The Applications - B. Karanja Wa Njama
One Saturday morning, in 1987, when the Kenyan world was still young enough to be a place of promise to anyone who applied themselves, Mrs. Karoki awoke suddenly to become deathly terrified of her once familiar house in BuruBuru phase 1 and its now strange occupants, her family. Promise curdled into fearful hopelessness. The years before that morning were like a ship that had set sail. Mrs. Karoki could barely remember those times of heady exuberance and entitlement. She would soon forget the girl she had once been, Faith, forget Faith’s bougainvillea accent acquired from the Canadian sisters teaching at Kamahuwa Girls.
Like Moi’s non-application government, Mrs. Karoki had stopped applying herself. But unlike the State, which was barely chugging along from inertia, Mrs. Karoki succumbed to what her husband called an ‘attention seeking madness’.
That Saturday morning, her husband had already upped and left for work, and as she tried to raise herself from her bed, the carpet became a swirl of sharp metal fillings that gave her needlelike headaches. The once cute curtain murals of her marital bedroom turned furry and Dr Seuss-like, they seemed to want to engulf her. She managed to get past the door, terrified, her husband’s man-enemy smell all round her, and made her way down the staircase. Unable to continue all the way into the sitting room, Mrs. Karoki sat on the last step and started weeping. Her eldest son, Kandle, found her there, on the crescendo of a sob.
Seeing him suddenly before her, and feeling somewhat awkward around his Hip Hop temperament, Mrs. Karoki exhaled heavily, almost choking on the unfinished sob, using it to summon a familiar and manageable version of Kandle. She could detect in Kandle a boyish smell still worthy of her love; he had not fully joined the man-enemy smell of her husband. Smells had come to have such significance in her reaction to people that she had chased away her latest maid – her sinuses rejecting the young girl’s foreign smell of hopelessness, rural childhoods, sweet-potatoes and arrowroots.
‘Ndia menyaga maundu maga kurwo uguo,’ she blurted. I didn’t expect life to turn out like this.
‘ … Dad asked me to remind you to sign the application forms for the loan. Wasup wit dat?’ Kandle found it difficult to abandon the Americanisms with Hip Hop music blaring from the sitting room.
‘Ido ciothe saineete na your Dad … those are the things that have eventually betrayed me. Betrayal nii signature,” she proclaimed religiously. Betrayal is a signature.
Mrs. Karoki’s two other children, Fiona and PolyCarp suddenly appeared. Seeing them, Mrs. Karoki suddenly stood up and straightened her gown, but suddenly feeling impossibly exhausted after this action sat down again. Fi and Poly-C were having a fight and did not notice.
‘If you call me Sweet Banana again I’ll slap you from here to China.’
‘Er … Make that Indochina!’ Fi yelled.
‘Sweet banana, Sweet banana,’ chanted Polycarp who had just turned 6. Everyone called him Jerry-Mouse because of his love for Tom and Jerry the cartoon. He also had the mouse’s sly cute face and round butt. He was just about to start Standard 1.
Mrs. Karoki couldn’t resist Jerry-Mouse’s cute chants and beamed at him with an unnatural light in her eyes. Seeing all her children before her and smelling her blood in them she almost burst into more tears. She felt like sweeping them all into her arms, remembering better times when Kandle and Fi were younger: The St Andrews days, Westlands shopping hours and Fox-Drive-In evenings and weekends at her sister Hannah’s spread in Karen.
Kandle saw the strange look in her eyes and imperceptibly ordered his siblings from the room, with a twitch of his head. They left in silence. Fi and Jerry-Mouse knew everything about the loan and were part of their father’s persistent campaign to extract the necessary approval from their mum, that was needed to finish paying for the BuruBuru house and start building the family residence in Thome.
Alone once again, Kandle took his mother’s hand, leading her into the sitting room like a small girl, bopping his head all the while.
‘Run DMC,’ Kandle said. ‘That is the rallying cry for all single women, Mum. Run DMC. Bust A Move. Can apply to you too…’
‘I remember when you were just a boy …you would cry when you woke up to a frying breakfast thinking it was the sound of rain. Even now you still hate breakfast …”
‘… Run DMC also applies to married women who need to support their husbands,’ Kandle said with some alarm his head pausing in mid-bop.
‘Mum! Sign the forms. Please. Look around you. BuruBuru isn’t what it used to be.’
‘Is your Dad the unseen head of this household? Umenyirire muno when you get married?’ Mrs. Karoki read pointing at the framed words on the wall.
‘You are the only one who can do this. You do not have any loans and the bank loves you. Can’t you see we have to leave?’
‘I will not help him pay for his projects, even this house. Even the house in Thoome I will not be part of it. Shaitani!’ Riu no urathie wira? Waregire gwetha nyumba niki?’ And you Kandle? What about your job? When are you moving to your own place?
‘Yeah, still in PR. That B.S factor that any serious kampuni in Kenya has to have,’ he muttered. A new track he liked, Jam On It, came on so the head bop developed into a shoulder jig and his mother’s eyes lit up in excitement.
‘Arr yu travl’in on the rightt trav’lin trav’lin. Arr you travl’in on the rightt trav’lin trav’lin. Arr you trav’lin on the rigghtt road,’ she wailed. Kandle decided to try and get his mum to sign the loan forms another time. He would have to face his father that evening.
