2020 Toffee Beds 

2020. The mere mention of it conjures bad vibes. The Plague of Rona. If 2020 were an animal, it would be the demon spawn of a rabid tiger and a malicious shark. And it would smell like a clan of exiled skunks. But, we lived through it, and lived to tell the horrid tale. 2020 is what preachers like to cast away, chanting: pepo mbaya. Shindwe!

Fast forward to 2021, the year that was supposed to be the calm after the storm, we decided it was time to get out of the house and out of our pajamas, and go on vacation. Well, 2020 had a small meeting with itself, asking itself why everyone dragged its name through the mud. Like the vindictive year it is, it heard us planning to have fun and decided that since we had joined the rest of the world in being haters and not remembering it fondly, it was going to show us.

The trip started innocently enough. We had our sanitizer and N95 masks, arrived at the airport early, went past security, and on to our gate. Our flight departure time was supposed to be 4.30PM. Well, 2020 arrived at the airport, frothing at the mouth, malice at full throttle, and decided to make things interesting. 

Earlier that morning, before we left the house, a friend who lives in Colorado had warned us that a storm was brewing there, and it wasn’t looking good. But anyone who knows Colorado weather knows that it could storm at 2PM, followed by a bright blue sky at 4PM, and then a raging snowstorm a few hours later. A blue sky-storm sandwich if you will. You know what Colorado is? A Gemini. It cannot make up its mind. Is it hot? Is it cold? Why not have all four seasons in one day? Wait, what are we doing again? 

2020 watched the approaching flight time, sharpening its claws. A few minutes to our boarding time, we were informed that the flight had been delayed, and then shortly after, we were informed that it had been cancelled. 2020 broke out its vindictive pompoms and rejoiced.

But 2020 was no match for Alego grit. Let me tell you about my people. If we set our sights on something, we are unstoppable. Some might even say unbwogable. Come hell or high water. Come malice or saltiness. And so, 2020 was not prepared for this daughter of Alego, or her equally determined husband, who, though he is not born of Alego, belongs by association. Our son, well, he is Alego by blood, the kid is a trooper.

We soldiered on, finding a connecting flight through a different state, Arizona. We landed at 10PM, and headed straight to our gate, hoping to catch our Colorado flight shortly. We were literally standing in line to board when 2020 reared its ugly head again, this time in the form of the flight crew, to inform us that our flight had been cancelled. 2020 did a happy dance. One of the other passengers, a teenage girl, broke down in tears. I don’t know what her day had been like, but by the looks of it, 2020 had visited her too, adding her tears to its malevolent chalice, which overflowed with the grief and tears shed in 2020.

The airline declined to put us up in a hotel, but offered to take us to Colorado via Tucson early the next morning. We declined this extended airport tour of the southwestern states, and scrambled to find an alternative airline with a direct flight to Colorado, this one departing at the crack of dawn. In the meantime, we stayed at a nearby hotel, barely getting 3 hours of sleep, but getting much needed showers. Of course, this had to happen the one time I forgot to pack a change of clothes in my carry-on, figuring I wouldn’t need it for the short flight to Colorado. 2020 rubbed its crusty hands in glee.

The storm cleared the next morning, clearing our morning flight for takeoff. We touched down in Colorado, and were met by clear blue skies and scenic mountains. I hoped that 2020 had been swept away by the storm, alas, I spoke too soon. When we arrived at baggage claim, we were informed that our luggage had not travelled to Colorado since we ‘elected to use a different airline’. Did they mean to say that they did not understand why we would decline their extended tour of the Southwestern part of the United States? And all this after they declined to put us up in a hotel? And this great offer coming almost 16 hours after our initial flight was supposed to take off? Jeez, we really should be more adventurous.

Anyway, since Southwest airlines decided that they would not be delivering our luggage to our address, and we had a memorial service to attend, we hightailed it to a store and bought clothes to wear to the service, seeing as we felt that the fellow mourners would not appreciate the 1 day old clothes we were wearing, probably smelling like 2020. The look on one of the attendants’ faces when we asked her to give us scissors so we could cut off the tags so we could change into the new clothes was priceless. I could see the gears turning in her mind. Were we serial killers on the run, changing clothes to throw off the cops? Did we not have a home, a place to wear our clothes later? Were we insane? These and other thoughts flashed over her face, her mind racing. When we told her that we had a memorial service to attend, she sprang into action, scissors magically materializing. In no time at all, we were dressed in our new clothes, looking spiffy, not a whiff of 2020 on us, and headed to the memorial service for a 99 year old family friend. Yes, you read that right. 99 Years old! And she was one of the kindest ladies I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. She lived independently, driving and hiking well into her 90s. She didn’t want a big fuss made at her memorial, she wanted all of us to get on with the business of living, and to honor that, we did.

