The Tenth House

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The first time temptation wrapped its hands around Baba Kiarie and send him tiptoeing into her room was during the rainy July, when the coldness had camped in that household. Cold air forced its way into his nostrils, stabbing his lungs. He rubbed his palms and cupped his nose. He tied the navy blue robe, descended the flight of stairs urgently and yanked open her bedroom door.

Mama Kiarie had gone to Kiambu for her sister’s ruracio and had not returned. Anytime she went back home, she would take at least three days before driving back in the evenings, mostly on Sundays. She would call to remind her to do this and that, even though, days before she left, she would have composed a song, reminding her: defrost the meat on the left corner of the freezer, boil githeri on Saturday, take Kiarie for his swimming class at Lavington sports club, take Wangechi to the saloon in town on Saturday afternoon, do the laundry, scrub the bathroom tiles.  

Saturdays were predictable like the rising sun, if Mama Kiarie was around. Wake up at five, do laundry and prepare breakfast. The sizzling aroma from the kitchen downstairs gave this mansion life in the early morning. The man of the house loved ngwaci and his kids would eat sausages, omelet and pancake with lots of syrup on Saturdays. The lady of the house, keen on not gaining pounds, even though she was already too big, chose to take green tea with honey. On other days, she would ask her to make a smoothie, the nastiest of all smoothies in the culinary world. Blend raw spinach, together with two orange and add crushed ginger. She did not know anybody who consumed raw spinach and had only seen rabbits and cows eat them, back home. It was not palatable if you asked Sitawa, but Mama seemed not to mind. Or she persevered, knowing the fruits of her sacrifice would make her desirable. Sitawa once gulped the smoothie and almost spit out her entire digestive system.

The Kiarie’s would wake up at 8 and later leave for a family day out. She loved when she was alone in the house, because it would mean she could watch the Nigerian films on Maisha Magic channel uninterrupted. She would blast music and dance freely, experimenting the new styles she had been seeing on TV. She would catwalk in her pants and the old bra, the same way models did in fashion shows on TV. Her confidence would rocket. She would sing at the top of her voice croaking, screeching and howling songs without being conscious. She hit high notes and picked low notes, effortlessly. She held the imaginary mic and shook her wavy hair. She became a super star every Saturday and won all awards. She would rival Oprah in her talk shows and have her own, called Chesikaki’s Bold and Beautiful. She could shake her buttocks, drop it and rise, better than the tiny girls, dancing half naked in the screens. In the evening, when the Kiarie’s would return, she would be back to being a laid-back maid, without a defined future. The kids wouldn’t stop talking about their day out: the carousel, the merry-go-round, cold creameries, golf and swimming.

Saturdays also meant she could sleep after her chores and find time to run to Galleria shopping mall for window shopping, when the Kiarie’s were out. But sometimes this amazing peace of mind would be interrupted when Baba Kiarie came back unexpectedly. Uninvited.

She felt a heavy lump chock her and guilt creeping up her body. She owed Mama Kiarie a lot. She had been a benign angel who picked her up in her huge wings.

That sunny August Saturday after burying her father about a month ago, she had come to Nairobi in a bid to find something for herself.

Her friend who had hosted her suggested she should find any waitressing job in the tony hotels in town. She moved from one hotel to the next but they said they needed someone who had at least a diploma in hospitality. She did not understand how carrying food from the counter, on a tray, to the waiting customer, needed training. Or did one’s walking style need training too? Oh, perhaps. Perhaps people were trained on how to lift their legs and plant them ahead with experience, as they took food to the customers. Yeah, must be. Things in town are organized.

Some cheap hotels explained that the only job available was washing bed sheets, rooms and the toilets. She declined but after weeks of hovering from one hotel to the next and got the same response, her friend thought it is best to take it up. People start from somewhere. She said. Sitawa crawled back to the hotels that needed cleaners.

Her friend was a tea girl in an office in town, and hoped to rise and be a secretary. She had enrolled in a secretarial course in a tiny college in CBD, squeezed among offices, clubs and beauty shops. She said that secretaries had an easy time. Picking calls, reminding the boss of meetings and keeping oneself beautiful. Her English had tremendously improved, she boasted, and was sure if she worked harder, she’d get a promotion. Sitawa admired her resilience, even though her dreams were too far-fetched, wishful thinking. Almost impossible like trying to catch air.

Sitawa was hired to work in Mambo Mbaya Hotel and Pub, which had lodgings and was situated downtown. She would report in the morning, when lovers were crawling out of their nests and clean up the mess. The first day, she retched when she looked at the blue sheets, evidently soiled after a wild night of unprotected sex. Sometimes the clients left smelly puke on the floor. The lady who offered her the job would move round to supervise as she cleaned and never seemed bothered by the sight of all manners of filth.

