I have a friend called King.
Not his real name.
Just a pet name we gave him during our boyhood days.
King is a jailbird.
I won’t get into why and how he
ended up in jail right away.
King turned 50 in
February this year, 2014.
He didn’t blow candles.
He didn’t get a smashing birthday party.
Nobody toasted to his good health.
He didn’t get laid…I hope not, damn it! Not in that prison cell-it would break my heart!
He celebrated it as he had
celebrated the last three birthdays, in his drab jail
clothes, toiling in the laundry section of the jail
by day and sleeping on an ultra thin mattress by
night in a dark cell that he called home for the three
years (including the time he spent in remand).
He celebrated it by dreaming about freedom.
The first year after the judge threw him there I
often found some sort of morbid pleasure in using his
incarceration as a prop for humour.
When I was out
with friends I would make sure I mention I have a
Friend in jail and then pleasure in people’s reaction.
People look at you in a different way when you mention
something like that.
They imagine you come from a
Brotherhood of delinquents, beset with felony.
They wonder if those genes are embedded deep in
you, lying dormant, waiting for the right stimulus to
In short, they imagine I’m a thug too.
People often asked me why he was in jail.
And I constantly lied.
I had fun with it.
When I was in a good mood I
said he knifed someone.
“Did they die?” they would
mumble in horror.
“Only a little,” I would say, “the knife got in only a
When I wasn’t in the mood I would say he
car-jacked a priest.
Or held up a small bank in Kiambu,my home town.
Or stole a baby.
I got a kick from telling them stuff like this.
But such mischief grows old fast.
Soon it didn’t matter.
But what did he really do, I hear you asking?
The judge said he facilitated the loss of a truckload of
wheelchairs and crutches en-route to Rwanda.
I’ve never asked him if he agreed with the judge.
Last week king- together with a few thousand
inmates – was released.
Word got round very quickly and I found myself at the
parking lot of Kamiti Prison with a fellow brother in arms.
It was headed to midday.
My other friend, King’s
older (and only) brother was also there holding court
and looking a bit bewildered.
The meeting party only
consisted of the three of us.
The rest couldn’t make it
because it was kind of sudden; The president didn’t send us
emails about King’s release.
We chatted as we waited for him to come out.
It was a beautiful day; it had rained the previous
night so the ground was wet.
The air, even the one in
the jail compound, smelled of life.
And the sun was out in a pretty dress,foggy and misty.
King walks out a few minutes before midday.
He walks hesitantly, like a man stripped of his dignity. Which of course he is.
He’s wearing blue bathroom sandals.
He has on a threadbare and faded blue shirt with the middle button
He’s in oversized beige khaki pants, no belt,
so he has one hand inside his pocket to prevent his
pants from falling down.
With his free hand he
clutches, under his arm, a black paper bag.
All his world’s possessions are inside that bag.
He’s been shaven clean, about a few millimeters from his skull.
He hasn’t lost much weight; in fact he hasn’t changed
He’s limping slightly.
He stops and looks around then he spots us walking towards him.
He slowly shuffles our way, clutching his little black
paper bag, limping slightly, a faint smile playing at
the corner of his lips, a smile that looked like an
embarrassed smile from far but as he inched closer I
realized that it was a smile of trying to be brave.
It seemed to say, “I told you guys I would be out before
I wasn’t convinced.
He hugs my brother in arms first.
He hugs him the longest.
They were closest.
He visited him
more times than the two of us-me and his elder brother- combined.
He knew when he was sick, or when he was down.
They talked on phone frequently.
He hugs me next.
I have never hugged a fellow man like that; hands all around torso
It felt right.
Then he hugs his brother last, a
small awkward hug.
They aren’t so close.
I can’t tell you why, family stuff.
Don’t act like you don’t have
issues in your family.
My brother in arms pats him on the back and says he looks
“No you don’t, you look lousy.”
He chuckles and says in his deep baritone voice, “Man, I
was the most handsome man in this whole
This place will never be the same
again with me gone.”
I can’t resist being cynical about his conceit, so I remark, “Oh
no doubt, I bet your toothless boyfriends that you left
back there would agree.”
Look, I was only trying to break the ice, I mean really I
was only trying to make everybody relax, the air was
We were all trying to act prim and
proper with our stupid chit-chat and all.
Thankfully he found it funny, like he really found it
We all have a laugh and act like it’s just
another day and we are all just shooting the breeze.
Which is fine.
After a few minutes my brother in arms asks him,
“What is the one thing you always wanted to eat or
drink when you were released, we will get it right
now. A cold beer or maybe some chicken? Vodka?
Hey even some tail-business with some girl if you so wish. What?”
He grins shyly, the sun shining off his scalp, he
finally says, “A very cold Fanta.”
“Fanta? Really?” my brother in arms echoes what perhaps we are
We exchange brief glances.
There is a petrol station with a snack bar or something up the road. Galitos and what not.
My brother in arms says ok, let’s go, ride
He says he wants to walk there.
I hand over my car keys to our mutual friend.
I offer to walk with him.
He hands his brother the little
polythene bag and they get into the cars.
I really wanted to find out what was in that bag; I wanted to
know what a man leaves a jail with.
Did he have a book in there?
Did he have a change of underwear?
Or did he carry hope in that bag?
What does a man carry out of jail?
We walk out.
At the gate he shows some paper to the
security guy who glances at it briefly before handing
it back without a word.
Without a “good luck” or
“take care” or “don’t come back.”
Civility doesn’t live in our jails.
He limps straight out of the
gate without as much as a backward glance, holding
up his pants so they wouldn’t fall down.
Outside i remove my belt and hand it to him because him
holding up his pants like that is depressing me.
