By Patrick Ngugi
His clothes, though clean were so crumpled, you’d think he had slept in them.
But then, he was perhaps, the cleanest beggar I have ever seen. He seemed to have braved this morning’s rainy and chilly weather to come and rattle the shiny tin cup that already seemed to be full of coins, from the noise it was making.
After moving from one person to the other on this bench at KENCOM Stage, the beggar reached me and stared at me straight in the eye as if I owed him a living. Normally I would have just dipped my hand in the pocket and meticulously selected a Sh50 note among other cash, and dropped it into the cup. Other times when times were bad, I would even give him a pound that would add to the din in his cup, and he would walk away with or without a grunt of gratitude.
But today I had nothing on me, and that was the reason I was here so early in the morning. I looked away from his gaze hoping he would spare me and move to the next victim on the bench. But he didn’t. He wasn’t in a hurry. He gave me a penetrating stare as if he was scanning my sinful soul.
He must have been over 50, though you could not tell the exact ages of these beggars, had unkempt hair with a touch of grey threatening to shoot any time from his stubs of sideburns. His clothes, though faded and crumpled were clean, and his rubber shoes, one with a hole and a toe sticking out, were also neat. When he noticed that I had decided to return his gaze, he lowered his face and extended his hand, bringing his battered tin cup closer to me. It had a few coins inside.
I shook my head and said, ‘’sio leo, not today.’’
He threw at me another tenth of a second glance and went to the next guy, as he rattled his tin cup, the noise of the coins hitting against the cup rhythmically crescendoing with the racket of the morning traffic as Nairobians seemed to race against each other and time towards their business place or office.
An hour later I was still waiting to hear from Mutuku
I consulted the City Clock. It was only 7.45 am. I could not believe that I had been waiting here for the last one hour. The tin cup rattled again as the beggar moved to the next person on the bench, a fat middle aged woman with a child on her back and luggage strewn all over in front of her. Perhaps she was straight from shags, and she was waiting for her husband, I thought, as I looked at the beggar.
If Mutuku had kept his promise, I would have given that beggar even a whole 100 shillings. For some reason I loved helping these desperate cases, I called it giving back to society. I had donated cash in coins and notes to so many of them since I came to Nairobi over a decade ago. However, this beggar looked new around here since I knew practically all the tramps who patrolled both sides of the street.
Two hours after I arrived here, I was still waiting to hear from Mutuku. I could not call him because it would be a breach of our agreement, and it was not good for business. I was lucky to have gotten the dossier he needed, and all he was to do was send his emissary, who would confirm that I had the right package, and then pay me off, and we would both disappear from each other and into the crowds of Nairobi.
I felt the inside pocket of my coat. The envelope, with the info Mutuku needed was still there. You can’t trust Nairobi with its pickpockets. Damn, that guy should arrive soon. I was getting tired and hungry as it was running to 8.30 am and I could do with a hot mug of porridge.
From a distance I could hear the Nairobi Fire Brigade trucks blare their sirens as they wrestled with the morning traffic. Where in hell was burning this time? I wondered as I craned my neck to see the two trucks making a lot of noise but moving at a snail’s pace. I am sure the fire they were going to put off was in Korogocho, Mathare, Kayole or some other slum, and obviously they would arrive there after the fire had consumed everything, and the residents would pelt them with stones for arriving too late after the fire had ravaged their miserably property.
Perhaps the husband lived in Kawangware? Maybe.
The fire trucks took about 10 minutes moving from Union Towers building to the Ambassador Hotel, a distance of about 100 metres; after which we could not see them past Kencom Building. We went back to our worlds, those waiting for their buses waited for their busses, those waiting for their payments waited for their payments.
The woman with lots of luggage suddenly shot up, and collected them and with the baby tightly fastened on her back with a yellow shawl, entered bus number 46. Perhaps the husband lived in Kawangware? Maybe.
The chill was gradually replaced by the warmth as we gradually approached mid afternoon. However, you could see that it had rained heavily the previous night leaving poodles on the road, and in some areas of the pavement you would be careful while walking or your whole foot would step into a dirty pool of dirty water.
I was getting tired sitting down and I decided to stand and take a stroll. The problem was that I could not go far because Mutuku’s agent was to look for me at the Kencom Stage, where I had been seated for the last two hours. So even if I had to walk to stretch my legs, I would soon need to come back, sit and wait.
