We are sitting high up. Kiyingu, Willy, Omido and I. Up the rock pile. Above the compost pit with old brown Tusker beer bottles and plastic red plum jam cans with peeling labels. Above the plastic car tyres we ride in the evenings after school. Above the wet peels of sweet potatoes and bananas that have started decomposing and gathering flies. From here we can see the passing cars clearly and all the houses on ploti Blocks A and B.
Willy is the one holding the feya and so he stretches his right arm, the one with the long burn scar on it. He pulls back the black elastic with a pebble in between and aims at the body of passing cars. The feya was a birthday gift from his rich cousin in Nairobi.
He hits and misses and passes it on to Kiyingu. I implore and plead and pester him to lend it to me but he only sticks out his tongue and says I should be his girlfriend first. He passes it over my head to the next boy. Omido is a sharpshooter and we hear a tonglo as the pebble hits the body of a passing car. We laugh loudly, “Ua yeye!”
We are counting the cars which are passing. The big-big ones belong to Willy. Kiyingu and Omido have booked the small ones. I am just counting and watching. I don’t own any car because I am a girl and girls are not supposed to own cars.
“I am tired of this game, let us play tapo. “That is Omido. He is wearing old jeans and a white shirt which is now brown.
”Aah no, that game is for girls, let’s play marbles instead.”
“It is a game for everybody.”
“No, it is for girls.”
“But then sling is a boy’s game and I play it still.”
“Then go and sit with your bragging sister.”
“I was not talking to you, mango head. In fact, I can run ten times faster than you boys. Come, let us run and see who is faster. The last one is the wife of Mr Frog.”
Willy says yes and Omido says yes and Kiyingu says yes and because it is yesyesyes we stand on our knees but even before Willy shouts on-your-marks-get-ready-GO, the familiar cough of Maajanga’s lorry mtenga stops us in our tracks.
Nobody is inside our houses in block B because it is too hot now; the weather is wearing an abnormal aridness and the yellow fire-sun has suckled the coolness out of the air and left a waterlessness that cracks lips and feet.
The landlady, Mama Amu, has been cheating-promising to put ceiling boards to reduce the heat. We have waited and waited and waited. Even Mama is tired of waiting. She has stopped praying for the landlady’s heart of stone to be turned to flesh so she can have mercy on babies who get heat-rash. But you see, that Mama Amu, she just pouts her thick lips and says, “Who can afford luxuries like ceilings in these times?”
MY VOICE BECOMES A DRIED LEAF
My sister is far away; she is a tiny dot sitting under the shade of the avocado tree on the other side of the compound. She sits there flipping through old editions of Parents magazine and chewing Big-G and forming bubbles and then popping them.
She says the shade is good for a girl because it makes her skin to remain brown and soft like that Limara girl on the TV advertisement. Willy says she is hiding from the sun because she is in secondary school and will soon need someone to marry her when she finishes Form Four. I think sitting like that is stupid and boring so I play with the boys instead because I like the wind in my face and I want to shout freely and scream until my voice becomes a dried leaf that someone steps on the path.
Most fathers left on their bicycles in the morning so only the mothers are home, and today they don’t tell us ‘shut up’ because they are busy chatting away. They are seated on the steps of Mama Nina’s house.
Some are just basking in the sun; others are plaiting each other mlazo cornrows then applying Tropical coconut oil from a long white bottle to pull the hair to grow. Those with short hair, like Mama Omido, are seated on a raffia mkeka, talking about the woman who fell down during the PAG Church service last Sunday.
“That one, heii, her heart is black with soot like a cooking pot. I don’t believe it was the Holy Spirit that made her fall, maybe an evil one, like King Saul’s.”
Some women giggle. Others join them, and those holding crying babies shush them loudly with the reminder that Wanakhamuna will come for them if they keep crying. I wonder if the babies are crying because of Wanakhamuna or the smell emitting from both the latrine and the clogged trench where kitchen waste is poured.
The maids, whom we children have been drilled to call ‘aunty’, are sitting on yellow twenty-litre plastic jerry cans in a snaking queue, waiting for their turn to fetch water from the single tap on the cement slab. The thirsty January sun has licked all the water from the pipes so that the taps inside the houses no longer run even in the middle of the night. People start queuing for water at three in the morning with yellow Golden Fry jerry cans and plastic Tree Top bottles.
No one is watching to stop us but we are careful because we have been forbidden from taking our play beyond the gate. Mama keeps filling our ears with stories about children who have been hit by speeding vehicles but we don’t care. So we keep moving nearer the gate and keep counting our cars.
Because no mother is watching to shout ‘behave yourselves or you will catch pneumonia’, the boys open their shirt buttons like Rambo.
“Haya, how about we both run after that lorry and get us some sugarcane to eat? The last one to climb mtenga is the wife of Mr Frog.”
