Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Best Foot Forward

Every family has its unique traditions. Maybe lunch every Sunday afternoon or a get together every once a year. They are grounded on events, like birthdays, weddings and even funerals. My family's most profound tradition is grounded on the New Year. Precisely the New Year’s Eve which was started years ago by dad. Yes, family traditions are started by someone and dare I say ended by someone too and for the longest time, this has been a mandatory time for every Muthama to be home.

During the good old days my mother would bake cake that we munched as we sat around a jiko in one of the rooms. This would normally be after some serious nyama choma devouring, courtesy of my brother's phenomenal skills. Then as the heat in the jiko radiated to our bodies we would have a family meeting where dad- main speaker of the event would caution anyone who seemed not serious with life. Anyone who exuded the following- bad grades, bad company, disrespect and all the nasty things that comes with being a teenager. He would also throw in some encouraging words in between. Over time the routine has become quite boring and being around the people I love has been the silver lining, the same goes for my brother and two sisters.

At some point we were so fed up with routine that we protested it and suggested that our parents organize a family holiday. This was when we were old enough to read on newspapers and see on TV that families went on vacations. We mapped out a mass action of four against two and our main strategy was to speak ill of what we did on the eve of New Year, making sure that one of our parents heard us and threaten never to partake in it. I can't remember who was the architect of the cockamamie idea but am pretty sure it was neither my big sister nor me. With a lion for a father and a iron Lady for a mother, our idea was doomed from the onset. The grievance got their attention and they did exactly as they had done when they promised to allow my sister and I to chemically straighten out hair when we were 13, or when everyone in the estate had a bicycle and they promised us ours, or when they promised us new clothes in the 2005 Christmas- they did nothing. Absolutely nothing to achieve our desired results. Any follow up questions were met with quick lucid answers designed to put the listener in his or her place; "mtalipiwa holiday ama school fees?" Who would dare ask a second after such an answer? No one! Lest you were labeled a joker who was not serious with academics, an offense that was punishable by whacking and mental torment by words. You would be sitted, doing nothing, just breathing in and out and from no where either mum or dad would say- "unakaa tu hapa ukipumua badala ya kuchukua vitabu usome?" This would be followed by a tirade of how bad your grades were and how much you were filling your head with frivolous wants instead of books. Sooner rather than later, we realized no holiday was manifesting, all our defiance strategy did for us was provide a Lee way for mental teasing and made us stick in books (which were more boring than the routine tradition). So we held our peace, forever.

Time has without a doubt done quite a number on our tradition- may be when things refuse to work out sometimes it's good to leave it to Mr. Time! For example mom doesn't bake anymore, not on New Year’s Eve not ever. She just stopped doing it and none of her daughters picked up the skill. So home baked cake on New Year’s Eve is a distinct distant memory.

Needless to say, all my new year celebrations have been pretty much been the same. But as I have grown older, I've come to appreciate more being around my family that time of the year. It has become a reflective time, one worth being grateful for and I always look forward to it. Our tradition hasn't changed much, we have just grown up and grasped that life is so much more than material stuff and doing what your neighbour is doing.

2016 was quite a year for my family, it unveiled dark surprises that none of us expected. In January my dad fell sick and was admitted for two weeks. You know I never thought ulcers could bed rid anyone especially my dad; and it was not until he was sick that we realized how much we relied on him for support. It was real agony as the shoulder we were sure of leaning on now needed us. My dad himself was devastated, we could tell he hated that the tables had turned. He believed we should rely on him and not the other way around. I remember every time we went to visit him, none of us wanted to leave him behind. We wanted him to be home where he belonged. For days we woke up to a nightmare and went to bed afraid. It seemed like the agony would be endless and makes it the most trying time of my year. Finally though he was discharged, we all sighed relief and hoped and prayed that nothing of that nature would befall us. Then in August we revisited the script as my big sister went down with tuberculosis. There are times when a human being starts to think that somehow fate has conspired against them and this was ours. Having an ailing family member is one of the hardest things to have to go through in life and it's harder when that member has already been to the rock bottom and back. My sister in the preceding days had taken enough punches from life and we all couldn't make head or tail of why one human being would go through so much. So we did what we do best as the Muthama’s, despite the distance between us, we formed a little circle with our hearts and prayed and kept each other warmed and encouraged. And good God never abandoned us.

2016 was also the year I didn't have a source of income but later in the year I got a hustle that turned my time up side down. Before starting it, I consciously organized my time so I would have some to do writing. Who said that having an 8- 5Pm job and being a writer at the same time is easy? Because it's not. I was fine squeezing few hours early morning and late evening to bang copy. After two months of a crazy ass schedule I was burnt down and fatigued, I thought too much and slept too little- a bad combination for creativity. In the third month, I would stare at the laptop and words would disappear in the intricate networks of my brain. One minute I would create a story in my mind, words choking me up, eager to be put on paper and in the next, I would be blank unable to move past the first line. I could barely write and the struggle stifled me off any happiness. I quickly become the writer who never writes. The writer who was only one on her Twitter and Instagram bio. Thoughts of how much I was failing in life tormented me like a vindictive ghost. I became angry like a jilted lover who stared through the cracks of a wall watching his only love locked in another man's arms. This man telling her the things he believed only he would tell her. Doing to her things that he jealously wanted to be the only one doing to her. Words became elusive.
I was sad and moody most times. I had looked forward to getting a job, but I never anticipated it would rob me of the very thing that made me, me! So when the end of 2016 drew near, I knew I needed more than ever to take some time out and figure things out. So I took an early leave and booked one way ticket to Yatta where I would get tranquil times to put my creative house in order. And boy! They were really tranquil. I spent much of my time either walking around our farm or under a huge mango tree; where i would read, write, think and munch some raw mangoes dipped in salt. It was so peaceful; the only noise I heard was of crickets or grass clapping their strands.

When change happens sometimes it's so subtle and others very loud. On the eve of 2017, my brother was out in one of our cousin's home who had become a father. He was there to say congratulations. The main man who made nyama choma happen was therefore nowhere in sight! I was tucked in my blankets going through my new plan to keep me sane in 2017.  My big sister was nursing a terrible cold and my twin sister was in bed thinking about God knows what and texting God knows who. My parents were in their bedroom listening to brief tales from their two grandkids and were soon left to themselves when the two musketeers fell asleep. Dinner had been served so early and once we ate, there was no much reason to stay up. And just like that a tradition was broken. In the quiet wee hours of the night, a decade old tradition was altered.

