The day Mama threw a cooking stick at Kagonya was a November day so hot that the ripened bananas hanging on sisal rope from the kitchen roof were beginning to turn black. Mama had been sitting on a low stool staring at the sufuria as the pumpkin leaves boiled off their green, humming along to Cha Kutumaini Sina on the radio. Baby, two years old, sucked on Mama’s sagging left breast. I was bent over our blue bucket, washing utensils because the duty rota on the wall said it was my turn.
Our maid Kagonya had arrived with Mama in the clove of the season, when the heat shimmered on the tarmac road. We heard a knock on the front door that we scurried to open because it was about Christmas time and we knew Mama would be carrying a box full of Zesta jam and Tropicana chapati flour and maybe even orange Treetop juice.
Kagonya had fit in so neatly, at first. Like a slip stitch, she hemmed herself into our lives and patched up our torn. She got to work, teaching us to save mango seeds, peeling the skin of nduma tubers so thinly and smoothening out our loose. She worked like clockwork, waking at four in the morning, moving noiselessly through every chore. But then something changed. Her interactions with Mama became eggshell brittle, leading to a moment when everything cracked.
Because he slept on the sofa in the sitting room, my brother Kuka was the first to overhear our parents’ plans of moving house. Baaba, a secondary school teacher, had received a transfer letter from the Teachers Service Commission. His new posting was in Kakamega and we were to move into a big blue house in Amalemba with a toilet inside and a bathtub even.
‘I heard Baaba describe it. I swear, Bible red!’ Kuka licked the tip of his index finger then raised it to the sky. ‘Haki our new house is not small and weepy, like this one. It has a veranda, three bedrooms and a small garden.’
I nodded excitedly. Everything Kuka overheard always came to pass. Like him, I wanted to spread my arms in glee at the thought of a new, bigger house. Kagonya’s mouth was a half-moon of scorn. ‘Kuka how will your Baaba suddenly afford that expensive rent when his transfer is not a promotion even?’
‘Because Mama says she will expand her fish business to support him,’ Kuka said, an impatient edge lowering his voice. Kuka was to be enrolled into Kakamega High School. His eyes shone as he spoke, ‘I’m going to befriend the city boys and ask them to teach me to play rugby.’
Kagonya listened to us with both eyebrows raised. Having lived in Oloitoktok with her sister, she told us about town women. ‘Let me tell you. I made friends with salon women who hid their secrets behind silk curtains with embroidered borders. Their skins were fair because they use mkorogo from Tanzania to lighten them. One had hair that reached her buttocks, can you believe it, she used virgin oils and pomades to make that hair so long.’
The hope of a bigger, better home lay before us like a guava tree full of ripe fruit. The games I played with the neighbour’s kids had lost their fun. I wanted the days to move quickly and Kagonya had a ready solution: ‘It’s simple, the days go faster if you cut the tail of a monitor lizard and bury it in the ground.’
The movers finally came and we boxed up our utensils, wrapped our glasses in old newspapers and tied our bedding. At the new house, the moment I heard Kagonya shout ‘it is a white bathtub, imagine’ I scampered from where Mama had called me to examine the kitchen sink to behold Kagonya’s call.
I stopped dead at the bathroom door.
The bathroom was covered with soft blue tiles that went all the way up to the ceiling. At the corner was a big, oval tub built into the wall. A golden swan-shaped faucet tipped its long neck inside the tub. When I turned the handle, it exhaled water as gently as a lady is expected to exhale her laughter.
I yelled for Kuka to come see and flicked on the switch. Dim yellow light flooded the bathroom and touched the blue tiles, honey-hueing the walls.
‘Do you people see what I am seeing? This bathroom is exactly like the one in The Bold and the Beautiful,’ Kagonya whispered as she danced around the spacious bathroom, jiggling in her small, tight yellow dress.
I imagined myself lying in the bathtub, full of suds, just like the women in the Lady Gay TV commercials.
When Baaba asked if we liked the new house at the dinner table, a chorus of cheers erupted. Kuka joked that our old house’s cement bathroom floor was slippery as a snail. We laughed a little too hard. Even Mama.
Kagonya was not like the other maids. She did not drag me by the arm as I kicked. She did not use the rough kipanzi or soap my face with harsh Imperial Leather that stung my eyes. She didn’t even force me to raise my foot so that she could scrub its instep as I held on to her dress. Instead, she let me soak in the tub until my hands became pale like a mzungu. All the while telling me stories. My favourite was the one about how Africans got black skins.
