There is no Women & Marriage story this week because I had to go down to shags last week to take care of urgent business. Okay, it wasn’t “urgent business” per se, it just feels grown up to say such things. The truth really is I was down for some nasty business; I went down to fire my farmhand – the third one I was going to fire in the past year. The first one was plain lazy, couldn’t be bothered to lift a hoe. The second one was a thief. This current one just sat on his laurels.
There is no joy in firing anyone, which means there is no joy in making such a trip. It takes cojones of stone to fire someone, cojones and a little bit of heart. If you Google “How to fire someone” you get 600 million search results. Now, if you Google “How to love Jesus” you get 481 million search results, which means more people want to learn how to fire someone than want to learn how to love Jesus. Or maybe most people already know how to love Jesus so they see no need to Google it. Anyway, the first time I struggled with it because that guy was a relative and that was bound to send seismic ripples through the family tree. It never gets easier because when you are firing someone you are telling them, in essence, that they don’t make the cut. That they are not enough for you. It’s something you don’t do over the phone like you would order fried chicken with a side of guacamole. So you just have to take a deep breath and do it in person. And because it’s not easy you have to give yourself a pep-talk. You stand before a mirror and tell yourself, “Look, you are not a bad person. It’s not personal, it’s business. There must be many people in heaven who fired someone.”
I land in the small airstrip in Homa Bay with the 7:30am flight from Wilson. (There are daily flights now). Just don’t call it airstrip if there are guys from Homa Bay within earshot because they will froth at the mouth. They want you to call it an airport, so just call it that. When you disembark at the airstr-port called Kabunde (place of guns or drums) you will see, peering through the perimeter fence, village children ogling at the big bird. Wave at them. Those are God’s children. They have major dreams, standing there. A few of them are making promises to themselves that one day they will get on that plane and see the world. Some are dreaming of owning a plane. They look at the bag-bearing passengers with childhood innocence. The crowd consists of weathered NGO folk, people going to funerals, others visiting their retired parents, the elderly coming back from treatment – MRI scans, hip replacements – or from babysitting their newborn grandchildren. There are people who live and work in the county, who are back from sucking on tropical mints at seminars in Nairobi. And then there are those who disembark already looking haggard in the morning; those are the ones who are here to fire their farmhand, carrying a change of clothes and a rigid mask of righteousness to face the daunting task ahead because the guy has a wife and children and he doesn’t know what’s coming his way.
It’s 8:20am and the weather is wonderful in Homa-Bay; green hills roll into more green hills. The deep blue sky is broken by the massive cotton of white clouds, some shaped like double-chins, others like half eaten croissants. I can smell the rain on the grass. Outside at the grassy parking lot, taxi men with untucked shirts hanker for business. My aunt, who’s picking me up, drives to where I’m standing, walks around from the driver’s side leaving the door open and says by way of salutation, “You are driving.” Well, you are driving to you too!
Talking of trees and nature. I recently had tea with a friend who had recently had a miscarriage. She’d been trying for a child with no success and then when she finally conceived she lost the baby. She was devastated, understandably. She sat slouched in her seat, suddenly looking older than I remembered her. I felt like she was ageing from the inside out. I could feel her breathe out the advanced years. She had on the kind of flowered blouse that my mom would have worn. She was from work and she had a newspaper with her. “Who leaves work with a newspaper like a civil servant?” I asked her. “You look like you work for Nairobi Water.” A chuckle rolled out of her like a bad wet cough.
“We’ve stopped trying for a baby,” she declared. “I feel drained.” I told her that perhaps she can look at what’s working in her life; her career is blossoming, she has a fantastic husband (from what she says of him), a healthy child and she’s not balding in the middle of her head. “If God meant you to have only one, then let His will be,” I said, sounding like a deacon in our shags church. She nodded and grunted, I bet she hears that all the time and it must irritate her, this glass-half full jazz, because unless you have a miscarriage you can’t start imagining what it feels like.
“I also hope God finds it in Him to heal you from carrying newspapers from the office.” I continued. Ho-ho-ho, we chortled. “I carry this for my husband,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “So he likes propping his legs up on the coffee table each evening while he reads the newspaper and you serve him tea?”
“Yeah, and he reads it back to back.”
