Kigali. A Sunday morning, I woke up from a nightmare; my whole naked body was sweating. I yawned while stretching largely my arms. It was a rainy day and I was feeling lazy, I wish I could lay down on my bed and listen to the radio. Instead, I put my hand around my mouth to detect its smell. It was not a rose perfume. I yawned more to let in fresh air. My naked body made the hard choice to remove the grey blanket, wake up and tie up a green and yellow colored kitenge at the top of my breasts in order to cover my body.
I thanked heaven for granting us another day, though it was rainy. I put my bare feet on the ground and felt the cold floor. The chilliness climbed from my feet to my head and gave me goose bumps. The cold reached my heart too. It was not the same cold, but rather a feeling of resentment towards my mother, she had always been emotionless with me and had never loved me.
My mother had conceived me after a night of passion with her first cousin. The whole family cursed her for incest and consequently I was the abominable fruit of that sin. The rumors in my family said that my biological dad either ran away forever or wwalked willingly into an early grave. I have never met him apart from the yellowing picture that auntie Emerance kept in a soapbox under her bed.
That was the voice of my mother. I had never called her mum as other normal kids do. For me, she was always Yvette. So I hated to hear her calling my name in the morning. I did not respond. She repeated my name, almost screaming. I felt my body fill with bitterness.
“I want to step on clean floor when I get up.”
I took the broom and started sweeping the yard. Since the floor was wet, mud got stuck on it and made it heavier and harder for me to sweep. I thought that I was not blessed because of the scandalous union from which I was born. I felt sinful. Everyone in my neighborhood, including small children, blamed me for being the daughter of my parents.
While I was cleaning our compound, I was contemplating my future wedding, organized by Auntie Emerance in collaboration with Yvette. I was still in my kitenge and auntie Emerance came to our house. She barely greeted me and walked quickly almost running to Yvette’s room.
I was twenty-three years old and I was going to get married to Ernest. Auntie Emerance, who had been in discussion with the middle-aged man, was now negotiating the bride’s dowry. The two women picked him for his fat wallet. With powerlessness, I had let them decide whom I would marry. That union did not particularly interest me but I knew it will offer me a permanent refuge, far from Yvette. Besides that,…
Ernest was not a poor man. Why not marry him?
Perhaps he would pay my university education. Why not marry him?
Perhaps he will bring happiness to my life. Why not marry him?
I had only completed secondary school where I was living in a boarding school. Living far from my home brought fleeting peace as I was far from Yvette and our neighbors. I was no longer the incest bastard. As auntie Emerence and Yvette planned my wedding, I did not invite my classmates. There was nothing to invite people about. In fact I did not have that many friends. The only good friend I ever had was Noel, a nice guy and only him knew about the wedding.
Few days before the wedding, I went to see the house that I would be living in with Ernest. It was a nice house covered with a red roof, its walls were made up with a beige paint. Its interior was decorated by vulgar luxury furniture that gave the house an aura of pretention and fakeness. I pictured myself as the woman of the house and this simple thought brought a smile to my lips and pride to my heart.
I took time to know the place and get familiar with what would become my new space. Ernest was in town doing a last minute shopping for the wedding. As I was touring, I shyly opened the room that would be ours in few days.
I was impressed by the largeness of the bed. Inside the expansive wardrobe, I touched my husband-to-be’s clothes. In the right corner were his mostly black and brown shoes. On the right side, I saw female clothes and shoes that looked so familiar. It was a strange thing to discover in a single man’s bedroom.
I first thought that they were my surprise gift. But then I saw my mother’s ballerinas and immediately, all excitement disappeared from me, like a deflated balloon. The blood in my veins cruised; I thought I would have a heart attack. I could recognize the shoes among a thousand because of their color- that of an unripe apple. I opened up the clothes and found out that they were Yvette’s. The stupid question that came to my mind was:
-What could my mother’s clothes be doing in my future husband’s closet four days before my wedding?
I ran out the room and fell into an old woman in the corridor. My left arm hit her left shoulder and she knocked her head on the beige wall. I thought she would not survive and briefly forgot my own emotional shock as I helped her back on her feet. My eyes met hers. It seemed as if her she wore contact lenses that made her eyes looked greyish, bleached and magical. The word witchcraft crossed my mind like a shooting star springing across the sky.
I was wondering who she was and what she was doing in my house to be. Her Kinyarwanda was unintelligible due to old age; I had to double my attention. She told me that she was Ernest’s grandmother. I took her to one of the rooms of the house that I had not yet visited. She was staying there and had specifically come for the weeding. The old woman refused to tell me her name, as culture dictated. It was her first time to travel to Kigali, the capital.
Instead of voodoo items, I found in her room an old Latin book, a lot of Catholic objects and a yellow bottle that used to contain Mukwano, the cheap cooking oil. The yellow jerry can contained holy water. Using some dry grass, she spread it on my hands to purify my heart.
Once she finished, she put a rosary around my neck and started to fervently praying in Latin and then in Kinyarwanda:
Ku bw’ububabare bwe bukabije,
Tugirire impuhwe kandi uzigirire n’isi yose.
Ku bw’ububabare bwe bukabije,
Tugirire impuhwe kandi uzigirire n’isi yose.
Maraso n’amazi byavuye mu mutima wa Yezu, we soko y’impuhwe atugirira, turabiringiye.
After the long prayers, she narrated to me the story behind my arranged marriage.
“I know that this will break your heart forever but as future married woman, you are already strong and you need to know the truth about the pain that awaits you. The truth is…”
Yvette was Ernest’s concubine. That’s why her cursed clothes were in the house. They had been together for more than two years. Ernest’s family has been pressuring him to get married and settle down but they didn’t want him to bring an older and probably infertile woman. As the old woman was telling me the story, I touched my back to feel if nobody was forcefully thrusting a spear in my back because the pain I felt in my heart couldn’t just be emotional.
After realizing that she would not get Ernest into her grip, Yvette decided to offer him her sole daughter. I was in a shock and constantly was shaking my head to confirm that I was not dreaming. The agreement the two lovers had made was that Yvette would give him a virgin bride who would give him children. In return, the middle-aged man would take care of her.
Your mother hates you since you entered her womb. What else can you do?
You will marry my grandson in few days. What else can you do?
He is only interested in your virginity and vigorous body. What else can you do?
Sometimes, I wondered if Yvette was in reality a wicked witch. She knew how to manipulate people, to secretly plot things and get to her ends. I was wondering how could a human mother do such horrible thing to her child? How did she know I was still virgin?
How did she know I would marry Ernest without objecting? I was relieved that I did not invite my school friends; I couldn’t bear to hear their comments after the ceremony. At least I could now understand why Ernest was shy and did not take too much time to talk to me or to get to know me better. Why he had always dealt with Auntie Emerance and Yvette. He was not interested in me.
I stumbled away from Ernest’s grandmother, dizzy and in need of a friend. I grabbed a motorcycle on the roadside, swinging the keys of my new hell. On my way, I asked the motor rider to take me to Gikondo where my only genuine friend Noel lived. I was wondering if he would be home. I did not want to call him, as I was afraid that my voice betrayed the pain I was going through. I instead sent him a short SMS telling him that I was coming.
