Kibera: Tuesday 11th September 2001
Mama Tom woke up at five in the morning as usual. But today would be an unusual day for her. It would bring back to the fore all the most painful memories she had learnt to live with, had in fact buried at the far recesses of her mind. Memories that were over three years old.
At the time, Mama Tom had read that the American Federal Grand Jury indicted Osama Bin Laden on 4th November 1998 in the Southern District of New York in connection with the August 7th bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, charged with "Murder of US Nationals Outside the United States, Conspiracy to Murder US Nationals outside the United States, and attacks on a Federal Facility Resulting in Death". Although the East Africans had suffered the greatest losses in the number of deaths and the wounded as well as buildings razed to the ground, Americans did not mention this in the indictment. This had hardened Mama Tom’s feelings for Americans. America had refused to pay any compensation or to give assistance in hospital and burial expenses, had left the Africans to their Fate through no fault of the Africans. Osama Bin Laden, the 456th person in the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted Fugitives" list, became a hero for the Africans. And a historical milestone. For the African, evil and good are two sides of the same coin and therefore of equal weight. Without evil, good would not merit its status, and without good evil would not be existent. Children born after the August 7th bombings were fondly named Osama, and nobody sneered at or ridiculed them: they enjoyed special regard among their peer groups and in the society as living heraldry, as living historical archives. In Kenya, almost all male children born after the terrorist bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were named Osama Bin Laden.
Mama Tom now wrapped her kanga tighter around her body as she stepped out of bed. How she managed to spend nights wrapped in a kanga and still wake up wrapped in it was a mystery. It was like going to bed with a piece of cloth wrapped around you and tucked in above your breasts like a bath towel and waking up with it still wrapped above your breasts. Especially if you were Mama Tom and slept with a fourteen-month-old baby in the same bed under the same sheets.
Having made sure that the baby was still sleeping, she headed for the next room. It served as both sitting room in the daytime and the children's bedroom at night.
"Rana?" she shook her oldest granddaughter awake. Rana was fifteen and the oldest grandchild. "Rana! It's time, my nectar. Wake up!" Seeing that the girl had stirred awake, Mama Tom returned to her room again and struck a match to light her two-burner table gas cooker. Under the rough wooden table where the cooker stood was an aluminium saucepan she had already filled with water the previous night. She lifted the pan and placed it on the cooker to boil the water for tea. Then she began to put together her business requisites as she had been doing each morning for over two and a half years.
Although Rana slept like a stone, once her grandmother had woken her up - each morning, that is - she took up her responsibilities with trained routine. She needed no more directives from Mama Tom. And so it was this Tuesday morning. Without taking off the sleeveless cotton tunic she had slept in, Rana stepped into her floral skirt and topped that with a yellow T-shirt. She had folded both carefully the previous night and used them as part of her pillow. The T-shirt boasted the portrait of Osama Bin Laden kneeling on one knnee with a Kalashnikov in both hands, across Rana’s chest. In one corner of the sitting room cum children's bedroom that she shared with her five younger siblings, were two five-gallon plastic canisters. She picked both up, slithered her feet into her rubber flip-flops that stood by the door. Outside she headed for the communal water pump a hundred or so yards away from their house, to fetch water.
Actually it was not a house as such but that's what they called it. It was a long rectangular construction with doors flat on one length of the rectangle's walls, all facing one direction and opening straight into a room. There were concrete steps on the entrances that were often used by the tenants as lounging facilities while they gossip and clean their vegetables or cube the occasional meat for the evening meal. Cubing the occasional meat was a grand opera. The entire block had to know who was the monarch of Osama Bin Laden Driveway hosting a banquet in their castles in these rows of rectangular blocks built with a mixture of mud, sand and cement. The roofs were of corrugated iron sheets for the aristocrats and bashed out tins of everything from ghee to margarine to paraffin to oil and sardine containers. The bashed out chassis of some forty-year-old automobile was also quite classy. Any younger motor vehicle was very likely still on the road even if held together with ropes, wire coat hangers and barbed wire. An amazing discrepancy in a land, indeed a continent, where it was a principle never to repair anything that disintegrates, whether these were ships and ferries, bridges and roads left from colonial days. School buildings, hospitals, student lecture halls, telephones and electricity lines all deteriorated with a collective supreme irresponsibility.
The blocks contained - in a row - between six to twenty rooms. They belonged to different landlords. One could hire the rooms singly or two or three rooms together, where two rooms would have an adjoining door, but the third have its own separate entrance and thus be a complete entity next door to the joined rooms. The rooms were all uniformly about ten-by-ten, more or less. The doors and windows were also uniformly of wooden boards painted variously in glaring colours. Shades of green dominated. Mama Tom's door and windows were grass-green.
Rana's one-year-old son, Tom Matin - Little Tom - was the baby who was still asleep in his great-grandmother's bed where he had slept ever since he was born. Mama Tom fondly called her great-grandson Osama Bin Laden in tribute to the real Osama whose portrait was sprawled across the baby's mother's bright yellow T-shirt.
Mama Tom's first born was Tom. And he had been her first and last. Her only child. Before Tom, Mama Tom's maiden name had been Alaka Bironi. Then she became Mama Tom and would now remain Mama Tom for all eternity among her people.
Even though her first born was no longer with her.
