As the senile century turned nineties, a host of Chinese citizens pounced upon Nairobi with tenacious teeth that clenched tight to concrete dreams. The toothless city received this invasion much easier than the wallahs of India who had laid her foundation a century earlier. Their wills laboured in her underbelly until she birthed colossal skyscrapers and superhighways, cultural centres and tiny pagodas nourished by three-star restaurants, simmering Chinese dishes and exclusive cuisines, Buddhist temples and monkish clubs and Confucius schools. The metropolitan seeds stirred; nurturing, bearing fruits in her concrete jungles, extending a ripened reward to everyone according to their work.
With tyranny of numbers, they settled down to their ‘tiny empires’ in strongly built uptowns—surrounded by Walls of China, fortified by baked brick, reinforced by electric fence—and leafy suburbs watched by CCTV cameras. Big Brother Securicor patrolled their terrazzo-paved boulevards, escorted by dogs, and with clockwork precision, the county council collected their trash bins, greedily sucking up all sewage and excessive wastes, in dead of night, anonymous and in oblivious obscurity. For the Far Eastern Asian denizens, a yearning had been awakened and conquered. Theirs was a satiated city, a sleepy suburb; theirs were bellies bursting with pleasant belches. Theirs was peopled with yellow envoys, peeping with diplomatic eyeballs.
Inviting themselves too, to relish in the ‘green city under the sun’ were swarms of slum hustlers who subsisted hassling in unlisted estates bearing such Sheng-coded names of Isiich Base, Dandoch Massive, Bangla Kona Biad, and all other odds and ends of trashopolistan of Eastlands. Survived strapping, these restless but unwelcome cockroaches, were accorded cold reception by the impassive city under the vigilant makarau wa gava, and as if sprayed, they scurried backwards downtown, preferring riverbanks residence, and along under-construction Chinese bypasses in dilapidated polythene tents. There, they lived in village hovels drying out their dreams as raisins under the sun, as a people battered, in a shanty town, in the ghetto Golgotha, the unsightly town for sacrificial scapegoats, a universal visual evil, an abysmal symbol for the city.
There, the riffraff gawked into the city’s skyline, rising and rising with smog into the ozone-layered sphere as their thousand chimneys blackened their azure sky with smoke. There, they subsisted in a ‘dark city under green-house gases’ and added odds, by multiplying as a mice populace with litters of hustlers; for those who could afford, packed their tired limbs in bed-sitter apartments, high-rise buildings, single rooms, living on top of each other, in plots grabbed by rook or crook, stealing and staring at one another with contaminated collected countenances; a crooked look, of men living and loving their crooked neighbours with crooked hearts—for a friend you could choose; not a neighbour!
Those who wouldn’t afford honest homes, collected rags and tarpaper to build their nests under unfinished concrete jungles and gathered firewood to keep warm their indecent decadence. Though they followed faithfully the scriptures that said, ‘thou shalt eat thy bread in the sweat of thy brow,’ the sad reality was to peasants, a bloated bread that tasted their own sweat, yet totally tasteless, sickened them until the pangs of hunger blurred their prayer into a twisted swearing ‘thou shalt starve ere I starve!’ But since man couldn’t live on bread alone, they toasted too to air burgers polished with leftover oil, hovering in shapes of dreams, airs of dreams floating into their city, realism dreams. The rising dream to escape the reality of peeping poverty staring. The dream to be landlords, demanding a lease of life until they fulfilled their will, become free and great; and moved on to the greener pastures of the city as millionaires.
Life proposing no such promise, instead these squatters of shanty town, crouched eking on their knees, in the sea of mud and scum of earth; that when they walk to work, their second-hand shoes exposed filthy feet and tired toes wallowing in the dirty potholes of Eastlands. Trading their brute force and sinewy hands for food, cleaning Chinese roads, washing Chinese houses, scouring, picking up garbage cans, keeping expired food, unseen, selling useless things hardly thought about, polishing their opportunities and in menacing silence and offended pride, they desired, longing for their own dream; hoping they could live in liberty, finally, and rise to welcome life with vigour and valour or such like values, their ghetto could accord.
