The Good Girls and the City: Chapter Three
Updated: May 11
Note: © Makena Onjerika. This material is a work in progress and subject to change, small or radical at any time.
Edits in prior chapters (22/04/2020). In Chapter 1, Wakio's job changes to team lead at a digital marketing agency. In Chapter 2, Akorot is not admitted into Miyale Fiction Workshop. She is one of 25 shortlisted applicants and has to send in an additional and final writing sample to win an admission.
After the excitement of Kalamu Bantu's email wore off, Akorot experienced sporadic stabs of terror. At the sink cleaning her breakfast dishes or in the shower, blind with soap, or out walking to the local kiosk to buy some milk, she would suddenly feel injured, as if someone had kicked at her in the belly. She'd sent in her two best short stories to begin with. What else could she possibly do to top that?
She'd been writing since secondary school, and one of her stories had won a national inter-universities writing contest six years prior, having beat out over 800 other submissions. All this was in the resume she had attached to her application. She, an A student all through her schooling, had not known many instances of being asked to prove her worth. She had pursued Biochemistry in University at her parents' insistence and hated every minute of it, but graduated with a First Class Honours degree. Working as a freelance writer, instead of pursuing a cushy job in research, had been her choice, not a failure in credentials. Despite her earlier doubts after Jasper's, being shortlisted had wakened her sense of worthiness. She was probably not the strongest writer of Kalamu Bantu's twenty-five, but surely, she was at least decent enough to get a slot in the workshop
"That's just a power play," said Mukeni about the email as they sat at the living room balcony on Sunday morning. "It's like those employers who want you to have work experience right after Uni. How exactly?"
She was painting her toenails a maniacal red and kept messing them up. Something was up with her, for sure, but Akorot decided not to ask. Mukeni was not one to talk unless she wanted to.
"He sounds like a pain," said Mukeni, shaking the bottle of glittery nail polish she was stopping with her thumb. "But, why can't he just charge people cash for it so anyone who wants can join?" she continued, having painted one of her big toes. "I thought writing is supposed to be fun and therapeutic."
Mukeni had a way of saying terrible things innocently. Like Akorot's parents, she thought of fiction writing as just vomiting words on paper. Trying to explain to her just how strenuous producing one short story was, the creativity and discipline of mind involved, was pointless. She would only shrug. And she probably thought Akorot a weakling for wanting Bantu's approval and endorsement. She would sneer at the mention of the doors he could open for Akorot in the publishing world and spew something about feminism and women needing to stop depending on men for career advancement.
"Aki you don't listen, Mukeni," said Wakio from the third chair on the balcony. "She just explained its free, funded by some foundation."
She sat with her legs tucked under her and wore sunglasses so that she could read in the morning sun. The book she was manhandling, cover and read-pages folded back carelessly, was titled Men Are From Mars And Women Are From Venus. Self-help stuff and a sure sign that she was back on trying to fix whatever was wrong with her relationship with Tony. Had they broken up again?
"You know this is what is wrong with us Africans," said Mukeni, now embarking on filing her fingernails. "Everything is donations this and donations that."
"It's a pan-African foundation," said Akorot with some irritation. Of course Mukeni would complain about donations; her family was swimming in money. They owned twenty plus apartments in Kileleshwa, Kilimani, Westlands and Lavington, all the posh places. Although why Mukeni still needed to pay her parents rent every month for this apartment was a mystery.
Their breakfast dishes sat before them, emptied of sausages, eggs, pancakes and fruit salad, but Akorot still felt hungry, perhaps because she was agitated.
"You two are seriously not helping me," she said
"Isn't he just asking you to show him you can do something different?" asked Wakio.
"Who is she?" Mukeni interrupted, pointing her chin beyond the balcony.
The Indian girl Akorot had met was downstairs, barefoot on the grass in the garden. She seemed to be in a trance, walking in slow circles with her hands behind her back. She stopped and looked out over the cars parked in rows before the apartment building then continued her circles as though grazing around a tether.
"B12," whispered Wakio. "Look at how flat her stomach is?"
"You have been talking about hitting the gym since last year," retorted Mukeni.
"Kwenda," spat Wakio.
Mukeni threw a hand at her and kicked Akorot's chair. "There is your story. Have you ever read anything about Kenyan Indians? That would be unique, for sure."
