Lisa

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Lisa. That is what I am planning to name my walking stick when I am 83. It sounds like something you would name a really tame pet that is not a dog. I’d call a bunny Lisa. Or a mouse. Little harmless pets can be called Lisa. A bird that can fit in your palm. Lisa. A kitten with ears too large for its body size. Lisa.

I am thinking about an 83-year-old-me for a very cliche reason. I am imagining what memories a version of me leaning on a cane with a badass inscription will treasure. I will be standing next to an anthill in the idgaf way of old women and looking into the orangeness of a sunless sky at sunset. My eyes will have forgiven me for whatever I did to them to send them on a go-slow at age 14. The long-sightedness of old age will marry the shortsightedness of my youth to allow me to create perfect vision and allow me to stare at the breathtaking horizon. My eyes will be glassy and an imaginary camera will zoom in on them. 83-year-old me will fade out and a youthful version of me will take the stage.

I want to enjoy this year. I know it’s never that serious and I really want to chill out and be in the present and so on and so forth. But in school My Life happened to me. At the beginning of the semester, My Life and I were on a running track bent over the starting line doing our on-your-magoros and set-your-makinyas and by the time the bullet went off my life had finished two laps and I spent the whole semester trying to catch up.

This year, I want to wake up at 11a.m. on Saturday and wear my I’m-allergic-to-Mondays top and black sweatpants and go to My Life’s apartment and knock. I will ask ML (My Life and I will be on nickname basis this year) if she wants to come out to brunch. And ML and I will hold hands on the roadside. And ML will stop to take a photo of a purple butterfly for the butterfly blog she has started.

When we reach the bakery, we will order muffins and regular tea. Which is different from Masala tea (yes, I’m trying to announce I go to Java now). And I’ll ask ML, “Hey, what are you up to today?” And she’ll say, “I don’t know. We’ll see what comes up.” And we can talk and talk and at 5p.m. I can look at the clock and say, “Oh, it’s already 5p.m.” But not the oh-it’s already-5-p.m. for college. The one that makes you count how many hours, minutes and seconds you have before your deadline and which friend’s birthday party you are not going to make it to even though you are very sorry. No. This oh-it’s-already-5p.m. is a happy one in which I marvel at my friendship with ML and how easily we can spend hours together doing nothing.

I read a book (Salt Roads, Nalo Hopkinson) in which one character seeks silence so much that she wishes her travel partner would breathe more quietly and paces her own breathing because she can hear her ribs. The sand sounds super loud to her as the wind blows it. But she finds so much silence within herself that she can hear other people thinking. For example, if you walk by her, she can hear you say “I need to buy meat” if that’s what you are thinking.

I hope that Saturday afternoons with ML will allow myself that silence so I hear my||self think. As a youthful version of me fades and 83-year-old me leaning on Lisa comes back into focus, I hope that both past me and present me will have enjoyed that peace that only someone who can listen to themselves think can afford.

 

Photo credit: https://www.instagram.com/momentsintime123/

 

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MATATU WOMEN: GOING IT ALONE IN NAIROBI

Monica’s life seems lonely to me. Not in the way that standing at the airport alone, after your lover says goodbye, is lonely. It is lonely in the pleasurable way that reading a book is. Every weekday at four a.m., Monica gets up. With only Nairobi’s cold morning breeze for company, she leaves her house and heads to Nyayo Estate Gate B: a twenty minute walk. In June’s cold, it helps that her uniform includes a long sleeved red shirt, with a stripe at the collar the colour of the midday sky. She pushes the door and walks up two steps into the 33-seater matatu which will be her home for the next nineteen hours.

Matatus are public vehicles in Kenya that range in size from huge buses to 14-seater Nissan vans. Some are owned by individuals while many are owned by groups called Savings and Credit Co-operative groups (SACCOs). In these groups, people pool together money to buy the vehicles and then share the profits. Each matatu is staffed by two people: a driver and a conductor, like Monica, whose job is to collect fares and to let people into and out of the matatu. Monica’s matatu is one of hundreds of thousands of matatus in the country. She transports 33 people nearly every hour, sometimes meeting the same people she’d transported earlier that day.

Monica settles down into a chair next to the door as the matatu joins Outer Ring Road, then Jogoo Road and then enters the city centre. She then stands up and collects fares, swaying to the rhythm of the moving matatu, steadying herself against the chairs. Bus companies like Citi Hoppa have tried to make these transactions cashless. There was the Beba Card, on to which you could load money and then swipe it like a debit card. Lipa na M-pesa is another alternative, a mobile money transfer through which you could send money to the bus’ account. But in a city that has been nicknamed Nairoberry – a city whose conmen and daylight robbers often have me wishing I had eyes all around my head – people are always wary about having their money swindled.  Monica, for instance, was prompted to leave the hairdressing industry and find a more lucrative job when thieves took away everything in her house, including her hairdressing equipment. So people prefer to give the cash to Monica, whose life they walk into and out of, rather than use a card whose inner workings they do not understand.

If people get off the matatu, Monica hops off too, trying to convince more people to get on with a “Hamsini Town, Hamsini Town”. The more people she carries, the more money she earns. She has a quota which she has to give her employer and then any money left over is her own. She takes home about 2000 shillings – 20 dollars – nearly half the monthly rent of many houses in her neighborhood. Sometimes, though, when she hops out of the matatu, she collects more dust than she does passengers.

***

Nairobians pride themselves on knowing which matatu to take in which part of town. When stranded, you ask matatu conductors like Monica. You cannot trust Google because, just last summer (amidst complaints about misnamed Nairobi avenues), they offered you an enthusiastic “18 minutes to Africa” when you tried to get around in Kenya. They finally added Nairobi’s matatu system to their maps, taking pains to make the chaos that is the matatu industry legible, but many people would still prefer to make their own brains maps. The blue, red and white boxes painted on the side of Monica’s matatu resemble a crossword, and are to me a symbol of how difficult it is finding your way around Nairobi.

