For three weeks, the constant stream of text messages forced Miriam to sit down and delete old text messages. The cell phone wouldn’t stop beeping. The messages were all about Jamo, a cousin that Miriam had last seen when she was five.
Janice: Lilly wa Jamo here, Drama!
Kevin: The kids sound so so Tanzanian. Naomba maji!
Janice: Staying with us
Miriam’s first month in the US, she’d received text messages from friends and family at home at strange hours in the night.
Shez: Check your mail now sent u youtube link watch now. xx
Miriam: Watching, What??? Explain, 20 marks. You on chat?
At first, she’d wake up, rush to watch the videos, and respond to all the messages. After a while she stopped bothering, sending delayed and unconnected replies instead.
Shez: Moraa rhymes with Moran. Remember this.
Miriam: Yeah, how are things? Miss you!
The message traffic decreased as Nairobi became a past tense place, and Miriam found present tense things to talk about that were hard to condense into short text messages.
Musa: Nairobi Traffic Nkt! Kenyatta Avenue
Janice: Paul’s wedding, the yellow is NOT mellow!
Miriam: More power to Moraa.
Not everything could be communicated via text. A lot went unsaid.
Janice: Jamo in Kenyatta Hosp. Meetings. A photocopy of Baba!
Miriam: Maybe they smoke the same brand of cigarette
Janice: Waiting for Aunty Flora’s remix.
Miriam’s clearest memory of Jamo was of the time when she was five, and he lived with her family for a short time while waiting to go to college. The twins, Kevin and Janice, were learning how to walk. Having him around helped contain the chaos. An extra pair of eyes to watch the children was welcome.
“Uncle Jamo, how old are you?”
Miriam had never met somebody who was obviously not as old as her parents or her nursery school teacher but also not young enough to play with.
“Jamo is your cousin, his father is your uncle.”
“Jamo, how old are you?”
“Thirteen,” he replied, and she believed him.
She remembered trying to plait his hair whenever they sat on the big red sofa to watch wrestling on television. His hair was soft and long. Styled as an afro. He used Vaseline Hair Tonic.
“Kaa vizuri!” she ordered him, imitating the hairdresser.
His hair didn’t have dandruff. The loose plaits unravelled as soon as her tiny fingers made them.
Jamo and Miriam’s favourite wrestler was Big Daddy, a man with a small head on top of a big round stomach. He won all his fights by crushing his opponents with his protruding belly. Miriam stood on the red sofa while Jamo stood in front of it and they would bump against each other reenacting these wrestling matches. They laughed about Big Daddy’s strange appearance in what looked like a girl’s swimming costume and knee-length boots.
Jamo left for college with a brand new suitcase that Miriam’s father had bought for him, along with two pairs of trousers, shirts, socks and black shoes. All new. Miriam’s mother convinced Jamo to shave his hair down to his scalp so that he wouldn’t stand out. On the evening that Jamo left, Miriam made fun of his hair; it was cut shorter than hers. Her parents took him to the bus station. That was twenty years ago. After that, Jamo was that older cousin noted for his absence at family gatherings; weddings, funerals, fundraisers, graduations and farewell parties. He was that cousin everybody was told to stay away from because he was bad influence even though most cousins only knew or remembered what he looked like because there were photographs of him in family albums of earlier years.
Jamo may have disappeared from the scene but he had no secrets. Over the years, from the regular family gatherings, Miriam got updates from multiple sources. Jamo had left college under strange circumstances. He had become a preacher after a time at Shimo la Tewa prison in Mombasa. He had abandoned preaching for a while to be a journalist for a newspaper called The Clarion. Copies of this paper had been passed around until it too disappeared. Jamo returned to preaching.
Kevin: Ati he’s wanted by cops, the plot thickens. Soundtrack.
Miriam: No snow yet. Salimiana.
According to Miriam’s mother, Lilly turned up for Aunt Flora’s wedding committee meeting and introduced herself as Bibi ya Jamo. She had the kind of hairdo that was only seen on schoolgirls’ heads: Rows of neat lines all meeting at the back of her head then tied together with a black string. Her hands appeared more aged than the rest of her body, veins protruding and palms rough maybe from picking tea, maybe from digging for hours, or maybe just harsh detergent. Miriam’s mother said later that Lilly wa Jamo contributed to the wedding kitty, it wasn’t as if she’d just come to ask for help.
Her turning up like that reminded everyone about Sharon. The other disappearing relative. Sharon was Jamo’ older sister. She’d disappeared in America, no letters or phone calls. Either she was a petrol station attendant or working in a supermarket, nobody knew. She’d registered her parents’ postal address to receive junk mail; pamphlets, bills and magazines, which her parents received regularly instead of the money they’d expected. It was the time before emails and cell phones. There was no explanation for why Sharon missed her parents’ funerals. Jamo was in prison, he was excused. After Sharon disappeared, the cousins were discouraged from thinking about going abroad for further studies.
Janice: It doesn’t look good. Also mum asks how are you?
Kevin: Undercover cops really? Oversize coat, big newspaper I see you!
Lilly, always called Lilly wa Jamo, made herself family. She was ever present for gatherings and emergencies. She aligned herself to people within the big group. She brought her children along; evidence of the relationship. There was never a wedding or formal introduction.
“Jamo sends his greetings, he is in an urgent meeting at the church and wishes he could be here.” Whenever Lilly wa Jamo said this, everybody nodded respectfully. Nobody believed her.
Lutivini Majanja lives in Nairobi. Her most recent writing has been featured in Best Microfiction 2019, The Elephant, Warscapes and Popula. She has new writing forthcoming in Obsidian. Lutivini holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland, College Park.