OF MSAMARIA MWEMA AND COUNTRY BUS.

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There is a place where life as we know it would cease to exist if food was banned. This place where I come from ugali and tea are ranked high, next to oxygen and water. In Western Kenya, only the crazy ones do not actively participate in maize farming. Maize here is embraced (fiercely) in all its sizes, shapes and forms. We boil it, roast it, ground it, fry it; you name it. Hell, we make busaa (some local alcoholic brew) from left-over ugali. I personally hail from Ebutsunga Village, a small nondescript cluster of homesteads tucked at the far end of the Emauko clan. Home as I know it is bordered by Emuriri Village to the north, Masaba Village to the south, Ebuseta to the west and Khushibembe to the east. You know you have reached Ebutsunga when you are related, in one way or another, to anyone you meet. When you have to stop and greet everyone comprehensively ending the greeting with how everyone is at home, then you know you are on familiar ground.

My first visit upcountry (that I remember of) was way back when I was 8 years of age maybe? Back in the day, visits upcountry were a reserve for December holidays. My dad saw to it that we were whisked up there before the infamous “luhyabeeste” migration started and drove fares to high heavens. Those were good days. Spending the entire day in a bus (crowded, sure. But that did not matter back then) was a pleasure for me. We always got to see zebras and gorillas and my dad tended to be generous on the amount of grub we could eat. My younger sister and I would fight seriously for seat windows. Those good old days when I did not have to worry about packing, or ensuring someone did not “mistakenly” make away with our luggage, are long gone. As a kid, I did not know the hustle that went into securing seats or the amount of patience it took to having to deal with the very rude ticket sellers who by all indicators indulge in a glass of bile with a side dish of shit for breakfast before work because honestly that level of foulness cannot possibly come naturally.

Now that I am grown, I can safely say going upcountry is not as easy as simply packing one’s bags and leaving. It takes time, and strategy and lots of vigilance. The trip, when you get drivers who do not feel inclined to take you through every conceivable route (or if the passengers go easy on the tea so that we are not forced to make too many stops for nature calls), lasts roughly 8 hours. The day starts early. We know we are not going for a tea party so we dress appropriately. Sandals or any open shoes are a no-go zone. It is also safe to not wear that white or bright cream shirt. And by all means, secure your hair. On this day, we forgo breakfast for the love of seats and the hope that we will get to see the sunset from the security of our fenced homestead. Manners and courtesy are left at the door as we leave the house. These are picked up only after we are within the fenced perimeter of our homestead.

In all fairness, we all have the option of securing tickets earlier on, before the rush begins but that is a reserve for the punctual and responsible ones. Furthermore, buses that offer this luxury are a select few and can hardly cater to the huge appetite us Luhya’s have when it comes to spending Christmas in our ancestral homes. Majority of us have to flock at country bus with the hopes that our shoving, smothering and pushing will pay off and somehow get us seats. Country bus, for those who may not know, is that rusty assortment of buses and minivans opposite Muthurwa Market which hosts a myriad of buses with various destinations across the country. It has to be by far the busiest during that final week to Christmas. Buses that get me home are the likes of Msamaria Mwema, or Mbukinya or a personal favourite, Guardian. These are the buses whose designers incorporated absolutely no room for comfort. They are meant to ferry people, and at the very least provide seats next to functioning windows.

There is a technique when it comes to securing seats in Msamaria Mwema which is the bus I run to each time I am unable to get earlier tickets. This technique has to be learnt fast. The rule is simple, whatever you do ensure you’ve secured a seat before they are all taken. That jostle is not for the faint muscled or the civilised. This hustle is taken so seriously that people spend nights at the station so as to catch the overnight bus as soon as it arrives in Nairobi. My heart rests slightly easy when I am able to get my ass on a seat and my luggage safely squeezed away in the overhead luggage carriers.  You can only hope and pray that your seat mate does not come with three little ones (because two of those will be yours for the day) or that they are not those people who insist on conversing meanwhile they are unleashing all that morning breathe right into your eyes.

