Winged Cacophony

I am an optimistic person. Yes, it’s 2020, a.k.a The Ten Plagues of Egypt- The Sequel. And so, when we planned a family vacation for early September, it was in the hope that even in this year of elevated racial strife, endless fires and Coronavirus, we would find relief in an idyllic glamping site in California. We made reservations weeks in advance, not knowing that extremely destructive fires were on the horizon. On the eve of our departure, a new fire was started by a couple who decided to throw a gender reveal party by launching a pyrotechnic device. No word on what gender is represented by fire and smoke. I have some name suggestions: Fire, Smoke, Flame, Fuego, Calor, Mach, Liet, Wang (the last three being fire, hot and burn in my native DhoLuo, a language you might want to learn for its poetry)

Not be deterred by the fiery gender reveal and other ongoing fires, we departed on Monday afternoon and arrived at our destination in under two hours. The sky was much clearer than the smoky skies we left behind, and things were finally starting to look up.

Now, I love being in nature as much as the next person, but camping is just not for me. Sleeping on the ground, practically a snack for whatever python, bear, lion, tiger or cheetah (or, all the above in my overactive imagination) that strolls by is not my idea of a relaxing time. The views of the night sky and crisp air are amazing, but they are not to die for, literally.

I know, I know, it runs in people’s families etc. etc., it did in mine too, before we had houses, and beds, and indoor plumbing. Come on people.  

We entered our tent, which I must say was very nicely laid out, and came with an en-suite bathroom. It even had a fan, which was very nice considering the 115F (46.1C) fry-your-egg-on-the-pavement temperature.

We left the tent door and window vents open to expedite the cooling process, alas, it would prove to be a costly mistake. Once the sun set, we sat outside gazing at the night sky, the pitch blackness of the night offering a mesmerizing array of dazzling stars. My husband and son went into the tent for their showers while I continued to be dazzled by the glittering sky. I was so enthralled by the view that I did not notice the SEAL unit of mosquitoes who, upon finally finding a human target, descended on me like a mute blanket. It was only when a particularly thirsty one bit me particularly hard that I snapped out of my reverie to find myself covered in bite marks.

People, we are living in the end times. Mosquitoes do not like me. Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining. Rumor has it that they too have a preference when it comes to the buffet that is human blood types, mine being at the very bottom of their list. They will literally attack everyone around me before they take a very grudging sip of my unappealing blood. I can only assume that due to very limited options brought about by lock-down, these mosquitoes cannot afford to be choosers, seeing as they don’t exactly get their pick of targets. I immediately ran inside the tent and we closed the door. Little did I know that Mosquito SEAL Unit 2 lay in wait, their shift about to start. As soon as I settled in, they descended on my head, biting my neck, ears and even my scalp, my scalp! My family had wisely completely covered their heads with their blankets, so the mosquitoes, once again, had to sink to the lows of targeting me. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

Temperatures had dropped to around 68F (20C) when I finally started to drift off to sleep with my mosquito-chewed head covered in a cloyingly perfumed blanket (which would normally be a problem, but was now my only defense from the ravenous SEAL Unit 3 which I was certain was on its way to suck whatever was left of my blood). I may have slept for five minutes before I was rudely awakened by a dueling cacophony of bird noises. You see, long before we arrived at the glamping site, a simmering rivalry between a resident rooster and horn-bill had reached a crescendo, and seeing as I am not a coma level sleeper like the rest of my family, I was the lucky person to receive a front row seat to the screaming match of September 2020. I am not sure what time zone that rooster operates in. Actually, I think that rooster might be an import from the farms of upstate New York, seeing as it started its exuberant crowing at 1am Pacific (4am Eastern) and would not stop until almost four hours later. Not to be outdone, the cantankerous horn-bill responded to the crowing at a decibel level carefully curated to keep me awake, but not loud enough to, say, cause real harm like rupture my eardrums. Hand-crafted artisanal cacophony, was what it was.

To say that I was groggy the next morning is an understatement. Add to that winds changing direction and bringing with them ashes from far flung fires, so that white specks of ash were now falling on my mosquito mangled flesh while we toasted in the glow of an eerily orange sun, and we decided to cut our losses and return home posthaste.

