She staggered and fell, flat on her face. Straight ahead on the mad covered lane just after the main gate and the security light post that had swarms of insects, she struggled and regained a semi erect posture. Then she stooped and bent over, her hand had fulcrum her body on her knee. She wobbled again then squatted, the baby still piggy backed on her back. Achecho stopped the car just behind another car that was driving ahead of him. He stepped out of the car. The big woman in the car ahead was already out with the woman with the baby gently holding her hand to steady her to stop her from falling over for the third time. She was making great effort to restrain her from tipping backwards to save the baby.
Achecho hurriedly pulled the hand braked, unbuckled, got out of the car sensing an emergency. He stepped forward leaving his car unlocked rushing to the spot. He asked the big woman already at the scene, “What’s is the matter. Is she unwell? Can we call for help?” The big woman did not answer. Achecho had seen it unfold before his very eyes. The way the slender woman with the baby had wobbled and lost balance, her image still fresh yet hazy in his head. His heart had raced in a rush of fear for the baby and the woman. That was the time he had seen the big woman ahead of him in 2nd Avenue stop her car.
It now replayed in his head like a slow motion of a rewound film. In the blink of an eye, he had seen it all fall apart. The way the big woman had taken hurried steps like a balloon floating to the spot. He had seen the slender woman with a baby on her back falter in her steps then stagger and slip and fall in a heap the baby still on her back. Achecho had expected that the big woman with would have been enthusiastic for his help or at least want to converse. Even so, he found her unresponsive, unwilling even to share her initial prognosis. Her lips remained glued. She did not show any signals that Achecho could interpret. The big woman did none of those
Achecho came close, leaned over. That’s when the big woman spoke. When she did, her voice was distant and flat, devoid of feelings. It was as if the woman had discovered some truths that she also wanted Achecho to learn, know and perhaps to smell.
“She is drank,” the big woman said suddenly, Soft. Softly, in a plain professional voice the way trained counselor would say, she added “her case looks serious.” Then she kept mum ignoring all else around her.
“The baby, untie the baby” the slender woman sprawled on the wet muddy grass said pointing at the knot where the cloth was fastened. She struggled to raise her face partly covered with mad. She was unrecognizable, even her close relatives would not have immediately told who she was.
Achecho leaned forward to touch her hand, to gauge her senses. He found her hand limp almost lifeless. He straightened up and sighed loudly. He bent again to touch her forehead, to remove the smear of mud and unmask her. He did it in a cold sort of way the way you would touch a dead snake with a stick to test whether it is dead or alive. The thick smell of cheap liquor hit his nostrils and made him scowl as if his face had been splashed with cold water unexpectedly. On her other hand still lying on the mad the slender woman still gripped a small plastic bottle. When Achecho splashed his phone light on it, he read the label loudly, “The undertaker.” “This must be the tipple that has done the damage,” Achecho whispered to himself.
“The baby please, the baby,” the slender woman said. She tried to rise but lost balance again and fell awkwardly to the ground
“I will release the baby. Stay calm. Do not blank out on us. We need some details to help you” The big woman was saying as she worked frantically to loosen the baby on the back in an awkward position.
“The baby,” the slender woman said one more time, this time with slurred speech that carried some weight of an impending danger. She was talking as someone fast falling asleep but still trying to sustain a conversation. Then, her body become crumbled and rolled over. Her eyes closed in and she became placid. She lost consciousness, in a drunken stupor.
The baby cackled. She threw her arms about perhaps an invitation to play. Her smile and playful mien displayed in the beaming light of the car and the security light. She had a toy a soiled little plastic jingle toy. Achecho observed that the toy’s handle was partly broken but still the baby had a tight grip on it the way adults do to their best earthly possession. The baby shook the jingle and it rang loudly, the sound very similar to the bell the altar servers ring at communion to bring stillness and holiness to congregants. This bell brought to Achecho an almost similar feeling but of a different kind. Of the grim reality of the situation. Of fear of the unknown and of the ungodliness of a drunken stupor that spoke of death. There was a brief stillness. The shrill cries crickets pieced the air. A pig snort became repetitive in a nearby home. The big woman retreated from the sprawled slender woman on the ground as if to reassess the situation.
Achecho stepped back. Many what ifs started to play in his head? Was she perhaps poisoned where she was drinking? Was this smell of “The undertaker” really alcohol or death poison. What if it turns out to be suicide or a police matter? Did he really want to get into this mix? A woman who drank herself to death and with the baby perhaps 2 years and he is the key witness? Did he really want to get into the mess? How messy will it get, and what about his work and or family? How would they fit in to the scheme of things that was fast unfolding. Will the police hold him for days as a key suspect to the crime? Will he be a villain or a hero by knowingly tangling himself into the web? He just did not know.
