A Gangster’s Paradise

A Gangster’s Paradise

I don’t think a man would suffer a fate worse than having his ambition corrupted. Knowing that you willingly took the highway to hell scorches the innocence out of you. But again, how many of the decisions we make are actually our choices? Think of it this way…

You are a young lad bubbling with life. You are the only child in your family, so scarcity is still foreign to you. Your Dad runs a local Veve base, your mum manicures all day, with a few house chores here and there. But you love spending time at your dad’s spot, the vibe there is so masculine the first strands of your beard popped the first day you hang out with him and his boys. Dad also says a man should be with other men, that you should spend a whole day at home only if a lorry ran you over. You don’t mind though, if all it took for you to join their Gentleman’s club was basic apprenticeship, then what do you have to lose? There’s something about this dad of yours though. You can’t really put a finger to it, but you already know. From how his peers address him, to the stories kids whisper at school behind your back. It was almost as if they feared him and loathed him in equal measure, but you don’t get why. Maybe it’s the scars on his face, but if they knew those were from fighting bad guys as he told you, they’d probably be nicer to him…

I was in this small shack of a home, a half cup of black tea on the table before me. This was the home of Mama Otis, the woman that manicured all day a couple of years back. She probably doesn’t care what she looked like now, but I wouldn’t blame her. I wouldn’t give a damn about my nails either if I had suffered the losses she had. She was out doing a few dishes, her subtle attempt to dilute the mess everything was in. I’m the first guest she’s had in years, she told me, and although you could feel how crude her interaction was with other humans, the very fact that she had agreed to take my interview was nothing short of shocking.

She lived in some abandoned units in this church-land that was overgrown with weeds and loneliness. I was quite sure I had gone to the wrong address until one of the rusty doors creaked open and there she was, her demeanour a reflection of how exhausting her existence must have been. I felt terrible immediately for trying to get a story out of her. But if what I had heard was true, then maybe telling her story would ease the pain that clouded her life.

“Unaeza ongeza chai kijana yangu, ata kama haina sukari,” she urged me, her frail frame limping towards one of the room’s corners that served as her kitchen. “Si unajua ata yule mama kwa bibilia alipikia Nabii ile unga kidogo alikuwa amebakisha tu, labda wewe ndio nabii wangu leo…” she added with a faint smile. “Asante sana mum, ata hio kikombe moja tu imenitosha” I interjected, hoping my grim face won’t show her how spoilt of a brat I was.

“Ati uliniambia nani alikuonyesha huku kwangu, na mimi ni mtu nilisahau wageni kitaambo” she asked, curious and bewildered at the same time.

“Ni kijana rafiki yangu naishi na yeye kule nimetoka, alikuwa rafiki ya Otis…”

“Eeh? Akakuonyesha mpaka gate?” she questioned, still perplexed.

“Eeh, aliniambia ashawai kuja kulala huku siku moja…lakini walitoka asubuhi sana…” I added, hoping she wasn’t second guessing my presence here.

“Ooh, kuna kijana washakuja huku last year… kafupi, keupe, na meno ya chuma hii side” Yea, that was definitely Johnte.

“Baas, huyo ndio alinionyesha huku kwako…”

 Despite the relief, I still wasn’t sure how to break the ice. Her son’s loss was a wound I didn’t know how to start picking. I’ve seeing almost every malicious deed there is to see under the sun, but it never gets easy, not one bit. I mentioned she must have been beautiful in her youth. That got her going… she owned it actually. Making reference to how gorgeous she must have been took her down memory lane. How Baba Otis wouldn’t let her go to work, how he paid her a decent stipend to just look pretty for him.

He was a gang leader, her husband. The El Chapo of Kariobangi. His veve base was a decoy apparently, but a perfect one. They had met at the local pub before mama Otis was mama Otis. She was Claire then. Claire Adhiambo, a gorgeous, hippy girl with exquisite taste (she made sure I didn’t miss that part). The pub housed most of the area’s misfits. They were the moths and the pub was the bulb, its estranged warmth an irresistible allure to all that didn’t fit in. Claire ran a small tailor shop across the road, so buying her own beer wasn’t rocket science. This was in the ’90s when women wouldn’t dare wear full-blown dresses without a khamisi, let alone sitting in a bar alone.

She had a photo album from back in the day, and each photo seemed to resurrect in her bits of her life that had long withered.

