Through our eyes we observe the fabric, the skin, the cover of the world, and we do not question the reality presented to us. So look! Scrutinise what lies beneath the surface, for there the truth exists.
The bullet merely grazed Rose’s arm, but it tore through her peaceful existence. On the surface, Rose was a respectable European woman in her early sixties, with frizzy white hair, grooved skin and a lanky frame. She lived contentedly with her husband Craig in Nanyuki, a small town two hundred kilometres north of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. But below her consciousness, the ghosts of her past haunted her. Only occasionally did she remember the young man whose life she had taken, but the guilt of her action drove her to support and protect people and animals alike in her local community.
By March, the rains had been absent for three months and the scrubland around Nanyuki shrivelled, the ground baked hard. Wispy grass had long since been consumed by roving herds of ragged sheep and goats. Amongst a variety of cactus plants, a dusting of trees and bushes survived, twiggy in nature, with small parchment leaves and spikes. Rose squatted beside one such bush, the milkweed, collecting its leaves, roots and pods for her herbal medicines.
She half stood, froze, her senses alive. She’d heard a thwack. A gun? She grabbed her left arm as something punched it. Something she could neither see nor hear. But gradually she noticed a burning sensation along her upper arm. Would there be more shots? No point running. She couldn’t outrun a bullet.
“Oh my God! Are you all right?” shouted a female voice, familiar, calling out from her past.
Turning cautiously, clutching her arm, Rose confronted an oval face, topped with a yellow and brown kanga turban, peering at her, wide-eyed, from above a thorny hedge.
“Rose! My friend. Heavens, did I hit you? I heard your cry.”
Rose could not remember uttering a sound and now her voice dried up.
“Thabiti,” shouted the woman beyond the hedge. “Quick, go and help Rose, I think I’ve shot her.”
“One question at a time!” Aisha raised her hands in surrender.
Rose, regaining the use of her voice, peppered her assailant with questions. Surprisingly, most pressing was not why she had been shot at. She took a deep breath to settle the bombardment in her mind.
“Aisha, old friend. What on earth are you doing here?”
Aisha had moved into Guinea Fowl Cottage, a small, single-storey colonial-style property with a dusty yard at the rear and a vibrant garden at the front. The two women chatted on the veranda, a raised wooden platform with a balustrade around three sides, extending across the front of the house. It was a versatile space with a cedar dining table, for meals and work, and a wicker sofa and chairs, made comfortable with plump white cushions, decorated with guinea fowl feather motifs. A roof provided shade, comfort and relief from the oppressive March sun.
Uneasy, Rose clutched the dressing on her arm and winced at the pain. She surveyed her friend. They had met at school: Rose, a white girl from the country and Aisha, the first African entrant at a prestigious Nairobi school. Aisha had been the studious one, working her way to become a top human and civil rights lawyer. A flamboyant character displaying a full figure, captivating smile and signature bright turban head wrap. She smiled widely, but Rose noticed her twisting a large gold ring.
“Do you like the house? We needed a break from the city, from Nairobi. It’s so dull in the winter months, much better to spend them in fresh highland air.” Aisha’s smile drooped at the edges.
“What rot! Its only March and Nairobi isn’t overcast until July.” Rose fired her words knowing Aisha had ducked the genuine reason for her return. “You sneak into Nanyuki without telling your old friends and take this small cottage. It’s not your style.”
Flustered, Aisha shrilled, “Ah, here comes Thabiti with my drink.” Aisha’s son Thabiti was twenty years old with an oval face matching his mother’s. He wore his hair short and neat, and a trim moustache and beard encircled his mouth. He handed his mother a glass of brandy. “Where’s Rose’s drink?” Aisha’s voice was sharp.
Thabiti looked down at the floor. “Doris is bringing it.” A bird-like maid with a pointed nose, quick darting eyes, and two knots of hair at either side of her head, like additional ears, flapped in. She placed a china teacup and saucer beside Rose and fluttered away.
Rose turned to Thabiti. “I asked your mother why you moved to Nanyuki.”
“I suppose she blamed…”
“Now, now,” said Aisha. “No need to bore Rose with that. I told you, Rose, we just needed to get out of Nairobi. I feel terrible about shooting at you, but I swear I didn’t see anyone when I looked over the hedge.”
“I guess I was squatting down, looking for herbal ingredients, but why a gun? And what were you doing shooting over your fence?”
