by Muthony wa Gatumo
Someone is yelling and banging at the door.
My dad? Ai? Kwani what's happened? Who wants my dead dad?
The door opens and out comes a burly figure, dressed in a magnificent navy blue uniform. A cap with embroidered golden wings sits on the fat round face.
“Kamau! The captain and the rest of the crew are all in the Crew Coach downstairs...waiting for you!”
Ohh-o! Someone is addressing me by my surname! And it's the Flight Purser, boss of any Inflight Crew, who is doing all that yelling.
It's also 0500 hrs GMT, and exactly two hours before our flight back to Nairobi takes off.
In twenty minutes time, I should be all showered and dressed up and flashing a permanent 10,000 watts smile - at least - at a crew of passengers of very different degrees of sophistication and persuasions, onboard flight KQ 120J.
Two hours ago, one of the people at the Front Desk at the Holiday Inn Heathrow or Intercontinental Hotel Zurich or Athens, and I can't even remember where else, tried to place a wake-up call to my room lakini wapi, nothing happened. So here I am now inside my very worst nightmare possible.
I awake with a start.
Hot sweat is streaming from my body and soaking the bed.
How I dread these nightmare-causing early morning flights.
My mind's eye zooms around the darkened room, sensing the multi-channeled giant screen telly on the gleaming mantelpiece. The mini-bar with miniature liquor bottles. Beer. Chocolate bars. Nuts. At the furthest end stands the electric kettle. NESCAFE and NESTLE HOTCHOCOLATE. Camomile and Fruit n' Spice herbal teas. Instant soup. Sugar. Milk. Biscuits.
On one beige wall rests a perfect Van Gogh replica, next to a Joan Mira Print of bold black strokes criss-crossing a splashed, sprinkled and scribbled rainbow.
But in the very next installment of that very same second? My wide open eyes catch a glimpse of the illuminated radio clock blinking the real time at me.
2:35am , 2:35am , the clock mocks.
A Pentecostal choir of dogs howl at a distance. Cats play bitch, cursing. A horny mosquito decided to seduce me...
Damn! Now I'll have to get up and kill that blood sucking mini vamp, because malaria's just too dear a disease to have in these days of inflation and ‘very bad economy'.
Aiee! I try to move and my spring bed squeaks and squeals like rats on heat, the paper-thin mattress dipping, curving and curling with every movement made. I land on the ground with a thud and blindly feel my way to the electric switch surrounded by the snores, vinegary human gas, plus French-accented sleep-talk of my sleeping roommate Aminata the Lovely.
“Mah Njeeri! He was reech!”
This is how Aminata usually greets me each morning.
“A beautiful man! A white! Reech!”
Aminata then swans around our 12' by 12' room; dancing around the small iron table and two wooden chairs between identical camping beds that all stand on a crackling vinyl carpet. “We go to dis ‘otel….. Beautiful! Biiiiiig! With a lot of mzungu man, yo!!”
Unlike me, Aminata never has nightmares about her past. She's always engaged in fantastic movie-like dreams that always end up with her riding off in a stretch limousine towards the setting sun, accompanied by a super rich white dude. Reeech!
I kill mosquito Dead. Knock, knock. Who's there? Amos. Amos who? Amos Kito... Sorry Amos Kito, I say to the tiny red smear on the wall.
Other spots and similar smears decorate our room. Like greasy finger prints from a myriad of past lodgers. Strands of reddish blonde synthetic hair flapping on peeling brown paint. Something black. Something purple. And something else yellowing green for which tissue paper was surely invented.
Bigger than ones that get blended together with centipedes, grade worms and beetles the size of Brazil, into some smoothie from hell, in that popular TV programme called FEAR FACTOR, where the drinker of the horror soup eventually gets to win $100,000.
However, my attention is not 100 percent on the goliath roach. It's totally focused on the table and Aminata's loaf of bread plus the Blue Band margarine beside cutlery engraved MKGH.
