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.