By CAREY BARAKA
“Achieng Apisi, of Midesa Village. Daughter of Wilbrosa Apisi and Ochieng’ Japiko. Loving wife, mother of seven…”
Every day, the schedule was the same: breakfast, chores, lunch, chores, death announcements, chores, supper. There’d be a visceral joy to my grandmother’s afternoon chore-doing, knowing that she’d be by the radio at four. She’d clean the kitchen, clear the hearth, rearrange the doilies in the sitting room, and do some of the ironing. Then, at four on the dot, there she’d be, sitting on the floor next to the radio, her eyes closed, her face radiant.
Every day, without fail, her enemies died.
Anyango Nyanyuka, from Migori. Oliech Jamaranda, from Kajulu. Omondi Janeko, from Homa Bay. Apiyo Oliktiga, from Kanam.
Throughout the year, her enemies died.
Opiyo Japiko, from Kadem. Min Anyango and Wuon Anyango and Anyango herself, from Siaya. Apisi, Nyarkisumu.
She didn’t tell us who any of these people were, or why she considered them her enemies. When I’d ask her, she’d laugh, and ask me if I’d started cooking the ugali yet. Then I’d ask my grandfather, but he’d always been quiet. He’d look at me, then look ahead of him into the neighbors’ plots, and tell me to go put the water for ugali on the jiko.
Even when she started losing her memory, in front of the radio my grandmother sat. Those early days of her memory loss, my grandfather was still around. In the evenings, he’d move silently into the kitchen, and then come back into the sitting room. Nyako, he’d ask my grandmother, this supper when is it coming?
My grandmother had started losing her sense of time, and couldn’t be trusted to remember anything but when it was four o’clock at the dot.
She’d sneer at the old man. “Don’t tell me what I am. You’re choking me. Start supper.”
My grandfather, did he know how to cook? Those early days of her decline, he’d go to the shop, buy bread, and warm the tea from the morning. Sometimes he’d make ugali, but there are only a certain number of times one can have ugali and eggs, this being the only meal he knew how to make. My grandmother didn’t stir from her seat. Then one day, my mother, pitying the old man, sent me to spend my long holidays with my grandparents.
This was the December of rain and more rain. You heard it first thing in the morning, loud on the mabati roof. The roads were deep in mud, the long grass soaking, leaves overhead sending down random showers even in those moments when there was no actual downpour from the sky and the clouds looked like clearing. My grandmother wore her Women’s Ministry kitambaa on her head every time she went outside, and tucked her old Nokia inside her brassiere.
She didn’t care about the breast cancer she’d get from her phone. The list of cares she’d lost, it rang long: breast cancer, her husband’s meals, showering every day, going to the chiro for the weekly vegetables. She no longer cared about her chores either. So, I did them. The cooking and the cleaning and the arranging and the dusting and the mopping and the searching for misplaced sock partners, and the running down to the shops for bread and credit and the newspaper. I did them all.
I didn’t complain. I was one of life’s foolish volunteers, prepared for days of motherhood and marriage and caregiving, taught to be a woman with a hymn in her heart and a prayer on her lips, a woman with aching calves and a strong conscience who found her joy in a cup of strong tea, a woman who, like my mother before me, and her mother before her, would, seeing an extra burden, step forward and suggest, “Try me.”
Sometimes, in my moments of inactivity, I’d wonder about my grandparents, wonder whether this was how they thought they’d spend the last years of their lives. In their bedroom, there were two beds, though one of them, ever neat, made me question if it was ever slept on. I wanted to ask my grandfather where he slept, but we weren’t one of those families, sharing information with each other, telling each other their stories.
I understood, though, that my mother hated her mother. I remember my grandmother, in the time before she lost her memory, and her barrage of biting remarks. It had been worse when my mother was a girl. Iron boxes, still hot from ironing, wielded at my mother in fits of rage, pithy remarks made about my mother’s struggles with her weight, allusions to my mother’s moral depravity, the veiled threats to throw her out of the house. When my grandmother ailed, my mother hadn’t gone to her. Instead, she made me her emissary.
