On August 8 2016, then 24-year-old Kwame Githinji composed a 796-word email with the intention of saving it as a draft for future reference. In his hand, between his fingers, he held a stick of marijuana which he occasionally placed on a black porcelain ashtray by his side so that he could type with both his arms. For the entire time that he was typing away furiously at his laptop, he did not take a single drag of the softly burning marijuana despite picking it up every few minutes.

And by the time he realized that he did not have any more words to add, his glowing companion was already out. He picked up a lighter from his desk, sparked it several times then lit up the weed again. As he blew out huge undulating billows of smoke, his eyes paced across the email for a few minutes, scanning it one final time. After a moment of temporary hesitation, he hurriedly typed his girlfriend’s email address in the recipient’s bar before hitting send.

*

At 4:00 am, he was awoken by the annoying buzz of his cell phone. Almost immediately he knew that his girlfriend was calling. Struggling to open an eyelid, he ruffled through some files and papers on his desk until he found it.

“Hello babes?”

“Kwame you’re a genius!” was the first thing she screamed from the other end. He laughed coyly in a weak attempt at modesty. “I went through the email… Won’t lie. I did not understand it entirely with the big sciencey words you strewed all over but… is it true?” she asked, unable to contain her excitement.

“Yes. I think so…”

“What do you mean ‘I think so’? Isn’t this a yes or no situation?”

“Well then… Yes.”

“You need to be more confident in yourself babe. I know your discovery is brilliant…and the world will thank you for it.”

“Then I guess you can understand why I sent you the email?”

“Because I’m awesome?” she replied with a giggle.

“Other than that…” he answered also giggling sheepishly.

“Already on it. I need to go through my notes first; my memory is a bit rusty. I should start drafting the patent application on Monday…”

“You’re amazing!” he said and then the line went dead. She was out of airtime, something unusual for her. Since he had a zero MPesa balance and he was already behind payment on his Okoa Jahazi loan, he went back to sleep.

His phone did not ring again until 11:00 am the next day. It was his mother back in Kayole, checking up on him. She thanked God that he was alive and well but she also had bad news. Nick Okoth, his childhood playmate (whom he had not heard from for a while now) had passed on two days ago. He was beaten up by a mob after he broke into his neighbour’s house and stole an Ampex sub-woofer and an old Nokia mobile phone that did not even work. It had long been rumoured that he was a member of the outlawed criminal outfit, Gaza without any conclusive evidence. Nonetheless, everyone around knew it was a matter of time before something disastrous happened.

Almost simultaneously, they both heavily sighed before his mother asked “Na sasa juu hiyo ndiyo maisha tunaishi siku izi, tufanye nini?”

It was a rhetoric question so neither answered. Kwame was thinking “In another life that could’ve been me.”

*

As Kwame sauntered to the stage, moreover, with a confident spring to his walk, the audience stood and roared in appreciation. He had an ear-to-ear grin stretching across his photogenic face, a blue designer suit and brown oxford shoes with a belt to match. On his left hand was a Patek Phillipe watch with crocodile-skin straps, a birthday present from his girlfriend and Chief Operating Officer at the company they founded together, Stacy. He often referred to it as his lucky watch because whenever he wore it, he would encounter random acts of serendipity.

Like two weeks ago when he received an invitation to give a keynote speech at the Clinton Foundation in New York. He was also gifted an honorary scholarship to study at an Ivy League college of his choice in the USA. And for the 15 minutes or so that he would be garbling God-knows-what on that stage, a 50,000-dollar cheque would be written in his name and a penthouse suite at the Marriott in downtown New York would be fully paid until he vacated. For the past year, his life had taken a turn that he could never have imagined in his wildest dreams. It almost felt hyper-real.

“My father used to sing in a Swahili band when he met my mother.” Kwame started his speech once he had adjusted the mike.

“My mother has always described him as a tall dashing man who made ladies hot under their skirts when he opened his mouth to sing. Unfortunately, I never got to see him much. Between the singing and his numerous escapades, he contracted an illness that made his toes rot and smell. Only after one of his feet had been amputated at the knee, did we get to know what was ailing him; the man was infected with HIV. He died in a sorry state, just when things were starting to look up in his life. Back then, the concoction of modern drugs that could’ve extended his life had not yet been cooked up. He died knowing that he was beyond salvage.”

Kwame’s superb oratorical skills had found a soft audience that could resonate with his message. By now, the room was mute, with everyone staring intently at the stage as if they were hanging onto Kwame’s every word.

