In our house in Kisumu, a corner of the back verandah’s ceiling is black. This is the jiko lighting corner. There’s a drum of charcoal at that corner, just in case you need to be reminded that the jiko is lit here. Where are your matches? Where are the pieces of paper — discarded receipts, cardboard, and, only in an emergency, old newspaper — for stuffing inside? Do you have enough charcoal?
In our house in Kisumu, a corner of the back verandah’s ceiling is black. The soot mark is round and grows blacker with each year. The charcoal drum is grey, the water tank is blue, and the tree outside the verandah produces yellow fruit. Nobody eats this fruit, but I wonder how it tastes, whether it’s sour-sweet like lemon-ginger-honey drunk for a sore throat, or harsh like the soot that gets into your eyes when you’re lighting the jiko.
In our house in Kisumu, a corner of the back verandah’s ceiling is black. The soot mark is round and grows blacker with each year. Will it grow and grow, until the entire ceiling is black? Sometimes I wonder. The rest of the ceiling is landlord-cream, but yellowing more each year. Other things that can go black: a heart after a lifetime of sorrow; the night sky, every time it rains and the power goes out; white clothes. Remember to remove the clothes. Wet clothes hung on the lines in the verandah will smell of smoke. White clothes left outside while lighting the jiko will turn black from the soot.
But for now, forget the soot. Think, instead, of coming home from school in July. You’re reading Harry Potter and pretending your owl is coming any time now and then you’re watching cartoons at four, then it’s five and you’re off and you’re barefoot and you’re playing football with Steve and Jack and Papa and Jes and Tiende Bam. You play till six-thirty and your feet get brown brown brown and your soles are cracked cracked cracked and then it’s almost dark and you have to go back home to continue waiting for your Hogwarts letter
— and then coming back home and today is your day to light the jiko, and taking the jiko to the corner and having matches and paper and charcoal, and lighting and blowing, and then the jiko’s lit, and and your hands are black like henna and your hair is smelling of smoke and there’s soot in your eyes and carbon monoxide in your lungs and, an hour later, the warm fuzzy feeling of eating chicken together, all nine of you laughing and twinkling and sharing your lives.