From the Dirt

11:00am.

That’s the time we’re seated in the living room with my niece and my mom watching In Pursuit of Happiness starring Will Smith and my mom starts telling us the hardships they have endured with my dad while raising us. She’s sixty two but she doesn’t have to dig deep to find the story. You can tell it’s part of who she is and she wears it around her neck like a medal of honor. She takes a bite of cake and wipes her mouth. Tiny wrinkles form all around the edges of her lips. She has earned the title grandmother.

“You know we did not have money for rent back then and we used to hide with the neighbors and leave your sisters in the house so the landlord wouldn’t lock it. We would then wait until it got dark before getting back.”

“How much was the rent?” I ask, curious. It had to be a hefty sum to have them hiding with the neighbors.

“Six hundred bob.” She says, incredulous of how small that amount seems to her now. She easily spends more than that in a day without flinching.

I put my hand on my chin. All ears. This is a side of the story I haven’t heard before.

“After you were born it became increasingly difficult to get by. Your dad was selling fruits, digging manholes and doing whatever jobs he could get his hands on but not even that and my tailoring business could put food on the table, pay your sisters fees and make the rent and we had to move to a shanty.”

She shifts her weight from side to side on the couch to get comfortable.

“We paid the area chief a sum of three hundred bob for the piece of land. When you got to the house you asked, ‘Sasa hii ndio nyumba?’ you only spoke Swahili then because of the influence our neighbors from the coast had on you. The house we moved from was made of iron sheets. It had a sitting room, kitchen and a bedroom, yet here we were moving into a three room house with walls made out of cardboard and carton.

Three.

That was the age I was when we relocated to the shanty. It was on Kaptagat road between Kangemi and Loresho. I was there recently, Welcome which since rebranded to Mashiara Park re-acquired the land and trees and shrubbery have grown on top of my childhood. But when I close my eyes it all floods back like the rivers forming tributaries down my cheeks. The ramshackle houses made out of timber, cardboard and rusted iron sheets. Botched work because everyone stitched their house with whatever materials they got their hands on.

From the road, down a flight of stairs, bolstered with gunias filled with soil you found our three room shack. Those rooms made up the living room, my parents’ bedroom, and the bedroom I shared with my sisters which doubled as the kitchen. When it rained the stairs became a mudslide and our house turned into a swimming pool. I remember we got soap and tried to cover the holes on the rusted iron sheet roof to try and keep water from our beds in vain.

When I tighten my eyelids, I can smell my neighbors cooking mataburiko. The wrinkled skin of chicken because meat was hard to come by. I can hear the arguments, the laughter, the smell of bhang. Our neighbors on the right had three sons. The eldest, Mwangi smoked bhang at the back of their house. There where there were banana trees and a rushing river. He was a tall skinny guy and beside the bhang he was good company. We often hangout together and played draft. Even today it’s difficult to beat me in a game of draft because I think three, four moves ahead.

I couldn’t play draft with Mwangi for long because he started smoking bhang and when he did he saw puppies in the river and threw stones at them. And I had to leave because beside the bhang my mom was not a big fan of our friendship. I heard her arguing with Mwangi’s mom once and she silenced my mom by telling her, “Your son will just be like my son. He will smoke bhang, become a thief and end up in prison.” My fate was sealed long ago. The fact that I’m here banging a keyboard and calling myself a writer is a miracle.

Across the river that Mwangi saw puppies was a dumpsite and a few steps from the dumpsite was a community pit latrine toilet. Beyond that was the sprawling Welcome forest. When you got bathroom urges at night you helped yourself on a bucket or old newspaper and discarded your waste in the morning. Nobody wanted to risk finding out what hid in that forest after the sun went down.

“You know I was never angry that we were poor.” My mom continues after asking her granddaughter to fetch her a glass of water from the dispenser that is humming idly in the corner of the living room.

“Cold or hot?” She asks with an edge to her tone; mad for being uprooted from the comfort of the couch.

“Mix it with both hot and cold.”

“I was never bitter.” She says while taking the glass of warm water from my niece’s tiny hand. “Even when we didn’t have money for food and I had to make ugali, cut it into small cubes and put the cubes in diluted milk with a sprinkle of sugar so that you could be able to take it.”

I gasp because that was a meal we looked forward too. We chomped it down and we were happy for a full belly and we ran outside to play.

Shiko.

That was the name of the girl who lived on the left side of our house with her parents and two brothers. We nicknamed her dad, Schwarzenegger. Swazi for short because he carried a briefcase and wore dark sunglasses at all times. He lived in a separate house from his family. He had a TV in those days when TVs were uncommon and a sky blue Volkswagen Beetle. He cooked meat in his house while his children and wife ate ugali and sukuma in the main house.

The one thing I remember vividly about Shiko was how light her skin was, like the inside of an overripe mango. Some mornings I would call her and tell her, “Come and let’s go and see ants.” And then we would get in between our houses where our bathroom was and show each other our genitals. Those were good mornings.

In the back of our house lived my childhood girlfriend, Mercy. With her parents and two brothers. What I remember about Mercy was how fluidly she could move her hips. 90s were the days of Lingala. Awilo Longomba and Koffi Olomide were all the rave then and damn could Mercy move her hips to their songs. We often met at the back of our house, divided by our bathroom wall and she would whisper, “Who do you love?” And I would be tempted to say, ‘your hips; they don’t lie’ but I knew better and said her name. She had no idea that I was having good mornings showing Shiko all those ants.