“Is she able to speak?” Achecho found his voice and asked the big woman now loosening her skirt and bra. His question directed to her as if she was the omniscience. The last Samaritan with a combination of gifts even to read the minds of drunken people.
“No.” she answered.
“Do you know her?”
“Have you ever seen her around in Second Avenue?”
The big woman answered without looking up at Achecho, without even acknowledging his presence. The scene played as they do in drama, or sole role play, questions were coming from some remote place in another world and the big woman being prompted to answer fast and accurate while still attending to her patient. The big woman started fanning the slender woman sweaty face using her bare hands the way moneyed urban women do in social gathering with hand held fans.
Achecho got worried. In his mind he could tell that the big woman was administering the wrong fast aid. Treating a drunk as if it was a case of fainting or perhaps anorexia. He weighed his options. He was not sure if he could jump in and what exactly he could do? Achecho could already tell he was not helping by asking these questions, the way cops do to eye witnesses in accident scenes. He got a sudden urge to leave. He walked back, got into his car and squeezed his car past the big woman’s car and drove slowly through 2nd avenue to his gate. He hooted and got in.
Just before he parked his car his mind went back to the scene. He asked himself. Why didn’t the big woman ask me to help? Why did I run away from a helpless person in need?
Earlier, AChecho remembered. That day he encountered that grisly accident at Kinungi Black Spot when he was driving to the village to attend a wedding. He had behaved the same way and later scathed himself for it. He had been the fourth person on the scene. He had stopped. He had seen the driver lifeless body seated his hands sprawled on the steering wheel as if he was just resting. His unblinking bulged eyes had been directed at him as if warning him over something. The radio was still playing. It was the hit number of Eric Wainaina, the one he himself had memorized over the years. The song, chiding about runaway graft that had torn apart the nation’s fabric, the same ill that had made Kenyan roads death traps.
“Inchi ya kitu kidogooo”
“Inchi ya watu wadogoo”
“Ukitaka chai….enda limuru”
Just when he made up his mind to drive off, the woman who was writhing in pain on the ground her leg severed from the body had had held him transfixed and confused. Her shrill cries had rendered his heart to the point of shock. When the crowd that had gathered around the scene told him to take her to the hospital, he had hesitated. Others had stopped briefly but took off immediately after confirming the dead were not their relatives. The mob had coerced him and cajoled. He had changed his journey plans and drove her to the hospital. The wedding had been over by the time he arrived in the village. He was thinking. Relating it to this case of the slender woman to make him decide one way or another.
Later, nagged by his thoughts, he got out of his compound. He flashed his touch on Second Avenue. Craned his neck to see all the way to the main gate but here was nothing. The car was gone. The woman and the baby gone. All was clear and eerily and silent save for sporadic distant howls of dogs in the dark night. It was as if the scenes he had just witnessed were a figment of his own imagination or some ghosts he did not want to be part of. His heart rested.
A week had passed. Achecho had travelled to the village to visit his parents. It was the day Achecho arrived from the city. He had some errands to run in the local market. He saw a large charged crowd swirl around a man. The man at the center was bleeding on his forehead his blood covering part of his face. One man was trying to place an old bicycle on his head but it failed to stick. The man stumbled, staggered and hobbled along, he did not make any attempt to clear his eyes now filling with blood. He did not plead for mercy or forgiveness. He adamantly refused to confess which is what the crowd was demanding of him. The man walked along obediently more loyal than a dog. Achecho enquired from a villager following from a distant.
“What sin has he committed? Why are people stoning him?”
“He is a thief.” The man replied nonchalantly
“What has he stolen?”
“They are going to kill him for stealing that old bicycle”
“And you are following them to witness the whole thing”
After a few meters the bleeding man staggered and missed steps. He collapsed. Achecho drew nearer and saw more stones land at him until the convulsions stopped and the body heaving evened out. Still he saw his body rise and fall slowly in faint breaths, the same body partly covered by the stones. Achecho picked a small stone almost the size of a pebble. He closely examined the pebble in his hand. Then he threw it towards the body. He did not check to see if it hit the target. He did not know why he did it. He felt he needed to be part of this something he could not exactly tell at that moment. To belong. To be filled with hysteria and be wild with achievement the way the mob was.
