by Ken N. Kamoche
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A seemingly ordinary day in Nairobi ends in tragedy and forces a confrontation between a city woman and her husband's tribe.
Photo: Meena Kadri
The matatu minibus was doing eighty miles an hour down the highway. Passengers were squeezed in so tightly, shoulder to shoulder, they could barely breathe. In good traffic, half an hour was all it took to get from Umoja to the city centre. The driver nodded his head to the heavy-rhythm reggae music blaring from the speakers. The joint he had smoked for breakfast at the crack of dawn had given him just the light-headed start he needed for a busy day ahead.
The king-of-the-road turned to share a joke with the turn-boy who was hanging precariously on the door. The turn-boy cut a comical figure. Dreadlocks flying across his face, partly blocking the view through green sunglasses, whose usefulness he still anticipated in the sunless, cloudy morning. He waved the free hand to commuters waiting at bus stops, yelling:
"Hey, you! Towni! Towni express. Are you the going? Towni!"
There was no room for more. But the turn-boy found it hard to abandon the road mantra. While yelling exhortations to would-be passengers, he still managed to exchange jokes with the driver in the indecipherable argot of the road masters. Passengers watched with amusement as he twisted his head about to get the dreadlocks out of his face so he could stick a cigarette in his mouth.
The driver took the wide roundabout at the old city stadium at sixty miles an hour, imagining he was in the Safari Rally, which was at that very moment tearing across the Rift Valley. Weed for breakfast usually had that effect on him. As the swerving matatu left commuters swaying to their left, the king-of-the-road pressed fast-forward to search for another track on the cassette player. Anxious commuters grabbed at the seat in front, groans and mild complaints drowned by the mesmerizing sounds of Peter Tosh's "Legalize It."
They approached the city. The people would get to work on time. The driver would make a fortune. The light turned amber. He accelerated, in the same instant pressing his horn repeatedly as the bus in front slowed down. Who wants to waste precious moments waiting at the light? There was money at stake. After paying off the owner the agreed takings for the day, everything else went to the king-of-the-road.
The bus blocked his view ahead. The light turned red. The driver swerved to avoid the bus. The matatu rammed straight into an on-coming articulated lorry.
A collective scream of terror rent the cool morning air. A van carrying sand rammed into the back of the matatu, effectively blocking the emergency exit. Metal against metal. It sounded like a bomb.
Passers-by rushing to rescue the victims were forced back when the front of the matatu exploded in a ball of fire. They shielded their eyes from the glare and covered their noses as a pall of black smoke filled the air.
Thirty lives snuffed out as another day began in Nairobi.
After the ambulances had carted off the charred bodies and the petrified crowd melted away, all that was left of the matatu was a nondescript mangled frame, trapped between a truck and a van. The street was a riot of blood, sand, and broken glass. A putrid smell of burning flesh and plastic hung over the air. Motorists craned their necks to catch a glimpse of yet another enactment of a familiar scene. They shook their heads and looked ahead, a silent prayer in their hearts.
- - - - -
The call came through when Anina was wrapping up a customer's plates. Mehta, the Indian shop owner, narrowed his eyes suspiciously when he heard that the hospital needed to talk to her. Staff weren't supposed to receive calls at his shop.
"You! Talk to these people. And hurry back to work, no?"
Accident. Minibus. Hospital. No more.
The words hit her like a series of quick punches, aimed straight at her heart. The scream that built up in her came out in gasps for air, like someone drowning in the brown, murky waters of the Nairobi River after a torrential downpour.
Nyanga, a loving husband one minute and the next minute no more?
The phone dropped to the floor. Mehta jumped to his feet and threw his newspaper to the ground, his eyes ablaze.
"Wewe namna gain?" What's up with you? "You break my phone, I cut your pay, understand?"
Anina's head fell back, her knees gave way, and she started to collapse. The puzzled customer couldn't get to her on time and she fell against a shelf of kitchenware, bringing everything crashing to the ground. Mehta banged a fist on the counter, causing the cash register to send coins flying out.
- - - - -
Anina got back home at dusk after verifying her husband's body at the mortuary. The image of Nyanga lying lifeless filled her head like a lingering nightmare. She took Toto in her arms and sat her down on her lap, hands trembling. Her parents and younger sister, Wamba, were on their way to be with her.
"Mummy, I want to show you my drawing!" Toto's plaintive voice cut through Anina's muddled thoughts. The hyperactive child freed herself from her mother's embrace and ran to fetch a drawing from the room she shared with Ayola, the domestic helper.
"I coloured it in today's lesson. You like it, Mummy?"
Anina nodded. Her teary eyes swept across the stick bodies and big round heads smiling back at her.
"This is papa," explained Toto, beaming with pleasure. "This is mummy, and Toto. And Yola. You think papa will like it?"
"It's beautiful, Toto." The creases on her face deepened as she fought back the tears.
She held Toto tighter as the silent weeping rocked her body. How do I explain to you that papa will never see this beautiful drawing? That he'll never come through that door again?
