To sin by silence, when we should protest, Makes cowards out of men.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox
I have been watching you lately during my lonely escapades in wait for my daughter. I have sat my ass on that hard pavement, saying nothing, but trying so hard to keep up with the conversation in my head. I have been trying to get into your heads and see through your eyes. And I have noted the despair that hangs heavy in your faces, the look of resignation like you are just about to throw in the towel and I have felt all this emotional turmoil within my being. I hate to feel helpless, like nothing is in my control, like I am just canoe in the middle of the sea with turbulent waves, getting tossed from side to side barely afloat hoping to reach some shore, any shore. I have been numb, unable to feel, not really wanting to feel, lifeless, hopeless and ever growing numb. I have had to listen to the echoing of my empty laughter and contend with tears that linger but never really fall. I have watched the rest of you walk around putting up with the façade of we – have – our –shit together when we are all just drowning with our hands out trying to hung on to anything to remain afloat.
I was standing at the bus terminus the other day waiting to hitch a ride home from school. I had spent the day listening to Tracy Chapman while trying to complete a chapter of my book. Then a little distance from where I was standing there was a sudden commotion. A group of people that was growing a little too first, like the population of flies on the carcass of a dead dog. I am a very curious man, always wanting to remain informed, involved and up to date, but you will catch me dead before you find me joining a crowd to find out what’s going on. This is because I generally don’t like crowds and also because I have lived in Nairobi, where every tom, dick and harry will exist in such crowds, Petty thieves, pickpockets, perverts and people generally looking to harm you.
I was not aware of what was happening and I did not really want to find out, but there was a fight going on and more people joined in. I would move a little distance away from the commotion as it got closer and when it was really close I literally scurried away to the other end of the road and helplessly watched. I fear violence and however angry I get, I try not to use my fist, I let the anger consume me like a raging inferno, I let it eat me up in my sleep until I am used to it and I can live with it.
Next to me on this other end of the road was an elderly lady who apparently caught wind of what was happening, she looked at me and started to engage me in a conversation against my strict no talking to strangers policy. Clearly my kindergarten teacher taught me well and I have lived true to her teachings, Honoring her golden rules of looking right, left and right again before crossing the road and the more prominent one of not talking to strangers and taking things from strangers. Maybe she would have been disappointed to see me talk to this strange elderly lady. She seemed harmless though, so I felt obliged to engage with her in a conversation but at a distance and rather suspiciously careful not to let down my guard.
“Why don’t you go help him,” she said.
“Coz he is my brother? I don’t know him.”
I did not really say that, but I thought it and after a moment of silence closely looking at this woman as if looking for a hint that she was out to get me or she was an old witch from one of those fairytales I read in my childhood, I responded.
“Why? What’s happening?”
“Those people hitting him are thieves, they were trying to rob him and when he put up resistance they turned on him and accused him of being a thief, please go help him, they will kill him.”
I was also afraid that they would kill him or the best case scenario leave him hurt or disabled. Nairobi has some of the most idle people, always looking to find trouble or make trouble. They are known to take matters into their own hands; they assign themselves the role of prosecutor and judge. They have killed petty thieves and pickpockets by stoning and burning some to death. They seem to have a store full of used car tyres and gasoline set aside just waiting for these petty thieves to put an end to their lives, a mere mortal playing god. I have witnessed some of this brutal killings and I wasn’t the only one witnessing, a clear indication that we indeed were numb, helpless and resigned all the while. I have had to watch the self-righteous, self-declared perfect inhuman people kill fellow human beings for simply stealing cheap gadgets such as phones. I stood there and watched them beg for mercy, I watched them writhe in pain; I simply stood there unable to make my voice heard. I wanted to yell at the top of my fucking lungs:
“stop! Please stop! It’s enough leave him alone, please I am begging you it is not worth it!”
I never did, I stood there numb, watched him die, watched him look right into my eyes like I was his last hope and I was bailing out on him. I watched him without shading a tear. I watched them shout mwizi auliwe, I watched them cast stones like they were free of iniquities, like they never stole anything, like they did not cheat on their spouses while sleeping around, like they did not talk behind each other’s backs, like they were the epitome of perfection and arrant in their ways. I was just a small kid then, maybe ten, I am now twice that age and I was relieving this hellish horror of my past experience. I was about to watch someone else lose his life, this time someone innocent and my voice coward again, it shied away when I needed it, like in an episode of a bad dream when you scream for help but your voice won’t just come out. I was also just as scared as my tiny little voice, wearing without the slightest of shame a cowardly hat. I wanted to ask this old lady,
“so what do you want me to do?”
I wanted to yell at her and tell her “haah what do you want me to do old woman?” but I could not find that voice either.
What was I supposed to do tell this old lady, (sarcastic voice) “hey why don’t you hold my backpack for me it contains my laptop I will be back in short while.”
Then what? Would I find her there when I got back? Wouldn’t she be the one to rob me now, what if I tagged my backpack along, with my laptop and my phone the chances were a billion to one that I would be back with it in one piece. I am not materialistic and losing my laptop was all an excuse. I was simply scared that I have no control of whatever happens in my life, I was not to be trusted to salvage the life of a total stranger. I was scared of speaking my mind and not being able to walk the talk. I was scared they would turn on me and I would lose an eye or worse my life. I was being selfish putting my needs before the greater good. So I lost my voice, I never answered back but helplessly watched because it is what we do now. I watched because we have lost control and resigned ourselves to the hands of fate. I watched like that other time I watched a lady’s handbag get snatched and I could not bring myself to apologize. What was an apology going to do for her anyway when I simply stood and watched her get robbed without having to lift a finger? I watched just like that other time I watched another boy get robbed right next to my seat in a matatu and there was nothing I could do but cross fingers they don’t turn to rob me next.
Luckily the police turned up and handled the situation. I wished I had a gun just like all cowards do so that I could point it on their heads, they that are unjust, self-righteous and corrupt and watch them soil their pants when the cold barrel of my gun was resting on their heads. I wanted to make them feel as helpless and as numb as I feel all the time, but all I did was cowardly watch. I just stood there and watched.