I sat in a small restaurant on Market Road and constantly glanced at the entrance. The air in the building was hot and stifled with the smell of chips drifiting from the kitchen. In front of me, my white plate sat stained, empty after a delicious meal of chips and sausages. I was done eating, but the half drank soda in front of me kept the waiters away. I waited, nursed the bottle, then took another tiny sip. My heart jumped when I finally saw a waiter approaching.
“Would you like anything else?” he asked politely in Gikuyu language and I clearly understood what he was saying. I had overstayed my welcome and was taking up space for another paying customer.
“I’m okay,” I said in a calm voice. “I’m waiting for my boyfriend. He should be here any moment now.” My eyes subconsciously moved to the entrance as the waiter acknowledged my words. All around me were crowded counters, the restaurant filled with the murmer of voices and clanking utensils. Midday was the busiest time when workers stepped in for a bite. I had been sitting in the restaurant for over an hour.
We had spoken only a few hours ago and my boyfriend, Martin, had told me to meet him for lunch in the restaurant. It was typical of him to be late but not this late. I feared something bad had happened to him and that’s what I told the waiter half an hour later.
“I’m sorry,” the waiter said nonchalantly. “You will have to vacate the seat for another customer.”
I stood up slowly in a moment of indecision and picked up the bill. The waiter watched me with a knowing look as I studied the piece of paper. He was a young man in his mid twenties; wore a nice pair of blue jeans under a white apron, and a neat hair cut that outlined a perfect hairline. I could tell he had lived in Nairobi because he spoke Gikuyu with a lot of Swahili words. At the age of twenty one, I had never been to Nairobi and it was one of my biggest dreams to see the big city under the sun. The orange dress I wore almost reached my ankle and made me look like a country girl. I was one, but in a thriving town like Nyeri, it was better not to show.
I looked at the bill again and felt tears well up in my eyes. I didn’t have any money and didn’t know what to do.
“I can’t afford the meal,” I told the waiter as tears poured down my face. “My boyfriend was supposed to meet me here but I don’t know what happened.”
The waiter frowned and looked frozen. And then his voice tore through my heart. “Manager!” he yelled.
People in the restaurant paused with food in their mouths and turned to see what the fuss was all about. I bowed my head in shame, my hands holding my purse in front of me. Footsteps. A short fat man came bounding from the kitchen, wiping his wet hands on a dish towel. He wore a white coat and the face of a drill surgeon.
“She can’t pay,” the waiter told the short man. “Her boyfriend lied to her.”
“Oh, it’s one of those,” the chubby man said, immediately understanding the whole situation. “What’s your name pretty girl?”
“Wangechi,” I said in a shaky voice.
“Here’s some advice Wangechi. You need a new boyfriend. You hear me?”
“Yes sir.” My eyes searched the ground, praying and hoping for divine intervention. Maybe someone in the restaurant would speak for me. No one did. I was alone.
The manager sighed. “Well, take her into the kitchen so she can peel some potatoes! Nothing is free in this world.”
It was either peel potatoes in the kitchen or wait for the police. I walked into the dirty kitchen and forced back the tears. If I was going to pay for my meal then I would do it with dignity. But still, it did not prevent me from getting angry at Martin. The humiliation and anguish in my soul was one I would carry for a long time. To be handed over to the enemy, cast and forgotten by a society that suddenly no longer embraced me. I was broken, in heart and spirit.
The kitchen was small with a sink and a counter for preparing food. The floor was greasy, covered in tiny pieces of grated carrots and cabbages. The manager who also acted as the chef ran the deep fryer and sweated profusely from the heat. Beside me on a stool sat another girl who looked to be my age. She gave me a sympathetic look and handed me a small knife. I pulled a wooden stool beside her so I could reach the bowl of potatoes. I sat down and started peeling, feeling eyes boring through me. But as soon as the manager was certain that I knew what I was doing, he seemed to forget about my existence.
This was Nyeri, a city situated in the Central Highlands of Kenya, a two hour drive from Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. The people of Nyeri had one dream and that was Nairobi. They flocked into Nairobi from all over the country in search of jobs and a better life. Life in Nairobi was very expensive and I couldn't raise the money to move there. For two years now, I had been looking for a job in Nyeri Town to no avail. Most locals in Nyeri were farmers who sold their produce in the market to earn a living. There were a few businesses, restaurants, supermarkets and shops that offered jobs, but I had never been lucky.
Independence Day! Kenyans had chanted on the streets and on the radio. Freedom from colonial oppression and slavery. We had placed our ears in the wind, smiled at the sun and watched the arrival of a new government. It started in 1963 when Kenya achieved an internal self-government with Jomo Kenyatta as its first president. The British and Kenya African National Union (KANU) agreed to constitutional changes on October 1963 strengthening the central government. Kenya attained independence on 12 Dec 1963 and became a republic in 1964.
The rise of a new dawn. The promises made by the new government were like candles in the wind. Now that we were free, we would get land, good jobs and become wealthy. And yet, when I looked around, all the jobs belonged to the Indians, Europeans and privileged blacks. The present state of the nation was uncertain.
