He’s back home and I don’t know what to tell him. I never know what to tell him anymore. Nothing I say helps. Nothing I do makes a difference. I look at the baby in the corner. She’s asleep. She has no idea. He enters the bedroom. I can smell him from the door. I cower silently on my side of the bed. I start praying, louder, screaming in my head, but saying nothing with my actual lips because if I say anything, if I give even a hint that I am awake –
He’s taking off his shoes. He throws them aside.
He plops on the side of the bed. I keep still. I don’t move. I am dead. I am dead if I move, and I am playing dead to stay alive.
The bed creaks as he turns around. Probably taking off the shirt I ironed for him this morning for him to go to work. That’s what he calls going to see his other family. He thinks I don’t know. I will never tell him I do.
Three minutes pass in silence. Am I…is he…I’m too scared to look. I want to turn, to see if I can feed the baby, but if I turn around and he’s not –
Something grabs a fistful of my hair, and that is when I start to scream
I know everyone says this, but it wasn’t always like this. Or maybe it was, and I was too young to tell. I met Steve when I was working in Nairobi, and I had just moved to Nairobi. Yes, I was young, but I knew what I had come for. I was here to make money. I had to help my family. School was not an option, but work was.
I’d always been a hard worker, even if books didn’t work for me. So as soon as I knew there was probably no chance of me passing anything that even looked like a national exam, I went it to ‘the big city.’
Steve was the friend of one of my co-workers, at the hotel I would clean at. On the weekend, we would take our small tips and our small salary and try to have a good time, even if it was only one drink, somewhere cheap. It didn’t matter – I was happy to just have friends and try to survive in Nairobi. Nairobi isn’t your mother’s, you know.
I would be one of the ones who would not spend all my money on drinks. Like I said – I knew why I was here. I was sending money home every week to help my small siblings back home. I didn’t need to drink all the time.
That’s what Steve noticed. He thought I had money. I remember him asking me, ei, mresh, kwani hukunywi…and I remember laughing and telling him, si lazima. And then he told me since I wasn’t drinking, I can buy him a drink. He was cute, and he was flirting, so I bought it for him. I didn’t think it was a big deal. But it would be a bill I would be paying for the rest of my life.
The next day I can barely see the sun through the slit of my eye. It’s puffy and swollen and ugly. It feels red. I think Cera can tell that something is off. Her round face looks concerned and confused, as if she is asking me mummy, you didn’t look like this yesterday. What happened? Her little fat fat hands reach for my face, as if she wants to pat my cheek. As if she wants to say it’s ok.
She gurgles and I come back to earth. I know it’s all in my head. I know Cera has no idea what’s going on with me and her father. Maybe when she’s older I’ll explain it to her, or maybe not. Am I supposed to tell her the truth? Won’t she hate him forever? I don’t want that. Do I?
I can’t go outside like this. I can feel the pity from the women in the neighbourhood every time I leave the house. I can practically here their thoughts. ‘Why does she stay? Why doesn’t she report him? What is she going to do with the baby?’ I wish I had an answer for myself.
My friend Karen lives next to me, and I know she heard me begging for my life last night. The walls are thin, and pain is loud. Which means I know she’s going to come see me soon. She knows I won’t get out of the house; she knows my struggle too well. We never talk about it, but she always helps me when I can’t help myself.
I hear her knock on the door. I go to open it, wincing as the full light of the day hits my bruise. She looks at my eye, and says nothing. She reaches for Cera. ‘Sasa toto? Sasa toto?’ Cera is delighted to have someone new to play with, someone in a better mood than me. I go to make my first meal of the day.
He had moved in before I knew it. I had a small bedsitter. He had problems with his landlord. I liked him well enough. It wasn’t rocket science. Once again, I didn’t think it was a big deal for him to move in. I mean, this was Nairobi, right? I knew my mother wouldn’t approve, so I didn’t tell her, because I am a big girl. I send her money, after all, don’t I? That was enough. She didn’t have to know everything. He said he’d help pay for some of our expenses. I waited and waited for him to pay. There was always a story. Always something he had to pay for. A debt. A friend. A party. A wedding. (A lover.)
Of course I got pregnant.
I’m humming to Cera. My eye feels better. Still big and heavy. But better. I have to remember to put something on it. Something cold. What did my mother used to say? I wish I could call her, but I can’t. I haven’t spoken to her in months. She refused to talk to me after she found out I am pregnant. And who can blame her? Especially after I stopped sending her money. She’s never met her granddaughter.
The door bangs open. Steve is home.
‘Something is wrong with that baby,’ he growls. ‘Is it even mine?’
I keep quiet. I don’t think he wants an actual answer. I mean, who else’s could it be?
‘Macho yake ni funny funny,’ he says, taking the plate of leftovers from the table and beginning to shovel them down his throat.
I look at Cera. What…is he talking about? My baby is normal.
‘Wapi maziwa?’ He wipes his mouth, looking at me expectantly. ‘Si nilikupatia pesa ya maziwa?’ He knows well and good that he gave me no money for milk. I keep soothing Cera. She’s about to go to sleep. I just need a few more minutes…
Steve stands up. ‘You can’t answer me? You and your baby. It’s always about the baby. Where’s my milk?’ By the end of the sentence he’s roaring, and Cera starts wailing as well. I know what’s coming. I turn around so that the blows reach me, but not my baby.
