Long Read Ahead.
The train lurches forward at exactly 3 PM. I watch as the stationary containers fall away against the backdrop of a clump of clouds. Just as we leave the Mombasa terminus, rain starts pelting, forming rivulets that run down the large windows of the train. Passengers’ voices grow more and more excited as it picks up speed, marveling at the timeliness of the whole operation.
Next to me is Andrew who I have no other way of describing other than to say he is my suitor – front-running, if I may add. On the other side of the tray are his friends Arthur, who has no qualms showing me that he doesn’t want to be here. And Emily, who has bad posture and wears the most unflattering dresses. On the aisle, a steward is busy tucking away loose luggage that travelers have placed haphazardly on the overhead luggage compartment.
Andrew turns to me beaming and says, “How exciting.”
It’s his first time on the Madaraka Express. He’s looking flushed from the mad dash we made through town to get here, go through security in time, and make it onto the train. I smile. Arthur looks around and turns his edges of his lips downwards. Emily turns to the window, paying us no attention. It is my second time on the Madaraka Express. My first time was the journey I made from Nairobi three weeks ago with everything I own that would fit into my two suitcases. Everything else I gave away when I left Andrew. Or rather, fled from his house one evening when he was still at happy hour with his fellow expatriates.
I first saw him at a fundraising gala which I attended courtesy of the non-profit organization I work for. I had the misfortune of being assigned the task of talking the attendees into making pledges for our cause. It is a cause supporting girls’ education in the coastal region – a worthy cause in and of itself – but which paled in comparison to others helping victims of gender-based violence, drug addiction and drought. I had been given the green light to try everything short of extortion and had been doing well until I saw him.
From that first sighting, the room seemed suddenly to pivot on him. Everyone else melded into the background. When he laughed, I could pick out the sound from the crowd. I made my pitches distractedly the rest of the evening, relying heavily on crutch words as I stole looks in his direction. He is not unusually tall, but he has a long neck which compels him to stoop. He struck me as a good listener, hardly ever looking up from his conversation. Every now and then he would clap someone’s shoulder merrily, and his eyes would disappear under the folds of his laugh lines.
I saved his high table for last. It was a tight-knit group whose attention I didn’t know how to draw. I must’ve stood there looking at him so long that he sensed my eyes on him. He raised his head and looked right at me. My breath caught. I thought he might see my dilemma and give me an in to his posse, but instead he broke away from them and came to me. I stumbled over my name and got halfway through my pitch before he stopped me.
“Could you say your name again?”
“Can I call you Zowie?”
At Tsavo, our train stops to allow a Mombasa-bound train to pass. The landscape is mostly green, peppered with Baobab trees the color of old bones. We spot elephants and giraffes foraging. Andrew laments that we won’t get to see the man-eating lions of Tsavo, and launches into one of his fun fact recitals. He has plenty of those. Andrew is the kind of tourist who reads those travel books that are left next to the Bible in low-budget hotel rooms. He is especially delighted when he tells me something about my own country that I don’t know. I suspect it affirms his resourcefulness even in a foreign country and that strokes his joy keys.
He is in the rare category of men who are ill-favored by a beard. His grows in patches so when I want him to shave it off I tell him his jawline is strong enough to do without one. It works! Sometimes he has these phases where he grows his hair out and ties it with rubber bands. I’ve always thought that’s very white of him; somehow, it adds to the disconnection I feel from his world. But by far, his eyes are the most foreign to me. They are gray and darting, never lingering long enough to hold a gaze. But even when they are still they appear silvery, like the ocean at dawn. The light skims the water and shimmers so brightly you can’t see the depth of the sea. I feel like I can never see what’s behind them.
He is the chief editor in the communications department of the nonprofit organization I work for. Writers will submit a feature story about projects we’re working on and his work is to find the angle that will most appeal to donors and compel them to keep funding us. I’d never met him before that fundraising gala. Until then, I had been a field officer working in Mombasa. He swears that he had nothing to do with my reassignment to the head office. That it was all due to the great work I did following up on those pledges. But I had no clout with those people and the only thing that explains my promotion was if he put in a good word for me.
Since I was new to Nairobi, he offered to show me around. At least that’s what I thought. I didn’t know that we were dating until well past the third date when he took me to a wine tasting. Before that there had been a beer festival, a pizza festival and a barbecue festival at which his friends were in attendance. This was before I knew what double dating was and understood that Andrew is a festive person by nature.
