My thigh was shaking as I pressed the accelerator. Truth be told, I was very, very scared.
Next to me in the co-driver seat of The Growler, as my friends refer to my Subaru Forester, was Mutua a young Red Cross volunteer who was also fleeing from Lamu.
Flee. I love the power of this word although I don’t like its implications. Flee. Even if you don’t understand English, you will suspect that it has something to do with running away from somewhere as fast as you can.
Flee. That’s what Mutua and I together with hundreds of others were doing that morning and for subsequent days after that. We were fleeing Lamu because we had been warned that we would be met with dire consequences if we didn’t do so. This warning came through leaflets that were dropped randomly on the island the previous night.
About a week earlier, heavily armed militia, alleged to be al shabaab, had raided the nearby Mpeketoni town and shot dead at least sixty people, most of them Christians.
Within less than a minute, The Growler roared into Mokowe town. Mpeketoni was now less than thirty minutes away and I dreaded the fact that we would soon drive by a junction that led to the town.
‘Oh my God!’
I was about to ask Mutua why he was crying to God but the sight in front of us answered my unspoken question. Just a few meters in front of us was a restless crowd. Some were holding machetes while others were cuddling big stones. They were blocking the road, burning huge logs that they had placed in the center of the road.
‘This is it,’ I told myself, ‘this is the day that I will become a TV news statistic.’
I was wearing my black T-shirt with the word Kenya emblazoned at the front. I wasn't really making a patriotic statement since it was the only clean T-shirt that I could find when I fled from Yellow House (the name of my bungalow in Lamu) that morning. This Kenya T-shirt was sticking to my skin as if pulled by some invisible magnet in my chest. But it was sweat, dripping from a spirit full of fear and a morning full of heat.
‘Rowdy Mokowe crowd burns a helpless Subaru,’ I could already see the beautiful Lulu Hassan, the Citizen TV news anchor, uttering these fateful words just before images of my burning vehicle come onto the screen.
I was determined not to be in the vehicle when it caught flames and as I creaked to a halt, I had already released my seat belt and was in exit mode. Am no Usain Bolt but I was sure that at that moment, my 90 kilos (I was quite heavy back then!) would have given the Jamaican a run for his money.
Dozens of stony-faced young men were inches away from the car. One of them approached my window. He was wearing black jeans and brown open shoes. On his head was a faded cap with the words, ‘Kenya’ emblazoned at the front.
At least he loves Kenya, I thought to myself. Hopefully that means he loves all Kenyans equally. Tough luck. After all, my own Kenya attire had nothing to do with undying love for the country.
As I rolled down my window, my mind was racing. What words should I say to show him that I was in fact on their side? He must be one of those people who had been displaced from their homes in Mokowe and Hindi, the towns that neighbor Mpeketoni.
Unlike my racing heart, my face was calm, genes inherited from my papa. Nothing seems to scare papa. He is always the picture of calmness, especially when storms of life rage all around him.
‘Mambo vipi bro,’ How are things bro, I smiled at the young man as I greeted him.
It occurred to me that my greeting was rather stupid because there was no way things were fine. But in my defense, I couldn’t think of any Swahili greeting that has the neutrality of ‘hi.’ Every Swahili greeting demands to know the state of your life at that particular moment.
‘Mzuri tu,’ just okay. He answered in a surprisingly cordial voice.
My heart instantly stopped racing. I knew then that Lulu Hassan wouldn’t be reading news about my car going up in flames.
The crowd meant no harm. They had blocked the road as a protest at what they perceived as slow action from the government in protecting them and providing them with relief supplies. After the cold blooded killings in Mpeketoni, scores more had been killed in Hindi, Mokowe, Witu and neighboring smaller villages in the wider Lamu County.
The marauding terrorists would show up and shoot unharmed villagers dead at point blank range, or slit their throats.
I had felt safe in Lamu Island until earlier that morning. The beauty of an island is also its tragedy. The fact that islands are isolated from mainlands means that they can be isolated in both safety and danger. They can be islands of calm or turmoil.
The previous night, papa had called and virtually ordered me to leave the island as soon as possible. I was taken aback, because ordering is not his style. He often lays out options and leaves the decision to someone. But not this time.
‘Take the next flight out of Lamu!’ Papa had ordered me in a brief phone conversation.
I had listened politely but in my heart, I wasn't planning to leave anytime soon. I loved the serenity of the island, not to mention its delicious Swahili cuisine. I couldn't find original Lamu pilau in Nairobi. Or biryani and mahamari. Or vitu vya ngano and matobosho. I don’t think some of these Swahili delicacies have English names. Or the Oh my God delicious seafood like fresh prawns and equally fresh parrot fish.