That night I offered him the only thing I was in position of denying to Ernest, I almost begged him to take my virginity and I knew if he said no, I would go to someone else. Fortunately Noel kept me for the night. He offered me comfort for a few hours, he sang for me for some minutes and he loved me for long seconds.
When I woke up the next morning, my body was hurting but not my heart. It was as if I was now immunized to pain. When I got home, the dark skin of Yvette had almost turned dark blue because of rage.
“I’ve been looking for you the whole night. Where were you?” She asked in a voice she could no longer control.
“I went to invite my friends to the wedding and it rained. So I stayed with them.”
“Why was your phone off?”
“I did not charge it enough.”
“Because you have confiscated my charger, again.”
She inspected me with her ugly eyes searching for signs of a lie. She did not find any. I was amusedly wondering what would happen if she knew I was no longer virgin, what would happen if she knew that the treasure that she bet for my wedding was gone, gone in night time, gone as with the wind? Perhaps her heart would burst and she would spit snakes of her nastiness.
Outside the house, I heard Uwase, our long-term neighbor saying:
“Ohhh God is able. I did not that Umwali could also find a husband!”
On the wedding day, as required, we had a civil wedding, a traditional ceremony and a church service. I saw auntie Emerance and Yvette in shining and bright traditional clothes, umushanana.
They were genuinely joyful and I was wondering how much money each would get for my wedding. Their delight was easily communicable to the guests who came witness my shame.
At the reception, I saw Ernest’s grandmother in white umushanana and felt likeI she was my guardian angel. We exchanged sad smiles but her transparent eyes remained blank. As people were eating, drinking and chatting, Ernest stood up and headed to the microphone. His rich friends clapped for him. He told everyone how much his wife and himself were overjoyed to host everyone. At that moment, I wondered which wife he was referring to: my mother or me?
He cleared his throat and started singing for me. Again, I asked myself which other hypocrite game had he planned to play? As he sang, the silent eyes of my family members ourged me to join him on the stage. I flashed my fakest smile, lifed my heavy white wedding dress and joined Ernest, who honestly not musically talented.
The audience was frenetically clapping for Ernest, which encouraged him to sing even louder. I was wondering if they were more motivated by the delicious food and abundant drinks than by the awful singing.
I had the feeling that as my husband murdered musical notes, the worst DJ of the world was playing the worst song of the world. It was funny because I was feeling no emotion at my own wedding party. I was feeling like another guest in another wedding ceremony.
After the shameful performance, Ernest hugged me energetically and one of my earrings fell down. At that moment, people applauded and I saw Noel in the crowd. He looked elegant but sad. My memory went back to our night and I burst in tears. Our guests thought I had been touched by my husband’s declaration of love.
People liked emotional brides so they clapped more and more as tears poured down my powdered cheeks with more ferocity. Soon afterwards, guests started filing down to the stage to congratulate us. I was still crying and Noel was standing in the hall watching me. People hugged me or Ernest and the only man who could really console me couldn’t. Ernest’s grandmother brought me back to reality.
“Let him go. He is not for your present. A long suffering awaits you my child. But only a scar on a backbone will save you.”
I was too tired to interpret her wise but mysterious words. That night, I escaped from Ernest’s lust pretending to be too tired. The next day, he chased people from our house so we could have intimacy. Even his grandmother went back to her village in Karongi. I had tried to ask her what she wanted to say when she said that only a scar on a backbone would save me. She stubbornly remained quiet.
I was worried about what would happen after everyone left. The presence of our families in the first days of my marriage gave me a feeling of security. But now, I was alone with Ernest and I had to confess that I felt terrorized.
He was a stranger to me and I was already sharing the room and the bed with him. As I feared, once I was in the room alone with him, he took me brutally. I felt an unprecedented pain in every single cell of my female body. I swallowed all of that pain and waited for him to finish. In the middle of his frenzy, he realized I was no longer pure as Yvette promised him.
He smacked me so hard that I saw stars parading in front of my sight. For the first time, I felt bad joy. I felt alive and proud. They thought they played me but now I was proving them that I was also a human soul, with all the good and the bad that comes with it.
During the sunny summer of 2014, my friends and family organized my wedding with Flora. My mother was worried that she was marrying my treasure.
After my secondary school, I didn’t receive any scholarship. I refused to stress out my dad by asking him to sell more of his cows to pay my university tuition. As I was the sole son of my parents, he would have invested in my studies for I was considered as the heir of the family.
I rather joined my uncle in the mine business. We both worked for a German coltan company based in Gatumba mining zone. This job was the chance of my life, especially since I was freely hosted in one of the comfy company houses. It was a colonial house that breathed oldness and wisdom. I wondered how many stories that building had witnessed and how many secrets it kept, including mine.
During leisure time, I loved to seat on the porch and sip a glass of Amstel beer while learning a new language. I started by English.
One late afternoon, I went to Kigali to hang out with my friends and bought P1 English books. People looked at me strangely causing me to claim to the bookshop attendant that the books were just a gift for a niece that I didn’t have.
In the mining company, I occupied an isolated tiny office that smelt mildew where I could hide and learn English words that became a song in my head. I created a melody for them. ♩♪♬ “ An avocado, a baby, a cow, a dog, an egg, a fish, a goat, a house, an ice, a jug, a king, a lion, a mango, a nurse, an ox, a pen, a queen, a rose, a snake, a teacher, an umbrella, a vehicle, a woman, a yam and a zebra. That was my morning anthem.
Simultaneously, I was learning Swahili from Assuman, the company’s driver. He was a middle-aged Muslim man from Nyamirambo. On his forehead, he had a black star-shaped spot, proof that he had prayed over and over. He was always wearing takiya, the Muslim hat. He looked totally different once he removed it, perhaps due to his baldness. Although he was a respected Muslim man, his hidden sin was an addiction to a bottle of Primus. So after each Swahili lesson, I would reward him with a bottle of this popular Rwandan beer.
My English was also improving although I lacked occasions of practicing all the sentences I learnt to compose till the daughter of my German boss came to visit the family business. Her name was Grete. She was a pretty brunette. She enjoyed jogging with all village children and the kids were crazily shouting:
“Muzungu, muzungu, muzungu.”
During the holidays, she spent most of her time, in the mines, only travelling to Kigali during some weekends.
“I live in Berlin, why should I spend my holidays locked in another city?” she would say.
During her first days, she occupied a desk in her father’s office. Mr Müller was often upset that Grete always forgot to lock the office in his absence.
Most of my colleagues enjoyed socializing with the boss’s daughter. They liked to ask her how she could help them to go to Europe or if she could help them find wealthy European families to support their further studies. As for me, I just half-smiled to Grete whenever I ran into her in the corridor. However, she became my problem when her papa asked her to occupy the vacant desk in my small office as a punishment of not locking his office.
Her presence in my office was not an issue but she was too talkative for my liking, often posing many questions in halting French. Unlike her, I loved to work quietly, focusing on my finance-related tasks. I really didn’t know how to make Grete understand that I needed silence.
