our mami first appeared to you on a Friday morning, three hours after her death. Minutes before, your classmate Nzeli’s bad news, that your mother had given birth and bled to death, had forced you to sit on a black log outside the unfinished building opposite your Class Two block. Nzeli’s mami was your mami’s workmate in Kavaa market.
Your mami told you her story might be your story in years to come. Because you were not certain whether she was here or you were just daydreaming, you could not understand what she was saying. She seemed like a misty version of herself. Were you only conjuring images in your mind to comfort yourself? But a part of you could swear she was real.
As your mami spoke, the distant sound of a vehicle on motion made your ears half-dumb. Face bright, she told you it was time you knew how she had left you. She told you she would be appearing to you till you learn the truth. Your mami told you that her heart was now filled with bliss. Folding her fingers into a fist and singling out the little finger of her free hand, she told you the last of her visits to you might be of immense significance. You decided against rubbing your eyes to assure yourself all this was true. Your mami’s quick words barely gave you time to say anything.
Nearby the log you sat on, a narrow dusty path lined with jacaranda trees on either side led down to the school’s green gate B, then upwards straight to the staffroom. Nzeli had been the one who made tears flow down your cheeks. That morning, as you sat on the log, as you felt it hurt your buttocks, you did not remember the walks along the banks of River Athi with you, Nzeli, her mami and your mami. You remembered Nzeli walking to the front of the classroom, hours earlier. You remembered her swaying from side to side as if preparing to give an important speech. Looking behind from your front row seat you saw your fellow pupils stare at Nzeli, their eyes narrowing with anxiety.
Then Nzeli said something which threw you off balance. Still sitting on the log, you remembered Nzeli’s words. You did not understand what she meant. Yet another part of your ten-year old brain thought it understood. You remembered how you had been obsessed with River Athi whenever you, Nzeli, her mami and your mami went exploring water gushing down the falls into streams. You would hide and go swimming at the bottom of one of the small waterfalls, and then emerge when your eyes were red with water. Your mami had nicknamed you Athi.
Nzeli’s bad news came back to you. You buried your neck between your knees. What was death, you could not understand. You could not either understand why your mami had not come home for three days. At times she would spend days away from home, perhaps hanging out with her boss. You had taken to calling her boss Tata, and he and your mami would smile. You would return the smile, and accept the sweets he gave you. You remembered Nzeli, and why you were seated on the log. Although you barely cried, Nzeli’s words had made you weep. You sat there on the log, tears streaming out of your eyes.
Your mami appeared to you for the second time on a Friday afternoon, six hours after her death, minutes before your Class Two teacher, that bundle of a body, joined you on the log. You did not remember how long you sat there. Somewhere in your mind, you could hear other pupils’ jubilant voices; school was over for the day. You wanted to stand up, to join the other pupils as they jostled through doors, as they teamed with their best friends to play on their way home, but you felt as if your buttocks were glued to the log.
You stared at your hands as if they were not yours. About to sniff, you felt a hand touch your shoulders. You wondered why anybody would come out here for you. You had thought you were an outcast whose mami gives birth and bleeds to death. You still remembered the stares from the other pupils in class. You remembered how you could not hold back the tears threatening to burst through the banks of your eyes. You had walked out of the classroom, wanting to go straight home. Instead, you trudged towards the unfinished building and sat on the black log.
You lifted your heavy face and came face to face with your teacher. Wrinkles of concern graced her face. You could not imagine you had been sitting at her presence, so you jumped to your feet. But she motioned for you to sit down.
You stared at her face, unsure the question had come out of her mouth. The words you had formed in your throat dried with your tears. When your teacher shook you by the shoulders, whatever was blocking your throat gave way.
“Nzeli said Mami gave birth and bled to death.”
Your teacher’s face did not go pale with surprise. She had been patient with you, a new version of her. Your teacher was famous all over the school for immediately acting on everything a pupil said. But she sat next to you on the log.
“Everything will be alright,” she said, putting her arm on your shoulders.
You tilted your neck so that you were now staring at her face.
“Your mami visited heaven for a few days, and she should be back soon.”
Perhaps your mami had gone up to visit the Jesus you prayed to every night. She would go down on her knees and plead with Jesus to gift you more sweets from her boss. After the tour she would come back for you.
“Teacher, I hope Mami comes back.”
“She will. Let me first deal with Nzeli.”
