Mother was always worried that someone had intentions to cast evil eyes on her first grandchild.
Her house was unceasingly full of people whose intentions were never clear. Close relatives, distant relatives, sometimes with their children and their help. It was a three-bedroom house that had beds in all rooms except the bathroom and the toilet. There were two double-deckers in the living room, one in the kitchen, two in each of the two other bedrooms. Her bedroom only had one bed. For her and our father. The house was free lodging. Free food. Free water. Free air for liberal farting. Stay as long as you want. She only had two children, three years apart, my sister and I. In an ideal world we would each have our own bedrooms but in mother’s world, sharing was caring and relatives were more important. Only that she was suspicious of all of them.
This suspicion got worse when my sister, then twenty-two, got her first child and being the youngest relative in the house, my nephew was dotted on by everyone. They all gave him googly eyes, kissed him, threw him up and down, took turns sleeping with him. And he was always ill. If it was not his stomach it was a persistent ugly fish scale rash on his body. My mother attributed this to ebhikhokho and would sometimes send me and my sister out to look for sandakwata to cleanse him. She showed the plant to us once. Only once. She had come back home after leaving early in the morning. Her feet were dusty, she had black jacks on her dress, and was sweating that small sweat of hers. After washing up she called my sister and I to her room, with her grandchild, closed the door and told us to watch and learn. She pulled out of a bunch of leaves with tiny yellow flowers from her handbag and put them in front of our noses and eyes. “Smell and look at those leaves very carefully,” she said.
“What are these?” My sister asked with her stunning Catherine Kasavuli-like face. My sister was and still is the most gorgeous human being I have ever seen. Mother had always told my sister that her face would get her pregnant—by a useless man—before her time. It did. To my mother’s satisfaction it was indeed by a talentless DJ. He dressed like Kanda Bongoman but had no clear understanding of what a disc jockey ought to understand. He did not have an ear. “Sandakwata,” my mother said as she started plucking the leaves with her right hand and folding them into the same fist.
“What is it for?” I asked
“To protect my grandchild. What else?”
“Mum, I don’t like witchcraft,” my sister said.
“And who said it is witchcraft? Do you think I can bewitch my own blood?”
“You always do weird things to protect us from this and that and sometimes I just wonder if you are actually causing us harm and blocking our blessings. Look at my life. And your son here failed his Form Four phenomenally. I don’t want my son to end up wondering as well.”
“If I had not done any of those things you and your brother would be dead by now. Some of my relatives are very jealous and I have to protect you people.”
My sister was talking about all the herbs we’d had to sip at different milestones and points of our lives. And the cuts filled with the ash of x or y combined with the splashes of pungent water by Mwombaji Matayo in his Pangani servant’s quarter. Mother swore they were the reason we were still alive and at best not abnormal yet. Now it was sandakwata.
After plucking the leaves, mother put them in a small blue cup and crashed them to a paste with one end of a rolling pin. She then put half of it in a half empty tin of petroleum jelly, then mixed them together. The rest she left in the cup and told my skeptical, unamused sister to be putting a little bit in his bath water every day. Just a little. Then she instructed my sister to remove his clothes and let her rub him with the sandakwata jelly.
“Mum, the doctors said it’s severe eczema and gave me special medicated soap for it already and told me to remove milk from his diet. I even have cream. I don’t think we should be mixing with these things,”
“Is it working?”
“If it was working then it would have been really eczema. But because that medicated soap and cream is useless on this evil coat of darkness on my grandson’s beautiful skin please remove his clothes or I remove mine and call everyone to see. Right now. And let me not hear that you are not giving him milk, you will see my true colors.”
Mother massaged the 10-month old to his utmost relish. And every time he smiled up at her or giggled for the tickle, my mother gave my sister a look. We called that look The Rock of All Ages because it was hard and violent and it was thrown on every dissident, younger or older than mother.
“Look at what I am doing. Both of you. You are the ones who will be responsible for this. Learn because if anything happens to him because one of these people in this house looked at him with charmed evil eyes or pinched him or touched him after visiting witches, it will be your fault. Both of you. And don’t use too much. This thing does not grow in front of your eyes like grass.”
We did it every day until we ran out of sandakwata both for the bath and the massage. We told mother and she told us the next morning we would tie him on one of our backs and go out to look for sandakwata.
