The Skype message had read;
“Hey you 🙂 , long time! I’m back in Nairobi in two weeks…would be great to catch up, maybe even plan to meet? Can we Skype next weekend? Hope you’re well!”
Nairobi is closer to me than Birmingham is.
I am in Arusha, and have run out of avocados. The diet must be working because I used the toilet twice this morning. Walking should fasten the weight loss and get my face even slimmer by the time I have to Skype with Malcolm, for the first time in four years.
That daladala – the one crammed with passengers who are either too early or too late for something, with the stickers of misspelled moral quotes and Wiz Khalifa plastered in the back – passes me. The conductors are getting younger, their voices given more responsibility than they can handle. There is no more space to put people but they continue to call and stop for passengers. It’s more annoying than admirable.
Traffic is bombarded with the recent increase of Toyota ISTs, occupied by either ladies in their late 20s, heading to the bank or the salon or most likely to the new branch of Shoppers supermarket where they’ll only get the good washing powder and maybe discounted yogurt after they buy everything else from Kilombero, because they are not yet middle class enough; or by people who use this time to pick their nose.
Even though the clock at Clock Tower will forever read ten past five, it is eleven thirty in the morning when the fresh intake of Israeli tourists take pictures of it, their tour guide repeating to them that it is the middle of Cape Town and Cairo. The unofficial tour guides – the “fly catchers” with the Timberlands, cheap Maasai shawls and Ray Bands knockoffs – watch and learn in the corner, waiting to prey on smaller, unguided tourist groups faster than they can say Jambo. I pretend to scratch my head for a glance at my reflection in the huge glass windows of the CMC Automobiles showroom. I like how my muffin top is almost non-existent in my nude high waist pants.
Malcolm and I had met as teenagers.
As yet another diplomat’s kid in Nairobi, he eased my transition into an international school and its unforgiving mix of entitlement, compulsory assemblies, Axe body spray, would-you-rather jokes and their consequences, the never-ending braid extensions on kids as young as four, and my confused navigation through too many people called David Gitau or David Kamau.
I was in love, obsessed even, after one day, when we were alone on top of the art class in the new A level block, I accidentally elbowed him in the ribs, and when I asked “did I hurt you” he said, “it doesn’t matter if you did.” His words rang in my head in every class that week, then again during our final exams, and once more when we hugged goodbye after graduation.
It’s the way he said it. He seemed so sure.
The hot topic in all of Tanzania this afternoon seems to be that ridiculous story about a man who bet his wife if his team lost, which, unfortunately for both of them, did lose.
I head straight to Mama Jamila’s avocados. She breaks her concentration with me to welcome the groups of rosy-cheeked teenage volunteers most likely from Canada or Texas, looking for produce. In long Kitenge skirts, perhaps deliberately worn for the market to be one with the people, they clutch on to their triple antibiotic ointments, hand sanitizers, wipes, and sunscreen like expensive pearls.
“Ovakado please?!” She shouts.
They are amazed by the pineapples next to us. Their host continues to explain to some that “when you shop for bottoms and can’t try them on in the market, you just wrap the waist around your neck, and if the ends meet, they will fit you.” One volunteer says that her waist is bigger than her neck.
Malcolm had been there for me until four years ago when we lost touch.
He was there for me in high school, when I testified to loathing my siblings or needed access to past papers that were not given in class yet.
He was there when I complained about my first year in South Africa, when classes were halted for days because of xenophobic attacks, or about my roommate who scrubbed herself in a large basin at inconvenient hours in our room even though the showers in the residency worked perfectly well, or about racism and the compulsory financial statistics course. He was also there when I had to change universities, and talked about classes halting because of the fees must fall protests, or my Ghanaian housemate who secretly lived with his girlfriend with whom he had obnoxiously loud sex and about racism or the compulsory mathematics course.
I’d tease him about how snow has made him light-skinned, and be impressed by how his accent had not changed since he left. He’d say the UK was very cold, and different and fast and grey, in that soft, all-is-well tone of his.
The streets are filled with teenagers enjoying their weekend freedom from uniform. Parking spaces in front of banks, pharmacies, and hardware stores are taken up by people selling everything from fish to Korean denim to herbal medicine for Amoeba or dandruff or impotence, and the ever so popular word of God.
Ima’s A-TOWN Kiosk is packed with people fixing and buying electronics. It blasts a repetition of gospel and that upbeat music from Botswana that Tanzanians love but have unanimously failed to learn exactly who the musician is, interrupted by the Jamaican voiceover that is to delude you of live DJ-ing. Freddy, the frantic cross-eyed guy selling second hand The Secret and Rich Dad, Poor Dad copies, speaks to Ima who fixes a customer’s phone. Ima wears the confidence of a man whose majority of information comes from the national newspaper, possibly both condemning and congratulating the current presidency. He does not look up, so I do not greet him, but perhaps his unkempt beard and all of that multiplication of people everywhere had me suddenly decide to wax.
