She made tea. We sat in the dining room. I could hear her husband on a Zoom call somewhere in a room down the corridor. He was speaking to white folk, from what I could hear. Everybody sounded so polite on that call. All that “I’m sorry,” and “that’s a fantastic point, but,” and “I agree with you, but if I may also add…”
The first time I had sex, I was 15 and I had on dungarees. Everybody was wearing them then; Brandy, Salt N Pepa, Queen Latifa…everybody. All the bad bitches. I wanted to be a bad bitch. This was back in the 90s when everything felt like a taboo; beer, cigarettes, sitting in a bar, getting a tattoo, being a bad bitch. Actually, just being a girl was a taboo, let alone a bad bitch, because the list of things my mother forbade me to do was longer than my legs. Both of them. One of them was interactions with boys. And there I was, me and a guy I will call Martin (because that’s his first name) struggling to remove my dungaree, failing and then him – as experienced as a one-armed guitarist – saying, f*&k it, and then pulling it down to my knees and having his way with me.
I remember us doing it very fast, very awkwardly, before the maid came back from the market carrying groceries. We did it on the sofa in the TV room (yes, we had one of those then) under a massive framed family picture taken by an ageing Indian man in a small bright photo studio in town on a Saturday afternoon. My dad – a research biologist – stared down at me with a chunky smile. My mom, a nurse, who never smiled, wore a grim look, the only look she had. I was sure even in that photo she disapproved of what I was doing on our sofa. Her sofa. Then there was my younger brother in an awkward suit with sleeves too long. There were only two of us. We still are only two. He met a girl while working in the UN in the Middle East, fell head over heels, converted to Islam and settled there, rarely coming home. My mom has never recovered. I think my mom realises that my brother’s choice of spouse and his refusal to come back to show my mom her grandkids is rebellion. I suspect she sits glumly at her bedroom window sipping her tea, hoping my brother will press the bell of our gate and say, ‘It didn’t work out with that Muslim girl.”
I remember making a mess on the sofa; blood. Nobody told me that I’d bleed losing my virginity. I didn’t know anybody who had had sex before. In movies I watched women have sex and then stand under the hot shower with a smile. White women. Thankfully, my parents were the kind of parents who thought leather sofas were the height of sophistication so it was pretty easy to wipe off the blood before the maid came. It was horrible. The sex. Martin was a big guy who played rugby and so he weighed more than a Combine Harvester. I also didn’t like him that much. I liked to be associated with him. To be seen with him after a rugby match when his knees were bruised and he still smelled of grass. I also loved that he would head-butt other big boys and send them flying in the air like paper in a gale. That was hot. Quite. He also had big wrists, as thick as the water pipe under our sink.
Then I fell pregnant.
My mom found out before I did. Of course she did. One day, after dinner, as we sat watching TV, she stood up and said, “Laura, come.” That was never a good sign. In her bedroom, she asked me to close the door. Definitely not a good sign. I sat on the only big green velvet couch while she perched on the edge of her bed. “Are you sexually active?” She asked me.
“No!” I squealed, slightly disgusted by the insinuation. She asked like I was shagging boys around. And I wasn’t. I mean I had only done it once with Martin and I didn’t think I’d do it again. The experience had been underwhelming. Plus, he had been too heavy.
She stared at me stonily.
“I’m going to ask you again,” she brushed off something invisible from her lap. “Are you sexually active?”
I repeated that I was not.
She glared at me. I don’t know about your mother but my mother was a scary woman. She was plump like all nurses were in those days. And she was menacing. She was feared by her sisters and my father’s sisters and everybody else she interacted with. There was always a feeling that she was ready to punch you if you stood in her sun. Or her shadow. I think even my dad feared her, that’s why when he was home he always held the newspaper over his face.
“Mom, I’m not sexually active!” I repeated.
“Have you had sex with a boy?” She asked and the room suddenly became very hot. I swallowed hard and wondered whether I should lie or not.
“I haven’t,” I said, locking eyes with her but feeling all my energy drain from me. I felt like I would melt into a puddle and flow out of her bedroom. My mother never threw things away. Hoarding hadn’t become a word then, but she was a hoarder. Her bedroom was like a museum. It was full of furniture and mementos she would send my father for whenever he travelled. And a big wooden box where she kept dozens of magazines, some of them pornography. (Yeah, I checked. Bad nurse). I looked away and stared at a row of shelves that contained different types of pots; mostly small pots from different parts of Africa.
“You are pregnant, Laura,” she announced.
“I am?” I asked, surprised.
“Yes, you are,” she said.
I laughed and she shot me a lethal look and spat, “Don’t you dare laugh at this moment.”
