She’s got small shoulders. Small because they can’t carry the weight of the world yet. The weight she carries is her own weight. The weight of innocuous things like whether her best friend is loyal to only her or is loyal to the other girls. The weight of her pursuit of clarity in the midst of her parents’ struggle to keep her safe or free. Recently she started carrying the weight that comes with feeling like a woman, while the world still treats her like a girl.
She was born in 1997. A few days after the DRC strongman Mobutu Sese Seko kicked the bucket in exile. Of course, she doesn’t know of Mobutu or his brand of greed, idiosyncrasies and pilferage. But she knows of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Nobel Prize Laureate who was shot in the face by the Taliban for seeking education. She and Malala are agemates, born a month or so apart. For her, Malala represents more than defiance; she represents freedom, which is the very blueprint of her life. This is their world now. A world where they have a voice and courage and they have reasons and their dreams no longer have to tumble and scramble. Their clarity and bravery leads them, but they are also caught in the never ending circle of dread of the unknown, the unseen, unheard, ununderstood, and of bogeymen under their beds. She and her peers, don’t see themselves as girls, even though the old world, inconveniently inhabited by you and I, view them through the prism of gender. They see each other as contributors and collaborators. They see each other as conquerors.
At 18-years old she’s also Safaricom’s age mate. She and others her age were born in the age of mobile telephony, the age of terminologies like network and data . Which means she doesn’t know what it feels like to look for coins and line them up on a payphone and hear them rattle down as the call is connected. To queue at a telephone booth. To pick up the ringing phone and not know who will be on the other end. She will never know what a Reverse Call is. Of course the Reverse Call is now the “Please call me, thank you.” She was born in an age where everything is on the palm of your hand; taxi, food deliveries, boarding tickets, maps, instant messages, sex, love, WebMD. She will never have to keep a photo album. Or wait for a photographer to come take her portrait photo She will never lick a postage stamp.
She’s called Jamila. She has one sibling, a younger sister. When she was two years old and just starting to get used to the idea of not crawling anymore, Safaricom was also stumbling with teething problems and literally crashing, like it did on 25 Oct, 2000.
Her father is in IT, and her mother is a businesswoman. I ask her; “If one morning you were woken by a loud sound and you stumbled out of your bedroom and found a man in the living room in a bright green suit and a staff with a crooked head, like the kind Moses used to split the Red Sea and a hat slightly cocked on his head. And you asked this man, ‘Are you Dad’s friend?’ and he rolled his eyes like you have insulted him for even thinking he could be friends with someone in IT. And he said in a growl, ‘Address me as the Prince of the Yawodo, young lady. I’m here not to make friends with your father but to leave with either him or your mom. The bad news is that you get to choose who I leave with.’ Then you asked him, ‘But what’s the good news?’ And he said, ‘The good news is that you get to choose now, right this moment, so you don’t have to agonise over it the whole night.’
“Who would you let go?” I ask.
She laughs and says, “Do I have to choose?”
I say, “Yes, you have to choose.”
There is a pause long enough for me to have a haircut. She says resignedly, “I can’t choose.”
I say, “The prince of Yawodo is waiting, Jamila.”
“I’d let him take my dad.” Then she adds quickly, “But only because I had to choose.”
[They always give us up.]
She says that the only reason she’d give up her dad is because, and listen to this, “He wouldn’t know what to do in more situations than my mom would.” Plus, “He never really knows what’s happening to me, my mom always seems to know.”
I say, “That’s because mothers are nosy and they read your diaries and know the password to your phone and they secretly follow you when you go to the party and they start fake FB accounts and befriend you and your friends so that they can know what you are saying and to who. That’s the person you want to choose over someone who respects your privacy?”
She laughs and says, “My mom doesn’t do all those things.”
“That’s because she covers her tracks. She’s a mother. Go through your FB friends and find the person with the oddest of names, like Mary Jane or Lawino Okonkwo. That’s your mom.”
“Ha ha ha. Well, let her stayin FB, I’m not active there anyway. Facebook is for old people.”
“So where are you active?” I ask her.
“If I tell you, won’t my mom want to join?”
In 2003 just when Safaricom had just introduced Simu Ya Jamii (we have come from far) and per-second billing and the competition was still pussy-footing around that, still billing per minute, she came back home one day and found her mom gone. “I knew something was wrong because my dad was home early from work. He was never home early from work,” she says. He told her that her mom had gone for a long safari. “I immediately knew something was wrong, that mom had not gone on a safari. He looked scared and confused. Plus he said she had gone with my little sister, who was two years old at the time. It was just the two of us and he looked like he didn’t know what to do with me.” She laughs. She asked if she could use his phone to call her mom and he handed her his phone, a big Ericcson phone that she dragged to the balcony to speak to her mother on. “When I finished talking to her I found him standing in the sitting room, waiting for me like I had news to deliver. He was worried that perhaps my mom had contradicted the safari story he had told me. He asked me what mom had said and I said nothing. They had been having problems.”
