It was 2002, and We Were Unbwogable
From Gidi Gidi Maji Maji’s 2002 single, ‘Who Can Bwogo Me’
Definition: [someone] who cannot be scared.
It was 2002, and we were unbwogable. Half of our fathers were in Sierra Leone on United Nations peacekeeping missions, and the other half were stomping around our houses swearing that President Moi’s leaving would bring us all peace. It was also the year we learned our fathers were, in fact, bwogable, but that was incidental. For a long while, the only thing we knew about our fathers was that they were strong and fierce – so much so that the UN had been calling upon them for years to force peace upon war-torn Sierra Leone.
The year Fatma’s father was in Sierra Leone, we all got chicken pox. We sat naked on our stoops, our buttocks itchy, our mothers yelling over each other, trying to figure out who gave it to the rest of us. The year Dan’s father was maimed and then killed in Sierra Leone, Dan convinced three of us to sit atop each other on a swing. He swung and pushed, and we ended up at the Medical Reception Station, five of our twelve limbs broken. The year Matumbai’s father was in Sierra Leone, police fatally shot my father’s younger brother during a university strike. The year my father was in Sierra Leone, Matumbai’s mother ran out of their house half naked, her breasts spilling out of her shirt. Matumbai’s father threw his combat boots after her, promising to kill her if she ever talked to him like that again. She sat by the gate, whimpering, all afternoon. Our mothers brought her a leso to cover up, because indecency was contemptible regardless, a jug of water and a thermos of tea, but didn’t talk to her. We spent the afternoon hanging about Matumbai’s house, but he didn’t come out to talk to us. Eventually, our mothers pulled our ears and dragged us to our houses. Later in the night, we heard Matumbai’s mother knocking, begging to be let in, swearing she’d learnt her lesson. She screamed for a long time after Matumbai’s father let her in. We knew to swear to our mothers never to mention this to Matumbai. Our fathers asked our mothers if they’d learnt from Matumbai’s mother’s mistakes. We all nodded and hoped for peace, for President Moi’s leaving.
We did not keep our word. We were, after all, unbwogable. There was hope and defiance in the air. The NARC coalition had essentially guaranteed President Moi’s ousting after 24 bloody years. ‘Who Can Bwogo Me’ was playing everywhere. We would be running errands for our mothers, and matatus would fly by, Gidi Gidi Maji Maji declaring us unbwogable. It started out slow, a catchy tune to make errands less boring, but then it built up, and we were sprinting after matatus, oxygen and blood whirling in our lungs, chasing our freedom, chasing our courage, because yes, yes, we were unbeatable!
We found Matumbai crouching by the roadside, counting kokotos. We should have bought him some ice sticks with the extra shilling each of our mothers had given us, but we figured he owed us more than we owed him. So we pushed and pulled until he talked. Matumbai’s father was getting ready to go to work when he realised his boots weren’t polished. He asked Matumbai’s mother why, but she only shrugged, seeing as it was Matumbai’s job. Matumbai’s father asked her to put Matumbai’s breastfeeding brother down and act like his wife. Matumbai’s mother asked him to give her a minute. But she should have known Matumbai’s peacekeeping father didn’t have a minute. He flung his boots at her, kept flinging until she ran out of the house. We could see that Matumbai expected us to comfort him, but why would we? Who among us hadn’t had a boot hurled at their head? Matumbai should have done what the rest of us never forgot to do: polish our fathers’ boots until we could see our teeth reflected in them.
Later that evening, we stood outside our houses buzzing – the rush of energy from eating sticks upon sticks of coloured ice needing to be spent somehow. We stuck our tongues out at each other, arguing about whose tongue was the most coloured. A full moon was rising, its glow a silvery white against the chipped grey paint on our metallic front doors. Our mothers sat on short, tiny stools, their jikos in front of them, taking advantage of the moonlight to make supper outside, so our three-roomed houses wouldn’t be too hot to sleep in. Matumbai’s mother was cooking chapatis, so we were trying to figure out how to eat supper at his house without our mothers noticing. Our mothers often warned us against behaving like dirty bastards or hungry orphans. They said it was the most embarrassing thing a child – and their mother by extension – could be. Matumbai, however, wasn’t cooperating because earlier we’d pretended we didn’t have enough money to buy him ice. So instead, we’d allowed him to take turns licking our ices. We were annoyed that he was being so selfish because look at his tongue! Where his was a rainbow, ours were sad, solitary colours. When our mothers discovered the cause of Matumbai’s pettiness, they wouldn’t let us have any chapatis even though Matumbai’s mother was happy to share. As punishment, they didn’t pool money to get a mkokoteni guy to bring water the following day. We would have to make numerous trips to Married – the official residential quarters for the married staff of the Fifth Kenya Rifles brigade – to fetch the water ourselves.
