I was working on my laptop one Saturday morning early last year when I got a call from a new number that immediately identified as ‘Michael Kimani’ on truecaller. His number had a blue tick next to it which meant that his, was a verified profile. Maybe he was one of those important guys with generic names.

“Hello?” a heavy baritone voice spoke from the other end. Calmly, without the slightest rush.

“Yes, hello? Who am I speaking to?”

“Don’t you have truecaller? My name is Michael Kimani. I was on your website and saw that you offer video services. Yes?”

“Yes, to both questions.”

“Good. When can we meet? Are you available for a job today?”

“Yes.”

It was true. Ten minutes earlier I had been contemplating about whether to market myself more to my 20k+ followers on LinkedIn. I had not received any calls for a video shoot in the last month or so and I was starting to ache for a piece of the action.

Thankfully, here was Michael Kimani.

“Where can I pick you up? I live in Lavington.”

“I’m not so far from there. I live in Ngara.”

“Good. Let’s meet in town in 30 minutes.”

*

I kept time. That’s because I only I did minimal brushing up before I hopped onto a motorbike. I was there in 25. Waited for another 15 minutes by the side of the road until Michael arrived. He drove the latest model of the Ford Ranger Double-Cabin that came furnished with leather interiors and wooden finishes. Clearly, money was not Michael’s biggest struggle. Once I was in the car and I got to be in a position to look at him closely, I realized that I knew this guy.

I first heard of him through my elder brother. He spoke jealously of a man he met in one of the car races he participated in, back in 2014 along Kiambu road. They used to call him “Speed Demon” because the sticker on the back of his car read so. His signature look consisted of black overalls and a red helmet branded with lightning flares on the sides. That most newbies to the sport had never seen, let alone spoken to him without his helmet, only added to the mystery that surrounded his underground racing legend.

He quit the sport tragically the next year. He got into a freak accident that exposed him on the News as Michael Kimani, CEO of The Starlet Group a leading agrochemicals company. From crash footage obtained from the scene by one of the reporters, Michael appeared to be a gone case as emergency response staff tottered his limp body hurriedly into an ambulance.

But for a few photos and YouTube videos after he incident, this was the next time I had seen the man, which oddly, happened to be my first time meeting him in person. His car had a sunroof which meant that the insides were well lit. I could make out a large scar that ran from the back of his bald head all the way to his eye brow. Scars from his last encounter with the grim reaper.

“Weren’t it for the helmet, I would probably be dead or a cabbage.” Kimani spoke, assuming that I already knew about what happened. Unsure of what to say, I quipped with an unsure remark.

“But at least you’re okay now. Right?”

He never responded. We spoke very few times after that until we got to Limuru. When we got to the town, we branched off into a dirt road and kept driving for hours on end until we could see no one else. Just rows and rows of trees. And then the road ran out. So, we parked by the side of the road and picked up our equipment and supplies and backpacked for another hour before we came up to a monstrous boulder. It looked like a huge jagged wall jutting out of the ground. We stopped right underneath it.

By now Kimani had briefed me on what he wanted us to work on. He asked me whether I knew what a free solo was. I said no. He then explained to me in intricate detail about the sport in a self-assured calm voice but by the time he was done, I was shaking in my sweaty shoes.

“What if you die?” I asked, genuinely concerned. I was fast realizing that this was not going to be one of the jobs I was used to. What if he slipped and fell while I was recording? Was it even legal, exposing yourself to such extremes in the name of ‘sport’?

“What if I fly?”

“Really Mr Kimani!? That sounds illogical and you of all people should know better. If you fly, you also die.”

He chuckled. “Relax. You overthink everything…”

 

*

It took me a while before I finally found a spot from where I could record him without much distraction from the trees and after I did, we started rolling immediately. He powdered his hands and wore his leather climbing shoes (which looked more like tiny ankle-length socks) before getting on the boulder.

Since we had strapped a voice recorder to his waist and pinned a microphone to the back of his ear, I would get to hear his monologues as he climbed. But for pure luck and skill he had nothing else holding him onto that rock.

Carefully, he would scrutinize the huge rock for crevices, hooks and hollow points which he would then tug on to propel his torso upward. He would talk into the microphone for a two-minute length of time, go quiet, then resume after five minutes or so as he continued to climb the boulder much to my surprise, without any rope or safety equipment whatsoever.

It wasn’t too long before he was dangerously high from the ground. I was still amused that he still managed to hold on to the rock almost 20 metres off the ground, but was scared of what could happen to him if he slipped. Once or twice, his hands grabbed a rock or hold that gave away, leaving him suspended one arm away from a deathly fall. Relentlessly, he climbed on.

I wasn’t sure who between us was more excited the moment he got to the top of the rock.

