I was almost an hour late for the funeral service. The church was filled with people dressed in black suits and dresses with purple fascinators. For the first time in a little over a decade, my high schoolmates and I were in the same room. The last time we were this close was in the school field, next to the incinerator, ceremoniously burning our personal belongings, mostly uniforms, to mark our new-won freedom. Our friendships felt invincible back then. Early morning duties school punishment, groggy assemblies, and terrible dining hall food gave us an avenue to create timeless memories, both silly and solemn. This time, we weren’t meeting to celebrate milestones but to mourn. One of us had died.
The news of her death came via a WhatsApp message that woke up our high school group from a three-year slumber. My best friend and our dear classmate, Stella*, passed away yesterday at 3:20 a.m. It was a brief, personalised yet distant-memory message that left us all unhinged. What followed were side chats, phone calls, and DMs in an attempt to find answers and explanations. They say the good die young, but that never suffices whenever tragedy strikes. Our efforts at questioning life, everything and everyone were all futile because even the funeral program lacked the granular details most of us were searching for.
Despite all the nostalgia, sitting in church was still nerve-wracking. The pastor walked to the podium, immediately after we finished the last stanza of the first hymn. Behind him, on the screen, was a video collage of Stella’s* photos. My eyes became glassy at the finality of Stella’s life, sentimentally finalized as the pastor spoke of death, in Stella’s case, an overnight thief. As I sat there, listening to our classmate being eulogised, anguish rushed through my body, bringing the dismal realisation that my mate was (saying it sounds better, somewhat) no more.
Grief is funny.
Other than social media, Stella and I had never bumped into each other after high school. However, the stories of her life, as told and witnessed by others with whom she communed, drew out pain in me. I wasn’t sure if I was mourning the potential of her life, or the life she had so vivaciously lived that far. Regardless, it was a struggle to hold back tears.
This isn’t a grief story.
This is a story about long-lost friends and friendships, friends almost in their thirties, reunited by grief, but reconnected by gin and stories of the ever-elusive search for love in Kanairo.
As if cosmic powers were at play, we all congregated at the front-right section of the church. At first, it was awkward – we hadn’t seen each other in a long time. Trying to make small talk, Fiona* my former deskmate broke off and asked, “What have you people been up to?” She was met with silence, the polite ones giggling at her seeming inappropriateness. To quote a friend of mine “udaku haitaki uzembe,” loosely translated to mean if you want to be in-the-know, you have to put in some effort. The same applies to small talk.
Granted, turning a classmate’s passing into a catch-up session wasn’t cutting. And whichever way we looked or turned, soon, it was time to leave. Yet (and this was another excuse for trying to turn the sombre into the meaningful) the urgency to go back to work just wasn’t there. The afternoon had been heavy, and the weather called for ‘one for the road’. And so, after brief consultations, consensus was that one of the bars behind Two Rivers would do.
The parking lot at the bar was empty. Happy hour hadn’t begun and the music was still in that soft RnB spot, that nice and slow stuff (forgive me). Amapiano was to play next. We settled on the first floor, so we could be at a vantage point to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the spot once the bar was full.
“Beautiful girls must be seen,” Carol* said.
She’s the one who’d picked the spot for us.
“Uko na Krest baridi?” I asked the waiter.
“Is that your chaser?” Carol asked.
I responded with laughter, because that wasn’t the first time that kind of question had been asked of my order at a bar. ‘‘No, it’s my drink.” I said. “Utaniletea hiyo ndogo.” Two of my former mates ordered a glass of wine each and the rest ordered a bottle of gin for the table. We all leaned back on the seats, the music soothing.
“I heard Jacky* got pregnant and her baby daddy bounced,” Carol said. Jacky wasn’t there to give her side of the story, but Fiona* quickly stepped in to set the record straight. Before Fiona began, she unlocked her phone, theatrically, before leading us straight to the beautiful baby’s picture, for context of what she was about to say. “The dude fled even before the baby was born,’’ she said. ‘‘He has a new family but isn’t on social media.”
The revelation kicked off our gossip session.
Shortly after, laughter and high-fives were the order of the day. We were so engrossed in the gossip that not everyone noticed the waiter’s presence or her distribution of drinks around the table. We were talking about one of the heartbreaks that made one of us quit school and lose her hair in quick succession – of course attention was not going to shift to my Krest baridi.
Then, it was Sheila*’s turn to share her relationship woes.
“I found my tops and trousers on the floor of his bedroom in a paper bag,” she confessed.
“Sasa ulido?” someone asked.
The two-year relationship ended immediately after her realisation that the man had been married.
“He told me the girl was crazy and had stolen the children,” she said.
We wanted to empathise with her pain but ended up laughing at it instead. Blame gin.
“That’s not even the worst one,” she said.
A few months into her relationship, Sheila had moved into her boyfriend’s house. One weekend, she arrived back home from a work trip and found a scandalous thong in her boyfriend’s drawer.
“I don’t wear those things that ride up. He knows that,” she said as she opened her phone to show us a picture of the tiny-little-thing that couldn’t go past her hips. On querying him about it, he said, with a straight face, “It must be yours.” We all burst out laughing. Nairobi is rough.
Fiona’s phone rang. Her theatrical responses forced us to be part of the phone call despite the bar’s noise. The conversation was short but heated, leaving us all curious. “Well, today I am not sleeping alone,” she said after she hung up. We all laughed because at that moment, we realised Fiona hadn’t changed much.
“There is no way a man is coming to my house empty-handed,” Fiona said, to which statement we all raised our glasses in agreement. “The truth is why should he? It’s common courtesy.’’
‘‘He’s not paying for a trip to Maldives, so he has to maintain my house, sex isn’t cheap,” Sheila said in the middle of a gulp. It seems Jeniffer Lopez lied to a whole generation, love does in fact cost a thing or two, clearly.
The nightclub got darker, and certainly, the gin flowed freely.
“My partner,” Sheila started, “his wife is delivering in two weeks.” We leaned in her direction to ensure we were hearing right, so no word is carried away by the club’s music. “I spoke to his wife, and we agreed that he would be back with her in time before her delivery in Mombasa. When he goes to Mombasa, he stays with her. When in Nairobi for business, he stays with me.”
Babes weren’t playing around.
My thoughts forced me out of the conversation to ruminate on my previous partner who had a second girlfriend and thought we could all just learn to share. In our last encounter, which I later found out was filled with ounces of lies, he confessed how he loved us both and he just couldn’t choose because we were both so great – I still roll my eyes every time I think of that conversation. Seems like he’d listened to a lot of Naughty By Nature Me and My Crazy World.
We left the bar close to midnight, not because we wanted to but because our bodies couldn’t behave the way they used to. At the parking lot, we said our goodbyes and promised to be better friends. As I sat at the backseat of my Uber ride home, I marvelled at how we’d all grown and become gin drinkers, quintessential Nairobi lovers and poor mourners. We’d made something of ourselves, after all, despite one of our teacher’s prophecies that we’d never amount to much as a group. I, however, knew we’d lied that we’d meet again soon. Or maybe we will. I pray it won’t be at a funeral. A pub would do, even for a teetotaler like me, because booze and gossip.
*Names have been changed to protect the individual’s identities