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“I had entered the wrong matatu”

For a whole week Kanini woke up at five, took an hour to freshen up, and went out to the front yard to wait for Angel Gabriel to visit.

I watched her one morning. She was facing the high wall and rolling electric wires that surrounded the compound. They secured what was inside and kept out what was outside. Sometimes she drew close and touched the climbing plants. She examined their leaves as they shook tenderly in the wind. She played with the rays of the sun which shot through the leaves, giggling to herself like a child.

She rarely noticed the magazeti man as he limped into the compound early each morning, making a painstaking effort to hide his uneven feet. But she liked that he always tucked Papa’s Daily Nation under his arm and the way he lowered his fake spectacles to level with his nose like the professor he’d once dreamt of becoming. When he arrived that morning from Westlands, he stretched his jacket straight, walked over and greeted her.

Instead of greeting him, she stretched her hand and touched the empty air. She rolled her hand as if gathering the rays into her open palms, mumbling.

She turned to watch Malenge’s ever-open mouth form into a smile. This afforded him the happy chance to be distracted from his gardening chores. Legend has it that his extra-large lips were attacked by little insects. His face contorted as he walked towards the newspaper man to snatch the paper from him. He never liked this magazeti man, and he liked Kanini even less. One day the inquisitive magazeti man asked Malenge why Kanini always sat there like that. Malenge merely pointed his first finger to his head, rolled it, and nodded his huge head to concentrate on the paper’s front page.

But Kanini was unconcerned with them or their world. She prayed, over and over again, gathering the rays, waiting for Angel Gabriel to answer, to show up: I am waiting Lord. Let it be done to me according to thy will.

On the first day, Angel Gabriel did not come.

Mama came out to the front yard. She stood behind her daughter, her right hand resting briefly on Kanini’s shoulder. She said nothing at first. They sat down next to each other. They might have been twins in another lifetime. Mama maintained her figure through time. Nothing in her appearance showed she was in her early fifties, with a hard earned PhD under her cap. They sat there together, chatting. Mama’s laughter rose free and untroubled into the air. Kanini laughed too, but hers were forced sounds strained by a different desire, a desire to be believed.

It was a Saturday when I first met Angel Gabriel.

Pa and Ma had gone to fight Pa’s brother over a piece of land, so they were not there to witness a miracle.

At around one on Saturday morning I awakened. Kanini was knocking so lightly, the little sound almost seeped into my dream.

I rose and dragged myself to the door. When I opened it, Kanini pushed me back in and sat on my bed, holding her finger to her lips as though someone might eavesdrop. I was drifting, my head heavy with sleep. I was used to Kanini’s late night interruptions.

Sometimes she played alone in the staircase past midnight, singing songs nursery school kids found great pleasure in. One day she complained the house was being submerged in water, and crawled on her belly out the door, swimming against the current.

Our visiting cousins carried the rumor to our people in the village. They said she had inherited Susu’s witchcraft and the whole village shifted with dread. They whispered among themselves the story of the old lady. Tobacco was always rolled somewhere on Susu’s leso and she chewed with a religious zeal. No one cared for that detail. To them black saliva was the vomit of a demon. The memories of how she sliced herself with blades and stepped on red hot charcoal and spit saliva as black and thick as coal settled into village lore.

Susu’s troubling demon was prayed for by the internationally renowned Bishop Mutangili. The bishop had come to Susu with holy water and a twig from the Mtalakwe tree. He did not say the water was from his tap, or that the twig was from the tree close to Susu’s gate. Everybody knew these miracle aids had come from the Holy Land. He had visited Israel after twelve months of weekly harambees. In the end the Lord provided. The people lost their cows and goats, having sold them to get money for the fashionable harambees, but the bishop returned with miracles.

He beat the old woman long and hard, uttering a stream of commands in the name of the Lord, and the demon screamed and wreathed. It cried, it shouted, it lamented that it would come back. The villagers said it was back, that terrible demon, and now it had chosen those in the city, beating past their financial immunity with ruthless impunity. It chose the most beautiful, rendering her a useless, witching insomniac.

Kanini is fifteen years older than me. That November, she would be celebrating her thirtieth birthday. True to rumor, she perfectly resembled her mother and grandmother before her, even in their love of the night.

“Skiza nikuambie,” Kanini seemed frantic, as though what she was about to tell me was a matter of life and death.

