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Leading the Night

Philo Ikonya

Publication Year: 2010

Deprived of being heard, people still have a voice. They make it heard in ways that disturb the status quo. This book is an engagement with such voices. Can Deni, Wairi, Yaadi, matatu people, militia people and taxi drivers in Kenya also ask "Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?" as Nelson Mandela did. Why do two men wearing bling bling turn into two snakes dancing in Rika's imagination? The web of corruption is intricate. No-one can lead this night alone. It takes many constellations, each one twinkling in its own radius. Many rays of light dispel darkness. The peoples' good leadership alone can check politicians' terrible ways. Philo Ikonya is the author of two poetry anthologies, This Bread of Peace and Out if Prison.

Published by: African Books Collective

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Dancing snakes

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pp. 1-3

Leafing through The Sabat News, Rika steals a glance at Jazeera TV on the wall in front of her. Her head is well supported by the back of her hard seat. She can feel the wooden rail touching her neck. She pulls the paper up above her eyebrows. ...

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The dance

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pp. 3-5

When the two snakes start dancing, she can see their dance takes over all other dances. They swallow traditional, church and even all modern dances. All these dances disappear without a sneer and it is not clear how this happens. ...

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Rika you have no proof

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pp. 5-7

Rika had been working all night. Sometimes the stories she wrote did not get published. They often disappeared when they were rich in detail. The editor would say to her that she had made her stories too long. She was told every sentence needed proof. She received a warning MEMO headed, ‘No proof ’ often. ...

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pp. 8-11

A constant buzz fills the newsroom. It is a special and muzzled sound. It is so natural here, it becomes part of the silence. It is a silent whirr which you have not heard anywhere else before. In the newsroom, it is a siren, soft like in Greek mythology where sirens are sweet songs of sea nymphs. For Rika it is a call to even more commitment to her work. ...

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Hair driers; girls in the ring

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pp. 11-13

In ABeeConnections salon elsewhere in Nairobi’s Westlands, the high sound of hair driers filled the air. Gorharrrrrrrr, hrrrrrr, harrrrrrrrr, they went. It was hard for anyone to converse but the women there, still did. They heard each other even above the squeaky blow drier that most of the girls preferred in the hands of their best male hair dresser, Tony. ...

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Roots and connections

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pp. 13-16

It is early evening. Rika pours herself a cup of rich black tea mixed with lemon and ginger. She needs it for her sore throat. The haunting image of those two milk- mixed with tea- colored faces, jet black thick eyebrows and high dark hair that framed their oval faces, is stuck on her mind. ...

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Wooing a scoop, hotel and street power

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pp. 16-19

Rika felt aware of every part of her body and power when she walked into the big hotel. The shining men who had been on TV sat in a corner in one of Nairobi’s most posh hotels. She had not spoken to Her Worship the Gold, as she called the powerful woman now, but just watched her from afar. ...

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pp. 19-21

Rika’s story on her Her Worship the Gold’s visit was chopped as they would say in the newsroom. Instead, many of the woman’s photos filled the pages again going write across the center spread. She had followed the deaths that happened after Her Worship the Gold left the venue and which were not reported. ...

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Fast moving nights

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pp. 21-23

Still on another night in the Berg-a –Gold Hotel, Rika sat quietly studying Her Worship the Gold. Rika was not going to get close to her for personal attention. She was at work. In the depths of the night, Rika thought profoundly. The more this wealth shone in hotels and on shining men and women...

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Stalking danger

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pp. 23-29

Cold air and wind entered every part of her dress as she stepped out of Berg-a –Gold Hotel. It pushed in from the bottom and got in to every fold. She felt cleansed. On the cold streets, this same night, Rika knew she hopped between two dangerous Kenyas. The Kenya of the glittering wealthy class and the other Kenya. ...

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Handling the swoop and the law

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pp. 30-32

Sometimes rich men and women paraded these girls in hotel rooms. Sometimes, everything happened in the quiet and leafy suburbs where ordinary people did not easily set foot. You could see ordinary workers there, scurrying to work for rich people but they were instructed to count their steps to and from work. ...

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Speaking streets

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pp. 32-36

As she walked along the streets, the history of women in Kenya spoke to Rika. People spoke about single women as a ‘phenomenon’ that sprang up mainly after the Kenyan Emergency and Mau Mau struggle for independence when men were detained. Rika knew that all sorts of women always existed but that their diversity was often overlooked. ...

