image credit: mutua matheka

The first time baba came home drunk, he banged the door in a horrifying cadence that made me jolt awake in terror. There was a heated debate and mama cried and cried till day came. The following morning she had a black, hideous residue formed around her left eye as she prepared me for school. She told me she fell but I didn’t believe her because I had fallen many times before on the playground but never suffered such a malfunction. I told her sorry, then hugged her tightly till we both broke into tears.

After that night it became routine: baba would come home drunk and jolt me from my sleep, a heated argument would begin and mama would start crying again till morning.

Other parts besides her eye started becoming victims of her fall: her upper arm developed a big, sticky bruise and her lower lip got swollen, thick and red like a tomato. One afternoon after school her mouth was dripping with blood. I saw her spit the blood in a nearby basin and the blood mixed with her saliva came gushing out with a tooth.

I asked her what had happened and she heaved and hiccupped and in a muddled voice told me she had fallen again. I asked her if I should call baba’s mom who lived in the big house and she said she was fine. But I knew she was far from fine, she was drinking her pain by her lonesome and her efforts of trying to shield me from her horrors only made mine worsen. I would learn later that mama was more hurt emotionally than she was physically. I would learn that being hurt physically was easier to live with than being hurt inwardly—there is medicine for physical pain but there are no bandages in the world that can dress a wound that has been inflicted on the inside.

We left baba’s house the day I came back from school and found another woman in our house throwing our clothes outside the window: Mama’s shoes, mama’s favorite dresses, mama’s handbags and my uniforms were all scattered harum-scarum on the asphalt like discarded things that had no use. Baba stood next to her looking helplessly at us and when she was done baba put his arm around her and closed the window.

That evening mama didn’t shed a tear, she went to a nearby kiosk and came back with two huge gunias and stuffed our scattered belongings in them. Baba’s mom who lived in the big house only peeped at us through the curtains. That same woman who counted the pieces of meat she gave us when we ran out of money to buy food in our house and went begging for some in her big house because as mama told me, baba had lost his paycheck for that month.

She would scold mama and call her a useless, lazy goat who didn’t deserve her son. She would claim we were the reason baba was drinking so much and it was because of us he had a job he couldn’t stomach. Baba, who usually came home drunk and on the days he came home sober he was always in a mood. He would sit on his special sofa that no one but him was allowed to sit on and he would switch the TV to news. News that was awash with politics and stories of corruption. “They are all thieves,” baba would groan and when he noticed I was watching he would tell me to go to the kitchen and help mama. Sometimes he would wake up and leave and we would both know he had gone to partake the pint.

Baba was an adult with his own mind, how could we be responsible for his actions? I would wonder as baba’s mom cried that we were the reason her son was always broke before getting into her fridge which was the size of a door: that same fridge which housed chicken, sausages, milk and all types of delicious food, foods that we only got to see on TV or on the newspapers but were never allowed to have. She would get in it and count cubes of meat for us; two, three, five, ten… while her family sat at a humongous dining table having a feast—sometimes failing to finish the food and giving it away to their dog, Snoopy.

We were never part of that family, at least not in the sense of eating with them; we were only good for getting our meat counted.

I remember mama asking for lifts on the road while her skin on bone body tried to balance the two huge gunias which looked like they would break her withered frame any minute, when a small lorry stopped and the driver asked where we were going. Mama said “Home” without realizing the good man in the tiny lorry didn’t know where home was. She only stammered the directions later on.

I had been at mama’s home before and I had loved every minute of it. Grandpa and grandma were always happy to see us as opposed to baba’s house where everybody looked at us with folded faces as if we were intruding on their space, as if we were guests who had overstayed their welcome. Mama’s home had an air of friendliness and safety and I never had to worry about mama crying through the night nor falling time and time again while we were there.

When we arrived grandma and grandpa were extremely excited to see us. Grandma didn’t go to the kitchen and count cubes of meat for us. Instead, she hugged us and welcomed us then went to the kitchen and made chapatis, beans and cabbages and later held me on her lap and fed me as if I was a newborn kid who couldn’t feed herself.

Grandpa picked me up as if I was paper-weight and teased me in an affectionate, fun-loving way till my face flushed bright red with pleasure.

Grandpa had a soft spot for us and he took us out and bought us nice things every now and again. He bought me toys and story books and helped me with my homework. Mama started smiling more and when she smiled, she revealed a gap in her teeth that had been created the day she lost one of her teeth after her many falls. That same gap which made her face light up like a fluorescent tube whenever she smiled.

After we moved from baba’s house I only remember seeing her in pain once when Grandpa had taken us swimming and a kid my age asked if he was my dad? Without knowing it the kid had opened a fresh wound and forced mama into a painful territory. A territory that was awash with pain and grief.

“She doesn’t have a father,” mama barked coldly.

I felt the pain gush out of her like water from a faulty tap but I knew I had a father, it’s just that he came home drunk, had a woman who threw clothes out of our window and had a mama who counted our meat. After Mama calmed down she hugged me and grandpa rubbed my head. I felt warm and safe, maybe I would reconnect with baba someday but today I had all the family I needed.


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