I’m seated in the back office of a store at Two Rivers Mall and I’m talking to Wendy Karira about her breasts. This conversation wouldn’t have been odd at all had it not been sabbath. Because I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to talk about breasts on this day. She is particular on how she would like me to address them, because initially I was calling them boobs. She had said no, don’t call them boobs, call them breasts. I said, why do you get to call them boobs and I call them breasts and she laughed and said, “Because I have a special relationship with them, we are like girls. We share many private moments. It’s intimate for us.” Sigh. Fine. Breasts it is. She also tells me that you can have big breasts and not be a fat woman. But you can also be a fat woman and have small breasts. The word “fat” pings and zings off the walls of her office like a bullet looking for flesh to embed itself in. It’s an impolite word but she isn’t afraid to utter it because when she was forming as a woman she heard it all in reference to herself. People called her fat. But not only was she fat, she also has always had massive boobs….er…breasts, right from class 8 when she was, what, 13-years old?
She hands me a chart of bra cup sizes so that I see what she means. The chart goes from the smallest cup size, A, right down to the largest – KK. I recognise one that I know, DD, and not for any reason other than those things you know but you never quite know why and how. Just like you know that a group of flamingos is called a “flamboyance” but you can never remember why you get to keep this information in your head. Wendy is cup size 36K. That’s a size above the largest pair of breasts anyone can have. They are big, heavy and imposing and she has no choice but to carry them everywhere and the bad news is that she can’t check them in and pick them up at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.
“When you have big boobs, it’s not the same as having a big bum,” she says. “There is a special kind of shame that seems to come with having big boobs. Men shame you. Women shame you. People think you must have eaten a lot to have big boobs.”
She knows the struggles of big breasts and it started early, as early as standard eight for her. It’s wearing the oversized tops. Wearing a tight tee-shirt underneath to squash them. Buying a smaller size of camisole to squeeze them. Big floaty sweaters. She carried shame on her chest. “I’ve never been a small girl,” she says. “The words ‘slim’ or ‘slender’ have never been used to describe me. [Chuckles] In my family we have the chubby gene. We are those guys who smell a burger and add weight,” she chortles. As a general rule I try not to laugh at chubby jokes but that’s funny and I laugh too. “We are four sisters and all of us are chubby. I remember when growing up people would look at us and say, “Eish, lakini si you guys eat a lot?’ Imagine that’s not even how it works out. It has never been about food all the time, it’s about the genes.”
That, of course, came with self esteem issues in her teenage years. She thought she was an ugly duckling. It didn’t help that her own mother would tell her that she was “dark and ugly.” She tells me of a time when she was a teenager that her mom found her looking at herself in the mirror and said, “What are you doing wasting time standing there, looking at yourself, you are dark and ugly. Stop standing there and go pick eggs from the pen.”
“You know how bad that sounds in Kikuyu?” she asks me. She says a few words in Kikuyu. I suspect that sounds bad in any language, really. “I laughed at her words but words like that stay with you and they stay deep. I also happened to have really bad hair. I have that kind of hair that grows in patches.”
“Like pubic hair,” I say and she laughs and says, “Yes, how do you come up with that?” And I mentioned to her that some time back, must have been one of the Movember months when men grow a beard to raise awareness of prostate cancer, I tried growing one and one of my friends asked me why I was growing pubic hair on my face, so I have never tried it again. [Bafflingly, I still keep that friend. Clear case of masochism].
And so in high school when her breasts really started growing she wasn’t too perturbed because her self-esteem was already so low at the time. She thought she was ugly and big, what could big breasts do to further ruin her? “I thought this was my script. That all the bad things would be coming to me, like I didn’t deserve beauty or see it in myself because all people saw was a dark, ugly, big chick with big boobs.”
“You are actually not that dark and you are certainly not ugly,” I say. “I mean, I am dark.” (That’s her in the picture up there, by the way, not me.)
“I know!” she says. “But when you are a teenager you believe anything people tell you, especially if that someone is your own mother. By the way, Lizzie -” she calls out to her younger sister who is seated at the till – “the other day I reminded Mom that she called me fat and ugly and she completely denied it, imagine that.”
“What did she say?” I ask.
“She said I should not let that devil in me out, haha…. and when I insisted she was ready to let me have it. My mom is that woman – tough, very tough, and intimidating, she will make you back up.” At Kenya High, Wendy’s breasts got in the way. They had grown in such a way that they couldn’t let her participate in some sporting activities. Cross country was out of the question, for instance. That only left swimming and boardgames. Her breasts became a fixture and she always tried to hide them to fit in. “You could say that my puberty was a life I led hiding my breasts. My puberty was one long secret.”