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The Song of Deni

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pp. 36-40

At 13, Deni is the youngest sex commercial worker Rika ever met. She narrated to her keen ear how she left school after the teacher made her pregnant at ten years of age. From the way she told her story, Rika knew at once she was very intelligent. Deni, whose name means debt, always tells her story of pain after her parents threw her out of their home when she was five months pregnant as if it is happening...

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Day hidden in night

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pp. 40

After three days, on another night, Rika stepped out. It was a night on which Deni hissed. Her hissing seemed to have taken over the entire city, and the rural areas as well. Everything hissed pain. The hiss was loudest in the slums muting the kisses of betrayal in the suburbs. It was a noisy and consistent hiss. ...

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Subasaba Defence Force

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pp. 44-47

Frustrated, Rika began to understand why some journalists only smoked and drank and never spoke. The Sabasaba Defence Force, was said to be strangling and killing people. The men with money were said to be capable of completely crushing a newspaper or media house and putting it out of business. ...

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Gang power

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pp. 47-49

The gang Leader and his helpers did not hide their identity and presence all the time but their members did. Like in all other powerful institutions in the world, they knew that information is power. Sometimes they allowed interviews and sometimes they did not. They would give information to journalists but always in a way that left the journalists...

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Song of the cells

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pp. 49-53

Bang! Bang! Bang! DDDDdrrrrrbang! Uniformed cops banged on the door of a local casino in Kirinyaga Crescent. It is 10.30am. The sun has been up for some hours, and it is hot. They hit the door with the butts of their guns. When the door opens four policemen run in as if to raid and suddenly...

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Balancing lines

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pp. 53-59

Rika is sitting at her desk, in the newsroom. It is calm in the early morning but she knows this will soon change. Rika can sit back and think for a while. Soon, phone calls will jam the lines and work will become intense. She used to remember that in rivers which one does not know well and in newsrooms- which journalists thought they knew well- depths changed unpredictably. ...

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By the rivers of pain

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pp. 59-64

“These men, they are different. One picked me up twice and beat me up both times after he paid me. Another picked me up and told me he would never forget me and that one day, he would help me leave the streets. But that was after he called me up to clean his flat twice. I never saw him again. ...

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pp. 64-71

She had just finished her story about the trials of the street girls in which the story of Deni was central. No mention of men and gangs was possible. Just then her mobile phone began to light up and blink. She had been trying to reach a policeman she knew on the landline in vain. ...

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No pride for brides

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pp. 71-74

That evening, Rika watched a documentary film titled In A Dark Time. She recalled the girl who cried all the time as she watched this film in the slums in a community centre. This was the girl who had her ears sticking outside the cloth that embalmed her face and who sighed and cried all through the film. She came from neighbouring Eastleigh. ...

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Craving for freedom

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pp. 74-80

ZZZaaap! Rei slapped the book on the little table at the corner of the Swiss Bureau in Geneva. He had enjoyed reading A Captive of Time by Olga Ivanskya. It was a great old book about poet Boris Pasternak of Doctor Zhivago’s fame. He enjoyed pronouncing Zhivago. Zzzhivvago. ...

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Freed by words

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pp. 80-83

Strange, Rei thought. He always raced everywhere with a book in hand. With books he diconnected with immediate realities and connected with the world of possibilities. He liked reading fiction. It was in fiction that reality became new creation for him. He used to say that in reading...

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Pregnant danger and hope

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pp. 83-88

Café Bruno, Geneva, Switzerland. Early evening. Rei’s stout and sensitive hands enjoyed touch-typing. Those three shrubs have started to flower, he saw looking through the window at the neat row of short, stout and well trimmed shrubs facing the toyshop opposite the café. They are of the family of purple flowering magnolias. ...

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Song of the underworld

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pp. 88-91

That night, Rika got home early. News of a grenade rolling away under the feet of clients and between the legs of the tables at a restaurant woke her up with a start. She had fallen asleep on her living room couch after a light meal of rice and stew. Almost staggering into her bedroom, she slumped onto her uncovered bed and was off to sleep in a minute. ...

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Dawns the darkest night

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pp. 91-93

At 3am sharp, the first shrill and powerful sound broke the morning like the birth of a first born in the furthest tip of Kenya in the North. It shook the earth and journalists in Nairobi did not hear it. Other trills, sharp and clear came from the women and joint they became each time louder. This ululation never stopped. ...

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Nairobi, cool waters

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pp. 94-98

Rei closed his mini laptop obeying the flight attendant’s rules on KQLM 566 Boeing 777 aircraft. He stuck his thumb into the button on his right hand arm rest, pushed the back of his seat slightly forward and buckled his safety belt ready for landing at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. ...

