Chapter 2

 

 

In retaliation to the killings of the Home Guards, the British Army dropped bombs into the Aberdares Forest and killed thousands of Mau Mau rebels.
While there was nothing noble about the British tactics, the brutality of the Home Guards’ massacre shocked many Mau Mau supporters, some of whom subsequently tried to excuse the attack as a mistake. Women in my village wailed for the loss of their husbands, and children were struck by grief over the loss of their fathers.  The village was on all fours after the incident, but it was beginning to crawl. Elders got together and burial arrangements were made. The fate of the orphaned children would be decided later.
          The Mau Mau in retaliation to the British bombs managed to raid a few British homes, slaughtering families and wounding the white man where it hurt the most. Nothing was more painful than the loss of family, and this was a long life lesson that awaited the British on the road to independence. Newspapers in Kenya and abroad published graphic murder details, including images of young white kids with bloodied teddy bears. The ground was soaked with blood, the grass wet with tears.

The following morning after my father’s death, a Mugumo Tree, the sacred Kikuyu tree fell down, casting gloom over the grieving village. This tree was four feet wide and fifteen feet tall, and it was under this tree that the Kikuyu people sacrificed and prayed to Ngai their God. The falling of the tree signified the anger of Ngai at the killing of my father and other villagers.

We spend the next few weeks stunned into silence and crying for our father. We held hands and squeezed, neither of us daring to remember the sight of the burning huts and flames shooting up. We bounced between grief and rage, the realisation that our father wasn’t meant to die teasing our minds with thoughts that maybe he wasn't dead. We found ourselves constantly staring at the gate, but ultimately it dawned on us that our father was truly gone.  

The following two years were rough for my family as we adjusted to life with our step-mother who was half my dad’s age. At the age of twenty five, she carried a long face and looked saddened by the burden of bringing up four children. All by herself, she had to dig the gardens, clean the house and cook for us. Nderitu tried to help with the cows: feeding and milking them. Wairimu, Wanjiru and I were too young to do anything that made a difference. I was seven years old when things went from bad to worse.

I was playing on the side of the road by myself when I saw an old man approaching with a walking stick. I took a second look at him and something told me that this man was coming for me. My skirt was short, my yellow blouse tight around my slender body.

With the afternoon sun on my face, I started walking away with a throbbing heartbeat, but when I looked over my shoulder, I realized that the old man had increased his pace and so I started running.

“Stop!” a voice behind me yelled.

I ran as fast as I could and bumped into my big brother as I bounded through the gate.

“What is it Wangechi?” he asked, and looked the way I had come to see if anybody was following me.

“Someone is following me!” I managed to say under my breath.

“Who?” Nderitu looked worried but managed to clench a fist. At the age of eleven, his masculine features were beginning to show and men commented that he was going to have a great body for sports. Currently he was wearing blue soccer shorts and no shirt, his well-toned body out for display.

An old man suddenly walked through the gate and greeted us in Gikuyu language. “Muriega?” (How are you?)

“We are fine,” Nderitu replied with a wrinkled forehead. I stood behind him and peered at the old man.

He wore brown khaki pants and a dirty blanket thrown over a green shirt. He didn’t scare me as much now that my brother was present and my heart pounded no more. Nderitu had taken over our father’s position of power and showed a wisdom far beyond his years.

“I saw you by the road and recognized you Wangechi,” the old man said, grinning through yellow teeth. “You look a lot like your mother.”

“Who are you?” Nderitu asked in a brave voice.

“I’m your uncle on your mother’s side.” The old man’s voice was now soft, afraid that he would scare us off with the wrong tone.

“How come we don’t know you?” Nderitu was on attack.

“I was recruited and trained by a Catholic Church not far from here. I help the white man with translations and mostly act as a communicator to the people. It’s a long story and that’s not why am here. Can I come inside?”

My big sister Wairimu suddenly appeared holding my little sister’s hand. Wairimu looked mature for an eight year old girl and wore a long dress that almost touched the ground. Beside her, little sister Wanjiru smiled without a care and looked beautiful in a red dress. At the age of three, she had just started running and her legs were getting stronger by the day. Clothes were more accessible in the village thanks the church donations brought by the missionaries. Nderitu invited our uncle into the kitchen and we all took our seats ready to hear what he had to say.

The fire had died down and the tea was cold, but Nderitu served it so anyway. My uncle sipped at the drink once and placed it on the floor, trying hard not to make a face of distaste. Obviously this was my uncle judging by the familiar shape of his brown eyes and black hair peppered with gray. His eyes roamed the dirty kitchen, picking out the pots and pans scattered on the floor. I followed his eyes and saw my father’s empty stool and it summoned images in my mind. I saw dad sitting there and looking tired as he waited for the muratina brew to ferment.

“How long has your stepmother been gone?” my uncle asked.

“A week,” Nderitu said, staring at my uncle without blinking. We had worried a little after our stepmother had vanished. Someone had explained that she was too young to handle all of us and had run off with another man. We were not very close to her and her exit had only given us freedom from adult supervision. Nderitu had milked the cows and Wairimu had cooked. While Wanjiru and I played, Nderitu, Wairimu and our neighbor Mr. Kamau had worked in the garden. Mr. Kamau paid himself during harvest by keeping some produce for himself. It was the most we could do for him and were grateful for his help.

“I see.” The old man slapped both hands on his thighs. “Well, I have some bad news for you children and there’s no way to sugarcoat this. Your stepmother is not coming back and because of this, the village chief has decided to send you to the orphanage in Mathari near Nyeri town.”

There followed a long silence as we struggled to digest what he was saying. Our stepmother had not looked very happy after our father’s death, and the news of her not returning came as no surprise. The last bit of news though was what twisted a knife in our guts.

“What’s an orphanage?” My sister Wairimu asked.  

“It’s a place where children who don’t have parents live.”

“But we have a home here,” Nderitu said in a voice full of defiance.

“Yes you do, and you can always come back here later in life because this is your father's land. But right now you are all very small and need to be under adults’ supervision. Food, clothing and shelter are very important, but so is education.”

“All of us?” Wairimu asked, her mind reeling back and forth with confusion.

My uncle hesitated. “No. Your little sister, Wanjiru, is too young for the orphanage. The chief has made different arrangements for her. There’s a woman coming to pick her up. People call her Cucu was Wadobi. She used to be your mum’s friend but can’t have babies of her own. She will provide everything for her.”

At these words, Wanjiru walked over and climbed on Nderitu's laps. She lay her head on his chest and Nderitu held her. With dad gone, it was Nderitu's bed she crawled into at night when she was afraid.

“We can’t be separated,” I said, and tears started pouring down my face. I couldn't believe what my uncle was saying. This place they called an orphanage, if they could take me at the age of seven, why couldn't they take a four year old girl?

“I’m sorry Wangechi,” my uncle said. “It’s only for a short period of time. You will be allowed to visit your little sister whenever you want. You have to trust me, this is the best solution for you guys since you don’t have parents to take care of you.”  

Later on in life, I would come to dread those words, ‘you have to trust me’. It was what adults said right before something bad was about to happen. We, the Ribiru family were fated for tears, sorrow and a lot of sadness.

 

                                            

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