The Mubenzi Tribesman

The thing one remembers most about prison is the smell: the smell of shit and urine, the smell of human sweat and breath. So when Waruhiu shrank from contact with the passing crowd, it was not merely that he feared someone would recognize him. Who would? None of his tribesmen lived here. The crowd hurrying to the tin shacks, to the soiled fading-white chalked walls with 'Fuck you’ and other slogans smeared all over, scribbled on pavements even, Christ, what a home; this crowd had never belonged to him and his kind. Waruhiu could never bear the stench of sizzling meat roasted next to overflowing bucket lavatories: he and his tribesmen always made a detour of these African locations or kept strictly to the roads. Now he recognized the stench. It reminded him of prison. Yes. There was an unmistakable suggestion of prison even in the way these locations had been cast miles away from the city centre and decent residential areas, and maintained that way by the Wabenzi tribesmen who had inherited power from their British forefathers, for fear, one imagined, and Waruhiu accepted, the stench might scare away the rare game: TOURIST. Keep the City Clean. But these people did not behave like prisoners. They laughed and shouted and sang and their defiant gaiety overcame the stench and the squalor. Waruhiu imagined that everyone could smell his own stench and know. There was no gaiety about his clothes or about the few tufts of hair sprouting on his big head. The memory of it made him bleed inside and again he imagined that these people could see. And he saw these voices lifted into one chorus of laughter pointing at him: they would have their revenge: one of the Wabenzi tribesmen had fallen low. The shame of it. This pained him even more than the memory of cold concrete floor for a bed, the cutting of grass with the other convicts, the white calico shorts and shirt, and the askari who all the time stood on guard. The shame would reach his friends, his wife and his children in years to come. Your father was once in prison. Don’t you play with us, son of a thief. Papa, you know what they were saying in school. Tears. Is it true, is it true? And the neighbours with a shake of the head: We do not understand. How could a man with such education, earning so much, what couldn't we do with his salary. The shame of it.

That is what galled him most. He had been to a university college and had obtained a good degree. He was the only person from his village with such distinction. When people in the village learnt he was going to college, they all, women, men and children, flocked to his home. You have a son. And the happy proud faces of his parents. The wrinkles seemed to have temporarily disappeared. This hour of glory and recognition. The reward of all their labour in the settled area. He is a son of the village. He will bring the whiteman’s wisdom to our ridge. And when the time came for him to leave, it was no longer a matter between him and his parents. People came to the party even from the surrounding villages. The songs of pride. The admiration from the girls. And the young men hid their envy and befriended him. It was also the hour of the village priest. Take this Bible. It’s your spear and shield. The old man too. Always remember your father and mother. We all are your parents. Never betray the people. Altogether it had been too much for him and when he boarded the train he vowed to come back and serve the people. Vows and Promises.

The college was a new world. Small but larger. Fuller. New men. New and strange ideas. And with the other students they discussed the alluring fruits of this world. The whiteman is going. Jobs. Jobs. Life. He still remembered the secret vow. He would always stand or fall by his people.

In his third year he met Ruth. Or rather he fell in love. He had met her at college dances and socials. But the moment she allowed him to walk her to her hall of residence, he knew he would never be happy without her. Aah, Ruth. She could dress. And knew her colours. It was she who popularized straightened hair and wigs at college. You have landed a true Negress even without going to America, the other boys used to say. And their obvious envy increased his pride and pleasure. That’s why he could not resist a college wedding. She wanted it. It was good. He was so proud of her as she leaned against him for the benefit of the cameras. Suddenly he wished his parents were present. To share this moment. Their son and Ruth.

Should he not have invited them? He asked himself afterwards. Ruth’s parents had come. She had not told him. It was meant as a joke, a wedding surprise for him. Maybe it was as well. Ruth’s parents were, well, rich. Doubts lingered. Perhaps he ought to have waited and married a girl who knew the village and its ways. But could he find a girl who would meet his intellectual and social requirements? He was being foolish. He loved this girl. Oh my Negress. She was an African. Suppose he had gone to England or America and married a white woman. Therein was real betrayal. All the same he felt he should have invited his parents and vowed not to be so negligent in future. In any case when they saw the bride he would bring home on top of his brilliant academic record! He felt better. He told her about the village and his secret vows. I hope you will be happy in the village. Don’t be silly. Of course I shall. You know my father and mother are illiterate. Come, come. Stop fretting. As if I was not an African myself. You don’t know how I hate cities. I want to be a daughter of the soil. Ruth came from one of the rich families that had early embraced Christianity and exploited the commercial possibilities of the new world. She had grown up in the city and the ways of the country were a bit strange to her. But her words reassured him. He felt better and loved her all the more.

His return to the village was a triumphal entry. People again flowed to his father’s compound to see him. She looks like a whitewoman, people whispered in admiration. Look at her hair. Her nails. Stockings. His aged father with a dirty blanket across his left shoulder, fixed his eyes on him. Father, this is my wife. His mother wept with joy. For weeks after the couple was all the talk of the area. She is so proud. Ssh. Do you not know that she too has all the wisdom of the whiteman, just like our son?

