By Alex Ikawah
The waitress at Highlands Cafe brought him his tea and paused to wipe a stain from the table. She was just pretending. They had been gathered near the kitchen talking about him since he entered. The place was full of the city’s almost-comfortable from all stripes of life but for some reason, he looked familiar. His face had been on television they were sure, but for what? Was he a musician, or was he one of the wanted criminals the government had offered a bounty for? Perhaps both?
There was a brown paper bag on the table and from the slightly open mouth of it, she could see two notebooks. One of them new with a black cover, the other, so worn it was missing its cover completely. He was wearing a colourful scarf and from the edge of his hat were visible the tips of his dreadlocks. His face was handsome and he smiled at her as she gazed. She blushed and returned hurriedly to her friends, clutching her tray to her side with practiced ease. Her friends were already giggling. A floor manager began to walk over to where they stood and they quickly dispersed. The restaurant bustled with conversation and activity and outside, the city did too.
The man wrote hurriedly in the pages of the new notebook, pausing to look up whenever a waitress passed nearby. He moved the envelope cautiously to his lap and smiled at her again, taking the chance to read her tag. Nereah. He lowered his head and proceeded with his writing.
The new man at the table opened his newspaper and started to read. The other man lifted his eyes to read the headline. ‘SIX MORE RADICALS ARRESTED’ it said. In the photo below it, a screaming Eric Wainaina lifted into the air by the seats of his pants. He had performed his own interpretation of the national anthem with a new stanza calling for the upholding of human rights by security forces. His performance had been interrupted by tear gas and the National Theatre had been closed indefinitely. A part of the building had caught fire in the melee. A second photo shows the compound, lonely, the main building’s facade charred with smoke.
The government had been raiding people’s homes and arresting lecturers, writers, doctors and teachers, some singers, even pastors from the youth church in Kileleshwa. They were accused of having formed an illegal movement comprised of the most radical figures of the different labour unions in the country and well known activists. The arrests began when they tried to register a political party in Nairobi. The New Africa Pioneers. The party had been immediately banned and warrants for their arrests issued.
The police had been brutal. Boniface Mwangi was dragged out of his house and beaten in the streets before being thrown in the back of a landrover. Luckily, his family had been away. Okiya Omtatah was filmed fighting like a cat on Kimathi Street after an interview at NTV. He bit an OCS on the shoulder. He appeared in court the next week with his jaw in a sling. Ory Okolloh was arrested at Westgate by a contingent of GSU. The vendors and shopkeepers screamed with terror when they saw the police. They spilled her shopping, destroyed the cart, and tore her blouse. She appeared in court with bruises.
The government had accused them all of treason. It submitted that it had found proof that the new party was being funded by a foreign government. But the arrests were not met with silence by the public. For every arrest, there had been protests on the streets. Now Wainaina had been arrested. He was at the peak of his popularity following his return to music. The protests this time would be huge. The second man folded the paper and sat back in his chair sipping his tea.
Now a woman walked into the crowded café and looked around before heading to join the new man at the table. She was wearing knee high boots that had a metal clasp at the front. It made a clacking sound as she walked. She sat down in the seat next to the first man.
“Wa, it is hot and crowded out there. What is going on?”
The man tapped his fingers on the folded paper as he talked.
“Everyone is worried that there will be a state of emergency. They are doing crisis shopping to stock for a possible period of not being able to move around. Food prices have shot up like crazy.”
“Yes, I tried to buy wheat flour yesterday. Five hundred for a kilo.”
“It is already up to seven fifty, most supermarkets are out of stock. Everyone is hoarding supplies. I hope you have sorted yourself. Better safe than sorry.”
“I have my few things… but I don’t intend to be in the city if anything like that happens. I’ll take the first bus to Othaya.”
“Start keeping a small bag packed just in case. Hawa maradicals wameleta maneno sasa.”
She shifted in her seat and bumped into the first man and he looked at her, smiling. She took in the scarf, the cap,the dreadlocks, and smiled back nervously. He moved his brown paper bag to the other side, away from her and continued with his writing.
“But is it true that they want to topple the government?”
“No I don’t think so. I think hii ni siasa chafu tunawitness. The truth is that after years of agitating for a pay rise that never came, the teachers and doctors organisations started a secret fund to create a political party and they were joined by similar thinking people from other professions. They have all been contributing their pay to the movement from 2017, but the government just recently discovered the plan. So they hurried to register a party. The government blocked them. Professionals swore to down their tools if the party was not allowed to register and they have now been joined by the opposition in a court case against the governmentThat is why the police have banned all protests and issued warnings to the public. They were trying to register a party. Walikuwa wanataka kuingia kwa siasa in a legitimate way. Me I think the question should be, mbona hawakuresign wote kwa makazi zao za serikali, ndio waregister hiyo party? That was their mistake. Now the government will use that kuwapersecute because they would have been a big threat in the election.”
“Na kwa nini walijiinvolve na opposition?”
“It is the opposition trying to involve itself with them ndio wapate hizo kura za proffessionals. That is the opposition game. Otherwise the opposition never stood up for their rights before that. I am not happy with the way the government is behaving I must say.”
The woman looks around furtively at that and turns to him, speaking in a lower tone that before.
“Be careful Muriuki, you never know who might be listening to you.”
Muriuki suddenly notices that she is right and looks around too. In particular, he looks at the man from before who also lifts his eyes to look at him. They hold each other’s gaze for a moment. Then the man closes his notebook and sits forward.
“I agree,” he says. “I am curious though. If either of you had possession of some facts that would tip the balance in favour of either side. If for example, you could help the new party get registered; would you do anything to help?”
