BY FLORENCE BETT-KINYATTI
The question you’d ask me is, “Bett, surely, if your nanny is going on leave for only two weeks, c’mon, si you can stay home for those two weeks and take care of Muna?”
I could tell you that you’re insane and end the story here. Laugh you off. ‘Cause anyone that suggests you stay home with your toddler doesn’t understand the dynamics of babysitting a toddler. Much less, the dynamics of a mum babysitting her toddler. It’s one of those things they should tell you not to try at home.
I’m smarter now. I’d rather pay someone else to do the babysitting for me. I’d rather pay a temp nanny.
To be quite honest, if I’d known I’d get a young hot chick for a temp, a chick who’d run around my house without a bra on – breasts jingling, a strip of belly peeking from her vest, a foxy chick – maybe I’d have stayed home with Muna myself.
I’m getting ahead of myself though.
Let’s take this from the top. Slowly. I’m awfully sure you don’t have a busy day ahead.
So Nanny Viv and I have this thing where, every August, she hops onto the Easy Coach night bus to Kitale for two weeks of her annual leave. It’s paid leave.
I give her leave because she’s mature and intelligent and reads books (which explains her intelligence and conversation. I never heard anyone throw ‘menses’ so effortlessly into regular convo).
Plus she only takes a day off a week on Sundays to go to church (she’s in the praise & worship team, active member, even has a church uniform). And she’s usually home by 6, 6.30 sharp, no questions asked. The last time she wasn’t happy about how I was running the ship, she sat me down in the living room and said she wanted to talk. I liked that. I wanted to hug her when we were finished talking. Is this why girl-girl relationships do better than boy-girl relationships? I’m beginning to think so.
The only cavil I have with Nanny Viv is that she has a heavy hand. She’s broken the tap at the kitchen sink a couple of times, wall switches, bathroom brushes, the arm of that dude who tried to steal our t-shirts from the rooftop hanging lines. I’ve kept her far away from my John Lewis dish set – the special one that’s only brought out for special guests – because I know she’ll chip my tea mugs.
Nanny Viv has three kids – boy-girl twins, six, and an eight year-old girl. The kids live with her mum in Kitale. I’ve spoken to them a couple times, they’re as terse on phone as their mother is. The twin boy has a name I want to steal. I won’t tell it to you cause you know how sticky folk’s fingers in this town are. One day over a breakfast meeting you tell your pal you want to name a section of your upcoming blog ‘Dusty Rugs’ and before the sun sets that day, they’ve already stolen it and written a lengthy blog post about it. And they’ve not even spelt the ‘Rags’ right!
I also give her leave so she can exhale. I don’t know how she doesn’t suffer from cabin fever. I suffocate if I sit for four straight days at my desk. By the fifth day I’m right about ready to stab someone. Especially that chap who sits opposite my desk, the one who runs an illegal peanuts racket from beneath his desk. Sometimes, when he’s stepped out for a bit, folk leave me their 20 bobs to give to him. I hate it. I only wish he’d use that money to trade in his Kaunda suits. Suits that for some reason remind me of the Big Five, tourism in 1993 and Safari Boots. I didn’t even think they were still sold in this town.
Last year I did what you suggest – I stayed home with Muna when Nanny Viv was away. Do you know what happened over those two weeks? Take a wild guess? I was about to lose my marbles. God, that child drove me up the wall. She was needy and whiney, bothersome, clingy and misbehaved.
She refused to nap. She refused to sleep in her bed. She refused to get out of her bath tub. She refused to wear clothes. She refused to take them off. She refused to use her potty. She refused to listen when I told her not to do stuff that’d surely crack open her skull, like flying from the cooker.
She refused to eat. God, she refused to eat. By the time Nanny Viv returned, Muna had lost about two kilos and had a sunken stomach and pronounced ribs. She looked malnourished. Mistreated. It’s like we’d forgotten to feed her. Another three days and someone would have called the Department of Children Services on us.
Let me give you another episode. There was one afternoon when I needed to use the toilet but Muna was clinging onto my back like a koala bear on a tree trunk. It was just her and me in the digs.
“Muna, get off, Mummy wants to susu in the toilet.”
“No, Mummy. No!”
“Muna? Muna?” I began to peel her off my back. “Shuka.”
“Mummy!” she slapped my hand away and almost bit it. “Noo!”
I was taken aback. Muna is half-Kale half-Kuyo but when she gets testy like this, I know I’ve lost her to the good folk of Nyeri. There’s very little about her that suggests she’s Kale, not even the way she runs. You should see how she pairs her frilly dresses with sneakers, typical Kuyo behaviour.
“Noo, nooo, nooo!”
I was getting impatient. And I really needed to pee. I said it firmly one last time, “Muna, shuka. Mummy wants to susu in the toilet.”
She shook her head hard and creased her brow, she looked like an Angry Bird.
I sighed. Then I did what any self-serving urban mum who needs to pee would have done: I went to the loo with Muna clinging to my back. And I didn’t just pee, I took a shit. I took a shit with Muna clinging to my back.
