“JUST. DON’T. PANIC! If you panic, you make me panic—and how’re two panicked people going to help each other get out of here?” I screamt at Sheila with a mix of anger and fear in my tone.
“OK, babe, I’ll try,” she responded with minuscule conviction. “But at least take this seriously.”
“I am serious! So now you don’t think I am serious? Of course I wanna get out here as badly as you want to,” I retorted.
We were on the brink of yet another argument just when we needed to stick together most. This wasn’t home where if one got mad they could simply get into the other room, slamming the door and flinging hard silence at the other. This was the forest, Karura Forest.This was 8 PM. This was darkness laying in stealth—so dense you barely saw the forest whose belly you were trapped in like Jonah in the Bible. You only heard the sounds of the beasts in the beast—of crickets chirping, of frogs croaking, of twigs creaking, of birds snoozing, of silence, of hard breathing, of panic, of your fear cloaked in anger. But not sounds of people, of vehicles, of buildings—you could barely tell that on the map, we were smack in the middle of Nairobi. I guess that’s why most people loved Karura, why we loved Karura; cliché, granted, but it took you away from the city without you leaving the city. The air was fresh, the silence was calming, the space was aplenty. A few miles away in the CBD, tens of matatus hooted simultaneously for no reason, broad shouldered men tussled for space with hip-swaying lasses, skyscrapers took the example of the people and jostled each other for a piece of the skyline, the air was far from fresh.
But now we needed those sounds of hooting matatus, the lights of the skyscrapers or the smell of sewage like a shipwrecked crew needs a lighthouse – to give us a sense of direction. To reassure us we would find our way back home. But all that the forest served was pure: pure air, pure darkness, pure silence. Trump would have called it bad, crooked forest – a covfefe of a forest (which he’d then destroy if pulling out of Paris is any indication)!
Just before darkness engulfed us, a guard had given us directions to the exit: a left, a right, straight ahead, a right, a right, a right…[more rights] and a left, maybe. We’d followed several rights but had bumped into a group of people moving in the opposite direction. The group threw doubt specks our way, scattered our self-belief. We turned back, followed them for a while. Then, deciding they were more lost than we were, we decided to take a detour into the woods.
“The guard said right (right?), and this footpath goes right, so…” we foolishly assured each other.
Misreading the situation, and not giving two fucks about looking around me to see the trees dissolving into their silhouettes then merging into a large block of nothingness, I tried to keep the moods high. We had been playing a true or false game for the last hour, or two. In the thick of the game, we’d talked of porn watching, hating each other’s ‘crushes’, high school and college sports, work, dreams, siblings, parents…and a million other topics we’d barely broached before. It’s funny how simple games have a way of turning the people you think you know best into strangers, in a nice way. Currently, I tried some dumb true or false statement. I can’t remember it but I am sure Sheila, even though I couldn’t see her face, must have found some energy in the midst of her internal meltdown to roll her eyes at me.
Suddenly, we saw a distant light. It didn’t move yet in my mind it registered as a vehicle.
“Babe, look, we’re getting to the road!” I exclaimed.
But the truth couldn’t have been further. We had only spotted a home outside the edges of the forest. I didn’t see the electric fence separating us from the home even though we had already turned on the flashlight on Sheila’s phone; I almost bumped into the fence but her shriek saved me. Near the homestead, we saw a female figure wrapped in a white towel seemingly hanging clothes on the drying line. Some male figures in the house with an open door watched Churchill Show, a local comedy show that’s funnier on mute.
“Niaje!” Sheila shouted at the woman as I rapped a stick I had picked along the way for ‘manly protection’ onto a nearby tree.
I imagine the woman at first being frustrated at the noises. “Those monkeys are at it again! Baba Omondi, can you chase them away before they steal the baby’s food again,” she probably said, beyond our earshot. But on unbending her body and peering in the direction of the ‘monkey chatters’, she must have seen a spotlight and wondered if the monkeys at Karura had now taken to technology. “They probably stole the phone from a scared tourist, but let me go and see them…” And she started walking towards us.
“Sasa, tumepotea kiasi…eh, unaweza tuonyesha gate ya kutoka iko wapi?” Sheila asked, voice shivering.
Surprisingly, the woman was not sure how we would get to an exit that would be open that late.
“Well, the gate near here must be closed now, so just try and follow that road continuously and try the gate along Kiambu Road,” she said pointing to an invisible road that we had just crossed.
“Asante,” we thanked her and hit the road we thought she had advised us to follow.
