Love Brewed in an African Pot

Courtesy of the old man who just wouldn’t shut and let me read my book in peace while we waited in line, a memory has been sparked that involves the 1980 film Love Brewed in an African Pot.

I must have been 4 or 5 years old. My mum was talking to a friend of hers. I don’t remember the conversation itself but I remember that my mum said something about ‘love brewed in an african pot.’

I had no idea what love was. But I definitely knew what a pot was. We had a pot. It was a red earthen vessel that my Tanzanian ayah Maria had brought back with her from Tanzania as a gift to my mum. It was used to cook special meat stew that always tasted so delicious.

So the very next afternoon, I decided to make love brewed in an African Pot. I somehow knew Maria would not give me the red earthen pot to cook with. So I waited till she went to the market, and my big brother was busy with something, then I sneaked the pot out of the kitchen, stole away behind the house, past the big tree with those huge roots and wild tendrils hanging from its branches that my other brother had told me were called thina (also a kikuyu word for trouble).

Safely hidden from the house by the tree, I lit a fire with matches, also very definitely stolen. I had with me a supply of onions and tomatoes and some oil. salt and bizari, that I intended to use just like Maria always did. Once my main set up was done, I went off in search of love, different bunches of green leaves, some purple flowers, a red one and a wild berry that my named as ndongu  when we were on a walk one day.

I cut everything up nicely, fried my onions and tomatoes, added the leaves. Then some water to make stew. I was a pro, adding salt, and the yellow spice bizari, stoking my little fire etc etc.

I was just about ready to start tasting my beautiful love brewed in an African Pot, just like Maria did while adding salt and spices,  when my brother suddenly appeared. Then calling towards the house:

“Ndio haka nimekapata.”

Maria was there before I could swallow down the fear of a spanking. Then for some yet inexplicable reason she started screaming. Then she scooped me up, examined my mouth all the while asking with her panicked cracking voice:

“Umekula? Umekula hio supu yako, mummy. Si uniambie, aki. Umekula. Woi! Tuende hospitali. Bryan! Tukimbie hospitali!”

I did eventually manage to say I hadn’t eaten my special soup yet. And once inside the house, it finally trickled into my understanding that one of the leaves I had picked from my special soup were from a datura plant. It slowly dawned on me that if I had eaten my special soup my innards would have swollen up and exploded like those of the family that used to live there there in Kangemi. They were so hungry and new in town, so they picked wild greens from the roadside and cooked them only to die explosively hours later. (Probably urban legend, but you get the point.)

A number of things changed that day. Because of my innovative interest in cooking, from then on Maria always involved me in making meals for the family. My mother brought home a book on African Botany and when we went on walks we would try to identify plants. My brother also took a special interest in telling me the many ways I could die by fire.

The one thing that really bothered me was the demise of the special African Pot. Since I had used poisonous plants in it, Maria no longer felt comfortable cooking for the family from it. I had to watch as she broke it and threw away the pieces. I remember wondering why she hadn’t used it for something else if she couldn’t use it for cooking anymore. It would have been a great flower pot, like the ones in the front of the house.

Maria distracted me from that thought by telling me it was time for my nap, which usually meant curling up in my bed with another book. I liked that a lot.

A lot later Maria laughed when I told her what I was trying to cook that day. 

“Mapenzi hayapikwi na jiko, mummy. Mapenzi ni mimi na wewe.” Never figured what that meant. Well, as an adult, I know what the well-adjusted view of love is. But sometimes, the sneaky thought that the pot was dashed to pieces creeps up on me.


But even more terrifying is the idea of innards swelling up and exploding. ( I was going to put up a photo of exploding human torso but my good sense has won over.)

Ha! Have fun psychoanalysing that one!

P. S. Speaking of love, in a non-cynical East African way, check out my editor friend Vaishnavi Ram Mohan’s new project: Drumbeats!

Earth, Leather, Body and Blood

Tierra, Cuero, Cuerpo y Sangre

The hint of red mist excited the red that flowed in his blue veins. His heart pulsed to the drums of the dark-skinned slaves carried off to the far Caribbean, lower near the coca plantations of Colombia but close enough for the philosophical reggae to show in the tum-tum-dum-dum of the Vallenato and Merengue.

She didn’t know of his heritage. All she saw was the blue in his eyes and her mind translated into hopes of green dollars, or to be more precise the red brown of Kenyan Thousand shilling notes. She was a whore like all the rest of them, pretending intellectual emancipation, calling for Africa’s freedom from old and neo colonialist alike, chanting and shouting in the streets when in truth she would betray everything she chanted and shouted for at the hint of blue-eyed enslavement. Not that she would; she had.

