I always wanted to have a Chinese girlfriend, so, when Cheng, came around for some voluntary work in Kisumu County, I didn’t waste any time but went straight to talk to her. It was hard understanding each other at first, but she always giggled and found me funny, which made me happy. She was capable of making my dreams come true.
‘Jambo, karibu Kenya’ I gathered all my courage and extended my hand to greet an Asian for the first time.
“Jambo, jambo bwana, habari gani, mzuri sana…………..” she started singing and dancing to the classic tune even before taking my hand. I laughed out loudly. I had landed into a rare bird.
“People around here call me Okunyafi.”
“People say me Cheng.”
“You mean Ochieng’? I had a friend in high school who was called Ochieng’? He was what may be termed as tall, dark and handsome; except that he was very dark………….
“Yo mean person darker than you?” She looked at me with unbelieving squinting eyes.
I pretended that I did not hear the question.
“Me love dark skin.” She said pinching my right hand, and I instantly smiled, putting my hand around her. She had a small petite body that allowed my hand to go all the way round to her tight stomach.
“Me love yellow skin.”
It was not just an empty compliment. I meant it. She turned with a wide grin and hugged me tight. Her breasts were small, not as big as Atieno’s or Auma’s, but I could feel her heart pumping hard, and that gave me a lot of warmth inside. At that time I recalled one of my friends joking that hugging girls with small breasts could cause Pneumonia. I thought pneumonia could possibly mean love.
The only thing that I did not like about Cheng up to that moment was her suggestion to meet my old friend Ochieng’.
Cheng did not object to going with me home on that first day. She was excited to meet my folks and thought there was more voluntary work to be done there. She greeted each one of them with a low bow and a wide smile that had now become a frequent blessing to my eyes. Grandma was the only one who was not excited to see Cheng. She refused to take her extended hand and spat sideways on the road, then went back to her hut, heavily supported by her walking stick. Later, she would call me into her hut and cajole me.
“Mit iteme ketho singo mari mar keny gi Auma nyar Ker nikech iyudo mbura marachar, Chunya ok binendo gi kwe. Abokuong’i”. “If you dare break your engagement to the chief’s daughter, Auma, for that white cat, my body shall not find rest in its grave after I’m gone. I will curse you.” Her walking stick danced violently and rhythmically to the power of her words, throwing them in my direction. She then used it to dig some ground from the floor and spat on the fresh red soil.
“Dani, nyakono en mana osiepna to onindo kanyamera, ok e simbana. Dani, bineno kata kaka omor bedo kodwa ka? En gi chuny malerto ang’eyo ni inbe ibomana ere. Kasto sani iliuonge ni Ochieng’ to nyingno berne ahinya.”
“But grandma, she is just a friend, and she is sleeping at my sister’s place, not in my Simba. Can’t you see how happy she is to be here with us? She has a big heart and I’m sure you will like her with time. In fact, her name is now Ochieng’ and she likes it.” I protested, using all the hand gestures and facial expressions I could to plead with her.
Grandma coughed out a big green spittle on the ground near the fireplace and buried it with the earth using her bare feet then looked at me, her wrinkles forming deep furrows on her dark face. “Ogi nobiro e pinywa momayowa lopewa igni mathoth mokadho, nepok onyuoli kindego, to mano e momiyo inyalo bedo gi chuny mayom kodgi.”
“Those people came and stole our land a hundred years ago, you were not born then, that’s why you trust them.”
“Dani, nyakoni ok en Nyarachar, en nyar China.”
“But grandma, she is Chinese, not a mzungu.”
“Me Korea, me no Chino”. I turned on hearing a voice outside the hut, followed by intermittent sobs.
I didn’t know she had followed me to my grandmother’s house. I heard her hurriedly walk from just outside the door where she had been eavesdropping all along. Her sobs got louder with each step she took from the mud-walled house. I caught up with her at a group of arrowroot plants just outside grandma’s house.
“We will make it, don’t mind her. I will find a way out. ” I put my right arm around her.
She continued caressing the leaves of the arrowroot plants, her sobs now reducing. She turned and hugged me tight, her head buried deep in my chest. I could feel her heartbeat getting louder with each passing second.
I turned to catch the last glimpse of my grandmother’s house before leaving, just to see her standing at the doorway, heavily supported on her walking stick. She looked at us with astonished eyes, then spat out one big furious piece, her teeth gritting in annoyance.
I led her to my Simba, our arms around each other. Everything looked normal in our homestead. My sister brought two bowls of Omena and a plate of fish for supper. We licked each other fingers after the meal, then slept side by side, the dirty utensils still on the bed.
The night was long, and I lay looking at the roof thinking about the events of the day, Cheng beside me and my grandmother now far away from me in her room. I wondered what could be going on in their minds.
The next morning I woke up early and filled a jug with milk. It was my duty to take half a litre of milk to her every morning, but today I wanted to impress her.
I stood at the front of the door for about a minute before finding the composure to knock on it. I was surprised to find to get no answer. Grandma was an early riser, and today she would be impressed to get her milk on time. Maybe she would thank Cheng for the change in things. I pushed the door after sometime, surprised that no one was opening it. The room was quiet, an unfamiliar stench hanging in its air. She lay in her bed, partially covered and still. I quickly placed the jug of milk on the black wooden table and went to her side. Thick mucus flowed from her mouth and nose to the ground, soaking up the earth beside her low bed. Her eyes stared on the hollow roof, unblinking. The skin below her old frail breasts was cold and her heart had stopped beating.