According to Kagonya, Nyasaye, the monarch of the sky created the universe and all things seen and unseen. He took fresh clay and modelled himself twin sons, Mwaafrika and Musuungu, to rule the world together. Nyasaye instructed them to go soak in the magic river. ‘The water’s magic will make your skins.’ Mwaafrika, the curious child that loved to play, soaked in the water for a little while but was awed by the sun’s majestic splendour and rushed out to feel its warmth. The clay on his skin hadn’t soaked in the magic river for long enough so it burned and burned and became obsidian black. This made Nyasaye angry. He thundered, ‘Because you have disobeyed me for the warmth of the sun, I shall send you to rule over a place where the sun is always hot.’ Mwaafrika’s eyes sparkled as he turned to his father with a smile. ‘Nyasaye, I liked the warmth of the sun so much I was going to ask you to send me to a place where it always shines.’ Musuungu was too scared of his father to leave the magic river and stayed in the river so long that the magic water turned his skin white and thin, like a sheet of baking paper.
‘Never forget this story, Kagai. Remember yours is the skin of courage and adventure.’ Kagonya’s fingers would fold around the sponge as she squeezed suds onto the folds of my skin.
Sometimes, I playfully challenged her. ‘What about those women in Oloitoktok who use mkorogo to make their skin yellow-yellow. Do they do it for the men?’ Kagonya would slit her eyes and stare at me real hard. ‘See this child, poking her nose in adult matters.’
‘Just tell me, I swear, I won’t tell a soul.’ I’d touch my index finger to the tip of my tongue and raise it up to the heavens. Kagonya would follow my declaration with a laughter so sudden it sounded like a pile of Luminarc dishes breaking on the kitchen floor.
The afternoon Mama found blue birth control pills in our bedroom the backyard was cooking hot. Kagonya and I were lying in the shade of the avocado tree, listening to Elvis Presley croon on KBC’s Midday Melodies. I turned off the radio when I heard Mama shout. Side by side, we rushed to the bedroom.
We found Mama bent over Kagonya’s things, shaking the petticoats and dresses as packs of tiny blue pills fell to the floor. When I entered the bedroom, Mama put Baby in my arms.
She shook the pills in Kagonya’s face. ‘What’s the meaning of this, who are you spreading your legs for, eeh?’
‘Give me those! I am 16 and independent.’ Kagonya lunged at Mama but she raised the pills above her head so the girl couldn’t reach them.
‘You are stoking a fire that you cannot keep ablaze, Kagonya. You hear?’
Kagonya sulked for weeks afterwards. I’d watch Mama say loudly to no one in particular, ‘A crooked sweet potato would rather be broken than straightened, but me, I will straighten the ones in my house at least.’ Kagonya would respond by muttering under her breath about teaching old women to mind their business.
Kagonya and Mama stopped washing together. They no longer laughed as they held the two ends of soaking bedcovers to wring out the water. The sulking Kagonya washed only after Mama left to buy omena and dried tilapia from Kibuye Market on Tuesdays. Mama’s joy disappeared again and I turned to Kagonya who was like a sister, twisting my hair into bantu knots and teaching me silly songs.
Every Tuesday, Kagonya would place the radio on the bathroom sink, turn up the volume and sing, mixing up lyrics and yelling out words in Lulogooli. Kuka at first called it a stupid mboch habit. He would leave in a huff to ride bikes around the Amalemba shops with his friends. That changed the day Kuka walked into the bathroom and saw Kagonya bent over the tub in a miniskirt. The trips to Amalemba stopped and Kuka started coaxing Kagonya to share more of her tales.
Kagonya refused at first, shaking her head. ‘I don’t want to brew trouble with old women.’ But she was sweet-talked by Kuka. Her name slid from his mouth so often that she finally gave in and smiled. She would tell us stories on the condition that a duty rota for washing utensils was drafted. I lent Kuka my Haco ruler and a red HB pencil and he happily divided the house chores between the three of us.
We balked under the weight of buckets every Tuesday and watched Kagonya as she scoured the bathtub with Vim and sorted the clothes according to colour. She’d block the tub drain, fill it with water from the taps, add Omo, then mix it until she was up to her elbow in suds. Only then did she start to tell us her stories. Kuka sat on an upturned bucket, closest to Kagonya.
This went on for months, even after Kuka had gone to the hospital for circumcision and my maternal uncles came over to bring goats for his riaruka. Even after he started sagging his trousers and relaxing his hair with TCB Naturals Relaxer Regular. Even after he started having wet dreams and writing letters to girls in the estate.
Mama and Baaba didn’t notice these things.
