When people ask why I started the bookstore, I answer that question depending on who is asking. The most common response revolves around Pan Africanism, how important it is for Africans to read Africans; the significance of people outside the continent knowing what is going on here on this rock, and the longing to reconnect with Africans in the diaspora. And in part, when I say this, I am not lying. But that is just a small part. It is a sexy thing to say. I mean, that is the kind of talk that gets you featured in The New Yorker.
The truth is that I started this thing for my girlfriend, Jaber. She had a book out and was running around the city trying to get it into bookshops. I was with her a few times, and the reasons for their rejection ranged along the spectrum of “Sorry, people do not buy poetry in Kenya.” “Aaaaah. This is barely 90 pages, who will buy this?” “No way we are stocking self-published books. We do not trust its editorial soundness.” “Look, when someone comes and asks for it, we will call you to send us copies.”
A lot of bullshit, really.
At that time I had this blog that was popping in Kenya and I decided, “you know what Jaber, I will put this book on my website and people will buy it.” She said sawa, and so we began.
People did not buy it. Well, they did, but she had 1000 copies to sell. It was a bit of a problem. But we did OK, and that is how this shop started. All that mathogothanio about Pan Africanism is just stuff we picked up along the way to sound big and important. When in actual truth, we really weren’t. The only big thing we had was inside our chests (well, and other parts because we are Africans at the end of the day, right?)
A few days ago the day broke earlier than usual. Not that the sun rose at 5am like it does loka. Dawe thura. It is just that usually we wake up at 9am. The little perks of freelancing to offset the poverty aspect of it. On this day, my phone rang at sijui 7.00am and it was some witch friend of mine from campo looking for a book. I call her a witch because it is only witches who the hell calls people at 7am on their personal phone? For someone like me who sleeps at 3am, 7am is midnight!
I cannot quite remember what the order was. What I remember—what I cannot ever forget and probably will never—is what happened afterwards. I checked the date on the phone and it said November 1st. It was my brother’s birthday, so I sent a text out. Not to him, but to my mother. It is her I wish Happy Birthday because I do not see why we should celebrate someone for simply being born. It takes no effort to be born, donge? You know what takes effort? Giving birth. Carrying a mihia inside your stomach and then pushing it out your ginene.
Karua—my mother, that is—texted back immediately. She told me about that what happened on that very same day, twenty-nine years ago; how her sister was sitting by her side and my old man turned the whole house blue and named the newborn after his own father who loved Karua very much.
Then Jaber stirred awake. Eyes still droopy with sleep, but awake nonetheless. And I asked her a question I had been meaning to ask her for a while now.
“Are you ever going to change your mind about kids?”
There was no good morning greeting, nor kiss. Just a rude awakening. I must as well have slapped her and there would be no difference.
“No, I do not think so, no.”
I should have stopped there. I should have put my phone away and gone back to bed and wake up at 9am like normal people do. But noooooo. Me and my infrontness infrontness had to ask follow up questions. Follow up questions and follow up answers. And with every answer we grew nearer and nearer to the point of no return until we got there finally.
She had been very categorical about this thing of hers for not wanting kids from the very beginning. And me I said sawa. I was 24 then. I wanted to be with her more than I wanted to have kids. Surely, which 24-year-old is actively and consciously thinking about children? I had no idea this relationship would even turn out the way it did, even. Given my past, not even Saitan himself had the cruelty to imagine me sticking it out for this long. Then four years passed and here we were. Her still adamant about her life choices, and me—in life’s own twisted way—was sure more than ever that there is no way I was not having kids.
She cried a lot that morning. I hated myself twice as much with every sob. That bookstore phone, even if it cried that day, nobody gave a shit. I had just lost the reason I created it.
Less than a week would pass and I would find myself packing up my stuff. The books (personal copies, not for sale) that we got when together, we split. She kept How To Breathe Air and I stayed with The Underground Railroad. She asked if she could keep Water Anthology and I said sawa. She asked if she could keep Dance of the Jakaranda and I said sawa. She asked if she could have The City of Lies and I said sawa. I just kept saying sawa and sawa and sawa. I could not help saying sawa because how do you deny someone something after breaking their hearts like that? To her credit, she let me keep her favourite, The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta, and for a moment there, I wondered whether the irony was intentional.
I do not know what will happen to the kiosk. She wants to keep it alive, while I do not know if I should ever open my mouth about anything ever again. But like her people like to say, wene ndalo. Give it days.
We shall give it days and we will wait and we will see.