By now, I had to zoom my lens all the way out to get a decent up-close visual of him. Minutes before, he had been heaving and panting painfully, his arms shaking from being pushed to the limit. It was a treacherous moment, when both of us were unsure whether he had enough strength to continue.

That was before he dragged himself to the top of the boulder and lay there. Not saying a word. Just breathing heavily.

*

“What if you die?” I asked, genuinely concerned. I was fast realizing that this was not going to be one of the jobs I was used to... “What if I fly?”

— Kimani's Response to Joe's Question

From the videos and audios that he recorded; I was tasked with creating a video to celebrate the climb in Limuru. He payed 50 percent of what I quoted in cash, upfront, and gave me much else of what was left of the supplies we carried; yoghurts, fruits and dried meats to carry home with me. He sounded really enthusiastic about seeing the final video and couldn’t wait to show it to all his friends.

That was one of the few times I had seen him in such high spirits. I recorded soundbites and short clips from the passenger’s seat as we drove back that I was planning to use in the final video. He spoke about being truly alive. About taking risks. About the danger and possibly death that is inherently intertwined with being alive. “You think you are safe because you live in your mother’s house, don’t do any drugs and give your tithe every Sunday? Well I’ll be damned. Death lurks in the safest of places. You could choke on your food and die. Get cancer, become depressed and suicidal… you get the idea. A million ways to die. Why not die doing something that makes you feel free? I go on solo climbs to feel alive, knowing too well that the balance between life and death hangs on a thread. One wrong thing – even a fart, could send me tumbling to my death below…”

*

When we finally uploaded his first video to his old YouTube channel, he managed to garner two thousand views within the first week. He called me after he had sent the payment and went ahead to thank me for the quality visuals on the video, which he said had gone ‘viral’ in the office. Once or twice during that past week, he had walked into his colleagues and people who knew him from the corporate scene, watching the video on their phones and discussing him in low tones.

His wife was furious about it. That was all he told me, then chuckled that care free laugh I had come to expect from him whenever he was attempting something stupid and/or nerve-wracking.

 

*

“Hit it from the back. Hit like a Yoyo.

Climb that rock! Only way to do it, Solo”

That was Michael Kimani rapping into the camera, the second time we met.

“I used to dream of being a rapper when I was growing up in the streets of Ofafa Jericho. Way back then, hip hop was still the in-thing but it was more than heavy beats and sleek rhymes. It was about what you stood for, you know, like a peek into your personality. Hip-hop was the sound you listened to when you wanted to feel unfuckwithable.”

He paused for a minute, just staring at the camera then asked Siri on his iPhone, to play any NWA classic. Ice cube’s verse on “Hello” sounded particularly amazing and full of raw energy when pumping hard from the Ford Ranger’s speakers. “You hear that, you hear that, that’s something you don’t hear anymore.”

He went ahead to narrate about the dull feeling that settled in after the responsibilities that came with adulthood dawned on him. While he relished the security and stability that came with having a family, he would tussle and turn at night because the speed demon in him was restless. He needed something to exorcise it.

“Would you want your son to become like you?”

“What? A CEO?” He asked grinning.

“You know what I mean.”

“Hmmm… that’s his decision, I guess. I choose not to give him barricades on what he can’t do with his own life. But of course, I have made it clear to him about the dangers of what I do. He’s probably too young to understand the full depth of it, but he gets it. What daddy does is extremely dangerous.” He said, staring right into the camera as he drove.

We were headed to a second boulder he had recently discovered somewhere near Mount Longonot.  Kimani admitted that he had already scaled it twice but couldn’t wait to do it on camera. Today, he was going to add a twist; he would do it shirtless. The area was usually pretty warm at this time of the year anyway, which made it more rational to carry very light clothing.

By mid-morning, I was done setting up my equipment after which Kimani started his ascend.

Only a few minutes in and he was at least 10 metres off the ground, moving fast.

Right before he could go any higher, he looked behind him and stared directly into the camera then winked. Shortly after, a rock that he had suspended his weight on, broke.

He fell with a heavy thud into some bushes below then started screaming. He groaned in pain as I ran towards him, camera still in hand. The initial scene was revolting, his clavicle was shattered and a piece of it projected outside his shoulder. Blood flowed freely from the wound.

Breathing heavily and staring intently at the sky, he asked me to apply some pressure on it. Then he gave me a number to call. It was his medical insurer. He asked me to request that they immediately dispatch a medical team to come airlift him. I would have to give them directions of how to get to where we were.

By the time the paramedics arrived, he was unconscious and I was covered in stains of blood, after frantic efforts trying to stop the bleeding. That was exactly the same way I looked at 10:00pm that evening, when I got home tired, hungry and scared. Because of the adrenaline rush, I had completely forgotten to eat. I made an omelette, which I ate together with a few slices of bread then went to sleep.

Before I slept, I prayed for his wife and son.