Memorial over, we were finally reunited with our luggage. I almost hugged my suitcases. Almost. But I didn’t know where they had been so I refrained. To Southwest’s credit, they did issue refunds and vouchers for our troubles. We then started our vacation, heading to beautiful Steamboat Springs in Colorado. And so began two weeks of an idyllic vacation, where our son got spoiled rotten by his grandparents, Babu and Tutu. If you were a fan of Redykulass back when Baba Moi was president, you may remember their skit on Murphy beds, immortalized in their parody of the president’s encounter with a Murphy bed while on a trip to the United States. Kitanda toka, kitanda rudi, kitanda toka tena, kitanda rudi tena. Turns out Baba na Mama, mwalimu number 1, Mkulima number 1 and Doktari number 1 was not the only person to be fascinated by these beds. So was our son, he couldn’t get enough of it. We told him it was called a Murphy Bed, but he had a cooler name for it. Toffee Bed. 

Kansas

He smelled like a goat. Not a sweet, fluffy California goat that smells like fresh mint and runs on yogi’s backs. No. He smelled like a rancid goat. One that had spent hot days under the unrelenting sun, packed with hundreds of other even more odiferous goats, bleating for relief, for someone, anyone to save them from the fate that awaited them at the nyama choma joints. 

He had the kind of body odor that permeated any space he occupied, seeping into walls, flooring, the furniture; indeed,  not even the plants in his office were spared. The fetid air sat around Emilia like a heavy blanket, and even though she had swam competitively in her college years and was therefore accustomed to holding her breath longer than the average person, her breath-holding abilities were no match for this man’s putridness. She watched as he sank into his seat, his considerable girth barely fitting in the armless standard issue office chair. His face was a shade of red she had never seen on a human being before. When he finally looked up at her, he spoke in an extremely high pitched voice, which was surprising considering how big the man was.

“What do you want?” he squeaked by way of introduction.

Emilia, struggling to breathe, explained that she was the analyst sent over to update the branch’s web security settings in light of a recent spike in suspicious activity. 

“Did I tell you what he was wearing?” she asks me. 

“No. What was he wearing?”

She grabs her head with both hands, as if she can’t quite rid herself of the image.

“Picture a very tall, very large man, about this big.” She stretches her hands wide to demonstrate how big he was. Emilia is not given to exaggeration, so I believe her.

“Now picture this giant wearing a wife beater, in an office. As in, his place of work. And this wife beater must have belonged to his child or something because it was basically a tank top. And pants so tight I was afraid the zipper would pop. Some things just cannot be unseen.” She shudders.

My amused look spurs her on. I picture a man with what my mum would call “tumbo kama ya politician” wearing what we call a ‘tumbo cut’ back home, squeezing himself into a chair that is too small, and doing all this while smelling like a goat in marikiti.

“Oh and that’s not the worst part. It had stains on it.”

“What kind of stains?” I ask.

“They appeared to be barbecue sauce or blood, I couldn’t tell which one. Maybe both.”

I shake my head in amusement. I mean, I work in California, and things are very casual here. Some people go to work in shorts and flip flops. But even they wear t-shirts with sleeves. 

“And then he reached into his desk drawer and retrieved a leg of something.” Emilia continues.

“A what?” I ask, wondering what on earth is going on in Kansas.

“Yep, he basically reaches into a drawer, grabs a leg of something, I’m guessing turkey or lamb by its size, reaches back into that same drawer, and retrieves barbecue sauce, slathers it all over the leg, takes a huge bite out of it, and burps so loudly, I jumped in my chair.”

I burst out laughing. This sounds like a bad movie.

“While he is chewing this leg, he asks me, mouth full of whatever it is he is wolfing down, barbecue sauce dripping all over his tank top wife beater, ‘why did they send a girl over. Don’t you have men left in California?’. And then he burped again. Really loudly.”

“I looked at him and the leg, now mostly bone, and asked myself what crimes I had committed in my previous lives to deserve this fate.” she muses. 

“I explained in detail what my assignment was and how long it would take. I didn’t think it was possible, but he got redder and redder as he finally understood what my job was. By the time I was done, he was apoplectic. In my experience, when clients are defensive from the get go, they have something to hide.” 

“Here in Kansas, we trust each other, not like you all over there in California, every man for himself. What I do on my computer is nobody’s business but my own” he raged as he finished devouring the mysterious leg and started to chew on the bones quite loudly, spitting shards across his desk.

“I didn’t ask anyone to send some Californian here to breathe down my neck! Get the hell out of my office, and out of my town. Go back to that damned California and don’t let the door hit you on the way out!” 

