I have an aunt who made the meanest pilau I have ever, to date, tasted. (It feels like I should have written “late aunt” but it feels even more weird remembering people with a word that wasn’t used to refer to them before. If I can remember them, it means they’re still alive somehow, I think.)
Because my aunt was such an amazing cook, she would make mahamri for breakfast sometimes or mkate wa sinia or tambi. Waking up to all the sweet goodness Swahili food had to offer was quite something! The night before however, to make sure people ate their fill, supper would be extra and when it came to ugali, there was always left over ugali. Always!
So we’d often wake up to a table set with tea (infused with cinnamon, iliki and tangawizi) , humongous plastic cups to hold the tea and on the side, bread and sweet smelling homemade mahamri. At the very center of all this goodness, there would be yesterday’s ugali, its coat hardened by the night , creamy and all up in our faces; and my aunt declaring that no one will have a bite of a single yummy hamri until yesterday’s ugali was done.
We would whine and complain and lie to her that we would probably eat it at lunch or something but she’d be firm. And on everyone’s plate at breakfast, there would be mahamri, and Blueband spread bread if one wished, and a piece of yesterday’s ugali to be swallowed down like a bitter pill. And swallowed down it was, till there was nothing left of it to throw away. Throwing food is sacrilege!
The last time I went to visit my aunt, I was from holiday tuition at Waa Girls’. The 4K club’s bokoboko bananas we looking real good, and seeing as in school, only form 3’s and 4’s were around, we were kind enough to relieve the tall mgomba of its heavy mkunga. We shared them out, and carrying the extra load I thought, how amazing aunty would make these for a breakfast snack!
I was supposed to go straight home to Kilifi, but what the hell! I went to Magongo instead for a couple of days. We fought over my decision to do this later with my mum. And during this fight, part of me thought I truly was out of turn to go to my aunt’s like that when it was closing day and mum was obviously expecting me at home.
On the day we got the news, some months after my visit with the bananas, it was a normal boring day in Kilifi. I think I was washing utensils, when I heard my mother break down. And minutes later, sitting beside her and the news of my aunt’s passing still sinking in, I thought sadly how we didn’t even get to say goodbye. And then I remembered too, when I had been a bad daughter and had gone to see an aunt before I saw my mother. My mother was still here, and that aunt I visited was now gone.
I could no longer apologize for having done such an important mistake.
The funeral was a whirlwind of events; my mother and other aunts had the most right to cry; as did my favorite female cousin and her siblings. My other aunt while taking a bath to later head out to the several day matanga, broke down in grief while in the bathroom, and my favorite male cousin and I could only listen helplessly. Because what can you possibly tell and older person who has lost their sister in law and best friend? What could you, a 17 year old, possibly know about the grief of losing someone with whom one has shared more than 40 years of friendship and the cross being married to brothers of the same feather?
The day I finally mourned my aunt was almost a year after her burial. People had sort of started going on with their lives, trying to see how to embrace the empty spaces she’d left. I am in my aunt’s house after a night there; and we are all of us: both my sisters and my cousins as well as a new house help. And we’re sitting at breakfast while the table is being set when, like always, yesterday’s ugali is brought to the table in its signature silver sinia. And I actually smile to myself and start to say how Aunty would definitely insist we finish that ugali before we dare move on to anything tasty on the table. And just before I say it, I catch myself and remember she is not here anymore. Hasn’t been for quite some time.
And I am filled with such a huge emptiness I know I will never visit this house again without aching at the empty spaces she left here and there and everywhere. She was a kick ass homemaker.
I no longer like to visit her house for many other reasons, but each time I have to, there exist permanent empty spaces I no longer have any inclination to fill. Empty spaces of people that have passed on are tributes to the lives they lived and how they affected us. And if it was beautiful having them then, yet their absence hurts right now, then it is a burden to be borne wholeheartedly because they were that important.
No one will ever make pilau as amazing as my aunt’s. Not even the best chef in the whole world. I know this because it is not the taste I truly remember. It is how oily my fingers looked digging into its spicy yumminess, and how absolutely happy I was in that very instant ,eating a well-made dish with my loud laughing cousins around me and my aunt -my second mother- having been the source of such goodness.