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Freddie Eisenberg | A Brown Envelope

Each plant has a unique story. A plant doesn’t know its story – maybe it does, but tales of the hunt often glorify the hunter.

A young avocado sprout is picked along the graveyard garbage pit. Its brownish leaves sizzle in the afternoon sun. They survive. It survives. Because someone adopted it to tender care, now it rumbles its leaves in this vibrant vigour. It dances to the wind. Soon, its scarred branches will bear fruits. We do not know the genetic variation. It could be butter-like or watery. It could be rich or poor. It could be dark or green. But it’s oval. It’s a fruit. We know that the plant has grown with the same vibrance of a burial site. It’s grown with the same persistence with the tree tomato shrub nearby, whose seeds have traveled over 1,000 kilomètres; germinated and transplanted over a dozen times. Sometimes we think the tree tomato withers and we write off its story – but not too soon, it surprises us by finally blossoming in the right conditions – in a small sack filled with soil and humus and goat shit. It has finally found its glory. It blooms when it blooms. It blossoms. Its story is not in its large hairy leaves. It’s not in its tangy, purplish fruit. You can’t just tell by looking, even with a plantascope of sorts.

It doesn’t remember.

The dwarf schefflera bonsai doesn’t remember that I bought it at a roadside auction. I have healed off its rachid leaflets. I have meditated under its appealing frame. It doesn’t know this. I didn’t know the story of its past when I purchased it, except that it was ugly and unproportional.

It grows like we do.

We have overgrown our juvenile delinquencies. We have adapted new shapes. We have proportioned some curves. Our type has not changed, however much we have chiseled our traumas in every onset of disaster.

Some plants tell the stories of adaptation. They tell us their stories of resilience. And survival.

And yet some plants tell the stories of poverty.

There’s a certain dodder plant that grows in my village during the rains. It’s a very invasive weed that grows on top of other plants. This plant has no roots. Instead, it builds a capacious canopy on the host plant, casting a hazy web while choking it in the process. We call it yiiya ya thina (the poverty weed). It is evil and parasitic – but bad things can also be useful. Sometimes we used it to ease nausea and vomiting. When we prayed for the rains, we prayed that it did not come with this evil monster.

It’s a viral veil. If unchecked, it sweeps plantations. Good plants stand by and do nothing.

Mama used to say thĩna ndwĩ myai (Poverty has no roots). I now believe she was referring to this plant’s behaviour. Poverty is sticky. It’s stubborn, but it has no roots.

I have never asked this plant for its story, for I am very sure it has one. I’m very certain that it’s a story of survival. I have never asked Mama why she often mentioned this plant. I believe it had something to do with survival.

For our roots are planted in poverty. Maybe we need to grow without roots. Or maybe not. Maybe we need to be dodders. Maybe we need this to lift ourselves from the poverty trap.

Some stories are not meant to be told. Nobody wants to hear the insipid story of a rainbowy African Marigold. It has such feeble stems, even in its hybrid shades.

Let it shine in its yellowish hues. Let them be orange, red or mahogany. Let it be bicoloured. Let it produce a hundred blooms. Let it always flower. Let it be reincarnated through the perpetual clocks of time, always filling us with delight.

Let it be a plant.

Let its blooming cycles be immortal.

 

 

Plants love better than us. Plants do not judge. They do not offer an unsolicited opinion; they mind their business.

Plants do not even love us back – at least not like that – they respond to our love and tenderness by flourishing. But they’re better lovers than us – not in the sexual way – but love. Plants love.

And plants do not lie.

They flourish or die.

Plants take the love we give them and multiply it by flourishing. They do this for us, the givers, by showing us the effects of our love on them. Plants are givers. They take but give.

Plants are like our parents – they’re just like Mama. Mama does not just want us to love her back – or give back her love – Her satisfaction is seeing us thrive.

Mama wants us to blossom. Her phone’s ringtone is a prayer for us. Her prayers pray for us more than they pray for her.

 

 

I was raised in a rural African village. The Village of Kochambo. Yes, it’s poor, and remotely dry in the South of the Sahara, ruled by intensive grasslands and rain that pours the way it wants.