“It’s late Kanini,” I said, pulling her hand towards the door. “You need to go and sleep.”

“No Maundu, you have to listen to me.”

If I had learned one thing in my life, it was that the easiest way to get rid of Kanini was to give her what she wanted. Satiation bored her almost immediately. It was as though she wished to have something to need at all times, a constant hunger. If I was to go back to sleep any time soon, all I needed to do was listen to her, nod and nod and fall asleep on her lap if need be. She was my big sister by birth, and I was her big brother because I took care of her where others tired. When I told her this, she poked me on the face and called me a silly fifteen year old. I listened. I listened, drifting, dozing.

“Tomorrow,” she continued, “Mama and Papa are going to Uncle Muinde’s home. You know that, right?”

“Yeah,” I nodded, shifting my sleepy head this and that way, and said again, “Yeah.”

“Then tomorrow is the day.”

“For what Kanini?”

“I will go looking for Angel Gabriel.”

I sat up immediately, willing my mind not to accept Kanini’s childlike faith, her innocent longing. I had been a believer in angels for most of my childhood, but now my teenage confusion made them useless myths treasured only in art and literature. You grow up and you begin to sense so much lie, like the whole system of your faith is one big, twisted lie, fashionable only when applicable.

I looked at Kanini and saw the wry smile of a little lost girl who believes she is very clever. I could not understand what she was thinking.

As far as I knew, Angel Gabriel lived in heaven. In any physical sense, he was the one to seek her, and not her him.

“You can’t do that,” I told Kanini. “Angel Gabriel visits those whom he chooses, and not anybody can decide that they will go out and look for him.”

“But I met him!”

I stood up and went to the window. I wanted to go and ask Mama if it was all coming back now. How Kanini sometimes just lost it. But something was different this time. Kanini seemed to have found something to believe in, something she was convinced to the depths of her heart was true, and that she could find it. Whether or not it was there, this was something I could not steal away from her. I had to help her keep believing.

“Where did you meet Angel Gabriel?”

“I met him on the matatu in town,” Kanini whispered, looking around as though afraid someone else was listening to her big secret. “I had entered the wrong matatu.”

“And you met Angel Gabriel there?”

“Yes, like I told you I had entered the wrong matatu and I suddenly realized that it was heading in the wrong direction so I turned to the gentleman seated next to me and asked him where the matatu was headed and he told me it was going to Kibera but as he spoke I forgot what he was saying because I saw the halo all around his head and his eyes were a bright flame and his lips glowed and he had muscles that moved on their own and his blue shirt looked like a reflection of the deep vast skies and he told me, he told me, I heard it well, very well, when he told me that his name was Angel Gabriel.”

“You met a guy called Gabriel?”

“No, silly, Angel Gabriel. And then he helped me find another matatu to take me back into town.”

“And he told you that he would come visit you?”

“You don’t believe me?”

“Of course I don’t. No random man you meet on the road is an angel, and they do not come visit you with the rising of the sun, Kanini. You say you see angels descend from heaven each morning, carried in the rays of the sun but that can’t be true. You know that, don’t you?”

Kanini stood up, her face suddenly coming to life with that childish look she often wore when offended. The last thing I wanted was for her to begin crying. She was inconsolable when she did. She almost became a little child again. I took her into a hug, my big sister, and on my shoulder she quietly wept.

“I saw him; please don’t say I am crazy. I saw him and he was an angel. He is not just a man that is so good I would call him an angel, but this man was Angel Gabriel himself. He had become a man to come meet me in person.” Her weeping grew more intense. “Do you understand me?”

“Yes I do, Kanini. Yes I do,” I said, and rocked her a little more. “Come, lie on the bed and sleep.”

In a minute Kanini was sound asleep on my bed. I thought about going to sleep in her room, but I hated her room. She kept it extremely clean some days, while on other days everything was thrown in every wrong place, worse than a rat’s play place. So I took a blanket and went down to the living room where the TV was still on. Genevieve Nnaji and Ramsey Noah’s lips were locked into an awkward kiss, but soon she was up in arms, accusing him of infidelity. I switched off the TV.

Upstairs I could still hear some noises – Ma and Pa fully engaged in a quarrel during their dreams or something. It had been hard for me as a little boy, but I had grown into this family and learned to accept many things.

When I woke up there was a small note on the table. Ma and Pa had gone out to visit Uncle Muinde. Our grandfather had died, and there was that issue of the three thousand hectares of land to be sorted out. So they would be back later on in the night. Do not wait up, the note said. After supper make sure that Kanini has her medicines.

