A river, and a slum.

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“It doesn’t matter where we are coming from. All that matters is where we are headed.’’

A few days ago, having no projects to run in particular, I find myself slithering into a Neo Kenya minibus at By-pass. Moments later, I alight near Mathare Mental Hospital, something which I had not planned at all. I gaze at people as they gush by speedily, perhaps headed to town, to Pangani, to Ngara, and to everywhere else. Five minutes pass and I’m still standing at the s9ame spot; unsure of where to head next. It’s then that the word ‘Mathare’ waggles in my head, reminding me how long I’ve been longing to visit this slum.

Now that I’ve got a place to go, I tuck headphone buds into my ears before I pace on, headed for Mathare. I’m not sure what I’m going to do there, but the urge is so strong I can hardly ignore it. I trudge on.

It’s a cold Tuesday morning and from a distance, I’m already noticing the boisterous bee hive activities that are typical to slums, where inhabitants move about freely in whichever directions, as children wails and deafening giggles permeate the atmosphere. I decide to pull out the buds so I can concentrate on the noise from a single source. I prefer the one from the slum because unlike that from the headphones which is fabricated by equipment to bring it to a desired marketable quality, that from the slum is natural, and bears a touch of humanity. I press on nonetheless.

At the entrance to the slum, just before I delve in deeper, my hawk-eyed scrutiny picks a spectacular site that hosts a string of short buildings, smartly lined to the far left of the street, though what captures my attention the most is an iron door that is emblazoned with a picture of men brandishing long glasses that overflow with beer. They grin heavily, too. From what I know [you must too], the door is not an entry point to heaven, nor to a church, rather, behind it rests an environment where men – hurt, unhurt, contemplating, non-contemplating, rich, broke, wise, and unwise go to take a drown.

  “Well, a bottle of beer won’t be that bad. After all it’s cold and Ronald needs to be warm,’’ I convince myself. As I shut the iron door, gently behind me, I sweep my eyes across the room and take note of the fact that though it’s small, the pub has the ambiance of a typical high-end night club you’ll often come across in the CBD, or along Kirinyaga road. There is no music playing, though, because this [ 10 AM], is not the legalized hour pubs should be open to the public. I wave at a few drinkers scattered across the tiny hall as I slowly make my way to the farthest corner where I plummet into a chair and gaze nonchalantly as the waiter – a short, dark lady in a red, tight miniskirt – approaches. She must be a mjaka, judging from the ‘load’ that joggles behind her, threatening to break the seams of her extremely short skirt that exposes the plumpest upper parts of her thighs. She picks my order and retreats to the counter.

I gobble the first bottle in a wink, fill a glass and empty its contents in three sips before I assume an upright posture to assess the magnitude of internal damages the liquor is about to inflict. It takes a millisecond to feel its scorching effect as it spread across my veins, numbing them temporarily before it eventually camps in my brain.

A group of men are arguing nearby; a constructive argument that won’t take a physical turn like most pub arguments do. From evaluating how they talk, their dressing code, and expensive brands of alcohol they are drowning, I come to a conclusion that these are men of class. Monied men who would say things like ‘my educated friend’ and ‘deal or no deal’ and ‘fuck off!’ in case of a deal gone wrong. But why drink in a slum pub? Why not in places like Kasarani Mwiki or Kahawa Wendani? Both happen to be the best drinking places I’ve come across so far.

Whatever their reason is, in the end, I’m convinced that we all share a character that can only be unearthed from bottles. A lonesome character that eventually leads to a strange place called self-identity. Doesn’t everyone have their dark sides? Of course, they do, and alcohol should not be the only scale by which a man’s failures are gauged. They could be stemming from something else; or a combination of both.

                                   *   *  *  *

The only reason I keep tracing my footsteps back to Mathare every now and then is because I was raised there.

As little kids, we would swim in the dirty murky river which as I sat at the pub on that Tuesday morning, discovered for the first time that the river is outwardly, what the slum is inwardly. The filthiness, the social immorality, the hopelessness and the everything else the slum bears are better represented by a mass of garbage, dissolved substances, and human waste that the green, smelly water drags along its channel. One is a metaphor of the other. I shrug at the idea and take a sip.

By the time I’m done with the three bottles of Tusker, it’s almost 13 PM and man! -Oh-man! – the emptiness in my belly is shouting like hell; demanding a refill. At this point my head is wobbly, but I’m, to some extent, extra conscious of where I am, what I’m up to and where I should be headed. I stagger a bit but unlike most drinkers, I’m keen not to have my knees give in, thus sending me to the ground with a hard slump. If I have to collapse because I’m drunk, then, it has to be in my house, on my bed, and not in the streets of Mathare where nothing good comes or goes.

As I heave myself across a small, swingy, wooden bridge to the other side of the slum, the language suddenly changes from Swahili to Luganda. There must be so many Ugandans living here, just as we’ve got an entire population of Nigerian men happily, or unhappily living in Lucky summer. It is here that I creep into a small tin walled hotel and comfort myself on a splintered, decolorized wooden bench. The menu is read to me by a bearded man in a half-buttoned shirt. The only reason we are able to have a chat and understand each other, at least, is because my mother is of Ugandan origin and her Masaba blood that flows in me as always come in handy whenever I meet up with people from that side.

As the man slowly climbs down the menu with his shaky voice, with no food combination he has already mentioned appearing to be appealing to me so far, I’m about to signal him to stop when he suddenly mentions Kamatore [banana], baked in banana leaves and ground into a paste, alongside stew, that is primarily a mixture of fried groundnuts [ground], and Kamalea. Mama used to make such a meal when we were young and so, naturally, it undoubtedly turns out to be the only exceptional meal I’m willing to have for lunch.

After the meal, I decide to comb through the slum, which I discover has changed so much that I can barely remember streets A or B, either by their looks or names. And while quite a good number of such old streets still exist, a vast majority of them have vanished into oblivion. They have, as I come to conclude, either been filled in by something else; mostly a fleet of shacks, completely demolished, or I just can’t remember where exactly they used to be, or are. I wish I could talk about the people who live in Mathare but haven’t I tired you up already?


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