Adhiambo lived in the Kibera slum, on the sixteenth alley, in a small two bed-roomed house. She had two daughters and a son. To earn a living she sold ground nuts by the roadside and begged for alms from passers-by. Every evening after her work at the road side she would send her two daughters, Atieno and Aoko, to the street to beg for alms. One evening she closed her ground nut business early and came home to prepare her daughters to go out as usual.
Atieno and Aoko had just come from school when they heard, “Kitendawili?” It was their mother.
“Tega!” they all replied and ran towards the door, bubbling with joy. They were used to communicating in innuendoes, insinuations and allusions; their conversations were heavily coded, and only them could understand one another.
“You are going out today,” she said. “Yesterday you did very well. With your success I am able to buy each one of you a pair of shoes. Last week you also did well. I am sure today you will use your wit to get something extraordinarily big.” Then, flagging them off, she said: “Go pick a pocket or two, or three, or four. Come home safely, dear.” She kissed each one of them on the back of their hands as she normally did.
The two flew into their bedroom and came out clad in their night dresses and hooded sweaters. “Kitendawili?” they bid their mother and brother bye.
“Tega!” the old lady and the younger brother responded.
They hurried down to the Mfangano Street which was usually crowded by people who were doing their late and last-minute shopping for the day. These were mostly working class people who had to carry vegetables or some commodity for their kitchen. Mfangano Street was also known for its congested shops and kiosks, open market for second hand clothing and as a meeting place for adolescent boys and girls. As a result of the latter it was also called Love Street.
Here, Atieno and Aoko mingled among the people, looking up at people in smart suits and those carrying heavy luggage. They checked about for women who carried expensive handbags in their hands. Anyone with a Nokia phone was an automatic target. They were intelligent little girls whose sharp eyes roved with dexterity and experience; they were capable of catching a glimpse of the “right cow to be milked” that evening. They were quick to listen to conversations of groups of people who either were buying or selling, and would make quick judgements as to whether they were worth something.
“Kitendawili!” Atieno whispered.
“Tega!” Aoko replied in an undertone, and quickly followed her. Atieno moved close to a tall dark bushy-bearded man who was busy scratching a phone card with his coin while holding his phone with the same hand with which he was scratching. He was standing next to a long rickety wooden table on the narrow path that was crammed with passers-by. Atieno squeezed herself beside him and stood in front and below his armpit and pretended to be looking at something to buy. There were second-hand cups, mugs, tooth-brushes, pens, exercise books and shoes. As she rubbed against the man’s belly, Aoko skillfully inserted her two fingers into his coat pocket and successfully removed a purse. She then slipped away quickly.
“Kitendawili!” Aoko said as she weaved her way among the people, disappearing down the narrow muddy path. Atieno on hearing the remark followed swiftly with great speed. They went to the vast Mboya Park. Bubbling with anxiety and joy for the success, they opened the purse. Alas! It contained only papers: an Identity Card and a Personal Identification Number Certificate. There was no money in it. Not a cent. Disappointed, they cursed! Then they hurled the purse into the middle of the field and rushed back to Mfangano Street.
Once on the street, they saw a woman who was buying vegetables. Her handbag was dangling from her right shoulder. This time Aoko went to the front. She quickly removed her razor blade from her hooded jacket and moved closer to her. She at once ran the blade across below the zip, and then stood in front of her to obstruct her from concentrating on the handbag; Atieno got the chance and quickly inserted her two fingers into the torn bag and pulled out a mobile phone and a handkerchief. She slithered away quickly.
“Kitendawili!” Atieno said as she squeezed through the mass of people. Upon hearing the hint, Aoko left the place in haste and followed her sister. When they reached the Mboya Park, which was now covered in darkness, Atieno took out the mobile phone. Once in her hand, it rang and sent them into panic. “The owner is ringing, Atieno! Iweke off upezi!” Atieno immediately put it off and quickly slit it open and removed the SIM card. “This is about seven thousand shillings,” Atieno whispered, heaving a sigh of satisfaction. “Mom will be happy with us.”
“She will be grateful,” Atieno added, taking in a deep breath and letting it out in a whoosh of excitement.
