A seemingly ordinary day in Nairobi ends in tragedy and forces a confrontation between a city woman and her husband's tribe.
Photo: Meena Kadri
The matatu minibus was doing eighty miles an hour down the highway. Passengers were squeezed in so tightly, shoulder to shoulder, they could barely breathe. In good traffic, half an hour was all it took to get from Umoja to the city centre. The driver nodded his head to the heavy-rhythm reggae music blaring from the speakers. The joint he had smoked for breakfast at the crack of dawn had given him just the light-headed start he needed for a busy day ahead.
The king-of-the-road turned to share a joke with the turn-boy who was hanging precariously on the door. The turn-boy cut a comical figure. Dreadlocks flying across his face, partly blocking the view through green sunglasses, whose usefulness he still anticipated in the sunless, cloudy morning. He waved the free hand to commuters waiting at bus stops, yelling:
"Hey, you! Towni! Towni express. Are you the going? Towni!"
There was no room for more. But the turn-boy found it hard to abandon the road mantra. While yelling exhortations to would-be passengers, he still managed to exchange jokes with the driver in the indecipherable argot of the road masters. Passengers watched with amusement as he twisted his head about to get the dreadlocks out of his face so he could stick a cigarette in his mouth.
The driver took the wide roundabout at the old city stadium at sixty miles an hour, imagining he was in the Safari Rally, which was at that very moment tearing across the Rift Valley. Weed for breakfast usually had that effect on him. As the swerving matatu left commuters swaying to their left, the king-of-the-road pressed fast-forward to search for another track on the cassette player. Anxious commuters grabbed at the seat in front, groans and mild complaints drowned by the mesmerizing sounds of Peter Tosh's "Legalize It."
They approached the city. The people would get to work on time. The driver would make a fortune. The light turned amber. He accelerated, in the same instant pressing his horn repeatedly as the bus in front slowed down. Who wants to waste precious moments waiting at the light? There was money at stake. After paying off the owner the agreed takings for the day, everything else went to the king-of-the-road.
The bus blocked his view ahead. The light turned red. The driver swerved to avoid the bus. The matatu rammed straight into an on-coming articulated lorry.
A collective scream of terror rent the cool morning air. A van carrying sand rammed into the back of the matatu, effectively blocking the emergency exit. Metal against metal. It sounded like a bomb.
Passers-by rushing to rescue the victims were forced back when the front of the matatu exploded in a ball of fire. They shielded their eyes from the glare and covered their noses as a pall of black smoke filled the air.
Thirty lives snuffed out as another day began in Nairobi.
After the ambulances had carted off the charred bodies and the petrified crowd melted away, all that was left of the matatu was a nondescript mangled frame, trapped between a truck and a van. The street was a riot of blood, sand, and broken glass. A putrid smell of burning flesh and plastic hung over the air. Motorists craned their necks to catch a glimpse of yet another enactment of a familiar scene. They shook their heads and looked ahead, a silent prayer in their hearts.
- - - - -
The call came through when Anina was wrapping up a customer's plates. Mehta, the Indian shop owner, narrowed his eyes suspiciously when he heard that the hospital needed to talk to her. Staff weren't supposed to receive calls at his shop.
"You! Talk to these people. And hurry back to work, no?"
Accident. Minibus. Hospital. No more.
The words hit her like a series of quick punches, aimed straight at her heart. The scream that built up in her came out in gasps for air, like someone drowning in the brown, murky waters of the Nairobi River after a torrential downpour.
Nyanga, a loving husband one minute and the next minute no more?
The phone dropped to the floor. Mehta jumped to his feet and threw his newspaper to the ground, his eyes ablaze.
"Wewe namna gain?" What's up with you? "You break my phone, I cut your pay, understand?"
Anina's head fell back, her knees gave way, and she started to collapse. The puzzled customer couldn't get to her on time and she fell against a shelf of kitchenware, bringing everything crashing to the ground. Mehta banged a fist on the counter, causing the cash register to send coins flying out.
- - - - -
Anina got back home at dusk after verifying her husband's body at the mortuary. The image of Nyanga lying lifeless filled her head like a lingering nightmare. She took Toto in her arms and sat her down on her lap, hands trembling. Her parents and younger sister, Wamba, were on their way to be with her.
"Mummy, I want to show you my drawing!" Toto's plaintive voice cut through Anina's muddled thoughts. The hyperactive child freed herself from her mother's embrace and ran to fetch a drawing from the room she shared with Ayola, the domestic helper.
"I coloured it in today's lesson. You like it, Mummy?"
Anina nodded. Her teary eyes swept across the stick bodies and big round heads smiling back at her.