She would ask, “Benjamin, do you think, that I should ride a bike to Gisenyi?”
“Ben, basing on your experience, do you think I should trust Assuman?”
She would really make me think.
The first days, I listened to her stories; and one day, I fell asleep in a middle of a story about a place she had visited in the Philipines. When I woke up, she was in a South American village. I saw my productivity sinking during Grete’s presence in our shared office. I would breathe deep sighs of relief whenever she was touring the mines with Assuman. As time progressed, I got used to her stories, usually surprising myself guessing what the next story would be about.
What surprised me with Grete was that she had a deep respect for people from all the countries she had visited courtesy of her rich dad. Even when she was telling me a story of local children in Gatumba, she genuinely expressed kindness.
One day, when I was out, Grete found my English books. I thought that she would naturally laugh at me but she offered me her kind help instead. Gradually, Grete and I became friends and people started gossiping. Her father became a little bit concerned that she spent more time locked with a male accountant in an office.
He thought it was more appropriate to take her back in his main office. Rumors circulated around the mines that I had seduced the boss’s daughter and my uncle came to talk to me.
I was astonished at his fury. I had done nothing wrong apart from learning English with Grete. The next morning, she came to greet me and we were both embarrassed because of the rumors. She shyly smiled and apologized for any inconvenience. On my side, I was just praying that she disappears before her father appears. She however made dropped by my office on subsequent days armed with many reasons:
To say Hi…
To ensure that your English doesn’t regress…
To bring you a cup of a tea during a rainy day…
I was actually missing her stories. I couldn’t tell her of course! I didn’t want to create more tensions between us. Apart from those morning visits, the rest of my days were calm. I could refocus on my work. Till…
One weekend, I had chosen to stay in my house because of the gloomy weather. I was curled in the sofa watching Prison Break when I heard a knock on the main door.
Who could it be? I wondered. Since my houseboy Fils was out watching a Manchester United game, I dragged myself from the sofa and walked to the door to open it. My baggy shorts were scant protection from the cold that instantly assaulted me. As I let her in, my mind was full of questions.
Why would she come to my place in pouring rain?
She didn’t volunteer an answer and we instead found ourselves in a very stupid conversation. I was afraid that my uncle or her papa would suddenly appear from anywhere.
“What were you up to?” She asked in voice softened by the chillness.
“Watching a TV show.”
“Ohh!! Which one?”
“Prison Break, season three!”
She was sitting next to me, her eyes fixed on my laptop screen. I could see the reflection of her blue eyes on the screen. I was nervous wondering what would happen if her papa and my uncle found us like that. I implored God to save me from that situation. Since she had come in the rain, she was wet and her dark curly hair was glued on her head, making her skull look smaller. I got up and opened my wardrobe. I took the blue pen towel and gave it to her so that she could dry herself.
“Do you have a t-shirt?”
I nodded and went back to the same compartment in my wardrobe. I took a grey cotton polo and handled it to her.
I dropped it down when I saw that she had removed her light dress, revealing a small red underwear. Her body was tinier than I thought. In my head, I saw the image of Mr. Müller’ face red with anger. Grete’s eyes were transfixed on me. She looked like a roman statute. I tried my best to prevent my eyes to from descending to her breasts but failed miserably. They were firm and pink. She made a step forward, I moved back. She was damn beautiful.
We went back to Prison Break but my heart was cruising at 120 km per hour. I resisted the temptation. For God’s sake, Grete was my boss’s daughter. I didn’t want to lose my job. So I had to resist. But when her soft hands touched the back of my neck, I collapsed.
She played Weus’d A Herz Hast Wia A Bergwerk, a romantic German popular song by Rainhard Fendrich. She murmured into my eye that the rumors in the mines were true, that she was crazy about me.
That night, she taught me love. She was the first woman that I touched and I was the first black guy in her life.
Grete Müller stayed for the whole weekend. She tired me out…
On Monday, everyone in the mines knew that the boss’s daughter spent three nights in my house.
Mr Müller’s face was as red as I had predicted. That Monday, he bought a KLM air ticket. On Tuesday, Grete flew back to Berlin without saying goodbye and giving me back my grey cotton polo.
Mr Müller did not fire me but we had a man-to-man agreement that was witnessed by my uncle who had worked for his company for more than twenty years. Mr Müller knew that his daughter was attracted to me and would only give up on me if she ever knew that I was married. Mr Müller gave me a three-month deadline to get married or he would fire me.
The only problem was that I wasn’t dating any girl and I didn’t want to lose my job. I was the one providing for my whole family and had started building a house in Kanombe, a neighborhood near the Kigali international Airport. I didn’t have a university degree so I couldn’t apply for jobs. I didn’t want to lose everything and I didn’t want my family to lose in the game. I took the decision of getting married.
My friend Eugene told me, “Nowadays, it is easier to find a bride than a job. We will find you a beautiful girl worthy your wealth.”
This is how they got me Flora. The woman I married in the sunny summer of 2014.
Nicki Asante worked as a receptionist during the day. She worked as a bartender at night. Both her jobs were in the up market Westlands area in Nairobi, Kenya. Westlands had a very lively night scene. The club scene was lively from Monday to Saturday. It was quite an electric district.
Nicki worked at one of the biggest technology firms. She received clients, scheduled appointments and booked trips for everyone: from the CEO to the company’s manager. It was the month of October. It was time for the short rains. The meteorologists had predicted that this was the month of El Niño.
Oh well! Kenyan meteorologists could not be trusted with their predictions. It was unusually cold however. Nicki went to an Art Café, which was near her office block. The mocha warmed her up instantly. A few minutes later, she walked out of the posh coffee house and bumped into a street urchin. He was dirty and unkempt. He reeked of dirt and glue. A housefly hovered around him desperately.
During Moi’s era, just before he retired, the street urchins and beggars were relocated to rehabilitation centres. They had however found their way back to the streets in their large numbers.
“Hi aunty, you look good. Help me with some money I have breakfast,” the tiny street boy pleaded.
“Leave me alone. Dirty boy,” she retorted.
“Only Ksh 50, then give me Ksh 100,” he insisted.
She was now annoyed. She reached into her Louis Vuitton imitation bag and threw some rusty coins on the road. The boy reminded her of her childhood. Growing up, Nicki did not have much. Nicki had fought tooth and nail to get out of her impoverished surroundings. First, she got a rich boyfriend during her college years. Second, she secured a job but left her boyfriend to cater for her expenses. She saved her money.
Finally, it was seven p.m. It was time for her night job. She applied heavy makeup and drove to the location at the exquisite upscale Capital Club. The club was for members only. Executives and expatriates frequented the club with the gorgeous chandeliers and marble floors. They also tipped well. The previous month, her friend Nuru had been written for a Ksh 75,000 cheque for her good service.
Nuru was a waitress. She was Swahili. She had curves in all the right places. All the ladies there were curvy apart from Nicki. Nicki was thin as a rake. The previous night, she had overheard one of her customers complaining to her manager. He accused the manager of overworking Nicki. Maybe that is why she did not have time to eat. Although it was a joke, Nicki was embarrassed. Every night, the bouncer would ask for her identification card. With her small frame, she easily passed for a Form Three student. Lately, she spent most of her money on vitamins and supplements. Some of those pills had led to skin breakouts. She needed another solution.