His blue eyes betrayed him, hiding the heritage of slave great grandmother of piel morena, passed through so many ports she was willing to forget her name for an eternity of rest. But instead she had become a free gitana; which was a slavery of sorts still, traveling, mixing black with the color of the Indios de Sud America to spread out a pretty brown. Still that abuela knew much more freedom than this whore who with just a few glasses of South African pinotage – hot and acrid – had loosened up enough to forget her chant of emancipation and to spread out for his misanthropic antipathy.

He told her he was British, that he sold helicopters, affecting a cute brit accent long enough that by the end of the night she was walking down the hallway to his hotel room. As she walked into his room, she had no knowledge of his years in the coca, hiding in the red earth, swearing, fighting and bleeding to Tierra, Justicia y Libertad. She had no knowledge of his specialty extracting truth with bindings of leather, knife and electricity watching life flow out of bodies and tasting the blood at the tip of his tongue. Everything he missed; tierra, cuero, cuerpo, sangre.

These days his name was marked by the colonialists as one of The World’s Most Wanted. Number Nine since they killed Osama Bin Laden and that other idiot. Wanted for crimes against humanity. What humanity? Stupid living dead who were only aware of their own existence, day after day, unaware that the world revolved by forces much more complicated than their existence.

Unaware. Just like this little whore was unaware that when he was done watching her gag on the leather bindings in her mouth as each jolt of electricity passed through her, the world would continue to revolve on its mysterious forces.

He had been frustrated at first, until he discovered that losing his homeland to be on the run forever was not as bad if he could get a taste of blood every once in a while. Except now it was not once in a while, it had become a long endless hunt that he only enjoyed for a few hours at a time. Still, blood and pain, in their eyes, made him want to live just one more day. So he lived, carrying names of men who lived or died.

He smiled, wondering what she thought now of his blue eyes. Spanish blue eyes, the other one had called them just four hours before he got on a plane out of Tangier, leaving her deep black Moroccan eyes lifeless in a motel room in the cold dark back streets of Tangier Medina. She had made one last ditch effort, screaming against the bloody cuerpo, spraying a heavy mix of blood and saliva into his face. He wasn’t infuriated just mildly amused, and bored. So he had pulled out the tiny knife inherited from his morena people, and with a sigh he had made a silver wave across her throat, sending a satisfying red mist into his mouth.

And he knew tomorrow, as a blue-eyed French Aristocrat, he would be hunting another pretentious whore from the equally pretentious caverns of Jo’burg. This faceless, meaningless woman in Nairobi would soon be forgotten, except for the little ball of nappy hair that would join his collection in the lining of his carry-on.

¡Adiós Nairobi!

©Juliet Maruru 2013

Words that should be invented – A little something to fix your Thursday Bleurgh

This list was borrowed from Robin’s Web where I had stopped by for a visit, and from where I had to drag myself to the nearest morgue because I fell over from my seat and iDied. Just before that I had helped myself to a bowl of Chinese Proverb Cookies.