“At this point, he was breathing very heavily, shaking what remained of the bone at me. I hightailed it out of there, and back to my hotel. Good thing about coding is you can do it anywhere. My trip out there was just to introduce myself and see if it was a malicious attack on their software, but since the man outed himself, it made my job pretty easy. I was mostly relieved to be away from that stench and the flying shards of bone. Did I tell you about the food there?”

“No, tell me about the food.” I ask.

Emilia is a beef snob. She only eats Wagyu beef, but after a few days of eating vegetables, she decided to ask a local for steakhouse recommendations. The well meaning Kansan recommended a restaurant that offered what Emilia describes as ‘unique’ beef, which was of questionable origin because it glistened with a shimmer never before seen on beef. And it tasted like cardboard. After that experience, she was done with Kansas.

But Kansas wasn’t done with her. On her way to the airport, she was treated to the deafening sound of cicadas emerging from their 17 year underground residency, the grating sound getting on her last nerve. And just a few minutes before her flight started to board, she felt the tell-tale gurgling of her stomach that told her that her Wagyu beef-seasoned digestive system was violently rejecting the mysteriously glistening, rancid beef she had consumed in Kansas. It was a very long trip home.

Emilia has never returned to Kansas. 

NyarSiaya

I was made on a Monday, my mom says, when everyone was well rested, having had a great weekend, all the materials  had just been freshly delivered and not picked over, all the helpers were in a great mood, and voila! NyarSiaya, her pet name for me, was made. 

As a little girl, mom told me this often, when trimming my nails and complimenting how beautiful they were, or giving me a bath, or cleaning my ears, or attempting to braid my hair, whose bountifulness she constantly marveled at. I say attempting because even though my mom is a woman of many talents, a heart of gold and formidable intellect, braiding hair is not her thing. It’s fine, we all have weaknesses. Braiding hair is hers, and as weaknesses go, it’s not a bad one to have. “You were made on a Monday for sure,” she would say as she tried to tame my hair, “when hair had just arrived and God was trying to cram as much of it on one head as possible.” 

Since I was made on a Monday, I can braid hair to perfection, having inherited those skills from mom’s mother, Dana Athieno, a master weaver. Mom and I agree though, that the one part of us that was made on a Friday afternoon was our foreheads. It was Friday afternoon, and God had given foreheads to the early Monday morning crowd, making them so large they are called fiveheads. Said fiveheads were made to provide runways and continental breakfasts for mosquitos, as well as a shiny, beaming light for lost moths (God looks out for all creatures). By late Friday afternoon, only a sliver of foreheads remained, and God decided that it would be an act of mercy to grant mom and me the miniscule foreheads that remained rather than send us on our way without any foreheads. And so we ended up with purely functional foreheads, which is to say, enough to separate our hairlines from our eyebrows.

Mom tried, and failed to get me to wear dresses or anything girly, watching in dismay as her long awaited daughter tossed the mommy and me dresses she had made for me in favor of the tomboy hand-me-downs I got from my older brothers. I was going to climb trees and roll in mud, and I needed to be attired accordingly. Despite my tomboy ways, she didn’t waver in affirming me. She would tell me I was beautiful, teaching me self love, self confidence and knowing that I was enough, just as I was.

Recently, I was watching a Sauti Sol video where the group hosted a session with their fans, and one of the fans shared that she’d never felt beautiful, and felt invisible because the media and the music and film industry glorified light skin over dark skin. And apparently it crosses over to dating too, where, she said, men flocked towards light skinned women like moths to a  light bulb, making her feel like her dark skin was a cloak of invisibility. At that moment, she looked so defeated, and my heart went out to her. No one should have to endure scorn of any kind because of the abundance of melanin in their skin, and I hope that we all appreciate each other whether we are as melanated as the midnight sky, or as melanin deprived as Joe Biden’s teeth. Look them up, they are the whitest thing you will ever see. The glare might blind you.

I’m very grateful for a mother who affirmed me as a child, giving me the assurance to grow up into a self-confident, proudly African woman whose favorite feature is my melanated skin. 

Love the skin you’re in.

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

“Someni vijana, muongeze pia bidii, mwisho wa kusoma, mutapata kazi nzuri sana. Remember that song?” She asks animatedly. I nod, instantly transported back to my childhood, the then ubiquitous track now an ear worm, Henry Makobi’s gravelly voice exhorting us to study diligently, extolling the virtues of the rewards that awaited those of us who heeded his words of wisdom.

“I was a kid of the system. You know that girl who always had neatly plaited lines, clean, perfectly ironed school uniform, shiny shoes, and covered books?” I nod, recalling my tomboy self at that age, and knowing I was definitely not that girl since being a tomboy and possessing lady-like tendencies at the tender age of six were mutually exclusive.

