The Kikao by Diana Nyakyi
It was the first time Goodluck infiltrated a wedding kikao. These gatherings were untapped domain. His habit had always been with actual weddings, the big ones in particular, where he felt buffered by the crowd. Though he was never actually indistinct, his distinction gave him more cushion – one was less likely to be interrogated at weddings when one was a priest or wearing a priest’s collar. And this commonly earned Goodluck esteem. Even if he were exposed (this had happened just twice in three years), he would be escorted out discreetly because no one would be seen mishandling a man of God.
A kikao was a more intimate affair than a wedding, and typically tricky to infiltrate. But these meetings were getting bigger. Meant for the practicalities of wedding prep, they were becoming their own extravagant functions. This particular kikao had promised to be a popular one. And it was, Goodluck noted, as he wheeled his bicycle in through the gate and laid eyes on the turnout.
The origins of this interest could be traced to a message dispatched weeks prior from Dar es Salaam’s international airport. Sent from the phone of a keen onlooker in Arrivals, the message had divulged that a sampling of a particular clan had assembled, that a prized son and his bride-to-be had landed, and that she was utterly ugly. The information fanned out through their social circles. With news that wedding plans would begin right away, the first kikao became a hot ticket. It was impossible to attend a wedding with dignity if one hadn’t given a contribution; the kikao was the best place to do that. It was also the way to get the early licks of the story. Many leaned on flimsy acquaintance to gain access. Goodluck, who needed no such thing, had heard the information from his wife, who had heard it from Mama Fimbo. A receiver of the text message, twice removed, Mama Fimbo was the lady whose house she cleaned.
“That Josefu! So handsome, so exposed, so educated. With means!” Mama Fimbo had cried in wonder as Goodluck’s wife beat dust off the kitchen window nets. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she were pregnant. Or else what does he see in her?”
Goodluck hadn’t had a thorough meal in three Saturdays, and he too wanted to know what the man saw in her. When Goodluck had a look at his own wife, he saw a hardy woman who was too tired to look at him how she used to. She was a disappointed person overall, and his wedding habit shamed her. But she didn’t complain, he noted, when he brought back some of the nuptial feast. On early weekday mornings, her big plastic hotpot held the maandazi she cooked and sold outside a construction site en route to the Fimbos. But late on some Saturdays, that same pot came home densely packed and fragrant with pilau, stewed green plantains, barbecued beef mishkaki, fried chicken, stewed cassava leaves, and cake. This happened on Goodluck’s nervier nights, when he would find one accommodating host, a member of the wedding committee, to tell about an ailing elderly nun in his parish. She would be so grateful, he would say, and the sobered host would gladly fill the pot.
Whereas Goodluck had learned about the kikao by chance, weddings he discovered by hunt. His strategy was to tour certain Dar halls, under the pretense of making a booking, and then note the dates reserved. But sometimes on a Saturday evening, if his wife was especially irritable, he would get on his bicycle and do an impromptu check at his favorite venue. If the officiating priest happened to be present, Goodluck would cycle away. When the officiating priest was absent, Goodluck would settle in, armed with a vague little backstory. Every so often he was asked to bless the event, and though he thought little about faith himself, he had grown to be a gifted prayer leader. For insurance, he had created a wedding identity – Father Deogratius, which was perfectly Latin and local at once.
Goodluck stationed his bicycle against the property wall. Before the boxy yellow house that was the family home, in their great big garden, was a large circle of white plastic chairs. The circle was almost completely occupied. Some people stood in groups chattering, and others were still trickling in. Goodluck skirted the outside of the ring, heading for the far end, where there was less traffic. There, he exchanged a few quick greetings with attendees close by, keeping a solemn air about him so as not to over-engage. Then he chose a free seat next to the right sort of companion – a hunched elderly man who seemed marginally aware of his surroundings. The conversation would be minimal.
The couple’s absence dominated. Every arrival through the gate inspired a wave of pivoting heads. As the gathering grew, more chairs were added to widen the circle, and then an outer ring formed too. Goodluck felt cushioned and almost at ease. If only his collar weren’t so stifling in the heat. The late afternoon sun was still resolutely high and oppressing everybody. Over time, the circle morphed as guests migrated with the shade of the ficus trees.
After draining a frosty bottle of cola in five gulps, Goodluck settled with some relief. He occupied himself with watching the clan youngsters charged as servers for the day. They shuttled between the circle and the red plastic ice bins on the verandah. From time to time, they went inside to bring out a crate and refresh the supply. It reminded Goodluck of the job he once lost as a stock boy in one of those fancy supermarkets.