Outside their house just before the river was a playground where we played kati, bano, and three sticks with her, Shiko and her brother, Jeremiah, my childhood friend. Sometimes we blocked the river and went swimming. It was a dumpsite and broken glass often cut our feet. Other times we went fishing and caught frogs and crayfish. Even now with my eyes closed, I can hear the river singing.

When the river was dry, and kati, bano and three sticks did not hold our interest we breached the Welcome fence and went inside the forest to pluck wild berries. It was always with our hearts in our mouths. There was talk in the shanty that there were lions and hyenas in there. The only wild animals in that forest though, were warthogs and there was a neighbor who hunted them for meat. The biggest fear should not have been lions and hyenas but losing a leg in one of his traps.

“So, how did you know to take us to Loresho Primary and not Kangemi Primary?” I ask my mom, impressed by how well they have raised us with so little.

“We always had our ear on the ground and by then your dad had started campaigning for this prominent MP so we had a bit of money and we built houses for rent in the back of our ramshackle house. Three single rooms that we charged five hundred bob a piece and I was also selling my mtumba next to the road, do you remember?”

I remember running from school because I did not want my oiled classmates to know that I lived in a shanty. But they knew, “Si nyinyi mnaishi slum?” they always mouthed on the playground.

Loresho was also where we went to borrow water when the community tap ran dry. We would carry our mtungis and head there. It looked like where the children God loved lived. Tall gates, brick houses with towering chimneys with DSTV dishes. You never saw the owners, only the guards, the dogs and the big cars pulling in and out with tinted windows that never rolled down. We got shooed off in most gates like animals with some contagious disease but sometimes we got lucky and a gate opened and extended a pipe for us.

Mtumba.

Those were the second hand duvets and curtains my mother sold to the honchos living in Loresho. That is how she got her asthma and perhaps how I got mine. We helped her put the duvet’s up in the morning and bring them back down in the evening and they were full of lint and dust from the roadside. Her asthma was agitated further by the kerosene lamp and kerosene stove in the house and more than once we rushed her to the hospital after an attack.

Beside my mom’s mtumba shop was Kanyambu’s house. She lived with her mom who sold nyanya in Kangemi market. Kanyambu was white with hair that fell to the small of her back in blonde ringlets. Talk in the shanty was she was a mix of a Kikuyu and a German. She was vibrant and animated, she played with Shiko, Mercy, Jere and me. Sometimes she came to our house and shared a meal with us, until her mom got a new husband.

Her mom left her nyanya business and became a stay at home mom. Talk in the shanty was her husband abused her. Kanyambus mom started withering like a plant without water and her daughters’ soul sagged, she no longer smiled, laughed or played with us. She built walls around herself, a fortress no one could penetrate. They eventually moved. I got to campus and still thought about Kanyambu. I got her phone number from my sister and we met. She was grown. She had discovered red lipstick and high heel shoes. The ringlets of blonde hair still touched the small of her back but they had darkened to a walnut color so that she resembled a brunette. She still didn’t talk much. The walls were sky high. The fortress impregnable.

Across the road from my mom’s duvet business Mama Toya fried fish and chips mwitu. She was a tall woman with a big frame; big hands, big hips, big breasts. If you asked me to draw an amazon woman I would draw her. She had four toddlers. Everybody in the shanty said she was a very strong woman. She had birthed her most recent toddler in the morning and she was back in her station frying fish before noon.

Kize Kize sold scrap metal beside Mama Toya and after that was a pub selling Chang’aa, Kumi Kumi and Busaa. The Luyhas in the shanty said taking a cup of Busaa was the equivalent of eating a whole bowl of ugali. They all flocked there; Luyhas, Luos, Kikuyus, Kambas. Illicit brew did not know tribe. There was always noise, a drunk singing, profanities flying, a fight, blood but then they were all back drinking and making merry and Kize Kize was selling his scrap metals and Mama Toya was frying her fish and chips mwitu fresh from childbirth.

Fire.

That was our biggest fear in the shanty. The timber, cartons and cardboards would light up like a bonfire and we wouldn’t stand a chance. If you wanted people to run out of their houses at lightning speed holding buckets of water, you screamed, ”FIRE!”

The most imminent danger, however, was the government coming with bulldozers and reducing our houses to rubble. The whispers were everywhere; on the playground, at the community tap and in our living rooms. Any day now and Welcome would come with the government and its bulldozers and flatten our homes to the ground. We lived in a constant state of fear. Will it be today, tomorrow, the day after? It was crippling.

Thirteen.

That was the age I was when we left the shanty. My dad had done well with his campaigns and his matatu business and bought a piece of land and built a stone house. I remember I moved to the new house ahead of everyone else in our family. I couldn’t believe that I was touching a switch and the lights were coming on. It was a miracle. A stone wall stood where cardboards and cartons were supposed to be. It was magic. We had a cooker and a TV. My head could not stop spinning, it was all too much to take in.

“Welcome paid us a hundred thousand bob to re-acquire the piece of land we had gotten for three hundred bob.” My mom says satisfied with the outcome and I look at her with my jaw on the floor. “You have to thank God every day because he has lifted us from the dirt.”

I open my eyes. Shrubbery has grown on top of my childhood but it all burns in my mind with a vivid clarity. The ramshackle houses, the river, the smell of bhang, the ants, God, all those good mornings. I wipe away the tears that have formed tributaries on my cheeks with the back of my hand as I leave the shrubbery. It will always remain a constant reminder of how far we have come and how God looks like.

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image credit: bill wegener

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