Ancient faded papers posted on the four walls say Mama Koi Girls Hostels' Rules and Regulations. These rub shoulders with calendars from 1980, 1992 and 1976, plus J.Lo's famous butt in a recent publicity poster, Janet Jackson's widely-spaced ‘dashboard'. Together with a mile of pictures featuring anonymous blue-eyed blond male persons, pulled out of old magazines - I imagine -courtesy of Mam'zelle Aminata. There're also ripe bananas and a hard Jaffa orange inside the thin black plastic bag supposedly well hidden under Aminata's bed.
“Your meeting is when?” Aminata is carefully studying her face in the mirror over our solo metal sink. Thin perpetually perplexed eyebrows. Studded tip tilted nose. Polished skin. She opens her mouth wide and checks out her tongue. Then teeth. And then adds more pink lipstick and a generous splash from Jean Paul Gaultier's woman shaped perfume bottle.
“ 10:30 ” I reply.
“Emille my brother bring ‘is ka. We drop you.” Aminata takes a mouthful of coffee plus a generous bite off a fresh fat mandazi doughnut from the cafeteria down the corridor. SWISS CAFE it's called. And is ran by Mama Koi's rather matronly daughter Koi. I start to salivate.
“Emilie? Mmm….Last month it was Jean Claude, my cousin from Rwanda ”. The other month Otey, “my uncle from Ghana ”. And there's even been one or two Chinese looking chaps, who are recently discovered long lost twice or thrice removed relatives, I suppose. “Didn't man evolve in Africa ?,” I can hear Aminata explaining, hands on hips in that threatening West African way?
1l a.m. British Council Auditorium. It's buzzing.
A well-fed rather young red haired man from the podium seizes the microphone.
“Foist a'd loik to welcome you all to this hare Writers Creativity Workshop”, his lips pout and pluck like a goldfish. “As we have limited tow a'd loik us to foist introduce ourselves, one ata toim, beginning with that laidey ova there.” He points at me. The others around him remain mum.
“Richford Clarke from BBC Wales will start us off. Ty will be soived at 12 sharp. Barbara there'll taike ova till lunch toim, at one thatcy. Ok? Ok!”
Standing up on rubbery feet, I soak in the many eyes stinging at me.
“Eh …Thank-you. Thank-you Mr. Wilfordshire, Mr. Clarke, Ms. Barbara ... ... and all of you ladies and gentlemen for inviting me here today.” I feel the pairs of ears cocking and noses twitching in a natural quest of scenting me out. Who the hell is this one now, they seem to say. What the fuck could she have written surely, they obviously are asking. I ignore them all and yodel on.
“Thank-you very much for having me here today”, I reply. “‘It's a great privilege and honour to be involved in this workshop, where I hope to learn all that I can learn and benefit as a writer. Thank-you. Thank-you very much” Words that have always been my childhood sweethearts desert me at this juncture and my mind goes blank.
Finally. And after a long pregnant silence, Mr. Wilfordshire asks me the hardest question, “‘What is your naime?”
“Eh...eh.. actually my real name, eh what I mean to say is, my official name is Margaret Kamau, but I eh, usually choose to use Njeeri as my writing name, which is actually my home name really... “
In the fog of apprehension and intimidation that now surrounds me, I hardly hear the command “NEXT!” which prompts the smooth flowing tirade from the others; fellow workshoppers, dapper and draped in sophistication, well cultivated execution, articulation and finesse that I only last experienced as long words read in the last book that I read I dunno when......
Hey. Am Symone Ghiroba and I work....
Hi. Am Atieno. I work at…
Wassup. Joey's mo name and I do graphic!”
“So...” she's completely bald and has an eyebrow ring and dark brown lipstick that matches her dark brown eyes. “You said ati you're called?....”
I feel my own cornrows tighten around my head like a sisal baseball cap. Wanjera, the expert hairstylist at Embu Town , had made the kamatana lines extra fine and extra tight “to last at least two months”.
