Brother’s Keeper

Nairobi, December 1990

Nzioka was in distress. He was leaving his young bride behind to go and work for the Nairobi Times newspaper branch in Mogadishu. He looked at his Nikon and cursed. If he had a normal job he would have been staying here with her. He thought about her for a second and smiled. It would all be worthwhile—everything had become a struggle. His brother was paying their rent and it had even gotten to a point where they were eating at his place. His brother, he thought and smiled again, his brow creasing and wrinkles forming on his forehead—he was the gift that kept on giving.

He jumped over a puddle of water and turned a corner. Children were playing next to his house. They were skipping rope with vigorous energy. He sucked his teeth and wished he still had that kind of energy. One of the girls skipping rope dropped a twenty shilling coin and continued skipping, oblivious to the coin. A boy picked it up and quickly said, “Cha kuokota si cha kuiba.” The girl stopped skipping rope and touched her pockets and immediately knew it was hers. “Hio ni pesa yangu,” she yelled and started towards the boy. The boy ran yelling, “Cha kuokota si cha kuiba.”

Nzioka got to his house. His wife, Mueni, was seated on the edge of the sofa skimming through a magazine. Those same sofas that his brother had so generously donated to them from his company, Classic Furniture Fittings. Her long legs were crossed. She was in a flimsy negligee and her bare thighs were exposed for the world and Nzioka to see. Nzioka put his camera down and sat next to her. He placed a hand on her bare thigh and she uncrossed her legs out of habit.

“Any luck?”


“Something will come up,” he said, his hand dropping to her inner thigh and climbing up. There were no panties to stop him and he brushed against her wetness. She dropped the magazine and let out a loud moan. “Take me,” she mumbled, her legs spreading apart. Nzioka started unbuckling then glanced at the sofa. On the side of the mahogany wood were engraved the words Classic Furniture Fittings. He stopped, picked Mueni up and carried her to the bedroom. He had bought the bed and it was starting to feel as if it was the only thing he truly owned in the house.

“Are you ready to go to Mogadishu?” Mueni asked, now lying on his chest, her breath measured, not erratic like it had been a second ago.

“As ready as a man can be, I suppose.”

“Why can’t you stay here and ask your brother for a job until you’re back on your feet?”

His brother? He was all he seemed to hear about nowadays. He swallowed hard.

“My brother can’t help us forever.”

“So you have made up your mind then?”

He nodded.

They looked at each other with warm eyes and their lips found each other again. The moans grew louder and the bed squeaked violently. Nzioka made a mental note to replace it first thing when he got back from Mogadishu.

Mogadishu, January 1991

The president of Somalia had just been overthrown and the aftermath was a bloody civil war. The Nairobi Times newspaper was at its busiest covering story after story. Nzioka worked throughout the week with very few breaks. When he found time, he sat down and wrote Mueni.


I miss you dearly. There’s always fighting here. Two governments squabbling over the same slice of bread and the citizens are the firewood fanning the flames. I have gotten tired, tired of the sound of jeeps, gunshots and bodies lying on the road. How is everything back at home, did you finally get your modeling job? I will start sending you small money from next month. Tell my brother I can’t thank him enough for giving us a helping hand.”

Yours forever, Nzioka


I am miserable without you. When are you coming back? I spend my days reading magazines and trying out dresses. You should see the dress I bought with the cash you sent. I am saving it for you. Your brother opened another business and my upkeep has been no trouble at all. How is work? I keep picking up the Nairobi Times  searching for your byline. I keep looking at the door waiting for you to walk in.

Yours forever, Mueni

Nzioka kept the letters with him. They were his warmth, his breath, his companion. They made the unbearable days bearable. The civil war had escalated so they made makeshift camps on the field. They were a crew of six. Three women and three men. In that crew were a senior writer, copywriter, intern, head and junior editor and Nzioka. They had all coupled up with each other with the exception of him and the head editor. She tried cozying up to him on many nights and every time she did Nzioka waved his wedding ring across her face and slept clutching Mueni’s letters close to his chest.