In the dining room breakfast was already set. Kanini sat at the table dressed in a smart blue dress. Her face looked like Peter Marangi had used the thicket brushes to paint purple on the eyelids, and a dark red on the lips. I should have jumped back but so many things had happened over the course of my growing up nothing shocked me anymore.

“You are up?”

“Well, yes,” Kanini said, standing. “I was up at four getting myself ready to go meet Angel Gabriel. How do I look?”

Truth be told, the dress was gorgeous, but those silly things she applied to her face could make a man run. Even an angel would pull back. My head felt fluid and heavy watching her like that. I imagined people on the streets of Nairobi tapping each other on the shoulder, pointing at her; kids screaming when she bent down to say hello. She loved children very much. Sometimes she still cuddled her teddy bear and sang it lullabies. In the streets she claimed to know the sons and daughters of strangers, and was infinitely tender when giving them sweets and ice-cream.

“You look beautiful, Kanini – the most beautiful girl in the world.”

“Do you think Angel Gabriel will love it?”

“Yes, if he comes he will be stunned.”

“No, he’s not coming. I am going out to find him.”

I grabbed a piece of ngwasi from the table, rather too quickly. I always hated sweet potatoes.

“What do you mean?”

“I will go to Kibera and find him. He said he lives in Kibera. If I go there I will see him and I will tell him that I have missed him.”

It scared me, thinking of Kanini wandering around among hundreds of thousands of desperate men, looking for some supposed Angel Gabriel. Rows and rows and rows of shanties, mothers seated outside rusted iron sheet doors with screaming babies attempting to suck from dry breasts. Hundreds and thousands of idle youth walking up and down, building castles in the air and scaring even their own neighbours. For a moment my mind became that of an important overseas reporter ‘sympathetic’ to the African condition.

“Do you have his number?”

“Number? No, Angel Gabriel does not have a number. He will know that I will be there. And he will come out and meet me. I know it. He will come out and greet me.”

I went to the bathroom and took a long piss. As a little boy Ma and Pa used to lecture me about Kanini’s condition. “Times will get hard,” they would say, “but she is our daughter and your sister. We must be there for her, you understand?” But they never were. They ran to the phone every time Kanini shone too bright or dimmed too dull. It could happen without warning, so they learned to quickly call Doctor Matayo. I had never known a different Kanini than the one who would be extremely happy one day, and sink to the depths of depression on the other.

But in all these years she had never shown a childlike faith in something like she did that morning. If anything, she seemed to think the world was against her most of the time.

I went back to the dining room but she was not there and her mug of tea was untouched. I called out to her, running to her room upstairs and to all the rooms. I couldn’t find her. I called out to the cook, but again got no response. I ran downstairs and went out to the compound where Malenge was trimming down the grass. No, he had not seen her. I went back to her room and opened her cabinets, something she had warned me never to do, and dropped inside were pills: valium, antidepressants, vitamins. She had taken none the whole week.

“Maundu!” I heard her call.

At first I could not guess with accuracy where her voice was coming from. I felt waves upon waves of relief. Only God knows what she could have done to herself now that she had not been taking her medicine.

I ran downstairs and found her in the study, looking at a Google map of Nairobi from Ma’s computer. She was giggling with excitement.

“I know where he is,” she said, coming towards me. “I know where he is. I am going there.”

“Kanini, have you been taking your medicine?”

I held her hand the way one might hold that of a small child who has erred, preferring to talk sense into them rather than punishing. Kanini stopped, gazing at me, tears beginning to well in her eyes. “I don’t want to take those little devils. I want Angel Gabriel.”

“But you have to take your medicine all the time to be okay, Kanini. You know that.”

“No. I can’t. I want to go visit Angel Gabriel. I don’t want those little devils.”

She shoved me aside, ran out of the door and locked it from outside. I was left in there calling, “I am sorry Kanini, I did not mean it. I am sorry.” But she did not come back to open the door.

I sat on the floor and looked around. In here, Ma had locked herself up for the better part of the last three years, studying day and night towards her PhD. They said she set a record for the fastest doctorate earned at the University of Nairobi. But whenever Kanini was sick she just dialed Doctor Matayo and had the man deal with her daughter. Had she grown tired? I often wondered. Why had she stopped making sure that Kanini was taking her medicine? I could not remember when the two girls had gone out together, just to spend time as mother and daughter the way they used to. Even worse, Pa left before seven in the morning and was back just in time for the primetime news during which interrupting him was sacrilegious.

