Zukiswa Wanner Blue Bra on a Samsonite Bag

Modern young women at a market in Nairobi (Kenya)
Modern young women at a market in Nairobi (Kenya) | Photo (detail): Sandra Gätke © dpa-Report

By Zukiswa Wanner

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J’s. Thursday night. Live music. Where wazungu can be local without being uncomfortable. And where we, who call ourselves middle class as only Nairobians can, congregate. Where we can appreciate live music without worrying about the cover charge. And hope our musician friends don’t expect us to buy their CDs from our measly drinks money. J’s Thursday night. Live music. That’s where we met.

J’s Thursday night. After the live music a year later. That’s where I could finally let it go.
Closure. We bumped into each other at a nearby restaurant and had it out. At one time I thought they would throw us out. The wait staff certainly acted that way many a time.
But it’s at J’s that, after we sort of ironed it out, I danced away all the pent-up anger and grudge that I had kept in me. And an ambulance that I knew would not come on time, did not come on time.

Traffic may lighten up at night in my Nairobi, but it’s still difficult to get in and out of J’s.
Rashid brings in so many memorable musicians. That’s why Uber, Taxify and Little Cab apps are a blessing. Well, that. And the fact that many of the revelers do not need to be driving after partying. For an ambulance trying to come through though, it would be a curse.

So I got my closure. Although I would never let anyone, not even Nina, know.
She accuses me of being too barbie. ‘We are Africans, Aluoch. What’s this closure thing you talk of? Sometimes you are too mzungu for your own good.’ And perhaps I am.
I did, after all, go to Msongari when it was still Msongari. When it was the Brookhouse of girls’ schools.

Back then government schools were much more functional than they are now. Before every parent who could get a loan decided government schools were mediocre
and put their children in private schools. But they were parents like mine who believed in Catholic school exceptionalism. And doubted the ability of schools like State House Girls to educate us.

In a way, Msongari is still considered exceptional still, I suppose. But you know how things degenerate after one has left them? So too with Msongari. And Thandi. Thandi, the reason for my seeking closure.

Nina laughs every time I refer to our cold season as winter. Says winter is a mzungu concept. And Nairobi just has long rains, short rains alongside wet and dry seasons. I swear if you heard her talk, you wouldn’t know that she is married to a mzungu herself. The way she says mzungu things so often and with such derision. Perhaps familiarity really does breed contempt. I digress.

So it was one winter ago that I met Thandi at J’s. Black polo top, skinny jeans, an open Ankara jacket and boots. Africa meets West in fashion. I remember because when I got to Thandi’s flat, walking distance from J’s, I could not get them off fast enough. I needed to feel her skin next to mine badly. I was with ex-boyfriend Stan.

Except he wasn’t ex then. That was the day he became ex. Stan and I had been fighting a lot. He had become that typical Nairobi man that both he and I had ridiculed in the early part of our relationship. Controlling. Overly macho as though to compensate for his inability to do some of the finer things he promised.

Yes sure. I like nyama choma once in a while and will tolerate a beer or three but to make it a lifestyle? Champagne prices are ridiculous in Nairobi but could we have something sparkling a little more often than the beer? A brandy, if we can get it from Chandarana and ensure it’s not made by Sisters of Death in Korogocho as it likely would be at our local Wine and Spirit? Had he been trying to ensure that I, who had been the Face (and I dare say body) of Africa got fat? There are some people who look great with meat on their bones and would look odd thinner. I am not one of them though. I am comfortable enough in my body, thank you very much. And I wasn’t going to allow Stan to undo my comfort levels with his nyama choma and beers.

He said I was too high maintenance. As if he did not know what he signed up for when we started dating. Men wine and dine you when they are courting. Then they whine and decide that you are too high maintenance when all you want is for them to keep the standards they started with in the first place.

Nina found me feeling down that Thursday and suggested that we go out and dance away the blues. Chris Adwar and the Villagers Band were playing. A favourite of mine.
‘Where are you going to?’ Stan had asked. ‘J’s,’ Nina answered before I could tell her to shut up. ‘I’ll come with you. We haven’t danced in a while babes,’ he said to me.

So of course when he said that, we had to allow him to come through. Although I would much have preferred if he hadn’t come and it was just a girls’ night out. As it ended though, it became a girls’ night out, thanks to Thandi. Thandi, a Maasai woman with a Zulu name. Thandi, whose name means love. Thandi, who I thought was love. Until she became a love rat. We met in the queue for the toilet.

