This was originally published on Storymoja Festival blog
The first thing that you notice is the smell, nay stench. It hit me smack in the face. I was reeling back when my senses and manners thrust me onwards. It wasn’t enough to turn me around though. Soon I got used to it and realized it was not so bad after all. Many guys had lived with it for long I was not special. I could survive. That was my resolve. A further investigation later revealed that it came from the two bathrooms at the end of the hall. Rarely washed, they have an open door policy. It gave them a steady stream of characters lining up to avoid the few coins required at the community dump.
Welcome to the ‘hood community creative space’, or simply the collective. Conjures memories of the sadistic, advanced semi-biological alien race from the Star Trek universe, the Borg collective. The main hall is about 30sq ft. The four walls are riddled with mostly badly done graffiti. The colours are peeling and it looks like whoever did it was in a particular hurry or was just horrible at it. A striking one near the middle catches my attention. It looks like a rip off out of a hentai clip. A massive humanoid naked form is depicted chasing a small girl in what I can assume is on a fiery forest. It is inappropriate and I am sure many people might find it offensive. It is still the most striking piece of the wall art here anyway. In retrospect, that should have been sign enough for me to bolt out running. But I am an art activist, or the ‘cool’ dress up I preferred then, artivist. I believed all forms of art must be expressed, even the most offensive ones. If anybody doesn’t agree it should be shoved up un to their backward faces. There were several groups scattered all over the place engaged in discussions, singing, dancing or just willing the time away.
‘Are you Erik?’’ Someone tapped me on the shoulder. ‘This way, we were expecting you’. He showed me in to the small office tucked at the corner just next to the washrooms. Joge, as I came to find out his name was, was small in stature. He had broad shoulders and a mean look. His demeanour suggested that in another life he might have been a boxer or a quarterback for a rugby team. Right now he was just one of the ‘creative’ here with a speciality in playing delirium ridden Kamba traditional drums, ‘kilumi’. He led me in to the office which had a lock-less door. He pushed it open and showed me a seat to perch on. It leaned immediately on one side and were it not for some quick movement I could have a got myself a good dent somewhere on my body. This maybe should have the second sign that I was not meant to be here.
I came to know of the collective community creative space through my buddy Wino. He was a college mate where we were English and Literature majors. He described it as an open space where creative’s meet, strategise and hone their skills with the help of more advanced members. ‘ I mean, we have been in operation for years now and there have been success stories, I know of some musicians who have been getting playing gigs regularly and they are all part of the collective. ‘Wino said to me in explanation. This sounded pretty cool to a kid fresh out of high school where we saw ourselves as superstars without the opportunity yet. Forming rock and rap groups and coming up with ingenious monikers which now sound really silly when I remember them. Wino told me they had space for everybody to express their creative genius. As a wannabe writer, I wanted to meet people with similar interests. Get some mentors and who knows, I could even get published there. I took up the chance immediately. I gave a call to the chairman who told me I could drop in any time I felt like. No appointment, no background checks, nothing. This should have been the third red light which I ignored. When you are 18 you are bound to ignore many things or simply find norm in the absurd. This was also fuelled by the fact that I was new in the city. A first year in the university who had failed miserably at making friends. I was lonely and homesick so when the only friend I had managed to make came up with a plan I was all for it. Damn the consequences.
After I had steadied myself I looked up to the other side of the desk in front of me. The ‘chairman’ I gave a call was seated there. His voice was no doubt masculine. His appearance wasn’t though. Meet Jean, the resident tomboy and a lesbian to boot. The fact that he was referred to as a ‘he’ perplexed me. She was seated so I couldn’t make out any other features apart from her face which was angular. Perfectly sculpted to bring out her domineering jaw bone. Her pointed nose had hints of Caucasian. Her hair was cropped short completing her ‘manly’ look. She did not spot any make up. Her chest heaved up and down slowly. I was bound to look and it was definitely not masculine. Her smile was inviting and she stretched her hand for me to shake. Definitely a masculine handshake. ‘New blood heh?’ She boomed. I assumed that was meant for me and nodded. ‘Welcome to our cool collective, I believe we talked on the phone, Erik, right? Let me tell you about us….She droned on and on. I took the opportunity to examine my surroundings. There were several guitars hanging precariously on the wall above her. They looked as if they needed a single shove to come crashing on her hair deficient head. There was also a lone nyatiti and two djembes. These guys really loved their music if this was any indication. Unlike the hall, there was no vomit inducing graffiti here. They had gone as far as they could to make it look official. Apart from the music instruments hanging on the wall there was no other wall decorations here. Several shelves stacked up with papers, books and an old computer monitor occupied one wall entirely. ….‘I said you are to refer to me as Chairman, it’s a gender non-sensitive community here’ this brought me back to the one sided conversation. Gender non-sensitive? This was definitely a ploy of her own making to make her feel manlier. I wanted to ask her if they were gender indifferent why was she chairman and not chairperson. I refrained though because when you go to Rome you toe the Roman line. You are not bound to step out of it when you are talking to Caesar. All this time Joge was standing behind me, mean and straight-faced like a bodyguard.
