“Realize, nobody cares”.
Wanja pulled her first-born closer to her body. The earth beneath her skin had started to radiate the cold and damp, telling her a new day was dawning. It was always coldest just before the sun rose. She snuggled into Kiano’s little form. Together they would bring each other warmth. She kept her eyes firmly shut, not ready to start the morning rush.
They hadn’t always lived like this. Wanja remembered happier days, when in the mountains of Nyeri on fertile soils she’d tended plots of maize that had sprouted by the mealful. She’d had goats, chickens, and together she and her husband had set on buying a cow. When Kiano was born she’d carried him in a piece of colourful cotton cloth that read “God is good”, right against the skin of her back while she carefully tended the plot. They rarely separated except to bathe.
She liked to linger over those days, especially when she was half awake. She could easily picture herself waking up to make a charcoal fire, boiling a sufuria of water and making tea. Of course, they didn’t have sugar or milk in those days, but they still could afford to have tea. Later, when the coals glowed amber, she’d place some purple yams in the fire for breakfast.
Her stomach rumbled thinking on it. Today, there would be nothing for her, just like yesterday, and the day before, which was probably why she felt the icy breath of the earth blowing into her skin every morning lately. She preferred not to reflect on how her beauty had faded so quickly, like a wrapper left out in the sun. Lord only knows she had seen enough of that around here. In fact, this hut was built right on top of such wrappings – at different levels of decay. “But I won’t decay,” she inwardly steeled herself, “and neither will my son. Not if I can help it.”
She felt the urge to go to the bathroom rise it’s insistent pressure, and now that the sun had started to stream in through the hand crafted walls of cardboard, tin and manure – she knew she faced less danger in making the 400 metre trek to the toilet block. She dared not make the voyage at night, under any circumstances. She’d tried it once, at a desperate time when she’d been ill, and the scars across her throat gleamed in stripes to display the consequences. She was just thankful that moonless night had not resulted in her giving birth again, although she also doubted she would be capable after what she had endured. Yes, some good did come out of it. One child was hard enough to look after in this slum, and she was totally consumed as it was trying to ensure he could eat once a day. She suddenly shook as if throwing off these heavy memories and wriggled up into a sitting position. Yes, the sunshine streamed in. There would be no sex starved hunters patrolling the latrine now. She was free.
Freedom was, after all, her cross to bear. It was all she had, apart from her son, and what a journey she had been on to keep him. When he was only 2 years of age his father began to mysteriously waste away, his skin hollowing over his cheekbones, gathering like a fabric cloak across his ribs. Then weeping sores appeared, turning what was left of his flesh to patchwork. His brothers started telling everyone in the village that she had bewitched him. She had put a spell on him, and wanted him dead, no doubt the work of sexual trickery and power. Nothing could be further from the truth. Seeing her husband, the only man who had been truly kind and loving toward her, wither into an old man before her eyes was the most painful thing she had encountered since she had come to live with him at his village as a teenage girl, after her family were all gone. They too had come down with the same wasting illness. It started with her father, then her mother, then her older sister. Was it following her? Maybe she was a witch and didn’t know it? She couldn’t be sure. She couldn’t be sure of anything, or anyone. So she took her son and ran away, before she was beaten as a witch. Witches had no place in Nyeri, so she escaped to the anonymous city of Nairobi to try her luck.
Now her son Kiano was 6 years of age. He’d recently gone to school for the first time. People came through the settlement and hastily grabbed all the children they could, taking them to a makeshift class room. Muzungu men, taking photographs with their big, chubby white hands on big black cameras, smiled endlessly. Kiano had come home with his eyes gleaming.
“Mum! Today I went to school, and it was so good. I learned about Jesus, and Mary, and Joseph. I learned some of the alphabet and there were so many games! I’d like to go back again tomorrow. Can I?” he asked, his upturned face swirling in the air of innocence. She’d not seen him so excited since he had found a length of string long enough to make a soccer ball out of plastic bags almost half a year ago. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that even that school required her to pay fees, and that she couldn’t afford it, and probably would never be able to. She couldn’t explain to anyone that she had no papers to speak of, so couldn’t ask for help from the many muzungu that came to be kind. So she just smiled, and hugged him. “I’m glad you had a nice day my sweet,” she sighed, kissing his head and hugging him closer. He looked up from her hip, his eyes searching hers for an answer, and it broke her heart when she saw the gleam disappear into coldness. He hung his head in silence. She too, was silent.
