Torta Torture

I sit here, as I have all these years, so far away from home, patiently waiting to receive the multitudes of visitors who visit me every year. I look on with what I have heard described as a mysterious smile, the subject of much speculation. Scholars and novices alike claim to understand me, what I’m thinking, the secret behind my smile. They come in groups, tall ones, short ones, chubby cheeked ones and sharp cheeked ones, some elegantly dressed, perhaps Italian, and those in baggy sweatpants and fanny packs, definitely American. The room is a cacophony of languages and accents, twangs, drawls, ethnic clothes and elaborate bead-work the likes of which can only originate from Africa.

Some of them are security, I can tell, in plainclothes, attempting to mingle with the crowd. They fool the crowds, but they can never fool me, for their gazes continuously sweep the room, zoning in on anyone who stares at me a little too long, inappropriately, anyone who appears to have gears turning in their head, spinning elaborate wheels to ferry me to a different place, including back to my native Italy.

I can tell a lot by their gazes. The awestruck looks on the faces of those who have finally, finally after years and years of dreaming, begging, borrowing and maybe even stealing, arrived before me. I am right in front of them, their hearts beat faster, as they reverently gaze upon my subtle smile, absorbing every detail, so they can describe this moment in vivid detail to their children, grandchildren, neighbors, fishmongers, Taxi driver, really, anyone they come into contact with for the rest of their lives. I have been known to be so moving as to bring a tear to an African man, Englishman or German’s eye, surprising some of them as they thought their tear ducts were long obsolete. Some will even use their visit as a pickup line, fancying themselves extremely cultured, seeing as they will now have genuine bragging rights, having walked the hallowed ground that is my abode.

And then there are the disappointed lot, muttering, “Oh, this is it?” As if I am not good enough for them. As if their journey to see me was a complete waste of their time. Their crestfallen faces leave no doubt in my mind that, in their estimation, watching paint dry would have been a better use of their precious time. They had built up this image of me in their minds, an impossibly surreal image no one could ever match, certainly not me, I’m but a woman. 

Occasionally a VERY very important person will have the whole place shut down so they can have a private tour. There are those true lovers of art who want an undisturbed moment with me, and then there are the obnoxious ones who “don’t do crowds”, because heaven forbid they breathe the same air as the hoi polloi.

No visitor, no matter how important, can escape the watchful eye of my security detail. I never have an unguarded moment. Well, not since my compatriot decided to “free” me all those years ago. You see, he decided that I needed to return to Italy, where I would wake up to the sounds of “ciao bella”, and the aroma of home-made pasta. Enough was enough, he decided. My prolonged stay here bothered him to no end, and so he bided his time, waiting for the opportune moment, even getting a job as a security guard in my home, and then one day, he snatched me, spiriting me to my native land, to the consternation of multitudes of security organizations and self proclaimed aficionados.

Sheathed in musty boxes, he plunged me into the underground, a world of shadowy figures, bats of the human race, who only showed their sinister faces at night, unsavory brokers who peeked at me, discussing my worth, their deep pocketed greedy masters tugging at invisible strings, determined to pawn me off to the highest bidder.

My hijacker’s quest was cut short when the long arm of the law caught up with him, and I was returned to my home, looking forward to some peace and quiet. A lady can only deal with so much excitement after all. 

Alas, peace and quiet would prove elusive. Years later, a man would claim to be madly in love with me, and in a deranged display of devotion, cut me with a razor, and an equally bizarre subsequent fanatic threw a stone at me, hitting my elbow in the process, and so security was stepped up to RED, meaning, fart near me and you will be welcomed into the tender, loving care of the Gendarmerie posthaste. I’ve seen things kids, I’ve seen things. I mean, 2020, amiright?

I had some more peace and quiet, until today,that is. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love cake as much as the next person, but today’s incident literally took the cake. You see, I was minding my own business, mysterious smile in place, watching the crowd of visitors, when a very old woman, bent over with the ravages of time, was wheeled in to see me, probably as a dying wish. My heart melted, touched by the kindness of her chaperone, because such kindness is so rare in this world. I watched as the woman gazed upon me, and with a speed that belied her old age, stood up, revealing a whole cake, momentarily exciting me, thinking that someone had finally decided to very belatedly celebrate my birthday! This hopeful moment was short-lived when uncharacteristically manly hands lobbed the cake, unsliced, straight at me, whacking me smack in the face! Mio Dio! The savagery!

Luckily for the cake lobber, the Kenyan police were not in the building, and so he was spared that indelible slap that can only be meted by the lead-palmed hand of a Kenyan policeman.

