My Cloud Nine

Area Nine Lilongwe, my Cloud Nine, does not represent Malawi whatsoever but that is not to say it lacks a character of its own. From the M1- Mchinji junction, commonly known as Pa City Mall or Pa Crossroads, we drove through what is supposed to be a checkpoint opposite Civil Stadium and the atmosphere changed. All through it had been open plains, postharvest maize fields, red brick houses and few fences. There were boys, barely fifteen, selling deep fried Mbewa on the M1 roadside. I hated the sight of the fried mice propped on bamboo grass sticks. Weeks later I would eat the wild mice and like it. In spite of the furry body and gruesome appearance, fried mice tastes distinctly good. Nobody in Kenya approved of it when I shared photos on my Facebook timeline, the Malawians watched me and counted to ten expecting something to happen. Unlike most expatriates who minded interacting deeply with the culture mindful that it would tarnish their own and rub off their identity, I tested mine, showing in the process that Africans are the same. Expatriates lived tucked in safe zones that separated them from the citizens. To add to the social divide, the newcomers, especially the Indians, built tall brick walls with razor wire and live wire at the top, they planted trees to sift their air from the dust and pollen from the corn fields all around.

We would live in the Indian community of Area Nine, a location that hosted to  Indians, few Arabs, Pakistanis, Chinese and Europeans. The majority of Africans who lived there were either maids, gardeners or expats of African descent working on American or European Projects. With disregard to the affluence, evidenced by the customized number plates on Japanese SUVs and German Sedans and Station Wagons, plastered brick walls, freshly mowed lawns, rolling gates, spacious mansions and tarred boulevards, Area Nine was still considered a second Tier location due to the social status of the occupants. I will explain this shortly.

The socioeconomic and political character of Area Nine can be said to be diverse. The occupants share citizenship with another country, with Malawi as the second home. Indians, Buddhists, Chinese, Muslims and Christians live in harmony here, evident that religion divides only in strife. There is an edge to living in such a location; the religious and political excitement of the people is minimal since the area does not act as a stronghold of any grouping of people. You cannot hold an overnight vigil in the compound if your neighbor does not submit to the same god as you. The Indians, the majority group in the area, did go crazy around Diwali and fireworks were projected into the night sky, lighting it up and filling the rather quiet nights with popping sounds. Muslims came together during Idd and held prayers at the mosque. The Chinese met in their themed restaurants and where they were particularly loud as they smoked endlessly. The Christians met on Sundays and in Church Area Cell groups. The only time the five groups of people met was during the 2018 World Cup games. Although we shared tables and screens, the divide was loud. The African waiters rushed to serve the Whites, the Asians and when the two were comfortable, they came asking for orders from the few Africans. I later came to understand that the Whites always left a tip, the Asians were extremely loud and quick to pick out a slow employee to the employer, Africans barely left a tip and were not in a hurry to be served as the prices were exorbitant. I hated the pub instantly, not even the ambience, quality of seats and screen kept me there. A fellow African would offer me a dismal service on the grounds that I did not tip. The whole concept of tipping is appreciation of good service, not a bribe to buy attention and flawless service.

I loved the house we were to share with Njeri; it was in a gated compound with two others. We got the last house in line, furthest from the gate, surrounded by fruit trees which we gladly assumed ownership. The walls were painted in a bright cream-white on the outside and inside, within were white ornamental tiles on the floor, spacious kitchen, high ceilings, fully furnished master bedrooms with a separate shower and bathtub, dining area with amazing chandeliers, hot water systems, sinks with silver faucets, large windows fitted with mosquito nets and a garage. The verandah at the back faced a yard with trees and flowers. A Jacaranda flower in full bloom sent scents all over the place at night, bees hummed as they hovered over the petals of the carnations and bougainvillea. Birds chirped in the trees. A hoopoe bird rummaged the rotting humus under the Jacaranda tree in search for lunch. Lizards ran around the drying leaves.

