(Manisha – the Hindu god who symbolises intelligence and desire; also symbolises state of being – where you mind is, there your heart will be also).
Written by Muthoni Garland
We are driving home from a party when my teenage daughter Zawadi points, “Look, Mummy, Daddy’s new car….oh, oh,…” and then starts to fidget with my skirt, trying to distract me. It is 9 PM. I slow to a crawl.
Sure enough, there sits my Lucas, in his beloved-above-all-else black BMW. He’s smooching a High Hairstyle. A style where wet hair is saturated with ultra-gel before a bushy horsehair chignon is plonked on top. When it dries, the hair is so hard it can dice unwary fingers….or lips. Nasty hair. Obviously nasty woman. Up to nasty business.
Lucas took me to a place like this.
It is the kind of lowlife joint open 24-7-365 where you’re greeted by the happiest party of houseflies in the world. You then walk past the bar to a counter to select your chunk of raw meat. Behind this lies an enclosure euphemistically called KITCHENS.
God forbid you should ever study the hardened miniature stalactites hanging under the wire mesh over barbeque fire pits inside. Or see the dank water used to wash utensils that is collected in plastic buckets from the slum bathtub of a Nairobi River. Or hope to enjoy the aroma of roasting meat over wafts of toilet stench. Or listen to resident drunkards shouting over an asthmatic jukebox spewing Lingala tunes that clash with the Willie Nelson classics favoured by those in neighbouring joints.
Wealthy patrons, like my adulterer-husband Lucas, wait in their cars overlooking the River. Attendants bring out the cooked meat spread on a wooden board, along with a plated wet mess of kachumbari salad, and white anthills of maize-meal ugali. It’s held out for lengthy inspection, as though you could recognize the meat, and you want to ask, ‘Hey you shrivelled up carcass, are you really the same juicy specimen I selected raw?’
Said attendants balance the board on the window ledge and then with knife flying a hair’s breath from your earwax, flashily slice this lump. Voila! The grand picnic is ready for Bwana and his Mistress.
The pain is expected, but the coldness of my anger takes me by surprise. I drop Zawadi home, reassuring her that all is fine, fine, FINE, then double back and find the BMW. But Lucas and his High Hairstyle have gone inside – possibly to check on their germy meat, possibly to use the stinking toilet, possibly to rent a filthy room.
Don’t get me wrong. I am an all-Kenyan, educated and hardworking woman who met political-degree student Lucas Githinji at New York’s Syracuse University. He was the activist head of the African Student’s Council who was going to bring democracy ‘back home’ to the ‘motherland’.
At our white wedding in Nairobi’s All Saints Cathedral, I promised to be as obedient as he promised to be faithful.
Sixteen years later, money and power from within the establishment and all its attendant flattery had changed Lucas into a womanising, hard-drinking, pot-bellied, Alfa-male icon of our modern African society.
Not that I’m perfect, but I’ve played the role expected of me. I’ve maintained a clean home, raised two children, kept in shape. I’ve lowered my expectations and raised my threshold for pain. When he beats me in places that don’t show, I sulk in a way that only he knows. When he says, like his father and his father’s father before him, “Women are called atumia because they are supposed to tumia (shut up)!” I choke down my anger with extra strength paracetamol. For him, I’ve kept my legs open and my mouth shut, in other words, I’ve been a GOOD Kikuyu wife.
But this stinking business being played in front of me is the virus-laden straw that’s breaking my back. I open the door, my open-toe kitten heels sink into the mud that passes for lawn. It has not rained in months, but I force my mind not to dwell on the source of the squelch that makes it way between my toes, the toes I polished pink just this morning, like a million years ago.
The Nairobi River doesn’t even pretend to run. It is a black mirror broken into uncomfortable fragments by its own effluent. The past, present and future stares me in the face. My mother. Myself. My daughter. Lucas’ car is just as shiny, winking at me. My keys are in my hand, the heavy-metal-cow-mascot- -bottle-opener Lucas bought me at the showground pointing straight up.
