Alex

There is something about having our worst fears come true that changes us. We become valiant; we take more chances, we listen to our instinct more and even venture to new things. Maybe it’s the realisation that nothing more can go wrong or that we haven’t began collecting new fears yet. This is what had pushed Alex to open up a vegetable stall in her neighborhood.

She was born Alexandria Aketch Oreo, a quarter a century ago. Her dad was a minister at the Migori Redeemed Gospel Church. Her mother was the Kisii’s level 5 hospital finest shrink. When she was named Alexandria, the women in her village noted that she would be a tomboy when she grew up. They did not care that the name was the feminine version of Alexander which means defender of men.

Alex would fill this role later in her life. Some of the older ladies in her neighborhood whispered amongst themselves that she would have trouble finding a suitor while she had that name.

Alex did not know of the whispers swirling around. In her little world she subconsciously subscribed to the mantra ‘mind over matter’; she did not mind the whispers because they did not matter to her. Her parents did not feel remorseful for choosing the name.

In the true biblical description Alex grew up in stature and in mind being loved by God and by men. Well, the women were gossiping about her. She wasn’t a top student but neither was she the bluntest tool in the shed.

Alex lived the cliché life of a pastor’s kid: she never went out, didn’t drink or smoke, and she never knew a man until it was the right time. Proverbial good girl.

When Alex went to college she chose to hitch rides in her dad’s Mitsubishi Lancer instead of taking the public transport. Part of the reason was that Alex’s dad let her drive them home while the other reason was that she loved sharing her music with him.

During the day she would spend time searching for new music and in the evening she would play it to her dad. On some days they sang along if the tune was catchy but on most days they would discuss the lyrics and beats at length. Daughter loved those moments with dad.

When one of the ministers in her dad’s church asked if he could date Alex, she confided in her dad. He then asked to check him out first before she gave Ben an answer. After going through his file and conversations with a few other pastors he gave the nod.

Alex did not change her routine with her dad though she was seeing Ben, who would insist on picking and taking her to school. She stood her ground. Ben let her. Her dad had told her that if a man changed her then he wasn’t one to keep. Alex agreed and made a mental note to take note when Ben changed, and leave. She hoped that day would not come.

Ben was what would be best described as a repented sinner (but aren’t we all?). Ben hadn’t had the privilege to grow in a loving home such as Alex’s. His past had been littered with failure and wrong turns. He had been christened warlord in his teenage years for picking fights with anyone who dared look him in the eye. His father had been an army general and it is possible he banked on this to create fear amongst his peers.

After high school he had impregnated a house-help and then framed her for theft. This had her fired.

Like all clouds have silver linings, Ben had found his lining in the church. This was the one place where people did not judge him. In church his errant ways were not questioned for he had encountered with the messiah – one who was able to turn around even the vilest of sinners like Saul to the reformed Paul. He took a role in mentoring the young men in church and soon he was bumped up to youth pastor.

The youth in his church loved him because he did not act holier than he actually was. He shared his past and cautioned the youth against falling in this self-destructive path. When some of the kids did not listen to his teachings and fell off the wagon, he visited them, prayed over and with them for restoration. Soon he became a darling to the church community.

Almost always the kids thought he exaggerated when he spoke of his rough past. The parents to the kids too thought it was a clever way of keeping the kids in check. They all had fallen head over heels with him and willed themselves to not find a fault. Alex’s dad couldn’t help himself too.

Ben however lived a different life story in his house. In his house his word was law, he never negotiated, nor consulted. If he woke up one day and decreed that breakfast would be served and taken at 4 am then that would be the Torah of the day. Alex would not have an option.

In the privacy of her thoughts, Alex knew without doubt that Ben was broken, but to the public she wanted to shield him, and protect him from the world in the hope that he would heal.

The strange thing with abuse is that we know and see it daily but we bury our heads in the sand and hope it will go away if we wished it away.

On days Alex defied Ben, she got beat up. Ben said a woman who wasn’t submissive to her own husband was like a ticking bomb to the world. And in an effort to bring world peace, it was up to him to pound her into submission. That’s the very least a man with such a highly functional moral compass as Ben could do for the world.