Once the bus is full, we hit the road. Now, there are things I have to believe are done by people of my ethnicity only. Let us begin with the propensity to migrate upcountry at the end of each year. It is shocking, amusing and baffling how we are committed to going up there every December without fail. I think it is engraved in Luhya blood that if you do not spend Christmas in your ancestral house, then the year might turn out terrible. My dad has been doing a pretty remarkable job of passing this baton down to us. I cannot remember the last Christmas I spent in the city and it feels slightly unsettling to spend that day in the city. Then there is the luggage. It is luggage in the literal sense of the word. Bags upon bags upon bags of packed clothes and food and kitchen ware and furniture and beddings. I doubt there is anything we do not carry while travelling.  That cliché about Luhyas and their obsession with chicken, it is true. We carry these birds everywhere we go. One would imagine when going upcountry we do not need to carry them, but we do; probably to exchange them and give that village cock a chance at city hens.

The food cannot be explained comprehensively enough. We Luhyas do not believe in throwing away money at those traders who infringe on our pockets by selling us packed diseases. No sir. We carry our own. For all three meals. Tea, in glass flasks (because what is tea if it is not steaming hot) which miraculously survive all the elbowing and jostling to get into the vehicle. This with bread or chapatis or ugali. Then there is lunch which packed in neat boxes is promptly produced at the strike of midday. We finish our meals by a ka-snack (read ground nuts and/or tea) at four as we are approaching home ground. We also believe in reproduction because kids, so many kids, have to travel with us. Room is made on every conceivable room. Seats on the aisle are made out of luggage. It helps that we believe in communism so if you happen to be travelling unencumbered with luggage or children, be sure someone expects you to help them with theirs; without question.

By the time the vehicle actually sets off, it is almost impossible to see its rooftop for all the hanging luggage. Vocal cords also tend to be sharp, probably from all that tea. We believe in getting value for our money so when the driver makes too sudden a turn or halt, man and chicken alike voice displeasure. Only difference is we mankind complain for almost an hour even as the birds wisely secure another comfortable place and continue to do whatever it is they do when travelling with humans in a bus. Something else, we have no secrets whatsoever. When we talk, we need the whole bus to keep up with the conversation; contribute even if so inclined. It is not unusual when someone from the middle or front of the bus holds a conversation, exclamations and all, with someone at the backseats of the bus.

In spite of all this though, I would not quite trade spending Christmas up there with anything. Nothing, and I mean nothing, beats that kienyeji chicken or the community, harmony and unity that goes into collectively preparing food for that day.

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LINDA

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When he hit her, the first of several, her first reaction was to hide behind the solid impenetrable façade she had created. To her thinking, she saw no need of disturbing the perfect image she had worked so hard to create and periodically maintain on Instagram and Facebook. No way, she reasoned, was she letting known that her relationship had deteriorated to the point of violence. Her mother, the first one who had expressed reservations concerning Ian but chose to let her go ahead for the love of grand kids, was her solace: the arms she ran to following her last beating. It was her mother who helped her gather pieces of herself and put them together; she who helped her remove the veil she had tossed over her eyes and made her blind to reality.

The first time he hit her; something between a punch and a slap across her face, she was stunned more by shock than the stinging pain. She did not cry, not that first time. He did apologize though, so profusely and with so much regret that she forgave him and willed herself to forget the incident. She convinced herself it was mostly her fault; that it was she who had provoked the abuse out of him. When her colleagues at work wanted to know where the mark had come from she vaguely cited a crazy night that got out of hand. The second time occurred months later, just when she was starting to convince herself the abuse never happened. This time it was a slap; delivered with such force it sent her flying across the room and hurtling helplessly against the sofa. The third beating, (and I do not use this word lightly) occurred weeks later. This time Ian unleashed an avalanche of blows and kicks. That beating marked the last straw for her. When she was able to see through the hazy pain, Linda tossed a few of her belongings in a bag and left for her mother’s.