It’s poor but it’s also my home. And there’s no place better than home.

We are poor but we are happy. Or we prosper. We are poor but we flourish.

However, in the scramble of living, I have watched Mama watch her own dreams scatter before she could watch the world crush ours with a bare-knuckle. Well, the world can crush our dreams, but it won’t crush us.

You see, when Mama graduated from the teachers’ college, she had hopes of joining the government pension scheme through the Teachers Service Commission – the no nonsense body that employs hundreds of teachers and underpays them to overwork.

Mama’s dream came true when she was deployed to a desolate junior school in the hardship zone of some badlands. Being a mother – like every mother, she could either abandon us to live on our own – with dad, and move to her new work station. Or she could move with us – leaving dad behind in his teaching job at the local school, where we also went to school. It’s one of those decisions people have to make. Or they don’t.

She was in the middle of her juggling when Uncle P turned up from the city, with his newspapers and money offerings. We love Uncle P’s money gifts because Mama hates them. I will read the newspapers before dad gets to them.

I do not like uncles who turn up from the city carrying news articles and money to buy sweets – especially when they arrive late and during a moment of truth. They move around like false messengers spreading invisible hope. They seem to have it figured out – until they don’t – which we realize many years later when we too join the city and start offering false promises – when we become them, or they become us.

It’s finally then that we discover that they’re perhaps dishonest phonies lavishing in the brutal uncertainties of the big city.

And we have become them.

We’re such sneaky quacks. You can hear our quacking.

We become those uncles we loathed. Why do we become the people we loathe?

Soon, we realize we’re now the drunk uncles in every family gathering – knowledgeable and fuzzy – carrying the hopes and promises of the village on a brown envelope.

I hate hope. I hate hope in a brown envelope.

Even more, I hate people who spread false hope – but hate is a strong word, maybe like loathe. I do not give hope, it’s not my place in the universe.

I dislike people who spread false hope. It’s like watering plants in the rain.

They’re like those false prophets or crypto scammers prowling the web for their next kill. They’re selling these imaginative dreams packed with illusionary returns – at the cost of a ‘smallish investment in a brown envelope.’ It’s not your success they’re after – it’s your ‘tiny’ envelope. They’re poker masters promising huge returns.

They’re selling you the entire house. But you’ll never get the patio.

They’ll take your tiny balloon of hope and blow it into a big bubble – magnifying your exasperation. They pump your imaginary balloon to the whims of plausibility and then suddenly – and just like that – prick it with a sharp word, not two, banging it into oblivion – crashing your tiniest dreams.

They lock your promises in a brown envelope.

And then the blame rests on you.

 

 

Our house didn’t win this time. Our house never wins.

Uncle P’s house was this immediate emancipator – consistently turning up when needed. He was ‘very well-connected’ in government.

Here, we thrive on connections.

In an even web of deceit, even spiders get entangled.

According to Uncle P, Mama didn’t need to report to her new work station for deployment – She didn’t need to work on her deportation. She would remain calm and let him use his extensive networks. He knew someone who knew someone whose daughter was married to someone who served hot tea in some government cafeteria.

Uncle P said he’d call someone to call someone. That issue was solved that day – right there, under the stewardship of drunkenness. Uncle P would handle Mama’s transfer to a nearby school. Himself.

We trusted him. We all trust our families.

Many dreams have been crashed in a family trust – in dark closets between locked drawers inside desks of invisible offices. Many dreams have been trashed in unopened brown envelopes in countless locations.

They’re dreams in a brown envelope. They are unopened CVs and promissory notes locked shut in an uncle’s desk – whose content has never been perused or shared.

They hide the lies we tell.

See, we use untruths to excuse ourselves from the inexcusable – like the guilt of lying to a loved one. And the pain of lying to family.

We believe lies – distrusting our innate survival instincts that have been there since we lived in a cave.

“Every kungulu kwangala in the dark should be treated with the suspicion of an invader” is a forgotten metaphor.

(Kungulu kwangala is the sound made by rats in the granary.)

