Culture

15.

African American Art Print Poster by Artist Sarah Jenkins

There is no doubt that religion has always puzzled me.

In the village, it was only Priscilla and I who used to attend service. Neither of our parents went to church. But we went all the same because we assumed it was the right thing to do. It also gave us a valid reason to avoid house chores for a few hours on Sunday mornings.

And if we did not feel like doing any in the afternoon, we could always lie that a church member had sent us on an errand after service. In truth, we would be lazing about by the stream, catching up with some of our other friends who might have also told the same lie, who knows.

Soon after father’s death, I once gathered enough courage to ask mother why she never went to church and her answer was curt.

“What will church help me with?! ” She had posed in response.

I knew mother was still grieving. Even if she never said it, I could see it in her eyes when she sat next to the fire most evenings after our meal, staring into nothing. No tears. Just stony eyes which ironically, spoke volumes. Our only response was to lay down our mats and go to sleep. We never knew just how long she sat there by the fire alone. In the mornings, she was always bright and early, a complete opposite from her previous solemn self.

Mother never forbade us from going to church though. On rare occasions, my siblings would also join me and Priscilla for service. Priscilla is the last born in her family so it was mostly her.

The village pastor was as dramatic as they come. He spoke of hell fire in such a threatening manner, we were left convinced that we would not escape it, as long as we did not repent and accept Jesus. He would bob around the makeshift pulpit condemning witchcraft, fornication, polygamy and all those ills associated with the devil. It was like this every Sunday. Sermons on just how real, hell fire was.

Some villagers attributed the pastor’s demeanor to the fact that, he still held it against his congregants, for failing to raise enough money to build a better church. Others thought he was truly called by God judging by a particular story about him making the rounds.The rest who avoided his church altogether, were simply not willing to give up their traditions at the prompting of a strange, short man or they saw no need to change, what they considered the norm in their lives. I believe our parents fell into this latter category.

The story that congregants of the church loved to narrate as proof of the pastor’s calling, was of one family which had been having trouble sleeping at night for a lengthy period. Every time they retired to bed, strange noises would be heard coming from the roof. As a last resort, they called the village pastor who held a powerful prayer session in the home. That would be the last of the bizarre occurrence.

If he could pray successfully against evil forces, then he was truly after God’s own heart, so they concluded.  I like to think of me and Priscilla as spectators and not very much interested in proving the credibility or none, of the pastor’s.

Here in the city, church is very different. There is a large parking lot where people park all types of cars. The church is built of stone, very spacious and aerated with overhead screens and an assortment of musical instruments for the choir and praise and worship team.

The pastors are always impeccably dressed. Their wives well put together. I’m sure if our village pastor came here, he would instantly feel out of place with his disheveled appearance and simple bicycle. The pastors here are all driving such wonderful cars. The sermons equally vary. It is not always the same thing being preached.

On Sundays, Mama Ken in her beautiful African inspired outfits will sit on the pew, next to her husband, nodding at everything the pastor says. Ken will be fidgety and would go out before service ends. Angie would have that bored look on her face. She will also eventually find an excuse to go out.

Here, it is seemingly allowed to wear trousers to church. In the village, wearing trousers as a female is highly frowned upon. The gossipy village women would not hesitate in calling you out on it. Your peers will alienate you for being openly brazen in your dressing. Your father would probably beat the living daylights out of you for bringing shame to the family.

Being the help, I’m expected to sit through the whole service. Many times, I do not really understand what is being preached. The pastor speaks in that twang’ that is very similar to Angie’s. I would rather be home sleeping after working for 6 days straight. But I know that is just but a pipe dream. Not in Mama Ken’s house. I have to be in church with them every Sunday whether I’m up to it or not.

At the end of the service, she would then gladly introduce me to her church friends as her help. She will act like she is so grateful to have me, although I suspect the real reason behind her introductions and her insistence that I attend service with them, is just to prove how Godly she is to her friends. Her church friends will in turn smile in awe, their carefully applied lipsticks glinting in the sun.

They will question why she never showed up at the cell group meeting last Sunday for her residential area, to which she will openly lie that she had to work in the afternoon. I will be there, standing in the shadows, trying to look invisible for I know that Sunday afternoons are reserved for outings in Mama Ken’s house. The ones I’m hardly included in. Never for boring church cell group meetings.

