A Thorn in the heart


Art by Berina Ogega

PART I

Mzee (Old man or Old Baba) stepped out of his hut slowly and coughed. Everyone that heard him ran in different directions, to hide. He placed his right hand over his eyes and squinted, no one was around to assist him. He stretched, then yawned loudly. He almost fell backwards, the door frame saved him. His bones were failing him. His body fluids were drying up. His heart was slowing down. He could not walk for long without getting tired. When he was lucky, a good boy or girl would help him by walking behind him with a three legged stool on which he sat after every few steps.

Nyanya (Old woman or Old Mama) had just finished pounding goat meat in a big pestle. Her husband ate soft meat because his teeth were no longer very strong. She walked out of the hut, sat on a three legged stool and waited for Mzee to reach the living hut.

“Why don’t you ever help me walk?” Mzee asked every day, because he forgot that he had asked the previous day.

“I will not answer that,” Nyanya would reply walking into the hut. Many times she had answered… “I love you, but if I walked beside you I would become a statue and a statue, cannot cook for you, keep you warm, clean you, massage you and remove those little sneaky insects from your blankets.”

Mzee would shake his head. “That is not love.” He would say, smiling weakly. “You stopped loving me a looooong time ago.”

“One thing, my love, just this one thing, makes you think I don’t love you,” Nyanya would respond, “If I didn’t love you, I would not be here with you. I would hide like all the others.”

Mzee would close his eyes, raise his head, breath in and smile. Nyanya wondered if he was forgetful or just wanted to hear these word every day.

PART II

Not long ago, children waited outside Mzee’s hut to help him walk.

“Do not forget the stool,” Mzee would remind them. “When I get tired on the way, I will sit on it.” When Mzee sat, and Nyanya was not watching, a bored child would wonder away. “Ee! Do not leave me here,” Mzee would shout, “ants will finish me.” He would try to unsuccessfully lift a leg. Some children would come back because they were sorry and others returned because Nyanya appeared. Mzee would hold on to them tight, never letting go until he reached his destination. His grip was painful sometimes.

Soon Mzee came up with a plan. He had never bribed anyone when he was younger and stronger. (Old and weak come with many undesired deeds).

He spoke to Nyanya, “Please go to the shops and buy sweets for me. The children do not want to help me anymore. I will start rewarding the one who assists me, every day.” Both knew bribing was wrong, but what were they supposed to do?

Nyanya bought sweets, not all the time though. The first time she refused to go, the reason…. “My love, the shops are a quarter of a mile away. When I am tired, I cook bad food, because I cannot make another journey to the shamba to pick spices,” Mzee nodded sadly.

“Here,” Papa stretched his hand. “Take these, sweets will give you enough energy for the journey.

“No,” Nyanya shook her head slowly, “Sweets are for children.”

“But you are still my little love.” Mzee teased, returning the sweets under the blanket into a small bag tied around his waist. “When we were younger, I remember, these sweets would make you do anything for me.”

One day Mzee picked a spear from one end of his hut thinking it was the walking stick. He stepped out of the hut and placed the stick on the ground for support, it got stuck. He called out to Nyanya. “My girl!” She raised her head and saw Papa at the door and thought,

‘Ah! My love is out; time for exercise,” she continued pounding meat and looked up again. “Today he does not want to move at all.’

Papa called out again. “My love!”

Nyanya stood. “Eeee…” and entered the hut, put the goat meat and herbs into a pot of boiling water. Mzee’s grandson, Gonzalez, heard Grandpa and was curious. He peeped from the door and saw Papa struggling with his walking stick. Remembering the sweets Grandpa gave, he rushed to papa to see what was holding the stick to the ground.

“Get my stool!’ Mzee ordered Gonzalez.

“Grandpa, that is a spear,” He had the stool in one hand and the walking stick in the other. He took hold of the spear and tried to pull it away from Mzee’s hand. Mzee held it tight.

“Not another trick,” he turned slowly to look at Gonzalez.“You think you are clever, you are planning to take my stick away from me, so I can stand here the whole day, you, mischievous little boy…. I have not forgotten that the other day you exchanged my large piece of meat for a dirty piece of towel?” You spoiled my stew and risked my health. What if I got Cholera?” Gonzalez almost let out a chuckle.