On the walls of my grandparents’ house were pictures of their children, all eight of them, on the occasions of their graduations from college. In the picture of my mother—my grandparents had worn matching red and yellow ankara outfits—she was looking slightly away from the camera, and on her face was a frown. In none of the other photos on my grandparents’ walls did any of their children appear happy to have them there. Instead, frowns, and on my mother’s face, her eyebrows flat, and her nostrils flared in unease. Looking at these pictures, I wondered why none of my uncles or aunts called to ask about their mother’s health. But then again, one could always extrapolate that sense of not-love from the photos.
Did my grandparents love their children? Did they love each other? And if they did, in what ways was this love communicated? How did my grandfather love this woman who forgot him more every day? How did my grandmother love him who was, to her addled mind, a stranger?
That December, it was the three of us: me, my grandmother, and my grandfather.
Then my grandfather died just as the rains started to thaw, December fading into the new year—his heart, weak, giving way as it had threatened to for years—and it was just my grandmother and me, her foolish volunteer.
His friends, some of whom had become her friends the way people accumulated each other’s things by dint of long marriage, came over, and sat shiva with the grieving widow. They held her hands, made her food, and sat outside on the stoop, smoking. Little was said. I thought to myself that my grandfather would have enjoyed this, the silence, and laughed in the kitchen where I sat alone.
For a week, his friends stayed in the empty rooms in the house that waited in vain for visits from my uncles and aunts and mother, seated mostly in silence, until they had to go back to their lives. Then it boiled down to my grandmother, myself, and the hardcore coterie of her friends, the ones who stayed for love, and for the fact that they, in their retirement, had little else to do with their days.
Every day that week, at four, we sat in front of the radio. When my grandfather’s name was said, and his children’s and his grandchildren’s and his great-grandchildren’s, my grandmother, she got up, unplugged the radio from the socket, and put it back in its box. She fished around in the kitchen, got some matches, and set the box on fire.
Her friends all spoke at the same time, saying, in slightly different ways, that it might be stupid but it was, after all, love.
They were with us all the time, her friends. Ajeni, from Mawego, who cycled to our home every day in the morning, slinging herself onto her bodaboda. Truphena, the city nurse, long-retired, walking over from her home across the road. Min Achupa, my favourite of the lot because of the way she’d turn to me whenever my grandmother forgot where she was, a twinkle in the woman’s eyes, and tell me that it’d been that way once, that in the days when my grandmother was neither a grandmother nor a mother she would forget in whose bed she’d woken up.
Some days, Min Achupa would come by with her husband. He was a tall, sinewy man who spoke in a low, soothing baritone. Married sixty years, and here he still was, accompanying Min Achupa whenever she wanted. He and my grandfather had been classmates in primary school, all those years ago, in a colonial school.
Now, it was January, then February, his friend was gone, and here he was, a kind face.
But my grandmother didn’t remember him. Every few minutes, she’d turn to him and ask, “Where did you say you were from?”
“Kasipul,” he’d say. “I’m a Ja-kasipul.”
My grandmother would frown, as if trying to bring some long-discarded memory to surface. “Is that where that MP, what was his name, Odidi, was killed?”
“Owidi,” Wuon Achupa would respond. “Yes, that’s us. Owidi and I, we were from the same village in fact. Near Wire Primary School.”
My grandmother would smile. “Ah, yes, I remember now. It was four o’clock when he died. I was seated there where you are seated.”
Then she’d turn to me. “Nyathina, where’s my radio? It’s almost time.”
Wuon Achupa seemed to know what significance the radio held to her, and he’d answer her questions with patience. Me, I wondered how, even when she got distracted by something else at four, she remembered to ask about her radio every day.
