The Good Girls and The City: Chapter One
Updated: Jun 12
Note: © Makena Onjerika. This material is a work in progress and subject to change, small or radical, at any time.
Did Wakio love her job? Yes, no, maybe. She loved that she had dared apply for it although some of the requirements stated in the job description had been beyond her experience. She was proud of having convinced a panel of three to let her lead a team of ten, after only ever having led two. And, maybe, she even liked the work; she got to do something new everyday. But she definitely did not like working with some characters.
It was only Tuesday morning, and she had not even arrived at the office, but Wakio already felt tired. Another long day ahead. She would be lucky to get home before ten p.m.
Snap out of it, she chided herself, walking the last hundred meters down the leafy road to her middle-of-nowhere office.Her joy was hers to make, she reminded herself; other people could only spoil it if she let them. Like the uniformed guard at the gate who pretended not to recognize her even after five weeks of working at the digital marketing agency. She did not mind him. At his request, she produced her work badge – with the ugly, startled-by-the-flash photo Kirogi in HR had promised to update soon.
The office building stood at the top of a gentle hill, crowning the manicured lawn, its gazebo and the defiant hardwoods growing at sporadic intervals across the green. There were only three cars in the paved parking lot, and a sprinkler was at work on the lawn, apportioning slices of water to different sections of grass in hard chops. This was the false calm of the early morning, before all the madness arrived.
Wakio took the stairs to the first floor and carded in at the office door, fingers crossed that there would be no one in the office yet. Except for the cleaners, hardly anyone came in as early as she did. And she had come in even earlier than usual, because she needed the office to herself at the beginning of what she was certain would be a crazy day, considering the previous night's phone call with Navin, the Managing Director. Her plan was to spend the hour before everyone showed up putting her thoughts together and making survival plans.
Sadly, Milly, one of the cleaners was running a vacuum machine over the carpet, and of course, the one person in her team Wakio did not want to see this early in the morning had already arrived: Sheke of the light skin and nasal English. Sheke whose face Wakio had imagined slapping too many times in the last month. She was sitting at her desk, her dreadlocks piled up in some intricate design and bedazzled with beads and pieces of brass. She always looked put together. The bitch.
"Good morning," said Wakio in her coldest tone as she began setting up her laptop.
She got back a mumbled response that could have been 'hi' or 'whatever'. Why did she bother? Thank heavens Sheke's desk was to her back. All she needed to do was plug in her earphones and youtube some OneRepublic.
She had four planned meetings that day, beginning with her team debriefing at 8:30 a.m. She hated the debriefings, because everyone in her team hated them, but Navin insisted on each team starting the day with a clear idea of what everyone in it was doing. Two of the other meetings were with the Heads of different departments at A&N Bank, the agency’s third largest client. And the last, at five p.m.and likely to extend well past six p.m., was a catch-up meeting with Kirogi in HR. But these were hardly the real problems of Wakio's day. She would inevitably have to sit with one of the software engineers, trying to understand why a deliverable was late, or be forced to troubleshoot poorly performing Google ads, or deal with a client shouting over the phone. And the emails. The thousands of emails in her inbox. Her to-do list was thirty two items long.
Well, work won't do itself, woman, she thought, dipping her hand into her bag for her thermos. She got under her notebook and make-up pouch and purse. She dipped her hand in pockets that were too small for her thermos to fit. Then she stuck her head into the large bag, but nothing. She'd forgotten her thermos of long-brewed milk tea on the stool at the door of her apartment. Yes, a truly awful day ahead. Without her thermos, she would have to take her beverages from the Nescafé machine in the kitchenette area. She could already taste the awful, chalky, powdered milk, but she needed some caffeine.
In the kitchenette, she plugged her ceramic cup into the machine and selected black coffee. Then she stole into the office refrigerator and helped herself to the first cartoon of unspoiled milk she could find. Milly the cleaner almost caught her at it.
"Sasa," said Wakio to hide her guilt.
"Kwani you were chased out of your house today?" asked Milly, wheeling a bucket through to the bathrooms behind one of the doors leading out of the kitchenette.
