We had lunch: she had grilled pork and something. I had chapatis and something. She wore a long flowy dress and silver sandals. She had a tale about her marriage. I wrote it the next day at dawn while it rained outside and I didn’t stop writing until someone called me – a man – and said, “Mathenge, umesimama wapi?” I said, “ati?” He said, “Niko hapa kawa duka.” That made me so happy on a Sunday morning. [I know, random.]
I have three boys and two girls. Which means I live in chaos from the moment I wake up right up until the last light in our house is switched off. My nights are short and snappy. Dawn stalks me constantly and with it comes another fresh wave of unabating domesticity. It’s complete madness. It’s loud. Things are always breaking. I bought so many glasses but they kept breaking them until now everybody drinks from plastic cups. Someone is always crying. Someone is always fighting someone else. Nobody can find their school diary. Or socks. Or underwear. Or their tennis shoes. I only have to count to five for someone to fall off something, because nobody wants to operate from the floor like human beings, they prefer to climb things like monkeys.
The TV – when it’s TV time – is always at the highest volume but nobody watches it like a decent person, there is constant bickering over whose turn it is to change the channel to something else. I’m always settling disputes. Or reassuring someone that they are not bad. Or threatening someone else. Or giving a speech about loving each other as siblings. Or patching up a bleeding hand. I have had two major runs to the emergency room because of a broken hand and someone who swallowed a coin.
Birthdays come fast, like grand prix vehicles around a bend; so more candles, another happy birthday song, another cake that I have to make sure isn’t bigger than anyone else’s or else it will be seen as favoritism. Over all this bedlam, one of my sons is always blowing his saxophone as loudly as he can (to get our attention or to irritate us), producing a constant, disjointed soundtrack to this chaos. He’s not particularly good at it, but he’s my son and he loves the sax and he can blow it until his lungs shrivel. Maybe he will get better at it, but for now it sounds like an elephant masturbating.
I’m a mother. This is the environment I live in. It’s highly unhealthy for your heart. I have not known silence in a long time. I have not taken a holiday alone in ages. I don’t know what the sand feels like between my feet. I don’t know how it feels like to lie on your back, by the pool and not worry about where one of the children is and if they are sailing off to India on a dhow. If I sneak an afternoon nap, I feel like I can sleep for a week. Sometimes when I’m leaving work at 7pm and I find myself alone in the lift, riding down the 17 floors, I lean my head back on the cold wall of the lift and I try and soak in as much silence from the moment as I can. I never play the radio in my car. I always drive in silence. However, I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining because I love being a mother, I love my children. Our home is filled with love and blessings because of them. I’m ordained to be a mother. I love to serve my children, to nourish them with love and watch them grow. They are so different, sometimes when I sit and watch them eat at the dining table, I wonder who they belong to.
I grew up as an only child.
We lived in a big stone house, built for civil servants. My parents tried to fill that house with love but it was lonely. I had my own room. I’ve always had my own room. I’ve never had to fight with anybody for anything; not clothes, not the TV remote. I had most things I wanted except another sibling; a brother, or a sister. I craved a sibling. I envied other kids in school who would wait for their siblings to take the matatu home together. I loved to see how they shared their break-meal. How my deskmate’s brother would hang around outside our classroom waiting for her. How you always knew that that there was someone else who would defend you when it came right down to it, and fight for you. I craved to share blood with someone else. I vaguely remember how when a part of our school caught fire in 1982, while other kids ran to other classes to look for their brothers or sisters, nobody came looking for me.
As I result, I always wanted to have many children.
There was a 50 percent chance I was going to marry my husband. There was also a 50 percent chance that I was going to marry my fiancé who had gone for further studies in the US. I liked two men. Well, I liked the first one before I liked the second one and the only reason I liked the second one was because the first one made me realise that I was waiting for Godot. (That’s a Beckett play, read it). He wanted to be an engineer and he was taking a long time in the US. I was getting tired of the Skype calls during those terrible days of bad connection, so his image would often hang on the screen, his mouth twisted mid-sentence like he was having a seizure. I’d stare at it for long and wonder if this is what he looks like when he wakes up. I was afraid that if I got married to the wrong man I’d not like how he looks in the morning. It’s important for a woman to know how the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with looks in the morning. There are men I dated who looked like inmates in the morning and I just couldn’t go through with it.
I met my husband at a budding farmer’s meeting. This is a place where they teach you about fertilizers, seeds and things. I was thinking of trying my hand at farming. We sat next to each other on old plastic chairs. I remember stealing looks at his thumbs and thinking how they looked like carrots. Farmers are friendly people, so we started talking, mostly about strawberries, which I was keen to grow. When we went on a coffee date I told him that I had a fiancé in the US studying to be an engineer and he said, “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” I didn’t do very well in languages, I’m a science kind of girl, so I thought he was encouraging me to stay true to the one in the US. Funnily enough, that’s what attracted me to him, this miscommunication, or rather, ignorance. How dare he preserve me for another man?
