Read The Dream Chasers Online

Authors: Claudette Oduor

Tags: #Chasers, #tribe, #Love, #Claudette, #violence, #2007, #Oduor, #Kenya, #Dream, #election

The Dream Chasers

BOOK: The Dream Chasers
4.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The Dream Chasers

Claudette Oduor

The nomad's true home lies in the changing of the seasons. I dedicate this to hearts like mine—nomads perching in the shelter of a new sentence, dusting feet off on paragraphs, making love to characters. This is for you who are both terrified and thrilled by the onset of a full stop because it means the end of one journey and the beginning of another.


the butcher knife at me, she and I sat at the veranda, sorting pishori rice that she was to cook while I was at church. We picked the shiny little stones that hid within the rice, pushed them to one side of the tray, and slid the clean rice to the other side of the tray. When the clean rice became a mound, Mama poured it into a basin.

We worked silently: four hands, four eyes, tightly drawn lips, beads of sweat building up on two protruding foreheads, and a dozen threads of thought spinning in two minds. A few feet from us, the fresh laundry hanging on the lines surged this way and that, throwing spray on the concrete slabs on the ground. Chickens roamed freely in the yard, pecking at worms and baby lizards, dismembering them, and swallowing them. A mother hen broke crumbs for its chicks. A turkey tore apart a banana peel and ate it. Two geese walked up and down the laundry area.

If the clothes hung low enough, the geese would latch their orange beak onto them and suck their water out, muddying them with their dirty bills. But the clothes were too high up now, so they patrolled up and down, waiting for the moisture to go drip-drop on the concrete slabs below. They ran and caught the droplets before they hit the ground. The geese weren't thirsty; they just liked to play.

Mama was like the mothers illustrated in the
children's storybooks; they always wore a simple gingham dress that erased all the curves from the body and drew straight lines in their place. When I was younger, I had wondered what would happen if she wore something attractive. Would Baba have loved her more or would she have been so startlingly different that I wouldn't have recognised her?

Mama's voice interrupted the dribbling of the laundry water, the clucking of the mother hen, and the swoosh of rice falling from the tray to the basin.

“Chinika,” she said, her eyes trailing over the veranda, over the little silver spears at the top of the perimeter fence, over the pine tips to the twirling cappuccino clouds in the sky.

“Mama,” I replied, and touched her hand, the hand dusted with rice powder. She pulled her hand away, upsetting the tray. Rice scampered across the floor, across the ridges of our toes, and across her flip-flops. Mounds of stone and rice debris fell into the basin of clean sorted rice. “Mama?”

She stood up, shoving the empty tray into my hands. Rice grains ensconced in the pleats of her dress jumped to their death on the floor. “It's the hunger,” she said, wiping her brow, spreading rice dust across her forehead. “It's making me disoriented. Let's go have breakfast.”

We ate boiled maize and bread with tea.

Mama was wrong. The hunger did not disorient her; it was her episodes. They were back. I didn't see them coming, although I should have. They crept on the balls of their feet and threw acorns on the windows of Mama's mind, waiting as she flung those windows open to let them in. Mama forgot to shut the windows after that; she let the draft in as well. The draft hurled her wits about like linen on the clothesline.

Mama reached over for a slice of bread, holding a butter knife over it. She didn't cut it; her mind hovered over the knife. She caressed it, her fingers delicately running over the edge of the shiny silver.

“Mama?” I pleaded.

She dropped the knife on the table. It fell down with a gentle thud.
! It made my teacup shake, making little waves in my tea.

“Go, Lulu,” Mama said. “Go to church.”

Muchai, a childhood friend, waited for me at the
stage. We took one of the public-utility vans to town, got off at Times Tower, and then walked to the basilica. Mass had already begun. The church was filled, so we stood at the back among other shamefaced late faithful who didn't look each other in the eye, even when offering each other a limp, reluctant sign of peace.

The sermon was about Lazarus the poor man who begged outside the rich man's house. Lazarus languished.
“Languish” was a beautiful word. It should never be used to describe suffering.