My sensible Sunday Best outfit of matching blouse plus pleated long yellow skirt, bought during the last market day before relocating to Nairobi, at Manyatta township which is only twenty minutes from Mount Kenya, now feels, and maybe even looks, like a colourful polyester tent billowing in the sun in a typical Saturday afternoon wedding reception party. Compared to the sea of casual jeans and sweatshirts surrounding me.
And ai? A whole Asian-Muhindi girl actually saying ‘ati' like a true Nairobian!
Kwani when did this transition take place?
Before I left the city of my birth after quitting the career of my fantasy in search for self and the ritual song of my soul, my art, Muhindi young women wore long dark hair and were ideally slim virgins-in-waiting, who strictly concentrated on learning the delicate art of being a very good wife and mother.
They might have been allowed to polish up their mathematical skills, perhaps for when they began their prescribed life-long part-time job at their father-in-law's shop in Ngara or Parklands, only after they'd successfully produced sufficient offspring. Where they'd henceforth supervise the daily selling of clothing materials, a hundred different spices or corals. With the ever-present help of Kalonzo or Wanyonyi, the ever faithful African Shop Assistant, who'd been assisting shop since World War One... Kwani when had this new breed taken over?
I remember the Asian girl's question about my name. Which is a question that catches me off guard nowadays. Much more than the shock of enjoying one-on-one attention focused on any part of my person, and especially my mind. Which might be - or not - a natural side effect from my recently-ended exposure to the hive-like traditional African network of my parents' village, where everybody's role in life is precisely prescribed by virtue of their sex and age.
“Eh... Margaret Kamau”, I manage to mumble. “ - actually Njeeri...”
She's tall but curvy and takes a delicate sip from her long thin brown cigarette. She then blows perfect rings towards the high ceiling of the auditorium. “Rita Shah”, she smiles.
It takes me a while to digest that she's just introduced herself to me and not just called me a name. My right hand begins to twitch. We are now all having sandwiches the size of matchboxes at the recess young Wilfordshire mentioned.
“Nyeery! You said ati you're from?...”
“Upcountry, eh…. I went to shags for a long break and I only just got back to the city last month... but I …eh… was born right here in Nairobi, actually...” I over-explain my recently ended upcountry sojourn as usual.
“Oh. So you now work for?...”
Again I'm caught off guard.
“Eh... .nowhere, eh, I mean, I'm self-employed... a freelancer.”
“Oh. So, who have you been writing for then?” Meaning, in Nairobi culture at least, are you important enough? Are you worth knowing? Do you have important connections? Will you amount to anything? Plus the very equally important, Should I waste my time on you?
“Ah... this and that, here and there... .heh.heh.” Meaning that for the longest time, I've only had one or two stints with wannabe tabloids who pay their writers peanut husks in year-long installments. A column in a magazine that died after only two belches. A stint with a porn rag whose staff writers remain anonymous as a policy…
Rita's interest is almost dead now, so I very quickly jump in. “BBC! Eh... I write for the BBC..!”
Of course I forget to mention that that, once upon a time, that snap I took of gaka, my grandmother, picking coffee, was accepted for publication by one of the BBC's World Service magazines. For their regular SNAPS page where even Maasai herdsmen and Gikuyu chicken fanners often have their stuff accepted. This bluff ensures that I henceforth belong to the important enough, worth knowing, has connections, will amount to something and the time wasted on me will not be time wasted at all social category...
The brown eyes light up, interest resurrecting.
Rita sips her cigarette. I sip my tea and bite my matchbox sandwich, then Barry White's voice asks. “What about the BBC?”
Joey is slender. Has illegally smooth skin. Perfect white teeth, Musky. Expensive. Wassup.
“Eh…am fine, thank-you”. I swallow my tea and finish off my sandwich. My tummy still growls in protest nonetheless, because thinly margarined loaf and a hard Jaffa orange stolen from Aminata's secret stash at 2:36am just doesn't cut it. Again I wonder what we'll have for lunch. And again my hand feels abnormally hot.