Another thing that happened in 2002 was that Married ran out of capacity to house the families of all the Kenya Army staff, legally married or not. With this housing shortage, the segregation of legal families from side families was coming to a fretful end. It meant we were always a twenty-minute walk away from running into a half-sibling. Without the fortified gates of 5KR to protect the official wives from running into their husbands’ mistresses and bastard children, fights increasingly broke out on the streets of Gilgil. We’d all heard about the time Fatma’s mother was out walking her toddler when she ran into another woman, clutching another toddler’s hand, the second toddler, an insulting image of her husband. Fatma’s mother was the most dignified woman we knew, so she wordlessly crossed the road, taking pride in her presumed status as wife. Besides, she and her children were one death away from moving into Married. It was inevitable that a resident of Married would get killed in some mission or other, thus leaving a vacancy for the next family on the list, which Fatma often insisted was them. She said her father often swore to them that he worked extremely hard every day to keep it so. Fatma’s mother would have the self-contained house, running water, electricity, a backup generator, and two servicemen armed with AK47s at the gate protecting Fatma and her siblings. Fatma would play on evergreen grass lawns, and the toddler would undoubtedly learn to walk faster on smooth, tarmacked roads. The worst thing that could happen was Fatma’s father getting killed before they moved up in life. But even then, Fatma’s mother would be the lucky woman wearing huge sunglasses, weeping onto the flag-draped coffin carrying the bullet-riddled corpse of Fatma’s father. She would get the blood money. Fatma and her siblings would go to fancy private schools in the hills of Gilgil.
Matumbai’s mother, on the other hand, did not possess that kind of grace and foresight. When she was faced with the same situation, she didn’t smile and walk away. She didn’t remember that the children were innocent and half-heartedly invite the other mother to four o’clock tea at her house so the siblings could get to know each other. Matumbai’s mother slapped two teeth out of the other woman’s mouth and warned Matumbai and his siblings never to interact with anyone who looked anything like them. Unfortunately, Matumbai, like all of us, was becoming the kind of person that asked why to such pronunciations. Matumbai’s mother slapped him as well and threatened to report him to his father.
We met at noon by the gate and began the long trek to Married. It was a hot, dusty day. Gilgil’s blistering sun was directly in our faces, dust and sweat sticking to our feet. Matumbai was the only one of us with sunglasses, but he wouldn’t let us take turns wearing them. We shoved him, threatened to leave him out of our games, and when he started running, we chased after him, at first out of indignation and then for the fun of it. There was a militaristic beauty on the road to Married: hundreds of National Youth Service recruits marching or sprinting up and down the road in a single file, their green uniforms crisp from repeated, mandatory ironing, their black boots shiny even on the dusty roads. The road started off ragged and dusty outside our gate and then sharper and cleaner the closer we got to Married. It was uplifting – like if we just kept marching along, we could eventually rid our lungs of the odour of garbage glued to our nose hairs, like I could stride right onto the dependants’ list on my father’s insurance policy.
We’d made it a point to grumble when our mothers sent us on these errands to Married so they’d never suspect us of enjoying them. We didn’t just fetch water and leave. We visited our Married friends and sat on their carpeted floors, drinking their refrigerated water. We played football on a real playground using an actual football and not our makeshift type: wrapped polythene bags on wrapped polythene bags held together by a strung-out plastic straw. We were also often lucky enough to get lifts from pickups or buses heading in our direction, so we didn’t have to haul jerry cans full of water all the way back.
