Ajit Patel – Out of this World
Out of this world. The African dawn creeps in from under the curtain of darkness. Within a few minutes’ bold strokes of crimson, orange and yellow paint the vast canvas of the horizon. Even Vincent Van Gogh would be proud of nature’s handiwork.
Morning glory has unveiled over Mathare Valley a sprawling, poverty stricken and ramshackle shanty town on the outskirts of Nairobi, the former British colonial and present day capital of Kenya. A country cartographed using a straight rule and pencil to appease the monarchs of Saxe-Coburg and Hanover.
The year is 1964, the 29th day of St Valentine’s month.The newly independent Kenya has been free of the British’s clutches for about 70 days, JFK has departed this mortal existence 100 days pre and for the war ‘effort’ Tokyo has been rewarded with the Olympics.
Looking down into Mathare Valley the dew on the twisted, rusting roofs catching the morning light glints like millions of rhinestones, this is the nearest facsimile of affluence in these desperate and disparate habitats. The shanties are built out of anything garnered by their builders, old tin, cardboard, wood and mud. Thousands live in the 6ft by 8ft dwellings with no amenities, no electricity, no bedding nor any running water. Sanitation but a dream.
Christian Karanja Omondi is already awake in one of the shacks. His daily station in life to maintain his two life anchors, the urban as well as his rural households, the latter by shores of Lake Victoria. He juggles two of everything two wives, two shacks and two very different lives. He is a proud member of the minority Luo tribe. He hails from Kisumu, a small town sitting at the edge of Empress Vicky’s lake. The Omondi surname informs he was born at dawn. One day who knows it could be possible that a future US President’s paternal family may reside in the vicinity. Although such a notion seems far fetched.
Christian is tall and skinny, dark eyed, slightly greying and has no idea of his age. Probably born when the rains did not fall and the maize harvest failed and the ‘brave’ Italians still ruled Abyssinia. Christian being skinny indicates no extravagance of diet, poverty always makes one lean.
His Mathare des res has no windows, the door is made out of plywood, held together with rusty reused nails and old rope. A light kick would break it. But there is little risk of robbery because there is some honour among the poor. A red transistor radio sits on a make shift shelf just in front of a wind-up clock probably a stolen gift. Next to them proudly rest two pictures stuck on cardboard, frayed and yellowing, one of Lord Krishna and the other of Jesus Christ on the cross. Bathing and drinking water is pulled from the Mathare River which meanders through the valley. God help the dwellers in the rainy season as the river bed rises markedly.
Daily fare is prepared on kerosene Primus stove. Ugali a maize meal stodge is a daily breakfast the equivalent of going to work on an egg. A very small egg.
Lucky Christian has a job at the Hindu temple in the down-town Asian ghetto on Ngara Rd. A rickety black Mamba bicycle, a welcome present from a worshipper is his ticket to ride the five kilometres to work.
‘Clocking’ in would be circa 7.30 am. This morning as every other he arrives at temple, removes his shoes made of old car tyre rubber and his leather belt. No cowhide would be permitted in the inner sanctum. The belt would act as tie to secure his bicycle to a lamp post. The ceremonial bell is rung once. He prostrates before Krishna’s glorious marble colourfully dressed idol. The head priest adorns him with the tilak, the red dot on his forehead.
Lovingly he is nicknamed Krishna by the devotees, for some from the Indian subcontinent Christian was difficult to pronounce, ‘you know’. Better than being called a ‘Boy’or ‘Boyto’.
As a Christian of all trades his duties would involve cleaning, repairing, ushering and help prepare prasadam, a gracious gift of food which is a religious offering for the worshippers to consume.
Cinderella time is 4.00 pm, Christian’s daily family temple Tiffin his supper perk, is tied to the Mamba using strips of rubber made from bicycle air tubes. He embarks on his return to his ‘bijou residence’, a journey always fraught with danger. Driving licences are mandatory but nobody cares, police can be always be slipped a folded note if stopped. At zebra crossings nobody ever stops and traffic signs are regularly ignored. Local drivers invariably inebriated on the Tuskers’ beer and other illicit brews.
He cycles furiously past the City Primary School and then the Duke of Gloucester Secondary School and on towards the shopping area. At the next crossing a mud splattered truck veers sharply and scythes down Christian and another poor soul. Hurling them into the concrete billboard of the Shan Cinema and onto the stone pavement. Life is over for Christian, his skull crushed, brain matter spattered all over the place. His lifeless body covered hastily by the neighbouring Gujarati businessmen using sisal sacks. Krishna-Christian with two religions to look after him still has to be ‘out of this world’. The truck was delivering the milk of cow kindness. Milk urns rolling along the road, black tarmac dyed milk white. The mangled Mamba and Christian’s Tiffin spilling its contents of prasadam. The two blood stained bodies a horrific sight. The crowd gathered akin to those who gathered at the Roman Colosseum baying for the truck drivers ‘blood’ but they unlike true Olympian hero’s speed off on foot, the yellow cowards.
Standing by the roadside is a seven year old lanky Gujarati Indian boy, dressed in crisply ironed khaki shorts, white short sleeved cotton shirt and socks and holding in his left hand a fawn satchel securing his school essentials. His tan Italian shoes are slightly scuffed and he sports an upturned bowl haircut, The Fab Four casting their influence even then.
Strangely witnessing this carnage he was not traumatised. But every time he eats sweet chestnuts and walnuts he remembers that afternoon for their texture reminds him of the anatomy of the scattered brain matter, when the truck, the pavement and the billboard cannibalised the two men.
Christian’s body ends up at the Nairobi morgue to be examined by the coroner the following day. The coroner is an erudite Gujarati man, slightly portly, tall and fast greying Dr Jagdish Patel. A god fearing man even with a medical education still sports a red tilak on his forehead. He is a daily temple visitor. A true believer of all tenets of the Hindu faith.
The porter pulls the trolley carrying the body out of the cold room. Dr Jagdish walking towards it he feels a warm glow overcome him. The white shroud covering the body is removed. He views the aubergine shiny face, the red tilak on the forehead, the eyes showing peace and content, the lips in a slight curve of a cheeky smile, and he drops to his knees exclaiming loudly, ‘Oh My Sweet Lord Krishna’.