She weighed 98 kgs in Form One. As it turns out there was a girl in school – a Form three – who weighed 102 kgs. What was remarkable was that in Form 2 she toppled that girl’s record; her weight shot up to 104 kgs. If you are 104 kgs in high school, a boarding school, your weight is like the flag that flutters very high up a pole in the main square. They used to call her ‘heavyweight champion’. Or just Heavyweight. Some school cooks called her Heavy. Cooks! And these were cooks who couldn’t even cook well. The process of knowing your weight was something purely out of a ColdWar handbook. There was a room called The Nutrition Room. From the Careers Office, you went down the corridor, past the big pillars that ran alongside a flower garden with an old ‘no walking here’ sign that would cost you severe punishment if you did because she went to a school that tended the flowers with more care than the girls, then you reached a dead end. If you looked left at the dead end you’d see a grey door. That was the Nutrition Room.
All girls who were deemed to be overweight were often asked to go to this room for guidance on how to check their weight. It was constantly dark because they never opened the window. If you took a broom and beat the curtain, bats would surely fly off. Bats and crickets and generations of mosquitoes. It had a wooden desk, one wooden chair, and a weighing machine, a big one, the type they used in warehouses to weigh big bags of grain. This was the same room that would supposedly usher in great health for the girls of the high school. It was manned by the head of nutrition whose job, apart from weighing girls and advising them on how to lose weight, was to make sure that the whole school’s diet was nutritious. She was called Mrs. Pamela but people called her Madam Josef. If you know anything about World War 2, you must know Dr Josef Mengele, Hitler’s crony. He was a horrible man and an even worse doctor. He conducted medical research on Jewish prisoners in concentration camps. He favoured identical twins, or people with two different eye colours or dwarfs or Jews with physical abnormalities. You need to go to the Auschwitz museum in Poland. I went there a few years back. You will be horrified at what man can do to a fellow man. People were sobbing in the group tours. Go and see Mendele’s handiwork, it’s the devil’s masterpiece.
So anyway when she asks me if I know Dr. Josef Mengele, I jump off my seat and say, “Yes! The Nazi guy!” She nodded calmly as if saying, “OK OK, correct. You will get a cookie after this.” Madam Pamela or Madam Josef wore these owlish wire glasses and long dull dresses that swept the floor. She was skinny and willowy, with high and sharp cheekbones that poked against her face as if demanding to be let out of her body. For a skinny person, she walked slowly, holding up her long dresses while at it, as if she was a princess attending a ball.
“She would sit upright in her chair in this room, like really upright -”
“Like a mummy,” I say.
“Yeah, ha-ha. She would sit like this.” She sits very upright, staring straight ahead, like she is really constipated. Or she just bit a stone in her dengu and she is listening for a broken tooth. She sits there, staring at nothing. I’m chuckling at her demonstration because it’s gone on longer than it should. I have gotten the point but she sits there, ramrod straight, I wait for her to finish. I think she’s holding her breath. She could pass out. She could keel over slowly from asphyxiation and fall over her fruit salad with honey and nuts, then I will have to push her off it and finish her nuts. No nuts should ever go to waste because a budding actress died during an audition. I look around the cafe – we are at Java Astrol – to see if other customers are staring at us thinking, is that girl dead and why is that guy just sitting there chuckling like an idiot, he should eat her nuts. If I’m going to leave this interview with any image, it will be of this demonstration, I think.
“Anyway, so she would sit like that in her office.” She says when her soul finally re-enters her body. Colour floods back to her cheeks.
After weighing yourself, she would record your weight on some excel-like sheet that had your weight recordings since you were a baby. She would miraculously bend her [long?] neck and disapprovingly pore over the results from over her glasses. Then she’d look up and a thick, heavy sigh would escape her mouth. “Have you been eating right?” She’d ask.
“I was tempted to tell her that, no, I have a pizza oven at the back of the dormitories. I built it myself. I make Hawaiian pizzas there every evening,” she rolls her eyes. “It was a boarding school, I didn’t have the option of eating anything apart from what we were served in the school cafeteria! She always spoke of eating small portions, but our portions were already so small that if you ate the small portion of this portion you’d be fasting.” I’m giggling uncontrollably. I can’t help myself. She’s hilarious. She reminds me of this whacky girl called Abigail Arunga who has a most rabid sense of humour.
