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Peace Mbengei: Confessions of a Contrite Spirit

Mbotu, your name still lights a furnace in my heart, embers of lust unleashing flames which burn inside out until I am nothing more than a smoulder…

You are screaming my name, pleading for help. I am standing there watching you. It is not that I cannot hear you. It is not that I do not care. You are my one true love and after today, I fear you will be the last. In another life, I would have killed anyone who dared to harm you but you must forgive me. I wish things could be different. You understand me, my darling, don’t you? I pray that you do.

When you requested my presence in your hotel room for our usual evening rendezvous, it thrilled me. I fantasized the entire morning. Twice, Andale caught me in a daze, visions of you dancing behind my open eyelids. She threatened to fire me if it happened again. I recalled your nickname for her, spindly spider, and a chuckle escaped my lips to her chagrin. It suits her all right, the way she spins webs of lies about us during the monthly employee evaluations, running up and down on her tiny bowed legs to ensure we are all kept in check. Rumour has it they will promote her to manager after the next appraisal. If that is true, my happiness is in jeopardy. She has been on my case since I joined Hotel Baraka as a porter, strutting her poorly proportioned frame in front of me every single chance she gets, assuming we have chemistry. If she appreciated the intensity of my revulsion for her unwelcome flirtations, she would have backed off a long time ago. My manhood shrivels an inch after each lingering handshake and death grip hug. The opposite always happens with you.

Mbotu, your name still lights a furnace in my heart, embers of lust unleashing flames which burn inside out until I am nothing more than a smoulder. It has been this way since I learned it. It was your first day at Hotel Baraka. You were in a rush and the dull receptionist was getting on your nerves, prompting you to curse at her and demand for the manager. I marvelled at how such a beautiful mouth could produce such obscene words. Andale came to the rescue and within minutes you had your room key. She directed me to carry your bags which I did as you strode ahead of me, talking on the phone in a foreign tongue. Your mellifluous baritone reminded me of the Jim Reeves Christmas tunes which my parents would blast at our house even though the sole language which they understood apart from Kikuyu was Kiswahili. In the elevator, your grey eyes fixated on the buttons, ignoring me completely. I admired your sinewy back and curved behind. Your curly hair intrigued me and I wondered if that was a natural gift or the work of chemicals. When I turned eighteen, I wanted to imitate the actors who graced the screen of our analogue TV so I experimented with products which made my hair silky. That phase did not last long, thanks to the shave which I received in my sleep from my mother. I recall waking up in a bed full of hair with a bare scalp. We never discussed it. At our home, the opinions of others mattered more than our own emotions. My mother went to tremendous lengths to keep the appearance of the perfect family. Maybe that is why she did not believe me when I told her after it happened.

I could not believe it myself. It was Sunday morning, and we were getting ready to go to church. My mother was humming a gospel song as she bathed my younger brother in the downstairs bathroom. I was putting on my tie when my father called me into his room to help him look for his favourite brown leather belt. This is the part where it gets blurry. Try as I may, I can never recall the exact sequence of events which found me lying on the floor, my black polyester pants and spider man underwear around my ankles, my father thrusting himself deep inside me, rivulets of perspiration dripping from his face onto my exposed back, waves of pain threatening to split me open. I asked him to stop several times. I am not sure but I must have given up after he pushed my head down and held it there until I blacked out. The memory of the floor stayed with me the longest. For years after that, the sight of marble hardwood filled me with a fear so intense that I became paralysed, unable to even breathe, the sound of my father’s panting drowning out everything else, taking me back to that abominable day.

The elevator stops and you get off first, your long-determined strides deepening my growing admiration. I trail behind you, pulling the heavy suitcases wondering what you could have packed. We stop at your door, room 09. Chills ravage my body and I struggle to quell them before you notice and question my health. Nine is the number of years I had to endure my father’s abuse. My mother was silent every single year even though the signs were all there. My constant limping, stained underwear, the regression into bed wetting, unusual introversion and dropping grades should have motivated her to intervene. But she stayed silent. Just like I did when you asked me if I would accept a tip in dollars. You crumpled up a ten dollar note and thrust it into my palm, tired of waiting for my response, then shut the door. I stood there for a while, furious at myself for letting shyness get the better of me. It surprised you when a minute later you opened the door and found me still present.

‘Oh, I thought you had already left. Could you do me a favour please?’

I nodded, my throat rendered useless by infatuation.

‘My skin only responds to a certain lotion which I forgot to pack and I can’t risk getting a breakout because of changing my routine, so do you mind checking for me in the supermarket if I can get it? It’s called Luscious. Have you heard of it?’

