Wednesday, February 1, 2012
THE KENYAN INITIATION - HELL IN A CELL
Forget circumcision. Forget the removal of six lower teeth. Forget the fancy body tattoos. Heck, forget killing a lion. In Kenya, a man is not a man until he has spent a night in a Police cell. Ask me, I have been there. Nothing in this world prepares you for adulthood more thoroughly than a night in a Kenyan Police Cell.
Not that I ever saw it coming. But then again, neither do the thousands of others who also have a certificate of initiation courtesy of Utumishi kwa wote like me. Raise the topic in any group of hobnobbing Kenyans. Chances are that four out five have had a brush-up with the cops, and probably two of them ended up jumping into the dreaded Mahindras in the 90s, Lorries or Land Cruiser pick-ups of the latter years, and eventually spent a night that could be well be the theme of a proper Riverwood script.
Speaking of Mahindras, they must have been one of Baba Moi's biggest practical jokes on Kenyans. Now, I was not old enough to be a police target when they were in operation, but I understand that the The Indian Version of the Jeep was so slow a suspect on foot could actually outpace police cops driving one! That might be an exaggeration, but they weren't the fastest or most efficient of police-vehicles. I do remember the Mahindras being as noisy as a posho-mill, meaning criminals could actually hear police approaching from a mile away, giving them more than ample time to take off. In the present world, Mahindras would be the cross-breed of a Probox and a Tuk Tuk- Ugly as hell and durable as Sandak.
But that is a story for another day. When I was ferried to a cop station to be a guest of the state, it wasn't via a Mahindra or a Maria. It was via a Datsun 120Y, owned by the then OCS of Oyugis Police Station. The events that followed would leave me with a permanent emotional scar, but which I now carry proudly as the badge of a most unconventional initiation into Kenyan adulthood.
It was one evening in Oyugis town. I was spending my post-KCSE and pre-college days as an actor, with a group called YOFAK. Youths Fighting AIDS in Kenya. Ours was a noble cause, doing HIV-AIDS-related theatrical pieces to attract crowds, and then our sister organization, the good people of Tuvumiliane Senta, would give real-life testimonies about their lives as people living with AIDS. We were agents of behaviour change. I believed in this cause so much that I walked 8 kilometers thrice a week from my Gamba Village to Oyugis town, where we did our rehearsals ahead of weekend performances.
After rehearsals I'd normally take a matatu back home, since it's an up-hill journey back. Our Village is virtually part of Kisii Highlands and the landscape is very good for practicing marathoners, not actors.
So, one such evening after rehearsals, I walked to the bus-stage and boarded a mat. At that time they were the face-me-propers. You know, those ones that have passengers seated on two rows either side, you sitting while facing a passenger opposite, literally forcing you to look into that face which could be unfriendly, callous, ogling at your cleavage (if you are a woman) or which has saliva vaporing from the side of the mouth. When the mat moves, the passenger next to you is likely to outstretch a hand to hold onto the metal rail in the middle for balance, exposing an armpit as bushy as Maasai Mara in the rainy season and consequently unbottling an odour that would make Dandora Dumpsite smell like Galito's.
So I boarded this mat, which happened to be the last for the day. It was already full. But you surely remember the matatu golden rule of the Pre-Michuki rules- matatu haijai. I sat on the edge of one seat, the driver unleashed the hand gear, pressed the accelerator, then made an emergency brake. The force squeezed all passengers towards the front and voila! There was space for one more! I fit in snugly.
A few men climbed up the body. Satisfied that we were overloaded enough, the conductor whistled. It was time to head home.
But wait. One more potential passenger happened by. It was an elderly woman, in her mid-seventies probably, trudging along with the help of a walking stick. Obviously we had to make space for her. Now, African tradition demands that young people show respect to the elders, and that includes giving up your seat. I happened to be the youngest passenger seated, and from the corner of my eye I spotted several pairs of eyes giving me that "simama mama akae" look. The woman also looked up at me imploringly. I did not need any other cue. I alighted.
