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. Our favorite river was Nyatini, a distributary and a tiny replica of the great river Nyando.
River Nyatini was bae 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; we swam many days without major incidences. One would overdrink the river water occasionally, but that’s okay. It was part of learning how to swim.
The occasional brush with drowning reminded us of the consequences of not heeding our mothers’ endless warnings that we stop swimming in that damned 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, during their daily pilgrimage to the market, would see us swimming in the river naked. Whenever your mum’s eye met 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 remind you, as she passed by, how she knew that despite your foolish display of swimming skills, you had 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 unitary scorn. Imbeciles hang out together; it’s not fair that one imbecile is called out while others are left laughing at him.
They would later brief each other of which and which retard was swimming against their warnings. Our fathers were cool, though. They would pass by, assume that they saw nothing. Perhaps, they understood why we behaved so: it ran in the genes; it didn’t take a genius to figure out that we learned that habit from the best, like fathers like sons. I can go on 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 – you either have it, or you don’t. To those who lack it, unfortunately, 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 played, whose turn it was to bring back to the fold any wandering cows, when the soccer match would end (this was the saddest; everyone prayed that Joshua keeps playing, for the moment he quit, all things came down).
Joshua was the Jesus of Nazareth of our camp; we were the disciples. I would want to guess that I was John or the studious Nathaniel. 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 the last born – one of these days, I will tell you how I lost the kingdom of ‘lastborn-hood’.)
We were all at home, a 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 congregated. Dad loved the good old book, the Bible. And with that came the streams of visitors who had somehow transformed our tiny home into a Parish.
It was late evening when I arrived home. The sun had gone to sleep behind the hills. (Years ago, I was fascinated with the thought that the moment the sun went down, it engaged itself in a spirited sprint behind the hills going around 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 stroll across the earth’s surface. Back then, I believed nights were factually shorter than days, hence the need for the sun to sprint to make it before daybreak.)
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. The kitchen and main house have always been distinct 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 was rugged and dirty to the roof, carrying the day’s stench still. Mum never considered a swim in that irritating river as a day’s bath.
So, I took a shower first. Not your kind of shower you have in the cities, gushing from solar-heated water tanks or powered with the instant electric switches; it was dank, cold water in a bucket – a deserving treatment for a naughty child who spent whole hours of the afternoon in gratifying self to an extent the sun set on them dirty.
I bypassed the main house and went to the kitchen, where things that mattered were happening. Mum had prepared a dish of fish, tilapia. First delicately fried, then later made into some thick soup, deliberately speckled 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 ripped apart. After spending the whole day chasing the wind, who needs to be whipped, mobilized to eat?
More so, it was no ordinary dinner; it was fish. Precious fish, the thing that makes 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 harm than good in gatherings, sometimes splitting even in-laws. The atrocities that the love of chapatti has caused in the village still wear a hat, a big hat. The extent of its madness will be felt 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 any way, 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 smell of truth.
She chose her peace.
She interrupted the stark silence in the mud-walled kitchen with her occasional singing. She loved hymnal, but I am not sure she got the keys right. She loved singing anyways; she still does.
I was there staring at the simmering water in the saucepan. The mathematics was not adding up. Numeric and I have never been enemies. I can smell numeric anomaly yards away. I smelled a rat.
The ugali that would have resulted from such volume of water would have been meager; it looked like a 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 that it was a soup dinner, not any other soup but fish soup. The numbers just didn’t make sense. You will agree that since I had been away the whole afternoon running up and down on low tummy till sunset, I needed something solid, substantial, and in abundance to fill myself up.
The easier path you all guess I should have taken was to ask mum, draw her attention to the fact that she was about to commit the unpardonable sin of the century, preparing a nugget of ugali and calling it 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 could have lectured me for minutes before dispatching me to the main house with no hope of a 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, I struck! I smuggled in two more cups of water into the nearly boiling ugali water. Then I innocently reclined, 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 befitting heavy meal when the sun goes down.
When the water finally came to, the moment she started adding flour, I had mum murmur curses of how this water she fought so hard to keep minute was now turning into a big ugali after all, against her plans, against her wishes.
I was smiling within, the wicked kind of smile, of a 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 agelong norm that ‘lastborns’ should eat well? If not overfeed?
My 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 consume. Two brothers excused themselves, saying they were full, not in a mood to dig in. Two other sisters said they would skip supper, that they would take strong tea instead; so was my dad. Mum generally ate less than the rest of us all. It was there that my greed bore its ugly product.
Greed begets greed. There was this mountain of ugali that now I had to somehow wrestle with alone.
The thing is, mum, in her wisdom, knew that her family would not eat much, not when they had just taken a heavy meal about 5 pm earlier. 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 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 with the tip of my navel when I came back home.
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)