By Fredrick Kang'ethe Iraki (Kenya)
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Kamil had just delivered a well attended lecture on the Romantic period in France and the reaction of the students was overwhelming. After the rather rigid, not to mention, frigid Classicism lectures, the students were ecstatic to discover great novelists like Victor Hugo and delectable poets like Verlaine and Baudelaire.
“The Romantics loved nature, history and of course beauty” he had declared triumphantly.
“They placed self expression at the heart of art and said “I”. They rejected the rules of art that had been imposed upon them by Classicism.”
A student loved this.“C’est la déclaration d’amour, non, monsieur?”
During the interval, the students were chatting excitedly about the lecture. They loved rebellion. Rebellion against established rules and principles of the so-called authority. Revolt against order is what defined a university student.
“During Classicism, the image of God occupied the centre-stage.”
The students were in rapt attention.
“But throughout this great period, Man replaced God as the most important element in art. In fact, it was the Woman as men wrote about love for these beautiful creatures.”
The class was all smiles. Some knowing glances were exchanged between the sexes.
“Je t’aime, chérie!” Exclaimed one over-enthusiastic student.
“Well, you could say that, Michel. Love for nature, history, women was all expressed without the same strictures that had fossilized creativity during the Classical Period.”
The students liked the word fossilisé and noted it with relish. Kamil always gave them new expressions in French.
He had climbed the ladder rather quickly to become a senior lecturer at a tender age of twenty-seven. Upward mobility was a novelty in Kenyan universities, especially the public ones. Positions were dished out depending on either sexual or political favors. Nepotism, that is, technical know-who, was also rampant. Kamil owed his meteoric rise to his uncle who was a professor in the Linguistics Department. He had made noise in relevant quarters and his brilliant nephew had been issued the promotion. But Kamil was a talented lecturer in French Literature from Middle Ages to the Existentialist Movement in the 1950s. And he loved teaching.
After the lecture, it was now 5.30 p.m. so Kamil collected his items, an impressive Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris and Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames. He loved reading two books at the same time. He strode out of the university and walked the entire length of Koinange Street. This street was famed for twilight girls. He smiled when he saw the big sign saying Disco and memories of Emile Zola’s Nana came gushing in. He turned left into Kenyatta Avenue and whistled all the way to the junction with Kimathi Street. He turned into Kimathi street and wondered why all streets bore names of politicians and their wives in Nairobi. Koinange, Kenyatta, Kimathi, and now Mama Ngina. He crossed Mama Ngina and entered the ornate Hilton Hotel.
The red carpeted floors and the smiling receptionists always enthralled him. He was led to the small bar on the ground floor. Soft music wafted across to him. He walked with dulled steps on the lush carpet and for a second felt very important. VIP. They reached an oak door that read Jockey Bar and the receptionist ushered him in. Kamil loved this place for many things. The music was sweet, low enough to cool the nerves but loud enough to send love tingles into the bloodstream. He never countenanced accosting the many females who frequented the place. Invariably, they cast longing looks at him but he was determined to maintain his ground. No woman, no cry Bob Marley had sung.
He ordered his usual and lay back to savor the surroundings. Tusker baridi and spicy wings. Today, there were fewer people than usual. Kamil glanced at his watch. 20th January. A very bad day for Kenyans. Most earned little, so they drank the first and last weeks of the month. The fat cows’ days. The other lean days, they went home early to pester their spouses and children. The lights were a red romantic glow that reminded Kamil of the lecture he had just delivered.
The desire to say “I” dominated the Romantic Period.
He squinted his eyes and made out a couple kissing in a corner as if the world was coming to an end. Near the front was a raised platform for performances. An old, bored man was listening to a young woman talking endlessly with elaborate body language. She must be asking for rent or something the man does not like. Presently, a Japanese lady daintily walked up to the podium and declared it karaoke time. She then proceeded to belt out an enrapturing rendition of Céline Dion. My! She’s better than the original.
Kamil took a sip of his drink and his taste buds responded immediately. It was like firing up a Ferrari. The bitterness spread to the sides of his mouth and he felt great. Beer must be man’s best invention. He then poured some more into his wide glass and the froth came up rapidly to the top. Good head. He takes another sip and looks up. A line of white froth coated his generous moustache. He wiped it off with the back of his hand and sat back to enjoy the evening.
