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The Strays

After the initial jitters, I found it exceedingly easy to tell what kind of person Nazir was. Whilst living out in the wilderness, he had somehow attracted a stray cat, a bipolar wanderer and a straying wife. Once I saw my place in that cast of characters, I knew exactly who he was and more alarmingly, who I had become. He was a cool shade out of the sun, an awning in the rain, a root to hold onto when the currents of life surged threateningly. He was the first crisp breath outside a house on fire, and I had even known that I was suffocating. Or that my house was burning.

I was aware of a disintegration in the marriage, but it had not become apparent that the damage had been an insidious rot eating at me until then. The thought struck me, inconveniently, as I was racing down the highway a few kilometres shy of Isiolo. It arrived, not with the refreshing warmth of an epiphany, but with a slow squeezing in my chest, like a girdling root slowly asphyxiating its own trunk. My stomach roiled. I stuffed two sticks of mint bubblegum in my mouth and chewed urgently, willing the rich burst of flavour to subdue a wave of nausea coming on.

Rolling down the window, I hoped for a cool breeze to sweep the hot flash away from my face but instead I got a gust of warm air akin to a dragon’s sigh. The aircon was no help, blasting out dust and the sickening smell of generic, lemon dashboard polish. Still, I was determined that my guests not see me having a panic attack, so I shook myself and announced an unscheduled stop at Isiolo. 

“It’s the last shopping centre we’ll see for a while so you can grab anything you think you might need for camping overnight,” I said. 

I stopped at the first petrol station in sight and dizzily slid out of the car. Then I called my little brother Mark. 

“Mark, I can’t breathe.” 


“I can’t — I can’t —”

“Where are you?” Laboured breathing. “Is it happening again?” 

“Mmh,” I nodded, as if he could see me. 

“I can talk you through the breathing exercise like we usually do. Is there somewhere you can sit down?” 

I looked around. There was a cargo hauler in the tyre pressure area that I could hide behind. 

“Press down your fingertips on your thumbs and focus on that sensation,” Mark said. “Deep breath in through your nose, out through your mouth.” 

Mark is the younger of us by a seven year difference. Most of the time I am the one getting him out of a bind, usually caused by his drinking. He is not known for his dependability, although I would say that is more a factor of youth than the drinking. But, God bless him, he is the only one who can talk me down from a panic attack. And he does it well too. It is maybe the only thing he takes seriously besides the proper way to cut his whisky.

After five minutes, the nausea waned and I spat out the gum. After ten minutes the palpitations stopped and I could control my breathing again. I went to the convenience store and bought two freezing bottles of water — one to drink and splash on my face and another to place on the back of my neck. Mark stayed on the line the whole time, chatting to me about a documentary he was watching. 

“After the ayahuasca retreat, the guy said that he’d seen all his past lives.”


“Yeah, and that he was meant to be a shaman in this life. So he sold everything and started a commune in the mountains.” 



“Let me guess, it was a cult.” 

“You know it!” 

“That is wild!” 

“Yeah. Yeah. So…” he took a deep breath in to signal that he was changing the subject. “When did they start again?” 

“This is the first one I’ve had in a while.” 

“Has anything unusual happened recently?”

“What, are you my therapist now?” I tried to water down the seriousness in his tone.

“Are you going to see an actual therapist?”

“Pfft! No.” 

“Tough luck then. You’re stuck with me.” 

“I’m sorry,” I said, succumbing to a flash of guilt. “I know you don’t enjoy getting these calls.”

“Don’t apologise, just tell me what’s wrong.” 

“Nothing is wrong, really. I just thought I was doing better than I was and then it hit me. I mean, things are a bit off at home but I wouldn’t say it’s anything out of the ordinary.”

“You know, it’s okay to say that things are not okay when they’re not.”

“So you keep telling me.” I wanted to say more, only it felt like I had suddenly discovered a gangrenous appendage attached to my spirit, and I didn’t know how to tell him that. Not in a way that made sense, anyway.  

“Well, we won’t figure it all out with you standing by the roadside so, if you’re fine for now it’s fine.” 

