The water in the green kettle is almost coming to a boil. All other sounds are getting drowned in the humming and whining of the kettle. It rises to a crescendo, and then the red light goes off with a click. I pick out my favourite mug—the biggest one of them all. After throwing in a teabag, I add two spoonfuls of sugar. Stir. I sweeten it further with another quarter. One scoop is never enough, right? What follows is a generous amount of lukewarm milk, till the level is halfway. Lastly, a top up with the hot water. Bringing the mixture to a stir fills the air with an intense scent that only tea processed in Kericho can give.
The first sip causes a little scalding along my throat, as steam forms a coat on my glasses. For a minute, I close my eyes and think of what life would be like without tea to jumpstart the day. Tea is God’s morning gift. And all other umpteen times during the day that I make myself a cuppa. (A cup of tea also has a cool name to go by. It is hot and cool. No?) Is your Kalenjin boss having a bad Monday morning? A hot cup will do the trick. (ukimpa tea ata tea; okay, I will stop.)
A song by Nina Simone is playing in the background. Her voice escapes the audio system and bores its way to the soul. A quirky and soothing voice. One that you can always identify whenever and wherever it plays.
“Dragonfly out in the sun, you know what I mean, don’t you know
Butterflies all having fun, you know what I mean
Sleep in peace when day is done, that’s what I mean
And this old world is a new world
And a bold world
It is 1967. And Nina Simone is feeling good. She is a black American woman braving racism and discrimination on all fronts wherever she tries to exhibit her piano skills. A woman who’s gone as far as changing her name from Eunice Kathleen Waymon, to stay incognito from a family who froths a little at the expressive nature of her music.
“What kind of image does this bring to our family? Is it even legal to sing such songs? Can’t she just continue playing the piano in church? Black tea will never mix with milk, get it from me.” they say.
Empty talks and hateful muffles do not deter her. She already spoke to a bar owner in the block to let her play her music in his cradle. And now she can’t go back and tell him she was just kidding. I mean, how will the bar owner even look at her? Plus, what is she going to do with the fifty flyers she already ordered? Turning back at this point is an impossibility. So, she plunges on with making whoever listens to comprehend her emotions and process her pain. To feel them. To identify with parts of her wounded and rejected soul. And throw in a little empathy. She needs none of it though. Her voice oozes buoyancy and confidence.
I see her in the tavern, holding the mic so close to her mouth you would think she wants to give it a passionate kiss. There’s something about how Nina stops to take her breaths before she jumps onto the next line, eyes closed. She sings with her belly and not her throat. In between the silence, you can almost hear her think about two failed marriages, the domestic violence, regrets, self-disgust, betrayal and oppressive systems.
A slightly drunk man raises his rum-filled glass and shouts,” Ameeeen, sister!” He is vehemently tapping his left foot under the wooden table.
He turns towards the avowed streetwalker seated right next to him and says, “That sister spitting. Hic!… I tell you, show me an oppressed people and I will show you seeds of liberation…Hic!.. systems are supposed to protect their own. “
She grimaces, faces away from the man and pouts her tongue because his breath is revolting. He shrugs since Nina makes him feel as free as a feather in the wind and no streetwalker can take that away from him.
“It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life for me yeah
And I’m feeling good…”
Dear Nina Simone, it is almost half a decade later. Your music offers solace and a sense of acceptance in a society that still battles with discrimination every which way. ‘Strange fruit’ makes us so emotional. We ‘don’t smoke in bed’ as you instructed. And ‘Here comes the sun’ keeps us going even when we have ‘trouble in mind.’ When the idea of prince charming begins to seem farfetched, we play ‘Marriage is for Old folks’ on repeat.
The world hasn’t changed much, you see. Our hearts still cry out to rulers who don’t realize all people demand is equality. Not vengeance. Yet. Voices are more authentic when anonymous. They follow in your footsteps by changing their names on social media. They also mute family and friends of family on Whatsapp.
“But don’t you know no one alive can always be an angel
When things go wrong, I feel real bad
I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh, Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood. “
May liberation June with you before July.
(PC; Barutti Photography.)