Mr. Ndirangu likes to read from the textbook. He hardly teaches. That’s why I think, when he was a child, he did not aspire to be a teacher. Maybe a lab technician. Today he is reading about detergents.

“The process of making soap is known as saponification. The mode involves the hydrophilic and hydrophobic parts of soap…

I usually pay attention to his reading but today is the first day of menses, four more days to go. The first is usually the hardest. The flow is heavy. I can feel it, warm and thick, dripping on the cotton wool. The pain in my abdomen, thighs and the crack of my buttock is unbearable.

All I want to do is take four Piritons and go to sleep. Painkillers are expensive. One Piriton costs fifty cents, four is two shillings. Two pain killers, 10 shillings. Deep Sea mathematics, the algebra of improvising with the little you have. Unfortunately, if I dare sleep in class, Mr Ndirangu is required by the Teachers’ Guide to Appropriate Punishment to make me wash the loos.

“Soapy detergents do not form lather with hard water as fast as the soapless detergents. The reaction between soapy detergents and the magnesium and calcium in hard water results into a substance known as scum.”

Does that even make any sense? Soapy things in my opinion ought to form lather faster than soapless things. English words take different meaning in science hence the need to cram before an exam.

“Now write this formula in your exercise books. I do not have chalk and that is not my fault.  Okay, letter C, number twelve, letter H, number twenty five, a tiny line attached to a hexagon with an oval inside it, followed by an arrow, on top of that arrow, write, letter H, number two, and letter S, letter O, number four. At the bottom of the arrow, write the word sulphonication. After the arrow, letter C, number twelve, letter H, number twenty five, tiny line attached to another hexagon with an oval inside it, another tiny line and then letter S, letter O, number three and letter H.”

This is the result of having one chemistry textbook in the entire stream. The teachers share the book. We only know of its existence. No chalk and one textbook means we never get to see what we are told to write.

He is turning to the next page. If only I was born a boy and Gad was born the girl. He would be the one sitting here on butt tremors and I would be at home, free to sleep and avoid bother.

I also wish I was Gad because my poor brother is bearing a cross too heavy for a nine year old. Science could help him, but it hasn’t yet. He is the reason I chose to love Chemistry. If I learn how to mix substances, I may be able to cure Gad and not have to see, hear, touch, taste, smell and predict his misery.

Someone knocks the door. Mr Ndirangu opens it and listens to the bearer of a message.

“Irene Aduoli, go to the Bursar’s.”

This is it. I do not think the school bursar will fold and sympathize this time. I suspect that he has run out of pity and patience. Sixty-three thousand shillings is too big a debt to cover with wet tissue, salty with my tears. The rest of the defaulters went home at 12 thousand shillings. By now, Lady Luck has moved on, and I may as well carry my bag. Something tells me that this is the last time I will write on this desk.

***

I have been kicked out of school. Not because I am a C student and definitely not because I failed to take the school to the provincial level of the Inter- Schools Darts Competition. My inability to pay. Tuition fees are what keep a student in school not average grades and extracurricular activities.

I walk out of the bursar’s office into Accra Road and progress down the Globe Cinema round about, up Forest Road, down Limuru Road and turn at 6th Parklands Avenue. Forty-five absentminded minutes go by and I am in Deep Sea – home sweet home.

If you look at it, Deep Sea is a stagnated swamp surrounded by an ocean of wealth. One main street, so to speak, separates the shops and the stands from the residential. The left side of the street has little kiosks full of ‘ndogo-ndogo economy’ items, men and women selling chapos, omena, githeri, skuma, mtura  and bones. The right side has the village elders’ headquarters and layers upon layers of houses. They were built on a sharp and dusty slope that turns muddy when it rains. The slope goes all the way down to a little stream that separates Deep Sea from the beautiful mansions with green lawns and trees for shade. The mansions are on a gentler slope. The rich always have it gentler. So fun.

“Eh! Irene! Umehepa shule, nini?”

“Pengine. Na wewe? Umehepa Mama Majimoto nini?”

“Mama MM anachemsha bado. Akimaliza atanivutia.”

“Poa. Baadaye basi. Sitaki kuonekana na wewe. Matope itafikia mamangu.”

“Kwenda! Sasa ju umesomasoma unaona vimeelea vikaundwa. Kuma wewe!”

Conversations with Benah always end like that. He complicates and misunderstands.

Ten years in this place and I have learned that everyone knows everyone and all of them talk about all of us. So I am right, if anyone sees me talking to Benah a tad longer, word will spread and by the time my mother gets home the story will have mutated into a tale of my skipping classes to meet up with Benah. The same Benah, it will be reported, took me to Mama MM’s, and later drunk, I drugged myself to his place for sex.

I turn right into a narrow dusty path and go down the slope slowly, carefully holding onto a rusted iron sheet here and the visible support of a there. The reaction between the dust and my slippery soled shoes, if not controlled in that manner, may lead to a slip and slide down the slope. So fun.

Finally home.

I open the door and there is Gad on the floor with two fingers in his mouth.

***

The light revealing his sister upset his eyes and calm. His head aimed for her abdomen and his fists thumped her sore breasts.

