Tambo could hear two voices speaking loudly from the direction of the kitchen. He reached for his phone. It was 8 am. He had slept like a drunk. Tambo was an early riser, a go-getter, a disciplined man but whenever he retreated back home to the village, the pace of things, sedated his sense of urgency. Whenever he returned to the rugged green hills and valleys of Marenyo, he slipped back to the true pace of life, where there was time to experience its essence.
He sat his tall lean frame up on his bed, determined to not succumb to the temptation of lazing in bed and listening to the orchestra of natural sounds ushering the morning sun. He looked around the room, the same room he had been sleeping in since he was a child. It had a fresh coat of paint and a new ceiling board to replace the previous one that was stained by a large brown patch from a roof leakage. Throughout his teens and twenties, the patch had served as a contemplation spot whilst lying in bed.
Tambo was as old as the house. The house was in much better shape. This was what 34 years of constant improvement looked like. A mature bungalow with character, warmth and rooted in history. Tambo on the other hand felt drained by his success and he wore the exhaustion on his face.
His father started building in 1980 and completed the house in 1982, the year of the coup (or the year of revolution as his father called it). It was the year of his birth. The date of completion was engraved on the stone wall of the surrounding veranda. BUILT IN 1982. There was some pride in having a modern stone house with a flush toilet and power installations in those days. A country home was the mark of success of middle-class affluence.
Tambo’s deceased father was a highly ranked civil servant, a professional road engineer and a Pan-Africanist. He was the country Head of Public Works, the Maintenance division, in those days. He practised what he preached and his singular message was maintenance. He named his children after African revolutionaries when everyone else was getting Anglicized.
Tambo’s full name was Oliver, Nelson Tambo. Most people he met in Kenya thought he had tried jazzing up the name Otambo to Tambo. He was really named after his father’s anti-apartheid heroes, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. His father said his name carried the spirit of two of the wisest men in Africa. His mother said his name suited an old soul.
Her name was Thandiwe, a Xhosa and she could feel the weight of destiny in his name.
Tambo had done well for himself, following in the footsteps of his father and emerged as a high roller in his thirties, a respected journalist and an award-winning investigate reporter from Kenya with a South African name. Three years ago his career took off when he went international. Tambo got a stringer job with the Al Jazeera TV crew on the miraa trail from Nyambene to Amsterdam. They were so impressed by his networks and resourcefulness, that they offered him a job as an Africa correspondent based out of Nairobi. His lifestyle changed as he became a jet setter filing African stories from around the continent.
Tambo would meet a girl from Johannesburg in his many travels. One of his kind, a woman on the move, a go-getter and they seemed perfect for each other. She was independent and a successful newscaster. She thought he was making his name up the first time they met at the OR Tambo airport lounge, headed to the same conference in Cape Town. Her name was Thandiwe, a Xhosa and said she could feel the weight of destiny in his name.
They started dating casually and the fondness grew with the comfort of finding a partner who could relate to the demands of the news business. When his mother met her, she said she looked like Winnie Mandela even though the only vague similarity was her Afro. She meant Jennifer Hudson from the movie ‘Winnie” that she had watched on DSTV. Tambo’s mother fell in love with Winnie the character and had since bugged Tambo to get her the “Video”.
Then Thandiwe announced she was pregnant. It was not part of the plan or anything they had even considered. Tambo decided the respectable thing would be to show commitment and he started making urgent plans for a wedding. Thandiwe did not want a spectacle and they tried to fit a wedding into their tight work schedule. Then the miscarriage happened and the wedding was called off.
Peter’s highest station in life was as a watchman
The tragedy brought them closer together for the first three months before they both agreed that the setback would not slow down their career goals and buried themselves in work, to numb the pain. They travelled endlessly, chasing stories until one Monday morning 2 years later, three investigative feature story awards between them, Tambo walked straight through a glass door at the bureau office and sustained multiple cuts on his head. He had completely zoned out. He had been on auto pilot for too long. The cuts were not deep but he did not need a doctor to tell him that he was suffering from a serious case of adrenal burn out. The bureau chief Gregory Smith, an old school white Kenyan journalist born and raised in Tanzania, who always had reading glasses sitting on his forehead, told him to go home.
“You are tired. Go to a place with cows. That village you keep talking about and try not to file a story for the next month”.
Thandiwe was away, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland when it happened. She could not think of a better idea. The village was what Tambo needed. He had promised Thandiwe that he would be plugged out and be here and now before he killed himself in another random lapse of attention. The episode had left him contemplating about the purpose of life and the inevitability of death.
