Before everything changed, the estate we lived on had eight rental houses; four on each row, facing each other. The tenants were Zablon’s parents, Benson’s parents, Yunis’s parents, Poli’s parents, Abednego’s parents, Karis, Marisela and my parents.
1994: Marisela’s Underwear
That morning in Liet Ka Pas estate, Marisela’s yelling dragged the adults from their foolscap mattresses and bedbug infested bedding. The mothers’ hair were like mops, thick shrubbery that ate soap within three days. The mothers emerged in their old t-shirts, stockings on their heads. The fathers wore worn shorts that bulged in front.
“You jealous people don’t know me well!” Marisela said, clapping her hands. The adults asked what was wrong. Marisela shook her head. “You wicked people have stolen my underwear!”
The half-awake adults erupted in thunderous laughter, clapping and sneering. Benso and I had stopped hitting the trench water. The trench separated the two blocks of rental houses and above it, the cloth lines zigzagged.
“You are a truck Marisela!” Mama Yunis said. “Who can fit in your giant suwari?”
“Eh, so you have been studying my buttocks, is that not so, Mama Yunis?” Marisela said, charging towards Mama Yunis. “I blame you for owning scones instead of buttocks! Your husband cannot leave me alone!”
The women grabbed Marisela before she could reach Mama Yunis. The way Mama Yunis had a long mouth, you’d think she had strength. But no, she was a frail strand of grass while Marisela was bulky with a backside so large it was as though she was carrying hers and that of her neighbors.
Wherever Marisela passed a group of men around Dandora, the men cried, mrembo marry me! Siste, give me a child! These men did not call other women from the estate those sweet names.
Now, Marisela was standing inches from Mama Yunis’s face. Mama Zabu cleared her throat.
“She didn’t mean that way, my friend,” Mama Zabu said.
“I want my underwear now now or I will show all of you.”
Mama Poli stood across her door, hands folded across her chest. She pulled her mouth as her children peeped from the window, leaning on the iron sheet wall which complained of their weight. A few yards to our left, Karis was coming from the communal bathroom, a towel around his waist. He put down his bucket, all his teeth outside. He was not like our fathers. When he found the mothers arguing, he often laughed with them and at them. But the fathers in the houses shouted at them to shut up; that their voices disrupted their sleep. The mothers often shouted back; if they wanted silence, the fathers should move to Resurrection Garden or Runda Estate for Nairobi’s rich.
Marisela leaped towards Karis.
“You!” she said to him, “Did you take my underwear from this clothes line?”
“To do what with it, woman?” Karis said. Laughter poured from his mouth.
“Maybe to give your little girlfriends.”
The mothers’ laughter fished out the remaining bare-chested fathers from the confines of their bedrooms. Marisela was not laughing. I wished whomever did it would own up so that Marisela wouldn’t show us what she was planning. We were all in trouble. Marisela could even call the police on us. She knew big people: wahindi, wazungu, politicians, policemen and businessmen. If we said ng’wee, she could even tell the Bulldozer people to flatten our houses with us inside.
Mothers warned us about entering Marisela’s house because they said she was a bad woman. They asked us not to call her auntie the way we called all older women. But Marisela gave us sweets, patco and flambo and we said, “Thank you auntie.” She smiled and poked our noses. She brought uncle Davi, uncle John, uncle Mwaura to her house and many other uncles whose names we didn’t know. They came in drunk, quiet, tall, short, playful and sometimes joined us in playing football in the idle field next to Liet Ka Pas estate and near the dumpsite where everyone in Nairobi brought their garbage. When any of the uncles visited, her radio blasted umqombothi, my mama land and I’m burning up.
She cooked fancy foods, not the pathetic omena and ugali day in day out like other people. We played near her door whenever the chapati aroma called us, or when it was pilau, or mandazi or fried liver. The other mothers only cooked chapati at the end of the month and announced to everyone that God had visited them. For Marisela, every day was end month. We stayed in front of her house until she gave us one chapati to share. If she did not divide it amongst us, it meant war because none of us could divide it equally. Even though she gave us goodies, she pinched our ears when she found us playing with the black trench water or throwing stones into the open sewers.
“You have become filthy chokoras! Do you want to get typhoid?” she would ask.
Sometimes, she said we’d get cholera or Ebola that killed children. When I asked my mother if this was true, she almost strangled me for talking to Marisela.
