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49 Years of Matrimony

Kanengo Diallo's trancelike study of marriage, family, and the loss of love.

Agnes need not have walked in on them fucking to know what was going on.

She had been collecting the pieces for years. Each bit of evidence emerged as a silent tumour in their marriage, so silent that Samwel did not realise how malignant they had become. He imagined that Agnes was too bright for him to bother hiding behind the elaborate routines that most men in his position did. He was also a doctor—a cardiothoracic surgeon. He was sure that Agnes was accustomed to him arriving home late, which he had done for more than 30 years. This was long before they stopped having sex and a little after he began seeing other, younger women.

 When he opened the walk-in clinic in their community and started working longer hours to demonstrate procedures for medical students, Agnes would sit on the couch at home waiting for him. When money was good, and they had a housegirl, Agnes made a practice of watching over her as she boiled the chicken. Samwel said that white meat was better for the heart than red meat but it required more attention and needed to be thoroughly cooked. Agnes would then switch on the TV, leaving it on the channel with the true-crime shows that Samwel liked. She would wait on the couch until she heard the mlinzi open the gate and the street children parading behind Samwel’s car. Once the children had received the empty medicine bottles for making their toy cars, Samwel entered the house, tired, but his voice was always full of charm and exuberance. ‘Those kids, they are never satisfied with the small pill bottles! They always ask for the big-big boxes!’

 They would laugh and talk and then eat their supper in front of the TV, the monotone enquiries of the British detectives keeping them company.

The Other Women used to be his female patients, and then when that proved more effort than it was worth, he would give little gifts to the nurses, complimenting them on their too-tight braids and asking them to drink tea with him in his office. He had his favourites like the plump one with the wide forehead and the light-skinned one with the dark labia but in all cases, weekends away with the women were not possible. His schedule would not allow that, and Agnes, between her retreats and work as a church elder, wanted to spend all evenings and Saturdays with Samwel.

 He also found it tedious to have his extramarital activities far from home.

 So that is where they happened. At home, when Agnes was away on her retreats, he would drive back from the hospital, the light-skinned nurse with the uneven breasts and dark labia in the backseat of his dusty 2000 Honda Accord.

 Before then, Agnes’ retreats were becoming longer and more frequent. In 2009 she visited her daughter Irene in America. Irene, a successful lawyer in Maryland, had just given birth to her first child, a son. She called some weeks before the birth, asking her mother to help with childcare in those months before returning to work. Irene explained that daycare at that age was out of the question, her African American friends had scared her with stories of little white children poking the eyes of their Black babies. That some of those daycare practitioners would leave the infants’ soiled diapers on for too long while tending to the other kids.

 ‘I’ve already bought the tickets, and the visa process is very straightforward. Of course, I’ll pay for everything,’ Irene said and then paused. ‘I’ll send you a letter of invitation tonight.’ Agnes chastised her again for choosing single motherhood. ‘And you are so beautiful too, with that smooth dark skin, eh-eh! And the gap in your teeth, I could have you married in two months or less!’ 

 ‘I just don’t understand why you made that ugly Ugandan friend of yours impregnate you.’ Agnes added. Irene feigned offence.

 Irene had never glorified marriage in the way that her mother had hoped. For Agnes, marriage was a state that elicited recognition—a rite of passage for women who did what they were supposed to do. Marriage itself was not the reward; it was the accolades of wife, daughter-in-law, and mother that Agnes polished and honoured. She felt sorry that she did not pass on this sense of reverence to Irene, who became too comfortable in her independence.

 Irene grew up reading, and reading, and reading herself into believing that she was good enough on her own. She came top of her class every year in high school—she could not spare time for the lazy fondling that her friends entertained from boys in the years above. When she scored high on her SATs, she knew that she would be just fine. She told her parents that she would go to university in America, and there she could find success.


