I choose Sarova Stanley’s Exchange Bar because it’s a Sunday and I want to drive into town and feel the absence of humanity, the open-armed parking slots and the absence of incessant blaring car-horns . Plus there is something very hoary about that traditional English gentleman’s bar; like it froze in 1954: Its decor is flaming red without being fiery, the voices of the British occupiers still trapped in the thick rich carpet. I get there 20mins before Caroline Anyiso, Head of Certification – Kenya Bureau of Standards.
On a Sunday the Exchange bar is a hinterland of hedonism. Gone today is the hubbub of the tenderpreneurs in their terrible suits, sunk chin-in into the rich brown-tan leather couches, sipping expensive cognac. Gone are the grinny tourists probably looking forward to a safari the next day. Gone is their pensive Wednesday pianist who plays such beautiful music yet you never want to know his name. You want him to remain the pensive virtuoso with honey on his finger-tips.
But I’m here, hoisted on their comfortable lowback leather seats at the bar counter noticing, for the first time, their centerpiece art holding court in the heart of the room. I have visited the bar countless times but I’m surprised never to have noticed that copper sculpture of a naked woman frozen in a stretched stance, seated on a fountain supported by gawping fish, her small breasts glowing like a mysterious meteor. She looks like a teenager.
Near the bar are two tanned caucasian tourists having coffee on low stools. One is reading a book while the other, with a safari hat dangling on his chest from a string, is talking the ears off a waitress in a cap about the diversity of California. Ahh, American imports. Above the room, two gothic-looking, wrought iron fans chop the air in a soothing murmur.
I climb down and walk towards the statue framed by two vases of fresh flowers for a more intimate inspection. She’s not a teenager, just a petite woman. A little firebrand. A troublemaker. A sliver of loincloth drops between her legs naked legs. The tips of her tits look like snub-nosed bullets. She smells of coppery youth.
Back at my perch I order for water and a slice of lemon. Then I wait.
Exactly two minutes to 2pm, Caroline struts in. I love when people keep time – it says more about them than what their lips say. I know it’s her because she’s standing at the entrance looking out for me, or someone she thinks is me. I let her for a few seconds as I bask in temporary anonymity before I raise my hand to identify myself. She’s wearing a loose bright orange top, black tights and black shoes. She has on a nice looking watch with a blue face but when she sits under the light of the bar the colour seems to change to purple, so really, don’t take my word that it’s blue. The waitress who was talking to the Americans shows up all smiles, energy bouncing off the walls. Her name tag reads Mercy. I will call her Happy Mercy.
“Did you learn anything exciting about America?” I ask her.
She doesn’t lose the smile. “Yeah, it was quite educative…people live so differently.”
“Funny, I was almost nodding off just listening to him,” I say and she titters.
Caroline orders for fresh orange juice. We talk about all the mountains she has climbed. She talks about climbing Ngong hills the previous day. She talks about some people called Hike Nation and how organised they are when she climbed five hills in six months with them. Happy Mercy sits her juice before her and I ask her to go check the title of the book the American is reading.
After Happy Mercy retreats she talks about her crossfit exercise at the gym in Boma Hotel and how fitness now is at the core of her being, how she now chooses hotels while on business trips abroad based on the facilities of the hotel to provide gyms or its proximity to a place she can run. She mentions how Geneva hotels aren’t any good with gyms but great for outdoor physical activities.
Happy Mercy shows up and informs me that the book is called An Innocent Abroad by John Berendt and Dave Eggers. (It’s a compilation of travel writing by famous travel writers. If you are into such things then buy it. I bought it on Kindle later that evening. It’s first few chapters are interesting).
Then she tells me about her uterus.
In 1998 she went for routine pap smear. The results showed that her uterus was enlarged and she was sent for an ultrasound at some place in Hurlingham. “This guy was so shocked when he saw the results that the first thing he asked me was, ‘My God, this is bad, do you have children?’ and I was like, “What? What have you seen?”
He had seen these large fibroids the size of pawpaws. OK, they weren’t the size of pawpaws but in my head I sort of pictured them as two bad pawpaws just sitting there in her uterus.
“I completely freaked out, because of how that radiologist reacted, ” she says. “I didn’t have any children and here I was with big fibroids.”
