VI: Hems on Shredded Pavements

The dazzling silver of the Swedish Alps seemed to be mocking Mumbi’s gray countenance as she looked down thousands of feet from her seat on the KLM flight. Send me sleep, dear God, send me sleep, she begged. For two days now since she read her sister Kui’s email, she had not slept. She had kept a steady chanting, don’t go mother, don’t go, don’t go, don’t go… She had this terrible fear that if she stopped chanting for just one waking moment, her mother would go. She could not even bring her mind to contemplate that possibility. That door was shut tight, and opening it would drive her to that black hole where nothing existed; not matter, not liquid, not ether. There, her being would be shattered irredeemably. Don’t go mother, don’t go, don’t go, don’t go…

When she opened her eyes, the plane was flying across the Sahara. Now the dazzling orange of the desert below goaded Mumbi’s eyes as if daring her to catch a snooze again. Nature had chased her across the cold Alps of her fear and made her shiver, and now across the fiery deserts of her anxiety and made her burn with restlessness. Nature wanted to ride upon her moods like a witch on a broomstick. Nature wanted to play catch with her, throwing her a ball of sleep and snatching it right back only a few minutes later. Nature wanted to play hide-and-seek, to spirit into Her earthy womb the only mother she had. Nature skipped along and would not let her be. Had She no other playmates? Mumbi could see another ball of sleep coming her way. She caught it in the groove of her wide-open mouth with a yawn, giving in to nature’s games without a fight…

Someone was shaking her gently. She opened her eyes and squinted into those of the stranger next to her. She vaguely remembered seeing her somewhere… Oh, she’s the lady who said hello and sat next to her when they boarded the flight in Amsterdam. After that Mumbi hadn’t exchanged a single word with her. She had turned towards the window to seek solace in nature below. Now the stranger was smiling at her.

“You were crying. Is everything alright?” the stranger asked. Such a kind and soothing voice, Mumbi thought. She touched her face and sure enough, a wetness on her cheeks confirmed she’d been crying.

“I’m alright,” Mumbi said, trying to smile back, “I must have been having a bad dream.” The stranger nodded. She was not going to ask anything Mumbi was not ready to talk about.

“Everything will be alright. Whatever it is, it will all make sense some day, my daughter,” said the stranger, “Oh, sorry, my name is Naima.” Mumbi shook Naima’s warm hand.

“My name is Mumbi.” Naima smiled.

“Ah, you are Kenyan!”

“Yes, I am.” Mumbi wasn’t sure if a conversation with a stranger was something she wanted to have.

“Me too. But I live in Amsterdam with my husband and children. I’m going to visit my daughter who goes to a high school in Mombasa.” Now Naima caught Mumbi’s attention. A family split between two worlds.

“How is it your daughter is in Mombasa?”

“She wanted to go to school there!” answered Naima. “Her step father and I were taken by surprise when she told us she wanted to be closer to her grandmother, that’s my mother, who she now lives with. When I had my daughter, I left her with my mother so I could… “ she quickly censored this part of the story, “… travel to Europe. She lived with her for ten years until I got married and was able to bring her to Amsterdam. But I think her grandmother missed her too much as well. I think we made the right decision.” Mumbi now realized Naima was looking for some kind of absolution from a stranger, someone to whom she could make a confession and never have to meet again. Naima had that deep Swahili accent that made English words dance like waves. It made Mumbi smile just listening to her. “When she has had enough of Kenya she will come back home,” Naima added. Mumbi didn’t know what to say. She was a little taken aback that Naima called Amsterdam “home.” Had she not also called Mombasa “home”?

“How long have you lived in Amsterdam?” Mumbi asked.

“Eighteen years now. I got married to a Dutch nurse. We have three children together,” answered Naima.

