Words: Stephanie Wanga Photos: Amy Muhoro
The first drop of rain falls slowly, with a “pat” sound and a scattering of the soil. Zena has crossed her legs, sat on the floor and now she watches the drop, and the drop after it from inside the house. I am watching Zena.
Kibirango passes outside the house, and I clench my teeth, a response my body has learned. My mind, too has learned—it has learned to remember the liquor on his breath, the desire for Zena in his heart. Liquor. Gin.
“You know where our gin came from?” I ask Zena.
“Where?” She asks.
“The Nubian soldiers, the ones who first settled here. They had learned from the colonialists how to distil alcohol from all sorts of things—bananas, sweet potatoes. They used to give the alcohol to our kings, who were crazy for it. They exchanged gold, slaves, ivory, for it. I mean there was always alcohol, but not so much this distilled alcohol. Anyway, when they were demobilised, the soldiers would settle at places near the barracks, and so they settled here, essentially created Kibera. The Nubi women began to sell the gin, and there was a big market for it, being near the barracks and the town and all. Nubian gin. People lived on the sale of the gin.”
Zena looks at me and smiles.
Isn’t her smile everything?
I look at the water Zena had fetched earlier in the morning, sitting in the corner of the room—the water the government refuses to give us.
“For some women, this was independence,” I decide to continue. “They left their families, male-ego-dominated homes, and gained some kind of independence, selling Nubian gin. If you didn’t want to be a prostitute, or be a trader, but you were a woman who wanted to find a way away, you would produce gin, make your money, be independent.”
Mr Jombi passes us now, smiling wide, the gap in his teeth showing.
“Praise the Lord!” He says. This is what he always says nowadays, ever since his girlfriend of 10 years, Njeri came back to him.
“Praise the Lord!” We respond, and he goes on his way.
I walk to the bed.
“We—Africans—weren’t allowed to produce alcohol,” I go on, “but of course our people loved the taste of resistance in their mouths. At some point quantity came before quality, the clay pots they used to make the gin from became oil drums. Nubi women were a powerhouse here, with their gin. They would be taken to court sometimes, but they were rich and the fines were nothing. Some even served jail terms but they kept producing. Nubian gin was freedom.”
The rain is pouring harder.
There is a tap-tap-tap sound on the transparent plastic sheet that is our window.
“But when we gained independence and more people could move into Kibera, newcomers copied their methods and took a lot of their business from them. People had less space. Police raids on illicit brew got crazier, and so more focus was put on the rental business. Little houses made of corrugated iron roofs and sticks and mud were cropping up everywhere. Nubi women went into the salon business. New drugs came up and Nubian gin went down. Asmina still produces it, sells it expensive, always wears those gold rings. Other women still produce the ‘copied’ gin today, and these are Kibirango’s suppliers. Less glamorous than the Nubi of the 1930s, let’s just say. When I look at Kibirango and how he looks at you, barely standing but so hungry eyed, my only consolation is that there is some history carried in his stupidity.”
Zena laughs, but I know she is not with me.
“I will be with the Luos until death,” Kimbovu, our MP, said yesterday. I had seen the strain in Zena’s forehead as soon as he said that in the public gathering. I saw the question in her eyes. I saw her ask herself whether Kimbovu thought this a qualification, a pro to throw in her hands for the day she wanted to weigh it against a con. She had stared at Kimbovu as he inched away from the gentleman who was trying to get the microphone back from him—it was time for someone else to speak. Zena has the same kind of strain in her forehead right now.
When the rain quiets down, I hear the music playing on the radio, bringing in a new kind of silence. I hear that the song is Maisha, and that it is by Achieng’ Abura. It is soulful, and it sings. Not all music sings. I have not heard the song before.
“She died the day before yesterday, did you know?” Zena asks. She is looking at a painting she did in class seven, the one that sits under the board that reads ‘GOD BLESS THE WORK OF OUR HANDS’, then she adds, “Achieng’ Abura, that is,” as if to explain that it was not the painting that died—or not yet.
“I heard,” I say.
Do you know when I first saw Zena? She was plaiting hair outside Mbuvi’s Bar, dancing to Nyako Konya. It seemed like the music was no longer ours – it was hers; it seemed our joy no longer hung somewhere in the air; she held it in her hands and gave it to us in a way we had not learned to give it to ourselves. An old man came and joined her, and we could see in his eyes that he might have been remembering something and that he was thankful. Zena was an owner of magic. When Kasongo began to play, we were all carried into the music, our bodies forgot life, our hearts found it. Kabambi, carrying a plastic bag of hot oily chips in one hand wrung, contorted her waist in all colours of tasty. There is nothing I would dare paint romantic about Kibera, but days like those wear the scent of paradise. I looked back at Zena that day and held my gaze – you do not just look at a girl like that and walk away. She was like Nubian gin; a defiance embodied.
The smell of the open sewers has become too strong and so she has to close the door. Kibera in the rain. She smiles at me, and there is the light—bright within her, settling me. She comes and touches my face, and then my hair, one dreadlock after another, and then my beard. Home. She smells of earth and home and settlement and greatness.
“Are you afraid?” She asks.
“Of what?” I ask.
“Life,” she says.
“No,” I say and smile.
I see that she is trying to say we have reasons to be afraid, that maybe belief is not everything, and that the world, that life is real. With my eyes I choose to say to her that only truth is real.
The rain has stopped and I hear the sound of the Mama Nafula’s fish splashing into the hot oil in her karai outside the house. I hear children starting to shout again, and I imagine their plastic bag-football being kicked around. I look at Zena as she covers the sufuria of tea on the stove. I see her looking at me, her eyes telling me that she is ready. She hugs me and cries—joy. Her skin is the glory of Nubian gin. We are getting married today, today at five pm.