Tambo’s grandmother, the steely Dana Phelgona had told him in those days, that in their family, they escorted each other. His father died in a road accident in 1987 and that was the same year that his grandfather Gilbert passed as well, 6 months apart. Dana Phelgona and his auntie Jedida, his father’s younger sister, went together. The year Uncle Vincent died, was the same year, Thandiwe lost their baby.
Two days after the stitches, he took a flight down to Kisumu, from where he would connect to the village by matatu to Luanda town and then jump onto a boda-boda for the short 6 km journey to Marenyo.
The man outside was speaking in Dholuo, “I hear my friend has returned”.
Tambo could hear his mother pottering about in the kitchen probably trying to prepare breakfast and ordering people about. She had no patience for idlers.
“You have really woken up early to greet your friend. He is still sleeping”.
Before the man could settle down, he was assigned his first errand,
“Omera, get me a kube of water”
The man replied reassuringly,
“Mum, you know I am a man of work”
“Get me the water. Your mouth does not rest”
Tambo recognised the voice. It was Peters. He sounded exactly the same. Tambo wondered how word of his arrival had got around so fast. He had deliberately avoided riding through the centre and announcing his arrival.
He stepped out in his shorts and T-shirt, with a toothbrush and paste in one hand and a water bottle in the other.
Peters was a smart guy who had taken one short cut too many.
Peters had changed. He had aged a decade, so much darker than he remembered and grotesquely disfigured in one eye. He was using a walking stick and his body was bent. Fortunately, Peters possessed the same jovial personality Tambo had known ever since he started coming to the village for holidays as a child. Peters was one of those kids who chased his fathers’ car, a Peugeot 504, through the village road as Tambo and his older siblings Lumumba (Patrice) and Miriam (Makeba) stared out of the rear view window, kneeling on the back seat, wishing they could be out there running after the car.
Peter’s highest station in life was as a watchman on a construction site in Kisumu where he rose to become head of security in charge of three other guards, all cousins from the village. It was a huge housing complex and their employer was very generous. It was said, he took a weekend off for a funeral with his end month salary and did not report back to work for a month, blowing all his money on booze. The Indian contractor who a soft spot for Peters, told him, “Raha, would kill him” and let him go. That was the last real job he ever held.
For most of his life, he had never left Marenyo village. He quit school in form 1 even when he showed great promise in academics and his father was able to pay school fees. He had a stint as a thug, then he got saved in a dramatic public confessional ceremony when some American evangelicals set camp in the village for the huge weekend extravaganza.
That did not last as he continued his drinking binges through one accident after another and getting disfigured after every episode. He was now a village bum who told stories and made people laugh in exchange for his basic needs, company, food and booze.
“Otambo, I never thought you would get fat. Your cheeks are shining in the morning”.
“And you are still silly”, Tambo hit back.
For all their class differences, they got along spectacularly. It fascinated Tambo that Peters survived on good cheer. He did not work. He was even exempt from manual labour because it was obvious to anyone watching that life had sapped the energy from his body.
From the smoking kitchen, Tambo’s mother called him by his first name,
“Oliver, did we wake you up with our noise?”
“No mother, you know I wake up early”.
She beckoned him into the dark kitchen, an extension of the main house and the centre of power.
“Do not give him any money. He will just drink it all”, she whispered.
Tambo nodded in agreement as he left the kitchen. There say that you will always be your mother’s son no matter how old you are. His mother was a retired school teacher, who had served a distinguished tenure in a number of good city schools before transferring to Kisumu’s Lake primary to be near home and prepare for retirement. She had been living the village life for 20 years and remained a stoic since the passing of her husband through a road accident. She was now the matriarch, one of the respected women in the village, head of the mother’s union, whose kitchen everyone gathered for sustenance, comfort and solutions.
Tambo and Peters walked away from the kitchen to the large compound to sit under a mature avocado tree, where the rock outcrops provided good perches for lounging.
Tambo was curious about Peter’s eye.
“What happened to you this time?’
Peters looked remorseful, “People have extremely bad hearts here”.
And his tone got serious as he relayed a painful story.
“We were fixing a new barbed wire fence at Mzee Japheth’s place. It was heavy work for two people and the money he was offering was kidogo, so the guy is clever and decided to get his boys to help with the work. At the end of the week, we got paid and went straight to Mama Pima to eat our sweat. The elder son showed up at Mama Pima’s and demanded his share. I dismissed him and asked him to talk to his father”.
“I think that must have upset him very much” he reflected.
That evening, Peters was waylaid and attacked by an unknown assailant as he merrily sung on his way home from the drinking den. He was hit across his face with a thick twig. His left eye never recovered.
Everyone knew of the prime suspect but Peter decided he did not want the drama of a court case between relatives and the enmity that would arise from it. He decided to accept his fate, forgive and never forget. He found his sense of justice nonetheless a year later and he attributed it to divine intervention.