" Ero kamano nyakwara, nyasaye biro gwedhi," she muttered in Luo. It means "thank you, my grandchild, God will bless you,". And with that I climbed up the body and perched myself with the luggage and passengers on top.
How I wish God heard her prayers immediately. I wouldn't be writing this now. But things did go differently, God was probably in a closed-door session with Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. Don't Wikipedia her, you know her as Mother Theresa.
Up top, I had just turned a sack of sweet potatoes into a seat when I spotted the ubiquitous Datsun 120Y some 100meters away, driving towards us in patrol-mode. Slow But Sure. I knew that was the OCS approaching. And I guessed he wasn't just going to drive by. My first instinct was to jump off the mat and Usain Bolt myself to safety. My second instinct was to jump off the mat and Houdini myself in the shop corridors by the roadside. My third instinct was to pretend I hadn't spotted the Datsun, calmly get off as if I had only gone up to inspect my luggage, and then mingle with the bystanders nearby. I chose the latter.
As I was about to jump down with a semblance of innocence painted all over my face, I saw an out-stretched pair of hands, and a voice spoke to me, "shuka pole pole tu, usiumie, acha nikusaidie".
It was a plain-clothed policeman. About four of them had walked ahead of the Datsun, and surrounded the mat. We were cornered. He duly helped me down, and politely asked me to walk with him to the Datsun. I was in a spin. One second I am headed home, the next I am under arrest.
There were about seven of us atop the matatu. We were all huddled into the pick-up. I looked pityingly at the driver, then at the conductor, who incidentally wasn't arrested. I was hoping against hope that he would follow us to the station and bail us out, or even get arrested on our behalf. He sped off, of course.
On our way to the station, one policeman verbalized a litany of charges they would file against us. Half-dazed, I couldn't hear anything. All I heard was what he said at the very end, "Total fine ten thousand". I had a whopping 100 shillings in my pocket. I knew I was fried.
At the station, we were ushered into the reception, and our names duly written in the occurrence book. One policeman whispered that whoever had two thousand shillings would be set free. Then he said, 'kama hauna bond, toa belt na viatu!"
Two had the money and were set free. Another one negotiated his freedom down to the entire 600 bob he had in his pocket. I was the richest of the four of us who remained behind. 100bob wasn't gonna cut it. I took a glimpse at the crowded, poorly lit men's cell jus behind the OB desk. I could have sworn I saw expectant eyes lighting up at the prospect of 'fresh meat'.
With belt and shoes off, alongside other valuables we had, the cell door cranked open. And the policeman said, "karibuni nyumbani"
I slowly stepped in, one hand holding my loose trousers. Suddenly a repulsive smell hit my nostrils like a wave of Tsunami hitting the poor coastline of Sendai, Japan. I actually nearly fell. It was the smell of decaying human waste, akin to the unattended City Council toilets of old. I took two more steps, and my soles felt something sticky. The entire floor was sticky, and needless to say, they were not breadcrumbs on the floor.
There was hardly space to manoeuvre. I thought I'd sit next to the cell door for fresh air. Then a booming voice commanded us, "Ingieni huko ndani bwana! Mamono hukaa karibu na choo.".
I looked in the direction of the voice. It was a solidly-built, mean-looking unkempt ruffian, pointing towards the darkest corner of the cell. We did not argue, and made our way there, amidst warnings from the seated cell-mates, "mad inyona, ibiro yie", which means step on me at your own risk.
The toilet at the corner that the cell prefect was referring to was actually a black 200 litre water storage container that acted as the urinal and dumper rolled into one. It had no cover, and its sides had those tell-tale marks of its function. My digestive system instantly malfunctioned. There was no chance in hell that I was gonna help myself there, so help me God.
I made sitting space for myself some 2 meters away from the crapper. I could hardly breathe by now. As an asthmatic, my chest started filling up. I was sure I was gonna die. I struggled, I heaved a little. I cant remember how I eventually settled down. But I somehow did.
