After five years, she finally packed her stuff. Not that she has much. A few dresses. Half a dozen tights. Tops. Socks. Jackets. Knickers. Vests. Shoes. They all fitted in her small holdall. She seemed excited at the prospect of leaving, maybe because she saw this as freedom, as independence. She would finally be the lady she has always wanted to be, the lady she couldn’t be. She would finally do as she damn pleased. I wasn’t around when she left, but when I came back I knew she was gone because the house sighed heavily with her absence. And it was deathly still.
So after taking a shower, I succumbed to temptation and phoned her up and I inquired how she was doing. She said she was fine. (And you know what that means, when a woman says that). I asked if she missed home, and there was a brief silence in the phone before she said, “yes,” faintly, like she was embarrassed someone would hear her. Or maybe she was embarrassed to having to lie to me. “When will you come back?” I heard myself ask.
“ Dunno, papa,” she said.
Tamms is gone visit at my sister’s place. The first time she has been away since she was born. My sister lives about five roundabouts away but it feels like she has gone to Kandahar and I will have to take a plane, a boat and a camel to get to her if the need arise. I will tell you how her absence is working out for us, but in the meantime let me tell you about her teeth.
Do you know the going market rate for milk teeth? 100bob a piece. She lost her two front teeth two weeks ago and the tooth fairy (read missus) figured that they are good for 100bob a pop. The tooth fairy drives a hard bargain. Do you know why no living soul will ever see the tooth fairy? It’s because she is embarrassed of being so cheap; Leaving pennies and crumbled note? 100bob? Come on, I can get it for more in Luthuli Avenue!
Do you know what happened when we lost our tooth growing up? Nothing, that’s what. Actually, the order of the day was to stand in front of the house, face away then hurl the tooth behind you onto the roof. Our tooth fairy chilled on the roof, getting a tan. Our tooth fairy loved the sunlight, a saintly tooth fairy that didn’t fear the sun. The modern tooth fairy is a vampire, scared of daylight, sneaks into children’s bedroom like a thief in the night then steals their tooth replacing it with money.
There is a problem though; now Tamms thinks she is rich. Two hundred shillings! It’s gotten into her head. I bet she is thinking of quitting school now that she has hit pay dirt. She probably imagines that with 200bob she can open up a business, or see the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the hope of finding loads of pizza inside. It’s the largest amount of money she has ever held, and she imagines she has the world by the nuts. And that’s all she wants to talk about now, her fortune of two hundred shillings.
So I will be watching news and there she will appear, dying to discuss her endless financial possibilities.
“Can I buy a big bicycle with this money?”
“It’s 200 shillings, a bicycle is about 10,000 shillings.”
“How much is 10,000 shillings?”
“It’s about 50 of your 200 shillings.”
“Can I get 50 shillings I buy a bicycle?”
“Yes, but a bicycle is 10,000 shillings.”
“But you said its 50 shillings.”
“No…OK, I can buy a bicycle but it’s 10,000 shillings, what you have is 200 shillings. 10,000 shillings is a lot, 200 shillings is a little.”
She stares at me blankly because obviously that’s a math she doesn’t want to get into now; after all, she is rich. Rich folk let someone else do the math for them.
“A new big bicycle is expensive,” I repeat.
“Can I buy the balloon at Westgate?” Actually she can’t because those helium balloons at Westage cost around 400 bob! Kids love them because they float to the ceiling and stay there, plus they have pictures of Dora. Fancy-ass balloons. Have you seen them? You can jump off the edge of space with them and Dora will safely land you to earth. 400bob for one balloon.
Tamms doesn’t realise how hard life has become, that life isn’t an episode of Winx Club or Handy Manny. (Love the jingles on this cartoon). But it’s never early to teach her the cruel ways of the shilling.
“No, those balloons are 400 bob,” I say, “but I can add you the balance.”
“Will they give me change?”
“No.” (But they will give you a receipt).
“Because your money won’t be enough, and that’s why I’m adding you.”
“Then I don’t want the balloons.” (Great, neither do I).
And off she goes, just like that the conversation ends.
But money changes people. I think she imagines that her money is unsafe. So she will never wear anything without pockets. She will check the money every morning, to make sure that it’s all there. Money has made her suspicious of the people she lives with. Look, and she ought not be, I mean should her money disappear all we will do is ask the only Kikuyu in the digs.
I have one missing tooth, a canine. I lost it late in life. The story of the loss you won’t believe. In 2003, I was in the gym in Kampala, a dark, sweaty and dingy dungeon that only students could afford (UGSH 1,000 a session). This day I was doing bench press, and there was a guy giving me “pysche” which basically involves him lightly helping you push up the bar if you get stuck. Let’s just say he looked away briefly and the weight came crushing in my mouth.