Before the words leave my mouth properly, everyone is rushing to the dirt road shouting, “Mtenga! Miwa oyee.”
We like running after mtenga because if we are lucky to get a lot of sugarcane we can take some of it to Mama Amu’s kiosk and get mandazi in return. My sister said it is called barter trade, where we give something to eat and are given also something to eat, but we don’t care, we just want sugarcane and mandazi.
RUNNING AND RUNNING
We are running and running. Our spindly legs take us around the block, past the barren mango tree with the rusted clothes lines where old blankets, hung to dry, reek of old urine. Past the workshop with curled sawdust that resembles Mama Nina’s head when she comes back home from Atieno’s salon. Past the singing posho mill where we grind maize for ugali. Past Mama Amu’s kiosk where we usually exchange old newspapers for a shilling. She is there, seated on a low stool, frying chips and vitumbua and putting them in a transparent bucket for passersby to buy.
Our bare feet slap the dirt road and leave red crescent prints in the thick powdery dust as we rush to meet old rusty mtenga. The other children become a blur behind me, coloured balls on my path as I whiz past them.
Now we are running and then we are hollering, ‘Maajanga etenga kinamgozi ibiniga.’
The mtenga is so old and slow now. Omido, who is thin and fast, usually outruns it as it coughs and spits like an old woman with a tobacco pipe. Now, his open shirt is blowing behind him like the windsock teacher drew in class when he overtakes me. He runs. The rest of the children struggle to catch up, for even the smaller ones know when sugarcane is available. We cheer and shout and plead with the cane lorry to wait for us.
The sun has moved closer, as if it has descended one more step from the sky and is sitting atop the Nandi flame tree. The old lorry stirs thick red dust which gets into my eyes and makes them water, like when I eat food with a lot of hot red pepper. Mama says pepper is for useless drunks.
The dust settles and I see Omido’s shirt again and then I start our usual song.
‘Maajanga etenga kinamgozi ibiniga.’
‘Maajanga etenga kinamgozi ibiniga.’
The others join in. Our voices shoot off in all directions as if they are fireworks that someone has lit. The others start coaxing and daring Omido and I to climb up the lorry before it goes off past the green Safaricom M-Pesa shop towards Mumias.
The coaxing works.
Omido hesitates, measuring how high the lorry is with his eyes. I want to jump already because I hate to waste time but Willy stops me. “A girl must not climb a lorry, let me go in your place. Hold this feya for me.”
I want to tell him I am the best tree climber in our class, that people call me monkey-girl for a good reason, but he has put the brand new feya in my hand already and is looking at Omido and the two of them glare at each other with malevolent eyes.
Omido climbs really fast, like he is being chased by bees or something. Now he is dislodging a thick yellowish green sugarcane from the pile. Everyone is shouting his name. I look at Willy and his face is a crumpled sheet of white paper. A ribbon of sweat runs down his face and I know that he is scared of climbing mtenga. He smiles at me but me, I just look away. I don’t want my boyfriend to be the wife of Mr Frog.
Willy finally hangs on the rusty side railings and raises one fist like Undertaker in WWF then jumps on top of the sugarcane pile. He starts to pull and pulls until a green cane gives. He throws it down at me as we cheer him and shout, “We want another one, just like the other one!” He throws another and we catch it and then we are breaking the long cane with our knee and eating and chewing the juice out of the red and yellow sugarcane and throwing the juiceless pith on the dirt road and in the dusty air.
Omido and Willy throw some more and now we have enough sugarcanes and so we shout, ‘Tosha gari. Tosha mboga,’ and they both prepare to jump down and land on the patch of kegondi grass by the side.
But we all know Omido will jump first because he is strong because his bones are strong as he drinks Seven Seas cod liver oil every day before going to school. And so Omido is ready to jump but that Willy is making himself the wife of Mr Frog again since he is scared that the lorry has gained speed. He is breathing hard through his open mouth and turning his head from side to side, his eyes searching desperately for a place to land. He is being stupid as everyone knows that the lorry is just about to reach the place where the road bends into a snake S near Ejinja corner.
I spit the sugarcane from my mouth so I can shout ‘corner, chunga, watch out’ but I think I am going to faint because I have used up all the air in my lungs. So I just start jumping up and down, waving my arms.
It is while they are getting ready to jump that it happens. So fast I almost miss it. Willy trips. Falls to the side fast, headfirst, over the railings on the side of the lorry. Like a ripe yellow mango straight from a tree he falls and falls then explodes down to earth soundlessly, without even an ‘Oh.’
Omido lands on the grass with a grin on his face.
SOMEONE IS SCREAMING
Someone is screaming and then it is my own mouth that is screaming and I am shouting and I am bawling and the tears in my eyes mix with the blubbering and I am tugging somebody’s arm and touching them with my sugarcane sticky fingers.
