“The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.”
There comes a moment in every man’s life when he finds himself on his knees, shoveling up his own shit with his ever-blackening bare hands while an angry family of strangers screams invectives at him in a language that he does not understand. Indeed, the inevitability of such occurrence is a fait accompli; the fact itself is not wherein the mystery lies, but in that for which it serves to illuminate.
The reasons, too, are merely peripheral to the crux. Perhaps it’s a step too many, or a subtle contortion of the pelvis that just reduces muscle leverage below the critical point, or perhaps truly it is preordained, a certain destiny, and no matter the quantity of energy and manpower dispatched with orders to hold at all costs, the gate to this outside world of judgment and love and humiliation is bound to fall. And when it does, when the plight is foregone and all hope his lost, it’s entirely natural that the emotional instinct is to look fearfully outward towards that approaching band of judges on the horizon.
The idea in such moments is to escape with dignity. And while it is indeed true that dignity is as much projected as bestowed, it is also true that sometimes circumstance can profoundly inhibit such outward projection. Sometimes, the duty of determining a man’s fate falls entirely to the masses. He is at the mercy of the souls that make the mob, and though the tribulation is indeed his own, to whom, the judges or the accused, has circumstance proffered choice and latitude? Who, when forces intrinsic to us all have already brought the defendant to his knees, is really on trial?
I was on the road from Laisamis when such tribulations befell me.
Laisamis is in the Kenyan north, a region to which the western world, in its inexorable onward march, has sent still only advance sentries. The Kenyan police get progressively more unpleasant as you move farther north and today they are in standard form, berating a Pakistani man in a tight-fitting cycling jersey. They hold their rifles high as they make only him pull literally all of his things (bike included) out of the bus baggage hold for what will no doubt be a thorough and complete inspection.
Simon and I observe the scene as we wait to board the bus. This is the day’s final charter to Nairobi (we’ll be getting off in Nanyuki) and it is imperative that we obtain tickets before it leaves this hot and dusty and mysterious place. Shadowing me with precision is a thraggle of old jewlery-hocking Rendile women, but Simon, who is Kenyan, remains focused on the task at hand.
The driver sees that Simon is with me (I am wearing a tan bucket hat that says ranger rick on it, if that gives any indication of my skin color) and doubles the price. I can’t understand Simon, but I imagine that he says the Swahili equivalent of “naw dog, I don’t play that shit,” and the driver complies. We’re on.
“While you’re with me in Kenya, there is no need to worry,” says Simon, as always emphasizing the vowels in his wonderfully Kenyan accent. “You will always be fine.”
The entire bus gawks at us as we make our way down the aisle. We sit down in the back next to a young thirteen year-old boy who’s name I will learn is Patrick. I look out the window. The Pakistani man is arguing with a soldier who had the day before spent a good three minutes dubiously panning his face back and forth between me and my ID.
The engine rumbles; the Pakistani man grabs his stuff and bounds on; away we go.
The road from Laisamis is not paved. Indeed, it’s not paved in the Kenyan sense, meaning that it is borderline impassable without four wheel drive. Our driver does not take this into account when calculating his velocity. Almost in rhythm, every five seconds brings a powerful jolt, and the passengers cascade up and out of their seat in collective and artistic synchrony. Unfazed, everyone maintains a blank forward stare. Patrick and I giggle hysterically in the back.
The road from Laisamis meanders through a brown,hard desert interspersed with small acacia bushes and windowless 30-square-foot shacks, whose chief structural components are newspaper and dried cow dung. Occasionally, we pass a shirtless citizen, wrapped in a red kilt and colorful bead accessories, herding his cows and camels.
I chat with Patrick, who explains that he is on the way to Nairobi to begin secondary school. “Ninajifunza Kiswahili,” I tell him, and he tells me the words for chair and window.
The pavement begins, and with it come a series of police stops. The ritual is always the same. Angry guy in uniform walks on, snarls at me and the fact that I only have my ID and no passport,snarls at a few other people’s passports, pulls the Pakistani guy off the bus to see his bag. Onward ho.
One police stop though, there are men in dress-shirts and neckties. They hold rifles. The bus driver grabs a briefcase and gets off the bus. I look around. All eyes through the right window towards the three men. I ask Patrick what is going on. “We can not go farther,” he says.
I blink. “What?”
No response. We watch the driver approach the men. They talk for some minutes. Lots of gesticulation. Silence in the bus. The driver hands the case to the tallest man with the smallest rifle. I look at Patrick. He smiles. “They accepted,” he whispers.
“The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.”
Roadside charcoal vendors pack up. Uniformed school children cheerfully waddle the final kilometer of their long walk home. Orange clouds and distant hills and small acacia cast long shadows upon the plains of Samburu county.
Day turns to night in Kenya.
