Wa Muthoni’s dark muscles gleamed with sweat in the late morning sun. He and Momanyi worked in silence except for the occasional grunt of “Huuu!” as they heaved shovelfuls of sand into the back of the lorry. The sand worked its way in between their fingers and toes, combining with the sweat running down their chests and backs to form a gritty substance that never quite washed off, even after numerous baths. At the top of the sand quarry, children played and shrieked, mindful of the deceptively blunt edges of the cliff. Many a child had lost their little lives falling over those edges, especially during the long rainy season when the quarry turned into a seasonal dam. Every now and then, miners stumbled across tiny bones as they dug deeper and deeper into the once-solid walls of the quarry, reminders of another victim, another grieving family. The sand swallowed and then spat out, it never retained anything.
The mound at the back of the lorry grew higher and higher. The two filler-boys, Kang’ethe and Njama, jumped onto the back of the lorry and spread out the sand evenly, compacting and patting it down as they went along. It was a long way to Nairobi, where the sand was headed, and they had to make sure that as little as possible of the precious sand was lost. The teenagers were shirtless too. Where Momanyi and wa Muthoni were hardened and beefy, Kang’ethe and Njama were sinewy, with muscles still developing and concave stomachs that dipped into tiny waists. The teenagers longed to look like the older miners one day, to have girls tremble with lust every time they glanced at their muscular bodies. Njama gave a shrill whistle and leaped off the lorry, and Kang’ethe followed. The lorry was full. The driver, who had been napping in his seat, woke up, stretched and switched on the engine. It roared to life and he set off from Kangundo to Nairobi, about 70 kilometers away, the last ten of which would be spent crawling through traffic.
Wa Muthoni’s head beat to a strange rhythm. He yawned and stretched, then went to get his water bottle. He drank slowly, careful not to drink too fast and develop a stitch. He sat in the shade cast by the quarry wall and laid his head on the back of his arm, thinking of nothing in particular. It was now twelve o’ clock and the sun was directly overhead. The children had gone to their various homes for lunch and only a few birds dared to croak in the dead heat. Momanyi flopped down next to him in the same position. They silently wondered what was keeping Nthenya, the lunch lady, so long.
She soon waddled into view, her familiar basket slung over her head in the traditional way.
“Greetings mother,” Momanyi and wa Muthoni called out respectfully.
“Greetings my sons,” she responded wearily, setting down her burden. She unpacked two plastic plates, clean but with an oily film stubbornly clinging to their surfaces, and started to dish out their lunch. Today it was githeri, heavy on the corn and light on the beans, and huge potatoes that would serve to fill them up. In another covered plastic dish she had packed a huge lump of ugali. She removed a battered plastic jug from the basket and proceeded to wash their hands in silence, using as little water as possible. After that she retreated to a shaded corner of the quarry to wait for the men to eat so that she could take back her dishes. Theirs was the third mine that she had visited that day. It was a tiring business, but it brought good returns. The men were not choosy, all they needed was good, solid food, huge quantities of it, and that at least, she was able to do. When she could, she brought fruits at an extra cost. Today she had none. After they had eaten, she rinsed her plates and packed them, pocketed her cash and left.
“Do you know where all this sand goes?” Wa Muthoni asked Momanyi.
“Nairobi,” Momanyi answered. He was not given to lengthy conversations.
“And have you seen the houses they build there?”
Momanyi was silent, then shook his head. He had been born right there in Kangundo, to parents who had left their Kisii homeland due to some family dispute. A lack of interest in formal education had led him to drop out of high school, after which he had done a couple of odd jobs here and there before he landed on the mining gig. Nairobi was far out of his radar.
Wa Muthoni exhaled. “Maybe it’s for the best you don’t know, son of a Kisii man,” he said mournfully. “They build houses, beautiful houses which they sell for millions of shillings. You should go to Nairobi one day, man.”
Momanyi laughed mirthlessly.
“Poverty is poverty,” he said. “I would still be poor even in Nairobi, only that I would be practicing my poverty near rich people.”
They both laughed at this, wa Muthoni wheezing with mirth. If optimism met Momanyi, it would surely shrivel up and die. He had a way of looking at life exactly as it was, unwilling and unable to imagine anything different, or better. Anyway, in this case the pessimistic bastard was right, poverty was poverty, wherever a poor man went, it would follow.
They took a short nap, as was their custom before the 4 o’ clock lorry came for another load of sand. Wa Muthoni spotted a tiny cloud in the sky and prayed that it would rain soon. The sand was a lot easier to deal with when dry, but he was tired of the baking hot days that made his head ache endlessly. The soft sand beneath them acted as a blanket, and they were lucky to get a cool breeze to lift and dry the sweat off their bodies.
