“Joyce, my dear child,” sniffed Aunt Nyowuor over the phone. “What a relief to reach you.”
“Auntie! Is something wrong? Are you calling from the Mansion?”
Hundreds of miles away down in Mombasa, Joyce could distinctively sense Aunt Nyowuor’s distress. This time the old woman’s weepy voice was far from indicating joy, such as when she called to say Khira had just brought another baby into the world. In any case her best girlfriend wasn’t even expecting. She had talked to Khira a week ago and knew she planned a special family weekend down at the Hilton Lodges in Tsavo National Park. Joyce had even invited Khira to bring the family down to Mombasa after the weekend, Tsavo being a mere half hour or so flight down to Mombasa. All Khira said at the time was that she couldn’t promise anything because Erik, like the rest of the expatriates in the country, was worried about the political future of Kenya, now that the ailing President Jomo Kenyatta could be pronounced dead any hour of the day. Erik wanted Khira and the children back in Montreux before the feared political bomb over Kenyatta’s successor exploded.
Today was Wednesday. Joyce hadn’t heard from Khira but assumed her girlfriend possibly had to pack up in a hurry and fly to Europe after the weekend safari. Packing up and bundling five children out of a politically sizzling country took a few days. Besides, it was August and Khira’s Big Three would resume their boarding school in Switzerland the next month. As a mother, Joyce knew how much preparation would be required even though the children had been going to Collège International in Montreux since September 1977. All considered, Joyce had thought, Khira would call back soon enough.
“My dear child, nothing is wrong.” She blew her nose loudly. “It’s a catastrophe, child. A catastrophe, I tell you.”
Okay, Joyce understood. First of all Aunt Nyowuor was what the younger generation, with a good pinch of disdain, called Mwafrika asili – real African.
Secondly, Luos came to the point after skirting the horizon like the rising sun and slowly inching on to the zenith. It was the polite and respectful way to converse. And, although a modern young woman, Joyce respected the ancients and their old ways.
She had known Aunt Nyowuor, Khira’s old family appointed duenna, since 1966 when Joyce was eighteen, Khira fifteen. After Khira’s blitz marriage to Erik, the old lady remained with young Khira as “assistant mother” as the old ways dictated.
“So, please, Auntie, tell me.”
Another long furious nose blowing. “Prepare your ears, my child.”
“And make your heart strong.”
Joyce stiffened, her heartbeats invading her eardrums. “Auntie, you’re scaring me to death! What’s happened? Are you all fine?”
“We’re all fine here in Goteba Massion, my child. But I’m scaring myself to death, too.”
Goteba Massion was Aunt Nyowuor’s Luo pronunciation of Gothenburg Mansion, the Lindqvists’ estate in the suburbs of Nairobi. It had been built in the late 1890s and early 1900s by the empire-builder dynasty, the Chesterfields. Erik had bought it at the end of 1962 during the slump, the post-independence chaos of the Congo and talks of Majimboism – federation – in the soon-to-be independent Kenya. The European Kenyans did not want "a Nkrumah done on us" and most European settlers wanted out to Hong Kong or Fiji or Rhodesia or South Africa (just about everywhere but Europe) before the natives “made a mess” of what they called a White Man’s Country - Kenya. A sprawling Victorian mansion with sweeping bay windows and porticos, two giant lion statues squatting at the wide front steps in the middle of the Kenyan highlands – at the time still known as the White Highlands. Erik, who’d taken up residence in Nairobi since October 1958, bought the mansion with its entire estate from the third generation Lord Chesterfield. Chesterfield Mansion was renamed Gothenburg Mansion, Erik now a new empire-builder, but for self and self. He was his own God and country.
“We’re all fine except your beloved Khira, my dear child...”
Jesus wept. “Auntie, for the love of God get on with it!” Jupiter and Apollo. Politeness and respect weren’t representatives of eternal patience.
Silence, a sniff. Expansive nose blowing. “I feel with you, my child, so I forgive you that anger of yours directed at me.”
Joyce let out a sigh of frustration.
Get back to the low gear. Apply the breaks or even engage the reverse gear or you’ll never get out of this today without murdering something, thought Joyce.
“I feel with you too, Auntie. Release us from this pain. Is my beloved Khira in hospital?”
The woman was now weeping relentlessly, choking on each sound. “Ye…s.”
“Which hospital, Auntie?”
“I don’t know!”
“That’s why I’m calling you. I can’t visit her. I’ll die in The Arrogant One’s bird before I cross the entire African continent and the endless ocean to get to my ancient Grandmother, my child. You have to go for me. Please, my child.”
