Another empty coffin
My small sister Wanjiru found me the following day at work and I could see she was was very worried since I had not slept at home. I gave her a plate of chips and a sausage, and went an extra step to buy her a soda. She accepted the tray and sat herself on the far counter, her eyes roving from her plate to where I was working the register. I knew her very well and hoped she would have calmed down by the time I took my break.
At ten in the morning, I finally took my first break, feeling drowsy after a long sleepless night at the lodging. Wanjiru walked outside and I followed her. Her steps were full of purpose and her face, when she finally turned around was accusing.
"You didn't come home last night," she said, sounding very tense. Her eyes searched my face, looking for a sign... an explanation.
"I'm sorry," I said, feeling guilty. "I was with Martin."
"You slept at his place?" She looked shocked.
"You slept in a hotel?" She looked repelled and my eyes dropped to the ground. I couldn't bring myself to say yes but my silence was an admission of guilt. I let her think I had slept in a hotel instead of a lodging. Lodgings in my village had a bad reputation and were mostly used by prostitutes and indescent men. Martin had completely disrespected me by taking me there.
Wanjiru took a moment to digest the news and I gave it to her. Everything felt silent around me. I could see the cars moving on the streets and the people walking by, Wanjiru's pensive look... the things in life I couldn't control. I had enjoyed the night with Martin, but now, standing in front of my small sister, I felt like I had committed a big crime. I dreaded her next words.
"I was so worried," Wanjiru said, finally taking her eyes off my face. "You are the one always preaching to me about the delicacy of balancing life and fun. And now… this is not you Wangechi! You have to tell me next time you decide not to come home. I lost my big brother Nderitu and I don't want to loose you. I called Wairimu this morning and she told me to give it some time before calling the police."
As she spoke, I realised how wreckless I had been. It was the kind of effect Martin had on me. He made me loose control and become someone I didn't recognize. There was a time, a long time ago when I truly believed in love; the vivid picture of a man chasing me down the street yelling he loved me. My relationship with Martin was … mmmm, complicated.
"I'm sorry Wanjiru," I said. "I promise it won't happen again. And Nderitu is not lost yet. God will find him and bring him back home where he belongs."
"That's what you always say!" Wanjiru almost yelled. She took a side step and leaned her back against the wall.
While my time at the convent had grounded my faith in God, my sister had only attended the occasional Sunday service. I trusted God to guide every turn of my life. Wanjiru on the other hand was more practical and wanted to take charge. Today she wore blue jeans and a pink blouse that made her look delicately beautiful. Her hair was loose on her neck and looked stylish although I could tell she had made quick work of it.
I moved near the wall and stood next to her, feeling a need to assure and protect her. "In the Book of Luke in the Bible, Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son," I said. Wanjiru gave me a quick glance but said nothing.
I waited for two loud men to walk by before I continued.
"In the story, a father has two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance before the father dies, and the father agrees. The younger son, after wasting his fortune goes hungry during a famine, and becomes so destitute he longs to eat the same food given to hogs, unclean animals in Jewish culture. He finally returns home with the intention of begging his father for forgiveness. Do you know why he returned home?"
"Because he was desperate?"
"Yes, but also because of the way he was brought up. Proverbs 22:6 says, Start children off on the way they should go and even when they are old they will not turn from it."
Wanjiru’s face brightened a little. "So we must trust in God to bring Nderitu home."
"Yes. We must give God a reason to bless us, by doing right by Him. Nderitu will never forget his home."
I had heard rumours about Nderitu and none had been comforting. I had been told that my brother had gone over to the dark side and the police were looking for him. I couldn't let Wanjiru find out.
Wanjiru sighed and I saw her face relax. I was glad we were not talking about me. "It will be nice to have him home again,” she said. “I miss him so much. It’s not the same without him. Its like something is missing in our family."
She suddenly grabbed at her belly and a look of pain crossed her face. I quickly placed a hand over her shoulder and looked at her with sympathy.
"Yes," she moaned. "I should never have eaten the fries. It's just that they taste so good."
We walked across the street to a supply shop where I bought her a packet of milk. She drank it all and felt better.
"I will save money and take you to the hospital," I told her. "We will get rid of those ulcers once and for all."
She straightened herself up. "I have to go now. Are you coming home tonight?"
"Of course!" I hugged her, but she didn't hug me back. There was doubt there.
"See you later," she said in a small voice. "I hope you patched up things with Martin. I know you don't like me meddling in your affairs."
"Everything is fine Wanjiru. You know what? How about we spend one Sunday together, me and you. We can go to the Museum. I will talk to my boss to give me a day off at the end of this month."
"Really?" Wanjiru smiled. "That will be awesome! I can't wait."
"Good. I can't wait either. We will talk in the evening. I love you sister."
"I love you too Wangechi."
Wanjiru finally left, stealing a quick hug from me. I swore in that moment to never sleep out again. She was my sister, but I felt like a mother to her.