Right then the girl looked up, saw them and waved at Akorot. Both Wakio's and Mukeni's eyes went wide as Akorot stood up and got closer to the banister to say a few neighborly words.
Not until Wednesday did she go up to B12 and press the button by the door, setting off a shrill bell somewhere inside the apartment. As she waited, she wondered if it were unethical to befriend someone just to get material for a story.
A middle-aged woman came to the door of the one-bedroom roof-top apartment. Akorot had met her at the gate of the apartment building several times, either arriving early in the morning and leaving at 6 p.m. She was one of the live-out house-ladies who cleaned floors and laundered clothes in the building.
“Mwenye nyumba yuko?” asked Akorot, unable to mention the absurd name “Star”.
Behind the house-lady was a sparsely furnished sitting room with a sloping ceiling, a three-seater couch, a book case and no table Akorot could see from where she stood. The woman eyed her with suspicion. Perhaps she thought Akorot was there to gobble up the lunch who spicy, meaty smell was wafting around them.
A door opened and out came the Indian girl, her hair in a towel.
"Hey," said Akorot, waving her hand stupidly.
"Come in. Come in. It's Akorot, right?"
The house-lady withdrew and went off to what Akorot assumed was the kitchen. Star took Akorot’s hand and led her to the couch. There was a T.V. hang on the wall opposite, but no T.V. stand or decoder. Akorot made a note of this. What did Star watch now that the government had switched off all analog T.V. frequencies?
“I’m so glad you visited,” she said.
The house-lady returned with a tray on which stood two tumblers and a pitcher of thick juice.
“You take Mango Lassi? I just made it this morning.”
Akorot had no idea what Mango Lassi was, but she nodded her head and took a careful sip. “It has cinnamon?” she asked.
Akorot took a larger sip. “This apartment is much bigger than I thought.”
“It’s okay. A bit cramped, but enough.”
Where had she lived before? Some palace in Parklands or Westlands?
“Do you want a tour? Come, let me show you around?”
She took Akorot’s hand again. She was acting as though they were long separated friends, as if she had known Akorot would definitely come to visit and had been waiting. They saw the guest toilet and ambushed the house-lady on the laundry balcony, hand-washing some clothes.
“No, no. That’s your private space,” protested Akorot as Star led her to her bedroom.
“I don’t mind. There is very little to see.”
Akorot minded. Star's unperturbed openness made her too easy a target. Akorot felt guilty. She only poked her head into the room . A bed, unmade, and a chest of drawers beside the uncurtained window. Several suitcases sat on the floor, open and rummaged through.
“Still unpacking and buying stuff,” said Star, too brightly, as if she were hiding something.
“Is that a shrine?” The question escaped Akorot before she realized it would lead to Star pulling her into the bedroom to take a closer look.
“We call it a mandir. Temple,” said Star, as they stood over the open, shelved cabinet lined with pieces of saffron coloured cloth. On the tall back of the cabinet was a garlanded, framed painting of several gods, one of them elephant-trunked and another a monkey. On the counter stood six brass idols in different poses and on either side of them brass lamps. Before the idols was a small plate with two standing pipes – an incense holder, Star explained. Next to it was a wide plate, a thali, on which sat a small tear-shaped container known as a diya. There was a basket of red, white and yellow flowers beside the mandir and brass bells on chains hooked to the bottom of its highest shelf.
Akorot itched to get away. The temple made her feel judged by heaven itself. The gods cried, "Shame on you". As star explained the different items, Akorot gave her what she hoped looked like a smile.
“My mum is devoted to Saraswati, so I guess I am too.” Star said, pointing out a four-armed, feminine idol holding something like a lute. “And you? You’re a Christian?”
“Used to be, then I got tired of it."
“So what are you now?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I pray. Sometimes I don’t or even believe God exists. Agnostic, I guess.”
"That's freeing, isn't it?"
"But as an adult you can chose your religion. No one is forcing you."
"No. No one is forcing me. But it seems necessary to have something to hold onto, you know?"
Akorot did not know. They returned to the living room, as she wondered how to ask questions without seeming to pry?
“Did you come back from abroad or something?” she began.
