Jessica first ignored the light tap on the door but after three persistent knocks that were intent on waking her, she told the person at the door to come in.
“It’s past twelve, Madam, and you haven’t eaten anything. Should I make something for you?” asked Brenda, the grumpy, forty-something year old maid who looked after Jessica and her flatmate, Mercy.
She didn’t have much of an appetite and after spending most of the night wiping away tears and missing out and a few good hours of sleep, she felt slightly sick. Her boyfriend had picked up the phone but the conversation had been fruitless with all the noise in the background, clear to her that he was having more fun wherever he was and wasn’t planning on ditching his friends for some quiet, quality time with her.
“I’ll have something later, Brenda. I just need to rest a bit, please, if you don’t mind?” she pleaded, her eyes darting over to the open door.
Aware of the message, Brenda shuffled out of the room, mumbling something in Swahili. She was worried about the girl and was irritated by her failure to help her. Jessica had been unwell for a while and she was convinced that if she didn’t have to go to work she would lock herself up in her room all day and night, like a prisoner. She had tried to convince Mercy to get her out more often but both their efforts had failed.
The large bedroom was open and simply furnished; a large queen-sized bed posed in the middle with a cushioned headboard and a small wooden table on the left side where a plain, wooden lamp sat and Wangari Maathai’s The Challenge for Africa sat. A flat screen television was placed on a small, metal stand and she apathetically flipped through the channels, until she gave up and left it on some reality show that followed the lives of dramatic housewives who had too much money and time on their hands.
A framed A5-sized paper with her favourite quote, words that propelled her to doing her job were inscribed on it in Monotype Corsiva font – “…Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome …” by Nelson Mandela. It was the only effort she had made to give the room an aesthetic touch. She was all about simplicity and both her passion and the ghosts of her job that haunted her made her reluctant to spend money on décor.
The phone under her pillow rang and she quickly sat up, removing it from where she had placed it, with the belief that if she had left it anywhere further than that she’d have missed David’s call, but he had neither called nor sent a simple text after their first called had failed. She looked at the screen and it was Mercy, checking up on her for the second time that day. She had hoped it would be David or work asking her to come in even though they had forced her to take the day off.
“I’m still alive, Mercy,” she said unconvincingly.
“Are you sure? You sound like you’re from the belly of a grave. What are you planning to do with your day off? And please do not tell me you’re going to stay in bed the whole day waiting for that rectal deposit to call you,” snorted Mercy at the last sentence. David was not one of her favourite people on the planet and she made no sweat to conceal her abhorrence.
Jessica ignored the remark and lied, “Of course not, I’ve just taken a shower and planning on going out for some fresh air, maybe coffee or something.”
“No, you haven’t. You’re in bed, drowning yourself in your own tears and sunjis (an informal word that their Zambian friends had said meant vaginal juices), feeling sorry for yourself and hiding from Al-Shabaab. Come now, go to the mall or the market or something,” she urged. Jessica knew that Mercy and Brenda had discussed her refusal to eat or get out of bed, and she was sure Brenda had seasoned the story with her own exaggerated details. She finally told her she would go to the market to look for something. She had never been to Kenyatta Market but she assured her worried flatmate that it would be good for her to explore and interact with the local folk.
Her bloodshot eyes stared back at her in the mirror as she brushed her teeth. Her eye-bags had grown a disturbing size too big and their dark colour had deepened. Her braids had gone past the acceptable period of being kept and were starting to look like unkempt dreadlocks, with the white dirt vulgarly sticking out where the hairpiece was tied to her hair. She had high cheekbones, small thin lips and her dark-brown penetrating eyes were under an umbrella of thick, long lashes. Her small protruding forehead, long thin face and tall and slim figure gave her an exotic look, she inwardly enjoyed being mistaken for an Ethiopian as she believed they were Africa’s most gorgeous creations. Looking at the mirror she appeared more Ethiopian in a starved-children-in-Africa way that was mostly portrayed by the Western world. The head ached and the tension in her neck and shoulders were unbearable. Her joints made her feel like an arthritic, old aged woman whose back was bent and fingers deformed by the disease that she was close to self-diagnosing.
