When Kinuthia’s father sold the family cow and deserted them to look for a job in the city Kinuthia thought that all his hopes for an education and a bright future had come crashing down. That is because the cow had been the family’s sole income earner. Now he was stuck with only his ageing grandmother for a relative. The only option left was to drop out of school and join the work-gangs in search of a job at the flower farm that had recently opened in the village.
But then Kinuthia’s grandmother had other plans for her only grandson. Grandmother’s Winning Smile is the story of this brave old woman who, though penniless, was gifted with amazing cunning and wit, and whose stubborn pride wouldn’t allow her to let Kinuthia join the work-gangs.
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Kinuthia stood outside his house and looked at the dusty path leading to the market. He was still hopeful that his father would appear leading their black milking cow with its brown-and-white spotted calf following behind. He was hoping that somehow his father had found the cattle market closed and that he hadn’t managed to sell the cow. That is because that cow had meant everything to him.
Now they would have no more milk to sell. Without the money there was no way he was going to complete his primary school education. By selling the cow his father had brought all his hopes for the bright future that education would bring crashing down.
“Oh, so you are still dreaming that he will come back, are you?” his grandmother’s cheerful voice startled him. “Eh? Is that what you are thinking about? Well, you had better forget it, Kinuthia. Your father is not coming back. I know Njoroge very well. I can bet my new lesso on it that this very minute we are talking he is on the bus headed for Nairobi. The man is gone.”
“But why, cűcű, why did he have to do it?” asked Kinuthia, his voice thick with emotion, tears welling in his eyes. “Doesn’t he know that we depended on that cow for all our needs?”
“That he knew very well,” said the little woman, wrapping her threadbare old cardigan about her bony shoulders.
“And he knows too that mother is dead and that now I have no one left to depend on.” The tears welled thick in Kinuthia’s eyes as he looked towards his mother’s fresh grave across the compound. Lush green grass was already encroaching on the little red mound of earth following the recent rains, the little wooden cross planted on it beginning to rot. “He knows well that I have no one left to depend on. Just why did he do it, cűcű?” Kinuthia’s voice was trembling with anger, his eyes bloodshot with the huge sense of desperation he felt. He couldn’t believe that his father could have betrayed him so.
Kinuthia’s grandmother stood by, her hands linked behind her back, watching the grieving boy in silence.
“Have you finished crying now, big boy?” she asked at length.
Kinuthia looked at her, not sure if she was making fun out of it all. But then she stared calmly back at him, and it was difficult to tell what was on her mind. Certain that she was about to say something ridiculous he walked up to the rusty wire fence and stood with his hands on the sagging wire, looking towards the new flower farm that had been opened across the valley to produce cut flowers for export. Young men and women from the neighbourhood who had dropped out of school were already trooping there in droves in search of casual jobs. It was said the management of the farm were even taking on youngsters who were yet to secure a national identity card because they urgently needed workers to plant, weed and spray the long lines of roses and carnations inside the huge greenhouses.
Maybe he would be joining them soon, Kinuthia said to himself. Yes, he might just as well forget everything and start fending for himself, now that he was left with only this stubborn old grandmother for a relative. He might just as well say goodbye to school and his dream engineering job and join the work gangs early the following morning in search of a job at the flower farm...
“Ehe? Have you stopped grieving now?” said his grandmother, walking up to where he was. “Come. Let’s go back inside,” she said, leading him gently but firmly by the elbow.
Kinuthia tore his eyes away from the flower farm and looked down at her. She was a small woman who came up to his chest. Her short grey hair was tightly bound in a faded nylon scarf, her bony shoulders jutting through her thread-bare cardigan that hang loosely about her. She compensated for her diminutive size with surprising strength. At her age she could still till the land, carry a jerrican of water or a bundle of firewood on her back from the valley, and walk surprisingly long distances without complaining of weariness. She would come back from attending the funeral of a relation who lived a day’s walk away on foot and go straight to tending to her goat, hardly pausing for a rest! And rarely did she fall ill, for she knew all the herbs in the world and what ailment they treated in the body.
“Shall we go back inside, my big man?” she repeated, staring calmly up at him, her hold firm on his elbow.
“Yes, cűcű,” said Kinuthia softly, stepping away from the fence and following her back inside the little two-roomed mabati shack they called home.
As she busied herself making a fire to warm the food Kinuthia sat on a low stool by the door and looked outside, wanting to be alone with his thoughts. She climbed up a stool to reach the rack above the fireplace where she stored her wood and brought down a bundle of dried maize stalks. She broke the stalks into little pieces and fed them into the fire, blowing in until smoke billowed out. The smoke stung Kinuthia’s eyes and he moved his seat outside.
The sun was starting to drop in the hills to the west when the meal was ready and she called him in to eat. Far across the valley the shrill whistle at the flower farm blew and the workers started spilling out of the gates. He could see them clearly through the tall eucalyptus and cypress trees fringing their piece of land. Most of the boys and girls in the gang were talking animatedly as they made plans for the money they had earned for the day. Some of them headed up the murram road towards the market, while the rest came towards the village to keep their money.
