- When making a budget, overestimate the prices. That way, when things go wrong, you have extra cash.
My mother was telling us about her trips on the train from Kisumu to school. “Listen,” she’d say in the middle of cutting the mboga. “In those days the white man still owned plantations across the country, and when we got to Kitale we had to change cabins so that one of them could have one for his own.”
My brother and I, we’d laugh at this story, because it couldn’t be anything but a joke, this fiction about my mother, a woman who would never give up a seat for a man, let alone an entire cabin.
- Never buy anything you can’t afford to lose.
Her best friend, we called her Auntie L, even though she wasn’t our aunt and we didn’t know anything else about her but that we were to call her Auntie L. Auntie L, we were in love with her, and once, coming back to Kisumu from a wedding in Nairobi, my brother and I took turns pretending to be asleep, took turns sleeping on Auntie L’s lap.
- Always, ten percent to God, and another ten percent into a savings account.
Every Sunday after lunch it was The Jeffersons. Sometimes, Different Strokes too, but always The Jeffersons. We’d each have a scoop of ice cream — Vanilla Pistachio, my father’s favorite — and sit in front of the TV. We sang all the songs, and my brother and I especially loved it when my mum went, “Now, the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum,” and we followed with our, “What might be right for you, may not be right for some,” holding our spoons to our mouths like microphones.
Some Sundays, she was George, I was Louise, and my brother was Lionel. Other Sundays, I was Willis, he was Arnold, and my mother was Philip.
- Have a budget
My grandfather died early, and my mother has almost no memories of him. He had been a District Officer before died, and when he left, my mother’s family was kicked out of the government house they had occupied. They went back to the village, and when my mother was admitted to a national girls high school, the first one in her family, she had to pass through Nairobi to get to school. Years later, she’d tell us how she knew her way through Nairobi, how she knew all the important roads—Thika Road and Ngong’ Road and Langata Road and Jogoo Road—as well as the non-important ones—Kamiti Road and Ole Dume Road and Wabera Street — even though she had not been in Nairobi in twenty years, not properly, and not without having someone to drive her around.
- Spend on experiences, not on things
My mother overhead a skrr skrr boy trying to charm these two girls in the matatu and called me when she got off. “Listen, Officer,” she said, “What is wrong with this your generation? Why all the skrr skrr?”
I laughed. “Now, wewe, what have they done to you?”
“That’s not the point,” my mother said. “These boys, I ask you, who are their mothers? Who are their people? Who taught them things?”
- Your people, you must remember them
Decembers were spent in Nairobi. On cold afternoons we’d stay in at Aunt E’s farm in Muguga, forcing caps onto the heads of her goats. On hot afternoons we’d venture into town and go to Sno Cream on Koinange Street, at the corner with Monrovia Street. My brother and I would have their Bermuda ice creams, while my mother would go for their shakes, sometimes Vanilla, sometimes Strawberry, sometimes Hershey’s. There’d be music in the background — Franco and Mbilia Bel and one time, Fassie, and my mother would get out of our booth and dance there in the parlor where everyone could see her, the waiters and customers, and the owner, a short muhindi guy, and all them would clap in tune to her dancing feet.
- Money does not grow on trees
Every year on my mother’s birthday, Auntie L would come and the two of them would sing all the favorites, drink their wine, remember their people. Some names you can’t forget. Leonora Magawi, tall and slender and wild like a July night, sequestered away with her children in Magadi. Carolina who could drink and drink and drink but never get drunk, still playing her tennis, coaching rich kids in Nairobi. Simona, who died when they were in their third year, wiped off by a madcap driver on University Way, swept away into the forgotten hallways of statistics. Bianca, a wonderful spirit and such a sweet sweet soul, and a pity what happened to her. Women whose husbands leave them are God’s own broken things, my mother would observe, and then the two of them would get into another off-kilter rendition of Third Eye Blind’s Semi-Charmed Life. The sky was gold, it was rose. Some things you can’t forget.
- Second-hand clothes, you know they can last
Saturday afternoons in Kisumu, we’d go to Impala Park. The animals in their cages, the lake in the distance, the grass where we picnicked. You don’t expect hyenas to be so big, my mother would say. My father, he we’d nod and try to make his stones bounce on the water. This was in the time before he left us.
- Never buy food you can make yourself
Gary Coleman dies and my mother cleans the oven and the pantry and the cupboards in the corridor to my bedroom and the big drum outside in which we toss our old clothes and toys and old selves, and then she locks herself in her room, and we hear her crying, and it’s not the best thing to hear your mother crying, and it reminds us of the time her sister died and she left the receiver askance and ran to her room and we hear those sounds again on the day of the cleaning.
- Walk home from school, small small, people will think we are poor
“He said, “If you listen carefully to the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you.”
- Don’t sleep over at a girl’s house; you don’t know who pays her rent
G asks me, have you ever introduced a girl to your mama? I laugh and say something about not knowing how my mama would react to the provocation. Another night, G asks me if I am ever disingenuous, and I remember us talking about my mama.
- It don’t matter that you got not a lot. So what? They’ll have theirs, you’ll have yours, and I’ll have mine.