"Sleep ended at 4:30 today" said Wakio, trying to sound lighthearted.
Milly applied herself to washing the dishes in the kitchenette sink, all the dirty cups and plates she and the other cleaners had collected off desks that morning. She worked vigorously, her large arms jiggling. Wakio wondered if her life was better, uncomplicated, although she didn’t make much. What was it like to leave the office at 5p.m. promptly?
“By the way,” said Milly, her voice down to a whisper. “You need to be carefully.” Her eyes darted towards the main office hall where Sheke sat.
Wakio did not want to know, and felt intruded upon, but Milly and she had always been friendly, so she leaned in for the information.
“Some people are talking about your job,” said the older woman. “People you may think are your friends.”
Wakio could not bring herself to ask for names. She nodded and returned to her desk. But her voice was rough with annoyance when she spoke to Sheke.
“When can I expect the performance report for Bancore Insurance?”
Sheke gave her a bored, disdainful glance. “At 10.”
That was it. No explanation at all for why the report was a day late. Sheke had only one client to manage, and seemed to always be busy, but what she did all day was unknowable, since she worked as a free-ranger, separate from the team, and reported directly to the Head of Client Service, Dorothy Obura, if ever.
“Wachuka Wambui at A&N isn’t happy with your team,” Navin had said over the phone the previous night.
Wakio had tried to be careful about allocating blame, especially with regard to Dorothy Obura’s role in her team’s inability to effectively serve A&N Bank. But, now, thinking back, Wakio wondered if she had laid a trap for herself with all that honesty.
“We will sort this out tomorrow. Wachuka is not the kind of person you want on your neck,” Navin had said.
Anxiety over how he intended to solve the issue had robbed Wakio of sleep. She could not help feeling that she was in trouble. Her stomach contracted sharply when the office door flew open and banged against the wall. A group of graphic designers came in, arguing about a battle of insults between two social media influencers the night before.
“Yoo, Madam. I thought I would get here before you today,” said Ben, putting out his fist for a bump.
He was perhaps the only one in her team who liked her. She gave him her truest smile, trying to communicate that she would need him to be on her side. But he went off to Team B’s corner of the office to compare notes about the influencer scandal.
And by the time Wakio left for her meetings at A&N Bank, neither Dorothy nor Navin had showed up at the office. Nor did they call her into a meeting that afternoon when she returned.
The office felt different in a way Wakio could not explain. It was still loud with pop music and conversations happening in clusters around desks. The main hall was still stuffy; all the windows were behind the glass walls of the cubicles that housed senior management. And Wakio’s chair was just as uncomfortable as always. She ate her late lunch, a chicken fajita from Java House, at her desk, typing away at emails and ignoring the indignant looks of Beth from Team A. Beth was a very born-again Evangelical who took issue with everything and should not have been working at a digital marketing agency, at all.
At 3:42 p.m. Wakio went to the programmers’ corner to find out about a delayed deliverable, one that Wacuka Wambui at A&N wanted on her website, like yesterday. Wakio got the usual excuses.
“But you set the deadlines and created client expectations,” she said.
“Well, it can’t be done. We need at least two more days.”
“I get that. But why? What went wrong? You guys always add a seven day buffer for every project.”
“Look. I am doing the best I can. You are not the only one who is stressed. Everyone here works hard.”
“I didn’t…” Wakio drew back from the programmer.
Everyone within a five-desk radius was looking at them, at her. And not just looking, but glaring. Even people who were not on Team C. She could hear Navin talking loudly on his phone in rapid Hindi. Dorothy was having a closed-door meeting with one of the other team heads in her office.
“Did something happen when I went to A&N?” Wakio asked Kirogi at their HR meeting an hour later.
“Something like what?”
Wakio shook her head, remembering Milly’s warning that morning. Kirogi adjusted her glasses and clicked her mouse several times, opening a file on her desktop.
“So, would you say you have settled into your role here?” she asked, fingers poised on the keyboard.
“Yes,” said Wakio.
When she got back to her apartment at around 7 p.m., having stealthily slipped out of the office, she found a moving truck parked just inside the gate. A dozen or so movers were carrying items off its open back and into the building like a line of ants out foraging.
