It’s a warm mid morning, the beauty of the perfect valley sunset has faded away, and in its place a harsh almost overhead sun stares down. Its deep in January, when the sun is known to stand high and hold onto a walking stick. The minivan halts to a stop opposite the gas station somewhere along Juja road, I toss a 20 shilling to the tout who slaps the side of the car, to which the driver dangerously whisks the 28-seater away, missing by inches a few kale vendors, who follow the ramshackle with abuse.
A few dogs rummage through a fly-infested huge trash bin behind a soda distributor kiosk, their ribs dangerously pressing through the skin on the sides. They are a pitiable sight, worse than ruins from a world war. I wonder if they ever wish that their babies move on and someday become important dogs in their world, to help carry their family heritages. One of them looks up and notices a group of street children heading their way, yelps, and dashes for the road, as the other two follow closely by. The bus drivers are unconcerned, and one gets caught by a bus bumper, is thrown into the air, and lands in the path of a short, well-manicured Toyota Vitz. The driver steps on the brakes and tries to swerve a little to miss the thin creature but it’s too late. The dog is too weak to yelp, so it just opens the eyes wide. The other dogs look from the other side of the road, too weak to help, they curl their tails between the legs in terror and vanish into the slum, probably praying to their gods to at least grant them a decent meal or death. The driver doesn’t stop, he peers outside the window as he passes the lifeless carcass and curses, probably blaming the poor mongrel for wasting his brake pads.
I stop and look across the road, where a thin path cuts through a pack of tin houses, closely knit, with vendors selling all kinds of wear littering the way. I cross the busy road after some hesitation and leisurely walk in the midst of the vendors and their eager customers.
“How much for that?” A buyer shouts from behind to a vendor in front of me.
“Just fifteen shillings” The seller retorts in broken Swahili.
I move aside to let the buyer through, and they go on haggling, as I trod on past some chicken parts vendors standing behind boiling huge pots. One of them steal my attention, her slender arms move musically, stirring the pot content with a long stick curved at the top for a grip. She is unconcerned about the ongoing and oblivious of my stare. She has a loosely fitting cardigan, which hangs lazily over the threatening-to-over-boil pot, with the fabric missing the wobbling soup by inches. Her face is expressionless, she looks like one trying to read a fortune from the pot, it evades and her eyes get sad, a lukewarm sadness, one with a blink of hope and a wind blowing hard to put off.
“How much for a wing ma’am…” I ask her, smiling.
She is taken aback. Not many people stop to smile at people anymore, maybe we can blame modernization for that too, right? She gives back a wry smile and reduces the stirring.
“No wings today my son – thighs only” She replies.
“I love your thighs, I mean your chicken thighs so I will have the fattest…” She gets my twist and we laugh a little excessively.
I try to read emotion in her smile, but she hides it like a buffalo hides its blushes when cornered by a pack of lions. Her eyes have suddenly grown a warmth, and they sparkle as she digs deeper into the pot with a long sieve, pulling out a number of whitish chicken thighs. She places one on a tray on the side to dry out on the now glaring sun, and wraps it up in a piece of aluminum foil and hands it over.
“Thank you…” I smile at her.
“Welcome son” She calls me son for the second time and it warms my heart as I dig my teeth into the juicy piece. It’s unbelievably sweet. Less sweet than it did back then, but still sweet enough to ask for another. I realize nothing really changes, just human perception, a little bigger ego, and an attitude.
As I chew on the thigh having some small talk with her, I notice a sad cloud hovering around, a mood of uncertainty on the faces passing by.
“Why is everyone so gloom today…? I think you are the only one I’ve seen smile today.” I joke.
“You didn’t hear? The police were here to disperse demonstrators and there was so much tear gas. They were chasing the demonstrators back to the valley, who were hurling back stones.” She says with a punch of concern in her voice.
“I saw it in the news, and thought it was only in the valley.”
“They started off here, and we hope they don’t come back.” She says.
“It will be well, everything seems to be calming down now.” I try to assure her. She takes a deep breath, her breasts heave, and she places one arm around her waist.
“You can’t be so sure… We always hope for the last demo, but they just keep coming back.” She has now given up on the stirring.
“At least today seems calm”
“Yea it does, i wish you had seen yesterday mid morning, it was so calm, and children played all over. Everything happened so fast after the first gunshot.”
“Wait, there were gunshots?”
“They are always ringing, my son, now know the difference between gunshots from different guns. With this climate, you can just hear them any minute.” She says. I get momentarily scared, not because of the possibility of violence erupting, but because of the seriousness in her voice.She sounds like a prophet from back then.
I hand her a 200 shilling note, and knowingly fail to pick the balance. She smiles more and stashes the note inside her brassiere.
The slum sits in front of me, I stare and it stares back, expecting a hug. I smirk and pull my hoodie lower. I’ve been here before, it still feels like home, everything looks familiar, but out of place. The street lamps hang majestically, but below which, a clutter of litter is gathered. Large marabou stork birds hover around, hoping to swallow a dying cat or mouse, leaving behind a trail of white piss. I let the shanties swallow me, as I take a left turn and walk towards the Chief’s office.
I pass by a clutter, and something reflects a bright ray to my eyes, I flinch. I kick the clutter slightly, and a spent cartridge falls off. Its blunt end shouts death, and for the first time, I smell a fading stench of tear gas hanging low. The skirmishes had spread into the slums the previous evening, leaving a trail of blood, looting, and death. The main street trailing to the chief’s camp is deserted, no kids playing on the road, and a few clutter of grownups talking in hushed voices. They hush more when I walk closely by, and I feel like an outcast, I feel like am walking back to a place I was excommunicated. It breaks my heart a little, but a little enough to wish I never left, a little enough to make me realize I went away for too long. Little children cling to their mothers’ skirts inside the falling compound gates, too scared to walk out.
I bend down and pick the light shell, blow it’s ends and read a series of numbers and letters representing its serial number. It’s dull brown looks beautifully harmless, like a kitten’s paws. It feels hot, from the many hours it had been sleeping under the glaring sun, and it slightly burns my thigh as I push it deeper into my khaki pockets. Something tells me it will be a good day, not for me but for the people around.