The manager's name was Mr. Njuguna and the girl peeling potatoes beside me was called Murugi. There was one more employee named Kamau who served as a waiter and cashier. All employees were from my tribe, Gikuyu. It was unthinkable for someone from another tribe to move to Nyeri, and this defined the state of tribalism in a post independent Kenya.
The restaurant was called the Oasis Fish and Chips, a corny name made up by the owner, an Indian man with a British Passport, who showed up numerous times during the day to collect sales. He was rude when I first saw him and rude two hours later. He talked to the manager like he was a small boy and the manager took it with a bowed head. Indians in Kenya looked down on Africans and Africans were afraid of them. From the start, President Jomo Kenyatta requested foreigners not to leave the country, since he knew that only they could keep the farms and businesses profitable for boosting economic development in the country. The Indians were brought to Africa by the British Empire from British India to do clerical and unskilled work in Imperial service. Most of the surviving Indians returned home but thousands remained in the African Great Lakes, which includes Kenya, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.
An hour later into peeling potatoes, I looked at the back door and thought about bolting. My fingers were tired to the point of getting blisters. The idea simmered in my mind for a long time before I remembered I was pregnant. I couldn’t run and doing something as stupid as that could jeopardize the life of my baby.
The baby belonged to Martin, the man who had left me in the current predicament. I had wanted to withhold the information from him for as long as I could, but finally I had told him. We had been dating for a few months now and I enjoyed our time together. The romance was great and especially so since he was my first love. He had respected my wishes and never taken me to a lodging, which would have made me feel cheap. We had spent a lot of time horizontal in his apartment.
I wondered again why he hadn't showed up for our lunch date. The baby news had made him quiet but not scared. He had not been excited either by the news and had not made any commitments. We had agreed to meet again and talk some more but he had been a no show. This was where life had brought me so far. I had meant to take on the world, but the world had taken over me.
“You can throw the trash now,” the manager suddenly said.
I looked up and met his eyes above a glistening face. There was something soft there and it dawned on me that he wasn’t as angry as before. The dark moment had passed and he finally saw me for who I was - a young girl struggling to find her way. Slowly I stood up and picked up the bucket full of potato peels. Murugi the girl nodded at me as though telling me that everything was okay. I half smiled in her direction, my mind doing backflips. This was the chance I had been waiting for. I opened the back door and the wind slapped at my face leaving a taste of red volcanic soil in my mouth. Mine was a dusty town in the middle of fertile land. The smell of trash lured me forward and a cat scurried away as I approached. Up ahead the streetlights of Dedan Kimathi Street beckoned, and the sound of honking teased me. Freedom, I thought to myself. All I had to do was walk away and I would be free. Instead, I damped the trash and walked back into the kitchen. At the age of 21, I already knew how the world ticked – one receives as much respect as one gives.
“You came back?” The manager asked with a surprised look as I closed the door behind me. “I didn’t think you would.”
I grinned sheepishly. “Why wouldn't I? I owe you money and I want to pay. I’m the daughter of Ribiru and I carry my father’s name with pride. His is the voice charging me to be brave and just. I will go home when you release me.”
Mr. Njuguna folded his arms across his chest and stared at me. “Truly remarkable,” he muttered. “You are a beauty of vulnerable nature. A flower in a dangerous world.”
Beside me, Murugi couldn’t help herself. “You are the first one to come back,” she said looking surprised. “That’s how we release people when we think they have paid their dues. We make it fun, and send them to throw trash … and then they run, and we laugh. But you came back. I knew there was something different about you.”
I only heard one thing. “Did you say my dues are paid? I don’t owe you anymore?”
“You are free to go,” Murugi said with a big smile.
I took off the apron they had given me and started for the door, my face bright as the sun.
“Wangechi?” The manager suddenly called me. “Would you like to work here? It will be good for you and your baby. This way you can be independent and never have to rely on a man to pay for your meal.”
I turned, stunned to silence by his words. My hand subconsciously touched the little mound on my belly. “You knew?” I asked in disbelief. “You knew I was pregnant this whole time?”
I looked at him and saw compassion. Mr. Njuguna was a good man I could tell.
“My wife has three children,” he said. “I know the signs and don’t make me mention them.”
My breasts were enlarged, my cheeks swollen and flashed. The mound on my belly could be hidden by clothes but not these other signs. “Yes,” I said. “I would love a job very much. Life in Nyeri is tough without a job.”
“You can start tomorrow at 7am,” the manager said. “Go home and rest Wangechi. And please break-up with that stupid boyfriend of yours. You must be strong, and rise above the hold of a man, especially one who is not ready to support you. To what extend do you have to sacrifice your happiness for someone else? Find your own path and everything else will fall in place.”
I smiled at these last words. Gikuyu language made people sound wiser than they were. The language was poetic, and I walked out of the restaurant feeling warm and happy. I had been tarmacking in Nyeri for many years trying to get a job with no luck until now. Fate had brought me to this restaurant, and rock bottom it had felt, peeling potatoes to pay for a meal. But by the grace of God I was finally employed and my story was just beginning.
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...