Let me tell you about Vevo. He is a boy. Well of course he is a boy; girls are not fun enough to write about. That’s not his real name. But I am sure you know that. He runs fast. Really fast. The fastest in our school. I could run faster than him if I wanted to. But I don’t, because that’ll make him feel bad.
You see, he stays at Mpetoni Children’s Home because his mama threw him away when he was born out of her stomach. That’s what one of the bigger boys told me. I wonder why she didn’t want him. Did she know that when he became big, he would be a fast runner? Maybe. Or maybe he already had a bigger brother who ran fast as well. Two boys who run real fast can’t fit in one tiny house. Yes, that must be it.
Every day after school we eat mahindi-choma at that place for Brayo. Brayo roasts good maize. From Kitale, he swears each time. I believe him. My grandmother lives there. Maybe he buys from her farm?
The headmaster threatened us during school parade and he told us if he sees anyone with the uniform for our school buying maize there, he will suspend the students. We thought he was joking, but two boys in Class Seven were found one afternoon and they never came back. So we remove our school shirts and stuff them in our bags when we leave the school gate, and no one can report us then. We could be from any school, with grey shorts, and people won’t think to ask.
“Today is my parents’ anniversary!” Chako brags, as he kicks a pebble on the path; we watch it soar and land a distance away.
“What’s a-anniversary? What are you saying, Chako,” I retort.
“It’s the day when my parents got married,” he yells, not wanting to be outshone.
“Yuuuck! How do you know the day your parents got married?” Vevo exclaims.
He hurls the stick he was dragging on the dusty murram in emphasis. Vevo wants to be a priest when he grows up, you see. So he thinks anyone who is married is stupid.
“It’s not yuck! My mum told me yesterday.”
We, Vevo and me, don’t know what to say to that, so we run fast ahead of Chako, not caring if he catches up. He does, though, and kicks me in the shin as retribution. I’ll get him for that.
“Me I don’t know when my parents got married,” Vevo boasts. He sounds proud. Like it’s a good thing.
“Even me I don’t know my parents’ wedding day!” I inform Chako. I don’t sound proud like Vevo, though I want to.
“Si you ask your mum?” Vevo says, punching my shoulder with his thin fingers in a loose fist.
I want to ask my mother, but I know I won’t. She told me the wachawi of the village took my baba away. He was taken because he was saying things about Mfarisayo Mtembei, our chief. He was saying things in the mabaraza meetings, about how Chief Mtembei took away Manu Opote’s little girl, and sold her to the strange men who came visiting, so in exchange they could take his son to study in the West, where it snows. And Baba said all these things sober. I was two years old then.
My mother told me that if he had said them drunk on ogogoro, whiskey and gin, they would not have taken him away. I have my father’s ears. Mama swears so. I don’t know what he looks like in the face. I wish the wachawi never took him. Or that he’d drunk ogogoro before going to the mabaraza meetings.
“Hmm. So what are you going to do today?” Vevo inquires, as we make the last turn on our walk home from school.
Brayo’s maize is calling us from where we are. I have ten shillings. I want mahindi-choma, but I need a pencil for homework too.
“Me I don’t know,” Chako responds, shrugging his shoulder.
Today he has the t-shirt for ‘Makmende’. He wears it a lot. It has a hole under the left arm and many tiny ones in the back, like a diseased cow’s hide.
“Nooothing! You are just going to eat ugali and sleep like uusss!” I holler.
“That’s not true! My mum is bringing a cake. From town. And it has icing on top,” Chako declares, offended by my announcement.
Vevo jabs him in the rib with his dark, skinny elbow. It looks like for an old person, because he didn’t put any Valon on his body today morning.
“And how do you know if it has icing, even? Have you seen it already? Don’t bring for us lies, Chako! Eiish.” Vevo says.
Chako stabs the biggest maize cob on Brayo’s wire mesh, his fingers grimy from the playground in school. Dirty to his fingernails. But mine are short and smooth, because my mother files them for me like the women in the banda salon.
“You just wait tomorrow. I’ll bring it to school and I won’t give you two any!”
Brayo smiles at Chako’s impassioned promise as he breaks the cob in three and slathers pepper and salt over them. The lemon half he used today is brown and hard and dry. Silence ensues as we get back on the dirt path, chewing through each grain slow, to taste it and let the pepper burn a path down our throats. Like the waragi that Mama Yasii sells to the night watchmen for our estate.