Facebook was proving to be very helpful. There was a group exclusively dedicated to skinny women like her. She sat on her king-size bed in her elegant room. Her Apple laptop was on top of her Persian duvet.
On her face, was an avocado facial mask. Anytime she applied it, her boyfriend Mbugua could not keep a straight face. Today he was out with the boys at Tribeka, near Nation Centre watching an English Premier League match between Chelsea and South Hampton. That is what he told her. She didn’t know and didn’t care because soccer was not a sport that she enjoyed.
One of the girls in her Facebook group had uploaded her before and after photos. The photo on the right showed a more voluptuous frame. The trick was chicken feed. She had been injected with chicken feed in her hips and the change was drastic. There was a clinic at River Road, which offered that service for only Ksh 1000.
Nicki was excited. She took down the location’s details. The next morning, she ate Weetabix and prepared a heavy breakfast for Mbugua who had a major hangover. She took a tray upstairs for him. She then lied to him that she had an appointment with a nutritionist at Yaya Centre. He insisted on taking her but she declined.
Mbugua was too tired to argue. He had drunk like a fish the previous night. He was also engaged in a bar brawl with Oti after his team Chelsea lost the game. Now his body ached all over. He rolled over and slept like a log while Nicki prepared for work.
Mbugua had bought her a BMW convertible for her 25th birthday. She drove at a snail’s pace. She reached her workplace on the dot. Nicki worked robotically. She went for an early lunch break. Usually, she went for lunch with her colleagues but today she was on a mission.
At River Road, there were many black market shops. The lady in her Facebook group had said Healthspan Medical Centre was the place to go. At the end of the street, she saw an illegible, dusty signboard. Nicki went up a flight of stairs into a small crowded clinic.
Someone directed her to a minuscule office with a blood-red hospital bed. A stout man called Bonny excitedly introduced her to all the services the hospital provided. She said she wanted the chicken feed injection. Bonny told her that at Healthspan, the services were highly professional. The chicken feed injection was provided at the clinic next door.
A few months later, Mbugua was the envy of his friends. He had an African beauty with rich chocolate skin and a well-endowed figure. He was celebrating his engagement to Nicki at Heron’s Portico. Her friends had started calling her Nicki Minaj. She had the enviable 36-26-46 measurements. A month before her wedding, Nicki noticed some painless swellings around her left hip area.
When she went to the doctor, he referred her to an Oncologist. The Cancer doctor had a grave expression on his face. He had seen many cancer patients in his career but it was never easy relaying the news. He first asked her general questions but then Nicki felt the urge to come clean with him and tell him about the chicken feed injection.
The doctor was astonished. In his 20-year career, he had never heard anything that bizarre. Most, if not all of his cancer cases were caused naturally. Before giving her the news, he gave her a long lecture. He told her that some chicken feed contain feed additives called 3-Nitro or Roxarsone which contain the carcinogenic poison substance, arsenic.
He told her that unfortunately, she had cancer. High levels of arsenic were found in her blood and that, she had abnormal cell growth in her leg and that the swellings on her left hip were malignant. She had cancer. If her leg was not amputated, the cancer would spread to other parts of her body.
It was as though someone had stabbed her. Oh no, what would she do? What else was in that chicken feed injection? Her skin paled, she felt lightheaded. Darkness engulfed her. When she came to, the loyal Mbugua was beside her in the hospital ward. He promised that the wedding would go on as planned.
Nicki had no choice but to confess to Mbugua. She told him the naked truth. Mbugua was really angry but he tried to conceal it. He could not leave her at a time like this. It was a shame what her vanity had done to her. It had cost her a leg. Nicki would have to start loving herself.
Warda Habuya jumped on her older cousin’s back, startling her. She was ten but could pass for five. Her small frame was inherited from her mother’s petite body. Plus her grandmother too, who had died two years earlier of old age. She just went to sleep one night and never woke up. What a fine way for mama to go to heaven, Warda’s father had said.
‘Will you allow me to plait your hair tonight?’ Warda asked, smiling.
She had one dimple on her right cheek and a gap-toothed smile. Her voice was a husky alto, again like her mother’s. The only quality she had inherited from her father was a steady, confident stride that made those they were walking with happy to be doing so.
Maria Habuya Guevarra, the cousin on whose back little Warda had jumped to, sat silent on the damp grassy riverbank of River Tana. Kenya’s longest river passes right through her Dumi village. It then snakes its way for about fifty kilometres to Kipini village, where it finally tumbles into the Indian Ocean.
Maria threw a tiny smooth stone into the gentle brown waters of the river and it rustled back at her in diminishing echoes. Sssssssss....
She threw another stone and another and another and another. The riverine echoes were now dancing into and out of each other resulting in a watery music that she found soothing.
‘I can throw further than you!’ a small alto voice said behind her as a stone flew further ashore into the water, resulting in a series of circles as the water embraced the little stone.
Warda herself flew into a patch of grass next to Maria. A chameleone hiding behind a nearby thistle bush took note of Warda’s soft thud but decided it wasn’t spelling danger so there was no need to take flight.
‘Why do you like staring into the river Maria?’
‘Because it makes me happy.’
‘So you are not happy when you are away from the river at school?’
Maria taught at a nearby Primary school. She had joined it as soon as she completed her studies at Shanzu Teacher Training College.
Like majority of Kenya’s high school youth, Maria had never wanted to be a primary school teacher.
‘Teachers are paid worse than policemen,’ she had protested to her father, a small scale rice farmer whose average monthly revenue was just over Ksh 10,000 (USD100).
He was from the Pokomo community and like most of his kinsmen, farming was his lifeline. He was also such a big fan of Che Guevarra the Argentine revolutionary that since his twenties, many people called him Guevarra, a name that later stuck to his children like super glue.
‘I have educated you, your two sisters and four brothers from my meagre farming revenue,’ Maria’s father had told her sternly over the flickering lantern in their tiny mud-walled living room.
‘What matters is not how much you earn,’ he said, adding more kerosene into the lantern, ‘but what you do with it.’
Four years later, she was now earning a gross salary of Ksh 24,000 (USD240), more than her father and more than newly employed policemen. But when her first payslip came, the small sheet of paper almost dropped from her hands. Her eyes widened in utter shock when she read that her net salary would be Ksh 19,483 (USD194).
‘Why?!’ she protested to her head-teacher.
‘Welcome to the world of taxes my daughter,’ the kindly sixty-year old head-teacher told her with a chuckle, ‘as you can see on your payslip, most of your deductions go to the taxman.’
‘Serikali yafanyia nini hizo hela zangu?!’ What does the government do with my money?
It keeps you safe, treats you in public hospitals when you are sick, builds roads and generally uses your tax money to take care of you, she was told.
There was nothing in Dumi village that had been done by her taxes. She pointed out this fact angrily to her father and mother after handing over to them her entire salary for them to bless it and retain Ksh5,000 (USD50) for their own use.