"B12 has been taken?" Wakio asked the gate guard.
He looked as bored as he had in the morning when she left, only coming alive for the few seconds it took him to process her question.
"Ah, yes, B12."
Wakio left the lift to the movers and took the stairs. She needed to rejoin her gym. Before she made it to the third floor, she was already panting and had to stop on a landing to catch her breath.
Mukeni's keys were in the bowl on the shoe-rack by the door. Wakio didn't remember the last time she had seen her housemate, let alone while there was still daylight outside.
"Did you get fired Miss Management Consultant?" Wakio asked the empty living room.
Mukeni poked her head out at the kitchen door, armed with a Silicon spatula and an apron over her shirt and skirt. "Ebu spit that saliva. God forbid."
Wakio was too tired to carry her bag the ten more steps to her bedroom. She left it on the shoe rack, poked her tired feet into a pair of rubber slippers and inadvertently walked into a vaporized cloud of cayenne powder in the kitchen.
"Oh God," she managed between coughs and sneezes.
"Stop. It's not that bad," said Mukeni, threatening with the spatula.
"What the heck?"
"I am making dinner for you and Akorot," said Mukeni, as if that explained anything.
"Why? To poison us."
That earned Wakio a slap on the wrist with the spatula.
"I just felt like being nice. "
Wakio frowned; Mukeni considered house work and cooking especially to be slavery. If she was cooking something was happening in her life. A good thing? A bad thing? Wakio decided not to ask.
"And what are you making?" She peered into the nearest pot. She pretended to lean in and smell the boiling mess and discreetly turned down the flame Mukeni had left on high.
"Spaghetti and meatballs. I found the perfect recipe." Mukeni waved her iPhone.
"Do you want any help?"
"Nope. You go shower and whatever. I got this."
Very strange, thought Wakio. About an hour later, she faced Mukeni's food.
"You didn't put the spaghetti in cold water first?" she asked.
All the response she got was Mukeni's furious typing on her laptop's keyboard. The food was a soggy lump, but Wakio's monthly budget was not going to allow her to order anything in, anyway. She dropped three ladles of the lukewarm food into a plate and plonked it into the microwave. Her food went round and round behind the blackened glass.
"I serve you some?" she asked.
"Naah. I still feel full from lunch," said Mukeni.
Which meant the food was so bad, Mukeni did not want to eat it herself. Wakio wisely took a bottle of hot and sweet sauce from the cabinet; it redeemed even the most atrocious meals. As she lowered her plate to the four-seater dining table, Mukeni darted her hand out and slid a table mat across the table.
"It's not hot," said Wakio.
"This table cost me 55K. Trust I will be buried with it, in mint condition."
Bitchiest landlady ever, thought Wakio as she took her first mouthful of the food. She spat it right back out.
"What is with you and salt?"
"Eish, princess, who is forcing you to eat?" said Mukeni. "Stay hungry."
She caught and squished a mosquito buzzing around them and wiped the viscera off on her blouse. Outside their door came the voices and sounds of movers carrying something heavy, a fridge, perhaps. Five floors down, in the miniscule patch of grass known as the garden, crickets stridulated to the accompaniment of hiccuping frogs. And further away was the silence of the local bar which normally played loud music into the wee hours beginning on Thursday night. Had the KPLC mercifully
disconnected the electricity there?
Wakio made her second attempt at the food and swallowed. "So how would you go about making your people you manage like you?" she asked.
Mukeni looked up from her laptop and seemed to consider the question carefully, then she spoke with her usual bluntness, "Like you? You mean respect and fear you."
“Talking to you is pointless,” said Wakio. “Where is Akorot?”
“Aki, you should read our whatsapp group sometimes."
Akorot had not realized just how long it would take her to make her way to the café when she had agreed to the meeting. She had not even expected Kalamu Bantu to actually respond to her email, and now, as she walked up the road from where the matatu had dropped her, she went over her email in her mind and cringed. She really had sounded like an infatuated fifteen-year old.
