Within minutes we were kicked off the field at Strathmore. The caretaker assured us it had nothing to do with our banged-up white Land Cruiser bucking through the school’s entrance, parking on the freshly clipped lawn in front of the twenty-million-shilling library, the eight of us jumping out of the vehicle, our arms and legs bare, running after a half-inflated football. He assured us it had nothing to do with the color of our skin, our wild beards, our barbaric sport, or it being the four-week anniversary of the mall attack.
“It is only that no outsiders are permitted on school grounds while pupils are in session,” the caretaker said.
“Let me talk to your supervisor and see if we can’t work something out,” Benjamin—the owner of the Land Cruiser, the one who arranged the game, the one we all knew, the only one of us besides Shane who had been in Nairobi an entire year and spoke Swahili—said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a few hundred shillings.
“I am saying, it is not possible,” the caretaker said, cupping his hands together. “My supervisor knows I know the new rules.”
Each of us thanked the caretaker and shook his hand, then we formed a huddle in front of the Land Cruiser. We agreed that Strathmore was legit, but we were still surprised that having such a beautiful library with long glass windows meant that even a few hundred bob wouldn’t yield a game of two-hand touch. Shane, the only one of us who looked like a football player, a PhD student in history at Wisconsin, mentioned that St. Mary’s was just over there, pointing behind the basketball courts. He had visited many of Nairobi’s schools for his research, which focused on the development of the Kenyan education system after independence. He said this with no tremble, no furrowed brow or clenched jaw, as if nothing had happened. We’d already sent our condolences over text, so we didn’t bring it up. Besides, we were eager to have a good time, running around freely in the fresh air, and assumed the same was true for Shane. It had taken a toll on us, holing up in our apartments, keeping track of new information while fielding constant emails from our parents all but begging us to return home. Now that a month had passed, the president said the situation was under control and it was safe to return to normal activities. We decided to trust him.
The rest of us worked for various startups as consultants, techies, sales reps and accountants. We had found a way to do what we wanted to do in our twenties without paying dues at shitty jobs or taking out insane loans for an MBA. We had Kenyan co-workers, you could even call them friends, but it was difficult being friends with them outside of work because we were self-conscious of our salaries and wood floors and washing machines and our parties featuring gobs of wine and cheese, even though it was no secret we lived in places like Kilimani and Lavington while they lived in places like Embakasi and South B. Few of us had work permits because our companies said it would take too long to procure them legally and too expensive to procure them illegally.
We broke from the huddle and shook the caretaker’s hand again.
“Be blessed,” he said.
“Thank you,” we said.
We piled into the Land Cruiser. The engine coughed and sputtered while the caretaker stood by, biting his lower lip, his eyes smiling. Eventually the old thing started up and we whipped around the library and out of the school grounds, barreling down a bumpy slope, swerving around children in navy uniforms sharing plastic bags of juice.
“Sir, how are you?!” Benjamin said, leaning out the window, saluting the St. Mary’s security guard.
“I am good, sir,” the guard said, holding the gate closed.
“We’re just wanting to play a game of football. Would it be okay to use the field?”
The guard stepped in front of the gate and walked around the vehicle peering into windows. Some of us smiled at him, others looked straight ahead. None of us spoke or even breathed. The guard completed a lap around the Land Cruiser then poked his head in the driver’s side window. “The field is being used today. I recommend you try the temple in Westlands. There are many foreigners there.”
Benjamin reached into the console where he kept a few bills, but before he could figure out how much money to hand him, the guard leaned in the window and said, “The field is in use.”
“Even kitu kidogo?” Benjamin said.
“I cannot take anything,” the guard said, his face pained, his voice dipped with uncertainty. “You can try the temple.”
“Thank you, sir,” Benjamin said, saluting. The guard then opened the gate so that the Land Cruiser could enter and have space to turn around and exit. “Thank you, sir,” we called out as we exited, most of us saluting.
“Pray for me,” the security guard said, nodding.
We nodded and chuckled because we were all atheists and agnostics and had no interest in prayer. We would continue to preside over our actions, which would determine our fate and that would be that, but in the meantime, as long as we lived in Nairobi, we would agree to pray on behalf of anyone who made the request. It was the least we could do.
We were soon on Waiyaki Way. There was a slight downhill, so we got going pretty fast. We braked for a daring highway-crossing pedestrian and received a series of honks as SUVS and buses jerked around us. We admired a gathering of Marabou Storks on the treetops, hunched over like old men with wings. Then came the Westlands roundabout where we took a collective sigh. No one had said anything about going to Westlands. No one protested that a month was too soon, that just muttering the word gave us chills. No one mentioned the billboard advertising the mall, a family of four smiling as they showed each other their new sunglasses, shoes and earrings. No one said anything, but when we turned off just before what used to be the mall, we all seemed to be breathing out of our noses, stealing glances at Shane, unable to imagine what it was like, wondering if he slept at night, what flashed before him during the day. We all knew of someone who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time on that early Saturday afternoon, but Shane had a special someone. They had been planning trips to meet each other’s parents, imagining a life together while still in the can’t-wait-to-see-what-happens-tomorrow stage.
