I am thinking of how to tell my mother that she is a bad woman; that she did not raise me well. The woman with a bleached face and knuckles blacker than the tip of a quill told me so. “The matters of a husband and wife you leave to them. You don’t interfere. Didn’t your mother teach you that? Go tell her to raise you again. No wonder you behave like a woman. Mscheeeew!” She yelled from the window of her apartment which is right above mine. Apartment 4B. I had gone to save her from her husband’s daily beating. Despite all that pounding, the woman didn’t want me to intervene.
“You don’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved,” mother used to say.
I sit, pen in hand. My palms are sweaty. As my trembling hand presses the pen against the paper, my life cascades before me. Flashes of blurred sepia-toned images. A silent film of my twenty eight years on earth. Silent but with colour. A silent horror movie. My anguish stares wide at me like the green-eyed owl that hoots in the dark back alley.
I hope this letter finds you well (this is the part I lie that I am concerned for her welfare) I would have written sooner, I know I should, but I have been too busy (Another lie, then I go on to ask her how life back home is and if Uncle X is still alive and if Aunty Y finally gave birth). Anyway, I was just writing to tell you that the woman who lives in apartment 4B told me that my mother didn’t raise me well. I think it’s true…”
Too harsh. She will be devastated. I know her. She will slap her thighs and weep her heart out. I crumple the piece of paper into a small ball with ink smudges.
I will call her instead.
Her voice cackles on the other end.
Hello, who is this?
Has my voice changed so much? Maybe the medicine is working after all.
This is Roda…I mean Roni, your son.
Why do you speak like a woman now?
Because I am a woman now. Well, I am changing to be a woman. But that’s not why I called…
No, stop crying mother. Okay? The woman from apartment 4B told me you didn’t raise me well. I think she’s saying the truth…
No. It’s not God’s fault this time. It’s yours.
At this point she breaks down. All I hear is sobbing on the other end. My network provider tells me I don’t have any more airtime. Bloody conglomerates. Can’t they let a mother weep over her son’s tribulations?
My cellphone buzzes, and I wake up to a blue flashing screen. I have a missed call. Mzamodo. A text message from him too, “If you come late, I will not give you the drugs. Sikufichi.” I know he’s not lying. I leap up and head for the bus station.
Machakos Country Bus station on a Sunday afternoon is Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. The sun, a large fiery ball emitting yellowy spikes, scorches our foreheads. The stupefying heat saps humidity from the earth, leaving red gusts of fine dust floating in the air. Touts shout atop their voices beneath the sun’s oppressive glare. Hawkers chant the names of their wares in glorious melody. The hooting of the buses rises above the human noises and drowns them. I have sat in this stuffy-like-a-coffin Dandora-bound matatu for about an hour now. There seems to be no sign of it filling up. I flap my hand close to my face and pull my dera dress away from my body to allow air to circulate and cool off; I have nothing underneath. I glance at the wrist watch. If I sit here any longer, I will be late. Mzamodo doesn’t like me being late.
I make my way from the back of the matatu and walk past rows of empty seats with chapped old covers. An afro-beat song, with the words ‘prokoto’ and ‘chocolate city’ being repeated over and over again, blares from the large black speakers mounted on the roof of the bus. A young man, of about seventeen or nineteen, stands at the door and shouts, “Dandora hamsini! Dandora fifty bob!” He sees me alight and grabs my wrist. I quickly pull away from his grip. He retreats, presses his palms together as if in a prayer and beseeches, “Madam, tafadhali rudi ndani.” I stare at him for a while – hair shaved on both sides into a mohawk, Arsenal FC shirt stained with rings of sweat under the armpits, teeth discolored to a dark shade of green from constant mastication of miraa, palms dusty from all the pounding of the bus panel – and get back into the empty bus. Why? I don’t know. But maybe because he’s the first person on the streets of Nairobi to call me ‘Madam’.
The narrow paths that intertwine inside Dandora lead me past shanties made of wood and paper board patching on their walls. Water from a burst sewer pipe gushes into the road. Litter is strewn along the paths and carried down by the sewer water to the houses that sit on the lower side of the uneven topography. Women stand in groups of about seven to ten. From the echo of their empty laughter, I know they are exchanging gossip. To their left is the Dandora Pentecostal Church. They must be from choir practice. Children of school-going age run around in tattered clothes that leave their buttocks bare for the dust and the scorching sun to do with as they please.
Mzamodo’s house comes into view; a lone shack that stands away from the rest of the shanties like it’s saying, ‘I don’t belong with the rest of you’. His shack is different from the rest – wooden door, tin roof and brick walls. Almost a proper house except for the way the bricks are layered; as if someone threw them into a pile that became a house. A large shiny Solex padlock rests on the lock from outside. I knock on the door. A female voice inside the house asks, “Ni nani?” When I tell her to open, she responds that Mzamodo is away on a trip to Zanzibar; he won’t be back till Friday, three weeks from now.
