Ndinda Kioko

Some Freedom Dreams

Ndinda Kioko

Samira wanted me to say yes. She had asked if I could accompany her to an exhibition later that day. Though this was the kind of thing I hated, it was impossible to say no to Samira with my head resting on the softness of her thigh, with her hands twisting my hair into Bantu knots. When I said yes, she shifted her body on the bed so that my head rested on the bare mattress, and then she kissed me.

It was six months after I had buried my husband Ras, and I was passing through Bukavu on my way to Johannesburg for a new editorial gig.

We were watching the lake through her bedroom window. Samira liked how close the water was, how quiet it stayed, still, like wet sand, unyielding to the wind, and how often she forgot the lake was there, only to wake up to the terror of it when she drew her curtains in the morning.

As Samira sectioned my hair with her fingers, I thought of those dreams I’d been having. In one of them, the water had swallowed up the shore, and the three of us – Samira, Ras, and I – were stacked on top of each other like wood, floating with the bed. Almost each morning, we had to dry the mattress in the sun. Samira said what was happening was a normal thing after the death of a loved one. There was no need to be ashamed of grief. 

I hadn’t told Samira yet, but it would be the last time I’d be seeing her.

I had always been able to read the rhythm of things, to tell when the end was approaching. A week before, as I sat on the edge of the tub waiting for shaving cream to settle into my skin, with Samira submerged so that only her lips and the tip of her nose remained above the surface, she asked where I’d buy a house, if I were to do such a thing. I never had dreams of owning a house. And though I loved Samira dearly and had from time to time envisioned a more permanent arrangement, my husband’s grave was still fresh. This seemed to me like the wrong kind of talk.

—Do you think the dead are capable of hate? I asked.

She sat up and laughed.

At this point, I made a decision to end things, but said nothing about it. As if reading my mind, Samira disappeared under the water. She stayed there for what felt like a really long time. I panicked and reached for her. She held my hand and pulled me in. Then she asked what I had thought was going to happen if I hadn’t reached for her, and couldn’t stop laughing until I covered her mouth with mine.

I met Samira six years ago. Before I met her, it was just Ras and I, and we were trying to be poets. No one wanted our Eng Lit degrees, so we wrote poetry and mailed it to ourselves. They were poems about everything and nothing, poems about loving and eating and dying.

Then Ras had these crazy ideas after a night of smoking and drinking in South B. He started posting some of our poems on walls around Pipeline Estate, on doors, on electricity poles. He moved on to other places: Umoja, Kayole and then, Fedha. No one bothered us in most places, but in Fedha, Ras was arrested. It cost us all the money we had, but it got us noticed.

That’s how Samira came to know about us. She said she’d seen some exciting things we were doing, that we were part of a generation that was reshaping what she called ‘the artistic expression’ in Nairobi. Ras couldn’t stop laughing when she said it, but I liked how it made us look serious, and how it sounded on Samira’s purple mouth.

She had just graduated from a college in the UK, and had come back home with some freedom dreams. She wanted change, and nothing to do with her father and his corruption money. And so she left her family’s house in Karen and moved into our little apartment in Pipeline.

On bad nights, Samira would ask us what dreams we had for the future, and Ras would say that only a person from Karen, educated in the UK, would think like that. Who cared about dreams? Who cared about the future? All we wanted, Ras would say, was to make rent and drink our beers. Can we please do that?

Samira and Ras would then argue for a really long time. She’d call Ras a hopeless alcoholic, and Ras would tell her she was the biggest sham in this South of Sahara. Give me some of your dad’s corruption money and a good bed, and I’ll have a goodnights sleep, thank you very much!

On better days, we smoked shisha and dreamt Samira’s freedom dreams. We wanted clean water in Pipeline. We dreamed of houses that did not sink. We dreamed of quiet nights. We vowed to vote. We were going to build a community centre. We gathered emerging voices in Pipeline for this new project and that new project, being all kinds of responsible and unemployed.

We wore each other’s shirts, shared the cost of toothpaste, and brainstormed ideas for a new poetry anthology that was going nowhere. Some Freedom Dreams, we called it.

Then Samira and Ras would fight again, and these dreams would disappear. Not so long after, Samira – tired of Nairobi, and perhaps seeing how unserious Ras and I were – left to start afresh in Bukavu.

After Samira left Nairobi, I kept leaving Ras.

The first time I told him I was ending things, I woke up the next morning to find him sitting next to a pile of books from my shelf. He was lifting them, one by one, reading the spine with his hand, and then opening to read the first and the last sentence. When I asked him what he was doing, he said, I’m looking at your life.

We married six months after.

The second time I told Ras I was ending things, I also told him about Samira and I, and that I had been visiting her in Bukavu from time to time. Ras wanted to know when the affair started. I told him about the first time we kissed – a night before she left for Bukavu –  though things started when I first set eyes on her. Ras said hell had a hot place for Samira and I.

