Fall 2021 Issue

Eliya Wanameme

Every staff quarters’ kid in Bukembe thought Kennedy was immortal because of his wide feet and wide palms and his solid frame as though he was carved out of a rock; so they nicknamed him Eliya Wanameme, a demigod. They asked me, are you not afraid he will eat you when you sleep? I shook my head, no. They thought I was brave, but really, all Kennedy did was do his chores and listen to Mseto East Africa from two pm, his voice reverberating through the kitchen as he sang along. The other kids feared me as well, by my association with Kennedy and thought that one day, my feet and palms were going to be as wide and I’d strike them dead. In the afternoons, Kennedy sorted maize and beans, soaked them and left them to cook overnight in the detached kitchen, or he’d soak the dirty clothes and iron all the clean clothes he’d washed earlier. The music from his radio pumped energy into him as he worked and he shimmied and break-danced. He loved Diamond Platinumz so much that I thought one day, I would wake up and find that he had gone to live with him in Tanzania. Househelps in the estate disappeared like that, leaving babies on their own, wailing until they fell asleep. In the middle of any Diamond song, Kennedy would say, Ah, Simba! Roar, roar, big lion. His eyes shining like he had won a Sportspesa bet.

We were dining that evening when I asked mother about my father’s name because the teacher asked us to draw our family tree. She said I had a roof and food, why was I ungrateful? Afterwards in his room, Kennedy said mother’s pregnancy didn’t like me. I asked him, if mother’s pregnancy did not like me, did it mean she was going to chase me from her house and remain with Kennedy and the pregnancy alone? Kennedy said no, she was not going to chase me, but I should keep off from mother’s path and refrain from asking her questions. Maloba Mulupi had such a big head that it obscured sunlight in this house, he said of my father. With my crayons, I drew the man Kennedy described. The next day, the teacher asked me why I thought my father was a giant.

After school, I began sitting longer in Kennedy’s room and his life and mine were intertwined sweet potato vines. The posters of Diamond Platnumz, Lucky Dube, and Konshens swallowed the walls, and the shoes under his bed lined like school children in a parade. His jackets and raincoats hung on nails behind the door. His bed was always made and he put a blue sash across it written ‘Usher’ that he’d pinched from his church. When I did my homework, Kennedy would squint at my book and ask if I was sure that was the right answer, and I always said no, what should I write? He would shrug or say he didn’t know either. Sometimes, I dozed off while doing homework as he finished his chores in the main house. Then I would wake up the following day in my own bed and with the homework completed.

One evening, he was reading the letter that the maid of the last house in our street pressed in my hand. He kept scoffing and shaking his head.

Foolish girl, he said when he finished reading. This is how some people want me to lose my job. Instead of working, she wants me to be laughing with her. She better wake up.

If you don’t write back, she will beat me, I said.

Let her touch you and I will teach her why a guinea fowl has dots. Let her try. His eyes intensified and the vein on his forehead swelled as though it was going to explode.

I was terrified of using that route but she caught up with me weeks later when the school bus dropped us off at the estate’s gate.

He thinks he is the only one with a functional penis? Aseeno! We will see. Tell him he can go to hell with his penis. Tell him I said he is not handsome. I was just pitying him.

I sat on the news because Kennedy was handsome by any standards: the way his nose shot forward and arched back at the bridge, how his light pink lips stretched in a smile, how his eyes dazzled whenever he sang along to bongo, how his voice trembled out of his throat with such vulnerability, how his laugh glided out in gentle unhurried strokes and reached its crescendo with shocking bliss. I figured the information was not going to help us in any way, especially with the upcoming Parents’ Day that he’d promised to attend if I behaved well. For the entire week, I bathed, ate, slept without his reminders and even refrained from touching FIFA. He was tucking me in bed days later when he said, That girl doesn’t shake me. Don’t stop when she tries stopping you. You are not a postman. I thought of furrows crossing the maid’s face like ruts in a bare field. I imagined her reaction when she called me and I ignored. Kennedy did not know this maid well. Even shopkeepers feared her, largely, I suppose, because of her voice. She did not know how to whisper.  

Do you know the rule of scarcity? Kennedy once asked me. I shook my head. I don’t remember word for word. Business Studies was too wordy. His eyes were fierce. It says the less the availability, the more the demand. I thought hard of an example, but his rule doodled my thoughts and I stared at the glow-in-the-dark stars that he’d planted on the ceiling board. That Lydia is throwing herself at me, but I am not available.

But you are available in the afternoons before mother returns from work, I said. His laughter made me start laughing because of how wide his mouth stretched and how his eyes shrank to the size of a pea.

These girls? Dangerous creatures. You can use your energy to shit but don’t waste it on girls. They want your money and nothing else. I thought of the girls in my class and told Kennedy that it was a girl who always beat me and I became position two. He laughed again and fell back on his bed, his body shaking like a decapitated earthworm. That was how he was when he laughed. He roared and I understood why the other kids thought him a giant. I thought of Kennedy’s money and I agreed that it was better for him to avoid the thief.