Before long, I learned to wrap my shawl around my head rather than leave it flowing over my shoulders as I had done all through childhood. Then I was barefoot in his kitchen making kaimati one weekend, mahamri the other, biriani one Sunday night and then I never left.
Daytime is now making way for dusk. We pass children walking home from a primary school not unlike the one I went to twelve years ago. The boys are kicking cans, others tossing a ball made of plastic bags to each other. Some girls are skipping home, others whisper into each other’s ears and then erupt with laughter. Those who see the train wave at us, but the rest are oblivious, perhaps having seen it enough times to know that its passing is neither here nor there. Tomorrow another one will pass, and the day after, and the day after that. It makes me a little sad to see them so jaded. A few years ago I was just like them.
We wore the same frumpy frocks with these ridiculous, small buttons lined up at the back. At any given time, one or two of them would come undone and you would have no way of knowing until someone pointed at you. Sometimes it was a trusted girl pal who looked out for you. One in the same station of life as you. The camaraderie surrounding buttons in my childhood was of great significance, particularly in determining where a girl fell in the food chain.
If her family was rich, the buttons on her dresses would be big, made of bone rather than plastic, sure to never break. You could tell her mother cared because these buttons were likely pulled off her father’s old coats – another sign of wealth, that the family had old, unused coats they could rend for parts. The buttonholes would be sewn in at the edges to ensure that once fastened, they wouldn’t come undone and a girl would never know the shame of exposing her shoulder blades to the world.
If her family was really rich, her mother would have a seamstress replace the buttons with a zip. Those who fell in the middle, like me, contended with broken buttons and undershirts. But there were others who only had this one dress, who would eat and sleep in it and once a week would wash it, place it by the fire to dry overnight and wear it in the morning. They always smelled of smoke and their dresses’ color paled faster in comparison to others. Those ones wound old shoelaces or thread stripped from sacs through the buttonholes and fastened them in a messy knot at the nape of their necks. Their brothers would be the ones with sisal strings for belts.
Friendships at that age changed like the color of oil on water. You could walk to school with your confidant in the morning, have your secrets betrayed at break time, and be sworn enemies by lunch. So sometimes it wasn’t your gal pal who told you. It might be a boy or a teacher to point it out. And if this happened, without fail, news of your wardrobe malfunction was delivered publicly and loudly for all and sundry. Like something you might witness at a town square shaming.
With the boys, it would come in the form of relentless teasing. But, with the ever-changing landscape of coming of age, teasing would eventually morph into a crush. The lead bully would become your fiercest protector if you agreed to let him carry your books home. With the teachers, it was always a merciless berating designed to evoke shame. Shame, I recall, was the only free-flowing commodity in my childhood. Luckily, there was never a shortage of dresses with misbehaving buttons, so a girl’s shame only lasted the day, and moved on to someone else the next.
I tell Andrew this story and he finds it so novel, but only in the way a person removed from it can. To me, it’s just a story about how I grew up. I am ashamed of the squalor, but to him, it’s a story about classism.
“Andrew always tells Arthur my stories,” I told myself that evening I stuffed my suitcase and left.
Arthur hardly ever finds them as interesting. Andrew is always prodding him for a response. “Isn’t that crazy? Can you believe it?”
They’re both American. Andrew says he’s from Portland, “Maine not Oregon,” he always adds. But the distinction is of little consequence to me. I can’t point out any of those places on a map. Sometimes Arthur will laugh, not because he appreciates the story but more like I am a court jester making a fool out of myself. In those times I catch him looking at me like a plastic bag in the wind passing through Andrew town, going nowhere in particular. My fingers tremble with a quiet rage and the shriveling shame that’s all too familiar rushes back to scorch me. More often than not I can shrug off this quiet disapproval of me, but the day I left, he’d got in my head.
We were all over at Andrew’s for dinner, where I was now living semi-permanently, when he planted the insidious seed in my head. He said that Andrew’s devotion to me was merely a fetish. At the time, I thought it was something of a compliment and laughed along. Then, later it nagged and tugged at my conscious so that I had no choice but to look up the word fetish and agonize over it. The more I did, the more it crushed me.