She didn’t have a problem with her weight. It’s the school that had a problem with her weight. It was a Catholic school. “I grew up thinking that perhaps God doesn’t like fat people.”
“Of course, God is a vegan.” I chime in.
“But there are fat vegans,” she protests.
“Are there?” I ask. “I don’t go out often.”
“They are in Milan.”
“Ha-ha. Never been to Milan.”
“Never.” I say. “It sounds stuffy. The kind of place people order a drink – and Covid – while standing on your toes.”
“Not dramatic at all.”
She was happy with her weight. In fact, she liked her weight in Form One because it made her look older and the older girls kept off her face while her peers were being pushed around, ordered around. “I was sitting with Form 3s and 4s during meals. They had a corner, their corner, where they sat during all meals. It was unheard of to sit with them unless you were a Form three or Four.”
“How were you invited to the big table, did you have to sacrifice a white baby lamb?”
“No, ha-ha. Actually, sometimes to sit at a table you just have to walk up to the table and pull a chair.”
“Is that what you did?”
“My cousin was in Form 3, she invited me. It got me stinky looks in the beginning because I was upsetting the world order of coolness but I didn’t care because when you are a big girl all your life, stinky looks don’t scare you.”
She was popular in high school. “I have always been popular. You know why?”
“Because popularity is based on the thin premise – see what I did there? – that coolness is about looks. All the cool girls in my school were beautiful Cinderella-like beauties who clustered together like bacteria -”
I roar with laughter. Lady on the next table turns from her laptop to look at me.
“You need not be brainy or have a great personality, all you needed is to have beautiful genes. I didn’t make the cut, rather my face did but my body didn’t, but I had dealt with that kind of racism in my primary school, I knew how those cliques worked and I knew the kind of girls who belonged to them. They had insecurities of coolness. The only insecurity I had was that I had thick ankles. So thick that when I wore shoes – no matter what kind – they spilled over the shoes. I still do. Can I show you my ankles, Biko?”
“Please, I can’t wait.”
We bend under the table. Yes, indeed. I can report that she has some pair of thick ankles on her. Also, she’s wearing the cleanest and whitest Ngomas I have ever seen on anyone. A walking Bata billboard.
“Have you met men who have a thick-ankle fetish?”
It’s her turn to roar; Biko 1: Thick Girl 40.
“That’s the story. I will come to that, little Bunny.”
If anyone else would have called me Little Bunny, I would have felt some type of way. Little Bunny? Big floppy ears, beady eyes, fragile? But somehow, the way she said it, it felt like a big compliment. Little Bunny sipped his masala tea with a grin.
Once she sat at the cool table and made the girls laugh to tears, they would see her carrying her plate across the dining hall and beckon her to sit with them. So she did. But she also would sit with the rest of the plebeians. The working class. The blue collars. The ones who grew up in hamlets by lazy rivers with no names. The ones with only two uniforms. Who were never visited. “In a way, I was these people. I wasn’t a cool girl. I was just a girl who was cool enough to draw people in with my personality. I hid little parts of me behind my jokes and my enthusiasm. You could never find me feeling low. I don’t attend pity parties even now. If you are moaning about something, I will snap you out of it quickly.”
“Would you say you are brassy?”
She says, “Wait, let me Google what that means before I answer.”
Ha-ha-ha. I really need to stop laughing at everything this chick says, I tell myself.
She reads out loud. “ Brassy, very confident and aggressive in a loud, sometimes annoying manner. Hmm.” She puts away her phone in her bag because if she leaves it on the table I might steal it. “Am I confident? Yes. Am I aggressive? Yes. Am I annoying? I’m sure to some people yes. I am annoying because I don’t stand in line. I don’t know how to play nice, or how to do as I’m told. I’m not that girl. I question things.”
“Did you ever question Madam Josef?”
“No. I feared her. Everybody did. She kept a flying broom behind her door. But one time I told my dad that I was being subjected to losing weight by the school and he was mad. He said”, she bangs the table with her fist. A spoon jumps up in fright. “Why didn’t you tell me about this? How long has this been going on?? He was furious. He matched to the school and demanded to speak to the principal. He told them he’d sue them for emotional abuse. That’s how I stopped going to the Nutrition Office. I was in Form Two, I think. Yes, Form Two, second term.”
“Tell me about your dad. What kind of a guy is he?”
“Do you know the Kamikaze, Biko?”
