When Priscilla returned to Little Jamaica, she’d been dead for five weeks. But here she was on a windless day in August, sitting at the back of a bodaboda, her legs dangling off the sides and her arms wrapped around the man who was riding it. It was a time in the afternoon convenient for gossip and scandal, when the day had been around too long and there was nothing left to do. Most of us had rested our sand shovels and were lolling around outside Diaspora Wines and Spiritz, drinking beers and coca colas.
When we first looked, we saw a woman wearing a yellow jacket that didn’t go well with her skirt, and a big white hat, the kind women wear in films. It was an ugly hat, too big for her small face, and her braids stuck out from the side like thin black wires. The woman alighted and the bodaboda rider left. A tail of smoke and dust rose behind him, engulfing the woman. We watched the rider until he became a dot in the distance, then we returned to the woman who now stood on the other side of the road that split the town into two.
We watched as she shifted the weight of her bag from one hand to the other.
We watched as she waited for a sand lorry to pass before crossing the road.
Maybe it was her yellow jacket that gave us the impression she wasn’t from Little Jamaica, or her red kitten heels that disappeared into the sand each step, making it seem as though she was walking in slow motion, or that big white hat on such a dusty day. We waited for her to come to us with her need. Most people came to Little Jamaica to buy charcoal or cheap sand. Sometimes, we fixed cars for stranded travelers. Whatever needed doing. Whatever was paying. When we spotted a potential customer, we tried not to seem too eager for business. It was an old trick.
The woman was close now. She paused next to an old lorry where goats, dogs and chickens had sheltered from the blistering heat. There, she lifted her hat and smiled. Now we could see her clearly. It was Priscilla in the flesh.
We were rarely short of words, but this time we had nothing to say. Priscilla stared at us from underneath the shade of her hat. We wondered if we were dreaming, if the dust and the spell of the afternoon heat were getting into our heads.
But the children, when they saw Priscilla, they left their games and gathered around her. They pored over her with wonder like a new toy. They pulled the sleeves of her yellow jacket and said, Priscilla, is that you? Is that really you? Priscilla, my mother said you’re dead? Priscilla, aren’t you already dead? Priscilla, what happened to you?
Five weeks before, a lorry driver transporting sand across the river stopped by Little Jamaica for a drink. He had a wide mouth that took up most of the space on his face. I served him Tusker Baridi. He had a second one and asked for a third. Then, he walked to a man who was quietly following a football match broadcast on a Walkman and punched him. There were very few people in the bar, and when they saw this, they retreated to the corner tables, holding their drinks tight like a cherished thing.
Stuff like this happened. To us, Little Jamaica was home. To others, it was a temporary stop.
I’d worked in Diaspora for ten years. I’d met many men like him. Men who, when they stopped by for a drink, left behind blood, bills or babies.
I asked the man with the wide mouth to take care of his bill and leave. We didn’t want any trouble. Not in Diaspora. Not in Little Jamaica. We were a peace-loving lot.
The man wiped the beer foam off the edge of his lip with the back of his hand. He said he’d had a tough day. Could I please help him? Where could a man like him find girls, the fat kind, in this ruin of a town? I said nothing. He said, sweetheart, that’s no way to treat your guests. It’s written in the Bible.
He smacked his lips and made for the door. On the table, he left a copy of the previous day’s Daily Nation and an unpaid bill. I considered sending some of our men to rough him up. Etch his transgressions into his skin. But he was one of those men with an imposing body, probably too strong for us. I’d take care of the bill myself.
As for the paper, we had no use for news. No one from Little Jamaica had ever been in the paper, and nothing worth telling happened here. Once, we almost came to fame when one of us thought he’d found gold while digging a pit latrine. There’d been two boys who died after a sand dune caved in on them while they were playing by the river, and the floods many months before, but the news only travelled as far as the next town.
I reached for the paper the man had left, and there, printed on the front page for the world to see was Priscilla. Our Priscilla. Her face was nestled between other faces caught in the Westgate Mall when men came in with guns on a Saturday morning, riddled the place with bullets and set it ablaze.
We’d heard about Westgate on the radio but paid very little attention to it, like news of war from a faraway country.
There wasn’t a name accompanying the picture, but I knew that delicate face, those high-arched brows that made her appear permanently surprised. Priscilla helped in the bar whenever I needed an extra hand, when the rains washed sand to our shores and business was good.
