I snapped out of my sour line of thought to see the woman beckoning for me to follow her. Well, I was in a foul mood and would have walked on if it wasn’t for her demeanour. I couldn’t put my finger on it but she had somehow called me over with no guile. Following her seemed like the most natural reaction. Or was it the fact that she was carrying a child on her back?

For whatever reason, I took a few steps forward and realized that she had a basket of merchandise on the ground in front of her. And she proceeded to ask,

Kaka, naomba unitwishe.”  (“Brother, please help me lift this”)

And I did so without hesitation! She thanked me with a cheerful smile and walked away. I was left standing by the side of the dusty road with a small smile of my own and my melancholic thoughts behind my ears.

Source: Dhana Sena (pexels)

I continued my now short walk home thinking about my assignment. I needed to find a fascinating Kiswahili word and write an essay explaining why. There were many possibilities of course, but nothing I would call fascinating. I was still thinking of that when the woman’s sentence replayed in my head,

Kaka, naomba unitwishe!”

She had used the word TWISHA! I found myself thinking of the word for the rest of my walk.

TWISHA, which can also be alternated as TWIKA is a noun. It means the process of helping someone bear or lift a burden. It is usually done by two (sometimes three) people. The most common form is for people who want to carry something on their head, but the item is too heavy for them to lift it all the way up.

It starts with the two people, (a carrier and a helper), bending to pick the heavy item and here they all bear the same weight.

Then they lift it to the upper abdomen level, after which the helper will bear all the weight briefly so that the carrier can shift positions and lower their heads by slightly bending.

The helper will then place the item upon the carrier’s head, who will slowly straighten and proceed to carry it to its destination.

If done by three people, there will be two helpers and one carrier, the helpers will lift the item and swiftly place it on the carrier’s head.

This is such a simple word that needs a long explanation in a different language! That fact amazed me as I kept contemplating. The person who helps can be said to act out the noun TWISHA or TWIKA, and the one being helped will call the complete tense of the act TWISHWA or TWIKWA. The opposite of it is the word TUA which basically means the reverse, putting down the carried item. Both TWISHA and TUA can also be performed by the carrier alone if the burden isn’t too heavy. A close translation of the two words; Twisha and Tua, would be; burdening and unburdening.

It occurred to me as I neared home that I had found the perfect subject for my upcoming paper! I could use this word to tell a story! I reached my room and could finally kick or peel off the terribly pinching shoes and start writing. My mood was considerably lighter, and I was shocked to realize that it lifted right after I helped the lady with her selling basket…

I was up until meeting her feeling drained and tired from people always wanting something from me. I wondered why that was since she had also wanted something from me. She had asked for my help on the road, and I had obliged with no qualms. I was willing to stop from the moment she called out… why was that?

And the lightbulb! An incredible moment was when I realized that she had simply called out for assistance. And her call was so light and easy to respond to because it had no strings attached. See, when you TWISHA someone, you bear the burden for just a few seconds and then you swiftly set it on the owner’s head. You do not lift their burden and transfer it to your own head, then proceed to ask them where to take it and if they’d like to chat away while you carry it for them. You do not take ownership of other people’s burdens! And that is why of all things that weighed me down that evening, the woman’s basket wasn’t one of them!

I froze with my pen paused when this realization hit me. And I suddenly saw and felt the weight on my own head in all its saddening glory. I don’t TWISHA. I NEVER TWISHA! Instead, I have been lifting other people’s burdens; emotions, finances, opinions…; and placing them all on my own head. The heaviness that extended through my chest all the way to my knees was from walking around with the burdens.

I had carried my uncle’s disappointment for him for as long as I could remember. I’ve been lifting all the responsibilities and expectations of my relations and neatly placing them on top of my head. I have added a pile of heavy bills from a few distant relatives to this burden. Then topped it with the confusion and manipulation I lifted from a pretty girl who didn’t bother to study for her papers. I have been lifting other people’s burdens and piling them on myself instead of helping them carry them on their own. And as a result, I was dwindling into a tired Old-Man-Boy with a prematurely receding hairline and a sour expression. I was so weighed down that there was no space left for my own dreams. I travelled home every evening so heavy; with a swollen brain, heart and even bladder but a hollow empty chest.

I needed, for the first time in my life, to TUA all these burdens from myself. No, actually, I need to find some people and return their burdens! And that very night when my phone vibrated with a call from my uncle and a text from the fruity-scented girl, I picked it up with a smile. I was ready to refuse me some burdens and return old ones that I had unfairly claimed as my own.

TWISHA – Part 1

I was on my way home yesterday when something incredible happened to me.

I should start by clarifying that, “HOME” is too ambitious of a word for the place I live. It’s what I call the shared room with two mattresses on the floor and a basin for a kitchen. I live here with my friend who owns a small shop nearby. It is nothing much, we have our sleeping spots and the basin we fill with plates, pans, cups and spoons. We cook outside on our trusted single gas burner and only iron our clothes on Sunday. We also charge our phones once a day to save on our power bill.

