Saturday, September 8, 2007

Mgeni siku ya kwanza...

Remember when we were kids in primary school, and we had to sit through endless hours of Kiswahili, memorizing semi, methali and the like? And remember how Mr Macharia was constantly making us use that phrase, “Chembilecho wahenga…” in our essays? How about “Wahenga hawakuropokwa na maneno waliposema…” And then we’d have to complete the phrase with a saying or proverb that captured the apt sentiment for that paragraph. “Haba na haba hujaza kibaba” was a great favourite of mine. Apparently, those were choice condiments, guaranteed to spice up your essay and get you one step closer to that perfect score: 19 out of 20. (Mr Macharia would never give anyone the full 20 points.) We thought they were silly phrases back then, but still used them because we wanted good grades.
And today … well I never thought I’d say this, but those old folks we were always referring to in our essays sure were wise. My life today is a testament to the deep truth encoded in those proverbs, sayings, riddles and poetry that we so grudgingly memorized when we were kids. Mr Macharia would probably be disappointed to hear this, but we never really did think about those gems of knowledge and their implications at the time. As far as we were concerned, we were cramming for the exams. Nowadays I actually find myself thinking about them all the time, and it’s all thanks to my one-time friend, Marcia, who came to visit a couple of months ago.
Marcia knocked on my door one day, 3 months ago. She was just passing through town, she said, and was looking for a place to lay her head for two nights while she processed some documents in town. She’d intended to spend the night at her auntie’s place, but there was noone at home. The neighbors had said that the family’d gone upcountry for the weekend. Marcia was really apologetic about showing up at my doorstep with no advance warning, but she didn’t know where else to go. I was glad to host her for the two or so nights that she needed a place. After all, we’d sat through four miserable years of high school together. I smiled, and told her she was welcome to stay, her home was my home, and all the usual fanfare that a gracious host goes through: “Make yourself comfortable. You know where everything is.” And so, Marcia made herself comfortable.
 
 
Day one:
I wake up. Chaos in the kitchen. Marcia’s gone, presumably to the government building to get her paperwork done. The charcoal’s on the stove, soaking wet. The matchbox is split open, and the matches scattered on the wet ground. The tap is running and the sink overflowing. I close the tap, spread the charcoal out in the sun to dry, mop the floor, and then I realize that the food I’d left out on the table the previous night for the two of us to share at breakfast is all gone. Looks like I’m going to start the day on an empty stomach. I’m already cussing the guest out at this point. No time to waste, get ready for work.

When I come back home in the evening there’s a hole in the window. Marcia got home early and the door was locked, so she broke the window pane and opened the window so that she could climb in. She smiles at me and tells me that we’re out of milk, so could I run down to the store and get some?
 
 
Day two:
A better start to the day. It seems that I achieved something with yesterday’s talk. Marcia’s already gone, but this time the place doesn’t look like a hurricane ran through it. Maybe I was too hard on Marcia last night, she really isn’t a bad girl after all. Just a bit silly at times.
 
 
Day three:
Marcia’s still gone. Didn’t come back last night. I’m worried sick. What could have happened to her? I get dressed up, grab a bite to eat. On my way out to work, guess who I see curled up on the pavement, fast asleep outside the Mabatini street bar! I smell alcohol on her breath and her clothes. Now I know where she was last night. I drag Marcia back to my place, do my best to make sure she’s okay and take off. I have to. I’m already late for work.

In the evening Marcia is apologetic. She says she met an old friend, decided to buy some drinks to celebrate the end of her bureaucratic battles at the government office, had too much too drink and lost track of the time.
 
 
Day four:
I can’t help noticing that two days have turned into four. What on earth have I gotten myself into?

She was supposed to leave by noon today, but by the time she got to the bus station, the tickets for her bus were already sold out. So she’ll have to go back tomorrow. At this point, one more day won’t make a difference, right? She can have an early start tomorrow morning. I will gladly wake up bright and early to escort her to the bus station.
 
 
Day five:
Apparently, Marcie’s antics have taken a toll on her health. She now has a full-blown flu and has a high fever. She’s retching her guts out. I can’t believe this: I actually feel sorry for her. My neighbor is a medical student and drops in to check on Marcia at my request. She’s confident it’s just the flu and tells me the name of some over-the-counter drugs I can get to ease her symptoms.

It’s a Saturday. I’m supposed to be visting my folks in Nakuru this weekend, but how can I go when there’s a miserably ill young woman in my bed-sitter? Someone has to look after her. I grit my teeth. I’m going to get through this somehow. I only hope that I don’t catch her flu in the process.
 
 
Day six:
No water in the taps. It’s bad enough when I’m alone at home and this happens, but now I have a sick guest who frequently needs to go to the bathroom. It shouldn’t be too bad. I have a couple of jerrycans in which I store water. They should be able to get us through until the water supply is back on.

I thought I had a couple of jerrycans full of water. Not anymore. They’re empty. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who emptied them. I’m too frustrated to ask her why. She’s sick. I’m going to let her be, but the minute she recovers, I’m kicking her out.
 
 
Day seven:
It’s a miracle! She’s gone. She insisted on getting an early start today, and since I was going to work, I couldn’t escort her. She said it was okay, and thanked me for my hospitality, insisted that she’d let herself out when it was time to go and that I shouldn’t worry about her. It’s nice to come home to a clean, quiet and empty home. Hold on a second… my room’s looking too clean and empty. Some of my clothes are missing from my makeshift wardrobe and my modest music collection is gone. What’s left of my savings is gone. She must have seen the box where I kept my money when I was looking for change to buy her medicine.

There’s a note on the table. How “thoughtful” of her! She apologizes for taking my money. She realized she didn’t have enough for her bus fare because she’d stayed longer than she’d intended to and ended up using all the money than she had. There’s no mention of my other belongings or of anything else, for that matter. I’m exasperated. If I could, I would throttle her at this exact moment.
 
 
Wahenga hawakukosea waliponena, “Mgeni siku ya kwanza. Siku ya pili mpe jembe.”
Those old folks were right when they spoke about welcoming a guest on the first day and giving him a jembe to go dig the shamba on the second day, but I think there’s still room for improvement in that methali. If I could, I’d rewrite it to say: Mgeni siku ya kwanza. Siku ya pili, arudi kwake!

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