I told those in the bar who were now pondering over the man who’d punched the other what I’d seen. Priscilla? That name meant nothing to them. I showed them the picture, and some of them remembered her serving them beer once.
Word travelled fast. We told those in restaurants. Those in restaurants told those in shops. Then, those standing outside shacks deciding whether the milk was as fresh as they’d been told or the tomatoes were good enough for that evening’s soup.
They rushed to Diaspora to see for themselves.
It wasn’t the death that surprised us the most. Grief was a thing we were used to. It was Priscilla—a small town girl, the most unremarkable of us—whose face had taken up space on the front page of a national paper.
We sat in Diaspora and tried to remember the last time we saw her. Was it a Tuesday? No one had seen her leaving for the city. No one noticed she was gone. I didn’t pay much attention to her when she came to the bar. She moved quietly, containing her coughs and her laughs. Priscilla wasn’t much of a talker. She was forgettable in the way children are, but always there like air. She wasn’t much of a good worker either. I found her clumsy. But Priscilla was good with flowers. She watered those outside Diaspora and planted more until she’d covered the whole row of shops.
One of us said she’d seen the back of Priscilla’s oddly shaped head as she disappeared into a lorry with one of those tall men with a scruffy beard and a foul mouth. We had more questions. What was a young girl like her doing dying in a place like that? Little Jamaica was ingrained in us. We had our own flag. Children sang nursery rhymes about it. We were all born in Little Jamaica. We lived in Little Jamaica. Some of us died in Little Jamaica. In between, we harvested sand, made money from travellers and drunk our beers and coca colas.
We wondered if she’d gone to the mall with the man she’d been seen with. Maybe she’d decided to elope with him. What a tragedy, one of us said, to marry a lorry driver, a man who spends his days moving sand from one town to the other. Better to harvest it than ferry it.
Once we’d pondered over the news, we thought it best to send for Priscilla’s mother Bibi. She lived in a little mud house at the edge of Little Jamaica, far beyond the grassland, rearing guinea pigs. We sent two of our fastest boys to fetch her. As we waited, we wondered who’d break the news to her. Bibi had lived in Little Jamaica for as long as we could remember, but she was a stranger amongst us.
The rest of the townspeople said I should do it. I knew if I didn’t, no one else would. I’d spoken to Bibi a couple of times. The last time, she wanted me to employ Priscilla. She said to me, you want to keep them occupied or they’ll leave with the first man who comes knocking.
When Bibi arrived, she was out of breath. I asked her to sit. She preferred to remain standing. The rest of the townspeople retreated to the corner tables. Their eyes and ears remained on us.
I gave Bibi the paper and pointed at Priscilla’s picture. She held it close, blocking her face. I told her how sorry we were and waited for her to say there’d been a mistake, that the nose on that girl wasn’t Priscilla’s. As if she didn’t hear me, she turned to a man smoking by the counter and told him to kill the cigarette. The smoke was getting into her eyes. She folded the paper and pushed it to me. Now I could see her face. She seemed unfazed. When she stood, I stood with her.
We’d anticipated that—on hearing the news—Bibi would fling her limbs or rip her clothes, like any mother who receives news of death. She started making for the door and said she’d leave for Nairobi the next day. There was a cousin in Umoja who knew these things and could help her with the funeral arrangements.
After Bibi left, we sat with our beers and coca colas and wondered what kind of mother receives such news so calmly. What a strange woman!
Those who smoked needed more cigarettes. I offered them a free packet. The men picked up the paper and considered Priscilla’s face. She isn’t ugly, they said, but she is also not the kind of girl who easily appeals to men.
Others said it didn’t matter. All a man needed was a warm body, someone to help him shake off the sand lodged in his hair.
So, to us Priscilla was dead. We’d buried her. But now here she was. Priscilla stood in front of us, perfect like a picture. It was the kind of thing encountered in stories told to scare children. She watched us with our beers and coca colas. Then she said, aren’t you going to greet me?
We stared. Had she always spoken with that lilt in her voice? It was too quiet, and we wished for noise. A honking from a passing sand lorry. Or for the children to return to their deafening games.
