Unpaid spies who watch you night and day
The National Security Intelligence Service think they are on top of things, but it might shock them that the average shopkeeper has ‘intelligence’ their spies have never heard of.
Don’t be cheated by the barmaid or watchman’s bored look. They don’t miss a thing and their minds are a minefield of clandestine information that would make Wikileaks proud.
Take an example of a storey building in Ghorofani, Mathare, where there are three shops on the ground floor, a noisy bar complete with belligerent patrons on the first floor and a church that competes for attention by drumming and screaming hellfire through the rooftop.
Of course both saturate patrons with spirit. One saturates the heart, the other saturates the head and both alter the worldview — temporarily at least! Now picture the sort of information that a hawkeyed ‘spy’ can gather in such a place.
The first information archive are the shopkeepers. They know who is who, what is happening but what would not appear in your daily newspaper — like the housewife who keeps mandazi in her bedroom or orders the house help to wash the family underwear. Yet they are so trusted that residents entrust them with their house keys.
Kamau wa Njoki, a shopkeeper in Kariobangi North, says he has seen what men and women are all about, but he dare not divulge secrets because that would mean the death of his business because customers would run from him.
He talks of having seen men and women who cheat discreetly for years on their spouses and is familiar with those who start borrowing from the kiosk barely hours after payday.
He talks of a man who leaves every morning for work, but dutifully sneaks back mid-morning every Wednesday when his wife is away. He needn’t wonder what a man would be doing at home when his fellow men are toiling in town or industrial area. Has to be the house help, the very girl whose boss loudly calls ‘stupid and ugly.’
On housewives who remain behind when their husbands have gone to toil, he stops short of calling them terrorists.
"Fights, quarrels, petty jealousies, hatred, witchdoctors sneaking in while husbands are away… the things I see in this place are amazing!" he muses with a wry smile.
It’s young men who amuse Kamau most.
"They come and engage you in long-winded stories without really saying what they want. Or they just hung around shifting nervously from one foot to another. But when the last customer goes, they mumble "Ile (that)," while pointing at condoms.
"They disappear very fast after getting them and you do not see them for a whole week, probably due to embarrassment!"
What the young men never figure out is that shopkeepers not only know where their condoms are headed, but also know another fellow who bought a similar package the previous day with the same woman in mind.
Caleb Oluoch, a shopkeeper in Huruma, notes with disdain that there is this group of people who borrow from him when they are broke, but the moment they get money, they sneak past his shop at night with hefty supermarket paperbags.
"They disappear without a trace only to reappear when their fortunes start dwindling yet they have not paid even the initial arrears. Others even change routes to avoid being seen," Oluoch complains.
Another group of secret keepers are chemists who operate within estates. They have seen it all. Apart from people buying unprescribed drugs, there is another commodity that goes like hotcake over the weekends — emergency pills.
Mercy Ndunge, a chemist attendant, says what tickles her most is how men behave when they walk in to buy this crucial medication.
"Most of them are ridiculously shy while others offer wild stories like how they are buying the pills for friends who are going to talk to students about the effects of HIV and Aids!"
She laughs at how fast they disappear the moment they get the goods — lest, perhaps, their girlfriends conceive while they are still talking to her.
The other spy in the estate is that faceless, weather-beaten watchman fondly referred to as soja. He mans the gate and covertly watches who arrives with whom and when.
A woman who broke up with her boyfriend says she rarely talks to watchmen after one of them whispered her life history to her boyfriend. For only Sh200, he gave a vivid account of how she lived and the number of male friends who came to visit and for how long they stayed.
But Fred will forever be grateful to watchmen. Following a series of domestic squabbles with his wife, the watchman called him one evening and warned him not to come home.
"Boss, I have seen some people with madam and they don’t look like good people. Don’t come home tonight," he was warned.
And sure enough, when he took the precaution of coming home accompanied by two police officers, he found five strangers armed with crude weapons lounging 100 metres from his gate. The couple has since split.
But it is barmaids that take the trophy. They know when you are broke or whether you are a gangster the moment you walk through the door. They know your HIV status, how many illicit flings you have had in two months, how much you are stealing from your employer and whether you own a toilet in the village.
Barmaids are also better placed to get that extra cash to supplement their income because men value the price of silence. They would hate rumours concerning their constant patronage of the dingy lodgings behind the bar filtering to the wrong people.
A story goes of a man in Mathare North who slapped a barmaid but what followed made him sober up. He left the pub reeling from a severe tongue-lashing peppered with intimate details of how and why his wife strays.
The man, a father of two, could only thank his stars that his wife was nowhere within earshot as he was publicly torn to pieces. His ego bruised, he tried to beat her up but quickly learnt that you can’t touch a popular barmaid. Fellow patrons told him to dare.
So don’t think your life is a secret because you sleep with your door shut and barred. ‘Big Brother’ is always watching and without these quiet eavesdroppers, the police would never solve crimes