In the crammed space between the rows of houses, Marisela was still shouting. The fathers begged her to lower her voice, but the more they begged, the more she shouted. “Nobody steals my underwear and gets away with it. You don’t know where I am from. Asi!” She switched to Kamba and they yelled at her to speak in a language we all understood. She swore she was going back to Kitui and when she returned…she finished it in Kamba again.
Mama Yunis and Mama Poli started speaking to each other in Kiembu and Marisela got angrier.
“Are you planning to use my underwear to bewitch my womb? Or you want to bewitch me so that my customers run away?”
The two women told Marisela that they already had loving husbands. Why would they bewitch her? What was so good about her? Marisela answered by saying that everything about her was good.
Benso and I exchanged looks. I smiled; Benso did not. Marisela was winning; everything about her was good. She owned a gas cooker, not the kerosene stove or charcoal jiko everyone else had. Her house even had carpet and a big TV.
After Marisela said that everything about her was good, Mama Poli sneered and spat in disgust. Marisela reminded her that Baba Poli was community property; she should be humble and shut up. The other mothers roared with laughter except Mama Poli. She told Marisela, “My husband might be a community husband, but he belongs to me at the end of the day!”
“That one belongs to all of us!” Marisela said. “Ask them! Ask all these women if they haven’t tasted him.”
The mothers stopped laughing and looked away and the fathers shifted their weight from one leg to another. When Karis began laughing, everyone turned their attention to him. He still had his towel around his waist and his chest hair looked like tiny sprouting maize.
“And you say Karis is the bad one?” Karis said to the crowd. “All these women? Cheap!”
I was afraid Karis’s towel would fall off the way he continued moving his hands. I asked Benso what Karis meant and he said he would explain later, that in the meantime, I should just listen to the arguments. Benso knew everything. He was the one who told me Marisela was the richest person in the estate because she sold her body.
“But how can she sell her body? It belongs to her!” I said.
“You are too stupid to understand!” Benso said. That is why I didn’t like Benso because he liked abusing all of us, just like his mother.
The argument had come to a stalemate. The fathers stared at the mothers. It was Mama Benso who found her tongue first.
“This is a mad woman!” she said. “What evidence do you have that Baba Poli is community property as you say?”
Marisela’s face showed her disgust. Baba Poli, the subject of discussion, was nowhere. He was a mason who often left before anyone woke up. Marisela said it was not her business to break homes, but if they did not produce her underwear, everyone was in trouble.
“We want to help you,” said Mama Abednego, speaking for the first time, “Because the Lord says, in Jeremiah, that he will shame our enemies.” Marisela looked at her as if she were feces on a plate. People respected Mama Abednego because she oversaw bible study in the estate and held fellowships once a month in her house, where she served black tea and biscuits. But her husband did not know God. “When was the last time you saw your underwear?” Mama Abednego asked Marisela.
“Yes. Where was it last? Which color was it?” Mama Zabu said.
Karis vanished into his house, looking unhappy.
“Now you want me to announce to the world the color of my underwear?” Marisela switched to Kamba again.
“We will not make any progress if you don’t cooperate,” Baba Benso said.
“Red! Okay? Red!” Marisela said.
Everyone gasped. Who wears red underwear? This woman was a witch. Decent women wore white panties and black ones. The fathers told the mothers to be quiet and the mothers rolled their eyes. This was a women’s affair, they grumbled.
“Can you describe it for us? And men, if you have seen what she describes, please speak up. This estate has never had cases of theft,” Baba Benso said.
Benso was staring at his lying father. Things grew legs in this estate. Clothes, basins, dusters, dust pans, pegs, shoes, water jerricans and jikos. But a lost underwear was a new one, because nobody—except for Marisela—aired them outside.
“It is enough!” said Mama Yunis and her husband looked like he wanted to slap her.
The fathers wanted details of the underwear. Baba Abednego’s face didn’t look serious. Baba Zabu’s lit up. Karis’s head was now outside his window, mischief playing on his face. I also wanted to hear how it looked. It must be beautiful for someone to steal it. The other children didn’t even care and remained in the houses.
“It is laced; here in front,” Marisela said gesturing a triangle, “but behind it is strings.” The mothers covered their ears and others their mouths. This woman was scandalous!
“What?” Marisela asked, eyeing them. “You think I wear ugly things as if I’m a grandmother?”
Benso laughed and the nearest woman slapped his head. I froze, afraid of a similar spanking.
Baba Benso held his laughter and put on a brave face. “Who has seen what she describes?”