The first dress that she held out was a navy, vintage number that she placed under favourites but she remembered the many times that Brenda had reminded her how conservative Kenyans were and a black woman dressing in short skirts and dresses was a muzungu (white person) culture therefore outside the perimeters of black traditions. The long coral one now hanged on her like a tent and exposed the hipbones that sharply stuck out. She finally went for her usual look, the one that she was most comfortable in, a pair of black faded jeans and a loose black top. The jeans were slightly loose but didn’t make her look as skeletal as most of her clothes now did.
Jessica hadn’t told Mercy that her organisation was still looking for a replacement driver as her previous one, along with a few of his buddies had been fired for theft. The organisation had a warehouse where they kept aid in stock, to deliver to the places where they conducted their anti-poverty missions. About four staff drivers had colluded with two of the aid truck drivers and had been collecting a generous quantity to sell. Jessica was to wait for a free driver from work and as she was off-duty she was second priority to the person currently using the car for work purposes. She decided to take a matatu to Kenyatta Market. She wasn’t planning on staying there for long or going on a shopping spree, two or three items would do.
“Madame, you must make sure you change that ka posh accent of yours or else they will rip you off with muzungu prices. Once they hear that you are not Kenyan they will feast on you and take all your money,” warned Brenda. Jessica nodded, took a small, modest sling bag, placed five thousand shillings, debated over taking her smart phone and finally opted for her old cheap one, lip balm, tissue and hand sanitizer.
She could feel Brenda’s eye on her and turned to face her, “Okay, what else?” There was clearly some more travel advice that she had to take from the woman.
“Do you have coins? You can’t give a thousand in a matatu and separate your money because when you take it out at the market they will notice that you are made of money. You rich people also…” she muttered the last part. She gave her instructions on asking the conductor about the fares before mounting the matatu and getting slapped in the face with a ridiculous amount. The fares were not as she was used to, not fixed, for example, the fares went up when it rained and when it was peak hours and at night when people were desperate to get home. “Why when it rains?” Brenda laughed, “We Kenyans melt in the rain so we run.” The woman’s small frame vibrated as she laughed off.
The conductor was shouting at the top of his lungs, hanging on the door of the beaten fourteen-seat Nissan. The matatu was a shabby piece of graffiti with “God bless our journey” and what she assumed were Swahili words that she was not familiar with. Her Swahili was enough to greet, say thanks and goodbye. She and a number of people were hastily escorted into the matatu by the conductor and as it rattled on its way he ran after it, a dirty sack of money tightly gripped in his hand and he jumped onto it as it was already moving off the bus stop. Instead of taking a seat inside he continued hanging dramatically on the open door, the rusty door squeaking and weakly hanging onto the hinges with its last breath. The matatu made stops wherever the driver spotted a passenger and it didn’t matter to him if he had to jump in front of other vehicles, taking them by surprise and causing them to quickly press onto their brakes so as to not bump into him.
Jessica had the window seat at the back. There were only three seats but four people were squeezed in. As more people were hurriedly shoved in the conductor encouraged, “Room for one more, room for one more” and passengers were squashed inside the vehicle like sardines in a can. The window was shut and something was broken as she could not open it to let fresh air in. The aggressive heat of the sun made its way into the matatu and the rays set straight into her face through the window, she had to cap her eyes with her hand. The faster it went the more dust it coughed up from its floor and the rattling metal competed with the blaring music. Jessica wasn’t sure if it was the noise itself that wanted to make her break down in tears or the bad quality song of a Kenyan rapper clearly emulating Drake, to a point of using most of the rapper’s lyrics.
The guy next to her must have been in his early twenties, skinny, beautifully dark skinned like oil, and his thin face told Jessica that he was one of those boys who went out to hustle to make ends meet. He was clad in a faux-leather jacket, a cap worn backward and had a fake gold watch on his left wrist. A black bag rested on his lap and he unconsciously caressed it with the affection that one displayed when a pet sat on their lap.
“Madame, do you like movies?” he sprang the question to her so unexpectedly that at first she thought he was talking to someone else. He was leaning close to her ear but not facing her straight. “Madame?” he finally rested his eyes on her face. The way the backseat was squashed having his face in hers and his stale breath penetrating her nostrils was beyond intrusive. She looked out the window and noticed how despite the bridge above people didn’t bother with it and preferred risking crossing the highway where cars came flying. “Madame?” She finally turned to face him. “I say, do you like movies? DVDs and such?”
