I want to be mad. I want to lose my head in her style of madness. I want to always be going for a job interview on high heel shoes that do not match. One green the other one red, one blue and the other the color of my madness. I wish to have a beautiful mass of dark, uncombed hair that will fall on my shoulder like hers so that sometimes I can weave three irregular plaits here and there and over there where my sacred beads will rest.
I will wear green trousers and match that with a blue blouse top and cover my head with a black piece of cloth that looks like a Muslim girl’s hijab, then complete the picture with a cross of the Holy Rosary. I wish to have soft palms like hers and long nails; each painted with a different color of polish with which I will always be holding an old envelop full of my academic papers. More than anything else, I want to be mad; lose it all so that I will live life, and love it like she did.
When she came, Ruaka was a small sleepy town with a long peaceful river, surrounded by beautiful coffee bushes whose leaves whispered a loud green sway when the wind blew. I thought this was all there was to love until we met. The tall dark skinned girl found us at the market on a dry, twenty-hungry date in January when, because of the burning sun, the market was cold; devoid of the usual chatter and clatter of customers, and traders haggling over the price of this cloth, or that bunch of vegetables. But for the lonely dove singing his loved one home, the market was quiet. Traders seated at their stands, mouths and eyes sleepy after a heavy lunch of githeri or ugali or something of that nature that makes you want to sleep in a hot afternoon.
The silence of the small town is also exaggerated by the big machines that come morning, crawling on chain-like legs that creak under the weight of their giant hands and big bellies that guise as due pregnancies. Looking at them sitting alone in one corner and not talking to each other, the machines look sad- like a person who did not pray in the morning.
The short drivers who drive them have small, crescent quarter moons for eyes that rested on rounded, beardless faces. They speak, almost whispering actually, amongst themselves. Never to us, never to the machines- and their language is strange and we can’t decipher what they are saying most of the time.
Now and then they keep saying “This is madness,” or something like that.
“I don’t know why I have a bad feeling about those tractors,” Muriithi, my immediate neighbor at the market says quietly; like someone who does not want to say. I wanted to say “me too” but I ignore him.
“Or maybe they are finally going to build the road for us?” He continues, his eyes beaming with excitement.
I want to slap him and say, “It’s in that paper that you are holding, idiot” But then I remember that he doesn’t read, he just looks at the photos.
“Do you believe that the Chinese will topple United States to become the next super-power?” I yawn and light a cigarette.
He keeps quiet. I smoke in silence trying not to imagine the short Chinese men doing some abominable things on grandmother. It would kill grandfather, as it almost did five years ago when they said that they were going to build the road. A huge road that would expand the Nairobi-Thika Highway. Make it a Super-Highway, they said.
A year later, some people came with long measuring tapes and they kept looking into a giant, single eyed ruler that they planted on the ground. With one eye shut and the other still peering into the head of the ruler, they shouted numbers before laying many red, cone-like things that the newspaper called “beacons”. I later learned that these would direct the road builders on where the road should pass.
That evening after they had laid the red things, Grandpa came home ranting, “They have killed me… oh what did I do to them… they have killed me… God take my soul now… they have killed me…”
He kept saying that to anyone who asked what the problem was. The Engineers had declared that his land was where the road should pass and that was not the problem. They decided that the road should pass where Grand-mother’s grave was and that was a big problem.
“We will have to move the grave before they come” Grandfather had said to one of his friends who had come to console him.
“Abomination!” His friend said and spit on the floor before reminding grandfather that we did not exhume dead people in our culture.
“Let her soul rest, do you want her to curse our community?” The friend continued.
“But if we don’t do it they will eventually do it when they build the road.” Grandfather had countered.
“But they can’t do that, they are Africans and they know how much an abomination that is.”
“The Chinese are the ones building the road and they do not know about our beliefs. Jesus Christ, the Lord of Israel will punish them equally if they do that”
His friend put both his hands behind his head, like someone about to scream.
“I am fine thank you for asking. The interview hasn’t started yet; I can see.” My thoughts are interrupted by a husky, almost bass almost alto female voice whose owner stands in front of my stand; one hand supporting a torn sack of luggage on her head, and the other holding a brown tattered envelope. Her tall legs, make taller by her high heeled shoes. Firm thighs meet to form well rounded hips. Proud breasts stand sharply above a flat belly.
