Celebrating East African Writing!
Written by Makena Onjerika
The night my mother first spoke of the death of her mother, we had had no electricity in Zimmerman for four days. The hurricane lamp on the table gave her a giant head on the wall. She said, “The day after we buried Njerica, we were in the farm, me and your Aunt Batha. We were digging and then we saw a man walking across our fields.”
With an open palm she sliced through the sharp smell of kerosene hanging over our heads and took us back to that green, wet land, pregnant with the medicinal smell of Eucalyptus. The black and white Friesian cows whipped their tails at pestilent flies and dropped healthy, warm blobs of dung. Njerica lies in an unweeded grave at the corner of my grandfather’s compound; every June and December, laden coffee trees bend over her head, spotted red with berries.
“He was a tall man with a thin face. In that sun his clothes seemed to be burning. We called him. Muugaa, we said. But he went on walking across our land to the main road, without saying anything to us.”
She widened her eyes to look closely at the man, standing tall and thin, right there in our sitting room. “Who was this walking on our fields the day after we put Njerica in the soil?”
“I left Batha in the fields and ran home and asked Nto-Mukindia if the man had come to our homestead. I ran to the main road and asked everyone I met, have you seen this man? In that village with only one road, no one had seen him.”
My mother didn’t own a single pair of shoes until she joined secondary school. She ran everywhere: to deliver milk to the dairy at six am every morning, to school before the bell started tolling and teachers started caning pupils’ buttocks; back home for a lunch of pounded potatoes and nyeni; from school to cut and carry napier grass for the cows.
Thinking of Njerica, her eyes become wet and glittery. My brother was too young to see this. When he asked who the man was, she held herself as though she felt a wind we didn’t. ‘Someone bewitched your grandmother. Someone sent that man to come see that the job was finished.’
Her head grew as she moved forward to catch a mosquito buzzing close to my face. Njerica had died of breast cancer. My blood was dark red on my mother’s palm.
The pesticides my uncle drunk burned up his insides and made him cry. The day my mother told us about his suicide, I sat on the concrete steps outside our house after an afternoon downpour—red ants buzzing electrically as they marched by—trying to see this uncle’s face in a sufuria I had placed under the eaves to collect water. I had met him only once at my grandfather’s homestead and had never been sent to his own home for the school holidays.
Some months before his death, this same uncle had burnt down his house. In the morning before she drove to Nanyuki for the family fundraising to build a new house, I heard my mother talking on her mobile. “Batha, is this not the devil? How is it that every time our brother harvests his wheat, every time he has money in his pocket, his head goes bad?”
Later my cousin who had attended the fundraising told me that the grown ups had called a holy man to my uncle’s farm. This holy man went round the farm praying and shouting verses from the Bible, commanding devils in the name of Jesus Christ, and everywhere he paused, he made them dig. They had found strange things buried in my uncle’s farm. Cat bones and pots full of rotten liquids and human hair. Strange things.
You see, there is a curse in my family; no one knows where it came from, but it has eaten all the men. ‘Eaten’, that’s how my mother says it. “You tell me, Batha. None of our father’s sons have succeeded. They got education same as us and the farms on top, but look.”
Years later, when I was already in university in the States, she told me of the last time she saw her eldest brother. Her voice came through Skype in pieces and screeches. “I saw that he was running around in his head, looking for himself, but what could I do? I told them to go to church; I told them to pray; I told them to seek God. No one listened. Look what happened.”
I lost my faith as I watched Pastor John Wesley gliding across the podium of Good Shepherd church, sweating from the effort of delivering the Word. Big-hatted African-American women shouted halleluias, amens and ‘preach preacher’. A banner hanging from the blacked rafters waved slightly as though riding on the hot waves of belief. “No-EXCUSE-vember: The month of destiny. Rise up and claim the inheritance”.
Amen! The shouts clapped against my ears and I began to write on a church pamphlet. Words and words about a girl running around in her head, looking for herself.
But the only poetry my mother knows is in the Psalms of David. Digging through her purse with a squint for church offering, she asked, “Mukami, what day is it today?”
My first Sunday back in Kenya. A rainy day—the chalky smell of wet soil made me thirsty. My pyjamas were still warm from bed. She slapped her Bible on the table, said she wouldn’t have an atheist in her house, broke a cup. My brother didn’t make a sound in the adjoining room, his bedroom.
She asked, “Do you at least pray?”
Perhaps if I had said I prayed, she wouldn’t have told me about the man. She said, “I knew it. From six months ago, I knew it, Mukami. Do you remember my cousin Boronica?”
She described this Boronica, her plumpness, her dark skin, her many children, the trickle of blood through our family tree, but I refused to recall the woman. Outside, the various denominations within a kilometre’s radius of our house were shouting their sermons at each other over mega loudspeakers. My mother pinched her brow with concentration: “Boronica called me six months ago. She met a man on the village road. A man she does not know. He called her by her name, Boronica, and asked do you know Kareti of Nto-Mukindia? She did not know him, but he knew me and your grandfather. He said tell Kareti I have a message for her, about Mukami.”
I should have said, “Shindwe!” I should quoted Psalms 23, but instead I sipped my tea, warm in my pyjamas, and asked, “Mami, what was the message?”
She didn’t answer. I can still hear the ring of her car keys as she went through the door and let it bang behind her.
©Makena Onjerika 2013