I know. Not the most romantic of places to meet. After I left, I often wondered whether that meeting was foretelling the shitty relationship ours became. But yes. So I went to stand behind her in line and she turned and looked at me as though she were mesmerized. ‘Lord, but you are so beautiful,’ she said with a sigh. I’d looked behind me to see whether there was someone there she was talking to. ‘Don’t look back. I am talking to you,’ she said now clearly addressing me. She had a huskily seductive voice.
‘Your features are so striking.’ I didn’t know what to say.  ‘You are the most beautiful woman I have ever met.’

I’m not going to say it’s not a Nairobi thing to talk to strangers. But it’s certainly not my Nairobi thing. Random compliments or comments directed at me from strangers fill me with discomfort. This woman had not made me feel uncomfortable though. I think I even smiled. As though I had anything to do with my looks. Well maybe I do in a way. Some exfoliation here. Some moisturizing there. Use of sunscreen when it matters.  I may be dark but don’t believe what they tell you about miros not needing sunscreen.  I know what I am talking about. My mother is Kenya’s first dermatologist. And then for the body, some 90 minutes of Bikram yoga five days a week there. But still. My looks are largely a genetic privilege. People are often convinced that my 73 year old mum is 20 years younger.

But back to Thandi with a Zulu name. She went into the toilet. Then got out. I went into the toilet after her. I came out. She was waiting for me. ‘You really are stunning.’ I smiled wide then. And said, ‘thank you.’

‘I’m getting a drink. May I get you one?’ It was J’s. Although no-one can be trusted, they probably could be trusted with their suppliers. The three Tuskers Stan had purchased and I had drunk, were making me feel bloated. ‘Sure. A brandy. Double.’ – ‘A woman after my own heart. I’m a brandy girl myself. A brandy coming right up.’

On her return, she set the brandies on the table near the door. She looked at me straight in the eye and said, ‘I didn’t introduce myself to you, beautiful. I am Thandi. It means love in Zulu but I am Maasai.’ When I think of her, I think of this line because that’s how she introduced herself all the time. She was making no qualms about hitting on me and I liked it. ‘How did you get your name?’ I asked. ‘Long story of a Moi-era exile father with a Zulu best friend who met in TZ. I was named after his wife.’

‘Oh?’ Then I realized I hadn’t introduced myself. ‘And I am Aluoch,’ I stretched out my hand to meet hers. Later, I would think of all the ways my introduction could have been wittier. I do this often. Think of clever things I should have said after the fact. When our hands met, I felt something. Something pulling me to her. I wanted to hold her hand forever.

Until then, I had thought of myself as heterosexual. But Thandi was the type of woman I was always flattered to get hit on by. Pretty. Classy. Confident. Femme. And later I would find out, intelligent. Everything I was or aspired to be. On that Thursday at J’s, I ceased being flattered, made no polite remark of ‘thanks but I like men…’ I pulled her to me and kissed her as boldly as she had started a conversation with me.

We came apart with Stan standing behind me pulling my dress at the shoulder. ‘Aluoch. What are you doing? Are you drunk?’ he asked looking confused. Nina was grinning beside him. ‘Give it up, Stan. Women know what a woman wants better than any man. You won’t win this one.’ – ‘But Aluoch is not…’ he sputtered, ‘she is not a lesbian.’
Nina said wickedly, ‘I love it when a lesbian “steals” a woman from a man.’ She even did the air quotes thing. I finally found my voice. ‘Sorry Stan,’ and then I looked at Thandi and asked, ‘where are we going?’

Thandi was looking at Stan as she answered me. Her voice dripping with the sort of challenge one only ever hears among testosterone-laden males to each other. ‘My home is just walking distance from here. Shall we?’ If Thandi hadn’t been a woman, Stan would have punched her.  He looked at me questioningly. I shrugged and squeezed Thandi’s hand. Making my choice known. He sighed resignedly then walked out. That was the last time I saw Stan. Whatevs, I thought then.

Nina, who must have thought this was some sort of joke and just a way to get rid of Stan at first looked at me after he had left and asked, ‘And then?’ Nina and I have been friends since crèche and I have sprung some surprises on her throughout our lives but on this one, you could have knocked her with a feather. ‘I’ll call you tomorrow. I’m leaving. But before I leave, Thandi meet my friend Nina. Nina, this is Thandi.’
They nodded at each other and nice’d to meet you’d as Nairobians do.
 
                                                                    ********************

I stay with my mum in Muthaiga except when I do not. In the first six months with Thandi, I did not. That first night kicked off something that I thought would last forever. Our bodies were in sync in a way my body has never felt with anyone before. She knew where to touch and just how to tease me to near dizzying heights. And just when I was near bursting, would lower the play and start all over again. After the back and forth, the release was always mind-boggling. That first night, led to Thandi driving me home after a week where she met my mum and chatted with her while I packed my Samsonite bag with a few essentials. If my mother was surprised at my new woman to woman relationship, she didn’t show it.