Home, sweet home, where the mosquitoes, roosters and horn-bills are not.

The Swift Escape

California is burning. There is not a delicate way to say this. No euphemism to mask the horror of watching homes engulfed in dark plumes of smoke and roaring flames, of seeing your fellow citizens rendered homeless. It is hazy outside, with ashes falling from the sky. In the evening, the setting sun casts an eerie orange glow on everything and everyone, making us all look like a certain occupant of the White House.

This latest series of unfortunate events all started last weekend when we were awoken by loud claps of thunder. Lightning lit the dark sky, accompanied by a few raindrops, but there wasn’t enough rain to prevent the lightning from lighting California’s vast parks and foothills ablaze. And so, all week, we have been checking in on friends, and checking our phones for evacuation notices. So far, thankfully, our home and those surrounding it have been spared.

My friend Zara and her husband are originally from Louisiana and have lived in California for a few years now. They both work in Silicon Valley, and when Coronavirus struck and we were all placed on lock-down, they, like most Californians, followed the Governor’s directive and hunkered down to help flatten the curve, unlike other who chose to disregard all medical and scientific evidence, and continue to live like we all did pre-Covid.

A few weeks ago, they casually mentioned that they were considering moving back to Louisiana to be closer to family since they were on lock-down.

You see, every state in this country has its natural disasters. New York has its hurricanes and winter storms. Georgia and Florida have tornadoes and hurricanes. California has fires and earthquakes. Occasionally, mother nature will feel super ornery and decide to throw floods into the mix. Let’s hope this is not that year.

This year’s fires hastened Zara’s decision, seeing as they presented her family with two choices. Stay in California and inhale noxious fumes with a side of Coronavirus, or go home to Louisiana and eat beignets while breathing fresh air, and also maybe contract Coronavirus. After much hand wringing, gnashing of teeth and debating, they decided that they would move to Louisiana within a month.

On the week of their departure, they were watching TV at home when a commercial came on.

“Did you know that wearing masks protects you from Coronavirus? Did you also know that masks will protect your lungs from fire related pollution?” and while they processed that information, another commercial came on “are you prepared for earthquakes?”

That was the last straw. How many disasters were they supposed to be prepared for? It was at that point that Zara and her husband decided that those were three disasters too many, packed up their bags and left the land of the iPhone posthaste.

I hope that the people of Louisiana think of us as they bite into fresh beignets while inhaling ash-free fresh air, and not worrying about earthquakes.

TYSON

I was six years old when I experienced my fist lock-down. Every morning, we would walk a short distance to the street where our school bus would pick us up for the half hour ride to school. We had made our own short cut (or panya route in common parlance), through the grass as we didn’t want to follow the slightly longer paved path. For the uninitiated, a panya route is a foot-trodden path similar to a narrow hiking trail. Our panya route was partially obscured by overgrown grass, but the dewy grass wasn’t enough of a deterrent to motivate us to use the proper path. Taking the panya route had consequences. The most obvious being that our shiny polished brown leather school shoes would acquire debris from the unpaved path, leading to a panicked emergency shoe-shining session when we finally got to school. The shoe shining was facilitated by using the sock-clad opposite foot to quickly shine each shoe, restoring it to its former glory. The second consequence, as you can guess, was that the bottom of our socks now carried the panya route debris and pocked the soles of our feet all day, but hey, our shoes shone and met the school’s rigorous shoe cleanliness standards set by a long departed colonialist. Had I had an entrepreneurial bone in my body, I would have come up with a shoe-shining business. I would have trademarked “Panya Route’s Shoe Shining”. Business would’ve been booming, I would have been a tycoon at the tender age of 6, retired at thirteen, but alas, my entrepreneurial bones were yet to be formed.

It is common for some Kenyan families to keep guard dogs, usually German Shepherd Dogs. I love GSDs. They are highly intelligent, beautiful and loyal. They are very gentle with babies, but extremely fierce against adversaries. They are your ride or die canine.

One of our neighbors had a GSD named Tyson. Now, Tyson was no ordinary dog. He was a dog among dogs. He was a huge dog whose reputation preceded him. He was the kind of dog all female dogs wanted to mate with, because that superior gene pool had to be passed onto little Tysons. He was extremely ferocious and because of that, he was kept under lock and key during the day and left to roam at night. But since we were always indoors at night, we never encountered Tyson.