Despite the hurt, Alex knew she loved Ben, and as long as love was patient, she would wait for him to stop beating her up. As long as it was kind, she would show him kindness. In her skewed worldview she hoped that Ben would learn kindness by watching her. Apostle Paul wasn’t wrong when he admonished wives to be submissive to their husbands so that if they aren’t converted then they can be by watching their wives walk in faith.

So she waited for him to have a change of heart. What she did not realise was that one cannot give that which he lacked. Ben could not be kind to her because he didn’t know kindness. Yes, he did know of the word but didn’t know how to put it into practice.

The longer she waited for him to be patient, kind and loving, the worse he got. He raped her in the living room and ignored her in the bedroom.
Most of her beatings had occurred in the kitchen because that was the claimed source of conflict. Either the food was not enough, too cold, too hot or just not pleasant to the eye.

When she was battered she would lock herself in the guest bedroom with her son and cry her heart out. She never breathed a word of the battering to her parents because she did not want to burden them with her marital issues. Often when she had cried herself to sleep next to her heir, she would wake up to his little hands clasping her swollen face whilst patting it with his tiny hands.

One day she woke up to find his tiny lips closing in on her swollen cheek ready for a kiss. This broke her heart into tiny shameful pieces. The blur from her swollen eyes cleared when she saw his tiny frightened face. This was the last straw that broke her back.

She could take the battering and the insults but she couldn’t let her son grow up knowing it to be a norm, that mums were battered and left helpless. That one’s mum was condemned to a life where they could not stand up for themselves. That mum was forever wrong and in need of correction. And that it was ok to live a broken life exclusively by choice.

As she prepared to leave, Alex thought Apostle Paul turning in his grave because she did not stay with her husband. But then Ben would learn patience and kindness elsewhere. On that day she resolved her parents could share her burden of a broken marriage.

At midday when the sun was high she walked out of her home with not so much as a second thought. She took money from the offering basket and walked to the bus stop. She did not bother that people stared at her and her bruised body. She did not care if the touts at the bus park took her luggage. All she wanted was to get as far away from Ben as she could.

Alex finally found her voice after three years from the day she walked out on Ben. He hadn’t bothered running after her in her parent’s house. Some of her relatives said the reason he didn’t show up was that he had never loved her. Alex, like her younger self, did not mind the rumor but was eternally was grateful Ben never came back. In a weird way she knew she was over that phase in her life because one cannot give what they lacked, and Ben lacked a myriad of things.

Alex came back to the city so she could enroll her sole heir to school. Her parents had begged her to stay but she opted to go and be independent again. She also thought her parents had been a laughing stock long enough.

The very flock her father watched over had turned against him for the failure of his daughter’s marriage. They said that if she truly was a pastor’s kid then she would have forgiven Ben. It did not matter to them if she died while playing the role of the pastor’s kid, just like they did not understand her name.

She did not expect to get a job overnight and so with the money she had, she walked to Marikiti long before the cock crowed and brought in vegetables that she would sell at her grocery shop.

Today she remembered this incident when she saw two lovers walk by hand in hand.

Alex, story of dreams, love and betrayal
Alex: story of dreams, love and betrayal

PHOTO

Gacheri Gichunge is a creative artist who lives in scribbled words. Click here for more of her art.

The Best Narrative

“If I become the best…”

I don’t hear the rest of the line. I’m pressing on and however curious I get, fact is my job is more important than some talk of a little girl. I am not Kristeva and that guy with red eyes will be eyeing me again to pay for the roof over my bed.

When I reach the bus stage, I look at my shoes and smile. We don’t brush our shoes because they reach the Indian’s shop dirtier. The Indian would even send you away if you posed clean as a beautician. My trousers are brown, so, dust, I don’t care.

There are people in this city whom if the bus touts raise hands with four fingers, they wait for those who will raise three. If touts raise three, they wait for that that will raise two. If they find them raising two, these people stand and wait for thatwho will bang his fists together and call out ten-ten. Those people are us. If we find touts raising one finger, we pause in heavenly silence and wait for that who will raise nothing. Just a hand with no finger. At least there is a less expensive thing round the corner. We know it is impossible to get free rides here but somehow we adhere to our custom of waiting. To live without hope is that first death we resist. And who knows, someone might just kill a cow and the Indian start to mourn and declare it a public holiday on us.