At Buru Buru 1 Primary School, where Mrs Karoki taught no one really minded the new and improved Mrs. Karoki after a month or two. She stopped going to school to teach and only appeared now and then to wander around the empty school fields, talking to the crows and the kites that wheeled in the sky. When it rained she could be found sitting in empty classrooms in the evening, hours after the children had left.
This went on till a new headmaster was appointed to the school under the new Board of Education Application Rules and he chased her away from the school. He also declined to forward her name to the Ministry of Education when they asked for a new salary roster. An efficient cog at the Ministry however automatically added her name to the list, tsk tski-ng with annoyance at the oversight. Karoki Faith, he wrote and Mrs. Karoki continued to draw a salary for exactly five years, when she achieved the optional retirement age of 50 when she got her pension. Mr Karoki bribed several individuals for the pension to be paid out. Mrs Karoki did not bother with the money for the next two years. Money was one of the foreign and hostile smells around her.
Mrs. Karoki’s sisters had been receiving reports about her state of mind for months before they decided to take action. These were desperate days in Kenya, and, like many middle-class Kenyans, they opted not to ‘see’ certain insanities. It was hoped that insanity unvarnished by attention would allow an easy return to normalcy.
When it became clear that Mrs .Karoki was not going through a momentary lapse, they decided to call a family council. Of the sisters, only the second born, Grace, was still living with a man. First born, Mrs. Hannah Macharia and last-born, Beth were in various degrees of separation from their men and could understand the snarl in their sister’s mind. They had almost succumbed to non-application themselves– that state of waking up and not enjoying the sun on your face in the morning. Mrs. Macharia and Beth were not unfamiliar to the fact that a woman could cease to function. What irked them was that Mrs. Karoki’s condition seemed never-ending, and was caused, it seemed, by a man who seemed to them a relatively reliable husband.
Mrs. Karoki’s three sisters summoned her to their childhood home in Matuko village in Maragua. Their step-sister, Tabiza (pronounced Tabeetha), once their father’s favourite, was not invited. They arrived in two cars: Mrs. Karoki and Beth in a wine red 190 Mercedes and Mrs. Hannah Macharia and Grace in a twin cab Hilux. The black wire-meshed metal gate, the first of its kind in the village had faded to a dull brown. It still looked as strong as ever, as resolute as their father, even in his rusty years. Mrs. Macharia made sure she drove in first; after all she was the first born. She made a spectacle by revving the 4 by 4 vehicle again and again, as if to awaken the still countryside.
The house was one of the first stone homes in Muranga district and had aged well. On the left was a small orchard which produced hard green little mangos and small sour green lemons. Their father was buried in the small orchard, under graying small fruit trees, some of them more than fifty years old. All the privileged isolation of the homestead, where their father had entertained Scottish missionaries had changed. Hutted homesteads had cropped up everywhere: ‘Muranga is starting to look like Kafete. People everywhere,’ Mrs. Macharia observed once they got out of the cars. The long rains had just ended and the green of the countryside was fierce. The only thing that had not changed was the small nearby forest on the other side of the homestead.
Once they were received by Wanjiku, the old limping woman who now took care of the homestead, the sisters cooked like they always had. Mrs. Hannah Macharia was all instruction, Grace lit the fire blowing through an old brass pipe and Beth peeled potatoes and carrots and shelled the peas. Mrs. Karoki ignored these rites. As everyone went about their business she studied the rafters in the small hut that they were all in. No one told her they were waiting for her to do one of the chickens that were fluffing and rooting around in the red dust outside. If Tabiza had been invited she would have been a second pair of idle hands. Her role back in their girlhood had been to take care of her father’s foibles: heating his tea, cleaning his pipe, trimming his whiskers, and listening to him hold forth.
The women spoke about many things as they worked - past acquaintances, the state of Matuko Girls Secondary School, and the effects of the new Maragua dam on the area. Sleeves were rolled, stockings surreptitiously tucked away and old headscarves tied around heads. Mrs. Macharia removed her shoes but changed her mind about walking around barefoot. In the midst of all the activity and after a suitable period they started on what had brought them back home. Mrs. Macharia began with a vague edict built on common experience.
Sister, she said to Mrs. Karoki as the others looked on and nodded. Ihiga riega ritiringanaga na thio njega. A good millstone does not meet a good miller. Good husband and good wife seldom meet. Your husband is a good man. Mrs. Karoki took this as an insult. By default, what her sister had said is that she was a bad wife by virtue of having a good husband. A good man is not necessarily a good husband - Mrs. Macharia tried to explain.At least he was financially responsible and the Karoki family had never lacked for anything. Beth saw that Mrs. Karoki was not persuaded by these subtleties - the good intentions of the sisters were in doubt. Mrs. Karoki surprised them all by suddenly bursting into giggles. Beth who had been stirring vigorously over the pot was enshrouded with steam, and Mrs. Karoki pointed at the halo-effect around her sister saying: ‘Uhana mummy tui ciana. Mungu asifiwe.’ You look so much like mum when you bend over the pot. God bless.
With this the sisters remained quiet for awhile till Grace spoke.
‘Woi, Woi. Ngai kai meciria nii moru i. Meciria. Thoughts, thoughts. Too many thoughts …’ Too many thoughts are dangerous. Like many second-borns she was ignored. After Grace, or rather Mrs. Nkendi married a Meru man the sisters took their father’s cue and ignored her ambitions and life choices.