  1. ACCORDIONATED (ah kor’ de on ay tid) adj. Being able to drive and fold a road map at the same time.
  2. AQUADEXTROUS (ak wa deks’ trus) adj. Possessing the ability to turn the bathtub faucet on and off with your toes.
  3. AQUALIBRIUM (ak wa lib’ re um) n. The point at which the stream of drinking water is at its perfect height, thus relieving the drinker from: (a) having to suck the nozzle, or (b) squirting himself in the eye.
  4. BURGACIDE (burg’ uh side) n. When a hamburger can’t take any more torture and hurls itself through the grill into the coals.
  5. BUZZACKS (buz’ acks) n. People in phone marts who walk around picking up display phones and listening for dial tones even when they know the phones are not connected.
  6. CARPERPETUATION (kar’ pur pet u a shun) n. The act, when vacuuming, of running over a string or a piece of lint at least a dozen times,reaching over and picking it up, examining it, then putting it backdown to give the vacuum one more chance.
  7. DIMP (dimp) n. A person who insults you in a cheap department store by asking, “Do you work here?”
  8. DISCONFECT (dis kon fekt’) v. To sterilize the piece of candy you dropped on the floor by blowing on it, assuming this will somehow “remove” all the germs.
  9. ECNALUBMA (ek na lub’ ma) n. A rescue vehicle which can only be seen in the rear-view mirror.
  10. EIFFELITES (eye’ ful eyetz) n. Gangly people sitting in front of you at the movies who, no matter which direction you lean in, follow suit.
  11. ELBONICS (el bon’ iks) n. The actions of two people maneuvering for one armrest in a movie theater.
  12. ELECELLERATION (el a sel er ay’ shun) n. The mistaken notion that the more you press an elevator button the faster it will arrive.
  13. FRUST (frust) n. The small line of debris that refuses to be swept onto the dust pan and keeps backing a person across the room until s/he finally decides to give up and sweep it under the rug.
  14. LACTOMANGULATION (lak to man gyu lay’ shun) n. Manhandling the “open here” spout on a milk container so badly that one has to resort to the “illegal” side.
  15. NEONPHANCY (ne on’ fan see) n. A fluorescent light bulb struggling to come to life.
  16. PEPPIER (pehp ee ay’) n. The waiter at a fancy restaurant whose sole purpose seems to be walking around asking diners if they want ground pepper.
  17. PETROPHOBIC (pet ro fob’ ik) adj. One who is embarrassed to undress in front of a household pet.
  18. PHONESIA (fo nee’ zhuh) n. The affliction of dialing a phone number and forgetting whom you were calling just as they answer.
  19. PUPKUS (pup’ kus) n. The moist residue left on a window after a dog presses its nose to it.
  20. TELECRASTINATION (tel e kras tin ay’ shun) n. The act of always letting the phone ring at least twice before you pick it up, even when you’re six inches away.

For more funny notes just like this one and better, visit Robin’s Web

Love and the Cloth – A Tentative Foray into Romance Writing

“You don’t need to believe in God, Katy. You just need to believe that He made a few good men.” That was the nonsensical argument Emily Mwero had launched 22 hours ago in a bid to get her best friend, Katherine Maraga to join her at a garden social in her neighbourhood.

“It’s not a church social.” That was the other thing Emily had said just before she pulled up the emotional blackmail that had Katherine standing at the edge of a garden tent sipping at some kind of fruit juice and planning how she was going to get away without her getaway being witnessed by her best friend.

Emily was like a hawk, she was mingling, introducing Katherine to a variety of people, male and female, and then going off to talk with other people. But she was watching every move Katherine made. She kept looking over, smiling and waving, occasionally, pointedly…

So far Katherine had met a doctor, and his doctor wife, a lawyer and his executive marketing wife, and his wife’s single brother who was in IT. The wife’s single brother (someone had emphasized on the single) was very good looking but incredibly self-absorbed and within just minutes of talking to him she had to do everything she could not to roll her eyes and walk away. Now she was just hiding behind a tent flap.

Katherine had always hated social events, especially the garden soiree variety, where the women stood around in their brightly coloured dresses and talked about their homes and kids and things, and the men stood around in their checkered shirts and khakis discussing the markets and investments and cars. She had been to several of these; it was a side effect of coming into her teenage years just as her father came into wealth via a real estate boom in the Kenyan market. They had moved to the leafy suburbs and into the garden party zone.

She had hated the upper class pretentiousness so much that as soon as she could she had moved out and away, first to the college dorms at the University of Nairobi, then to a shared 2 bedroom flat while she attended Medical Training to become a clinical officer, and then to one-room flats wherever she was sent to work as by the government programs once she qualified.

And somehow she had been unable to leave the garden soiree circle completely behind. She had dated a doctor with an amazing God-complex, Dr. Njiuri. Dr. Njiuri was a heart surgeon who had been part of a doctor’s outreach program to provide free heart surgery for patients in far rural areas. They had met when the program came into Kilifi at the same time Katherine was posted there. And then they met again when she came back to the City for a new posting, and it turned out that her teenage friend from the suburbs was dating Dr. Njiuri’s partner at a doctor’s practice.

So a teenage friendship was revived, and a new romance started, but the latter ended when Katherine found out about a string of infidelities during a three year courtship part of which she had lived with the doctor in his gated community, garden soiree type of life.

This was definitely not where she wanted to be. And with that thought, Katherine emerged from under the tent flaps decisively to tell her best friend she was leaving. She straightened her back and shoulders, took a deep breath, and walked right into a tent pin. She registered the pain in her shin as the green grass came at her fast along with the white table top that slipped off the table as she tried to steady herself, and with it glasses of juice and finger-bites.

Katherine heard the gasps, and wondered which could possibly kill her sooner; the pain in her shin and chin, or the very definite embarrassment of falling over in the clumsiest of manners. She closed her eyes for a second, trying to wish the pain away.