In Kenya, if one was found wandering outside late at night, the Kenyan police would typically ask one to confirm if they were:

  1. A dog
  2. A prostitute
  3. A thief
  4. A policeman

The unseen option above, written in invisible ink, was an offer you could not refuse, to spend the night in a jail cell, offering you a space to cool your heels until dawn. This courtesy was funded by the very generous Kenyan taxpayer and supplemented by you because you had to bribe your way out of the jail cell. You would be motivated to do so because of the company in the cell, which comprised of actual prostitutes, thieves, and a very odorous bucket that served the purpose of a toilet.

Anyway, all was well in my little academia suburb until one day, Tyson went missing. To say that we were gripped with fear is an understatement. The thought of running into Tyson’s gigantic teeth kept us inside. Even indoors, any sudden noises caused immense anxiety. I have always had a vivid imagination, and in my mind, Tyson may have snuck into our house when we opened one of the doors. I was a dyed in the wool mischievous tomboy, but the specter of Tyson’s bark and bite kept me indoors. My partners in crime and I were under no illusion about what would happen to us if we ran into him.

The fear of Tyson transformed us into the most paved-route-abiding children known to man and woman. Call us Dini ya Pavement (Religion of the Pavement). Like new converts to Christianity, we left our heathen panya route ways behind us, walking in groups, eyes peeled for any tell-tale signs of the missing canine terror. Conversation was kept to a minimum, lest Tyson hear us badmouthing him and pounce upon us, and in my overactive imagination, tearing our limbs apart, leaving our parents bereft. I am not sure if there is an afterlife for newly reformed Panya route users, but I imagine we would gain entry due to the Damascene conversion we had just experienced.

The Panya route was completely abandoned, seeing as the sand colored grass may have been harboring a sand colored Tyson. I imagine that the grasshoppers and ants who had to run (and hop) for their lives upon our arrival on the panya route each morning must have had a block party, dancing the night away into the morning with no fear of being trodden upon by scofflaw school children. They must have remarked upon the beauty of the dewed grass and gotten to know each other better, perhaps even planned for the permanent liberation of the panya route from marauding feet. I should say that I also recognize that Tyson’s disappearance would have marked the demise of my imaginary yet flourishing Panya Route’s Shoe Shining enterprise.

After school, we again coalesced into the newly formed Dini Ya Pavement. We went straight home from school, meaning, my mischievous tom-boy self could not play in the mud and climb trees freely, lest I meet Tyson on a tree branch. Yes, we believed that Tyson could climb trees, swim, fly, squeeze under doors and materialize out of thin air.

Two long days later, to the jubilation of all, a nonchalant Tyson wandered back to his home, unaware of the terror his disappearance had caused. Where had Tyson been? What had he seen? Had he eloped with a lush GSD female only to realize that life on the run was not for him? We will never know. But since Tyson did not speak human and we didn’t speak bark, he took that secret to his grave. Also, we valued our lives so we were not going to approach him.

In case you are wondering, we quickly backslid to our panya route ways, Dini Ya Panya route abandoned.

Sartorial Chronicles

“How you dey? I will make you the most beautiful dresses you have ever seen ooooo. I am well known back home you know! God don butta my bread. The President’s relatives were my customers, I can even show you photos of the clothes I made them. When you see your dresses, you will not believe it!” This animated proclamation was made to Abeni, a bride to be, and her two sisters. With a month to go before the wedding, the siblings wanted to believe that this time they would be lucky. They nodded slowly, hopeful that this tailor, or “Telo”, as tailors were known locally, would be true to his word.

The last two Telos they had worked with had stolen their fabric and vanished into thin air, in that order. But since they needed to have their dresses made, they had no choice but to keep on trying. After all, a girl’s broken heart could hope once more, especially when Presidential service was dangled before them.

“Which relatives did you sew for?” asked Abeni’s younger sister Abioye, envisioning herself in a regal dress, custom made by Telo to the President’s relatives.

“Sorry?” the Telo asked.

“Which of the President’s relatives did you sew clothes for?” she repeated.

