Maragua is a rural township that goes to sleep at dusk. By 10 pm, the market has lost its life, save for the occasional growl of a dog, or the staggering drunkard figuring his way home. Samuel is arranging the wooden boxes that traders use during the day in such a way as to form a shelter for the night. An inadequate shelter that will still allow cold to seep through and torment him. His advanced age makes the situation worse, but he has nowhere else to go.
Cold, his main tormentor, has a close ally in hunger. He has not had anything to eat the whole day. He tried to beg around the market during the day but he was largely ignored. He is wondering whether his decision to leave Murang’a had been wise. At least people in Murang’a knew him, and he was often offered leftover food by owners of food kiosks.
But begging in Murang’a had always been humiliating for the same reason: people knew him. He had once been a wealthy Murang’a citizen, spitting on the poor and their offspring, before life clobbered him with his own lemons. So when a few nights ago he saw a branded Safaricom pickup truck preparing to leave Murang’a, he hopped on. He hoped it was going to Nairobi, but anything would be better than Murang’a. Thika, Embu, Nyeri…even Kenol would be just fine.
But the two young men drove to Maragua, parked near the market square, and disappeared into the night. He had waited for hours for them to return, but as dawn broke, he knew they would come back when there was sufficient light to see they had a passenger. He did not want to be discovered, so he had hopped out and settled in the smaller town.
That was three days ago. Now he is trying to find sleep, lying on old cartons. A mosquito buzzes over his head and he tries to swat it, but only ends up slapping a wooden plank. Sleep is hard to come by, with cold, hunger and mosquitoes punishing him severely. Suddenly, headlights light up the area. He should find another spot that is not near the road.
A car comes to a stop near his shelter. It is playing loud music, and he can smell alcohol from his spot. He is not interested in beer but perhaps the occupants of the car have something he can eat.
As he is wrestling with the question of whether or not to approach the car, a door of the vehicle opens and a girl drunkenly steps out. She approaches his shelter, obviously oblivious of his presence, and starts to lift her skirt. Samuel instantly realizes that if he doesn’t say something, he will soon be covered with alcohol-laced urine.
“Usinikojolee!” he bellows.
The girl screams and races back to the car. Two young men and another girl step out of the car. The old man steps out of his refuge.
“Mzee mbona unakaa huku usiku ukisumbua wanawake?” one of the young men asks menacingly. He is clearly drunk and spoiling for a fight, perhaps to impress the girls.
“None of your business,” Samuel says in impeccable English.
“Grandpa?” the second lady calls. She does not sound drunk but she is holding a can of beer.
Samuel instantly recognizes the voice of his granddaughter. Though they have not met for a while, she is the only member of his family who has shown concern over his welfare. She tried to bring him home once, but her mother, his daughter, refused. He knows she has just graduated with a degree in Engineering. She found him in Murang’a and invited him to her graduation party, and even offered to pay his fare, but he knew the rest of the family would not approve. So he stayed away.
“Njeri?” he calls.
“There is no Njeri here,” the aggressive young man says grabbing the old man by the collar and roughing him up.
“Leave him alone Charles! I am Njeri,” the young lady yells. When Charles does not release the old man, the other young man, Bruce, grabs him and pulls him away. Charles staggers back to the car, where the other girl is fast asleep.
“Grandpa, what are you doing here?”
“This is my home now. Do you people have something I can eat? I am starving,” Samuel replies.
“No, but we can take you with us to Nairobi and find something to eat,” Bruce says.
They walk back to the car and find their two companions fast asleep.
“I messed up my life. It is too late for me, but you can avoid my path,” the old man says, biting a chicken thigh. They are sitting at Sonford; Bruce, Samuel and Njeri. They have already dropped Charles and his girlfriend at Charles’ apartment along Thika Road.
“Mom says you messed up her life,”
“I was a terrible father and husband. I did not treat your grandmother right. I fooled around with women, drunk too much alcohol and wasted my wealth. I was hardly at home. Yes, I messed up all of them,”
“Njeri tells me you were a teacher,” Bruce cuts in.
“I was trained as a teacher. I worked for the Ministry of Education as an Education Officer. I took early retirement to vie for the Kangema MP seat,”
Samuel pauses, reflecting on his glory days.
“You were an MP?” Bruce asks.
“No, I did not win, even though I sold the remaining ten acres of my land to fund the campaign. I inherited 30 acres from my father. I sold twenty acres over time, to finance my life. I had many friends, male as well as female. They called me Caesar. My government salary was hardly enough to keep the image, so I sold plots now and then to supplement the salary. I was popular in all the bars in Murang’a”
“But mom says you hardly bought food at home,” Njeri says.
“I regret that. Fortunately, my wife Alice was hardworking and tilled the remaining land. She fed the family and sold the surplus to pay school fees and other necessities. When I decided to join politics, I sold that remaining land except for the half-acre around the house. I lost the election,”
“Is that when you fled to Kisumu?” Njeri asks.
“The loss was humiliating. I was now jobless, and landless. I still had friends to impress so I took a loan with the house and half-acre around it as collateral. That allowed me to save face and continue to have a dignified entry into clubs. I couldn’t repay the loan, of course, and the property was auctioned. Alice got a stroke and died,”
“Oh no,” Bruce whispers.
“I fled the village and went to Kisumu. I couldn’t find employment because of my age and started doing manual jobs to survive. I stayed in Kisumu for many years. Then post-election violence happened in 2008 and I had to flee back to Murang’a. People laughed at me. But I had nowhere else to go. My children did not want to see me. And I had spent every coin I had fleeing Kisumu. So I became a beggar in Murang’a town. I hitched a ride to Maragua a few days ago.”
Both Njeri and Bruce are moved by this story.
“Do not cry. I deserve all the pain. I brought it upon myself. But I will die a happy man if I know my granddaughter is not following the same path as I did,”
“What do you mean grandpa?”
“Njeri, I wasted my life and money impressing people who did not care either way. They fed on my foolishness and disappeared. I hope you are not doing the same. What were you doing in Maragua drinking alcohol with violent people who do not even know your second name?”
“Charles is like that. Forgive him,” Bruce says.
“I like you, Bruce. You look like a responsible young man. So listen to an old man, both of you. You are young. The future is bright for you. You just need to be wise. You do not need to impress anyone. Live your life, love your family, form friendships that go beyond sex and alcohol and invest in your future. And remember God in your endeavors. That is all the advice a broken old man can offer.”
The young people nod in agreement.
“By the way grandpa, I am now employed. I can rent you a small house in Murang’a. I will also get you food and clothes. You do not have to beg any more. You may have made mistakes, but you have suffered enough,”
“And I will help with that,” Bruce adds.
For the first time that evening, tears well in the old man’s eyes.
Image source: https://pixabay.com/en/portrait-face-burundi-man-old-man-734904/