There were three of them in the cab of the jeep. The vehicle was what they called a boxbody, the back having been enclosed. Ramesh used it to make deliveries during the week. The shop made no deliveries on Sundays, except for "urgent" orders--meaning simply that the customer was of long standing and had good credit.
Ramesh usually had two men, called "turnboys", with him. These were full-time employees of the business, beasts of burden who carried two- hundred-pound gunny sacks of flour or sugar on their backs, one bag at a time, the bags held secure by holding onto the sack's "ears", arms extended backwards from raised elbows, legs hobbling from warehouse to vehicle. When offloading at the retail shops in Pumwani, Majengo or Shauri Moyo, one man stood the sacks up at the edge of the platform and then helped load the other man. They took turns loading and carrying, causing Ramesh to wonder if this was the reason they were called turnboys.
Shauri Moyo was one of the "locations" where the city's black population lived. Shauri meant "matter" in Swahili, as in "shauri ngani", "what is the matter?". "Moyo" he found out years later meant "heart". "A matter of the heart". Shauri Moyo was not a place he would have associated with matters of heart. It was where the poor of the city lived. To its north were the mud and wattle houses of Pumwani and Majengo. The railway line to Mombasa cut across Shauri Moyo. On the south side of the line were ugly industrial installations, oil tanks of Shell and Caltex, flour mills, shoe factories. Chimneys spewed out thick black smoke all day.
The three of them, Ramesh and his buddies, had decided to go the Ngong Hills this Sunday afternoon. Ramesh had completed Form VI just two months earlier. The results had come in from the Overseas Examination Board in Cambridge, England only a week ago. Ramesh had failed his science subjects. If he had passed, the family would have sent him to Britain or India for a professional degree. His buddy Narinder, sitting between him and Amichand in the jeep's cab, had just scraped through all his own subjects and had already started classes at the Asian Teachers' Training School.
The red jeep had just reached the unpaved leg of the climb up the first of the seven Ngong Hills in the range overlooking the hot Rift Valley to the west. The jeep would have to manage this hill all the way to the top in four-wheel drive, for they were getting close to the summit, eight thousand feet above sea level. The sky was pale blue, with a scattering of white clouds sailing over the horizon. Ramesh leaned back further from the steering wheel and took in the scene. These hills, he thought, were a majestic dividing line. The hot, dry plains of the great Rift Valley to the west, the lush highlands in the north. In the south and east was acacia country, arid and thorny, rolling all the way down to the coast. The Maasai roamed with their livestock in the plains below, sharing the land with lion and giraffe, buffalo and bushbuck. The Kikuyu used to farm the best part of the highlands, now occupied by the white settlers. What a splendid country it seems from up here, he said to himself, looking at Nairobi, a couple of thousand feet below. The strife there -- Mau Mau, arrogant settlers, repressive elders seemed very distant.
At the Maasai Store in Ngong Village they had brought three big bottles of Tusker and some chips. Amichand had stayed in the vehicle, although he was the one who had dished out the money. Amichand always had money. He had been helping out in, and was now virtually running, his father's wholesale produce store for more than two years, having failed the Cambridge School Leaving Certificate Exam at the end of Form IV. He remained in the jeep because he was afraid he would be recognized by the Maasai Store people who were his father's old customers. All three of them could be in trouble then if word about the beer got out.
Ramesh had been in a foul mood all afternoon.
"Motabhai is being difficult, eh?" said Narinder in Hindi. Narinder, being Punjabi, did not speak Gujarati, though he understood it well enough. Motabhai itself was a Gujarati word, though, a term of respect for "Elder Brother". There were times the three of them used words from five different languages during a short exchange.
"He refused to give me the jeep's keys. In the end I took them from his coat pocket and just took off. He was so startled he couldn't say anything. It has been a bad day. In the morning I got into an argument with a customer in the shop. This fellow said he had given me a five shilling note for the miserable three cigarettes he was buying. He hadn't paid a cent. He was going on about the colour bar -- calaa ba."
