It’s 2018 and I’m walking down a row of shops at O. R. Tambo International Airport, dragging my carry-on like a reluctant goat, when I feel something pull me. It feels like gravity. Only weaker. Like a strong draught. So I looked over my left shoulder and saw it through the display window. A belt curled into a tight fist, next to some shoes you would see on a guitarist in a Congolese band. It was one of those expensive designer shops that are well lit and have very rangy pale attendants who don’t open their mouths too wide while speaking. The light in the shop shone bright. A heavily bearded white man with a large scarf bundled around his neck held up a watch to inspect it. I stood at the window and stared at the belt through the window.
It was a belt like no other. Woven. It had all these colours running through it. The chrome buckle glowed like something at the very bottom of the sea not accustomed to natural light. It was a good looking belt and the price next to it validated it; USD 190. I threw two zeros against it converting it into Kenyan money; that’s 19K. For a belt. Truth is, I didn’t need another belt in my life. Nobody really needs another belt in their life. You need a good brown belt and a good black belt. I wasn’t ever going to end up at a fashion high-tea event at Zen Gardens. Or Concours d’Elegance. Those are not my ponds. It’s a belt Vinnie O would wear to hold his tight colourful shorts. Last year, when we were standing at the platform of a train station in Cognac, France, for the Remy Martin trip, a lady, white, wandered over to Vinnie and touched his arms while looking him over and said something like, “très très magnifique!” He was in this extravagant colourful Ankara blazer and these equally colourful shorts and designer loafers with a golden nose complete with this thing that looked like a small bag/purse. Everything he wore was deliberate and it matched with something. Even the French in their famed couture threw him appreciative looks. That will never be me. If anybody looks at me appreciatively, it will be to wonder, does a bird live in that man’s hat?
So I didn’t really need this belt. But I was deeply attracted to it. It was my doppelganger belt. The other thing is that I didn’t have loose money to buy this vanity belt. I had spent most of it on things and at this moment, I wished I had that Visa Infinite Credit Card that Stanchart had been convincing me to get. But I didn’t. I still haven’t. Because I fear credit cards. I fear that I might just buy things. Because I love shiny things. They make me thirsty. Then I want them. And this is not an emergency, nobody needs another belt if they already have a black and brown belt.
Inside, the bearded man was having an animated conversation with the attendant who had his right hand behind his back like a sommelier. That’s how you address rich people, like you are pouring them wine. The floor of the store looked like it had diamond shavings. Behind me a parade of very gaunt Arab-looking airline crew marched by in their crisp uniforms, led by the captain hidden behind mysterious aviators. I watched their reflection pass in the store’s mirror. I stood there for a while, staring at this belt while a major debate happened with the white fairy on my left shoulder and the black one on the other shoulder.
White Fairy (WF): You are a responsible person. You make sound decisions.
Black Fairy (BF): Yes, you are also a human being. A person. Reward yourself.
WF: You already did. You bought two pairs of jeans and two pairs of shoes. And socks you don’t need.
BF: Yes. But this belt. You will never find a belt like this anywhere!
WF: Yes, that’s because it’s 19K. Nobody needs a 19K belt. What’s this you’re tying for 19K?!
BF: Life. You will hate yourself if you don’t take it.
WF: There are plenty of reasons to hate yourself if you are looking; like your forehead, for starters.
BF: You can’t do anything about your forehead, but you can do something about this belt.
WF: This is not you. You are not the guy who ties this belt.
BF: And who do you suppose ties this belt?
WF: That bearded man inside – he looks like an explorer. He probably owns a yacht. And a Dachshund.
BF: Buy the damn belt.
WF: Just piss off.
So I walked away. I tore myself from the shop window and ran into the wave of travellers searching for their gates, their way out, their exit, only to be trapped again by the sky like flies on a cobweb. As I waited to board my flight, I couldn’t stop thinking about the belt. I used the free airport Wi-Fi to Google where belts came from and learnt that Ancient Egyptians used belts to tie their tunics and that a Russian inventor born 30,000 years ago on the eastern facing slopes of the Ural Mountains invented straps made of leather buckled together over fat people’s bulging belly buttons. I Googled ‘Ural Mountain’ to get a visual. It looked cold and jagged. A place of wild mountain goats and men who drink milk straight from the udder. I then read an old article written by a Cosmopolitan writer who made an argument about how she can look at a man’s shoes and belt before she starts dating a guy and know exactly how that relationship will end.
