In Africa a first-born adds two new members to a family. Meet Murugi who often took care of baby Pauly.
When I first wrote about Murugi, she came to our house in Nairobi three mornings a week to wash our clothes and the diapers of little, four-month-old Pauly. She also served as our ayah, our baby-sitter, and as I drafted my essay, she was in the house tending the baby while Donanne was at her Swahili lesson.
I wrote about her because the previous Saturday evening when I took her home from babysitting, I asked myself a question. I turned into the unpaved alley beside the petroli, the gasoline station, and stopped at the place where it tapered into a footpath too narrow for a car.
Murugi opened the door and softly said, “Kwaheri, Bwana.” I said, “Asanta sana, Murugi,” and watched her start down the footpath in the light of the car’s high beams.
She always moved quickly, minding her own business if other Africans were about. That made me wonder if she were anxious about the safety of the money I had just given her. As her figure grew smaller, obscured by shadows and by the downward slope of the path, she raised her arms for balance. I wondered how steep the path was, how rocky or covered with vines, and I wondered what kind of house she lived in and who her neighbors were. As I backed the car down the alley, past the massive, sawn tree stump, I asked myself: “Who is Murugi?”
We knew practically nothing about her. She was Kikuyu, a bit less than forty years of age. Her children – three, we thought – were grown. She was trim and tallish, dignified in a modest way and she came to our house each week. Without knowing more than this, I admired her. I was fascinated by the way the new Africa was grafting itself upon her.
Forty is not an age when life begins for a woman in Africa. In a society where polygamy was still widely practiced, it was possible that her husband had taken a younger wife and moved away. Or that she herself was a second, third, or fourth wife in a marriage arranged between her husband and her father and was now a widow.
Traditionally at widowhood, Kikuyu women shaved their heads. Murugi always wore a headcloth. I wondered, of course, but I did not ask. Nothing was said of a husband. But what would be? Murugi spoke little English. Still, she had described her house down the hill to Donanne as “kidogo sana,” “very small,” and she had some sort of “shamba” or farm plot, outside Nairobi. Murugi did not read. So far as I could tell, she wrote only her name, a task involving effort and concentration.
More important to us, as I had written, was that she was honest and a willing and careful worker. The mending had never been done with such exactness. Small changes – such as the manner of folding Bwana’s socks – needed only to be mentioned. Paulie was tended with affection and confidence and he got his diapers ironed. His dad’s undershorts were ironed, too. Such things spoil men.
Murugi’s smiles to Paulie and “Memsah’b” were eloquently bestowed. With me she was always impassive – except in the early mornings. Then she laughed at the unconscious clown, sleepy-eyed in bathrobe and slippers, putting out the laundry and diaper pail and unable to remember the proper sequence of “Jambo-habari-mzuri,” which meant, “Hello, how are you, I’m fine.”
That Saturday evening as I watched her head down the path, the thing that astonished me was her chic, her sense of style. How delightful to discover our Kikuyu ayah-washerwoman had clothes sense. Murugi’s style was quiet, understated, unobtrusive; one did not notice it at first. Now and then, however, a detail caught one’s eye.
That Saturday I happened to glance at her wrist. On it she wore a small woman’s wristwatch; under it lay a leopard-skin band, perhaps an inch wide, simulating the wrist-watch fashions lately in vogue. It was a small symbol of the emerging Africa buckled to Murugi’s wrist.
Murugi moved in the beam of the headlamps, her clean, well-pressed white dress brightly reflecting the light. I thought about her sense of style. Her lavender headcloth and lavender sweater and lavender tennis shoes entered the darkness. I asked myself: “Who is Murugi? Who gave her fashion tips? Where did she get her style?”
I would never know. Murugi came to our house each week. We shared our son and our lives with her. We trusted, but hardly knew each other, and we accepted that things would probably remain that way.
Next post: Our Nairobi life after Pauly’s birth.
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