We are ten minutes short of Isiolo, an hour from Nanyuki, when a stout policewoman with tight short braids below her cap walks on to the bus. I relax the shoulders. No testosterone-fueled power-trip to worry about here. She comes to me first, holds out her hand. I nudge up towards Patrick like always, smile a winner, and nod as I give her my ID.
She frowns. Where is my passport? I explain that I’d been warned against bringing my passport on account of the dangerous roads. Then she turns around and walks away without handing back the ID. I look at Patrick. He shrugs. I look at Simon. He shrugs. Excuse-me, I say to the woman, but Simon holds me back. It’s not worth it.
She takes a few more passports, and then grabs a few more still. The bus is restless. A woman in a Hijab says that she has no right to do this. The officer ignores her.
Those who have had their passports taken file off the bus in anger. I tell Simon the ID replacement fee is “probably like $300.” Simon agrees this is worth fighting for. We file off last, leave our things in Patrick’s charge.
Motorbike silhouette’s zip and zoom through the night. The policewoman sits in a roadside shack with an authoritative chubby-faced man who gets a deeply masculine thrill out of shining his jumbo flashlight directly into the eyes of those he speaks to.
Initially, there is a crowd, but slowly, fifteen turns to five, then to three, then, once all have retrieved their passports and returned to the bus, it’s just me, Simon, and the police. The language jumps between Kikuyu, Swahili, and English. I catch flashes. They want money. No they don’t. No they do, they want 5000 shillings – about USD$60. “Hapana” says Simon, we have no money. I’m a mzungu, of course I have money. “Fine, 1000 shillings, says the woman”
The bus rumbles.
It drives away. Our stuff is still on board.
The cop shines his light in my eyes and sees the dismay. “Don’t worry, it’ll stop in Isiolo for a bit. How about 300?”
Simon doesn’t let up. It’s standard to pay bribes in Kenya (though less and less so) but I get the sense that Simon’s resilience here is fueled by a deeper sense of national pride in front of a visitor. The police eventually get the message and unapologetically hand back the ID. They tell us to get out of here, and Simon and I storm off down the unlit roadside.
Bodaboda shadows continue to whiz by. Simon whistles. A driver pulls over. No words are exchanged. The two of us hop on. “Isiolo,” says Simon.
“You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.”
The air is cool on my face. I am in the middle, the mystery driver to the front, Simon hanging on behind. We weave around a sand truck and a car weaves around us. Some motorbikes have no lights. You hear them. You do not see.
It begins with the first speed bump. Stirring. A restless army musters in the deep. A pothole impels the army to march, but the initial formation rapidly dissolves in the motorbike’s tremor. Zero to ten in mere moments.
The bowels rumble. Code blue.
The far-away glow of Isiolo turns bright and immediate. Buses and Matatus line the road. Which is ours? Has it left? I haven’t yet told Simon of my impending emergency; he is in lockdown mode, intensely intent on getting his charge home without incident. Beads of sweat condense on the lower back. The motorcycle zooms onward.
All at once, pain and numbness in the nethers. The internal sphincter has fallen. The external sphincter weakens. As arms wiggle and wobble on that final push-up, so to do I. Adrenaline shoots from my head to my toes. There’s the bus! No wrong one. No it’s that one over there! We drive. Bump bump bump. What kind of bullshit shocks are these? We drive and there is Patrick’s plump round bucktoothed face jammed out the small hole in the window. He waves. Simon waves back. I can’t wave. It’s a blur. I tell Simon of my problem. He asks the driver where I can go. Driver says no time.
We file on. Climb the stairs. Whole bus is seated and staring and smiling. The mzungu made it back! Guy who speaks American English starts telling me about his week in North Dakota. I nod. My face is red. We head to the back. Patrick pats the seat he saved for me and I ignore him; I sit alone in the row to his front and lay on the window.
A brief wave of lucidity. I do the calculation. Fifty minutes to Nanyuki. The mere thought zaps my aching sphincter of its essential remaining strength. Simon sees me. What’s wrong, says Patrick? I glare at him. Poor Patrick. He could never understand. Simon and I lock eyes. He understands. The gate cannot hold.
“One minute,” yells Simon to the driver as we hightail off the bus. The driver, who is leaning on the bus’s side, does not respond. Simon and I zig-zag and zag-zig. “Choo iko wapi? choo iko wapi?! Simon and I collide. Our heads turn. We see it together. A clinic!
Inside, my eyes are wide and red and desperate. I frantically pan my head around. Where where where!!! I bounce my feet and spin spin spin. I see something that says lavatory and furiously shake the door handle. That’s the laboratory, yells Simon.
Baffled visitors gape at my jig until Simon points aggressively out the back door. Indeed, there it is. A beacon in the night. A corrugated metal shed housing a pit latrine. I make a bowlegged dash. Sweet relief is on the way. I pull the door.