“Oh, right, right! the President’s brothers and sisters. Yes, I made all of their clothes”

“I thought that the President was an only son? I didn’t know that he had brothers” Ayomide, the third sister, questioned. For one whose name meant “my joy has come”, she sure asked a lot of questions, and not those of the joyous kind.

“Why you dey give me wahala? In Africa, brothers be cousins and cousins be brothers, all join.” the Telo laughed nervously. Ayomide was not impressed. But like her sisters, she was stuck between the Telos who stole from them and this self-aggrandizing Telo. In other words, they were stuck between a rock and a hard place.

He took their measurements in record time, not stopping to write them down. They left, assured that in two weeks he would have their clothes ready for their first fitting.

Exactly two weeks later, they listened as the Telo told them that he had not gotten to their dresses because he was fasting.

Abeni and Abioye were stunned into silence. Not so Ayomide.

“What did you say? When did you decide to start fasting?”

“Listen well well, young lady, this is why you no get husband ooo”

“I am here to ask about dresses, not husbands! When will your fast end?” she asked the Telo.

He shrugged, as if he had no idea when he would eat again. Just then, he let out a loud belch.

“Fasting, huh?” Ayomide countered. “What is that stuck in your teeth? It looks like meat to me.”

“Make you no vex me ooooo. I never chop all week!” the Telo, caught in a lie, became defiant.

The three sisters looked at each other, wondering what to do. They were at this “fasting” man’s mercy, and he knew it. When asked if he had any questions about measurements and design, he was so offended by their lack of faith in his abilities that he reminded them once again that he had clients in high places and was not fazed by their inquisition.

“Is there any way you can make our dresses in a week?” Abeni, the bride to be and the family peacemaker, gently asked. The thought of not having new clothes to wear at her wedding reception filled her with disappointment. She had lost a lot of weight for the wedding, and none of her previously made dresses would fit her as is. She fully expected to gain the weight back after her wedding because she was marrying a “big man” and as the wife of a rich man, thinness was an indicator of suffering.

One week later, they returned, and to their profound shock, found their dresses complete. When Abeni tried her dress on, it fit perfectly, which was shocking considering that  the Telo had not written down any of their measurements.

“You know say, my head dey there. Writing na for fools.” He bragged.

Abioye’s dress fit perfectly as well. But when Ayomide, who had called the Telo out on his “fasting” a week earlier tried hers on, the top half was too baggy and the short half was too tight.

“It doesn’t fit!” she exclaimed.

“Look at this one. She has been eating a lot  and became fat ooo. Ehe! Ehe! You ask me, a whole me, if I dey tell you the truth when I tell you say I never chop! And now you come back bigger than you were and blaming me. I did not put the food in your mouth ooo. I am done ooo, pay me for the two dresses, you can have yours for half price.”

“I’m not giving you a penny for this hot mess!” Ayomide countered.

For the sake of peace, Abeni intervened and they finally settled on paying for the two well made dresses and only a quarter of the price for Ayomide’s catastrophic dress. The Telo told them that the dresses used up all the fabric they brought, and nothing, not even scraps, were left over.

The man had stayed true to his word. When they first met him, he told them that when they saw their dresses, they would not believe it. Those words proved prophetic for Ayomide’s dress.

Ayomide was seething when they left. She found another Telo to adjust the disastrous dress and looked radiant at Abeni’s wedding later that month. With the fixed dress, maybe she would find a husband so people like the Telo would get off her back. The day was young.

Unmasked

The data is pretty clear. As espoused by America’s unofficial voice of reason Dr. Fauci, wash your hands, stay six feet apart, wear a mask. Wear. A. Mask. This last directive almost resulted in the reunion of a boisterous soul with his maker. This surprise dispatch from the land of the living would have been delivered via weed decapitator. Yes, you read that right. A weed decapitator is a thing. Google it, it’s true.

What is this weed decapitator you ask? It is a device specifically made to reunite weeds with their maker. I am not speaking of weed of the marijuana variety, which has already helped millions of people find religion, or what they believe to be religion. I am speaking about the gate-crashers of the plant kingdom. These fearless invaders will sprout seemingly out of thin air and make themselves at home in your previously beautiful garden, before proceeding to rob your plants blind.  They will do this with a ruthlessness that will shame even the most seasoned robber. If left unchecked, your flourishing garden will soon be a pale shadow of its former self, where weeds thrive, and aphids rule the land.