Anyway, she told me that since the miscarriage she had stumbled upon something that fills her sorrow; plants. She has many in her house now. She loves to water them and care for them. If she isn’t going to get another life from her womb, then she will get it from the soil. It gives her a sense of purpose, to nurture, to be responsible for another life. I bet she talks to them when she waters them, tells them how much they are loved. She thanks her orchids for all the sweet oxygen at night. She whispers to the potted cactus that it’s her special plant regardless of what she tells the Peace Lily over there in the corner. I’m told plants respond to soothing words. There is a lady in my masterclass – Imathiu- who told us how constant talking (and motivation) to her plants usually saves the most desperate ones from dying.
I don’t know.
I’m not a tree-hugger. I don’t get people who talk to plants. But lately I appreciate trees and greenery, and the serenity they bring. And I planted some in shags; fruit trees and ‘shade trees’ and palm trees and when I hired the farmhand I told him that his one job, his only job, was to make sure that the damn place is well tended and green and my trees thrive. He could water them or play for them the guitar or sing for them, whatever it takes to make them thrive. He confidently told me that he grew up around trees and that trees and plants love him, that he has the Midas touch with plants and that that my trees were in good hands. And since he’s from Chavakali, I figured he knew his shit. I slept easy back in Nairobi until reports started getting to me that my ka-shamba was not looking as good as I wanted. That he was just hanging around with locals, shooting the breeze as my trees choked with weed. He’s called Boyi. He was named after Reinhard Bonnke, the evangelist of the 80s but since chaps from Funyula were struggling to pronounce his name they just shortened it to Boyi. I called him one time and said, “Boyi, sasa wewe nimeskia kazi imekushinda.” And since he’s a smooth talking devil he would say, “Hapana boss – “
“Nimekuambia mara mingi usiniite boss, mimi sio muhindi!” I told him.
“Sawa, lakini mbuzi zinanisumbua sana huku, boss.”
“Mimi sijakupigia kuongea mambo ya mbuzi” I said. “Sasa unataka nitoke Nairobi nifukuze mbuzi kwa shamba, Boyi?
Meanwhile I’m in the bank’s waiting lounge upstairs at Yaya Center, whispering this inane goat conversation into my phone because I don’t want to step out lest someone takes my spot. And you know how nosy Nairobians are, the customers were all pretending to be seriously reading magazines or on their phones but were actually listening keenly to this goat tale and trying not to smile. “Boyi,” I continued, “ukitaka, mimi ntaacha kazi yangu huku Nairobi nije ushago nikusaidie kufukuza hizo mbuzi.” A guy in a checked-coat looked up and smiled. He was definitely a Kikuyu with a shamba in Gatundu and so he knew my frustrations by heart which now made us the same tribe. The tribe of goat-chasers.
Anyway, it wasn’t working between me and Boyi. It hadn’t been working for a while and we needed to go our separate ways so that we try other people.
When we arrive at the shamba 40 minutes later and park under a small lemon tree, something happens. His two children – whom I haven’t met before – come running to the car. They are excited to see a vehicle in the compound. I had bought them a big box of biscuits, the one that contains like 1,000 pieces. Yeah. I figured if they are going to remember the day their father was fired, I also want them to remember that this was also the day they had so many biscuits that they couldn’t finish.
I built a modest house for the farm-hand and I’m surprised how you can turn anything into a home. He, or most likely his wife, had planted flowers around this structure, giving it dignity and pride. There is a three-stone stove behind that house on which a pot now boils. Whatever food is cooking there, nobody is going to enjoy it once the fat lady sings, I think sadly to myself. In front of this house omena (sardines) have been laid out to dry on a nylon carpet. They belong to his wife. He had asked for a loan to start an omena business to keep her busy. The Bank Of Zulu, supporting small-scale fishmongers since 2019.
His children follow me as I inspect the big water tank lying on its side on the side of his house. My aunt stands squinting under the awning of another house I was building for them, a more permanent structure, but then I ran out of money and now it stands there like a carcass, a stark reminder of my dwindled finances. If you are my client and you haven’t paid me, kindly pay up so that I get those people’s house up, please? You want children sleeping in rickety structures, Mbugua Macharia? *Cough*
The shamba is a mess. Weeds grow along the footpaths and along the fence, choking my sweet souled kayaba. The whole place looks neglected. I’m furious. His children happily follow me in this inspection, eating their biscuits. I see a lady I don’t know raking some dead weeds at a different corner. My aunt is speaking to Boyi’s wife, Evelyn. Boyi is slashing some long grass at the end of the shamba, suddenly very busy, pretending that he hasn’t heard a car drive in, or new voices, or the excited voices of his children. He seeks not to be interrupted from his daily task because he hates interruptions, after all, he’s a hardworking man.