"Calaa baaa---" repeated Narinder, contorting his face.
"I told him to go away, but he just stood there accusing all the wahindi of practising calaa ba. Speaking of colour bar, the other day I met Tom Mboya at Tirlochan's father's tailor shop. Mboya's office is next door. He does not have a 'phone of his own, so he uses theirs. I tell you, that fellow is a born leader."
"Tirlochan's going to India to study medicine," said Narinder.
"He got a letter of recommendation from Tom Mboya," answered Ramesh.
"Too bad he can't get one of those scholarships Mboya is organizing for African students going to study in America. Tirlochan's dad can barely afford to send him to study in poor India," Narinder said with a sigh. "Maybe one day we will learn to call all people who are born and live in Africa just plain Africans and be done with these stupid division of African, European and Asian."
"Do you think Tom Mboya will become the top leader if this country gets Uhuru?" asked Ramesh.
"Well, he is already the Trade Union leader. If they ever allow one man one vote, he would be elected to-morrow. Who knows if this country will ever become independent. The settlers are already talking about joining with the Rhodesians in one big Federation. They want another South Africa here."
"Ghana has independence, one man one vote. Why not the rest of Africa?"
"The white kaburus will never give up power in South Africa."
"Talking about colour bar, you know what Tom Mboya did the other day? He got together with a couple of other African and Indian leaders and tried to have dinner at Safari Hotel."
"Who were the Indians?" asked Narinder.
"Chuni Madan, the new Asian member of Legco...."
"What's Legco?" asked Amichand, hesitantly.
"It's short for the Legislative Council. Didn't they teach you anything in Eastleigh Secondary? Anyway, the other Indian was the editor of the Daily Chronicle. They all walked into the restaurant at Safari Hotel. They went in and sat down at a table. The African waiter called out the European manager, who politely asked them to leave."
"And what did they do?"
They asked why they were being asked to leave. The manager pointed at the sign they have in all European restaurants and cinemas: "THE MANAGEMENT RESERVES THE RIGHT OF ADMISSION."
"In South Africa they are more direct. The signs say 'Coolies, Blacks, Coloureds and dogs not allowed in.' "
"Well, in the end the manager called the police and they were forced to leave. The next day the Daily Chronicle printed a big headline about the colour bar at Safari Hotel."
Amichand wanted to know how many Asian members Legco had.
"There are three elected Asian members and five African elected members. The Asian seats are divided, one is reserved for a Muslim member, the other two for non-Muslims. Europeans have eleven elected members."
"The British know how to divide and rule," said Narinder.
"Hey, look at that cute Maasai girl."
Amichand was pointing at a lithe, young woman walking with her arm around a big gourd balanced on the side of her hip.
"You will have to be born again and be in the right Morani age group to get any attention from her," Narinder said.
The girl had a series of tight bead necklaces strung around her long neck and strings of bead around her waist, just above the hips. Her hair was in braids glued with a mix of red ochre. Her features were angular.
"Look how red everything is. The red jeep on the red tracks of the unpaved road and the girl wearing the red ochre suka," Amichand said with enthusiasm.
"And if you think you can invite her to join us we will soon have red blood sprouting from a Maasai spear. Get the idea out of your head," said Narinder.
Ramesh laughed and took three Clipper cigarettes from the pack on the dash board and passed two to Narinder, who pressed in the lighter on the dashboard. The road was getting steep now and he had to switch to first gear.
"Remember the time we picked up the Wakamba women near Machakos? They kept saying they wanted to go to the 'raiki' and we couldn't figure out what the hell they meant," said Amichand.
"You were getting pretty friendly with one of them?"
"I've figured out what they meant by 'raiki'. It's a lake. There is a small one further along the road to Nyandurwa."
"They would have come along with us if we had anywhere to go."
"We are the wrong colour in the wrong country."