On the other side of the circle, a woman in a fine ensemble of blue kitenge, who looked as though her hips had a problem, ambled her way around the periphery. She stopped behind a cluster of the more distinguished-looking men, who were loudly debating the latest scandal to wallop some eminent board or other. She placed a hand on one of their shoulders, in the way a wife does with her husband, and said something into his ear. He stood to address the attendees.
What a statesman, Goodluck thought as he listened. This had to be Baba Josefu, the man of the house and the father of the groom-to-be. He thanked everyone for sacrificing their Sunday afternoon and expressed confidence that the kikao would bring together a devoted committee. He assured them that Josefu and his bride were on their way. He spoke of his and his wife’s joy that Josefu was back home. They were grateful that he had not only completed his Master studies, but he was bringing them the honor of a marriage. He had gone all the way to America, only to come back with a wife from home, and that was something special. They were eager to welcome Maua to the family.
Goodluck searched their faces for hints of disappointment but saw no trace. Baba Josefu announced that Josefu’s uncle would chair the meeting because he had more energy and youth left. Uncle Titus, who was also among the distinguished men, and who did in fact look fitter, began the official proceedings. His first order of the day was to replace the circle of guests with rows of guests, for better use of space. After the shuffle, he introduced the rest of the already-formed inner committee: the deputy chair, the secretary, and the treasurer. A sample budget was passed around for critique. As things stood, the plan was to aim for around twenty-five million shillings.
Goodluck was floored. For all the times he had witnessed the splendor of these weddings, he hadn’t known how much they could cost. He thought about the things he could do with that budget. He could have opened a big shop or a few kiosks with it. He could have bought bajajis and motorcycle-taxis with it. He could have moved himself and his wife into a better home with it.
Ideas to cut costs were welcome, Uncle Titus said, but the in-laws were to see what the clan was capable of, that they knew how to put on a celebration. For example, the new hall in the city center was recently complete. It was magnificent by all accounts and had a capacity of five hundred for those who needed it.
Goodluck thought better of drawing attention to himself. Had he interrupted, he would have informed the chair that he had been downtown to Royal Emerald Hall, and that it was booked for fifteen weeks. They would find out themselves, he reasoned, and in any case, other arrangements were progressing nicely. Things always moved forward without the couple in question because weddings were family property. As people were allocated into sub-committees in charge of entertainment, décor, catering, and whatever else, Goodluck sat idle. He paid little attention to this part, and no one really engaged him. Instead he grew preoccupied with the dizzying sight of a serving table on the verandah being lined with a buffet of bites: beef mishkaki, fish mishkaki, samosas, barbecued chicken, fried sweet plantains, and kachumbari. It was not full wedding fare – there was no white rice or pilau, no vegetables, no chapati or stewed plantains, and understandably no cake. But it was impressive for a kikao, at least compared to the ones in his circles. Gloriously, he was among the first to be ushered to the table. He piled his plate ambitiously high for a first round. But he thought twice about getting the hotpot from his bicycle.
Engaged as he was with the delights on his lap, Goodluck was soon distracted by a telling rumble of voices. He looked up to see a man striding into the garden, trailed closely by a figure in a shapeless orange dress. The two of them stopped to greet the cluster of distinguished guests.
Plainness can be a virtue, Goodluck thought. This was not plainness. Maua had no shape. She was a block with twigs for legs. He found her lips too slender and her face too lopsided, and he didn’t like the way her eyes bulged. Most puzzling to him was that she didn’t manipulate herself. She didn’t make up her face or supplement her hair the way women of her probable means could. Goodluck’s own wife was no Miss Tanzania, but she had some kind of figure and a good walk, and on occasions such as this she would have cinched her waist. Maybe few would be seduced by his wife, but she wouldn’t have attracted such curious stares. Most of the kikao attendees looked curious, some looked befuddled, and a few looked unsettled.
“Is that the house help? Where is Maua?” inquired one nearby woman in a green headdress. Fanning herself with a tabloid newspaper, she said it loudly enough to be innocent but quietly enough to be something else.
With his future bride next to and slightly behind him, Josefu stood in all his handsomeness beside his father and addressed the attendees. Like a junior statesman, he apologized for the delay, thanked all for being there, and expressed his gratitude for their volunteerism. Then he formally introduced Maua, calling her the lady who had agreed to be his wife. These words set off, among the women, a mild surge of vigelegele – the shrill, undulating cries of celebration. Maua smiled her lopsided smile.
Goodluck chewed absently on an unrelenting chunk of fatty beef as his mind did some buzzing. That Josefu really was good-looking. Goodluck found it a universal truth that a good-looking man had his pick. An accomplished good-looking man was unstoppable. Those ones married the beauty queens. Which was what Goodluck would have done, though he couldn’t imagine it because he found them pointlessly thin.
