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..