By Migwi Mwangi
Art by Camille Yang
There was also that extra-ordinary Saturday. Caught in a downpour by the creek, Handathaa covered little Munyakei in a sisal sack, carried him on her back all the way up the small hill. As she readied herself in her kitchen to fetch them, Nyina wa Kabiru heard Handathaa's voice, bright as a mugithi singer, fighting the sky, “Rain rain go away, mabrigan mabrigan, number twenty-eight, I went for a walk under brake.” Mounting the sooty sufuria of chai back onto the fireplace, she blessed the rain for listening to Handathaa, for refusing to touch her grandchildren.
Handathaa, wet to the skin in her navy blue Detroit t-shirt, entered the muddy kitchen floor breaking into a decent rage about the worn treads in Munyakei’s Bata shoes. Easy as she had sat him, she lifted Munyakei off the log of wood, wheeled him round the smoky warmth of the rekindled fire like a little oar. Declaring that he would slip many more times in less slippery creeks when nobody, nobody at all would be watching; that many would love him but only she would wipe his dusts because they were tied together at their navels. Her granddaughter’s words, the authority of that register stopped her heart—a desperate primrose ache clutching her chest, pressing it down like a disorder of veins. Handathaa Wahu, who rarely said anything of any length, like Hadassah the queen, standing before her people with nothing to give but the promise of safety. Wordlessly, Nyina wa Kabiru rose from her three-legged stool. She slowly engulfed Handathaa with the green cardigan she unhung from her shoulders. She tightened her blue headwrap, faced the dim lit corner of her smoky kitchen. She bent forward, squinted her eyes, feeling for Arimis milking jelly. When she found the small container, she reached for the milk bucket on the floor, swung it over her shoulders.
Sometimes, for the people and things they connect us to, children name themselves. A single word from a child’s open mouth plucking the past from its grainy reservoir, reciting it huge as life. If possible, this is the miracle: identity and consciousness becoming winnowed preludes, sprouting from time’s tectonic plates, perching with the steadiness of cauliflower to thread an ordinary life, an ordinary name into something astounding.
Rounding the corner of her kitchen in the rain, away from any eyes, Nyina wa Kabiru began to weep. It was tactile, abiding, and without restraint; voice shattering into song:
Mūirītu ūyū uiguaga atīa kuuma waiga mīrigo thī, Thayū mūingī, Riri mūingī, kuuma waiga mīrigo thī.
Years from now, when little Munyakei was no longer at ease so mobile in the air, before his chest was hairy as Nebuchadnezzar’s, he would roll pages of his exercise books into thin flutes, chew tinier pieces of paper, and with a mischievous back tilt of the head, hurl spit balls through the vacuum. Rooted at that very spot, Nyina wa Kabiru would see him running away in bigger russet shorts, joyous and mighty as a chief, before suddenly pausing to marvel at a shape in the clouds with such deep tenderness;
Mwanake ūyū uiguaga atīa kuuma waiga mīrigo thī, Thayū mūingī, Riri mūingī, kuuma waiga mīrigo thī.
Handathaa too. They were often too lost in another world to be helpful. Pressing charcoal on doors marking math formulas, illegible polymorphs of “usikojoe hapa.” Trying to crack macadamias on each other’s skulls. Flattening weeds and topsoil chasing each other around the farmlands. Twisting left and right, water pumps strapped to their backs. Sparking firestones to find their next projects. Was there so very much in Laikipia to get to? When she found the weathered sisal rope she used to fetch water from the well hanging from the mukinduri tree, her one nice sofa pillow braided into its thin biting edges softening it into a seated swing, it surprised her how dizzyingly fast her hot humid anger fizzed into a fuzziness and slipped away. In their newfound powers of mischief, an elusive something pleased her. Munyakei licking his wrists to dam the flow of soup lines down his arm, Handathaa scattering the burn pile to throw an aerosol can directly into the fire pit. Her calm retreat back into the house after confirming her grandchildren, the village, and the world were all still standing after the explosion.