“You were six years old? How could you know they were having problems?” I ask.
“I don’t know, but I could tell. There was always tension, I guess.”
“How did you feel about your mom leaving?”
“I felt like she had abandoned me.” She sniffs. “I felt like they had split us; that they had decided that I was better off with my dad and my sister was better off with my mom. I wished I had a say on such things.”
“You felt like a banana?”
“As in you know how if there is an apple and a banana someone says, ‘You take that banana I will have the apple’? That kind of thing. The fruits never have a say on who eats them.”
She laughs a lot at that analogy. At 18 their laughter is purified, like it has been passed through a distiller. It’s not only fresh, it’s refreshing. It hasn’t been laced by the dirt that comes with life’s cynicism and disappointments and pending debts and the angst of being jumped in the queue. At 18 they mean to laugh and they laugh with a meaning. Best part is that their laughter doesn’t demand anything from you apart from an open reception.
“It’s amazing that you can remember things that happened when you were 6. I barely remember what happened last week.”
“Maybe it’s your age,” she says, tongue-in-cheek.
“But I’m only 41.”
“Gosh,” she says, like I’m dying.
Anyway, two months later she came back from school and her mom was there, in the kitchen with the help, like she never left. Her little sister was playing in her play area. Her father was in shorts and a t-shirt, reading a book while watching over her. “They acted like nothing had happened, and it made me distrust them,” she says.
“Distrust them?” I ask.
“Yeah. It made me feel like things can happen in our house and nobody will involve me,” she says. “I felt like I just lived there. You get?”
I nod. “So you wanted them to sit you down and say, ‘Jamila, your dad and I can’t see eye to eye and we are all taking some time-off. I will leave for a few days to consider what I want. You dad will remain here with you. If he cooks don’t eat what he serves, because he can’t cook. And you can’t eat ice cream at 7am.”
“Ha ha, yes,” she laughs.
We are at Big Square in Lavington Curve. She’s eating chips and some crispy fried chicken. Next to her is a Lenovo phone which she occasionally checks, you know, in case the world moves on without her. Her relationship with her phone is intimate; it’s the gateway to a different life. She can be across the table from her parents but also in Hollywood at the same time. She can escape without moving. It’s freedom. It’s identity. It’s the internet, a rabbit hole, a maze and she came with its GPS. She’s part of this revolution that started when she was only seven years old in 2004 when Safaricom launched the mobile internet.
“What’s the greatest secret in your phone?”I ask her.
She laughs and shakes a small cluster of chips trapped against end of her fork. “No no no, I’m not telling you. Then it won’t be a secret!”
“So there is a secret!”
“No. I didn’t say that.” Chuckle.
“Okay, what does the internet mean for you?” I ask.
“That’s such a difficult question, waah.” She chuckles, chewing slowly. It’s an unfair question because really, it’s like asking, what does living in a house mean to you? That question can only be answered by someone who used to live in a cave, rubbing two sticks together for fire, but who has now moved into a house with a door and a window. The internet is the bed we made for them.
“Have you ever visited a pornographic site?” I ask her.
She shoots me a shy look. She says she hasn’t. I don’t believe her, I tell her. She laughs and asks why. I say, “Because you hesitated, then looked away.” She takes a long pause with her head resting on her chin. “ I have visited. Once. I was curious, of course. There are people I know who watch porn a lot, boys my age. It’s not a big deal.” Pause. “Sex is overrated, I think.” Another pause. “My mom has talked to me about sex. She always thinks that I will start having sex with an old man. [Old here, according to her, is anyone over 25-years old]. It’s disgusting.”
I laugh. “What is disgusting, your mother thinking that or the act with an old man?”
In 2009, when Safaricom had just launched Bamba 50 and 100, Jamila woke up one day to find red blotches on her sheets. She was spotting; womanhood was at her door. She only saw them when she was spreading her bed. Her mom stood over the spots in her night dress, looking at them like they were evidence. “She acted so casually, like it was normal.” She laughs at the memory. “I wanted to hide under the bed from embarrassment.”
“Did your father know?”
“Nooo!” She squeals, covering her ears with both hands.
“Would you have liked him to know?” I ask.
“Noooo!” She squeals. “My God, no!”
“Does your father know anything about you?” I ask.
“He knows what he needs to know,” she says like a grown-up.
By this time, she had started carrying sanitary pads in her school bag. “I hated carrying them, I would not let anyone touch my school bag, for fear of someone running into them in my bag.”
“Did you feel like a woman when you saw the spotting?”
A pause. “No. I felt dirty. Ish.”
“When did you stop feeling dirty-ish?”
