Losing courage

On Tuesday night, the dark velvety softness of my African night was torn apart by the wails of a man.

“Damu (Blood)! Damu! Damu!”

The litany of curses cloaked in this one accusatory word jolted me from my sleep, and I awoke with the rusty taste of blood in my mouth.

He continued to scream. “I am bleeding. Bleeding! Mguu angu unatoa damu (My leg is bleeding).”

I lay still, half awake, as my brain caught up with my beating heart.

And then as the clouds of sleep lifted, I began to realise I was not the only who was awake and quietly listening. The sounds that defined our nights had stopped abruptly. The neighbourhood cats had called a truce. And the owls were silent in the shadows.

All the while, this man kept on screaming. That he was bleeding. That there was so much blood. And his sentences were punctuated with “Woiye” – a phrase of mourning that always  captures the depth of grief and despondency.

Gradually, I realised he was in the estate across from ours, just over the wall with its embedded pieces of jagged soda bottle glass.

And then I heard a woman’s voice – from our side of the wall I think – asking who he was, what had happened and where his home was.

He answered that his name was Hussein, that his family refused to open the door to him, and that he was bleeding and in pain.

It was a hushed conversation but their voices carried easily in the thick darkness.

Questions and answers zigzagged across until she discovered that he no longer lived in this estate. She asked him for the phone number of a family member – it was a Safaricom line and the three middle digits were 409.

She went back into her house – I heard the kitchen grill slam – and he kept repeating the phone number, like a mantra. Lulled by the sound, the neighbourhood fell quiet.

I couldn’t fall back asleep. I doubt whether anyone else could that night.

First, I was scared. Then, ashamed at having not been the one to help him when he was so obviously in need.

There are things happening in this beloved country of mine which no one is prepared to talk about. Business and PR talk reinforces the narrative of “Africa growing”, and it is smothering the reality.

Earlier this week, the Global Post published an article with 10 reasons why Nairobi is a wonderful place to live. (It was written by an American correspondent, and I will leave you to reach your own conclusions about how qualified he is to speak on the subject).

I don’t know how many Kenyans would agree with him. Aside from the terrorist threats that have become a way of life, we are terrified to be indoors and outside, during the day and after dark. Indoors because of the spate of robberies and break ins and outside because of  hijackings and muggings. I know I have been forced to change my own lifestyle.

I love my country and my people passionately. But something is wrong, and this discontent is just a sign of things to come. There is too much inequality, poverty and anger, and these ingredients make for a bad outcome.

There is a Gujrati phrase, which reads “himat harijow” (lose courage). I am terrified of how close I am to reaching that.

I think I almost did that dark Tuesday night when Hussein was bleeding.

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