That’s not the only secret she was keeping. She also kept where they lived a secret. She would say that they lived in Banana when they actually lived on a farm in Tigoni, Limuru. They lived on a rambling 10 acre piece of land, in a six bedroom house with a breakfast room, a dining room and three chimneys. Their compound had big trees and rolling greenery like the ones you see on Teletubbies. They kept chicken and cows and goats and sheep and even horses at some point. They were farm girls. They worked on the farm. Whenever they came home her father would send the farm-hands away and all the work on the farm would be theirs. So they cleaned the pig sty. They slaughtered chicken and packed the parts. They herded cows. They knew the behaviour of cows and the temperament of goats. Wendy would look at a goat and know that it was preggers. The goat couldn’t even lie to her. She just knew. She could slaughter a chicken in record time and cut it up into the exact pieces needed. She could tell the sharpness or a knife by looking at it. Then she would sharpen it. They didn’t have running water, so they had to go down the slopes of a hill carrying a heavy water pump to pump water, and they all hated this chore. She drove a tractor. She could midwife a cow, which sometimes meant sticking her hand down it’s birth canal. They were not only girls, they were boys.
I don’t know what Kenya High was like, but this is something you never said you did during holidays. “Not with the posh girls from other parts of Nairobi,” she says. Not with the Lavington girls whose fathers were lawyers and doctors. “As a result you didn’t feel good enough, you always felt that others had got it better in life,” she says. “Now I hear people who say they want to buy a big piece of land and farm and I say, ‘Oh my God, there is no way in hell I’m going back to live on any farm. No thank you! I want to shower with chlorinated water, I don’t want to know why a cow won’t stop sneezing and I don’t want to ever wonder why the dogs won’t stop barking at night. Hapana.” We laugh.
“My mother had a food kiosk in the Community area of Upper Hill which they ran with Dad,” she continues. “It was a kibanda and sometimes she would say, ‘I want you girls to prepare 500 samosas,’ and we would do it and do it fast. We worked. We did what boys would struggle doing and I think such things prepare you for the future. I can get dirty.”
It helped or it didn’t help that living on the farm meant that they were secluded. It was just her and her two sisters. “The feeling of being big and big-breasted only became a thing when I interacted with other students during school days.” Her sisters and cows and goats and pigs and thankfully these animals never judge anyone. Well, not all. I think sheep are a bit judgmental, in my opinion. There is a way a sheep looks at you like it thinks it can do better than you, that it’s just a mistake that it was born a sheep, as if it can open a bottle of soda with its teeth. Of course guys from Loresho would think this odd, because where do they see sheep apart from the lamb chops on their dinner plates?
I think this is also the point that I let you, dear readers (sounds like Reader’s Digest), know that I’m wearing a bra. One of the conditions Wendy asked for in the interview was for me to wear prosthetic breasts held in a bra for the whole duration of the interview so that I “know what it feels like to be a very big breasted woman.” The prosthetic breasts are her size, 36K. Her breasts are four kilograms in total. That’s two kilograms a pop. (No pun, I swear). How does it feel to carry four kilograms in a bra? Well, for starters my back is already killing me and I’m only 25 minutes into the interview. The strap is slicing into my t-shirt. Because I don’t know what to do with them sometimes I unconsciously end up sort of rubbing them, like you would Aladdin’s lamp, as I tell her, “So tell me about the part of high school, again.”
My children are in the store across- Leo Salon – where Tamms is waiting for Kim as he gets a haircut. At some point they will come back and find me in that room wearing big breasts and a bra and I will tell Tamms, “This is an experiment, I think I look good, don’t I look good?” and she will grimace and say no, and Kim will at some point come and casually lean on my breasts by placing his elbow on them. I don’t know how this scenario has ruined my children, I can only wait for about ten years to see the damage.
Wendy’s self-esteem suffers. She ignored boys. She was made to believe that boys go for a certain profile, so she didn’t bother. She finished high school but didn’t do well because she didn’t expect much of herself. “It’s amazing how the way you view yourself, especially with regard to your body, affects how you do things and what you expect of yourself.”
Her mother was furious at her dismal results. She asked her how she could get a C-plus when she could clearly tell that they were not wealthy, that they were struggling? She told her that she should take a secretarial course and get a job as a secretary, “Hopefully the boss will marry you,” she said. “You know, I think my mom was going through some stuff during this period. I don’t know what, but I think there was something happening with her. I think she would tell me I’m ugly so that it deters me from getting interested in boys and although it was successful, it also ruined my confidence.”
She wanted to study law, but of course couldn’t get into uni with those grades, so her father paid for her to do a paralegal course at SPS which was afterwards renamed Inoorero College (it means a sharpening thing, apparently). There she started dating cautiously. “When you start dating you realise that your self-esteem and confidence is so low that in a relationship you keep doing the heavy work; you are the one who calls and you are the one who suggests dates, the man just sits back because he feels like he’s doing you a favour. The bad thing is that you don’t see it. You feel like your options are so limited and looking back I feel so sad knowing what I know now, you know?”