The hysteria did not come. What came instead was consolation. He felt fulfilled just thinking that he had contributed in a small way to kill a thief. He felt it inside him, that voice telling him that it was needless looking holy in a sea of sinners. The blood of this man he reasoned would be on his head if he did not throw that pebble. If he did not wash his hands off him. But having accomplished that feat, it began to pain him. His conscience gnawed him. What if he was still alive and his stone was the one that carted away his soul? What if the mob was wrong about this allegation of stealing a bicycle? He felt a deflation of his spirit transform in his heart and eat it up. It was a replay of the weak before, when he walked away from that drunken woman and the baby. He turned to walk away. He took his few steps not wanting to look back at the dying man.
Facing him with tears in her eyes was the woman he had walked away from in Second Avenue. He recognized her as the slender woman he had walked away from or at least she really resembled her. He was beckoning him, asking him to come to her aid again. To help her get to the police station and get some police to restrain the mob to save the dying man. This time he felt obliged to help.
“He is still breathing. The engineer is not dead. If we rush him to the hospital, we can save him” The slender woman begged Achecho.
“Do you know him?”
“Who is he?”
“Engineer Don Albert K’Omuga Haya. He is my husband”
“K’Omuga Haya” Achecho repeated his hand rising to his head in shock.
“What do you mean? They have stoned K’Omuga to death over a bicycle?”
“Yes. Do you know the engineer? He is schooled. Lots of books. University of Nairobi. First class. Engineering. 1990” She yelled.
This was not adding up to Achecho. It was not making sense. Villagers stoning one of their best brains over a bicycle. Achecho stopped. He turned his head, the way cockerels do before warning the hens of eminent danger. He straightened his head and tilted it again to direct his earlobes to hear the noise from the mob, to really confirm that Don Albert K’Omuga Haya had been stoned to death over a bicycle and he was the person to throw the last stone.
The crowd was melting away now. An eddy of wind swirled about and threw a plume of dust to the spot where the engineer lay. Overhead, the noon sun was at midpoint, hot and unrelenting, in this late part of July. The high humidity made most faces moist, perspiration collected in beads and drips, running down the engineer’s face. From his stone wounds, the engineer bled, his life ebbing away each minute. The slender woman dragged Achecho to the police station.
“I know him. I know Engineer Don Albert K’Omuga Haya. But surely this must be a mistake. How can they kill him over a bicycle? It is not possible. How now?” No one spoke. Achecho was saying all this to himself.
The crowd had long gone when they returned to the spot where K’Omuga lay. Someone had thrown a twig, a fresh green leafy twig that partly covered the face of the engineer. The Police removed it. His eyes were closed. His beards bushy and unkempt. His face thin and bony and bruised, caked in dried blood. His shirt color smudged in dust, jeans trousers were ripped open at the crouch his dirty inner garments exposed. A boulder covered his manhood where a stream of blood was oozing from. The engineer lay still.
The Police turned K’Omuga over to feel his pulse. “There is a faint heartbeat.” the policeman announced in a firm voice. “If we rush him to the hospital, he can make it.”
K’Omuga flinched, tried to turn his head but it dropped back on a freefall on the dust with a thud. His eyes were still closed. He mumbled in delirium. A soft murmur that Achecho heard faintly like a distant dream.
“No. no. no. The comrades should understand. It was only two million. Just vegetables. That’s what the farmer confirmed. What they claimed I picked was rubbish. Just rumors from the mills. No. facts are stubborn. There was no empirical evidence or mathematical data, or solutions. Zero calculus. Call it that.
No. Not everyone can get to dine at the table with number one. Only the chosen few like engineer Don. You see!
No. The lecturers had their own share. Why did they feel jealous of my take? Why did they stake claim to my share? No. no, why they refused to mark my project? And my CATS and my assignments. They shall pay. They shall surely pay. No truce. No peace. No surrender. This war shall continue to bitter end.”
K’Omugo stopped the mummer. It was as if he had won this argument and there was no need to push it beyond the limit. Silence followed. Grief clothed it.
Achecho and the slender woman helped the police load the engineer to the police van and they made it to the hospital. K’Omuga was immediate admitted at the high dependency unit
He did not know how to start discussing this. Achecho did not know what part of the story would be better left unsaid. He scanned it all in his head. The parts of the engineer’s life that he could share with this slender wife were scanty and fuzzy that’s what he thought. The bits that carried the story of triumph and victory and the side that carried pain and suffering, even the planks that portrayed him as a betrayer of the course of democracy mixed in and greyed it. As they sat outside the referral hospital each in his own world Achecho saw the positive side first. The bit he wanted to share with his wife. He started to share the story with the slender woman. The story of engineer Don Albert K’omuga Haya.