Like the Chinese, they too tasted triumphs in the bitter battles to stir up Kenya’s industrial muscle. Open opportunities were grabbed before they exited through the back window with new energies that nurtured on determined wills as its force. Life again became promising, bursting, and blooming, blowing as a soft gale the Y2K bug further into the unfamiliar millennium of unchartered century, for the industries would not only revolutionise Kenya’s economy, but also pollute the environment; and the smooth superhighways speed up global warming!
As expected, a Sino-bourgeoisie class sprang—swelling as if competing to replace the Made in China wares—in uptown; pseudo-technocrats, and former foremen who filled every spare space, supervising with an iron hand African hands, building this or fixing that. China became a poem with a rhyme scheme so enticing as a social statement, and so contemporary as a betrayal even worse as the suffering children of communism who as successful adults, journeyed West and, ironically, kept alive similar capitalism against which they had protested in the first place.
A Chinese scheme, it seem, had been conspired to scatter Maoist seeds into African soils. It seem, of their exploding population, that photocopied pieces of China had been copied and pasted, and forwarded with attachments into the city, and the city ‘owners started noticing’ how many Made in China wares decorated their households; as if they had brought all their China overseas and left none back there. And being all day building bridges, streets, roads, and at night mingling with and singling out the oldest profession, it can be imagined, the results after nine months: Wanjiru wa Wu and Ngugi wa Nging Ngong –the mottled conjugation of Afro-Sino cultures.
One such conjugated union was Murder Shiro, the socialite of Urusi; a juicy story that buzzed across both social and unsocial media. The fecund fruit, Wangui wa Wangdu, was sold away for many pieces of Chinese silver, and went on to live in the custody of his father in Guangdong and with such a drama that’d inspire a Chinese Chalk Circle. Yet, such was the amicable but distant pact that contented the socialite Shiro; for it established her ‘Merde She-Wrote’ notoriety and ensured her daughter’s success.
The Shiro stain had rusted in peace; well, as the Y2K wore on, until we got a call from the most unlikely quarters. Through a referral, a Mr. Wangdu who sent his PA to our Westlands Tuition Centre and required me to personally attend to his child’s private studies after a place had already been secured at the prestigious ISK for an AS Level. The student wanted help taking an IB before proceeding to the States to study architecture like the father.
‘Mr. Busy Wangdu want sree monss for perfect American English.’ He said.
‘Yeah, Busy.’ And he spelled B-i X-i when he saw my confusion, pronouncing it in his Mandarin monosyllables, asking for only three months, for me to tutor her daughter, polish her accent until she spoke like an American.
‘She finish English grammar school in Guangdong only teacher teach English in Chinese.’ The PA struggled in his sluggish Chinglish, giving me the only Learner Info ‘record’ that she had already had her grammar polished by a local English teacher back in her rural China. ‘You come Brook Highs Leakey Crescent Sunday sewen sharp?’ He directed, handing me his master’s card, and after putting down a generous down payment, hastily left.
I nodded at the not-unusual offer. But with such explicit orders from Mr. Wangdu not to deal with any of my tutors, I was on the receiving end as the Language Dean. Of course, I sometimes ‘hustled’ for an extra shilling doubling up as a tutorial fellow; and was familiar with Brook Heights sitting among the leafier suburb of Nairobi, one of the quietest place in the city. A majestic hill watched over the plains below and a tiny brook slithered through it, with just a whisper sufficient to silence one into repose; and the occasional cackle of a duck or a caw of a crow, nearly the lone tone that ever snapped in upon the consonant peace. Down to a little lake the peace slid; a tranquil lake, now naturalised with matching mansions cautiously sprinkled around its shores.
Like every Eastlander working in Westlands and sleeping in the ends of Istlando, ‘receiving end’ was also a middle name. Westlands was the starlight that dazzled the moths of Eastlands to fly towards the night sky. The light-year look that the wretched of Istlanda earth threw on the majesty of Westy was a look of lust; it articulated a longing for possession: to relax at spacious chaise lounges, to feast at high table, to rest in king-size bed in master ensuites. The hustler is jealously ambitious and every hustler builds their castles in the air of Westlands fully-furnished with a Banco bed to sleep in bliss.