Women venturing into the routes served by the Embassava sacco will hesitate to ask directions from male conductors, even with the same Embassava badge that Monica wears. Last year, videos flooded Kenya’s social media spaces, in which women who were deemed scantily dressed, were stripped of their clothes by matatu touts. People believed the perpetrators to be Embassava conductors. But Monica says she was present and it was a jealous ex boyfriend, not matatu touts, who stripped this woman of her clothes. An Embassava bus passing in the background of the video recording implicated them, she says. This may still not exonerate matatu touts altogether, since many other videos went viral of the same thing happening to other women.

Women drivers and conductors have always been rare in the matatu industry. Even now, for a lot of Nairobians, there is something avant-garde about a picture of a woman walking down the aisle, asking you to pay up. Like they are in a gallery, Nairobians still stop to aah and ooh at this picture. Legend has it that the first woman in the matatu industry, a John the Baptist who paved the way for other women, was called Senorita. She was single, like many of the women I have met working in matatus.

Nowadays, the matatu industry is a sponge for women looking to join the working class. Since the dusk of Mwai Kibaki’s presidency, there has been an increase in Al Shabaab attacks on Nairobi matatus. At bus stops, before people get into the various matatus, touts frisk them using a metal detector. Women conductors are better placed to frisk other women. And more and more women want to find out how the maroon uniforms would look on them, that the former Transport Minister Michuki made all conductors wear in 2004. Some women who work with Monica are students who work part time so they can pay their school fees.

Monica puts away some of her money every day so she can pay school fees for her own seven children, many of whom are away at boarding school. She has only the younger ones left and, returning home at midnight and leaving again at four a.m. each day, she barely sees them during her work week. She might as well be alone in the house, because they are asleep when she is awake.

***

Another woman I meet works the 105 Nairobi – Kikuyu matatu route that takes you to Alliance Girls’ High School, one of the best high schools in Kenya. At Alliance Girls’ where she delivers these young women, students are encouraged to work hard, because who would marry you if you did not work hard?

Women in Nairobi are taught to look at alone-ness as something to be sneered at. The trajectory of a girl’s life – even one who, by society’s standards of smartness, has excelled and has made it by a quota system to the highest level of secondary school – is always aimed towards combating alone-ness and singlehood. Teachers, male and female, want to know who will marry you. Peers, male and female, mock you about singing along to Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ and remind you Beyonce has a man at home. Perhaps, even now, as I tell you the stories of Monica and Rachel, I am highlighting their alone-ness because in my eyes it is so exotic. But Monica’s daughters know that a widow can raise seven children alone. Monica makes the life of a woman alone seductive in the way that bachelorhood has been made seductive.  She earns her own money. She decides what to do with it.

Rachel, the owner of Hotsteppa, the matatu that won the East Africa Motorshow, has mastered aloneness so much that she wanes in the national conversation about her matatu. National newspapers report her friend Abel Ouma, the man who encouraged her to buy a matatu, as the actual owner of the matatu. Rachel manages the matatu from behind the curtains, like the director of a play. She hides her identity for her own security, fearing that she may endanger her life like the director of Rasasi investment, who was shot in October. When there is a problem, she lets her friend deal with the other men on the ground because “he can threaten them”.

Matatus are Nairobi looking itself in the mirror. Men threaten. Women are threatened. Men are the only ones who can be in control. This may be why for women to survive in the matatu industry, they have to act as they would in a play, complete with costumes like maroon trousers that are traditionally considered male. Rachel has employed a manager to play her double. He rides on the matatu all day and collects the money after every trip. That way, she says, employees cannot lie to her that they got arrested and had to pay fines, or got punctures. The employees in turn call this middle-man Battery, because he links them to her so that they cannot swindle her.

If Monica’s life is about working with hundreds of people all day, Rachel’s is about controlling hundreds of people each day, as, on another scale, is Mary Mwangi’s, who owns over a hundred buses. Rachel uses phone calls from Battery as her morning alarm. And she spends the day putting out fires: punctures, policemen, accidents.

Rachel left her job in South Sudan due to insecurity. With her savings, and a lot of pleading because she did not have a payslip, she secured a loan from Toyota, a company which is eager to sell its new ‘Helio’ brand for use as matatus. She spent two and a half months designing the matatu: installing the three TV sets, a music system, deciding to put the word Hotsteppa in the interior – not words like Arsenal or Manchester United which could be divisive – and picking the purple and yellow theme of the matatu. She spent her evenings on Youtube, watching MTV’s Pimp My Ride.

Despite now having a team of employees she likes, Rachel has had to sack some along the way. The first driver got into an accident. The second driver tried to stipulate that he bring his own conductor to work with, so, she said, they could conspire over their stories and swindle her. Drivers, who sometimes have celebrity status, are not bothered about her matatu and ruin it by speeding.  They want to complete many journeys and maximise on their earnings while the matatu is still new. On the side of Monica’s matatu is painted a red aeroplane, nose raised proudly as it perches into the air.  It reminds me of the speed with which the drivers, nicknamed pilots, operate the matatus.

Rachel has had to abandon many of her other exploits and spends most of her days monitoring all her employees, from backstage. When Rachel first got her matatu, men called ‘hangers’ would lean out of the door of the matatu and pretend to fall and hurt themselves. Then, they would go to the police and ask that Rachel compensate them. Both Rachel and Monica are frustrated by policemen. Rachel has a lawyer friend who advises her on her rights and, to the surprise of other people, her matatu is barely ever confiscated by the police.

Rachel refused to have her matatu all yellow, because she felt so many other matatus in Nairobi were yellow. She also made a decision to pay salaries per day rather than commissions, to ensure her employees didn’t ruin her matatu by trying to fit in extra trips each day. She is anxious because this may mean that they will not work as hard.

Maybe Nairobi itself teaches a sense of competition that can grow unhealthy. In a society where only about half of the students who finish primary school go on to graduate from high school, it is perhaps not surprising that a relative advised Rachel against hiring a woman because the men would get jealous. She says: “[In] this industry you’ll be hurting the lady [and] they even call a police”. Since matatu men are seen as not having succeeded in life, all successful women, however subtle, threaten them.  They try to assert their space within the industry by putting down women who try to succeed within it. Sometimes, even male passengers refuse to board matatus driven by women. Yet women who venture into the industry are also popular. The policemen, who frustrate both Monica and Rachel by accusing them of things which they have to pay for, actually let women drivers go more easily than they do men. Rachel says, “Ladies are favorites even if she makes a mistake”. When Rachel gave a woman driver the matatu for a weekend, she attracted more customers, and Hotsteppa got significant social media clout. Rachel will consider hiring her full time when she gets a new matatu.

