Spend the Night with Me

They say people do crazy things for love, but I do crazy things for food. Specifically carbs. Specifically those made from wheat. I’m talking pasta, bread (like that pretentious-sounding but magical kwasson), cake, pizza, chapati. If food had celebrities, wheat products would forever be on magazine covers in perfect lighting and with expensive garnishes and toppings. Pancakes would be married to chapos in grandiose weddings that’d get so much media coverage the internet would hang. They’d all have huge instagram followings and would use their platforms to advocate for the rights of lesser foods, like njahi, well-done steak and those sunny side up disasters that leak yolk. If I struck a nerve, you know the drill, enda ukasirikie uko.

I usually have to physically tie my hands and dip them in cement to deactivate my twitter fingers whenever Amerix tweets that wheat inflames the gut, or that seed oils used with wheat should fuel machinery, not human bodies. I’m not saying he’s wrong but if anything in this world were to off me, I’d rather fall at the hands of heavenly Quickmart twist bread or the milky, orgasmic goodness of Tres Leches cake, than have 90 years of crunching carrots and living in abject poverty because I spent all my money on butter and extra virgin olive oil- the healthy stuff, apparently.

So in the spirit of doing crazy things for food, I’m out at 9:54pm hunting for chapos in the jungle that is Juja. In a blackout. And not just any chapos, chapo za 10. Everyone knows four, ten bob-sized chapatis are bigger than two, twenty bob-sized chapatis. The Math maths, I (a former gifted kid) checked.

I’m trailing along the dusty road in typical uni evening uniform- crocs, faded sweatpants and a t-shirt that’s so creased it could pass for sukuma wiki in the right light. Using the occasional car headlights to illuminate my way, I bounce from chapo spot to chapo spot and it’s either one of two stories everywhere. Closed. No more chapos, even the 20 bob ones.

I’m too far gone, and stubborn, to give up so I change gear and start on a new route to the motherland of chapos. I know I’m pushing the whole traipsing around at night thing. I don’t know if you’ve ever walked at night in Juja, in September. It’s not the thugs that get you, it’s the elements, more specifically the wind.

As the night deepens, the wind gains more and more power like it’s trying to cleanse the land of all the nightly sins as they’re being committed. This being Juja, the land of milk and honey wantonness and lechery, the gust is soon ravaging the streets.

It blows my afro extremely far back in ways Eco gel could only dream of. My t-shirt clings to my skin until it looks ironed. A nduthi guy zooming past loses his Peaky Blinders-looking hat. Doors to still open businesses start being flung every which way. The wind howls through the trees. It feels every bit like a haunted horror movie.

I feel the icy, dusty air snaking its way down my trachea whenever I breathe. It’s so dry that my throat starts pruning so I pull up my t-shirt and cover my nose. And then I brave forward, eyes squinted because I have like five eyelashes.

A dreadful 10 minutes go by before I have my eyes on the prize. Comfortably sheltered in a corner between buildings, is a dark cluster of kibandaskis speckled with light from those long torches with LEDs that can cast out demons at full brightness. The smell greets me first. Wafting through the air is the warm, smoky smell of charcoal weaved with the billowy, savoury aroma of chapatis sizzling on a pan. There’s a hint of beans, ndengu, ugali- it’s a uni student magnet.

I am so relieved to be out of the wind that I momentarily forget what brought me here. The inside is alive and teeming with activity. Mamas in lesos are balancing trays with multiple plates, zipping from one kitchen to another, casually issuing orders to shadowy figures that are peeling potatoes or washing plates.

It’s an open floor plan so everyone sees everyone, by force. You see your ugali being pounded by a shirtless muscle of a man wielding a huge mwiko, and you automatically know that ugali will slap hard enough to reach your ancestors’ taste buds, but it’ll have a distant, unique, salty taste. You see jikos resting atop long tables with huge tubs of Top Fry fat that mamas slice into as they spin 5 chapatis on one pan. It’s the kind of place that would give Amerix a ruptured aneurysm.