While he had sounded all agreeable when he made a confirmation call late Saturday, Wangdu wasn’t anything less than a time-is-money romantic. He was the Ocol character that Lawino in her Song mourned most for being consumed and controlled by time and its elements! With an eye for detail, he had checked us out—off and online. Counter-checked with our referees—mostly Language Support teachers from International institutions who vouched and strongly recommended me—thanks to my rustic pedagogy methods.
Let me digress a little—I assure you these ramblings bring as much boredom to me as it does to you—we’ll return to the story for we haven’t even left Eastlands yet. Apart from public and school holidays, the weekend is the busiest time for a private tutor. The kids were home; and we scour several clients across parts of the city with crescents, closes, drives, etc. and not your regular potholed Eastlands roads! Without public transport too, one has to make prior arrangements with cabs, that is, if you didn’t already drive, as is the case with most hustlers.
As side business, I hired out my tuk-tuk to save time for my tutors. Behind the wheel was Abdituk-tuk the Irie Priest, aka Abdi-Arsenaali, the staunch sycophant of Arsenal and always high on this-and-that substance. I had endured this versatile Conqueror of Rush Hour for a long time. I adored his street wisdom, and respected his judgment, clouded in PhD, permanent head damage, chewing khat that made him spell his name backwards; yet he rode the tuk-tuk in a drunken stupor—as long as the tuk-tuk was sober.
Being multilingual and bearing many names (kept changing after several arrests to his titles, had multiple identities that his original name ‘paled into his fake ID’), Abdituk-tuk took the tuk-tuk to the garage to pimp it (into a brand-new second hand, to borrow his line from the legend Tosh) and, as a sobering up tuk-tuk tactic, spent that weekend rebranding the old ride with a more ambitious name—Sheikh Spear (without an e)—a poetic and musical reference to resourceful sages. An amiable compromise for the Mullah of Jah who loved playing loud non-stop Burning Spear; while I loved Shakespeare (with an e)!
With the floating funds from the generous down payment, I broke for the weekend earlier than usual and joined him at the garage to monitor the progress. I personally knew the owner of the GramMer Garage— an anagram for Graham and his girl Merde She-Wrote aka Murder Shiro—but his boys in oily overalls needed propping up with a good cheer. ‘Urgently-fix-it’ plea was a language garbage they were deaf to when high on ganja and listening to roots reggae, panel-beating and pimping rides. Neither did their ‘Fala wa Bangla biad man!’ slogan help your pressing cause nor their cursing ‘Bumbo Klaat! A cyaan bliem it on di Babylon shit-stem.’ It was easier for Natty Rude bways to mend your image and rearrange your skull from moral dents of impatience than repair your car.
Such a pervasion had pervaded the moral fabric of Eastlands to its inner core that it became a mini version and the condition per excellence of the mega Nairobi; a metaphor for a socially rotting Nairoberry perfectly captured in The Beautiful Ones are not yet Born: ‘rotten in body, mind and soul.’ The hustling Istlando Bways learnt to curse like Caliban, in Sheng, a lewd language; and recruited ruffians and street riffraff to use the matatu public transport to broadcast its indecent dialect. From these rude bways, to mechanics, to drivers, to touts, and to anyone rogue way up there, matatu culture led the madding crowd; others followed.
Perhaps ghetto forefathers started tongue-twisting the rebellious game. As the colonialists fled, Mau Mau freedom fighters in Eastlands renamed the RAF Outposts of Embarkation and Carrier Corps, Embakasi and Kariokor, respectively, or their tongues refused to obey these mzungu words. Either way, the English language had paid the price of obedience to new uses, abuses and misuses. But what the colonialist ignited by way of dividing and ruling those resisting them was well perpetuated by post-independent leaders; a character Fanon confronts while penetrating barriers to the birth of a culture: ‘each generation must, out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.’
