Written by Yvvone Gitobu
Tasia stood over the one plate kerosene stove in her mother’s kitchen watching the tea leaves swirl in the sufuria of boiling water and milk. As the steam rose from the pot her brown eyes welled up with tears. She wiped the salty wetness from her cheek as she turned off the heat and raised the pot of strong sweetened tea to fill the family thermos flask. As she carried the tray out of family house she fixed what she hoped looked like a genuine a smile onto her face.
Walking steadily across the grass to where her parents and Dan Wasike sat on traditional three legged wooden stools in the shade of an old twisted tree she pondered over what her parents were discussing with their guest. The sound of their laughter carried though the wind. Was it the price of a bag of green coffee beans or the price of a 21 year old virgin bride?
Wasike, sped along the murram country road in his dented white Nissan Pick-up, the trail of dust behind him leaving a thin earth brown coat on the rows of coffee bushes that framed the track. He pulled his cell phone out the breast pocket of his worn black leather jacket and auto dialled one of his best customers – Trevor Kobole of Kikombe Coffee House.
“Trevor Bwana, long time!” he said with a wry smile on his face. “I have something pressing to ask you so I won’t waste any time. It’s no secret that your biashara is booming. I need to call in that favour you owe me.” Wasike frowned at his friends reply. “Yes Trevor of course we are living in trying economic times but I need you to find a job at the cafe for a special young lady. His brow creased again and tone hardened. “Listen here, don’t jump to any conclusions, you should know that I am not the type to “manga manga.” We are talking about the woman I intend to marry and I have already assured her father that the deal is as good as done.” This time the response on the other end was curt, the conversation ended abruptly. Trevor would just have to dance to the beat of the drum; after all hadn’t he gone out of his way to get him out of trouble with the city council inspectors last year? He needs to focus on the fact that I sell him the best coffee beans in the city while everyone else trades only with overseas buyers. Nothing in life is free.
It was late in the day, the heat had begun to relent, the sun would soon be setting. The tree leaves rustled in the breeze the lyrical sound soothing. Eli Wekesa stood on the big rock at the highest point on his two and a half acre coffee farm. He looked out over the mature coffee trees which he had tended over the last nineteen years. This farm had supported him sufficiently over the years as if in thanks for the life he gave it when he planted the first young Arabica seedlings and tended to the trees that bore opulent red berries. Why then, he lamented, wouldn’t these same fruit bearing plants give life to his daughter Tasia’s dreams to study in university? Why did he have to horse trade with Josman’s son Wasike to secure his child a prosperous future? What would Josman, his old childhood friend, now departed, think of the situation? Would he, the proverbial rebel with his very liberal ideas endorse what could only be called an arranged marriage, ironically, between their children in the 21st century? He absent mindedly raised his left hand and held it over his chest – was it real pain he was feeling in his heart or was it all in his head?
“No Mama”, Tasia protested, “I really don’t think i’ll need three “lessos” in Nairobi, let me just pack the blue kikoi, it’s my favourite”. She surveyed the remaining clothes on her bed trying to make a decision on what may come in useful for her new job in the city.
“We really will miss you my dear”, her mother said softly.
“Well, Mama, it’s not the first time that I’ve been away from home,” Tasia retorted, a small hard lump forming in her throat.
Her mother sat on the bed amongst the pile of clothes and looked at her daughter with sad eyes. “You have to understand my dear that we really would have liked for you to do continue with you second semester at University but we simply could not raise the cash for the fees. Wasike tried his level best to pay us a decent price for our beans but you know how unpredictable the coffee auction is”.
Tasia glanced at the small wooden bookshelf beside her bed and the books they had bought for her university course, now abandoned. Above their heads the corrugated iron roof of the house rattled expanding in the heat of the midday sun.
“You know that you don’t have to marry him if you really do not want to. We will never force you to make a choice.”
Tasia looked at her reflection in the mirror that leaned against the wall. She straightened the posture of her slim frame and run her hand over her cropped hair. Turning back to her mother she smiled kindly, she knew very well that her parents had done their best. She also knew that life had dealt them a poor hand. Despite her having been brought up to believe that anything was possible she was now in a tight corner forced to accept that there was one simple way to give her parents some security in their old age and get herself a better life. The simple solution was for her to embrace the title of Mrs Tasia Wasike.
Trevor replaced the phone on its cradle in his office thankful that the strained conversation had been a short one. He looked across at his Executive Director who was seated in the visitors chair. “I hope that girl has her head screwed on right; based on the fact that she has chosen to marry Wasike we can’t be very sure of her decision making capabilities. Eugene closed the small brown folder that he had been skimming through, “Her CV seems to be ok so we will just have to take that risk. Besides, I am not going to gamble on losing out on the supply of top grade coffee for our customers – what’s done is done.”