I have come to learn that sometimes things break so they can become better. That what might look like the end is actually a fresh beginning. This lesson was revisited on the 2nd of January. Seems like my parents had ideas about making a little changes to our tradition, it was their idea so implementation was not a problem. That morning, on the 2nd they informed us we would have our sit-down over lunch. Everyone was allocated a role to play. I worked on- kachumbari and fried meat. The main nyama choma guy did his thing. My two sisters worked on rice and few other things. By 11:30am we were sitted around a table under a tree doing what we did every once a year. Soon thereafter we had our meeting. Dad as usual made the first remarks, followed by mum then the rest of us beginning with the one who left our mother's womb first. The table was filled with so much hope like I had never seen before. It wasn't just my dad that talked much, everyone did. 2016 had been in so many ways a hard nut to crack, our hearts had been burdened but the inspiration that sprung from our conversation was enough to heal and restore hope. We were all very grateful to God for healing when there was sickness. For hope when there was despair. In short, I think at the end of the day we kept our tradition but in a refreshed way.

What happened that day was exactly what I needed to oil up my wheels as I give everything another shot this year. Everyone in my family was rejuvenated and that's what families should do for each other. We all are already taking advantage of the hope that lingers every New Year.

Do you know January was named after the Roman god Janus? Janus had two faces so that he could look ahead toward the future and back at the past at the same time. As we get rid of an old year and look forward to a new one, we all try to be a little like Janus. We look at the things we did wrong in the past and with the help of some resolutions work towards doing it again and doing it better.

I love stories of second, third and even fourth shots. Stories of hope where the starring stumbles but picks him/ herself up, dusts off and takes aim.
In 2016 I watched a mother stand by the coffin of her 17 year old daughter eyes dry but words drenched with emotions, she said "I thank God for giving me time to love and be with my daughter and now He has taken her and I say thank you because I know He has given her eternal peace."
I cried myself silly that moment, one because I was saying goodbye to my niece and two because I was just struck by the courage and confidence her mother (my cousin) exuded. Yes she had a lot of questions for God. She didn't fathom why he took away her daughter so young. But in between she found courage to utter the word 'grateful’. It was a quiet moment that no words can articulate with precision. I was touched. I never even imagined such kind of courage existed.
Still in 2016 I met a girl who pretty much worked to put herself through primary school in one of the local schools. She is one of seven kids raised by a single mum. When I met her she had accrued 1,200 shillings and spent 1,100 to clear fee balance to get her results and ready herself for high school. But getting ready for high school also meant she needed to work more at least to get started well. She scored 348 marks despite working against all odds and received a calling letter from one of the national schools. But she is headed to the local secondary school, one of the ones we bundle up in the CDF schools cluster; because that's what she can afford. Such odds you would think would dull her shine. But allow me to tell that she is the brightest light I have met in a long time. She boasts of her intelligence and believes she will make something out of her life. Something that will change her story.

These stories touched my heart and reminded me that good can bud after breakage. I can't even imagine what my cousin's year will be like without her first born daughter. But it counts that she is putting her courageous foot forward. She needs it and her three other daughters need it more.
And this girl that I met, my mum told me she has already shopped for a few school items and is ready for school.

And this is my wish for you. That in 2017 despite your loss and failures in 2016 you will somehow dig dip and find strength to put your best foot forward one more time. Not forgetting that as is ordinary about life you will face challenges, we all will. We’ve got God and then there is also that inner strength and will that we have muscled through hard times. So we’ll be alright.

Happy New Year 

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Defiant Hope

Students-Mbeetwani Primary School with Rick Kiilu

I could write about the fact that I was 2hrs early for my journey to Mtito Andei, I’m a time freak and being extremely early for things is kind of in my DNA. I could also tell you about how scared I was while waiting for my ride in Cabanas as darkness eclipsed everything compelling me to make quiet prayers. I could go on and on about my journey, tell you about spicy meat ate. I could write empathetic paragraphs about the guys who sell groceries by the roadside, & how much it's hard to differentiate hardworking Kenyans from those who want a cover story to rob unsuspecting passengers under the gaze of the constellations. I could even write about intriguing discussions I had with one of my travel companions on data or even tell you of how we taught an American to eat ugali. I could write about this, and create 4,000 words maybe even 5,000. But all that would be banal and most importantly it would be an incomplete account of my experience in Mtito Andei. Most of all it would be void of the subtle inspiration the place oozes in. So I won’t dwell on that.


In October 2016, Lumen (an organization with a simple yet profound mantra- Creating opportunity where there's talent) contacted Computers for SchoolsKenya seeking a partnership in an ICT for education project. The project they explained would aim to teach kids in remote areas to use computers. The kids would then use the knowledge and technology to tell their stories; stories that would paint a picture of their view of everyday experiences and dreams for themselves and their homeland. For the pilot study they would head down to a school in Mtito Andei. And they chose it for one simple reason, Rick one of Lumen’s partners is an alumni and understands it best.

Rick’s story from Mtito Andei to Nairobi then to a change trailblazer is typically a grass to grace one. Just like many other young men in Mtito Andei, after completing secondary school curriculum he headed to the city to scrounge for a living; first for his family then for himself. For many young men there, higher education is a luxury due to among other reasons high cost. Some in fact have to assume the role of the bread winner after primary school and the city under the sun is always a preferred destination for job hunting. In a brutally competitive city and with little education, life for Rick slowly turned into a nightmare of sorts. A nightmare that he had to trudge through to continue providing for his family, this anyway was less worse than the destitution he had left back home. After working for years in various informal sectors including a security guard in a car park; his persistence and patience paid off and he ended up working as a receptionist in a flamboyant city hotel. And that's when his journey in social change begun, with supporting book drives in public schools in Kibera. An opportunity to empower his village surfaced when he met Lumen. And this is where the story of defiant hope begins...