Mary Mwangi, the owner of the Double M, a fleet of buses that traverses Nairobi, employs more women than other fleets do. This may be because women are more likely to give fellow women a chance. Thanks to Michuki’s laws, there are also now laws protecting workers from sudden dismissal when working for bus fleets.

Many people tried to scare Rachel when she decided to enter the industry, but both Rachel and Monica would recommend their jobs to anybody in a heartbeat. Monica insists on maintaining her 3-4 hour sleeping schedule, protesting the suggestion that her children could help her once they finish high school; insisting that they must go to college instead. In the morning, she returns home, removes her uniform and takes a bath.

Reblogged from Commonwealth Writers forum

 

sharing imperfections

I was once reading Alexis Teyie’s work, which I love and hunt down every now and then because she makes really beautiful poetry in really silent corners. In her piece, she talked about how an artist’s reluctance to share work is actually pride (and she of course put it more glamorously). And I thought that was a bold statement but I saw all the ways that it was true for a lot of us, not just artists. The need to present your paintings, your Powerpoint slides, your Math homework to people only when it is perfect, can be proud, because it is shying away (to put it mildly), from sharing our imperfections, which is why the anti-social media crusaders are always coming for us. Think about it. Social media has us, quite literally, showing only our pretty sides, and always making the standards of this pretty more and more absurd.

I grew up on a lot of awful quotes attributed unfairly to either Einstein or Maya Angelou or Thomas Jefferson or one of the writers of the Old Testament. And I do not remember all of them but a major theme was how you should never think of yourself as having achieved perfection, that you should always push yourself to be better, that you should always be finding new goals. Our Math teachers would call on these wahenga quotes before beating you for scoring 98%, or scoring a 100% but not showing your working. And they would say that they did not want you to think that “you had arrived”.

One of the main reasons I could not sustain my Catholicism, or my religion, was that ironically I felt such pressure always to be perfect. I curled up in fear of breaking one commandment or the other, which would paralyse my efforts to just live and breathe and appreciate the sun’s yellow. And while the crazy high standards were not the reason I stayed irreligious, I felt a little sad that I did not find a space to cut myself slack in the place that should most cut you slack.

And I understand why there is a need for such a school of thought, of course, that you as a human being should always be aiming to do better. However, the older I get the more I fear that we preach striving for perfection without preaching acknowledging how far we have come. I feel like stopping to say “Wow, Ivy, you actually achieved this” is not only an underappreciated means of staying calm before confronting new storms, but it is actually seen as a form of being conceited. And that is an awful attitude for individuals but also for society in general. If we do not think the things we have done worthy of sharing with society, then can you imagine how many creative policies have been trashed that would have helped us solve the education debacle, for instance, or how many entrepreneurial ideas had the light shut out of them when the person who conceived them went to bed at night thinking they were not good enough, that they could be more perfect as we were taught to assume, and can you imagine how many songs will never reach our ears because of the same attempts at perfection. Just look at the things that come up around the time #CreativeKE is trending and imagine a world where everybody hides those parts of themselves.

put your art out

So it is pride, not sharing our work, it is prideful to think that I am capable of perfection and thus should only produce perfect work. But it is also a pride that sometimes I have little control over, that I cannot battle because I learned it so well.

I guess then we cannot talk about this without talking about the need to be kind, to offer criticism only honestly and only courteously, to colleagues, to classmates, to strangers on the Internet. Personally, I feel a little death inside when I read some of my earlier work. It was not the best, but it took up space confidently, aware of its imperfection but elbowing out all other literature to claim its space, and sometimes I fear that all of my training has improved the architecture of my pieces. I know what to do, but that same training threatens everyday to take away the soul of these pieces, like if the god I believed in had forgotten to breathe air into the man he made out of soil.

I once watched a TED talk about (forgive the massive paraphrase about to happen here) how people in the past believed that a demon possessed artists– that is why they could paint or write, or make music. It really calmed me down, because it then suggested that the days I could not create were not my fault, but my demon’s, like if he is feeling lazy is that my fault? It reminded me of how in high school after exams the teachers would feel lazy to come to class, and we would know in our hearts that we were the ones negatively affected and that we would not finish the syllabus on time to master it and be tested on it eventually. But in this aleluyia moment of the teachers’ truancy, we would go to the field and frolick in the sun and have conversations and make memories that I still keep in a crystal ball in my chest which warms my heart on days when the rainbow is enuf. This is one of the ways I show perfection the middle finger.

And I am always anxious about how so scared we are that we do not talk about imperfection and normalise it. Like what would it be like if Chimamanda had genius moments like Americanah and still shared work that she did not think was beautiful (if you dare imagine that she creates any unbeautiful work)? Our silence on the greyer sides of otherwise glossy matters is remarkable, like how nobody talks about how women experience pain during sex yet 30% of women report it, or how 49% of women experience incontinence after childbirth.  But there is something about that silence, about not talking about all of the scary scary scary things we know we must face when we get out of bed in the morning.

And, perhaps Okasungora readers will identify with some of these anxieties when pursuing your own passions, but sometimes it takes my everything to let anyone but myself into the haunted house that is my art, to not overthink it, to hit “Share”.

because i miss home

My mother does not know this, but the first time I went to the city center alone I was not more than 12. I needed a new pair of school shoes and my father just told me to meet him at the Hilton. I said I did not know where it was, and he said, “where we bought them last time”. I did not tell him that did not make things any clearer. So I got on a matatu headed for the city centre, and when the buildings became taller and the sound of the pedestrians’ feet more fast-paced as we left the residential neighborhoods behind, I gathered enough courage to tap the matatu tout to tell him to please show me where the Hilton was. But I saw it, a cylindrical building with the word “HILTON”. And instead of “Show me the Hilton,” I asked to be let off and I walked out of the matatu and kept my eyes on the skyline, on the word “HILTON” as I walked towards the building. Even after I grew a little older, I would go to the city centre and if I did not know where I was, I would look up and see the Hilton, and walk towards it. I did not for a long time know the relationship between Hilton the hotel and Hilton the celebrity.