Kenglish accomplished this, playing beside Sheng. Kenglish, an African version still synchronised with its ancestral home but battered a bit to fine-tune it to its new hamlets. But the forebears who twisted this language never thought that the humiliation its use cushioned them from yesterday, would rage and boil today with radicalisation. For if language be divorced from reality, when engineered as fragile ivory tower and stage-managed for selfish ends, the bedlam of Babel tumbled on its baffled speakers. If foul language be the wind broken by a bloated mind, and babbling mouths spewing such sewer tongues imbibe from these bowels of shit-loaded brain, then no clean language can come from such a colloquial stain.
Thus the latter-day downpressed Istlandas pollinated Sheng from borrowed local wings, ghetto words stinging like bees, playing like butterflies language games as hybrid codes and vulgarising slang to refine hustling, to rebel being born in Istlando, setting up their own crude rules with toponymic haste, renaming English nouns, changing place names, slicing standard Kiswahili from its cradle, corrupting parts of speech, terms, etc. They became the excrement of Eastlands, and Sheng the mad dog that had come to eat it up! And smelling no difference between their shit and they’re shit; the dogs thought the stench aromatic, an euphemized shinola; an adverbial perfume perhaps!
The matatu touts with the Mungiki gangland used it to redefine their status quo, state d'affaires and even affairs of state as they wished, and like Locke and Hobbes, conveyed new nuances of meaning in lexical lingo. Alongside matatu culture, Sheng grew wings of a sidereal bat, sprouting with semantic and lexical lunacy that wouldn’t be tamed even in the police cells, nor prison remands. This Istlando Sheng; a volatile counterculture canister, stirred up consciousness to advance views of surviving the hustle and political reorganization and restructure a class struggle of hustlers confronting the dominant literary and ideological narratives in the ‘shit-stem of Babylon.’
But if you indulged them with a good cheer (of course not with weed but in their bawdy exchanges) they’d work urgently on your car and you’d collect into the bargain, (if you were a fictioneer), many anthological threads of properly yarned yet unwritten stories from this ungrammatical garage. Like the story of Graham Badmind Bway and his Merde She-Wrote aka Murder Shiro girlfriend with their Made-in-China garage that only needed my ‘aha!’ and ‘re-aaally?’ prodding and encouragement to get some fodder for serious literature. I wondered what anagram GramMer Garage would adopt when finally the two partners part—knowing nothing Chinese lasted! Where else could your Meja Mwangi hear from the very Onesmus’ mouth, the One-Arse-Man himself, eating innards and gizzards at Hilototoni Mwisho wa Lami; the ghettosized End-of-Tarmac Hilton, and a hustlers’ smoky-joint you ended up, literally in your Going Down River Road?
Back to the story—and I promise no more digressions—because you can begin to fully appreciate the transport hassles of Istlando now complicated by superlative road diversions to support the rapid-pace progress made-by-China infrastructure. The impatient passengers, glittery matatus arrogant with road outrage, over-speeding boda-boda bikes, rickety tuk-tuks, old tilted taxis, the pot-holed end-of-tarmac roads, loud-mouthed hawkers weighed down by huge hoarded goodies, competing here with an irritated hooting, and there with the incredible scatter of children, and disoriented pedestrians, drug peddlers, idlers, and the playful battle of street urchins made Istlando streets a visual and an oscillating concerto of confusion.
That Sunday, the sky wept generously as a respite for the dusty streets—an insult to injury when you added a drop of rain to the despicable disorder of Eastlands! Yet, we made it out of that madness by taking lonely roads and unbeaten paths, paved by all the daunting end-of-tarmac potholes—pushing the tuk-tuk—almost carrying it shoulder high like the proverbial donkey—and after wallowing in its mire, we waded in sticky cotton-soil which barely allowed us through. This was a cup of tea for Abdituk-tuk, who bravely borne, endured the lone stretch all the way to Westlands.
Yet I failed to make the all-important first impression in spite of all the precious prior arrangements (including asking Irie P to postpone his khat chewing session the previous night). By getting there late—and for five minutes—I was lousy in the unforgiving eyes of Mr. Wangdu, who proceeded to give me a carpe-diem lecture.