“Gad, not today.”

She turned him around and held his small palms together. He struggled to set himself loose but she sat on the floor, held him close and sang, nice and slow:

Umbe umbe.

Umbe umbe,

Umbe khanyama,

Umbe khanyama,

Umbe, umbe,

Auwiiii chachacha

Auwiiii chachacha

The song calmed him.

Gad set himself loose and sat at the middle of the room. He knew the routine. Irene had to bring everything down, turn the empty space into a home.

Every morning, his sister and his mother put everything on an inungo attached to the roof by four strong ropes. Irene stood on tiptoe as she first brought two mattresses down. Things had to be put up there every morning because it was never known when Gad would throw a violent tantrum and what would trigger it. They left him alone in the house from six in the morning to six in the evening and if stuff was left within his reach, the probability of him making a mess or hurting himself were high.

The inungo was similar to the one in their grandmother’s kitchen in Butere. The old lady used hers to store sun-dried fish and roasted meat, and the smoke from the fireplace helped preserve the food. Irene’s mother had a stronger and thicker version that held the mattresses plus three bags of clothes, a bucket of utensils, a jiko, firewood, a ‘nishikie nitandike’ lamp, a three-litre bottle for kerosene and two five-litre jerry cans of water. There was also a small purple bucket with a lid. That one usually had a packet of maize flour and a bag of tealeaves.

After Irene finished arranging the house, Gad lay on the mattress, and as usual, let his sister change his soiled napkin. She had not stopped singing. After that she lit the jiko. Soon she had a fire rich enough to boil tea for herself and her beloved. He liked tea better than porridge and she needed the hot liquid to calm the menstrual pain.

The neighbors called him a retarded brat, the mahamri women said he was the result of incestuous intercourse and the Mganga Kutoka Pemba prophesied that Gad was possessed by unhappy djinnis. A special exorcism could be done, but only after the family paid seven thousand shillings exclusive of required  miscellaneous ritual items.

No one visited. The only people who ever entered their house were the population census officials, with their red t-shirts and hurried HB pencils. One of them had asked Irene’s mother if there was a disabled person in the house.

“My son is autistic.”

“Madam, the question is asking whether you have a disabled person in the house.”

“Yaaaani…kukona mtu kiwete kwa hii nyumba yako?” He asked, slowly this time.

“I am not stupid you know. Si nilikwambia nimefika form four, when you asked me about the highest level of education? Do not talk to me like that. I am not base. I have told you that my son is autistic. Now, does your form classify autism as a disability?”

The man shielded the green leaflet with his hand, just like the teachers’ pets do during examinations and ticked the box he decided on.

***

Beth sat on a concrete slab at the General Mathenge Road/ Mpaka Road junction.

Yesterday she did not get work and her children had to eat porridge for supper. To top it all Irene had been kicked out of school.  The women next to her were yapping about the fruitful yesterday they shared in the Somali house on 6th Avenue. A lot of work even when shared but the pay was very commensurate. They were watched consistently but who cares.

“Heee, labda nyinyi ni wezi ndo mchungwe hivyo kazini,” a jealous one said with an overdose of sarcasm.

The day before yesterday the same woman had told Beth she had a feeling that some of the women had bewitched the two them.

“Sio kawaida kukosa kuchukuliwa siku tatu. Naona ni kama hawa wamama wametufunga.Hizi uchawi ndogo nodogo za Nairobi pia hufanya kazi.”

Beth did not say anything then but now she thought that maybe Jealous was not wrong after all. Someone may have hexed her out of jobs.

Jealous then told Beth of a job that she almost got but failed to because the “mdosi” wanted a live-in person who had a class eight certificate.

“Imagine he wants to pay six thousand but he wants someone who has a KCPE certificate and not older than 20 years. Sasa hiyo ni ujinga gani?”

“That is what he said?”

“Yes.”

“Si basi tupeleke Irene wangu?”

“Mh? You want to take your child out of school just so she can go clean people’s houses and you can get money out of her?”

“She is already out of school. Now take me to that man’s house.”

**

I am watching the flames on the jiko. They reminded me of a chemistry class in form one; my first encounter with a Bunsen burner. School was good while it lasted; now I have to go work. Mother said six thousand shillings in salary per month will help enroll Gad in a school that will look after him well. Also if I work hard for two years, I will save enough to pay the school fees debt, finish high school and go on to the teachers college in the Compound. Her math did not make sense.

The aroma of tea is in the room.  I like my sturungi boiled thoroughly, Kama maji ya kumtoa kuku manyowa.

Gad starts at the sound of the sufuria lid battling with the steam. I get up from the mattress remove the sufuria from the jiko, put it on the floor and arrange three cups. Mother brings a bag of mahamri, three for Gad, two for me, and one for herself.

After breakfast I pack a few things, set up the house so Gad is safe while we are away, lock the door and follow my mother who has an excited albeit impatient look. She wants to take me to my employer as soon as possible. I am going to be working as a cleaning lady.

Immersed in powerfoam on a daily basis.

Who would have thought Mr. Ndirangu’s chemistry was precisely relevant for cleaning jobs.

© Linda Musita 2022