Mumbi wanted to hear more. She was very beautiful. Her skin was the dark hue of rich coffee beans. Her hair was greying already, and she carried an air of intrigue about her. She seemed at ease with her split belonging. Did time give her this peace, had she fought tooth and nail against her spirit in a foreign land? Had she sat by the rivers of Babylon and sung her songs of Zion too, or had she not cared at all right from the beginning? Mumbi opened up, as if she might get answers to her questions.

“I live in Chicago. Six years now, and I’m tired already.” It was Naima’s turn to respond with a smile. She waited on Mumbi to say more.

“I’m going to see my mother in hospital. She’s ill,” Mumbi fought back the tears. This was not her line of thought, but it’s what her heart poured out. Naima cupped her hand gently.

“It will be alright, it will be alright.”

“I hate that I live so far away. I feel so useless, so guilty.” Mumbi thought she had said a little too much, but it was too late.

“It gets better with time. We all have our battles to fight. My other three children think of themselves as Dutch, but the Dutch people don’t think of them as fully Dutch. When they travel to Mombasa, they are called wazungu, and they don’t understand why Kenyans would call them white, and in America I’m sure they would be called Black!” Naima laughs at the absurdity of identities. She continues, “My daughter in Mombasa, I also know she chose to go back in part because in Amsterdam she felt she didn’t belong. She had an incident in school when another kid laughed at her accent. A report came to me that she fought back with some choice words, my daughter did! A feisty one she is. But she had a choice, two homes, and she picked Mombasa. She speaks Swahili, Dutch and English fluently. It’s a new world this generation is teaching us. A world of choices and fluid belonging. I am learning from them.” Naima looked over across Mumbi and out the window, as if needing a gulp of air.

“I don’t know. Maybe marriage to a foreigner could change the way I feel,” Mumbi said.

 “Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes not. Love is a gamble,” Naima said.

“A luxury – if you ever find it. It costs too much emotional capital,” Mumbi added. Naima laughed.

“I wasn’t looking for it when I found it. My husband has been a good friend. Perhaps if I did not have a family, I would have returned to Mombasa many years back. But years go by, things change, and you make peace with your scattered self. My daughter, take life a day at a time, don’t be too troubled by it,” Naima said. “And by the way, I also woke you up so you can fill out this arrival card. They brought them around while you slept. It should be less than half an hour now before we arrive at Jomo Kenyatta. Here’s a pen. I’m done with mine.”

This stranger was a gift from the gods. Mumbi smiled and shook her head in disbelief. Nature had not stopped playing games with her. Now She was giving her a shoulder to lean on and calm her fearful spirit.

“Thanks a lot. You are very kind,” Mumbi did not know what else to say to Naima. Her story was the hem of a healing garment. It had touched her, and she could feel a lightness settle in her heart. She took the pen and started filling out the card.

What Mumbi did not know was that Naima was a walking patchwork of stories that made up the garment of her life. She was not ashamed of even the torn parts that had caused her to bear crowns of shame, mockery, loneliness and human judgment. Naima knew, by their frayed, unsightly hems, many who heard bits and pieces of her story usually found some form of healing or breakthrough; they found rhyme and reason in the clatter of their own lives.

As Mumbi filled out her arrival card, Naima felt peace take a comfortable seat within her. She briefly reflected on her dark and dreadful years of emotional exile in Amsterdam before she overcame the loneliness and confusion. Now she had been a source of comfort to Mumbi because of it. Should she meet someone else who needed to know the patchwork of story when she was a drug-dealing prostitute living in Mombasa’s Majengo – how she had left for Germany with a mzungu businessman who raped her, beat her to a pulp and left her for dead across the border in a Zurich hotel; how she had been in a comma in a hospital as an unidentified alien awaiting deportation upon recovery; how a Dutch nurse living in Switzerland and assigned to take care of her ended up falling in love with her, marrying her, and moving to Amsterdam with her – if anyone needed a feel of the rough hemming of that part of her life, she would kindly let them touch it. Thanks to Allah for His abundant mercies, she whispered.