Phone in hand, I dial Mzamodo’s number. I hear the phone ring inside the house. At the same time, the bed creaks with the sudden leap of someone heavy. That must be him. The door is flung open. There on the other end, in a vest and towel around his waist, stands the first man I know capable of teleporting.
“Why do you do that?” I am sitting on the edge of Mzamodo’s bed. Sheets and blankets all ruffled up in a pile on the low wooden bed. A young girl lies naked with her hand propping her head – popping gum and staring at the ceiling. She is unperturbed by my presence. She doesn’t pull the faded maroon sheets over her body to cover her nudity. Her breasts are large and full like a grown woman’s; she’s an early bloomer. I stare at them and say to myself: God I wish I could have such beautiful breasts. A sudden feeling of shame washes over me for my being envious of the girl’s breasts. I stop staring at her chest and instead stare at the wall directly opposite. The paint has peeled off the walls revealing the initial coat – an obnoxious grey that oozes morbidity. They did not wait for the first coat to dry.
Mzamodo still stands at the door where I edged past him. His vest, once white, has taken on a new colour that sits between cream and brown and is jagged around the edges with cigarette holes in it. Despite paying to have sex with children and being a chain smoker, I still consider him a good man. He’s the only true friend I have in this city. He’s the only one who took me in and gave me a roof over my head when all my relatives said they could not let a shoga into their house. This was after Beka, my sister, walked in on me one Saturday afternoon. She found the neighbour’s son and me stark naked; two boys shagging like two dogs in autumn. I tried pleading with her not to tell mother but she wouldn’t be silent. She told mother that same evening. Mother took to prayer with a rejuvenated spirit – reading verses of the Bible and telling me about the transfiguration of Christ. She wailed into the night like the widow of Nain and chanted prayers in tongues only she understood. We knelt by her bedside every evening and cast away the demons that made me look at other boys and want to be with them. My father became aloof. He wore a vacant and expressionless look like he had stared into a dark pit and seen something he wasn’t supposed to; a kraken of sorts. On my sixteenth birthday a party was thrown; I had defeated the demon. More than a year and I hadn’t touched another boy. Three months later, I was out on the streets.
“Nimefanya nini sasa? Eeh Roda, what have I done?” Mzamodo’s tone is sharp and defensive. His eyes dart from one end of the room not once settling on any surface. He blows smoke out of his nose and mouth and a small cloud forms near the ceiling but quickly disappears. When Mzamodo gets jittery like that it is clear he doesn’t want to account for his decisions.
I decide not to ask him why he sleeps with underage girls. After all, I already know the answer: Wanataka pesa na ninataka ngono. They want money and I want sex. Willing buyer, willing seller. Instead, I ask him why he locks the door and tells people he’s not around. I already know he does it to avoid his debtors but I ask all the same just to hear him rant about it.
Mzamodo doesn’t answer. He just stands there like a guard at his post. An awkward silence hovers in the air and then he barks, “Sema shida yako. What do you want?” I lower my gaze to the floor and fixate on the dirty dishes strewn across the floor in the section that Mzamodo calls his kitchen. A cat, charcoal black in colour with its tail cut, licks a metallic bowl and no one seems to mind that. I am glad I no longer live with Mzamodo. His unhygienic way of life was something I couldn’t stand even for the seven years that I lived with him. I am not ungrateful but he needs to change his ways, I always tell him. At least when I was around, the room never smelled like the carcass of a poisoned hound. Now the place reeks and the fact that it has no window to let in air makes it worse. Maybe one day when I am a full woman, when he can look at me and see a woman, I will be his wife and keep his house clean.
“I need…I need…” I stutter. Mzamodo senses my discomfort and tells the girl to leave and come back later. The girl hits me with dagger eyes before throwing a purple spaghetti top over her head and pulls it down to cover her breasts. She picks a wooden comb and runs it through her kinky hair then pats it with her palm. From under the bed she pulls a pair of rugged jeans and some yellow plastic shoes. These she wears while telling Mzamodo she’ll be back at 7.30pm. She must be a nymphomaniac that one. Her departure is felt as soon as the door slams behind her.
Mzamodo pulls a green paper bag from the same place under the bed where the girl pulled her trousers and shoes from and hands it to me. Week after week he hands me a paper bag. I don’t know where he gets them from. If I ask him, he’ll just get irritated and tell me, “I know a guy, sawa!” I don’t ask anymore. I yank it open to confirm the contents but Mzamodo tells me, “It’s all there.” A smile appears on my face. I tie the top of the paper bag into a knot and put it on the bed. Mzamodo jumps on the bed with a wry smile on his face. When I ask him what the smile is for, he tells me, “You’ll never find someone who takes care of you the way I have always done and still do.”
