I have three default modes when I encounter Kenyan police. These are mostly tried and tested, accrued over the years.
Assume supreme humility, sincere apology oozing from every syllable that you utter. Shape your lips into utter deference, the perfect pout for some prime ass kissing. Let the policeman feel superior. Make him feel he is the better person; an understanding, benevolent being displaying compassion for the crime breaking, disgusting specimen of a citizen you are. Do not raise an eyebrow. Do not under any circumstances allow a sneer to stealthily creep over your face.
Assume church-like mix of self-righteousness and sheer indignation. Drop terms like Noble Profession, Patriotic, Our Country, Ashamed. Let them linger, allow the silence to crawl up his spine. If things get ugly, surreptitiously yet conspicuously (a hard balance to find) make a big show of looking at his badge number and writing it down, all the time muttering under your breath.
Balls of Steel. Especially when you know you have done no wrong. Go head to head and challenge them. Unleash your fury, the power struggle. This policeman represents everything that is wrong with Kenya. Stare them in the eye and they may back down.
I will be retiring Mode 3, as you will see soon.
There was an incident a few weeks ago, the details of which I won’t go into. As the law-abiding citizen that I consider myself to be, I foolishly thought it would be a good idea to call the police. You can stop roaring in laughter. I have learnt my lesson.
As we enter Parklands Police Station, we are immediately sent to the ‘yellow yellow lady in the room next door’. A female cop. My heart sinks.
I explain the incident as it happened. With a flourish of magic, so accomplished, Dumbledore himself would have leapt to his broomstick in applause; the cop turns the entire story around. Suddenly we have become the criminals. She ties up the accusation in a neat little bow, and then smiles, as if to say, ‘See what I did there? Masterful wasn’t it?’
I am having none of it. I pick mode 3 to launch into a counter-attack. I can feel my brother giving me the look. The ‘Shut the hell up, Aleya’ look! I go for it, in my crispest English, my eyes spitting fury, the vein on my forehead throbbing. Not a pretty sight. I don’t yell with my mouth. Oh no. It is a measured, contained, disturbingly calm tirade. So it goes on, back and forth between us, until she laughs. More of a cackle really. She says in colourful language, if I don’t shut my mouth, we will be locked up and arrested.
Damn. Can she do that? I don’t know. My phone is dead, how am I supposed to find out without access to twitter?
So I retreat, tail between my legs to await our fate. We sit, on the wooden bench at Parklands Police Station, my father, my brother and I in a row. We look like certified vagabonds. We sit, silently. Me cross legged, staring at the scarlet flame tree at the edge of the compound, beauty standing its ground, in defiance of the ugliness around. We watch the transactions, the exchange of money for freedom, the grovelling of people who would normally spit down at policemen, the lingering handshakes where notes are slipped, and backs are patted to show understanding.
We are there for 9 hours in total. With time to kill, we strike up a conversation with a man lounging against his car, a Sportsman hanging from his mouth.
The first thing my dad notices is his car. It is a cream Peugeot 504 Station Wagon. He whispers to me,
‘When you see that car, don’t mess around. Those cars belong to the Flying Squad.’
The first thing I notice is his hat. It is a pink and brown floppy hat. Definitely Burberry. The hat sits on top of a big head, with a thick neck, a tankard of a neck. The rest of him is just as large. Large enough that you know not to make fun of his soft suede girly designer hat. He has a gap in his teeth, and quite a friendly face, soft eyes, non-threatening, a non-assuming smile.
My dad asks him,
‘That car is in good nick, how long have you had it for?’
‘About 10 years’ he replies. ‘You have any idea how many people this car has killed? I have lost count myself.’
This is his response. No niceties, bawdy jokes about how she performs under the hood, how he got it from a crooked salesman who lied about how many men she had serviced.
My dad shoots me a knowing look, a side glance.
I am thoroughly confused. This man must be a really bad driver!
‘From car accidents?’ I ask.
‘Hahahaha. No! By killing them. Makora. Flying Squad.’
He then makes this movement, hands throttling a neck. It is such a cliché movement to make, I am sure he is joking. He must be. I notice his hands. Beautiful hands. Thick fingers, nails perfectly cut, no callouses, manly but not rough.
My eyes get larger. So nonchalantly. That’s the only thing I can think. This man is speaking so casually of the people he has killed. I have to ask.
‘You don’t feel anything?’
I am nervous as I ask. I try to remove any hint of accusation or judgement from my voice. Me trying to be politically correct to a murderer.
He replies, ‘What is there to feel?’
When he speaks, his voice is like gravel. Thick, gorgeous, a voice made for epic car advertisements.
He looks at my father
‘Have you ever killed anyone?’
My eyes get even bigger. He asks with genuine interest. What on earth in my father’s demeanour makes him think of my father as someone who may have killed someone? Is it the bloodshot eyes (recent cataract surgery), the ragged white beard (newly retired, a rebellion against shaving every day), the bags under his eyes (parents ill in the hospital). No it must be his eyebrows. My dad’s eyebrows have a life of their own. They grow and curl and wave. A man with unruly eyebrows hides sinister secrets, no?
‘No’, my father says.
The man laughs. ‘How would you know? You sit there in starehe in your big garden, whilst I keep Nairobi safe for you.’
He takes a sip from his Dasani water bottle. This throws me. You expect a man like this to be drinking neat scotch from a hip flask, not hydrating himself, fulfilling his daily quota of 8 glasses.
‘Sometimes they plead, they beg me. They say brother, spare me. These people rape, they kill. But I know these are just words they say. So I do it mercifully. I strangle them quickly, until they are dead kabisa.’
His voice. The voice that precedes death. It should be sinister, harsh, not sound like brandy in a smoke filled room.
He is completely matter of fact. There is nothing about him that is dramatic, or doing this for the shock factor. This is his world. He is telling it like it is.
‘This car has seen a lot. You see those two boys in the back. They don’t want you to see their faces, because they are the ones that go out and get the criminals.’
I panic for a second. I have seen their faces, we had locked eyes, in that curious sussing out the other person way.
‘Sometimes we light milk cartons on fire, until they melt. We force the criminals to stand barefoot on the burning plastic, until they are begging for a bullet. Other times we staple their tongues in the back of the car, until blood pours out from their eyes.’
He goes silent. We are all silent. Absorbing. Stunned beyond words.
His eyes are kindly. Yet I know instinctively, there is no fiction in his story. I can’t reconcile this. Perversely, I have enjoyed his company, I could imagine myself listening to his stories over a couple of beers. I can’t wrap my brain around this.
‘But my dreams haunt me. When it gets too much, we go to Mombasa. We kill a goat. We feed the poor. With this guy here. ‘
He points to a man in his 50s, reading a newspaper on the bench next to us. This man looks so familiar. It has been bothering me. I can’t place him. Yet I know for sure we have met before.
‘I beg for forgiveness from Allah.’
He is Muslim. Like me. We believe in the same God. Intellectually I know that should make no difference, but irrationally it does.
Then he switches to English.
‘I beg for forgiveness, but I don’t know any other way. I don’t know what else to do. This is the only thing I know how to do.’
For the first time I hear a tiny bit of despair in his voice. I feel despair. For a man that feels the only thing he knows how to do is kill. Despair, that we live in a world where the safety of people like me is secured by murder. Despair for people who are driven to crime to feed their babies, and then are disappeared. Despair that we live in a world that is so fucked up. Nothing is black and white, just grey.