By Mariam Hirsi
Folding sambusa is a lot more difficult than it looks. Mustafa folded it much better than Sagal, his older, experienced hands expertly holding the pastry in a cone shape as he filled it with the meat onion mixture, then closing it in on itself. Sagal peered at his sambusa pile against hers (hardly a pile, a molehill at most) and scowled. He gave a gentle smile and patiently slowed down his method to show her how to close the sambusa so the filling doesn’t peter out during the frying process. Sagal mimics this, albeit poorly, adding too much filling sometimes or forgetting to add the “glue” (flour and water), but Mustafa said nothing, willing the sides of his mouth to stay straight in order to avoid embarassing the young girl with a smile.
She soon tired of the hardship of sambusa folding and wandered outside to the veranda where her aunt Asha sat on a wooden stool, smoking a cigarette and pressing round chapatis with a crumpled newspaper on a hot cast iron pan. The radio next to her, a relic from 1998 barely puttering legible sounds, faintly played Akon’s I Wanna Love You.
“Ah— Sagal! Naya, you scared me.” Edo Asha put out her cigarette and tossed it out onto the yard. “Don’t tell your dad about that. Now help me fix this radio.”
Sagal squated down to the level of the radio and pretended to tinker with it for a minute or two, fiddling with the volume button instead of the clearly marked station nob.
“Oh no, I think it’s stuck on this station.” She feigned disappointment well.
Edo Asha gave a hand gesture that roughly translated to loss of interest and turned to the Sunday newspaper. Sagal settled down next to her, criss-cross applesauce, and waited for the next song to come on, hoping it was Fergie’s Big Girls Don’t Cry.
She watched a bug crawl across her bare knees and onto her plaid capris. It made its way onto the hem of her shirt—too thick for the warm Nairobi sun, even it was their winter—and paused. Sagal waited and waited and wondered if it was catching its breath or settling into the tiny nook of the fleece. Not wanting to disturb it, she carefully leaned back so her spine touched the asphalt and stretched her long arms to feel the grass. Maybe it was the coziness of the sun, whose direct waves were deflected by the shade, or maybe she was mimicing the small bug on her shirt, soon Sagal slowly waded into a soft sleep.
Asha quietly folded her newspaper and looked down at her niece once she was asleep, her face still and expressionless, the deep set lines of adulthood and worry far in her future, and felt a sudden urge to hold the girl. She didn’t but thought, Her back must hurt like that. But then, children didn’t know the aches of old age, some coming from a tired body and some from remembering too many things.
The slightly sweet smell of the chapatis she had pressed mixed with the chalky air from the charcoal makeshift stove and reminded Asha of her childhood.
Asha didn’t know how old she was, maybe sixty something, she surmised, but she knew it had been decades since she had been able to sleep peacefully. When she was Sagal’s age she was an anomaly, a first generation child in rural Kenya who knew Kiswahili, English, and Somali, the first in her family to go to school, to play schoolyard games with the local Kenyan kids, all with the strain of her father’s disapproval burning a hole in her shoulder that she still felt today. Their relationship was tumultuous and now, years after he was gone, she wondered if she had ever liked the man, if there was anything to like about him. He was tall and thin, and walked with a limp he had acquired in a war he didn’t like to talk about. He had had five wives in his lifetime, at least 3 at the same time, leading to siblings that represented every age you could imagine. Only three, including Asha, were alive.
She returned to the newspaper. The front page story was on the secretive Mungiki group clashing with the police in a deadly showdown resulting in the deaths of 21 suspected members. Asha had seen a BBC segment on the Mungiki a few weeks before, the British newsanchor calling them “The Kenyan Mafia”. The Daily Nation, clearly above such sensationalization, instead referred to the group as “Descendents of the Radical Mau Mau”.
She turned to the Life and Style section where an article titled “Is the Kenyan Man Ready To Be Proposed To?” sat across an article listing singer Amani’s best fashion moments of 2007. After being surprised by number one, she flipped to the Kids’ Korner section, which featured comics, short stories, and coloring books for children. She ripped out the pages—quietly—for Sagal when she woke up.
The radio had exhausted its sound quality for the day and was now buzzing some sunny pop song, or at least that’s what Asha could make out from the fizzled sound waves. She didn’t know how to turn it off on her own so she gave it a kick and the radio responded by blaring the song even louder.
Inside the house, Mustafa looked out the window of the kitchen which faced the backyard. Partly decaying from lack of care (that was his fault) and lush in other places from nature’s own green thumb, the garden was missmatched in that way only an old house could be. He had flown through the remaining sambusa after Sagal left, although it had been more enjoyable to do them together, finished making a simple fluffy white rice, and was now watching the quick goat stew he had thrown together. Of all the duties he had in the house, cooking was by far his favorite, and he knew he was good at it too.
He stirred the stew absentmindedly, thinking about his mother in Ruiru and how the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink stew was a staple she had taught him. “A man that cooks will never go hungry,” she had said when his cousins had come in one sweaty afternoon after playing football and guffawed at the sight of young Mustafa in an apron. She then smacked each boy—Mustafa included—on the hand with her wooden spoon.