Jessica gave him a puzzled look and finally raised her hand, “Thank you very much but I’ll pass.” She thought the guy was asking her out or trying his luck hitting on her. He persisted, “You know, I sell movies for a very cheap price.” It dawned on her when he said that and he tapped his bag. “I am not interested, thank you.”
“Listen,” he whispered, “I can do you a favour and give you five for two-thousand shillings.” She pulled her face away from the window and stared pointedly at him, she could not believe the clear scam that was being thrown at her. She merely shook her head and looked away. “Okay, okay, maybe that’s too much. What if you gave me a deposit of a thousand, take my number and when you have five hundred bob you can collect them from me?” She raised her eyebrows and asked, “And you want me to believe that you won’t disappear with my money?” He shook his head and chuckled, “Madame, I would never do that. Me, I’m a Christian, why would I do such?” She laughed at the irony of it. “I see, no thank you. I don’t like movies.” He finally gave up and looked away. He fetched a set of earphones that were connected to his phone from an outer pocket of his bag, made a selection of music and played on. Jessica wondered how well his earphones could outdo the loud music inside the matatu. When the conductor finally closed the door, satisfied that all the seats were occupied, overly so, he started collecting. He had told her that it was fifty bob and that’s what she took out when he collected from the back.
Scores of people were hurrying about. Men and women in cheap suits, formal dresses and high heels, casual jeans and loose jeans, woollen tops and jerseys in the fierce heat, tattered shirts and fading pants that were carefully pressed – people of all kinds walked the streets on a mission to get somewhere. She noticed the deserted matatu stage (taxi rank) along the opposite lane on the right and all the matatus lined up on the road to pick up people where it was against the law. They clearly found the stage a waste of the time, they picked up and dropped off anywhere on the road, adding to the traffic. The traffic lights at the roundabout were ignored and vehicles from all directions jumped in and one had to boldly force their way through. The driving was quite aggressive. Each driver drove with a sense of entitlement to getting way. It was something she had learned about Kenyan driving the first day she had arrived in the country.
As they passed high buildings owned by major companies her thoughts shifted to something else. She had read the words on the building, ‘PriceWaterhouseCooper’ with a sense of nostalgia. David had started off there after graduating from the University of Cape Town, where they had met. A sudden wave of emotion swept through her body and she wished she could see him or at least hear his voice over the phone. The phone hadn’t rung but she consoled herself by believing that he had probably tried her other phone. She wanted to save a boat that was sinking but she didn’t know how when its occupant didn’t seem to mind sinking with it. Maybe he had spotted a bank where he’d swim to once she had sunk to the bottom with her boat. She brushed off the thought and tried to think about something else.
She noticed an elderly lady under the shade of one of the trees that dotted the separating part between the two roads. About four children of about the age group of two to five played close to her. While the matatu came to a halt because of the slow-moving traffic she couldn’t take her eyes off them; rags clinging on to their emaciated figures. A small figure was wrapped in ragged sheets on the grass and she saw the rise and fall of its chest, a small head resting on a smaller made-up pillow. She bit back the tears. Can we really fix it? She wondered. Jessica was the project manager at her anti-poverty organisation and each day comprised of efforts to save the lives of the people like the ones she was looking at through the dusty window. The more poverty-stricken places they visited the more she felt like a failure because what they were fighting seemed to double or triple each time she thought they had achieved something and eliminated a bit of the scum of poverty. It always seemed to grow back on the skins of the unfortunate population and no matter how many times they did their best to scrub it off, it was like a chronic disease, something of a recurring nature.
Cars started moving and the children were out of her sight but their image lingered in her thoughts for a while. New buildings were erected everywhere she looked, money was being invested in the things that should have been of second priority, she thought to herself. The city centre was an ant’s field, people were hurrying in all directions. Cars were braking a breath away from each other’s noses, everyone forcing to squeeze their way through. Road courtesy was only offered by a very few. Toyota was definitely making pots of gold in the country, she figured. Then Subaru and all the others. The ones with full pockets, a small class of the population drove the Mercs, the Beemers and the Range Rovers. Middle class was not quite popular in the country, the rest were left with toes sticking out of their worn-out shoes, lived in indecent dwellings and spent their lives trekking and filling matatus to cheese-land to look after the rich.