‘Things don’t always go as we want them to. Maundu riimwe nimathukaga,’ Beth started expectantly trying to restart Mrs. Macharia’s efforts to get the council underway.
‘Thoughts … things of the world … whatever. Whatever you call them. It is foolishness to call it an illness…madne … like some people in our family are calling our sister’s problem.’ Mrs. Macharia flashed Beth a warning look. They had agreed to avoid any references to mental health.
‘What I’m saying is that I understand what our sister, Faith …’ Mrs. Karoki smiled vacantly at the use of her girlhood name, ‘… is doing. At least some of it… it doesn’t matter what anyone says … even us who don’t understand. She’ll come and explain once she thinks the time is right,’ Beth said with a rushed sigh.
Beth was approaching forty and after three children still held the plump, dimply clean dark prettiness of her youth. She was not given to unnecessary acts of divulgence and not one of the sisters knew what had really happened to her marriage. The broad strokes, they knew, were that her last child, a boy, had been sired by her boss. A white man. Now they listened.
‘I still love my husband. And he still loves me. Something I used to doubt but now know the price one pays by being a Thomas. Something I got to know after one moment of madness…’
Beth said this in her frank upright way. She had the best marriage, or so it had seemed at first, meeting someone of her own intelligence, youth and ambition - a philosophy professor who had started a highly successful advertising agency.
‘One moment is all it takes. Can you possibly imagine what it feels like to give birth to a child who does not belong to your husband?’ Beth had started weeping quietly by the pot and some tears fell inside.
‘And on going home waited for him to say something. But he didn’t, continuing to be as maddeningly polite as ever. Reading his books and going on about his business. Loving a child that is obviously not his….The child’s father is white – my former boss. And when I told my husband Fabian that I was going crazy that we needed to talk – all he said was that he understood. That there was nothing to say. That him and the baby were innocent of my acts. That the only talking needed was with my self. He told me he felt like Scobie … and that marriage was after all an existential adventure,’ Beth said.
‘Scooby? Now why does that sound familiar …’ said Grace.
‘Scobie,’ Beth repeated. ‘I also did not understand at first so he gave me a book. The Heart of the Matter it was called. By a writer called Graham Greene. About a man called Scobie whose wife cheats on him and he ends up killing himself.’
‘He said a child is just like another child. That he had come to find peace. Then he tried to discuss the literary merits of The Heart of the Matter. I became very scared when he said that he felt like the man in the book whose wife had cheated on him … he felt like a living Scobie. I knew I could no longer live with him.’ Beth started weeping. Mrs. Karoki went around the hearth and held her.
‘Athuuri tia ta atumia. Matigii hota maundu maritu na kuumiriria. Muthuuri ocia waku ndarari na njira ingi,’ Mrs. Karoki said in shushing voice. That was the only way he could save himself Beth. Men are not as strong as we are. The sisters glanced at each other surreptitiously, surprised at the lucidity of this statement.
‘I have come to understand one thing. Unlike the west, where life can really be about the choices you make, in Kenya you’ve got to understand making a choice is only the beginning – living here is application. Applying yourself. In all senses of the word …’ Beth said.
‘ … But in a strange sense that application is also disillusionment. Look at us. We have no real things in our lives to count on.’
‘You’ve been living to long with that philosophical fool. Sounding just like him …Tigania men have no such foolishness,’ Grace clucked impatiently.
Mrs. Karoki let out a sudden yell. She had moved too close by the fire and become so entranced by the curl and shrivel of the hairs on her shins that the sudden pain of the heat had registered too late. Only Beth laughed and not in an unkind way. Wanjiku was sent for the cow udder cream that was used for milking and Beth applied large globs of it on Mrs. Karoki’s burnt shins. Suddenly they heard an approaching car in the distance. Wanjiku went to see who it was. The car they could hear was coming into the homestead. It stopped. The gate creaked open and a few minutes later the sisters heard Wanjiku speaking to someone.
‘Tabeetha,’ Mrs Karoki happily said as the two voices came closer and then started receeding. It was Tabiza. Her cold, firm insistent voice made the sisters pause and listen.
They heard her asking Wanjiku to show her the cows and the tea shamba. Wanjiku started laughing at something. Everyone turned, expectant, straining to hear, at the same time avoiding Mrs Macharia eyes.
‘Time’s awasting … and I don’t want to see that woman,’ Mrs Macharia said. A firm believer in agendas, Mrs Macharia felt duty bound to steer the gaggle to the day’s business. Mrs. Karoki had sounded saner than all of them. When is madness, madness? These thoughts immediately disappeared when Mrs. Karoki started singing, a song she had learnt from her Canadian Sisters. She had noticed Mrs Macharia rubbing the donkey bite on her hand where there was a childhood scar.
‘. Were-you-ever-in-Quebec? Hauling timber on the deck? Where there’s a King with a golden crown, riding on a donkey. Hey Ho away we go? Hey Ho away we go? Donkey-riding Donkey-riding. Hey Ho Away We Go. Riding on a donkey.”