On our way back home, Dan decided he was too thirsty to walk all the way. He sprinted off to the nearest house and knocked on the door. A cute six-year-old girl – Fatma’s doppelganger – opened the door. It’s as if by knocking on that door, Dan had taken us back to a time when Fatma was six years old: the large eyes, the small curly ears, the birthmark – a centimetre long in diameter – on the left cheek. She, like Fatma, did not acknowledge us in greeting when she opened the door. She simply stood there, shifting her weight from one leg to the other, her arms folded, her eyes half-rolled. Dan didn’t say anything for a while, so Fatma’s photocopy called for her mother. She, like Fatma, called her mother Mummy unlike the rest of us who just call ours Mama. We heard a television switch off and the quick movement of feet, slippers slapping against tiles, and then the mother was at the door. The woman may very well have been a younger version of Fatma’s mother – the big forehead, the thick eyebrows, the slender nose – except there was something about her that didn’t look Kenyan. We turned to Fatma, looking for signs that she recognised the two of them, but she just stared at them wide-eyed. We laughed, alternating between shock and amusement, that Fatma and her mother were being replaced by people who looked exactly like them. The woman told her child to go, in a language I recognised as Sierra Leonean Krio because since my father had been in Sierra Leone, he had taken to barking this phrase at me whenever I was in the room when he called my mother. The foreign woman slammed the door, and Fatma took off, so we took our cans and hurried home. We didn’t try to find a way into Fatma’s house when we got home. This time, we knew not to push.
Our restraint quickly wore off though, so three days later, we were crowded in front of Fatma’s house. We whispered, then knocked at windows, then banged at the door, and when all that didn’t work, we threw pebbles at the metallic door whenever we got a chance, but nobody responded. A week later, we were watching Redykyulass on Matumbai’s TV when we heard Fatma tapping softly on the sitting room window, like a bird fluttering in the rain. Matumbai ran to the door. It was obvious he wanted Fatma to get right to it, but I tugged at his arm and gently shook my head. I could tell she just wanted a quiet place to sit for a while. So we drew the curtains, switched off the lights, and sat on the floor laughing, watching Nyambane, one of the Redykyulass characters, mimic President Moi. After 15 minutes, Matumbai turned to Fatma and asked if she’d seen that Redykyulass episode in which the president came back from the United States where he had gone to visit President Bill Clinton. She shook her head no. Matumbai offered to dramatise it for her.
I knew the episode Matumbai was talking about. I remembered crouching behind the one-seater sofa, watching my parents watch TV. My father often said it was only a matter of time before those careless Redykyulass idiots disappeared for making fun of the president. Before that day, we hadn’t been allowed to participate in their treachery, even by way of finding humour. I remembered that my mother was annoyed at my father. She wanted him to spend the night at our house, but he said he couldn’t: his wife was getting suspicious of his many absences. I wondered what he meant by many absences since he was barely at our house. My mother put on Redykyulass. My father tried to change the channel, but she started screaming. She said that if he was allowed to spend the night wherever he wanted, then she for sure was allowed to watch some comedy as a balm for his perfidy. He relented, and they watched the show, my father often sighing and my mother rolling her eyes, chuckling. Nyambane was a parody of President Moi talking about his trip. The president wanted to know how the vice president had done in his absence. He talked about his accommodations: the empty bedroom with the empty bed that could appear and disappear at the touch of a button. He talked about the meeting he’d had with Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Monica Lewinsky: how he mediated a rift by asking them what the problem was in Bill loving Monica. My father, who, up until this point, had only seemed haughty, gently elbowed my mother and repeated the question, his eyes sparkling, his smile as wide as his face. It was such a tender moment I almost couldn’t look. I wanted it to last forever, to see how my mother would respond and then how my father would respond to her and so forth, so I stayed enraptured, clutching at the sofa, my breath quivering in my lungs. My mother slapped him. A shrill echo cut through the room, and I caught a shriek in my throat. My father sat stunned, his chest heaving. And then he was roaring, and my mother was running into the bedroom, and I was pressing myself onto the back of the couch, desperate to squeeze myself under it.
Matumbai was running around his house. He used a black marker pen to shade his lower incisors so he looked more like the toothless president. He was using the cane his father used to beat them to represent Fimbo ya Nyayo, the president’s famous handheld staff. He even wore his father’s suit jacket. Fatma was laughing, begging him to stop before she lost all feeling in her ribs. When he was done and we’d quieted down, Matumbai asked Fatma, if in their situation her mother was Hillary Clinton, how come they lived here while the younger, prettier woman and her younger, prettier child lived in Married? Fatma sat up straight, removed a strand of hair from her mouth, and asked him what he meant. Matumbai smirked. Surely, Fatma understood that they didn’t live in Married because of a housing shortage but because his father already had his legal family there. Fatma called him a jerk and ran off, her eyes welling up. I noticed that when she said jerk, her mouth dropped open and then shut, her jaw jerking up and down, like the word was conspiring to help her say exactly what she meant.
