As he sat across me on the new brown sofa, I looked at his smile. His white, beautifully arranged dental formula gave me chills. For the first time my aunt had left me with her boyfriend. She had gone to see her friend off.
It was like leaving meat with a hungry cat. You can imagine. He had been hitting on me for several months. I felt something for him too, but I wasn’t sure what it was. My aunt had always been suspicious and often kept us on watch. Except for this Sunday afternoon.
He looked at me, rubbing his hand around the sofa he sat on. I knew he was calling me to sit beside him, but I was scared. If my aunt walked in, all hell would break loose. I played blonde, pretending not to understand his gesture.
He looked at me and his eyes were like a sharp spear deep into my heart. My heart and mind were already on that sofa, but my legs were too feeble and weak.
I smiled back, looking at the flat screen which was then showing a football match between Manchester United and Arsenal. I have never understood what really goes on in a match, but that day one would have mistaken me for a vibrant football fun.
He stood and walked across to my sofa. His cologne ran through my nostrils turning every atom of my being on .He put his on my thigh, lifting my short skirt by an inch. For a moment I was totally frozen.
I could not explain what was going through my mind. I then placed my hand on his, trying to get it off. It did not work. It felt like glue, in fact, super glue, had been applied on our hands. My hand remained on his and we looked at each other dumb founded.
“You okay?” He asked.
“Like yeah I’m okay,” I thought to myself.
Did he really expect me to be okay? He surely was testing me. I looked back at the screen, and he held my chin, turning my face towards him. We were now less than a centimeter away from each other. My eyes could only see his lips. His eyes too were looking down, not sure at what. I had lost myself.
We closed our eyes and I our foreheads with our foreheads touching each other. I could feel him breath so close to me. As his breathing came nearer and nearer, I felt his cold lips on mine. Just then, I heard the door lock open from outside.
I was not sure of which moment to freeze. The fear of my aunt catching us in action, or the amazing moment I was experiencing. But most definitely, I hoped one would last. Or not.
Once upon a time, lived a girl, in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. She had her primary contact with books when her father used to buy children books for her and her siblings. They had to read them and recite French poems. But at the age of 12, she discovered the true magic behind stories.
That night seated around imbabura, a charcoal fire, their eldest sister was cooking isombe (cassava leave stew) and ubugali (cassava paste). This was their most favorite food when their father was not home. They used to eat this food in their dad’s absence because he would never allow his beloved children to eat two cassava products, not even for a single night. He considered them very unhealthy.
That night around the blaze, cooking took hours because the young children were all ears listening to the captivating narrative of their sister. It was a story about a book called “Paris-Londres”. Unfortunately, she didn’t remember what the whole story was about, but she did remember very well the connection that started from that instant. She was in love. Instead of seeing books as an obligation to read, her conscience awakened.
That story tickled the young sister’s curiosity. The feeling was comparable to a scary route that needed street lamps. From then, the young girl was scared by the pleasure that stories could bring to her life. She slowly and fearfully started opening books; the smell of old pages was like standing alive in the middle of virgin forest. Reading was unbelievable. It was an experience sweeter than love itself.
During her adolescence, she never needed to date any boy, books were her lover. She was surprised that every single book had a uniquely different and astonishing narration. She was amazed at the same time by the human brain. How could people come up with such true, captivating and educating stories? She just bowed before that human genius. Then, she realized the power of words: the power to heal, to comfort, to care and sadly the power to hurt, to reject and to kill.
That power to kill had murdered the image of her beloved Africa and she would dedicate her words to recover that lost dignity.
So, when she was seventeen, she tried her first novel writing. She had always only written poems to her close friends. The handwritten manuscript was about a young girl “Célia”. The story took place in an unknown province of France. Célia was falling in love. The young writer was just imitating love stories that she read from so many authors including Konsalik, Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts, Johanna Lindsey, ….
As she was reading different novels, words penetrated her heart and settled at the centre of her life. They started burning her. Words were like a volcano that needed to urgently erupt and evacuate that fire from her heart. And the stories that she writes now are that magma flowing from deep inside.