"This is papa," explained Toto, beaming with pleasure. "This is mummy, and Toto. And Yola. You think papa will like it?"
"It's beautiful, Toto." The creases on her face deepened as she fought back the tears.
She held Toto tighter as the silent weeping rocked her body. How do I explain to you that papa will never see this beautiful drawing? That he'll never come through that door again?
She couldn't face her smiling daughter. A gust of cool air came through the open window, bringing with it the mouthwatering smell of deep-fried salted fish from the neighbours' home. She zipped up Toto's jacket. The houses stacked up against each other gave the city estate the feel of a village. The smells of cooking, and the sounds of couples squabbling, beds creaking in late-night lovemaking, and babies crying all floated seamlessly through the thin walls. Nyanga had promised her they would buy a plot in Kahawa West and build their own house. He was only waiting to complete his evening course in accounts so he could get promoted to senior accounts clerk and better pay. Anina closed her eyes and tried to imagine what their new house would have looked like. She could only see Nyanga's face. He seemed as though in pain. Toto nudged her and asked if she would buy her a box of crayons to colour her picture.
"Toto, you remember your forest grandpa?" Toto nodded, licking her lower lip. Leaning to her right she pulled at one of the two red ribbons tied to her neatly plaited hair. She always did that when she was trying to remember something. "It is her thinking look," Anina would explain to enchanted visitors.
"Yes, mummy. Forest grandpa he went eben."
"Yes, Toto, he went to heaven. It's peaceful, in heaven."
"Mummy, do they get sick, in eben? Forest grandpa was so sick." She held the drawing close to her chest.
Anina choked back the tears. Forest grandpa had been one of her few allies in Nyanga's clan. Unlike her mother-in-law, who disapproved of the interethnic marriage, her father-in-law was prepared to accept that she was right for his son. She had a good education, and held down a good job in the city, working for an Indian trader, which for him was no mean achievement.
Mama, as Anina and Nyanga called his mother, had tried to talk her son out of the wedding. "They're no good, those city women," she said, scowling. "They'll destroy your life, son, I know their type. And that tribe of theirs, do you know they eat snakes?"
"It's just rumours, mama," protested Nyanga. "And you know they don't approve of our eating wild pigs. What's important is I love Anina. She's the only one for me."
"I can't see how normal people can eat snakes."
Forest grandpa had cancer of the colon. It left him bedridden and emaciated. When they traveled to the village to see him a few weeks before he died, Toto couldn't understand why he spent all day in bed. Why couldn't he take her out walking in the forest like he used to, teaching her the names of the trees, fruits, bushes, the birds and insects, even though she neither understood nor remembered them? He told her the forest was the only place he could find peace of mind. Mama refused to believe he ever said that.
"There's no pain in heaven, Toto. Daddy will feel no pain." Anina paused and looked at her daughter, and then held her tight, as though she was afraid of losing her too. Toto was admiring her drawing, running a finger across each person.
"Mummy, I'm hungry."
"I know, Toto. Don't worry. Ayola will be back soon. Toto, daddy has gone to heaven. There was a bad accident. He'll be with forest grandpa. Together, in peace. Do you understand what mummy is saying?"
Toto nodded and smiled, biting her lower lip. She turned to admire her picture.
"Mummy, when will daddy come back?"
Anina turned her face away so the little girl wouldn't see the tears that now flowed freely down her cheeks.
She went through the next few days as if in a trance, only vaguely aware of the funeral arrangements being made by the many relatives and friends who assembled in her small house. The lengthy prayers, the wailing, the comforting hugs, and the tears that flowed from every eye. She left everything to her brothers-in-law. Her will to live had deserted her. She only lived for Toto, to make sure Toto got enough to eat, enough sleep, was washed and dressed. Her sister, Wamba, stayed with her, and took Toto for walks around the estate, away from all the sadness and funereal gloom in the house.
Word came that Abudo had consecrated a spot for the grave in the clan's ancestral graveyard. Abudo was Nyanga's uncle, and the head of the clan. Anina had not had a chance to think about where the funeral would be held. She had hoped Abudo would travel to the city so that the matter could be discussed openly. Abudo refused to travel the three hundred miles to the city. He sent a message to say he was taking care of things for the clan back in the village.
Wamba spat on the ground when she heard about the clan.
"Nonsense! He just wants to show you how small we are. Ah! He and his precious clan! He has shown the snot in public, as usual, like a child." That was the way she and Anina described Abudo's legendary stubbornness.
"That's him, Wamba," said Anina. "What do you expect?"
"He's not even going to come verify the body for himself!"
