My village is not on the map. It’s small and unassuming. We don’t grow cash crops. We don’t have notable heroes. We don’t have a tarmacked road- all we have is a ragged dusty winding path that climbs hills and slithers down plains like a jaded vein. Only recently we got piped water. Only recently we got electricity. When it’s hot it’s hot. When it’s cold, well, it’s never that cold. Our leadership is gone south – as is in most parts of Kenya. In my village we don’t have a leadership that shakes the political order. My MP is a dud. He sleeps in parliament, but then again which MP doesn’t? If I were to be honest with you, there is really nothing special about my village. We are a blip in the radar and life crawls by with an eerie obscurity.
But we have the lake. The second largest fresh water lake in the world. Surely that should count for something folks.
Next to this lake resides the Moslems. Hundreds of years ago the Seventh day missionaries converted almost everyone in this area, but some Arab traders who settled here got to some locals and introduced them to Allah. So although all the folks residing next to the lake speak the language of the lake, they still pray facing Mecca. So we have Christians and Moslems in my shagz, but it’s not like in batty Nigeria where these two have a go at each other with machetes; we all break bread together as brothers. I remember as a kid, one of my much older uncles was dating this homely Moslem girl down at the lake shore called Fatuma. For some reason he used to call her Fatima. Love does that to you I guess; you mispronounce names.
But I’m not Moslem. And I know no Fatuma – or Fatima for that matter.
So it’s here in shagz that I spent my Easter holidays. My siblings and I visit it once a year. My folks are all retired. My old man drives a 400yr old Peugeot in the village. It’s a rusted out contraption that coughs and sighs. I have never seen anyone more in love with a car. My old lady secretly hates that car, and when she is not staring hard at the car with the hope of making it disappear, she is looking after her chicken. They seem happy with this existence. Very happy in fact. Retirement is a drag folks, let’s never retire because all you do is drive beat up cars and sit on the porch and hope one of your children will call you. But your children never call because they are busy doing body shots at Bacchus bar.
I’m writing this piece from our verandah in shagz. It’s shortly after 6pm; the cows are coming home to roost. Our dog called Simba lethargically herds these cows home. It’s amazing that everybody names their dog Simba in our village, which says a lot about our creativity. Simba is one of those dogs that make dogs look bad; totally unimpressionable, a laughable caricature of the canines. It’s a lazy mutt that is scared of its own shadow. Think Courage the Cowardly Dog on cartoon network. But my mom is fond of that dog, maybe because my dad doesn’t see the point of keeping it. Ha ha. Come on guys, that’s amusing. Ish. Ok, maybe only in my village.
Have you heard of Simbi Nyaima? (No relation to Simba, our dog) No? Well, it’s this place in my shagz which has trees that actually talk. Ok, I’m kidding. It’s actually a crater. It has green water. But this crater is ridden with riveting folklore passed down from generation to generation. I don’t know, I’m not big on such things. But since Simbi Nyaima is only 10kms from my shagz I decided why not visit it and do a story? So I called one of my editors- who I imagined was somewhere in the coast sipping mojitos- and sold the idea to her. She bit (something Simba should learn to do)
So I drove out to take pictures and do interviews.
My nosing around got me a vital information. There was an old woman who stayed at the lip of the crater, and this old woman had the lowdown on what happened in this crater, some herdsmen told me. Oh, by the way, whereas the Maasai herdsmen are tall, wear shukas and carry spears, but our herdsmen are tall, dark, carry unsheathed machetes and smoke pot. How’z that for size? Well, put that in your pipe and smoke it, folks.
A woman headed to the market offers to show me the boma. It’s a small house. Two pots (the kitchen vessel not blunts, silly) sit outside. Maize plantains feature in a modest farm outside this boma. Chicken wander outside this hut.. It’s quiet, not a soul in sight. The door is ajar. The woman who walked me here points with her chin, “She stays there.” and when I turn to ask her if she could take me inside she is gone. Gone like she was never there. Ok, I’m prone to dramatics so bear with me. The woman sort of turned and left, and of course I would have grabbed her and pleaded with her to walk me inside that hut, but I’m a man darn it, and I come from a place where herdsmen carry unsheathed swords!