Her father, Diwayu Guevarra was a Muslim while her mother Linah was a Christian. They were both from the Pokomo community even though her father’s mother was from the Cushitic Orma community. Thanks to her paternal grandmother, Maria’s hair was long and wavy, unlike her mother’s and sisters’ kinky hair. She also had a short temper, a reputed stereotype of Cushitic communities.
Maria’s long hair was swaying gently in the evening breeze as she sat silently on the riverbank. She needed soothing from both the river and its breeze almost every evening when the sun was slipping cautiously into Tana Delta’s volatile horizon. She had read that word, ‘volatile’ in almost every newspaper article about the fighting in the Tana Delta.
It was September 2012 and as Kenyans in the rest of the country whispered ‘usiku mwema, good night’ to each other every night, Maria and thousands of others in the Tana Delta would say their last prayers, not sure if they would wake up with the orange sun or if they would have slipped over into eternity, thanks to the ongoing fighting between the Pokomos and Ormas.
This particular evening, she lingered at the river, afraid of the darkness that was gradually enveloping her but unwilling to go back to their two-bedroom house, where her father’s worried frown and her mother’s incessant laments about the government’s inability to protect them, would push her even further into depression.
At this same time when she was milking comfort from River Tana, her friend Lala was in a salon in Nairobi, next to Outering Road and a two-minute walk from her house in Donholm.
‘Why are these people killing each other like animals?’ A slender, (Lala felt the word should be too thin) hairdresser said in her high-pitched voice as the flat screen in the salon switched to a special NTV report about the killings in Tana Delta.
Lala, whose hair was being plaited into ‘Ethiopian style’ grimaced when the sight of an injured mother filled the screen. Her tears were flowing into the dry blood on her cheeks, a toddler in a black jumper sitting listlessly in her laps. Apart from the lost, scared look in his (or was it her?) eyes, the baby didn’t seem injured.
‘Are you okay girl?’ Lala quickly clicked on send wondering if her friend Maria was fine.
They had been classmates in Murray Girls High School in Taita-Taveta County. Although they didn’t have much in common at first, they had become close over the four years they studied there.
The catchy tune of Khona, a popular song by South African group Mafikizolo, interrupted the riverine stillness. This was one of Maria’s favourite songs and she had set it as her incoming messages ringtone.
‘Are you okay girl?’ It was from her friend Lala.
‘Is there anything I can do?’
Come and take my family and I away to a place where there is no fighting, or to a country where the government uses taxpayer money to keep its people safe. Maria thought.
But I would miss this river so much. I prefer for the government to use the 4,000 shillings it takes from me every month to keep me safe right here, by the river.
The following morning when she was just about to write the day’s date on the blackboard and start teaching mathematics to Class 3 students, the Mafikizolo song filled her quiet classroom. She had forgotten to put her phone on silent so she hurriedly walked to her desk and fished it out from the new second-hand handbag she had bought the previous weekend.
‘Warda na babake waliuawa jana usiku.’ Warda and her father were killed last night. The message was from her sister.
Like a zombie, Maria read on, ‘Inna lillaahi wa inna ilayhi Raaji'oon.’
The second part was a common muslim refrain to death that translates to, ‘to God we belong and to Him we shall return.’
Maria didn’t feel the torrent of tears that was flowing down her cheeks but her students saw them, young innocent witnesses to a brutal conflict that was claiming lives as young and innocent as theirs.
Some drops of her tears fell on her latest payslip, which was still in her handbag. Even through the cloud of tears in her eyes; through the pain that no words in her Pokomo language or any language for that matter could describe, through this sorrow that would forever occupy her back in the same spot where Warda liked to jump onto, through sheer misery, her brown eyes saw the three-letter word on her payslip and what it had consumed Tax: 3,540 shillings.
If the three letter word couldn’t guarantee the ultimate four-letter word – life, what was its use? Despite her sorrow, this question flooded into her mind with even more ferocity than the tears that were streaming down her cheeks.
‘What exactly does that boyfriend of yours Nkedi do?’ Chao asked her big sister.
They were both wearing blue jeans, though the attire similarity ended there. Lala’s top was a black T-shirt, with the word NO emblazoned at its front in bright blue colours.
Chao was donning a sleeveless garnet tank top. She liked buying clothes with complicated colours so that she could casually say to her friends statements like, ‘this garnet colour was the only one remaining in the shop...’
Slender braids were tumbling down her generous bosom. She had a love-hate relationship with this bosom of her. Sometimes it was a source of great pride but there were times when she wished she could deflate the boobs just a little so that they could be a ‘normal’ size.
They were seated in the second row of the left side, in an Easy bus coach, on a rare trip to their father’s ancestral home in Mumias. Mumias literally means Mumia’s named after Nabongo Mumia, one of pre-independent Kenya’s last supreme traditional kings. It is now more famous for its sugar. However, this sweetness had turned sour over the years. Just ten years earlier, nearly every farmer in Mumias was planting sugarcane. Now, almost each one of them was uprooting them.
Like India and Brazil, Mumias had been a powerhouse of sugarcane for a long time. But unlike India which still produced an average annual cane production of about 350 million tonnes, Mumias’s had plummeted faster than a rock falling down a cliff.
When Wanguba, Lala’s uncle, her father’s oldest brother visited them in Nairobi the previous year, he had said solemnly during the sumptuous meal of Mama Lala’s soooft chapatis and ndengu, ‘our sugarcane farms have become graveyards of our dreams.’ Said in the Wanga dialect of the Luhya language, these words sounded even more absolute yet pleasantly poetic.
It was Tuesday in July, so the bus was half full; it would have been a quarter full but a group of ten Americans were going to Mumias for a volunteers project so they were occupying most of the seats on the right side of the bus.
‘Look at that one,’ Chao whispered in Lala’s ear, ‘the one in the third row. Dios Mio! He is absolutely yummy.’
The yummy brother had a rather shaggy brown beard and according to Chao, beards gave men a lion’s look. They made men even more of men and she loved a man with a capital A in the man. If he had a ‘sweet beard, rough romance, smooth words and a wide, wide chest’ he stood a fat chance of sitting opposite her on a date.
Lala was seated in the window seat, as she planned to devour every sight that they would hurtle past. She was particularly excited about Kericho’s scenic tea plantations. She didn’t know that Kenya was actually the world’s largest exporter of black tea and that it had earned Kenya Shillings 112 billion from tea back in 2012, her third year of employment.
All she knew was that, ‘oh my God my dream is to do it in one of those totally cute tea plantations...’ Her best friend Nduta and all the other three members of her inner circle had heard her voice this dream on several occasions.
‘He is an entrepreneur,’ Lala ignored her sister’s smitten comment about the bearded American and instead answered Chao’s question about Nkedi’s profession.
‘Just because Obama came for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi,’ Chao paused to type the words, nktest, into her Sony phone. She always wondered how life had been without whatsapp.
The person on the receiving end of the ‘nktest’ was Clive, another member of the bearded club.
‘Just because Obama came and preached about entrepreneurship now everyone wants to sell stuff.’
