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.

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.

A Moment of Silence

Loss is hard to explain, harder to accept and even harder to experience. No one is a stranger to loss, unfortunately. My earliest experience was with an old family dog named Bruce Lee despite being female. I still remember the look on my uncle’s face when he tried to explain to wailing kids why she had to be put down. I remember disbelief, anger and tears that didn’t dry even after treats. And I remember short moments of emptiness every time I ran outside and not see Bruce Lee.
Another instance was an accident announced during the morning assembly at my primary school. The headmistress asked for a moment of silence after a sad speech. I remember the bell ringing after the short moment, school bursting with activity again and me thinking; “Is that it?”

With life and growing up, I find a lot more loss. The more one grows, the losses get bigger, closer and deeper. From a favorite toy, a loved pet, to a close relation. Just like everyone around me, loss has not been easy especially when it is a dear one. What does one do after losing someone? How do we get back to life? Who do we entrust our sorrow with? How long do we grieve? So many questions that don’t have right answers.

After numerous occasions of loss, I still don’t know what comes after the moment of silence. Even though it is respectful to the departed and soothes those left behind, it is just too little. Or too short. Or just too silent. The thought that we will one day be just a moment of silence seems insufficient to me. There should be more!

I reflect on this as time goes by and I thought it a good idea to decide to be more. Sing an extra song in the shower for example. Give longer hugs and go for walks with those I care about. I realize that it is a precious but fleeting life. We all have no idea when we will be voids and short moments of silence. The essence of those we love only stays alive within us while the world goes on unfazed. I pray that we keep these flames alive and that we create enough warmth ourselves for those who love us to keep our flame alive when we are gone. I pray that we don’t hold back our love, tears or joy. I pray that we live and that those we lost live through us.
I write today for those we lost; those we miss desperately and wonder how life could continue without them, those we wish to share simple parts of life and meaning with but can’t. I pray that they rest in peace.
I write today for those of us who have lost; I pray that we live so fully through the loss, I pray that we celebrate the lives we encountered and remember them with love and happiness.
I write today for those we will lose and those who will lose us; I pray that we live and love now so, so fiercely that when we go, it is not a loss anymore but a celebration of life well spent. I pray that when we go, it is a sigh of contentment that waves us away, or a beautiful melody.
As I said, maybe a moment of silence is just not enough—