“What’s the difference between cysts and fibroids?” I ask.
“I think cysts are like really small and fibroids are like really big.” She says. (So yeah, pawpaws)
Her doctor stressed that she had to have them removed immediately but she was in no hurry. She left for a business trip overseas. When she came back she went “under the knife” and had the fibroids removed but they left this one fibroid…
Hang on, let me Google how fibroids look like…
So, I’ve seen. They look terrible. Like offals.
Anyway, so they had left this one big fibroid that they couldn’t remove because it was sitting on a blood vessel and removing it would mean her bleeding to death. “You have to get a baby quickly.” her doctor advised her.
“So from 1998 to 2000 I was very busy trying to get a baby.” She says with a smile.
She laughs. “My brother who is a pastor would pray for me because he thought I was getting on a bad tangent.” She says. “I would call my boyfriend in the middle of the day and tell him that I was fertile and he had to come now and he would drive from his office to come and take advantage of this window.”
I picture him closing his notebook in a meeting saying, “Sorry guys but there is an emergency I have to attend to immediately. I won’t be long.”
She continues. “But you know what?”
“I’m so glad I didn’t get pregnant with that man. For that I thank God all the time because he was a bad man.”
Anyway the baby doesn’t happen and she stops trying. Years pass and one day in 2004 her pal notices that she would take so long in the loo peeing. “I thought it was normal, but when I went to the doctor she was aghast at how big the remaining fibroid had grown!” She says.
“It was the size of an octopus.” I murmur.
“It was huge!” She shrieks. “It had grown ten times it’s size, filling my uterus, blocking my easy passage of urine, risking my kidney. They had to remove it or I would lose my kidney.” She was 35 years old. So she went to Aga Khan hospital a few days later after being counselled and straight into theater. Outside her two ride or die friends, – Judy and Susan – and her mom waited as they removed her uterus.
It takes only an hour to remove your uterus. Then they plop it on a silver bowl. Maybe they incinerate it later.
“How did you feel when you came to after the surgery,” I ask her,” knowing that they had permanently removed the one thing that spoke into your womanhood and the finality that you would never have a baby?”
A fridge door slams shut. There are staff voices in the inner bar area.
“It only hit me later, after I had been discharged,” she says. “I was so saddened by that thought. Really saddened.” But the sadness didn’t go, she only sunk deeper into it, gagging in it. Then came the migraines. She stayed indoors. Soon after she was diagnosed with depression and put on tranquilizers.
“How’s depression,” I ask. “Can you describe the feeling?”
She’s quiet for a tad. The sound of the fan occupies the silence.
“How do I describe depression…” She has a faraway look then ventures cautiously. “It’s like darkness…this feeling that there is nothing good in the world….that nothing matters, everything is pointless. My friends would come and try and be with me but I hated having people around fussing around me. In retrospect I’m glad they did.”
Thankfully she recovered and went back to work and the first day at work she sat at her desk and thought, Gosh, I don’t have a uterus. I ask her if through that there is anything positive that came out of the experience of having her uterus removed.
“Well, I stopped having my periods which was great because I’d have really painful ones. I really don’t miss my periods. I also stopped spending on sanitary pads. That money went into doing my hair.” I chuckle at that and I want to comment but the Lord holds my mouth and says, “No, child. Don’t comment on women and their hair.”
She started dating again. She made a conscious decision to tell the men she dated right off the bat that she didn’t have a uterus so that they don’t come in with expectations. “Can you believe I’d go on a date and say, ‘Hi, I’m Caroline and I don’t have a uterus….”
“Yeah,” I chime in, “that’s right. If you are thinking there is a uterus on this table then you are in the wrong party, baby, because this here…” I make a circular motion with my hand, “Is a uterus free area.”
“How did men take it when you declared that?”
“There is a particular guy who I can’t forget. He told me, ‘Look, I’m the only child of my father and he isn’t getting any children at his age and so the heritage of my family rests with me getting babies to further the name of my family, so I’m afraid this won’t work.”
“Can you blame him?” I ask.
“No I can’t.”
Across the room a man and a lady walk in and sit next to a big potted plant. The man sits so close to the lady I suspect he can smell her liver.