I nod again, thankful for this chance to hear your voice addressing me.

‘Great. I don’t know how much it will cost,’ you say, retrieving your wallet once again, ‘but here is all the local currency which I have. Keep the change. By the way, I am Mbotu.’

You hand me two thousand Kenya shillings then look at me.

I muster all my courage and pray that you like the sound of my voice, ‘Hinga.’

You thank me then shut the door again. Mbotu, the name replays like a broken record in my head. Most half-castes do not have African names and they take pride in that fact, forgetting that half of their heritage is black. But not you. How you said your name with no form of embarrassment or regret made me want to get to know you more.

Down at the lobby, I brainstorm for a way to slip out of the hotel to run the errand for you without getting into trouble. I enlist the help of Lolo, one cleaner who has worked at Hotel Baraka the longest. He is much older than me but we get along. When I was a new employee, he would tell me stories about the hotel origins. They named it Baraka, meaning blessings because the owner, a seasoned high-ranking politician, expected to get good returns from his investment which he did until a rival circulated rumours, each more salacious than the first. There were allegations about the hotel feeding guests cat meat. Soon after the story circulated, newspaper headlines bore images of dead cats pictured at the back entrance to the hotel. It drove away customers in droves. To attract them back, the hotel decimated its charges, a strategy which benefited it but the damage from the negative publicity cost them a downgrade to a three star. Not one to give up, his rival hit back with a new scandal about how mercury had contaminated the hotel sugar. The public outcry after the discovery led to the shutting down of the hotel pending investigation by the ministry of health and parliamentary committee inquiries. Owing to his well-oiled connections, they gave the hotel a clean bill of health and it reopened a month later. It never cleaned up its reputation though, contributing to a fast decline of business. By the time I got a job there, Hotel Baraka catered to tourists on a budget who were not well conversant with hotels in the region.

I find Lolo smoking in the men’s lavatory. He hides his cigarette behind his back when the door opens then resumes when he sees it is a friendly face. I explain what I want, leaving out the part about you.

‘Ah, men don’t need lotion. The drier the skin, the more manly you become. Kwani we ni shoga?’ he jokes, slapping my back as he convulses in laughter.

A part of me freezes. Shoga. I hate it when they use that word. With five single letters, they dehumanise me in the worst way. We do not question their love choices, so where do they get off policing ours? My brother was the first person to use that word in my presence. I had turned sixteen a week before and the adolescent changes were unmistakable. My once smooth puny body had transmuted into a tall, hulking frame thanks to the long hours which I put in at the gym. I was big enough to fight off my father so that night when he came expecting to find the docile plaything he was used to, I startled him by wrestling him to the ground. He tried to subdue me but age had caught up with him so it was impractical. My brother found us entwined in battle, each of us struggling to secure the upper hand.

‘What’s going on?’ he asked.

‘It’s your brother. I wanted to put sense into him,’ my father replied, untangling himself from me.

‘What did he do?’

‘Your brother is an arse bandit. He is a faggot!’

My brother took in the appalling news. His expression changed from bewilderment to wonder then the one I will never forget: disgust. He looked at me as if he was seeing me in a new light, one that illuminated me as a piece of trash foreign to him. Then he dashed outside to call my mother. She stood there as my brother and father accused me of being queer, calling me the devil’s child. Her eyes avoided mine when they decided the final verdict: I was no longer a welcome occupant in that home. I did not bother to oppose. For nine years, my home was a torture chamber. All I ever prayed for at night before my father’s creaking footsteps announced his arrival was that one day I would be free. It never occurred to me to pray for it to end. I knew that God was omnipresent, meaning he could see everything taking place. What was the point in begging him to intervene if he had already willed it?

They sent me to live with my maternal aunt in the coastal city, Mombasa, far from all my other relatives and this is where I have been since.

When Lolo finishes laughing, he tells me he will cover for me if Andale asks about my whereabouts but not before he teases me. Like everyone else at the hotel, he imagines there is something going on between us.

‘Why don’t you do us all a favour and help Andale release tension?’ he says, gyrating his hips in slow motion.

‘She is not my type.’

‘Boy, anything you can ride, should be your type.’

I smile at the irony of his statement then get out of the hotel without rousing suspicion. The air outside is humid, typical of coastal regions. The road is clear as I cross it, then walk down the street to the supermarket at the corner. I find your lotion and bring it upstairs to your room. You open the door after several knocks, a towel tied around your waist, iPhone on your ear and gesture me to come in. I wait by the minibar as you chat in eloquent French, running your hands through your hair when the person on the other end is talking.

