Of Thunder and Smoke

She remembers the events in a smoke of memory that cannot be dismissed as too blurred. After all, it was her playmates and everything that happened to them left permanent spots on her memory. Fatu had come and said they would be going away. She had asked where, and the other girl had said just away. Far away. That they were going home.

She had wondered whether there had been a world beyond the market of Elureko where her mother sometimes took her when she went to buy panadol for sick chicken. That was the furthest she had known to be away. That was the end of the world. And it didn’t require a lorry to carry anyone there. She had asked her mother if there was another home for anyone else apart from the village where they played at night and basked in the moon. Her mother had only told her to go out and play. She had gotten so upset at the funny thing her friend had said. Perhaps when they grew up, she would ask her why she had lied of a possibility of a home away from this home.

Then the fever to go away had ended the way it had come. And they held hands and  went to school together. They sang behind Mwalimu Ellen during the afternoon lessons when the sun was hot. They lived for sometime. And then Fatu returned with the nonsense news. This time she didn’t want to hear any of the lies. But the other girl was adamant. She said her father had said that someone had said that some people were not needed. And that they were those people. She asked needed by who. And how would they distinguish between those who were those people and those who were not those people when they all looked the same. The other girl could not answer. The next day Fatu and Ebi were not there. She heard a truck rev outside their house and when she came out, only the smoke was what she could see at the corner where the road wound its tail towards the river. She tried to run in trail. But soon she was exhausted and she stopped.

She wonders how their home looks like. She wonders where this world reaches. She wonders if any single person can own a big part of the world like Elureko. Everytime she sees a lorry, she hates the driver because of what she cannot get off her mind. How could they drive away such beautiful souls from her life? She feels alone without Fatu. Fatu was her sister. Fatu was her friend. These days she no longer played. Even when her small sisters shared their toys, she never felt the taste. She sits aloof. She thinks of Fatu. Did she find another friend? Will she come back so they go to school together? It has been many days since. Has she shed her teeth? Did her parents die too? Is there even a world beyond this village and Elureko or the driver plunged them into the river?

She remembers the day people came to her home at night. It was about 8 in the evening. It was her father who responded to the knock and he remained at the door in conversation with the men outside. She couldn’t hear anything because they were whispering. Then her father closed the door and joined them at the table. But it didn’t take long before the men returned. They didn’t knock. They entered past the family into her parents’ bedroom. She could hear them overturning the bed and breaking their wooden box. They came to the sitting room, checked under the table and under chairs. Then they had gone away. She had wondered why her father had not stood to defend her and her mother.

She wishes her mother could die today. She’d have taught her how to cook and sit and walk like a girl. She’d have taught her how to sew clothes for the family and even make some money. She’d have taught her how to be a good girl and avoid flies. If her mother died today, she would die having taught her how to live like an orphan. How to run away and eat from the food thrown away at Elureko. She hears her small sisters play. She hears them call her to join them. She cannot.

 

Child of war
Child of war

She remembers how her mother died: It was Small Father who came with them. It was not many days after Father’s death. They grabbed her by her hair and hit her head on the wall. They kept asking why she had betrayed them. They said she had told people to come kill Father. I knew they were lying. Mother had loved father and me. I remember she had refused to eat anything after Father was buried behind our house. Now I was confused.
They beat her up. She cried. She bled. But they still beat her up. I couldn’t take it anymore. I jumped onto Small Father and bit his leg. He slapped me hard until I fell on the ground. I urinated. I couldn’t get energy to defend her again. One of the men drew a long knife and handed it to Small Father. He pulled Mother onto her feet by gripping her hair. Then he drove the brutal thing into her chest. It came out from her back. She threw her legs and hands. Then she died.
Small Father took me and told me he’d take care of me. He said I was now his daughter. He bought me good things and I played with my new our children. During the days that he didn’t go away to defend House, he would come and play with me and our children and say my father was proud of me. He would carry me on his shoulders and tell Small Mother not to give me a lot of work.

She wishes her father was still alive. To defend her. To take her to school every morning.

It was at night and Father had just come from his night shift at Factory. That night, there was an attack. There was noise all over as people ran. Father took me and Mother to the bedroom. He took the rake he worked with at Factory and told Mother to blow out the kerosene lamp. In that darkness, he kept telling us not to make any sound. Outside, people were wailing. They shrieked in pain. Even cows mowed if fear. Then I heard our door break. I heard feet on the floor. The bedroom door was whacked again and strong beams of light shone into our faces. I felt pain in my eyes. Father was contained even before he used his rake. When the torches shone on him again, he had been subdued. The men were talking in a different language. I heard Mother talk to them. She went to her knees and held the feet of one of the men. I knew she was pleading. But her pleas brought nothing. That night, I saw my father die. He wasn’t beaten. Someone just slithered a knife into his back and it protruded in his chest, opening ways of blood.

