On the night of July 14, 1974, a non-procedural cargo was brought onto the Kenya Railways Platform in Mombasa, and loaded hurriedly and secretly into a Butere bound train. The cargo had no dispatch papers, no official approvals, and was not wrapped like an “official railway cargo. It wrapped in papyrus reeds all round. The cargo was in fact, loaded through a window, into a first class coach, and fastened with brand new ropes. No cargo was ever transported that way. It was a dead body in a secondhand coffin fit for a teenager. A body that had overstayed in Mombasa way past its expiry date.
. . .
Very early on July 7, 1974, three very tall and strikingly dark men walked into the staff quarter’s estate of the Kenya Railways Corporation, in Mombasa. They wore checkered suits, color blocking ties, and shiny brown shoes. They didn’t have most teeth and they all spoke with a lisp. They were generally pleasant, but the past few weeks had worn them out completely. They were tired, easily irritated, and definitely weak.
This had not been their first stop. But it was the last. It had to be the last. They begged their ancestors. The three men looked strikingly alike, in every way. They were brothers, but you would have thought they were triplets.
They knocked on the door of one of the managers at the corporation. Someone at the Coast General Hospital sent them to that ‘someone’ who could help.
The manager’s wife who was outside the house plaiting their daughter’s hair exclaimed in fear when the towering men greeted her. They came from nowhere, it seemed.
Her husband was in a worn out white vest, a boxer or briefs, maybe, and he had a huge towel the size of a standard blanket wrapped around his waist. He had a toothbrush in hand. He responded to his wife’s fearful voice.
‘How can I help you?’ He asked of them, standing at the door of the house.
‘Can we speak to you, in private, please?’ They insisted politely, but firmly and proceeded to enter the house without being welcomed.
In his mother tongue, he very fearfully asked his wife to hurry up and call somebody, anybody.
Within minutes, a group of about 40 men and women had gathered outside his tiny picket-fenced house. The old cut by hand stone house held a secret discussion never to be repeated, and kept ears away. Among those outside, some were security officers with batons, and others were his colleagues with sticks. Someone had gone for the police. They murmured outside, asking their boss if he was fine. He kept saying, ‘everything is ok.’
After what seemed like forever, 20 minutes in total, the three men walked out. Heads as tall as they came, their backs straight, their shoulders now obviously relaxed. Calm, and could afford a smile. They shook hands, and then they walked straight through the shocked crowd, with synchronized gait and not once looking back. One of the men even said hallo to the crowd, and most of them responded, ‘Hatujambo!’
The crowd wanted answers. Who were those men, but most importantly, why were we called to a party and they were not even asked to taste of the food?
Their response had not been misplaced. There had been cases of small time robberies within the quarters. Small kerosene stoves over here, a transistor radio over there. Chicken and rabbits too. The only major incident was a housebreak, but nothing was stolen. Everyone had been asked to be on high alert.
‘Those guys?’ He explained. ‘Don’t worry about them. They are looking for a job for one of their children. I told them I don’t employ for Railways. They should apply like everyone else.’
He was lying!
Towards the end of the month of May, same year,, in a small slum village in Mtwapa, a dead body was found lying in a ditch. Almost everyone knew the dead 23 year-old young man, by face mostly; a guy called Richard. They called him Ricky. He had been in the slums for a whole of 3 months. Three months is a long time in a slum. By then, almost everyone knows you. He was staying with a friend and former schoolmate, Fredrick, with whom he had reconnected with over the last holidays in December. His friend invited him to Mombasa to stay with him and help him find a job instead of just staying at home and hoping for the best. His friend would go on and relocate to another job in the Bamburi area, as a live in gardener. In slum villages, no one bothers you if you do not bother them. He was the kind that never bothered anyone. Not his prostitute neighbors, nor his drug-dealing shopkeeper. He heard and saw no evil, even when it stared him in the face. Ricky was quiet. Strong but extremely quiet.
And then he ended up dead. Clearly murdered; stab wounds on the neck, hands and abdomen.
No one really knew him, or any of his relatives, or where he had come from.
It took two weeks to track his old friend Fredrick. Another week to get word to his home village in Lela, that their son had passed on. Four days for initial relatives; his mother and father, his 19-year-old wife and their sickly 5 months old baby girl to arrive in Mombasa. They quickly identified the body and got the necessary paperwork to be processed for the journey back to Lela, for the burial.
Other relatives arrived in Mombasa, deliberated on how to get him out, and put together some very little money to do this.
Some of his neighbors donated a used coffin. A used coffin. I know, right? Damn straight, they stole it. The prostitute neighbors gave one of their full nights collection to his wife. The shopkeeper fed his family for a week. His wife was given lesos and slippers, his child clothes, his parents got respect, and he got a brand new suit. He had never owned one in his life.
An advance party left for Lela to prepare for burial. Only 8 people were left in Mombasa. They hired a mini van from a Swahili Arab merchant.
Back in Lela, a burial site had been selected, and funeral arrangements made. The drunken boys dug through the rocky patch for their brother. Relatives arrived from everywhere. His in laws arrived the only way in laws should land. Cows were slaughtered, dances were danced and tears were shed.
And then the drama began.
Back in Mombasa, they collected the body from the mortuary, staying the brief night at his now very empty house, ready for the midnight journey. First, the mini van did not show up. And it would not. Secondly, his wife became ill. Malaria. She became a burden, constantly crying and being ‘irrational and paranoid.’ Her father-in-law had to physically beat her and calm her down. Then the family began fighting openly. The stress and pain was overwhelming. They tried to get the body into a bus, any bus, but no one was willing. All minibuses were surprisingly double the cost of what they had paid, and they could not afford it. No pick-ups, trucks and vans were willing to travel across the country for anything less than they were asking for. Nothing was working.
They stayed with the body in the coffin for 3 whole days as they looked at options, before the neighbors turned on them and kicked them out. They went back to the mortuary. The mortuary attendants convinced the wife to have him buried in the public cemetery for KES 250.00, and she agreed. Her father in law rebuked her harshly in the presence of everyone, and then proceeded to put her, and everyone else into a bus to Kisumu. Save for his two brothers.
The next morning, together with his two brothers, they wore their best suits, and went to the Regional Manager’s house. Someone from the mortuary had hinted to them, that they could move the body on the lunatic express or through Kenya Prison trucks ferrying prisoners and supplies to Manyani and Nairobi. For a fee of course.
The prison authorities needed a whole month.
The four men carried the coffin from the Lela substation to their house, in the early dark of the night. They all wore railway branded mechanics’ overalls. The neighbors came crying, they had a good evening meal, with their bodies tired and weary.
But in their strength they re-dug the grave in a cold drizzly night and slowly put in the body. And then they covered it. By then the whole village was up crying and wailing.
The fourth man stayed the night, and then left for Mombasa the next morning. Five thousand shillings richer. Quite a boom, for an already influential man.
He recruited a team to transport a few more funeral bound cargos, for 7 more years before he was finally busted and forced to retire.
The secret transport operation he ran was known locally as ‘Liend Reru!’ A railway funeral.