“A few months after we buried my father, my mother and I had a discussion. She seemed upset and depressed about what she was going to say to me. “I heard something on the news today.” She said, then went ahead to tell me that a drug which could relieve the symptoms of HIV/AIDS had just been released and would soon be in mass production. While she was happy about this good news, she also had a drowning feeling of regret. My father struggled with his pain, stigma and depression until he was just whiskers away from getting the temporary cure, then he died. I’ve often found myself wondering whether he would still be alive if he had persisted just a few months more. With this background, you can understand why for me, the search for the cure for HIV/AIDS was a personal pursuit. I was trying to get redemption for my father as well as the 37 million people out there infected with HIV today.”

At this point, the audience was a mishmash of sympathetic emotions, with some quietly wiping tears from the corners of their eyes. Cameras kept flashing every so often and the pictures would just as quickly find their way to twitter where #KwameGithinji was trending globally. “It is even bigger than Lupita’s acceptance speech at the Oscars. Another example of the African renaissance.” tweeted a popular pundit on African matters who was in attendance. Former US President Barack Obama was among those who retweeted him and added more momentum to the burgeoning snowball of Kwame’s praises.

He was on top of the world.

*

I was trying to get redemption for my father as well as the 37 million people out there infected with HIV today.

— Excerpt from Kwame's Speech, 2018

Two days later, his handsome features graced the glossy cover of a top science publication as ‘the man who single-handedly massacred HIV/AIDS’. Every inch of him radiated virility and success. It was followed by the often-repeated tale of how he stumbled on the possibility of a cure while working on his undergrad in pharmacy at the University of Nairobi. His work was such a tour de force that it had upgraded the university’s global ranking.

As if overnight, he managed to transcend the field of tweed suits, research papers and academia after he appeared on the late-night show with Jimmy Fallon. He was now a pop sensation to be hunted down by flashing cameras at every turn. He even had multiple of those articles written about him on Buzzfeed. You know, the ones that always have “Ten things you didn’t know about….”

To say that he didn’t enjoy the attention would’ve been a lie. He relished the constant barrage of comments that followed whenever he posted videos of his accolades around the world. A photo of him at the Singapore Business Forum, where he secured USD 8 Million funding went viral, being retweeted almost 300,000 times. The way he remembered it, he would wake up every morning to find an endless salvo of notifications from his Twitter app, and this would continue all day until he went to bed. Then the ordeal would repeat itself the day after, and so on and so forth. It felt good to know that people cared about what he was doing.

That said, occasionally, he would stumble upon naysayers who termed his discovery as impossible.

At the time, he didn’t have to do anything to prove himself. Multitudes of his online fans would throng the doubting Thomas and baptise him/her in a flood of links from the internet all hailing Kwame’s brilliance.

“Why hasn’t Elixir (Kwame’s company) released the drugs to Kenyans yet? We make a huge hullabaloo about Kwame and his ‘genius’ but remain tight-lipped on the real issue. Where is the CURE?” tweeted Robert Alai. So far, Alai had been his biggest detractor. He had once called out Kwame’s intentions as being ‘knave and naive’ but was quickly dismissed as a shit-spreader. An enemy of development and an agent of negativity. Kwame’s deliberately avoided engaging him at all turns. Some saw this as odd but most assumed that he was just being mature and taking the high road.  Kwame, on the other hand, knew better than to throw stones while living in a glass house. Start-ups were delicate business. A careless whisper could bring the entire edifice down.

*

Stacy met Kwame during her final year at the Kenya School of Law in Parklands.

She remembered him as being a tall gangly man who moved quietly among others, like as if he was trying to hide in plain sight. She was immediately struck by his infectious smile and kind eyes that radiated warmth from across the room. They connected when Stacy asked him for a lighter, then both went outside and lit up a stick of marijuana. She found him fascinating, patient and very articulate. He told her stories of his future ambitions and she spun him yarns about her senseless exes yet none was more thrilled than the other to be having that conversation. They felt like kindred spirits from the first moment they met.

She was lucky to have found a job at a prestigious law firm not long after she graduated, while Kwame, three years her junior was still in school. She hated working at the law firm because the pay was terrible but it proved to be an instrumental position when they were getting Kwame’s patents filed two years ago.

The rest was history.

Now, Kwame was a multi-million-dollar man with no possible ceiling to his skyrocketing wealth while Elixir, their two-year-old company was worth several hundreds of millions as per a recent valuation. At the moment, not a week passed without them receiving an offer to sell. Being the COO, most landed on her desk only to be warded off with a curt “We’re not selling.”

