Years ago, my mother used to drag me to church. She would bang on my wooden door and shout with a voice that at first startled me from my dreams, “John Wambi, get up! You still don’t have a job because I have to almost pull you by the ear to go to church! Is it all those books that you read-Eh? You think that you know better than me now-aaaah? A psychology degree has made you grow horns on your head!” And I would stick my tongue at the door and roll my eyes. Her lack of creativity bothered me more than her words. There reached a time when I would mouth the words along with her, right before I pushed back my bed covers from the bed, the ones I had had, since secondary school, senior one to be exact.
To her, Sundays were sort of a cleansing ritual. The past deeds of the week would be forgotten. The throwing of pans towards us, her children would be erased. The wringing of collars and tightening of shirt sleeves of her debtors, would be a thing of the past. The foul smelling curses flung at people would be perfumed with flowery scents. They would be altered to pleas of dedications to the Lord. “I dedicate maama Rosa into your hands, Oh Lord! May all that witchcraft I’m sure she’s directing towards me, not prosper! And maama Toomu, may those black dimpled flabby thighs she exposes when my husband is home not lure him again! I dedicate her particularly among all my neighbors into your hands, Lord!” She would say. The choir would break into hymns. It would be as if the louder they sang, the faster their voices would be carried past the skies into the heavens. This was a signal for the rest of the congregation to shout even more. An assortment of voices, old and young. Shrill and deep. Emotional and emotionless. At this moment, tears would always flow from my mother’s eyes. They would be followed by a practiced chant of gibberish. It was generally a concerted activity of souls, exploited by a single man who owned two cars and a storied house at Malaba, as rumors had it. I had found a solution to my mother’s hourly peeks; bow my head down in prayer and say the same gibberish she uttered.
I am now lying in my one bedroomed house. It’s not the first time I have woken up with my face staring at the ceiling. But for some reason, today it appears to be magnified. It’s as though I’m looking at it through a microscope, or perhaps a magnifying glass. The cobwebs are flung across un-uniformed planks of wood, directly below silver iron roof sheets. The sun rays struggle through the small holes in them. They usually bother me, but today they don’t. They remind me of when maama would say, “Eat the seeds, too. They are good for you,” when the seeds passed through the enlarged holes in the plastic sieve when she made the passion fruit juice. Maybe the rays are good for me too. They should be a sort of driving force for me to get out of bed, even when I don’t want to. To go to the hardware owned Indian shop that I have been working for, for two years now.
Today, I’m not going to work, though. I asked for a two day leave. Today, I’m travelling to Kenya by bus. It’s something that I have been planning on for weeks. I check the time on my Kabiiriti. 8:15 a.m. Shit! I should have left in 35 minutes. I run towards the door, unlock it and head towards the outside bathroom. It’s a ram shackled enclosure of four walls, directly under two mango trees. It has no ceiling. When it rains, I do not bathe. After I finish bathing, I put on a long sleeved shirt and ordinary black leather trousers. I have a boda boda guy who I had called earlier on before hurriedly putting on the clothes. As usual, he does not sense my need for silence. He picks up from where he stopped the last time. His chickens are now consistently laying eggs. He hopes that they can reach 100 in number, by the end of the month. His wife just revealed that she is pregnant with child, their sixth born. He hopes it is a boy, to continue the family lineage.
I present my ticket to the bus conductor. I have come to associate a language with odor. For example, I once read that French is a language of love. Perhaps then it smells like flowers and drinking chocolate and sweets. I think French must be filled with laughter and tears too. Isn’t what love is like? So when I enter the bus, it smells of smoke that is overbearing. I am the passive smoker and the rest of the passengers, active ones. I feel overwhelmed with the language that I cannot understand. A bit like how I felt before I learnt Luganda. “Tomanyi Luganda?” everyone I met in Kampala would say. An unwritten crime. “Arrogant,” they would call me. And I know the same kind of smoke that threatened me then, threatens me now.
“Habari” the lady next to the window, says.
“Muzuri,” I reply. I do not encourage the conversation.
“We nimu Kenya?” she asks. Living at the border, I mostly understand Swahili, but run short in speech. “Apaana,” I reply. “In fact I do not really speak Swahili,” I add. Hoping that my reply will discourage any kind of further conversation.
“Oh, you don’t?” she replies, then chuckles to herself. “So what are you planning on doing, in Kenya?”