“I am.” 

When we got off the call, I was calm but we agreed that I needed a relief driver, and that he would meet us in Nakuru the next day. 


We arrived at the park as the sun was dipping in the west. First, we spotted giraffes grazing and I reeled off the usual speech about their reticulated coat. There was a pair of gerenuk that I introduced as ‘what you would get if you mated an alpaca with a giraffe.’ It’s an old joke I usually recycle with varying degrees of success. Sometimes I replace the alpaca with a llama if the group is South American, or with a kangaroo if the group is British or Australian. This particular group was American and the alpaca-giraffe crossbreed would make for an exotic anecdote to tell their less-travelled friends about their safari. 

We saw a herd of oryxes with horns reaching for the sky like antennae, a personal favourite, but the gravy zebras were the real crowd pleaser. By the time we got to the campsite overlooking River Ewaso Nyiro, the group was buzzing. One of them was an amateur photographer that had come on this trip with dreams of getting an award-winning wildlife shot. He passed around his camera asking everyone if they reckoned he could win if he entered his photographs into this or that award.

We needed to collect firewood for the bonfire and set up the tents while we could still see, but there they all were oohing and aahing and completely ignoring my instructions. They didn’t realise that we only had a few more minutes of light before the sun receded and darkness stretched over the forest. 

“Guys,” I said, suppressing my irritation. “If we don’t get enough wood for a fire, the snakes and hyenas will get us.” 

“There are snakes here?” One teenage boy asked with a look of terror that I found very satisfying in that moment. 

 “Of course. These aren’t the woods you’re used to. This is the African jungle.” 

“But we’re safe, right?” The teenage boy’s mother asked. They all quieted down, waiting for my answer. I contemplated pointing out that we had been assigned two armed wildlife guards to stay with us overnight but reassurance was not what the group needed.

“Not if we don’t get a fire going,” I said. “We need firewood, now. Split into two groups, one to gather kindling and logs and the other to set up tents.” 

That put the fear of God into them. Once we had the tents up and the fire going, it was easy enough to make hotdogs for dinner. Then one of the men brought out a bottle of Kraken and they got to talking about their life back home, so I took my leave. 

“Won’t you join us for a drink?” They all chorused. 

“No, no. We have a long drive tomorrow. I want to be fresh for it.” 


In my tent, I swaddled myself in a blanket and tried to sleep. It should’ve been easy, given that I hadn’t slept well the night before. It had been a long and over-stimulating day, and the night was quiet enough that I could easily slip into unconsciousness, save for the quiet laughter and banter of the tour group. But every time I started to doze off my leg jerked me awake. I sighed with frustration. I considered momentarily rejoining the group and sharing in that bottle of Kraken — rum always made me sleepy. But Dad had impressed upon me the importance of never accepting a drink from your clients no matter how good-natured the offer was. 

“They’re only being polite,” he said. “But the next day they will judge you for accepting and question your professionalism.”

I took out my phone, suddenly remembering that I hadn’t M-pesad Nazir like I’d said I would. There was a message from Dad asking how the cruiser was running so I called him first and we had a short chat. 

“Do you need money to cover it?” He asked about the spare part. 

“No, I paid for it. I’ll expense it once I get back,” I said. 

“Alright then. Get some rest and call your mother too.” 

“I will,” I said, knowing that I wouldn’t. I couldn’t handle her fretting right then. 

I dithered about sending the money to Nazir, realising that as long as I had not sent it there was still the possibility of speaking to him again. Perhaps he would call with a polite reminder and I would pretend that it had slipped my mind, and that I had not constantly thought of him since we parted. But since I had learned the sort of person he was, I thought it more likely that he would forfeit it rather than call to collect. I sent it reluctantly and crushed any burgeoning hope of a message from him with resolve. Somehow, in the space of 24 hours I had gone from apprehension and suspicion, to needy eagerness. I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. 

You’re so dramatic, Mark would say.

When I think about it now, I find it very telling that I never once considered calling Mundia that night. Had I flagged it, I might’ve steered things differently, but I was in the thick of it then.

What did I know? 


To be continued…