Kennedy did not behave like most adults. On the long stretch to the grocery store, he said, forget what your mother said to you. I talk a lot, but you have never asked me why I talk a lot, have you? His brown eyes lingered on mine and he slapped the tithonia leaves blocking our paths. It works the same way when it comes to quiet people like yourself, he said. I didn’t even think I was quiet; I just preferred listening to him. Nobody should ask you why you don’t talk much. That is who you are. That is what makes you. I felt a warmness settle in my tummy, as though I’d taken porridge and I held his hand tighter. I felt understood and seen. He continued, my brother doesn’t talk much too. I was puzzled that he had a brother because he didn’t look like he belonged anywhere else, or to anyone except to us. He never went to visit his own family nor mentioned them and until then, I had never thought of where he came from.

Why don’t you visit him or why doesn’t he come to visit us? I asked.

You know, life reels in ways I’ve come to look and let it pass. No questions. No longing. Just existence. Yet, he smiled with a longing and rubbed my head, twisting it as though it was a ready pawpaw fruit on a tree. I miss him, but you are now my brother.

I didn’t know I’d become his brother just like that, but his proclamation again, gave me an exalting feeling. I thought of mother’s pregnancy and her hostile voice and asked him, What about the baby that mother is carrying? Will he be your brother too? His throaty laughter tugged at my own laughter and I joined him.

Would you like that? he asked.

I said no.

Then he won’t be my brother.

He asked me if I was tired and I said I was and he carried me on his back, whistling a song and shaking me. I wanted to ask him how old his brother was, how he looked like, what his name was, but I realized that I didn’t want to know anything about the other branches of his life because it meant a sharing of some sort. As we got to the shopping centre, we passed Omende, a madman whose body looked like the bark of a tree, cracked and browned. Surrounding him was a heap of litter, bottles, twigs, and rags.

He wasn’t always like this, said Kennedy. There is a flyover in Nairobi that Omende designed. And that Parliament Building? Omende’s brain. Kennedy called out to him and he looked up and grinned and waved at us. I thought of a clean Omende in a suit, standing in front of the Parliament Building, the towering brown building with segmented walls like a millipede. What a creative man. I thought of him in Kenya Airways on his way to Japan. I thought of Omende carrying a briefcase into the Parliament Building and not the smelly sacks. I felt a whiff of sadness. Very sharp boy there, said Kennedy.  I wondered if Omende was Kennedy’s brother too and questioned myself if I’d accept to be a brother to a man whose brother was mad and realized I preferred the uncertainty of not knowing.

The m-pesa attendant, a slim man who talked twice as much as Kennedy, called out to us. His head jutted out of his lean-on kiosk. Did you see the whipping we gave you fools last night? Your kalongolongo team is bogus. Even that Mo Salah? Let us see what will happen with his injury.

What beating? And we had ball possession, my friend?

We are bad. Very bad. Fear us. In fact, why am I wasting my time on a small team that appears nowhere in the chart? Go talk to tiny teams. I was just greeting you.

Says people who don’t even know if they have a coach or not.

A customer came to withdraw money, giving us an opportunity to duck him and stop at the kibanda for tomatoes, onions and coriander. The woman selling them asked Kennedy about mother. I’m not liking her varicose. Did she improve? Kennedy said she did. She and mother went to the same chamaa. Please, greet her for me. Tell her to flash me at night we talk about something. Kennedy scanned for the best tomatoes and haggled with the woman. Her tomatoes were like peanuts. No, the farmers hiked the price and tomato blight had done them in. Three tomatoes for twenty shillings was unfiltered theft. Have mercy, the profit was only two shillings per tomato. Add us a tomato at least so that we come back another day. Did she not add us last time? Let us focus on the future, not dwell on the past. Did we want her business to collapse? Eventually, they reached an agreement and the woman packed fifteen tomatoes for us.

Tell this your uncle he argues more than women, the woman said to me, and Kennedy began laughing and said he was the woman of the house. They laughed and I didn’t get what was funny, but because Kennedy was laughing, I joined in. We went to Small Hilton Hotel, a structure made of iron sheets and the smoke from the kitchen was all over the dining area. The waiters fist-bumped Kennedy and asked him where he’d been hiding for weeks. Small monies and you no longer eat here, they said. The menu, drafted in what appeared to be a pink manila paper that was dotted with soot, hung precariously on the iron sheet walls: chapati madondo, chapati nyeshea, ugali teargas, pilau big, pilau small, githeri rasharasha, Hilton special, big tea, small tea.

I want you to try Hilton special, Kennedy said to me, but let me warn you. His smoldering eyes licked my face, looking for cues. I nodded with a smile. You will lick your fingers. His laughter leapt out graciously and looking at him, I felt understood, that he could see my hunger.