They once again set off to Mfangano Street. It was now totally dark and few people were lounging about. Even those selling vegetables and clothes had packed their wares and were counting their money ready to leave for their homes. Atieno and Aoko now lacked the crowd to shield them from being seen as they carried out their clandestine activities. They strolled, seemingly relaxed and, purposelessly, darting their eyes here and there, and talking to those sellers who had packed and were waiting for the parking boys to collect their wares for storage. At times they would take time to flirt with the street boys who were also out to get a kill. At the far corner of the market was lying something like a carton left on its own. Aoko noticed it from where they were walking and alerted Atieno. “Atieno, kitendawili!” she whispered.
“Tega!” Atieno replied moving close to Aoko to find out what opportunity was at sight. Aoko then pointed her hand over yonder. “You see it?”
“Yes,” Atieno whispered.
They both hurried toward the spot, each one walking in her own direction to avoid being noticed. They converged where the object was. Sure enough it was a carton wrapped in a black polythene paper with a thick sisal rope tautly running round it. Aoko stood beside it intending to have her legs conceal it from being seen by people in the market. Atieno bent down to touch and feel what was inside. “Kitendawili?” Aoko asked.
“I can’t tell what it is,” replied Atieno, as she pressed the corners of the carton. “Let us just carry it all the same,” Atieno concluded. Atieno curved her index finger into a hook and placed it under the sisal rope and lifted the carton up, then started walking with it toward the far end-corner of the market. Aoko followed, looking in all directions for anyone who might notice or who might be approaching. No one was looking in their direction and no one approached. The darkness was now thicker than it was at the beginning and they could not be seen from a distance. They placed the carton under the fence and squeezed their small bodies through a narrow opening. They came out through the other side and were now on the main road. They walked quickly beside the road on the tall grass.
Suddenly they saw a man running towards them. Aoko suddenly threw the carton down and was ready to run, while Atieno had started crossing the road, ready to flee. But the man crushed past them and did not even notice the abandoned carton. They quickly picked it up and walked faster up the road. They branched to the right, walking along the sewage water that moved in a snail’s pace down to the road. They reached the narrow alley that snaked between two rows of buildings. Their house stood on the right of the alley in the middle of others. They climbed the rough porch and swung the untidy curtain that hung on the doorway and went into the house. They dropped the carton on the floor and both heaved a sigh of relief, and wiped their sweating faces.
“Kitendawili, mama!” Atieno and Aoko spoke spontaneously together, their faces bright with joy.
“Kitendawili, my daughters!” mother spoke and came forward to meet them, her chest heaving in anticipation.
They opened the carton with abated breath. The sisal rope was so tight and its knots were hard to undo. Their young brother brought a knife and cut the sisal twine tying the carton. Inside the carton was another layer of polythene that was also tied with a sisal rope. They cut this as well. “What can this be!” their mother wondered loudly, as her daughters looked on with anxiety. The mother pressed the polythene paper to feel the thing inside. It felt soft and amorphous. She took in a deep breath and let it out in a whoosh of bewilderment. Her fingers were nervous and her head felt heavy upon her neck. “What can this be!” she wondered again, as her daughters were getting uneasy with her anxiety. “Mummy, are you worried what might be inside here?” the young boy asked. No one responded. They peeled one more layer of polythene and then tore the last one. Uh-oh--There! A brown thing! Eyes! Nose! Mouth! Legs! What? A baby girl? Is she dead? Is she alive? What the hell!
“Atieno, Aoko, what hell is this?” their mother screamed, perplexed.
“Mummy eh!” Atieno exclaimed, moving back.
“Oh, Mummy!” Aoko said, her mouth gaping, clutching her cheeks in her palms.
“Remove the wrapping to unveil the head!” the lady cried, confused. Atieno’s trembling fingers pulled the polythene away. The head and the black hair were visible. All four stood back and watched in disbelief. They were transfixed on the floor, tongue-tied, shaking like grass in the wind. Adhiambo looked on and for a moment she thought she was dreaming. What has hell brought to our house today? This is bad luck! What can we do now? Oh my God!