Later, when she let herself actually think through it, Linda could point to instances when she noted violent streaks in Ian. She let them go and talked herself into making them inconsequential. The first red flag, one that should have sent her running for the hills, occurred on their very first encounter. They crossed paths at a networking event. There was no immediate spark and he was not any more charismatic than the average man. But his glances lingered a little longer and when she spoke he paid closer attention. At the end of the event, as she was leaving, he offered to take her home. She politely declined and noted the slightest of disappointments and brief annoyance cross his face. He seemed to take the decline so personally that Linda felt inclined to explain she already had a ride.

For their first date which happened two weeks later at his insistence, he suggested a place on the other side of town claiming the place had the best roast. She complied. And promised to find her way when he did not offer to pick her. He was 20 minutes late and when he finally arrived, he laid the blame squarely on Nairobi traffic. Linda remembers her unease with the dismissive and rash manner in which he spoke to the waiters. And how he seemed content to talk about his job and his landlord who was, in his words, a huge pain in the ass. She stayed because he had this killer smile and he was older than she was, just about right for marriage. She really hoped to soon end the endless questions as to why she was yet to settle down. And hopefully quiet the screams her ovaries had started letting out of late. Also, she had grown tired of the imaginary loud ticking of her biological clock. Somewhere along the way it got into her head that she was running out of time (at 32 years of age). She felt obligated to put a rush on fertilizing those eggs before they expired.

Her biggest error might have been moving in with him two months into their dating. Or saying yes to his marriage proposal 5 months later. But all of that did happen and it was under a shared roof that Linda started noting tiny little things that were off. Ian was for instance so keen on maintaining things as they had been in his bachelor days. He exhibited annoyance when her makeup and lotions ate up dressing-table room, or the spices she heaped in the kitchen cabinet (never mind he loved the meals that resulted from those spices). Their first argument was triggered by her favorite shoes which she left on his side of the shoe rack. Overtime, Linda learned that Ian hated his opinions contradicted or things happening not according to his plans; even when that could not be helped. He would sporadically lash-out and took to making snide remarks about her intellectual capabilities whenever she opposed him. It would be a year before Linda noted she was mortally afraid of voicing her opinions in her own home. The first beating was just around the corner.

For now, Linda is trying to figure out how to explain the failure of a barely two-year old marriage or the fact that she never conceived. Or why she stayed in an abusive marriage; she who had initially vocally expressed her feminist stances. Above all though, she is healing her wounds, stitching together her broken confidence and working on filing a lawsuit against Ian. It really is true what they say; those first warning signs later manifest in ugly hurtful ways. They should never be overlooked. Linda swears by this.

DAYS

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There are days; good and bad (and well, days that are a general blur).

On a good day, our girl jumps out of bed (no alarm snoozes on this day) and kicks the day off with an early morning jog. On this day, she gets out of bed without second thought and promptly changes into her running gear. On her way out, she tosses a “Good morning” at the fitfully dozing night guard who almost always never responds. Today it is all about perspective and reason. She approaches the running track not with the usual wary resignation. Today it is an escape from her bloated tummy and the wiggly ass that won’t stop with those dimples. Today, even her lungs are rooting for her and they manage more oxygen than they normally would. She goes an extra lap for good measure before bouncing back to the house where she catches a quick cold shower. The morning paper is sought on this day with laughable one-minded purpose. When she finally heads to class, she is literally exhaling inspiration and purpose. Today, she looks forward to learning theories that are, on any other day, the bane of her student life existence. Lessons do not drag, at all. If you ask her, she will explain (in detail) the absolute importance of time management and the disservice we do ourselves when we live average unchallenged lives.  At the end of the day, when she finally puts her head down, her thoughts are a contemplation of how much is within reach if she only went for it.