Mrs. Macharia had expected the sister’s meeting to be one of strength. Of course men were weak, as she had taught her husband by beating him until he had eventually fled. Mrs. Macharia had only met one man she considered a real man, their father. She had learnt life from him. She was bitterly and grudgingly affectionate of the memory of her father’s taciturnity. After her husband had left, she had retained a semblance of her past life with the strength of her father’s memory. No luxuries: one car and one savings bank account had kept her afloat. She did not take any loans. It was this single-minded focus on staying the same that allowed her to survive the 1990s, the decade that broke the Kenyan middle-class. This was why she found Faith’s unwinding so unpalatable – it threatened her own sanity. Her decision arrived abruptly: there was nothing she could do for Faith.
Hearing Tabiza’s approaching voice Mrs Macharia stood up and left taking Grace with her and cast Mrs. Karoki out of her life for good. And never saw her again alive. Grace all the while was still trying to think where she had heard the name Scobie till she remembered the name of one of her children’s dogs-Scooby.
After Tabiza came back from the shamba she found Beth and Mrs Karoki cleaning up after themselves.
‘Sorry … we didn’t tell you about this … ,’ Beth said. Tabiza smiled at them wanly and gave each a rough hug.
‘I’ve been meaning to come and see you,’ she said to Mrs Karoki.
It was 3 p.m and three women left leaving a cloud of dust in their wake.
Two days after seeing Mrs Karoki in Maragua, Tabiza went to visit her in Buru Buru phase 1 carrying Lucozade and the little pearly notes of wisdom. She had taken to dishing out these vignettes out like candy when any of her friends were visited by misfortune. Children’s bad pass marks, recent accidents or robberies, a distant relative turning to crime, backaches and neck aches were common. Tabiza waited at the gate for ten minutes and was about to leave when she saw a curtain move in one of the upstairs rooms. She waved and waited. Tabiza was a believer in Norman Vincent Peale and had brought the following words of wisdom for Mrs. Karoki’s:
THOUGH APPLICATION IS NOT AN ASSURANCE OF HAPPINESS IT IS A BEGINNING.
Tabiza had always been adept at sleight of mind, and never really accepted this new version of Mrs. Karoki. The reason for this was simple. Mrs. Karoki had always been Tabiza’s timid sidekick. She was an emotional buffer to Tabiza’s somewhat overbearing and needy personality. Tabiza had few real friends. She counted several layers of clothes on her step-sister, and curbed an urge to slap her.
‘ Wee. What are you wearing,’ she exclaimed with a harsh laugh.
‘Nguo ya maisha!’Mrs Karoki said, high-stepping exaggeratedly to the door. Clothes for life. She wore a long flowing purple summer dress that reached her ankles. Underneath the dress was a dark green pullover. Her dirty pink petticoat was visible and brushed top of the black Wangari Mathai boots on her feet. Shaking her head Tabiza followed her step-sister into the house, ducking at the creeping thorny rose vine above the door. The TV was at full blast-Days of Our Lives. There were dirty utensils everywhere, the whole kitchen seemed to have been brought into the sitting room. To Tabiza’s surprise, Mrs Karoki left her and climbed up the stairs without a word. After looking around and hearing a door slam Tabiza followed her.
Inside the chaos of Mrs Karoki’s room Tabiza felt things crawling across her scalp. Mrs Karoki was already under the covers fully dressed and holding tightly onto a blanket with her eyes staring at the ceiling. When Tabiza looked closer she saw that her sister had fallen asleep with the whites of the eyes showing. She decided not to stay for long. Being a woman of such public disposition, the inner workings of other households were taboo. Tabitha limited herself to meeting in churches, the telephone, and her places of business, kitchens, verandas and sitting room couches.
The young Tabiza had had such a predilection for the aura of home and hearth (especially after early orphan hood, before Mrs. Karoki’s father had taken her in) that she had allowed herself to be led by several of her friend’s husbands into their sanctum sanctorum. The product of such indiscreet unions was her only fatherless daughter, Dorothea. So before her sister stirred, Tabiza shrugged off the bedroom memories and the stir of heaving and panting echoes that threatened to overwhelm her. She quickly pinned the note and stalked away, curbing an urge to shake the peaceful Mrs. Karoki.
Being a much taller woman she stuck the note on the wall, out of Mrs. Karoki’s reach. When she woke up later, Mrs. Karoki did not register it as something new; but she allowed the words to run invade her mind, they seemed safe and symmetrical: above the exact position she had slept in for years. With the birth of Jerry-Mouse, Mrs. Karoki had stopped sharing a bed or room with the man who had taken her to the altar.
So over the years, the note slowly merged into the dirty cream wall until the words seemed to be etched in the paint. There were no curtains and as morning sunlight faded into evening twilight and the moon came and went, Mrs. Karoki sat in her room and repeated the words over and over again. Over the years the note would fade and be almost impossible to make out:
THOUGH APPLICATION IS NOT AN ASSURANCE OF HAPPINESS IT IS A BEGINNING.
The end of the millennium came past, and though smell was Mrs. Karoki’s most accessible instinct, she soon started developing other ways to help her put together a narrative of her life.
Old newspaper photos became fascinating. This was after all the photo albums of her past were hidden by her daughter Fiona, after she had randomly started mutilating images. For Mrs. Karoki, all the faces in those albums seemed hostile and she reacted accordingly.
Without her albums to attack, her only recourse was the old newspapers lying around in the house. Mrs. Karoki spent hours eviscerating and disemboweling images of the offending monsters of her past. She used a red biro. Quickly poring over likenesses from her past she stuck up enemy and friend alike on the wall and gouged out their eyes.