Even I had my own things to do. Many times I was tempted to think there were better things for a teenager like me to do than hang out with my twenty-nine year old sister. For one, I had lost a few girls I was interested in because they could not understand Kanini. Some openly taunted me about how psychotic she was. One day I cried because I was just about to get my first kiss and Kanini showed up. Kanini made so many rough jokes about us the girl told me never to talk to her again. On days like that day the temptation not to care was intense in me, like a living, whispering little devil.

I rose up and called Kanini again, but she did not answer.

I fumbled in my pockets for my phone, but remembered I had left it on the dining table. I had no way out, locked in this tiny room full of nothing but books and a computer. Brenda Fassie’s Vulindlela was playing on the computer. Her voice rose with pure sensuousness, but I found no joy in it. I began to call out to the gardener, but he never answered. He was a half-deaf moron. Where the hell had the cook gone?

It would be what seemed like an eternity later when the door opened. The cook looked at me as though the world outside of that room had been plunged into chaos.

“Where is Kanini?” I asked her.

“Sss, ss, she, she, she went to, went to an, n, ngel.”

“What?” Sometimes her stammer made me want to slap life back into her. “What are you saying?’

“Sss, she, she, t, t, took, took, the car, car, go a, n, ng, ngel Gabriel.”

Kanini was not allowed to drive. We had a standby driver for any home emergencies, but both she and I felt public transport a better option most of the time. It was our way of escaping middle class pretensions. Pa thought it ridiculous, of course. He had never been in a matatu in his fifty-six years of Kenyan living, learning to drive the government cars at his childhood home when he was only fifteen.

Kanini was driving. The mere thought scared me. I rushed to the dining room and searched around for my phone but I could not find it. I asked the cook for hers and tried calling Kanini’s and my phone but both were mteja, that cold, matter-of-fact recorded voice telling me she could not be reached. I called Ma and explained the situation. Many such incidences had occurred and our parents had sort of resigned themselves to the possibilities. After all, Kanini always came back home safe.

“She’ll be back,” Ma said. “She’s old enough to take care of herself.”

“But Ma, she has not been taking her medicine.”

“I will call Doctor Matayo.”

And with that she hung up.

I could not figure what was best: to go to a place so vast, and somewhat so dangerous, or to just sit like a duck and wait for Kanini to come back. A few minutes later I picked up my small backpack, threw in a dose of Kanini’s medicine and took some money. I called the car tracking company and asked where she might be at the moment. At first they refused to divulge information, as the car was not stolen. I called again and again until the lady said it was parked somewhere in town and hung up.

I hated the loud music of the matatu as it sped through the forested road from Kitusuru through Westlands and to town. Those forty minutes were torture. I thought of Kanini hurting herself. I fidgeted on the seat, looking out into Spring Valley, the high-rise buildings of Westlands, and the constant fluid movement as we arrived in town.

The car was parked next to Reinsurance Plaza, just as I’d been told by the car tracking company. It stood there like an abandoned wreck, clamped by the city council for parking without a pass. I peered in and saw both our phones lying in the front passenger seat. In a fit of panic I ran around looking for any hint of Kanini. I asked the taxi drivers, the people idling around, and the charity sweepstakes seller in his lonely booth, but most looked at me with a blank expression. Nothing.

I went over to Railways and took a matatu to Kibera. When I alighted, I felt like I had been dropped in the middle of the jungle, lost in my search. In every face I saw the possibility of knowledge. Perhaps mama mboga by the dusty earth road saw Kanini, or that man brushing people’s shoes, or even the kids playing soccer. In everyone, even the slightest nod gave me hope.

I began to ask around. People seemed kind, and though some felt I was their easy ticket to a free meal, they did offer their thoughts freely, masking the immediate recognition that I was an alien in their midst.

I made many friends by evening. But darkness fell and I could think of nothing more to do but just go away. I had called home from a simu ya jamii and been told she was not there yet. The friendly faces I saw started seeming sinister.

I began to pray. For a moment I mentioned the Angel Gabriel, guilt and disbelief weighing heavy on me, asking him to keep her safe. I could not guess whether Ma and Pa were searching, trying to call, doing everything they could to find both of us, or if they were just seating in the house in front of the TV watching the news. Thinking of the latter made me teary.

