We spoke on the phone. She’s from some cold place in Europe. This is her story.
A phone number made public is like shit in the open; it attracts all types of flies. I know a lot about flies, because between 2005 and 2010 I constantly advertised on notice boards at the few high-end malls in Nairobi. I played the violin and one time my friend – Lucy – my roommate in university said, ‘Do you know that you can make a lot of money teaching rich kids how to play the violin?” I said, you think? She said, “of course, every rich person wants their children to play the violin. I played the violin until I could speak up against my parents.” What did I know about rich people? Lucy grew up in Karen, I grew up in a small village in Mumoni in Kitui, surely she must have known what rich people wanted, seeing as her parents were rich. When you ask me what I remember about university I will tell you two things; discovering my talent for music and constantly hiding my poverty.”
I came to teach violin classes because my sponsor died during the first semester of the second year of my music studies at university. He was a very old Catholic father called Father Matteo from a town in Italy called Salluzzo. I had known him through the church in the village. I found out about his death through an email from his son – or that’s who he said he was. It was a curt and hurried email written in fractured English. He ended the letter by wishing me “many happy seasons” in my life. I didn’t know what that meant, maybe it was an Italian translation. I was lost and devastated and the seasons ahead of me didn’t seem that many, or that happy.
Lucy found me crying when she came from her class. I told her I had a sponsor and now he was dead. “But you didn’t even know this man?” She said incredulously while rubbing my back comfortingly, which is the exact thing you would expect someone from a rich family to say. But she had a point, I later conceded. I was crying not for Father Matteo but for my shaky future. Now I had to look for school fees. Anyway, this is how Lucy broached the idea of teaching kids from rich families how to play the violin to raise money for my fees. “Their parents just want to fill their time because they are never there!” She told me. “My parents were always glad to send me for swimming lessons and violin lessons and horse riding lessons. If there was a camp for me to attend they’d pay for it just so they didn’t have to parent me. I was raised by the people they paid to teach me things.” She’d say without any pity or irony.
She fascinated me. I admired her. We were so unlike each other. She was so fierce and confident and courageous and she looked at people in the eye when she talked to them. I had massive self esteem issues. I constantly second guessed myself. I didn’t think I was pretty. I avoided telling anyone where I grew up. I kept to myself and avoided socializing for fear of being “discovered” to be a fraud from Kitui. Lucy would not allow me to sit in my corner of pity; she’d drag me everywhere with her. Whilst there are girls who were always hankering for her attention and friendship – girls who were in the same social circles as her – she ignored them and constantly sought after me. I found it confusing and suspicious. How she never judged me and how she would drag me to parties or share her beautiful clothes. Whereas I saw myself as one person – poor – she saw herself as many things and she explored all of those personalities. She was generous, funny, kind and very bold in her sexuality. She slept with many different boys every semester and she left them. Guys – hot guys with broken hearts – would always be in our room, sniveling, mourning, begging me to intercede on their behalf, while I never could get someone to date.
So Lucy got me into the violin teaching business.
Four days after placing my ad on a noticeboard my phone started ringing. The first client I went to see was in Nyari estate. I had never been to Nyari before – never even heard of it before. I borrowed Lucy’s jeans and a nice white blouse with brown buttons. “You will be fine, just act like you belong. Rich people have more insecurities than you do.” She told me, while touching up my hair. There were no Ubers then. You couldn’t Google Map it. I javed, then I walked through a very intimidating neighbourhood where dogs barked at me as I passed. Even the dogs knew I didn’t belong.
The family lived in an extravagant house that reminded me of the White House. It ran two floors up with balconies and stairways. Big shaggy dogs with brown eyes and very pink tongues sniffed my feet. Uniformed staff who spoke English. I desperately clutched at my old beloved violin like a drowning man clinging to a log. I felt small and insignificant and out of my depth. I felt like an impostor, like I was playing a role that I wasn’t prepared for.