The first thing that came to her mind was to throw the baby outside in the alley. But, oh no! It was still early and someone was bound to see her carrying the thing. She decided to throw it in the dust bin outside their house, so that the litter collector would take it away in the morning. She summoned everyone to go to sleep so that she could manage the tragedy alone. The girls and the boy left without a word, tongue-tied, shocked and dazed.
Alone, she wrapped back the polythene papers and tied the carton with fresh sisal ropes that she pulled from her old baskets. She then brought a big sack from under her bed and stashed the carton into it. She then carried it out of the house. As she stood at the door, she could see that people were still walking along the long winding alley. Also in houses next to the alley, lamps were still burning. If she threw the carton in the dust bin outside, she would be noticed by a neighbor through the window or by a passer-by walking along the alley. She left the door and decided to go back into the house.
She sat panting, lost in deep thought. She was confused, apprehensive and bewildered. At some moment she dozed off on the chair where she was sitting. At about midnight, Adhiambo peeped through the door to study the situation outside. It was quiet. The lights from the wooden windows had long gone off. The music from the shops and adjacent houses had long died. It was safe, she thought. She would now walk out comfortably and, without an iota of suspicion, push the carton into the dust bin and come back to the house.
As she placed the carton in the bin, she suddenly remembered that the following day was a Sunday and the litter collector could not come for the waste until Monday morning. Surely the dead baby could not stay in the bin the whole day. It needed urgent disposal. The waste bin could not help. She picked up the carton from the bin, heaving, and held it firmly in her hands. She tottered into the house. She sat on a chair and took in a deep breath and let it out quietly. She was filled with so many thoughts that crisscrossed in and out of her mind.
Oh, yes--the toilet! She could throw it in there and it could be safe. The toilet was shared with the neighbours, but no one was going to look into the hole every time she or he used it after all. She took a torch and carried it in one hand while the other hand held the carton tightly under her arms. She tiptoed out, and jumped over the sewage stream that flowed gently down the alley; she was completely oblivious of the stench. She reached the toilet. She pulled the door towards her slowly, and entered into the tiny space. She flashed her torch into the hole and noticed a conglomeration of worms, making something like froth of beer. She then squeezed the carton through the hole, stepped on it with her foot and it finally went through--Pu! The sound was so loud that she thought someone had heard it. She put off her torch and stood silently for a while, listening to the crackling silence of the night and the noise of her own urgent breathing. She flashed her torch into the hole again. Much to her chagrin, she saw that the carton had not sunk into the froth of beer. She flashed her torch into the hole again, and stayed looking in there for a long time, not knowing what to do. The carton had not sunk, but was floating on the worms. The human waste appeared to refuse to ‘swallow’ the thing. Maybe, during the night, she thought, the worms would crawl over it and by the following day it would be concealed. With her fingers crossed, she went back to the house.
In her bed, she was too tense and uneasy to sleep. The night hummed with moths and insects as she lay between the sheets, listening to the croaking of frogs from the sewerage system nearby and the creak of wooden structures outside the house. In a daze, she dreamed of vampires and ghosts, of people shouting and admonishing her. At one time in her nightmares, she thought she heard the baby scream from inside the toilet, and saw people coming towards her to beat her up for throwing away someone’s baby. And at times she heard the baby sing from where she lay dead, and at other times she heard it laughing so hysterically, mystery and wonder in her voice.
At two o’clock in the morning, Adhiambo startled up from her sleep. She had been dreaming that policemen had come to search for the dead baby and she was found with it. She was sweating all over her body. She jumped out of bed and tiptoed towards the door which she opened; it was dark outside. Leaving the door ajar, she tiptoed back and picked up the torch from where she had kept it early in the night -- on the small table. She came to the door and peeped outside. Gathering courage, she stealthily walked towards the toilet. Once there she opened the door and silently stood on the toilet floor. She then flashed her torch into the hole. Much to her shock, the carton had not sunk an inch. It was still floating on the sheet of worms. She trembled. She became nervous and her mind went blank. The carton lay there like a big monster, a devil of a thing, a ghost, a witch, a …..She felt like screaming. She thought of shouting “A baby! A baby in the toilet! Come all and see!” But people were not going to believe her. She went out and took a long stick and tried to push the thing down. It only stirred, but remained adamant, defying all effort that came through the stick.
