P.O. Box Nairobi.
Are you still in New York or you finally flew to Beijing? I’ve sent this letter to P.O. Box Obama, your last address, and if it doesn’t find your rounded buttocks there I hope those loud Americans will be sensible enough to let the letter run behind your sinful heels to China.
As for me I couldn’t leave Odiya (Ah, don’t laugh but I’m cheating you!) I did extricate myself from our small village after university. He married me and we today live in Nairobi. The city is well if not for the diarrhoea of noise we Kenyans make about ‘the next election.’ You know me, Joy, and I don’t want to lie to you that I don’t cheat on him thrice a week. And so you will understand if I told you that I sometimes wish some night angel could turn what we Kenyans call ‘the next election’ to ‘the next erection,’ and I would be happy here in Koinange Street with all these coloured lights blinking – don’t laugh (If you do I’ll pinch your ‘caterpillar’ as soon as you return!)
Joy mbasna (I call you age-mate because of the million things we did in Odiya, the most important being asking young men what weapons they would come to our rescue with in case we raised alarm, and rejecting forthwith those who said panga machetes because it pointed to their own inexperience in these matters. But those who said arungu club we welcomed with both arms because of the interesting shape of a club – Ehehehehe, Joy!)
Do you know why I write? I will tell you: to remind you of our little village and its weird homesteads, especially its people, more so that mysterious ‘small man’ we used to call ‘Kaluka’ – do you remember Kaluka? I wonder how life has treated the middle-aged man lately.
The hills and streams were beautiful to look at. The birds! Of the homesteads I remember mainly Mzee Kimira’s where no daughter ever had the luck to get married, all twelve of them. I’ve also refused to forget the case of your elder sister who had a similar fate. Ehehehehe, mayie! – do you remember what you and I saw behind your mother’s kitchen hut when we’d gone to play there?
Our green Odiya, and its everything, have been running in my head in relation to that Kaluka. I began thinking about our village yesterday. And I’ve chuckled, Joy. This way:
I’m small and tiny in those years, and Mama and I are walking to the stream where we’re going to scoop water in the mbugru jerricans. I’ve just graduated from the stage of walking naked without any adult man feeling ashamed of seeing my nakedness, which Mama calls my ‘oyuo’ (These days I laugh at the term, why that part of me had to be called ‘caterpillar’ worm!) Anyway let me proceed, Joy; I know I can never go back to those days even if God Himself pushed me with His own hands…
And so as we walk to the stream with Mama this evening, I’m carrying my 5-litre mbugru because I’m learning to balance water on my small head. Who do we see coming from the shops, crossing the olalo trunk bridge? – A very small man holding a basket on his head. How unnatural, Joy! And the man is very small. As small as your brother Oindi. And he wears a big khaki pair of short pants. And akala tyre shoes where his toe nails face the skies. Joy I think these are jiggers I see on his toe nails. Or there is some discomfort in a corner of his body around the waistline. I say so because he isn’t walking properly. His movement is what father calls ‘king’o,’ how our cattle slowly crawl on their hooves every time the foot and mouth disease comes, and father takes the cows to stand in the stream each morning in the biting cold of rain yesterday.
The man passes us with a kind of enigmatic smile smeared all over his face. I don’t know why he smiles. He doesn’t greet Mama. He merely looks at us and gives the funny smile. The bitter tobacco he is smoking spews out white fumes and its smell hits us like an insecticide.
I’m still looking at the man this evening when Mama tells me, as we walk home with water on our heads:
Why look at people like that?
I say I do not look.
Are you sure, nyako girl?
It is the way he walks, Mama.
What about it?
Oking’o like a cow with painful legs.
Well, you may be right that he crawls like a cow, but doesn’t he walk on his two feet like all human beings, including you?
I don’t know why Mama defends this small, basket-carrying man, Joy, and I’m quiet this evening, but the next moment Mama speaks she shocks me:
Do not talk ill of chuori.
My husband? I ask Mama.
Eee, the one you just saw will be your rightful husband in future –
He will not – he will not be!
Mh, Joy. Even in that China where you are you know how young breastless girls get angry at such suggestions. But Mama rubs in this evening, constantly annoying me.
Do you mean you will not get married?
I will not! I will not! I tell her.
Mama tells me without smiling, I know you will get married unless you plucked off and killed with paraffin the oyuo that lives between your legs.
Ah, Mama! Mama!
And then she tells me, laughing, Of course you will get married and you will cook for that man. He is called ‘Kaluka’ and he is the best man Odiya has ever known.
He is not!
Did you see his clothes?
I don’t tell Mama that I did. But I saw the man’s t-shirt written ‘US Navy.’ Nothing remarkable about his brown khaki shorts except that the front part looks like the quiet venue of an important Annual General Meeting. It is very swollen, Joy.
