I hate meeting people in board rooms. There’s always a certain stiffness that is expected. Humanity creeps quickly out of the room. In its stead you are left with shells wearing suits. Which is why I asked Mariana to meet me at the River Cafe at Karura Forest. If ever there was a restaurant that felt like home, it is this one. What with all the greenery surrounding it. If this restaurant was an Instagram account, it would be Julie Gichuru‘s. It looks beautiful without trying to. When it meets up with other restaurants, on weekends, it can afford to play humble. As if it does not know how sexy it is.
I arrive at the Cafe some minutes to 11 am. It is drizzling. There always rain at Karura, even when the rest of the country is complaining of drought. The rain does not stop here. I think the forest knows it is located next to the homes of rich people in Runda and Muthaiga. And heavens forbid they experience drought like the rest of us mortals. We are supposed to meet at 11:15. I wasn’t too sure if she meant 11 sharp or 11:30 because as Kenyans we can only tell time using even numbers. I am a gentleman. So I arrive early and do what all men waiting for a lady do…I text my ex. She does not respond, it is not the first time she has ignored me.
At exactly 11:15 she walks in. She wears that mature look that people who have tasted life have. An unending calmness that can be unsettling. She looks around, and I stand up to greet her. We sit and for the next 3 minutes fiddle with each other…non-physically of course. Discussing everything but what brought us here. It is almost similar to the flirtatious texts you send each other when you start talking to a new girl. You both play coy when both of you know you want each other. The waiter a burly gentleman who is a bit too courteous takes our orders. Coffee for me, some herbal tea for her. She then looks at me and asks where we should start.
I was introduced to Mariana through a mutual friend, Muthoni. Muthoni knows I would sell a part of my body for a good story. We did not agree on which particular body part she wanted. But she insisted Mariana had a story worth listening to, all Muthoni wanted was the chance to read the story before it got published. An easy bargain!
Mariana was born in Mathare, the slum not the mental hospital. In a shack that smelt humid, every time it rained. The roof had an infinite number of holes which were plugged with polythene bags of all shades. I expected this to be one of those rags to riches stories which bore everyone, it turns out a bit different.
She insists on telling me about that house. As if, a part of her still lives there. She was the oldest, so her bed was in the corner furthest from her parents. She does not know why they chose that system. I ask her which moments remind her most of home. She tells me it is the mornings. Her mother used to brew the most delicious of teas. She uses the word brew, which is why I know her mother was a cut above the rest. She would boil the water until it was steaming before adding generous portions of milk, sugar, tea masala and tea leaves. The result was the tea tasted like it was made to love you. The way it caressed your tongue when you put your upper lip on the tin cup. The steam forcing its way into your nostrils, desiring only to be felt. Then when you swallowed, the masala did a number on you leaving your throat aching and wanting more. We are still talking about tea!
He was not a thief she tells me. The gentleman who stole her heart. A thin boy who would have fitted better in the estates than in the slums of Nairobi. He was not built for the hustle. Perhaps in the previous life he had been a rich man. He was made for an easier life.
He had wanted to marry her even without a cent. She wanted so badly then to marry him. As if that single act would make everything right in the universe. Her parents naturally did not agree with such foolishness. But what do parents know? They have never loved. Her father however, was not a man to be trifled with. He gave the boy, Ndung’u a year to pull his act together. If he made something of himself they could marry. So for a year, they were free to love each other. Do you ever look at young lovers and pity them? The way their fingers find every excuse to intertwine. The simplicity, the genuineness of how much they like each other. The naivety of believing it is enough. The boy tried his hand at everything. I am tempted to ask Mariana if he ever went to those GNLD and Aim Global meetings but this is not the time. Instead, I listen as she tells me how he grew desperate as the deadline loomed ever closer. Her father had somehow gotten her a connection to go to the UK at the end of the year. The boy knew, he would lose everything. So he did what men do when they are desperate. He made a foolish decision.
She came back from work to find his blood on her doorstep. He had run to her house after he was shot. Maybe willing himself to see her one last time. If this was a movie she would have been home, opened the door and he would have died in her arms. Instead, the cops had put one last bullet in him, right there at her door step.
Ndung’u had somehow procured a gun and had chosen the wrong bank to rob. It was back in the heydays of Mungiki. When any thug suspected or convicted was dealt with ruthlessly. Do you remember it? You probably saw his face on the evening news. With that bland line newspapers use, “jambazi sugu auliwa na polisi Mathare.” A small part of you slept a little better that night. Did you stop to think of the human behind the title “Jambazi.”
It was a tragedy for those who loved him. The villagers celebrated with the cops, one less gangster to worry about. His family retrieved the body and he was buried immediately. By the time she was getting home, it was as if he had never existed. Every trace of him, outside of hearts and minds erased. The family did not want to be associated with gangsters. She left the slums that night. She has never gone back. She can see him there, every time she gets on Thika Road near the turnoff to Mathare. She feels his presence. A month later, she traveled to England, glad to leave an unforgiving country behind. The curious thing is the family left the slums sometime after that. They never found the money he stole.
She met him, again in England. At a train station, on a cold winter evening. Standing there waiting for a train home. Well not exactly him but a man who was the spitting image of Ndung’u. He had the same thinness. The same laughter and that unending tenacity to fight for what he wanted. The resemblance was uncanny. She had wanted to make amends. She thought it was God’s way of giving her redemption. An opportunity to change the wrongs of the past. She had loved him, the new guy. He too had loved her, sometimes. Perhaps, she did not love him for him, but rather for who he reminded her of. She never told him why she loved him. How do you tell a man you love him because he reminds you of a dead man? She wanted his children. Not really his children but kids who would remind him of the other man, Ndung’u. He did not want that. So he left, he just woke up one day and said he could not handle her any more. He died a week later, a car crash.
She did not moan him, she had moaned him the first time. This man was not hers to grieve for.
She finishes her story as I finish my coffee. We sit there in the silence for a bit. Letting it stew as we pause and think. Me, thinking that she had experienced more grief than one person should handle in a single lifetime. Her, thinking that perhaps she should not let me write this story. She stands up, ready to leave. She has unburdened her soul. She needs to breathe. I ask her what, if any lesson, the two men taught her. She sits back down and thinks. She tells me of this thing Ndung’u used to do with her hair back in the slums of Mathare. He would tie it up, into the ugliest position he could think of. In that style that looks similar to a pineapple. Then he would simply tell her she looked nice. In that tone men use when they really believe in something. He believed in her, in them.
I am not quite sure how that answers my question. But I feel I have burdened her enough. So I ease off on the questions. She however, sits and stares off into the distance. I wonder what it feels like to have loved one man through two people. She looks at me smiles and tells me she knows now what they taught her. I ask her what it is they taught her.
“How to love me, ” she says.
She stands and quickly walks off to her car….she did not drink her tea.
This story is inspired in a small way by Eric Wainaina’s Mariana. Listen to the song it is dope. Also, don’t forget to share with friends and of course SUBSCRIBE!