CLIFFORD

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He’s very quiet…looks like he enjoys minding his business, which doesn’t seem much for now. He opens the gate to let me out every morning. He’s still there when I come back from work; most days anyway. Waves shyly when I wave at him, doesn’t try to strike up a conversation.

I’ve often wondered what goes through his mind all day, while he sits in his little kibanda waiting for my neighbours and I to hoot impatiently to be let in or out, in our middle class cars, from our middle class jobs or heading to our middle class haunts. He opens and shuts that creaky little gate every day, six days a week. I haven’t heard him complain, or ask for some “tea”. The first time I asked him his name he whispered it, and I missed it and had to ask him to repeat it. It wasn’t much louder this time either, so I’m not sure whether it’s Clifford or Gibson, and I’m embarrassed about asking him again. So I’m calling him Clifford here.

He seems young; mid to late twenties maybe. His eyes tell sorrowful tales, like of a man who’s seen too much hardship in his young life. He doesn’t walk with that arrogant swagger of a twenty-something year old guy born and brought up in the city. He walks like he’s carrying this heavy burden that only he knows. Like he could tell you stories that would leave you in awe of him, only because you don’t know whether you’d be half the man he is if you went through what he’s gone through.

Sometimes I wonder whether he takes on a different personality when he’s away from that gate and out of his uniform. Is he the storyteller? The life of the party? Is he the guy who takes charge and gives everyone else a plan; the one who calls the shots?

Or is he the quiet, pensive type? The type who reads all day in his kibanda, or does the crossword puzzle from old newspapers salvaged from wherever he can find them. Does he create beautiful art using scrap, or is he a momma’s boy, the one who left shagz to try and eke out a living in Nairobi so that he can take care of his mom and siblings, perhaps fix her thatched hut or buy her a nice kitenge so she shines when she meets her chama women.

I wonder whether he spends his free time with his girl, chilling at Uhuru Park, looking at the tall buildings as they sip on Fanta and eat queen cakes as he tells her he’s going to have a good job and work in one of them one day. Does he spend his time dreaming of a better future, or has he resigned himself to the hand that fate has dealt him?

I wonder what his hopes and dreams are.

“When I grow up, I want to be a watchman!”

Said no-one ever. At least I don’t know whether anyone has ever said that.

Because here, in this big bad city, the watchman is not the guy you want to be. He’s the guy you bark at when he takes 30 seconds longer to open your gate. Or the guy you smile at when you need parking in town to avoid dealing with kanjo, or near Vineyard when the hordes of young, functioning alcoholics take the few, prime parking slots and you have to park further down the road.

You talk to him when you need something. Never to ask him whether he might need something from you. And when he does ask for a little something, you throw him a 20 bob and tell him “Shika boss, sina kitu ingine lakini next time nitaku-sort”, then walk away like that 20 bob will change his life. At least you didn’t ignore him, right?

And so Clifford has learned to do that, wait to be spoken to. His is a life of quiet servitude. You’re the master, and he’s there to do what you tell him to do.

Sometimes I wonder whether Clifford would be able to repel thugs if they attacked our little block. But with what, his eyes? You see, Clifford is not armed: no bow, arrows or rungu. No boots even. He wears these old, white sneakers if it’s really cold, and sometimes he goes about his duties in these plastic sandals that I’m sure nobody can chase down a thug in.

But he’s the watchman right? Maybe his job is simply to watch…and yours is to pray that he never sees anything threatening. No, that would upset your middleclass existence.

Sometimes I wonder what he’d like to be if given another shot at life, one with a different destiny.

Would he be a banker from Chase, all slim-fit suits and ties, driving German machinery and buying drinks at Buddha? Would he be an accountant, pushing paper and numbers all day without the burden of having to be the cool, funny guy at the water cooler?

I think he’d be a creative. Quiet, amazingly talented and with an eye for detail that’d baffle many. He’d walk into the office at odd hours, in his Converse, jeans (slightly rugged but clean, not pressed) and messenger bag slung lazily around his hip. Nerdy, but in a cool way. Always polite, always yearning to please. Servitude still, but in a different way.

So I’m going to ask him one of his days, get to know him. I have a feeling I’ll be better for it.

Also, next time you see a Clifford, be nice. It won’t cost you anything.

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