On a typical day (let’s not call these days bad because they are entirely too many) our girl finally drags herself out of bed after five alarm snoozes. On this day she is generally annoyed at the very existence of mornings. She attends class purely because she needs to net those bonus attendance marks. It is unbelievable how slowly time drags. She scampers back to the house at the soonest chance where armed with a packet of fries she finishes the day filling up on fatty carbohydrates and catching up on all twitter has to offer. If it happens to be one of those days when she is not required to be anywhere, our girl gets out of bed only when her rumbling stomach becomes too much of a nuisance. She trudges to the kitchen and grabs whatever left over food she can lay her hands on before carting her bounty back to bed. Her laptop, the one she left with several tabs open aiming at getting a move on that term paper that she really ought to have started 2 weeks ago, is rebooted. The ultimate destination is always the movies folder. This morning is spent watching movies between small naps. She will rouse sometime in the afternoon and make attempts at being productive for the remainder of the day (but mostly because she made commitments she has to fulfil). Today she fumbles with her bag clasp and somehow cannot place her phone; the same one in her hand informing her she is running late.

For today though, our girl has coming exams which call for reading. She is all too familiar with repeats and retakes. She can attest to the bitter after-taste failure leaves in its wake; a taste she has become wary of and would rather avoid at all costs. Next week might go without one of her very delightful posts, haha. But she will be back soon. Sooner than expected if those exams are kind to her.

WEDDING COMMITTEES.

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I must have been in class 6 when I finally learnt how to correctly spell the word “committee”; this loaded word that rang mysterious to my 12 year old mind and had three sets of double letters. “Committee” was that word grown-ups threw around when going to places kids were not allowed. In my mind, nothing good ever came out of them. In primary school, when the school committee met, all under performing and deteriorating students were put under scrutiny and forced to answer really hard questions. When parent-teacher committees occurred, my mom (rarely ever my dad) would later come back home in a foul mood probably because of new term expenses or because of my very unimpressive grades in Maths or Social Studies. I have always suspected the moods had more to do with those parents who strolled into the meeting late only to raise already discussed issues or Mr. Masolai, that one CRE teacher who had no filters whatsoever and no idea what speaking in brief meant.

Grown me recently joined my cousin’s wedding committee. They assumed now that I am grown I should probably be able to “contribute meaningfully” to the agenda at hand (I didn’t know shit). I stayed because support is essential. This particular committee was hilarious. I loved the theatrics that capped the entire journey and I got to meet characters who showed up for each and every other meeting, almost like clockwork. Here is a breakdown of the various characters that form committees;

The know it all; This one seems to have a contrary opinion to everything. Their way of doing things is the best and has to be followed. They have concerns and objections to virtually everything. More often than not they have no clear solution to whatever they are objecting. They come in the field, admonish everything you have deliberated on, then proceed to step back and let you swirl in the new chaotic melee. This one time, the “Know-it-all” was opposing the sum of money set aside for the wedding cake. In his opinion, the budgeted amount was too costly and punitive. When asked if he had a suggestion for someone who might offer a cheaper cake with the same quality and prescriptions, he could not place anyone. He just “knew” they could get a better deal. Incidentally, this person had no clue about the going rates for wedding cakes.

The bitter one; This one comes in many faces. Could be the estranged wife/husband, the frustrated spouse, the frustrated parent whose offspring haven’t had the presence of mind to conduct a wedding or the single (not out of choice) one. This one turns down proposals on pure emotional grounds. Their aim is to drag in venom and systematically spew it on everyone in the committee. Their arguments are usually so unfounded and absurd they are almost laughable. For instance, at this wedding committee while discussing which flowers to use given the set aside amount, this person starts grumbling that rose flowers are allowed only for virgins or girls directly from their father’s houses. Annoyingly, they seem content to murmur and grumble their protests and points of view; never willing or bold enough to stand high and state their opinions. They are the narrators of all things that could go wrong and have endless awry tales of weddings that went terribly wrong.

The vocal ones; I love these ones. They are usually unafraid to raise issues or make comments over anything and everything. They raise their voices from the back, where they more often than not sit, and point out errors or mistakes. They can be crude and hurtful in their comments but are for the most part honest and keep the meeting going.