Belts are interesting. You can hang yourself with a belt. If you survive, you can discipline your child with a belt across their asses. Still on discipline, use it to tie your woman to the bedpost if she has been naughty. You tell someone, “buckle up,” to warn them of a rough patch ahead. A belt can be a path. You can stand in the bathroom and belt out a Sauti Sol tune that can make your neighbours complain in the Nyumba Kumi WhatsApp group. The divorced guy with two trousers from House 7B will write; “It’s not that we mind Sauti Sol, it’s your voice we mind.” You don’t need friends, not when your belt will be the only thing to tell you when you have added weight.
I thought about the belt every time I was dressing up. I would be validating my parking and suddenly, unprompted by anything, I’d think of it. This is not something you share with someone because they will think you are mad. Or spoilt. So I figured I’d ride the wave alone and it would go. But it didn’t. It was driving me crazy. Haunting me. I wanted that belt. It wasn’t going to change my life in any way. I wasn’t going to be a better person with that belt. My productivity wasn’t going to soar. It wasn’t going to give me immense happiness. But I still wanted it. I wanted it more because now I couldn’t get it. I don’t even remember the name of the store when I started asking people going down to SA to find it. All I remember is the man’s scarf and the attendant who wouldn’t open his mouth wide. That’s not much to go on.
Eventually, like a lover who got in a ship promising to come back and never did, I started forgetting about it. I embarked on a life without it. Surprisingly, you can get over anything. Now I only think about it once in a while in moments of weakness and when I do, it only echoes with a faraway ache.
And so when Tamms told me that she wanted these particular boots and not any other, I knew exactly how she felt. At 12, they must have these little sororities in school, where they discuss fashion and things. Maybe someone has those particular boots. And she wants to have a pair, to know how it feels to wear boots to the end of term school party, where they dress up and pretend they are women.
They are low-cut boots. Black. Wedgy sole. You can’t climb a tree in them, but you can kick in a door in them which is all you need boots for anyway, otherwise you might as well wear Jesus’s sandals. I don’t know the first place to buy female boots. I haven’t travelled anywhere this year where you can buy boots. We went to the usual stores in the usual malls, which had boots but they were not the boots she wanted.
I called my guy (I have a guy) in Westlands, called Mutinda. He’s rail thin and speaks in a slight street drawl so that you don’t ever say you misunderstood what he meant. He sells men’s clothes. He’s big on clothes. He will bring them to your office, in some swanky-ass designer duffle bag – a Gucci or Berluti. He will sit silently, drinking in the reception from behind his sunglasses, legs folded, looking like a jazz pianist. He calls these clothes “mali.” Niko na mali.
He asked around and said the guys who sell shoes don’t have them but they will keep looking around, but “would you like some khakis, I have some really nice ones?” I said, no, I didn’t want khakis. So, anyway, weeks passed, no boots. So, the one place left to look was Toi Market at Adam’s Arcade, in case you are from Runda and you are wondering. It’s what people who go for car boot sales call a “flea market.” Originally, that name was given to markets in Paris which specialized in shabby second-hand goods that might contain fleas. You will get anything from Toy Market. If you want it, someone has it in there. There are hats and sports gear, tights and belts, shoes and scarfs and if this guy doesn’t have it, he will call a guy who might have it. You have to search for things. To walk and ask. To try on. To squeeze through narrow corridors. To haggle. To walk and walk and walk and also to accept to go back home without what you are looking for but get something you thought you didn’t need. There are girls, many girls. Office girls holding skirts and tops up or against their waists. Girls in ngomas and girls with big Erika Badu-like headgear looking for shoes that match tops and tops that match their ambition. Same girls you see in bars and pubs and office boardrooms looking resplendent.
So, I took the kids. It’s hard enough shopping in a store in a mall. It’s harder walking around with a bored/ moody 6-year old and shopping with a 12-year old girl because the first thing you realize is that nobody wears the things you think are cool anymore. Not in 2019. (Or 2020). You quickly realize that your taste counts for very little, that you can only be allowed to pick out things that you can’t botch; like spoons and forks and maybe printing paper.
“Tamms, I think this is a really good shoe.” I say.
“They are not boots.”
“Yes I know, but look, they have this silver thing here.”
“I don’t really like it.”
The “really” here means there is a chance it can change to “like it.”
“What don’t you really like about it?”
“I just don’t.”
“OK. Is there any shoe you like here?”
“What about this one?” [A lovely open toe, something that says, I’m chill but I can also be rad].
“You don’t like the open toe look?”
