By Corazon Achieng
We are standing too close to each other. Yesterday’s bad breath colludes with today’s fresh breath as we await our fate. Its foggy outside. The biting cold adds to the uneasiness in our bones. It is our first date with the court. Sirkal saidia, I silently pray. Our crime on this foggy morning is riding in a Matatu without wearing a seatbelt. Initially, we were in this together: the driver, the tout and all the passengers in the Matatu. Then, the law as we know it happened. The driver bolted into the thin air. The tout found his space in the fog before we could even determine what was happening to us. It happened so quickly. Tall cop and short cop flag down the vehicle. We know the routine: a pseudo inspection of the vehicle’s permits, a casual glance at the driver’s licence then a crisp 100 bob note drops on the ground. The receipent quickly scans his environment before bending down to tie his imaginary shoe laces. The vehicle joins the morning traffic as we breath a sigh relief.
“Wapi mshipi?” Tall cop barks as he looks at one passenger. Clueless eyes meet his eagerness. The seatbelt is missing in action. The scene is replicated a couple of times. Before we know it, we are heading to the police station. Attempts to explain the prevailing circumstances fall on deaf ears. We have been arrested.
“ Mimi ni mwanafunzi,”says the pretty young thing with a half shaven head.
“I have an interview,” shouts the ostentatiously dressed man near the door.
“ The seatbelt was not working,” adds the grey haired lady.
Tall cop and short cop confer in whispers just as we are making a turn towards the police station. I hope they change their minds. Moments later, we have an announcement just as the vehicle screeches to a halt.
“ Tutaangalia hiyo yote,” says the tall cop. Drops of his saliva land on my face as he tells us he will look into it. I curse under my breath as I wipe off the drops. I am late for an early morning meeting. The law is clearly an arse this morning. We enter a small room where tall cop informs us that we will arraigned after our charge sheets have been drawn up. He leaves and locks the door behind him. The room is transformed into a series of adjacent call booths. There is no privacy or courtesy here. Conversations starts and ends:
Groggy voice on the other end responds: hello
“ I am in jail. Can you help me?”
“What did you do?” Voice on the other end sounds more attentive.
“I was not wearing my seatbelt.”
“Oh…. That is a small matter.”says the voice on the other end.
“Let me make some calls, he says reassuringly.
A couple of calls later, we are down to twenty four from twenty nine. The power of a call. You should know people, I muse as I sit comfortably for the first time since we entered the room. This is going to be a long day. I sigh as I stare blankly at my phone. Oh.. I have to call my boss. His phone rings for what seems like an eternity. No answer. I text him then turn around to survey the room. Files are piled hazardly on top of each other. There are some legible labels on each shelf.
Used in 2010.
Used in 2012.
I guess they shall add mine to this pile. Used in 2015. I might as well use my time wisely. I turn to the suit next to me. He looks young; twenty something, hip, trendy and showy. Tags on his suits read like the names of a mafioso’s family: Pedrini, Lazini, Perazzo. Does that mean the suit was the combined effort of all those designers? If it was, then they failed miserably. It hangs poorly on the wearer. The stripes are uneven. The lapels are too big and the buttons don’t match. I am staring and judging again. Bad manners, woman.
“What’s your name?” he asks, interrupting my train of thought.
“ I am Jay,” I reply.
“ What’s yours?” I ask.
I am Chems ( James) , he replies in a thick accent.
No wonder he has that suit, I think to myself. He fits the profile of those people, you know. Tall, dark, athletic build, milk white teeth. Oh, I hear they are prone to being conned. Did someone fool him into buying that suit?
“What do you do, Miss?” he asks.
“ I write.” I reply.
How about you?
“ I am a panker( banker),” he says. I ignore the grammar prefect in me as we engage in conversation.
“ I have been arrrested before,” he divulges.
“The fine is less than five hundred bob.”
“ Really? “ I ask as I intently listen to him.
“ These cops must have been idle today.” he goes on.
“ That’s true.” I reply.
We are interrupted when tall cop walks into the room with an elderly man in tow. He is in his fifties; adorned in faux gold and some choking perfume. I can swear the flies in the room are fainting. I reach for the window as he walks past us. The room falls silent as he finds his way to the head of the table. Tall cop looks small in his presence. This must be the boss.
“ Habari zenu?”he greets us in a crisp, coastal accent.
“ Mzuri.” We reply like school children, eager to obtain mercy from the school master.
“ Leo ni siku mbovu. Hamkuomba asubuhi.” He continues in a bid to explain our predicament.
He opens an old cupboard behind him and removes a book with many sheets. Our misdeeds will be recorded there for the judge to see. We are less anxious by then, having resigned to our fate. He writes our names on a sheet of paper before writing down our charges. It is during this time that I learn that the tall cop’s name is Onyi. Onyi surveys the room then asks if there any students in there. A chorus of voices says yes.
“Bring your student I.Ds.” he says. From the puzzled looks on most faces, I can tell that the number of students has significantly reduced. He proceeds to quickly look at the few student ID’s that are presented to him before ordering them to leave the room. A whimper can be heard from across the room. There is a pregnant lady in our midst. She wants to use the bathroom now. The urgency written all over her face makes all the people she is seated next to move quickly in order to make room for her. Onyi takes one look at her and order her to go. She gets a stern warning and the promise of productive day ahead. We get uncomfortable seats, sweaty armpits and a long, winding date with the court.
