I am one of those people who refuse to die. I do not know why, but I know it’s not for lack of death trying to snatch me away. I should have died in Bottomline. First it was the frogs in the pond near our house that my mother threatened to feed me to unless I finished the food on my plate. Then there was the time I caught pneumonia and my folks knew for sure I was a goner. I disappointed. Then our house burned down with me in it. I was six. Months, not years. The rescuers didn’t know I was inside the house until my father came and took me out. I had slept through it all. But the day I should have actually lost my life is the day I made the mistake of going to Njenga’s house to borrow matchboxes.
By this time we had moved from Bottomline to Kwa Ndegwa to City Cotton. You may be forgiven for thinking we were moving around voluntarily. No. Not really. We were kicked out of our house in Bottomline because of rent, and a nearby church took us in, only to kick us out when my father broke the fence one night after a drinking spree. We found a place in Kwa Ndegwa, where my old man’s drinking continued. One day he decided he was taking my kid brother for chips at Blue Room. I could see he was soaked a good one, but being the little girl that I was, what could I do? Dude did not even make it past the door. He tripped on the frame and went tumbling down with my brother landing first. Why we moved from Kwa Ndegwa, I do not know. What I remember is us being told that we were moving house once again to City Cotton.
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This window. Through this window I saw men getting arrested during Saba Saba. Through this window I saw their colleagues get shot. I've seen men pee on the wall right across (which is not visible)… There are so many stories I could tell just from peeping through this window. The best of them all though; was watching Likobe (yes, the dwarf actor) sing songs on his way home. On his beloved wife's back. #GathoniTales
Well, City Cotton was neither a city nor a cotton field. It was a settlement somewhere between Kangemi and the upmarket neighbourhood of Loresho where people with too much lived in houses built for the gods. This little city of ours sat on a plot of land that belonged to Kenya Agricultural Research Institute – KARI. But they weren’t using it, and people like us needed somewhere to stay. And so when we moved in and they did not say anything, we assumed they did not mind. My mother would later on build rental shops next to our house, and become a landlady on land she did not even own. But this is Nairobi. You either survive or you are survived.
The only reason it was called City Cotton was because the tongues of the people who named it could not say carton. Here, houses were made of insufficient wood leaving spaces in the walls. That is why we used carton boxes to seal up the spaces, and keep away the cold, eyes looking for gossip ,and, as many mosquitoes as possible. Those who could not afford carton boxes used newspapers.
Our house, however, unlike the rest of City Cotton, had a roof made of red bricks that made it stand out like Michael Jordan at a pygmies convention. And because the city of cartons looked like Murang’a, at the foot of many hills, anyone who wanted to come visit us was told to take the bridge all the way down till they saw the house with a roof the colour of a cockerel’s head. Those red bricks were not tiles. Perhaps a bootleg version of them, because in as much as these ones were wavy and stacked one on top of the other, they were still very weak. If my father knew then what we know now, he would not have once tried to climb to the top to fix a leaking piece, because as he did, he came tumbling right down with the rest of them.
Akina Baba Kairu’s house and ours were just next to one another. That meant that the space in between our walls became the bathroom, but not the toilet. Thank God, not the toilet. Whoever decided to far out in a slope near the stream coming from a dam in Mountain View, must have had a biblical foresight that spared us great misery. Baba Kairu spent his days feasting on mara choma – roasted cow intestines, you know, the fatty bits that are supposed to be thrown away? Yes, those ones. This man had a perennial running stomach because of all the mara he ate, which is why every time he entered the loo, he left it looking like a pig’s sauna.
Even then, God is a God who gives and takes away. While Baba Kairu was so full of shit, he was also the only one with a television. Meaning, when he was not looking, we would tear the cartons from his walls to watch cartoons and Sinbad. Other than the television, he was also blessed with a son, Njenga. A jamaa so handsome that every mother and her daughter stank the whole hood with want at the sight of him. All except my mother. She said that boy was no good, and that the girls in our family were prohibited from even reacting to the scent of him passing by.
It is because of this Njenga that I put my life on the line, in a twist of events that can be either stupid or unfortunate depending on how you decide to look at it.
FIRST NIGHT OUT
Look, there were no matches. I swear, we were out. It was one of those days when you wake up with an itch to be a good girl. I did everything. Dishes, clothes, cleaned the house, fetched water…everything. I had just finished cutting mboga when I realized that we had no matchsticks left to light the stove. Nobody else was home, and the shop was far (not that I had been left for money anyway). So what else was I supposed to do? I went over to Njenga’s crib. His father had built him a karoom outside the main house. Lakini the moment I got inside, the devil used him to show me car magazines. Small small like this, who decides to come back from wherever she was? Mama Gathoni. And where does she decide to sit? In the sitting room, just next to the door, overlooking Njenga’s crib. There was no way I could leave without her seeing me. If I stepped out, she would have killed me right there and then, before giving my fatty intestines to Baba Kairu to roast for supper.
