For this one, I’ll tell you a story. No explanations, no expositions — just one long-ish story.
In my first job after coming back from the States, I worked for a big corporate in Kenya. In the first four months, a friend was gracious enough to host me in his single-room unit and we split the rent. At the time, I was on a short-term contract; the money was very little but the expenses were low and I had some savings from my college days so things kinda worked.
Seeing as I would be getting a permanent role in several months, I bet that my salary would grow significantly. Betting on a future salary increment with little evidence, I decided it was time to live on my own. My friend took me around to look for rental houses. I wanted a simple place with all the basic amenities. I had a range of about 6k to 10k but when we chanced on a bed-sitter that was actually spacious, not just advertised as spacious, and that was perfectly located for 12,500 bob, I really wanted in. As much as I try to be rational, I’m very emotional in my thinking and I just loved the place. It even had a balcony with a great view. I could picture myself on that balcony at sunset lost in a good novel, soft music in the background, a glass of wine at hand. I’m such a romantic, don’t laugh at me. The caretaker talked way too much, which can always be a deal breaker for me, but I was so smitten I overlooked that. He insisted on paying the deposit then and so I went to the nearby MPESA agent and came back with a small bundle of notes.
My memories of that first bedsitter on Wanyee Road are just as romantic as I had envisioned them. The fact that I was newly in love with a very special girl compounds that. I now had a space of my own — and more importantly, a bathroom I didn’t have to share with an entire floor of people. Even though I furnished it sparsely, the place felt like home. It had a certain warmth to it. And internet. And a constant supply of water and power. And a balcony with a view. And love.
At work, I was pursuing the long-term contract but things weren’t looking up. The company was offering a raise that was nothing close to my expectations. I wanted to negotiate but one particular manager was just a plain, good old prick — he treated you like cow dung and made it crystal clear that even if you somehow managed to grow avocados in Pluto, you’d not deserve a cent more than what he offered. I was frustrated at the meager raise but I was goddamn pissed at the way he treated me. And since that day till the day I left that job, while I had some great colleagues and the tasks were fine, I never took my full self to that office. The company and myself were worse off for it. Maya was right about people never forgetting what you made them feel.
Around the same time I hang out with my friend Eunice who also doubles as my financial compass. She actually managed to pass Economics and so when she mentioned something about how rent should not be more than a sixth of your net salary, I listened. With the shitty increment, my rent was way higher than her recommended fraction. Sheila, my girlfriend, also thought I should move to some place cheaper. So we started house-hunting again, just four months after we moved into my beloved bedsitter on Wanyee Road.
Sheila recommended Thika Road, particularly Roysambu and Kasarani. We went looking one weekend but nothing within our budget tickled our fancy, a budget that was now, strictly, 6K to 9K. Then the next weekend, having found nothing interesting in Roysambu, we decided to go down the hill to what, in our miniscule wisdom, we imagined to be an extension of Roysambu. The area looked less clean, an understatement, but we didn’t have the luxury to consider such minor details. When we saw a VACANT sign on one of the buildings, we asked for the caretaker and this skinny fellow with brown teeth and a dirty shirt showed up. He told us the advertised house wouldn’t be vacant until the end of the month. But because he was a thoughtful and resourceful man, he showed us what my future house would look like through the window of the next unit on the ground floor that had been turned into a construction material store. The window panes, fogged by sand and dirt, allowed little vision into the space but we trusted him when he said: it’s a spacious one bedroom, there’s always water, you have a hot shower and all this for 6k rent and 6k deposit…hata hakuna deposit ya maji na stima. He gave us the rental agency’s number and we left. We’d found home number two in Nairobi for me.
Now, this decision was made in a hot February afternoon after hours of walking with no lunch. So I’d hereby like to officially blame it on three actors: the heat, the hunger and the fatigue. If I’d had something to drink, I’d have, like Jamie Foxx, also blamed it on the alcohol. This was one of my worst decisions.
