I like villains. Pariahs. Outlaws. They never experiment with hats, they wear the same hats. They ride horses (or drive old grey cars with faulty driver’s windows) in the gloom of darkness, fleeing another sunrise. They sit desolate in the corner of small charmless cafes, their reflections sombre in their tepid coffees. They wear stubbles like badges they don’t deserve. They knock on women’s doors at the darkest hour of the night, hands hidden in old coats with upturned collars and they make love to them in a frenzy before they are completely out of their clothes. They never sit by ponds staring at ducks or pet strangers’ dogs’ heads because they have the emotional maturity of a faulty padlock. They always have a cigarette lighter in their breast pockets but never enough cigarettes. Sure, they die, eventually, like we all do, but they have a lot of fun first. And when they die the story ends, which means they controlled the narrative from the opening act. Without them the heroes would be rudderless, doing nothing but mowing their lawns and spending too much time shaving at sinks with broken mirrors.
This story is about a girl, yes, but her story emerges from the story of a villain. They are horse and carriage. Yin and Yang. Nameless and his goddamn durag.
“I liked him more than he liked me,” she tells me. She wants to be called Syombua, meaning ‘Born in the rainy season.’ She’s referring to Rono whom she met during a wedding committee for her friend. “He was the transport manager.” He had a girlfriend at the time. One of those chicks called Linda or Emma. The wedding came. She sang in church. The groom kissed the bride, cake was cut, people from shags danced in their ill-fitting suits, then the fat lady sang. A few months later she heard that Rono had broken up with Linda or Emma, and because she comes from the school of thought that one must grab the bull by its horns, she got his number and rang him one evening when she was feeling particularly ballsy. They met up. She asked him, “Do you not remember me? I was on the wedding committee?” He was blank. “I sang during the wedding!” She said. He couldn’t recall. So he had to go back to the wedding videos to see her. At that time he was in a weird place of transition and heartbreak. He was hitting the bottle, a lot. Turns out he really liked Emma or Linda.
We are seated at the very back of the cafe’s terrace. Nestled by her elbow is a purse the colour of fresh blood straight from a cow’s neck. It looks so red it could have fit in a violent crime scene of the TV drama series; Why Women Kill. She has these small silver earrings the shape of fish. I bet as she dressed up for this meeting she thought, OK, this guy is from the lakeside, let me wear these earrings, it’s bound to break the ice and get the conversation going. It’s akin to me wearing a necklace with a pendant of a potato (or a coin) to meet someone from Central. Or a yellow shirt to meet someone from Kisii – because it might remind them of a banana. But then I thought, perhaps fish might just be her spirit animal which I now suspect could be the case seeing as we ended up really having a laugh at an intense moment of truth.
“I think he sort of tolerated me at the beginning when we started dating in 2016,” she says. “Then he eventually started liking me. But I definitely liked him more.” A few months into the relationship she peed on a stick and it turned two ticks. He was away drinking that evening. He was always away drinking. She lay in darkness like a predator and waited for him to come home. At around 1am she heard him stumbling up the staircase like a wounded animal. She opened the door for him. He was drunk. He had a bottle of alcohol in his hand. She broke the news to him right there at the door before he crossed the threshold. “You are kidding,” that’s what he said, deadpan. “He likes saying that, ‘You are kidding.’,“ she tells me. “But he wasn’t fazed at all. Nothing fazes him. You could fall down here and die and Rono would not be fazed.”
He said, “Let’s go in.” He placed the bottle of alcohol on the table then went to the bathroom. She sat waiting, hearing him pee loudly like people who have been drinking pee. She then served him food and watched him eat, feeling nauseous. After, he took his plates back to the kitchen and came back with two glasses and poured drinks in them. “I’m pregnant,” she told him again, “I can’t drink.” He said, “Who am I going to be drinking with, you are betraying me.” She left him in the living room, drinking, and went to bed. In the morning she woke up to him gently shaking her awake. “Did you say you are pregnant last night?” he asked her again. She blinked and asked, what time is it? He said, a little after 6am. “Are you pregnant?” He asked again. She said yes.