There was nothing else to do other than sit it out. The moment she would leave to go to her room, I told myself, I would run out. She did not. My sister came back, she did not move. Darkness crept in, they still did not move. From where we were, I could hear her asking other neighbours where I was, and they all said, “Alionekana akiingia huko kwa Njenga.”
I knew the moment she was told that, in her head, I was already pregnant. There was no other explanation. When I heard her ordering my sister to come looking for me at Njenga’s, I asked him to hide me. He wasted no time in making me squat at the corner of his room, and piled all his clothes on top of me. Silly girl walked in, looked everywhere, but saw nothing.
“Alikuja hapa earlier,” Njenga told her, “looking for matches and then left and I have not seen her since.” Clever man. Turns out this boy’s pretty head was not only good for lighting fires in the panties of Kangemi women. He also understood that the best way to lie is to bring it as close to the truth as possible. He knew my mother and sister would of course go check if there were matches in the house and find none.
I could hear my mother briefing my dad the moment he stepped into the house. It was already too late for me to go back after that. He said, in that deep grating voice of his, “Huyo Njenga knows where that girl is. He will produce her, just wait and see.” I waited and did not see anything. Only them blowing off the koroboi after supper and the house going dark.
“See, Gathoni, if you go back now, you will be skinned alive. And there is no need of staying here all night when there is a bash on the other side of the city. Si we go?” It is not until I accepted Njenga’s invite, and I was examining myself to check if I looked the part, that I realized I was not wearing my clothes. If staying out late had driven my father to madness, then this second strike is what would awaken the beast that resided inside my mother. She was not the kind to let any of her children wear clothes that had not been bought with money from her purse. Even that one time in primary school when I came back home with another kid’s sweater, she made me take it back to her. The clothes I was wearing; a blouse and a denim pencil skirt, were from a lady who sold mtumba a few paces away from our house. They had not been bought, and could not fit her, so she had given them to me to try. In between the housework, this matchbox madness and this exile I had found myself in, I had forgotten I was wearing them.
If there had been any voice lingering in my head telling me to go home and deal with whatever may come, now it was cleared. Ati me, Gathoni, show up home late at night, after being rumoured to be at the brothel next door, wearing clothes from nobody knows where?
I went to the bash.
Even in hindsight, we do not know which of her aunties fed her that poison. We all knew that my eldest sister Wambo was not my mother’s daughter. Long before my old man met my mother, he had been with another woman. Nya was the result of that union. Then her mother went back to the soil. And even though we lived together, her mother’s sisters kept reminding her that we were not her people.
So one day after coming back from borrowing water in Loresho, like we always did when water disappeared on our side, Wambo disappeared. It was one week to her KCPE exams. Some say she feared exams, and we did not correct them because it made for a better excuse. But we knew why she took off. The next we heard of her, she was in Kimabu, bringing her own version of honour to the family name. When she finally came back home, a year or so later, it was difficult for her to look my father in the eye. We all saw the reason standing by her side, tugging at her dress with innocent little fingers.
I had never been to a party before. Not like this one. Parties I knew of were ruracios and birthday parties. We got to the venue and everything my mother had warned me about was happening. Boys were pressing girls on walls and exchanging saliva. The stench of alcohol floated around, occupying huge real estate in the air. And the music, my goodness, the music! It was so loud I could not even hear myself think. Perhaps that is also why I did not notice the boy who came up behind me and grabbed me, then started rubbing his waist on my buttocks. He did not stop when I told him to. Only when I started crying. He left me there and came with Njenga to reprimand him, “Mbona unaleta watoto kwa bash?” That is how I ended up at Robert’s place.
I knew Robert. Or rather I knew of Robert. In Kangemi you could never say you knew someone. Robert lived on the other side of the bridge, but he was common in our area because of his friendship with Njenga. I had been looked at by boys before, but before I met Robert, I had never known what it was like to be looked at by someone and smile for no reason. I knew he wanted me. Not the way women wanted Njenga. He wanted me the way people want a thing they would never want to break, lose or share. So when I was told that I would be spending the night at his place, there was nowhere else I would have felt safer.
