New Authors, New Writing: Clar Ni Chonghaile
Story published with the author’s permission
The purple rain falls in October. I sweep it from the drive with my bamboo brush,
bending low, scraping the hard bristles across the tarmac. It takes me all day and the job is never done. I like it that way. Otherwise, I’d be sitting in my hut, watching the gate, waiting to open it when the boss arrives. Or his wife. Or the ayah coming with the girls from school. So to fill the hours, I sweep up the purple rain. And it falls again before I reach the end of this winding stretch of tarmac that has been my place of work for 15 years. So I start again, retracing my steps, my old, red flip-flops slapping the tarmac.
Until today. Today was different and yet some things stayed the same. I felt the same hostile eyes on me as I arrived for my shift before dawn. The other guards on the street don’t like me. I hear their whispers, though they think these old ears don’t work anymore.
“There goes that useless Luo,” they say. “He thinks he owns the place, but look at the holes in his trousers, look at the shoes. Who hires a Luo as a guard? A boy for a man’s job!”
These other guards in their smart uniforms and shiny, black boots are Kikuyu. I come from the west, from the wet, green lands near Lake Victoria. Obamaland. But it’s not that simple either. I came to Nairobi in 1970, when I was just 20. This tough city that forgives no one has been my home for 40 years. It is the home of my wife and my four children. They come with me to the village sometimes but the older ones less and less. The village has lost its power: it ebbed away with each death. First my father, then my mother, my brother, my sister, my aunt. There is not much reason to go there now. And it is expensive.
But here I will always be a Luo. They know it, just as I know them as Kikuyu. I can’t explain it. It’s not as easy as saying someone has big lips or a big nose or narrow eyes. It’s there though.
“Habari yako mzee,” calls the new guard with the wide, white smile that says here is a young man who is yet to discover real pain.
He is polite and maybe a little silly. He does not join in with the others when they gossip about me. This will cause him problems later but maybe he will not be here long. Guards come and go a lot. Sometimes he brings me hot chai, especially when it rains and the water leaks through the roof of my hut. I built that shelter myself, piling logs and wood on top of each other beside the gate, adding cardboard to plug the holes and keep out the cold wind that rushes through the trees before the rain, telling us to get ready and sending leaves spinning to earth, spinning onto my drive, giving me something to do.
Nobody ever told me to sweep the drive. Not my boss now, or the men before him. I just do it. I like to keep the place neat. I was always a tidy boy, helping my mother sweep the yard outside our hut near Kisumu.
“Sweeping the leaves again,” the other guards jeer.
They sit on the kerb, in the shade, gossiping like women, whispering like naughty children. I have no time for such talk. Especially not when those purple flowers from the jacaranda keep falling, speckling the drive, my drive.
Today, the girls came from school early. It is half-term. Tomorrow, the family is going to the coast. Their father is a banker, a fair man. He always thanks me, pays me regularly, and gives me a good Christmas bonus. He sometimes gives me shoes and clothes that he no longer wants. I give them to my two boys. My boss is more generous than some of the Kenyans around here. The mzungus sometimes make better bosses.
My previous boss was a mzungu, an aid worker from Sweden. He stayed for three years and his wife used to bring me food. The whites still feel guilty. Even the ones from countries that had nothing to do with Africa’s past. Maybe they should. I don’t know. I can’t imagine what it is like to be them. I don’t really want to. I’ve spent my adult life working for people I don’t understand, people I can’t understand. Even my Kenyan boss now. He is as remote from me as the Swedish aid worker with the comfortable-looking sandals and the cheery wave.
The eldest girl, Chrystal, got out of the car to help me shut the gate. She does that whenever it is not raining. She is six and chatty and reminds me of my youngest, as she was. She is now 19, but there is something in Chrystal’s cheeky smile and curious eyes that pulls those memories of Achieng back from wherever we put our past lives.
“Can I help you sweep mzee?” Chrystal asks.
I like the way she calls me mzee, carefully, respectfully. I give her the brush. She grabs the handle and the sharp bristles scrape on the pitted tarmac. The jacaranda flowers run from her strokes. She puffs, her little face frowning. She is a good girl.
“This is hard work,” she moans.
Her little sister, Nadia, joins us. She is only three and is the friendliest of the whole family. She greets me by name.
