She confronted her daughter one evening after she had cleared the dinner plates. Her daughter had leaned back in the creaky wooden chair she had sat on, away from the light and truth and she denied it. She couldn’t see the lie on her face but she could hear it. You would know your daughter’s lies because like everything that comes from her, they come from you. “I’m a mother,” she told her firmly, leaning forward to have a better look at her face. “I have had three children; don’t you think I’d know if you are pregnant?” Her other children – 9 and 11 – sat silently squeezed next to her in the worn two-seater, a hand-me-down from a former employer.
When her daughter finally started throwing up in the morning, she came clean. She was past the disappointed phase because she had processed her daughter’s pregnancy before she even confessed to it. Now she was in the mourning stage, mourning the loss of her child’s childhood. Every waking day she demanded to know which boy had done this to her. Her daughter had told her that it didn’t matter, it wasn’t the boy’s fault. She persisted – and she could persist.
When she finally got a name out she entered the anger phase. She would get headaches just thinking about the man. She would lie in bed at night and think of macabre things that could possibly happen to that man: him getting a cancer that makes his penis fall off; him losing all his teeth in a fight; him swallowing his tongue in his sleep and not being able to talk again, him not being able to pass stool for the rest of his life, a swarm of bees making a home in his arse. Often, dawn would find her still staring into the musky-smelling darkness. One day she tied her leso tight around her ample torso (for she was a big-boned woman, before she fell sick) and marched over to the kiosk where she confronted the man. She called him a leech. She called him scum. She called him a name in Luhya to mean, a bastard. She told him she hoped he got a cancer that made his penis fall off. “She’s 15 years old! A mere child! ” She seethed. “You are my age! Have you no shame?!” From behind the grill, the man went about his business of looking at his books, unperturbed by her ruckus and righteousness. “Come out here, if you are a man!” She dared him. He never came out. He wasn’t man. Not that man, at least.
Eventually the chief – a dinosaur with one shorter leg- couldn’t do much. Or refused to do much. He said her daughter “looked like an adult.” (For she took her mommy’s body). And that’s how that saga ended, the law, indeed, is an ass. She then stumbled into the phase of guilt: maybe she should have done more to prevent it. Maybe she should have sought justice for her daughter and for herself. Maybe if she wasn’t so poor, all this wouldn’t have happened. Maybe if she had a husband, a manly figure in the house, all this would have been averted. Or the least he would have done would have been to knock all the teeth off that man’s face.
The baby is 3 years old and she feels like a new mother at 35 because her daughter prefers to spend more time on her phone than taking care of the baby. The small one-bed-roomed mabati house is suddenly strangely crowded with noise, with a crying baby and the loud clutter of the cheap plastic toys that he drives around. The small grocery business she had set up for her daughter to run, now that school was out of the question, collapsed, sinking with her savings of Sh,4000. A year ago, she got fired from her casual job in Industrial Area where she packed boxes in a warehouse. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, she fell sick. Her period would keep her in bed for many days, excruciating pain in her pelvic region and she’d often borrow money to buy sanitary pads due to her excessive bleeding. She was so weak and anaemic, dragging herself outside to bask in the sun and listlessly watch her grandson play. She had Endometriosis, though she didn’t know it at that time. A friend of hers told her that she knew someone who had the same problem and whose husband had sold cows back in the village to raise the 45K needed to do the surgery. She laughed; “I can barely feed myself and my children, where can I ever get 45,000 shillings?” She told her she would tough it out like she had toughed out everything else in her life. She would pray to God to heal her body, not to let her die and leave her children alone. “Lord, don’t turn my children into orphans.”
Her husband was a good man, a very quiet man; never drunk like the other men in the plot. He fixed bicycles from a small shade in the market but no matter how hard he worked, no matter how many bicycles he fixed, nothing seemed to work for him. He was a man running at the same spot. One day he left for work and never came back. Just like that, he disappeared, abandoning the struggle and the pressure of being a husband and a father. That was the most bizarre phase of her life. Bizarre and embarrassing for she became fodder for the plot gossip. Granted, husbands around were not model husbands, but they stayed. None abandoned their families no matter how tough things got. The rumours were that she was the problem, she must have brought it on herself and for a long time it seemed like her whole identity shrunk to his departure. That no matter who she was, who she was trying to become, she was the woman who was abandoned by her husband. The children needed answers of his whereabouts, as she did.
Even through all this, she was distinctly aware that he was not dead and that he was alive somewhere. And indeed he was, rumours finally got to her that he was living in Malaba and had taken another young girl as a wife. And he still repaired bicycles. She never bothered to get into a bus to Malaba to confirm these rumours. It was easier to think of herself as a widow, well, until five years later when word reached her that he had died, and she officially became one. The same grapevine said that he had died in the most bizarre of ways; by falling off a tree. There was no mention what type of tree that was (not that it would have helped) or what on earth he was doing up there. She couldn’t muster tears for a man who had died a long time ago in her heart. The afternoon he was buried she was plugging a hole in one of her bathing basins with molten plastic.
