By Juliet Maruru (Kenya)
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I turned 16 sitting in the backseat of a battered Navy Blue Double Cab Isuzu pick-up truck that smelled of hay, horse, sea and fish. I was smoking a tobacco and marijuana cigarette, studying for my high school Physics finals, hoping that my mum would make it through the second surgery that week and trying to ignore my scruffy 26 year-old boyfriend's horny groping. Six days before, I called him in the middle of the night, because my mum was running a cold fever and complaining of intense stomach pains and vomiting blood. He came racing and rushed my mother to the hospital. She had to undergo emergency surgery on an ulcerated duodenum to stem the bleeding. Surprisingly, the day she was to be discharged from the hospital, she started began bleeding again and a second surgery was needed.
Mum first took ill with tuberculosis about six months before the bleeding ulcer. She had been under a lot of stress before that. The stress had come from the fact that she had had to move away from Nairobi to Mombasa in the hope that the distance between the two cities would be enough of a hindrance for her violently aggressive ex-husband. Her family had disapproved of her decision to leave her husband, and made it clear that they would not support her. Stubbornly, she had bundled me and herself into a bus and down to Mombasa.
With the last of her savings, my mum found a tiny little back room in a Swahili house, bought a mattress and a stove, enrolled me in school and sent her self off to work as a typist at a large tea export company. A few jobs and a couple of years later, I passed my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) exams and was accepted at a private prestigious high school on an 80% scholarship. We moved to a better apartment and there were all the dreams. Then mum got sick.
The neighbours and church people talked in hushed tones claiming that my mother was a prostitute, that is why her husband had kicked her out of the house and was now dying of AIDS. No one offered to help. Those who came by would talk to me over the fence. My relatives chose not to help even though I called them collect a few times.
My scruffy friend broke the rules. He knew my mother from church and me from the community soccer pitch near the Chief's camp. When he found out my mother was sick, he visited. He brought my mother food, drove her to hospital appointments, stayed with her just talking about nothing, picking me up from school on the days I had late remedial classes and later on doing his best to stick his tongue in my mouth as far as it could go.
His parents, Reverend and Mrs. Githinji, were scandalized, though they would positively have died if they knew he was trying to hook up with me, too. All they knew is that their son was being kind to the unholy woman with AIDS. That bothered them. Perhaps they were afraid he would be linked with her HIV status, or they knew he was associating with us to underline his rebellion.
The Githinjis were an old farming family. The father, Charles had chosen to go into religion and was now the very charismatic leader of the Church in Kikambala. He drew his flock from both the rich and the poor of the area. His wife, Perris, ran the women's groups, visiting the sick and teaching the bible. They owned a farm, which was bordered by the ocean. Their eldest son, Sean, ran the farm while advocating for Ocean conservation and ignoring his parents' religious faith. Their youngest son, Drew, ran an angling club for tourists and the wealthier locals, completely defying his older brother's idealistic efforts and supporting his parents' religion to a fanatic degree. Their daughter, Michelle just ran away from home as soon as she sat her General Certificate Exams 'A' levels. She became a doctor later.
Following my mum's "diagnosis" with AIDS, things became extremely difficult for my mother and I. Desperate one Saturday morning, I decided not to attend my Saturday classes at school, and went into the village in search of our landlord; who had been kind to us in the past. He was an old Arab businessman with a big heart. When I found him, he thought I was asking him for a handout. I told him I wasn't and instead asked him to give me a job that I could do in one day and get food for my mother. That surprised him, and I suppose made him respect me. That surprised him, and I suppose made him respect me.
I spent that Saturday painting rooms in his Swahili houses. Thank a deity that I had spent some time working as a volunteer the previous year and had acquired some skills in painting. My work was good enough for the old man to offer to place me on a permanent contract for weekends. He also recommended me to his friends.
Not long after this,when I drifted to the soccer pitch, I made the acquaintance of a bunch of teens. They were all boys older than me by 3 or 4 years, and amused that myself, a girl, could kick a ball with any skill, granted the skill and energy behind that first kick was fueled by pure fear and anger. I eventually became good friends with four of them. I looked for extra jobs and shared them with my friends; Katana, Ouma, Mbae and Kaingu. The deal was that they would give me a cut off all their payments as long as I was the one who got them the jobs. We washed carpets, cleaned cars, did laundry and painted more houses. And, we all used Marijuana.
I paid the rent, bought my mum the protein foods her doctor recommended, and made it to school everyday. However, I wasn't doing very well in school. In fact, I was failing all my subjects; except Physics and English. I was mostly too tired to concentrate on the studies. I was scared that my mother would die. My power over the boys was just the distraction I needed to get through every day.
My mother had questions; lots of them. Her little girl was coming home late, disappearing on weekends and sometimes in the middle of the night, and more than once she accused me of using drugs and whoring myself. I was using drugs, but in my head I measured my power on the control I had over the boys without having to drop my panties.
I was a jaywalker. Doing it more for the thrill than crossing the road. The more dangerous my thrill walk was, the easier it was for me to deal with everyday.
I might have gone all out into crime. I don't know. Sean figured out early enough what I was up to. He kept an eye on me and when I was arrested late one night coming home from a "'meeting,"', with drugs on my person. The boys contacted him. I didn't go to court. He bribed the Officer in charge of the station and I went home. Then he got the boys together and arranged for scholarships at County boarding schools, leaving me without a gang to run.
Sean made a complete turn around from his usual horny groping when my mum came home from hospital. I was hurt when he seemed to have lost all interest in me, but I was soon busy with other things. Sean had used his "grown-up" status to get me into intensive psychological therapy with an organization that rivaled his father's church and keep me in school. He got my mum on a free treatment program with the same organization.
Then he went out to sea on an underwater photography expedition and got himself killed.
My mother, however, didn't die on me. In fact, she was not even HIV positive, although her illness and the way people treated her taught me a lot about how HIV positive people should definitely not be treated. She got better and went to work at the NGO that had offered her treatment and support. I passed my High school finals with an A in English and a C+ in Physics.
I am going on 25 now. I still revert to my jaywalking once in a while, without the drugs and in a less organized manner. But today, I think about the situations in which many young people find themselves. I am alive and perhaps just slightly less scarred, but not because of any smartness on my part. I just slipped past the danger zones when the devil was distracted.