“Have you greeted Onindo?”
It is impossible for Akello not to smile. How often does your auntie try to matchmake you with someone you might be related to a few hours before you bury your sister?
Auntie’s voice is scratchy, the hallmark of a professional mourner. Twenty minutes earlier she had been prostrate on the ground next to the wooden coffin in front of my mother’s house, asking me why I had left all the cooking to my living sister. Thirty minutes ago, Auntie had been running beside the hearse from the top of the hill almost five kilometres away, her voice piercing the air and Akello’s ears with the clarity of a debtor’s fury.
Akello is fluent in four languages; none as proficient as that of grief. She knows that grief is a suffocating spouse. One who comes fully stocked with corrosive acid that incinerates your nervous system, and words are insufficient when confronted by his bride. Once grief has stained the fabric of your soul, you are never rid of it. You are his bride for eternity.
She’s toying with grief’s ring around her throat now, her lungs constricting as she remembers placing my obituary. The angry eyebrowed sales rep telling her that it was cheaper in black and white and if you used less words. The shame as she summarised my life in one short, glum paragraph. The endless committee meetings trying to raise money for my funeral. The faces and voices that spoke to her through the blur. Her new phone vibrating incessantly.
You see, when you die, your loved ones have to switch from smartphones to mulika mwizis for their longer battery life because everyone is calling. It’s a curious affair, the price of amnesia. People don’t know how to handle grief’s bride. So they pretend. They assume that red-rimmed eyes are the result of a lighting defect in the room, rather than the bleeding of the soul. There are awkward hugs and notes hastily thrust into grieving hands. Crisp thousand shilling notes, jaded five hundreds. Everyone is God’s spokesperson claiming that you have finally returned home, which is all right, because that’s where we are all heading. The people who stood on the sidelines as your family imploded want your bereaved to know them by name and amount. Mpesa is alive. Beep after beep. Let me send something small. She was a good woman. She is with your mother and father now. Be strong. Watching Akello then and watching her now, floating through these rituals of death and what comes after, with that odd smile, makes me feel wretched.
Akello inhales deeply. The feeling of drowning persists. She’s thinking about the fight our uncles had a week ago over my burial. The elders from Father’s clan wanted to bury me outside the gate facing… is it north? Because I am unmarried. A terrible affliction for us Luos; a woman being unmarried and having no men or relatives to cook for nor any healthy sons who would have also needed to be cooked for. We take cooking very seriously, you see. They didn’t want my unmarriageable spirit corrupting the only living single girl in my father’s home.
Things have changed, my uncles argued. We live in the city. The children should be buried in the graveyard their father built. We believe in a benevolent God now. Spirits are powerless against his might.
Akello had sat through the meeting with a mask on her face. The thought of me being buried outside like a castaway had made her vomit in private. Smoke more. Eat less. Hadn’t I been enough of a castaway in my lifetime? As the men decided, she remembered her last words to me: two angry sisters screaming at each other about everything except the fact that they were alone and frightened and had just buried their mother.
“You will always be alone,” she had said before slamming the door on the way out of our house. Before moving to university in Uganda. We allowed our newly acquired husband, grief, to mute us until I died.
Before everything changed, before the walls in our house were stripped bare of any trace of laughter, before love was suffocated by loss, we had the table. A mahogany marvel cheapened by an odd white finishing. The centrepiece of my mother’s life, where important family announcements were made, pre-spanking speeches about the fate of children who shamed their parents were held, and where she placed elaborate dishes before her husband and three children. Father had a knack for returning from his mysterious work trips just in time for mother’s special osuga; the greens treated to nightly soaking and boiling in fresh creamy milk for almost two weeks, the catfish fresh from our ageing Dani back in the village, a side of melted ghee for Father in a little metal cup, and the ugali made from bel as brown and as filling as Bamburi cement.
We were seated around the table, polishing off our supper when my brother, Telo, announced his scholarship to New York University. Mother’s voice caught a little as she unfolded the letter he handed her.
“What’s wrong with Nairobi University?”
“This is better, Mami, there’s nothing here for me. I’ll just end up lounging in this house waiting to gobble up your aluru if I stay in Kenya,” Telo laughed.
His laugh had a magical effect on her; always throwing her off-balance.
“If I go to Nairobi Uni, I will only become a professional stone-thrower like Father,” he added.
“That professional stone-thrower will buy your airplane ticket, Jatelo.” My brother’s full name lumbered out of her throat as if it was hurting her stomach, the way it always was when her crown jewel disappointed her.
“Mami, I am playing, yaye.” He reached across the table and folded her hands into his. Akello and I watched silently as he teased her. Marvelled at the potency of his charm. How effortlessly he melted our ferocious mother into a chuckling mound of compliance.