She fights her sister for the brush and I have to separate them or they will poke each other with the sharp bristles.
“Give it to your sister, Chrystal. Let her have a turn,” I say quietly.
“Why? She always gets everything. It’s not fair!” Chrystal flings the brush down and stomps off to the house.
Nadia picks it up, looks at me with those soft eyes, and says seriously, “Chrystal is naughty. Not sharing.”
She tries to sweep the purple rain but the brush is nearly as big as her and she trips over the bristles. She laughs as she sits where she fell, grabbing handfuls of the flowers and throwing them in the air. The ayah calls her for lunch.
“Kwaheri,” she sings, running up the drive.
“Kwaheri,” I reply. And, to be sure, “Goodbye.”
I know she does not speak Swahili with her parents. Her mother is Rwandan.
I eat my ugali in my hut, balling the paste between my fingers before popping it in my mouth. It looks like the guard with the big smile has gone home. The three large Kikuyus from the houses nearby have eaten and are stretched flat on the soft grass beside the road. They are not talking now. It is too hot, and with lunch out of the way and no one expected home, it is time for a nap. I will not lie down myself. My hut is inside the gate and I would never lie on the children’s lawn. I may be old and frail and a joke in this neighbourhood but I have my dignity. And I do not want to hear any jeers today about lazy Luos. I doze as I sit on the worn armchair that the Swedish boss gave me after he saw me sitting on a bottle crate. The chair used to be red, I think, but like everything in the hut now it is a kind of brown.
After lunch, the girls come out again. They bring their bicycles down the drive. They are going to cycle in the street. Here in the compound, they can do that. It’s a luxury in Nairobi where most roads have no paths. You would have to be crazy to cycle on the road itself, with the matatus roaring past, swerving at top speed, overtaking on corners, their passengers staring out the dirty windows like they don’t care or won’t care or have been numbed by the blaring music.
I used to cycle here when I first arrived though. I got a job delivering crates of eggs to the market stalls around Mathare. I would pile the crates high on the back of the squeaky bicycle I rented from a cousin’s friend. The tower reached above my head and wobbled so much that I was always fighting the sway to stay upright. The hills nearly killed me. My legs would be on fire, my shoulders aching, but I would cycle all day. I needed the money. I was married already and my son was a year old. One day, I hit a pothole when I swerved to keep out of the way of a four-by-four and the bike toppled over. I lost all the eggs in the top crate but no other egg was broken. I had to pay for the lost eggs but, as my wife said, it could have been much worse. Things can always be worse. That’s what I have learned and that knowledge is what will eventually dim the smile of my young friend with the hot chai.
The girls’ ayah comes with them. Chrystal cycles away quickly, heading up to the end of the street, her legs pedaling furiously, as if she is trying to get away from something. Nadia tries to keep up, screaming at her sister to wait. The ayah, Mary, and I laugh. We stand together at the gate and talk about our families, using Swahili and English but separate words. We don’t use Sheng, that mish-mash of both languages that my children speak. Mary thinks it is vulgar and I am too old to learn another language. She does not speak my language, nor I hers. She is a Kamba from Embu, up north.
“How is your husband now?” I ask.
“He is much better, thank God,” she says, frowning. “The doctor said typhoid. I am not surprised. It is the second time this year. I tell him not to drink from the tap in his master’s yard but he won’t listen.” She sniffs angrily. “Maybe he will listen now.”
Her husband is a driver for an Indian businessman. He works in Gigiri, up near the United Nations and the American embassy. He is young, like Mary, maybe only in his early thirties. They have three children, all under seven. Mary is a tall woman, very thin and she frowns a lot. Her husband does not earn much, but he works long hours. He comes here sometimes to pass messages to Mary. He is silent and withdrawn and each time he looks thinner. He is often ill.
“Thankfully Madame gave me some money for the doctor. Otherwise, how could we manage? With the children at home for half-term, I have to pay my sister to look after them,” Mary says, shaking her head.
She fell silent. She was twisting her hands around and around. I only then noticed how nervous she was. She was still frowning, even though we had stopped talking. Suddenly, she turned on her heel.
“I left a cake in the oven,” she called, as she hurried away. “Keep an eye on the girls for a minute, will you?”