In those six months I was with Thandi, she referred to her the same way she had referred to all the guys I had dated: Stan who she said was too shags because his parents stayed in rural Busia; Mbatian who she thought I should have married because he was courtly and came from a good family; Owino who she said was too Luo because he only addressed her in Luo despite her responses in English and used jaber as a term of endearment to me; King’ara who partied too much and, to my mum, a sign that he was not Kikuyu enough because his money was spent before he received it. She spoke of them all as your friend. Holding on to the puritanical idea that her third and last child was not sexually active and these were really just my friends despite the obvious. So how’s your new friend, Thandi? Does she need any vegetables from the garden? – I bumped into your old friend, Mbatian. He just got divorced. I have his number. – Your friend Stan came by to drop your clothes the other day. He seemed quite angry.

I knew just how angry Stan was. He tried to embarrass me on Twitter by posting a photoshopped image of Thandi and me with the unimaginative caption, ‘God made Adam and Eve and not Madam and Eve.’ On his side, some homophobic men and Chair of the Film Board who talked about lesbianism being against our culture and unchristian. As though Christianity is our culture. On my side, the social media military known worldwide as KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) either made fun of him for losing his woman to a woman (the guys) or not knowing how to please a woman (the women). Funny as it was, it was all very lacking in nuance. Before Thandi, Nina and I often wondered whether there were no African great aunts or great uncles who never got married but had close friends, as per my mother, of the same sex who they stayed with. I blocked Stan on all social media.

Thandi worked for one of Kenya’s top employers…the NGO field. So those first six months were magic. Filled as they were with her travels and constant reunions that made each day feel like a honeymoon. I am a fashion designer. No. Not like everyone else in Nairobi claims to be a fashion designer. I really am. I source material from all over the continent. Only the best will do for my clients. I have three tailors who bring my drawings to life. But most of Nairobi’s middle class is not really middle class.

People earning 40k shillings per month will proclaim we the middle class merely because they have a Twitter account, a fridge, a television and can afford to be in Java once in a while. This essentially makes my clothes out of reach for many who prefer to source their designer clothes second-hand from Toi Market. 

I generally only get orders for special occasion like weddings. My biggest and most consistent clients are: my married elder sister, a p.r. guru for an international corporate, some Msongari old girls, and my mother and her fair-weather friends from all communities (only when it’s not election season in Kenya). And of course my other sister will make orders whenever she can get someone flying from her home-home here to her home in Boston. These, as steady orders, cannot pay for my necessities and rent. So I stay at mum’s. Until I moved to Thandi’s.

My moving in to her place meant that I had the place to myself when she was at work and out of the country. I could do my sketches at leisure and my yoga studio was nearer to her home than to my mother’s anyway. Bliss. Until it wasn’t. My mum got ill.

Akoth is in America. Atieno has a husband and children and lives on the other side of town in Karen. That left me leaving my love nest in Westlands to go back to Muthaiga so I could be with mum.

At Aga Khan, they said it was the Big C. Cancer. Best to go to India. It’s still in early stages and the doctors there are better equipped. A disillusioned doctor friend once told me these references to India are a scam. And that our doctors are in on it to get extra cash. I tried to tell my sisters but they didn’t care. ‘Look Aluoch, what’s your problem? We will be paying for it so it’s our money. All you need to do is be there for mum. Go with her to India,’ Atieno chided.

Stupid Mrs. Perfect. Why doesn’t she go herself? I almost asked but then remembered that as the artist in the family, all I had to offer was my presence. If they asked me to pay for a third of mum’s bills, I wouldn’t be able to. Sawa tu, I thought shrugging my shoulders in acceptance. Thandi was a star. Helped with the visas and all the preparations that had to be done. Mum joked and called her the son she never had. I don’t think she had properly wrapped her head around a same-sex relationship.

Seven weeks. That’s how long we were in India. Three weeks of anxiety and four weeks of mum recuperating. It was then that mum made friends with a doctor who shared her interest in gardening.  It was from the doctor that my mother heard of the insecticide that would protect her plants from insects. Kurudan. A potent poison for plants and humans. Mum got some for her plants. I packed it for her when we left India.
We went back home with mum’s cancer in remission.

I looked forward to resuming my relationship with Thandi. Thandi who had been a star. Until she wasn’t. Seven weeks. It doesn’t seem like a very long time. And yet it can be. Heck. A toilet break can be a long time as Stan found out one Thursday night out at J’s.

