I was in primary school when the romance between Kui* and Kamal* started and we kids watched in fascination as it unfolded. Kui was the firstborn in her family which lived three plots away from ours. She was reed thin, dark, and willowy and looked so delicate, I always thought a high wind would blow her off her feet. She had dimples too and teeth so white I always imagined that if she was lost in a really dark room, you could navigate your way to her easily using her smile.
Kamal was the opposite. Light skinned, with the stocky build of a bouncer and jet black hair. He was Asian. Kui was Kikuyu. He would arrive in his white Datsun pick-up to pick up Kui for their dates and drive off, spewing dust as the pair laughed and giggled, obviously smitten with each other. He was romantic too and always showed up at her house with little gifts. He was the consummate gentleman, opening doors for the ladies, treated her family with respect and always had a kind word for us kids who loved the show that he and Kui put on.
I grew up in Langata. Not the mishmash of estates that today’s young, posh DStv watching residents fondly refer to as LA, but the older, more serene neighbourhood past the cemetery on the other side of the forest where neighbours are not within shouting distance. Here, houses squatted on five acres or more. Today more people have moved in and most houses are on half-an-acre. The road to our house has since been tarmacked. Then it was a winding dusty stretch all the way to the forest. It wasn’t uncommon to encounter baboons and at night warthogs or wild pigs that had strayed out of the Nairobi National Park.
All of us kids knew each other. Those who lived on the tarmacked stretch of the road would say in glee that ‘they were going to shags’ when they visited those of us on the murram stretch. I remember Christmases spent moving from house to house eating and playing. At dusk the kids of the house we were in would tell their parents they were escorting their friends part of the way then end up at their house. Then the kids of the second house would offer to escort their friends and end up at a third house and so it would continue till midnight or later. No one worried about our safety in those days. We came and went as we pleased.
I remember Sundays when the three oldest kids in our family (we were six) would walk to church a few kilometres away because we couldn’t all fit into our brown Isuzu Gemini (at least I think it was a Gemini). We had an average of six dogs at any one time growing up and they would invariably follow, no matter how much we tried to shoo them away by throwing sticks. At some point in the mass they would wander into the church much to my chagrin. I would shrink on the bench in embarrassment not wanting anyone to associate them with me and yet I really loved those dogs. My favourite pastime was taking long walks (it still is) and I would actively encourage the dogs to accompany me by whistling to them. But showing up in church dogs in tow? Not cool! Those poor dogs must have been totally confused by the mixed messages. Funny the things that upset us as teens. I love dogs and will have at least three German Shepherds when I get a house with a large compound.
Back to Kamal and Kui. Those two were so much in love. Taking romantic walks in the evening on the dusty road, he visited her almost every day and the two were inseparable. It looked like wedding bells were not far off. Not everyone was thrilled however. The mothers in the neighbourhood watched the unfolding romance with something akin to horror. The lovebirds became the subject of all women’s meetings in the area.
You know in such meetings how after the cooking and serving is done, all the kids are ordered to go play outside or go to the bedrooms so the women can discuss serious business. Except it isn’t that serious but mostly muchene. The financial affairs of the group are wrapped up in 30 minutes and then the catch up session begins.
“I have this new girl. All she does is eat. My food budget has doubled,” announces one member with a flourish.
“Si you lock the fridge,” another chips in. Shocked gasps all round. “What? You don’t?” she asks, looking around the room dismissively.
“That won’t solve the problem. She’s not used to eating things like bacon and sausages. Once she realises they are always available, she’ll get tired of them,” says the oldest woman in the room, who always serves as the MC at their functions.
“I agree. Locking the fridge is just silly,” says the one who is always sucking up to the leader.
A disbelieving snort follows this comment. “Aren’t you the one who even locks your bedroom door and counts all the plates, cups and spoons every week to make sure your girl hasn’t stolen or broken anything?” Derisive laughter all around.
At this point the host shouts, “Wangari bring the hot water!” Her first born scampers from the bedroom, goes to the kitchen and brings a large flask. At these gatherings, children are supposed to stay within shouting distance just in case something is needed. And what’s with middle aged women drinking hot water after meals? I’ve never understood it. Wangari leaves the room and someone brings up the topic of Kamal and Kui. Several mothers nervously look up to ensure no little ears are eavesdropping but still lower their voices and the ensuing conversation is conducted in hushed tones.
