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Sunlight on Blue Water: A Short Story by Malusi Mwongeli

Image: Pixabay and Alexander S. Kunz on Unsplash mixed

It rains the day you decide to leave the clog of anxiety and the cloying air of looming chaos of Nairobi. A rain so blasé in its torrentiality it mirrors your inability to participate in a confrontation with your fears. You pack up essentials that you think you might need for a period that you are, at the moment, not so certain of. Three pairs of jeans, some shirts — flirtatious but still utilitarian, a dress — the bright yellow one, with the flowers on it that gives everyone the illusion that you are happy, well-adjusted even — a big fluffy sweater, two pairs of shoes, a box of tampons, a new toothbrush, the phone charger, your wallet, Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and all your lacy underwear. You juggle the idea of leaving your phone and your laptop, but you convince yourself that you need them. You will buy anything you have forgotten. It is also the day you delete all your social media accounts — Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You reset your phone — consequently uninstalling all the secondary apps that you use at least once a week. You swap your SIM with a new one that you bought from the Safaricom Shop along Kenyatta Avenue, the one manned by the bearded, and unfortunately, handsome assistant.

You go through the motions of leaving — switch off all the lights, lock the gas cooker, close all the curtains, shelf all the utensils and you lock all the doors of your quaint, one-bedroomed apartment in the nooks of Kilimani. You pay Mr. Marish, your calm landlord, your rent for the next two months in crisp 1000-shilling notes, and he smiles his coy, gummy smile. It isn’t the first time you’ve done this — leave on a whim, but you’ve never been this uncertain about the ramifications of this sudden, uninformed decision. You aren’t running, you are chasing something — this is the only time you’ve been certain of it.

You snicker self-deprecatingly because now you have to download the Uber app. When the Uber arrives, you stuff your Sandstorm duffel bag into the boot. Other than asking for the destination — the Norfolk Hotel, your driver is taciturn, which is a relief. When you first moved out of your father’s house, it was because you had convinced yourself that you could make a living off writing. You were tired of living under his care, his very pampering care, and in a characteristic whim, you moved out to a small apartment in Kahawa Wendani. You had been writing for a small blog and had saved a decent sum that allowed you to move and live comfortably. Your father, a mkubwa, a big-man official, in the Ministry of Lands, worried about you, still deposited money in your account every end month and still sent you job openings on WhatsApp. A performance of poverty — that’s what he called it. He kept calling to check if you had been having ‘a tough time’, he kept saying it, ‘a tough time’, as if your life was the crust of a loaf of bread, as if you had been having difficulty chewing it. But when you received your first award, he proudly introduced you to his church friends. ‘My daughter is an award-winning writer.’ he said animatedly.

The waitress arrives, a petite, light-skinned lady with a subtle beauty that you assume photographers look out for. She smiles, a polite, toothy smile, as she asks for your order. Jasmine tea. You remember you can’t fiddle with your phone. You can’t scour Twitter for its social justice wars and feminist jargon and anti-capitalism memes. You make a mental note to follow more grounded people next time you download the app. You also can’t check out who’s travelling where, who’s eating what and what’s happening where on Instagram or on Facebook. It’s Wednesday but you are certain you aren’t anyone’s Woman Crush Wednesday, you’ve never been. You chuckle when you remember that Kagwe had called it a ‘childish validation of significance’ when you asked him to make you his WCW. You flip the phone, snake it across your fingers, acutely aware of your mental dependence on the damned thing. The mist from your jasmine tea wafts delicately into the air and you place your left palm over the cup, blocking it. The heat from the mist festers and burns your palm and you hold it there for as long as you can, until you can’t anymore. A film of water vapor has condensed on the inside of your palm —  a tomato red circle encircling it. He taught you this — how to sustain pain until it becomes part of you, an extension of nerves.