Trump had yet to unleash the whole shithole fiasco on the world, but in retrospect, I think he had that place in Zimmerman in mind when he called our countries shitholes. To begin with, when we got there on move in day, the tenant who lived there had not moved her stuff out. When she moved them out, the place was just a tad cleaner than the infamous Dandora dumpsite: beer bottles, tissue paper, polythene papers, fragments of hair weave, condom packaging, food wrappings, cockroaches, and worse were strewn all over the floor. We moved my stuff in quickly, locked the door and rushed out to the closest supermarket to look to proper mops, brooms, soaps and disinfectants. After several hours of cleaning up two of the smallest rooms I’ve seen and setting up my stuff, the reality of the mistake started sinking in. The previous evening, Sheila had warned me about the possibility of not liking the place but I had shut her down by letting her know I wasn’t raised in privilege. I was determined to prove to her that I could handle the tough life just fine. I may have lived abroad for six years but I ain’t no snowflake, girl!
Well, that resolve was tested when I tried to get some fresh air by opening the bedroom window. The window refused to budge when I pushed it with triple the amount of force that a normal human being uses to open a window. It clearly hadn’t been opened for a while. And for good reason because as soon as I pried it open, the smell of a thousand tonnes of shit hit the room like a hurricane. When I braved the hurricane (remember I was playing it tough), I found that just below the window was a giant drainage trench. Ventilation be damned, being tough be damned, we just had to shut that fucking window.
Maybe it was time for a hot shower to relieve the tension. You guessed it: just like the fucking window, the shower tap refused to give. No one had used that shower since…well, let’s try forever? Leave alone the hot water promised by the thin man with brown teeth (who, BTW, was nowhere to be found now), not a drop of water flowed from that shower head. So we went out and bought a water heating coil and a water tank to conserve the trickle from the kitchen tap.
To say that I was having second thoughts about this place would be to state the obvious. When we called the agency, they were not willing to help. Apparently they had beef with the landlord and they would not spend their own money renovating the place. Leave alone renovating, how about you get the missing window pane installed? When they finally accepted to paint the interior a week later, they bought pink paint. Yes, pink! Pink? Yes, fucking pink! As if all the misery I was experiencing in that space (which now included a nightly play-by-play creaking of beds upstairs as folks made do by going at it hard), they were going to paint my walls the favorite color of a prepubescent white girl! Thanks Obama.
I wanted out. Of course, jeez. I figured I would give the agency a month’s notice at the end of the month so I got my deposit back. But then I started forgetting to turn the water tap off as it had no water and finding the place flooded when I got home (the water would come back during the day). Then a building under construction in the neighborhood collapsed one night. Then the ‘neighbors’ upstairs, the ones who’d not let me sleep with their bedroom jujutsu, started hurling trash and dirty water outside my door. Then the only socket in the whole house blew up as I was heating bathing water and I could not charge or use any of my electronics. Then I asked myself if Jesus had died for us to live like this, if this was what I wore a suit and tie for every fucking day, if Kimathi and crew died in the forest fighting for this kind of freedom, if I had gotten a degree worth 25 million shillings in tuition to withstand this kind of struggle. So I said damn the deposit, damn the only-pay-less-than-a-sixth-for-rent rule, damn saving the money.
That Saturday I went to the agency and told them I was moving out the next week. You can’t move out now, you haven’t given us notice. And I told them, I just told you I’m moving out next week. And they said, And we just said you cannot move out until next month. In my head I told myself, These mothafuckas don’t know what I’ve been through, watch me move the fuck out.
I had a mountain bike (that would be stolen about a month later) and so I rode it to my third house-hunting mission in less than half a year. I had a long list of non-negotiables on my phone for what the new house must have (and not have): actual space, plenty of windows that don’t open to a dumpsite, a shower that has been used by a human being within the last six months, more than one power outlet, not of the ground floor and more. I found a humble place for about 10k in Allsops. It was not my romantic bedsitter on Wanyee Road but at least the shower tap turned and the shower head poured water and the windows opened when you pushed them outwards. And the walls were not pink. The next day I paid the deposit and a few days later I moved in.
Zimmerman had taught me a lesson and I was definitely not staying to chat with the teacher once class was done.