The saddest part? I didn’t get a slice of that cake, it looked quite delicious.

5 Seconds

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was a day full of meetings and low on time to eat a proper meal. So, having been heads down working non-stop, I didn’t notice it was almost lunchtime until nature’s alarm clock, also known as my rumbling stomach, reminded me of this fact in its typical rambunctious fashion. 

Suddenly, I had an epiphany. A fried chicken burger would be nice, I thought. My famished brain added fuel to this thought by conjuring the tastiest, crispiest, juiciest burger that ever burgered.  This burger was going to have the works. Crispy brioche bread, juicy yet crunchy fried chicken, freshly sliced onions, wisps of jalapeno pepper, freshly made honey mustard sauce dripping over the chicken, lettuce so crisp I could practically feel the crunch as I bit into it. I mean, this burger was going to be the epitome of burger perfection, a hall of famer.

Naturally, the next step was to order this magical burger from my favorite burger restaurant, followed by obsessively tracking the delivery status on my app. Exactly 15 minutes later, my doorbell rang, informing me that the moment I had been eagerly anticipating was finally here. I grabbed the package, and channeling my inner Shelly-Ann Fraser, I sprinted to the kitchen for the grand unveiling and ribbon cutting ceremony.

I unwrapped the package and the delicious aroma of the burger and fries wafted towards my hungry face, and in a delayed flash of genius, I decided to re-crisp the burger so it would be just so. Peak level of crispiness must be achieved after all. 

It was when I was retrieving my now crisped-to-perfection burger that the devil struck. Yes, I will blame this one on Saitan

You see, I was distracted by a text message while reaching for the food, and suddenly, as if in slow motion, I watched my beloved crispy juicy burger tumble to the floor, slowly deconstructing itself midair, landing in a mess of splattered honey mustard, lettuce, onions, brioche and finally and to my great dismay, crispy fried chicken.

“Nooooooooooooooooooooooo!” I yelled, horrified, realizing that in these days of COVID, the 5 second rule does not apply. And it does not apply because COVID probably latched onto my burger mid-air, sinking its tentacles in it before the lowly germs of the floor ever got a chance to bite into it. And so, in a funereal sequence, I gathered the possibly COVID infested remains of my beloved burger, and committed them to the compost bin. The text message that started all this? It was a spam text, Saitan asindwe!

Fare thee well my beloved burger, rest with the ants who I am sure had the feast to end all feasts.

Flighty Fingers

Mtaka cha mvunguni sharti ainame. This sliver of wisdom, dispensed by one of those Swahili sages of old as his agemates huddled in a circle, kanzus firmly in place, deeply-veined shaky hands tenuously grasping small cups of kahawa tungu. Their milky eyes held far-away looks as they fondly remembered their glory days, sweet-talking lasses with ample curves,  as their now wizened faces with dune-like wrinkles slowly nodded in agreement, even though their bodies were decades past their bending days. I imagine his name was Mzee Abdalah. And hours later, when Mzee Abdalah was finally done speaking, because a good methali must first marinate, besides, what else is there to do in that sweltering heat but talk? His compeers simply said, “Doh!Umenena kama wazee elfu!”

This saying recently came to mind when I encountered, shall we say, an interesting character. You see, even though I am a daughter of Nam Lolwe, the benevolent Swahili gods occasionally take pity on me, bringing to mind a methali that perfectly captures my current situation; which is quite generous, considering my people have allegedly so bastardized that language that in its final throes it simply gave up the ghost, surrendering to its new name, Oswahili.

Whether we like to admit it or not, many of us would gleefully jump at the chance to grab the mvunguni goodies if we could bypass the kuinama part. And it was under such circumstances that I encountered this man, let’s call him Mteche. You see, I had recently booked a flight with Kenya Airways, but because life whips you with a nyaunyo harder in these times of COVID, I had to cancel the flight. In the process of trying to get a hold of KQ on Twirra, this enterprising fellow saw a loophole and decided to exploit it. 

YouTube is laden with a cornucopia of videos on various flavors of scams, ranging from vintage 90s barrister-with-a-windfall left by a recently deceased relative you’ve never heard of, to the slightly more savvy 2010s call centers targeting senior and not-so-senior citizens, all the way up to the truly scary COVID era ones, those you never hear from, shadowy figures who thrive on identity theft, dissipating after the deed is done, leaving not even a wisp of their existence, save for a gaping hole where your bank account once struggled to find footing. 

And so when I encountered my very own scammer, my newly minted virtual diploma from YouTube scam-buster academy in hand, I decided to have some fun with it. Because in these days of COVID, we must spark our joy where it finds us, donge?