As the plane continued on its descent, Naima’s mind wondered into the streets of Mombasa, a city where hems of her garments had been stepped on and etched their prints on shredded pavements. She saw the slight bend of a woman’s back, the subtle stoop of a man’s shoulders, the extended hand of a beggar crying out for zakat, the calloused palm of a feeble handshake, the dark hood of sorrow upon a smile, the dragging of tired feet muffled by a pretentious gait. In all these, she could see her people still burdened by heavy crowns of shame. One, perhaps a jilted lover bearing upon her back the pain of worthlessness. A rejected child all grown-up with unanswered questions. A man ostracised by his kith and kin for loving a kaffir. A single parent with a scarlet letter of guilt hammered mercilessly onto her bosom by society. A father drenched in borrowed drunkenness to hide the chill of joblessness from his family. A mother with the secret of an unmentionable disease as fear and loneliness coil her spine downward… So many heavy garments weighing down upon the people she had interacted with. She was once one of them. At fifty-two, she had come a long way. She would be back there on those streets in a short while. With every eye contact she would make, she would pass on a genuine smile, a touch of her garment.

“All done,” said Mumbi, as she handed the pen back to Naima, snapping her back from her thoughts.

“Oh, keep the pen and remember me by it.”

“Well, thank you!” Mumbi caught the fine print of a name and phone number on the pen: Naima Ahmed Rietveld – Ergotherapeut. “What does that word mean?” Naima peered into the word Mumbi’s finger pointed to.

“Occupational therapist,” she said.

“Ah, ok… ” Mumbi debated whether she should ask more questions and decided against it when the pilot’s voice came on.

The plane touched Nairobi at eight o’clock in the evening. At the lounge, Mumbi gave Naima a warm hug and wished her a happy visiting with her daughter. “It will be alright, my daughter,” were Naima’s parting words. It was not long before Mumbi spotted Kui, ran towards her, and in a minute, the two sisters shut the cruel gap of all the years apart.

“She opened her eyes today, Mumbi, after three days!” That was all Mumbi had strength to digest for now. In the deep darkness of an African night, the sun was shinning. Kui went on and on like an energizer battery. It was good to be home!


Mumbi slowly fed her mother who was recovering well since she arrived three days ago. She had not left her mother’s bedside except to go to the bathroom. She bathed her, changed her, fed her and told her all the tales about America. Tall tales and true tales, she told them all, except for some. The diabetic comma had left her mother weak in body, but strong in spirit. Her diabetes was only diagnosed after she was checked in at Embu General Hospital in critical condition. Lack of good medical care was the bane of folk at home. Many died of the most treatable diseases. Nyina wa Mumbi was one of the lucky few who had children – Kui and Mumbi – who could afford to take her to the private wing of the general hospital in Nairobi. Kui now worked as an accountant with Plan International in Embu. Most of their relatives were struggling to survive day-by-day, as did the millions of wananchi across the country. It was a state-of-the-nation Mumbi could not afford to dwell on within the short time she was going to be here. She had come to hang on tight to her mother’s garment, and she would let go only when she had gathered enough strength from it.

It did not occur to her that it’s her mother who was hanging by Mumbi’s garment, strengthened everyday by her daughter’s presence, intrigued by the changes she had undergone, and wondering if she would be giving her a son-in-law and grandchildren any day soon.

“You know your cousin Kamotho got married two months ago,” Nyina wa Mumbi began her exploratory conversation after her cup of tea, a week after coming out of her comma.

“To whom?” asked Mumbi casually.

“To your friend Lisabeth,” Mumbi laughed so hard she choked on her tea. It wasn’t that Kamotho was short, but that Lisabeth was the tallest girl in Kirinyaga. They had nicknamed her Michael Jordan in school.

“Haiiya, you’re laughing. You should have been there to see the wedding and laugh nicely. He wore very tall shoes but his head barely reach her elbow. She tried very hard not to keep poking his eyes with it!” That one practically floored Mumbi. She was in stitches. “People were very confused,” Nyina wa Mumbi continued, knitting her eyebrows as if having a belated moment of confusion about the whole affair. Mother was back, Mumbi thought, overwhelmed by a certain kind of joy.

