Reverend Amos Njenga sat at his desk beside the window, deep in thought.
Outside, darkness had fallen, but he could still see as the moon was full in the sky, and the stars were shining like the headlights of so many cars stuck in a celestial traffic jam. The moon’s strong light filled his heart with gladness, and the myriad twinkling stars that still shone through the darkness inspired him with hope. For darkness had fallen thick on the land, and he wondered if the few shining lights in its midst were enough to drive it away.
Corruption, like a virus, had infested the body politic and the Government was rotten through and through. The Treasury had become the Ministers’ personal bank account, financing their flashy Ferraris and paying for illicit ‘diplomatic delegations’ to Paris and Milan. Rich men committed murder in broad daylight without a care, as they knew they had the Judiciary in their back pockets. Right next to their wallets.
Organized crime was rampant – gangs battled for control of the streets, exchanging fire in broad daylight. The police force was understaffed, poorly equipped, and underpaid. Crime lords didn’t even bother bribing them any more – they just ignored them. They organized themselves into triads and mafias and syndicates, dividing up the country among themselves and waging turf wars of almost civil-war proportions.
Everywhere the citizens were crying out in anguish; vigilante groups sprang up daily, only to become one more cog in the juggernaut of anarchy and lawlessness in the country. Leaders were either a part of it, or bullied and intimidated into submission…or assassinated for their resistance. They had all fallen, one by one bowed before the Ba’al of power and wealth that the whole country worshipped, or been thrown into the furnace for their refusal. All had been incinerated. All but one.
Reverend Amos Njenga had risen up, the last knight in the crusade against the vices, the virus that had infected every pore if the country. He stood on a platform of political reform and religious revolution-he urged citizens of all faiths to stand for their beliefs and call for an end to the chaos.
At first he had been ignored, the same way a horse ignores a mosquito buzzing around its ears, or perhaps warns it off with a lazy flick of its tail; but his movement had picked up steam, and now was the main threat to those keen on maintaining the status quo in the country. He was popular among the middle-class, educated professionals who were disgusted with the state of affairs in the country, who were tired of paying bribes to obtain even the most basic of services…and also among the low income earners whose backs were breaking under impossible taxes and were forced to pay exorbitant protection fees, and who lived under constant fear…
Secret contributions from like-minded individuals had enabled him to set up a pirate T.V station whose location had bamboozled the authorities. It broadcast his stirring speeches twice a day across the country, and the viewing of ‘Truth T.V’ became a felony throughout the land.
Numerous assassination attempts had been made upon him; once his vehicle had been rigged with a bomb, and had gone off one morning as his driver was warming up the engine. Another time a bullet had grazed his temple as he gave a speech at a university. He had stooped to read from his notes just as the shooter fired – if he’d stayed still just a millisecond later his head would have had a hole blown through it. The shooter had inexplicably escaped police custody. It seemed as though providence itself was protecting him, but he was not about to test how far this protection extended. Now his very location was kept secret by his small but dedicated security detail. He soldiered on, unblinking in the face of insurmountable odds. He remained a constant thorn in the side of the country’s power brokers, like Hannibal, who threatened the power of mighty Rome. He was just waiting for his Cannae.
The General Election had come around again, and Reverend Njenga had called for a boycott of the polling stations, denouncing both presidential candidates as puppets of the drug lords and crime barons. Finally his supporters had pressured him into throwing his own hat into the ring. He didn’t campaign publicly, but used ‘Truth T.V’ as his platform after the police had ‘failed’ to contain a riot at one of his rallies which had almost seen him killed.
Deep down, however, he knew there was absolutely no way he could win. There had to be another way to restore sanity to the land…that was why he had agreed to this secret meeting with one of the candidates, Glen Muia.
Muia was young, smart and eloquent. He came from a political dynasty that had seen his father and grandfather all high-ranking members of successive governments. Now he was going for the big seat. Of course, he was no saint-he was suspected of having been behind the ‘disappearance’ of a rival for his constituency seat – but the other candidate was a twelve-year veteran of a corrupt Parliament, with links to all the major crime basses in the country. Njenga was stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea¬ – he just chose the lesser of two evils. Muia had contacted him, proposing the meeting where they would discuss their different standpoints and, possibly, come to an understanding…Njenga had gone through every possible scenario in his mind – perhaps Muia would attempt to bribe him, to threaten him, or to pretend that they were on the same side…whatever the case, he was ready.