Since time immemorial in Luoland, Luo wives never assumed the names of their husbands. They maintained their own names after marriage or they would fondly be referred to as daughter of this or that location, this or that group of people. Baronesses and Countesses galore. Till the birth of their first child. From then on the woman had the deity status of motherhood and was referred to as mother-of-that-first-child. It did not matter whether the first child was male or female. This Luo custom had so thoroughly frustrated the British Colonial Office that they issued ordinances forcing women of Luoland, when the need arose as for example in baptisms, to be “officially” registered in their father’s or husband’s name, depending on their marital status.
Mama Tom, resident in Osama Bin Laden Driveway, finished putting together her business requisites. She now stirred sugar and added milk into the tea in the saucepan. Ready, she poured the tea into three thermos flasks. From a very large cardboard carton marked OMO and which served as part of her kitchen cupboard where she stored the rest of her cooking equipment, she took out a loaf of sliced bread, an opened tin of Blue Band Margarine, a kitchen knife and she began to butter the slices of bread. She buttered the entire loaf, making sandwiches of one buttered slice onto an unbuttered one. Mama Tom had become a diligent economist.
That was one of her many virtues. She often talked to Rana about why she, Mama Tom, would have preferred the British to rule Kenya for another century or so longer. Contrary to Africans, Europeans planned and had reached the stage where they had the ability to welcome criticism and live with it. They were masters even at self-criticism. In the African this spirit of criticism is not even on the horizon. Criticise an African, even about the state of his dangerously ancient bicycle and he takes it personally, as if you mean he himself is ancient and senile and dangerous. If the bicycle is that old then it's the fault of the person who sold him the bicycle. It is always somebody else's fault. The neighbour, World Bank, the women, the racists, the computer, WTO, witchcraft, CIA, imperialism, miniskirts, El Nino, the telephone, tourists, tribalism, Internet. She maintained that for the African, criticism is a frontal attack on his precious African person. He has never done a thing wrong throughout his ancestry, it’s all these fiendishly disturbing elements all over the place that keep assassinating his noble fatalism and grand resignation.
"But the African man is lucky," Mama Tom would remind anybody willing to listen to her. "Creation put the strongest woman on earth by his side. For no men in the entire world are more inept at protecting, providing and caring for their women and children. And no woman on earth is burdened by shouldering an entire continent's ills by herself, receiving assistance only from her children, as much as the African woman is." To her older grandchildren, especially to Rana, Mama Tom had more or less the same message: -called governments. Give me the colonialists back any day, if this is the alternative. I'd be riding in an electric train in this country by now, even if first class would probably be reserved for Europeans only. Now without the colonialists, everything but poverty and degradation is off limits to the likes of me and mine. Even the law, which my own son so cherished in his life, is denied the ordinary mwananchi like me." "No order, no planning ahead. That's the whole of Africa's worst disease," she often repeated to them. "This new inability of the people to plan for their future whether individually or collectively. Just look at the so
Mama Tom was an intelligent woman with a keen sense of political awareness.
Mama Tom had little regard for most men. She had had Tom at about the same age as Rana had had Tom Matin. And like Rana, also with a man she was forced to marry. Finally she had brought Tom up alone from the time the boy was eighteen months old and his father, Lukas, was marrying and divorcing in Nairobi at least twice a year and as regularly as Easter and Christmas. Lukas had been some kind of a war hero from the Second World War. Heroes in Luoland marry again and again, in those days and today as well. You simply couldn’t be a Luo man and stop marrying at Wife One, not to mention a Luo war hero.
She had left Lukas to it and reached for her independence over forty years ago.
The slums of Kibera had spread over a radius of dozens of miles, so that one end of the slums was populated by the more affluent ones of Kibera, with a number of new bungalows. It was cheaper and easier to acquire building space in the slums of Kibera.
The Driveway too had been baptised after the August 7th 1998 bombings in Nairobi. Of course there were no signboards where the name was written. But all of the slum dwellers of Kibera knew which street was Osama Bin Laden Driveway. It was one of three streets in Kibera slums wide enough for a car to drive through. The rest, whatever impressive names they bore, couldn't accommodate anything equipped with more than two wheels. There were other “roads”, “streets”, “avenues” and “crescents” of Kibera with impressive names too. Jesus Is With You and God's Home Highways. Watergate and Desert Storm Avenues, Maggie Thatcher and Bill Clinton Crescents, Glasnost and Perestroika Roads. They all had no signboards but every citizen of Kibera would know your address if you mentioned the name of your self-baptised humble infrastructure in Kibera.
Rana in the meantime was back, having miraculously managed to lug both canisters that together were the same weight as she was. This early in the morning in Kibera, it was bitterly cold outside and Rana's fingers were now numb with it. She always hated this morning chill. She would have preferred to fetch their water at least when the sun came up, at around six-thirty or so. But then there would be such a long queue at the water pump that she would freeze even more while waiting. In addition to that, she, her brother Belfast who was now thirteen, and her grandmother, would never manage to prepare the young ones and send them off to school in time should Rana get held back in a long queue. Not that they all went to school. Or went to school as regularly as they should. And those of them who actually went to school didn’t always make it into a classroom. Adisa almost never did. She was Rana's little and only sister. Adisa was nine, and she was always the first one to be sacrificed at the family's rationalisation altar. Yet classroom or no classroom, Adisa always insisted on going to school. Often she took Magendo, their youngest brother who was five, with her. Then both of them could listened to the lessons in the classroom by sitting outside by the open window. When it rained, the overhanging corrugated iron sheets of the roof offered them some grudging shelter. The only problem was that Adisa could not see the alphabet and the spellings written on the blackboard. But she memorised the phonetic sounds perfectly and when she came back home Rana and Grandma provided her with the letters and spellings to match:
Good morning, pupils.
