TO MUGAMBI

To Mugambi,

March 4, 1999.

On the evening following the funeral of Davie M., your high school desk mate, who died from alcohol poisoning three months after KCSE.

 

Mugash,

 One day, you’ll be comfortable with the idea of death. Yours, but especially, and unfortunately, others’. When you’ve gained that necessary dulling of the sensitivities, you’ll find you’re in good company.

The Internet, which you know now as emails sent from cyber cafes, will grow into an intrusive monstrosity existing everywhere. It’ll pursue you relentlessly, evolving from a charming novelty to the most visible evidence of human complexity. Intimate details you can’t extract off of your closest friends will be availed to you by strangers. Disclosures will be presented to you in prose, pictures and video, by avatars that bear similarity to people you think you know. Instant responses will be coerced from you. These omnipresent surges of electronic contact will occupy most of your time, to the extent that you’ll forget what occupied you before their arrival.

You’ll think that this ubiquitous congress will make us more guileless and vulnerable towards each other. You’ll think I’m part of an evolved, empathetic and emotionally wealthy society. Truth is, I miss how it was in your time. 

4pm. Langata Road. You were traveling from Davie’s burial to town to take your matatu home. Ali was driving; your only former classmate whose parents allowed him to borrow the car. You were packed at the back of the Corolla with three other boys, while Davie’s best friend Karambu was riding shotgun, in that unconfined black dress with white polka dots. You remember the smell of her perfume because she dabbed drops of it on letters to Davie. “Relax. We’re just buddies, man,” he’d say as he waved them in your face at prep time, after which he’d hand you the customary accompanying note (unscented), where all Karambu granted you was a hastily calligraphed ‘Hello’ and a Bible verse.

While you, Ali and the boys make awkward conversation about unmemorable things, steering clear of the incongruous subject of the Christian Union leader and the sachets of Pushkin that killed him, she dabs her eyes, looks out into traffic and says nothing. All you have seen of her face today is the part showing under her black hat. Lean chin and pert, scarlet lips. When you hugged her outside the church you thanked God baggy slacks cushion hard-ons.

Real contact has been discoloured by machines, pixels and narcissism. In many cases, it’s been replaced by them. The countless moments of connection we’ve become addicted to don’t measure up to their primal substitute. The more everyone barges into everyone else’s space, presenting a curated picture of cloistered life, the lonelier and more disconnected we’re becoming.

 Three weeks after the funeral, you’ll win tickets on the radio to a club rugby shindig, and you’ll call Karambu’s house using that Kiambu code; 0154. You’ll have less than two minutes to ask her to be your date, or Dad will kick your ass at the end of the month when the phone bill comes. Karambu will say yes.

More of your friends will die. And the Internet will play as much of a role in mourning as flowers and black do. As with many human customs, online social culture will distil mourning to a ritual. Then a routine. You’ll grieve for people you don’t know. Friends of friends of friends. You’ll become dexterous at dispensing 10-second sympathies. You’ll know the right things to say to the bereaved from your keypad, words that won’t bear as much significance in real life. You will become inept at just being there for people. Because surely, how can we be there when, every moment, we’re learning from our devices to be anywhere but?

 The real tragedy will occur, however, when, even in grief, the bereaved will succumb to that same gentrification. A couture that will deny the grieving their right to expression. You’ll hate yourself for being privy to the sordid disassembly line.

 Plastic escorting dust.

Karambu will arrive at Kenya Cinema, late and delightfully hat-free, vestiges of sorrow visibly absent. You’ll get lost on the way to Harlequins because you insisted that a 46 matatu could get you there. Idiot.

After 70 minutes of walking and talking and “I’m so sorry” and “It’s okay for real”, the relief of finding the game will evolve into the thrill of real-time, awkward, unpredictable conversation interrupted by nothing. You will know that you have found love.

Like KCSE, or employment, or the cultural rite of fornication, death is a frightening, inevitable stage ahead of you. Imagine life was a conveyor belt ride you were strapped into, and every life event was a section you inadvertently arrived at. You know you’ve reached a new level when something changes. The lights get brighter. Or the colour changes. Or little people appear and toss confetti at you. Or sprinklers drench you. Or speakers play dubstep at 11. You’ll struggle to understand what each change means. Sometimes you’ll fail. The familiarity-with-death stage, though, will be quite unambiguous.

Karambu will leave to study in Russia a few weeks after your sole date. She won’t say Good-bye. 5 years later, you’ll hear she got married and moved to Bangkok. You won’t believe how ridiculously unyielding that QuinsFest memory will be now. It’s been 15 years, man.

Your conveyor belt has led you into a tall tunnel, lined entirely on the inside by televisions. Each of them is playing something different, and the din blends into white noise. Every so often, a random screen flickers and shuts down. The sets surrounding it respond by flashing in erratic colours. The extinguished screen gets pulled into the wall, its neighbours move in to take its place, and the monotone resumes.

You stop looking for blinking screens after a while, because it’s easier to spot the melody of colour surrounding them. Sometimes, simultaneous bursts of symphony will play all over the tunnel walls. You notice that the screens go on forever in every direction. Then, you discover that you too are a screen, and the other screens have been watching you as well. And then, one day you begin to blink… 

You’ll think about your death often, man. You’ll wonder where and how it’ll happen. Maybe at home. Maybe they’ll have to break the door in. You’ll hope it wasn’t your decaying corpse that brought them to that. You hope they won’t cover their faces with hankies before they come in. No one carries hankies any more, anyway.

You’ll hope you died hours after Sarah had made her weekly cleaning visit. You’ll hope you flushed. You’ll hope there was no floating turd. You’ll hope they find you clothed. You’ll hope when they come to take away your stuff, they’ll react graciously to the latex in the sock drawer and the kush your friend left behind. You’ll hope the landlord gives reverential stories to the tenant after you. You hope there will be a tenant after you.

You’ll wonder whether you’ll show up on the news, and how they’ll refer to you. That actor? That actor from that one movie? You’ll wonder whether people will change their profile pictures to yours and post messages of shock, sorrow and love. You’ll wonder what they’ll write on your wall. You’ll wonder if you’ll become a trending topic.

You know there will be RIP’s. So many effing RIP’s. Three letters escorting you to the digital afterlife, where your story will be told in superlatives that no one receives when they’re alive, worthy and in need.

You’ll wonder what the world will become when you’re no longer in it. And you’ll reconcile yourself to the fact that it didn’t change much after Davie, and the community of departed friends and loved ones that followed him.

Or rather, it changed, but you found a new normal.

Yes, you will be replaced by a normal. Those colourful screens will adjust, and the symphony will end.

RIP Mugash.

From Mugambi,

May 2014.

The night after a drink up, on the day we buried our dear friend Karambu.

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