Updated: Dec 25, 2020
IT stands as fact that our attention hop from site to site in search of breaking news. Our phones never rest. Even now a beep might visit our devices with another quencher of curiosity. If other news should flash in the next ten minutes or so we must all ignore it, whatever it might be; until we have heard about the puzzle of The Malava Travellers. This is a true story.
FRIDAY is a market day in Malava, a small town in Western Kenya. On such a day, from dawn, buyers and sellers stream into the town to trade all kinds of merchandise. Whereas traders buy low to sell high, not every trader deals in sheep.
One Friday a sheep trader came to Malava for the first time. It was not known from which place he came. It could have been Kakoyi; it could have been Butali; it could have been elsewhere within Kakamega County, or beyond. Though it was not known whence he came, it was seen that he was an old man who wore a neat white shirt and black jeans.
He had expected to buy sheep low, but times were tough. And it was his standard that if he never sold or bought any sheep by 10am he’d close the day. Past 10am on this Friday therefore, he entered a busy, smoke-filled Kibanda at the edge of the market, to wet his throat with a bowl of soup; for besides being a tough time, the day was hot.
Not five minutes later the holed curtain that veiled the entrance of the kibanda was shifted by a gloved hand. Then, a young woman who looked like a mzungu peeped inside and said to the young man at the counter, “Handsome Kenyan, do you serve sheep soup?”
The mzungu, who had the voice of a singer, had spoken in a deep accent which the young man did not catch. “Come again?” the young man said. Just as the young woman began to repeat the sheep trader, from his table, clarified to the young man what the woman had asked. To this clarification, the young man shook his head at both the woman and the sheep trader.
Before the woman turned to go the sheep trader snapped his fingers at her and said, pointing at his bowl, “Come here, sunshine, and try my goat soup. It has chilli.”
The woman laughed. “Oh, sir.” Other customers in the kibanda looked in her direction. “You are sweet, but thank you.”
“The goats of this town have the strongest soup, come.”
“Thank you, but goat soup? I don’t do.”
“Do not refuse an old man. In these lands when an old man says tsk, you say tsk back.” Giggles arose from the customers, most of whom were young people.
The woman showed that smile which masks inconvenience, but entered the kibanda nevertheless, at a pace of peace. Her perfume came with her. The sheep trader jumped to the opposite bench, where the woman would sit, and slapped the dust off it. The woman touched his hand and said, “It is fine. I would still have sat if it was rough.”
The young man at the counter, who had observed the young woman glide to the sheep trader’s spot, appreciated that she was heavenly in the short purple dress; and had the shape, seen from behind, of an upright-sitting triangle with a wide base, and flowing golden hair. With her, she carried a small white dog, and a travel bag upon her back.
Once the young woman had sat, the two began to chat. The sheep trader spoke in a loud voice that everybody in the kibanda could hear, while the woman spoke in a soft and low voice that only few customers near them could hear. Moving his bowl to the center of the table, and asking for another spoon, the sheep trader welcomed the woman. She carried her dog in her lap and her bag rested on the bench. Two minutes more, the two chattered like people who’d known each other for decades. She laughed, and the trader and everybody else liked how she laughed. He told her he was Lodoviko the sheep trader; she told him she was Gertrude; and upon this he said he’d henceforth call her Lady G.; she laughed and shifted away a flow of hair from one of her eyes.
The young man at the counter kept returning more change or less change to customers who had paid their bills. Soon the woman, Lady G.--so shall we call her--signalled him to come. When he did not notice, Lodoviko himself said, “Tsk, tsk.” The young man rushed to their table.
“Jambo,” she said.
“Do you have bacon?”
“What do you give?”
“Sausages, eggs and other things.”
“One sausage, two eggs.”
Lodoviko, the sheep trader, would not eat anything else.
The bowl was now empty; and as the young man picked it, Lady G. said to him, “I am checking the town out. Wouldn’t mind someone showing me what it has.” The bowl would have dropped to the floor, if Lady G. did not catch it in time. A cough escaped the young man. He received the bowl from Lady G. and their hands touched. He said, “My mother expects me to be here until evening.”
“Mhm,” Lady G. said. The young man left to return with the new order.
When they had finished at the table, Lodoviko insisted on covering the bill for both. And out they stepped. The young man at the counter, and two or three customers, came to the door and behind the curtain watched the two go. Lodoviko, carrying Lady G.’s bag, talked aloud; Lady G., carrying her dog, laughed and once or twice slapped Lodoviko’s shoulder.