Good morning, madam.
Hawaiyu this morning, pupils?
Wia quell-quell, thank you madam.
So Hawaiyu would become How are you, and Wia quell-quell would be decoded into we are quite well. A for apple and B for Banana, C for cat and D for dog were a lot easier to listen to for both Adisa and Magendo.
Rana still remembered how she had hated taking up this early morning task at the beginning. Much more than she hates it now. But she had accepted the necessity. Reality and her grandmother had taught her to wipe out the word comfort from her vocabulary, along with many other words in Comfort’s neighbourhood. But Grandmother had taught her to hold on to her pride, honour and dignity. To learn to forgive and to open her heart to those who loved and needed her. To accept criticism and be self-critical. And above all, to plan her future instead of the countrywide fatalistic attitude of living from day to day even without any signs of from hand to mouth worth talking about.
Grandmother talked to Rana a lot about such matters. She talked to Rana about the Kenya of the colonial error where there had been true law and order and more justice than any Kenyan will probably ever see again under the current trend, and security of every upright individual. Apparently even the Kenya shortly after independence had also been quite a noble state, so Grandma. The disintegration of everything from health to highways, schools to public security and so on had earnestly began in the seventies, Grandma said. Rana couldn't imagine that Kenya. She was born in 1985. The chaos and disintegration and injustice and insecurity and the oppression of women was all she knew ever since she lost her parents. That and child abuse by men who sired children and then wanted nothing to do with the children the minute they were bulging their mothers’s bellies. She was herself a victim. The men would then be busy siring another child or two that very same day. This was all the Kenya Rana knew ever since she lost her parents. The no planning, no sense of duty or responsibility or justice or fairness, the no conscious, little human elements in the heart Kenya, as Grandma puts it.
-ordinated and primed team that they were, by the time Rana got back with water and Mama Tom was finished with preparing the family's breakfast, Belfast, at thirteen the oldest boy, had also got up and had woken up his sister Adisa and his brothers Pacho, eleven, and Jamoko and Magendo. Jamoko was seven. They all slept on two thin foam mattresses on the floor. Since Magendo was only five and the youngest, Belfast now placed him on the sofa made of artificial leather where Magendo promptly fell on his side and continued to sleep. Pacho helped Belfast to tuck away the two mattresses against the wall behind the sofa and therefore out of sight, while Adisa and Jamoko folded the blankets together carefully between them. There was very little conversation this early in the morning between the children. But each member of the team routinely knew their duties and responsibilities. They had been in the organisation for three years now.Like the well co
The three years they've lived alone as orphans with their grandmother, Mama Tom.
Belfast and Pacho now pushed the Formica-topped coffee table to its daytime location before the sofa. The coffee table and the mattresses shared shift duty on the floor in front of the sofa, depending on the time of day. Or night, whichever way one looked at it. Apart from the sofa and table, there were two single seaters similarly covered in artificial bright red leather. These had been piled one on top of the other to the right of the sofa and against the wall, barring the wooden window. Belfast and Pacho lifted off the top seater and placed it to the left of the sofa and next to a wooden washing stand with a plastic basin balanced on it. Crammed between the sofa and the seater on the right side was a large drum of cowhide with three legs that one could use as a coffee table too, and a vinyl chest of drawers. On the drum was an odd object for dwellers of Kibera: Jamoko's precious computer, the child's physical link to his father. His grandmother had been willing to lie and cheat even before God in order to let Jamoko keep the computer. Another odd possession Grandma had kept from their halcyon days was the television and video recorder, now resting on top of the vinyl chest of drawers. But they no longer had the satellite dish for it.
Rana, carrying a plastic basin of water, a green plastic Afro comb forced into her braided hair and a towel draped over one shoulder, summoned her sibling flock to follow her outside for the morning toiletries. Belfast opened a drawer of the vinyl chest and pulled out a tube of toothpaste and toothbrushes of six different bright colours. He knew which colour belonged to whom and handed them out. He received a soft "Thank you" or "Thank you, Belfie" from each one of his fellow siblings. One of the things Mama Tom insisted on was what she termed malezi mazuri. More affluent people would call it savoire-vivre.
Rana received two toothbrushes from Belfie, an acid yellow one for herself and an acid green one for Magendo.
Outside the door Rana placed down the plastic basin of water. It was now around six-thirty in the morning and the sun was making a concerted effort for an appearance. The light was golden yellow and the horison had tinges of violet. The children stood around the basin of water, passed the tube of toothpaste around, squeezing a very economical amount of paste onto their toothbrushes. They each scooped water from the basin with their hands into their mouths, then began brushing their teeth. While brushing their teeth, they always deliberately made funny faces and comical sounds at each other, laughing companionably, the youngest ones thawing from sleep into wakefulness. They finished brushing their teeth, rinsed their mouths making gurgling sounds and spitting the toothpasty water on the open but cemented drainage system that made great efforts to appear mobile depending on who was using how much water for whichever purposes "upstream" from the children. Then they washed their faces and arms and legs. The towel Rana had draped over her shoulders was strictly for wiping the faces, hands and arms in turn. Their feet were shod in plastic flip-flops of screaming colours and the flip-flops did not complain about being made wet. As soon as the sun made its appearance their legs would dry while they combed their hair with the Afro comb in turn. That is, the boys did. The girls had their practical braids. After that they were ready for breakfast. Except Rana who finally had to help little Magendo to also go through the morning rituals of toiletries successfully.
