Meet Bingo, the greatest drug runner in the slums of Kibera, Nairobi, and maybe the world. A teenage grifter, often mistaken for a younger boy, he faithfully serves Wolf, the drug lord of Kibera. Bingo spends his days throwing rocks at Krazi Hari, the prophet of Kibera’s garbage mound, “lipping” safari tourists of their cash, and hanging out with his best friend, Slo-George, a taciturn fellow whose girth is a mystery to Bingo in a place where there is never enough food. Bingo earns his keep by running “white” to a host of clients, including Thomas Hunsa, a reclusive artist whose paintings, rooted in African tradition, move him. But when Bingo witnesses a drug-related murder and Wolf sends him to an orphanage for “protection,” Bingo’s life changes and he learns that life itself is the “run.”
A modern trickster tale that draws on African folklore, Bingo’s Run is a wildly original, often very funny, and always moving story of a boy alone in a corrupt and dangerous world who must depend on his wits and inner resources to survive.
ONE OF LIBRARY JOURNAL’S OUTSTANDING NEW VOICES TO CONSIDER
“Bingo’s voice guides us; by turns he is aggressive, confident, smart, cynical, but also naive. Bingo tosses his observations at us with great urgency, almost percussively, in a staccato manner that recalls gunshots. And though he’s blunt, he’s also a sensitive observer. . . . Levine is creating a sense of an entire world, raffish and fast. . . . The larger story Levine is telling . . . is the story of a person’s mind, and of the good, bad, and indifferent forces that make him what he is—and that story is told with compassion and intelligence.”—The Boston Globe
“James A. Levine is a deeply gifted writer who reaches into the dirt, sweat, and diesel of modern-day Nairobi and introduces us to a young innocent whose adventures are unforgettable. Bingo’s runs between joy and death, laughter and sorrow, survival and redemption, will make you feel like cheering.”—James McBride, author of The Good Lord Bird and The Color of Water
“Bingo’s Run is one of those rare books that infuse a potentially difficult subject with intimacy, tenderness, and humor. Social commentary, gritty comedy, and pure cinematic adrenaline meet in an utterly compelling novel with a voice all its own.”—Tash Aw, author of Five Star Billionaire
“Bingo’s Run manages to read like timely news and high adventure at the same time. Levine’s main character, Bingo, is an underage drug runner, hardened orphan, and hustler extraordinaire. He’s also funny and wise well beyond his years. The rousing story of Bingo’s evolution is matched only by Levine’s portrait of modern-day Nairobi, both child and city depicted with real flair and affection.”—Victor LaValle, author of The Devil in Silver
“Bingo is a fascinating and inimitably likable character. Levine, a Mayo clinic professor of medicine and well-known child advocate, excels at telling his adventurous, comic, and realistically gritty story with humor but not with pathos, successfully addressing the harsh and sometimes tragic story of a child at risk.”—Library Journal
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Bingo Mwolo, the Greatest Runner in Kibera, Nairobi, and Probably the World
Krazi Hari was the only person I didn't mind calling me Meejit, because he was crazy. As me and Slo-George walked along the East Wall that surrounded the Kibera slum, I looked across the three-hundred-yard mound of garbage and there, as ever, was Krazi Hari, black as char, tall as heaven, hair wild as a riot. He sat on top of the mountain, his temple, surrounded by flies--his disciples--and, as always, he read. It was sometimes a label from a can or a shred of newspaper, but whatever it was Krazi Hari read it. "Hey, Krazi Hari," I shouted. "What da fook iz ya readin', ya?"
Krazi Hari looked up. The swarm of flies that cloaked him stopped their buzzing for a short second. He looked at me and Slo-George and shouted, "Meejit. Who's ya callin' Krazi, ya. Ya don' even know ya arse-wipin' hand from ya wankin' one. An' as for that half-brain fook-head with ya, he can hardly 'member what leg goes in fron' of tha nex'." With that, he burst out laughing the way only the insane do. Krazi Hari was right about one thing: Slo-George did only have half a brain.
"That Krazi fooka," I said to Slo-George as we stepped across the trail of garbage that was Krazi Hari's home. I looked down at the mix of paper, plastic, medicine packets, old food, rubble, and black rotting filth. It felt warm on my bare feet. Scrawny dogs, women, and children sniffed over the gigantic dump, but there were no rats--they come out only at night.
Me and Slo-George turned right through the break in the gray stone wall and entered Kibera proper. We walked down the red-sand path, and Slo-George grunted at me. Grunts were his main way of talking. Slo-George, like everyone over the age of six, was much taller than me. But what amazed me about Slo-George was that he was fat. In fact, Slo-George was the only fat man I knew. "Georgi," I would ask, "how da fook did ya get sa fat?" Slo-George always answered with a grunt. I rarely saw Slo-George eat; Kibera is a place where a person gets cut for food. His fat, like his age, was a mystery. Some people said Slo-George was sixteen; others said he was thirty. It did not matter, for, however old his brain was, only half of it worked.