“Anyway, I was that kid. I was a rule follower, still was until very recently.” She pauses to take a big scoop of her hot sundae mint chocolate ice cream, examining it briefly before savoring it. “ Now I just do what feels good to my soul. I was the top student in my KCPE class, top ten nationwide. So I went to school in Kikuyu.” She says this in the same obnoxiously casual manner people use to say “I went to college in Boston” (Code for Harvard).

“Remember, I was a kid of the system, nose in books, no extracurriculars to speak of, no monkey business with Busherians. Not after my mother had scared me half to death by saying, and I quote, “If you play with boys you will get pregnant.”

So after four years of studiously devouring my books, dissecting frogs in the name of Biology, handling corrosive chemicals during Chemistry labs, enduring countless Physics theories, and suffering through many hours of chapel to help us walk in the light and save us from eternal damnation, I sat for and, naturally, aced my KCSE alongside many other bright girls, and that was the end of my four years at Alliance Girls High School. 

From a very early age, I always knew I wanted to leave Kenya. One of my uncles had been part of the Tom Mboya airlift, spoke with a very American sounding accent, and shared inspirational stories of the endless possibilities in that land of opportunity for those willing to put in the work. I looked forward to his visits because he brought us fun toys, and once showed me a laptop and let me use it.I fell in love with computers then. The next time he came back to Kenya, he brought me my very own laptop. You don’t understand how excited I was. It’s literally the equivalent of…” She pauses, trying to find an equivalent, something that will capture the enormity of the moment. She comes up empty.

“Being given ten acres of land?” I venture a guess.

“Bigger!” she responds

“Winning the lottery?” I ask tongue in cheek.

We both burst out laughing, knowing that the odds of winning the lottery are lower than being struck by lightning while being bitten by a shark while wearing sequins.

“No, it was literally like discovering a whole new universe, one you had never heard of before, but you were intuitively attuned to. Fluent in their language, ingrained in their ways. That is what coding was to me. I was a natural.”

“Luckily for me, my uncle returned to Kenya to live there permanently, and I now had a coding tutor. It was later on that I found out the unfortunate circumstances of his return. A nasty divorce had rendered him almost penniless, and he had decided to return home, rather than be destitute in the United States. He was an inventive guy, hustling before it became fashionable, and soon, he had started a computer college just when they were becoming all the rage. When I was in form four, he told me about all these scholarships I could apply for, to study Computer Science. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for that man.”

“Where is he now?” I ask.

“He’s retired, his business was very successful, he got out of the computer classes business and went into selling land. Matter of fact, I buy most of my land from him. Original hustler,that guy. Still has a hint of an American accent after all these years. He married a Kenyan chic and their kids are in college now, matter of fact one of my cousins stays with me in the summer. Good people, that family.”

“So anyway, I aced my KCSE, got into UCLA, on a full scholarship, like everything paid for. Nakuambia, I am blessed. Very blessed.So there I was, a kid of the system, on my way to my dream degree, but still very sheltered. I land in LA, and head nose first into my books. My grades were great in my first year. Then I met them.” She pauses, a faraway look in her eyes.

“Them?” I ask ominously, are we talking about the white walkers?

“Oh come on, you know them. They are everywhere. She waves her hands for dramatic effect. 

“The people who come here to go to school and hop on the party bus and never get off. That crowd that’s been here since God was a boy and have nothing to show for their time here.” 

I nod, I know them, everyone does. Well, unless you are them, in which case, I wish you well.

“So I partied hard. For the first time in my life, I had freedom. Gai! I have never had that much booze in my entire life. Parents really shouldn’t let their kids come out here straight out of high school. Bad idea. And the more sheltered the kid, the worse they get. Luckily for me, my uncle had a good friend who lived in LA, and she sat me down and gave me a very stern talking-to. That woman saved me from dropping out of school and becoming one of them. She would also randomly drop in at my hostel to check on me. By the time I was in my third year I had met my coding tribe and was so deep into coding that no one needed to worry about me joining the partying hordes. Fast forward, two years later, cap and gown in place, I graduated, first with my Bachelors’, then my Masters, and then I went all in for Permanent Head Damage, or PhD, known in certain circles as ‘no class ahead’.”

Then tech came calling. I was a nerd in a sea of nerds. My friends back home think I lead a very flashy life. I mean, here I am, a single successful female, making what seems like a bazillion to people back home. I have achieved everything I ever wanted professionally. I lead teams at work, I travel internationally, I can vacation anywhere I want. But something is missing. My mom thinks she knows what, or should I say who, is missing. A husband. Now, there’s something I knew I never wanted. Marriage just doesn’t make sense to me. I am in my twenties, meet this guy, and promise to love him forever? I don’t even know what I want to wear next week, how can I promise to love someone forever? Plus I like my space, and I like my house silent. This society and its KPIs.”

