The Magical Black Bag

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As he walks up to me, black bag on his left shoulder, I breathe a sigh of relief. Our reunion is not as uncomfortable as I thought it would be. He seems older. This is no doubt as a result of the ample greys on his head, eyebrows and moustache. Only a few months since we last saw each other and he looks five years older.

“I hope I also don’t look five years older,” I think to myself.

His face seems darker, like mine does when I spend too much time outdoors in Mombasa without sunscreen. His hair has not thinned out, and his eyebrows are as thick as mine if not thicker.

The sun causes his forehead to glisten and this brightens his face. His eyes are bloodshot, as though he didn’t get enough sleep the night before. He also seems to have lost weight. Not too much, though. I wish I had slimmed down, rather than gained as much as I have since we last saw each other.

I’m glad he brought the black bag along with him. It puts me at ease. The three-hour journey from Nairobi to the Kiganjo Police Training College seems to have relaxed me, as well. Thank God for road transportation.

The area visitors have been assigned is vast and dry. The heat is unbearable. Luckily, my brother finds a spot under some eucalyptus trees for the two of us when I arrive. This is where my dad finds us. I arrive an hour and a half earlier than him and am almost finished eating when my brother fetches him from the main gate. My brother respectfully drags a construction stone for him to sit on and places it strategically at a distance from me. This makes us all slightly uncomfortable.

Eh, Ivy. Bado uko Kenya?” I see you are still in Kenya Ivy, he says. I flinch. I didn’t come here for a fight so I restrict my tongue. It has gotten me into too much trouble with too many people too many times before.

Hapana, niko tu,” no, am around, I reply trying as hard as possible to control my voice. I do not want him to hear the amusement I feel at this statement.

Swahili is the language of choice in awkward situations for him. I do not know why, but it just is. I ask him if he wants some food and he feigns surprise, “You cooked?”

I nod and serve him a plate of the coconut rice and biryani I had made at four a.m. that morning. I love cooking for people, and if it means waking up at four, I am all for it.

He settles himself onto the stone my brother brought for him, and asks my brother, who is seated between us as if to act as a buffer, to hold his peach plastic plate as he opens the bag.

I do not know why, but I watch him closely as he opens it. Out comes a bag of chicken and chips, a plastic container of pilau, and a pack of English muffins. Suddenly, I flash back to my high school days when he would visit me, black bag laden with goodies that I would then toss into my jacket before anyone saw.

This exchange was usually done at the front of the school, and someone probably almost always saw me! Luckily, I wore this oversize maroon coat my entire three years at Moi Forces, nerd that I was. I could therefore stuff as many illegal items (food) into its large pockets as I could.

Their voices bring me back to the present. They are talking about the training Omanyalla is undergoing at Kiganjo. He is a year and a half younger than me and we have been brought up together closely. We both came to Nairobi for further studies. He is the opposite of me, but we have our similarities.

For example, even though he is training to be part of the Kenya Police, he is a much better writer than me. He studied Journalism at the Mount Kenya University. We are both rebels! We never do as we’re told. As I watch him I laugh at him good naturedly, interrupting their conversation.

Longi yako haifiki chini!” Your trousers are too short!

Si uziingize kwa boots zako,” tuck them into your boots, I add.

He is slightly taller than me, and was unlucky enough to get the shortest trousers. He is wearing a navy green uniform with the funniest looking hat, which he hangs on the back of his neck. They call them kurutus, recruits.

I have heard most of Omanyalla’s stories about his training already so my attention drifts back to my thoughts. This time I recall another time in high School when I was selecting which subjects to drop, and which ones to continue with. Both my mom and dad were there. Academics was the single most important thing to them when it came to me. I remember I was the first one in class with a fifty-something in Mathematics.

What stood out in this performance was the fifty-something and not the number one. My father chastised me so harshly that day that I cried in front of the whole class. Luckily my tall self sat in the back so not a lot of people saw my tears. Such was the tough love I got from him.

The bag was a reminder of his softer side. It reminded me of a simpler time when choices were simple and decisions were not as heavy as they are now. When life was not as complicated, and I was just a young daddy’s girl doing everything I was told to do. I have two bones to pick with time. One is that it takes away the innocence of youth. The other is that it has steals familiarity from people once so close to the point that they become strangers.

As I zone back to the present again, I realize my silence is making things awkward for both of them. I slowly begin to ease back into the conversation and make small contributions. Eventually, after a bit of coercion on my part, I am welcomed into the conversation, and it almost feels like old times. Almost.

After a few minutes of small talk, the bag opens for the last time. He takes out a bottle of diet coke and familiar-looking plastic cups. I remember those cups very well. I had left them when I left home a year ago. This familiarity warms my insides, but not to tears. I am all grown-up now, and my tears much further down than they were eight years earlier.

Soon after, my brother’s squad-mates come to say hello. Dad is delighted. Here is a chance to impart some of his knowledge. He loves to do this. One of his most memorable words to me is a quote he loves - only fools don’t change their minds. This is my go-to-quote when I have to go against something I believe in, or when I need an excuse to do the wrong thing.

I pull my brother aside for a little private talk as he goes on and on about service to the people, and respect for human life. Of course I eavesdrop because just like him I love to talk, and tell people things they already know, but do not care for. Soon, it’s time for us to start the long journey back to Nairobi.

We say our goodbyes and walk together towards the matatu stage. I feel satisfied with the trip. When we reach the gate, however, a sadness engulfs me. I stare at that unimpressive square black bag in front of me and conclude that life is too short to hold stupid grudges against those people that should matter the most to us.

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