The chap I was to interview for this week piece emailed that he didn’t think it was “a good idea anymore.” He said that after reading last week’s piece he felt that he didn’t want to “expose himself too much to the public”. He has been married for a few years now and is “living in what he described as “a hell-like marriage”is “,” that hell is not fire and gnashing of teeth but marrying the wrong woman”. I don’t know but it sounded like the wife was hurting him. As in, physically. Like burning him with candle wax every night after dinner. Or forcing him to wear her panties and sing a song from her childhood. Over and over again. Nothing will surprise me anymore in this borough of yours.
Of course I asked for his number to try and change his mind. (Or inevitably change his life, by convincing him to run away. Not with me obviously.)
“Humour me, what’s the very worst that will happen to you if I wrote your story?” I asked him.
“Even before I answer you, let me ask you a question,” he said, “do you think the wife of the guy you wrote about last week didn’t come across the article?”
“Maybe, maybe not. Why does it matter?”
“I wouldn’t want my wife to read it. And I know she reads your blog because she always shares it on Facebook.”
“Does she not know you are unhappy in that marriage?”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Then make it simple for me,”
He was quiet for a bit.
“Look. It’s just a bad idea. Trust me. If she reads it, all hell will break loose.”
“What will she do, deny you food? Chain you in the basement and play loud music until you go crazy? What? Will she report you to your mother?”
“Really?! I was joking.”
A pause formed in the line between us.
“Look, I can’t do it. I’m sorry to have wasted your time.”
“Naah, it’s cool. You didn’t waste my time. People change their minds all the time. Listen, one day if you eventually escape or if she disappears mysteriously, let me know and we can talk, sawa?”
“Ha-ha. Ati she disappears mysteriously.”
“Yeah, you know, she goes to buy milk in the kiosk at the corner and she never comes back. You know, these bad things sometimes happen to bad people.”
“Ha-ha, that’s hilarious.”
“The cops will disagree.” I said.
We hang up.
So I sat there and thought, shit! Because my mind was already bent into that story. I had started imaging some really crazy shit happening to him in that house. I imagined him trying to give leaving guests a sign to save him. In fact, I thought I’d write it in the first person, without a single quotation mark. Like the last words of a man on death row. Now I would never know what hell he was talking about. You would never know what hell he was talking about. Or even if he escaped.
Anyway, I’m a fairly organised guy. Because I have these interviews lined up for two months, so I simply emailed the next chap and apologised for the short notice and asked if we could finally meet for an interview but he couldn’t make it on short notice. By this time it was already Saturday and I had run out of time so I said, oh well, I might as well write about a tree.
Growing up we had a big tree outside our house. It wasn’t a child-friendly tree not because it was thorny, but because its branches dissuaded even the most adventurous of kids from climbing it. But this tree wasn’t just a tree; it marked the stages of our childhood. If you didn’t know us and you came to look at that tree while we were away in school, you would guess the age and stage in life of the children who lived in the house. From this tree we tied a swing when we were much younger, which we later upgraded to an old tyre swing. You know the type which you step on and swing? I don’t know what it is with the idea of “stationary locomotion” that fascinates children, but we’d wake up early to swing off that swing. Swings, in retrospect, are soothing. You are going but you are still there.
When we grew slightly older we hung a wooden box on this tree, a box in which we reared doves, tens of them, like Mike Tyson did. I have mentioned my love with the Mourning Doves, their soothing coos and their gentle nature. A dove went for KShs 50 back in the 80s and so if you had 20 doves you were worth KShs 1,000, legally rich. For 1000 bob you felt like you could move out, get a place of your own and never have to wake up early to go to school or do homework. For 1000 bob you could play outside until late in the night and nobody would stress you about taking a shower before you slept. Sh.1,000 now is what was equivalent to going for brunch at one of those places that serve “bottomless” mimosas.
Then as we got older and outgrew doves, the wooden box was replaced by an old dart board retrieved from the trash bin of the nearby bar. But one day my father saw the darts and demanded it be removed immediately because, well, in the 80s darts was a game associated with bars and drunkards and he was a teetotaller SDA guy. So the darts board was brought down.