A knock came on his door. It opened a fraction, showing the wrinkled, worried face of his assistant, Thatia.
“They’re here,” he said.
Njenga nodded. The door closed, and he sat down heavily, his face in his hands, and said a silent prayer.
From the corridor outside his office he could hear his own tiny security detail remonstrating loudly with Muia’s huge entourage, Thatia’s voice prominent among the ones calling for the politician to see Njenga alone. A mild scuffle ensued, and Njenga sprung up and wrenched the door open.
“What’s going on here?” he asked.
Muia’s bodyguards were attempting to force their way through, but Thatia and the rest if his detail stood their ground.
“A one-on-one meeting, that’s what we agreed to,” he said calmly. “if not, tell your boss that the deal is off.”
Muia’s bodyguards looked at each other, unsure of what to do next. Then came, from down the hall, the calm, pleasant voice of their master.
“Boys, boys, it’s OK. I shall be quite safe. He is a man of God.”
The huge, beefy guards relaxed at this, and with a few final menacing snarls backed away.
Njenga went back into his office, and a minute later Muia’s smiling face appeared in the door, flanked by Thatia’s concerned one.
“Be careful,” he mouthed, as he closed the door.
“Forgive my boys,” Muia said pleasantly in the disarming, affable voice of a Cicero. “They’re a bit overzealous in their job, but they’re as good as gold.”
“I understand.” Njenga replied calmly, on the alert. “Thank you for coming, and please have a seat.”
Muia took the indicated seat, setting the big, black suitcase he carried on the ground. He waited until Njenga took his seat across him, watching his every move like a veteran poker player scrutinizing his opponent for the slightest tic, the tiniest twitch – the tell that would reveal just how strong his hand really was.
“I will come straight to the point, Reverend Njenga,” Muia said briskly. He put his elbows on the desk and touched his fingertips together.
“I believe that we can come to an understanding.”
Njenga just sat, fingers intertwined supporting his chin, listening to Muia’s every word.
“I believe,” Muia continued, “that you and I can find a common ground. I believe that we have a similar vision for this country.”
A shadow came over Njenga’s face – a frown of agitation, of irritation. Muia’s sharp eyes did not miss it, although it had passed in a second.
“You disagree?” he asked. “Just hear me out, and, I assure you, by the end of our meeting you will think so too.”
Njenga smiled, and motioned for Muia to continue.
Suddenly Muia jumped to his feet. The sudden movement startled Njenga; reflexively his hand moved towards the second drawer where he kept a loaded pistol – but Muia was doing no more than pacing around the room, hands gesticulating, speaking passionately – seemingly, to himself ¬– like a character’s soliloquy in a play.
“Our country is drowning, Reverend; we don’t need the U.N or the international community to tell us that. Drowning in a sea of corruption, of anarchy, of violence….drowning, Reverend, in a sea of blood…and whose blood than our brothers’, our sisters’, our cousins’, our own?
“Our people are crying out…our people are groaning ¬– from their mouths and their stomachs – they are crying out for a saviour…I will answer that cry.
“We must do something! We cannot just sit back and watch our country burn! We cannot let our people die- everyday they are dying in their hundreds; from violence, from disease, from hunger…this must end.”
He sat back down, the fire still in his eyes, his nostrils flared, his breathing deep and quick.
“On this one point we are of the same mind,” he continued; “this must end. And we will end it, you and I.”
He sat up straight and looked deep and earnestly into Njenga’s eyes. Njenga was at once impressed, moved, and highly suspicious.
“There’s only one way we can do it – together.” His voice was barely above a whisper now, and Njenga was hanging on every word. Muia cleared his throat and said, in a clear, confident and strong tone –
“You will support my candidature in the Election. You will endorse me to be the next President of the Republic of Kenya.”
The words hung in the air like invisible marionettes, dancing and darting around the room. It was completely quiet in the room, except for Muia’s deep, rhythmical – almost bestial – breathing; and the pounding of Njenga’s own heart steadily filling his ears. They sat and stared at each other.
Njenga’s ears were ringing. Over and over the words echoed in his head like the reverberations of a shout in a cavern –
“You will support my candidature…”
“You will endorse me…”
The words were said with such conviction, such authority, as if they were an edict from Heaven itself, and disobedience was impossible, inconceivable…
Njenga shook his head, trying to clear his mind. He chose his words carefully.
