THE SMELL OF NOTHING

It does not take long to see him. His walk up the alley walks before him. His legs shuffle on the tarmac, dragging with them the dregs of despair and hope in equal measure. When he lets down the bag that has seen age, if not half the country while seeking for the ever elusive job, he sighs. I sigh too. His cap too.

Let me take you to the start. We are not friends, he is not my friend, I am not his friend. But nairobi ya maisha ni ngumu. We met, and had the same needs so we took the same way. I have been waiting here for quite some time. He is never late, I am never late. Our work is not to be late. But each of us is human, and humans are supposed to be human, right?

He brings the mali, I take it. Our business is simple.Money changes hands, and each of us goes home smiling. See, sometimes, this town rains smiles, when it is end month. Or it smiles rains, when you cant stop us.

“Bro umefika?” I ask him, as if I cant see him.

It is a typical question, this one, among all of us. Even when we see you we have to ask you whether you have arrived. Sometime, even after supper, we have to ask you whether you have eaten. It is a question for a question.

“Bro nimefika kitaamboo. Ni kanjo walinihold pale , nikawait kiasi.” He answers.

See? He is not rude, I am not rude. He has some level of courtesy you wont associate with the men and women who mug you in the streets. He is a well brought up young man. Sometimes, it is not our choice, it is the environment.

” Na mali nayo?

We never waste time with our meetings. There is no tea before the agenda. There is no tea after the agenda either. It is pure business. He comes, I come. We talk business. He goes, I go. Business.

” Leo si mob. Nilipata mali less hii wiki. Biz imekua mbaya buda.”

There is a thrill around the word buda. It is dragged for sometime. A gangster`s buda is not your normal buda. The word plays on his tongue like a smile of jest for a moment.It is a well-rehearsed buda. He says buda the right way, like the real buda. Like a real gangster.

I rarely say buda. Me I never do that. When I do that no one would respect me. I can`t say buda correctly. You see, there is a way you should say buda for it to mean what you mean in our world. So I dont use the name, I am the leader here, I am the collector.

Ooh! I didnt introduce myself? Sorry? We dont ever introduce ourselves? Do we ? But I am good guy, he is a good guy. We are only in this business because we reached nairobi ya maisha and we had nothing else to do, nowhere else to go.I am Brayo, he is Brayo too. See? We are good guys. We only steal and mug for life. Each of us has to pay rent. Right?

You dont agree?

Let me tell you. I think you were born in some good place, maybe Lang`ata or such places where you call chipo fries. You guys were my neighbors. I think you studied well. You went to praimo in those schools that had buses, and a library. Perhaps your parents could afford an “oxford” Geometry set, the way you can afford an iPhone at this time, and the time to read this story. See? You always had a way.

I dont want to tell you my story. I was your neighbor, you didn’t know me. I didn’t know you either. People from my side of town could not cross to your side of town when we were young. Our schools did not have buses. We walked. You made it in life, you can afford a loan from the bank, but I cant go there. I smell, my kind smell. We smell of poverty and nothing.

We, I and him that is are just seeking a balance in society. We cant have the pyramid this steep, can we? So we take the mali from you, when you are driving somewhere in Nairobi, when you walk carelessly around in town. When you dont have anything good to do with it so you keep the mali on your ears carelessly while speaking with your wives and girlfriends.

We dont steal. We just take, and keep it safe. We are guardians of the economic pyramid. No one of us is a thief. You understand?

” Brathe idhaa. Hii biz tumalize speedy nirudi wira.”

He snaps me out of the small reverie. He is in a hurry, I am in a hurry. We are in a hurry, this business is hurried business.

” Ni ngapi?” I ask.

He doesnt answer. He is in a hurry, and too much talking reduces the trust. So he lets down the bag. Looks around the alley for a moment. You cant take chances, even the walls have eyes in this town. Opens it, for a brief moment, just for a glimpse. I nod, he nods, we nod together. His mali is good. I will buy it.

” Deal si ni ile ya kawaida bro?”

I make calculations as I say this. Thinks change rather rapidly in our trade. Its like Forex. Sometimes the price goes down, or it goes up.Sometimes we dont come to agreement.But we cant afford disagreeing. If we do the muguka guys wont get anything from us, and the girls in Koinange and other places will sleep hungry too. And the bars and clubs wont have enough members. See? We build the economy too.

” Mali ya leo buda ni safi. Hii tulitoa Karen brathe.Itabidi uongeze kakitu, juu ata wewe utapata zaidi.”

I know they didnt come from Karen. It was probably your mali, the one that was taken away in Thika bound matatu, around Githurai. You remember it? Ooh, it wasnt you? Then its probably your friend, the beautiful workmate you have been crushing on whose mali was taken. The one who lives in Embakasi. You know her? I think this mali is hers.

But I dont argue. Be it from Karen or not the mali is good. We dont argue in our business. We cant afford disagreeing.

” Unadai ngapi basi?”

” Wewe ongeza tu kakitu uko nayo juu ya ile ya kawaida. Itakua fiti.”

I pat my pockets. He rubs his hands in glee and trepidation at the same time.I look at the bag in thought for some time. I hope the mali is good enough for the money I pay for it. I hope too, that when you come to buy at the shop again, you wont remember your mali, because it will have changed kiasi.

We look around. You cant remove money when there are too many people watching you. Then I shake his hands, and in that one moment, the trade is done. He nods, I nod.He picks the bag, I pick the bag. Each has his own bag. But I have his bag, he has mine. He will bring more mali from you next time, using my bag. And I will carry my mali with his bag.

See, I know I will always have my mali because you are very kind. You give without asking. You always know when to give. My brother`s dagger works wonders, or sometimes it is his fake gun. You will give him when you meet him. And we will do good business, you, I and him. We will build the economy, the three of us.

I am at the end of the alley. His bag smells a little. I dont know what it smells of. There are so many smells in this town. Sometimes it is the smell of fear when he comes to take the mali from you. Sometimes, it is the smell of money when you come to buy the mali from me.Sometimes, it is the smell of time ticking off, my time. My time, his time. We dont have too much time.

But like now it is the smell of nothing. Nothing. Just hope and despair in equal measure.

” Wewe kijana tebu simama hapo.” Hiyo ni nini umebeba kwa hiyo bag?”

The smell of nothing has caught up with me.

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