I know that it’s not much, but the dream is to work hard on this degree, publish a great book of my village stories then build it into a series of cultural awareness books for schools and young adults. I can see it all so clearly although it seemed so far away as I walked home yesterday.

My phone buzzed noisily with a call as I walked. I ignored it after seeing my uncle’s name on the caller ID. See, my uncle disapproves of many of my choices and maybe even me as a person. He disapproved of my “girly” preference of reading storybooks to tree climbing and racing. He made it very clear that I used too many words for a boy-child and was just too soft for his liking. Real boys and men, raced each other, wrestled, got in the dust and mud, spoke briefly and gruffly. They did not, according to him, sit under trees and write short stories.

It is easy to be a disappointment to someone who disapproves of everything that you are. But I kept reading, I kept writing under the tree. And as a result, I passed my A-level exams and got accepted for a study loan. I chose to study Kiswahili literature, which my uncle thought was a waste of education, and that I would never dream of getting a respectable job with this degree. He was sure to call me and express his sentiments once I had packed and left my village. He went ahead to offer manly advice for me to “man up” and at least study accounting or finance.

So, there I was, after almost two years of studying, barely affording to feed myself as I applied for one internship or part-time job after the other and feeling all the sting of a broke student. There I was walking home on a stiflingly hot and dusty day after fighting for a seat in the crowded bus that takes almost two hours to get to my stop. From there I would have to walk at least thirty more minutes to my place because cheaper accommodation is always furthest from the main road.

I shoved my phone back into my pocket with an irritated groan as I walked on. My mood was sour, from my empty stomach, the pinch on my feet (because the bargain shoes I bought last month are a size too small but make me presentable during interviews), and just bone tiredness. I was tired from spending the night preparing to meet the professor who needed an assistant but turned me down after two hours of sorting his papers.

I was tired from the late afternoon job as a supermarket cashier that pays for my room, food, and transport. I was tired because despite expressing their disappointment in my choices, my uncle and relations still constantly call me for support. It’s always someone’s illness, project, or school uniform that I needed to pay for. And I must scrape every cent I can spare to send home for my peace of mind. Still, my peace of mind is a myth because if I don’t send anything, there would be endless nagging. And if I do, even though it’s all I have, it’s received with dissatisfaction, and I end up feeling robbed. Now that I think of it, my issue is that I’m just so tired.

I am even tired of the pretty girl from my class. The one that smells like foreign fruits. She says we are friends and organizes our study sessions together. I could not believe my luck when she called me asking to meet after our first semester. She declared us study-buddies and gets me to go through all her essays. I don’t mind correcting or even rewriting most of them. Although she did score two points higher than me on a paper I had mostly written for her. That’s probably because I only got to work on mine the night before the deadline after finishing hers.

She usually disappears when we don’t have assignments. There’s another paper due this week and she has been calling me. She even started referring to me as, “Boo”. I know she doesn’t mean that in any intimate way. She clearly wants another A and not to hang out with me or visit my place with my shopkeeper roommate.

“Oh, I am just tired of people always asking, always taking and wanting something from me!”

I was thinking this exact thought when the woman blocked my path calling out to me,

“Kaka, could you please HELP ME?”

And I thought,

“Please God. Please somebody,… anybody…make it STOP!!”

———————————————————————— to be continued

When a child is not ready …

It was my mother who predicted it one day. She looked at my feet which were swollen beyond recognition and watched my shallow breathing. Then with a strange look in her eyes, she stated,

“There’s more than one child in that belly of yours.”

I didn’t want to believe her because life was hard for us farmers. The thought of just one new child was difficult. Still, I collected a few extra items from the second-hand market as a precaution. I also tore two pieces from my best kitenge as if unconsciously preparing for two babies. Contrary to the saying, “A poor man’s cow never bears calves”, I came back from the birthing place with not two but three babies. Their father with a mixture of fear and pride in his eyes named them by the order that they arrived;

Kulwa the one that came first, Doto the second surprise guest, and Doi who was least expected.

Kulwa’s birth was similar to his character. He arrived with a strong, lustful cry and hungry mouth. His limbs kicking as if he couldn’t wait to take his place in the world. Doto seemed mild. He announced his arrival with a sharp cry and then contented himself with peacefully sucking his fingers. It almost felt like he wanted to prove that he can make a sound and once was enough evidence. Doi arrived oblivious of the surprise and wonder that accompanied his birth. He arrived quiet and small compared to his brothers. The midwife moved and poked at him to make sure he was alive. He was very much so but didn’t announce his presence. He came as a quiet, little bundle with a heartbeat.

It was my mother again who carried each of her grandsons and proclaimed,

“The youngest wasn’t ready, Mwana.”

