At the age of 20 Wanja had come to the city of Nairobi happy to break free from her hometown in Meru. She represented the few who had made it to the big city leaving their stale hometowns behind and off to gain new experiences and get a fresh start in the city of lights. Accompanied by her older sister who had quit high school at the age of 18 for the same reason, she could not be surer of their promising future: considering that Kanyua her big sister, had set out for Nairobi three years prior. On her return, Kanyua would talk of how the city was different, with many people, tarmacked roads around town, tall buildings, even those that run underground like the Times Tower, many restaurants that sold different delicacies, the nightclubs, more beautiful men and women and the list was endless. Wanja’s curiosity was more aroused each time Kanyua spoke of Nairobi and from then, she had wanted to take a sip of the same drink and from the cup, that Kanyua had drank.
It was time. Kanyua having managed to get a job at Homegrown Kenya, through the help of their eldest brother, (one of the engineers constructing the building off the National museum in 1989), she was in a position to host her sister and more importantly had the network, which she would use to find Wanja, a job. Therefore, they had set out for Nairobi the big city, six hours on road from Meru with each mile exhilarating Wanja’s sense of curiosity until she thought she was not in the living world anymore. Arriving at Tearoom where all buses from Meru made the stop, Kanyua took the reins and directed Wanja to their destination.
The first thing Wanja noticed were the people. It was evident that people in this new environment led a different life. From how they walked, how they dressed and the way they talked. Their Swahili carried a rich accent, which insinuated they knew what they were talking about and maybe that is what had made the whole idea of coming to a foreign place sound so magical, with how Kanyua had communicated. The same tinge of a rich language was in Kanyua’s tongue and she did not miss an opportunity to flaunt a little English in there. Wanja on the other hand, missed a syllable or two and it was not hard to wonder if she was singing a Meru folklore in Swahili or it was just her tongue.
Through the entire walk in town, Wanja’s nose was flared up. Paintings of chips and completely brown fried chicken on the doors, windows and basically everywhere food was sold, made it even worse. She noticed there was a red bottle erected next to the plate with the chips and some thick sausages to leaven the meal. She wondered how that tasted, and what exactly would be in that red bottle? In any case, it was enticing enough to walk around town, for she knew with time she would be able to afford all those good meals that seemed to call out her soul.
Kanyua was in a hurry to introduce her to their new home and so she had to pick up the pace. The streets were confusing (not to Kanyua) and if she happened to slack behind and got lost in this vast world, the only place she would remember would be Tearoom. But how would she get there? She wondered. Nairobians were intimidating enough as it was, neither was she ready for their “language.” She had better stick to Kanyua like her kind to the green building, Afya Centre, as she would come to realize its purpose a few months later.
That was Wanja’s memoir on how she first came to the city of Nairobi in the year 1989, a curious, young and determined woman, ready to take control of her life at the age 20.
Five years later, she would have a job at Homegrown Kenya Ltd working together with her sister, a husband who stayed at home and one daughter who was in the hands of a caring nanny called Mercy. Wanja was hardworking and very determined to give the best life to her first born who was smart, very different and introverted in the same measure. As the sole provider of their household, she would feel proud of her milestones and empowered in a world where a man was the only head of the family. Her husband Mutua who was still looking for a job by hanging out with his boyz was not much of a cornerstone but she always felt obliged to cater for his tantrums whenever he felt emasculated. This always happened during the middle of the month. He would raise complains, ranging from food being overly tasty, to remarks like Wanja having thin legs which made her look unattractive in short dresses. Wanja was also not at home enough for the family, he liked lamenting.
Come payday and it was time to face responsibilities including rent, fees for her daughter who was in a private school and food to last the coming month, his tone had changed from sarcastic to affectionate for he felt short of cash to help check out any bill from that list. So on that particular day, he would avail himself earlier than usual, not drunk or on his high horse but very calm and collected and on a bicycle, which normally broke down by the end of every eve. This was the masquerade until Wanja was pregnant with their second child.
Mutua needed space from his family and he excused himself; just for a little while until he could figure out what he wanted in his life. After all, he was now the new driver at Peugeot Marshalls and no longer wanted to be tied down in a family that seemed to grow fast, even though six years had gone by, before the next child made it to the womb. With the coming of their second child, Wanja had quit her job from the promise that her husband would take care of the family and it was not necessary that they both worked as he had convinced her.
The year was 1999 the month of December, 15 days before the year was over. On that fateful night, Mutua had arrived at 7 o’clock earlier than usual and from his grim face, the red eyes and taut demeanor he hadn’t come to nap. One hour into the house and loud voices could be heard from downstairs. This was Nairobi: people were qualified in minding their own so it would be rare if someone came knocking on the door asking what was happening. The theme of that argument though was how Wanja had been irresponsible enough to confide in the friends she had at the nearby salon, who in turn, ghaflad her business as the estate’s issue. Jen the oldest daughter was six at the time and confused so she had sat at the living room just few feet away as her parents argued behind the curtain in their bedsitter apartment. What came next was an ultimatum of whether to be driven to Meru that night or Ukambani for Nairobi was out of bounds until further notice. “Ukambani,” her mother chose clinging at straws that the separation would be temporary and Mutua would later get back on his senses and go back home to fetch his family. So on that night at midnight Mutua drove the company’s car to Ukambani and before it was two o’clock in the morning, he had dropped his baggage and reverted to Nairobi.