Being the last born, Magendo enjoyed certain privileges. Like having his own little basin of water, which basin was in fact his babyhood potty of those glorious days of long ago when they lived in a five-bedroomed house in Spring Valley and Grandma was not the only grownup member of the family looking after them all. There had been two other equally nice loving people, Magendo still remembered vaguely, whose faces he still recognised in photographs. But their voices, the sound of which he had found so amazingly soothing, he could no longer quite remember. It was so long ago. And it had been something very painful at the time and the whole family felt the pain with him for very many days and cried with him. Those faces he recognises on the photographs are Mummy and Daddy. Their bodies were gone forever though, everybody had explained to him. But something always puzzled little Magendo. And that was, that Grandma still went into fits of weeping every now and then, and repeated again and again something about: "Buried headless! Where's his head? Where?" And then Grandma would scream something about a leg too. It was so disturbingly sad that he too always cried with her.
Of the school-going children, Belfast got dressed in his uniform first, in Mama Tom's bedroom since he was the eldest. Next came Pacho and Jamoko together, both being boys, and finally Adisa by herself. All clothes were kept in the family's shared vinyl wardrobe that stood opposite Grandma's bed in her bedroom-cum-kitchen.
Rana had not been going to school for over a year. Grandma had tried to get Rana back to school after Tom Matin had been born. But Kibera Sisterhood of Mercy School gave child-mothers no second chances. It wasn’t the sort of thing God would approve of, they felt.
"Why not," Grandma had screamed at the Sister Superior. "Do you fear that the child will teach your devout sisters how to get themselves pregnant? You as the headmistress of this school also bear responsibility for my grandchild’s painful consequences!"
Of course Rana could have had chances in private schools. But Mama Tom did not have the means to finance such an enterprise any longer. Too many other unavoidable projects had priority. For example the mortgage. And Mama Tom was already in her early sixties. So Rana, being her undaunted grandmother's granddaughter, taught herself at home with whatever books she could manage to get her hands on. On other occasions she assisted her grandmother in her business at Kibera Market. And in keeping their seven-person-and-a-baby household running as smoothly as any other consummated housekeeper would have done. Nothing like learning by doing to peak organisational talent.
The siblings ate their breakfast of tea and thin margarine sandwiches. But without their grandmother. After making their breakfast and filling a baby bottle with milk, Grandma always washed herself quickly with a cloth in her room, got dressed, tied her still dozing Osama Bin Laden to her back with a kanga - that all-purpose piece of clothing for humble Kenyan women - exchanged cheery words with the children touching or kissing the top of their heads, held a brief final consultation conference with Rana, then she balanced her baskets on her head and was gone. Rana took over for the rest of the day.
Mama Tom always left at six o'clock sharp, taking the smallest thermos flask of tea and some bread for her day's ration with her, together with her large woven baskets, to catch the matatu that took her to the wholesale market in Kikomba.
In between eating breakfast, Belfast wrapped some bread, arranged them in a plastic tuck box and put this in his school bag together with the second thermos flask of tea for himself and his brothers and sister Adisa. This part of the breakfast would be their lunch and Belfie was responsible for guarding and distributing it. There were enough children at school who didn't possess such sumptuous lunch packages and this made those other children's fingers extend to at least twice the normal length of their whole arms.
Breakfast consumed, the pupils were ready for their several miles march to Kibera Sisterhood of Mercy School. Even little Magendo managed these marches without a hitch. It was a question of attitude, not age. And Mama Tom had groomed all her little princesses and princes to accept that they were back to being frogs for the moment. And that The Moment did look like it had made up its mind to extend into a fair number of years in the future.
When her pupils had left, Rana riveted her attention to clearing the breakfast things, cleaning the house, airing the bedding when the sun came up strong, and then settling down with her books if she had any that she had not gone through. Sometimes she went through them more than twice. And if it was the washing day she gathered the clothes and tied them in a bundle, shoved the bundle in the huge plastic basin which she balanced on her head as she walked to the communal water pump to do the laundry there. Then she did the ironing in the afternoon before embarking on cooking supper before the school-going children got back at around six-thirty in the evening. Mama Tom always came back after seven-thirty in the evening. Or later still. And the children always looked forward to her coming home again, especially because she always brought a second surprise supper or dessert with her. Like pineapples or bananas that she had not managed to sell, or a packet of biscuits or even chips and fried chicken from the Fried Chicken/Fish & Chips Kiosk next to her stall at Kibera Market. In any case fruits were guaranteed daily. There were even special mornings when they had omelettes, sausages and bacon for breakfast, if Mama Tom had not sold all her eggs for weeks and she feared the eggs would hatch in her customer's shopping baskets and ruin her business reputation.
Today was Tuesday and therefore a washing day for Rana.
While riding in the matatu, Mama Tom shifted her Osama onto her lap and fed him his breakfast. The baby ate two slices of bread and drank half of the milk from the baby bottle. The matatu was so full that other passengers were practically sharing Mama Tom's lap with the baby. Because Kibera is the first bus station and because Mama Tom made sure she got to the station early, she had managed to acquire a seat. But enroute and at random, the Toyota van matatu kept on stopping and picking up more passengers. No sooner had a couple of passengers alighted than twice their number came aboard and rode bent over like athletes about to start a race, because despite there being no seating space, a matatu is never full.