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pp. 98-102

Rei was not going to miss any chances. He was used to late hours. Reading about Kenya in the past, he had wondered, and this discussion had come up in London, how Kenya maintained her beauty in spite of so many contradictions about her. The Sabasaba Defence Force! Why, they are interesting and some facts about them drew much curiosity. ...

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pp. 102-104

Rika thought of the matatus as behaving almost like political opposition but on the roads. The difference was that matatus opposed, broke traffic rules and most of the time delivered good service. The potholed roads she could see as a government that was opposing its own job. All politicians needed the people to check them. ...

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Silent city

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pp. 104-107

The Hotel Gama was in a silent and secure place away from the city din and yet, right in the city. Nairobi had a number of places that could surprise you by how near they were to the city and yet so far from the commotion they were. Leafy silence invaded such places. It was hard to remember the busy zones from there. ...

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Nairobi's heartbeat

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pp. 107-108

Rei strolled through Nairobi as if his life had just begun. He had to see the city for the first time on the same morning of his arrival. Three hours rest and he had lost the light headed he had before he slept. He found out first hand about some interesting places. ...

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Song of Yaadi

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pp. 108-110

Yaadi is back from his day’s work. It is Saturday evening. Everyone believes Yaadi is a stonemason. He builds in Nairobi and far; snaking out over 27 kilometers to green Limuru and even often coiling over endless hills for 72 kilometers, into Murang’a. Sometimes he made a shallow dive into the Rift Valley 75 kilometers from Nairobi and worked in Naivasha. ...

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Wairi's response

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pp. 111-113

Wairi’s eyes opened wide. She was stiff with apprehension. She was numb all over. She was a captive of fear and yet fright was not allowed in this ‘land’. She had to take life from pain. Death was not her first option now. As soon as he left, she counted thirty, two times. ...

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The song of the mobile phone

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pp. 114-115

Rika’s mobile phone first lit up and then its melody went on. It started with a rapturous beat that run into friendly river flow beats. Ra, Ra, Ra, ra, chuuusssh, chuussh! The melody was called Moonlight. Her little gadget sang with its flip cover looking cutely at her each time it rang. ...

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Noon reflections

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pp. 115-118

The little phone lit up again and Rika answered fast. “Morning Rei, had a good night’s sleep?” she asked “Yes, I did. Thanks.” “Hi Rika! I am sorry about the first call…I “Don’t worry about that..Rei.” “Right! Coffee today?” asked Rei. ...

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pp. 118-119

One night, an old man who was frequently on Koinange Street in the wee hours to pick up a group of girls and take them all to one room, almost had a heart attack when driving with his group of girls he heard the voice of his own daughter laughing. The girls sprang their own surprises at leading the night to dawn. ...

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Invisible connections

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pp. 119-122

Most of the times, the night girls came from little shacks where lice was well knit into the bedding, settling in piles into the dirty hems of old blankets. There were no sheets here, but on the street, the girls rivaled the others through cheaply acquired second hand clothes so popular in Nairobi. Their clothes mattered much to them and indeed they were everything to them. ...

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A Thorn Tree is Kenya's heart

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pp. 123-135

“Very warm regards from Martel. He has fond memories of you… and asked me to remind you of his best wishes for your work and future!” “Please be sure he fully understands your dangerous working environment. He said if you thought my work would put you in danger, I could stop or do it in another way… “ Rei added. ...

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Parallel degrees and a treebook

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pp. 136-142

As she stepped out onto the pavement on Kimathi Street, two men both in corduroy trousers of the same beige color and green khaki shirts stopped right in front of her. At first they seemed to stop still, almost get paralysed simultaneously. Then they both took three steps back and fell on their knees. Rika was not looking at a TV screen. ...

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Song of the baby

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pp. 142-144

The soap suds were big toward the end of the big blue bath in which Hariri sat. Her little legs opened up innocently where the basin curved and she enjoyed her bath. The soap suds became smaller in balloon of layered bubbles that made the warm water fun to play with. Hariri pushed her little hands down into the basin full of lovely warm water. ...

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Fleas and jiggers

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pp. 144-148

None of the people who kept Wairi busy at night ever rang her during the day or even sent her an sms. The cold bit into her body now as she lay on a straw rag in her room. She bit her lips. She felt fleas biting her flesh in her legs and arms. Her mind was being broken by searing thoughts. ...

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Where railway lines end

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pp. 184-151

When he reached his room at The Gama , Rei went through some newspapers and magazines. He felt tired. He wanted to lie down but he went on to answer e-mails briefly. The dailies always carried shocking features and today was no exception; a cop shot his wife and children before killing himself. ...