The wealthy ones; The ones with money roll into the venue, they hardly ever walk, and proceed to park their vehicles at the most vantage point; ensuring the vehicle is in clear view of everyone coming in. These ones can simply not wait to remind everyone how much money they have. Flashy watches and stretched out clothes are their trademark. Gaudy and oversize phones are also held at hand and are periodically checked, maybe to see if the next multi-billion deal has been realized. Their sole problem has to do with the budget; it is too low. They make suggestions such as, “Why don’t we pump in another 200K on that venue? We can get something better. In fact, I know someone who may give us something at 500K (read three times the budgeted price). Ironically, they are also the ones with the stiffest of pockets. Getting money out of them is usually an extreme sport.

The onlookers; These ones do not have any opinion on anything being discussed. They occasionally smile or laugh but have no real input in the discussions. They may as well have stayed home and waited for the final decisions. They show up, sit comfortably and proceed to observe the events. Questions requiring side-taking are viewed with the same detached concomittance. It is disconcerting and discouraging especially for the controllers of these meetings.

The poor ones; These ones are almost allergic to spending money. They propose a reduction on every item. They feel like the amount being suggested is waaay too high. It helps though that they have ideas and cheaper suggestions. Only problem, the solutions are usually so cheap and generally not within the goals of the organizers. This one time, the venue was being discussed with people haggling over when the venue should be secured since it was on high demand and required down payment for reservation. The poor one stood up and announced that the funds set aside for the venue should be utilized elsewhere. The wedding could be done at some park where he knew the grounds keeper who would let the wedding in for free. The said park was too far and had a generally rugged landscape not to mention the occasional flooding. It is refreshing to know that members of this group are usually committed to making contributions and so when they are raising issues they are mostly looking out for their pockets.

Ants in pants; These ones seem to have other pressing things to do always and are constantly moving into and out of the venue of meeting. Endless phone calls and imaginary summons keep them almost always on the move. One wonders why they bothered coming for the meeting. They, for whatever reason, do not sit near exits so that every time they need to get out, they have to disrupt others. They get back in and proceed to ask what has been discussed or raise issues that have already been sorted. They mainly serve to derail the meeting.

The contributors; These ones are the heavy-weights of the committee. They are the ones with the deep pockets and provide significant quantities. The contributors have been known to take up entire portions of the budget. You would be agonizing over transportation or catering and they would step in and announce they will provide all vehicles (such blessings). They may not always attend the meetings, but the money always finds its way in.

 

Where do you fall, if at all?

WHATSAPP THINGS.

 

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This one time I open my WhatsApp to be notified I am a member of some group called “Suzie Shower”. A quick scan of the members unveils strangers, not a single one is in my phone book. The admin, a busty girl in heavy make-up rings a vague bell. The name is Lucey Mresh Thoni. On closer look I remember that to be Lucy Muthoni, a former primary school classmate. I last saw her when I walked out of that KCPE Social Studies paper. I barely recognize her though. The Lucy I remember used to be a scrawny little girl with questionable personal hygiene, a phenomenal fear for boys and an apparent objection towards ever completing homework. Most of my recollection brings up a loner, ever in the teacher’s bad books; definitely nothing like the face I am looking at.

Lucy, bless her soul, is throwing a Baby Shower for her sister Suzie. The group members are friends and family of Suzie (and apparently anyone who’s ever had any ties with her blood). We are meant to make “small contributions” of KES 2,000 each (or as Lynda, the organizer, deems fit). Ideas are welcome and highly encouraged she informs us and finishes the introductory paragraph with an M-Pesa number belonging to Linda Kameno. I did not know Lucy had a sister; hell, I did not know Lucy had any siblings. At the moment though, I’m trying to figure out what logic could have possibly led to me being added to this group. (And has she always had my number? What, she needs to throw a shower and I certainly make the list? I really worry).