“KPIs?” I repeat, as I have never heard it used socially.

“You’re in corporate America, you know KPIs.”

I nod, waiting for her to continue.

“Go to school and make good grades. Check. Don’t play with boys. Check. Go to university. Check. Get a good job. Check. Where is your husband? Huh? At what point should I have met this husband while not “playing with boys”? Also, why must I have a husband? Awino, this world is a hard place if you are single. People automatically assume I am defective. Let’s not even get into the 50% divorce rate in these United States. Or the stranger than fiction stories I hear from back home of spouses competing to see who can sleep with one half of Nairobi before the other one sleeps with the other half. Or the domestic violence cases globally. But you know what I like? Women of our generation are not taking responsibility for failed marriages. Or sitting down and pining for errant husbands. They are not going the prayer warrior, fight for your marriage route. If marriage is war, then weddings should be at army boot camp training grounds, not in church. Some men are on the receiving end too. They are beaten, cheated on, stolen from, it’s a jungle out there. By the way, do you listen to Patanisho?” She asks.

I burst out laughing. This is the second time in as many months that that show has been recommended to me. A friend of mine recommended it a couple months ago. Yes, I am now a Patanisho addict. It is hilarious, it is heartbreaking, it is life. Ghost Mulei’s laughter gives me life.

“Yes, I listen to it on YouTube, usually when making dinner for my family.” She high fives me. Two Kenyans far away from home, connecting on having found a piece of home, courtesy of YouTube, whose offices are less than an hour away from where we are having this conversation.

“What do you tell your family now? When they ask you about marriage?” I ask her.

“I tell them the truth. That I need my space. That I don’t want a husband in my house. That ‘leave me alone’ is my love language. Motherhood is not something that appeals to me. The way I see it, my nieces and nephews stand to inherit all my money, so what’s the problem? More for them, right?”

“I finally found the missing piece after I called myself for a series of small meetings. I want out of corporate America. It is financially great, but it is a grind. So I will keep at it for a few more years, then I will quit and go teach coding to kids. That’s what I really want to do. Once I identified it, I felt at peace. Now I do it once a week and it brings me so much joy, way more than the job that pays me a ton of money. I told my family back home and they thought I had lost my marbles. But I am not living my life by anyone’s KPIs anymore. I’m doing me.”

We finish our ice cream pensively, two Kenyan women so far away from home, having taken somewhat similar career paths, but diametrically opposite relationship paths. 

She asks me if I always wanted to be a mom. I nod emphatically. I didn’t know much about what I wanted for my future, but I knew that I definitely wanted to have a child.

“Oh, one more thing,” she adds, “can you believe that with all the education we strive to attain, no one stops to tell us to invest our money and generate wealth? Like, no one. It’s a travesty, I tell you.” She says emphatically, as I nod vigorously.

“Some might even call it an abomination.” I chime in.

She continues, “and that’s why we have so many high income cliff spenders, they make a ton of money but are living paycheck to paycheck. It is tragic, if you ask me. Richness and brokenness are two sides of the same coin. Both are temporary, both can become permanent poverty or wealth. I love this quote “The rich invest their money and spend what is left; the poor spend their money and invest what is left”. 

I chew on that for a minute. It makes perfect sense. She drops another one, “We Buy Things We Don’t Need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”

As a voracious consumer of investment articles, I am always appreciative of finding kindred spirits when it comes to investment ideas. One of my favorite quotes is “Would you rather look rich but be broke, or look broke but be wealthy?” And so we spend some more time talking about the almost mandatory land purchase that every Kenyan investor feels obligated to make, trading notes and contacts.

“What would you tell your younger self?” I ask her.

“Can I swear?” she asks

“Sure, why not.”

“To hell with the KPIs. And to hell with those who think less of my accomplishments because I don’t have a Mrs. in front of my name. Life is short, live it unapologetically.”

The Logger (Fiction Series)

Maiko stared at the man in the mirror, noticing the fine lines on his forehead, which appeared to be growing bigger by the day, like a seabed at low tide. The fine lines were more visible, perhaps because he had had many sleepless nights since his last business meeting a week before.

Maiko, a devoted family man, did not usually take business calls on weekends, preferring instead to spend time with Roda, his wife of ten years and their three energetic children. On the rare occasion that he had to work on a weekend, he always charged double, spending the extra money on family trips, the change of scenery smoothing over the interrupted time with his family.