Back in High school, she recalled that one condition of choosing a female friend was that she should share that passion for literature. So, during break time, the discussions were almost always around books:
- Cet auteur est cruel; J’aurais aimé que l’histoire se termine bien…That Author is cruel; I wished the story to end well…
- Je ne lirai plus Barbara Cartland, on peut deviner comment le roman se termine à la dixième page….I will never read Barbara Cartland again, you can guess how the story finished when you are at the tenth page…..
- Je ne peux pas lire les romans SOS, Dieu me punirait car ils sont plein de depravation de meours…I can’t read SOS books; God will punish me because they are full of insanities…..
- We should remove Sabrina from our reading club; she likes to borrow novels but is never willing to share. She really sucks.
Of course they were all in love with the charming eyes of Enrique Iglesias but books were at the centre of their teenage years to the detriment of physics, algebra and chemistry courses.
She also remembered to have a nkunda amahoro brand notebook where she used to write all the titles and authors as treasures to cherish.
Years after that period, she realized that manipulating words as part of storytelling can be a force to build or destroy. She embraced that consuming path that required her to empty her mind and heart. Writing enabled her to share that precious and intimate piece of her life: her thoughts.
Sharing her own thoughts seemed arrogant and daring especially when telling stories that touched on others’ lives. Although scared by that power, she knew that she had the responsibility to narrate. Every single story she narrates, leaves her terrified, naked, and vulnerable; but on the other hand, when she gets a comment from even one reader, she just feels empowered and forgets her doubts.
Beyond that simple fact of writing a story, words have been her best way of communicating, engaging and connecting with others. She feels misunderstood when people don’t share the same emotional language. Like all women, her emotions have always been affected by words; either spoken, written or sung. They have made her heart beat and cry. But when too sad or too happy, the same words bring her to her normal mood.
Words allowed her to dream, to remove skepticism and pessimism from her life. Growing up, she has seen how people use words as sharp weapons to dominate others and make them invisible by denying them the right to love and to belong.
Words helped her to escape from the dark thoughts that the future brings, and if her future life falls, if her marriage fails, if her whole world ever collapse, words will be her everlasting companion, her most faithful lover and her genuine friend. She will only feel lost if she ever has to lose that intimate toucher (touch) with words.
That girl is me and this is my love story with words.
“In a meeting. Will talk to you later.”
This was a response text to a stranger. A stranger who felt she had something deep inside, but did not know where and how to start. A stranger who was having a tag of war between herself and her dreams. That stranger was me.
Being always outstanding in primary and high school, it was difficult for me to adapt to campus. This is because everyone was outstanding, mostly for the wrong reasons. I on the other hand wasn’t sure which birds to flock with. I felt the urge to flock with more experienced birds that would protect me from hungry hawks.
One hot afternoon as I sat on the partly cemented verandah outside our home in Nyeri, I dived into the deep end of my thoughts. From a distance, I could hear Loise Kim, a vernacular gospel musician singing a talent song.
“You will give back your talent and prove that you put it to work,” Loise sang.
I felt awakened. I loved writing. But to my judgment, I wasn’t squeezing enough out of this. Immediately I got into the net with my now ‘dead’ Samsung galaxy mini, not to mention it was a China model. I was searching for the pronounced conservationists in Kenya. Why conservationists?
I was in my first year in Karatina University, doing a degree in Environmental Studies, but that was just not enough. There was a void; an empty void that needed to be filled. I needed to blend my studies with something beautiful.
David Bwakali of Environmental Africa was the first person my search landed me on. I went through his profile as well as the Environmental Africa website. This is what I have been looking for. A website full of amazing environment-based articles. This was it!
Since primary school, I was always the best composition writer. (Not to blow my trumpet). I always found myself writing, writing and writing. I never had any topics in mind, but I kept a diary in which I did all the writing. This was how I emptied my thoughts, worries and joys. It was always a great satisfaction.
