I shut my mother’s curtains.
It is 7:06 pm Nairobi time. And time has changed.
We used to close the curtains at 6:00 pm, when the beauty of the setting tropical sun was no longer visible. I would begin in the living room, head to the dining, and then go to the bedrooms. It was soothing.
This is one way to create a house: the daily rituals of living.
Now, time seems less coherent, the shutting rituals attuned to spatio-temporal dispersal: my body in the Midwest US, my sister in Holland, my brother in Sudan, my mother traveling, always traveling, to Kisumu, Kiambu, South Africa, Mombasa, Uganda, England, traveling, always traveling.
We shut curtains when we return, when we remember, when locked rooms are unlocked, when we get tired of the African Night.
Shutting curtains taught me about the African Night.
There was the African Night of my bedroom, from where I heard the ritual drumming of the church across the ridge, the all-night rituals that nobody noticed, nobody discussed. The African Night of my bedroom was silent, every sound magnified, inside out, from my heart to the furtive adventures of hungry geckos and belligerent moths that hit the walls and the ceiling, complaining that we dared to build on their land.
Every night, we learned we were thieves, living on borrowed land, and that land could be reclaimed. We rented and the landlords came for daily inspections.
This was the African Night of books by white men and women who imagined the terrors of the night. It frightened me. It still does. It was isolated and isolating, serenaded by mbwa kali and irritated cars.
High school taught me about another African Night.
We had no curtains in high school. I learned to sleep with the moon staring in at me, in front of strangers, through the rituals of snoring and night-talking, of those who hoarded food and ate it at 2 am or 3, of those who woke up to study. I learned to sleep through the temporality of Ramadhan, the ritual breaking of fasts. I learned to sleep through the returns of those who sneaked out to visit bars and brothels, those who met with their male lovers in hidden corners, those who seduced and were seduced by teachers, those who prayed and those who sinned.
Siafu do not visit, they invade.
I learned to wake up at 2 am, control my delicate sensibilities, use soap, water, paraffin, sweep, resist panic. To manage the night of small invaders.
This was not the African Night of white foreigners whose children are invariably attacked. We were irritated, but not frightened. Those who knew how to manage Siafu taught the rest of us. And we learned to manage.
It is hot in Makuyu.
Cooked-shrimp-colored scorpions sit in windows, waving their tails at occasional visitors, reminding us that we rent, no matter what title deeds say.
Bats populate the roof and their voices punctuate the aggressive hum of the sausage flies: piccolo to cello.
Here, we do not use blankets. Sheets are almost too much. It is isolated. And the African Night can be lonely.
We populate the night with stories and games, Monopoly and Scrabble, and welcome visitors from Nairobi and Thika. We bring our friends with us because we don’t know how to make friends here.
We are parched for urbanity, for the terrors of the city that are less terrifying than those here.
We crave and fear loneliness.
This word does not exist in our Nairobi.
We close curtains to create the African Night.
My sister tells me this is romantic twaddle. We close them to keep out mosquitoes. But their delicate singing hums through the house. I prefer my version.
We close the curtains after shutting the gate, locking the re-inforced doors, shutting the security-proofed windows. And still we fear the sudden sounds of the African Night.
If you listen carefully, you hear the whispers of teenage boys stealing their parents’ cars to go to Carnivore, of teenage girls returning from dates with their father’s agemates, of husbands returning from their mistresses, wives smelling of their lesbian lovers.
We smile and talk about the glories of all-night prayers.
We worship in the African Night: on slick, wet, warm, pleasure-giving surfaces. Our moon-caressed bodies gleam, black flesh on brown, brown on red ochre, red ochre on dark chocolate, dark chocolate on milk chocolate.
We worship to the hum of mosquitoes, the belligerence of moths, the drumming of the church across the ridge, in dark corners on side streets, in the maize plants that struggle to be farms in the city, in cars under darkened street lamps.
Once, a curious man asked to worship with me. Asked me to worship him.
I shut my curtains.