If you were not hard-core; if you had not killed or done anything degenerate; if you had a degree or were a political prisoner, then you did not belong. You took up space and sucked up too much oxygen. And for that, chicken thieves placed bets on who would wife you first.
For prison was a religion, a sovereign state complete with laws: the breakable, the bendable and the so-God-help-you type. Those who would be acquitted tomorrow sat side-by=side with those who, tomorrow, would be condemned to die.
Me? Well, I had lost three teeth and the hearing in my left ear just keeping them off. It was the price of boarding this five-feet-six patch with the breadth of a single shoulder. But Inshallah I was soon going to be free, I hoped.
I slept in no one’s patch except my own. I pushed no more than I had to during meals. In two weeks, hopefully, my verdict would be read. And I wanted to be alive to hear it, to see my people. For these were not my people. These were no one’s people at all.
Then, in the cold silence of July 2003, sometime before maghrib prayers, handcuffs clicked undone and we saw him. Good God! The apparition floated at the entrance. It refused to go. There was confused movement as I hastily abandoned my patch. The default arrangement on the floor was no longer viable.
I rose. Everyone was rising, scampering about, stepping on bodies, slipping, falling on others. Alertness coursed in me like raw pepper down the throat. Instantly, I gathered myself into a sitting position firmly against the wall. I looked again and lost my breath. Time stood still. The sun setting outside lingered; peeped through the high window, saw his face and vanished.
Limbs pushed into ribs and settled there. Clumsy buttocks crashed feet under them as everyone attempted to put as much of themselves out of sight. My skin felt taut to the point of breaking. It hurt most where I was squeezed but it was the only confirmation that I was not alone in this. Tightly packed in our helplessness, we watched the danger that lingered in the corridor.
Though the single yellowed bulb in the corridor pretended to work, it failed miserably. But it mattered little whether it had been pitch dark or all of us bat-blind. You did not have to look- you felt him, suffered his eminence and choked on the dread of him. And we huddled and trembled and clasped our hands, straining the skin around our knuckles.
You see, in Kodiaga Maximum Security Prison, a six-by-ten cell guaranteed little security indeed. Chizi, the Afande, slid open the barricade to our cell. At eighteen in one cell, ours was the presidential suite. And truly, after we had climbed on top of one another; literally, it was amazing how much space we created for him.
And the other cells, the whole two lower blocks seemed to be coming down with noise—part praise, part celebration; but mostly reverence. Such was the ruckus that prevailed. Delirious throats deafeningly ululated, the significance of his person riding in the pitch of this ovation.
Evidently pleased with our pains, he wrung his hands, rubbed where the handcuffs had been and stretched, pushing out those legendary hands that had taken more lives in the past year than Wanugu, Wacucu and Rasta in their combined lifetimes. He strutted in and the barricade to the cell slammed shut.
Someone’s stomach sounded a prolonged protest and I was helplessly aware of peace, civilisation and what was left of humanity escaping; lifting up like a feeble wisp of smoke right out of the tiny window high in the wall. Even more immediate, pain seethed in my left ear and for good measure it felt like someone held a red hot branding iron to it.
His presence suffocated me like the acrid smoke of burning wood and hell could not have been more agonising. The salty dryness grew acute and burned my throat like a shot of the chang’aa they make in Busia. We watched him without looking. It was hard to concentrate, to focus on nothing but the damp sweat from hard-pressed bodies, the damp smell of unwashed bodies, the taste of dry, salty agony that could not be swallowed down.
I bore the weight without a whimper, my limbs feeling awkwardly disjointed, waiting for him to do something unruly. I asked myself, ‘Why now?’ and just sat listening to the loud thump of my heart. Through the corners of my eye, I tracked him. He took a step forward. He was the years of rumours, the subject of a billion whispers and the sole icon of the underworld; and he was here; moving, breathing, looking around.
A monster could be a giant and have a thunderous voice but Mark Maingi was deceptively medium-built and quiet. His intentions were probably only suggested by the devilish sparkle in his eyes. And it was excruciating to know that even by sitting as I was, I was in harm’s way and there was nothing anyone could do to change that. For, being there, I wasn’t there. I was nothing there.
He took another step. We had all seen his face in ‘Wanted’ newspaper photos but never in flesh and blood. Interpol had reluctantly acknowledged and marked his propensity for evil with their diminutive logo. The newspapers published his face so often that he was now better covered than both the president and the prime minister. Yet he, like a virus, refused to have enough.