The next day, there was ash everywhere. Huts had been burnt. There was still smoke coming from the last thatches. Bodies lay scattered on the paths. Some did not have heads and some did not have hands. Some bodies lay on other bodies. Some faces were recognisable and others were not. I saw the head of the man who roasted maize for us at school. I knew it was him because the large birthmark on his forehead was still there and he was in his usual overalls with the picture of a child the front. I saw bodies of small children. I saw bodies of small girls like me and small boys. All lay scattered and quiet. I couldn’t believe that many people could get silent and immobile like that in just one night.

Many men walked on with bandage on their legs and hands and faces. There was blood everywhere. Small Father was among those who got off it unharmed because I didn’t see any bandage on him. But most of the others limped and cried. That day I saw big men cry. The attackers had injured and burnt. The next few days there were meetings of men because my small brothers told me Small Father was attending them to bring safety. But I needed not safety. I needed anyone to return Father back so I could hold him and ask him questions about Factory.

Her cousins are calling her. They want her to play. They say their mother will beat them if she sees Akwanyi not playing. She hears them call and plead. Now they have given her two dolls. But she doesn’t want dolls. Dolls don’t breathe. She wants her father. She wants her mother. She wants Fatu to come back so she could tell her that their school was burnt down and that they no longer go there. She wants Fatu’s mother to cook the food she used to cook.

She sees things in the smoke they do not see. She doesn’t want to play.

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The Six-Thousand-Bob Job

A home on the other side
A home on the other side

Ever gone for negotiations? At a negotiation table, you mostly meet people at the furthest extremes. The bride’s mother wants a grand wedding, 12 plus 9 cows for dowry and a promise of a honeymoon in either Zanzibar or Istanbul. The groom’s spokesman thinks otherwise. So he clears his throat, looks at his watch with the expression that he doesn’t have time and then looks the prospective in-laws in the eye.

“Our in-laws, look here. We did not come to buy the State House. We did not come to suggest that you take us to Mecca for pilgrimage. All we came for is a girl whom our son has been naughty enough to sweet-talk. And we have not changed our intent. With us your girl will be happier and healthier. But now you speak as if we came to buy a kidney…. We shall give you two goats and a hen for the ushers.”

The bride’s father, who has been silent all along, signals their spokesman and whispers something. Then the spokesman nods vigorously and starts:

“It is not just a human body we are giving you. Please let’s respect each other. The girl whose hand you seek is a graduate. We have taken her to school and we are not even adding the school fees to the bargain. We have taught her good manners and how to be a good mother. Will she mother our children? No. She will be mother to children you will call yours. We even don’t know if the young man runs at night or not. Any family with a level head will quickly accept the offer without a word. But it is good you’ve shown your character. We now fear that perhaps if we let our daughter go, it is to either hungry or stingy people we are sending her. (…) Now, grand wedding, 12 plus 2 cows and Zanzibar – final bargain!”

At this time, both sides must maintain their adrenaline. Otherwise I’ve heard of people who exchanged blows over the dowry scale. The negotiators will slowly move from their extremes and finally settle on five cows and three goats payable within three months after the wedding. And the mother-in-law never mentions Zanzibar again.

Those are bargains for you. But I’ve personally  grown up with this problem with negotiation. I don’t like traders who give a price and tell you that you could still negotiate. If it can go lower, why then do you start up there? If you say your jacket is 1k, stop there, otherwise you are a thief.

My mother, on the other hand, has the medicine for such. There’s this day we went to buy a pair of shoes for my elder sister. The guy said 2k, negotiable. She laughed so much the seller became uneasy. Then she said she had 50 bob. She called him all the good names north of Limpopo until eventually the shoes went at 300 bob. All along, I went through their bargaining like someone whose kinsman runs naked at the market centre.

Anyway, too much verbosity already. Let me get to my gossip.

I just remembered the last time I went for negotiations and laughed how come I hadn’t inherited this gene. Someone had advertised that they needed a house help. I had quickly wired an aunt back in the village and she came running. So the guys asked me to take her for introductions and negotiations. You see, this was a Caucasian family and I expected she’d give me a tip if everything went well.