“That was a stirring little speech,” he said. “One you have obviously practiced in front of a mirror many times; I must hand it to you, the execution was flawless – perfectly chosen words, the confidence of a champion, just enough entreaty, and the eloquence of Cicero. Forceful delivery and spellbindingly done too…”
He leaned forward and looked Muia dead in the eye.
“…and, at the end of the day, a bunch of empty promises and useless rhetoric. I am not a fool, Muia, to be swayed by a demagogue. That was a hundred per cent, unadulterated rubbish!”
Muia had started to smile when Njenga had begun speaking, but now the smile slithered off his face like slime.
“Everything you pointed out was a reality. People are dying. People are hungry. People are sick. This must end. We agree on those points. But what I want to hear from the enlightened saviour of the people is how he is going to change all this.”
Njenga folded his arms across his chest, enjoying the shell-shocked expression and supreme annoyance of his quarry. Muia soon recovered though, and replaced these with his usual, confident smirk.
“You think you’re clever, don’t you? Perhaps you think you can win the election?” he laughed. “Well, let me disabuse you of that fanciful notion. Your chances are those of a snowball in hell!
“You are not a politician. What do you know about such things? You should stick to your sermons and prayers – this is the real world.”
“A world where politicians say whatever the people want to hear in order to get into office!” Njenga spat, disgusted.
Muia laughed once more. “Does it matter? Talk is cheap. No, that’s a lie. That’s why I pay a speech coach two million a month to teach me how to do it. Let’s cut the crap, Reverend, I want your support. It will look good – to the citizens and the international community. I want the credibility your support will give me. You know this. Now the question is, what do you want?”
“I want,” Njenga said, his voice rising as he lost patience with this cocky, smiling politician. “All the things you talked about! An end to hunger! Disease! Corruption! Injustice!”
“Under my government,” Muia replied calmly. “Healthcare, food distribution, infrastructure and law enforcement will all undergo wholesale reforms. All these needs will be met.”
Njenga shook his head in disbelief.
“I want an end to corruption and crime!” he said.
“All corrupt officials will be dealt with to the full extent of the law.” Muia replied in the same calm, assuring voice. “The police will be deployed to protect our citizens. Better equipment, better pay. Trust me; I want nothing more than this. The people are suffering, and they are my people too, you know!”
“What do you know about the people’s suffering?!” Njenga replied hotly. “What do you know about the woman who has to work four different jobs to feed her family as her husband was shot dead for standing up to the local crime boss?
“What do you know of the pain of a single mother who watches her daughter get hooked on drugs, drop out of school and forced to join a prostitution ring?
“What do you know of the anguish of the family that watches their brother, their son, evolve from the sweet, caring young man they once knew and loved, into a hardened, bloodthirsty criminal that they now tremble before? Eh? What do you know??!!”
Muia remained silent.
“I want all crime barons, and government officials guilty of corruption, imprisoned and stripped of their assets! And the resources redeployed into nation building!” Njenga was standing up now, livid, shouting, disbelieving as the man sat there coolly and tried to force-feed him these lies.
“They shall be pursued to the full extent of the law,” Muia repeated, without batting an eyelid.
That was the final straw.
“Really?” Njenga was bellowing at the top of his voice now, laughing like a madman. “Really? Hahaha! Wallace Kabogo; drug baron and racketeer, principal funder of the Muia campaign? Festus Muia; Minister for Agriculture – who has embezzled billions, while the people starve; your uncle? Marshall Muia; former Minister for Finance, your father?! And countless others?”
Muia just sat, looking at Njenga, even a bit bemusedly, completely unfazed. Looking
Njenga straight in the eye –
“People must eat. But even so, they eat, and get full. And they realize the granary only holds so much grain.”
Muia almost struck him. It took all of his self-control to force his hands to his sides; it took all his concentration to keep from calling Muia all the names that were running through his mind. Somehow he managed it. Finally, he sat and dovetailed his fingers, and fought to control his voice.
“I see.” He said. “Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that our ideologies are incompatible, and the proposed partnership cannot, in good conscience, proceed. Thank you for coming. I have nothing more to say.”
Muia didn’t budge.