The sitting areas are dimly lit but I can count at least 3 heads per table, all men. That’s the thing with the cluster. You’ll never find girlies sat eating chapo beans. They enter silently like spies on a secret mission, with tins for guns. It goes down like a drug deal. Tins are passed over to the kitchen. Whispers are whispered. An M-Pesa notification goes off somewhere. Tins are handed back. The goods are inspected. Both parties nod, and the girls are swallowed by the night.

I walk slowly, buying time so I can exhale the pneumonia from my system, and soak in the warmth radiating from the jikos. My gut chooses one mama in a yellow leso who’s busy multitasking- spinning 6 chapos and rolling out more with a comically large rolling pin. “Four to-go please,” I say as I reach her. She doesn’t look up, too busy rolling the life out of the dough. There’s a line, she says, a chapo line, and that chapo is 20 bob a piece now because demand is high.

Briefly, I contemplate moving to another mama but it feels a little rude, and I don’t want to be embarrassed when I find a line at the other spot. Then again, there’s no way I’m paying 20 for a 10 bob-sized chapo so I break out the puppy eyes and say I only have 40 shillings on me. She looks at me unimpressed, says okay, and points to a makeshift sitting area which is just a long plank of wood on supports.

So I join the chapo line, which already has 12 people in it. The peeps sat next to me are a couple, and the girl is fuming that when she said she was low maintenance, this isn’t the kind of low maintenance she meant. I pop in my earphones but leave the right side loose because I want in on more of this couple drama.

Two Hozier songs later, the pair are on the verge of breaking up but I’ve spotted an orange tabby cat that I’m now trying to woo with cheery pspspspsps and fake dirt treats. There are more guys going up to the mama and she’s seemingly turning them away with her rolling pin after mouthing the price. I smirk. Not everyone can pull off negotiating puppy eyes like this girl. Adios suckas.

Everything’s chill until some guy comments that the line has stopped moving. I look up and sure enough there’s a guy with crooked glasses, an Arsenal Jersey hanging like a curtain on his thin frame who sneakily keeps being handed chapos and ferries them to some dark corner.

We automatically dub the guy who commented ‘chapo line group leader’ and incite him to go make some noise for us. You know, list some demands, make some threats. Like we’ll kidnap the tub of Top Fry if we’re not told what’s happening with our food. I tell him to say we’ll take the tabby cat too.

All the attention makes him deflate and say that there must be a good reason for the hold up. But I’m already hungry, riled up and ready for violence. I’m ready to go. In my mind, I’m doing that little jog boxers do before throwing the first punch. So I wait for the little Arsenal wimp to come round again, and when he gets the goods, I let out a war cry and pounce on him, tackling him to the ground. I don’t give him time to react. I grab the chapos from his thin, little hands like a savage and run off into the windy night like a woman possessed.


Let’s be serious.

I wait for Arsenal Jersey to show up, slyly walk away from the queue and circle back behind the mama from a hidden angle. I get in position just in time to hear him ask the mama where he should take the chapos next. In a deadpan voice, she tells him to take them to ‘the 20 bob crowd’. I glance in the direction she’s looking and see all the guys I thought she turned away. Then she hints at our group and says, “Wale wacheap wanaeza ngoja ngoja.”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, now I pounce. Jikos fly. Jerseys get ripped. Rolling pins are flung. Plates are smashed. Someone cries out. A fire starts somewhere in the back. Hot mwikos get fashioned into swords. Customers trip over themselves, tumbling away from the chaos. A maniacal laugh rings through the night, and the ground runs red with bean stew.

At last I walk out, ugali stuck to my shoes, t-shirt half-torn, afro singed and incapacitated bodies strewn behind me. The tabby cat is cradled in one hand and the chapos are swung over my shoulder in a bag like the war trophy they are.

Reach the author at kariwahito@manenoz.com


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