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