I grew up pretty comfortable. Both my parents worked, we had a house help who beat the shit out of us if we went out to play barefoot and once a week my mom would make us milkshake from frozen milk, ice cream and fanta-black currant. We didn’t have DSTV like Gurpreet* down the street did and my father’s car didn’t have automatic button down windows but we were good. And in my mind so was everyone else in the world.
With age, the realities of life started to be unveiled to me. At seven, we had a house help who once had a bad toothache. She held her head down on the kitchen counter, the knife cutting that night’s beef stew still in her hand. I asked her why she couldn’t just go to the dentist. She replied simply, “I don’t have the money.” I was confused and slightly surprised. Someone could lack money to see a doctor? Wasn’t she getting paid? Was she going to die? I watched as she wiped her eyes and runny nose with her blouse, her head still hanging over the chopping board. I wondered if her tears would drop on to the raw meat and soon after I too began to cry.
Well into my early twenties, I had taken a vow to lose some weight. As I was waiting for the chicken breasts in the oven to cook, flipping through what I called ‘those stupid tabloids’, I looked up and watched as Fiona* washed dishes in the sink. I had already understood by then that she and I were one and the same, only she was born into poverty and I into middle class comfort. One day she came up to me holding a garment in her hands, “I think this top belongs to your aunt from America. Will you keep it for her?” I looked down at the top. It was Aunt Miriam*’s. They had come to Kenya on holiday a few weeks before and slept at our house. However, she was not from America. “Britain. UK. That’s where she’s from,” I corrected her. “Yes, America,” Fiona* replied shrugging her shoulders. I soon discovered that to her, anywhere out of Africa, if not China (I don’t know why) is America. It then dawned on me that here she was, in my house, having no awareness of her general geographic location in relation to the world. I grabbed a serviette in my haste and began to sketch a map.
“Do you know what country this is?” I asked. She hesitated. “Kenya,” she replied. She was correct. I then took another serviette and drew a map of Africa. I then asked her to identify it. Unsure, she responded, “I… I’m not sure.” “Africa,” I said pointing at the rough sketch. “Africa is a continent. That means inside the continent we have countries. Here is Kenya… Here is Uganda, here is Tanzania and Sudan and, Nigeria is all the way there,” I explained making rough drawings of the countries’ maps. “Ah!!! Nigeria is very far. Is that why people have to go there in an aeroplane?” “Yes,” I responded. “It’s a five and a half hour flight.” “It takes me six hours to get to my village by bus,” she said as a matter-of-factly. I smiled. I then drew a rough sketch of North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia. After labeling them I realized that she may not understand how it was that the continents were not laying flat in that two dimensional manner and so I wrapped the serviette over and orange and explained to her that the world was spherical and that in between the continents drawn on the serviettes were the different bodies of water we call oceans and seas. To give her a rough estimate of how far we were from all these places I labelled each continent with a number indicating the time in hours it would take to fly there.
At the end of the exercise she was pleased; laughing shyly and nervously as she whispered the labels on the serviette under her breath. “I wonder if my son knows all this! He seats for his final exam this year,” she exclaimed. I wondered the same. A few moments later she asked why I called bread ‘starch’ and if that was why I hadn’t eaten any for so long. I laughed and soon took her through a short lesson on nutrition.
As I sat there at the kitchen counter that evening watching Fiona* washing dishes, I wondered what it might have been like for her growing up. I finally gathered enough courage to ask her and blurted out, “Where did you grow up?” She turned around and looked at me blankly. I felt embarrassed, wondering if I had insulted her. She turned back to the sink and said, “In the same slum I live in now.” I wanted to stop right there but I figured that that would be painstakingly awkward and even rude, so I decided to continue with my questions as if I was confident and prepared.
“Is that where you were born?”
“Yes.” She replied.
“And your parents?” I asked.
“In the village. They came to look for work in Nairobi and set up home in the slum where I was brought up. My children were born in the slum too. But they cannot even speak their mother tongue, can you imagine? I speak it to them all the time and they respond in Sheng,” she finished, laughing softly.