Getting off the Number 34 matatu nowadays that brings me from home in Embakasi to the city center is always a difficult process. I have to alight fast and dodge the city council workers who may fine me for alighting at an undesignated area, or something else that they feel like. But getting off a matatu is also difficult because somehow the best Riddim song always comes on at that moment when you make the right turn from Tom Mboya street into the matatu curb at Commercial.

Elite Nairobi, the cool kids who had Twitter before the rest of us had any use for it, listen to Riddims as if they can smell it, because, they purse their mouths and crease their noses as if there is an odour coming from it. But in my side of the city, Riddims are the cool thing, and there are people in my neighborhood who open their mouths and a Jamaican accent comes out of them. They say “Wagwan” to me as I walk past them and introduce themselves as “Claire-deh”. I think it would have been less creepy for me if they were not so casual about it.

Sometimes I feel like Nairobi is a quilt made by different countries. Tom Mboya Street and Moi Avenue are the two main streets in Nairobi’s city centre. They are flanked roughly on one side by the Railways Bus Station, a group of British-architecture style buildings, and on the other by the University of Nairobi campus. When I get off at Commercial, I hold my handbag under my armpit while fiddling with the zip and hurry to cross Tom Mboya street and join Moi Avenue. Commercial is crowded, and I fiddle with my zip so that nobody else does. Sometimes, when I come from New Haven, I look on the wrong side of the road for oncoming cars. I never forget though, that traffic lights are nothing but red, orange and green décor in Nairobi. No motorists or pedestrians use them.

A statue of Tom Mboya stands in the middle of the square that separates Moi Avenue and Tom Mboya street. Tom Mboya  was assassinated in the 1960’s on Moi Avenue. When I was in high school, we would stop around Jeevanjee gardens to buy fries when we went outside the school for funkiez, yes, with a z, and I remember thinking how tame a place it looked with its fast food places for someone to have been assassinated there. Americans don’t know it but they are indebted to Tom Mboya. He worked with JFK to start the airlifts that had Obama senior come to study in the U.S. In short, Mboya gave us Obama. At the foot of the statue is Mr Price, a South African boutique. They sell clothes at prices that I cannot afford yet. But in the evenings, hawkers spread their clothes on the floor before them and sell second-hand clothes for prices that are sometimes a tenth of what the South African store sells the same things at. The clothes the hawkers sell are from Europe and the U.S. When the government allowed their importation, the local textile industry died. Now there are huge cotton factories in Athi River, a little outside of Nairobi, that remind me of empty shells.

Opposite the statue is a chain of restaurants including Galito’s owned by Hoggers Industry, a South African franchise. A lot of people plan to meet outside these restaurants before heading to their actual food places. There is a running joke about how if you are not clear when telling someone to meet you outside and not inside, you will end up with a bill you cannot afford because all the food at Galitos is so expensive.  Before Al Shabaab got comfortable in Nairobi, before guards checked the insides of your bags for weapons, we would buy sodas from the Tuskys supermarket at Commercial and sneak them into Galito’s to drink together with our pizzas on Terrific Tuesdays when pizza was buy one get one free.

The last time I went home, the restaurant called Caprice next to Galito’s that I loved had been rebranded to “Manhattan fries”, and as I walked away I wondered if the new owner was from Manhattan or if the name just attracted more customers.

 

saturday nights

.saturday nights are for running from the silences.

silences make yourself talk to you and you ask yourself to stop talking to you but yourself is one of those annoying people who says things that could have come right out of motivational books or your therapist’s mouth, like running does not solve things.

you roll your eyes at yourself because you know that saturday nights are for running from silences so that even if yourself spoke to you the music and the chatter would fade her voice and you can tell yourself to just catch you tomorrow because this is not the time or the place. and yourself will argue. but the music is loud enough that you can just wait for her to finish speaking and ask “huh?”.  and three or four “huh?”s later yourself will fall silent. that is the good thing about yourself. when she is angry she is quiet. and that will give you two hours or so so of peace even though yourself is stubborn enough to work through that anger just so she can start being a nuisance again.

and don’t go to the bathroom if you can help it because yourself is disrespectful and she will come with you to the bathroom and start talking to you and start telling you things that nobody should be thinking about on saturday nights, telling you ‘your mother has probably seen the blue ticks’ or ‘your bedroom floor has made a carpet of your clothes’ or ‘what the fuck did your ‘friend’ mean when he told you to apologise for screaming at him when he touched you’.

saturday nights are for running out of the bathroom before yourself talks to you and finding rooms full of people who probably know how to deal with their own silences and feeling so much adrenalin in your body that it makes you fear your fear and you want to run but you can’t run outside because outside is silent and so you decide to jump up high instead but heaven won’t have you, sweaty and happy…

happiness is for this earth alone, on saturday nights, at the time when god has switched off all the lights in his house and gone to his bedroom and is scrolling past headlines on his phone about ISIS and Bro Ocholla and the UN combating polio. happiness is for this earth alone, on saturday nights, at the time when god is ignoring texts from everybody because he can always tell them the next day that he had already gone to sleep.

and when god falls asleep whoever was in charge of making sure everybody emptied the room by whenever o’clock will turn the music down and you will be frustrated and you will wonder whether the world with all the fires that have not been put out was better off when god was awake and in charge.

but you know god won’t defend you because you and god have been going through a hard time since that lent when you were sixteen and you decided to give up meat for him and be vegetarian and you missed meat so much and no relationship can come back from that alive.

and yourself will start speaking to you again. and you will ask her to stop but yourself does not understand that there are times when you should just be happy, not because things are alright or because you have done everything you need to do, or because you deserve it. there are times you should just be happy. yourself thinks happiness is like math, like it is a result of things. but you keep telling her that happiness is poetry, that it needs no explanation, that sometimes happiness is reaching for the poetry books between your bed sheets that you forgot to put back on the nightstand and retrieving bodies you met last night instead.

