(All photos by Dr. Wambui Mwangi)
I will open the scene with an early morning: first light half-fried into the sky, the day warming on the grill with the sound of twittering breakfast birds; in phototropism the leaves are turning, the tree is giving birth to shade; and behind the walls the whiskey casks are being rolled and then getting set upright.
Highway Bar is open for business.
But I will direct your muse away from this tangibility of post-dawn. Call this an interlude. In the colourless air there are other things. I have no exact name for them. Ghosts? Ether? Einstein’s gravitational constant? There are personalities. Like your arrogance they hover above the tree-bush. There are personalities in many empty and full bottles. Like your generosity they liquefy to become the Tusker and Waragi everyone sips.
They built the bar, they are the patrons who pushed up the profits, they are the stools who let themselves be warmed under the asses from which came farts of undigested Kampala rolex.
They are the two of them, our characters, as they walk in. First the man who holds the keys to Highway, and second the Lady of Highway. He’s Hinga, She’s Purvi.
Here I must slow the action down because this is important. I might have to rewind. Even delete whole past scenes. Change time frames or adjust nuances of space-time. Watch:
Purvi sees him at the end of the long bar, Hinga polishing glass, Hinga taking his wipe-cloth and manoeuvring around the insides, the fabric sponging in afterwash dampness. Hinga taking his wipe-cloth and whip-lashing a cockroach investigating the bar counter, the cockroach whiskers stunned into paroxysms of near-death.
Hinga watches her enter, the open door, her silhouette cutting the daylight into a shape, the slanting rays now pouring into Highway Bar, the dark wood furniture filtering them, translating them into crepuscular tinge, her skirt cut just above the knee, bare toes on slippers, beautiful skin of her legs.
Purvi takes a table near him. She picks a book out of her handbag and carefully cracks it open at the bookmark. She adjusts her pose and begins to read. Hinga observes with great and silent care. Any inch shift she makes, he catches it.
And this is his problem.
He freezes. He cannot talk to her. He cannot offer Tusker.
Purvi takes a sometimes glance at Hinga. She also doesn’t know what to do. This man is working, he is polishing glass, he is rolling the whiskey casks, but he is silent.
However, it is a strange day and she needs to ask him why.
“Where’s everyone gone?”
Now he must answer.
“They left. To go chase. To find. To search.”
She doesn’t understand. Before she opened the door and let the rays in, she was in the streets. They were deserted. She thought they were all at Highway.
“This isn’t normal is it? You wake up and you expect to find the world. Just like you left it yesterday.”
“I don’t know how to say it.”
And they look at each other. It is getting clueless by the second.
“Bring us two beers, sit next to me on this table and tell me in long stories why the world today is not yesterday.”
Hinga does nothing. She is about to say something but stops mid-throat. Hinga still does nothing. He only stares at her. Minutes go like this. Maybe years. Then Hinga disappears under the bar counter, a chupa-ndebe noise, and he is back in view, and heaves with a slap onto the counter an empty beer crate.
Now the silence between them is truly ice-cold. It’s a deep freeze. Many more years pass by and only then does the thaw begin. Purvi wakes up from her table and goes to the bar counter. The beer crate. Empty.
“Somebody cleaned it out last night. Drank it all. Brown water gone. I only found out today morning.”
“Who is this? Where is he?”
“They say he is two persons. He is many. That’s what they say.”
Purvi makes to leave. In hurry. She reaches the door and again she is a silhouette cutting out a shape. But here she stops.
“Are you coming?”
“I can’t. Have to tell anyone else who comes in what happened.”
“I am the last. Come with me.”
They get out of Highway. Footsteps carry them into the beating heart of downtown, our ventricular valves of backstreet Nairobi Notes, and when they look around they see the red blood cells of the Aortan footpath. The colours are extreme, so alive they have lost the greys of boredom and cold July; the yellow building has turned into Wailing Wall where those who have not worn the clothes of personality take out their Leathermans and cut off their ears because the yellow is too much and blood must flow free, over their faces, drip down to soak their black and white shirts, their black and white personas. The hunt for the one who is now Brown Water cannot be conducted in b & w.
