Barely breathing

I just seemed to be in this black void-thing, No floor, I could move and stuff, but I couldn’t see anything but a light below me, like an inverted shadow of sorts.-LaFayelle

Standing at the balcony of her college room at the outskirts of Nairobi, Archie mused as she noted that the view was nothing extraordinary. You go on balconies and you expect to stare at the horizon and be mind blown by the beauty of the collage of God and man’s creations. Not in JKUAT though. In this university, a balcony was just a balcony. Branches of a huge tree blocked her view to the right. There was a grey cloth on one of the branches and a black paper bag on another. A badly designed tuition block- seemingly half finished even- hovered in the background. She thanked the tree for blocking her view.

“I can’t get myself to study for that statistics paper,” said Shiru, coming up behind her. Archie saw her roommate’s shadow first, slender, as she was, before she saw her.

“Can you imagine doing all this and still not being assured of money in the end?” said Archie. She watched as grey water from the clothes the inhabitants of the forth floor had hung at their own balcony drained onto the cemented ground of theirs. As it collected into something icky at the corner, its color matched that of the ground. Yet it still lay there, distinct.

“I want money,” Shiru said. “I can’t do that Aunty Ann thing.”

They laughed. Aunty Ann was Shiru’s aunt. Archie had met her twice, but knew everything about her. Aunty Ann and Shiru were close. The kind of closeness that meant a lot of her stories ended up being about Aunty Ann. Archie was amused by their relationship. She told Shiru that she would not even talk about her boyfriend with her elder cousins let alone her aunts.

Their closeness meant that Shiru knew things about Aunty Ann. For them, Aunty Ann was their window to adulthood, and it was no surprise then that they were so reluctant about embracing it. For them JKUAT was a capsule. A capsule before you, like Aunty Ann, get a job where the salary is two thirds finished after you pay your rent at a lower middle class housing area. A capsule before you have to worry about the prepaid electricity meter. A capsule before your friends start to get married and start to get children and grow happier everyday. A capsule before desperation starts to eat at your cheerful personality, and eat at it, and eat at it, and eat at it, until all you have is the outside cheer. You still talk and you still make your niece and her friends laugh at picnics. If they weren’t looking hard enough, you could have convinced them that you really were joking, and that it did not hurt.

A sudden breeze blew Archie’s loose-fitting white top towards Shiru, who was now standing beside her. Archie was dark- the color of riverside clay. Her cheeks were plump. In fact, the only thing about Archie that was not plump was her waist. She was of medium height, but seemed shorter because she was plump. She had her right leg bent, with her knee kissing one rim of the balcony. Her toes barely touched the floor, and her left leg did all the anchoring. Perhaps this with her sense of style, or her confidence, or something, was what made her so… enchanting to men. Shiru often teased her about the number of men who were willing to buy her flowers. And you know Kenyan men and flowers.

Aunty Ann was too— enchanting to men. She had, apart from her beauty, a great sense of humor that made her loveable. When Archie read Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman, she imagined Aunty Ann as the subject. She was not dating anyone- had not been for three years. Aunty Ann always joked about how no one wanted to marry her, but everyone knew about her suitors. Everyone knew men had tried and given up. Everyone knew Rotu was still trying. Only Shiru knew that he would never get through. Well, Shiru and Archie— if you tell Shiru a secret you might as well tell Archie yourself.

Only they knew why Aunty Ann would not give Rotu a chance. In her own words: “I cannot say that I have not been tempted to say yes. But I know deep inside that if Rotu had come to me exactly as he is now, but without the Benz and the mansion, I would not have looked at him twice. I want someone I can look at twice, even if there is no Benz and mansion.” Then she would go on to make a joke about how it was no coincidence that her sisters, much older than her friends and herself, and who had been married for longer than her friends had been, were much less emphatic about pushing her to get married.

“Those women have seen things,” she would say and then laugh the kind of laughter that made you join in before you were sure whether what had been said was funny.

It was also an act of pride. Aunty Ann said that at some point she and Rotu had been exactly the same. She had been better than him in school. He had gone through most of campus surviving on bare minimum. He had duplicated her assignments. He had missed at least half of his classes. He had… But he still got the job they all, as classmates, coveted. His life was now the template for most eligible bachelors. Their classmates still said there was something fishy about the appointment. “No one gets a job bila mdomo,” their friends would say. Loosely translated, everyone who gets a job had someone put in a word for him or her. Aunty Ann thought that it was just as likely that Lady Luck had decided to be kind to at least one of them.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” Aunty Ann had asked during the picnic when Shiru joked that maybe Rotu was her best bet.

