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.

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.

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.

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 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 conveyance lawyer who had brokered the purchase. A friendship blossomed and they sporadically kept in touch after 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.

Majini

Legio Maria is a religion in my neck of the woods, the shores of Lake Victoria. The adherents of this religion are some of the most devout and close-knit group of believers I have ever seen. When entering the home of a brother or sister of the Legio Maria, you will be sprinkled with Holy Water, and a crucifix will be in full display, usually alongside a photo of their founder and Pope, also known as the Black Son of God, Simeo Ondeto.

Susanna had lived in the village of Mabungo her entire life. Therefore, she was no stranger to tales of the majini, alleged spirits who chose not to rest in peace and instead roamed the hills of Mabungo, scaring the living daylights out of locals, delivering hot slaps to those who would not move out of their way, and causing general mayhem. Susanna had never personally encountered the majini, but she was not one to deny their existence and dare them to pay her a visit.

Decades later, when Susanna was a married woman with children, she found that her husband’s income was not sufficient to pay for their children’s tuition, and being a resourceful woman, she found work as a maid, or Domestic Manager, in a nearby town. Since her youngest daughter Nyangweso was 19, Susanna didn’t need to be home tending to children anymore. Susanna’s employer, a retired university professor, was kind enough to give Susanna plenty of flexibility so Susanna could visit her family quite often.

Last December, Susanna went back to Mabungo to spend Christmas holidays with her family. While there, Nyangweso developed what the village medicine man immediately diagnosed as a case of majini. In other words, Nyangweso had been possessed by the infamous majini of Mabungo hills. She was manic, frantically running from one part of the village to the next at speeds Usain Bolt would envy. When possessed, Nyangweso became so strong that not even the village strongman could restrain her.

A desperate Susanna asked her local pastor to pray over Nyangweso as she slept. But after much praying in various tongues and screaming at the majini until he was hoarse, the pastor declared Nyangweso healed, collected payment and went on his merry way.

The next morning, Nyangweso woke up and took off again, but this time, she was speaking in tongues. All who saw her decided that even though she exhibited the same symptoms as she had before, she must be healed because she was speaking in tongues. When Susanna called her employer with the update, her employer advised her to have Nyangweso examined by a medical doctor to determine if what she had was a case of cerebral Malaria. Susanna declined, stating that her pastor was the eminent authority in spiritual matters and since he had not diagnosed Nyangweso with Malaria, then it was definitely a case of the majini.

A day later, Nyangweso had stopped speaking in tongues and was back to wreaking havoc in the village, overturning furniture, slapping strangers and causing general mayhem, before taking off at lighting speed. When Susanna called the pastor for a secondary consultation, he conceded that these majini were above his pay grade, and advised Susanna that a problem of that magnitude required a week of prayer and fasting. And so it was that Susanna called her employer to inform her that she would not be returning to work in January as planned because she would be incommunicado for a week while she fasted and prayed at a nearby cave commonly used by pilgrims for exactly that purpose.

A week later, a filthy, famished but hopeful Susanna emerged from the cave, eager to see the fruit of her prayer. To her dismay, there had been no improvement, in fact, Nyangweso had taken to throwing stones at strangers, which was a new and disheartening development.

It was time to call in the big guns. And when one needs to banish majini, who does one call? The Legio Maria, that’s who. Susanna restrained Nyangweso while she was asleep and awaited the arrival of the Legio Maria. They arrived in a row of flowing white and blue gowns, Holy Water and crucifixes in hand, solemn expressions on their faces, Rosary beads hanging loosely from their necks.  They were not there to make friends or small talk. They came for one thing and one thing only. The removal and banishment of the majini.

A small crowd gathered as Susanna led them to Nyangweso, who was struggling to break free from her restrains. They set up a makeshift altar next to Nyangweso’s bed and formed a circle around her, chanting and singing. Suddenly, Nyangweso went limp, as if the rage had been sucked out of her. The Legio Maria advised Susanna to let her sleep, as she had not rested in a very long time. They packed up their makeshift altar and left in the same manner in which they had arrived.

Later that evening, a renewed and calmer Nyangweso awoke, the majini nowhere in sight.

