His name is Mukundi. When he first introduced himself to me, I struggled to get my head out of the gutter. Partly because I am a guy- and thinking of an anus when a fellow dude mentions his name, in the Nairobi today, is unforgiveable. They will call me a member of the unwelcomed sect- not Mungiki, Mukundi would call me gay. He would blurt out “chichi wewe!” in this hard ice-cold tone that was clearly not intended to be well-meaning. As if Mukundi doesn’t remotely sound like as insult in Swahili- like I meet people every day whose names sound like an undistinguished part of human alimentary canal.
Mukundi tagged along on that day at my behest. Business had required me to be in Ruiru by midday, and we were already one hour late, but still in town. It wasn’t much of a transaction or a deal, rather I was going to my girlfriend’s home. Not that there is much difference between a business transaction and a visit to your girlfriend’s home, especially when she is a kiuk. Anyway, I had gone for her graduation party, not rūracio. At least not yet.
She lives with her folks in Mugutha, Ruiru. Though when she pronounces it, she replaces the ‘u’ with an ‘o’. Mogotha. I remember praying that none of her kinsmen would call me Magonga. Or worse yet drop the ‘n’ in the notorious kikuyu phonetic fashion and call me Magoga.
Mukundi was meant to be my wingman, and since this was a special case, he was supposed to double up as a translator. Yet he was sleeping on his job as we sat in the matatu, with a tout that was enthusiastic about picking a fight with me.
The tout gawped at me waiting for a response, but I replied him with and empty stare. He looked old and weathered, and his voice was hoarse. Perhaps in his late thirties or early forties when life supposedly begins. His eyes told a different story though; they had no life in them. They were red, bloodshot. Like some politician I know. I thought he was too old to be a tout. When he spoke his lips parted to reveal a sleazy array of green teeth. They almost looked like a Kericho tea plantation. He had been chewing mogoka without P.K, bits of which snowed out of his mouth when he asked for fare. I had already given him a brownie, but for some reason I could barely understand, he was still speaking to me…in kikuyu.
Look, I only know enough kikuyu to survive shopping in Ngara, and to eavesdrop on my girlfriend’s conversations. When she begins talking in kiuk, I know something’s up, and my audience doesn’t come highly appreciated. I know cigana and mbesha are used in reference to money. Nīngwendete means I love you, and when a hawker in Ngara tries to sell you two tiny tomatoes the size of a bat’s nipple for 20 bob, you say ‘tiga wanaa!’ That’s all I know. Or rather, that is the only decent kikuyu I know. The rest are pick up lines for barmaids, like haicwo ukome.
Still, this conductor wouldn’t let me be. I couldn’t understand why he was speaking to me or whatever he was saying, because he insisted on speaking to me in Kikuyu. Mukundi sat there enjoying the spectacle, as the herbivore got more infuriated.
“Unataka nini, si nimekupea thao na nimekuambia tuko wawili?” I shot back.
“Rehe fīfte ngūnengere eight ten.” He pauses for a while to spit out the green filth.
I do not know why he was getting his boxers in a twist over my ignorance of Kikuyu. Anyone who meets me passes me for a jaluo instantly. My complexion is not dark- it is black, pitch black. If I was to get a tattoo, it would have to be in yellow. I am jaruo through and through.
The rest of the passengers were getting impatient. Some lady at the backseat shouted angrily in kiuk from the back. I was sure she intended that I should be her audience because she punctuated her sentence with karī kīī! She sounded like she was issuing a threat. An ultimatum- like if I didn’t comply she would cut off my foreskin. That is when Mukundi decided it was time to earn his wage.
“Anadai umwahi fifty bob halafu akurudishie 810.”
Why the hell couldn’t he just say so…in Swahili? I didn’t bother calculating the honesty of that mathematics. The man wanted fifty shillings, so I gave it to him. Immediately we hit Thika Road, I secured my wallet and phone it my left jacket pocket, buttoned up and drifted off to sleep. I felt like I had to maintain my cover, lest someone figured out that I know all about fish anatomy and mistook me for Raila’s son. So no asking for the newspaper or making small talk. I wasn’t sure I could trust my lakeside accent to keep a secret.