Lala smiled, her teeth instantly leaving a patch of white on her ebony face: it occurred to her at that moment that she also wanted to jump onto the entrepreneurship bandwagon.
As if reading her mind, Chao probed further, ‘do you also want to start farming because of Barrack’s golden touch?’
The last two words reminded Lala of ‘golden touch’, a song by the British rock group Razorlight. She started humming some of its words:
I don’t give away too much; someone will need your golden touch.
If only Nkedi's touch was more golden... She thought ruefully. He is okay but.. she sighed.
The bus ground to a halt. It was time for a bathroom stop in Nakuru. Lala watched as the young lady in front of her, probably three years younger than her, Chao’s agemate, literally sprinted out of the bus. Must be the chips and sausage and chicken and kebab she had devoured even before the bus left Nairobi’s chaotic traffic jam. Her unspoken prayer was that her guardian angel would come and unclutter this jam in her life so that it could flow smoothly.
Her own life felt like that chaotic jam. An impossible-to-figure-out boyfriend who was crawling slower than a snail in advancing their relationship; a job where three newer colleagues had overtaken her within a year of their arrival, rumour had it that their promotions were horizontally powered; a lukewarm relationship with God or was it with her Anglican Church?
Thankfully, there was no jam between Nakuru and Kisumu. The two sisters slept so soundly that they missed Kericho’s tea plantations. It took a lone, stubborn fly to jolt Chao from her sleep. She in turn elbowed her sister.
‘We are almost in the land of our ancestors,’she said as her ever present phone was swiped open, and the green whattsapp button pressed. There were seventeen new messages and none of them was from a lady.
Before the bus screeched to a halt in Mumias town ten minutes later, all the messages had been replied.
This is how the air was meant to smell. Lala thinks as they alight from a boda boda, public motor-bike, into the waiting arms of uncles and aunts whose teeth are as tiny and dazzling white as theirs. The hips of the aunts are as ample as theirs. The brown eyes of the uncles as probing as theirs, it’s as if they are constantly looking for something more than what are actually seeing at that particular moment.
Their blood flows in this land of Mumias, the land of their ancestors. Not blood spilt in warfare but blood birthed in heaven.
A small vibration; the smartphone is flushed out of the dark jeans pocket and swiped. Chao’s warm smile reveals those teeth that are whiter than white and evenly arranged, as if mounting a guard of honour for Obama. He has replied. He will send the money. The fool thinks his money will finally convince her to ‘pliz just come over for dinner this Saturday. Just sent u the 5k.. enjoy babe!’
That Saturday, which is tomorrow, she will be having dinner with people who have teeth and a gaze like hers.
‘I swear to God this window has a heartbeat’ Lala said to Nduta her best friend.
The top most louvre of her window was loose, so whenever there was a soft breeze, it would click click like a heartbeat.
The window in question was the one right next to Lala’s bed. It couldn’t be seen at that late hour, because the beige curtains had already been drawn two hours earlier as soon as Lala arrived from work, weary but thrilled that it was Friday.
Sitting on the edge of the bed near the window, Nduta saw a rather chubby spider at the corner of the window and shrieked.
‘Do you wanna die girl!’ she literally dived into the bed and rolled over to the other side before jumping down and bolting out of the room.
‘I saw on National Geographic that some spiders are as poisonous as vipers!’
This was a special night. One of those sleepovers when girlfriends do nothing but talk about boys, boys and boys. For commercial breaks, they might switch to tip talk, mostly beauty tips and career growth tips.
‘He is the biggest loser on earth.’
The onions were refusing to turn golden brown. The YouTube video on her Samsung grand neo phone had just made it clear that do not, under any circumstances drop the beef slices into the onion mixture until the onions turn golden brown.
Lala was preoccupied with the onions, so she didn’t hear Nduta’s loser comment, prompting the aspiring writer to repeat louder.
‘Kama is the biggest loser in the milky way!’
Lala flashed a knowing smile, ‘we agreed about his loser status a long time ago. Tell me something I don’t know.’
‘Jana he had the nerve of asking me whether he can drop by for lunch!’
‘I thought you blocked him and deleted him?’
Nduta always had a ready answer for everything.
‘I had to unblock him when I asked him to text me instructions on how to reset my DSTV decoder.’
‘Are you sure it’s not your heart you were trying to reset into re-loving him again.’
As if in agreement, the onions finally turned golden brown with a sizzle.
Half a kilo of meat, chopped into teeny tiny slices, found its way into the golden onions. According to the video, bay leaves would be the next thing to join the beef gravy.
‘Girl,’ Lala said, her arms raised in triumph, ‘prepare to lose your Hawaiian beef virginity!’
It would indeed by Nduta’s first time to eat Hawaiian beef, though she doubted how Hawaiian the end product would be.
‘Are you sure you are not actually preparing Taita-Luhya beef and baptizing it with a fancy name?’
Lala’s mother was Taita from the rolling hills of Sagalla, her father a Luhya from the lush plains of Mumias.
‘A woman not knowing how to cook is like a man not knowing how to plant a baby seed.’ Lala’s mother had always told her two daughters since their single digit years.
The very first lesson was kimanga, that Taita mixture of cassavas, beans and vegetables. Mama Lala (Lala’s mother) usually cooked it with all her heart and soul. It was like a bridge to the great grandmother she never knew. Even the peeling of cassavas was done gingerly, tenderly, as if she was massaging the root.
The two best friends were seated on a brand new L-shape sofa. The sleepover was also doubling as a sofa-warming, as Lala had called it in her whatsapp text to Nduta a few days earlier.
The L shape had been her mother’s idea. Many things in her life, including her name, were mama’s idea.
‘This so-called Hawaiian beef is not too bad,’ Nduta was eating with a fork. One piece of meat after another found its way beyond her ebony-lipstick covered lips into her mouth.
Earlier that week, a report by Chatham House had stated that the global livestock industry produced more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars, planes, trains and ships in the world.
China, Europe, US and Brazil are the four leading beef consumers. The emissions mostly come from livestock belching and waste. An average cow releases between 70 and 120 kg of Methane every year. Just like carbon dioxide, methane is a greenhouse gas.
If Lala’s sister Chao had known these facts, she would have said in her crisp alto, ‘folks in the developed countries, who are the largest beef consumers, should eat far less meat than they currently do! Why should the world be fu***d up because of their beef greed!’
Lala and Nduta also didn’t know these beef facts as they were not particularly keen on environmental stuff. For Lala, cooking and figures were the great passion of her life. Both her figure and the mathematical figures that her profession espoused.
Nduta wasn’t really sure of her passion. Even the writing she did for an upcoming Fashion magazine was more for paying her bills. Her life’s philosophy was, ‘if it can’t give you money, it’s not worth your time.’ This philosophy was also applied zealously to men, apart from the one or two who had touched a special corner of her heart.
‘Do you think Kama will ever change?’
Because of the ex-boyfriend, she wasn’t able to finish the final four pieces of Hawaiian beef.
Not good. Not good at all. How can they treat me like I don’t matter.
