Searching

 

Mama Jesse sweeps the air around her as a humble woman. She looks at you with that soft look of one who has seen much in thxis world. Like she sees the rotten flesh that you are. When I first see her she is the practical opposite of what I expected. We meet her coming from the kitchen. Definitely; because of how she greets me. She brings the hand that has been cutting sukumawiki and turns the wrist inwards so that I have to touch the hand between wrist and elbow.

I expected to meet a woman with a big build. I expected to meet a woman in an official dress now that today Christians go to church. In my mind I have had this image of a woman with big earrings, bigger pride and with harsh eyes. A woman who looks at you from the roof of her glasses and inwardly wonders just why, God. After all, it is her money and she can decide to pose with it as a vampire of illuminati or woreva for all she cares.

Now this different personality is it that sweeps me. Even when the husband comes and it is a different shock of the day, this first shock is all that tornadoes me. A plump man with a missing front tooth and hospitality where the face should be. You can look at him the whole day and you will not guess he is an engineer. Just a big heart, the feel of being home and the pleasure of meeting Jesse’s new teacher.

Forward. We’ve already taken tea and it is now time for what brought us here. The guy who has linked me here is doing the talking as I nod and shake according to the plan. It is a script well written. My work is to talk little and pose as this expensive teacher. My other person is to talk and say how good a teacher I am and how I have produced people including the governor’s daughter. And he is a good talker if he works on his tenses.

Let’s call him Kokoto. Kokoto is Kisii. He talks t-r-r-r-r-r-r like a tractor but every word he says leaves you wanting the story teller in him. So he keeps gaps in his story and allows me to peep in with a word or two so I sell my manifesto. I tell them some jargon I learnt from Soyinka. I tell them I live in Donholm and teach in Kileleshwa and so by insinuation I mean that the pay is supposed to be good-figure.

Eventually the deal goes through. The African lands the job.  800 per hour is not what you’d call a bad deal. Not if you know what December in this city means. It is now upon God himself to ensure that Africans are paid promptly.

Now I’ve thought Mama Jesse a great cook. But Jesse’s sister is greater because the aroma from the kitchen is something. Basing on the size of the house, if sukumawiki aroma can negotiate all those corners and travel the distance from the kitchen to here, she is a great lady. Let’s not know what your people think; mine look at it and conclude she can make a good wife. And today my stomach doesn’t grumble. I pray it behaves in the days to come.

Jesse’s mother joins us some minutes after our introduction with the husband. She now wants to know about this new teacher and what he has in store. So I go back to those stories of tabularasa and anything else Kafu and other professors planted in the minds of students sponsored by the government to eat dogma. I tell them Jesse is a marathoner and now is the last lap so he needs to bring his all. They nod. I tell them Jesse can attain any grade if he decides. I tell them words. You all know stuff teachers make up to look they can mint grades. I say all that and more.

Then I spot it. A fat thing crawling from the breast pocket towards the collar. Even by itself it understands its own crime and runs like any other thief. It sweeps the place with a swollen hind and doesn’t bother to stop and look my way. This thing is so full of shit. My DNA, plasma, haemoglobin, erythrocytes, ribosomes, membranes, genes are all in that fullness and there is no apology. You see where the world is going? That Cimex lectularius should carry the blood of homo sapiens then come and disappoint them at such an hour is an unforgivable thing.

I catch my hosts looking at the animal as it makes the disappearance into the collar. They want to look like they have not seen it. Or that it is not an issue. But even with herbs this cannot be reversed. Which boils my remaining blood.

But a miracle happens. Forgiveness. I actually let insecta sway its ass down to another hiding place down the collar. And this is where Jacky enters this story.

“Mum, what was Teacher’s name?”

She is told my name several times until she can pronounce it well. I like her five-year innocence.

“Something wants to eat Teacher,” she says.

“Mhhh?” they ask.

“There is something under Teacher’s collar. A louse. It will eat him.”

They send Jacky to the kitchen to bring some more tea. And when she leaves, the mother follows immediately. Jacky never returns for the rest of the evening and it is the mother who comes back with a flask of steaming coffee.

It is possible to think many things at this point. You may think they are serving coffee to compensate the plasma and haemoglobin in insecta’s ass. Or they are tossing the glass for the truth they’ve just discovered – that Mwalimu is a liar who lives with bedbugs and lice. Or that it is a gesture towards the poor; the rich giving back to one of those forgotten in the dungeons of the class ladders. I don’t allow any of these thoughts near me. It is time to dine with the king and coffee with the king is great.

