Nairobi’s air-burger crowd — dieting secretaries, junior civil servants, the unemployed and assorted layabouts who couldn’t afford lunch – thronged Aga Khan Walk, a pedestrian square. They spilled onto the City Council parking lot and stepped on the toes of the giant Uchumi Supermarket, whose uniformed askaris pushed people away from its entrance while trying not to get caught up in the merriment themselves. Bawdy laughter stabbed the hot air, calling more onlookers to join their magic circle.
Wamuyu had taken an early lunch break to shop at Uchumi. She assumed it might be an evangelical preacher who was drawing all this attention. Lately they seemed to be recruiting converts on every open square. She ignored the noise and dashed about filling her trolley, concentrating her heated thoughts on her husband, Lucas, and the latest threat to her home.
Wamuyu’s two teenage children had seen him fondling a woman in the twinned sweetheart seats at Kenya Cinema the evening before.
Her daughter had come home in tears. When Wamuyu tried to comfort her, she’d turned on her mother, lashing her with the news as though this affair was ultimately Wamuyu’s fault. Her son led his sister away, and left Wamuyu reeling with anger and frustration.
“By all that is fair.” Wamuyu fumed on the telephone to the one person she thought might understand, and more importantly, who wouldn’t trumpet the news around town. “Lucas should be the happiest married man on this planet! I run an orderly home, we have good children, I keep myself in shape. What more does he want?”
Lucas’ sister, a lecturer who’d once called Wamuyu ‘inscrutable’ in a damning sort of tone, was clearly surprised to be consulted. She took her time before responding. “He’s an African, polygamy runs in his genes.”
“For God’s sake, Lucas married me in church.”
“Sister, sister! You know when men can’t cope they conveniently fall back into that old cultural hole–”
“Well, I can’t cope either! Does he think about that?” Wamuyu fought to recover control, but the bitter tripped out. “And are you trying to imply that because our society condones cheating, it’s okay for Lucas to fondle women in front of his own children?”
She heard the intake of breath.
“Wamuyu, I love my brother but he is Kenyan man living in a Kenyan reality. Concentrate on your own life. Do it for your children.”
Wamuyu banged down the telephone, silently wailing, ‘And what do I tell those children?’
When Lucas got home at midnight, Wamuyu pretended to be asleep, thus postponing the BIG discussion yet again; possibly forever if she could somehow bury the whole nasty business at the bottom of her busy pile like a good Kikuyu wife and just get on with life.
In the morning she sulked. Lucas’ eyes questioned her. Wamuyu feigned ignorance. Lucas returned the favour. It held the peace.
But now, the memory of her daughter’s hot accusing eyes followed Wamuyu around the supermarket as she angrily picked brands at random. Her frustration multiplied when she discovered she did not have enough money to pay for the groceries.
“Remove whatever you like!” She yelled at the startled checkout clerk, “I want to leave now! The noise of the crowd at your door is giving me a headache!”
Like true middle-class Nairobeans, the other shoppers in the queue shrank back as though the scandalous behaviour of a woman shouting in public might infect them. Wamuyu knew they recognised her as one of them, knew they noted the wedding ring, her clothes, the amount she’d spent or been unable to spend, the brands she’d bought; knew they noted the details that would make their conjectures about her life seem valid. And given the small pool of middle class people, Wamuyu also knew an over-salted version of this gossip might eventually land at her door. She swallowed an urge to laugh at the top of her voice.
In this ironic mood, she allowed the crowd’s exuberance to buoy her spirits as she forged a path through its outer edges to lock her groceries in the boot of her car.
While heading back to her office in the high-rise building above the supermarket, she felt drawn by a particularly loud whoop of laughter. It juddered shamelessly in the hot air, inadvertently making her smile.
The first layer of people allowed her into their midst easily enough, and she stood on the outer edges enjoying the general hubbub. She was too short to see the speaker above the crowd. Faces looked down from windows in office buildings above the supermarket, and she wondered if any of her colleagues on the top floors were among them.
The speaker, a street philosopher, bellowed in a thick Kikuyu accent. For such a large crowd, the listeners were incredibly disciplined about restricting comment to interludes intended by the speaker.
