Sophia looks up and wipes her brow. Her small, plastic wristwatch says it is 11am. It is time for her to go and prepare lunch for her father’s household. She has an impressive pile of rocks beside her. Her pile is the third largest in the group, after her father’s and her elder brother Mutwiri’s. She surpassed her mother’s speed of preparing ballast a long time ago, and her younger siblings are yet to catch up with her.
Sophia’s family’s bread and butter comes from the ballast. Their farm is useless for agriculture because of rocks and boulders, but her father discovered that the rocks are not entirely useless. They could earn the family a living.
Preparing ballast is a difficult job. It starts with blowing up a boulder with dynamite. Once the boulder is broken up into smaller rocks, it is ready for hammering. Each member of the group takes a piece of the smaller rocks and starts breaking it up with a mallet until it produces small pieces that can be used as ballast for construction.
Sophia started preparing ballast when she was seven years old, just like all her siblings. She would help her parents in the evenings after school and over the weekends. The trade, while it has managed to put food on their table over the years, is not particularly lucrative, and Sophia was unable to continue with school beyond form two. She is the most educated in her family.
Now she is marking time in her father’s house waiting for someone to marry her. Her ambition is to be an architect or a civil engineer. She would love to be a respected professional in the building and construction space. But she now knows that that might never be. She is not educated. Besides, even though she is a qualified and competent mason, few people trust her with work.
She knows that her only path to wealth might be marriage. She will be happy enough to bring up her children, even without a house help, if that will help her escape the hard life of preparing ballast for a living. But she is not willing to sacrifice her happiness for wealth. That is why she turned down Donald two days ago when he asked her to be his girlfriend.
Donald is a nice young man, and she actually likes him. But there are two things that make her uncomfortable. The first is Donald’s parents, especially his mother. They are both snobbish, even though they are church leaders. Sophia knows that they will never accept her as their son’s wife and that will lead to a lot of conflict within that family. Sophia had rather avoid all that drama. Second, that girl Rehab. Rehab follows Donald everywhere. Sophia is unwilling to be part of a three-way relationship. Donald, even with is apparent niceness and money, is not worth it.
She knows that the harsh reality is that she might not find another nice but well up young man like Donald, and might end up married to a poor man like her father. That is the problem with poverty. It sticks on you like a leech. If only she had been able to finish school, she wouldn’t be waiting for a man to rescue her from poverty. She would probably have gotten well paying job and helped her family get out of biting poverty. And with her own money, she would have had several suitors with their own money.
But that did not happen, and now even the local primary schoolteachers think they are too good for her. Some of them imagine that they are doing her a favor by asking her to sleep with them, and are usually astounded when she tell them to get lost. Sophia knows that everyone, including her parents, expect that she should feel fortunate that a doctor is interested in her. But she refuses to be. She might be poor, but she still has her pride. She will not make herself a doormat for Rehab and Donald’s mother to trample on just because he is a doctor and is interested in her.
Sophia pushes the dark thoughts from her mind and goes up hill quickly, carrying a twenty liter jerry can of water. Since her home does not have piped water, they usually fetch water from water the stream down the valley. Sophia fetches the water that she uses to cook lunch and clean dishes early in the morning on her way to the quarry. She stays with it in the quarry until 11 am.
She hurries uphill. She has made this trip numerous times. She has a lot of work to do in the next three hours: she needs to go home and split firewood with a machete, feed the fire that must have been reduced to glowing embers by now, prepare lunch, clean the dishes after everyone has eaten and be back at the quarry by 2 pm. Today’s lunch is the usual: fried githeri. More well up families in the area fry their githeri with tomatoes and sukuma wiki, but that is a luxury that Sophia and her family cannot afford. Onions are enough.
Kibaara does not look up as his daughter leaves the quarry to go and prepare lunch. Sophia is his jewel. She is the child in his family who held the most promise. She topped her class from Std. 1 to Std. 8 at Kieganguru primary school and earned a place at St. Mary’s Igoji Girls High School. Kibaara was proud.
He conducted a fundraiser and managed to take her to the school. But by second term of the same year, it became evident that he would not be able to keep her there. He pulled her out of the school in third term and took her the more affordable Kieganguru Girls Secondary School. But he couldn’t sustain her there either, and she dropped out in for two.
He had hoped that she would be the one to pull him out of poverty. And she would have, if she had gotten the opportunity. Sophia is a very hard working girl. She topped her class at St. Mary’s for the two terms she was there, which is no mean feat considering that St. Mary’s Igoji is one of the finest schools in the region. She simply had no match at Kieganguru Girls. And now that she is out of school she is outdoing everyone at the hard labor of crashing rocks into ballast.