“I can’t imagine what Mama Kui is thinking letting her daughter carry on like this,” says one, shaking her head, her long red manicured nails waving in the air in disapproval.
“An Indian. God help us,” says another piously crossing her chest. “What if she gets pregnant?” A collective gasp of horror fills the room.
“Do we even know who these people worship…Krishna, shishna, maharaja, Gujarat…they have so many gods,” says another.
“Actually, Gujarat is a language spoken in India, like the way we have tribes,” the all-knowing member corrects her, voice dripping with condescension.
“Gujarat is a place in India, the language is Gujarati,” yet another gleefully points out to the all-knowing member whose arrogance often rubs other members the wrong way.
“Who cares, my point is these people are devil worshippers. We can’t let Kui marry him,” points out the pious member. “We have to do something.” She looks around the room as the other members nod in agreement.
“Mama Boi, you’re close to Mama Kui. See you speak to her. Tell her to end this madness before it’s too late.”
And so it came to pass that several interventions were held with Kui. The women of the neighbourhood popped in for a cup of tea one random Saturday afternoon and took the opportunity to try and dissuade Kui from this foolish romance. A week later her aunties got in on the act. Nothing doing. Kui wouldn’t budge. No amount of logic or threats worked. She stuck to her man like glue. The women of Langata sought divine intervention. Luckily for them, and unfortunately for Kui, Kamal’s relatives, who were just as unhappy about the affair, got in on the action.
They too staged several interventions where the folly of his actions was pointed out. “Look, we get it, you’re a man and want to have fun before settling down. That’s fine and it’s actually perfect that you picked a black girl for this instead of our women. That’s what African women are for, to sow wild oats, but we never marry them,” an uncle said.
Kamal proved to be as tough a nut to crack as Kui so his family employed its weapon of last resort. “If you persist in this foolishness, we will disown you and banish you from the family,” his grandmother said. In an Asian family, that means more than losing the social connection. In effect, it would deprive Kamal of a livelihood. Like many Asian men, he worked in the family business. It was the expected thing and he’d lived his whole life knowing exactly where he would end up. The realisation that his family indeed meant to cut him off came as a jolt.
At first Kamal called their bluff, determined to marry his Kikuyu sweetheart. He was sent packing from the family home and business. He tried to seek refuge with an uncle in Kisumu but the word had spread, no one was to help him until he toed the family line. They say love can conquer all but losing everything he held dear proved to be too high a price. Kamal broke off his affair with Kui and returned to the loving embrace of his family. A bride was identified (from India I believe) and arrangements for an arranged marriage picked up speed.
The women of the neighbourhood rejoiced. We kids were shattered, being too young to know that love for love’s sake is rarely enough in the cold harsh reality of the world we live in. Culture, religion, beliefs, money, all conspire to thwart the course of love. Kui was devastated. She cried for weeks, barely ate and became a pale shadow of herself. The dimpled smile disappeared and she rarely spoke to anyone, staying cooped up in her room for days.
“She’ll get over it. This was puppy love. She’ll meet someone more suitable,” said one of the mothers in yet another women’s meeting.
But it seemed they had all miscalculated the strength of Kamal and Kui’s love. The sun seemed to have set permanently for Kui with Kamal’s leaving. It seemed like she had lost the will to live. After several months of moping, the mothers’ initial glee about the break up turned to concern about Kui’s health. Then a miracle happened.
Kamal told his family to go to hell, rejected the arranged marriage, told them to keep their job and sought out Kui, the love of his life. We eagerly anticipated a happy ending. Alas, it didn’t happen. Kui’s love had turned to bitterness during the separation. She had hung on, resisted all attempts to separate them, but Kamal broke under pressure and it seemed she couldn’t forgive him. He chased her for weeks but she wouldn’t even talk to him. Naturally, we kids were bewildered. She had her man back. What was the problem?
In time, Kamal gave up and went back to his life. Not to the Asian girl his family wanted him to marry. He stuck to his guns and found a lowly job to support himself. A few years later he married another Kikuyu girl. I’m sure his family was furious but I heard they eventually accepted him back into the fold.
Last I heard Kui is still single. She dates but it seems Kamal really was the love of her life. It breaks my heart to think that these two came so close to overcoming cultural barriers but the one who seemed so strong initially in the face of so much opposition to their relationship, turned out to be the weaker one when the tide turned. I wonder how Kui feels knowing Kamal married an African girl and that if things were different, that might have been her.
*Names have been changed
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