CoronaVirus

Mungu shuka na usitumane is a KiSwahili plea, used in very desperate times. The direct translation is “God come down and don’t send a messenger”.

My thoughts and prayers go to the deceased, the bereaved and the infected.

Silver Dollar Pancakes

Happy New Year! I realize it is March, but we have not spoken this year so, Happy New Year! Donge?

I have lived in this country long enough to understand that the States in this country are sometimes so different, they might as well be 50 different countries.  That said, I am proud to note that I now understand some common Americanisms, such as the peculiar threatening phrases used to wish each other luck.

American: Knock ‘em dead!

Me: Ah, excuse me, I am not a murderer. Also, who do you want dead? Never mind, the less I know, the better.

American : Break a leg!

Me: Again with the violence. Also, why just one leg? How do you choose the leg? FYI, I will not be breaking any leg, mine or anyone else’s.

It is this confusion that has led to some rather amusing and awkward interactions. For example, in Kenya, when someone invites you to join them for lunch, they will be paying for the meal. In the USA, you will each pay for your meal. Why then invite someone to join you for lunch when you have no intention of paying for the lunch? For the pleasure of their company of course! I once attended a presentation scheduled at lunchtime, titled “brown bag lunch”. I wondered why they would tell us the color of the bag they served lunch in. Did brown have a particular meaning? Of course, once I was at the presentation, it dawned on me that everyone had brought their own lunch, and I was the sole hangry attendee who did not know that a brown bag lunch meant to bring your own lunch. Now, when I see anything including a brown bag lunch, I do not attend. No thank you. Fool me once.

I have fully adopted the American tea drinking experience. In Kenya, there are two types of tea: with milk and without milk. The first kind, with milk, is the preferred kind. The latter, called sturungi  is what Americans call tea. Water and tea. That’s it. No milk, no sugar, ginger etc. The tea of suffering. The tea that says, look at me, I have no milk. I have no sugar. I am all alone in this miserable cup.

The milky version has lots of fancy names here, my favorite being chai tea, or in Kiswahili (tea tea). Note to all immigrants from milk tea drinking countries- brown bag your milk. (see above for brown bag definition)

There is a common Kenyan joke about a visit to one of my tribes-men’s houses that goes like this:

A visitor is offered many drinks, but leaves without partaking of any.

Would you like something to drink?

Yes, I’d like water please

Still or sparkling?

Sparkling please

Chilled or room temperature?

Chilled please.

Flavored or unflavored?

Unflavored please.

Would you like it in a cup or glass?

Cup please

Large or small cup?

I’ll just have bottled still water please!

Plastic bottle or glass bottle?

Glass please

Flavored or unflavored?

Unflavored please

Chilled or room temperature?

Chilled please.

Large or small bottle?

Large please

With a bottle holder or without?

The exasperated guest left despite being offered similar choices for tea, coffee and every other drink imaginable.

That is how I feel when I go shopping sometimes. I just want yogurt. Why do we need 50 different types, flavors and packaging? And then there are the eggs. Free range, organic, all-natural, pasture raised, large brown, large white, small brown, just brown.  Did they all come from chicken? Yes? ok. Just eggs then. It is mind-numbing.

Which brings me to the Silver Dollar Pancakes. Once I browsed shelves upon shelves of pancake options, including their close cousins waffles, I settled on an enticing box labelled “Silver dollar pancakes”. The box promised large, fluffy pancakes, piled on top of each other, blueberry syrup enticingly pouring down their side. I scanned the ingredient’s list and was satisfied that I would not be ingesting unidentifiable ingredients certain to cause diseases which, to quote my mother, even the doctor cannot pronounce. I was practically salivating at the thought of getting home, turning on the oven, sticking the pancakes in there and voila! I would unveil freshly baked fluffy pancakes and my family would rejoice and declare it all a roaring success and me the queen of pancakes.

What happened instead, was when I got home and opened the package, out rolled the tiniest pancakes known to man, woman and child. When I say they were tiny I mean TINY. You could eat these pancakes like you would popcorn. The disappointment felt in our hearts and stomachs after devouring the entire pack was palpable. It was then that my husband pointed out the obvious. A silver dollar is a large coin, from which the pancakes derive their name. Large, that is, for a coin- not so much for pancakes. Turns out there was one more American open secret I did not know of, much to the chagrin of my rumbling stomach.

