A long time ago when I was maybe six or seven years old an old toothless neighbour passed by our house on his way home from an evening of fishing at a nearby river. He often passed by to say hello to my father who was his tribesman. Onyango was not concerned about his appearance. His clothes were often tattered as if to represent the passing of time. On his feet he wore akala sandals made from old car tires.
My mother would serve Onyango and my father tea during these visits. The two men sat on the balcony where they talked and laughed together until it was dark outside. Only then would Onyango bid us farewell and walk across the fence to his house.
On this particular day, Onyango announced that he came bearing gifts. The short cheerful man with salt and pepper hair slouched forward as he slowly unloaded a dirty white sack from over his shoulders placing it on the tiled floor. He seemed thoroughly pleased with himself. Mother thanked him for the gift then showed him to his usual seat.
Later that evening I was in the kitchen chattering away as I was a rather loud child. Our househelp Njeri was washing the dishes after dinner. Mother wiped the table mats and generally organized the kitchen after dinner. She stumbled on the sack which everyone had forgotten about.
“It moved!” mom exclaimed. She stood there paralyzed to the ground. Njeri grabbed a cooking stick and walked over to where mom was standing. They both just stood there staring at the sack. For once, I was quiet.
Then the thing in the sack moved again. More like rolled over because the sack shifted. I ran and grabbed onto mom’s skirt. “Chela, go sit over there” she motioned without even looking back. There was no chair in our kitchen. I walked to the end of the room.
Njeri used her cooking stick to find the mouth of the sack. The house was drop dead silent. The men had left after dinner. My younger brother, the last born at the time, was already asleep.
“Ni nini? (what is it?)” mother asked as Njeri tried to peek into the sack without moving too close.
The sack moved again, now even more aggressively. Njeri dropped the stick and placed her hands on the back of her head.
“Woiii mama woiii” she cried.
Mother grabbed the sack and peered into it. She dropped it.
“Oh God! What is that?” Mother turned to Njeri hoping she had an answer.
Njeri continued to pace about with her hands over her head crying, “Woiii mama woiii.”
I started screaming and pointing.
Mom quickly looked in the direction of the sack. The thick black thing was making its way out of the sack.
It was long, black and slimy looking. Like a snake but without any scale. It had a face and whiskers. I could not stop screaming. Mom and Njeri suddenly moved in unison to the ends of the sack and scooped the creature back into it. It was now making strange noises.
Mom held the sack shut and walked over to the oven. She threw the sack in quickly shutting the door.
“Dad will deal with that.” She said as she walked over to comfort me.
I learnt years later, the creature that gave us the fright of our lives was a catfish. The whisker-like things that had Njeri convinced it was witchcraft, are barbels. Catfish use barbels as sensory organs to help them search for food in murky waters. Apparently there are various sounds that catfish make. Whatever sound the one in our kitchen made, I am now convinced was due to distress. And for Onyango our old neighbour, that was the last time I ever saw him. I wonder what happened to him after that day.