Githeri in a can
by marziya mohammedali
“Go back where you came from, you fucking terrorist!”
The speaker, a young man, probably only slightly older than you, stands across the road. His pose is one of defiance and anger. You turn to look at him, your cheeks heating up, your heart hammering painfully in your chest.
“Yeah, you! I’m talking to you! Go the hell back, we don’t want you here!”
You open your mouth to answer, but no sound comes out. You had prepared yourself for everything (you thought), but you’re pretty sure there was no section in the ‘Living in Australia’ booklet that explained how to deal with being shouted at for your race or religion.
People start to stare, first at the young man yelling, then at you, gaping. He is sneering now, obviously enjoying the confusion, fear, the sheer helplessness that you feel showing clearly on your face for everyone to see. You wonder if he could hurt you. He looks angry enough.
Suddenly, moving here doesn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. Your stomach hurts, and you want to hide, you just want to hide.
A touch, a nudge, and you tense up, looking around. An Indian man steps forward, and quietly motions for you to move back. He holds open the door to a small, nondescript restaurant, and ushers you in quickly, speaking in Hindi under his breath.
“Pata nahin kya zaroorat hain, bas.”
Once you are inside, he turns to you and apologises, even though he has just saved you.
“I’m sorry, miss,” he says, “yahan walon bahut racist hain. Sab nahin, magar kuch log…”
The people here are very racist. Not all of them, but some people…
You’re not really sure what to say. You swallow heavily, your eyes tearing up, and you look away so your benefactor might not see how much you really are affected. The words are heavy, coated, like the dust that floats around you has settled on them and weighed them down.
You want nothing more than to be back in your mother’s kitchen, with the smells of daal and chapatis floating in the air; you want to be back where everything is familiar and people don’t shout at you in the streets because of what you look like.
You want to go home, any home.
“We’re going to miss it!”
You tear down the escalator - probably not appropriate, given the frowns of everyone you pass on the way down. Your own clumsiness nearly causes you to miss a step somewhere near the bottom, where Sarah waits anxiously for you, one eye on the train doors, slowly opening, and the trickle of people filing out.
You reach the bottom and dash toward the train, Sarah a step behind you. Both of you have barely stepped inside when a woman’s voice comes over the speakers, followed by the sharp warning beeps that you know are coming but still make you jump.
The carriage is full, people stare as you try to steady your breath. You glance around and spy a few empty seats at the end of the carriage. You begin to walk down to the end, when Sarah pulls you back.
“Don’t go there!”
You look at her, confused, then look back at the seats.
A man sits right at the end, leaning heavily against the wall of the carriage. He could be sleeping, or drunk, or just resting his eyes. He looks scruffy, a long ponytail sticking out from under a hat, a scraggly beard hiding a large portion of his face. His singlet looks grubby, his shorts stained with paint. He wears worn out shoes, no socks.
None of that explains the ring of empty seats around him, or the few passengers looking at him in distaste.
“Why - ?” you begin to ask, and Sarah looks at you as if you’d just grown another head.
“He’s an Abo!”
Ah. Right. In your few months here, you’ve heard a number of stories about the trouble the Aboriginals could cause. But this man doesn’t look dangerous, and he seems fast asleep anyway, and your legs still feel shaky from running.
You turn again, ignoring Sarah’s hisses, and walk over to the empty seats. You slide into the one next to him, as Sarah reluctantly comes and sits opposite you. A couple of people stand up as you approach, moving closer to the doors, perhaps getting off at the next station.
You nearly jump up again as you feel the man move. His shoulder brushes against yours, a faint whiff of alcohol fills up the space between you. You try to ignore it, and look out of the corner of your eye at the man, who is now staring unabashedly at you, confused.
You turn your head, acknowledging him. You’re not sure what’s making you more nervous: the stories swimming in your head, or the alcohol that’s now a bit more obvious as he’s moved closer to you.
Don’t provoke him, maybe he’ll go away
He looks at you, and you wonder what he’s looking for. In Nairobi, you would walk with your handbag held closely, or sometimes without a handbag at all, because you feared it would be snatched. It always made you feel guilty, but it was just something you did. Now, you clutch your bag to your side, instinctively, even though he’s not actually looking at your bag, but rather at you. His eyes seem to be focused at the top of your head, and belatedly you realise that he’s actually staring at your headscarf.
