Village life was good. Very good. I miss the good, old days when life was fresh and young. When fishes flew in beautiful ponds. Well, not really ponds but rivers. Ponds are things we picked up in primary school learning, rivers picked us. We found the rivers. We would swim days on end. Our favorite river of choice was River Nyatini, a diversion of the great River Nyando. River Nyatini was a darling for many reasons. For a start, it was nearest to our home, less than a kilometer. Secondly it was not very deep as its mother Nyando was. So we could swim days on end without major incidences. One would overdrink the river water once in a while, but that’s okay. It was part of learning how to swim.
The occasional brush with drowning reminded us of the consequences of not paying attention to our mothers’ endless warnings that we stop swimming in that river. You see, the road to our local market center Ahero, meets River Nyatini at some point. The meeting point almost divides the distance from home to the market in equal parts. Our mothers, fond of their almost daily pilgrimage to the market would see us swimming in the river naked. Whenever your mum’s eye meet yours you’d quickly look away. You knew nothing good would come from her mouth. She’d be either yelling ‘unprintables’ at you blaming your embarrassing behavior (of swimming naked unmoved in public and failing to heed her warnings) on some wicked, long – gone, one – eyed uncle. Some days, if lady luck smiled your way, she would be reminding you, as she passes by, how she knows that you’ve not yet assembled the day’s firewood as was asked of you.
It didn’t matter whether it was just your friend’s mother passing by. She would lump all of you together and give a unitary scorn. You see, imbeciles hang out together, it’s not fair that one imbecile be called out while others are left laughing at him. Those mothers! They would later brief each other of which and which retard was swimming against their constant warnings. Our fathers were cool though. They would pass by, assume that they saw nothing. They didn’t even see you. Perhaps they understood why we behaved so. It ran in the genes, so it didn’t take a genius to figure out that we learned that chocking habit from them. Like fathers like sons. I can go on end about our little river and its encounters but that’s for another day.
Today was a day of greed. Well, over twenty years ago today. Or so I guess. I had been away that day. I saw off the whole afternoon swimming in the damned river, playing soccer and tending to cows belonging to our leader’s father. Joshua was our de facto leader, there were other older kids in our camp, but leadership knows no age. It is inbuilt, it’s a gift. They say power is grabbed not given. So against all odds Joshua was our leader, albeit a benevolent one. Still, he dictated which games we would play, whose turn it was to bring back to the fold any wandering cows, when the soccer match would end (this was the saddest, everyone would pray that Joshua keeps playing, for the moment he quits all things came down). He was the Jesus of Nazareth of our camp, we were the disciples. I would want to guess that I was John or James, there was Judas Iscariot in our camp, there’s always a Judas in every camp even if we have refused to formally give children that name. I was not the Judas Iscariot of that group, the disciples who read this can testify.
It was during the long August holidays. I was the lastborn in my family, I had five elder siblings then. Years later I’d stop being a last born, one of these days I will tell you how I lost the kingdom of ‘lastborn – hood’. We were all at home, full house. Dad was a teacher, so was mum. But he loved preaching more. Our home was like a Catholic seminary where visitors from within and beyond the river would congregate days on end. Dad loved the good old book, the Bible. And with that came the streams of visitors who had somehow unknowingly transformed our little home into a Parish.
It was late evening when I arrived home. The sun had gone to sleep. (Years ago I was fascinated with the thought that the moment the sun goes down, it would engage itself in a spirited sprint behind the hills going round the earth’s surface carefully avoiding being seen so that it may casually emerge again the following day from the East, calm and confident to start her leisurely stroll across the earth’s surface towards the West, sunset. Nights were shorter, have always been shorter than days, but it is because we sleep. Sleep is an illusion. Back then I believed nights were factually shorter than days, hence the need for the sun to sprint to make it before daybreak).
The sun had hidden itself behind the hills. The chicken had returned home. KBC channel through our precious black and white Greatwall TV was filling our ears with the daily ritual of telling us what Baba wa Taifa (the nation’s president) and his Makamu (the Vice) did or failed to do.
Mum was busy making supper in the outer kitchen. Kitchen and main house have always been separate in typical African homes. My siblings and dad were either watching TV or engaging in some little chat in the main house. I couldn’t head straight to the main house, or let my mum notice that this one here is rugged and dirty to the roof still carrying the day’s stench around. Mum never considered a swim in that irritating river as a day’s bath. So I took shower first. Not your kind of shower we have in the cities gushing from solar heated water tanks or powered with the instant electric switches. It was a dank, cold water in a bucket.
A deserving treatment for a naughty child who spends whole hours of the afternoon in gratifying self to an extent the sun goes down on them dirty.