“Are you alright?” She heard the baritone a second before a firm hand took her arm. And then she opened her eyes and got lost in deep dark pools of concern. Oh wow, was the first thought that buzzed through her mind. He’s probably married, was the next thought, followed by a furtive and unsuccessful attempt to check his hand for a ring. God, you’re desperate! That was the thought that came before she gasped in pain again.

“Oh my God, Katy, you are bleeding!” That was Emily, now arriving in a definite panic. Kathrine was bleeding, from a cut on her shin.

“Let’s get her from under this mess.” Mr. Baritone had taken charge of things. She watched him as he helped her from amidst table cloth, broken glass and plates, and onto a chair. Then he stepped aside as Dr. Somebody looked at the cut and declared it just needed cleaning and wrapping. Then Mrs. Somebody started complaining about the garden tent people and their shoddy work.

Katherine started to feel the chagrin fade away and the throb in her leg start to set. Her chin hurt too and she must have unconsciously touched her chin because Mr. Baritone moved closer and knelt beside her.

“Did you hurt your chin, too?” His hand reached up and touched her cheek. She tried to smile but turned to look at him and found herself looking into those deep black eyes again. Wow.

“It’s nothing. Just my pride seriously dented here.”

He chuckled softly, she wondered for a moment if he was laughing at her, and then he extended his hand, “Hi, I’m Anthony Kiarie.”

“Katherine. Katherine Maraga.” She placed her hand in his, and just as she did she noticed the mud on her fingers. He did too, but he placed his other hand over her hand.

“Very sorry about your fall, but it is very nice to meet you, Katherine. I’ve heard very many good things about you.”

“Uh-, From whom?” From Emily, of course. That girl was desperate to set Katherine up with pretty much anyone she thought was mildly suitable. In the past few weeks that had been everything from an executive to a politician. Unfortunately, Emily’s idea of suitable was very far away from what Katherine was looking for.

“Why don’t we get you somewhere comfortable and the doctor will take care of those cuts? There’ll be a chance to talk.” He smiled and patted her hand gently and then Emily, Dr. Somebody and the lady hostess whose name Katherine could barely remember were helping her up and into the house.

A few minutes later, Katherine and Emily emerged from the front side of the house accompanied by their hosts. The lady was obviously a good acquaintance on Emily’s social circle. Her husband, the doctor insisted that if her tetanus shots were not up to date he would be happy to help.

“I’ve got it covered, thanks.” Katherine said politely. She was suddenly exhausted, and the predictable conversation between the two suburb wives while the doctor cleaned and elastoplasts-ed her shin had gotten to her.

“She works in the medical field.” Emily said with a smile that almost seemed ashamed. That she hadn’t identified right out what Katherine did indicated right away that she was not a doctor. Emily would have been proud announcing that her friend was a doctor, too.

“Oh, what do you do? Nurse?” Dr. Somebody asked. Katherine still did not feel motivated to ask what his name was again.

“Clinical officer.” She said it as she slid into Emily’s Harrier. She tried not to wince when the skin on her shin stretched as she did so.

Emily said her pleasantries and then got into the car. She drove out of the driveway and into the quiet two-way lane before turning to Katherine.

“What was that?”

To Be Continued. Or not…

Getting Out of my Own Way

A few weeks ago, I made a rather drastic decision. Before I actually made it, I would wake up every morning, make an attempt to do some yoga while my dog barked at my ass and think:

“This is what I have to do.”

And immediately I’d launch a barrage of arguments against my own decision. The one that stood out more than all the others was, “That’s a completely irrational option!”

So perhaps I may have tried to explain to my dog what I was thinking, and he may have given me a very judging look at which point I may have considered seeing a psychiatrist.

I realise now that my decision wasn’t so much irrational as differently rational. What precipitated my decision was a conversation with three people who are very important in my life and who understood the difficulty I was facing.

One asked: “What do you really want to do with your life?”

The other asked: “What have you done so far to achieve your lifelong dreams? And in truth, how has what you have been doing helped you actually acquire any of those dreams?”

The last guy, he just came in and said: “Juliet, just stop for the life of me, just stop getting in your own way.”

I admit I did in fact have to go and find out how I was potentially getting in my own way psychologically. To stop getting in my own way I had to recognise a few things.

1. My view of life and what is important in my life is uniquely mine because after all, only I have experienced what I have and only I have reacted to it the way I have. I can therefore not compare my life and life choices to anyone else, peer or not.

2. You can only attempt to share your dream with others. They can choose to join you and make it a part of their dream. Or they can choose to walk away from it. Some might even give the impression of accepting your dream and get halfway there and either try to change your dream to fit their own or to change your dream into theirs.

When that happens, you have two choices – you can go with the flow, or you can revert to your own dream and seek to build it to the success you envisioned it. Sometimes that means starting all over from scratch but actually doing something about it.

3. I had to change my attitude and even my own habits. I tend to over think things maybe even obsess a little. Ok. A lot. It’s just been my way of coping. I plan, organise, try to see what can go wrong or right, anticipate how to respond… That way, I feel that nothing can really surprise me. It can be a good thing, but it can also be the worst thing especially when you do not have much control over how things will be done, or even how they will turn out.

As I chart my new life, I am teaching myself to plan reasonably and then take it a little easy if things don’t turn out absolutely perfectly. I am probably still hoping for near perfection, but it is helping to acknowledge that other people can have a version of perfect and that on occasion it might be better than mine.

I am learning where using prediction reasoning is appropriate and where I have to take into account human players and other unpredictables.

4. I have learnt to respect the right people. As a young entrepreneur without a conventional degree, I may have put a very high premium on people with college degrees to help my work succeed. As a young woman in the society I may have looked up at people who seemed to have clinched the general notches in the proverbial climb up the ladder of ‘social maturity’.

In that, I have realised I made a grave mistake. What I should have been doing is listening to people who have tried, failed and tried again and succeeded. In other words people who have served on the apprenticeship of life, and have actually STUDIED to succeed.

Now, do not mistake the above to mean that all older, successful people are to be looked up to. That is not anywhere near what I am thinking of.

Someone told me, “Genius is born of courage, courage to go the other way when the masses walk down the hill, of grabbing that panga and cutting your way through the jungle. But courage of the kind that is not so arrogant that it is hubris, not so proud that it has no respect for human dignity, not so ambitious that it loses empathy.”

I am actively surrounding myself with just enough of the right kind of people to remind me what creativity and entrepreneurship mean on one hand, and to keep the values of human dignity, respect, empathy and responsibility in my sight on the other hand.

5. But more importantly I have had to accept that it does not matter what other people think, what matters is that I know, through examination and even study, that what I believe with all conviction is right and true is mine to believe and act upon. And that going against my deepest convictions will only result in the deepest inconsolable sadness.

I have a long way to go before I can get out of my own way completely. I know I might get distracted into using other people’s measuring sticks for success but I am now aware of that flaw and I can be more reasonable… when I remember.

I know that being chronically ill can add a whole new level of behavioural flaws that can become a source of confusion and distraction. I can’t even begin to lie that I know how to deal with this particular issue, when one day I can begin to hope and on the other I can find my body completely betraying me. So let’s just say it is a working progress. One day at a time. Counting every spoon of blessing…

My best friend stood over me a few weeks ago while I struggled with a bad reaction from my medication and she said, “Starting a business now wasn’t a mistake. It was a learning experience. An opportunity for the universe to remind you what feeds your creativity, and an opportunity for you to learn from the world.”

That too is a spoonful.



she sits on her high throne,

invoking spirits of the dead long gone

‘ shine me brighter, dear ghost;

ghost of the lie I want true’


she sits on her ivory throne

chanting spells and hopes and wishes

‘speak me fairer, dear ghost;

ghost of the lie I want true’


she sits on her golden throne

calling slaves of four and the blind one

‘touch me richer, dear ghost;

ghost of the lie I want true’


she sits, she chants, high on her throne

the world moves on while she sits

‘hope me more love, dear ghost;

because I know my voice rings hollow.’


she sits, she chants, high on her throne

the dead know nothing anymore

‘and yet I chant more, dear ghost;

the ghost of the lie I want true’


the ghost of this chant that rings false

Strike Out!

The street is called Mtipesa because at the head of it is an old mkanju (Cashew Nut tree) where the local drug dealers sit on truck tyre wheels half buried and cemented into the ground.

The mabeshte, as someone decided to call them, sit here all day, selling their wares quite openly, collecting cash from their customers while the police stroll by just a few meters away, aware that they will get a cut from the collection later.

