“This Is For My Auntie Penzi Who—” by Idza Luhumyo

This is for My Auntie Penzi Who—

sets the whole of flat A against her, and this because she likes to wear booty shorts, and on her head sit coils of hair like snakes, and she drinks and smokes and curses in that deep voice of hers, and with no shame, refers to an old Malindi Italian as her boyfriend.

“I’m telling you this one will spoil our kids,” M’ake Junior whispers. It is a Sunday afternoon and the flat is caught up in that lazy somnolescence that characterizes such afternoons. She is standing with my mother on the second floor landing M’ake Junior, tightening her leso, and seething with an anger that seems to predate Auntie Penzi.

You are saying you,” whispers my mother, anxiously looking around her to confirm that nobody is listening to their talk. “What about my daughter, mn? She sees all those things happening in the house and I cannot even open my mouth.”

M’ake Junior throws an eye towards me as I stand there next to my mother. I shift my eyes, pretending to be more concerned with the graffiti on the staircase walls, the very crayon graffiti for which my friends and I are responsible. But I am too late; she catches me just before I turn my eyes away. Her look says I am tainted, already beyond redemption. And as we part—M’ake Junior on her way downstairs; my mother and I on our way upstairs—her voice floats towards us: “Me I’m telling you one day we will wake up and find that this one has stolen our husbands.”

But my mother doesn’t respond. For she knows—just like I know, and just like M’ake Junior knows, and just like everyone in flat A knows—that Auntie couldn’t be any less interested in the flat’s men: she who barely returns the umeamkajes and umeshindajes and umpendayes that the men aim at her like javelins on the flat’s staircases, her mind too taken in by her Italian love to even take notice of the men’s flirting efforts.

This is for My Auntie Penzi Who—

lives as if she is unaware of the malaise she is shoring up in the flat. It seems peculiar to me, how she seems to be in a world of her own making. How is it possible that she cannot see the discomfort she is causing? Mornings and nights she stomps up and down the stairs in her booty shorts and thigh-high boots. She doesn’t care that people are staring open-mouthed at that hair of hers that never rests from the many bright colours in which she is always dying it, and the eyebrow piercing settling above her right eye, and the spooky scorpion tattoos inked into the sides of her arms.

But how good she is to me, Auntie Penzi. She who has never had an angry word for me. She whose eyes smile whenever they set on me. She who adds honey into her voice whenever she is talking to me. Sunday evenings she sits me between her thighs on the bedroom floor and places my head against her thigh, plaiting wavy kilimanjaro lines on my head. Together, we sing. Mhogo wa jang’ombe nishauramba mwiko. We giggle. Vumilia jirani sije n’tonesha kidonda. Weak with laughter, she tells me about my late father’s childhood escapades. Like that time he was six, walking up to his mother with his clothes packed in a basket, saying that he was off to look for a wife. Or that time he sipped palm wine at his grandfather’s wake and stayed up singing funeral songs late into the night, keeping the entire household awake. She is the only one who doesn’t think I am too young to hear stories of my father, the only one who keeps his face alive in my memories.

I listen to Auntie Penzi as she plans and unplans her life. Listen to how she sneezes and says, “Mtume!”  Listen to how she laughs and laughs and then refuses the laughter, saying “ah-ah!” And on one especially hot afternoon, I marvel as she ignores my mother’s protestations and carries me to Kongowea, where she sifts through the second-hand clothes and buys me numerous shorts and pedal-pushers and hipsters, in this way rescuing me from the itchiness of the tulle dresses that my mother buys for me from the shops at Marikiti, and turning me into the image of the little girl whose mother has washed her hands off her.

This is for My Auntie Penzi Who—

accepts a lift from B’ake Junior while walking home late one night. Spent from spending a whole night dancing in thigh-high boots, Auntie Penzi stretches herself out on the backseat. But when B’ake Junior gets to the gate and hoots, it is not the gate-man Charo who opens the gate but M’ake Junior herself. At first, M’ake Junior doesn’t see Auntie Penzi spread out and fast asleep on the backseat, but then she is screaming and shouting, “Malaya mkubwa wewe,” and then she is asking whoever will hear to hold her back so that she doesn’t hurt Auntie, and then like drops of water the tenants in flat A are trickling out of their houses in their sleeping clothes, craning their necks to better witness this new plot drama.

Not one of them holds M’ake Junior back as she pulls Auntie Penzi out of the car. She kicks at her, and spits at her, and says, “Mpaka nikutoe meno leo.” Not one person is holding M’ake Junior back, but my mother is standing at the edge of the crowd holding me back as I cry and scream at M’ake Junior to leave Auntie Penzi alone.

