A Mathare Night
“Start from the beginning. When you woke up this morning your mother was out of her bed.” The Nairobi city police officer rubs his tired eyes trying to focus.
“When I woke up this morning, my mother was missing. She always lays on the cot closest to the door. Every morning she makes her bed, pulling the sheets tight before boiling the water for the ugali. She always wakes us up for school. Today she did not do any of these things. My mother has not come back from work last night. She would never leave without saying where she was going.”
The policeman takes notes and tells me they will look for her. I do not believe him. I can guess he is annoyed at me for keeping him from joining his mates for tea.
He did not even ask me what her name is.
The police do not think I am serious or important enough to listen to. I am fifteen years old and I attend St. Teresa’s Girls Secondary School in Mathare. My mother sends me to the private school so I can get a good job and help her educate the other children. At home I am most serious, taking care of my sisters and brother by preparing dinner and washing them up before bed. My mother works at the evening, so I get the children to do their chores and lessons. Then when she comes home, she can sleep right away.
With my friends at school, I act differently though. As soon as I meet up with Caro, at the corner before the matatu stop, we bust our sides laughing together. When we were younger, we rode the matatu together, but the men pinched at our thighs and necks. The worst ones clicked their tongues at us and held out sweets trying to get us to sit on their laps in the back seat.
Us girls, we wake up early to do all our chores and still have time to walk to school. Walking together, with our arms linked, makes all the worries of the world go away. I enjoy the fresh air before sitting in the crowded classroom. Sometimes Mama wakes me up when she comes home from work to cook for her because she is hungry. If I fall asleep in class then I am ashamed for missing the lesson. The walks in the morning help me to be awake.
Mama loves to talk to me about school. On the days when she is strong then she will take on my chores and the children so I can do my homework before she goes to work. The children are not allowed to go with Mama to work. I only know where she goes because when I was ten, I followed her one night to give her the beads she forgot to wear. Her long bead necklace is special, and she wears it every night. When I caught up to her, the place she went smelled terrible and had loud music coming out of speakers. There were no windows, only a blue pazia covering the front entrance. She was leaning on the front wall talking to a man very close to her. Her smile was different than I had ever seen. It was a bad choice to follow her. As soon as her eyes caught a glance of me, she batted the man’s arm away from her. The entire weight of her whole body lunged into me and her arm wrapped over my face.
Into my ear she hissed, “You must never come here again.” Her finger and thumb pinched a chunk of flesh under my armpit as she marched me away, keeping my body close to her’s.
Hot tears fell into my braids. My sight was blocked from seeing her face, but I imagined the look of disappointment she would give me for disobeying. Tightened fingers buried the beads deep in my dress pocket. Instead, I would tell her I missed her and followed her to work.
She gave me a gentle shove out of her crushing embrace. We were down a side street and all the units were dark from people sleeping. I turned to apologize to my mother. Her face was twisted up and she was trying not to cry.
I reached out to rub her arm. Her shoulder shifted away, pulling back from my touch. “Go home to your sisters and brothers. Sleep tonight for school. I will not need any dinner, okay? Do not come back here, okay?”
Not many years after that night the reality of my mother’s occupation became clear to me. I worry about her because her work is dangerous. We have a pact of understanding between us, together we shield the other children from knowing. Now that I am older, Mama needs someone to be there for her. I help heal her body when she comes home beaten or overly drunk. My nimble fingers mend ripped dresses and polish her heels. She has better clients than a lot of the other women. To make more money, we keep her appearance nice together.
Some nights, when the club does not have a lot of guests, Mama comes home very drunk. I cradle her in my arms giving her porridge and keeping her forehead damp. She says, every bad man is worth her children going to school. My lips shush her until she falls asleep.
Even though I worry, about where she might be, my mother is strong and fights for herself. Caro’s mother is not as able to stand up for herself. She started taking drugs to cope with everything and now Caro and her siblings never have any shillings for food. But Mama never gets too drunk to remember her pay. Her boss hit her once and she put her foot down. Now he pays her every night. I just do not know why she would not come home.