Seven months later.
Mutua was a no show. Wanja was tired of living in limbo and she was conscious that soon her pregnancy would make it difficult for her to handle matters that determined how life for her and the kids would unfold. Her daughter’s education, which was interrupted by the whole fiasco, was a thing she felt sorry for and that is why as soon as they had arrived at Kilungu in the Kamba village, Wanja had enrolled Jen in any amiable school within the neighborhood. Jen did not need the classes though, which the teachers highlighted over and over again and with that she had skipped over Class one and on to Class two.
One thing kept Wanja going in the midst of a hunger inflicted environment that was imposed on her by her mother in law who hated her for she was not a Kamba. (Wanja remembers Mutua telling her that she would never be accepted as part of their family, for she descended from a tribe stereotyped for its feisty people and she was just so typical to integrate and earn a seat at the Kamba table. Wanja heeded the words of the husband, therefore, she settled for place value as the first wife and daughter in law of the family). Jen her daughter was the one thing that gave her strength. Soon she would double her strength with the coming of the unborn child, but in the meantime, she would have to take advantage of her mobility and make the necessary calls before it was too late.
Wanja set out for Nairobi to look for the husband and since the mother-in- law was bent on restraining her by all means necessary, she and Jen had escaped at the dusk of dawn and hopped on the next Akamba that was headed to Nairobi. That was a narrow escape because she was married from one of the well-known and connected families in the community. Unlike in Nairobi, here everyone knew what had transpired to make her stay in the village and her being a foreigner made it easier to be spotted.
The narrative on how a rat retraces its step;
Wanja employed the same technique to find where her husband could have relocated. She exhausted all her contacts and since her ghafla friends were no longer in business, she could not make use of those. Luckily, she remembered one of Mutua’s ex friends Kibet. A lad wallowing in debt because Mutua had screwed him over, by having him sign as the guarantor only to notice Mutua gone with the wind when the time came to be accountable.
Wanja inferred the money had amounted to the Sony speakers, the Philips TV, the empty Pilsner bottles hoisted at the back of the bed and the new furnished apartment where Mutua stayed with his new lover, Mueni. As if she had not seen enough, the same bed they laid on in their home was now in the new bedroom owned by Mueni and spread with the same bedding. In that same notion of Old habits dying hard so had Wanja found this new home at Athi river, and let herself in using the key absurdly placed under the rug on the front porch.
No one came home that night. Neither Mueni nor Mutua. Perhaps Mueni must have heard the rumors about the previous wife being in town; but what about the husband. She wondered, thinking hard and looking over Jen who pretended to be fast asleep and trying hard to hide her whimper.
Wanja did not sleep that night. The humiliation, fury, despair, disappointment, felt like an abyss and she relished in the adrenaline she felt when she decided to take the last course of action. It might have been the pregnancy but early the next morning she arose, woke Jen who was fast asleep and making tiny noises like a wet cat from all the crying, briefed her on what to say incase her father came back, took the money that was hidden under the bed and set for Ukambani before daybreak.
When she arrived three or so hours later, no one was at the compound. They would be at the shamba she assumed but she knew better that caution was necessary hence why she had sent someone to find out if there was anyone at home before she emerged. News of her departure were all over the village and as she started towards the homestead’s gate, a parent of a girl who schooled with Jen spotted her.
“Wanja!, where have you been?”
She lowered her voice, “Do you know they have been searching for you all over and some men have been instructed to capture you in case you returned?”
“You need to be careful, why did you even return?”
“You should’ve just stayed wherever you were because I don’t think you will be able to come out of here alive once they know you’re back.”
Wanja could not afford the time to explain herself. She only urged the woman to help her do what she came for, before the owners returned. Luck was on her side. This woman had managed to call two more men for the endeavor and one hour later Wanja had her things in a cart and ready to leave the premises. She could not get every last thing she owned because just then the kid who had helped her before, came back running shouting that she spotted the mother in law and her sons making a run towards their way. “They must’ve heard that you are back,” she said as Wanja took hold of her hand and they made their exit out of the compound.
Wanja didn’t’ have enough words to thank her rescuers for showing her Kindness amidst the cruelty and uncertainty that befell her. As for money, she only had enough to transport herself and the luggage back to Nairobi. She was in awe and short of ways to thanks four souls who endangered their lives for the sake of a foreign pregnant mother. After making sure the bus was ready to depart, they waved her goodbye and Wanja was left in tears as the adrenaline she was high on started to fade away and was replaced by a pit full of worries which settled in her stomach. She was worried for her daughter. The past hours had been too hectic that Jen hadn’t crossed her mind. She worried that Mutua had come back to the house and finding Jen alone had taken her away. Uncertainty overwhelmed her and she prayed one last time hoping that this would be the only time she would have to be separated from her daughter.
