Everyone is embroiled in a clatter of pursuits.
Trucks with bloated drivers blare horns. Motorbikes with scrawny young men precariously sneak through narrow death spaces between yellow lined matatus. Small private cars that throttle and some that are smooth, ride in the communion of traffic on the Kenya-Uganda highway which crosses through lines of stalls, hardware shops, butcheries, pubs and general shops in Bunyoreluanda township.
In quiet shadows of some buildings, market women in chequered aprons with large pockets fan themselves from afternoon heat haggling with customers. Some are ringing tiny noisy bells waving price list placards of a variety; with prices roughly scribbled in ball pen on pieces of carton boxes nailed onto long sticks. Prices of wares like maize, beans and second-hand clothes.
There is a horde of blithe school children and other children roving all over the place. Among some of the men trading and buying, there are those hooded in caps probably to shun the sun’s heat of harsh economic times. And there is the common lot of permanent residents like the blind guitar strumming Atakos, outside Big Ben Plaza; the only bank building, strumming tunes for a charitable cause.
None begrudges another in their pursuits.
Aligned to Big Ben Plaza there is the two-storeyed Ekaita Plaza building that has a pub and a guest house. A famous woman routinely ambles to a pile of plastic bottles on a heap of rubbish and lights a fire before lighting a cigarette snatched from the lips of a tuk-tuk driver. Then proceeding to drag on the lit end and blowing two streams of thick smoke from her nostrils that form miniature jet-like trails that eventually disperse into the four winds. Her name is Okumutu. She talks to busy herself and copiously to rile anyone else.
“Tuk-tuk your wife is pregnant?”
She fires to the tuk tuk driver, a man irked by her daylight robbery of his cigarette, who ignores her. But she is undeterred.
“Tuk-tuk your wife is pregnant?”
In intuitive diversionary wisdom, the tuk-tuk man scuffs his way into a crowd of buyers gathered around a chubby woman. She is a popular fishmonger with a head tie reaching her brow and slightly above a pair of rustic glasses joined at their bridge with tape. Her fresh deep-fried and salted tilapia on a reed tray covered with old newspapers in a stall outside Rosina’s general shop opposite Ekaita Plaza is said to be the sweetest.
The tuk-tuk man is unenthusiastic for Okumutu’s unsought after attention and has successfully fled to the safety of his tuk-tuk vehicle parked opposite Big Ben Plaza.
“Your wife is pregnant, I know!”
The tuk-tuk driver out of her reach, she resorts to stoke the fire she has started; hurling polythene bags, empty cartons of UHT milk and plastic bottles to the epicenter. The plastic bottles are wrathfully hurled and some wheeze through the air in protest. The flames angrily hiss and flare. A uniformed man who has impatiently been scrutinizing her throes of preoccupations; solid in some black boots, a navy blue khaki trousers, a white shirt with a faded Jumbo Security co. logo below a shoulder loop on his left adjusts a black beret on his head and walks up to her. She discards her unfinished cigarette business.
“Skwata. Flattery and reality. Attention!”
She salutes and marches on the spot. Her voice is a coarse rattle over the heads of blithe school children and other children who have huddled at a safe distance, following her every antic as they giggle, entertained. Some naughty ones pelt her with paper which she lurches onto and hurls into the fire.
“Skwata don’t bother me.”
The excitement picks up in the blithe school children and other children. Okumutu has stopped marching on the spot. There is something else coming their way. A swaying of a half metre diameter dust devil. It sweeps restless papers swirling them up into a ten metre tower of rampage in the air. Then it crosses through the fire hoisting Okumutu’s rattle into its violence. She cautiously watches the height of the dust devil waiting for Skwata’s move.
Okumutu is tall, slim, with round big white eyes and spikes of dusty matted hair in her anxiety. Her clothes, strips of rugs that once were an elegant African print dress, reek of urine and other repulsive odours of a dirty middle-aged woman.
“I fell in love with him. It was not you. He was a handsome man. Not like you. You are an ugly scooter.”