“Too bad I won’t have time to see them and congratulate them,” Mumbi said, wiping off tears of laughter.

“Soon your aunt will be holding her little grandchild in her arms,” her mother’s tone shifted. Mumbi caught on quick enough.

“Mama, there’s a time for everything.” They were both silent for a while.

“Isn’t there anyone at all?” Mother ventured. Daughter thought about her answer for a while.

“No. Not yet,” she answered, casting a distant eye somewhere beyond the haze of the morning sun that streamed in through the window.

“When will you be coming home to stay?” Mama was getting bolder in her questioning.

“I don’t know… I don’t know.”



“Something gets lost out there in that wilderness, mother. And while you mourn the loss of that something, you keep looking to replace it with something else,” Mumbi didn’t know if she was making any sense, she didn’t know what else to say. She watched her mother look out into the same haze of Nairobi’s morning sun, as if looking for some secret code in its rising intensity. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, Mama spoke:

“Soil is soil.”

Mumbi understood that she was meant to experience the answer to this riddle. It would be several more years before she got around to cracking its code.

On the last day of their stay at the hospital, Mumbi held a small thanksgiving celebration at the ward. The hospital allowed her no more than an hour, with minimum noise, censored snacks, and hospital supervision. Kui helped organize everything. Nurses and patients met, laughed and talked like family, sharing warm stories of hope. Even those who knew they would soon be leaving this world had laughter to share. To say it was a small candle that sent a warm light throughout that floor would have been an understatement. Mumbi would learn later that the hospital began a yearly thanksgiving programme that started to attract funding and needful attention to healthcare for the forgotten. This outcome was never her intention; she had wanted to simply say thank you.

Back in the breezy hills of Kirinyaga, Nyina wa Mumbi looked up into the skies and smiled as a small plane droned overhead. Her daughter had left for Chicago the day before. It would be a while before she could fill in that emptiness. But she had no time to brood. She had many blessings to count. As she wheeled herself back into the house to prepare dinner, a loose nail in the doorpost caught the hem of her dress and it ripped. She would fix it after dinner. She was used to mending garments.

It was morning in Chicago.


Mumbi stopped by Starbucks for her cappuccino on her first morning back. As she sat there, she listened to Gwyneth Paltrow crooning through “Duets” and sang along. She noticed the bright orange of the cashier’s T-shirt, an ample Hispanic lady who looked like a ball of sunshine on two legs. There was a good feeling about this morning. Suddenly she knew what she must do. She must let go of Keegan Net Solutions and begin to live! She quickly finished her cappuccino and headed to work. At her desk, she hurriedly typed out a letter of resignation and headed straight for Bob’s office.

“Er… Mr. Keegan, do you have a minute, please?” Mumbi asked, standing at Bob’s door.

Bob knew immediately it was something serious. It was always so when any of his employees addressed him as Mr. Keegan.

“Sure, how about now?” he beckoned her in.

She took the chair opposite him and placed the letter on his desk. Still holding down the letter with her hand, she said, “This is my letter of resignation.” Bob refused to show his shock and disappointment. He calmly interlocked his fingers on his desk, leaned forward, looked straight into her eyes and asked, “Why?”

“I need to leave, Mr. Keegan. This company has been very kind to me and I have grown a lot working here. You have been a great boss. It may seem like a foolish move to leave a good thing. But… I need to leave.” She couldn’t look at him anymore. She started to rise.

“M’mubi,” she turned round to face him, “how about dinner tonight… please?” She froze.

“Sure, Bob… That would be fine.” She said, as if she had just agreed to a project deadline. It’s the least she could do to a man who had been kind to her and taught her a whole lot.