“Unaona hapa venye Baba Otis amefurahia, hii tulipigwa wiki ya pili venye tulikutana kwa hio kapub…” he had this old leather jacket that hang lazily on his shoulders, and a half-buttoned vintage shirt that left his chest hairs peeking out. His eyes were transfixed on Claire, the gorgeous tailor that bought her own beer. In another photo, he had Claire seated on him, with one of his huge feet on a crate of beer. “Hapa tulikuwa tushaanza kuishi pamoja,” she whispered, staring at the photo as if we were all seeing it for the first time.

So love swept them off their feet, and they fell for each other hard. Otis senior asked her to be his better half, the butter to his dry bread, and who was she to decline? So their young love brought forth a healthy son, and he was named Barnabas Otieno Jr, a true son of his father.

Claire stopped working at her shop after the birth of their son, but that wasn’t a problem at all because Barnabas senior knew how to take care of his family. He wasn’t rich per se, but basic needs were just that, basic. He owned a few shops at their town centre that were run by his minions, but he was in charge of his main shop- a popular veve base that buzzed with activity till late in the night. It was like the local chemist but with miraa as the Holy Grail, or so she thought. Time went by and their son grew into a younger version of his old man, intense and secretive, but with a gorgeous heart nonetheless. By now, Claire had become the perfect trophy wife, preparing her husband’s bathwater and singing him sweet nothings when he was around; which was seldom, but there was nothing to worry about, the man had to do what he had to do.

He hid things in their small compound late in the night. There was this old jembe that sat outside all day, every day. It wasn’t used in a garden. No one touched it, no one used it. Until she heard him dig silently in the middle of the night, then hurriedly bury something.

“Ushai enda kuangalia alikuwa anazika nini?” I ask her, completely immersed in this tale of hers.

“Nimewai gusa gusa juu na hio jembe nikaskia kitu kama nylon na chuma ndani…” she says, “lakini ile heshima ya mzee tu ndio ilifanya ata nisisindie kitu moja, bora analeta chakula kwa nyumba.”

I wondered how confusing it must’ve been for her. A girl smitten silly by love, both for her son and husband, had to decide whether her happiness was dependent on her moral compass.

“Na unakumbuka hio siku hakukuja?” I ask, shifting my body weight on my now numb ass. She reflects, as if going through the pages of her misty past, then sighs loudly.

“Nakumbuka rafiki yake mmoja akikuja kwetu kama Baba Otis ashapotea siku mbili, na kuniambia ati mzee wangu aliangushwa pale Globe…” He was shot twice in the head, and once through his leg. He was murdered trying to escape his assailants she tells me. An unexpected ambush by the police robbed her of Barnabas. Whoever shot him disposed of his body in the Nairobi River, but his body was washed ashore a few meters away.

She woke up the next day and headed straight to Globe. The trail of blood from his maimed leg was still intact, like a map to hell. Claire lost her mind. Her knight in shining armour was no more. A dirty cop murdered him she says. Barnabas was shot in the leg as they escaped. The dirty cop rented out firearms to his gang so getting rid of him was his way of saving himself. Otis Jr was 13 then, too young to understand everything yet old enough to piece a few puzzle pieces together. His mum’s breakdown and his father’s death turned the boy into something else. The void was too big for him not to fall inside. His father’s shops were hijacked by his goons, but Claire didn’t want them either way. Fear had her relocate to a more secluded area, but anger drove her son back to where he was born. He had to know who murdered his dad. He only came back home to hide from his demons but never relented in his pursuit of vengeance.

Then one night, like a bad dream, she had someone dig outside her house again. Her heart fell into her stomach. The nostalgia was overwhelming. She walked out to find her son burying a small revolver. He was crying too. That shocked her, for in all those years, none of them had ever talked about what his father hid in plain sight. She stood there for a minute, and it dawned on her there and then that her son had chosen his path.

“Hio usiku tulikaa hapo nje tu na tukalia kama watoto. Uzuri giza ilitufichia aibu…”

9 years later, the dirty cop was found murdered in his house. Two shots to the head, one through his leg. It must’ve been her son, the coincidence was too perfect an occurrence. But fate wouldn’t have it any other way she thought, for Barnabas Otieno Jr was the son of his father. That night they spent in the dark was the last time she saw her son though, for he was gunned down after a late night of drinking, outside the very pub his father first met his mother, the Jaber of his life.

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