Sometimes, she was compelled to rap hard on the doors, because clients had not yet checked out and cleaning needed to be done. The client would emerge from the room, charged and barking and call her names. Sometimes, one would open, bleary eyed and rest his hungry eyes on her chest. His hand would involuntarily itch to touch and she would retreat.

On other days, a client would open the door, their eyes roaming all over her then try to pull her in the room. She would drop the mop head and bucket and fight back, creating a scene. Her employer who seemed to always be on alert would emerge from the blues like a ghost and tell the client, “This one is a young girl buana!” The man would laugh easily and begrudgingly leave her, telling her that she should look for ripe girls to attend to him. Others would approach her with promises of good life, away from cleaning people’s mess and speak banalities men throw around just to sneak between women’s thighs.

She got over the harassment in a matter of days, because she needed the job. Her mother back home needed food and medication and not stories of assault. Therefore, leaving was not an option. Besides, this was no time for self-pity. Someone needed to man up.

However, several months later, she opened the door to clean and found a woman lying in a pool of fresh blood, a knife sticking out on her throat. Her eyes were wide open and her tongue sticking out. She screamed dropping her cleaning gears and her boss was there in a second. The hotel was shut down during investigations and that was how she lost her job.

She later found another cleaning job, in an agency called Pakata Cleaners. They would be assigned to clean hospitals, schools or companies. She hated working in companies because people treated them like the trash that they were. They would walk in the offices with mud; litter the entire office so that by evening, the offices looked like a kindergarten class. Papers were strewn all over, files carelessly staked, shoes under the desks, spilt liquids on the desks and used tissue papers scattered.

It however did not matter, because from this job, she earned some money and sent some to her mother. Sometimes she wondered what would have happened if she had other siblings. What would have become of them after her father’s death? Her mother was unable to bear more children, because she had developed fibroids and the doctors advised against. And even if they hadn’t, she still wouldn’t get pregnant. It was a good thing she was an only child of her mother. Come to think of it.

Her life with Pakata Cleaners ended abruptly after about three months, when money grew legs from one of the office that they were contracted to clean. She had been on duty with other girls on that day.

‘I hate this reputation for my company,” said the young CEO of Pakata cleaners. “And I have to dismiss you. I cannot work with thieves.”

Without a chance to defend themselves, they were dismissed.

Her friend thought it was unfair, but what was all she could do. Think. She was back to job hunting. She had been planning to move out and rent out a tiny single room. Her stay had expired. She urgently needed another job.

She would cry sometimes. And question God. She would lament to her friend, asking her rhetorical questions. Wasn’t there a time she would relax? Had someone cast an evil eye at her? Why her? First, she had finished her form four successfully in Wabukhonyi Secondary, but her father died immediately after. Her mother was unable to wear her father’s boots.  She had to find something to do, urgently. Or else, just like the likes of Truphena or Selah, she would be pushed to marriage, in an effort to survive.

This was the fourth week and now the 10th house she was asking for a job, as anything: a maid, gardener, cleaner, and caretaker. By now, she was famished, cracked lips and sweaty. She had this odor that every girl from Chesikaki had. Her friend had suggested that she should look for nanny jobs in the rich neighborhoods. This was Kilimani Estate. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon when blistering heat drilled itself through her dark skin and breaking out in form of perspirations down her spine, neck and face. Her entire back was drenched. Her chiffon blouse clung on her back. The home was hidden in shrubbery; only visible was the crown of the mansion with black tile roofing.

“I am looking for a job.” she told the watchman after banging on the gate

“The boss does not have any job!” Shouted the watchman, peeping through the hole on the huge black, Gate 10.

“Please, I need a job. Any job. Even as a cleaner”

“You thieves come around pretending to look for imaginary jobs,” he was saying, his body bent towards the hole and shaking as he spoke, “but we are wiser than that now.”

The watchman was paranoid. In Nairobi, everybody is. She later learnt that the adjacent home on the right had once been swept clean by a man who claimed to be a plumber. He claimed he had been asked to come and check the drainage system. The watchman stepped aside and let him in, carrying a toolbox and wearing the blue overall, behind it printed, ‘City Council of Nairobi’. He was courteous and asked him how his day was, if he watched last night’s game of Chelsea versus Arsenal. He gained his trust.

Then the watchman led him to the house, since he had the keys. The plumber told him it wouldn’t take long. Soon, four men walked in and tied him on the pillar between the living room and dining, beat his sorry ass and made away with all valuables. When the master came back, he threw the watchman in prison for colluding with robbers.

