(Continued from The Guest II)
Gabriel derives a lot of satisfaction from his day job. A lot of children are able to feed and go to school because of his efforts. Everyday his office is a circus of sorts. Women-it is usually mostly women-come to his office complaining about their deadbeat husbands and baby daddies. Most of these people are from impoverished homes in rural areas, although now and then a professional comes through his doors. Professionals are harder to deal with because they are not awed by the power of his office. They will involve lawyers to fight him and their aggrieved partners.
Gabriel studied Psychology at the University of Nairobi, but after eight years on this job, he knows the Children’s Act from the inside out. Still, he knows that he will be more effective in his job if he has a legal background, and that is why he has enrolled for a Bachelor of Laws degree at the University of Embu.
But his day to day job is usually not complicated. Most of the people who walk through his doors are either illiterate or semi-illiterate, and they take his word as the law. They treat him the same way they treat their area chief. He is the government, and government should be feared.
The last case of his day today is an interesting one. One year ago, woman called Harriet came to his office complaining that her husband, Fredrick, had abandoned her and their children and moved in with a lady had he found in a bar in Embu. Because his farm in Kivwe is only a quarter of an acre, his wife was not able to fend for the children, and she brought him to this office last year. The children were schooling in a public school, but there were costs to be catered for, such as development and a feeding program that the PTA had approved. Fredrick works for the county government, and he exchanged some harsh words with Gabriel when he was summoned.
He came to the office with the woman he was living with. Her name is Selina, and she also had some juicy words for Gabriel, as she told him to “reave ma husbad arone”. She also had some harsh words for the man’s wife, who she accused of not being able to take care of “ma husbad”. Selina was dressed comically, in a tiny bright and flowery dress that ended halfway through her thighs and which was held to her shoulders by straps that left most of her cleavage exposed. The dress probably would have looked good on a smaller woman, but it looked strange on the very plus size Selina. She was also donning cheap sunglasses, sandals and was carrying a fake Louis Vuitton handbag.
Her nail extensions were at least three inches long, and each nail had a different color. Her cheap perfume was so strong that it gave Gabriel a headache. Her make-up was awful. From the cheap-looking deep red lipstick, to the purple mascara to the thick layers of unevenly applied brown foundation over her black skin, she looked like a nineteenth century witch. Add the vulgar words from her mouth, and you can picture her flying with a broomstick.
Selina caused more ruckus at the office, speaking loudly in her accented broken English, and Gabriel suspected that that is the precise reason why Fredrick tagged her along. When Gabriel got tired of her antics, he threatened to call APs from the County Commissioner’s office to throw her out. She toned it down somehow, and that allowed Gabriel to speak to Fredrick.
While Selina was comically dressed, Fredrick’s wife Harriet looked like a homeless person. Her hair was plaited, but it was so overgrown that you could almost not tell the difference. Her simple dress, though clean, had been stitched a hundred times, and her faded Ngoma rubbers shoes had holes in the toes. She was accompanied by her lastborn child, who was under two years old and looked malnourished. As the circus was going on, she was seated quietly in Gabriel’s office, crying softly.
Gabriel insisted that Fredrick would have to take care of his children. He had not denied that Harriet was his wife, or that the six children were his, he was simply insisting that how he handled his family was none of Gabriel’s business. But Gabriel gently but firmly reminded him that the government and the law was concerned about the welfare of children. The man stormed off and showed up the following day with a lawyer. From the way the lawyer was dressed to the way he was talking, it was obvious that he was a quack collected from the backstreets of Embu town. The matter eventually ended up in court, and the court ordered both the man and his employer, the County Government of Embu, to surrender part of the man’s salary to his wife for the children’s upkeep.
The man and his quack lawyer, who surprisingly happened to have a practicing certificate, threatened to appeal the decision but they never did. Harriet was the last of the group that Gabriel saw. She came five months later with a live chicken and a paper bag of fresh Sukuma wiki and told him that she wanted to say thank you for his assistance. She was better dress in a simple dress that did not have holes or stiches. Her hair was also plaited in a simple but neat style. She told him that her children were now in a private school with better facilities, and they did not have to worry about food, thanks to his assistance. She also told him that she is able to sort out their other needs like clothing, exercise books, toiletries and so forth by selling vegetables and eggs.
Today it is Selina’s turn. She has turned up at his office just before he closed. She is crying and looks like a mad woman. Her hair is unkempt and she looks as though she has gone for a week without sleep. The makeup, the nail extensions and the perfume are gone, and Gabriel can’t decide whether it is a good thing or not. She looks worse without the makeup, comical as it was. She is wearing a dera and bathroom slippers. She is carrying a newborn in her arms.
She says that Fredrick abandoned her in the maternity ward and is now living with a university student.
