‘Excuse me,’ Aidipi said falling in step with a woman who took stock of him and quickened her pace. ‘I need three thousand to get my mother and sister over to the hospital soonest or they die. They are at the camp.’
The woman mumbled a ‘sorry’ and hurried on clenching her purse tighter under her armpit. Aidipi fell in step with a man walking in the opposite direction.
‘Excuse me sir, my mother and sister are dying…’
‘I am running late. Sorry.’
Thirty minutes later Aidipi had nothing to show for his efforts. Everyone was sorry and running late. The biggest amount he ever owned at a time was nine hundred shillings, and now he had to raise three thousand almost instantly. He wished Tim, the most resourceful of his friends, was by his side.
Aidipi approached two men standing near a lorry, each holding a bunch of ripe bananas.
‘Excuse me, I need help to…’
‘Can’t you see we are transacting business here?’ one of the men said. His goatee was almost touching his long tummy.
‘Sorry,’ Aidipi moved aside.
‘We leave within the hour.’
‘We better. You know I hate Nairobi traffic,’ the second man made a fan out of his cap. But for a borderline strip of hair he was practically bald.
‘Nairobi is three hours at most,’ Mr. Goatee said and turned to Aidipi. He plucked a banana, peeled it, swallowed in two bites and discarded the peel. ‘This better be worthwhile.’
‘My mother and sister are dying in the camp. The taxi-man demands three thousand to bring them over to the health centre.’
‘How long must you ride on our backs? We work hard for our keep, you should too.’
‘Lest you forget the resettlement package you got the other day was my taxes at work.’
‘We haven’t received a cent.’
‘Son,’ Mr. Goatee was tapping his head. ‘In here is a hundred times your brain.’
‘It is the truth. I’ll do anything to prove my story.’
Mr. Goatee repeated the plucking, peeling and biting but at a quicker succession.
‘Damn, I hate this town. Spit and you’ll certainly hit a lazybones.’
‘I… don’t… care!’ Mr. Goatee away.
‘These will kick-start your brain,’ Bald Head said handing over two bananas.
Aidipi started then stopped. Accepting the bananas would give weight to the accusation of being out for an easy ride. Nonetheless, his stomach was rumbling and he needed the energy. He picked the bananas and left.
Aidipi collected a discarded cup and sat along what seemed the busiest street. A man dropped a five bob coin, a woman a ten bob coin. He forced a smile to welcome this man only to wipe it off as it occurred to him that misery is the merchandise of the beggar. The man studied Aidipi as you would a sheep at the marketplace.
‘My mother and sister need medical attention fast.’
‘This is my yard,’ the man said huskily. He stopped a few paces past, retrieved a mat from his carry-all and spread it on the ground. He kicked off his shoes to reveal two missing toes, sat on the mat and placed a plastic bowl at his feet. He glanced at Aidipi as if to say ‘see how it’s done’ then he stretched out his hands and began to mumble. A woman walked past Aidipi and dropped some coins in the man’s bowl. A man followed suit. And another. And another. Apparently, gifting the fraudster was to many a requisite to a blessed day.
Aidipi could stand it no more. ‘This is theft!’
‘Son,’ the husky voice retorted, ‘blessed is the hand that giveth than the one that taketh. I give people a chance to be blessed.’
Aidipi was too infuriated to speak. He had heard of perfectly healthy men who feigned various handicaps to beg. Now a shameless one had just spoilt a last-resort plan. He walked away feeling overwhelmed.
Aidipi’s heart beat faster at the sight of this woman rummaging through her purse. His mind was in high gear as she handed the potter fifty shillings and slung her pulse on her left shoulder. She had plenty of money but, Aidipi felt, if he sought her help he would get a coin or nothing at all. He stalked her wondering whether anyone with a dying mother and sister could tow the straight and narrow.
The woman marched on oblivious to the troubled soul stalking her. Aidipi could now smell her perfume. Give me strength, oh God. Remorse ate at him for engaging God in crime. Let me run like a deer. He crossed his face, took a deep breath, yanked the purse and thundered down the street.
The woman was first hit by shock before loss set in. ‘Thief! Thief!’
