Malindi's Old Market. Fatima, a woman clothed in black, entirely covered except for slits for her eyes ran across the busy street to greet me and pretended that she knew me. It was the start of a swindle. A few days earlier I had met a woman dressed like her. She called her attire “ninja” - I was told that the name came from Ninja soldiers. I enjoyed buying the trinkets she had displayed upon a tarp in the Malindi old market - my favorite place to practice my Swahili. I’m so curious about what goes on in the mind of one who wear the Ninja. This particular woman was 18 and had been wearing it for about a year. I was hoping to cultivate a relationship with her. I wondered what her personality was like, what gives her the most satisfaction in her days, and how she handle her position in society.
When Fatima the swindler hailed me down on the street, I had no face to compare so I asked her if we met at the old market and if she was 18, she said yes…so I thought it was probably her. She asked if I could pay for medicine for her sick baby which she carried in her arms. She had a prescription and I was glad to pay the $7 for medication to treat pneumonia. A few days later she calls crying, saying that her child died. She wanted me to go to the hospital with her; the baby was in the morgue. I knew that Kenya the hospitals release neither patient nor corpse until the bill is paid and the bill builds day by day. I had 1250 shillings ($15) with me, I told her that I probably would not be able to settle her problems with it but I would try to be her advocate and friend. We met in town and took the favored transport, a tuk-tuk (1/2 motorcycle, 1/2 golf cart) to the hospital.
At the morgue two men were sitting outside, she talked to them and understandably she didn’t want to go in. Guess who goes in? Dead bodies, naked, a slit near their groin to drain the fluids and all lined up and laying on the floor. I didn’t see Fatima’s baby but the morgue worker points to a girl of about 4 years old. He says that one is her. These bodies were once alive and were the carriers of the soul. Their minds conversed with God, with people and I think even with their own soul. God had breathed into them the breath of life (Genesis 2:7). Though part of me wondered it it would be sacrilege, I asked if I could take a picture. He said yes, so I did.
Back outside, I said to Fatima and this morgue worker that her child wasn’t in there, only an older child, a girl was in there. The morgue worker actually said that the bodies stretch after death. I laughed at him and said no, the don’t. Fatima said that it wasn’t her baby that died but her older daughter. She and I set down on the curb, I couldn’t blame her for not wanting to go into the morgue. It was horrid. So I take my camera and zoom in on the face alone so she doesn’t have to see child’s body nor the other bodies captured in the shot. She looks at it and with a wail confirms it is her child,
When I was in the morgue, Fatima was given a paper which had the name of the price. They wanted 3000 shillings ($37) which I didn’t have. I wanted a medical report and there was then a long discussion about this. No one could tell me the cause of death. I thought it was very important for Fatima to have the facts even if she wasn’t very interested in them at the moment. Isn’t that what an advocate and friend is supposed to do with a grieving woman? White people are generally charged a higher rate so I let Fatima take my shillings thinking she was going to the accounting office and we would get the records that evening.
The second man told me that she was running toward the gate. “Kimbia?” I say like “really, literally ‘running’”. He tells me how to intercept her. From behind, I come up to her, when she looks at me I see the most interesting look on her unwrapped face. I figure that it was surprise because I caught her when she thought she had gotten away. I walk with her and she talks but now mostly in Swahili. As we come to some benches I have her sit down. She continues to talk and cry, I say calmly – as two women are across from us. “Why won’t you speak English?”. In quiet boldness I reach over and take the purse which she held on her lap. She does not protest and I remove all the money, then give back 100shillings because she had that initially. A minute later I say it is time to go and after walking a bit, when alone I say to her clearly and quietly in English then my best shot in Swahili that I know that the child was not hers. She says that she’ll be back in the evening for the records and she will show me that it is. Of course that did not happen. We get in a tuk-tuk and I let her off in town.
I went directly to my Swahili lesson and my teacher then gives me a lesson on culture. From my first sentence she knew that it was a swindle. “No African woman would ever be allowed out of the house in the days after a child’s death”. Not for any reason. Someone else would take care of the body. A relative would always be there. If not a mother, aunt it would be some other relative. There would always be someone. The two at the morgue probably did work there but doing something would be interfering. We come together, it was our affair so they would feel no responsibility to expose her to me. They did not at all think of themselves as accessories to a crime. The fact that she treated me like a friend and told others that they could speak Swahili to me and I concurred only confirmed to them that they should stay out of it. The first guy felt that he could get a piece of the profit, but was not himself a thief in his own mind, so would not have to worry about any repercussions. The look which I saw on Fatima’s face I now know without a doubt was fear. If I had let other people know what happened they would have stoned her and set her on fire. She was fearful of her life. A simple “thief” or “help” from me was enough to end her life.
Gertrude was very familiar with this, it happened many times in the different areas she lived. Just last year a neighbor of hers was stoned, burned and killed for stealing a chicken. He was just 20 years old, a nice looking man who needed food. that was right there in her Malindi village. The next day I told (in brief) Nixon, the waiter I saw several times a week about the swindle. Then asked him, what do you think would have happened if I let people around us know what was happening? With his face down and in a quiet voice he said, well, they might have burned her or stoned her. Two weeks later I was back at HEART in Nairobi and Jackson the driver came in to work late. He told me that very early that morning he saw some men hiding in his yard. He called the police who arrested them. He said that sometimes police take bribes and let go criminals and so people get angry at this and resort to “mob justice”. His description of this was like Gertrude’s. With one yell people come in great crowds. They are in a frenzy. Somehow they have the things that they need for the execution. It is like they come out of nowhere. Big stones, bricks, a tire, lighting fluid. They go to other peoples homes to take them, if they do not give them, they are marked and it is held against them. Everyone will know and somehow they will pay.
The day after the swindle, I count my money….looks like she gave that morgue guy a couple hundred shillings for entering into her scheme and playing a part.