I remember the week I went to the hospital to find out if maybe, maybe, Steve was right. Cera hadn’t spoken when she was supposed to speak. She wasn’t like other babies. She wasn’t trying to walk. There was something wrong. They told me that Cera was developmentally disabled, and I, maybe, already knew. It didn’t matter to me. A baby is a baby.
I knew it would matter to Steve. Almost as soon as I said the words, he was gone. ‘Huyo si wangu,’ was his quick excuse, and even though we had others, he left us all. We were all not his. He just needed a reason to leave, to go beat someone else. I…was relieved. I could finally get my life back on track.
Karen comes to the house to tell me about a welfare group for women. I’m listening, because I need all the welfare I can get. I have no job, and I have three babies. Selling tomatoes on the side of the road is just not cutting it. I’m going to have to take Cera to a special needs school at some point. What am I supposed to do?
Karen says you have to pay 100 a month, and there is a merry go round where one month you will take all the money the group collects. I ask how many women are in the group? She says 80. That’s 8,000. That’s money I can use, even if I want to sell more vegetables, or get a stall, one day, maybe. Out of everything that has happened to me that is wrong, I can start doing some things right.
I would go with Karen to the welfare meetings. All these women had businesses, and all these women had stories. All kinds of stories. Men who left them, just like me. Families who neglected them. Jobs that fired them. An economy that would not serve them. We all had our tales to tell. We strengthened each other with these tales – and with our 100 bobs. If someone had a funeral, we went. If there was a hospital bill, we would contribute. We were each other’s support. I could finally see a glimmer of hope.
I wanted more, though. I was not willing to only buy plastic chairs all the time and rent out plastic cups. I wanted to make more. I needed to make more. I had already fought with Cera’s teachers all through primary school, forcing them to let her into class, forcing them to treat her like the other children. Now I was going to take her to a special needs boarding school. That of course cost money. The kind of money you can’t just make with cups.
Janet, the treasurer of our welfare group, told us about a loan that we could take to do something bigger than what we were already doing, and that was music to my ears. ‘It’s from a government body called the Women’s Enterprise Fund.’ Some of the members were wondering how we were going to be able to pay back the money. ‘Hakuna interest,’ said Janet excitedly. Obviously no one believed her. Which government body was handing out loans with no interest?
Janet said that it was a great deal, because the government was trying to empower women. We could build on the businesses we already had, and fix the things in our community that we thought needed fixing – like water. Water was such a problem back then. Everyone needed tanks, but no one could afford any. Were we really going to take on something so monumental?
Karen pulls me out of bed. She asks me what the hell I think I’m doing. I don’t know, myself. I know he was horrible to me…but he was there. Now I am completely alone. All my children are looking up to me, and I don’t think I can do it. I don’t even have the energy to move.
‘I can’t feed you every day,’ Karen says firmly, as she opens my makeshift curtains. ‘You have to get up.’
I look down. I know. I know everything that she’s saying is true. But…my feet won’t move.
‘Your children will die if you don’t get up.’ I flinch. I know she’s right. I know. And yet…
Cera slowly crawls to me. She reaches for her mother. I pick her up. Her little fat fat hands pat my cheek. Suddenly, I remember when she was comforting me…back when I did not leave, could not leave. And I begin to remember what the point of this all is.
Cera smiles at me. She knows I get it. I just needed a little nudge.
We built water tanks for everyone. Big enough to hold 3200 litres. Then the Women’s Enterprise Fund gave us 750K to build a greenhouse. So we built one of those too. We grow sukuma wiki, and malenge, and onions, and tomatoes. Cera went to school. From the loan as well, I got my son a motorbike so he can help work off the loan too. We only give loans with interest based on people’s ability to pay. Otherwise, we just keep circulating the money until we can give it back.
Do I feel empowered? Definitely. I don’t know what I would have done without Karen, without my welfare group, without the fund. I even tell other women about the fund, so that they can get help too. Particularly the ones with children with special needs. I show them what they have to do, and what route I used to get to where I am. I am not the only one suffering, and when I talk to people, I remember that. I am just one of the few not hiding it. And when I don’t hide, I can help others.
This year we’re going to go for a training held by the WEF to teach other women’s groups how to manage our money, and how to market our goods. Through that training, we’ll be able to connect to corporate who might be interested in what we’re doing as well.
Oh, we have our problems. The first year we had the greenhouse, the soil wasn’t working for the crop, so we had to wait a whole year for that to recover. Every so often, someone runs away with the money we give them, either through the loan or the merry go round. But we pay it back, and then let them know that it is our money they have run away with. That usually makes them feel bad! Those are the petty things that happen in groups. We brush it off and keep it moving.
And as for Steve? I never heard from him again. There was nothing more left to say.
I went from selling tomatoes by the road to helping run a greenhouse that sells product all over Kenya. I guess I did get my ‘stall’ – in the end.
This story is a fictionalized account of a member of one of the multiple women’s group who have received interest-free loans and credit from the Women’s Empowerment Fund. Names have been changed to protect privacy. Not pictured above. Photo source