Monday, September 22, 2014
Featured Poet: Wordbenda MC: Cindy Ogana Date: 7th October 2014 Time: 7.00pm - 9.30pm Venue: Mama Ngina Street, IMAX Cinema, Arfa Lounge Entry: 400 Ksh at the gate. Advance tickets only via Mpesa at ksh300: Simply select "Buy Goods" on your MPesa menu, enter the "Till Number" (56714) and follow instructions to complete transaction. As a child, Wordbenda’s world was shattered when he moved schools and discovered that he could not fit in with the other kids simply because he wasn’t ‘cool’ enough. He retreated in to a shy cocoon and would rarely express himself. Upon invitation Wordbenda performed a spoken word piece at a local poetry event. He received a standing ovation and a call for encore yet it was his first time performing! From then on he knew he was destined to bend words hence the name Wordbenda. In January 2012 Wordbenda won the poetry competition Slam Africa. Later in the year he completed his studies at Penya Africa’s Sauti Academy artist development program, and ventured out into the music industry. He has since performed at various events both within Kenya and out. He has also been featured on international internet based platforms such as BadilishaPoetry and iGrooveRadio. Wordbenda completed his undergraduate in Film Production and uses the skills learned to tell stories through film. INSPIRATION Real life experiences, freedom struggle and overcoming the tag of underdog are key themes in Wordbenda’s pieces and hip hop music provides a most suitable platform for expressing these sentiments. A listen to his work is like a walk in an art gallery with pictures of a man trying to please God in this voyage called life, a young lion learning to emulate his Father Lion.
Monday, September 15, 2014
Sunday, September 14, 2014
That last Sunday of 2007, just a few days before Jimmy Gikonyo’s eighteenth birthday – when he would become ineligible to use his Nairobi Orphanage family pass – he went to see his old friend, Sebastian the gorilla. Jimmy sat silently on the bench next to the primate’s pit waiting for Sebastian to recognize him. After a few minutes, Sebastian turned his gaze on Jimmy and walked towards the fence. The gorilla’s eyes were rheumy, his movements slow and careful. Their interaction was now defined by that strange sense of inevitable nostalgia that death brings, even when the present has not yet slipped into the past. Jimmy removed the tattered pass from his pocket and read the fine print on the back: This lifetime family pass is only for couples and children under eighteen years of age. There was a sign on the side of Sebastian’s cage: ‘Oldest Gorilla in the World. Captured and Saved from the Near Extinction of His Species After the Genocide in Rwanda. Sebastian, 56. Genus: Gorilla.’ The Sunday Standard beside him said: Nairobi, Kisumu, Kakamega and Coast Province in Post-Election Violence After Presidential Results Announced. That Sunday morning was strangely cold for late December. When Jimmy looked around, every one of the animals seemed to agree, each exhibiting a unique brand of irritation. 11 a.m. was the best time to visit the orphanage. The church-going crowd that came in droves in the afternoon was still worshipping, so the place was empty. He had come here first as a toddler. They acquired their family pass in the days when his father was a trustee of the Friends of Nairobi National Park but his father soon found the trips boring, and for some years, Jimmy had come here alone with his mother. When Jimmy was twelve his father left them, and Jimmy began to come on his own, except for the year he had been in and out of hospital. That year, he borrowed a book called Gorilla Adventure by Willard Price from a school friend. He had read it from cover to cover, in the night, using a torch under the blanket and eventually falling asleep. He woke up to find the book tangled and ruined in urine-stained sheets. He had received a beating from the owner that had only increased his love for the mountain gorilla. For the rest of his primary school years he would take the lonely side in arguments about whether a gorilla could rumble a tiger, or whether a polar bear could kill a mountain gorilla. Feeding time was Jimmy’s favourite moment of the day at the park – sacks of cauliflower plopping into the hippo pool, the dainty-toed river horses huffing. Until Sebastian had fallen sick, Jimmy had helped the handlers in the feeding tasks: crashing meaty hunks against the carnivores’ cages and forking in bales of grass and leaves for the others. These times became the fulcrum of his weeks, defining his priorities and spirit more than his mother’s war with the doors of the small Kileleshwa flat they now lived in; her daily conflicts with the cheap dishes which she had to wash herself as they could no longer afford a maid; their strange and sometimes psychotic neighbours; her boyfriends. Week after week, year after year, he listened to the screeching conversations of vervets devouring tangerines, peel