He pulled out the spear every time it got stuck in the ground and placed a stool behind Mzee every time he wanted to sit.

“I do not know what happened to good children,” Mzee complained as he sat. Gonzalez took a step behind him and tiptoed away a few metres.

“We can go on now,” Mzee stood after two minutes. No response. He raised his weak voice a little.  “We can go on!” He turned around slowly, “Gonzalez!” He was frozen in his tracks. He removed two sweets from under the blanket and showed them to Gonzalez. Gonzalez rushed back.

“Don’t play games like that with me.” Still thinking it was the walking stick, Mzee had a tight grip on Gonzalez’s hand and poked him with the spear several times.

“Aaaaaah! Grandma!” Gonzalez shouted. Grandma rushed out.

“Grandpa is killing me!” Gonzalez fell and hit the grass.

Grandma stepped out of the hut, ran as fast as she could and snatched the spear from Mzee’s hand. “You want to kill Gonzalez? Have you forgotten that his parents feed us? We would starve to death if you killed him!”

“But I can feed myself,” Mzee retorted, “I have two hands.”

Nyanya slapped his hand lightly. “I do not mean that. Look ,this is their land, we get food from their shamba and they buy us food sometimes.”

Mzee nodded several times, “Ooooooh!” He looked at the spear Nyanya was holding and gasped. He turned to see if Gonzalez was badly hurt.

PART III

“Uuuuui!” Gonzalez’s mama screamed from the gate, dropping a small kiondo (handwoven bag made from sisal) she was holding, behind her washer husband.

“Why are you killing my son?” she shouted running towards the group. “They are killing my son,” Her husband was calm.

“It was an accident!” Mzee defended himself, giving Nyanya the ‘we are going to die soon’ look.

“Grandpa killed me!” Gonzalez shouted getting up from the ground. “I was dead, he pierced me here and here and here,” he pointed at several places on his body.

Nyanya stared at him in shock, mouth agape. She stepped towards Mzee, picked up the walking stick and placed the stool behind him. Mzee sat. Everyone was speechless.

Mama Gonzalez rushed towards his son and looked for blood. “I was kind to you when I brought you here,” she looked at Mzee then Nyanya. “You are not grateful. Looks like I am going to have a grave in my compound soon, my son’s grave. That shamba…” she pointed, “is for food, not a graveyard.” ….Silence.

Mzee shook his head. “I knew many strange things were going to happen during my last days, but did not know… my grandchildren turning against me was one of them.” He thumped his chest several times. “What sins am I paying for?”

“Stop turning this around,” Mama was angry. “Who was holding the spear? You hate your grandchildren!” Baba Gonzalez held Mama’s arm and turned her to face him.

“Mother of my children,” Baba looked her in the eyes. “Let us go slow, let us start from the beginning.”

Immediately Mzee and Mama had finished telling their story, a small voice was heard from behind Baba….

“And the other day Gonzalez wanted to kill Grandpa.” It was Gonzalez’s little sister, Marisela. They turned. Gonzalez made a threatening face at her.

Mzee wiped his nose several times as he narrated the dirty piece of towel incident. Nyanya lifted the edge of her leso and wiped Mzee’s forehead. Mama walked quickly into the living hut and came out holding a thin strong smooth stick.

Gonzalez looked at Mzee, “Ha Grandpa, you will know why the cow eats green grass, but produces white milk,” wicked laughter. Baba was silent.

“I am tired of the drama that I find in this compound every time I step out for a few minutes.” Gonzalez nodded slowly like a grownup, feeling very important and special that Mama was defending him…. and getting more excited that he was going to see an old man whipped.

Mama lifted the stick high up in the air, Gonzalez jumped up and down on his feet, his hands held together on his chest, grinning, waiting for Mzee to be punished. Mama brought the stick down, hard on Gonzalez back.

Chwaa!

Gonzalez wriggled. “Now the traditional dance you had started performing is getting better!” Mama lifted the stick high, again.

Her son rushed towards the path that led to the bushes and hid behind some shrubs. She, hot on his heels caught up with him and landed the stick vertically on his back.

“Aaaaa!” Gonzalez screamed and ran as fast as he could towards the river.

Mama ran a few feet after him, then stopped… “He will be hungry,” she thought aloud, “he will come back to eat.” She turned and almost bumped into her mother.

