Peter is a very industrious, self-employed young man. He puts 100% of himself into his work. With focused speed and seemingly unending energy, he gives his customers a thorough job and has developed quite a number of satisfied and loyal regulars.
I pass him often, either while cycling or walking from my house to Karen dukas. I guess he’s gotten used to seeing me – a rare white person who is not cloistered inside a car. Almost always, he waves to me from across the road and hollers out a hearty and cheerful, “Hello, madam! How is your day?”
Peter’s work space – out in the open and under the sun – is along busy Ngong Road and next to a small river called Mbagathi. He earns his daily bread by washing cars. With the arrival of each customer, he hustles down to the water’s edge and quickly fills two 20-liter buckets. I’m not sure how he manages to carry the heavy buckets uphill with his small frame, but he does so all day long. Besides his two buckets, his only other pieces of equipment are a sponge, a couple of rags and a few small packets of Omo (laundry soap). At times, two or three cars wait in line.
My frequent mode of transportation is my bicycle. There was a time it had gotten plastered with layers of mud from the red clay that is so typical of Kenya’s landscape. I realized that if I attempted to clean it myself, my clothes – not to mention myself – would become splattered with the hard-to-remove grime. So… I cycled the short distance down the road and asked Peter if he could clean my “car”. He happened to be busy washing a car, so his co-worker got busy on my bike.
I guess that’s the first time I watched Peter go about his work. While I sat on a large stone and waited for my bike to be finished, Peter struck up a conversation with me… all the while fastidiously attending to the car he was washing. He removed and cleaned the floor mats first so they could dry in the sun while he transformed the body of the car to a sparkling finish. He didn’t miss a single spot with the soapy water, or later, while drying the car. Even though we chatted off and on, his attention to detail never wavered as he hustled from one side of the car to the other. I found myself greatly admiring his strong work ethic.
After that day, our greetings turned into brief chats. I learned that Peter came to Nairobi, the big city, from his rural home a few years ago – like so very many do – in search of any sort of job. Eventually, he joined a few others that were washing cars in an area near downtown. After a couple of years, though, the City Council chased them away.
Peter has now been at his present location for approximately three years. With his faithfulness and diligence, his car-washing has allowed him to eke out a living. Daily it provides enough coins to sustain his wife and three children.
There was a time that a group of neighbors in the area really harassed Peter. I guess they were worried that an unsightly kiosk or two might spring up next to Peter’s humble car-wash spot… and run down the neighborhood (or some such thing). They even got the City Council involved and started harassing his customers, as well. I watched sympathetically as the drama unfolded over a span of a few months.
With a variety of tactics, the neighbors started making headway in their quest to run him off. The frequency of cars – and paying customers – slowed down. Some were afraid of the consequences that might ensue with the City Council’s authority.
One Sunday, as I cycled home from church and approached Peter’s normal spot, I looked around so I could greet him. There weren’t any cars; all was quiet.
Ah… there he was.
He sat dejectedly on the log that he uses as a bench. He held his head in his hand and had the most forlorn look on his face. Where there was normally a wide and engaging smile, today there was only a look of depression.
“Peter, what’s wrong? Where are your customers today?”
“Ai! These neighbors here. I don’t understand why they’re disturbing me. They’re chasing away my customers. Now, how can I earn my daily bread? How will my family eat?”
I walked my bike down the slight slope to where he was sitting, and shook his hand – the obligatory way to greet one another in Kenya.
“I’m not a thief. I’m not an idler,” he continued, as he clicked his tongue in frustration. “I’m using my hands to earn my daily bread. I’m making an honest living. I’m not a thief. I just don’t understand. Now, what can I do?”
Holding his hands flat together, in a prayer posture, he concluded, “I just pray to God. What else can I do? I just pray to God.”
I sympathized with him and tried to encourage him as best I could. Peter thanked me for taking the time to talk to him and I pedaled on home.
I had wanted to spruce up the area near my front door with some greenery, thinking it would bring some life in the midst of all the stone and concrete. But I needed some fertile soil and also some dried manure to enhance the condition of the current stony and dead soil. Another young man, nearby Peter’s location, had recently starting selling plants, soil, and manure – also outside and under the sun. However, lately, he was never there. I had gotten impatient to start my project.
As I ate my lunch, an idea came to me.
I grabbed a couple of plastic grocery bags and walked back over to Peter. After my inquiry, he told me that the other young man feared the City Council workers and had stopped selling his nursery stock. I asked Peter about the prices his friend was charging.
I asked if he would help carry the heavy soil to my house. Being a good-natured fellow – and with no customers in sight – he readily agreed. Once we got to my house, I also asked if he would mix the soil and manure for me. Replying in the affirmative, I dashed into my house and brought out a few basins. Peter took to this simple task with the same gusto he displays when he washes cars.
When he finished, I asked if I could give him “something small” for his help. Now – with his smile reappearing – he held out his cupped hands. I dropped in a few coins (adding up to the mere equivalent of one US dollar).
In all seriousness, Peter proclaimed, “Ha. You see, God came. I’ve been praying and He came.”
I chuckled, not sure what he really meant. It seemed like he was almost referring to me as God.
“No,” he insisted, “God came. He sent you.”
“Now I can take something home for my family. We won’t sleep hungry tonight.”
Shaking my hand in deep appreciation, he added, “Blessings on you, Madam. Thank you, thank you.”
“God came! He sent you!”
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You may have noticed that this story is dated July 2010. I'm only now getting around to writing it, though. It seems like I've been suffering from "writers' block". In fact, I haven't written a story for over two years!
I was actually amazed when I sat down at my laptop to put this story in to words. It just flowed, so simply and so easily. I was pleased to experience that once again.
I hope you've enjoyed the story.