His shadow spoke to him.
Lundu was certain of it; his shadow had spoken to him.
He was seated comfortably on a threadbare sofa with skinny armrests, shoving balls of maize meal and bitter green vegetables into his mouth. On the table, beside his plate, stood a kerosene lantern that cast a warm fuzzy glow over his one-roomed ‘house’. His shadow mimicked him from across the room, sitting on its own shadow-sofa, against a tin wall plastered with old newspapers and the faded pages of glossy fashion magazines.
It was a tender night, one of those rare ones when the noisy children next door were silent and Lundu bending over his plate entertained thoughts of Mama Atieno’s fried fish down the road. But it was mid-month and fish was a luxury he couldn’t afford.
“Lundu, you need to wake up!”
He sat up. The voice was clear and sharp, as though the speaker were seated right beside him. A quick glance around the room confirmed what he already knew; that he was alone.
It was in quiet trepidation that he observed his shadow lean forward and in the same voice say, “Open your eyes.”
They were, wide and unblinking.
“The fridge Lundu, the fridge!” the shadow snapped its fingers.
Lundu struggling to find his vocal chords stumbled upon a shaky almost-whisper, “What do you mean? What fridge?”
There was no reply. The shadow retreated into itself, a lifeless, black form on the newspaper-plastered wall, whose sole purpose was to ape its master.
Once again, Lundu’s eyes swept across his single room. A bed against one wall, partitioning curtain rolled up, two jerry cans of water, wooden cabinet with two cooking pans on top, stove, sofa, table, lamp. Shadows. But no fridge. Feeling a bit silly, he turned back to his plate.
Later, he lay in bed, cocooned in darkness and a myriad of unsettling thoughts. Maybe he was on the threshold of insanity, one more step and he would be in. That’s how it had started with Grace, the land lord’s house help. One day she woke up and said the land lady’s two cats were talking to her. Then the neighborhood dogs and goats. She caused quite a spectacle when the land lady ordered her to slaughter a chicken and prepare a stew for visiting relatives. The chicken wouldn’t let her, she said. It called her a killer, headed straight for the everlasting fires of hell. The land lady called her church pastor to pray for Grace but to no avail.
Tongues started wagging in earnest when Grace resigned herself to her fate, and would be seen standing by the roadside for hours having an animated conversation with a stray dog. The neighbours blamed the land lord. They said he had visited a witchdoctor in Mombasa and bought djinns to help expand his businesses. The djinns had possessed Grace. Eventually, she was admitted in Mathare Mental Hospital and had been ever since.
Lundu remembered how he had scoffed at her. She was simply crazy and the neighbours were uneducated, there was no such thing as a jinni. Now he wasn’t so sure and faced the possibility that he was either going crazy or the djinns had possessed him as well.
Or perhaps it was his dead father’s spirit reaching out to him. When his cousin Musa’s mother died, her spirit inhabited the mango tree outside their house, and every time he passed by or stood under its shade, she would whip him with the branches.
“When will you get off your lazy butt and do something useful?” the tree hissed. The same words his mother used to scold him when she was alive. It was no big deal really, Musa was terribly lazy – and it was about time.
No one saw all this of course, except Musa, who was so shaken that family members became fidgety. Besides, it was not good when spirits clung to this world. A family meeting was convened. Cutting down the tree was an option but majority were against it. It would be tantamount to having ‘mama’ die a second time and her vexed spirit could choose to occupy something else with dire consequences. Instead, they chose to help Musa; they found him a job as a cleaner at a Nairobi restaurant. His mother’s spirit rested.
As far as Lundu knew, his father had died a happy man and had rested quietly for close to fifteen years. What could he possibly want from him after all this time? And if this was the case, how would he be helped? He couldn’t just relocate and leave his shadow behind.
Sleep crept up on him long after the distant throb of rhumba music from ‘Onesmus Pub – Chip Drinks and Nyama Choma’ had died down, and the night was empty.
The next morning, he walked into the Ministry of Water’s reception area and into Betty’s welcoming voice, “Morning Simeon.” She was seated at her usual place, behind the reception desk.