Matumbai turned to me, shaking his head, his smirk still plastered on his face. He asked me, “Do you think she’s stupid, in denial, or both? Maybe it is just a woman thing?” He spat out the word woman like it was an insult, like holding it on his tongue had left a terrible taste in his mouth that he needed to be rid of immediately.
“We’re not women,” I said, “We’re girls.”
“Don’t be stupid,” he responded, “We’re the same age, and Dan and I enjoy being called men.”
I insisted that he’d said it like an insult, and he took me by the shoulders and shook me until I was dizzy. He said he was shaking the stupid sensitivity out of me because if left unchecked, the boys would be forced to abandon us. “I know it’s inevitable that you start nagging like mothers, but can you hold it off, stay cool for a little longer?” I didn’t realise I was going to slap him until I had done it three times. He was shaking me and ranting, and I remember how stunned my father had been when my mother slapped him. That repeated crackling – the sound of my palm colliding with his cheeks – was so startling, I swear it stunned me more than him. Then I remembered that my father had quickly recovered and chased my mother around the house, swearing he would stomp on our heads until we were brain-dead because then we’d lose the organ that made us think we could disrespect him. I ran out of the house before Matumbai recovered.
Fatma’s father bought her a bike the following day. We were playing roundas when she emerged from her house, a pink bicycle by her side, a gaudy helmet on her head. Fatma’s father was cajoling her to get onto the bike and at first, she was hesitant, but he kept telling her that he was going to be with her all the way. He knelt down, kissed her forehead, and lifted her onto the bike. I sucked my teeth, and Dan leaned over, telling me to look hard and commit that scene to memory so I can replay it when I needed to conjure up the image of a loving father. I told him that the only reason my father wasn’t there to teach me how to ride a bike was because he was in Sierra Leone, and he laughed, elbowing Matumbai’s side to get his attention. Matumbai said he’d heard. “What did I tell you about these women?” he asked. I felt a lump in my throat, but I was determined not to cry, so I fixated on Fatma. I glared while she paddled and swayed her bike, her eyes closed, her limbs shaking. I scowled while she started, stopped, and lost control, her father catching her every single time. I just kept staring until Fatma was riding and beaming and her father was running after her, cheering her on.
Afterwards, I asked my mother if my father’s suitcase was big enough to fit a bike. She said she didn’t know; how the heck would she know if his wife packed him a suitcase big enough to carry a bicycle? I wanted to hate her, but it occurred to me that if I did, I’d have to hate almost everyone I knew, and where would I keep all that hate?
Within two weeks, everyone except me got bikes, and the compound was filled with amateur bicycle races, laughter, skinned knees, and spontaneous fights. On day eight, ‘Who Can Bwogo Me?’ came on the radio and it reminded me that I could make them let me ride one of their bikes. Dan said bike-riding was a private club for kids with present fathers. I rolled my eyes and told him that at least my father was fighting for something, unlike his father, who was freshly dead and useless in the ground. His voice broke when he tried to retort, and I cackled at this delicious discovery – his grief, like mine, wasn’t off-limits, and consideration was only predicated on reciprocity. They shoved me, and I went home, swearing to call my father to ask him to buy me the biggest bike of all. The following day, Dan showed up at my house with his mother, demanding an apology. My mother said it was what they deserved, but she made me apologise anyway. I whispered a disgruntled apology and offered my hand for a handshake. When Dan took it, I squeezed as hard as I could, and for a moment, I was proud of myself for the pain I was causing him, but then I realised my hand hurt. That fatherless fool was squeezing my hand as well. I pulled my hand away, and he half-rolled his eyes at me – slow enough for our mothers to think it was an unconscious movement of the eyes but deliberate enough that I knew it was a threat. It was on. The next time we escaped our mothers’ surveillance, one of us was going to bleed.
A week later, our mothers went to their weekly chama meetings. I put on one of my father’s old training shirts and combat boots and went out, bracing myself for the biggest fight of my life. But instead, the boys offered to teach me how to ride a bike. I got on one of the bikes, and they started pushing. I asked them not to let me go until I had a hang of it, but they just kept pushing, increasing momentum despite my protests, and then let me go as the road started to go downhill. I started to panic, but then I remembered that I was unbwogable, so I rode out the bike’s momentum, and when it finally slowed down, I did my best to emulate what I’d seen them do in the weeks I’d spent running alongside everyone. It worked! I did not fall, and after a while, it was even fun. I took my time riding up and down the road until I had my fill. When I took the bicycle back, I dropped it at their feet. I told them they were uninspired fools; that as soon as my father came back, I was going to tell him that they tried to kill me and he, for sure, would shoot them dead.
