It smells of death.
It smells of death in my car.
It smells of rotting dead rats.
My old car is putrid with the smell of dead rats.
They decompose slowly, slowly somewhere in the body of my car.
The stench cloys, hangs on the air, moist, ripe.
I see them in my mind, six-day-old rat carcasses oozing secretions;
Dead flesh wriggles with hundreds of white maggots gorging on dilapidated flesh.
I cannot ignore the smell; it unsettles my mind.
“Eeewww mum it still pongs!”
Magdalena, my eldest daughter, holds her nose between her fingers as she gets into the car, ready for the drive to school. Rachel lingers outside with a forlorn look, hesitant to get in. I rev the car.
It is one of those fresh Nairobi May mornings. The sun still finds the strength to chase away the sharp cold of dawn. Sunlight bounces off leaves shiny and plump from the long rains. Green buds have started to grow on the branches of the naked Nandi Flame tree, which inexplicably shed its leaves at the start of the rains. Birds gorge on fresh nectar at its sweetest.
This is my favourite time of year. Is it because the warm presence of the sun will soon become unreliable for three whole months? Is it because perpetual blue skies will be replaced by long periods when the sky is concealed behind a solid blanket of cold grey cloud? The sun’s warmth feels transient and must be enjoyed. Every radiant daybreak is the last chance for me to find myself. To salvage my life, before the last bright morning disappears forever.
I drive the children to school. The broken rear-view mirror is not good for much; it hangs skewed to the right, swinging every time I drive over a bump or hit a pothole. I can only see the left side of the car where Magdalena sits, and not the traffic behind me. A prefect badge is pinned on the lapel of her red school blazer, her blue checked skirt extends to meet her long dark blue socks.
I weave to avoid potholes in the tattered road, long forgotten by the City Fathers. It crumbles slowly into a steep valley on its left verge. But the road’s demise hasn’t stopped brightly painted shacks in beautiful butterfly hues – sky blue, pink, green, orange, red, bright yellow – from climbing out of the same valley and multiplying on the roadside. They come accompanied by a concentrated mass of people selling wares; fruit, vegetables, car spare parts, bread, milk, eggs, nyama choma, mutura, plastic buckets, cooking oil, mitumba clothes, charcoal in gorogoros of different sizes. Chickens keep to this small slip of space, never venturing out onto the road. I wonder at their discipline. My chicken have too much space and constantly wander where they should not, getting lost in the neighbours’ compounds, getting eaten by neighbourhood dogs.
Something is misplaced in the names of the businesses and kiosks. The owners insist on using English to compose names that end up sounding like a crooked signpost, making you tilt your head as you read them. ‘Samaki Café’, ‘Jesus Reigns Shop’, ‘Wayside Chicken Place’, ‘Mama Hope Hair Salon’, ‘Mark Fortune Shoe Maker’. My favourite establishment is ‘Living for Christ Church,’ perched precariously on top of an ambitious mabati double-storey structure, whose bottom half claims to be a boarding and lodging and to even have “guest rooms for hire!” Life is concentrated and optimistic on this small sliver of road.
For the third day in a row, Magdalena sticks her tongue out at that boy. The boy is short and stocky. He isn’t going to grow much more. He is anything between sixteen and twenty years and stares at life through guarded eyes. His face has the taut look of a teenager, the jaw is too straight, the cheek bones too high – each feature distinct and separate. Gravity has yet to blur the features and merge the face into one coherent whole.
The boy stands on the side of the road selling morning things – bread, milk, sugar, mandazi –from a small cart made from broken bits and pieces of discarded wood and corrugated iron sheets, probably banged together by the same incompetent carpenter who seems to have been hired by everyone in this shanty place.
Magdalena flicks her eyes to make sure no one is watching. In a quick motion her pink tongue looms out of her full brown lips. The first time, I don’t know who was more shocked, the boy or me. She made sure he knew it is deliberate. I followed him in the side mirror and watched rage disfigure his face, shutting his mouth and turning his eyes into hard slits.
