I had run into him more than a million times, a perfect stranger who we probably shared a seat in a matatu. We ply the same route home, a route run by a cavalier of savage and sarcastic touts who are stoned 23 hours a day, subtracting the one hour they spend contemplating whether to give you your change or not. His name is Joe, but he mostly goes as ‘Mrefu’. He is a tall lean guy with a goatee and a few side whiskers, light-complexioned with atypical voice. He was a jovial mellow fellow who cracked the most insane jokes and had this badinage for days. He would spark conversations with anyone.
I did not see him for a while. I cannot remember how long and no, I did not change the route. See, I guess we shared a matatu tones and tones of times. Maybe I was too fazed with becoming or my thoughts were too loud I never caught his stories. On a lighter note though, I know I detached from Joe’s stories because I must have been wearing earphones. God! Whoever came up with earphones. After downing a classic 1811 Chateau d’Yquem with my mentor and fashion icon, Michelle Obama, then a coffee date in one of those homey colorful coffee houses in Greece, after which I would die on a long cruise in the Pacific, I would love to smoke some pipe in the mushy clouds with Nathaniel Baldwin- father of earphones. Yes,don’t judge. But he seems like the guy who smoked pipe. I don’t know if it is just me, but his mustache sold on him.
Now, when you board the same matatu with Joe, you will alight with a terrible headache. Forget the migraines, you know that bad hangover headache that makes you quit alcohol every damn time. That one. He is the grumpy guy with a condescending attitude. You will always find him in the most feverish arguments, where he will be the one lashing out a tirade of insults sick enough to cause an apocalypse. If you find yourself seated next to Joe, you had better move. If you are unlucky, this is the time you realize breathing is an important technique.
Joe will board a matatu, take up a seat and cavil about everything. He would start with how loud the music is. If it is not loud enough, he will go for the type of music, then throw a jibe at the tout for thinking not showering for a year and then the driver for driving like an amateur. The newbies would want to intervene and call him out. Mrefu is ruthless. He will come at them, and at you if you threw the side eye at him. He blankly refuses to pay fare and belittles the touts.
‘If I had two legs like you, I would not be a tout. And even so, I am not paying!’
But life can change a man. No one made you God, so don’t judge another without knowing their stories or peeking into the heart of humanity first, mind your own effing business. As for me, I can’t. This time we boarded the same matatu, I chose to sit next to him. The look on his face was one between dismay and amazement. I did not have my earphones on. I nod at him. Those of you who were born in estates, ‘hi’ and ‘hello’ people, we from the hoods nod. You get it now? The tout asks him for fare and he starts throwing a riffraff. I hand the conductor a two-hundred-shilling note. I tell him, its for two and the change is not mine, but Joe’s. The glances I got in that matatu, made me uncomfortable to my nails. Nevertheless, I pretended I was unbothered.
I wanted to know where he alights from. So, I sat still. Even though the little whiny bitch inside my head was telling me, if I alight from here and catch another matatu I won’t look more sinister. But the King in me was clapping for me to soldier on. These glances had nothing on me. After all, I have two legs, he doesn’t. And maybe, a small act of kindness was all he needed, not those weird glances, empty sympathies and concealed side eyes thrown his way every time. He said nothing. I did not expect him to. He did not even look my way. I did not want him to. It would make everything extremely awkward, I was fighting with balancing tears. You know when someone looks you in the eye, you ought to exchange words. As of this moment, I would not know what to say. He alights. At a place called Nyathiru.
Guys are murmuring in low tones as others throw ugly glances. I ransack my pockets then my handbag for earphones. This had to be the day, I forget my earphones. Is-okay. I will face this to its end. I close my eyes and take slow deep breaths whispering to myself, ‘This Too Shall Pass.’ Before I knew it, we were at the stage I alight from. I quickly jump off the God-forsaken matatu. I walked home thinking about Joe. Joe and his new life. Joe and his stump…
I tossed and tossed. Could hardly sleep that night. Joe’s stump was a lifetime stamp. It had changed his whole story. It had become his story. No one would remember the old Joe, the jovial Joe, the Joe with two legs. Those who were meeting him in this other phase, would never know that there was a wonderful man deep inside. A man who would make you forget how your day had sucked. He would light up your ride home with the funniest stories and make you forget the tout’s cologne, a pungent mixture of weed and sweat.
