It’s a bloody hot afternoon in December. It’s global warming’s fault. Nobody says anything about the hazy cloud of dust choking the air over Ngara and Pangani and the rest of that side of town, especially around what used to be the Globe Cinema roundabout. The same way nobody says nothing about the life-threatening antics of hundreds of matatus, the stink of a black-green Nairobi River or the piles of human shit amidst the rubbish strewn all over the overgrown spaces, the cracked pavements and in the alleys leading further down into town proper. People can get used to anything.
About the roundabout, the old crippling clot is no more. It is hardly even remembered, although a year has not even passed since it was replaced. In its place is a knot of dual-carriageways rushing over and under and all over the place. The roads ride over stout concrete pillars and braces that impress most of the people from around. Oh, but they are already used to it. The “ultra-modern” intersection, as the newspapers call it, is not quite finished yet. In the center is an expansive wasteland, currently the home of the Chinese Wu-Yi Company’s road works plant. They are the contractors doing the job, and the place is an organized mess of ballast mills, concrete mixers, compacters and all that.
Even with its ruckus, the Wu-Yi yard is an island of relative calm encircled in the hot, dusty, helter-skelter of Nairobi today. Every day. Buses and mini-buses, small cars, big cars and more cars, motorbikes and motorbikes, and the literally uncountable pedestrians swirl chaotically around in fuming and sweating, huffing and puffing torrents of human toil.
In the island, leaning against a great concrete culvert, a Chinese construction worker, or engineer, whatever, in dirty jeans and a reflective jacket, smokes a nonchalant cigarette. His yellow plastic helmet makes him a termite. Around him, a bunch of other termites take their lunch break on boulders and earth-movers and mounds of construction dirt.
“I hear that they have factories where they pay their workers in shoe laces,” says Ocholla as he takes of his helmet and wipes his forehead with the back of his hand. Ben’s own helmet is resting beside his dusty boot. He is already half-way through his lumpy rice and watery madondo stew, leaning on the massive metal drum of a Bomag earth-compacter.
“You can’t eat shoelaces,” Ben grunts.
“They sell them. I know a guy, Jack’s cousin or something. He imports shoelaces and combs and toothpicks and shit like that. Sells them on the streets through an army of hawkers.”
Ben says nothing.
“Some of the hawkers have diplomas and degrees.”
“You can’t eat paper,” Ben replies with his mouth full.
“Why are you always so cynical?” Ocholla asks.
Ben spits a piece of rock, curses and throws his empty plastic plate to the ground.
There is still some time left to the end of the lunch break. Ocholla is doing more talking than eating.
“I hear they cook dogs. Ben, they are worse than Indians.”
“At least they pay better,” retorts Ben as he wipes sweat off his dark, glistening scalp. His hair is cropped short in an attempt to hide a premature balding. Ocholla shifts his mind to his monthly budget. The way food prices are going he can hardly afford a glass of that cheap…
“Ants. Roaches! Lice!” Ben curses, regarding the streams of people and vehicles rushing about them. D
Lunch break is over and Ocholla already has his termite helmet back on.
”Bastards!” Ben spurts at the dusty traffic. “What are you looking at?”
Ocholla is walking back to the crane.
“Ocholla, Buddy, wait for me!” Ben calls after his friend.
Ocholla looks back, stops and waits for his friend, wondering where he has heard that call before.