"She put Baby in waterproof paper bags. Then sweater."
Otieno, having satisfied himself, woke up Atieno, who took over the other breast, for they had divided things up evenly between them. Atieno sucked until she slept again, and Mama placed her gently near Otieno and began to shake Baba until he opened one eye. His weak voice vibrated because his face was jammed into the wall: "Food."
"No food, tarling," Mama told him. "We must to finish to call the names of our people."
"You'll be calling my name if I don't eat."
"Here is foodNew Suntan shoe kabire." She reached out and collected the plastic bottle from me. "It can kill your stomach till next week."
"All the children are here?"
"Baby and Naema still out. Last shift . . . and Maisha."
"Ah, there is hope. Maisha will bring Ex- mas feast for us."
"Ex- mas is school fees, remember?"
Mama groped inside the carton again. She unearthed a dirty candle, pocked by grains of sand. She lit the candle and cemented it to the trunk with its wax. Taking the Bible, she began to read a psalm in Kiswahili, thanking God for the gift of Baby and the twins after two miscarriages. She praised God for blessing Maisha with white clients at Ex-mas. Then she prayed for Fuunny Eyes, the name we had given to the young Japanese volunteer who unfailingly dropped shillings in our begging plate. She wore Masai tire sandals and ekarawa necklaces that held her neck like a noose, and never replied to our greetings or let her eyes meet ours. Mama prayed for our former landlord in the Kibera slums, who evicted us but hadn't seized anything when we could not pay the rent. Now she asked God to bless Simba with many puppies. "Christ, you Ex-mas son, give Jigana a big, intelligent head in school!" she concluded.
"Have mercy on us," I said.
"Holy Mary, Mama Ex-mas . . ."
"Pray for us."
It was drizzling again when Naema returned with Baby. He was asleep. Naema's jeans, mutumba loafers, and braided hair dribbled water, her big eyes red from crying. Usually she sauntered in singing a Brenda Fassie song, but to night she plodded in deflated.
She handed the money over to Mama, who quickly banked it in her purse. She also gave Mama a packet of pasteurized milk. It was half full, and Naema explained that she'd had to buy it to keep Baby from crying. Mama nodded. The milk pack was soggy and looked as if it would disintegrate. Mama took it carefully in her hands, like one receiving a diploma. When Naema brought out a half- eaten turkey drumstick, Mama grabbed her ears, thinking that she had bought it with the money she'd earned begging. Naema quickly explained that her new boyfriend had given it to her. This boy was a big shot in the street gang that controlled our area, a dreaded figure. Maisha and I detested him, but he loved Naema like his own tongue.
Now Naema wriggled and fitted her lithe frame into the tangle on the floor and began to weep silently. Mama pulled the blanket from the others and covered the girl's feet, which had become wrinkled in the rain.
"Maisha is moving out tomorrow," Naema said. "Full time."
Mama's face froze. No matter how rootless and cheap street life might be, you could still be broken by departures. I went outside and lay on the row of empty paint containers we had lined up along the shop's wall, hiding my face in the crook of my arm.
Guilt began to build in my gut. Maybe if I had joined a street gang, Maisha would not have wanted to leave. I wouldn't have needed money for school fees, and perhaps there would have been peace between Maisha and my parents. But my anger was directed at the musungu men, for they were the visible faces of my sister's temptation. I wished I were as powerful as Naema's boyfriend or that I could recruit him. We could burn their Jaguar. We could tie them up and give them the beating of their lives and take away all their papers. We could strip those musungu naked, as I had seen Naema's friend do to someone who had hurt a member of his gang. Or we could at least kill and eat that monkey or just cut off his mboro so he could never fuck anybody's sister again. I removed my knife from my pocket and examined the blade carefully. The fact that it was very blunt and had dents did not worry me. I knew that if I stabbed with all my energy, I would draw blood.
Copyright © 2008 by Uwem Akpan
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