You know rats by that sound.

Every time Uncle P visited home, there was this kungulu kwangala of a new rat – fresh and improved. There was a new character who was more of a protagonist than the last.

A good story only needs one protagonist.

The story arcs kept shifting in timeless innuendos of we-should-do-thats – such that I lost track of progress.

I like tracking progress.

Mama’s progress was slowly fading. All she needed to do was report to her new work station.

I was about thirteen and had soon lost them – the main characters in the story of a poor woman who failed to report to work on the feint promises of her husband’s drunkard brother – don’t forget Uncle P. I guess that’s when I went to a boarding school for my high school studies.

And then I forgot. We usually forget.

But I remember Uncle P.

I remember that he came home like a UFO on an alien spacecraft. He seemed to arrive unannounced and in a hurry – a lot of hurry. We said that he was busy at work. I remember him because he went to the best high school in the country, and was my role model. He came home with newspapers and a certain magazine that had his name and a framed photo with some government officials. He brought us money to buy sweets and never carried bread or those sweet-nothings people carry from the city.

African men do not carry gifts or baggage. They’re the gift. They’re the baggage.

Uncle P usually came home like a ghost. Now you saw him and then you didn’t.

He called us natives and kidnapped dad from the local primary school to the drinking den – or thereabouts.

Dad would come home different. He had with him plotless stories of questionable characters with gigantic titles who worked in government. Mama’s situation was under control.

There was a Mr. Kulova whose brother was a senior manager with the teachers’ employer and whose wife had given birth to twins or triplets – I didn’t count.

I couldn’t count.

A Mr. Mukulwa who had forgotten to send Mama’s redeployment letter to the government stamp but would be doing so ASAP – on a working day – which meant as soon as he woke up from his lambistic stupor without a remnant memory that he worked in a government office. There were so many senior officers involved.

But again, I didn’t count.

Everyone was a senior manager in some senior government office.

They were all connected. We are all connected.

There was also an unnamed guy with an uncanny demeanour who operated this web of promises and undoing. They mentioned him every time. Dad seemed to miss him whenever he went for an official call. I didn’t get his name.

“He’s a very busy man,” I once heard.  He seemed to know everyone in every government office. I have never understood why they needed so many government offices for a simple deployment. Those men seemed busier than those SpaceX spaceship teams.

Dad said the man was his drinking buddy. This he insisted, shrinking his left eye.

I’ve often felt that I have the instinct of a cat – if cats have that.

I feel things I am not supposed to feel. I see the overconfident look on a worried face. I see things before other people see them.

I feel.

I see things in people. I see people.

I see the future – even in its excessive uncertainties and pedantries. I cannot explain this because I know that it’s not humanly possible.

How do you explain the impossible?

I remembered that I saw through Uncle P. I guess it was the child in me. Children often see a purer world before we corrupt it for them.

I saw that it was not good to crush people’s tiny hopes. I saw that it was not easy living through the countless unthawed characters in Mama’s quantum story. It was an infinite story entangled in a liminal haze of the-lies-families-often tell.

I saw it with my two eyes.

I felt it with my own heart.

I starred in the game of losers.

I watched the disintegration of a family based on a single lie.

When it’s the monkey’s day to die, all the trees get slippery.

Every branch gets soapy in the rain.

When Uncle P finally rested, years later, I remembered Mama’s brown envelope and the promises it held – lying unopened in some office drawer – clean and untouched in her fabulous handwritten font. A little bird told Mama that the envelope had never moved.

I remembered this.

And the fictional stories of Mr. Kulova.

And the forgetfulness of Mr. Mukulwa.

And the uncanny demeanour of the unnamed guy with an uncanny demeanour who operated this web of promises and undoing – and wasn’t dad’s best friend.

And yet Uncle P delivered our hope. I’m still a native, but a better native. Uncle P was sent by the ancestors to nourish our hopes and dreams – with his newspapers of hope. It’s the seed of hope he planted in me. Sometimes I see him now, back home, as I bring him his newspapers whenever I visit the village. I tinge as I see the look on his face. It’s a reincarnation of hope.