He loved how she said it. Simeon. It gave him a sense of purpose, made him walk sharper, stand taller. Made him feel like he was on the verge of something great. He loved her smile, the gap between her front teeth, and her skin so light, it made him want to spread blue band margarine on a slice of bread.
“You didn’t sleep well?” Betty asked. “You look washed out.”
“It was a long night but aren’t we all in Nairobi to look for money?”
Betty smiled, “Mr. Nyaga was asking for you.”
Lundu made for the assistant minister’s office, through a corridor with wood-paneled walls, feet sinking into a plush red carpet. He was going to marry Betty someday. She didn’t know it, but he was sure. He tapped Mr. Nyaga’s door and pushed it open, “Good morning sir, you called for me?”
Mr. Nyaga, bending over a small, silver LG mini-fridge by the window, straightened, a bottle of water in his hand, “Yes Lundu, good morning.”
He strode to his leather seat behind a huge mahogany desk, a small bespectacled man with a sense of uneasiness about him.
Lundu’s eyes remained glued to the fridge he had seen countless times before – had even helped stock once in a while – as though he was seeing it for the first time. The fridge.
“Mr. Roderick informs me that my package is ready, I’d like you to pick it up at the embassy. And these letters need to be posted. You can do that as you collect today’s mail, but this white one should be hand delivered… Lundu? Lundu!”
“Yes sir, Mr. Nyaga,” Lundu snapped out of a self-imposed trance.
“Are you o.k.?”
Mr. Nyaga looked at the fridge questioningly, “Would you like something to drink?”
“No sir, I’m fine.”
And that was the beginning of his fascination with the small silver fridge. He had trouble pushing it out of his mind, even when he sat with Betty for the computer lessons she tutored him free of charge. Usually, he pulled up a chair during their lunch hour break and she showed him the basics of Word. He would draw closer with each keystroke, delighting in her warmth. That was before. Now all he could think about was the coolness of the fridge’s interior.
“No, not like that,” Betty took over the keyboard and for the third time showed him how to insert a header. “You’ve been so absent-minded lately, what’s the matter?”
How could he tell her that the fridge was calling out to him? The thought of it terrified him. Like the cold shower he took every morning. The first splash was the hardest, so cold it bit into the flesh on his back. Then came the second, third, fourth, but by the fifth, the icy splashes became refreshing. So much so that he found himself wanting more, and before he knew it, the basin of water was empty.
Lundu had made it a habit to visit Aunt Fanice every Sunday. Ever since alighting from the overcrowded bus a year earlier, and setting his foot – stiff from the nine hour long journey – in Nairobi for the first time.
Aunt Fanice had hosted him for four months, as she helped him find work. She was a housekeeper at the Hilton, which was a good thing because it meant she knew a lot of people; people that mattered. One had to know someone to get anything done in Nairobi.
Aunt Fanice knew Mr. Nyaga, knew him too well. Knew that on Tuesdays he treated his wife to a quiet candle-lit dinner at the hotel, and every other weekend, a clandestine lover, complete with a reserved room.
When Aunt Fanice asked for the small favor, “My small brother just finished form four and is looking for something to do, if you hear anything–” Mr. Nyaga was obliged to help, and Lundu landed the hitherto non-existent position of office-boy/messenger at the Ministry of Water.
Lundu arrived at her house on Sunday, early afternoon, spick and span in a second-hand light blue polo tee, beige khakis and suede loafers.
Aunt Fanice was his sister, but he, like everybody else, referred to her as Aunt Fanice. Probably because by the time he was born, she had already had her two daughters. She lived in Kawangware 46, near the corner junction, – at the block of new flats next to the P.A.G. church. Lundu lived in Kawangware number 2, a quick fifteen minute walk away, or an easy thirty minute Sunday stroll.
The mini-bus ride cost him ten shillings but had the advantage of saving him dusty shoes. And, in his mind, boosted his social standing; he was no longer in that hustling class of people that walked for many miles with nothing but dusty shoes to show for it. In fact, if the conductor was amicable, Lundu made it his business to tip him an extra ten shillings.