“Sir God has acted on this guy. These days, a month does not pass before he goes to hospital”.
Retribution was a big thing in the village and people kept a record of all victims who had some form of justice restored by the great equaliser, Jehovah, Nyasaye.
Peters had been blind in one eye for two years and he was experiencing blurry vision in his good eye. He began to tell another sob story about his latest tribulations that Tambo did not feel he could tolerate at 9 am on a Friday morning and he cut him short.
“Peters, my friend, your head is still working. Your thoughts are clear. You are still a man”.
But he persisted,“Otambo you should put me on TV so that I can get some donors to help me with treatment.”
Peters was a smart guy who had taken one shortcut too many. For the few years he was in school he was a top ten student. Somewhere along the line he slipped and never found his way back. Tambo was one of the few people who did not indulge him.
They had known each other for 30 years. Tambo was the ja-Nairobi whose middle-class father visited home regularly in order to ground his children in their indigenous culture and tamper the effects of urbanisation that was turning them into grafted Europeans against his best attempts.
Peters was “ja home”, those who never left the village. They had stuck a friendship at childhood because he found affinity with his many brothers from shags, unlike his two elder siblings. Tambo was the curious one and friendly by nature. In Peter, he found an alert ‘home’ guy. Over the years, as their fortunes grew in opposite directions, they maintained a connection that had baffled many.
“Peters, don’t be a whiner. There are people who are completely blind and they live”.
“Otambo, this your problem. You do not how to lie. You are very direct, like your mother. That is why I like you.”
Tambo was determined to be serious.
“Peters, we have come from far, we are grown people now, we have to speak like grown men”.
“What you are saying is true, like the story of this blind boda-boda guy?”
“You said Blind! a man who cannot see”.
“Yes, but he rides a motorbike and carries passengers.”
Tambo rolled his eyes at the improbability. It sounded to be another of Peter’s long yarns.
“Where did you hear this story of the blind boda-boda guy?’
“People know him, I am not lying. I am told he is ever at Luanda?”
“A blind boda-boda rider. How is that even possible?”
“You have to see it to believe it. He cannot see, but he sees”.
Peters was just the early bird and the first in a steady stream of visitors. 5 cousins that Tambo referred to as brothers, one grandmother, the only surviving one, the wife of his grandfather’s brother, two aunties, and widows of his father’s cousins came calling that morning, “To greet Otambo”.
They came to see if Tambo had changed physically, ask after his health and about the daughter of “Winnie Mandela” that they were eager to meet.
His mother said he was the village’s favourite among her children. He got along with all classes and people respected that about him. Lumumba was aloof and he hardly came to the village unless for the funeral of a very close family member. Lumumba found the village intrusive, especially the begging and blamed it on devolved corruption at the county level and the society’s failure of imagination. Miriam had not been back from the US in 16 years though she called regularly and sent clothes for all the cousins and skin lotion for the grandmothers. Miriam had wanted to return but she could not because she did not have papers. Tambo was regular but he had not been home in 2 years and he was clearly missed.
A visually impaired boda-boda rider, who was a pastor and owned a church.
He knew the obligations expected from a ‘long lost visitor from Nairobi’ and had gotten ‘change’, several 100 shillings notes to be squeezed into the palms discreetly whilst escorting relatives after having tea and sweet potatoes.
Tambo was a journalist at heart and these interactions were great fodder for stories. It was a glimpse into the human condition and where there was simple folk, he learnt to bask in their goodwill.
Peters had left Tambo intrigued with his suggestion of a visually impaired motorcyclist operating as boda-boda taxi in Luanda. He decided to ask everyone he met that morning and their responses got him even more curious.
Sylvanus said he had heard about him from the church women.
Jackstone had heard that the rider was also a pastor.
He added, that Gor would know better because he was boda-boda guy.
Tambo asked for Gor’s number.
His, grandmother Wahonya, a second wife who was abandoned after grandfather Isaka converted to Christianity, said she had never heard of such a man but she had lived long enough not be surprised by anything these days.
One of the aunties, whose real names he never known since everyone referred to them as daughters of the lands they were born, Kajulu and Ramula.
Nya Kajulu had said she had not seen this blind rider at Luanda on a market day but she knew someone who had ridden with him.
The other auntie, Nya Ramula brought up the issue of a pastor again and added that she heard he owned a church.
A visually impaired boda-boda rider, who was a pastor and owned a church.
Tambo felt the twitch. This was a low lying fruit waiting to be plucked.
Five in six people had confirmed the existence of what could be a compelling subject for a feature of the con artist of the year.
It is only his mother who dismissed the account with a wave of hand as, “One of Peters stories”
The next morning Tambo called Gor’s number and found an annoying ringtone, a recorded conversation of a man telling the ringer to wait, as he finished a long call. Gor picked up just as Tambo was about to end the call and it sounded like he was riding and talking at the same time.