“I’ll find a key,” screams Simon, and he runs back inside. The air is humid, dank. I lean on the side of the shed and drag myself around it. Movement is essential. Hold, sphincter, hold! There is a field of grass. It is dark. A mosque rises above the wood shacks surrounding the field. It is illuminated, ostentatious, crisp clean spires rising above all. The sounds of the city beyond the clinic are barely audible. I limp. I look to the sky. Bubbles below. There is no strength remaining. Simon has not returned in time. The bus will soon leave. All is lost. There is no hope. I can hold no more.
“Do you take pride in your hurt? Does it make you seem large and tragic? …Well, think about it. Maybe you’re playing a part on a great stage with only yourself as audience.”
The lights of the mosque cast deep shadows on the grass. They flicker and shake. It, is everywhere. Everywhere.
“Simon,” I groan. “I… I didn’t make it.” I hear rustling by the clinic’s backdoor as Simon, who had obtained the key, sprints back inside. It’s me and the wind.
I look around and take inventory of the situation. My pants cast off a couple feet to my right. My boxers inside of them. My favorite fish and boat tan polo on top and nothing on bottom. I sit in shock. I crawl over to the pants and dig through the pockets to get my phone and wallet and keys. It’s delicate, there is much to avoid, but I’ve extracted just about everything of value when I hear a sound. I look up.
A woman in a hijab stands five feet away. We make eye contact and both freeze. A couple seconds go by. Still no sound.
It’s unclear how long she has been standing here but it doesn’t take long to surmise that this is in fact her yard. In calculating my next move, I consider the situation as she must see it. To her, I am a naked cursing white man crawling in and around (god willing) his own shit just outside of a perfectly suitable bathroom, his pale white ass gleaming even through the darkness, his scent a damp combo of fecal matter and old-spice deodorant (“if your grandpa hadn’t warn it, you wouldn’t be alive!”).
The veracity of this perspective puts me in a bit of a pinch, so I defer the first move to the woman. A few more seconds of silence still, and then she makes her play, a high pitched and extended shriek of death in the spirit of the Witch King of Angmar:
I stand reflexively, exposing a nasty bit more of my pale white self. The shriek turns to words, but they are not in English.
“Sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry” I sputter, throwing myself into a crouch. She doesn’t let up.
Her little girls come out, all in Hijab’s themselves. They cover their mouths and giggle. The woman continues to scream; I cover myself. “It was an accident! Can’t you see!?”
A horn honks on the other side of the clinic. There goes the bus. There goes all of my stuff. Screaming continues. Another woman comes out and joins in. Outnumbered, I retreat back into my own head, think of a time weeks in the future, when (unless I get deported) this will all just be a distant mildly amusing memory.
Steps in the clinic; a door slams. I turn. Simon rounds the pit latrine-shed corner in a full sprint. He has his bag; he has my bag.
He pulls up, evaluates the situation, dives into his backpack for some jeans. “Put these on!” Simon hurls them my way. I stumble about and wrestle them on. They’re far too big but still, one dignity is finally reclaimed.
Simon assumes a power stance directly between the woman and I. He speaks a calm confident Swahili. I cower behind. I have a firm grip on each side of the jeans. A girl, maybe 15, emerges from same house as the woman. She looks at the ground around me, then at my skin, then places her hand on her hips.
“Hey! Where you from,” she yells with some serious ‘tude
She speaks English. I don’t respond.
“Hey! I’m talkin to you. Where are you from?”
“U.S.” I mumble. I can’t just ignore her. I did, after all, just take a shit in her yard. This takes her by surprise. “Oh, well, well hmm, is this what you do in America? Huh? You just go around and feces in other people’s yard?” I stare at her. Simon and the mother continue to do battle in Swahili on the side.
“Huh? Is that what you do over there? Well welcome to Africa, welcome to Kenya, we don’t do that here.”
She is quite pleased with herself. She’s doing that thing with her hand where you twist your wrist in a circle, and then thrust the hand out towards the victim, palm first. She does that repeatedly. Her other hand, the left one, still rests on her hip. I’m regaining awareness; it occurs to me that I might defend myself to the one person who would understand my words. I begin to explain myself, that in fact we don’t feces in other people’s yards in America, that this was an honest mistake, that I’m on a trip to visit some motherfucking kids we sponsor to go to school thank you very much, but I only get about five words in before Simon turns and glares and warns me not to speak to her.
The father comes out. “Mzungu!” he booms. “Sit Down!”
Terrified, I obey.
“Don’t sit down,” yells Simon. “Do. Not. Sit. Down!”
“MZUNGU! SIT, DOWN!” yells the man again, who has positioned himself opposite to me from Simon.
“NO!” yells Simon. I’m in a partial squat, like I’m doing a half-assed wall sit. I maintain a firm grip upon the sides of my pants.