The next day I’m with you in class, Primary 1 in Odiya, and I’m telling you about that Kaluka. All the things Mama told me about the small man yesterday. That he goes to grind maize at the posho mill by himself; he cooks for himself; he sweeps his house and yard by himself; he bathes behind the huge orembe trunk in the stream where no eyes see him; and that no one in Odiya can claim to understand why the small man does not live with a woman in his wooden hut. Kaluka is a very lonely man. As lonely as a topi chewing cud in Maasai Mara Game Reserve.
We soon learn that neither the land nor the wooden hut is Kaluka’s. He is a mere guard employed by an absentee landlord, Mr. Odadi, the one who bought the plantation of cane when a white man was leaving. Traces of the white man are visible: a huge house at a corner of the land, an orchard with guavas avocado oranges and pawpaw which we will pluck in future, and a rusty tractor whose trailer bees have made a home. The bees buzz and sink their penises in our skin every time we village girls go begging Kaluka to let us pluck the ripe fruits. We scream, shout, and cry. But when they sting Kaluka he just smiles – that enigmatic smile I first saw when Mama and I had met the small man at the stream that evening years ago.
The small man is serious about his job, Joy (I hope that’s how serious you are with your interesting job in China). Mr. Odadi’s land is being ploughed by tractors. We see the small man following the tractor, a panga in hand. Every so often he rushes forward, still springing uncomfortably like a cow, and cuts something on the ground as the tractor waits for him.
Your father tells him Be careful Kaluka.
He asks your father But why, father-of-a-girl?
Oh, but that tractor can wake a sleeping serpent –
Do not worry, father-of-a-girl, he cuts your father short. I will cut that serpent with this panga I have in my hand here.
Kaluka. Are you quicker than a serpent –?
Very quick, Kaluka says. And he goes on following the tractor as if your father hasn’t advised him on anything at all.
You will plant in my rain, Kaluka, your father warns him.
Let me face the danger, but it is what my employer wants me to do – to kill with my hand all the moles which the tractor digs up. If I leave them they will destroy young cane.
And then the small man shocks us one evening, Joy! We think he can’t run, but now that seed cane has been brought by four tractors and heaped on the four corners of the ploughed farm, we see Kaluka hard at work guarding the cane from your brother Oindi and his group, who go there to chew the cane stems. You and I are returning home after buying milk from Amolo’s homestead this evening and we see Oindi and his group taunting Kaluka because they think they can beat him in a race. Kaluka wears a t-shirt written ‘Chicago’ and the meeting in the swollen front of his pair of short pants is still going on. We halt briefly so we can enjoy the drama.
Leave the cane!
It is Oindi who says We will not leave.
Leave my cane!
The cane is not yours – you are employed by Mr. Odadi.
I will beat you children!
I will beat you!
What are you waiting for?
I will kill these children – whose children are these?
We are our fathers’ children.
The children laugh.
These dirty, cock-eyed children, whose are they?
It is your brother Oindi who adds, At least we have our mothers who gave birth to us. But you, you do not have even a wife. We pity you.
Joy you remember how that is the matchstick which lights the fire. We see the small man grabbing a seed cane and bursting out in a slow-to-start run, the back of his t-shirt written ‘Bulls,’ the boys scattering towards the next plantation, Kaluka bending forward as if propelled on the wings of a sudden kalausi storm. In seconds the tiny man is in top speed and, too shocked to laugh, we don’t even notice he wears akala shoes. His small buttocks are tight. He grabs the oldest boy like a joke, a dog kicking an antelope and the tall boy cries after the seed cane has gotten old whacking. We are surprised at how the tall boy is easily pushed to the ground by small Kaluka – guilt is a weak man, Joy.
Before we are fully grown, Joy mbasna, it’s your sister Niva who causes a scandal in our tiny village. She is getting too old for marriage, and people have begun calling her ‘piere kech’ because ‘her buttocks are bitter,’ the way they refer to Duni, Mzee Kimira’s daughter, the oldest marriageable woman in Odiya (You and I know that Duni has two children in her father’s homestead. Those two boys are the source of Duni’s shame).
Sometimes people call your sister ‘rembe kech’ but I don’t know who in the world has tasted Niva’s blood and found it bitter! When we meet in school you tell me Niva has disappeared and people do not know where she has gone to.
Good riddance is what your father’s face seems to communicate. But your mother says ah nyara my daughter, what exactly befell you. Whatever it is your parents are both relieved that your sister has at last found a man. They are right, but how wrong they are!
On the third day Niva sneaks back home, you tell me, and she refuses to leave the jokon kitchen hut. You tell me she smells. She doesn’t walk properly and the shame keeps her indoors. Fathers don’t beat marriageable daughters. So your father keeps off Niva. He doesn’t ask her where she went to.
