When I completed my secondary school education, my step sister Annah took me in to help around with housework as I waited to be called to the university. I was ecstatic to say the least. After all she lived in a beautiful mansion in Nairobi and was married to a wealthy man(Tom). My little nephews were in lower primary and I was more than happy to take care of them. She also had a maid so there wasn’t really much work to be done. Within a few days of arriving, my sister in-law (the sister to my step sisters husband) also arrived. Let’s call her Abby. She was slightly older than I. I didn’t know much about her since their home village was far from ours and we hardly mingled with our in-laws that much. And when we did, I was hardly there because I was in boarding school. Anyway, all I knew was that she loved drawing on eyebrows with a black eye pencil and applying red lipstick. Then she would pick her handbag and go out all day only to return in the evening just before my sister got home. She and the maid would then huddle in the kitchen as they cooked dinner gossiping about the day’s adventures. I determined to mind my own business and keep to myself.
One night as we were having dinner, Tom announced that we would be travelling to his village to see his mother the following weekend. Abby was happy about that but I couldn’t help but notice Annah was uneasy. After dinner I asked Annah why she seemed disturbed by the news of the upcoming trip to our in-laws. She brushed me off and told me everything was fine but I wasn’t convinced. I dint insist on that.
Finally D-day came. We were to travel and come back the next day. So we stopped by Nakumatt and did some shopping early in the morning. That was when Nakumatt was still Nakumatt. You know the usual shopping of sugar, flour, rice etc and then stopped by the petrol station to fuel and buy a gas cylinder. Within a few hours we had arrived. The place was very hilly and at some point there was no road. So Tom packed the car at a neighbors place on top of the hill and we trekked along a narrow path the rest of the way carrying the shopping. The kids run ahead of us. Shortly we arrived at the homestead. My friends!!! Don’t be shocked when I tell you only the dogs welcomed us. Toms mother and 6 of Toms sisters were seated on 3 legged stools in-front of the main house beating stories. They were so animated and the laughter could be heard “ngurumo iria inge” (You know on the other side of the hill?) Next to the main house was the separate kitchen. Were we cook with 3 stones and fire wood. Tom had gone round the back to the “ikumbi” (yani granary) to find his brother to go to the neighbors compound were we had packed so that he could carry the gas cylinder. Abby had followed him with the children in tow. So it was just my sister and I who had gone straight to the house so that we could off load the shopping bags we had carried.
The laugher died as soon as they laid eyes on us. One of them said “Oh you have come?” I guess that was the greeting. My sister replied as she extended her hand to greet them. She placed the bags on the ground because no-body offered to take them out of her hands. I did the same and went round the circle shaking their hands. It wasn’t a warm welcome, actually some of them even sneered while shaking my hand. Others didn’t even make eye contact. But I could feel I was being checked out from head to toe. But I was very shocked when Annah went to greet mother in law and she sneered and looked the other direction. Oh no…..what was happening?
Shortly Tom appeared from the other side of the main house and oh my! Everyone was up showering him with hugs and those loud hand slaps that are sort of handshakes and high fives with Abby. The children were lifted up and everyone had changed. It was obvious the welcome was different. I turned to me Annah in bewilderment and she asked me to pick the shopping bags and help her carry them into the house. The house was a stone house. One of the few in that village. Tom had built it for his mother afew years ago. It had a kitchen, dining room (which was mostly used as a store), a sitting room and 4 bedrooms. There was also a bathroom and toiled but there was no inside plumbing so the latrine was in use. As we were unpacking the shopping, Dan (Tom’s brother) arrived with the gas cylinder. He said hello and proceeded to connect it to the gas cooker. As soon as he left, I asked Annah what all the hostility was about. Again she brushed me off. She pretended she didn’t notice any hostility. I held my peace. I took a pack a sweets to go and distribute among the children outside (the children of Toms sisters and some from the neighborhood) Tom had already gone to join the rest of the men who were roasting meat near the cow shed.
“Annah umenye riko ni riaku” said one of the sisters (Annah you know you’re the one cooking). “Ni kii gitigaire?” Annah asked cheerfully. (What hasn’t been cooked yet?). “Mutu wa migate tiinyui mugukaga naguo” By the way it was 2pm. “Na stew ya nyama ni hindi mathinja” “Na siana niikuria mucere”. Those were orders being barked. Annah, my dear sister was to start cooking chapatis at that time, plus stew and also rice. And it was what time? 2pm. Annah called me aside and sent me to her bag to bring her a lesso. I asked how come everybody is seated expecting her to do everything on her own? She shhhhushed me. That kitchen was empty! Nothing had been cooked!! Just stories, waiting for Annah to come all the way from Nairobi to do all the work. Mind you some of them had travelled from Nairobi the previous day, slept there and all they had done by the time we arrived was make breakfast and leave the dirty dishes there. All waiting for Annah. I wasn’t impressed.