“How did you get here so fast? I thought you did not have any strength left in you.” Mama was surprised.

“Shhhhh….!” Nyanya placed her hand on her daughter’s mouth.“If your father knows that I am still strong, he will never do anything for himself. I want him to stay active…. Is that your son you were hitting or a  snake? I rushed here to make sure you do not kill him.”

“I am tired of hearing Gonzalez did this, Gonzalez did that, every day.” Mama was annoyed.

Mother and daughter walked back side by side. Mama stretched her hand and plucked three terere (amaranth) leaves she had missed earlier on.

She tried very hard to hide her smile. “Why are you smiling?” Nyanya had a mild headache from the day’s events. “I hope you are not laughing at us and our old age. You know… one day you will be like us.”

Art By Berina Ogega

PART IV

“I am not laughing at you,” she laughed and dared not say why.

Mama had secretly followed her husband to the river that morning to watch him take a bath. Every time she wished to accompany her husband, he forced her to stay behind. “You must take care of things around here, you must make sure there is no trouble, especially from Gonzalez who enjoys harassing those around him, including Marisela.

She felt that her husband was up to no good and wanted to find out if her feelings were correct. She suspected he bathed naked for all women to see. The more her husband insisted that she stays at home, the more suspicious she became. She could not take it anymore, she picked her kiondo and walked down the river, hid behind a tree and watched.

Baba Gonzalez placed his bathing bag near a bush and fetched water from the river. He carried the pail to the bush and took out two lesos from the bag. He tied the ends to two small trees, and plucked some soap leaves from a nearby bush. Covered by the lesos, he washed himself.

There was nothing strange or mysterious to see…. no trouble, with her husband behind the lesos. Her eyes wondered to other men and women. All the men bathed in their underwear, and women, in their petticoat. Nothing unusual.

Her husband emerged from behind the lesos, he had finished bathing… she ran, a few strides on, she knocked a stone and rolled backwards, down the path to where she had been hiding. She stood up and looked behind to see if her husband had heard the thud and rustle in the bush. Her husband had disappeared.

A few metres from home, she saw her husband approaching. She swiftly turned left and picked the leaves of terere beside the path. The husband should never know that she was spying on him.

“Aaah…, my favourite vegetables,” her husband picked too. “You are cooking early today I see.” Mama smiled and nodded.

They walked home together and chatted happily until Gonzalez screamed.

“You have not stopped laughing,” Nyanya was puzzled. She jolted her daughter’s mind back to the present. Mama could not hold her laughter anymore, she laughed out loud. “Something funny happened today when I went to get terere. You will not want to know.” She looked at Nyanya.

PART V

They entered the compound. Eyes were staring from the half open wooden windows of the huts. It seemed after the spear accident, no one would come to help Mzee, in a long time. They also knew that it would be worse after Gonzalez went around saying how he died and rose after Mzee killed him with the spear.

Baba walked beside Mzee. Marisela helped carry the stool. She got three sweets, and an extra piece of goat meat from Nyanya.

“I learnt my lesson never to ask that boy to help me serve you food.” Nyanya said, they laughed, Baba was not amused.

“Every time I drunk the soup, with no meat in it, I thought your love for me had faded,” Mzee chewed his very soft piece of meat.

“You should have asked,” more laughter.

“You know…. women are unpredictable” Mzee sipped his soup. “I did not know how you would have reacted.”

“And the boy never grows fat,” Mama joined in. “He must have eaten a whole goat by now. I thought Marisela wanted more meat all the time she complained that she had none on her plate.”

Baba almost chocked on his soup. “Is that why Gonzalez does not eat with us? For how long has he been stealing meat from Mzee and Marisela‘s plate?”

“For a whole year,” Marisela shouted. “He sips my milk too when no one is looking.”

“I hope you know what a year is,” Mama threw the clean terere leaves on the fried onion and covered the pot. She turned to face Marisela, “Why didn’t you tell us?”

“He said he’d beat me if I did.” Marisela handed her empty calabash over to Mama. “I want some more!”

“No,” Mama took the plate and placed it near the fireplace, “That space in your stomach is for porridge.”

“There is no space,” Marisela replied quickly.

Mama smiled and poked her small tummy, “Aaaah, and where were you going to put the soup?” Silence.