His mob robbed, raped, assassinated or just maimed more, it seemed, for the fun of it than for anything else. I personally disliked how every conversation eventually had to be about him. My friends and I, meeting at the Barracks Pub in the afternoons, would talk a little politics and then eventually about him, about bodyguards and padlocks. That was it.
Then everyone would head home while they could see by natural light. The gangs were everywhere after all. I hated him most for making an evening bottle of beer impossible. How could I take beer home and still convince my daughter to pray the full five times?
But if he were arrested I could reveal to anyone that, in fact, Mark Maingi and I had attended the same high school. I even thought it would be with some pride. But now, who could I tell? It would generally be assumed that I was on his payroll. That would have been the end of my social life. I burned under the weight of the story I could not tell, waiting and waiting. But he never was arrested. Neither could he just stop on his own.
His mob-cum-cult caught like a terrible itch and kept going, and for a full year and a half it had become the single major contributor to the obituaries. Months back when they knocked my teeth in and still I refused to be touched, they had asked me whether I knew of Mark Maingi—even in Kodiaga, his name carried like a spirit. What if I had told them now he had arrived in person?
My buttocks were cold and numb, painful. But that was nothing. We were all scared but I was personally afraid. In this place where evil assembled by default and fear was sourced, supplied and maintained by the guards, I began to know a deeper fear.
If murderers murdered murderers it was good riddance. If several of us were to die, an official report would be filed—that we broke each other’s ribs, bashed our heads on the walls and lost our teeth in the process before snapping our own necks—effectively summed up as suicide.
When Mark Maingi stood, like a scorpion testing its poisoned tail, it was in the full knowledge that we were nothing and he was everything; that he was the law. He pushed his lightly bearded chin forward and held it there. As if on cue, the rumpus in all the thirty-nine cells of our block died with a final belch like a cistern pump.
This was hell. And Mark Maingi was the true evil, a chief engineer’s return to hell’s engine room, the devil-come-home. The perverts were now going to tell him that I thought I was better, that I refused to be touched. Yet all I had ever wanted was to get out.
Did it have to be my cell? Hell! Then, against all probability, his eyes rested on my person. His mouth moved as if his tongue was rooting around the hollow of a bone, turning it in his hand this way and that, looking for essence to suck out. Then he tilted his head without blinking; the way a chameleon does while taking aim of an unwary fly.
It was clear he intended to have a pleasurable night. I tasted a new strain of fear, acute and unbounded. They must surely have told him about me. So much for broken teeth and a bad ear. I had wasted my care.
I had sworn by the three teeth sewed in my waist band that no one would ever touch me. With Mark Maingi here, I agreed within myself that I was, in fact, already dead. I felt numb, waiting for my vital organs to fold. I also elected that when the time came I would go with my chin high. It was not just my faith.
I was not even clean. How could I even begin to think I was? Not with the guard and our frivolous deal, my wife and the court clerk. What a shame. Now it would not matter anymore. The court clerk could not help me here. I began to wish my wife had kept her dignity; that I had been a stronger man to promise to wring the court clerk’s neck and mean it.
Now she knew I was expecting a favour back, a consideration in my case. Now she went into his arms—another man’s arms—and thought she was doing me a favour! I stood to benefit from a most vile union. Haraam!How could I have blamed her for attempting to save my life? No, it was not for me to judge her actions. Why, I was equally unclean! I was implicated.
But finally I had come upon the limit to how much dignity I could sell. I would cleanse my soul with one good deed for heaven would always be full of rewards for those who would die bravely. I would walk at the end of my tether, inside a hangman’s noose, threatened by the rapist and indiscriminate exterminator but with my head high.
I would not beg. “Idhaa Zulzilati al ardhu zilzaalaha”, I lowered my head and prepared my soul with a silent recital of the Sura of The Shaking: “When the earth is shaken with her violent shaking…so that man says “what has befallen her?” Had I done an atom’s weight of good to be seen on judgement day?
He squatted within a few inches of me watched by unblinking eyes in the semi-darkness. The July cold began descending in heavy solid layers and packing itself amongst us till it hurt the eyes just keeping them open. Without having to look, though, I knew that question and answer were flying back and forth faster than it took a fart to start stinking, all without a sound. Even that did not matter.
It being the beginning of my own end, I strained to open my eyes to look. I was so afraid of what gazed right back at me out of eyes without pity. “Yawmaidhin; on that day men shall come forth …that they may be shown their works. And he who has done an atom’s weight of evil, shall see it.”
