Jemimah Kariuki is becoming Chinese.
‘Charity begins at work,’ she says at every desk she stops at in her workplace, Domestic Revenue, ExtelComms Inspectorate. She licks her lips – a nervous habit from childhood – trying to recruit members. A few have promised to join the Chinese venture, Kianshi Multi-marketing, that she has just signed up as an agent for: Mama Kitu, the Domestic Revenue manager’s soon-to-retire secretary, who has a sausage and ‘Buru Buru free-range’ eggs business; Bob ‘just call me Bobby’ Onyango, who offers green card opportunities for a price, and who starts asking Jemimah whether she can hook him up with red cards to go to China – Bobby says he needs a new product and he sees potential in their working together; Assumpta from Engineering. Then there is Silas, the intern from Domestic Revenue, and Dennis Wafula from Wires and Cables, who needs something on the side to help him pay school fees for his twelve children.
‘The new Kenya is Dholuo and Gikuyu. Working together. Kenyatta na O.O. Oginga Odinga. Kenyatta Mboya – Okuyu meets Kisum City,’ Bobby says.
Many at the office who have bought green card promises from Bobby are yet to go to the States and are disappointed. Soon, the office’s informal marketplace can’t stop whispering about Jemimah’s new Chinese thing. Wires and Cables, who have shiba’d from the bribes they have gotten from stolen copper cables, start deriding it. Accounts starts looking for small ways to deduct her salary and clip her wings because of this latest sign of Jemimah’s irritating ambition. All the messengers want in but are unable to cough up the Ksh 500 they need to join the Chinese scheme.
This is how it works: Kianshi offers the best consumer products from China at very affordable prices based on flexible payment instalment plans; agents receive Chinese goods upfront based on how many members they can sign up. Jemimah is determined to be the number one Kianshi agent of all the twenty-five based in the city. She met the head of Kianshi Multi-Marketing in Kenya, Han So, five months ago and has since gained his confidence. Recently, Han So asked her to come up with a more identifiable Kenyan name for Kianshi. She was his choice for that select assignment among many other Kianshi hopefuls.
Later, at lunch, Jemimah stands in the queue with other junior clerks from her department, at Mama Jacinta’s. The kiosk has a smoky stillness and midday sunbeams bullet through the recycled wood walls. Once in a while, there is a large crack as the iron-sheet roof suddenly expands and contracts from the lunchtime sun and a cloud of hot githeriwashes the interior. Bessie, Jemimah’s work best friend, is closest to her in the line for food. Bessie’s back is to the counter, so she does not notice she’s holding up the queue. Assumpta, tall and beautiful as always, stands in front of her. As she listens to Jemimah, three cheap suits from Accounts breeze past her, get their lunch, hungry eyes on Assumpta.
One says, ‘Sasa Beejing?’
Accounts is all male, a hundred per cent juvenile. Beejing – their latest idiotic joke making fun of the International Women’s Conference in the Chinese Capital – is now doing the rounds in Accounts, spreading to Wires and Cables, and will finally be legitimised in Field Division.
Jemimah is speaking to Assumpta, who nods, her eyes roaming in their perpetual panic. Jemimah’s eyes are caught by Assumpta’s mouth – large, large and soft and painted carefully, and never grimacing or stretching. Bessie laughs and says, ‘It’s a private-sector mouth. The girl will never last here.’
Jemimah says at Assumpta’s mouth: ‘Not America, Chaina is the next world pawa – everyone knows. You need to buy new Made in Chaina. Thas why I’m selling Made in Chaina. Na-Sell World Pawa.’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ says Assumpta in her serious way, ‘I went shopping in Cheng Du last year. Their kitchen tiles are very good.’
‘Korea, Iddian, Firipino watever,’ Bessie says. ‘I forgot my purse in the office. Can you pay for me?’ Bessie has been forgetting her purses and having her handbags stolen ever since she lost her Nigerian boyfriend two years ago and stopped living what she used to call la vida loca. During friendlier moments, like month-ends, Bessie commiserates on their present vertical immobility in life with a standard sigh.
‘My sista mon, Jemmie,’ She says this in her slow, stalking and deliberate way, in a passably bad Nigerian accent that, with time, has acquired old Jamaican reggae lyrics. Bessie is long rather than tall – like a gawky giraffe calf. ‘Pay for me beans and chapati, please.’
‘Jemmie’ suggests to just about everyone that Bessie is unlikeable because she is high maintenance. She hates it when Bessie calls her ‘Jemmie’, though her short quirkiness has learned to shrug this off – like many things about Bessie – because of her marketing training at Kianshi. Part of her understands that her plump, round-shouldered lightness is complemented by Bessie’s dark, long features.
‘Kwisha,’ says the young man behind the counter, with a smile, and a flourish of the sufuria lid. He bangs two lids together, ‘Chakula. Food finito.’
Accounts are already seated, enjoying what was supposed to be Domestic Revenue’s Chapati Madondo.
‘Aieee … Kijana, not again!’ Bessie says with her elbows.
