Every morning throughout my childhood, at five forty-five a.m., Mother knocked on my bedroom door. I climbed off my bed, knelt, and kissed the floor. “Serviam. I will serve.”
Still kneeling, I made the sign of the cross—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—then started on the rosary, repeating the sequence of the Apostles’ Creed: one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, one Glory Be—altogether five times.
I kept my morning showers short. Mother said many other Kenyans had no water to drink and most bathed with ice-cold water. While I scrubbed my feet with the pumice, I prayed for the Holy Father’s monthly intentions—one month for the church’s deacons to be good servants, another month for the refugees, the next month for world peace, for the sick and suffering—all year round.
Mother wanted me to do those things.
Everyone in our neighborhood knew Mother for her devotion to the Catholic faith. But she was not one of those Catholics who only had doings with other Catholics; Mother was like the old-day missionaries. She visited people in need, like the Abdullahs, the Somali family with seven children who rented a cottage at the back of a wealthy family’s mansion down the street. Mother brought them baskets of hot buns covered with a white napkin.
“Those poor children are always so hungry; no sooner am I at their front door than all the bread is flying out of the basket,” she sympathized. “The landlord’s children have more than they can eat, but he won’t give Mr. Abdullah even a cup of beans to feed his children.”
She smiled with the Shahs, a Hindu surgeon and his plump wife who dressed in exquisite saris. When the Shah daughters brought payasam to share with us over Diwali, Mother received it graciously. When Mrs. Shah asked if the five-day lighting of fireworks was a nuisance, Mother said, “Nuisance? What nuisance? Anything for your gods!”
Mother kept me indoors. “There is too much evil out there,” she said. I longed for a sibling, someone to play with. I read books, practiced piano. I sat by the window of the study where I could watch the children from the neighborhood. Sometimes, they played a game of rounders, dozens of kids swarming around the players’ circle as if they were bees around a broken hive. Sometimes they raced on their bicycles, flying over pebbles and potholes. I saw that they stayed outside until the shadows of the jacaranda trees in our neighborhood disappeared.
I loved the escape of nursery school, all the hours I spent under the shade of the purple flowers of the grand jacaranda trees on the playground. I loved Princess, our housemaid, who raised me since I could remember. She hugged me often, and told me she loved me. She was always at the school gate waiting to scoop me up with arms wide open. She wore a head wrap and kanga and hummed as we strolled beneath the canopy of jacaranda trees that lined our street, and all the gardeners in the neighborhood followed her with their eyes as she walked by. Trailing three steps behind in my checked uniform, I wished I did not have to go home, that I lived at school, where I could play endlessly and without fear.
I didn’t understand it, but I feared Mother. My father died on my fifth birthday. My vague memory of that was a stain I couldn’t bleach out. Mother’s stiffness with me made my fear even harder to understand. My aunts told me that before my father’s death, Mother took me everywhere with her, like a trophy, singing to me while she planted her roses in the back garden, doting on me. After his death, she turned distant. She took on the life of a stern businesswoman.
My father owned a successful biscuit mill that he had grown from a storefront bakery to a household brand sold in supermarkets. After his death, Mother ran the business. She worked furiously, perhaps out of grief or the fear of failure. She sat on the board with men who had answered to my father, and she commanded their respect ruthlessly. By the time I was ten, she’d quadrupled the business’s value, sold it, and invested in real estate and hundreds of acres of land for commercial farming used for coffee and roses. She was a millionaire many times over and for every extra shilling she made, her determination to mold me into a good, humble Christian girl increased. She had to be stern.
Every lesson she taught me growing up tied back to modesty. Though we had domestic workers, as did most middle- and upper-class Kenyans, Mother insisted I contribute to the household. Cooking, tending to her vegetable patch, and polishing the bumpers of her bright yellow Peugeot until I saw my brown eyes reflected back.
Mother had Musau, her beloved gardener, build a small poultry farm for eighty chickens in our backyard. She also brought in rabbits. Then the chores started. Saturdays at dawn, even before my prayers—“Kayai, wake up! The chickens won’t feed themselves.”
Kayai, little egg. That’s what she always called me. Her only child, who she overprotected, doted on obsessively so I wouldn’t fall and break, yet for all her care, she struggled to show her emotions. I longed for birthday parties but Mother said they were a waste. Instead, she would buy me a single present, always something practical and useful. I longed for a hug, a kiss. I got none.
Saturdays inside the coop were spent sweeping, changing light bulbs over nests, and picking up eggs. Sometimes, she did these things with me. As we cleaned the barn side by side, I’d yearn for stories of my father, my papai. I wanted to hear about Mother’s childhood: why my four aunts and my kokoi, my grandmother, had come to live with us, why, even though Mother was so smart, she hadn’t been to university. Most of all, I wanted to know the biggest secret: how my papai died. No one ever told me.
Instead of telling me stories, Mother worked in the chicken coop with the same steady focus she always had. She swept steadily, soaked in a strange silence that barricaded her from me.
Kokoi and my aunts, Mother’s younger sisters, and Princess, made my world whole. They filled the house with chaos, dancing, laughter, and gossip when Mother wasn’t home. I loved my kokoi more than anyone. Although she was only in her fifties, a tough life had taken its toll on her body and Kokoi was frail. She looked a decade older than her years. At fifteen, she had been circumcised and married off and soon after, given birth to Mother. Mother was named Nalutesha, born on a rainy day,
and Kokoi gave her the pet name Nalu. After that, Kokoi lost five pregnancies and had one stillborn in the span of a decade.
During those years, my grandfather beat her often, though never inside the house, as a Maasai home is a sanctuary of procreation and prosperity, a place where children are conceived, born, and nurtured. Barrenness in women was a sign of disorder. To cleanse the disorder, he beat her more viciously over the years. Kokoi was scolded by her mother-in-law too, and her father-in-law wouldn’t allow her to serve him a meal.
“If a woman cannot produce children, what then are they there for?” my grandfather’s family asked her.
When her husband took a second wife, Kokoi was glad. He could finally have all the children he deserved. He stopped beating her and beamed with pride while talking about his new wife’s pregnancy. Perhaps it was Kokoi’s relief at seeing her husband finally happy, or the end of the beatings, but suddenly she fell pregnant. This time, she delivered a healthy baby girl she named Naserian, brings peace,
or peaceful one
. Then she fell pregnant again and had another healthy daughter, and then a third. Naserian, Laioni, and Rarin all came crashing in, one after another, like sheep that had been let out of their barn for morning pasture.
My grandfather, growing restless around two wives with a horde of children, had started to have a dalliance with a woman he met while working in the city as a cook for a British family. Eventually, he abandoned Kokoi and her co-wife.
As the eldest, Mother had to quit her education to find work. Mother dropped out of her economics degree at only twenty and registered for a six-month secretarial course. Within a year, she had learned shorthand, dictation, and typing. She said that she could type faster than her mind could think, and she started to become afraid of her fingers, wondering if they had a life of their own. Two years later, as she was working overtime to put food on the table, my grandfather returned home, saying he wanted to atone and bring his family together. Kokoi found herself pregnant again with a fifth daughter. My grandfather, absolutely sure this surprise baby would be a boy, was so gutted that he left Kokoi for good. That was how my youngest aunt, Tanei—beautiful, flamboyant—showed up like an unexpected thunderstorm nearly a decade after Kokoi’s middle three daughters.