My first days working for an Indian I reported late. That was the time I was still pitching camp with a person and not knowing what landlords and grocers meant. So I woke up with the eastern sun and sensed my goose for the day was cooked. I cut through Outering, Juja Road, Eastleigh’s First Avenue, wound it in Shaurimoyo and reached that Printing Press place panting. The Indian had gone to the inner stores and so a workmate whispered to me how I was already fired. He however gave me a secret. Told me to hold anything cow and come to the Indian pleading. I didn’t get the fly-whisk and the butchery was still closed. But there was a stray horn just a few metres from the gate. When I told Sivarama Krishnan that my lateness was because I had a running stomach and had therefore gone to see the dentist that morning, the horn was playing in my left hand in a manner he could not fail to see. All along he was looking at me with a creased forehead and muttering whatever it is Sivarama Krishnans mutter when a worker reports late with a horn. The end of the story is that (and thanks Matsukhu. God will give you a good wife and children) I wasn’t fired. I retained my job clean and untouched. But a three-day salary was deducted. Even when the horn accidentally fell near his feet he couldn’t change his mind. Merciless atheist! A cow.

He won’t go to heaven.

We stay at the bus stage waiting for a cheaper African bus. An occasional lucky woman on a full bus will look and pity us. Useless pity because we shall reach work at the same time.Ha-ha, reason to smile. Her bus will be stuck in the jam and we shall catch up. Or if she reaches work earlier, the boss will not be in to compliment her or reprimand us. Or we will get a problem before end month and she will be the guest of honour at the fund-raiser where she will share with us the early-reporting loot. So this way or that, we always get even. Time to wait.

We look at the touts calling at the lowest fare and we say we must stop and wait for a free one. We always wait because along the journey of life we realised that even the slow one arrives. Fact. The memories of our futile struggles in class are fully on the wall for all to see.

Exam moments at school were a tempest. We used to read. We used to be present. We yawned and cracked fingers and talked to ourselves and dipped our feet in cold water at midnight. The library was always full and people who missed seats would crowd at the pavement and read seated on the cold floor. No, I’m not making any fiction here. Every year young women and men lean against the library walls and place their equipment of knowledge on the laps in pursuit of greatness. That is the exam moment. That is the time to gauge our best. Some of us emerged the best. Some of us persisted there at the peak to the end. So where did it go? We slept and woke up to the realisation that society does not have a best. Society itself is best and only uses the ego of man to get even better. That is why we end up on cold and rainy mornings as this; not very sure the Banyan will find value in us so he can keep dropping pieces of bread on our tables.

I choose to look at the schooling system in a small parable. There we have wood, fire and we are the moist clay. Some are so good up there they forget the essence of the wood. They sell their wood and take the fire to the local ironsmith. Others engage the fire. They make mounds of themselves and invite the fire. They get baked, not burnt. It doesn’t matter to them if they emerged best or not. But they find themselves of more use in society. They are resilient.

Resilient. I think that is the word; the thing better than best.

So as we wait for the bus with zero fare, we are aware we do not strive to be the best. We simply want to be – to play our part and be. We no longer care the time we arrive in life. If those who have arrived are asked to line up to get free air tickets to Eritrea, we shall be there. If, say, those who arrived are given a chance to ask one thing from the Skies, we shall have that airtime regardless of whether we arrived first or last. Arriving does not have colour for lateness or otherwise. A latecomer is called so because he arrived, just like the rest.

Teachers and parents should stop the indoctrination of young innocents with such dangerous dogma of best. Whatever you are, wherever, you are the best for the moment. Wanting to be justified through an exam, through the lens and judgement of an employer or shopkeeper, is tragic. Tragic because you commit the crime of first otherising yourself. You’ve lost hope in yourself, including the hope of Being. You don’t trust yourself. Forever you remain subordinate to the judges and like demigods they thrive on telling you that you are not.

