OUR SAVIOUR’S CHURCH IS NESTLED IN a shady grove of trees in the residential part of Muthaiga in cosmopolitan Nairobi.
It is yet another wedding day.
The organist, a rotund fellow, trots to the organ, his robe fluttering. Immediately, he begins to play the Bridal Chorus from Wagner’s Lohengrin. As the ageless music blares from the antiquated pipe instrument, I begin to walk down the aisle, graciously, soaking up ambience, steeping myself in the breathtaking floral arrangements in the small church. The moment belongs to me. I am conscious of the guests who have stood up to honor me, the latest bride in the world. I am also conscious of the sea of eyes following my every step. I give kudos to my stylist, James Wanjiru. He has swept my gleaming hair extensions up and back, and has tied it to a bun at the nape of my willowy neck. He has adorned my ears with sparkly gold-and-diamond ear clips, decked my neck with a gold-and-diamond twist, manicured my faux nails a strong red, caulked my oval face with soothing foundation, and set it ablaze with color. My snow-white wedding gown, lavished with lace, is emblazoned with pearls and rhinestones. As I gingerly stride on my white stilettos, to the rhythm of the organ, my marvelous gown sweeps the polished terrazzo. And then my soft chiffon veil billows faintly as the ceiling fans squeak horribly, like the rotor blades on a couple of helicopters. This indeed is the most emotional moment of my life.
Sunlight drifts across the church in colored bands through stained-glass windows, in spite of the numerous trees that punctuate the churchyard, casting shadows here and there. I turn my head slightly and, through the transparent fabric of my fluttering veil, meet Mama’s delighted eyes. (They are eyes that have seen a lot of choking smoke from incessant coal fires as she grappled with cauldrons of rice and stews and soups in the kitchen of her small thatched restaurant in Kibera, a Nairobi slum. In there she worked like a drudge to make enough shillings mostly for my primary and secondary school fees.) Then I steer my gaze a little and meet Papa’s eyes, too. Both Mama and Papa, standing among family and friends, are grinning as though they have never had a fight in their marriage of three decades. I am delighted to see them. Mama looks quite jolly in her beautiful slouch hat. Her splendid gown, which I bought for her at Westgate in the heart of Oxford especially for this occasion, is spangled with gemstones. Papa is wearing a tweed suit and an immaculate-white shirt. His diminishing African hair is dotted with gray. As he peers at me over his steel-rimmed glasses, he reminds me in a funny way of a rather unpleasant schoolmaster with a mirthless smirk. Both of them are proud of me, their only child. They have told me that a thousand times. I am proud of them, too. They made a lot of sacrifice to see me through primary and secondary schools in Kibera. Today, at twenty-eight, I am proud to say that they made me what I am.
Flanked by my maid-of-honor and the best man, the groom stands at the altar, tall and stately, waiting for his adorable bride. A Brit, of the Caucasoid race, Morris Prendergast is thirty. He is resplendent in a black tux and a snow-white shirt cut from the finest material, with a black bowtie to match. His fabulous blond hair has a sheen that fascinates not only me, but every other woman present. He cannot turn to look elsewhere; he stares in awe at me, his beautiful bride, as I gingerly walk up to him.
As I finish the bridal march, standing close to Morris, I catch a strong whiff of his perfume. It has all the precision of musk. He leans over toward me, like a towering bamboo bending in the harmattan wind, exuding a commanding aura. Then he strikes out his hand and, still staring at me, breaks into that good-natured smile that bewitches me. Clutching my bouquet of synthetic carnations with one hand, I stretch out the other hand. It almost melts in ecstasy as he gets hold of it. Both of my hands are slender, like my neck, like my entire frame. Mama tells me every blessed day, especially when I was growing up, that I did get my svelte frame from her mother. Grandma Waceke, Mama says, was, in her prime, the slimmest of all her then contemporaries, a striking embodiment of African beauty. Waceke simply means the slim one.
