The vanity mirror

Friday September 25 2015

I used to wonder what he meant by “the real vanity mirror” but I no longer do. PHOTO | TEA GRAPHIC

“You see that, boy?”

That was how it started. Boy, was what Ibrahim called anyone he didn’t like. Even if you were elderly, Ibrahim would still call you boy. It was easy for him to not like you. The smallest things annoyed him.

“You see that boy, he has a problem. Joka, what is his problem?”

“He is a kataala.”

“Brilliant,” Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim always asked questions that he knew we knew the answers to. He was like a primary school teacher.


“Who knows what a kataala is?” he asked us.

We all raised our hands because we knew that if Ibrahim liked your answer, he would reward you.

“Simon, what is your answer?”

“A kataala is a vain idiot,” Simon replied.


“You see that shop? They sell clothes there, very nice but expensive clothes. Some people look through the window to admire the clothes, others even go in to buy, while many just look at their reflection,” Ibrahim told us.

He went to tell us that it was OK for a woman to admire herself because beauty is a woman’s privilege, but it was a sin for a man because it makes him a vain idiot also known as kataala. Ibrahim hated kataalas.

The kataala he was pointing to was a man of around thirty. He was smart and tall. He was dressed like the musicians Eddie Kenzo or Chameleone. But, he was still a kataala. Ibrahim rubbed his beard as he stared at the kataala, who was dressed in white jeans with his wallet bulging from his back pocket.

“That boy is an idiot, everything about him screams for attention from the sunglasses covering his eyes to his style of walking. Ha ha, where does he think he is?” Ibrahim said.

We all laughed half-heartedly as Ibrahim continued mocking the Kataala.

“It is people like him who will cause the end times,” Ibrahim said. His face had now turned serious and angry. The rest of us were fixated on the wallet. We were eager and restless to get our hands on it. We were like hungry dogs staring at prey.

“Joka, Bosco go and may god guide your hands,” Ibrahim told us.

Me and Bosco headed for the kataala. We knew exactly what to do from doing it so many times. I followed the kataala closely, while Bosco, who was older than me, stayed a bit behind. The kataala was walking towards the park. I quickened my steps so that I was just a few feet from him. I looked back at Bosco and nodded, which was the cue for him to make contact with the mark.

“Hello stranger,” Bosco greeted the kataala.

The kataala looked round, puzzled but was still polite enough to greet Bosco.

“Big man!” Bosco said as he hugged the kataala. “You are so lost!” I brushed past them and pulled out the wallet quickly.
“When are you coming back to the studio?” Bosco went on, trying to distract the kataala.

“Hold on a moment, my wallet is gone! Hey, that kid stole my wallet!” the kataala shouted while pointing at me. I instinctively sped off.

“What! He took your wallet?” Bosco asked him while patting him down, “I’ll get him for you.”

“Hey, you! Come back here!” I heard Bosco shouting as he ran after me.

I burst out laughing.


Bosco and I were still laughing when we met up with the rest of the gang. Bosco told us how the kataala had given him more money to catch me and rough me up before taking me to the police. We kept laughing as we narrated the hopeless look on the kataala’s face. Ibrahim was the only one not laughing.

As the laughter died down, Bosco and I handed our loot to Ibrahim. We gave him the wallet and the money and he thanked us. Normally, he would divide the money equally among all of us, but today he did not. Instead, he went to Ongom’s shop, so we sat on the pavement and waited for him.

He came back with snacks for all of us. We thanked him, prayed over the snacks and ate quickly.


“What is the job of a mirror?” Ibrahim asked us.

At first we didn’t pay him much attention, but his voice turned stern and we realised he wanted us to answer.
“To reflect,” Bosco replied.

“Indeed. A mirror’s purpose is reflection and each of us has a light that must be used in this world,”

Ibrahim said with a wistful smile. “You are not supposed to reflect yourself but instead reflect on yourself.”

Ibrahim was very smart but sometimes he would go a little mad. Benita said people who are too intelligent are like that.

“So, when there are no windows or mirrors. What does a kataala use to look at himself?” Ibrahim continued.

I thought and thought. All of us thought but no answer came to mind. Then Simon said, “Other people.”

“That is the real vanity mirror,” Ibrahim said while clapping and bowing for Simon. He patted Simon on the head and then started walking away from us. We all quickly got up and followed him. He walked all the way to the police station.

The kataala we had stolen from was seated at the reception desk.

Ibrahim calmly walked up to him and then just handed him the phone and wallet. We saw him tell him something, which made the kataala very angry. He even pushed Ibrahim but Ibrahim did nothing. He just stood there. I was shocked, we were all shocked.


Ibrahim found me in 2014 when I was just a street kid from Kamwokya. I had skill, but no ideology. Ibrahim was the one who gave me ideology and discipline and to this day I am grateful. Ibrahim was our person. He liked us and taught us about life, how to survive on the streets and about God.

I remember asking Benita what she knew about Ibrahim and where he was from but she said no one knew much about him. He had just appeared one day, an old man in an over-sized leather jacket and cap.

I used to wonder what he meant by “the real vanity mirror” but I no longer do. I also stopped praying so much because it is not good to pray all the time. You start being too near God and He can see every small thing you do and you shouldn’t joke with the things of God. It can make you go mad like Ibrahim.

Our group scattered after he left. We used to be so many in the days of Ibrahim but… Wait. The transformation in Joka’s demeanour is frightening. From a pleasant, smiling youth to a deathly-still, hawk-like monster.

“A kataala, do you see him? In front of the bank,” he tells me.

“Oh, yes I see him,” I reply.
“I’ll be back...”