Duel in the Savanna
By Wanjiru Waithaka
Copyright ©2015 All Rights Reserved
Christmas at Bola’s home was a family affair. His friends Andrew Makanti, Mathew Gaku, Caleb Jawiri and their families had joined his for the festivities at Tezi farm. All his children were present including Peter and Grace who had flown in from the US accompanied by Peter’s fiancée Agatha.
The newly engaged couple planned to wed in the summer. The family had done the first visit to Agatha’s home two weeks before to kick off dowry negotiations. The couple planned to fly back to the US after the New Year, leaving the family to plan the August nuptials.
Peter was the spitting image of his deceased mother Consolata Wekuru although he’d inherited his father’s dark complexion. Tall and gangly, he looked like a geek in his simple white tee and black jeans, horn-rimmed glasses and hair cropped close to his head with sideburns.
He had a quiet shy personality which contrasted with Agatha’s warm bubbly one. Agatha was dark and much shorter than her fiancé, curvy and bold in her dressing. She wore a white clingy top over dark wash jeans that hugged her hips and thighs like a second skin and red stiletto heels. Lots of mascara, eye shadow and bright red lipstick completed the look.
When the occasion demanded she could dress conservatively. At the traditional meet the in-laws function a fortnight before, she had donned an A-line floral dress of mid-calf length and short sleeves which she had paired with black strappy high heels.
The couple sat on the first floor landing which had been converted into an intimate lounge with an L-shaped green fabric sofa, black coffee table and TV in the corner. Isabella and Agatha spoke animatedly, going over wedding details. Isabella looked delicate because of her petite frame and gentle manner but that demeanour masked a will of steel.
Bola was a formidable business mogul who intimidated most people but when it came to family matters, Isabella usually carried the day, handling her husband with a deftness that would have shocked his peers. Bola adored Isabella and spoilt her but she never abused her power over him, at all times deeply respectful of her husband.
She was soft spoken, graceful and fiercely protective of her family. These qualities had helped win over her step children and the Karenga family lived in a harmony rare for blended families. Peter watched his fiancée and step mother talk but said little.
Weddings just weren’t his thing. He looked like he’d be happier on the large back porch overlooking the swimming pool where most of the guests chatted gaily in small groups as the delicious aroma of the goat ribs that Bola grilled at one corner wafted into the six bedroom mansion.
Tony sat in a small cluster with Makena, Grace, James, Isaiah and his date Ruth. James’s wife Paula was busy in the kitchen supervising the cooks getting ready to bring out the food.
Ordinarily, Isabella took the lead as Paula helped but her mother-in-law was so excited about the forthcoming wedding that she had let her daughter-in-law oversee the serving of the food after working all morning to ensure it was prepared to her exacting specifications.
In a short while, the large banquet table borrowed from Woodville would be groaning under the weight of numerous platters containing pilau, white rice, kale, creamed spinach, green and purple cabbage, steamed mixed vegetables, traditional greens, potato salad, fruits, kachumbari, roast potatoes, ugali, mukimo, chapati, naan, beef stew, fried chicken, lamb curry, pork chops, grilled fish and of course nyama choma, Bola’s specialty.
A dozen children swam in the large kidney shaped pool, periodically diving in with loud shrieks as they splashed each other with water. They included Bola and Isabella’s daughters Rose, 9, Susan 7, and James and Paula’s oldest son Chris aged three. Their youngest, Lewis, a toddler, bounced on Makena’s lap, cooing happily as he put the beads on her long African necklace into his mouth.
Bola stood over the barbecue grill chatting quietly with his three close friends as they sipped beer or whisky. The year rapidly drawing to a close had brought mixed fortunes for him and his family. He’d taken a big hit financially from the claims on the insurance company which was limping badly.
They had lost many clients who had decided not to renew their policies for the following year, thanks to rumours about the company’s financial viability. No doubt Leswa was behind it. Bola was furious but couldn’t do anything about it. BCB had finally released their cash so payment of future claims wouldn’t be a problem.
They still had three court cases pending – the BRS tax claim, the fourth hotel fire whose owner had refused to accept the verdict of the arbitrator and gone to court and the cash heist claim where the bank had sued Eagle Security for negligence. It might take years for these cases to be concluded. Bancushi’s judicial system was notoriously slow. All his shares at the BSE were now held by proxies.