My hands are tucked in tight-fitting satin-white gloves, like a pair of guns in their holsters. The gloves are so long, they almost reach my elbows. My sleek, long, slender arms, Morris has once told me, have a certain invulnerability that reminds him again and again of my daring heart. Well, he has told me that a million times that I do have a heart that is even more than daring. And, according to him, that is why he took the pain, and the rigors, to take me to Botley, Oxford to see his parents. His English father, Vincent Prendergast, a burly man with cropped silvery hair, is a social butterfly who welcomes every stranger—white or black—in a most sincere, hearty embrace. Adele Prendergast, on the other hand, is a starchy phlegmatic. A Scot with a rhotic accent, she always has her heart clouded with doubt and self-doubt but pretends to be at peace with you. I am therefore surprised to see that she has flown to Kenya, perhaps at the bidding of her husband, to attend my wedding. But I am not sure she is willing to finally accept me as her daughter-in-law. Wearing a powder-blue gown, adorned with antique jewels, with a designer hat worn askew, she stands beside her husband at the same pew as Mama and Papa. I met her eyes as she stares at me with what appears to me as considerable ambivalence.
(I know Mrs. Prendergast feels a quiet scorn within herself about this young woman who is not a Caucasian. I also know she cannot believe that this sloe-eyed black spinster from sub-Saharan Africa is about to have her name changed, irrevocably perhaps, from Miss Wanjiku Koinange to Mrs. Wanjiku Prendergast. Africans, I once overheard Adele during a heart-to-heart with Morris, are a people plagued by hunger, poverty, and squalor. But I do not care. Not because Morris has assured me, repeatedly, that his narrow-minded mother will get over her xenophobia by and by. It is because, with supreme confidence, I know who I am—and what I am.)
As Morris and I fondly wring hands, I return his smile. My sloe eyes, hidden behind the façade of my veil, sparkle with unshed tears, dancing with ardent delight. I rummage through the mind-boggling thought that Morris has chosen me, a young woman with coal-black, satin-smooth skin, a lassie from East Africa. Truly, I am a woman whose father and mother do not know what a classroom looks like. However, I am more than fortunate to have won a scholarship, bless the Rhodes trustees, to study for a DPhil degree in Modern History at Somerville. It is unbelievable that Mr. Morris Prendergast wants me, Wanjiku (or Ciku for short), the daughter of Kuria wa Koinange, to become his lawfully wedded wife, to love and to hold—and to treasure. Morris tells me every day that I am a sharp-witted Anglophile, a marvel of a woman. I never believed him, anyway, until the day he proposed to me at Uhuru Park with a ring studded with precious stones. On that memorable day, the sun had gone down, but still a little above the horizon, and the sunlight was golden against the green of ageless trees that rustle endlessly in the cool breeze. All the same, I know that I am not as beautiful as Donna Litton, the young woman Morris met at Golden Gate, in San Francisco, where he obtained his law degree. Donna was the love of Morris’s life for a couple of years prior to his meeting me at Oxford.
We take our seats at the first row of polished pews. And, waiting as the guests take theirs, I begin to see Donna through the lens of my mind’s eye. Blond and tall, like Morris. Long, lustrous hair that swirls around her shoulders, needing no extensions. The bluest eyes I have ever seen. A magnificently pointed nose. Bust-waist-and-hip measurements, the dream of every woman. Graceful stride . . . Adele, I reckon, would have preferred Donna to me, because she is white, and, though American, had Scottish blood running in her veins. Besides, she comes from a well-to-do family in San Francisco. To my perturbation, however, she still calls Morris—all the way from America. Not to entreat in tears for him to come back to her, but to fire a volley of threats with blazing eyes. Morris, she says, will pay sooner than later for brutally ditching her, leaving her utterly devastated . . .
The organist stops, and, immediately, I am bolted out of my reverie. In the ensuing silence, a portly middle-aged man mounts the dais, and I take a deep breath, not only to regain my composure, but also to douse the ecstasy that has been whirling my insides. Reverend Wanyama is the minister to officiate this humble nuptial ceremony. He is wearing a heavy moustache and a black damask caftan that doesn’t fit too well. He grabs the glass pulpit and, without preamble, begins in his usual sing-song to announce the reason for which the people of Muthaiga—small and mighty—have converged in Our Saviour’s today. Through the fabric of my veil, I regard him as he leafs through a fat book that rests precariously on the pulpit. It is the biggest Bible I have ever seen, I muse. Then he begins to read a scripture that hinges on Adam and Eve. Reverend Wanyama is a close friend of Papa’s and has known me as a child. Although he is middle-aged now, he is balding much faster than necessary. At both sides of his shinning head were patches of gray which extend to his matted sideburns. (He has faithfully served the Kibera branch of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa for several years before joining Our Saviour’s. And Morris, to my pleasant surprise, did not hesitate to accept when Reverend Wanyama fondly proposed to wed us in Kenya, right in this church.)