Mukundi woke me up at Gwa Kairū; that’s where my girlfriend’s message indicated. It also indicated that we were to take a boda-boda to some place that used to be a school (Top Ever kindergarten), but has long since been reinvented into a pig sty. What she didn’t mention was that the okada man would charge us 150 bob for a less than one kilometre’s jolt to the crèche. As if it came with room service and a pedicure. I mean, how could that possibly make any sense when we paid 120 each from town? Naturally, I would have blurted out “tiga wanaa!” but charming Mukundi regaled him with a few kiuk quips till he lowered his ask to 100 bob per head.
One thing struck me instantly about Mugutha. Any piece of land that wasn’t built upon was either a road/path, or shamba. It is a land of farmers. In Kisumu, where I come from, any extra piece of land is a car park or garage. The smell of tilled tracks of land hanged loosely in the air, accentuated by the abrupt November cold that made my pinky toenail quiver like a witch’s tits. Mukundi liked the place instantly- the chilly weather, deathly quiet neighborhood, the pig sty, and the paunchy kids that ran past us half naked.
Figuring out which house we were to go to wasn’t hard. Perhaps that is why the missus didn’t bother specifying that detail in her SMS. In Mugutha village, a degree is a big deal, and when it is a girl graduating, it is announced at the market square. We followed the crowd to the black gate where a number of Proboxs parked languorously, as if receiving any guests who might lose their way to the graduation party.
When we stepped into the gate, a priest was leading a service. I am a baptised Roman Catholic, but really what’s with the constant standing up, sitting and kneeling every three minutes? What tickled us though was the village choir. It was unrehearsed, so most of the choir members didn’t know the lyrics to the songs they were singing. They had to feign a hum in between the loose ends in and then jump into the chorus. Their voices were off-key too, so when the chorale sung, they sounded like they had swallowed Atwoli.
The service gave way to the most anticipated part of the fete. Food. To be honest, I didn’t know what some of the things that were served. There were like five big sufurias full with food were lined in a row, just like in my high school (Maranda). You pick a plate and move from one station to the next. Self-service. No busboys or waiters. Huge fleshy chunks of roasted beef bones, Kachumbari, chapatis cut into fours, and a bucket load of bananas and watermelons. I couldn’t make out what was in one sufuria though. It looked like potato stew mixed with minjis and some grains of maize (I think), slow stirred into perfection. My conscience did not permit me to stop at that station.
As we lined up for food, Mukundi told me that these folks had marked my face. Three times they had seen me. First, was when the missus’ dad was hospitalized in Aga Khan. Second, when they dropped unexpectedly by her room when we had just finished ‘revising’ (cough). Third, when she was clearing out after her final papers and I helped her ferry stuff to the car (that was one painful exercise by the way). And now here I was at her graduation.
He insisted that they weren’t stupid. They were watching my every move. If I misbehaved, like say, dance with her mother or refuse to eat what they offered, they would remember it in future when I come to ask for her hand in marriage, and they would fine me. I asked him how much, and he said whatever amount they would so please.
“Well, we haven’t talked about getting married,” I lied.
Of course we have talked about it. We were in campus, and we had dated for a year. We shared the same insecurities. I am a luo, she is a Kikuyu. My mother has always been very blunt about our marriage partners. She doesn’t pretend, and her stand is settled.
“Ok adwar abandu kata okuyu” she says. No Luhya or Kikuyu, period. Her stance of course is guarded by this live electric fence that no one can penetrate. Even me, her last born, her favourite, enjoys no exceptions.
“Abandu kite rach, okuyu to jakuo”. Luhyas are very stubborn and unruly while kiuks are thieves who will disappear with your money and children at night without as much as a goodbye.