Kijana laughs, ‘Last month’s money. Mama Jacinta anakutafuta.’ He bangs his lids again, and a cheer rises from where Accounts are seated. Domestic Revenue has to do chapatis and Stoney Tangawizi. They all leave the queue. Bessie glares at Jemimah who stands, oblivious of their food disaster, still talking Chinese products to Mama Jacinta. Mama Jacinta owns the kiosk and is making her way to the till when she sees Jemimah. It’s too late for Mama Jacinta to hide. She is tired of listening to this Kianshi biashara every day.
‘Kianshi is Chinese. They do multi-level marketing. Selling Chinese products. Wait a minute … here it is,’ she says to Mama Jacinta, as she riffles in her bag. ‘As it says here … I will photocopy this for you. No, you don’t have to pay for photocopies. I’ll do them at the office.’
Mama Jacinta holds up her hand. ‘Ngoja,’ she says. She quickly scribbles on her receipt book: Photocopy – Jemimah to pay.
‘Kianshi is a large-scale global enterprise group. Advanced biotechnologies. Advanced… you understand. Kianshi boasts a rapid average annual growth rate – 270 per cent…’ Jemimah suddenly remembers the video presentation on presentation, and juts out her chest to project her voice.
The kiosk has quieted down with all occupants masticating away their lunchtime. Light beams shooting through the holes in the mabati walls slant as the sun moves across the sky.
‘Three years minimum,’ Jemimah continues, still standing and explaining to an entranced but skeptical Mama Jacinta. ‘I plan to be Kianshi head marketer. You have the Ksh 500 to join for me? There will be benefits later.’
‘Chapo Dengu,’ shouts a late customer, pushing Jemimah aside from the counter. Jemimah remembers where she is, makes her way and sits down, ignoring Bessie’s hangry glower.
Now Jemimah sips at her soda, too excited to eat because Mama Jacinta might finally sign up. Counting in her head everyone in the building they work in, she does not notice Bessie appropriate her chapati. Mlima House. She thinks of all those Ministries: Labour, National Planning and the defunct Heritage. Five askaris at the gate, the women selling felt-tip pens near the chain fence around the compound, the two police and four receptionists. Eighteen storeys in the building, fifty people per storey.
She turns to Bessie. ‘Like the wheel of a bike, every ka-spoke is number one. With 10 per cent of kila mwananchi in our building – thas ninety people,’ she says, removes a pen from her bag, and starts making notes. ‘I need to invest in a scientific calculator,’ she says. Everyone sitting at the Domestic Revenue table removes their toothpicks from their mouths and laughs.
‘Shock on you,’ Bessie says to Jemimah. ‘Aloe Vera products are better,’ she leans in to whisper, ‘the cream tightens it down there.’ Jemimah knows that Bessie is angry with her for making them miss out on madondo and chapati, talking up China. She will make it up to her when she becomes a senior marketer at Kianshi and take her to the Oriental restaurants she likes so much. Jemimah has not asked Bessie to join Kianshi. She fears that her sista will be highly successful. After Obi left, she thought of introducing Bessie to Han So’s brother-in-law, Jin Shu, but decided he was too short for her.
Obi, the Nigerian boyfriend, was thrown out of the country leaving Bessie rich with a Yaya apartment, two hair salons in South B and West and a cyber café in Westlands, at least for a few months, till Obi started sending his associates back to Kenya for it all. The properties, as well as the dark platinum 5-series Beemer, the Hutchings Biemer furniture. Bessie was left with some Dubai 24-carat gold trinkets, a pair of Dubai Donna Karan outfits, a queen-size gold bed with a smaller mattress (concentric squares), her stocky puppy, Boss, who looked a bit too much like Obi, and an almost life-size poster of a Dubai Tiger, all yellow and gleaming and photoshopped and crouching in a mass of cartoon-like jungle-ness.
Bessie lived with Jemimah for a while and they became friends. Jemimah knows she is Bessie’s only company at the office. But the days of doing Chinese, Japanese or seafood for lunch are long gone with Obi and his money.
That Friday afternoon there is no one in the Domestic Revenues’ cardboard and mkojo-smell office on the fourth floor at Mlima House. Everyone is running around, collecting money for the coming weekend from their various office enterprises. Saa nane na forty. It is quiet. Jemimah is relieved and exhausted after two hours of detailed calculations in Mama Jacinta’s small, hot office kiosk and is now thinking about the potential in the Mlima House offices. Mama Jacinta, it turns out, is a member of GLD, Amway, Aloe Vera, Herbatronics, and five merry-go-round schemes. When Jemimah hears this, she tries to convince her: ‘Kianshi is special. All members are a FAMILY. Chaina is the next World Pawa. Everyone knows this.’
Friday traffic, shouts and smells rise from the street, the burning blue saucer of sky outside the curtain-less windows, grit in her eyes and the perpetual smell of urine and chemical lemon toilet cleaner: the things she is trying to get out of her life.