Love for nature, history and women.
He called for another beer. The wings were spicy but not very fresh. He chewed on them slowly, relishing every morsel. He then instinctively reached for his wallet. He opened it surreptitiously so as not to appear out of class and counted the bills. Fine. He had enough money for two more Tuskers and taxi fare home. The last time, he had had a nasty experience. His wallet had been stolen and the embarrassment caused was great. Luckily, he was known as a patron of the Hilton.
In the meantime, the Japanese woman was inviting other patrons to try their artistic skills. Suddenly, the old man stood up and headed for the mike. Kamil always loved these old chaps. They were full of surprises. The old fellow mumbled something to the DJ and Chris de Burgh’s Lady in Red filled the air. The old gent delivered a virtuoso performance. He soulfully delivered the lyrics to the surprise of many. He then sat down to a great ovation. Now, Kamil ordered for his fourth beer. Four already. He glanced at the styled clock on the wall. Nine o’clock. Several other amateur artists took to the mike with lesser and lesser success. The drink was obviously doing its work in their minds.
Now, the Japanese woman picked up the mike and soothingly took on Lionel Richie’s Endless love. Kamil knew that now it was time to go after her song. He enjoyed his drink to its dregs and folded his hands across his chest.
Love, love, love.
Literature was a passion for him. He listened to the lyrics and felt very good inside. Settling his bill he left a healthy tip. Always leave ten percent of the total cost. He had learnt this in Paris during his undergraduate days. Yes, Paris. City of love, par excellence. He had very fond memories of French girls but he considered them too liberal.
Trop libérales, libérées.
He left the hotel and bartered with the taxi drivers for a while.
“One thousand shillings to Buru Buru, no way!”
“Okay nine hundred. You know it’s late.”
“What do you mean late? Ten o’clock is not late by any standards.”
He remembered partying in Paris until the wee hours in total safety. He decided to cross the street to Ambassadeur Hotel. These guys will be cheaper. He reckoned the taxis outside the Hilton were unnecessarily expensive. When he got to them, he glanced at his watch and pressed the light button. Ten past Ten. Not too late. He decided to cross over to Oginga Odinga Street to catch a late matatu for Buru Buru.
Suddenly, he could not feel his feet on the pavement. He was lifted high into the air in a strong grip. In the meantime, a hard metallic bar was being pressed across his windpipe by someone in his back. He tried to scream but no sound came out. He kicked hard but hit nothing. Panicking, he leaned back on his attacker and kicked again. This time his boot connected with a jaw. The man hissed in pain and called to his friend to run.
He’s done! Twende!
His two assailants abandoned him and he collapsed to the ground clutching at his throat. The bastards almost killed me. He coughed and picked himself up. He was stunned. Where am I? What has happened to me? He looked around for his reading glasses. Nothing. Presently, he noticed the two volumes lying on the wet ground. I have been attacked! He sat down and tried to recollect. Yes, I have been attacked. Have I been stabbed? He inspected himself but his body was numb. He stood up again and walked in the direction of the matatus. The drivers had seen it all happen.
“Hi, I’m sorry I’ve been robbed. Can you take me home?”
“We saw it. Pole sana. Just jump in.”
Kamil sat quietly in the crowded matatu and went through the motions. Where did his attackers spring from? Had they trailed him from the Hilton? Why didn’t he use a taxi?
When he got home, he looked at himself in the mirror and what he saw horrified him. A man stood there with the lining of his coat, all torn and coming down to his knees. The jacket was ripped with knife cuts and all the pockets were out. His white shirt was slashed in long lines but no blood was oozing out. He looked at his trousers and they were covered in black mud. He examined his backside for knife wounds and felt something sharp. He turned his back to the mirror. A full fish skeleton was hanging from the back pocket. They must have thrown me down into a rubbish heap. Slowly, he undressed and jumped into bed. Before, he turned off the light he glanced at the book on his side-table. Going Down River Road by Meja Mwangi.
He smiled and wondered whether he ever learnt anything from what he read. He had read acres of text on the dangers of walking around Nairobi by night. He glanced at Meja Mwangi’s novel again and slowly shook his head from side to side.
He now recalled that the deadly attack on the windpipe was known as the ngeta. He had missed death by a whisker.