saturday nights are for silencing yourself when yourself reminds you of the girl you met who also listened to poetry in the shower. You tried to drown her memory in the sound of the bathwater draining but yourself refused to forget that her hips resembled the bark of the tree you saw when you were seven and you convinced your father that you must get a Christmas tree and you went with him to find one and there it was, posing against the blue sky and reaching its fingers towards heaven but your father said you could not get that one and you did not understand because if christmas was about Jesus then this tree could almost hold hands with him. and when the girl danced her hips that reminded you of the tree spelt magic in Italic. and how you laugh anxiously when she pulls you and wraps herself around you because the last time both you and yourself looked at anything so sensually it was font 72 last semester when your final essay was due.

saturday nights are for shutting yourself up for as long as possible after the music is gone and kissing men and tasting alcohol in their mouths and hoping your tongue did not leave their tongue with the ability to pronounce your second name.

4 Posts in One :)

Find here all the posts that featured in the Starting to Love blogposts I wrote the last few months:

  1. why i keep my sunglasses on
  2. don’t come back
  3. What if the Devil
  4. Nairobi, Columbus and the New York Times

why i keep my sunglasses on

Sometimes, when men and women want me to be theirs, I ask them if they can take in all the soul in my eyes. I am used to doling it out, you see. I know how to be not too much and not too little. I know how to be just enough, although sometimes a little too much spills out. I know how to cap it. When I was young, my mother would send me to buy paraffin, and she’d put nylon over the bottle before screwing the bottle top on. That way, none of it spilled. But I could smell the paraffin all the way as I walked from the shops with the bottle in my hands, sometimes convinced that the smell was too strong and that the paraffin had actually spilled out, checking the sides of the bottle, once, twice, thrice… Maybe that is how souls are. Maybe that is why I can feel mine peeking out even on days when I put nylon over the top. Maybe that is why I can’t look you in the face. Because, you know, souls spill from the eyes.

And you have to ask, you just can’t go dishing your soul out to people. You will scare them and they will lock you up somewhere where your soul will prefer to stay deep in your guts where it belongs and stop trying to spill out. You have to ask before giving the men and women who want you to be theirs all of your soul, because sometimes, even when they try, there is too much of you to take in. And still, even when they agree that they can handle the soul in you, they backtrack and return your soul to you, right before the deadline on the receipt for returning goods, when you had started to consider that maybe they will not return it. And you try to argue, that souls are like books, yes, you can return them to the store, but it does not change the fact that you have already used them. And sometimes, when you are standing in front of them, receiving your returned soul, looking down and picking at the thread on your cardigan, too fatigued in that moment to measure the amount of soul spilling out of you, believing that your soul  knows the drill and will measure itself now, you see in their eyes that some of their soul is spilling out, and you know that their soul used to fit within their bodies, and you want to ask them if they are sure they remembered to put all of the soul you gave them back in the jar.

don’t come back

Nairobi will be seated on the brown couch watching TV—probably some well choreographed dance performance on Kiss TV. I will be seated on the floor in front of him, with the back of my head at his stomach, donning his T-shirt and not much else. I will tell Nairobi I love him. He will say he loves me too, but that I say it too much. I will laugh and say all right, only a little annoyed.

But I will turn away from the TV to look at him. And he will be laughing at a joke in the song lyrics.

“Damn Nairobi, you make twilight look really good,” I will say.

“That’s such a white thing to say. I told you, you’re becoming white,” he will say.

“I’m just saying, you dusk well, Love,” I will say.

“And I’m just saying, your surprise at nature’s beauty is unKenyan,” he will say, and then smile the most beautiful smile in the world. (This is not my writing; Nairobi has the most beautiful smile in the world.)

“Can’t wait to come back and chill forever,” I will tell Nairobi.

“Don’t come back. Stay there and get dough.”

The sound of nothing. The feeling that the Devil is using his fingers and the veins in your head to play the game you played as a child in which you make different letters of the alphabet from pieces of string. The sound of a voodoo version of yourself the size of a doll inside your brain, pushing all the furniture in there out through your ears, clearing your brain of clutter, like reformatting your device. And then drawing back the curtains in your brain. And checking that you locked the door—both latches. Then the sound of the micro-version of yourself going to the centre of your head and seating on the floor and folding your legs so your forehead rests on your knees.

You want to tell Nairobi you are not just making conversation juicy when you say your account balance has been -4 dollars all year.

You want to tell Nairobi that as much as you get paid better elsewhere your rent is six times his.

You want to tell Nairobi you saw some of his exes, and their eyes are red, because they work all day, and then all night. Or maybe because they have been crying.

You want to tell Nairobi you don’t even know what the color of your skin means so that you can explain it to your children.

You want to tell Nairobi you actually loved this year, but when you talk about it people feel pity on you. That your standards of alright are now pitiful.

You tell Nairobi his sewer system, and his drivers, and his mates’ catcalling, and the fact that you need to say Mass to see tap water, drive you crazy. But that he’s home. He will always be home.

You want to ask him Doesn’t he miss you

You kiss him on the cheek and get up to boil some hot water to calm your evening allergies.

How your evening ends is like this: you call New Haven, and it costs you 310 shillings because she can’t catch your accent.

What if the Devil

What if the devil also switches off the lights in his bedroom on Thursday night, wears a baggy t-shirt and no trousers, places a packet of cookies next to his pillow and watches Grey’s Anatomy? Then he falls asleep with his fingers stained with chocolate chips and his laptop still running next to his head. And he dreams Grey’s-Anatomy-themed dreams. And when that cold 3a.m. breeze sweeps his bedroom, he is half-awake and half-asleep, dreaming about demons that are pulling at his right hand and his left hand, aware that it is a dream but scared anyway.

Then the Devil goes back to bed and wakes up at 10.30a.m., late enough to feel rested but early enough to be on a creative high. And then he kneels under his bed and brings out the globe. And he places the globe on his reading table. And he imagines his reading table as one of those Grey’s Anatomy surgical tables. And he takes a scalpel from his pencil pouch, the ones he used as a child to sharpen his pencils before going to school. It still has that black tint from the graphite.