“I am not a thief, my brother,” she beseeched the watchman, in Gate 10.

“Who is that?” a woman’s voice on the other end behind the gate interceded.

“Nothing! Just thieves masquerading as job seekers.” The watchman answered, still, behind the gate.

She saw her lift the small piece of metal and peep through the hole. Her two eyes darted here and there, straining to check out her face, or her eyes- windows to souls, as they say. Everyone in Nairobi is extremely cautious and hostile. It is best to avoid strangers. It is even better to have high walls and heavy steel gate for protection. And spare a hole to check out at strangers.

“How can we help?” she asked, her kikuyu accent dotting her sentences. Her L was pronounced as R.

“Mum, I am looking a job. Any job.” she put her best foot forward.

She pushed back the metal and disappeared. Sitawa stood waiting, not sure she would come back or not.

After about 3 minutes, she heard her talking distinctly in kikuyu with another man, who wasn’t the watchman; probably her husband. They were walking and their voices grew louder as they approached the gate.

“Habari yako?” the man said, walking through the smaller gate on the left, used by those on foot. Behind her was the woman who had talked to her earlier on.

“Mzuri baba”

She answered nervously, curtsying.

“Ehe? Unatakaje?”

“I am looking for a job.”

“Which kind of job young girl?”

“A maid or any other job you have.” she blurted out

The man had huge un-proportional lips that somehow failed to arrest the jets of saliva from his mouth. Sparks escaped urgently from his hole of a mouth. His beards were quite bushy. Maybe they even housed lice, who knows? He stroked his belly and turned to his wife, she assumed, and spoke in kikuyu. She responded in kikuyu too. Her lips were dark and she too had a huge pot-belly that shook when she spoke. Her arms were huge too and wobbled like jelly when she moved them. Layers of generous flesh insulated her neck. This couple was bulky.

“What job have you done before?”

“I have been a house help and a waiter before,” she respond, as her friend had advised.

Nobody will hire you if you don’t have nanny experience. You must show them that you already know these things, she had enlightened her. And you have to speak in English. Rich people want their kids to be addressed in English from the time they are born. Her exposed friend, who knew Nairobians too well, highlighted these strong points to her. She put them in her heart.

“We can give you a job as a house help, but as a day scholar.”

The couple told her. It was a risk they took, but they had to. They needed a house help. And God had opened their door. Or a hole for them. She bit her lower lip, wishing she’d stay with them fully, but slowly, she mouthed, “thank you”.

Behind the gate was a new world. The lush green lawn was beautifully manicured and trimmed shrubs grew obediently. The white mansion stood regally miles away from the gate. The windows were wide and the outer front door was steel. Past the steel door was a glass door opening to an airy veranda with potted plants. The patio led you to an elegant living room with orange and black L-shaped couches. There was wide framed family portrait of the two huge couple and two children. On the corner was a red love seat. There was thick white carpet on the floor. Across the living room was the dining room with a pentagonal dining table and six upholstered seats around it. There was hallway between the two rooms that ushered you to the bar.

For about a month, she would arrive by 6am and leave at 5pm, when the 2 children returned home from school. Mama Kiarie usually arrived before 5. And their father would come anytime from 6pm.

Kiarie was a good boy, curious and vulnerable. He was the first born and it seemed to weigh him down. He was a stressed child who wanted to achieve so much. His obesity weighed him down heavily. This family had huge people.

“Aunty, today Jayden took my pencil and broke it,” he would complain to her as soon as he was dropped by the school bus.

“Aunty, I want a bag back like Sean’s. It has spider man. But I can’t tell dad.” He would say sadly

“Why not?” she wondered

“He bought this one in Italy and will be mad if I wanted another bag”

“Aunty, have you ever been to Russia?” he asked her someday.

“No. Why Kiarie?”

“Collete went with her family and she said it is more beautiful than Brazil. We went to Brazil last year for holiday”

She pitied him. At 11 years, he was so concerned about things beyond his age. He was constantly seeking, wanting, begging and being empty. Seeking something more. Always comparing. She found it funny, because when she was his age, all they did was swim in river Chwele naked, herd cows with boys and play with marbles.

In school, they would skip ropes, fight and return home after school on foot, collecting firewood and chasing each other. And it was great. It was life, which they cherished. They thought their life was beautiful and complete. But here was a boy who was, travelling the world, comparing himself with others, constantly worrying about disappointing his parents.