When our limbs grew longer he bought us a bicycle and so sometimes you would find it leaning against that tree. It was a Raleigh bicycle of what was known as the “black mamba.” I can still smell the newness of the bike; it smelled of adventure and responsibility and faraway places that we dreamed of conquering, places beyond the town where roads ended and discovery started.
A year or so later we got bored of that bike and we briefly had a kennel under the tree. We got a dog. It wasn’t the kind of dogs you see nowadays, dogs named Mali or Buju. It wasn’t trained. It didn’t have feelings. It wasn’t “part of the family.” I hadn’t known there were vets or even if that was a profession. And we certainly didn’t walk the dog- not when it had its own legs. A dog was meant to bite bad people, not be part of the family. Owning a dog presented a chore we had not anticipated because you had to clean the damned kennel. And dog shit smells horrible, we were 10-years old, nobody needed that kind of a chore, God knows clearing the dishes from the table and spreading you bed was stressful enough.
Thankfully, one day that bitch simply wandered out through the gate and never came back. I can’t say we cried the way children now cry when their hamsters die. I think we didn’t cry because we didn’t name the dog. We must have called it Simba or Poppy, one of those generic names you give a dog you don’t want to invest too much emotion in. I call that the “doggy phase.” Then we went to high school and dropped all those boyish toys and interests, and finally the tree was left to be a tree and serve its purpose as a tree. It was free.
I have loads of memories of that tree. My mother used to sit under it, sorting through her traditional vegetables. Sometimes in the evenings my father – who would be home at 5pm, unlike most fathers- would join her there and they’d chat and drink hot chocolate like proper SDA folk and do nothing but call you and keep sending you inside the house to fetch something because parents could never just fetch things on their own like we do now. My mom was the type who would call you and when you went where she was, she would look up at you and ask, “Eeh, what is it?” and you’d tell her, “You called me!” and she’d say, “Oh, did I?” Then she’d not let you go, she’d let you stand there for twenty years as she tried to remember why she called you.
That tree also participated in disciplinary matters. We were never whipped with belts like some sissies. We were never rapped in our palms with rulers like some chaps I know. We were flogged, like those merchants in the Bible who were selling stuff in church. Guess what my mom used? Branches from that tree. So this one tree that gave us joy also have us pain.
Still on discipline. This tree would often shed its leaves, which meant that every morning someone had to sweep the leaves away and dispose of them. This boring task took a good 30 minutes. Guess whose job it was to sweep those leaves? The little people of the house. So my siblings and I took turns. It was a grunt job that you did while mumbling under your breath and because of that you would do it badly and my mom would call you from where you were playing and have you redo it until she and the universe were satisfied. Now when our children finish their food and take their dirty plates to the kitchen they are given a star. The next generation will be handed the bloody moon.
We were made to do house chores even though we had a maid. Yes, back then they were called “maids.” Now you can’t call them maids because angry people on twitter will torch your car and make memes of you. We always had a maid as long as I can remember. By the way, a maid, according to one dictionary definition is “someone in a private house whose duties are to care for the parlour and the table and to answer the door.” Well, our maid was not there to do any of that. We always answered our own door. I don’t know of any family who had someone else answer their door for them. How big is that house that someone has to be employed to answer the door?
I recall that one of the maids that stayed with us for a very long time was an old woman. She must have been in her 50s but when you are 9 years old anyone who is over 15 years is officially old. She would smoke when my parents were not home, this stinky, terrible, bad cigarette that she rolled herself. I suspect my mom knew what was going on but what could she do when the maid was older than her? She was a great cook, though, this maid, and a great storyteller. She would cook smoked fish with ghee and whip up traditional vegetables and dried meat that we call alia (pronounced Aaliyah but with the “yah” changed to “yah.”) She could also cook good ugali. A good ugali is one that you leave on the stove covered for another 15 minutes after it’s cooked. She also loved to sing when all the house chores were done, songs that sounded like they came from 1945. Back then there was not much by way of entertainment; you either sang or you smoked homemade cigarettes. She did both with aplomb. She also didn’t like shoes because she was from the village and in the village shoes got in the way. Shoes slowed you down. So she would walk around shoeless. She was an outlier before Malcolm Gladwell could wrap his head around that word.