Wanja was in Nairobi. She arrived at Athi-river few minutes to 5 p.m. showing up full in her stomach and carrying nothing else but her handbag. It was time to play out her role; her only concern Jen and if she had managed to play out her part successfully. Knocking at the door, she waited for a minute before she heard footsteps. Anxiety overwhelmed her and she knew this would be the moment of truth. She hated and at the same time feared to face her husband. She was afraid that the other woman had returned and taken her daughter away or done something to her and because of this, she was also afraid of what she was capable of. That thought left her body steaming and she couldn’t handle the heat she felt in her head and mostly what stood on the other side of the door. That’s when the door opened and Jen emerged dragging slippers bigger than her tiny feet along. Instantly, she cooled down and took her tiny girl in her arms like any lioness would take her cub relief written over her face.
“Are you all by yourself?” she muttered as she darted her eyes across the living room to check if there was anyone else in the house. “Daddy came” Jen responded as she continued, “He asked where you went and I told him that you left for the market but I do not know where.” Wanja managed a smile at her daughter. “He asked if you happened to go back to greet shushu and I told him you said you’d go to the market and be back in a short while.” Mission completed. Wanja couldn’t be more proud of her six year old. She knew instantly Jen would be different. Inside her womb, the young one was also kicking and she felt a wave of strength come over her as if assuring her that she was ready to face anything.
That night was not like the previous one. Mutua was in the house and he had come to confirm if the news he had heard were true. He was determined to transport Wanja and Jen back to Kilungu with immediate effect before they could plan to interrupt his routine any further. The only thing he did not factor was that that night would be “business unusual.” They say never joke with a woman scorned for Wanja wasn’t serving teeth and tolerance for dinner. She had taken the reins of her situation after realizing that jilted was the new tag for her situation and it was smeared all over her in fonts as clear as day.
“Let’s start with Benetta Mueni. Is she your current wife?” Wanja added. Mutua had not anticipated that question and not in front of her daughter who was busy watching Tom n Jerry so he started for the bedroom then stopped and shot back.
“Who said you could come here?” “Who even showed you where I lived?” That Kibet…”The thought was interrupted as he continued.
“Why did you leave mother alone?”
“Why is Jen not in school?” Jen looked back at the mention of her name noting her mother head towards the bedroom following her father who opened the door violently as he shouted. “What is your plan for coming here!” Jen could hear his voice betwixt the music playing from the neighboring house and Tom who was laughing hard after setting a trap for Jerry. “Did you come here thinking that we will get back together?” “Tomorrow I want to find you gone and I do not care where you go just let me not find you here!” Those were his words as he emerged again from the hallway carrying a small bag on one hand and a phone on the other. He darted an angry look at Jen and disappeared through the door.
Relief came over the house as Wanja finally emerged too and sat close to Jen who turned her head instantly, to conceal the fact that she had heard the bickering and what was said during that fight. Wanja just approached calmly and lifted her daughter in her lap and asking, “Dear are you hungry?” she shook her head with her stomach rumbling otherwise. Wanja smiled and asked her “Would you like then to hear a story?” Jen nodded.
“Once upon a time, Wanja started, a daughter complained to her father that her life was miserable and she didn’t know how she was going to be prosperous. She was tired of fighting and struggling all the time. It seemed just as one problem was solved, another one soon followed.
Her father, a chef took her to the kitchen, filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Once the three pots began to boil, he placed potatoes in one pot, eggs in the second pot and ground coffee beans in the third pot.
He then let them sit and boil, without saying a word to his daughter. The daughter, moaned and impatiently waited, wondering what he was doing.
After twenty minutes, he turned off the burners, took the potatoes out of the pot and placed them in a bowl. He pulled the boiled eggs out and placed them in a bowl.
He ladled the coffee out and placed it in a cup. Turning to her, he asked, “Daughter, what do you see?”
“Potatoes, eggs and coffee,” she hastily replied.
“Look closer, and touch the potatoes,” he said. She did and noted that they were soft. He then asked her to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg. Finally, he asked her to sip the coffee. Its rich aroma brought a smile to her face.
“Father, what does this mean?” she asked.
He explained: the potatoes, the eggs and coffee beans had each faced the same adversity-the boiling water. However, each one reacted differently. The potato went in strong, hard and unrelenting but in the boiling water it became soft and weak.
The egg was fragile with the thin outer shell protecting its liquid interior until it was put in the boiling water. Then the inside of the egg became hard.
However, the ground coffee beans were unique. After they were exposed to the boiling water, they changed the water and created something new.
“Which are you?” Wanja asked Jen. “When adversity knocks on your door are you a potato, an egg or a coffee bean?”
Jen smiled as she looked up as if the answer would reveal itself. Her mother laughed and told her, “Take your time, I will wait.” “For now, let us go make some spaghetti otherwise that stomach of yours will not let us sleep: your sister here is also complaining,” as she rubbed her belly. “Mom, how can you tell it’s a girl and not a boy? Jen wondered. Her mother leaned in closer and told her, “I just know.”