(This story’s title had to be in Kikuyu to capture the local flavour of the idiom. The title means ‘Chege the paraffin seller’)
When people love a person, they get ways to imprint his memory in the sands of time. They put his visage in Mount Rushmore like the Americans did with Martin Luthe King Jnr and others. They put up his statue in Kimathi street like Kenyans did with Dedan Kimathi.They put up mega sculpture like the Cubans did with Che Guevara.The location where I come from loved Chege the paraffin seller but since we didn’t have enough funds to put up a graphite statue of him, we put his memory in our language. Thus, in our place, we have this simile that goes-stay in the same place like Chege the paraffin seller. It denotes that he stayed in the same job for too long, but also it celebrates his fidelity to duty.
Chege wa Maguta sold paraffin such that now men can look back and say-there lived a paraffin seller! You see, when a man works with his hands, he is a labourer.When he works with his hands and head, he is a craftsman. But when he works with hands, head and heart, he becomes an artist. Chege was one.
Chege was born in Kangema in the early 50s.He went to school and cleared his CPE in the mid-60s.Its on record that after he sat his last exams, he got a job at Kangema Township as a paraffin pump attendant the following day. Right from day one, he woke up stronger in will to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.
Chege used to report and leave his workstation so punctually that market women told time by when he came and left work. From sun-up to sun-down, he labored by the pump, like its trusted brother. When his colleagues went home, he would be left alone on duty at the pump, like a sentinel whose colleagues had abandoned their post. Its only when it got too dark to work any longer that he called it a day.
New Year found him at the pump. Easter found him at the pump. Christmas found him at the pump. His work was his holiday. But since he was a Christian, he would leave the pump on Sundays and go to the fence of the nearby Muguru ACK church when service was going on. He would listen to the service and sing with the congregants, one of his eyes on the pump, one in the church.
Whileas we considered church to be an unnecessary imposed distraction from our avocado stealing sprees,Chege considered Sunday Service an opportunity to rejuvenate his tired limbs and soul. For him, Sunday service was balancing act between his devotion to men and God. And devotion to men is devotion to God anyway.
Years went on-Chege got a family and settled down. Vietnam War happened. The Americans sent some men into the moon. Reagan invaded the Falklands.Berlin Wall came tumbling down, the World Wide Web went up. Chege was still at the pump-like a relic that history had forgotten.
Then the Yom Kippur War happened. Kenya experienced a fuel shortage. Fuel hiked from 6.40Ksh per liter to 7.20 Ksh per litre.Chege reported daily to the pump-fuel or no fuel. Since it didn’t make sense for him to report to work yet there was nothing to sell, his employer Muhia told him:
Chege, why don’t you take a leave and see the world a bit?
This pump is my world. Chege retorted back. He was not a man of many words but when he spoke, gems dropped from his mouth.
The Ethiopian famine happened and Kenya was hit by food shortage. When Chiefs dished out yellow maize and bulgur to the villagers, Chege refused to line up for freebies and reported daily to the pump. Each day he put on his white coat and wore his honour like a ribbon on his chest. Thus he was always there working, cranking the old paraffin pump, like a human landmark of our small town. He was a prisoner of his own industry. He had no enemy; his owns hands imprisoned him, chaining him to his pump.
When I was a small boy with fan like ears and knobkerries for knees, Chege was selling paraffin. When I went to high school and graduated from stealing avocadoes to stealing girls’ hearts, he was still selling paraffin. When I went to college and graduated from quoting the Bible to quoting Karl Marx, Chege was still at it.
Just after graduating from college, I got the temptation to tell him-Pump attendants of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your paraffin smell. But then I remembered what my lecturer used to tell us-beware the fury of a patient man.Thus I desisted from that silly Marxist endevour altogether.
For Chege everyday was the same: the only thing that differentiated one day from the next was the ebb and flow of humanity Gakira market. Unlike shopkeepers who peered lazily from their shops, Chege was always busy keeping the vintage paraffin pump sparkling clean-such that it wheezed like the gears of a Rolls Royce.
One day, those Rwathia millionaires who own that archipelago from Tom Mboya Street all the way to Nairobi River came calling. Loud Subarus and sleek V8s hadn’t been invented then so they parked their Peugeot 504s and Datsun 1600 SSS by his pump. They offered him a managerial post in one of their pump stations in Nairobi. Chege flatly refused, telling them that it was against his principles.
You can’t eat principles. One of the rich men told him. .
But you can live by them. Chege hit back.
They handed him an envelope bulging with crisp notes. Chege dismissed them and went on to serve the next customer with kerosene worth 2 shillings 90cents.An honest man is worthless and just like a thing of real worth, he can never be bought.
Old age started approaching. His days went drip drip drip like drops of paraffin leaking from a broken lamp. But that monotony never wore him away. The older he got, the more powerfully he cranked the pump like he had CV joints at the meetings of his shoulders, instead of shoulder joints. He made the mundane act of pumping paraffin an art as opposed to duty. And art is timeless. Chege was like most musicians who remain poor. But the music they make, even if it does not bring millions, gives millions of people happiness. Chege made us happy by the way he served us.
One dark evening, Chege slept eternally, never to wake up again. The whole location wept, not because he was gone, but because there was no one else to teach young men virtue of diligence and the sanctity of human labour.He had not only taught us how to work, but also to love work.When they buried him in Kiairathe village, they forgot to put a headstone on his grave. Which should have read:
Keep interested in your career, however humble,
It is the real possession in the changing fortune of times.
Many bad men are in good jobs and positions in government; many good men are in poorly paying jobs. But we cannot exchange wealth for honour, for money flits from man to man but honour abides forever. Chege may not have a monument in the streets of Kangema. But anytime we use the phrase ‘tinda hau ta Chege wa Maguta’ (stay in the same place like Chege the paraffin seller) we pay homage to a man to whom duty, however lowly, was a noble calling.
That simile erected in the hearts of the people he served is more enduring than any granite statue.
This story is based on a true story.