“I see…” I responded.
“But my children will finish school, unlike me. It’s only that my husband died that I have to work harder so that I can see them through high school. Nonetheless, they must all finish form four,” she said turning around, her wet weather beaten palm holding up four fingers.
“Yes that is very important. I’m sorry about your husband I didn’t know,” I said somewhat embarrassed.
“Aaah, death is coming for us all Waithera. When he died I had to move into a tin house in the slum. Before that we had lived in a stone house. But after his passing the rent was too high for me to afford on my own,” she said drifting off into thought as she stared outside the window. She continued, “But at least my house has a partition so my children sleep in one section and me another- which is fine. As a matter of fact the section of the slum I live in is very nice. The houses don’t have holes on the mabati roofing you know? And the communal toilets are very clean. They even wash them with some kind of harpic.”
She turned toward me wiping her hands on her sides. I nodded trying to seem unmoved by the description of her better roofing.
“You know you haven’t seen Nairobi living here,” She said pointing at the floor. “You should come visit me. It’s safe. You need to see how other people live,” she said smiling. I laughed nervously, “Yes I should.” I looked back up at her, “The toilets are clean huh?” I asked wondering what she meant by ‘some kind of harpic’. She laughed. “Yes as clean as these ones,” She pointed in the direction of our bathroom. “The only bad thing is that they are closed at 8.00pm so if you need to use the toilet at night you are in trouble.”
“Really?!” I asked surprised.
“Yes! I used to beat my kids when they would cry to use the toilet at night. Now they know how it is so they are smart enough to empty their bowels by six o’clock,” she said her fingers slapping her wrist at an imaginary watch.
She started to laugh on her own and I joined in with a smile. “The worst is the flying toilets though…” she said trailing off and spitting nothing into the air in mocking disgust.
“Flying toilets?” I asked.
“Ahh, have you never been to Kibera?” She asked surprised.
“Once… I went to volunteer at a children’s…” “Yes flying toilets!” she cut me off and continued, probably having not heard me, “The idiots who cannot hold their bowels shit into paper bags at night and when there isn’t anyone around, they toss off the paper bags into the air not caring where they land,” she finished laughing. Perhaps at the look on my face.
“Flying toilets…” she shook her head, “Must be those teenagers. They are very idle and rebellious.”
I couldn’t believe it. I pictured a paper bag filled with human faeces flapping over the night sky only to land on my head.
“Like I told you, the section of the slum where I live in is very nice. In fact, with two hundred shillings I can feed my kids for many days because food is affordable. Githeri is twenty shillings and a chapatti is ten shillings. Not like this other slum over here where githeri is fifty shillings!” she exclaimed. “Next month I will be having guests to celebrate the baptism of my last born. You must come and visit me.”
As she turned back to the sink I stared at this thirty-something year old woman, scrubbing fervently at the sink. There really was no difference between her and I. That could be me at the sink and this could be her. I thought about the baptism of her child and how it would be. I envisioned a young black boy being dipped into a plastic bath and yanked out suddenly to be met by the proud eyes of Fiona*. Baptism in my belief was a symbol of being born again. And I thought about the day I was born. I started to wonder if there was an angel standing in heaven, a thick clip board in hand holding a list of all the prospective births on earth that day. I envisioned him pointing with the back of his pen at the souls in line, ready to be sent to earth to be born into human form, “You will be born over there, you over here and you over at that end of the world.”
No one picks where they are born. No one picks their parents or the size of their wallets. We simply find ourselves here. Not to say that the rich stay rich and the unfortunate stay that way but as we may be the author’s of our destiny here on earth, we definitely are not the deciders of our beginnings. I might know the geographical location of Africa versus Asia or how to combine good carbs with lean meats, but I sure as hell don’t know how to dodge flying toilets or the price of a plate of githeri. I looked down at the magazine I had been flipping through. Paris Hilton had been pictured in a jewel store trying on diamond bracelets. Before rolling my eyes at the image I said to myself, “Well she didn’t pick to be born Hilton either.”