“I will advise you to rethink that.” He said quietly.
“My mind is made up. Don’t bother making threats, promising bribes, or anything of the kind. I am determined, and I can’t be bought. We are finished.”
“Every man has his price, Reverend.” Muia said dryly.
“I’m afraid you can’t afford mine.” He said.
Muia sighed, shook his head, and studied the Reverend disdainfully, smirking and scoffing in that infuriating way of his. He examined the Reverend’s bald, grizzled head with its short, spiny strands of grey; he sneered at his furrowed, wrinkled forehead, and scorned his fiery, passionate eyes…
“The Reverend!” he mocked. “The last beacon of hope in a dark, lawless land! The Final Crusader for truth through the shadow of death, and the gloom of deception…” he laughed mockingly, pouting contemptuously at him.
Muia’s jibes had no effect on the Reverend. He smiled and got up, as if to show his smiling guest that he had long overstayed his welcome.
“We are not yet quite done, reverend.” Muia said.
“I have nothing more to say. We have no further business to conduct.”
“Ah, but we do, one minor trifle, shouldn’t take more than a minute. Please, sit down.”
Njenga did so, his patience wearing thin and his fuse shortening by the minute.
“I love a good story, do you?” Muia asked affably, sitting back in his chair.
“Really, I have said I have no time for ¬–”
“No, no, this story is very interesting, and is of paramount importance to our business tonight. Allow me to begin.
“There was once a young man who was very good in school. He also had a deep love for all things spiritual, and determined to pursue a career in Theology. I imagine you can identify with such a young man.”
Njenga sat, exasperated, and did not answer.
“Well, I’m sure you can. Now, this young man works hard in school, attains top marks, and wins a scholarship to study in the United States! Bravo! He is to be congratulated, isn’t he?”
Muia chuckled to himself and continued;
“Well, four weary years of toil and study pass, and our hero graduates with top honors. Valedictorian. Summa cum laude. Honors and laurels galore. Well, surely this young man must go out and celebrate!”
Njenga’s features hardened.
“Influenced, no doubt, by his friends, the magnitude of the occasion and the almost monastic nature of the previous four years, he goes out to celebrate. Alcohol, a little marijuana, and lots of girls; good times, eh? For only one night, he promises himself, he’d indulge in the Dionysian pleasures he’d spent the past four years writing theses and papers against.”
He chuckled once more, this time at the dismayed and disbelieving expression on the Reverend’s face.
“Well, personally, I don’t blame him. I mean, who better to warn you about the pit ahead than he who has fallen into it before you? And, after all, it was only that once. Our young hero gets into several er, highly compromising situations. But no worry – the next morning all is repented and forgiven; just another dirty little secret to be locked away in the recesses of his bosom, to be interred with him in his grave. He gives the valedictory. He comes back to our dear country.
“But it’s not the same Kenya he left; no, it’s changed. Corruption, greed and anarchy everywhere! Vice trumps virtue at every turn! He sets his mind to fight valiantly against all this evil; from the pulpit, from newspaper articles, from every medium he can…speaking against rampant debauchery, corruption, sin. Perhaps trying to atone for that one night.”
He reached down and put the briefcase on the desk, and with a click of the case’s locks Rev. Njenga’s heart broke.
“Sound familiar, Reverend? For it is no one’s story but your own. How mistakes from our past return to haunt us!”
Muia pulled out stacks of what proved to be dozens of glossy, blown-up photographs, and
Njenga hid his face; he couldn’t bear to look at them.
“Word of advice – if you’re going to go all out ‘just this once’, for God’s sake do it out of range of the cameras… and why’d you let your friend take pictures anyway? Wanted a memento of the guilty pleasures you gave up? Oh–”
He took one of the pictures and squinted at it, frowning.
“You don’t seem quite yourself, no, you look positively…inebriated! I hope that’s a cigarette you’re holding…but I don’t think it is…have to hand it to you though, you have fine taste in women, she is positively stunning…”
Almost against his will, Njenga found himself staring at them, unable to look away. Muia obligingly flipped through them for him to see, like a sick, twisted slide show – a panorama of the biggest mistake of his life; haunting him, following him over an ocean, half a continent and twenty-five years…picture after picture, each more sordid than the last…
Njenga saw all of them, Muia lingering over the more graphic ones, savouring the horror and disgust on his face. He sat back with a sigh of satisfaction, and the smirk was back in place, looking like a man contemplating a job well done.