My girlfriends mum says a jaruo, a kihii, will marry a second wife and then abandon you. According to her mum, she is better off with a fellow Kikuyu- never mind that she knows half of her chama buddies whose husbands are always away with another gachungwa. They pay no attention to their significant others, so much so that a wife may grew a beard like Mutua Matheka’s, and they would still miss it.
Both our folks are victims of what Chimamanda calls ‘the danger of a single story’. Some of the horror stories they have heard are true. But relying on such selected cases to make a sweeping statement about an entire tribe is myopic. Such statements create a stereotype, and the thing about stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete; they make a single story be the only story (Adichie).
We live in a part of time where a luo and a kiuk have almost non-existent chances of being accepted as a couple. Yet the truth is if she is a good girl, domesticable and she is YOUR FRIEND, then you don’t let her go. Those are hard to find. There are women out there you wouldn’t let look after your cat, let alone your child. If you put your foot down and you say to your mother, “This is it; you are either with me or you aren’t”, you will quickly realize that most people just want to be with you.
There are times I imagine it would be easier to just play safe. Get a luo girlfriend and make the world peaceful for everyone. Yet here we are. The heart is foolish, and gives no apologies for the people it chooses to love. Against all this tribal cacophony, against all the impossibilities and uncertainties that we would find each other, we did. And I am most grateful for it.
As we sat down to eat, the Master of Ceremony invited us to speak. It began in order of close family, to extended family, then to village mates and friends. Every time someone was called to speak, they were welcomed to the podium with song and dance. Some, mostly women, suffixed their addresses with a prayer, while the men found a way to fuse politics with graduation. It wasn’t politically correct to give my two cents about politics. It wasn’t the time or place. They spoke in kikuyu, and Mukundi came through. The old men joked about the myth revolving Kenyan Presidency and River Chania, and when Raira’s name popped up, I lowered my hat and sunk into my seat.
All I wanted to tell them was that politics is never about tribes or by what names we call God. Anywhere, be it in the states, China, Zimbabwe or Kenya, politics is all about the balance of power. This balance never shifts. It is static to the side where money is. Right now, that side is also the side where milk is, and like kamwana said, the balance of power in Kenya will lean on that side for the next ten years.
Yet in the middle of all the toothless mirth, back slapping and Kikuyu speaking, one phrase stood out. Gadho Fafa. I didn’t know what it meant, but I remember the priest used it, so did her parents, grandma and village mates. It stuck in my head. Gadho fafa. I couldn’t shake it off. Whatever it meant I couldn’t decipher, but it sounded like a decent phrase used to start polite conversation. Gadho fafa. I liked the way it rolled off my tongue.
At some point the MC lady said something in Kikuyu. It ended with ‘University of Nairofi’, and when she said so, all eyes turned on me. Mukundi tapped my shoulder and then began walking to the podium. We had been summoned to make our speech as guests from UoN. Mukundi spoke first in Kikuyu. In his speech he managed to make the crowd giggle, and I stood next to him giggling too as if I knew what he was talking about.
When he was done, he stepped aside, and then all eyes were trained expectantly on me. I didn’t know what to say. Hell, I didn’t know how to begin a sentence in Kikuyu. My gut told me to speak in English, but as Mukundi said, I might be fined for embarrassing old women in public. Kiswahili? No, never a jaruo’s poison of choice.
Focus G, my conscience psyched me up. ‘You are the Chairman KLSS, blogger extraordinaire. Oking’ koko wuod aboge…Tond meli…Mand kwach!’ Jakom surely, what is a speech? Just relax. Take a deep breathe. Gently Jakom, gently. If you say anything stupid, they will fine you. Omera, do not let them fine you. Its easy…take a breather…giniwasekao.
I forced a lump of dry saliva down my throat, and then opened my mouth to speak, and as I did, the first thing that came into my mind found its way into my mouth. In the best Kikuyu a luo could muster under the prevailing circumstances, I parted my lips and said out loud;
And Mukundi burst out laughing.