On the eve of Kuka’s sixteenth birthday Mama came home and found us sitting out on the verandah. We were roasting green maize and listening to John Karani’s Groove Time Show on KBC English Service. Kuka was standing shirtless next to Kagonya, heating the metal teeth of the hot comb on the charcoal burner and passing it to her. I squinted in pain as Kagonya carefully passed the glowing comb through my hair.
Mama’s voice floated to us from inside the house. She was calling me. I found her standing in the kitchen, holding a pair of scissors. Next thing I knew, she sharpened the teeth of the scissors sha-sha-sha on the kitchen cement steps and held me by the scruff of my neck, snipping tufts of my freshly straightened hair and leaving an uneven mango-shaped head.
‘This will teach you something about listening to people’s silly notions about beauty,’ Mama said. There was metal in her voice.
‘Silly notions? Mama Kuka, if you don’t want me to associate with your children just say so. By hot combing Kagai’s hair, did I hurt anybody?’ Kagonya challenged.
Kagonya lifted her eyes to Mama’s and they stared at each other before she stormed off to our bedroom. Mama followed her and knocked on the door. Neither the spatter of frying chicken nor the clanking of teacups made her open it.
I wanted Kagonya to open the door. To rub Vicks VapoRub on my sore neck and say ‘Modi Kagai, sorry’, but she did not. Later, I said to Mama, ‘Kuka relaxed his hair and you didn’t open your mouth, is it because he is a boy?’ She only stared at me.
I am convinced that this was when Kagonya stopped caring about us.
When she opened the door the next day to remove dry clothes from the wire line, she had changed. We folded the shirts and dresses together and placed them in the clothes basket quietly. At dinner, the food tasted like cloth because Kagonya’s laughter stayed stuck in her throat. She avoided our eyes and picked at her rice with the tines of her fork.
I didn’t say a word to Mama when Kagonya and Kuka started listening to Salaam za Adhuhuri radio show on KBC Idhaa ya Taifa. I would press my ear to the closed door of Kuka’s bedroom and listen to them argue about whether fans like Sura Mbili Kiango Momanyi, One and-a-Half-Lady and Kadenge Omwana wa Leah were genuine listeners or plants that regularly exchanged salaams to encourage other radio listeners to participate. I giggled whenever I heard Kuka promise to send greeting cards with Kagonya’s name to the programme. ‘I will make you a famous salaams queen by buying many cards from the post office and sending them to the show. I’ll also ask MDJ Eddie Fondo to play you Peter Broggs’s song How Much is That Doggie in The Window.’
‘Rrrrrrright!’ Kagonya would respond, imitating Eddie Fondo’s way of speaking. They would then dissolve into laughter and I would swallow hard and listen as Kuka sang the song to her in his broken voice. Even before he finished the first part, Kagonya would laughingly interrupt him and they would fall into an argument about its lyrics.
‘It says the one with a beautiful tail.’
‘Nope, it says the one with a girl-girly tail.’
‘That’s nonsense, how can girls have tails?’
‘You tell me. You are the girl.’
‘I think boys are the ones with tails.’
‘Fine then. Consider me your doggie with a tail.’
‘And scare who away with one bark, eeh?’ Kagonya would giggle and Kuka would bark like a dog.
They must have forgotten I existed. Even when he opened his bedroom door and found me there, Kuka would ignore me and rush to get his Pop Stop book with song lyrics cut out of the Young Nation newspaper. I wanted to stretch out my leg and trip him.
Mama’s conversation with the estate gossip Mukalishi is what hardened my resolve to keep sneaking into the bathroom. Mukalishi had visited us one evening, just after Mama had sent Kagonya to the posho mill to grind maize for ugali. I made them masala tea and they sat on the verandah, sipping it.
‘Mama Kuka, your house girl is illogically pretty,’ Mukalishi began.
‘If you are telling me something, say it Mukalishi.’
‘I’m not saying anything I don’t want my mouth to say. But if I was the mother of a hot-blooded teenager who sags his trousers and shaves punk, a strong igirichi who was recently circumcised, I’d get a houseboy or stay home to mind my children myself.’
‘Not everyone has a rich husband, Mukalishi. If I stay home, what will they eat, me?’
‘Fine, but ask yourself questions Mama Kuka. Ask yourself why Kuka never joins his mates at the video stalls. Ask yourself what business he has holding pegs for a maid.’
‘Wallahi if your words are true, I will skin somebody with my own hands,’ Mama replied.
I remember when the loud reggae tunes were replaced by smooth love ballads.
I also recall the sky the Tuesday after Mukalishi’s visit. Grey, menacing clouds hung low and hovered as I sat in the garden, staring at bees dancing on the flowering purple sweet-potato vines. I was annoyed because Kagonya hadn’t sided with me when Kuka sent me away from the bathroom.