“You could say that,” said Star. So she did have walls and things she wanted to keep private.
Akorot called the view out the living room window “spectacular” and regained her place on the couch, ready with the next question:
“So what is your real name?”
A crease appeared between Star's eyebrows. “My parents called me Sonam.”
“So “Star” is a nickname, or something?”
Sonam smiled, and shook her head in that Indian way that made it seem separate from the body. “Why does it bother you so much?”
Akorot felt a clutch of panic.“ No, you are just different. I kind of don’t get you, to be honest."
“Do you have to get me? Is that important?”
“Yes… No. I don’t know.”
Sonam’s smile lifted one corner of her mouth. She was not bothered by Akorot’s confusion.
"Let's be friends. I like you," she said.
Somehow, she reminded Akorot of ladybugs. She had a certain sense of neatness. Or perhaps the impression came from her small, button-like nose and the crinkles at the corners of her eyes when she smiled and her blazing red hair.
"Did you run away from your family or something? Don't you Indians just keep to yourselves in your communities?"
"We do, usually, until we don't," said Sonam, and she smiled painfully as though Akorot had touched something raw.
"And you? What are you looking for?"
"Looking for?" asked Akorot.
Sonam nodded and let silence hang between them. Akorot tried not to fidget under her gaze. It seemed to last forever, to interrogate her down to a molecular level. There was intent behind it, although Akorot could not say what intent. She found herself growing irrationally afraid, as though Sonam were seeing things about her, secret things. It was absurd. She looked away and wandered her eyes over the wall to settle on a painting of the stereotypical African village – the kind one could buy at the Maasai markets.
"Your sisters look very different from you?" said Sonam.
"My sisters? No. We are friends. We went to secondary school together and later decided to share rent."
"Looks like fun."
"Some days, yes. Some days, I just want to murder them in their beds, especially Mukeni."
"Mukeni is the one with the white Volkswagen Bettle?"
"How did you guess?"
"She looks... you know… tight… constricted..."
Akorot could not help laughing at so accurate a description. Which was bad, she thought, because for all her flaws, Mukeni was a good friend. But Akorot needed some release from the little annoyances of living with someone who was kind of perfect.
"Do you want to watch a movie with me?" asked Sonam, talking up the remote controller from the crack between two of the sofas cushions. Turns out she had a Netflix account.
Akorot found herself nodding, although she had three pending writing jobs on Upwork and Kalamu Bantu's do-or-die assignment.
A text from Kabanda Lutola: I can help you, you know.
Mukeni laid her phone face down on her desk and looked outside the window, at Nairobi traffic swinging around the raised highway ramp beyond the office premises. With double layer glass on the windows, there was not a sound from without. Mukeni felt as though she were watching a silent film or a false landscape imposed upon a dead world. But that was the real Nairobi out there, bright in the sun and deeply involved in a million hustles.
As much as she hated to admit it, Lutola was right. She had been set up for failure. But why? What could Kimng'etich Sang possibly have against her? They had only met a few times: once before she joined the consultancy and three or four times after that at company cocktails and parties.
She passes her hand over her face. Kimng'etich Sang's folder lay open before her. The consultancy had not won a single public sector bid in three years,
and he wanted her to bring in a rapid transformation job with the one of the biggest parastatal? As though McKinsey & Co. had not recently set up shop and swept the Kenya Airways transformation right from under their noses.
She had been brainstorming with her cell for two days already, but with only two more left before the presentation to Kimng'etich Sang, all they had was what the competition was sure to have. A good enough proposal, but hardly the pitch that would win the bid outright.
Mukeni felt often that this was precisely what was wrong with her profession: it was too much about telling good stories. And this time, she needed to tell a story that came with fireworks. But there was not enough in Kimng'etich Sang's folder, nor was information about the parastatal lying around on the internet. She could, of course, go with the old, tried and true method of highlighting the consulting firm's past, successful rapid transformation projects, and suggesting that she and her colleagues could do similar magic in this case. She had the profiles and C.V.s of senior management and her own were not too shabby. But how to show a concrete understanding of the client's stated problem and objectives. How to blow Kimng'etich Sang's mind. Was she too ambitious?
