Sisters and faijis

It was strange, the life my sister and I fashioned for ourselves in a home with a rakish father as a single parent. Stranger still, the role that the four women in Tudor – our paternal grandmother and three paternal aunts – played. With our trips in the little Mini with G****** faiji whose driving skills with her hand gestures and slurs shouted out the window bordered on that of a matatu driver, and the quiet afternoons with Maa in the cool shade of the stately house.

Whenever we visited Tudor, G****** faiji would be popping into or out of the kitchen, or busy arranging things in her ground floor bedroom where she always had songs from old Indian movies playing on the tape recorder. Every weekend, without fail, one or two of the tapes would be chewed up by the old grey coloured tape player – the kind that sits flat on the table – and she would pull the silvery brown tape out of its case, cut off the mangled section, and then stick the two sliced ends together with purple nail polish. A couple of seconds of drying later, she would pop the good-as-new tape back into the machine, turn it to loud and wander out the room. The quick bump in sound as the tape head reached the slippery nail polished section, and then the short gap in music were barely noticeable.

When I was going through the string games phase in primary school, learning how to play games like Jacob’s ladder, Two Diamonds, Cup and Saucer, and Cat’s Cradle, M***** and I came to Tudor one weekend. I was sitting on the doughnut stool at the bottom of the stairs, cross-legged, repeating the games over and over to build my speed and confidence – my friends and I were competing and with my double jointed fingers, I was able to twist the string into the right shape a lot faster; I didn’t want to lose my edge over the weekend – when G****** faiji asked if I knew how to make The House and The Peacock’s Hand. She taught me both games that afternoon, and the following Monday, I proudly showed them off to my friends.

I can still remember them all. My hands have retained the twists and turns of movement better than my brain, and even when I forget a step from thinking too hard about it, all I have to do is close my eyes, start over and somehow my fingers ease into the familiar dance.

When I matured into the sticker collection phase, remembering how I had unearthed special talents in G****** faiji with the string games, I would deliberately carry my collection to Tudor and spend hours poring over the ones that I had bought, the ones I had gained through trade, and the ones I had been lent for the weekend.

And lo and behold, G****** faiji pulled out a beautiful packet of stickers – round, funny faces each with a different expression and bobbly eyes, covered with two toned crinkly  paper and sprinkled with glitter. She gave the whole pack to me, and covetous as I had become about stickers, I hid my favourites in the back of the book and displayed only those which I wouldn’t mind trading at school.

That Monday, I was a hit! No one in school had any like them. They had the two toned ones which showed a different picture when tilted to catch the light just right, the ones of Snoopy in an array of luminous yellow and pink outfits, the ordinary paper stickers of Smurfs, and the plastic coated stickers of Mickey Mouse … but nothing like mine. I traded two thirds of the pack, one sticker at a time, and scored 4 to 5 stickers for each one, and with my favourites squirelled away eventually built an incredible album, one that is still protectively wrapped in a khanga and stored in my cupboard.

My stickers are like my marble collection: a whole net bag filled with different types and sizes of marbles, also painstakingly gathered from competitions played during morning break time. In their glassy variety, they were even more wonderful than the stickers because they doubled up as a game. There was the normal marble which had a single spash of colour on the inside – red, blue or yellow; ones with a metallic finish in sea blue, copper, bottle green or obsidian black; and the large white marble which I won in an essay competition and which never seemed to dent because it was made from acrylic and could bounce without breaking.

S***** aunty, Pappa’s youngest sister, was a lawyer and worked with him at the J***** law offices on the corner of Kibokoni and Makadara road in Old Town. We never spent much time with her alone because we were scared of her. When she was upset with us, she would make these big eyes which were expressive enough to chastise and scold, which would make us hunch down in our seats and keep our eyes firmly averted, and which even had the power to make us cry. All without a single word.

I remember her shouting at us once for eating a piece of chocolate so slowly that the entire square had melted into a gooey mess in our fingers. We were fascinated with the texture of runny chocolate and so of course were taking our time playing it but she was furious. You must put the whole piece in your mouth so that it doesn’t melt and make a mess, she said.

And when she watched a movie during the hottest parts of the afternoon, we – who never had the patience to sit still for that long – would run up and down the stairs, into the rooms, onto the balcony, opening and shutting doors, making an incredible amount of noise in a house where everyone was enjoying a short siesta – and that too never went down very well with S***** aunty.

So M***** and I spent most of our time with Maa and G******. Countless hours entertaining ourselves in the main house, then the kitchen and when we began to get under Maa’s and Charo’s feet, outside in the garden – each absorbed in our own games. Watching the flowers grow; playing hop skip and jump on the cobble stones; reading a book; picking asminis from the fariyo.

I remember once walking around the garden for hours, trying out the new shoes that G****** faiji had just bought for me from Bata. They were brown corduroy on top and had a black rubber edging and sole. They were special shoes for me; I had inherited my grandmother’s feet – five short, widely spaced toes, which tenaciously grasped at whatever was under them. These new shoes were meant to mould my feet into something more graceful, I suppose. Toes that pointed forward instead of inquisitively looking around at a 180 degree angle. I wore that design of Bata shoes from the age of 8 to 11, but looking at my feet today I doubt they did any good. To me, they look exactly the same as they were.

And while my feet cooked in hot corduroy, my sister who had inherited my mother’s long tapered toes slapped around the garden in her blue Bata slippers.

M****** aunty was the third of my father’s sisters who lived in Tudor during our childhood, but she had returned to Kenya from Canada and so we were always a little wary of her. Not as comfortable as we were with G****** faiji and Maa. She was quiet. Often in her first floor room with her flower arrangements while my sister and I would hover near the door watching her walk up to the table on which her stems were spread out, pick a square of green foam and place it at the bottom of a container, and then insert flowers and silver and gold spray painted twirls into it with a flourish, finally leaning back to evaluate the effect she had created. As we ran around Tudor later that day, we would stop to look at M****** aunty’s various arrangements that were dotted around the house, adjust the angle of a single stem and mimic the angle of her evaluating stance.

My sister developed a knack for flower arrangements, and so she gradually moved closer towards the table where M****** aunty stood, watching more intently as she selected a stalk and placed it experimentally against the arrangement. Eventually, my sister M***** would be picking up the stalks and passing them to M****** aunty who would press them into the green foam  absentmindedly with a murmur of satisfaction.

M***** would even accompany M****** aunty for her evening walks in the garden, watching her trim away the dying branches on a bush with her orange handled clippers, tuck a stray branch back, test the graininess of the soil and smell the fragrance of a flower. The two almost moved through the garden in synch – each checking the flower pots on their side of the path.

And yet M****** aunty remained a mystery to us, and even though our familiarity and affection for her grew over time, it never reached the same level as what we had with Maa and G****** faiji. Whether it was her aloofness or the fact that we had already mixed and matched pieces of Maa and G****** faiji into the gap that a mother’s absence had left and had no more space left for her to fill, I am not sure.

*Pappa’s other two sisters – R***** and Z***** – both lived in Milton Keynes and even though the natural amount of affection between aunts and nieces existed, we saw them rarely and never interacted with them as much as the Tudor faijis. His sixth sister, Zebunisa died in her youth but even though we never met her, she is immortalised in our memories because  he named our Kengeleni home and his Lamu home after her.

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