So we arrive and the man at the gate points at the far right corner of the compound. People still own large compounds in the city. We walk there and find the couple taking the Chinese black thing they drink in cups the size of bottle tops. Every time we watched a Bruce Lee movie, people said the liquid in those bottle tops was a drug against hunchback. As I see them, my mind tries to picture them with a hunchback. Bad manners.

We are welcomed and I tell my aunt not to touch anything because these Ching Chongs eat snakes and dogs. Soon the negotiations begin.

The lady has stayed around for some years so she understands Swahili fairly well. She tells us that they need a house-help (says ‘maid’ but who cares whether it is house manager or house slave or house-anything provided the cash is healthy?). She’ll look after the house. Look after the kid (about to turn 2). Take care of the dog (I think of that Ching Chong visitor who may want to celebrate a birthday over a dead dog’s tail). Do the laundry using the machine and accompany mademoiselle to the mall for shopping. We say we understand. Then the real part comes.

Negotiating the salary.

She says she is offering 6k. Arabs call it sitta aalaaf, elfu sita in Shakespeare’s Swahili. We look at each other, aunt and nephew. I smile. Perhaps it is six thousand Euros. Or it could be Yens. I ask the lady what she means. She says six thousand in the local currency. Our baloons deflate.

Just to confirm, I ask if the 6k is the daily salary, exclusive of lunch. The lady talks to her husband in Chinese and she tells us it is monthly. She’s been smiling since she saw us.

I tell my aunt let’s go. Let’s get out of here. On my mind I am thinking how bad dog meat makes of someone’s mind. You see, I tell her, that’s why we didn’t take that drink of theirs!

The end of this story is that the Ching Chongs remain adamant. After an hour’s bargaining, she adds only 200 bob. Yet we came planning on at least 50k.

They say they pay that because it is not a graduate. Hey, to mean a graduate has two stomachs? Or that if you never saw university doors you can eat stones and still get laid the whole night? I know professors who teach that Pluto is a planet and preachers who say God is white like snow. Yet I am still to find this dummy who will feed his kid on rock pebbles every midday and say he is done with proteins.

So because you have decided to be here, you accept that tin walled house by the riverside. You negotiate with life and finally accept to stay at a hood named after Azania’s Soweto. When it rains you can’t reach your home.  But if you successfully swim home, there will be no demarcation between your house and the public toilet 300m away. Sometimes you will get what to eat.

Maslow didn’t separate the needs of a poor guy from those of a rich guy. If it is food, food it is and every breathing soul must eat. Imagine a guy taking home a pay of six-zero-zero-zero shillings, what a conspiracy nature pulls! It squeezes all the juice in the life of those that cross over from the village. They soon end up owing everyone everything in the neighbourhood. If length is measured in metres and weight kilometres, debt and credit those sides are measured perfectly in their names. Debtors embed their names in porcelain books and the only escape is by suicide.

This woman will need pick-wear and heeled shoes for Christmas. She will need STI drugs occasionally. She will need red lipstick and school uniform for the kids. Yet her employer gives her 6k and reminds her that graduates have rumen and reticulum.

How will her kids grow up knowing how to skate? What tv programme will they narrate to their classmates? How do they distinguish between a rodent and a pet? What do they know and what don’t they? When you answer these, you are essentially giving reasons why society has destitutes.

(Okay, okay, word count you are actually a freak. The red button is blinking which means that with the laziness of this generation, even I won’t manage to read through this article for editing.)

At her death bed, she will reflect and ask herself why she didn’t commit suicide that year they asked her to cook pilau with dog meat. She will ask herself if there has been any justification for her struggle. The truth eventually sinks, but late. It is like that campus guy who spends two years looking at the pictures of his crush. She is expensive and in a different league. Sometimes he looks through the curtains as she passes to her hostel. Then luck comes, he wins her and discovers that her heels are cracked and she even shaves a beard every 3.30 a.m.

Your September Guy

To attend a birthday party in Nairobi’s Westlands you need car keys and a good neck tie. Especially if it is an Indian home. A nasal accent and a wrapped gift are added advantage, though the tie and car keys are the thing. On weekends I have walked to these parties without my yellow tie and still the feeling didn’t change. Continue reading “Your September Guy”

Headman

Sometimes you look back into your past and say the old girl and her boy are the best. The trouble they had to endure, the sacrifice and all. Those are things you ask whether you could do for yourself, leave alone your kids.

Do we assume our parents lived in another age? Yet there were vehicles as are vehicles now. There were computers as are computers now. There were rental houses as are rental houses today. The truth is that we’ve lived in the same world with our parents. The only difference is that one group consists of strong-willed humans while the other consists mostly of irrational jumpy two-legged creatures masquerading as parents.