Soon the space in the wall below Tabiza’s pearly words of wisdom was filled with randomly collected torn-off newspaper pictures of the likenesses from her past. As the picture of her life grew, it gave Mrs. Karoki a peace that reminded her of long ago days of worship at St Andrew’s. Now when she woke up mornings and looked at the mosaic on her wall the hateful smells from the rest of her family petered away. She no longer slept till afternoon to avoid the bustling physical presences in the house.
Now she woke up in the mornings able to function. Round headed, light skinned young men, mostly found in death notices became Kandle. Sunday paper cartoons became Jerry-Mouse. To make up for rare likenesses of the latter she spent hours treating herself to the white noise of Cartoon Network hoping Jerry-Mouse would grow up to look like Johnny Bravo. She found old President Kenyatta photos and stared at his mesmerizing eyes remembering pleasant acacia days at Kenyatta University. She saw Fiona in the scantily clad, painted and pouting hellions with eyes full of accusing guiltiness. To Mrs. Karoki’s jaundiced eye the young women in car adverts looked like demons in chariots of fire raining down from hell. She would turn away from the older women she came across that were likenesses of Mrs. Hannah Macharia. Laughing, chuckling, giggling to herself, Mrs. Karoki would work on these newspapers for hours.
There was no likeness of her husband, Mr Humphrey Karoki. He failed to register as an image in her mind and remained an alien smell, a Babel of harsh voices and a series of ugly colours, immovable in the headache of her consciousness.
During the same period, Mrs. Karoki had also found reason to savage and throw away all the books she had collected all her life. Ngugi wa Thiongo, her Christianity in Africa series, A Long Walk To Freedom, Watchtower magazines and numerous Mills and Boon paperbacks all found their way to the garbage dump. She got rid f her bed, and laid her mattress on the floor. Only her fire and brimstone, King James Bible remained, with its cover etched in blood red set in the deepest black.
Lying on her mattress one afternoon, she felt an impression on her back. Muttering, she upturned the mattress and stumbled on the few truths she’d been looking for all these years. The All-Purpose Letter Writer edited by Keith Johnson contained samples of letters that Mrs. Karoki found useful. The book, which had pages missing, still held letters on money matters, accommodation and other miscellanities.
After flipping idly through the book, Letter Placing An Order, Letter Complaining About A Service In A Stronger Tone she came across a Letter Citing Grievances In a Marriage (Unofficial). Excitement engulfed her as she recognized the couple. It was Esther, her college roommate who had moved to the UK with her British husband about 10 years ago. Mrs. Karoki couldn’t remember Esther’s husband’s name. The letter gave her no small amount of satisfaction as it was evident from the words that the marriage had since broken down. Of course it was Esther! The polite timid English manner was, of course, the only way Esther could speak to her husband. He was, after all, English. The words dimmed in front of Mrs Karoki’s eyes, which filled with sudden tears like when she read the Bible.
55 Plum Road
14 August 19-
27-76 Bridgeweather Road
Marriage Certificate No U6677
I am writing to complain about several grievances I have of our ten- year marriage. Granted that I moved to your hometown of my own volition some of our problems I firmly place on your shoulders…
At this point Mrs. Karoki was so overwhelmed that she carefully tore the letter off the page and decided to reply immediately without reading the rest of it;
He! You remeber our life of eating mnocttyledons and beans. What happend to mbari cia Steven and uria twethaga Maria. Ari from coast when we were at the Teaching College. Have you seen my son Kandle Kinuthia there with two small boys. I hope you well tell my where all these peolpo went. Where the connection was between mbari cia Steven and Dorcas. Kairitu kau gaciaratwu nuu. Ona hidi ndathiaga bus station iu etagwa atia. Ati Machako onaogo tii nyadike. We were with mutumia wa binamu …
At this point she became so exhausted she put away the letter to continue another day. It was better to read what everyone had sent her she thought guiltily. She discovered the book held letters from many people of her past, in varying emotional states. Some of her friends like Margarita were in debt and others like Mrs. James Ngoga were rich. It was fulfilling to hear from so many people at once. She decided it would be nice to write back to all the people she had known, with advice on how their wishes would be granted. So as she continued to build the mosaic in her room Mrs. Karoki wrote over 1000 applications for her friends. They were all addressed to God.
Over the next ten years the project was as demanding as the mosaic and with two such sedentary tasks she hardly observed the motions around her. Late nights at her Buru Buru home became a reassurance. She wrote to the empty fridge’s calm buzz, faucet refilling toilet bowl trickling as if with life. To these sounds she would murmur in affirmation, her face awash in the TV glow flicker after KBC Channel 1 had closed.
One day, Mrs. Karoki walked along an ill-used dusty path in BuruBuru Phase 1, oblivious of all the hideous unsavory corners of the fast disintegrating housing estate. Once the dream of every 1970’s nuclear family, BuruBuru had become a small Calcutta. Mr Karoki had retained the BuruBuru house to fool interfering tax bodies away from his sizeable properties and to keep Mrs. Karoki away from his social circles. The mansion in Thome had been completed years ago and Mr Karoki lived there with a young woman under an informal arrangement. Although he seemed more prosperous than ever, his loan repayments had ballooned with the insane interest rates of the 1990s. He owed more than he could ever pay back, and he juggled paying one thing against another, dancing away from foreclosure. Last month, he had taken advantage of Beth’s childhood infatuation with him and scored a loan. He had shed tears for his lost wife for Beth. He started having dreams of politics: it was clear to anyone who had ever held any asset in Kenya that there was no way to survive the 1990s unless you were a politician, or were related to one. Jerry-Mouse managed a schizophrenic existence in both his parent’s worlds. He would live in Thome during the week and do BuruBuru over the weekend.