Goodluck came out of his thoughts and got the meat to a state where he could swallow it. He ordered a beer to go with his reflections. Meanwhile, Uncle Titus moved the proceedings along. With the main attraction finally on site and with many stomachs filling, the time was ripe for the call for contributions. Uncle Titus, who was perhaps less of a statesman and more of an administrator, invited people to do the needful. Josefu’s parents pledged two million shillings, to great applause, and thus kicked off the kikao’s most meaningful session. Josefu’s aunts, uncles and cousins took turns approaching the treasurer with a wad of notes or a pledge. Names and amounts were announced to varied applause. Then, former schoolmates, neighbors, and colleagues came forth, until the momentum ebbed. Goodluck wasn’t sure if people with collars were expected to contribute. No one was really looking his way, but when the neighbors on either side of him went up to the treasurer, he felt compelled to go and pledge fifty thousand shillings. By the end of the exercise, the cash and promises amounted to less than half the committee’s goal. They were far off, but more meetings lay ahead, and beautiful contribution cards would be handed out shortly for everyone to go share with their networks.
“This is a wedding people want to see,” Uncle Titus said in a last appeal.
It finally reached the time of day when the sun was dropping at its quickest. With the major business of the meeting out of the way, people could unwind in the mercy of the evening air. On a table next to the ice bin, a few spirits and boxed wine had arrived. Goodluck considered switching from beer but changed his mind. He had spotted one familiar stout bottle in particular. This local spirit was his proven weakness – it made him speak self-implicating truths. That was what had happened on those two occasions where he was escorted out of a wedding.
A small flock of women, more or less age-mates of the bride, had materialized three rows up. Though their fashionable shoes lay about in the grass at their feet, there was ample traffic to and from the boxed wine. Their heads came together among whispered shrieks and covert glances at the couple of honor. Goodluck wished he could hear them. It was around the time of night when the beer had done what it tended to do, and he began to crave conversation.
Coincidentally, though it sometimes happened when the evening wore on and the crowd thinned, people who’d drank a fair amount began to confide in him. It started with the old man to his right, who it turned out was an uncle to the father of the groom. He professed that he didn’t care much about the day’s goings-on. He was only there to get away from the house they seldom let him out of. Otherwise, he found said affairs foolish. Planning such wasteful weddings was rare in his time. And all day, relatives had been shouting into his ear because they thought his hearing was just about gone. Lately, he had taken to ignoring people because he felt it his right not to engage in irritating conversation. And he most certainly did not want to entertain the topic that had people salivating that day. He was privy to most of it, but he didn’t care enough to make that known. He had deduced that his late brother’s grandson was taking an ugly wife, and that that was her in the orange dress. Good for him, he said. It was surely because the woman knew how to tend home, cook, and work hard. She was probably a careful spender and was ready to bear a respectable number of children.
A woman didn’t need to be submissive as much as not bothersome, he said. Beautiful women were the neediest of all, and draining. They needed money for their upkeep, and when they weren’t demanding all your money they were demanding all your attention. They felt owed. That was how his first wife had been until she fell to tuberculosis after four years of marriage and one child.
“I mourned for this many days,” he said, holding up four fingers.
The woman in the green headdress, who could be counted among those unsettled guests, closed in on Goodluck next. She made an excuse to sit down and then watched Maua in the way that people with scant self-consciousness do, never bothering to turn her gaze. Once she could no longer crane her neck, she rotated to Goodluck and declared that, unfortunately, witchcraft was possibly at play. In hushed yelps, she decried such ignorance and shunned it as a sham and a primitive practice.
“Let me tell you, Father. You would fall over right here on the ground if I told you how many people order curses out here in this world,” she languished. “Let me tell you, though I don’t believe such things work. And of course I would never point fingers at Maua.”
Goodluck wished her away, partly because he felt unsure how to answer and partly because of the bewitching glass in her hand. But he understood the sensitivity of the situation, so he took a moment to assure her that she needn’t worry and that goodness always prevailed. Then he turned away slightly and tuned her out. Having sat downwind of her breath for several minutes, what was occupying his mind was that troublesome spirit.
When the woman in the green headdress left to find someone interactive, Goodluck dreamed up his own theories: Mama Fimbo might have been right, though nothing showed under the orange dress. Or Maua was rich. Or Maua was a supreme seductress. Or Maua was blackmailing him. Or theirs was a marriage of two families. Or it was more unconventional – and this was Goodluck at his most imaginative – Maua was dying and the marriage was Josefu’s charitable farewell.