Jemimah remembers the last Kianshi video she received in her P.O. Box. VISUALISE, the video says: she daydreams, driving up Community, on her way to the office. But wait a minute – passing by, drifting towards the leafier Nairobi suburbs, further west into Karen, Adams or Hurlingham – a non-working and free woman unencumbered at 3 p.m. on a weekday afternoon. Following the setting sun in the opposite direction to her 5 p.m. reality, downtown Eastlands. She has calculated. With hard work it could take up to two years.
So, immediately she gets to work, she starts drawing up the generational multi-level mind map structure for Mama Jacinta and writing up her recent lunchtime projections for her sponsor, Mr Han So. She looks around the tired Extelcomms office she knows she will be leaving soon. Jemimah underlines beneath the projections she has placed on paper – IDENTIFY GOALS NOT NEEDS – then starts working again on the new name Han So has asked for.
‘Chenya, Kinya,’ she mutters rolling her tongue. Enunciate the vowels. She does not see the slouching figure before her for a moment. When she opens her eyes the intern she is assigned to train that afternoon is standing at her desk. Both his hands are placed on her desk.
‘… Er Sammy.’ Her head is still on the Kianshi figures and names, but she switches haraka. ‘In-this-department-we-deal-with-telecommunication-revenue. We-get-photos–from-all-over-the-country-that-show-pipeline-meter-reading. Edit-and-forward-to-IT,’ she says in staccato.
‘Eh,’ the boy says, and stares at the front of her blouse.
She ignores his stare and, after they go through the meter counter photos for half an hour, looks around and, making sure there is no one within earshot, pulls back her shoulders and says a new tone that she has learned from the Kianshi video: ‘Ever heard of multi-level marketing? While everyone is doing silly tu-small businesses in this office there is money to be made.’
The intern jerks back, ‘Is this part of my internship?’
Jemimah ignores the Friday lunch beers on his breath, notes with surprise the expensive patterned yellow shirt he is wearing. Han So has taught her to look for potential signs of new agents and members for Kianshi.
‘Nice shirt. You are a dyed-in-the-wool multi-level marketer,’ she says and bares her teeth trying to smile.
‘What you doing after work?’ he asks. They are alone in the office – 3.30 p.m. ‘By the way… my name is Walter.’
Even better, she thinks. A thick skin. Not easily offended.
‘Skiza,’ she says smoothly, ‘I can’t join you. Marketing training seminar. 4.30 Westlands.’
Walter walks away and picks up the phone at the next desk, dials and stares at her.
Jemimah fishes a small mirror from her bag and carefully moves it over the new red suit with padded shoulders that she is wearing. It is one of a batch she bought in Ngara after joining Kianshi. She has thrown out the chiffon dresses with erratic hemlines and balloon shoulders that she wore when she had moved to Nairobi to from Karatina. Out too, the softer skirts with shorter hemlines and white blouses bought from Wangari at Posta. Bessie had always made fun of her, saying the clothes made her blend into Extelcomms like a good Made in China weave. She purses her lips, and applies lip gloss over a cold sore.
Some men from Wires and Cables have joined the intern in looking at her from over the far corner of the partitioned office. One imitates her with a clipboard. She ignores them: decides that, after all, Walter the Intern is not going places with Kianshi and heads out to meet Han So.
They meet near Parliament at the C & A coffee house. Whenever they meet, Han So likes to watch how the establishment works and even asks her questions that make her feel good about herself.
‘You think they make money here?’ Han So asks. ‘Where do they buy coffee? Who are their main customers?’ Silly questions, she thinks.
She pretends to study the C & A coffee shop. After the mandatory month’s training, she has been judging everyone around her as either a multi-level marketer or a non-marketer. Or, even worse, the bottom of the marketing heap – the traditional marketer. Han So has trained her to be wary of these. Traditional marketers like the father of her eight-year old son, Kim. Traditional marketers like her parents back in Karatina. At first, even with Han So’s training, the criteria she used to tell who were marketers, non-marketers and traditional marketers was vague and instinctive. But now she has watched Han So at work and she has caught on to some of his mantras.
‘I think this coffee shop is in the shifting stage from non-marketer to marketer,’ she offers.
Han So looks at her blankly, like she is mad. When she tries to tell him about Mlima House he does not seem too excited. He instead asks her about Extelcomm products, and listens carefully. She asks Han So about the results of her latest test and he says the results are yet to arrive.
When Jemimah had gone to the Kianshi opening seminar at KICC, she had been impressed by Han So’s opening presentation, which she had paid Ksh 500 to attend.
‘You must avoid the number one problem of Africa: thinking luck, not hard work, will solve your problems.’ Now, this is something she never tires of telling her focus group during the seminars Kianshi arranges. The twenty-five Kianshi Nairobi agents are split into five focus groups that meet every Saturday to discuss marketing strategies. After the strategy sessions anyone is allowed volunteer to give a testimony. Han So has said that she has improved in her testimony telling.
