When You Sing To The Fishes
A voice answers on my first knock.
It’s a voice with not debonair… not delightful and not cheerful. Not even enthusiastic; just a simple greeting. It is the voice of a mature and tired Luo woman. It’s Mary-Goretti’s voice.
“Mary-Go,” I say, trying to sound friendly and respectful.
“Get in, Didi. I’ve been waiting.”
All in good time.
The door is not locked, I push it. It is a dank single sub-let room in a rundown two bedroom house in Ondiek Estate, small, squat and gray; from the 1960s era, just well used and well lived in. A dull-coloured Butterfly sofa that has evidently seen better days is the room’s best thing. A privacy khanga screen, a stool and a few odds and ends make the room her living room as well as bedroom. The blue metallic Vono bed, of course, is way older than the Butterfly sofa but small and from the 1970s era. It looks comfy and inviting owing to the fact that it’s well made.
She stands there. The woman is huge. Obese, sort of, not really fat-fat as far as “fat” is concerned but she is super massive, extra-extra large. A somewhat pretty face. Big thighs, big arms, big udders. She doesn’t look bad as I imagined or the way her emails expressed; she looks fine… very much unlike a sick person. Her hair is done in small braids, making her seem that much more severe to me although she is looking attractive in a light green dress.
I don’t care. I just want to get this over with.
She offers me a seat and observes that it’s more than six weeks since I got back and I haven’t faced up to one of my most fearsome demons: her. I wonder after her dark sense of humour. Well, at least she’s as chatty as I’d always known her. The night is dark, warm, and full of mosquitoes.
Regardless, I sit on the cheap sofa and take a good look at her. Her mood seems sullen like the humid air.
“You’ve been here three weeks, shemeji?” she asks sitting next to me.
I shrug, slap at a mosquito on my neck, sigh saying, “I’ve been busy, shemeji. Lots of things to do.”
“First of all my thanks for the money you sent me for Agwenge’s funeral.”
I shrug. “It is well. He was my brother.” A mosquito sings past my face, I slap it away. “The bugs, the heat, it’s all different.”
“Too sad. Utazoea tu. This is same old Kisumu.”
We sit in silence for a few minutes more. Then she says with a sigh, “I hear your msungu wife wants you to go back,” she pauses and struggles to get the words out, “and your parents want you to marry a Luo girl.”
“Oh.” She heard it. News travel fast in here Kisumu.
She gets up to sit opposite me as if to get a look at me. She shifts and pushes the hem of her dress to cover her knees. She smells good, and stifles a yawn. I stifle a fart.
“You really have your ear to the ground?”
“I’m part of the family.”
“Yes, of course.”
“You can’t go back. It’s better you marry a Luo girl. You need to come home finally.”
“What about you?” I ask curiously.
There is a quiver at the corners of her lips and a brightness to her eyes. “Stop jokes, bwana. I have a man-friend. HIV complicates things. I can’t have a normal life, I’m used.”
I nod. “I know Mary-Go. ARVs? Good?”
“You can see, Didi. Let me make you some tea, shemeji.”
She goes out of the room. Moments later, I hear things rattling in the kitchen. I feel a sickness well at the bottom of my stomach. Hours ago I was still gathering courage to come see to see her here at Ondiek and it just ate me away. I look at her dwellings and I see poverty. I hate poverty; I always want to run away from it. In Leeds I met many white guys who’d rather die in prison than stay in poverty. Listen to how my childhood friend Magak (RIP) used to describe poverty: if you are staying in a permanent house, the walls start cracking. The house starts sinking and the metal windows and doors begin to jam. The roof leaks and the ceiling boards start to fall off. The roof's iron sheets turn brown and ugly. The fridge is broken down. The gas cooker’s out of order. All the cups are broken. The Thermos flask was broken ages ago. The sufurias are leaking and you cannot afford to replace them. The once beautiful bed sheets and blankets are all torn. The sofa set is old and falling apart and is supported by bricks. Your children are jobless and their mother has become sick. The vehicle is a shell. You have lost all your friends because you cannot repay them when they lend you money. If you’re in a town away from your rural home, you can hardly afford transport to go to attend funerals of relatives. Age has caught up with you very fast and no one seems to remember that you exist. You are in a rut and you’re hated by everyone.