I went back inside and ran the cash register with Nderitu in my mind. He was Wanjiru's hero in life. To her he was larger than life, and the best big brother anyone could ask for. Wanjiru had been four years old when Nderitu had gone into the forest. The forest war had ended in 1954 and we had all been excited that Nderitu was coming home. But he hadn't shown up, and not knowing where he was had been painful. Not knowing whether he was alive or dead became a haunting thought at the back of our minds.
Days had turned into months and months into years with no sign of our brother. We had moved back to our father's land and my big sister Wairimu had stepped up her game, taking over the role of leadership. Mr. Kamau our neighbour helped a lot and sometimes we hired people to work on the farms. We didn't have a lot of money but we received biweekly cheques from the milk factory and made some food crop sales at the market. Life moved on and we all managed to pay our way through primary school. It had not been easy, but I had finally understood why the Mau Mau had fought so hard to get the land back from the white man. Land was life.
With independence the government encouraged Africans to get into large scale farming; an agriculture policy whose basis was export as a source of economic development. Mzee Jomo Kenyatta the president encouraged Kenyans to return to rural areas to farm, with a popular slogan of the 1960's 'turudi mashambani'. This was based on the fact that Kenya was an agricultural country and labour to work the land would be a contributory factor to social economical development. The stakes on land went up and suddenly, owning land became key to succeeding in life, to the point of killing each other. Now that the white man was gone, everybody wanted a piece of the land.
I still remember that horrible day and the look on our neighbour's face as he served us with an eviction notice from our father's land. Mr. Kamau had been around long enough to know my parents and see us grow up into teenagers. He had always been welcome in our home and together we had shared many a meal. But that did not stop him from trying to take our land.
Mr. Kamau looked conceited and nodded constantly as he spoke, telling us that women not only in the Kikuyu tribe but in Kenya as a whole were not allowed to own property. The truth though was that he was bitter that families of those who had been loyal to the colonialists had acquired a lot of land and wealth, while those who had liberated the country were wallowing in poverty; and he was taking it out on us.
Wairimu read the notice over and over, signed by some big shot government official giving us one month to vacate the property, which now belonged to our neighbour Mr. Kamau. What Mr. Kamau was doing to us was no different from what the Colonial British did to my people.
"Why are they kicking us out?" Wanjiru asked that night as we sat around the fire in the kitchen. "Why would they kick us out of our father's land?"
"Because we are women," Wairimu explained. "And women in Kenya are not allowed to inherit anything when their husbands or parents die."
"Why Mr. Kamau?" I asked. "Why give it to him?"
"Because he has helped work these lands since we were babies. If there's anybody who deserves it, it's him. We have to stay strong, everything happens for a reason." Wairimu looked sad.
Kenya's customary laws, largely unwritten had finally caught up with us. They were based on patriachal traditions in which men inherited and largely controlled land and other property. Women's rights to own, inherit, manage, and dispose of property were unequal to those of men and constantly under attack.
Wanjiru coughed and we all turned to look at her. She sat lower due to her small size. She had been listening closely, trying to understand the whole thing. "He will come," she said.
I took a closer look at her face and noticed a calmness that hadn't been there. "Who will come?"
She raised both shoulders. "Nderitu. Our brother will come home and all this will be over."
"But..." I opened my mouth and then closed it. I wanted to say that Nderitu was either dead or forever gone, but I couldn't master the courage.
Wairimu placed a hand over Wanjiru's shoulder and smiled. "You are right little sister. All this will go away if Nderitu comes home because all this property belongs to him as the man of the house. We can't inherit our father's land, but he can."
"He will come," Wanjiru said brazenly, and I badly wanted to believe her.
The weeks that followed were gloomy and we started packing, uncertain of where to go. This was the story of our life, moving. We tried to reassure ourselves; whatever happened in the world, the sun would still come up, and our destiny would be revealed. As children, we had moved from one home to another, and we had prevailed.
Mr. Kamau showed up a week later with more paperwork that left us with more grief. According to the newspaper, Nderitu and several other boys had finally been declared officially dead after missing for four years.
"They can't do that!" Wairimu said angrily. "They haven't found his body."
At these words, Wanjiru started crying.
Mr. Kamau spoke with both hands in his pocket. "The investigation has been closed. Witness report says that your brother vanished when the British military dropped bombs in the Aberdares Forest. If your brother got hit then there will be no body to find."
It was all Wairimu could take. She threw herself at Mr. Kamau and dug at his face with claws. The short man easily pushed her off with a laugh. There was blood on his face but he didn't look angry. "You can bury your brother next to your parents. The rest of the land belongs to me!" And with those words he stormed away.
Another empty coffin, I thought.
"What did he mean about burying our brother?" Wanjiru asked after our neighbour left. "They didn't find his body did they?"
"No," Wairimu said, "It's our only chance to bury Nderitu with the full Mau Mau honours he deserves. We must give him a ceremony."
"No!" Wanjiru yelled. "Our brother is not dead!"
That night, Wanjiru made us hold hands and pray. She never once stopped hoping and praying that one day, we would get a sign telling us that Nderitu was alive.
One week before our eviction, and four years after the Mau Mau war ended, Nderitu came home and Mr. Kamau never showed his face near our home again. The land and property belonged to our brother as the only son of Ribiru.
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...