After about a month, the Kiarie’s decided that she should move in, if she did not mind. Did she hear mind? This was all she had been waiting for. All her prayers had gone straight to God and needed no intercession. How quick had he responded! Why the heck had she questioned him? Like she didn’t know that he works in mysterious ways? She was elated. The hot shower, bathtub, the immaculate bathroom with mirrors and bright florescent lights, the plasma TV planted on the wall, the amazing food. Finally, after close to a year of living poorly, she had hit the jackpot. She would tell people in her village of city tales, of living in the estate for the rich. She felt lucky. Kiarie was beside himself with joy when in the evening, she didn’t leave as usual.

“I will be living here with you.” She informed him, beaming with happiness.

“Yes!”

He chortled, jumped excitedly and shared in her joy. Wangechi neither celebrated nor frowned. Typical of her. Aloof. Self-absorbed. Enigmatic.

Sometimes the Kiaries fought. Mama Kiarie would shout hands akimbo and her body trembling angrily. The chunks of flesh deposited across her body wobbled. She would raise her voice that would almost break the bedroom walls, throwing huge abusive words at her husband. They fought about secret bank accounts, about his failure to keep his promise about taking the family for holiday in Thailand or Seychelles or wherever. He would try to launch an explanation, but his wife spoke too rapidly, leaving him stranded with his explanation. His stupid explanation.

This was unheard of back home. A woman was never supposed to speak back to her husband. Raising a voice at man, whether he fully provided for the family or not, warranted a sound beating and a possible eviction from the house. The woman would be flushed from her marital home and sent back to her parents to teach her manners. These days however, many would move out and live in a hotel room or with her friends or sisters. And crawled back to her husband after few months when her antenna sensed her husband might find another wife.

That was not the only strange thing with the Kiaries. Mama Kiarie went out some evenings and came back late into the night, inebriated. Friday especially was a night that both wouldn’t be in the house, unless somebody was sick. Sometimes they would drink the alcohol stored in the bar, down the hall way, after the living room. But it was rare. Mama would stagger and she would help him up the stairs.

Kairie, with his insecurities always said, “Why do they always leave us?”

“Children cannot go there.”

“But why haven’t you gone too, aunty?”

He would wonder, licking a bar of chocolate, as he got swallowed up in the warm orange and black couch. His obesity has brought depressions in all couches in that house. It was only a matter of time and they would be touching the floor when they sat on the couches, if he didn’t stop ballooning. He was rotund and his neck creased. He was in warm socks and woolen pajamas.

His sister Wangechi was a cuddly cute baby, light skinned and long black hair. She was 9 and already aware that she a cute doll. She often said those girls who did not have long hair were not beautiful. It was a matter of time before she would be an uncontainable teenager, club-hoping with other rich kids and puffing shisha like an exhaust pipe and acquiring a scary tattoo. She was already staying in the bathroom for too long and camping on the mirror for years.

Sitawa knew that her stay there was dependent on her compliance with Baba Kiarie. And her silence. On that July night, he sneaked into her room, which was downstairs. She was shocked and wanted to scream.

“You are a big girl,” he said panting with physical hunger, “If you are a good girl, I will add something for your mother.”

Later as he left her room grinning with satisfaction, she wept till morning. His wife did not deserve this. She was good. She was not submissive like other wives back home, but she was good. She did not pray every night with her family or go to church faithfully, but she was the best. She would speak back to her husband and go out to drink alcohol and come back late, but she was everything they looked up to. At least for Sitawa and Kiarie. Don’t know about the pretty Keshi.

Other helps were mistreated and were never to eat with the employers during meals. But she was different. She loved Sitawa. She almost forgot that she was just her maid and gave me freedom, like her younger sister. She never wanted to disappoint her and when she came back from her sister’s ruracio, Sitawa felt guilt chocking her. She could not look her in the eye.

She had taken her in, now, close to three years and her mother was living a descent life because she paid her ten thousand shillings every month. It was the highest pay among the house helps. She often told Sitawa that she was family.

One day her sister who is now married came and was all proud and spiteful of her. Kept barking commands at her. Mama Kiarie admonished her strictly, warning her of dire consequences if she treated the friend to her kids badly. Her sister was shocked, but later on, they became good friends, because when she had guests, she would insist Sitawa goes over and help her cook ugali and chicken – luhya style.

What stung her more was that Baba Kiarie did not come to her room once or twice. Or thrice.

One time, when Mama had gone out for a drink, he was on her door again, begging. He stayed longer and passed out on her bed, clinging on her possessively. It took forever before his grip loosened with his sleep. She went to the living room. It was 1 am. Maybe it was best if Mama comes and finds him there. And know that she was not the one who lured him. She hated his pungent breath that was close to fermented flour that had stayed for too long. His belly was too big and she would disappear under it, like an ant under a rock. His love handles on the waist flapped about like a new born turtle learning to wade. He was an ugly creature without his clothes on and she pitied Mama for staying with this Shrek.