In spite of the tattered clothes and the bag of madness on her head, you cannot struggle to explain her beauty. Her eyes are big and rounded and peaceful and the dark pupil matches the color of her face. She has a long neck where she hangs a holy rosary. Her hair, dark and shaggy and curly, has three irregular plaits each of which hold a bead-like- cowrie-shell- like black thing.
Her torn buibui does not look so torn and it covers the other jointed pieces of her tatters well. She cannot seem to stay still, because she keeps looking this way and that way and laughing with her tongue out, and scratching here and there with the hand that has an old envelope.
“You are staring at me sir” She says and laughs then sucks back the slosh of saliva falling from her mouth and scratched her body some more, while looking this way and that way and sucking the saliva back into her mouth again.
“I am well. What can I offer you today?” I ask; I don’t know what else to say. I can hear Muriithi stifling laughter in the other stand.
“My name is Aisha, B.Tech Engineering. I have come for the interview,” she says.
There is something about the way she talks. Slowly, emphasizing every syllable- making her words seem to fall from her mouth halfheartedly; like they would have preferred not to come out. Even with the smacking sound that she makes when she suckes back saliva into her mouth, I find myself longing for the next time she will speak.
“I see,” I tag along, just to hear her speak; and it feels weird to imagine what someone will say if they knew what I was thinking. “Are you hungry? I have some food.”
I reach for my food container which had my lunch that I had not been able to eat because my appetite went as soon as the tractors creaked into Ruaka.
She does not answer or take the food container that I am extending to her. Instead she says;
“You are not telling me your name.”
She is angry for a moment before laughing with her tongue out and sucking back saliva into her mouth, and fiddling with her rosary with the hand that she is holding the tattered envelop with as she speaks. I look into her eyes and she lower them and when she draws things on the ground with her feet, I realize that her shoes are not from the same pair.
“Karanja,” I reply.
“Karanja.” She repeats and sighs and fiddles with the bead-like, cowrie-shell like beads in her hair. Her eyes seem distant; distant like the way people do when they are trying to remember someone they had seen a long time ago.
“Karanja, yes.” I repeat hoping that she will say something that will help me read her mind. Silence. She instead looks me straight in the eye, without looking this way or that way and says;
“You are a handsome man.”
Muriithi laughs out loud. Aisha is still looking at me and our eyes almost meet before I drop mine.
“You are blushing. You are not a gentleman; I thought you would help me put this down.” She says, pointing at the load on her head.
“I thought that… um… you see…” I stand and help her put it down.
The bag smells of fish.
“You sell fish?” I asked, handing her the lunch box which she takes and starts eating.
Muriithi, who has not stopped laughing, laughs even louder and the immediate neighbor after Muriithi had come and the one after the other one too and soon almost everyone in the market is standing around our stand; staring.
I want to feel embarrassed but I can’t. She is mad and beautiful and her words fall halfheartedly from her mouth, and she claims I am handsome. She does not answer my question and she is instead busy eating, making smacking sounds when she licks the soup that flowing over her fingers.
“Tongue tied.” She says after a long silence. For the first time she drops her perfect British-accented-English to speak in perfect Gikuyu and I am ashamed that I can’t follow.
“You became tongue-tied there for a moment” She explains and everyone around us laughs. I wish to tell them off, to leave us alone.
“No, I am sorry… I…” All the saliva in my mouth has disappeared and my tongue is dry. The people laugh some more, slapping their thighs. Aisha too laughs and licks her fingers some more.
Everyone turns to look when the tractors come to life. In their laziness, they buzz and buzz then creak and rumble when they start to move. The short drivers, who wear yellow uniform, seem smaller than the big gear handles that they jerk this way and that way, and their sleepy eyes make them seem lazier than the machines.
As the machines roll past the market, people try to wave, but neither the drivers nor the machines wave back. Just buzz buzz and creak creak and the earth rumbles as the machines drive on towards our farm, and I know it is over. They are going to break grandmother’s tombstone and exhume her. I am scared. I see her skull; devoid of meat staring at me in disbelief with the empty sockets of her eyes asking me, “Seriously?”