Stacy couldn’t remember a time in the last two years when she wasn’t stressed out. In the real world, start-ups are hard to start and even harder to run. Each day, things were getting thicker than she could handle but it was too late to turn back now. They were at the frontier of medicine, ushering in the future. Initially, she felt out of place but quickly adapted to almost always being the youngest person in the room when meeting with the numerous authorities and government officials who had been closely monitoring trials of the drug. It helped that some of them were Kwame’s course instructors back at the University of Nairobi since that would make a great icebreaker but that was about it; everyone else seemed to be working against Elixir.

When they approached the media back in 2016 with a presser she had drafted overnight, they never imagined that their journey would put their minds and bodies through such torture. The way she pictured it, was rather simplistic actually: Kwame would reveal the cure for AIDS, and with a patent filed for it, he would earn lots of money from big pharma and then they would then retire off to a remote private island for their happily ever after.

Not the ceaseless meetings at the Poisons and the Pharmaceuticals board.

Not the endless documents to be reviewed and counterchecked before sharing with the WHO, FDA, EMA and a plethora of other special-interest gatekeepers from across the world who had a right to know what was happening in their laboratories.

She was lucky that the research trials had consistently been yielding positive results. 98% of her sample subjects tested HIV negative within a month of using Kwame’s drug and would start regaining body mass and rebuild their immune system within three more.

That was until six months ago when one of the subjects tested positive again.

His health was better than ever before but his HIV status was positive even after running an ELISA test on him. They sent some samples to a lab in Cairo, Egypt but the outcome was the same.

Kwame was on a fundraising tour in Australia at the time accompanied by Chinedu Roza Ogwang’ his business mentor who also doubled as a director at Elixir. On Facebook, he had just posted an interview of himself and the Berlin Patient, the first man to be cured of AIDS through a bone marrow transplant almost 12 years ago. They talked about how astounding it was that HIV could now be cured through swallowing a pill. Clearly, a lot of people around the world had invested their hopes in Kwame and she didn’t know whether he had the capacity to take bad news.

Unsure of what to do, she called Chinedu. He always knew what to do.

She told him the bad news.

Without any hesitation, he immediately asked her to share with him the results on WhatsApp. Thirty minutes later, he replied with screenshots of the test results document. There were areas that were circled in red. Figures. Charts and Reports.

“Tweak these a bit, then it’s good to go.” he texted. “Don’t mention this to Kwame for now.”

“But that is so wrong…” Stacy replied. “We could easily go to jail for that.”

“I know. Let me call you.” He replied.

*

Chinedu put it this way: they were buying time. Yes, they had run into a ‘rough patch’, yes, their product wasn’t perfect but all they needed was time. They had been successful all along; they couldn’t let a glitch in the data write off all the work they had done. If she forwarded the data as it was, she was simply sending Kwame and herself back to the streets of Kayole, disgraced and impoverished.

He emphasised on the importance of their mission. Just how many people were watching TV everyday waiting to hear Kwame’s drug had been released to the public. He asked her to visualize pharmacies stocked to the ceiling with their HIV-killer, the pill that would end it all. People would line up on the streets waiting for their new lease to life because of the work they had been doing at Elixir.

“It is no longer about the money. It’s about the hope and possibly, the future of mankind. We cannot afford to fail.” He emphasized when they ended their conversation.

*

“There are people who wake up every day looking to solve a problem in the world. Through their sweat and blood, they get difficult things done and push the human race a step forward. These people make up the real economy; they solve problems and get paid for it. Everyone is happy!

Then there is what I call the bullshit economy…”

“You cannot say that on air Mr.Alai”

“Okay. Apologies. As I was saying, there is what I call the ‘fake’ economy which runs alongside the real economy. It consists of people like Kwame Githinji who sell placebos and illusions for a living. They contribute nothing of value to the economy, stir a lot of buzz around them, and only use the fame to buff up their vain egos. They earn a living by taking advantage of our hopes and yearnings, and while we’re distracted by the castles they elegantly build for us in the air, they rob us not only of our money but our dreams too. They are nothing but charlatans and conmen.”

Robert Alai was being interviewed on Aljazeera after he broke out the story that Elixir had faked their test results. An anonymous employee at Elixir blew the whistle on the company on a Monday morning, a day after Kwame was interviewed during prime time news on Citizen TV.

At first, he found it hard to believe so he didn’t put up anything on his blog to do with Elixir but when he received a second email with a string of documents marked in red and stamped ‘confidential’, he realized that this was something much bigger. The anonymous whistle-blower even included screenshots from a Director at Elixir requesting for changes to certain documents.

He called Kwame’s office and asked to speak to him. He was told that Kwame hadn’t shown up for the last one week now but he could leave a message.

From what he learnt, after a certain period of time, the virus would morph and become resistant to Kwame’s drug which would result in the patient testing HIV positive again. Most, however, would recover their health. Some were convinced that they had been restored back to full health because “they had not felt more alive than they did after taking Kwame’s wonder drug.”

