Nairobi’s old avenues were designed to be wide enough for a wagon and several span of oxen to U-turn in them. Even so, in our modern era the matatu communal taxis frequently manage to create a traffic jam out of nothing so nobody can go anywhere, sometimes for hours. So I’m waiting patiently in a jam on Uhuru Highway thinking of Hardy’s poem ‘He Fears His Good Fortune’:
There was a glorious time
At an epoch of my prime;
…And sweetness fell around
Like manna on the ground.
And I look up into the fever trees. I’m worrying about my poor unwell wife Claire in faraway England, who is embracing life so hungrily that all in the same day she visited four art galleries, witnessed a debate in the House of Commons, then saw Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty. I am superstitiously comforted that it is neither June — when most of my bad news arrives — nor that second dread season when our city’s jacarandas shed lilac blossoms on the streets. It is still early in the year and the fever tree branches are crowded with marabou storks and sacred ibises.
The marabou stork is a bird the size of a tailcoat with the features and hunched lope of a Caucasian humanitarian aid worker. On city dumpsites the marabou jostles with pigs and homeless children for garbage, then takes to the air on its three-metre wingspan, coiling up on thermals to terrify aircraft pilots and soar above the metastasising city of my birth. Hardy again, remembering all the years I had good fortune:
‘I’ve no claim,’
Said I, ‘to be thus crowned:
… Must it not go amiss? —
Emerging towards me out of crowds alighting from the matatus comes a handsome young African blade. He’s looking sharp in his well-cut suit, a devotee of La Sape. His face is animated with joy as he speaks into his cellphone, clearly to the girl he’s about to meet on a first date in a few short minutes. The sight of him is so electric I breathe in sharply: 50 years old and weighed down with life’s cares, I’m damn envious, yet enjoy the vicarious thrill, like an old general gazing from a hilltop on the young warriors in battle below. ‘Huzzah!’ I feel like saying.
At this moment a curtain of white splatters on to the sapeur’s head and across his spotless jacket. I look up into the fever-tree branches again and see a smug-looking marabou stork directly above the man. The poor fellow staggers for a second or two, trying to understand what has happened. After confusion, his face registers first distress, then anger. We are only a few metres apart and in the next instant our eyes meet. With a shock I realise that he thinks that I am responsible for this assault on him, which has utterly ruined his suit and hairstyle. I did this to him.
He is looking so annoyed that I consider winding up the car window, to prevent him from punching me as I sit in the driver’s seat. Our eyes are still locked together. I want to help him understand that I am not the author of his misery. I point up into the fever tree above him. He follows the direction of my finger — and sees the marabou stork. The full truth now dawns on him. His eyes flick back towards me and I hope he perceives my deepest sympathy. Then he looks away, disgusted, and scurries off through the becalmed ranks of cars and buses, his suit now a wet, brindled white and black. He appears not to have a handkerchief on him to begin the clean-up and the marabou defecation is so voluminous that it’s clear that his entire look, so carefully prepared for the waiting lover, cannot now be salvaged. There is nothing more to say. Hardy ends his poem:
Well . . . let the end foreseen
Come duly!—I am serene.’
— And it came.
Do not fret, my sapeur brother. One day you will laugh about this ghastly little setback. If you don’t get that girl after what’s happened, she’s not worth it. You will find better lovers. One day, even quite soon, you will be with your friends sitting round your Tuskers laughing about the marabou stork on Uhuru Highway. And please, my brother, I hope some of your hard-won good luck rubs off on our household too, just when we need it.