My bedroom window opened into a kei-apple hedge that was the fence between my house and that of my neighbour. Every morning as I opened this window I would look right into the fence. There was this spot where someone would choose to put his helmet sometimes.I knew the helmet wasn’t my neighbour’s for if it were; he would obviously keep it in the house and not hide it the fence. I was sure it wasn’t because he did not own a motorcycle. It occupied my mind and bothered me a little. A necessary small investigation a few weeks later revealed that the helmet was there on weekdays between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm but never on weekends.
Mr.Sawo, my neighbor, was a good man. I liked him. He was quite handsome – You have probably met those old men of about 60 who you look at and know must have been strikingly handsome in their youth. However that’s not entirely why I liked him; he always greeted me and waved whenever he saw me at a distance. He would call me “mschana wangu” and it made me feel great. Nobody called me that. It made me feel special. I always thought of him as the father I never had.
One time I went to pick my hosepipe from his house- his wife was one of those women who grow Sukuma wiki behind their house and intentionally choose not to buy a pipe for watering their crop because they know they have a neighbor who has one. I didn’t like her very much. On walking into the compound, her husband did his signature greeting “yes mschana wangu” to which I responded “mzuri” as I extended my hand to shake his. Meanwhile his wife made a face and pulled her mouth about a kilometer away from her nose. I wasn’t sure why but I figured she didn’t like that her husband liked me.
She wasn’t the kind of woman you would advise any man to marry. I must confess that severally when my mind wondered, I would wish I was born earlier than her so that I would take her place. She was loud and obnoxious and you could tell that her husband was very uncomfortable around her. One would get a picture that Mr. Sawo was forced to marry her or she possibly threatened him to marry her. I don’t know but there was a disconnect somewhere. Maybe Mr.sawo was in love with her before, maybe she was beautiful those days. Maybe she stole her way into the bride’s gown only for him to pull up the veil and find a man’s face, maybe like many people Sawo recognized the good –but contented himself with something rather less admirable, and set his sight rather lower than he should have.
Sometimes on Sunday afternoons I sat on a heap of balast that my other neighbour had poured for building but which had been there for two years and no building had been put up not even a foundation, the balast was now firmly secured by a mesh of grass around it and it felt good sitting on it to busk in the mornings. Sawo’s children would come keep me company. (Kids enjoy my company). They’d tell me a lot of things even without my asking. They’d tell me about school, about their grandmother and about how their dad and mom don’t like talking to each other.
Occasionally their dad would join us and when the kids saw him coming they would move to the heap of sand close by and pelt each other giving room for Sawo and I to talk. It was mostly him doing the talking. I would just look at him and feel sorry for him; for somewhere in the distance of his eyes I could see how lost he was in thought as he spoke. I felt as though he regretted a lot about something. Something that happened long ago but which would have made a huge difference in his life had it not happened.
I watched the children play and as they did I noticed something rather strange. None of these children looked anything like Sawo. You see Sawo was a tall man but the kids were quite short for their ages. They were also not as good looking. Looking at them reminded me of a face I’d seen before. A face I often saw only I couldn’t remember whose. I thought hard, I was sure I knew that face but I couldn’t recall.
Next morning there was a knock on my gate.It was the charcoal guy- an African woman like me must have charcoal in her house just in case she runs out of cooking gas. I opened the gate then lo and behold! There was the face I had tried so hard to find, there was the motorcycle, there was the yellow helmet… I fought to hide my shock and succeeded. As he rode off I looked at Sawo’s rooftop and wondered how low a woman can sink… but who was I to judge that which was not my business.