Wasike strolled out of the building that housed the coffee auction and disconnected the line following his successful discussion with Trevor. He smiled broadly his crooked teeth on display as he thought of how he would break the good news to Tasia. He had delivered the wish, she had humbly requested of him. This would give him considerable mileage on the road to winning her heart. She had stated in no uncertain terms that she was willing to agree to his marriage proposal provided he could secure a year’s worth of work experience for her in the city. His pulse quickened, his long time dream of making beautiful Tasia his bride would in the matter of one short year become a reality!
“Two Kenya Coffees and one coconut mandazi!” called out Tasia, to the youthful coffee barrista who stood behind the polished wood of the service counter. She tightened the belt of her black waitresses apron as she prepared to load the tray with the order. “Sawa Tasia, ready in one minute!” he replied. She listened out for the gentle hiisss of the shiny espresso machine and savoured the seductive aroma of freshly brewed coffee which she had become accustomed to in the last 8 months and found so comforting. She loved her job waitressing at Kikombe Coffee House. After the first couple of weeks, her feet and back no longer ached at the end of each long day, and she fell into a steady rhythm. The many friends she had made more than compensated for wiping down dirty tables and juggling heavy trays laden with soiled coffee cups. The cafe was homely and many of the customers were regulars. She knew when Wanjau the doctor had suffered a long night in the casualty ward and when Rebecca the CEO’s secretary was ready to resign yet again frustrated by her boss’s unreasonable demands. She could generally predict who was single or dating or married just from their body language as they asked her advice on what was good to eat with their hot drinks. She befriended the college students who would come in and sit in groups huddled together discussing a class assignment often debating intellectual issues at length. Although envious of their fortune she engaged in easy banter with them.
The unexpected bonus, the nyama in the sukuma wiki of the job, was the exposure to business knowledge that she was getting from the dynamic café. It impressed her no end that the startup business that was doing so well was run by young Kenyan professionals not very much older than herself.
“It doesn’t really matter where you are in the world Boston, Karachi, Nairobi,” the company Executive Director Eugene had told her and two other new recruits on their first day. “if the cafe is a homely place and the staff care about the people they are serving the customers begin to treat it as another place where they feel at home. One critical essential though is that you offer the best coffee possible. Kenya coffee is one of the most valued coffees in the world and that is all we serve.” Tasia smiled to herself, how sadly ironic it was that her parents and their neighbours still only ever drunk tea!
Eugene would call small groups of staff together from time to time to see how they were managing and brief them on new promotions that they would be introducing in order to boost their monthly sales. He spoke with confidence and unassuming authority. She found his slight western accent intriguing and often felt compelled to ask him what she believed were intelligent sounding questions, just to get him to hear him speak a little longer.
At odd moments though she would snap out of the reverie of her happy life and her heart would sink as she remembered that in four months time she would have to start planning her wedding to Wasike. As much as she tried to enjoy his company there was a 16 year age gap between them and she knew in her heart that he was too old for her. This fact was brought home to her all the more vividly when he came home for lunch last Sunday afternoon.
“And then I was accelerated to the position of coffee clerk grade 3 where I worked for 15 months”. Aunt Agnes, at whose home Tasia was currently residing, nodded keenly. “That was a very rapid promotion Wasike” she said, serving him another chicken leg. “Asante Agnes this kuku is very sweet – Tamu Sana!” he said licking the gravy off his lips. As he swallowed he released a large belch from the pit of his stomach. That was the third one in a row Tasia counted mentally. He went on, “My supervisor was so impressed that I was sent out into the field to train the farmers at 8 estates within a 75km radius”. As 42 year old Aunt Agnes’s eyes flickered with interest Tasia was finding the tales of his 20 year climb up the ladder of success excruciatingly boring, she stifled yet another yawn behind her napkin. For someone who professed that he was college educated, she could not help but think that his rhetoric was rather colourless. As for his manners they, sadly, killed any semblance of desire she could have had for him.
“It’s time I left you ladies,” said Wasike, Tasia glanced at the clock on the wall, it was approaching 11pm. She nodded and stood glad that she could retire at last.
“Tasia, he asked, “can you get my shoes for me from the front door, they were a bit dusty and need to be polished before I put them back on.” Tasia stood and went to do as requested considering that this was most likely one of the future “privileges” of her impending nuptials.
As they stood outside the door, Wasike turned to shake her hand and awkwardly passed her a small package from his pocket. Inside it was a colourful bead necklace. “I saw this at the Masai Market and thought you would like it..” he mumbled. He quickly turned away and walked briskly to his car.