Sheila galloped and I tried to keep pace. My adrenaline had not kicked in; hers was probably in saturation. Biggest mistake: I asked her to pause and feel the moment – to take in the stars in the sky, to listen to the sounds, to feel like an adventurer exploring dangerous terrain. Oh boy, she was having none of it: “Please get serious!” she said, some ten feet ahead of me.
Then we hit a dead end.
A dilapidated white bungalow lay to the front; the path we’d taken at the fork had brought us to our destination. In Sheila’s imagination, this was a possessed ghost-house and we had to run back faster than the fastest ghost, for dear lives. My adrenaline was still napping, remember, so I wanted to know what happened in that house. Why was there an abandoned house in the middle of the forest? I mean, one could learn a thing or two about…I don’t know, culture or colonial architecture by looking at it. But faster than I could say Haunted House, Sheila was sprinting back in the direction we had come from and I was left with little choice but following her.
“But babe, you never know, it could have been a hotel we could have checked in for a romantic night,” I thought to say to Sheila when I caught up, but thankfully I checked myself soon enough – something that you will soon learn I did a terrible job of later that night.
I forget whose idea it was to remind us that we were not in the 19th century to be using sounds and sights for navigation. Google Maps! But the roads in Karura aren’t present on the Maps yet. At least not the one we’re on now. The map is mostly green with about two roads snaking through the greenery. Of course we argue what to search on Google Maps but we eventually have a clue: find our way back to the road we were using before the we doubted ourselves, then search our way to the gate.
We followed the footpaths back to the main forest road and started towards the exit. It was still dark and Sheila was still not taking jokes. I tried some bad joke about trees moving like ghosts which especially bombed with my audience. Soon, we heard revving engines and then minutes later saw vehicle headlights. We’d made it to the fence! We followed a path to the exit gate with relief. Little did we know the hardest hurdle was just approaching.
I should have shut up and let Sheila do all the talking. But, often, hindsight erroneously presumes wisdom where may have been none.
So, with all my adrenaline-less testosterone, I walked towards the half dozen guards gathered in a gatehouse illuminated only by their phone screenlights. I don’t remember the first thing I said but it definitely wasn’t a greeting. I skipped pleasantries and requests – jumped straight into orders.”Mnaweza tufungulia gate, tumechelewa kiasi.” Open the gate for us, we’re a little late in there.
“Kijana! Ziko wapi ticket zenu?” One of the guards looked up from their Sportpesa betting screens and asked.
“Eeh, ndio hii,” I said, producing my ticket and shoving it at him.
Then he asked me to read the terms and conditions. “Unajua you shouldn’t be here after 6 PM! Kwani hukusoma ticket?”
“Aii boss, no one reads these terms and conditions. We were just lost, can you just let us out?”
“Kwani where were you lost? I have been patrolling this forest on my motorbike and I didn’t see you,” the lightest-skinned guard among them asked, his voice reeking of doubt and accusations.
I didn’t know what to tell him. Sheila must have attempted an intervention here, asking me to let her do the talking – to bring the heat a notch lower. I must have interrupted her, feeling entitled to answer the offending question. And, ladies and gentlemen, that’s how the house of cards came tumbling down.
“So you think we were deliberately hiding in the forest at night! What do you want me to tell you? This is a forest, man, it’s all trees and they all look the same if you ask me. Am I supposed to say I was lost at such and such tree or what?”
I couldn’t read faces in the darkness but I am sure everybody but me was shocked at my little ballsy speech, rhetorical questions and all.
“Kijana, unaongea matope! Hii gate hatutafungua past 6…either urudi utafute ile gate mliingilia ama ungoje kwa ile bench mpaka asubuhi,” one of guards, the heavily built dark one with palm-oil-red eyes, said. They weren’t going to open this gate: either we went back and used the gate we came in through or we sat at the bench a few meters away and waited till morning.
Anger is a terrible thing for the mind because in my calculus, walking some give kilometers to the other gate in pitch darkness made absolute sense. Sheila took my hand into hers and walked me towards the bench.
She asked: “What is wrong with you?”
“What is wrong with me? You should be asking what is wrong with those guards who are asking where we were hiding!”
“No, I mean, what is wrong with you?”
“We should start walking to the other gate…”
“No, listen to me…”
“No, you listen to me. We need to start walking now.”
“Are you out of your mind. Honey, calm down. Let me talk to them. You need to calm down!”
“Calm down! Oh, calm down…”
Silence. A minute. Two minutes. Then the weight of it all sunk into me. The gravity of my asshole-ness stared right at me.
“I’m so sorry baby for screwing things up.”