Of course such food could be bought in select Nairobi restaurants but they just didn't taste the same as they did on the island especially when cooked by Aunt Lei, my immensely talented housekeeper and chef.
Earlier that morning, Aunt Lei was in the kitchen cooking a king size parrot fish when I hurriedly entered the house. She was humming a catchy taarab tune.
‘David asalaam aleykum?’
She interrupted her humming and greeted me in her usual jovial manner.
‘Waleykum Salaam,’ I replied but could barely hear myself.
I was terrified. Terror had visited my being through leaflets.
When Aunt Lei learnt about the leaflets, she dropped the dhania (coriander) leaves that were in her hands.
Aaaaaaaah! She exclaimed as her face fell. It was as if someone had pricked it and let out all joy from her. She had become like a sister to me and I adored her two kids Walid and Warda.
As she escorted me to the jetty to catch my boat, barely a word was exchanged between us.
I was fleeing, unable to stay in my second home as it was no longer safe to do so.
I had never fled before. In fact, in 2007, when Nairobi descended into a pit of turmoil following the 2007 post election violence, I often went where the danger was to prepare radio reports for the American-based Free Speech Radio News.
But this particular Saturday morning, I was fleeing from terrorism. Terror. Although the terrorists were not on the island, they were in my mind. The memory of what they had done in Mpeketoni was knocking violently at the door of my mind and shaking my heart vigorously. The bullets that they had fired, snuffing out the lives of at least sixty Kenyans kept bombarding my mind even as I boarded the speed boat and waved bye to a sorrowful Aunt Lei.
Earlier that morning, I had walked from Yellow House to the sea shore. A few minutes before 8AM, I met up with Mzee Ali, an old fisherman. We met at a rugged sea wall that sits a few feet from his palm-leaf thatched house. I wanted him to start supplying me wholesale fish and seafood on a regular basis. I was so in love with seafood that I wanted to start selling it to the rest of the country and world.
After Mzee Ali and I had agreed on the way forward, I started walking along the seashore marveling at the rustling sound of the ocean and its galloping waves. This beautiful sight never grows old.
My phone rung and I almost ignored it as I sometimes did when I was fellowshipping with God through His wondrous nature. But on second thought, I dipped my hand into the pocket of my big shorts and answered.
I said to Mama Esther. She is one of the people who had welcomed me to the island a few years earlier in 2011 and together with her two children Esther and Edwin, they had become like my Lamu family.
‘The leaflets were dropped in the town square at night,’ Mama Esther continued.
The leaflets she was talking about had been scattered overnight and they were allegedly from al shabaab warning all non-Muslims to vacate the island or face consequences.
It suddenly occurred to me that people around me seemed to be rather tense, talking in small groups, in low tones. I had just reached the jetty and I noticed that the boats were full of people with heavy luggage like chairs, mattresses and the like. It was obvious that they were fleeing.
I felt suddenly sick, like a fever had enveloped me instantly. It was the terror fever and there was no medical prescription for it.
This fever was still weighing me down but it was the least of my worries as 140 kilometers per hour rocketed The Growler past a deserted Mkunumbi town. I might have been fleeing from terror but at that moment, I knew that there was a very real possibility of jumping from the frying pan right into the fire. I was now driving past Boni Forest, a vast forest that the terrorists are said to have retreated into after carrying out the inhuman attacks.
Within moments, we approached the two vehicles that the terrorists had abandoned after their cowardly, yet deathly acts on the innocent people of Mpeketoni. I slowed down, the writer in me keen on observing the scene closely and taking some photos. Mutua, the Red Cross volunteer gave me a stern, shocked and scared look that caused me to drive off after taking only two photos.
Who does this?!
I said angrily, loudly.
Who kills harmless, innocent people in cold blood?!
150 kilometers per hour. 151..152, 159…
A racing car, two racing hearts, hundreds of fleeing people.
Fleeing from evil men who hide behind guns and ideologies.
To these men and women who hide behind terror, I have one message, “you cannot take what is not yours. We all belong to God so stop stealing from Him or you will face His wrath.”
To the government of Kenya and other African leaders my message is simple, “I know that terrorism is a global problem but I also know that people are dying locally. This must stop. Raise your game, change your tactics, fight the ideological warfare too, protect your citizens.”
To my fellow Kenyans, Africans and human beings, I have words for you, ‘don’t turn a blind eye to terror because then you will not see it coming and it will catch you by surprise. Lets us take care of one another.’
When The Growler finally made it to Malindi in record time, I cried as soon as I entered my hotel room.
Tears of joy that we had fled successfully. Tears of sorrow for those who had lost their lives.
Tears of anger at the cowardly terrorists.
Tears of hope that tomorrow will be safer for all.
P/S: Lamu Island remains a place that is dear to my heart. I will be returning there in 2021 to continue with my unfinished business there.