“I know Mza.” I respond in a soft tone before turning up the volume of the small Yamaha radio. An Arsenal versus Man City game is going on. Today we are supporting Man City because Mzamodo is a Manchester United fan; he wants Arsenal to lose. I busy myself with washing the dishes and cleaning the house. That’s the only way I can repay this man.
A blanket of darkness has fallen over the whole estate when I leave Mzamodo’s house. Kenya Power and Lighting Company are rationing electricity again, and for the next twelve hours, Dandora residents have to rely on paraffin lamps. Mzamodo escorts me to pick a matatu back home. As he turns to go back, I remind him to remove the pot of stew that I left boiling on the stove. He nods and I pray that he doesn’t get back straight to fucking that girl who was at the door by 7.29pm. Talk about a damsel in distress. I press my face against the glass window and see Mzamodo bouncing down the narrow path.
A woman clad in a long, flowing, black buibui eases her way into the matatu. Behind her, a toddler with hair plastered neatly on his head follows her. She slides next to me and shouts to the toddler to hurry up. She picks him up in a huff and places him on her lap. The boy sucks his thumb like it’s a flesh Popsicle. His eyes half close as if he’ll fall asleep the next minute. The woman’s buttocks spill over to my seat and press hard against mine. Someday, with the right amount of money, I too will have such big buttocks. I squeeze further towards the seat of the matatu and I am almost being pushed outside. She notices my discomfort and says “Pole Dada.” When I turn to face her and tell her it is fine, I see the creases on her face. She stares at me like I am an alien from Uranus. Her lips part as if she wants to say something. She purses them and looks away – to the back and the front to see if there is a vacant seat she could move to. There is none. She sucks her teeth, grabs the back of the boy’s head and pulls him closer to her bosom. I look outside the window and smile. The engine roars to life and the matatu jolts forward.
The key clicks in the lock. A familiar scent rushes to my nostrils when I push the door. Finally, welcome home. I lock the door behind me and stand there staring at nothing in particular. The room is dark; not entirely engulfed in darkness but only because the blue light of the full moon seeps through my sheers and gives the room an operatic feel. In the silence of the night I hear the sound of dripping water; the sink is faulty again. I unzip my dress from the side and let it fall to my ankles. I walk away from it and leave it in a pile. In the nude, I feel like a Roman goddess. A low cold breeze licks the frame of my body. My back arches as I feel the sensation travel down my spine. The louvers are half closed; the rest fell down a while back. I love it this way. No bra squeezing my sprouting breasts; the nipple pressing against the fabric. Nothing pressing against my crotch. Freedom.
On the long mirror leaning against the wall away from the window, three long cracks run through from one end to the other and reminding me of my carelessness. I do not stop to stare at my reflection when I walk by on my way to the kitchen. I have stood before this mirror on several occasions – speaking to my reflection, crying and cursing, admiring my supple skin and smoothening edges. That mirror has been both friend and foe to me. Tonight, my indifference hangs in the air.
In the kitchen, I draw water from a twenty-litre jerry can and pour it into a glass. I set the stout whiskey glass on top of the table. Tiny ripples appear on the surface of the clear water. Passing the mirror again, I stride across the room and reach for the green bag I got from Mzamodo. Inside, estrogen and progesterone hormones packed in milligrams and capsulated in red, yellow, green and pink colours. I take one of each from the pack and clasp them into my palm. I throw my head backwards and push all the capsules down my throat. I follow it with a gulp of water. Tears sting my eyes and my chest feels hot. I walk towards the bed and fall on it. I wait. For the medicine to take effect. Patience.
Lying here in a fetal position reminds me of the great painter Michelangelo. Could he be here now, I am sure he would want to paint me like this – to capture the contours of my nude body and store it in everlasting form. His canvas would be my mother’s precious cream bed sheets with a floral embroidery at the centre only reserved for visitors. His paintbrush, probably made from my father’s beard or armpit hair. No. Not pubes; those are too soft. Maybe, my sister’s kinky hair would be perfect. But then she would never let mother’s rusty pair of scissors near her head. I’d have to kill her first, she says. Not such a bad idea. A pair of scissors in her jugular. The brother who killed her sister for her hair. Remind me, is there a Greek god who was that vicious? But then no Greek god ever saw Michelangelo’s paintings. Not even Apollo.
That’s the medicine doing that to me. I hope I will stop using them soon. I can’t continue having these hallucinations. Only happy thoughts. My eyelids flutter. I close my eyes. Only two months and I’ll be ready for my second surgery at the hospital down River Road. Only two more months before I become a woman.