“You you got a bigger piece than me!” I nag, and Vevo ducks when I try to nab his.
His laughter fills the dusty air around us, and I give in, choosing not to chase him and win.
“Eish, Brayo put a lot of pepper in mine. Just taste,” Chako brings his cob close to Vevo, but snatches it away from his lips just before Vevo curls them around the rows, to pick off some grain and sample the premium pepper.
Now I laugh as we slow pace to drop Vevo at the gate of the children’s home. Sister Augustina is there to pick him up like always. We wave at her and her habit flops in the wind behind her back, like a flag.
“And you children, read hard in school!” she says.
We send our promises to her in the breeze, and her laughter transcends the familiar, lazy groan of the gate as she drags it shut behind us. Chako and I continue towards the estate where we stay. A short silence ensues as we get used to not having Vevo with us. Vevo, who thinks girls are a mistake the gods made. Vevo, who told me girls are not fun enough to write about.
Maybe I can ask Mama Kendi if she knows where we can lock up all the girls, so we can play football whenever we want, and the girls won’t ever disturb us. She must know. All the men like to come for chai at her kiosk; even at night, when the sun is long gone and Mama Andisa has finished selling all her githeri and Halima’s husband is singing taarabs to the moon, with his two-string guitar he stole from the church. Yes, Mama Kendi must know.
“My mum told me I am getting a new brother soon,” Chako says, as he kicks his maize cob to the bushes.
“How does she know kwani?” After the iced cake story, best to confirm this one too.
“She just knows. He has already been born in her stomach. Now he is waiting to come out so he can grow and play with us,” he explains sagely.
I wonder why Chako’s mother put his brother in her stomach. Now where will her food go? See, I told you girls are strange.
“Will he be tiny? Like the baby Pastor found in a paper bag at his door?” I ask him.
The baby Pastor found had been dead. And its neck was broken, like in a movie.
“Nooo. My brother will be bigger than that one. Besides, he is a boy. Boys are always bigger,” he finishes with his head shaking like a gecko.
“I have ears like for my father. My mum told me,” I inform Chako.
“Even my brother will have ears for my dad,” he says.
I nod, this one declaration being the most plausible we have arrived at today.
“Come we do maths homework before you go home.” Chako tells me.
Usually this means I do all the sums and Chako copies number for number and we both get everything right in class the next day. Before we begin, I break Chako’s pencil in two, to use one half. I will borrow a pencil from Teacher’s desk tomorrow; she won’t miss it, because she has so many. Homework is done on the PVC carpet in his sitting room, dancehall music playing loud in the background. Yesu looks over us from a 2003 calendar. Maybe I should face away from the calendar when we do math homework. But no, I am sure Yesu understands. I’ll ask Pastor to pray for the bad spirits to leave me alone, so that I stop sharing my homework with Chako. Halleluya, amen!
Why does Vevo want to be a priest? Being a pastor is much more fun. And he can get rich quick. So even him he can take his son to school where it snows. I won’t let him sell anyone’s little girl, I promise. Besides, girls are too noisy and strange to steal away quietly.
I reach home and find the front door open. Mama is in the kitchen. I hang my schoolbag on the lone, plastic seat that leans against the wall. It has a broken arm, but Mama refuses to throw it away. It was white once; now it is the colour of old milk-tea— brown with a strange grey undertone. The thin film of dust that coats it, rubs off the back of my t-shirt when I sit down.
“Where have you been, Keita? Hmm? Now look how late it is. Help me pack these in the boxes! Obena is coming for them just now.”
I make quick work of placing the bottles of Konyagi in batches of twelve inside the three carton boxes like she taught me. She stashes the extra counterfeit labels in the front pocket of her apron and goes to greet Obena, over the loud growl of his motorbike engine.
“Yes, Obena, come come inside! Do you want some tea? No? Let me call Keita then, so you can deliver the bottles and go home faster faster.”
Her eyes are not red today: she did not drink any Konyagi while she bottled it. She never tells me, but I know: she spent the day with Baba today, where the wachawi took him.
Baba who I have ears like for him. Baba, whose face I have never met.
On Saturday, we go round the estate to collect plastic bottles. Plastic bottles whose paper-thin walls are still sticky from the soda and Quencher juice, that was in them. Then we take these down to the Centre, where we get two shillings for each bottle, and we keep that to go to cinema.