I pass by the two cops; one nods imperceptibly, the other looks away. We met once, when the local prosecutor introduced me as his daughter. Well, I am a daughter from his clan. My father is his father’s mother’s cousin. Yes, that my father, the one who was absent when I was a snotty kid but now introduces me to his friends at the something to something cafe as his daughter, the writer. And I am not sure I am either. But hey, we are not talking about my father issues are we? Back to Mtipesa…

Gijo the local Crime King himself is under the mkanju chatting to his underdogs about America and Osama bin Laden. He is certain Osama is in Somalia. He notices me coming up the road, and nods in my direction. His boys all nod in a sleepy kind of way. Gijo is proud of himself. Everyone knows that you don’t run a business in Gijo’s town without paying for his protection. Mostly he would be protecting you from himself. No other gang would dare run a trail on his territory. Sometimes I think Gijo is stuck halfway between liking and disliking me.

The prosecutor managed to get him in for 18 months. He is just fresh out now. While he was in, I set up a business with a gang of boys that used to run for him. My business though unlicensed is free from drugs and hot goods. I run a team of car washers, carpet washers, housecleaners and painters. I know the people who need the services, and the people who provide the services, and I link them up. Gijo is mad because some of my boys used to be his, and because I have refused to let him use my boys to steal from my clients. And yet, he doesn’t act. One of the boys told me that he ordered them to keep away from me, not to loot or hurt me in any way. But he is running me aground anyway. He takes half of all my proceeds. I hardly have enough to plough back into the business. It is growing stale and in the spirit of Kenya, several other people have also come up with the same idea, so I am losing business to them.

Slowly, I make it past the Mti of Pesa. I am very hungry. I would buy fresh vegetables and go home to cook, but I remember that I have about one week’s worth of unwashed dishes. It has been a rough week. I miss my mother. More precisely, I miss the order and care my mother effected on my life while I was her little girl. I also hate the plot I live in. All those people who have the need to make sure I understand that if I can’t be like them, then I am not welcome. Even on a week like this one, when I leave home before dawn and come home late, there still is someone to knock at my door and pick a fight. I am seriously considering taking up a stance like Gijo’s that makes everyone afraid to meddle.

The sun is setting red against the sky. The fishermen will have a good day tomorrow. All along the dusty, sandy street, the snack vendors have set up, viazi karanga (boiled potatoes dipped in colored spiced wheat flour, served with a sauce made from coconut milk, sour ukwaju (tamarind), onions and masala), chapati, fried beans, fried fish, fried octopus, meat on skewers…I buy the viazi karanga with octopus fingers. Now you know how the love handles happened.

I am at the end of the street. I should turn the corner get into Omari’s street and the plot I live in. I pause; the video hall is always between me and the plot. It is that world I discovered and kept coming back because it amuses me and offers me a strange insight into everyone who lives here. The video hall is what once used to be a front shop, joined to another room that was used for residence. The building itself was once-upon-a-time built on a bamboo frame reinforced with white coral, red clay and a little bit of cement. The floor is not cemented, so it gets dusty inside when everyone comes in dragging on their red and blue slippers as they are likely to do. Is it me, or is that crack on the side of the building widening every day? There is a blackboard outside the front door, outlining tonight’s shows. At 7.30 pm, the news recorded from the Swahili 7.00pm news bulletin off a national broadcast station is shown on delay to allow the men to come in from the Mosque. At 8.15pm some Kung-fu Action flick. At 10.15 the UEFA Champions League.

I hear the Muezzin call and some men drift towards the mosque. Some women go in to their houses to pray. Everyone else seems to stay on the street. It is too hot inside. The children play Kati and Chenga on the sand. They have done their homework, fetched water from the well at Kombe’s place, and helped their mothers with chores. Now, their laughter rings out, sometimes interrupted by shouts of ‘dhulma’ when one of them gets sly to stay on in a round of sport. I envy them; wish I was younger, smaller….

Salma waves at me as she comes out of the Swahili house she lives in with her husband and in-laws. She is my age, 21 years old. She is very heavy with child, and has two beside her, one and a half and three. I know she has already made dinner for her husband. He must be at the mosque, a truck driver home from a long road trip. He has been very angry with Salma. She tested HIV-Positive when she went for post-natal clinic. He blames her, so do his folks. She is being brave. The clinic gave her medication and advice. She hopes this little one will be spared. The other two are HIV- Positive. Age is lining her eyes.

We go into the video hall together, to watch music videos shown just before the News. Much of the audience now is made up of kids and teenagers. They watch with wide eyed, open mouthed fascination at Beyonce whips her body around the screen, and then yell for Bongo videos instead. The video guy obliges them. He is not charging them. At 7.20, they will go out if they cannot pay the 5 shillings charged for the news. The movies are charged at 7 shillings per head, 10 shillings for soccer matches and 20 for late night porn flicks.