She got off at the matatu GPO stage in town where she asked one of the touts to show here where she could find one to Kenyatta Market. She tried her best to put on a Kenyan accent but she could feel the words betraying her as they slipped out on a posh red carpet on her tongue. The tout was clad in jeans that had seen life in its naked form, there were oily stains at the bottom where the hem appeared to have been devoured by rats. His t-shirt had old mud stains that had become part of the design. His reeking armpits, alcohol breath and the fetid smell of dried urine needed more than water and soap – they needed to be exorcised or something on that level. He escorted her to number thirty three and just when she was about to join the queue he tapped her on the shoulder, “Madame?” He stood with a dirty and calloused hand stretched out. She tossed a few coins into his palm, carefully avoiding any contact with his flesh. Jessica had the urge to offer her hand sanitizer but as the people in the queue were quickly herded into the matatu she quickly left him and joined them.
The roundabout on Uhuru Highway was controlled by a police officer who stood leisurely in the sun, a walkie-talkie in his hand and a gun dangling from his shoulder. Jessica was uneasy when a truck driving next to the matatu indicated to hop into their lane and instead of waiting for way to be cleared it suddenly swerved in front of them, its behind swinging behind it and leaving them to thrust forward by the abrupt braking of the matatu. As she cursed under her breath she realised how unbothered the rest of the passengers were.
This matatu was not as loud as the first one, and she was grateful. She was also glad that she hadn’t been forced to sit next to the heavy lady who occupied two seats with her ample flesh and the mountain of plastic bags that sat on her lap. She could see the Kenyatta National Hospital in the near distance, she shivered when she remembered Brenda’s stories of how terrible the service was, so bad that people died in queues waiting to be attended to. The KMTC, Kenya Medical Training Centre was a beaten building with a myriad of clothes hanging out of windows to dry.
Brenda had told her to get off opposite the Mbagathi District Hospital and she would see the market right in front of her. The stalls outside the market had an assortment of second-hand clothes, belts hanging like dead snakes, stands of fake leather handbags and shoes of all makes and names. Other stalls had bras and panties suspended in no matching order as they would in a lingerie shop. She walked through the entrance and before she could make a few more steps in, three ladies were holding multi-coloured hair fabrics inviting her to braid her hair. In Joburg she usually walked confidently that she wouldn’t be bothered if she had braids because they usually followed you around if your hair was all natural and idle, inviting hands to tug at it and interweave fake hair to it. The hairdressers were aggressive, all in her face that at one point she couldn’t move because they surrounded her, hands gripping her. She could not understand the Swahili words but it was obvious that they were asking to undo her hair and then plait anew. A man in a white coat stained with red marks and heavy Wellington boots came to her rescue, said something in their language and they immediately moved away. It turned out the man only did that to harass her into going over his stall for nyama choma (grilled meat). “No, I’m fine thank you…er…but thanks for your help with…them” she said awkwardly as she walked away.
She wasn’t sure which way to go but kept on walking. The market was a labyrinth of passage connecting passage, small stalls everywhere she turned. It was exhausting to have to walk past all the people inviting her in, some shouting after her to try this and that. Hairdressers were planted all over the market, along with tailors and other stalls that sold shukas, lessos, Safari shirts, floral dresses, kikoys and many other things. She randomly picked a stall where shukas were hanging outside the door and walked in. There were only three old women and the small room was cool. “Habari zenu (How are you?)” she greeted them. “Nzuri sana” they responded. She looked around for something that she could buy, her eye fixed on the price tags that were visible on some so that she wouldn’t have to ask how much they were and open a window to being ripped off. She touched a green shuka hanging in front of her, as she felt the fabric she flipped its corners, searching for a price tag. Her eyes landed on a small sticker written seven hundred shillings and she was relieved.
“Nikusaidie nini?” one of the women asked. She turned out to be the owner of the stall. Jessica knew saidia had something to do with help and she replied, “This shuka” she pointed at the green one she had been holding. The lady asked her something in Swahili. The question threw her off her Swahili confidence platform and she frowned at the lady in confusion, “Sorry?” The lady, aware that Jessica was not a local asked again in English, “What else?” She asked for the shuka in red, just like the Maasai people, she emphasised.
