We sat in the smoke-filled kitchen. I chocked and chocked. The hypocrisy chocked me too. Not that I have never had the occasional smoke, I have. At one point, I would light one too many on end, the thing about chasing demons. But the trees burning up in that kitchen seemed angry. Perhaps at the guys who ended it for them, but sure enough they were not in that room nevertheless someone had to pay. They chaffed too much smoke, the kind of smoke that chocked you to tears. There are three fire places, each almost symmetrically placed along the circumference of the hut. The contents of the sufurias rippled with an enthusiasm.
I was chasing a story. Once again, a cheap thrill led me to the feet of humanity at its most vulnerable-trying to survive. Somewhere, in the heart of Bungoma County, a village so remote I would not remember its name even if I genuinely wanted to. Not that I do not want to. There are pains you cannot deal with. Simply put, they are not your burden to bear, like this one. One Sunday afternoon, with a group of friends, we walk into a compound. It seems big enough as a quarter an acre, walled with trees. Mud houses were sprinkled all over. The one at the center stood out like a pimple, a big round grass-thatched hut pointed at the cone extending towards the big yellow wood tree that hovered above it. My mind starts to wonder off, like it always does about the kind of things that happen in that hut. Did it have some divinity in it or maybe an interesting story behind it. A great man built it or a very wise old man died in it.
As we approach the hut, I notice a group of men young and elderly in groups under the shades. They were seated in a circle, with long straws hanging from their mouths. This was the famous Busaa Bistro in the hood. It must have served several other villages for its fame proceeded the mystery the big hut reeked from a distance. 1kg tins of chipsy, kimbo and the likes sit on table tops. Loud chatters in Bukusu vernacular fill the compound, with occasional loud laughs disturbing the intoxicated atmosphere. I know what you are thinking. I was also thinking what you are thinking.
If tomorrow I was a goner, what kind of stories will I tell Simon and Peter when they will be telling me cool stories like,’ My guy, this time we are walking with our hommie Jesus in some hood called Galilee. We crush this weddo, and then the craziest thing happens! Guys don’t have any booze, so our guy turns water into wine.’
Then I go,’Whooa! So cool. We just kunywad ‘Johnny mostly. And sometimes, we burnt the liver with the cheap booze from these guys across us ‘Konyagi.’
I must try it. To put all this to bed. I won’t be the boring dude with lazy adventures. We pick a spot and sit under a tree. A group of around six men sit a few instances from us. In the middle, a big pot played the locus. They wave at us, we wave back. I am skeptical about the safety of this haven. If cops walked in right now, I don’t want to imagine the headlines. But I sit still. I look around in search of something, maybe a bottom too. My eyes are fixed on the mystery hut, this must be where the magic happens, explains the divinity wrapped around it. Just then, a young damsel about twelve or thirteen springs out into the intoxicated atmosphere. Our eyes meet before I dodge hers. I look away pretending I am not prodding. She quickly walks towards us.
The awkwardness is louder than her voice. I pretend I am not part of the transaction. One of my friends blankly replies, with no shame nor fear,’ A tin please.’
She turns and heads towards the mystery hut. I ask the bold one.
‘Do you come here often?’
‘As often as you drink.’
We all laugh. I am on a stupid cleanse. Stupid because the cleanse itself has nothing to do with alcohol, it was symbolic or something. I needed to feel sane again, to find my footing in this world and sit out the drama. Old patterns, toxic habits and people kept cycling back to my path, so I had to. A cleanse of the soul, mind and chakras. Today was special.
‘I do. Quite often. ‘
‘What’s her name?’
‘I would not know. But I know she does not go to school anymore.’
‘I am not sure. I can’t say if it is lack of fees. ‘
‘They are making a great sum out of this, aren’t they?’
The distinctive smell of busaa interrupts. She puts it on the table top and stretches out her hand towards me. Puzzled, why would she assume I had the money. My friends tell me, because I wear spectacles they assume I must be important. So, they told her, I was a writer. For a minute, I wonder how narcissistic these cavalries of friends I had. Then I forgive their in-congruence. Sometimes, we do what we do and say what we say to feel good about ourselves.
The bold one comes to my rescue and hands her a 200-hundred-shilling note. She runs into the kitchen.
