So I just turned 24. Woo bloody hoo. Birthdays are an odd occasion. They are a reason to celebrate for most but for me they are a reminder that I have gained yet another year without buying myself a smashing pair of Manolo Blahnik strappy sandals. It’s another year without a Mercedes AMG GT. It’s another year without a holiday in St. Tropez. It’s another year closer to the grave. Aside from the fact that it’s one of the few reasons Baba and Mama Pedestrian can give cash handouts without the accompaniment of a lecture on how to better handle money, birthdays suck.
I’m not trying to be morbid. I already am. My 24th birthday started like any ordinary June day in Nairobi. The sky was overcast in clouds as grey as bleached soot. A thin mist hang in the air, delicately kissing my skin with the subtlety of a gunshot. The chill was crisp with the promise of even more chill. It was really really cold. Winter is coming, or at least passing by on its way to Winterfell.
I usually take two matatus to work. The first one from home to Kawangware then a connecting one to the office park. That morning all matatus decided to follow that inexplicable routine of traffic jams and grid locks that accompanies even the slightest hint of rain. Traffic officers in high visibility jackets littered the roads, directing the intersected mob of hooting vehicles into routes they weren’t planning on going on the first place. The matatus took U-turns, hurriedly escaping the notice of the cops who hadn’t gotten their tithes yet.
The matatu I was in appeared to be of the tax evasion camp, taking a detour so far out of the normal route, the driver may as well have decided to take us on a safari. I could already hear the steward, “And here you shall see the cheaper flats that you should’ve moved into in the first place. And to your right is the collection of kiosks that are more stocked than the ones at your place. But to your far right you shall see the middle class slum that made you decide not to move here after all…”
We drove through a road that wasn’t supposed to be a road. Pot holes as cavernous as the mouth of an anaconda about to swallow a capybara pockmarked the road like acne on a teenager’s face. We eventually arrived near the bus stop where I board buses to work. Already running monumentally late, I had to begrudgingly forego the last seat in an already filled bus so as to withdraw cash from m-pesa. A 700 bob withdrawal is one that should be easy, straight forward, and simple. Even Michael Jackson sang so. ABC, right? But no. The agent lied that she had the seven hundred but what she had was a whole 1000 bob note which she had to go break. At 8 in the morning. In Kawangware. I was kept waiting in the dreary cold for the hapless girl to run around asking one of the most hated question in retail Nairobi, “Ukona hii change?”[i]
After fifteen minutes of zigging and zagging across shops like a Scooby Doo villain on the run, she finally got the money. I got my funds and headed to work. Well, I say work but really it was to sit in traffic next to a woman who was wheezing and huffing and puffing like she had a boulder in her chest. When she coughed, I begged her to open the window but she wouldn’t. She was more afraid of exacerbating her sniffles than she was of potentially starting a consumption epidemic. Hell, with the noises coming out of her mouth it could have been the Spanish flu or a virulent strain of asthma designed to attack Nairobians seated in matatus that have sick people who don’t appreciate ventilation. Eventually she agreed to open it as hers was the only one that could. Her pleas to swap seats with someone who wouldn’t mind being partially wet fell on deaf ears. Maybe if she hadn’t tried to wipe us out people would have been more receptive. I alighted soon after and reported to my desk.
Staring at my laptop I had to wonder, what makes birthdays so special? I didn’t feel any different. I’m still broke. I’m still tired. I’m still a jaded millennial. Only I’m a year older. Meaning, my bones creak when I bend. I make an “Ah” noise when I sit. I live to spend time in front of the telly with a hot cup of tea or with a novel and a glass of wine.
Why did I used to live for my birthdays when I was younger? As a newly 24 year old woman, all I had to look forward to was drinks with Mr. Pedestrian then a repeat of my pedestrian life cycle the following day. So basically it was like a weekend after a payday. But I wasn’t paying for the drinks this time. There are adults who enjoy their birthdays. Others like Baba Pedestrian were introduced to the concept when they had demanding little girls who asked for cake when they were a year older, half an inch taller and half an inch wider. Mama Pedestrian forgets her own birthday. So why do they form any relevance to me? I began to think about my childhood birthdays. From the first one that had a party. My 8th birthday.
