The Chief’s wife is also the Chief. She’s an office by herself. And if you whisper in the Chief’s wife’s ear, you have whispered in the Chief’s ear. But my Chief in the village has many wives so you just have to know which wife’s ear to whisper in because whispering in the wrong ear is as useful as peeing in the wind. [Better to pee against a tree, if you have to go]. There is a pecking order. The village has its rules.
I stumbled on the right wife’s ear by sheer mistake. I love Silver-Fish, fried with garlic and some browned onions and served with green traditional veggies that have spent a night or two. And a slice of lemon. I would have just said I love omena but I wanted to know what writing “Silver-Fish” feels like. Omena is also what our city children might call “baby fish.” It’s not for everyone, omena, so I understand when some folk say they don’t like the smell. I also understand those who might say it has a “sharp taste,” because, in general, you need an evolved palate to enjoy it. But my biggest grouse is when people say they can’t eat omena because it “stares at them.” Oh, for chrissake. As if omena is being very rude to them, infringing on their personal space. They feel objectified by the stares of baby fish. I never have anything to say to this group of people. I feel sorry for them.
The Chief’s wife sells omena, that’s how we met. I suspected she was the first wife because of how she carried herself around. And how she laughed, as someone who was used to having people join her in laughter. And how she liked to hold her arms akimbo, dimples forming on her elbow because she’s got thick motherly arms. She normally fries these omenas, boxes them and she puts them on a bus and I have my rider collect them on this end.
Last year I was having trouble with goats in the shamba. You don’t want to have trouble with goats. Goats are smelly, arrogant and persistent and they think they are better than humans just because they are better than sheep. They’d simply bend under my fence and cross through the shamba, eating and shitting on things at will. I think goats think they can do whatever they damn please because they taste good. I had the owner traced and I got him on the phone. I stood in the office balcony, overlooking an empty mosque below, when we spoke. This was before COVID put the kibosh on our lives. I introduced myself and said, “I’m having trouble with your goats, how can we help each other on this matter?” He is one of those people who pause before they answer. So that phone conversation was punctuated by a lot of long pauses; his. He sounded 50s, quite possibly in his 60s. Someone who wore the same old hat daily and went about testing the ground with a wooden staff, before he stepped on it. Like Moses from the Bible. Maybe he had a small limp and he kept half smoked cigarettes, wrapped in a newspaper strip, in his breast pocket. And he spat occasionally, while making a bitter face like he was disgusted at people who complain about his goats.
He asked me why I thought it was his goats that were the culprit. I said because the leader of the goats was a cocky white billy with dark legs and a loud clanging bell dangling from his neck. Isn’t that your goat, mzee? Unless I’m mistaken, and if so, you will forgive me. “Whose son are you?” he asked, because that was very relevant to this conversation. I gave him my father’s two names knowing full well he wouldn’t know him because I’m not from around that end of the pond. I’m what they call “a settler”, a black settler. I’m a “foreigner” and foreigners can’t afford to raise their voices in a land they have come to as adults. So, you tread carefully and integrate soundlessly. He mumbled something and said he’d call me back. He never did but his goats kept breaching my fence. I asked Boy – the farmhand- if he could just break one of the goat’s legs to send a message that we were serious and he laughed and said, that’s not how things work here.
One day I called the Chief’s wife over the matter of silver-fish and when hanging up mentioned to her my goat frustrations and she said, “don’t worry, my son, I will look into it.” She must have whispered something in the Chief’s ear and the Chief might have met the owner of the goat in their usual mabati den and over warm beers, asked him to be more hospitable to the foreigner. He’s not a bad boy, he must have said. And that was that. Goat problem, gone. No billy or his harem.
The Chief is a very important man in the village. He represents order. And you need him on your side. He knows all the bad boys in the village. He knows who is good with wood and who is good with metal. He knows who is selling the best charcoal. He will also offer character witnesses should you need to get someone to help you with something. He’s not only the government, he’s an elder. He has background. And Solomonic wisdom. And when you go down, you have to pay homage to him. His office is in a typical bland government compound with browned grass and a fading flag, flapping from a long pole. Abandoned old government cars sit rusting in a corner of the compound, now a home to rodents. Grass grows from the gearbox.