Jupiter and Apollo. Auntie’s famous fear of flying. But if Khira had to be flown out of the country then it must be really… God. And Erik had mansions and castles and villas all over the face of the earth, even here in Mombasa. It definitely couldn’t be Zanzibar or Madagascar, both of which – from a medical point of view anyway – couldn’t hold a candle to Kenya.
The adrenalin was wild, she was almost deaf from the roar of her blood, but Joyce was not even capable of crying right now. She was needed.
“Of course, Auntie. Do you know where she was flown to, dearest?”
“Europe. I talked to Patarisia last night, to ask about the children.”
Poor, poor lambs. At least Patricia was with them. But, Christ Jesus.
“Auntie, do you know where in Europe?” Sweden, Switzerland, or Britain? Even America was “American Europe” to the likes of Aunt Nyowuor. Isn’t it ruled by Europeans? they’d ask when you tried to differentiate. Rhodesia and South Africa were “the African Europe”.
In any case, apart from their European homes, the Lindqvists had places in Acapulco, Beverly Hills and a hacienda or whatever in Mexico. And Australia.
“Well, I don’t know the way exactly,” Aunt Nyowuor replied. “Josepp dialled for me last night. But they tell me the proper Europe is just a dot on top of Africa’s capital I. It can’t be hard to find…”
“I know, Auntie.” Our brilliant poor darling. Another example of her innocent hilarity that she and Khira could secretly laugh about until they wept and had tummy cramps. “I mean which country?”
Brilliant Poor Darling blew her nose and thought for a pulse.
“Well, not the sunless cold one with the white powder rain, my child, you understand? Not the one where The Arrogant One was born. It’s the other one. The one where the children go to school. They, the children, often told me about it. They said it is a country with blue-and-white hills, few human beings but very many big banks. Or was it The Arrogant One’s land of birth that had few human beings…? My head is not complete at the moment, my child. Anyway, follow the big banks. Maybe you can ask somebody the way at the airport in Europe when you…”
“It’s all right, dearest.” Right, Auntie, don’t worry, I’ll do just that. Follow the big banks right down to their vaults.
Erik and Khira’s beloved kids. They associate with banks from the womb – like the vicar’s wife who has no choice but to be cordially involved with every member of the congregation.
“Thanks, Auntie. I know how to get to Mont…”
“Patarisia also told me the name of the hospital but it is unpronounceable!”
”Don’t worry, Auntie. I’ll find it. It’s probably bigger than the banks. Tell me, what’s wrong with our beloved Khira, Auntie dearest?”
“The Living Death, my child. My poor revered Mother is a Living Dead!” The woman was again bawling like a child. She kept on repeating Khira’s ailment. “The Living Death… the Living Death…”
Which chucked modern Joyce right back into an abysmal confrontation with her own roots. Living Death… Living Death… which disease was it, again? Acute fever from malaria? Something to do with the tsetse fly? God, there was only one other person who might know. Would know, she hoped.
“Auntie, calm down. Go and have a rest and pray for us all. I’ll go to our nectar in Europe, I promise. I’ll let you know as soon as I’m with her. Don’t worry your precious head anymore, all right, Auntie? Promise me that?”
“I promise you my life, dear child. Just go to her and tell her how I feel. And that I’m ashamed for my cowardice. Truly ashamed…”
“I’ll tell her, Auntie. She knows your heart, so you need not be ashamed.”
Living Death…Living Death…Living Death… Joyce repeated in her head as she dialled her mother who also lived in Mombasa. Joyce’s father was the Provincial Commissioner for the Coastal Province, her mother a prominent charity lady chairing various organisations in the whole of Kenya. If she was off somewhere for her charity dos someone in her office or at home will know where she is and give Joyce the right telephone number. She only hoped Mummy was not out of the country, collecting money or courting sponsors in the States or the Middle East. But if she had been, she’d have called her daughter and told her where she was off to. After all, she and her four children had had lunch with Mummy only yesterday. Mummy would know what disease this was.
Mummy. Khira had admired her like Mum was England’s Queen Mum. Khira always confessed that she envied Joyce her “modern, European high society family, sweetie. Mine are a bunch of Ordovicians”. Khira’s family wouldn’t allow her to even go to the flicks without a chaperone to guard, not Khira herself, but the family’s commodity for top price in traditional Luoland – Khira’s chastity.
Living Death… Living Death… Joyce kept on repeating the two words as the phone rang on the other side of the line.
“Come on, Mum,” she urged impatiently until she heard her mother’s voice. “Mum, thank God. Mum, Khira’s so ill she’s been flown to Europe!”
That’s when Joyce felt licensed to weep for her girlhood friend and lover, even before finding out what kind of ailment the Luos called Living Death.