 

 

Rainy Chronicles

Last night, my husband and I went to see the South African comedian Trevor Noah in San Francisco. We had looked forward to the show since tickets went on sale a few months ago, and bought our tickets and parking pass beforehand.

Since it was raining, we checked Waze beforehand to see how long it would take us to get to San Francisco. For the uninitiated, California has lovely weather almost year-round, which means that rain is A BIG DEAL. Although we get quite a bit of rainfall each year, people forget how to drive at the first sign of rain. Cars that can go upwards of 140 mph suddenly develop an inability to go past 25mph.

Certain bats from hell, who, I assume, are brain surgeons racing to perform life-saving procedures, fly past everyone, darting in and out of lanes, cutting in front of cars and braking suddenly when confronted with the reality of the rain-paralyzed drivers. This, of course, results in enraged drivers lowering their windows, angrily flipping out the offending bat from hell. Because, make no mistake, the rain may have paralyzed their driving skills, but their fine motor skills are weather-proof. Whenever incidents of road rage appear to start around me, I usually slow down and move away from that hot mess because this girl did not fly all the way from Kenya to become embroiled in road rage incidents that have nothing to do with her.

After a very long drive, we finally arrived at the swanky Chase center (new home of the Golden State Warriors), which was bedazzled in Christmas decorations. A ginormous Christmas tree greeted us at the entrance, with hundreds of selfie-taking couples crowding the area around it. Instagram will be lit- literally.

It was while we were standing in line ready to get into the arena that the comedy began. The security guard checked the ticket app on my phone and asked me, “Who are you here to see?” I responded, “Trevor Noah.”

“Oh, he’s in Oakland today.” the guard deadpanned.

I wanted to scream. We had looked forward to this day, hired a babysitter, driven in the rain for hours, had our car sniffed by a dog at the security check, finally found parking, only to find out that we were in the wrong city? Naturally, this alarmist train of thought was not a soliloquy. Outwardly, I froze and stared at my phone to make sure we had the right tickets. They were the right tickets, I looked up to find my husband and the guard laughing. They got me good.

Next, we went through airport type security and stood in a line where there were two very interesting characters. One was what we would call “mtu wa vitabu” back home. Meaning, a bookworm. Because who shows up to a comedy show bearing multiple tomes, requiring multiple passes on the scanner before they were cleared. I wondered if at some point during the show, while the rest of us were laughing so hard our faces hurt, this scholarly gentleman would open up one of his books and start to read, or if he would wait until the we, the general public, left, to lose himself in the latest volume of “The mind of the gentrified modernite” (he looked like the kind of person to read such esoteric literature).

I have encountered cheap people in my life. But the gentleman who was screened after the scholarly one takes the cake. If the cake is free of course. This guy had a water bottle, and as we all know, water bottles are not allowed past modern security screening stations. At first, I thought that maybe he hadn’t traveled anywhere before, and was unaware of this very basic rule. But I would very quickly be disabused of that notion.

He spent the next few minutes arguing with the security guard, asking why he couldn’t bring his water. She patiently answered his questions before giving up and rolling her eyes. She told him that he was holding up the security line ,and delaying others from entering the arena (I will take this moment to applaud Trevor Noah fans. Despite this inconvenience, no curse words were uttered, no middle fingers were flipped, and no fists were shaken in anyone’s direction.)

The guard told  the thirsty man that there was water for sale inside the arena, which finally revealed his real pain point. You see, the water inside the arena is very expensive (true, also San Francisco is a very expensive city to live in), and he wasn’t willing to pay for it (also true), and so he had brought his own water (not vitamin, ionized, sparkling) to drink. I should also add that the contentious water bottle was a plain plastic bottle- not the fancy UV light self-cleaning and self- sanitizing variety. The combination of the non-special water and the standard-issue plastic bottle added to the confoundment of all who witnessed the drama unfold. He was strongly encouraged to dispose of his water- and by strongly encouraged I mean two burly security guards showed up and assisted him in the task. He sullenly walked away from his beloved water bottle, ambling towards the arena, where, I hope, Trevor Noah was able to cheer him up.

Have a happy Holiday season, see you in 2020!