No sooner has the congregation stood up for the first hymn than a masked gunman storms into the church and, without warning, opens fire. Men and women and children, in their colorful clothes, dazed and flustered, begin to scamper for their lives in different directions, the deafening gunshots and the sporadic shattering of glass drowning the screaming. I take cover under a pew, rather safe in the belief that Morris will do the same . . . Where is Mama? Where is Papa? Where are the Prendergasts? In the turmoil, I cannot figure out their whereabouts. The best I can do is pause to take a deep breath in order to soothe the rough edges of my nerves, and then whisper a prayer.
After what seems like three minutes, minutes of deafening pandemonium, an eerie silence suddenly descends. My heart begins to beat itself to death as I pop my head from under a pew to look around. The church is blood-splattered, strewn with dead bodies and splinters of mosaic and stained glass. I turn and catch a glimpse of Reverend Wanyama’s body . . . then that of the organist . . . then that of my maid-of-honor and those of my bridesmaids, all six of them . . . then those of Mama’s two friends—Ma Igoti and Ma Bakhita . . . and then I almost scream at the sight of the bodies of some of my friends and Morris’s. These young friends of ours, whites and blacks alike, came all the way from Oxford to grace our wedding. They are five in number. As it dawns on me that they are dead now, or might be, I feel a big lump in my throat, and my insides begin to boil, like those cauldrons of stews and soups and rice in Mama’s kitchen. I begin to cry, ensuring that I stifle my crying as much as possible.
Shuddering with an audible gasp, my frantic hands fly to my mouth as soon as my popping eyes fall on Morris’s body. I break into mournful tears, convulsing with shock. I try as much as possible not to cry out as I steady my stupefied gaze on the blood that sluggishly oozes out of a bullet wound at Morris’s shoulder. I pray inwardly, resorting to believing absolutely in the power of prayer, believing that Morris is alive. I’m therefore not the only survivor . . . No, I’m not. Morris can’t be dead! He’s not dead! Both of us must come out of this nightmare alive. Then I search again with my eyes for Mama and Papa. Alarmed, I still cannot see them. I cannot see their bodies, either—that is if they, too, have been gunned own. I decide, finally, to also believe that God, in his miraculous ways, has whisked them off to some safe place.
I brace myself. As I am about to dart to Morris to rescue him from the jaws of death (since I choose to believe he is not yet dead), I hear the thumping of boots. The gunman! “He must have seen me,” I mutter under my breath, my heart sticking in my throat. Stark horror overwhelms me, and I begin to tremble as the thumping gets louder and louder, approaching me. “Oh, my God!” I whisper, but can hardly hear the words. Quickly, I tuck my head back in and lie in a fetal position, trying hard to block out the surreal world around me. My wedding gown, I know, will certainly give me away; it is too large to be completely tucked away under the pew, away from the sight of my assailant.
Then, in a few terrifying moments, I find myself staring at the gunman’s hiking boots and dirty-brown jeans, right under my nose. Feeling like an ant about to be crushed beneath one of those boots, I finally find myself praying for strength and courage. Unfalteringly, I love God. He must give me the ability to stand up to this unfolding nightmare.
Slowly, the gunman unmasked himself and bent from the waist to take a look at the heap of my frame under the pew. As his creepy eyes lock with mine, I squirm in disgust and almost let out a scream. As soon as I recognize him, fear eludes me. And, as I continue to stare at him incredulously, my eyeballs seem to be popping out of their sockets. It is as though I have seen a ghost. “Mwangi!” I whisper in consternation.
“Shut up!” he bellows. “Or I shoot!” Then, lowering his voice, he says to my bewilderment that I dumped him for another man, a white man for that matter.
He is drunk, I can see. His eyes are bloodshot, his speech slurred and halting. Little wonder, his face is craggy. On his black t-shirt is inscribed Let Sleeping Dogs Lie. As I stare at him in untold stupefaction, I retreat into a vortex of memory . . .