I was made to wait in a room that the maid called The Study: Will you please wait here in the study for Mrs Thompson? It was all dark wood, antique and leather. Over an oversized mahogany desk an Eland’s – the largest antelope on earth – head mount glared down at me. Mrs Thompson turned out to be only slightly warmer than the Eland’s head. She wore shoes in the house. Shoes, like on American TV. She peppered me with questions; where did you grow up? Nairobi. [A lie]. Where in Nairobi? Karen. [A lie]. Do you have experience working with children? Yes. [A lie]. How many years have you played the violin? Five. [A lie]. What is the best method of teaching children to play any instrument? Patience [Truth] and – I wanted to add – threats, starvation and torture if necessary. [Jokes] She asked me whose work I admired and I rattled out the names; Joseph Joachim, Pablo de Sarasate, Eugène Ysaÿe, David Oistrakh. I had Googled their pronunciations. Her face was passive and white like violin sheet music. She then asked me to play something and I played Schindler’s List which is my favourite piece by John Williams. It’s a piece that scratches your soul. I thought I played it so well because a tall, distinguished and bald man with a long curved nose came and leaned against the doorway with his arms crossed over his chest and regarded me coolly. He was very handsome. When I was done he said, “outstanding.” Mrs Thompson ignored him, which made me know for sure that he was her husband. She said, “could you play another one, please?” So I played a more cliché and easy piece – Vivalda’s, The Four Seasons, even though I hate bright, high-tempered pieces. When I was done she stood up and said, while rubbing her hands together as if happy to get rid of me, “thank you for your time, we are talking to a few other people. I will inform you when we reach a decision.” The husband nodded at me politely as I saw myself out. That night Lucy sat on her bed with her legs crossed like a Buddha and laughed as I recounted my interview. She was very proud of how I had bullshit my way through it. “They will call,” she assured me.
They never called.
But others did. I got into many rich people’s homes to be interviewed. I got interviewed by swimming pools, in garden pagodas, by artificial waterfalls, by ponds, on balconies, in living rooms with high ceilings, under sparkling chandeliers, in a kitchen once, in a bedroom by an ageing woman who had arthritis, by people who didn’t know a thing about violins and by folk who played music in their earlier years. I was interviewed mostly by women, mothers who didn’t look like mothers. They looked sophisticated and worldly. Some smoked. They smelled expensive. Most had long painted nails. Others wore hats or sunglasses. Seldom was I interviewed by fathers, but some of those who did seemed to prefer to interview my breasts”.. (Who’d blame them? I have nice breasts). I wish I could say most of these rich people were vile. It’s easy to want rich people to be nasty or unkind or vile, to be lacking in basic human emotions like kindness or empathy or compassion. Unfortunately, I never experienced that. There were a few assholes but then again there are also many poor people who are assholes. Most were very professional and kind.
My first client was a 12-year old Sudanese boy. Lucy told me that Sudanese people living in Kenya had oil money, “Charge them a premium.” So I did. The boy’s father – a very dark and towering man with perfect white teeth – paid me three months fees upfront. In dollars. It’s the first time I ever held dollars and the first time I ever made so much money. His mother didn’t speak a word of English and quite honestly didn’t seem to care if the son was learning to dance bhangra or was being inducted into sorcery. She often kept out of sight, always locked behind one of the many rooms in the massive house that seemed to have many families living in it, and people coming and going. The boy was a problem child: entitled, distracted and naughty. One day – without any notice – he grabbed my breasts and I lashed out and slapped him across the face. Then I packed my violin and left. I sent his father a message and told him what had happened but he never replied and I never went back and nobody ever called me to demand a refund.
My university days passed in a blur of teaching rich people’s children how to play the violin. And I was making decent money for a student. So much that Lucy and I decided to live out of campus, sharing a one-bedroom flat in Parklands. Lucy was dating this idiot at the time, a guy who perpetually had his hand in her purse. If you grow up lacking like I did, you’d notice these characters. Lucy didn’t. She thought the guy was in love with her personality.