She couldn't face her smiling daughter. A gust of cool air came through the open window, bringing with it the mouthwatering smell of deep-fried salted fish from the neighbours' home. She zipped up Toto's jacket. The houses stacked up against each other gave the city estate the feel of a village. The smells of cooking, and the sounds of couples squabbling, beds creaking in late-night lovemaking, and babies crying all floated seamlessly through the thin walls. Nyanga had promised her they would buy a plot in Kahawa West and build their own house. He was only waiting to complete his evening course in accounts so he could get promoted to senior accounts clerk and better pay. Anina closed her eyes and tried to imagine what their new house would have looked like. She could only see Nyanga's face. He seemed as though in pain. Toto nudged her and asked if she would buy her a box of crayons to colour her picture.
"Toto, you remember your forest grandpa?" Toto nodded, licking her lower lip. Leaning to her right she pulled at one of the two red ribbons tied to her neatly plaited hair. She always did that when she was trying to remember something. "It is her thinking look," Anina would explain to enchanted visitors.
"Yes, mummy. Forest grandpa he went eben."
"Yes, Toto, he went to heaven. It's peaceful, in heaven."
"Mummy, do they get sick, in eben? Forest grandpa was so sick." She held the drawing close to her chest.
Anina choked back the tears. Forest grandpa had been one of her few allies in Nyanga's clan. Unlike her mother-in-law, who disapproved of the interethnic marriage, her father-in-law was prepared to accept that she was right for his son. She had a good education, and held down a good job in the city, working for an Indian trader, which for him was no mean achievement.
Mama, as Anina and Nyanga called his mother, had tried to talk her son out of the wedding. "They're no good, those city women," she said, scowling. "They'll destroy your life, son, I know their type. And that tribe of theirs, do you know they eat snakes?"
"It's just rumours, mama," protested Nyanga. "And you know they don't approve of our eating wild pigs. What's important is I love Anina. She's the only one for me."
"I can't see how normal people can eat snakes."
Forest grandpa had cancer of the colon. It left him bedridden and emaciated. When they traveled to the village to see him a few weeks before he died, Toto couldn't understand why he spent all day in bed. Why couldn't he take her out walking in the forest like he used to, teaching her the names of the trees, fruits, bushes, the birds and insects, even though she neither understood nor remembered them? He told her the forest was the only place he could find peace of mind. Mama refused to believe he ever said that.
"There's no pain in heaven, Toto. Daddy will feel no pain." Anina paused and looked at her daughter, and then held her tight, as though she was afraid of losing her too. Toto was admiring her drawing, running a finger across each person.
"Mummy, I'm hungry."
"I know, Toto. Don't worry. Ayola will be back soon. Toto, daddy has gone to heaven. There was a bad accident. He'll be with forest grandpa. Together, in peace. Do you understand what mummy is saying?"
Toto nodded and smiled, biting her lower lip. She turned to admire her picture.
"Mummy, when will daddy come back?"
Anina turned her face away so the little girl wouldn't see the tears that now flowed freely down her cheeks.
She went through the next few days as if in a trance, only vaguely aware of the funeral arrangements being made by the many relatives and friends who assembled in her small house. The lengthy prayers, the wailing, the comforting hugs, and the tears that flowed from every eye. She left everything to her brothers-in-law. Her will to live had deserted her. She only lived for Toto, to make sure Toto got enough to eat, enough sleep, was washed and dressed. Her sister, Wamba, stayed with her, and took Toto for walks around the estate, away from all the sadness and funereal gloom in the house.
Word came that Abudo had consecrated a spot for the grave in the clan's ancestral graveyard. Abudo was Nyanga's uncle, and the head of the clan. Anina had not had a chance to think about where the funeral would be held. She had hoped Abudo would travel to the city so that the matter could be discussed openly. Abudo refused to travel the three hundred miles to the city. He sent a message to say he was taking care of things for the clan back in the village.
Wamba spat on the ground when she heard about the clan.
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Table of Contents
with contributions from
- John Mateer, Four Poems
- Dana Gioia, "Words" in English and translated into Spanish by José Emilio Pacheco
- Poetic Collaborations: A Conversation with Dana Gioia
- Two poems by Stephanie McKenzie
- Nicholas Samaras, Two Poems [with audio]
- Nicholas Samaras, Four Poems
- Bill Manhire, "Cream Torpedoes: Recent Poetry in New Zealand"
- Maya Khosla, Two Poems
- A poem by Ilya Kaminsky
- An essay by Jane Hirshfield (US)
- Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, The End of a Love Affair [set to music]
- An essay by Ian Brinton (UK)
- FICTION: Ken N. Kamoche, "Secondhand Wife"
- Q&A: WLT INTERVIEW: Alexander Maksik, author of You Deserve Nothing - Michelle Johnson
- A Parisian Expat Reading List
- WLT ONLINE BOOK CLUB: Panorama by H.G. Adler
- AUTHOR PROFILE: Valzhyna Mort
- WHAT TO READ NOW: Kenya
- CITY PROFILE: Reykjavík, Iceland
- A report from the Poetry Foundation's open house
INTERNATIONAL CRIME & MYSTERY
- The Crime Writing of Blake Edwards - J. Madison Davis