When Lumen told us that the project would include encouraging the kids to write their stories, they immediately struck a chord. I know how powerful storytelling can be, both for the writer and reader. You see words are emotions put down on paper. Thoughts transformed into words by emotions can make enormous difference, for the writer and reader. They can cut like a dagger and heal at the same time. They can inspire and rumble up hibernating dreams. Words can have profound impact. I know this because, before I was born, conflict was already brewing among members of my extended family, and I was born at a time when the conflict was at its peak. My family got most blows because it was an us against them kind of situation. As I grew up I experienced and witnessed adult cruelty and meanness, but was oblivious of the damage it caused in my heart. Didn't even notice the chronic emotional wounds and indelible scars the burdens left. But that was until I met words, it was until I picked a pen and put down words on a piece of paper; honest words on how I felt. Words helped me to light and clean corners of my heart that were clogged with low self-esteem and sadness and gradually filled them with hope. Day in day out i wrote down words I could not tell anyone, and there i fell in love with words. Every time I read those old words, I’m reminded of the lessons I learned many years ago; that the right words at the right moment in the right order is all that is needed steer a human being forward. Over the years I have had the incredible opportunity to write my story, this is one the things I'm most appreciative for in my life. Even when the walls of my hopes and dreams threaten to cave in, I find immeasurable solace in the grace to put down words.

So now it shouldn't come as a surprise, when I tell you that when Lumen told us they wanted to teach kids in Mtito Andei to use a computer and in the process encourage them to write their stories; they made an impression. The thought of little men and women using their own words to write about their lives gave me goose bumps and I couldn't wait to see the execution of the program.

Lumen worked endlessly to put a team together, each bringing something peculiar and important to the table; there were the IT guys, the data guys and the photography bigwigs. And after weeks of organisation the classes in Mbeetwani primary school in Mtito Andei began.

There is Mtito Andei that you all see on a road trip to Mombasa, and there is the other that is 15 Kilometers from the highway. To get there you have to drive through paths that meander and you end up driving past the same spot twice. It's tempting to think your mind is playing tricks on you but that's just how it is. The SGR cuts through the community, but somehow leaves it unruffled, at least until now.

You drive on past quiet homes, concealed by bushes and vegetation sprouting from the ground. If you look keenly & listen carefully you will see and hear their fear of never growing to maturity due to water insufficiency. If you touch the ground and pick up some soil, you will see dying grass. Grass that has been broken by tough seasons. Season in and out they try and season in & out the rains let them down. The people share in the uncertainty of the plants, but perhaps they have a better understanding of why?

Then there are the students. The ones we met in Mbeetwani primary whose spirit by the way resonates with most if not all children there. Early in the morning as the sun peeps on the horizon, they bustle along beaten paths, paths that somehow tell a subtle tale of the tens of Kilometers they have to walk or cycle to get to school. All these with their dreams tightly clasped on their hands.

The school has few classrooms and only the staff room has the luxury of having a door, the irony that where there should be a window is just a big hollow is not lost on me. The mud walls are decorated with diagrams of; the human digestive system, the solar system and a host of other educative illustrations. The iron sheets have been eaten away by rust leaving  holes that gaze on the occupants of the class.

From a distance the state seems destitute. As a visitor you might think that this is one of the sorry third world stories. You will go there assuming that you will meet people beat down by the stark odds and you will quickly be proved wrong. The children in the school are an embodiment of determination. When you walk into the class they will be in groups mostly discussing home affairs like; what did you eat last night, did you finish the homework, what time did you get home when you left the river, how was the class yesterday…. There is no room for discussion about why Carlos Eduardo refuses to fall in love with Maria Clara. They meet visitors with unforgettable confidence. So they will throw questions at you. If you are lucky you will get an opportunity to ask some. If you ask one of the girl's her dream, she will hesitate a little, then give you a confident stare you will never forget, “I want to be a lawyer” she will tell you. If you ask each of them the same question, then you will understand like I did that their’s is not a sorry third world story. It's is a story of defiant hope, hope that knows no limits. It's a story if beating odds every day. And it's a story of young men and women who don't feel sorry for themselves, all they need is opportunity. And that is what Lumen was there to do: 'create opportunity where there is talent’ and I (representing Computers for Schools Kenya) was so honoured to be part of.
Students- Mbeetwani Primary school with two of their teachers (farthest left and farthest right) and Elizabeth

For children who this was there first time to see and interact with a computer, I will tell you for free that they are incredibly smart students no wonder they have well laid plans to change their lives. The stories they wrote (or should I say typed down), showed me that they know their village still has so much ground to cover. They know they need electricity to help with lighting as they do their homework. They know they need reliable easy to access sources of water. They know where the problem is and they have ideas on how to solve these problems. If you ask me, that is the greatest gift a generation can have- 'an understanding of their story’ and that is how change is ignited. If and when there will be change here, they will be the trailblazers.

One of the greatest feeling in the world for me is when I find inspiration in a place I least expected. And this is what happened to me during my trip. I was inspired in uncountable ways and reminded of the need to be hopeful. I needed that reminder, because now more than ever we need more hope. Hope that even if the darkest night seems longer than ever, the morning will come. We need hope in the world and we need it as a nation.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Secrets of the Night [Part 2]

A bulb hanging from the roof sheds sharp light across the room, highlighting the neatly spread bed, the well arranged clothes in the open closets and a blue baby court. Soft jazz plays from a radio on one of the tables in the room; the serenading music dissolves in the space forming perfect collage with everything in the room. On the wall opposite the closet and the one on the left side of the bed, hangs two exquisite paintings brought from Malaysia. There is also a nice scent that oscillates in the room, thanks to the air freshener fit on the wall. Everything in the room is an impression of the fecundity of the individual who did the interior décor; it’s nearly the perfect bedroom, an acme of order and beauty.