Days when Mama makes extra money and does not have to return to the club, the next day is wonderful. Her and I, with the children, go for walks. We eat dinner all together and then at night all of the little ones pile into bed with her. Those are the only nights I enjoy sleeping by myself. A foot to the side, an arm slung over my throat is what usually happens because they tend to crawl in with me. God forbid, Mama did not have a lot of shillings in her purse and get robbed. I brush away images of my mother beaten from a mugging.
Caro talks to me often about waitressing during the summer, but I tell her no. That life is not worth the money, it is dangerous walking around with cash tips here. And she will not be allowed to waitress very long with her body turning into a woman. The boss will make her do the same thing her mother does. Caro is not afraid, she has been to the club before. She even tried changa’a once and the drink was so bad it made her cry.
Maybe I should go back to the house to wait for Mama? She might have run errands after work, and I am worried for nothing. When Mama is home, we talk about school the most. She loves when I tell her stories about working on history projects with the other girls. Many times she has begged me to teach her English, but her accent makes it hard to be understood. I teach her phrases like, “Sir, can I bring you a drink.” And “Sir, you dance well. Can I dance with you next?”
Mama is very serious about two things. All of us children must never go to the club. And the other rule, she is very strict about me talking with other boys. One of my friends from homework club walked me home and Mama saw us coming. She did not even wait until we were close enough to shout at. Waving her arms wildly in the air she ran at us. Then she grabbed a tomato from the rubbish pile and threw it at my friend. He ducked and the tomato splatted into seeds and juice on the ground. He turned in his flip flops and jogged away.
“Mama, what are you thinking? Have you seen this boy before? He is my friend.”
“Charize, you will not see this boy or any other boy again. You must only think about your school. That boy could rob you or hurt you and he will distract you from your studies.” Mama’s eyes blazed with wrath.
In the early morning, when she returned home from work, I was still awake in bed facing the wall. I heard her scrubbing her skin and wrapping her hair. She was weeping softly. After the lantern was put out, I looked over and her arms were hugged around herself.
I lay back down even more confused about the way she threw a tomato at my friend. Why would Mama hate my friend so much? What did he ever do to deserve a tomato thrown at him? My boy friends would stay at homework club until she settled down. I would wait to explain to her that I needed to study with the boys to earn top marks.
It is four o’clock, the school day is ending, and I spent hours searching through our entire complex. No one has seen her. I went near the club earlier but not all the way to the door. Mama could just be inside dealing with her boss. If she saw me, she would be furious if I came to find her there.
Caro told me I was put on detention duty for missing class and the teacher sent home an extra essay assignment for me to complete. Caro tried to wake up her mother to ask about my mama, but she was too high. I plan to leave the little ones with Caro and her siblings. I am going to search the hospital. Mama could have gotten in a matatu accident in the night. We do not have any way of getting the news about such things.
I change out of my uniform into my nicest dress. Wash my face and brush my teeth. I find some change for the matatu and go to the stop. A matatu swings in, crammed with people and I bellow to the driver, “Are you going near Hospital?”
He waves me onto the matatu. I sit near the front, away from the window so I can jump off before anyone else. The van, filled with more passengers than is legal, groans out into traffic. I keep my eyes fixed out the front windshield hoping traffic is clear. Even a five kilometer drive may take thirty minutes.
Twenty minutes in the stifling heat of the matatu and my ears are numb from the blaring horns all around me. I see the Hospital ahead but to get out of the matatu in traffic is certain death. We bank the curb and I emerge along with a few car sick passengers who could not handle any more Nairobi traffic. In my head, I plead with God my mother is inside Murura Hospital.
The receptionist is busy checking in patients, so I walk down the hall looking past curtains around each bed. The hospital is loud and crowded. Smells of food and people are mixed together with the pungent antiseptic being mopped over the grime on the floor.
A tap on the shoulder, as I am talking to a waiting family, plummets my heart to my feet. I turn to see a heavy body towering above me in a bright, white uniform. Embarrassed, I brace for her rebuke. Her feet shift, and her legs adjust her posture.
“Child, look at me.” Her voice is smooth and calm.
I tilt my head up to meet her eyes. She looks over me entirely, not saying a word.
“Are you looking for your mother?” My heart lifts. She will help me. I start to tell her my mother is missing and not just drunk somewhere forgetting her children. She swings out a wide embracing arm, commanding me to follow her.