OK, I’m joking. The tooth came off by itself. It became lose then it fell off. The weird part is that it was my milk teeth. Yes, I lost that milk teeth in my adulthood, it puzzled even the dentist. I’ve always wanted to fix it, you know, get a new permanent tooth, but it costs about 120K and really, I’m not going to be modelling soon so I have not bothered. Besides, I always have fun making up stories about what happened to it. Morbid stories. People will believe anything you tell them about your missing teeth. Anything!
So anyway, when Tamms lost hers she asked me why the tooth fairy didn’t give me money (Good question). I told her it’s because I already owe the tooth fairy money.
“You have his money?”
“Her money,” pause, “is the tooth fairy a girl?”
“Have you seen him?”
“Yes, I saw her once, at DOD.”
“What is DOD?”
“It’s the Department of Defence.”
She looks at me puzzled – my poor baby – and I felt a very slight stab of guilt. Just a slight one. I really did it’s unfair that I was confusing her with information she couldn’t process, but it’s what came to my mind first. No, actually the first thing that came to my mind was Kachoi, but really, I wasn’t going to tell her that was I? Plus, it’s fun to mess with kids’ minds.
“What was it doing there?”
“She! ‘What was she doing there!’” She keeps mixing these up!
“What was she doing there?”
“She was sitting outside the gate, I think she was thinking.”
“About what?” (She is now really concerned.)
“ I don’t know, but I suspect she was thinking how she was going to carry all those teeth she had collected.”
“Did he have a big bag?”
“She, Tamms, when it’s a boy it’s a “he” and when it’s a girl it’s a “she”, okay darling?”
“Okay. Did she have a big bag?”
“What colour was it?” (Really?)
“Pink and white. And a strip of yellow.”
“Me I like purple bag.” (All kids, and half of Nairobi, say “Me, I”).
“I like blue.” (Glad we got that out of the way).
“Do you know Gracey has a blue bag like a boy?” (Gracey is the classmate)
“That’s terrible!” I say genuinely shocked. Shocked at how she can change topics so fast.
“Me, my bag is pink. But I want a bag with wheels.”
“Maybe you can buy it with the money you have?”
“How much is a bag with wheels?”
“Is my money enough to buy a bag?”
“Yes, it’s enough. With 200 shillings you can get a good bag. A plastic bag.”
The missus laughs. Only then does she suspect that I’m pulling her leg, otherwise I would have continued with that thread of conversation until the next general election.
Anyway, now there are two people in the digs with missing teeth. But only one rich enough to buy more teeth -if 200bob is anything to go by. All her teeth have gone into this red box that we have kept her valuables. I call it the Pandora’s box: It has all her birthday cards. This little pink coushy thingamajig that Aga Khan hospital gave us when she was born, it’s inscribed her date of birth, her weight, her full names and her height at birth. In the box are also scans when she was a foetus; she looks like a tadpole in those scans. Then there are her vaccination cards, her first toothbrush and her umbilical cord that fell off, a month or two after birth. I know what you thinking; eeeww! Yeah, but you will be happy to learn that her umbilical cord and her toothbrush aren’t packed together. So now her two teeth have joined the ranks. At 18yr she will have this box and perhaps and do whatever she wants with it, even if it means selling them on OLX.
But for now she is gone. The house is a graveyard of her presence. You underestimate the presence of your child until they are gone. Mornings are expunged of life. I have taken for granted the sound of cartoon as she sits there, in her pink plastic chair staring up at the screen. Normally, after my jog, she would lie with me on the carpet and do leg raises or push-ups, which of course she needs more. Or her incessant chatter in the morning. Or the big debate she has with her mom whether she should wear a sweater or not. Or her mom screaming at her to reduce the damned volume of the TV. Or the list of things she wants in the evening.
Now there is nothing. Not a sound. It’s like a ghost passed through the house and left this unattractive feeling of desolation. The worst bit is that when I call her she doesn’t sound like she misses home. She is having a blast. There is a playing ground where she is, and lots of kids. She is being a child and we are being selfish.
And her going away has made me realise that although raising a girl is pure joy, it’s also a series of intermittent heartbreaks waiting to happen. Makes me wonder how men give out their daughter’s hand in marriage. I wonder what you have to deal with when you walk her down the isle, and the suited wolf is standing there with a crooked smile on his face, waiting for her. I think I will be filled with irreconcilable sorrow and a bit of jealousy. It’s quickly occurring to me that we are raising our daughters for other men. Men who don’t deserve them. Men we know won’t take care of her like we would like him to.
A man who never saw her when all she had was 200 bob.