One day during an internship her pal tells her that there is a cute guy she would like to introduce her to. So they go and they find the cute guy and he has a bit of an attitude, he doesn’t say anything to her, he just sits there, acting hot, working on a computer and ignoring Wendy. Wendy is pissed, and so when she is leaving she walks up to his desk, writes her phone number on a piece of paper and tells him, “When you stop feeling hot and you feel like talking to someone, call me.” Two months later their landline rings (Millenials are thinking; what is that? Is this a typo?) and she picks and a guy says, “Hi, is this Wendy?”
“This is Waweru.”
Waweru catches feelings. “Kwani how many strangers do you give your phone number to?”
“Hold up, I don’t know you, which Waweru is this, if you don’t say who you are I’m hanging up!” Now irritated, perhaps because he had practiced a smooth opening gambit which she had now ruined he says, “ You wrote your phone number on a piece of paper and asked me to call you!”
“Ohhhh!” She laughs. “It was a joke. You were not meant to call! Ngai! Ha-ha.”
Well, Waweru eventually laughed last because he ended up marrying her. At 21-years. (Waweru is that guy who starts early). But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Their first was at Dancing Spoon, that restaurant at 20th Century. She got there late and Waweru gave her lip about time management and she was like, “Dude, do you know I had to take two mats to get here. I’m from Tigoni!”
“Kwani where was he from?” I ask Wendy.
“Loresho.” She laughs. “Which farm had he been to? By the way in school it was only the girls from Loresho who were allowed to read Romeo and Juliet out loud because they had better diction and accents.”
“That’s bull,” I say, adjusting my breasts. When you wear the wrong bra you breasts keep moving, I’m discovering.
When she graduated from SPS it’s Waweru who showed up for graduation because her mom said she wouldn’t close her kiosk for a diploma. And when she asked her mom for money to do a degree she asked, “How many samosas do you think I will sell for you to do a degree?” And so it’s Waweru who paid for her degree.
“This guy was earning like 10K at that time,” she says of Waweru,” “I think he used to take loans for me. Aki I have never paid him.”
“Chicks don’t pay you back.”
She laughs. “No, we don’t.”
When she was 20 she ran away from home and started life sharing a room with a girl in South B and learned the art of floral arrangement from a hawker in Westlands where she would go every day at 6am. Then she opened her own flower business in 1998 and did it until 2003. In between, she would stop uni to give birth. I ask if they ever discussed her body issues with her husband at the beginning, what did he think?
“It has never really been a thing, imagine. I think he’s a boob guy,” she says. “By the way Biko, how does this work, are boob guys just boob guys or can they also be bum guys?”
I laugh say, “Hang on, let me adjust my bra strap, it’s pressing my heart….” She laughs as I adjust my boobs. God, they are too much work.
“Most boob guys are not bum guys and vice versa. But you can also be a bum guy be a boob guy. It boils down to personal preference really, not a science. Just like some men like slender women, some curvy women, some like light-skinned women, others dark women, some like women with short hair, others long hair.”
She nods. “And what are you?”
“Oh, I’m a bum guy. But it’s not by choice. I suspect it’s geographic, this thing, because where I come from most of us are bum guys. Something in that water.”
“Waweru is a boob guy, for sure,” she says.
“Of course he is. A guy with a name like Waweru can only be a boob guy. That and a guy called Kinyua. I just can’t see a Ndirangu being a boobs guy to be honest.”
She has five kids; 20, 17, 15, 9 and 5 years old. It’s only when she had her third child that she realised that her breasts were there to stay. She would go to Gikomba to find bras that fit because nobody catered for her size. She would either get hand-me downs or send someone who travelled abroad. She got into formal employment; worked for NIC Bank, for Stanchart (Diva account) and then she got into retail – Deacons – where she worked for three years as GM before she was let go. She was distraught.
“Employment is so comfortable and so deceptive. Having a salary is very comforting, and all of a sudden I didn’t have one. Now, there are these bras I used to buy in Gikomba called Tango and I remember when I was at Deacons we couldn’t get my size and so I emailed the company called Panache that makes them and they sent a catalogue and that story died. Long after I had been let go by Deacons a gentleman called Lee Newsome emails me from the company and I tell him I left but I can refer you to someone at Deacons and he asks me, ‘Are you the one who needs these bras or is it them?’ and I tell him, “Well, I don’t have the money to start a bra business blah blah blah…” and he says, ‘Listen, businesses are not started by money, they are started by a need.’ He asks, ‘Have you been to the UK?” I say, ‘No.” He says, ‘Do this, come and see what we do here and what we have and if for nothing else, we will give you a few free samples for yourself. So I told my Waweru that I was going to the UK and he says, “You are going where? Si you just got retrenched?” I tell him about Lee and he says, “I’m coming with you.” So we went and did a bra training session with this big brand. Now Waweru knows all about bras, he can tell if you are wearing a bad bra.”