The Third World War happened on the following Monday. That morning, your teacher, sitting behind a low table full of pieces of chalk and dusters and books, called out Nzeli to the front of the class. Nzeli did not sway as she walked, but wobbled like an injured animal. Soon, your teacher wrestled Nzeli to the ground. She rained kicks and slaps and blows on Nzeli as if her fat body had become a punching bag. Nzeli cried like a wounded animal. The other pupils held their laughter, their palms over their impatient mouths. You celebrated the beating, because you felt Nzeli deserved punishment. She had talked ill of your mami, whom you believed was not dead, but was just visiting heaven to chat with Jesus, and would be back by the end of the week. Your teacher punched and slapped and kicked Nzeli with renewed energy, punctuating the war with weapons like ‘Nzeli had become the parrot who eavesdrops on her parents’ adult conversation and brags about it in school’. When Nzeli glanced at your direction, you smiled. She had said she was sorry!
Your mami appeared to you for the third time on a Friday afternoon, six days after her death, minutes before her former boss and other people converged at Kavaa Catholic Church. You could not understand what was going on. You only concentrated on the pain in your leg, where a thorn had pricked and stuck three days earlier. You sat there on the front pew with your grandmother’s youngest brother to your side.
You saw a huge rectangular box placed on a brown table a few yards from the altar. The priest in a purple robe stepped forward. He requested the angels to receive one of their own, whose time had ended here on earth. The pain in your foot stung with so much persistence in time with the priest’s prayer you barely heard what he was saying. You could not understand why some of your aunts and cousins sitting at the opposite pew held handkerchiefs to their noses. Why were their eyes red, as if they had been exposed to smoke at the hearth? Why was everybody singing songs they never danced to?
Soon, the large box was carried by six men, three on either side, to a waiting Land Rover, just outside the church, and taken to your home. There, you met your mami’s boss. He gave you a packet of sweets. The smile on your lips faded upon realizing the face of your mami’s boss had gone a little pale.
“Where is Mami?”
In your mind, your mami’s boss told you your mami would soon come back from heaven. But he pointed to the rectangular box a few yards away, placed on a low stool surrounded by your relatives.
“Your mami is in there.”
You could not understand what he meant. You ripped open the packet of sweets he gave you, and shoved most of them into your pocket. Then you walked off with a slight limp in your stride to share the few remaining ones with your cousins.
You wanted to yank the box open and get your mami. You elbowed your way through the crowd. You felt everybody’s eyes on you, and at first it seemed the people had transformed to sculptures. Soon, as the box came into view, you felt hands holding your arms so tight you thought you had lost the will to move. Finally, someone with strong arms hitched you onto his shoulders. You kept wriggling your arms. The people went back to listening to the priest, just as he said whatever comes from the soil goes back to the soil. The priest mentioned your mami’s name from time to time as he read from a huge blue book. You wanted him to say something about your mami coming back to you. You wanted the priest to convince you your mami could not be made of soil. That she could not go back to the soil.
You stopped protesting, and remained on the broad shoulders whose owner you did not know yet. You wondered what soil would go back to the soil. Perhaps the huge heaps of soil around the huge rectangular hole?
The six men carried the box and slowly lowered it into the hole. Peering through a gap in the crowd, you saw your teacher standing near a mûthulu tree, dressed in a long spotted dress, tears trickling down her fat, black cheeks. Standing on toes to stare at Nzeli and her parents among the weeping crowd, you wondered why they had come. Had they not gossiped about your beloved mami? You wanted to walk to your teacher, who now sat on a mûumbo stool, eating mûthokoi from a plastic plate. You wanted to borrow some of her war tactics and wrestle Nzeli and her parents to the ground.
When you were called to be photographed alongside your cousins, the camera seemed to click in a distant part of your brain. All you heard were the words of your mami’s boss as they reverberated back to your head. In no time, the hole had been covered. You convinced yourself your mami was still in heaven. That she would come back by the end of the week, and take you rounds to the river. You imagined hiding among the bushes lining the river just so she can look for you. She would buy you sugarcane at the farms lining the river. You would not want Nzeli and her gossipy parents around. You knew Nzeli’s parents had told her of the gossip of your mami giving birth and bleeding to death.
Why was your mami taking so long to come back to you? Why did she not send the guardian angel she mostly talked about? You wanted the angel to bring you news from heaven, to assure you all was well. You waited and waited, but nothing came. When everybody went back to their homes in the evening, after placing some roses on the little bump the soil had formed, you could not help realize how foolish they had been. How they had surrendered themselves to grief over pure soil.
You felt your mami’s boss was the only person who knew when she would come back to you. After the day soil went back to the soil, your family behaved as if your mami’s former boss never existed. They treated him as if he had never once brought you sweets. Whenever word leaked you had visited him, you would be caned so hard your buttocks hurt. You missed him all the time. You missed his smile. You missed the sweets he used to bring you. Your people never understood. A part of you convinced you they knew where your mami had gone to.