Mwangi Wachira and I grew up together in Kibera. In fact, we did share a class in Olympic Primary School, Kibera. But he could not proceed with me to Olympic Secondary School, where I fell madly in love with volleyball and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I concentrated on my studies, with the unrelenting determination to take Papa and Mama out of the squalor of Kibera someday, perhaps when I got a big job in one of those high-rise glass buildings in downtown Nairobi. While I worked relentlessly hard to get into Oxford, a dream I nurtured for years on end, which could only be made possible with a Rhodes scholarship, Mwangi ended up a drop-out.
Mama has once told me in grumpy Kiswahili (before I was crowned the overall best-graduating student by the senate of the University of Nairobi, and shortly before I flew to the United Kingdom as a Rhodes Scholar) that Mwangi is a debased young man, a marijuana freak, who has, allegedly, raped a girl and gone scot-free. “He is not that sort, Mama,” I have replied, my eyes flickering with considerable certainty. In any case, my mother did put her foot down by advising me, in the sternest terms: “Ciku, you have to be wary of that vagabond; he hangs out morning, noon and night with many a scoundrel in the streets of Nairobi.” But I never took Mama serious. Instead, I continued, obstinately, to bask in the warmth of a friendship I shared with Mwangi. Like a stubborn goat that keeps going to a vegetable garden after the gardener has shooed it several times, I threw caution to the wind. Mwangi is an orphan, and his guardian, a man of two wives and many children, never bothered about his survival. As a result, I occasionally stole food from Mama’s kitchen and furtively sent it to him.
Ours was a friendship I believed was absolutely platonic until when he deceitfully led me, on two vivid occasions, to a deserted junkyard in Kibera, near the railway station. Then and there, he pinned me to the wall and tried to kiss me with closed eyes and fluttering tongue, rubbing his hand against my breasts, truly aroused. The first occasion was at dusk. The sky was black and swollen with rain. On the second occasion, it was past eight in the night. The stars glistened palely, surrounding a crescent moon. On both occasions, I did not give him the chance to go far, or to overpower me. Then I later got to know that, while I was away at Oxford, his guardian disowned him due to his unbecoming lifestyle, and he finally decided to brazenly identify with prostitutes and hardened criminals in the red-light districts of Nairobi…
“You left me,” he mutters under his breath, bolting me out of nostalgia, his eyes locked with mine. “I’m going to kill you.”
Not afraid anymore, I look him in the eye, my brow furrowing. “I left you?” I begin to shake my head slowly, knowing that he will probably shoot if I tear my eyes away from his. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
In the ensuing silence, he cocks his long gun, his stare getting flintier.
I leap out from under the pew, glaring at him. “Shoot! Go ahead, Mwangi. Shoot, I say! How can you possibly kill someone you claim to love?”
He turns his nose up at me. “I won’t shoot you now,” he says with a harsh matter-of-factness, still pointing the gun at me. “I will rape you, and after that, I will shoot you to death.”
My eyes flicker in astonishment. I eye the gun with the caution I would have given a mamba warming itself in the sun. It is a rifle, long and frightening, yet shinning like a toy. I wonder who could have given it to him. Perhaps, I reckon, he stole it. Furrowing my brow, I raise my gaze, and my eyes met his. “Are you the man bent on sealing my doom? Who sent you to do this act of depravity?”
“I will rape you,” he repeats slowly but firmly, ignoring my questions. “Now and here.”
“You are bluffing, Mwangi!” I retort, maintaining my glare. But somehow I sense he truly is not bluffing. Perhaps, I muse, he is insane and has to be taken to an asylum right away.
To my consternation, he begins to whimper like a child. “I waited for you…all these years…to come back to me… We were so much in love, Ciku… We were so, so much in love.” Then he begins to shake his head, bunching his brow. “But now you leave me no choice.”
I am bewildered. Is he really crazy? “The love we shared was not that kind of love, Mwangi. You are completely mistaken.”
“Shut up, liar!” He drops the long lethal weapon and charges at me like a bull.