Dragging her hands through piss-stained walls as she walked, Mrs. Karoki ended up in a favourite spot. At the edge of the estate where the slum Kiambiu had come up there was a patch of grass that had once served as the yard of a day care center. The center had failed when the first signs of Kiambiu appeared. No middle class parent wanted their toddler spending the day imbibing the smells and aromas of a slum. Many young families had moved away.
All that remained of the day care center was a low wall painted with gleeful murals. The only reason that the small ground had not been invaded by people seeking to build plastic, sheet and corrugated iron structures was that its owner was the local councillor. Beyond that, tin and plastic shacks had sprouted. Mrs. Karoki was often found lolling on the grass patch waving a stick to an imaginary class and making staccato blackboard movements on the mural.
Now as Mrs. Karoki came up the path that led to the green patch, laid fast and thick with white pebbles (which she often pored over for hours selecting the most smooth and shapely), she came across a man with big white teeth, shiny well-oiled skin and the longest hair she’d ever seen, covering a dome of a forehead. He sat on the side of the path and was on a break, tired from his trade of selling religious presences and stickers with redoubtable mantras. Now and then he paused to suck in air and greedily chew a piece of white plastic. Mrs. Karoki recognized it to be a plastic bottle cap from a bottle of Quencher Orange Squash (with 10% Real Orange!). The man was sitting on his haunches. Seeing her he shouted out: ‘Even if the builder rejected the building stone, God’s word made it the corner stone.’ Mrs. Karoki went up to him and wordlessly started riffling through his wares.
“Bandika kwa gari, kwa folder ata kwa baafu. Kuangalia ni bure,” he hailed to the world. “I am the light and the way. With me do you need a torch or good roads. I am the bread and the life. With me do you need dirty money or mganga wa Tanzania? 20 shillings each. Kuangalia ni bure.” “Looking is free.”
Mrs. Karoki’s eyes settled upon one artist’s amazing impression of Lucifer’s cohorts cast down from Heaven. The picture held in a certain light gave Mrs. Karoki a sense of familiar foreboding of her marriage. In it she recognized a likeness of the man that was her doom and she gasped and blinked in holy delight, staggering in front of the picture and falling to her knees.
‘Jah! Mama huko sawa?’ the man thinking her drunk, grinnedly asked. God! Mama Are you okay? ‘Hunger no more earthly people. The final conflict is here,’ he shouted, still selling in mid-conversation.
‘Hio bisha pesa gapi?’ ‘How much is that picture?’
Though the money she produced from the folds of her dress was enough for more than ten pictures Mrs Karoki felt this peddler of God needed more earthly recompense and gave it all to him.
‘Kama hiyo pesa hitoshi. Nifuate nyuma.’ Follow me if you do not have enough money.
‘Shaitani Ashidwe, Jina rangu Njethro kutoka kuzariwa’ the man shouted. The ndevo be ndefeated! Jenthro is my name. I was baptized! Mrs. Karoki was impressed.
Jethro smelled of firewood, hearth and goats. Once Mrs. Karoki had the framed picture in her hand she gingerly removed it from its casing and got on her knees. Then she folded and refolded the picture till it became like a stone in her hand. In a rushing swirl of anticipation she reached home and let herself gingerly in, as exhausted as she’d ever been, oblivious of Jethro still walking behind her in pursuit of his money. The picture she had just bought threatened to blow open her hand – she could hear the shriek of demons raining down from the raging heavens. Once she was in her room she tore the demons from the picture and added them to the mosaic in pieces. She used her ever faithful red biro to add indeterminable scribbles on paper and painted wall alike. Gouging eyes and noughting and crossing faces on the already existing images on the wall, Mrs. Karoki went wild. And looking at Tabiza’s words starkly standing out within the sea of images she suddenly recognized their meaning.
Mrs. Karoki remembered Jethro was outside and seeing that there was no one else in the house, invited him in. She led him to her room and Jethro seeing the wall covered in images, let out a yell and fell to his knees. For that awe- inspiring act of worship Mrs. Karoki offered Jethro her favourite snack, eggs soaked in mayonnaise. And that is how her son, Jerry-Mouse now a strapping brute of 17, calling himself Giant Rat, found them. Looking up towards the ceiling in the room he snapped a mosquito out of the air, swore loudly and slapped it on Jethro’s right cheek leaving a bloody smear on the layer of unspoiled animal fat Jethro religiously applied all over his body.
‘Ahhhhh,’ he marveled at the inert remains of insect on his hand. ‘Please turn your other cheek.’ At Jethro’s reluctance, Giant Rat subjected to Mrs. Karoki’s friend to the worst beating of his life.
‘Meno kama jembe ya Peter. Ukirudi hapa tena ndakuslap mpaka 19turudi mpaka ukwe sirry kama watu watene.’ Teeth like Peter’s hoe. If I see you here again I’ll slap till 19… you become silly like your primitive ancestors. Mrs. Karoki’s shouts fell on deaf ears. Months later, when Mrs. Karoki decided to leave the Buru Buru house, she told everyone that her family house had too many mosquitoes, and that they caused violence.