"We've done it. And he can trust his nephews, at least."
Anina was hoping they could bury her husband in a city cemetery where she and Toto could visit. She mentioned it in private to Makida, the brother-in-law who was chairing the discussions, and he promised to raise it with the funeral committee. But he did not, and Anina had no opportunity to get herself heard, as the men did all the planning. And all the talking. The women fed the guests and looked after children.
In the Nyisagene clan, Abudo's word was law. Anina resolved not to even mention it again, and regretted asking Makida to speak for her. He was one of the in-laws she had never got on with. He had done the most to discourage Nyanga from marrying her, to the point of vowing he would never visit them except in an emergency. True to his word, he had not once set foot in their house. Until now.
Anina knew she didn't have the heart or the money to fight them. She had seen people driven to financial ruin by such disputes. And life was already hard enough without Nyanga.
Anina and her family traveled to Budo district the day before the funeral. Ogondo, Nyanga's youngest brother, met them at the bus terminal. He was the only one who was yet unmarried. Anina had never quite decided what to make of him. He was quiet and unassuming. Spoke only when spoken to. He smiled as if afraid he was doing something reprehensible. He had a habit of lowering his head and scratching his eyebrows, hiding his eyes, whenever he became aware someone was looking at him. He was wearing a heavy jumper that made him look older than his thirty years. The brown, worn cap on his head accentuated the haggard look.
The family rented a private matatu for the half-hour drive to Ayosi village. Ogondo remained quiet throughout, except for muted answers about his clan. Anina noticed how he kept stealing furtive glances at her, as though he wanted to say something but couldn't find the words.
"Are we expecting many mourners tomorrow?" asked Wamba.
"Mhh, many." Ogondo scratched his eyebrows and fell silent.
- - - - -
They stayed in Mama's house, together with Asile, who still lived with her mother. Asile was a nurse in the local clinic. She and Nyanga were the only ones in the family who had progressed beyond primary school. Their education and professional careers created a special bond between them. Asile was anxious to escape her mother's constant exhortations to get married. She wanted to get away from the village and live in the city where dreams were made. The colourful neon lights in shopwindows in Nairobi and electric gadgets in her brother's house were a window into the world she wanted to inhabit. A world free of flies and grime, dim lanterns you couldn't read by, smoke from the hearth that made your eyes water, and the smell of cow dung that pervaded the whole atmosphere.
When Nyanga died, Asile locked herself in her room for two days. She had lost the only sibling who understood her.
Anina was not thrilled about staying with her mother-in-law, even though it was only for a few days. But she had no choice.
Mama was wearing a heavy brown sweater and a light green headscarf.
"It gets cold in the evening," she said. "Come in and sit by the fire." As they walked into the house, Mama reminded Ogondo to prepare some more logs for the fire. Ogondo avoided eye contact as he went to fetch the firewood.
In the dim light from the hurricane lamp, Anina could see how the pain etched across Mama's face had loosened the skin and made her look as though she was just about to break into tears. Mama struggled to retain her composure, but Anina could tell she had cried until she had no tears left.
- - - - -
In the middle of the night, the time came for Anina to participate in the widow's farewell rites. Makida and other clansmen she did not recognize in the semidarkness led her to the specially built hut at the far end of the farm. Asile and Wamba accompanied her. They walked through a narrow path in the section of the farm where the clan cultivated bananas. She had to be careful not to walk into the long banana leaves that drooped towards each other in a halfhearted effort to create a canopy over the narrow path.
Anina's eyes were not accustomed to the semidarkness. It was so unlike the city with lights everywhere. The group maintained a dignified silence, but the air around them was alive with the noises of the night. Frogs croaking, crickets chirruping, dogs barking in the village. The wind whispered its consolations through the banana leaves.
Soon they came to a clearing in the farm. Five young men sat by a log fire outside the farewell hut. They were in their early twenties. In the olden days they would have been warriors, guarding the tribe against intruders, engaging in the odd cattle rustling and getting themselves ready for marriage. Tonight they would be guarding the body and grave of their fallen uncle.
Anina studied the ramshackle thatched hut, her heart sinking by the minute. It was more like a shed, only smaller than the one her father used for farm tools. The thought of her Nyanga lying in such a desolate place made her knees give. Asile and Wamba held her before she collapsed to the dewy ground. They led her to the narrow entrance, and she had to find her way inside, through a darkness that was almost palpable.
In the past, such send-offs consisted of a series of elaborate procedures that lasted several days and involved dances, incantations, libations, and mournful wailing late into the night. Education and Christianity changed everything. Twin alien forces that contrived to provide the widow from the city with a much more simplified version of the farewell rites that merely required her to sit by the coffin and pray for her husband's soul. She left the ululations and nightlong dancing to the villagers who believed Nyanga's injured spirit needed to be appeased. Otherwise it would haunt the clan forever.