The cut story of that little girl with a whole age ahead of her disturbs me. Did she want to be the best model? Best in books? Best cook? Best what? Why? Did she want to be the best flop? The best athlete? Best lazy girl? Best prostitute?

“If I become the best….”

I only saw enough of her backside because I was hurrying past them. She had a neat pony tied with black bands. She must have a jolly good mother who kneads a daughter’s hair before waving bye. She said it in a tone that was firm and too cool for her age. Just enough expectation to break a stone. See, already she is a storyteller, internally best if she decides she is.

She needs to be free and she will discover herself. Like an eagle she needs to soar up the skies of imagination and freedom. She needs to become free like the wind and independent like this passing ambulance.

I love ambulances. Not because they ferry the sick. Some of those who go in ambulances die; some of those whom ambulances leave live. So my love for them is not here. I love them because they chose to be different and daring. Ambulances break rules and nah-body’s gonna do nothin ’bout it. They cross lanes and move to the other side. As you stay there stuck in the traffic, they move very fast just a few metres from your stagnation and jealousy. They take the wrong route. And, they make noise about it and there is still nothing you will do. Such is the ambulance.

The ambulance values its own work. Knows there is a life being saved and is pumped forth by this knowledge of purpose. But on the jammed fleet are also those who are going to the town centre to make life worth living. They are going to the bank to send money home so Mama gets food for the week. They are going to clean the road so the visiting head of state may be pleased. They are going to book the ticket to Asmara to go get four wives and make many children. They are going to add fuel to the wheel of society. These are those who have a bigger and nobler task. Only they don’t know. And because they don’t know their worth, they’ll stay in that queue and wish they were at the peak; the best. They will continue to perish because of lack of knowledge.

Waiting: the best narrative
Waiting: the best narrative

The story of that girl haunts me. I don’t know whether to board the bus or go back to Donholm Primary to look for her. Whoever tells her that BEST narrative must be jailed. What shall we tell her when at eighteen she will already have three children, a fourth pregnancy and a dead boyfriend? What shall we explain to her: that she is bewitched; or she has bad luck; or that we are sorry she didn’t become the best? What if she drops out of school, tries a tailoring course in town, drops out again, joins a women choir at the church, loses interest, marries a Ugandan called Masiga, gives birth and names her first-born son Habbakkuk, goes back to school, drops out again, gets ten more girls with Masiga, continues with life, gets old and dies at her matrimonial home in one of the silent villages of Gulu? What shall we say?

Resilience. Cultivate it.

Image Source

Yes Sweetheart

 Three and half weeks ago, a dark blue police Land Cruiser cruised into our estate. In it were the boss – himself an OCS, his assistant, two other policemen with Kalashnikovs and an ununiformed guy. From the dragging speed the metal moved at, you needed no witchcraft to know they were up to some big state mischief.

It was the ununiformed guy who talked to the housekeeper. Then the housekeeper came to the veranda where I was arguing with Ken over which country has the most foolish men. The housekeeper pointed his finger at me. It looked like the replay of Iscariot and his Jew kinsman. So when I affirmed I was The Teacher, I knew it was over.

I began thinking of the crimes I’ve done. I’ve rubbished government policies. I’ve criticized the governor for stealing money from Mumias Sugar Company. I’ve cursed all university professors with the curse of death. Or could it be that Anna girl? How was I to know she was a minor? Or have they tracked me since we hurled stones at the referee last weekend?

They took me through Manyanja Road, turned left onto Outer Ring Road, past Kariobangi, through Huruma, and when we reached Thika Road right in the face of the GSU camp, my prayer syllabus was over. It was over.


They were giving me work. The fellow said he had got my address from an old client of mine. I was to home-school the boss’ child: one thousand shillings an hour, four hours a week, with the freedom of choosing the hour and day.

I was stinking broke. I began work that day. The girl is an only child who has spent her entire infancy in Europe with her mother. And only-children being what only-children are, the first thing was that I was to deal with her tenderly, calling her endearing names as they do in Hollywood and Mexico. I was to call her Dear when asking her to do an assignment. I was to call her Sweetie if she refused to learn. I was to call her Honey when she eats poo. I agreed.