I raised my eyes and locked them onto Mark Maingi’s. I knew then that I would die that night. I would die because I was not bad enough for jail. I would die because those who considered themselves the owners here had decided my fate; because Mark Maingi would have a pleasurable night; because I would try to stop him; because he would kill me for trying to. It was sealed.
My wife would be told I committed suicide. She would ask ‘how?’ No, she would first look ahead unseeingly, then shake her head with the curls of her silky hair flying in brief jerks. There would be so much beauty in her; miserable beauty that I would never touch, ever again.
There would be so much sadness and the silent tearing inside of her heart. Then she would scream long and hard. Then she would faint and revive and faint and revive. I would be nowhere to hold her and tell her that we would have another son and she is not to worry.
She would tell the media that I had been innocent and what a good husband had been taken from her. A human rights lobby group would investigate and Mark Maingi would be hanged for it. My wife would die young of grief having never remarried.
In another lifetime perhaps. In this one, Khadija would not think twice before bringing that cuckolding squirrel of a court clerk to my own house. When we were all made, she did not come from the finest fabric. As for the man, I wished paralysis of the groin upon him if he went near my bed. It was useless to curse anyway. He was probably doing exactly that at this very moment, the devil.
I hoped Allah Most Merciful, would forgive my thoughts. Khadija would easily take another husband before the year was over, marry off Nura or teach her to be a harlot. She was not sixteen and, as Allah is my witness, she already knew how to answer back at her mother and dally with the motorbike-riding goon who read the electricity meter. Women, the lot! I couldn’t die.
No way. I couldn’t leave her the house to make a brothel of it, the angel-faced she-devil! I would refuse to die just so I could be there to divorce her. Nimekutalaki! Nimekutalaki! Nimekutalaki! That would be it.
If Mark Maingi made his move, I would resist but I would not die for it.
He called my name, , of that there was no mistake. The devil spoke my name. Fifteen years, wasn’t it? Yet, he recalled my name. Greatness is with Allah, we are but humans! I sat still to catch my breath.
“Habari ya masiku?” he asked, his voice surprisingly calm.
My voice having deserted me, I nodded, quite out of breath. I raised my eyes for the briefest half-second. He had not changed his name since high school. He had grown as much facial hair as me and had a minor scar under his left ear. He had also grown powerful.
“I have made it,” he said and walked to the excrement pail.
No one spoke. Was he talking to me? Maybe he had a contraption of a mobile phone, a miniature earphone in his ear and an equally tiny microphone drilled into his tooth. These people were capable of anything. Mark Maingi was anything but small fish!
Several heads turned in the semi-darkness. I could just make out Ominde’s long jaw. He was a chicken thief. Righa too. We all turned to see if he was talking to one of us. I beheld. The prison uniform took nothing from Mark Maingi.
His gait; the way he cleared his throat; the way he stood with his feet astride the excrement pail honouring the passing of water with a whistled tune, set him miles apart from the rest of us in the animal kingdom.
He was a man profusely pleased with himself, a man without regrets whatsoever for the kind of life he led.
He would probably kill me anyway for fun.
“I have made it,” he repeated, more to himself once he was through with the ceremony. He then found a sufferable position on the floor, shut his eyes and reclined against the wall as if it were the stuffed backrest of a sofa.
“Money, a degree and a name.” Mark Maingi was speaking to me alright.
I was instantly reminded of myself as a child, exhilarated on the day I had just learnt how to whistle. Soon, afraid that he would break my toes one-by-one to get my attention, I mumbled in affirmation. Ominde and Righa and someone else in the dark grunted awkwardly. Mark Maingi kept his eyes glued on my person.
I reaffirmed my decision not to die. I would speak. When the timid boy has to answer insults from a more aggressive playmate he must keep his retort civil.
“It is so.” I was barely louder than a whisper. I raised my eyes briefly.
If this was the point of my death, I wanted to see the reaper’s messenger. I could not rule out danger yet. He continued to regard me, a small part of him reminding me of Mark, the library captain of fifteen years back while the rest of him reeked of Mark Maingi the terrorist.
Instinctively, I kept my eyes on the floor. Yet what I could not see, I smelt. He had this sharp smell like the cypress my upcountry grandma never seemed to properly dry out. It was just discernible through the rough cotton uniform.
“You may speak freely.” His voice had grown much deeper. It seemed to crack dry but without dust. Clean.
It was an unforgettable voice. Not a bad voice at all for an ear to hear for a last time. For how many had it been the last? But he had said to speak freely. I began to cautiously sample this ‘free’ idea.