Everybody was talking to everybody about everything in the matatu. People asked each other about their health, talked about what they had heard on the radio or seen on the more blessed neighbour's television the previous evening. TV owners in this part of the society were very generous, since owning such a prestige object lent them esteem. So the entire community would be welcome to watch even from the doorway and spread the word of the TV owners wealth, progress and dignity. And satellite had brought even CNN and MTV to Kibera. There was always plenty to laugh and talk about during these morning rides, plenty of notes to compare. And everybody talked all at once and at the top of their voices. Very frequently the conversational forum was not carried on with those seated next to each other.
Mama Tom was comparing notes with a fellow market businesswoman and speculating on the market for today. Would it be wiser to buy more fruits from the wholesalers or perhaps more vegetables? And which fruits and vegetables in which kilogram proportions? Would cabbages sell more than spinach or vice versa? How about fruits? According to the weather forecasts from KBC (Kenya Broadcasting Corporation TV and Radio) and even CNN, somebody yelled, it would be a hot day. Just the right day for the consumption of pineapples and papaws by the wananchi, the lumpenproletariat. But it was the 11th day of the month, remarked Mama Tom, so the wananchi still had a bit left in their pay packets to afford luxuries like tea and sugar, potatoes and perhaps even rice. Which meant that tomatoes and onions would also go down well since one could fry the rice or potatoes in tomatoes and onions, and come up with delicacies even if without any meat in it. Dry beans and maize were always good investments since they were not perishable. Fresh peas were a delicacy and a favourite but unfortunately too expensive for the ordinary mwananchi when the month was at this fairly advanced age.
The office workers and factory labourers, mainly men, laughed and commented about the "Market Mamas" already planning on how to snatch money from their purses. Laughter all around. One "Market Mama" glanced at a man in his mid-thirties who was wearing a faded pinstriped three-piece suit that had obviously come from Kibera Market's second-hand clothes, having travelled all the way from Europe as an import of the used clothes’ collectors in the wealthy West. He must have been some clerk or junior accountant. "My son," she said to Faded Pinstripes, "tell me your father is responsible for your being where you are today and you can have a free lunch at my stall today."
Laughter about the Market Mama’s offer of a lunch date. Even Faded Pinstripes laughed. Fathers in this land were increasingly famous for their role of hit-and-run when it came to the natural results of their joyful contributions, so that most children are brought up by mothers with no husbands. As Mama Tom said to her granddaughter Rana, as soon as pregnancy enters the scene, the fathers are off to greener fields.
Mama Tom remarked, "You'd better ask him how many children he has sired and with how many women and whether he himself is taking care of the women and children or at least some of the women and children." This time it was the women who laughed harder. They knew what their power achieved in this land and at this foundation stage, even if they were kept out of decision-making. Some of the decision-makers had been brought up without fathers. The mothers had role models all over the continent such as the mother of Roland Rawlings of Ghana or even the mother of President Museveni of Uganda next door. Or Idi Amin of once upon a time. African Mamas were forever the Mamas and the Papas.
The matatu, now solely occupied by the market businesswomen, finally arrived at Kikomba Wholesale Market. They alighted in a hurry for now it was competition time among themselves for the best and freshest ware from the rows of Toyota pick-ups that brought in fruits, vegetables, dried fish, eggs, live poultry and even woodcarvings and Kisii stone statues. These products came from upcountry, from Thika and Limuru, from Kericho and Kisii, from Nanyuki all the way to Kisumu on Lake Victoria, from Njoro to Eldoret and Kitale.
But Mama Tom took her time in alighting. She had her arrangements with her wholesalers. She had no time to waste haggling and bargaining while the fat, wealthy and turgid wholesalers with their drivers and turn-boys treated her with indifference, arrogantly taking time to make sure the entire world knows they have not only an electronic pocket calculator but also the latest mobile phone and in fact knew how to operate them both (at best simultaneously) to boot. So she shifted her Osama Bin Laden once again to her back and fastened the kanga around him and her. Then she picked up her woven baskets. Another kanga, the one that had served as the night-dress, she tied around her braided hair. She was ready. And knew exactly what she wanted and from which wholesaler. She had made arrangements with them that she would remain a devoted regular customer if they chose the best wares and products for her and put them aside. She needed not to haggle and bargain. Her prices were fixed. The wholesaler knew in advance exactly what he could consider sold lock, stock and barrel. And Mama Tom saved time and money by making a beeline to her wholesalers, filling up her baskets, pulling out her purse from deep down between her breasts and paying. With such organisational talent, she was always ready to board the same matatu, which would still be waiting to be filled with passengers again, back to Kibera and finally to her stall in Kibera Market. Bargaining for an hour with different wholesalers in order to save a few shillings was to her highly uneconomical, if not the very speedy motorway to the ever lurking bankruptcy.
Mama Tom's Stall No. 440 was about half a mile away from her house. It was a functionary space of about three square yards with corrugated iron roof and walls. It consisted of a wooden board the size of an average desktop which she balanced on four wooden stumps permanently fixed to the floor by an area of concrete. Then she had her canvas folding chair, and thirdly and most precious, a large metal trunk where she locked up the goods that were not perishable like sugar, salt, tea, maize, dry beans and even the scale. Every evening she locked the trunk with thick chains and heavy duty padlocks. The keys hang around her neck even when she was taking a bath. This was of course extremely dangerous to her health, but if somebody had the great idea of robbing her, breaking and entering her business empire, then they had better have an even more ingenious concept of killing her first. Now she arrived at the stall and the pushcart operator who had brought her baskets of produce from the matatu station a few hundred yards away assisted her in unloading them.