Today, I gathered a full bag of thirty-one bottles. Vevo forty, because he got from the children’s home also. Chako twenty, because he had to share some with his mama, so she can pack liquid soap in them to sell, in her kibanda stall. We drag our gunias to the Centre, where Mapengele meets us at the door of his shed. He is the one who takes the bottles to a factory far away in Industrial Area, where they will be made into new things to sell. Mapengele is wiry and tall and he always has on a blue overall, streaked with dark soot from the charcoal he sells.
When he smiles, which is rare, his canine on his upper jaw gleams in the light; it is coated gold. Mama Yasii told us it is because once, his uncle cast a spell on his father, because he refused to pay him back the miraa that he borrowed from him one evening. So Mapengele was born with all his teeth and the ancestors were sure to add a gold one so he looked strange every time he smiles. And the people would say, “Hmmm. Now look at this boy. He is not his father’s son, even. He does not look like him! You don’t believe me, look at his tooth now. Hmm! What did I tell you?”
Coins are gathered with eager fingers and wrapped in handkerchiefs that we keep deep in our pockets, and then we trek down to the cinema. Excitement is brewing a fine mix deep in our guts; better than the porridge we had for breakfast with Vevo. Sister Theresia makes the best uji. The best after my mothers of course.
“We should watch resso today!” Vevo says.
“Nooo! We watched that last week. Let’s watch Rambo!” I object.
Chako chimes in his assent.
“Ah, then me I’m going home. And no following me!” Vevo threatens.
We ignore him and walk on. We know he won’t go back home. There are clothes waiting to be washed, and Sister Augustina does not want to know if you are a boy or a girl, you do whatever work is waiting to be done. Vevo likes to watch wrestling, because he wants to become a boxer when he grows up. Soon, he will be old enough to start training at Baba Achi’s gym. He is going to get big gloves and a mean name. Then we will see him on the TV, fighting like the men in resso matches. He will grow big muscles too. Will he get a tattoo of a spider on his arm? I will ask him.
The whole room bursts out in cheers when Rambo’s girlfriend finally appears. More cheers as he kisses her lips after saving her from the bad gang. But Vevo is not excited like Chako and me. What’s the matter, is he not happy that Rambo’s girlfriend is saved from the bad people? Or maybe Sister Augustina told him girls are too yuck to kiss? Maybe. Maybe that’s why he wants to become a priest? So he never has to kiss his wife when they get married in front of the church.
After the movie is done, we don’t go back to the estate straight away. We take a detour, waiting till the sun almost starts to set; when the ancestors wake up to drink the libations we pour for them.
“I’ve ever kissed a girl before. Like Rambo!” I boast.
Chako erupts in laughter behind me, and I know it’s because he does not believe me.
“Keita, you are a liar. Mm!” Chako says, and I jab him on the back with my knee.
“I’m not lying! I’ll show you how, just wait!” I swear to the sky; the birds fly away from a nearby rooftop, offended by my proposal.
“But I’m not a girl! Boys can’t kiss another boy, Keita! See even Rambo, he kissed a girl,” Chako reasons.
Vevo has remained silent all the while, so I grab the neck of his t-shirt:
“Vevo, tell this one I have kissed a girl the way Rambo did in the movie. Tell him!”
“Me I’ve seen a boy kissing a boy,” Vevo says instead, his voice quiet. He is not lying, I know because he is not even smiling.
Now it is me and Chako, who stall to stare at him. Is Vevo sick with malaria? I should tell Sister Theresia her porridge had poisoned millet.
“Where did you see that now you?”
“In the newspaper,” again, his voice is full of conviction.
“Did they look happy,” Chako asks; he shudders at the image his mind conjures.
Vevo nods hard, I am sure his head will snap off his neck.
“Me I can’t kiss a boy,” I announce passionately.
“Even me! Rambo kissed a girl, so even me I have to kiss a girl.” Chako decides.
“But even some boys kiss a boy instead of a girl,” Vevo reminds us.
To believe, and to know.
Me I know I am a boy, and I know Vevo and Chako are boys too. Vevo believes that the boys who want to marry other boys are not strange; he knows they are good people, like us.
Sister Theresia says it is wrong if a boy marries a boy. She believes it, because Father Daudi recited it out of his yellowed, worn-paged copy of ‘The Catechism of the Catholic Church’ at Mass, and I’d sat behind Sister Theresia that Sunday, while he read in a loud voice. The microphone had screeched with the strain of his thunder-like timbre. The whole congregation clapped loud when he finished his homily and Sister Theresia clapped the loudest, because she believed he was right. Vevo didn’t clap, I remember. He looked at Father Daudi with confused eyes.
