TOMATOES, a story ending with “Boom” – Raphael Kariuki

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This dog Ruto is an asshole. Angry, dangerous, poor, weak and heavy hearted. Look at his face right now, all scrunched up in mirth at another stupid joke by one of the other dogs at the table, and you can’t tell. You can’t tell how much he hates his existence. The fucking worthlessness of anything his. The 2 shillings they pay him (before tax). The shit-smelling kennel of a house, the scrawny children, the bitch. The bitch. Ruto fucking hates her. Ruto hates everything, not least himself. He hates it because he wants it to be better. Always has. Always wanted to make a good life. To love, to make a good home, a smiling family portrait. A small farm on the scenic escarpments of the Rift Valley, with healthy tomatoes like the fat red ones they sell by the roadsides of Eldoret. Fat potatoes, fat carrots, enormous cabbages packed in great bulging sacks by the asphalt.  It is this bitter dream that fills him with that thing that has been turning into a deep down calcifying hate with every passing day. It is why he can’t sleep without first passing by the officers’ bar at the police station. But the story does not start here.

*

It might have started about 4 years ago at around 11am in an elegant little eatery in one of those sunny towns in Europe frequented by the very wealthy. Inside this particular eatery, four wealthy men discussed important things over the kind of brunch they serve in such places. Rare things, vintage things, fresh this, organic that, like in travel magazines. Whatever. The four men were involved in farming, but none were farmers. You could call it agri-business, but not quite. Science and technology. Not quite. Maybe bankers or traders or investors. Gentlemen of taste. Fuckers of fine things. All the above. They were revising the growth strategy of one of their best performing interests, owing to the fact that the so-called emerging markets were doing their emerging rather faster than had been projected. Good. But the story might have started further still.

Many miles away, many years earlier, one afternoon.  A cultured wind caresses the crow’s feet on the face of a middle-aged man admiring the lawns around his country estate. As large as a small country. Not his only one. Mild grassy hills rise and fall in gentle waves of different shades of green, decorated with well-behaved trees in perfect little copses here and there. Not a sound in the wide blue sky. The scent of wood and flowers. A swell of pride. A checked smile triggers a nice feeling of elation that courses down his throat, filling his chest, pumping in his heart. It tingles the loins and rises to the head. And he gets another idea. This is his favourite game. There is a rush to being a king.

The story could have started anywhere, it does not matter. What matters is that three months ago, this dog Ruto shot a poor man in the back and then in the head.  It was around 3pm, during a riot in and around Ngara market. Ruto and his fellow dogs had spent the early part of the day guarding the market, protecting the stalls from the people who owned them. These people, the market people, had stayed massed around the police cordon all morning, shouting, chanting, demanding the right to go back in and do what they did for a living, selling fruits and vegetables. The dogs had remained firm. From 7am to 8am to 9, 10, 11am, they had held their ground true to the inch.

And while they stood, Ruto’s mind had wandered off to the events of the previous night. He had always suspected the bitch was cheating on him but could not prove it. He had not confronted her since that last time last year when she retaliated by leaving him and taking the children with her, to his great embarrassment. But this night had been too much. Something about the way the house felt when he got in just after midnight. Was it warmer? Was that a smile on her face as she slept? Was she even asleep? And the children happened to be spending the weekend at her sister’s in a different side of town. Conveniently. So Ruto had confronted her. Not violently, no, he had just asked, quietly enough, how long she had been fucking Inspector Njuguna. She had responded by reminding him that he had hardly quite entered her in 5 years. That’s when he slapped the shit out of her head. Just one slap. She had fainted. She might as well have died, he had been too drunk and mad to care…

The market people are getting even more agitated. Someone starts a manic scream. Others start beating on the tin walls of nearby shanties and stalls. The police line is getting tetchy.

Ruto’s mind is lost in 5 years ago, after the stupid elections. While quelling a riot in Kibera, something had struck his hip, he never got to know what, and although there was little visible damage, save for a slight limp, some part of his plumbing must have taken a hit. He had not been able to perform satisfactory coitus since. He’d even given up trying…

Bang!

A split second of darkness followed by hell. Someone had thrown a rock and it had hit Ruto’s helmet just above the visor. Ruto was used to this. All the dogs were. They attacked the rioters with all the fury that had been brewing in them since morning. The market turned into a scene from the middle-east for the rest of the day. At 3pm, Ruto, limping worse from a fall, cornered 2 men trying to make their way with bales of cloth past a pile of burning stalls into an alley. He followed them in. The other side of the alley was blocked by a burnt out fruit cart. The men dropped the bales and ran, with Ruto in laboured but determined pursuit. The younger man made it through. Ruto shot the straggler in the back. Once. Twice. He walked up to the fallen, already dead man and shot him one more time in the back of his head.

Officer Ruto takes the deepest, most satisfying breath of his life, ever. The deed is done. An involuntary smile warms his face as he exhales. Trembling, post-orgasm, he starts to walk. No hurry, no feeling, nothing.  He limps nonchalant back out of the alley, into smoke and flying rocks and a blaring siren he can barely hear.

Back in the alley, the man who had made it over the cart wails as he runs back for his father. A minute later, holding his father’s body close to him, hot tears streaming down his cheeks, 19-year old Salim watches the dog Ruto go back to hell.