It was then that I felt how much I loved my grandmother. I knew that I was supposed to run out of the house wailing loudly, as per my culture, but all I could do was get down on my knees, my stomach feeling hollow. I remembered how she had called me into her hut every night, just to share a cup of porridge. I now wished that I had fixed the roof that she had been constantly complaining about. Maybe it would have prevented her soul from escaping. I wished that I had taken her to hospital to check whether she had contacted Pneumonia.
Her presence still felt heavy in the room. The mud walls were breathing and making incoherent noises, her image all over their faces. The whole room was soaked up in her saliva and I was floating in it, pulling at her body trying to wake her up. I could feel her presence everywhere, behind me and at my sides, but she was still sleeping in front of me. I turned in the direction of the door and saw her. She had become browner. Younger. The wrinkles on her face had disappeared. She was smiling. The mucus that used to drench the corners of her mouth was gone.
“Yo wake up early and leave me bed alone.”
She had learnt some English too.
I fell into her outstretched arms. Her breasts had become smaller and firmer. Her heart was beating faster and louder with each passing second.
“You look no happy now. What happen?”
I did not want to extinguish the smile on her face, so I led her outside the cursed room, arm in arm. Her body was now petite enough to let my arm go round and feel her tight stomach.
It was a silent walk to my Simba, but there was communication. Her bare feet were not used to the feel of dry earth and scattered debris. She held onto my side, and jumped into the mud pools we came across like a young child. I was bare-chested and without shoes, only clothed in my night shorts. She wore a white sleeveless t-shirt and pink shorts. She loved my chest. I could tell from the way she passed her smooth hands over the firm muscles, carefully, feeling each length of skin. I lifted her up with one arm as she hang on to my shoulders, and she giggled. The sound of the giggle increased the rate of my heartbeat. I was happy at the moment, having forgotten my loss.
Till the wailings came.
It started with my sister first. Crying and jumping aloud, as if one sick from mad cow’s disease. Then the whole village joined. Carrying twigs and wailing everywhere.
I protected Cheng from the noise. I could see she was scared. We cuddled closer, the straw bed absorbing our fear. I turned on the stereo radio and tuned. The song playing on KBC radio was ‘No Woman No Cry’ by the Wailers.
The funeral was well attended. I managed to convince Cheng to wear a dark skirt suit on top of her t-shirt and shorts. The chief was the first to give a speech. “Madam Achieng’ was a well respected lady in our village. She came here as the daughter to the chief of the Nandi people. This woman you see here has been able to single handedly take care of the two orphans…………..His voice faded into oblivion. My mind could not concentrate. I felt burdened by the repercussions of the current moment.
Cheng knew little English, but she could understand the universal language of facial expressions. Everybody was looking at her. Everybody was crying. Tears welled from eyes that had fingers pointing at her. She was the only one who was not crying. I was not listening to their speeches, wailings or flaming eyes. I was trying to feel her. I could feel her drawing away from me.
“Me go away. People no like me.”
“Please Cheng, it will be rude to leave my grandmother’s burial when the ceremony is going on.”
“Me go away. People no like me. People say me kill grandma.”
I tried to hold her hand. Everybody had now stopped wailing. The speeches stopped too. Everybody stared at us. Those eyes. I let go off her hand.
She walked away and I stared at her. We all stared at her walking away.
I stared at her. I stared at her petite body. I could see her squinting eyes and round face on her back. I could feel her heartbeat slowly growing fainter with each step she took. I could feel her small breasts painfully grasp away from my chest. We stared till she disappeared through the narrow wooden gate, but I didn’t know what the other were staring at. Or what they felt. All I knew is that our emotions were not in the same place. Only our bodies were.
I turned.
They didn’t turn. They now stared at me. Those same eyes that they had stared at Cheng with. I wondered what to do. I thought of running and following Cheng. I thought of starting the wailing and the speeches. I didn’t do any of these. Instead, I just stood there while trying not to be there.
After sometime the ceremony continued.
I couldn’t follow the rest of the ceremony. My mind was a workshop of all things. I was thinking of grandma and Cheng. I didn’t know where both had gone to. I didn’t know whether both had decided to meet and reconcile their differences. My body ate. My body threw some soil in honor of my grandma. And my mouth could as well have given some speeches. I’m not sure. But my mind was nowhere near there. My mind was running.
I was the first to go through the gate. My body running. My body following my mind, and the heart that Cheng had gone away with. The heart that grandma had gone away with. I wished that both could reconcile and join the two pieces into one. For my heart was bleeding.
Everything was going on well at her workplace. Different Asians worked at different stations. They could speak very little English, but all I could was yell.
Cheng! Cheng! Cheng!
A friend who knew me pointed me into the direction of Kisumu airport, and I ran in that direction, in a dark suit and black leather shoes. I was able to catch a glimpse of the aero plane as it sped on the runway. And I could see her face all over the plane.
Credits: Translation into Dholuo done by Rodgers Ogada.
Copyright. Hinga Mwonjoria. 2015.