Hmm, I wonder how one can use that superpower, I think to myself.
Back from the UK, she sits on the idea for a while, still whining about losing her job. She remembers the feeling of wearing a bra at Panache and thinking, “This is how every woman should feel!” So when Two Rivers Mall was getting interested tenants she pitched the idea even though she didn’t have capital and she was stumped when they agreed to give her a shop on the first floor. So she calls Waweru and says, “I got a shop at Two Rivers Mall” and he’s like “A shop? What shop?” and she says “I’m starting that bra business,” and he’s like, “What, Wendy! How can you commit to a shop when you don’t have money? Where will you borrow the capital from?” and she says, “From you.”
“I will pay him every last cent,” she says.
“Of course, you will,” I mumble.
“You don’t believe I will pay?”
“No, I don’t. You won’t pay back.”
She says, laughing, “But I have given him children!”
I roll my eyes.
My Curves Lingerie Store opened on the ground floor of Two Rivers Mall. The first tenants before They sell all manner of bras for women of all sizes and shapes, women who love their bodies and their curves. They also have swimwear and sportswear. “A good bra is very important as you can tell because you are wearing a bad bra.” She tells me. “A good bra, especially when you are bustier, other than make your girls/boobs look good can alleviate back and shoulder pain and improve your posture. It’s important for confidence, posture and comfort.”
Don’t I know. I can’t imagine doing anything with these heavy breasts. Even typing an email might be a problem, I suspect. Or running with them. I’ve only had them for slightly over an hour and I’m already feeling dizzy. “You don’t know how important a good bra is until you wear the wrong bra. I have women who come and fit a bra and throw theirs in the bin immediately.” She says.
Wendy would never have seen herself selling lingerie in a million years. It’s amazing that her business sprung from something that she was most insecure about. She doesn’t only see it as a shop that sells bras and lingerie; she’s selling confidence in a cup. She says, “My experiences with body issues and big boobs has also helped me be a more sensitive motherhood. Because now I know that words have great weight and what we tell our children will affect them. We need to affirm our children. Positive words build them.” Then she adds. “I know how my mom must sound to you now, but imagine from her I have learned the virtue of hard work. She is in the States now. I told her that I opened a bra/ lingerie shop and she was like, ‘Ate bra?’ Ha-ha. She doesn’t think this is a real business. She believes that one has to exert themselves physically, do crazy hours, make 500 samosas. My mom owns working hard, getting it done come what may, and my experience as a teenager has turned me into a worker. I don’t mind going hard.”
Her daughter who is 15-years old now is a size 32G. She tells her that she has to work with what she has. They are hers. And she has to handle them with confidence. “Girls always wander in here to shop with their mothers, girls with big boobs, and I immediately see myself in them – I see how they slouch because they are instinctively trying to hide their boobs. I see the ones with confidence issues already and I tell their mothers, ‘Let me have a word with her,’ and so we come in here and I talk to them.”
“What do you tell them?”
“Everything I have told my daughter. I tell them about confidence, that they have to accept themselves for who they are. They are unique in their own way, and that if they wear the right bra, they will be fine. That they should always stand up straight, that having big or small breasts is not an issue.”
In October Wendy will be going to girls’ schools under a program called My Body My Victory, with one of her suppliers. They will talk to them about body positivity and also talk about bras and fit some. They will be told that regardless of your body you can make something of yourself. That you shouldn’t place a premium on your looks or your size. That you are special. But first you have to believe it before someone else does.
Well, what I believe I should be doing now is to finish this interview and get off these damned breasts. I try to unclasp the damned bra but I can’t seem to be able do it, which is ironic because as a man I sometimes unclasp a bra with one hand and in one fluid motion. It’s a rare talent. Wendy helps me remove it. I hear women saying how they can never wait to get home to remove their bras and I could never wrap my head around that but having those 4kgs breasts off me, my God, that was freedom. I breathed better. I felt better. My back didn’t hurt.
Wendy said that a good bra “doesn’t make you want to remove your bra in traffic at the end of the day. A good bra makes you less angry at the end of the day.”
That made sense. If you are a man and you are reading this and thinking, “Ah, this story is about bras, not for me. Well, turns out it is when your woman suffers a lousy bra the whole day and comes home and is always in such a bad mood and you are thinking, ‘can I ever do anything right in your eyes?”
It’s the bra, stupid.
PS: It’s the birthday of one of my editors here. Happy birthday to Linda Were! Guys, please if you find a typo just hush for today at least, we don’t want Linda feeling some type of way on her birthday, do we?