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Wairi's song

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pp. 151-153

In a shack at the Mathare slums, Wairi wished that she were a matatu. Whenever she wished she was something, sometimes a river, other times a rainbow, sometimes a cow or an aeroplane, many feelings would come to her. She would sing her song in a muzzled monotone. She put these words into that sad tone as she hummed: ...

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pp. 153-157

At exactly 4 pm, Rika was at The Gama Hotel. She headed straight to the poolside and there, she found Rei sitting under one of the umbrellas far from the entrance. The evening had a surprise of soft sunshine. The sun shone brightly and it pierced the skin gently. It was a present for a cold July evening. ...

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No bedtime stories

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pp. 157-161

“Hey, talking about priests and your area, tell me, are your parents alive and do they live near here?” “Yes. Mum is alive. She was a teacher. Dad died in 1990. He was a driver. He was two years older than my mother and in his thirties he was detained because he fought for freedom and was in Mau Mau.” ...

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Gilding the night

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pp. 162-163

Wairi hit the road that night. She bandaged her cuts and planned to wear a long sleeved blouse under her transparent golden threaded sash. She needed to disguise those fresh cuts on her upper arms. She was doing fine and making money in carefully covered bandages and bruises. She was losing weight, however. ...

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pp. 163-164

The lights splash around the night girls favorite spot like fire crackers bursting in the sky. Some other girls come near and something long shines all the way up the legs of one of them, bursting like a dying shooting star in her groin. She smokes with two others, their tops are small and shiny. ...

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Back home

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pp. 164-169

As they sat down round a cosy little table, Rei remembered his office in Geneva briefly. The thought was driven out of his mind when Pica firmly put down a book on the table. Rei quickly read the bold title. “The Road to Justice.” He scrutinized her little bag. It sure was like a small factory, equipped with everything in there, he thought. ...

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The donkey

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pp. 170-174

Rika alighted from a matatu she had taken at the Globe Roundabout that Saturday morning. In twenty minutes, she had made out of the city. Finally, she was able to relax a little. She was fond of local music and was irritated that foreign music played in the matatu all the way. ...

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The song of Rika

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pp. 175-177

Rika sighs. Her heart and mind sing: The donkey and the chopper; the donkey and the aeroplane; there were many different Kenyas. The railway line. The Matatu. The bus. The camel. The horse. She thinks of the many Kenyas often. The Kenya of the camel with a marvellous library down its sides; and on its back, a librarian to take stories...

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Shack pain

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pp. 177-179

Rei was fast asleep in his room in The Gama. He was transported into a long and dark night. His day was night in which he had no memorable dreams. In her shack in Mathare, Wairi added a little paraffin to the little burner. Paraffin used for cooking now cost more than a dollar, for a litre. ...

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Chopping distance

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pp. 179-183

The loud spurting sounds filled the air. The wake turbulence was tremendous but it ceased as the chopper took off and gathered speed. Nig had called Rei mid-morning and Rika hurried back to town and she was ready in her safari suit. When the chopper took off from Wilson airport, both Rika and Rei were eager to see the landscape. ...

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pp. 183-186

Rika used to ask Babs, a photographer who had worked for The Sabat News for many years for details and photographs of the gang, thinking that one day, they would be able to not only investigate but also publish their stories and photographs. ...

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pp. 186-187

Gusts of fresh air went against their faces and deep into their lungs. Rei and Rika tried to speak but they could not hear one another well. At the crack of dawn, the game drive was fantastic. Nig’s Lady Luck was right in front of their eyes in less than twenty minutes of driving. ...

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Night in flight

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pp. 187-189

Rei hit the streets eagerly that night. The flight, it seemed, had got him on an incredible high. He arranged a meeting with Pica fast, after enjoying a cold beer. He could hardly wait to ask questions when she arrived. ...

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Wairi's dream

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pp. 189-193

Inside her body, Wairi was aching with fear and the desire to leave her pain behind her, would this ever be? She wished she could pour out her thoughts to a friend but she knew the risk. Wairi and the Donkey, the Donkey and Wairi. She wanted an opportunity to escape her misery. ...

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Stories embedded

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pp. 193-194

Rei slept heavily till late the next morning. Rika turned up as usual fresh and smart in her casual jeans and a T-shirt with paws of a lion on it. She eagerly but anxiously listened to Rei’s story and urged him to take extreme care. ...

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pp. 195-198

The following morning, the flight to north western area of Kenya was early and they arrived there at exactly 7.45 am on Tuesday morning. Nig was less nervous on this flight. He enjoyed the green scenery which fast turned into dry grasslands from up there as if he was seeing it for the first time. ...