Njeri peeled the potatoes and green bananas. The little one, Mathu, watched her in wonder from his vantage point on an old gunia on the floor. He drooled happily as he tried to chew the sticky banana peel. Njeri wagged her finger at her son and removed the peel from his mouth. It was soon replaced with a handful of soil. She sighed, stood up and fetched a cup of cold water from the plastic tank outside the kitchen. She rinsed her son’s mouth and latched him to her breast, securing him in place with a leso that she wound round him and tied at the nape of her neck. He had already fed, but she needed to distract him as she prepared the evening meal.
She smiled as she pictured her husband’s smile when she served him his favorite dish, mashed potato and green bananas, with goat stew. She had already cut the goat meat and it was boiling away over the fire, on low heat. She liked to make it very tender, after which she would fry and mix it with spices to make a thick, delicious stew. The goat had been a gift from her parents, who had come to visit her two days before to see their grandson. They loved Mathu. He was named after wa Muthoni’s grandfather, a man who had been a father in all respects to her husband. Just like his namesake, he was calm and ever-smiling. Everyone told her how lucky she was to have a baby who didn’t spend all his time wailing. His father was completely taken by him, too. He played with him, held serious conversations with the little boy, and often put Mathu on his shoulders and took walks with him.
Yesterday, after one such outing he had returned and urged Njeri to put the baby to bed quickly. She had done so after feeding him, and then her husband had led her to their bed, his intentions clear. A potato rolled out of her now-still hands as she remembered their lovemaking, and the knife slipped into the basin full of already-peeled potatoes. She loved the feel of her husband’s body against her. Though he was decidedly heavy, she never felt like he was crushing her. She was often the one who would pull his weight towards her, to make sure that not even an inch of space was left between them. She would grasp his buttocks firmly and let her hands roam freely all over his back as he drove her to the point where she would start shaking and moaning, before he allowed himself to let go too. Now that she was breastfeeding, he took extra care not to hurt her breasts, which were often tender and uncomfortable. She was grateful for this, knowing how much he had enjoyed them before the baby. He was always pleased when she enjoyed herself, and she had been shocked that ‘it’ could be so good. Sometimes she embarrassed herself with her longing for her husband. She had not known that one could want it so much. From what most of her older sisters and other married friends had told her, ‘it’ was a hurried, embarrassing and annoying activity that they endured solely to please their men, after which they either fell pregnant and were therefore released from their duty, or were abandoned for a while as their husbands serviced their other wives and mistresses.
Her sisters had been quick to notice and tease her about her newly-wed glow. “The farm is being tilled very well,” they said to each other with knowing expressions. “No weeds can grow here!” At which they giggled and clapped their hands.
Wa Muthoni was not like every other man. He shared his ideas with Njeri, instead of expecting her to accept every decision that he made for their family. After leaving the mine, he always came straight home and they would talk about their plans for the future while they ate. He planned to save up enough money from the mine to build them a brick house. He had recently bought a few chickens so they could start selling eggs for some extra income. He was an enterprising man, and best of all, he seemed satisfied with his wife. Njeri had not heard any talk of him seeing other women. She considered herself truly blessed.
Njeri shook her head to free herself from her thoughts and returned to the task at hand, finishing quickly. Mathu was asleep, his soft little cheek resting against her nipple, a trail of saliva already forming in his partially-open mouth. His eyelashes fluttered as he dreamt, and she stroked the fine hairs of his head, wondering as she always did how she had grown such a perfect little being in her womb. She moved between the kitchen and the jiko outside, Mathu against her back, boiling and pounding the potatoes and bananas then finally frying the meat. It was dark by the time she was through, and she hoped that wa Muthoni wasn’t far. She removed some of the logs from the fire, stirred the ash about and left a few logs in, then placed both sufurias on top of the fire to ensure that the food remained warm. She woke Mathu up, fed him and put him to bed. She would wait for her husband before she ate.
The four o’ clock lorry had not turned up by five o’ clock. Wa Muthoni shook his head and decided to make his way home. Momanyi argued that they should wait, but even he knew that there would not be enough time or daylight to fill a lorry that came after five. It was painful to lose 500 shillings, but well, tomorrow was another day, perhaps their luck would be better then. Kang’ethe and Njama left for the day, while wa Muthoni placed a call to the driver in Nairobi. He said that the lorry had broken down and it would take most of the evening to be fixed. They got ready to go back home, shoulders slumped in disappointment.
They went back for their water bottles, shoes and shirts. Wa Muthoni was just buttoning up his shirt when there was a sharp crack of thunder in the sky. To their surprise, it started to rain. They quickly moved to the back of the quarry, where the overhang formed a natural shelter. As it happened in these parts, where there were hardly any trees to absorb the force of the droplets, the rain poured down in uninterrupted sheets. Flashes of lightning preceded the claps of thunder that sounded every now and then, and from their shelter it was a magnificent sight to watch. The sand beneath them steamed as it gave up its heat to the fury of the rain.