Back at home, as a student in the Technical University in Nairobi, the situation was different. Year one, I lived with my Aunt in Langata for two weeks before I got a room in the students hostel in South B. Living with a relative would not have given me a real picture of campus even if it promised quality housing, food and warmth of home. I wanted to get a feel of life as a student; spend evenings chatting with friends from all over Kenya, play hockey and travel with the school team, eat food at the mess, drink cheap liquor, smoke weed on weekends, get girlfriends and invite them over to my hostel room, go on exiles and force exiles on roommates, attend to the Christian Union meetings and Student Union strikes. When the Dean of Students answered my prayer after much coercion, I left my Auntie’s. Life as a freshman was affordable and I ticked almost every entry in my campus bucket list but enter my sophomore year, the fun was wearing off to reveal a tough reality. I lost my hostel room after going on a long holiday and we moved out with a friend to share a single room house in Landimawe. Landimawe is Sheng for Land of Stones, a name given in early nineteen hundreds when the railway reached Nairobi. Indians and Brits working on the railway from the coast created stone bungalows and a station, perhaps the name. It must have been a fashionable estate then, only occupied by highly ranking staff members of the construction work but with years and corruption, the estate was falling apart; the asbestos roofs were falling off and patches of iron sheet would be seen on them, the drainage system no longer functioned and a stench of decomposing sewage hung in the estate, plastic blocked the drainage lines and soapy water run all over the streets in tiny streams, baby diapers, used women towels and condoms littered the paths and fields of Landimawe. The occupants changed and the houses were taken over by a new breed of Kenyans who did not care for the heritage the houses held. The ceilings, rather moldy and stained, were falling apart. The toilet bowls were broken. The water pipes cut through the drainage lines. Stolen power lines and naked wires hang precariously over the houses. Young children and poultry ran around the spaces between the lines of houses. Inside the gates, the landlords built tin houses of about six foot square and rented them out to students and workers in the nearby Industrial Area. The students, mainly from TUK, Nairobi Aviation College and other institutes in the city, found the place favorable due to cheap rent and proximity to school. They lived there without minding the chaos, if they minded it, they assumed it, and it was only for a few years before they left for better neighborhoods.

I joined the migration to Landimawe. First I lived with a classmate in a stone room then I moved out to a tin house by myself. The tin house, nicknamed Aluminium Apartment by my college mates, was unbearably hot during the day and cold at night. Cockroaches dropped dead on the bed during the day due to the heat and mosquitoes swarmed the night air. Clothes faded on the lines inside the house. Tomatoes and pepper did not make it through a day. Some nights when I couldn’t sleep, I read books that spoke of a good life after strive. I also worked hard in school and took up a job in Gikomba, East Africas’ largest market. Some nights, when I was tired and sleepy from balancing school work and earning several coins to keep me going, my neighbours choose to have loud sex. I wondered how one would find love when living in the tin houses. My mind was always thinking of leaving the shanty.

One day another classmate joined me and two weeks later we moved to Ngara. To a high rising flat, the hope of a better life. Ngara was worse. Fungi grew on the walls of our damp one roomed house. The toilet reeked and pierced my nose with its heavy stench of urine and human dung. The smell reminded me of chemistry practical sessions that involved ammonia in high school. In Ngara water came at night during weekdays but never on weekends. We would set the alarm for four a.m to join a queue of housewives who fetched it then. I hated the toilet so much that I would wake up and walk through Nairobi to poop in the university toilets. I was in my third and fourth years and money was not easy to come by. We limited our rationing to two meals per day, a quick breakfast of the previous night’s supper and black tea, and a heavy starchy supper. I would travel home monthly and come back with a sack full of potatoes, green grams, flour and sugar. My roommate from Meru would come with arrow roots, yams, beans and maize. On the trips home, I met friends whom we were circumcised together and they were eager to hear about life in the big city and university. I entertained an easy conversation, sticking to bright images of the city and sweet tales of school. With family, I avoided deep conversations that would dig into the truth, I was juggling depression. I successfully managed to hide my emotions beneath a wry smile and witty sense of humour. My parents sent rent and fees but Nairobi consumed them as soon as the bank alert message arrived. My working siblings occasionally sent me M-pesa, as we called money, but that would also disappear quickly. I hated when I went home to feel normal and warm in the cold Kinangop. I despised it because the good feeling was temporary and disoriented me completely when I went back to the city. I saw the struggles my parents were going through and appreciated the much they provided. It was never enough but I could not ask for more. I held on.

Zambezi came to my rescue at my lowest moment. Zambezi is a small township just after Kikuyu on your way to Limuru from Nairobi. I moved there in September 2017 during my course attachment at Veterinary Research Institute in nearby Muguga. The cube house was just two metres squared but even after fitting all my belongings, it left room for cardio exercise and an echo. In Zambezi I focused on my health-mental and physical. I jogged in the morning, skipped rope and rolled the ab wheel. I ate considerably well and smiled a lot. My money problems persisted to the point I walked twenty two kilometres to TUK for my final year dissertation defense. I got a supplementary exam in Microbiology but passed on the second attempt. While in Zambezi, I graduated with a second class honours upper division, got an apprentice position and hope of a future- a future with Malawi in it.

All the memory ran in my mind after my third tour of the house in Area Nine, my Cloud Nine. It simply would not sink in, that the first escape from hardship would be this impressive. The fridge was stuffed with grocery and hummed softly in satisfaction. I stretched on the chair and let out a long sigh of relief. Prior to this, it had been a terrific four years.

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