Earlier this week, as I sat at my table, engaged in a staring match with my computer’s screen, not knowing who would blink first, I wondered aloud what I would write for my blog this week. Nothing on my Evernote list of possible topics seemed apposite for both the moment and my mood. And trust, me, that list has grown quite long lately.
My brother and a friend were in the room. My brother, by now, is used to hearing me lament my literary inadequacies and has learnt to ignore me. Not that I do this every time I want to write, but he has lived with me long enough to know that sometimes it masks ordinary laziness, and that I eventually bring myself around to giving my keyboard a beating.
On the other hand, my friend, though he visits often, has rarely seen me in this predicament. I won’t describe him here because some readers might identify him. Besides, he reads this blog, and I don’t think he is ready to see my written description of him. Suffice to say that he is a very close friend, with a good heart he frequently forgets he has.
He was sitting with my brother, deep in a conversation I had tuned out of. Their conversation continued a little longer, then he moved to the chair closest to me. I was still holding my head in my hands, wondering what my first word would be. “You said you don’t have something to write, didn’t you?” he asked. I nodded. And he added, “Here is a story you can write.”
So I wrote it. Not the full story, because there are some parts I prefer to leave in our shared memory. I wrote it after his narration, so the words aren’t the exact ones he used, and some trivial details have changed. But the voice is very much his own. You can imagine it and use it to read the story, if you wish. It is a measured, deepish voice, with a slight Luo lilt, helped by some sporadic gesticulation.
You got it? Alright, here goes my friend:
One day, about nine years ago, I was sitting in a matatu at the end of a long day at work. At the time, I was doing an internship, in the form of a locum, at this clinic in Rongai, having only recently cleared college down in Mombasa. I was staying with my cousin in South B, and so it was to his house that I was headed.
I was in the front. At one stop, this pretty young lady joined me. I let her have the middle seat, between me and the driver. Her entry made me somewhat uneasy, in the way that the entrance and presence of a pretty young woman makes a young man uneasy. However, she was in a buibui. Yes, I know that not all women in buibuis are Muslims, but almost all are, for all I care. So I suppressed my uneasiness and ignored her.
You see, I had never attempted to initiate an intimate relationship with a girl in a buibui. I had convinced myself that I couldn’t be interested in one. Throughout my long college days in Mombasa, I didn’t even attempt to secure the attentions of any of them, despite the fact that there are more of them there, and that some of my friends had no trouble throwing their wiles at them. My ethnic and religious background wouldn’t let me.
However, a few minutes into our ride, this girl turned and asked if she could sell me airtime. Noticing my surprise, she quickly pointed out that she wasn’t in the airtime-selling business. She had just accidentally bought excess airtime through Mpesa, and so was short of cash. As it happened, I did have some cash on me, and so she sambazad me the airtime and I handed her a hundred bob.
Then, the boychild part of me (where the aforementioned uneasiness has a cosy home) got all mischievous. I gathered a little courage and told her “Now that I have your phone number, how about we have coffee sometime?” I can’t tell you how much I shocked myself when I said that. I didn’t believe I had just said it.
But what shocked me even more was that she unabashedly agreed to my proposal. She told me her name, and I told her mine. We chatted lightly until I alighted. That weekend, we met at a restaurant in Rongai. She didn’t come in a buibui. Instead, she wore a pair of jeans and a white blouse. We spoke about many things, like the young people we were.
I realised that being Muslim couldn’t change the fundamental nature of a person. She was still a girl, with a heart that yearned for human connection, unalloyed by the distinctions we tend to draw along the borders of our collective identities. More importantly, I learnt that my own heart didn’t care that she was Muslim. We hit it off like we were made for each other.
It was also at that first date, if I may call it so, that she told me she had HIV.
Of course it shocked me to my toenails. It also reminded me of a friend of mine who had paid her way through college by selling mtush in Gikosh. When one of the wholesalers said he would make her a better deal if she let him sleep with her, she told him that she had HIV. It was a lie, but he couldn’t doubt it, for his life depended on it. She continued to have the regular deal, but it was all she needed to get her degree.