Archie knew the worst that could happen. After all that toiling, they become like the view from the balcony- nothing extra-ordinary. The worst that could happen was that like that water draining onto the balcony, they matched the ground and disappeared into the crowd, yet they were distinct people.

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For Fredi

Let your heart beat, love

Three years ago:

My little brother died when I still loved him only poetically. Fredi was fifteen and I eighteen. I loved him in the way that the Religious Studies teacher said that we loved our family. We had little in common. He hated me. He was stronger than I. I remember the way my skin yielded to him before I did. As his fingernails sink into the dark folds between my knuckles, a small part of my skin peels, only slightly, and forms a coma, half acknowledging his kingdom, half beseeching him. My brother is the first person who teaches me to thank men for loving me.

***

Now:

I see you, closing up like a flower blooming backwards, watching the world. Still. Scared?

 I see you, holding your breath. Still. Waiting to dissolve, or melt, into your background. Still.

 As though if you move… If you disturb the air, everything will shift in synchrony, and you will have caused it.

You are tempted to say that mirrors and glass windows and still waters and your lover’s eyes have never scared you.

You are tempted to say that this was a dark nightmare of the distant past, that you don’t remember in detail the way you woke up in the morning, and worked to correct, correct the defiance of your hair and the way your eyes existed as if they had their own soul and the way your back did not arch like a phenomenal woman’s and the way your skin doodled your essence.

Because you want to sound strong, invincible, Beyoncé-like, you are tempted to say it did not take a man to release your clutch on that comb and feel, correct, just the way you were.

**fictional piece**

**happy end of 2013**

BAGGAGE GIRL CHRONICLES

Here’s another one from the archives (about 2years ago). Enjoy.

In our family portrait we look pretty happy-P!nk

I saw how you looked at him mummy. I saw how perplexed you were by that man we met at your favorite store. I saw how your beautiful face lost color. I saw how the usual animation of your facial features waned- how your eyes dulled, and your cheeks grew taut, and your smile turned upside down, and your skin looked moistened, kind of like that of someone who had just taken hot tea in sunny weather. For a moment… for a moment I saw deadness in you. The second time I ever saw deadness in you. The first time was when daddy came back home late, and you did not talk to him that night, remember? You did not talk to him that whole school term actually. I remember because that term I borrowed myriads of books from the school library. Since there was no conversation in the car, I’d read stories like they were Cinderella’s horses, like if I didn’t finish them fast enough they would turn into rats. That’s not the only reason I loved stories. I loved them because for that period of time I would be engrossed in them, my worries about you and Daddy that plagued my mind every minute would be paused, and I would be… peaceful. I got 39 out of 40 in my English composition paper that term. Rosy said she wished she were me. I looked at her and started to smile, but I changed my mind instantly and laughed. I was scared that if I smiled only, Rosy would see. She would see that that smile was fake, and that I might as well have taken paper and drawn a skull parting its jaws and given it to her. I was afraid that if I smiled only, my eyes would stay open. It would put her at risk of having to figure out if mine were eyes or just hollow unalive orifices in my face. Figuring that out would have been harder than figuring out number 28 in that Math paper we did, and I did not want to do that to her, you know. She was my friend. I got 39 out of 40 in my English composition paper that term, and it was your fault, you and daddy’s.

That’s a long time ago though. That was before I learnt to check my hair before I talked to boys. That was before Rosy and I stopped spending time together. It wasn’t a fall-out.  When she’d find me reading during tea-break, she’d say hi excitedly and I’d reply with genuine contentment at having seen her. That was also before I realized how beautiful I was. I always knew I was beautiful, but I did not know just how much, and I loved it. I loved wearing dressy tops and little bows and changing my hairstyle every now and then. I think you and Daddy worked things out. It isn’t as simple as before, because sometimes I feel like if I checked our chests, I’d still find that scar staring back at me, malicious, and with blood gleaming scornfully inside it, but I’m glad we are happier. I’m glad we are a family, and that we seem to have grown an attachment to each other, a fondness that will never go away. I love how daddy does not hide his affection for you; sometimes it looks like gratitude, but I wouldn’t know. I love how you laugh at his jokes, and how you’re there for him, and how you know what he likes and what he doesn’t. Most of all, though, I love how your essence seems to calm him down, seems to balm his worries in life, seems to make him know that nothing else matters.

