It wasn’t like she was never dramatic, Mama Kananu. She wasn’t the type of woman who understood what subtlety or courtly behaviour meant. She took all news with an unnecessary and innocuous thrilling disbelief. As if it was extraordinary and unusual. As if were the first time she was ever hearing of such a thing.
“Ohh noo, ndikuikia. What are you telling me Mama Chela,” she said to me when I told her about my househelp. She liked to throw in her Kao as often as she could, “I can’t believe she left your babies crying and hungry then stole your clothes. Enaakili sawa? Ala.”
No, I said, I doubt she was thinking straight. Her head wasn’t screwed on right.
But her histrionic behaviour wasn’t ill-suited for a woman who looked like she did: she was a short rotund woman with a large behind. She reminded me of a pumpkin. Her dainty features were swallowed into the loaf of her face – eyes, nose and lips only returned to their hiding place when she wasn’t laughing or telling a story, which was very few times. And it was then that she looked peculiar.
Her knotted thick hair peeked from underneath her headscarf. Her breasts wore the proud sag of a mother who had breastfed ten children; a joke she liked to crack then laugh at alone. “Asi. Do you not know how many have become men and women because of these ones? Kakaka, kakaka.”
All the women in the neighbourhood loved her. We loved her because she brought a burst of sunshine to our, sometimes, routinely dull days. It wasn’t the type of love that came with a first encounter. Or a second or a third – she would drive you up the wall with her nosiness and her caustic humour before you learnt that it was all for good humouredness. “Aii Mama Wawaa,” she once said as she approached her on the hanging lines, “you mean you still wash your mzee’s socks and underwear? Does he wash yours for you? Hahhaha.”
Mama Wawaa responded with an annoyed piercing glance and said nothing.
So when we heard her squeal from her house, then saw her come out the gate with her hands on her head, an outpour of inaudible curse words, we knew not to be alarmed. It was just Mama Kananu being herself. “Uuuwiii! Somebody has stolen my jiko. Niwisi vala kyat thi?”
We shook our heads, No, we didn’t know where it had gone.
Mama Kananu said she was from the kitchen ready to put the muthokoi on the fire when she noticed that the jiko wasn’t where she had left it. She said it was flaming as she liked.
We couldn’t imagine the thief coming out of her house with a flaming jiko. Wasn’t it too hot for him to carry? She asked. Didn’t the wind sweep through the charcoal and fan the flames to his shirt? Was he himself now on fire? We laughed some more.
Maybe the gods had seen her sufuria of the family’s dinner and punished the thief before he got too far away with her jiko. “Sindwe,” she spat out in disgust.
She trudged back into her house.
It wasn’t more than a few minutes when we heard her shrill laugh.1