That’s when Hinga and Purvi know they are walking the wrong footpath the wrong way – the extreme coloured people walk against them. He or she is also the twenty four empty bottles of drunk Tusker or the filling of the empty crate but Purvi and Hinga swim against the current of Aorta.
That’s when something snaps inside Purvi.
She hails the last car. It speeds but it stops. She opens the back-door and wants to get inside. She has to get inside because the traffic is moving away, running away, the gap across increasing in car lengths. The traffic must not be allowed to disappear because this is the last car.
But it’s Hinga. Does he want to remain stuck on the footpath? Because you can see him touching himself around the pockets trying to find a Leatherman that’s not there. You can hear him, he has forced into his ears a vuvuzela. Is he one of the stadium cacophonies on the street level, the common man level?
She becomes the one to tell him to shut it, drop it, anti-bafana it, ‘come with me’ or force him into the car against the will of his own black and white. She, Purvi Mahajan Ganatra, is the volatile hydrogen needed to get the inert gassed procrastination of Hinga Wa Dedan moving. Lost in indecision Hinga Wa Dedan, revolutionary P. M. Ganatra.
In Schumacher and Hamilton the car catches up with the traffic. From our standpoint, we see the tail-end of the jam disappearing into the sky beach. Up above is the blue and the gentle wash of white spray clouds breaking surf on the beach of Nairobi heavens. Even the trees in the far yonder look like wind-swept madafu palms.
On the sky beach, Hinga and Purvi take off their black and white personality clothes, they stand naked but lack time and resources of calm thought to appreciate this small moment, and in sharp quick put on their new clothes – rich aubergine blouse of skepticism, drooling blue prima-donna suede footwear, cashew shaded soft mocha pants of conniving, amongst others.
The climate of hot noon weather is breaking into sweat on the Nairobian skins. Purvinga are ready to hit the ragged-town streets in search of Brown Water.
They criss-cross over cocks and hens laid out on the footpath by stinking, bathless, high-noon mamabogas. There are banana peels to step over, or the bodies of dead insects. Awful architecture and bars who have their corner-walls chipped off; Aorta clogged with the concrete fat of dirty-looking brickwork. Flies clothing a naked piece of meat, kill-joyed street vendors clothing the entrances to shops. And they have to nudge them out of their ways to enter other half streets where they lose each other once they discover their tastes in direction are different. Purvinga no more, only one part Purvi Ganatra of Short Street adjacent National Archives, and second part Hinga Dedan squeezing into narrowed depths of Taveta Road.
So squeezed he can’t stand the streets. They are mad. Out of every traffic light, green and red, the ghosts of discipline come out in sequence to disturb his city walk. He wants out. Out of Nairobi. He asks them to send him to the jungles where he can polish meditation like his left-behind glasses.
It’s not easy but word comes Brown Water has banana leaves and locusta submerged in Mukono, Kalangala, Buguri and Masaka. In deep Mutukula. They send Hinga into the forests.
He lies in wait for him to come down from the Elgon through to Iganga where the trap lies waiting in the bark of the Rukararwe tree. He waits with newspaper, reclining himself on the very same bark, feeding on grasshoppered rolex. For many years he remains thus, reading on the third page the boast of Brown Water “My full names are Brown Water Mutesa Esq. of the 15th Kabaka clan and I never panic coz I shed cowardice at the seventh bottle…”
He tires of the wait. From of the Rukararwe he carves out and polishes a gourd, forages for Kampalese ferns, crushes the juice out of them, guides the spillage oozing out of his clasped palms into the gourd, and drinks deep of the jungle waragi. He wants to hallucinate, to sun-dry the Kampalese ferns and turn them into improvised papyrus. To then take the thorn of Kampalese, puncture his fingertips and in blood write down for her his lost fondness of the jungle. To express the desert winds of Ondaatje blowing through him in this rich foliaged locale. The harmattan, the haboob of Sudan. ‘The ninth plague of Egypt’ that is Khamsin.