So I approach this hut with caution…maybe caution is not the appropriate word of choice here, make that anxiety. I approach with anxiety. “Hodi?” I call out at a distance.
I move closer. It seems rude to just amble in a stranger’s home without invitation. So I peer inside; it’s dark inside. Very dark.
“Dani?” I call out again.
(FYI: Dani is to us as cucu is to Kuyus)
There is no response and I start thinking that perhaps there is nobody in the house. And just when I’m contemplating to leave, I hear a noise in the house. A small muffled sound, more like a gruffy sound….like someone who has a bad wet cough trying to clear their throats. I venture inside.
Stepping into this dark hut was like stepping into a time machine. The floor is made of mud, and decorated by running a blunt object on it. It’s cool inside, as if the aircon is on. Next to the door is one of those old traditional wooden chairs that you can fold and keep away. Since I can’t see anything, I decide to take a seat. Where light falls on at the end of the room is a wall full of old, very old, framed pictures. Black and white pictures of the departed. One of the glass windows of the framed pictures is shattered. Next to these pictures are two traditional hats, complete with feathers sticking from them. Hoisted on the roof is a big barbed branch- or walking staff, I dunno.
There is an old wooden table against the wall. On it sits two plastic plates; red and blue. Morsels of dried brown ugali leftovers feature there. Next to these plates is a wicker lamb. When was the last time you saw a wicker lamb folks?
I feel like fish in a bowl.
Then there is the smell. Well, it’s not really a smell, because a smell has connotations of foulness. This hut doesn’t smell bad. It has a different smell, a smell of a gone era. The smell of age. And this smell somehow sets the mood. I could as well be in the 70’s and I’m enchanted.
I sit there trying to orient my eyesight to the darkness. Then she speaks from somewhere in this darkness. She says hallo in that slow drawl that is characteristic of old women. Her voice is coming out from somewhere behind the door, it seems like a voice from a cave; hollow and ominous. I say hi and tell her my name and explain what brings me here. There is silence. My eyesight slowly adjusts to the darkness and I for the first time I make out the shape of a tattered bed; an old thin tattered mattress on a mat- and looming figure lying on it. See, at this point I know this was not going to make it in my story to the newspaper. Editors don’t give a hoot how you get the story, it’s all about getting to the point because there is space and word count to think about.
“Whose son are you?” the voice asks again. In my culture you are a nobody until you say who your father or grandfather is. No man stands alone. You can’t crawl from the shadow of your father. And so name dropping is very permissible here. So I drop the name of my old man.
Silence from her. I guess my father is also a nobody as I am. So I drop my grandfather’s name and finally I get a reaction. She knows my grandfather! And that’s enough really. Her bed cringes as she slowly sits up. Then I see her…sort of. Since her bed is behind the door, light doesn’t reach her, and so only shards of light hit her and shadows fall and rise on her weathered face. If my daughter was here she would have called her a witch. But she isn’t, she is an old woman. A very old woman. Her face sags. Her short white hair glows in this darkness. Deep galleys run down her face etching into her skin with bold strokes. I make out two wisps of beard on her chin. I guess old age is an equalizer because she looks like a man.
She is as thin as a drinking straw. Her shoulder bones jut out from her very old dirty t-shirt. She looks so frail; it makes me a bit sad. When my eyesight fully adjusts to this darkness I see her eyes. They are as dead as a coffin. They are watery and look like cuddled milk. She constantly leans forward and squints to look at me.
She asks me to get her water, and with a long bony finger she points at tin across the room. It’s one of those Kimbo tins . When was the last time you saw those, 1985? I bring her water, and she drinks it. The gulping sound of water gushing down her throat seems magnified in this hut. With trembling hands she hands back the tin. I ask her how old she is, and she smiles and says she is not sure. “I know it’s not less than 90yrs,” she says, “Maybe 100yrs”. Well, I knew she was younger than my old man’s car, I muse.