So last week something happens. Not shit this time. (Chocolate?) We are sitting in the study room and the language lesson is almost over. I want to motivate her learning so I ask her what she wants to be in future. Knowing what she will answer, I go ahead to quickly suggest Doctor, to which she surprisingly says no. I ask Driver. She thinks, then she says no. I suggest Police Officer, with good guns like daddy; she shakes her head and says no. I ask Engineer and a few other cousins to Engineer. A big no to each. She shakes the head furiously. Hey.

Then I change tact. I pose the question again.

“Iqra, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

She looks into the whiteboard ahead. God, when did they start thinking! Her left hand supports the chin while the other rests on the open book on the table. She takes time till I start thinking she is offended. I start cursing my ass. I should have minded my own business. One thousand shillings an hour with four flexible hours a week is not something you want to lose easily in this city. I feel foolish.

Then with the coolest voice, she looks me in the eye and calls.

“Teacher?” she is smiling a bit.

“Yes honey….”

“When I grow big….”

“Yes….”

“I wanna be a teacher when I grow big.”

“A teacher? You want to be a teacher?”

“Yes. Like you,” pointing at me.

That finished me. Completely.

A teacher preparing young minds for the future.
A teacher preparing young minds for the future.

I have heard people say their hearts melted at some point. A desk mate back then used to include that in every love letter he sent to girls and I’d wonder how flesh with blood and arteries could melt. But this day, in the house of the OCS, my heart melted like butter.

And her black eyes were now looking into mine. There was something glittering in there. It was hope. It was admiration. It was utmost sincerity, innocence. She looked into me for reassurance – reassurance that nature would not take away her dear dream; that fate would not deny her the chance to be teacher; that she had not made the wrong decision. Her eyes sparkled in the light and left me searching for my tongue.

Iqra is about eight years old. Hers is not the face of a future socialite or model. Neither is it a bad face. It is the face of a woman who knows what life is and who understands what she wants in life. She is that genuine professor at the department of Literature or Linguistics at some coveted college. Iqra is a beater of her own paths.

Look at her. Nothing extraordinary from a glance. Her upper front teeth are a bit bigger than the rest with a gap in the lower correspondents. Light complexion as anyone else from the horn of Africa and her face is veiled in hijab. Four feet, young, hopeful and happy.

So she’d just said she wanted to be a teacher. A teacher like me. Wouldn’t you have felt high?

Sometimes we do things and take them for granted. We work, get paid and walk home happy. Then come back, work, get paid, and walk home happy again. Never in our endeavours do we ever think of our work from attitude’s point of view. We have made our worlds so materialist that we never consider the abstract way we shape others and ourselves. Drivers see passengers as kilograms of flesh from where to extract coins. Managers see employees as hands to propel the institution into profiting. Teachers see children as empty heads and deal with them as merely that – spheres with eyes, ears and a nose over which the daily bread comes home. We never regard ourselves as being looked at as socialising agents to shape attitudes: perceptions, hopes, fears, dreams etc. Well, Iqra just changed my attitude.

She has given me a reason to worry. Now I work, get paid, and walk home worried. I am worried because she will never be allowed to reach her dream. That spark in her eye will be clipped in the heart before it lights the path. Somewhere along, the superego will come in with their demands. One day, sitting at this very spot, the OCS will declare in a gruffly voice that she be a doctor or engineer. That will be final.

She will enroll at the national university for Medicine. Because of the lack of passion, she will keep hitting the D’s and Supplementaries and then drop out in the third year. Her uncle will suggest she takes Nursing, which the mother will support, and which she will take Nursing and drop out in the second year because of the Latin. Then she will enroll at three more colleges before the father decides to go downtown to buy her a degree in Economics and get her a sad job at the Central Bank because the neighbour to Aunt Samira is a big gun there. And she will become the wife of a sad doctor and raise a sad family.

The dream that I saw in her eyes will die. It will be buried by the cruel world that worships prescriptivism. And no matter how much I worry, I know there is nothing I can do to make Iqra, my lovely Iqra, become a teacher like myself.

“Yes Sweetheart. You will be a great teacher like Mwalimu.”