Chrystal was cycling back down the hill that leads to my gate, away from the main entrance. The askaris weren’t standing inside as usual. Maybe they were in their guard hut, a solid, brick building on the right-hand side of the iron gate. Nadia was frantically pedaling down the hill, trying to catch up with her sister, still shouting. Chrystal shot past me, laughing madly, and got off her bike at the gate. She took off her helmet and shook out her braids.
I moved forward. I was afraid Nadia was going to fall. She was speeding down the hill, wobbling dangerously but laughing too. And now I noticed something else. Where were the guards from our street? They had left the grass but they were not sitting on the kerb as usual. Maybe they were inside their gates. But all of them? That’s when I saw the car. It took me only a second to understand what was going on.
The black car screeched to a halt at the top of the hill. I had never seen it before and I know every car in this compound. Two men jumped out of the back, one each side. The engine was still roaring, the men were running down the hill towards Nadia. She was only feet from me now.
“Nadia, come here,” I yelled, anger and fear poisoning my voice.
But she just sat on the bike. She had never heard me yell. I had never yelled at her.
I could hear Chrystal’s bike falling and hoped she was running to the house, but I did not dare take my eyes off Nadia. Her face quivered, she looked like she was going to cry but she hadn’t turned round yet. She had not seen the men behind her, running and waving the blades gripped in their fists.
“Move, old man!” one of them shouted. “This has nothing to do with you.”
The other man, a teenager really, grabbed Nadia off her bike. She started screaming but still no one came. I stood in the road, too old, too scared, as they carried her up the hill towards the snorting car. Now, she was calling my name, screaming “Omondi, Omondi! One little hand was stretched towards me. I started to move but I was slow. I began to run. One of my flip-flops broke. It had been going to for a while. I kicked it away.
“Get back old man. You have no business here.”
It was the older man, his head covered in a dirty wool cap, his eyes squinting in the early afternoon sun. His teeth were cracked and dirty and his nose looked broken. I had reached the crest of the hill. I was just feet from the car. They had thrown Nadia into the back seat. She was sitting there, shaking, crying but not saying anything now. The teenager sat beside her, one hand on her lap to keep her down and the other holding the knife.
“Come on, let’s go!” he yelled.
“What do you want with the child?” I said, hoping someone would come.
But waspish thoughts were buzzing in the back of my mind. Where were all the guards? Why had Mary gone inside? How had these men got past the main gate? The askaris were either tied up, beaten, dead or in on it.
“Don’t take her. She’s frightened. She’s just a baby. What are you going to do with her? How will you care for her?”
“We won’t have to. If your boss wants her back, he’ll pay, and fast. We won’t hurt her. But he’d better pay.”
Suddenly, I was outraged. Who was this young thug to speak to me like this, to seize that beautiful child, to still her laughter and teach her such fear? I might be old and poor but I was not completely useless. I was an elder. I would demand my share of respect.
I stepped forward, trying to push past him to Nadia. He grabbed my arm and pushed me back but I came again. This time, his right hand flashed forward and I felt a warm wetness on my stomach. And pain. I staggered.
“Go!” he shouted, falling into the passenger seat.
They roared up to the main gate. Another man, not one of our guards, came out of the hut, opened the gate and jumped into the car too. He was carrying a gun. How had I not heard the shots? Maybe they did not shoot the guards, maybe they just scared them. The gun probably didn’t even work.
Blood was seeping from between my fingers now. I staggered again but headed down the hill. I passed Nadia’s bicycle. It had fallen over when the man pulled her off. My broken flip-flop was on the grass. There was no one around but I felt eyes on me as I stumbled, blood dripping onto my one flip-flop and onto the road. I left my mark on those stones. I had to get back to the house. I had to see Chrystal, I had to be ready for when the police came, and my boss and his poor Rwandan wife who had come to Kenya for a better life but whose heart was about to be broken.
The gate was still open. I started up the drive. My brush was lying where I dropped it when the girls came out to play. I bent down to pick it up. That’s when I fell, dropping to my knees like the old man I am.
I lie here now, looking at the sky. I think I hear voices but I know they do not speak to me. There is no time left for speech. Nadia’s voice is in my head. “Omondi, Omondi!”
I want to answer but I can’t seem to get my mouth to work. I cannot move but this does not bother me too much. The purple rain is falling, falling onto my face.