Further up the road the bell of the school where Kinuthia had gone before the headmaster had asked him to stop coming rang. He hastily tore his eyes away, not sure he wanted to see some of his schoolmates running down the road towards the village. As Kinuthia carried his stool inside to eat, he was certain that before the week was out he would have joined the gang of workers at the flower farm.
The smoke had lessened in the house now that the cooking was over.
“Here, this should fill you up,” said grandmother, handing him a chipped enamel bowl full of sweet potatoes, green bananas and peas, all boiled in the sooty pot until they were mushy soft. “Come on, eat it,” she encouraged, passing him an equally chipped mug of cool water from the pot in the corner. “The vitamins in the food are very good; especially for growing bones like yours. The food will make you strong as an ox. Go on, eat!”
There was an amusing cheeriness in her voice, and in the glow of the fire her stained teeth glowed- at least what was left of them did. Kinuthia looked at her shiny face and felt like laughing, despite the thoughts hanging over his head. From the way she talked one would assume she had once sat in a Home Science class learning about vitamins and food nutrition. And yet the truth was that all her worldly knowledge had largely come from observation and hearsay; for grandmother had never attended any school!
He took the huge bowl and placed it on the floor between his feet. He took one of the bananas that had been boiled in its skin and peeled it, blowing on it before taking a bite.
“See? It is very delicious,” grandmother, who had been watching him, said encouragingly. “It is not like that fried food that you young people like to eat these days. You dip everything in oil until it glitters and you call that food? Ha! Even your cassava and ngwaći has to be dipped in oil- is it any wonder that you are always going to see the doctor with a new illness every other day?”
“Cűcű, I think you should let me eat first, and then I will make my own comment. You cannot praise your own cooking,” said Kinuthia with a laugh. “In any case, I haven’t even started, and yet I can tell that the food is too salty!”
“Ho! Ati the food is too salty,” she mimicked. “Don’t you know that my cooking is what made your grandfather, Kinuthia, who you are named after, to live all those years?”
“Is it?” said Kinuthia between mouthfuls. “If that is the case, then how come you outlived him? It might just have been the salt that sent him to the grave earlier!”
Kinuthia became less thoughtful as he shared a laugh with his grandmother.
“And maybe you should start getting used to my food too, now that your parents are all gone,” said grandmother after the laughter had died down.
“Why is that, cűcű?,” asked Kinuthia suspiciously.
“Why?” there was a look of surprise on the old woman’s face. “Because it is I who is going to be cooking for you from now on, that’s why. That is, unless you are planning to take a wife soon.”
“And what should I need a wife for, cűcű?”
“I don’t know,” said the old woman with a shrug. “You people marry earlier and earlier these days. You are ever in a hurry!”
“Well, not me,” said Kinuthia, picking a piece of sweet potato. “I need to find a way to support myself before I can even think of marrying.”
“Good. I was watching you just now and thinking you were planning to seek a job at the flower farm and settle down with a gaćungwa from the village like your peers are doing and start getting old.”
It was difficult to keep from laughing when talking to grandmother.
“And so I suppose that confirms that I will cook your meals from today on. Trust me, you will need me.”
“I don’t understand. Why are you so sure I can’t get by on my own?” said Kinuthia, looking up from his food.
“What I mean is you will need all the time you can to read your books.”
“Just what are you thinking, grandmother?” said Kinuthia, a puzzled frown on his face. “Don’t tell me next that you are planning to send me back to school- I mean, there’s just no way you can raise the money for school fees.”
His grandmother stared silently at him for a while. “You people think that I am a useless old woman who can’t do anything, don’t you?” she said at length, her eyes squinted. “You think that your old cűcű doesn’t know anything, is it?”
“And what is it that you know, cűcű?” Kinuthia was getting rather impatient with the old woman’s manner of beating about the bush.
“What do I know? Well, for one, I know just why your father ran away,” said grandmother, staring fixedly into the fire.
“Do you?” Kinuthia was clearly surprised.
“Yes, I think I do.”
“Why did he run away?”
Grandmother was silent for a long while, poking into the dying fire with a long stick that caused ashes to fly out and settle around her knobbed toes. “I am not sure you want to hear this, Kinuthia.”
“Come on, cűcű, can’t you just say what you have to say all at once? Why all this mystery?”
“I said just now that you are impatient with life; and I was right. Anyway, I don't blame you. You are young and the blood is hot in your veins.”
“Come on, cűcű, why did Father run away?” said Kinuthia, the meal forgotten.
She took a long swallow of water before lifting her eyes from the fire. “Did you know that your mother died of mukingo?”
“Cűcű, are you saying that my mother had AIDS?” Kinuthia was sitting on the edge of his seat, caught completely by surprise at the old woman's revelation. “You must be out of your mind.”
“I must be out of my mind indeed,” she said, staring calmly at him. “You think all that your old cűcű does is sit around waiting for evening to come so that she can milk her goat, isn't that? Well, you are wrong, Kinuthia. Your cűcű knows nearly everything there is to know about this home.”