Njenga was speechless, horrified beyond words and totally disoriented.
“Now, you have built your reputation on a platform of godliness and purity, virtue and right. And, I’m sure, most if your life you’ve lived up to these values. Just one night and a camera should not undo the years of exemplary living and selfless service. You are a role model and a father figure to the nation as a whole. The people need you, now more than ever. These pictures will destroy the faith they have in you –”
“No!” Reverend Njenga cut in abruptly, wide-eyed and stammering. Muia thought, with glee, that he looked rather like a drowning man clutching at straws… “That…was…a long time ago…my character has always been…unimpeachable!”
“Yes,” Muia assented, “that will make your fall from grace all the more…ungracious. Reputation is a fragile thing, Reverend…it must remain always intact…it does not require a break to render it useless; it only takes a crack.”
“No! No! No!” Njenga’s voice was breaking now; though defiance still burned in his eyes – his eyes were shining now, and burned more fiercely than ever, although now they were fuelled by sorrow, disbelief, and horror…
“That – was – a – long time ago,” now he was pleading, looking for some sympathy, some understanding from Muia’s smirking face – but almost as if drawn to them by a magnet, his eyes kept falling to the dozens of pictures spread across his desk; the topmost one caught him, and his eyes were riveted to it momentarily –
In it, he was sprawled across the lap of a woman whose face was cut off by the photograph, a lazy, bestial grin plastered on his face, his eyes screwed up in ecstasy, the whites showing, and only the slightest hint of a pupil below his drooping eyelids. He was clutching a hand-rolled cigarette, the smoke frozen forever in the moment like a sinuous column of blue-grey winding upwards into infinity…he stared into the face barely recognizable as his own, and right there and then, his heart broke, and the tears flowed freely down his cheeks.
“I was young,” he sobbed. “I was foolish! I didn’t understand–”
“I know, I know,” Muia crooned, as if pacifying a child who’d just stubbed his toe. “I know, that’s why they’ll never be seen by anyone but you and I. No-one else would understand. You know how people are…always ready to pounce on their leaders’ slightest mistake, notwithstanding their own…we are human too. And human is to err.
This will remain between us. No-one need know.”
“God will protect me. He will never – never allow His servant–”
“That’s why He put these pictures in my hands. To remind you of your past transgressions, and to give you a chance to atone for them. To give you a chance to do right by your country.”
Njenga was crying now, the sobs racking his old, bony frame, the tears flowing down like twin rivers of hot, salty anguish…
“Tell me – t – t – tell me what you want…”he sobbed. “anything…anything…just please, don’t…please don’t…”
Muia sprang around the desk to comfort him, like a leopard leaping on its prey. “Shhh, don’t worry. I promise, I won’t tell a soul…this is all you need to do–”
He stood up suddenly, and Njenga looked up in surprise. The tall, smiling, victorious politician over the broken, crying, subdued old man, looking up at him like a child to its teacher.
“You will support my candidature in the Election. You will endorse me to be the next President of the Republic of Kenya.”
He said it so confidently, with such conviction, with such authority, as if it was an edict from Heaven itself, and disobedience was impossible, inconceivable…
Reverend Njenga couldn’t help observing this as he stared up at Glen Muia’s beaming face, the tears still streaming down his face.
* * * *
Twenty minutes later, Glen Muia was in his black Mercedes Kompressor, heading towards his Runda home. He thought back at the meeting, and smiled in satisfaction. He had destroyed his opponent, dismantled his defenses piece by piece and finally cornered and checkmated him…masterfully done. He always had known when to go for the jugular. The image of the fiery old man, broken and pleading brought a smile to his face. It made his triumph all the more satisfying.
“I take it, Boss, that you were successful?” his Head of Security, sitting across from him, asked.
“Oh yes, invariably.” He replied, chuckling. “Oh yes. You see, Omondi, in the end, every man has his price, even the most resolute…the secret lies in finding it out, and matching it…”
Outside the car it was pitch dark and it had begun to rain, so hard that the driver could hardly see, despite the car’s strong headlamps. He wondered why visibility was so low all of a sudden. He figured the rainclouds must’ve shut out the moonlight.
He was right. Somewhere in the sky, a light had gone out.