Celebrating East African Writing!
It was Tuesday and Mama Viazi was not in her usual spot. That came as a surprise to Hemedi and Ali since Mama Viazi was always in her spot after Asr prayers six days a week except for Sundays. She might as well have been a guide post since her habit made her neighbors use her as a landmark whenever they guided people within their neighborhood.
“The place is three houses from Mama Viazi’s.”
“If you’re coming before sunset, seek Mama Viazi, and my house is right behind hers.”
At exactly 4.30 of every working day, she would drag out her utensils which included a basin filled with mountains of boiled, peeled and diced potatoes, another basin containing gram flour, and the coal-fueled jiko. She would then settle into her swahili wooden stool with the criss-crossed legs and start pouring water into the flour mixture to prepare the batter. Then her hands would expertly pick the battered potato cubes and dip them into the sizzling oil. After some time she would put in the slotted spoon, turn them and work on the next batch until the batch in the oil turned golden.
Children swarmed around her chair after school like bees, laughing and chatting as they waited for their turn to get their potatoes doused in a sea of chilli chatni and/or tamarind sauce. Their snack was usually wrapped in paper – unprinted – since the printed examination papers she used to use in the past were banned. Others also paid an extra shilling to have plastic bags so they could smash the potatoes, cut a hole at the bottom and then suck into it, an act that some adults found repulsing.
Hemedi and Ali always bought their snack on the way back from the Islamic madrasa. They carried their ten golden potatoes like prized possessions, waiting until they got home to savor every bite.
But today it was not Sunday and she was not there. A lot of children lingered around the door, wondering if she had slept late. Or maybe she was sick. But Mama Viazi never got sick. At least, never during a weekday. Someone dared to knock at the door and a younger woman’s head wrapped in Kanga popped out and curtly said, “No viazi today.”
There was a collective groan from the crowd. Hemedi and Ali could feel their hearts sink with disappointment as there wasn’t anybody else who sold viazi on their way home. They returned home empty-handed speculating on the reason Mama Viazi wasn’t there.
“You think the price of potatoes have gone up?” Ali, the younger one asked.
“Prices always go up. That never stopped her from making viazi,” Hemedi answered. “Besides, we’ll still buy even if it’s expensive. It would just mean we would get less with our money.”
“Yes.” Ali nodded. “Maybe she’s very sick.”
“Maybe. She’ll probably be better tomorrow.”
Having missed their viazis the day before, Hemedi and Ali were too anxious to see if Mama Viazi was back, so they ran at top speed to her house. A crowd hung around the door, all eyes riveted towards a paper notice on the door announcing, ‘No viazi available’. They turned and walked away with forlorn looks as others lingered around the notice as though the message would change if they stared at it long enough.
“No viazi today?” their mother asked when they walked into the house with empty hands and sad faces. She was ironing clothes on a board in front of the TV.
“No,” Hemedi answered.
“Why don’t you ask Khalid what happened to her?” She asked.
“Khalid? Who’s khalid?”
“You don’t know her nephew? He goes to your school. He’s the one who played the orphan in last year’s play during Fun Day.” Her mother was very knowledgeable when it came to familial connections of everybody in the neighborhood…if not the whole society in Mombasa.
Hemedi’s eyes widened. “Oh yes. I remember him. He’s one year ahead of me. That’s a good idea. We’ll ask him tomorrow.”
The next day they sought him out during lunch time and asked him why his aunt no longer cooked viazi. “I’ll tell you but it’s a secret,” he lowered his voice and glanced around. The fact that Khalid was giving out a secret to people he barely knew made Hemedi wonder if he was looking around to make sure that nobody was within earshot, or that somebody was within earshot so he could speak louder.
“A woman knocked the door dragging a little boy with a greasy black hair and makengeza eyes and said that aunty’s potatoes gave him food poisoning. She threated to go to the police and open a case that she’s running an unhygienic operation if Aunty didn’t stop cooking.”
“But we never had problems with her food before. Maybe it wasn’t even her potatoes that caused the food poisoning,” Hemedi said.
Khalid shrugged. “I don’t know. But it scared her and now she’s not going to sell viazi anymore.”
That day when Hemedi and Ali passed Mama Viazi’s house, they noticed that the paper notice was still there, but the knot of hopeful customers was dwindling by the day. They continued walking down the footpath, chatting among themselves when they suddenly froze at the sight of two children sucking mashed potatoes through a hole at the bottom of a plastic bag.
“Excuse me,” Ali stopped one of them. “Where did you get those?”
“Keep on going down this path until you reach the field where children play football. Search for a big pink house and you’ll see someone making them there.
Hemedi and Ali rushed hastily towards the field. They didn’t need to search for the pink house as there was a mob of children right outside, each waiting for their viazi. They joined the mob, their excitement uncontained.
When they were collecting their golden crispy potatoes in paper bags, a young boy opened the door behind his mother and said, “Mama, when will you help me with my homework?”
“Later, mwanangu, can’t you see I’m busy?”
He stepped back into the house and quietly closed the door, but not before Hemedi and Ali got a closer look at him and noticed his greasy black hair and makengeza eyes.
 Viazi: Potato
 Makengeza: cross-eyed