I thought of telling Priscilla I’d missed her. I hadn’t, but it would interrupt the silence. Before I could speak, Priscilla shifted the bag in her hand, arranged her hat and walked to the restaurant next to Diaspora.
We watched the heels of her red shoes. An awful choice for a place so sandy.
We left our beers and coca colas and followed her to the restaurant. Some people were missing, so we sent the children to fetch them. The crowd swelled like a fresh wound. From the windows, we watched her, our mouths wide open. We pressed our faces against the glass, picking up the dust that had accumulated. The children begged to see. Those tall enough picked them up and held them aloft. We watched, wild like flies on something rotten.
Inside the restaurant, those serving appeared unfazed by Priscilla. We thought maybe she’d hypnotized them. Maybe like us, they were afraid and didn’t want to show it. One of the waiters brought Priscilla tea. She sipped with very little grace. He brought her a plate of mandazi and she gnawed at them with her small mouth like a rodent, until there was nothing left.
When she stood to leave, we rushed back where she’d found us and grabbed our bottles. They were already empty but we sucked the air in them. Priscilla smiled. We rarely cowered, but this time the fear moved between us like something airborne. The sun had gone down, and it was getting a little dark.
I was the first to speak. I asked Priscilla if she cared for a beer. I couldn’t remember seeing her drink before. She said she’d had a feast in the restaurant and was too full.
Now Priscilla was looking at the flowers. I’d watered them that afternoon. She smiled, and, in me, something lifted. I’d done something for her. Somehow, that made me less terrified. Priscilla asked if one of us could walk her home. No one offered, so I volunteered. The townspeople stared at me as if I was mad. I took Priscilla’s bag. There was dirt lodged underneath her nails, neat like a strip of henna.
She led the way, and we walked in silence first, the dried grass pricking our shins. With each step, it grew darker and colder.
We were now in the middle of the grassland; the grass high to our knees. Behind us, the market had become dots of light. Priscilla slowed down. I stopped and waited for her to pass. I needed her where I could see her. She said, aren’t you going to ask? Didn’t you wonder about me?
I told her we were all very worried, and I could tell she didn’t believe me.
Priscilla didn’t seem to have any knowledge of her picture in the paper. I thought of telling her we’d thought she was dead, but quickly changed my mind. If someone was going to bear that burden, it had to be her mother.
She said, did you hear about Westgate? I was there.
Priscilla appeared eager to tell, like a schoolgirl who’d just returned from her first trip in the city. When she spoke, there was something like pride.
They shot me here, she said, pointing at her shoulder.
She said she’d woken up at the hospital days after, and they kept asking if someone was coming for her, or if she needed a phone to call home. At first, she thought of calling Father Fidhelis Nzwii from the town across the river. He had a cellphone and could easily pass a message to her mother, but she wanted to stay. It was different there, she said, to be among those dying strangers. After a while, a nurse told her she couldn’t stay. They needed the bed. Through the kindness of strangers—one who gave her shoes, the yellow jacket, and another one who gave her money for the bus—she made it back to Little Jamaica.
We’d stopped walking. Around us, darkness had gathered. Then Priscilla said, I’ve been doing some thinking. This place, it’s not for me. She started walking and didn’t say another word.
Her mother wasn’t home when we arrived. Inside the house, there were clothes and dirty dishes strewn about the floor. Priscilla asked if I could stay with her until her mother came.
She has a weak heart, Priscilla said. It’ll be easier if she finds me with you.
I was eager to go back to the bar. She didn’t wait for me to respond. She offered to make tea. There was a paraffin stove in the corner. When she lit it, the smell of paraffin filled the room.
You’ve always been very good to me, she said, handing me a steaming cup of tea.
She didn’t make one for herself. For a moment, I thought, maybe Priscilla is really dead. Maybe she has come to punish her enemies. Then I banished the thought quickly because of how much it terrified me. She sat on the couch and slept almost immediately. I covered her with a blanket and didn’t wait for her mother.
The week we thought Priscilla had died in the mall, we were hungry for news. We woke up each morning and sent our fastest boys to the town across the river for the paper, and there she’d be again. Priscilla. Our Priscilla on the front page of the paper. Still without a name. We considered writing to the Daily Nation about her name and the place she came from. Priscilla of Little Jamaica. By the third day, the story had been pushed to the sixth page. By the fifth day, the story had disappeared.
