Everyone has a story to tell. I have always heard this statement but it didn’t mean much to me until I met Martha Kamau. Martha is the cleaning lady at my apartment building. I always bump into her as I go to my house and we exchange a few words of greetings. I like her but can’t really say that we are friends.
One Saturday morning, I woke up to find the whole building without power. As luck would have it, my phone and laptop were low on charge. I had the option of reading but then again, I didn’t have interesting books. As I had my breakfast trying to come up with a plan for the day, I heard Martha singing. I don’t know why but singing just annoys the hell out of me. Especially loud singing that is off key and you are subjected to it without your consent. Anyway, being the mean person that I can be, I stormed out of my house with every intention of telling her to pipe down.
She was right there, head bent, a mop in hand cleaning the stairs. As I was thinking of a polite way of telling her to lower her voice, I suddenly stopped midway. Shock on me, she was singing some taarab song. How would Martha know such a song? (Sounds ignorant but hey, I don’t know any taarabs either. I listened to her for a while, the song sounded so sorrowful that I felt myself engulfed with a sadness that I could not explain. I listened for a while before she noticed me and cheerfully said hi. I walked over to her and asked her about the taarab. She smiled, sighed and then told me the following story.
I grew up in the Coast that is why I know taarab. It is the music that I grew up listening to and my mum used to really love these songs so it was a point of bonding for us. Actually, Martha is not even my real name though it’s on my ID. I grew up as Faridah Atunde but changed to Martha years later just before I settled here in Kiambu County. I know you are curious about the change of names so I will tell you how it happened.
In 1998, when I finished my form four classes, I started looking for employment around Mombasa. I am an only child from a poor single parent family so I knew that going to college was out of question. I looked everywhere but then again, nobody wanted to hire a form four leaver with no college education or work experience. I tried to sell some fruits at the Kongowea and Mwembe Tayari markets but this also did not work. There was too much competition and I was forced to lower my prices so much that I couldn’t make any profits. Soon, I went into debt trying to buy fresh produce every day and hardly making any sales.
In addition, the same year, my mother fell ill. She grew weaker every day and no medication seemed to work for her. We used up all our savings trying to get her treated but nothing worked. All tests came back negative and so each time, the doctors would prescribe something to help her deal with the pain and then send us home. She had frequent migraines that would have stay in bed all day. It was so painful watching her suffer and knowing that there was nothing I could do for her. I tried to get our priest to pray for her and though she seemed better for a little while, the migraines soon came back. She used to cry so much and I would try rocking her in my arms like a baby to get her to calm down. Sleeping and eating became so difficult for her that soon her weight dropped drastically. At some point, I could hold both her hands using just one of my own and completely wrap my fingers around them. I stopped looking for jobs and stayed home to take care of her.
One day, the migraine was so bad that she kept holding her head in her hands squeezing tightly trying to get relief from the pain. I sat in bed with her and cried softly while whispering a prayer for her. Relief swept over me when she finally quieted down and slept. I continued holding her and rocking her in my arms, with her head softly lying on my chest. At some point, I decided to let her lie on the pillow so that she could sleep well. When I tried to put her down, her arms wouldn’t move. They felt very stiff that I had to practically pull them off me. Panic rose as I noticed that her skin felt too cold and I couldn’t feel her chest moving. I screamed calling out to neighbors. I kept shaking her, trying to wake her up.
That is the day that I lost my mother and ended up completely all alone in the world with nobody to call my family.