Tony had travelled abroad to meet the accounting guru and their plan to hide his assets was at an advanced stage. They had transferred the assets of BK Transporters to a new company and planned to restart the business in the New Year. In that regard Dwanje’s nefarious schemes to destroy his companies had failed. But in one aspect he had succeeded.
The war chest was floundering. Many people had pulled out and few were ready to join the effort, afraid of the political repercussions, especially with a general election only 12 months away. Bola watched helplessly as friends and peers caved in under threats of receivership from Leswa and his cohorts if they refused to support Dwanje.
Interest rates were still rising and corruption scandals were being exposed every day but Dwanje didn’t seem to care about the impact to the economy. Many business people whispered in private that Bancushi could ill afford more of Dwanje’s rule but selling Akisa as an alternative candidate had proved a hard task especially among his own Buyu tribe.
Bedan Mangola’s propaganda had also proved to be devastatingly effective among Buyu business and community leaders. Makanti had just finished narrating a conversation he’d overheard at the country club where both he and Mangola were members.
“We know Mzee is going to rig the election and he’ll win another term. It’s better to get on the winning side instead of being locked out for five years. Wouldn’t you rather be at the table where meat is being shared so that you get something even if it’s just scraps?” Mangola had told his listeners, who had nodded eagerly.
“That kind of short term thinking is going to destroy this country.” Bola’s expression was earnest.
“The irony is that’s not what they’re telling the hoi polloi in their political rallies. There, the message is simple, ‘How can you vote for an uncircumcised boy?’” Makanti said.
“Some people have suggested we seek an alternative candidate to both Dwanje and Akisa. Someone who our people can rally around. Your name keeps coming up,” said Gaku.
“I’m not a politician. I just want to run my businesses and be left in peace,” Bola said emphatically with a hard shake of his head. It wasn’t the first time people had tried to persuade him to run for office. “Akisa would make a good president. I’ve sat with him and his policies make a lot of sense.”
“Elections are rarely about policies. When you reduce a campaign to the lowest common denominator such as whether a man has a foreskin or not, it’s hard to steer the conversation in a different direction. Akisa has an uphill battle ahead of him,” said Gaku.
Bola sighed. “I know.”
The others had slowly drifted off, some into the house and others to the pool, leaving Tony and Isaiah alone on the porch. They sipped their whiskies, relaxed and replete after the heavy lunch.
“You brought Ruth. Must be getting serious.” Tony looked inquisitively at his friend. Isaiah had spent a lot of Christmases with their family and in all those years he’d never brought a date.
Isaiah nodded thoughtfully. “I like her. She’s the real deal.”
“You’ve dated for what, three months?”
His friend shrugged. “From the first time I saw her, I wanted her. Not just physically, I wanted to really know her. She’s easy to be around. Mature. No drama.”
“We’ve certainly had a lot of that.” Tony grinned.
Isaiah laughed. “Yes we have.”
They watched as his date frolicked with the children in the pool. She was a tiny wisp of a woman with a short curly kit, pixie face with wide spaced eyes, thick eyebrows, high cheekbones and dimpled smile which displayed buck teeth slightly stained from drinking borehole water while growing up.
“I won’t make it for the party this year.” Tony looked at his friend askance. Isaiah was referring to the New Year’s Eve party he threw at the cottage every year. “Ruth is spending tomorrow with her folks then we go to Luzi on Wednesday for a week.”
Tony nodded. He would miss Isaiah’s company over the next few days. Freddo wouldn’t be around either as he was out of the country. Tony spent a quiet Boxing Day with family and later that evening took Peter out for a drink at his favourite hangout. They spent a great night catching up and didn’t get home till the wee hours.
Peter spent the rest of the week looking up old friends and hanging out with Agatha. The couple planned to usher in the New Year at the coast before heading back to the US. The holiday felt weird without his two closest friends. Tony hadn’t realised until now how much time they spent together.
Thank goodness for the hotel. The Christmas break was a busy time for the hospitality industry. Tony found himself spending more and more time at work. After dropping off Peter and Agatha at the airport on Saturday, he wondered where to usher in the New Year. His parents and Makena usually went to the farm in Nyago and spent several days visiting with his elderly grandmother and other relatives.
