Grandma’s house had a green wooden door. The timber had been cut into thin bamboo-like pieces, polished and put together using carpenter’s glue and nails. My great grandfather, who had made a career working with wood, had built her home right next to their own on a plot of land Gathiri had helped her parents buy.
Later, after buying land in what had previously been a colonial sisal plantation, Juja, grandma moved. Not having the capital to purchase new material and build a permanent structure, she opted to tear down her tin shack three-roomed house and re-use the iron sheets for her new home. The tin roofing was carefully pried free from the nails; and the timber was cautiously set aside in the hopes of rejoining the house. After the whole house had been torn apart, her furniture was piled into a lorry and the long drive to Juja Farm commenced. That first night, after arriving and unloading everything, they slept in the open – exposed to the elements and, back then, woodland savannah teeming with a colorful array of wildlife.
Decades later, I’ve often heard that locals warned the arriving party not to build on the site they’d chosen but their advice fell on deaf ears. During the April school holidays when I’d visit grandma, the house would occasionally seep water through the floor or through the back wall. Every rainy season, behind the house, there existed a swamp – with the mandatory, obnoxiously loud, male bull frog.
Grandma in a white blouse with a colleague during a 1961 trip to Israel
My mom says grandma was not an especially gifted businesswoman. Having spent much of her career in white collar positions, she was slow in adapting to the rigors of the jua kali (self-employed) sector. Some of my earliest memories of her are as a charcoal seller, operating a kiosk in Gikambura, on one of the back alleys that faced away from the market. It was in those same shadowy spaces that I’d hear Zaire’s Mbilia Mbel and Franco take over Kenyan airwaves with their seductive Lingala rhumba.
Grandma was, however, a gifted farmer. She could wrench the fruits of the earth from what had been previously barren soil. Her Juja neighbors thought her mad when she planted, of all things, trees on her farm. “Trees don’t grow here!” they vowed, using the same warning tone they’d invoked about the swampy building site. They were wrong. My grandma’s compound became one of the few where you could see trees. The area is flat, grassland savanna; trees can be seen from miles away. Whenever we went to visit, the landscape mostly populated with thorny acacia trees, the tall blue gums and the flaming Jacaranda outside her house served as a navigational bearing. Her fruit orchard was soon producing pawpaws and passion fruit – previously unheard of in Juja. During the passion fruit season, her visits to our house meant an abundance of fruit. It was from her that I first observed the, yet unproven, (pseudo)science of identifying male vs. female pawpaw seeds. Apparently, if you dangle a needle from the end of a thread just on top of, but not touching a pawpaw seed, the needle will be magnetically attracted to the seed if it’s male – or female, I forget exactly how this works. All the same, I have memories of my dad and I attempting to separate viable male vs. female pawpaw seeds under grandma’s keen tutelage.
Her attempts at animal husbandry were equally successful. She could turn a single ewe and ram into a worthy herd in no time. Sheep give birth about twice a year. We’d visit one year to witness her flock dwindle to 5 – courtesy of hyenas as the sheep were grazing, worms, or coughs – and return a year or two later to see a flock of almost 30, all reared from the original 5. We used to make fun of how lambs that were left behind as the rest of the herd went out to graze during the day, would follow her around the house and garden. She had Abel’s gift and was a veritable sheep whisperer.
I’d travel to Juja in the company of my mother, younger sisters, and grand uncle and his family. Usually we’d use their cars – split between two convoys. Our first stop was often the newly opened Uchumi Hyper Supermarket. Over the years Uchumi Ngong Road has lost the prestige with which it was first opened. Back in the day, this was the height of middle class respectability. The red and white plastic shopping bags spoke volumes about a family’s ability to climb up the ladder. This was the spot to pick the (almost) mandatory groceries: packets of sugar, tea leaves, salt, cooking oil, maize and wheat flour, loaves of sliced bread, etc. On times when we’d make the journey without my grandma’s brother, my mom would hoist the package onto her back – the quintessential Kikuyu woman.
Using public transport to get to Juja was arduous. It meant a bus to town, then a number 237 van to Thika, though we’d actually alight at Juja/Muchatha. And yet that was just half the journey. At Muchatha we’d have to sit and wait until one of those fame-me-face-you trucks converted into passenger vans arrived, and got fully packed with people, goods, and often domestic animals. Kids such as myself and younger sisters, obviously didn’t need a sit so we’d stand in between rows of adults – lost in the dank, sweaty interior of the van. It was usually much better if the van was not covered with a tarpaulin sheet. That way I could stretch out and swing back and forth as the vehicle lurched in and out of potholes. But that also meant exposure to the midday savanna sun and dust. Often we’d alight at Juja Farm and embark on the last quarter of the journey by foot. This route often passed by the Harris farmhouse – a white family that had settled here ranching and practicing horticulture. With all these adventures, accompanying Baba Kamau to my grandma’s, his eldest sibling’s, house was always a lot more enjoyable. Often we’d get to grandma’s place by about midday; this gave us a couple of hours to prepare lunch – usually a couple of chickens or a goat if there were enough of us AND we’d informed grandma before hand so she could prep the barbecue. If we drove there, it was also more likely that we’d all head back home in the evening, often getting back to Ngong very late in the evening eager to forego dinner and jump straight into bed before school the next day.
