The women in my life


By Bulimu Chole

 Since childhood, my great aunts, my grandmothers and the older women of my clan have been referring to me fondly as their husband. “Nga uyu mundu wange;” here is my man – here is my husband, they would always remark in Maragoli whenever we’d meet, never failing to claim this very unusual relation to me while splashing big village smiles. This, if you can imagine, was one of the few things that didn’t appeal to my sense of curiosity as a teenage boy. What kind of humour! I could not understand where the grace of a woman that old had gone for her to have said such a thing, why, how? It was something too big for my brain at that time to have bothered giving attention to. Now, a few years later, I can decode the same message from words of another group of different women in a closer space of time, this time in Highrise Estate, in Kibera slums.

Highrise Estate in Kibera is a special place to me. Apart from being my refuge during times when “the situation” seems unbearable in precarious times that I often retreat to the cradling love and care of my aunt and my cousins, it also happens to be a space that I get to experience the village from my interactions with Maragoli laundry women. There are a lot of Maragolis here, and most of them live on the other side of the wall in Soweto, Kibera – where the actual ghetto lies in distress. I find the lives of the workers from Kibera very interesting.

In the earlier hours of the day, pedestrian paths on Mbagathi Way might easily be mistaken to be holding a walking race event as Kibera residents – Nairobi’s labouring class, race past each other trekking to Industrial Area. This phenomenon occurs at same time as another phenomenon – a miniature of the bigger rat race culture.  Some of those who rose earlier are on their way back and need not speak anything about where they’re coming from. No functioning human being wants to gamble with energy they lack the resources to replenish.

So, what is the significance of the relationship between Highrise and Soweto Estate in Kibera, the rat race of the labouring classes and my great aunts, grandmothers and the older women of my clan?

Covid – 19 happened.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit us early 2020, a lot of employed women started working from home. A good number of them were sent on compulsory leave without pay. With reduced incomes at their disposal and more time to spend around the house, many of them had to let go their domestic workers. In Highrise estate and at my aunt’s and the neighbouring blocks, scores of laundry women, known in popular term as dobi women sit outside homes waiting for sources of casual employment.  You will see them seated next to water jerry cans and buckets, stoically enduring the Nairobi heat on the off chance that some job opportunities may come by.  When the pandemic was at its peak mid last year, some of them would go for days on end without finding any job. Still, these stoic women would not beg for anything from people like us they knew. Instead, they only insisted that we promote their side hustles. One such woman was Maggie.

Maggie, a middle aged woman with adult children, would shout out to me “Maragoli!”, not about whether I was a block away or just on the other side of the road. She would easily convince my cousins and I to pick a few avocados she was selling. It mattered less to her whether we had cash then or not, she was convinced that we would pay later when we got it. Our business relationship with Maggie grew over through the months and extended to that of our neighbours and developed into casual flattery, that raw and honest village banter brought to the city. Recently, Maggie said to me in the same casual manner, “sahizi mwili wako unaonekana vizuri, last year ulikuwa unaonekana na wasiwasi sana;”   Now your body appears alright, you looked as though you had lots of worries last year!

Maggie said to my older cousin and me one late afternoon “Genye’kana munyo’re zi’gasi mtange’ kuhinzira,” – you are supposed to find jobs and start working. I had no idea what led her to make such comments, only that they were delivered in a tone so light and pithy that we often laughed them off. So detached was her position as she remarked in a way it would have been easy to miss the concern and interest she had for us. It did not help that both of us had quit our jobs a few months before the pandemic struck to “focus on our art”. What humour! Why would she say that to me? This appealed to my sense of curiosity just as much as it confounded me. Was she simply asking us to find jobs so that we could in turn provide job opportunities for her? Was she encouraging us to keep on looking for opportunities and not to give up? Or was it a witty rebuke to the youth walking around in the estate in the peak of Corona pandemic, pretending to be in the same position as her. I am still unable to place these remarks.  The women from my Maragoli clan must have been teasing me to live up to the responsibility that comes with being a man in the community. It might also be that we fit the image of the man that Maggie would like daughters of the community, her daughters, to have, only that they were dissatisfied with our current positions as functional partners.

A deep concern seems to be building up among a group of women from the ghetto. This is not about themselves, nor their children, nor anyone really close to them. It’s a concern that manifests itself as a wound, an old wound, a visible wound that regenerates into the painful thing it was many years ago when it was first inflicted by our fathers. We, their communal husbands, are that wound.

Often, I find myself promising to give something back to these women in the future. I want to make them happy, these distant but very present wives of mine, these very close but physically distant wives and mothers of our community for the love and education they have given us. But I find time being limited. It would break me so much to go beyond myself. And then, what makes me think that I carry the key to the happiness of these women?

See? The surest thing I can give is only my ear.

Now I get it. I think now get it. I have to function. We have to function!

We were made husbands by community women before we became men. It might benefit us a great deal to trust the women in our lives, those who saw us fit first, to give us direction, not answers, on what a proper manhood looks like.

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