Our wedding day – a year and a half later – was just at the edge of the weekend, on a Friday. It’s a wedding that happened on the ashes of a broken heart; the heart of my fiancé in the US. It was a small shindig; 100 or so people in a garden. He was handsome in a very dark suit. His shoulders stretched his jacket. He smelled of powerful aftershave. I love men who use aftershave. I was a few months pregnant, but it was not very visible so technically I carried a secret into the marriage. I wore my mother’s pearls around my neck, they felt like drops of angel tears around my neck. My father held my hand with his warm one. He kept squeezing my hand. That’s what I remember most about my wedding; my father’s playful squeezes. I had my baby not long after. Not long after here doesn’t mean after the cake was cut, but months after. Then somehow they started coming out of me, these babies. If it were up to me I would just have moved into the hospital because they just kept coming until my husband raised his hand after the third baby and said, “Hold on a second, I think we have had enough.”
So I added two more.
Babies are wonderful, but they change your body. At least my first two babies did but after that the change was not so significant. I actually think I look better now than I did during my wedding, mostly because I’m not suffering from morning sickness. I’m fuller, rounded, curved, smoother around the edges. I’m thick at the hips. I’m more confident about my body. Of course there is the small matter of my love-handles, which I’m currently working on, and the bit of my ass that shakes and shivers vigorously when I climb the stairs. Otherwise I’m “peng.” The other day, the intern in our office, this sweet 21-year old boy, more than half my age, came up to my desk and after some small talk (because I have a face that gives the impression that I love small talk) said, “Do you mind if we have coffee outside the office tomorrow?”
I told him, “Oh, I’d love to,” then lifting my hand with the wedding band, “but I’m married.” And he said, “Oh, sorry. But you are so pretty.”
I would have gone for coffee with him had he been 32-years and didn’t still live with his mother. There are many of those nowadays, who live with their mothers or with women who act like their mothers. I would have gone for coffee with him because I’m single, even though I’m married.
My marriage changed about five years in. It changed because my husband changed. I also changed. We all changed. Ours was a gradual change. It’s like a small patch of weeds in the garden, which you look at and think isn’t that important, until one day you find it spread all over, choking your plants.
It started with the small things. It’s how he’d wake up and not say good morning. Always say good morning to your wives, guys. You are not waking up next to a stuffed teddy bear. If you forget to say good morning today, you will not remember tomorrow and before you know it, it will be a year where you just get out of bed like it’s boarding school all over again. He started waking up and walking to the bathroom without a “good morning.” I’d be the one to say good morning. Then I got tired of having to be the one who keeps saying good morning. I also noticed how he’d no longer look at me in the morning. How, even if we were talking while dressing, he’d not look at me. I’m good to look at, I know this because I look at myself in the mirror. So why wouldn’t he look at me? If you don’t look at me, I imagine you don’t notice me. If you don’t look at me, I’m invisible in your eyes, I only exist in a voice. Look at your woman, guys.
We had a good marriage even though he wasn’t saying good morning or looking at me. He was a provider. He bought children things – toys, clothes. He played with them occasionally.
Then life started happening fast, children getting into school, pressure of fees and the pressure of investment. He was taking care of the big bills, I was taking care of the home and other things. We invested together. Then we somehow just got too busy. He was less at home and more at work. He’d come home tired and not want to do much else with the kids but sleep. On Sundays he would be at home, nursing a hangover. I taught my children to ride their bicycles because he was too tired from work. Or he just didn’t bother. Slowly I found myself taking care of things he should have been taking care of; calling plumbers, stressing over what school who went to. As our children grew older, I started pushing him to be more involved in their lives because that window is small and it closes fast; go out and ride bicycles with them, take them camping, go to the game park, talk to them, show them the heart and ways of a man, of a father. He always seemed to have another pressing meeting to run off to. Then I started making decisions in the house for the family. Then he started paying the fees late then defaulting. The school called me, I paid for that term hoping he’d pick it up the next term. He didn’t.