You remember the small deformity on his ring finger and it’s odd, you think, how you’ve retained such a minuscule memory. 4 years. Your writing has taught you how to understand more about the nature of stopped or fractured time, how fragments or experiences can remain trapped in a moment long passed, how trauma can freeze an entire life and how time itself can suspend, conflate, blur, so that it can be solid, liquid, gas all in one day and then back again. So, you decide you should call him. Muscle memory kicks in and you type in the number that you’ve never forgotten. It rings for a minute, and when he picks up, you release a breath you had no awareness of.

‘Hey, I’m coming over. It’s Lu, by the way. See you soon.’ You say, in a rush, your voice raw and naked with worry — you notice. Worried that perhaps his voice will ignite memories so nuanced, so subtle, into full blown hours upon hours of excruciating, unending overthinking.

Kagwe was a comfortable and all-consuming habit you had acquired when you first moved into Denver, your apartment building in Kahawa Wendani, the kind of habit that creeps up on you like a Wizkid song, slowly and then in a whirlwind of giggly addiction. That was the first time you moved out of your father’s house. Kagwe lived right next door, in apartment 3B. He painted —  you could tell by the smudged shirts he hung every Wednesday afternoon. He listened to Fela Kuti and LadySmith Black Mambazo and on Friday nights, Dj Shabsy’s Afro Mix — a showy choice for a student, you concluded. He rarely had guests over and he often bought food from Mama Nancy, the food vendor whose shop was on the ground floor. You loved the fact that he smoked and you extrapolated a connection between both of you. At first you couldn’t tell the brand but it wasn’t Dunhill or Dunhill Menthol — your preferred brand. You found out it was weed the night you met.

You were particularly edgy over a story whose deadline was looming and you couldn’t edit it to the painstaking perfection you sought with these types of things. It was late and your cigarette pack was depleted and your hands were slightly shaking and you decided to go to apartment 3B to borrow something that could calm you down. That was the first time you smoked weed. It was also the first time you saw how he held his blunt as it sparked on his lips, in the V of his fore and middle finger, and you wondered how they would feel against and inside your warmth. His house appeared larger than yours, perhaps because of the scarcity of appliances — he had bare-minimum furniture, a chair and a table, littered with art supply. His bed was low and made neatly with a set of flowery bedsheets with the garish prettiness of cheap things, a deflated brown comforter and no pillow. He had a purple leso for a curtain. Atakaye kufuga ng’ombe aanze na kuku — it says. Whoever want to rear cows must start with chickens.

‘I’ve made some Ugali, it’s cold though. Do you want some?’ He asks, and his voice disorients you because his body is undeserving of it.

‘Are you okay?’ A small, sly smile plays at his lips and you know that he knows that his voice wasn’t what you expected. He keeps talking, dragging it out, his words soft and insidious.

‘It happens a lot. People don’t expect me to have a deep voice. It hurts a little, to be honest, but then I don’t talk a lot so in retrospect it doesn’t really matter. I don’t sing either, so don’t ask me that. Are you okay, 3A? Should we open th-’

‘I’m Lulu. People call me ‘Lu’ and I have a microwave we can use.’

That’s how it started, this flawless, unburdened friendship that you shared. You are secretly glad that his excuses for coming over to your house are so thinly veiled, you can see through them. Do you have an extension? Have you watched episode 8 of Insecure? I’m watching Game of Thrones at your house because your television is HD and Game of Thrones deserves HD. I bought some cupcakes from Maguna’s, you wanna try them? I have an unfinished bottle of rum, I’m coming over. (He knows you don’t drink rum.) My power units are almost over and you have almost a year’s supply, can I use some of yours to iron my clothes?

Weeks later, he gave up the pretence and you fell into an easy evening routine. Mondays were for watching Game of Thrones and a card game. Tuesdays were for Pizza, chess and reruns of Real Househelps of Kawangware. On Wednesdays, you’d catch up on your reading list and he’d paint. On Thursdays, you would cook and he’d wash up and on Fridays you had a book club meeting, on Saturday he went out and on Sunday he’d pick a documentary and you’d watch it together on your couch.