And I remember my throat contracting as I waited for her to explain. This is the story she told me:

I am not sure where children come from, Mwana. The priest man said a Holy Man who is also the father of Yesu gives them to us. My Bibi told me they come from those who left this world and are now walking another. Maybe they are all right. Maybe the holy man lives there too. The point is, the essence of life sometimes chooses to come and be with us again. So when a woman is ready and welcoming, she will carry the essence and give it form. After nine months of growing, the child is born to continue the circle of life. But you see, Mwana, some essence may get to a woman when it’s not ready. If the essence realizes this quickly, that’s when a woman loses a child before it takes form. Sometimes it waits too long and will be born, but maybe lifeless upon birth or with deformity. Because the unsure spirit was too restless to form all that it needs for this life.

I then pointed out that Doi did not seem to have any evident disability, she just shook her head and said,

“There were three of them in your womb, Mwana. He just wasn’t ready but had to travel with his brothers.”

Mama meant well but that story haunted my entire motherhood. I raised the boys with a gnawing worry as they claimed their spots on earth. Kulwa always the leader with a thirst for knowledge and power. He studied far and held important jobs. Always ambitious and authoritative. It is Kulwa who build this envious house for his father and me. It is thanks to him that we do not have to break our backs on the farm anymore.

Doto grew up without his brother’s evident aspirations but he learned well and was easily contented. He has a good modest life and raises polite, well-dressed children with a sweet wife. He is just enough and happy with being in a nearby town.

Doi remained quiet and dreamy with a smile of a small child. He struggled to fit in and just understand basic life components. He made few friends because when other boys played with the nylon ball in the dirt, he sat for hours by the anthill watching the ants crawl. Then he would come to me and tell me all about the ants collecting crumbs. While his brothers built families, found jobs, and ventured out, Doi was telling me how the sugarcane in the neighbor’s farm would not be as sweet because the soil was unhappy.

I spent a lot of time worrying about Doi as only a mother could. I pushed, shoved, nudged him towards his own path but he seemed content just to be. And now my strength is gone, just like their father. I live in this big house and spend my days daydreaming of the past and looking forward to meeting those that left us. My back won’t stretch anymore and I tire from a simple conversation.

On a few occasions, all three of my boys come to me. I see Kulwa, still thirsty and in a hurry. He listens to me with effort as if my words come out too slow. He sits in front of me but his heart is dreaming of new conquests. I see Doto, content with doing exactly what he wants because no one is watching. He looks lost between a scream and a sigh. Like he’s not sure which best expresses him. And then I see Doi, still with a childlike smile. Doi who always seems to know when my legs are too tired to hold my weight. It’s Doi who walks towards me with water before I get the words out to call for it. Doi who knows the exact time for me to sit outside when the sun is sweet to my skin.

I look at the three boys with a ripe, aged eye. And from this perspective, a part of me is now unsure. A part of me wonders if I have spent my motherhood worried for the wrong child.

Sparkling Clean Pots

She is scrubbing her cooking pots…,

… which is something she has done for a large part of her life. The soft scuffle of the steel wool on the aluminum surface. The slight heat caused by the friction of her hand moving back and forth on a stubborn dark spot. The sweat that will eventually accumulate on her forehead. And the satisfaction of rinsing the shinning clean pot out. These were rhythms so familiar that they could have been soundtracks to her life.

“You can tell a lot about a woman by the state of her cooking pots”, her grandmama used to say.

Grandmama had grown up in a close-knit village where privacy was an alien word. She had told them stories of her girlhood where she rose with the sun and met the other village girls by the small road near the graveyard. The girls then walked together to the lake and filled their buckets with clear water before the boys disturbed the surface with their swimming. They would then walk back home balancing the water on their heads and continue their morning chores. They cleaned, washed, and cooked. After a family meal, the girls would wash their dishes and hang them outside on a kichanja to dry. The kichanja standing outside could be seen by every passerby. And thus, the careless girls who spared their pans a scrubbing would be judged by the lack of sparkle on the drying pans.


 “A girl should never choose her own hands over her reputation, you see!”

And Grandmama had the shiniest pots in her village, she said. She took it upon herself to make sure her daughters and granddaughters paid attention to their cooking pots. And so, as years moved, life changed so much that no house had a kichanja to show and only a few households used basins and buckets to wash. When her daughters got married, built houses with running water and washing sinks. When dishes were now set to dry in the privacy of the kitchen. The daughters still taught their daughters to scrub their pots and keep them shiny. Even when they started using gas and electric burners that left no soot cover on the pans.

This is why Staha is now standing on the sink scrubbing her cooking pots.

She scrubs as she remembers the house she grew up in and her grandmama’s insistence on the girls waking up with the sun even though there was no need to fetch water and collect firewood. She recalls the many womanhood talks about being a good woman and ideal wife which included all the women in her mother’s family. These talks gave her guidelines on what womanhood entails. And even after leaving her mother’s house, long after grandmama died, she remembered to clean her pots. She carried her sparkling pots all through living alone in a new world where boys mopped the floor and women carried bricks. She went ahead to study far and wide. She learned to express herself, she learned to lead. She earned the respect of her peers and above all the men she had served her whole life. She was a successful, bright, promising, modern woman.

