Archive for April, 2010

ITCHY PALM

ITCHY PALM

by Denis Kabi

Gwethoa is a Gikuyu language word which means to scratch oneself. Scratching oneself could be caused by all kinds of things – a rash, an infection, insect bites, allergies, sharp pain et cetera. But amongst the Gikuyu community, not all causes of itching are natural. Most Gikuyu believe that some causes of itching are supernatural – the intense need to itch a certain area of the body seen as a sign sent by the gods to a lucky person hinting that immeasurable blessings are in store.

A sizeable number – say, 99.9 percent – of this incongruous community’s population are said to have a strong propensity for certain rectangular pieces of printed paper. This potent propensity is also exhibited for small circular minted pieces of metal.

A popular aphorism even states that, “If you want to know that a prostrate man in a morgue is a Gikuyu, then throw a coin to the floor and let it clink noisily. If he is from this community, the man will swiftly wake up to claim the coin.”

Most Gikuyus find such insinuating aphorisms offensive. “Ni koruma maratoruma,” they lament. (They are abusing us.)

It is a widely held belief in Gikuyuland that the specific area of the body which is screaming to be itched holds a clue to the type of blessing that the gods are preparing. This area of the body is not the feet; not the legs; not on the torso; not on the neck; not on the head, no, not the head. It is somewhere else. Somewhere on the bendable appendages joined to the sides of the torso.

Most Gikuyu believe – in the same manner they believe muratina is a far much superior beverage than Tusker – that at the end of these bendable appendages lies the flat fleshy area that needs to be scratched in order to attract the blessings of the gods.

It can now be revealed here that this flat fleshy area is called the palm. Yes, the palm of the hand. (Not the palm tree.) Now, let’s be clear; it’s not the side of the hand that the knuckles are on. It’s the other side of the hand. Mwena ucio onge. Yes, that side.

Most Gikuyus believe that an itchy palm is a sure sign that the person with the itchy palm will come into contact with large sums of money in the near future. The myth of the itchy palm is so widespread that even the religious types have faith in it.

Kimonyi was a Nairobi-based businessman. He was 30 years old and everybody called him Kim. Kim ran an export-import company which specialized in exporting and importing bulk grain. A shrewd Gikuyu, Kim would keep a close watch of the cereals industry in Kenya and beyond, keen to find out which regions or countries had a bumper harvest and thus a surplus; and, alternatively, which regions or countries had experienced a failed crop and thus had a deficit.

Upon learning that a certain region or country had a bumper harvest and a surplus of grain – for instance maize – Kim would dash to his bank and ask for an overdraft. Since his credit balance and cash flow were always healthy, the bank manager would say, “Okay, Mr. Kimonyi, you can have a ten million shilling overdraft.”

Upon hearing these words, Kim would punch the air in excited glee and then shake the man’s hand so vigorously that the bank manager’s shoulder joint became sore and he couldn’t move the hand for the rest of the day.

As soon as the money was in his bag, Kim would quickly depart from his Nairobi home and travel to the region of Kenya – or the African country – where there was a reported bumper harvest. Kim would swiftly check into a hotel and patiently lie low (like the infamous envelope), keeping an eye on the price of the grain, waiting for the price to sink to its lowest possible point. As soon as the supply outstripped demand and the grain price fell so low that farmers began selling it at throw-away prices, Kim would step in to ‘save’ the farmers.

Kim would henceforth use his overdraft money to buy as much of the low-priced grain as his finances would allow. He would then hire a couple of long-distance trailers to transport the sacks of grain to his Nairobi warehouse where he would store the grain for several weeks. He would then return to Nairobi and keep a close watch of the cereals market, looking out for the highest prices of grain that the regions which had grain deficits would offer.

Time and again, the southern Sudan import companies were the ones who offered the highest price for purchase of bulk grain. And to his delight, the Sudanese import companies paid for the grain in US dollars – and almost always in cash.

It was in late 2009 and most regions of Kenya that had experienced adequate rainfall (and consequently planted various grains) reported bumper harvests of various grains – wheat, maize, beans, sorghum, millet et cetera. Desperate farmers packed their surplus grains in sacks and then hired large lorries to transport the sacks to the government-owned silos, hoping to off-load the grain at a decent price. In the open market, supply had outstripped demand and the price of various grains fell sharply. The government-owned silos bought as much of the grain as their silos could hold, but alas, a large number of the farmers’ lorries had to be turned away.