Wamuyu had obviously missed a lot of his speech, and would have given up but for a question that sizzled in the air before it whirled over the crowd, singled her out and, boom, whacked her upside the head.
“Is it enough to rrrr-ive on the surface, then crrr-aim you cannot feel srrrippery snakes seething in congress underneath that same surface?” The philosopher poet drew out his words, hissing the Ss, and tripping on the Ls.
The crowd laughed in appreciation. A voice called out in reply, “Some people think pretending ignorance will save them.”
Wamuyu shut her eyes, inwardly cringing. How often she had smoothed ashes over marital fires, ignoring the fact they continued to simmer, raring to ignite at next opportune moment. For too long, Lucas had existed at the periphery of her mind, dipping in or out depending on whatever incidents and accidents happened along the way. But now, because of his indiscreet adultery, he was dead centre causing havoc.
The philosopher poet paused, waiting for the crowd’s chatter to die away. “Is it enough to wade knee deep in water and then cry, oooh, oooh! Save me! Save me! Save me because I cannot swim?” He stressed the Ss, and dramatised the crying, “Oooh, oooh! Save me! Save me because I cannot swim!”
The crowd roared, “No!”
“You have to make the effort!”
“Save yourself first!”
“God helps those who help themselves!”
Like an animal to a salt lick, a nomad to an oasis, Wamuyu homed in. The crowd accepted her, made way for her, oscillating gently to close the gap behind her as she moved forward. So many times she had sensed Lucas’ bewilderment at her implacable indifference, the protective barrier she used to maroon him away from her own churning, and yet, even in her well-guarded independence, she yearned for him to comfort her.
“Is it enough to study the cover, and then claim you’ve read the book and comprehend its meaning?”
Someone near her yelled, “The cover is not the book.” And got a laughing response, “It is just the cover!”
Wamuyu massaged her brow in aching recognition. With consummate expertise, she had polished the mirror of her marriage, held up its shiny reflection to gain admiration and acceptance. Society could not save her! It could only damn her if the big issues piling on the marital ledge finally made it topple.
“The cover is the cover, the book is the book!” People slapped high fives, nudged each other and pounded the ground with their feet.
The people around Wamuyu seemed to sense that she was on her road to Damascus. And just as those who convert during an evangelical service are obliquely given space to make their way to the pulpit, the crowd parted its folds for her to move closer to the inner sanctum.
“Is it enough to study the problem with a magnifying mirror, and then claim it’s too difficult to find a solution?”
A shout rent the air, “Hai! That preacher is talking about my boss. All the time blame, blame.”
The crowd empathised. “Magnify the solution, minimise the problem!”
“Finding fault is easy, finding answers is tough”
Wamuyu’s mind flew back twenty-six years, to when she was twelve. Her father, who’d been the first Kenyan to qualify with ACCA qualifications in the London School of Accounting; who’d worn bellbottom trousers on her school parents’ day (and she’d whispered to her friends – ‘That’s my Dad’) and claimed his eldest daughter had ‘inherited his brain’; the one who was so proud to be in the first post independence team to build a modern Kenya; that very same father married a second wife.
How betrayed and humiliated Wamuyu felt.
Her mother trilled, “Men will be men!” and refused to discuss the issue.
Her father rationalised that it was expected of successful men to have more than one wife, and that Wamuyu and her mother should forget new western thinking. Taking advantage of his unexpected opening, Wamuyu daringly asked when his cultural relationship with this other woman had begun.
Suddenly and dangerously angry, her father sputtered, “You are a fool! You don’t know when to shut up!” Soon after, he sent her away to boarding school to grow up — to grow up, away from him, and mother, and home.
So Wamuyu learned how to blame. Silently.
She sensed a counteracting turbulence in Lucas but chose to ignore it. In fact, she held it against him, sulked and sighed and delicately picked at the hazy outline of the unspoken things he did to disturb her, the perfect wife. And used his puzzled guilt as her weapon of punishment for his adultery, his drinking, and his inability to reach her. How had she become like her mother, she wondered, making it so easy for her husband to look elsewhere?