“Where?” I asked.
“Stupid indeed. Just zurura everywhere there are plants and grass. Watch out for snakes and dudu manyowa. Don’t go into City Park after foot traffic is gone unless you want to be slapped by monkeys and get rabies.”
We didn’t go on that day because we thought it would be better for us if we mapped out all the areas of Parklands that had considerable flora. That was our worst mistake. Because evil never wastes opportunity and that night the devil saw the opening we had given him. He possessed one of our lodging relatives.
She came home and found that supper was oranges cut in quarters, boiled ndengu and ugali chemsha from lunchtime. This was way better than the days kerosene ran out just as we started cooking and we ended up eating raw sweet potatoes, which for some reason were always in abundance in that house. Lodging relative was not happy when she saw the boiled leftover ugali looking at her, challenging her, reminding her that it was always warm on the outside and cold inside. That, together with whatever had happened to her from wherever she had come from made her lunge at one of my cousin brothers who was seated on an armchair minding his dirty nails.
He pushed her back and she fell on the floor.
“What is your problem?” He said.
“You never flush after defecating. Never. And you are here with dirty hands, ready to gulp ndengus and old cold ugali knowing that you will go anoint the toilet with shit right after and leave your mavi mtu mwingine aflush.”
She stood up, pushed him back on the chair and started punching his face and chest.
Another relative sitting on the next armchair was trying to get the skin off her quarter of an orange, also minding her business because these fights were staple. But the non-flushing cousin brother bumped her arm and a seed flew right into one of my nephew’s nostrils. He started screaming and everything stopped. My sister tried to squeeze the seed down and out of the baby’s nose but he wailed even more.
Father came into the sitting room from the bathroom with a towel around his waist and took the baby while asking what was wrong. We all told him. He sat on the bottom bunk of the sitting room decker with the baby and slowly and gently managed to pry the seed out of his grandson’s nose, put him back on my sister’s lap and then slapped the orange-peeling relative just as my mother walked in.
“Why are you beating my people?” She said.
“They almost killed your grandson,” he said and went back to his bathing.
Mother told my sister and I to follow her.
When we were inside hers and our father’s bedroom she asked us if we got the sandakwata.
“No,” my sister said.
“But we have a plan of how we will get it tomorrow and where we will start. We couldn’t just go out like that….” I reinforced.
“See what your plan has done?” Mother said.
“Stupid boy with stupid questions,” she stopped herself from hitting me. “Can’t you see the baby almost died? Instant.”
“It was an accident because those other two were fighting over shit,” my sister said.
“Who told you the devil operates accidentally? Who told you witchcraft attacks by mistake?”
She gave us The Rock of All Ages. We looked at our feet to avoid it.
“You two are very stupid. But hamtanishinda kwa hii nyumba. You are my children. Tomorrow morning you will both take the baby to Highridge clinic and get his nose checked. Musisahau kubeba chupa za dawa. We don’t have money to buy their bottles, hii nyumba imejaa matumbo za kujaza.”
“Sawa basi,” my sister said, adjusted her baby on her waist and turned to leave.
“Unaenda wapi kumbafu?”
“Ai, mum. What else do you want?”
“After you leave the clinic, utafunga huyo mtoto kwa mgongo, and then the two of you,” she glared at me with The Rock of All Ages because she knew I hated being sent out on errands, “will go and look for sandakwata and you will not come back here until you have it.”
“Si mtoto atakufa njaa,” my sister protested.
“Bebeni uji kwa chupa. And make sure it has a lot of milk. Calcium is important.”
That meant I had to wake up earlier than everyone to fight with the stove and make porridge with milk to-go for the baby. And everyone who slept in the kitchen would curse me out over the stinging smoke that that thing produced because of its dirty tambis. The whole house would be in a bad mood and quarrels would start because niliwasha stove mapema.
Father came into the bedroom at that moment and sat on the bed rubbing his head.
My sister and I left them.
We went back to the sitting room where someone had put a Lucky Dube cassette on the player. The mood in the room had changed and it looked like a different scene of a continuing play because there was a different set of relatives from the ones we had left there except for non-flushing cousin brother who stood up, took my nephew in his dirty hands and sang along and swayed to Think About The Children. The baby smiled as if he’d never in his life had a whole orange seed lodged in his nostril thanks to his mother and uncle not doing what his grandmother told them to do.