Before she moved out of the house in BuruBuru she began a shrine next to her patch of grass with the innumerable number of Jethro’s wares she bought over time. Mrs. Karoki used these to start another mosaic of her experiences in this world, this time on the low wall by the pebbly path. She had stopped building the mosaic at home because of a lack of space. There was also the threat of Giant Rat whose hostility she could smell when he was in the house.
Piece by piece, the mural grew and started drawing visitors from Kiambiu. With all this support Mrs. Karoki found it more and more difficult to leave her beloved wall and eventually moved into a small tin shack in Kiambiu not far from the mosaic. With time she stopped going back into BuruBuru.
The only hitch in this new arrangement was when Giant Rat tried to come and bring her back to Buru Buru, and Mrs. Karoki’s screams roused her new neighbours. Giant Rat was lucky to escape with his life after trying to convince a small mob that the woman they all called Sister Faith was his mother. After that, the break was complete. Mrs. Karoki became a familiar figure around Kiambiu. She had taken to dressing in all-white complete with head-scarf.
Mrs. Karoki’s life’s work would eventually be overwhelmed by larger events. In 2002, when the new Kibaki government came into power they promised application. And soon Kibaki’s demolition men-at-work, came to tear down Kiambiu. When they reached Mrs. Karoki’s house they failed to hear her inside. Hadn’t everybody been warned? While a few Kiambiu stragglers watched from the distance, a muted barbed scream was just another muted boom for the men at work. Just another day that started with upright structures that ended in collapse. Barricaded in dust and stone and non-thoughts, and surrounded by discarded plastic Tiger 1000 whiskey sachets, they did not hear the insistent mutterings of Mrs. Karoki. They were too busy with intermissions like: ‘Hii serikali mpya ya masomo.’ This new government of education.
‘Now you have to apply for everything. Power, House, Job, Child, Busyness. Like that new song. Apprications. From Uganda.’ That was from a man of heavy exhalations universally known as Landi Mawe. Landi Mawe then started humming the popular airwave.
‘Ukitaka anything in today’s Kenya. Appry. Appry. Appry.’
A young girl with new breast walked past them, and Landi Mawe grinned at the others, simulating a masturbatory motion to the song,‘Embe dodo, Embe Dodo. Nimelala mchangani,’ he. Green mango, green mango I am lying in the sand.”
‘Mjinga! Hiyo wibo ni privatization si apprication. By those children…’one of the other men started to correct him when Mrs. Karoki’s piercing scream from the settling rubble emerged. Then there was silence. They looked at each other and in unspoken compliance, Kiwanja Teketea popularly known as KT held his hand up and walked to the still standing half structure and made his way in through a hole in the wall. And screamed.
“ Ama Kufa. She is dead. The woman is dead.”
Some of the men drifted off nervously.
When the police arrived they refused to go inside to retrieve Mrs. Karoki’s body. The stood outside, warily looking at the partly standing structure. Eventually they sent in two of the demolition men, Landi Mawe and KT. The two found a large sheaf of papers next to the old woman. She lay on her side, mouth puckered like destiny run over; face furry in death (the forensic scientist later found her crushed front false teeth dentures wedged in her throat). The papers looked threateningly formal. Ignoring these they scurried around and found 60 000 shilling lying beneath her body, in a plastic bag, tightly wound and dusty. Landi Mawe quickly pocketed the notes. Then he noticed a policeman peering in through the window, and started abruptly. A few minutes later the two men walked out, bearing saintly expressions, and carrying the large sheaf of papers as proof that they had been engaged in productive work. The papers seemed to represent to them some form of tenuous legality that became more solid as they walked into the crowd of milling uniforms and barking voices.
Inspector Were and one detective on the scene made their way into the collapsed house, and looked over the dead body, dressed in all-white, now bloodied and torn. The detective flung a threadbare blanket over her and explained. Death by asphyxiation and falling objects. The Site foreman came up to the policemen, hunched over in submission. He handed the sheaf of papers to the Inspector, with both hands. After a cursory look at them Senior Police Inspector Sembuse Were waved them away. They threatened an already complicated day. Identity, in his line of work, was a complication. A name was human rights. From experience he knew that what you acknowledged in the course of police work can come back to bite you. The demolition foreman, afraid they may end up with him, placed them on the nearest legal looking middleclass Buru Buru doorstep: red and polished, it was a shining example of structural legality. Inspector Were summoned Landi Mawe and Kiwanja Teketea.
‘Iko kitu mnataka kuniambia kama good citizens.’ Anything you’d like to disclose like the good citizens you are.
‘Serikali aijabadilika vile mnafikiria,’ he said smiling widely. The police haven’t changed as much as you think. Landi Mawe muttered something trying to stay on his feet while Kiwanja Teketea started to reach somewhere deep inside his pants.
Looking around while clouds scudded low over plastic, tin and paper shacks of Kiambiu, Were hurled them into his police issue Hyundai Elantra and drove for twenty five minutes into Industrial Area and then turned into Mombasa Road as if to drive on to Athi River. He turned off into a deeply dusty road, beeping at a herd of Borana cows nonchalantly crossing the road on the way to their home in the Athi plains. Were had to wait for a full five minutes for the bovine mammals and looking into the rearview mirror noticed that his two hapless passengers were asleep and snoring drunkenly. He drove past the Nairobi Depot and screeched to a halt outside a deserted warehouse. Were slapped them awake: ‘Toeni nguo.’ Take off your clothes.
