Grace was not like us: she skipped goat-roasting gatherings when our children got jobs outside Sugartown; when our children were getting circumcised and we erupted in ululations on the surgeon’s final whistle; when one of us gave birth and we visited to see how ugly or beautiful they were, with oxtail for the child’s bones; when one of us died and we camped in their homes drinking teas, sodas and wailing.
When we weren’t tilling our farms, we were playing draughts under the shade of the fig tree at the market or haggling with passengers in matatus over roasted maize, groundnuts, bananas or sitting in our shops hoping for customers who paid with cash and did not ask for credit. Grace on the other hand bartended in Red Square Bar all day, as if she owned it, even on Sundays when we all gathered in Juda Israeli Church to remember God.
“What a tragedy!” we said, “To inhale fumes of cigars and watch broken spirits of lonely men all day, and never stop and smell the flowers or chew sugarcane!” There was no sadness in her eyes, but an acceptance of something bigger than us. We wanted to know her thoughts because in Sugartown we all said our thoughts. Grace wasn’t a stranger amongst us. For three or so years, she lived with us, set foot where we set foot, and drank from the streams we drank from. Like the umbilical cord, useful once and useless later, she detached herself from us. Guarded beneath her watchful eyes and quick strides, like a mistress in the presence of the main wife. We felt mocked because our hearts, as were our lands, were fertile with a love and we didn’t hold back.
Sugartown was a small county, surrounded by vast sugarcane plantations stretching as far as the industrial town, Webuye—we knew it was Webuye because of the giant network boosters and FM radio satellite dishes, huddling atop Cherang’anyi hills. That was as far as our eyes could see to our east. To our west was Mount Elgon gazing down, a huge mountain that cooks itself from within. There was a day that mountain threatened to erupt, forcing Matakwei and his Sabaot Land Defense rebels, who resided at its foot, to flock the nearby towns like Chwele and Cheptais, and even Sugartown. Matakwei’s reign of terror scared principled men and stubborn women, who did whatever he asked for fear of torture and death. But Sugartown took everyone in its embrace: rebels, our relatives, prostitutes after Nzoia Sugar Factory paid our harvest money, fatigued long-distance truck drivers who stopped before resuming their travel to Uganda and Congo, carrying away our sugar, and people like Grace whose story we did not know, but never asked.
Grace, with her lean face and slender Nilotic physique that denied her thick thighs and big buttocks like the rest of the women in Sugartown, was a dry story without emotions, a noiseless stream. But the townsfolks say that it is the calmest people that have the loudest scandals. She moved with suspicion, stealth like a thieving dog, and her piercing stare made the drunkards drop their hands as they moved to touch her buttocks. The other barmaids would smile and say, “This is not soap that will get finished.” We wondered why she worked in a bar if she didn’t like the catcalls and flirtations.
Then we caught her talking to Eli, a single father of one, who avoided women, for longer minutes than a beer order lasted, not twice, but three times. She laughed and gently tapped his shoulder. We said, “At least she is normal,” albeit in such a minute way as a laugh and a tap. After a month of this tender dalliance, Eli died, leaving behind his daughter, Sella, who was about eight years old. We said, “How will she raise another person’s child?”
During Eli’s funeral, we wailed for him, for his child. We beseeched him to greet our husbands, wives, fathers, mothers and children who had gone before us. Grace sat dry-eyed, still like midnight, holding Sella’s hand tightly and biting her lower lips so hard that veins ran across her face like little streams of water. After the funeral concluded, she rose to her feet, walked away with Sella from the fresh grave without looking back, and we felt her heart was hardened by life. “She might have a hand, who knows. How does a man drop dead without sickness?” we whispered.
A day after Eli’s burial, Grace came to me to ask if I could watch over Sella as she was going for the night shift. Even though her compound and mine shared a kei-apple hedge, she had never crossed over to my side. It was the pay week when Red Square belched with satisfaction, the customers spilling onto the patio and holding their beers. During the pay week, men hid behind caps and big jackets and sat with burly women who crooned and touched their beards making demands they couldn’t refuse. Now, standing in front of me, Grace wasn’t requesting, it was a command in the way she handed over Sella’s food tin and sweater, and left.
At midnight, Grace knocked on my door to pick Sella. I told her she could pick her up in the morning, but she said no and I opened my door to her in the backdrop of the moon glowing in the night sky, that for a second, she appeared like a supernatural creature, her shadow disappearing under her feet.
“You didn’t feed her any of that fish, did you?” she asked me, now standing in the middle of the room as I lit the lantern, the smell of fish heavy in the air.
“I have never poisoned anyone.”
“She is allergic to it,” she said, her eyes on me. “That is why I gave you her food. I wasn’t a fool.”
“You barely know her and—”
“She is my child. Don’t!”
It was how those words leapt out, hard and cold that I didn’t speak no more. Her smoldering eyes shot me a disdainful look and her hand was folded into a fist.
The next day, as we waited in the butcheries, as we hawked our wares by the roadside and as we killed time under the fig tree, we agreed she could never manage motherhood. She lacked gentility, fragility and basic patience of listening to a fellow mother. One did not wake up to decide, I am a mother. She is my child.
