Lumumba Street, where our house stood among rows of other rental blocks in a multicolored collage, had no order. But since it had a name, it gave us a sense of importance, although people didn’t really use street names when giving directions around Kangemi. The Member of Parliament once suggested we all paint our houses white to make the neighborhood appealing and someone asked appealing to who and someone else asked if the MP thought this was heaven that we should paint our houses white and how the hell would we differentiate them in the dark and what about the splashing rain browning the walls, did we have money to throw away on foolish walls? Our house was brown on the outside but inside the walls were white. When you entered, the photograph of a sulking woman ushered you in, her stare fierce and terrifying like a corpse in a coffin. She stared into the camera as though daring it to spill her secrets and sometimes I thought of my own secrets when my eyes brushed over her but quickly looked away because I swore she blinked. I turned my gaze to the TV but still felt her eyes on me.
My father always gazed at her with adoration as though she was the Virgin Mary. Sometimes I thought he was going to kneel and lower his head the way some people who had altars with burning candles in their houses did and they were always causing holy fires and the chief banned house altars but nobody took him seriously because he spoke in a soprano. My father gazed at the woman even though she didn’t have beautiful long hair or popping mascaraed eyes or lipstick. The woman, too, stared back at my father with a softness that only became visible when they looked at each other. It was sickening, watching these two. I felt guilty sometimes for thinking she was uglier than the women in my street, though these women said things like it was good for a man to touch a woman once in a while to remind himself that his member was functional, meaning my father. Over time, I detested how the woman jealously occupied his heart so that no other woman ever stepped into our lives or our house.
Sometimes, alone with the photograph, I imagined she was one of my friends, like the hairdresser whom my father paid every fortnight to plait my hair and who hoisted her breasts to sit properly in her bra and sucked in her big stomach whenever she saw my father approach. Or the woman with a food kiosk at the end of the street who always gave me food to take home because I had lied to her that her food was delicious when it really was cooked to fill stomachs and not for any nourishment and you could see your reflection in her overly diluted soups. But with the woman in the photograph, I just could not picture her behaving like the other women I thought were my friends. I detested how she wielded so much power over me and thought it was wickedness. She could never be my friend.
In the early evenings, as I did my homework and other families gathered around hot ugali and watched the seven o’clock news, I was alone with her in the constricting silence that made my ear drums swell. I imagined her leaping out of the frame with a shriek and floating into the room, her voice hoarse like steel wool, her laughter airy. The silence crawled on my skin, slithered through my hair, made it rise in fear whenever this thought crossed my mind.
I turned my back on her and sat at the dining table that doubled up as the study room. On the table were stacks of newspaper, the map of Kangemi, CDs and electricity bills. I glanced over my shoulder to see if she was standing behind me. This thought made something solidify in my stomach like concrete. When I finished my homework, I fled to my room and I felt every moment in our neighborhood: time changing hands, life leaving people to replace it with a sort of death that was sleep, the quiet conversations behind walls, the hopelessness of the next day’s cycle, the throbbing of the universe, its heaving after a long day, and the woman on the wall, blinking. That was why when my father took the narrow path between the two rental blocks, I knew the shuffle of his feet and something in my stomach, stubborn like flatulence, freed, releasing me from the woman’s spell.
He always called my name when he returned tipsy and peeped into my room but I didn’t move. I thought it was comforting for him that I didn’t see him drunk. When he met my silence, he went back to the living room and I knew he was staring at her. Some nights, when he came in drunk before I’d finished my homework, there was a flame of embarrassment burning on his face that dried all his words and he recoiled on the couch, avoiding my eyes and the woman’s gaze so that I knew she was judging him although I didn’t think he was a bad example as some women in Lumumba Street said. He came home every single night; that was all that mattered.
I learned that she was my mother one Saturday morning, when the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on our door and I told them there was no one else at home. When they left, my father came out of his bedroom chuckling, stared at the photograph and said, “Your mother would have killed you. That was her church.” I felt a little bird flutter and die weakly in my stomach and I wanted to vomit. With her lack of beauty and warmth, how did I come out of her? But it was how he said it without giving it any thought that I felt diminished her importance. It was an injustice of sorts, to reduce her to “your mother” and not “my darling” or something. The next day after school, I wiped the accumulated dust on the picture frame. But that didn’t mean she was now my friend even though I pitied her.
