II: By the Rivers of Babylon

Previously – Part I: For a Bowl of Porridge

It is forty-seven minutes after nine in the late dawn of Chicago. Mumbi sits by Starbucks sipping a cappuccino and sings her song of Zion. She sings the memory of her home and all that she left behind. She sings the promises she made to herself that now lie unfulfilled in the pages of her life’s longing. She sings the unforgiving passage of time that leaves her ashamed at how long she has sat waiting by these rivers of Babylon.

Ah! But does she remember the first of her promises as if she made them only yesterday: that she shall return to her country, to her loved ones, to the people among whom her soul thrives, to the land where the word “home” makes sense. Now days have turned into months, and months into years. Hours of struggle through daylight and graveyard shifts have rewarded her with a noose of debt around her sorry neck. The more money she makes, the more her debts mount up.

Mumbi has been unable to fathom the terror of the corporate monster that rules in the cage of the free and the bowels of the brave. She has given in to watching her small self caught in the tentacles of this monster and thrashed left and right against the iron grid of the cage while its fangs sunk a poison that killed the last drops of little joys that give meaning to her toiling hours. Rent comes knocking like an abusive husband at the beginning of each month, glaring at her with that Osiris eye at the centre of his green pyramid-shaped forehead. Car Insurance drives by every end of month at a demonic speed, comes to a screeching halt right outside her door, and waits her turn to devour. The Credit Card family sing their endless hymns of gluttony in competing octaves from the pits of her wallet; she could never shut them up, the scoundrels. Her account suffers chronic bouts of monetary deficiency syndrome, constantly threatening to shut down all its bodily functions. Many a night, Mumbi has lain awake helplessly listening to its heartbeat go into numerous flatlines. In Babylon, city of the prodigals, only dark humour kept her sane.

As the humidity rises outside, she slowly draws in a breath of stiff air that spurts out from the rhythmic purr of an air conditioner, then releases it reluctantly, holding it prisoner for as long as she can and slowly releases it. It’s a game her mind had made a habit of playing, something she would later learn was a breathing disorder developed from mental distress. She would then take a sip of her morning indulgence to fill in the void within. The smooth aroma of the cappuccino massages her tired soul and give her fuel to face another da in the land of her exile.


Mumbi crossed the busy morning streets of Chicago and headed for her place of work. She told herself she did not care that she was late again. She was allowed African People’s Time once in a while, especially when she was feeling rather uninspired about her job with Keegan Net Solutions. She was an IT specialist, having taken a year off her Master’s program in Fine Art to learn a skill that would pay her bills. She was told there was easy money in computers. So she invested what earnings she had saved up from part-time jobs for the nine-month IT course. Later, she took up an internship with Keegan Net Solutions and soon graduated to a full time job; it paid off handsomely, and then some.

Through the years, she had pressed on with a seemingly endless reservoir of energy. She had always been a dedicated worker, but lately, she just felt… tired. Bob Keegan, her boss, had not commented on her coming late three times in a row this past week. She had never been late since she started working for him two years ago. She knew she was tempting fate. Or was it the intoxicating aroma of the cappuccino at Starbucks that coaxed her to sit longer at Starbucks every morning? No, she knew exactly what it was. It was the many hours she spent lately singing her song of sorrows. What a waste of time, all this brooding. She had it all, and she still felt empty.

In the dreamy world of watching the waters of time carry her life to a blurred future, Mumbi had discovered a community of her own people in cyberspace. There, her fellow exiles met, socialized, and discussed the whys and wherefores of their beleaguered nation. For her people, discussing politics came as naturally as breathing. Not so with Americans. Bob had once told her never to talk about politics, religion and money in civil conversation. Over time, she realized the list of American taboo subjects was actually longer. Mentioning what people looked like was especially touchy, like dropping an acid bomb. You couldn’t say someone was fat, even if they were. A black person in a crowd of white people was treated as if the space they occupied was an invisible magnetic field that repelled, intrigued, and caused others to pop a red nerve right down their necks as they smiled with their teeth in tight formation. Mumbi had seen this many times with Bob but not with her. Somehow, she noticed, the space an African occupied among white people was differently charged, not as dangerous as the space occupied by American blacks. All this was silly. She missed the genuine interaction of her people, how her aunts would say to her whenever she came to visit from the city- When did you grow so fat! Because she had. And they would all laugh heartily. She was fast getting hooked on this cyber forum of faceless exiles that allowed her this genuine interaction.