The townsfolks said:
“Is it alcohol she will sell or caring for a child?”
“Next time she brings Sella, tell her a mother must grow ten hands and a hundred eyes.”
“But a child belongs to the community. Let us not punish Sella.”
“Yes, but Grace must know that it is us who will carry her coffin when she dies, and she should stop her arrogance.”
“Is it arrogance or frankness?”
As if she heard us, Grace came out of Red Square, wearing a white shirt a size too small, the bulge of her breasts restrained by force. As soon as we saw her, we started packing away our meats, arranging our wares and the bottle tops on the drafts board, and stripping the maize so we didn’t meet her eyes. There was a truck stalling by the highway, and we thought she was going to talk to the driver because one never knew with these barmaids. But she looked towards Bungoma, then towards Webuye, crossed the highway and came straight to us.
“They want mukombero and roasted nuts,” she said to those with these wares, who scrambled towards Red Square.
Grace was still standing in front of us in her miniskirt wrapped around her long firm legs. Someone tapped my elbow, but I wasn’t going to talk. One of us finally said to Grace, “Won’t you join us this evening for tea? We will be in Roda’s house.”
“Of what use is it, this tea?” she said, “To interrogate my relationship with Eli and feast on my loss?” Her eyes pierced us, dried our voices. “I thought so.” She walked away, never looking back and entered the bar.
“Such insolence!” we said, dusting our hands, pulling our mouths, and spitting.
“Does she think she is better than us?”
“I only thought it would help distract her,” one of us said. “But what an island!”
Sometimes when the sun dried all our energy in the afternoon, we counted the tractors and trucks heading to the factory. We congratulated ourselves, a tiny town like ours fed those in the capital city. We told ourselves that the president was tasting Sugartown in his tea too and we high-fived each other, our laughter colliding. That Wednesday, we had counted maybe twenty, maybe thirty tractors, when a pickup truck appeared, throwing out the municipal council askaris in our direction. We dived into the sugarcane plantation with the speed of wind. We dashed into people’s homesteads. We entered Red Square and came out through the back door that led to the lodgings. We jumped on our bicycles. We called on our dogs, Swara and Maximum, to come to our rescue.
Anytime the askaris came to Sugartown, they confiscated our wares, clobbered us for operating without licenses and threw us in their trucks like bags of bhang from Luanda. They always asked nonsense questions: “Where is the sanitation license? Where is the permit? Did you consult with KARI before selling these bananas? Are these not GMOs?” Some people said the askaris were rebels dressed in police fatigues.
I didn’t make it past the fig tree as one of them grabbed my legs, throwing me to the ground, “Old woman, how many times have I warned you about hygiene? Look at you, selling maize and looking like ifukho.” He called me a mole. That burrowing animal that lived in the soil like an outcast.
“Let her go, she is my aunt,” Grace said. “Weren’t you here just last week?” She eyed the man, her eyes scorching more than the sun, and he let go off my hand. Walking away without challenging her, he signalled to the rest to get into the vehicle. When they left, we gathered again, asking what Grace told the men to make them run off.
“Did you see? One of them saluted her, called her mum.”
“No, not mum. He said madam.”
“She had folded a fist ready for Kungfu.”
“Ah! I know those men and I know she sleeps with them.”
We all agreed with the latter for there was no way a woman like Grace could command such respect. But as the day coiled itself to sleep, we returned to our houses, carrying questions in our heads and into our beds. I could not stop thinking about the look on Grace’s face. She threw daggers at those men with a familiar resentment like people with an ugly past.
Our questions kept growing because another morning, as we killed time in the market, word travelled from Nzoia Sugar Primary to the watchman, who told the women selling mandazi outside the school, who told a boda boda rider, who told a little girl, who told the milkman who told us that Sella had fallen from a tree and broken a limb. I wasn’t done telling Grace when she grabbed a man’s keys to his locked bicycle. She pedaled hard, disappearing down the dirt road. We ran after her and caught Grace on her way back, Sella’s leg dangling as she pedaled furiously up the hill into the health center. We gathered around the windows, breathing on the panes, making them misty.
“Numb the pain. Have you no experience with fractures? Give me that,” Grace said, snatching the small tube of medicine from the timid nurse. Grace read the inscription on the bottle and threw it on the table. “Give me a bandage. Now!” We had never heard Grace speak like that and we looked on, our mouths ajar. Sella wailed. Grace beckoned Sella to be strong as she fastened the bandage round her knee and used a ruler to hold it in place. Sella whimpered. Grace asked for aspirin and the nurse, who always talked to us like we were children ran to the adjacent room and emerged with a box. Grace then asked for a telephone and dialed the landline, speaking in a muffled voice.
We watched her pace in front of the health center, biting her lip till it bled. She spat. Paced. Spat. We wanted to tell her that everything would be fine, that no child ever died of a fracture in Sugartown, but our advice stayed under our tongues. Soon, sirens grew louder as the first ambulance to ever drive through Sugartown arrived. We scurried out of its way, and watched the men, swift and precise, pull out a stretcher, lay Sella and drive away.