With time she met him who will become her husband. And they lived through the blissful first years of marriage as equal partners. She marvelled at this newfound freedom and saw a new world where her children will be free to be whoever they wanted. She almost forgot the womanhood talks and lessons, until small instances would remind her of her previous spot. These reminders haunted her even after she’d learned to look big, important men in the eye in business meetings while shaking their hands firmly. She did that with the shadow of a little girl who was once told to lower her gaze when addressed.

She would succeed and would learn new ways until something popped up. The misalignment of her childbearing with her career path compared to that of her partner for example. Or when she learned that a clean house alone will not keep her man satisfied and that newly awakened part of her wondered why it was up to her to keep the house clean. She struggled to hold two ends of ropes that seemed to pull towards opposite directions.

And so, months pile into years where she worries about the questions that are yet to come from her daughters. She wonders what use scrubbing would be to non-stick, ceramic pots that her daughters will opt to cook with. Her daughters, who may even opt for dishwashers. The daughters who will not need to memorize grandmama’s recipes because they will have YouTube tutorials and takeout. The daughters who may even decide cooking is not their “thing” and God knows what their thing will be when their time comes. She sees her misgivings and insecurities shadowing her and wonders what she can give to them to hold on to when their stand is shaken.

What does she bring to the next generation of women? She wonders… maybe womanhood talks? Still, she wonders what the womanhood talks with her nieces who want to have long acrylic nails and drink hard liquor before 5 pm would entail. She feels a slight knot of discomfort in her stomach until nothing makes sense anymore. And that’s why when her husband walks in from a long day at work, he finds her barefoot on the kitchen sink, with her work jacket still buttoned. her hands were moving with furious determination. she was muttering about freedom and mothers, her front soaking wet:

She is scrubbing her cooking pots.

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Pride, and a Gilded cage.

This is what happens when a self-assured human meets a colorful proud bird:

Imagine this: A man who is so assured of his place on the planet comes by a beautiful flutter of color and feathers. That being a gorgeous, bold bird of color and song. The colorful bird turns out to be proud as well. And is so assured of its swiftness of flight, powerful wings, and the strength of its shrill whistle. Man will stop to admire the sight. Bird will fly nearby in a dance the man will find daunting and flirtatious.

In his pride and high opinion of himself, the man will watch the bird’s graceful flight and listen to its inborn melody. After getting over his awe, the vanity that is so characteristic of man will deem him worthy of more than admiring beauty. He will consider himself deserving of possessing that beauty. He will call it, taming. And he will set forth to capture the bird who was too confident in its swift flight and powerful wings and was therefore too slow for the clever trap set by man.

The next part of the encounter sees the man standing by a gilded cage that contains the bird. He is quite pleased with himself for having captured beauty and satisfied that he now has the bird for himself. He might even congratulate himself for supplying such beauty to the eye, forgetting that he did not create it. The bird upon realizing its new position shrieks its outrage and flies upon the cage battling for its freedom. But the strong wings and sharp beak that were shields of confidence and might in a jungle are useless against metal. The bird will only come to accept this reality after painful collisions. What started as cries of outrage slowly turn into pleas and even prayers sent to the heavens for release.

Man will watch the bird’s fight in the cage and find the noise unpleasant. So, he will think of what to appease the bird with or at least get it to cease the endless flutter that’s denying him peace to observe the colorful view he covets. So, he will decide to limit the bird’s struggles by snipping the tips of the feathered wings. He will also find nuts, fruits, and seeds to appease the bird and control the screeching and the scratching. And he will call this discipline. He will call this teaching. And he will be pleased with himself.

The bird after consoling itself with the treats will understand the bribe. It will notice that the treats come to appease its cries. So that the cries that were once of outrage and prayer turn to demanding shrieks. It will soon teach the man what treats are pleasing by cawing in anger when the least favorite ones are given. The proud bird will tell itself that it still makes the choices on what it wants to eat and when.  It will now crack away on the nuts and hop around the cage under an imaginative vapor of its glory days. And it will call that freedom. It will be pleased with itself.

We’ll reach a point that man and bird face each other.

Man is now bent by the spine feeding a bird just to keep it quiet and peaceful. He looks at the now docile bird and wonders why he can’t see those beautiful colors and graceful movements anymore. It sometimes occurs to him that the colors are hidden under the flightless wings. And sadly still, the graceful swings of the bird are rusty from restricted hops and limps within the cage. He will search his memory to reconcile the fascinating creature he met with the now defeated but still proud one in the cage. He will feel wistful, but we don’t know if the man could one day set his self-importance and pride aside. We don’t know also if he will come to admit and understand that there’s no beauty in a confined bird but just the responsibility to feed it. Or if he’d come to the humbling conclusion that beauty is not his to tame or possess to begin with.