Your work challenges me to examine my world critically, to see its every undulation, every intake of breath.
But Kalamu must have thought the email at least somewhat intelligent. He had responded within three hours.
Let's meet in person. Conversations are better that way.
He was just back from a writing fellowship in America, the third major writing award he had received in the last four years and had published his second novel to much acclaim the previous year. Akorot had not expected him to have time to interview her in person for his upcoming writing .
I believe that your workshop will put my writing to a much needed test. I want to write necessary words.
As she negotiated the narrow strip of unpaved land at the side of the road, hoping that her sandaled feet would not encounter snakes, two cars drove by, slowed to dip into a pothole ahead, and melted into the red of their back lights. Could there really be a café down this lonely road or had Google Maps lied to her?
When she found the address, she opened her inbox, frowning and re-read Kalamu's email. Nowhere had he mentioned a café.
Let's meet at Jasper;s, he had written, and her mind had made up the rest.
Jasper’s was an off white gate and a wooden signboard nailed to the wall. It was a steady beat of music and twinkling lights seen through the gaps in its kei apple hedge. Above her glared the long eye of an electric tube around which buzzed all manner of insecta. She pressed the bell, and almost immediately, strange mechanical contraptions came to life on the other side. A dog barked. The small door in the gate opened and the very black face of a man in a G4S uniform appeared.
"Yes, Madam," he said.
"Someone called Kalamu Bantu asked me to come and meet him here."
"Aah, yes, he is here. Only help me with your I.D."
He was of that species of gate guard who made one feel welcome and important even if one was just a wannabe writer. He stepped aside, almost bowing, and ushered her into the compound. The dog barked again.
"Don't worry, Madam. It is well chained."
She signed the visitors' book and received her national identification card back. The man walked her a little ways into the compound, over crunching aggregate stones, and pointed a way through the trees standing around as if bodies at a cocktail party. She emerged from them presently and into a simmering of jazz music and soft conversation. Whatever Jasper’s was, it clearly attracted important writers. At the center of the cluster closest to Akorot was Rukiah Ahmed, the most recent Kenyan winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, looking luminous in a navy blue dress and a high hairstyle. Cigarette smoke misted the air above her head as she talked animatedly, face shifting minutely from amusement to sobriety to disgust. No one turned to look at Akorot.
Clutching the strap of her bag, she proceeded past the group and into the bungalow from whence the music emanated. More celebrities, some of them not writers.
Drinking on Thursday night was not ideal, not when Akorot had deadlines to meet by noon the next day, but she felt displaced in that body language of familiarity. She made for the bar at one end of what was the bungalow's sitting room.
"Wine is how much?"
"Four hundred bob," said the bartender.
Not too bad, thought Akorot. "Red, please."
"Dry or Medium sweet?"
Mukeni always said wine had to be dry or it was just grape juice.
"And who is this?" someone said as Akorot punched numbers into her phone for Lipa na Mpesa.
A guy about her height, in an orange T-shirt, bow-tie, suspenders and don't-touch-my-ankle pants. He should have looked bad, but he did not. Perhaps because he was as slender as a praying mantis and wore kitenge cloth loafers; perhaps because his large glasses gave him an air of intelligence; perhaps because he had tattoos on his biceps.
"Shivayu," he said, extending his hand.
When she told him she was looking for Kalamu Bantu, he frowned.
"Really? That guy? You are one of the peoples trying to take his class?"
Akorot was unfazed. A lot of people had opinions about Kalamu Bantu and thought that those opinions mattered.
"Second door to the left. He is having his gathering in there," said Shivayu with air quotation marks around the word 'gathering'. "But if you get tired of the blah-blah-blah, come hang out with me and my crew." He made a vague gesture towards one of the corners of the room."You look like an interesting human being."
Akorot decided that he was referring to the dreadlocks on two thirds of her head and the silver loops on the cartilage of her ear on the shaved third, and, perhaps, to her black lipstick. She also decided that she would definitely never hang out with snotty, Mr. Too-short-pants.