I walked towards the High Court with a slight drizzle starting to shower. After about 100 metres I turned to walk back and suddenly I heard some screams and shouting. I looked back and saw a huge splash of water coming towards me. I tried to dodge it but it was too late. My suit was soiled with rain water from the road. I looked at the disappearing vehicle that had done this damage and I joined the chorus of name calling. It was the governor’s car, driving towards the Town Hall.
After tempers had cooled down I went back to the benches at the bus stop, and luckily I got a spot to sit down. I had not sat for a long time when I heard some ruffling behind me. There were about three sheets of black polythene, and I knew some homeless people were sleeping over there. The ruffling continued as they uncovered themselves. From beneath the sheets came out three street boys dressed in tatters, and each clutching on their glue bottle, with their eyes dazed and I could not tell whether the daze was from the sleep or the glue.
Mwizi… Mwizi… ameiba simu yangu
I look away and back to the pavement. I don’t want the agent to miss me. There is a scream as a young man in a shabby suit suddenly leaps and scrams across the road as the deafening scream from the woman rents the air… ‘’Mwizi… Mwizi… ameiba simu yangu…’’
For a fraction of a second we don’t seem to realize what is happening, but then the suited sprinting man is halfway across the road with the woman following, and a handful of other men following suit. He does not manage to go far because as he tried to escape from the mob justice he runs into a KNH-Community bus which knocks him out cold.
The woman recovers her phone, and comes back to the pavement as a curious surging crowd cause a huge traffic jam all around the Hilton Hotel up to the Ambassadeur.
The drizzle has died down and the warmth ushers in an army of hawkers carrying their wares over their shoulders, wrapped with all sorts of materials ranging from gunny bags to sheets of plastic. They place their wares all over the pavement as they steal glances this way and that, looking out for kanjo pick up vehicle, the way a mouse looks out for a hungry cat.
And they don’t stay there for long… Suddenly they wrap their wares in lightening speed, and in a blink of an eye they are nowhere to be seen. At the end of City Hall Way, I see a county askari vehicle patrolling the streets. No wonder.
The street urchins behind me finally wake up, and as they fold their beddings, they chat in sheng and they store their makeshift beddings under the seats we are on, and walk away while sniffing their glue. Where to, I don’t know.
My eyes come back to the stage and I look around, hoping the emissary will recognize me –that is if he is already here, since I don’t know how he looks like, but Mutuku said he would give him my photo.
The county askari vehicle passes by with mean looking askaris scanning the pavements, and you won’t believe it – The Governor’s vehicle, the one that had splashed dirty water on us also passes, following the askari vehicle as if it is a chase car. Bastards.
There is a light tap on my right shoulder
Already the fire brigade trucks are back. They move slowly with the traffic as they meander their way back to the Tom Mboya Street depot. It’s like the fire wasn’t all that far, or was it? Its 11 am now according to city clock. I have been here waiting for six hours! I just can’t believe it. I decide I can wait no more. The stuff Mutuku wanted can be sold elsewhere, I say as I stand up, feel my pocket and start walking away, cursing why Mutuku has done this to me.
Before I go far, there is a light tap on my right shoulder. I look around, hoping that the agent had finally arrived. I get dismayed and angry when I see it’s the same beggar.
‘’Now what do you want?’’ I ask angrily. ‘’I think I had told you I don’t have a cent on me.’’
The old beggar smiles, and says, ‘’Are you Mr Boniface Nyenze?’’
How the hell does this beggar know my name?
‘’Yes, who are you?’’
‘’Don’t worry; he says looking around, then at me. Do you have Mr Mutuku’s envelope?’’
Then it hit me… the emissary was here all the time in form of the beggar.
‘’YYess… I do,’’ I stammer, and produce the envelope from my pocket.
He takes it and tears it open then scrutinizes it. Then smiles and removes another envelope in his jacket and hands it to me.
‘’Its 50k, just as you agreed.’’ he says with an expressionless face. I open the envelope and see a wad of crisp new notes of 1,000 shillings denomination. They look like 50 k. I quickly put it into the pocket where the other envelope had been, and quickly looks around. Nairobi continues with its activities unperturbed.
‘’So long my friend,’’ says the beggar, as he smiles and fades into the city crowd.
I stand there, still mesmerized. If I met him again, I think, I won’t give him a fifty bob note. It’s got to be two hundred shillings. I cross the road and walk back to River Road.
©Patrick Ngugi 121119