I remembered the story not because of the common nature of the utterances, but because of the stark difference between the intended outcomes. My friend had said it as a lie to scare off a predatory male. But here was this girl, saying it to me as a truth, laying herself bare for my judgement, because she thought it was important I should know this fact from the outset. She said it so I could stay with her, not so that I could run away.
Over the next months, through late-night texts, calls and many other dates, I got to learn a lot more about her. Of concern to us here is that, at a young age, she had been married off by her father to a much older man in Uganda, his friend. She became the fourth wife, the capstone of the geezer’s marital project.
But it turned out that, despite having four women to himself, the man’s sexual appetite was neither satiable nor restrained. He regularly went hunting outside his harem. One day, aside from pleasure, he caught HIV and brough it back to all his wives. That was the only thing he ever gave them, leaving them to fend for themselves in everything else.
So she ran off one day and came back to Kenya. She had had enough of the senseless life she lived. At the time we met, she was living with her younger sister in Rongai while she tried to put her life back together. And so, at the grand old age of 22, here she was, already married and separated, and HIV-positive to boot. If tragedy and suffering had a face, it would have been hers.
Her story made me very angry. Angry at her father, who had the gall to hand off his barely grown child to a reckless man who would abuse, neglect and saddle her with an incurable disease. Angry at that scumbag of a husband, who had given her a future of pills and a horrendous past, both of which she now had to somehow integrate into her life.
I don’t know what I would have done had I met any of these men back then. But I wouldn’t have been surprised if my reaction had been violent. They didn’t deserve the privilege they had been given of caring for her. Never mind that her father was a military man, and could have easily kicked my butt and dispatched me to my maker.
More than anything, however, it made me angry at myself because it meant, as I saw it then, I couldn’t carry out a proper intimate relationship with her. I had surmounted the buibui barrier, but I was too afraid to turn a blind eye to her status. I couldn’t just ignore it. They say love can overcome everything, but only the bravest among us can love that much.
I didn’t tell her this. She was too scarred for me to add my rejection to her struggles. It was clear to both of us that she liked, even loved, me, as I did her. We continued to converse and meet, and grew closer over time. But at some point, she realised I was too hesitant to move beyond what we already had. With great difficulty, she moved on.
We didn’t stop talking though. One day, a few years later, she dropped by at my workplace. I had by now transitioned to a much bigger facility. She was pregnant, and she wanted me to help her get an abortion. She was scared witless of the prospect of taking care of a child in her state. She knew I could help, and I knew what form that help could take.
Nevertheless, I had never countenanced the idea of terminating a pregnancy. It wasn’t something I was trained to do, and it didn’t sit well with my faith. At this point, I had taken a lot more interest in that faith, and had grown more in love with its precepts. I told her I couldn’t help her abort the baby, and I tried to talk her out of it.
Her child wasn’t at fault here, I told her. Yes, she had lived an unfortunate life and faced a still uncertain future, but she couldn’t transfer that horror, in a more fatal form, to an innocent child. Of course, I didn’t use these exact words. You have to be more tactful and sensitive when having a conversation like this. But that’s what I meant.
Miraculously, she agreed with me. The child is now five years old. Last year, on New Year’s eve, she called to wish me a happy new year. She sounded buoyant. “I realise we haven’t spoken in a while,” she said, and I could hear her smile. She told me she was with her boyfriend and a few other friends, ushering in the new year together.
I wished her a happy new year, hoping that her story would continue to get better, that, one day, she will be able to look back and understand why her past is the way it is. She thanked me and cut the call. Then I turned to my own girlfriend, my fiancée, who had recently taken the place she once occupied in my heart. I told her I loved her very much.
Hey, it’s Abiero, again. Sorry, I know I’m probably the last person you want to hear right now, and this is no way to end a story. But this tale is definitely longer than what I have already related, and I have to stop somewhere.
I just wish to point something out before I close. I didn’t use the name of the girl at any point in this story. That was intentional. Wherever she is, she probably doesn’t know I have been told this story, and it would be rather villainous of me to give out her name to you, curious reader. But I know that, with me, you also wish her the best in life.
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