‘You must to come early!’ Entered the dragon, from his garden pagoda, breathing fire at my lateness. ‘Time is money.’ He blew smoke rings from his cigar with poised and pleased puffs, as if he had summed up the universe, time and space in a phrase!
It was no use informing him about the ten minutes we spent at each of the three gates being frisked because of their ‘no-entry-to-rickshaws’ policy, and a bumber-to-bumber Limuru Road jam that made us zigzag Parklands towards Westlands, nor the traffic drama at Westgate’s roundabout, and only Irie P’s antics could beat the Red Hill Drive meeting with Rosslyn and finally Brook Heights.
Was it any use for a harassed Istlanda disoriented inside a tired tuk-tuk riding in the marbled driveways looking for a calligraphic address of House Number 493Q; with no one in the endless cul-de-sacs to ask for directions; lonely with a tuk-tuk for company; with an Istlandish peculiarity in such an isolation? Who knew if Big Brother wasn’t watching our ‘suspicious’ movements, or the omnipresent ‘footage evidence’ by universal eyes from the concealed CCTV cameras overhead would land us a trespass charge in court? We could as well, with our exhausted threats of speed, be passing through an unseen multitude!
Besides, as it had been said, it was a misty morning from the dawn rains, and the sky was still depressed and overcast with protracted clouds, grinning with a cheerless face from torrents brewed in hell. The russet brown roads had put on their solemn ashen grey, as scarlet floodgates washed away bridges, and bleached the dusty Istlando streets with a filthy foam that poorly drained as deadly dyes of dark red muck.
In his world, could he understand the unhappy marriage between the rains in Nairobi and road gridlock? That only Irie P could beat by driving round and round cross-cutting bend to bend to make it to up-market Rosslyn lanes? In his world, the absolute monarch of his little territory wasted precious time lecturing a hustler on ‘time is money’ formula! While he, the evident artefact of that cliché, lazed around in official sunshine, amassing property; dispensing that Epicurean philosophy, as if I lived in a time comatose ‘gathering nightshade (instead of rosebuds) while I may!’
‘Where’s rain? Looking up and down, he demanded, pointing at the disapproving carpet lawn. The arable ground was in self denial or had buried the evidence. And the sky confessed, smiling with a dazzling sunshine wide enough as an open curtain in the heavens that Sun had subdued cousin storm, amicably, but without informing me. What lingered in his azure sky were quiet jerks of jagged sparks and sporadic clamour, a quenched belch here and a rumour of remote rumbling there. But even then, if his ‘where’s rain’ pun-intended-pun-delivered joke had befallen some trashopolis of Istlando, it would have collapsed under the strain of rain, confounding a hustler’s pursuit of happiness by blowing away with the wind his house of cards; and dreams washed down dirty rivers, washing countless futures into the sewage. Yet, in Brook Heights, the well-aerated imported soil dried as soon as the rains stopped, and mansions withstood all tempests of the elements.
Chinese time is linear. But African time is circular. This is wery bad.’ He lectured, no longer looking at me. And you can imagine the dragon-ian pharaoh in his imposing patio unimpressed by the Mosée of Istlando, and dismissing all his grievance with laughter loaded with displeasure.
‘If we work together, you must to adjust your time.’ Yet as I listened to his ungrammatical droning on with all his time crap, I learnt one or two ready-made in China facts from my receiving end. That the oriental time concept was linear; it was now or never. Just like in the West, you either did something now, or entirely didn’t. While our African orientation was circular. In our minds, (twisted in time wraps according to him) there would be another time; a next time. The East and the West were steadily progressing leaving us behind because there was no hurry in African time.