The book I was reading, The Joker in the Pack by James Hadley Chase, taught me a line and I decided to sneak back into the house and peep at Kuka and Kagonya. If I found them doing dirty things, I would tell them what the beach boy’s girlfriend in the book said: ‘Cold water helps.’
I was surprised to see Mama back so early on a market day. I dodged her, rounding to the back of the house and jumping over the chicken coop to enter through the kitchen. As I pushed open the bathroom door, I beheld a sight so strange to my 12-year-old eyes that the nerves of my body twittered as if many isetwe birds were perched upon my spine. Kagonya stood inside the bathtub tightly holding the handrail grab bar, back to the door. Her buttocks flexed like a closing fist as Kuka thrust into her over and over. Next to them, the golden swan faucet tipped its long neck and stared. My mouth rounded into a soundless O.
Kuka might have seen me but Kagonya didn’t, for a terrible sound escaped her lips as she called out his name.
Mama chose that moment to walk in. Overcome with a spasm of grief, she gave a loud cry, ‘Kagonya, mkoláá kindiki, what are you doing?’ Kagonya jumped away from Kuka, pulled up her orange panties and made no reply.
Kuka calmly put on his jeans, walked past Mama and out of the bathroom. On the radio, Brandy crooned on, begging her lover to come a little bit closer.
Mama and I followed Kuka to the kitchen and watched as he poured himself a cold glass of water. Mama picked the clay flower vase Baaba had bought while on a school tour of Ilesi pottery works and flung it at Kuka. It missed him narrowly but grazed his right hand, the one that was holding the glass, and the glass, water and vase splintered to the ground. Kuka ran out of the kitchen door, shirtless. I held my breath and pressed the laugher bubbling inside so that it wouldn’t escape through my mouth.
Mama avoided my eyes. She locked the front and back doors, stuffed the keys in the pocket of her frock and went to her bedroom. When she finally came out she instructed me to wash the utensils and ordered Kagonya, lying on the bed in our bedroom, to cook the ugali. Mama then went to sit on the low stool, breastfeeding baby and staring at the seveve which was boiling in the sufuria, releasing its green. The radio sang faintly because the batteries were weak and Kuka had forgotten to put them out in the sun.
When Kagonya came to get the mwiko, Mama, instead of handing it to her, slung it at her. It hit the girl’s face. When she started screaming, Mama pushed Baby off, picked up the kiboko hidden behind the kitchen door and beat the girl until her body was covered in welts the size of fruiting tamarind pods. Only then did Mama stop, and ordered her in a choked voice to pack her bags.
Kuka did not come home that night. Mama stood in the sitting room, muttering to herself and shifting weight from one foot to another. Kagonya, once ready, stretched her hand to Mama who placed into it an old 500 shilling note.
‘I won’t have you underpaying me, give me the rest of my money.’ Kagonya’s arms were folded across her chest.
‘Get out. Have you not been paid in kind? Are you not the one who has taken my son’s virginity?’ Mama huffed, walking up and down the length of the room.
This amused me a great deal. I didn’t know that boys could also be virgins.
A geyser of emotions shot up, filling the room. I tried to breathe.
‘500 and you chase me out like a dog at this time of the night,’ Kagonya said. ‘Dááve, Mama Kuka, no. I’m not going anywhere unless you put all my money here.’ She beat her right palm into her left.
It was with a firm hand that Mama cast her out. I followed Kagonya outside just in time to see her remove her purple hairband and let her hair fall freely over her shoulders. She pressed the hairband into my palm and cupped my face in her hands. A stubborn half-smile lit up her eyes and in the ensuing darkness, I couldn’t see where her face ended or where her hair began.
The wild raspberries ripened and fell. My school blouse became strait around the chest. There were pimples standing on my once smooth face. And Kagonya was gone. Gone was her laughter. Gone were her magical stories and silent movements through the house. She would have known what to do with my face just as she had known how to quicken time and smooth the rough edges of our house.
Kuka was shipped off to St. Peter’s Seminary Kamusinga to spend more time with the Lord and his fellow boys instead of in bathrooms with underage girls who wore short skirts that exposed flawless thighs.
New sounds started to fill my crispy December dawns. The whispery chatter of the milk boy I liked, the clanging of his metal pail outside my room and the shrill voices of the vegetable vendors and their shouts of ‘mboga, mboga’. Still, each morning as I watched the sun break its yellow yolk over the sky, I dulled at the thought of having woken up to yet another day without my friend, Kagonya.