As I attempt to duck, he swoops on me, catches hold of me and begins to mangle my wrist, overpowering me. I try to wriggle free but can’t. “Stop this madness, Mwangi! You are hurting me… You have to—”
He hits me twice on the face with a clenched fist. Immediately, I feel a gash around my mouth. To my alarm, blood begins to trickle into my mouth, exacerbating my sense of devastation. I want to scream for help, but there is no one around, save the bodies of the other victims. Willing the police to arrive and arrest Mwangi before he rapes me and/or guns me down, I remember, to my perturbation, what Mama and Papa said two days ago (when Morris and I came visiting) about the Kenyan police seeming to have been overwhelmed by the alarming rate of crime in Nairobi.
Mwangi reaches out and tears my gown at the bodice and gives me a violent shove. Flailing, I fall on the colorful shards that litter the terrazzo and let out a guttural scream as a small splinter of glass pierces into my skin, at the shoulder. As Mwangi attempts to pounce on me, after unzipping his jeans, I lift my right leg and hit him hard in the crotch. He begins to groan, reeling in deep pain, clutching at his crotch. With my terrified eyes shut tight in excruciating pain, I begin to pray for divine intervention, amid Mwangi’s throaty groaning…
Suddenly, I hear a deafening gunshot and, startled, open my eyes immediately, only to behold Mwangi keeling over in his death throes. I look away in relief, and my wan eyes fall on Morris as he drops Mwangi’s rifle, grimacing in pain. Looking at him incredulously as he shuffles toward me, I whisper: “Morris,” a stoic smile unfurling around my lips, lighting up my ashen face. He’s alive! Then I turn to pull out the splinter of glass from my shoulder, bracing myself for the untold pain.
As I stoically tend to Morris’s wound with the soothing fabric of my veil, we hear the shrieks of the first responders’ sirens and those of what we figure out to be a couple of ambulances. A moment later, we look up to see Mama and Papa, and Morris’s parents, scampering into the church, accompanied by armed policemen, pressmen, and many paramedics with stretchers. I notice a white woman in their midst holding Mama’s hand in a sympathetic way. Her generous blond hair floats around a flawlessly made up face, her blue eyes like a calm sea shimmering in the sunlight. The most riveting of her make-up is her burgundy lipstick which makes her luscious lips as round as the world itself. Wearing a short glossy gown and a pair of designer stilettos, she drips in both emeralds and diamonds.
Shocked at the sight of this white woman as she stands right before us like an Amazon, Morris and I look at each other in consternation, and then return our gaze to her. “Donna?” We exclaim in unison.
Donna flashes a smile that seems quirky to both of us, and, to our astonishment, her face suddenly turns to a waterfall. “I’m sorry, Morris,” she says. “Your mother told me about your wedding, and I felt I should come in person to wish you the very best in your marriage.” Then she turns to look at me. “I’m sorry, Ciku.”
I simply give two nods, returning her smile. It is genuine, I reckon.
Then she explains that she flew into Kenya last night and checked in at Tribe Hotel. According to her, she was among the first set of guests to arrive. Having sighted the gunman early enough with the rifle, she whisked off Mama and Papa and the Prendergasts to safety before the shooting started. (By instinct, I suppose, or perhaps from the way Mama and Papa were smiling at me as I walked down the aisle, Donna knew they are my parents.)
“She saved our lives,” Adele Prendergast says, her voice quivering. “And then she called the police with the help of some of us who also escaped.”
“While waiting for the police,” Papa says, “we took refuge in a nearby uncompleted building.”
Mama, I observe, is too shocked to say a word. So is Vincent Prendergast. They cringe every now and then, staring in shock as the bodies are stretchered away, covered with white sheets. I am sure Mama has seen the bodies of her closest friends, Ma Igoti and Ma Bakhita. And I know that, while cupping her mouth with both hands, she is working very hard not to let out that earsplitting agonizing cry for which most African women are known. The dead casualties constitute a gory sight. Blood everywhere, amid shards of stained glass.
All of us begin to sob. I have never seen Papa get so emotional. I steal a glance at Vincent Prendergast. Although he is past middle-age, he cries like a child, his face crimson. Papa has always told me that men do not cry. Time, I think, has proved him wrong…
As the other casualties are being stretchered away, yet another ambulance arrives. The paramedics rush me and Morris to Aga Khan University Hospital. We are accompanied by one of the policemen and two pressmen for questioning on the mass shooting.
Image: Original by Andrew Malone