The second time elicited a flash of anger; it snapped his head back, and he raised his right fist, clenching it at us. I could see his mind working. Who do you think you are, because you are in a car and I am here? His twisted mouth ejected his disdain in a long thin stream of spit aimed in our direction.
I bet he added: And the car is an old ramshackle, mnaniringia nini?
This time, he is ready with a smile and it is her turn to frown.
“Everything okay Magda?” I ask, holding her eyes.
“Hm?” She replies. For once, her impeccable manners fail her.
“It’s your car.” She changes the subject, my clever Magdalena.
“Still stinking after ten days? Haven’t you had the car cleaned yet? You need to go to professionals. Get it cleaned Mum, please!” She raises her voice to be heard above the loud banging, clanging music of my old car. Magdalena’s voice is warm like the sun.
“Mama just buy a new car!” Rachel, my youngest, pleads.
“I got it. The rats! This car, it’s their graveyard, Mama. Ha! Like Lang’ata cemetery, they come here to die!’ Magdalena speaks in a dramatic stage whisper. “Rachel, the ghosts of long dead rats will bite your toes in your sleep tonight Mmmmmm.”
Rachel has been sitting with her head out of the window. She pulls it back in, turns and makes a face at her sister. “Oh stop it. That’s silly, I’m not a baby.”
They laugh. Rachel’s thick-lashed, beautiful eyes shine as she looks at her sister. She is never going to be a beauty – her face does not have the even proportions, her chin recedes too much – but no one will ever notice. Those eyes will confuse everyone; they will make her beautiful. She quickly sticks her head back out of the window again, to control the nausea she feels every time she comes into my stinking car.
I join in, laughing despite myself, my amusement loud and free. But too quickly my mood returns, the same mood I have carried for as long as I can remember. I can feel the limpid black smog settling back into the pit of my stomach, like a snake seeking warmth on a cold night. I am brittle again.
“Enough, that’s enough! When you grow up, you can buy the cars of your choice, change them every week if you like. Leave mine alone!”
My voice is harsh, sour. It shuts the children up. They settle back into the uncomfortable silence they usually wear in my presence. I regret my pointless outburst, but it is too late, I have lost my children again.
We drive into the imposing ornate cast iron gates of the school. Rachel only starts to organise herself when I stop and turn off the engine. This morning is no different, she rummages in the car seat, looking for stray pens and pencils. She chases after her shoes, which always seem to slip off her feet and wedge themselves under the front seat as if trying to hide from her.
“Rachel? What are you still doing?” Magdalena speaks in her habitual exasperated tone. She stands with the open door waiting.
“If you don’t hurry up, I will leave you!” Magdalena’s voice is raised to no effect.
Rachel takes her time, secure in the knowledge that her big sister is only bluffing. She will never leave her. Magdalena always looks out for Rachel. The best way to get her mad is to do or say something to upset her little sister. They remind me so much of my sisters and me at the same age.
At last Rachel steps out of the car. I watch the two girls walk hand in hand and disappear behind a school wall. No backward glance, there never is. I know Magdalena will walk Rachel to class and only leave when she is settled.
My children are safe now in this happy place, in this school. My life cannot reach them here; it cannot contaminate them. At school my children can dissociate themselves from me and my shambles; from me and my sorrow, from me and my smell of death.
I can’t stand it either; my life. These days the smell of decomposing animals weighs down the air around me, I can’t breathe. Dead bodies bloated from the heat of the day, in various states of decay spice the air. I imagine them lying distended in ditches on the roadside; squirming under bushes. Dead squirrels, dead lizards, dead birds, slowly rotting; their flesh eaten away by white maggots, getting fatter, more restive, as they evolve inevitably to take their new form, bluebottle flies.
I thought I had succeeded. I thought I had buried the sting of that day in the depths of my being. The day of my marriage to a man so reluctant to be my husband, he made sure he was too drunk to care. He stood next to me like a stranger, repeating vows as if he was speaking a foreign language he did not understand.