After the revelation, I stared at her longer and noticed how long her nose extended almost to the upper lips, a long neck carrying a pearled necklace and big lips as though bitten by wasps. I wondered how it was I came out of her because we bore no resemblance. The women in my street said I had my father’s face, thankfully. However, some days I peered at her eyes and I could see my reflection in her. It troubled me because I, too, had secrets like her that ate me from within, and I wondered if others saw them.
I began imagining the woman standing across the bathroom door as I showered—like what other mothers did—asking me to scrub my back, lather the sponge more, and I opened my eyes to the painful sting of the soap. I imagined her and my father chatting and ignoring me. I imagined her heavy walk and loud voice commanding me to mop the floor and to stop wearing shorts as if I was a boy. I imagined her dragging us to church. My heart palpitated wildly, for this imagination was terrible! The more I coerced my heart to create some space for her, the more any tinge of affection in her waned, and I felt ashamed of my lack of connection, except that she was my mother, and she was also a Jehovah’s Witness. If the people in my street knew this, they’d say we were devil worshippers.
I began wishing for better wall hangings in our living room, something that would liven our house. I thought of the calligraphic wall hangings that most people in Kangemi had that declared CHRIST IS THE HEAD OF THIS HOUSE, THE UNSEEN GUEST or AS FOR ME AND MY HOUSE WE SHALL SERVE THE LORD, but we didn’t go to any church. I also wished for curtains with a lively color, like mustard, and floral couches I’d seen in magazines that sat on our dinning table. Our living room had mournful brown couches that bordered dirt and outright ugliness. Then there was the sorrowful jungle green curtain that my father washed once a year when he was on leave. That was why the women in our street said he needed a woman to care for us because why would a man wash when his hands could do better things?
The idea that our wall could transform into something magnificent followed me everywhere. One Saturday, as I browsed through the open-air market across the street, with hundreds of recordings announcing the prices as the sellers begged buyers and buyers avoided eye contact, I found a variety of wall hangings on display, those of Bob Marley, Lucky Dube, Jesus, Kenyan ministers, Julius Nyerere, Thomas Sankara, and many African presidents, somelong dead, like the woman, but their photographs burst with life. They all beckoned me to pick them. There was the bare-chested freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi in chains, defiance in his eyes, his face painfully pleasing and perfect for a wall. But then I saw a painting of a man cutting a tree by a river with a lion running toward him. On the falling tree was a snake, its mouth wide, and among the branches, a swarm of bees. In the river was a crocodile, its jaws open. Bewildered, I stood staring, the seller watching me triumphantly, saying it was one hundred shillings.
That week, I didn’t pay the one hundred shillings for lunch in school. Instead, I sat in the playground, imagining how beautiful our wall would look. After I bought the painting the following Saturday, I couldn’t unhinge the photograph of the woman and so I waited for my father, daring the woman to do what she wanted. My father’s eyes burned with anticipation as he unfolded the scroll that night after I said, “Baba, this is for you.”
“So much happening! I wonder what he did. Any ideas?” He was studying the man’s dilemma.
“No way. Life gives us choices.” My father’s eyes shrunk with his smile. “Even when it seems impossible, somehow, if you look harder, there is always a way out.”
I thought he was right. The woman, even though she had harassed me, was finally leaving because of a choice I made. My father folded the painting back and said, “Thank you for this.” He went into his bedroom and I heard the thudding as he nailed it on his wall. It would be better if he put the woman’s photograph in his room instead. I looked up. The woman scowled at me and I hit my small toe on the table as I scampered to my room, the pain throwing momentary darkness my way.
The next morning at breakfast, my father said, “Last night I woke you up three times. You kept screaming and saying sorry, that you didn’t hate her.” He leaned forward. “Is someone bullying you in school? Tell me straight away. Is someone bullying you, Neddie?” His eyes were slow embers at first that spread into a wildfire. “I swear to God, if anyone is bullying my child, one of us will sleep in a morgue and the other in prison.”
“Then who is this that terrifies you so much?”
This was the second lie I’d told, the first one lying to the kiosk owner about her rubbish food. I knew that the woman’s photograph meant something to my father, even though she was not beautiful, and I wasn’t going to take away his little world of affection, but I hoped one of our neighbors who had a house altar would doze off, the candles starting a giant fire that would ravage the row of houses and kill the woman. For good.
Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen