The heart my mother gave does not allow me to forgive easily. It is the kind of tragic flaw that allocates a specific amount of tears per human being, and when you pass your quota that’s it. I carry my grudges to the grave, and that is exactly what happened with Michael. Only that it was not my grave; it was his. When I first started getting sick, I jokingly said to him perhaps I could be pregnant. Then I said, “If it is true, me nitakuacha.” But I was kidding, not knowing that I would become the punchline. When it was confirmed that my belly had become an Airbnb for another human being, that’s when I told him. Maybe over the phone via text or Facebook messenger or something. I sure did not call him. I could not afford it. I was fresh out of high school. Even airtime to call was a luxury. So I texted him the news and you know what he said?
He said he was not ready.
I guess it was easier, from where he was standing, to say that he was not ready. Yaani, he even had the option of not being ready. But me what choice did I have? I had to be ready, otherwise what next?
And when he decided to skive, I did not go begging him to stay. I kept it. Dealt with it myself the best way a pregnant 19-year-old Njoro girl living with her mother can. I kept it away from prying eyes. Tried to conceal it, often avoiding my mother’s eyes at the dinner table. I prayed she would not notice when food refused to stay down. But a pregnancy is a stubborn secret to keep, especially from a mother. Months down the line, when I was well into my second quarter, she asked me during breakfast, “I see your body is changing a lot these days. What is going on?”
She already knew what the answer was before asking the question. Perhaps she just needed to hear it coming from me. She wanted an admission.
“Who is the father?”
“Amesema hamtaki.” That was not really the answer to the question she asked. She wanted a name, but I was not going to give a name because what was the point? Si he already jumped that storo? Who he was, was not really important. What was important was that I was keeping it.
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“I did not know how to tell you….so I told Wambo.”
I do not think the first part of that response hurt her as much as the second. I am not even sure hurt is the word I am looking for here. It must be difficult having kids who find it hard to talk to you about things.
But then again, it must be difficult having kids at all. Mine changed me completely. And I am not even talking about the restlessness and fatigue and appetite that can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants. I am talking about physically. By the time I was getting into my third quarter, I was like a domino. I kept falling. Every little thing that whooshed by toppled me. Like, I would be taking a walk and then small small, I am hugging the earth, like a footballer looking for penalties. When I replay it in my head, it is actually funny because when human being trip, it is fucking hilarious. And mine was not even a gracious tripping. My stomach was already over there and my feet had puffed up like a tweep’s ego after five retweets. Then to crown this whole mess, I was not a walker, I was a dragger. I could not lift my feet when I moved, I dragged them. If you have no imagination, let me tell you. It meant that any obstacle ahead of me, however small, brought me to dust. And when I fell, you could hear a Richter scale complain. Aki the dead must have heard the reverberations and thought they were drums announcing the second coming of Jesus.
It was during this period of my life when I had lost all balance, that I found myself going to my sister’s place in Nakuru every afternoon. Not so much to see my sister as to go hang out with her one-year old son. Like clockwork, I would leave my place at around 2pm, go play with Dwayne for hours, then at 6pm I would head back home. I cannot explain it even now, it just used to happen. You know the way babies call each other? That must have been it. And it was during one of these walks, with my stomach bouncing along and me trying to catch up with it, that a series of phone conversations happened. The calls always came when I was on my way to see Dwayne.
The first one was from Michael. I remember it was on a Sunday. He said that he wanted to come back. That he had had a change of heart and now wanted to do right by me and his child. It boiled my blood that he thought my life, and the life of my child was a matatu that he could get into and out of whenever he felt like it. Why now? What had changed? How was I to be sure that he would not find himself unready to be a father and take off? So of course I told him to fuck off. “Si you had left? Sasa wewe baki tu huko mahali ulikuwa umeenda.”
The next call that came was from Michael’s housemate, Hillary. They shared a house in Kinoo but did not work at the same place. Michael was at Makini School, while Hillary did something for Airtel on Mombasa Road. He was not one to randomly call me unless it had something to do with Michael, so I was not surprised that his first question was, “Have you spoken to Michael?”
“Not since Sunday, hapana.”
“Haiya. If he calls you please let me know.”
“Sawa. But kwani ni nini mbaya?”
“It is probably nothing. It is just that he has not been home for a few days. Najua he is on leave ni vile tu it is unlike him to take off just like that bila kusema.”
“Sawa bas,” is the best I could offer him. I was not really interested in getting involved about their domez in Nairobi. And what did he mean it was unlike him to just take off. There I was, carrying his child whose responsibility to he had lengad until now. Disappearing is exactly what he did to me. If there was a language Michael understood very well, it was ghosting. He spoke it like a first tongue.
Two weeks later, my phone buzzes again. This time, I was at my sister’s gate in Nakuru. It was Hillary, again. The message said something along the lines of Mike really wanted to be with you and his son.
It was the tone of that message that made me stop. That wanted was the salt in that text. Made the whole damn thing impossible to ignore. So instead of hitting reply, I simply called back. I could not have called back at a worse time. “We found him at city mortuary,” he said and the rest came out in sobs and sniffles and meaningless attempts to find air. So he hung up, leaving me standing there, phone still pressed to my ear, waiting to hear more and getting nothing at all but silence. The silence of violence. Of coming to terms with what just happened. Of thinking back to those last words I had said to Michael, how I meant every single word, yet those were the last things I would ever get to tell him in this lifetime.
When Wambo’s housie found me, I was crawled up in bed with Dwayne as he slept, soaked in memories that tasted like raw mangoes.
That night, when my mother asked me whether or not I wanted to go for his burial, I knew the answer she wanted from me. When I said ndio, she said, “But you know how those Waluhya are with funerals.” When I persisted she said, “But you cannot go alone. Who will you stay with?” I was way ahead of her. Wambo had spoken to her friend in Nai. She’d host me at her place and take me to the church. We had it all figured out.
What I had not planned for is how I would be received at the funeral. The mass was held at All Saints Cathedral, and when I got there during the service, I sat away from the crowd. It was not a big crowd because Michael was not really the kind to draw multitudes to his heel. Just family and friends. The people who mattered most during his lifetime were the ones who were present at the end. I sat at the back, trying to hide away from prying eyes, hoping that none of his relatives would notice me or my pregnancy.
He was returned to the soil at Langata Cemetery. Not quite the kind of place lunjes leave their dead. Westerners always have to return the dead to the place their father’s umbilical cords are buried. But this one was buried so far away from home. It was here that Hillary spotted me but did not say much. A girl fainted as his body was being lowered and as she was being taken away, I wondered who she was. I would later find out when a text came into my phone from a Lydia. She was a friend to the lady who fainted and had gotten my number from Hillary. She said they worked with Michael at Makini and that she had noticed me and if I did not mind could they come see me?
I said sawa. The next thing I knew they were at Wambo’s friend’s place with baby clothes, a dress for me, diapers and a blanket that my son would later never fall asleep without, unless it was spread on his bed. There was nothing left for me in Nairobi after that. Everything about it reminded me of Michael, and so a day or so later my sister came to pick me up from Nakuru’s Prestige Mololine stage. On top of the weight of baby, I was also carrying the bundle of gifts from akina Lydia.
Of course I lost my balance as I exited the stage. Tripped over a railing and everything that went up, met me on the ground. I fell properly. I fell until things moved in my stomach.
I stormed into the bathroom and began rubbing my hands together under the running water that I realized, shit, I had a cut on my other hand. Fuck! I pulled my hands away immediately as if that would do any good but I had been exposed already. I dried my hands, tears spilling out of my eyeballs, heart pounding against my chest like I owed it money. The first thing I did was reach for my phone, log in to Twitter and ask for anyone who knew a doctor I could speak to. KOT came through with a contact, Tabby, who recommended that I get meds ASAP. Not just to try and prevent any spread, but also for my own peace of mind. So that in case it was too late, I would not beat myself up wondering what I could have done to stop it.
Usually I use Taxify, but for some reason I ended up hailing a Little Cab. Destination, Kasarani Health Center. His headlights were still blinking when I got into backseat. Then he spoke to say “habari yako,” and my mind froze. Not because I get petrified by the over the top friendliness of cab drivers looking for 5-star ratings, but because that sound that came from his throat, that voice, that was Michael Adolwa. That was a man who had been dead four years speaking to me in that tender voice that did not ever come around to breaking right. Only, it was a different face. I actually stopped for a couple of minutes to confirm it was not Michael.
On the way, he had to stop for fuel, and when he stepped out to talk to the petrol station attendant, I kept hearing his voice in my head, thinking about what I would do if I had just gotten infected, and I began spilling fountains from my eyes. He found me like that when he stepped back, whimpering in between sniffles while hopelessly trying to hide my grief.
“What’s wrong?” he offered.
I told him. About the blood and the cut all the way to the clinic, and as he reversed into a parking spot he said, “You go in, I will be here waiting for you.”
He did. He waited for the whole hour as I also waited to see the doc, as I got examined, as I went for a blood test (negative, phew!) and as I got my meds. Then he took me home. He refused to take payment for that whole trip; a kind of kindness you do not meet in Nairobi often. When I told him that he sounded like a ghost arisen from Langata Cemetery, he said, “Maybe it is God who sent me to you.”
Those drugs were white but there was nothing pure or righteous about them. They were so big they got stuck in my throat and left a trail of bitterness on my tongue that robbed all desire for food. My face broke out in pimples and by the time I was done with them – the whole of that February – the whites of my eyes were the colour of egg yolks. It took a good two weeks after that for my body to go back to normal.
Yet all through that time, the cab driver was there, calling every single day, and even dropping in on some of those days, to check how I was doing or to simply say hello. Every time, he brought with him that voice from many years ago, and did things the owner of that voice used to do back when the only combination better than ours was rum, coke and ice.
Three weeks after watching them drop Michael to dust, his child came knocking. His timing, the absolute worst. Firstly I was not expecting him for another three weeks and secondly, I was in the toilet when my water broke. There I was in the loo taking a leak and then I notice that I am done peeing, yet I am still peeing, but I am done peeing. Water kept coming out of my ninio long after the relief that comes with an empty bladder had passed. So I called my mother and told her about the strange water coming out of me.
“Si uangalie uniambie inaweza kuwa ni nini?” I had no idea what she was supposed to look for because I had no idea what baby water looked like. I just assumed that after four children, she would know what to do.
She did not.
Instead, she called on our neighbor; the bad ass mama who was said to have delivered her child by herself in the house. As in she gave birth, washed the baby, cut her cord herself and only went to the hospital after all the heavy lifting was done. Yaani after all that, the next day she was over there doing housework. I do not know if that actually happened, or if it is just stuff of legend, but given the kind of lines we had been fed about her, you can see why my mother thought she would be the best person to ask for help.
She took just one look at me and said “Pelekeni huyu hospitali.”
They took me to the PCEA Clinic in Njoro because the Egerton one was too far away and the kanjo ones were not really…well…you know how kanjo clinics are, eh? The nurses confirmed that kweli my water had broken, but I had not dilated yet. I had to wait for my cervix to open up 10 cm wide before trying anything otherwise I would hurt the baby and/or tear myself.
That was on Monday. On Tuesday, the birth pains began. They wrapped themselves around my belly and my back and then began consuming me. It was as if they were trying to wring me out like a sponge. By Tuesday afternoon I did not want to see anything near me. Not Twitter, not my phone, not my food, not anything. I wanted this kid out. They kept checking every four or five hours to see if I had dilated any wider. I had not. On Wednesday at 3am they came to examine me and said that I had progressed…to 5cm. When I begged them to induce me they said, “Sawa, but since you have progressed, let us just give it time so that the next time we check tutaona kama it is possible. Jipee muda.”
They came back at 9am and said I should just wait for my body to do this naturally. I did not know who or what exactly I was pissed at. Was it at them for fucking lying through their teeth not caring that I was writhing in pain, or was it at my body for not hurrying the fuck up with all of this?
Wednesday 3pm, I got off the bed, dragged myself to the loo to pee and when I got back, I could not lift myself however much I tried. My knees turned to jelly and I found the floor. Usually when I fell, I could get up like it was nothing, but this time it was as if I had been crucified on that cement. I looked down and saw my gown turning red.
“Mnaona sasa? I told you to induce me mkakataa kusikia,” I told the nurses as they wheeled me into the labour ward. They injected something into a bottle, hung it on a frame, and then connected me to it.
Whatever it was they were giving me took its time. A drop formed at the tip, swelled up, then when it was heavy enough, it fell into the pipe. Almost like water leaking from a tap that has not been closed properly. Actually, exactly like water leaking from a tap that has not been closed properly. It is the most boring thing to burn daylight watching.
At 5pm I told the nurse, “Hii kitu me siiski hata. Si uongeze drip?” and that is the last coherent statement I made that day. Because when the contractions started scratching the insides of my stomach, they attacked me like they had been bribed to do it. Hell, by the time Wambo showed up after work to check up on me, she said nothing. She put down her bag, opened a can of glucose and started feeding me spoonfuls of it. The contractions first came around one every one minute and lasted for about a minute. Then they gradually intensified their assault. They came the way rains of June come; a drop, then a patter, and then a torrent. Before I knew it, I was flooded with pain in its rawest form.
“You are ready now,” the nurses said. They made me lie on my back and said “When you feel the contractions come, raise yourself up and push.” I did just that, but then the doctor on call said, “Msichana hakuna kitu unafanya. Push hard….”
“WACHA KUNIPIGIA KELELE!!!”
As in, fuck this bitch, I was trying bana. Yet here she was, breaking my head with words.
I waited for the winds of agony to hit my sail, breathed in and out in large gasps, and when they arrived, I closed my eyes, bit my teeth and pushed with everything I had. But then she said, “Aaaaai wewe you’re not doing anything,” then came and held my tummy, “Nitasukuma na wewe bas.” When the time came to push again, she pushed too like my child was a car stuck in the mud.
