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Kila mtu atabeba msalaba wake by Mercy Adhiambo

{~~This gorgeous  essay won a prestigious award in Kenya.  I am proud to say that the author is my friend, daughter, and  sister whom I love, love, love (Yes, More than Chocolate) I love you, Mercia.}

mercy3.jpgMercy Adhiambo. Kisumu, Kenya

Kila mtu atabeba msalaba wake

~~No quote beats my grandma’s mantra as we grew up – Kila mtu atabeba msalaba wake… every person shall carry her own cross. Her words like blowing wind would go…nothing more, nothing less. Just that quote that she used when addressing all situations. Like the instance when she declared my favorite garlic a banned substance in our home saying that the onion fueled sexual libidos. Girls who ate garlic ended up getting pregnant when young- either a girl had her clitoris chopped off, or stopped eating garlic. Not in so many words when I pushed her, but true to tradition she would say  Kila mtu atabeba msalaba wake…” The words stuck with me and I would always remember them later in life when in catch 22 situations. Imprinted in my mind. In her subtle yet gentle voice, she would talk about crosses and consequences.

Tererem. Tarum! Terem…like talking drums, slow and deliberate. She would hammer it in me. Like the Eastly monsoon winds that has no formula, her words would blow.

From when I was a young girl, running wild and chasing the moon…trying run away from the moon. I didn’t quite understand why the moon is always running after me. I would blow air into my cheeks to get more strength to outrun the moon. I would run, and run. Gazing at the sky, and wondering, why the heck is the moon running after me? why only me?

And I would run fast, the wind tossing my lean body away from the moon…Sometimes I would get into the hut and peep from inside. And the moon was still there, just outside the hut, as if daring me to come out and race. So I would get out very fast, and once again try to run from the moon. The moon did give me a lot of trouble when I was a child. And grandma would tell me in her usual voice…

”you will carry your own cross. Don’t try to run away from the moon. The moon doesn’t move. Msalaba wako

Like I would believe her.

Often, in my attempt to outrun the moon, I would find myself lost in a deserted cotton plantation, trying to maneuver my way home, in the descending darkness that would have been caused by the moon’s disappearance.

Crosses indeed.

How as little children, we would go to school and write on the ground. Our fingers were our pencils and the ground was our books. ABCD…we scribbled on the sand as our matronly teacher walked around, marking our work from the ground, and straightening our feet, teaching us girls to sit properly because our mothers had forgotten to buy us panties again. Sometime some of us fell asleep under the tree which was our class, when the sun got too much and the hunger hit too strongly.

The rainy days were bad, the ground was too tough for us to write, so the teacher opted for us to sing “Mungu yu mwemauntil the sun came out and it was safe for us to learn writing again.

Did not work for me.

I was impatient to learn how to write. I wanted to be able to read the large books that Sapna, our Asian neighbor who attended private school had. I couldn’t wait to read and giggle at books like Sapna did. The pictures of red rabbits running across pages held me so strongly. I wanted to know what the rabbits were all about.

Mhhh. Mzigo ndio huwo wazidi…the crosses are getting heavier.

So, I sneaked into grandma’s room and with my heart pounding, I untied her yellow flowered handkerchief and took out three shilling. I bought my first pencil and a razor blade to sharpen it with. it was a red pencil with black stripes. I have memorized the feeling of having my first pencil. I will never let it go. Each single feeling is here in my mind. The tallness of the pencil as I twirled it around my hands. The smell of wood as I sharpened it. The taste of lead crashing against my teeth as I licked my first pencil…and the tiny pink eraser at the end tip of the pencil. I chewed it off and swallowed it that same day. I wanted to feel the salty taste of the eraser. All that is in the diary of my soul. A place where I cant describe without losing the intensity of that moment. Ah! Nothing tastes better than the taste of your first pencil.

Every damn cross. Every one of it…we shall carry.

I cannot forget the look on grandma’s face as she counted and recounted her coins later that evening. As she looked for holes in her yellow flowered handkerchief. And then she prayed… I don’t know why. I was too young. She mumbled something to God and then told me never to steal her money…or else I’d carry a huge mzigo.

Mercy Morande na mizigo! My crosses…every person will carry her crosses. Heavy and light upon our backs.

Later that night, I took an old newspaper that my grandma had wrapped tomatoes in, and on the sides that didn’t have prints, my pencil had its first contact with paper. Never to stop.

My writing. My salvation. My joy. And sometimes my sorrow. But most of all, my helper when carrying my mizigos. Oh, yeah, I know, my writing is that man who helped Jesus carry his cross on that day after he had been betrayed by his friend, and rejected by his bestest friend. My writing is a person. I personified it ~ a loooong time ago. Sometimes words just jump off me. in my mind, I have a concoction of words that rarely make sense.

To help me carry my crosses. My mizigos. The consequences that grammy talked about.

Came teenage years and, and I would save money to board the flamboyantly hand-painted passenger vans expressing  street art culture with loud ghetto hip-hop booming from large speakers – just for fun. I would hop into the van, and go to the town center, just because I wanted to feel hip and associate with the town dwellers. I wanted it all. I hated the village life. I used to lie on my mama’s ornate mat and dream about life away from the village. I hated the smell of the smoke coming from the hills where women used to smoke their fish. Again, my grandma’s words would echo. The consequences were there alright. Like the day I was seated at the back of a van labeled Manyanga that played exclusively rap and reggae beats, and then this man who was seated next to me started running his fingers on my back, and touched my breast. I was so scared.  I don’t think there is a day that I have ever held my breath that much. Oh! I almost did die. The guy didn’t even look at me. and neither did I look at him. I was 14 years old then~ and that was the last time I boarded those vans.