I see the look on Mama’s face whenever she looks at Uncle P’s fragile bones. The people in the forest must be punishing him. He has this fancy nostalgia about his days back when he used to ‘be a senior officer’ in government.

But those days are gone.

Here, in the village of Kochambo, we are all equal. Here, we do not use titles. In fact, Mwasyota, the village herdsman, has more power in the village than a retired government servant. He commands bigger herds and flocks. In the village, power is held by shopkeepers, bar attendants, and men who own two oxen with a yoke and plough.

And Mr. Kimue and his fertile oasis of plenty where he sells unripe mangoes and sugarcane whose cane is not sweet. Mr. Kimue also has some power. He decides the days when the village eats sukuma wiki – and days when he has disinfected his farm. He has this power because he has reclaimed some land from the riparian area by the river, with massive kitothya which sometimes blocks the river water from flowing. But who is water.

When it comes to power, only water, fire and wind can boast of power. Humans have no power, especially humans with pecuniary embarrassments.

I understand Mama’s worldview. Her tough emotions have since imploded, especially since that day when she excavated a red underwear in the small shamba behind the pit latrine. Why red? Her sharp palaeontology told her that the fossil was about 5 years old. That was around the same time when her name was expunged from the teacher’s register.

Here, we don’t believe in coincidences. Things do not just conspire to occur concurrently. Things do not have brains.

Here, we believe in cause and effect – we believe that evil happens for a purpose. We believe in occult sanctions against unacceptable behaviour.

We believe Mama. We have to.

A mad man told me about the Veil of Maya. I don’t know where he got this from. It’s something about children and guns – something you must have heard about. It goes like this; If a child finds a gun, they don’t know what a gun does. They don’t know that it’s an evil machination. It’s dangerous – but they don’t know that. Now, if they shoot someone, does the person get shot? Do they get excused from this ignorant deed?

What about Mama? She’s not merely solipsistic. Everything has to make sense. Sense is all there is in the world – sense is our goal in this world. We just want to make sense of things. It doesn’t matter if it’s stage magic or a miraculous fête. It doesn’t matter if it’s the result of the work of a witch monger. We just want our persistent practice to make sense.

Mama is a wise woman, although mongers accuse her of being in tango with darkness. The evil ones accuse her of being the juggler’s oracle. Again, the pot and the kettle. They say these things out of envy because Mama is no witch. Mama doesn’t dance naked around people’s houses at night. In fact, Mama is afraid of the dark. She doesn’t cast spells with her words, when she says some conjuring thing about anyone, she spits her saliva on the ground, for everyone to see. I’ve never seen Mama with a kamuti or any protection necklace. Mama often washes her ithalu, she doesn’t wear it unwashed until it is worn out – like some women. Then she doesn’t throw it away for a new one. She only wears a black veil on market day, because it’s her favourite dress.

Mama doesn’t have the evil eye – that one is with everyone. She doesn’t have a kita – she doesn’t speak ill of anyone – except evil people. But we all say horrible things about terrible people. We want bad things to happen to them. We want them to have bad serendipity. We pray for the axe of aimu to fall on their heads – even when we don’t mean that. Mama makes us spit on the ground every time we prophesy awful things on people.

The other day when the witchdoctor visited granny’s homestead for some cleansing – which included severing some cuts with the same razor blade on the face, tongue, and on the belly, she refused. They slaughtered a goat and mixed its chyme with some herbs and blood. They smeared it on their faces. They sprinkled it around the homestead. That day, Mama sent us to the market to watch Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies all day. Now I can ‘Enter the Dragon,’ like a shaolin martial artist.

Mama is not a witch. We are good. Other people are bad. The world is full of malicious people with malevolent volitions.

But not Mama. I cannot save Mama. I think I can only flourish more for Mama. I can deliver Mama’s redeployment letter, albeit differently. I can flourish.

 

 

Several years.

People have died.

Deep hatred has been marinated with specks of love especially during a family funeral. Some flashes of amateur brush on a bad painting. As if it makes hate better.