I brought her the lesso and made myself busy. I took a mtungi and went to fetch water at the tank were Annah had directed me. Thank God there was a tank that collected rain water, I didn’t have to go to the river. I could still hear the women laughing enjoying themselves. When I arrived with the water, I found Annah inside the outside kitchen on her knees blowing into the fire ( That’s how you light a fire for cooking on 3 stones)
“Annah! What are you doing? Didn’t Uncle Dan connect the gas cylinder? Should I call him” I asked. “Just take those potatoes and peel for me” she replied. I felt a lump in my throat. I couldn’t believe we were being subjected to this. The both of us in a dark smoky kitchen full of dirty ‘mbiro’ sufurias toiling away whereas the owners of the home were chatting and laughing right outside. No one could even offer to chop up vegetables or kanda the dough. Occasionally someone would yell from outside how far have we gone? Or what’s taking so long? Or have we decided to “hutia andu” (starve people). I wondered how long this had been going on? My sister had been married in this home for 7 years now. Never had she come home complaining of being mistreated by her in=laws. Never once has she spoken ill of any of them. In fact at home we all envied her because she was married into a good home. My own blood sisters always had something to say about their mothers in law.
By the way don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t disturbed by the work I was disturbed by how our in laws were treating my sister. They were very hostile to say the least. Anyway we cooked and cleaned the dishes. The “evil sisters” took over serving. They complained about the food but all the same they ate and fed their children and spouses. By the time we sat down to rest it was 9pm. The men were outside by the bonfire enjoying their tuskers. Annah and I had just served tea to everyone in the house. We were all gathered in the sitting room with a lamp at the center. To say we were exhausted is an understatement. We desperately needed somewhere to lay our heads down and sleep. Nobody offered us a bed. I sat on a stool holding my little sleepy nephew in my arms and Annah had my other nephew on her back tied with her lesso. Thank God we had carried enough warm clothes for the children. We were totally ignored as the stories continued late into the night. Some of their children would fall asleep and they would be whisked quickly to one of the bedrooms and tacked into bed warmly. Then the stories would continue. At some point I felt like asking Annah whether we could go and sleep in the car. But it was far and dark not to mention at the top of the hill. I couldn’t imagine making that trek. Somehow I dozed off. And boy was it cold!!!! I regretted coming. I wished I had requested to remain in Nairobi. But then again I felt sorry for my sister. How would she have managed all this on her own. I persevered and eagerly waited for dawn.
Upon the first cock crow I was up. I looked around me and found afew people had slept on the sofas, others on the mattresses on the floor. My little nephews were on one of the mattresses on the floor. I got up and tiptoed quietly outside where I found the men seated in a circle drinking goat soup. After a spree of drinking, its normal for men to eat the meat of the head of the goat slaughtered the previous day and drink its soup with some herbs in it. I said good morning and took a walk around the compound. The air was fresh and the grass was dewy. It was a beautiful morning but I still worried about my sister. As I approached father in law’s grave, I spotted uncle Dan milking the cows a short distance away (I don’t know why I call him uncle he is somehow brother in-law….I guess because he is a bit different from the rest. He is the youngest in that family and he didn’t drink with the other men all night) I said good morning and went to where he was. I sat on one of the logs that made up the cow shed and quietly watched him. I had heard that he was no 100% mentally. That he has done drugs sometime back….I don’t know for a fact. But we had a conversation that led me to believe he was the sanest of them all. He too had noticed how Annah was treated. He told me he didn’t like it but what could he do. I asked if he had at least talked to Tom about it. He hadn’t. He said that it had happened for as long as he could remember. That Annah was never liked by his mother from the get go. He finished milking and handed me the bucket of milk “Here, take this to Annah she’ll know what to do with it” he said. He was going down the hill to the shamba to harvest and prepare food stuff for those who were travelling back to the city to carry. I was excited we would take home a lot of avocado. And I happily took the milk to the homestead. I found Annah already awake and lighting the firewood fire to start making tea. I never asked any questions.
The children woke up, we cleaned them up, fed them, served everyone tea, prepared the bread, sweet potatoes and porridge for those who wanted and started on the dishes and sweeping the compound. Let me not even get into the details. Tom’s sisters started packing their belongings. I tell you they even packed the chapatis that remained. Even some of the shopping that we had brought was shared among themselves. Finally it was time to leave. We all walked up the hill to the road. Uncle Dan and the other workers had brought bunches of raw bananas, sugar cane, potatoes, maize, passion fruits and best of all and a sack of avocados (“maguna ngui”). They call them maguna ngui in the village loosely translated to savior of the dogs. That’s because avocado trees are so many that when they bloom there is an overflow of avocados. People eat till they don’t even want to see them anymore….only the dogs eat them once they ripen and fall off the tree. Otherwise they rot and fertilize the soil. That soil is super fertile. No wonder it grows such avocados. Anyway I digress. The men went to the neighbors and brought the cars. Mother in law divided everything and gave orders to the workers how they will be packed in which car boot. Peoples!!! Nothing was put in our boot apart from sugar cane! I couldn’t keep quiet when the avocados were going. I asked out loud kwani they’re finished before we got any? Mother in law acted surprised! “Woi kii muriganiire? Riu mwakirugama hau ta irimuri…….” We had just been insulted. LOL. Then she asked Dan to go back to the shamba and harvest some more for us knowing very well the distance to the shamba. Ato according to her, once you divide food stuff and it has already been packed you cannot unpack you just have to go back and harvest more for the fools that hav3e been forgotten. Isorait. Tom took the queue and said it was alright nobody needed to go back to the shamba we’re fine plus we had to start our journey back it was getting late. Annah never uttered a word. I never even said goodbye I just got into the car and folded my hands. Fine Annah was a step sister but my mother treated her well. What did she lack at home to tolerate this? Anyway we were heading back to Nairobi. All this would be over. Or so I thought. At least Tom loved her and was good to her. Or was he?