Some women joined in shouting as a number of men fell on Aidipi’s heels. Please God, let me run like a deer. He couldn’t be caught, not today. Images of leaking tent, his coughing mother and convulsing sister were motivation enough. He did not run like a deer; he was a deer. After losing his pursuers in a series of corners he dropped the purse minus the money. He found his way to the taxi whose driver appeared rather amused by his return.
‘We should hurry,’ Aidipi said.
The driver stretched his tall frame and yawned.
‘Please, they could be dying this very moment.’
The driver rocked his head and asked, ‘Where?’
‘Shauri Yako Camp.’
‘I can’t drive there.’
‘Why? You said get the money fast and here it is!’
‘The mud requires four-wheel drive.’
Aidipi inspected the car. ‘I count four wheels!’
The driver chuckled and turned to a man who had just joined them. After a brief exchange driver and client drove off. Aidipi, now a vessel of violent emotions, stood lost, his head reeling. Tears magnified the receding car until it passed a bunch of his pursuers. He should have run but he didn’t. He didn’t give a damn about what anyone did to him. His mother and sister were all he had and were as good as dead.
A stone whizzed past knocking Aidipi out of his stupor. It would be a shame to die in the hands of people who knew nothing about him. That would be real defeat. He dropped the money and took off, homebound. Somehow he managed to dodge people, sticks and stones. He stopped a kilometre out of town and slumped on the wayside. He was hungry, angry and tired.
Aidipi breathed in quick gulps willing himself not to cry. He lost the battle and wept like a little child. After three minutes of wailing and rolling on the grass his tears well was dry and it felt ridiculous to be crying at fourteen. He was a man and his father had advised that if a man must cry he should do so in his head. Speaking of his father, he had certainly never been this cornered to insist there always being a way. And why did he have to die? Were he alive Aidipi would not be straining so much. He wouldn’t have to steal to feed. He would be kicking the ball or perfecting his biogas plant.
Aidipi had pocketed the amount above three thousand shillings. Now he decided to eat something to bolster his energy. He was excited as from his pocket came a hundred-shilling-note and a piece of paper. The man had his shirt and pants on backwards. His bare left leg had donated its shoe to the right. An Afro completed the image of a gifted comic or a man with a few loose nuts.
Now that he was finally holding the photo Aidipi could hardly see what made it so dear to his mother. If anything the photo ought to elicit mirth but he had caught her weeping. His enquiry into the photo always earned him a rebuke. How did it end up inside his pocket? Only she could have put it there. But why?
‘Kileleshwa, 12. 6. 1994’ was inscribed on the back of the photo.
‘Who the hell are you? A lost brother? She needs you. Do you hear me?’
Aidipi stopped a man walking by and asked him: ‘Excuse me. Where is Kileleshwa?’
The man pointed in the air. ‘Nairobi.’
Aidipi slumped back on the ground. What now? Going home as he had left was out of the question. It came in a flash. The lorry! He broke into to a run. Fear of the unknown gripped him as he came upon the lorry. Nairobi had the reputation of a river that drowns even the most seasoned swimmers.
Bald Head was pacing near the lorry impatiently.
‘You are the hinge of the family,’ a voice in him said.
‘You have never been to the Nairobi,’ another voice said.
‘By entrusting the photo with you she trusted you could find the man anywhere,’ First Voice said. ‘Why doubt yourself?’
Mr. Goatee appeared with a fresh bunch of bananas. Bald Man boarded the lorry.
‘Going after him is heroic but stupid and you know it,’ Second Voice said.
‘Your father taught you to be strong. You can’t fail him now!’
‘Only fools rush in.’
‘If they die…’ First Voice said.
‘You could get lost. The lorry might roll…’ Second Voice said.
‘Are you such a coward not to risk for them?’
Now the lorry was idling.
‘It is now or never!’
‘It’s a fool’s errand!’
‘Are you so gutless?’
‘I am warning you!’
The lorry started pulling out.
Aidipi chased after the lorry, grabbed a metal bar, heaved his bulk and worked his way over the top. He let go and fell on a mattress of cabbages. He was snoring like a stuck caterpillar in no time.