The frustrated farmers were even interviewed on a local TV news bulletin, and were heard lamenting about their difficulty in finding buyers for their surplus grain harvest. “We have been left with no choice but to dump the grain on the tilled fields and use it as fertilizer in readiness for the next planting season,” a forlorn farmer said in the interview, the tone of pain clear in his breaking voice.

That night, Kimonyi and his wife, Wanja, were seated in the sitting-room of their up-market apartment eating supper while watching the nine o’clock news bulletin.

“Except North-Eastern Province, every other region of Kenya has reported a bumper harvest of grain,” said Kim to his wife as he lifted a slice of pizza to his mouth and took a large bite of it and proceeded to chew vigorously. “There’s way too much supply of grain, particularly maize, but very little demand for it in the market. What do you think I should do, Wanja?”

“I think you should wait and see how the markets of neighbouring countries react,” answered Wanja and picked up as slice of pizza from the open pizza box and lifted it to her mouth and took a bite of it and chewed slowly. “Maybe southern Sudan didn’t get a bumper harvest. Maybe they have a grain deficit and will soon put advertisements in the local papers requesting for suppliers of grain to send quotations.”

“You’re right, Wanja,” said Kim as he bowed his head slightly to take a bite of the slice of pizza and then chewed vigorously and turned to gaze at his 25 year old wife. “You’re always right. I’m glad I married a university graduate. I’m glad I disregarded my mother’s advice to marry an O-level village girl. What do village girls know about grains? Or pizza, for that matter? City girls make the best wives, for they know how to pronounce the word pizza properly – not pee-zah; but pitsah.”

(Wanja was one of those chunky, light-brown Gikuyu women who were weaned on waru. She had graduated recently from a local private university with a degree in computer science and thus could Google effortlessly.)

Nindahona…I’m full. I cannot eat anymore pizza,” announced Kim after swallowing the last mouthful of his slice. He picked up a serviette and wiped the excess grease from his mouth and hands with it, and then crumpled it and threw it on the coffee table. He grasped a bottle of Coke and unscrewed its top and took a swig from it and replaced the top and set the bottle back on the table.

As Wanja got up and cleared the table and left for the kitchen, Kim sighed loudly and reclined on the comfy sofa and used the remote to switch the TV channel to another which was airing an English Premier League soccer match. (Their TV set was the new type that doesn’t have a kisogo.)

Wanja soon finished clearing the remnants of their meal in the kitchen and came back to the sitting-room only to find her husband fast asleep on the sofa. She saw that he’d been watching a soccer match on TV and so decided not to disturb him. “Maybe he’ll wake up in a minute or two and continue watching the noisy game,” she told herself. She dimmed the lights and quietly retired to the master bedroom where she spent some time exfoliating before she too fell asleep on the large executive bed.

As the soccer match progressed noisily on TV, and Kim snored lightly in his sleep, a hairy worm crawled covertly through the space under the front door of the apartment. The hairy brown worm (called munyongoro in Gikuyu) hastened across the smooth tiled floor and soon scaled the side of the leather sofa which Kim was reclining on. The worm then crawled over Kim’s belly and down his arm and finally settled on his right hand’s open palm. It was the aroma of the pizza on the man’s unwashed hands that had attracted the munyongoro. The worm spent the rest of that night licking and rolling on his palm, leaving its skin-irritating saliva and spike-like hairs over the skin surface. (Kim’s left hand was folded over the TV remote, grasping it, making its greasy surface inaccessible to the worm.)

The next morning Kim woke up from the sofa and immediately felt the overwhelming need to scratch his right hand’s palm. Gwethoa moko. He put down the remote and used his left hand’s nails to scratch the right hand’s palm and soon realized that the intense itchy feeling couldn’t go away.

He switched off the TV – which had stayed on all night – and rushed to the bedroom to wake up his wife and inform her about his itchy palm. When Wanja woke up and heard about it, she immediately jumped out of the bed and held Kim’s palm close to her eyes to examine it.