I bend down and touch the leaves of a frail-looking Eucalyptus seedling. It’s two months old, this poor Eucalyptus but it looks like it’s two weeks old. Anybody can tell it is not happy to be here. It would rather be somewhere else. I can see that it isn’t living its best life in this shamba. That it wishes it was spending its life somewhere where folks actually care about its welfare. I move to another shade seedling, it looks healthy but weed has gathered around its stem like a marauding army. Weeds don’t believe in personal space. “It’s not you, it’s Boyi.” I whisper at the seedling. “He isn’t treating you well, I know, but I’m fixing that shit today, before sundown. Hang tight my lovely, nameless seedling. Daddy’s home. All will be peachy.”
Meanwhile, Boyi hasn’t lifted his head from his very dedicated task of clearing growth from the shamba. I walk towards my aunt and Evelyn. My aunt is telling her, “Hata wewe huwezi furahia hii kazi, sindio?” She agrees, “Eh, nimemwambia mara mingi na Boyi haskii!” She’s in gumboots. We exchange greetings. I stand there shaking my head gravely and – to be honest – a little too dramatically. I mean come on, it’s plants, it’s not like somebody died. But Boyi is shitting on my dream to have a small wooden house in the middle of a heavily wooded farm, a place with green lawns and geese. I love geese. A place I can disappear to for months when Nairobi is choking me.
I walk to where Boyi is hacking away. He looks up, of course, mightily surprised. Oh my, he has been so busy he didn’t realise that he had guests! He comes carrying his panga. He’s built like a gladiator. He’s bare chested, his chest is so ripped you can hide coins in it. Veins run down his arms like tributaries. His neck is a cinder block. He’s wearing a pair of very old trousers, torn around the crotch area, thankfully he has shorts in there. A thin leather belt holds this couture together. He comes smiling, because generally he’s a really happy guy, easy laugh, clean heart, great charisma. Unfortunately, charisma is not manure; it doesn’t make trees grow.
“Sasa boss. Umefika?” Big toothy smile that reaches his eyes.
I want to tell him, “Bado Boyi, bado niko njiani,” but I can’t be petty before midday, so instead I mutter sourly. “Achana na hiyo mambo ya boss, Boyi.”
I’m wary of the panga he’s carrying. Never a fire a farmhand carrying a panga, that’s the 12th rule of farming. I have to play this very smartly until that panga is out of his hands.
“Hii ni kazi gani unafanya hapa, Boyi?” I ask him as calmly as I can. I ask him if this was his property, would be happy with how it looks now? He looks around, his panga hanging limply in his hand.
“Wewe unaone hii shamba iko sawa?” I ask him. He avoids my eyes.
I ask him what I told him when he started working here, two months ago. Does he remember? He nods. I ask him to repeat it.
“Ulisema huna mahitaji mingi, ila miti zako zikuwe.”
Then I ask him if he has fulfilled that objective. He says no. I ask him if we didn’t have this conversation three weeks ago. [I’m now beginning to sound like my late mother; she would ask you these annoying leading questions which she already had answers to.] He says we did have this conversation three weeks ago. I sigh. You have to sigh. To show that you’ve reached the end of your rope. You have to sigh to build the momentum for the actual firing. I ask him what the f*k he does the whole day, as I kick a mound of dried weeds that were raked days ago but just left there to grow into a tree. “Tell me, what the hell do you do when you wake up?”
From the corner of my eye I see his wife and my aunt approaching, so I pause the diatribe. I can’t give him a tongue-lashing before his wife because after all he’s a man first and my employee second. No man should dress down another man before his woman. It’s there, number 3 in the Rule Book for men.
We gather there and look around as if we are at a wake. My aunt is venting, she’s a bit like her elder sister, my late mother, so she can go on and on and on and on. She’s saying how wrong this is. How unacceptable all this is. She’s basically stealing my thunder. I’m getting tired of listening to her so I tell Boyi, “Acha hiyo panga hapo, tutembee.” He drops the panga and we walk away to a spot where he had planted vegetables.
“Boyi, si nilikuambia ntakuonyesha pahali ya kulima mboga niki kuja?” He looks defeated, looking at his young vegetables. “Sasa umeamua hii boma ni yako, unapanda tu mboga sindio? Kazi yangu haufanyi, wewe sasa ndio mwenye boma, unafanya tu chenye unataka, wewe na hizo mbuzi.” By the way, this is not verbatim, it is not how I was speaking Kiswahili. I’m just trying to look good here, the truth is my Kiswahili is shit. I have this thing where I construct a whole sentence in Dholuo in my head and then translate it into Kiswahili by twirling it at the waist. What this means is that some of it is lost in translation and often the Dholuo words find themselves sprinkled into my Kiswahili.