The dad moves on to demand a thorough clean of the impact zone. Simon scrambles to find a receptacle, eventually returning from the clinic with a yellow plastic grocery bag. He throws it to me, and to my knees I go. I begin with the pants and the underwear. The belt is still salvageable, but there is no time. All of it goes in the bag. Then it’s on to the real stuff, no jean denim to shield my hand this time. I hold my breath and go for it: grab, throw, grab, throw. A deafening rabble in the angry circle around me. They are not satisfied. It is not clean enough. Remnants remain.
The father howls something at Simon, and Simon runs off and brings back a stick. “I’ll dig, you shovel,” he says, and with that he frantically and repeatedly jabs his stick into the impact zone. I scrape up the stick’s products with my now-black right hand, throw it into the bag. Stab dig stab dig. I’m rolling. I’m ripping up grass. No remains. The shouting hasn’t abated. “What about there!” yells the English-speaking girl. “Hapa Hapa HAPA!”
It’s all in the bag. I can hear my heart beat.
Curious onlookers materialize out of the darkness. Now there’s more than ten. Simon explains and explains. I keep hearing the world “polezi.” I keep hearing big numbers followed by “shilingi.” The fifteen year old continues to spit vitriol. She keeps using “feces” as a verb. This irks me. Her anger turns to Simon.
“This is the man you choose to be your role model in Kenya? Him?” She looks disgusted. Maybe you should make better choices about who you hang around with, don’t you think?”
I look over and Simon remains stoic. It appears he is beginning to make progress.
No longer will they call the police. Then no longer do they want money. Now they just want me out of their sight. The breakthrough, I will learn, was derived out of the still prominent tribal structure of Kenya; they were speaking Kikuyu amongst themselves, and Simon responded in kind. They could work with him.
Simon turns around. “Lets go.”
I wordlessly follow. I hear the voice, that goddamn girl’s voice behind me. “What? You’re not even gonna say thank you? That’s real polite.”
I mumble “thank you” like an idiot and trudge behind Simon into the clinic. Everyone inside knows. Everyone stares. The bloated yellow bag swings in the grip of my black, crusted hand.
“Time interval is a strange and contradictory matter in the mind. It would be reasonable to suppose that a routine time or an eventless time would seem interminable. It should be so, but it is not. It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy – that’s the time that seems long in the memory. And this is right when you think about it. Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all.”
“And, of course, people are interested only in themselves. If a story is not about the hearer he will not listen.”
The town is dead. Only the glue-fiends and the corn-salesmen and Simon and I are still out. We walk in silence next to the road. He says nothing. I say nothing. Cats and rats dig through garbage. We walk. What am I gonna do with my bag? What are we gonna do?
“Simon,” I mumble. “There isn’t much to say. “I don’t, I don’t really know what to say, all I can really think is thanks. I owe you so many Tuskers. I’m sorr-“
“You owe me nothing. Nothing. If you had meant to do it, now, now that would be bad, but it was an accident. You owe me nothing. You are my brother.”
We walk in silence some more.
“Simon, why didn’t you want me to sit down.”
“Why should you sit down? Why? You did nothing wrong. Why should you be shamed like that?”
As I see it, there are a good many reasons why I ought to have been shamed like that, but I just nod and smile.
Now at this point, I have known Simon for around ten days. He’s been wonderful to me. He’s shown me around, taken me out for Tuskers, done everything in his power to smoothen the transition to life in Kenya. I have done nothing in return. I may have bought him a few Tuskers here and there to even the score, but already the scales were so tipped in his favor. It’s the sort of generosity for which forward payment, as opposed to individual repayment, is expected; a kindness that inspires kindness not just in return, but in general.
We determine that that the best route is just to find some way, any way, to get home, back to Nanyuki, back to Wama, back to a place we know. I of course, can’t approach within ten feet of anyone out of consideration for their senses, but Simon scurries about and luck finds him: across the street, a white private matatu sits waiting for lost souls in this dark Isiolo night.
The driver, a man with a flat-cap, a cigarette, and a black leather jacket, nods at us. He understands. His voice is Freeman-esque, rich and deep.
“There’s a shower in that hotel over there. I’ll wait outside.”
The hotel owner sees me and the bag. He understands. He directs me to a corrugated metal shack, not unlike the pit latrine from before. I enter dirty; I emerge clean.
The owner laughs. “Karibu Isiolo,” he yells happily as Simon and I walk away into the night. “You’re welcome back any time.”
The cab is waiting outside. Simon goes to find some gin, and I take a seat on the right hand side behind the driver.
He strikes a match and the interior of the matatu glows orange. His silhouette deepens. Distant mad cries frame the empty silence. He lights his cigarette, takes a drag. and then, cigarette in hand, rests his right arm on the windowsill. He exhales. The sound of his breath is slow and deep and thoughtful.
“My friend,” he says. “Where did it all go wrong?”