The man- Phillip, right? That’s what you called him. I remember how you said hi nervously and told him it had been long. Even for those two seconds you said hi to each other it was awkward, the greeting was labored, and you miraculously managed to fit in quite a long silence within those two seconds. I’ve always known you’re a super-hero mum, but there are things you pull off that are too amazing, even for a super-hero. He was with a woman- stunning. She had two children with her, about twelve and ten years old. The two of you did not introduce the rest of us. When we walked away you said he was just an old friend. If I met Rosy though, my face would not look so sad, and I would not spend the rest of the day participating distractedly in conversation.

I saw how you looked at him, mummy. The image stuck in my memory, and it scared me that it reminded me of how I look at Gerald. I recognized that sadness that seemed to arrest you and forcefully embrace your entire being. The way he said, ‘I’m glad you’re happy’ while holding his wife, as if trying to tell you, ‘I’m sure you can tell I am’. I recognized that seething arrogance in Philip that I’d recognize in Gerald- the kind that makes you think of a snake spitting with its fangs out. There were so many questions I wanted to ask you, but I knew you wouldn’t tell me. For you it is always noble to be discreet. Sometimes though mummy, I can’t tell if it’s discretion, or just protecting the people that hurt you. When you think about it, your discretion normally gives them more impetus to take advantage mummy, and it makes me feel so bad.

I wondered if he told you to stop being so uptight, like you could go to a switch in heaven and have them make you an extrovert. I wondered if he told you that he’d be dressing you in future so he can show you off to his friends. I wondered if it incensed you that he needed you dressed up to meet his friends, and if he thought the reason you did not dress up so well was lack of taste rather than lack of money. I wondered if he’d told you he wanted light-skinned children. I wondered if it occurred to you that that might be a hint that he would prefer you with a bit lighter skin tone, since he was dark himself. I wondered if, like Gerald, he once told you that you did not make enough effort to comb your hair. I wondered if only your body made him run mad and if the only time he was not mad at you was when you were making out. I wondered if when he told you he loved you, you felt like it came from a desire to make other women want him because he was oh-so-(spitting)-sweet. I wondered if, you wished that he would fall for another woman, even for a second, so you could run… and… be alone.

I wondered about so many things, and I wished that you would tell me. I wondered why you didn’t tell me. If it weren’t for how strong my experience with Gerald had made me, I would be angry with you. I would be angry with you and at your discretion. I would be angry that you knew about the Philips and Geralds of the world and still you let me walk into the shark’s jaws.

All that doesn’t matter though, mummy. I know you know you have done well for yourself. I am proud that you know you have. When I grow up, I want to meet Gerald and hold face like you have. I want to meet Gerald one day and know that I made the right choice to kick his arrogant self off my range of view. When I grow up I want to keep going to my favorite store even after I meet Gerald at it like you do.

I saw how you looked at him mummy. I saw how unpleasantly perplexed you were by that man we met at your favorite store. I saw how your beautiful face lost color. I saw how the usual animation of your facial features waned- how your eyes dulled, and your cheeks grew taut, and your smile turned upside down, and your skin looked moistened, kind of like that of someone who had just taken hot tea in sunny weather. For a moment… for a moment I saw deadness in you.

 

Ambition

When she was just a girl
She expected the world
But it flew away from her reach
And the bullets catch in her teeth

 

Vicky exhaled as she let her heels make contact with the ground. It amused her how she always had to stand on tip-toe to hug her son, yet this challenge didn’t discourage her from holding on to him too long. Brian leveled his head as his mother let go of his neck. He smiled. Like sunshine, his smile was. His biceps did not enjoy the freedom his neck had just been awarded, and Vicky’s grip on them persisted. She tilted her head and looked into Brian’s almond eyes, holding her gaze so much that for a moment it appeared she was in a stance.

 Vicky was standing at the old bridge. A storm was brewing. Although it was only three o’clock, darkness had enveloped the scenery. The river below, the trees that lined it, the dumpsite that graced its banks, the abandoned car on the bridge’s pavement all looked like a photograph taken with the sepia tone option of the camera turned on. The wind blew hard. Vicky held on to the bridge’s rails like if she did not she, like the tree leaves, would become airborne. Her handbag held her skirt in place and she did not care much for the grey top she had on. She had bought it right there at the market stalls near the bridge which were now empty because the traders feared the imminent downpour.

Vicky looked to her left and saw the beautiful Glenvore estate houses neatly lined up to the horizon. They were medium-sized houses with unattached servants’ quarters. Behind the houses was expansive land, with a small forest of trees serving as fences at the edge of fruit farms. Some houses had littered on these spaces swings and see-saws and bouncing castles and monkey climbing structures.

