It’s a Saturday. My last school day this year. I meet an Uber driver who reminds me of Pontius Pilate. You might be wondering where I saw Pontius Pilate. There is this Bible Stories book I used to have in lower primary school that portrayed a very grim picture of Pilate. He had a rugged face and long beards that were a thousand leagues ahead of what Osama Bin Laden had. Back in those days, CRE was a gem to me. I had an interesting fascination with the characters in those Bible stories. I had Joseph’s story at my fingertips. I knew who Bartholomew’s father was. Need I mention that I once featured the role of the doubting Thomas in a play organized by our class master during our final term of class three. I did awful in my part but the play turned out well anyway.
So Geoffrey (the Uber driver) picks me at UoN Halls of Residence Parklands. I want to ask him if he is Pilate’s brother but passes on that thought. He acts like a typical Uber driver. We exchange pleasantries then ask each other ‘How we are doing’. He looks older than his picture on the app. He seems to be in his late 50s or early 60s. There are many taxis drivers in their 50s but not Uber drivers. Uber is tech. Tech is a nightmare to most old people. My father can testify on this. Not Geoffrey though. He is on the right side of history. He is one of the few who can tell you what the word ‘ping’ means and explain to you why Microsoft recalled Windows 8.1 a few years ago. (Are there people here who still use the obsolete Windows 8.1?)
As we ease our way out of school, he asks me if he can grab a smoke for a few minutes while driving. I had my doubts but now I know he isn’t related to Pontius Pilate. My instant response is NO. Cigarette smells are not the best things to start your day with especially if you are a non-smoker. Plus they give me breathing problems.
An uneasy silence lingers between us for the next thirty minutes as we enter Waiyaki way. I don’t usually get into conversations with Uber drivers but today I feel like having a chat. Even small talk. I want to ask things like ‘why do lions not eat cabbages?’ but I figure that Geoffrey is old enough to be my father. So I think of something else. Here is how the conversation starts after the thirty minute silence. I ask him the most uneasy question you could ask an addict (some parts of this conversation is in Kiswahili):
“How long have you been smoking?”
“Twenty years” comes the reply.
“That’s a very long time.”
“Why did you start?” I inject knowing he has every right not to continue engaging me any further.
“Long story” He retorts.
“Well. We have a long journey ahead of us too. And I can be a good listener.”
A phone call from his wife interrupts the conversation. I mutter a slow curse because the conversation could take any dimension after the call and I wouldn’t want that. It’s three minutes past eleven in the morning. His wife’s voice can be heard clearly from the other end. She seems to be in a bad mood. I can tell from the fast motion at which her voice echoes. Geoffrey tells her he’s sorry and that he will be home by noon so that they can talk the matter out. She seems to be taking none of those. She’s infuriated but doesn’t seem to be ready to listen to the man. Twenty minutes into the call and after a lot of convincing and assurances and apologies she cools down and they agree meet in the house at noon. They stay in Westlands. Geoffrey tells me after he hangs up.
“Ndoa ni shida” He laments. Not particularly to me. I bet he is at a stage in his life where he talks to himself a lot.
“How long have you been married?” I ask.
His response makes me wonder whether the conflicts that engulf marriages ever come to an end. Do people ever reach a state of pure bliss without fights? They’ve been married for twenty years yet they still have petty fights. Geoffrey says his wife is always right.
“Do you still love her?”
“With all my heart” he admits.
“And does she love you?” I ask.
“With all her heart”
“Then in that case there is nothing to worry about. You guys will be fine. Besides you’ve been together for twenty years. That’s like the total number of years I have been alive.” He chuckles when I say that.
“Why is she mad at you?” I prod him about the call. I am curious as to the things they fight about.
He pauses for a while. I assume that he is disinterested in that talk so I look outside the window. People walk hurriedly on each of the sides of Langata Road. Life is moving fast as it does everywhere in Nairobi. Or maybe life is slow but it’s just the people who seem to be hurrying too much. People are on the move constantly. There’s no telling what the rush is for. As a person from a city where life is slow and calm and quiet, it took me a while readjusting. But I’m good now. I have come to terms with the situation on the ground
I am about to drift to sleep when he starts talking. I can’t tell whether his statements are directed to me or he is doing a speech to himself in his own space where nobody can touch him. I look at him. He cuts a lonely figure with his sad face. With his hands on the steering wheel, he is blankly staring at the trees in Uhuru Park through his side window with a faraway look that could attract pity from even the most unsympathetic and scornful human being. If I was a smoker this could have been the perfect time to silently light up a cigar and pass to him. Perhaps that could have made him feel at ease and forget his stresses. Sometimes all a person needs is someone share a smoke with on a rough Saturday morning.
But I am no smoker, so the next best thing I can do is to tell encourage him to talk to me. Because talking helps as the old saying goes. Is it even a saying? Whatever it is. I ask him questions, nod my head and tell him that when he wakes up tomorrow morning everything will be fine.
The fight with his wife started the previous night when he had a lady customer from the University of Nairobi Main Campus at around midnight. The lady was drunk so that trip took longer than usual because she had put in the wrong destination on her end of the app. He was supposed to be at home by latest 11.30 pm but failed. His wife couldn’t hear any of that. To her, he had skipped dinner and got home late. That was inexcusable. Remember women are always right.