What he discovered was: a toy mobile phone, some empty sachets of Tiger 1000 in a bundle and what Were assumed were spoils from the ruins that were the old woman’s life. Scarred bits of rope, a half burnt old diary and charred broken spectacles. 60 000 shillings.
Afterwards, he thought about leaving the two beneath the wide Athi sky but decided that the 60,000 shillings evidence was a mitigating factor and he put on his siren, and traffic scattered, as he headed back to Kiambiu.Night had already fallen. He did not see the weeping unkempt man pick up the large sheaf of papers from the shining doorstep; did not see Jethro pick up the toy mobile phone from the ground.
Jethro was a believer in the inherent spiritual price of just about anything.
If it was not for Jethro, Mrs. Karoki’s memory would have swirled into the sink of life’s oblivion. He received Mrs Karoki’s step-sister Tabiza in Kiambiu and showed her everything. Tabiza made her way there one Tuesday evening after deciding to skip the second funeral family meeting at The Stanley. There she was amazed to find a crowd of her sister’s admirers and followers. The once pebbly path was now bare and there were hundreds of transient worshippers fighting for the few small white stones left. Only one green bottle remained on the low wall that had once held Mrs. Karoki’s work. Most of the images she had painstakingly put up had been torn down by the visitors who had been camping at Mrs Karoki’s shrine for the last three days.
Three rusty metal and wood structures had quickly gone up in the last week and people were cooking over open smoky wood fires in tins on what had once been Mrs. Karoki’s grass patch. There were even clothes lines filled with rags. Now and then a child drifted by carrying water from a nearby ditch. Kiambui had finally reached BuruBuru.
‘The ndevo be ndefeated. Sister Faith is now in heaven!’ Jethro shouted standing on the low wall at the head of the crowd. He then held something in his hand, a child’s toy mobile phone that Mrs. Karoki had carried around everywhere with her. Jethro waved it in the air.
‘Let us call our sister,’ Jethro shouted holding the object closely to his ear. The crowd welled up appreciatively.
‘Sister, Sister Faith!’ he shouted.
‘These are the works and writings of Sister Faith to the world.’ Jethro continued, holding a large bound sheaf of papers. For the first timer sister’s death, Tabiza cried.
Suddenly a lorry drove up and a flurry of men dressed in orange and green jumped down. They were the same men who had demolished Mrs Karoki’s new home and they had been sent by the local councilor to destroy the three structures that had mushroomed in the last three days.
‘This is a private funeral gathering,’ shouted Jethro swinging a long white cloth in the air.
‘Funeral. No problem,’ the foreman said finally shaking his head looking at the hundred odd people gathered on the ground. He recognized the crowd’s potential for violence.
‘Let them finish.’
‘Where-you-going-now-now-now.Where-you-going-now-now-now,’ Landi Mawe said in a sing-song and all the demolition men laughed. Some of them started approaching the women cooking nearby in the receding light. Some accepted an offer of Kiumbiu’s finest liquor. At first most of the demolition men sat on a nearby pavement and watched the proceedings with idle interest, then bored, meshed into the crowd to entertain themselves with the women.
Jethro walked around with the toy mobile asking everyone ‘watume salaams’ send greetings to their departed Sister. Holding the mobile to their ears, ‘Mungu asifiwe.’ God be praised. The demolition men and some women from the crowd who had joined them, laughed. More jerry cans were brought and people continued drinking late into the night. Later, bodies were strewn everywhere, dead to the world.
Mrs. Karoki’s would eventually have two funeral services. One exalting her life, one going through the motions. One symbolic and one classified and advertised. One for family and one for more than a thousand worshippers. One in Maragua and one in Kiambui.
Before these took place, Tabiza took Jethro to the Thursday funeral meeting at the New Stanley. The family reacted with stunned silence. Tabiza squeezed Jethro onto the table where Mrs Karoki’s family sat. Giant Rat suited and in dark glasses, glared at him, but said nothing.
‘Sista Faith was very bressed,’ Jethro said.
‘Shhh,’ Mr Humphrey Karoki whispered. Fi started to cry.
Mrs. Hannah Macharia stood up, and walked across to Tabiza,
“ What are you doing? Does the name of this family mean nothing to you”
Tabiza laughed, and passed the dirty piece of paper around the table.
‘These were last wishes of our sister.
To Whom It May Concern
Actually to ‘Jerry the Mouse’ my youngest son
Re: The Discarding Of My Refuse
Where will I be buried. Who will bury my. What is the connection I ask. How do those people look with their hateful faces. I was born in Matuko rocation Maragua and how I was raised by my family these are not the things I was taught. Those people who tried to kill me – always trying. That bibe (sic) was given to me by my Aunt Wanja. That they said I was sick. They are the ones who are sick. I don’t know what they want with my family. I remember that day the tall pretender came to see my father at his house. What I ask is what is the connection. Even my father na my brother ithe wa Morris, nyina wa Kanyi. Why did they come to look for me …What is the connection. Mua thika I want to look down when I’m in the soil. So noone thinks I’m sleeping but dead dead dead.
B.Karanja wa Njama is a freelance writer. He lives in Buru Buru, Nairobi
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