Grace kept bringing Sella to my house when she worked late, and this opened a door to know the true Grace underneath her cocoon. One of those nights, the middleman, a small man of short temper, came to my house. I hadn’t received my payment from the factory after they’d harvested four hectares of my sugarcane.
“I don’t know… those rebels have threatened the company,” he said, “taken a fraction of the farmers’ money and want a hectare from each scheme.”
Grace arrived at that moment, about eight p.m., and sat down. I pressed some money into his hand to help me get my payment and he shuffled out into the dark, leaving behind an awkward silence and a stale odour. Grace, after watching Sella eat, asked me about the unpaid dues and if it had happened before. She asked for my land number, and I brought out the title deed.
“I will ask someone,” she said to me, after studying the title deed. Turning to Sella, she said, “Do you want more soup my love?” Sella shook her head.
“Are you hungry Mama?” Sella asked. Grace said she was.
I’d never thought of offering Grace anything to eat since the first time I tried, and she said no. Sella got up and gave Grace a morsel of the matoke. Tears gathered behind my eyelids for the children I had lost in war and life. Who would feed us? Grace chuckled and said the matoke did not satisfy her. “Didn’t you eat at work?” Sella asked and did not offer Grace any more of her food.
“Whose selfish child is this?” Grace asked, poking Sella, who finally offered her another piece.
I wiped the tears and prayed for Grace’s unfazed heart and her completeness despite lacking the things we cherished in Sugartown. How could someone survive without sugarcane plantations and huge monies? Without birthing her own children? Without many friends? Without giving a damn?
Grace gazed at me, “I will help you, senge.”
“Life has robbed me,” I said. “When can it release me?”
“Senge, they will harm neither you nor Sella. Not under my watch.” She was whispering, siting so close to me that I could smell the outdoor smell on her cardigan. “When they return, tell them you will not give up your land. Do you hear me?” But I was thinking of how the rebels filleted skin off their victims and raped women in front of their husbands and children. No. Grace continued, “They will return twenty-four hours after your defiance. I will be right here.”
“My husband and sons tried to fight. Where are they now?”
“I won’t die. I’m from the jungle and in the jungle, you eat or be eaten. I do the eating.” Her voice was hard and this time, it wasn’t fear that seized me, but relief for the conviction in her voice and I knew Grace wasn’t a barmaid. “In this town, you talk to the wrong people.”
When she left, I lay in bed listening to the silence of the night, the occasional distant groans of the sugarcane tractors and thinking about the time when Sugartown was called Bukembe. Perhaps we shouldn’t have started using its moniker, Sugartown, because it drew attention, brought unwanted guests. The bed felt hot, and I kicked away the covers. I should have moved away when I lost my family because there was nothing for me here, but familiarity felt safer. Perhaps it was true as people said that the sugar mill was our biggest curse, bringing along with it the never-ending appetite for money and lovers, the endless slavery of what came with structured payment, the loss of time and family. We lost ourselves.
The middleman returned after a night with three men who worked at the slaughterhouse and indeed, we talked to the wrong people. They left my house full of rage and promised to make me crawl on my knees when they returned. The next morning, I went to the slaughterhouse to tell them they could make me crawl there, right there on the blood, because my sun was already down the horizon on its way to set. But I found the slaughterhouse closed. That day, the townsfolks grumbled at the lack of meat in their dinners. Did they toil hard to end up eating plain vegetables?
Sugartown was laden with news of the rebels taking over people’s homesteads, wives, daughters, houses, and land in other towns. In our town, they had taken over the hardware and three shops. Like a painful sore, we felt the fear, heavy on our chests at the mention of Matakwei’s name. Some of us left; some of us, including Grace, stayed. I stayed on, not because I was brave, but because Grace held some mysterious card and clarity like an elder.
“It is almost done,” she said.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“It can’t rain forever, can it? First the gathering, then the pouring, then the calm. We are almost there.”
The evening we called each other and gathered in Red Square Bar to watch the news on TV that Matakwei had been killed, we marveled as fire poured from the skies to the forest around Mount Elgon. In the blurry images of corpses that hovered on the screen, I swallowed hard and thought of my family. A bulging police commander who looked like he’d swallowed the rebel leader was talking into the camera about the eight-hour operation that he described as ‘the biggest chase of the year’. Someone pointed at a woman with a mohawk, the mid-section with ragged hair, her piercing eyes staring into the camera as she stood next to the commander.
“Isn’t that our Grace?” he asked.
We looked around and Grace wasn’t in the bar. We left our seats, drew closer to the television. Some of us ran to her house to confirm she wasn’t there either. We trembled, watching her dressed in military uniform as she spoke big English and thanked the civilians for their co-operation.
In the end, Grace, as we all knew her in Sugartown, wasn’t Grace but Celestine Ajok Awang’ Barchok from Sabaot, a woman that never missed her targets, a government informant, an army commandant, and an acting whore.
The news about Grace’s existence amongst us stayed with us. We told our children, and our children told their children that she was the coolest woman to ever live in Sugartown.