Back to Environmental Africa. The first thing that caught my eye on this website was a photo of Prof Wangari Maathai, under a topic, Sustainability Stars. My heart throbbed. I love Wangari. She gives me a reason to wake up each morning and leave a legacy. Like her, I wanted to live a conservation legacy that would outlive me for a long, long time. Later on when I attended the beatification ceremony of Sister Irene, the exceptional Italian sister who devoted her life to service, I was also inspired to commit myself to both writing and conservation with utter passion.
When I first came across the Environmental Africa website, I scrutinized it to the last word. At the bottom of the site was a phone number. I wished and hoped this was David’s number. Just when I wrote it down, I received an SMS from Safaricom…
“Your data bundle is below 2.00 MB…” Often when I see this message, my heart crushes because it simply means another credit hustle. But my heart was beating excitedly as I finally had a lead to someone whom I was almost sure was the one I had been looking for.
I immediately loaned some Kshs 5 bundles from Safaricom, just to send a Whatsapp message to this number.
“Hallo Mr. Bwakali…” I texted, hoping against hope that it was indeed his number. (I later on realized he dislikes the ‘Mr’, so Bwak works for me). I couldn’t imagine if I had called a lady Bwakali She would probably have texted back ruthlessly then blocked my number. You know how ladies are…
My first message went unreplied, but the double ticks were evidence that the receiver had read my message. Ambitiously, I texted again introducing myself and saying many other things, wondering if he cared to know. I was hoping to get into the right side of his nerves.
After a while, I got a reply. It was David! I’ve always had a stereotype that most high profile people hardly reply to strangers. But he proved me wrong. He was in a meeting, but got back to me later on.
After some time of knowing each other and proving I was no hoax, we got down to business. Through David, I got to resurrect my writing spirit and merged it with my passion for conservation. Just like him. I am probably at the ‘Bwakali Junior’ stage. Striving each day to be more like him.
Through David’s mentorship, I got to coordinate a ‘Rivers of Love Campaign’ which involved so much creative writing, sharing river stories with students all over the country. Environmental Africa as well has become a home for me. A platform I will forever be grateful for.
Each day I write a new article, it feels like a new experience of writing and growth. Though at times it’s hard to strike a balance between my books and my magic pen, there’s always a way where a will exists.
As I sat there on the woolen mat with her, I gazed deeply into her eyes. I liked them. But I wondered what exactly it was that I liked about them. I have always wondered what people mean when they profess to like someone’s eyes. For me, eyes have a je ne sais quoi quality about them. I can’t exactly place my finger on the physical attribute that draws me to eyes.
Like most African eyes, hers were brown. They seemed deep. It was as if there was a deep, deep passage inside them and what I was seeing was merely the doorway. ‘I like your eyes,’ I told her unconvincingly, prompting her to smile in an equally unconvincing manner.
‘I just talked with your father and he told me to take good care of you.’ I said this seriously, without blinking an eyelid.’ She smiled, a bit more convincingly, probably wondering how I jumped from one topic to another without warning!
She was an interesting girl. Tall, slender and lively. Her oval face was pretty and her long legs were pleasant to behold. I beheld them rather surreptitiously as I commented on her lips, ‘your lips are like the tiny morning clouds that gently drift towards the rising sun.’ She laughed. My poetic observations to damsels often prompted a similar kind of blushing, yer-right laughter. It was as if they welcomed my observations even as they dismissed them.
As I sat next to her on the woolen mat, I found myself reaching out to stroke her braids. She gently brushed aside my hand after a while, as my strokes tickled her. I moved my hand from the head to her stomach. ‘It is out of bounds,’ she said with a smile. I replied with a grin, ‘so which part is not out of bounds?’
Even as I asked the question, I found myself wondering if men were forever doomed to intense exploratory tendencies whenever they were in the company of women and romance was in the air. And what about women, I wondered. Do they all have the innate ability of brushing off a stray hand without turning off a thrilled heart?
Six hours. This is the time that I spent with her. Six hours of small, yet big talk that oozed with teases, laughter, restraint and hesitant exploration. It really was like two kids playing around and having a good time. More verbal than physical, even as intensity hang in the air. After she left, I pressed the rewind button in my mind and gazed again at the six hours. I should have done more, I felt. Or maybe not. It was a stalemate.