I bypassed the main house and went straight to the kitchen where things that really mattered were happening. Mum had prepared fish, tilapia. First delicately fried then later made into some thick soup deliberately decorated with pints of cow milk to add more nutrition and importantly to allure ‘lastborns’ into eating mood. The ‘lastborns’ of today need to be lured to eat, I didn’t need any luring. Food was to be torn apart. After spending the whole day chasing wind on end, who needs to be whipped, mobilized to eat? To make matters sweeter it was no ordinary dinner, it was fish. Precious fish, the things that make villagers glow and brag. The only competitor to fish in the village is chapatti. That one is an all – time madness, a foreign dish that has caused more heat than light in gatherings. The atrocities that the love of chapatti has caused in the village still wears a hat. A big hat. The extent of its madness will be known ages to come.
Next to the tempting tilapia stew bowl stood a ‘sufuria’ of greens, African natives greens, “kunde” some call it. Mum was waiting for water in the karai, the white man’s saucepan equivalent, to come to a boil so she can make ugali to accompany the tilapia and kunde. She was in no mood to ask this one here what he had been up to the whole day. In anyway her very able intelligence had fed her all the ‘facts’. It would be needless to place me, in that dreaded seat to speak the truth.
Truth is strange and scary, she knew I would have fed her lies. The kind of lies that look like truth. She chose her peace. She would interrupt the stark silence in the mud – walled kitchen with her occasional singing. She loves hymnal, but I am not sure she gets the keys right. She loved singing anyways, she still does.
I was there staring at the water in the saucepan about to be brought to a boil. The mathematics was not adding up. Numeric and I have never been enemies. I can smell a numeric anomaly miles away. I smelled a rat. The ugali that would result from such volume of water would be meager. It looked like a one person’s meal! Not when you have a battalion of hungry mouths anxiously waiting in the main house to devour the meal being prepared. It didn’t help further that it was a soup dinner, not any other soup but fish soup. The numbers just didn’t make sense. You see I had been away the whole afternoon running up and down on low tummy till sunset. I needed something solid, very solid and in abundance to fill myself up.
The easier path you all guess I should have opted for was to ask mum, draw her attention to the fact that she was about to commit unpardonable sin of the century. Preparing an obviously under estimated dinner. But my mum is not like this like this, you don’t just wake up out of nowhere with toxic verbal diarrhea trying to send a message. Not when you’ve been out all day doing nothing useful to her cause. That direction could have ended in a bloody sweep, she would have lectured me minutes on end before dispatching me to the main house with no hope of return. Some things are better done differently, discretely. The man who lives by the lake understands the storm better. I couldn’t take chances.
While she stepped out of the kitchen to ferry the pots of kunde and fish to the main house, in the nick of time I struck! I smuggled in two more cups of water into the nearly boiling ugali water. Then I innocently inclined back and we both waited for the water to come to a boil. That was close, what if she caught me doing it? These thoughts kept running in my mind. But I consoled myself that it had to be done, for the preservation of the human race. I came through for the eaters, I told myself. Someone had to take the fall. Luos have a saying, ‘Okinyi bor gi nyathi ma dichuo.’ Loosely translated to mean a boy child deserves a good heavy meal when the sun goes down.
When the water finally came to, immediately she started adding flour I had mum murmur curses of how this little water she fought so hard to keep minute was now turning into a big ugali after all. Against her plans, her wishes. I was smiling within, the wicked kind of smile, of victory. Still, I was wondering why she would cook a smaller ugali deliberately. Doesn’t she know the eating army she keeps in her house? What happened to the age long norm that ‘lastborns’ should eat well? If not overfeed?
My terrain of thoughts were finally answered once the monster ugali I had created out of deceit was laid on the table for sons and daughters of men to take. Two brothers excused themselves, saying they were full, not in a mood to dig in. Two other sisters said that they would skip supper, they would take strong tea instead. So was my dad. Mum generally eats less than the rest of us all. It was there that my greedy matters laid bare their ugly product. Greed begets greed. There was this mountain of ugali that now I had to somewhere wrestle with almost to a man, by myself.
You see, mum in her wisdom knew that her family would not eat much, not when they had just taken a heavy meal about 5pm earlier in the evening. Unknown to me, dad’s stream of special brethren had visited home in the afternoon. After an afternoon of breaking spiritual bread, dotted with carefully selected hymns and periodic prayers, a meal was prepared which all gathered together and shared. Yours truly was away during that divine time. And since I missed the matters of the Kingdom, it only made sense that I was still reasoning carnally when I came back home at sunset, the greedy way.
That day greed upstaged and defeated reasoning. My mum has never known who swelled the ugali, perhaps she knew and looked ahead consoling herself, “Mag piny bura oloyo.” (The things of this world meeting has defeated)