I had nine months to prepare myself, and on every one of those days I sent my younger sister a WhatsApp voice note to play for the little macadamia nut growing in her belly. I started every message telling Maca it was their Masi speaking: “Ma” for mother and “si” for like. Gujaratis have specific names for specific relationships, and as Maca’s mum’s only sister, I am Maca’s only Masi. The messages were minute-length ramblings about the mundane— how I couldn’t wait for Maca to discover how delicious coffee is. Or pitter-patter soaked messages from the balcony so they could listen to rain. And once a five-minute breathless description of the technicolour, moustached, winking, pouting, striped, neon fish fashion show I had stumbled upon during a snorkeling trip.
Sometimes I just sent a message telling them how much I loved them; more than salted caramel ice cream, more than releasing that first drop of pee from a full bladder, more than being able to do ten wheel poses in a row, more than the squeezed-out extra sleep you are treated to when you wake up before the alarm, and even more than the swirling milky ocean before sunrise. It was important for Maca to know they were loved already. Ours was a relationship we were building one cell at a time. Nerve cells. Masi loves you. Spinal cord. Masi loves you. Heart. Masi loves you. Nose. Masi loves you. Toenails. Masi loves you.
Perhaps it was because I had loved this baby for nine months, that the moment I set eyes on Mithuro, I burst into tears. I wasn’t prepared for how distraught I would be to hold a child and know that no matter how desperately I loved them, I was not their mother. And it was a reminder that it is possible that I would never be anybody’s mother. And so after making sure that my sister felt my love for her, I scampered away from the hospital, anxious to be far from this baby that was not mine, this creature that was no longer an abstract combination of body parts, but was a human being who I hoped would remember what their Masi’s voice sounded like.
All I could think was that I needed shampoo. Shampoo and conditioner. I needed to buy the right kind of shampoo, to manage my hair and my heart. I needed to buy a shampoo somewhere I could hide, in an anonymous aisle, away from family and friends, from those who saw and demanded too much.
I found myself at the mall, rooted at the shampoo aisle of Nairobi’s French franchised supermarket, holding a half eaten sticky jalebi wrapped up in soggy tissue paper, a souvenir of celebration.
Just find a shampoo.
Find the right shampoo.
TRESemmé for Professionals caught my eye. It was for professionals, and although I could only claim the title of Masi, not Ma, I was a professional. I could rock professional hair. But the bottles were so big. What if I wasn’t the right kind of professional? Would the shampoo judge me? Did I need to submit a CV to use it? What if the very big bottle fired me before the shampoo was finished?
It was difficult to forget the eyes at the hospital, judging me, wondering why I cried so much. Their thoughts filtered through the air. Oh don’t you know, that’s the poor divorced childless older sister. Oh dear. You can see she already loves this child more than is healthy. But what is a healthy amount of love? Do you look in the mirror, take off an accessory and then minus one unit of love before you leave the house?
Maybe I needed a drink instead of shampoo. Something stiff. If fathers can smoke cigars when babies are born, surely Masi are entitled to a glass of whiskey. But I didn’t have enough money for shampoo, conditioner, and a drink. The shampoo could wait—I needed a drink more. But if I drank I’d want a cigarette, and I’d forgotten to wear my nicotine patch. Maybe that’s why I was feeling crazy.
It’s easy to feel crazy when you know the cruel shape of the world. Without a husband and child, I don’t matter to many among my relatives, and to many others beyond that circle. To be seen I must come as part of a family unit. If I am not a wife and a mother, I simply do not exist.
There I was, in the shampoo aisle, and an aunt showed up. Her casual pleasantries—Hello. How are you? How is everyone?—masked other questions. What are you doing here at the petrol station shop? Didn’t your sister just have a baby? Like, just now, like an hour ago? What could possibly be more important than going straight to see her and the newborn? None of this was spoken out loud, but my aunt’s eyes probed my basket. Chocolate. Notebook. Paper towels. Batteries. As I answered her disguised questions, she examined my voice. Taking each word and turning it around before laying it down as evidence. Pity oozed out of her eyes. After all, the children I was supposed to have were stolen by another woman. My husband at the time had my children with someone else. At least that’s how the aunt would tell the story to her friend later. The children have his eyes. Green eyes.
After she left, I stared at the shampoo options again. L’Oreal sounded solid. Unlike TRESemmé for Professionals, it wouldn’t demand a CV. But it was incomplete: shampoo for curly hair was available, but not conditioner. The conditioners available were for fine hair and volume and dyed hair and white people. Why stock a shampoo for curly hair but not the conditioner? Did they assume that if you washed curly hair with shampoo for curly hair it magically turned fine? Or that washing curly hair dyed it?
I needed a cigarette. It would make everything better. If I couldn’t get the right shampoo and conditioner, I could smoke it all away.
I am happy. I really am. I am. My sister has just had a baby. And we have a new human being in our lives. But why can’t I be devastated as well? Why can’t I be both? At the same time? Why can’t anguish and joy lie down side by side? It might be easier if they would just behave and stop with their bad manners. This swirling. This co-mingling. This coupling. It is very discombobulating.
For a long time, it has felt to me like the world has decided the absolute best thing that it has for anyone to experience is having a child. It is truly wonderful. It was an experienced I craved, not to fulfill familial duty or societal expectations, but to expand the circle of those I love. When it proved impossible with the man I had chosen—the man I thought had chosen me—I grieved. And that grief had returned to sit with the joy I felt at becoming a Masi.
It had been at least half an hour and I was still pacing up and down the shampoo aisle. A handsome man—he looked as though he worked at the supermarket—approached me. I welcomed his presence. He approached me with the confidence of a man who knew he was born to solve a woman’s problem.
He recommended Shea Moisture. I refused. It used to be good, but they changed the formula, and now it is shit. His confidence quickly became irritating. Yes, I told him, I have tried it. I know what I’m talking about. My hair needs sulphates, damnit. It needs silicone. He kept talking. They always keep talking.
Oh, Venus is a good brand? It is local, yes I know. And it is doing well. Ok. But why is it as expensive as the imported ones? Don’t you know I am a child of Kenya from the 90’s. Our beloved dictator Moi combined with the IMF imposed Structural Adjustment Programmes meant imported was rare. Valuable. Ergo better. We got a handful of different cereals. Weetabix, cornflakes and branflakes. One type of yoghurt. One type of jam. Why would I buy local when imported is now readily available? You must be mad.
On my way out of the hospital, after I’d cried, my dad said the only thing that made him sad today, was how I must feel. He was sad for me. On my behalf. It came from a good place. From a place of compassion and solidarity. He wanted me to know that I wasn’t crazy to be sad. But coming from my usually non-expressive father, this confession broke me. As if my sadness had been validated. And so I couldn’t even pretend that it wasn’t real.
So maybe this is it.
Maybe you get a nephew.
Maybe you don’t get to have kids.
The handsome man left, no doubt shaking his head about indecisive women. The trip to buy shampoo wasn’t working—it wasn’t the mindless distraction I needed. I worried that I’d break down in the store. I added eye drops to my shopping list, to mask the red so that celebrating family members would not have to deal with my grief.
I picked a random bottle:
Sulfate-free and paraben-free Garnier Fructis Curl Nourish Shampoo, with Coconut oil, provides a supple lather for a gentle cleanse that doesn’t strip hair’s natural moisture, and intense nourishment for stronger, well defined, smoother, frizz-resistant curls for up to 24 hours.
It was good enough.