The warehouse never called her back and – on advice of one of her friends – she resorted to join her in the leafy parts of the city to sit with a group of women and wait for house-work. She said it paid well; sometimes 500 shillings – if you were lucky. “You can’t dress like you are poor,” her friend advised her, “or nobody will pick you.” So she wore her only dress that she liked to wear to church. It was green with white small lilies on it. Nobody picked her that day. “Don’t look too miserable, either,” her friend told her. “Nobody wants to take misery back to their house.” So the next day she tried to wear her smile as cars slowed down, and the occupant gazed out at them like you would a livestock for sale in a market. Nobody picked her the second day either and she went back home empty handed. She learnt great patience and hope and the power of prayer seated in that ditch. She also learnt that being chosen wasn’t entirely up to how you dressed or if you smiled. It was things you couldn’t control, like where you were seated, which direction the client came from, the sensibilities of the client, their preferences, and the connection you two had when your eyes met. It was fate. It was God, not the dress.
It’s been six months and most days are good, but some days she goes home without work. The trick of being picked again as a repeat client is to go beyond the call of duty. If you are told to clean the house, you should clean the house but also offer to water the plants and wipe the windows. If it’s clothes you are to clean, ask if you can also clean that rug. The other trick is to say little. Also, if there is a child in that house, be friendly to them; she realized. Even if they are little entitled shits. And wear a roll-on. “These people have sensitive noses.” Her friend once told her. Also, don’t touch their food unless offered. Don’t eat a banana or an apple no matter how hungry you are, unless they tell you to.
Another thing, the earlier you got there the better your chances are to be picked. You never know who would stop their cars or come pick you up. She has seen all sorts. The strange bachelor who told her, “whatever you do in this house, do not open this door,” pointing at a door. There was a house that had like ten strange looking immigrants in one bungalow. She’s experienced the ones who locked their fridges with keys. The ones who asked her to stand by the door when she’s done and went about the house making sure she didn’t steal anything. She’s also met the kind ones who gave her their old dresses and shoes. Who talked to her like she was human. Who corrected her gently when she washed the disposable paper plates. She’s seen the eccentrics; like the lady who walked around the house naked as she cleaned. She has experienced the verbally abusive ones with harsh words. She has cleaned men’s boxers with skid marks. She has cleaned dogs and cats that made her sneeze. She has been conned, told money would be Mpesad later only for the client not to come through. She has been to massive houses that echoed with sadness and small houses that felt like a mansion. She has walked into warm homes with laughter and kindness and very familiar homes she truly believed she lived in her past life. She has seen a bed so big it could sleep her whole family. And a dog that had its own bed. She has seen an overweight three-legged cat with an attitude of the owner.
The job hurts your back – you always stay bent for hours. Often she’s not offered food, so she has to make do from water from the tap. God forbid should you break something; a vase, a plate, a glass. Some people would shrug and say it’s fine, but others would fly off the handle and suggest that they get it off your pay.
Mostly, she’s just invisible. Nobody notices her. Nobody talks to her. Nobody asks who she is, how she’s doing. She’s a shadow. A nobody. But it pays the rent – barely – and buys food for the children. She wishes she had a new shoe or a new dress. She wishes she could afford lotion. She has never painted her nails in her life. Or owned a television set. Or sat under a drier. Never heard the sound of waves. A beach is not even a dream, it doesn’t register on the radar.
Lately things have taken a worse turn. Nobody is allowing them in their homes to clean because of this virus. So they don’t sit at their spot anymore. She took a small loan from her chama and started a mandazi business but competition is insane and she doesn’t see her business lasting another month. They have had to adjust as a family; they are down to one meal a day. They all agreed that the baby is a priority so they have largely sacrificed for her. Hunger has now moved into their house and hunger strips you off dignity. She can no longer afford to look at her hungry children in the eye because she sees her own failure as a mother in them. But it’s not just her, it’s most of the households in their plot who are supported by boda-boda riders, office messengers, gardeners, clerks and whatnot. Misery loves company. When you ask her what’s the one thing she would want the people she works for to know she says, in many words, “to look at us.”
And when we look at them we will see people with the same aspirations like ours. They love and fear for their children. They sometimes watch them sleep. They have reckless dreams of fortune and happiness. Their feelings get hurt. They wonder how they will die. Or if they will ever find love. They have allergies. They also love the smell of petrol.
But unlike us, most of them don’t save for the rainy days because there is nothing to save. These are not fictitious characters of a book of fiction; we all know one. They clean for us. They raise our children. They fuel our cars. They run quick errands for us. They open the gate for us. They clean the lifts we get into and the toilets we enter. And we can help them with the little we have. And that help is right in our phones, sitting unused. We all have Bonga points, which are just points for us but which is now food for them thanks to Safaricom’s Bonga For Food. So send it to one person you know who might need it. It will help them more than it will help you.
The trick is not to do it after you have washed the dishes or made your smoothie, or done your yoga this morning. Do it right now, after you finish reading this article. Here is how:
Select Transfer Bonga points
Enter phone number to transfer to
Enter Bonga points
Enter Bonga PIN
Confirm details and send
And tell me if it doesn’t make you feel happy, to extend a helping hand to someone who has much less than you have.
And, thank you.