Then he cuts open the globe’s belly. And he tries to be neat about it. The way Bailey cuts along the borders of the liver and the kidney and the pancreas, the Devil tries to cut along the borders of the globe’s organs. But there are people who were not cut out for surgery. The Devil is one of them. And he is clumsy with the globe’s organs, and the world’s kidney bleeds into its pancreas, and the spleen explodes. He tries to neaten it up, because now the kidney and the pancreas have some internal bleeding. But he remembers some riddim song he heard in a Githu mat and has been craving ever since. And he tries to find his laptop so he can play the song as he works. And then he raises his arm, trying to wipe out sweat from his brow without using his hands and he smells his armpits and thinks to himself that it would probably be more hygienic to take a shower before continuing the surgery. The globe is probably already infected because he did not scrub his chocolate-chip covered hands with disinfectant before starting the procedure, or because he did not wipe the leftover crumbs from his reading-table-turned-surgical-table. So he thinks to himself: “The least I could do is shower, even if I am going to screw the globe over.” Because the Devil does not care. If the globe’s body can function or not, it is not because he went out of his way to ensure it. He then takes his towel from the floor where he had left it after his shower the previous night (everybody sleeps better after a warm shower). Then he heads off to the shower, tripping on some of the surgical blades. He considers placing the blades back on the surgical table, but feels too lazy. He has to pick them up in the end anyway, so he just takes care to step over the globe’s blood on his bedroom floor, and walks to the shower.

He hums the tune of the riddim song, trying to find words he can recognize in it so they can be his search words on Google. Then he comes back to his bedroom, with the globe on the surgical table, and he remembers that he was supposed to meet his advisors at 11, but then it is too late, and now he has to go play FIFA with the boys.

And the globe remains there, bleeding but not dying, because the devil can do whatever he wants with the globe, can take away the globe’s cattle and can take away the globe’s wives and children, and can bring the globe disease. But the Devil cannot take the life out of the globe, so the globe bleeds and bleeds and bleeds. And the globe kind of wishes the Devil had the power to kill, because what the globe is going through might as well be death. And the Devil leaves the globe open on the table for three weeks, like the way you forget milk in the Fridge. Only the temperatures are not low. And the bacteria are forming. And the globe is starting to smell, like the Devil’s armpit. And the liver and the kidney and the pancreas are just trying to survive. And they fight for things from each other. Survival for the fittest and shit. And then the globe is dying dying dying always. And the bacteria tell the pancreas and the liver and the kidney to blame the Devil. But the bacteria are fine. It’s just the pancreas and the liver and the kidney, turning against each other, making an enemy of each other, even though the bacteria went out and got straws and put them in the globe’s body, and started to drink the globe’s blood, like old men around a pot of busa. And then they chill, the bacteria, and when the Globe’s organs cry for help, the bacteria, bellies distended, full of busa, tell them they should pray. Prayer always helps. And then they give drunken speeches, telling the kidneys that their health starts with them, and that it is their fault that they are ill. But the kidneys insist it is the pancreas’ fault.

Nairobi, Columbus and the New York Times

A few days ago, the U.S.A. celebrated Columbus Day, which is the day Columbus ‘discovered’ America. Reading about its controversy in the New York Times brought back memories of how when we were kids I had to cram in my head the names of numerous European imperialists. My Social Studies examination consisted of 60 multiple-choice questions. At least one tested me on who discovered Lake Victoria, or Mount Kilimanjaro, or Mount Kenya. With such questions, you pray that some of the choices are definitely wrong. And anyone with a Kenyan name, like Kimathi or Onyango, was a definite no. A gift from the examiner, we called it, because we could eliminate those choices. Then you would remain with three choices, of the names of European ‘explorers’, like Leakey, or Ludwig, or Speke. They also always had government titles like Sir and Lord that made no sense to me, and to many of the kids growing up in Nairobi.

Yet the same New York Times that is publishing many articles that criticize the politics of Columbus’s discovery of the U.S., is Columbising Nairobi, and possibly, other parts of the world.

Last week, I read an article by Gettleman in the New York Times. It was titled: Nairobi’s Latest Novelty: High-End Mac and Cheese, Served by Whites. The article was about how employing white waiters has become a marketing strategy for restaurants in Nairobi. It unsettled me, and I would like to focus on the problem with Gettleman’s article rather than suggest that he himself is a malicious person. Nothing there was supposed to be offensive. But still I read it in horror. I went on Twitter and Binyavanga Wainaina, a prolific Kenyan writer was urging Kenyans to “Vault over his (Gettleman’s) platform. This is what it means to own your continent.” Yet I did not know why Gettleman’s article offended me.

Gettleman is surprised by Nairobi. In the same way that Mt. Kenya was only discovered after European explorers discovered it, Gettleman seems to validate Nairobi by writing about it, and the idea that people have been experiencing Nairobi before he did is pushed to a corner. Gettleman says of Kenya’s attractiveness to foreign investors: “Nothing may signify that Kenya has arrived more than the sight of a white man with a bead of sweat.” This is untrue. There is no one in Kenya who when asked, “Why do you think Kenya has arrived?” will answer “Because I saw a white man with a bead of sweat the other day.” But more importantly, this is a return to the idea that until the white imperialist validates something, it is unworthy. That the fruits of all the things the country has been doing right since 1963 is that now a white man is waiting on us, in expensive restaurants. How sad can our goals get as Kenyan citizens? I am not the only one bewildered by Gettleman’s Nairobi. Larry Madowo, a popular journalist, asks “So @gettleman figures that ‘Kenyans don’t usually see working-class mzungus.’ What does that even mean? Mzungus don’t work?” The fact that Kenyans from Kenya are unable to relate to an article about Kenya should signify that Gettleman, and the New York Times, have misrepresented the region.