Every day, Min Achupa and Wuon Achupa came by, and every day, the same question. Sometimes, my grandmother would turn to me and ask me instead. “Nyathina, this boy, where did you say he is from?”
Kasipul, I’d respond, and my grandmother would nod and ask whether I’d seen her radio.
The weeks went by. My grandmother, she lost even more of herself. Sometimes, she couldn’t even remember who I was, or how I’d come to her. She’d see me and start screaming.
The weather remained cold, but on certain days, the sun emerged, just enough to get your hopes up—the clouds whitening and thinning and letting through a diffuse brightness that never got round to being real sunshine and was usually gone before supper.
My grandmother continued to unravel. Her mood became increasingly unpredictable. She had explosions of weeping, every now and then of uncontrollable shaking, and she came out of these fits in a fury, walking around the house and slapping her palms against each other. I learned to stay away from her during these fits, and once, in a week where the shock of her violence made me fear that she’d mistake me for one of her children and attack me, Min Achupa followed me when I walked out.
We sat outside, on the stoop, silent, watching the leaves sinewing in the breeze, the chickens foraging in the compost, the mothers screaming for their children to come in to bathe.
Min Achupa took a single cigarette out of her bra. She lit it, and took one long drag. She turned to me. Listen, my child, she said.
My grandmother had been the first girl in her district to go to college. Min Achupa, the second. Back then she wasn’t called Min Achupa; there was no Achupa to be the mother of. Instead, she was Grace. My grandmother was Alice. Grace and Alice, the faithful pair, and the boys they were dating.
This was the seventies. There were no good girls. In college, they kept away from the girls who went to class and got radicalized into student politics. Instead, they discovered Nairobi. They discovered disco, cricket on Saturdays in Parkroad Estate where they would hanker after the Asian boys, and at night go jiving with the African boys they met at Railways. Conversations about who was on the pill, and who wasn’t. Min Achupa smiled at the memory. Then she frowned. It’s a depressing fact about campus women of our generation, she said. Ask them the fee for an abortion, and they’ll be able to tell you. And if they don’t know, it’s because they repress and suppress the memory. You may be sure that they once knew it.
They went out a lot, Grace and Alice, taking KBS buses around the city, discovering Ngong’ Road, discovering Ngara, discovering Kariokor, and one time ending up in Karen, sticking out amidst all the whiteness and jacarandas. Sometimes, on a whim, they took long-haul buses out of the city, ended up in Nyeri, in Eldoret, in Meru. But after a while, all the outings came to be seen as a waste of time and money. They were what people did before they understood the realities of their lives.
I asked Min Achupa about my grandmother’s enemies. I asked her about the four o’clock radio. What was that about? She laughed. “Those were her rivals,” Min Achupa said. She told me the story. My grandfather had kept a mistress once. It wasn’t a big deal—all the big men in government did, and my grandfather, he was trying to be a big man. Alice teased my grandfather about it when she found out. Then she died, the mistress, and when my grandmother heard her name on the radio, she said that her rival had died. So she started listening to the radio more, and discovered more rivals every few months. At the start, it had been clear to Alice that it was all a joke, mindless chatter, that all the names were imagined enemies, but her delight at their deaths was visceral and real. As the years went by, it became less clear to her friends whether Alice knew that the obituaries she took joy in were of people neither she nor my grandfather knew. And now, in the decline of her mind, the edges were blurred, and her husband, her last rival, was dead.
Min Achupa went silent. I turned to her. I wanted to ask, but they were happy together, weren’t they? It was all worth it, wasn’t it? But I didn’t. Instead, the silence wrapped around us, the cold grew heavier. From inside, I heard my grandmother call for me.
“Nyathina,” she screamed. “Where is my radio?”
How the old woman knew the time, I don’t even know.
Still, at certain moments she was herself, never more than when surrounded by her girls: Min Achupa, Truphena, Ajeni. She remembered that she was funny.
What do you call a man with ninety percent of his intelligence gone? Divorced.