We are sorry your insurance cover wasn’t approved. Why? She had demanded. Our analysis showed that because of bla bla bla..
Fools! Lala hissed aloud, startling the gentleman who was walking besides her in the same direction. She was walking past Nakumatt Lifestyle, her destination, Java Koinange. Cappuccino was her tried and tested antidote for stress. Especially the white-brown foam that formed at the top. It was heaven.
Funny how this street looks so normal and holy at this hour, she thought of Koinange street. But just after a few hours anytime from half past ten..
The white dress looked so pure on her that for a while, he forgot his evil intentions. Wow. He had slowed his Toyota Camri, the latest model. Red in colour. Actually, it was his wife’s and he had borrowed it for thet weekend because his black Range was due for servicing and he never ever drove it past the five thousand kilometre mark until it had been thoroughly serviced.
Like an alert leopard, the lady in white noticed the Toyota Camri’s slowing down and pounced at his window before he could appreciate the dazzle of her dress further. Her ears instantly picked out the gentle click that signalled unlocking of the door. She jumped in with a pure smile that somehow whitewashed their shared impure intentions. This was his drill, at least once or twice every month.
Lala didn’t witness all this because by that time, she was still in the corner table of Java Koinange. He was seated opposite her, silent like those mountain streams in her mama’s ancestral home in Sagalla. His dark face had a scowl. Or was it lust. Or maybe hunger for her pilau.
I could marry you just for your pilau he had once told her. Then repeated it again and again and again. He was generous with his complements but stingy with his cash.
Let me just sort out a project then I will sort you out before you can blink. She had blinked a million times and he still hadn’t sorted her out with the 42,000 shillings she had asked for ‘an urgent need.’
No need to go into the details of why you need the money. Her best friend Nduta had advised her.
Papa had told her that she should feel free to farm on his five acres of land that was rotting away in Mumias. He had never been much of a farmer or a country side person for that matter. From her research, 38,000 would be sufficient for all expenses needed to kickstart water melon farming on the land.
Don’t ask for exact money, Nduta had warned her.
Drop him. She had urged when his project, the one that needed sorting before she could be sorted, took a whole year. Twelve freaking months! Nduta cursed.
It’s not that Lala didn’t have her own money. Most of the nearly six-digit figure that the international auditing farm paid her every month ended up in her savings account at Family Bank.
Why Family Bank? Nkedi, the on and off boyfriend that was sitting opposite her at Java had wondered back then, shaking his head. Why not. She had retorted, suddenly losing appetite in the pilau she had just served him.
That was four years earlier when she was in the third year of her Bachelor of Commerce course at Nairobi University. His shoe business was doing poorly, that’s why he was still staying in Umoja. He had told her.
‘Let’s go babe,’ he slapped two crisp one-thousand shillings notes into the brown change and bill folder.
‘Go where?’ she felt a sharp dull pain in her lower abdomen. Oh God, please not now.
‘Do you intend to sleep here?’ He could be rude. But this arrogance is one of the things she liked about him.
‘I intend to sleep in my bed at Donholm.’
‘What’s wrong with my bed in Nairobi West?!’ There was a flash of anger in his dark brown eyes.
As she sipped the last drops of her cappuccino, Lala couldn’t have known about the study by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). According to this study, global warming and new rainfall patterns are reducing the areas that the Arabica coffee plant could be grown. Without new strategies, Brazil’s Arabica production could drop by twenty-five percent by 2050. This is because most of Brazil’s coffee is grown on plains yet a changing climate makes it necessary to plant coffee higher and higher.
‘Whatever,’ Lala said when Nkedi told her that her wasn’t sure he could drop her at Donholm. Her had an early day with a client from South Africa.
‘There are thousands of cabs in Nairobi,’ Lala stood up angrily, ‘I will take one.’
She lay still on the far left side of the 6 by 5 brown bed. Lying in a heap on the far right, the side near the bedroom’s window, was a matching brown duvet she had bought two years earlier after her small sister kept teasing her with the words, ‘who still uses a blanket!’
Lala was wearing her one-year old blue lacy nightie, the one she had bought in readiness for the guy who would be sleeping by her side occasionally before the end of that year, 2014. She had felt it in her guts, that warm January 01 morning of 2014, that this would be the year love would finally pay her a lasting visit.
Lala was 28 years old. Born on 23rd November 1987, she shared a birthday with Miley Cyrus the American pop singer/naughty girl/one-time child superstar. This was her only claim to fame, a dubious one at that, since as Chao her little sister usually told her, ‘I would rather share a birthday with Malala than Miley.’
Malala who? Lala had responded the first time Chao used this line.
‘Who doesn’t know Malala, the Pakistani girl who won the Noble Peace Prize in 2014?’ Chao shook her head in mock disgust.
When she dug up more information about Malala Yousafzai, Lala fell into depression for twenty four hours. The young Pakistani was a whole decade younger than her and she had already won the Nobel Peace Prize! What have I won in my life that is worth even a corner section mention in the middle pages of the Daily Nation, Kenya’s most popular newspaper?
When she was in class 4R of Buruburu 1 Primary School, she had shocked herself and her thrilled parents when she emerged tops in the end of term two examinations. After the August holidays, she won a tiny four-inch trophy with the inscription ‘Number 1, 4R.’
Her father, an average height, excellent brain accountant with Crown Paints, was so proud of the achievement that he bought a special stand for the trophy. For the rest of the four years that she was in primary school, the trophy stood proudly next to the 24-inch Sony television.
But this one-off victory never really made it to the pages of the Daily Nation.
Her boss, Mr Kioko, whose close friends called Kioks, was an ordinary looking man with a handsome heart. But her immediate boss whose secret nickname was Mama Nasty, was another thing altogether.
‘This report is too short!’ the 44 year old lady would sneer at Lala whenever a client’s auditing report wasn’t thick enough for her liking.
When it was deemed as too thick, the lady’s sharp voice would ring out, ‘do you think you are writing a novel!’
Come to think of it, Lala said to herself as she grabbed a piece of the duvet, thanks to the cold breeze that had begun to pour through the half-open window, landing a job at an international auditing firm was an achievement. It was her first job, secured within one year of completing her Bachelor of Commerce degree at Nairobi University. Getting that degree, upper second, almost first class, was also a big achievement. She thought indignantly as the entire duvet took its rightful place on top of her.
If only it was a guy and not a duvet, she thought wickedly as a generous blush raced across her dark face.
‘Dear heavenly Father,’ mama had prayed on the morning of the big interview with the auditing firm, ‘we commit mummy into your able Hands..’
Mama always called her mummy even in prayers. That particular prayer went on for almost ten minutes, with papa’s irregular, ‘yes Lord’ coming dutifully after every two minutes. Every ‘yes Lord’ seemed to fuel mama’s intensity. She was a prayerful woman, though Lala felt that Papa was the more God-like one. He had a handsome heart, but unlike Mr Kioko her boss, he was also, in the words of Nduta her best friend, ‘one fine brother!’
On her first day at work during the orientation of the seven people who had been employed, Lala learnt that 274 applicants had been interviewed. 53 had been shortlisted. She was among the best seven who would now receive a gross monthly salary of 82,527 shillings.
