Nouta Ahito stood at her door, her gaze intent, as she stared at the fat drops falling on the steps outside her house. Rain, the blessed waters from the skies, the tears wept by the earth, her most feared enemy, taunted her. The faster it fell, the more it mocked her, and she could do nothing. She wished for super powers. How wonderful it would be if she could wave her hand and stop this rain. She groaned long and hard, and closed the door, escaping the upsetting scene.
Nouta walked to her chair at the dining table and stared at her cup of tea, now cold.
“What are we going to do?” her sister asked.
She looked up to see her sister watching her. Everyone in the house knew that when it rained, she worried. At some point, in the past two years, rain had become her nemesis. She loved the hot months, and never complained even when it got too hot in January. Everyone complained then, but not her. No, hot months were her favorite days.
Well, during the warm months, she did not have to worry about a muddy access road.
Nouta was a business woman. She ran a baking skills training workshop at her family home. She was proud of her training workshop: a neat green building, constructed with mabati she had painted green. She had furnished it with all the baking equipment she could find, and more to come. She liked calling it a workshop because it was not an institution.
She enjoyed focusing on her work: on the process of imparting knowledge to a new baking student. It was hands on, practical, and personal. Her workshop would never be an institution. She was proud of that. However, banks consistently and with precise prejudice categorized her as a small business, without the enterprise in the SME acronym. They did not look at her or favor her business. Not even when she had all the necessary city and government permits. Banks would not touch her with a ten-foot pole.
Sometimes, Nouta imagined, they probably smelled her coming into the bank to seek a loan for her small business and locked the vaults.
Don’t let her know we have the money, the officers would say to each other, and then chortle when she walked out.
She was too young, the loan officer would say. As if, twenty-eight was just right, she thought. Her faults were that she was single, with no rich husband in sight. Her business was a passing fancy: because doing business in her family home was a temporary thing, a passing thing, it won’t last, they said.
Ah, her personal favorite was when once, a loan officer told her not to worry because her parents would get her a job soon. In this day and age, jobs were about as available as unicorns in the sky. Nouta rolled her eyes at that memory. She doubted that loan officer had seen a unicorn in the sky. How did he know her parents would help her find a job? Her mother did not have that kind of motivation.
The rain amped up its rhythm as though demanding Nouta’s attention, she sighed. Her biggest challenge in life, was not running a business, she was managing that. No, her challenge was getting a decent access road, one that didn’t flood, or get muddy with each flash of rain. She needed money to fix the access road to their home. Her business could not afford it as an expense, yet. She couldn’t get a loan, so it was not a quick fix.
Customers hated muddy roads, especially when they came from neat tarmac roads. No one wanted to trudge through the mud and ruin good shoes. She could understand that even respect it. However, her business had to move forward. She needed her customers to reach her, so that she could keep saving to fix the muddy access road. And so, the love of sunny months and the hate and stress of rainy days started, and turned into her daily struggle.
Nouta got up from her seat and went to heat up her tea and sweet potatoes. She needed a good breakfast. She needed to be at full energy to convince the two women visiting her workshop today to sign up for a class.
What was a little rain, she thought. What was a little mud?
She was strong enough to face down barbarians if they ever appeared in her corner in Nairobi. Nouta chuckled at that stupid idea and set the microwave to heat her tea.
“We will manage,” she said to her sister, when she got back to the dining table.
“Well, if the two ladies don’t sign up, we’ll look for others,” Lita echoed, nodding her head. “I’ll offer to get them from the road with gumboots, if they need it.”
“Or, we could pay someone to carry them on the back to the gate,” Nouta suggested, making her sister laugh so hard she almost spilled her tea. “God help him if they are chubby.”
“As if that will happen,” Lita scoffed. “We could try Mutheu’s mkokoteni.”
“I’m not pushing it in the mud,” Nouta said, thinking of the wooden cart with car tires Mutheu drove. “Besides, he’ll just walk away if you suggest it. He hates stupidity.”
Lita sighed and sipped her tea.
“It will work out, Nouta,” she said, her sure tone brought comfort to Nouta.
Lita always made it seem as though they could manage any kind of situation, and they did. They always managed.
The first call of the day came right after breakfast. Nouta answered her phone with a sense of calm. Her first client was already on the way to visit the workshop. She sounded levelheaded, and friendly. Nouta took the opportunity to warn her of the rain.
“It’s a bit muddy,” Nouta said. “Do you have sturdy shoes?”
“It was raining at my place too. I’m prepared.”
“Okay,” Nouta said, hopeful.