Your favourite day was Tuesday because you could watch him unabashedly; watch his chest rise and quiver, his head slip backwards, his mouth opened in a boisterous laugh that made him shake and his muscles relax as though releasing poison that had settled within. And you laughed along simply to feel the rush of ridiculous happiness surge up from some deep place inside even though you didn’t know what Awiti or Tsipixi were arguing over. Sundays were acidic like lemons in the morning. You’d argue over everything: feminism, capitalism, corruption, Pan-Africanism, identity politics and you’d say a few nasty retorts at each other and you’d watch as his face contorted into a snarl and a momentary flood of anger came over him before he exited in a huff. Of course, you’d apologize for hurting each other’s feelings despite the looming cloud of how little you know about each other. You don’t ask him where he goes every Saturday or where he’s from or how he makes a living or why he doesn’t have a phone or what inspires his art and he doesn’t ask how you can afford to have a house that looks like it should be on Pinterest boards (he said this) or why you have an expensive accent (he said this too) or why no one ever visits you or why your clothes, your utensils and your curtains have the colours of an elite education or what you write about. Perhaps your persistent desire to avoid the personal and his veiled caution was what fuelled your easy friendship. It unburdens your relationship and its non-threatening, you decided.

The first time you felt a tyrannical desire for Kagwe was on a Friday night when you both went to Club Hypnotica in Westlands. Some piece of his had sold and he had some cash to spend, he said. He bought you that overly sweet cocktail that you like, to assuage your throat after 3 tequila shots. The room was tense and raucous and stuffy. Mr. Eazi’s ‘Sample You’ was playing and as if on cue, you started moving. You joined the throng of humanity grinding and swaying and you were struck by the shallow undercurrent of lust pulsing right beneath the surface of your skin, aching to be realized. And it is lust, you realized, that had been there building little by little, gathering in small increments, so small you hadn’t even noticed, or perhaps you had but had never truly acknowledged it. So, when he circled you and took your waist into his starving hands, you all but blocked out the eerie feeling of your armour cracking under his eye and his touch. And when he snaked both his hands onto your hips, grazing your ass, you let out a small groan — perhaps mourning your own surrender. And when he placed his palm at the base of your neck, you let the beat hyperventilate on your hips and you see his sweating body match your pelvis in pushing and receiving and you feared that this was the end to the meaningless ease of your evening routines. And when his pupils darkened and he bit his lower lip and started to breath in sharp, short bursts, you were glad and relieved that the friendship had, from the start, been built on a basis of mutual subtle desire, of a potential desire that good sense, affinity, tenderness had managed to tame, divert, shape into something else but you hadn’t expected to find that your own attraction had grown so robust, so utterly wild and impudent, untameable. And when he licked your bottom lip, sucked on it, tugged it between his teeth, let it free with a slick ‘pop’ to Rita Ora’s verse on Body on Me, you had to remind yourself to breath, and you witnessed, powerless, your own colonization by an inexplicable and obscene desire that your willpower was failing to keep in check, to contain, to purge.

The order of what ensued is vague. There is no time in your memory, nothing but places and between them passages that open only to close again. Fragments of your memory superimpose each other, cancelling and concealing each other out. You remember him calling an Uber, the calm of the night, the weightlessness of the air, the layers of light vacillating all around, the tangible silence, the light-headedness and the odd laughter interspersing the cab ride. At the stony interface of 3A and 3B, you stood as he watched you, beady eyed, and you brush your lips tenderly on his — sober and sure of it. You linger. Not pressing, not pushing, and not demanding. You felt his breath on yours — a delightful mixture of uncertainty and the residual bravery of alcohol. Then his lips do press, very lightly, more tenderly than you remember ever being kissed before.