In the article, Gettleman retains this undertone of shock that Kenya, an African country, is functioning. He calls the restaurant an “eye-popping extravagance” that made the local papers. But surely, the local newspapers have been doing restaurant reviews since forever. Why is our Columbus so eager to make this restaurant seem like this privilege that Nairobi has never seen before? I have always enjoyed NYT articles, and I believe that you have to be a certain kind of amazing to write for the NYT. Gettleman, however, despite being very impressive as a person, disappoints me in his portrayal of my city. It makes me wonder why it is so necessary for foreign media to make African cities an “other”, different from any other spaces in the world. Gettleman suggests that these restaurants brought by foreign investors are a ‘novelty’, an island of class in a sea of “roof thatched shacks”. Like the white imperialist in pre-colonial times, Gettleman is suggesting that only what is brought by the Westerners is worthy.

Gettleman notes that the white waiters he says are causing a stir in Nairobi are working class white people. He says of Nenad Angelovski, “[his] English was not nearly at the level of Kenyan waiters”. It is problematic that Gettleman thinks that the waiters’ language of communication is worth noting. First, he is insinuating the inferiority of Nenad because he is not speaking good English. And secondly, he is suggesting that Kenyan waiters speaking good English, not Swahili, or their mother tongue, is a surprising and impressive thing. It earns them some respect. Again, in short, you are not legit unless you are like me.

Gettleman’s writing is obviously beautiful. And I would love to read his work minus this eagerness to make Nairobi seem like this place that just encountered civilization. But the truth is, no Nairobian would write about Nairobi in the way that Gettleman does. No Nairobian thinks, “Why are foreign investors reluctant to come to Kenya?” And concludes, “Oh it’s probably because it is often difficult to meet Western consistency standards in a place where the power goes out regularly and machete-wielding mobs occasionally barricade highways interrupting the supply of fresh beef.” There we go again trying to meet Western standards, as if we cannot be Nairobi, we can only be Nairobi in relation to some Western city. This statement, I believe, refers to the 2007/2008 post-election violence. And Gettleman is careful to sneak the words ‘often’ and ‘occasionally’ into that phrase to clear him of blame. I understand the temptation to exaggerate when telling stories. We all do it. But this article, rather than lighthearted exaggeration, is deceiving to a non-Kenyan reader. That I, who have grown up in Nairobi, think of this Nairobi that Gettleman is describing as a third party place that only he has been, means that he is deceiving his readership. A friend uses Gettleman’s words to summarise the impression this article gives: “translation: Kenya, we’re bringing you overpriced food and white waiters (for your post colonial hang-up) and trying to transform you into a “New Kenya” (defined by us), why won’t you live up to our Western standards? Tell us, ye machete wielding people of the Sahara.”

Gettleman’s Nairobi continues to surprise me because “fast food used to be from a local spot like McFry’s or barbecue at a roadside thatched roof shack.” First, this statement suggests a lack. But Nairobi was fine. Even Kenchic, a fast-food restaurant which people diss, had pretty decent joints in several parts of the city centre. Secondly, it is misleading to say, “roadside thatched roof shack” in the sense that he says it. My family and I were roadside thatched roof-shack kind of peeps. They had the best nyama-choma (roast beef). But more importantly, the thatched roof was intentional architecture, made like that to give a sense of the traditional kind of shelter.

Gettleman is so shocked by how a “sleek elevator opens into a corridor where men in black suits frisk visitors” that I wonder if he grew up in an urban centre. But I know he is either lying, or blinded by his shock of Nairobi, when he says, “Step into a Subway [restaurant] in Nairobi and it is as if you are leaving Kenya, or entering the new one.” Take the Subway in Kenyatta Avenue, for instance. Are you leaving one Kenya for a new one really when you enter Subway? I do not know what about walking out of Kenyatta Avenue into Subway would make me start singing “A whole new world” like Gettleman makes us think he did. Moreover, my friends and I do not consider Subway the most high-end restaurant in Nairobi. It is wrong for Gettleman to imply that just because Subway is American, non-Kenyan, then it is number one.

One of the people he interviews says of the international franchises, “It is better for everyone because it is top quality.” Why is it top quality? Why is it “high-end”? Because it is Western?

Yet Gettleman is entitled to his own biases, as long as they are true. What I would request, though, is that if the New York Times is going to write about Nairobi, then they should allow the people of Nairobi to write about it too. Foreign opinions are important, but only if they are true. And even then, they should not on their own shape the image of an outsider. I say outsider because I know that many people from Nairobi cringed at this article. Surely, I imagine, the New York Times was not planning to have them as audience.

There are so many people who write beautifully, and truthfully, about Nairobi from within. I appreciate that the New York Times tells the stories of Nairobi. We are told to tell our own stories as Africans. But until our homegrown publications command the readership that the New York Times has, the NYT has a responsibility to be balanced about the stories they tell on our behalf.

MONTHS by Purity Sowayi.

image

6.
No, 8.
What are you counting?
Months.
Wow, its really been that long.
Wait, make it 12.
(Pause)
What are you counting?
(That killer smile)
(Blush)Months.
I failed that paper.

I loved you like blue. In a primal way. But actions need reactions. You we’re Karma’s gift to me. And you we’re one hell of a gift.

I dont know how to turn this into poetry.

Your hair, your smile,your skin, your hands,your chest, your hugs,your touch…. The way you walk.

I gave myself 9 months to forget you,
I’ve been counting the
Months.

You took me home,
I walked under the moon.
You said I was beautiful, I mistook your eyes for hands and mirrors.
I took alot for granted. I was not used to falling all the way to the ground.

The painting was amazing.. I mistook it for a real horizon. It took months to realize I had walked off the edge of the earth. Right into that place they say angels fear to tread. Not into a sunset. So yes, I’ve been counting….months.

I took up painting after that. I have hundreds now, of how the sunset should’ve been. They’re all different, but I wanted you to smile exactly how you smiled the first day we kissed. In each of them I wear blue. Because blue is for dreams, even dreams coming true. Been clutching at straws for months.

The rest of my life, I sculpt. Try to smoothen the cracks. When you’re new to a skill you tend to want to create your own world, and breathe life to your own human beings.

So I wanted a wall to the sky, made of whatever mirrors are made of. And ten thousand to guard it. And I’d sleep inside 1000 years before I was awakened by a kiss.

1000 years have passed 3 times now. In months. I was counting months.