The mothers all began talking at once.
“Is that a lost panty or lost ropes?”
“To wake up and shame us in front of our men?”
“I am not surprised.”
“This one, did she even go to school?”
“This is just a malaya!”
Without warning, Marisela slapped Mama Yunis across the face. “What is your business if I am a malaya? Hasn’t your husband enjoyed my services too? Me that you call malaya?”
Mama Yunis’s reciprocating slap was so loud that I thought Marisela’s teeth had fallen. The fathers jumped between the two women who were now tearing other’s clothes and hurling insults: a dirty pig; a stupid whore; private parts full of maggots; shriveled breasts. Benso told me the fathers should let the two women fight so that each earns respect. Women in Dandora were always fighting over men, men were always arguing about politics, children were always causing trouble. The mothers and fathers asked Marisela to search through her stuff. Maybe one of her customers had confused her strings and tied his shoes with them. Marisela was fighting tears when she rushed into her house, shouting, “Mmenizoa! I swear, whoever stole it, her private parts will rot and she’ll die! Let me reach Kitui!”
The mothers and fathers exchanged nervous looks. I wanted to apologize to Marisela, but my mother would beat me to a pulp. Marisela pushed through the crowd, pulled the wooden gate aside and disappeared among the other houses, heading to Kitui. We didn’t know it was the last time we’d see her.
1995: Marisela’s Curse
Marisela had not returned when Baba Benso died one morning after a month of being ill. He had become thin, even wind could carry him. We looked at his dead body, a white fluid coming out of his mouth. Mama Benso cried, Benso cried, the neighbours wailed. I heard my parents say that it was Baba Benso who stole Marisela’s underwear. But men could not wear women’s underwear. Maybe he gave it to Mama Benso. After the burial in Lang’ata Cemetery, I told Benso, “It is your father who stole Marisela’s underwear.” Benso beat me until the other children ran and called our mothers.
“You are a wicked child!” Mama Benso cried to me when she heard. My parents beat me for saying stupid things.
We waited for Marisela to return and continue giving us chapati and pilau and sweets, but we opened school and closed and still Marisela was not back. Sometimes we sat at her door steps and drew ajua and played there. The other neighbors used her cloth lines and when she returned, I planned to tell her that my parents never used her lines. The day after we closed school, Mama Poli’s children, Poli, Iyan and Shaka woke everyone screaming. We crammed into their house, looking at their sleeping mother. Baba Poli looked at us with sad eyes and I looked away when tears dripped from those eyes. Her body smelled like a sewer, but we could not spit because if you did, the smell followed you everywhere. The next day, a lorry carried all their belongings to their upcountry home where they said she would be buried. They gave away some things to the neighbours and left Marisela’s cooking pan under my parents’ care.
One day, we were playing football near the dumpsite when boys from the next estate came and said Karis died. A speeding matatu had run over him. If they hadn’t seen with their eyes, the boys said, they would not have believed it was Karis. We sat at his door and Mama Abednego prayed for him to sleep well in the Lord. Mama Zabu said the world had lost a good man; Baba Zabu said Karis was generous. Mama Yunis said Karis had a good heart. Others said he was cheerful. Us children did not say anything. I feared looking at Karis’s door from that day on.
We had forgotten Karis a bit when Mama Zabu and Baba Zabu became very ill and very thin like Baba Benso when he died. They had wounds all over their bodies. Zabu refused to play with us and sat in the house all day crying. When they died days apart, Mama Abednego said we needed to run to the Lord to save us all from Marisela’s curse. After burying them, we prayed and prayed to God telling him we did not steal Marisela’s underwear and we did not want to die. But we did not pray loud enough because Mama Yunis too died that year and after the following New Year’s Day, Baba Abednego disappeared. Some people said he ran off with a woman to Malindi; others said his body was buried in the public cemetery when no relative claimed him; others said no, his body was being used for research in Chiromo Campus.
New Life: 1998
Liet Ka Pas estate has new tenants, including the lady we robbed the other day. She now lives in the house which used to be ours. My parents died a few months after moving from there to Gaza estate on the other side of Dandora, where men are always shouting, women are always shouting, children are always shouting, touts are always shouting, and the cops are always shooting people dead. Benso and I live under the Dandora flyover counting matatus, motorbikes, staring at school-going children and they, looking at us with fear. We sit listening to the musical honking, the blasting reggae and riddims from matatus and as we wait on Marisela to tell her we are sorry.