I will never know what kind of a husband my father was, how limited he might have been in the eyes of my mother, but I know what kind of a father he was. He was a man who took care of his business. He pulled his weight. He was a proud man. I remember once when – unbeknownst to me at the time – auctioneers came to our house when I was 10 or 11 years old, on a Saturday morning when we were having breakfast. He stepped out to talk to them and I could see him through the big living room curtains. A big lorry loomed outside over our fence waiting to gulp all our household belongings. My mom sat in her seat, never moved a muscle, never joined my father outside. Somehow, her sitting there gave me the reassurance that whatever was happening outside (and it looked ominous), Dad would sort it out and he would come back and finish his breakfast. And he did. He led that day as I witnessed him lead many other instances to come. And so my expectations of men have always been pegged on that; their ability to be men, to be the one to step outside and face whatever is threatening what’s inside. To be proud.
I wanted to raise children and keep a home. I wanted to follow, to be dutiful and honourable and to hold up the title as wife. But then slowly I found myself doing his bits as well. Man bits. Making the decisions he should have been making. Paying school fees for his children. I started seeing him differently. He was no longer a man I admired. He had lost direction, and I can’t follow a man without direction. So one day we woke up and we were strangers. The sex is sporadic like the rains in Turkana and when it happens my mind drifts to my dream to own a strawberry farm. When we speak, he seems to be someone from a different part of the world, speaking in a language I don’t understand.
This could be because I’m no longer the most welcoming wife. I no longer sit and watch him eat when he comes home late, keenly listening to his war stories from the boardroom. I get excited when he travels for work for a few days, because the house expands, the rooms are larger, I breathe better. When he’s due to come back from his travels I don’t rush home so that he finds me and a hot meal waiting. (Mostly I’d be the hot meal). I used to know what flight he’s on and what connections he’s making in what countries to get here at what time. Sometimes I’d even go pick him up at the airport, a hot cup of latte waiting in a thermos mug because I knew what he liked. Now? Now, I’m excited when he travels. Because I don’t have to see him in the house, walking around like he’s the man when he isn’t taking care of his business, when I don’t know what he does with his money and he won’t tell me.
We show up at family functions together and I serve him food there like a dutiful wife because it makes his parents happy, it makes his mother proud to see her son in a thriving marriage with a dutiful wife. Everybody admires us. We are a team, some say. But the reality couldn’t be more different. We don’t talk. We hardly fight because fighting would mean someone cares enough to fight. I don’t care if he comes home at dawn anymore and I care even less whether or not he has a girlfriend out there. If he does, I’m comforted by the fact that I know what she’s getting and it isn’t much of a man. She’s getting a facade. A tale.
I have become the wife who covers the emperor’s nakedness, the custodian of all his faults. I have mine, no doubt: I might get quick on the mouth and he has said – more than once, I believe – that I’m critical. I might not be interested in what he does anymore, or even know why he does them. One time walking through a big airport in Europe, I remember walking next to the walkalators and seeing how the travelers stood on them, looking tired and blank, moving along on those things and I thought, “That’s exactly how my marriage is.”
Not long ago, I found receipts in his pocket. They were from a night out with his friends. He had spent 75K on bottles of whisky. Seventy five thousand Kenyan shillings on a working day in the middle of the week! Looking at that receipt stabbed me in the heart. Here was a man who could spend so much on alcohol and refuse to pay school fees for his children. Here was a man who speaks proudly of his children’s education to people – his parents, relatives, friends – yet he takes no part at all in their education, isn’t bothered whether they go to school or not, even though he earns much more than I do. Yet, I continue to be enable this bad behaviour. I let him polish this lie. I continue to let the world believe that he’s a responsible father and maybe even a loving husband. I continue to carry his lie for him. All this makes me a lie, which is worse than being a liar.
I’m not seeing anyone, if you are wondering. Not yet. And not because of lack of options; I have tons of offers coming out of my ears. I’m married officially, but I’m also single. We are running a business together, this business of marriage.
I have stopped looking towards him for any interventions when it comes to my needs as a wife. I have stopped following him as a leader because he stopped leading. My respect for him has floundered. When I pass him brushing his teeth at the sink, shirtless, something that I found manly and desirable, now it only evokes regret. How long will I live like this? I can live like this until I can’t but for now what breaks my heart is that I’m here in this caricature of a marriage, one where my children have started noticing that their father is not the guy who leaves the table and steps outside to handle his family’s business. I worry for my young sons, especially. These poor boys who look to him as the lighthouse of masculinity. If this is the model, the brand of man they are fashioning themselves around, then my poor boys are lost at sea.
It breaks my heart that I continue to leave the table and step outside to do the work of a husband. I’m the one who seems to worry how these children turn out. I don’t enjoy it. It embitters me. It enrages me. I don’t know what to do to change this narrative because I can pay the bills, I can spend a lot of time talking to my children, I can sit in their school activities and cheer and encourage them, pray for them, but I could never show them how to be a man. That, only a man can do and the man I chose has shrugged off his manhood like it’s an old coat you can just remove and hang on the arm of a chair.