Most unexpectedly, the bride herself next came to him. He had already noticed her sitting alone while Josefu bantered with a group of his generation. She appeared to have retreated into her thoughts and her wine. On closer acquaintance, she was just as unattractive, but her voice was pleasing. Goodluck wondered if that had been the spark for Josefu’s interest. Goodluck’s own wife had the voice of a crow, so he liked listening to Maua. She told him about Josefu and an area called Wisconsin, where they both happened to go for studies. Maua had recently become an eye doctor at a university hospital, and he was mastering in engineering. She had been there a few years when he arrived, so she looked after him the way compatriots do. She showed him what was where in the town center. She gave him things to help his settling – her extra kitchenware, an idle television, a heavy blanket. They bonded over their fright of the biting winter and nostalgia for food from back home. The more time they spent together, the more she felt he was growing in love while resistant.
“I am going to tell you something, Father,” she whispered.
Goodluck didn’t move or breathe, for fear of knocking her out of her confessional state. What she disclosed was that several months before, when she was already irretrievably in love, Josefu came to her with an eye infection. She treated him with success but made sure to order more tests. Then she thought to just tell him, in a most delicate fashion, that he had a problem that would leave him blind in the near future. It was a lovesick gamble, short of view, but she thought he needed a push.
Goodluck now dared to blink. He wondered how such a dumb and bold hoax could stand. It went beyond the thinkable. And what was her plan for times ahead when Josefu found himself waking up to her face again and again? This was the stuff of those telenovelas, the ones Goodluck’s wife watched when Mama Fimbo wasn’t home. These days, they were the only thing that got her happy, incidentally. She was going to light up when he brought her Maua’s story.
The bride-to-be solemnly asked Goodluck for his thoughts. “But haven’t I freed him?” she added quickly.
Goodluck told her he needed time to pray, so Maua left for the buffet. He shut his eyes and moved his lips, mumbling feverish thoughts: A man of God would surely urge honesty. But if Josefu loved her, would it even matter in the future? Considering the hunched old man’s fair points. Yet, how unjust to the groom, who didn’t know that his bride had a black soul. Even witchcraft would have been more honorable. But wasn’t the important thing that the man was going to keep his sight? Perhaps he would be so happy that he wouldn’t need a beautiful wife. Perhaps he was beautiful enough for the two of them. Perhaps he would think love had cured him.
Maua had returned, holding a skewer of half-eaten fish mishkaki.
“Tell him,” Goodluck said.
With only the briefest delay, Maua put down her skewer, turned about and went to the group of brothers and cousins. She took her future husband by the hand and led him to the verandah and through the big wooden door into the house. After watching them disappear, Goodluck went to fish out a beer from the ice bin and refill a fresh plate. When he was back in his seat, the woman in the green headdress edged over to do her due diligence, but Goodluck was not forthcoming. He sat tight and worked through his plate until Maua emerged twenty minutes later.
From the verandah, rather loudly but with minimum fanfare, Maua announced that the wedding was not going to be. She abruptly stepped down and crossed the grass, immune to the chirping around her. When she reached a nervous Goodluck, she thanked him and said she would surely feel worse in the morning but she was fine in the moment. Her big wonder was about what had mainly turned Josefu – his freedom or her deceit. With that, she picked up her skewer, crossed the grass again, and exited through the gate.
The woman in the green headdress asked out loud, to no one in particular, if contributions would be reimbursed that same night. Then another voice sounded.
What now? Goodluck thought as he turned from his plate. Josefu was standing beside him.
“She told me you advised her. If you are not in a rush, I would appreciate guidance as well.”
“I will come inside shortly,” said Goodluck.
As Josefu disappeared back into the house, Goodluck approached the treasurer to request his fifty thousand shillings. The treasurer, who had long checked out of duty, said she imagined they should wait for confirmation. Goodluck explained that he was the one giving them spiritual guidance and that the betrothal was irretrievably over. The treasurer shrugged her shoulders and fished a logbook out of her great big handbag. Father Deogratius was in the pledge column, not the cash one. But she was tired, and it could have been a mistake, and this was a man of God. She rummaged through her bag again for a tin box and pulled out five pink notes. Goodluck considered them, there in her outstretched hand. He hadn’t held that much at once in a long time – his wife kept their savings hidden from him. Fifty thousand shillings could cover a month of rent for the room they lived in, and it was a long time since anything he did helped much.
Moments later, as Goodluck himself disappeared through the gate, his cycling was a slow meander. He wondered where Maua had gone alone in the dark, possibly on foot, on the dusty road with no bus route. He was even remotely sad, and he wondered if he should look for her. But within minutes, his spirits floated upward, his cycling grew swift and steady, and he just wanted to go home to his wife. He was bringing her a fat tale and fifty thousand shillings, and that was better than any hotpot.
Diana Nyakyi lives and works in Dar es Salaam. Her writing has been published by LossLit Magazine, Afridiaspora Magazine, Kikwetu Journal, and New Orleans Review. In the past, she has worked within media and civil society.