The third time I told Ras I was ending things, he said the only people I knew how to love were already dead, as dead as my mother.

When Ras died, I was still leaving him.

On the day my affair with Samira ended, we arrived late to the exhibition. Samira liked walking into a room when everyone was already there, and was familiar with everyone else. Can’t give people the impression that they matter more than they should.

In the ruins of a warehouse where the exhibition was taking place, there were guests laughing quietly, in the same manner people who don’t care much about a stranger’s jokes do, their sounds blending into a steady humming that clogged my ears as soon as we walked in. On seeing Samira, they turned to look and lowered their voices. I could see her considering their eager faces, deciding which one of them to hug first.

I had met some of them before. Samira introduced me in French, which I didn’t know much about. There was little hint of recognition in most of the familiar faces as they shook my hand, and I played along. I figured that this kind of silence invited little curiosity, and I found much comfort in this. It was the same feeling I always had when a friend’s dog refused to smell my feet, or when I was visiting and Samira’s cat hid under the couch the entire time.

As we walked across the hall, Samira’s hand remained on my shoulder. She lingered in conversation here and there, listening without looking and laughing in that sparing way, her laugh as I knew it stopping somewhere in the middle. Ras always said that mine was a resting bitch-face, something between a scowl and a smile.

Samira led me from this person to that person, and it was as though I was a girl once again, wearing my Sunday best, holding my mother’s hand after service. It almost felt good.

There were some English words – affirmative action, policy, localisation –  and countries, dizzying distances within which conversations travelled. We moved from Congo, to South Africa, to Zimbabwe to South Sudan, before returning to Congo. I needed to sit down. Then Samira would rub the length of my shoulder in that gentle way and I’d be steady again.

One of the guests spoke directly to me. When Samira told him my French was bad, he switched to English, wanting to know a bunch of things. Who was I? What was I was doing there with a bunch of humanitarians like him? How did I know Samira? Nairobi? What did I think of Nairobi as a palimpsest? Did I make those earrings? Had I been to South Sudan, and wasn’t it awful what was happening there?

Before I could think of what to say, Samira apologised to me. She told the man that I had more people to meet.

—Must you be that guy?.

The two of them laughed.

—She’s something else this one.

The man said this to me, leaning closer as though to confide a secret; so close I could smell his cigarettes.

—Can’t stand any of them

Samira said this once we were alone and far away from everyone else.

She asked if I wanted to look at the photos on the wall, just for fun, and before we did, a woman I had met before at another party – who, like most of those attending, worked with Samira – asked to speak to her.

I still remember how, after Samira left my side, I became suddenly aware of the emptiness around me. Everything slowed down. I saw the beginning of laughter, how lips stretched before mouths opened, to reveal the overwhelming whiteness of teeth, before sound burst out, before lips collapsed on top of each other. There would be a cursory glance and a half-smile, before faces turned away from me and returned to previous engagements immediately after. It was the first time I felt truly and completely alone –  without Ras and without Samira.

Then I disappeared slowly like background noise to the company of a photo on the wall. In it, a woman bathed by the shore of the lake. Around her, a greyness gathered. I remembered what Samira had said once, that it was only a matter of time before the gas from beneath the lake rose and swallowed the town.

As I looked at the photo, I could smell a man standing behind me before he spoke. I did not turn to look at him. He said that the woman in the photo looked like she knew the camera was focusing on her. The man introduced himself first by a list of the people he was: a painter, historian, filmmaker, a photographer, an explorer, an actor, and the curator of the exhibition.

—What do you think? He asked.

I turned to him and then back to the photo. It was a good photo. I could see. But I was supposed to know something else, something more. I told him it was interesting.

The man nodded, urging for more. I told him the first thing that came to mind so he could leave. I said that the woman in the photo didn’t seem to care if the camera or anyone else was looking at her, that she was just bathing. Then I turned to look at him. The man looked at me for a while, deciding something.

—Interesting, he said.

He added some things: symbolist, pastiches, someone called Gustav Klimt who I needed to Google after.

—Where you from?

That question again. His stretched his hand out to meet mine. In that moment, I wished my hands were holding something, like Samira’s hand, or my husband’s, or a bag requiring both hands. Then I turned and saw Samira watching us from the other side of the room. It was hard to tell what that smile and that thumbs-up meant. I lost her, and then she was standing behind me.

—You’ve met the Renaissance man, she said. 

—Kind of, the man said, smiling.

—Kaká Kamissoko, he added, stretching his hand again to meet mine.

—Two names, like Jesus Christ, Samira said and laughed, the kind of laughing she did when it was just the two of us.

