I hung out with Maisha some nights on the street, and we talked about fine cars and lovely Nairobi suburbs. We'd imagine what it would be like to visit the Masai Mara Game Reserve or to eat roasted ostrich or crocodile at the Carnivore, like tourists.
"You beautiful!" I had told Maisha one night on Koinange Street, months before that fateful Ex-mas.
"Ah, no, me am not." She laughed, straightening her jean miniskirt. "Stop lying."
"See your face?"
"Kai, who sent you?"
"And you bounce like models."
"Yah, yah, yah. Not tall. Nose? Too short and big. No lean face or full lips. No firsthand designer clothes. Not daring or beautiful like Naema. Perfume and mascara are not everything."
"Haki, you? Beautiful woman," I said, snapping my fingers. "You will be tall tomorrow."
"You are asking me out?" she said in jest, and struck a pose. She made faces as if she were playing with the twins and said, "Be a man, do it the right way."
I shrugged and laughed.
"Me, I have no shilling, big gal."
"I will discount you, guy."
"Oh, come on," she said, and pulled me into a hug.
Giggling, we began walking, our strides softened by laughter. Everything became funny. We couldn't stop laughing at ourselves, at the people around us. When my sides began to ache and I stopped, she tickled my ribs.
We laughed at the gangs of street kids massed together in sound sleep. Some gangs slept in graded symmetry. Others slept freestyle. Some had a huge tarp above their piles to protect them from the elements. Others had nothing. We laughed at a group of city taxi drivers huddled together, warming themselves with cups of chai and fiery political banter while waiting for the Akamba buses to arrive with passengers from Tanzania and Uganda. Occasionally we'd see the anxious faces of these visitors in the old taxis, bracing for what would be the most dangerous twenty minutes of their twelve-hour journeys, fearful of being robbed whenever the taxis slowed down.
We were not afraid of the city at night. It was our playground. At times like this, it was as if Maisha had forgotten her job, and all she wanted to do was laugh and playact.
"You? Nice guy," Maisha said.
I pulled at her handbag.
"You will be a big man tomorrow . . ."
She dashed past me suddenly to wave down a chauffeured Volvo. It stopped right in front of her, the window rolling down. A man in the backseat inspected her and shook his bald head. He beckoned a taller girl from the cluster jostling behind her, trying to fit their faces in the window. Maisha ran to a silver Mercedes- Benz wagon, but the own er picked a shorter girl.
"Someday, I must to find a real job," Maisha said, sighing, when she came back.
"What job, gal?"
"I want to try full-time."
She shrugged. "Mombasa? Dar?"
I shook my head. "Bad news, big gal. How long?"
"I don't know. Ni maisha yangu, guy, it's my life. I'm thinking, full time will allow me to pay your fees and also save for myself. I will send money through the church for you. I'll quit the brothel when I save a bit. I don't want to stand on the road forever. Me myself must to go to school one day . . ."
The words died in her throat. She pursed her lips, folded her hands across her chest, and rocked from side to side. She did not rush to any more cars.
"We won't see you again?" I said. "No, thanks. If you enter brothel, me I won't go to school."
"Then I get to keep my money, ha-ha. Without you, they won't see my shilling in that house. Never." She saw my face, stopped suddenly, then burst into giggles. "I was kidding you, guy, about the brothel. Just kidding, OK?"
She tickled me, pulling me toward Moi Avenue. I held her hand tightly. Prostitutes fluttered about under streetlights, dressed like winged termites.
Copyright © 2008 by Uwem Akpan
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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