It was filthy hot. We walked slowly down the East Gate Path that cut through the slum, a half-brain and a midget. In actual fact, I am a growth retard.
Wanjiru, Wolf's general and chief debt collector, spotted us. He barked, "Meejit, where da fook ya been? Wolf need ya." Wanjiru was called Dog, even to his face. This was because half his nose was gone. The rumor was that when he was a boy a dog attacked him and bit off half his nose. No one ever asked him, because everyone was afraid of him; Dog loved violence the way women love bangles. Dog had a gun in his belt, but most of the time he did his business with his hands. Dog did not kill everyone he visited. Some lived, but for them the difference between living and dying was difficult to tell. One time he said, "It's ma art."
While Dog waited for an answer, he breathed through his bit-off nose. Even Dog's breathing was violent--air feared him and he breathed it.
I shouted back at him, "Dog Sa, I'z go to Wolf now, ya."
Dog nodded and scampered away.
I said to Slo-George, "Georgi, get ya lata."
I ran to Wolf's office; I had work.
Wolf ruled half of Nairobi's drug business from deep inside the Kibera slum. The head boss was Boss Jonni, who lived downtown, in an apartment in a high-rise. The drug business was simple. From his apartment, Boss Jonni handed a runner blocks of white. The runner carried the blocks to Wolf in Kibera. Wolf had cutters cut the blocks into finger-size hills that went into small plastic bags. When a whitehead called in an order, Wolf sent a runner to deliver it. The whitehead gave the money to the runner, who brought it back to Wolf. Each week, Wolf had one of his top runners take the week's money to Boss Jonni. Boss Jonni gave the runner blocks of white for the return journey, and so the circle was complete. The system was smooth. The circle never stopped, like breathing in and out forever.
The police never stopped Wolf; they did not even try anymore. They once sent a man into Kibera who pretended to be a local. He smelled too clean, and his headless body was left on the highway as if the slum had vomited him out. I am not sure what happened to his head. I took his boots. Anyway, the police were well paid not to worry about Wolf, and so most of Wolf's secrecy was for show. Wolf was my boss; he was a good boss. People feared him more than God.
Though God had forgotten me, I never forgot him. When I was small I lived in a village called Nkubu, two hundred miles north of Nairobi. I went to the School of Benevolent Innocence, and every day after school Mama made me write out two pages of the Good News Bible. Mama never learned to write or read, but I was the best reader and writer in my class. In the Bible there are ten commandants; I have twelve--two better than the Bible's. My Commandment No. 4 is: "Do not steal the whitehead's money." Other runners took the buyer's cash and got away with it once or twice because there were so many runners and so much white. But they were caught in the end. If you got caught, Wolf's punishment was instant. If the thief was a boy, he got the death of the thief. He was folded facedown on the cutting table and his hands were laid flat. Knives were slammed through each hand. Once the hands were pinned, one of Wolf's generals lifted the boy's head. Wolf took the knife from his belt holder and, with one slash across his neck, smooth as a lick, killed him. The scream was like a TV advert: "No Thieving." Punishment of a girl thief also started with her hands being pinned. Then she was "turned"--left folded over the table overnight. Any hungry man could plow her. If she did not bleed out, she was pimped. You can tell a turned runner by her hands.
There were very few thieving runners. Wolf's motto was "Fear and obedience." If you cheated, you got punished--like with God. If you were good, Wolf gave you twenty or even a hundred shillings. God never did that. God didn't even have an office in Kibera.
Being a growth retard was an advantage as a runner. I was fifteen, but I looked as if I was ten. When I got pulled over by the police, which happened a few times, I started to cry (real tears) for an imaginary mama (my real one was dead), and I was let go. In five years as a runner, I was never arrested. It was just as well; Gihilihili, the head of police, made runners disappear. What Gihilihili did to boys no one said out loud, but he opened them up the way a jimmy iron opens a shut door. When he was done, the leftovers were put in sacks and added to Krazi Hari's garbage pile. I was Wolf's best runner. Della, a one-armed handicapped, was second. This was how a four-foot-tall growth retard survived in Kibera. I was well fed and had my choice of hookers.
I have nine cuts on my face, three across my forehead and three down each cheek. Senior Father cut them there when I was ten, the day I became a man. I am Bingo Mwolo. I am the greatest runner in Kibera, Nairobi, and probably the world.
A Day at Work
Wolf needed me. I ran fast through the narrow sand-and-rock paths to his hut. Wolf lived in a part of Kibera called Moc. It was obvious that a boss lived there; his hut was ten times bigger than anyone else's place. The base was concrete block, and there were wooden walls and a mabati roof.1 Inside, the floor was covered with worn carpets. Down the middle of the room was the long cutters' table. At the far end of the hut was Wolf's throne, a gold chair made of wood, with blue fabric. The chair looked as if it had been kicked about by time. I ran up to it. "Yes, Wolf Boss Sa," I said. I panted dog style, dripping with sweat.