We were at an impasse for weeks. Besides petty quarrels and volatile cliques, there wasn’t much to do before my father returned from Sierra Leone to follow up on my threat. Matumbai had already warned me numerous times that if my father even so much as touched him, his father would have to get involved, and they just might shoot each other dead. He asked me if I’d ever seen that Redykyulass episode where the police had a shootout with gangsters. He quoted the episode to me. “Do you not remember that the gangster had opened fire on the officers, that the officers had returned the fire since it did not belong to them anyway, that the gangster had decided that he would still give them back the fire, so the officers had insisted with more of their fire. The gangster finally accepted the fire: he took it in like a man, and that’s how he fell down.” When he finished, there was glee in his eyes, and I tried to remember to be offended, but then we burst out laughing because we knew that at the end of that episode, the dead gangster had gotten up and run off, that the police chief had stood there calmly radioing all police units, telling them it seemed like the gangster had vomited all the fire he’d been given. When we quieted down, Matumbai confessed that it almost didn’t matter to him where or how our fathers died. Here or in Sierra Leone, what difference did it make? If anything, now that President Moi was leaving power, our fathers were the only thing standing between us and peace.
Fatma’s father disappeared. Nobody heard from or saw him in three months. He was riding bikes with Fatma up and down the road one day and then he was missing. The younger, prettier woman and the younger, prettier child showed up at Fatma’s house, and within a week, they were making pilau and chicken tikka and inviting all of Fatma’s friends to lunch. Our mothers forbade us from going because what kind of hard-eyed women host a celebration when the father of their children has been missing for several weeks? They said “missing” like we didn’t know that if the younger, prettier family had left Married, then Fatma’s father had officially been declared dead. The real point of hesitation for us was that we didn’t want to show up for a party that turned out to be a funeral. We snuck into Fatma’s house anyway. Afterwards, when we were all full and happy, when we’d played ‘Who Can Bwogo Me?’ so many times we could no longer summon any excitement for it, Dan asked, “If this was a funeral, why did they look so normal?” Because when his father’s corpse landed, his right limbs missing, his whole family cried so much they could barely eat for weeks. Fatma’s mother clarified. It wasn’t a funeral. It was Fatma’s friends coming together to comfort her during a terribly difficult time. We let the matter go, but later, Matumbai pulled Fatma aside, assuring her that she could trust him – she could tell him if the sister wives had killed their husband.
For a moment, we were scared that Fatma would tell on Matumbai and ruin the party for us, but she just laughed. So we all laughed along because if Fatma thought it was funny, then it must have been, and we didn’t have to worry about our parents hearing about it even though, let’s be honest, they were whispering it amongst themselves. Except two days later, Matumbai’s father came home in the evening, his belt already in hand. We were watching Redykyulass one minute, and there was a cracking sound the next. Matumbai clutched his head, screaming, blood trickling from his right eye. Matumbai’s father lifted the belt again, but this time, Matumbai lifted his arm and curtailed the swooshing of the belt as it snaked its way onto his back. We didn’t think he meant to do it, but once he had, he held on to it, refusing to let go. He let it cut into his palm while his father tussled with it, trying to release it from his grip. Once he held onto it, it didn’t matter that his hand was bleeding, that the room was deathly silent except for the tap tap tap of his deep red blood dripping onto the maroon concrete floor. If you merely glanced at it, you would think it belonged there, the way it almost blended into the floor, like his blood was always meant to be spilled.
It is an unholy sight: the precise moment a person realises their power. When you look at their face and you can see it dawning on them that if it ever comes to it, they could take something used to cause them pain and turn it on the other person. Matumbai winced. When it hit him that he was capable of causing his father pain, he winced and dropped the belt. His father swore and shuffled out of the room, his face hard with confusion. We thought it might be fear, but how could it be? How could a man who had crawled on the jungles of Sierra Leone, mud and gunpowder caked to his tongue, be afraid of a scrawny boy? But then again, we were used to seeing surety in our fathers’ eyes, certainty that we would say yes sir and make ourselves scarce, so the first time we didn’t, we figured it was fear.
Clarie Gor is a Kenyan writer. Her writing has been published in Catapult, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Audacity, and Shenandoah among others. Her stories have been nominated for The Pushcart Prize and shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize among others. All her work is archived on https://clariesramblings.com.