“It’s a sign!” Wanja suddenly exclaimed with rising excitement. “Your itchy palm is a sign that money is coming. Mbeca nyingi niciroka…big money is coming our way! We’re going to be rich, Kimonyi, my dear! Rich beyond our wildest dreams!”

“What should I do? What should I do?” Kim asked with rising excitement.

“Whatever you do, don’t wash your hands,” Wanja said excitedly and protectively held the man’s hand and made him sit on the edge of the bed. “If you wash your hands, the good fortune will go away. Where’s your mobile phone?”

Kim sat on the edge of the bed and kept scratching his itchy palm. “Somewhere in the sitting-room,” he said and watched Wanja scurry out of the bedroom door and return shortly afterwards carrying Kim’s Nokia handset.

“Here, call the bank manager,” said Wanja, sitting beside Kim and handing him the shiny cellphone.

“Call the bank manager?” Kim protested in puzzlement. “Isn’t it too early? I don’t think the bank has opened its doors yet, woman.”

“Look at the time,” Wanja insisted, pointing at the digital clock displayed on the screen of the cellphone. “It’s already past 8:30 a.m. and most banks open at 8:00 a.m. Here, take the phone and call him.”

Kim reluctantly grasped the handset. “What do I tell the bank manager?”

“Tell him you want a 20 million shillings overdraft,” she said and pressed the keys of the cellphone, scrolling down the phonebook list until she found the bank manager’s telephone number. She instantly pressed the ‘call’ button and raised his hand to his ear. “Here, hold the phone against your ear.”

Kimonyi reluctantly did as instructed and clasped the handset against his left ear, holding it with his left hand. He kept rubbing his itchy palm against his knee. “Twenty million shillings overdraft?” gasped Kim in wonder as he heard the phone begin to ring. “Honestly, Wanja, don’t you think we are getting a little ahead of ourselves here?”

“No, we are not. Your itchy palm is a sign that the time is right to buy as much of the low-priced maize as our finances can allow,” she said seriously, fixing him with a stern look. “We’ll store the bags of maize in the warehouse – as we usually do – and then look for a buyer. Your itchy palm could be a sign that a bulk buyer of maize is right now about to put an advertisement in the daily newspaper, seeking for suppliers of bulk maize. Talk to the bank manager about this plan.”

“Should I mention my itchy palm?” Kim whispered as the phone kept ringing.

“No, don’t mention the itchy palm,” whispered Wanja, leaning close to her husband’s ear to listen in on the phone call.

“When do I tell him we want the money?” Kim asked, still scratching his palm over his bended knee.

“Today, if possible,” whispered Wanja eagerly as the call was finally picked up by the bank manager.

“Good morning, Mr. Kimonyi,” said the bank manager good-naturedly. “How are you doing today?”

“I’m doing fine, Mr. Sibuor,” said Kim, chuckling to conceal his anxiety. “And you, omera? How are you doing?”

“Heh heh heh…me I’m doing fine, bwana. Yawa, how can I help you?” said the deep-voiced bank manager genially.

“I want an overdraft,” said Kim and hushed to listen to the bank manager’s reaction. He turned briefly to exchange a worried glance with his wife.

“Mmhhhmm…an overdraft. That can be arranged. How much money do you need?” asked Mr. Sibuor curiously.

“Twenty million shillings only,” said Kim and hushed to listen to the man’s reaction. He again turned briefly to exchange a worried glance with his wife.

“That’s a bit over the maximum limit of ten million,” said the bank manager reluctantly. “But if you need the money quickly, then you have no choice but to apply for a regular loan.”

“A loan? How long will that take?” Kim asked disappointedly. Wanja exhaled loudly with displeasure and rolled her eyes.

“Forty-eight hours or so,” said the bank manager helpfully. “Come over to my office today and bring with you your land titles, car logbook, and the title of your apartment. We can finalize the paperwork today and you’ll get your money by the close of business tomorrow.”

“Really? You’ll give me the money?” exclaimed Kim in a rising tone of rapture. Upon hearing this, Wanja threw her hands around her husband’s shoulders and listened keenly to the conversation.

“Yes, our bank will loan you the money,” said Mr. Sibuor confidently. “That’s why we are in business – to serve our customer’s financial needs. I’ll see you in an hour or two. Bye-bye.” And he disconnected the line.