The second man is taken aback. He frowns. He looks the other man up and down, taking in his face, his hair, his clothes. He makes a decision.
“No. I wouldn’t do anything of the sort. I am a happy beneficiary of the current government. Why would I endanger my life to help anyone else with theirs? Wacha every man be for himself. I don’t support the way they are being beaten hapo barabarani, but let them not enter politics if they are not prepared.”
The man turns to the woman.
“And what about you?”
She looks for a long time at a spot on the table before she answers. There seems to be a silence that falls over the place and though the customers do not notice it, the waitresses do. Nerea, standing close to the door waiting for new customers to walk in notices it and peers outside curiously. The two men wait for the woman’s answer, their eyes upon her face. She speaks firmly when she does.
“I would do anything I could, without endangering my life, to help the new party. I would definitely help.”
“Eh, Shiro. Now you are the one being radical. How can you say that? You have been listening to opposition propaganda. You cannot blame the government for your case which might have been just an isolated case where something went wrong and say that you will help people you don’t know. What sort of government can be run by teachers? Doctors? Activists?”
The restaurant was eerily quiet, everyone was for some reason, staring at the door where Nerea was talking to someone outside. There seemed to be no traffic moving along the busy street and no pedestrians. Just Nerea speaking to someone outside, and trembling like a leaf. The second man turned to look at Nerea, like everyone else and the first man leaned towards the woman.
“Could you please hold this notebook for me, I would like to use the toilet.”
She took the notebook and watched him gather the brown paper bag and head for the toilet at the back. She idly wondered why he hadn’t taken the notebook as well but now she was curious about the silence too, and the waitress at the door. She moved her chair, and suddenly the lights went out.
Nerea screamed and threw herself backwards, scrambling under a table as a dark shadow leapt into the café followed by three more. Their eyes and hats were bright red in the late afternoon light that streamed in through the small door and their silhouettes were spiky with guns and knives and combat gear. One of them aimed a burst of rifle fire into the ceiling above the restaurant causing concrete chips and sparks to fly everywhere. Pandemonium broke loose. There was frenzied screaming and running as everyone scrambled to move away from the door and shield themselves behind some obstacle.
“Everybody down” he ordered, firing another burst above his head. This time a fluorescent light popped and rained shards of glass everywhere.
“Nobody move!! Police!!”
“Down, down, down!” And then there was the sound of boots kicking human flesh as the three men made their way into the restaurant. More poured in behind them. They went from man to man roughly pulling them up and asking for identity cards and any delay or protest was met with beatings and kicks. They showed them a picture of the first man printed on a piece of paper.
“Where is this man? Where is he? We know he is here.”
The second man had pressed himself into a corner where three more people had piled, each one more terrified than the person beside him. The police descended on them with blows and pulled them apart.
“ID!! Have you seen this man?”
“Toilet!” he screamed as he was beaten with a baton again and again. “He is in the toilet.”
There was a rush of boots towards the toilet. The man beating him threw him to the floor, stepped on his wrist with his heavy boot, and began to rifle through his pockets. He felt his wallet go… he felt it put back in a few moments later. It was smaller.
From somewhere came the shouts of a man, “Toka nje!! Toka nje motherfucker.”
Then there were the sounds of boots against flesh, and terrible sickening screams of pain. He cried out as the policeman’s foot shifted on his hand.
“Shut up!! Who is that?” shouted a different policeman.
The man robbing him rapped his head with his knuckles to remind him who was in charge and then moved to the next man. The room was full of these sounds of robbery. The woman was lying under a table crying silently. A cup of tea must have spilled on the table, it was dripping near her face. A man grabbed her purse where it lay near the notebook and turned it upside down. He took money, bank cards, a fountain pen. Then he put everything else back in, except her lipstick which he crushed with his boot.
They were dragging the man out through the restaurant now. He was naked, save for his underwear. His smooth dark skin was marked with the imprints of dusty boots and he was bleeding from the nose and mouth. She lifted her head to look at him. He looked at her and almost imperceptibly he smiled, and then he was gone.
The customers poured outside the restaurant in a daze. The police had just removed their barriers and traffic was flowing again. Pedestrians stared at them and gave them a wide berth. She could hear the sirens of the police vans receding as they drove away. There was hubbub as a crowd began to gather. Everyone was asking them questions, taking pictures with their mobile phones. She begun to walk away.
It was Muriuki, limping towards her.
“Please, wamekuacha na hata pesa kidogo unisaidie, they took all my money.”
His lip was swollen. One eye was closing. His wrist was bent at an unnatural angle. There was two hundred shillings in her bra. She gave him one hundred and he began to cry.
“No, thank your government.”
It had been like this for a month, raids and beatings in people’s homes. Anyone who had tweeted a little too bravely, blogged too often, spoken too loud. The atmosphere in the country was electric. An old phrase from the country’s past had floated to the top of the rumors with alarming frequency. State of Emergency. This is what had driven the markets into a panic. The poor, suffering the most from the price hikes, had begun to simmer. In the slums, police patrols had already started being attacked with stones and Molotov cocktails.
Muriuki turned and walked away. She was rummaging for a handkerchief from her bag, for her own tears, when her hand came up against it. The notebook. She pulled it out, her heart a solid lump in her throat. There was a line in bright red ink on the first page;
‘Please give this notebook to Nancy Wendo of NTV. Phone number; 0711668955.’
Alex Ikawah is a writer, storyteller, photographer, filmmaker and nascent musician living and working in Nairobi. He has been published in the short story anthology ‘Lets Tell This Story Properly’ and twice shortlisted for the Commonwealth short story prize, in 2013 and 2015. @filmkenya