Salim’s father was the first fatality of what later came to be known as the Tomato Riots. There were two more deaths that afternoon, including a policeman who was set on fire by a mob.

*

Salim and his father had been living in Nairobi for about a year. They had moved here from a refugee camp in the north, where they had been living for 6 years, running a brisk trade in smuggled silk and linen. Everything changed abruptly for the worse when both Salim’s mother and sister were abducted one night, raped and murdered a day later. Salim’s father and elder brother only got told of the violations and deaths after presenting the ransom payment. The killers had been from their home country, from their very clan.

Salim’s brother had arranged for their move to Nairobi, where he helped them establish a fabric stall just outside the Ngara market. But he had not joined them, instead choosing to move back to Somalia. They never heard from him ever again.

Father and son worked hard, eventually establishing reliable sources of illegal fabric and turning a modest profit even after paying their taxes to the de-facto “local authorities” who rule over the Somali part of Nairobi. When trouble started around the Ngara market, both had adopted an extra-careful attitude when running their shop, wary. Eventually, they had taken down their stall and reconstructed it a bit further away from the market.

A few weeks leading up to the fateful Ngara riots, after a properly indulgent breakfast at the nearby Fairmont The Norfolk, 3 senior government officials sat with a small group of local and foreign investors, agreeing on things. Many of the things they agreed on were in fulfilment of agreements that had been established a few years earlier at the same venue. And just like the preceding agreements, these ones too were accompanied by certain tasty arrangements between the parties involved.

A day after that meeting, teams of inspectors started combing through fresh produce markets and small scale farms round the country, claiming to be conducting an agricultural survey. Rumors of something sinister went round. Still, it was quite a surprise when sellers at Nairobi’s three main markets found notices at their stalls requiring them to either destroy or sell under the amnesty of the Government of Kenya and GreenTek Global, their tomatoes, capsicums and potatoes. Apparently, most of them were stocking unlicensed varieties developed by the global horticulture giant. Of course there was major outcry. Shortly after the issuing of the notices, Ngara market was the first that anyone had ever heard of to be closed for copyright infringement. This was what caused the so-called Tomato Riots.

The day after his father’s death, a numb Salim went to report the matter to the nearest police station. That was where he saw Officer Ruto limping out of a door and past him along one of the building’s dark corridors. A whiff of beer and sweat followed the policeman down the hallway. Unthinking, Salim followed the whiff. Down a stairway into an open yard. Ahead, Ruto limped slowly into the station bar. Salim followed, got in, sat as far away as he could in the small place, ordered a cold soda and sat uncomfortably among the policemen scattered across the tables, fortunate that he was not the only civilian. As he sat alone sipping the soda and pretending at reading one of the forms he had received in the process of reporting the death, an idea came to him.

Some nights later, getting in touch with the right group of people proved much harder than he had anticipated, but a man who claimed to have been a close friend of his brother, while reassuring him that his brother was still alive and “active” with other “brothers” elsewhere,  introduced him to some people. The kind of people who arouse the interest of intelligence and security agencies in America & Friends. Patient but eager, he was quick to learn what wires went where. He also established a fast friendship with the man who claimed to have been his brother’s “brother”, who appeared quite influential in the fellowship. This was how he was able to get the grenades, three small ones.

At the same time, the resourceful Salim, resourceful by necessity, started frequenting the station bar for lunch, under the partly legitimate guise of processing his late father’s documents. During his visits, he managed to make acquaintance with a few officers. At the same time, he made sure to observe how the kitchen was run, noting that the supplies were sourced by a burly senior officer named Njuguna, who appeared to be close friends with Ruto.

One evening at the bar, Salim manages to get Inspector Njuguna aside for a chat. He proposes to the senior officer an attractive deal where he supplies the kitchen with vegetables at half price, thanks to his “connections with relatives in horticulture export.” The truth is, he is buying them at normal price from City Market, where business is back to normal, for the time being at least, and selling them to Njuguna at quite a loss. The last thing on his mind is profit, but he has been busy selling fabric to support the plan. Inspector Njuguna quite likes this sharp Walalo kid. He likes sharp people generally. You can do things with sharp people.

It does not take too long to befriend Officer Ruto. Salim even goes ahead to offer both Njuguna and Ruto their own special weekly groceries packages. For Njuguna, it is 6 tomatoes, 6 capsicums and 6 onions for wife and children. For Ruto, it is 6 tomatoes.

Salim delivers the packages every Friday evening before proceeding to the usual evening meetings with the fellowship. Always in those flimsy black jualas you get at any market stall anywhere.

*

Another officer tells a joke, this time from all the way across the bar. All the officers, most tipsy but not yet drunk, erupt in raucous laughter. This is the best part of the day, after the shit work but before the alcohol takes him to that fucking dark place. Ruto is happy now. He looks up, feeling light, to see Salim at the door. He is pleased to see the vegetable boy. This time Salim is carrying only one little juala of tomatoes, Ruto notices without thinking much of it. The slightest hint of puzzlement starts to form in Ruto’s mind as he notices a most strange smile on the Walalo boy’s face. Odd, the quivering lips. Then the boy throws the tomatoes at him.

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