Sindi is standing beside the bed, leaning over to a toddler whom she is literally wrestling with to tie a diaper. She chuckles as she corners him and ties it (the diaper). The toddler is her son and his hate for dressing cracks her ribs. Every time he is being dressed, he makes sounds, clearly protesting wearing any clothes. But he can’t have it his way. It’s mid July, and the cold air is taunting. The trees outside are clapping their leaves and branches as though also complaining about the unforgiving cold July breeze, so Sindi must dress this little man warmly. When she’s done dressing him, she holds him in such a way that his head lies peacefully on her left arm as he enjoys the warm breast milk. Soon he starts closing his little cute eyes and Sindi sings him a lullaby-(row row, row your boat, row row, row your boat, gently down the stream, gently down the stream, Merrily Merrily Merrily Merrily, life is but a dream). He grins at her in an appreciation of sorts, revealing a toothless gum, dark just like his father’s. Sindi continues to sing, watching as the little boy is swept away by sleep second by second. She gushes at the beauty that she and her husband brought to this world.

When certain that the youngling is on the deep end of slumber land, she carefully stands up and heads to his blue little crib right next to the king size bed. As she carefully lowers him on the bed she freezes midair, startled by the buzzing phone but more concerned that the noise will wake the little man. She glances at the phone then at her baby who is peacefully sound asleep, totally oblivious of the buzzing phone. She proceeds to lay him on the blue sheets and covers him with a brown blanket, which she sniffs with her eyes closed before covering him with it; perhaps making sure it smells of love. She stands beside the baby court- oozing with love and counterchecks that her baby is well covered, well laid down and comfortable; then turns her attention to the phone that has a blinking blue light at the top of the screen.

It’s a message from her husband;

“Hi,headed to Kisii for a business meeting; won’t be home for the weekend.”

After the succinct line, are two emoji’s Sad_Face_Emoji 1.png emoji2.jpg

She reads and re-reads the message, every time shaking her head in disappointment, taking the message with a grain of salt. She had hoped they would leave the baby home for a few hours and spent quality time together in the weekend. But her hopes have been dashed by the fifty three words explanation or excuse to get more hours away from their marital home- a red flag of a marriage whose clock is ticking. It’s a Friday night, but this night in particular is void of the warmth and excitement characteristic of Friday nights. She lazily walks down the staircase to the dining room where the house help has served food in dishes and laid on the table. She is drowning in sadness and fighting tears as she contrasts her expectations of marriage and the reality at hand.


“Four years ago she was scrambling out of a crowded Economics class in Maseno University; it was one of those semester units that brought all Mathematics freaks under the same roof. She happened to drop a book and as she walked away, a guy ran behind her and handed it to her. He was a Statistics student but most importantly was well dressed. Well dressed means he was not one of the fashion weirdos who donned extremely tight rugged jeans, strategically lowered to reveal profoundly annoying boxers and an even worse fitting t-shirt printed ‘my money grows like grass’. A t-shirt that was tight enough to highlight biceps gasping for air. No, he was not dressed like that- he had black khaki trousers that were well ironed, a dark blue short sleeved shirt and brown well polished leather shoes. He had not been caught in the dread lock craze that had swept male students like a tsunami, which to be honest was just an excuse for some to evade combing their hair. His dark hair was neatly kempt, and by the looks, he had a good relationship with great barber.

That smart guy was the samaritan who bothered to pick up her book and take it to her, his name- Simon. She expressed her gratitude and before she could walk away, he requested to walk with her. In a University where the residentials’ were so far from the lecture halls that you needed an automobile to cover the distance, an offer to walk with someone under the ever angry sun was always welcome. That walk was 20 minutes tops, but they took nearly 30 minutes, so it won’t come as a surprise that their next meeting was a date on a Friday night. Some haters have described Maseno as the ‘bush university’, but Friday nights there were far from bushy. There was excitement and lots of alcohol and the air was filled with shisha and joy; just the perfect combo. A Friday night could not be mistaken for any other night, it was peculiar. It was the night needy greedy hostel janitors positioned themselves to receive bribes from alpha males who wanted to spend the night with their girlfriends- meaning one of them had to be somewhere they were not authorized to be in the still night. Mostly it was the girl to spend in the men’s hostel and like all contradictions in Kenya, this one also needed money to exchange hands; failure to which the janitor would camp outside the door and call some security guys to be an audience to the drama they would unleash. And on that Friday night, their love story was ignited in a small room, on a squeaky bed, on the third floor of the glorious Kilimanjaro hostels. A love story that went through thick and thin, mountains and valleys, good and bad times and one that found its way to the attorney general’s office two years after they left campus.

The eloquent smart guy she met two years ago, in Mexican soap opera fashion was finally her husband and she was his wife. But the Cinderella Prince charming story was taking an unexpected turn!”
(Sindi in the dining room)
She serves some rice and stew, takes the first bite- but the throat is too dry the sadness too much that it pushes the food up the tract, right back in the mouth. She pushes the plate aside and reaches for a cup then the thermos and pours herself some tea. It’s steaming hot, perfect for a cold July night, but will it be perfect for her? When she is done drinking tea she asks her house help to clear the table and heads to her bedroom, the bedroom whose physical décor contrasts the state of her life. The only thing she feels in this room is her baby, everything else is void and has lost meaning. She closes the door, and stands still at the entrance then sighs deeply, soaking in the loud loneliness and melancholic air.

She undresses then walks to closet to pick her nightwear, then she sees it!- the little black dress with an appliqué that no longer fits on her body, the one that Simon always went sexually nuts every time he saw her in. She stares for a moment then reaches for it and flungs it over the head, somehow hoping that it can fit again, but it refuses to go past the breasts. Since the baby came they (the breasts) have doubled in size and its crazy big because before the pregnancy they were bosomy full and firm enough to command an audience. She knew that her body would change once the baby came but she hoped with exercise and a healthy eating routine she would get back on track real fast, but this has taken longer and she suspects it’s repulsive to her husband. That’s why their marital bed is cold in the weekdays and colder in the weekends.

She tosses the dress in anger and pushes the closet’s window to see the true reflection of her body, the changes that have come with motherhood. But this is not the first time she is doing it, it also neither the second nor the third!! She knows what she will see… The reflection of once a confident lady, now choking in insecurity. She will see heavy skin dripping around the waist, elaborate stretch marks on her belly, the sagging skin right above her elbow. And that is exactly what she sees. She is aware that her flower is wilting from the inside, but she is determined to look beyond what the society defines as beauty, look under the muscles and right to the bones beneath them. She steps closer to the mirror and hunches her head forward to look at her eyes; the big round eyeball, the dark pupil and the snow white retina, then a smile forms on her lips. The lips that perfectly match her small nose and flawless skin. She finally pats herself in the back and slides into her nightwear. But before she can tuck herself in her blankets, the baby cries out…it’s feeding time.