She ended the call, giving her sister a small smile, though the nerves didn’t disappear. They already had two students in place, and needed two more to fill the current class. Two more to make a profit, otherwise they might need to cancel the class or do it at a loss. This was their constant struggle.
It was nine in the morning. The rain kept up for another thirty minutes, and then it stopped. The sun stayed hidden behind clouds. Their dirt road would take a while before it dried. There would be mud; there was no escaping that reality. Nouta finished her third cup of tea.
At ten, her first client called her. She was at the end of the access road. She sounded unsure about her destination. Nouta came out of the house and went to stand at the gate.
“You’re on the right track,” Nouta assured her. “I can come to you with gumboots. Or meet you at the road—”
“Ah, I see you. It’s not that far after all. I’m on the way,” the lady said, and ended the call.
Nouta stood at the gate watching the woman who entered the access road. Her steps were steady as she navigated the muddy road, jumping over puddles, and going around rough patches. It took her five minutes to reach Nouta.
When she did, Nouta realized why the lady had been so confident. She wore gumboots on her feet. Black gumboots with a silver bow on the side, they were so handsome, Nouta could not help but smile wide.
“Karibu,” she said, holding out her hand to her first client of the day. “Welcome to Nolita’s Baking Workshop.”
“Hi, I’m Halima. I’m so honored to meet you, Nouta,” Halima said, taking her hand in greeting. “I have heard you’re the best in the city. I’ve wanted to take classes with you, and always missed intake. I couldn’t pass up the chance to sign up with you this time, so here I am.”
Charmed, Nouta launched into a conversation about the workshop and the upcoming classes, forgetting about the mud.
They entered the compound and went straight to the green workshop. They talked for thirty minutes, and by the time Halima was ready to leave, she had paid a deposit. Halima booked her spot for the class. Nouta walked her to the gate, and once again remembered the state of the road.
“I’m so sorry about the road,” Nouta felt compelled to say. “It’s not usually so muddy.”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that,” Halima said, showing off her gumboots. “Your road is just like ours at home. I don’t mind it, Nouta. I’ll see you on Monday next week. I look forward to learning from you.”
Nouta smiled wide and waved Halima off. The first client of the day had set her mind at ease. She rushed back to the house in a pleased mood to share the news with her sister.
Flush with a win of the day, Nouta waited for the next call with less anxiety. It came at around twelve o’clock. The sun was peeking out, the ground less wet from the morning rain. Nouta felt confident that their muddy road was easier to pass now, than earlier. When she answered the call, she was pleasantly surprised to discover that her next client had a car.
Great, she thought. This will be even easier.
Nouta gave her precise directions to their access road, and the lady promised to call when she reached. It took another thirty minutes. Nouta was surprised when she answered the call and the lady on the other end sounded less than cheerful.
“You didn’t tell me the road was so muddy. Why would you keep that from me?”
“I’m sorry, I told you it rained,” Nouta said. “Our access road is a dirt road. I was very clear about that from the beginning.”
“No, no, no,” the lady said, as though saying it in threes made it more negative than it already was.
Nouta felt a flush of annoyance race through her. She sat at the dining table working on her laptop. Opening her email, she double-checked the message she had sent to the lady. In the directions, she clearly stated the access road was a dirt road. It was necessary, especially in Nairobi. She had dealt with all kinds of people. It was always easiest to describe the destination without rose-colored glasses. Her home area was not upscale Lavington, but it also was not slummy, but a homey kind of area. Farms and family homes dominated the street.
“I’m not sure I can make it for this class,” the lady on the other end said to her. “First, it’s so far and now this muddy road…”
“Where are you coming from?” Nouta asked, curious.
“South C,” the lady said, indignation clear in her tone. “It took me almost an hour to get here.”
Nouta wanted to point out that it took her just as long to get to Eastlands. This was Nairobi, no place was close, and no place was far. Two, last month, she had a student who had come all the way from Muranga every morning. That was four to five hours away. She was still awed at that boy’s dedication to his baking dreams. He never missed a day, and was never late.
What was South C? Ndwaru Road was not in Ukambani, but in Dagoretti. Less than an hour away if you took the newly minted bypass. She rolled her eyes, but did not voice her opinion. She kept her tone calm when she spoke.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” Nouta said. “Since you’ve come all this way, wouldn’t you like to see the place? We can talk—”
“What about my car?” the lady asked. “I can’t drive in to this mud. Who can I ask to watch it? I don’t even have gumboots to walk in the mud.”