 

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13.

“Yellow Chicken” by Franceska Schifrin

Some people seem to delight in the misery of others. That is the only explanation I can give to this occurrence.

Mother called me today morning. She said that when they went to sleep the previous night, all 4 chicken were in the coop. When they woke up in the morning, the chicken and the coop were missing. I can’t even begin to put to words just how annoyed I am. Who would do such a thing?!

Mother suspects some young men who idle in the village. They are rumored to engage in petty criminal activities but nobody seems to produce enough evidence to incriminate them. I’m sure whoever stole the chicken will fetch a good price for them at the shopping center.

Then they will pass by our homestead later on, pretending to be concerned while gloating secretly at the misery of mother. Or they will completely avoid the homestead, until when they are completely sure that their crime has been forgotten and therefore, gone unpunished. The nerve of brazen thieves! This however, is not the only problem that mother has to deal with. The other problem is uncle.

For some reason, uncle’s village wife and 3 children have been having frequent meals in mother’s house and sometimes, demand money for their various needs from her. So far, mother has put up with it since uncle makes her feel indebted to him for getting me a job in the city.

I still do not understand why mother kept this particular piece of information from me when I was home visiting. I did not see any of my cousins nor aunt near the homestead the whole duration. But as soon as they were sure I was gone, they must have resumed their previous bad habits.

I’m beginning to lose all respect for uncle. I told mother this to which she made me promise not to say anything to uncle. My mother does not like ruffling feathers. Besides, it is disrespectful for a younger one to question an older one. In a way, I feel sorry for uncle’s village wife. She has no idea that uncle has an additional wife in the city who recently gave birth to uncle’s child.

But that is no excuse for uncle to make mother feed and cater for his other family’s needs! And especially now that the chicken have been stolen and mother has lost another source of income. She used to sell those eggs that the chicken laid to her immediate neighbors. Perhaps it is uncle who gave instructions to his children to carry out the theft. I would not be surprised. Jealousy can turn anyone into a monster.

I have always thought that uncle meant well but it seems I was wrong. We did not ask him to get me a job in Nairobi. The whole idea was his. So to make mother feel indebted to him is wrong. Had I stayed in the village, I’m sure I would have found other means to help mother financially. I can make hair. I would have definitely plaited the village girls’ hair and made some money.

Meanwhile, Abel has kept his distance. After that incident from a few days back, I am still fearful of him. Today morning, he left in the company of Baba Ken. Something to do with admission at the university. Sometimes, I cannot help but question what such uncouth people are going to do there.

University is where the privileged in society go to acquire degrees and get good jobs so that they can be able to drive good cars and live in big houses in nice environments such as this one. I guess that pretty much answers my question. Abel is uncouth, but definitely privileged.

I have not shared with anyone what Abel tried to do to me. Not even with the ever inquisitive help next door. The one that Mama Brian replaced Jesca with who always wants to talk whenever she spots me outside. That girl can ask a million questions in a very short time period. If I am stupid enough to say anything about Abel to her, I bet the whole court will know within no time.

But Abel is the least of my worries as long as he does not get near me. I’m more worried about mother. Maybe she should get a dog. We used to have one in the past but our youngest is very scared of dogs. For her sake, father gave out the dog. It is times like these when I wish father was still with us. Nobody would be pestering mother. But they keep doing it knowing there is nobody to defend her.

 

 

 

 

9.

House Of Wonders Painting – Forodhani-zanzibar by Juma Hassan

The village never changes.

It is us who have been away in the city who change.

There is no doubt that I have changed.

I have been here only 2 days and some things which appeared normal to me, slightly over a year ago before I left, now look absurd to me. Take today morning, for example.

I caught two of my siblings walking out barefeet and can you imagine I scolded them. I even went as far as demanding to know where they had kept the sandals I had brought for them from the city. Before, that would not have been an issue to me. I also used to sometimes walk around the homestead barefoot.

But the city has a way of changing someone. I am not sure whether it is a good or bad thing. The looks on my siblings’ faces told me straight away that they were wondering who I was at that moment. I didn’t seem like the sister they knew previously.

