My village, Thanda Maria, used to be a place loved dearly by chronic poverty. When I was growing up, poverty was our area of core competency. Out here, having dry pockets was like a competitive sport with various homesteads trying to outdo each other regularly on how poor a household could get without the government stepping in and breaking it up for insolvency.
We had this unhealthy relationship with money where we loved and longed for it dearly but it treated us with some sort of amused contempt. Because of this toxic relationship, we had to contend with many unpleasant things.
One of those things was poor all-round nutrition. Calories were hard to come by. Gùtùníhia njuírí among children was not rare. This was an overall reddening of hair due to perennial hunger. Not only did we read about diseases of the embarrassing variety caused by hunger at school, some of us had them. We had living tutorials and teaching aids walking amongst us.
We also had very limited access to shoes. This exposed us to yet another common hazard; being chewed by a certain burrowing parasite called the jigger. Jiggers were more commonly referred to as ndutu in our thicket. This was a very unpleasant affliction. Ndutu had very little respect for poor people. The poorer you were, the more keenly and thoroughly they chewed your limbs.
If you were elite-level broke, ndutu would make a shining example out of you; you would walk funny and your feet would be as wet as a desert oasis.
I remember that in primary school, you would find a Ninja with skin as dry as January but with feet as moist as fire hydrants. I never understood the correlation between ndutu and sweaty feet. If the ndutu were feeling particularly adventurous, they would also invade your fingers and make a home out of them. So, on top of being hungry, you would spend a significant part of your day scratching the serious itches arising from your infestation. The more detailed the infestation, the more enhanced the scratching.
We also didn’t have much in terms of clothes. Most of us had to contend with the one handed-down issue of school uniform; one standard-issue of worn-out home clothes; and one sacred set of Sunday-best church clothes. Shoes were, and I cannot stress this enough, optional.
This lack of clothes meant that one would spend many days wearing the same thing like my good friend, Mùirùrí. He is more popularly known by the name Katman; which is short for Kathmandu. He once wore one T-shirt with Nepal’s capital Kathmandu written boldly on the front for such a sustained length of time that he became synonymous with it. That T-shirt never left his torso, hence the name Katman. For hungry, borderline functionally illiterate people to remember such a long, foreign name and associate it with you, took a lot of effort. He is known as Katman to this day.
There were a few landmarks in Thanda Maria. One of those landmarks was the eponymous St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The other was a Harambee college known as The Mùrang’a College of Technology. We used to call it korínji.
A decree was issued a few years ago that turned this little known college into a constituent college of the Jomo Kenyatta University of Technology. It would later be elevated into a fully-fledged university; The Mùrang’a University of Technology. With it came many things. It brought thousands of government-sponsored students to the sleepy village of Thanda Maria. Our roads got tarmacked, we got street lights and relative prosperity came with it. Most importantly, high demand for hostels meant that land prices shot up stratospherically.
Literally out of nowhere, Thanda Maria became prime real estate. This would become both our blessing and our curse.
People who had resigned themselves to a lifetime of premium poverty started selling their ancestral land and became overnight tycoons. One of those people was my friend Jambe, and this is his story.
Jambe is a few years older than I am. Back in primary school, Jambe and his siblings were known for being very light-skinned. His beautiful elder sister, Njoki, was the object of a village’s collective thirst. Jambe had a younger brother who was equally light-skinned and dashing. As such dashing young men, they had this stylish walk. The kind of bouncing gait that you would expect from self-respecting, good-looking and light-skinned Ninjas in the village. Biting poverty not-withstanding, they walked like Ninjas of means.
Somewhere along life though, Jambe developed a very dry throat that required constant hydration with suspect liquids of the intoxicating variety.
Jambe’s throat is among the driest in the village and he is one of the most feared drinkers of alcohol here. Unlike the Hungry Tiger, who is the third or fourth most competent user of alcohol in Thanda Maria depending on who you ask, there is no consensus on Jambe. But he is by all accounts a top 10 talent, though where exactly he lies on the hierarchy might be a subject of intense debate.
Due to these fluids of the intoxicating variety, Jambe is no longer light skinned nor good looking by any standard or stretch of imagination, but he still walks that premium walk. He still walks like a Ninja that controls a Wall Street hedge fund.
Of particular interest, however, is a medical condition that he suffers from called Gathitima. Directly translated, it more or less means a small electric shock. Gathitima is a form of neurological disorder whereby one suffers from temporary paralysis of the entire body. It lasts anywhere from 5 minutes to as long as 20 minutes. It looks like some sort of epileptic fit and one usually wets himself in the process. It is caused by sustained and excessive use of alcohol over a long period of time.
Those afflicted by this condition shake vigorously when sober and usually require to ‘remove lock’ with a drink in the morning to regain motor function. This first lock extraction drink usually requires an assistant to aid in its consumption. The job of the assistant is to hold the glass or feed it to you as the unregulated shaking effectively means one cannot hold a glass containing the valuable fluid. If the assistant also suffers from the same affliction; then the person serving you will place the glass on the table and put a drinking straw in it.
