You are crying again, aware, maybe, that you’ve been born into a fractured world. He will walk toward you, lift you up, hold you, as he holds no one else. He holds you when you’re crying and when you’re still, when you wake up and as you fall asleep. As he holds no one else. Every week, he secures his travel pass around his neck, holds you before he leaves, nods to your sister, brother, and mother, and heads to town. He needs a pass to go to Nairobi. He wears the pass around his neck. Kipande, it is called. A little tin container that breaks his world into time with you and time away from you. He goes for you.
Every week he dons his kipande pass and travels to town to buy bread. Bread is only sold in Nairobi. He walks to his cousin’s house to borrow a bicycle, cycles three kilometers to the nearest bus station, waits, no matter the weather, under hot sun and wet rain, for the too full bus that will take him to Nairobi. If he’s lucky, the passenger sitting next to him will be carrying a rooster instead of a goat. He wears his travel coat—made to be stained. When you see him wear the coat you want to cry and to laugh. It means he is going. It also means he is coming back. Your face folds into what your brother and sister call your fan face. In school, they have been taught how to fold paper into fans. Their teacher says fans can be used to chase away the heat. They laugh at the flimsy paper and jump into cool rivers. You watch him walk away—your face a fan that speeds him away, and draws him back.
He returns—you know he always returns—with two loaves of bread. One loaf is yours. The other to be shared by your brother and sister. He walks in, walks toward you, lifts you up, as he lifts no one else up. And gives you your bread.
Each week, he dons the kipande, the colonial state’s noose, travels to be unhumaned, because he knows you love bread.
You are seated on your sister’s green couch, sixty years later, trying to recall the flavor of loss. The next time I see you, I will send you home with freshly baked banana bread. And the time after that.
But not yet.
I have heard a different version of this story. On late nights, when we sat alone, my mother would say.
My father was a teacher in the independent schools. He taught us how to imagine freedom. On October 20, 1952, the British colonial guards arrested him. They took him away. A few days later, they came to my father’s house, a stone house. They came with a bulldozer. They told us to get out. They knocked it down. I was seven years old. I did not see my father again until I was in form one, in 1959.
They burned down independent schools and forced us to go to missionary-run schools, schools where freedom could not be imagined, schools where we were supposed to learn obedience. They knew about my father. That he imagined freedom, that he taught others to imagine freedom.
On days when the colonial guards had killed freedom seekers, they would line the bodies up outside the school gates. On my way in, they would taunt me, “look for your father in those bodies.”
My mother whispers these stories in Moi’s Kenya, a world where it is forbidden to imagine freedom. She is giving me freedom dreams.
Now, her sister sits in her house and tells a different story.
The bread stopped. The holding stopped. And the world changed.
You are five years old when your mother gives you away to your father’s brother. His wife is childless and your mother has many children. Perhaps your mother imagined that as the only child in the house you would receive the care your father provided. Perhaps she hoped that you would stop pining for bread. Perhaps she thought other arms would learn how to hold you, how to love you. Perhaps she could no longer look at you, her husband’s favorite, because you were too full of his love.
Your father’s house has been destroyed, you have been moved into the colonial reserve, an informal prison you will be told to call not-home. Your new mother—you will never call her mother—calls you Naomi. You are her English-named child. You are Naomi.
She calls you Naomi and you feel like Mara.
After Naomi’s husband dies in the Bible, she says, “call me Mara, because the almighty has made my life very bitter.”
Mara is the flavor of loss.
Mara is the absence of rice.
Your new mother—though you will never call her mother—demands that you make her rice.
Your mouth waters as you pick small stones and dried husks from the white rice. Your small hands grab the gitaruru, move it from side to side. You relish the music of rice grains moving against each other, the counterpoint of rice moving against the gitaruru’s fibres. At first, you lose grain when you start to winnow. You learn to wait for the small breeze, the winnowing breeze, the breeze that will snatch the rice husks from the air-dancing rice. With practice, you learn to create your own breeze, to toss the rice up in the air, watch it spin and dance, embrace and absorb the sun’s light. You learn to dance with the rice. You learn to dance from the rice. To spin and bounce, to flounce and flirt, to clink and rasp.
When it’s just you and the rice, dancing with the gitaruru, you are Naomi.
Naomi means pleasant.
Winnowed rice must be washed three times. First, in fast-flowing river water, to quench the thirst of dancing spirits. Lower the gitaruru into a fast-moving river. Do not lose a single grain. Second, in still well water, so the rice learns how to settle into bodies, how to sediment into foundations, how to be a deep reservoir of strength. Third, in freshly boiled water, to invite newness into the world, to instill in the grains the heat that will warm the body on cold mornings.