The lighter popped up from its socket. Ramesh lit his cigarette and passed the lighter to Narinder. They were getting close to the top of the first of the seven Ngong Hills and the gradient was getting steeper. Soon a vista of the sun-baked plains of the Rift Valley opened up to their right as the road curved to the left. The ridge they were on dropped precipitously down. They could see the dry, burnt plain below stretching to the horizon. Far away, past Mount Longonut, they could see a streak of blue. That had to be Lake Naivasha, thought Ramesh.
Although the sun was shining, there had been a shower earlier and some of the hollows on the meandering road were waterlogged. As they approached the next dip in the road they saw a Ford Cortina stuck in a water-filled hollow. The rear wheels rotated furiously, churning out mud, the vehicle refusing to budge forward.
"Looks like wazungu," Narinder said.
"Don't feel like helping them after what that bastard settler said when we were dropping off the British soldiers at Gilgil."
"'Since when have you started a transport business?'" Narinder imitated the settler's gruff voice, managing to rub in the insult Ramesh had felt at the time.
Ramesh recalled how he had stopped to let out the soldiers after giving them a lift from Naivasha. As he yanked down the rear door plank to let the soldiers out, a settler's car pulled up behind with bright headlights beaming into the jeep's box. A red-faced, paunchy man in khaki shirt and shorts came marching out of the car shouting, "What the hell is going on here?" his revolver slinging from the sagging belt on his shorts.
The man walked to the front of the jeep, took a look at Narinder and Amichand and then turned to Ramesh. Ramesh was frightened by the tone the man had taken and managed to stammer that he had just given a lift to the soldiers. The settler then spat out, "Since when have you started a transportation business?" and had marched back to his car and drove off. The young Scottish soldiers from the Black Watch unit were in Kenya as part of the British effort to fight the Mau Mau. A state of "Emergency" had been declared in Kenya for some years now. The soldiers apologized for the settler's behaviour.
They had to stop a short distance behind the Cortina. There was no way of passing it, and it was too risky to try and wedge their way around the furrowed track. The grassy bank was too high and the space between it and the Cortina too narrow. The Cortina's driver and passengers had gotten out of their vehicle to examine the situation. They were two young white men and a girl in a gray flannel skirt and white blouse. She had long blonde hair done in a thick braid hanging down to her waist.
"Let's see what they do," Amichand said.
The driver got back into the vehicle, and the girl and the other man took up positions behind the Cortina. The driver put the vehicle into gear and started revving up the engine. The rear wheels turned, but the vehicle stayed in the same spot. Mud spluttered everywhere. Soon the girl and the man were covered all over with it. They stopped pushing and the girl stepped back a few yards. Suddenly the driver revved the engine again. Rear wheels spun, spraying two parallel streaks of mud on the girl's skirt and blouse, her neck and her cheek. She yelled and tried to duck out of the way. Then she began laughing. She stopped for a moment, then bent over double with laughter, at the same time trying to brush some of the mud off with her hand. The driver got out of the car, took a look at his companions and then both men joined in the hilarity.
The girl pulled a big cake of wet mud off her skirt and threw it at the driver, splattering his shirt. They were now running in circles around the car like escaped lunatics. Then the girl lost her footing and fell into the watery furrow on the road. The men continued to laugh helplessly as they pulled her up. As she got up Ramesh noticed her braid was now caked with mud.
"At this rate we will never get out here, but the show is great," said Narinder.
The girl and the two young men laughed and ran around for what seemed a long time and finally, exhausted, they collapsed onto the front of the car and lay sunning themselves. At that point Ramesh got out of the jeep and walked towards them.
"Do you ever want to get out of here?"
"No," said the girl, "never," and she started laughing again.
The mirth on her muddy face lifted Ramesh's gloomy spirits.
"I can try pushing up the rear". He was pointing at the back of the Cortina, but was still looking at the girl. At that moment she seemed the most stunning young woman he had ever seen. Her features were hard to make out through the caked mud, but he loved her just as she was, covered in mud and laughter.
"You are visitors from Europe?"
"Yea, all of us. Joe here is my cousin in Kenya, and Philip is also my cousin, from London. I am Felicity," she said between more bouts of laughter.
"My name is Ramesh."
