Say You're One of Them
Little, Brown. 358 pp. $23.99
June 29, 2008
Chapter OneAn Ex-mas Feast
Now that my eldest sister, Maisha, was twelve, none of us knew how to relate to her anymore. She had never forgiven our parents for not being rich enough to send her to school. She had been behaving like a cat that was going feral: she came home less and less frequently, staying only to change her clothes and give me some money to pass on to our parents. When home, she avoided them as best she could, as if their presence reminded her of too many things in our lives that needed money. Though she would snap at Baba occasionally, she never said anything to Mama. Sometimes Mama went out of her way to provoke her. "Malaya! Whore! You don't even have breasts yet!" she'd say. Maisha would ignore her.
Maisha shared her thoughts with Naema, our ten-year-old sister, more than she did with the rest of us combined, mostly talking about the dos and don'ts of a street girl. Maisha let Naema try on her high heels, showed her how to doll up her face, how to use toothpaste and a brush. She told her to run away from any man who beat her, no matter how much money he offered her, and that she would treat Naema like Mama if she grew up to have too many children. She told Naema that it was better to starve to death than go out with any man without a condom.
When she was at work, though, she ignored Naema, perhaps because Naema reminded her of home or because she didn't want Naema to see that her big sister wasn't as cool and chic as she made herself out to be. She tolerated me more outside than inside. I could chat her up on the pavement no matter what rags I was wearing. An eight-year-old boy wouldn't get in the way when she was waiting for a customer. We knew how to pretend we were strangers-just a street kid and a prostitute talking.
Yet our machokosh family was lucky. Unlike most, our street family had stayed together-at least until that Ex-mas season.
The sun had gone down on Ex-mas evening. Bad weather had stormed the seasons out of order, and Nairobi sat in a low flood, the light December rain droning on our tarpaulin roof. I was sitting on the floor of our shack, which stood on a cement slab at the end of an alley, leaning against the back of an old brick shop. Occasional winds swelled the brown polythene walls. The floor was nested with cushions that I had scavenged from a dump on Biashara Street. At night, we rolled up the edge of the tarpaulin to let in the glow of the shop's security lights. A board, which served as our door, lay by the shop wall.
A clap of thunder woke Mama. She got up sluggishly, pulling her hands away from Maisha's trunk, which she had held on to while she slept. It was navy blue, with brass linings and rollers, and it took up a good part of our living space. Panicking, Mama groped her way from wall to wall, frisking my two-year-old twin brother and sister, Otieno and Atieno, and Baba; all three were sleeping, tangled together like puppies. She was looking for Baby. Mama's white T-shirt, which she had been given three months back, when she delivered Baby, had a pair of milk stains on the front. Then she must have remembered that he was with Maisha and Naema. She relaxed and stretched in a yawn, hitting a rafter of cork. One of the stones that weighted our roof fell down outside.
Now Mama put her hands under her shuka and retied the strings of the money purse around her waist; sleep and alcohol had swung it out of place. She dug through our family carton, scooping out clothes, shoes, and my new school uniform, wrapped in useless documents that Baba had picked from people's pockets. Mama dug on, and the contents of the carton piled up on Baba and the twins. Then she unearthed a tin of New Suntan shoe glue. The glue was our Ex-mas gift from the children of a machokosh that lived nearby.
Mama smiled at the glue and winked at me, pushing her tongue through the holes left by her missing teeth. She snapped the tin's top expertly, and the shack swelled with the smell of a shoemaker's stall. I watched her decant the kabire into my plastic "feeding bottle." It glowed warm and yellow in the dull light. Though she still appeared drunk from last night's party, her hands were so steady that her large tinsel Ex-mas bangles, a gift from a church Ex-mas party, did not even sway. When she had poured enough, she cut the flow of the glue by tilting the tin up. The last stream of the gum entering the bottle weakened and braided itself before tapering in midair like an icicle. She covered the plastic with her palm, to retain the glue's power. Sniffing it would kill my hunger in case Maisha did not return with an Ex-mas feast for us.
Mama turned to Baba, shoving his body with her foot. "Wake up, you never work for days!" Baba turned and groaned. His feet were poking outside the shack, under the waterproof wall. His toes had broken free of his wet tennis shoes. Mama shoved him again, and he began to wriggle his legs as if he were walking in his sleep.
Our dog growled outside. Mama snapped her fingers, and the dog came in, her ripe pregnancy swaying like heavy wash in the wind. For a month and a half, Mama, who was good at spotting dog pregnancies, had baited her with tenderness and food until she became ours; Mama hoped to sell the puppies to raise money for my textbooks. Now the dog licked Atieno's face. Mama probed the dog's stomach with crooked fingers, like a native midwife. "Oh, Simba, childbirth is chasing you," she whispered into her ears. "Like school is chasing my son." She pushed the dog outside. Simba lay down, covering Baba's feet with her warmth. Occasionally, she barked to keep the other dogs from tampering with our mobile kitchen, which was leaning against the wall of the store.
"Jigana, did you do well last night with Baby?" Mama asked me suddenly.