She paid him and then began to decoratively arrange her assortment of product lines.
She had accomplished that in fifteen minutes and now she untied her Osama off her back. The baby was once again fast asleep. She placed him on a folded blanket spread over the metal trunk - now that she had taken all her required assortments and tools out of it, it could serve as Tom Matin's daybed. She covered him carefully with the all-purpose kanga she had used to tie him to her back. Then she sat on her folding chair and took out the thermos flask of tea. She gazed across at Mama Sunga's Fried Chicken/Fish & Chips Kiosk which was still locked. Mama Sunga was her neighbour, both here and at her house. Mama Sunga was her landlady and best friend. And she always came in later with her assistants. But Mama Sunga, also known as Rosa Rogo, could afford that. She even owned Rosa Hair & Beauty Salon opposite Odeon cinema in downtown Nairobi. Mama Tom couldn't afford such laid-back luxuries, she was no Lady Muck. Rosa even lived with a Nigerian of - to Mama Tom - dubious ancestry and business engagements, who was at least twenty-something years younger than Rosa. But he was a young person with a golden heart.
And Rosa was aristocracy. Nothing could touch Rosa except the rudely indiscriminate hand of Fate. It had touched Rosa and Mama Tom on that accursed Friday the 7th of August in 1998. And made them best friends. From that day everything became different, and nothing would ever be the same again. Not even for Rosa. But especially not for her, Mama Tom. She loved and envied Rosa. Yes, sometimes she was even jealous of her best friend.
Because on that Friday of August 7th 1998, even Fate touched Rosa with befitting distance and respect, while soundly annihilating Mama Tom and her grandchildren.
Mama Tom now stopped dwelling on the past, unscrewed the thermos cup and poured the tea into it. It was eight o'clock in the morning. And Mama Tom was at last ready to have her breakfast.
A question of attitude, as she maintained.
Shortly after five o'clock in the late afternoon, Rana had just finished ironing her laundry and carefully putting it away in the family wardrobe when she heard Auntie Rosa's Mitsubishi van braking to a stop outside. She went to see whether it was Auntie Rosa herself or Uncle Hakeem Rasheed driving home. It was Uncle Hakeem. He met her at the open door with a couple of large bundles wrapped in old newspapers in one hand and an unwrapped cabbage in the other.
"Uncle Hakeem! Hello!" She stepped out of the open doorway to let him in.
"Hallo, my pretty child. Here, I've got something for supper from Mama Tom." He handed her the bundles and cabbage. She placed them on the Formica-topped coffee table with graceful movements. Hakeem always thought that Rana was too tall for her age but too thin, with large eyes that appeared almost too big for her head. Despite her natural dignity, tinged with a haughtiness that was natural too, she imparted an air of vulnerability that made him want to protect her. Hakeem still marvelled at this child's inner strength.
Despite all that Fate had put across her path, Rana still had kept her strong spirit of determination to this day. He had known the child ever since the tragic day when she had lost both her parents all in one go. But Rana had her grandmother's iron will and nothing would keep her down. She was a get-upper and a go-getter. Not even the nightmare the child had had to go through at the hands of her own paternal grandfather, Lukas - that excuse for a man, as Mama Tom described him. Lukas had - in Allah’s name! - kidnapped his own fourteen-year-old granddaughter from school and sold her off for a few thousand Shillings to an equally cretinous excuse for a man: the town clerk of the provincial town of Kalando. And Lukas had done that for no better reason than to have the money to acquire himself a new child-wife - the eleventh one. Lukas, a great-great-grandfather of eighty-four had to unconditionally go back to the fountain of youth! To Lukas, this granddaughter had been nothing more than a female chattel on whom no money should be "wasted" in educating but from whom as much money as possible was to be gained. Using the child as the perfect material for deranged old men's vain conception of immortality. Some customs and traditions, Hakeem had remarked at the time to Rosa, are so fossilised that it was a miracle they still survived so vividly especially in the behaviour of certain male Africans. Rana had been sold away as a fourth wife to a man four times the child's age. It had taken that mountain of a woman, Mama Tom, four agonising days to find and then rescue Rana from this child marriage. It had been nonetheless a rescue that had occurred too late. Because Rana had by then been child-wife-raped severally by the imbecile of a politician claiming his "right as a husband" over a child. And the result later on was Tom Matin. But Rana, thank to to her Kilimanjaro of a grandmother, had survived the storms and turbulences. Scarred inwardly perhaps, but now wholly healed outwardly.
"Uncle Hakeem? Uncle Hakeem? Uncle Hakeem, what's…?"
"Sorry, my child. I was deep in thought. What did you want to say?"
Rana smiled, her creased brows smoothing out. "Oh, nothing really. It's only that you looked so…far away and eyed me curiously…I felt…funny…"
Hakeem was very tall and dark-skinned, his complexion sweeping the whole spectrum between the colour of fresh aubergines (the lips) over burnt sienna (the complexion) and boiled groundnuts-in-the-shell (the rest). Except for his palms and soles of the feet which had the colour of a clean sow’s belly. He was the original motivation of the phrase “persons of colour”. He was also very good-looking, thought Rana now - and everybody else who broached the subject, since the Nigerian was an exotica in Kibera. Especially for his Yoruba folk marks on his cheeks. They almost always made Rana want to wince and draw in air through her teeth with imagined pain, those folk tattoos. But his voice was deep and pleasant and his proud bearing reminded Rana of her father, Tom. At forty-one Hakeem Rasheed was two years younger than Daddy had been when he died.