Could it be that I had talked myself into believing that I might actually have a future with him, when in fact I was only a placeholder for the while he was in town? A momentary fulfillment to the erotic, black woman fantasy? Did I really think he would take me with him to Portland, ‘Maine not Oregon’, once his stint ended here? I decided there and then that I’d had more than enough of my share of shame in this life, and I wasn’t going to wait for the humiliation ahead.
Andrew says he remembered the time I mentioned that my sister, Lela, worked as a masseuse in the spa of a resort in Diani. Arthur had piped up and said he’d stayed there in April and found it second-rate – no different than a motel in the states. He was always saying things like that, Arthur. I had shrunk, as I always did, and abandoned my attempt at self-revelation. I hadn’t figured it out at the time, but I think that might’ve been what Arthur intended to happen. He knew Andrew’s propensity for attachment, an advantage he had over me, and didn’t want me sinking my roots. Taking up more and more room in Andrew’s life. He didn’t want to be edged out.
In the end, life works out funny. I had resented him for saying that, even thought he might’ve been lying about staying there. But had he not said it, Andrew would have had no way of knowing where that was. He was the one who gave him the name of the resort. I’m certain he must’ve tried to talk him out of it, perhaps even threatened to withdraw his friendship. Lela told me Andrew showed up the hotel alone. I’m not sure when Arthur and Emily decided to join him. He found her in the middle of her shift and waited until it was over. It was she who brought him home.
The sun was unrelenting that day. Mama and I had taken cover under a cashew tree not five steps away from her hut. She was roasting cashew nuts in a blackened pan over a fire built with dried palm leaves. I was swatting the smoke away with the edge of my leso, my eyes watering. Mama said that Nairobi has made me fancy. That my eyes have forgotten the sting of smoke.
A woman was belting a Taarab tune on a battery radio sitting on a tree branch above us. She was drowned out by the sound of the tuk-tuk Lela hired to bring them home. She didn’t usually take a tuk-tuk home, but I imagine how it must’ve been eating her keeping herself from calling me with news of Andrew’s arrival and secret plans. She must’ve wanted to get home as quickly as possible. Or perhaps cover up some of our hardships.
She’s shorter than me now, Mama. Stiffer. She bends with moans as her bones crack. When she looks up at me, I see that the whites of her eyes are patched brown and there are the beginnings of cataract growth on her pupils. Andrew must’ve seen it too. She took his hand in both of hers, calloused now from years of shelling cashew nuts for sale. They won’t tell you, her hands, but they were wont to whacking me across the head arbitrarily for any number of offences. Being too slow or too hasty, talking back or not speaking when I’m spoken to, and either being in the way or being away from home. Then she looked at me with such pride, like her stocks finally vested and the profits had come home to find me.
“Zowena, will you give the man a drink of water or are you just going to stand there until he faints?” Mama said softly, so that he would not detect the reproach in her tone.
I myself was on the verge of swooning.
I served him cashew apples and mangoes with a side of salt and pepper. I knew they would be harsh on his palate. In some small way, I hoped they might jog him into seeing just how ill-suited we were for each other. He endured them good-naturedly. Unsure of how I would respond to him, he focused his energy on asking Mama questions about my childhood. He gobbled up every morsel of new information she parted with the usual enthusiasm. Lela was more than happy to translate. And when she couldn’t find the proper English word, I stepped in. I had told them, of course, why I’d suddenly taken leave and asked to be assigned back to the field in Mombasa. They had taken turns telling me what a fool I was.
To him, my life is a cultural museum and I am the main attraction, the prized artifact with a rich heritage. I never had anyone look at me like that before. When I saw him on the fringe of our small homestead, deep in Kwale County, I knew the answer was yes even before he asked the question. And I begged mama not to give me away for free in her eagerness to marry me off to a mzungu.
It is dark when the steward’s voice comes over the intercom to announce that we’ll be in Nairobi shortly. I lift my head off Andrew’s shoulder and rub my eyes. There are sleep lines on the side of my cheek. My fingers are swollen from sitting too long. His nose is still buried in a travel book, but when I wake up he claps it shut. Then he rubs the sides of my cold arms and asks, “Are you ready to come home?”
I wrap my shawl around myself tighter and say yes. I have never been readier.
Taste of Mel is now out on Kindle so if you haven’t already, grab your copy now. If you pre-ordered, you should be getting your copy today. Thanks for supporting my art.
Otherwise we have resumed posting on Thursdays. Enjoy your read.7