My job as a correspondent in Africa required me to observe people, how they lived, dressed, carried themselves and thought. Murugi, Baby Pauly’s ayah and the custodian of his diapers, puzzled me. I sometimes wondered: Who is Murugi?
I understood that most expatriates shared their lives with people they did not know. Not knowing the servants was not necessarily a bad thing. The matter of privacy between servants and their employers required delicate handling.
In terms of our own privacy Donanne and I hoped that Laban and Murugi did not spend much time thnnking about us. About our being different, white. Being rich – because we were not rich – although in the servants’ eyes we might appear to have everything.
As for ourselves we felt that we should be interested – within bounds – in Laban and Murugi because, surely, indifference to servants – treating them like objects – was unpardonable. Still, they, too, deserved their privacy.
When Laban became involved with Mary, a young ayah who lived in the neighborhood and she began to spend the night in his quarters, we did not inquire of him about the relationship. We respected his privacy even though we were glad he had a woman to sleep with. And we could not say, “Hey, Murugi, come sit down and tell us about yourself.” That was not proper, nor even feasible. Murugi did not speak English.
“Do you think Murugi’s married?” I occasionally asked Donanne. She was certainly attractive in a modest way: tall, trim, self-possessed and dignified with a smile that lit up her face. We might be sitting under the backyard pepper tree, having late afternoon tea.
“I don’t know,” Donanne would say. “But I think she has three children.”
“Is she a widow?”
“Could be. Maybe she was the second or third wife of a man much older. Something her father arranged. Maybe her husband’s dead now and she has to earn money to take care of herself.”
Or we would be in bed awaiting sleep and I might inquire, “You think Murugi’s headcloth is mysterious?”
“Well, I’m not going to ask how she ties it,” Donanne would answer. In traditional Kikuyu society widows shaved their heads. Neither Donanne nor I had ever seen Murugi without her headcloth. “I think maybe she left her husband.”
On the nights when Murugi babysat Pauly, I would drive her the length of Riverside Drive, which was largely, though not exclusively a European residential area, cross Uhuru Highway to Parklands, which was largely, though not exclusively an Asian quarter. I would turn into the unpaved alley/driveway beside what Murugi called the “petroli,” the gas station. I would stop at the usual place where the alley tapered into a footpath too narrow for a car.
Murugi would open the car door and say softly, “Kwaheri, Bwana,” which meant, “Goodbye, sir,” and I would say, “Asanta sana, Murugi,” which meant “Thank you very much,” and watch her start down the footpath in the light of the car’s high beams.
She would move quickly, as always, minding her own business if other Africans were about. That hurry always made me wonder if Murugi were anxious about her personal security or about the safety of the money I had given her. As her figure grew smaller, obscured by shadows and vegetation and 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, about where she lived and who her neighbors were. And I asked myself again, “Who is Murugi?”
We knew practically nothing about her. She was perhaps forty, maybe a bit younger, not an age when life begins for a woman in Africa. Her children were grown. Although she did not speak English, she understood a great deal of it, more than we knew of Swahili or Kikuyu. She had not learned to read. So far as I could tell, she was able to write only her name. This she did every time she was paid, a task involving effort and concentration.
I knew only that about her. But I admired her very much. I was fascinated by the way the new Africa was engrafting itself upon her.
No, I thought, as I watched her disappear. I knew more than that about her. I knew that she was honest and a willing and careful worker. The mending had never been done with such precision. (In fact, it had hardly been done at all.) Small changes – such as the manner in folding Bwana’s socks – needed only to be mentioned once. Pauly was tended with affection and diligence and his diapers came to him ironed. Even Bwana got undershorts ironed; such things can spoil a man.
What fascinated me about Murugi was her chic. She had a quiet, understated sense of style. It was not obtrusive; one hardly noticed it at first. It delighted me to discover that our ayah/washerwoman had clothes sense. I was always a little surprised to find it, not in jet-set Africans for whom it was an important preoccupation, but in ordinary people like Murugi, people who had grown up as land-tending peasants, who earned so little and seemed to have such infrequent contact with fashionable worlds.
One evening as she left the car, I happened to glance at her wrist. On it she wore a small woman’s watch with 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.
I thought about unexpected chic as I sat in the car. Murugi moved into the beam of the headlamps, her clean, well-pressed white dress brightly reflecting the light. I watched her lavender headcloth and her lavender sweater and lavender tennis shoes enter the darkness. And as I backed the car down the alley, past the massive, sawn tree stump, I asked myself again, “Who is Murugi?”
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