Back in 2003, I was a semi-independent, semi-adult working and living on ‘my own’ in Mombasa. I lived in a two-room ‘flat’ that my mum had secured from a friend who was leaving the country for a while. The two rooms were joined by a connecting door and were part of a block of other rooms collectively called a Plot because the whole building is built on a piece of land 1/8 of an acre generally referred to as a plot. The building itself is made up of the 8 or more ‘flats’ arranged on both sides of a long corridor, perhaps roofed and surrounding a courtyard which is used as a communal laundry room and general recreation room. You might have to share bathrooms, too, usually situated at the farthest end of the courtyard.
If you have ever lived in Mombasa, on the village side of it, then you know that it was rather unusual for a kid in her very early 20’s, not married, and with no kids, to be living in a two-room flat. You just need one room, I was told. In fact it was quite strange, at least in my neighbors’ viewpoint, for a good girl my age not to be married. The neighbors had no scruples about telling me just how I should live my life, sometimes getting offended if I seemed not to listen to the ‘older ones.’ I was respectful, I tried to be, but it is rather difficult to listen to advice that dictates ‘some nice young man who has a steady job at KPA as a husband as soon as possible and 12 kids in rapid succession.’ The only thing on my mind was how long it would take me to save up to buy the cool laptop second-hand, and then maybe pay for part-time classes at The Institute.
Having moved from my mum’s three-room apartment on the other side of town, I was quite unused to the interactive nature of life in the Plot. I was even more unused to the interfering and bickering nature of the women in the Plot. The Plot I lived in was known in the village as Plot 10, in the style of the old KBC program by the same name. Plot 10, if you ever run into one, will be characterized by nosy, gossipy and simply malicious neighbors, chiefly the women, but sometimes a man, most likely a pastor, will be at the helm of the bickering gossip. Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against pastors. It’s just a generalization from the fact that my worst run-ins have involved a pastor at one time or the other. I am still not very sure what I do that sets them against me.
The gossipers, not many, maybe two or three but enough to make you hate everyone living in the Plot, will gang up to gossip, for some reason always making sure it gets back to you. If you are like me, and you prefer to come home and rest in the solitude of your room, (solitude ha!) someone will make sure they say what they have to say loudly enough for you to hear. There is no privacy; there is no locking the world out. Your music is too loud. Your cooking stinks (dude, I never cooked anything but coffee.) Then there is the one who sings loudest, taarab, just as you are making your way down the long corridors to go to the shops. She might sing something like, “Vishindo vya mashua havishutui bahari.” (The sailboats rocking do not terrify the sea.) And you spend the rest of the evening trying to figure out what in the world it has to do with you, and fail every time.
Wait till you wake up the next morning and find a pile of rubbish on your doorstep. Then as if all that isn’t enough, someone ’sympathetic’ shows up to tell you that the Pastor is complaining about your mode of dressing and telling everyone that you are a twilight woman. Of course, if you are like me, you will stare at the messenger with a gaping mouth, and then when you are alone, tell yourself, “I don’t care what anyone thinks of me. I am working honestly at a job, that may be low-paying, but that does not involve sacrificing my dignity. My mother raised a decent human being and I will not let myself be drawn into Plot conflicts. And if anyone has a problem with my way of dressing they can…shove it.”
It can quickly escalate from what you ate last night, to the place from which your parents originated. I was a common victim, by virtue of the fact that I was from Bara (upcountry). There had to always be something I was doing wrong. I tried to conform at first. Then I realized that I just couldn’t. So I did not find myself a nice husband fast. I did not bother to change from my ragged jeans into kangas and lesos, even though I do admire the bright colors and the creative sayings printed on the back of them. (You should know, that if you don’t have a large bosom, uh breasts, and a thin waist, there is virtually no way of looking classy in the kangas and lesos, even less of a chance at holding them up in a decent tie over your chest which is how they are commonly worn.)
I still do not understand why it is so important for people to be uniform. Differences are not tolerated, not encouraged. Anyone who is different becomes a target for ridicule and sometimes malice. The thing is, we are all different. We can never all be the same. So the ridicule and malice is likely to go in a cycle. The perpetrator today maybe the victim tomorrow. So I wasn’t very surprised when the Pastor started fighting with his gossip buddy over use of the laundry area. The Pastor called his yesterday buddy ‘a witch’ because she prefers herbs over conventional medicines. She called him ‘a womanizer’ because most of his flock are women.
I moved into a smaller Plot. Later, I moved into my mum’s home, now she lives in Nairobi. Our neighbor is the local Deliverance Church pastor. When I first arrived, I was pretty much a recluse from being ill for very long. I had managed to buy the laptop and mum could afford to pay for internet connection. I studied at home, wrote from my room and pretty much didn’t bother anyone. Guess what, that’s different and it’s not acceptable. There has been talk of my ‘real’ occupations which vary from highway robber to, more recently, because of the number of cats I own(they recently reached the horrendous number 7), the witch.
What would it cost anyone to try and understand the differences before they ridicule them?