After weeks of watching marauding weeds attempt to overrun her garden while she was confined to her house in observance of the lockdown, Julie decided that she would be damned if she had beat cancer, only to be defeated by weeds.

It is this impending doom that caused Julie (not her real name) to venture outside her sanitized home to purchase the bane of all weeds, the weed decapitator (read this in a spooky voice). When she got there, she encountered a member of the RTB™ (Right To Breathe) brigade- whose claim to fame is one positing that masks rob them of their right to breathe freely. To give you an idea of the persona who embraces this movement, I hereby submit a verbatim quote from a RTB™ member who resides in the peculiar State of Florida “I don’t wear masks for the same reasons I don’t wear underwear. Things got to breathe”. You read that right. A grown woman, who is fully aware of the fatalities resulting from Coronavirus, went to her local council meeting and made that statement in full view of the viewing public, TMI be damned.

Anyway, as you can imagine, when Julie encountered a member of the RTB™ who defiantly entered the store sans mask, it was all she could do not to test her newly purchased weed decapitator on him. When she reported his scofflaw ways to the store manager, the RTB™ member glared at her, and after a few choice words and finger gestures, sauntered out of the store, mask free nose defiantly stuck up high, daring Coronavirus and any of its vile brethren to come within an inch of his American right to breathe freely.

Last Night was Independence Day 1.0 (for White Americans). Independence 2.0 (for Black Americans) would commence roughly 100 years later. The irony of declaring “Independence” while continuing to enslave fellow human beings is jarring and a discussion for another day.

Be that as it may, when July 4th rolled around the corner, one of my neighbors who we will refer to as Happy Drunk, emerged from his home in a very merry mood. He proceeded to walk up and down the sidewalk while belting out various tunes, one of which was Luther Vandross’ “Dance with my Father”, and my favorite, Maroon Five’s “Nothing Lasts Forever”. He was, to quote American Idol judge Randy Jackson, “not too pitchy”. I can confidently say that based on the volume of his singing, he was, knowingly or unknowingly, a member of the unmasked RTB™ Brigade.

It remains to be seen if Coronavirus is conversant with the United States Constitution, and whether it has signed the dotted line promising to steer clear of the unmasked masses, yearning to breathe free.

Black Lives Matter

It has been a year. And it’s only June. I certainly hope that the rest of this decade will not be a repeat of this year. 2020 has been a year straight out of the end times depicted in the many religious texts. 2020 is the year that saw all the other catastrophes in previous years and said to them, “hold my beer”

You may have heard of a guy named Pharaoh who sat on a grand throne and enslaved Israelites, so the story goes. This fellow had enslaved the Israelites for over 430 years. Four Hundred and Thirty years! So, after 430 years, the Israelite God decided to send a heavily bearded man named Moses to have a chat with Pharaoh, and get him to #letmypeoplego.

Since Pharaoh was a king with a king-sized ego to boot, he decided not to join the #letmypeoplego movement.

So the Israelite’s God sent the infamous ten plagues:

Water turned to blood- note that this was quite different from the water to wine transformation that would take place many centuries later.

Frogs were next. This was before people discovered frog legs as a delicacy, and considered them to be pests. I have not personally partaken of frog legs, but I hear they are very tasty.

Lice were next. There is no denying that if I was the Pharaoh, I would have relented at this point. But the Pharaoh did not blink. He did not blink because he had people to pick the lice off of his hair, so that was a peasant problem, not his.

Wild animals and pestilence aka Coronavirus’ ancestors followed closely, but still, the Pharaoh refused to  #letmypeoplego

Next were boils, which, while painful and revolting, did nothing to free the enslaved Israelites. You see, that Pharaoh was what we call a kichwa ngumu (hard headed person)

Locusts were next. Full disclosure, these unwelcome visitors invited themselves to my homeland, Kenya. Let me tell you something about locusts. They are destructive with a capital D. If a hyena and a vulture had a child, it would be a locust. With everything else going on in the world, even the most hardened atheist had to wonder if this was all a coincidence.