                                                            ***************************

The first week was just like the six months before I left. But then I started seeing changes in Thandi. She arrived a little later at home. She sweated the small stuff a little more. She sounded that bit more critical.

Then that final day. Friday. I called her at work. ‘Listen, can we do dinner tonight? We need to talk.’ – ‘Sawa,’ she said sounding noncommittal. I made dinner. Her favourite. Even made dessert. And I am not a sweet tooth.

I had two bottles of cognac. Remy Martin. Only our favourite would do. We would either find our way back to each other after the talk or we would leave each other. But I could not be accused of not having tried.

I packed my Samsonite bag in case we couldn’t find our way back to each other. I didn’t want a drawn out goodbye as I packed if that should be the case. Or, as with Stan, to have clothes left with my mother.

I placed my Samsonite bag in the spare bedroom. The dinner was ready. Then the dinner was cold. Thandi did not come. She did not send a WhatsApp voice note. Nor a text. She did not answer my one call. And when I tried calling again, her phone was off.

I knew she had switched it off. Thandi, my then Maasai girlfriend whose name means love in Zulu hated dead batteries so she kept two fully charged powerbanks on her at any one time. On entering someone’s home her first request before even asking for the WiFi password or where the bathroom is: “May I charge my powerbank or phone?”

I warmed myself a plate of food. I had dinner. Even ate dessert. I drank Remy straight from the bottle. And I cried. I have never cried for a relationship before but Thandi, a Maasai girl whose name means love in Zulu, made me cry.

At 6 in the morning, I showered in our en suite bathroom. Thandi had not come to bed. Maybe she had not come home. I would leave.

Except. Thandi had come home. In the spare bedroom when I opened the door, a strange woman sat up in bed. She had been expecting Thandi. She saw some other woman she didn’t know. She had a question on her face. Who are you? I smiled a tight smile. ‘Hello.’

‘Hi,’ she answered. ‘Thandi ako?’ I asked. ‘Toilet,’ she answered. As I looked at her, I felt a stab in my chest. Her cheap weave, her garish make-up not washed off before she slept… and… and… her cheap blue bra likely bought at the Globe Cinema on top of my Samsonite bag.

If Thandi had wanted us to break up, did she need to sink this low? That blue bra on my Samsonite bag. That, to me, was the last straw. I flicked it off my bag, took my bag and walked out of Thandi’s home.

Tonight was the first time I saw her since the day I left. The kurudan that I transfer to whatever handbag I use was not accidental. The meeting at Manor 540 was. The restaurant now serving the best fish in town used to house the British colonial governor, Evelyn Barring. An interesting place to bring NGO Brits in Nairobi in 2018. But maybe NGO Brits have to eat too. Although their ability to discern good from bad food is questionable.

She moved away from her NGO wazungu and I from Nina. We sat down and talked as we shared a fish dinner. The intimacy of sharing the fish so big tampered with the anger in my voice. It got heated. I noticed that the waiters often wanted to intervene. One time the manager came through and asked ‘is everything alright?’ in a solicitous voice that threatened eviction. Thandi explained something to the manager. He left.

She explained to me too. Something different. It was all too overwhelming, she said. She was not ready for a serious relationship, she stated. She didn’t know what to say to me that’s why she did not come home for dinner that last night, she added. The other woman meant nothing. She didn’t even remember her name, she assured me. I nodded, appearing to understand. ‘Why don’t you and your friends join Nina and me at J’s after this?’ – ‘Great idea,’ Thandi who is Maasai but whose name means love in Zulu said. We walked out together, one big seemingly happy group.

On reaching J’s, I smiled at her and, ‘since I have finally found closure, first brandy on me.’ Closure my Bikram yoga ass. I got us two brandies. J’s is crowded as is usual for Thursday nights. The kurudan found its way into her glass before I walked back to her.
‘Thanks babes,’ she said.  ‘I’m glad we are cool now.’ She drank.

In her last minute before passing out, I saw that look of recognition. Of knowing what I had done. In the first week of my return from India, I had told her about kurudan and its effects. How farmers who are unable to repay their debts take some with brandy. She just probably never imagined she too had a debt to pay. Until that moment before passing out.

‘I don’t think Thandi looks too well,’ I said to one of the wazungu, ‘My phone is dead. Maybe someone should call an ambulance?’ – ‘What’s the number? What’s the number for the ambulance?’ One asked. I started crying.

J’s. Thursday night. During live music. The band is jamming. The crowd is dancing.
The place is crowded. Wazungu on my table are yelling. Thandi, a Maasai woman whose name means love, is thrashing. And I, I am secretly smiling.

Everyone around me sees me crying. But they don’t know. Closure. I finally got mine today. For a cheap blue bra on my Samsonite bag.