“Finding fault is easy, finding answers is tough!” Someone started singing the Billy Ocean anthem line, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” and the crowd joined in. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going! When the going gets rough, the tough get rough! Yeah, Yeah!”
Wamuyu found her feet lifting again and the crowd swallowed her, heaved with her, delivered her up to the inner circle, and finally spat her into its naked, fiery ring.
She fell in, landing at the feet of a muscular man in long dreadlocks. He wore a white, ankle length kanzu. Wamuyu looked up, too befuddled to rise and barely conscious of the burning concrete that seared her knees.
Her unexpected presence did not interrupt his flow. Quite the opposite. He jerked his arms and body back and forth obscenely above her, thundering, “Is it enough, my friends, when seeking love, to fuck, fuck, fuck a stranger and then wonder why you suffer from loneliness?”
Whistling and ululations rang through the air.
But Wamuyu was trapped in the philosopher poet’s question. Once a week, Lucas insisted on his conjugal rights when he drunkenly declared, “Friday night is member’s night, and I have member’s right of entry.”
” Yes! Yes! YES!” he’d cry, as he pumped away oblivious to her half-hearted participation.
Wamuyu lay there, just as the man said, fucking a stranger: a stranger seeking entry to her heart, her mind, her being. And she keeping all but her vagina solidly locked.
The philosopher poet repeated the question and exaggerated his obscene motions. The crowd went wild. The noise inflated in the still air, vibrated up to the heavens and echoed back down, ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck a stranger.’
Wamuyu became aware of her tears only when they ran down her nose, and a woman from the inner crowd darted in to hand her a tissue.
When it was quiet again, the philosopher poet knelt, his perspiring face barely six inches from Wamuyu’s. The crowd bristled, but her head was in another orbit. His eyes were overly bright and she lowered her own.
She watched his big mouth form the words, “Is it enough to drag your cross and then claim its weight is your undoing?”
The question reverberated in Wamuyu’s mind, hammered her consciousness and rooted in her psyche before floating out with her startled, “No.”
Someone behind her fired the question again. “Is it enough to drag your cross and then claim its weight is your undoing?”
The crowd roared back, “NO! NO! NO!” drowning Wamuyu’s simpering cries, “No. No. No.”
The philosopher poet stood up, held Wamuyu by the shoulders and gently nudged her towards him until her face landed in his warm crotch, hidden in the voluminous kanzu. She felt stirred, but not shaken, by the strangeness of the moment. His hands massaged her shoulders as he continued in lowered tones, “Is it enough to shade your eyes, stumble around half-blind and then claim you cannot see your life needing?”
It dawned on Wamuyu that the philosopher poet wore nothing underneath his robe. She prickled with need. His penis throbbed faintly against her cheek, but she felt no distaste or embarrassment. It struck her that the enemy was not a man such as this, or her father, or even Lucas with his member’s night penis. She buried her nose in the philosopher poet’s musk and gently kissed the outline of his penis.
Like an approaching ting-ga-ling, she became aware of the pin-drop silence, the burning equatorial sun, the swarm of expectant faces, the tenderly unfurling penis, and herself, prostrate in the ring. Judas within!
Lucas was the one sleeping with the enemy!
With a rising inflection at the end to indicate that this was his penultimate question, the philosopher poet repeated, “Is it enough to shade your eyes, stumble around half blind, and then claim you cannot see your life needing?”
He let go of Wamuyu’s shoulders and stepped back. She stifled an urge to cry out, “I need you,” and then realised that she had just been blessed with what she’d really needed — his blazing torch on her.
The philosopher poet spread his arms to the crowd and concluded, “Is it enough to shade your eyes, claim you cannot see your life needing, and then lean back, arms outstretched, expecting a generous share?”
It took a moment to sink in before the crowd clapped, hooted, hollered, whistled and stamped their feet in ovation, their individual comments lost in the deafening clamour.
Wamuyu stumbled to her feet. The crowd made way for her in yet another parting of the boisterous, accommodating sea.
With every step she felt lighter, the air smelled fresher, and the huge fig trees on the edge of the car park looked greener. No matter the outcome, she would find the answers for herself, and for her children.
It was Friday, and it promised to be a long night.