Are you a good father?

Parenting is a tough course. You will see life’s scars on the necks of those who have been there. You have to take the blows of life. You must always rise again, dust yourself and assume nothing is wrong. I remember how we used to plan mischief in the house: that is the shit you have to go through every day. You have to solve problems and make amends with the neighbour because your son mentioned a vulgar word to their daughter and they are sure you are the mastermind. You have to tell stories when the time comes; and be a master at it. You have to answer questions till midnight….

A friend tells me his wife is expecting. He is specific: the pregnancy is eight months and two weeks. He says he is worried. He says there is fear in him. He says he is happy. That anxiety is eating on him. He doesn’t actually know what is happening to him. He doesn’t understand what he is feeling nor what he should feel. He wants help.

Okay, how does it feel getting the first born? This is a question we have to be very direct and ask only those who sleep naked. You don’t ask those hit-and-run boys who pretend to be fathers – those who are only fathers because Darwin lied so and nothing more. We must ask only those that share a roof with a third citizen who chooses any hour of the night to experiment with his lungs and yell till dawn. If you want blood, you break the skin of an animal, not a guava. So, o ye who are blessed with naked nights, what did it feel when she one day said she was bringing a life to the world? Did you jump up and announce it to the surprised cashier at the restaurant? Did you walk away and say it was not your making? Did you blame the contraceptives guy? How was the feeling?

How does one feel when a new member finally arrives?

When in college, there is this guy who almost died because his brown girl thinned into the air. He goes to their home and meets an arrogant father who is least willing to help. He even threatens to arrest my friend. Then she reappears eight months later. She simply texts that let’s meet at point x. So the guy asks us and we say why not. We man him from a respectable distance because a woman who disappears for eight months can do anything in one second at point x. then Mademoiselle comes. She is more beautiful than last time and her skin glows like the Orion. Her ethereal head seems to glide over her neck every time she makes a movement. And she puts on this pink dress that sweeps the ground and the sight too. In that dress lies a bulge. In that bulge lies a life.  That is the life that is to be denied by the Darwinian father a few moments after the owner of the dress sits down for a talk. I need not talk more of that story. If Jesus wept, that girl rained, and my friend made himself an ocean when he came to think of it. Sad climax.

People will run away from being first-time fathers.

Is parenting such a scare that we should run away from? This is an area I think TV has failed terribly. Parenting mums are portrayed as some camps of human sorrow who make the fathers go through hell to put a smile on their faces. Whereas this could be the case in Antarctica, there is this air around it that movie guys and lifestyle magazines overexploit to scare will-be parents.

All the same, parenting is not your idea of a joke. Leave alone the second or third born. Let’s talk of the first thing that ever has your rabbit ears, your mother’s protruding ankles or your step sister’s flat face. It is serious business. Waking up and knowing it is another day the Lord has given you to be in charge of another rude, egocentric and indifferent piece of nature that takes after your appetite. You wake up and feel the magnetism to this calling, this responsibility to always be there through thick and thin. Every time you hear those infant sounds you know you are bound in this house forever: you can’t go hiking on Kilimanjaro with other freaks; you can no longer throw your money the way you used to; you can no longer overstay out on Friday evenings nor go to the stadium on Saturday afternoons. Business gone sour. You feel like running away but the magnetism always drags you back home.

Sometimes you wake up and find your kid playing at the balcony. Since you have not bought it any monkey toy to toy with, it comes to play with its own. It is naked and healthy. You guys are still sleeping and the only play partners are the people walking down the block. So Kiddo extracts its member and pees down at the gateman giving directions to another elderly man. You find Baby in the middle of the act and it is merry all over. You don’t know whether to take a stick or rush down to the man and apologise. You don’t know whether to hide and assume you are unaware of the boy’s conduct. You feel like calling your brother to ask what he does when his kid pees on old men but you realise your brother is younger to you and elders are not supposed to ask toddlers about parenting.

First parenting is tough.

Immediately the kid is born, your wife begins to take more time with the boy, diverting the attention she previously had for you. You feel the unwanted prince in your own kingdom. You used to receive hugs at the doorway. You used to take supper from the kitchen in each other’s laps. You used to be told stories with laughter and happiness. That shit is now long gone. Sometimes you go without food and nobody realises. Hugs are officially illegal now. You start updating statuses to vent your frustration. What makes it more frustrating is that she doesn’t even seem to notice your sulking. You pretend to be unwell and she can’t even say your temperature is high. Man, your government has been toppled.