“The Japanese suicide pilots?”
“Yes, now picture one with a really thin neck”
I’m rolling on the floor.
“My dad will blow up anything for me. I have never met any man who has no fear like my dad. You know people talk about courage, they don’t know courage until they meet my dad. He is practically fearless.”
“What has he done that was fearless?”
“What has he done that was fearless? Let’s see. First, he beat poverty. I mean real poverty. You know the poverty that an orphan in a village would endure? That kind. No meal a day kinda poverty. Even through poverty he dreamt he would come to Nairobi and be rich. He came to Nairobi, and he became rich. He became rich not from stealing or conning people or supplying fiction to the government but from good old honest work. He’s charming, that’s his secret. He knows what everybody wants. He went for a woman who was above his social class and married her. Then he left her after two years and married my mother who was also above his social class. That’s courage, Biko.”
“He wasn’t done. He got the three of us and took us to very good schools. You can tell I have had a great education, Biko, can’t you?”
“From the moment you sat down.”
“Ha-ha. We all went to great universities. Abroad. Fine, we all had scholarships ha-ha but still…My brothers were very good at sports. I was very good with my brain.” She winks. I giggle. By now I hate myself but I don’t care anymore. It’s like stress-eating, you can’t stop, you are helpless. “Dad then built a successful business, brick by brick, bottom up, an uneducated but schooled man, while acquiring and maintaining a lot of class. Then when my mother was sick and dying, he stopped going to work to wash her and feed her and when western medicine failed he traversed this country, looking for alternative medicine men, herbal medicine men, until he found one who cured her. That’s love but great love requires great courage. My dad has fought for himself his whole life and then he fought for us and my mom. Isn’t that courage?”
“It is. Great love requires great courage. I love that!” I say. “Can I see a picture of this great lover?”
She scrolls her phone and shows me a recent picture of her dad. He’s at a restaurant, at a dinner table. He’s smirking because he’s the centerpiece. She doesn’t look like him, all right.
“He was turning 65.” She tells me.
In university, her weight ballooned, especially during winter. Abroad is a horror story that she hates to recount in detail. She had very few friends. She was very lonely. And cold. “Europeans don’t have a welcome doormat.” For the first time her self-esteem was shaken. “I was smart and charming, I knew it. I could sing. I could also play the guitar but I just never seemed to settle into the social system. The men I would run into didn’t interest me because they saw me as a fetish.”
“You promised to tell me about the men with ankle fetish.”
“Ha-ha and I keep my promises.”
So she graduates and starts packing her bags to come back home but then her daddy [Her father, ie,] calls her and gives her a long spiel about Masters, how important it is to stay there and get done with it. “I’m unhappy here!” She cried. He told her home wasn’t going anywhere. So she unpacked her bags again and stayed on for another two years.
“By this time I was obese. I didn’t even bother standing on the weighing scale because none was built for me. I was big, Biko… as in BIG. My BMI was for a teenage elephant. I was so big that when I sat I would immediately start thinking and planning for the process of standing up. Because standing up normally was painful for me. I had to hold onto something to stand up, I couldn’t just stand up on my own. I was constantly sick. Something was constantly aching. Or not working. Before I came down I was advised to buy a bra because apparently, Kenya didn’t have a bra for thick women that time. So you know what I did?”
“I decided to come with half the bras I had. To motivate me to lose weight. Because I was going to die. I had been told by my doctor several times.”
“How many kilos did you weigh?”
“I was over 260 pounds.”
Oh, I hate when people use pounds. Or miles. Does it hurt one to just use kilos? Saves everybody the math. I converted it from my phone. That’s like 120 kilos! That’s massive.
“That’s massive!” I say.
“Yeah. I only wore adjusted dresses. Big floaty things.”
“Which you used to float to Kenya.”
“Yeah. The reaction of everybody when they first saw me after six years was of shock. I had stopped sending pictures back home after my third year because they couldn’t fit in the mail.” She chuckles at her own joke, her shoulders trembling in the process. “It’s like they had seen a ghost. A big ghost. My dad’s hands couldn’t embrace me fully. I stayed in the house for months, starving myself, eating like an insect. My dad is a frugal man who thinks if he buys a luxury car he will not see heaven’s gates, so he’d drive this small car. I couldn’t fit in the front seat. We tried. That’s how big I was.”
“You don’t speak about your mother.”