She never tires of playing what they call ‘the testimony game’ with thefive other telemarketers in her Kianshi focus group every Saturday. Each session is Ksh1,000. All have undergone the one-month training period together. Jemimah can’t always remember their names. They are a sight – an exercise in Han So’s faith. An old, recovering alcoholic who lost his senior marketing position at one of Kenya’s largest HMOs, some bright kid just out of International School of Kenya, Han So’s ever-grinning brother-in-law, Jin Shu. The rest hover on the edges of Jemimah’s memory. The nervous oddity of the group doesn’t matter in the face of Han So’s motivational speeches, ‘Magnifying glass catch sun, bring power, focus energy. Then fire! Catch potential!’ They all cheer and become one but whenever they try to use the same words it doesn’t sound right. They’ve all tried this public voice in the mirror. ‘Magnifying glass catch sun, bring power, focus energy. Then fire! Catch potential!’
At first, she used her experience from her time at the New Redeemer Church of Christ in Karatina where she had trained to become a pastor before she came to Nairobi. She had to leave while she was still training after she started an affair with Pastor Muremi who refused to leave his wife for her, even after they had been seeing each other for at least one year. She thinks that the Karatina church testimonies did not work at Kianshi because of these unhappy memories. Han So encourages the use of personal experiences to sell products. They also practise this in the focus group. ‘When I first arrived in Nairobi two years ago, I lived with my relatives … Mbari ya Mundia’, she says. ‘They hated me, but I loved them. I know I will meet many people like the Mundias when I am out there selling.’ In reality, the Mundias she uses as a teaching guide were vaguely hostile and pleasantly indifferent to Jemimah. She finished the testimony by saying: ‘In the end, Mundia wa Steven got me my first job because I had sold myself and marketed my skills. I moved to a high-rise bed-sitter in Kayole. In Nairobi, you start small small, so I started saving for better things. And I am here now.’
Presently, they finish their coffee at C & A and because Han So is still observing what is going on in the shop, Jemimah removes her notebook. Han So watches: how fast the waiters go to new clients? How fast the orders are? What everybody is ordering? Jemimah thinks of how far she has come since she joined Kianshi. With her new expertise she now categorises everything aloud to practise her marketing voice: national politicians, newscasters and people starring in TV ads as either traditional marketers or telemarketers. During such sessions at home, her current come-we-stay husband, Miano wa Miano, curses and mutes the TV.
‘Sawa, let’s listen to YOU, nye nye nye … nye nye nye,’ he says. ‘All the time. Nye nye nye … Go on and on. Endelea …’ Miano wa Miano urges with a hardcore relish that he has developed from being a spare parts dealer on Kirinyaga Road. Miano wa Miano knows how to sell spare parts and makes a lot of money so she cannot understand his contempt for her new venture. ‘Where is the demand?’ he asks, in anger. Miano wa Miano took care of her while she was still finding her way in Nairobi. But, a few months ago, there was a huge crackdown on spare parts as part of a racket of stolen cars in Nairobi and the cash has dried up.
Once, during these regular TV battles, Jemimah switched off the TV in a huff during one of Miano Wa Miano’s favourites – Nderemo ya Mabingwa. Win-A-House Contest. She then watched him calculating whether her action warranted some form of physical action. He gave her a speculative look and all he said was: ‘Niki-win the house; you won’t be coming.’ She ignored him as he walked out of the door and made him sleep on the floor after he came back after three days, drunk, meek and dishevelled. He becomes quiet when he drinks because of the lean days on Kirinyaga Road.
‘Being multi-marketer, very challenge,’ Han So has told her when she tells him about the lack of support at home.
Jemimah recognises the uneasy détente that becoming Chinese has created between her and Miano wa Miano. She finds him useless now that she has more money but likes the new sense of power over a man. She wonders what he’ll say when she tells him about her son. For now, she is too busy to engage in a retaliatory aggressive short-term competition with him.
And so her son, Kim, remains undiscovered by him.
The after-work crowd starts thinning in the coffee shop, heading to the bars. Han So is satisfied with his observations and they leave.
On Monday, happy and high after three weekend meetings with Han So, Jemimah comes to work wearing a dress from China that Han So has given her from the Kianshi products. He always says that the best way to market Chinese goods is also to use them.
‘It is a Qipao,’ Han has told her, and she repeats that to all at work. It is a long flowing deep blue garment with aquamarine herons on the breast flowing over the shoulder to the small of her back. Jemimah ignores the snickers from Wires and Cables.
Han So explained: ‘Also called Cheongsam. Not only for Chinese woman but beautiful all woman. Come in many style. You can sell here in Kinya?’
Her boss, PK Maina, calls her into his office. ‘Kama unataka kuvaa hiyo stupid national dress you do it in your home.’
‘This is Chinese silk! It is called Kipao.’ She storms out of his office. People stare and laugh through the glass partition of PK Maina’s office.
‘Mambo ya wanawake,’ he mutters, shaking his head.