It was dawn; the cocks could be heard crowing from a distance. In an hour’s time people would start walking along the narrow alley past the toilet. She had to decide what to do, and do it immediately. She decided to retrieve the carton and bring it to the house, keep it there until she found the right thing to do. She quickly walked back to the house, crawled under the bed and pulled a sisal rope. She then picked up a piece of wire that was lying in the corner of their house. She bent it into a hook. She then tied the sisal rope to the wire hook. She walked out of the house and went to the toilet. The night was still silent and dark. The stars looked grimacing on the sky. The wind that blew by sounded like a dirge. Once in the toilet, she lowered the sisal rope and reached the carton. Good God! The hook caught one strand of the sack; she then pulled the sisal rope and-- thank God in all things! -- the whole thing came straight up with a minor struggle and nudge through the pit hole. She heaved a sigh of relief as she carefully placed the carton on the floor of the toilet. With her body trembling, she examined this monster which had defied all her architecture and physics. Worms were crawling all over it. She cleaned the worms and the human waste with the newspapers that were hung from the roof of the toilet that were used by people who could not afford the toilet tissue. She then carried the carton that was jeweled with pearls of crawling worms into the house.
She laid the carton under her bed. It emitted a pungent stench which, she imagined, could be felt a hundred miles away. She feared that the neighbours would get the whiff of the foul smell through the windows of their houses. She closed the window so that the smell could not go out. But the smell was suffocating, so stinking that it woke up the children. “Mummy,” Aoko called, as she came through the doorway that led to their room. “It stinks.” Atieno and the little boy followed Aoko, and all stood, gazing at their mother. They had not been asleep all this time, but had been engulfed in terror even as they listened to their mother’s movements in and out of the house. Adhiambo asked Atieno to open the only window that faced the alley.
It was now six in the morning. Mama Wanja, a neighbour, came knocking at their door. “Adhiambo! Adhiambo!” she called. Adhiambo opened the door with trembling fingers; her breath came thickly, quickly. “Adhiambo,” she started, “did you hear the commotion last night?” Adhiambo’s lips became dry.
“Wha, wha, what co-commotion?” her lips felt stiff and frozen, she could not find the words. She shook with fear, the colour receding from her face, leaving it as white as the marble wall.
“Something or someone was moving to and from the toilet.”
“Oh---!” she exclaimed and stopped. Her mouth seemed to be coated with sand.
“Something was going on; I could not tell what it was.”
“Well, I didn’t hear anything,” she spoke and her throat closed with panic. Suppose they already know? Suppose one of them had opened the window last night and spotted my figure? Maybe they know, maybe they don’t, surely they do, surely they don’t…
As the two women spoke, the waft of the foul smell came steadily through the door, and even an insensitive nose could not miss out on this stench. Adhiambo’s face told the whole story: Pallid, flushed, twitching, red eyes, unkempt hair…
“Let me ask Mama Okello if she heard the noise,” Mama Wanja excused herself and walked away. Adhiambo stood there, transfixed, shaking like a bedraggled mongrel. She fidgeted, looked around for any betraying clues: sewage marks on the wall, on the door and on the floor; the intense stench coming from inside; the pieces of worms stamped into smithereens on the veranda… would they see all these pieces of evidence?
Mama Okello, could be seen peeping her head from the door of her house. Mama Wanja leaned forward as she talked to her. They were talking in lower voices. Whispers and gestures were all directed towards Adhiambo. Adhiambo followed their suspicious conversation from the corner of her eye. Her temples pounded and the palms of her hands sweated. Mama Wanja came back to Adhiambo. “Mama Okello says she also heard the noise.”
“Sure!” Adhiambo said and her heart increased in tempo and every beat drummed in pain. She trembled and for a brief moment she saw darkness descending upon her. Her heart sunk.
“She says that the noise was heard by everyone,” Wanja added further.
“I never heard anything myself.”
“It is only you who never heard anything,” Wanja continued her assault. “The rest of us followed it clearly throughout the night.” Mama Wanja hesitated a bit before leaving, her head downcast as though she had got a clue to her many questions. Adhiambo entered her house, checked around with trembling lips, then brought her body down to the floor to check the monster that lay under the bed: terrifying, frightening. Her heart sunk.