Bird is now crippled, ill-tempered, and entitled. After consoling itself with being in the cage by thinking it was being served and pampered, its plight reveals itself with time.  We don’t know if the bird remembers the days when it had true freedom. Or if it’ll convince itself that it had a better view and provisions that outweigh its choices. We don’t know if it bothers to caw for its treats anymore. We don’t know if songs burst from its breast from the lightness of its flight and rising of the sun.

It is at this point that man and bird face each other. Their pride stares on the surface mingled with slight regret, morose, and nostalgia. Man looks at bird, bird looks at man and this goes on and on until we don’t know where man ends and bird starts. We don’t know anymore which is bird and which is man. We don’t even know that they are two entities anymore as their demise swirls and coils into one messy structure.

And this, my dear, is what happens when a self-righteousness man encounters a colorful proud bird.

Tracing Chalk Doors

O, hello there stranger! Hello, you fascinating passerby who so randomly wandered by my home. It’s incredible how life brought you here today of all days. I also find it remarkable how among millions and millions of paths and courses, yours and mine connect at this point. This point where I stand inside my home staring out through the window and seeing you. Hello, bright eyes. Hello, friendly smile.
I want to get to know you. So, we talk to each other. We stare at each other and share our stories. And as typical to us humans, we share a lot in a short while of finding a connection. In the little time since you walked by my home, we have shared smiles and laughter. Our smiles shy and secretive at first, then slowly broadening to bright acknowledgments of each other. Our laughter before controlled and secretive is now a burst of mirth that throws our heads back and waters our eyes. We are connected, we are kindred spirits. We want more…
I reach out through my window and grasp your reaching arm. We stare, smile, laugh, and touch. We both wonder if there could be more. Could we dance to the same music, for instance? Or, would we walk with equal steps? Also, would our silences be light if we sat in a quiet room together? There must be more to a connection, don’t you think? We need to make a move to broaden this connection…

Let me tell you what I’m going to do:
I’m going to excuse myself and run to search in my home. There I will find my welcoming chalk. The same chalk I used to trace the boundaries of my home. Then I will walk back to the window and wave it gleefully. I’ll proceed to trace a door large enough for your form, right next to the window. And then with a warm, hopeful smile, I will welcome you into my home. You will walk right through my chalk door and join me. Oh! What a joy!
We’ll sing, we’ll dance and we’ll be as merry as can be. And with time we’ll want to know and feel more. So, we’ll share much more than smiles and laughter. We will share our tears, pain, sadness, and much more of the deeper complexities of ourselves. We’ll learn that we cry when our happiness bubbles through our chests and sometimes we smile when it’s too sad to cry and too hard to fight. And being true to our nature, we choose a name for this connection among the many nouns for linked beings. We’ll call it something like: friendship, love, family, kinship. And we may start describing each other as friends, sisters, brothers, lovers.

We can go anywhere from here, dear stranger:
You could find belonging in my home and me in your being. And you would then decide to get your chalk and trace the boundaries of your own home within mine or right by it. and together we’ll have a home and be.
You could miss your wandering because you are a floating being who carries your home with you. And so, you would invite me to carry my chalk, walk away with you, wander with you and maybe someday we will trace our home together in a fantastic new place and build it there together.
You may also find the solid brick of my home too heavy for your wanderlust and bid me a sad but much-needed goodbye. And I will watch you walk away and wonder what great adventures await you.
You could also enter my home with muddy shoes and leave dirty traces all over my clean floor. And then proceed to dance and make such reckless merry that you broke my treasures and shook my home. You wouldn’t even be considerate enough to try and replace the chalk door with a permanent structure. So, one day I would realize that you are a threat to my home. That you did not come to build with me. That you are a fleeting wreck who sees not the value of my home boundaries. Then I shall remind you that you do not belong here. I will escort you to the chalk door and let you out. Then I will thoroughly wipe the traced door so that you would only hurt your forehead if you tried to walk back in. After storing my chalk and duster, I will walk back to the window and watch… and wait… and hope…
But you see, all these are just musings of what I am going to do and what may come out of it. just thoughts from this person tracing the boundaries and creating space for a home. I stand here with my chalk hoping that you know I have the absolute power to let you into my home, and the complete authority to let you or even push you, right out. At the same time, I hope you also understand that you have complete freedom on whether you want to come in, stand by the window, or walk right by. I truly wonder what your stand is in all this, oh, dear stranger.
So, go on and tell me:
What sets you wandering and venturing? What did you do to set fate upon our paths crossing? Do you carry your home with you? Will you dare to pause and see this world with me? Do you intend to live in goodness and be human?
Hello, there stranger! Hello, there bright eyes! It’s incredible to see you here… Don’t you think so?