“Can you imagine that he is even claiming that this child is not his? He started saying that when I told him I was pregnant. But he did not break up with me although he started sleeping out. But when I went to give birth, he blocked me everywhere. I have been trying to call him without success. It is my friends who paid the maternity bill and got me out of hospital. Now I don’t even have anything to eat yet I am breastfeeding his baby.”
“Try calling him with another phone.”
“I have tried that twice. But once he discovers it is me, he hangs up. I have sent him a hundred messages but he never replies. It is his colleague who told me that he is now living in Dallas with a university student. I really don’t know what to do sir, please help me.”
Gabriel wants to remind her how she insulted him as he tried to help Fredrick’s wife and her children but decides that that would be petty. As a civil servant he has a higher calling, which is to serve everyone, whether he likes them or not.
“You know that if he keeps denying that the baby is his, you will have to do a DNA test, don’t you?”
“Why didn’t you tell his wife that?”
“Because it wasn’t necessary. He did not deny siring any of Harriet’s children. He acknowledged that he was Harriet’s husband and the father of her children so that easy. Your case is different. He says that the child is not his, so you may have to prove that it is. That is where the DNA test comes in.”
“I don’t have money to pay for a DNA test.”
“That is okay. If this case goes to court, the judge will order the DNA to be conducted. Depending on how your lawyer will argue it out, Fredrick might be ordered to pay for the test. I also know a few organizations that can sponsor the DNA just to help the baby.”
Due to government budgetary constraints, Gabriel has been working with NGOs and local lawyers to help vulnerable children. He is passionate about his job, and it is usually not enough for him to say that the government cannot pay for this or that.
“I cannot afford a lawyer.”
“Don’t worry. I know several lawyers in this town who can represent you pro bono.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means they will represent you without charging you.”
“Why would they want to do that? Lawyers are very greedy and conniving. I wouldn’t trust a lawyer who doesn’t charge.”
“Okay. Hire a lawyer and fight Fredrick in court,” Gabriel says unsympathetically. He is getting irritated by her attitude, and the only reason why he is still listening to her is because he cares for her child. The one reason he is so passionate about his job is because he genuinely loves and cares for children.
“I already told you that I don’t have money to hire a lawyer.”
Gabriel has started suspecting that Selina’s child is not Fredrick’s, or perhaps she is not sure about the paternity of the child. That is why she doesn’t want anything to do with a DNA test. It is possible that she was cheating on Fredrick and he found out. The problem is that Fredrick has proven to be a litigious character, so he will not accept liability without a fight.
“So, you don’t have money to hire a lawyer and you don’t want a free one. What do you want?”
“I want you to order Fredrick to take care of his child.”
“I will write him a letter, but I can assure you that he will go to court. You saw what happened last time. And if he goes to court, I can assure you that DNA will be required to prove that the child is his.”
“Please do the letter,” she says. “I will cause drama at his office until he complies.”
Gabriel crafts a carefully worded letter, using words and phrases like “alleged” and “we have been informed”. The letter is basically a summon, inviting Fredrick to the Children’s Office in Embu. He prints the letter in triplicate, signs all the copies and gives two copies to Selina then files the third copy.
As she walks away, Gabriel cannot help but feel sad. He wonders whether people think about the impact of their decisions and actions on the little children they bring to the world. He wonders the kind of life the young one will enjoy. Unlike Harriet, Selina does not look like the kind of woman who will take care of the child even if he gets support from Fredrick. She will probably use the money for her own expenses. But Fredrick is even worse. It is unlikely that he will offer that support. That child is basically condemned to a childhood of suffering. It is possible that he will make it in life, but the stacks are solidly against him.
Yet his father is already playing games with another woman, and will most likely bring another unfortunate child to the world.
Gabriel sighs and rises from his seat. Although he loves what he does for a living, most of these stories are heartbreaking. He is done for the day and he looks forward to going home. Gabriel loves his job, but he loves his family even more. He loves the company of his wife and children.
He bids the team at his office goodbye and walks to the parking lot, where his second-hand Toyota Corolla is parked. He will pass by the restaurant, have a word with the manager and then head home. His wife usually does the day to day running of the businesses, but Gabriel likes to keep in touch with the managers of the restaurant and the farm just to get a first hand feel of the businesses.
Gabriel has parked the car at the usual place outside his house. He is about to walk to the front door when the small gate that leads to Miatha House opens and his wife emerges. She looks surprised to see him, even though this is the normal time for him to get home.
She also looks surprising disheveled. Her hair is all over the place, and her dress looks crumpled. It is surprising for a woman who is always immaculate.
“Are you okay babe?” he asks, approaching her. “Is there a problem?”
She stares at him blankly, as though she is frozen in time.
(As usual, I intend to complete this story on Saturday. So come prepared to grab your copy for only Kshs. 100.)
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