He belts up and we slowly walk up the road, jabbering.
Or rather I ask him questions.
He answers them
nonchalantly, distractedly while looking at passing
cars and at buildings.
He looks surprised at being
free, he seems to be getting his mind around
freedom, disorientated by it all.
My friend is not a bad guy.
He’s just a guy who made
some bad calls in his life.
He grew up in Christian home.
A family that emphasised about respect and hard
Not a bad chap, my friend.
He’s no riffraff either if you want to know.
He went to school in the
UK, came back with a degree in Civil Engineering but he
never worked a day in his life because he’s a restless
chap, because he’s the kind of guy who is in a
goddamn big rush to get ahead of the queue.
Because he loves the good life but unlike you and
me, he wants it today and not tomorrow.
He wants it now.
He always had a plan; come back home from the UK, get into
the oil transportation business, work for three years
driving a truck, buy his own, drive it for another two
years, buy another one and start managing them
from an office with a brassplate bearing his name.
He was ready to push the boat out into the deep sea and fish there.
Only it didn’t turn out like that; he came back, started driving a truck,
only it wasn’t an oil truck,but one for charitable outfit, drove it for a year and then
ended up in jail the next year.
And now this is how it ends, with him walking by the
roadside from jail in oversized khakis and a borrowed
This is how dreams die.
But if you are those glass-half-full kind of people you would say this is
how it starts.
On a clean slate.
He orders a Fanta.
A cold frosty Fanta orange.
He downs it in three gulps then orders another one.
This one he sips slowly, thoughtfully even, like he’s trying
to distil the flavours of the damned ingredients.
This one he sips through a straw.
We talk and chaff about, watching
cars pull up to fuel.
He asks about people, who had a
kid, who got married, which club is happening now,that kind of
He asks about our children.
He asks about our women.
But he never asks about our jobs.
I gather that’s because it will make him feel like a
failure, it will make him feel how much he needs to
work hard to catch up.
He tells us about the politics
of money in jail and how money will buy you
protection, how money will buy you friends.
How money will get you a bed in jail and soap and a good
The jail is the only place money can buy you sleep.
He tells us about how you’ve got to man up in jail
and learn to fight your own battles, sometimes violently.
He tells us how the reality of being
sodomized comes close if you don’t have the right
friends to buy, friends who stop being your friends
when your money runs out.
He talks about the nights
that you feel hopeless and desperate.
Nights that death seems like a friend.
He smiles a lot during our meeting.
But the smile always refuses to reach his eyes.
His eyes harbor something that I can’t put my fingers on, but they
aren’t happy eyes.
Although he sits there, upright in
his seat, he exhibits a certain vulnerability.
I could sense the fear in him.
The fear and uncertainty of
At some point his brother asks him
what he wants to do and he says simply that he
wants to go village where his parents are retired and
tell his mom he’s out.
Only he says it in Kiikuyu,my native language.
And it touches me, not so much what he says but why he says it.
He never called his mother, mommy or mum or anything like that when she was alive.
His mom is dead.
Died years before he was sent off to jail.
He talks about wanting to visit her grave,and confide with her there.
And so for him to refer to her in
present tense was, I don’t know, real touching.
I’m a sucker, I know.
He orders fries and chicken.
And he cleans it off.
I watch him eat; he eats fast, just like he likes to lead
He isn’t going into formal employment, that much we are sure of.
It’s not for him.
He’s not the type to sit around for four weeks waiting for a
King is not into waiting around and
perhaps that’s his Achilles heels.
Perhaps what he needs in this new chapter of his life is to learn to wait
things out; to take small steps, but even most important, to appreciate those steps.
King is one of those chaps who are embarrassed at being broke.
Terrified of it.
But I will tell you here that he isn’t a gangster, i swear he isn’t.
He doesn’t pull guns on people or
break into homes.
But he loves shady deals.
He loves deals that bring in big spoils and the difference between him and us is that he is not averse to risk.
I don’t know if our jails are corrective.
I don’t know if they instill a sense of reform or change of attitude.
If they do then they failed with my friend because
sitting there listening to him,watching him eat I
didn’t feel that he was a different guy, that prison had changed him.
I was looking at the hedonistic
chap who loved the fast life and who would pursue it with all his wit.
The girls who work at local Industrial area offices start showing up for lunch.
Girls in high heels and black
Girls in fitting pants and short skirts.
Girls in weaves and glowing skins.
They stride-in, in twos and threes.
Laughing and strutting their thing, especially the ones who knew they got a broad african ass.
Boy, does King stare at their asses!
He loses all interest in what we are saying and his eyes follow any hot chick that walks in the shop.
Hell,even the not so hot ones.
“Things changed while you were gone; girls are now hot-they all scrub up good now. All of them.”
his brother tells him with a grin.
He mumbles something incoherent.
I swear I’m not making this
He practically zones us out, he stares at women like,well, a jailbird.
But it was a relief for us in a way, that he still found women appealing, that he wasn’t
batting (pun) for the other team.
He kept well away from the forced sodomy business common in our jails.
He may want a girl after this,hopefully get committed and marry her.
But that is not the King i know.
He will never marry.
Not after his girlfriend dumped him when he was in jail.
The day we visited him and handed him that dumping note from his girlfriend,we all cried about its cruelty.
But that’s life.
As of now,King can cry on our shoulders,lean on them for as long as he likes,until he up on his two feet again.
That’s what we,his bossom friends are here for.
Until he can dream another dream,that will carry him through his life again.
Just some random thoughts that came to my mind….
Just some random thoughts that came to my mind….
Just some random thoughts that came to my mind….