But is the race for the swift? It was totally disorientating for me to scheme life along a linear line. The Swahili sages say hurry, hurry has no blessings. The Yoruba know: hurry, hurry, get there tomorrow. Take time, get there today because punctuality is the stealer of time. This was the orthodoxy I loved, and hated any type of Chinese change, for like many Lawinos of Africa, never had a specified time to breastfeed, time to nap, time to poop, and fixed time for everything; my time never shifted, from one task to the next. It moved on and on in an axle as the rotation of the earth, which—in due season, too, never race in haste, in a craze, for China, for Africa, indeed hurried nor waited for no one—revolved round and round the sun, day in and day out using a similar course. The orient orientation of time upset mine and seem an attempt to cheat the alignment of my world by altering ten degrees off its axis. Bi Xi would have to adjust his Beijing time, which anyway was a staggering nine hours ahead!
Of course, he was wrong to equate time and money. Else, how come we all had time; not money. Time is, and was, in existence; long before the invention of the clock, which now pretends to confine it, locking it up like a genie in a bottle. And yet time breaks out of this man-made container, escaping into its eternal liberty, even under our fanatical vigilance. The wisdom of life is to interpret it and attempt to keep up with the stable tempo of time, as sailors adjusting sails, to conquer sea challenges, seizing carpe diem moments, the moments when opportunity hint.
Time is to a clock what soul is to the body; the sages, poets and philosophers have always known we are passing shadows—here today, gone tomorrow. African time concept considers that the present world isn’t the sum total of our existence. We are beings of two worlds—bodily to this one and spiritually to the next. Our life is but a moment between two eternities, not merely mortals of material time, though powerless over the time of our entries and exits into this world; yet inherently we transcended time.
But not as theatrical mortals of time acting in productions of endless space comedy against tragic forces of our fleeting natural lives—which we’re too occupied stage-managing in our little drama,—hustling to succeed until its entries and its exits escape our grasp. Never to resolve, this conflict between today and forever in our narrative. Never to recover forever in today, and today in forever!
Instead we imitate immortality in the imaginary eternity of our earthly labours, in leaving our footprints on the sands of time, scheming progress, hijacking the circular course of nature, imagineering it linear even when in the annals of history, it endlessly repeated itself. Like the ceaseless phases of the moon and the sequence of darkness and light, witnessing one cycle, you have seen all of them, as each coalesced invisibly into a synchronized coitus.
Ours are coordinated acts in seeing the ceaseless cycles of seasons as similes to the drama of human life—keeping up with heartbeats of karma and time; even in my shallow Lawino character eloquent in time-is-not-money laments. I’d still appreciate, infer and interpret universal time as any street-smart hustler with only experience—not to be dismissed by naïve advocates of oriental orientation and helpless mortals of emotional outburst while guiding her daughter as a model ape and hopeless mimic of occidental West.
‘You must to start early.’ He repeated, bringing back my wandering mind. ‘Understand me?’ I almost walked out in protest; but he was a referral—my Istlando tutors would laugh me off. And again, he threatened to sack the gatekeeper (his forty years of experience notwithstanding!) for maintaining that we checked in at five past eight, while I insisted it was exactly eight!
With a cricking stiff neck, he rose from his chair, his back rigid as a rake handle, and turned to his left where there sat a bulky bloke (who shall remain anonymous, being too silly to be seriously mentioned) who silently nodded in accord. But then a bellow above his double chin forced itself on the Sabbath stillness. ‘You,’ it yelled, ‘if you not to sorry for you late, go ‘way!’ I glanced around, unsure if he was addressing me. ‘You teacher,’ the voice insisted. ‘You understand my say every-sing? Or you no to speak English?’
Goodness me! My lower lip shook. And from what Babel Tower did he decree these ridiculous verbiage?
And for a moment, I meditated between peace and outburst; studying the restless air. The wisdom of Qoheleth prevailed, guided by time and judgment. There was time to keep silent, and a time to speak. At stake was the quick buck to make while I avoided the usual classroom tedium; tiring standing in the same postures for lengthy sessions; balancing on the right leg for forty minutes and the left for the other forty, five hours a day five days a week until one leg came out stronger than the other.
‘I under-staan your say every-sing.’ I assured him, brushing my roving eyes at his Limited Edition Chinese suit, noticing that its label came from a Beijing House which perhaps exclusively designed for none below the title of diplomat. And thinking perhaps when I retire from this stooping profession, no longer walking with an academic slight, (after reconstructive surgeries) I may also go for a Special Limited Edition as a reprieve for all my occupational hazards that insurance officers were reluctant to pursue in their medical reports.