“Come with me baby.” The nurse rotates her full body in a slow, wide turn. I mirror her movements trying to anticipate which bed she is going to lead me to. She walks so slow down the hall, I start to look past her to see Mama.
“Ma’am, if you point me in the direction, I can find my way to her.” The nurse keeps walking.
I follow her. Maybe Mama is in surgery and she is leading me to the waiting room. I finger my remaining coins in my pocket. What if we could not pay the medical bills? I did not count all of the money in the pouch, but it surely is not enough.
The nurse stops at a glass office door and taps her knuckles softly on the wooden frame. Opening the door, she pushes herself into the office, leaving a space for me to follow her in.
“She looks exactly like the woman from last night.” Her body retreats from the room. Sitting behind a desk, piled with folders and documents, is a kind eyed man in glasses.
“Oh yes. Thank you, Natali. Sit down child.” The man moves to clear a seat for me.
“We do not have much money, but we will pay you. I promise I can work extra hours after school. Mama will start work again as soon as she is better. Please you must do the surgery.”
“Young lady, please sit down. We are not here to discuss payments. I admire your good heart trying to take care of your mother. How old are you?” The man hitches a leg on the desk top folding his arms across his lap.
“I am fifteen. I can work after class. I am old enough.”
“Sweet girl, please be calm. Your mother came here last night very badly hurt. Someone brought her to the front door, but we could not get her into surgery in time. Your mother passed last night. She was a beautiful lady and I knew her beautiful daughter would be coming soon. Do you have brothers and sisters?”
I feel myself nod. But I am blank. Everything inside goes blank.
“Your mother told us how important you were to her. She loved you but her body could not go on. We knew you were coming, and so we planned good news for you.” His voice becomes quieter and quieter in my ears.
Colors stream out of my vision. The shape of the man in the office blurs and his body and the room around us becomes shades of light instead of objects. My body is rigid and my heart is cold.
How could she be gone?
The day my mother died, a different life began for me. I am twenty now. The man at the hospital did believe I would come. He tells me, when I return to visit him and Natali the nurse, something about my mother’s last fight with life convinced him her children were worth finding. The afternoon I waited in his office, he called a pastor he knew. Within the hour a family and the pastor arrived.
Natali was cradling me after everything went blank. She spoke to me, convincing me this opportunity does not come to every orphaned Mathare child. The family was special and so dutifully I directed them into the slum to retrieve my brother and sisters. Seeing Caro, everything I had dammed up flooded out of me. I sent the kids along to see the new family’s car and her and I wept together. She rocked me back and forth as my exhausted limbs laid in her’s.
With no more tears I peeled my body away. “Charize, I know you miss your mama. You will miss her forever. But look what gift she left you. A whole family. Food and school for the little ones. And you will go now to a good school. A very good school.”
“It is too much change. It is like I have a different life now without everything I know and love.”
“Charize, you will look back one day and see your mother’s death is what saved you from the life she had. Do you know why she never let you go to the club? She did not want them to see their next worker’s face. She did not want them to get you. My mother never did that for me and now they call out to me by name every time I walk home.”
“She gave you freedom. And I will not let you throw away her gift. Go now. Get in that nice family’s car and leave. When you are a nice lady, come back and adopt me.” She threw her cheekiest smile at me.
I am the only one who returns to Mathare now. I see the children living there and wonder if their mothers are forced to sell their bodies. My siblings are still being raised by the family and our parents do not want them to travel here. The two youngest do not remember Mama. Their memories of our early lives are in the beautiful home in Karen with grass and cars and plenty of food.
I visit Caro and we talk about our school days. I found her a job in Nairobi after she graduated but walking to and from Mathare and taking care of her mother was too difficult. She works at a market stand and has a nice boyfriend.
The most difficult thing for me, is sometimes I find myself waiting for my mother to return home. I am the only one who really knew her. The little ones are my family but so different than the family we were in Mathare. I am thankful to the Ochieng family for taking us all in. God is good, He kept us all together. But I feel like I traded this life for the other. I want the little ones to know both. I want them to know Mama. She was a fighter. When the fight of her life was over, she still protected us.