In February 2003, Kenya was a country very different from the one we have come to know. Back then, Kenyans wore optimism like it was their favourite cologne. The spirit of anti-corruption hung in the air like thick fog blinding progress. A people so used to misrule and the abuse of the law now talked about the rule of law like they learnt it as a kindergarten rhyme. A people to whom bribery had become a way of life now stopped short of lynching anyone who brought it up. Heck, they even arrested cops who asked for bribes. Everybody suddenly had a duty to uphold the law. It goes to show that Kenyans get carried away fast.
It is this passing wave of patriotism that got me behind bars.
This Monday morning finds us in a Matatu; young adults headed to work where we perpetuate the evils of capitalism by helping retail merchandise at the family business. In my wallet is kshs 3500, in my back pocket is some change and in my front pocket is a fake kshs500 note which had been confiscated from an opportunistic customer at the shop. And which, when I was left in a dark room with no one watching, I decided that giving it to a Matatu conductor would make me happiest. I know it’s wrong to brag but in my mind, my plan was perfect. The road to maximum security prison, I would come to learn, is paved with such brazen search for happiness.
Here is what happened; when the conductor asked for the fare, my conscience was still sleeping(Monday morning blues and all) so I gave him the fake without blinking. One look at it and he said it’s a fake. I quickly pointed out that it can’t be. How could it? He firmly told me, and every other passenger, that it was a fake. I explained that I must have gotten it unknowingly. I even asked to have a look so that I wouldn’t be duped the next time. Then Kenyans started weighing in with their self-righteous opinions. ‘He looks like he knows what he’s doing’ some woman said(She was right). ‘These people think everyone is stupid’ quipped some guy(Right again). ‘You got away with it during Moi’s time but this time you can’t!’ added another guy(He must have been tortured at Nyayo House so I forgave him). ‘Take him to a police station!’ yelled some unnecessarily irate man. The atmosphere was now getting hot. I wanted to tell them off but I sensed they would lynch me in the name of a better Kenya. ‘Look, I swear to God I didn’t know it was a fake! Do I look like I someone who would knowingly give you fake money?’ I asked the conductor. And then, quickly before he said yes, gave him a hundred shillings for fare. Things calmed down but I still feared that he might act on the calls to take me to a police station. We were on Thika road coming into town. At the Muthaiga roundabout, the conductor told the driver to ‘take them in’. The driver turns and makes a stop outside Muthaiga police station.
The conductor goes inside and starts talking to a cop. I have half a mind to bolt but I imagine that my fellow law-abiding Kenyans might disagree with that idea as well. The cop comes towards the Matatu and conductor points me out, almost poking out my eye in the process. I am hoping that Jesse won’t be arrested so that he can bail me out but hope on that particular morning was not on my side. The conductor insisted he was an accomplice. We were quickly escorted inside and our names entered in the occurrence book. In my mind, all I had to do was look for an officer who’d take some money and the matter would go away. But then it struck me that with all the ‘down with corruption’ wave, that might get me arrested for bribery. For a moment, I panicked. We were told to record our effects which included the money for which I was given a paper indicating the sum. A lady officer standing nearby seemed very interested in the money. We were escorted to the cells after depositing our belts and one shoe.
In Muthaiga police station, the women cells are adjacent to the men’s. You enter the women’s cell first where you’ll find the door to the men’s cells. When the first door was opened, there were several women one of whom was sinfully beautiful. I’m going to love it here, I thought to myself. I came to learn that she’d stabbed her boyfriend. That’s the sinful side of her beauty. But before I joyously sat down, another door opened and I almost fainted. I had never seen a corridor with so many heads. They seemed to be hanging from the walls like bats. And they were all looking at me. But just before I fainted, this big guy introduced himself ‘Hi, I’m Oti Karibu member.’ Ok I kid. The moment the door was locked, 157 hands went into my left pocket, 36 into my right, and a total of 358 into my back pockets. They were looking for cash. Imagine their disappointment when they didn’t find any. They were not happy at all and it showed. They told us to go to ’44’ aka Kamiti corner. I didn’t go but if you are wondering, it the farthest corner which stinks to the high heavens. I struck up a conversation with the resident big man and was allowed to sit next to the door which is no mean feat at all. I have half a mind to put in on my CV. Jesse, by virtue of my schmoozing with the guy, went a little down the corridor but far from , by virtues of my schmoozing with the big guy, went a little down the corridor but far from 44.
In jail, you are like a politician; you don’t work. What people do is kill time which is a very ironical thing to do because you can’t kill time. Time kills you, eventually. People swap war stories back and forth. The guy next to me had been involved in robbery and was caught. Before I excitedly told him how when I was 5 I had ‘robbed’ some milo from my uncle’s shop, he added nonchalantly that the police had recovered a gun. ’I see’ I said then quickly turned to the guy on my right.
‘What are you in for comrade?’
In jail, you are all comrades because at that particular point, you have a common enemy which is the penal code.
Jesse down yonder was regaling his comrades with tales of our near heist. They were not amused. They couldn’t believe someone could do something so stupid. They gave him a lot of stick for acting so recklessly. ‘Money like that, comrade, you take to a butcher’ one guy told him. ‘Or to koinange street, you cow’ added another. They wise counsel kept coming as did the insults. It was a good time not to be Jesse.
Now as with all places, there was the elite; elevated members of society who enjoy privileges that are not available to the common man. In this case it was the mungiki. They had a room all to themselves and seemed to have endless visitors who brought all kinds of foods which they shared equally as they cracked obscene kikuyu jokes. Life in jail, for them, was one endless party. It could only have been more fun if they had a Vuvuzela in there. But then again some might argue that a Vuvuzela, even in jail, is ‘unelite’
To cut a long story short, my dad, whom I had refused to call due to my foolish pride, found us at around 3 PM. He found us by going to all three police stations along our path to town. Next stop was the mortuary, he told us. Lucky for us, he knew the OCS from way back when he was a constable. Knowing a big man helps.
Over Christmas, at home, Jesse, and I laughed over these stories as we killed time. It seemed like they happened in another life time. For many hours we talked about the past, and many more about the present and even more about the future. Then we parted ways.
And into the madness of life, we went.