When I visit you and we play behind the hut we see Niva’s white pant mapped with layers and layers of blood. You tell me that perhaps Niva ‘is seeing the moon’ but we both suspect that cannot be the only truth, for girls who see the moon in Odiya have never refused to leave the jokon hut. Your mother is soon aware that it is Kaluka who has been keeping Niva in his hut, marrying her.
When we next walk from school, and meet Kaluka just near the stream, where they say the burnt-rice smell means the serpent living under the rock has belched, we again see that enigmatic smile on the small man’s face, and the chest of his t-shirt is written ‘Washington, D.C.’ He smokes his newspaper-wrapped tobacco which smells like insecticide. He does not even greet us.
Mayie Joy yawa! The following month it is Duni herself who causes a scandal. Do you remember how the whole thing ambushed us? Tired of the shame people splash on her because of the two boys she has in her father’s homestead, Duni leaves in broad daylight and goes to stay with Kaluka. People say that Mzee Kimira is now happy; in church he is seen thanking God for finding a husband for his odiwo daughter who has two sons in her father’s homestead.
People see Duni sweeping Kaluka’s yard, a yellow shuka tied round her waist. She goes to the stream for him. She cooks. She stands at the door and shouts at the wildcat for people to see. She takes dry maize to the posho mill.
But on the third day like your sister Niva, Duni is seen back in her father’s homestead. The reason? Nobody knows. But rumour has begun the marathon, and word goes round that Duni has left Kaluka’s hut without carrying her pant. Those who care to, ask her, but Duni merely smiles: no answer…
If I remember the past in our small village, Joy, it’s because of the things I meet along our Koinange Street here in Nairobi, and sometimes I think you do meet them too, in China. While I’m still on China let me whisper to you how the road that passes Odiya to Timboroa is these days tarmacked by the Chinese, and I hear that the child Duni gave birth to with one of the road workers is now ten years old. How about that? Treat the Chinese well if you are in Beijing. They’ve built a road for you, girl!
Of the fattest sweetness for me is how you and I discovered what Kaluka’s curse was, the evening we crossed our olalo from school. Why he looked that lonely. Why he had that enigmatic smile. Why he did not live with a woman. Why Niva and Duni fled. Why all women queerly respected the man in spite of his small stature.
Joy yo, remember the evening we crossed the stream, and our eyes caught a small black body bathing behind the orembe trunk. Maybe the small man thought his body was well hidden behind the trunk, but it wasn’t. Hehehehehe, Joy yawa! What was that we saw? I still remember that our stream which was very noisy with birds and onjiri crickets was dead quiet. You and I know why all nature was quiet except the rolling water: there Kaluka was, dangling, touching the rock he stood on. No wonder there was a rumour that he usually ran it round his waist; no wonder my small mind had thought of the swollen front of his pair of short pants in terms of an Annual General Meeting. Joy mbasna, so that was the tarimbo crowbar the small man used to rip open other women’s doors! Nyathiwa! A-a, we both agreed with Niva’s and Duni’s running away from his hut. Thank God your sister Niva returned home with her bloodied pants, but me, I’d have scampered away and left mine behind the way Duni did. No woman created by God’s hands under the sun could have been large enough for him.
We discovered his smile, Joy. That enigmatic smile he gave always, to all women and young girls. It was detached, saying: You can be sure you are too narrow for me.
Joy mbasna, these days I pity Niva and Duni. Along our Koinange Street I’ve met clients like Kaluka and I don’t know how to handle them. They fill my rooms, yes, but something leaves me hanging. They are all penis without body. What Mama used to call ‘gire omadhe’ – ‘his thing has drunk him.’ However well filled I am, half of me remains empty because I have nothing to hold. When I try to grip their sweating back there’s no difference between doing that and just holding my stomach. Their small body becomes part of my stomach. They occupy me very well, but without offering me a physical world on which to anchor my burning flames. So I burn half way, Joy. They conquer me half way. But you know how in this war of ours we love to lose completely, to be beaten and conquered till we die like next morning’s hearth ash. It’s not that they are bad mates. No. Only that I haven’t learnt how to handle the complexity of their art which halves me. My body hasn’t learnt to locate the midpoint between victory and loss.
Let me leave you alone, nyako, but that’s what I’ve lately been remembering our Odiya for. Our small village with her hills and streams. Her birds. And her Kaluka (By the way I hear he never got married and the donkey in him is these days growing flaccid).
Ensure you write back, Joy, whether you are in America or China. I’ll be waiting. If you don’t, I wish you a crowbar lengthier than Kaluka, and may you leave your very pants behind, like Duni.
Image: Kim Piper Werker via Flickr (modified)