CHEMUTAI GLASHEEN is a teacher and a sessional academic at Curtin University. Her book, I Am the Mau and other stories, is a collection of contemporary fiction and her characters are drawn from her early life in Africa. Read on for an extract.
ABOUT THE BOOK
From ancient forest guardians to modern cultural warriors, from grappling with age-old traditions to championing hair identity, these evocative stories explore the duality of Kenyan life and how to find a way between two cultures, both of which are yours.
Chemutai Glasheen’s unforgettable characters are drawn from her early life in Africa with all its richness, diversity and complexity.
It was the day before market day. The weaving circle was a quiet chant of juu, chini, juu, chini, in and out, in and out, as a flurry of hands curled and unfurled around clumps of sisal fibres. Each set of fingers at work in their individual tasks but oddly seeming to work as one. A little further away, three women soaked sisal fibres in containers of roots, bark, soils and ochre, and hung them out to dry. The day was still early and the sun just beginning to bite.
Chari slipped into the weaving circle. She did not need to say anything. This circle was always there, women came and left as they pleased throughout the day. The earliest would have been there to meet the sun as it rose over the Taita Hills and onto the endless green plains of sisal in their bloom.
Chari examined the kiondos she had completed weaving the day before. Should she put ornaments on them today or start a new basket? Across from her, displayed in the grass-thatched gazebo and spread out on a large plastic sheet, was the week’s collection of colourful kiondos ready for market day. To the left, freshly dyed sisal hung on the drying racks.
‘Chari, remember Rani has asked for medium-sized bags this time,’ the head weaver called out as she motioned to someone to take a sack of freshly stripped sisal to the dye stations.
The mention of Rani irritated Chari. Rani was their main client and generally paid a little more than the others. He ran a big tourist shop in Maasai Mara. When he came around, you would think he was choosing a kiondo for his own dowry. He scrutinised every kiondo, finding fault with everything: too big, too small, too plain, too colourful, rims too rough, finish not good enough. Anything to drive their price down!
‘We have to make sure our visitors can take a piece of Taita back with them.’ Rani haggled like a seller of mangoes in the marketplace.
Chari grabbed a handful of fibres and pinched out a small amount. She split it into two, swept her skirt aside and began to roll the strands on her thighs. Occasionally, she would use her fingers to twist the twine. Strands went over and under. Twine twisted here and twine pulled through there. The women worked mostly in silence. A little chitchat ebbed between individuals and through the whole group, sometimes measured, sometimes loud.
‘Soti,’ the head weaver called out, ‘ni sawa?’
‘Yes, it is well.’ Soti was barely audible.
The women stilled their tongues, but their hands picked up pace. Soti was both reed and sisal, brittle yet strong. Her dimply smile had disappeared long before they were mandated to wear masks in public.
‘The brothers still fighting?’
Soti stopped weaving long enough to adjust her headscarf. Her eyes stayed on her kiondo. It did not look like she was going to say much that day.
Chari directed a silent curse at the brothers-in-law who had yet to come to terms with who deserved what of their father’s estate. Their brawling, which sometimes got physical, had left Soti cowering, bruised and traumatised.
She weaved when walking, she weaved when travelling in a crowded bus and she weaved when she settled in for the evening.
The women busied themselves. Someone passed Soti some already spun pale fibre. Another went and crouched next to her and gently began to untie the knots that had formed. Soti’s work was often a mess of unwanted knots or intriguing accidental patterns.
‘Sister, you know you cannot weave until your feelings are in the right place.’
If Soti appreciated the help, she did not voice it.
‘Never mind that coward of a husband of yours.’ This time the head weaver spoke. ‘I am ready to come fight both him and your shemeji. They are not my elders after all.’
Not only was the group leader older, but she was also a bull. She had been running up and down the Taita Hills since she was little, undeterred by the fear of wildlife in the Tsavo. Fighting in-laws was nothing.
‘Meanwhile, my husband’s asked if he could bring me a friend,’ the woman across from Chari spoke up.
The other women laughed and sneered at the husband’s suggestion.
‘Again? Isn’t that wife number seven now?’
The conversations flowed again between the women and between the weaving fingers.
One by one, the women began to rubbish their in-laws and their good for nothing husbands for not doing enough or never being home. Despite their outrage, when the sun began its downward journey, they all hurried home on the pretext of cooking for the children when their priority was really their husbands.
Chari was in no such rush. She had buried her husband two months before their first child was born. That child was now away in boarding school and her time was all her own. Weaving was all Chari seemed to do. She weaved when walking, she weaved when travelling in a crowded bus and she weaved when she settled in for the evening. Wrapped in solitude, sisal fibres spilling out of every receptacle in the house, she would allow herself to dream about her kiondos. She would wonder how far they had travelled.
If only she could go where they went. She wondered if they were being used for the purpose she had given them and if they carried potatoes and gifts of food and beads like they did in Taita. Perhaps they had acquired a new purpose. Were her kiondos, with the brightly coloured beadwork, admired or were they gawked at for the foreign thing that they were? Chari shook her head slightly. No, her kiondos spoke of the harmony of hands and spirit and creativity that had been passed down by grandmothers and mothers through the generations. Rani always harangued them about treating the leather straps or the kiondos would be doused in disinfectant and chemicals as though disease was inherent in them. But one thing Chari was sure of, her kiondos were strong and enduring like the weavers of Taita Hills.
‘Chari?’ The head weaver broke into her thoughts. ‘Three of your bags sold over the weekend.’
‘The ones with no handles?’
‘Yes. The black ones.’
The women erupted with claps and ululations. Chari was not a fast weaver, but she was prolific. When Rani first asked for handless ones, Chari had been hesitant. What is one going to do with a plain black kiondo with no handles? On market day, the kiondos needed to be filled with produce and carried on the backs of women; the long leather handles around their heads. Chari reached for some sisal.
‘What are you making this time?’ the head weaver asked.
‘I haven’t decided,’ replied Chari, twisting a strand with her fingers. ‘Maybe something for my niece. She is getting married soon.’
Chari generally started weaving long before the full picture of what she was making was formed. All she needed was a hint and her fingers would reveal the depths of her mind. She set about creating the twine. She selected a few colours. Even reached for a blue one. For her own wedding, her grandmother had made her a large grey and brown kiondo and presented it to her full of sweet potatoes.
‘See this?’ her grandmother had said, pointing to the centre of the base. ‘This is where you begin your weaving, at the navel. And this here, this strand is the warp. It always stands erect. Like the warp, remember to give your husband the respect he deserves as the head of your home. This other strand is the weft. This is you, my child. This is what holds it all together. Chari, this kiondo is yours. Be big, be strong and be practical.’
In the weeks following her husband’s death, neighbours had popped in and filled the kiondo with potatoes and maize and rice and beans and cabbage. The kiondo sat in the corner of the kitchen and was rarely empty.
Chari was yet to make a kiondo as big as the one her grandmother had made her. Feeling a surge of inspiration, she adjusted her lesso and started on the base of the basket. She, too, was going to make something big and strong and practical. The kiondo would be a blessing to her niece. Shutting out the chatter, she got busy. Soon, the weaving group was back in chant.
‘Juu, chini, in and out, twist and through.’
Out of the harmony of hands and community emerged beautiful patterned kiondos, and woven into them was the spirit of the Taita women.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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