‘Did you find it?’

I present the bottle of lotion to you like a burnt offering. Your eyes light up with excitement.

‘Great! Thank you. Hinga, tell me if I am imposing but would it be in order if I asked you some questions about Mombasa? I’ve never been here before.’

I relish how my name rolls off your tongue then I nod in agreement.

‘Okay, let me put clothes on first. Make yourself comfortable.’

Your foot trips on the glass stool next to the couch, upsetting the flower vase containing the blue periwinkles. The crash upsets you. I scramble to help you tidy it up, both of us squatting and one shard pricks my little finger. I flinch from the pain and stand. You follow suit, examining my hand. The towel falls off your waist. You follow my gaze to the area below your navel and that is when I knew. You tend to my wound first, wrapping it in the towel you dropped before getting dressed. The air is thicker than usual, making it arduous for me to inhale. I find my way to the window. It is wide open. You are standing behind me, observing me fight my inner demons.

After my relocation to the coast, I joined a different high school, one of those mixed types. My popularity with the girls soared because of my muscular frame and sculpted face. There were several fights among those who wanted to be my girlfriends. I chose the prettiest of them all. She would invite me over to her place after school and attempt to get me into bed with her. I only kissed her and even that felt awkward. Once, she took my hand and forced me to grope her breasts hoping it would trigger me to pounce on her. The funny thing is, the more she tried to seduce me, the clearer it became that the only person I wanted to pounce on was her brother. Martin was my first lover. It happened one day when my girlfriend left us alone in the house to buy a loaf of bread. The entire experience changed me. It was different with him. I dumped his sister soon after.

You place a hand on my shoulder. I turn to face you.

‘Would you like a drink?’

I nod and follow you to the couch. The first sip of brandy warms my belly and unlocks my tongue.

I ask you where you are from. Your answer confirms my assumption you are mixed-race: half French, half Kisii. Your mother was born and raised in rural Kenya and she met your father at a cocktail party while she was at the university in the capital city of Nairobi. They moved to France where you and your twin sisters were born. Your mother had passed on less than a month ago after a protracted battle with kidney failure and you wanted to visit her country of origin so you could feel close to her. You remembered how your mother told you they had spent their honeymoon at Hotel Baraka and you came here despite the negative publicity. I tell you everything I know about the Kisii community and you laugh when I mention that bananas are their staple because they have always been your favourite fruit.

You ask about me. I debate for a minute then I tell you everything about my father, Martin and everyone else after him. My intention was to shock you. Your reaction is far from what I had imagined. You take a swig from your glass and continue to stare at me. So I take a risk and tell you how I feel about you. My nerves are tingling as I expect your expected rebuff.  You refill both our glasses, empty yours in one gulp then you tell me your story.

Life in France as a half-caste was difficult. They made fun of your imperfection and you felt lost, like you did not belong. You were twelve when you realised something about you was peculiar. At first, you thought a part of you was missing. But then you came to realise that your liking boys did not make you abnormal. It made you happy. Your parents were free spirits who did not care so much. They only warned you to be careful. Your sisters loved having a brother to watch fashion shows with.

I marvelled at how different our experiences had been and bemoaned the curse of being gay and African. I explained to you how it was taboo to be who we were. How I had to live a lie, pretending to like women just so I could fit in. Dating was not an option. Nobody would agree to that. It was too risky, so I hooked up under the radar.

‘Do you wonder if your father made you gay?’

Stunned by the question, I sense a river bursting through the dam I had placed it in. The tears flow against my will. I have thought about it a thousand times but I have never voiced it out loud. You come closer, cup my face with your hands, wipe the tears away with your fingertips then place my head on your chest and let me cry. When I am done, you kiss my forehead.

‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘My father was probably gay, and he despised it so he used me as an outlet for his dissatisfaction.’

‘I think so too,’ you whisper back. ‘I also think you are extraordinary. You endured such horror yet here you are, still pushing through.’

Warmth envelopes me when you say that. My phone rings. It is Lolo. He is angry because I haven’t been at my post for hours and Andale is on his case. I excuse myself but not before you ask me to take you on a tour of the town the next day.