She finished her morning ablutions amongst the stench of the latrine. Really, she could just have easily gone in the river that ran it’s way through the settlement, or in a plastic bag and thrown it on her neighbour’s roof. But she hated the stench of where she lived. She hated to see so much foulness everywhere. Every day the rubbish piles grew larger and larger, and she never did know what she was about to stand on. When Kiano was younger, she had been frantic trying to keep him from putting things in his mouth, not that it had done any good. He’d been sick like the rest of the children, and she had just been lucky that he’d had that 2 year head start in a place that held less disease. Many of her neighbours had lost their children. More had left them to fend for themselves. But she would never leave Kiano.
She made her way back to the hut along the undulating path that ran parallel to the fuel pipeline that cut through the settlement. She looked over in the distance and squinted into the already harsh sunlight. Was that a stream of fuel she could see? She squinted harder, bringing her hand up to her face to block the glare. Then in moments, she had her answer. Excited screams arose from every hut. She was literally knocked to the ground by a man carrying a large water container. She banged her head on the pipe and cradled it, watching as a crowd formed 200 metres away. Today was a good day. Today, if she could make it to the gushing rip in the pipe, she might be able to collect enough fuel to sell. If she could push through the crowd, and carry a big enough container without being trampled, she might even be able to pay a term of school fees. Her heart beat in her chest with excitement. She picked herself up and praised God, while running in the same direction as the rest of the crowd.
She peeled off to the right toward her hut. She had one bucket, and one sufuria. “Kiano,” she called out, hoping he could hear her above the commotion. “Bring me my bucket!” she was hoping to save time to race back toward the leaking fuel. She could smell it in the air. Like the smell of money. Like the smell of success. What a day! She thought to herself. She promised to God that she wouldn’t think on such morbid topics in the morning again if only her days would turn out like this.
Kiano didn’t appear. She kept on running, assuming he could not hear her above the high-pitched cries and squeals of delight. She raced into her hut, and looked around. It was empty, and Kiano was nowhere to be seen. He must have taken the vessels down to the pipeline himself, not wanting to waste the opportunity. “What a good son,” she thought to herself. She was raising him to be a thoughtful child, not like the glue sniffing thieves that roamed around without law, stealing from all and sundry because they didn’t have any parents to teach them any better.
She turned and raced toward the bustling crowd around the burst pipe. Kiano would never be able to carry that bucket and sufuria by himself, and might even get attacked for it on the way home if he were not careful. She tried to push through the throngs, but there were too many people blocking the path. It had to be at least 16 people deep, each of them carrying a container of some sort.
“Watch it lady,” she was told aggressively, when she pushed too hard.
“My son is there” she spat back, knowing that those in front of her were likely to get her fuel if she didn’t fight.
“Look lady, nobody cares OK? You’ll get your turn.”
She spied an area opening up as someone who had fainted was carried away. She ran for it, pushing with all her might and squeezing under the arms of a particularly large woman, then crawled between the legs of two men before popping up again. There, she could see her son, his skin glowing dark mahogany, coated in rich and glorious fuel. He looked beautiful to her, shining in the sun, bathed in the blessings of an amazing bounty.
“Kiano!” she yelled with all the breath in her lungs, wanting to let him know she was there to help if she could only get through the last part of the crowd. He looked up, his smile beaming from ear to ear, mirroring hers. He saw her, and she saw his chest puff out with just a little bit of pride. She smiled wider.
Wanja couldn’t see what was happening at the front of the crowd. She didn’t see the smoker, or hear the argument that ensued as he tried to gain payment from anyone that tried to get to the fuel. One look at him and anyone could tell he was higher than an eagle, a glue bottle still stuck on his mouth, his eyes a cloudy yellow. It all happened too quickly. A harsh word, a punch to the nose, then a banging explosion that sent a shudder through the very ground they stood on.
Heat, fire, crackling from head to head, face to face and home to home.
Wanja thought she had seen Kiano flying through the air like a flame winged angel. She thought she had seen him walk across the river water, like a red tipped Jesus. Then he never appeared again, except in the earliest hours of morning, when he smiled that same last happy smile as she reached out her scarred arms for his warmth.
For the Indie Ink Writing Challenge this week, Travis Cope of Voluntary Tourette’s challenged me with “Realize, nobody cares”. I challenged Grace O’Malley of Words Like Foam on the Waves with “There was nothing for it. I could see a person approaching exactly as expected. I simply had to act on my impulses or else I’d…
There I go again, being overtaken by an urge. What now? Will I really? But then, won’t I become nothing more than a criminal? But just what is a criminal anyway? And if desperation comes knocking on your door…what wouldn’t you do to keep yourself sane.
If indeed, this could be called sanity. In this world of chaos, busy laneways and cobblestones, anything could be called sane.