He reaches out and you tense, ready to scream if he touches you. He pauses, and then firmly grabs your hand and begins to shake it. You squirm, your fingers limp in his hand, unused and uncomfortable at the sudden contact. You open your mouth but shut it again as he speaks.
“You and me, we’re friends, ok? Nobody likes us. We’re friends. Haven’t done anything wrong, but no one likes us.”
All the time, he’s shaking your hand, clammy skin against yours. You swallow the lump in your throat, look around and see more faces wrinkle in distaste. You recognise it, though, the way people move closer to the door, most of them moving further away from where you sit, just like how everyone had left at the next stop when you’d stepped on the bus this morning.
You return his sad smile, hoping he doesn’t notice the blush in your cheeks, rising from your own shame.
“Yes, we are.”
Samuel Wanjiru turns, keeps on running, his feet hitting the ground in a strong rhythm. You can’t hear it over the commentators, but you imagine in your head, the steady thud-thud-thud-thud as each foot moves forward, anchors, and then pushes back. Your own heart is beating the same rhythm as you watch with everyone else in the room, eyes locked on the television set.
You’ve never been into watching the Olympics, but this—this is different. This is important. There are people in this room you’ve never met: friends of friends who came over to watch, a couple who arrived unannounced but were quickly welcomed.
Someone starts to talk and is quickly hushed. Wanjiru has entered the stadium. People begin to stand, and you do too. Your eyes dart between the timer that shows in the corner of the screen and the man on the television set. Your feet tap out the same rhythm, tapping in time with his footsteps.
Excited murmurs are circulating around the room now. It’s a given victory, but you’re still holding your breath. You watch as the spindly figure goes past one of the trackside cameras, the angles changing crazily as each camera focuses on Wanjiru, trying to show the last moments of the race from all sides.
He steps over the finish line.
The room erupts.
People are jumping up and down, talking in several different languages. Someone comes up and hugs you, ignoring your stiffness. Someone else is weeping on the sofa. A Kenyan flag is unfurled. Someone starts singing the National Anthem, forgets the Swahili version and switches halfway to English. Several people join in, voices rising and falling.
For a fleeting instant, faster than the flashes of Samuel Wanjiru’s feet going steadily around the track, you feel like you are a part of something, something bigger, you actually belong even if you don’t look like anyone else in the room.
You had never understood the appeal of watching someone run around for two hours, but as you raise your own voice, you think you might finally get it.
Home leaves footprints in unexpected places, waiting for you to follow when you finally notice.
One of these places is the Local Indian Grocery. It is only a recent favourite, as it’s far from where you live. Still, ever since you discovered the place, you find excuses to visit, soaking up the smells of lentils and incense on dusty shelves and imagining for a second that you are walking through Diamond Plaza and not a random shop in Perth.
The visitors to the shop are varied. Young couples from India wander back and forth, gathering their groceries in their arms until a shop assistant steps up and offers them a basket. A woman in a bui bui is a regular customer. Sometimes she is alone, other times she walks in holding a young girl tightly by the hand. An old Asian man walks in, and the shopkeeper tells him in a loud, exaggerated voice that he should try the Vietnamese seafood shop down the street because they don’t sell meat here. An Australian man in slippers and shorts stares wide-eyed at he shelves, asking about everything he sees in a broad Queensland accent.
These are the people who mix themselves into the experience, bits and pieces of lives that overlap with yours for a few minutes.
The shop has stacks of the things you would typically expect—here’s a section for imported spices, there we have a line of idols, here’s some frozen chapatis—but also some unexpected things, like frozen muhogo and githeri in a can.
The first time you buy the githeri, it is purely out of curiosity—exactly what does githeri in a can taste like? The promise of a taste of home prompts you to try.
It is disappointing, a half-dried mix of maize and beans that tumbles out of the can and sits forlornly in a pot, looking completely out of place and nothing like the image on the label. You try to cook it up, but even with the first mouthful you know that nothing here could ever taste as good as home, that whatever it is you’re eating is just mush pretending to be githeri.