Skwata smiles. His smile spreads up the contours of deep wrinkles, his left eye is permanently bloodshot and the other eye is sharper than the lens of binoculars, trained to interrogate potential mischief. He is tall when he springs in his stride but slightly shorter than Okumutu when both his feet are on the ground. His arms are hardened by life and his palms rough. The way he imposes an indifferent disposition around him is archetypical of his tactic to plant fear into people, even presently, but Okumutu proceeds with her harangue. She is no easy harvest.
“You have a big nose. My Abujubuju Robinson had a nose that agreed with his face. Yours refuses. You are ugly like the face of a smashed tuk-tuk in a head-on collision with a Bedford lorry. Your eyes are popping out in east and west. One eye is like red wine the other like white wine. But Abujubuju Robinson was the face of a Mercedes Benz. Don’t see me now you should have seen me then.”
The blithe school children and other children laugh when she farts and pauses to twist her matted dusty hair which stands like spikes on her head. The dust devil has done its duty and gone. It has taken three minutes. Quite a short one and benign. Exorcised by the hissing flames driven insane by its uncourteous passage. Black smoke swirls into the Bunyoreluanda afternoon heavens. The bottles as if in disgruntlement, gnarl and crease into contortions that eventually melt into a hissing submission.
“I was a peacock. Not like now when I am a pit where everyone spits.”
She twirls in that dance of throwing legs and flailing arms as her waist vibrates around the fire in a chuckle, roughly jingling rusty bangles on her wrists. The blithe school children and other children follow with their eyes. The pelting ones have taken a brief recess.
“And Abujubuju Robinson was a total man. He drove a Citroën. Do you know a Citroën big nose? The first car with lights that turned like a chameleon’s eyes. Do you know? He wore corduroy suits and he shaved with things like Gillette Special? He knew how to dance smooth Jazz and Rhumba not that Kalwoto Twang! Twang! Twang!”
The blithe school children and other children laugh as she demonstrates stamping her left foot three times.
“He had money after all he was General manager at East Africa Industries Limited. Yes, he was in charge of Omo detergent, Ushindi soap, Cow boy and Kimbo cooking oils and Blue-band margarine. My life was Blue-band and I was margarine.”
Her bangles jingling noisily. She plaintively sits down on a brick twisting her spikes of dusty matted hair like one wringing good memories out of her head.
“Skwata don’t bring smelling words into my perfumed story. You are fear. You thrive on it and live on it. Thieving. Don’t think because people bring other people’s wives to turn around all night in that shithole,” she spits in the direction of Joy-land guest house across the road, “where you guard and they buy your silence with thirty pieces of silver. Don’t think you are big boss man. Don’t think you are a bank of secrets, big brother or anything. I am a mad woman but your foolishness is bigger than my fart.”
The blithe school children and other children giggle. She stabs the air with a half burnt bottle she picks sending molten plastic trails around her in abstract patterns, then hurls it back into the flames. A prolonged maniacal laughter screeches from her throat. Skwata who was alarmed at first by the fire lit near the main electricity pole with a transformer supplying power to Joy-land guest house weighs his options. His fingers fidget with a short baton strapped in a leather belt on his waist. But there is no madness that has ever been purged by a beating.
“You try to whip me if you are the one!”
A rendition steals into her heart and she shoots up, belts out neshiombo maalum, that song of the beautiful bride, so beautifully, such that when she starts to dance; her flailing arms, throwing legs and vibrating waist, some of the blithe school children and other children mimic her moves. Skwata even nods along composing himself.
A hawker with a trolley passes by and he distracts into buying some sweets for the children as he gets himself, a small sachet of cashew nuts and two boiled eggs.
“Okumutu is in one of her good days eh?” the hawker notes as he peels the eggshells.
Skwata plasters a smile on his wrinkles.
“It is all out in her sweating.”
The hawker cuts the eggs with a small knife and using a silvery table spoon embellishes them with the kachumbari mixture of cut onions, tomatoes and pepper from an old Blue band tin.
“Make one for her.”
Okumutu wipes away sweat from her brow and shoves the egg in her mouth with her long dirty fingers crushing it hungrily between brown teeth. As some shards of egg splatter from the sides of her mouth she takes a few seconds to swallow.