and all; the responding calls of parrot, ibis, egret: the magenta, indigo and turquoise noises fluttering in their throats like angry telephones going off at the same time. It took him away from real life. Real life was Evelyn’s College for Air Stewards and Stewardesses which he had attended for a year. Real life was the thin couch he slept on at home. Real life was his mother screaming that he needed to face Real Life. Waking up on Sunday morning and staring at the thin torn curtains of the sitting room, the stained ceiling that sagged and fell a few inches every week and smelt of rat urine, Jimmy often felt he needed to leave the house before his mother asked him to join her and her latest boyfriend for breakfast. Real life was the honey in her voice, the gospel singing in the kitchen as she played Happy Family for her new man. Jimmy was more sensitive to light than most. When he was sixteen, a blood clot had blacked out his sight for months and he had spent most of that year in hospital. ‘Picture an ink stain under his scalp,’ the doctors had told his mother. ‘That’s what’s happening in your son’s head.’ The stain had eventually been sucked out, and the doctors triumphantly gave him large black X-ray sheets for his seventeenth birthday. After fifteen months of seeing the world in partial eclipse, light came alive again for Jimmy in the Animal Orphanage – glinting off slithering green mambas and iridescent pythons, burning in the she-leopard’s eyes high up in her tree. Every July he had watched the two kudu shrug off the cold with dismissive, bristling acceptance, standing like sentinels blowing smoky breaths in a far corner of the enclosure. When the sun travelled back north from the Tropic of Capricorn over November, the two hyenas’ hind legs unlocked and straightened, and they acquired a sort of grace. In August the thick-jawed zebras and black-bearded wildebeest, heeding the old migratory call, would tear from one side of their pen to the other and, finally exhausted, grind their bodies into the ground, raising dust. Over the last year, as Sebastian became more subdued, Jimmy spent more of his Sunday keeping him company. He could sit for hours like Sebastian, rendering the world irrelevant. In the Animal Orphanage, everything outside became the watched. And Jimmy knew all about being watched. What his mum called love. That last Sunday of the year there were still visitors at the orphanage. They carried their apprehension like a badge a day after the election results were announced. All who passed the gorilla pit noticed the slightly built, light-skinned young man with brown hair, a zigzag bolt of lightning on the left side of his scalp, above one ear. He would have been thought good looking, but there was something wrong with the face – a tightness, a lack of mobility. Soon the crowds would arrive, some from church, others rural primary school children in cheap, ugly browns and purples, wearing leather shoes with no socks, smelling of river-washed bodies, road dust, the corn-cob life, meals on a three-stoned hearth. Jimmy knew all about these children – had lived among them, and become one of them after his father had left and his mother had taken them to her parents’ in Kerugoya for six months. On holidays like today, foreign tourists would crawl out of minibuses and crowd the fence as they flipped through the pages of Lonely Planet Kenya, carrying water bottles, cameras, distended stomachs and buttocks, with their wiggling underarms like astronauts on the moon. They watched with strained smiles as their children actualized Mufasa and other television illusions, as they chatted about cutting their trip short, with all that was going on. The children made everyone jump, clanging the metal bars of the cage, trying to get Sebastian’s attention, sticking out their tongues at the immovable hairy figure and having their photos taken. When the warders were not looking, they would throw paper cups and other odds and ends at Sebastian, who threw them back. When the sun crossed its highest point in the sky, faraway screams rent the air. The gazelles and impalas stopped grazing and looked up in their wary way, tensed to accelerate from zero to a hundred as they had always done. The old lions seemed to grin, yawning at a sound they understood only too well, and licked their chops. Smoke billowed in the air from a distance, and loud popping sounds could be heard. In half an hour, as if in response, the crowd had thinned, and Jimmy was left practically alone beside Sebastian’s cage. In the beautiful, quiet afternoon they started their dance, small mimicking movements they shared. Scratches and hand flutters, heads bowed forward and swaying from side to side. Jimmy listened to the faraway sounds once more and said, ‘That must be Kibera. Maybe time I also left, old man.’ Over the last six months Sebastian had started to avoid making eye contact with Jimmy. At first Jimmy had taken offence, then he realized that Sebastian’s eyesight was failing. He had cataracts, and his eyes and cheeks were stained with cakes and trails of mucus. Sometimes Sebastian would join their weekly ritual of movements for only a few sluggish moments, then turn away and slowly walk to the shade. Now they could hear screams coming from Kibera and Jimmy looked up to see a large mushroom cloud as a petrol station was set ablaze in Kenya’s largest slum. Sebastian raised his head ever so slightly to catch the breeze, and he began to pace, nostrils flaring and mucus streaming. He lifted his palm and beat it on the ground along with the faraway popping of gunshots. Jimmy had read all the books there were on gorillas, and he knew about their sense of community, their empathy – their embracing of death. Jimmy had been born not far from State House where the President lived. The house he remembered smelled like the Animal Orphanage. It smelled of the giant pet tortoise that had disappeared when he was eight. After he had cried for a week his mother brought him Coxy, and the house came to smell of rotting cabbage and rabbit urine. Later, when he was older, Mum allowed him to keep pigeons, and they added to the damp animal smell of the house. It smelled of the bottom of the garden where he eventually strangled Coxy and the second rabbit, Baby, and drowned their children, overwhelmed by three squirming litters of rabbits; the piles of shit to clear. His mother found him crying at the foot of the garden and said in consolation, ‘What are rabbits anyway? Your father is a rabbit. Always up in some hole.’ He didn’t keep pets after his father left. They moved into a small flat with skewed stairs and smirking girls in tight jeans who chewed minty gum all day and received visitors all night. Mum said it would still be all right because they were still in Kileleshwa and not far from State House. ‘James’, she would call out, from the chemical haze of her dressing table, ‘pass me the toe holder, pass me the nail polish remover. Come on James, don’t be spastic. Wait till you become a steward, you’ll fly all over the world. With your mum’s looks you’ll be the best,’ she would laugh in the early afternoon, a glass of Johnny Walker Black next to her. ‘Then you can stop spending time with that old gorilla. You know, when your father left I thought that we would just die, but look at us now.’ She would smear on her lipstick and flounce out of the apartment to meet a new man friend. (I’ve no time for boys. I need a man. James, will you be my man? Protect me.) Sebastian rose, slowly coming to rest on knuckled palms. Jimmy watched the gorilla stand on his hind feet and move in the other direction, slowly, towards the other side of the cage. He was listening to something. Jimmy strained, and for a while he heard nothing - and then he felt against his skin rather than his ears, slow whirring sounds, followed by sharp, rapid clicks. A dark tall man walked into view. He walked with his head tilted. And with his dark glasses and sure firm steps, he could have been mistaken for a blind man. He went right to the edge of the gorilla pit, squatted, and, looking down, spoke to Sebastian in a series of tongue clicks, deep throat warbles and low humming. Sebastian bounded to the bottom of the wall standing fully upright, running in short bursts to the left and the right, beating his chest as if he was welcoming an old friend. Then Jimmy distinctly heard the man say something in what he recognized as French. He could not understand any of the words, except, mon frère, mon vieux. The gorilla-talking man walked away briskly, and Sebastian slumped to the ground in his customary place. Jimmy saw the man walk to the orphanage notice board next to the warthog pen and pin something on it. He felt that he recognized him from somewhere; the way that one feels one knows public figures, beloved cartoon characters or celebrities. Jimmy scrambled up, shouldered up his bag and waved goodbye to Sebastian. Now that his pass had expired, the Sunday visits would be infrequent. But what he had just seen told him that those future visits, however rare, might be the most important in all these years he had been coming – an opportunity to talk to Sebastian. The man who now called himself Professor Charles Semambo knew that the Jamhuri Gorilla series of lectures would attract animal science experts from the ministries, and university students – but the rest was decided by the availability of rancid South African wine, wilting sandwiches and toothpick-impaled meatballs. He had learned that the renewal of future contracts was decided in this Nairobi shark pool, and that lectures were where one met and impressed the major players in the game. The unmistakeable smell of sweat came down from the higher levels of the auditorium where members of the public sat. The bucket-like seats comically forced people’s knees up into the air – and Semambo went through the hour allocated for the lecture briskly, enjoying such minor distractions as a glimpse of red or