Rice must be made in the metal rice pot. Never in the clay nyungu. The pot is coated in fresh cow dung. The dung must come from a cow, never a bull. The cow cannot be older than three years old, but it must not be younger than two. Mix three handfuls of fresh dung with two handfuls of aged clay. The clay must be at least six months old, dug close by the river, but never from the river’s edge. It should have been dug in the morning, but never under the shadow of a tree that has nesting birds. Combine the dung and the clay with still well water, so they can settle down. Smear on the pot three hours before cooking the rice. Never use your right hand to smear this mixture. And never smear when you are inside the house. But you must never smear when you are outside the compound fence. Or else the wandering husks will return to the winnowed, thrice-washed rice.
Boil three cups of still well water in the prepared pot. Add a spoonful of salt. When the water is boiling, add three handfuls of rice. Cover the pot. Walk to the nearest river. Collect three smooth pebbles at the river’s edge. Bring them home. Place them at the edge of the fire.
You will learn these instructions over six months. Each time, a new twist will be added. Cooking rice will become a dance and a trial. When the rice burns, as it will during the first three months, you will have to start from the beginning. You will learn to winnow in night breezes, to learn how rice dances in barely-there light from firewood flames. You will learn the different between night-dancing rice and day-dancing rice, the difference between night-flowing water and day-flowing water, the difference between night well water and day well water.
The first time you try to master all these instructions, you will think it is worth it. Because the time it takes to make white rice is the same time it took your father to go to town to buy you bread. Your appetite, trained to wait for pleasure, will remember the taste of your father’s love. It will anticipate the taste of your new mother’s love.
She will eat the rice alone.
Perhaps, you think, you did not make enough rice for two. The second time you prepare the recipe, you will double the ingredients. She will eat her normal portion and serve the rest to her chickens. The third time, you will prepare five handfuls of rice instead of three. You will wait until she is not paying attention, and you will steal some rice.
It will not taste like bread.
It will taste like too-old river clay bathed in the sweat of a birthing cow. It will taste like the sweat of a seven-year-old girl who is missing her father.
You sit on my mother’s green couch telling your story calmly. Your voice is serene, as is your face. You sit upright, a pose you learned in secretarial school, a way you have trained yourself to face the past and the present. I have always admired your calm face, your measured voice, your stillness.
My mother’s stories always include fights and struggles, tears and storms. In them, she spits on her hand and challenges boys to fights. She runs away from home and sleeps among the maize. She draws lines in the soil and challenges boys to cross them. She pours her tears into my soul, fills my bones with rage, makes my blood restless.
When she talks, my hands tap, my feet swing, my left eyebrow arches involuntarily. My tongue receives her bitter words, my memory stings as it records her memories.
I had always thought you were the less resilient sister, the protected one. Now, sitting on my mother’s green couch, your body still, your eyes calm, you remember the flavor of loss.
Chickens do not eat githeri.
Every Sunday at 2:30 p.m., the woman you will never call mother will pull two ciondo from under her bed. The plain brown kiondo, the color of river-brown mud, contains an endless supply of dried maize. You wonder if the maize has some kind of magic: if you remove two grains, three others appear. You never see the woman you will never call mother filling up the kiondo, but it is never empty. The copper-brown kiondo, the color you will later call savanna gold, holds an inexhaustible supply of beans. They, too, never seem to end. The woman you will never call mother will take three handfuls from each bag—her hands are a little larger than your face and though she bites her nails, she always leaves enough edge to tear small pieces of your skin when she pinches you. She will place the maize and beans in a nyungu, add three small cups of whatever water is available. One day, after you have mopped the floor, she will squeeze the water from the wet rag into the nyungu.
The nyungu will be set over three stones, on a miserly log fire that does not generate enough heat to warm your seven-year-old hands. After 45 minutes, it will be removed from the barely-there heat.
You will never be able to explain the precision with which the woman you will never call mother measures time. She will always be more accurate than any instrument you will ever encounter.
You will be told that your food for the week is ready.
At first, despite the evidence from your tongue and your small milk teeth, you will believe that this food is special, akin to your father’s bread, because it was made specially for you. Your mouth will water, your teeth will love the crunch of barely-cooked maize and beans. You will believe that your persistent stomach pains are natural, that they are evidence you are growing big.
After five days of eating this githeri, you will ask for a little salt to add flavor. You will be told that salt is for people who eat rice. On your way to the river, you will pass by the salt lick where your brother used to take the cows before the government took them. You will steal five minutes here and there to lick the salt lick. You will try to fill your mouth with the taste of salt so that you can flavor the githeri when you eat it.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the woman you will never call mother goes to the market. She carries her red and green kiondo, big enough to fit a chicken, or a small child. You will have two hours.
You lift the lid off the githeri pot. You scoop up two handfuls of the still-hard grains. You look for Damaris, Jerusha, and Zipporah, the three aging chickens that no longer produce eggs but cannot be slaughtered because they are the only connection to a previous life, a life before colonial reserves. You will sprinkle the githeri gently, anticipating that they will rush for it as they do for the rice grains the woman you will never call mother sprinkles for them.