Back in Nairobi, Purvi is given an ear-cutting yellow truck to help her man the drool blue post office boxes. Rumours suggest Brown Water will soon send the last letter. Rumours also suggest Brown Water will be the found and the finder. The many.
Everyone has stopped mailing and all the postal staff have been sent home on permanent leave. The post boxes must be kept empty, all of them, Brown Water’s last must be caught. Purvi’s daily routine is to open with key, look inside, close, and move onto the next one.
Year after year only emptiness turns up.
Then she feels a change in the ether of afternoon. One last turn of the key before she gives up in boredom. Papyrus.
She is in silent eureka.
“Little India, soft echoes of whispers, once sounds louder, richer and more bouyant with your capacious expressions, still roam the empty Kalahari of my heart. And I heard its prophecy of mirages, some chivalrous chit-chat about the shimmering glories awaiting me in the distance.
Little India, one day those soft echoes will fade away.”
This is anti-eureka. It’s the other side of eureka. No it cannot be. We cannot be.
Everything is left behind – the postal keys, the ear-cutting yellow truck. She leaves behind the papyrus.
But where is she going? Because Hinga Wa Dedan is back in town. Yes, Tarzan boy is goose-stepping the pavements, carrying forward the hangover of his former Migingo jungles, half-stoned amidst the elements of vehicular histrionics – horn, exhaust and insincere road rage; the storied climbs of concrete downtown sequoias, Times-Towered giants; and no there is nothing here to greet him; there are instructions to leave him alone, sheathe him in the quiet pain of ostracism.
High-noon mamabogas watch from the opposite street his walk – in whispers they rumour – this coward abandoned the Ugandan forests just as Brown Water was falling into the Bark Trap. Kill-joyed street vendors clear the paths in front of him. This coward walked away from Brown Water. Even the dead insects resurrect and scurry away so that he cannot goose-step over them. Now that he is back, Brown Water is gone forever.
He walks on. Past the notice boards where they have torn down the heroic posters. He takes the highway to Highway.
Finally, we have the grey clouds positioned athwart the Nairobi heavens with jagged cracks amidst them letting in slants of dying sun and the crepuscular of post-dusk is rolled out like a whisky cask by the ethereal ghosts behind wan nimbus.
It starts to drizzle and at the fork before Highway, Hinga and Purvi cross paths. They are going to the same place. They knew it all along.
The rain is coming out of Hinga’s eyes. Purvi slides her hand into his. Behind them is the march and distant roar of Nairobians. They look and they see the tsunami of humanity approaching. That moving mass has smelled them.
They are coming with weapons – jembes and pangas. Some have sharpened their pencils and others are going to use their pen-nibs. Yet others have improvised their cell-phones to become clubs. Laptops as shields. The second war with Brown Water is drawing nigh.
Hinga has words coming out of him in torrents but Purvi asks him to shut up and tells him it’s senseless but beautiful not to say any more. She goes arm-in-arm with him into Highway.
Inside, the two of them, the many, take out the polished glasses and set them up in order along the bar-counter and the crates are magically full and they, the many, unbottletop the Tuskers and pour the brown water and froth into the glasses and the march and roar is coming closer and closer and the bar stools are shined so fine that the stars in them glow with Einstein’s psuedo-tensors and the bar-air is perfumed with spray waragi.
They are now at the door. Bang and bellow.
Purvi opens and Hinga at the end of the bar-counter watches her cut the three millioned Nairobian gang into a shape. Perhaps they will come in for some drinks, empty the crates, and tomorrow we can start a new day.
Highway Bar is open for business.