She put out her hand, then started to withdraw it. "It's wet and muddy."
"Never mind." He took her hand and shook it vigorously. They laughed. Her hand felt warm and inviting and he shook it over and over again. Then he said: "Okay, I will push you up out of that hole."
He walked back to the jeep.
"They are having fun," said Amichand.
"Yea, they know how to live," said Ramesh.
He started the engine, engaged the four-wheel drive and roared up to the back of the Cortina. Then he slowed down and edged along until he made contact with the rear bumper. Felicity was watching from the back seat of the Cortina, directing him. As the jeep was about to touch the bumper, she put up both hands and began shaking them wildly. The Cortina's driver, the fellow called Joe, revved the engine, and the jeep pushed the car out of the mud, up the little slope and on to the dry tracks again. As the Cortina continued along on its own power, Felicity waved a two-handed good-bye, punctuating it with several kisses blown their way.
"Yes, they know how to live," said Amichand.
They followed the Cortina to the top of the first hill and parked further up on the little plateau to the right side of the summit facing the burning valley below. The sun was lighting up the whole of the plain in gold, broken only by the shadow of a range of hills far away. Mount Longonut stood in the centre, its jagged extremities reminiscent of volcanic ferocity. And yet, at the moment the mountain seemed lonely, strange and desolate.
Ramesh opened the door on his side and stuck his legs out.
"Let's have the beer."
Narinder had stepped out of the vehicle to watch the Cortina and now came back to report that the occupants had gotten out of the car and were carrying the girl up to the top of the summit. Ramesh stuck his head out of the jeep to look. There she was, perched on the seat formed by the joined hands of the young men on either side of her. He accepted the bottle of Tusker Amichand had opened for him and took a long swig.
Ramesh was silent for a long time. He wanted, he thought, the simplest of things. He worked hard. All he expected from life was what most people in the world somehow got, even if they were poor. Some balance. He didn't mind hard work, but needed some personal freedom, some opportunity to enjoy things. Play some sport, go to dances, make friends, meet women. Simple things, yet somehow just not possible.
He said quietly, "Look at us. We've got nowhere to go for fun. The swimming pools and the restaurants are closed to us. There are no girls for us to take out. The wazungu won't even look at us. This girl who talked to us is different because she is a visitor from England. Our own Indian girls are not allowed to go out at all. The Africans live in their traditional ways and stick with their own people. The only women we can have anything to do with are the malayas -- those prostitutes in Eastleigh. Other people play tennis on beautiful club lawns, even go water-skiing at the Nairobi damn. Not for us, no, it just ain't available."
"Well, there are dances at the Goan Institute, and a friend of mine has got in sometimes," said Amichand.
"Only if he is taken as a special guest by some Goan friend."
"London is the place. We've got to get out of here," Ramesh said, thinking how he would have to face the wrath of his elder brother on returning home.
The air up there on the hilltop was crisp, the soil red and the grass bright green. Down on the plains below, hot air shimmered and created double images. In the distance lone Mount Longonut loomed again. Its dark, ragged edges seemed forbidding as they wre silhouetted against the dipping sun. He could make out the elliptical lines of the crater at the top of the volcano. There had been some rumbling in the crater not so long ago. The prediction was that there could be a major eruption.
It would be hot and uncomfortable when they got down to the plains again.
"Or, maybe, just maybe," Amichand offered hesitantly, "Ghana. It is the only free black country. At least then we would still be in Africa."
"Dream on. What the hell do you know about Ghana? Do you know what language they speak there? Whether they would let in people like you and me?"
"And what do you think you can do in London?" said Amichand, "Work as a waiter -- if they let you in at all, that is?"
Narinder felt the bitterness in the air and said nothing.
(Rasik Shah <email@example.com> was born in Nairobi, of migrant parents from India. He grew up in a large family in a Kenya not very different from apartheid South Africa, speaking Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu and Swahili. He studied law at the Inns of Courts in London and practised in independent Kenya for about ten years, and then in Canada where he now lives and writes full- time.)