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.
Plato and Aristotle spent sleepless nights in Macedonia talking to oracles to unravel the imperfection equation. Those are the lectures I spent my undergraduate eating. One rogue professor Amuka would fidget in front of us, biting his nails and singing the glories of the Greeks as they meandered through the fate of Apollo and Zeus. And after Amuka was done, he would leave us in the hands of another Okongo, or Busolo, neither of whom was a sane man.
They pumped into us the travails of Aristotle and his travails through Sparta and Athens in search of perfection.
The illusion I’d have would be that of a man with a stooping face and so long a beard that women and school children of Greece needed no brooms to keep the streets clean. A man without a wife. Without children. With only his soul in his hands. Roaming the market places of Athens in search of perfection. Like have you seen perfection today? And when you say NO he just nods sadly and moves to the next home where he will also move out dejected.
At the end of all the troubles, no perfection.
Imperfection has since seeped into every living room unwatched. It has become our very air we breathe. Teachers look at exam papers with the objective of finding the downs. Brides want to marry but fail to tie the thing because of a last-minute flaw they discover.
Now, a man who takes long to marry will soon meet his dose with perfection. He spends away his youth rejecting women. Seeking that Most-Perfect. Then the brute discovers there are two self-made pressures it has fixed on itself. The first is to ensure to find he’s been seeking, and the second to show society that indeed he was right to wait because he eventually found what he was seeking. Then creeps in middle adulthood and he still is looking for perfection. He is a fool. Someone advise him to visit the cemetery every weekend.
Instead he moves from town to town being laid, and every time he bumps on a perfect thing he soon discovers she nags too much, or that her nose is a bit skewed to the right, or that the skin around her thumb is slightly darker than the rest of her body. Then death will come and find him at that railway station. And it will take him away into the cobweb of mystery and teach him where real perfection should have been found.
I have been hurrying down the street like I always do. It will soon rain. Touts are shouting all over while their drivers honk on anything. Even for nothing they still hoot. Why doesn’t Amuka do research on hooting fools instead of wasting the youth of youths teaching about Aristotle and his wild beards? That way he would age gracefully and die an honourable man and some of us might even consider visiting his village and digging the grave.
Humans scamper all over in a war affair with fate. They want to get back to their holes so that tomorrow they get back to their respective Patels. Some will not make it. Some will be knocked down by speeding trailers. Some will die tonight. They run altogether. No sane person wants rain to find them in the central Nairobi. Rain and central Nairobi are a poison combination.
For most of us standing at the Kencom stage it is end of the road. Running has brought and left us here. There is nowhere else we can run to because it is here the bus shall find us. Happens a lot when you stay in Kayole.
There are tens of us. Hundreds even. But specifically there is this girl in tights and if I’m not looking at the busy street, I’m looking at her waist south. Not even a girl as in girl, girl. She could be ten or twenty years older but who cares? This city has so many heathens who can’t see any positives and so there shouldn’t be a problem when the select few of us decide to appreciate god’s creation and say the city under the sun is beautiful.
Our girl is calm. The queue is long and I am standing two people behind her. I feel bad that she is feeling bad. One day I will own a bus company so that she doesn’t have to stand on dead queues waiting for a bus. But the she gets a call and crosses to the other side of the road and that is when I realise I wasn’t the only one looking.
These are the times a man must curse a million times.
Then when I have accepted my fate, when I have surrendered, something makes me raise my eyes to the lower side of the street. There are many people, but my eye gets caught on another girl crossing the road. It is swift, but still these are not the moments you lose focus. Then when she is almost being swallowed by the bus taking people to Buru, nature behaves such that she raises her head and looks in my direction. At first she takes in the people, then our eyes meet and I see her face jerk. No blushing. The mouth then goes wide and from there I only have the sporadic account of history.
I think there is running. There is a crying. There is being knocked almost to the ground. Then I am in the tight embrace of a girl. Then there is rain. Thunder. Storm. Then there is the two of us, under the drench of a tree.
I re-live that moment and every time I find nothing than eternal peace. I revisit it to see everything around turn into a stillness to let me pass with my bride. Bows even. There is no more rain. There is no longer cold. From Afya Centre to Jamia all the buildings prostrate. The skies open and angels of the lord get loose. We are stuck so long, so short; rains come and rains go.
When she disentangles, with tears, I have the chance to look into the eyes of the stranger.
“But Nick, you are so bad!”
“Because I am not Nick! I am Papa,” and a loser.
At first she thinks it a joke and slaps me on the shoulder. We argue. Then, slowly, slowly.
Now she has realised that even my voice is different. She takes a step back to look at me. Then I only see her hand go for the mouth in terror. I have just won and lost. I see it in her falling eyes. Then she apologises and runs away. I cannot even raise my head to see how she runs in the rain that is now so merciless with criminals and lovers. And at the end when I look at myself, I cannot tell what has beaten me. Neither can the passengers who have sought shelter on the verandas.
Teach me how to recover and I will teach you how being a stone is.
How do we enjoy hugs before we discover they aren’t ours? And then do we regret? Do we apologise for making someone feel loved in a hug that comes by an accident of identity?
For the rest of last week and the beginning of this I have been too fine, if understatements can make it here. I’ve thought nothing but hugs with strangers. Extending a small one to someone we don’t know and not expecting a thank you or a God bless you. A hug in the rain. A hug in the park. A hug at night. At the political rally. With the policeman. They should serve hugs in cups and let us drink. They should teach hugs in class. Amuka? This should not be too much to ask from a citizen who pays all taxes.