It was things like: “Boyi, wewe koro ndio mwenye boma, sindio? Hii boma ni yako, donge? Unafanya tu chenye unachotaka. Una mea tu mboga, kama kabich na osuga, ndio ukule balanced diet kama wingi, kama Govenor wa hapa, ndio ngozi yako iwe nyororo. Hii jua yetu ni kali sana inaharibu ngozi yako, unataka kumea mboga utengeneze mwili, sindio? Ero, kare now ufanye chenye untachotaka. Puodho ni yako sasa.”
You know, mixing my ngelis and shit. Kiswahili is tough when you are pissed off. Actually, Kiswahili is tough, period. I was surprised he was keeping a straight face.
I tell him I can’t spend money buying trees when he’s interested in planting vegetables and watching weed overrun my shamba. I’d rather leave this place unattended. I tell him we can’t work together. That our relationship ends now. That he – at 29-years of age – can’t take pride in his job. That he has no sense of ownership, no discipline. That at his age, he should be more responsible because he has children and a wife. Now he has to put them in a bus and head to Chavakali, because he couldn’t do his bloody job. He’s now apologising like a madman. I say I can’t give him a second chance when he has shown no initiative or passion. I walk away and leave him standing there like a deflated balloon-man. Juxtapose this with his children who are now on a sugar rush after eating the biscuits, running around, oblivious to the fact that they will be in a bus to Western shortly. A part of me feels bad. Another part needs a drink.
I remember when we were all fired from our magazine jobs in 2009, at the midriff of the recession. How bewildering it was. How I went back to my desk and thought, so is this what it feels like to be jobless? It felt normal. That’s because the shock comes in the next morning under the grimness of your hangover from the bingeing the previous night. When I look back, I always say that that moment of losing my job made me even though at the time it was hard to see the open window when all you did daily was stare at the closed door. So perhaps Boyi would now be free to pursue his love for planting vegetables instead of trees.
I walk out of the shamba and further down to a spot where some local boys are bathing by the lake. Now this is a common thing in shags, men just bathing by the shores of the lake, their bits dangling in the sun as they chatter with each other, trying to reach the hard-to-reach spots on their backs. I stand there and say hello to the three naked men. “Amosou?!” I wave. A Boxer motorbike with a red thorax, now washed clean, gleams in the bright sunlight. I introduce myself and they introduce themselves. They are dark and lean and tall and they all trap the sun with their complexion. We set off with the usual village niceties and make small talk as the waves lap against their legs. I avoid looking at their penises as much as I can, but it’s hard. I have never had a conversation with three naked men before, so I don’t have the muscle memory on how to navigate this male nudist landscape. In fact to distract myself, I try to think of the collective nouns of penises; is it a flock of penis? A plethora, perhaps? Or maybe it’s a congress of penises.
One of them – his face all covered with soap suds – speaks to me about ways in which I can curb the goat menace. As I stand there, Boyi comes to plead his case. He says he wants time to fix it. I tell him he had three months to fix it and now we are at the end of our tether. I have lost faith. The fat lady has sung. We walk back. His wife tells me that she will personally make sure that what I wanted done will be done.
“Please just give him another chance,” she pleads. She promises to personally make sure things change. Her children gather around her, perhaps sensing that the mood isn’t what they thought it was with the biscuits. She and the children have now changed the conversation. It’s easier to fire and leave immediately before your conscience intervenes. I look at my aunt who tells me in Dholuo that perhaps I should give him one last chance, he has a family.
I tell him that he has one last crack at it. He smiles hard. He’s got a child’s smile on an adult’s mug. He says, “Hii kazi nitafanya sana mpaka ushangae, boss.” I tell him, “Nimeshangaa ya kutosha leo, sitaki kushangaa tena, Boyi.” He laughs. I smile in spite of everything. Later, before I leave, I call him aside and tell him that he can’t have his wife save his job for him. Because you look bad and irresponsible. “Is that how you Chavakali men operate, let your women do your jobs for you?” I ask him. He chuckles and says no.
“Well then, get your shit together, because next time I come and find a weed here we are done.”
So yeah, we might not have had a Women & Marriage piece, but at least someone kept his job.