John Karanja was looking forward to supper. It had been a long day in the fields, hot and humid under unrelenting western Kenyan skies, with no one but his cows for company. Karanja had set out early in the morning with his tiny herd of skin-raggled beasts and roamed the hillsides all day searching out the few stray clumps of good grass that the neighbour’s cattle had left behind. His stomach rumbled like thunder now as he walked his animals down the winding trail home.
Breakfast had been a cold affair—a stiff lump of last night’s ugali, a potato-like substance made from ground corn, and some leftover greens. Karanja’s family was low on salt, and the food, which had been just bearable the night before, became a struggle to swallow this morning, even for John Karanja. He was used to hard times, to doing without. His thin, tatter-clad body came from a long line of similarly bony bodies that had tilled the fields in this lush, remote region of the country. Sometimes it seemed as if his whole life had been one big, cold leftover breakfast—someone else’s leftover breakfast. He had gone without lunch.
Life was not easy for anyone in the Western Province of Kenya where Karanja lived. The hilly region consisted of loosely spaced farms where the people tilled corn and raised a few skinny cattle for food. But the red earth never seemed to yield enough, and when the rains came every spring, rampant malnutrition gave way to malaria, and raucous funeral parties lit up the inky night.
At long last, Karanja sighted his thatched hut in the distance. Curiously, he saw no smoke rising from it, as there should have been at this supper hour. He tried to hide his displeasure as he waved a greeting to his closest neighbour, Ben Omundi. Karanja’s insides clenched tighter the closer he got to home and saw that there would be no supper waiting for him tonight. Worse, as he entered his compound he saw there was no fresh wood piled alongside the hut, no wash on the line, and only a few litres of water left in the barrel.
“Martha!” He called for his wife. No answer. “Maina!” He called for his eldest son. No answer. Karanja removed his water bottle from around his neck and took a long drink to calm his rumbling stomach. He wiped his lips and looked around his overgrown compound, clicking his tongue in disgust. “Stupid Mizungus,” he said.
The Mizungus were the white men. They had come to the village three weeks ago from America and immediately started into a flurry of activity. All at once they began constructing a chicken barn, a medical clinic, and a deep well to provide clean water for the village. All of these projects were good, even Karanja had to agree to that. But still, he did not trust these men.
Karanja’s mind flicked back to the last time a white man came to his village when Karanja was still a child. Wilson was his name, and he was also from America. He started a massive construction project, a school, and he told the people about all the great things the school would do for their village. He was right. The half-finished building now provided an excellent shelter for Karanja’s cattle during the rain, and the village children enjoyed playing in its ruins. Meanwhile, Wilson was nowhere to be seen. He had left over 20 years ago after he ran out of money. Before he left he took a collection from the villagers and promised to return soon with more supplies. He was never heard from again.
It seemed Karanja was the only person who remembered that betrayal. The other villagers welcomed the new Mizungus with open arms. Karanja’s own wife had taken a job hauling water and washing clothes for them. When Karanja protested, Martha just told him that if he didn’t like it, maybe he should work harder on the farm so she wouldn’t have to find outside work to support him and their children. “Humph,” was all Karanja said in reply. Now nothing else was getting done. Karanja’s clothes were dirty, but there was no one to wash them, and no water to wash them in, and—worst of all, no supper. That was the final straw. Karanja set out to find his wife.
As Karanja walked down the narrow lanes of his village, he noticed things were quiet everywhere. No fires burned in the huts, as they should at this hour, and no children played in the road. When Karanja drew closer to the village square, he noticed a line of women coming up the trail from the river with water jugs on their heads. His eyes soon caught sight of the familiar round shape of his wife amongst the other women. Karanja waited by the path for Martha to pass by. She talked and laughed with the other women as she trudged up the hill. But when she saw Karanja she fell silent, though the light of laughter still danced in her eyes.
“Well, my wife, it is good to see you finally tending to your husband and family,” Karanja said.
Martha laughed. “My husband, this water goes to the Mizungus, not you. You will have to fend for yourself today.” The other women laughed. Karanja grit his teeth.
“What about my supper?” he asked. Martha didn’t answer. She just kept walking while the women laughed again. Karanja did not want to risk embarrassment by chasing after her, so he fell in line behind the last woman and followed them to the square.
Stupid Mizungus, he thought.
When they arrived at the square, Karanja saw the whole village had turned out to watch the Mizungus work. Fathers, mothers, children, even the old folks, wearing ill-fitting glasses and leaning on sticks, were taking in the action.
“Hey look everyone,” shouted Karanja’s second closest neighbour, Thomas Waruta. “Karanja herds women just like he herds cattle—they lead and he follows!”