About 2.30am, when she was almost dozing off on the seat, she was startled by a car hoot at the gate and instinctively rushed to her bedroom to awaken the ugly thing on her bed. He was out in a flash, ascending the flight of stairs that led to the master bedroom, like a genie.

Another time, he complained of a headache and could not take his family out. Mama Kairie took the kids to the amusement park and would later return in the evening, almost at 7 pm.

She was cleaning the windows, humming a tune from back in primary school when a wide hand cupped her buttocks. Ah. Shrek wasn’t sick after all. His presence choked her. He took her by the shoulders and was standing face to face.

“Let me finish cleaning first” she begged, anger piling.

“Napatie hio kitu kwanza!” He said lustfully, his huge lips colliding in such an annoying way and saliva wetting them.

His hand was on her breasts as she protested, trying to pull free. He gripped her and she was trapped like a bird in his mountain of a body. He finished his business with her on the couch and exhaled heavily after few minutes. Disgrace.

Sometimes she wondered if she should poison him. Poor Kiarie would die of a heart break. She couldn’t kill him of course. It was too punitive, she laughed in her thoughts. One time he had tried to pull the big D word with her about his wife but she rubbished it.

“I don’t even love her. Be my wife”

“I don’t want.” She snorted, spitefully.

“Why not? Don’t you want to be the lady of the house?” he asked mockingly

“No.”

“You are a stupid naïve girl,” he frowned and gave a throaty laugh.

“Baba Kiarie, I am not interested in these things”

“I’m filing for a divorce and-”

“Just stop. Tafadhali Baba Kiarie” she raised her hand in protest, her head facing away and closed her eyes. This talk grated her nerves.  He gave a cold smile.

His lips twisted in bemusement. Sometimes she wanted to open up to Mama, but these things are too hard to talk about and especially if she’s almost your mother’s age. Sometimes, silence is better medicine. But when you use silence as an excuse, you are culpable of the crime too. And you lose the grounds of being a victim. You become an accomplice.

Mama Kiarie was excited one evening and called her. She was doing dishes and had an apron wrapped on her. Wangechi was watching Nickelodeon and Kiarie was on his tablet, playing scrabbles. Baba Kiarie was not home. He was in Geneva for an Industrial Action conference, Mama had told her.

“Sitawa! Come, I have news for you!” she was saying excitedly, suspending her legs as she sat on the red love seat, near the heater. This seat was a no-go-zone for the fat Kiarie. It was still turgid. Her ruby-red handbag was on the carpet. She whipped herself with the woolen shawl and adjusted her siting position.

Sitawa was there in a flash.

“Look!” she was handing her a white envelope.

“What, Mama?” she said, drying her hands violently.

“Check it out,” she was smiling so generously, so widely, so genuinely.

She opened it shaking nervously.

It was a letter for admission for a diploma course in Accounting. Her jaw dropped. Her throat dried. Her tongue was hanging awkwardly. It became heavy, unbearable. She was shifting weight from one foot to the next. Her head was moving from side to side in denial and spinning. Her fingers were walking rapidly on that white paper. This was a monumental mistake on her part.

She was thinking about that July night. The rain hitting the lush grass outside. Lights out. Keshi and Kiarie asleep up stairs. Mama away in Kiambu. She thought about his hairy chest, his love handles, his drooling mouth. It felt nothing like she had ever imagined. It was painful, disgusting and gross. She thought about the day Mama hooted at 2.30am. She thought about that Saturday when he said he was sick. She thought about that week when Mama was away for her friend’s burial. She thought about the day he found her in the bathroom.

“You okay aunty?” Kiarie broke her reverie. He was always a shot away and was now pulling her free hand. His mother was staring at her wide-eyed with expectations. Wangechi was laughing as she watched the cartoons, unperturbed by whatever was going on.

“Mama, I don’t deserve this”

It came out at first as a whisper. Then guilt and need for confession pushed her to the wall and made it louder, the second time. Kiarie, being the mature kid, walked to his room and dragged Keshi out of the living room too.

“I cannot take it, Mama.”

Her eyes were imploring. Sitawa wilted under her gaze. This was any sensible 20-year-old’s dreams. To study and be independent. Have a decent life. But that was not her dream, now, as she held the letter to college. Her dream now was to pacify herself and absolve herself of this guilt that gnawed at her, day and night.

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