Muache,” I scream. “Jamani muache.”

But it does not stop, the beating from M’ake Junior, going on and on and on and only pausing for breath when Auntie Penzi is a bundle on the ground, coughing and spitting out a mixture of blood and teeth. Later, after the dust has settled, and after everyone including my mother has returned to their houses, it is Charo who heaves her up the stairs. My mother watches as Auntie Penzi crawls to the bedroom. I spend that night crouched next to Auntie, easing in and out of sleep as she wheezes out the pain. The next morning, her face is puffed up like a fresh hamri. She does not speak except to whisper for a glass of water. And when evening rolls in, she has only enough energy to crawl to the bathroom, to change into a fresh change of clothes, and then to head out into a waiting car.

This is for My Auntie Penzi Who—

returns two weeks later, her face all good and new, and with three gold teeth in place of those M’ake Junior knocked out. Without a word, she walks past my mother watching Maria De Los Angeles in the sitting room. In the bedroom we share, she starts to throw her clothes into her bags. And then I am crying and saying, “Auntie, jamani don’t go,” and she is saying, “You didn’t you see your mother just stand there as that woman beat me up?” and my mother comes to the room and says, “Now you why is it that you are crying?” and she says to Auntie, “Don’t speak to my child like that,” but Auntie is already out of the bedroom, saying, “This malaya money is what you have been eating, so let’s see what you will eat now,” and then she storms out of the door, and down the stairs, and out of our life.

This is for My Auntie Penzi Who—

does not know that about a year after she has left, my English teacher goes from desk to desk, asking each student who they want to become when they grow up. When my turn comes I do not say—like my classmates who have read Gifted Hands—that I want to be a neurosurgeon like Ben Carson. Instead, I say that I want to be exactly like Auntie Penzi. “Yes,” I say, when the teacher asks me to explain, “I want to be like my Auntie Penzi whose smile now glints because of the gold in her teeth, and who, despite dropping out of Ribe Girls in form two, still found a way to pay the rent for our house in flat A, and who always dressed as she pleased, and who loved whoever she pleased, and who grew black dreadlocks on her head, and who did not bother taking her husband to the village  for the dowry negotiations, and who, when the wedding came, extended an invite to every family member but me and my mother.”

This is for My Auntie Penzi Who—

does not know that about two years after she leaves, a car hoots outside the gate to flat A. This time it is Charo who runs and opens the gate, his face beaming with the anticipation that the entire flat shares. No one has voiced it yet, but we all can’t wait to see them, these new tenants about whom we have been hearing and hearing.

The maroon Mercedes gets into the compound, and then a blue Canter, and then what must have once been a green pick-up, now a shade closer to blue, full to the brim with boxes. Behind me, I hear the smirk outlining Fiona’s voice as she says that they must be very rich these ones, what with the fact that their things are all packed neatly inside boxes, and no one is seated on the front seat of the car balancing a Panasonic TV on their lap, and no one is carefully carrying ceramic utensils wrapped in newspapers, and neither chair nor table legs are jutting out of the back of the pick-up. She is still talking Fiona, wondering why two mzungus would ever choose flat A as a place to live, but her voice trails off when we see the door of the car opening, and then one leg, and then another, and then, finally, the mzungu man himself, a man bent down by his old age, looking somewhat out of place, and dressed in what must be the most vibrant kitenge shirt that we have ever seen on a man.

It is like the beginning of a movie, all of it, with everything happening as if in slow-motion, something straight out of the American movies me and Fiona and Naomi watch for dala at Mumtaz Video. Naomi and Fiona are both taken in by the sight of the old mzungu: by his age that inspires more pity than respect, by his hair that is the colour of new cactus rope, by his beard that is red and fiery and sprawled all around his mouth, and by that nose of his that droops, as if any time now it might fall off the face.

But my mind is stuck elsewhere. It is struck by the young mzungu woman who emerges out of the other side of the maroon car. First, that red dress that ends where the thighs begin. Then the black sunglasses that only mysterious women in American action movies wear. Her bustling youth is like a foil when placed against the drained age of the mzungu man. On her head are the curls that our mothers must be trying to achieve when they fry their hair with their curl-kits. Her lips are painted red, stretched out into a smile. Her hands are akimbo like how the games teacher has us do during P.E. Then the slow upward tilt of her neck. I keep my eyes on that neck that must be what we describe in our school compositions as shingo ya upanga, follow it that neck as it turns right to left, and then left to right, achieving a quick survey of the surroundings, and taking in the entire height of flat A.