Being childless, she reveals, wasn’t so desparate because she already had her small sister’s child who she had adopted. “My small sister got pregnant when she was very young, in high school and she came to me and said she wanted to abort but I told her not to.” She explains. “At this time I had already started struggling with trying to get a baby with no success so I told her that she should bring the baby to term and I would take care of her. And that’s what happened. A few years later we agreed that I would adopt the child and we went through the process of the adoption interview with Little Angels Network and finally she gave up her rights for the baby.”
“Wait…” I say confused. “You adopted you sister’s daughter who is alive?”
“Yeah, my sister is a bit of a sanguine. She said that I had paid her school fees for her and took care of the child so she I could be her mother.”
“Is it?” She laughs.
“Yeah. I mean…does your daughter know that your sister is the real mom?”
“She does, she says that she has two mothers.”
“How do they relate? Do they see each other?” I ask.
“Yes, they do. They are happy when together but are also okay when they are not.”
“Wow, I need to wrap my head around that.” I say. “ What does your sister do?”
“She’s a big chef here in the city.”
The man across the room is now bringing the glass to the lady’s lips, feeding her wine. Like she’s an invalid. It’s a dark afternoon for romance, it seems.
After the uterus extraction (that word makes it sound like it was a spy being removed from enemy territory) her 30’s were mostly defined by climbing up the proverbial corporate ladder and looking for a man to marry. Every wednesday at 5am her and her two best friends Judy and Susan would meet at Susan’s house in South B to pray for prosperity in their careers but also for husbands.
She talks about the disillusionment of that period defined by wanting to settle down so badly. They went on dates and used each other as accountability partners. No men worth marrying came up but they continued to meet every Wednesday until she later turned 40 and lost taste for marriage. “You get to a certain point and you just think, ‘you know what, maybe marriage is not for me,’ and you leave that space.”
“But where were you looking for a husband, in church?”
“I’m what Sheldon from Big Bang Theory would call a Bible Thumper,” she says with a laugh. “ I’m a staunch member of Mavuno Church…”
“Oh, are you?” I ask. “I don’t know why I keep meeting people from Mavuno Church lately…everywhere I turn I bump into someone from Mavuno…”
She laughs. “It’s very intentional on our part.”
When she was around 34 a friend told her about a very poor family from Kawangware who had a daughter who was pregnant and was looking for a “God fearing person” to adopt the child when it was born. Caroline debated about it, asked the mom, prayed about it and finally agreed. She took care of all costs from that point on until a “most wonderful boy” – Baraka – was born in 2004.
“I don’t know if you should include this part of adoption.”
“Why not? How old is he now?”
“Baraka is 13.”
“Does he know he was adopted?”
“Yeah, I had a conversation with him when he was 5-years. Maybe he was too young and I should revisit that conversation.”
“Maybe. How exactly do you break to a child that they are adopted?”
“I told him that his original family wasn’t able to look after him because they couldn’t afford it. I told him that I didn’t birth him but I chose him. That he was a gift from God.”
“How did he react? What did he say?”
“He hugged me and asked if he could go out and play.” We laugh.
Anyway, she turns 40’s gives up on meeting a husband, but then at 41 she meets someone who -ironically – runs a children’s rehabilitation center in Kisumu. A friend – Enoc – connected them. His name’s Ishmael.
“I got married at 42, which is late. We dated for under a year. ” She admits. “ In Mavuno we have this program called Ndoa, which suggests that dating should be for at least two years before you marry. I think this has merits but it only applies to people in their 20’s because at my age you know what you want and it’s not hard making such decisions. You meet a guy and you know he’s kosher…”
“Like the Jewish Kosher?”
“You call men Kosher now? Like food? Is this some sort of 40’s slang?”
She laughs. “It’s what we say, he’s Kosher. He’s good, the real deal. Kosher.”
“Geez. How old is Ishmael?”
“He’s 42 now,”
“Why did you say 42 with that sneaky smile?”
She laughs hard. “Most people my age tend to marry younger men.” (She’s 47)
“Was it a problem, his age?”
“It was a problem first but not anymore. Not for him at least.”
Happy Mercy shows up and says chirpily, “Excuse me!” We turn to look at her. “My shift is ending, so I have to leave you guys now..”