We’d heard from the children that people across the river were talking about it too. Priscilla was forgettable, but this was no ordinary death. Not to us. We closed Little Jamaica for business. We asked those on their way to someplace else to keep driving. Keep going. No one harvested sand. No one sold it. We filled bags with grains and took them to Bibi. They piled until she had no more space. She began sending the grains back.
For three days, there was dancing. We brought out our best recipes and made a feast. I sent word that beers in Diaspora would be half the price. Mothers allowed their children to stay out late. We asked Bibi to come to the market, but she said she couldn’t make it. Still, we danced and drank to Priscilla, dug into the ruins of our memories and came back with the little of her we could conjure. We cut out Priscilla’s face from the paper and glued it on the wall in Diaspora, next to Nelson Mandela and Diego Maradona.
Towards the end of the week, Bibi’s cousin, the one who was following up in the city, arrived with a little box filled with ash. The mall had been burned to the ground and there was nothing left for anyone to bury. We agreed that the funeral would be held on a Tuesday afternoon.
What a disaster, we thought, to have a funeral without a body? We liked to bury our dead, to dance around them before sending them off, to open the casket and look at death one last time. We knew Priscilla wasn’t going to rest easy.
Poor child, we said.
As we waited for the funeral, we wondered if there’d be cameras, maybe some people from CNN. Maybe we’d see our faces in the next day’s paper. Maybe someone we knew would recognize us while watching the evening news. Maybe we’d be lucky enough to stand behind the woman who yells into the microphone reporting live from the ground, with the wind on her hair and sand getting into her eyes while she says, the mood here is very gloomy Larry. I lost you there for a bit Larry. Back to you in the studio Larry.
We anticipated interviews so we practiced the things we’d say. Big loss! She was loved. You should have seen her with the flowers. No mother should have to bury her children.
On the day of the funeral, there were no cameras. The place was too small for all of us. Many of us spilled into the dusty road. Those who could see what was happening at the front made note of the wood on the coffin. They noticed other things that needed noticing, like how little food there was. Father Fidhelis Nzwii who led mass in the church across the river conducted a rushed service. We understood. Most of us in Little Jamaica didn’t go to church. We thought ourselves godless.
Later as we walked home, we thought, what a disappointing funeral!
Now that we knew Priscilla wasn’t dead, we hoped she’d come to the market. We had new questions. We wanted to know what it was like being shot. Did she feel it right away? Was it true what people said, that bullets travelled faster than sound? In the paper, we’d read an account from a woman who’d survived, saying she’d seen one of the shooter’s shoes and the eye of his gun. Did Priscilla see the men? What were they wearing?
For two days, she didn’t show up, so a few of us went to see her. Whatever she told us, we’d tell the rest.
We brought her mother more bags of grains. Priscilla sat on a chair under the shade of the bougainvillea, stripped of its leaves by the season. We sat around her on the grass. With the patience of a priest, she listened to our questions. When she finally spoke, there was a new poise in her manner, a messianic wisdom. We were mesmerized by it. We rested our chins on our palms and leaned towards her.
She said, when you look at death in the eye, something happens to you.
She talked endlessly about how good she felt now, how alive. Priscilla made no sense to us, but we nodded and asked her to describe everything in detail as if we were longing for death. But she said we wouldn’t get it. We couldn’t. I could tell she was tired, and I suggested we leave. The rest wanted more. It was already dark. Bibi told us that Priscilla needed rest. She’d been having weird dreams, and the two hadn’t slept much.
On our way back, we spoke of the absurd things Priscilla said.
Someone said something was off with her.
No, someone said, something has always been off with that girl. She went and got herself shot, then came back thinking she’s some kind of Jesus Christ.
Later that evening, as they told the rest in Diaspora, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Priscilla said, this new Priscilla who now spoke like a magician.
Some people went to see her again the next day, and she spoke of that same feeling. When they asked more questions, she said they wouldn’t understand. They came back to Diaspora with nothing to report, and slowly, people stopped visiting. Little Jamaica went back to its old habits.
Ten days after her return, Priscilla sent word. She wanted to see me alone. I didn’t tell anyone in the market where I was going. Her mother Bibi was feeding her guinea pigs when I arrived. The little creatures ran around, chattering nervously with their teeth bared. She said Priscilla was taking a nap. She’d had a headache earlier. Did I mind waiting?