She lay on her bed recapping the sweet whispers and romances she had enjoyed a month ago. She couldn't stop thinking of the light touch of his skin against hers. This brought a mixture of emotions. She massaged her belly in a perplexed web of confusion.
It was a new month. May. She had missed her last period. Her periods always brought her misery. She'd coil herself on the floor, wake up in the middle of the night to boil some water, skip classes and well, everything that comes with period cramps. April was a painless month.
She phoned and texted her lover every minute she got hold of her phone. He remained calm, almost certain there was no cause of alarm. This would get into her nerves. She felt like he was enjoying every bit of it. Anyway, he wouldn't have to carry a lovechild for nine months, bearing the shame and the short lived campus dreams, she thought.
It was those times when everything would signify pregnancy. A lecturer would come to class and spend more than ten minutes advising on pregnancy, she would walk in town and come across more than five expectant women in a day... I mean, everything was getting pregnancy into her head!
She would constantly fish in the internet, searching for the early signs of pregnancy. Every time she washed her clothes, she'd end up with a back ache. That was a first sign. She'd also have cravings for foods (like fries) which she had never been a fan of. This made her get ‘love handles' which to her, her belly was growing bigger.
She'd thought of testing, but did not know how she would react if the results came out positive. She decided to wait a little bit longer. She would constantly dial her mother's number desperately searching for someone to talk to. But her guts wouldn't let her. She couldn't imagine the stress she'd instill in her. She therefore kept to herself and of course, her seemingly less concerned lover.
She had started contemplating abortion. But again, her mother gave birth to her when she was almost her age, so she had no right. The famous Sauti Sol's hit 'Nerea' would also play in her mind repeatedly. In the song, Kenya’s hottest boy band pleads with a girlfriend known as Nerea not to abort, since the baby would be well taken care of.
She was also almost certain her lover would support her, but still she was afraid. She'd recall the many 'dead beat' fathers out there and her bubble would burst.
It was mid May and still she'd seen nothing close to her periods. Not even the sharp ovulation pains she often felt. She was now almost cock sure she was expectant. She started saying it jokingly to her classmates, just to see the reaction if indeed it was true.
“No way. You are too responsible for that,” they would say.
“Of course am kidding,” she would counter, guilt written all over her face.
One hot afternoon as she was lying on the green grass of the campus field, she felt a sharp pain run across her abdomen. She ignored it at first. After some minutes the pain came back even sharper. It was more like the cramps pain. She had almost forgotten how the pain felt like.
She jumped to her feet and rushed to the washroom, hoping against all hope that it was what she thought it was.
Never had she been so happy to feel those sharp cramps pains, because they signified that she wouldn’t be in Nerea’s shoes after all.
Mingling with the morning breeze, is the smell of sweet victory, driving away all defeat and despair in my weary soul.
These were the opening words of ‘Sweet Victory’ my first novel, written over three months when I was nineteen years old. I conceived the idea in the washrooms of Kiwi Factory in Baba Dogo, off Outering Road and near Thika Road.
My hands were sweaty because of the heavy plastic gloves that I was wearing. They were clasping an equally heavy brush with which I was scrubbing the toilet floor.
I was postponing cleaning the five toilets and was spending too much time in the urinal section. It was my second week of casual work at the factory and I had been assigned to clean the toilets. With casual work, you did whatever the foreman told you to do on any given day. That Monday, he had told me with a smile to that my work for the week would be to clean toilets.
What! I thought in disbelief. I John Bwakali (back then I rarely used David) would be cleaning toilets! Someone who was always top three in primary school and top ten in recently concluded secondary school was now expected to wash toilets! You must be kidding.
But Njoroge, as the foreman was known wasn’t kidding. He even had the courtesy of fetching the black heavy gloves and a similarly black bucket for me. The colour of the cleaning equipment captured my moods perfectly.
And so there I was, cleaning the men’s toilets of Kiwi factory. Every once in a while fellow casual labourers would walk in to relieve themselves and look at me as with pity as if they were managers wouldn’t be earning the KES 105 (almost two USD at the time) that casual labourers were paid at the end of each day.
