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.
“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.