Tony didn’t want to host a party without his closest friends. The other option was to go clubbing but he didn’t feel like doing that either. Oh well, he’d just work through the holiday. There was plenty to do at the hotel.
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” Tony told Makena as he removed their luggage from the boot of his Toyota Celica convertible.
“You love the farm. I know you do,” she countered with a sharp dig at his ribs.
“Tony stepped out of reach of her playful fingers. “Of course I do. I just can’t remember the last time I spent New Year’s here. There’s nothing to do.”
“It’s different compared to Lavangwa, but it’s fun, you’ll see,” Makena assured him. “Tell him Grace.” She turned to her sister who had accompanied them from the city.
“I’m with Tony. It’s been a while since I spent New Year’s here,” said Grace, running a hand over her sister’s shoulders affectionately.
Grace was dark like their father but she’d inherited her grandmother’s looks and personality. She was short and chubby, a chatterbox, had boundless energy and always seemed to be in a hurry. She spoke fast, her words falling over each other as if her tongue couldn’t keep up with her brain. She and Peter were the brains of the family.
Grace would most likely end up teaching at a university once she finished her postgraduate degree course. Solid and practical, James was the doer, great at implementing projects and the one who worried about the nuts and bolts of the business. Tony was more of a strategist, able to see the big picture.
He was great at dreaming up new ideas but not so great at implementing them. That was left to James and their father. Makena was simply, Makena. Adorable, creative, a great listener, boundlessly curious and great at ferretting out secrets. She always knew what everyone in the family was doing, even Peter and Grace who lived abroad.
“It will be fun, promise,” Makena repeated before rolling her wheelchair up the front porch.
Unlike their two storey Tezi home which Isabella had furnished in a classic elegant style with lots of neutral colours, wall to wall carpeting and plush luxurious fabrics, their sprawling five bedroom bungalow at Nyago had a more relaxed feel.
The bare hardwood floors were polished to a high shine with Persian rugs placed here and there. The living room walls were a warm yellow-gold that complemented the chunky hardwood furniture with rusty orange cushions and striped multi-coloured throw pillows.
A terracotta tiled veranda with dark brown rattan garden furniture and cream cushions led to a lush lawn with a swimming pool. Each bedroom had been decorated in a monochromatic theme in several shades of a single colour – green, purple, blue, brown and gold.
On Monday evening Tony admitted that Makena was right. He’d had a lot of fun. After their arrival in Nyago on Sunday they’d gone straight to their grandmother’s house a few kilometres from the farm and spent New Year’s Eve with her. She’d slaughtered several goats for her children who were all in attendance with their families.
Tony had a fabulous time hanging out with his cousins and other members of their large extended family. On New Year’s Day they attended a service at the local church. Afterwards, Bola hosted lunch for several friends who lived in Nyago. Tony spent an enjoyable afternoon listening to the men talk about politics, business, farming and recalling adventures from their past.
In the evening he played monopoly and scrabble with his sisters. Makena was a whiz at monopoly and insisted they play for real money. By the time they were done playing, he was out several thousand shillings much to his chagrin.
The only problem was the too quiet nights. They’d left their grandmother’s home at 2am the previous night. Tony had tossed and turned restlessly, unable to sleep. He couldn’t go to a casino to escape his thoughts like he often did in Lavangwa.
He’d gone instead to the bar adjoining the lounge that his father kept fully stocked and tried to drink himself into a stupor but it hadn’t helped. Tonight, after his sisters went to bed, Tony decided to try something different. He put on his swimming trunks and walked through the silent house to the back porch.
He dived into the swimming pool and swam 50 laps reckoning it would tire him out enough to help him sleep. Unfazed by the freezing water, Tony swam furiously until his lungs screamed from the exertion. He finally swam to the edge, got out of the pool and reached for the towel he’d carelessly thrown on the side.
“A bit late for a swim isn’t it?” Tony turned to see Makena rolling down the porch.
“What are you doing up?” he asked, towelling himself dry. Tony strode into his bedroom, wore a pair of grey sweatpants, white tee, black sweater and socks then walked back to the living room bar and poured a double scotch.
“What’s wrong?” Makena stopped her wheelchair right behind him. He turned away from her worried frown, tossed back the whisky in one gulp and poured another. “Tony?”
“Nothing’s wrong. Go back to bed,” he said roughly and immediately regretted the brusque command. A long silence followed. Tony turned and saw her entering the kitchen and followed.