Then there was darkness for three days, also known as living in a developing country where power is shut off for no apparent reason, so this would not necessarily have alerted a Pharaoh as to the presence of a campaign to #letmypeoplego. also, the Pharaoh had people whose job was literally holding lamps so he could see. So there was another peasant problem.

It was at this point that the Israelite God made the Pharaoh an offer he couldn’t refuse. He killed all the Egyptian first-born sons. After that, every Egyptian and their grandmother wanted the Israelites freed.

It is not lost on me that it is just over 400 years since the first enslaved Africans were kidnapped, chained and brought to the United States aboard cargo ships. 401 years to be precise. Millions of Africans died during the passage, alternately referred to as the African Holocaust, or Maafa.

Those who survived were sold like cattle, mothers separated from their young children, never to see them again. They were worked to the bone, beaten, raped, murdered, as if their lives did not matter. When Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves in 1863, it took two years for the enslaved people of Galveston Texas, to know that they were free. This day is now celebrated as Juneteenth  (originally June 19, 1865).

The physical chains of slavery may be broken, but the mentality that sustained slavery persists. Jim Crow laws ensured that discrimination persisted in housing, education, policing and every aspect of American life. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and countless others championed equality for all. They made some strides, but the work was not done. The work is not done. It is not done because on May 25, 2020, we all watched in horror as a white policeman knelt on a black man’s neck, even while the black man, George Floyd, pleaded for his life. He said he couldn’t breathe several times. During his final seconds, he cried for his mother. His dead mother. He knew he was dying.

8 minutes 46 seconds. They knelt on him for Eight minutes and forty-six seconds. In the United States of America. The land of the free. The home of the brave.

Not for George Floyd. Not for Breonna Taylor. Not for Ahmaud Arbery. Not for Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice, children murdered in cold blood. Not for Eric Garner or Philando Castile. Not for the multitudes of victims whose names we will never know.

401 years after the first enslaved Africans landed on these shores, the majority of the non-black American public is now just becoming aware of the inequalities that still exist. Amid the barbecue Becky and bird-watching Karen stories, there have been hundreds of thousands more people who have peacefully rallied, chanting Black Lives Matter. Doctors, nurses, teachers, students, people of all ethnicities around the world have joined the cause. Japan, a historically reserved nation, has joined in the cause. It gives me hope to see so many people moved by the senseless murders of melanated people across the world. It gives me hope to see the tide of public opinion turning. If this energy and momentum results in a higher voter turnout, I hope we will see systemic change in this country. The work must continue, so their deaths are not in vain.

Say their names. And vote.

Black Lives Matter.

Happy Mother’s Day

Happy Mother’s Day to the phenomenal women who birthed us, and whose love for us is unconditional.

Happy Mother’s Day to the phenomenal people who did not birth children, but loved and raised those around them as their own.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the phenomenal men, who have, for various reasons, filled a mother’s role in their children lives.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the hard-working mothers and mother-figures who toil all day and sacrifice time with their families so they can provide for their children.

Happy Mother’s Day to the brave women who serve in the Armed Forces, often in countries far away from home, for months at a time. Thank you for your service, we salute you.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers who are ill and fighting for their lives, may they recover and be reunited with their families soon.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers who have survived Cancer, we celebrate you.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers who are expecting their first children, welcome to the club. Motherhood is to know what it feels like to have your heart live outside your body.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers who suit up every day to work in medical facilities and risk their lives to treat Coronavirus patients, you are superheroes.

Gathoni

10 years. That was how long Gathoni gave herself to work as a respiratory care nurse in New York before returning home to Nairobi. She lived with two roommates to save as much money as she could. She lived with them even though one of them ate Gathoni’s cereal straight out of the box and left the sticky spoon she had licked in the cereal box. She persevered the long, grueling hours at work, squirreling away her earnings, saving to buy land back home and set herself up for an early retirement.

Five years into her stay in New York, she had saved enough money to buy land and build a mansion in Athi River, where the newly affluent were buying homes. Athi’s river’s proximity to the City Center made it a more attractive option than farther flung areas with cheaper land. Her parents had found a trustworthy land seller, which was no mean feat in a city crawling with con men and women who would separate you from your hard-earned money in a New York minute.