When you are hosted to food, never stay longer. Kokoto doesn’t have the same philosophy. And the story of Timo starts.

(Please note that Kokoto and Jesse’s family have been together for years, and folklore between them is much).

After narrating how Timo went through problems with his wife; how she would tell a returning Timo that there was no food in the house – even after Timo had left 20K in the morning; how she once gave all of Baby’s school fees to the garbage guy; how she used to sleep out without alerting Timo; how she used to report matters to her brother and how her brother used to quarrel and insult poor Timo; Mama Jesse concludes that Nairobi girls are bad.

They come to your house, she says, the first day you’ve met at the queue for the bus to town. Then they come again over the weekend. With their clothes. The following Monday they have already taken your mum’s number and called the old lady to say they are fine and heavy, and they have already booked December 29th as he day to go visit. You only come to realise this the moment Mum calls and asks how ‘You Children’ are doing. Mama Jesse doesn’t look like she will start liking Nairobi girls any time soon.

All along what Baba Jesse does is shake his head silently and sometimes exclaim and sympathise with Timo. This guy Kokoto knows very well his way around Timo.

I start imagining what Timo is. From the stories, I imagine he is a boy who wakes up, changes pampers, equips his lunch box and asks the shopkeeper wave him down the bus to work. I picture a Timo with large cheeks, a round face, and wrinkled eyebrows such that his friends call him Mr Sadness. Mr Sadness spends much time eating popcorn and calling his mother to ask if he should put on the white underwear or the pink one. Timo is not serious.

The story about Timo leaves me cold inside. That I can struggle like this and then a young mama comes to flush my coins down the drain is scary. I want to work and raise a family. I want to have seven daughters and some boys who will name their children after me. I don’t want a woman who will take rent money for some sleep-out in the Tsavo and then call her brother to come break my arm because I have asked where the cash went. And by the way, she should be working, no?

I have dreamt many times about myself coming home every evening and being met at the gate by a jovial daughter who will then tell me the story of her day. And when the kids increase, I want them to compete for space around Daddy. I have dreamt of a good daughter who hides her lunch so Daddy will have a bite in the evening. Then another hides lollipop in her school socks so Daddy gets the mint. I want this girl who loves Daddy like does (girl in King Leah). Now, these kids cannot be raised by a woman such as Timo’s wife. Timo’s wife should work for prisoners near a maximum security prison; my kids need a good mother. A mother whom Mama Jesse will look at and say thank you Lord.

Which is a good girl? The one who carries an umbrella to the city centre or the one who wears heels or the one whose mascara drawer is like a rainbow? Is she the one that walks on the street in tight jeans swaying her ass from left right to obstruct Congolese drivers? How do I tell a woman who will not box me or cook my fingers or mschew me in front of visitors? I need a woman Mama Jesse will approve.

Baba Jesse pops in the discussion very few times. One such time he tells Kokoto to make very wise decisions when it comes to marriage. That when you choose your partner you should do so knowing it is a lifetime decision. He sounds distant. I don’t know whether he is thinking of his marriage or the year this country got independence. Or he is thinking of us. Or he is the present version of Timo. Being a man demands that you create enough space in your ram for thinking.

I know there is talk in the village. That boy is spoilt. Many years and no woman to show. Every time I visit during the holidays I get news of my agemates’ marriages. I am told Nderea married a second wife. I am told Ainea chased Temtuta because she forgot to go to the posho-mill. Masta is still sleeping with that primary school madam because her husband is a long distance driver. Akure is seeking another wife after the first one eloped with the English teacher at Elubinu. I am told many things. But I listen knowing that at the end of these stories lingers mine. The boy who went to the city and refused to marry. They plan of how they will pierce a thorn down my barrel when I die – tradition is stronger than the city. I know they know they will bury me outside the homestead at night because I refused to bring home someone’s daughter when time was still mine. But they ask for hand-outs from me whenever I visit and so they can’t say it in my eye. Especially that subchief. But I know. Fools. Hehe.

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By the time we are done with Baba and Mama Jesse, it is dark outside. Eightish. It is drizzling also. They take a spotlight and take us to the road a hundred metres away. Then they call a motorbike and wave us as we leave. I have a job. I have a friend. I have a lectularius. But I keep thinking of a wife all the way I travel back home.

A wife.

A wife.

A good wife.

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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.”