- - - - -
The following day Anina was like a robot, twisted this way and that by forces she could not begin to understand, with little control over her emotional or physical being. It was as though a part of her had departed the night before when she sat by her husband's coffin in the dark shed and cried herself to sleep.
The waves of mourning bodies swept her to the funeral. The hymns and lengthy prayers gave her little solace, and she went about the day as though she herself had died. Not even the lump of clay she dropped on the coffin could assure her that the earth would forever bind her to Nyanga. Her life fluttered about all day like a leaf lost in the wind.
That night as she struggled to get some sleep, she heard anxious whispers coming from the living room. She tiptoed to the door and stood listening for five minutes. Her body froze. How dare they even entertain such thoughts in their heads? She was a city woman, and from a different tribe!
Her body trembled with a mixture of dread and anger. She buried her face in her hands to stifle a scream.
She could hear her teeth chattering. She clasped her hands together and took a deep breath. Then she walked with heavy steps towards the living room.
Abudo was leaning forward, holding Ogondo, her brother-in-law, by the shoulder and wagging a finger in his face. Ogondo's eyes were like those of a man confronted by a python on the village path.
Mama was sitting by herself, chin buried in her hand. The three of them froze when they saw Anina, whose eyes darted about like a couple of searchlights.
Anina held out a trembling finger and faced Abudo, who in turn glared at her, then turned to Mama and said:
"Tell your daughter not to shake her finger at me like that! What kind of a woman is this, anyway?"
"You see, Uncle, I told you," pleaded Ogondo, holding his hands out to his uncle in a supplicant gesture. "See? She's not suitable."
"Quiet, young man!" thundered Abudo. "If you knew anything about women you would be married by now. Fool! And you," he turned to Anina. "Sit down this minute."
Anina turned to look at Mama, who responded by wailing and rushing out of the room, gathering her khanga shawl about the waist.
"You can take everything!" said Anina. "I know that even now you're all fighting to reap where you haven't sown. But you will not make me . . . make me. . ."
"Quiet, woman!" growled Abudo. "You know the customs of the clan. Your husband taught you. If you chose to ignore, that is your funeral."
"Baba Abudo, don't talk to me about my funeral even before the earth over my husband's grave is hardened." Hands akimbo, she stomped a foot on the ground and blinked rapidly to control her tears.
Abudo braced himself like an injured rhino about to charge.
"You know our customs!" he declared. "The clan has chosen Ogondo for you. He will be your new husband. Our daughter will not wander around the city streets like a prostitute. The cows and goats Nyanga paid for you will not have been in vain, you hear?"
"Never!" Anina's body shook as though she was having a fit. Then she lurched forward, trembling uncontrollably and frothing at the mouth. Vomit flew all over the earthen floor, within inches of Abudo's feet.
Ogondo got down on his knees and faced Abudo.
"Uncle, please . . . I don't want . . . I can't . . . what about love?" His uncle's hand lashed out and sent him sprawling under the dining table. Then Abudo jumped up with the agility of a man half his age and marched towards Anina, stepping over the vomit, which had formed a shape reminiscent of Lake Victoria.
Anina screamed and raised her hands to protect her head when she saw the raised arm and the venom in Abudo's eyes. Ogondo reached out from under the table and grabbed his uncle's left leg, bringing him crashing into the foul-smelling lake.
Just then Toto came running into the room and straight into her mother's arms. She covered her nose and buried her face in her mother's shoulder.
"This is not over!" hissed Abudo, as he wiped the vomit from his face. "You will feel my wrath, and the wrath of the aggrieved spirits if we don't do right by Nyanga. I promise you that!"
"Uncle . . ."
"Quiet, young man! You more than anyone else will live under the shadow of the angry spirits. The clan will not forgive you until this is done!"
Ogondo bent forward and slapped the ground with both hands, bowing low and letting out a mournful wail that tore like a clap of thunder through the chilly night. Abudo waved a clenched fist at Anina's retreating figure.
"You will not escape the wrath of the spirits!" he bellowed. "The clan will get you, you hear!"
"You will have to kill me first! I will not be a secondhand wife!"
Anina staggered into the darkness outside, ignoring her mother's call to come back. She held her daughter close, and marched into the night. She could already sense the slippery shadows of her foes in the Nyisagene clan sniffing around her bare feet. But with her daughter in her arms, she knew the sun would rise and shine again. Tomorrow.
Nottingham, United Kingdom