Brother, cry…

Mama dear, my brothers don’t cry, neither do my uncles and fathers… and I’m not sure I know why…

I remember a shamefully beautiful, sunny day that also happened to be the day we lost a lady we loved. As you know, funerals in our home are big and sad affairs that go on for days. He was present from the beginning; organizing the family meeting, drafting the budget, and even lifting heavy material to erect temporary structures. I noticed him because he paused next to my hiding place under the shade, stretched his painful back and reached into his pocket for a handkerchief. He then proceeded to wipe hid sweaty brow, then quickly removed his dark sunglasses and wiped the tears from his eyes. He did this fast and discreetly before anyone could notice him crying. I did.

My own sniffing and silent sobs were interrupted by the few seconds that I saw this man allowing himself to wipe away hidden tears. I gazed at him as he burst around the place making sure everything was handled. This hidden sorrow that reminded me of my own brothers paused my mourning.

This man could have been like my brothers whose tears I have forgotten the sight of. They cried when they were young children, I recall them crying in pain after a fall. Sometimes, they cried in anger and frustration. Other times they cried when hungry or scared. They even cried when I poured cold water on their heads when washing them. And sometimes they cried for no good reason to manipulate or just be fussy. Little boys just cry.

There’s an invisible line that one crosses from one stage of life to another, I think. We woke up one day and these boys had crossed a line towards, not adults, but children too old to cry. I’m not sure when exactly that is, but one day the child would drop his favorite snack and cry, then a nearby figure would admonish;

“Stop crying like a baby! You are a big boy now!”

This same sentence will alter until it one day becomes;

“Be a man!”

And just like that, that small boy gradually transfigures into a man whose tears are warned to not fall and label him weak and out of control. This small boy turns into a man who holds his tears until his eyes burn. This man who had just lost the woman who raised him as her own was now single-handedly organizing her funeral. He will work tirelessly and we will all praise him. We will think of what a great, strong man we have in the family. We will even feel quite thankful for his manly presence and authority. But this man hides his sorrows, just like my brothers.

And this brings me back to that shamefully beautiful day where the man planned and planned. And with everything fixed, he took himself to the pub and sat with his friends with a big bottle. They talked, laughed and made loud jokes about everything and nothing. They downed the good liquor until it was early the next morning, then they drunk a little more. His friends did not give him lingering hugs, or arm squeezes. His friends didn’t ask how he was feeling and if he wanted to talk about it. They didn’t dare to ask if he wanted to talk about the loss of someone so dear to him. His friends just commented on the football scores and joked about their growing bellies and shrinking hairlines. They were handling everything like MEN.

The man then went home with only enough time to shower and change into a somber black suit for the burial. The burial where he and his brothers will carry their beloved to her final resting place. I find it ironic that they will carry the weight of their lost loved one above the weight of all the tears they were taught to hold in. The man will go through the funeral with red eyes that his friends and family will attribute to the previous night of heavy MANLY drinking. And a dripping sweat that they’ll call a hangover. Mama dear, that is the same sweat the man will use as an excuse to wipe away his tears with a handkerchief before fixing his dark glasses on as the last song is sung for his beloved.

Oh, mama! My brothers don’t cry, neither do my uncles and fathers… do you have any idea why?

Beloved cactus

I am a creature of the shade.
I thrive in a place of gentleness and care. I live under the shade where I can access nourishment and water. I live in the quiet warmth of moderation where the heat is mild, and the cold doesn’t bite. Where there’s enough sound to ward off loneliness but not too loud to overwhelm the senses. I live in a simple sheltered world and all is well.

I am, however, a curious creature who ventures out of my shade searching for new experiences and sights. I met you during one of my explorations and my simple being was struck!
You who stands as a symbol of strength and resilience. You who grows against all odds. You who requires no gardener to tend to you with irrigation and pruning. You who decided that you’ll need only that which is freely given to grow, the sunlight. You who adorn yourself in prickly thorns and rare blossoms that fruit — My dear, dear Cactus, I was in awe of you!

You seemed so self-sufficient. You needed little, gave little and asked for little. I stood before you and watched the elements rage at you. You stood alone and exposed, on a harsh spot where the sand storms are frequent. The heat of the sun unforgivingly shone upon you. You didn’t wilt, you didn’t bend. You just stood with your thorns stretched towards the world as if daring anyone or anything to come at you.

I walked towards you closer, and closer, with my hands, stretched wide. You stood before me proud and unyielding. You gave me nothing much but the acknowledgment that I was allowed to approach you. I found that enough… I moved forward until we were face to face, on the brink of an embrace.

Then we made contact, and my whole being was lit with sensations! My skin burned as your sharp thorns pierced their way through me. My self-preservation warning me to let go of the pain but a weaker part of me marveled at the strength and strange comfort of standing with your support. I made a decision that I loved the stability more than I feared the pain, and so I moved closer, and closer until we formed a tight hug. I felt the thorns piercing deep and sure, but the pain was numbed by relief. I had found such a strong stand with you that I could slump and relax but remain upright. I didn’t want to stand alone anymore and so, I moved and covered the last distance between us wrapping my arms around you. We then stood as one. I was you, you were me. You were strength, pride, and resilience, and I was softness and warmth. We made sense together.
we faced it all; the rain, the stormy winds, the unforgiving scorch of the sun…We faced it all in our stronghold of each other. The elements couldn’t tear us apart.