Black pepper and cumin with every meal. Cloves, simmered in hot water for the times the fumigator comes around. Rosemary and cloves and ginger and Ketepa Tea for the cold nights. Garlic and Basil with every meal. Vanilla with the bath water. Jasmine for the wrists, and for sprinkling on the bed. Masala incense sticks for the times Auntie L is supposed to come to Kisumu but something comes up. Ndengu boiled in ginger and garlic for the nights just for you, and the mornings after, when you eat it cold. Cinnamon with the uji and with the pancakes and with the goat meat. White pepper and Black pepper, same whatsapp group. Cardamom plus mango plus coconut in the rice when you want to impress the people you have over. Chilli with every meal because what’s the point of eating if you are not crying while doing it?
- A Sacco loan, because if you die they’ll pay it off for you.
My mother taught at a local high school, and this meant that we’d get free trips, my brother and I. Whenever the Geography students went on one of their jaunts, my mother would organize it such that we had free seats on the bus. In this way we went to Kitale and to Kakamega and to Ng’iya and to Nakuru, and once, to the hot springs in Bogoria.
- Don’t Answer the phone past seven because it’s probably a bill collector
Men drink water loudly.
- Good things to those who wait
A vanilla-scented candle by her bed, and my mother would come home to dead bees on the floor. The candle was always red, and was always bought from Jigisha in town who had been my mother’s student. The bees died one year, and they died the year after, and they died the next, and when my mother died we burnt candles at her funeral, vanilla-scented and red like the red of the camisole she always wore as she lit her candles.
- Instead of regular yogurt, buy thick yogurt, then, you can add milk and have more yogurt that way.
Another time in Nairobi, and after church, we took a matatu into town, and had chicken at Ambassadeur Hotel. Later, when I moved to Nairobi, Ambassadeur Hotel would be little more than a place marker, a landmark to use to friends who wondered where exactly in town I was. The landmarks of this city, we know them: Nation Centre, with its towers shaped like rooks; The National Archives where the records of our existence are kept; McMillan Library, with its twin stone lions by the door, and its empty shelves inside; Afya Centre, so green and tall it can be seen from the other landmarks of the city; and Ambassadeur Hotel, from where, after chicken with my mother that day, we walked down to the Memorial Park and had vanilla pistachio on the grass.
- Good things to those that wait.
Every day after our classes were done for the day, my brother and I would walk down to my mother’s school, sit on her desk and wait for her. Jemimah, who bought me books about trains and planes and ships and the things we could use for leaving, would hustle down to where my mother sat in the staff room and bring us mugs of tea, poeshwad because we were too young to drink hot tea. After that, we would go into the library, and read. Twain and Defoe and Steveson. Sembene Ousmane and Ngugi and Mariama Ba. Once, E. B. White, but the last pages were missing, and my brother and I never decided who between us was Charlotte, and who between us was Wilbur.
- The Lord, he provides.
My mother has been coming to me in my dreams. She is a kitenge dress, red, of course, and standing outside our house in Kisumu. Then she goes back in, lights her candle, and prays for me. Sometimes, she takes the phone and calls.
“Where are you?” she asks.
“Nairobi,” I say.
“But Officer,” she says, “you sound so close.”
- If someone asks you for money, you can say no. Pesa ni yako.
My father died in my dream and when I woke up he was gone. That was the year I started walking. My mother worried that I had fallen into a bad crowd, but I hadn’t; I was walking. I walked to Migosi and to Kenya Re and to Car Wash and to the field on the road to Kibos where political rallies were held. I walked up Kakamega Road to Kona Mbaya, veered right into the bushes and walked until I came out at the top of Kibos Hill where I sat on the verandah of an abandoned house and looked at the planes taking off from the airport. Jesus walked in the desert and John walked in the desert and Moses walked in the desert and holy men walked in the desert. At night, I would dream of my father and we would be walking, walking all around Kisumu, and when I woke up, I would go into the living room and find my mother clutching her rosary.
- Jomokonyi Nyaka ipar
“Christ is the head of the home, the unseen guest of every meal, the silent listener to every conversation.”
- Never complain about being broke; Pesa itakuja, don’t worry
The beads in your hand, and as you pray, you rub them, and when the rose flower comes you know that the Virgin Mary is there. Begin with the Apostles’ Creed. Then one Our Father. Hail Mary, three times, to increase the faith, to inspire hope, and for charity. If desired, the Fatima Prayer. Next, the five mysteries. A mystery has one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, a Glory Be, and The Fatima prayers, optional. Finish with the Hail Holy Queen. A few extra prayers after for the Pope. I’ll know when you don’t pray. If you do not have Rosary beads, it is perfectly okay to count with your fingers. Counting beads frees your mind to help you meditate. The Fifty-four Day Rosary Novena, for when the heart is heavy with the things of the world. You don’t have to be a Catholic to pray.
- Pay for services done, on time. You don’t know what plans people have for their money.
Pesa ni sabuni, my mother would say. Money cleans the heart. She was always saying things like that. Roho ni sabuni. Watoto ni sabuni. This one time we are in town in Kisumu, sitting on the low wall at the intersection of Jomo Kenyatta Highway and Oginga Odinga Street, pale next to KCB bank. An old friend of my mother walks by, and after the greetings, he goes on his way, and my mother, she turns to us and tells us this, that pesa ni sabuni.
- Some children, they can give you two heartbeats
I started keeping my hair long, and my mother would ask me why I was doing so. I like this idea of myself, as someone who kept their hair young at one point, I told her.
She sighed, and asked, “Why don’t you take pictures of yourself then? Store this version of yourself in an album?”
I turned to her. “Is that what you do? Store old versions of yourself in your albums?”
Carey Baraka is a writer from Kisumu, Kenya. He sings for a secret choir in Nairobi.
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