This is the time you miss your mom the most. At a point you will give up and dial that number miles and miles away.

“Halo Nyawando.” (Well, insert there the name you call your mother).

“Hallo son.”

“Much silence, mum. How is Shianda?”

“We are doing great. Your uncle’s cow gave birth last Thursday and that calf is very healthy. Turufosa’s child is this weekend getting married to a doctor from Tanzania. I was planning to send someone with a present though we are very broke. The new shamba boy is good. He doesn’t take alcohol and he has even brought home his second wife. They are living with us….” You let her talk on and on. That voice is the medicine for now. Until you interject after twenty minutes.

“Mother.”

“Yes son.”

Silence.

“Halo mother.”

“Yes son. How is my husband?”

“The chap is fine, mum. Are you in the kitchen?”

“No, I’ve gone to Turufosa’s shop to measure a new dress for your aunt. I’m still waiting for her to come back from Mumias.” Silence. “You seem quiet today.”

“Actually…. Err…. Ummh…. Mum?”

“Yes son.”

“I love you.”

Ayie! Have you been arrested again?”

“No mum….”

“Is it the landlord, then?”

“Mum, my problem is not….”

“What is it you want this time? Maiko I thought….”

“Just wanted to say that I miss you. I love you so much….”

“Are you drinking again? Oh my God Maiko I thought your uncle talked to….”

“Mum I am okay…. Mum…. Mother….”

The other end is long dead. Enough is enough. You go to the kitchen and lock the door behind you. You take a sharp knife in your right hand and hold it firm. You then grab an onion in the left hand. You use tool x on item y below your eye, cry all the hell out and curse Sigmund the sexing Freud. Oh, it is Saturday and tyrant and his mother have gone to the salon. You sit down on the floor, spread your legs and cry more.

One morning you wake up late. The sun rays are penetrating your windows. You don’t realise another guy has crawled into the room. You only hear a sharp sound that makes you jump. Turning, you see a small African on the fours. He calls again and smiles. It is that smile that kills your earlier fright and cushions your pulse. Baba, the call comes again. Then smile, smile. Hands are outstretched. You look at the thing down there with two white teeth. It mumbles something again, this time flapping its small wings in excitement. You drop the shaving machine and take a moment taking it in. For the first time you’re being called a genuine Baba. You kill the small distance between you and the next thing is that your son is in your arms. You hold it tight onto your bare chest. Your soul crashes into the baby’s, and the baby’s into yours. You bond into one. You even don’t care as the baby lets loose its bladders on you to mark the ritual. You forget that you are late for work and the only thing you want now is a camera crew from CNN.

But that lasts only like a blink. Now listen

A family of mother, child, and father.
A family of mother, child, and father. (Image courtesy of umkhontowesizwe.wordpress.com)

Despite you doing the donkeywork, check where the credit goes. She will post photos on Instagram and Facebook. People will laud her impeccable mothering and handsome genes. You will post a photo and people will say your wife must be a good mother. As you are busy at the office, she will walk with the boy to the salon, to her home, to her x and to her place of work; all the time people will attribute the goodness in the kid to her. You will be left in the dark; a non-existent object in a non-existent world. Even men will be there to praise her as if kids are made in handbags these days. They can’t even say the forehead is yours.

Now he is three. Boy makes abnormal demands. Last evening it was a zombie he wanted for a toy. Today he wants a monkey for a pet. He has this powerful pair of lungs for backup just in case. And when he makes those demands, the ninja, who is your wife, shoots at you this look that defines whose side she is on. You feel betrayed. There is no shop that sells monkey toys. If he insists, you will organise to have a live monkey around. The monkey father can come stay with the monkey daughter to entertain a monkey grandson that wants a monkey for a pet. Case closed. Clerk!

The demands never end. Before you realise, it is time to go buy that big cake because mum says it is the fourth birthday. And before you pull off the grey hair it will be the sixth or tenth. The unfortunate thing for you in that house is that you cannot say no because there is an army after your ass. She is the commander, and when she is the commander, the only way to remain alive is to play captive and know you will never win any war here. Again, you are alone.

But above all, the hustles, the frustrations, the sulking and the sobbing are the things a father will die for. Men want power, and fatherhood provides you with subjects that can never change allegiance. You become a headman and your status rises. The bad experiences give you that unique pride that at least you can dine with men. When you go back to the village and they want someone to split firewood, they will not come for you. When a boy has stopped going to school and the parents feel he needs advice, it is you they will come for, for fatherhood initiates you into that completeness of life.