What are the measurements of the perfect husband? 82-20-45. That’s eighty-two years old, twenty million in the bank, and a forty-five-degree fever.
Why are men like table-mats? They only show up when there’s food on the table.
She told dirty jokes.
What do you call the useless flap of skin on the edge of a penis? A man.
How many men does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One—they screw anything.
Why do house chores? No man ever made love to a woman because the house was spotless.
She told other jokes.
How do you know when your man is getting old? When he starts having dry dreams and wet farts.
Why are men like your twenties? Because they always leave you.
Her last morning, my grandmother woke me up. She was screaming. It took me a while to get what she was saying. “My radio, where is it?”
Her eyes were red, and her mouth was frothing.
“My radio, where did you put it?”
I got out of bed, and headed out into the kitchen. She understood that I was going to search for it.
“My radio,” she said. “It’s almost time for the announcements.”
We started looking for it, the two of us. Through the kitchen we went, our fingers pilfering the crevices in the pantry. Into the sitting room, where we looked below the chairs, through the cabinets, behind the books. Into her bedroom where everything was a mess, her clothes askew. I’d have to arrange those later. We opened suitcases, flung their entrails aside, but didn’t find the radio. This performance was a sign of my love. I tried drawers. One drawer—my grandfather’s—had been locked, and I wondered where she had found the key, what secrets he had hidden inside the drawer, and whether, after she was gone, we would discover their secrets, discover their love story. Some people have love stories, and it’s a secret to anyone but the two involved. The world never finds out their secrets, and when they die, their love stories go with them. I wondered whether my grandparents’ story was one of these.
I sent Min Achupa a text explaining what was happening. She was at the door at seven. One glance at the situation, and she knew how to solve it.
“Here’s some money,” she said, swinging a few notes my way. “Go buy a radio.”
I left. When I returned, the two of them were sitting on the stoop, a jug of porridge between them, their mugs chipped and ceramic. My grandmother looked up and grinned at me. I could tell that the old woman had remembered herself. I’ve been survived by myself, she told Min Achupa, and the two of them laughed.
My grandmother was dead by noon, her new radio unused.
We buried her on a warm evening. The clouds were heavy, the sky faint and azure. There were no cicadas or frogs or birds in the background; my grandmother’s was, to its end, a life of urbanity. Her friends were there, the ones still living, and her family. We’d placed announcements in the newspaper, and on the radio. Alice Apondi, daughter of Oloo Apondi and Eucabeth Apondi. Loving wife, mother, aunt, and great-grandmother. She was a fighter. She loved KBC. Once, she had an entire cigarette on a single drag. She was survived by herself.
The speakers at the funeral had their moments. Some of them, the men, didn’t have anything to say about their lives with my grandmother, beyond where and when. But there were others, more up-to-date, who gave these casual yet practiced speeches in which they said that life was indeed a bumpy road, but misfortunes had pointed the way to better things, lessons were learnt, and, without a doubt, joy came in the evenings, as it had to our dear departed Alice.
My mother, the only one among her siblings who showed up at the service, didn’t speak. She sat at the back, unimportant, as if she were a random visitor who had happened upon the gathering and decided to sit in the crowd because she had nothing better to do. Around her, dust swirled and flies gathered, drawn to her by some need. Those who knew her, they’d nod to her as they passed, then head to sit at the front.
Min Achupa spoke last. She remembered campus. She remembered my grandmother’s piano, her sewing machine, her doilies, perfectly placed. She remembered Alice’s baking, her hymnal, her students. Alice’s radio, Alice’s enemies. She remembered what Alice would tell her when things got hectic, when life happened, when she, Grace, wished to cut off her hair and start again. “Always remember,” Alice would say, “You’re just a woman screaming.”
Carey Baraka is a writer from Kisumu, Kenya. He sings for a secret choir in Nairobi. He is working on his first novel.
This story was inspired by a tweet from the Twitter account @keliitu.