The wooden shelves holding rolled up beige towels and incense have always made me feel modern and understood. The other two ladies waiting don’t look up from their phones, perhaps in denial that they too want their pubes removed. Later, I’m lying there thinking of how I will “catch up” with Malcolm. Zainab puts the fan on. The wax is not as hot as other times. The last time I was here, it was for a German guy. Maybe I could tell Malcolm about him. How I found him lost in the beginning, when he confessed his surprise that we too have Colgate and coffee. That he believed everything his Nazi grandfather told him about war and famine in this “God forsaken place.” But also how I found him overbearing in the end, after that time he said something nice to me in bed, then asked that I say something nice back, quite seriously. I could not scheme his body quick enough to compliment it as requested, so I said “you too,” but he didn’t believe me. I could also tell Malcolm about dropping out of university and choosing to start over. About the lack of eye contact between my father and I ever since. How, despite working very hard not to become him, I sometimes feel his short-temper and dismissive impatience rush out of me like a sneeze. That I tried telling him once. He called it WOPS – Well-off Parents Syndrome. I could tell him that I cut my hair to make up for my weaknesses. They say it’s a “strong” look, and I love to seem like I have concurred my fears, or at least, that I can face them. I could tell him that I moved out of home. That I now survive on the fleeting warmth of Pinterest quotes and the orange flavoured tea bags from the last house I house sat for. And how I sometimes feel irresponsible, and guilty for sharing that in my writing. I could mention the dieting. And the doubting. The fear that I will be alone for a very long time. Maybe I could tell him the atheist thing, but also that I fear death, almost as much as my mother fears life. That the other day, when I was having lunch at Luka’s, a homeless drunk came to my table and drunk the leftover soup off my bowl. His eyes were bloodshot and he smelled of weeks old piss. I sat at the corner, so it took time before he was spotted. It was just me and him. Quiet. I could tell Malcolm about the two-day breakdown after that. The way I spent them curled up in my room, thinking about the magnitude of the universe and who God’s God is, and of course who that God’s God is. Trying to get back to the source of everything that became me and the drunk.
I want to know how adulthood has been for him. Maybe he thinks about these things too. Maybe this would take us back to the top of the art class in the new A level block, if he remembers that at all.
I use a longer route back home. I am certain that all the deliberate stampeding and pacing has melted my cheek fat into a satisfactory shape. I conclude that four years apart does not necessarily call for four years’ worth of information. Maybe I’ll just say I’m thinking of blogging and mention the prospects of getting that job I haven’t begun applying for. I’ll ask him about how cold it can get out there.
Maybe this is adulthood, and that it calls for conversations about jobs, and what to invest in, or who’s the new female president where, or conspiracy theories and how the schoolmates who are now famous, have really changed because we knew who they were back then.
I see that he is typing.
The message reads;
“Hey! So sorry but I have to reschedule. Just wanted to let you know that I’ll be in Nairobi for only two weeks before I get back to Birmingham, and my girlfriend has all these ideas about what we could do…I don’t know if it’s possible to meet up. I really hope you’re good though??!”
I uninstall Skype.
It is pitch black in the room because Suzy – my friend for whom I am now house sitting – had decided long ago that her neighbours, the KK Security Company men, should never see through her thick black curtains, so very little light comes in.
I get up, fighting the dizziness of hunger and having cried myself to sleep. In a trance of fresh rejection, I brush my teeth twice, regretting telling Zainab to do my eyebrows too.
Everything is slower, and even the gecko on the wall doesn’t hurry up the ceiling the way it normally does.
The words of the last YouTube video I watched on “joining the cult of extreme productivity” ring in my head. I decide to trust the process of my new situation in order not to over judge myself – this being the advice from the second last YouTube video I watched.
I’m on the floor, and I don’t notice my buttocks going numb because my brain has beaten them to the post. I have space for only thoughts of Malcolm and his girlfriend having sex. And whether she waxes for it or not.
Suzy and I have been friends for two years now. We bonded over that rebellious confidence of no longer being in the path that our parents thought we would be, and the never-ending determination to overcome bad eating habits.
There’s a knock on the door, and she arrives late.
But early enough for my predicament.
Maybe I should ask her who God’s God is.
Rukia Hatibu ( @theannoyinart, @justrukia) is a Tanzanian performance artist and curator. She is the creator and host of the Annoying Artist Show – Arusha, bringing together emerging and established artists to explore the power of uninhibited creative expression. She has showcased her work in form of monologues, short stories, poetry and installations to audiences in Tanzania, Kenya and Ghana. A Tedx Speaker, she continues to conduct community projects to address the responsibility and importance of self-expression in the African culture. Rukia continues to experiment on all the different ways she can tell her stories, attempting everything from film scripts to creative non fiction.
Related country: Tanzania, Kenya