"I made a bit," I assured her, and passed her a handful of coins and notes. She pushed the money under her shuka; the zip of the purse released two crisp farts.
Though people were more generous to beggars at Ex-mas, our real bait was Baby. We took turns pushing him in the faces of passersby.
"Aii! Son, you never see Ex-mas like this year." Her face widened in a grin. "We shall pay school fees next year. No more randameandering around. No more chomaring your brain with glue, boy. You going back to school! Did the rain beat you and Baby?"
"Rain caught me here," I said.
"And Baby? Who is carrying him?"
"Naema," I said.
"And Maisha? Where is she to do her time with the child?"
"Mama, she is very angry."
"That gal is beat-beating my head. Three months now she is not greeting me. What insects are eating her brain?" Sometimes Mama's words came out like a yawn because the holes between her teeth were wide. "Eh, now that she shakes-shakes her body to moneymen, she thinks she has passed me? Tell me, why did she refuse to stay with Baby?"
"She says it's child abuse."
"Child abuse? Is she now NGO worker? She likes being a prostitute better than begging with Baby?"
"Me, I don't know. She just went with the ma-men tourists. Today, real white people, musungu. With monkey."
Mama spat through the doorway. "Puu, those ones are useless. I know them. They don't ever pay the Ex-mas rate-and then they even let their ma-monkey fuck her. Jigana, talk with that gal. Or don't you want to complete school? She can't just give you uniform only."
I nodded. I had already tried on the uniform eight times in two days, anxious to resume school. The green- and- white-checked shirt and olive-green shorts had become wrinkled. Now I reached into the carton and stroked a piece of the uniform that stuck out of the jumble.
"Why are you messing with this beautiful uniform?" Mama said. "Patience, boy. School is just around the corner." She dug to the bottom of the carton and buried the package. "Maisha likes your face," she whispered. "Please, Jigana, tell her you need more-shoes, PTA fee, prep fee. We must to save all Ex-mas rate to educate you, first son. Tell her she must stop buying those fuunny fuunny designer clothes, those clothes smelling of dead white people, and give us the money."
As she said this, she started to pound angrily on the trunk. The trunk was a big obstruction. It was the only piece of furniture we had with a solid and definite shape. Maisha had brought it home a year ago and always ordered us to leave the shack before she would open it. None of us knew what its secret contents were, except for a lingering perfume. It held for us both suspense and consolation, and these feelings grew each time Maisha came back with new things. Sometimes, when Maisha did not come back for a long time, our anxiety turned the trunk into an assurance of her return.
"Malaya! Prostitute! She doesn't come and I break the box tonight," Mama hissed, spitting on the combination lock and shaking the trunk until we could hear its contents knocking about. She always took her anger out on the trunk in Maisha's absence. I reached out to grab her hands.
"You pimp!" she growled. "You support the malaya."
"It's not her fault. It's musungu tourists."
"You better begin school before she runs away."
"I must to report you to her."
"I must to bury you and your motormouth in this box."
We struggled. Her long nails slashed my forehead, and blood trickled down. But she was still shaking the trunk. Turning around, I charged at her and bit her right thigh. I could not draw blood because I had lost my front milk teeth. She let go and reeled into the bodies of our sleeping family. Atieno let out one short, eerie scream, as if in a nightmare, then went back to sleep. Baba groaned and said he did not like his family members fighting during Ex-mas. "You bite my wife because of that whore?" he groaned. "The cane will discipline you in the morning. I must to personally ask your headmaster to get a big cane for you."
A welt had fruited up on Mama's thigh. She rolled up her dress and started massaging it, her lips moving in silent curses. Then, to punish me, she took the kabire she had poured for me and applied it to the swelling. She pushed the mouth of the bottle against it, expecting the fumes to ease the hurt.
When Mama had finished nursing herself, she returned the bottle to me. Since it was still potent kabire, I did not sniff it straight but put my lips around the mouth of the bottle and smoked slowly, as if it were an oversized joint of bhang, Indian hemp. First it felt as if I had no saliva in my mouth, and then the fumes began to numb my tongue. The heat climbed steadily into my throat, tickling my nostrils like an aborted sneeze. I cooled off a bit and blew away the vapor. Then I sucked at it again and swallowed. My eyes watered, my head began to spin, and I dropped the bottle.
When I looked up, Mama had poured some kabire for herself and was sniffing it. She and Baba hardly ever took kabire. "Kabire is for children only," Baba's late father used to admonish them whenever he caught them eyeing our glue. This Ex-mas we were not too desperate for food. In addition to the money that begging with Baby had brought us, Baba had managed to steal some wrapped gifts from a party given for machokosh families by an NGO whose organizers were so stingy that they served fruit juice like shots of hard liquor. He had dashed to another charity party and traded in the useless gifts-plastic cutlery, picture frames, paperweights, insecticide-for three cups of rice and zebra intestines, which a tourist hotel had donated. We'd had these for dinner on Ex-mas Eve.
"Happee, happee Ex-mas, tarling!" Mama toasted me after a while, rubbing my head.