Hakeem continued as the girl smiled shyly at him, "I dropped Rosa off at the Kiosk and your grandmother gave me that for you as usual. I guess I'd better leave you now to get on with preparing your supper before the school gang is home, my hard-working girl. Did you study anything new today?" Rana shook her head in the negative. "Bad pretty girl," said Hakeem tweaking her Rasta braids that were caught with a synthetic velvet band at the top of her head so that the beaded braids cascaded atop her head like a fountain.
"The laundry day with bed sheets, ironing and all, so I haven't had the time today."
"I see. Then do the supper and then come over so that we can see what educational programmes we can download from the Internet for you from around the world, okay? And then watch MTV together for the sweets after supper, yeah?"
"Yes, Uncle Hakeem, thank you." Hakeem and Auntie Rosa had satellite TV. Rana now waved to him as he went out of the room while she opened the bundles with her free hand.
In them were tomatoes, carrots, red onions, and - she whooped with joy - matumbo! One of their favourite dishes! Few things went down the throat more deliciously than tripe! Rana got the plastic chopping board and kitchen knife out of the OMO cupboard in Grandma's room and began cutting up the tripe and vegetables. When she had fried the tripe with onions she let that simmer for nearly an hour before adding the chopped carrots, tomatoes and cabbage. The stew would be ready in fifteen to twenty minutes now. And there was enough of it to last for at least two suppers for the entire family.
Belfast and the younger children streamed in shortly after six-thirty with a cacophonous jumble of noises that made Rana, stirring the stew, call out, "Hallo, clansfolk! Guess what we're having for supper?"
They streamed into the bedroom/kitchen going variously, "What then? Ancestors, am I hungry! Smells heavenly! It's not dried fish, from the smell of it. Matumbo! Matumbo!"
"Correct, my dear professors," laughed Rana replacing the big aluminium lid on her big aluminium saucepan. "But first it's off for a wash! Magendo, my sweet nectar, come here and give me a hug. Off with the rest of you for a wash!" she herded them out while holding Magendo in one arm. The boy was also too lean for his age. Being of Nilotic Luo ancestry, they were all too tall and almost all too lean for their ages. All long limbs like insectoids.
Belfast assisted the younger boys, collecting towels and soap and the cubicle key and carrying the water outside to the block bathroom next to the so-called Asian-style toilets. The family, like few others who could afford the extra fee added to their rent, had their own toilet and bathroom cubicle, also strictly kept locked at all times under heavy duty padlocks. One needed a key every time one had to visit the toilet or bathroom.
More of the new life the family had had to adjust to.
Rana helped Adisa bathe outside the house on the narrow alleyway that separated Auntie Rosa's house from her tenants' block. Mama Tom’s family lived on one end of the block and only had one neighbour to their right. To the left was Rosa Rogo's four-bedroomed bungalow with its reddish-brown tiles upon which a large satellite dish with a high powered transmitter perched like a monstrous alien eye. Surrounding the bungalow was a low concrete wall whose entrance to the bungalow was arched and adorned by two globe-like lights nesting in a wire mesh to guard against theft. There were tended flowerbeds and small lawns at the front and back of the bungalow plus a two-car garage. Not all of Kibera was the CBS or WRD documentary sort of slums. In its more respectable days, before the slum spread out and swallowed Kibera like an amoeba, even the present Kenyan President had lived in Kibera before he had the opportunity to assist in making Kenya what the country had become today.
Washed and now in "home clothes" again, Belfast helped the younger ones with their homework while Rana perfected the finishing touches to their dinner. Around seven-thirty Rana served her delicious supper. As with breakfast, the children ate on the Formica coffee table. To go with her tripe stew, Rana had cooked ugali, the popular Kenyan staple food. There was a wedge-shaped space on the round mound of ugali where Rana had cut off a portion she kept aside for Grandma when she came home. And there were two Durex glass bowls of the tripe stew. One was for the older boys Belfast, Pacho and Jamoko, and the second was for Rana, Adisa and Magendo to share. They ate slowly, almost attentively, taking care that each one of them had their fair share. Nobody was neglected, disregarded, ignored. They made the appropriate noises of appreciation, enjoyment and relish of the meal. Rana received compliments for her culinary expertise with pats on her shoulders and kisses on her cheeks and they laughed happily. To these Luo children partaking in a meal was still as reverent a communal ritual as it ever was since ancestral times. And compared to the starving masses in Kenya, Mama Tom's family was fairly well catered for.
Outside they heard Rosa's Mitsubishi minibus drive off with screaming tyres and they all turned their heads for a fleeting second towards the door which was now closed. A moth fluttered on the single naked bulb hanging from the ceiling and landed on Belfast's lap, making them all laugh again as he flicked it to the cement floor with thumb and middle finger.
"It wants some of the delicious stew," giggled Adisa.
"Too late, it has just singed itself to death on the bulb," Belfast giggled back.
Only Rana remarked with creased brows, "Someone seems to be in a great hurry out there with Auntie Rosa's minibus."
Hakeem stopped the minibus with more screechings as he braked on Florida Boulevard and jumped out even as he switched off the ignition. He covered the thirty-odd yards distance to Rosa's Kibera Fried Chicken/Fish & Chips Kiosk in about a second. Rosa was already closing up the kiosk for the night while talking loudly about the day's business with Mama Tom, who was also locking up her Stall No. 440, after clearing up and locking away what had not been sold. Both women stopped talking when they saw the flustered Hakeem.
