Jacarandas At Night – Raphael Kariuki

JACARANDAS AT NIGHT

South B, an hour and a half to midnight. Even the dust seems asleep. At the corner at the shopping center, waiting for the last matatus to town. With two women near the shop, a man leaning on a taxi cab under amber street light. The wines-and-spirits shop across the road smells of ill repute. Its metal door closes, with some people still inside drinking at the counter.

A matatu comes around the corner. A 14-seater with a dark interior made seedier by pale blue neon lighting. I jump in, followed by the man who’d been leaning on the taxi. After some hesitation (overcome by the conductor’s persuasion) the two women get in too. A few stops down the road through the main South B shopping center and the mat is full enough.

I’m seated at the back, at the right hand corner. It smells faintly of brandy. I will never judge the smelly again, I think, as I screw the top back on the little Viceroy bottle. Encouraged, probably, a man from one of the middle seats joins me at the back and takes out his stash of veve. The mat stops somewhere near Mata Hospital. A thug-looking boy who could have been 20 gets in, bringing a broody menace with him. He seats his dark self between me and veveman. I ignore them both, pay my fare and spend my journey enjoying the amber-lit scenes of this Nairobi night, soft and stark at the same time.

9 10 11 minutes later we are in town, in the shadowy valley between Gill House and the adjacent building. As the passengers alight I wonder about the two women. I am the last one out of the dark matatu. As I cross a shadowy street towards the better lit Kenya Cinema side I reflect on a minor incident a few seconds earlier. I think veveman and the tough-looking boy had had a quarrel, though they had somehow managed to keep it silent. All I remember was the younger one talking in a tough, street-wise tone to the conductor and driver about the other, who had by now disappeared into the shadows.

On the broken pavements and dirty tarmacs.

Pale. Dead. Still beautiful. Fading.

Most crushed but many still fresh.  Some in the many muddy pools, floating solemnly across the golden reflections of overhead lights. In-between the light poles, the trees, swaying gently in subtle currents, letting go.

Jacarandas.

A pale purple flower lands noiselessly on the pavement block in front of me.  Like a last breath.  I walk on. I am at the circle outside The Hilton, where a ring of beautiful Jacaranda trees encircles a small recreational space. The ring of Jacarandas is in turn encircled by a wide concrete pavement whose inner circumference is outlined by adjoined concrete benches. During the day, these benches are packed full of people, mostly men, always drab and usually holding large envelops and tired bags. I have always assumed them to be the desperate unemployed. The ones at Jeevanjee look worse.

At this time of the night, there are only one or two scattered souls on the benches. I trudge along on the purple carpet, enjoying the sight of all the fallen flowers. They look like given-up ghosts, and yet there is something most pleasant about them.

Towards the exit of the concrete circle, I come across 3 street boys seated together on a bench. They look between 7 and 10 years old. There is something about them. Their expressions. These type of boys usually look different during the day. Bright, clever, mischievous, dangerous, precociously malevolent. At work. Now they look… retired. Not quite at ease, they seem to need each other for some type of comfort as they look at the city go to sleep. These boys don’t look “bad”. I hesitate to say they appear sad or scared, but they certainly have this docility about them. They look hungry too. I have some extra take-away pilau in my my bag. I hope it’s enough.

Walking on under the amber lights of Moi Avenue, something gnaws on the mind.

This dark stillness. There is something ill about it. Violence. Or the threat of it. Lurks in the alleys, in the night matatus, in the drinking dens, under the trees. There was a clear flicker of fear in those young eyes when I first addressed them, confirmed by their hesitant initial response to my approach.

Still, it’s a beautiful city at night. The street lights play strikingly on the sharp angles of the buildings, the pavements and the roads. The sharp light-and-dark contrasts would make a maker of noir films, I imagine. And the little evergreen trees planted along many streets add something else to the composition, tenderness to the grime.

Magical. Natural Mystics. The Jacarandas around Jeevanjee gardens, blessing the rough pavement and the grass in the dark, before the return of the desperate people of the mornings and afternoons.

A perfect urban night shot.  A narrow, shady alley bordered by old, sheer walls, between the old building that houses Coco’s Lounge and the next one, which contains a tyre dealership. The alley is lit by a dim street light on this end, and by the lights of Koinange street at the other. The result is a picturesque city canyon that could have been in Sin City, only that it looks even better for being real. It looks like a mystery, like a place where interesting things happen. Hardy green plants growing in the cracks, twisted gutters creeping down the walls, and an almost perfect sense of symmetrical perspective make this back street most fascinating to me.

A quarter hour later I am walking down Kijabe Street. Past the prolific Jacarandas outside the Norfolk, pas the lone shedder next to the bright street light opposite the Kameme Radio offices, past door after door after Indian business premises, to the welcomingly familiar door to my cave.

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