"You too, Mama."
"Now, where are these daughters? Don't they want to do Exmas prayer?" She sniffed the bottle until her eyes receded, her face pinched like the face of a mad cow. "And the govament banned this sweet thing. Say thanks to the neighbors, boy. Where did they find this hunger killer?" Sometimes she released her lips from the bottle with a smacking sound. As the night thickened, her face began to swell, and she kept pouting and biting her lips to check the numbness. They turned red-they looked like Maisha's when she had on lipstick-and puffed up.
"Mama? So, what can we give the neighbors for Ex-mas?" I asked, remembering that we had not bought anything for our friends.
My question jerked her back. "Petrol ... we will buy them a half liter of petrol," she said, and belched. Her breath smelled of carbide, then of sour wine. When she looked up again, our eyes met, and I lowered mine in embarrassment. In our machokosh culture, petrol was not as valuable as glue. Any self- respecting street kid should always have his own stock of kabire. "OK, son, next year ... we get better things. I don't want police business this year-so don't start having ideas."
We heard two drunks stumbling toward our home. Mama hid the bottle. They stood outside announcing that they had come to wish us a merry Ex-mas. "My husband is not here!" Mama lied. I recognized the voices. It was Bwana Marcos Wako and his wife, Cecilia. Baba had owed them money for four years. They came whenever they smelled money, then Baba had to take off for a few days. When Baby was born, we pawned three-quarters of his clothing to defray the debts. A week before Ex-mas, the couple had raided us, confiscating Baba's work clothes in the name of debt servicing.
I quickly covered the trunk with rags and reached into my pocket, tightening my grip around the rusty penknife I carried about.
Mama and I stood by the door. Bwana Wako wore his trousers belted across his forehead; the legs, flailing behind him, were tied in knots and stuffed with ugali flour, which he must have gotten from a street party. Cecilia wore only her jacket and her rain boots.
"Ah, Mama Jigana-ni Ex-mas!" the husband said. "Forget the money. Happee Ex-mas!"
"We hear Jigana is going to school," the wife said.
"Who told you?" Mama said warily. "Me, I don't like rumors."
They turned to me. "Happee to resume school, boy?"
"Me am not going to school," I lied, to spare my tuition money.
"Kai, like mama like son!" the wife said. "You must to know you are the hope of your family."
"Mama Jigana, listen," the man said. "Maisha came to us last week. Good, responsible gal. She begged us to let bygone be bygone so Jigana can go to school. We say forget the money-our Ex-mas gift to your family."
"You must to go far with education, Jigana," the wife said, handing me a new pen and pencil. "Mpaka university!"
Mama laughed, jumping into the flooded alley. She hugged them and allowed them to come closer to our shack. They staggered to our door, swaying like masqueraders on stilts.
"Asante sana!" I thanked them. I uncorked the pen and wrote all over my palms and smelled the tart scent of the Hero HB pencil. Mama wedged herself between them and the shack to ensure that they did not pull it down. Baba whispered to us from inside, ready to slip away, "Ha, they told me the same thing last year. You watch and see, tomorrow they come looking for me. Make them sign paper this time." Mama quickly got them some paper and they signed, using my back as a table. Then they staggered away, the stuffed trousers bouncing along behind them.
Mama began to sing Maisha's praises and promised never to pound on her trunk again. Recently, Maisha had taken the twins to the barber, and Baby to Kenyatta National Hospital for a checkup. Now she had gotten our debt canceled. I felt like running out to search for her in the streets. I wanted to hug her and laugh until the moon dissolved. I wanted to buy her Coke and chapati, for sometimes she forgot to eat. But when Mama saw me combing my hair, she said nobody was allowed to leave until we had finished saying the Ex-mas prayer.
I hung out with Maisha some nights on the street, and we talked about fine cars and lovely Nairobi suburbs. We'd imagine what it would be like to visit the Masai Mara Game Reserve or to eat roasted ostrich or crocodile at the Carnivore, like tourists.
"You beautiful!" I had told Maisha one night on Koinange Street, months before that fateful Ex-mas.
"Ah, no, me am not." She laughed, straightening her jean miniskirt. "Stop lying."
"See your face?"
"Kai, who sent you?"
"And you bounce like models."
"Yah, yah, yah. Not tall. Nose? Too short and big. No lean face or full lips. No firsthand designer clothes. Not daring or beautiful like Naema. Perfume and mascara are not everything."
"Haki, you? Beautiful woman," I said, snapping my fingers. "You will be tall tomorrow."
"You are asking me out?" she said in jest, and struck a pose. She made faces as if she were playing with the twins and said, "Be a man, do it the right way." I shrugged and laughed.
"Me, I have no shilling, big gal."
"I will discount you, guy."
"Oh, come on," she said, and pulled me into a hug.
Giggling, we began walking, our strides softened by laughter. Everything became funny. We couldn't stop laughing at ourselves, at the people around us. When my sides began to ache and I stopped, she tickled my ribs.
Excerpted from Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan Copyright © 2008 by Uwem Akpan. Excerpted by permission.
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