"Hakeem! Who's after you, my dear?" asked Rosa touching his arm.
Mama Tom, finished with locking up, hurriedly joined them.
Hakeem held his decently growing potbelly with one hand, the other clutching his mobile phone. "Rosa, the world has gone mad! They've bombed the World Trade Centre in New York! With aeroplanes! And the Pentagon in Washington!" He looked as if his own mother had been killed in the bombings. He now held his head between his hands, mobile phone and all, and shook it, his face bent towards the ground.
Rosa creased her brows in puzzlement and incomprehension, "Heeehhh?"
"I thought aeroplanes were aeroplanes and the Pentagon was a building," remarked Mama Tom feeling her bile rising and that obnoxiously annihilating pain surfacing. "Can Americans turn these things into bombs nowadays?" Her Osama Bin Laden was on her back in his kanga, gnawing on a banana, forever like part of her body, like some peculiar limb of hers. A hunchback. One hardly ever saw Mama Tom without her Osama balled on her back.
"No, Mama Tom," Hakeem raised his head and placed his hands on his hips, a man in total confusion. "I mean terrorists used in-flight aeroplanes as bombs and hit the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and even a town called Stony Creek Township in Pennsylvania in America! It happened around five o'clock this afternoon, our local time, today! The world has gone mad! Four aeroplanes with a total of two hundred and sixty-six people on board! I just saw the horrors on CNN, Rosa! And I can't reach anybody in New York! You can't even fly there, they're not allowing anymore flights to land in New York! Maybe in the whole of the USA! My family, Rosa! My children and their mother in New York! What madness is this! I can't reach my children or any member of my family, Rosa! What's wrong with people!"
Hakeem himself felt as if he was going out of his mind. He had lived the devastating terrorist bombs in Nairobi with these two ladies back in 1998. And now this again?
He began dialling on his mobile phone, trying to reach New York and his family.
The two ladies were now tightly held in each other's arms. "Osama, Mama Sunga!" said Mama Tom very softly, as if uttering aloud that which should not be uttered aloud in the darkness that was now engulfing Kibera Market.
"Osama, Mama Tom!" Rosa said back in the same tone of voice.
"Will America and Americans also now feel? Will they also at last know that bleeding and pain in the heart, Mama Sunga? Will they now also say to grieving mothers: No compensation because America did not do the bombing in New York and Washington?"
"Mama Tom. I don't know. Do the rich and contented and powerful experience pain on the same level as the poor, destitute and powerless? I don’t know!"
They saw and heard the cacophony that had broken out in the dark streets of Kibera, the pandemonium that had broken out even around them in the stalls and kiosks of Kibera Market. Most people had come back home and turned on their radios and television sets. Now they were streaming out again screaming, as if afraid their own four walls would become their coffins and incinerators if they remained indoors. Like the buildings and even vehicles of the Commercial Business Centre in Nairobi had been on that fateful day, three years ago.
"OSAMA! AMERICA! BIN LADEN! OSAMA! THESE AMERICANS! THESE MUSLIMS!"
But all this was to the two women like a far away audible dream. All they saw and heard clearly, all that never was and never would be a dream, was the tragic hand of Fate that had brought them together as they had struggled in debris and a sea of mutilated bleeding bodies, trying to find their own children in a bombing carnage.
Mama Tom turned her face towards the dark skies above. "In nomine patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti,” she mumbled before continuing, “Will they feel it now too, Rosa? That pain and suffering you wouldn't have wished your worst enemy! Is there a woman out there, a mother and grandmother and grandchildren out there in invinsible America, who are about to go through the inhuman pain I had to go through, Rosa?"
The tears coursing down her cheeks and throat into between her breasts felt like invading tentacles of an alien entity on her person. For who was she crying for now? Tom? Tieni? Or America? Had anybody in America also cried for her and would now also cry for her once again? Was there any American out there who was aware of the fact that an innocent Kenyan grandmother and her six grandchildren had undergone pain and the kind of suffering no grandmother and her six grandchildren should ever be subjected to? Or were Americans walking on light clouds so rosy and high that they never have known paths rough and thorny on this earth except as words written in their Bibles?
Still looking heavenward and seeing nothing through the tears and dark sky, she sobbed, "Dear God, who are you? What do you want of us all? Rosa, what’s God’s plan for us all?"
Friday of August 7th 1998 came back to them all as vividly as if it was all happening again at that very moment. And the rest of the world was for once sorrowing because the United States of America was wounded and bleeding. At least that was what Hakeem said in reply to Mama Tom’s questions to God and her friend Rosa.
(Roman in englischer Sprache 292 MS Seiten)
Am 7. August 1998 starben bei einem Attentat auf die US-Botschaft in Nairobi rund 250 Menschen. Während die Amerikaner um ihre 12 getöteten Landsmänner trauerten, wurden die die vielen afrikanischen Toten nahezu vergessen. Dieser Roman erzählt die Geschichte einer betroffenen Familie. "Mama Tom" hat als allein erziehende Mutter ihrem einzigen Sohn Tom ein Jurastudium ermöglicht. Bei dem Anschlag kommen er und seine Frau ums Leben, und Mama Tom muß fortan alleine für ihre sechs Enkelkinder sorgen.
Aus dem Nichts gelingt es ihr, sich eine Existenz als Gemüsehändlerin aufzubauen und den Unterhalt der Großfamilie zu sichern. LeserInnen werden an dieser Frau Mut, Humor und Warmherzigkeit lieben und ihre politische Scharfzüngigkeit schätzen.