“Are you kidding?” He asked.
She rolled her eyes.
“Well,” he was shirtless, “What are you going to do about it?”
“Me?” She asked.
“What am I going to do about it?”
“I will keep it,” she told him, “I don’t think my conscience would allow me to terminate it.”
He said, “Sawa if that’s what you want.”
“At that point I should have known what lay ahead,” she says. “You know, my relationship with my mom has never been good and I was worried that if she knew I was pregnant she would die of shame. I was brought up a Christian. She wouldn’t forgive me for having a child out of wedlock.” So they met her parents before it started showing then they officially moved in together into a house in Donholm. She bought new curtains and started a new life. He, on the other hand, continued with his old life; drinking and coming home very late. “I thought it was normal for a man to drink and come home very late. I never complained. I never made any noise about it,” she says, “I thought that’s how you made a good marriage, by giving him space to do what he liked. ”
“What kind of a home did you grow up in?” I ask.
“My parents – now no longer together – never spoke. Actually, I can’t ever remember them sitting together to have a conversation. There was no physical abuse but there was a lot of shouting. My parents yelled at each other a lot.” She continues.
Rono loved carpentry. He’d left the country for the UK to study IT and came back and started pursuing his passion for wood. He opened a small carpentry shop in a place called Kamulu where he was off to a lot mulling over his dovetails and tongue-and-groove joints.
She endured most of the pregnancy alone. He was never there, always working or drinking. When she was eight months along she told him, ‘You are never around for me. I’m alone in this pregnancy.’ ‘Don’t say that’, he said with a most apologetic look.
“He’s the most chill person you will ever meet. Such a gentle soul,” she says, “Even when I was so mad at him, he’d just say, ‘I’m sorry,’ with such innocence and it would soften me up. He is the least aggressive person I know. The least. If you are so mad at him, you can’t stay mad at him for too long. For example, let me tell you how I gave birth.” One early morning, when she was eight months pregnant, she woke up in pain and went to the loo and when she wiped herself she saw blood. “I went back to the bedroom to wake him up. I told him, ‘Rono, I’m bleeding, I think the baby is coming!’” You know what he told me? ‘You are kidding.” She laughs. “He said, he wanted to see the blood to confirm, so we went back to the loo and I wiped myself as he stood there but there was no blood this time. He said, ‘You are playing,’ then he went back to bed but I was sure the baby was coming so I pestered him to go look for a cab. He was hangied because he had come home at 4am. He grudgingly left to look for a cab at around 6am and came back at 7:30am… without a cab. I asked him, ‘What took you so long, where is the cab?’ He said he couldn’t find a cab. I said, ‘For one and a half hours?!’” He said, ‘I’m sorry.’”
She gave birth a few hours after that. He brought her home the following day at 6pm. She was famished. “He offered to get me food so he left and came back at midnight with chips and chicken. I said, I don’t think I should be having chips and chicken, I just have birth! He said, I’m sorry, just eat this. I will give you soup in the morning.”
“What did you first like about him,” I ask.
“He was bald. I like balding men. I think it’s sexy,” she says. “He’s like you, dark.”
“Chocolate is the word I believe you are looking for.”
She laughs very loudly then places her hand over her heart.
“I’m so sorry!”
“Forgiven – don’t do it again.”
Still laughing. “He is chocolate. He loves soccer like I do. He’s a Chelsea fan. He also loves rugby, he played rugby.”
“No, actually he isn’t.”
“So he’s one of those guys who is lifted up to grab the ball during the Line Out?”
She chuckles. “I just know he isn’t ati big.”
Anyway, from that point it all went downhill fast.