There is red everywhere as if someone has split a ripe watermelon open. Only it is not a watermelon-watermelon because it is a tap running from Willy’s head and I am touching him and asking what are you lying here for Willy, what? Standupstandupstandup. Willy. But Willy does not hear anybody and so he does not answer.
People have started to gather. The mothers, the aunties with the babies held on their sides, passersby. Suddenly the air is thick and full of the sickly sweet smell of blood. I am going to fall because people have started to gather and everyone is asking me whathashappenedwhathashappened? A woman wearing a khanga the colour of pawpaws is kneeling over Willy. She is shaking-shaking him with hands that are thick from too much floor scrubbing. She is calling him, ‘Wake up Willy, amka,’ but Willy does not hear anybody and so he is just looking with his eyes closed but refusing to wake up.
Something has clutched my heart and refuses to let go. I wipe the tears with the back of my hands. I want to ask the adults areyoustupidorsomething? Cansomeonetakehimtothehospitalnownow? But I am just crying again. And I can’t see. And someone is pushing me aside.
The air is thick, almost solid. I smell metal and dust and blood. I retch and vomit. I throw down the sugarcane I am holding and a hand yanks me from where I am standing.
I see them as Mama and I pass. The other children. Quiet, huddled in sweaters near the hopscotch square drawn with chalk. Omido’s eyes meet mine and then he looks down. I can’t breathe because the air is thick and almost solid. I stop to listen to the intermittent cries of Mama Willy as she rounds the ploti from bougainvillea fence to the wooden gate, singing, weeping, asking “What have you done to me this bad child? What do you expect me to tell your own father? Why are you shaming me Willy?” But Willy does not hear anybody and so he does not answer.
“These are things one must not ask the dead,” Mama mutters to herself, but when I try to answer she looks ahead and pretends as if I have not spoken to her.
I trudge on behind her, watching the gathering dusk envelope the land. Watching it begin to soften the sharp edges of the rusty mabati rooftops and chipped wooden doorways.
The police come in their blue uniforms but Mama locks me in her room and forbids me from talking to them, even though I am the one who is carrying the whole story.
“You are a girl, you fool! Learn to shut your hornbill mouth.”
I know everything that happened, everything. I can count each event off on my bony fingers. The truck bouncing, the head bashing, watermelon splash. But I can’t speak to police because who will believe my truth?
I can hear the wailing float through the dark night air all the way to Mama’s bedroom where I am. It is just like when Mama Amu’s cow died and she tied a lesso and went around the ploti weeping. Only this time, there is no Willy to make funny faces. No Willy to dance behind her and then put his hand over my mouth to muffle my laughter.
I suck in my breath. I spit out little pieces of sugarcane that were stuck in my teeth then sit up to embrace my knees with my arms. Two fists are pounding against my chest and I am crying because if I do not speak, the memory will live on in me. A perfectly encapsulated morsel of a horrible sin. A brushstroke of dark grey colour on the already dark grey barren canvas of my life.
I want to tell someone. Anyone. Maybe the church woman in a white frock and kitenge headscarf will listen. Perhaps the market man who likes to call me daughter, the one who sells second-hand rugs and carpets he gets from Gikomba in Nairobi, will listen.
‘Mmbone.’ A voice calls me to the sitting room where Mama is seated on the bamboo chair. She picks up a chicken bone and chews on it, sucking the marrow and drawing in her breath sharply. My stomach growls, an orchestra set to play by the sight of ugali and chicken before me.
“Tell us everything, everything. And don’t you forget it could have been you, Blackie.” Mama screws her face and bores her dark eyes into me. My sister also stares at me through narrowed eyes. Her jet-black hair is held up perfectly in a ponytail so that she looks just like the Limara girl in the TV advertisement.
I open my mouth and try to push the story past my sticky swollen tongue. My voice cracks like an egg that has fallen hard on our red ochre floor. Mama’s spokeswoman, my sister, is approaching me. The tears are burning my eyes and I want to scream as if when Mama is blow-drying my shrub hair with a hot comb.
Mama approaches too, eyes also narrowed, like when she closes one eye to see if the black swelling on my big toe is a jigger. “Disgraceful girl! You have refused to be a girl, how you go about playing with boys and jiggling your chest marbles at them, I will break this coconut head!”
She holds me by the scruff of the neck as her eyes flicker in the yellow light of the naked Philips bulb. I feel the first blow and scream. I feel the second one and scream loudly, three … four … five … As always, the pain will cease when Ma gets to ten and so I just stand here, no longer raising my hands to protect my head from the blows. I wish the blows could split my head so that a watermelon tap will start to flow from it like River Isiukhu. Like Willy.