But upon further analysis of the leaked documents, new evidence was showing that Kwame’s drug did not actually cure people of HIV. Key people at Elixir knew about this but kept shush because they didn’t want to affect Kwame’s fundraising efforts.

By the time Alai was done going through the documents, it dawned on him that he had just received the scandal of the decade in his inbox.

Kwame was a fraud.

*

There are many things Stacy kept from Kwame but most of them were harmless and silly. Like how she would throw away his old socks and clothes that he was too fond of when they started getting worse for repair.

She tried to be a blank slate with him about everything else. She even told him about her sexual partners. All 21 of them. “Almost enough men to join the Premier League as Stacy FC.” Kwame would joke about it. She told him about her not-so-easy childhood and even things she had done that she was ashamed of. She never imagined that she would start lying to him when they were almost four years into their relationship.

Both lies weren’t something she said, but something she didn’t. Errors of omission.

The first was in regards to what was going on at his company while he was out there. She filtered out the bad news and only briefed him about their successes backed by faked data almost as if she was trying to shield him from it.  From the first day she met him, she viewed Kwame as someone rare and delicate that needed protection. He was the mad genius and she was the dutiful wife that straightened his tie and told him “Go get them, tiger!” She automatically assumed it was her place to be the elder sibling in this relationship.

She hated herself for picking up Chinedu’s phone and listening to his conniving plans.

It meant that every day after that she had to build upon the tiny lie that she started with. Initially, all she had to edit was a few figures. But now, she would have lab reports shredded to pieces and recreated entirely to show something else.

The second lie was about herself.

Once, when they were standing at a balcony in Ruwenzori, Uganda with Kwame’s hands softly cupping her breasts from behind, she noticed a sharp pain in her left breast. She mentioned it to Kwame who asked her to get it checked when they got back to Nairobi.

She did.

However, she never shared with him the results. She never mentioned it again after and any time it came up in conversation, she tactfully brushed it off. She had breast cancer and it was quickly spreading around her body. She would need to start treatment soon before the disease spread further.

She knew it was a matter of time before the illness would force her to disembark from the company they had built together. In fact, she had already started typing her resignation letter.

Her conscience was killing her.

She knew that when she left, she was going to leave Kwame in a rut. It was only a matter of days now before their mistakes caught up with them. A few of the workers had been disgruntled for months and what’s more, some had even resigned on ‘ethical grounds’. For the ones that resigned she quickly sent one of Chinedu’s friends, a thuggish-looking lawyer to bully them into silence. No information about the company had leaked so far but she was sure the situation couldn’t stay that way much longer.

One Monday morning in February 2019, she woke up feeling faint and exhausted. She went to work as she normally did but she couldn’t get herself to even switch on her laptop. She was also feeling emotional, something she was used to when approaching her periods. On that morning, however, her sadness felt existential. Like as if she had been sad for a long time and was going to be sad forever.

After a period of prolonged silence and much deliberation with herself, she got up dragged herself to the water cooler then stood there for a minute drinking ice-cold water and staring at the stunning view of Nairobi city from her office window. Lately, this view had turned into a nightmare. She often found herself imagining that she would smash a chair through the glass then jump through the hole she had created into a blissful black silence below.

But the thought of leaving Kwame alone wasn’t something she could stand.

She was coming clean, she decided.

She sat down on her computer and composed two emails. The first, she sent through an anonymous 10-minute-mail address to Robert Alai and the second, a personal letter, she sent to Kwame.

Then, she left her office and went back to bed. It was a while since she had had some good sleep.

*

Only God and I, know the sacrifices you have made for us to get here.

— Excerpt from Stacy's letter to Kwame.

My Love,

I am writing to you to ask for forgiveness. There are things I did behind your back that will come to haunt us. I need you to forgive me and understand that everything I did was to protect you. I love you so much and would never have wanted to see you crushed after all that we’ve done in the last two years.

For the next few months, a lot will be said about you. Some will call you a fraud, some will even call you all sorts of vile names. I need you not to let them get to you. Only God and I know the sacrifices you have made for us to get here. I’ve seen you put sleepless nights, sweat, blood and tears into Elixir. The universe will surely repay you for this and you will forever be my hero.

Unfortunately, it turns out that our cure does not work so well. We might be forced to close down our company and find something else to do. I hope you still have your deejaying skills on standby… I think I have Virtual DJ installed on my laptop. Lol.

Love,

Stacy

P.S. That pain on my breast turned out to be some form of cancer but it’s ok. I’m starting treatment next week.

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