“We were two inappropriate people trying to raise a child; a drunk person and a confused person. I’m surprised this baby is still alive,” she says. “I think I was unknowingly suffering from postpartum depression. Also I’d rather have a long painful labour than have mastitis again. I was struggling with the baby and my emotions while he was constantly away at his workshop or in a bar. His business was not doing well so one day he said, ‘I can’t take care of you anymore, I’m sending you to my parents in Eldoret.’”
Off she went to Eldoret to live on a big farm. It was a terrible time. “I spent a lot of time in the bedroom, crying.” She was bitter with him, with the baby, with herself. She didn’t know his parents, she didn’t have friends, she was just alone with a baby attached to her painful breasts. After two months she came back. A week later the landlord locked her out with the baby because Rono – who was away in Meru making desks for schools – hadn’t paid rent for a few months. When the landlord’s wife intervened, asking her husband to at least let her take her baby’s formula, the landlord beat the wife. He allowed her in for the night. The next day she was homeless. Her friend took her in in Gachie, where she stayed for six months before she became guilty of being a deadweight and grudgingly moved to the village in Makueni where her mom lived. “I thought I’d just become a village girl, forget to speak English and just forget all my dreams.”
It was a tough time. Makueni isn’t exactly a beach. “I kept yelling at the baby. There was never enough food and I was constantly hungry and miserable. When the baby was sick at night and she couldn’t breath I didn’t know what to do, or how to make her stop crying. I was so angry. I’d often wonder if Rono was drinking, if he was asleep, if he ate at night, if he was okay. So I’d call him and I’d find that he was okay and that would make me so mad and because I don’t know how to yell at anyone, I’d tell him that I was doing badly and that I was struggling with the baby and I was desperate for help and he’d say gently, “I’m sorry.” And that would be that.”
One day – with no end in sight – she decided she’d kill herself and end this humiliation of poverty. She called her pastor one evening and told him that was the final call she was making. “You get to a point of such great hopelessness where you think nobody cares whether you live or die, that nobody will notice your absence. What stopped me from killing myself wasn’t even my baby, it was the pastor; he was really heartbroken to hear that I wanted to die. Genuinely heartbroken. It made me think that at least one, just one person cared, and can you imagine that’s what made me not die?”
“I know; sometimes you just need to know one person cares.”
The dark clouds parted briefly to let in sunlight; she was invited for a receptionist/ admin interview in Nairobi so she packed her baby and came back to Nairobi. She didn’t have any presentable clothes to attend an interview in. Her friend lent her a turtle neck top and pants and her high heels that pinched her toes. It was a real estate firm.
She had little hope of acing it. She was interviewed by a lady and when she was told to say something about herself, she broke down and couldn’t stop crying. She had forgotten her good parts, parts that weren’t shameful, desperate and inadequate. She started crying because someone was curious to know about her. Someone wanted to know her. She was still human. She sat there in borrowed clothes and borrowed shoes that hurt and she said how tough it’s been. Just how desperate it’s been. How worthless it’s been. And she cried through all that. Really cried. As she rode the lift downstairs the lady called her and asked her if she could start the following Monday. She took her baby back to her mom with the promise to come back for her after she got a place of her own.
“No matter how hard I worked,” she mumbles, “After sending back money to my mom to feed my baby, I didn’t have anything left to buy anything. The dream of getting my own place slipped further and further away from me and with it my daughter. I felt like I had abandoned her in the village. I missed her. I wondered if she would forget me. Guilt started eating at me slowly, that and not being able to make something better of my life. I started taking longer to get out of bed. I couldn’t eat. At work I was a zombie; I forgot things, I stared into space. At night I lay awake until dawn. A friend of mine, Martin, knew of a place I could get counselling at a reduced price, so I started attending the sessions. The therapist helped me see my life differently when she asked me, is your child in a forest? Have you done what you are able to do for her? Have you abandoned her? It helped.”
Meanwhile Rono’s life was also unravelling. He had moved back to his parents’ home, married, had a child and separated from his wife. In 2019, after almost a year, her mom said, come for this baby, I’m done. So she went back for her baby. “Then two interesting things happened; my colleague who had moved in with her boyfriend then said, ‘Use my house, I’m never there anyway.’ So I moved into a fully furnished house with my baby.” She says. “The second thing that happened was Covid. I lost my job.” She has been jobless for a while now and it’s very tough for her.