Atieno and Aoko had put on their school uniforms and were ready to go to school. She looked up at them and was shocked to realize that she was going to be left all alone with that demon. “You are going to school?” she asked, her voice coming from a hundred miles outside her body.
“Yes, Mummy, what else can we do?” Atieno responded remorsefully. The two girls and their younger brother left the house. They had not gone far when Adhiambo was hit by an idea: She could have given them the carton to throw away on their way to school. She grabbed the carton, and in a split second, she was staggering out with it, calling “Atieno! Aoko! Wait! Wait! Wait!”
The neighbours quickly came to their doors, windows, staring, as she ran along the filthy alley, carefully clutching the stinking, flayed and dirty carton. “Stop! Take this along with you! Stop, Aoko! Stop Atieno!”
“Mummy, no-o-o!” cried Atieno, trembling, confused.
“Mummy, just keep it in the house!” said Aoko, almost in tears.
“Take! Take! Take! Take it stupid girls!”
“No Mummy!” Atieno pleaded, the words coming out like a scream.
“Take it now! Throw it somewhere,” she mumbled, with a tone of urgency, looking around, confused, mad.
The neighbours had now moved from their doors and had assembled outside their houses, watching with suspicion, wander and dismay. A small murmur started among them as they watched Adhiambo shoving the carton on Atieno. “Mummy, I can’t! I can’t!” She pleaded, gesturing with bewilderment and pain.
“You will take it and throw it somewhere. Okay?”
“No Mummy,” Atieno cried, overwhelmed. She held the carton, her mouth gaping, lost, confused.
The stench of the carton could be caught from many miles away. The neigbours had been joined by passers-by, and they had formed a big crowd on the alley. “What is that carton carrying by the way?” one of them was heard asking.
“We need to know,” another added.
“We must know what that carton contains,” another one remarked. The whole crowd charged, moving quickly towards Adhiambo and her two daughters. “Adhiambo, stop, don’t force them to take it away,” one man shouted. Atieno stood transfixed on the spot, heaving, holding the carton in her hands. She looked around suspiciously. Confused thoughts span and whirled in Adhiambo’s head, and suddenly she began pulling hair from her head. Aoko was sobbing and pulling at the hem of her skirt. Suddenly Atieno threw the carton down and ran away, followed by Aoko. Adhiambo stood there, fiercely pulling hair from her head, bewildered and mad.
“What is inside here, Adhiambo?” one man commanded.
“The- ” she said, but the words stuck in her throat.
“Open it now!” another commanded.
Women, with children on their backs, moved closer. The sellers at the market also ran in to see. The shopkeepers banged doors of their shops and quickly locked them and ran in to find out. The passengers in buses alighted and craved to catch the story. The boda boda riders slowed down their motobikes and stopped to hear what was happening. There was a huge crowd. As this multitude surged forward towards Adhiambo, a deafening squeal was heard, followed by a loud screech, both of which snuffed out the noise of the crowd. A van had pulled up behind them. Four policemen on patrol came out with their guns toting.
“What is going on here?” one of them asked, as people gave way for them to come forward.
“This mama has a carton that is—” one woman started and her words were swallowed by the jostling and shoving crowd.
“Mama, hii mzigo ni ya nini?” a second policeman inquired.
One man in the crowd suddenly burst forward, volunteering to unravel the mystery in the carton. He took the carton and fiercely tore the first layer of polythene paper that wrapped it. People looked on with abated breath. The women in the crowd clutched their cheeks in their palms. Men gaped, tongue-tied. Young men cried with horror. Children looked on, perplexed, confused. The young man then untied a sisal rope that ran round the second layer. He then tore the second layer of polythene with his nails. People filled their lungs with air. He finally rolled out the last layer. Oh! What? A head! Two eyes! Legs! A baby girl! What the hell is this! The crowd went crazy, crying for the blood of the poor widow. “Taya!” some men shouted. “Petroli!” loud voices filled the air. “Kiberiti!” voices shouted in unison.
The policemen shot tear-gas canisters in the air and the crowd took cover. “Mama, twende uelezee mbele,” one policeman said with a tone of urgency. They bundled her into the van and drove away with her and the carton, with the baby’s head protruding out.