I joined her, even though I wasn’t sure what we were laughing about. Kaká Kamissoko joined us too and we laughed for a good minute. The sound of my own laughter caught me by surprise, the echoes hitting the walls and then returning to me. It was a strange thing, hearing the sound of my laughter. I stopped laughing but the two kept on.

Ras hated it, Samira’s laughter. He said she had the kind of laughter that could kill someone.

—You okay? Samira asked.

I smiled.

When Kaká Kamissoko turned for a refill, Samira whispered in my ear, saying he was the man she had told me about, the one who was an expert at everything, but fucked like he knew there were depths he’d never reach. Then she laughed, her elbow linked with mine. I didn’t remember her mentioning him to me before. Kaká Kamissoko, his glass refilled, was now smiling with us and I wondered if he’d heard what Samira said.

Samira then lifted my hand and looked at it, noticing something.

—You removed it, she said.

It was a while before I realised she was talking about my wedding ring. She was smiling, and there was a look on her face, one that terrified me. It was the look of someone who knew that feeling of contentment, someone who had finally arrived, who wanted nothing more.

I hadn’t noticed that the ring was missing, and my first reaction was disappointment. How could something that had been part of my finger for two years slip out without me noticing? One was supposed to feel such absence. I decided that there was something wrong with the way I was mourning Ras.

—You girls must sit for me, Kaká Kamissoko said.

I was angry with myself, but I wanted to thank Kaká Kamissoko for interrupting us. Samira jumped and said yes immediately, without thinking, without breathing, still looking at my hand. She wanted Kaká Kamissoko’s cameras to capture this moment, and I wanted to be somewhere else. Before I could speak, before I could say something, she kissed me, and I could smell myself in her mouth.

Kaká Kamissoko wanted us to visit him in his studio, but Samira told him we were ready. She pulled me to a craggy wall, next to the photo of the woman bathing by the lake. I hated having photos of myself taken. I still do. I never know what to do with my face, how far to stretch my lips, where to put my hands. Often, Samira would turn her phone camera on us, asking me to smile. I’d turn my face but Samira would insist, saying that it was important for me to litter the world with pieces of myself.

Kaká Kamissoko fiddled with his camera, adjusting his lens.

—Why won’t you look at me?

Samira knew how to read me. She knew something was wrong. In that moment, I wanted several things. I wanted to be far away from her. I wanted someone to tell me how to mourn right. I wanted Ras to send me a sign, to tell me he wasn’t angry. I wanted to go back to Pipeline when it was the three of us, just dreaming. 

I opened my mouth and I told her the truth. I didn’t remove it, and I didn’t know where it was. It was as if Samira had not heard me. She said nothing for a while. Then I said it again, louder this time. I told her I was leaving, for good this time. Kaká Kamissoko started taking the photos and Samira shoved him away, asking him to get that thing off her face. He looked confused, but reading the mood, packed his camera and left.

It was a while before either of us spoke.

—Let’s go somewhere else, Samira finally said. Somewhere loud, sweaty and fun.

At Coco Jambo, we behaved as though nothing had happened. Samira refused to dance to the song that was already playing. She disappeared momentarily and from where I was standing, I could see her laughing with the DJ. The music changed as soon as she left the booth. Then she pulled me to the dance floor.

There was a way Samira entered into a song. It was the same way she entered into the room, as if the song had been waiting for her and was now finally roused at her arrival, as though she was the one making it feel good. She would become the song itself, taking everything from the dance floor, leaving everything on the dance floor.

You’re far, she said, pulling me closer, as close as two bodies can ever be, not caring where we were, her hands around me, and the cold of her beer bottle tickling the small of my back.

When I slowed down, she’d urge me on.

—Let’s dance it off!

I could feel the weight of my body pressing my feet, and so I asked her if we could get some air and maybe stand on the grass for a while. Outside Coco Jambo, where a man was selling roasted cassava, bottled water and cigarettes, teenage boys had made their own dance floor. When they saw Samira, they called her by name, asking if we wanted to dance with them. Samira told them she was only going to count to three, and before she started counting, the boys scattered like water in a puddle.

From the man, I bought us a packet of cigarettes. I had stopped smoking after Ras died, but I still liked the feeling of a cigarette between my fingers. It calmed me down. Samira always said it was silly. Just smoke the thing, and stop torturing it.

Then it was quiet, the kind of quiet that demanded meaningless conversation. So I told her as a child, I used to have dreams of living in a truck with Diguna Christian missionaries, travelling the world and preaching the word.

Samira laughed and said that’s not the kind of thing I wanted people to know about me. Then she put her hand on mine.

—Sunday, she said. Stay until Sunday.

She kissed me.

I told her Sunday was good enough. Then I pulled her back to where the music was coming from, where we needed to be.

Ndinda Kioko is the winner of the Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2017, fiction category.

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