 

*

It was not until six months had passed when I heard from Michael. After the fall at Mount Longonot, he took a hiatus from the sport. A few months ago, I started seeing him on TV and on his Instagram, sometimes with a sling around his shoulder. He was recovering well.

This time, he called on Sunday evening. He sounded a bit drunk.

He talked a bit about work, then asked me if I wanted to film another of his rock-climbing solo escapades. I immediately said no, but as a rejoinder, he doubled the money. Then went on to tell me that no one could dissuade him from making the climb. I needed to help him because even if I didn’t, he would still go ahead. He preferred to have me film him, because we had ‘connected’ and he liked my work. Since I needed the money anyway, I said that I would think about it.

 

*

“Alright Michael. If I can’t dissuade you, then I’ll let you be. May you discover that which you can’t find in your own family.”

— The last thing Joe said to Michael

As usual, he picked me up in town early morning on a Saturday. “It’s good to see you!” He immediately said when we met. He gave me a brief about where we were headed: a steep climbing trail In Ukambani that would have him use every part of his body, possibly including his teeth to make the ascend. Michael termed it a 5.9 or at most a 5.10 on the difficulty scale.

“Starting all the way from 2.0, the scale goes up to 5.15. By then, the rock you are climbing is as difficult as it can get. Even Spiderman would struggle. So, today’s rock is pretty special as far as rock climbing standards go.”

We got there at 9:00am and had everything ready within thirty minutes. This time, he was going to free solo the boulder naked, with nothing but his microphone to keep him company and a bag of rock-climbing powder strapped to his waist.

Slowly, he started the climb, carefully balancing his weight on the thin cracks and holds that had once disappointed him before. He said that he had learnt his lesson. He was moving too fast the last time and that’s why he lost his balance. Today, he would take his time.

He would be in control.

His black skin shone in the hot mid-morning sun from ominous heights. Steadily he climbed on until two hours later, he was at the very top, jumping naked and screaming with joy.

 

*

The video trended for most part of Sunday after I had uploaded it. This time it attracted 10k views within its first two weeks. There was even a meme based on the video. Michael Kimani had cemented his place as a true daredevil.  As his fellow adrenaline-junkies lauded his stunts, some part of the saner population called out his death-defying stunts, terming them as suicide wishes. One commenter even requested YouTube to take down his content. A popular Youtuber who made videos on extreme sports echoed this by describing Michael’s videos as being his personal suicide note.

It was getting uncomfortably difficult to continue filming him because I, like everyone else had my heart in my mouth waiting for the day the worst would happen.

*

His wife called me from her personal number a week after we had started planning when to shoot his fourth climb. He was going to do it somewhere in Homabay County. A steep rock that gave him nightmares.

“Is this Joe Okello the filmmaker?”

“Yes.”

“My name is Jackie Kimani and I’m not a big fan of your work. You and my husband work together making his Youtube videos. I have a problem with that.

“Okay..”

“The man has a family that he needs to take care of. His life does not belong to his subscribers on YouTube. It belongs to me and his son. He obviously does it for the views, right?”

“I’m not sure. He has always a fan of… extreme sports since I first heard of him.”

“Can you talk to him? Try and get some sense into him? Do you even have a family, Joe? A wife and a child?”

“Yes, I do.” I lied. “I will try to talk to him.” I lied again. It was hopeless to deter the stubborn Michael Kimani once he had his sights set on something.

“Thank you, Joe. It’s stressful to live this way. Always waiting for a call from the morgue.”

“I’m sorry…”

“You should be. If he dies, this is on you and his family of subscribers who pushed him over the ledge.” She said curtly before ending the call abruptly. I didn’t get a chance to say anything else.

*

After the phone call with his wife, Michael tried to persuade me to join him once or twice after that. Both times I refused. He tried to triple the money but I would have none of it. I couldn’t live with myself after. He was keen on having me film his climbs but if I was not going to join him, then he would be forced to continue without me.

“We make a good team Joe. You and I.” He said.

“Thank you.”

“I know Jackie called you. She told me herself. She thinks I’m suicidal. Blames everything on my Bipolar. Makes me look like a lunatic with a death wish”

“You’re Bipolar? You’ve never mentioned that.”

“I don’t know. Doctor’s diagnosis. But what does that really mean? He obviously wants me to keep buying pills from him. But I don’t believe him. I’m a free soul. No fake disease can hold me back”

“Good to know Michael. But you do realize that Bipolar is a deadly mental condition?”

“Goddamnit! Not you too.”

“Yes, me too. I care about you. I’m not trying to lecture you but…”

“Then stop. The Chinese say that if you truly love someone, let them free. If your paths cross again, then the two of you probably have a shared future.”

“Alright Michael. If I can’t dissuade you, then I’ll let you be. May you discover that which you can’t find in your own family.”

That was the last time we spoke.