“I? Oh, I am going for Obama’s homecoming. We are related, you know.”
“You, related! ahaaaahaha…. What am I missing? You just said you’re not Kenyan.”
“I am not. But my father and Obama’s father went to Maseno School together. They were best friends. They shared the same decker together. Wore the same shoes. Believe me, it was a brotherhood, not a friendship.”
“You do know that he did not live much with his father? Even if he did, you’ll join some of the Nairobi University students who are threatening to commit suicide if he doesn’t see them. Not mentioning the hundreds of journalists that will be there to tussle it out with you,” she says it with a seemingly amused smile on her face.
“Let me ask, do you have a plan yet? How do you plan on seeing him? Got any connections?”
“Nothing concrete yet. But it can’t be that hard…. I mean I’m related.
“If you say so….”
The rest of the journey goes by uneventfully. Periodical stops for passengers to buy muchomo and gonja. The lady has earphones in her ears for the entire journey. She looks like she could be in her 20’s. Light skinned complexion with a small perky nose. The nose holds black rimmed spectacles. They are the ones that are in vogue. Geek glasses they call them. Even the boys in Malaba town wear them, to look cool I guess. I peek at the book she holds in her hands. A romantic book, of sorts. I can tell from the tasteless title that it is a Mills and Boon.
As Nairobi draws closer, newspapers and billboards bearing the headlines about Obama’s visit are displayed on the streets. “KARIBU POTUS,” “SON OF A KENYAN STUDENT WHO CHANGED THE WORLD.” There are about 12 more. The streets are cleaner than usual, I presume. Or is this how Nairobi has always been? Paved sidewalks, flowers bordering street lanes. There is a static air of excitement in the city. It’s as if Obama’s arrival has awakened the earth, not just the living, but the non-living too. Music blaring from radio stereos. Shops painted with pictures of Obama smiling.
It’s 8:30 p.m. The bus heads over to the taxi park.
“Here’s my number.” The lady holds out a piece of paper. On it is a number with the name WANJIRU above the slanting digits.
“Just in case you are stranded. Or you get to meet Obama. I’ll be that stranger who was nice to you.” She says it while winking.
We get off the bus and I hail a taxi to get me to town where I’m sure I will be able to get a fairly cheap lodge to sleep in.
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I am now sleeping on top of a small bed. It has faded yellow bed sheets. The blanket is composed of more sheet than fur. On top of a bedside table is a candle that is shorter than my index finger. Candle wax surrounds it. I call my sister Ruth on my Kabiriti. She picks up after a few rings. I want to cry. I want to pour out my fears and failures. I want to tell her how I think I have failed and how no one can give me any information on Obama’s visit. I want to tell her how I think Kinuthia fleeced me when he said he’d get me an invitation to the State House dinner. How His phones are off and everyone I ask has never even heard of ‘Kinuthia, the Deputy’s assistant’ to the Governor of Nairobi. How I carried dad’s photo with me. The one where him and Obama’s father are standing in front of classrooms with another man, sealing a camaraderie of sorts. How I was going to ask Obama to take me to America and get me a job, I am a trained psychologist after all. I heard that they get a lot of money there.
Instead, I ask her about maama, my nephews, nieces and her husband. I tell her I’m fine and make a joke about how our mother is feeding ideas into her mind again. When she last saw me, didn’t she see me fully clothed and with a belly bigger than hers? Her, with those fat sized arms who is mother to 4 children. I am a wealthy man after all, in the community’s standards. A man with a big potbelly. I tell her that I’m in Kenya though, on some business trip. And that all this Obama excitement is an exaggeration, of sorts. Even more so, that I’m here. She laughs and agrees. I tell her how I’ve been thinking that this Obama must be a proud man. He could not even bother to invite us for his stately dinners, yet our fathers were brothers.
“They were just friends, Wambi. And you know father told lies here and there, just to make himself look important. More so before he died last year.”
I don’t care. I tell her so. I tell her that this whole thing reminds me of that story in church. Where the son left home and squandered his father’s money. And he only went back when he realized he was alone if he had nothing. How come Barack has only just returned home after all those years he was president? What was the story again? I ask her.
“The prodigal son,” she replies.
“Yes, Obama is like a prodigal son.”
“Maama said exactly the same thing about you, just yesterday.”
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(For more similar stories, check out Artsheba.com under the penned name, »Kakinda Maria Birungi. »)