One time we went for lunch at Lucy’s house in Karen. It was the first time I was visiting her home. It was Christmas and I had nowhere to go, nobody to celebrate with. I was like a stray dog that suddenly appeared at your doorstep with kind pleading eyes and you didn’t have the heart to turn it away . “What do your parents do?” Lucy’s father asked me as we ate lunch. I disliked him before I met him because Lucy often talked a lot of trash about him. How badly he treated her mother. How he had another family. Lucy’s mother drank a little too much. One of her siblings had refused to come back from studies abroad. The other had converted to rastafarianism, spending all his time with an unknown reggae deejay unit and still lived at home at 32.
“I don’t have parents,” I told her father. “I never met them.” I looked down at my plate, afraid to look up. When I did, Lucy’s mother, who had dark rings around her eyes like an alley cat, stared at me, her glass of wine suspended halfway to her mouth.
“You are an orphan?” He asked.
“Yes Ken,” Lucy told him. “But I also found out that there are many orphans with parents.”
I shrunk back in my chair at her rebuke. I was completely taken aback at her words. I had never had to call anyone “dad” or “father” before, but I was pretty sure that you didn’t call your father by his name! She called him Ken, like they did yoga together. And then that remark about orphans? Whoa. But even more confusing was how casually her father took her snide comment; by completely ignoring it. Even her mother never batted an eyelid. She looked sedated. It was so awkward for me.
I never told people that I was an orphan because I hated how they’d feel so sorry for me. But how could I feel the loss of people I never saw, never met? I don’t have pictures of myself as a baby, as a child. There was nobody who cared enough about me to take them. Neither do I have photos of my parents. I don’t know who I got my looks from. These high cheek bones of mine, was it from my father? I also realise that the people who should have taken photos of them were too poor to afford it. Taking photos is for people who want to look at themselves. When you are poor, sometimes you don’t want to see it, to document it. Because it’s a reminder. I grew up in the hands of malicious and nasty aunts in the village, who denied me food and tied me to a tree at night if I erred. I have marks on my back from the floggings. When my exes asked about the marks, I’d ignore them, pretending I didn’t hear.
My family was chaotic; with a history of feuds, revenge and malice. Nobody ever told me how my parents died. It’s hard living without a proper background, without closure. Before Lucy, I never knew the warmth of someone worrying about me. As a child, when it got dark, nobody had ever worried if I’d not come back home. I was expendable. Nobody had ever called me “my lovely child,” or “my baby” or “my loving daughter.”When the boys I dated called me that I became very suspicious of their intentions. In Uni, Lucy’s mother would call her at night and call her so many loving names; sweetheart, darling, baby. Fine, she was often smashed but it still felt nice to be called that. I have been alone all my life. It’s all I have known. Sometimes it’s good because I never had any expectations of being helped or being loved. I hide behind the lie that I was better off not being loved, how it must feel so risky being loved. Because what happens when it stops?
By 2010 I was a seasoned violin teacher on top of my day job at a medical logistics firm. I had clients up to my teeth. I was still sharing a bigger house with Lucy. She was working at a law firm that belonged to one of her father’s cronies. She had broken up with the gold digger. Rather, he ran away with her 2 million shillings. I’m suspicious of men who are always asking for a little loan to “prop up the business” until things “settle down.” Loans taken from their women make men lazy.
I had other friends, yes, but they were always superficial friendships. I have never known how to build solid friendships. I hold back. I still harbour great insecurities because of where I have been, in poverty, even though I was now what you would call an “upwardly mobile urban woman.” Poverty is a weird thing, it’s like an invisible stain. You can make lots of money and cover it with expensive clothes and jewellery but the stain stays under your skin. Poverty is your watermark. People might not see it, but you feel it under your skin, like an implant. Some people try to run away from it by being showy and extravagant while others like me withdraw from people, afraid that someone might see into my poor orphaned past and be revolted by it.