We never understood why he stole her money. She had organised a successful harambee and raised enough money to last him a year, even more if he was practical. The scholarship was going to cover his living costs, too. But this memory reminds me of the force that was Telo. He did it because he could. He existed in a world where you could charm and con the woman who birthed you, and still sleep soundly at night.
It was at this table that Father told us about their separation many years later, after cooking Luo delicacies ceased to be a priority. It was here that he told us that she was sick, and here that he told us she had died. It was at this table that Akello and I decided to sell the Nairobi house after our father died in a car crash, take Telo to rehab, and move to Father’s rural home. Where we are now gathered.
I wonder whose idea it was to use this table, still sturdy after decades of neglect, as the base of my coffin. I like their sense of irony.
“Just go and talk to him and see what happens.”
“I don’t need a husband, Auntie.” Akello’s voice is placatory.
Auntie clicks, her tongue so abrasive that both Akello and I bristle. “What kind of nonsense is this now, nyara? Every woman worth her salt needs a family.”
Akello closes her eyes, trying to control her face. Her wry thoughts ring in my ears.
My sister had a family and she still died alone.
“You need children. What would your mother say if she heard you right now?”
“I think my mother more than anyone would understand my disinterest in wifehood, Auntie.”
“Who made you this way?”
Silence. Her languid voice in my head again. Fury laced with frustration.
All of you did.
“Onindo is a good man, jaber. God-fearing.”
“I doubt that a God-fearing man would appreciate a wife who smokes.”
Out of habit, I hold my breath.
Auntie’s fingers gnaw into the side of her arm. Her eyes crinkle as she scans the subdued compound. It’s almost as if she is worried that the wind will carry Akello’s confession across my coffin and into Onindo’s waiting ears. He’s perched on a rock near the tent he had helped erect for the mourners earlier. Trying and failing to not watch my weary sister and her inappropriate auntie.
“Since when?” A hiss.
“I knew it was a mistake, letting her children go to other schools in strange lands. Look what it did to you, to your brother.”
Silence. That smile.
“Akello, your mother was a good woman who didn’t smoke.”
“And yet she still died.”
“Why are you talking this way?”
“Why don’t we mourn one soul before we begin planning the annihilation of another?”
“You need someone to comfort you.”
My mother was a married woman. Still. Alone.
In the ensuing quiet, Akello’s eyes focus on our brother’s thin frame walking towards my coffin. I feel the tightness in her chest. The longing. I feel the heaviness that assaults her tongue, making her swallow. She wants a cigarette now. Needs to add burning to the mess inside her chest. Her fingers twitch and she folds them into shaking fists.
Auntie mistakes Akello’s silence for concession.
“I know you must be tired from your trip.” A truce.
Akello nods, swallowing the nicotine she cannot have without causing a scandal. Her eyes are still on the figure now standing over my sleeping face. Auntie follows her gaze.
“Have you spoken to Telo since you got here?”
They haven’t spoken in five years. Well, five years, eight months, four days and six hours , if accuracy is the goal here. Not since he was kicked out of the last rehab facility. He used to be my problem.
Telo, the object of Akello’s drifting eyes, had always been good at theft. Stole the affections of every pre- and post-adolescent friend we ever had. Stole our mother’s favour. Tall and disarming. Stole cigarettes from strange Uncle Tom and smoked them while we watched. He drained my mother’s account on the day of his flight to New York. Stole Akello’s meagre twelve-year-old savings. Stole her dream of what New York could be. Before he left she had burdened him for hours on end with questions about the college he was about to attend. When she would visit him. The places they would go. But oh, how New York took our entitled brother, chewed him up with ease and spat him back out at us.
I picked him up at the airport the day he was deported. Still tall, all the light in his eyes dissolved into a muddy vagueness. He had faded jeans, a black T-shirt, an oily duffel bag filled with papers, and nothing else. Telo was quiet on the drive back home. Quiet for weeks after, during which my sister and I tiptoed around the edges of his drug withdrawal-induced insanity.
He stole speech from us, first slipping into unfettered whispering, but then eventually abandoning conversation altogether. Every night he frightened us with his incomprehensible interactions with the family cat; the one he skinned alive one day and tried to make us eat. When he was out scoring his next hit, we had to clean his room. It had begun to smell so bad we couldn’t be in the house without tearing up.
We found the letters from his school.
