The nearby road is busy with traffic. Sounds of vehicles, from latest model cars to rickety lorries, wash over us. But the African sky, moonless and starless, is calm and placid. Men, not too young and not too old, are sitting around a table in the veranda, their faces dimly lit by the faint light of the table lamp. Inside the restaurant people are eating and drinking. Families occupy tables. Laughter flows freely. Children run around, chasing each other, shirking. But at this table they discuss very serious business. Heads bent forward conspiratorially, voices lowered, oblivious to the surrounding. We each have a Heineken but sipping the beer is almost a reflex reaction.
“Do you think we have enough time?” “How are you with the village now” “Important thing is to pick the right party” “Do you know Jimmy is going to be in the selection committee” There is surprise and indignation “Jimmy? How did he get there? What does he know?”
Another round of Heineken arrive and we toast each other. Then they toast the future “here is to the next election and success” I look up at the sky. Its darkness fills me with a strange sense of comfort. No blinking or shinning stars, definitely no streaking shooting stars. “Now which way will Gilbert go”. Politics mingle with personal relationships. “Do you remember him? He was in school with us” One is in the minority. “I didn’t go to your school. My father sent me to the church run school in the town” “You don’t know what you missed” Bonhomie flows, mingled with reminiscences. “You know what I really miss. The walk back from school. It was a long walk. Imagine trying to do that now” “Yes It was so interesting. Mostly the fruit trees along the way. I still remember the taste of those fruits” “The road was so dusty we could barely see a mile ahead” “Now we need air conditioning in our cars” Is it self-pity that I hear in the laughter that follows. “Ah talking about that, you should be ready for a tough time. Lot of travel, walking along the country roads” One of them start strumming an old song, Country Roads. Others join in. I sit back and listen.
I am the odd man out, a foreigner and an intruder. But they don’t mind, in fact I feel that they relish the opportunity to show me their political maturity. Their’s is not a new democracy but a democracy that has gone through serious challenges. They have a point to prove. And I am their reference point, a brown man among black men.
The traffic on the road shows no sign of lessening. Lorries with worn out tyres filled to the top with sacks, held up by few ropes, chase latest model four wheel drives. The road leads from the capital to the middle of the country, a drive of five to six hours. Surprisingly there are very few buses are on this road. It is a modern four-lane highway with no pavement. The restaurant is set back from the highway on an incline by the side of the road. A gravel road snakes from the highway down to this place past a few houses, most of them half built. A wall around the restaurant gives a sense of privacy and exclusivity. Beyond the gates of the restaurant few street children play. They don’t look malnourished the way street children usually do. They seem to be in good spirits, laughing and chattering. Only their torn dresses and bare feet set them apart.
The restaurant has few rooms and the owner is planning to add a conference hall. “Being so close to the airport, I will have good business. This is the best location for business conferences” Will businesses want to hold a conference in this place. I doubt it but I don’t want to voice my doubts. Few years back no one would have expected to see a restaurant and houses here. For that matter no one would believe that the children playing outside are homeless.
“So when do you want to start? We have to get ahead of the rest of the pack” “First we must find out how the views of the different villages” “Can we ask James to start with our village” “Is it wise, he is a Kikuyu. Won’t get through to the villagers” “how about Peter” “Who? Ikumiliu? That is a possibility”
Some food arrive on the table. It is not a five course meal but tasty in its own way. There is pork, fried to a crisp, with a hint of honey. Some chicken, the usual chicken legs. But no vegetables. Plates are handed over and we serve ourselves. Another round of Heineken arrive. This time it is not cold. Others laugh at the owner. “You need a new fridge”. A waiter brings some ice in a large container. We put ice in the glasses and sip diluted beer. I use the fork only for the pork. It is easier to eat the chicken legs with fingers. They follow me almost unthinkingly.
The crowd is thinning. Tables inside the restaurant start to empty one by one. Suddenly I realise that the noise of the children is gone. The dim light of the varenda does not hide the glow from beyond the road. I cannot say whether that is the light from the airport or light from beyond the horizon. But the glow throws the sky into sharp contrast against the rooftops. Yet the sky is dark.
“How about funding. Remember you have to cover a large area” “How many villages” “Easily 30. May even be 40” “We need to organise our class. Say each to look after a village.” “But we need people from the villages. They won’t trust outsiders.” “You know all the people there. You go back more often than us. So why don’t you find out some who can coordinate” “We need to go for a collection. Let’s start with a small fund and see how others react” “I am sure the old school mates will contribute” “How about the families”
Dinner is over. I enjoyed the pork but not the chicken. I was expecting a distinct taste but that was missing. A waiter removes the plates leaving small paper serviettes. While wiping my hands, my eyes are again drawn to the sky. Why is it so dark? Couldn’t there be a single star?
I see a very faint speck of light just above the horizon.