In a way, you feel like that, putting on a face to the world around yourself even as you question your identity every single day. You feel half-dried, worn-out, alone, trying to understand the number of labels that have been slapped on you without a second thought. Muslim. Woman. Kenyan. Pakistani. Student. Hijabi. Oppressed.
Suburbs are grouped into cities, not districts; the different cities make up the area called Perth. Perth is a city, but Perth also includes the City of Perth, a small area crowded with shops, bars and sushi places tucked into impossible corners.
You head into the city to meet a friend. It is crowded, teenagers milling around and tripping over couples wheeling children in prams. A busker bellows at a circle of people and they laugh as he attempts to dance. A group of girls laugh over bubble tea, sharing stories of the night before.
A typical Saturday morning in the city of Perth, only interrupted by a man who walks up behind you, and unexpectedly shouts, “Terrorist!”
Your first reaction is to jump away from where you are standing. Somewhere in your mind, you know you should be taking note of what he’s saying, should be walking away. It’s not a common occurrence but it’s not a pleasant one, and you’re not quite sure how to react to it.
Without really thinking about it, you turn on your heel and look at him, exclaiming,
There is absolute silence around you for a few seconds. Then someone laughs, nervously. The man who had accused you looks away and stalks off, muttering. You look around, notice everyone staring at you, expressions ranging from mild surprise to unabashed amusement.
You smile back and head into the nearest shop.
You know you won.
People walk like tired superheroes, flags draped almost irreverently over shoulders and tied around necks.
A girl in a bikini top, the requisite flag plastered around her hips in lieu of a towel, pushes past. You pause for a second.
You’re still not used to the way Australians treat their flag. There’s something proud, yet obscene, in the way it appears everywhere, wildly patriotic and completely inappropriate. A man walks past with white stars scattered on his blue slippers. Somehow, it’s difficult to imagine a Kenyan shield decorating a pair of pata-patas.
The air is thick, humid; every so often, lightning arcs across the sky, and thunder echoes around the quay. People seem unfazed, laughing, eating ice cream, strolling around in the drizzle. It has been an exceptionally hot day and you hope the incoming storm will bring some respite from the heat.
There is an exceptionally loud thunderclap, and the drizzle turns to rain. Rain, bucketing down, more rain than you’ve seen in months. It hits the deck where you are sitting, and even though you’re away from the edge, you can still feel the raindrops on your face, hitting sharply as the wind blows against you. The diners at the next table, closer to the edge, jump up and stand back, their dinner left to soak.
You look up at the next flash of lightning. Three small silhouettes stand on the pier that runs out into the harbour, outlined in the hazy lights that mark a walking track. Through the sheets of rain, you see one move back, melting into the darkness. The other two stay still. You wonder what they are doing, are they really mad enough to be standing out in the rain, lightning flashing overhead.
The figure that had disappeared suddenly bursts from the dark corners of the quay, running through the light, and leaps into the water. You can see him draw his knees up to his chest, a human cannonball jumping into the water. The other two follow suit, just as a security guard in a fluro vest races across the pier.
Even though the rain drowns out most of the sound around you, you imagine their laughter, the shouts of the security guard, the disapproving comments from the people watching from the quay. You can still see them, splashing in the water as they swim towards the edge of the harbour, youth and exuberance and carelessness, while the guard runs through the rain to try and catch them at the other end.
You imagine the thrill, and a smile crosses your face as you think of Mombasa, and a night out with friends, years ago. You had played shake on the beach and thrown sand at one another until a security guard appeared and chased the lot of you indoors again. The memory makes you smile, and fills you with unexpected warmth. It was such a long time ago, but it could be now.
A couple stand in the rain, holding each other and laughing. Children break free from their parents’ holds, splashing and stamping little feet into the puddles on the deck.
As you step out into the rain, you turn your face to the sky and laugh, letting yourself get soaked in the storm. This is where you are at your most comfortable, not caring what other people think, simply feeling, remembering, knowing that things are, and will always be, as they need to.
You’re not sure when you stopped looking for home, but you’re certain now that it doesn’t matter. This is it. You are home.
Marziya Mohammedali is a writer, photographer, multidisciplinary designer and university tutor. (more)