Vicky bit her lips in pain and contorted her face when she saw bordering these trees the slums in which she had been brought up. Thunder clapped and she let out a cry, secure in the knowledge that the thud would drown the sound, and perhaps alleviate a little of her pain. As the drizzle intensified, tears flowed more and more boldly down her cheeks.

It came to her how she had thanked God for giving her brains, because to her it meant that she had only to stand Koch slum for the earlier parts of her life, and as long as she played her cards right, cross over to Glenvore. It came to her how she had walked around with her head held high by the confidence that the kids at Glenvore would not be richer than her in her later years. It came to her how easy it had been for her to deal with the discrepancy in social class when she went to school unlike most other Koch kids. All because she saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and had a rough idea how to reach it.

One night changed her life. One night and an alcoholic father changed her life. Despite her efforts to not think about it Vicky remembered 19 years later the unfolding of that night’s events to precision. She remembered how he was angry about something and threw her out. She remembered how she had made the innocent move to seek haven at her friend’s. She remembered… she remembered how friend turned foe and robbed her of one of the things she prized most. She remembered how scared she was, and just for icing on the cake, how the devil decided her long wait for her periods would not come to fruition.

Indeed, you never know how strong you are until strength is the only option you’ve got. She installed herself in another side of Koch and knew how it felt to work a whole day and earn 30shillings. She knew how it felt to have to work at night, and to have men catcall her and touch her inappropriately, and to be unable to do anything about it. And then she learnt, to speak up for herself, to catch abusive words and throw them back where they came from. She learnt that out there in the cold, silence was not golden.

And she learnt that the University of Nairobi was not the only way for higher education to get got. She learnt that no matter what if she loved herself, and her son, she needed to pick up where she left off. She learnt that for all its unforgiving nature, life still gave you a way out. She learnt, that there were men out there that still deserved her love. And she learnt that there were truths that were best left untold, that to be a bigger man meant to not tell her beloved father, a recovering alcoholic, that the pregnancy was not her fault.

 “Mum, are you ok?” Brian nudged. Vicky looked up. She saw her son. On face value, he looked like the kind of boy mothers would not want near their daughters. He was the kind of boy whose looks would drive anyone to make wrong decisions. She knew though, rather hoped, that knowing as he did her story, he would do better than make a woman suffer the pains of an association with him.

 

For the children of ‘Koch slum near Glenvore estate’, that your stories be told, and heard.

Masala with mangoes

image

The world of science needs more women, but from a young age we girls are encouraged to care more about the way we look than the power of our minds. – Dr. Amy Farrah
Fowler.

“They’re sending me to school in the city,” I said. My eyes were trained on the ground. They flattered the dried leaves from the mahogany under which Kim and I were seeking shade.

“Finally! No more walking with you eating masala with mangoes,”

“You mean you’ll miss me. And it’s mangoes with masala.” I insisted.

“You put so much masala I was convinced it was the former. It was bad for my reputation. Perhaps now the girls will talk to me.”

“Kim, the girls don’t talk to you because you make every conversation about Africa and its need for salvation.”

“They don’t understand me.”

“It doesn’t fascinate them.”

“You make every conversation about women being better than men. ”

“Equal to men.”

“That’s why the boys don’t talk to you. If you talk to the city boys like that no man will bring cows to your father.”

“If it’s about cows then I can get my own and give my father.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

Silence.

“What if the city kids are better than me in school?”

“Then you catch up. Biology sent mail. It says there’s no more kryptonite in their blood than yours.”

“I’m scared.”

“You worry too much. I’ve never met a girl more intelligent than you.”

“Haha.”

“What?” Interjected Kim.

“Nothing. Just you specify that it’s a girl. The boys who left for the city weren’t more intelligent than girls in their senior year, just spent more time reading than playing mothers to their siblings.”

“There you go again.”

“And I’ll keep going. Even when I get back I’ll keep going.”

“If you’d spend the energy on Africa’s salvation…”

“Africa does not need salvation. Humans do.”

“Don’t get married to the men from the hilly lands.”

“Ah but Kim they’re so handsome!”

“Quit teasing Abby. You know it’s for your own good.”

“Biology sent mail. There’s no more kryptonite in their blood than ours.”

“I care about you Abby.”

“Kwaf! I call bullcrap. You don’t like me even. You just hate them more than you don’t care about me.”

“I like you.”

“No. You just would hate for a boy from the hills to have me. You think they’ll take me the way “they” took everything, and your ego may not recover.”

“Our people need salvation.”

“No. Humans! Humans need salvation!”

“Have a great time in the city.”

