January 5, 2018
On most days, all we get with an order is a name, a phone number, and a location. No faces. No humans. The person who gets to meet the buyers is the boda boda rider who does the delivery. We simply go to the back end of the bookstore to check what orders have come in and send the details to an available rider. Then we sit and wait. Sometimes we meet them on social media—especially Twitter—but conversations only last the prescribed number of characters. And because we only sell books by African authors, non-academic books, we don’t get as much action as the regular stores. The person on the other side of the website does not know my side. He does not know that I wake up, head over to the sink to wash my face, and sit in that beat-up pair of shorts that I use as pajamas—before Jaber finally turns them into a mop—on my favorite spot on the sofa and that only then do I serve him.
We speak to customers when there is a problem with an order; say, when they pay for a book that we forgot to mark as out of stock. I hate those moments. I constantly dread when one of them will run to Twitter and cuss us out for being mediocre. Or when someone calls and you can sense the suspicion in their voice. She thinks we are becoming wakoche, greedy, and wants to know why we have the same book with different prices. Now we have to do God’s work of explaining the difference between paperback, hardback, and e-book. Mayie! The things we do for hera!
But sometimes we sell books at events, and then we get to meet our customers. And before we set up shop in a country club, I had never crossed to that other side; in my head, I thought these country club people were normal people. They may be wealthy, yes, but it is not as if they have two heads. So what the hell, right? We accepted an invitation from a thespian to sell books on the day of her evening performance at a country club.
The moment I showed up, sweating under the weight of a boxful of books, I knew that I had gotten something wrong. I looked at the crowd, then at myself, then at the crowd, then at myself again. . . They were glistening. Have you ever seen a glistening crowd? There are neat people, but these ones were not neat. They were shining. You could see their skins beaming, in darkness no less. Men wore jackets that fit them like a second skin, and the women were in dresses and shoes that looked more expensive than my entire collection of books. I looked at Jaber, and I asked her, “Kwani, have these people come to watch a play, ama for High Tea?”
Jaber did not answer, merely gave me a kalook as if I had asked her for Raila’s personal phone number and then turned around, and I swear by all the ancestors of Karuoth that I heard the sound of her eyes rolling. That is when I looked at her, this woman that God gave me—who is also a partner at the kiosk—and I realized for the first time that she was also dressed funny for a play. Not ha-ha funny. Weird-kind-of-funny. Different. She was dressed like them.
“You need to learn how to read invites,” she said as we unpacked the books from the boxes and arranged them on the table for display. This was not the first time, this thing about me not paying attention to dress codes. I was in a Safaricom-branded hoodie, a pair of baggy jeans that were supposed to be blue, and sneakers that had been loved by my fellow Kenyans so many times in matatus. Me and this life of above are strangers. The goodness is that it was at night so my head did not swell saaaaaana.
We arranged the books in silence. Filled the white-topped, square-shaped table with books, arranged facing away from us so that the customer could read the titles easily. The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives took prominence on the first row, since it was the one being staged; the rest of the titles sat in dotted places behind, more as escorts than as competition.
Do you know the one author we can never miss to display at an event? Come on, take a guess. It is not that hard. It is . . . Chimamanda. She is a stock author. She is the Beyoncé of African literature. Even those people who do not know her, know her. You know what I mean? The moment someone who last read a book in high school learns that we sell books by African authors only, she is the name that comes to their mind. It gets annoying after a while because she is not a continent, but these days I really do not give a shit so long as that person makes a purchase. I will gladly get annoyed for profit.
When they started streaming in, you could tell that these were not avid readers. They were those Chimamanda people. One or two would impress you with how vastly had have read from the continent, but most would ask in that salted-caramel English accent, “What is this book about?” and even before you were done explaining who Elnathan is, they’d have already moved to Yvonne. “And this one?”
I plotted and executed my escape, whispering to Jaber that I was going to get her a drink. She smiled, foolishly, thinking that I was being a considerate boyfriend; in truth, I was throwing her into the deep end to deal with those questions.
But you know, Mungu halali. Our God is a living God whose karma does not waste time. If I knew then what I know now, I would never have subjected myself to the head swell that awaited me. I always knew that this, my infrontness infrontness, would one day bring me taabu, I just did not know how soon one day could be.
Wacha sasa nikuambie.
So now, I head over to the bar for a Tusker for myself and a Black Ice for Jaber. In my head, I know I have MPESA Balance of 1500. I feel so rich kwanza at this time when the month is at a roundabout, I can even fund another presidential inauguration. Surely no Tusker and Black Ice can be worth more than 1500 bob.
I clear my throat and ask the man behind the bar. “Cold Tusker please?” You have to use English because the WhatsApp Pin of the place you are located is made of platinum. This is not the place to put snap your fingers and shout, “Weeeeee buda leta beer mbili baridi, nyuma ya fridge!”
“My card number?”
Me I thought this chap was asking for my national ID number. You know? To ascertain that I was over 18. Which is understandable because I have all of two strings of beard. Even bouncers at Space Lounge do not believe me when I say I have voted in two general elections.
I look at him and said, “Don’t worry. I am 26. Don’t be fooled by this face,” as I took out my wallet.
“I mean, your membership card.”
In short, no, they cannot take cash. No, they don’t use M-Pesa. Which broke my heart because I felt rich with my ka-1,500 bob. Rich enough to even pass by the club’s reception later on and sign up to be a member officially! Kumbe when you want buy something, you just write down your membership card number and that’s it, alcohol comes. What a life! I have never seen a place where you just write down a number and you are given alcohol just like that. No money. Ati it will be paid later. Exactly how much do you need to trust someone to give them alcohol on credit? Mayie denda!
Feeling like an apuodho of royal heritage, I retreated to the book stand, where a lady who smelled like coconuts was saying, “I do not use cash or M-Pesa, do you have a PDQ?” I looked back at the crowd, and I spotted waitresses walking about with those tu-chicken tu-chicken that have been stabbed by toothpicks for visitors. I am scared of taking one. I may call a waitress for a ka-piece and then she asks for a membership card, and yet I have swallowed. And then what?
So me, I just swallowed saliva and sat down thinking about my life. Someone came and told the visitors that the play was about to begin, and they all streamed into a room. We sat outside while the play went on inside, nestling together to keep away the cold, breathing bursts of white air into each other’s palms, waiting for the crowd to emerge one hour or so later. When they were all gone, we counted the proceeds from the night. Not too bad. These Chimamanda folks let us chop their money a good one, and as we carried the boxes back to the car I did not even feel the weight of the books. I was too distracted by the bulge in my pockets to even notice.
The clock was just a little bit shy of the 11 p.m. mark when we pulled up at McFrys. Now this felt like homeground. A place where you actually part with money to get food and drink: quarter chicken and chips (you do not call them fries here) that come wrapped in a white sheet of paper. We perched ourselves on the stools, opened up that shit, sprinkled salt, vinegar, and tomato sauce, and then tore into the profits of the night. Thankfully, nobody here asked us for a membership card.