We call it the celebration.
“He went for his graduation in heaven,” Mama said of Uncle Joseph’s death, commending him to God the same way she began entrusting my brothers and I to the divine. In the throes of her grief, she would tie a white scarf on her head and order us to our knees: “Father God, you know these are your children. Father God, help your children in school. Father God, give your children food. Father God, forgive me.”
Mama worked as a maid for Mama Tom, and we lived in the servants’ quarter. She had stopped schooling in form three after she fell pregnant with me. I would later learn that it was Matayo who did it, a clinical officer from the local district hospital a few meters from Sergoit Girls Secondary School. He had a wife and three daughters already, but he could not resist the occasional schoolgirls, the ones who came to him with lower abdominal cramps. “Do you feel the pain here?” he had asked my mother, as his palm skimmed lower. When she was three months pregnant, Mama ran away from the outskirts of Eldoret to Kapenguria, where she would birth me outside her brother’s goat pen. He did not know she was pregnant, assuming his younger sister needed some time out of school to mourn their parents, who had been killed when the cattle rustling between the Marakwet and Pokot had flared up. Then the pains hit her as she was helping the kid of a sick goat nurse, and he unwittingly accepted us into his fold. We lived in Kapenguria until I was three, when we moved to Nairobi to live with Mama Tom.
“She’s my good friend from primary school and she needs someone to help her with the house,” my uncle’s boss had said of Mama Tom. “And she doesn’t mind maids with kids.”
On the second day after we moved in, Mama Tom gave Mama a purple-checkered uniform.
“So your clothes don’t get dirty,” she told her.
I don’t remember Mama wearing anything else. She wore it to church and to bed. She wore it when she first met Uncle Joseph eight years later.
Mama Tom had a son, whom we only saw in a photo that stood above the fireplace. It was taken right after his graduation ceremony, when he had worn a black gown and a cap with a golden tussle. He wore dark glasses that shaded his eyes and a purple shirt with a purple tie. One day it was that he had died after a military truck lost its brakes and rolled down the Kerio Valley. Another day it was a fire.
“Faya. Mama Tom said a bad faya,” Mama said.
It was in my first composition of class six, the ones that ask you what you did for your holidays that I began to write about the celebration. I wrote about attending the funeral of Tom, who had died when a faya burnt down his home. Mrs. Kuchiro, my English teacher, circled the word. “Did you mean fire?” she wrote in red biro. I did not know how to write about wounds that did not heal, or yellow pus, or white crosses in Lang’ata cemetery. So I wrote about Tom. Tom, who had died in a bad fire. Tom, whose mother had no gravesite to nestle in the green fields and geranium flowers in her backyard. I did not know where his body lay, so I chose Gedi, where I buried him in the middle of two jasmine bushes.
I stopped short of writing about the moments he would look upon us from his gowned portrait above the fireplace, on the afternoons I came home from school and we watched repeat episodes of La Revancha, Mama’s favorite Mexican soap opera. The episodes followed the life of a poor girl, Soledad, who falls in love with the rich Alejandro. Mama would order me to close my eyes when Soledad and Alejandro kissed. I would oblige, for when I closed my eyes, Tom came to me. He stepped out of his graduation day into my present, enfolding me in his black gown. We had our first kiss on my twelfth birthday, a few months before the celebration.
It was in those months that I began dreaming that Tom and I had three boys in miniature graduation gowns that Uncle Joseph moved in with us. “This is Uncle Joseph,” Mama said the evening he walked into our small living room, his black face glistening with sweat and dust, his tie cocked at his neck, never quite passing his navel. I did not tell Mama that I knew he lived in the tin-roofed houses that lay beyond Mama Tom’s fence of bougainvillea and electric poles. I did not tell her that I had often seen Uncle Joseph on my way back home from Karen ‘C’ primary school, carrying a black bag slung over his shoulder with ‘Hongkong 1997’ emblazoned on it in shiny gold thread. He stood chatting with the shopkeepers at the junction to Kuwinda road, updating them on his day, purchasing his Precious Ltd. stock at River road and selling them across the University of Nairobi campuses.
“You are very smart madam,” he must have told Mama, when she went to the kiosk to buy my evening milk.
“Your mother tells me you are a smart girl,” Uncle Joseph told me as he handed me a Precious Ltd. business card. Joseph Otunga, it read, Supplier of General Household Goods. He moved in with his Hongkong bag and a gunny sack of clothes, which Mama shuffled into our sleeping room. The next day Uncle Joseph supplied our household with a new mattress, and I moved to the living room.
I accepted Uncle Joseph like the father I no longer asked about. Mama had said she would only tell me who my father was after I had become a woman. And I had made the mistake of asking Mama Tom about Baba Tom. I was helping Mama cut sukuma wiki when the question crept into my mind and left my mouth before I could stop it. Mama Tom turned to look at me. “You must never rely on a man,” she said. Mama slapped me after she left. Perhaps Mama Tom let Uncle Joseph move into our home so he could rely on a woman.
