You don’t speak of death at noon in
Nairobi, not when the equatorial sun is
at its apex in the lapis lazuli sky. With
no clouds in sight, its heat is coals on
the skin and fever in the eyes; it is
waves radiating from the gray gravel
walk and the metal frames of vehicles
baking under layers of cracked paint.
You don’t speak of death when sitting in
a restaurant nestled amidst towering
trees whipping against each other in a
dervish whirl, while finishing off a plate
of pan-fried tilapia fillet smothered in
Death is the last thing on your mind as
you chew sautéed cabbage slivers,
whose crunch drowns out the voice from
the mobile phone pressing against your
ear. Your thoughts are on your next
appointment at a government hospital.
Already, you feel flushed in the cheeks;
your heart quickens. A foreigner in this
land, the notion of joining the conga line
of cars, vans, and buses on the road
appeals to you. It’s all about dancing to
the rhythm of adventure.
But now you must speak of death
because the speech that breaks through
your consciousness has caused you to
respond in one-word exclamations:
“What!?” “When?” “How?” “OK.” “Soon.”
You notice your veins and knuckles
protruding from the back of your hand
gripping the phone. You turn away and
meditate on the black forest standing on
a dessert plate. The ice in your soda
slowly melts. A pool forms around the
bottom of your glass, and you lose
yourself in it for some time.
No more visit for you after all. Your
patient/refugee/case has died four days
ago. In government hospitals, the sick
and dying are a sea; they ebb and flow
anonymously onto gurneys and
stretchers, and leave behind mere
traces of their presence: urine stains on
sheets, saliva flecks on glasses, blood
splotches on bed railings. When a soul
dies without familiar hands escorting
him into the unknown, the outside world
fails to hear the last whimper.
Tesfaye died Sunday night. Alone. It is
now Thursday afternoon.
You remember nothing more about
lunch except Tesfaye’s face the last time
you saw him. Was it three weeks ago?
He and a handful of other Ethiopian
refugees were gathered together that
Saturday afternoon as you taught them
English for their future lives. Most were
in Nairobi for medical or academic
reasons; others, for motives unknown.
Whenever you ask, the conversation
invariably turns to requests for food,
rent, or a UNHCR mandate—a document
that is the world to a refugee. It means
identity and acceptance in alien territory.
Tesfaye had sat with his back to the
window. With the afternoon sun dipping
close to the horizon behind him, you
saw nothing but silhouette. Later, when
blinds were shut, you found him with his
eyes closed, mouth open, nodding in his
sleep. He looked so much smaller on the
oversized couch. No one had the heart
to disturb the sleep of a man who looked
like he hadn’t slept for days. Maybe he
tossed and turned at night thinking
about the kodi ya nyumba he owed his
landlord and the imminent possibility of
eviction without fair warning. Night-
mares like these came to men like
Tesfaye even in their wakeful moments.
When that session ended, it was without
the familiar hello and embrace he
bestowed. You were drawn to a small
cluster of ladies and noticed his absence
come time for goodbyes. He had slipped
out without so much as a handshake.
And now you hear pneumonia—a
euphemism—has overcome him. His
community kindly requests that you
identify his body before it is tossed into
a pauper’s grave. You finally snap out of
your reverie and head out for the City
Mortuary just as another business day
comes to an end.
The roads are lively. Men and women
play tag with vehicles, traversing curbs,
potholes, and humps to the other side,
where they go on with life—picking their
noses, flipping through the newspaper,
haggling a few shillings off the price of
bananas sure to rot by evening. But
they are better than nothing. And
nothing is what most people have here.
It leads them to brave a red cloud of
dust on foot towards homes where more
nothing awaits on tables surrounded by
children with nothing in their eyes and
You have a fleeting memory: a center-
piece of maple roast turkey, surrounded
by your family jostling each other for a
spot to display their silliest faces to the
camera. Your hand hovers over the
mobile phone on the dashboard. In their
time zone, your youngest sister is about
to leave for school. You close your eyes
to kiss her on the forehead.
Finally, you drive through a gateway
and enter a squat building where
everything becomes a blur. You vaguely
remember paying a cashier the equiva-
lent of two short caffè lattés in order to
view the body. It is all hazy because you
now struggle to hold down the contents
of your stomach. You are inside a low-
ceilinged, dark corridor. The stench of
formalin assaults your nostrils. You see
that Tesfaye’s remains are underneath
other corpses, all stacked every which
way on a metal table pulled out from a
refrigerated chamber whose chill
blankets you in shivers. A man clothed
in a grimy white lab coat tugs at him—
it—until the face protrudes from under
somebody’s feet. A ball of crimson-
colored cotton drops from the open maw
as Lab Coat twists and turns the head
for you to identify your deceased/
refugee/statistic. You nod, give
instructions, and walk slowly out,
mindful not to slip on the slimy floor.
Outside, the sun falters just over the
tree line ahead of you. You sit on the
driver’s seat until the orb disappears.
You fumble for your phone.
“Hi, Dad. Jenny here. I miss you guys.
How was breakfast?”
The sky explodes in oranges and purples
as the day departs.
Agatha Verdadero's essays, short stories, and poetry have been
published widely in the Philippines and Kenya. Her book, "Uta Do?
How to Get Support for Your Business Idea," was commissioned by
Storymoja for Kenyan youth. She is the managing director of The
CAN-DO! Company, an e-publishing house based in Nairobi, Kenya.
She is also the publisher and editor in chief of their imprint, Master
Publishing. She holds an MFA degree in Creative Writing from De La
Salle University Manila. She participates in triathlons and enjoys
extreme adventures into the wild.