Thus, a sheep trader met a taster of mutton that Friday in Malava town. Their occupations complementing the other, a closeness arose between them; their ages notwithstanding. If not sixty-nine, Lodoviko was seventy; Lady G., thirty. It was reasonable to presume that Lodoviko lived somewhere within Kakamega County; while the woman, a citizen of England (so she said) had entered the country via Busia border, for a culinary mission.
EVERY family everywhere carries its burden of life; in some families, however, the burden is one-sided. Within Malava town there lived a family whose burden of life was one-sided. Now retired, the husband spent his days idling at the market shops with fellow men; while the wife tended the home and assured their subsistence from her salary as a county employee.
The husband and wife had two children, both girls. Behind the market shops the husband would be seen meshing with ndogo-ndogo, prodding wombs for a boychild. The cheating did not split his marriage, but cost him the respect of his wife and daughters. Elder daughter had a son, eight months old; while the younger daughter had started her final year at University M, and she was called Syprosa.
If you asked her, Syprosa (Syp) would tell you that she preferred staying at the university. To her older sister, she was not close. Hardly did she speak to her father. And she believed her mother to be a tyrannical parent who scolded her in a screeching voice, adult as she was. The grey look of the home drove Syp to the pious atmosphere of the church. Here, she had risen to the position of organizing secretary for the youth group. Anytime she was home from the university (as the case was now) she would busy herself with the youth group engagements, or horror movies.
But Syp had a boyfriend whom she treasured.
Yet days had now gone without Syp and her boyfriend communicating, let alone meeting. Something was awry. It was not the little concerns that pause the connection between girlfriends and boyfriends for three days. No. It was something profound which had for two months now warped her mind with flashes of guilt. She was a youth leader at the church, questioning if she possessed the virtue to nurse a life. In her arms she carried a little one, her sister’s child. It was in the morning of a market day when mother and elder daughter had gone to the market to buy stock, and left Syp to mind the little one. Syp sat on a foldable chair behind their brick house, rocking the little one in the sun.
The brick house stood at the centre of the homestead. To the left, from the gate, there was a cowpen; and to the right, a garden of vegetables and fruits. A pole that carried a power line was planted in the garden. Through the rusting iron sheets of the roof, a TV aerial shot. And a fence of thicket bound the circular homestead. Compared to the neighbors, they had a rich and pretty home. Outside the compound, they had a strip of land that sloped toward a valley. The strip had narrowed every year because a neighbor annexed small portions through threats, violence and legal claims. They could have reclaimed their land if they had opposed the neighbor’s antagonisms; only, Syp’s father, the man in the home, was too docile for that business.
Anyway, Syp was rocking the little one in the sun.
Babies are lovely, you know; and jolly babies are loveliest. But the little one was not jolly. He was whining. Syprosa would feed him sweets; which he’d dissolve in his mouth, but continue crying. Syp thought he (the nephew) would turn out like his grandmother, temperament-wise. Meanwhile, thoughts about her boyfriend disturbed her core. Sometimes she wished she could disappear. Not the kind of disappearing you might think. She wished to travel somewhere nobody knew her. Become somebody else. She rarely talked though; she was introverted you see. She rocked the whining little one, while these thoughts swirled in her mind.
Of a sudden, she heard a voice say behind her, “Tsk, tsk.”
She turned but saw nothing. Again, she heard the sound. Turning again, and focusing her sight beyond the fence, she saw an old man who wore a neat white shirt and black jeans, carrying a bag; and next him a young woman, who looked like a mzungu, carrying a fluffy white dog.
WHAT did the old man and the mzungu woman want behind Syp’s home?
Syp gestured to them to circle round to the gate; but the old man breached the fence, and the woman followed. He started talking aloud before he reached Syp. Syp cut him: “Who are you?”
“Lodoviko. And this walking sunshine is Lady G. She is a great tourist.”
Syp did not look at Lady G.
“Forgive us for entering from the back,” Lady G. said, “we are lost.”
Syp now noticed that Lady G. was not a pure, white mzungu; she had the look of a South American babe. Syp said, “Where were you going?”
“Malava Forest,” Lodoviko said.
As Lodoviko spoke in his loud voice, the little one stopped crying and studied the visitors, who presented an intriguing aspect.
“And you [Lodoviko] are not from these lands?” Syp said.
Lodoviko said no.
“Look,” Lady G. said, in a pleading voice, “I could have used my phone, but it is dead”--Lodoviko then showed Syp the feature phone he had, which did not have internet--“help us.”
Syp described to them a set of convoluted paths; however, she perceived from their reaction that they did not understand, and would lose their way again. She thought of calling a bodaboda to transport them instead; but then said, more to herself, “Ah.”