Us being creatures from different places, however, was a sobering reality. I missed the shade. I thirsted for cool water, but you could only give a sap when your strong bark chipped. This sap burned and had me wiggling for relief. The wiggling twisted the thorns lodged into my skin and together they formed a hot dance of pain. I willed myself to stay still, breathe softly until the burning stopped. This would have been easy if you bled from one chipped spot. You, however, accumulated chips with time, and what once was a drop of burning pain turned into a trickle, then a shower of agony.

I couldn’t control my yelps while I yanked myself off of you.
My skin protested the sudden separation. I stood on weak limbs that were accustomed to your support. The thorns left open gushes on my skin that were now bleeding while my skin burned still.

In my blind struggle, I convinced myself that: I want your embrace back. I want the support and the cover to my open wounds even though they’d be covered by the same thorns that created them. I want to stand with you, strong and proud with a burning skin. I prefer that to standing alone, bleeding, weak and still burning.

I walked back to you, braced myself for the piercing thorns…

We now make contact, my senses scream, too loud for me to ignore them. I take a step back. You stare at me, strong and proud. You don’t take even the tiniest step towards me. I know you miss my warmth, my softness and how it compliments your strength and acid sap. But you stare at me proud, unyielding and ungiving. Your posture speaks of no compromise, no sacrifices. You are what you are and are not about to change for a soft creature from the water and shade. I realize now that I have to take the steps, I have to hold on to you, I have to embody you and bear you. Even if that takes my being away…

I take another step back; your thorns painfully release my skin. I take another step back; my open wounds start to bleed. I take another step back; my limbs start shaking from the weight they had forgotten to carry. I keep taking these steps back and each one of them is pure agony. I keep taking these steps until I find my shade again. Until I find the water and green trees that nourish my existence. There, I sit and slowly will learn to heal myself. There I will learn to have faith in the creature that I am and stand on my own. It’s going to hurt, it’s going to bleed, but it’s the only way to myself. Memories of you are bitter-sweet. I’m angry, I’m hurt, I’m relieved, I’m grateful. But one thing I’m pretty sure of is this:

You are a beautiful lesson, dear Cactus.




Remember the beautiful, crystal vase that stood in our home?
It was such a pretty sight! It stood on a raised platform on the best-lit spot in the house. Everyone who visited our home saw it and complimented its beauty and grandeur. We all adored it and made a family goal to keep it well polished and shiny. We took it upon ourselves to keep it safe and warned anyone who danced near it. No one shook the raised platform that the vase stood on. Even our pets knew better than to play near that spot. And so, there stood a beautiful, delicate crystal vase in our home.

Mama, do you remember the vase, that you so proudly displayed to your friends and family? The one you made sure we all took turns polishing? It was your dignity and delight!

Papa, do you remember pointing it out to your colleagues when they visited and talking long and boastfully to everyone who could listen about it? Do you remember the threats you made to anyone who came too close to breaking it?

Brother, do you remember stopping on your tracks just in time to not touch the platform and shake the vase? Do you remember never banging the door in your anger, in case it rattled the walls and toppled the vase over?

Sister, do you remember your silence? Do you remember swallowing your screams when angry because you somehow feared that loud noises would shake the delicate vase? Do you remember when you stopped dancing because your merry lightness let you so close to the raised platform that you shook the vase?

Aunts, uncles, neighbors! Do you all remember our quiet household with no tantrums, no raised voices, no banged doors or dancing feet? Do you remember admiring the tranquility?

I remember taking turns with everyone in the family to polish the vase. I also remember covering my nose every time I stood close to the vase because it stank! That beautiful crystal smelled like lifelessness. From deep inside its soft, shiny mold came the smell of rot! The smell of an accumulation of decomposed matter. Only we who stood close enough could smell the stench, and it grew stronger, spread wider with time. I sensed that the neighbors and frequent visitors started smelling it too. But everyone ignored that dead-matter smell because it was coming from such a beautiful, delicate vase!

I remember one day standing next to the vase with my duster and polisher ready to give it a good shine. I started polishing with dread in my gut and my breath held. When I allowed myself a lungful of air, I inhaled a foul stench! This time the decay of so much had brewed into a marvelous lung-piercing stench. My gut couldn’t hold itself together; and so, I turned and watched you all going about your subtle activities with shallow breaths, I moved my hand to give the vase a mighty shove and watched it crash with a satisfying sound…
I expected your unbelieving, shocked faces… I didn’t expect the glorious relief in my belly.

We stand now staring at the shattered pieces as an ugly smell rises from the floor and spreads throughout the house:

Mama, that’s the smell of accumulated secrets. That’s the smell of the many times you warned your daughters to cover their legs while welcoming predators into your house. Smells of also the many times you swallowed dams of tears for the sake of keeping the family together.

