I hate that I didn’t know better early enough. I don’t know it all now, but life unveils itself differently once you admit to yourself that you are the last person in control. It took me years to even calmly think through this finality. You see, being a journalist put me in the middle of raw human suffering. No filters, no nothing. Just endless pain. I don’t get to go out for cocktails after work…and yes, no one forced me into it. But it never really dawns on you how delicate life is until you watch it snuffed out of people in a second. Being a witness to the chaos does a number on you. Sometimes bitterness floods you. Especially when the situation at hand was orchestrated out of pure malice. Having this as your life, your day-to-day life, almost guarantees a skewed perspective of reality, and that is not a place you want to go to…
I frequently dream of my childhood. The dreams are as vivid as vivid could get. It’s as if I experience life as a 5-year-old but with an adult’s eye. My therapist says it’s an attempt by my unconscious self to try and mend parts of me that were damaged a lifetime ago. Of course he said that. I was not seeking therapy because my mum bathed me in lilies and scented water. Maybe I should have probed myself more because my whole life has been my feeble attempt to fix in others what’s broken in me—talk of a bitter pill to swallow, haha.
My mum was the fourth born in a family of five. 4 girls and 1 boy. Her father passed away in her teenage years. That broke her. She told me they were friends. Having no one to go fishing with left her stranded. Weirdly, she loved fishing, or maybe that’s what happens when you are a daddy’s girl. She always carried with her this old, crumbled photo of her and my grandfather. I smile like him she said. It was taken by the roadside, just before you get to the river. Her face in the photo beams with life as her little hands hold on to an enormous mudfish that had its belly cut wide open. Her father, deterred by the ball of joy beside him, stares intently, his eyes a reflection of the man he was.
She left for Nairobi because she wanted more for herself. Home didn’t feel like home anymore. The air there was hostile, the village became too small. Or maybe she saw what she wanted to see. All I know is the daughter of Matano left in search of something that even she didn’t know where to find. I have memories of her elder sisters coming to visit us at Kawangware. Some days they brought smoked fish; other days, they brought grains and fruit, but most days, they brought hailstorms and hurricanes. I was abhored these days. I felt like a prisoner in my own backyard. The thing is, mum hawked second-hand clothes during the day and deep fried fish by the roadside from evening till late. Perfect bargain for a 6-year-old that wants to play all day. But not when your zealot aunts are around. Not when you get flogged silly because you sat on a headdress. I didn’t know then, but my mum’s siblings had joined what they thought was a church, and the brainwashing was to die for. Two of her sisters married this ‘prophet’ who had foreseen great affliction befall them unless he married someone from this household. Getting two sisters as wives got the job done. The eldest couldn’t be betrothed because she was already defiled, for she had laid with a man. That wasn’t a free pass to her though, no. She believed her life was as it was because she was deemed unclean for the man handpicked by God Himself. That her impurity meant that she wouldn’t be singing lullabies to this prophet and feeding him honey and milk. Told you the brainwashing was top-notch.
I’m not sure how it happened. I remember what I remember. I was in class 2 when my mum’s eldest sister came to live with us for a while. Aunty Awiti. My mum had just gotten her second child, my baby sister, and somehow needed help around the house. So I avoided our house like the plague, not because I had any baby phobias; I actually enjoyed babysitting. The vagueness in her little eyes amused me. How she smiled when I whistled and sang gibberish; being a brother to a whole other human being was fascinating. Until Aunty Awiti crashed the party, and our tiny home became inhabitable. I spent most evenings with mum, marvelling at cars and smiling at her customers mid my homework. She liked having me around, I’d say. Even her customers tipped better.
There was a group of rowdy kids in our neighbourhood that never lacked something to do. It was either they were hunting doves- which they roasted over garbage fire, or they were chasing down stray dogs and ringing doorbells in suburbs that bordered Kawangware. I found their allure more tempting than hanging out with my mother, of course, so I became a part of them in no time. I didn’t like the hunting part though, meat that tastes like burnt plastic is worse than it sounds.
Time crawled by, and every day felt like an eternity. Sleeping on the floor fuelled my dislike for this intruder they called my aunt. I bet she felt how repulsive I found her because she didn’t hesitate to reciprocate. On this specific day, she slapped the lights out of me for tasting Rosa’s porridge. Aaai, si ata mimi ni mtoto. My friends found me tearing in silence, but they were used to seeing people cry. We left and went on with our day because a few tears shouldn’t spoil the fun. It wasn’t until later in the day that everything took a different turn. Usually, we returned earlier when there was nothing to catch or when our thirst almost killed us. It was afternoon when we returned, but the smoke around our neighbourhood made it feel like evening.
“Kwani leo wamewasha moto ya takataka mapema aje?” one of the kids asked.
“Ata moshi haikuwangi mingi hivo…” another retorted, confusion clouding our little heads.
There was a huge crowd by the roadside, everyone murmuring and staring at the dark smoke that was now threatening to engulf us. Our caretaker was talking to a few women there. His face drooped when he saw me.
“Yaani wewe ulienda kushika nyonde na kwenu kunachomeka?” wait, what? Ati our place is on fire?
“Si niliacha aunty Awiti home…” I mumbled.
It almost feels like I’m narrating someone else’s story. I can’t quite grasp what happened after that. I gathered a neighbour left their stove on after making lunch. That was aunt Awiti’s story, at least. But where was she when she left Rosa in the house alone? Had she snuck to her next-door boyfriend again? Wasn’t she the one who lit candles when she prayed? I’ve seen her leave them unattended.
It is hard to point a finger when you don’t have facts. Especially if you’re a 7-year old whose words wouldn’t mean anything. We relocated to mum’s village during my sister’s burial, but I think we also buried my mum that day. She never was the same. It was heartbreaking watching her trying to stop the pallbearers from burying her little girl. Aunty Awiti hid I think, I don’t know. These two fought a lot. I got used to seeing grownups cry, and I got used to sleeping to my mum’s late-night sobs. Her life was drained of colour. For two years, I lived with this shell of a human that was supposed to be my mum. She became delirious after a while, calling me her dad’s name everytime I tended to her. She would tell me stories of how Nairobi is, and how she couldn’t wait to have me meet my ‘grandchildren’. Sometimes, she stormed out at the middle of the night because she heard a baby crying. It was hard to watch. Her sisters eventually took her to the prophet. He would heal her, they said. Three months later, we buried her beside Rosa. The daughter of Matano could not take it anymore. I hope she took up fishing again whatever place she went; that made her happy.
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