“I, Walter, take this woman.”
“Yes I do.”
“No, repeat after me. I Walter take….”
“Yes I do.”
The priest gave up and rushed through the vows surprising the congregation by getting to the end before they were ready.
Instead of crying, these days, with quiet dignity, I wail in ancestral profusion, at the slightest provocation. I shock myself, alarm my husband who thought he knew me. Walter looks at me. His eyes accuse me? “You are not after all the mule I married?” I know I am breaking the one unwritten rule between us, a rule forged in the belly of despair. I would be submissive; I would go along with anything he wanted. My reward was this marriage.
A week after I had left the safety of my hospital bed, I found myself in the kitchen of my parents’ house, making tea for my future in-laws. For those seven days, I had been ignored by my father and become the spontaneous source of tears for my mother. But even this torture was better than the smirking laughter following me every time I stepped out of the house. And the abrupt silence that welcomed me when I encountered my former friends.
The bold ones spoke up making sure I heard their stray words and hard sounds.
“Ati she was a nun. Mmm, Malaya….”
“Bride of Christ … ati that’s what they call them”.
“Kumbe, she was a bride for ….eh, eh, eh.”
My grandmother was the only one who did not condemn or humiliate me in any way. When I came home, she insisted that my new daughter and I move in with her. After my first night of tears, Kukhu refused to let me cry again.
“Dry those tears, you are not the first, you won’t be the last…”
In the old hut, with its mud walls and smooth floors smeared with cow dung, Kukhu mumbled under her breath, talking to herself as she boiled water for the baby’s bath. A shaft of light fell on her face, and I watched her shining eyes as she dried the baby patting her dry, cooing and singing an ancient lullaby to my unwanted baby. My breasts ached and my arms reached out to hold her willingly, for the first time, when she brought the baby to me. Kukhu let out a long sigh as she watched me with my baby.
“What is the child’s name? You must give her a name, she never asked to be born. You must honour God’s gift by giving her a name.”
It was the day .
“And who is the father?”
My father sat perched on the edge of a stool, a portrait of discomfort, encased in stiff dignity. My mother was absent.
My future in-laws crowded the living room; noisy, drinking, eating, talking, their incessant chatter making them sound like agitated hyenas. They had come and invaded our home taking over all the chairs, stools and even the two benches usually kept in the kitchen. I counted twenty-two men, women and a few children. They stared, whispered and pointed fingers at my mother’s neat house filled with family memories. Their eyes kept coming back to the family photographs taking up an entire wall.
Every three years, typically after a church service, the family dressed in its finery, trooped to the same photographer, who recorded first the growth in family numbers and then the growing children. My mother used a whole wall to hang the photographs chronicling her changing family. I loved the early photographs of babies and toddlers. I came second in this family of six children. There I was at two years old standing next to my four-year-old elder sister, wearing the matching frilly white and pink dresses my mother loved. My mother sat in a large red velvet chair holding her one son swaddled in a sky-blue blanket. My dad stood beside my mother’s chair holding my elder sister’s hand, wearing the crisp dark suit I came to associate him with. I stood holding the hem of my mother’s dress, sucking my thumb, looking forlorn and alone.
For six years after my brother’s birth, the family remained static. For some reason, the numbers grew again in quick succession as three more girls were born, two years apart. New babies and toddlers joined the older set children.
In the early photographs, my Mum and Dad looked so effortlessly young and slim, they held their bodies with an ease which made them look as if at any minute, they would fly away. But in later photographs, as we children reached our teenage years, Mum and Dad seemed to become heavy-set and weighed-down with the exertions of living, the vigour they once had, appeared to seep into their growing children, especially my elder sister and brother who became unusually tall and towered even my father, by the time they were nineteen and fifteen years old.