This enterprising fellow, Mteche, must have scoured the internet, seeking the best scam artistry education no money could buy. I imagine in a previous life, the barrister scam may have worked with modest success, earning him enough to buy a mandazi or two, and tea without milk. Seeing as he wanted some milk in his tea, he decided to enroll in slightly more advanced level II courses, which led him to  create a Twirra Account and handle mimicking the KQ logo and handle , complete with a business account on Whatsapp. His M.O was quite simple really. Search Twirra for a disgruntled customer, preferably one inquiring about their refund, promptly inbox said person, obtain their phone number, and that is where the fun and games began.

I imagine his heart was beating excitedly, the hunter in him sensing gullible prey ahead. But this daughter of Alego was also equally excited, ready to put her YouTube Scam-Buster Academy skills to use. As our venerable tutors on YouTube told us, the first step is always to get the victim to save the scammer’s number on their phone, and then direct the victim to a money transfer service. 

Mteche tried, several times, to get me to send him money through MPESA, Western Union,World Remit, a homing pigeon, a donkey, anything, to no avail. At some point, he got so frustrated and asked me if I could name relatives whose numbers could be used instead. I explained, in my most doleful voice, that I was born alone in this world, like a penguin hatched from an abandoned egg in the frigid gusts of Antarctica. He had no sympathy for this penguin, he had a job to do. So he tried something else, and this is where my YouTube Academy education came in handy. 

You see, the latest scam is to direct the victim to a money sending service and then coerce them to enter the scammer’s name as the recipient, and then, in the amount section, to enter what appear to be random numbers like 0008875, but in reality, those zeros don’t count. Once you select continue, you have just sent them 8,875 of whatever currency you typically transact in. I wrote all this information on a piece of paper, because YouTube Scam- Buster Academy graduates no fools.

Mteche: Have you entered the name and that number?

Me: Yes

Mteche: What does it say

Me: It says this is fraud

Long, awkward pause, followed by another pause

Me: Are you there?

Mteche: garbling noise

Me: You know, this scam where you ask people to enter a phone number in their phone book and then to enter many zeros followed by a number is a well known scam

Mteche: I’m not a scammer

Me: Why isn’t your account verified, if you are with KQ? Where is your little tick?

Mteche: They forgot

Me: Who are they?

Mteche: Twirra

Me: Ok, no problem, what’s your manager’s name (checks LinkedIn, no such names exist)

Mteche: Have you entered the number in your phone?

Me: Of course

Mteche, impatiently: I don’t see any money, can you check?

Me, rather dramatically, in the fashion of my people’s professional mourners: Mayo! You tricked me! My money! it’s gone!

Mteche, excitedly checking his phone: there’s no money here! Are you sure you entered the instructions in your phone?

Me: chortling

Mteche: Why are you laughing!

At this point, I was roaring with laughter, what people like to caption as “I’m dead” while still being very much alive.

The line went dead, I’m not sure why. 

I did of course send him a message to wish him a great day, I am after all, a lady, but I am also a lady from Alego, and we know our rights, so I let him know that I would be forwarding his numbers to various authorities(in his desperation to get me to send him money, he kept providing alternative phone numbers because he thought that the actual problem was one of his lines and not the fact that he was up against a YouTube Scam-Buster Academy graduate)

I don’t know if anything will come of my reports to Twirra, the real Kenya Airways  and the authorities, but in the meantime, should you encounter Mteche and his scam-mates, feel free to quote Mzee Abdalah. 

15 Items

It sat there, sullen, seemingly forgotten, like the last kid to be picked up from school. It was almost full to the brim with an assortment of groceries. I looked at it again, and then checked the sign above me. “Express Lane, 15 items or less”, the sign warned us, frowning at the blatant disrespect of the fully laden cart in this lane. The nerve.

That was the first sign. The universe’s first whisper, warning me to flee. But did I? No. I am from Alego. We do not cower at the first sign of adversity. I joined the line, my kombucha and kale, 8 items in total, toeing the line. After a moment, I looked at the cashier, who was looking around impatiently, adjusting her glasses while tapping her long acrylic nails on the counter, ‘tap tap tap’. 

“Is this cart checking out?” I asked

“Yep, she’s just getting a few more things.” She replied, sighing deeply, the long suffering sigh of obligation mixed with disappointment and held together by the duct tape of the almighty paycheck.

I looked at the full cart and then at the cashier, and in that moment, we bonded over our frustration. The frustration of watching a cart full of at least 50 items hold the line hostage while the culprit went to look for more items, because why stop at 50?