Mother mentioned that I have added weight when I arrived. I know I have. I cannot even fit in some of the clothes I went to the city with. But I like how I look. I even feel more feminine. Like a grown woman now not a young 18 year old girl.

Mama Ken gave me a two week leave from work. I wish she had extended that period, but I know she cannot do without me, picking up after her house occupants.

Since it is the April holiday season, Mama Ken’s family will be traveling to Zanzibar for a week. I heard her tell her children that they have been to Mombasa so many times already. Zanzibar would make for a good change.

I only have a slight idea where Zanzibar is. Somewhere outside of Kenya.

Last year, I did not come home for Christmas. This year too, it seems I will also miss Christmas in the village. I doubt if Mama Ken can give me two leave periods in a single year.

You know, I complained about this to uncle at the bus stage as I was about to board a bus to the village, but he silenced me. This is unfair. Even uncle’s boss lets him travel home for Christmas. Why not me? This I asked uncle to which he accused me of “beginning to grow horns”. The term they use to describe a child who is getting spoilt or a wife who is suddenly changing for the worst.

I kept quiet.

However, I’m growing increasingly tired of not saying anything. It is not like I’m mute or something. I also have opinions. Why is it that uncle is the one who always gets to have the last say in my affairs?

I wanted to complain about this last fact to mother, but could not form the words to, when she showed me the developments, the money I send home has helped her do. We now even have a wooden chicken coop, 3 hens that regularly lay eggs and a big cock, all thanks to the money. Mother says that, she no longer has to work in other people’s farms and that my being in the city, has transformed into a huge blessing.

I am glad that mother feels this way. I have been a witness to her struggle after father’s death. I am also happy that my brother, the one who follows me, is also in the process of getting a secondary school education. In a year’s time, he has grown very tall, I was surprised. Nowadays, he repairs bicycles over the school holidays and gets paid for it. My other siblings are equally doing well. At least my brother and I have eased mother’s burden.

It is Priscilla, my best friend, whom I have not yet seen. I hear she is heavily pregnant now and will get a baby anytime soon. I want to pay her a visit and congratulate her in person. Mother promised to show me where she now lives with her husband.

Can you believe Priscilla married the Carpenter’s apprentice?! Who would have thought that these two had eyes for each other? The young man could barely look Priscilla and I in the eye whenever we visited the shopping center. Priscilla must tell me how he gathered enough courage to even propose to her.

3.

African Village Painting – Village Chores by Jane Wanjeri

People look out for each other in the village, unlike here where someone can even pass you in the morning without as much as a greeting.

If father was still alive, I’m sure things would have been different for us as a family. I would have finished my secondary school education and probably trained to be a teacher. Teachers are greatly admired in our village. I’m sure both of my parents would have supported my decision.

Father had passed on when I was 12 and our youngest 2. It was a bad case of malaria. There was nothing more that could be done for him at the village dispensary. When the doctor had delivered the terrible news to mother and I that fateful evening, mother had let out a piercing scream as she collapsed to her knees. I was too stunned myself to know how to react.

That day, we had rushed father to the dispensary, when we could not get his fever down. The news that he was now no more was indeed difficult for us to take.

In the days that followed, mourners flocked to our home to condole with us. We were truly grateful for their support but it was not completely lost on us that, with an influx of visitors, so did we have to spend more on food. Whenever there is a funeral in the village, mourners expect to be fed when they come visiting to offer their condolences. It is just one of the inconveniences of losing a loved one, which we had to put up with in the days leading to father’s burial.

Luckily, father’s family is not the greedy type. They let us keep the piece of land that was father’s after the burial. For other families in the village that I know of, it was not all rosy for them. Some relatives could just decide to kick you out of the property you thought yours, claiming that it belonged to their son. It was just how things go in these parts.

But the piece of land was barely a quarter of an acre. With 5 mouths to feed, it was definitely a struggle for mother. Mother had taken to working on other people’s farms to make some extra money whenever things were tight. I helped with looking after my siblings. But when it was school season and they spent a full day at the village public primary school, I had much more time to myself.