Tasia closed the door and leaned against it playing with the beads in her hand. “Dear God!” she sobbed, her emotions in turmoil, “I’m so confused! I know he cares for me but how will I ever grow to love him?”
The air was festive in the Nyama Choma Kraal. The Kikombe Coffee Company end of year party was in full swing. The staff were cheerful their mood upbeat as they reveled in the luxury of being on the receiving end of restaurant service for a change. Eugene stood up and walked to the front of the gathering to make a brief announcement. “Fellow Colleagues, on behalf of the directors I want to express our gratitude for the hard work that you have put into this year. As you know we have been shortlisted for this years prestigious “Bidii SME Service Award…” Tasia found herself getting lost in his smooth baritone voice and her mind drifted to how happy she was, she wondered if Wasike would let her continue with work if she could negotiate to work the day shift, perhaps on a part time basis. She was brought back to earth by a colleague shaking her out of her day dream “Tasia, stand up you’ve won the Employee of the Year award!” There was a loud cheer from the small group of close friends on her table and a rousing round of applause from the rest of the staff. As Tasia stood up from her chair preparing to make her way up to the front to receive her prize, she heard Eugene announce that she had also earned herself enrolment onto the Company Management Trainee programme! Her heart pounded with joy. Is this how it will feel when I finally go up to collect my college degree, she wondered, what a great day that will be for our family!
Wasike slammed the door of his office shut. He had been caught unaware by the news of the Tasia’s promotion, and regretted not having accepted Trevor’s invitation to the year-end party yesterday. He had turned him down unable to bear the thought of sitting through a party with Tasia surrounded by her young male colleagues, enjoying their company and laughing at their jokes. Had he done so he would have been better prepared to receive Eli’s phonecall.
“My son!”the old man had said excitedly, “I’m sure you have heard the great news by now! Surely! Imagine how proud we are of Tasia! Now that she has this God given opportunity to get some management training, Mama Tasia and I would really like her to continue to work at the café for at least six more months. It would really look good on her CV which would help her gain admission to college after the wedding next year. We know you are also very pleased and will not mind a small delay with the wedding plans.”
Wasike in the mental confusion he was experiencing, had inadvertently uttered the works “Yes, Eli, certainly”, which now he bitterly regretted. Why was this simple farming couple fantasizing about a college degree for their daughter? Surely they did not expect him to deliver on that promise immediately, who was going to look after the children if Tasia was busy studying into the night? Why did Eli, a farmer, need a daughter with a bona fide degree when, in fact, he Wasike the successful coffee trader had simply bought his honours degree certificate from a private college downtown for a mere 7,500 shillings? Did they not realize that he too would have wished to go to university? No one took pity on him when his father perished in the tragic Kitolo bridge bus accident. No one sponsored him for a course! He had to look for employment to pay the fees for his siblings and support his mother. He had to slowly work his way up the ladder suffering many humiliations from ruthless bosses along the way. He slumped in his seat and held his head in his hands. Couldn’t life just be a little simpler for him, just for once? All he wanted was a wife to take care of him. Finally, someone to take care of him, just for a change.
“Lights on please!” Eugene turned off the LCD projector in the meeting room, his one hour digital presentation had come to an end and Tasia was reeling from the information that he had shared with her and the small group of management trainees. She was alarmed at, and still processing in her brain, the figures that she had seen for global world coffee prices!
“Excuse me Eugene” she said,”did you say that a 50kg bag of green coffee can sell for as much as 900 US dollars at the local Kenya auction?
“Affirmative!” said Eugene smiling at her.
Tasia’s thoughts turned inwards, how could that statistic be possible when the most her father had ever earned from his trusted coffee agent Wasike was 235 US dollars per bag?
Was the quality of their coffee so poor? Surely, that had to be the explanation, otherwise, how on earth did 600 odd US dollars get lost in the trade pipeline? What kind of an agents’ commission was Wasike earning? How could he possibly be paid more than the farmer who tilled the land and lost days of sleep when rains failed and pests ravaged the crop?
She knew that Eugene was not making up the figures; after all he was one of the main shareholders of “Kikombe” and had been working in the coffee trade in the US for the last 4 years after he completed his business degree at the University of Texas.
That evening, Tasia agreed to go to Wasike’s house for lunch on Saturday at 1pm. He was thrilled, he would finally have a date in his house, on his terms, with his beautiful betrothed. Best of all she would be unaccompanied. He made sure his cook had prepared the food by 12 noon and then sent him to town to deliver some household appliances to the electrician for repair and allowed him to take the rest of the afternoon off.