The photograph of my mother and father standing beside an old white man who just happened to be Pope John Paul II, had my would-be in-laws gesticulating with urgent whispers. The photographic display of me in my Nun’s habit had been removed leaving behind four too-clean empty squares. Mother wanted one of her daughters to become a nun. She said with her surplus of girls she could donate one or two to the church. For a while I had made her dream come true.
By now I know Walter comes from a lineage of such dishonour, a marriage between his family and mine would have been out of question; under normal circumstances. Bhang traders, village drunks, single mothers, thieves and a night-runner or two is what they routinely managed to produce. Although Walter seemed to be the exception, rule breaking in his family was so entrenched, a single outlier could not possibly break the winning streak of such a well-established reputation.
Walter’s father is sitting spread out, taking up space, breathing up all the air in our sitting room; he behaves as if he is the owner of things. But some of his habits give him away. When he speaks, he giggles in a high-pitched voice with his hand over his mouth like an embarrassed girl.
“Mzee Kobe, heh, heh, heh, you know, now we are family. These children. Heh, heh, these children of ours have done wonders. Heh, heh, heh. Brought our families together. We will not avoid our responsibility. We are ready to accept your daughter. Heh, heh. After all she has given birth to our child. Heh, heh, heh.”
An old man sitting next to him, wearing akala shoes on his cracked feet, with an old broken coat hanging from his shoulders, sounded equally unconvinced by his own words.
“You must be relieved; we are an honourable family. We do not shun our responsibility.”
My father looked straight ahead. His crisp navy-blue suit contrasted with his white shirt and blood-red tie. His bearing spoke loud and clear. These were people not worthy of even the pretence of good manners.
Mzee Juma, Baba’s spokesman’s reply tapers into lurid silence.
“Yes baba Walter, the children have surely brought us together and…”
Tuesday evening. Magdalena is standing in the kitchen unlike her normal impervious, ebullient self. Today she has crumpled like old newspaper. Hard tears etch themselves into her skin and look as though they will leave permanent trails on her face. She stands with her hands tightly folded across her chest, the veins in her neck stick out in defiance, but she can’t shield herself from my eruption. The tears prove she has lost, I have hit home, battering her with accusations. I don’t stop until she is broken.
When I look at her I see myself. It is as if I gave birth to her on my own, with no one else’s DNA involved. People say she is beautiful like me. Like I used to be, in the beginning. I love to gaze at her…lose myself in the dream like quality of her beauty. Year by year, I have watched my beauty drain into that child. That long curving neck holds up a perfectly proportioned head. Her skin is a warm brown-red difficult to name, it has a brightness as if lit from beneath the skin.
I am driven by a force beyond myself. In my frenzy, I aim for the jugular, the soft underbelly. I know what will injure. What will deflate, which words will disarm budding confidence and leave her gasping for air.
I know all her weak spots. After all she is mine. I nurtured her in my womb, wiped her tears, helped build her dreams, now I take her down, reduce her to shreds.
My Magdalena pays the full price for the eyes I had to endure at her unintended birth. Did I know, did I not know? Bad things can make you a liar. For nine months on most good days, I could go on and on, hour after hour, caught up in my novitiate days, each moment calibrated with activity, from rising at 5:00 am through mid-morning prayers at 7:00 am, Community Rosary Angelus at 11.25 am, Novitiate classes at 4:00 and at 8:30 pm, retiring to my nightmare when the rhythms and routine of my life could no longer protect me from the monumental circumstances of my growing pregnancy.
And then my waters broke as the whole monastery was gathered for the midday prayer. Magdalena was born after a labour short enough to still find me the centre of everyone’s attention in the monastery.
In the hospital, later that day, I could feel Mother Superior standing in silence beside my bed. My mother sat on a chair in a corner of the room, eyes staring out of the window, tears leaking down her cheeks, her mouth moving in incessant prayer. Stray words from her prayers floated at me, wedging themselves into my heart. Mother Superior’s eyes bored into me even when I kept my own to the wall refusing to have anything to do with the child who had come like an accident, so sudden and unexpected even by me her mother.