“I don’t like the colour.”
“But you like the open toe thing?”
Next stall. They sell dresses. The lady-owner in her 50s is friendly. She calls Tamms “sweetie” a lot. She had been having uji in a blue plastic mug. Kim looks at it. I look at it. Kim looks at me. I look at him. We are thinking the same thing; boy, I could use that porridge. The woman has amazing patience, she keeps bringing out dress after dress that Tamms rejects and she’s unaffected, keeps smiling, keeps calling her “sweetie.” I feel sorry for her. I would be so tetchy, I’d snap at someone’s child: “OK, I’ve shown you 23 dresses! What the f*ck do you want? You want a robe like the one Jesus wore? Is that what you want, to walk on water?”
“What about this dress? It’s like a sundress. See, I like all these flowers.” I tell Tamms.
“I don’t like pink.”
“I thought you loved pink?”
“Yes, but this is bright pink. I like pink that isn’t so bright.”
“But we just saw another dress in the other stall that was not bright pink?”
“Yes, but I didn’t like the buttons on the front.”
Right. No buttons on the front and no bright pink.
Next stall. A lady in a headscarf shows us some jeans. I’m seated now. Because I’m tired of standing and I’m bored. And I’m tired of being helpful and encouraging. I’m also trying not to be irritated because surely, is Kim going to break his voice as we search for the damned shoes? From behind a curtain she disappears to try many pairs of jeans. Every time she comes out we look up hopefully, as if finally there is white smoke. She tries about 300 pairs. And she doesn’t like a single one. Kim says, “I’m bored.” I tell him, “Me too. What do we do?” He says, “I want to go home.” I say, “Fine, do you know where to take matatus?” He says, “What?”
“They don’t have white jeans?” Tamms says.
“You wanted white jeans?”
I see my son staring at something and when I follow his gaze, he’s looking at some white folks shopping for clothes in the opposite stall. They are also looking at jeans and dresses. Toi Market knows no race. We eventually find some white jeans. They are the distressed type, but obviously not as distressed as I am. Problem is, they are too short because she’s now a tall girl. A tall girl who wants her boots and white jeans. The jeans aren’t so good. Not to her. It’s clear now that we can’t find the boots. Or the type of white jeans. A lady from one of the kiosks we had been to finds us and brings her a dress. I love it but I curb my enthusiasm because I’ve been hurt before. I could wear this dress. I could sit on a balcony in it and read a book and drink wine. Or host a bunch of girls over, opening bottle after bottle of wine and talking about this new foundation I discovered.
She tries it on. It’s a perfect dress that fits her very well. It’s just above her knees but not too tatty. It’s blue and short and has a bare back. I think she looks magnificent.
“You look gorgeous,” I tell her. Kim is resting his head on my lap. I wake his ass up. “She looks gorgeous, right?”
He ignores me and goes back to resting his head on my lap. He doesn’t care. He’s done. This is child abuse, he must think.
I can tell she doesn’t like it but she doesn’t know how to tell me (again) that my taste sucks.
“You don’t like it?”
She grimaces and shakes her head. I swallow hard and say, “it’s okay. You can try another one.”
She tries on another pair of jeans and another top. Kim says, “Can I play YouTube on your phone?” I ask him, “Why didn’t you carry your gadget?” He says he forgot. I shrug. He places his head on my lap. After two hours of this retail musical chairs, I’m irritated. And a bit snappy. And tired. Tamms isn’t one to complain. She isn’t fussy. She communicates with silence. If you don’t watch her body language you will miss her story. She would make a good undercover agent. I can tell she’s disappointed even though we got a few things that she miraculously loves but we don’t get these beloved boots.
A guy tells us to come back the next day. I know I’m not coming back the next day if I have forgotten one of my kidneys here. I’m not doing this again soon. I need therapy. But I recall how that belt made me feel. How I thought about it daily. So, the following week my small sis – June – agrees to accompany us back to Toy Market. On top of being able to negotiate better, she might know a secret language of 12-year old girls and what floats their boats.
Kim and I sit in one of the stalls for children – trying out his own clothes – and wait as they do their rounds. After an hour, they come back with a bagful of clothes that she likes and the boots! The boots were found! I look at them. They have lace ups with a zipper on the side. Rectangle heels tapering at the bottom. They are normal boots to me but to her they must be a statement. I bet she’s planned what to wear them with. I don’t know. But what I know is that I need a long break before I go shopping again because shopping with a 12-year old is like trying to blow air into your car tyre with your mouth.