What caught my attention when she emailed me was a line she wrote, she said how lonely she was. I now ask her to describe this loneliness and she almost starts tearing up.
“You know, I’m not supposed to be saying that I’m desperate and lonely because it’s not cool in this era of feminism where we are supposed to be strong,” she sniffs. “But I’m really not strong. I don’t know how to be strong anymore. The day I read your post LITTLE JUDASSES, about that lady in Kansas I was planning to just drop off my baby at a stranger’s house and walk away like I never knew her. Do you know how far down in life you have to fall as a mother to want to give away your child because you have admitted that you can’t take care of her anymore?” She says. “I feel like I have failed her. I won’t be able to take her to school. I can barely feed her. The house we live in will soon be taken because the owner has been more than generous and generosity isn’t endless. Where will I go with a baby? People say when you have a child she can be your best friend. Kids are kids and parents are parents. I spend my whole days in the house with her, just the two of us. We play games. We watch TV. We take walks. We eat together. We sleep together. I have no other life. Apart from my sister I don’t talk to anyone else. I miss adult companionship. I wait for my child to go to sleep then I sit and drink Konyagi, alone. I don’t drink to enjoy my drink, I just drink because there is nothing else to do. I have no confidence left in me. None. I second guess myself. When you replied to my email I wondered why you even bothered? Who would want to speak to me? Who would be interested in my life? I have nothing. Do you know how long it took me to decide what I would wear to meet you? I thought, what if I say something stupid, something unintelligent because I haven’t had adult conversation in so long? What if he stands up and leaves? I can’t tell you the last time I sat at a table with someone like I’m doing now. Having juice. Someone listening to me.” She shakes her head and chuckles.
“I miss someone texting me in the morning just to say, ‘Good morning, how did you sleep?’ Just that. I’ve forgotten how to be kissed or to be touched by a man. I wouldn’t know how to converse with a man. When I’m drunk and I’m fearful that my life is over, wasted and I’m very bitter, I drunk-dial Rono and I want to tell him how he has failed me, how he has failed his daughter and how hopeless we are as parents how hopeless he is as a father but when he comes on the phone I don’t tell him all these things. It’s not the kind of person I am. I don’t hurt people – even those who hurt me.”
That cuts me. I stretch my legs under the table and look away.
“This is not me. I love singing but I can’t bear to hear the sound of my voice anymore. I have a guitar at home, my daughter always says, ‘Mom, play for me a song’. I can’t bear to pick the guitar up. I love reading, I really love reading but I can’t read. The only thing I read now, and I’m not flattering you, Biko, is your blog every Tuesday. I love tea but I can take six cups and not taste it anymore. It’s like everything I loved has been sucked away from me. I’m different. I’m empty. I cry a lot when my daughter has gone to sleep. My daughter, she’s four, is a handful. When I punish her, I never know if it’s driven by anger or by the need to correct her. We walk daily and when I walk with her, I feel like I’m walking a puppy to kill her energy, because I can’t deal with her. I’m exhausted as a mother, being a woman. Sometimes when I’ve had enough, I stand at our balcony to just breathe in deeply. Below is a road and when I see people walking down the road laughing, I wonder how they can laugh. It seems strange to me that people can have joy in them to be able to laugh. I’m sorry, I’m talking a lot….”
“It’s cool,” I say. We sit there in a brief silence. I say nothing. I wait. She says nothing.
“These guys have a burger thing today, buy one get one free…” I say to break the silence, “You want one for you and your baby?”
She smiles bravely, glad that she didn’t cry. I’m also glad she didn’t cry.
If you are hiring or know someone who is hiring. Extend a hand to this lady. She’s at the end of her rope. Her email is [email protected] God bless you in advance.