Celebrating East African Writing!
Elizabeth Akinyi sat down heavily on her one inch mattress in the dark, moldy single room she called home and sighed. The ancient metal bed squeaked as it absorbed her weight, she placed her handbag at her side marveling at the silence outside. The slums were usually teeming with noise and people at seven in the evening when she usually came in from work. Music was blasting from the mabati bars, women arguing and talking loudly in the wet darkened alleyways, stray dogs barking and children playing in the filth that permeated everyday life in the slum. Today she was home early; she had just been fired from her job.
A thin shaft of sunlight illuminated the calendar just behind her headboard. She had gotten the calendar free from the supermarket last year, the page was turned to December and showed a mzungu family playing in snow; mum and dad, a little boy and a girl- a perfect quadruple- wearing festive smiles in front of their impossibly grand house – Merry Christmas - it proclaimed. It was April now and the calendar had stuck to the mabati walls with glue melded into the metal by the heat of the sun, it was almost impossible to remove now; not that she wanted to; it reminded her of happier times – of what used to be.
Elizabeth stared at the picture for a long moment then allowed her eyes to follow the beam of light to it’s source, the patchy roof held together by polythene bags and disused cartons. She hoped it wouldn’t rain again tonight, not tonight she couldn’t take it on top of everything else. She sat silently on her bed, her head bowed down and her hands clasped together between her knees as though in prayer, and felt her heart slow down to a steady thump.
It was the phone that had caused all this trouble, she had been drying off one of madam’s heavy crystal serving bowls in the kitchen when the shrill ring of her mobile nestled against her left breast had startled her. The bowl had slipped from her hands and smashed into thousands of shiny glittery shards onto the marble floor. Elizabeth had stood rigid in shock her hand clutching her chest, the phone was still ringing unheeded when madam had stormed into the room screeching and cursing when she saw what had happened.
‘You stupid, stupid…’ she had screeched mouth opening and closing, grasping for words which she seemed to have run out of – quite a departure from her usual self.
‘Get out of my house, you great big stupid…’
It was no use arguing with the madam; she had gathered her things in a daze and started walking home, and so had ended six months employment.
Her older sister who worked as a nanny for an Indian couple in the same estate, had found her the position as a maid for madam who was a wealthy old shriveled woman that always seemed to find fault in anything Elizabeth did. In the end her nerves had become brittle and jumpy. She admitted to herself that she was glad she didn’t have to go back there, but there was still Andrew’s school fees to pay, food to buy and rent to think of. She had only 300 shillings in her pocket which madam had thrown at her feet before telling her she never wanted to see her again. Elizabeth had been surprised by even that gesture.
She walked in great hurried strides although home was only twenty minutes away remembering how Ben used to tease her about her walking style. ‘Like a lieutenant’ he had laughed ‘always in a hurry’ but he was gone now, so were Jane and Esther. Elizabeth felt tears start to brim at her eyes and took deep steady breaths. There was still Andrew, he was still alive, he needed her, she would make it through this.
It was a mantra often repeated during difficult times; when she had learned that her husband and two young children had died in a road accident 8 months before; when she had to sell their meager household goods to pay for three funerals, when she was forced to vacate her small but comfortable government house for a hovel in Kibera, when taking up a job as a housemaid to support her only son but mostly when she felt like lying down and giving up on everything.
The phone had gone quiet of its own volition during the melee, just before reaching her door she had taken it out and looked at the small luminous green screen. She didn’t recognize the number, soon she would have to sell the damn thing anyway it had become an unnecessary expense. Andrew would be disappointed, he liked to play with it, entertained him she supposed as all the entertainment they had was a battered old radio and he had so few friends.
Elizabeth had dozed off into a dreamless sleep when the phone rang again shrilly, she jerked awake startled as the beam of light hit her straight in the eyes, wincing she picked it up. It was the same number from before.
‘Hello’ she answered wearily, the beam of light was larger she saw, the crack in the roof had widened.
‘Is this mama Andrew?’ a jolly, larger than life boomed in her ear.
‘Yes’ she replied. The voice sounded strangely familiar.
‘My name is Mwana Makena’ the voice said dramatically and paused.
‘Ah… Okay” she was puzzled and that name sounded familiar as well, and why was there an echo when she spoke into the phone?
‘You sent a message to Kazi Fm yesterday?’
‘What.. er yes’ she remembered her teenage son texting in some answers to the noisy radio station he always listened to.
‘Well I am pleased to inform you that you have won some money.’
‘What! Are you sure?‘ Elizabeth found herself standing.
‘Yes, the text you sent us–’
‘Oh my God, oh my God!’ she trembled.
‘Mama a million shillings is now yours.’ laughed the presenter.
Elizabeth looked up into the slat of light that was streaming in to the room.
She raised her hand, reaching for the sun and began to laugh and cry simultaneously.
‘Mama, do you have anything to say to the listeners?’ prompted the impossibly jovial voice.
She shook her head; tears were running down her face.
‘MERRY CHRISTMAS’ she yelled, startling even herself and laughing even harder when she realized what she had said. ‘MERRY CHRISTMAS’ she screamed, her chest heaved with mirth and she sat down on the cold earthen floor giggling madly.
The presenter laughed with her, long and loud.
In the middle of one of the national dailies every week, there is a business pictorial displaying photos of people who have won competitions. In one of them at the bottom left corner, there is a small picture of one of Kenya’s most popular radio presenters handing over one of those ridiculously huge mock cheques to a heavyset woman wearing a green kitenge with a tall gangly young man at her side, they both look dazedly into the cameras. The caption beneath the photo read Christmas comes early.
©NEEMA YIENYA 2009
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