The Tarmac


Kimeu withdrew his gaze from the newly Tarmacked road winding down the slope like a stripped black snake. The whole village was awe struck by the most recent development project from their member of parliament who was best known for his empty promises. Once again, they’d fooled into voting him back into office. Just for this little effort clearly meant to boost his image and earn him votes.

His friends were talking and chatting lazily. They had been on the same spot since morning, gawping at the tarmac which was more of a tourist attraction than another piece of infrastructure. The hunger pangs were now quickly catching up with him. Kimeu had dreaded it for long but knew well that it would finally catch up with him.

In his pocket was a crumbled fifty-shilling note. A treasure; the only meaningful thing in his life. He had earned it after helping push the MP’s car after it was stuck at mud last week while he was attending his first Harambee in four years. He had avoided spending it at all possible costs. Kimeu therefore perfected the art of showing up at neighbors’ houses just when meals were being served. Being African, sharing was among top values in their culture. Now, he had thoroughly exhausted all ‘visit able’ homes and had nowhere to call on anymore.

He braved the hunger in silence. The intense afternoon sun forced him to squint. The scarce eyebrows bowed almost touching. The wrinkles on his brow looked like deep sweet potato furrows. Sweat glimmered from deep these charcoal dark skin folds.
The others were conversing with great effort. Pauses were as rampant as their days without food. They beat down a subject almost the very moment it was put up. With their little knowledge, they could barely hold a conversion that would last their narrow hunger distracted spans. Kimeu joined in occasionally to dispute a comment. Normally, a heated debate would ensue. The basemen, as they referred to themselves, would then split into two. The exchanges had to end up in sulks, and even insults.

“Now that we have a tarmacked road, I am a worried man.” Kibe said faintly.

“Ata mimi. Especially during such dark months.” Mukwas supported him.

“Mukwas acha ushenzi. This is a month like any other.” Kimeu chipped in.

“I too don’t like August that much. Do you remember Sach Angwan tragedy? In what month did it occur?” Rotich had been silent.

“That was just a coincidence.” Kimeu was almost shouting.

“I thought you people go to universities to rid yourselves of such stupidity. What a disgrace.” Mukwas shouted.

Kimeu looked up the slope, his liquid eyes trained on the dark road. The gaze met something like a pool of water right in the middle of the road. He hated to be reminded of his useless education. The veins on his temple pulsed. In the brokenness, he peered farther until the road sunk away at the edge in between tall trees along it.

The basemen stared at each other like strangers. They all knew they would come to this. Rot pulled a blade of grass and chewed it. His oval face darker than his neck. His lips were a shade darker and swollen. His hands trembled heavily while he held the blade to his mouth.

A soft engine hum dragged Kimeu’s eyes onto the road once again. A white car emerged from the sunken road, between tree canopies, proudly. The road was good. The engine was good. It was a Toyota saloon. As it raced by, Kimeu scrutinized its rear windscreen for the ‘wash me’ writing previously common with most vehicles when the road was dusty. It was conspicuously absent.

“Rich people have it easy nowadays uh?” Mukwas remarked.

No one said a word.

As if it had waited for the car to clear off the stretch of the road, a heavy engine roar was heard. It was a lorry. The way it moved towards the onlookers, it seemed to be rising up off the road lifted by unseen forces. Kimeu knew right away that it was one of those that ferry petroleum from the newly opened oil refining plant in the next county whose governor dealt with so much backlash thanks to his visible development stunts.

Everyone else looked on but Rotich.

Suddenly, the lorry swiveled uncontrollably from lane to lane. That was odd. Kimeu thought the driver was having fun on the smooth deserted road. His lips curled into a smiley expression only to be cut short when the lorry suddenly veered off the road and rolled into a ditch. Definitely that could not be part of the fun.

They gasped in unison.

“That’s petrol right there basemen.” Mukwas broke the silence.

“No. It’s an accident. What do we do?” Rotich said.

“It means only one thing. We are rich.” Kimeu was excited.

Kimeu thought of the hunger haunting him daily like a ghost. He thought of the misery of joblessness and poverty that had befallen him. After graduating, he had planned to get a job and start a business from the savings only to meet a harsh reality out of the university comforts. He ‘tarmacked’ for three years after which his shoes gave up, and then he did. Bit by bit, all the battering from master life reduced him into a timid, useless human who couldn’t be set apart from uneducated lot.

In his quest for any kind of job, he had met the basemen. Men who had lost clear picture of the future if indeed they had any. He dived into the world of casual jobs simply to stay alive. Their main motivation became to survive until the day comes and they would go to their creator where they’d be clothed in white robes and set to pluck fruits and drink honey. For them, their treasures were in heaven. But then, they had no hope in that so much hyped Promised Land.

“Yes, it means we are rich.” Mukwas was nodding his bushy head.

With the ambitious thought, Kimeu, Kibe and Mukwas sprang into action. Rotich shook his head in disbelief and remained stationery.

Minutes later, Kimeu returned carrying six twenty-liter capacity containers all tied together by their handles using a climbing plant’s stem and hoisted to his shoulders. Looking lively once again, he grinned at Rotich. Then Mukwas arrived ceremoniously with a blue plastic drum stuck to his shoulder and a jerrycan dangling on his other hand.

Under the hot sun suspended on a blameless deep blue sky, Neti center burst into action. People trickled in with the hope of scooping just enough Petroleum from the accident site. The driver and whoever aboard were dragged into oblivion. Even God himself would understand that under the tough economic times, no single drop of the black gold deserved to be lost. The petrol had to be saved first.

The wind blew gently. Most petroleum hopefuls picked a strange whiff. Someone exclaimed that the air was becoming foully. Two lousy drunkards looked at each other suspiciously and rushed off towards the fortune.

As the immediate witnesses, the basemen less Rotich were the first people headed for the windfall. They were the head of a gigantic procession unique with its baggage. From a distance, it looked like the tribe of Israel leaving Egypt in search for honey and milk.

The closer they drew, the more intense the strange smell grew. Excitement nullified any urge to mind it. Kimeu could tell that the smell was familiar. He wondered if he could remember where it belonged. His memory was refreshed when he approached the half-wreck. At the side of the lorry’s container he met a whole different inscription from what he expected. He shoved his large dirty fingers up the holes of his nose and read out loud to the benefit of the basemen; HONEY SUCKER.