“Wanja, my dear, we’re getting the money!” said Kim ecstatically, turning to gaze with wide eyes at his equally ecstatic wife. “You were right when you said my itchy palm is a sign that money is coming. Mbeca nyingi niciroka! We are going to be rich, daughter of Mumbi! Rich beyond our wildest dreams!”

The couple laughed out loud together and hugged and rolled on the bed. “You know what, Wanja?” Kim asked when they stopped laughing and rolling, and he lay on top of her.

“What?” she asked expectantly, her eyes wide and sparkling with delight.

“Remember your wish to travel to South Africa to watch the 2010 World Cup which starts in a couple of week’s time?”

“Yeeeeeees…?” asked Wanja with a rising tone of eagerness.

“I’m taking you to South Africa to watch the World Cup!” Kim announced grandly.

Wanja akeuga mbu! She then wept uncontrollably with joy.

~*~

That day after Kim showered and dressed up in a neat designer business suit, he went to the bank and applied for a loan and was asked to hand over the titles of his land, car and apartment to the bank. This he did, albeit halfheartedly.

A day after applying for the loan, the bank released twenty million shillings to him. Kim soon departed from home and travelled to the regions of Kenya where maize was plenty and low priced. He bought as much dry maize as the money he’d gotten would allow. He then hired a convoy of 22-wheel trailers to transport the numerous bags of maize to his Nairobi warehouse.

That night, when the last of the bags of maize were off-loaded from the trailers and stacked high in the warehouse, a terrible rainstorm hit Nairobi. It rained so hard that the warehouse was flooded to the rafters.

When the rains subsided, something called aflatoxin (a fungal infection) set on the damp maize, effectively ruining the entire stock. Mbembe cikethoka!

Haiya!”

“The maize has to be incinerated. All of it,” a KEBS (Kenya Bureau of Standards) official had declared after inspecting the maize in the warehouse a week later.

On that sad day, Wanja and Kim watched as the damp, reeking bags of maize were loaded into trailers and transported to the Dandora dumpsite where they were dumped and consequently doused with petrol and set on fire. (They’d followed the trailers in their shiny new car.)

Weeping uncontrollably while clinging on to each other, Wanja and Kim watched in horror as the mountain of maize bags worth 20 million shillings burnt to ashes. Mohu!

That afternoon, when the downtrodden couple returned to their Valley Road apartment, they found a group of handymen hired by auctioneers carrying their belongings into a waiting lorry.

“Wait! What the heck do you think you’re doing with our stuff?” an angry Kimonyi had shouted at the handymen.

“The bank you borrowed a loan from has hired our auctioneering firm,” said one of the men, removing a sheath of papers from his coat pocket and outstretching his hand to show Kim and Wanja the official documentation authorizing the seizure of their properties.

Even their new car which they’d just drove to the apartment in was confiscated and driven away by the auctioneers, closely trailed by the large lorry packed with their household belongings. Kinya thafuria magekuwa! (They even carried the cooking pots!)

When the lorry was out of sight, and the downtrodden couple tried to open the front door of the empty apartment, they found it locked. Locked, for crying out loud!

“We have lost everything…riu togweka atia?” Wanja began to weep. “Everything we had, we’ve lost…boo hoo hooo…”

~*~

Wanja and Kim have since moved to Kariobangi, a neighbourhood in Eastlands Nairobi, where they’ve rented a small single room in a humble residential plot. They have to share the sole bathroom and loo with 50 other residents of the plot.

Wanja now runs a small kibanda (wooden stall) where she sells onions, tomatoes, cabbages and sukuma wiki. She now spends most of her time chopping up sukuma for her customers. Her proficiency with the knife has greatly improved.

Kimonyi, oh poor Kimonyi, spends his days pushing a handcart packed with jerricans of water, selling the water to his clients. Business, he was recently heard lamenting, is bad.

Though a far cry from their earlier ostentatious lifestyle, the Kimonyis are gradually adapting to life in Kariobangi. They’re planning to follow the proceedings of the up-coming football World Cup on their newly acquired kameme (very small radio).

Next time your palm gets itchy, bwana, be wise. Don’t tell your wife about it. But if she happens to find out, blithely disregard her advice. It’ll save money…lots of money…

© Denis Kabi, 2010

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