This is for My Auntie Penzi Who—

would have wanted to hear about that mzungu woman’s dress short and red—that dress which, to my surprise, elicits no sharp intakes of breath from the women of flat A, no mouths twisted in derision. Then her pursed mouth, as if someone has asked her a difficult question, for which an answer must be found. And finally, one eyebrow raised at us, having finally found us out, we who are incompetently hiding behind the stair rail. We duck. We wait one second, two seconds, before slowly raising our heads. She is still looking at us. We are scared and excited, but we are more excited than scared. We twitter, loudly, and the afternoon silence swallows our racket. The mzungu woman shakes her head indulgently, and hands still akimbo, walks towards us with that red smile of hers. That close, her lazy eyes tell of a drunkenness that is a few days old, and her black lips announce a cigarette habit.

Mambo?” she says, the word barely itself in her mouth. Behind me, I hear Fiona and Naomi respond. They must be saying poa, probably sticking out their thumbs to form dole, which is the accompanying gesture to poa. Or maybe they say freshi, which is the newest way of responding to mambo. Or maybe they say fit, which is what we all started saying after Fiona went to visit her aunt in Nairobi for the April holidays and returned with new vocabulary like fit, njeve, vako, and manzi. I don’t know what they say, Fiona and Naomi. What I know is that I am too frightened to say one word to this woman who not only reminds me of my Auntie Penzi, but of what M’ake Junior did to her.

This is for My Auntie Penzi Who—

does not know that about three weeks after the mzungu couple has moved into A1, it is me and Fiona and Naomi, and we are outside the flat playing blada. It is a Sunday and my mother and M’ake Junior and two or three other mothers are spread out on a mat outside the flat as Saumu, the woman who walks around the neighborhood with a wooden Afro comb on Sundays, plaits one head after the other.

As usual, she is complaining about something Fiona. Today it is the sun, which she says is too hot for her, and she starts with that English of hers, saying something about sunscreen, and placing her hand like a shield in front of her eyes, which is yet another habit she brought with her when she returned from Nairobi. But she always does this, this Fiona, especially when it is my turn to play. She just has malali, it’s not anything else. In any game we play—be it blada or kode; mstatili or magurumati—there you will see her, making sure that she goes first, always playing two turns because of that her malali. But I am used to her, and I am happy that it is finally my chemsi, and Fiona and Naomi are inside and at opposite ends of the blada, and I am jumping up and down and in and out and in and out and back in again and again and again into the blada. Because I just started my chemsi, I am still at the first level of the game where the blada is wound around Fiona and Naomi’s knees. And as I jump in and out of the blada me and Naomi chant: “Makwanza, kiguru, haraka, rana, makofi, bubu, macho, in, out, about, in, out, across,” when suddenly the mzungu woman is there inside the blada with me.  She is barefoot, and she is holding a bottle of Tusker in one of her hands, and she is in a T-shirt tighter and shorter than what Auntie Penzi used to wear, and she is in shorts tighter and shorter than what Auntie Penzi used to wear.

I don’t know where she learned how to play blada, but there we are moving together, in tandem, like two people setting out on a journey together, like two dancers who have spent hours and hours rehearsing. Not one of us misses a step as everyone—even my mother seated on the mat, even M’ake Junior who is seated next to her—chants: “One, two-three, four-five, six-seven, eight, nine.”

But then Auntie Penzi’s face floats to my mind.

I see the image of her body lying on the very ground on which we are now playing blada. I see the blood on the teeth she spit out. I stop chanting. I stop jumping. I step out of the blada. I don’t register what is going on around me until I see that M’ake Junior has replaced me in the blada. Now the excitement is even more palpable, a frisson that causes everyone to chant: “One, two-three, four-five, six-seven, eight nine,” over and over again.

And then just like that, the mzungu woman has gone out of the blada, and gone back to A1, chuckling in a gaiety that seems to belong more to a girl than to a woman. Behind her, she leaves everyone but me laughing—laughing in that indulgent way that people laugh at the endearing antics of children. Yes, they all think she is endearing, this mzungu woman who walks around the flat with a bottle of beer in hand, and whose hair is dyed in an orange that boggles as much as it impresses, and who has not one but two rings hanging off the bridge of her nose, and whose arms and legs are a network of ornately-drawn tattoos, and who goes up and down the flat’s staircases in clothes shorter and tighter than those Auntie Penzi used to wear, and who laughs-laughs for long with any man who dares to greet her on the staircase, and who calls an old, graying mzungu her husband, and who, when you look at her, is someone not entirely unlike my Auntie Penzi who

Idza Luhumyo is a writer from Kilifi, Kenya.



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