In a world where new careers are formed daily, conmanship has established itself as one of the few professions uninhibited by common barriers to entry, other than the little matter of the law. The only prerequisite being a loose grasp of one’s morals and a tongue that, as my lakeside brethren would say, “anaweza toa nyako pangoni” (an Oswahili bastardization of the Kiswahili reference to a snake charmer)

When Gathoni flew to Nairobi to view the land, her father introduced her to a dashing gentleman named Getau, the real estate lawyer who had brokered the purchase. A friendship blossomed and they sporadically kept in touch when Gathoni flew back to New York.

Four years later, her mansion was complete and Gathoni had accumulated enough money to purchase additional pieces of land and was a budding mushroom farmer. She reconnected with Getau, and seeing as they were both in their thirties and too old to play games, they started to plan their future together.

When, at last, her 10th year work anniversary arrived, Gathoni walked out of the hospital for the last time, free as a bird, her waist length dreadlocks swaying in the wind. She sold most of her belongings, excited to be moving in with Getau, who had proposed to her a few months before when he had visited her in New York.

She flew from New York to Beijing, her destination being Huairou District, to see the Great Wall of China, a bucket list item she had been itching to check off. She spent the next four days touring the Great Wall among other attractions, and then boarded a flight to Nairobi.

She arrived in Nairobi to a rousing welcome from her family and Getau. She was finally home. Two days after her return, she developed a dry cough and thought nothing of it. Getau got her some cough medicine and a humidifier, which relieved her symptoms. Two days later, Getau awoke to find a lifeless Gathoni next to him. His attempts at CPR failed, and in a panic, he called for an ambulance, informing her family that they were headed to the nearest hospital. The emergency room doctor grimly confirmed what they all knew. Gathoni was dead.

In that moment, the world lost all color and went silent. Out of the corner of his eye, as if in slow motion, Getau and Gathoni’s family watched in disbelief as a security team whispered something to the doctor who quickly distanced himself from the family. They were unceremoniously bundled into a waiting car and taken to a government medical training center, where they were brusquely informed that Gathoni’s symptoms were consistent with those of the novel Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, therefore, they would be quarantined.  They were interrogated about their movements and known associations since Gathoni had arrived in the country. They provided a list of all individuals they had interacted with and were informed that those individuals would be quarantined as well.

They were then abandoned, and the only outside contact they had was that of faceless gloved hands leaving food outside their rooms followed by the sound of feet quickly padding away for fear of contracting COVID-19.

Where there is mystery, the mind goes to the darkest place. They wondered if they would ever see the light of day again. No one would tell them when they would be released.

Despair clung to them like a second skin. They had no information on where the hospital had taken Gathoni’s remains. Getau, beside himself with grief, withdrew into silence, barely eating or sleeping. Attempts to reach the hospital for information were thwarted by the overzealous security guards who had neither the empathy nor the expertise needed to comfort the shell-shocked, grieving family.

After their release, Getau and Gathoni’s family were given 24 hours to bury her. As they threw the dirt on her coffin, Gathoni’s parents and Getau still could not believe the cruel hand that fate had dealt them. Her mother collapsed, the reality of burying her child too much to bear.

Gathoni was buried on what would have been her 35th birthday.

“Straight A” students

“Mom, didn’t you tell us that you were always number 1 in your class and that you always got straight As in all subjects?” Nekesa’s son asked her, a very puzzled expression on his face.

“This coronavirus!” Nekesa muttered, her palms starting to sweat. You see, in this time of Coronavirus, parents have become teachers. Until now, some parents were safe in the knowledge that their alleged straight A, top of the class, walked 13 miles to school, uphill both ways and all done barefoot stories would never be tested. Once, Nekesa’s son had questioned the veracity of the uphill both ways story, seeing as unless Nekesa’s childhood home moved farther uphill each morning, then that story was a physical improbability. Nekesa had pulled the ukali card and that had shut him up.

The truth of the matter was that Nekesa and numbers were like oil and water. She had never liked or trusted math. Something about math did not make sense to her, and the minute she completed her math paper in her secondary school finals, she had walked away from math and never looked back. It was a toxic relationship and she was done. When her father had seen her dismal F in math, he had remarked that she must have earned that grade by correctly spelling her name and nothing else.