“Good, I’ll pick you up at seven,” Bob felt like a Viking who had just arrived home victorious after a long battle. He kept a straight business face as he watched her get back to her desk. In a month, Keegan Net Solutions would be without Mumbi. In three weeks, his wife was due back from a business trip. Both these thoughts depressed Bob. He looked forward to the dinner.

In the delicate ambiance of The Ark, Bob and Mumbi sat awaiting their order.

“So how was your trip home?” asked Bob. He had missed her. He did not tell her so.

“It may take several days just to find the words to explain it.”

“Find a few words to summarize it, just to feed my curiosity.”

“Let’s see… it was joyful, painful, sometimes shocking, mostly sobering.”

Bob decided to ask the question that had been disturbing him. “So did you find a better job in your country?” he tried not to sound like a disappointed boss.

“No, I don’t have any job waiting for me anywhere,” she said. She could see the puzzle lines form right above the bridge of his nose.

“Then why are you leaving the company?”

“I have to move on. I took this job to survive. I did better than survive, heck I make good money. But I don’t want just to make money. I want to live. Maybe move to a different state or something.”

He protested.

“But where will you go? How will you survive? What… what is this, M’mubi?!”

“I don’t know. I’m an artist. I have a Masters in Fine Arts for heaven’s sake. I’ll find a way of selling my good paintings or something.” Pragmatic Bob looked at her incredulously. He did not believe a word she just said.

“Tell me, are you going back to Africa? Do you feel uncomfortable in this country?” A tinge of red on his face betrayed his exasperation.

Mumbi laughed, in spite of the situation. She laughed because he still said Africa when he meant Kenya, and did not seem to care one bit what the name of her country was, or if there was a difference between the two anyway. Bob felt a little lost at her reaction.

“Did I say something funny?”

“No… no. I just thought there was something funny in the way you said it.”

Was she mocking him?

“Why do we have to be so different, M’mubi? Is it necessary to see things so differently?” Mumbi detected the frustration in his voice, but she wasn’t about to go on a guilt trip.

“We see things different because we are all different, Bob.”

“Surely, there must be a meeting ground where two different people can see eye to eye.”

“I’m sure any two people can find that meeting ground if they look for it,” Mumbi agreed.

“If they can overcome their prejudices,” Bob added.

“Yet how can one overcome their prejudices if they do not know they are prejudiced in the first place?” Mumbi posed. Bob had not expected the challenge. He silently kept his composure.

She looked across at him, this hazel-eyed Caucasian, contemplated for one silent moment and said, “When the white man first saw the black man, he shook his head at God’s shoddy work, and set about the business of making a civilized being out of this barbaric humanity. When the black man first saw the white man, he laughed hysterically at God’s sense of humour, and set about the business of mimicking the strange ways of this cold caricature of humanity.”

Bob shifted uneasily for a moment, then let out a raucous burst of laughter. “What’s the most grotesque thing about this white man you are looking at right now?” he ventured.

“He changes colour all the time. Red when you are angry. Pink when you are embarrassed. Purple when you are sick. Yellow when you are weak. Grey when you are shocked… Who’s calling who coloured!” Now he let go and laughed his guts out. Mumbi joined in the mirth until they wore out the moment.

“Now,” she leaned forward, “what is the most barbaric thing about this black woman you are looking at right now?”

Bob leaned forward with ease to meet her challenge. “Her ensnaring jungle essence. No amount of white civilization can tame that.”

Hours later, they left The Ark together. They walked in silence, each with their own thoughts thousands of miles apart, yet needing the feel of someone’s hand. Bob thought of his wife’s “business” trips and knew in his gut they were not what she claimed them to be. Right then, he knew what must come.

Mumbi looked up to see the Chicago sky show off its pathetic share of stars. Nothing compared to the magical splash of the Kirinyaga sky. Still, she felt a rare sense of happiness. Mother, she whispered, I’ve held long to the hem of your garment. I’m strong enough now, and I’m letting go. At that moment, Bob reached out and held her hand. She did not protest.

Continue – VII: Bloodsweats of Gethsemane

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