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Paradise Lost

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pp. 199-201

“Paradise Lost!” said Rei. “It is not a long way from here!” They turned into coffee plantations and drove through the many curves. In a short while they were in Paradise Lost. The caves at Paradise Lost discovered in the 90s attracted many visitors. The puzzle was they had been always so near and yet so far. ...

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Long coats

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pp. 202-206

When Rei saw Fundi the cab driver arrive with a bundle at The Gama, he was delighted. It was only 9.30 am in the morning. The car was outside and Fundi reassured him it was in perfect shape. “I would only like to explain to you one thing,” said Fundi. “What is it?” This is a cassock but the money was sufficient for a kanzu and and a fez. ...

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Song of the night

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pp. 206-208

People wondered silently and spoke in whispers about what would happen in the event that this group was truly strong and able to take power. In one well attended Parliamentary session, the Minister for Security was yelling, “ I tell you, you are playing with fire! ...

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pp. 208-211

Rei thought hard. The car moved faster and his clothes blew with the wind in the open window. “Don’t you think the gang that demands money is different from the gang that demands freedom?” “I can’t answer that. One day we had the same debate in our parking lot. ...

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pp. 211-214

“Praise God!” Joyful Jayne greeted Rev Rei as she bowed down almost to the ground. “Praise God!” She repeated. For her, everyone in long robes was a man of God. “Amen,” Fundi answered loudly as Rei mumbled something. “Oh Jeeesus! The wheels of this car may you bless and may you be its driver ever in all its life on earth!...

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And on the last day

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pp. 214-217

When Rika called Rei in the night, he did not tell her where he had been. She assumed he was resting and writing. He did not tell her he was going to downtown Nairobi and then Mathare on the next day. He advised Rika to rest. He said he would call her at about 7 in the evening. ...

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Next stops

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pp. 218-221

Some young men drink happily in the next place they stop at. The vendor is a young woman in trousers and she comes out from behind the counter to sit on the little bench near the door. Her brown checked trousers tell of a tough life. It is not until Fundi looks again and again that he recognizes the lower part of Hepa’s cousin’s face. ...

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Chang'aa drink dens

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pp. 221-225

High on a bluff in the Grogan Street where posh cars are in repair some mechanics work fast like the steam of Chang’aa. A huge shack, a den, with slabs for chairs and tables is the place these workers go for solace. Under the slabs, Chang’aa quietly boils to the right degree. ...

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pp. 225-231

Babs knew just as well as Fundi did that people who had never gone beyond Eastleigh were afraid to be in Mathare. Even journalists never let down their guard when visiting. They feared many things. The possibility of sudden violence was always so alive! ...

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Country crowned with thorns

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pp. 231-234

Back in Rei’s room, hidden between clean sheets, Wairi wept. It was as if she could have cried out her soul. When she said she wanted to leave her country, she did not mean she was ready for such deep humiliation. She did not see the soft cream sheets that surrounded her or feel the comfort of her room. ...

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A last drink

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pp. 235-242

Rei checked out and went to have a drink in the place where he first met Wairi to discuss the gang. So many things had happened that Lucinda’s call was more of a bother to him. As he puffed along, three girls came over to him. He recognized them as Wairi’s friends just before he called a cab. ...

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pp. 242-243

Rei still had time to feel the urge to start on his novel on the Sabasaba Defence Force. He thought that Wairi in her days abroad, would make it easier for him to complete it. Rika would be its first reader before it went to press. He wondered what was in store for all of them...

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The Book at the Seventh gate

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pp. 243-244

Rika lay on her bed fast asleep. Her mind worked deep in her sleep. Faces of women wearing beads and wonderful traditional clothes filled the Kenya7 Broadcasting Television screen that Rika stared at. A few of them wore sacks. They looked very powerful. There were millions of women all out with one purpose. ...

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pp. 245-249

Again a small ebony dark woman stood with her arms back and raised like a locust’s legs when the insect is ready to fly. She stuck out her chin and faced the bling -bling men as her dreadlocks fell behind her ears. The men and she were on a street in Nairobi near the Hilton Hotel. She told them to leave Kenya and never return. ...

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Wake up Mama!

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pp. 249-250

When Rika awoke she found Uhai and Hariri each holding one of her hands; massaging them and laughing cheekily. She said to them, “It is time to start working!” The children beamed like a superb sunrise and sang together: “Hongeraaaaa!” ...

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9789966028174
Print-ISBN-13: 9789966151001

Page Count: 254
Publication Year: 2010

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