Makena reached for the kettle on the counter, rolled her wheelchair across to the kitchen sink and filled it then plugged it into the socket. The kitchen had been designed such that everything was within easy reach. Makena was very independent and could cook for herself if the occasion required.
Not that she needed to. They had a great cook who moved between Tezi and Nyago depending on where the family was residing at any one time. “My ankle hurts. I want to soak it,” she said in response to Tony’s questioning look.
An expression of concern crossed his face. His sister had a very high pain threshold as a result of all the surgeries she’d had. If she couldn’t sleep because of the pain, it must be bad. He knew the drill after so many years dealing with her condition.
He went to the bathroom just down the hall and got a plastic basin. After the kettle boiled he poured the water into the basin and refilled the kettle leaving the water to boil. He added cold water to the basin knowing she liked the water as hot as she could stand.
He led the way into the living room where he assisted her out of the wheelchair onto the sofa and helped her put both feet into the basin. She winced. “Too hot?”
“No. I’ll get used to it.” He got a woollen blanket from a nearby basket and tucked it around her.
“Drink or tea?”
“Drink.” Tony went to the bar and poured a glass of her favourite red wine. “Thanks,” Makena said taking the glass.
Tony went back to the kitchen and unplugged the kettle which had boiled. He carried it with him to the living room and set it on the floor next to the basin then sat on an ottoman facing her. He’d keep adding hot water as the water she soaked in cooled until the pain subsided. From experience, he knew it would take at least 45 minutes. He finished his drink, went to the bar and poured another.
“Now that we’ve established why I’m having trouble sleeping, what’s your excuse?” Makena asked with a smile.
“What makes you think I can’t sleep?” Tony avoided her gaze.
“You just swam 50 laps in the middle of the night in freezing cold water.” He looked up, eyebrow raised in silent query. “Yeah, I counted.”
Tony sighed and stared at the dark liquid in his glass. “There’s this girl I was dating…”
“The one who inspired the marina project who told you never to give up on your dreams?” Makena asked after a long silence. Tony looked up in surprise. She smiled. “Lucky guess.” He nodded slowly and took a sip of his whisky. “What’s her name?”
“What was she like?” Makena asked softly.
Tony had sworn never to speak about Sophie. Maybe the sleepless nights had finally taken their toll. Or maybe it was the scotch after all the drinking he’d done during the day, at the lunch with his father’s friends and in the evening while playing board games with the girls.
Whatever the reason, he found himself telling Makena about her. In fits and starts at first, with long pauses between sentences and then it poured out like a deluge almost as if his mind couldn’t contain more of the anguish and just wanted to release it.
Makena listened quietly, rubbing his arm gently as he spoke, nudging him now and then when his speech faltered. As he told her about the abortion, he looked up expecting to see condemnation but the depth of compassion in her eyes brought a lump to his throat.
“Do you regret the abortion? Is that why you can’t sleep?” she asked gently.
Tony was silent for a long time, sifting through the memories of his affair with Sophie and the days since she disappeared in an attempt to gauge his feelings.
“No. The timing was bad. We barely knew each other, dad was having problems…” Makena waited patiently for him to continue speaking. “It was the right thing to do.”
“Then why can’t you forget her?” she probed in the same gentle tone.
Tony shrugged helplessly. He got up in agitation and went to the bar where he refilled his whisky glass and took a long gulp.
“The water is cold.” Makena rubbed her feet together. Tony walked back and sat on the ottoman, lifted her feet and poured hot water from the kettle into the basin. She dipped her feet back in and gave a sigh of pleasure.
“Much.” Makena grasped his hand in hers. “Do you love her?”
Tony looked startled at the question. “We only dated for three months!”
“That’s not what I asked.” He shook his head. “Really? The pregnancy is no longer an issue so why haven’t you moved on?”
Tony stared at her, brows furrowed in concentration. “I’m not in love with Sophie ok? I barely knew her.”
“How long has Isaiah dated Ruth?”
That stopped him cold. His best friend was acting like a man getting ready to settle down with a woman he’d known for only three months.
“You hired a private detective to search for someone you have no feelings for? Pretty strange behaviour wouldn’t you say?”
“I wanted to know if she got through the procedure ok. What’s strange about that?”