When the actual managers did come to the washrooms, with their navy blue suits and clean haircuts, they would barely glance at me. I don’t think they even noticed that a fellow human being was in the room, cleaning up their mess. One of them hurriedly entered one of the five toilets and banged the door. The explosions that followed must have been the result of a weekend full of nyama choma (roast meat) and beer. When I gathered all my courage and entered that particular toilet half an hour later, I almost fainted out of despair. Although he had flashed, his weekend exploits had refused to depart gracefully from the toilet bowl. I was about to walk away in defiance when God spoke to me through the manager’s sheet.
It doesn’t matter that he earns one hundred times what you earn. If he can’t clean his own sheet, then his life must be full of other sheet that needs cleaning. So in that regard, you are much better off. Take heart. You are both human beings and if you fancy it, one day you can be a manager. His manager.
These words didn’t come from a trumpet in the skies but they just appeared gently in my mind. I smiled as two additional words appeared – sweet victory.
I decided there and then that I would write a book whose title would be ‘sweet victory.’ The book would be about the unlikely triumph of a young man when faced by the seemingly unbeatable challenges of life.
Later that evening, Papa bought for me two 36-page exercise books. I sat down on the coffee table of our humble one-room Umoja house and began writing my first novel.
Thus began my love affair with writing.
They say that helping someone who doesn’t have much does not mean that you have much yourself; but you know what it feels like not having much.
Growing up we never had much materially, but we were overwhelmed with love and happiness and hearty guffaws would often be heard from our humble 2 roomed house in Nairobi’s sprawling Umoja estate. This would be after the staple, almost always daily, meal of Sima (maize flour porridge thickened to a solid state) and Sukuma (leafy green kales). When our eldest brother started working, he would supplement my father’s meagre income and with that came a slight change in our diet. And that is when my love affair with Mr. Culinary was awoken!
24th of every month would come and hooray! Payday for the home (my elder brother’s pay day). He would call me through the neighbours’s cell phone because that was the only cellphone in the neighbourhood and instruct me on how much he could spare for a ‘special supper’. Off I would hop into a matatu (public minivan) and head to the central business district where he worked to pick the ‘allowance’ for special supper. On a good day it would be Ksh. 100 (almost $2at the time) and on a great day it would be Ksh. 200!
Mike, the local green grocer, would the obvious first stop. And for a much welcome change from the usual daily green kales, I would dash for the white cabbage. Some carrots and spring onions for colour and a handful of potatoes plus tomatoes and mixed spices from the local shop and I would be good to go. On the days when the ‘special supper allowance’ would be more, I would get half a kg of lean beef from Kinyua, the ever smiling butcher, with instructions to chop it into the tiniest pieces he could.
And the fun would begin!
With my immediate younger sister, Gish, away in boarding school, Cathy, our last born sister, would be the ‘mtu wa mkono’ ( kitchen help). I would realize that there was barely 10 ml of oil in the kitchen and so would make sure that I seal the ‘tiny winy’ pieces of meat before simmering to save on the oil.
Cathy would marinate the beef for half an hour with salt and garlic and a bit of pepper because my youngest bro Jimmy would sulk the week away if any meal was anything hotter than slightly mild.
Cathy would then place the beef on the cement floor in a clay container in the coolest part of the house that she could find because we did not (indeed could not even imagine) have a refrigerator. In the meantime, we would do the mise en place and peel and chop the potatoes, finely chop the coriander, tomatoes and spring onions (in Kenya, spring onions are cheaper)
With the beef marinated, we would proceed to prepare a tongue scalding meal of beef, potato and white cabbage stew dotted with spring onions and coriander and to-die-for chapatis. Indeed as my eldest brother Hanns would say, the best part would be just before we indulged!
And thus began my love affair with Mr. Culinary. This affair was honed and polished at Utalii College where I later spent four years studying Hotel Management. My husband is fully aware of this affair and he celebrates it every day whenever I place a sizzling meal before him after a hard day’s work.