‘Hey, I’m sorry.’ His throat vibrates at the base of your neck, his mouth on your ear. ‘I have a girlfriend, she’s not as interesting as you are, but I have a girlfriend, so I probably shouldn’t be doing this. Ana, with one ‘n’, that’s her name.’ He says it, mostly to himself and he releases you and you feel stretched out, like when your face mask dries on your face. Interesting. The discussion you had about the place of literature in defining a people’s identity is interesting, in an anthropological way. His own portraits of women are interesting, in an artistic sense. You hate the ambiguity of the word, how it can be used to cut someone without consequence and you have to remind yourself it’s a compliment. It’s like sunlight on blue water, embellishing the undeserving.

And the following morning, when you pretend you can’t remember what happened, you hoped he believed it, even though you know he doesn’t. You think about Ana, Ana with one ‘n’, a lot. You imagine she’s the sort of lady who wears dark green Mac lipstick, she can break down Fela’s Lady with all the feminist jargon you can never comprehensively articulate in your Sunday arguments, that she organizes the free documentary screenings at the Alchemist Bar and that she has a block list on Twitter that is longer than your entire contact list. Kagwe would like the juxtaposition that she would offer him — her, present and affirm-able and him, trying to ground himself in himself. It makes you livid, this thing that weighs on you, this unforeseen, blinding, almost primal attraction for Kagwe.

When he started sharing tidbits of his life — he dropped out of Architecture from the University of Nairobi, he was an orphan — his parents died in the Sachangwan fire, he drew because it was his coping mechanism, he had been dating Ana, Ana with the single ‘n’, for almost 6 years, they’d met at a Science Congress event in high school, he was planning on proposing to her early the following year — you felt trapped into needing to tell him your story, but you didn’t. So, when he asked about your writing, and your money and your family and your lonely, introspective life, you told him that it was none of his business. He laughed, a hollow laugh. His head remained upright, his chest didn’t quiver and he didn’t shake. Poison. When the routine started to slip up, you felt him slipping from your fingers, like sand clutched too hard. When he eventually stopped showing up altogether, you had to remember how to not leave pieces of you scattered over your landlord’s tiled floors.

You have stayed at your Kilimani apartment for almost 5 months after returning from Cape Coast in Ghana as soon as your grant period ended and your first novel manuscript was picked up by a small publishing firm in Nairobi. You don’t do much, just a lot of freelance writing for small companies that are willing to pay a decent fee for an opinion from a name they think matters. You make appearances on local media and discuss politics and feminism and you keep on wondering why they keep giving credence to anything you say, but they keep inviting, so maybe you are saying some sensible things. It sustains and you are glad for it. You submit to literary magazines, and when they accept, you secretly assume it is because of the name and the bio and perhaps if both weren’t there they’d see you for what you were — a fumbling, unsure person.

You started emailing Kagwe when you had settled in Cape Coast. Mostly to keep a connection, which inherently meant both of you reverted back to avoiding the personal and engaging in the general. Some of his work got picked up by some art dealers and ended up on exhibitions in Los Angeles and Paris and Madrid and Amsterdam. Consequently, he moved to Tigoni, a small town just on the cold frayed edges of Limuru. He preferred the serene remoteness of rural life to any sort of convenience that Nairobi might stand for, he finds out later. He didn’t get married — a tragic, illogical comeuppance, he calls it. He spends his time at a local art gallery, looking for inspiration. I like the raw confidence in your work and your words, he writes. And you are tempted to tell him that his departure roused a spirit that you had thought forever lost, the inspiration to create something new and untainted by the basic banality of your medium, unaffected by anyone’s thoughts and suggestions, something that was only yours to craft, but you don’t.