Your mami appeared to you for the fourth time on a Friday evening, when you were a Form One secondary school boy, eager to know how much your priest-cousin knew about your mami. Your Jamaica-based cousin, who had volunteered to pay for your education, would call you from time to time. You thought that life had come to an end after passing the final Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams the previous year. Enrolling to secondary school did not seem possible.
On a sunny afternoon, your aunt – your cousin’s mami – invited you to her house.
“Athi, are you planning to join secondary school?” She asked you in Kîkamba.
“Then how are you going to manage?”
You shrugged. She said she had thought you had the means. You shook your head.
“Okay, do not worry. My family and I will educate you.” Then the following day your cousin called you from Jamaica, and told you he would sort out your secondary school education.
You had decided to approach your cousin only, because you believed he knew something about what happened to your mami. One day on the phone, you asked your cousin about your mami’s death. Then he kept quiet for a moment at the other end of the line.
“Athi, you should first concentrate on your studies.”
“I need to know the kind of person she had been; I was ten when she died, remember?”
“Yes, I know that.”
“Then why and how did she die?”
You learnt some of the truth during the next holiday, when your cousin called again.
“Your mami died at the hospital.” Going quiet for some time, you swallowed dry saliva. Then words formed at the back of your throat.
“What had she been suffering from?”
Your cousin drifted to other things. You were disappointed you had not gotten everything from him. You were sure he was hiding something.
Your mami appeared to you for the fifth time on a Friday morning, when you were a second-year student at Mount Kenya University, Nairobi Campus. You lived with your cousin in Riverside Estate. Today, on a Friday, you skipped morning classes to go see your grandmother at Kavaa village. You sat there on a mûumbo stool, listening to her voice as it dragged on and on in Kîkamba. You pursed your lips and convinced your heart to be patient. Then you urged her on when she paused to stare at your bearded chin.
“Mwana wakwa, you are now old enough to know what killed your mami.”
For all those years you had shied away from asking your grandmother because you did not want to bring fresh memories of her daughter’s death. But you felt she was the only one who could tell you the truth. She said your mami had bled to death at the hospital. When she said you were supposed to have a sister, you felt your face wrinkle with confusion. Your grandmother continued before you could say anything.
“Your mami had been pregnant with a baby girl at the time of her death. The doctors at the hospital could not control her flow. The little girl died with your mami.”
You shut your eyes to hold back your tears. Opening your eyes, you remembered that scene while in Class Two, when you had sat on that log, weeping after Nzeli’s news that your mami had given birth and bled to death. You sniffed to compose yourself.
“Grandma, why did you forbid my association with Mami’s former boss?”
“Athi, he was set to marry her a week after she died.”
Your grandmother said they had decided you were too young to be told what really happened. As if she had guessed your next question, she carried on.
“As a family, we had feared revealing all these things to you at a young age might interfere with your schooling.”
You guessed that must have been the reason the friendship between you and Nzeli and her parents had broken up. Just the other day, you heard they had moved to Mwala.
Your mami appeared to you for the sixth time on a Friday afternoon, minutes after taking a cold shower at your one-bedroom house in Kinoo at the west of Nairobi. Having graduated from the university two years earlier, you now worked for The Standard newspaper. Today your mami seemed angry, her face flushed with paleness. She opened her mouth and spelled out only one word: China.
As days marched forward, you could not understand why your relatives had been hiding news of your mami’s death. You hated yourself. You hated everybody in your family. You hated the pretense in your grandmother’s slow voice. Had you not asked, had your mami not been appearing to you, you might never have found out the truth. You were angry they never allowed you to be with your mami’s former boss. Perhaps they did not want you to have any parent at all.
On the Good Friday evening when Jesus died, as huge rains hit the earth, you walked along the narrow path leading to where the Riverside Bridge used to be. People sheltered from the rain in their houses. But you walked on, your clothes soaked to the skin. You felt the rain numb your insides, hasten your footsteps. Stopping where the Riverside Bridge used to be, you surveyed Mathare over the other side of the road. Mists and mists as sheets of rain kept falling, drops blinding your eyes.
The bridge had been dismantled by the Chinese’s huge tractors while constructing Outer Ring Road. A huge Caterpillar tractor stood stuck just near what used to be the bridge’s edges, its chain of wheels dug deep into the mud. The narrow Mathare River today widened with the furious dark water flowing from upwards. Head bowed with sorrow, you began walking with slow steps along the muddy path, where the rails of the bridge used to be.