I take up a straw, ready to siphon, chase a bottom and see for myself what existed on the other end. The cold breeze was perfect, the sun too was graceful, the busaa was just busaa, but that moment fit into a frame so perfectly I thought I should paint it. I leave the straw hanging out of the tin and walked into the kitchen. We sit in the smoke-filled kitchen. I chocked and chocked. The hypocrisy chocked me…
I met the girl’s mother, Nekesa. She is a widow in her fifties. When I walked in, I could barely see her from the thick fog of smoke that filled the kitchen until she called out. I sit on a stool, next to her. She is worried I will probably die from too much smoke, then I tell her, even the ‘gover’ was worried about the same only difference they did not ban the firewood but the shisha. Her, she tells me about mheshimiwa. He occasionally popped in for the magic juice. Whenever he did, he tipped her a huge chunk.
I asked the mother if I could have Tet-a-Tet with her daughter. Pretty much excited, she lets me. We go outside and stand near the door. I ask her if she is still in school, absent minded she responds with a gloomy yeah and looks at the road across. She says she is in class seven. I reach out a little, tell her the importance of sitting this school thing to the end.
‘Finish school, there so much out there.’
At her age, the whole idea of being in school excited me. I read everything I could put my hands on. I looked forward to going to class and loved studying like it was the only thing I was put on earth to do. I did not go to the best schools, but I was lucky I saw the inside of a classroom. We lived through totally different circumstances. While I had role models to look up to, she had busaa to serve throngs of people who always crowded their homestead. Education would not necessarily revamp her life but it is her ticket out.
This was a pig sty. A prison of some sort. Life revolves around the few coins they make, food and the next day then repeat. Classes probably tortured the life out of her because she knows it is only seasonal. She would be kicked out for one reason or another, spend a few days home helping her family to eke a living. While at it, some generous clientele would tip her a few coins that would go a long way in fostering their survival. I had no right to tell her to stay in school without understanding the cards she was given.
She seemed bored. She keeps looking around, throwing glances into the kitchen. I don’t think she is listening. She smiles at some guys in a nearby shade. I tell her we will talk some more before I leave and walk back inside. We sit with the mother. I help her push more firewood into the fire then we sit in utter silence listening to the twigs giving into the fire.
I ask if she has heard of scholarships. She hasn’t. I tell her about these organizations that can help her daughter finish school, like One Girl Can. They keep girls from needy backgrounds in school. She tells me it would be great for her daughter. Someone walks in, but we cannot see through the smoke. She comes closer and Nekesa introduces me to her eldest, Nasimiyu. Apparently, she could not also complete school for lack of fees. They decided she would rather stay home and help around with the brewing business.
We share a stool with Nasimiyu. She anxiously puts more firewood into the fire. I ask if she is okay. She is mostly worried I am a writer and she might be a news item somewhere. I laugh, at myself.
I try to break down this blogging thing I have started. She smiles most of the time, exposing her gap. I trust her.
‘Is your sister in school?’
‘No. She has not been for a while. ‘
‘Talk to her. If she can go why wouldn’t she.’
‘She does not want to. ‘
‘If you had a chance to, what would you do.’
‘I would study like I never have. And make something useful out of myself. But she does not know.’
‘I don’t think she doesn’t know. I think she has gotten comfortable with this life. ‘
‘This life. The tips, the attention, few coins make you forget your troubles for a little while.’
‘True. But they will still come to haunt you. You know to make the extra money, I go with a guy sometimes. ‘
I am praying in my heart that going in this sense should be the literal. It would mean even the youngest has to sometimes. I grind my teeth at the thought of giving myself to a drunken stranger I did not know. No affection, no attention just his dues. Who am I to judge? This is the life she has, chosen or not chosen for her, she had little to do with.
‘But see, it is not because I sell my body for money. I must. The extra coin goes a long way in supplementing for food especially when things are bad.’
‘They get that bad?’
‘Sometimes they do. My younger sister has a child. ‘
She laughs, a light laugh.
‘Have you made bad decisions before?’
‘Are you seriously asking? I am the queen of bad decisions. I have on so many levels.’
Her younger sister got paged by a clientele but because herself she was too drunk that night she could not make out the father. I wonder if sometimes when they draw out resemblances from the clients. They considered terminating the pregnancy since another mouth to feed would be a hard bargain on their already dead finances. It was too expensive an option than carrying the pregnancy to term. She did. We all make mistakes, it is only human. But in the end, we must make peace with our mistakes, downfalls, bad decisions and heartbreaks too. We must accept that this is the life we were given, but as much as we had little in deciding how it became, we are the masters of how it goes.