With gratitude, I felt my almost flat tummy roll outwards, not without a little pain. It was once something I could show off with pride. A poor man has never filled his own gut and I had never been a poor man.
“Your memory is good, Allah’s name be praised.” I was almost breathing normally now.
Except for my left foot which Ominde had been sitting squarely on for five minutes now, I was doing well. There was no feeling whatsoever from the knee and below and to nudge Ominde off, I had to use my hands, a most nervous movement.
Movement, any movement at all was to be avoided for the sole reason of its ability to draw attention to you. In keeping still, Ominde was sweating like never before. I could smell it on him; a sweat museum. He was probably more scared than I was. And he sat on my foot like his life depended on it.
“So what did you do with yourself?”
“Accountant… I’m an accountant,” I replied.
If he wanted small talk then small talk I would let him have. His eyebrows rose then fell and he turned his face slightly to the side, his eyes staying on me. I realised, quite abruptly, that I was not an accountant. I had been one a long, long time back, it seemed.
I worked with a steel firm owned by a Memon family. My religion meant that my working there was only half a crime. Those who (like the tall Luhya driver) were neither Muslim nor Indian had the peace of the condemned.
But I had a wife and a son. I had worn a suit to work and looked like a respectable civil servant. Like every man I had my ambitions. I was not born small. If you saw me when I was myself, you would not have guessed that I was not a graduate. I had the right style. If it came to it, I could even enrol in one of the many new universities.
Already it was becoming obvious that it was all about money and I had quite a bit of it. I had had one of the best houses in the neighbourhood. A good house. It was not storied but I had begun to think I could get a mason to build at least one bedroom upstairs like Eliud Obura, the teacher, had done.
It was annoying the way teachers put two bedrooms upstairs with their little pay and made our children begin to think their own parents were ineffectual; just because they could get loans and speak phony English! My son could never have become a teacher. Not on my watch. Anyway, I had a car. I was somebody.
Then, people began buying land. I was not jealous. Let people buy land. I only mention it because they were buying land all around mine. Those people walked around impatiently, disrespecting fence and owner in a scandalous way. And they built houses. No. They built palaces. Overnight!
One, a young fat thing who obviously had too much money and too little sense complained that his swimming pool was three feet too short of Olympic specifications. I did not understand that very well but it was about the pool not having a proper deep end. And could I therefore sell him my plot, he’d asked. Or did not ask. He insisted and I gave him an amplified no and called him a half-witted camel.
I was planning to walk up to his compound on one of those evenings that I knew he would be there and urinate on his gate. He could not disrespect a grown man and get away with it. He was lucky I was arrested before his day had come. But all that did not matter now. Even if I got acquitted, it would be quite a while before I put together enough money for another floor. Besides, my wife…well. And, my son was dead.
Before I knew it, we were talking like old friends. More like, me talking and he listening. He was a good listener, an amazing listener. I did not notice that I had told him so much about myself. He would narrow his eyes and crease his face with the approach of a smile or frown in concern.
When I mentioned my wife and hesitated, he leaned forward reassuringly. I was elated, in spite of myself. No one had really listened to me in eight long months. Before prison, Mumina or Ally would always be available at the mosque. At work there was the Luhya driver.
For all her faults, Khadija at least pretended to listen before she presented the domestic budget deficits. So, when I told him about my people, the case and about next week, I was not talking to a murderer.
It was easy to forget that the fear of him had been choking us like dust only an hour earlier. He was being extremely modest. Maybe it had not been such a bad thing that he came. But, oh, I was confused. At one point he would sigh with feeling and at another, his magnanimous eye balls seemed to spin like ventilator fans at the steel plant that always appeared to be looking for a reason to come flying at you.
To sit next to Mark Maingi, even at his most restive, felt as if one was sitting next to the steel roller whose blades were turning inside, out of sight. If I were to sit wrong, sneeze out of turn or break wind, I would come out of the other end a corrugated sheet of flesh, bone and blood. I knew that if stayed awake that night, maybe, just maybe I would survive.
Waiganjo Ndirangu lives and works in Kwale, Kenya’s Coastal Region where he runs in the low hills every possible gusty evening. He was a featured new writer in Litfest 2010 and his short story, Fe, ranked 6th in “Kenya-I-Live-In” short story competition and was published in Kwani? 06 alongside a series of poems. His work has also appeared in ITCH and Intersections of Literature, Theatre Arts & Education: Essays in Memory of Ezekiel Alembi (2015). Waiganjo has worked with Storymoja in the Stories-For-Chela project (2015) and is currently working on a poetry collection and a novel.