After Mass, Muchai went off to meet his girlfriend Nyaera, and I returned home.

Mama and I ate rice and kidney beans cooked in coconut milk. We sat in the kitchen, listening to the drip of water in the sink. The tap was constantly leaking into the drain. A drop of water hung from its spout. It jumped down, cracking its head against the basin. Another drop peeked through the mouth, looking for the first one. It forgot to hold tight, lost its balance, and fell like the first drop. A search party of droplets came out, but each one disintegrated like the others.

“You should fix that thing, Mama,” I said.

“Give me a job, Lulu, and I will make enough money to fix the entire plumbing.”

Mama went to lie down. I sat on the steps at the back door, watching her geese pacing up and down the yard, patrolling the turkey and the chicken. The wind shook leaves off the
tree, littering the yard. I stood up and ran after the leaves scattered in the air. Muchai and I had chased leaves when we were younger. He had said that if we caught one, we could make a wish. I caught four and made one wish four times.

Spreading a mat under the
, I took out a handheld radio and fell asleep listening to an analysis of Raila Odinga's campaign techniques juxtaposed with incumbent President Mwai Kibaki's. When I awoke, the shadows had crept in already. There was a blackout, and it was raining. I ate in the darkness—boiled rice with
plucked from the garden. Mama said it was taboo to do this; one might swallow devils down with their food. We were out of candles; I had no choice but to eat in the gloom. Maybe if I swallowed demons down with my food, they would possess my stomach and leave my mind alone.

The blackness at my house was heavy—the kind which held sticks and stones, and prodded at you from all directions, poking fun at your smallness. It made you nervous and wish for some light to measure your physical existence against, to remind you that you were alive and that you were you.

There was a knock on the door. I pulled it open. Muchai stood on the veranda, in a place where the rain couldn't stretch its arms to reach him. I stepped out into the dark, closed the door, and stood against it for a few seconds. I watched the
seize as the wind coursed through its branches, and the sky spat saliva all over the garden.

“Do you remember the story of why Mr Hyena limps?” Muchai asked. “What was it?”

“I do. Mr Hyena heard there was a party. He followed the directions and came across a fork in the road. He couldn't decide which of the two paths to choose, so he widened his forelegs and hind legs, and walked both paths for as long as his body could allow. In the end, he ripped right through his middle.”

“I feel like that hyena.”

“Is there a party down the road?”

“No. Today, I asked Nyaera to marry me.”

“You went down on your knee and asked her?”

“No, I didn't go down on my knee. I just asked her.”

“You said, ‘Nyaera will you marry me?'”

“No, I said, ‘Nyaera, maybe we should … you know … settle down.'”

“What did she say?”

“She said, ‘Maybe we should.'” Muchai stared at me with his small slanted eyes, trying to read the expression on my face. “You think I'm making a mistake?” He tried to pry more words out of my eyes, but I looked away, refusing to let him.

“Have you told your family?”

“I came to you first.”

“They'll be happy for you.”

“Aren't you?”

“You aren't even happy for yourself. We won't be friends much longer, will we?”

Muchai took a step towards me. “Look at me, Lulu.” He lifted my chin until I had to look, until my nose rubbed on his, and his warm breath became mine on my lips. His eyes were a plethora of colours and thoughts and old memories.

The old memories smelt like the prim leather interior of his father's old Volvo, like antiseptic after a knee bruise and the hibiscus-seed juice his mother had made us drink; like dried spit from secret handshakes, the sulphur oil in his sister's hair, and his brother's curdled breath after taking antibiotics thrice that day instead of twice as instructed by the doctor.
I remembered a picture of four stick people drawn with a burgundy crayon whose caption, in a child's wriggly hand, read:
Friends forever and ever and ever. And ever. Says Muchai.

“Take that back,” Muchai pleaded.

Defiance was in my face. “No.” Tears stung my eyes. They weighed down on my eyelids; some of them spilled on to my tongue. They were as bitter as the aloe juice Mama made me take for colds. Muchai watched me as I did the same to him through my tears. His eyes felt like warm fizzy black currants on my face. Finally, he turned away, focusing on a point amid the rows of maize stalks in a neighbour's garden.