Aisha shuffled her ample bottom in her wicker chair. “Practising. Shooting at some of Thabiti’s empty Fanta cans on the fence inside the hedge. I’m not a brilliant shot. Better with my head than my hands.” Aisha waved her hands, but quickly returned them to her lap. In a cool tone she said, “That could have been severe. I am very sorry. The bullet must have missed the can, passed through the hedge and hit you. I don’t like guns, never have. Not since… the incident.” Aisha shivered.
Rose wrapped her chilled hands round her teacup. She forced herself to continue, sensing her words sounded cold, like ice. “Why do you have one then?”
“It was issued to me, because of my work with the EACC, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission.”
“Is that normal?” Rose asked.
“No, it’s not…” Thabiti said.
Aisha interrupted her son. “Thabiti.” She took a deep breath. “Go inside and let me catch up with Mama Rose.”
Rose waited for Thabiti to leave. In the doorway, he looked back at his mother, wrinkling his brow, then shook his head and entered the house.
Rose turned to Aisha, who was gazing out towards the garden. “I’m no fool. I know something is wrong. Drawing a veil over the problem only hides it. Things have been different between us since… the incident, but I’m still your friend. I might be able to help.”
Aisha straightened up, swirled brandy around her glass, and sipped. She said, “I remember how we met, two outcasts brought together at the birth of a new Kenya. For your family, and the European settlers, it was a time of uncertainty: loss of friends, lands and a way of life. For my family, it was so exciting: a new Kenya, with security, harmony and economic prosperity for all. The glorious vision of Independence.” Her eyes sparkled as she clapped her hands. “And me, the first African pupil at the Kenya High School for Girls in Nairobi. My father was so proud, God rest his soul.”
Rose could see the face of the young girl etched beneath that of the woman in front of her.
“I still remember the words of his colleague, Josiah Kariuki. 'Every Kenyan man, woman and child is entitled to a decent and just living. That is a birthright. It is not a privilege. He is entitled as far as is humanly possible to equal educational, job and health opportunities irrespective of his parentage, race, creed, or his area of origin in this land. If that is so, deliberate efforts should be made to eliminate all obstacles that today stand in the way of this just goal. That is the primary task of the machinery called government: our government’,” quoted Aisha.
“No wonder he was assassinated,” commented Rose.
“My father believed this; so do I. I love Kenya.” Aisha lifted her arms into the air as if celebrating Independence all over again.
Rose scoffed. “You love a dream. In reality, people in prominent positions fancy that what belongs to the country can be taken for personal gain. Did you see the wheelbarrow article in The Star last week?”
Aisha’s arms drooped. “The case is familiar, one of my investigations. Bungoma County Agricultural Ministry claimed to have paid a hundred thousand Kenyan shillings per wheelbarrow instead of the going rate of five thousand shillings.”
“Exactly. Where did the ninety-five thousand shillings go? Was it into the pockets of local officials? Will they be held to account?” Rose raised her eyebrows.
“I can’t say. The results of my investigation are now with the courts, to decide if they will take any action.” Aisha’s face became pinched and full of tension.
“That’ll be a no then.” Truth was, Rose felt as frustrated as her friend appeared to be. Whilst she had enough to eat and drink, many of those she helped in Nanyuki prison or at the teenage mother’s charity did not.
She resumed their discussion of Aisha’s return. “Does your work with the EACC have anything to do with your move?”
“I am working on a new project.” Aisha mumbled.
Rose leaned forward. “And it’s the reason that you left Nairobi?”
Aisha sat back and said, “Not exactly. I don’t blame Thabiti, as he imagines, but he is in serious trouble at university. They have accused him of assaulting a girl, but swears it wasn’t him. A witness saw a man of the same height and build running away from the scene, wearing a distinctive red and white beanie hat. Thabiti has one, but now he can’t find it.”
“Oh dear, what will happen?” Rose sipped her tea.
“The university are investigating the claims, but other students started harassing him, judging him to be guilty. I was worried for him. He gets very anxious and isn’t strong enough to deal with such a situation. I don’t want him returning to university at present and they’ve asked him to stay away until the matter’s resolved. I hoped moving to Nanyuki would benefit us all. We were happy here for a while, when Thabiti and Pearl were children.”
Thabiti’s episode at university saddened Rose, but she suspected it was a pretext for Aisha’s sudden reappearance in Nanyuki. Work was a more plausible reason. Aisha had joined the EACC on its inception in 2003, leaving Nanyuki and returning to Nairobi. Clearly she felt strongly about her role and the country Kenya had the potential to become.