That’s how Kim always ended arguments. I was too proud to let it ennerve me, but before it used to make me boil inside. I hugged him. It was cold. Our conversation had left a bad taste in my mouth. The hug was only protocol. I walked away. I loved and hated that our conversations could provoke so much anger and passion from me at the same time. Once we mistook that passion for love. Now we knew. At least I did. If all that burning in my stomach that birthed ulcers  was about love, then hail celibacy.

I got home. The mattress looked thin, the sheets dull. Msechu had described to me what my room in the city would look like. It sounded like heaven and still I wished I could carry my own to the city. Because it felt familiar, and safe. Yes, safe. God knew I needed that!

I opened the book I was reading. It was about the success story of an African business woman. I didn’t know which it did more- motivate me or scare me. She was perfect! A small paper slid out from where my bookmark was. “I will miss masala with mangoes,” it read.

I cursed Kim and turned over a new page, hoping to haze out the mixed feelings I felt for him.

Geek side note:
There is no conclusive evidence that ulcers and stress are actually related.

Krista

… And as she got onto bed she took a moment to let the contentment that she felt sink in. She knew how not to take it for granted that she was smiling. She knew how not to take it for granted that she could not have wanted things any other way.

The world had been kind enough to Krista to have her, for the better part of her life, insulated from the gory mishaps that every now and then befall a human being. However, it had been cruel enough to show her that wishes were not served on a silver platter, and that sometimes, often, one strives and still fails.

Krista knew how to pray and to play, what it meant to live and to love. She knew that everyone had their own path to joy. For her, that was achieved when she knew she had made someone’s life a tad bit easier. She knew that food for one was food for all- that there were only two things that, instead of share, a lady should rather give away- her clothes and her man.

Krista knew what this was. Plateau is what she called it. It was that time in her life when she was allowed to breathe, to take in how far she’d come. Nothing good was happening, but nothing bad was either, and for that she directed a thank you heavenward every chance she got.

She glanced at the clock. A couple of minutes after one it read. Late again, she wondered if she’d ever get her bedtime right. She figured probably not, but if there was anything her hustles as a grownup had taught her it was that life was no science. If you kept waiting for one plus one to give you two, you would spend even the afterlife dissatisfied. So she settled for one point something plus zero point something, and hoped that the world would not be too hard on her for not doing everything by the book.

Out of habit, she checked her two active e-mail addresses for new mail. E-mails unsettled her because they were the most likely way of getting news of a setback in one of her million endeavours. She wasn’t worried though because it was Saturday and she knew her official contacts would wait till Monday to be on her case again. On confirming that there was no new mail, she opened her Facebook subconsciously and liked a photo of one of her friends on the top of the Kilimanjaro. Then she slid her phone on the carpet to the base of her dressing table- a habit she had acquired since her teen when she read that phones were carcinogenic. She mused at the fact that her teenage self was probably more genius than she. You know, what with reading the newspaper and watching documentaries on TV. Then she prayed and slept.

Of Little Angels for Obsessions

To commit to having a child is to commit to having your heart roam freely outside your ribcage for a lifetime- hopefully.

She walked lazily to the window. It was a huge glass opening that classily covered the entire width of the medium-sized living room. She drew the cotton blinder slightly aside so she could peep outside into the bustle of the neighborhood. Her countenance gave in to an escaping smile. Today it was not quiet outside; today she was not greeted ominously by the usual graveyard silence that had the neighborhood under arrest on normal occasions. She hated silence. It was why she had not made as much effort as her mother would have liked, to move into an uptown estate. Silence was to her… the sound of dying community.

She swung her head and looked past the adjacent building to the well tended green that formed the centre piece for the estate. She looked lovingly at the little agents of her salvation. She loved that they came in different sizes,5 year olds; 8 year olds; 10 year olds, like a shoe store. She loved that they had little feet. She loved how they made a zillion steps to get only so far. She loved how awkward their movements were characteristically, and how many times they were in danger- of falling, of poking each other’s eyes, of tripping over oh so terribly short grass, of pouring this, of eating that… she remembered how when she was a child her mother would tell her that God has his angels forever watching over children. It was true.

She loved the holidays. Each time they came around she found herself cursing the adjacent building for being so tall, and for consequently rationing her chance to take in this wonderful sight. She very well knew she was exaggerating this little obsession of hers. She thought of what her own would be like and her eyes sparkled. People said her features hadn’t changed much since childhood- ebony skin, “convexy” forehead, notorious smile, and eyes that seemed to laugh at you. Deep down she hoped her children would look like her a bit- ok strikingly. She still cherished the thought of one day having children; all that was inhibiting her was timing- right timing.