Even Bessie is not as supportive. ‘Imagine me coming to work in a Nigerian agbada when I was with Obi. If and when I could. And Jemmie, you know what I mean – I had the money and the man.’ When Bessie says this, she places her fingers on the sides of Jemimah’s eyes and tugs upwards: ‘Chinese.’ Sideways: ‘Japanese.’ And downwards: ‘Portuguese.’
Bessie then puts her hand flutteringly to her chest leans back and says: ‘Nigerian.’
Both women start laughing hard.
Over the next month, Jemimah notices that Han So now asks her more and more about ExtelComms products – and one day he asks her whether she can get copies of shipment invoices, credit notes and local purchase orders from the office. When she manages to sneak away the documents he wants she is surprised at how happy he seems. He even promises her more Kianshi products over the next month.
Then one day he asks: ‘Your boss is good man… can talk?’
She pretends to think and says: ‘He’s a traditional marketer.’ Two years ago, she had an affair with her boss, PK Maina, when he was not the present brusque top-heavy man given to picking his teeth to distraction in the afternoons at the office. She was still in the white blouse, tight skirt phase. Jemimah stopped sleeping with him when he started telling everyone he was ‘eating Beejing.’
Soon after, Jemimah met Miano wa Miano and moved in with him, and she hasn’t thought of PK Maina in awhile. She asks Han So about the differential margins between Kianshi cosmetics and golf equipment. His eyes glaze over from behind his thick glasses and he curses in Chinese. ‘No time for joke. Time for serious. You introduce me to your boss?’ he says with a smile, tapping his chest, and almost pushing his hand into her face.
When he calms down, he asks: ‘You know… er how you say it… where government company you work for buys…’ He pretends to be picking up a telephone receiver. Bessie always tells her that men will change after a certain period of knowing them and she wonders whether this is what is happening with Han So. She tells Han So about PK Maina’s recent scorn at the Chinese dress he gave her and this time he laughs and says, ‘Time for serious. You introduce me to boss?’ She decides to forgive Han So for his strange behaviour.
Jemimah invites Han So to her office and introduces him to PK Maina. She leaves the two of them alone and they talk for three hours. Now and then she turns, everyone does, and watches the two through the transparent government glass. Finally, they laugh and shake hands. When Han So comes out of PK’s office she walks him out. She can hear Accounts making their loud stadium whispers, ‘Beejing, Beejing na Ka-Chinese boyfriend.’ She also hears Bessie’s loud laugh.
When she comes back, Bessie says: ‘Now you know how I used to feel when you’d call Emenkua, ‘Obi’’.
‘Your boss he good man,’ Han So says to her later when they meet after work at the open-air restaurant near KICC. She realises, for the first time, that he’s much shorter than her. She has always thought him as big. She can put her hands all around his upper frame. Until now, she has never contemplated physical contact with him. Now she notices his small tight thrusting hips, and a charcoal coloured mouth – smoke and beer and a certain knowledge. She wonders what their children would look like. Pink to medium-brown depending on the time of day, she decides. She thinks about her son and Miano Wa Miano.
Last night, she kept waking Miano wa Miano up with screams from a recurring bad dream. Her son Kim appeared in a field of maize in the dream. He wore his grey, black-and-white boarding academy uniform. Starting at the foot of the field he wandered into the long stalks and she watched as the lilting green leaves started to whir like blades as he walked in harsh sunlight.
Miano wa Miano woke up to her thrashing and, still semi-drunk from the previous night, found this arousing. She pushed aside his gropings. These dreams have been going on for weeks. Miano wa Miano has decided that Jemimah has kifafa. He has also found a payslip lying around, full of scribbles and evidence that there is another budgetary presence in her life, but he has said nothing.
Han So is saying. ‘Your boss is good man. He agree to buy Chinese phone. We soon talk about computer. You do not listen. This is important.’ She wonders whether she should leave Miano wa Miano because her life with him is now affecting her concentration during these Kianshi meetings with Han So.
‘I am sorry,’ she says in her best Kianshi voice. ‘I have come up with a name that sounds Kenyan for Kianshi. Kenshi,’ she tells him. He nods.
‘When are our products arriving?” she asks.
‘Factory in Shanghai burn down. Six months.’
Later that afternoon, PK Maina passes by her desk and whispers: ‘I like your kajamaa. Anaelewa Kenya. He taught me some Chinese words.’ He leers: ‘You know what tongoza in Chinese is?’
The moment Jemimah has been dreading comes. Han So is to visit her two-room high-rise bed-sitter in Kayole to see whether it is safe to store Kianshi products there in the future. She cannot remember what the pamphlets says about home storage and she is worried that her home will not be good enough as a Kianshi marketing outlet. She is scared that when Han So sees where she lives he will think she cannot make a good Kianshi agent because she is not ambitious enough and lives in a hole. She has postponed visiting her son Kim at his Academy in Athi so she can receive some goods Han So has said he wants stored as testing for a bigger Kianshi venture. The school no-visit she can tell will be another trigger on the escalating hostility from her mother, whom she has not spoken to for three weeks.