The next day, at around 10 o’clock I find myself at Nyathiru Market asking of Joe’s whereabouts. After fruitless attempts, this street kid, Thome points me to a jobless corner where he sits if he is not in town. He insists on taking me there so that I could tip him. I don’t know who this child thinks I am, but then again, I cannot blame him. I promise to buy him lunch after I meet Joe. He decides to sit with us until we are done. Joe quickly recognized me from a distant. He tried to get up with his crutch but it slides and he misses it. Thome quickly jumps to his rescue and instead Joe is leaning on him. He is embarrassed. He looks away and leaves my hand hanging in the air. I sit next to him.
‘What do you understand?’ he retorts.
‘That everyone else doesn’t understand.’
His face assumes a calmness I have never seen before. The wrinkles forming on his forehead dissolve into nothingness. His eyes have a distant look as if they are searching for some answers beyond. Perhaps beyond the human realm. From God.
‘God is God. You should ask why not me.’
We watch Thome throw stones on the road for a while.
Before I got here, I had a bucket full of questions I wanted to ask Joe. I thought of asking whether his amputation was a prognosis or an accident. Like on a scale of 1 to 10, how bad had it affected his lifestyle. I was curious if after the amputation he kept his old circle of friends. If he was married, was his wife supportive of him? His kids? What would he miss most about his right foot? Wriggling his toes? I could not bring myself to.
‘I used to play football with my kids every Sunday afternoon. It had become a family thing. The boys knew every Sunday after church, fun time with dad.’
‘Two beautiful boys from a woman of my youth.’
I am tempted to ask if she has been walking with him through this difficult time. I hold back. I don’t like prompting, I would rather let it flow.
‘One day, I went home with one and a half leg.’
‘My kids were so distraught. They could not understand. Kids in the neighborhood would tease them about my half leg. It was hard. They eventually left.’
I don’t know if I should hold his hand. I have this habit. When I don’t know what to say in a state of pure vulnerability I will hold your hand. I fought hard.
‘You are not alone.’
‘I actually am. I am a 45-year old amputee living alone. The struggle of moving around with a crutch. The place I used to work in, laid me off. They paid me about two hundred thousand and sent me off with a satirical letter. That they felt their work was too tedious and demanding for my condition.’
‘An accident or prognosis?’
‘Diabetes. I did not know. I started developing this abscess on my right leg that could not go away. We would treat it in the local dispensary. We managed to control the pain and the infection but no. Eventually, they referred me to the District Hospital. That is when the diagnosis came.’
‘Is it controlled now?’
‘I am on top of my game ma’am.’
Smiles. Side shove.
‘I hear, it can also cause blindness. I cannot lose a leg then lose my eyesight.’
‘Don’t worry about that. God’s got you.’
‘I haven’t talked to God ever since. I stopped.’
‘Good thing with God, our relationship with him is absolute. Even if you went for years without talking to the man upstairs, He won’t delete your number or block you on social media and stalk you using pseudo. Eventually you will find your way to Him. But you can’t if you haven’t found your way to yourself.’
‘With one and a half foot? How fast can I be?’
He guffaws. I don’t know if I should or shouldn’t. I smile.
‘Worst thing about losing your leg is you never feel the same again. It takes a toll on your esteem. Your social circle sublimes because your friends don’t know how to treat you anymore. And even if they treat you okay, you will always miss out on the activities. Then your neighbors start murmuring after you, shaking their heads in sympathy and even worse, when you find them talking they are mute as soon as you arrive.’
‘But isn’t that life? Human relations are relative. We are constantly evolving, growing and changing. As if that is not enough, sometimes we are at ease, other times we are diseased. Those relations will never stay the same.’
‘You make some sense. I wish we would have met at that level. You know. Even with my wife and family. That now, Joe is an amputee. He is not the old Joe we knew. Then we define a new level of relating to each other.’
‘Look at it this way, being an amputee changed the course of your life. Good thing it was never decided, if it changed for the worst.’
His face brightens up. I could have told him about the brave Nick Vujicic, blade runner Oscar Leonard and other heroes who are changing the world by going beyond their physical disability. A step at a time. You cannot change the world, if you have not changed the way you look at yourself. Joe taps my hand.
‘I wish I could afford a prosthetic leg.’
‘Don’t wish. Start where you are. Do you still go for counseling?’
‘I regret I never took the sessions seriously. I just carried my one and a half leg and a bag of bitterness that I have been carrying around everywhere I go.’
‘I pray you find a prosthetic. But in case you don’t, remember your stump is a stamp for life. It will always be there to remind you, that your life took a different turn. You are the one who gets to decide everyday of your life, what turn that is.’