She picked one of the guinea pigs by the ears. It wiggled and clacked its teeth. The rest stood motionless. Bibi asked me to stand by the door. They could smell my nervousness, she said. She held the one she’d picked with both hands—a ball of fur— and pressed it against her chest like a darling, then walked out. I followed. The rest squeaked behind us. I asked if they were hungry.
No, she said. They just have a temper.
She disappeared into the kitchen, and I watched her work. Her hands moved around the guinea pig’s neck, rubbing it gently. She said one had to be gentle with them until the last minute. Otherwise they’d be chewy. She wanted to make soup, which was good for the bad dreams Priscilla had been having.
I was trying not to look, but I saw from the side of my eye Bibi’s elbows move back a little. The squeak was quick and final. She held the lifeless thing upside down, and the blood dripped into a bowl at her feet. I couldn’t bear to look. I told her I’d wait for Priscilla under the bougainvillea.
She said, you’ve never seen a dead animal before?
Later, Bibi joined me under the bougainvillea, and we listened to the radio. From time to time, it choked, emitting small explosions of sound. We spoke about the unbearable dust, how hot it was and the riverbanks that were going to burst the moment it rained.
Then Bibi said, it’s weird. You’d think death was the hardest part. The hardest part is getting used to her being alive. She stopped, and when she looked at me again, the warmth that was there before had disappeared.
She was running, Bibi said. She got tired of this place.
I felt vilified by her words. Priscilla joined us and Bibi reduced the volume on the radio to a whisper. She sat on the dried grass. When she finally spoke, she asked if someone at the market had been watering the flowers. There were long silences between her words, making the conversation longer than it needed to be. She appeared completely lost in herself. When Bibi brought out the soup, she said she wasn’t hungry.
What’s the matter with you? Bibi asked. I made this for you.
Once Priscilla and I were alone, she asked if I could take her to the place we’d buried her. I was surprised she hadn’t seen it yet, and when I mentioned it, she said she didn’t want her mother to show her. I felt a pang of remorse for asking, and it remained with me for the rest of the day.
Under the loquat tree where Priscilla had been buried, the mound was still fresh. She stood with her back to me. It was a private moment and I didn’t want to intrude, so I started walking to give her some space. She noticed and asked if I could stay. I tried not to look, but she remained at the corner of my eye. She knelt beside the mount and nestled her chin between her knees.
It’s a good spot, she said.
Priscilla stared at the mount as if expecting a version of herself to rise from it. She asked for the details of her funeral. Who came? Did her mother cry? Did people cry a lot? Was I there? How much did we have to pay Father Fidhelis Nzwii for the service? I told her everyone came. Her mother was inconsolable. Everyone was. Father Fidhelis Nzwii was very kind.
Priscilla laughed, a disbelieving laugh, and she held it for as long as she could.
She wanted to go to the market. The afternoon was hot, and as we walked across the grassland, I could see a haze of dust rising ahead of us. At the market, people didn’t pay much attention to her. They only stopped when they saw me and left with promises to pass by Diaspora later for a drink. I’d watered the flowers that morning, but Priscilla wanted to water them again. There was urgency in the way she spoke. I gave her a bucket of water and watched her work. She poured it until the stalks leaned. When she sat, I sat with her. Someone parked a lorry full of sand nearby. He swung his keys as he walked, and the children watched him until he disappeared into the butchery. Then, they climbed the lorry and played on the hot sand.
Priscilla wanted to eat something. I wasn’t hungry, but said I’d sit with her. In the restaurant, we were on opposite ends of the table. The smoke from the kitchen had made its way into the eating area, and a beam of light cut through it, resting on the wall behind us. Priscilla fiddled with the saltshaker and I tried not to rest my hands on the table, which was mottled with patches of oil. The waiter brought her ugali and sukuma wiki.
Priscilla said she was worried about her mother living out there alone.
But you’re here, I said.
She didn’t seem to hear me. She said most people thought Bibi was strong.
She’s not, she said, I must be boring you. Am I boring you?
No, I said.
I watched her eat. A drop of soup fell on her shirt and I was tempted to reach over and wipe it. When she was done, I offered to walk her home but she wanted to walk alone.