And once again, you fell back into the ease of each other’s words. With time, the emails became text messages and sometimes, voice notes. Short spurts of ‘heys’ and ‘I’m just from the gym’ and ‘what’s your plan this weekend?’ and sometimes long arduous ramblings, reminiscent of Sundays in Kahawa Wendani. You liked the virtual detachment that text messaging offers, you were too far away for him to read into your facial expression and gestures, and it gave you a power, some form of courage, to naively but slightly nefariously, flirt with him. There’s a casual grace in which how he teases you— deliberate in its potency, and in his emojis and swift replies and your unseen blushes, lies a narcotic power that makes you wait for his texts, perpetually checking your phone.

You didn’t tell him when you moved back to Kenya. You in Kilimani and him in Tigoni but never once planning to meet.

You call up another Uber. Destination, Tigoni. There’s a fare surge because of the rain and the estimate is almost 2,000 shillings and maybe that’s why the driver arrives in less than a minute. Kagwe meets you at the Brackenhurst Hotel and instructs the driver to take you to a storied house that reminds you of colonialism, tea farms and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He pays.

You move to the leather couch and sit down, feeling the most bewildering panic of your life, a need to touch things, the table and the chairs and the walls of the rooms, to make certain that the room exists and that you are here, with him. He walks over to you and you avoid his eyes, but you speak just to say something, to hear your own voice.

‘And here I was thinking that your tastes were lacking.’ You chuckle at him, amazed at the hued wooden floor, hoping for something. Some form of acknowledgement of your presence.

‘I taste just fine.’ He smiles slyly and for a minute he deludes you into thinking that you are back in Kahawa Wendani. His voice, staggering as it is in its depth, is more deserving of his fleshed out and lusciously bearded and charming physique. He smells like sin and he fractions your breathing as he collects you into a lingering hug.

‘Coffee, tea, wine, rum, water?’ He asks as he seamlessly takes your bag. ‘Before you say anything, yes. You can stay here for as long as you want. No need to drag this out.’

‘Tea is fine, thank you. Also, this is Limuru. I’m bound to do it, for the economy, the locals, the community and you know, for the culture.’

He laughs and he shakes slightly and you notice that the laugh was in his eyes, in the way his face changed into that vision of relaxed joy and unrestrained mirth. Something new. Something you hoped was only yours. He leaves you and heads upstairs, probably where you’ll be staying.

One of your legs wants to leave, one wants to stay, both want to spread for him, so you sit, you wait, each second an hour in your perception, each smell of the cold, sharp breeze seeming incomplete in that they did not carry his scent. He comes back with the tea, wisps of vapor dancing into the air between us. Thirty days without a smoke, your hand fumbles, your lips touching the edge, the dirt-coloured tea running over your tongue, a bitterness lingering. You follow him into his expansive kitchen, and you imagine him, here, alone, moving, cooking, washing, savouring the mundane rhythms of survival and you agree that it suits him. He takes the cup into his own hands, places it on the counter top and looms over you, staring you down, understanding your desire to outrun everything, the reluctance to let people see you as you are and still you chose to come him. He’s pleased, you notice and you almost laugh.

When he takes your lips into his, he doesn’t linger or brush over them. He puts his soul into the kiss, conveying perhaps in tastes and bites that he’s here, he lives in your world, you live in his even though you both feel alienation so deep it caresses your marrows. His lips, on yours, are the only reality you know. It is the flesh and blood and bone and sinew of you. You are certain that it is entirely overwhelming and correct and that you’ve stopped chasing.


Image: Pixabay and Alexander S. Kunz on Unsplash mixed

Malusi Mwongeli
Malusi Mwongeli
Malusi Mwongeli is a Kenyan writer and a graphic designer. She writes to calm herself because her fingers can't stay still. She would like to be an avid traveler and a certified chicken taster. When she’s not making lists, on Twitter or eating chicken, she’s probably thinking about it. Her work has been published on Afreada and she has some forthcoming publications on the Kalahari Review.


  1. ‘One of your legs wants to leave, one wants to stay, both want to spread for him’

    this was such a good line! 🙂
    Nice article.

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