She rose and hurried to the house with the little one, meanwhile saying to the two, “Wait for me.” She had designed to guide the two to the mouth of the forest, and return before her mother and sister came from the market. Inside the house, she laid the baby, who had resumed his whining, on the sofa. Then she went into her sister’s room, and out came with a bottle of wine. She gurgled the baby with five mouthfuls; the baby stopped whining and became jolly. The baby would remain immobile and silent until she returned.
Out she went. A little walk about the forest would unload her mind.
SHE found the two waiting outside the gate. From the way they laughed, she supposed them lovers. “Come,” she said.
In front of them she hurried, yet the images of the two floated before her. Lodoviko wore a flat cap, grey; and Lady G. an anklet of beads, with the colors of the Kenyan flag. Lady G.'s elegance brought a plain contrast against Syp, who was small, bony, dark, silent, and moved unsteadily. Placed side by side with this lady, she knew no man would talk to her. She felt insignificant. Yes, she knew her boyfriend loved her for who she was; but she believed no other young man would appreciate her half as much.
“You have a strong son, girl. He will be a bull,” Lodoviko said.
“Not mine,” Syprosa said, wondering why the stranger would remark thus.
Lady G. slapped Lodoviko’s arm.
“He could not be her boy,” Lady G. said in a low voice, “her coconuts are small.”
This, Syp overheard: “I am twenty-three. Not a child.”
Lady G. smiled at herself and lowered her head. She had speculated Syprosa to be sixteen or below.
“Then,” Lodoviko said, “you are the hardworking maid?”
Syp did not answer. Lady G. cleared her throat at Lodiviko.
Through turns and corners Syp led them. In fifteen minutes they’d arrive at the forest.
“Tell her to move slowly,” Lady G. said.
“You like stretching your nice legs,” Lodoviko told her.
“It is hot.”
“We are close, sunshine.”
Malava Forest is what geographers would call a tropical rainforest. If you should visit the place, you will see indigenous trees and other plants, with both dark and light green foliage; and many monkeys. Women and children comb the forest for dry wood for cooking; and herbalists pluck their resources from here too.
We may never know why Lodoviko wanted Syprosa to join them. As they approached the forest, he feared Syp would leave once she got them to the entrance. Lodoviko had supposed that the forest had a designated entrance, at which point tourists paid the entrance fees. He asked Syp what the cost would be, intending to pay for Syprosa as well, as a thank-you for her guidance.
“Nothing,” said Syp.
The forest did not have a particular entrance point; it had numerous paths of access; and you followed whichever suited you. Syp had taken the visitors through the path she used frequently.
“Come with us, little flower,” said Lodoviko, afraid that Syp might refuse.
Did Syprosa decline? no. Between returning home to the whining little one and passing a little time in the serene forest, Syp picked the latter. Besides, she was guiding the tourists through the forest. She still believed she’d reach back home before her mother and sister.
The tour began.
A camera, Lady G. picked from the bag that Lodoviko carried; and she hiked ahead with her dog. Syp and Lodoviko trailed her by ten paces. The two spoke Swahili:
“If you do not come from these lands, where do you come from?” Syp said to Lodoviko.
Syprosa greeted him in the dialect of the people of Kakoyi. Lodoviko did not understand.
“Do you really come from Kakoyi?”
“I am a foreign seed.”
They walked side by side. Lodoviko was twice as tall. Syp held her hands behind.
“When did you buy land in Kakoyi?”
“Before you came to the world.”
“I told you. I am not a child.”
Lodoviko’s frame was bent forwards; but he did not have a belly. As he moved, his hands flailed away from his hips. The soles of his shoes reduced on the outward sides. “I had thought you were a small highschool girl. Form three or form four.”
Syprosa told him that she’d graduate from university in seven months. Which university? University M. He suspected she would be an engineer; the sort of professionals he knew preferred to work with tools away from social disturbance. She studied commerce.
“You have good long hair. Longer than hers.”
“They are called dreads. They are not longer than her hair. Where did you meet her?”
“In the market. I had come to buy sheep. I do sheep business.”
Syprosa had never met a sheep trader who applied cologne. Lodoviko was strange.
“Where will you go with her after th--?”
--“Small! Come back to me. Small!” Ahead of the bend, Lady G. called after her dog.
“--is her dog lost?” said Syp.
“No. The dog is on heat.”
Although Lodoviko was too loud for Syp, she found him amusing. He talked to her, at least. Unlike his own father, who hardly did; and if he did, addressed her as though she was a child.
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