“We are all the way out here in the unforgiving Mogadishu. Come on, I won’t tell if you don’t.” 

When overt communication failed she took a more covert approach.

“I made you a plate of rice.”

“My wife makes an excellent plate. I should invite you to our house someday.”

“Feel the material on this dress, I got it from Towfiiq market, isn’t it lovely?”

“It is. It would look great on my wife.”

She eventually got tired of waiting for Nzioka to forget his wife and started playing co-wife to the junior editor. The nights became more unbearable. Nzioka began to find the sounds of jeeps and gunshots soothing compared to those that perforated the camp when the sun went down and the stars came up.


I forget to laugh without you around. Nights in this place are unbearable without your warmth and yet bearable with the thought of it. The civil war has gotten worse. Don’t worry, nothing ever happens to journalists because chaos needs a platform to thrive. My nights are long. You should see the images of the sky I have been taking. Sometimes I feel as if the sky here is cut from a different fabric. As if God gave them turmoil and compensated for it with a tailor-made sky. I wish you were here, our fingers intertwined, walking under this magical sea of stars.

Yours forever, Nzioka 

Mueni’s letters grew erratic. Nzioka would sometimes go for months without hearing from her but he still sent her letters and a bit more cash, month after month, until the bottom fell off. 

The Nairobi Times branch in Mogadishu closed and his contract was terminated. He swallowed bitterly. He would have to go back to Nairobi and ask his brother for a job. He looked at his camera and felt a pang of pain. He made to kick it to a nearby ditch but then he relaxed and a smile broke across his face. All was not lost. His young bride was waiting for him back home.

Nairobi, December 1994

It had been a month since he returned. He had gotten a job as a supervisor at his brother’s company, Classic Furniture Fittings. He had bought a Nissan Sentra and acquired a more corporate gait. The sun was going down when he stopped at the mall to do some light, festive shopping.

After shopping, he stopped at the counter and picked up the Nairobi Times. He turned the pages vigorously. At the back of the newspaper, in a small section tucked away in the corner, was a small story covering Somalia. The headline read, ‘A Failed State’. Above it was a photo that he had taken of a jeep with militia holding Kalashnikovs. He swallowed bitterly, folded the newspaper in half and got out of the mall.

He found children playing close to his house. They had grown taller, added a little bit more weight and even their thinking was not the same, but he still remembered them. Instead of skipping rope, the girls sat on the verandah plaiting each other’s hair and the boys were on the adjacent side playing poker. He looked at them for a minute longer and remembered it like it was yesterday. Cha kuokota si cha kuiba.

The watchman closed the gate behind him and he gave the maid the shopping. Before he could sit Mueni entered the house. She was still the girl he knew, sultry, long legs, as beautiful as a painting. But she had an intelligence in her eyes that she had not left her with. She had gotten a modeling job and she had used the money to expand the house. She had gone ahead and hired a maid and a watchman, heck she had even replaced their squeaking bed.

“I’m proud of you.” Nzioka held her in the bedroom, looking at her with eyes dripping with admiration and respect. Their lips found each other with ease like they usually did and their clothes fell off. Nzioka saw it when he was climbing on top of her. It was engraved on the side of the headboard in small italics. Classic Furniture Fittings. 

His manhood went limp. 

“What’s wrong?” Mueni asked, concerned.

“I feel lightheaded. I think I need some air.”

Nzioka dressed hurriedly and left. He started sprinting towards his brother’s house at blinding speed. He stopped and held his knees with both hands and let out a battery of coughs. The coughs turned to loud laughter. His brother, the gift that kept on giving. He kicked a can of soda that was lying on the road and turned back towards his young bride. Some kids ran lightning fast past him and like a siren the words jarred his ears again, “Cha kuokota si cha kuiba.”

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