“…we regretfully withdraw your scholarship. The university has arrived at this decision based on repeated instances of theft reported by fellow students…”
“…in spite of continued leniency by the Dean…”
One year, four pastors, six clan prayer meetings, one dead cat, my graduation, countless screaming sessions in our three-bedroom bungalow and three rehab stints later, Telo bounded back into the arms of crack cocaine, an expensive habit for a middle-class deportee, a widower, and two college-bound sisters. Father had stopped taking us with him on his trips. I was at university clearing up post-graduation details. And Akello was at home with Telo. He needed money. Broke her arm so she would give up the maintenance money Father had left for us.
He stole mystery from us. When Father came home and saw what he had done to Akello, he decided to curse him, African-style. Stripped down and exposed his genitals. My brother, never one to be outdone and ingloriously high, had stripped too.
Two generous body parts that neither of us needed to see, nor could we forget.
Perhaps the curse took hold. How else could one explain what became of all of us?
“Have you eaten?”
A lengthy silence.
In Akello’s head, a whisper. We all left at one point or another, and leaving was what ruined us.
The singing and wailing has stopped. Dusk descends in my father’s neglected compound, covering all of us with a shroud of subdued melancholy. There is hollowness to everything even though there seem to be hundreds of feet milling about. In Auntie’s raucous laugh, in the barking of the stray dogs that have followed the scent of freshly slaughtered cow, in the breeze fanning the cooking fires. My mother’s house, echoingly empty four days ago, is full of strangers who do not remember her children’s names.
“You should eat,” Auntie says.
Akello is smiling again, unnerving me.
People keep trying to feed your loved ones when you die, as if unconsciously trying to plug in the gap you have left with nutrition. Tea. More tea. For every tear your loved ones shed, there is a corresponding thermos flask filled with tea. They flutter around your loved ones, avoiding the vacant stares, the muted responses, the ugly marks of grief. They don’t remember that when we, the dead, move to the hereafter, we take our loved ones’ taste buds with us for a while. So you can pour in all the salt you want or none at all, but they cannot taste. Each sip and bite is agonisingly bland, a reminder that we are dead and they are not.
Kerosene lamps begin to appear and illuminate the small groups of five or more scattered in and around the tents. Everything is muffled. Everyone glancing at me in my little coffin laid on the table that shaped our lives while on their way to the latrines, on their way to another cup of tea, on their way to Auntie’s boisterous laugh in a smoke-filled cooking hut, on their way to find the local brew, just glancing at my sleeping form and my brother’s equally impassive face as he stands over my box. The face Akello is still looking at.
“Talk to your brother. You are all he has now.” Auntie rises and starts walking towards Akello’s would-be suitor.
She doesn’t respond. She is thinking about Uganda now. A time when all she had was solitude.
The bus ride into Kampala seemed to stretch into another time zone. She struggled, of course, as she always had when Father moved us around like chess pieces on the path to his goal of success. She never did well with change. When she was ten and we moved to Kisumu from Nairobi, she had been a nightmare; unable to bear the thunderstorms, screaming through them. When our estranged mother died, Akello moved back home and did not utter a word for almost a month. Father feared she had lost her mind.
Shortly after entering Uganda, she had been stunned to find that chicken could be sold on a stick by the roadside like maize, but had bought and ate one with relish. She had gone to get breakfast the next day, and had almost wept upon discovering that matoke was considered breakfast while tea and bread were seen as peculiar. Their ugali was known as posho, made of maize flour too fine and too white; the texture on her tongue made her feel like she was betraying the entire Luo empire from here to the Kano plains.
She learned not to hate Kenya Power too much when she discovered that load-shedding was a normal part of life. It took her a while not to openly gawk at the women who would kneel in greeting at the feet of senior men no matter where they were in the city, how muddy it was, or who was watching.
It warmed her skin the way Ugandans spoke to each other, always attaching an affectionate “bambe” or “mukwano” at the beginning of their sentences. How the language had a malleable manner of making words more tender even in moments of anger or annoyance. She found it charming how consonants did not stand a chance in the musical fluidity of Luganda. How vowels appeared where they had never existed, so that rolex, her staple food for most of her stay, was always rolexi. But she loved that meal and the vendor with his jiko and egg crates, his peppers and tomatoes and cabbages. She loved his smile. How he existed in a constant blur of motion, flipping the omelettes into her chapati while whistling a Juliana Kanyamozi song. Always a Juliana song. She envied the obvious calm he possessed in his chaotic little bubble.
Akello stood out in the quiet rural Kavule area, which was littered with hostels and students attending Makerere University. The plump shopkeeper was always calling her the Kenyanise girl, always speaking to her in Luganda, making her miserable in her Nilotic inadequacy.
But Kavule was magical to her because in her visibility, Akello felt invisible. She loved that she could depend on the rolexi master for all three meals, sit at his feet, and just focus on being unseen. She discovered the allure of solitude in Kavule’s unpaved hilly pathways, always choosing to fade into shadowy corners even in social spaces where she communed in peace with her loneliness. She discovered cigarettes during those seasons of solitude. When the smoke burned in her chest, she felt in those moments like she could live through anything.