One of the ladies bluntly laughed, “You are not from here, are you? The way you foreigners are obsessed with the Maasai heh? As if some of our tribe don’t existed.” She shook her head, the bitterness on her face apparent. Jessica decided to ignore the remark. The woman was probably Kikuyu, the biggest tribe and the one that the president and his father, Jomo Kenyatta belonged to. A lot of non-Kikuyus expressed their aversion to the tribe that thought it ruled the nation. The lady fetched a red shuka from behind a curtain at the back, Jessica picked a white lesso that had sunflowers on it. The woman smiled, “Yes, you wrap this around your waist while working in the house or cooking for your man, or even wear it when it’s hot and you don’t feel like wearing clothes.” A floral dress that she was swayed to buy because it would sit nicely on her small figure was picked and a green and orange kikoy. “Three thousand, five hundred,” the lady said after punching numbers on a calculator. Jessica tried to protest and ask for a discount but failed. She paid and left.
Catching her face in a mirror in one of the salons she was tempted to sort out her hair, besides, she was off and had nothing else to do. One of the ladies, either reading her thoughts or driven by the opportunity of a woman with frowzy hair staring in the mirror, invited her to sit down. Mercy did her braids at the same market and claimed they were much cheaper than the fancy salons at the malls. She settled on the low plastic chair and two hands were already working on untangling the knots and removing her old braids. The hair was washed and she did her best to ignore the stale smelling towel that had clearly been used on someone else. She didn’t want to come off as a snob and so she grit her teeth and convinced herself that the heat from the hairdryer would kill the germs. Three hands were on her head. They had introduced themselves but she could only remember the name Constance but not sure which one it was. One of the women was loud and had the most to say to everything that was said. The chewing gum between her teeth was in utter torture, she wished she could bail it out with a fifty bob. Jessica was disturbed by the girl’s hand occasionally scratching her crotch and returning it to her head. She said a silent prayer asking for the absence of pubic lice or whatever kind of bug that would be donated to her.
She called the travel desk at work and asked for a pickup from the Kenyatta Market in an hour. The ladies would be done in about two hours but she was taking traffic into consideration. She didn’t want to have to wait at the market with nothing to do while the driver was sitting in traffic for an hour or more. Unfortunately the driver had to drop off someone else before her and would only be able to fetch her in two hours. She wasn’t up for the matatu ride and so she could only hope that the driver would be the sooner that she had been told. One of the girls left to buy food and later came back with three black plastic bags. She removed the contents onto three plastic plates that she had fetched from a cupboard on the side. Greasy chips, nyama (meat) and ugali (pap). The girls invited her to dig in as they did the same. They would pick some food, throw it into their mouths, and wipe their hands on their thighs while holding on to her hair with another hand. They were really good at their task, braiding and eating at the same time. She was invited to dig in and she finally decided to have a little so as to not offend them. The goat meat was delicious. They were really good at their task, braiding and eating at the same time. She was invited to dig in and she finally decided to have a little so as to not offend them. The goat meat was delicious. She had had nyama choma from Max Land, down the road from where she lived and she loved it. This meat was just as good and she carried on eating. When they were finally done she was charged double what Mercy said she was usually charged. They had caught the foreign accent and had seen a gold mine, she thought.
After walking around some more, picking out some oranges and bananas, the driver finally arrived and they were on their way home. Stuck in traffic she tried to get hold of David and just when she was about to give up on her third attempt he picked up.
“Hey babe,” he said cheerfully.
A current of electricity shot threw her veins and settled in her stomach, producing a festivity of butterflies. A smile immediately replaced the grim look she had had on a few seconds before he answered. “Hi baby, oh I’m so glad you finally picked up.” She was relived. He told her he had tried her on her other line and was waiting for her to call him back. She would discover when getting at home that ‘trying her’ meant one call and giving up after that, unlike her million and one calls that usually went unanswered and unreturned. They were to have dinner at eight at The Palanka, African Cuisine and she was looking forward to it. She was glad that she had done her hair and on the way home all she could think about was what to wear and how the night would go. She needed to put in more effort into her relationship if she wanted it to work. She had to. If only she knew that dinner meant discovering that he was getting married to a high school sweetheart, despite the fact that she had asked for the Kenyan post just to be with him.