The year I celebrated my 10th birthday must be the perfect connotation to “bitter sweet”. It also has to be the most memorable in the twenty-two years I have lived. Contrary to the usual disregard for the day I was born, for the first time mother brought me a gift. It was a brown little edible thing that looked like mud. She said that it was chocolate, and that it was intended for only special occasions. My taste buds marveled at its massive sweetness though that didn’t last as long as my status elevation among the village kids. All the little rascals from our slum area wanted to have a piece. I tried to hide the little left in one of my gumboots but hours later it had all melted and gone to waste. It was one of those terribly hot afternoons. I was naive then, didn’t even know about the relationship between chocolate and heat. Mother’s gesture really made me feel special as the other ‘blessed’ children I used to see on Mama Shiku’s little black and white Great-Wall television while passing by her kiosk. I hardly ever saw the complete Cadbury’s chocolate TV advertisements as Mama Shiku would always chase kids anytime they came near her ugly banda.(structure) ”Tokeni hapo ama mtu mmoja ataenda nyumbani akilia!,” she would always put out a warning prior to unleashing the wrath of her multi-purpose broom on us!
That same year, mama started suffering from severe chest problems. She kept on blaming the crack on the wall near the door that supposedly let in the cruel cold wind. The landlord had promised to have it fixed probably since the day I was born as that conspicuous hole was one of the first things I reckon to have hit my eyes as a toddler. After a week in a hospital in the big city, we were sent word that she passed on from an ailment called Pneumonia. I was sad, even sadder that I never got a chance to go visit her during her admission. I wanted to see how a real hospital would look like. Dad on the other hand was a chain smoker. “That nasty habit took his lungs,” said the expressionless man who was filling in for the clinic assistant. That’s the day my Dad never came out of the dilapidated local clinic walking.
I still smell tobacco around me. It’s no longer suffocating me; rather it gives me a vivid remembrance of my father. I feel like my parents demise was the work of the devil. The neighbours said that my father was bewitched. The village witchdoctor said that the gods needed to be appeased. My dad’s siblings blamed it on my mother saying that she was never the right choice for a wife. Everything happened too fast. One day we were a family happily bundled up in a minute shanty in Kibera. The next day my sister Njeri and I were left orphans sitting on the thin mattress on the floor. We were angry at the world’s ill fate but looking back, we were hungrier than anything! Mother wasn’t going to come back home with Kahorora, the stray vegetable that flourished near the sewer busts. It was the cheapest meal and ironically the sweetest when thrown in a boiling pot of mashed potatoes.
After our parent’s unprecedented departure, our four-walled shanty was suddenly grandiose. It felt bigger but not necessarily better. If anything, I was bitter at my evil aunt Koi who left the man she was living with down the lane to apparently come take care of us. For years, rumours that she was being battered severally by that man constantly flew around just as often as the common flying –toilets of Kibera. Down here, there are no systems whatsoever. The sewers are broken and the few available toilets are literally full of shit! We recycle plastic papers though not like the factories. We simply use them to help ourselves then thrown them up the air hoping that they will fly away as far as possible. People get away with crime just as easy as stealing a mandazi from Mama Oti’s open air frying pan by the road. Irrespective of your shanty’s padlock size, your door is prone to being broken into. Tribe is not a token of appreciation, you either live with your people or risk the tribal and brutal hands of the enemies.
Many times Mum had begged her sister to leave the unnecessary trouble of living with a man who made a pittance of money from chan’gaa (an illicit drink) brewing. Mummy had asked Aunt Koi to come squat with us but she never took up the offer. I thought she moved in faster after the loss out of her empathy for Njeri and I but ironically, she was coming to make us her slaves! Aunty only carried with her, a sack of dirty clothes which she forced us to wash on that same day despite the fact that it had been raining cats and dogs outside. It took the clothes about two days to dry out on the dirty picket fence by the nearby swamp that borders Kibera and the civilized Lang’ata estate. I used to day-dream staring at the other side of the swamp infested by mosquitoes wishing that one day I would get into the six storey apartments just to see if the world looked any different from up there.
After Njeri left for Mombasa to live with our uncle Ken, the shanty was suddenly the only thing I had left. I spent hours and days staring at the same old newspapers haphazardly stuck on the wall. At the far corner was the only family picture we took on the day that Muniu, the slum photographer was giving every family a free sample to his new Polaroid camera that a tourist from Tokyo had given him as a souvenir. Sometimes I am hoping that the newspaper writings would change but just like the reality of my parents gone, they never do. I got tired of tossing and turning in the cold nights waiting on Aunty to come home with food. Instead she would come home with different men almost every night, their similarity being the dead stench of vomit and cheap alcohol. She would kick me out of the shanty to get her desired space. Crying silently outside I would hear her crying inside in the pitiful pleasure of the moment,”mungu wangu, woi gai fafa, woi hapo tu …” What a dirty woman she was!
I got dirty myself, as I started doing vibaruas (odd jobs) at the age of seventeen. That way, i was poor but not too much to sleep hungry. Omosh Kinde, a childhood friend introduced me to Mzee Kasri. Mzee was renown as Kibera’s jack of all trades. He owned about a hundred mkokoteni’s (hand-carts), quite a number of shanties for rent and the famous Arusha Dishes, the slum’s famous eating joint that served the best Swahili dishes. Kasri would spend an entire day traversing through the depths of the slum ensuring that all his businesses ran smoothly. His diligence was to envy, it still remains a mystery how he manages to keep his Islamic dress as white as snow. Mzee is the one who bailed me out of custody when i was held at the Lang’ata police station following an ugly dispute between Aunty and I. One morning I woke up feeling all grown up. In a bid to stand on my own, I asked her to leave and never come back. Instead, she dared to insult my dead parents, “Siendi! Na wewe utakufa na mdudu kama wazazi wako!” … I am just sorry that I put my hands on a woman and especially my aunt but I am not sorry that this is who I’ve become.
It’s been raining heavily of late. Sometimes I just sit by my little window and ignore my solitude as I stare at the rain’s beautiful dancing motion. It ironically wrecks Kibera even further leaving everything covered in the reddish-brown messy mud! That always make me think about my first chocolate experience. I once read a newspaper headline that referred to Kibera as Africa’s largest and worst slum settlement. What a contrast because to me, this is the city of chocolate :-) Forget about what you heard, I am yet to tell you of all the real tales …
To be continued …