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.