Men will always give swanky nicknames to their pets-be they dogs, cows or their beloved jalopies. Often they use fancy like names Natasha or Talia. Sometimes they have their daughters give the family car a name like Tiana borrowed from some Disney character.
Unknown to many women, cars aren’t given feminine names because they are cute. Its not even a homage to the role mothers played in nurturing famous car inventors like Henry Ford or Carl Benz of Ferdinand Porsche. Far from it. Cars are given female names because they are fussy and demanding. And expensive to maintain too.
The unfortunate thing about cars is that they age and get rusty and start coughing enigmatically. Such that they no longer look like Natasha and your neighbours start calling them kang’othi.There is no equivalent English word for the Kikuyu word kang’othi. But in a few words, kang’othi refers to an ancient car that coughs like it has engine tuberculosis and rattles like it has chassis arthritis and smokes like it has carburetor bronchitis-all at the same time. When everybody starts calling your car kang’othi, even the local stray dogs avoid peeing on its tires-lest they catch some diseases from it. You can leave a kaquarter of sizzling tumbukiza on its bonnet and a starving flea-infested mongrel wouldn’t touch it.
The winds of life have taken me many places. In my youth I found myself living in a place called Ting’ang’a-that shopping center that has never changed since 1955. Near my hosts lived a man called Njau who owned a kang’othi.You could say it was a prototype-Njau boasted that its seats were once warmed by Henry Ford’s American bum. The whole village called the car kang’othi ga tung’othi-the father of ancient cars but that didn’t prevent Njau from boasting to everybody about its prowess and pedigree.
It was well known that no one touched Njau’s car. Not even his mechanic.Njau would have rather let you kiss his wife but not touch his car.Folklore had it that he once let his wife touch the steering wheel when the were courting, but it never happened again after they tied the knot at Ting’anga Catholic church. That was Njau and generally Kikuyu men for you.
Generally, Njau had nothing but choice superlatives for his car. There is this mzungu from Karen who gave me Ksh two hundred thousand for this car, but I refused. He would tell us-me and his two sons-as he ferried us to Nairobi every morning. But sometimes the car would refuse to crank and Njau would hurl unkind words to it. He would tinker with the faulty clutch, suck the carburetor lovingly with his mouth, bang bonnet then command the car thus:
Ruruma gwakare gaka!(Get cranking, you stupid thing!)
The car had ears and would splutter to life immediately it heard those words. You see, cars are made from earth and have water and electricity in them and thus soul. Cars too have a spirit and a name. Sometimes the car’s brakes would fail and Njau would shout to it and it would stop pap. Automobiles are unreliable and dangerous slaves. Sometimes they revolt and kill their masters, but not Njau.
One day, as we were coming from Kiambu town and climbing that steady hill towards Ndumberu, the car accelerator jammed when it was on the floor. The car chewed that steady climb like a 6,000cc turbocharged Bhuggati. For some minutes, we stared at death since there was no way of stopping it. Luckily, it run out of fuel just before Ndumberi Golf Club saving us from early death and an early date with Ol’ Peter. When it did so, Njau got out, lit a Nyota cigarette, looked at the car if he was seeing it for the first time, then chuckled:
Gaka gakware nikangiaturaga.This stupid thing almost killed us.
By the time he was done, we had already disappeared into the nearby coffee bushes,ready to walk home. We could not take another chance at death by boarding that metal trap when we had lived less than twenty years.
The next day, we were going to Nairobi and the car lost control as it negotiated a corner at Muthaiga. I always wondered how Njau did that corner without killing us.In fact,anytime he negotiated that bend, I always treated it as attempted suicide when he was alone and attempted boycide when he was carrying his boys and me. When the car finally showed signs of slowing down,Njau shouted:
Rugama gakware gaka kana uturage! Stop you fool or kill all of us. The car opted to stop instead of committing mass murder.
Next, we were going to Githunguri town and as usual, Njau was boasting to my uncle about the unique abilities of his car:
My car knows its way home when I am drunk. He started with his usual clincher.
Ehe! Can it open the gate for you too? My uncle who had a disdain for alcohol asked him. The three of us boys rubbed our rough hands with glee. Njau had finally met his match.
My home doesnt have a gate since I don’t have enemies to hide from like you. Njau retorted back, his Adam apple going up and down agitatedly, like a small animal was trapped in there.But you could say there was an animal trapped in Njau’s body-if his fighting spirit was anything to go by.
Ok, can it open the door for you? My uncle pressed on. This was getting rougher than Smackdown-that wrestling show we never missed on Tuesdays at KBC TV.
I am married to an obedient wife. Njau shot back. My uncle assumed this faraway anguished look-like he was sitting on nails. The rest of the journey was carried with Njau whistling a naughty Kikuyu tune triumphantly and my uncle clutching his Bible with resignation-like a crusader returning from a lost campaign. That was the last time my uncle got a lift in that car.
As time went by, Njau’s car’s notoriety as a death trap became something of a legend. Cops no longer stopped it-you couldn’t be sure whether that thing would stop or plow into serikal.His friends evaded him to avoid getting a lift on it. Only his boys and I had to ride on it daily from Ting’ang’a to Nairobi and back. It’s inside acquired the smell of asphalt and grease and failed dreams-like an abandoned factory. It had no AC, but Njau told us stories to warm it during those cold Kiambu mornings.
Its hubcaps disappeared and since you couldn’t find hub cabs for a car manufactured by Henry Ford himself in 1934 in Grogan, Njau fashioned some for it.Its muffler came off and dragged under its carriage raising a racket loud enough to be heard by Henry Ford in heaven. No sweat, Njau fashioned a muffler for the car too. With each replacement of a part, the car slowly became Kenyan. Or to be precise, assuming that Njau won’t read this, a mongrel of a car.
Then one day, some young fellas told Njau that his car was so hideous that it scarred kids. They also added that the car was the cause of rain failure in that area, amongst other calamities. This was mean, but we concurred with those bold chaps.
The following weekend-which I recall is around that time Princess Diana funeral was running on TV-Njau took a hand brush, parked the car under an avocado tree, and started painting it. With passion and pain and panache, he wrote some mean words on the car’s rear bumper. From then on, nobody dared laughed at it. For on the rear bumper of the car,in bold red hue, he had posed a stinging question to anybody who dared laugh at his jalopy:
WINA GAKU TAKO?
My car maybe ancient, but do you have suchlike?