“Don’t trust darkness because you think,” she coughs, “everyone is afraid,” she coughs again, “Yes, that was love. I was Juliet. My breasts were firm like coconuts and supple like plums not flabby and tasteless like stale oranges the way you see them now. My eyes were roses that dazzled like a Citroën’s full lights and my hair ate Hair Glo so it was silky and glorious. I was fine wine and he was Romeo who wanted to drink from the coveted cup of love. We lived in the gardens of Caren in Nairobi. We lived. Skwata you don’t know living you just hear, let me tell you.”
She pushes the bangles up her arms.
“That time I know you were in the air force before you were court-martialled. Now you are a watchman. Air force pilot to watchman. You are a dog.”
The blithe school children and other children giggle, hurling into the fire their sweet wrappers in turns.
“Is it true?” a curious school boy in torn rubber shoes and a gaping school bag who is chewing his sweet and the sleeve of his sweater asks.
“Yes I was a flight lieutenant.”
“The sharpness of a dog’s nose is the mouth of its greed. My Abujubuju Robinson died. I shall remember. A dog is not a cat.”
She perches herself back on the brick, silent for a while. Her head is stooped. She buries it in her arms.
Maybe she is not really mad? The strange thought never before fondled with in his mind startles Skwata.
“Then he drove home. I was worked up. Waiting. There was a woman. I had heard there was a woman. A woman who was his secretary at the office. I was slaving for a man who was dipping in another place. Some nights I slept with cold sheets. I was waiting to cut it off.”
“To cut what?” a cheeky girl asks.
“She said cut it.” the school boy in torn rubber shoes and a gaping school bag whispers.
“That thing.” Okumutu points at the shorts of the school boy in torn rubber shoes and a gaping school bag.
The schoolboy in torn rubber shoes and gaping school bag shudders. He is looking into Skwata’s face as if pleading for rescue. Skwata wonders if at this point he should drive away the children.
Okumutu jolts from the brick she has been perched on like a spirit that has been seized by the revelation it is imperializing a wrong body and works herself into a frenzy rushing at the blithe school children and other children. They scamper away to another safe distance making faces. Children enjoy such games indeed.
“I am going to heaven,” she proclaims stopping and making faces at the blithe school children and other children.
“I am a saint. Saint Okumutu with an arrow. I was mad but now I am sane. I was lost now I am found. The old is gone in comes the new. The angels in heaven are singing in jubilation.”
She picks some more stray bottles driven away by wind and hurls them into the hissing embers of her fire. There is a thick carbon emission with a chocking smell from the burning fire which she inhales and coughs. Skwata crosses his arms and walks to lean on a defunct red telephone booth with a hanging vandalised telephone receiver. He is now keen on the children.
“I killed him I stabbed him and he deserved to eat dust that sweet man.”
Murder, Skwata remembers. The vilest murder by the hands of the legendary scorned woman. He had been there at Robinson’s funeral. He had volunteered in digging the grave and slaughtering the ritual bull that would feed the mourners. Many other rituals coloured the funeral of Abujubuju Robinson but not like the story of the mystery of his death.
Skwata had been Abujubuju Robinson’s classmate in primary school and childhood friend. People at the funeral were swapping the story that Robin had succumbed to a crime of passion at the hands of his wife Okumutu in a meticulously orchestrated homicide. When they were boys, Robin as they all called him, had been a free soul who was noticeably magnanimous with humour. His tragic death had broken many hearts. Deeply.
Earlier as Skwata and others had gone around chopping trees into logs and with axes splitting logs into firewood that would feed esitioli, the night vigil fire to be lit on the eve of Abujubuju Robinson’s burial, people had been talking. In their heaving banter of grave digging and spying on women clustered in groups singing church hymns later in the evening.
he deceased’s brother, Atola, bare chested in the cold of a drizzle, swaying in drunkenness with a two litre bottle of Quencher juice filled with busaa beer clenched in his grip, made it loud to the mourners his anguish. He lamented of his brother like any unfortunate brother could do. And his loyal mongrel barked beside him as his bottle made trips to his lips.
“Where is my brother’s wife?”
Funerals are places you reconcile grief and its side effects like Atola. Strange? No. Not at such times when sympathy is for Abujubuju Robinson’s brother, Atola; not for his grief but his own weakness for drink. The only son left, one who is the remnants of a disconsolate home’s fortunes.