“A woman you claim not to love gets pregnant. You insist she gets rid of it and she does. Then she takes off. Any other man would be doing cartwheels, relieved to have dodged a bullet. But not you. What gives?”
Tony shook his head, mind working furiously to counter her cold hard logic. Was he in love with Sophie? Is that why she still haunted his dreams? He shook his head again. “You’re wrong.”
Makena raised an eyebrow, doubt clear in her expression. “I just wanted to ensure she was alright because she left so suddenly.” Her eyebrow inched further up her forehead.
“There is no longer anything tying you to her, so why do you care?”
“I just do.”
“Her brother and best friend have told you repeatedly that she’s fine.”
“I wanted to see it for myself.”
“Would you stop with all the questions?” Tony shouted, ready to explode. He should never have told her about Sophie. This discussion was driving him insane. He needed another drink. He stalked to the bar.
“The reason drinking, gambling and sleeping around haven’t worked is because your heart is involved you blind moron,” Makena called after him. His sister rarely cursed. Tony stared at her in astonishment. “You’re in denial, that’s why your life is so out of control.”
“I’m not out of control,” he yelled.
“Keep your voice down. Do you want to wake everyone?” she hissed in alarm.
He glowered at her but lowered his voice. “So I gamble and go out a lot. I always have.”
“Your friends are worried about you. The other day Isaiah wondered if you were trying to set a record for highest number of women shagged in a year.”
Tony was fuming. So much so that he wanted to hit something. If it were anyone else talking to him like that he would have walked out or punched them. But this was Makena. She loved him and what she was saying came out of a place of concern for his welfare.
That wasn’t what was pissing him off. It was the thought that he’d unknowingly fallen for Sophie. He who strove to keep all his affairs at arm’s length, no feelings, just sex. The idea that he’d fallen for a woman who now clearly wanted nothing to do with him grated on his pride.
He shook his head. “This isn’t one of your soap operas. I don’t have feelings for Sophie,” he insisted stubbornly.
Makena sighed. “You’re miserable without her and in denial. Instead of acknowledging and dealing with your feelings, you’re doing everything to avoid thinking about her.”
“It was an affair. Great while it lasted but it’s over. Let it go.”
“I’m not the one having trouble letting it go,” she countered swiftly.
Tony had had enough. He slammed his glass on the bar counter. “I’m going to bed.”
His temper rose by several degrees at her syrupy tone, thick with sarcasm. He decided to leave before he said something he’d later regret. He stalked to his room and slammed the door. What did she know about it? He knew exactly what he had with Sophie. And love didn’t enter into it.
He liked her sure. But that’s all it was. He had looked for her because he was concerned about her welfare. That was normal. After all they’d had a pretty good ride before it all went to pieces. That just made him human not a love sick puppy. His sister had no clue what she was talking about.
Two hours later Tony admitted defeat. Makena had seen in just a few hours what he had failed to realise in an entire year. He had feelings for Sophie that went beyond concern for her wellbeing after the abortion. He searched for her because he wanted to see her again period.
He wanted to hear her voice, see her smile, hold her close and kiss her until the tightness in his chest eased. He felt lost. He’d never felt this way about another woman and he didn’t know how to handle it.
He got out of bed and padded softly to his sister’s room. Opening the door he called out softly, “Makena, are you awake?”
Moonlight streamed into the room, clearly showing her sleeping form buried under the covers. Makena loved to watch the moon and stars and before slipping into bed, always drew open the curtains.
He watched as she turned, then an arm slipped out and pushed the blanket away from her face. “What?” a sleepy voice asked. Tony didn’t bother turning on the light. He walked further into the moonlit room and sat on the edge of the bed. “Are you ok?”
“You were right.”
“About Sophie?” Makena asked sitting up.
He nodded. “I love her.” Tony choked out the words, the effort of finally giving voice to his feelings almost proving too much. “What if she never wants to see me again?”
Makena sighed and didn’t speak for a long time. “You know that saying, ‘If you love something set it free. If it comes back it’s yours. If it doesn’t it never was?’” Tony nodded. “If it was meant to be, the universe will bring her back to you.”
Tony shuddered. “I miss her so much.” His voice was an agonised whisper.
Makena reached out and put her arms around him. Tony returned the embrace, his face buried in the crook of her shoulder. They stayed that way for long minutes, no words needed, as one gave and the other took comfort.