sweets on his open palm and he mumbled a soft thank you. It felt like a bribe. I wanted to soften him up because I had questions. He had a powerful aura about him. The bulk of his firearm gave off a grotesque energy.

But, having established that I meant no harm, I asked if he’s ever had to shoot anyone.

“Not yet,” he said.

“Would you like to?”

“Of course,” he said.

“How do you think you’ll feel?” I asked this part in Swahili, otherwise it’d have sounded sijui aje.

He said he’d feel good about it; because he’ll have prevented a crime from taking place. I really hoped he had killed someone though. I wanted to know how pulling the trigger changes a man. I wanted to know if the victims ever haunted him at night.

I wanted to know what it’s like to transform a human being into a bundle of bloody rags.

There was something about this guy’s eyes, something cold and locked up, and I got the sense that he might have been lying.

But before I could ask any more questions he stood up and went over to the pickup truck.

Another man took his place on the bench. This one had the BM security uniform. He was holding a car key and his driving license was peeking above his breast pocket.

He sat down with a grunt and said, “Hii kazi imetuchapa bwana.”

I liked him immediately. I’ve always wondered about the lives of drivers like him. What was it like to be at the wheel of a car carrying thousands, maybe even millions, of shillings? Did they ever get tempted to grab the money and head for the border? Have they ever had to deal with a bunch of criminals trying to hijack the shipment?

I was now down to the last three Skittles: a green one, a yellow one, and a red one. He smiled when I gave them to him. He took them one at a time, and for some reason I remembered that old saying: utamu wa njugu ni kukula moja moja.

I asked him which car he was driving. He pointed at the Probox as he took the second Skittle.

But sometimes he’s in the pick-up, he said. It all depends on the day’s timetable.

His name is Tanui.

Turns out he has 4 kids. He wakes up at 4:30am and leaves the house by 5. At the office he’s given the schedule and assigned a car. Work begins at 6. A heavy foot is a requirement. His face lights up as he walks me through his day. He talks about driving like it’s the sweetest thing, sweeter than my Skittles.

He’s been employed since 2003, but he was driving ever since he was a teenager.

He tells me today he’s going all the way to Kajiado. They’ll make a stop at Kitengela. I want to tell him I live in Kitengela too, and that I sure could need a lift.

But he cuts me short and continues to talk about his job. You could tell he takes some pride in it.

Tanui recounts stories of other drivers who bring ‘kisirani’ to his job. Some want to race him, and some are even bold enough to come between the Probox and the pick-up.

He traces invisible patterns on the table with the car keys as he narrates how they box in the buggers before making an arrest.

They’ve never had hijackers though. But they’re always on the lookout. “Sana sana watu wa bodaboda.”

Then I ask him if he ever gets tempted to steal the money and he laughs like it’s the most improbable thing in the world.

(Also, allow me to rush this story for a bit. It’s starting to read like a dossier)

Tanui says he can’t get tempted. If he steals he becomes a wanted man. He wouldn’t ‘eat’ the money in peace. He’ll always be looking over his shoulder. It’s just not worth the trouble. Then he points to the roundabout and says,

“It’s like being hired to sweep the fallen leaves on that tree. I get paid little by little every day. But stealing the money would be like cutting down the whole tree.”

I’m constantly amazed by how people answer these questions of mine. It’s one of the best things about this job, to tell you the truth. We must have talked for about ten minutes before he had to get back behind the wheel.

Before he went I asked him what I always ask: “Do you love your job?”

“Lazima upende kazi yako,” he says, “Bila hiyo huwezi fanya kitu.”

As Tanui was driving away he lowered the window and gave me the old thumbs up. And his parting shot made me remember another sound bite by Mrs. Maleche: “Always do work that your heart is content with.”

**

By the way I have a bone to pick with the Bake Awards guys. The list of nominees came out yesterday. Craft It didn’t make the shortlist. Bett told me the news a few minutes after I’d talked to Tanui.

“Why not?” I texted.

“Cause it’s mambo ya kujuana. Remember that chick that was in your class? Her blog made the Creative Writing shortlist.”

“But her work is not even all that, sorry to say.”

“IT’S NOT!!! As in, Mike, guys huku are taking their blogs and the craft so casually and they make the shortlist. As in, what the fuck?”

Hehe, Bett was worked up proper. This was highway robbery for fuck sakes. Kwani what criteria did they use to select these nominees? Who sat on the judging panel and gave the go ahead to some of these blogs?

So I got on to the BAKE website to check out the other nominees. And it seemed some of them shared office space with the guys who run BAKE. Tujuane Plus I tell you.

Then I scrolled down to the Creative Writing category and, with the notable exception of Magunga, all the others stirred nothing in me.

There was one nominee who had an entire post with a string of selfies. Is this what BAKE had come to? They bang on daily about quality and consistency and useful well-written content then they turn around and present to us blogs with selfies. Selfies for chrissakes!

Don’t we already have Instagram?

And there was yet another nominee with a WordPress interface just like mine, only with more color and flashing Ads. And memes too.

Friends are always telling me to make my website more attractive with pictures and frills, but please, not at the risk of losing sight of what it’s all about. And that is the writing. Content. Story telling. Let the work speak for itself bana.

I wasn’t challenged as a writer. And even less challenged to make that list. While wading through those websites I couldn’t help but think: Surely I can do better than this.

And it may as well be that I’m being a sore loser. It may well be that the nominees really work hard at their blogs. Perhaps they spend sleepless nights updating their blogs and making sure they have enough selfies for the next post. It may also be that the judges didn’t think Craft It was all that.

But I think I speak for all of Craft It when I say: fuck it.

What’s an award anyway? Why should I slave away only to be presented with a branded T-shirt? I’m bitter about it. Bite me.

But it doesn’t stop us from writing. Telling stories is what we do best, if only because we don’t know how to do anything else. We don’t stop showing up. We don’t stop asking questions. We don’t stop doing the things that lift our souls and brings us the purest of joys. And we don’t stop doing the things that our hearts are content with.

I need a drink.

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