(In loving memory of Joyce Sitati. Woman with dreams of big things. Even in your absence, the spirit of big things stays with us.)
My phone rings at 3.47pm on a hot Saturday afternoon in October 2014. I am busy, trying to study for a CAT I am not even aware I want to do it, because I am struggling to fight an acquaintance that is proving difficult to me. On the second ring, he looks at me with angry eyes, and I pull the phone from my desk.
I wonder for a moment, because this one never calls. She texts. Once in a month. Calls me baby girl, like the good old times when we spent nights on her sitting room floor, laughing at the boys who wanted us. Shying away from the heights of our dreams. Ramming through the wardrobe, looking for clothes that would not attract men’s eyes the next day.
Sometimes, during those cold nights, we wondered how young we were, in a crowd that was way older than us, but suffocating all our means to survive.
Other times, we laughed at my willingness to sleep on the couch, even when the bed had more than enough space to fit the two of us. She could not comprehend why I would subject myself to so much torture, and my answer was always, ‘Eh, what if our bodies touch? Wacha tu nilale kwa kiti.”
But that was back in 2013, right before I went back to school and left her all alone and cold, and sad, and heartbroken. Before she gave up all her dreams.
I pick the call.
“Babygiiiiiiiiirl!” She shrieks in her usual voice, albeit toned with a little bit of uncertainty on the edges. Like she was not sure I was still her baby girl anymore. Like she was still holding onto a name she was not sure I still liked. Like she was using the name to cushion me from an impending tornado.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
She breathes heavily, like a deep sigh, and I move farther away from the room, because I suddenly need more air.
“Baby girl, wacha tu ntakuambia baadaye. Kuna mtu ananiita.”
I think about her, for a minute, and what she may want to tell me. I guess it is heavy, and she thinks it will be heavier for me, so she would rather stay silent. But then again, I know it is never the right thing to let her suffer alone.
“Ebu tell me now. Joyce amefanya nini?”
“She just died.”
Silence. Deep breaths. Sighs. Silence. Footsteps on her end. Raindrops on my end.
I do not have much I remember from my 2013, apart from the fact that I got a job, save for the dramas here and there, built beautiful friendships, and someone’s son saying to me, ‘out of sight out of mind’, because I refused to send him a picture of me.
However, I remember Joyce. Joyce Sitati. I remember Joyce, the silent one. Joyce, the knowledgeable one. Joyce, the one who offered wise counsel whenever a conflict arose between team members at work.
I remember Joyce, mostly because I sat next to her whenever we went to the field in search of data. I remember her hands always crossed on her chest. Her hair always neatly braided. And the few times she let out a loud laugh, it was hearty, and genuine, and super loud; like her soul was finally finding a way into her mouth, and draping the world in its spirit.
I remember my pink water bottle falling into pieces on the floor of the vehicle one morning, spilling the strawberry juice. I remember her hands picking up one of the smallest pieces from the floor and saying, “Keep this. It will not take much of your space, but it will forever remind you of something that happened in 2013. It may not be much, but who does not want to be reminded of their once beautiful bottle?”
I remember all the near-accidents and incidents that happened in the field, and Joyce’s voice saying, “These are small things. They are meant to happen, so they prepare you for the big things.”
Like the one time a woman from one of the villages claimed I was her long-lost daughter, and refused to let me go, until my team leader promised he would take me back. The woman who did not stop calling the office asking for me, her long lost daughter. I hope she found peace. And calm. And a way to live without her daughter.
Or the other time a dog scratched my leg, then the scratch turned into a wound, and I couldn’t walk for the next few days.
But most importantly, I remember Joyce for her passion about life, and the belief in a brilliant future ahead of her. And everyone around her. I remember her calmness on the weekends we camped at her house. I remember her voice above everyone else’s.
There were a lot of things that were wrong about my then workplace, but it was Joyce who made it bearable for most of us, especially the women. She was our voice when they forbade us to wear trousers, or short skirts, or anything that the bosses felt was inappropriate. She was our voice whenever we were overworked, her mantra always being, “If we die here, we will be replaced almost immediately. It is our families who will suffer.”
I only let Ajilit hang up on me after I know how Joyce died.
Severe chest pains. Sudden difficulty in breathing. Rushed to hospital. Made to sit in the waiting lounge for close to two hours. Wimping in pain throughout. Struggling to breathe. Other patients on the waiting lounge calling on nurses. Nurses pretending not to see, or hear.
She died on that hard bench, in the arms of her husband, her two months old baby in her husband’s arms too.
Today I let the memories of Joyce overwhelm me. I feel it as a new becoming, now that the anger and bitterness at the doctors has slowly faded away with the years. In her own words ‘these are small things. They are meant to happen, so that they prepare you for the big things.”
Today, I sit in silence for the baby she left behind. Growing up without a mother, a biological one. Dealing with the truth whenever it will dawn on her. Cruising through life, maybe into adulthood, reading or hearing about her mother, and living with the reality that she will never experience all that, first hand.
Today, I celebrate Joyce, and the phenomenal woman she was, and the dots of truth about big things she stained my soul with.
Rest well Joyce. Rest well.