Rita and Joey lock lips.
“Nyeery works for the BSC”, she smiles.
Joey's dark eyes smoulder.
Okay, they didn't. But dark eyes on handsome men are supposed to smoulder, right?
What really happened was totally different, totally mortifying. As Joey pulled a seat, my right hand shot up from me quicker that a blink.
Rita stopped smoking. Joey's mouth dropped open. And my renegade limb stood poised in midair, begging for a handshake. Handshakes are as African as black is, after all. A reflex action. A natural reaction.
The poor guy gulped. Rita gulped. And I gulped too after a while, as I tried in vain to pull down the aforementioned stray appendage. So Joey shook it, almost blushing. A limp, sweaty, shaking-virgin handshake.
“Sorry,” 1 mumbled, as I observed a thick rope of shiny sweat pop on Joey's fine forehead - long, wide and smooth just like my dead father's.
I remember that his handsome smooth dark face was always expressionless - my daddy's was. Especially when he slowly chewed each mouthful of the food that Maami ordered me to serve him every night, “as practice for when you get married”.
This was always and exactly one hour after daddy walked through the door. After he'd shed his favourite overcoat-for-all-seasons bought in England in 1966, when the Kenyan government gave him a six month job-related scholarship, to study there. After he'd taken a long shower where he whistled gentle Anglican Church friendly hymns that were nothing like the loud Pentecostal Church hearty spirituals that were generously garnished with loud blasts of ‘God-inspired spiritual languages' that had a lot of “Ha Bara Ra Ta Hobe Sha Re!” Languages still spoken by the angels to date. Languages that Maami was and still is very conversant with.
“What did you learn in school today?”
That always came after we had all toiled through Rwamha the maid's culinary offerings of ikwa - a super dry cassava mash, or gwaci - boiled sweet potatoes, or her all time favourite, maize meal ugali, which came with a salty meat, peas and carrots stew. Then we drank water “to wash it all down”, ate fruits “to help digestion” and to also ensure that “you don't come out of the toilet with red eyes and the prominent throbbing facial veins of trying of push and push and push” according to Rwamba.
After the table was cleared, any misbehavior of the day was accurately recited by Rwamba to “your daddy and then you will see!”
“You will see” normally amounted to two or three quick knitting needle lashes in the butt or a week long curfew after school, depending on the quantity and quality of the crime.
As I carefully narrated my school day to daddy, Maami and Rwamba would be in the kitchen busy banging pots and pans. “Njeeri, bring the dirty cups if you've finished the Milo , ehe?” Maami would soon shout. “Dirty dishes left in the sink at night only feed cockroaches.”
“Cockroaches are very bad! Cockroaches bring bad diseases! They are the world's dirtiest animals! Is that a cockroach?! Kill it quickly! Here. Hit it with this slipper!”
My mother hated cockroaches. She always talked about cockroaches. During the “Maami Special” - a thorough scrubbing on Sunday evening - where I'd get scoured down head to toe with a big muratina loofah, Maami still talked about cockroaches.
“When the nuclear war comes; cockroaches win survive - you know that?”
She'd read about it in her favourite KiSwahili language newspaper TAIFA LEO.
“Everything will die but all cockroaches will remain alive... ... imagine!”
By then, she'd be working on my neck, turning my head this way and that, sometimes clasping it between her knees to steady me as she worked on my back. Rwamba would be nearby, on gleeful stand-by, with yet another bucket of fresh of warm Dettoled water, that madam would soon use to rinse her only offspring with. Then, after Maami and Rwamba averted their faces, I'd be instructed to wash myself ‘down ther''. After exactly two and a half minutes, my mother would snap, “Bas! Enough!” a signal for Rwamba to quickly scoop me in a large towel and vigorously frisk me dry.