You awakened the demons at 8. So I re-started the countup.
Make it 2.
Still counting months.

I wish I could turn this into poetry.

A month for every kiss I missed looking over my shoulders for demons that did not exist. A month for every some-people-wait-a-lifetime-for-a-moment-like-this moments I took for granted because I was too busy groping behind the horizon.
A month for those walls I build around you…brick by brick. And another for how they closed in on you suffocating you, with me pulling the strings.
A month for pushing you to the edge…letting you fall, letting you down.
A month for letting you go. Boy! did I have my priorities wrong. Choices… Choices… I fought alright, just the wrong battle…

There’s a bullet with my name.

A month for those seeds I planted… oblivious of the fact that its in the nature of a seed to grow…and how they grew into strangling vines that almost choked you. A month for the 7months I cursed at your guardian angel or not¿, or maybe two?
Anyway, one… for the ‘thermos’ I almost threw. And another, for all the ‘thermoses’ I did throw. Some with my eyes, some with my mind. Some, almost with my hand. There was no being a lady about this.
One, for the bile I brewed inside of me. Blaming you for falling after I pushed you, Blaming you for suffocating after I cut off your air.Happiness, I can fit into poetry. But Pain is sharp, and blunt. Even if I turned it into a painting, I can’t be poetic about it. Pain is hard to caption.
So, maybe I did get what was coming to me…but you shouldn’t have been so insensitive to my plight. My biggest crime was loving you.

Credit.
Image- Art inspired by Warsan Shire’s poetry.

More of Sowayi’s pieces can be found at:
https://okasungorasaidwithswag.wordpress.com/2012/12/22/moonsetby-purity-sowayi/

https://okasungorasaidwithswag.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/daughter-of-mine-by-purity-sowayi/

https://okasungorasaidwithswag.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/they-followed-me-home-by-purity-sowayi/

Coming home to Myself

I want to learn, that coming home to Myself, is not the Tusker stage after a Gor match. Or Ambassadeur at the time of the night, when men are drunk enough to deserve your body.

I want to learn that coming home to Myself is not a violent matter.

That it is a cup of Ketepa tea after a million cups of foreign tea. That it is a warm shower right before bed, after a journey from Yala to Nairobi. That it is sweatpants and a t-shirt and no bra and a couch and Tangy Tomato Krackles and a chick flick on Friday night. That it is free Wi-Fi, the keys to a dance studio, loud speakers, and my favorite playlist on Friday after my last class. That it is wheat flour and sugar and milk and lemons and drinking chocolate in the kitchen, and no hurry at all. That it is my room when my roommate goes on a late night date and I wait up. That it is Evernote and MoonReader  all night long. That it is Grey’s Anatomy and the voices in my head all day long. That it is untidy dreadlocks and white earphones and a naughty passage and a long weekend away from work. That it is an empty playground and a broken seesaw on a Sunday evening. That it is a walk through the school grounds, unafraid, and sniffing in Thika’s scent when I close my eyes. That it is Riddims in a matatu, and the impossible stillness within. That it is swinging my legs under my chair, even after grown-ups give me their look. That it is the first time I smile and walk away, instead of defend myself, when they say I did it. That it is window shopping along Moi Avenue, and seeing my reflection in the glass, and smiling privately because dang, I am beautiful. That it is seeing a message from you, and reading the “How are you?”, and calling Bullshit on your mindgame, and folding back into myself. That it is pencil and paper and playing TicTacToe against myself. That it is stepping into a space that once loved me, but then haunted me, and finding that it loves me once more.

I want to learn that coming home to Myself is not a violent matter.

Because of Truth

You will ask me why I always run.
I will say it is because of Truth.
You,you need me to peel off a part of my skin,
like elastoplast,
before you can paste yourself on my body.
But Truth,
he glues me and him together
like a handy cobbler,
uses the tears he cries when he laughs,
and the dryness of my tongue after I tell my stories.

What it feels like to disappoint a father is like this

How it starts is with the phone calls. You always feel some pressure matching the other side’s “But you are fine” on phone. You feel that disappointment. That ‘you have no right to complain’.

You meet him after eight months, and you realize you are not yet in love with the place you have been. You talk like shit and you sound like it. You sound damaged. You sound like you need a break. You feel guilty that you do not tell him that the land you have been comprises milk and honey. You did not expect it to, and so in a way you are fine that it is not. But he is not. He will ask you things like: “Why would anyone want to leave there for here?” He will stay quiet as you tell him the realities of being there. He will look ahead at the road, as he drives, seem a little too poised on his seat, refuse to face the realities that you have become comfortable with.

One day he will say: “We worked so hard to get this, and now you look at it like it is nothing.”

It will break you. You will run away from yourself and allow the tears to flow, but only in your imagination. He cannot see you sad. You will see why no one else tells of the land-you-have-been’s non-glitter. That accusatory tone, that feeling that he has been holding it back so long, that inability to explain to him that although you don’t speak of rainbows and candy, and although your life is not easy, that you are trying to fight your battles. Instead you come up with a weak: “I did not say that I think it is nothing.”

You live with that burden, that you have glass house problems, that a million people would die for the opportunity to be you, that you really have no right to complain.

You see it in his tantrums- his and his wife’s. You know those tantrums that are thrown out of love. You see it in the way they complain about your jeans, and about your tone, and about your time-keeping. You can tell they are honestly reacting to something else, and you kind of wish they would just throw that big tantrum—tell you what you already know—that you are unappreciative, that you are lazy, that you are a disappointment.

Wonder what that woman who gave you the opportunity to be where you are thought when she learnt of your unhappiness. She was probably disappointed in you too.

How it ends is like this: you run away. You cocoon. You give them that break they need from the disappointment that you are. You realize you owe the man who has been with you despite the sadness, despite the non-excitement, despite the not-totally-understanding-you, despite the sometimes assuming like everyone else that your life is perfect, you know you owe him, if nothing else, your sanity. You wait. If you have disappointed the man who has rooted for you all your life, continues to break his back for you, all you need to do is wait a little before you disappoint the one who has rooted for you a significant number of months. 

What it feels like to disappoint a father is like this: you write, and for once, writing does not make it better.