Na you Ken, you are beginning to spoil that boy. Why is he not playing with other children? One of the cooks peering over the counter asked, sweat meandering on his face.

Ah, General. Let the child be. Or is it food you don’t want to sell to us today? asked Kennedy and whispered to me, don’t mind him. He is like that.

Hilton special was shredded chapati with beans, fried rice, a large potato swimming in beef soup and a sweet banana as dessert. The dish came in a platter, the size of a tray and I thought it was a meal for three boys. Kennedy had tea and mandazi. Their conversation jumped from NASA to Jubilee Parties to football and to the recent killing of the Kenya Defense Forces soldiers in Lamu.

Bana, let me tell you that an IED can scoop out this entire Bukembe, all the way to Mabanga and haul it in Bungoma town. The speaker was a stout man with his frontal teeth protruding out and he’d stopped rolling the dough to gesture at the magnitude of loss. That Humvee was thrown up, like a hundred meters and when it came down, it exploded into smithereens. We all listened and I shuddered at a car flying that high. The KDF are ninjas. When their car landed down, they were not dead. The Al-Shabaab went to them one by one, blowing up their heads. Puuuf!

On our way back home, my head pounded from their loud banter. I asked him, Is what he said true? That you wanted to join the KDF?

Yes. But that was a long time ago. Every boy in Cheptais wanted to be in KDF. We thought it would solve all our problems with the Sabaot.

Why didn’t you join?

Our footsteps in tandem, the birds rushing home to their nests, the evening chill intensifying, he sighed and said not all dreams came true. I thought of my recurring dream about my mother yelling on the couch while clutching her tummy. In this dream Kennedy rushed in, his face networked with furrows and he carried mother to the car while telling her to breathe, like the doctors on TV did to patients. Kennedy placed her on the driver’s seat and mother yelled, Are you stupid? How can I drive with this big stomach? and Kennedy trembled on the steering wheel. Every time, I shrieked from sleep when I saw that mother was holding a pink bird with a pink beak, quacking in her arms.

But you must dream big things for yourself. I will be here to cheer you all the way, mmh? He poked my nose and I giggled. I haven’t forgotten you said you want to make roads. Engineer. I’d said that but since learning that Omende had once designed roads, I changed my mind. Perhaps I wanted to be a police officer too.

Did the other children in Cheptais become soldiers though? I asked.

He told me about Mount Elgon and the smoke that formed at the peak. He said they must have spent most of their time admiring the mountain and all it had to offer and forgot all about their dreams.

Do you know? There is a place up the mountain where water doesn’t flow downstream but flows upwards? It sounded bizarre indeed. And there is this cave with a large footprint. It is said to be Eliya Wanameme’s from one thousand years ago. Listening to his reminiscences, I craved to stay near the mountain, hike to the peak and see Kenya and Uganda at the same time, feel the chilling air closing in on me, see the strange birds and the strange symbols written by gods. I wanted to feel his homeland in its fullness.

I will take you there someday, he said as if reading my thoughts. And you will never want to come back here.

Today, I am sitting on Kennedy’s bed and he is next to me, holding my hand. He sighs and scans the room as though there is someone or something so precious, so profound that he lacked words. His silence makes me wince with discomfort. I am not used to Kennedy looking this pensive. I know there is something wrong but I cannot point a finger and it is making me crumble. His radio is off and yet it is time for Mseto East Africa. Fears climb up my legs and my chest. The children on the next block are playing soccer. Barcelona has scored against Man City and their excited voices irk me.

Ken, did I do something wrong? I blurt out and I immediately hate my desperation. His laugh is brief and I don’t think his eyes even get a chance to diminish. He exhales loudly.

No, bro. You haven’t done anything wrong. You never have. He is looking at me and I feel light-headed. I want to lift this burden off his chest, make him laugh and smile, make him talk endlessly about how legendary Diamond is. I’m going to miss you, he says. Why would he miss me and we live together? I will myself to ask him but he rises from the bed and his hands akimbo and he draws closer to Diamond’s picture, his eyes burning with a sadness I’d never seen. I stand next to the picture and face Kennedy and I want to rip it off so that he focuses on me. Alone.

I’m leaving tonight. My brother. He stepped on a mine and his legs were amputated.

His words are echoes and for a minute, I imagine he is joking. I want to ask him if I too, wasn’t his brother because broken body parts could be fixed; what about broken hearts? He squats to my height and holds my hands again. I don’t think it is fair, he says. I don’t think it is fair either, I think to myself, fighting the giant that wants to leap out of my throat in form of a wail.

But first, let me help you with your homework, he says and sits me on the chair.

Gladwell Pamba

Gladwell Pamba lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. She has previously been longlisted for the African Writivism Short Story Prize and won AFREADA Contest in 2019. Her works appear or are forthcoming in The Offing, Waxwing Journal, Five South, Tint Journal, Sahifa Journal and elsewhere. Gladwell blogs at chingano.com and tweets from @GladwellPamba.

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