Wolf was a big man, more than six feet tall. When he moved, the space he left behind carried his shadow. He was wide and strong, though his body was not fat. His face was square, with a short beard stuck on his chin. A good runner watches a man's eyes. They are the first part to move when a man wants to scam or strike. Eyes betray a man. His eyes say "confusion," "hunger," or "anger," even when the man wants you to hear nothing. But Wolf's eyebrows were thick. They jutted out and hid most of what his eyes might give away. His nose was large, and flat like a spoon. His braided hair hung down to his neck, clean and oiled, so that it looked like worms. He wore shoes, brown trousers, and a black shirt. Wolf had plenty of money, and did not need to live in Kibera. But Kibera was safe and soaked in women. Wolf had made lots of children, though none called him Daddy.
Wolf loved his work and was good at it. I ran for him at least two times a day, and there were fifty more like me. Fifty runners delivering twice a day, at about 500 shillings a run, is 50,000 shillings a day and 350,000 a week. I am good at numbers; it is part of my job. I learned to count from my father, a deadbeat gambler. I do not know how much money Wolf kept for himself and how much went to Boss Jonni, but a lot of money went around. I knew this because I was one of the runners who ran the weekly delivery of money back to Boss Jonni.
I loved Boss Jonni runs, first, because it meant that I had nothing else to do that day, and second, because Wolf paid two hundred shillings for the run. The trouble was that Boss Jonni runs were not always on the same day or at the same time, so I could not guess when to turn up to catch one. The other runners were in the same position. We competed fiercely for Boss Jonni runs, but we never took from one another. That is Commandment No. 3: The stolen run is death.
Wolf sat on his dark blue throne smoking. In front of him was the long wooden cutting table. Seated at the table, which could hold twelve, were two cutters. They sat, bent over the table on rusted metal foldup chairs, cutting blocks of white. One of them smoked a cigarette that was balanced on a tin ashtray.
Wolf ran his left hand down his oiled worm hair. "Meejit, take four bags to the Intercont," he ordered. "Roja waitin' there for ya. When he give ya tha monay, give him fifty, ya." "Right, Wolf Sa," I said. I went to the table. The cutter dragged on his cigarette and, without looking up, handed me four bags of white. I slid them down my shorts and ran. Roja was just a hotel boy. I never lipped money from the buyers (Commandment No. 4), but lipping everyone else was another matter, Roja included.
When I worked, I worked (Commandment No. 7). After I left Wolf's hut, I headed north. I ran out of the slum and onto the street. The midday heat was over but the street had its own heat, hotter than the sand paths of Kibera. The street was potholes joined by a spiderweb of tarmac. The tarmac burned my feet and made me run faster. I ran past a clinic, two brothels, the market, a church, and the old yellow bus full of condoms. A charity had given the bus to a nun for her stop-AIDS campaign, but since the nun could not drive and the charity did not give her money for petrol, the yellow bus became storage for boxes of condoms. No one used rubber; the nun could not even sell the condoms. She, the bus, and her condoms gathered Nairobi dust.
I ran up the hill past the Maasai Market--trinkets that end up at the feet of Krazi Hari. It took me an hour to get to the Intercontinental. Roja waited next to the small traffic island outside the hotel, wearing the Intercont green hotel-boy jacket. He was tall and young and looked like a piece of rope. He spotted me from halfway up the street and waved me in. He shouted, "Hurry, boy. I need to get home."
I slowed down and watched him get pissed. When I reached him, I smiled big. "Jambo, Roja maan. How's ya doing, ya?" I reached into my shorts and gave him the four bags.
"Wait here," he said sharply. He put the bags in his pocket and ran into the hotel.
I sat on the low brick wall and watched the hotel guests. Safari tourists walked about in their tan clothes and "rob-me-I'z-a-tourist" hats. White and black businessmen got in and got out of white and black taxis. I knew some of the hookers floating around; they were special for this hotel and prettier than average. I watched a white family with three clean children--two boys, one girl--waiting in front of the hotel doors. The children kicked a rock between them. The street outside the hotel filled with people coming from businesses and going to the bus station. I knew that Roja would not be long.
Roja hustled out after about fifteen minutes. "Here," he said, and handed me eight clean hundred-shilling notes from the whitehead.
"Ta," I said. "Could ya get me water, ya?"
Roja's look was filled with anger. I smiled. He knew I had money for him (to be split, I guessed, with the manager). He ran into the hotel with long strides and came back minutes later with a crumpled plastic bottle half full of water. I knew he had spit in it, but water is water and work is work. I gave him ten shillings, kept forty, and headed home.
I got back to Kibera a few hours later, when the sun was almost down. Wolf lay across his throne as if he was its hooker. I handed him the money. He counted it and pushed it into a green bag by his right hand. A woman lay on the floor sleeping. The cutters had disappeared. Wolf stroked his hair. "Meejit, I'z anotha run. Emergency."
1 Corrugated iron.