Everyone laughed, except Karanja. He tried to hide himself in the crowd and pretended to be interested in what the Mizungus were doing. Just then Karanja spotted his youngest son, David, age nine, laughing and pointing at the Mizungus with his friends. Karanja walked over and grabbed his arm.
“David, why are you here? Go home now with your sisters and cook your father some supper. The day was long, and I am hungry.”
David twisted away from his father and bounded away, laughing with the other children.
“Sorry, Papa. I’ll come later.” Then he called out "Mizungu! Mizungu!" in unison with his friends. One of the white men turned and smiled at the children and at Karanja. Karanja grit his teeth and ducked back into the crowd.
As Karanja watched the Mizungus he saw that a group of them were gathered around a long silver pipe that was held up in the air by a makeshift crane. The pipe appeared to be sunk deep into the ground. The Mizungus were trying to get in close so they could each take hold of the pipe. Once they all had their hands on it, a man called out a signal and the crane was released so now all that held up the pipe was the Mizungus. Another signal and they began lowering the pipe into the hole, bit by bit. The strain of its tremendous weight showed on the Mizungus’ white faces as they turned red and veined from exertion.
The crowd behind Karanja clucked their tongues anxiously as they watched the Mizungus lower the pipe. If they dropped the pipe, people said, it would sink down hundreds of feet into the hole and all their work would be in vain. If it falls, it’s just as well, Karanja thought. Then we’ll be rid of these Mizungus. He turned and started walking home when a cry of alarm rippled through the crowd.
“Help!” one of the Mizungus called out. Karanja turned back. As the pipe was being lowered, the Mizungus had let go of it one-by-one and backed away, there being no room left to hold on. But the few people left holding it were not able to finish the job on their own. The pipe was too heavy, and it was starting to slip.
“Help!” the Mizungu called again. This time he caught Karanja’s eye. Karanja looked behind him. The villagers all murmured and clucked their tongues, but no one made a move to help. He looked back to the Mizungus. Some were quickly wrapping a chain around the pipe so more people could take hold of it, but they needed help if it was going to work.
“Aaagh!” One of the Mizungus cried out, and fell away from the pipe. One of his hands had been mashed between the chain and the well’s cement pad when the pipe slipped. Karanja knew he must act, Mizungus or not.
He rushed forward and took the fallen Mizungu’s place, wrapping his hands around the cold silver pipe. He saw right away that they would need more help if they were to save it.
“Get over here and help, you cowards!” he shouted to his fellow villagers. Karanja’s words seemed to trip a switch, and they sprang forward as a group, some of them taking up the chain and others taking the Mizungus’ places around the pipe. They all grunted under the strain of the pipe’s incredible weight. Once they had it secure, a Mizungu rushed up with a metal collar to be fitted around the pipe to prevent it from sinking into the ground. He slid it over the top and down past each set of hands until he had it where he wanted it, then bolted it in place.
“Okay, you can let it down all the way!” the Mizungu said. “Slowly! Slowly!” The people eased it down until the collar came to rest on the cement, where it was bolted again. “Good, we’ve done it!” he said. Everyone cheered.
“Asante-sana!” The Mizungu said to Karanja. “Thank you!” He grabbed Karanja’s hand and shook it. “You helped us save the well. Now you can have fresh water to drink and your wife won’t have to haul it so far.” Karanja smiled shyly and nodded at the white man.
Karanja’s friends also came and clapped him on the back.
“Good job, Karanja. Friend of Mizungus now, hey?” They said, and laughed.
Karanja just smiled and walked away.
“Hey, don’t you want to see the well work?” The white man asked.
“Maybe later,” Karanja replied. “First, I must eat my supper.”
Martha was waiting for Karanja when he came home.
“You didn’t want to see the well work either?” He asked.
“I’ll see it soon enough,” she said. “I thought you wanted supper, my hero.” She gave him a hug.
Two weeks after the Mizungus left, Karanja was returning from the fields once again, hot and tired from a long day in the sun, when he met his wife coming up the river path with the village women. They had jugs of water on their heads.
“What are you doing?” Karanja asked, and pointed to the water jug on Martha’s head. “Why aren’t you using the Mizungu’s well?”
Martha looked at the other women and laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Karanja asked.
“The children were playing with the well this morning and they broke the handle. Now no water comes out, and no one knows how to fix it.” The women chuckled as they filed past Karanja.
When they were gone, Karanja sat down on a smooth, flat boulder. He picked a piece of grass and chewed it thoughtfully for a moment. Then a huge smile crept across his face as he shook his head.
“Stupid Mizungus,” he said.