Mumbi now sat at her desk, ready to tackle the pile of paperwork in front of her. But slowly, her mind sniffed its way to familiar souls floating in cyberspace. She struggled against this sudden urge to log on and catch up with them. Already, she was on Bob’s sore side with her lateness.

“That just came in this morning,” said Mark, startling Mumbi. He dropping a letter on her desk which she ripped open and immediately threw away. Junk mail. Nothing of sentimental value ever came through snail mail any more. What a drab physical world technology had created.

“Thanks… Hey, has the big man ask for me?” Mumbi asked Mark as he moved on to deliver other mail. Mark McMurray was a sixty-two year old African-American who had lived all his life in Chicago. He had taken up a carefree job as a mailman with Keegan Net Solutions after retiring from his Post Office job that had built him a house and helped him put his three daughters through college. His son, the first born… Mumbi couldn’t remember his name, had graduated high school and gone off to explore the world as a freelance photojournalist. Mark just didn’t know how to not work, a thing his wife wouldn’t stop complaining about. He and his wife had once invited Mumbi over for her first Thanksgiving with a black family. She vowed she will one day put that experience to music, after she’s made enough money to go back to her creative belonging. Since that celebration of family with the McMurrays, Mumbi always enjoyed the fatherly dotting she received from Mark.

“What’s going on, boops?” He asked her.

“Nothing to worry about, Mark… Well?”

“Well what?”

“Did he ask for me?”

“No, he didn’t ask for you yet. But he takin’ a note fo’ sho’. You was late las’ week three times, You shoulda came on time today. Late ain’t your style!”

“I’ll… shape up.”

Mark looked very closely into her face.

“You better do that real soon, boop. I’m proud of you. Don’t you go putin’ no shame on the Motherland!” And off he went with his mail cart.

Mumbi sighed with relief… too soon.


She almost jumped out of her skin. Bob was peeking out through his door which directly faced Mumbi’s desk.

“I’d like to see you in my office now,” said Bob, matter-of-factly, his face disappearing behind his door.

Mumbi panicked. She took in a deep breath, gathered her skirts, and strode into Bob’s office with a confidence she’d just pieced together with quick glue. She could smell the sack coming.

“This is a contract with King’s Theatre,” he said as he handed her a folder, “I haven’t had much time to see what the problem with their system is; it crashed yesterday. Go there and see if you can fix it by evening.”



“No… I mean, yes, I’ll get down to it right away, Bob.”

“Good. I need to catch the next flight to Atlanta. Be ready with a report by the time I get back tomorrow morning. I know I can count on you.” He held her gaze for one intense second, picked up his briefcase, and left.

Bob was giving “M’mubi”, as he called her, a chance to prove herself, and she knew it. Of course he had noticed her lateness. How could he not? He’s had his eye on her for long. She got back to her desk and opened her email for any important messages before making a call to King’s Theatre. She had one message:

>coming to chicago on buusiness thiss weeken.. can we meat? regrds, lenana<

Lenana?… Oh, the guy from the cyber forum. Too many errors in his email. Mumbi could not abide this level of nonchalance. She clicked it away and Lenana disappeared from her mind in a blink. Mumbi took a quick tour of the forum where she met with her kind. The fourth posting she read was an eloquent piece Lenana had written on the challenges of Africa’s developing economies. Something was wrong here… Was this not the very same hand that had composed a private message with such disregard for simple grammar? Then it occurred to her that his friendly banter on the forum also had that quality of carelessness, maybe that’s why she had never really noticed him. But when he engaged in serious discourse, the postings were eloquent and well written. Cyberspace was like a magic mirror that reflected one’s multiple personalities, she thought. She had judged a man by the grammar of his email… then perhaps that was the part that mattered. She logged out and was soon deeply absorbed in her King’s Theatre assignment.

By the next day, after a grueling ten hours at King’s Theatre, Mumbi discovered that their computers had crushed due a corrupt ticketing application. She had provided a solution, roped in one of the company programmers to help her fix it on time, and then spent the night filing her report.

Bob, back from Atlanta, looked at the report incredulously.