And so on this Saturday as he prepared to meet a client, he had already promised Roda and the kids a trip to Diani in a few weeks, its white sandy beaches a family favorite, assuring that his absence was forgiven. Roda, a very understanding wife by all measures, greatly admired her husband’s dedication to his logging business. He had done very well for himself, and being the intrinsically moral man he was, had also overseen the planting of thousands of trees where his logging operations had concluded, to ensure provisions for future generations. Roda extolled his virtues to all, but his virtues needed no extolling because he was very generous to the less fortunate in their community. There was even talk that he would run for office, and the locals had all but assured him of victory should he choose to honor them by officially representing their county in government.

A week earlier, Maiko drove a beat up white pick-up truck, its ancient parts squeaking as he headed to the nyama choma joint where business would be discussed over barbecued goat and cold beer. His client, a respectable looking, statuesque woman in her mid forties, rose to greet him. He gave her a curt nod and studied her quietly. Before meeting his clients, he conducted a very thorough background check on them. In his profession, carelessness could lead to death, or if one escaped that, a long spell as a guest of the Government of Kenya (GOK) in its incarceration resort, commonly known as prison.

Food served, she launched into her request. Maiko listened carefully, his photographic memory eliminating the need for any note taking. He thoughtfully chewed the ginger infused barbecue goat, mulling over the woman’s words. If he was successful, this would be his last gig. It would set him up for life, and he could truly focus on his logging business, which, while barely profitable, provided a respectable cover for the lifestyle his family enjoyed. Maiko loved a challenge, and he knew he would take the job because it sounded impossible.

Now, Maiko bade Roda and his kids goodbye, hopped into his jalopy and waved as he left on a business trip. An hour later, he and his crew, Juma and the paradoxically named Innocent, were in their business vehicle, a small truck labelled Longonot Logging. Juma and Innocent only knew Maiko as Mkubwa, the boss, but not his real name. They also did not know that the man they worked for always wore a disguise around them, a fact that tickled Maiko. One could never be too careful in this line of work. Innocent, contrary to his name, was one of the best lock and alarm neutralizers Maiko had ever met. Juma was a strongman. He could lift seemingly impossible weights, which was why Maiko hand-picked him for this job. That and his sheer fearlessness.

By the time they arrived at their destination, night had fallen, and they felt the adrenaline rush through their bodies as they donned their masks and gloves. As described, the house was palatial, standing at a towering three stories with elaborate columns and plush gardens dotted with soft lighting, but the owners were almost always away, peculiarly leaving what was rumored to be Longonot’s only known gold bullion apparently unprotected. Maiko’s client’s instructions had been very clear. Take all the gold, and he would receive 10% of its value in payment. However, no burglar who entered that house had ever been seen again, a claim that Maiko had researched but could not verify. Perhaps they had taken some of the gold and disappeared, he thought. He however did not discount that peculiar anecdote as he scouted the property. His sixth sense kicked in, as it always did when he was on a job; it had saved his life several times when he started out, a primary school dropout, and some of his peers were felled by bullets while others cooled their heels as guests of the GOK. Now, he got the sense that he was being watched, but he couldn’t put his finger on why, as the property was completely unoccupied as far as he could tell. 

Innocent quickly disabled the advanced alarm system and the trio set about finding the vault, rumored to be in the basement. A few minutes later Maiko, Innocent and Juma were standing before an open vault and by this time, his sixth sense was screaming at him to flee. He would have left if he hadn’t been transfixed by the sight of heaps of gold bars sitting on the floor, completely unguarded. Innocent and Juma watched agape, mesmerized at the sight. Maiko stood there for a good while, mentally going over the logistics of transporting as many of the bars as possible. He wished he had brought a bigger truck and a larger crew. Nevertheless, he called Innocent and Juma, startling them out of their trance, to start hauling the gold to the truck using the carts they had brought with them. It took the three of them a full half hour to load one cart, which the two hands carted to the truck. After a few more minutes of trying to figure out how much they could carry in the short amount of time they had, it occurred to him that the place had fallen eerily quiet. It was as if someone had pressed the mute button around him. Maiko was not one to panic easily, but when he called for Juma and Innocent, his voice echoing across the cavernous room, and receiving no response, his palms started to sweat. He quickly walked back the way they had come, and found, lying on the marble floor, two of the biggest snakes he had ever seen. Suddenly it all made sense. The unguarded home, the rumor that no burglar who went in ever came out. The pythons’ swollen bellies left him under no illusion as to the fate that had befallen Innocent and Juma. 