Jemimah makes sure the maid removes all the wet clothes hanging in the small corridor leading to her room. She removes the vitambaasfrom the red velvet jumbo sofa set, looks at them and puts them back. She opens all the windows trying to make the room larger and removes a cracked mirror that hangs on top of the TV. She stares at the small pile of books from her days as a Sociology student at Maseno. Looking at a household list on the wall, an account from one of the local shops in which she has scribbled the little Chinese she has learned, Jemimah feels small and hopeless. She crosses out the Chinese words. They are from a book Han So lent her when she joined Kianshi. He has said that, as the most promising agent, when the time comes, she will go for training at Kianshi headquarters in Beijing. She takes her monthly shopping list down from the kitchen wall.
Mwangi Shop List – July
Mafuta Boy 1kg
Milk (30 pkt) niúnăi
Bread (8) miànbāo
With nothing to do but wait till Han So calls her, she walks out of the door and, looking down from the dangerous balcony with the low railing, her phone rings. She can see the city in the distance, and when she turns she can see the huge white emptiness of the quarry behind the block of flats.
‘Haai,’ she says into the phone.
‘Mathee,’ she hears. It’s her son, Kim.
As she looks down from the balcony she is surprised to see Han So emerge from a small Canter parked outside the block of bed-sitters. She had hoped he would call first.
‘I couldn’t make it… this weekend.’ she says. ‘Sorry.’ She feels like crying and is not sure why.
‘Mathee. Una homa? You sound funny.’
‘Kimani. English. English. Argh… leave that Sheng, Daddy… How are you?’
She can see below how the neighbourhood kids have gathered around Han So, ‘Jackie Chan, Jackie Chan,’ they shout, chopping their hands and kicking in the air. Han So laughs and shouts and, with a flourish, takes a Kung Fu stance and kicks out in the air:
‘Ha!’ The kids cheer.
Han So looks up, sees her and waves her down. Relieved, thinking he might not come up after all, she clacks down the five flights of stairs in heels, still on the phone. Looking at the huge white quarry at a distance she feels a sudden heat on her face, the white dust it brings caking her face.
‘Mathee. Mi si mlami.’ her son says. ‘Sitaki English.’
‘Okay. When are you coming? Will you bring Kenchic?”
People are lighting jikos everywhere on the corridors of each floor. Saturday maize and beans, githeri gas everywhere, the smells of her mother’s life. There is a burst water pipe. Water overflows from the third floor to the second in a stink.
‘Soon. Soon.’ she says to her son. ‘Your school is so nice. Green, big. Like where I grew up.’
‘Mum imejaa wa Cambodia.’
‘Kambas cannot be trusted but they are not bad people … Are there any Chinese children?’ she asks.
‘Hakuna ma Jackie Chan.’
Jemimah paces herself, tiptoeing through the last flight of stairs – she wants to finish with her son before she meets Han So. On the ground floor. She sees that some of the bigger kids are playing with him. He can’t see her. The kids stare at her phone. If they were alone and at night she would lose it.
‘Bye Dadee… I will call tomorrow.’ She straightens her dress. Her face feels tight with white dust from the quarry.
‘They like leettle monkeys,’ Han So smiles, looking at the crowd of kids gathered around.
Jemimah is thankful that Miano wa Miano is not at home. He has not come in since last night, Friday. Han So’s men start stacking boxes everywhere in the small house.
Jemimah is happy when Han So doesn’t ask to go up to her house.
They watch the men carry the boxes upstairs. When one box falls down the stairs Han So curses furiously: ‘Carefle. Carefle.’ Small containers and packets of seasoning fall and flutter to the ground. Han So hands out an armful to Jemimah.
‘For you. Good friend of Han So. Chinese seasoning. Like Loyco.’
She laughs. How long did it take for her to stop saying ‘Loyco’?
As the men go up and down she notices an oil stain on one of the boxes. ‘For cooking. Chinese fat for cooking. Some for you. Good friend of Han So,’ he says.
He turns to the small kiosk metres away from where they stand. ‘Come, let us dleenk soda dleenk,’ he says, his hands fishing into his pockets. He waves the kids over and ends up buying over fifty sodas and thirty mandazis.
‘Ha ha ha. For good fliend of Han So.’
Han So leaves her and goes to talk to Mwangi, the owner of the kiosk, for about twenty minutes. Han So then comes outside and waves at the men. They bring over five cartons from the Canter. Jemimah sees Mwangi shaking his head.
‘Angalia hii label. These Omo packets are torn and they are in Chinese.’
‘Half-plice. For good friend of Han So,’ Han So says. Mwangi stops when he hears this.
‘Half-plice?’ he asks. Then he laughs and shakes Han So’s hand.
‘Money half yours,’ Han So whispers to Jemimah as they walk out. She likes his lips near her ear, his hair tickles and his breath is strange and exciting. ‘If you can supply this area with these goods. Boxes have electrical goods from China… silk from China… Some to sell. Toothpick, clockradio. Big and small. Yes? Till Kianshi product come from Shanghai.’ Jemimah does not mind working with strange goods till the proper Kianshi merchandise arrives.