Kibaara took her to Kieganguru Polytechnic to pursue a course in tailoring and dressmaking, but Sophia decided that she wanted to pursue masonry instead. After she finished, she topped it up with carpentry. But very few people want to trust a woman with their constructions. Both carpentry and masonry are still seen as male careers.
But there is a mason called Kinyua who is very impressed with her. He is the one who has trained her since she graduated from the polytechnic. He usually hires her as his assistant and by his own admission, she has turned into a fine mason and carpenter. He recommends her for jobs whenever he had conflicts of work, but still nobody will take her as a foreman at a construction site. They had rather wait for Kinyua or give the work to another man. So she is forced to remain as Kinyua’s assistant. But even then, some of Kinyua’s clients object to a female assistant, and Sophia is forced to stay at home and help her parents with the ballast.
Kibaara knows that the lack of regular masonry work hurts Sophia deeply, the same way he knows that she was hurt deeply when she dropped out of school. But Sophia knows how to mask her problems so well that no one would know. She goes about her daily routine with a smile on her face. Whether she is singing with the other youth in the church, working at a construction site, crushing rocks at a quarry or cooking at their kitchen, Sophia handles everything with a graceful smile.
It is not like regular masonry work would turn Sophia’s fortunes though. Masons are not paid that much, and Kinyua himself is struggling with school fees, just like Kibaara. Kibaara knows that the only hope for wealth from his daughter will come from marriage. Kibaara has seen how their current client has been looking at her, and he is convinced that there is something there. The client is a young man from the neighborhood called Donald.
He is a nice young man, a doctor who is currently on leave. He comes from a well up family. Both his father and mother are High School principals. The young man is humble and down to earth, but his parents are quite the opposite: arrogant and overbearing.
Donald clearly likes Sophia, but Kibaara knows that his parents would never allow a union between their son and a daughter of a poverty stricken peasant. Besides, most of the village girls are drooling over the young and unattached doctor. Rumors in the village hold that Donald’s mother has a preferred daughter in law: Rehab.
Rehab’s father is a lawyer with offices in Meru and Chuka towns. He is also the chairman of the Presbyterian Church Men’s Fellowship (PCMF) at their local church. Her mother is a nurse at Chogoria Mission Hospital. Donald’s father is a church elder. Rehab’s mother and Donald’s mother are officials of the Woman’s Guild. Like most other people in rural areas, most of the people in Sophia’s village attend the same PCEA Church.
Because they are children from well-up families in the same village, Donald and Rehab grew up together. While Sophia was at Kieganguru Primary School, Donald and Rehab went to Mwimbi Elite Academy, a prestigious private school in Chogoria.
Donald went to Meru School while Rehab went to Chogoria Girls High School, both leading schools in the Greater Meru region. Sophia joined their ranks briefly by joining St. Mary’s Girls, but poverty quickly returned her to the lower ranks. Donald is now a doctor at the Kenyatta National Hospital, Rehab is a lawyer at her father’s law firm while Sophia is a mason that nobody wants to hire.
Kibaara knows that Donald’s parents will not allow him to marry a poor girl like Sophia. And it seems as though they are succeeding at throwing that girl Rehab at him, because she follows him everywhere he goes. That does not stop Kibaara from thinking about the possibilities. Donald has proven that he is independent minded. He has bought a piece of land and now he wants to construct his own house away from his parents. And even though Rehab follows him to the quarry when he comes to oversee the measuring of ballast, Kibaara has seen the way he looks at Sophia. It is an unmistakable look.
Kibaara hopes that that boy will defy his parents and marry his daughter. Because that way he will squeeze every dime he can through bride price. And if his daughter dares to reject that young man, because Sophia is capable of such stupidity, he will literally force her to marry him. It is the only way they can all overcome poverty.
Donald is about to get into his car and drive to the quarry when the unmistakable white Toyota Premio pulls up. Rehab. Donald promised Sophia that he would shake off Rehab from his life, and he is determined to do it. He is still living in his parents’ house before he completes the construction of his own house.
“Hi babe?” she says as he parks her car next to his. Donald hates the way she calls him ‘babe’. He has tried several times to stop her in vain.
“Where are you going?”
“That is really none of your business.”
“I know you are going to see that low-life Sophia.”
“I am going to tell your mother.”
“Go ahead and tell her. In fact, tell her that I love that low life,” Donald says, getting into his car and driving off. He hopes that that will put Rehab in her place so that she can leave him alone.
But it is not to be. As soon as he joins the highway, he sees her car following him. This Rehab girl is either very dumb or she has an agenda besides romance. And her stubbornness will make him lose Sophia for good.
(To be continued on Friday)
Image by Republica from Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/photos/stones-crushed-rock-construction-606590/
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