Kalamu was in a former bedroom whose one wall had been demolished and glassed. He sat among cushions on a hanging bench fixed all around the room and had about fifteen people in attendance, some on the bench, others on the carpet at his feet, acolytes in worship. Everyone listened with rapt attention, so much so, Akorot felt the need to tiptoe into the first space she spotted and soundlessly low herself onto the carpet. She still managed to attract glares and had to mouth sorry.
"The aim is to create an effect without seeming to. To work invisible magic on the reader," Kalamu was saying.
Akorot started to pull out the notebook in her bag, but stopped because one else was talking notes, then decided to be her own person. From his photographs and videos on the internet, Akorot had always felt Kalamu was one of those plain, even ugly, men who were made peculiarly handsome by the intensity of their eyes. He was already bald, but spotted a weighty beard. His nose did not match his mouth, and there was something of a challenge in the lips when they clamped on a full stop. Akorot checked herself. She was only interested in the man's brain.
"The problem I see in a lot of Kenyan writing is a desire to please. There is no integrity. You want to make readers love you, instead of making them alight upon some realization, some truth. You have words on paper but nothing underneath them."
"But writing is words on paper," challenged a young man with a mop of unkempt hair on his head.
Kalamu chuckled and Akorot got the impression he was mocking the folly of youth.
"If that is all writing is, then anyone can do it."
"But isn't that the point of a writing workshop, teaching the everyones how to write?" came a retort from an older woman, sitting in the corner furthest from Kalamu. She looked familiar, but Akorot could not place her. The way she smiled, it was obvious that she was looking to rile up Kalamu and also that she knew him well.
"Are you saying that writing is talent?" the woman pressed on.
Kalamu shifted on the bench, to better face her. "Interesting word 'talent'. What is talent?" he asked and a triumphant little smile alighted on his lips.
The woman was not to be trapped, however. She looked around the room, her arms open, palms upturned, offering the burden of responding to anyone who dared. A beat. Two. Three. Akorot felt herself rising to the challenge.
"I would say talent is something inherent, something we are born with that makes wanting to write a natural urge," she said.
"So, we do not want to write. Something forces us to write?" asked Kalamu.
Akorot skin stung from the focus of so many eyes. "No… Yes," she said, and lost Kalamu's attention.
"I am not convinced about the necessity of talent to the business of writing," he said to the older woman. "If you want to write, you write. But you can write well or write shit. Which you do depends on whether you have something to say. That is, the work your words can perform. Words are simply the medium."
And the beauty of words themselves? thought Akorot, but the afroed young man began clapping. Akorot found herself clapping too, although there was an uncomfortable feeling welling up inside her. Kalamu had given her a chance to impress him, and she had failed.
"But," the older woman raised her voice above the applause,"how will your workshop give writers something to say?"
The room quieted down, all eyes on Kalamu, as if those present thought this was a challenge he might not be able to overcome. He enjoyed the attention. That was clear from the way he gulped the last of his wine, two fingers gripping the glass at the stem.
"It won't," he said.
The woman furrowed her brow at this. Akorot too was confused.
"So what is the point, Kalamu?"
"The point? The point is to make me some money," he said, with a wink. The room erupted with laughter.
In interviews, Kalamu was often labelled elusive, but this was precisely what Akorot liked about him. He played, even in his writing, but it was meaningful play, illuminating play. She felt he had said something to her in that room, even if she was not sure what exactly.
After the end of the session, she spent almost three hours moving through the rooms of the house, trying to catch him alone. Finally, she found him at the back of the bungalow, smoking a lone cigarette, with one hand in his pocket. For the most part, the backyard was untended bush and weeds. His eyes were narrowed at this dense confusion of leaves, stems and darkness as if searching for something.
Akorot wondered how best to start the conversation, but he spoke first: "You looked worried in there."
Did he know who she was? He sounded a bit drunk.
"You know, no amount of desperation can make your writing glow like that." He pointed the cigarette at a star.
Akorot trembled inside. "Is it bad?"
His expression was hard to read. He might have been mentally undressing her or trying to understand what she was talking about.
"You are Akorot, right? You look just how I imagined you would. Is that your real name?"
Before she could nod, he continued. "Your writing? Do you really want to know?"