I close the chat and leave the app assuming I will be removed since I obviously do not belong there. Forty five minutes later, a glance at my notifications informs me I have 342 new messages from a now renamed “Susan’s Shower Party”. At a loss, I open the chat. A series of “Thnx 4 the add” make the first few texts to which Lucy responds with a “Ur Wlcme”.  A certain Beckey wants to know why we have not added Morine, and Mama Shiks is very glad we are doing this for her friend. This she emphasizes with a blast of those red-dressed dancing woman emojis. Someone whose identification is an emoji combination of a banana and a tongue thinks it would be better if the shower had a theme. African maybe, or we could do a select colour, preferably Suzie’s favorite which turns out is yellow. Lolo, on the other hand, wants to know why we are paying so much money. She doesn’t think we need all of that, because well, money doesn’t grow on trees. She is seconded by Maduska who then opens a string of protests from other members. Nana (with that blush emoji) states that the 2k is in fact too little. She is promptly silenced with a “you can always pay extra or better still, take up buying of the cake”.  In those 45 minutes or so I was away, Dagoretti has been decided as the venue (Ceci’s house) and the amount conveniently reduced to KES 1,850.

Scroll through the texts. Somewhere along the way the topic veered to whether baby boys are better than baby girls. The general consensus is in favor of boys because they come cheap and wean off breastfeeding faster, confirmed by Mama Shiks whose three kids (2 girls and a boy) accord her irrefutable authority. The last text just before I leave the group is from Makena who is asking the type of cake being considered because she is on a 65-day detox and so cannot take any sugar. She knows of a bakery making sugar-free vegan cakes. Some number starts typing almost immediately, hopefully to question when sugar-free cakes became a thing. I leave.

Lucy follows me inbox immediately. She thinks I was offended by some of the comments (because that is the issue here) or maybe I disagree with any of the suggestions? (apart from the sugar-free vegan cake, none really Lucy Lou). I finally remind her I do not know anyone in that group, which is apparently not an issue for her. Lucy’s last text is asking me to contribute whatever I have, “hata kama ni thao moja” because I don’t know, I seem like the kind of person who generally contributes to baby showers.

Anyway, WhatsApp is great. Those of us keen on actively keeping up with other people’s lives (and, well, meme lovers) have been having a particularly much easier time with the recent Status Updates feature. I mean, profile pictures were hardly enough, what with peeps changing their profiles once a year and maintaining lackluster statuses such as “Keep Going” or “At the Gym”. The only challenge is in pronunciation. That /t/ has proven slippery on many’s tongues. Wozzap or Wossap (for our brothers and sisters from the lake) seems to be the route of choice for many. But people seriously need to chill with those unsolicited random WhatsApp Group additions.  We are not looking to be in random groups.

LET US BEGIN.

Writing happens to be one of my more joyous activities. With writing, I have a genuine need to be better. Not for money or for recognition; but just because. It is an entrenched desire even I cannot conclusively respond to. I happen to not be entirely good at it; at least not at the level I would want to be. But then practice does make perfect. The idea is, overtime, through my posts here, things will start looking up and when I go through my write ups I will not cringe from all the incoherent story telling.

Now, in the spirit of taking a step at a time, today I embark on a journey of, hopefully, a million miles. I join this space where inhabitants are simplistically referred to as bloggers. I plan on writing things; anything I feel ought to be put in writing. This here is a platform where I will jot down my random rumblings. I have always wanted to start this but something somewhere always seems more important and more worthy of my attention. Some people call it procrastination and I do not totally disagree.

Why am I starting this today? Because we all have to start somewhere at some point, right? Some people are known to run their mouths, me, I run my fingers and write things. Things that are for the most part incoherent and so embarrassingly unpalatable to any reader’s eyes but still I write. I am putting to test that “You write well” comment I get from people every now and then. I write because a part of me actually believes this might be the sector God gave with both hands when He molded me into existence.

What will I write about? General stuff. Observations, my experiences, my thoughts. Basically anything that tickles my fancy. Will people learn from this? I sure hope so. My aim is to however write and write and get better at stringing words together.  This should be a stop for those who want to fill their eyes with (well written) words.

With all that out of the way, I now welcome you on board. Find a seat. Get comfortable. Guys at the back, I hope you are getting me loud and clear. Tea is served at the back for the sake of lunjes. We plan on getting more comfortable seats and improving everyone’s view once things settle down and the house gets a little familiar. Cheers.