“But how did you know, cűcű?” Kinuthia's lips had gone dry with surprise.
“After your mother died I went to the doctor who was attending to her during her long stay in hospital and I demanded to know what killed her. Initially he wouldn't reveal. But then I insisted, saying I was her mother-in-law, and needed to be told. And so he told me.”
“You are sure he said it was AIDS?”
“I am telling you it was.”
“And you've known it all this time?” asked Kinuthia, shaking his head slowly in disbelief.
“Not just me. Your father knew it too.”
“So, why didn't you tell everyone else?”
“And what would I have gained by doing that? You think it would have added a plate of ugali on anyone's table? No, it would only have created more problems, judging from the look on your face right now. I am right, aren’t I?” she paused, holding Kinuthia’s eye. But then Kinuthia’s words had dried on his lips. “You people are so afraid of the disease you cannot live with the fact that it is a disease just like any other. That is why when people die of mukingo people say it is just an ‘illness’; and they refuse to mention the name. You are all scared of the truth. At least your father was.”
“Father too had AIDS; is that what you are saying, cűcű?” Kinuthia’s eyes had gone wide in disbelief.
“Your father refused to be tested. I think he knew that he had it, and that he was headed the same way your mother had gone. He was a coward.”
“Ngai! I didn’t know this,” said Kinuthia in a whisper. “I don’t believe it at all. You mean both my parents had AIDS?”
“Mukingo is not a monster, Kinuthia,” said the old woman softly. There was a sad look in the depths of her eyes, but she was doing her best to cloud it over with her usual cheer.
In the ensuing silence the dying flames crept up a dry maize-stalk and smoldered for a while, briefly illuminating their faces a harsh red, before dying out and engulfing the hut in darkness again. Kinuthia coughed and shifted uncomfortably on his chair. He wanted to get up and leave the hut, and yet his feet were too leaden to move. Grandmother rose and reached for the oil lamp hanging on its hook on the wall. She shook it a little to ascertain there was kerosene in the tank before lighting it.
“Now that you know how your mother died, can we then get on to other business, Kinuthia?” she said, returning to her seat by the fireplace.
“What other business do you mean, cűcű?” Kinuthia was still consumed by the news hew had learnt.
“I mean about your schooling,” said grandmother softly, gazing calmly into Kinuthia’s eyes.
“And what is it about my schooling?” Kinuthia’s words grated with irritation at the back of his throat. “Please don’t make a joke of this, cűcű. You know as well as I do that the question of school for me is now out. In any case it doesn’t help much when you insist on rubbing salt into the raw wound like you are doing!” thick salty tears were welling in Kinuthia’s eyes and he turned his face away in embarrassment.
With a sigh grandmother drew her chair up in front of her crying grandson. “Look at me, Kinuthia, and listen very carefully,” she said with a firmness that Kinuthia had rarely heard in her voice. “Tell me; didn’t God give you a head with a brain inside?”
“Yes, He did.”
“And do you think that He intended for you to use your head to think; or to nod along all your life like Jagari, the lizard, doing nothing with it?”
“He intended for me to use it to think, cűcű.”
“Good. And in addition He gave you hands and feet, didn’t He?”
“Yes, He did.”
“You are not disabled in any way, are you?”
Kinuthia looked about him in embarrassment, at a loss for what to say.
“Tell me, are you disabled in any way, Kinuthia? I don’t think so. Why- even the disabled do not just sit there begging; but do something for themselves! Isn’t it so, Kinuthia? Doesn’t Muthiora, the cobbler, wake up early every morning and drive himself in his wheelchair to the market to work?”
“Have you ever seen him begging from anyone because of his disability? Doesn’t he rely on the skill of his hands to feed his family?”
“If that is the case, then this is what we are going to do: You are going back to school; and I will ensure you complete and pass your exams and go on to become a great man. You are not going to become a labourer on anyone’s farm earning peanuts for a wage; at least not while I live. You are going to become a respectable man with a good job. I know you will because God is fully on our side. Now, stop this self-pitying and dry your eyes. You are not a girl, are you? Weren’t you named after my brave husband, Kinuthia? Eh? Wasn’t it Kinuthia who took you to the river to be circumcised so that you may become a man? I say, make your grandfather proud wherever he is. Stop that crying now!” she snapped, startling Kinuthia into paying attention. “Good. Now finish up your meal and go to bed. You must retire early and sleep with one eye; because tomorrow I will wake you with the first cock-crow. We are going to see your headmaster first thing in the morning.”
And with that cűcű rose and started gathering the dishes for washing, making ready to blow out the lamp to save on kerosene.
Startled out of his grief by his grandmother’s firm reprimand Kinuthia hurriedly finished his meal and rose. He didn’t say a word to his grandmother as he left for the adjoining room where he had lived with his parents. Outside the darkness had thickened, a swarm of fireflies buzzing round and round above the spot at the end of the field where his mother was buried. Far across the valley the bright security lights at the flower farm had been turned on to illuminate the rows for the young men and women who had just signed in for the long nightshift.