Curiously, I ask if that is the whole reason he was in the trouble awaiting him home. His answer is a no. But he dismissed them as ‘no big deals’. He says that most of the things causing friction were mistakes he had made in the past which were coming back to haunt him all over again whenever any argument arose. He seems not to like talking about his problems so he starts talking about his kids.
He has a daughter. The first born. She studies in one of the local universities in Nairobi. He has a picture of her in the car which he says never leaves his side. She is currently 22 but the picture looks ten years old. It’s a bright picture of a young girl smiling broadly with her little tiny hands raised up in the sky.
“Do you have other kids?”
“Yes. Of course I do. I am an old man”. He replies. It’s only in Kenya where old age is equated to having many kinds.
“Why don’t you have pictures of the others in your car?”
Another pause from him. A longer one this time round. He only starts talking again when we pass the Army Barracks in Langata. This time round he is going big with his revelations and I am left helpless on what to say. Has someone ever told you something so harrowing or sad about his life to the extent that you feel no reply is warranted for it could never suffice the pain he has been through? I found myself in that spot. I try to say something but I can’t. So I keep listening.
He recalls his happy wedding in 1999 with a faint smile. He has nostalgia. The early marriage life was smoother than smoothies. There was no honeymoon but that didn’t matter. Who needs a honeymoon when you are married to an angel? Two years into the marriage they got their first baby. A lovely little girl who came into this world smiling. She literally smiled at birth when all other kids cried. It seemed life outside the womb was a joke to her. Let’s call this girl Natasha. She came into the world when her parents were at their financial peak. They stayed in Rongai at the time. Geoffrey had so many businesses and shops around. People called him “Joff wa Maduka”.
He was in nearly all the ‘chamas’ around . If there was a program or a bulletin on ‘Who owns Rongai?’ at the time, he says he could have effortlessly made it top of the list. Back in those days, Rongai was not the mini-urban center that it is these days. There was no Chicken Inn or Creamy Inn. Aside from the handful of shops and businesses, a majority of which Geoffrey owned, the only thing that existed in abundance was dust. Of course there were numerous donkeys. What is Rongai without donkeys?
A second born came two years later. Then a third born. And finally the last born. Things were going well until one time Natasha started complaining of headaches. Kenyans have this bad habit of going for over the counter drugs when thronged with such small illnesses and discomforts. Geoffrey and the wife got caught up in the flow. They ignored all the signs and red flags till their daughter’s headaches increased in intensity. She had lymphoma. That’s what the doctor said when they finally decided to book an appointment.
“I remember thinking to myself that this might just a slight little problem that affects young children”. He reflects as we leave Langata Road and enter Magadi Road.
How wrong he was. His heart shattered into little pieces when the doctor explained that lymphoma is a certain type of cancer which affects the lymphocytes. None of those terms registered in his mind after the doctor mentioned the word cancer. His wife cried uncontrollably. Little Natasha was just there wondering what the doctor could have said as to crash her parents like that. A surgery had to be done within two weeks because the cancer was spreading fast.
He says that how he got through those two weeks only God knows. A day prior to the hospital visit he had gone to Kitusuru to inspect some land he wanted to buy. He couldn’t have imagined the situation he found himself in at that moment. He couldn’t have imagined that he would need to raise 3.5 million for his daughter’s surgery within a period of two weeks. How things changed within those days left him a very frustrated and depressed man. He questioned everything. But he had to be firm because his whole family looked up to him for leadership and direction.
He fundraised twice but couldn’t even raise a million. He recalls how the last of the two fundraisers was attended by less than ten people. His best friends were there. None of the family members showed up. Then he decided to start selling his stuff. He had a conversation with his wife and they both agreed that there was no point in having those enterprises yet the daughter was dying each passing day. It is only by God’s grace that they managed to raise the money two days passed the required time. What followed was worse and hectic than the fundraising but they conquered it all in the end. They went to India for the surgery. When you stay in India for a while you are bound to learn a few Hindu words. And so they did. They stayed in there for three months not knowing how their other kids were doing back at home in the hands of the friends they left them with.
He started smoking and drinking during that period. At first, it was a way of letting out all the stress then it became frequent. His wife scolded him about it. Over time he stopped the alcohol. He is still trying to stop the smoking to date.
He tells me that Natasha is free of any form of cancer today and is one of the most studious students in her class. Their lives have however shifted so much since those days. They sold all the little remaining things they had in Rongai and moved to Westlands. They live in a smaller house compared to the one they had. They have somehow adjusted to a new life altogether. The wife is loving and supportive. They have fights occasionally but he says they are just little ones about coming home late or missing lunch and such stuff.
I sit still in silence. There’s no formula to responding to the things he just said. I doze off a little. I am woken up by the voice on Google Maps app telling me that “I have reached my destination”.
Once I load off my stuff I tell him that my knowledge of life is nothing compared to his but still urge him to stop being sad. The past is the past.
“God will make a masterpiece of you Geoffrey” I say, feeling like Jay Shetty or like some fat Japanese motivational speaker.
“Happy holidays” That’s all he can say.
“God makes masterpieces” I repeat to him. He reverses and speeds off with a faint smile. Probably onto the next customer. Or he’s probably headed home. Or not. I’ll never know.