A club in Nairobi along Ngong road is packed like a Trump rally. Some are quietly drowning sorrows in beer bottles; others are laying down their cares after a long hardworking week. Waiters are serving wine and beer bottles and writing bills and collecting their dues. There is loud music that somehow blends with the flashing lights (green, blue, yellow, pink and so on). There is a DJ on a pedestal, tiny towel on his shoulders that he occasionally uses to wipe dripping sweat that forms as a result of turning tables, music tables that is. Then there are girls on the dance floor in dresses that are barely there, dresses that leave very little to imagination. They are twerking to vibe Kartel’s ‘girl a bubble’; there are men standing around them. Each waiting for the opportune moment to join the girls in dancing. The lights, the music, the sweat, the drinks, the elusive sobriety, the money exchanging hands…all form a nearly perfect blend to push the hours of this cold July Friday night.
There are two men in a corner, one has an impression on his ring finger, his wedding ring is in his trousers pocket, this man’s name is Simon, yes the Simon who told his wife he is travelling to Kisii on official duty. The Simon who picked Sindi’s book three years ago in Maseno. The elegant Simon who a year ago signed a marriage certificate, legally binding him to Sindi and Sindi only. The Simon who while in a bath tub in a hotel in Malaysia took Sindi’s hand and promised he would stand by her through thick and thin, in sickness and in health in good and bad times. The Simon who on that night in Malaysia fertilized an egg in Sindi. There is a girl sitted across him, close enough for her uncovered thighs to merge with his legs. She is constantly rubbing her legs against his and he responds in a sheepish smile and a sip of his beer. The second man is Dan. His left arm is locked with the right one of the girl sitted next to him. All four of them are having a conversation on where to take the night next.

“We should take it up stairs or to your place”

“My place? No! How about yours?”

“I don’t mind”

Simon will do things to/ with this girl that he promised only to do to his wife. Things that will be covered in a lie once he is home…

Meanwhile Sindi will toss and turn on her bed, and have a dream that will cause her to tightly clutch on the pillow. Then she will wake up in horror and dismay, to an empty bed where the trickle of resounding sadness becomes a steady stream. 

Monday, 31 October 2016

Secrets of the Night [Part 1]

Kendy lazily pulls out of bed; right leg first then the left. She struggles to open her eyes that are shy of facing the sharp light bursting from the bulb dangling on the ceiling. It’s 5pm and this has been her wake-up time for the last nine months, since she started doing this job. From the arm of her bed hangs a Rosary. She is a catholic, but faith and the ways of God have become elusive. Sometimes she prays, though with a lot of skepticism that God will listen to her. The televangelists have already condemned her to eternal fire and suffering. She has a pounding headache and decides to pop in two tablets of Hedex which she presses down her dry esophagus with a gulp of water from a glass on the night stand. It’s not so bad today (the headache that is…), there are days she pops in as many as four tablets; two first and then two more a short while afterwards. She has stuck with one brand of the painkillers to avoid a poisonous concoction.

As the cold water runs down her tract and the tablets kick in, her eyes find strength and finally open up. She drags herself to the closet where a small mirror dangles from the door, she picks it then stares at the reflection which stares right back. Her face is dry, there is a rash under her lower eyelids on both eyes and there is an annoying wrinkle on the forehead. She went to bed without washing off her makeup perhaps that’s why the beauty deities are punishing her; but nothing is too hard for makeup to fix. She didn’t scarf up her weave before going to bed; so now it’s entangled like a shrub in the desert. She runs her hands through it, but cannot go much further thanks to the entanglement. She puts the mirror down, and reaches out for hair spray and sprinkles round the head then picks a hair brush and begins to gently brush her hair. She purses her lips, reacting to the pain of untangling the weave but continues to brush anyway. Soon after the weave looks neat, enough; she rolls it then ties in a ponytail and then slips a shower cap over her head. She holds her little black night dress by the hem and yanks it over her head and out of her body. She stands there stark naked allowing the cool breeze blowing from the window to caress her, after a short while when it’s too much she reaches out for her yellow towel, ties it around her chest, right above her breasts and strolls to the bathroom which isn’t too far from her bedroom. When she turns the tap handle water comes gushing from the shower. She murmurs a few thank you words; at least the landlord finally fixed the water issues that had dragged on for weeks.

She frees herself from the towel which she hangs on a line at the entrance and steps in. The water is cold and she loves it that way. She stands right below the gushing water and tightly shuts her eyelids like one in pain. And she is pain, but not the physical kind. It’s the kind that pierces the heart and crushes the chest, the kind that elicits an overwhelming need to cry, the kind that snatches away air and cannot be treated with painkillers. This tiny bathroom is her therapy room, it has been for a longtime and the water her therapist, whether it brings reprieve or not is a whole different story. But she reckons that there is a ‘burdens lifted’ lifted feeling she experiences while in her bathroom. There is something about the cold running water and the soap that attempts to wash off the scars in her heart. So she closes her eyelids tighter than before and opens wide her heart.

As the water runs from the neck to the back and downwards, it awakens her neurons and opens up safes of memories in the jagged terrain of her mind, memories that the forgetting pill has failed to erase, memories that have perhaps left wrinkles on her soul. There is a memory about last night, then another about five nights ago, then another of a terrible dream, then another of her first day at work and she is stuck there for a while. Her mind dancing and teasing her with intense emotional pain, threatening to break her heart into pieces and eternally release her from the cell of pain.

She grabs soap and soothes her forehead as though there is a mark there she fears could tell of the unarguably dark sad story of her life. She goes on, scrubbing the forehead back and forth, getting vigorous every moment, every passing second and when it feels sore she stops suddenly. Escaping from one pain only to create another. For a few minutes she is stuck between the concrete walls of the memory. Her neurons defiant of her adamant efforts to move on to another memory. Pages of the memory begin to flip open as if blown by some damned wind in her mind. With her eyelids still tightly closed, she shakes her head, vigorously, refusing, trying to send signals to her neurons to close this book she neither wants to see nor read. She cries out- no! no!, she is losing the battle, she is going to a place she does not want to. She stops shaking her head, giving in and begins to vividly see her first day as a prostitute. Pieces of the memory escape the mind and leave, trickling down her soaped cheeks. She bows her head, crosses her hand so that the right hand ferociously grabs her left shoulder and her left hand, the right one and cries bitterly letting out fierce sobs.