I forgot to ask him why he did not clap. Now I won’t ever know why he was confused.
In school, Teacher Chiromo, with her stained nicotine and tar fingers and a voice like an old man, wants us to believe her when she tells us Bwana Chief is a good man, who bought Manu Opote a big piece of land; a shamba, and he built for him a big brick house with ten rooms and piped water in it. We know that is a lie. We know because in the morning, after the sun has just risen and the trees no longer look like tall men waiting to grab you and the air is no longer cold and painful like ice shards in your throat, we still see Bwana Manu Opote’s wife carrying a leso and a chipped metal basin filled with steaming water and a piece of Panga soap, to go and take a bath in the latrines behind Baba Achi’s gym.
“Come we go eat avocados at Chief’s place,” Chako proposes.
“Heeeh! And if we get caught?” Vevo says his tone incredulous.
“Then we will run away!” Chako replies frustrated that he has to elaborate.
We have eaten avocados at Bwana Chief’s shamba before. But that was before Mama told me about what he did to Manu Opote’s daughter.
“Now what if his avocados are cursed and they choke us?” I yell after Chako, as he scales the fence with practiced ease.
“Ah, Keita! Stop frightening us with your funny stories,” he yells, as he shakes a branch with vigor.
Only two avocados break off, and Vevo runs to catch them, so they do not fall to the dusty ground and get an injury. He tosses me one of the fruit. I peel off a section, thinking for a second that we should wash them first. But Mama Chako says there is no need to wash the avocado when it is straight from the tree; the gods clean them before placing them there for us to come and steal. That is why she never washes her sukuma wiki and cabbage and spinach before chopping it for her customers. When I bite the avocado, it is raw and hard and watery and tastes like bar soap. I knew they were not ripe. I should have told Chako, but I know he would not have believed me.
“Chako, come down from there we go home. The avocados are not nice, even. Keita told us the tree was cursed and you refused to listen. Now see!”
Chako drops down from a low branch, with a soft thud like a cat. He doesn’t speak a word as he grabs his schoolbag from the ground, now clothed in red dirt from the soil. Without even dusting it, he mounts it on his back and skips two steps before breaking into a run.
Vevo flings his avocado through the barbed wire fence and chases after our friend. I toss mine to the bushes and watch it land in a pile of dried cow dung. I race after the two, and Vevo’s surprised chortle can be heard in the loud rain that has just begun to pour. He laughs because I made it to Mpetoni Children’s Home gate before he did.
Chako sprints on, not wanting to get soaked. I follow behind, after seeing Sister Augustina shut the gate, now silent because its hinges are doused in rainwater.
Vevo believes he runs the fastest. He does not know I can run faster if I want. But I don’t because that would make him feel bad.
Baba would be proud of me. I know.
The Writer: Angelica A. Oluoch is a writer from Kiambu, Kenya. She seeks to educate people about the New Afrika she grew up in, through the stories she tells.
Glossary of Kiswahili words:
1. Mahindi-choma: roast maize/corn
2. Ugali: a dish made of maize flour.
3. Githeri: a dish of boiled maize and beans, sometimes mixed with vegetables to make a more balanced meal.
4. Taarab(s): from the Kiswahili word ‘taarabu’ meaning, a romantic, poetic song. The word is also widely used to speak of a music genre common in Kenya and Tanzania.
5. Wachawi: singular ‘mchawi’. Swahili word for an evil shaman.
6. Gunias: singular ‘gunia’ (pronounced ‘goo-nee-ah’). A sack made of cloth or sisal.
7. Miraa: ‘khat’. A medicinal shrub found in Eastern African countries. It holds high cultural value among Kenyan communities.
8. Leso: a large, brightly coloured piece of fabric, that women in Kenya commonly wrap around their heads and waists while working, or for celebration attire.
9. Mabaraza: singular ‘baraza’, a village-level meeting, chaired by a chief or a council of elders.
10. Shamba: a tract of land for agricultural use, or for building, usually a family home.
11. Murram: a form of clay-like material used for road surfaces in tropical Africa.
12. Resso: this is Sheng for the English word ‘wrestling’ (Sheng: a Kenyan Creole; it is a mix of English, Kiswahili and the languages of Kenya’s communities).