Sometimes though, my sisters and I would be left behind – especially at the beginning of school holidays. We’d stay there for 2 to 3 weeks, until my mom came back to pick us up, or we’d head back home in the company of Njoro, my mom’s youngest brother. Staying in Juja for the holidays meant taking the animals out to graze in the morning. Sometimes I’d only have to get them to the herdsman and he’d keep them for the day before I picked them up in the evening. One school holiday I accompanied Wa Ngoiri, grandma’s herdsman, everyday. I remember having to do a lot of walking, and always coming back in the afternoon famished. Or I’d join other village boys and together we’d herd the animals, often under the supervision of an adult. Working in bands of boys, we’d get someone’s dogs and recruit them into a hunting party. I remember once capturing a baby antelope, courtesy of one of the dogs, killing it and taking half of it as my counterpart took home the other half.
Sometimes Njoro would not only take us back home, he’d also visit Ngong at the beginning of vacation and take me back with him. Back then he was wild enough that my parents felt the need to warn him not to spend too much time in Nairobi’s movie halls before getting to Juja. He’d partly grown up in Maringo section of Nairobi – as a “born tao” (someone born in town) he was suave and cool in a way his village buddies could not comprehend. For instance, he could navigate the city’s traffic at a time when most of his Juja friends had only been to the city once or twice – if at all – mostly on day trips organized by the school.
One such trip from Ngong to Juja unraveled into much drama. We’d already made it to Nairobi CBD, embarked onto a 237 minibus, and we were just about to alight at Muchatha. As we standing up, and Njoro was maneuvering a bag of dried maize my mom had given him for grandma, he accidentally hit one of the window panes next to him and broke it. The bus conductor as well as the driver were up in arms. There was no way we could leave, they said, without having paid for the damages. Needless to say, we missed our Muchatha stop and kept on bickering with the bus operators all the way to the final stop at Thika. I think there was even mention of police station to force Njoro to hand over cash for the damages. I’m pretty sure he had some money on him, courtesy of my mom, but being the smooth operator that he believed himself to be, he had no intention of parting with it. The decision was finally made that I’d head back with the bus, get down at Muchatha, go see grandma about some money for the broken window and return with it. Meanwhile, Njoro plus all our luggage would be held ransom until I returned.
Disembarking from Muchatha, I caught the face-me-face-you truck and made it to Juja Farm. My twelve-year-old mind calculated that instead of walking all the way to grandma’s house it made more sense to go to Mr. Harris’s house, take money from him which he’d surely get back from grandma, and hence set right back on rescuing Njoro. I walked to the white farmhouse, raised on a platform above ground, and with a verandah all around it. I’d never been here before, and we’d not been previously introduced to each other. I knew of him based on what both grandma and Njoro talked about. Grandma would visit his house once in a while; and Njoro would eventually work on the family farm tending vegetables. I’m fascinated to think about what they’d have talked about – grandma and Mr. Harris. Language was certainly not an issue. Grandma’s English was impeccable, so much so that her Juja neighbors nicknamed her Mama Njoroge wa Githongo, i.e. Njoroge’s mother who also speaks English. That she could converse with a white man in his language, without any fear, must have endlessly astonished her neighbors.
For them, this was another reminder of how much Gathiri, or Nyina wa Njorogo, as most of them knew her, had attempted to break away from the female gender roles pre-assigned to her. If I remember correctly, I met Mr. Harris and 2 or 3 other family members. I introduced myself and explained what had happened. I underlined that grandma would get him his money back but that I needed it urgently, before Njoro ended up in prison. Mr. Harris indeed handed over KSHS 500. I can’t imagine what he’d have thought of the tale! I rushed back only to meet Njoro at Muchatha. He’d walked away by leaving my bag full of clothes with the driver, and made it home with the bag of maize. He was to return the next day to retrieve my clothes and compensate the bus operators for the broken window. There was nothing else to do but to get back onto another face-me and finally head to grandma’s house, minus my luggage. In the subsequent weeks, a never-ending twist of events resulted in me permanently separated from my luggage. Njoro went back a few times but never came back with the clothes. One pair of jeans had plastic gems embedded underneath the front waistband and I was quite fond of it. I hated having to part with it!
The rest of the vacation was thankfully uneventful. In addition to herding grandma’s cattle, goats, and sheep, I’d run errands to the village shop. When my cousins were around, grandma only entrusted me with purchasing cigarettes for her. This was a big job for me; and I remember her asking me to bring them straight back to her without showing my cousins. It felt thrilling to be entrusted with such an important task. Eventually, however, smoking prematurely ended grandma’s life – a result of lung complications, most likely lung cancer.
Years later, Gathiri would move in with us in the last months of her life. One day, grandma was out in the yard; she’d taken a walk outside the house, and was re-entering the house through the kitchen. Just a few meters from the door, she slipped, probably tripping on one of the many stones and pebbles that litter our yard. Weak, grandma fell face first. Sitting inside the house, I doubt I could have heard her frail voice from such a distance; on my way out the kitchen for an entirely different reason, I spotted grandma struggling to get off the ground and back on her feet. Her previously full bosom had now turned flat and emaciated; and she was hoarsely calling out to my mother, “Annie, Annie!”