Maiko immediately turned around to run from the house, but he came face to face with yet another gargantuan snake, the horrifying sight immobilizing him. He opened his mouth to scream but the snake struck, moving at a speed that defied its size, winding itself around him in a death grip, crushing his bones. Maiko’s last thought, wishing he had listened to his instincts, was lost in an avalanche of excruciating pain as the ophidian beast swallowed him whole.

It takes a village

The late great Tupac Shakur’s song ‘keep your head up’ came to mind this past week when I was walking to my car after picking my son up from school. Just ahead of us was a little girl I frequently see during the daily pick-up rituals of masking up, bringing your own pen to sign your child out, and hearing about your child’s day from the teacher.

On that typically bright sunny day, she was walking just ahead of us, her hair in a very intricate hairstyle reminiscent of Alicia Keys’ hairdo in Fallin’. She wore hers with a lot of pink beads, which bobbed back and forth as she held her mother’s hand and walked to their car. Come to think of it, she did look like a mini–Alicia Keys, matching complexion and all.

I pointed out that I loved her hairstyle as it is extremely rare to:

1. Encounter braided hair where I live and

2. Encounter anyone with black ancestry in that particular school. As of the time of this article, the school has just over 60 students and only 3 have black parentage.

Still, I was taken aback when the girl’s mother told me that her daughter did not want to wear the braids to school because she was afraid the other kids would tease her and call her ugly. To use an often-misused metaphor, I was so shocked, my jaw dropped to the ground. When I had collected myself and my jaw, I squatted, placing me at eye level with the little girl. I told her the truth.

“You are enough just as you are, you are beautiful, your braids are beautiful, your curly hair is beautiful and being different is ok.”

At this point she was smiling and moving her head from side to side so I could see the rest of the hairstyle.

Then I asked her, “Do you know how to braid hair?”

“No, I’m only four!” she declared in a manner suggesting she seriously wanted to withdraw my adult card because what kind of adult expects a four-year-old child to know how to braid hair, let alone such an intricate hairstyle?

Undeterred, I asked her, “Will you be willing to braid my hair in that style when you are older?”

At this point, she was openly laughing at me, amazed at my silliness. Didn’t I know that she had things to do, people to see and planets to conquer? But she was smiling and laughing, and that was enough for me. Her mother, a teacher at the school, mentioned that her child was very shy. Fortunately, the school has a zero-tolerance policy against bullying, and to the mother’s knowledge, her daughter was not being bullied. Also, the only comments she received about her hairstyle so far had been around how she got the beads in her hair, as the other kids were taking notes. I got the distinct feeling that we will be seeing a lot of beaded hairstyles in that school. Turns out, she is a trendsetter, who would have thought.

Fact is children tease other children. Even in my native Kenya where we were mostly African, kids would tease others over the size of one’s head, or the shape of a nose, or ears that stuck out (ala Barack Obama) or unique height, body weight, skin tone, bow legs, wobbly knees etc. It could be anything. And even though this child’s parents constantly affirm her and tell her that she is beautiful, the child could use reinforcing messages from society. Enter all of us. Let us affirm the children in our lives, because an affirmed child knows who they are, and that they are enough, and that they are beautiful and loved just the way they are.

Not all who wander are lost

I was, by all accounts, a very naughty and inquisitive child. And impatient, quite impatient. So, combine these three qualities and what happened next will come as no surprise.

I attended primary school 30 minutes away from home, and a school bus would collect us in the morning, drop us off at school, and collect us again in the early afternoon for the return journey. This routine repeated itself for years, and so we came to count on the bus’ arrival everyday, like clockwork. We knew that after the final bell rang, we had just enough time to run to the nearby kiosk and buy mabuyu/ baobab seed candy or maembe pilipili/ peppered mango before we headed back home.

I still remember that afternoon, it was sunny, the endless blue sky promising a warm welcome when we got home. After an unusually long wait, we heard that the bus would be delayed. My friend Cheruto and I, after about 30 more minutes of waiting, decided, in our nine year old infinite wisdom, to trek home. I mean, how far could it be, it took the bus half an hour, so, in our minds, it would take us one hour tops. That’s how confident we were. And so, armed with our backpacks and Cheruto’s brown trench coat, we set off in the general direction of our homes. 

I can’t say for sure when the folly of our decision started to dawn on me. Maybe it was when we had to sneak away from the other children, or maybe it was when we almost immediately realized that to get to the main road that would lead us home, we had to walk past a Muslim cemetery, which we did, screaming at the top of our voices, and to use a common English composition phrase, running as fast as our skinny legs would carry us, lest the dead rose and came after us for being naughty children. 