Still, the baby refused to come out.
It took a threat for my body to agree with madam doctor that I was not doing anything. She picked up the phone and said, “Wacha nipigie the doctor who was on call during the day. He is much stronger and can push harder than me.” I do not know why, but the way she spoke made me picture this juggernaut with hands the size of an NYS corruption scandal who was going to show up and squeeze me out like tomato sauce.
“Amesema he is on his way.”
The next time we tried again, that kid came out accompanied with my screams. It was the long guttural bawl of a wounded animal. I did not even notice at first that I had ripped myself in the process. By the time I was done, I could not even feel myself. I was exhausted, fresh from a physical suffering I never imagined existed, and my bed had become a crime scene. All I saw was red.
He was out, that was what mattered.
But he did not cry.
My baby remained silent. Even when he lay on the palms of one of the nurses. Even as the doctor rubbed his back. My baby did not make a sound. The midwives did not tell me anything when I asked what was going on. So I worked with what I had. I watched as he simply lay there motionless, soundless.
Just like his father.
We do not know who did it and why, but here is what we do know.
On the evening of 11th June 2014, Michael had been out drinking with his friends in town. We know that after he had had a little more than enough to drink, his friends put him into a matatu heading home. Somewhere along the way, he got into an argument with the konda over fare; this we know because in his drunken stupor, he apparently called a Makini security guard to talk to the konda. By the time he was found by policeman in a ditch in Kikuyu, he was already a goner. They took him to City Mortuary and because nobody came to claim him, he was left to decay.
His boss is the one who called in a favour from a friend from the CID after he was reported missing. That is when he was found at City Mortuary; with a cut across his face. In fact by then, death had eaten him up so bad, they had to confirm his identity from a birthmark he had on the other side of his arm. It looked like a burn from hot oil, but really, he was born with it. The moment they found him, he was buried. And since then he has been just another stick in the tally of people who have been loved by Nairobi.
I hated him when he died because he had left me. And I resented him even more when he tried to come back because who the hell did he think he was, waltzing in and out of my space like that. But nobody deserves the ending he got. The last time we spoke I had told him to go hell, but of course I did not mean it literally.
But death does not allow people the chance to explain things. Death does not allow chances at all. Not even the chance to be there when your son is born; when he is over there lying on his stomach in the hands of a nurse, while his mother prays desperately for his life. Death does not allow you the opportunity to hold your wife and tell her everything will be OK. It does not let you be there when everything becomes OK; when your son finally coughs out fluid and starts to breathe. It does not let you see the joy in his mother’s face when she holds him like it is the only thing that she has ever learned to do correctly.
When death decides to get involved, it comes with the intent of a government official; to take something away. It does not care that there is someone you needed to call to say I am sorry, maybe a thousand times, that there are people you’re leaving behind. Its suddenness leaves no room to make things right with the girl stumbling across Njoro with a stomach the size of a meteoroid. If it leaves anything behind, then it must be a girl who once in a while finds herself thinking about those last moments. She wonders whether, it was swift, or if it hurt for long. Did he die like a G or did he cry? As he lay in that ditch hungry for life, was his dying thought of her…of them? It is OK if it wasn’t. She just wants to know.
Sometimes it leaves a young boy who wears the ghost of his father on his face like a second skin. One who will grow up watching his friends hang out with their dads and wonder what happened to his.
A few months after he died I would call his number when I missed him. Of course it was always mteja and I knew nobody was going to answer it. Until one day I called and it rang. I should have hung up immediately, but I did not. I wanted to hear the voice of the person to whom his number had been recommissioned. It was a chick. I hung up as soon as she said hello, and she, thankfully, never bothered to call back. There are people who own numbers that belonged to dead people in this town, and I wonder if they would be interested in knowing their stories.
This chick for instance. She does not know she owns Michael’s number now. She does not know who he was. She does not know about us. About how we met when I was a 16-year-old girl in Njoro Girls and he, a third-year student at Egerton. I was the chairlady of Red Cross and he was also a member of the Red Cross Egerton chapter. We became friends and then got separated for another two years. We met again when I was fresh from high school at a camping site inside Egerton Botanical Gardens. She does not know that he had skin the colour of sand, that his lips occupied too much real estate on his face – but in a sexy way. That he liked his Heineken cold and from the bottle.
By God, she should have seen him walk. I mean, if she is going to use my Michael’s number for the rest of her life, she should at least find out how he walked. And Michael, well, he walked as if he had prayers in his footsteps.
Maybe just not enough to save him when he need them the most.
As told by @MonyqueXO to Magunga Williams