Celebrating East African Writing!
The morning is ushered in by a light crisp breeze. The room is a murky hot from the bodies of five squeezed into a tiny space. It is hard to sleep soundly when I keep finding myself cramped up against my brother’s armpit. I hear my father get off the only bed in the room. He ushers the start of our days. Mother will be following soon to start making the morning tea and trying to get us ready for school. I will wait for tea to be ready before I brave the coolness of 6 am.
I should be grateful for this roof over our head because it is rent free. Father works as the ‘shamba boy’ for Mr. Njoroge, and mother as the housemaid for the big mansion across the lawn. The servants’ quarter has been our home for three years now. Things are much better now, my parents’ salary is all their own to do as they wish with it. We have free security with the G4S guards at the gate. Plenty of water but the greatest joy is electricity. It is so much easier to read for my exams in the fluorescent glare.
I jump out of bed stumbling over my brother who mumbles at me. I dress in the dim light of morning so as not to wake the others up. I hear mother tinker with the sufuria over the stove and I know breakfast is almost ready. I cannot really call it a meal. With all the free things we get we still find that we eat like paupers. This is hard to believe when you look out at the beautifully manicured lawn outside our door. It almost feels wrong to down black sugarless tea with boiled maize in such a setting. But my rumbling stomach will welcome anything right now.
I want to eat as fast as I can so that I can make my trip. It is one I love to take every morning but little good it does me and you will see why soon. As I chew the maize and down it with the tea, I catch a glimpse of my father crouched at the wall. He barely notices me. He crouches forward and his gnarled hands hold some coins that he is counting carefully. I have grown to hate this sight. I know that things are tight and we are about to have less than we already get. Why do we seem to never have enough? Why is it that despite all the free things we enjoy here my parents still barely make it through the month.
My father looks up at me as though he can feel my glare. He slowly puts the money in his shirt pocket.
“Boy, “ he calls in his habitual way, “life is hard but remember God will always provide for us.”
And he gets up and heads out to start his day of keeping Mr. Njoroge’s compound immaculately clean. I am left pondering his thoughts. “God will provide for us.” Is it the same God who provides for Mr. Njoroge because his God seems so much larger and generous than the one my father ascribes to. We never starve that is true but there are times we get very close to doing so.
My father hates my morning ritual and so I always wait until he gets to work before I make my way. The cold wind blows through my weathered shirt causing me to shiver. I draw nearer to the window careful not to get noticed. I crouch low and look behind to make sure that my father is nowhere in sight. The sun is coming up now and reflects off the large window before my eyes. I push my face against the glass to see what lies inside. My eyes take time to focus and I sigh at the feast I see. Nothing has ever looked more beautiful. Set on the table are succulent fruits, plenty of bread, unknown foodstuffs in colourful boxes and a full jug of milk! This must be heaven. My stomach grumbles as though the black sugarless tea and boiled maize I have just had has been sucked out of me.
I love to gaze upon this sight letting my imagination run wild at the thought of how it would feel to taste the fruits, their juices cool flowing down my throat. I see rivers of fresh milk and try to remember its taste. It had been so long. What does it feel like to eat to ones fill? It was almost sinful that they could eat so much while we eat so little. Mr. Njoroge must be a close friend of God because he gets so much.
My running thoughts are interrupted by the sounds in the house. I crouch lower. The heavy footsteps usher in the burly Mr. Njoroge who comes in and sits where he always does, King of his domain. I realize that I don’t remember ever sitting at a table to eat with my family. We just sort of find corners on the ground with the wall to bear us up.
I admire Mr. Njoroge whose very presence commands respect. He is strong and handsome with a sure step. He walks as though he owns the world and he does. I can’t help thinking of how my father contrasts to this man. He is frail and timid, always answering, “yes Boss!” When I have to look at him like this I well up with mixed feelings like the taste of bile and sugarcane caught in my throat. How is it possible to both love my father and resent him?
A twinge of guilt and shame was over me at my unbridled mind. I know my father has always given the best he has. It is too unfair to compare the two men who live worlds apart?
The rest of the family files into the room one by one as if on cue. The first to come in was the demure and petite Mrs. Njoroge. She appears surreal in her perfection. I watch the doll-like being. Nothing alive could look so beautiful and cold. Never is she rattled and she smells how I think the ocean must smell. I find it funny that she looks like the china she guards so worshipfully. My mother must polish them once a week. I asked my mother why, but even she has no idea why Mrs. Njoroge loves these things that are hardly used or noticed by anyone.
My mother is such a different creature all together. They are not of the same species. Mother is round and soft and I love to fall into her folds in a hug. My mother smells of sweat and food mixed into one. Even for her size she seems to fade when she is beside Mrs. Njoroge but to me there can be no one more beautiful. For my mother I have sworn to myself that I will find the God of Mr. Njoroge and make him happy, then I will give my mother China that no one is allowed to touch. One day we will live in the house across the lawn.
I gasp suddenly and instinctively crouch lower. I can’t help laughing at myself at the sight of Mbogo, the oldest son. Unlike Mr. Njoroge who seems to command respect, Mbogo demands it by the sheer strength of his fists. Even now I can feel the blows that Mbogo has meted on me when I have made the mistake of getting noticed. I find that I admire him though I do so begrudgingly. Though I know I can never dare in my idle moments I often imagine how it would be to land a few blows of my own and watch Mbogo ‘eat the dust’.
Tears sting my eyes at the intensity of the feelings that rage within me now. There she is the one I think of most on the other side of the window, Maria! My young thirteen year old heart fills with such a mixture of emotions I cannot put words to. She holds my heart in a way nothing ever has. Suddenly Maria raises her head and looks at me as though the forcefulness of my heart draws her to see me. Transfixed I watch as that sweet smile spread across her face in recognition and just as suddenly she has looked away, I think must have imagined it all.
“Boy, get away from there now,” my father calls, “how many times have I told you to stop peeping into Boss’s window?”
There are times when I wish I lived on the other side of the window rather on this side where God does not visit. What hand of nature assigns life? I scurry away to help my father before school. Tomorrow I will find a way to be God’s friend.