Gonzalez appeared on the doorway, Mama stretched her hand and touched the stick, Gonzalez disappeared.

Baba sharpened his tools. Mzee sniffed his tobacco. Mama stirred the terere. Nyanya weaved the basket. They talked.

An hour passed, Nyanya helped Mzee out of the hut into the mid-morning sun.

PART VI

“Who goes out on a mission in a bright yellow garment?” Baba placed the machete he was sharpening on the floor close to his foot.

“You want us to go catch Gonzalez,” Mama stopped turning the terere. “Let me finish this,” she scooped some soup, blew it, poured it on her hand and licked it.

“No,” Baba looked up. “I saw you at the river,” Mama almost dropped the cooking stick. Baba stared at her.

 “That was not me,” Mama lied.

“Anytime you wish to hide in the future, wear a dress that cannot be easily noticed.” Baba tried to stifle laughter. “You were spying on me.”

“No I was not,” Mama tried to hide her face from Baba.

“Who will keep me warm at night?” Baba frowned. “Who will take care of our kids if you died?”

“Are you planning to kill me? Forget it,” Mama removed the pot from the fire and placed it a few feet away.

“When you rolled down the path,” Baba looked up at Mama. “I thought you were going to have a concussion and drown in the river.” Mama was embarrassed. “I am surprised you are still alive and cooking.”

“And kicking,” Mama corrected him.

“I don’t see you kicking,” Baba smiled. “I only saw you rolling and now…. cooking.”

Mama laughed out loud, clicked her tongue, scooped out a little terere from the pot, tasted some and handed the rest to Baba. “Don’t tempt us with that laughter,” Nyanya shouted. “We will come back to the hut,” They ignored her.

“Something good came out of the mission though,” Baba handed the ladle back to Mama. “I get to eat one of my favourite leaves at lunch time.”

PART VII

Gonzalez approached his Grandparents. “Life would be better if you did not live with us. I would be eating more meat.”

“Are you sure?” Mzee asked. Nyanya shook her head in despair.

“Yes,” Gonzalez was confident. He turned and found Baba standing next to him.

Baba pinched his ear and pulled him into the hut. He got a small rope, tied  his hands, his feet and forced him to sit on the floor. Marisela, who had been sulking on a stool at one end of the hut, grinned. Mama washed the dishes.

Baba walked to the cowshed and came back carrying a cowbell, which he hang on a nail above Gonzalez’s head. There was a knot in Gonzalez’s throat. Tears flowed down his cheeks.

“That is how Grandpa felt when he was choked by that dirty piece of towel,” Baba squatted in front of his son. He pointed to his tied hands and feet, “and that is what he would have felt if he had gone into a comma…. Hit the bell several times, when you have the urge to go to the latrine.You will know what Grandpa feels when he calls and sometimes nobody is around to assist him.”

“Mama! Mama! Mama!” Gonzalez cried. “Mama! Mama!” Mama stretched her hand and touched the stick. Gonzalez stopped shouting and sobbed quietly. “Baba should have tied that bell around your neck.” She picked up one of the stools in the hut and sat next to Baba.

“Can I have warm water for massaging Mzee’s feet.” Nyanya stood at the door. Mama got up and walked to the fireplace. “Eeeh!” Grandma exclaimed when she saw Gonzalez. “I see… I will be having company…. for the next how many days?”

“One year,” Baba suppressed laughter. Gonzalez cried louder. Mama hid her smile.

“Aha!” Nyanya nodded as she took the basin of warm water from Mama.

Marisela walked to the bell and hit it three times. Gonzalez tried to cover his ears. “Can I massage Gonzalez’s legs too?” Mama wore an expressionless face, tears of laughter welled up her eyes.

Baba was fixing the fishing net. He paused and looked at Marisela. Mama held Marisela’s shoulders from the back and pushed her back to where she was seated. “If you ring that bell again, we will take you to the pit latrine. That is what the bell is for.” Baba pursed his lips.

“I will never mistreat Baba again,” Gonzalez spoke between sobs. It did not seem like anyone heard him. “Baba,” silence. “Baba.”

“You’ve only been there a few minutes.” Baba looked at his son and raised his eyebrows. “In order to grow, we must be disciplined…. Talk to me after one week.”

My Art Teacher and Editor: behance.net/KenOmollo

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