The shaking often stops by the second glass. By the third or fourth glass and upon lighting a cigarette, Gathitima usually sets in like clockwork and one becomes totally immobile for a while until it wears off. I have been informed by people that know very many things that this medical condition is called delirium tremems. In Thanda Maria, a few Ninjas have it and it scares no one.
A while back, a parcel of land belonging to Jambe’s late father was subdivided. Jambe received two, one-eighth parcels. On his elder sister’s advice, one parcel was sold for a sum of 3 million Kenya shillings. Half of that money was used to develop about five bedsitters to be rented out to students on the remaining parcel. The other half was placed in a bank account to be used at Jambe’s pleasure. Jambe had never held more than 5 thousand shillings in cash at a go and now out of nowhere, he was expected to know how to spend one and a half million shillings. This was such a heavy responsibility and he nearly lost his grip on reality.
At the time of his windfall, he could usually be seen wearing a dirty, red and yellow Jubilee campaign T-shirt that had seen better days; old grey trousers that were Mùrang’a High School standard-issue uniform which out here is known as pata mbolea; and worn-out black Chinese rubber shoes handed out by the first lady in a jigger eradication campaign. The rubber shoes were more popularly known in the village as macina ndutu; literally the incinerator of Jiggers. He was seen in this signature outfit for the duration of his windfall. He became so preoccupied with attending to the demands of his dry tonsils that he rarely bothered to change clothes.
Wealthy men like Jambe didn’t bother with hygiene and fashion; not when there was money in the bank and a notoriously arid larynx to soothe.
For someone who had been dirt poor for such a long time, he quickly became a very conceited rich man that did not suffer poor people well. So he shifted his base of operations from home to a rumu in a lodging facility called Grand Savannah within the town of Mùrang’a. This was to ward off a group of unpleasant people known collectively as thùmbùra, or Sumbuas. This group of people tended to interfere with a rich man’s enjoyment of fine things.
If you had any business with Jambe, you would be invited there; though you needed to call him first to book an appointment. You see, he was constantly preoccupied with attending to demands of the flesh with persons of the fairer sex. For a man of such considerable wealth, he had such low standards when it came to women. The standards were set so low that any person with female reproductive organs and a charitable heart made the cut. This effectively means that he picked some real gems. Many of the girls he picked had no teeth while others carried remarkable scars from hard living.
At some point, his activities, his general denegeneracy and all-round low hygiene standards led to him being asked by management to vacate the room and set up shop elsewhere.
Because of this unfortunate turn of events, he started entertaining his guests at his home. He had this peculiar habit of withdrawing a hundred thousand at a time from the bank and he would walk around with the wand until he exhausted it.
One day, he walked into his bank in Mùrang’a town and he was informed by the teller upon enquiry that he was down to his last 250 thousand bob. He made an impromptu decision to withdraw it all. Afterwards, he made his way into a watering hole in the nearby Mùkùyù market where he picked two girls. As always, he picked real winners; girls with no meat on the bone, with low morals and a serious drinking problem. He procured 4, 250ml bottles of Kenya Cane spirit and a packet of Pallmall cigarettes. After a while, they boarded a bodaboda to Jambe’s house.
Once there, they each had a bottle of Kenya cane. Jambe took his in one gulp as he was trying to arrest his profuse shaking. Then he made a very rookie mistake for someone with a wand of cash in his pocket and a self-inflicted neurological disorder. He lit a cigarette.
This set in motion a very unpleasant chain of events for him. Things unfolded thick and fast. Like clockwork, Gathitima set in in all its glory. He slid from his chair and started convulsing on the verandah floor. The girls knew exactly what was happening. They got inside his pockets and relieved him of the 250 thousand bob. They hailed a bodaboda that was passing by. Jambe could see all this but could do nothing because the muscular paralysis effectively meant he couldn’t move or speak for a while. They rode off, never to be seen again.
By the time Jambe regained motor functions, he had lost his mind. He headed straight to his mother’s granary and rummaged through junk until he found a rope. He headed straight to a nearby avocado tree and made a nice noose on the rope and did the necessary attachments to the tree.
One of his brothers, who was nearby, saw him go up the tree and slide the rope on his neck. He raised alarm and within minutes they were able to cut a dangling Jambe down from the tree before he could succumb to asphyxiation.
A while later as I was seated outside my mother’s hotel, I saw Jambe being escorted on the road by a group of people. He was bound in ropes and they were on their way to the Mùrang’a general hospital’s psychiatric facility. He would be a guest there for two or so weeks. After he had set aside his suicidal ideas, he was reintegrated back to society and he continues to attend to the demands of his tonsils to this day, though nowhere near as prolifically as he did in his high roller days.
Out here in the rough streets of Thanda Maria, people care about nothing, not even life; so Jambe was ridicuculed for days for his all-round poor life choices and making such a poor attempt at hanging himself. Life out here is not for the faint of heart.