Thing is, Roba thought I would leave in the morning. He woke up early. Made me tea with fried eggs and bread. Then as he left, he told me where to hide the key when I went back home. I did no such thing. I took off the clothes I had on, washed them, hung them till they were dry and then put them back on. A little after noon, he came back and told me that I needed to go back home because the police had been involved. They were treating my disappearance as a kidnapping. Everyone who had been seen with me, hell, everyone who had seen me, was being arrested.
“Itabidi umerudi home maze ndio maboyz wangu waachiliwe.” I refused. He left again. The darkness crept back in with me in Robert’s crib. I did not care. Then at 8.30, there was a knock at the door.
“FUNGUA!!!” That was definitely not Robert on the other side of the door. They knocked once, twice and when I did not open, they opened it themselves the best way police know how. The door flung to the other side and hit the wall. They found me crouched on the corner, lifted me up and threw me inside a black maria saying, “Saa hutaki kusoma unataka kuwa malaya?” then sped off. All this time I was thinking yaani my parents called the cops on me!!!
The maria stopped just outside the chief’s camp. That is when I heard a voice I knew all too well coming from the front. It was my mother, telling them how if this was to happen again, they would take me to an approved school. The maria came back to life, redirected its nose, and headed back to our place. My mother refused to say a single word to me until I got into the house, after which she could not. Because the moment my father set his eyes on me was the moment the cup that holds the furies of hell spilled over.
The blood trickling down my palms did not scare me as much as the look in my father’s eyes. In them were not just anger caused by a stupid girl who had spent the night out, but the fear that he had lost yet another daughter to rascals not good enough for her. Somewhere in there was the need to teach me a lesson, but there was also relief that his worst fears did come to pass. So he had exhaled the way any other African parent would. He’d grabbed the first thing he could find – a glass mug – and hurled it at my face. A reflex had saved my life (and eyes), but not my hand.
There is one thing I had not factored into my calculations when I decided to let that exile story draw out that long. School. We were opening the following week, and my father’s anger was not the stony kind that could be blown away by the wind. He banned me from setting foot outside the house, unless I was going to school. As if that was not enough, he decreed I had lost the right to luxuries. The only thing I would be given money for was the essentials. Colgate, shoe polish, tissue paper and pads. And you know me, I have that 4C type of hair. The one that grows like a weed. The kind you wash and blow dry in the morning and by evening it is as if nothing happened. I knew there was no way I was going back to school with that steel wool untreated, so I snuck out of the house when the folks were not around and went to the barbershop. It was the first time I cut my hair.
When my father saw it, he lost his shit. “You think utaishi kwa hii nyumba the way you want?” He had hoped to punish me with the embarrassment of terrible growth at school (dude knew exactly which spot to hit). Cutting my hair without permission ruined his plans. Lakini this time he threw nothing at me. Instead, he took something away; my pocket money. On the day I was to go back to school, he handed me 70 bob. SEVENTY SHILLINGS!!! That was 50 bob to Limuru Town and then another 20 bob to Mirithu Girls High School.
To get by, I sold everything I could. If the Devil had asked me for my soul then, all I would have asked was how much he was offering. I plaited girls’ hair for 100 bob each and in between that got biscuits and lollipops that I resold for a profit. Somehow, I managed. I was in Form 2 then, and since then – all the way to Form 4 – I never wanted for shit. I was the business, man!
KARI was kind enough to wait until I was done with high school before they started angling for their land back. In 2003, they began giving eviction notices to all the people living in the city of cartons. Nobody listened. Whispers began flying around that bulldozers were coming. And they came. Only that every time they did, somehow, Fred Gumo – the Westlands MP- was always on sight. Then those whispers changed. Word had it that they would burn down our houses. I mean come on, a city made of wood and cartons? Exactly how long would it take before the whole damn place was razed to the dirt?
Nobody was sticking around to be turned into toast. That is something even Gumo would not help with. So when we were told there was a parcel of land waiting for us in Syokimau, everyone packed up. We did too, just not to Syokimau, but to Kawangware where my parents had somehow saved enough to buy a piece of the earth. The other people would end up in Syokimau, but the rich folk who had started building family homes there were not interested in having vermin ruin their suburb with a city of cartons. Last we heard, they were evicted again, but I do not know where to. When they reached out to Gumo, political anthropology required that they were no longer any of his business.
Point is, KARI got their land (back). So did we. And it is here in Kawangware that I would later on fall for the man who would drag me to the edge of my grave. But it was not always like that with George. Ours did not begin the way some of the best love stories usually begin. It begins on my parents’ wedding night. At the back of a Toyota 100 that had been used to ferry gifts from the reception to the house. Pants and panties hanging at the ankles. Him on top of me. Me wondering what would happen if any of the guests found us here.
As told by Gathoni Kimuyu to Magunga Williams