I share my viazi with Salma and her kids as we watch T.I.D and Mr. Nice. My mind is far away. I am juggling a business venture that is getting more demanding and less profitable, with a full time job as a sales clerk. The last time I was stretched out this thin, school suffered and I ended up talking to the prosecutor for hours as he mourned the days when young people were respectful and obedient. Now, I am trying to save up for the same education that had seemed such a bother then. University seems like a dream that is fading fast. Mum calls every week to ask me to hold on, or go home if it is too much. I haven’t told her how much it is. The only other support I had has backed out on me. Why did I think that boy would stay by my side forever? Teenage illusions! I’ll be alright, I think pushing the tears away, if I can just hold on a little longer. My throat hurts.

Everything is shadowy, motions. The audience in the hall is changing. Half the people now occupying the wooden benches have TV sets at home. The men who had either been at the mosque or sipping bitter coffee while playing Kigogo now find their places on the benches. The women who had been selling snacks come in but do not dare sit where their husbands and fathers sit. They stand at the back hushing infants and peeking out to the street to make sure that their older children are manning the snack stands and not playing. A few of the older children are in the hall. In 10 minutes, the video guy, Katana, collects 600 hundred shillings, just before the screen is occupied by one of their own.

He grew up here, played on these streets, prayed at the mosque, before he went huko Nairobi, to study, then to work at the TV station. They don’t know about the in-betweens, just that he is on TV now. He speaks Swahili they understand, tells aside jokes they laugh at, smile that smile they miss. He is kinda cute, I think, in my still teenage head. I like his voice.

The guy next to me, I think he is one of Gijo’s mabeshte, nudges me. I ignore him. He persists. He wants to make a sale. I don’t want to buy. He remembers a time when…I refuse to remember. The woman next to Salma realizes that she is sitting next to Salma, and moves with a huff. I can just barely read the words on her leso, ‘Pili pili usiyoila, yakuwashia nini.’ (Something to the effect of “Why are you bothered by matters that don’t concern you?”, but there’s some red hot pepper mentioned) She should read that to herself.  

I try to sink deeper into the bench when the shopkeeper walks into the hall. The shopkeeper is a village god.  He doubles as a credit shop, offering his wares on a credit tab to be paid at the end of the month, a bank, helping anyone out who needs urgent cash during the month to be paid when salaries come in, a hospital, advising you on what over the counter medicines are best for that pain in the calf you have, a counsellor, talking to the wives about why they shouldn’t talk back to their husbands and warning the mothers when Katana is spending too much time with Saida, and just basically being in touch with everyone on the street. I am worried because I owe Kariuki the shopkeeper 6 weeks worth of credit. It hasn’t been a very good month. I am sinking.

Salma nudges me. He is here. There is a hushed wave in the hall. Not even Gijo can rival that when he walks in. He. Everyone calls him Wanje. No one really knows where he came from. He speaks Swahili, with an accent from Dodoma. He teaches Carpentry at the boys centre at Mzambarauni. He lives in a one-room at Saidi’s house, eats at Mama Khadija’s kibanda and drinks mnazi at KwaGongo. He would be a local boy, if he wasn’t Caucasian. I am slightly curious but right now the fever is coming on fast. I hand the rest of the viazi to Salma’s oldest and stumble out of the hot humid room and its smell of dust, human, tobacco, sweat, mnazi and food.

Out on the street, which seems deserted, since everyone is in the video hall. I think they all miss the days of the village baraza. I stumble on. Omari’s street is also deserted. They are at the video hall on that street. Well, just a few are in the Pastor’s Church near the fish shop, already singing and chanting in inspired tongues.

The stars are out. One twinkles and I curse. I can hardly see, the flickering lights of the wicker lamps at the vibandas are hazing and doubling up. A slow whistle reaches my ears. I pause, and look back to the video hall. They are all there. They belong. I don’t. So where do I belong? I am so alone… Why? There are so many people here. And besides, I have never been averse to solitude. Why does it hurt so much now?!

The slow whistle reaches my ears. I pause again. The nausea rises. My throat hurts so much more. The throb in my head is getting louder. My chest is knotted up. I can’t even cry. A sound in my head forms and becomes an old rocker’s voice…

how does it feel

how does it feel

to be without a home

like a complete unknown,

like a rolling stone….