The monologue was soon over and once again my hand was jerked in to a choking grip that was handshake or semblance of to Jean. Joge took me on a tour of the facility. Artistes and wannabe artistes where everywhere. It was crowded and most of the characters seemed sneaky. I had glimpses of some who I was sure where the ones who taped you on the shoulder in the CBD and proceeded to request you of your belongings amicably. Failure to which they will produce a gun or simply stab you smack in the middle of the street. Agreement occurs because fear is a great motivation and you don’t want to call in their bluff.
I came upon Mwaf, with a goatee which occupied his hands whenever he wasn’t doing anything else. The other thing he did is play a guitar. He was scrawny and outspoken. A sort of person who always has a say in everything, thinks he knows it all yet his superficial trivial knowledge comes out as dumb. Well, his ego took care of this.
I got used to the stench as the days went by. For a lonely country boy who never got around the trick of making friends. It became easier. I could even smile to rough looking ghetto girls who pride in being referred to as hood rats. The guys accepted me and I was part of the collective. Dropping in any time I felt like and I got to feel like a real artiste for the first time in my life. It wasn’t a space conducive for writing though. There was always someone shouting, someone playing some ear-drum shattering instrument. The collective was devoid of any order apart from the ever present Chairman who reminded you time and again that she was one.
The building which housed the collective was an incomplete flat giving it a rather jagged rooftop. It is here that we held parties which spanned weekends. To a casual observer or a naive member like I was, the guys here loved music. This was an unfair observation misplacing credit. Everybody here was a stoner; they loved their weed with divine enthusiasm. Those who strayed away from the smoky pleasures had unparalleled love for the bottle. They sneaked cheap spirits and gins in to practice sessions on daily basis. These are the items which made weekend parties last so long. Come Monday mornings, the bulk of us were hangovered in the main hall. Jean’s booming voice usually came to the rescue, waking us up as her timberland boots made contact with any poor soul’s ribs lying on the way. Looking back at it now it was only lack of funds which made us not seek more potent drugs, say cocaine or heroin.
I do not remember when Wino left the collective but since he had inducted me as a member we had grown apart. My constant complains of ‘the collective’ not being a creative space worth its graffiti put him off. That was until we fell for different misuses, I took up my love for the frothy drinks a notch higher and he smoke his way in to stratosphere. This really thrust a wedge upon us, there was no going back. The old days were forgotten. We saw each other, nodded at each other and that was enough salutation for a week. To this day I have no idea where he went to. That is the least I can say for other members, especially our revered chairman.
Since I joined the collective word was that she usually had sex in her office in the evenings after we had left. Nobody had photographic evidence so it remained an unfounded rumour. I had seen her make out with her girlfriends during the long rooftop parties after several swigs of cheap vodka but that was that.
Approximately a year and a half after I had been inducted I arrived at the collective to find a sizable crowd at the entrance. I shoved my way through to the front where I was confronted with a police crime scene tape. A few meters from the tape lay Jean in a pool of blood which was beginning to cake. A few meters ahead was a scrawny girl wrapped in a towel shivering considerably. I seen her several times but never paid attention to her. She was not striking on any way. In the wee hours of the morning her boyfriend had found Jean having carnal knowledge of her body. Apparently better than he ever did. He was angry and humiliated. He took it up with Jean, they wrestled, broke several guitars. Pummelled each other with anything in sight, the boyfriend was losing the fight. He took it a notch higher and produced a pocket knife and in a matter of seconds the fight was over. The chairman died when the blade tore off the jugular vein. All this while their joint bi-sexual girlfriend was transfixed watching and she only came to her senses when she realised her male boyfriend was making a run for it. Her scream pierced the night echoing through the hall but it was too late. The killer went in to hiding. That was much of the story the police managed to coerce from her before they took her to the station.
That was the screeching halt of the collective. We disappeared with our heads low and tails tucked between our legs never to come again. I have met a few former members down the line. One did make away with my side-mirror while I was willing the time away in the crazy Uhuru highway traffic. I could not forget the face. I let it go for the old time’s sake. I met Joge too, in a seedy strip club at river road where he is a bouncer tasked with making sure that your hands don’t stray. You watch, continue watching and then pay. I was happy for him and threw him a round, at last he had got a career which utilized his ability of standing mean faced his fingers twitching for a punch.