FAMILY PORTRAIT

The dripping tap water feels good on my fingers. Beneath my palms are soapy cups I should rinse but the water lulls my thoughts. It’s quiet in the house- unnervingly quiet. So much so that my mind wanders.

I stare outside the kitchen window directly in front of me and though people walk past the dusty road outside, their voices sound muted- like I am hearing them from underwater. All I can hear and actually see is the family that lives in the mud house across the road.

The two children are chasing each other and laughing. Their mother sorts what looks like prawns and the father lying next to her on the mkeka, talks, and laughs with her about something.

They can’t see me thanks to the fishnet gauze on our windows but neither can I hear their conversations. I can only read their body language and they look happy. I know they are happy.

I have seen the man time and again carry his little girl as the boy follows close by and I know he adores his children ; his wife too. I know because I have also seen him sweep their dirt compound as his wife washed utensils and poured water on the dusty ground to make it wet and smell good.

In an estate such as this- where men wake up to go drink mnazi till evening- and women stay home to look after throngs of children then make viazi karai for sale- it is a rare beauty to see a man that sits with his wife and helps her with her chores, especially in the glaring openness of bitter disapproving wives, who walk past and laugh like they are having a blast at such a spectacle.

And I wonder, were mum and dad ever like that? I have heard stories-both good and bad- the latter mostly. I also remember dad being a great cook and making us oxtail before taking us out on weekends. I look at the mother outside now wiping her son’s nose with the end of her lesso.

Were mum and I ever that close? I mean I recall her cleaning me up with spit when I was young but were we ever that happy later on? Was I a rebellious teen? Is that it?

Or how did we get here?

The thought of mum sets my hands working. I should finish these utensils up before she comes back from tending to the chicken and starts ranting about how I am taking too long doing just one task and don’t I have other things to do?

I have never seen the woman outside ranting at her kids. Not the way I see other women around here beating their children who then cry till their voices are hoarse. I have seen her admonish them sometime then later carry them lovingly and buy them sweets or fried potatoes from the kibanda. She never constantly shouts at her kids like the women in this estate do in their angry irritated tones. She has never done that.

And suddenly, try though I may, I can’t recall a time when mum didn’t rant either. Oh wait I can! Before class six? I don’t clearly remember how things were but I recall getting home earlier, making tea then waiting for her after school, so that we could take tea together and watch the TV.

The memory is so ridiculous and incredible that I almost laugh out loud at the impossibility of such a feat. Me and mum, sitting together, watching telly like the best of friends. I smile and tears come unbidden to my eyes.

What happened- or what changed? I mean, I don’t really miss get together time with mom- I gave up on that- but life would have been so much easier if we didn’t argue at all.

We were once perfect. So what changed?

I watch this other perfect family in their water sprayed dust homestead, and a thought hits me that maybe all families go through these phases. Happy times when they talk and laugh and wait on each other till late into the night. Then ugly times take over and talking turns into screaming.

Maybe when the loving husband and his wife go behind closed doors, they too scream at each other. I know that of my cousin’s family- so maybe some families are just great actors. Maybe mum is not abusive as I read on Google – she’s just being how all mums are. Maybe being shouted at all the time is not as abnormal as I think it is and I really should just get used to it.

We are normal I guess; like any other family. I just need to be a better daughter. And so I work my hands on the soapy utensils and hope mum won’t shout today. I hope she waits till I am more used to it.

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mnazi – a coastal traditional brew made from the coconut tree and fruit

viazi karai – swahili slang for fried potatoes

kibanda- a makeshift shop usually for groceries

 

 

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