Her double monitor screen was crowded with dashboards, digital sticky notes, several intranet chat boxes, a powerpoint report in progress, outlook for email and maybe fifty open tabs on her browser. She felt a certain heaviness at the back of her head, one that was all too familiar, the creeping in of stress, the loosening of the cement that held her together, the liquidation of her self.
"I need to go somewhere. Back at 2, Call me if anything," she said to her senior most consultant, Lydia, and gathered up her handbag
Her phone rang just as she parked her car at the Nairobi Doctors’ Plaza. She let it ring as she got out and adjusted her skirt. Then she took a deep breath and drew upon all the cheer she could muster.
"Is it really too much to ask that you call us just once a week?"
Mukeni breathed. "I meant to… I forgot… It's work. It is very busy, mum."
"Work is always busy. How long will this thing with your father go on?"
“You cannot continue like this, Mukeni. We are a family.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“What did you do right? Hee? He is your father.”
“Don’t what? Is this how you talk to me now?”
Mukeni squeezed her eyes shut. The inside of her eyes burned red. “I have to go, Mum. A meeting is starting. I’ll call you later.”
“Mukeni…” her mother began to shout.
She pressed down on the off button. A car honked. and she realized she had been standing at a dangerous spot in the parking spot. Her mother was sure to call again, angrier, or she would send a blistering text. She'd been at it for a year now, but Mukeni's father had not called even once. He was just fine. He was always fine.
Mukeni had her handbag checked by the guard at the building's entrance and her body contoured with a handheld scanner. Then she took the lift. Just as the doors closed, a tall Somali man stopped them and walked in supporting an old bent woman in a black jilbāb. They brought with them the distinctive scent of uunsi. The man bent slightly and whispered something to the woman. She laughed and gave him a look of glittering eyes. Mukeni tried to imagine what he could have said to her that was so funny. As the lift went up, the man began humming softly, and the woman leaned against him. Were they mother and son? Mukeni felt embarrassed for having witnessed their affection. She stepped out on the fourth floor and left him massaging the woman's back as she coughed out her lungs. Were they lovers? Mukeni thought, walking to her psychiatrist's office. She felt a certain pain, like a paper cut on the finger, minuscule and yet intensely sharp. Everyday, people were loving and being loved, and what was she doing?
“How come you did not call today?” asked her psychiatrist's receptionist.
“Please don’t tell me she is not in.”
“You are very lucky.” The receptionist mockingly shook a finger.
Dr. Nancy Wangira-Munene had completed her first degree at the University of Nairobi then pursued a Masters at the University of London. At least that is what the certificates on her wall said. Mukeni had chosen her because she was a no-nonsense woman. Her smile as Mukeni came into the room was measured. She adjusted her glasses as she always did and stood up, offering her hand. Then she ushered Mukeni into a chair.
“I did not expect you for another week at least.”
Mukeni had come ready for a fight and chose to dive right in: “I can’t get off the meds right now.”
The doctor sat back in her chair and gave Mukeni a hard glance. This is how Mukeni wished she were, cool and always in control, instead of what she really was beneath her small pretense at toughness: scared and rudderless. She wanted that ability to draw back her shoulders and lengthen and fill a room. She crossed her legs at the ankle and tried not to appear defensive.
“What happened?” asked her psychiatrist.
" I can’t afford to fall apart now.”
“What makes you so sure you will fall apart?”
“What makes you so sure I won’t?”
“It’s been almost six years, Mukeni. And you have done CBT as well. There is nothing to fear. We will reduce the dosage slowly and see how it goes.”
“Not right now. I need to be mentally sharp for my job right now. A big project...”
“Mukeni, have you considered that maybe your excessive need to prove yourself is exactly the problem?”
Nancy was a torpedo, always seeking and sinking Mukeni's carefully constructed illusions. But Mukeni needed to live whichever way she could. She could not go back to being that girl from six years ago who'd phoned home from Leeds asking for a one way ticket back to Nairobi. Or the girl who had spent her first hour in this office crying and leaking snot because of a pain scorching through her mind and down to her very soul – a private hell built just for her, in which she killed and feasted on herself, over and over. No, she could never again be the girl Nancy had committed to a psychiatric ward for three weeks.
“I need more time,” she said.
“You are ready. You have to trust me and yourself.”
“Why can’t we wait until November when I take leave?”