She was also untouchable, this maid. She could beat you up. She would beat you up while your mother was in the very next room. This is because my mom had this lousy policy of always taking the side of the maids. It didn’t matter if the maids were wrong or if they started it, if a maid reported you she would take their side. It was infuriating. This, of course, made you feel like you were not even her child, that you were adopted. I think everybody felt this way at a certain time in their childhood, no? Wait, was it just me?
There were unwritten rules. You could never talk badly to the maid or disrespect her. If you did and she reported you my mom would ask you, “I’m sorry, I seem to forget, when did you last pay her salary?” You’d look at your feet for answers, then she’d push your head with her forefinger and say, “Answer me. When did you last pay her salary?” Then you’d say you have never paid her salary. Then she’d say if you don’t pay her salary then who has given you the right to talk to her badly? What did this did was not only to be respectful to people we considered to be lowly but I grew up thinking that having a salary gave you the right to tell anybody anything. A salary was a card to admonish. A salary was a voice. People with salaries were important people.
We always wondered why the maid was employed because we always seemed to be doing things she was supposed to be doing; setting the table, clearing the table, cleaning our room, sweeping the damned leaves, sometimes doing the dishes – pretty much every mundane house chore. All she did was cook and wash clothes and eat bread and knock our horns with our mom’s and smoke her awful tobacco. Oh, and maids of the 80s loved bread and Blue Band. Hell, who didn’t?
The old maid finally got arthritis and she could no longer wash dishes so she left to go back to shags to live a happy life of taking in village air and not having to deal with our kind. I didn’t miss her tobacco smell, but I sure missed her songs.
We had subsequent maids after; and as years wore on they also transformed – they got more learned, they started having rights, they could speak english. And at some point the world got very sensitive and title-obsessed and started looking at the profession critically. They started by changing their titles. Maids stopped being maids and became househelps. Then because “househelp” was a mouthful and people were busy on the internet they shortened it to “help” or “the help.” Then we discovered Friends on cable TV and “the help” became “the nanny” because that’s what Joey and Ross called them. The difference between the two was that whilst househelps could speak English, nannies could not only speak English but they also knew what a recipe was. Nannies can make smoothies. Also, whereas maids had only three clothes – two for daily wear and one for church – nannies have gone to school, can speak fluent english, wear tights and do their nails, wear lipstick. Nannies have dreams and ambitions. They know what RT is. Some are on Instagram. If you met a nanny on Sunday, you wouldn’t recognise some of them; they wear heels with red soles.
But then nannies became mainstream.
Now we have Domestic Managers or DMs. DMs have First Aid skills. Some even drive. They can do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. They know what a solar plexus is. They can also help with homework, to mean they can do math and social studies. DMs know their rights. They know what the minimum wage is. They can take you to court and sue your pants off. They can hold conversations with visitors. Most can swim. And ride a bike. They count their calories. Your children call them by their names. Or Auntie Mwende. They fit right into the family album. Actually they could pass for your cousin.
The thing with domestic managers is that they are managers when the men and women are out shaking the bushes. They even decide the diet sometimes. They know each child’s personality, sometimes better than the parents. They know the politics of managing, not a house, but a home. They will know when the gas is just about to get finished by just standing in the kitchen. They know what child doesn’t like what food and who is allergic to what. They know where the medical cards are kept. When you take your child to the doctor most likely you won’t be able to answer all those questions doctors always ask – when did the fever start, what did you give her, what is the last thing she ate, how long did she nap today, is she coughing, what does the cough sound like, can you cough the way she coughs, now stand on one leg – and so you take the DM to the hospital with you to offer this history. If the cops ever needed a character witness for your child, you wouldn’t be able to offer it because our children play us, they show us what side they want us to see because we are hardly ever there, but the DM? Oh, she can be a character witness.
They also know what brands to buy in the house; what brand of juice is good and which is bad, what soap is good for the dishes, which toilet paper is good for the Junior (and Baba Junior’s) bum. They know how you like your clothes pressed, which clothes run and which one needs handwashing. And if you ask them what detergent they prefer, if you ask them which is the best detergent, they will tell you unequivocally that it’s Ariel. And they will say why and if you say something on the contrary, they might ask you, when was the last time you did laundry?
We closed the registration of the march writing masterclass. Bett is asking that you kindly not send another email, she’s drowning in them. We will open registration again in April. Inshallah.
The Men and Marriage Series resumes next week.