Transition has always been an agonising matter for the members of my clan. My father never recovered from the discovery that my mother, disillusioned with her marriage, slept with another man, and later ran off with him. He who had three other secret wives.
We don’t do well with big moves. Akello had been there when my father chased my mother’s lover with a blunt machete.
The scene plays itself before me. My mother in a torn blouse on her knees, begging for leniency. Eight-year-old Akello standing in her checked blue school uniform undetected. They had forgotten to pick her up from school so she had walked the short distance home. I wonder if I will see them soon; Father and Mother? Whether they are on speaking terms now that they are dead.
I can taste the salt in my sister’s unshed tears. I can feel her pulse. I don’t understand why I am still here. Why am I coursing through her thoughts and whizzing through her memories like an unwilling but riveted passenger? Tethered to her, I have been oscillating between feelings of pain, amusement, and the fear that I may never leave.
Pyok! Pyok! Pyok!
It is pitch black now. Midnight came and drifted into the wee hours. In the cooking huts, wood has turned into ash. Feet no longer move. Voices have become slumberous sighs. The air is even more condensed than it was during the day. It’s cold, but the gravediggers are all shirtless and suitably intoxicated, as is the custom.
Akello is sitting by the fence of the graveyard, watching them dig. Slabs of cement from older graves sit stoically in a row next to the fresh hole. My father and my mother. He never divorced her, and wept for weeks after he buried her in this very compound, even though they had not spoken in ten years.
The bushes look like an extension of Akello’s form; leaves entwined into her afro, the black cotton soil melding with her canvas shoes. They haven’t even noticed she is there, and has been since they started working. The earth seems resistant to their attempts to prepare my final resting place. They have been digging for hours. She lights another cigarette, presses it into her mouth. Closes her eyes. Inhales. She hasn’t slept in days. It’s cold but she isn’t shivering as she watches the gravediggers prepare my final resting place.
I cannot feel or hear Akello anymore.
Something is confining me to my coffin. Daylight has been broken long enough for fires and feet to resume their daily duties.
Someone is singing as they congregate around me. Midday has passed and the burial is set for two o’clock. That person’s voice is haunting. Is it time to go, I wonder?
Remb Nyarombo ma nonegi, Obedo gi teko
Mar pwodho jogo magene, Ni kik giketh kendo.
They are singing about the blood of the lamb saving us all from guilty sin.
They are looking for my brother, the oldest male, so he can begin the burial formalities. No one knows where he is. People are confused, looking to my uncles and aunties for answers. When was he last seen? And where is Akello?
There are special kinds of screams that life may or may not let you experience. Like my mother’s scream on the day she gave birth to me. There’s the scream that burst from her dried lips the day she discovered her beloved son, whom she trusted with everything that was hers, was not above betrayal, when she went to pay a bill with a debit card linked to an empty bank account. There’s the sound my father made when he found his favourite wife writhing beneath a stranger. A choking, like blood curdling in the throat. What heartbreak sounds like.
There are other screams you can only see, if you look keenly. Like those of a college student in a hospital room quietly saying no thank you to the nurse offering her tea, after telling her that her sister has died. Her lips behind a puff of smoke, always smiling, but whose eyes have no light.
But long after today’s sun has set, people in this rural county will be talking about the screams that came from my inappropriate auntie. They will talk about how her feet had no shoes when she emerged from the abandoned hut in the farthest corner of the compound. How she ran round and round and round like a chicken that refused to accept its destiny to fill someone’s plate and later stroke their full stomach. How she screamed my mother’s name. How the stones cut her feet and how she kept going, faster and faster, as the crowd stood immobile and entranced. How the screams iced their blood. How in the sounds she made, you could hear the birth of a woman who had just inherited life-long insomnia. They will describe the matutas on her head, which no one had seen before because she had been wearing a wig, but had yanked it off in her frenzy. They will talk about the blood… all the blood on her kitenge dress.
The force tying me down, lifts, and here I stand in front of Akello again. The crowd in the compound joins my auntie in wailing, but we are alone and uninterrupted in this hut where we used to play as children, when Dani was alive.
She is looking at me. No longer through me. The burning intensity in her eyes is so potent that I, forgetting that I am already dead, step back in fear. There stands her husband, Grief, his hold creating a glow around her form. Her lips move.
“None of us will ever leave now. We are all together as we should always have been.”
I look down at the floor where she is pointing.
My brother’s mutilated body. And beside him, with a smile as simple as the cuts on her wrists, lies my sister’s body.