“No. We need to be sure that you can now handle your day to day activities without the medication.”
Mukeni felt herself cracking in unknowable places. A pressure built up in her chest and throat suddenly. She spoke in a dry, small voice. “Please don’t do this to me, Nancy.”
She knew this was exactly the wrong thing to say. Nancy’s eyes went into sharp focus behind her glasses. She placed her hands on the desk, fingers sprayed. “Do you remember what we agreed when you started treatment? We agreed that you would trust me.”
“I just need…”
Nancy cut her off, smiling. “If I have lost trust in me, Mukeni, I can help you transfer to another psychiatrist.”
Ten minutes later, Mukeni stood outside the Doctor’s Plaza, validated parking-ticket in one hand and what would be her last full dose of antidepressants in the other. The sun should have felt lovely on her skin. She should have felt beautiful in her subtle, yet striking make up, her expensive human hair weave and her figure accentuating dress — the men and women who walked past her clearly did and had to do double takes — but what she felt was gnarled and fatigued. She could have everything, everything, if she could just let herself have it. Why was that so difficult? What was so hard about being happy? Of all the people in the world, what excuse did she have to be unhappy?
She whipped out her phone and replied to Lutola’s text:
I'm a big girl. I can handle myself.
If there was an insider to be found and information out there that would make her win the bid, she would find it. She had been to hell and back and Kimng’etich Sang was child’s play in comparison.
She drove back to the office with all her windows down, wind rippling through her Brazillian weave and silk blouse. She thought back to the first time she had realized her meds were working, the first time she had felt happy for no reason whatsoever, without making any effort, on a drive in this same car. After years in a murky swamp of dark emotion, she had gained buoyancy and floated. Everything had been possible in that moment. She had owned the world. She still owned it.
And for good measure, she gave the finger to a couple of matatu drivers along her way, for their horrible driving.
She had gained a bit of weight. Well maybe a significant amount. She’d planned to take Vinyasa yoga at the African Yoga Project now that she was working in Westlands. She’d wanted to improve her flexibility. But even when Wakio managed to clock out of work before 6 pm, she just could not get herself to Diamond plaza. The thought of moving her body, straining and stretching it, made her teeth ache. She just wanted to be at home, comfy in pajamas, watching a show or texting with Tony. She knew she was destroying herself. She knew she would regret these years of her life. Still, she put another potato crisp into her mouth. It was Pringles, at least. No visible oiliness and therefore, healthier, maybe.
She would stop at the 15 pringles’ mark. She needed the salty crunchiness. She deserved it, in fact. Because her morning had been a shit show, and she needed to munch down her rage. Otherwise, she would do something regrettable, like pull off Sheke Bitange’s stupid dreadlocks.
A 9 am censure in Dorothy Obura’s office is how she had started off her glorious day. Right after the horrible 8:30 am debrief during which her team gave her short, snide answers when she asked how their projects were going. So there was Dorothy Obura in a halo of undecided morning light. And there was Sheke Bitange leaning forward, mouth parted, about to say something.
"Shut the door," Dorothy said in a tone that implied war.
Wakio did and sat across from Sheke who looked away and rolled her eyes.
"You sent the annual proposal to Bancore?"
"Yes. By noon on Friday."
A look passed between Dorothy and Sheke.
"You promised we would double their social media followers in a year?"
"I checked Radian 6 for mentions of insurance and other related keywords. About 2 M in a year. There is huge potential for them to engage with more customers. So I proposed that an insurance education podcast or even animated series would make good content for their social media sites and attract a following."
"And you imagine this has not been done before?"
Wakio opened and shut her mouth.
"The Marketing Director will think we just recycled last year's proposal," said Sheke in that irritating nasal voice as though she were a shy, delicate bird.
Sheke who had left work at 5 pm on Thursday after they had a run through her proposal with Navin and he shredded it to bits. Sheke who did not show up to work on Thursday and Friday for unknown reasons and who had not sent even a text. Wakio had had to ask Kirogi in HR about it and received "personal reasons" as an explanation.
"I checked the proposals for the last three years and there were no such items. The project logs…"
Dorothy cut her off with a raised hand. "Sheke, you can leave," she said.