We drive to the south coast and try kayaking, jet skiing, kite surfing and parasailing. We even try kissing. Both of us were catching our breath, seated behind a coral reef on the beach, just the two of us watching the waves wash over the shore when you leaned over and placed your lips on mine. It was perfect. That night, we made love. After my childhood trauma, I had thought I would never be normal. I had a hard time understanding what people meant when they said their significant other made them whole. That night I understood. The spark which triggered the electricity between us dissipated all the darkness which had bedevilled me from my childhood.

I drove you to the airport on the day of your departure, wishing I could leave with you. You vowed to keep in touch but delivered more than that. You came back to Hotel Baraka three more times that year and four the next year. On your fourth visit, I betrayed you. In the lobby, Lolo and two other workers were discussing a feature on prime time news. It was about how members of a certain estate in Mombasa had found a gay couple doing their business and beat them up. They were in the hospital now, convalescing from their injuries. Such stories were becoming more frequent. Homophobia had never been more real and judging from the silence of the church and the law, there were policies encouraging it. Lolo spat on the carpeted floor, a primitive habit which he could not rid himself of.

‘These shogas are an abomination! Ala!’ He said.

‘Mwanaumeatumiwekamamwanamkejameni!’ another piqued.

‘They are lucky. I would have burnt them alive!’

A chorus of chants supported the last sentiment. Sweat beads formed on my forehead.

‘There is a certain guest who frequents this hotel. One day I caught him smacking his lips as he watched Hinga walking,’ someone said.

Silence. They looked at me for an explanation. I feigned ignorance.

‘Ooh, is it that mzungu called Mbotu? Maybe he stays here so much because Hinga turns him on,’ Lolo said.

‘One day I was in south coast visiting my cousin and I saw Mbotu kissing another man out on the beach. He was so brazen. I did not see his partner, but it was an African man.’

More disgruntled curses.

‘Why should we host such a devil? He should vacate this hotel.’

‘Hinga, why are you quiet? Do you like him?’

My heart was in my mouth. Andale walked in. They updated her on the trending topic.

‘Pengine Hinga nishoga pia. Miakambili, yuashindaamenikataa. Can a real man turn down all of this?’ she asked as she spun around, showing off her oedematous body. I had to do something so I grab Andale and kiss her. Raucous cheers meet my spontaneity. Shocked but glad, she kisses me back.

The noise draws in more workers and soon the lobby is full of security guards, kitchen staff and waiters. After more discussion on the matter, they agree that Mbotu has to leave. We will deal with the repercussions of our activities from the management tomorrow. We march upstairs to your room. The other guests peek outside, curious about what is transpiring. You are sipping a sundowner, watching a movie. I was to join you later in the night. Andale states our allegations and instructs you to leave the hotel. You respond with nothing more than a shrug then pack your suitcases in a rush. I avoid your gaze. We escort you outside the hotel gate and you stand there waiting for a taxi not knowing that getting one in the evening will be next to impossible.

Back inside the hotel building, the crowd is yearning for more action. It was Lolo’s idea. He gave a passionate speech about how your kind come to Africa to corrupt young men and how it would be irresponsible to let you walk away.

‘Last week, one of these washogas molested my neighbour’s son. The poor boy is in the hospital.’

‘We need to make them understand that they are not welcome here,’ Lolo said.

Cheers met his suggestion.

‘He should not leave here without learning a lesson.’

‘This is Africa. We do not excuse such beastly behaviour,’ said the cook out on bail after an arrest on allegations of molesting his three-year-old daughter.

The origin of the tyre remains a conundrum. I remember them marching back outside, seizing you off the street and dragging your fighting body to the hotel parking. Lolo placed the tyre around your waist, trapping your arms. The cook poured kerosene on you as though you reminded him of his charcoal stove. All this time you are screaming, trying to appeal to reason but what you do not realise is that the crowd you are negotiating with has crossed the line of reason. Someone thrusts a lighter into my hand. I hesitate. They chant my name in encouragement. I light it up. It frightens you. I throw it on you. The tyre bursts into flames. As your face melts, the darkness creeps back in and I wonder if it will ever leave me. As the flames consume you, I am overwhelmed by incomprehensible melancholy. I want to help you. I want to tell them to stop. I want to burn with you. But I don’t. You are screaming my name, pleading for help. I am standing there watching you.


Photo by Robert V. Ruggiero on Unsplash

Peace Mbengei
Peace Mbengei
Peace Mbengei was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya. She is a scriptwriter, playwright, fiction writer and medical doctor. She is an avid reader of African fiction. Her story ‘Losing Papa’ was longlisted for the Writivism 2019 short story competition. She caught the writing bug when she was a little girl. Unfortunately, they are yet to find a cure and she hopes they never do.

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