“Job hunt in the city was cruel, but she landed a job as a secretary in a private school. She was exhilarated and but that soon disappeared like ash in the mouth when her employer delayed her salary for months, sometimes paying her in bits and pieces. Everything about her life was a hard nut to crack and in search for something that could crack the nut she was introduced to prostitution. She was frustrated that she couldn’t give herself the dream life she always wanted, she knew that many a people would call that a cowardly move, but she still mastered enough courage to contact a friend who was already in the business. On her first day at work, she was swimming in sea of anxiety whose water made her stomach sick. She wore a yellow mini dress, (so mini that bending left very little for the imagination), silver neck lace and black pip-toe high heeled shoes with laces that ran from the toes to the elevated heels. She was profoundly uncomfortable in the shoes, but it was the rule of the game. Yellow had always been her favorite colour and she thought it would help her calm down and perhaps bring her good luck, which being a first timer she needed badly! The silver necklace was a birthday gift from a best friend in her former life and she hoped it would give her some comfort. To what extent they worked she does not know, because (describe nervousness). Her friend took her to the orange lit micro streets of Luthuli Avenue, reminded her of pertinent hunting tips she had taught her before and left her to hunt by herself.

It wasn’t long before some men came by, each surveying the girls that strategically positioned themselves, revealing things that the men were after. She mastered enough courage and marched towards the man who would become her first client. Judging from his looks she guessed he was in his early forties-45 tops, he had recently divorced his wife (at least that is the story he told her). He was also a bit nervous and this told Kendy that perhaps it was his first time seeking ‘therapy’ from a prostitute. A fresh client meant there were no set expectations and this clothed her with some comfort. She led the man to the fourth floor of a nearby building where such partnerships were accepted as business; and entered a room that was dimly lit and had one bed covered in navy blue bed sheets. His breathe reeked of alcohol but he was not violent, in fact he was quite charismatic and insisted that they use a condom. He was also very handsome; didn’t have a single wrinkle on his face, wore a nice cologne and was clean shaven. She wondered who had driven a truck through the marriage (him or his ex-wife). She didn’t bring herself to ask him about; after all it was dangerous to serve him the trouble he was perhaps running from. So she went straight to business; first undressed herself then helped him off his clothes and quietly mounted on him and pleasured him. She remained quiet but he let out mourns that told her she wasn’t doing so badly. When his sexual need was satiated he walked to the bathroom and Kendy was left on the bed, wrapped in one of the bed sheets as she stared at a mirror that hang on the wall. She had fear, she was scared- scared of a run in with police officers who hunted women in the ‘illegal’ business, scared of an encounter with a violent client, scared of contracting a deadly disease and mostly scared of what her elusive ‘righteous’ family would think of her and do to her if they find out she was not a waitress at a fancy hotel in Mombasa.”

She inclines her head upwards, to face the water gushing from the shower and let’s is beat her eyes and wash off her tears. As the tears run along with the water she wishes that it would magically do so with her burdens. She wishes they would be diffused into the water and flow down the drainage to oblivion. But what are wishes if not fairy dust that stopped working ages ago when Cinderella was still hot with a rich Prince on her heels? She wants to remember no more and she longs to cry no more. She sighs deeply as if resigning to a life of tormenting memories. Before some reprieve can set, a fresh race begins in her mind, again! A safe opens, inside dances another memory. This she doesn’t fight she cries out loud and allows herself to relive horrible days. She opens her mouth letting out a long mourn that reeks of sadness. What she feels is something between anger and dire sadness. Strength becomes quickly elusive and she feebly lowers her body to the floor then coils.

“Her father was a serial drunk who even her mother had confessed was beyond any help, a least anything under the face of the sun. He was an English teacher at the local secondary school and had the best spoken and written English in the village. His language prowess would ooze out as he walked home from the liquor dens. Then one Saturday while he was staggering home, he fell in a ditch and begun puking blood. Some passersby grimaced and laughed at him suggesting that he had it coming. But one was kind enough to lift him up and then called Kendy’s mother and informed her of her stranded husband. When she arrived at the scene, curious by-standers watched, gossiped and even laughed at a foolish woman who married a drunk. What they did not know was that heaven was already beckoning on her husband’s soul. Her mother told him (Kendy’s father) that she would take him to the nearby clinic for a checkup, but he was against the idea. After a short struggle they were on a bodaboda headed to the clinic. While at the clinic’s gate, her father puked again and became still, still as his life left his body and ascended to worlds unknown. And that marked the beginning of Kendy’s troubles. Her grandmother and uncles ganged up against her mother. They claimed that she was not customary married, that even her daughter did not biologically belong in that family. Before the soil on her husband’s grave could dry, even before grass could grow around it, she succumbed to blood pressure. At least that’s what the doctors said, but Kendy knew it was stress. Kendy was suddenly left in the world alone. The place she had called home for years was nothing but a hollow shell that brought her depression and the people she called family treated her like she was some rubbish. And that’s why she left she packed and left for the city under the sun.

The original plan was to accrue some money and walk away from prostitution. But came day 2, day 3 and so on and here she was nine months down the line giving sexual services to needy men, husbands, fathers, C.E.Os of fortune 500 companies, all sorts of men; who needed therapy that they believed could only come from prostitutes. Maybe there was a bigger reason behind her staying on the job, perhaps she connected with them because just like them, she seemed to be in search of something, something that was elusive and would continue to be for a while.
She had spend her life overcoming- overcoming the pain brought by death, overcoming stress of leaving the place she called home, walking away from the land her parents had been laid to rest and now she was tired of overcoming. Maybe it was easier to just give up!”

(Back to the bathroom...)