In that moment of interlocked souls I met what could have beaten Aristotle himself. Something we can only describe as deep peace because language is too imperfect, too cruel to capture the most primitive intimacies. I met and saw what should be the link between the fragments which have made the shadowy life that has encroached this living. What I’ve always sought. The thing without a name.
Perhaps seven seconds. Or eight. Or a minute. But I’d give away everything I’ve ever had to re-live that moment again.
Ladies and gentlemen, put your corruption aside because this is not a they lived happily thereafter thing. This is a real date with fate where there is no rhetoric, and what comes when you date fate is that either of you is smitten.
If you ever saw a girl with light leopard dress, a firm hug, a smile and life, give a brother a lead. She hugs people on Wednesdays. Tell her I am still standing under the tree in the rain. That I do pilgrimage under that tree at Kencom every Wednesday. That ever since that day I keep having dreams and the house can no longer contain me. I am wild.
Stella, though I might not be Nick, I am Papa. Nick is good as Nick. Papa is equally good as Papa. Papa is great. You will gain nothing waiting for a long lost Nick when a Papa is here with open hands, calling, hoping, praying, yearning. Dreaming every night. I even don’t know your name Stella, but does that mean you are not the perfection I’m seeking?
My enemy’s kid is back from school. For good. But that is not the problem. The problem is how she eyes me in the eye and makes that smile. How she reads me. How she immediately loosens her walking style. I’m not bragging.
I don’t know their syllabus. I don’t know what they are taught at that school. I doubt she does either. For now let’s just say they are trained to be good people and the environment teaches otherwise.
The women of this city are all like Eastlands bedbugs. Eastlands bedbugs invade your house even before you buy a bed. They are understanding enough and will not bother if you never at all buy the bed. And if all you have is a stone whence you retire every evening, they will become bedbugs of the stone or chair of whatever you call that stone. They are more than Uncle Ben’s Mamiwota. They are beyond their age. They are sharp.
The other day the girl rushed to me and gave a very heavy hug. It didn’t last six seconds. Nor the standard four. Nor one. It took her half a minute to be done with my stiff spine. Then her lips stopped on my cheeks like I was a baby being wooed to shut up. In front of people! And the words she was saying are what must always give that shopkeeper the guts to hate me more. But I don’t care what he hates. He can as much go to Pluto and come back and I will still not give a hoot.
Mersel, for that is her name, is the last child of her father. But she doesn’t take much ceremony in that. Her fuss is in something different. I saw it in her eyes the other day I went to buy bread and found her chatting the shopkeeper. A woman’s eye will ignite a first world war and this is not hate speech. The shopkeeper, who is a first grade thief and changer of prices, leered at me and became colder. After she gave me another hug, he couldn’t give me bread. Stuck out his big teeth and stood on them to tell me that the bread, which was on the counter, was not there.
Mersel is half Maasai. Her mother must have been a very beautiful girl because the crook that is her father has never struck me as decent – his rugged face is always scary whenever he carries the padlocks and comes for the rent at the end of each month. But Mersel balances well her departments so you have the impression of a well-bred city kid with a beautiful mother or aunt somewhere in the plains of Maasai Mara. In soft micro-soft language, she knows her thing.
The day she first hugged me in public is the day she came to my house and made a meal. I don’t know if sexists still call this a stereotype but I find it fulfilling to eat a woman’s cooking. She found me halfway done with the tea anyway, so you can go tell Butler, de Beauvoir, and their armies, that a girl fresh from school began her post-school era by cooking her new found love tea. And in the heat of that day, she opened her heart.
Absurd, no? Might lose the spark too. We of the kingdom give the onus to the man. You get the satisfaction in intimidating the woman by bringing it up and she has to blush a dozen times before she says that NO. But here I was, being intimidated by a kid who had just been learning character traits and themes in an African play then feeling herself a scholar already.
Reminds me of my first time to bring a girl to my radar. St. Peters Mumias was the trend school around. Putting on the royal blue shirt and dark blue trouser elevated you above the rest. You immediately became a demigod above jealous worshippers who could do nothing about it. An unwashed saint would rank better than ten of the rest. We are still legends those sides.
So this Saturday I had the cleanest blue set. Plus, I had just begun year three and so the prestige of a new blazer must be mentioned too. But the whole day I had been nervous until the eleventh hour when the drama participants would start leaving our compound. I found them waiting for their teacher under a tree on the lower side of the football pitch. My hand was limb, but it was the only thing on me for offer. And a fela beginning afforestation down there will tell you how tough this maiden touch is, especially when you are in a school where a crime like pocketing was more murderous than speaking Swahili in the States.
But I made it.
“I am Marion,” she said at last as we moved from the rest.
You heard? Those were not just three words. It was a miracle unfolding under that dusk. They were words that would have made me risk anything under the sun. I’d have stopped schooling if this demand were her next sentence. It melted any nobility for the self and transformed everything else into servitude for my angel Marion.
I don’t know where she is. I don’t even know if Marion was her real name. But I remember her always. Thirteen years now and I still pass by the gate of her school to see if she is back. I remember her every time Franco sings his MARIO. I carry the image of her when I sleep and when I wake up. I still remember her voice. I still have the feel of that fragile effeminate touch in my hands. A girl with a shy chest and music where words were to be. She is all I think when I read Bukenya’s man under the idle whispering coconut towers.
So, NO. Selo must sharpen her game first. You don’t want someone you will forget tomorrow when you’re walking her down the street, do you? Then someone will call it a heart break.