The sign at the temple read, “Interfaith Temple, ALL ARE WELCOME.” The guard swung open the gate and waved us in. We thanked him and saluted. He saluted back.
“Third field is always the one,” Benjamin said, smiling, as if he was sharing an inside joke with himself.
We drove around the back of the temple, which was made up of multiple heptagonal sections under a flat roof, its windows tinted. We hopped out of the Land Cruiser and jogged toward the field. On the edge of the field two middle-aged Indian women conversed on a bench. One wore a red sari, the other wore a purple sari. As we strutted by they looked up smiling, their eyes practically jumping out of their heads.
“Hello guys,” said the woman in red.
“Hello,” some of us said, stopping in front of them.
“Which country?” said the woman in purple.
“The US,” Benjamin said.
“You are just visiting?” said the woman in red.
“We live here,” Shane said, holding the football at his hip.
“That is very nice. We will watch your game and cheer you on.”
“Thank you,” we said, stretching our mouths to match their giddy smiles.
We ran across the field. It felt good to move our bodies. We used to exercise regularly, but in the last month we had only left our apartments to go to work and the grocery store, which we’d hurry in and out of, grabbing only essentials, because it was in a mall that was said to be on the target list.
The middle of the field was black from burned trash. There was an asphalt path around the perimeter where a young white woman in tights and headphones jogged and an old Indian man walked while reading the newspaper. Despite the many dirt patches, there was plenty of space, the grass was kept short, the surface was flat and no one was around to tell us to go home.
Some of us stretched, some jogged and a few of us chased down Hail Marys. We took swigs of water, made end zones with sweatshirts, and then Benjamin and Shane picked teams.
We were once athletes, but that was four, five, six years ago. The coordination was still there, but quickly the lactic acid flooded our hammies, our breaths became short, and after every few plays someone claimed to have an untied shoe. The Indian women clapped and cheered from afar even when we dropped an easy pass. After only a couple sets of downs we stumbled into a water break. Benjamin jogged over to one of the end zones and moved it closer to the other end zone. No one protested the shorter field.
“We’re practically at 6,000 feet,” Shane reminded us, gasping for air.
A man in a baggy gray suit emerged onto the far side of the field and loped towards us. Benjamin suggested we start up again before our muscles cramped and tightened. We took a final swig of water then shuffled onto the field. The kickoff was wild, off the side of the foot and way out of bounds. The ball rolled to the feet of the man in the gray suit. He bent down, picked up the ball, and waved us over, calling out in Swahili.
Benjamin jogged, the rest of us walked. We all shook his hand.
“Hellos,” the man said. He flipped the ball to Shane and straightened his spine. “I am sorry, but there are no games permitted on the field.”
“No games?” Benjamin said.
“If you would like, you are most welcome to use the path for exercise. That will be no problem.”
“Just to clarify, we can stand in the middle of the field as long as we’re not playing a game?”
The man spoke gently. “You see, no one but staff is permitted on the field. This is the rule.” He rotated his gaze, making eye contact with each of us.
For a few seconds everyone was quiet except the Indian women who were now laughing boisterously.
“Ngapi kutumia uwanja?” Shane said, just above a whisper, bending for the bills tucked into his sock.
“You are most welcome to use the path for exercise.” The man pointed at the white woman jogging. “That will be no problem.”
It was frustrating how no one would take a bribe. Half the newspaper headlines were about corruption. Our companies had to bribe multiple government agencies to get business permits. Benjamin had bribed police officers who pulled him over for a miniscule crack in his windshield, noise pollution, and “overlapping” to keep from getting arrested. The Global Corruption Report named Kenya the fourth most bribe-ridden nation in the world. Bribes were supposed to be the only sure thing. But now information had been released on the attackers, how they entered the country, how they were able to obtain fake IDs and pose as refugees, how they traveled to Nairobi by private helicopter, how they rented a shop for six months and mapped out the building and stored weapons, no one along the way making a peep.
“Thank you, but we’re not interested in the path,” Shane said, his voice turned up.
The man smiled. “My friend,” he said, “I assure you we have rules for good reasons.”
“We understand kabisa, we know these are special times,” Benjamin said, reaching out to shake his hand. The rest of us began shaking his hand, except Shane, who stood there pressing the ball against his side.
“Sir, we’re also Kenyan residents,” Shane said, squaring his broad shoulders in front of the man in the suit, “and we’re suffering, too.”
The man nodded and smiled gently. “You are most welcome to use the path or even just relax on the benches.”
“Thank you very much,” we said.
