I Might Have A Daughter In Kenya
by Bayard Johnson
In Nairobi there's an African market, a long walk down a skinny street in the slums, then a left turn on a jammed dusty boulevard and another click or two out to a dirt hillside.
Along the front I found a woman selling tough woven baskets with leather straps. I wanted one, a girl I knew in Zimbabwe had one, American girl, river guide. She slung the straps over her bare tan shoulders, California blonde, and lugged half her stuff in it.
I bartered with a slender African woman, a Kikuyu she said, with two small children, a boy and a girl. She left her husband who was very bad and beat her, and now she travels between 3 towns in a week selling baskets. She points to the shanties up the slope. Lives in one of those. These are half-houses, just shelters, half-tents, with dirt floors and gaps in the walls and doors like on a stall in a barn, with hook locks.
She came down to 9 shillings I think, for the bag, and I bought it.
After I paid I asked if this was really a good price, and how do I know she's not just telling me so. She says yes it is a good price, and I can believe it because her ancestors do not allow her to lie. They are always watching her she said. I gave her 3 more shillings, out of respect for her ancestors. Respect for all ancestors, she said, yours too.
I asked her to lunch and waited around till the lunch-break rush thinned out. She made a gesture to the woman in the next stall, who nodded once and stared at me with no expression.
We went to a canvas-covered stall and sat in folding metal chairs at a tiny table. I had some kind of meat, amazingly gristly, in an aromatic gravy. I asked for whatever she was having and it was this. She asked about my kids and I said I have one, a son, in America, California. He's 8, we spent the summer in Alaska together, ever heard of it? She shakes her head no. North pole, way north, very cold, snow everywhere, ice on the water, the ocean turns solid, you can walk on it. She gives me a skeptical look, she's heard this before. I tell her I promised my son I'd be back by Christmas. She nods, this is important. Then she has to go back to work and I walk her back.
I asked if I could take her and her kids to dinner. My last night in Kenya. She said a time, 7:30, I came to her shanty, asked where she wanted to eat. She looked wonderful in a sleek wrap-around chitenge, like a sarong. She had low sandals and bare feet, dark brown. Her kids were smiling big smiles.
The boy said something, his mother looked at me and then gave him some answer. I asked what he said, she smiled. 'He wants to know if you're a witch doctor.' I was puzzled. She pointed to the pendant around my neck, a nyami-nyami, the river god of the Zambezi, carved in black buffalo horn. She said medicine men wear those. Also the chitenge draped over my shoulders. I said I didn't know if I was a medicine man or not.
I thought we'd go to a restaurant but she chose an open-air booth in the shanties. Everybody, all the Africans, were polite and a little shy toward me, courtly in a way. She, in contrast, with very direct, clear and honest. This was her way, not depending on any man, and with the ancestors watching.
The kids were small, we didn't share a word of common language except 'pretty.' It occurred to me it might have its own meaning in their language, something completely different. We'd take turns pointing at things, then saying 'pretty' and they'd agree or not with exaggerated reactions.
We went back to her place and she put the kids down on a pallet and spoketo them in Kikuyu. She took me through a burlap door-hanging into a room where her bed was made up on the floor. Here's where we sleep, she said. Can't everybody hear, I asked her. Everybody should hear, she said.