"Yes," she said, although she meant 'no'.
He flicked the cigarette butt away, then after a moment, he stepped off the narrow veranda and ground it into the soil.
"You shouldn't ever ask anyone that question, Akorot." The light from the bungalow made his face severe or was that his expression of pity? "But now that you have asked, I can't lie to you. It's bad. You have pretty words. You know your grammar. It is even evident that you have read a bit of fiction, but your writing is meaningless, empty. Your words are far from necessary."
Akorot faced this stabbing knife with a heart of stone.
"Thanks for reading my work. I appreciate that," she said and turned to leave.
He made a sound in his throat. A chuckle? Irritation at her? "You expected me to tell you it was great."
"No, no I didn't," she said from a dry throat.
"Then ask me the million-dollar question."
Akorot felt she was a rat, small, vulnerable, scurrying about, following her nose after a vague promise. Her voice was squeaky too when she spoke: "Should I quit writing?"
He cocked his head to the side, a gesture she had seen many times during his interviews on youtube. "Should you?" he asked.
She sank. Oh Lord! She realized that she really hated him. Downing the rest of her wine—she'd paid four hundred fucking shillings for it, after all—she walked back inside and left the glass on a table in the corridor between the rooms.
Rukiah Ahmed was still encircled and seemed to be laughing at something funny and utterly cruel on someone's phone.
"Hey," Akorot heard Shivayu say behind her. "Hold up." He caught up with her among the cocktailing trees. "You can't take anything Bantu says seriously. That dude probably shits rocks just so he can say he is different."
He really was disturbingly thin and as annoying as a mosquito.
"Who says he said anything?"
"Gosh. You are such a know-it-all," she said and walked on.
He did not follow her further, and thank God.
When Mukeni startled awake, the clock on her side table read 1:38 am. She was sure she'd heard the main door of the apartment open and shut. Probably Akorot returning from her “meeting”. That girl really needed to slow down. Was it liberation, or a lack of self-respect?
Mukeni groped beneath her pillows for her phone. He had left her a message on whatsapp, only five minutes earlier. The first in three days.
-Are you awake? Can't sleep.
She snorted and threw the phone on the empty half of her bed and buried her face in a pillow. She breathed, listening to her body, the tension in her belly, the warmth in her lower back, the rush as of a river in her head. There were so many things that she should not have done on that company retreat trip to Kigali. But she had done them.
She waited ten minutes, retrieved the phone, unlocked it and typed:
The wait, into which flashed the tiny notification "typing…", was excruciating.
-Yes and more.
Her heart fluttered about in her chest, brushing gentle wings on her rib cage, and only landed when she reminded herself who he was and that this was a game. A fun game she was playing, because she could, because she wanted to and because she could end things, ruthlessly, as soon as she felt they were getting out of hand.
-You know what, Mukeni.
A dangerous game. -I don't.
-Stop playing with me, woman.
-It's not my fault I have a delicious cookie, she typed.
-I want you bad. I want you on my cock, right now. I want to fuck that badness out of you.
She sent him back a string of blushing face emojis. She imagined him sitting at the edge of his bed as she was, shirt unbuttoned, abdominal muscles suggested by light and shadow; she squeezed her thighs together.
-You can't have it. That was a one time arrangement.
-You are merciless.
-Do you really want it that bad?
-Damn it, woman.
-I warned you. I tried. You can't blame me.
At that she tucked her phone under her pillow and as more messages softly pinged in, she looked up at strips of light on the ceiling, stealing in at the edges of her curtains and let her imagination and her finger wander as far as they both chose to. When she climaxed, she bit down hard on her palm. Her orgasms were more intense with him—he made her squirt—but she would never tell him that. His ego was already a halo around his head.
She found ten messages on her phone from him, raw with his sexual frustration. Poor man. She left him just one:
-We can't. You know we can't.
Smiling, relaxed and supple, she fell into such deep sleep, she only woke up because Akorot banged her door the next morning.
“Shut your fucking alarm clock,” yelled Akorot. She was quite the bitch in the morning.
Click to read Chapter 2