It was during those periods that I had taught myself how to plait hair in neat cornrows, thanks to my best friend Priscilla. Priscilla’s father could afford to take her through secondary school, but we all knew that Priscilla had much difficulty with grasping anything in class. After being required to repeat Form 1, Priscilla had declined to show up at school at the beginning of the following year. She now spent her days, plaiting the hair of the village girls at a fee.

Having dropped out of school in second term of Form 1 myself, I kind of admired Priscilla’s skill and ability to make some money. That is why I always headed to her home, whenever I had some free time to learn the art of hairdressing. By the time uncle had secured me employment in the city, I could comfortably make cornrows in different styles. I even plaited mother’s and my sisters’ hair sometimes! But of course my employer knew nothing about it.

These are some of the things I really missed about the village. The ability to be free and to do what you liked whenever you wanted to. Sometimes, when nobody was home, I would switch on the television set and watch a program or two. My spoken English could certainly not match up to the one that Ken and Angie spoke in the house. It is for this reason, that I avoided those American programs where even comprehending what was being said in English, was a struggle for me.

But I had discovered the Nigerian movies which were funnier with story lines I could relate to, in the course of my employment. Only that I had to be very discreet with my TV watching stints. I’m sure Mama Ken would not have hesitated in firing me if she found out that I watched her TV during the day.

2.

African Women Painting – Kenyan Kitchen by Tilly Willis

Perhaps the best thing about my employment was having a bed all to myself in one of the spare rooms. However, the only time I got to spend in that room was at bedtime. I would mostly be too exhausted, to enjoy this personal space.

My mornings start every day at 4;30am. I first make breakfast for the family. By 5 am, everyone including the lazy Angie, is usually awake. Baba Ken leaves for work at exactly 6 am.

The teenagers leave at 6;30 am with the school van being day scholars. Mama Ken is usually the last to leave at 7 am with the employee van from her place of work.

It has never been Mama Ken’s nature to leave without issuing instructions. The strong scent of her perfume always gives me the allergies.

But I would not dare show my employer that I’m affected by it, every time she is addressing me in the mornings, when the scent is at its strongest.

I must admit that it often puzzles me how unaffected she seems by it. I have never seen the need before, to use anything on my armpits. But that’s because nobody required me to do so back in the village.

In this house, even Angie uses a perfume. Baba Ken and Ken use colognes. Truly, I have learnt a lot this past year while living with my employers.

The other day, as Mama Ken was instructing me to do a thorough cleaning of the kitchen, I could not help letting out a sneeze.

“Coretta, are you feeling unwell?!” She immediately asked, rather sternly.

“No, Mama Ken.” I apologetically mumbled.

“Then what is it? If you are coming down with the flu, you better say it now, I get you some medicine.” She added.

“Not at all Mama Ken. I’m perfectly fine.” I emphasized.

You see, Mama Ken cannot stand my being unwell because that would mean her house chores would come to a standstill. Whenever I have been unwell, she has always made sure I got prompt medical attention.

Meaning, I could only be unwell for 2 days maximum. The 3rd day, she would be raising hell if I still seemed slow and sickly, despite being on medication.

When you decide to become a domestic worker, nothing prepares you for the challenge of slaving away in the houses, of previously total strangers to you.

Once my employer is done with the day’s instructions and leaves for work, I now have the house to myself. It can be doing the laundry, mopping the tiled floors, sweeping the living room carpet, picking up after the teenagers, washing utensils, emptying the rubbish bin, making beds, folding clothes, cooking…there’s always something to do.

Mama Ken does not like seeing me interacting with other house helps in the neighborhood. She is quick to always remind me to do what brought me to her home and that is to work, no excuses. I have followed her instructions fully and done my work diligently most of the time, but still that does not seem to appease this woman.

Perhaps, it could be the reason why her husband prefers to stay away working rather than being in the same environment with her, who knows? Uncle also warned me to keep off the marital affairs of my employers. I’m beginning to conclude that my uncle must be very wise. No wonder he has lived in the city for many years.

My monthly salary is 7,000kshs. I send most of it home to mother who needs it more than me with 4 children to raise by herself. I have no off days so I cannot say I’m very conversant with Nairobi.

Jesca, the help next door has her off days on Sundays. On those rare occasions I get to interact with her over the hedge, she has told me a lot of exciting things about the city.