Han So never comes back to Kayole after his one and only visit. The Canter comes every Monday at 11 a.m. to Jemimah’s house to pick up the boxes she is storing for him. Miano wa Miano says nothing when he notices the full shelves in their kitchen, their small bathroom laden with Vim and Jemimah’s dressing table full of Lady Gay and Limara all written in Chinese. Things are bad on Kirinyaga Road after the police crackdown.
Han So still comes frequently to the office to see PK Maina. He does not bother telling her of these visits – now he just waves from a distance. The days when he does come over to her desk are only when she has some money for him from the Chinese Royco seasoning, Chinese Vim toilet detergent, Chinese Kiwi shoe polish and Chinese Eveready batteries that she has distributed and sold for him in Kayole, Komarock, Umoja and Dandora.
After six months, Jemimah and her focus group are still waiting for Kianshi products. This does not seem to bother Han So, who has given her money to rent out the flat next to hers so that she can store all the Chinese goods that he is now bringing in. She distributes these Chinese goods to Jogoo Road, Bahati, Kaloleni and Burma.
One Friday, PK Maina comes in wearing a deep-blue silk shirt and a glossy tie with herons that shimmer in the office dust.
‘Have you heard that your Beejing boyfriend bought Maina a car?’ Bessie says.
Jemimah first learned about Kianshi when a street vendor handed her a small promotional leaflet in a matatu. ‘Make Money. Sell Chinese products. Call No. 0740444888 and attend seminar at K.I.C.C. February 5th ’ the leaflet said. That’s when she met Han So. A small man wearing a flashy tracksuit and dark glasses with an even smaller identical half standing by his side. Jinshu, his brother-in-law wearing exactly the same clothes. There were about two hundred people at the seminar. Han So’s helpers sent away all those without employment ID’s – leaving about twenty-five people in the small hall.
Once, during these first meetings she asked him what China was like and for the first time since she had met him he grinned. ‘There is story of famous Chinese government official with heart of general. Name is Lin Tse-hsi. My father name me after him but I don’t use that name here. In 1830… 1840; I not remember exact. He refuse British product but greedy Chinese government official agree. British then bring opium and people become weak. British first say they sell to China, world power. British say British products are world power. And that Chinese will become strong. But come opium. And then opium war or Anglo–China war. Me not like that. Want to make China strong and Kenya strong. Bring products that make Kenya and China strong. Bring Kianshi. Bring World Power.’
Now, almost a year since starting her Kianshi adventure Jemimah is the biggest supplier of local consumer products from China in the whole of Eastlands all the way to Gikomba. Though it is not through Kianshi Marketing as she planned, she has come far since the ’97 El Niño floods when she moved there. The days of getting home at midnight after wading through half of Nairobi and squeezing into matatus are over. Now Kayole is no longer nights spent staring and listening to the rushed pounding of rain on her ceiling at three in the morning waiting to start the next day. She thinks that in another year she will be able to buy a small Daihatsu Charade. And maybe even move from Kayole and get a bed-sitter in Buru Buru or move to Umoja. She is now the one looking after Miano wa Miano.
One Tuesday morning, she climbs into her usual 5 a.m. matatu. As the matatu pulls into the city centre, a dirty brownish light fills the sky. It is August again and the cold months are behind Nairobi. By the time the matatu gets to Lower Hill, Mlima House, she is warm from FM 101.8’s Breakfast Show offering cash prizes, and a climbing sun.
Before she settles down, three men in brown and grey suits and grim, bland, smiling faces show up at ExtelComms. They walk directly into PK Maina’s office. Everyone can see something is wrong. Two of the men sit in PK’s visitors’ chairs and the third, a fattish individual with folds of skin for hair, sits behind PK Maina’s desk. PK Maina remains standing, alert like a schoolboy with his hands behind his back. He never sits down even as the others stand and pace leaving empty chairs to sit on.
Very little work is done in the office that day. Wires and Cables is hushed – the department could be under investigation, being the most lucrative in Extelcomms. Jemimah doesn’t even pretend to work after she notices PK Maina pointing her out to the men. The fat guy in the brown jacket fingers the folds of fat on his scalp, rubs the top of his head hard, all the time smiling through the glass partition.
Later, she sees the fat man stand and feel PK Maina’s mauve silk shirt between his fingers. The other men laugh silently behind the glass. Bessie is full of information, ‘Msichana, they are coming for you! It is for you. I know that bald guy. I recognise him from when I was with Emenkua… he works at CID.’
Jemimah glares at her: ‘This is China we are talking about, not Nigeria. Nothing will happen. I tell you. How can you compare a world pawa with a foo-foo drug culture?’
Lunchtime comes and goes, and the men are still in PK Maina’s office. Chapati Madondo today. It’s that time of the month. No one can afford nyama and this makes the atmosphere at the office more oppressive. Finally, the men leave at around 4 p.m. carrying a phone handset.
‘Nothing. Nothing is wrong,’ PK Maina tells her when she rushes in and asks what is going on.