Around 8:30 I was walking towards the stage when I saw Kanini holding the hand of a tall gentleman. You could see the discomfort in his movements, his frequent observations all around him, that nervous ‘hello’ to an acquaintance or other. I ran towards them.

“Kanini,” I called. “Why did you just leave like that?”

“I told you Maundu. I told you I would go and find Angel Gabriel.”

“Did you find him?”

“Yes, here he is.”

The man did not say anything at first, just turned and looked at me. He seemed rather confused. I took him aside and told him not to mind her, that she was sick.

“I know,” he said. “I did meet her in a matatu once, and after we’d talked I knew she was not alright. But I could not believe it then. She seems so normal.”

“She has to take her medicine to be okay.”

Kanini came over, took his hand again, and hugged him. He shifted uncomfortably.

After a little hesitation he led the both of us to a small garage just a few meters from the stage and explained to me that he works as a mechanic. He stood beside me as we watched Kanini explore the workshop afresh.

“I saw her immediately when she alighted from the matatu,” he said, “and before I could think of what I was doing I found myself calling out to her.”

He turned to me and, smiling, said, “When she saw me she ran out calling, “Angel Gabriel! Angel Gabriel!”

“My God, it must have been embarrassing.”

“It made many people stop. Almost like a movie scene. I liked it a bit in the beginning but could not understand why she could not stop calling me Angel Gabriel. To distract her I took her through my work here in the garage, and she was very happy to help.”

“She must have broken a million things.”

“Not really, she was very careful. But we spent most of the time at the kiosk having lunch. She confessed she had never been to a kiosk before. And she was so joyed to have chapati and madondo that others stopped eating and began watching her.”

“My God! But she has chapati all the time at home?”

“They were looking at her expensive dress and jewelry. I think they imagined what invaluable thing they could have done with the money used to buy them. They whispered and stared.”

Kanini was walking towards us now. I looked at him and saw the smile on his face. It looked like he was at perfect peace in his world, watching her walk towards him.

“And to imagine earlier in the day I wanted to get rid of her?”

“You would have been silly,” I said, smiling.

Kanini took the padlock and helped Gabriel close his workshop. She held his hand as he led us to the small kibanda down the road. There were about three other customers seated on small round tables. Gabriel bought us cheap tea which tasted like lukewarm water and ordered a mandazi for us each. This was his dinner sometimes, though he preferred some matumbo with ugali. He declined any money saying that since Kanini had come to visit it was only proper for him to take care of things.

I had not known a single person who had been Kanini’s friend for more than a month. She got them quickly and lost them even quicker, whether boys or girls. I was already afraid that Angel Gabriel would tire of her in a night.

As he led us to the matatu stage, he invited Kanini and me to visit his workshop anytime. Parting was not easy. Kanini begged Gabriel not leave her, but he spoke to her tenderly until she agreed to come some other day. Now that he knew, he spoke to her about her medicine. She promised him that she would take it before coming to him.

And she kept her promise when we got home. Ma scolded me, as I thought she would. But I did not have time to tell her that my fears had been real, or even that a man called Angel Gabriel had finally materialized in Kanini’s life. When I woke the next morning Kanini had already left. The first thought I had was of Gabriel’s garage. I went to the road and took a matatu to town. I arrived at the garage two hours later, having beaten Nairobi’s goddamn traffic which had been made worse by roads closed for the president’s cars.

I entered the garage without calling out. They were there, seated on a small mat and eating sandwiches, albeit a little shy with each other. Gabriel waved at me to come join them.

“Your sister surprised me with breakfast this morning,” he said. “She was here before I opened shop.”

I immediately felt fear: the fear that Kanini had found something she instantly deeply treasured but was going to lose in no time. But that image stuck with me for a long time. I held on to it dearly like a frail treasure. An image so dear to me I feared it would grow blurred and disappear, even on their wedding day. I would later remember it when I visited Gabriel’s home for my niece’s first birthday.

The picture of Kanini serving another cup of tea to her Angel Gabriel in the garage, touching him ever so tenderly on the shoulder, asking him to take another sandwich. After all she had woken up at four to make it for him. And she would always do so for as long as she lived. For in his eyes she saw eternity.

Moses Kilolo (@moses_kilolo) is a freelance journalist who lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. An avid reader and a lover of libraries, he is most interested in contemporary African fiction.

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