I imagine the bones of her fingers clutching her three cowrie-shell-like prayer beads that she died clutching. After the train of tractors disappear around the corner to our farm, I hear it; a voice weak but determined;
“Are you going to just stand there? They are going to exhume our grandmother.” It is grandfather, frailly holding his walking stick on one hand and a Bible on the other.
“The Bible says that God helps he who helps himself; I beg you, help me to help myself.” He continues.
“Come” Aisha startles me.
She stands and pulls my hands. I rise up to follow her; I need to be anywhere else, wherever away from these people. But Grandfather, he is there. I can’t leave him alone like that. Aisha walks fast, pulling me. I hear but I cannot follow. The crowd follows.
“Get back” She says pointing into the middle of the crowd before pulling my hand and leading me on. People do not hear, they still follow. Aisha stops, looks at the crowd then she bends and kisses the ground, then stands to look at them again. She slowly unties the three plaits on her hair and one by one. She pulls the cowrie shell-like-bead-like things out and shakes them and tosses them on the ground. People laugh. Aisha does not. She is kissing the ground again. I do not. I am too confused to laugh. Grandfather does not; instead he shakes his head, spits then clicks then shouted to the crowd;
“Let’s go. Let us fight.”
The crowd shouts in unison and starts singing war songs and walks on to pluck leaves and sticks from the nearby trees. They pick stones and clubs and anything that they think may help them to stop the Chinese from exhuming grandmother.
Aisha picks up the beads from the ground and holds them to her ears and listens.
“Let’s go” She then says, and starts to move. I can’t. I am staring at people stamping on the ground holding their Bibles and declaring war on the Chinese gods and I want to join them.
“Our God will not allow for us to be shamed.” The soloist leads.
“Aca. No way.Our God is the greatest of all gods” The crowd responds and their thunderous voice follow the tractors towards grandmother’s grave.
“Someone tell the Chinaman to back off or he shall face the wrath of our God.”
“Now! Hurry up, we are going to be late.” She says pulling me. I try to move but nothing. My legs, my mind, my whole body have so many questions. I try to ask but my mouth will not open. She stops, stares at me in the eyes and smiles before caressing the Holy Rosary on her neck.
“I will explain later.” She says holding the Rosary in mid-air and blowing it towards my face.
My legs magically become light and I start walking. She pulls my hand and she leads me behind JohnMan’s Hotel where a group of lazy young men are shooting pool and smoking and cussing, but they aren’t there because they have joined the crowd to go and fight the Chinese. We run past the Wrought Metal Workshop where a man is weighing scrap metal but the store is closed because the owner has gone to help stop the abomination.
Aisha stops suddenly and looks across the river.
From where we stand, I see the tractors cross the bridge in file and a big yellow snake that spits dark fumes through exhaust pipes pointed to heaven. The head of the long snake was pointed towards the coffee plantation where grandmother was buried. We hear people singing war songs and stamping their feet. I am panting and sweating and scared.
“Just like it was supposed to be.” She’s smiling.
“Who are you? Why did you bring me here?”
She turns; the question seems to startle her back from a dream.
“They won’t do it.”
“You are mad.” I can’t be here. My people are fighting for my grandfather and for my grandmother and for me. I have to go.
“Don’t go. I can’t do this on my own. It has to be one of you to do it”
“Your grandmother.” She says with finality. “They are going to…”
“How do you know that?”
“That’s not important.”
“What was I even thinking?”
I pull away. Her grip is tight. Tighter than anything that has ever held me. Tighter than how the machines which are now entering our farm to grandmother’s grave might hold.
“If you meet a rogue child, do you tell his mother to correct him or do you call the whole village to come and throw stones at it?” She lets go of my hand. “It will be well, trust me.”
“What are we going to do?” I am running after her.
“You will pray to the Chinese God.”
“I cannot. I am an African. My God rests on the great Mt. Kenya”
“Listen, I am not Chinese; I am a Muslim but is it wise to kill a rogue child without asking the mother to correct them first?” She pulls my hand and we run faster.