Aunt Fanice’s house was the last one on the third floor of a building that was under construction, and had two floors at the top incomplete. Children ran about the grounds, some playing in a heap of construction sand, no doubt unallowed, but it was a Sunday and the construction workers were not around to chase them off.
Lundu’s stomach growled in response to the whiffs of chicken stew that floated past his nostrils, from Aunt Fanice’s kitchen of course. She made chicken on Sundays.
The door to her house was open and he walked into a living room full of chatter, and relations who like him, had nowhere else to go on a Sunday and had somehow found themselves at Aunt Fanice’s. She lived in the kind of house that Lundu dreamed of; living room with adjoining separate kitchen, three bedrooms, a washroom – inside the house – that didn’t have to be shared with five other families. And of course a television, radio, complete sofa set and concrete walls that kept the neigbours’ noises out.
“Lundu, just the person we’ve been waiting for,” Aunt Fanice’s voice rang out and all eyes turned to him. He was glad his polo tee was sweat-free and his shoes dust-free.
He spent the next few minutes acknowledging greetings and shaking hands. His Aunt Flora, her husband Uncle Shitanda and two of their children, Aunt Blessing, cousins and more children. Happy laughter in the kitchen signaled the presence of female cousins. One of the children stood up and Lundu sat down. Someone brought him a glass of orange juice.
“Do you know who this is?” Aunt Fanice turned a baby boy, possibly a year old, seated on her lap towards Lundu.
Lundu, assuming the boy belonged to one of his cousins, laughed, “No, whose blessing have I missed?”
There was a general murmur of disapproval and Aunt Blessing’s tsk tsk. Lundu wondered what it was he was supposed to know but didn’t.
“Symphronza?” Aunt Fanice called out. “Symphronza! Symphronza! Where’s the mother of this child?”
Lundu’s heart sank to his suede-clad feet, ambushed by the prospect of knowing what he didn’t want to know but knew. A bead of sweat trickled down his armpit; he waited for the seventeen year old with dimples and neat corn rows to emerge from the kitchen. She did, hastily wiping her hands on her skirt.
“Symphronza, whose baby is this?” Aunt Fanice addressed her.
Symphronza stole a glance at Lundu and fixed her eyes to the floor. The boy climbed down Aunt Fanice’s lap, tottered past Lundu and stood beside his mother, leaning against her skirt. He stuck a thumb in his mouth, and knowing chuckles were heard in the living room.
“Like father like son,” Aunt Fanice said.
The resemblance was unmistakable. A shiny, protuberant forehead and large nose with nostrils that seemed to flap as he breathed. The thumb-sucking was sure to leave him with teeth that basked in the sun, even with his mouth closed. Just like his father’s. The two dimples that indented his baby cheeks when he smiled – his only saving grace from his mother – looked somewhat misplaced.
“Babu, you suck your thumb like that and you’ll grow up to be an idiot,” Aunt Fanice admonished the toddler.
Aunt Blessing turned to Lundu, “People don’t just run away from their responsibilities.”
“I didn’t run,” Lundu attempted to salvage his manhood.
“No? When was the last time you saw Babu?”
Lundu remembered; a month after the boy was born, the day before he had left the village for Nairobi to find work, promising Symphronza, his then sweetheart, a lot of things. Here she was with a walking baby in tow.
“Would you believe Symphronza has been here for six months now? I met her at my friend Sally’s tailoring shop,” Aunt Blessing offered, amidst murmurs of amazement and an odd, “It’s a small world we live in!”
She went on, reveling in the attention, “Sewing clothes is hardly enough to support this child, our child, by herself.”
Deep down, Lundu cursed her and her meddling ways. “I’ll m-pesa her some money,” he said. He hoped his offer of mobile money transfer was good enough to save him from being made to take Symphronza and the child with him. To show his seriousness, he whipped out his mobile phone and quickly took her number. And she his. The exchange, seemingly solving the problem, sealed the decision. All appeared satisfied and Symphronza retreated into the kitchen.
Plates and bowls of food – chicken stew, mealie meal, vegetables, pilaf, chapatti – were brought in and laid on the table.