“Karibu madam.” A waiter is heading towards me, wielding his tray and hearty voice as though he were my long-lost uncle. “Mume tutembelea leo.” It is not a question. This man imagines there is A LUCAS waiting in my car, and that I am another of those nasty-hair girls come to visit our home away from home. I wave in the general direction of my car, and the waiter adjusts his direction away from me, to follow what he imagines to be the true scent of what matters. Money.
I stalk Lucas’ black car, my keys in my hand. I touch metal to shiny black metallic. It’s not enough. What Anybody could do is meaningless, impersonal.
The window on High-Hair’s side is greasy with gell and germs, and is a little bit open yet again confirming her to be a dangerously lazy and dirty so and so. I slip my key-ring-cow-mascot into the gap and use it as a lever to push down. Grunting, I rest my weight on it as though my life depended on it. It slowly gives. Reaching in I pull the lock and open the door. I gently pull the door after me. The seat feels like a throne, brushed creamy leather, so soft and plush and generous.
What comes to mind sitting in my husband‘s beloved black BMW is the memory of a hard pimple on my chin. A gentle rise of skin that felt, when probed, like a hard knob. When it began to ache in a low-key manner, I couldn’t keep my hands off it. Tingles of anticipated pain kept me from forcing the issue. But one evening I psyched myself to deal with it, to exorcise this irritation once and for all. A long steamy bath to open the pores, my face almost kissing the mirror, I placed two tissues on either side of this blight and pressed the little hard knob, hard, harder. I did’nt stop and it didn’t give and didn’t give. Tears flowed, nose running over. The pain, oh the pain. Unbelievable. Unbearable. But I bore it, just as I did child birth, three times. My whole face throbbed before I gave in. Next day I went to hospital where they operated to remove what the doctor concluded was a mole before adding in an accusatory tone (and actually wagged his finger) that it might have been a cancerous growth, that it is not safe to go around dredging one’s own skin. I am sure he meant well in his fatherly doctorly way, but I left wishing I’d used my kitchen knife to butcher the thing in private. I tenderly touch the area now. I want to describe it as deceptively smooth but really there is nothing there to show for the pain it caused. Just like my outside shows none of the corrosion going on inside.
“Ala, na hawa wamepotea wapi?” The waiter calls in a confused but still friendly voice, like ‘we’ the missing couple are pranksters playing a trick on him. He is leaning against my Toyota, smoking a cigarette. I filter him out of my mind.
I smell grease in this car that drives us to church on Sunday mornings, to visit the in-laws every last Saturday of the month, to school events at ends of term, to Mombasa Beach for a holiday every August. I zero-in on the fuzzy glass where High Hair rested against the window when she was doing what with my husband? I smell Lucas in the polish, and in the smooth leather of the steering wheel, and in the white handkerchief now no longer home-pressed crisp but scrunched into the rest between the two seats after it wiped what? It whispers a dirty idea.
I find out that no matter how generously proportioned a car, it is difficult to squat on a seat, especially with my shoes on. I persevere, my kitten heels poke into the leather for traction. My head brushes the ceiling which too is creamy, padded and soft, thank god.
So much silence in such a noisy place. Country music winning over lingala in the always-open-for-business buildings ahead. Closer, I hear the waiter again, moving around. Obviously looking for ‘us’. I spy him from the corner of my eye looking in between cars as though we might be lying there overcome. Or maybe it’s dawning on him that we might be a security threat. In a city nicknamed Nairobbery, anything is possible. The waiter is not a young man. He has probably seen too much in this life. He is peeking into cars now, discreetly and with a ready smile just in case their lawful owners are in situ and not exactly in the mood or position to order more meat.
Balancing in a gymnastic move that I’ll never again be able to replicate, I squat and gather my panties to the front noting while I do so that they really are too big. From barely a car-length away, the waiter stops, turns in my direction. He catches my eye and shakes his head. But it is too late. Too much has built up inside me and it time to let go.
It’s not enough. It’s not even the right thing to do. But it’s a start.