In a cell, newcomers normally spend the first one or two hours cowering. What with all the stories out there of bullying, beatings and, in some cases, sodomisation. Thankfully in my case, all I did I was introduce myself, my residence, my clan and explain why I was there.
By nightfall all was calm, except for the occasional joke from the regulars. I got to know about a few of them. But I remember two outstanding cases. There was this man who had wounds on his soles. He lay on his back all along, and was the only one with a mattress (once inch) and blanket that had seen better days. He had been there two years, I gathered. He was a murder suspect who's case seemed to drag forever. He was shuttled regularly between Oyugis and Kisii, where the High Court was. He winced every moment someone as much as grazed his soles. He cried that he had been tortured all day to "confess", and demanded for more space get some undisturbed rest in readiness for what he called another day of torture. The prefect saw to that.
The other case was this man who kept talking to an invisible wife and daughter. One minute he would be singing her wife's praise, the next he would be castigating the woman for her inability to maintain the homestead well.
"Ma dhako mofuwo manade, nyaka ne ichak tedo nyuka no pok ochiek? Be ing'eyo ni adenyo?'
Essentially the man was rambling about this woman who was apparently taking too long to serve him porridge. He would then threaten to kill this woman if she didn't pull up her socks. I asked what was wrong with him. A cellmate told me he had indeed murdered his wife and daughter, and then went bonkers after that. His hallucinations were as pitiful as they were funny.
Deep into the night, probably close to midnight, I had adjusted by sheer willpower. I was at home seated among these men, innocent and guilty alike.I couldn't smell the pungent odor anymore- I was part of it. We were a family brought together by justice or lack of it, and as we heard one another's stories, laughed or empathised accordingly. In between conversation, a few men went and helped themselves at the corner. One was a long call. We all behaved as if nothing was happening. The night was becoming bearable. But trust nature to throw a sadistic spanner in the works.
The poor men right next to the makeshift latrine jumped up with a start, shrieking. The bloody tank was leaking, one of them yelled. Their behinds were all wet. They wanted to move. But where were they to go? They were the 'form ones". The cell was full. The best they could do was stand, right there.
Within minutes a quarter of the cell was buzzing. Apparently the effluent had seeped slowly thru the cell unnoticed. I rose a little and felt my behind. It was wet. I cursed and squatted. My ass was so numb I hadn't realized my trouser was absorbing fresh sewage. My calmness left me.
In no time people were shouting at the police woman on duty. We demanded for a new container. Then we asked for a new container. Then we begged for a new container. The police woman simply laughed. Some three cellmates were however relentless, and begged the policewoman to show her motherly side. She coldly reminded us that we she wasn't our mother, and threatened to pour water in the cell if we didn't keep quiet. The three didn't listen.
They were still loud when suddenly, the policewoman appeared by the cell-door with a bucketful of water. Before we could yelp "Oh NO!', she had hurled the contents into the cell! No doubt we all raised our voices in disapproval and anger. She responded by refilling the bucket and splashing the water on us again. She dared us to continue talking. We all shut up, shell-shocked.
Now I was wet not only on ma behind, but half my body, The water also moistened the sticky floor surface. I might have as well been thrown into a latrine altogether. I wondered how I ended up here in the first place. It all came flashing before me. I recalled how I was looking forward to going home. I recalled how I had secured a seat. I recalled the haggard woman who I left the seat for. What was conceivably an innocent act of compassion had rewarded me with my darkest day on earth so far. I felt the huge lump in my throat growing by the second. Tears welled up in my eyes. I couldn't take it anymore, I broke down.
Now, you don't just break down and cry in a cell full of testosterone. You are a man, and such an act could have repercussions. I sat back in the sordid muck, tucked my head between my knees and let the tears flow, heaving uncontrollably while letting out as little sound out as possible.
Fives minute later I relented. Then I looked up. In the partial darkness I caught the fixed gaze of the cellmate seated opposite me. We stared at each other for about ten seconds, then he looked away. I knew he understood.