Lundu blacklisted the number he had just saved. If Symphronza wanted to be helped she should have remained in the village, everyone was in Nairobi to look for money. Why would he in his sane mind, give money to someone who was working just like him?
Aunt Blessing turned to him, “Symphronza is a nice girl, pretty. There’s no need for you to be running around Nairobi like a headless chicken and yet you have wife-material within arm’s reach.”
He reached for a plate, thoughts of Betty on his mind “Let me first send her the money Auntie.”
“He won’t marry her, you wait and see. These young people today, I bet you there’s already another one on Facebook,” Aunt Fanice offered.
“This generation is headed to the dogs,” Uncle Shitanda spoke for the first time, a juicy drumstick in his hand.
“Igunza, don’t get lost in Nairobi like Lundu,” Aunt Fanice said and attention turned to a thin, dark boy with bulging eyes.
“Lundu do you know Igunza?” Aunt Fanice asked, an afterthought.
“He looks familiar,” Lundu lied, his eye on Igunza who was so thin he reminded him of the forward-slash on Betty’s keyboard. He had a mouthful of teeth that made him look like he was eating something, even when he wasn’t. And big eyes that resembled a locust’s.
“His mother is the sister to father’s cousin,” Aunt Fanice explained, “He arrived yesterday, and is looking for a job, if you hear anything–”
Lundu glowed; he was now officially in the league of those who helped others look for work.
A young girl ran into the living room, “Auntie, the water people are here.”
Aunt Fanice stood up and followed her outside. Lundu seeing his opportunity, quickly cleared his plate and trailed Aunt Fanice.
The water people were two shaggy, post-adolescent boys and a handcart carrying a dozen jerry cans of water. “Madam you asked for water,” one of them said.
“How much is one?”
“Twenty! With that amount I can have my young men bring me four jerry cans.”
“Madam this is fresh water.”
“Of course it is, do you think I’d be standing here, having this conversation, if it wasn’t?”
“Fifteen bob then, just for you madam.”
“Aai madam, today is Sunday have mercy on us.’
Aunt Fanice swiveled, ready to walk back to the house.
“O.k. madam, we’ll take ten, but only today”
She turned back, “Give me ten jerry cans.”
The boys began offloading the jerry cans and carrying them up the stairs to Aunt Fanice’s flat, two at a time. They emptied the water into a plastic tank on the balcony.
“Auntie, I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” Lundu stood next to her.
“Is something wrong?”
Lundu inched closer, looking around tentatively, “Auntie, I’ve been hearing things.”
She gave him a stare that said, go on.
“My shadow told me to steal a fridge.”
“Your shadow told you to ste– Lundu do you know how difficult it is to find a job in Nairobi?” Pause. “Now you want to embarrass me eeh, after all I’ve done for you!”
“It spoke to me, it did. I swear it on father’s grave!”
“Listen to yourself!” Aunt Fanice hissed.
“Auntie, someone is jealous of me. They’ve bewitched me…they’ve thrown something at me.”
“Lundu, we’re not in the village!”
Lundu looked down and stuffed his hands in his pockets.
“Look at Igunza, his mother just died and his father is a drunk, he has dropped out of school to support his brothers and sisters, because there is no one else to do it.”
“See how hard life is on Igunza and tell your shadows to shut up!”
“Not another word! I have enough on my plate, sheeeh!” She stormed off to the water boys to settle her bill.
The P.A.G. church next door erupted in a chorus accompanied by heavy drum beats. Lundu walked back up the stairs to the house. Maybe it was Symphronza, he thought, she must have visited a witchdoctor, sending him spirits to punish him for abandoning her and the baby.
Later that evening as he was saying his goodbyes, Aunt Fanice stood up, “Take Igunza with you. It’s better if you stay with him until he finds something to do.”
Lundu concluded he was being punished for having conversations with shadows.
Igunza packed his belongings, which all fitted in a green paper bag, and excitedly followed Lundu out the door, promising Aunt Fanice to visit the following Sunday.
He was tall as well, very tall, Lundu noticed. Maybe the army would be glad to recruit him. He made a mental note to ask around.