Shane turned his back to the man and punted the ball; it soared high into the air and landed on the far side of the field. He watched it hit the ground, bounce and then roll. He stood looking at the ball in the grass. We didn’t know Shane all that well, but he was tall and broadshouldered and had been through a lot. How much could a guy take? Benjamin shuffled over a few steps ready to jump between Shane and the caretaker. Since most of us were collecting paychecks on tourist visas, we were not officially Kenyan residents, we tried our best to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble—it was important we didn’t make any lasting impressions. We weren’t ready to give up our balcony and swimming pool and cleaning lady for the lives we could afford in New York or San Francisco or even Pittsburgh.
Shane finally broke his pose by wiping his nose with his wrist. His eyes closed, he muttered a few sentences under his breath. He then turned around, his eyes now softer, and shook the man’s hand. “Thank you,” he said.
“Be blessed,” the man said. Then he loped back to the temple.
We formed a huddle.
“It’s the post-attack reality.”
“It was always hard to find a field.”
“With a few hundred bob it wasn’t.”
“Should we try another school?”
“Let’s go to Atlantis to watch the Arsenal game.”
“I could really use the workout,” Shane said.
“We can try again next weekend.”
“I think I’ll run home,” Shane said.
“At least we worked up a little sweat.”
“It’s gonna rain soon, anyway.”
“You can’t run home.”
“I know these roads,” Shane said. “I need to move my body.
“We can’t let you.”
“Atlantis should be safe.”
The Indian women clapped and cheered as we approached them. “Who won?” one of the women called out.
“We were kicked off the field.”
“That’s not right. You should have them talk to us. In Nairobi you just have to know people,” said the woman in purple.
“Oh stop it,” said the woman in red. “Us Asians are always looked at with raised eyebrows and we’ve been here forty years.” They both laughed, tapping each other’s knees.
“We hope things will settle down so you can enjoy your time here,” said the woman in purple. “Thank you,” we said, “we’re just happy to be here.”
“Us too,” the women said, nodding. “We’ll pray for you.”
“Thank you,” we said.
“Be blessed,” we said.
“We’ll pray for you, too,” Benjamin added. It was always the right thing to say.
It wasn’t until we had driven about a kilometer that someone noticed the Land Cruiser was feeling roomy.
“Should we call the police?”
“Only if you wanna pay a fine.”
“It’s only a few miles home.”
“He’s a big dude.”
“How’s he doing?”
“How’s anyone doing?”
“Oh, come on.”
“He seems okay.”
“I’ll text him.”
“You guys probably didn’t know he was supposed to be with her that day,” Benjamin said, “but got stuck in the jam. The one time he doesn’t take a piki piki.”
“No fucking wonder.”
“Talk about survivor’s guilt.”
“I feel it too.”
“So much is left to luck.”
“Exactly, what can we do?”
The most direct route back to Kilimani took us within view of the mall, which was where the Land Cruiser’s engine started to rattle and clank more than usual. Benjamin pulled onto the road’s slim shoulder.
“Let’s just see what we can see,” Benjamin said, stepping into traffic.
We got out and leaned against the Land Cruiser. Like passing a car accident we wanted to look, but we also wanted to look away. We’d only seen images of well-dressed manikins amongst shattered display cases, bloody floors, collapsed walls, rows of dented-in ovens and washing machines—images we could swipe away or close out. But there on that hill, through a patch of trees we could see the top of the pale-yellow mall perfectly intact like nothing had ever happened.
No word from Shane, still waiting for the mechanic, we noticed down at the mall’s gate a well-built white guy in shorts talking to a guard who stood with his hands on his hips, a long gun slung over his shoulder. For a while the white guy gestured with his arms, his movements becoming increasingly wild while the guard held his ground. Then, there was a break in gesturing and both men stood still. We checked our phones. Still nothing. When we looked back down at the mall’s gate, the white guy had his hands pressed together in front of his chest, fingertips reaching for mouth. The guard let his hands fall from his hips, and then the white guy bent down and fixed his sock, came up and shook hands with the guard. The gate swung open and a few of us cheered and pumped our fists. This was our beloved Nairobi.
We gazed through the trees at the roof of the building from where a month ago smoke billowed out. Benjamin called a huddle. Our jaws were clenched yet our eyes were soft and ready—it was time to give something back. Benjamin closed his eyes and cupped his hands. We closed our eyes too, pausing on images we used to swipe away. We did this for a while, until one of us muttered, “Amen,” then we exhaled and opened our eyes, and looked at each other part sheepishly and part amazed. We didn’t know how to look at each other.
Thankfully it wasn’t long before the mechanic pulled up on a motorcycle and we shook his hand, ready to make him and all Nairobians a promise we intended to keep.
Michael Don is the author of the story collection Partners and Strangers (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2019). His work has appeared in journals such as Washington Square Review, The Southampton Review, Fiction International, Southern Humanities Review, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. He teaches at George Mason University and co-edits Kikwetu: A Journal of East African Literature.