We walked up winding roads, arriving at the Eldoret airstrip, and it was at this point that Cheruto pointed at the very thick forest across from it, whispering, “We need to be very quiet, I heard that people are murdered in that forest.” She delivered this news in a matter of fact tone, and at this point, an hour into our journey, and having barely survived unseen ghosts at the cemetery,  I was starting to get really tired, but the prospect of being murdered and buried in that forest injected much needed adrenalin in my legs, so I joined Cheruto as she sprinted up the hill. At this point, I was definitely regretting my decision to join this hair raising trek. 

Fifteen or so minutes later, when we had cleared the forest of unseen bloodthirsty hands, still very much alive, we soldiered on, spending the next hour walking on relatively flat and murder-free terrain. I asked Cheruto how she came about her forest news, and she shrugged, as one does when asked about a commonly known fact. You get to know someone really well when you are on an unplanned hike, having survived what seemed like near death experiences to a hyperbolic nine year old mind. I was an imaginative child, so, in my mind, we had just escaped ghoul and fiend. Let nine year old me be.

Cheruto’s mother was a cateress, and this girl was prepared. She had all kinds of fruit in her backpack, so we had enough snacks to last us for a few more hours. Everything was finally starting to work out, the two of us sharing Cheruto’s snacks, shooting the breeze, when unbeknownst to us, the clouds above us had entered into a quarrel, causing the erstwhile clear blue sky to have a change of heart and gather its squad of angry clouds the likes of which can only be found in Eldoret. There’s a little known fact about Eldoret. Sure, it’s produced more Olympic marathon athletes than I can count, but it also has a little secret. Hidden in its high altitude depths is the fact that Eldoret does not do wimpy rain, no ma’am, it puts on a spectacular show. Go big or go home. It doesn’t just  rain, it produces hailstones the size of a small golf ball, and if you happen to survive the concussion you are sure to receive should one of nature’s spheres land on your noggin, then there’s the lighting and thunderstorms to contend with. The phrase ‘when it rains it pours’ was literally coined in Eldoret. No? You don’t agree? I said what I said.

And so, when the angry clouds reached the zenith of their fight thousands of feet above our heads, the skies opened, releasing torrential rain. And this is not my hyperbolic nine year old mind speaking. It was so wet, Cheruto and I ran to a nearby kiosk to shelter from the deluge, her brown trench coat impotent in the face of Eldoret rain. About half an hour later, when the squabbling skies had vented their spleens and the rain had reduced to what Americans like to call a sprinkle, we resumed our journey. To say that we were cold is an understatement. We were soaked to the bone. I could barely feel my feet. Our brown uniform clung to our skin, our fingers raisined by the frigid rain.

Many hours after we set off on our fool’s adventure, and having survived plagues of biblical proportions like ghosts, murderers, potential floods and hailstones, we finally walked up to the gates that would lead us home. Not the pearly gates just to be clear. We had lost our body temperature, not our minds. To add insult to injury, the school bus drove past us, splashing water from a puddle on the road. We deserved it. When I got home that day, my mother, seeing my state, gave me an actual hot bath, and not the barely lukewarm temperature her elbow, which had been checking water temperature for decades, usually decided was best. To this day, I will go out of my way to avoid being cold, the hours of trekking in cold, soaked leather shoes all those years ago firmly imprinted in my brain as a do not repeat zone.

Here’s to all the intrepid little girls out there. May your adventures come with good friendships and warm endings.

When we die

He died in a car crash. This kid, who was my youngest brother’s classmate in primary school, now a grown man in his thirties, who had been a brilliant student and a thriving engineer, died in a tragic accident as January drew to a close.

The ideal natural order of life is that we are born, we grow up, start families, or end up single- whether by choice or fate, find a career, or a trade, and eventually retire, and after we have bored our families to death with tales of our glory days, wearing our grey crowns, our bodies give up and we are done. But death does not bend to our whims, it doesn’t care for schedules or sequence; it adds our names to its grim list from the moment we are born, waiting to pounce and rob us of our lives, sometimes hiding in plain sight.

But for most of us, the grim reaper is the final death. Most of us die young, really young. Our bodies are alive, our mouths speak. We eat, we drink, we laugh, we cry, we sleep, but we aren’t really alive. You see, we die when we give up on our dreams, when we stop listening to our hearts and what they seek. Talk to any kid, they have grand dreams, they are alive, their bright future illuminating their eyes. And then somewhere along the way, someone or something, a set of circumstances, takes that child’s dreams and tramples upon them, leaving shards where hope once bloomed.

This man’s death was a reminder. A reminder to resurrect ourselves while we still breathe, exhume our dreams from the graves we consigned them to, find a way to follow our hearts, live fully, truly, so when the grim reaper comes calling, we will have emptied ourselves of all we had to share in this life.

May he rest in peace.