The two of them walked back. Lundu preferred not to be stuck with Igunza in a mini-busasking his silly questions in front of strangers. What is that? Why are they doing that? Where are they going? Where is that road leading to?
On arrival, Igunza seemed somewhat disappointed at Lundu’s house.
“Not everyone in Nairobi lives in a three-bedroomed flat,” Lundu remarked. “Here is the key to the toilets, they’re outside.”
He offered Igunza the sofa to sleep on, and prepared him a duty-rota to compensate himself for his kindness. Polish his shoes, everyday, wash his work shirts and pants, clean the house and cook dinner. And that, Lundu vowed to himself, was the last time that he, Lundu, would set foot in Aunt Fanice’s house.
The Wednesday following that Sunday, when Lundu walked into the office he knew something was amiss. It was in Betty’s voice. For the first time her, “Morning Simeon,” lacked that little something that made him want to walk sharper and square his shoulders.
Before he could ask her if anything was wrong, she gestured in the direction of the visitor’s lounge, “You have a visitor.”
Lundu turned and there was Symphronza, on one of the leather settees, smiling at him, a perfectly rounded dimple on each cheek. He marched up to her, she stood up politely.
“What are you doing here? Who showed you where I work!”
“You blocked my number,” her voice was pleasant, “I’ve been trying to call you since Sunday.”
“You can’t just come here, this is a place of work.”
“I will be here everyday until you provide for Babu’s food. And if you don’t, I’ll bring him and leave him here.”
A look into her eyes and Lundu knew she meant it. He was startled by her boldness. The thought of Babu and Betty in the same room unnerved him, “How much money do you want?”
“What do you think I am? A minister of government?”
She was out to get him, he was now sure.
“I don’t have that kind of money on me, I’ll be paid in two weeks maybe…”
“I’m not leaving without the money,” Symphronza sat down.
Symphie. The name swept across Lundu’s mind. He fought an urge to say it out loud. That’s how he had called her back then when she was shy and sweet. And unspoilt. The woman seated before him was a stranger.
“O.k. wait here,” he left in search of Mike, Mr. Nyaga’s driver, who was always ready to lend money, an interest double the amount on top.
He returned to the reception with three notes, a thousand each, tightly rolled up in his hand, “What does that boy eat, gold?”
Symphronza stood up, “You have my number, feel free to m-pesa me next month, it makes everything easier on us both. But if not, you’ll see me here again.” She took the money, tucked it into her purse and swung her way out of the building.
“Who was that?” Betty wanted to know.
“My cousin. She just arrived from the village and needed help to sort out an emergency.”
Betty was peeved, “You should have introduced her. Next time, don’t leave me hanging.”
And m-pesa it would be, Lundu arrived at the decision unanimously.
Government offices did not open over the weekends. The schedule was very strict, Monday to Friday, 9:00a.m. to 5:00p.m. with a lunch break in between from 1:00p.m. to 2:00p.m.
Lundu showed up on Saturday morning at 9:00a.m., a medium-sized empty carton in his hand, “There’s a package that was to be collected yesterday but wasn’t, now I have to deliver it myself.”
The bored guard let him in.
He casually took a bunch of spare keys from one of Betty’s drawers and let himself into Mr. Nyaga’s office. The small silver fridge stood by the window, gleaming in the early morning sunlight. Lundu set about the task he had played over and over in his head; he cleaned out the contents – bottles of water and soda, several cans of beer, boxes of fresh juice, a slice of pineapple – and packed the fridge into the carton.
He let himself out of the office and out of the building, the carton heavy in his hands. It was heavy, but not too heavy for him to carry.
The guard waved him goodbye at the gate, if he was perplexed he didn’t show it.
Igunza was mopping the floor when Lundu walked in. He watched, at first curiously, as his cousin opened the carton, and then in amazement as Lundu drew out the fridge and carefully set it on the table.
Lundu pulled out the fridge’s white cord and stopped abruptly, the plug in his hands.
It was Igunza who spoke, “Cousin, you bought a fridge and we have no electricity to connect it to?”
Lundu was angrier at Igunza for seeing what he had overlooked, than he was at himself.
Image: Shadow by Sundaram Ramaswamy