Thirty odd years after the nightmare of her final math exam, she thought of ways to save face in front of her child. Silence stretched between them, her son looking at her expectantly, mistaking the frown on her face for deep concentration. Little did he know that the specter of calculus had resurrected long buried nightmares she wished to keep that way. In that moment, she wished that her husband, a doctor at Nairobi hospital, who was fighting to keep patients alive, was home. He and his son were numbers people. When they saw numbers, they did not run for the nearest exit. They gravitated towards them, probed them, re-arranged them, tried to make sense of them. Nekesa did not possess any of these inclinations. And so she stood there, staring at the book, when a miracle happened.

Nimepata toilet paper** na mkate!” Her housekeeper, a stocky lady who had worked for Nekesa’s family since her son was a baby, announced triumphantly, holding the toilet paper and bread up high, like a prize she had won in a bitterly fought contest. And knowing her, one or two people may have been elbowed out of the way in the process, in direct contravention of social distancing rules extolled by Dr Fauci and his well-informed brethren in all countries. Nekesa suddenly became engrossed in the storage of the toilet paper and upcoming dinner plans. Coronavirus had robbed her of her right to congregate, move freely and sing in her church choir, but she would be damned if she would also let it rob her of her dignity.

Her son decided to wait for his father to get home, after all, numbers zina wenyewe.

**You see, in the days of Coronavirus, when we hang on to every word Dr Fauci and his brethren spoke, and like the good students we were, sheltered in place, toilet paper was a prized possession. It was almost a status symbol to say, “I have 20 rolls”, to which I imagine those not so lucky would cluck their tongues in envy, amazed at the big roller’s planning skills.

Ancestral Recipes

Once upon a time, I was a little girl who watched my mum bake without measuring. She would gather ingredients, mix them, bake them and make perfect cake every single time. So, when I grew up and finally had a place of my own away from my six around the clock security guards (aka brothers), I decided to give baking a try.

Like I had seen my mother do so many times before, I gathered the ingredients, mixed a bit of this with some of that, and with all the optimism of a first timer, placed the mixture in my oven and hungrily awaited the tasty pastry that would emerge. A half hour later, as the aroma wafted through my kitchen, I couldn’t help but feel proud of myself. This girl, who in her childhood had been a card- carrying member of tomboy nation, was now baking cake bila kupima! (without measuring).

Nothing in my life prepared me for what happened next. That oven, previously an ally, now revealed that behind its frosted glass door lay malicious embers which transformed my cake mixture into what the Swahili people call mazingaombwe. In other words, the cake had somehow managed to burn to a crisp, collapse in the middle and against the laws of nature, remain uncooked in parts. I stared at that ungrateful oven. And the ungrateful deformed pastry. To call it cake would be an insult to cake everywhere. Didn’t that oven know that farmers had toiled under the hot sun, and maybe torrential rain, to produce the wheat, sugar, milk and eggs that went into that cake? Did it not believe in beginner’s luck? Might it have been upset because I used the stove top more often than I used  it? The culprit silently emitted more heat, wordlessly daring me to insert another dish into the heat left over to burn my food to charred remnants. That oven believed that revenge was a dish best served smoking hot (literally burning). To quote my friends from the South, that oven did me dirty.

As you can imagine, since that traumatizing introduction to freelance baking, I have become a stickler for baking rules. I can measure like nobody’s business. I own every measuring cup and spoon known to man, woman and child. The result? I am proud to announce that I have baked everything from bundt cakes to quiches and all have turned out perfecto. And so, around the holidays, I decided to bake cake because my current oven is a dear friend and has never done me dirty. My current oven understands that not all foods must be cooked in it. It is not petty, unlike some ovens which will remain unnamed. It doesn’t seethe and sear my food in retaliation.

My mission to find a recipe for lemon blueberry cake turned up oodles of information that had nothing to do with cake. I found family trees. I read about grandmothers and grandfathers. I read about children’s schools and playground fights. I even found one recipe which started with photos of a cat. What a cat had to do with lemon blueberry cake eludes me to this day. But I keep searching and I keep reading these autobiographies disguised as recipes because I am so haunted by the specter of my baking failure all those years ago that I will patiently persevere through the meandering tales of ancestral recipes, all in the hopes of finally arriving at the actual recipe before I myself become an ancestor.