Tears have such a soothing effect. My entire body relaxed once again. I was at one with my environment once more. Somehow i caught some sleep.
I was woken up sometime later by the mad man in the house. He was hungry, and demanding food from his wife. Some naughty character was convincing him that his porridge was ready a long time ago, all the while pointing to the crapper at the corner. If you are weak hearted, please skip the next two paragraphs. The naughty character then offered the mad man a cup and told him to go ahead and take a sip. At that point I found my voice and shouted, "no!'' Other dissenting voices joined me. But the hungry mad man was convinced that the crapper in the corner was indeed a pot of porridge. He moved there and scooped it. I looked away in disgust. I heard two people urging him on. Many others told him to stop. But no one moved in to stop him. Then I heard the familiar sound of a sip.
I didn't want to look. I felt like vomiting but couldn't bring myself to. I prayed my ears were pulling tricks on me. But then I heard the mad man say,"it is not ripe enough yet.' I knew he had indeed taken a sip of semi-solid human waste.
The rest of the night was largely uneventful. In these surroundings you learn to readjust fast, and by six AM were were ourselves again. Hell, I was hungry! The only thing that was gonna keep me from feeding was if the breakfast was anything close to the descriptions i had heard before on prison food. But when it did arrive at about six thirty, I was pleasantly surprised. It was pretty well-prepared porridge and two slices of buttered bread. I gulped down my share with gusto. The cops on morning shift were kind enough to allow contraband; a few of us even smoked.
After breakfast there was time for one more drama session. The plastic latrine had to be emptied. As is customary, that task is always done by freshmen. One cell-mate pointed at me. I said I'd rather pay them money. It was my lucky day. Two hapless freshmen were then cuffed to the container, which they carried outside and emptied. They then brought it back uncleaned.
By nine, the cell started emptying as friends and relatives bailed us out. I wasn't even sure my people knew. When I was arrested I alerted no one. In the year 2000 mobile phones were as common as Ferraris on Kenyan roads. I could only pray and watch as the cell-door opened and shut repeatedly.
Then at 10AM, my name was called out. I literally flew to the cell-door. Then I saw my grandfather at the OB desk. That familiar lump returned to the throat, but I fought back the tears. He asked whether I was ok, I could only nod. Then the cell-door cranked open again. I was free.
I put my belt and shoes back on. But I couldn't get my 100 shillings back. Suddenly the policeman who kept our money could not be traced. We left my receipt with the OCS and walked away; I couldn't stand the sight of Oyugis Police Station any more.
My mom, who had also come to have me released, explained to me that one of the men who bailed himself out the previous night delivered news of my arrest. You see, in the village, teachers are held in high regard. My mother was a celebrated teacher, and everyone knew her family. I was lucky. I would otherwise have been ferried to Kisii Remand Cells that very morning, a much nastier place to be, she said. I wondered just how nastier it could get.
I got back to the bus stage with mum. This time we found a mat in a hurry to fetch passengers from the village since it was market day in town. we were thus the only passengers, plus a boy. As we sped away, I enjoyed the fresh air beating my nostrils. For a moment I forgot my troubles, until the conductor started hurling insults at the boy.
"unanuka sana kijana, kwani huogangi?'
all the while he cursed and cursed, insisting that the boy smelt like a toilet. Then it hit me, I was the one smelling like a toilet. I confessed, and explained where I was from. The manamba could only say, 'pole sana'. But he couldn't help lifting his nose in all directions looking for the elusive fresh air.
Eventually I got home. The first thing I did was throw the long trouser and underwear into the latrine. Those could not be saved. However, the shirt I was wearing was one of my favorites, and I soaked it. Then I took several bucket-fulls of hot bath.
The smell of that cell would haunt me for months. But I found solace in the words of a friend, who told me after hearing my ordeal,
"Worry not my friend. By spending a night in a police cell, you have finally become a man."