“Mom,” I said evenly, “I’m not pregnant.”
“Okay,” she said standing up, “tomorrow morning, you will come with me to the hospital.”
“What about school?”
“School is not for mothers,” she hissed.
I tried to remember what we learnt about pregnancy and the signs but I couldn’t recall because I never thought I’d get pregnant before I got a job and a husband. I squeezed my stomach to feel the baby but there was nothing. The next morning, we drove silently to the hospital. She drove an old cream Datsun that she made us wash daily. The test came out positive. I remember the room I learnt I was pregnant in; a white sanitised room with a chair and a desk and an examination bed covered in white. She must have kicked the owner out of the office or, knowing her, maybe gagged her, tied her up and locked her in one of the cupboards.
I cried a lot in that office. She was so disappointed. So distraught. She just sat there, breathing gently as I cried. I was afraid to look at her. She then started telling me how I had messed up my life at 15. How it was over for me. How shameful all this was for our family. I cried harder when she asked me if I was a whore. I pleaded that it was only one time, “It happened only one time!” She shook her head, not believing a word of course. She would have believed Judas over me. Anyway, she said she wanted to know the father of that child. I knew she would have tortured me for a name, so I just spat Martin’s name without any struggle. I wasn’t about to die for him. “We are going to his place today,” she announced.
I had never taken a matatu but – for the first time in my life – she gave me fare and told me to get myself home. “You are an adult, now!” She said. That’s how I learnt the ways of the streets. OK, that’s how I started learning the ways of the streets. I jumped into a mat at Aga-Khan and found my way to town. I cried the whole way. Then I got into the wrong one and I found myself in Ngong, after crying the whole way. There were no mobile phones so I used my wits to get home in the early evening to find her cooking in the kitchen, unperturbed. Mom was hardcore. After cooking, she untied her leso and said, “Take me to the boy.”
I had been to the boy’s place just once. We lived in the Gigiri area, they lived in the Kileleshwa area. On our way I forgot the route so we had to get into a phonebooth and call their home. His brother picked and my mother told him that she was their auntie and she wanted to come see the parents. We were received by Martin’s father who was a very burly man wearing a white vest and shorts. Martin’s mother was very petite and smiled a lot, insisting to make tea before she found out what the matter was. Their house, unlike ours, was sparsely furnished and tasteful and very brightly lit. It seemed happy, a place you did whatever you wanted to do. There were so many flowers around. And Martin’s siblings. I counted four. The house was loud with chatter unlike our house that had order. When Martin came down to say hello he looked like he had seen a ghost. My mom looked like she was ready to wrestle him to the floor, choke him then hit him over the head with a vase. After tea was served, because my mom wouldn’t wait, she launched into the matter before her first sip. Martin’s father thundered out loudly for him and he bundled downstairs from his room. He was told I was pregnant.
“Do you know anything about that?” His father inquired gravely.
“No!” Martin looked bewildered. We avoided looking at each other.
“Have you had sex with my daughter?” My mother asked in a voice so cold the tea before us turned into iced tea.
He looked at his mother and then looked at his father and he finally mumbled, “Once.”
“Well, you are a father of one now!” My mom quipped. When I think of it now it’s funny.
Let’s just say it was a long evening. Martin’s family couldn’t believe their 17-year-old son could father a baby. But they were rational about it. It’s almost like they expected it. My mom told them that she wanted nothing from them but for them to know what their son had done. She lectured him for a good ten minutes right in front of his parents. That’s the kind of cheek my mom had; brazen and confrontational even in people’s homes. When everybody was going gaga over “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**K,” I was rolling my eyes because I learnt that art during my childhood by watching my mom. There is truly not one person I know who didn’t give a f**k more than my mom. On our ride home she scolded me that I was going to have to give birth to a “Mluhya baby!” “Who is going to marry you with a Mluhya baby?” She asked.
My life changed after.
First, I was banished like Romeo was from Verona for killing Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. And it felt like the worst punishment for a 15-year-old at that time. I was sent to Umoja to live with one of my mom’s cousins because, God forbid I was about to shame our well-heeled neighbours with my pregnancy. Sure, our relatives in Umoja couldn’t shame her. This also meant that I was pulled out of a very prestigious international school because in my mom’s words, “You don’t appreciate the privilege of education.” In case you are wondering where my father’s voice is in all this my father had little to no say in our home. My mother ruled like a king. She was a woman from Mweiga, Nyeri. My mom broke the news to my father in the bedroom that night, I suppose but my father never said a word to me about it for close to a week. He acted normal around me. One day as we walked to his car, me carrying his leather case (that was always my job if he was leaving during normal hours), he said, “This is not the end of life. Your mother has some remedial ideas.” Remedial. That’s how he spoke. Then he smiled at me sadly, as if to say, this is above my paygrade, take it on the chin, good luck, I can’t help you.