The next day, we left the house at 8 in the morning. By the time we were leaving some people were already quarrelling in that house because I lit the stove early, made them wake up sneezing and rubbing their eyes, anger was being projected all over the place so it was some relief to be out. We arrived at the clinic half an hour later and there was a long queue on benches, as usual. Everyone was holding their clinic cards. Those who had lost theirs were being berated by a nurse asking them how she was supposed to find their files without their card numbers. After screaming at them she sent them to Cashier to buy new cards and, “Hope to your God that the doctor will see you. Anatoka saa tano.”
We waited patiently, sliding our buttocks on the benches as patient after patient went in for their consultation. We were around 50 people away from the doctor’s door when he came out, locked up and started on his way. The next patient protested. The doctor looked back and said, “Ni saa tano, naenda Rhodes clinic, town. If you want you can follow me ama kesho pia ni siku.”
It’s not like the nurse hadn’t audibly forewarned about what would happen at 11am.
“Let’s go look for sandakwata. If mum asks about clinic we tell her the doctor said his nose is fine,” my sister said.
“But what if it isn’t fine.”
“What if it is?”
She looked stressed so I did as she said to avoid giving her what mother often called ‘pressure’.
We walked all over, looked at all manner of plants, urinated in bushes, changed my nephew’s nappies on grass, sat outside kiosks to give him his porridge, but we didn’t find sandakwata. I was getting hungry, she was getting agitated, the baby was fussing because of the heat but the thought of The Rock of All Ages nudged us.
We only realized how late it was when we ran out of porridge and my nephew was bawling inconsolably, and people were staring. The sun was setting and by looking at the Indians walking back and forth on their rooftops, as they are wont to do every evening, apparently exercising, we knew we had to go back home. Empty handed.
Mother was waiting on the verandah.
“Where have you been? You want my grandson to catch malaria with all these mosquitos?”
“We went to the clinic and then to look for sandakwata like you told us to,” my sister said.
“Did I say you should go today?” Mother said.
“Yes,” my sister and I said.
“I said no such thing.”
“Yes you did,” my sister said.
“I did not tell you to go anywhere. Plus that clinic is always full and what kind of mother are you walking around with a small child on your back for a whole day?”
I never liked it when she made us feel like we were imagining things, or mad.
“Mum, you told us yesterday night to go to the clinic and have the baby’s nose checked and to also carry bottles for medicine, and to also go look for sandakwata and not to go into City Park when there are no people just in case we are beaten up by monkeys,” I said.
“You people want to kill me,” she said. “You people want to drive me crazy. Kill me with pressure. You do not respect me as your mother. I have said I did not tell you to leave this house and you are telling me your own things as if I don’t know what I said with my own mouth. If I had told you to go anywhere for anything, why am I the one who came back home with what you say I sent you to get. Why don’t the two of you have it if I was the one who sent you? Where were you? This is how people go out and get pregnant and come to burden me and then tell me I was the one who told them to go part their legs. This is how people fail exams because they can’t listen properly or sit down in one place and study. Ni kuzurura tu. Embarrassing me in front of my relatives.”
Father and the lodging relatives, who were all home earlier than my sister and I, came out to the veranda and glared at us. They were not in my mother’s bedroom when she told us they were wicked and we needed to rely heavily on sandakwata to curb them.
“This boy even woke us up early with kerosene fumes. They left early and have not been here all day,” said the non-flushing cousin brother. Full of shit.
“You see what you are doing,” mother told my sister and I, “embarrassing me in front of my relatives. Imagine. Everyone is in the house early because they respect me and my own children are out gallivanting doing God knows what with who. What will people say? What will they say? That I am a bad mother?”
My sister started crying, the baby started wailing.
“This is all your fault,” I told the lodging relatives. “You and your ebhikhokho. She said you are charmed and you are bewitching us.”
Just before she fake-fainted, from embarrassment and shame, mother gave me a sufficient ringing slap. Father carried her inside, followed by my sister crying with the baby and the rest of Mother’s relatives. Only non-flushing cousin brother stayed behind and came at me with blows. And the day ended as it always did in that lodging house; with an unnecessary fight.
Linda Musita is a writer.