My sister-in-law Mary-Goretti comes back with a metallic kettle and two old cups. She pours out what smells like herbal tea then she sits herself next to me. As we take the herbal tea, she tells me how she has managed to keep paying the rent, by the simple expediency of taking the tailoring job her dead boyfriend had left behind. There is a church nearby that has a nursery school in it and has positions that are reserved for women in her exact situation—extremely poor and HIV-positive. She has no good income, no savings. Her possessions are mainly clothes and few furnishings and utensils. She has managed to work, pay her rent and pay her teenage son’s high school fees. Rent, utilities and food are taking every cent she can get her hands on. That means she’s had to be “innovative” at finding ways to do things that most of her HIV colleagues find disgraceful in order to live. She washes clothes and utensils for other people in the estate and gets paid. At one time, she used to wash beddings at the boarding and lodging brothel near Kaloleni.
I know that poverty is man-made. But to resign oneself to a defeatist attitude that you cannot fight your way out of it makes a mockery of all those who did claw their way out with blood, sweat and tears. It can take you your whole life fighting poverty here in Kisumu, fine. Granted. But Kisumu does offer opportunities to those nimble outgoing men and women willing to work real hard and make sacrifices. Sad, the dragnets of poverty prevail. I thought I kicked it in 1987 after Victoria’s European Tour and the successes following the bestselling albums like There’s No Mathematics in Love, Chris Tetemeko and Luopean. But I consumed all my savings in UK. Now I survive from meager record sales and the four rental houses I constructed in the ‘80s. Am I any better? Looks to me like poverty’s rushing back and I must think of a way to butt it in and bash it hard on the head before it rattles me down to the ground.
Mary-Goretti is silent for a long moment. Then she says she misses Agwenge.
“When did you start loving him?” I want to know.
“After he died,” she says. “No, no… when he fell sick.”
I’m tearing up hearing what she has just said.
She asks, “You think there could’ve been a future between Agwenge and I?” She looks at me and sees me struggling. I’m thinking about asking her something. Was she always going to cheat on my brother? Would she have left him?
She speaks. “Early in 1984 when you dated me, you taught me something. You taught me to fight and take whatever life gives. You taught me other things later on too but I wouldn’t be sitting where I am now if it wasn’t for the first thing you taught me.”
Ours was a romantic love affair full of youth and innocence. From ‘84 till ‘86, Mary-Goretti was my number one. We were both young. I was about twenty-two and she was eighteen or nineteen. I was a young dynamic guitarist and every girl’s idol. She was a dazzling beauty. We were in love… for real. Then I dumped her… I dumped shortly before the European Tour. Just lost interest as my hunger for fame and power increased. She stuck with me. When I came back from Europe at the end of the Tour, I found my brother Agwenge was dating her. Or, to put it correctly, she was sleeping with him. For her it was as a way to get back at me, I knew. But Agwenge was dead serious and married her. But even after they were married, she never quite got over me. She continued to sneak into my bed. When I realized she was doing the same whoring thing with other men in the band like Mawazo and Flavien, I firmly dumped her. I’m quite convinced she’s the one who brought the disease into their marriage.
I try to remind her of those times. She says nothing, no emotions, no smiles, no sadness, nothing.
I weigh my thoughts carefully, choosing just how much to divulge. She leans forward and says, “I loved Agwenge. We were in love with each other. Deeply in love. But I always told him a day would come when I would have to leave, and when that day comes he would have to let me go and finally look for his second true love. I could never measure up to him after what you taught me and I knew I’d never be able to make my husband happy even if I spent every second of every day trying. From early on I knew I wasn’t in love with him no matter how deeply he loved me. But there was one thing I knew with every fiber in me; I knew he would find someone else, someone better than me. Someone who would finally heal the hurt that he had inside him from the time he learned that I was cheating on him. I would help him find that person even if it would be my sister. I know how you feel about your brother but you were my first and only love. To me, loving him was an extension to loving you. I mean, as long as I had him and he was your little brother, I had you.”
She fetches a small radio cassette player and feeds it with a battered Maxel audio cassette. A benga song comes alive. It’s ‘Mpenzi Nisamehe’ from Agwenge’s 1989 You Came Too Soon album. And it is one of those songs with a syncopated beat that doesn’t ever seem to want to end. It goes on and on and on and on. But in a sweet rumbastic way. But the lyrics… the words are haunting.
You went to the Manyata Flamingo,
You left me here in Manyata Gonda
And you were gone, ran back to him.