Aisha broke into Rose’s thoughts. “I’m working with the Kenyan Anti-Poaching Unit, investigating poaching, particularly elephants, and the illegal ivory trade. It’s high on the government agenda. President Kenyatta will set fire to over a hundred tons of confiscated ivory next month, at the culmination of the Giants Summit. It’s the inaugural conference, looking at ways to protect Africa’s elephant population. At least four African heads of state plan to attend and it’s being held here, in Nanyuki.”
Aisha leaned forward, taking hold of one of Roses’ hands, unable to look her in the eye. Rose lifted her cup of tea with her free hand.
“My initial work included looking back at the 1970s, just after the hunting ban. I’ve read through my father’s papers from that time, from the incident you and I were involved with at Ol Kilima Ranch.”
Rose dropped her cup. It shattered, shooting shards of coloured china across the wooden floor. Rose sat transfixed, rigid in her seat. Aisha, still holding her hand, now looked at her. “I realise this isn’t very easy for you. It was a frightening time.”
A figure dashed from the house with a brush made of dried reeds and swiftly swept up the scattered pieces. “Doris, more tea for Rose, please. Rose, you’re very pale.”
Rose felt the presence of a ghost from her past.
She spoke quietly and deliberately. “That was forty years ago, why does it matter now?”
Aisha tapped a scuffed grey box file. “These papers are from the days after the incident. They indicate a relationship beginning between certain government officials and departments, and organised criminal groups. Up to now events such as that at Ol Kilima have been glossed over, not fully investigated.”
Rose felt dizzy. Did Aisha really mean to drag up her past? Aisha had defended her, protected her from those who wanted her to pay for her crime: why would she want to re-open the case now?
Rose wanted to leave Guinea Fowl Cottage, but didn’t trust her legs to carry her. She nodded gratefully to the little maid, Doris, who brought her a fresh cup of steaming tea. It was half-past five and the intensity of the day’s heat was calming. From nearby she heard the cries of a baby, mixed with the char-grilled smell of corn on an open charcoal fire. Rose felt the remnants of sweat tingle her skin as she made herself focus on the everyday sounds of life around her.
The arrival of a pretty, willowy girl, on the arm of an attractive and well-groomed man with an ostentatious air, saved Rose from further discussion with Aisha.
“Evening Mrs Onyango,” said the man in an oily tone. He appeared to Rose to be in his early thirties, a good five years older than the girl Rose assumed was Pearl, Aisha’s daughter. His hand was on her back as he propelled her forward.
“Francis, this is an old friend of mine, Rose Hardie.”
“Pleased to meet you,” he said, with only the briefest glance in Rose’s direction, before addressing Aisha again. “We’re attending an official dinner in Nyeri tonight.”
“I still expect Pearl back by midnight.”
“I’m not Cinderella,” Pearl muttered.
“What was that?” said Aisha. “You’re still my responsibility and I want you safely home tucked up in bed. Francis, please be careful driving back. The road between Nyeri and Kiganjo is treacherous with those hills and bends.”
Rose, like the member of an audience, watched Pearl perform as if in a puppet show. Pearl sagged, looking down at her shoes. Between her fingers, she twirled a brown and gold hair braid, with a pretty silver clip and guinea fowl feather. She was forced to react when one or other of her puppet masters pulled her strings.
“You might well look at your shoes, my girl. Inappropriate with that high heel and open toe.”
Pearl jerked upright. “But Ma…”
Francis pulled another set of strings. “I bought those for Pearl and they’re very striking, and expensive.”
Aisha scowled. “Very well. Better be off, and remember, back by midnight.”
Pearl sighed as Francis propelled her through the veranda door.
“The last time I saw Pearl she was just a girl,” said Rose. “You must be proud of her. She’s a very attractive young woman.”
“But what does she want? What does she do? At her age I had already qualified as a lawyer and was acting for clients in court. She reads magazines, sketches, goes to the salon and chats with friends. She has no drive, no ambition,” complained Aisha.
Poor girl, thought Rose. She won’t have much chance to be an individual and find out what she wants to do until Aisha stops trying to control and protect her. To Aisha she said, “Who was she with?”
“Francis Isaac, a minor government official at Meru County. They met at a function in Nairobi just before we left. At face value he seems harmless enough, a little full of himself perhaps, but he appears to be looking after Pearl.”
The name jolted cogs in Rose’s brain, which turned slowly. She had known an Isaac family in Timau. They’d run a small hardware shop. If she remembered correctly, there had been a tragedy: the wife and a daughter had died. The story was that there’d been no money to buy medicine when they became ill. Could this smartly dressed and rather arrogant young man be from the same family? If so, he had received more than his fair share of good fortune.