She takes a long deep breath, stands on her feet and reaches for her soap. She slowly lathers her bathing towel and gently begins scrubbing her body; neck first, then armpits, then the breasts, then the stomach, then her genitals, then the knees followed by the legs then the feet. As she rinses her body of the sweet scented soap, she takes deep breathes scrounging for some internal strength.
Deep in the heart she still feels the pain…, the shower has failed in its therapeutic elements; it always has anyway. How can therapy work? Therapy is for normal that is warped, normal that needs some reinforcement- her, she is broken. What was once whole is now tiny unrecognizable pieces that would take more than a miracle to put together. She is now a statistic- the 42% of prostitutes from necessitous backgrounds, the 40,000 sex workers in Nairobi. She feels trapped, there are invisible chains around her wrists which tighten every time she attempts to free herself and there is a noose around her neck that has refused to strangle her to death. It’s just there, a stark uncomfortable reminder of the choices she has made, then there is her consciousness that has refused to give her peace, guilt has locked her behind bars and thrown the keys in hell. She is an addict on a narcotic called ‘money’ that is injected to her veins through the ‘sex’ needle. She lives in a decent house, eats well and never lacks materially, it’s a lifestyle that even some of the most ambitious middle class fellas might never experience.

“There’s no stepping out now”, she whispers to herself. “But maybe I can accrue enough money to start a business...but what business?, I will decide once I have enough money...enough money?” she chuckles at the end of her monologue. These are lies, they are just but suggestions crafted by the mind in strife unsuccessfully trying to subdue her inner weaknesses.
Once done washing; she opens her bathroom door, grabs her towel and wraps it around her body- from the breast all the way to the feet. To dress up for another day at work!

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Kibanda Woman

By 3:30am she’s normally awake, tossing and turning on her bed, staring at the rusty iron sheets. She doesn’t like to spend too much time worrying about her children’s future; so before she can fully plunge in the deep end of thought and worry she sits up on her bed and begins to pray. It’s always better to pray than worry, at least she believes and has dodged stress by this strategy. She dresses up her prayers in some worship songs which she sings in undertones for fear of waking her two sons who sleep in a room next to hers. She lives in a one bedroom apartment, so she uses the bedroom while her sons’ the living room. She gets out of bed and tip toes to the kitchen with minimum disturbance, prepares breakfast and once it’s ready she wakes her sons who fold up their beddings and hip in a corner of their mother's bedroom. When they are ready, she takes them to her neighbour’s house, where at 7am they join other pupils and walk to school together. Just like other women in the same economic tier, she relies on such social networks to hack through life, since to afford nanny services she would have to break the backs of several beasts.

She then throws her kiondo on the back and walks to the bus station to catch a matatu to work. She works at the kibanda, her kibanda located at the Eastern by-pass matatu stage. That is where she toils for a daily bread for herself and her children. This is her daily routine, she’s used to beating the sun, she’s used to braving the morning cold to be at her kibanda on time. It has been a long journey that has warped her several times; a few months ago she had a bout with pneumonia. From God knows where, the pneumonia bacteria found a corner in her lungs and made it home, the morning cold was just what the bacteria needed to hit her with a disease that ensured she lay on her bed for days, braving sharp pains from the chest, unable to run the engine, that is her life. Her kibanda remained closed for three weeks as she recuperated. She lay physically on the bed, what the doctor called ‘bed rest’ but her mind was far from any rest, it was in full activity, a melting pot of simmering thoughts boiling in the fear of leaving her children in case death waved its cold hand at her. Fear cut through her bone marrow like a knight’s sword and for three weeks she cried and prayed. She had seen and heard enough cases where pneumonia drove folks to the grave! The concoction of prayers and medication worked, the bacteria was beaten and she got another chance to row the boat on the vast sea that is life.

When she arrives at the kibanda, she ties around her neck an apron that falls all the way to her knees and begins to make mandazis. Her mandazis are legendary; fluffy and sweet just the way her customers like them. By 5:30am, five flasks (just like those the Kisii county folks bought at millions) filled with tea stand on the table. Next to the mega flasks is a green paper bag, full of steaming hot chapatis. Soon, matatu drivers and their conductors start to stream in for their morning fix. They sit on low lying wooden benches, their plates of chapatis on a table way higher than the bench and slap the tea to push down the huge bites of chapati. A passenger like me sitting in the matatu, waiting for departure thinks it’s weird and perhaps even swears quietly to never dine in a kibanda. But these clients love mama and her food even more and she loves them back. She even serves them 'chapo' and 'ugali'‘saucer’ : They have grown a symbiotic relationship where they understand and gain from each other. Most of her customers are men who work informal jobs around Eastern by-pass and matatu operators in the same route. They refer to her as ‘mum’, including the old ones with grey hair!

The apron she dones has huge front pockets where she slips in the coins she gets as payment. As the day wears on, the pockets slump, an elucidating sign of how well her business is doing. But her notes! Those you can’t easily find let alone see. She puts them somewhere around her chest and only removes at the end of the day when at an M-pesa shop doing some depositing. She is an ant of sorts, she trades and strategizes to ensure that even with mushrooming food kiosks she stands out and stays on top.

Around her neck also hangs a small bag from long strings. This bag carries her Tecno N3 which is just two weeks old. Thanks to this phone and her sheer need to learn her way around it, she has become Winnie’s student; Winnie is her neighbour’s eldest daughter. Even though she hates the idea of incessantly consulting with Winnie, it’s paramount that she keys on the end results and braves out the annoying logistics, after all the end justifies the means! What she needs to learn fast though is WhatsApp. In fact WhatsApp is the main reason she abandoned her sellotaped beat down Nokia 1110.

It all started with Mama Mwongeli, a member in one of her ‘chamas’ who purchased Infinix X510. Even before she could learn to use the darned phone everyone in Makongeni knew she had crossed over to the digital world. A few weeks later she created a WhatsApp group and added the women who were already techy techy; with phones expensive’ enough to support the message application. Mama Mwongeli insisted on being the sole admin and in her quirky fashion added and removed people ‘ovyo ovyo’. During the meetings she would craftly only talk about issues discussed in the WhatsApp group cognizantly alienating other women from the discussion. At one point they had to spend a whole hour discussing her intolerant behavior. So you understand why our woman needs to learn WhatsApp fast; so she could participate fully in taming mama Mwongeli.