'What's the deal with the 527 shillings,' her little sister Chao had wondered, 'why not just round it off to 83,000!'
‘Surely ,’ Lala said softly, as she hugged the duvet tighter, ‘7 out of 274 deserves a mention in the Daily Nation..’
She smiled, a wide and warm smile that the three guys she had dated before claimed was straight out of heaven.
If the mosquito that was hovering patiently above her mosquito net could speak, it would have affirmed that, ‘that smile too, deserves to be in the newspaper.’
Mukuru ghetto is only a ten-minute drive away from Nairobi city center. Residents of Mukuru know that their slum dwellings call for strong wills and tough spirits. Edu had lived in this ghetto for most of the twenty years of his life. Half of this time was spent in the same single-room structure. He lived in this mud-walled, rusty tin-roof room with his father and older brother.
His ailing father was a casual laborer in a nearby factory while Nyash, his brother had just completed high school the previous year and was now looking for casual work. This was a venture akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. The closest Nyash came to finding this needle was when a local wholesale promised him a cleaning job. When Nyash showed up the following morning to inquire about the job, two people were already sweeping and scrubbing the shop’s verandah. The needle just couldn’t be found.
One morning, Nyash woke up with a throbbing headache, so he decided to go and search for aspirin. He jumped over the drench at their doorstep and almost slid on a toddler’s faeces.
“Good morning Ninja!” he shouted through the tiny window of a room that was four feet away from their room.
“Yo!” Ninja answered drowsily.
Ninja was one of Nyash’s closest friends. He never slept before three and never woke up after seven. If he wasn’t in the ramshackle one-room gym, he was in the ‘old men’s den.’
This was the nickname given to the small room that served as a bar for chang’aa, the local brew. Nyash walked up the slight incline that led to a tiny shop owned by their landlord. He wanted to get some aspirin on credit.
Nyash saw his brother Edu conversing loudly with the shopkeeper and quickened his steps. If his noisy brother was negotiating to take some item on credit, then Nyash stood no chance with his aspirins. Indeed, as soon as he arrived at the shop, Edu stretched out his hand through the counter and received a loaf of bread. Nyash overheard him promising the shopkeeper that he would pay him in the evening. So much for the aspirins, Nyash thought. His headache would have to heal naturally.
Edu grinned at his brother and shot past him. Moments later, he sauntered into their tiny room, and proclaimed proudly to his father, “I have bought some bread for you papa!”
Papa was just leaving for work. “That is good. Make sure that you share with your brother. I am late, so I have to leave now.”
With that, the frail looking man left. He hadn’t eaten dinner the previous evening as he had returned home so drunk that all he could do was to slump into his mattress on the ground and sleep. He was feeling hungry, and would have loved to stay and munch some bread but he knew that his boys could use the munch too.
Edu had dropped out of school at age thirteen, when he was in the final year of primary school. One evening, he had returned home from school and announced to his papa that he was not going back to school the following day.
“But why my son?” papa wondered.
“I just don’t like school anymore,” Edu had told him.
Counseling and threats from his father all fell on deaf ears. His mother was even summoned from upcountry to advice him but the stubborn teenager remained adamant. So for seven years, Edu just stayed at home and did everything in general but nothing in particular. It was difficult to know what he did.
“Stay away from crime if you want to outlive me,” papa always told him, to which Edu would retort that, “survival should not be mistaken for crime.”
His propensity for brawls quickly gained him a reputation as ‘Tyson.’ Papa even advised him to become a boxer, hoping that this would help to channel his pent-up energies into a constructive activity. For once, his son listened to him.
Ninja, their neighbor, was already an amateur boxer so Edu sat at his feet and began learning the art of boxing. Every morning, Edu went to the gym together with the master. This gym comprised of two skipping ropes and a suspended sack of sand. This sack served as the punching bag. Like Ninja, Edu began spending hours in this tiny, windowless room. Fighting for a better tomorrow in which he wouldn’t have to negotiate with the shopkeeper for ten minutes, to be sold a loaf of bread on credit.
She looked up at the high ceiling of her room and smiled at the chandelier. It was golden in color but wooden and shaped like a cow boy. It reminded of a recent Clint Eastwood cow boy movie. I think I need a cow boy like that. She decided.
Her hazel eyes travelled from the ceiling to the sky blue wall that was directly opposite her bed. It had two paintings. One of them was sunflowers, by Van Gogh the Dutch painter. The other one was nyumba, depicting an African hut. It was her favorite. Like a typical hut, it was grass thatched and mud-walled. But the tip of its roof spread out towards the sky, leaving a lightning, stars and rainbow in its trail.
She often thought about this painting, whether she was in the bathroom or watching Bayern Munich’s games with her father. The door of the hut in the painting was closed and she usually wondered what lay beyond the door. Were there sofa sets, like the one in their living room? Was there a television, like the one in her bedroom? Was there a fridge, like the one in the kitchen?
Who was in that hut? Were there young girls like here and what were they doing? Did they speak German and English like her or did they have their own African languages?
She wondered how it felt like to live in a grass thatched house and concluded that it must be a great experience. There was something so simple and beautiful about that hut and she wanted that something for herself. Her name was Maya.
Fifty-seven years after Rudolf Steiner breathed his last, Maya breathed her first. She was born in Oettingen in Bavaria, but grew up in Schlaitdorf a pretty little town thirty-five kilometers from Stuttgart.
Maya joined Waldorfschule, a Rudolf Steiner school that aims to develop the child’s entire personality. One evening in March 2006, Maya went back home in high spirits. Spring, her favorite season was approaching and the art teacher had given them a fabulous assignment. They were to paint a piece entitled, ‘angels.’
On arriving home, the thirteen-year-old girl immediately went to her study room and began doing the assignment.
“Mama!” she shouted as soon as paintbrush hit canvas.
“Yes darling,” Maya’s mother rushed into the study room.
“My black paint is finished, can you please buy me some more.”
“I will buy it tomorrow when I go for the weekly shopping.”
Maya’s index finger stroked her chin as she thought for a while then said with finality, “Tomorrow will be too late mama. I need the black paint now.”
Mama raised her voice. Her daughter could be too stubborn at times. “Just use the other paints that you have darling. You know that I only go for shopping once a week.”
“But I need black paint now mama. I must hand in this assignment tomorrow.”
“What is the assignment about?”
“It’s about angels. I want to draw seven angels sitting around a huge campfire, and singing Hallelujah!”
“But what do you need black paint for then?”
“I want to paint black angels.” Maya said with an intense look on her young teenage face.
She added with a sweet smile, “my angels are African angels.”
Mama was touched. So touched that she cried as she drove to the supermarket to purchase black paint for her daughter. The following day, Maya’s painting scooped a prize – a replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ painting.
In her acceptance speech, she said proudly and resolutely, “One day I will go to Africa to meet my African angels.”
P/S Most people in Africa’s 54 countries don’t live in grass-thatched houses but those that do enjoy the natural cooling systems of those houses. They remain some of the most sustainable buildings ever..