Nouta fought the urge to talk back and pushed her chair back
“We have clean gumboots I can bring to you,” Nouta said. “I’ll be at the road in five minutes. Please wait for me.”
She ended the call and let out a frustrated groan.
Why had she attracted this lady again? If she was from South C, why didn’t she then get a baking teacher from there? Why come all the way here? Why the frustration when the woman had a car?
Nouta found the clean gumboots. She slipped her feet into her own used ones and gripped her phone tight as she left the house. She headed to the road with an annoyed sigh. Why did she need the money so bad?
Nouta breathed in and out on the five-minute walk to the main road. She was right about the access road. It was much easier to navigate, with only a single rough patch in the middle. A car could manage it with no trouble. When she reached the road, she bit back a curse word when she saw the white jeep waiting on the curb. The driver rolled down the window and she met her second would be-client.
“Hi, I’m Rose. You must be Nouta,” Rose said, smiling at her from the safety of her car. “How come you don’t have a branch in town?”
Nouta slipped her phone into her jeans pocket. She worried she might crash it with anger and frustration. She hated this question most. Did Rose even understand the logistics of opening a second branch in Nairobi town? The capital that would involve, the amount of money she would need to sink into marketing to make both places work. Why ask such a question?
“Oh, we’re working hard to get one,” Nouta said in her most cordial voice.
“Oh well, I don’t think my car can make it through that mud,” Rose said, shaking her head, looking at the access road, disdain clear in her eyes. “Is it always like this?”
Nouta bit her bottom lip, and breathed in and out.
“No. It rained this morning. If you give it a few hours, it will be good as new.”
“Why can’t you get it fixed?” Rose asked.
Nouta smiled, because the alternative was to shout, maybe shed a few tears of frustration.
“We’re working on it,” Nouta said. “You know how it is.”
Actually, Rose’s expression said, she had no idea how it was to mobilize neighbors in such areas. To get them to work with you, or otherwise, you work alone and find the money to fix the access road. Nouta sighed and lifted the gumboots.
“You can wear these,” Nouta said.
She then pointed at the small parking lot in front of the small shopping center to her immediate right. She was friends with all the shop owners in the center.
“If you park here no one will touch your car.”
“It doesn’t look safe,” Rose said, giving the shopping center a skeptical glance.
“It is,” Nouta said, her tone strong, leaving no doubt.
Rose looked at her for a minute, and then started the car. When she backed up, Nouta took a moment to study the Jeep. It looked too clean and the tires were new. Rose had stopped the car at the entrance into the parking lot, and wasn’t moving.
Nouta closed her eyes, a tirade forming in her head.
‘Let me ask you a question,’ she wanted to say to Rose. ‘Let me really ask you a question. Do you want to tell me that you have never traveled upcountry? Do you not visit your grandmother in your fancy car? Are you telling me your big car does not and cannot drive on muddy roads? What is a small stretch to the green gate? Three minutes, probably less, those tires look new. Are you telling me you can’t drive to that gate, to my place of business, because the road is muddy and not tarmacked?’
Nouta let frustration ride her for a full minute, and then she opened her eyes to find Rose still paused at the parking lot.
In life, there was one lesson she had learned. She could not force someone into joining her class. There was nothing like teaching a mind that was skeptical. It felt like adding milk into an already full gourd bottle.
Rose looked like a full gourd bottle
Nouta hugged her clean gumboots and walked up to Rose’s car.
Rose’s window was open, so she smiled as Rose turned to look at her.
“I’m sorry, Rose. I don’t think we’re meant to be. I’m afraid it will rain all next week, and our road will be very muddy. Thank you for coming all this way,” Nouta said. “I will send you a free recipe e-book for the trouble.”
Rose studied her for a moment, and then smiled, as though relieved.
“It was nice to meet you, Nouta.”
“You too, Rose.”
Nouta smiled at her as courteous as could be.
In the next minute, Rose pulled out and was on her way back to South C.
Nouta worried she would need to monitor her social media pages, in case Rose wrote a bad review about her location, or even her experience. She worried about this encounter until she was at her gate again, only to receive a call from her sister.
“Where are you?” Lita asked.
“At the gate,” Nouta said, heaving a sigh as she entered the compound.
“Oh great, we have a client who just paid for the class. She wanted to meet you.”
“What?” Nouta grinned. “How?”
“She walked in like three minutes after you went to deal with the one at the road.”
Nouta hurried to the green workshop her worries disappearing. They had won the day. Their class was full. They had managed this round. She would worry about the rest as it came, she decided.
For all the women in Small Medium Enterprises (SME). You are super women.