With a Bit of Benga

Picture by Charles Nyiha

There is an old lady I love, and I sit with her sometimes.


Let’s call her Pamela.


She was beautiful, she says, and her father was a teacher and a farmer, made sure they had meat to eat. She was used to eating meat. She was born in 1933, somewhere in Kenya.


Her brother needed a wife, about 1949, and so he needed cows, for the dowry. So her brother brought her a man. He’s suitable, he had said. The man was called Daudi, and he was tall and dark but Pamela did not quite know what to do with him; he was just a man; she was just a woman. Her brother needed cows, and her marriage would give him cows. Daudi married Pamela, smiled at her, and they began a new life.


There was no meat in Daudi’s house. These people were poor.


Pamela knew she had to work if their life was going to be any better.  She wanted meat, after all. And so she would walk a great distance from her house to the market, to sell cooked beans. Her beans were the best in the market, because she would add beef fat to them—but you know, people didn’t know, she says and smiles. The women laughed at her, when she walked back home every day; how poor did a household have to be for the woman to need to go to the market to sell things? But this was a woman who could stare at  loneliness in the face with blank eyes. She would get ten cents for a tin of beans.


Daudi was a hard man to live with, hot-tempered and a cold chauvinist, but very smart, sometimes funny, even caring. I don’t know if Pamela ever loved him. We do not have those kinds of conversations. His relatives were jealous of him and she says they sent lightning to strike him. Daudi was fine though, and they kept working, kept educating their children.


Daudi would put her out of the house sometimes, and she would cry, and remember how life was with her father, but a woman’s only home is her husband’s. “And we had children," she says, "sons only. Sons are their father’s children. If I left, what would happen to them?”


“Were you happy?” I ask her.


“Happy? Haha.” She laughs like it is a stupid, impossible, naïve question. Like one's work in the world is not to be happy; this would be very trivial, too whimsical, a lazy way to live. She laughs with acceptance of fact—not regret, not bitterness—that was her lot in life. “But I know happiness now, when I speak to someone like you, very much like a grandchild to me. Your freshness gives me happiness.” This woman has stories in her eyes.


Her husband died some years ago. In a part of Kenya where witchcraft is the order of the day, where a look alone can cause trees to fall upon one’s head, and one wakes up to find one of their cows stabbed several times, some say she “threw eyes” at her husband. They talk about her affairs with other men with laughter in their eyes. But we don’t talk about these things. When you sit with her, get to know her, you can see she is only a sad, disillusioned woman, and something of a mystery. I see in Pamela the possibility of hollowness in a life. That dreams might not come true, that one may not even know that they can dream, and that in the absence of dreams one can be driven to dark things.

But, there are days like today, when we are sitting, listening to Fred Obachi Machoka on the radio, with his mix of African music from the 70s, 80s and 90s. If Africa was a person, during the late 60s-90s, these would have been the days in which she (Africa) burst with youth, laughter, fire, with unafraid, seductive, cheeky smiles. The music has an effect on Pamela, and she stops talking and pulls me up out of my chair and forces me to dance, with this laugh-smile on her face, like she is keeping a very happy secret, like she is lost in a very happy world. And I know, when I look at her now, that even moments of happiness can be enough for a lifetime.


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