“You haven’t asked about my mother. You just want to know about the men who worshipped my ankles.”
“How is your mother, Linda*?”
“She is fine. We are not close. Everytime I tell people that, they gasp. Because we all have to be close to our mothers, right? I’m not close to my mom. It’s not like we fell out or anything but my mother has never been the nurturing type and that’s also okay. She was just not into…mothering, you know what I mean? It wasn’t that she didn’t care, as I understood mothers like her later in life, it’s just that she wasn’t invested in the duties and emotions that mothers are expected to invest in.”
“What was she invested in?”
“I dunno…in herself and the things that moved her. Mothering wasn’t one of them. My dad filled in both roles.”
“Do you think she was – is – a better wife?”
She crosses her hands across her bosom. [ I like when people say bosom. It sounds so responsible.] She chews her bottom lip in thought. Then she says, “I wouldn’t marry my mom.”
“I dunno, Biko. Forget the mothering thing, or lack of it but I always felt like she was just….there. Uninspired with domesticity, with life in general. She seemed unable to plug into life fully. When I think of my mother I think of someone who is…listless.”
“Yes. Listless. Lacking in drive, energy. Just there. I’ve never known what makes her tick. She’d refuse to go out with us for a family lunch on Sundays. Or just a trip to somewhere. She’d say, oh you guys run along, I’m tired, I will stay in and sleep.”
“Maybe after you guys left she’d sigh and say, finally! Then wear her dress and wedges and leave the house. Maybe go have a cocktail somewhere and fantasize how one day she will run away from you guys.”
She laughs. “Or maybe she had a lover. My mom is very secretive, she is the type to have a lover. I wouldn’t blame her, though. I don’t blame anyone for having a lover in marriage.”
“But you never been married, how would you know?”
“I have been with two married men.”
“Are they the guys who had a fetish for your ankles?” I sit up dramatically, “Is this finally the story?”
She laughs. “So I will let you know that there are men who love big women, Biko. Many men actually. When my weight dropped to 224 pounds and I was finally able to come out of the house, I would get hit on by a whole lot of men. I once dated a man who, I don’t know if I can say this on a respectable blog like yours…”
“My blog isn’t an SDA blog, go ahead.”
She stalls. “No, but you can’t publish this. It’s a bit personal.”
She tells me the story and my mouth slowly forms an O.
“You are lying!”
“Is this guy still alive? That’s a dangerous activity.”
She laughs. “He is. He works for a big bank as a big boss.”
“Bankers are filthy. Wearing a tie the whole day does that to you.”
Anyway, she tells me that, “these two married men I was seeing were solid men. They were good men. They weren’t seeing me because they are bad men, or bad people, to be honest but they came for refuge, for stability. One of them would never talk about his wife or his marriage but I knew his marriage was in trouble because he would come over after work and just sit and have tea – he never took alcohol- and we would talk about work and life. He was funny and lively and such a soul but everytime I saw him to his car you could see his personality change. He was suddenly withdrawn and unhappy. Like he was going to face the hangman. It used to make me so sad. We broke up when he relocated. The second married guy always talked about his marriage. He was greatly unhappy. He was constantly stressed about money. I’d lend him money often. He was attentive and caring. These men were like boys again, like children, when they were in my house. They were not corporate men or businessmen with titles anymore. They were just boys with great vulnerabilities and fears. Men carry a lot of fears but they know how to hide them in their coats and cars and drinking. These affairs weren’t because they were these randy men sneaking around, but because they needed something; refuge and there was never refuge at home. They made me sad, to be honest. Their marriages made me sad. My relationship with them made me sad. I didn’t want that sadness in my life. After the second one I vowed never to date a married man. I think it’s from that point that I decided that marriage wasn’t for me.”
“But they loved your thick ankles,” I say jokingly.
She roars. “Wow. All that and you bring it down to my ankles? Yeah..”
“They must have been thin men. Thin men love thick girls.”
“Ha-ha. They weren’t big for sure. Average.”
We talked for three hours. (I laughed for two, ashamedly.) Her story was initially about her weight and how she overcame it but when we sat she felt like it was a cliche. [I agreed.] She felt like she didn’t want to place too much importance on weight loss, that it wasn’t an achievement. That she’s more than that. More than her BMI. But she was fun and funny and irreverent and honest. A joy to sit with which then turned this story to about me giggling and losing my dignity.
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