Papa, that’s the smell of your dissatisfaction for marrying, for settling and shrinking your dreams into fatherhood. The smell of your resentment that reminded her she was never enough. That’s the smell of the pride you strapped so tightly around your core that you wouldn’t let your son be a mere boy.

Brother, that’s the smell of your lost childhood. That’s the smell of your anger and insecurities buried so deep that you will miss them when you finally let go. That’s the smell of your manliness that doesn’t allow you to cry or ask for help.

Sister, that’s the smell of your stifled sobs from the nights that you cried yourself to sleep because the burden your mothers asked you to bear wasn’t yours. That’s the smell of your confusion and sense of betrayal. It’s also a smell of your resolve to carry this burden to your children so you may finally sleep.

These dear family, are the smells of the secrets we kept even though everyone knew about them but chose to look away. This smell is the reality of our lives behind the mask of perfection and still waters. And as we stand looking down at the shattered hypocrisy on our feet, the smells rise and wisp towards every room in the house. It’s hard to breathe. Someone better open a window and let in some fresh air. And I’m pretty sure someone is about to scream at me for deciding to break this vase. This beautiful, delicate, crystal vase that stank of dead matter… Somebody is going to do something. And to that I say; let there be noise.

The Beaded Necklace.

Koku received the last-minute phone invitation from one of her sisters. She had a lot of them, sisters, because her parents made children together and made children with other partners before and after their marriage. They gave her many sisters and a few brothers. And because she was tired of explaining the abundance of siblings in her life stories and how they connected, she opted to call them simply sisters or brothers, not half-siblings. She only met most of them in her adulthood and went through the usual stages of searching for common ground after the initial introduction. She had more connection to some than others, and she figured that was normal sibling dynamics.

The phone call was from one of the sisters closest to her, Side, inviting her to a wedding. The wedding of her niece Fifi, who was a good two years older than her. Fifi’s mother, Jula, being the eldest of all the sisters and way older than Side who had called.

“There are just so many sisters!” she thought to herself.

There was an entangled rope of siblings and relations, she was right in the deep of it. So many different people, each intertwined to the other, through the other, with different dilutes of the same blood. Old, new and renewed relations. She had to relate to them all, in so many different levels… just thinking of it heated her brain.

Still she sat there after the phone call and wondered why and how to attend the wedding. She had clear instruction to not show up in her preferred trousers which meant looking for a fussy dress.

What was the reason for her to attend? Well, she did like Fifi, her niece, who she had bonded with when they shared a room for a few nights during a family visit. She wondered if marriage was a first choice for Fifi. They were only two years apart and she, Koku herself, was still trying to complete her degree. How does one attend a niece’s wedding as a single aunt in her twenties even though her niece is slightly older than her? Why didn’t the bride’s mother or the bride herself send an invitation?

As she sat doubting and questioning, her grandmother’s voice echoed in her memory;

“…because this is our family, no matter how unconventional, scattered or strange it is…”

She rolled her eyes at the mental picture of her grandmother, went out to rent a sparkly fussy dress, bought a glittering present, packed her bag, grabbed her passport and squeezed her student budget into a bus ticket to another country. 

The wedding was a fussy, blown up affair that included the extended family members, their friends and friends of their friends. Plus, it happened in the church, so all the church members and church friends were there too. It was a principle in the family that same gender relatives were closer in relation. For instance, her being female meant the daughter of her sister is her daughter. Her mother’s sister is not an aunt but rather a second mother, making her children brothers and sisters and not cousins. That distinction therefore identified her as the mother of the bride, and she found herself right at the front of the church next to her sisters Jula and Side. Three mothers to the bride!

The bride walked in, a vision of lace and sash. Looking beautiful and somehow lost in all the makeup and frills. Koku watched her niece, or daughter if you may, walk up to the isle and take her vows holding on to her soon to be husband’s hand. In a shaking voice, Fifi recited her vows. Then her voice cracked as she sobbed through her words. Something pulled on Koku’s chest at that instant, something so deep and natural. A hand reached from across and offered her a tissue making her realize that she was crying, she took it and turned to find her two sisters also crying into their tissues. Their eyes met in a trio of tearful eyes and she finally understood…

She will later wonder what made Fifi sob through her vows. She wondered if it was out of fear of the new and unknown journey. It could have been a love, uncertainty or the typical emotions shown by brides on their wedding days. It could have been anything! No one knows for sure… but Koku was so sure of the chest-pull that had shocked her. Her sister was also so sure that she would be in tears that she had passed the tissue without having to look or confirm. At that moment they had all been sure of something that connected them deep down. She could picture all the scattered members of her family sitting there on that day and they all would have felt it. Especially her grandmother, who would have been on the front row in her favorite kitenge outfit and beaded necklace… oh! she understood then, her family was never a tangled web of threads… it was just like a beaded necklace.