‘Where is your Chinese jamaa?’
‘Han So is in China. His mother is sick. Can I leave early?’ she asks. PK Maina waves her away. She picks up the heavy bag of GUKKI designer clothes and PANSONIC electronic samples she brought for some people at the office on the way out.
The next day the three men come back. This time they carry a large paper bag and walk straight into PK Maina’s office.
After a few minutes, PK Maina comes and calls her at her desk and leads her to his office, ‘These men are from the State Research Bureau.’ He introduces them. ‘Nyakundi, Kaboga and Rutto.’ They sound like a multi-ethnic Kenyan law firm in a small town like Eldoret.
The men look at her without a word and spill cans, bottles and packets on PK Maina’s desk; Royco, Vaseline Petroleum Jelly, Cooking oil, Omo, Tea, Kiwi, Homecup Chai, Lady Gay.
‘We are aware that you introduced the man you call Han So to your boss, Mr Maina. We have been trying to find him for months, but he fled when he became aware. We were lucky when we learned that he is supplying a government office with fake telephone handsets. These things are costing the Kenya Revenue Authority 1 pillion a year,’ the fattish man says. He is Nyakundi. Today, he is in a green metallic suit faded at the shoulders.
They hand her a Nation newspaper, opening it up in the middle: ‘FAKE OR REAL: THE CHOICE IS YOURS,’ it reads. There are photos of all the items on the desk. ‘Don’t worry, Madam. This can go away, as we told your boss and our friend here, Mr Maina. The Trade Descriptions Act just needs you to prove that you did not know these are fake. That you thought Han So was a legitimate businessman. And I’m sure you did not know this was a crime. That is the law for you. Ignorance is your defence.’ PK Maina shakes his head in agreement. Droplets of sweat fly.
Nyakundi beckons to her to come to the corner. He whispers into her ear: ‘Nyakundi and Co understand. But the magistrate might not… Even your Chinese boyfriend, Mr Han-Chu. Good friend of everyone… We need to find him. Don’t worry. He is our friend.’
Jemimah tells them everything.
The verdict: Café TwendiOne. Kenyatta Avenue. 4 p.m. Alafu tumalizane. Bring 40,000.
A week later, early in the evening, there is a knock at the door. It is Mwangi, the kiosk owner. Jemimah has never seen him like that. Dishevelled and unkempt. It’s time she brought up moving out of Kayole with Miano wa Miano. They can afford it – even after she paid off the three-man gang that sounded like a multi-ethnic law firm. She notices that everybody in Kayole nowadays either looks drunk or criminal.
‘I’ve already paid for this month’s milk,’ she starts to say.
‘Ngoja… you know the police put me inside for one week for selling curry powder mixed with flour as Royco,’ he shouts. ‘Your Chinese Royco. Your Chinese Omo. Asking me why it is doesn’t wash. Kiwi Chinese yako hardens my customers’ shoes. I’ve closed shop. Njuguna and Kimemia also bought from your boyfriend and are still inside Buru Buru police. Wait till they get out and you’ll see.’
‘Fake or real, the choice is yours,’ Jemimah shouts at his back, as he thuds downstairs. She can see the city’s tiny lights in the distance from her balcony. She feels like she could reach out and touch them – the city lights are so near.
‘That’s why they were half price!’ she shouts into the night. ‘Shenzi!’
Miano wa Miano comes to the door and drags her in when she continues shouting and reaching out into the night as if to grab the city lights. He closes the door and explains it’s just a matter of time till the police pick her up even if they have already given Nyakundi and Co. Ksh 40,000. Miano wa Miano knows these things from Kirinyaga Road.
That night, they pack with haste. Jemimah puts away all her possessions piece by piece as if she is counting the years in Nairobi. They also pack all of Han So’s remaining boxes and bags full of clothes and electronics. When they leave at daybreak all that is left in the small apartment are the Kianshi brochures.
As the matatu swerves past Globe Cinema, Jemimah pictures Miano wa Miano and Kim, who have no idea the other exists, sitting in a shop in Karatina town with her mother. She already has a name for the shop. She will call it ‘World Pawa.’
About the Writer:
Billy Kahora’s short fiction and creative non-fiction has appeared in Chimurenga, McSweeney’s, Granta Online, Internazionale and Vanity Fair and Kwani. He has written a non-fiction novella titled The True Story Of David Munyakei. His story Urban Zoning was shortlisted for the prize in 2012, The Gorilla’s Apprentice in 2014. He wrote the screenplay for Soul Boy and co-wrote Nairobi Half Life which both won the Kalasha awards. He is working on a novel titled The Applications. A short story collection The Cape Cod Bicycle War and Other Youthful Follies will be released soon.
As Managing Editor of Kwani Trust he has edited 7 issues of the Kwani journal and other Kwani publications including Nairobi 24 and Kenya Burning. He is also a Contributing Editor with the Chimurenga Chronic. He has been Kwani Litfest Curator since 2008 and recently curated Kwani Litfest 2015 Writers In Conversation: Beyond The Map Of English.