Grandparenthood, Nyina wa Kabiru had come to learn, was a series of deeper baptisms of her co-authored organizing principles, probing her depths with stranger and more intimate questions that demanded silence as much as response. There were no big arrows hanging like grapes pointing to the direction of her grandchildren’s lives. Certainly not in the city where she feared most for their survival, praying for their faded lives to steer clear of the spotlight where the old gods were dead and evil invaded in boots of lead. There were moments, however, when Handathaa’s and Munyakei’s safety, necessary as it was, did not register as full victory. She wanted more for them that she couldn’t name. Perhaps she wanted for them the sweet caress of Fanta Citrus bought without haggles, tins of jasmine tea tinged with that Jevanjee aftertaste of hard-earned copper pennies. To walk their dog Bosco, who they sometimes called Gerald, melted chocobars in hand around the estate, without losing their legs. Perhaps she desired that Nairobi, the city that barely looked at her, only in passing and always below eye-level, would look upon them and their reckless rebellions as deserving equal peers.
What happened to her could not happen to them. And what did not happen for her would happen for them in spaces where they could breathe this amphibious surreal possibility of risk and untrapping respect for quiet safe lives. Wherever the city, the country was, they would meet the arena, all of it. This was what she knew for them. This was their heir of blood, sawdust to gather and scatter across their paths as needed. Nyina wa Kabiru needed time, more time to teach them the ways of the world before her own failing body was grounded, for when she held her cheeks to her palms and measured the fidelity in her bones, the scales shivered, the sugar burned, the moon entered. Dagitari had assured her that her heart was fine, but what she knew true for her body bit at her pillows, flashed hollow indigo triangles in her bones.
In her younger years of golden age, when she had detested being referred to as “Mukuru,” voicing her disapproval at each mention of the elders title, she had sought to untangle their adventures. But every time she made to trim their horns—that they might have needed in the city—a voice in her head said, “Thiī, niwirereire.” This voice, such a demand, filled her pockets with restraint and with it, questions of complicity. She had dealt with their Kabiru in his youth with a stern clarity that had fogged out over the years. Was it because Kabiru was an only child that she had often been beige and abrupt with him in childhood? Munyakei and Handathaa’s was a long navel marriage where they had become part of each other’s breathing, part of each other’s chamber music. If this was a product of Kabiru’s parenting, surely it was her pre-parenting that deserved praise. Was he capable of seeing this through the damp veil of his sobbing school? How he rarely came home from the city save for trips to drop off her grandchildren on the holidays. Always with numerous instructions through his crooked teeth. To feed them the dust of Weetabix and Cornflakes cereals, not pounded yam and sweet potato,
“Ngai, asha Mami, ihi, no one uses nappies anymore. Use these Pampers diapers.”
Was it not those cotton nappies that held him before he got his fancy corporate cubicle at PricewaterhouseCoopers? Didn’t pounded yam strengthen him to randaranda all of Laikipia before he became well-wheeled in his green Pajero that now made him restless at the first sign of rain? Was it not her doing of everything she thought reasonable to her at the time that led him straight to those bright new-age postpartum masterclasses? Was it not mercy? There were moments in the briefness of their interactions, however, when she physically felt her presence offended him. Was it in fact so? She had watched how difficult it was for her close grandchildren, yodeling language, to stitch together:
“Ngai, I’m sorry. I- - I didn’t mean kukuumiza. I am really sorry, sawa? Pole.”
For their numerous squabbles, that often started as reminding the other what they forgot, Nyina wa Kabiru felt those apologies thin and impossible as tropical tenerifes. How they believed that if they just explained, if they just told the truth, the other was going to understand. Perhaps there was something wholesale in the anger of a child to learn from, something wise beyond the present to lead her, shovel by shovel, into the courage of doubt.
None of that resistance held now. The brushwork of time had visited her with geriatric cruelties that crushed her with kindness. Landscaped her ears to hard of hearing so that she saw Handathaa’s marvels of her grey hairs, her laments of how brittle her njwiri ya kimira was, to be love. Tangled her back that she was no longer able to give chase to mischief, head start or ironed words to disobedience. Flooded her eyes with cataracts that she chose to hear Munyakei’s passioned requests to use eye pencil on her head, strand by strand, until her curls were again a rich black as a child’s blessing for a long colourful life.
All of these, like the sugarwork of wet wild gooseberries, were fantastic engulfing arguments for living through the wet sand, for the next verse, kept like a staying thing, for the waiting ones;
Mūtūmia ūyū uiguaga atīa kuuma waiga mīrigo thī, Thayū mūingī, Riri mūingī, kuuma waiga mīrigo thī.