When she is ready, she tells me the story that brought me here. And for her age she is amazingly coherent. Her memory of names is succinct. Her talk is peppered with curious metaphors. She throws in sayings and rhetoric. And like old people, she tends to stray into stories that I’m not interested in, but I tactfully and gently bring back her back to the main story.
This is how it all ends, I think, while she bangs on about old tales. This is all this old woman aspires to; reliving stories. She sits in her hut in complete solitude, filling her day with sleep. She and death play a waiting game; she waits for death and death awaits her. With one foot in the grave, her existence as she knows it, is laden with not only a bleak hope but a realization that she is living on borrowed time. I suspect that at her age, she secretly lusts for death because death to her means freedom. Freedom from her aching bones. Freedom from her failing eyesight. Freedom from her busted ear drums. But most importantly, freedom from loneliness.
I can tell nobody has ever shown keen interest on her lately, like I’m doing. She seems to love my inquisitiveness. She relishes the fact that I laugh at some of her comments. She is surprised that anyone would care about what she has to say and when I tell her I will have her picture in the newspaper, she is overcome with joy. Who said journalism is a lost cause? Who said we don’t do good…even if we are getting paid for it?
The folklore he narrates to me revolves around alcoholism and its pitfalls, and she unspools loads of wisdom on the same. And at some point she stops and asks me if I’m a drinker and I quickly say no. but then I feel like a jerk, lying to this old lady, I feel like she can see through this little fib and I quickly stammer, “Well, a little.” She gives me a small knowing small.
When I worked in a magazine some time back, I used to interview old men for a column that basically highlighted what they had learned in life, I loved writing this section of the magazine because I would stumble on wisdom that you couldn’t find on Wikipedia, stuff that you can’t Google. Stuff that only comes with age. And so I asked this old lady what she has learnt in life and she said in essence, “Never look back on things you should have done better or shouldn’t have done. If you are to look back, do it only for the lessons.”
Then something happens that exposes the psyche of a woman regardless of age. I ask her if I can take her picture and she obliges. I hold her hand- which feels bony and brittle like glass- and I help her outside where I sit her on a folded chair. Then I request if she can wear one of them traditional hats hanging from the wall. She smiles skeptically and asks, “I dunno, I haven’t worn those in many years, are you sure I will look okay in one?”
At this point I tell her that I’m certain she will look great in one. So I get one and she carefully perches it on her head then she looks at me for approval. And being prone to drama, I take a few appreciative steps back, shake my head and say I think she looks absolutely smashing! Boy, did she giggle like a school girl!
“Really?” she asks. I say “Absolutely! I think you look totally stunning, wait till I put you in the newspapers, everybody will ask ‘who is that lady?!”
More toothless giggles.
And that’s the thing, regardless of age; a woman will still want to hear she looks hot. She will still crave that compliment. And there was a little light that I had lit in this old lady’s eyes by telling her she looked hot. And it felt good.
I took my pictures. Then I walked to the nearest Turk shop and bought her stuff; sugar, salt, bread, oil….the works. In my culture it’s rude to visit an old woman without leaving her something. Then I squeezed some money in her dry palms, which she proceeded to spit on it as customary. Good luck or something.
I stayed with her for over 2hrs and when I was leaving, she held my hand in both of her hands and said she would pray for me. She asked me what I wanted prayed for and I said “Wisdom, good health and strength to deal with things I can’t change.” She nodded and said she would and for some reason I believed that those prayers would reach the big guys upstairs. Then I bid her goodbye.
Here is the thing. I’m not going to say that meeting the old lady changed my life, no, that would be so corny. But meeting that old woman made me feel good. By Jove, it made me feel so damned good. You know how you meet people and say, “It’s a pleasure to meet you” even though you wouldn’t have cared either way if you hadn’t met them? Well, for one I meant it from the bottom of my heart when I told her that it was a pleasure to meet her. I really did. And you would have had you met her because she was a scream!
And for me this meeting was the icing on my Easter holiday. Meeting Mama, Rosa Jura Anyumba beat sipping overpriced wine with some pretentious folk any day.