I was relieved at my father’s absence; I did not have to witness his disappointment.
The only ones who spoke to me were the nurses.
“Wee wee, nyonyesha mtoto. Stop pretending for us. You are a woman like any other. You opened your legs and now you want to pretend that you are special. Ati you are a nun. Now we know, even a nun can give birth.
“Wee wee, nyonyesha mtoto. We were not there with you when you opened your legs. Look after that baby, we will not do it for you.”
On the third day, they hit me when I refused to have anything to do with the wailing baby. They were unmoved by my tears. They brought the baby and forced my gown open. My breasts dripped milk in response.
“Ahhh, can you see, the body is not refusing.”
They brought the crying baby with its mouth, opening, closing, seeking my breast and placed it onto my nipple. I closed my eyes and felt the milk flow in response to the suckling baby.
Walter’s voice interrupts the warm glow of bitter victory burning through me. The evening gloaming is quickly giving way to dark. The kitchen smells of the evening meal, a rich fish stew and the warm comforting smell of ugali.
“Why must you always do that?” Walter is staring at me with anger. “Why are you so destructive? You can’t let anything good thrive in your presence, can you? For a sweater? These terrible words…. for a sweater?
Walter steps into the kitchen, his body tense, his tone angry. Magda and I are both startled. This was supposed to be our private moment. Just my daughter and I.
I look at Walter. Walter’s eyes hit me with contempt. My knees give way and I find myself sitting on the battered kitchen stool with the red faded leather top, consumed by shame.
“So let me get this straight, Magda left her sweater at school and for this you are calling her a whore? Did I hear you say she must have given her school sweater to the men she sleeps with? You. Are you saying that?”
He points a long-tapered finger at me, his voice is solid rock. Only I understand the meaning in his choice of words, the purposeful arrangement. “You!” The word stares at me, an isolated thing, burgeoning taking over the air in the kitchen. I can’t breathe. “You!” It stands there in sharp relief.
Indeed, how dare I?
Walter is shouting, now, working himself into a frenzy worse than my original one. I hear my words, the ones I used on my daughter with such confidence, just moments ago and even I wonder what they mean. I look down; shut my eyes trying to get away from the mess I have created. Walter won’t let go, he is just getting started.
“Our Magda, this one standing here, this one who is a prefect, an A student, this child?”
Walter takes a step towards me, I can feel his eyes holding me.
I look up to see Magda still crying silently, her left hand covers her mouth, her shoulders are heaving. She is wearing her school uniform which at the end of the day is still neat and clean. The white shirt is spotless. Her shoes will need only light brushing to buff them. Her face is getting messy with tears, makamasi and pain. She smears the mess across her face in an angry gesture, I watch her swallow in an effort to compose herself.
I can see a look of terror on her face. She has changed into the terrified four-year-old who made my heart ache. I can see her face close to mine, her eyes huge with night fears, trying to wake me up. She holds my face with both her hands, tiny fingers plump with baby fat, rub my face gently as if I am the child and she the mother.
“Mama”, she breathes into my face.
“Mama wake up,” Magdalena whispers. “I’m scared Mama, wake up. Buga Buga wants to eat me. I keep still, pretending to be asleep. I want to feel her little fingers rubbing my face, smell the baby on her breath a little longer.
“Mama, pleath wake up?” she pleads, her voice rising in desperation as she pulls at my eyes, opening them by force.
I sit up, lean over to scoop Magda into my hands. I kiss her face and whisper back; I have caught her mood.
“What is it baby, what is it?” My voice is soothing.
“Buga Buga, wants to eat me, I saw him mama. I saw him, he is hiding under my bed. Mama, I want to sleep with you. Pleath.”
She nestles into my neck.
“Come baby, mummy magic will chase that old Buga Buga if he comes anywhere near my baby I will turn him into an old shoe and throw him away! Don’t worry baby, Buga Buga won’t touch you.