You lied to me but I loved you more
You ran to him but you were going to come back
You went searching for him in Manyata Flamingo,
Wearing a mini skirt, and you kissed him shamelessly.
And he pushed you away.
I love you but you don’t love me
You love him but he doesn’t love you
He loves another woman
This song will keep playing and the children will grow,
Stop the music; put the record back in the sleeve
It’s for me and for you for our love forever
You wore a nice dress and put on strong perfume.
With money in your purse in a borrowed jacket
And a took a Mercedes Benz taxi from Kondele
You went to the Manyata Flamingo,
Dada, I’m waiting for you crying in this hot sun
Like a defeated hopeless romantic.
I’m here for you, crying here in Manyata Gonda
You say the pain was all imagined.
You don’t love me and he doesn’t love you
Many years on, you will cry and wait for his love
But it won’t come because he won’t love you
I will be gone and you will look for me
And you will love me, forever into death
For eight long minutes the song plays, the words are repeated over and over. Agwenge’s metallic voice is in anguish. He always had a crying voice, that brother of mine. And Mary-Goretti sobs. Music is a time machine for men and women of a certain age. For aged people like us whose lives have gone full circle, music brings back memories, good and bad. Agwenge’s questions even now, are difficult to answer. So this is always a guilty pleasure for me. I never wanted to hear that song, its message was too direct.
The death of Agwenge still haunt me. I wish beyond wishes that I could have known and possibly stopped him from getting into the nefarious world of music. Maybe it would’ve been essential to turn his life around and shape his destiny. I honestly didn’t think much of him as a musician, anyway. As my younger brother, he looked up to me. He idolized me and followed me. As an older brother, it was my duty to take care of him. There was a brotherly love thing at play all the time and I tried as much as possible to make life easy for him in the band. His position in Victoria as a vocalist, indeed his career, was safe and sound all thanks to me. He followed me around blindly and sometimes it annoyed me that he was leaning too much on me. So much so he couldn’t even find a girl for himself. He had to pick up a woman I had dumped and still had issues with! This still riles me. Why, it’s long since he expired from this life after a life lived so freakishly and my regrets won’t ever bring him back to life.
As quitting time approaches, I’m beginning to think I should just get out of here and forget everything. But I know I have to accomplish my mission. Mary-Goretti clears her throat and sniffs. Life’s not easy for her without a man, she says. I have to be around and support her too. I’m half listening. I know it very well I cannot trust her. If she wants me to help once in a while, I will do so only as an in-law. I’m truly worried about her. What puzzles me about women is that once you sleep with them, your lives become intertwined and they make the biggest deal out of it. Even if there is no love in it.
I let out my breath; stifle a yawn along with a troublesome fart. Then: “Is it true, Mary-Go? What you said?”
She sent me this disturbing text message a week ago: I hear you’re around. Who cares about a poor worthless hag? At least know have a son. The boy is your son.
She gives a subtle nod.
Well, oh well. There is a momentary pause.
“He’s your son, Didi. Dan is your son. But don’t worry, I’m not going to tell him. I know all you’ve been through and you don’t have money. I just feel you should know before I die.”
It feels like I had known it.
It is quietly presumptuous and subversively condescending. The conversation quickly derails. For a minute I sit still with rivers of sweat cascading down my back when the woman hits me with this: “I need a big favour, shemeji.”
“I need one hundred thousand shillings from you. I need to complete Agwenge’s house at home. I need to start a small business selling fruits and vegetables.”
She describes how being forced to survive has put her in a position to make short-sighted and, usually destructive choices. Chronic stress, she contends, wears a person down to where they just don’t, or can’t think. I agree with her. I have been there.
“Sometimes when you’re a woman like me in my situation, you are forced to do what you have to do. Anything to survive. You have no idea how seeing you here gives me hope.”
When you live from hand to mouth, when you’re a single woman trying to keep food in your kid’s belly, pay his high school education and maintain a roof over your heads, it forces you to make short term decisions, without ever contemplating the possibility of saving for a rainy day. Every day is a rainy day, and it never ends. And it doesn’t end even when the child grows up and leaves the house. After twenty years of short-term fixes, robbing Peter to pay Paul, worrying about where the next meal is coming from, it’s impossible to get into any other mode. You find yourself used to a life with no hope.
I fart. Big and loud and stinky. It zombiefies my sister-in-law. I began to sweat. Sweat more than I have already.
Novel, 406 pages