‘Also his name is boss or sir if you must to address him.’ His host pointed, his words bitter like salt and vinegar combined.
‘Of course, boss. I sorry sir. I must to start early.’ I had learnt from teaching ESL that I wasn’t paid to correct every grammar errors. My sweet revenge; like Chaucer to Jack the Humble Pardoner in using fiction as a powerful weapon. As master wordsmith, I would recreate his Chinese character into a lisping hunchback caricature and punish him for all eternity with pathetic mispronunciation. I’d eviscerate him in fiction. Every character flaw. Every pimple. I was late for five minutes; he’d be late everyday for five eternities!
I’d drench my pen with gall ink and dictate as a tyrant of the fiction world. His words ‘every-sing,’ ‘woora,’ ‘wery,’ ‘must-to’ shall be articulated with piercing, squeaky and irritating voice that’d reverberate to haunt him long into the eternity. Revenge was not mine to give but I would represent the Almighty in exacting it. Sort of poetic justice when a malevolent fictioneer remedies a societal foible using self-reflexive satire.
I could publish an extensive glossary of a defective syntax if I were to record all our confusing conversation. But an abridged version would suffice as evidence of our contact zone; the common room where different cultures bumped, clashed, and wrestled with each other, in uneven relations of defeat and conquest—the nurseries for embryonic hybrid cultures. It’d be an amiable zone if only my clients never asked me to teach their kids with an accent from England while I had to use my Kenglish as a medium; or American editors insisting on italicizing our Sheng or ‘consider revising’ Kenglish to plain English.
‘There is no such thing as American English,’ even the Queen of England, the custodian of English culture dismissed them with a ‘we have the English language and there are errors!’ The errors of standard English sailing the Atlantic, diluted along the passage and ending up as American English; an English already bastardised by history, a language whose scattered skeleton has to be collected and repaired, how much plainer can a Kenyan tongue make its variations and varieties of speckled and spotted Englishes more plainer when, it seem, most English is strewn overseas and nothing is left back in England?
But I reserve this Babel debate for purists since language is a dialect with an army and a navy; Kenglish, the khaki dress being peddled in the display mall for any passer-by speaker to haggle, bastardise and Shenginise it—this likkle cutey dialect—worn and recycled as a fully-fledged linguistic reality. If May the Queen wears her English uniform ‘standard’ white, I’d wear mine Kenglish black and the Chinglish might prefer theirs yellow.
Growing up in the cradle of Kiswahili, but speaking English, it was not enough to be proficient in either, because, wilfully we also manured Sheng and it sprouted as a hybrid code adapting its own coinages by borrowing from right, left and centre, depending on the locality, ushering in a Shenginisation era (or error) raising its social pedestal into a register with rules; except (as linguists) we shuffled our tongues between the various social contexts in using Sheng and standard languages.
Still our Kenglish is a language (which isn’t English) flavoured with a pinch of Sheng—the price a foreign language had to pay to accommodate loads of native tongues. Kenyans mechanically slip back to speaking this ‘Me, I love Nairobi’ dialect without thinking; as a direct transliteration from Kiswahili or an interference from our other tongues. Woe unto teachers of English language with such a tattered linguistic identity! Woe unto many an Istlanda hustler selling that self-induced despair for a living!
But so, aah…, shall we get started as soon as you've measured your balls? I almost let out my impatience after the reproach of coming late to teach a bastardised tongue.
Bi Xi spelt out a detailed program and schedule—for four hours each day, six times a week! A most counterproductive pedagogy! I’d be brooking more trouble if I exhaled another sound, except the mode of payments which he prepaid the full amount in a banker’s cheque. I blessed under my breath, for spotting a fool and his money; soon parted. At the humbling sight of the bills, I see myself in five years time; an Eastlander as he should be; better fed, better clothed and not harassed into hustle and bustle. The appearance. The reality. The contrast.