The policemen leave the room after our charge sheets have been drawn. I turn to the lady in gaudy make up who is seated next to me. She tells me she is a former student leader and an entrepreneur. The air of importance as she spells this out is detectable. I ask her why she is still seated on these rickety benches. Life is unfair, comes the rhetorical response.An hour later, the conversations have died down. Calls have been made to bosses informing them of the inevitable absenture.
A middle aged lady with overprocessed red hair is tapping her foot on the floor impatiently as she makes one call after the other. By the fifth call, her make up is running in droplets down her face. Beads of sweat are forming all over her face as she eyes the door. I smell an underhand deal in the works. My nose is right. Onyi comes in and tells us to hop into the Mariamu. Mrs. Redhead stays behind. Onyi says the court is full. Yeah, he thinks he can fool us. We can see you, Onyi; says our gait as we hop into the mariamu.
“ Harikisha,” barks Onyi as he urges us to get into our ride to court. Twenty minutes later, we are basking in the open alongside last night’s drunkards, petty thieves, a quarrelsome woman and trespassers. The open space is surrounded by high walls and a gate under lock and key. A door occasionally opens for an offender whose name is called out. We can barely make out what is happening on the other side of the door. There is a slab that can accommodate four seated men or women. The rest of us have to scramble for space to stand. I am standing next to a man who smells like he has been living in a garbage can. His shaggy hair is held in place by a green and red turban. My attempts to get away from him are frustrated by the rain which sends us running towards the only shade we can find. He says he is here for a crime he did not commit. Mwas is his name but he says his friends call him Mras. I would have him committed to jail for assaulting the public’s senses by failing to shower. Unfortunately, I am not the judge today.
I finally wiggle my way to a less stinky space once the rains subside an hour later. I find myself talking to a lady who is holding a one year old baby. “What is your name?” I ask.
“ Mwende is my name.” she says.
“ Why are you here with a baby?” I ask as I watch the little girl play peek a boo with Mras. A chill of fear goes down my spine. Mras looks like the kind of man a mother should warn her daughter about. A scar runs across his face; down to his lips. A few teeth are missing. The remaining teeth hang precariously. A strong wind could knock them down. He smiles at the little girl as he covers his face with his open palm. Mwende is in another world even as we speak. She seems distant and desperate.
“ Ni hali ya maisha,” she replies casually. When life hands you lemons, they say, you make lemonade. I wonder if Mwende has the energy to squeeze out the juice in the lemons. Her long, bony fingers type furiously on her worn out keypad. A text comes in after which she makes a call.
“ Hello.” She says.
There is omninous silence on the other end. It goes for about three minutes after which she decides to hang up. You can almost feel the weight of the deathblow dealt to her by that phonecall. She paces around for three minutes before she turns to speak to me.
“ That is my husband. He won’t speak to me.” she says, tears welling up in her eyes. She swallows hard. The mass in her throat is harder to swallow than a ball of hot, molten fat.
“ I fought for him. I fought the other woman for him and he won’t speak to me.”she says as rivulets come flooding from her eyes. My eyes get sweaty. The discomfort of bearing the stench of Mras dissipates from my memory. This is screwed up. Damn you, bastard. I silently cuss as I think of Mwende’s husband.
She has an hour to raise one thousand shillings so that the matter can silently go away. Otherwise, she will be spending another night in jail with her baby who now wants to pee. A peek at the loo reveals that this call of nature could not have come at a worse time. Mwende hurriedly closes the door behind her then starts looking for an alternative. There are hardly any in sight. The baby ends up peeing outside the toilet. In the other world inhabited by netizens, this would have a caption worthy moment. Xo xo xo sad. How can a mother do this to her child? It would been said her parenting skills are below average. In here, you make use of what you have. You leave the judgemental glances to others; the netizens who don’t know the full story, the cop with a smug look and the man contorting his face in disgust at the corner. Once the deed is done, she goes back to making phone calls and texting.
“ Siwezi.” I hear one caller shout on the other end of the phone.
“ Ambia mzee wako.” Says another after Mwende pours out her heart to him.
“ Pengine next week.” comes in another response. Time is running out. The gray clouds give way to a slightly enthusiastic sun. A harsh breeze sweeps the space, bringing in foliage from the poorly slashed grounds. If only her woes would be swept away by the wind like the leaves up in the air. I am equally broke. My only salvation lies in the fact that I can get a mkopo wa salo from the boss. As it is,my finances are in the red zone. I only call my friends when we are going out to spend money we do not have. When I am trouble, I know better than to call them. Experience has taught me that much.
“ Mwende. Twende.” Says the afande as she is escorted in a black mariamu. Do they still call them that because they look swankier than the old mariamus? It does not matter. Mwende is going to jail with her one year old child. A child is going to jail with her mother. I hate the system. I am angry at this system. One day, I will meet this system for coffee. We will buy a cup of coffee worth ten times our daily wages because it was served in the right ambience. The chit chat will be easy. The usual Kenyan queries. How is work? How are you? Otherwise?
The system will excuse itself and head to the toilet. The plan will be executed swiftly. Two drops into the cup. Nothing more or less. The system will come back; excitedly pointing at the girl with blue hair who has just walked in. I smile pretensiously; waiting for the system to ingest the coffee. She picks up the cup; brings it close to her lips then hesitates. The system remembers she has a meeting at the courts. She has to go. That bitch won’t die. Tears of rage plop down my face as I watch the black mariamu disappear.
I am stirred out of my reverie by a gentle tap on my shoulder. We are due for our eagerly awaited meeting with the magistrate. I feel my harden as we walk into the chambers. It had better be good, I silently pray as our proceedings begin. Mkono wa sirkal ni mrefu, goes a common street saying. Sirkal saidia.