“I'm happy for you,” I said. “It's just that … Mama has relapsed into her episodes.”


the electricity bill?” I asked. “It has been forty-eight hours; this is no ordinary blackout.”

Mama ignored me. She continued to claw through the maize cob in her hand, dropping the grains into a

“You should talk to Baba. He will give you money.”

“You know what they say, Lulu? Rain beats a leopard's skin but does not wash out its spots.”

“Mama, those who can't swallow their pride
stones for supper.”

Mama threw the empty cob into a basin and stood up. She fetched a rag from the sink and wiped the table.

I struck a match and lit a hurricane lamp. A jittery flame cast long shadows over the kitchen. I struck another match and held it to the gas cooker. It hissed but refused to light.

“See, Mama? No cooking gas either.”

“Use the kerosene stove.”

I shook the green stove to see if it had enough fuel. Kerosene swooshed against its rounded belly, spilling on to the floor. I lit the stove. It had a reluctant steel-blue flame that stayed below the stove head.

“What's wrong with that stove?” Mama asked.

“The wicks are too short.”

“Put it out then. There is tea in the thermos. We shall drink it for supper.” Mama walked to the sink. She took a spoon and scraped the inside of a sufuria that had cooked gruel in the morning.


She soaped some steel wool. The soap spread like margarine on the silver steel strands. She scrubbed the sufuria, collecting some remains of the porridge. She dropped the abrasive and picked up the spoon.


I poured tea from the thermos into two ceramic mugs.

Mama sipped hers and grimaced. “Lulu, did we pawn our tea leaves to the Shylock? You make your tea all wrong, like a Kikuyu.” She added two bags, which made her drink the colour of red earth after rain. Mama pulled out a chair and sat beside me. “Do you want to hear about my younger sister, Atsango?”

“The one who married a Kikuyu man and died?”

Mama's tea burned her tongue and made her eyes smart. “When Atsango was three, a car knocked her down, broke her neck in two, and disgorged her innards. People said that she was a witch; that she cast a spell on the angel of death, and he let her come back.”

“Really, Mama, you shouldn't speak ill of the dead.”

Mama shrugged. “I know her skin had large pores, and her face had been pasty, like shiny sourdough that had sat too long before baking. I know that she had a curly kit moulded by hand into a flower basket on her head. But it's been too long, and Atsango and I had never been close. I can say anything about her. She was twenty when she met Muhoho, twenty-one when he killed her.”

“But, Mama, you always told me that her husband died first. How did he kill her?”

“Yes, he died first. But then his spirit refused to move on. Our father called a ceremony to chase it away to the other world. He invited a medicine man into the homestead. The rains were near and it was the planting season for maize. All of us were away in the
. Atsango remained behind to cook and to prepare for the medicine man's arrival. He approached the door and knocked twice.


, you have arrived.'

“‘I have arrived.'

“‘I shall slaughter the fattest cock and cook you a banquet.'

“The cock she slaughtered cried
long after its head had been cut. It cried that way because it was trying to warn Atsango that the medicine man was an impostor; that if she served him food, she would fall into a deep eternal sleep. But Atsango did not know how to interpret the cock's
, so she cooked the medicine man a banquet.

“When we arrived from the shamba, we were surprised to find Atsango lying on a mat in the sun.

“‘Why are you lying in the sun?' we asked her.
Shouldn't you be preparing for the medicine man's arrival?'

“‘He came already. He dug his
into the four corners of the homestead, closing the dead man's spirit. I cooked for him. The cock I slaughtered kept crying
long after it had died. I didn't know what that meant.'

Alaa! Kumbe!
' our father said. ‘That was no medicine man. That was the dead man himself, Atsango. He came back for you.'

“Atsango died two weeks later. The Kikuyu man had killed her.”

I laughed. “That's a silly story, Mama.”