It’s fair though to state that mama Mwongeli was not always like that. Subtle changes begun when her daughter changed her skin colour, size of her butt (to mega size, something profoundly uncommon with Kao ladies) and started hanging around a myriad of men with vitambis and automobiles. When the other women pried on mama Mwongeli to explain what was happening with her daughter: her response- ‘it was her brothers from 'majuu' who had come visiting.’ Mama mwongeli is many things; but is far from being a smart liar. Ati uncles from abroad? Even a bat in Kitui could smell that lie. Everybody knew her brothers: they were only two and ran a brew business in Pipeline. They owned one probox that was ceaselessly in a destitute state. The probox was used to ferry liquor and get away during police and kanjo unprecedented searches.  
The hood whispered and gossiped about Mwongeli’s metamorphosis and when they eventually moved on to other gossip topics, mama Mwongeli and her daughter moved on with their new life of abundance. During the chama meetings in sheer display of opulence and somewhat cognizant effort to spit on the other women’s faces for fueling gossip, she makes sure they know the cost of her ‘kitenges’, even though there are high chances of exaggeration she successfully stirs some jealousy from them… Oh! Christopher Columbus!
Now back to the kibanda...

She does not work alone; she has employed two assistants; Nyambura and Musembi. She is a job creator, this woman. Nyambura is one of her neighbors’ kids, back in Karatina. When her mother passed away two months ago; Nyambura together with her two younger siblings were left at the mercies of their drunkard deadbeat father who couldn’t afford to keep her in class. The kids went to live with 'cucu' and were admitted to a local public primary school. Nyambura stuffed her aspiration to complete high school in a bag and shoved it under the bed, to be or not to be unpacked sometime in the future and carried another bag to the city under the kibanda woman’s wings.

This woman knows a thing or two about serial drunk dead beat husbands and fathers, for her husband is exactly the two. For years he upended her entrepreneurial life, pilfering her money to satiate his thirst for alcohol. Alcohol when abused is a terrible master that throws the life of the abuser into shambles! What followed was a hot exchange of words between man and wife, sometimes backed up by aborted blows of a drunk man. She needed to protect her sons from the emotional wounds of being raised by an alcoholic father. Raising their two kids alone was more bearable than incessant disagreements with him in her children’s presence, she had surmised and send him on one way ticket to Karatina. The only thing he took with him was his drunkenness. Today, she single handed puts a roof over their kids’ heads, ensure they have at least three meals a day and sends them to an average private school. It’s sad that nowadays if you want to extirpate your children from generational poverty you have to make sure they get quality education which is a rare commodity in public schools.

Public schools are full of manure! Absentee teachers- who have been pressured by meager salaries to run their own businesses, which they do when supposed to be in class, overcrowded classrooms, few or no textbooks, you name it. The conditions some Kenyan kids have to go through, pursuant of the Kenyan dream are heart-rending! This woman is literally breaking her back to steer her kids from this madness. She is however aware ‘academic qualifications’ has lost the credibility it once had: More and more people are losing faith in it, stripping it of its glory. Once upon a time, it was a sure highway to achieve the middle class Kenyan dream- ‘a great job with mouth whetting paycheck, a nice three bedroom house, a nice car (at least not a probox) and two kids in a private school with playing fields that look like the football pitches in England. We are to blame for demeaning ‘academic qualification’, we attend questionable colleges and glorify godfathers and bribery. We mock those who think the system is fair and despise those unwilling to rig the process. Needless to say, there are parents who still hope education will give their children a different life to theirs, a better life. And it does, only now it’s never a guarantee. And anyway what else is there to cling onto but hope.

When Musembi lost his job at the 'muhindi’s’ shop, her kibanda was his first stop over. There he attempted to drown his sorrows in a plate of beans and chapati. He cleared the contents in the plate but his trouble remained alive and breathing staring back at him in mockery. Somewhere in between that episode he told her current employer about his woes, who then gave him a second chance at a normal life- a chance to continue living in his bedsitter apartment, a chance to continue supporting his family in Kitui and a chance to have at least three meals a day.
When Nyambura and Musembi started they didn’t have any experience in catering. But this is not the kind of catering you sit in a class at Utalii to learn. This is survival catering, which by the way is not as easy as you like to think.

She (the kibanda woman) has noticed some metamorphosis in Nyambura, her dress code after four months in the city and a few notes from her employer has evolved. Her baggy trousers have grown tighter and her maxi skirts shorter. When the male customers refer to her as ‘mrembo she chuckles and swings her head and the long braids follow suit exactly the way Delilah did when luring Samson. There before she would blush and walk away, now there is a fresh feather on her cap. Mama has been keenly observing her and one of these days she will sit Nyambura down and tell her about men. She will tell her of their innate attraction to beautiful women and she will remind her that beauty does not last forever, at least through the lust lens. She will remind her of the need to work hard to keep her siblings and cucu going. There are chances that Nyambura will hear but won’t listen. Because she is nineteen! There is something about being a teenager with boiling hormones that just translates to rebelliousness. I hope she listens, because mama has seen it all and heard it all.

This woman’s story is one woven in out of this world determination, patience to see her children climb from the rungs of poverty and resilience through challenges the world throws at her.
So please don’t be duped that politicians are the change makers. It is ordinary people like her that do extraordinary stuff that are the change flag bearers. People who care to give a hand to those who have fallen without expecting a vote in return and without inviting hundreds of hungry cameras to capture the moment. It’s not that woman rep fighting for a 2/3 majority in parliament but has absolutely nothing to show for the decades she has been in parliament. It’s not Jubilee and Cord sycophants who show up at rallies to scramble for free merchandise.

I love stories of resilience, of love, of ordinary people who swim upstream and there is a chord struck in my heart when it’s a woman behind the story. So allow me to finish with an intriguing story I read on CNN.COM. About a Syrian woman who has refused to leave her war torn home; after ISIS literally took everything from her (her father, two brothers and husbands) she chose to stay to fight ISIS. She leads a handful of men and together they have helped the government forces drive ISIS out her town. She’s been this bad ass since 2004!!

So you know what, if there is a battle you are fighting in your life stay and fight, like the zealous kibanda woman or the Syrian soldier.

Best Foot Forward