A fresh burst of rain had just started when there was a sound like a sharp crack, and then suddenly sand started raining down on them. Wa Muthoni was so shocked that he stood still, unable to move. Momanyi was already ahead of him, scrambling out of the quarry as he screamed “Run! Run!” There was another loud groan and the top of the quarry came down. Wa Muthoni covered his mouth with his shirt, moving further and further back into the quarry. There was sand all around. It rained and poured sand, hot, wet, heavy clumps of sand. It was so hot inside. So so hot. He removed his shirt from his mouth and then blocked his nose as the sand continued to press him further and further back. He could not hear anything now, and he dimly realized that perhaps the sand had entered his ears. The sand, heavy with the water it had just absorbed, continued to pour around him. He kept his eyes closed, because he knew once the sand entered his eyes there would be no more hope for him. More sand rained on his head, forcing him almost to his knees. It was so heavy. So very heavy.
Mathu woke up crying, and Njeri’s eyes flew open. She had fallen asleep in the kitchen, and the fire had gone out. The rumble in her belly confirmed that she had not eaten, which meant that wa Muthoni had not come home. An uneasy feeling shook her to the core as she tried to feed Mathu. He picked up on her unease and would not stop crying. After about an hour of battling to feed him and soothe him, he finally fell asleep, and then she was woken up again by somebody banging on her door.
“Nyina wa Mathu, Nyina wa Mathu!”
She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and opened the kitchen door. She could see somebody knocking at the main house. It was her neighbor, Wangu.
“Wangu what is it?” she asked in confusion. Wangu’s eyes were fiery red and she seemed unable to speak. A fine trail of mucous snaked its way from her nose to her mouth, but she was too distraught to wipe it away.
“Wangu what is it?” she asked again, shaking the other woman’s shoulders to get her attention.
Wangu’s body convulsed in sobs.
And then a car drove into the compound. In it was the assistant chief, looking very sombre and accompanied by two AP policemen in their brown uniforms and AK 47’s strapped to their sides.
“Nyina wa Mathu, please come with me,” he said somberly after a hushed greeting.
“My baby….” Wangu quietened down enough to fetch Mathu and assure her that she would take care of him. Njeri stepped into the back of the ancient Peugeot 504, with every bit of her trembling and sweating.
“Is it my husband?” she asked the assistant chief. He patted her hand briefly but did not reply, then looked straight ahead while one of the APs drove the Peugeot. She recognized the route. They were headed to the quarry. The AP parked beside the dry river bed, now a stream thanks to the previous night’s heavy rain that marked the entrance to Quarry 1, and opened the car door. Njeri got out and noticed a crowd near Quarry 3, which was farther ahead. There were women wailing and a crowd of onlookers staring. She ran straight to the quarry, but it was not a quarry anymore. It was completely filled with sand. Odd weeds and other plants that had been growing near the edges of the cliff above had been hurled down by the force of the storm. She cast around wildly for her husband, fully expecting to find him there, waiting to see her.
“Wa Muthoni!” she screamed. “Come out! Come out!”
An elderly woman near her grabbed her and tried to hold her in her arms but she fought her. “Come out! Come out!” she screamed again, clawing at the sand with her fingers. The onlookers looked away, some of the women wept for her, but no one else tried to restrain her. She continued to dig at the sand, calling her husband’s name, until the assistant chief came and, assisted by two police officers, physically removed her from the scene.
The ambulance from the main hospital took more than an hour to come. The road was bad and there was no money for fuel, not until the assistant chief sent them some money via MPesa to buy fuel. It was another two days before wa Muthoni was dug out. His knees rested against his chest, and there was sand in every fold, line and square inch of his body. The parts that had been soaked through with the damp and heat inside his sandy tomb were beginning to rot, beneath his shirt. Journalists swarmed the scene like flies on a carcass, snapping pictures and sounding appropriately mournful as they made live reports from the quarry.
The government declared the mine illegal and it was promptly sealed off. The county senator and governor came to Njeri’s home to personally comfort her. They appealed to the government to provide employment for the people of that area, so that they could stop involving themselves in dangerous activities like sand quarrying. The area MP came under fire in Parliament for neglecting his constituency. There was a bitter war of words between him and the governor, which came to a head during wa Muthoni’s funeral. It was the most excitement the people of the area had had for a long time.
Unknown people began to mine the sand at night. A month after the incident, the quarry was back. Another month after that, Njeri breastfed Mathu, dressed him in his Sunday best, strapped him to her back and walked to the quarry, humming a tune to herself all the way. She was at peace when she and her little boy went to join her husband. She was only sorry she had waited so long.