Mama pushed away her teacup, stood up, and went to finish scraping the sufuria
she had left at the sink. She poured the remains of the gruel into a dirty plate and pushed it into a corner. It was for her geese.

“Lulu, it's a silly story you say? What do you know about silly? My heart bleeds. Silly is the daughter who teaches her mother how to give birth.” Mama turned to look at me. “Do you know I said the same words to my own mother? She had told me not to eat the remains of food stuck to the bottom of a sufuria
She said that girls who licked sufurias
would never get husbands; they would get leftovers. I told her that that was silly. But look at your father. My mother was right.”

Mama began to sing as she washed the dishes. She sang “Our Father”, “When I Finish Work, I Shall Be Crowned”, and “Everyone Shall Carry Their Own Load, the Last Day Is Coming”. She must have sung all night because, the next day, the shadows beneath her eyes had their own shadows beneath them. They were arranged carelessly, those shadows, overlapping, some squeezing underneath.

“I will try to get the electricity fixed today,” she said, pushing a cup of weak tea towards me, followed by a bowl of

had more beans than maize in it, and the tea was too hot. I let the liquid cool down, while I went out to feed Mama's geese. Outside, wasps whose backsides wouldn't keep still swarmed on the
. On its bark, ants played follow-the-leader, marching up to the topmost branches. Perhaps they thought they could march into the clouds if they stepped off those high branches.

A wind gathered slowly, playing with bits of soil before throwing them up into the air. It hit my face, and specks of dust irritated my nose. A sneeze built up inside me, acting like it didn't want to come out, waiting for me to give up on it, before bursting through my mouth. Over the low gate, I saw schoolchildren dart across the street. They came from the nearby Kuwinda slums and were on their way to the parish school twenty minutes away. Their patched shorts offered glimpses of brown buttocks. An orange slipper fell off a foot, and the child it belonged to stopped to wiggle it back on.

“Wipe your mucus,” his friends jeered in Swahili. “A
is peeping through the window.”

The child ran the back of his hand across his nose, spreading snot to his cheeks. He looked towards my house, saw me watching, and hurried off.

Mama and I sat at the back steps after
peeling potatoes and watching geese play their little game with the laundry water. The hand radio was wedged between us, its antenna poking my ribs, its static muddling the voices that issued from its palm-sized speaker. We listened to Raila Odinga's campaign address, ridiculously high pitched from the static. If we had switched on the television, we'd see the crowds in Uhuru Park, pulsating drunkenly in the sweltering heat.

“Kikuyus must be shaking in their boots,” Mama said. “Raila is going to be president. Finally, the Luos will get their birthright. Maybe I will finally have a job.”

“Nothing much will change,” I said. “The holes in the roads will still swallow cars and people. People will still die of hunger in Turkana. And you still won't have a job.”

Mama hurled a rotten potato into the garden. It hit the perimeter wall and splattered in a mass of grey goo. “Spit out that dirty saliva. Don't say such evil about an honourable man. Of course, Raila will change things when he comes to power. He will change

Potato skins gathered about our feet. We threw the naked potatoes into a basin of cold water that splashed to the ground. The geese looked our way, tempted to guzzle the puddle. Then Uncle Matayo rang, and I gingerly held the mobile phone to my ear. I fumbled to reduce the radio volume, trying not to stab it with the knife in my hand or to smudge it with the potato sap in my fingers. The device edged away from me, bouncing over the steps. Its bowels flew open, and three batteries chased the geese across the yard.

I watched Mama drop the last potato into the big bowl. While I talked to my uncle, she collected the potato ribbons into a newspaper. I followed her to the kitchen, as she carried the soaking spuds with her.

“Uncle Matayo wants to meet me tomorrow, Mama.”

“You're not going.” Mama turned her back to me and pounded garlic cloves. She had a cold; she believed garlic made flu go away. She threw the pestle into the sink. A water glass fell on its side—the sound muted, as though afraid of defying Mama—creating a neat crack, dividing itself into two.

BOOK: The Dream Chasers
4.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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