That evening, the rain was heavy. Those near the river could hear the water threatening the banks. In Diaspora, one of the men remembered seeing me earlier.
I saw you, he said. I saw you with that girl. What was her name? Priscilla?
When the rest heard him, they carried their beers and came to the counter. It was as if by his question, the man had awakened a swarm of bees. Is she still saying that mad stuff? Has she lost her mind like her mother? Is it true? Was she eloping?
Someone remembered the wood on the coffin.
That was some good wood, he said. No point letting it rot now, is there?
I couldn’t stand any of it. I asked the man who’d spoken about the coffin to leave. The others protested.
Enough of this nonsense, I said.
They sat and drank quietly, and when the rains let up, they staggered home.
Like all other mornings after the rains, we woke up early. The sand had washed up to our shores and we knew business would be good. The harvesters took their rakes and shovels, and down to the river they went.
But it’s the children who saw the clothes tied to a tree that was leaning too dangerously to the river. They’d snuck out while it was still a little dark to play before the harvesters swept the river clean. When they saw what they saw, and when one of the older boys said he’d seen Priscilla watering flowers while wearing that very blouse the day before, that skirt, they screamed as loud as they could.
The harvesters who were already on their way to the river—thinking the children were being attacked—dropped their shovels and ran as fast as they could. When the children told them, they sent for me.
They were standing on the other side of the river when I arrived, far away from the clothes.
The children asked, what happened? What happened to Priscilla? Tell me what happened. Why are her clothes there?
Their mothers pulled their ears and said, let me hear you ask that again and I’ll beat the stupid out of you.
We were all thinking the same thing, so we stood mute as if we’d lost all language and listened to the frantic river. From time to time, the water hit the banks, then rose and drenched us. Someone said we should fetch Bibi, so we sent the fastest boys. As we waited, I thought about the stain on Priscilla’s blouse, wondering if it was still there, if I should have reached over and wiped it.
Many wondered why Priscilla would bring death to our doorstep, right where our children could see. Parents told their children they were no longer allowed in the river. If I catch you, they said. If I catch you!
When the boys returned, Bibi wasn’t with them. She’d said whatever we thought had happened to Priscilla hadn’t, that Priscilla had gathered her things and left the previous night, just before the rains began.
To where? we asked, and the boys shrugged. They didn’t know to ask, and knowing Bibi, she was not in the business of explaining anything to little boys.
Maybe Priscilla was swept away by the river. Maybe she’d left, as her mother said. Maybe she was playing a trick on us, wanting us to think she was dead. Maybe she was somewhere, watching us.
Even today, no one knows where Priscilla went. On the few occasions Bibi comes to the market, she refuses to answer our questions. Once, she told me I needed to mind my business, that Priscilla wasn’t anyone’s business. Last Christmas, someone said they might have seen Priscilla at night looking like she’d just arrived from the city with bags full of shopping for her mother.
What’s clear to me though, and what appears to bother many in Little Jamaica, is that Priscilla found no value in the things we hold most dear, in this place that’s ingrained in us: its sand, its flag, its nursery rhymes, our idyllic afternoons filled with beers and coca colas.
When I think about that last day I saw her, I remember her on top of the fresh mount where we’d buried her, laughing. I remember with envy that newfound freedom I sensed in her. In Diaspora Wines and Spiritz, people still talk about her. When they look at her picture on the wall, they ask, why did she want us to think she was dead a second time? Others have sworn that on the day Priscilla came back, she was already dead.
Little Jamaica was first published in The Black Warrior Review.
Ndinda Kioko is a Kenyan writer and filmmaker. She has an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from the University of Oregon. Her works have appeared on several platforms and publications including Masters Review, Black Warrior Review, The Trans-African, BBC Radio 4, Wasafiri Magazine, Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara, and Jalada Africa. She was awarded the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship, Wasafiri New Writing Prize and the Black Warrior Review Fiction Prize. Ndinda has also received support from the Blue Mountain Center, MacDowell and Yaddo. In 2018-19, she was an Olive B O’Connor Fiction Fellow at Colgate University. Ndinda is working on her first novel.
Ndinda Kioko and Makena Onjerika appear in conversation in the second issue of drr, Ritual out August 10th 2020. Order a copy here.