Imagine from Gigiri to Umoja. You can’t. You think you can, but you can’t. From a six-bedroom (three ensuite) mansion with a guest wing, a big compound with a large garden and two groundsmen, a watchman, a maid, to a two-bedroomed house in Umoja. The first thing I recall when I got there was how noisy it seemed. There was lots of activity. Cars honked. Children ran around. Dogs walked the streets. There were many kiosks. People sat outside those kiosks smoking, talking, laughing. Matatus screeched to a halt at stations and young nimble men jumped out. Everybody spoke sheng. This was a different world.
I shared a room with my auntie’s help (gulp!) and her ten-year-old daughter. There was no room for a dining area so we ate from the coffee table in the living room. The house was small and cramped. It felt like prison for a 15-year-old. My mom never spoke to me the whole time I was there. My auntie had no telephone so she would seldomly bring slips of messages from my mom when she came from the office. Very impersonal messages like, “Take milk and bananas for nutrients. Mom.” Or “We are fine at home. Mom” Or “ Philippians 4:13. Mom.” My father “sneaked” in to see me twice a month. I say “sneaked” because I doubt my mother knew he was seeing me. Sometimes he came with my brother. We would sit in the car and I’d break down and cry and he’d just sit there, helpless, gutted, saying, “This will soon end. You will be back home.”
I think when I’m asked when my life took a turn for the better I don’t know if it’s the pregnancy. I don’t know. What I know is that it showed me a side of life I wouldn’t have seen because had I not gotten pregnant I would have finished my high school, I would have shipped to the US or Australia or Canada, then who knows? I wouldn’t have learnt about human struggles, of water shortages, of taking matatus to the clinic, of buying vegetables for 10 bob, of cooking and washing your own clothes and basically talking to people who aren’t in your ecosystem in their language. I don’t regret those nine or so months in Umoja. They were an education. I learnt not to take things for granted. I learnt sheng.
My mother was in the room when I delivered. She held my daughter with the kind of love I hadn’t imagined she was capable of. She was by my side throughout my hospital stay; cleaning me up, feeding me, telling me how to hold the baby, holding me as I lowered myself in warm salty water to help me “down there” as she called my private parts. I thought I’d go back to Umoja, instead she drove me back home. At home there was a cot already set up in my room and a heater. She lowered the baby in there and said, “Now everything you do you remember this baby.”
I went back to school, a different school and everything I did after that was not to disappoint my mother again. And for my daughter. I worked double hard because I didn’t have any more distractions seeing as I had lost all my friends; it was always school and home to my baby. I found other girls and their pursuits trivial and exhausting. I lost interest in boys. Being a mother matured me faster than anything in my school life would have. I excelled. I left my baby with my mom to study in London for six years, only coming back home once to see her. I secured a good job thanks to my father. Six months after graduating as a Doctor of Philosophy my father suddenly developed a rare liver disease and died. I felt like I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know if he was ever happy or satisfied with his life. My mother always overshadowed him. I feel sad when I think of my dad.
While I still mourned him, one rainy day I met a man when I had gone out to a birthday dinner date I didn’t want to attend because it was wet and I hated meeting new people. He was funny and stuffed silk in his breast pocket. After six months of cat and mouse, he asked me if I was a lesbian and I told him that I had only slept with two men in my life; one of them black. He said, “Let’s make that black an even number.” I’m embarrassed to say that’s the only reason I slept with him. Then I discovered he was married. By this time I was living with my mom in the house I grew up in because my daughter considered it home, besides, my mom was now retired and lonely even though she wouldn’t accept that.
I met another man who my daughter instantly liked before I did. So I married him three years later and we moved into a different home and I fell pregnant again, this time not on a leather sofa. Thank God. I’m a mother of two now. A son and a daughter. It’s a happy story for me. It’s my happy story. I’m afraid that even though I vowed not to raise my children like my mother, my husband tells me that I’m like her. I’m very hard on them, he says. I expect nothing but excellence. And I don’t smile in photos, like mom. It fills me with dread. I don’t want to be like her. I want to be a fun mother. I try to be but sometimes when they do things I want to lock them out of the house so that they can spend the night in the cold. I’m fighting my mom’s influence, who annoyingly has mellowed down so much when I tell my daughter she was a terror I look like I’m the mad one.
I hope one day my daughter will discover this post and realise that this story was about her and me and her grandmother, and perhaps she will understand why I am the way I am. Maybe there is a lesson here for her. Maybe it’s only a story, like thousands of others.
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