Where are you been?’ I turned to see a Sino ‘pointy’ of a darker shade girl striding across the terrazzo, now my student, whom the father smothered, as one might to a kitten, without a hint of social etiquette. ‘We searching all the house we looking you.’
‘I am bad room father. She burbled; twisting her tongue with an obscure accent, running towards us with a kitty smile, as if she were stepping into a stage where everyone had been expecting her.
Washing a mowie!’ The tomboy played in tomfoolery; a clip held her Mohawk hair that ascended like a Yankee rock punk. She wore a pencil top and only leggings—with more legs exposed in the see-me-through stockings. ‘Why you call me, ba?’ Her gurgling, piercing, squeaky and irritating voice worried me. Perhaps my vengeful curse was already working! But I suspected a cold from running around almost dressed. I was about to suggest garlic and lemon when I realised that was how she spoke.
The absolute monarch of his little territory grinned back, and there was warmth between them. ‘Why you show se teacher your ess in saat stupid closs!’ I thought that joke was a slap-in-the-wrist discipline to a teenager still negotiating with an age where she carried her shy playful twin fruits in her bra as teasing little boats seeking a rightful rest in the harbour of her chest. Her being pampered was obvious—thanks to a one-child policy. Perhaps she had the mischievous mannerism he would adore in a son but hated in a daughter. As a tutor, I was not expecting to see some lass from Islii Base—some lass in tights and miniskirt showing her thighs—so she can play quickie games—and forgetting everything she was ever taught in Guangdong Grammar School for Girls.
‘Teacher meet Wangoi wa Wangdu. You must to take full opportunity of her to be American Idol, aah... wery good language.’ He brought out the intro so ineptly. ‘I sink you must to understand my saying wery aah...’ He loosely and suddenly hung up in mid-sentence, looking at me, searching desperately for my assistance in deciphering the hidden meaning. But I couldn’t and didn’t know; besides I was in a full circle shock—was this Murder Shiro’s baby?—right before my eyes. Hell no! The PA had said her Kenyan mother was dead. And warned me not to talk about it for her motherlessness surrounded her like an element.
‘Oh-Ma-Gar! I looooo-we American Idle.’ It was a blown up boast. ‘Ow-Em-Gii! I wash in HD morning up to tonight. Excuse teacher, make to love me in language American Idle!’
‘You understand her saying?’ her father rejoined.
‘Every-sing?’ he asked, his hands begging in a friendly flaunt as if to find the footing to his elusive choice of words. Words are only part of what makes human speech: one has to know how to put them together, and knowing how to handle words requires its own level of sophistication. His talent ended where his words began!
‘Every-sing.’ I confirmed, my hand returning the gesture. Fully grasping that communism was about to embrace capitalism and salute the star-studded American flag while I plucked every star out of that flag.
‘I fly China now 9.30 am. I go Happy New Lunar Year. And I busy work. I give you her. Have your way for sree moons.’ It felt disconcerting. The full import would be embarrassing, yet his Chinglish was neither obscene nor banal, simply an unintelligible diction of having my ‘meaningless’ way with her for three months.
After a brief peck, and final instructions, the busy Wangdu boarded his diplomatic limousine. I waved back; my skeptical eye knowing his chauffeur would be in for a road-rage dance with the matatu madmen; a rage that will explode, no doubt, from his ‘timepiece’ face; now nestled in the owner’s back left, the assassination corner—a face of immense volume, yellow, spongy, and with a kind of drowsy dimension like that of Big Buddha—now tinted with impatience. The antithesis to a Confucius sage master who meditated for nine years facing the wall just to teach his heart wisdom of patience.
And thus left Bi Xi Wangdu. The time-conscious diplomat, the Buddha of his timeline, the supreme leader of his tiny pagoda, and cheerful beyond all creatures, in the faith that he was the sage of Zen age. The lord of ‘grabbed’ Brook Heights land, who could live off his Guangdong wealth sitting all day in his rocking chairs, just moving a little to avoid the sun and keep up with pagoda shade, as a reference point, so that neighbours could know time by his movement precisely as by a Rolex.
to be continued...