Tererere. Tarumpu! Like drum beats. Slow and intentional. See how Mercy’s mizigos are raining hailstorms. But grandmama warned me…she knew everything.

She even told me about the paradoxes of our motherland’s rich versus poor policy. You were either prominent or nobody. The have and have-nots. I was the have-not who envied the haves. The mother of my mother told me to stop it…my grandma warned me. I will carry my own cross.

Mhhhh. True. I can testify that.

Against my advice, another ‘prominently’ poor friend went to a ‘prominent’ back street quack who botched the operation using crude methods. Foreign bodies remained in her womb. I didn’t know it and thought she was lucky to be alive.

Weeks later she developed complications and died. Her uterus had rotted because she was scared of seeking assistance. I remember her dying and telling me never to undertake such a risk.

Param, param, param…crosses and mizigos. And I cant say that I didn’t know, my grandma had told me about crosses.

Another friend died immediately after high school because she wanted to get married to her high school sweetheart and their parents refused over some long standing family feud coupled with the dynamics of coming from different ethnic backgrounds.

She roasted herself. Poured kerosene on her body from head to toe and lit the matchstick.

She died a week later. An agonizingly painful demise. On her deathbed she held the hands of both mothers and told them that she’d died to reconcile them. That the two families should henceforth stop the grudges.

Kabum…kadum…Grams voice would thunder Kila mtu atabeba msalaba wake…

Aha! I know the story well. I can tell it to you for thirty nine days.

Oh, grandma. This is an ode to you. I miss you old woman. I just miss you telling me about mizigos. Mine are getting heavier daily. You talked about mizigos, but you never said thet would be this heavy…crosses. Crosses. Crosses.

Sisters always stick together. Through my teen years my parents were always fighting. Papa chasing mama with a bottle. Waking up and finding mama looking at her broken tooth in front of a  cracked mirror. Mama Beth, mama’s best friend cutting mama’s hair because her scalp was bleeding…Mama screaming for help as Papa rained blows on her…I grew up with a constant fear that my father was going to kill my mother. I grew up thinking that I would wake up and find my mum sprawled on the ground, dead. Silent and gone forever.

I grew up fearing noise. A plate dropping in the kitchen would make my heart sink. I would feel my heartbeat increase. I would cover my ears when sleeping, but mama’s footsteps running around the hut and papa chasing her would still penetrate my hands on my ears.

My grandma was my sister…kila mtu atabeba mzigo wake

I would seek solace and refuge at grandma’s home which has now remained my home ever since she died. Her grave sitting quietly, her words floating in the wind. Waiting to be captured and written down for all humanity to read and comprehend.

Everybody shall carry their own crosses! Indeed.

Enter the dating world and her voice hissed even louder, when I first told her that I had a boyfriend and that I had broken my virginity. Her look. Her look. Her look. God dammnit. Why cant I remove it from my head?

“You left your blood on a bed sheet at a hotel in town? that is not how we do it…”

My! Oh my! Mizigo yangu mazito mama. My heavy burdens. The mizigos and all!

Mhhh…my boyfriend, with a tattoo on his arm. Who smells like morning. Who left me for another girl. Who I still love.

Carrying crosses. Yeah. That stare from my grandma that day must have been a curse. Old people do curse my friends. Its true. Listen to what they say, so that when they are gone and cold on the grave, you can remember what they used to say, and sometimes cry, and other times laugh.

I remember how my friend Lisa once told me that before she met her husband, she’d been using her vagina efficiently, and had seen so many penises that were she to attach them end to end, she would be able to supply piped water to her father thousands of miles away at her village in the highlands, but finally it was one penis that brought her that elusive happiness.

When I told my grandma this story, she shook her head and said in a scary whisper…

Kila mtu atabeba mzigo wake…everyone shall carry her own cross…”

True. I have learnt. My grandma only spoke of truths. Some of them were only true in her mind, I have continued eating garlic.  And now she is dead, along with everything else, especially her generosity. But her words still remain in me. imprinted, never to leave me till I die.

How can one person be so right? How can one phrase carry your entire being? How can a person so old and different be a representation of who you want to become? How can two people be one and alike yet so different? How can words impact and touch your very core? How?

People, let me tell you…Kila mtu atabeba mzigo wake. Everyone shall carry her own cross. And listen to me, because I tell no lies. I have seen it happen, and it has happened to me too.

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  • Reply
    November 30, 2010 at 6:50 am

    Yay!!!!! This is me….

    i love me…and I love you more

    • Reply
      November 30, 2010 at 7:03 am

      I love you, too! I want to be like you when I grow up! 🙂

  • Reply
    bedroom sets
    December 16, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    How else are 12 year olds, or anyone else, going to learn what these words mean, unless you use them? Please don’t be afraid to put them in your book. There is no book worth reading that doesn’t have a few words that some people might not know beforehand. Readers will figure out most of what you are talking about from the context, or horrors, they might just have to look up the occasional French word.

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