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.
“Amen.” That was Uncle Kelele’s reply.
The family didn’t know exactly where Lilly wa Jamo and the three children lived, but people guessed that it was on the outskirts of Thika town. Whenever anyone asked her she said, “Just off Thika Road.”
When Aunt Flora, by then also married with her first baby, asked to visit, Lilly wa Jamo said, “We are moving soon, I’ll tell you when you can come to our new place.” She never did.
Janice: He’s in ICU. Saw the kids today, ni wakubwa.
Miriam: Hey Mama, I’m well, praying for you all.
Miriam suspected that Jamo had abandoned his family. But Lilly wa Jamo needed an alternative story. Nobody wanted to be the one denying her children the blessing of knowing their people even if they were still unhappy with Jamo.
The common story was that Lilly wa Jamo once lived abroad, that she had gone there to work. Where she’d been and why she’d returned to Kenya just never got clarified. Lilly wa Jamo said that she was an orphan, raised by her grandmother before she’d also died. This made it impossible to trace her relatives without involving her. She’d concealed her abroad experience but her words were spoken in a not mzungu and not Kenyan accent. Sometimes she pronounced the T in water and other times she let it roll into an R. Sometimes when people sneezed she said, “Bless you!” Miriam’s father said often that Lilly wa Jamo didn’t act like someone who’d lived abroad.
When the family met her, she was busy supporting Jamo in ministry and running a women’s fellowship. That’s what she said she did.
Unknown number: Our bro Jamo went to be with the Lord. Meetings at Garden Square on Tues & Thurs 6pm
After that text message it got so quiet and dull that Miriam considered making the long-distance call home but nothing screams emergency like a long-distance call. So she did not call home. The week passed. Miriam decided to skip class and go to the Kenyan Embassy in DC on December 12th. It was less than an hour away from where she lived. Before she left, she changed her Facebook profile picture to a photo of young dreadlocked Dedan Kimathi. She updated her status from RIP Jamo MUSAMI to HAPPY JAMHURI DAY EVERYONE.
From updates on Facebook, Miriam knew that the family had raised enough money to clear Jamo’s hospital bill. Jamo would be buried on Jamhuri Day.
Miriam: Just letting you know that I am thinking of you all.
Miriam was about sixteen when her parents, uncles and aunties met to discuss reuniting Jamo with the family. She hung close, along with her cousins, serving refreshments just to listen to their discussion. Some insisted that Jamo had to ask for forgiveness before they considered welcoming him back.
“He has not come to us to explain himself, why should we go looking for him?”
“There is a procedure. He knows it!”
Nothing was resolved. Instead, this ended Lilly wa Jamo and the children’s—Menelik, Winnie and Nyerere—routine visits. Jamo and his family relocated to Isebania, and then to Mwanza in Tanzania.
Miriam had avoided Lilly wa Jamo yet this is who she was thinking about. Lilly who’d gone out of her way to be friendly to teenage Miriam, Miriam uneasy and resistant to her. Miriam imagined that Jamo had spoken about her. She remembered that, before leaving for college, Jamo had gotten a street photographer to take photos of them together – him in his new clothes and her in her everyday play clothes outside the Sportsman-branded neighbourhood kiosk.
Lilly was steady and helpful at family gatherings, quick to volunteer for tedious chores. She washed the dishes and even scrubbed the soot-stained sufurias to a spotless silver shine. During preparations for John’s farewell party—John was going to Germany—she slaughtered and plucked all the chicken. If the goats had been alive, she’d be the one slaughtering them. That she did all these things made it hard for Miriam to be disrespectful to her.
The older cousins, Jamo’s age mates, grew protective of Lilly wa Jamo. As if they knew something. All of Miriam’s, and, later, Janice’s prying and eavesdropping, never uncovered the secret. Janice and Miriam speculated about it in their bedroom and schemed about ways to ask Aunty Flora without being so obvious.
Lilly wa Jamo bugged Miriam whenever she called Miriam’s mother, “Mama”. Why couldn’t she just call her Aunty like her cousins? Miriam felt as if her mother was sharing something that was only meant for Janice, Kevin, and herself. She was ashamed of feeling this way. Menelik would be turning thirteen soon.
Kevin: Coffin shopping with Samo and Kelele.
Janice: Visitors, chai, stale bread, watery veges. Inspector Munyes is his name!
Miriam: Listening to San Fan Thomas, he was into that. How are the kids? So sad.
Miriam, preparing to step out of the apartment, wondered if at the Kenyan embassy they raised the Kenyan flag at 6 am every morning and if people passing outside the embassy had to stand at attention the way they did outside police stations in Kenya. Wrapping a scarf around her neck, she wondered if the embassy was like a proper government office where ten o’clock tea was distributed to offices in big Thermoses. She remembered how hawkers ignored the No Hawking signs at the door and wandered into offices with peanuts, samosas and queen cakes for sale. After locking her door, she stuffed the keys into her pocket.
Janice: At Langata Cemetery now, standing on people’s graves. Weird.
Miriam didn’t stay long at the bus stop. She turned back, deciding to go back home and watch music videos on YouTube, and news on Aljazeera instead.
Miriam: Mama did you get my text, I will call tomorrow.
Kevin: Ma says Asante Sana, Also asks how is school?
Unknown number: The Musami family and funeral committee of the Late Jamo ‘Jamo’ Ouma Musami thank you for the financial support and prayers. God bless you.
Miriam: Skived class, don’t tell her! DELETE
Kevin: Mourning period. How many off days?
When the phone started ringing, Miriam thought it was her mother calling but it was a US number. Disappointing.
“Hello Miriam, this is Sharon.”
“Oh, Sharon?” Miriam asked.
“Aunty Flora gave me your number.”
“Oh… You heard about Jamo, I still can’t believe it…” Miriam said.
“I have no words.”
“I know, it’s just so terrible. Pole. He has such a young family.”
“You know them?” Sharon asked.
“Not very well.”
Miriam wanted to say that she did not know Jamo at all but then instead talked about the time when her family had lived with him when she was five. She talked about Lilly wa Jamo and children as they’d been when she saw them. Another time.
“Menelik’s naughty, Nyerere keeps to himself and Winnie is talkative.”
“Do you have photos you can send me?”
“Lilly wa Jamo’s too hardworking. I pity her future daughters-in-law…”
Miriam had no memory of the Sharon who had left for America when Jamo was still in high school. Sharon laughed at intervals adding information about Jamo as she remembered him from their childhood and then she started to cry on the phone.
“I tried to warn him. I told him so many times. Why did he have to be so…?”
Miriam looked around her bedroom searching for ways to remove herself from this conversation.
“I have to go,” Sharon said.
“Oh… Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, we must keep in touch.”
“Thanks for calling.”
“You are welcome. We are practically sisters here. Save my number, okay? Call me anytime. Okay?”
Miriam wondered how this new cousin Sharon hoped to stay close when she was in far away New Mexico while Miriam lived in Maryland. Someone in her now, maybe.
Janice: Wish you were here. Kevin out for drinks with Baba, Kelele etc. Stuck with Ma, aunties and endless dishes. Greetings from all.
Miriam: Mhmm, Cuzo Sharon called.
Baba: A baby is received with the right hand, never with the left.
Miriam: Baba is drunk texting I think, will call on Friday.
This story appears in the Ritual issue of drr. Get your copy here.
Image: Wycliffe Moranga
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.