“M’mubi, did you sleep at all?”

“No. But I got two complementary tickets to the Chicago premier of “Phantom of the Opera” at the King’s Theatre this weekend. They include dinner too.” She was being sassy, laughing coquettishly in his face, just for a fleeting second. She turned around to leave his office, her entire jungle essence leaving ripples behind with Bob practically drowning in it. He gulped gallons of rising testosterone, grasped at the stapler for dear life, and kept staring at his slightly open door well after she was gone. Scent of a tigress! He thought. Was it true what they said about African women… Bob shook his shock of brown hair to clear his mind and sat down. If only he knew what was disturbing her so much as to begin turning up late for work. But it was not his style to get personal with an employee. His feelings would have to hold. For now, he told himself, it was enough that she seemed to be back on track.

That weekend, Mumbi went to the premier of “Phantom of the Opera” alone. Lenana had dinner in Chicago, alone. Bob made love to his wife absent-mindedly.


It is well after the midnight hour. Mumbi is still wide awake, has been for most of the night. She wishes she were home. Home where the music of the birds floats through your window to usher in a new day. Home where the mooing of the cows and the fresh smell of their morning dung reminds you that the world is not all skyhigh steel and cold pavement. Home where Nyina wa Mumbi, with all her chronic back pains announced every morning, is better news than a string of insults hurled at you by drivers suffering chronic early morning road-rage. Home, sweet home, where the river divides the breezy hills of Embu from the rich mounds of Kirinyaga.

That river – or was it a stream – it seemed more like a roaring river in her mind now… That river whose waters she sat beside for hours, day after day, confiding in it all her dreams, all her fantasies, all her deepest secrets. The waters never told. They never judged. They never took sides. The waters just listened, soothed her with their song as they meandered down the valley, cleansed her weary spirit, and gave her new strength. Sometimes, the waters laughed with her when the wind blew a different direction. Sometimes the waters got naughty and whistled at her when they sent the winds playing musical chords on the leaves. Sitting by the river banks with her feet in the water, she would look up and see the leaves winking at her… the waters, the winds, the leaves… and suddenly, a big fat drop of rain would hit her head, and she would laugh with nature as it ganged up against her, chasing her like a young lover up the slopes back to Nyina wa Mumbi’s homestead. By the time she got home, the rain would be hitting the tin roof with pretentious vengeance. Not now, my love, she would tease the rain, I will let you tickle my feet tomorrow, when your waters have filled up the riverbed. She would feel alive, content. Mumbi would light the stove, put the teapot on, and wait for her mother to come in from her chores.

That memory came knocking again. One ordinary Friday evening when her mother came back home from Mother’s Union meeting at the local church.

“Mumbi!” her had mother called out.

“Mother!” answered Mumbi, pouring the tea into the flask.

“This came for you,” her mother announced, handing her the letter. The villagers received their mail through the church. Nyina wa Mumbi wheeled herself in through the specially widened main door. She was crippled, born without the use of her legs; one of those things Mumbi had fought God about all her life. Yet that had never deterred her mother from anything and everything her other abilities allowed her. She especially was a born leader, and she seemed to overdo it as if to prove a point. She was chairperson of the local Mother’s Union, the leader of the women’s basket weaving group, the leading voice in a lobby group seeking to have the chief removed from office for grabbing a market plot, the sole bread-winner and mother of two. Her husband and the father of her children had been a good man and a retired civil servant with a monthly pension of three thousand Kenya shillings, which to Mumbi’s calculation had translated to forty US dollars at the time of his death seven years ago. He had been a passenger in a speeding matatu when it lost control and went careening down a bridge while trying to overtake a lorry. Christmas day. No survivors. Mumbi had copped through the years by never talking about it.

“What does the letter say?” Mother enquired impatiently.

“Mother, I got accepted!” Mumbi was beside herself with excitement.

“Aililililililililili! God be praised!” Nyina wa Mumbi raised her hands in jubilation and ululated at the same time. Without a break in rhythm and mood, she was moved into song and that graceful Kikuyu swaying of the shoulder. Mumbi joined in, the neighbours heard and came in one by one, then in groups. Within the hour, the homestead was awash with song, dance, thanksgiving, and tea. They had all been aware that Mumbi was awaiting admission to a college in America. The church had been praying about it for a long time.