Sheke sprung off the chair and went off in a click of heels. Dorothy folded her arms over her chest.
"Do you know how much our retainer with Bancore is?"
"12% of our total revenues. 12%." She looked about her clean, bare desk as if searching for words she had lost there. No paperwork. No books. No pen holder. No family photo. The only personal effect she had in the office was a red coffee machine, on a long, low cabinet against one wall.
"You insisted on taking over this team and went over my head to Navin although I said you were not ready."
Wakio hated confrontations, but she did not back down from one when it came looking for her. "It's the job I was hired to do."
"It took me three years to secure Bnacore. Three years. If we lose this contract because of your carelessness, expect to get fired."
Later Wakio did not know where she found the courage, but she got up and left without being dismissed. She did not bother with the politeness of shutting Dorothy's door behind her.
Now she crashed Pringles into her teeth, perusing every single word in her proposal. There had to be a way to salvage it, since she could not just drop an email to the Marketing Director at Bancore: oops, wrong proposal. She had checked the project logs, and there was no mention of any educational campaigns. How should she have known?
At 11:30 a.m. she found Ben at the lamp post that served as the smoking spot for the cigarette lovers in the office. He had just lit up a Dunhill Switch and was looking across the lawn like a hawk following prey. He was one of the few men at the agency who dressed in anything but a hoodie and jeans. Today he had on black slacks and a light pink, long -sleeved shirt. He spoiled the clean look with kitenge cloth loafers and a hat that sat back on his head, like a saintly halo. He was no saint, however. He was a flirt. Which is why his lips parted in a smile as soon as he saw her and a glint came to his eyes.
"Yoo, Madam. You have decided to join the movement."
"Smoking is disgusting, Ben. And it's going to kill you."
It was impossible to offend him. Everything was a joke and deserved his sharp, inward facing laugh, that often transmitted as a cough. "Do you also go around telling fat people to stop eating because they are going to burst?"
And he said the worst things.
"Big bodied people."
"Same difference. P.C. bullshit. If you can't say that to the fats, don't say it to smokers."
He did get pissed at times. Everyone did. But Wakio could not tell if this was one of those moments because he chuckled and took a deep drag then let out a funnel of white, mentholated smoke.
"And the effects of second-hand smoke on innocent non-smokers like myself?" she asked.
"Yoo Madam, did you come out to lecture me. You care about me that much?"
You are not my type, thought Wakio, but what she said was, "I hate that chick."
"Who? Sheke? You are the only one. Everyone here loves her."
"I'm indifferent. It's work. You get it done. You go home to your real life."
"Nice philosophy, but it's not helping me."
Long drag. Thick plume of smoke. Wakio could not imagine what his lungs looked like. She waited to embrace herself.
"My advice is leave her and her projects alone. Simple as that."
Wakio felt there was chastisement somewhere in those words. She felt thirsty. She hated coming out here to beg for Ben's understanding, in this way. But she needed it. The whatsapp message she had left Tony the night before had not yet blue ticked. He had a big project going on. Something for a bank. But couldn't he take off just five minutes for her in a whole 24 hours?
"We should hang out, outside of work I mean," said Ben.
"So I can die of second-hand smoke?"
His brow furrowed. "You have the weakest jokes, aki."
"Bye." She smiled and walked away, knowing full well she was evading his invitation.
And who should she meet in the stairway on her way back from the cafeteria but Sheke Bitange. She had her pack of cigarettes in one hand and was trailing the other on the wood of the banister, picking up every germ possible.
Her glance swept past Wakio, registering her as part of the scene, a piece of furniture perhaps. Her pace did not alter. Wakio hated herself for that millisecond of hesitation when she spotted Sheke at the top of the stairs. As she climbed , she felt about to evaporate, and that something would happen to cause her to stumble or even fall flat on her face. She chose that moment when their bodies shared the same plane, albeit in opposite directions, to speak.
"Just so you know, I didn't consult you because I did not want to disturb you. I didn't know why you took days off. I thought maybe your baby was sick or something."
Sheke did not slow or look back. She completed the stairs and swept out of the building through the faux stained-glass doors. She wore a denim jacket over a long shirt with tail coats and went off looking like a launched, triumphant kite. Bitch.
Enjoyed this? Continue on to Chapter 4