There are always people with creased brows sitting on a bench outside his door, waiting for an audience. There is a middle-man, his crony, who keeps order outside his door. You will see him conferring with someone who wants to see the chief before he lets them in. He’s like a quasi chief of staff, a gatekeeper. He has a swagger about him. He thinks he’s a chief, by virtue of the proximity to the office. He’s proud and can be a nuisance if you entertain him too much but you have to make him believe that he’s important and useful. Because people also whisper in his ear.
He doesn’t knock when entering the Chief’s office. He has his chair in that office. You sit in a wooden chair with a stiff back. It’s a crumpled office, smelling of old furniture and yellowing paper. On the wall is a picture of the President, the Chief’s framed picture in full regalia taken in the 70s or 80s when he was a young handsome fellow. A stack of aged files are piled up on a wooden table in the corner. A window opens to a hedged fence from which the sound of laughing children from the nearby village drifts in. There are always some two mysterious old men in woolen coats just sitting in the office silently or sometimes looking to be dozing off, their canes resting between their legs. They are the modern day Google in case the Chief needs a reference point; like to confirm whose son you are. They know everybody, those old men with rheumy eyes.
The rule of engaging the Chief is simple; don’t talk over the Chief, don’t be a smart ass, speak when spoken to, when asked if you’d like something to drink don’t ask for bottled water, this is not a bloody hotel, laugh at his jokes, avoid telling your own, and never have the last word. Also, have some money on you. When you say bye, you squeeze some folded bills in his warm, leathery palm. It’s the nature of the beast.
As soon as Uhuru gave the green-light I called the chief. When he picked up and I would hear people speaking in the background, like he was in a baraza of sorts. In shags, it’s not rude to pick up a call in church or a baraza. Also, it’s fine to have the loudest ringtone you can get on your phone, so that you hear your phone ring if it’s buried in the ground and a cow lies over it. He said, “wuod, Kendu, I’m in a small meeting. Let me call you back as soon as I conclude.” [He mostly speaks English, my Chief. It’s his authoritative tool of administration]
“Onge wach, Chief.” I said smiling. As soon as I conclude. That’s how you know who is sitting at the head of the table. The person who sits at the end of the table is the person who concludes the meeting. Do you conclude your meetings? Er? Don’t answer that now, take your time.
He called me back later in the afternoon and I filled him in that the farmhand, Boyi, was no longer with me. That I had let him go. ‘Hmmm,” he said contemplatively. He has an old throaty voice, filled with authority and wisdom, a voice suited for harambees. He said, “So finally, it’s done, right?” I said it was done. “Good, then” he said. It wasn’t good. I didn’t tell him how messy it was.
It’s messy to let someone go. Even if they are an ass. Of course it would be much easier to just say, ‘it’s not you, it’s me,” but that last worked in 1986. It’s even harder if they have children, innocent children whose fault is to have been born from a lazy and unscrupulous pair. Children really have it rough. They have no choice in who their parents are. Sometimes I see a guy skip a red light when he really doesn’t have to, when really the counter says 21 seconds left for it to turn green and he just zooms past because God forbid should he wait for 21 seconds. It will ruin all his life’s plans. I normally think, “that guy probably has children!” Anyway, Boyi’s children were simply minding their own business. They probably had breakfast and were now playing outside and here I was setting events that would get them in their Sunday Best clothes to journey off. Anyway, the only silver lining to this sad event was that it was indeed Sunday when I made that call.
You probably haven’t fired anyone but it makes you feel like a turd. I stared at his number for a second longer before I made that call. I had had four months to prepare for the call but once Boyi picked I realised I wasn’t even prepared. I wasn’t angry enough or disappointed enough. I thought I had figured out how to strike the perfect balance of firm but compassionate but that wasn’t coming out as planned. The timbre of my voice didn’t project the emotion that I wanted that call to possess. I sounded tired and hungover. I wasn’t tired, but I was slightly hungover it being a Sunday morning. I left the house and walked up towards the gate, or as I hear people say, ‘keep it moving.’
