Everyone knew Tom. He was the dark-skinned guy who sat outside a tailoring shop along the infamous Kanu Street in Nakuru County. He sat on the ground, always surrounded by heaps and piles of shoes. His little space was fenced by three wooden benches, where clients waited while he worked. Next to him was a shoe shiner.
Tom owned a bicycle, which to me was the only indication that he was not crippled. Not once did I see him up on his feet. He worked on the shoes throughout the day. His hands had over the years been darkened and hardened by the leather and glue. His index finger was like a glue stick, he could never wash that stuff off. I knew he came from my tribe, because sometimes, I heard him speak the same language my mum and dad spoke.
Tom was a constant. I think he went to church on Sundays… I am not sure, but other than that, he never missed a day of work. He would be there when I came home from school and on Saturdays too when the neighborhood kids ran round the dusty Freehold Estate. In the evenings, men would gather at his base and discuss politics. My father was one of the men. At dusk, Tom would pack all the shoes into a sack and store them inside that tailoring shop.
My family was neither poor nor rich. We were not average either. If there is a class between poor and average, we were it. My siblings and I would be required, by circumstances, to be extra careful with our school shoes. School shoes would by extension serve as Sunday best, especially for the boys. It was therefore paramount that they last till we outgrew them. We loved playing football, so we found a way to play bare feet. No hustle. But kids will always be kids, and we would forget and kick at rocks and climb trees till the shoes laughed. We would get a good beating, and then get sent to Tom with two shillings, sometimes more, depending on how hard the shoe had laughed. Our shoes survived the 90s because, Tom.
Once, my father, who worked for the government, got a transfer to Oyugis town. We parked our bags and moved from the Rift Valley to Nyanza province. When we moved back two years later, Tom was still there. For over 15 years, he sat with the shoes during the day, entertained guests in the evenings and then went home when the sun went down.
Then Tom died.
I was in the university when I got the news. I didn’t cry. I can’t quite describe what I felt, but if I am to try, I would say a profound sense of loss. When Tom died, he took with him a chunk of my childhood. He was one of the few connections I still had with a childhood I treasure so much. In hindsight, no one ever said they wanted to be Tom when they grew up. We all wanted to be doctors and engineers and pilots. We did not think anyone could do Tom’s job. It was his. Tom was an institution.
People like Tom are not supposed to die.
I found out today, while reminiscing about Tom with my mum, that he was Ja Kano (one from the Kano plains in Nyanza). That is where he was buried. My father is Ja Kano too, which makes me Nya Kano. Mum says Tom’s work was so good; there wasn’t another cobbler for miles. Everyone brought their shoes to him. He was diligent, faithful. During the weekends, a cobbler friend of his, Ja Alego, would move from his base in the Central Business District and come sit with Tom. The unspoken truth was that Tom was king, and he had quite a following.
Today, as I sat on a bench in Nairobi, waiting for Onyango to repair my blue sandals, I missed Tom. It is six years since he passed on. I see him now, his long experienced fingers intricately stitching my Bata shoes. He doesn’t say much. His short hair is brown from the notorious Nakuru dust. Now I notice the lines on his forehead. I think of his throne back home. His son sits on it. He lives.
Today, 20th October, is Mashujaa Day in Kenya; Heroes Day. Today I remember Tom.