As the evening wore on, Nyina wa Kamotho, Mumbi’s aunt, called for attention. She lived quite a distance across the river, but when news reached her, she had immediately left her coffee beans half-sorted and crossed the river to join in the celebration. Her speed and unfailing presence at every wedding, funeral, send-off, Chief’s baraza… remained one of the comical legends surrounding this woman. Her tiny stature carried with it the surprising eloquence of a court poet. Nyina wa Kamotho cleared her throat.

“Mumbi, our daughter, you have made us proud. Do not forget your people; do not forget your roots. Remember, upon the heights of Kirinyaga, you are the gift of life that Ngai placed on the empty lap of Gikuyu at the dawn of creation. In the sacred grove of the Mukuyu tree, Gikuyu found you, Mumbi, the Mother of us all. And upon the sacred grove of your breast, Ngai shall send you your befitting match. Do not bring us the fruit of a foreign seed!”

At this point, the court poet closed her eyes momentarily to savour the cadence of her own words before proceeding.

“The spirit of your father is dancing with joy at this very moment. Cradle the children of your dreams, as Mumbi cradled her young, Achera, Agachiku, Airimu, Ambui, Angare, Anjiru, Angui, Aithaga, and Aitherandu, until they became the nation we now are. You are Mumbi the nurturer, as Ngai ordained when your mother announced your name at your birth. This scholarship is the fruit nurtured in the womb of your mind. Let it grow into a field of knowledge, my daughter. God bless you as you plan to leave us.”

“Ailililililililililili!,” the women did a jig around the court poet, stamping one foot on the ground and lifting the torso in a graceful wave with the energy of the earth, the shoulders responding with an affirmative heave.

Mumbi silently held her laughter after her aunt’s speech. She knew her sister, Wangui, or Kui, as they affectionately called her, would re-enact their aunt’s monologue when they were alone until she rolled on the floor with devilish laughter. Kui was born with the funnies. She would miss her so!

Not too long after, the village hired a van so the closest relatives could travel to Nairobi with Mumbi and bid her goodbye. At Jomo Kenyatta airport, pictures were taken, last-minute advice rendered, prayers sent up to the relevant authorities, and a first-time “I love you” whispered in Mumbi’s ear by the young man who had always had a crush on her since primary school.

Mwakichilu wa Danieli. His family was from Taita hills, had settled in Kirinyaga since his father took a transfer as a District Agriculture Officer when he was three. Mumbi had never paid much attention to Mwakichilu’s timid advances, nor ever noticed the handsome young man he had grown up to become. On this day of goodbyes, he faded into the background as he always had, and even when he summoned the last drop of his strength and achieved a feat of the gods when he whispered in Mumbi’s ear, she hardly noticed. Mumbi never responded, never remembered. Her mind was on Chicago. That was five years ago, and she had not returned home since.

Mumbi’s scholarship had been for a Master’s program in Business Administration at the University of Illinois. Half-way through, she had dropped the course, lost the partial scholarship, and enrolled in a Master’s program in Fine Arts on self-sponsorship. She knew she would have to work her fingers to the bones to accomplish this. She couldn’t explain why she made this choice other than that she knew it was what she really wanted to do. Three years after enrolling, she was still at it, trudging on. She had decided not to tell her mother about all her changed plans. How would she explain it?


As she lies on her bed, she consoles herself that other than family, she did not leave behind any crucial emotional attachments worth returning to. But she knows no reasoning will cure the void she feels. Lately, days and nights just pass her by meaninglessly.

It is almost five in the morning. Mumbi gets up, moves to her computer by the window, and opens her email. There’s one message from Kui asking when she was graduating. She’s not in the mood for another long winded explanation that will always end with, “Soon, Kui. Tell mother… soon.” Then of course guilt would overwhelm her and send her singing her song of exile again, by the rivers of Babylon, where she serves a foreign King, and remembers Zion…

As the first rays of light hit her window, Mumbi sighs heavily, shuts down her computer, and heads for the bathroom. Another morning, another day.

In the dawn of Minneapolis, Lenana sighs heavily, and shuts down his computer. Mumbi hasn’t replied. He heads for the bathroom, his wife, Shanni, watching him from the slit of her eye. Another morning, another day.

Continued: III: Across Undying Yesterdays

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