I started with a tiresome speech. I read somewhere that it’s always good to start with a compliment and I wanted to tell him that I thought he has excellent biceps. That I have been to gyms and seen many biceps but that his guns were truly something special especially because he doesn’t do dumbbell curls, he just hoes. But I forgot. Instead, I told him that we had had a good run but he had dropped the ball too many times over time, he had also stolen from me once, something I just couldn’t get over even though I had let it go but it was very evident that he wasn’t just cut for the job. Of course he was speechless.
He tried to explain things but I just kept saying, “Boyi, ni sawa, ni sawa, tumefika tamati.” [Si tamati is the end?]. He tried explaining that the flowers were fine, that the grass was growing and the trees were doing well. I said it wasn’t about grass or the trees anymore. It was about integrity – rather, I said uaminifu when I meant to say integrity. I didn’t know what integrity was in Swahili. It’s hard enough speaking swahili, now try letting someone go in it/ with it? I said I didn’t have any more imani in him, which I know is trust because I had googled some of these words before that call. I sprinkled words like starehe, jukumu, unyenyekevu, in that trite conversation and of course my all time favourite, dhamira. I realised that I’m 42-years old and I have never used the word ‘dhamira” before. If you are wondering, dhamira means conscience. I said, “Boyi, mimi sina ubaya na wewe, hakuna kitu nimekunyima hii wakati yote tumefanya kazi pamoja, na dhamira yangu iko safi kama matako ya mtoto.” (My conscience is as clean as a baby’s bum). I really wanted to clap for myself. I really should have, in hindsight.
Anyway, he contested it. Bitterly. And his wife, Evelyn, called me and I told her that I didn’t think she was a good person and told her why, giving her five reasons. She contested it. Everybody was just contesting me. Then my neighbour’s farmhand, a sneaky two-timing serpent, called me to stand as witness for Boyi. The same guy who had convinced Boyi to f*k me over. The nerve. I told him to keep his nose out of my business. Then his Boyi’s brother in law – his wife’s brother – called me and I gave him reasons why Boyi’s goose had already been cooked ages ago. And he said, “my sister has really messed this guy up. She controls him and his job. Let him stay, I will advise him to send her back to the village and so that he can remain behind and do this job well.” I said no use. The fat lady already croaked. And then his wife called again and again and then she started sending aggressive written messages in bad spelling, invoking the wrath of God on me, saying “mungu halali,” to mean I will sure be smitten by forces from heaven before the sunsets. I said it was done, please stop embarrassing yourself. She wanted to save him like she did before. but now now I knew who she was and where she hid her flying broom. Then Boyi eventually called and said gracefully, “Bosi, kama nilikukosea sana hivyo basi naomba msamaha.” I said, I was cool, “safiri salama.” And that ended was that.
I thought I’d feel relief or even some level of triumph after I let him go instead I felt a keen sense of loss and pity. There was no joy in it. The end came with no novelty, no achievement, no aplomb. I didn’t have the last laugh, it was all very humourless and draining. Fine, I won’t miss him but I didn’t feel lighter like I thought I would, instead I felt jaded as if I was carrying half his burden because after all he’s a fellow man, barely 30, two kids to feed and a complex wife who had him on a some weird leash and now he was out of a job.
Later, I secretly wished he was a prick about it. I wish he’d said, “Oh, keep your stinky job you big foreheaded, large footed jaundiced chimp. I will do better. Keep your rubbish grass that has kwashiorkor anyway, and your trees that have dwarfism and inferiority complex. They will never grow past your own IQ …come to think of it, nothing will in this half-assed shamba. Now, I have a bus to catch. I would have told you to kiss my ass, but I respect my ass.”
But he didn’t. He was all grace and shit. And that doesn’t help.
But really, the only good thing that came out of that messy situation was that I used the words “dhamira” in a sentence.
Registration for the Creative Writing Masterclass is still ongoing. This is sponsored by Safaricom but it’s not ati free. There is some little cost. To register please email [email protected].