From the moment she left law school, Irene worked harder than anyone she knew—first, as a way to prove herself as a Kenyan immigrant and then, to pay off the debt she had acquired. ‘You are the one who is educated in America!’ Her brothers would say whenever they wanted something from her and needed a shorthand way to ask for it. She knew she had really made it when distant relatives back home began sending her WhatsApp messages. These were long shopping lists asking for multivitamins. Requests for toys for their children. Uncomfortable praises that unceremoniously came before requests for money.

 Irene wanted children very badly because they were emblems of a comfortable life. If she could find success in her career and child-rearing, marriage was an unnecessary liability—one that could only threaten and would not guarantee her against total failure. After she became a senior associate at her firm, she asked her boyfriend of two years to impregnate her. She told him that she would take care of everything. Three months after trying, she became pregnant, and a month later, they broke up.

 Irene aimed to fully provide for her parents as soon she could, and Agnes knew this. She chastised, but she was proud. She smiled because one of her children still needed her. The other three with their city jobs called her in steady increments of time and only sent her money for electricity and Internet.

 On the night before her trip, Agnes wrapped beans, sukuma, and sardines for Irene with her clothes in her suitcase. The second night with her daughter, she made her ugali na maharage. ‘Now, these are real beans!’ Irene said with Baby flailing for the food in his mother’s hand. They laughed when Baby knocked a piece of ugali out of Irene’s hands. Even Baby chortled, amused by the joy his actions could cause, and Agnes felt familiar in her daughter’s foreign kitchen.

 When Irene took her to the big Walmart that was ten minutes away by car, Agnes felt at ease with her grandson strapped across her chest. Irene was beside her, selecting the large berries that she would use for her nutritional smoothies. ‘Those strawberries are too large, Irene! Have you been watching the documentaries I send you about American food?’ 

Agnes was away for nine months, and in that time, Samwel developed a habit of dropping his nurses home after work.

 Many times, he did not know what he was doing. He thought it must have looked comical: a 72-year-old man panting and struggling over a 20-something-year-old’s body, like tilapia out of water. He did not know why he did it either. Sometimes he would picture Agnes in her youth instead; it made him feel better about their marriage’s early days. If he were honest with himself, he did not know when it all started going stale. It could not have been a single moment but certain memories stood out like vignettes, explaining the erosion that presided as the third partner in their marriage. He thought it started in 1965 when Agnes was offered a prestigious Commonwealth scholarship for African women to study Biology at Cambridge. She turned it down to accompany Samwel on his residency in Kampala and left her university to look after the house while he worked. Or maybe it was after she gave birth to their second child, and Agnes moved away from her family in Kisumu to Mombasa, where she knew no one. Perhaps it was when the dog died, and Samwel buried it with the shovel Agnes used in her garden. Or when she began meeting the elders, attending church twice a week, and praying rapturously for long hours in the afternoons when she was at home.

 He and the nurse would always have sex in the living room. Never in his and Agnes’ bedroom because he knew that their antiseptic smell would stain the bed sheets—that while cleaning, Agnes would probe further and locate the cheap, muted perfume that the pretty nurse wore. When he got tired of the living room, he bought his nurse and Agnes the same perfume hoping that this would be the answer. The nurse wore her perfume religiously. Agnes did not, and therefore the living room was where the affair continued to happen.

 So it came as a blunt surprise when Agnes asked the question one evening over supper: Which one of your nurses are you sleeping with?’ At first, it struck him how placid and benign her voice was. It was almost as though she was asking about the procedures he performed that week. Which surgery did he find the most complicated, how was the pro bono work going, were the doctors going on strike after all. Not whom he was unfaithful with. Who had he jeopardised 49 years of matrimony for? What would she tell the other elders? He laughed at her. He laughed at himself; how could she have not known? Samwel was a respected man in their community, and people talked fast. Still, he knew this was not the only reason why. He knew he was careless, and this relieved him.

They finished the rest of their supper in silence, without the sounds of the British detectives to compliment the clatter of their spoons. That evening, Agnes slept in her eldest son’s vacated room, as she had done for the past 30 years.


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