The crowd from the market is still shouting and singing war songs when we arrive at the coffee farm. The Chinese are sitting around grandmother’s grave with their legs crossed and their palms joined at their chests quiet. Praying. Undisturbed by the screams from my grandfather and his crowd. The cross planted on grandmother’s grave rises proudly above the Chinese. It makes me sick. It always does. It was put there against grandmother’s will. Grandfather says that since she was a pagan (referring to her preference of the African Gods), and he has seen the light, it is his duty to have her soul cleansed by putting the cross on her grave.
“Go.” Aisha nudges me towards the grave.
“What do I say; I don’t know what to say.”
“Go. You will figure it out.” She pushes me harder. I look at the crowd. I see grandfather, one frail hand clutching on his walking stick and the other tightly holding on to his Bible. His voice, weak but determined, shouts almost above everyone else’.
“Pray all you want, but the true God of Israel shall burn you in hell if you do not repent.”
“What about him? It is his wife’s grave they…” I stop halfway when I realize that I am speaking to myself. Aisha is gone; already halfway towards grandfather.
My legs are shaky and my heart weigh me down, as I walk towards the grave.
Seriously what are you doing, that girl is mad. How could a mad person lead you?
Go. It is the right thing to do.
The silent argument continued in my head. One part saying I should go. The other part saying “You are mad.” I keep moving all the same. The crowd, seeing me walking towards the Chinese, hushes. The road builders are so absorbed in their prayers that they do not see or hear me coming. I look for a space to sit but there is none. Suddenly, one of them, (he seemed like their leader) cut short his prayer and rises to his feet then comes to me and raps in Chinese. I do not hear what he is saying. I assume he is asking what I want.
“I want to pray too.” I say in Gikuyu and bring my hands to my chest like the way people do when they pray. He stares at me in the eye. His gaze, surprisingly, is so peaceful when he holds my hand and mutters something in Chinese, and the other men rises and makes space for me.
I sit, folding my legs to an “X” where they meet and close my eyes to pray. I open my mouth but no words come forth. I wish Aisha was here to guide me. I cannot open my eyes, I stay like that for some time without knowing what to say.
“The God of the Chinese people, we do not know you. But we know that you are a good God who knows peace. We come in peace.” I hear the voice; not so strong, not so weak. It is grandfather.
“Our God loves peace too. He is a good God. It is with the peace of Jesus Christ that we have knocked on your door.”
“Amen.” A multitude of voices answers. I want to open my eyes but I am afraid that it might bring to an end what seemes like a dream to me.
“The lord of the China people, in front of us is a grave, my wife’s grave. The government has sent your people to exhume it because they want to build a road. We have not refused your children to build a road here because a road is good.”
“Amen” The crowd answers. I answer too.
“But in our faith, it is wrong to disturb the peace of one who is long gone; it will bring a curse to our community. We ask therefore, that in your wisdom you may guide your children so that we can have peace.”
“Amen” We say together. That is when I open my eyes and I don’t hear what else grandpa says. All the Chinese people are standing by their tractors, surprised. I look behind me; the crowd is seated like the way the Chinese people do when they pray with their palms closed at their chests.
When grandfather finishes the prayers, the China man speaks in Chinese and we do not know what he says. But when he is done, he enters into one of the tractors and they buzz and creak away and the crowd is mesmerized and they started to sing Christian songs of thanksgiving. I looked at grandfather. He smiles.
“I thought that, at my age, I had seen it all and that I was wise. That mad one is the wisest of them all. Go thank her for us.”
I look for Aisha. I can’t see her. I ask around and someone tells me that she had left a long time ago. I run down the river shouting her name but she does not answer and she does not appear. I go to the road, hoping to at least see her for the last time but she is not there.
I sit in my stall at the market wondering who she was. Wondering who sent her. Wondering where she went and wondering how she managed to convince grandfather to pray to a God that he considers heathen. Then I see the paper on my goods that is written in a smooth slanting handwriting.
When a child becomes rogue, do we kill the child or do we ask the mother to correct them?
The headline on the next day’s newspaper read in bold black ink: MIRACLE IN RUAKA AS RESIDENTS PRAY TO FOREIGN GODS reads both The Nairobian and Nairobi News.
© Macharia Mwangi