Today, Magda’s pain is palpable. Pain inflicted by me, her mother, for no reason. It is my turn now to feel helpless. Pain hits me hard, my stomach becomes a hollow sack, empty and devoid of substance.
He says my skin was red soil after the rains. He says I looked as though I had sprung from wet mud. I wasn’t sure this was a compliment until much later when he was stroking my skin and whispering words almost to himself, “…so soft, so soft, smooth.”
After that first day and the second and many more after, in that time when we had to quench our thirst for each other, I remember his relentless eyes on me.
I was going home. I was dreaming of Mama. I could see her running out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her dress, I heard her laughter, her eyes shining at me.
I didn’t see him. I walked into his bicycle. The falling bicycle reverberated, bringing me back. I was startled to see this man standing almost on top of me. I took a step back and saw his smile. Why had he not moved?
His hands reached out and steadied me. But I wasn’t falling. I felt his hands move up and down my waist and hips. I moved back, extricated myself from those opportunistic hands.
“Oh so sorry.”
“No, no, it’s okay, I’m just fine.” I had not asked after his welfare.
My mouth opened and closed. I fought to reclaim myself. But he wouldn’t let go. He held onto my eyes extending the stolen intimacy.
The warm afternoon sun buzzed, a light wind lifted the skirts of the tall billowing gum trees, which lined a road compacted from a month of burning sunlight. Torpid air sucked us into its languorous embrace. The ground swayed and raw heat rose between us.
He grinned again. “Sister, where are you off to, in such a hurry?”
“I’m going home, to visit my parents.” My words came out thick, trapped.
“Aaah! But you must be Scholastica, Mzee Kobe’s daughter. The one who went off to become a nun? Sister so glad to meet you after so long. When I last saw you, you were just finishing high school.”
I looked down at his large warm hand engulfing my own. It seemed such an unfamiliar object, so smooth, warm and large. The nails square and white against dark skin. I looked up and found him grinning at my increasing discomfort. He let go of my hand slowly.
“Well, sister, greetings to your mother and father.”
In a fluid motion, he reached down, straightened his bicycle, climbed on and cycled away. After a hundred meters, he looked back and waved. I was where he had left me, sinking.
About the Writer:
Sitawa Namwalie is a Kenyan poet, playwright, writer and performer who discovered her poetic gift in 2007 and by 2008 staged her first dramatized poetry show “Cut off My Tongue” in Nairobi. In 2009, her first book of poetry, “Cut off My Tongue,” was published.
“Cut off my Tongue” was invited to the UK’s prestigious Hay Festival in the UK in 2009. In 2010 “Cut off my Tongue” was selected by the Sundance Theatre Lab in the first East African Sundance Lab held on Manda Island.
Sitawa has written and performed several dramatized poetry performances including, “Homecoming” (2011) and “Silence is a Woman”, which won Kenya’s Sanaa Theatre Awards for Best Spoken Word and Poetry for her show of dramatized poetry.
Her poetry has appeared in several anthologies and publications including; “Reflections: An Anthology of New Work by African Women Poets”. Anthonia C. Kalu, Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi, and Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka, editors 2013.
In November 2014 Sitawa staged a reading of her first play “Black Maria on Koinange Street” at the Kampala International Theatre Festival (KITF) in November 2014 and at the Pen International Festival in New York City in 2015.
In June 2017, her second play “Room of Lost Names” premiered in Nairobi. The play had earlier premiered at the Kampala International Theatre Festival (KITF) in November 2015 and was performed at the second Ubumuntu Arts Festival in July 2016 in Kigali, Rwanda.
Sitawa currently earns a living working as an international consultant and is based in Nairobi, Kenya. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Botany and Zoology from the University of Nairobi and a Master of Arts degree in Environment, Society and Technology from Clark University in Massachusetts, USA. Sitawa has achieved excellence in many areas of life, including representing Kenya in tennis and hockey in her youth.