Mueni was a potter among potters. She was a soft-spoken, diminutive woman who smiled a lot and was well loved in her village. Her distinctive handiwork was sought after by the shop owners of Nairobi, who then sold the pottery to tourists at exorbitant prices.
Each morning, Mueni woke up at the crack of dawn and went to collect clay from her shamba. She watched the village women, sleeping infants strapped to their backs, toil on the unyielding land, their puny arms lifting their jembe up and bringing the jembe down,the thunk thunk noise revealing the hardness of the ground. Mueni saw the disappointment written on their faces when the mean skies refused to open and give them the rain they so desperately needed.
Mueni’s own grandmother had been a master potter as well. It was under her patient guidance that a young Mueni had learned that one must treat the clay kindly, greeting it each morning, asking that it allow her hands to take it from its home, mold it, put it in the kiln. Mueni believed that her kinship with the clay was part of the reason for her success.
One day, when Mueni was finishing up her work for the day, her younger brother Musyoka stopped by to tell her that he had found a way for Mueni to sell her pottery directly in Nairobi. It was simple really, all she had to do was open a roadside stall in one of Nairobi’s suburbs where well-to-do Kenyans and expatriates lived. They would pay a lot of money for her pottery, much more than she was receiving from the buyers who came to buy from her home. Musyoka was a shrewd businessman who had done very well for himself, and wanted to help his sister earn the most she could from her talents. Musyoka’s only concern was finding an honest employee who would remit the full amount of money to Mueni, and night time storage for the pots.
“Mueni, Nairobi is a big city, and as you know, every port has its thieves. I need to find an absolutely trustworthy person, because you won’t be there manning the stall”
“Musyoka, don’t worry about thieves. I have been making pots for a very long time, I leave them outside my house, and not one has been stolen. Just find me a stall and a reasonably honest worker, that’s all you need to do. Musyoka shook his head at his sister’s naivete.
“Mueni, Nairobi is not a small village. You cannot leave your pots by the roadside and expect to find them there in the morning”
“They will not be stolen Musyoka, trust me.” So Musyoka went back to Nairobi, found a reasonably trustworthy employee, Moses, a roadside stall in Kitisuru and just like that, Mueni was in business. As Musyoka predicted, business was booming. Wealthy Kenyans and expatriates bought the pottery in such large numbers that Mueni was having difficulty keeping up with demand. Some of her customers requested custom pieces, and were willing to pay more than double the normal price for their one-of a kind pottery.
One particular customer, a British gentleman sporting the very sun-burned red face of the newly arrived expatriate seemed very keen on a few of the pieces. He introduced himself as Sinclair, and asked Moses very detailed questions about the workmanship, duration of molding, firing and other minutiae of pottery. He said that he would be back later that day to purchase a few pieces, and wanted to know what time the stall closed. “We close at 7pm” said Moses. “Oh, does that mean that you cart the pots away at that time?” asked Sinclair. “No, we don’t, the pottery stays right here until I come back the next morning” “How strange, aren’t you afraid that someone will steal such fine pottery?” asked Sinclair, amazed at Moses’ naivete. “This is a safe area, and we have been very fortunate not to have had any pieces stolen from us” Moses replied. “Well, that’s a comfort, I just arrived from Reading, and I was nervous about safety here.” Moses nodded, not telling Sinclair that he already knew this because Sinclair’s very red face had “recently arrived mzungu” written all over it. The African sun was a shock on skin used to the gloomy climes of England.
Hours later, when Moses had closed shop for the day and headed home, a dark car pulled up to the stall. A shadowy figure stepped out of the stall and quickly grabbed one of the bigger pots. He clutched it to his chest and tip toed toward the dark car.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Early the next morning Moses off-boarded the matatu he used to commute to work, to find a large crowd at his stall. “Mwizi amepatikana, ameshikwa” murmured some in the crowd, cell phones recording something near the stall. A dark car was parked by the road. Moses craned his neck to see what the crowd was filming, but he couldn’t elbow his way in. He asked one of the men in the crowd what was going on.
“Huyu alikuja kuiba amekwama”, Moses nodded, not understanding what the man meant. A thief came to steal from his stall and was stuck? Stuck to what? Moses called Musyoka who arrived within minutes. Musyoka managed to shout above the crowd. “Excuse me, this is my stall, please let me pass, let me pass!” Moses followed right behind him and what he saw next would stay with him for the rest of his life. Sinclair, the red faced British man, stood holding one of the big pots, his stride frozen mid-step. His red face was covered in sweat, his hands gripping the pot. Veins stuck out in his neck, the strain of holding the pot evident in his bulging eyes. His face seemed frozen mid-scream. Musyoka walked up to him and touched his neck. “Yu hai.” Musyoka said, declaring that Sinclair was still alive. He whipped out his cell phone and called Mueni.
“Someone tried to steal one of your pots and he appears to be stuck here, pot in hand” It was then that it dawned on Musyoka. Mueni was not worried for the safety of her pots because they could not be stolen. The crowd was in awe. Over the years, they had all heard tales of spells cast on things so they could not be stolen. Thieves were stilled, loot in hand, but those were the fortunate ones. The unfortunate ones were turned into animals, or hoisted onto the tops of coconut trees by imaginary hands, and would not be released until they confessed to their crimes. Until then, most people in the crowd believed these to be moral tales aimed at scaring them, but now, they could all see, in broad daylight that these tales were true.
Mueni told Musyoka that she would be there in five hours. She needed to finish making some pots, have breakfast, and then she would come and free the thief. By the time Mueni arrived, the crowds had swollen to the opposite side of the road, blocking all traffic. News crews had huge cameras and microphones pointed at the crowd. Some international reporters were present as well, unable to pass up such a sensational story. The seemingly accomplished expatriate by day who was a pottery thief by night receiving instant justice.
Musyoka asked the crowd to make way for Mueni. She walked up to Sinclair and gently touched the pot. He released his grip on the pot, which Mueni put on the ground. Next, she touched his face, her lips moving as she recited something unintelligible. Sinclair seemed to come out of the trance and was stunned to see the crowd and media gathered around him. His driver materialized out of thin air and grabbed Sinclair’s hand. They took off running to a waiting car which sped off. Mueni asked Musyoka to take her back to her home. There were pots to be made. Her grandmother had taught her well.