“Talk to me…”
“These guys just want us to bribe them to open for us. We’re not giving them anything,” I tried using first person plural to elicit a response.
One of the guards who’d not spoken to us before shuffled towards us.
Sheila: Please don’t speak, let me talk to him.
Guard: So what have you decided?
Sheila: Please let us out, we have to go far from here. We are sorry…
Guard: We can’t open the gate past 6. And he was very rude…
Sheila: Yes, but please open for us. We…
Guard: We can’t open…
Me: What do you mean you can’t open? Are there security cameras or alarms that will go off if you open…
Sheila: (almost tearing up and grabbing my hand) Just shut up. Please. Just. Shut. Up.
Guard: (Loudly, at his peers) Hii kijana bado inaongea matope. Ati inauliza kama kuna alarm italia tukifungua gate.
The other guards stand and walk towards us. The heavily built one with red eyes leads the pack. He feels personally insulted and screams at me:
“Ati umesema nini? Unatukana officer! Hebu simama” (What did you just say? You’re insulting an officer! Get up!”
Honestly I was surprised. I had not intended my question to be an insult. It never felt like one to me – still doesn’t. Sheila, the officers and the whole world, I am sure, heard something else. The height of belligerence. An affront at the men in uniform. What in my head was a simple inquiry aimed at figuring out if opening the gate might land the guards into trouble reached ears – even those that never heard it – as the world’s biggest verbal assault.
I sat still.
Red Eyes grabbed my shirt and jerked me up. I remained still. Sheila lost it.
Now, I’ve heard of some son of God who gave His life so we may live, but that day at Karura, Sheila showed me what true sacrifice is. I am forever in her debt. With little regard for the dirt of the ground, she took to her knees and pleaded, her voice laden with pain: Please don’t hurt him. Please…take me. Don’t hurt him. Noooo…
Red Eyes pretended not to hear any of her cries. He went for the back of my pants and lifted me up shouting, “Kwani unaona uko na makende ngapi?”
My blood boiled and I wanted to tell him I had six fucking metallic balls. Or better yet, knock out his smelly mouth off my face. Then, I looked at the pack of men circling me like leashed hounds, waiting for me to lose my nerve, to get physical. Then I looked at Sheila. I had to reason this out – every odd was stacked against our favor if I choose muscle over mind. I knew I had mind. But I had to change tact.
Red Eyes shook me. He threatened to arrest me. For what, I don’t know. But I remained calm like Buddhist monk ten minutes into meditation. When he got tired of riling me up, he let me loose.
The guards then split into two camps. One camp walked Sheila towards the gate to tell her she could go but that she had to leave her idiot husband behind. The other camp stayed with me. Red Eyes wandered towards the forest. I kept an eye on Sheila’s camp and then went all diplomatic on my camp. I knew Sheila’s camp had a slimmer chance of convincing her to leave without me than Dida has of becoming President of Kenya or Uganda Cranes have of winning the World Cup.
“So, look, I am sorry I was rude to you there,” I launched into my charm offensive. “We all make mistakes, especially us young people. Look, I am your son and you’re like my fathers. I made I mistake. I am sorry. Please forgive me and let us go,” I entreated, meek as a lamb.
“Okay, but you have to apologize to him,” the youngest guard pointed towards the guard I’d asked the alarm question.
It was working.
“Sure, John, let me talk to him. Thanks for understanding,” I said, going for a handshake and squinting to read his badge.
One of the guards from Sheila’s camp joined our camp. He wanted to know if Sheila and I were married. I quickly weighed the question and the unspoken mind traps in it. I thought: what might Sheila have told them? I said yes. He asked if we had children. Again, yes. One child, a son. He was convinced my answers were truthful. They had matched Sheila’s answers.
Confident my base was secure, I walked towards Sheila’s camp and played the same nice-guy game. They were going to open the gate, they said. The light skinned one who had asked where we had been hiding in the forest told me that had we gone back into the forest to look for the other gate, he’d have followed us and probably shot us, and then framed it as a case of apprehended poachers. My heart sunk but I smiled and patted him on the back. I wasn’t ruining this again. We just needed to get out. Red Eyes, now back mellowed from his walk, predicted that, with my rudeness, my wife was bound to leave me the next day.
The youngest guard opened the gate. We shook all the guards’ hands. As we slipped out of the gate, a curse word started from my guts and grew bigger as it traveled towards my lips. I looked back at the guards, my heart throbbing with both victory and shame. “Fu…” I swallowed the other letters, took Sheila’s hand into mine, and walked ahead.
The night was still young.