This is how we start to damage our kids. One day she’ll rob Oaks & Corks liquor store in Hurlingham and she’ll blame it on this singular incident.
Listen though, I was only going to pee but since she’d already been there with me for the first half, I thought to myself, how about we finish this now that we’re already here?
I finished my business, she was still clinging to my back. I got up to flush the toilet, she was still clinging to my back. I stood at the bathroom sink, lathered my hands and scrubbed them clean, she was still clinging to my back. I looked in the mirror and she looked back at me, I laughed.
“You’re a real piece of work, Muna. Ha-ha. Mummy wants to go take a nap.”
She returned a piercing stare.
I lay on my stomach on the bed, she was still clinging to my back.
I’d gotten a temp to help with the cooking and cleaning. She’d come in three times a week. She clocked in at nine in the morning and when she left at five, she took my peace of mind and sanity with her. She gave me a fraction of the service a live-in temp would have, and cost me more.
Well, I’m smarter now. There’s nothing I’m out to prove by babysitting for two full weeks.
Not when Craft It and DRUNK are looming with never-ending jobo.
Not when Muna has learned to say “Mummy, stop it!” and “Don’t, Mummy!”
Not when we live in Kenya. There are many things which don’t work in our Nairobi – we’re overtaxed as an economy, a thao of fuel won’t last you two days, our middle-class generation can’t own homes unless we launder money, people have their lake houses in our Nairobi River, our government gives too many public holidays, China is helping us dig our own grave of debt, Theresa May wants to take us to bed, Trump wants us to wet it, Sauti Sol said then later unsaid they want to retire, Elani gave us a comeback song we can’t sing along to because we can’t remember it… It’s too much for the urbanite.
Yet for all that’s broken in our public system, we have a pool of affordable domestic workers. This isn’t New York. Or London. I don’t have to pay for a nanny by the hour, as if she’s a financial consultant who’s come to audit my books or file my tax returns.
You want a nanny, you call Grace of Aunty Ann Agency and you will get a nanny.
(I think I’ve told you this before: Aunty Ann trains domestic workers – nannies, house helps, cooks, cleaners – for hire and placement. I’d interviewed Grace for a magazine feature some years back. I get the feeling she still feels obliged to do something in return.)
I called Grace on Tuesday and after brief niceties said, “My help is going away on her leave this Friday.”
“Is everything OK?”
“Yeah, yeah. She’s OK. She’s going home to see her kids.”
“Can you get me a temp to shikilia while she’s away?
“Of course, Bett, of course. I’ll call you when I’ve found someone.”
Grace called me Thursday. “I have someone for you, Bett. She’s Kuria. 27, two kids.”
“Kuria? I’ve never met a Kuria before.”
“Well, she’s good.”
“27…? Sounds like she’s too young. Can she do the work?”
“Yeah, she can.”
I balked. “Sawa, send her over tomorrow afternoon.”
Nanny Viv left on Friday morning, 6 a.m. I dropped her at the bus station in tao. This Kuria chick came at around 2. Nanny Viv’s bed was still warm with her scent, her clothes were still in the laundry basket, her face cloth hanging on the balcony hadn’t even dripped to damp. I felt a little awful about bringing in the temp so soon, maybe I should have given myself a day or two to hang with Muna and bond with her? (Hahaa, as if.)
So this chick calls me as she’s leaving tao, she wanted directions about where to shuka. She had a soft-voice and talked slow, it’s like a bee had bitten her lip, I could barely make out what she was saying. I realised that sometimes when I ask someone to speak up on phone I sort of yell and make them feel shitty. I must have done the same to this chick because she hang up. She texted when she was about to approach the stage where she’d drop off. She texted in caps, “NITUMIE JINA PIIZ.”
I texted her.
She flashed me 30 minutes later, I figured she’s at the main gate. I call her back and tell her to walk in and come to my block.
I waited 10 minutes. Nothing.
Another five minutes. Nothing.
She finally texted me, “Tafatar kuja 2 dakika moja unijuwa my dea”
Tafa what? Uniju– what? What the hell does that even mean? Is this some version of street sheng I’m unfamiliar with? Am I too bourgeois for my own good? Did pidgin take on a new form while I was out becoming an urbanite?
I call her. She asks me to go get her from the gate. I tell her to walk in, she won’t get lost. She insists. I sigh and say sawa.
This was the first warning sign: That she didn’t want to walk into unfamiliar territory and search for my block number meant that she wasn’t daring to take risks and try new adventures. She was one to have her hand held. It also hinted that she lacked personal initiative. Which translated to someone who’d need to be told “please panguza jikoni” instead of getting the bloody mop and wiping it unasked.
I tied Muna on my back and we walked to the main gate to get this chick. It was 2 p.m and the July wind was biting into our faces, it felt like we were trudging head-down through a snow storm.
I found her at the gate waiting. One look at her and I told myself, This chick is going to make a terrible temp.