“I don’t know.” Shrug. “It helped that my mom had already prepared me for the day they would come. And even now we can talk about my period with her, she’s that kind of a mother who is curious to know about everything that goes on with you – including your body.” She giggles.
“Mothers can tell you are about to get a cold before you get a cold!”
“Exactly!” She laughs. “Too much.”
“I’m sure one day you will look back and be very thankful,” I say.
“Yup. I think so,” she says. “But for now, I’m just like, eish Mom!”
“On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you like your mom now?”
“And your dad?”
“Yet you would let Prince Yawodo take your dad over your mom?”
Laughs then pauses. “My mom is a 6 because she’s too much, we disagree a lot on things but I feel like if my mom left, my dad would not know how to take care of both of us. He would probably marry another woman who would probably be a bitch to us and not give us food.”
I chuckle at how intensely she says that. Food is a big thing at 18.
“And you don’t see your mom marrying another man who is the male version of a bitch and who doesn’t give you food?”
“Ha-ha. I don’t think she would marry another man. I think she would just stay that way and struggle to pay for us fees until we are adults.”
“You are an adult now,” I point out.
“Well, yes, but I’m a small adult,” she says laughing.
When Jamila was hitting teenage in 2011, Safaricom, also a teeanger, was hitting 15 million active M-Pesa users, making waves with a product that was only four years old. And launching things that had nothing to do with her life; like M-Kopa Solar which perhaps she has never heard of. She says she knows the M-Pesa PINs for both her parents because “they trust her.” She hates asking her father for money, but also hates asking her mom but only because she never gives her the full amount she asks for.
She says she thinks she has had a pretty “sober” teenage life. She hasn’t drunk or smoked or slammed the door on her parents. She likes to spend time in her room, chatting with her friends, she likes to watch YouTube videos of musicians we have never heard of like Ella Mai or Billie Eilish or Sabrina Claudio. I ask her what she’s struggling with now at 18?
She says, “I want to lose some weight.”
“Why?” I ask. She says “Because I just want to be smaller than I am. But I can’t because I love to eat fries and pizza and things.” She laughs.
“But you are a small adult in your words,” I joke. “What size would you like to be to make your life complete?”
She shows me a picture of someone famous who I don’t recognise but who she says is Ariana Grande who obviously I know but have never bothered to Google.
“Is there anything you think you can’t do now with this weight that you will do if you are Ariana’s size?” I ask.
“No. But I will feel cool.”
“And what do you find cool about yourself now?”
She thinks about it.
“I’m good in math and sciences. I have been told that I’m funny. Babies love me; when I go to a family thing and there is a baby crying people will always look for me, because when I carry any crying baby they stop crying.”
“You have special baby silencing powers.”
“Haha. I’m just a calm soul. Babies love calm people. Are you a calm person?”
“No. I’m impulsive and destructive – I don’t wash my apple.”
“What does -”
Her phone rings. She looks at it and mumbles, “My mom.” A brief conversation ensues after which she holds the phone away and asks, “Are we almost done?” I say 10mins. She tells her mom, “He says ten minutes,” then hangs up.
“If an opinion of an old person matters, I don’t think you need to lose weight,” I say. “Maybe you should focus on being the kind of person people want to be around the way babies like to be around you. You can be a slim but horrible person, drinking your horrible lemon tea, eating salad and looking grim and making babies cry harder.”
She laughs. “Maybe.”
When Jamila was in Form One she went to a house birthday party for her friend during the school holidays. At the party was a boy. He was seated on a stool in the backyard, playing guitar to a small audience. She noticed the hair on the back of his hands and his bushy eyebrows and how thin and delicate his fingers were. He had big hair like Makmende. “He looked cute,” she says. She learnt that he was the birthday girl’s cousin. She wished he wasn’t playing for all those people. His tune belonged to her. She had never liked a boy before but she saw this svelte boy and she liked him.
“I was a shy girl, chubbier than I am now and I was sure he wouldn’t look at me twice,” she says. “But then whenever he would look up from his guitar he would look straight at me. He had noticed me! I thought it was a mistake. Obviously I wasn’t going to approach him and embarrass myself. Later, we when he was leaving, he found me in the kitchen warming food and said hi.” With his guitar strapped across his back he asked for her number and they chatted the whole night and the whole of next day and the rest of the holidays. We have been boyfriend and girlfriend since, it’s about four years now.” She smiles hard.
They hardly call each other, but they chat a lot on Whatsapp. It’s a relationship that was started from a guitar, built on data and continues to transform. They have the same relationship we have with our network; there are days we like them and are glad we chose them, then there are days we want to strangle them and we scream at them on the phone, “I will move if you guys can’t treat me with respect. I don’t have to be with you.” But then you think of moving and starting over and changing your line and dealing with the unknown and you decide to stay in this love/hate relationship.
“Does he still play the guitar?” I ask her.
“For me, yes.” She smiles proudly.