“If you trouble-trouble- trouble will trouble you. I said women will kill us. If you don’t keep-keep-keep a cat and you don’t kill rats a snake-snake-snake will invade your house and we will bury-bury-bury you. Now we are burying you.”
“Skwata let me speak my grief. Even Biko knows,” Biko was the name of the barking mongrel, “Robin loved that witch-witch-witch who cooked things for him. I never saw Robin-Robin-Robin’s wallet open for my troubles. Now she has killed him and I am the one left to plant-plant-plant him in the soil. He said ‘I love her’ now look?”
Atola broadcast the story of his brother like a grieving brother, the funeral ended, and Skwata has never remembered him until now.
“Skwata. I stabbed a man. The man was drunk. He was a sore in my heart. There were perfumes of the woman around my husband that Friday night. I waited until he sat on the dinner table. I played Masekela’s Bajabula Bonke and Franco’s Non Libala on the Sanyo radio cassette player. I served him beef and matoke. And then I asked him. If only the man had been honest. If he had not been foolish like your eyes. But he said ‘I don’t know what you are talking about’ and I said in my heart ‘you will know very soon’ and brought out that letter,” she waves an imaginary paper, “Yes. There was a letter written to him from me. He read it again and again but there was nothing on his face. I brought the copies of receipts and photographs. Still nothing.”
Atola in his drunkenness at the funeral that evening had said many things among them that Okumutu had written a letter. In this letter, she had threatened to kill herself if Robin did not abandon his illicit affair with his secretary. She claimed to know that he was having her clandestinely in hotels. She claimed to have copies of receipts and incriminating photographs taken by a secret agent she had hired.
“Skwata. I had said in the letter that I was going to kill myself. And there was nothing on his face. Nothing! I was his pregnant housewife and there was nothing on his face? So I changed my plans. I was not going to let my child die. But Robin, my love. He could not be allowed to live like he was married and a bachelor in one life. No. I had slaughtered my dreams when I dropped out of the prestigious B.G.H.S at seventeen, for this man. No. It was painful. Yes. How I loved him with all my heart. I was not going to share. I played his music. I served him beef stew and matoke. And then I asked. Then he lied and I asked him to dance with me and I fetched the knife. I drove it into his stomach then his neck until my maternity dress and hands were red.”
When Robin kicked his legs in his last breaths gasping and flailing his arms as if asking for mercy not forthcoming. Atola had trumpeted in his drunkenness at the funeral that night that Okumutu sunk in a trance for three days. Then she drowned in a nervous breakdown. She had been rushed to a clinic and there she miscarried. When she resurfaced to her senses the police informed her of her charges. Then the doctor brought her the news of her miscarriage. She went bonkers.
Some old men at the funeral said it was Abujubuju Robinson’s spirit of retribution. They predicted she would seek for peace like a sightless man groping in the darkest night alone. She would leave Nairobi and roam Bunyoreluanda township without appeasement of any kind in her life; gathering scraps of paper and plastic bottles into her tribulations for eternity, until death finally would redeem her. Skwata had heard all these at the funeral. And it was happening.
“Ha-ha! Go home children and obey your parents.”
“Murderer!” It is the schoolboy in torn rubber shoes and a gaping school bag.
Skwata’s stern voice gets the blithe school children and other children’s attention. Some who have tasted his whip doesn’t have to convince the others not to stay around. They simply turn and walk without looking back and the others follow. And in a body, they huddle away grumbling not before some pelt paper at Okumutu. Screaming ‘Murderer’ at the top of their displeasure.
“Skwata. I will tell you.”
“Love is a hammer knocking knees, a howling desert sandstorm, a knife scalping a memory, a gunshot after dusk, the groping sighs of goodbye, a cage of rage, hallucinations-the madness of time,” she pauses to take in a breath, “It is good the children have gone away.”
“Are you really mad?”
“I was mad the moment I fell in the bottomless pit called love.”
Sikwata walks away her words trailing in the thud of his boots. Okumutu is quiet. The fire is dying.
Adapted from Writings on the Wall