She lacked the spirited enthusiasm of a first meet. She didn’t open her mouth when speaking, her words struggled to leave her mouth unsqueezed. The look on her face was the bored look of someone who’d just gotten out of bed. Or someone who was hangied, I couldn’t tell. And she dragged her feet. All her movements – hands, head – were the alternate dimensions of a movie being played in slow motion. Like something out of ‘The Matrix’.
Her mohawk was due for a trim, it was the colour of a fox’s tongue.
She was in carrot jeans and a faux bomber jacket in camouflage green. (She’d wear this jacket almost every day of the next two weeks she’d be in my digs. It was more fancy than practical and warm. It didn’t help that it was July and temperatures were in the crest of the wave that’s Nairobi’s winter. She’d later get a terrible flu because of this jacket, and it’s that flu that’ll have her leave a day sooner than she should have.)
Plus she was hot. Really hot. Hot in her own not-from-your-neck-of-the-woods kinda way. Too hot to be a nanny or a house girl or homebody, whatever.
The vibe I picked was that she was better suited to run a store for knock off makeup at Perida Centre, or for African fabric at Mombasa Rest House, maybe even be the brand ambassador for a locally-manufactured line for hair products. Or eyewear for Jumia Kenya. Or that skincare line from Kampala, I forget its name.
I wasn’t wrong, I picked stuff up over the next few days: Her pancakes were like bubble gum and as heavy as face towels, I remember chewing one for five minutes wondering why I couldn’t swallow it – it’s because it hadn’t been made to be swallowed, it was made to tire the gut into collapse. Her green vegetables were too oily. Her beef stew too soupy. Her chapos too misshapen.
She used too much detergent, too much Harpic, too much air freshener.
She wasn’t particularly neat.
She kept waking up late. One morning, at about 6.30 a.m, I leaned against the dining table chewing on an apple as I watched her wiping down the corridor. It’s twisted, I know, she could have turned around and caught me at any moment and what would I do, pretend to be immersed in yet another frivolous Instastory?
Her jeans were… uhm… quite snug and were baring the flesh on the small of her back and her tummy. She was wiping the corridor in jeans – I can’t even watch TV or cut onions in jeans! Didn’t she have the tools to work, a house help starter pack? Maybe a dera, a leso? ‘Cause what’s a help without a leso?
I was watching her hoping to spot a tattoo on her lower back – a butterfly, maybe a scorpion that didn’t have all the legs, maybe a dragon that looked like a cock. But there was no tattoo. No belly ring either. No piercing of any kind.
I sometimes hear of men of stature falter and sacrifice their integrity at the altar of their lustful longings. I’ve constantly dismissed such stories as bull. This chick showed me that it really wasn’t a farfetched idea.
She didn’t have her own personal interests outside of work. And that’s important for me. Everyone needs something to look forward to outside of work. Otherwise you’re a bot. When she was done jobo’ing she’d sit on the living room rug and watch AfroSinema under a blanky.
I called Grace early the next week and asked, “Grace, this chick isn’t one of yours, is she?”
She sighed into the phone. “No, no she isn’t.”
“I could tell! But why would you send me someone you don’t know, Grace?”
“I’m so sorry, Bett. I was confused and overwhelmed with my baby. I’m sorry.” I swallowed into the phone. Grace quickly added, “You can send her back if you want? I have someone else for replacement.”
I considered it for a moment then reconsidered. “It’s fine. Let me train her then ng’ang’ana with her for the next two weeks. My baby has agreed to sit with her, so everything else she’s not doing well I can live with.”
Yeah, for all that she couldn’t do as I liked, she made it up by playing with Muna. She had a child-like playfulness about her which radiated in her face when she was running. And man, that chick loved to run up and down my digs in a vest and no bra, her boobies jingling against the thin cotton of the fabric. She squealed as she ran; she looked like an extra in one of those DJ Khaleed videos. It was so confusing for me I chuckled. How do you bring up that convo with her? Eh? “Tafadhali vaa bra ukikimbia kimbia na Muna kwa nyumba”?
I went with her one Saturday to the market to buy fruits and veges. The chaps who run that place are Kuyos and never give anything for free. You’ll slice your wrist before they give you a small discount of 100 bob, or maybe two oranges if you tell them you’re taking them for your baby. But that day they gave us free cabbage. A green leafy cabbage! I didn’t even ask for it.
One Sunday I told her to take the afternoon off. She’d been at loose ends in the digs, I needed her to recharge. (And wear a bra.) She said sawa and went to see her brother, or so she said. Chick calls me later telling me she loves me and she’s dying to keep the jobo should Nanny Viv not return from her leave. She said she loved me and she loved Muna even more. I giggled nervously. Felt like I was being hit on. I took the phone off my ear and looked at the time. It was 3.15. She’d left an hour ago. This was a drunk dial, a drunk dial at 3 in the afternoon.
On the Wednesday before the two weeks were over, she picked up a terrible flu and urgently needed to see a doc. I released her mid-morning Friday.
Muna and me stood at the door to see her off.
The hook of her bra was dangling from her rack sack.