My Kombucha, unaccustomed to life on these streets, started to sweat like cold bottles do when ripped from the cool safety of the fridge. The organic kale, mortified, sneered at the sweaty bottle, shook its leaves and shuddered at the indignity of it all.

Finally, a few minutes later, she appeared. She was a very well dressed woman, sporting an expensive looking watch, diamond earrings and a very pricey purse. She swept past me, a cloud of perfume floating around her perfectly coiffed gray hair. We shall call her Madam. True to her word, Madam had forgotten a few items. The sweaty kombucha, the snooty kale and I all breathed a sigh of relief. Our wait was coming to an end. She would pay for her 50 items and move on with her merry life. But the universe had other plans. I had ignored its warning, and so it was lesson time. 

She reached into her purse, fished out a wallet and handed the cashier a few gift cards to pay for the purchase. Fair enough. The cashier, eager to move the line along, quickly started to check out her small mountain of items, and was almost halfway through the process when Madam’s face perked up, a Eureka moment! She reached into her bottomless purse, and after a frantic search, her fist emerged victorious, with the mother lode of coupons in tow. I lauded her savvy, inflation being what it is, she had found ways to slash her grocery bill significantly. My cheer leading of this seemingly kindred financially literate spirit was brought to a screeching halt in seconds. You see, coupons were not the only thing she had in abundance. It turns out she had trust issues of Leviathan proportions. 

She asked to calculate the coupon totals alongside the cashier, and for the cashier to check if the coupons actually said they were single use only. She debated why the coffee coupons couldn’t apply to vodka (a few bottles dotted the heaped cart), seeing as they were both drinks, and why the expired coupons could not be accepted. Then the cash register jammed. Even it had reached its limit with Madam. The frustrated cashier looked up to the sky, seemingly praying for divine intervention. What had she done to deserve this? 

The kale in my cart was asking itself the exact same question. Slathered in kombucha sweat, it had given up distancing itself from its clammy neighbor. At this point, kombucha, having run out of apologies, stewed in a pool of self pity. 

And then, amid all this gloom, appeared a deus ex machina. Mercedes was her name. With the wave of her hand, I was freed from the depths of Madam hell, upgraded to a new lane and checked out within minutes. On my way out, I cast a fleeting sympathetic glance at the cashier on the Express lane, who was still embroiled in Coupongate with Madam. I said a silent prayer for her, and for all the souls who have to deal with irate customers all day long.

I am happy to report that the kombucha and kale made it home safely. Once the kombucha was wiped down and its dignity restored, kale found it not to be so bad after all. Safely ensconced within the cool confines of my refrigerator, all was well with the world again. 

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.”

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.

Dia De Los Muertos

This weekend, many cultures around the world will hold days of prayer and remembrance for the departed. All Saints day is followed by All Souls day, which coincides with Día de Los Muertos, a day of remembrance observed by our Mexican brethren. Dia de Los Muertos is beautifully depicted in the film Coco, if you haven’t watched it, do yourself a favor and watch it. It will enrich your life.

We have all known the pain of losing a loved one. And though they are physically gone from our lives, their memories live on in us. I hope you will find the time to remember your departed loved ones too, and keep their memory alive.

Today, we remember, not how we lost them, but much better this world was with them in it.

We remember:

The mother whose laughter filled her house with joy, who toiled tirelessly to single-handedly raise her children. That formidable woman whose firm disciplinarian parenting built in her children resilience that has seen them through life’s challenges; and who carried herself with dignity and unfailing grace even as she fought her final battle.

The father whose quiet strength carried his family through unimaginable adversity. He who steered his wife and children to safety in a war-torn land, and once their safety was assured, returning to fight to defend the land of his forefathers to the bitter end.

The grandmother whose harshness melted away when she held her first grandchild in her arms, to the disbelief of her own children. She who, while she birthed no children of her own, lovingly raised other people’s children, so they called her mother and grandmother because love transcends blood.

The grandfather whose steady love for his family fomented in them an urge to always put family first in everything they did.

The sister who always had a ready smile, making every guest feel right at home. Whose wanderlust led her to travel the world, seeing for herself the beauty it holds.

The brother who always looked out for his tribe of misfits. For though they were condemned to homelessness, he taught them that family is bonded by love.

The teacher who taught selflessly, hoping for a bright future for all of her students. And those students, fueled by her belief in them, scaled seemingly unattainable heights, always hearing her voice spurring them on “You can do it. Never give up!”

The nanny under whose loving care many children were raised, she who was there to clean scrapes and kiss pain away.

The children tragically lost before they took their first breath, their lives over before they began, borne on angel wings.

May they rest in peace, and may they live on in our hearts.