“Will you have a drink?” Coffee-coloured skin is too smooth for a guy, I observed for the umpteenth time. Joey flagged down a bow-tied waiter and ordered drinks for us without consulting me. I didn't mind much though, since I figured that I owed him one for embarrassing him like that with that unpremeditated handshake in public. How could 1 have forgotten the protocol, in this new world of mmuah-mmuah European air-kisses and quick dry hugs, at most? At least the man was a gentleman and had obviously forgiven me for invading his sacred Personal Space, which is a new African word now commonly used in modern cities and towns around Mama Africa.
For the whole three days duration of the workshop, Joey, Rita and myself somehow found ourselves seated or standing together during the numerous intervals. Especially while debating with the special guest author Marcus Toma Amenyi, whose ideas and insights seemed to go northwards, whilst ours headed down south in principle.
We respected the thirty year old astonishing author, needless to say. He had written his first book – a primary school mathematics set book - at 19. His first novel, titled BEYOND THE BEYOND made the New York Times Top Ten Bestsellers list when he was 21, a feat that ushered in numerous international literary awards. And the coveted 1 million shilling Artist's Grant from MEN'S LEAGUE - that outfit that is headed by some dreadlocked millionaire from Chad, for Marcus' exemplary display of original literary genius, especially his amazing command of the Show and Tell technique.
But it was always Barbara from the podium who had the task of prying us apart after the string of heated arguments that followed every paragraph of Marcus' speech. As she yet again tried to explain that none of us was right or wrong, in the long run. Because literature - like art - could be seen as abstract.
“Words are the paints with which a writer uses to paint their individual imagination”, the lady explained. “Some of you will be drawn to reproduce reality as is commonly perceived, coming up with portraits and pictures of objects already in existence. Some of you won't, and thusly combine these perceptions and come up with a completely original version of reality... ..”
While others like ourselves - obviously - could be compared to Joan Miro's dark strokes on splashed and sprinkled light. Or even like a literary Picasso, where the eye of a story was allowed to roam and subsequently appear on the knee or chin. Yes indeed, nothing at all was wrong or right because eventually each part gets it's place in the whole picture, all is fair in art, as it is in love and war. That was our group's argument.
Richford Clarke from BSC Wales belonged to Marcus Toma Amenyi's school of thought. He talked of the importance of capital letters and full stops in their proper places. Insisted on correct diction and prior planning, outlines, paragraphs, bodies, startings and finishings... ...
Our coordinator, the young Mr. Wilfordshire, had on the other hand only appeared on the first day.
On the very last day however, I witnessed each of the workshop's participants troop one by one to Wilfordshire's comer office on the second floor, enter tentatively, stay for about ten minutes and then exit with a rather perplexed look on their individual faces.
When+ my turn arrived, I was surprised to see lines upon lines of beautifully covered books entirely line up all the four walls. The only place that books were absent was the floor and ceiling. He looked from something that he'd been busy scribbling and gave me a toothy smile.
‘'Nyeery! Come in! Close the door!”
His blue eyes seemed to look right through me.
“So. How did you like this workshop? Did it help you at all?” Somehow his initially heavy accent seemed to have disappeared.
With two sets of tea and lunch for three whole days, I'd already privately concluded that this workshop was very good for me indeed.
“Am glad that you got exposed to so much experience and professional insight as you say Nyeery,” Wilfordshire pronounced, after listening to my standard reply.
I then noticed, that on the mammoth cedar wood desk, for one so petite, stood a medium sized carton box, into which the man now dipped one hand. Maybe, I anxiously thought, Wilfdordshire was now going to offer me some money? As some sort of artistie grant to help me implement all the important points that the Writer's Creativity Workshop had taught us? Some very good money'? Please please God please…
Earlier that morning, Mama Koi's daughter Koi, who was also the hostel's accountant, administrator and manager, had summoned me to her office next to SWISS CAFE.
‘''When will you pay all dha money? If you don't pay all dha money tomorrow, don't come back here today!”
Koi had savoured each verbal bite the way she did the cream cakes that she loved so much.
