By George Ogutu
Back in the 1980s, when Kenya School Equipment Scheme used to supply pencils and exercise books and my classmate at Buduma Primary School, one Oliver ‘Twist’ Musundi spelt Kiswahili as ‘Kisweli,’ and the headteacher at the school was Simplicious Echesa and Mwalimu Pino had just joined the school, Mumias Sugar Company worked.
It worked so well that we had acres and acres of sugarcane plantations in Ebumarachi, Butula sub-county, and every 24 months we’d have temporary thousandaires, who would go on to buy bicycles, mattresses, tea kettles, sufurias, roofing sheets…some even married younger second wives.
In this working well, there were plenty of jobs too. I am not referring to the high-end, falutin jobs like those supervisors who donned green overalls, or those guys who wore cheap ties to do book keeping, or the watchmen, or those truck drivers, no. I am talking about abaremi, the cane-cutters.
They were a rarity where I lived. The first omuremi I ever met was Omwanga, a Wanga. Abawanga are sub-tribe of the Luyia which gave us Nabongo Mumia. So abaremi were largely Abawanga, yaani relatives of Ted, Alphonce and Were Wetaba. And boy, those boys were generous with vulgarity and swift with the lupanga (cutlasses). They swarmed the land and in no time, the sugarcane farm was empty, stalks upon stalks of sugarcane piled high into ‘steki.’
Much later, the cane-cutting job was open to all and sundry. So even the laid-back Abamarachi and their neighbours, Abanyolo, could join.
This is where Onyango, my Khurana villagemate comes in.
So, Onyango, whom unverified rumour has it that he is my uncle, born of my grandpa Okile’s kalongolongo with the fellow’s mother. He looks like my aunt – big head, wide face, wide feet, big ass, the voice, walking style, the works. That is a story for another day, I swear. In fact he once came to claim land, years after Kuka had died, and my late father chased him away with a panga.
Now, Onyango became a cane-cutter. The cane-cutters would be trucked from block to block, cutting and pilling sugarcane, week after week. They would be paid at the end of the week. Always at a market and traders would follow them there.
These traders would be selling fish, utensils, clothes name it…but food was most preferred.
So, Onyango, upon receiving his princely pay, would buy fresh fish (inyeni imbisi), and pass by the local and imbibe chang’aa to his fill then stagger home with his fish.
His wife would do what wives of such people do: Prepare the fish, make ugali and serve Onyango then wait until he is done eating, bring him water and soap, have him wash his hands then keep away the utensils. Then retire to bed to complete the other married adult stuff.
To prepare that fresh fish, one had to make an incision, just before the tail, and squeeze out the intestines. One then hard to scrub the scales off the fish, then wash it thoroughly before cooking it. That or there would be no fish to enjoy.
But Mkha Onyango never used to eat inyeni imbisi. For some reason, it didn’t sit well with her. Just the way some of you are lactose intolerant. So while Onyango would bring fish for himself, there would be just tsimboka, elikhubi and miroo for mkhasi waye, I mean his wife. The greens. And you know poor people think fish and meat and such are the stuff of good living, not greens.
This went on and on and on. On and on bindu shi, it could have been six or eight times.
“My husband Onyango, you know I don’t eat fresh fish but you always buy it, not even bringing me omena. Where you buy this fish, they don’t even have kerewa, obambo, or just omena? Eh?”
“You woman shut up. Who even told you to speak?” Onyango would retort and that would be the end of it.
Onyango would rue that comment. Rather, his stomach would.
So, Onyango goes to his cane-cutting job and Friday evening, without fail, he shows up with fresh fish. The wife receives it. Intestines, out. Scales, scrubbed. Ready to cook it.
Cooking fat? Tick. Onions? Tick. Tomatoes? Tick. Binzari? Tick. Salt? Tick. Sufuria? Clean. Tsikhwi? Ready. Kiberiti? Kipo.
Cooking fat into the sufuria. Sufuria on maika, er, those three stones. Tsalalalalala!!! The sizzle of the fat and the sufuria, which had some water, heats up. Tsikhwi, the firewood, was of good quality, I guess.
Onion, thrown in. Tomatoes, chopped and thrown in, too. Some salt, in. The binzari, very much. Oh the aroma!!!
Onyango, high as a kite, is seated outside the house, his small Luyia radio held by the ear while he sings a corrupted version of those lingala songs of the 90’s
‘Simanyula pe, eh eh simamyula pe, eh Moi uno.”
In the kitchen, Onyango’s wife is humming to herself whatever song it was she was humming. A few minutes of heating the sufuria with its contents, she lowers the fish into the sufuria, to settle on top of the mix of Kimbo, tomatoes, onions, salt, binzari and a little khamlari, that small-size very hot pilipili.
That should take upwards of 30 minutes but Mkha Onyango gives it less than 10 minutes. She makes ugali and serves Onyango the partially cooked fish.
Onyango, remember, is sky high. And doubly hungry. He digs into the ugali and clears the meal like a nonsense. Drinks water off a Kimbo tin and belches.
And that is when Onyango’s stomach says no, I can’t take this shit no more. Onyango, poor bastard, Onyango gets into a vomiting spree. He vomited and vomited and vomited. Yasala ambi alole Mahero nabira. He vomited, shed tears, farted and came so so close to choking on his own vomit. Ambi afwe, his wife would later say. He almost died. And in the village we don’t die easy. We fight death to the bitter end.
The wife? The wife was beside herself with glee!
That was Friday 1. Onyango with wages, Onyango high, Onyango fresh fish. Onyango vomit like crazy.
The wife? The wife was beside herself with glee!
Friday 2. The very same combination of stupid. Onyango with wages, Onyango high on pelele, ‘scud’, Onyango armed with fresh fish. Mkha Onyango uncook the fish. Onyango eat up everything. vomit like crazy. The wife? The wife was beside herself with glee!
Friday 3. The very same.
Onyango concluded it must be the fish. The fresh fish. He even told his drinkmates (the likes of Kwete, Nzabanyi, Okemba, Ojwang’i snake and such riffraffs) that he was quitting eating fresh fish. It was messing him up in ways he never imagined possible.
Friday 4. Onyango brought home kerewa, the normal dried tilapia. It was the sweetest dish he ever ate.
“Mukhasi ewe wamanya khudekha po,” he praised his wife as they retired to bed. That she was a marvellous cook.
Up to today, Onyango doesn’t eat fresh fish.
The wife shared the story with her friend who shared the story with another of her friends who shared with another who shared with another girl, who shared with my sister who regaled us with the tale one Saturday morning as we bent to weed a cassava farm awefu awo.