“Oh come on, don’t leave Mercy!” I whine dramatically as if her impending departure has completely changed my emotional composition.
She giggles like crazy. “I have to leave but my colleague will take good care of you guys.”
“But it won’t be the same.” I say with a horse face. Caroline laughs and thanks her and she is gone. A lady comes and says she will be serving us. Would I like some water? (Caroline is hardly drinking her juice) I say no. I want to tell her that the gentleman across the room, the one with his nose on the lady’s cleavage might need cold water though but I don’t say it because Caroline might find it crass and I want her to think I’m a proper SDA guy.
“Doesn’t Ishmael want kids?” I ask.
“No. He has two children with two different ladies.” She says. “You know, when I met my mother-in-law, who I love so much, I told her while we are cooking mandazi that I couldn’t give her any grandchildren because I was coming to their boma without a uterus and I thought it would be a problem but she said that having a uterus is not a guarantee of having children. She has been so gracious, that lady.”
I ask her if she has a relationship with his kids.
“When we got married I wanted to know those kids. I like the idea of blended families, it sounded romantic,” she says. “I reached out to their mothers but I was snubbed.” She shrugs.
“What do you think we learn about your life up to this age of 47?” I ask her.
She thinks about it. “Ladies should do their pap smears, it’s very important,” she says. “Also, there is a tendency for women to hit their 30’s without finding a husband and think life is over. It’s not. Trust and have faith knowing that everything works out eventually. There are certain things that happen to us, bad things, disappointing things, but we might never really appreciate them at that moment but I believe they are always for the best.”
“Yeah,” she ploughs on. “ If I hadn’t lost my uterus maybe I wouldn’t have had my son and I wouldn’t know the joy of adoption. I also certainly wouldn’t have met Ishmael.”
“You had your two adopted babies yet you still nursed the urge to get a husband, didn’t they fill some void with love and affection, these children. Why weren’t you content?”
“Because children can’t meet the same needs a man does.” She says as a matter of fact. “As little girls we have dreams to meet a husband and have a family. Those dreams still stay with us into adulthood and these dreams never die even in the face of despair. For any young girl searching all I can tell them is not to listen to people who talk about how time is running out etc. I had two children and there was talk of ‘ what Kenyan man will marry you with two children? Maybe you should go for a mzungu, and not just a young mzungu but an old widowered mzungu…can I tell you something you can’t write?”
I say sure and she tells me something funny which I still can’t write.
“Do you think you used God as a crutch?”
“How so?” she asks.
“I mean those days you used to pray every Wednesday with your pals for a husband, you were in your 30’s and you needed something. Do you think you were more spiritual as a result of those needs?”
She thinks about that.
“There are days when you need a crutch. And I think it’s fine…”
“Consider this,” I say. “Would you say that you are closer to God now than you were back then when you used to pray at 5am every wednesday with your girls?”
She chuckles and says, “Well, I’m ashamed to say that I was closer to him then than I am now.”
“Exactly. You now have a husband and two children, you really don’t need a crutch, do you? I think we all just lean on God when we want something from him. God is like that seasonal friend…”
“I’m really not proud of that but I think I have done more to get closer to him this year than I did before, and I’m happy with the progress.” Then she adds with mischief in her eyes.” But also having a husband and taking care and respecting him is a ministry in itself according to the Bible.”
“Right, your own personal ministry.” I say and we laugh.
I ask for the PDQ machine. She’s going to pick Baraka from a sleepover, I’m going to buy bananas and avocado. This is useless banana information, of course.
“Is your 40’s happy?” I inquire.
“Yes. I’m exercising a lot and I love my job, I have a great husband and I have two wonderful children. I think adoption has given me great joy, it’s a special kind of love, a love you chose. I don’t think you love your children any less because they didn’t come from your womb.” Pause. “Yes, I would say my 40’s are working for me. I think in life some bad things happen to you and then some good things happen to you, and sometimes you have to wait a little longer for those good things.”
The PDQ spits a roll of receipt.
I’m looking for men and women in their 40s who have lived richly and are willing to unpack their lives for us to learn from. Know anyone like that? Or maybe you are the one? Please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org