I met Raphael through his daughter who I was teaching violin. He was in his late 40s and was separated from his daughter’s mother. He lived abroad, in a pale un-inspiring country in Eastern Europe. Although contracted by the child’s mother, he was the one who would wire the fees for the violin classes. Later we would often talk on the phone about his daughter’s progress. He was very keen about her musical talent. Then we started skyping. Then whatsapping. Soon, we talking about things that didn’t involve his daughter. He wasn’t my type of guy. He was much older, for one – in his 50s. He didn’t have any hair on his face which I found odd. A man without hair is not any better looking than a seal. Most importantly, he didn’t believe in God. He was an atheist. I found that very strange at the beginning but then later accepted his convictions. His lack of faith wasn’t a reflection on mine. But he was the kindest man you would ever meet. He wore his heart on his sleeve. Was very compassionate. Most importantly, I was attracted by his commitment as a father. Maybe because I never had one. Lucy loved him, called him Sanford, from the old TV series Sanford & Sons. One day he said, “why don’t you move here?” Lucy said, “are you nuts, go!” Seven months later, I moved in with him in Europe. I figured it was only for a short while then I would come back. I didn’t want to get married, I still don’t, but I wanted to have babies – his babies. Having babies would make me a mother, something I didn’t experience. So we had one baby, then when I didn’t roll over and sleep on the baby at night, I had another one.
Over the years Lucy also got married, had a child and got divorced. Then she got married again to someone else and had another child. Her mother then died three years ago of breast cancer. I flew down and held her hand during the funeral. I felt every pain that she felt. I cried, not for her mother, but for her. I lived in her house the whole month I was home, sleeping with her in her bedroom, in their bed. Her husband moved into their child’s room without a word. We’d talk the whole night and sometimes laugh. But her laughter had changed. Loss had changed her.
In April this year she called me from the hospital and said she had pneumonia. It was evening and I was on a train home. We video-called. She was terrified. I smiled and told her that she was tough. We were tough. The next day we video-called in the evening and she looked quite weak, so I let her have her rest. “I will video-call you tomorrow morning, 8am.” She smiled.
The next morning, at 7am her husband called. I was warming milk in the kitchen. He was crying. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. I stood by the stove and watched the milk foam over and start spilling like a volcano, and I let it. I slid to the floor, and leaned against the kitchen counter. I couldn’t cry. Not then, not yet. I was numb. I softly knocked my head against the counter, over and over again, like a psychotic character on a Death Row movie. I wanted to realign reality in my head. My husband found me there when he came downstairs. He’s a man with a lot of emotional intelligence, so he sat next to me and just held my left hand. Then I started crying.
Her funeral was rushed because of Covid and government regulations. I watched a small part of it on video. I wanted to be a bird, so that I could fly to Kenya, and perch on her grave and die there. I wanted to be buried with her. You probably wouldn’t understand the kind of loss this was for me. I cried daily. Every hour. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t bring myself to leave the bed. My husband would often take the children to the park to give me time to mourn. I haven’t stopped crying.
One day, last week my daughter asked me why I keep crying so much, “did your friend go to heaven? Did she meet your mommy?” Then I realized that Lucy was more than my friend; she gave me confidence, her clothes, her time, her love and herself. She never saw me for where I came from – a highly dysfunctional past – but who I was and who I aspired to be. She held my hand and never let go even when I gave her reasons to. She was the only family I ever had. Literally. She was my sister. My friend. She was my mother.
So, 2020, is a year I will not forget.
How has 2020 been for you? I’d like to hear it. It doesn’t even have to be sad. Just illuminating. Something that can inspire, provoke, or just make us happy. Email me with a short synopsis of your story on [email protected] And, please, short is not 1000 words. Just two paragraphs.