When Tasia arrived at Wasike’s house in the taxi that he had sent to collect her, he opened the door with a cold beer in his hand. “Tasia, mpenzi” he said, sounding very mellow and relaxed, “Come in my dear” he beckoned giving her an unfamiliar wet kiss on her cheek as she walked past him and into the house. As she recovered from the shock of his first attempt at intimacy towards her, she was surprised to see that the living room was very well furnished. Despite the ordinary, battered pick up that he drove and the simple clothes that he wore, the house was bigger than she expected and fitted with fancy fixtures. An expensive looking sofa set and large TV with home theatre system graced the modern living room. Her eyes widened when she saw two framed photographs of herself standing outside the café hung prominently on the wall. She had never seen them before and was puzzled at where he would have got them from. She wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or alarmed.
“Let me take you on a tour of our house Tasia!” he said jovially. He walked her down the corridor throwing doors open one after another right down the corridor through the length of the house. “This is my executive study, this is my master bedroom with ensuite bathroom, do you like the Jacuzzi bath? I store my extra clothes in this spare room because my wardrobes in the master bedroom are not big enough. Here is the spare room which we can convert to a playroom for the children.” The kitchen was almost four times the size of her mother’s cooking area. Tasia was literally speechless at the end of the tour. Why did Wasike down play his means when he came to visit the farmers?
Contrary to his expectations that she would be pleased with the blatant display of wealth that he was so proudly unveiling, as if heralding to her that she had indeed struck gold by agreeing to marry him, she felt the bile rise in the back of her throat. She could not help wondering if this was where the missing dollars had found their way to.
“Please Excuse me Wasike, I need to use the bathroom”, she said quietly. “Use the one that is adjoined to the study, my dear” he replied, “the guest WC is being re-tiled at present”. Tasia made her way into the study glancing abstractly at Wasike’s Meru oak desk as her brain reeled with all the new discoveries that she had to process. A familiar image caught her eye though as she approached the door to the bathroom, it was a colourful pamphlet on the cover of which was a picture of her father standing on the large rock at the highest point of the farm. The pamphlet was extolling the virtues of Farmer Wekesa’s AA grade coffee which is grown to the highest standards attracting prices in the East Africa market of not less than 715 US dollars per bag at the last seasons’ auction.
Tasia slipped the pamphlet into her handbag and walked into the bathroom. She washed her tear stained face; she was definitely sick now, sick with rage and pain for her father and mother who had toiled for years to enrich this conniving, insensitive, middleman. A man who had used his late fathers’ good name to endear the trust of coffee farmers in the area and who was making almost three times the profit that the farmers were making for doing possibly only 10% of the work, if that.
“This is why I need to go to college”, she whispered to herself, “I need to be empowered to stop this kind of injustice in this country of ours. We call ourselves politically and socially independent and yet our own people continue to colonise us!”
When she walked out of the study she noticed that Wasike had placed a drink on the table next to where he had asked her to sit. He could hear him moving around in the kitchen, “I’m just serving our lunch Tasia!” he called out. “I’ve opened a bottle of imported cider for you, try it out, do you like the music? It’s the new Kidum album, have you heard it?”
By the time Wasike realised that she had left, Tasia had already made her way to the nearby matatu stop along the main road that he lived on and quickly boarded a vehicle. Within a few seconds she was out of Wasike’s reach.
Her betrothed and her betrayer, she swore silently as she laid her head back on the seat headrest, how could he deny her family their rightful dues and imagine he could get away with it? Did he think that she was so stupid that she wouldn’t be able to put one and two together? The next decision she made was going to be hers and hers alone.
It was 4pm on a Saturday morning two months to the day from that fateful afternoon. The coffee trees were heavy with fruit, the air fresh and bracing Eugene had just completed a tour of the farm and was expressing his admiration for the careful attention that Mary and Eli gave to their trees. They sat in the garden as Tasia served them hot steaming mugs made from their own coffee beans. She had carefully roasted the beans, then ground and brewed the coffee just as Eugene had taught her. “Mama, Baba” she said softly – “this is AA grade Wekesa Coffee -selling price USD 715 per bag – please enjoy.”
As he sipped from his cup savouring the fruits of his labour Wekesa looked up at Eugene with his eyes shining.
“Son, I’m ready to sign those agreements to supply your establishment with my green coffee. I know now for sure that all my years of hard work have been worthwhile; our world has opened up, we now have a future we can look forward to.”
It was three years later when Tasia walked though a crowd of people applauding loudly and made her way up to the podium where the Chancellor of her Private College handed her an Agricultural Economics Degree Certificate. Her proud coffee farming parents Mary and Eli looked at each other tenderly and smiled.