Where is home? I stumble on a rock, and fall headlong onto the ground. The bile rises and explodes out of my mouth, onto my hands and my clothes. The pain is excruciating. I want to lie down and die. There is a hand on my back. I feel it curl around me and pull me up and away from my puke. A gentle voice, in English, not in the rough Swahili that accompanies the face. I stand there, and I remember the words not too long ago, as I wept at the loss of a love, down at the creek. I hadn’t seen him come up. When I saw him, he was handing me a cigarette. I had laughed with the tears burning in my eyes. A Marlboro. All the Swahili, the rough living, and a Marlboro?

We stood there, silent, me no longer crying, and him staring out to the other side of the creek. Then when the cigarette was just a stub, he turned to me, “Can you strike out?”

I was surprised, “What?! Right across?!” I look at the other side of the creek. It looks so far away.  I have jumped off the bridge, once in the dark, but swimming across the creek would take a lot of endurance, which I was not sure I still had.

Wanje shrugs and starts kicking off clothes. I stare at him for a wide-eyed moment, then get caught up with him and start tearing off my clothes. He dives before I do and strikes out. I hear a cheer and wonder just vaguely if I had actually stripped totally naked with an audience to watch. I don’t care just now. I’ve got to get to the other end. As I bob, I see Wanje leading, his powerful arms an advantage but my determination a challenge. I am head to head with him when I hear the roar. Wanje swears and grabs me, pulling me under. I see the rogue bully shadow past us as we sink, then surface. When we come up for a breath, I think I vaguely recognize the tail of the speed boat that almost run us dead. Wanje doesn’t say a word, just strikes out again. I swim after him and minutes later, my chest burning, my body hurting, I pull out on the other side of the creek, head to head. We have a cheering audience. I am still naked. And I have to get back to the other side. Wanje is not waiting.

84.6 ft deep

84.6 ft deep

“You fight, kid. If you wait for someone to come and rescue you, it will be a long wait. Strike out!”

Now, 5 days later, I am falling, not striking out. He swears and hauls me onto his back and heads towards the Hospital near the road. He swears, I am dead weight. Fifty minutes later, just before he walks away from me at the hospital, he grabs me by the chin, “Home is where the heart is. But what if the heart does not have a home? Don’t wait for rescue, kid. Strike out!”

I pass out.

He is not there when I come back from the village. There are whispers, hints, but no one really knows. He would not have told them of his plans. He left just like he had come, silently without explaining. I am not surprised. Not really. They did not even know his name. I swam with him, and read the book with his name on the rib in the candlelight of my room. A simple name, dragging accolades behind it MMath, Msc, PhD…

I get better on Salma’s mchicha and mnavu boiled in thick coconut milk and eaten with ugali. (Steamed maize meal). I have just started getting back on my feet when she goes into labor. Her husband is away on a road trip to Kampala. Her mother and father-in-law are off to Ribe for the planting season. Only her step-mother-in-law is around to help her get to the Hospital. I trail after them, an hour later.

Zubeda, Salma’s step mom-in-law is already sweating when I get there, wiping her face on the corner of the leso she wears as an upper body veil, whispering, “Inshallah.” It is a very long wait. My voice is weak, and Zubeda has nothing to say. The nurses send us away, even as Salma screams for her mother. Her mother died when she was ten.

The walk is long and dark, back to Omari’s street. I see the house Salma lives in from behind. I don’t care to look at the video hall, though I can hear the village laugh from its modern baraza. I imagine I can hear that slow whistle. I don’t think he would come back.

In the morning, I drag myself to the hospital. Zubeda is there already. I think vaguely that she truly cares about Salma. We sit in silence, two helpless helpers. Every two minutes she raises her hennaed hand and runs it down her face before wiping it on the leso. I remember that her sister had gotten married not to long ago. Strange, that life goes on, all the while killing those that love it most.

The nurse come into the room where we wait, and calls for Mama Slam Ahmed’s relatives, sort of hesitates when Zubeda rises, then rushes forward rather awkwardly, “Mwanao mama, pole, pole…”(your child, sorry, sorry) Same hollow words, incomplete.

Somehow, I get to the nursery. I know without being told which child it is. The one, so tiny, so new. In the glass tomb, with pipes and wires around it, fighting barely.

I lean over the glass, and the nurse rushes forward with a frown. I ignore her, and whisper, “John Smith.” I name him; bless him, the lost priestess over the losing babe. He opens his eyes for just one moment. I see. Gold-Sapphire. His father’s eyes.

He won’t strike out. I will.

This piece was written in 2003 and first published on Pambazuka on 15th October 2008. This might explain certain cultural references that might seem a little outdated.