There was a time she offered to get me a job elsewhere, when I happened to let it slip that, my employer was a hard one to please. She mentioned that the job paid better. However, I feared what uncle would say.

I knew he would probably be very annoyed. He brought me to Mama Ken’s specifically to work and send money home to help mother. If I suddenly quit, it would seem ungrateful. This I had told Jesca to which she had scoffed and mocked my decision to stay.

Jesca is answerable to nobody. She was married once and has kids back in her village. I’m still answerable to mother and uncle and have no desire to ruin the relationship with my misdeeds.

Nowadays, Jesca and I do not talk much. But whenever I get an opportunity to leave the house on an errand, I sometimes buy myself something from the vendors.

That way, I still get to experience the city life through purchasing city merchandise. I even got myself a deodorant recently. A mild, scented one. I’m yet to start using it.

These new things take some time to get accustomed to. However, I do not think I’m still that typical bush girl, that Jesca would sometimes make it seem to me.

If I had a choice though, I would not have settled for domestic work. Many are the times when I desperately miss my home and family.

Village life used to be such fun. It was less complicated than city life where there’s a routine for everything and to everything. In the village, you just woke up and life happened.

 

DOMESTIC PAINS: Diary of a HouseHelp

The following is the first part of a serialized novel in form of blog posts, “DOMESTIC PAINS; Diary of a Househelp”, by Lorna Likiza, otherwise known as Definitely Lorna. The story told in first person, will follow the journey of a teenage househelp, and her coming of age, in a society that is often unappreciative of the role of domestic workers, in their households. All characters depicted are fictitious.

When you are living with people you are not closely related with, expect to be occasionally aggrieved. Expect some statements aimed at getting a reaction from you or simply, to remind you of your place in the household.

I know my place. I am the help, employed by a middle class family.

A bespectacled husband with a good job, who drives a dark blue range rover and is always working. I mean, he seems to have no other choice but to slave away to support a wife who obviously loves spending.

She is a beautiful woman. Sometimes, I find myself admiring her. However, the downside is that she is always irritable. I can’t even begin to count the number of times, she has berated me for ruining her new clothes, with my ignorance. I mean, what does a village girl such as I know?

She may sometimes say all these mean things to me, but I have an inkling that this woman cannot do without me. That is why she has not fired me yet.

Finally, there are two teenagers to complete the family. A boisterous 16 year old son and a rather lazy 14 year old daughter who can barely do anything for herself.

I have never understood how these urban dwellers function. At her age, I could comfortably do all the house chores. I already knew that my mother could not afford my secondary school education. She had not hidden that fact from me. I had also been sent home severally for school fee arrears that the reality of my situation had deeply sunk in.

As a matter of fact, being employed as a house help in Nairobi, had equally started to sound very appealing to me by then. But mother had my 4 younger siblings. She still needed my help around the homestead until uncle, one of my deceased father’s brothers, had convinced her to allow me to come to the city to be employed by Mama Ken. I have no idea how uncle knew of Mama Ken.

All I know is that she is my current employer. Ken is her oldest, followed by Angie, who has a terrible obsession with her phone. I doubt this girl can survive a day without that thing.

I’m only 18 years old myself. I have been here a year already, but I still remember the day I arrived like it was just yesterday.

The humiliation I was subjected to when Mama Ken ordered me to open my small, battered suitcase, that she thoroughly inspected as if I was a common thief. Uncle had previously emphasized that I should never say anything, no matter what my employer did to provoke me.

So when two of my old, nylon panties fell out in full view of everyone present, as Mama Ken roughly turned everything upside down in my suitcase, I said nothing. I said nothing even when Ken, who had seen them fall out got obviously embarrassed and left the room. I didn’t know then who was supposed to be more embarrassed. Me or him?

I also said nothing, when she disdainfully questioned my hygiene standards and inquired whether, she could trust that I had not carried bedbugs with me to her home. I’m sure by then she had concluded my silence to mean, I was either stupid or experiencing a culture shock of sorts.

Uncle had advised that this was the best way to interact with employers. Make them think you are stupid. That way, you would be safer.

However, with the kind of welcome I had received at my employer’s house, I immediately knew that my days of enjoying  personal privacy, would soon be long gone.