Kenyan Musician Follows Passion Despite Deportation

  • Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) International Arrival Terminal. Thursday, February 14, 2020
    A file image of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) International Arrival Terminal taken on Thursday, February 14, 2020.
    Simon Kiragu
  • I met Jose in a cell-like office at OR Tambo Airport as we waited to be deported. 

    We weren’t criminals. Jose and I, even as we stood in that crowded little room, shivering not from cold but from fear and the stupidity of youth. No, we were just students, foolish ones, granted, but they’ve not made that illegal yet as far as I know.

    There were about 35 people crammed in that small space that shouldn’t have held more than 20. There were chairs: five by my count so the majority of us were standing waiting for a chance to talk to the man behind the big desk and plead our case. 

    Jose and I gravitated towards each other as we happened to be the only Kenyans there. The rest of the group was decidedly eclectic: a sprinkling of Nigerians, Congolese, a few Chinese, and even one or two Mexicans. Some looked the way we felt: nervous and ready to jump. A few seemed as young as we were: other University students who had fallen into an unfortunate misstep with the law. Of course, there were a few older ones who seemed much too calm, as though they had been here before and knew they’d be here again.

    It was 11.30 pm by the time we got to speak to the decider of our fates: the man behind the desk. Needless to say, he did not care that we had simply made a small mistake in our visa dates. That we were really students at the University, and wouldn’t he please extend us some grace? 

    Nothing of the sort happened, we were asked to hand over our luggage and phones to the waiting guard. He explained that we would be led to the sleeping quarters after which we would be flown out of the country first thing in the morning. I bid Jose goodbye, sure I wouldn’t see him again, as men were led to a different section and we were escorted to our own cells.

    We were six to a room, with 3-sets of bunk beds to accommodate us, it felt very much like we had found ourselves on an episode of Fargo. The officer pointed to the whiteboard that was hanging precariously on the wall.

    We had found ourselves on an episode of Fargo.
    We had found ourselves on an episode of Fargo.

    “You will write your name here and we will add the flight you’ll be on and the time it leaves. You! You start!”

    It was mortifying. I didn’t talk to the other women. After we had all written our names, I lay on the filthy mattress and squeezed my eyes shut wondering how I would explain to my people that I was being returned to them as persona-non-grata. 

    I was escorted to a waiting plane at sunrise the next day only to find that Jose would be on the same flight. We would be the last to board, flanked by Airport Security, and asked to find any empty seats among the other passengers. We had no bags and we smelled as bad as the cells we had spent that last few hours in. You could see the other passengers scrunching their noses as we passed. Given our entrance, they must have thought we were hardened criminals, kicked out of the country for selling drugs and guns to toddlers. 

    Jose and I found two empty seats at the very back of the plane and settled down. We had little in common except this: our very recent shame and shame is a great thing to bond over. We talked a little bit on the plane, even managing a little laughter over the absurdity of the whole situation. I learned that he was studying anthropology at the University of Cape Town but he was a better musician than a social scientist. 

    We parted ways upon landing, individually heading towards immigration to live through the interrogation that was to come. We promised to keep in touch (something everyone says but no one actually ever does). My mind at the time was far much more preoccupied with how I would explain this turn of events to my parents who had just put me on a plane to Jozi the previous day. 

    Time has a way of taking the edge off even the worst of experiences. It’s been 10 years since that unfortunate experience at the airport. Surprisingly enough Jose and I did stay in touch and even became good friends. Over that time I have learned more than I ever wished to know about the inner and outer lives of musicians in Kenya. 

    Because Jose is, for all intents and purposes, a creative. To his credit, he actually makes decent music. A cross between Hart the Band and Kenny Rodgers to be honest. 

    But being any kind of artist in this country is not easy, I’ve come to see. 

    Once I stopped by his house only to find a collection of suitcases right outside the door.

    “And whose are these? Are you moving?”

    I asked as any normal human being would. 

    “No no. Kevo couldn’t cover his share of the rent so we’re selling his stuff on OLX. On that note, would you like to buy a sax?”

    That was Jose’s life.

    He never stayed at the same place for more than three months, Usually, one of the roommates would leave and they’d have to give up the house. Or he would move closer to a new band he was playing with. I attended one of his shows once. It was in a cafe and at most, there were ten people there, myself included. 

    To his credit, he’s stuck to it and is sure his big break is coming soon. 

    Recently, he started following Laycon’s story. We were having lunch at Sonford when he brought it up.

    “You see that guy. That man is making it and just 5 years in the industry. How long has it been for me now? 7 years? 10?”

    He stared off into space, which is not very easy to do at Sonford. Space is not something you get a lot of there. 

    I found that he had a reality TV show and it would be streaming on Showmax.
    I found that he had a reality TV show and it would be streaming on Showmax.

    I had not even heard of Laycon before then. I did what anyone else would have done and googled him. I found that he had a reality TV show and it would be streaming on Showmax. I did a little more digging and found out there was an offer: if you paid just Sh380 for one month of Showmax you got 2 months free.

    Now, what better thing to give the man you were deported with than this? I’m planning to surprise him with it soon enough. He can stream I Am Laycon to his heart’s content. Maybe it will motivate him on this music thing.

    Aluta continua, Jose, aluta continua!

    I got myself a subscription as well. Charity does begin at home after all. I have a few great series lined up already, Raised by Wolves and Fargo being top of the list. I also see that the Tiger docu will also be streaming there. And of course, in solidarity with my fellow deportee, I’ll be watching I am Laycon

    The next three months should be a breeze.