A small, three-roomed house had been built for them. He became a teacher. Ruth worked in the big city. They lived happily.

For a time.

She started to fret. Life in a mud hut without electricity, without music, was suffocating. The constant fight against dirt and mud was wearying. She resented the many villagers who daily came to the house and stayed late. She could not have the privacy she so needed, especially with her daily journeys to the city and back. And the many relatives who flocked daily with this or that problem. Money. She broke down and wept. I wish you would ask them all to go. I am so tired. Oh, Ruth, you know I can’t, it’s against custom. Custom! Custom! And she became restless. And because he loved her and loved the village, he was hurt, and became unhappy. Let’s go and live in the town, we can get a house at the newly integrated residential area, I’ll pay the rent. They went. He too was getting tired of the village and the daily demands.

She kept her money. He kept his. He gave up teaching. The amount of money he would get as a teacher even in the city would be too small to meet the new demands of an integrated neighbourhood, as they preferred to call the area. An oil company was the answer. He worked in the Sales Department. His salary was fatter. But he soon found that a town was not a village and the new salary was not as big as he had imagined. To economize, he gradually discontinued support for his countless relatives. Even this was not enough. He had joined a new tribe and certain standards were expected of him and other members. He bought a Mercedes S220. He also bought a Mini Morris - a shopping basket for his wife. This was the fashion among those who had newly arrived and wanted to make a mark. There were the house gadgets to buy and maintain if he was to merit the respect of his new tribesmen. And of course the parties. He joined the Civil Servants Club, formerly exclusively white.

His wife spent her money mostly on food and clothes. She would not trust him with any of it because she feared he might spend it on the troublesome relatives. But he had to keep up with the others. Could he shame her in front of the other wives? The glory of their days at college came back. He was grateful and stopped even the four visits to his parents because he had no money and she would not go with him. And because his salary was now too small - house rent, a Mercedes Benz and the shopping basket, all to be paid for - he began to ‘borrow’ the company’s money that came his way. Of course I shall return it, he told himself. Still he learnt to play with the company’s cheques. When at last he was caught, the amount he had consumed was more than he could pay.

Waruhiu left one street and quickly crossed to the next. Though he hated the locations, it was easier to hide there, in the crowd until darkness came. He did not want to meet any of his tribesmen while his body exuded the stench. At night he would take a bus which would take him to the only place he would get welcome. He loved Ruth. She loved him. Her, love would wash away the stench - even the shame. After all, had he not done those things for her? As for his village, he would not show his face there. How could he look all those people in the eyes? As he waited for the bus, the last scene in the courtroom came back.

The case had attracted much attention. The village priest and people from his home had come. The press with their cameras. First offender. Six months with a warning to all educated to set an example. This was a new Kenya. As he was led out of the crowded courtroom, he saw tears on his mother’s face. Many of the villagers had grave, averted faces. Hand-cuffed hour of shame. He put on a brave, haughty front. But within, he wept. His one consolation was that Ruth was not in the court. He would have died to see her pain and public shame.

The bus came. And the darkness. He looked forward to seeing Ruth. Had she changed much? She was a tall slim woman, not beautiful, but she had grace and power. He would take her in his arms, breaking her fragrant grace on his broad breast. Perhaps the stench would go. That was all he now wanted. He was sure she would understand. In bed, she had always been able to still his doubts and he always discovered faith in the power of renewed love. Ruth. He would not seek work in this city. He would go to one of the neighbouring countries. He would begin all over. He now knew wisdom. He would live faithfully by her side. He had failed the village. He had failed his mother and father. He would never fail Ruth. Never.

He came out of the bus. He knew this place. The smell of roses and bougainvillea. The fresh, crisp air. The wide spaces between houses. What a difference from the locations. Here, he was the only person with strong stench. But he already felt purified as he walked to his house and Ruth. He could not bear the mounting excitement.

Near the door, and he heard a new voice, a deep round voice. He felt utter despair. So his wife had moved! How was he to find her new house.

He gathered courage and knocked at the door. At least he would try to find out if she had left her new address. He stepped aside, into the shadows. The sound of high-heeled shoes; how that sound would have pleased him; the turning of the key; how he would have danced with joy. A woman stood there. For a moment he lost his voice. His legs were heavy. Desire suddenly seized him. Ruth, he whispered. It’s me. Oh, she groaned. Ruth, he whispered again, don’t be afraid, he continued emerging from the shadows, arms wide open to receive her. Don’t, don’t, she cried, after an awkward silence, and moved a step back. But it’s me, he now pleaded. Go away, she sobbed, I don’t know you, I don’t. Please - he hesitated. Then came a hard gritty voice he had never heard in her: I’ll call the police, if you don’t clear off my premises: and she shut the door in his face.

He was numb all over. The stench from his body was too much even for his nostrils. All around him people drunkenly drove past. Music and forced laughter and high-pitched voices — laughter so familiar, reached him with a vengeance. Suddenly he started laughing, a hoarse ugly laughter. He laughed as he walked away; he laughed until his ribs pained; and the music and high-pitched voices still issued from the houses in this very cosmopolitan suburban estate, to compete with laughter that had turned to tears of self-hatred and bitterness.