I accepted Uncle Joseph like the father I never had. Named after the father of Jesus Christ, whose mother gave birth to him amongst animals, like my own mother.
“Good morning, my names are Joseph. We have a promotion this month.” Uncle Joseph would practice with me as I had breakfast before school. We would leave the quarters at the same time, carrying our bags. My bag of unfinished homework, his Hongkong bag of cutlery, cotton blend socks, solar phone chargers, wafers that tasted like molasses, thermos flasks, juice blenders, pliers, electric sockets, and fake leather wallets.
When schools closed for the December holiday, I woke up to see Uncle Joseph off to his peddling.
“Good morning my names are Joseph. We have a promotion this month,” he would say.
“How do I sound?” he would ask me.
“Like you are going to make a big profit today,” I would answer.
I waited for him in the evening. “Uncle Joseph is here!” I announced to my mother when I heard the shrill of the bell, before running off to the gate. Before holding his hand as I ushered him through the six steps it took to our two-roomed quarters by the gate, eager to hear whether he had achieved his projected profit of 1,500 Kenya shillings.
“Next week we are going to Kapenguria,” Mama said one evening as Uncle Joseph practiced his morning greeting. “We are going to tell uncle about Uncle Joseph, and Uncle Joseph is going to tell his people about us.” Since we moved to Nairobi, we had only been back to Kapenguria twice for two to three days at a time. Our Kapenguria hiatus that December lasted for a week, before we made our way back to Nairobi. Moments in dusty hot Kapenguria with goats crisscrossing the road no longer compared to the life of Karen’s green lawns and afternoons of La Revancha.
“I want all of you to write about your December holiday,” Mrs. Kuchiro had said in our first English lesson in class six after we resumed school.
I did not write how Mama and my uncle’s wife woke me up in the morning, a day after we arrived in Kapenguria. How I found myself surrounded by girls I had never seen. “These are your cousins from our clan,” Mama had said. They stood together, my aunt holding a small knife, the same way I held my pencil when I wrote my compositions.
“There shall be no crying. That is a curse, and we don’t want you girls to be cursed. We want you to be women.” my aunt said to us. “We must do this quickly before the chief finds out, since we are in town and we don’t have time to go far away,” she said to my mother.
I did not flinch as my aunt carved the oval spheres, as my thighs and back ruptured into a fire. I wondered instead if the fire that killed Tom started at the bottom of his navel, consuming him higher and lower, until his whole body became ashes that Mama Tom could no longer piece into the man in the photo over her fireplace. I welcomed the darkness that came with the pain, enveloping me like Tom’s black gown in those afternoons of La Revancha, far away in the memory of Karen and Mama Tom’s house.
I did not write that Uncle Joseph stopped peddling that holiday, after we had returned from our respective people. Mama said he had a fever when he stopped his morning greetings. Then she said he could no longer walk, when he lay in bed as the holiday came to an end. She moved between the two of us in her purple frock, so swiftly that in moments when Panadol did not subside my pain, I imagined a purple haze nursing my moon-shaped wounds. She would check on us every two hours, shuffling between the quarters and the main house. Whenever Mama walked out of our quarters long enough, I crawled and peeped into their room, hoping to see Uncle Joseph’s black glistening face, until the day I saw him while Mama worked in the main house, holding his swollen penis as he tried to pee into a basin by the bed.
By January, my crescent shaped wounds had healed, and Uncle Joseph had moved out. “Now look what your circumcision has done,” his people said when they came to claim his body. Mama Tom had looked for them when Mama told her about the pus and blood festering in the basin. She bought Uncle Joseph’s coffin and his people’s silence.
I did not write how Mama filled the hollow that Uncle Joseph left with newfound prayers. For Jesus to receive him, for the saints who were dead to welcome him into his celebration in heaven. For God to forgive her for insisting that men must be circumcised.
“You must never rely on a man,” Mama Tom had said. We could not rely on Uncle Joseph, who had left barely into a year of moving into our home. The memory of his morning greeting and Hongkong bag replaced by the white crosses of Lang’ata cemetery, where I imagined he lay under his own piece of savannah grassland. The fire had consumed Uncle Joseph, but it remained alive in my crescent shaped scars. A hollow that I filled with Tom, skimming my fingers lower when they began to itch, rubbing the scars together, imagining Tom coming to me, embracing me, easing the burn that persisted like an ulcer. Almost ten months after the holiday, I was caressing my scars when I felt a warm gush of liquid on my palm. Ten months after Uncle Joseph’s graduation to heaven. A month after the birth of my twin brothers.
“You are now a complete woman,” Mama said when I asked her for money to go buy Always. “We should celebrate.”
About the Writer
Miriam Jerotich is a writer and researcher, who enjoys crafting fiction, nonfiction, and academic works that trace how transformational processes, movements, and moments influence humans. Her writings have been published in The Guardian, Storymoja, Saraba Magazine, Brittle Paper, and Oxford Feminist E-Press. A collection of her works can be accessed on www.miriamjerotich.com.