Wiping his hands on a stray rag, he picked up the copy of the Quran he kept in the store, wrapped in a clean towel to protect from the splatters and smells of his cooking. He briefly wondered if that was allowed.
Mustafa flipped to his favorite surah (not that he knew many; he had only started reading the Quran in his late twenties and he was thirty-four now) al-Ikhlas. He placed his finger underneath the Arabic script and tried to read each letter. Even though he had the verses memorized, he felt it was more impressive, to God or maybe to born-Muslims, that he learn how to read it from the book. Mustafa had quickly caught on that part of being a Muslim was looking the part to your peers.
The stew began to sputter loudly and he calmly lowered the heat and added water, then stirred the pot, his eyes never straying from the book.
“Is it burning?”
Sagal stood in the doorway, holding a few pages from the newspaper, rubbing her eyes and looking up Mustafa. He nearly dropped the book in his hand.
“Ebu!” He exclaimed, “Now you want to bring dirt in my kitchen?”
Sagal looked down at her body and screamed. The little bug that had nestled on her shirt had multiplied while she was asleep and its entire clan was doing laps up and down the sides of her shirt and pants.
“Out.” Mustafa ordered and Sagal shuffled through the door while he grabbed the towel he had painstakingly made sure was pristine and swatted the insects away while Sagal jumped up and down. In groups, possibly clinging to each other for dear life, the bugs fell to the ground and Sagal hopped and hopped to help them descend. Edo Asha picked up the plate of chapatis and carried them inside, laughing as Mustafa ducked from a bug jumping towards him.
Inside, she tasted a bit of the stew, which was well done, albeit not spicy, but she remembered her brother couldn’t handle any spice stronger than salt. She stirred it a bit more, then took it off the fire. I might as well serve the food while Mustafa is gone, she thought, and searched for the serving bowls and plates. She found them in the store, along with a copy of the Quran she inferred belonged to Mustafa. Holding a large serving bowl and a few dozen plates in one hand, and the Quran in her other, she looked at the pages he had placed bookmarks in and felt a poke of pride in her heart. It was she that had helped Mustafa convert and urged him to follow through on the daily prayers and picked him up on Friday to attend jummah.
She placed the book down on the counter and proceeded to transfer the stew and rice from the pots to the beautiful white bowls decorated with red roses. She placed her chapati on a matching platter, the ends of the flatbread just barely reaching the flowers.
Asha called Mustafa and Sagal into the kitchen to carry the food into the living room where all the men had congregated. She pulled Sagal aside.
“Sagal,” Edo Asha pulled the girl’s undershirt up to cover the stretch of her chest that was exposed. “There.”
Sagal took the rice, holding up against her chest, and Mustafa carried the stew in one hand and the plates and chapati in the other like a professional. The heat of the rice steamed her face and she realized then she was starving.
They made it to the living room, where her father, his brother, and a few other men Sagal didn’t recognize were smoking cigarettes and chewing khat. The front door was open to let air in to the musty room. Mustafa placed the stew down and passed the plates around, setting two aside for himself and Sagal.
Her uncle gestured for Sagal and offered her money to tell her dad to quit smoking, to which she shyly shook her head and her uncle, laughing, handed her two hundred shillings anyway.
“Abo.” Her dad gestured for her to sit next to him. Sagal pretended she hadn’t heard him and scooped the food on her plate. Maybe I can sneak back to the kitchen, she thought. She grabbed a chapati from the plate being passed around and nearly ducked out when her father called her name, loud enough that she had to acknowlege it.
She reluctantly sat next to him, then felt bad for her reluctance. He wasn’t a bad guy, in fact he would’ve made a fine uncle, but failed to meet the standards Sagal had for a parent. Upon her arrival in Nairobi a few weeks earlier he had proclaimed, “You must be at least eleven now!” She was nine. She had hid in her mother’s skirt and had to be coaxed into hugging her father. The one thing that bonded them, reading, lead him to constantly get her age innapropriate books. She had been pouring over one—The Horse Whisperer—a few afternoons earlier only to discover an explicit sex scene halfway through. She immediately shut it, cheeks reddening over what she had read. Her mother was vigilant about the kind of content she consumed, in a way that partly annoyed Sagal but also made her feel safe and protected.
They didn’t have much to talk about, not that it mattered because the other men had already pulled her dad into a debate about the upcoming general election. Sagal pried her eyes from her plate and made eye contact with Mustafa, who gave her a toothy grin, revealing meat stuck in his front gap, which made her laugh.
Above the clatter of tea cups, rustling of newspapers, and loud voices hung a photo of her dad, taken when he was 18, sometime in the 1970’s. It’s black and white, with him staring expressionlessly into the camera with a perfectly coifed afro and the inkling of a boyhood mustache. Sagal stared at the photo to try and see some resemblance between herself and her father, in the nose or mouth or eyes, but if it was there she couldn’t pinpoint it. She didn’t know if she was disappointed. ♦