You will learn that chickens have their pride.
Jerusha, the curious one, will walk over to the sprinkled githeri. She will eye it curiously. She will lift a delicate claw, place it on one hard grain, press the grain into the ground. She will stride off. Damaris, loud and cowardly, will strut toward the githeri, wings extended, ready to engage in battle. She will flap her wings around the githeri. You will believe that she is warding off evil spirits, cleansing the githeri of cruelty. Finally, Zipporah, who shares your stepmother’s name, will approach. Zipporah hangs back, but she is greedy. She waits until the rest have eaten their fill so she can have everything else. Her stomach bulges obscenely. Approaching the githeri, she will lower her bill to the ground. She will open her bill, emit a small squawk that suggests greed. As she reaches down to peck, your stomach will clench in pain and anticipation. She will peck at the still-hard githeri, but she will not eat it.
You will wait for an hour, hoping that the githeri will disappear. You will enter the house, worried that the chickens prefer not to eat while they are being watched. After twenty minutes, you will emerge to find that they have arranged the githeri into a little pile. Every so often, one of them will extend a claw into the pile. Circle the claw around. And withdraw it.
Fifteen minutes before the woman you will never call mother returns, you will scoop up the githeri, walk to the pit latrine, and deposit it there. Your rations for the day gone, you will search for clover and learn to eat weeds.
The following year, when you start school, you will pack one handful of githeri for your lunch. You will be known as the little girl who shares her food. You will offer it to classmates. You will offer it to your siblings who you only see at school. You will offer it to stray dogs and wandering frogs. To undiscriminating crows and hungry latrines.
My mother loves githeri. She says she can eat it every day of the week. When you visit her, you eat it. You cook it for your children. Do you eat it out of a sense of duty? Because it’s the food of your people? Or is it akin to bitter herbs, a reminder of a painful history? Or is eating it evidence that you have moved past the trauma of your childhood?
The year you turn nine, 4 years after your father leaves and 3 years before he returns, you refuse to be Naomi.
Naomi, she calls.
Naomi, louder this time.
Naomi, can you hear me?
Naomi, I know you are in there!
Naomi, stop playing.
Naomi, my daughter!
Naomi! Naomi! Naomi!
A year ago, she started leaving the house every Wednesday and Friday at 6:30 p.m., as the sun was setting. She t said she would be back at 9:30 p.m. She taught you how to lock the door from the inside so that you would have time to hide if intruders tried to break in. She taught you where to leave extra clothing and blankets for the freedom fighters, close enough to the door so they would not have to come in looking for you. She taught you how to stay still, to act as though no one is home.
Later, you will learn it is called passive resistance. You will learn about black people slowing down their hands, unhearing when they are called, recalibrating their bodies to stretch time beyond time’s ability to be stretched. You will learn about three-minute jobs that take five days. About slow-simmering rage that lasts for decades. About staying in place and freezing time.
For now, you learn not to respond when the woman you will never call mother returns home at 9:30 on Wednesdays and Fridays and asks you to open the door. You are no longer Naomi.
The nearest neighbor, one of many relatives, will walk over. She will call you by the name your father always used. The name the woman who is not your mother has never used. She will ask you to open the door. And because you are your father’s daughter, because she has used your father’s name for you, you will open the door.
The first few times this happens, the woman you will never call mother will be angry. She will pinch you. She will yell at you. She will withhold food. She will even walk to the nearest nettle bush, cut a nettle-lined twig, and threaten to beat you with it. You have learned to live with her cruelties. Your face will be still. Your voice silent. You will gaze at her. Silently. Without condemnation. Without criticism. Without love. Without acknowledging her tone, her gaze, her words, her actions. You will have learned to be stone.
And she does not know how to be around stone.
After a month, she will learn to pass by the neighbor’s house so that you open the door for her. She will never call you the name your father uses for you.
Two years later, Zipporah will be agitated. You have learned to pay attention to her since she fought off a young hyena a year ago. She lost two claws from her left leg and has an unsteady gait, but Jerusha and Damaris now defer to her. They let her eat her fill and will not complain if she finishes the food. Six months ago, a hawk tried to snatch Damaris, who has always looked small and light. Zipporah fought off the hawk, but the top of Damaris’s head is scored with claw marks. Jerusha, the oldest of the three, has withdrawn. She sits under the nettle bush and broods. Zipporah is frequently agitated—sometimes it means someone has come to visit but sometimes it seems she has a nervous condition. You do not pay attention until a man’s voice calls your name.
Your father’s brother has returned.
On his first night home, the woman you have never called mother will offer you rice. You will accept it, create an inviting mound on your plate, walk outside and calmly pour it out for Zipporah, Jerusha, and Damaris.