We regularly come together to bury a loved one. Lewden witches must have had us this time – we’ve had several deaths in the family. We are united in grief as we leave our hiding spots in the big city and visit our village home.

I read somewhere that ghosts are about seeing. And that ghost stories do not only contain ghosts.

I’ve seen ghosts.

At our funerals, there are lots of ghosts. They visit home and vanish like they don’t belong. They’re on the run.

We are ghosts in our own funerals. Maybe ghosts see us at the cemetery burying our loved ones and laugh.

Maybe they do, and then maybe they don’t.

Maybe we are ghosts.

We are the ghosts of Uncle P.

We leave as unopened stories in a brown envelope, to be delivered to a closet drawer.

Our stories will never be told. They remain untold.

How do we tell stories of people who do not want to be remembered – who do not want to be heroes in their own story? How do we tell our own stories?

Mama’s story might be lying in some government locker – unopened, ignored, untold. What happens to untold stories? How do we ever get to know what happened to Mama’s redeployment letter?

How do we ever know of the misplaced stories in unopened manuscripts locked in the unprovoked intentions of anonymous publishers – gathering dust and tear? A CV locked in an uncle’s locker with the uncanny promise of a job. How do we know the stories left unopened in people’s inboxes and emails when we perish?

I don’t know what Mama thinks when she sees us.

I am now the drunk uncle in every family gathering. I am the holder of the brown envelope. I give back what is given to me, and just like dad, I blink an eye to my drunk friends as we journey together to explore the love of nature.

I keep my family’s promises. I am the door they knock on.

I keep their job promises. Marriage promises. Book promises. Opportunity promises. I am the convener of hope.

I am a lie enclosed in its own brown envelope, just like everyone is back at home. I am the stories I tell myself.

A story is like a painting. As the surface ages, some old paint becomes transparent. If we look closely, we can discover minuscule alterations – a change in some line, a new curve or the tint of a particular hue; Sometimes there’s a change in the original intention of the painter.

We could quit writing and start painting. Mama could unearth a perfect pentimento under her image of Uncle P. Her blank canvas must have started with trust.

It all starts with trust.

As truth erodes in time, we uncover the stained underdrawings of the image that Mama gave us of Uncle P – which include the shifting shape of a village witch. I know Uncle P was not a witch – and you now know that Mama is not a witch. I don’t know how I know this, but a painting was altered.

I do not blame Mama. I don’t think anyone would blame her either.

Maybe there are old stories hidden behind the one we have been told. Maybe we need to scratch some latex to reveal what’s beneath. Maybe the past will get clearer in time.

Or maybe we’ll never know.

Perhaps what we need to do is unpaint the images of the past.

How do we unscratch a concert with the devil? How do we uncover jealousy and envy? What do we use to colour a coat of capricious malevolence? How do we underscore the past with truth?

There are three types of stories; there are the stories we tell, which we often believe to be true, and then there are the true stories of others. These stories are easy to tell. Lying is easy – it’s fiction and has no boundaries. Truth is the only difficult story. How do we ever get to tell the truth? How do we tell difficult stories?

Someday, maybe, we’ll sit under a sacred fig tree and open all the brown envelopes – like we used to do when we shared some common virtues. Then, we might open Uncle P’s envelope and read his untold story.

It’s not easy to untell what we know – what Mama knows. It’s not easy to paint over pain .We might get the chance to know Uncle P’s story, but how do we ever know the truth?

What is the colour of truth when we can never know what’s going on in people’s minds?

Truth, then, maybe, is colourless.

Just maybe.

But then, we’re not trees. I think only trees can tell the colour of truth.

We don’t know. Maybe that’s it.

 

—————-

Image: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Freddie Eisenberg
Freddie Eisenberg
Freddie Eisenberg is a young writer based in Nairobi, Kenya. He comes from a rural village, Kithatu – the land between two dry rivers (Muooni and Kochambo) - in Makueni County. He has a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science from Kenya’s The University of Nairobi. He’s a lover of technology, big data and has a queer sleep disorder. When he’s not staring at his laptop, he’s a Digital Storyteller, Media Guru, and lover of plants.

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