They agreed that he would take him shopping for provisions in Luanda on Monday. His mother’s house was lean on supplies and the visitors had increased with his arrival.
He looked forward to Monday. He would ask around in Luanda, to see if the boda-boda story had any legs.
Gor picked up Tambo from the house on Monday morning. Gor was a burly guy with a baby face and he had an angsty vibe about him.
He had a single helmet, worn and scratched. It was strapped to the top of his fuel tank. The helmets inner lining was tattered and reeking of accumulated sweat and dust. Tambo decided to give it a pass.
Tambo asked Gor why he was not putting on the helmet and he replied,
“It gets too hot”.
Tambo asked in genuine puzzlement why Gor wanted to leave his wife a widow at such a young age and he laughed like it was the funniest analogy he had ever heard that year.
They took a ride through the dusty, uneven and narrow murram tracks, ducking under overgrown bushes and onto the tarmac for the onward journey to Luanda.
People were busy on their shambas preparing the fields for the long rains. Little children in oversized uniforms and flat brightly coloured backpacks remained distracted by things on their way to school. They rode past a series of charcoal dealers pushing their loaded bicycles uphill and men driving stubborn cows to the marketplace.
The blind-boda boda driver, who was a pastor had a name.
Luanda had morphed into a thriving market centre with storeyed buildings and street lighting. The one big difference for Tambo was the number of boda-boda taxis in operation. There were all over, rows upon rows of them. Young men patched on small bikes, holding court, their eyes darting, ever alert for passengers. They were a new commuter tribe who now commanded the roads.
Tambo profiled a few and picked out two guys who looked too cool for school. They had a sense of “street” about them. One of them wore white pants with many zippers, bright red high tops and a rugged black leather jacket. The other guy had jeans, black army boots that were only laced half way with a sleeveless reflector jacket that had the word “CREW” pasted on the back. They both had a single headphone sticking out of their ears. Tambo switched on his street Sheng, leading with a fist bump,
“Niaje, Niaje, Biker boys!”
The compliment brightened them up and they bumped fists, talked about their bikes and their swag to more fist thumping in appreciation.
Then he asked, “Do you guys know where I can find this blind biker”.
The high top guy replied without hesitation,
“Oh! Harrison, we know him”.
The response caught Tambo by surprise. The blind boda-boda driver, who was a pastor had a name. It was Harrison.
“Is he really blind?”
“Kabisa, blind kabisa” said the second man.
“Where can I find him? I really want to see him in person.”
The two young men asked around and no one had seen Harrison that morning. Then someone suggested his mother.
“Ask for Mama Pastor”.
Harrison’s mother sold medicinal herbs in the market, less than 50 metres away. Tambo thanked them and left them some pocket change for ‘soda’.
Tambo asked Gor to hang loose as he explored the market in search of Mama Pastor. Tambo loved the vibrancy of the open air markets. It was a treasure trove of stories waiting to be told. He snaked through the different sections, marveling at the fresh produce, trying to remember the last time he had been an open-air market without a mike in his hands and camera crew in tow.
A woman selling cassavas pointed out Mama Pastor, a short woman in stature with a stout and compact body. She had on a white head scarf and a blue patterned dress that was old but clean and simple white rubber shoes. She greeted Tambo with a happy face as she sat on the bare earth with her legs and back straight, sunning her wares, an assortment of dry herbs, barks of trees, leaves and dark fluids in recycled plastic water bottles.
Tambo started with greetings, introducing himself properly, stating his village, dropping the names of his grandparents who were well-known Pioneer Anglican family in the area.
Mama Pastor knew of Tambo’s village, those early Christians, who had adopted to a Christian lifestyle and civilization in those days.
He talked to her about the herbs and their names and what they cured and asked for eye remedies with Peters in mind. Eventually, after he felt he had established sufficient rapport, he asked the question that had been burning him up. He started respectfully,
“Mama Pastor, Do you have a son who rides a boda-boda?”
“Is it true that he is blind?”
“Harrison is not blind, You are confusing him with Handerson ”
She looked at his quizzical face amused,
“Harrison and Handerson, are both my children”
“Handerson is the one who cannot see but he is a pastor and Harrison is the boda-boda rider”
“They are identical twins. I even sometimes get confused and I am their mother”.
As soon as she said that, Tambo heard the sound of an approaching motorcycle and turned around to meet the sight of the two brothers’ riding towards his direction. They looked exactly the same, identical build, complexion and they both donned dark glasses.
Harrison was riding the motorcycle and Anderson was seated behind him, with the calm demeanour of a Zen monk, a silver cane balancing on his thighs.