The reality was that I was now not only homeless, but also that I had no access to all my worldly belongings which would be confiscated by Koi, who doubled up as her mother's auctioneer as well.
‘'Yo! Njeeri! I ‘avena money to lend you yo!” Aminata had wailed dramatically when I explained my predicament the previous night. Emille her brother, had gone back to I dunno where and so Aminata was once again hunting for a new male relative to adopt her.....And of course I understood her position in regards to my current dire situation. Just like I understood Maami's utter disgust after I left my “very very well-paying” job years ago, in order to pursue the “silly-silly” so -called job of “writing-writing foolish-foolish things”.
Apart from a roof over my head and a hot meal on the table when the going got too tough, any other help from her was synonymous to that biblical camel still struggling to go through the eye of a needle.
After my father died, Mammi soon became the permanent chairlady of Holy Hill Pentecostal Jesus Christ Is The Only Lord Savior King And God Amen Church Without Borders. Rwamba stayed on “to help Sister-in-Christ Bethie” with her increased workload. And I guess that should mean that they lived happily ever after.....
I don't think that I've totally forgiven daddy for dying on me like that, going off to bed one night and not waking up the next morning just like that. But that's another story.
So here I was now at Club Kidogo with Joey and company, “catching pints”.
“Si you can tell-tell us a little-little how the BBC works? Maybe you can get jobs for us too? Even if it's freelancing, it's better than to be zubaaring idly over here in Africa waiting-waiting for peanuts at the end of the month...”
I don't know who among the present company had suggested that, but here I was now sipping at my fifth Guinness and coke and watching Rita sway interestingly on the circular dance floor right in the middle of the premises. Another girl. It was quite packed with the hippest, yuppiest generation X, Y, and Z Nairobi crowd.
My mind still swirled with the last word spoken by Wilfordshire that afternoon, and especially his last.
“Usually at the end of the Creativity Workshops, throughout which we keenly observe and access each participant, we give each one of you a little something that will help you further your writing career on a more focused and concentrated footing. Use this gift wisely”.
The three bottles that he gave me are still in my small kiondo handbag.
‘One to be taken three times a day before meals' is neatly typed on each labeled container, which houses a mixture of blue, yellow and green tablets.
I wonder if they are seeds. Maybe if I plant them on some fertile ground, they will each take, bud and then sprout forth a big mighty tree. With internationally acclaimed fruits the size of Brazil that might just make it to the Top Ten New York Times Bestsellers List.
Or maybe not. Who knows?
Rita comes back to the table and gives me a drunken hug.
“Hey! BBC babe! Why the long face....eh? You wanna another drink... eh?”
Her companion, the other tall girl, smiles at me through clenched teeth. Mariah, she is called, “not Maria, but Mariah.” As in Carey.
“Because cabs are too expensive” we all end up at Joey's digs and “because it's the nearest and the largest”. “Because his bed is big enough” we all pile on top of it. Half undressed “because it's too too hot tonight” and because of all those pints we have thus far consumed.
I don't know why Joey ends up on top of me – finally – but I know why I tightly hold onto his penis as he grunts and moans and jabbers in Sanskrit, a long dead language. Maybe it's because good Anglican girls need sex too - at least once in a while. Maybe it's because the condom keeps rolling down and slipping off Joey and I too drunk to notice it, and just blindly ride this welcome wave, until I soar high enough to forget that I'm homeless and jobless, and eventually reach up and touch God's very face…
What I also notice is that I bite my tongue each time the word ‘daddy' threatens to spill from my mouth…
Days from now, I will again notice the loud throbbing spasms between my legs, as I walk around Nairobi City pretending to window shop, visiting friends and a smattering of relatives for meals and forced conversations, as I wait for the evening and the next drinking spree planned by Joey and company ‘after work'...
I also know that during the next few days, when Rita turns and places her gentle soothing hand on my bare breast and then tentatively tries to kiss me, I will kiss her back.
Muthony wa Gatumo is a veteran Kwani writer and describes herself as creative writer, poet, female, soul and black…