I was in class 3, in a school in Kahawa West. Baba Pedestrian had delightfully (I hope) bought me a one kg vanilla cake from Kusters Bakery that used to be in Westlands. I remember carrying it to school as gingerly as I imagine the fellow who polishes the crown jewels would carry the crown jewels. The Folks Pedestrian had arranged for the accompanying snacks to be delivered using that confounded omniscience of theirs. My class teacher arranged for a small lunch time bash. The party would only begin after all of us had finished our food. Why they wanted to ruin our appetites for goodies with actual food, we didn’t understand. To this day, I am sure the sanitation crew at that school must have been baffled by the amount of chaps and ndengu they found in the bins. When the cake was brought around, I had gained three new best friends and about five boys had crushes on me. I was every teacher’s favourite and even got the cool kids from upper primary to talk to me. Cake had made me queen. Bow down mbishes.
For my 9th and 10th birthdays, the routine was fairly similar. Until my 11th one. That was my first big blow out home bash. My class mates, my cousins and my playmates from home had been invited. I got a new outfit to mark the occasion. A shiny top, a grey skirt and industrial strength stockings that itched like a fire ant seminar in the inner thigh. The cake was amazing. I barely tasted any of it, reveling in the newfound glory of my popularity. All the visitors had brought gifts as well. In addition to yet another set of BFFs, I also got diaries, shoes, tops, cash… times were good.
But my popularity was short lived as my 12th birthday sank faster than balloons filled with lead. None of my classmates showed up. My cousins left early. The cake wasn’t that good. And my neighbours were strangers to us- so they only fleetingly passed by to offer apologies for failing to attend. The beauty of that year was that Mama Pedestrian had miraculously agreed to buy me a cell phone. A Nokia 2650. There is no feeling comparable to that joy of getting your very first cell phone. There were a lot of great memories in that device. The most cherished one being the one where my crush called me one night to confirm that I was crushing on him. He had told me the time he would borrow his older brother’s cell phone and told me to wait on the line. And wait I did, until he finally called. I burrowed under the covers of my bed and hid my head under my pillow as we talked. I can barely remember the conversation. But the feeling was amazing. It was sweet. The innocent bliss. Like a child’s first try at chocolate. I have always carried that feeling with me. It even gets its own smile.
After that I joined high school where other people’s birthdays were a series of pranks and elaborate gift exchanges. Being the school weirdo, I got none of that. My birthdays were marked with communal prayers whenever they coincided with a day when assembly was being held. And brief notes or small treats from classmates. My closest friends would have more precise gifts. Like wafers or soda. Or extra slices of bread.
My 18th birthday was shambolic. Dull, with those unlikeable undertones of a chama meeting, my friends left before the cake. My 19th and 20th birthdays went unannounced and marked with my favourite gifts ever from Baba Pedestrian. My 21st birthday was spent gorging on pizza. The following day made for very unpleasant trips to the toilet. My 22nd birthday was an impromptu affair at a swanky Ethiopian restaurant. The kinds of affairs I constantly see getting posted on Instagram or Twitter. #BirthdayGirl. My 23rd was unremarkable but Mr. Pedestrian outdid himself in terms of gifts.
And then here we have my 24th. Whereby when I went to a supermarket to buy a bottle of Casillero Del Diablo for the night, I got carded for the first time in my life.
The cashier was a wizened old man, his crusty eyes bordered with crow’s feet so deep they may have housed a ravine. His teeth desperately needed a whitening kit or toothpaste as they went past being tobacco stained and well into the territory of could-be-mistaken-for-wood. His beady bloodshot eyes with dried yellow goo in the corners studied the bottle of red then he stared at my face. I could already see the thoughts forming. This girl couldn’t be over 18. Who does she think she is buying a bottle of wine? He stood to his full height of five foot nothing and held his hand out.
“What?” I asked him.
“Leta ID madam.”
I looked at my outfit. I was in a suit for crying out loud. Having been buying and consuming alcohol since I was 18, I had never once been asked for my ID. And I knew I was damn well dressed like an adult. Let there be no bullshit about store policy because all the people who had been ahead of me in line hadn’t gotten carded.
I was very smug as I handed him my ID, my loyalty card AND my credit card.
Although, really? Getting carded at 24? This is the part where I shake my head.
Regardless, through all my birthdays there was something that wasn’t there this year. Optimism. The rich ripe promise of a bright tomorrow. But perhaps the mistake I made was comparing the birthdays. Maybe I should look forward to the next one. Have a goal to celebrate my sweet 26th on a country safari with the “fam”. I don’t know. But in the ineloquent words of Hon. Wavinya Ndeti, “Yaliyondwele sipite[ii]”.
[i] Do you have this change?
[ii] Swahili proverb that actually states, “Yaliyopita si ndwele, tugange yajayo.” Meaning essentially, focus on the future.