We were in the same year as freshmen from the same village. While I went to Kenyatta University the Engineer was admitted at the University of Nairobi. During those days we just called it uon. He was the best student in our county that year, the sharpest brain I have ever known. Not only was he academically gifted, he had unparalleled leadership skills. Siaya University students Association was his brainchild. Soon all the other districts copied him and formed such associations to encourage literacy at the grass root level and to play mentor to the leaners. The engineer was at the forefront of fighting ignorance poverty and disease. We had many workshops and seminars in the district that the engineer organized. He loved education and he volunteered his time to teach especially mathematics in home schools to raise academic standard. His intentions were noble. Engineer had it all worked out with a heart of gold. What pains me is how the politicians hijacked him, manipulated him and eventually ruined him.
The regime at that time had no time for independent thinkers. There was only one thinker, who became farmer number one, teacher number one. Doctor number one. And later they even elevated him to a deity, they called him prince of peace. Engineer Don Albert K’Omuga Haya was not just a thinker. He was a philosopher. He lost his compass and even himself entirely at the instigation of the regime. Over this period you had to choose either to play ball and support dictatorship or lie low like an envelope and live. If you refused to toe the line, you would get marked with a Z fire mark like a cow fit for elimination from Rift Valley fever.
Initially, when he tried to right all the wrongs, they labelled Don as a Mwakenya. He went underground to stay alive to escape the dungeons of the toucher chambers. He needed to pursue his degree and escape the debilitating poverty back home. But the odds were stacked too high up against this brainy brother. The few student leaders who did not act fast or resisted or double crossed the regime like Atia Joe, Adungosi never made it out of the university alive. It was a dark period for the student’s leadership.
It was after Muruli the firebrand student leader was kidnapped from his room murdered, brought back at night and a suicide note left on his table that K’Omuga began to warm up to the regime. The engineer reasoned that it would have been a small price to pay to help multi party come. He was blinded to cooperate with the regime and that was the beginning of his fall. He converted like Saul from a regime critique to a regime diehard. His die was cast. The engineer had slept with the enemy and there was going to be only one outcome. We all could see it miles away but the engineer did not. When he did, it was too late, he was already beyond redemption, beyond turning back. Achecho stopped talking but in his heart the conversation went on.
In his head he saw the engineer take charge of the delegation the last and the only time he ever visited statehouse. The engineer was addressing the students. He was in his crisp back suit and his booming voice matched the power he oozed. He commanded,
“Gate C. All students from Kenyatta will enter from Gate C”
“Gate B. All students from Uon and Moi, and Egerton will enter through Gate B”
“All of you must wave the one finger salute of loyalty. When a roar Jogoo you must respond Jogoo”
That was the engineer leading a delegation of over 1000 students to pay homage to the farmer number one. Once the students had settled in, he took to the podium, in his style of gusto and bravado.
Father of the nation from the beginning of time
Front keeper of our unity and love and master of our peace time
Fellow students from all the four public universities and all leaders of our Time
Following our own free will and mindful of our Nation. We shall follow you all the time
Forgive them master those who criticize you and lead us to prosperity throughout our lifetime
Achecho had thought then as he was thinking now that it was the most ridiculous, most scandalous and barbaric speech that a student leader had ever made to the head of state. But he clapped. Everybody clapped. The area Member of Parliament Rudhi Kaliech clapped. It rang in Achecho’s head and produced a queer sort of hum. For clapping had a meaning which drew the line between loyalist and decedents, honor or horror, life and death.
The area MP loved it. He loved their zest too. The decibels were way above the loyalty levels which he confirmed through his humorless jokes. Then he capped it up by his famous philosophy. He said, “Your excellency this is the footstep we are all following. In our language it is called Ndeta ta Ndeti, meaning nibble me I nibble you back. Eat me I eat you back. Your Excellency this is all in line with the sessional paper No.10 of the famous Ominde report of 1969. Your leadership is the best thing that has happened to this country since the discovery of sliced bread. It is now my humble duty and pleasure to invite you baba to talk to your students. Father you are teacher number one”
The farmer number one rose. He cleared his groggy throat. He Said, “Siasa ni maisha. Siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya. Politics is life. Bad politics. Bad life. Be good to me. I will be good to you.” He waived his club and Achecho and the other students waived one finger salute. That was the signal they had been waiting for. The signal of total submission the way a stray old toothless hound submit to the dominant male. A security officer emerged from the inner sanctum of power with two sacks full of notes. The two sacks were handed over to Engineer Don Albert K’Omuga Haya.
The Doctor walked out of the ICU door and interrupted Achecho reverie. He said, “Don Albert has passed on. We tried our best. He had internal bleeding in the brain. We could not stop it.”