white panties between fat feminine knees. It was his standard lecture: Gorillas 101. Habitat. Behaviour. Group Life. Endangerment. After the lecture, he allowed the five mandatory questions from the audience. As usual, these were either of a post-doctoral nature from the front row of specialists, or idiotic juvenile comments. One man stood up and pleaded for compensation, because a gorilla from a nearby forest where he lived in Kakamega had eaten his child. He said he had voted for the Opposition because the previous government had failed to do anything about it. The people around him laughed. Angalia huu mjinga. Hakuna gorilla Kenya. Ilikuwa baboon. There are no gorillas in Kenya, fool. That was a baboon. The man started weeping and had to be led out. Then the last question: ‘It-is-said-that-far-in-the-mountains-of-Rwanda men-have-learnt-to-talk-to-gorillas. Do-you-think-there-is-any-truth to-such-claims?’ Semambo felt the ground shift slightly beneath him, but as hard as he tried, he could not make out the face that had asked the question. The projector light was right in his face, hiccupping because it had reached the end and caused the words on the screen to blink. Seeking New Habitat in the Face of Human Encroachment: The Mountain Gorilla in Rwanda. ‘Is that a trick question?’ he responded smoothly. The audience laughed. ‘If I say yes, I might sound unscientific, and you know what donors do with such unscientific conjecture, as the esteemed gentlemen sitting before me will attest.’ In the front row, the museum politicos chuckled from deep inside their stomachs. ‘You might have heard of Koko, the famous gorilla who was taught sign language,’ Semambo went on. ‘It is claimed that he is capable of inter-species communication. I think a lot of it is pretty inconclusive. So the answer would be no.’ The piercing voice floated again. Insistent. The face still invisible. ‘I am asking whether you’ve heard of men who can talk to gorillas, not gorillas who can talk to men. ’ The audience was bored now; a couple walked out noisily. Then he saw his questioner. He was just a kid, slight and lithe, about sixteen. Now he remembered – he had seen him a couple of times at the Animal Orphanage. (Was it possible?) Then, unbelievably, the young man took a photo of him. The angry click of the camera felt as if it was right next to his ear, and the flash lit up the whole as auditorium, including a sign that read, CAMERAS NOT ALLOWED. ‘Excuse me. Excuse me, ladies and gentleman. I want to allow the young gentleman the courtesy of an answer. There might be something in what he says. I also want to remind you, young man, that cameras are not allowed in the auditorium.’ There was an uneasy laughter. The herds needed their wine and pastries. Semambo hestitated. ‘But since you all have to leave I will take the young man’s question after the lecture.’ Light applause. Baker, the museum co-ordinator in charge of the lecture series, suddenly emerged from the shadows at the back. A naturalized citizen, he had lived in Kenya since the 1960s, and worked as a functionary of one sort of the other through three regimes. He was useful because he provided a sort of international legitimacy to the thugs who ran the government. When things swung his way, he could be a power broker of sorts, a middleman between a defaulting government and donors. He slid to the front of the podium. ‘Let us give Professor Charles Semambo, our visiting expert on the African Gorilla, attached to the Museum for six months, a big hand. And please join us for wine in the lobby.’ After glad-handing the museum officials, Baker came up to Semambo, his face red with embarrassment. ‘Sorry about the camera.’ ‘Get it,’ he said tightly. He struggled for a smile then said very deliberately, ‘Get me that fucking camera.’ ‘Charles, it’s not that big a deal.’ Semambo wiped the sheen of sweat from his face. It was a bad move to bully Baker: he removed his dark glasses, reaching for a softer, more conciliatory note. ‘Winslow, you have no idea how big a deal it is. I want that camera. Introduce me to the boy. I will do it myself.’ Even if it was fourteen years ago, Semambo clearly remembered the day he had erased his past and come to Kenya. He had met his contact in a seedy restaurant near Nairobi’s City Hall. It seemed a confusing place at first. People sat gathered around tables, wielding folders and clipboards and pens, all having various meetings it seemed. Was it some sort of game? Bingo? He met the man at the bar. ‘This restaurant markets itself to wedding and funeral committees.’ ‘Ah,’ said Semambo, laughing, ‘Where the balance sheets of living and dying are produced. They are counting the cost of life. Very appropriate. Well, here is the cost of mine, exactly counted, in the denominations you asked for.’ The man looked at him and laughed back. ‘I don’t know why. I have to sleep at night you know? Our old man is friendly to your side. Me, I just think you are all butchers…’ A title deed, four different Ugandan passports with appropriate visas and work permits, an identification document and his new name. But hiding was not easy. There were always people looking. A couple of million dollars could only buy you so much. When he turned away from Baker, Semambo was surprised to see the kid standing not five metres away from them. He had been mistaken – the kid was probably closer to eighteen. He had good teeth Semambo saw – a rarity in Kenya. ‘Have we met before?’ ‘No,’ the boy said. ‘But I’ve seen you at the Animal Orphanage. When you come and talk to Sebastian.’ The boy’s voice was a quiet whisper. ‘Sebastian. The gorilla. He’s dying, you know. I need to talk to him before he goes. Can you teach me?’ The boy added breathlessly, ‘He has maybe two months. He’s old. Could even be sixty.’ ‘Yes. I know who you are talking about. And you are?’ ‘Jimmy. Jimmy Gikonyo.’ ‘Call me Charles. Can we talk in my office? Or even better, let’s go somewhere quieter.’ ‘Sorry, but my mother expects me home early.’ ‘I understand. Where do you live? Maybe we can talk on the way as I drop you off. I don’t generally allow people to take photos of me.’ ‘I’m sorry. It’s just that I thought I recognized you from somewhere. Not that we’ve met.’ It was two days after the election results had been announced, and it seemed as if half the drivers in Kenya were in a deep stupour and had forgotten how to drive. Semambo counted three accidents during the fifteen-minute drive from the National Museum to Kileleshwa through Waiyaki Way, then Riverside Drive. They turned off at the Kileleshwa Shell petrol station and the boy gave him directions to a large, busy high-rise off Laikipia road. Two girls loitered outside the grey building. Then a green Mercedes Benz drove up and both jumped in, waving and blowing kisses at Jimmy. The Benz almost collided with a Range Rover that was coming in. The Benz driver, an old African man, threw his hands in the air. The two young men in the other car, one white and the other Kenyan Asian, ignored him, screeched into the parking lot and bounded out of the car. They also waved to Jimmy as they passed. Semambo noticed Jimmy’s hands clench into tight fists. There was a slight breeze, gathering leaves in the now quiet front of the building. It could not, however, drown out the frantic hooting on the main road right outside the block of flats. Semambo suspected that this went on all day and night. Even from inside, one could see a large queue of walking silhouettes, probably going to Kawangware, through the hedge – a parallel exodus of the walking and mobile classes. Back in 1994 when Semambo had first come to Kenya, Kileleshwa was still keeping up appearances - now it seemed victim to all sorts of ugly aspirations and clutchings: tall ice-cream cake apartment buildings that crumbled like Dubai chrome furniture after a few years. ‘Will this be fine with you? I’ll wait here for the photos, then we can discuss gorilla talking lessons,’ Semambo said. ‘You have to come in and meet my mother. She won’t allow me to spend time with you if she doesn’t know who you are.’ Semambo never used lifts. He bounded up the stairs and was not even out of breath when they got to the flat. Claire, Jimmy’s mother, was beautiful. A beauty of contrast – of failure even. Lines crossed her forehead, the crumpling skin astonishingly frail. Her mouth and jaw, perfectly symmetrical, trembled with drunkenness and skewed lipstick: she seemed on the verge of tears. ‘Please come in.’ Semambo could smell the whisky on her breath. The flat had an extremely low ceiling and he had to stoop once he was inside. She prattled on. He sat down and looked around. There was a bottle nestled on the cushions where she must have been sitting. There were two glasses – one empty. ‘I hope you like whisky.’ The flat was crowded with triumphs of the past. There were photos of three strangers, a young man, woman and boy in different settings. The young man in the photo seemed a studious sort, uncomfortable and self-conscious, with his hand held possessively in every photo by a Claire fifteen hard years younger than the woman in front of him now. Jimmy carried both his parents’ features. The world in the photo seemed to have little to do with the small flat Semambo found himself in. He could not stretch his legs and his knees were locked at right angles. Everything had been chosen to fit the flat’s small specifications: the Cheng TV, the Fong music stereo, Sungsam microwave and the cracked glass table. Every appliance in the room was on; even the small washing machine in the corner. The TV was muted. It showed a crowd of young men dancing with pangas, a shop in flames behind them. A washing machine gurgled as Dolly Parton sang in the background. There were two doors to the right, probably the bedrooms, Semambo thought. He could, however, see blankets underneath the other wicker two-seater where Claire was now slumped, peering at him beneath suggestively lidded eyes. ‘Thank God for whisky,’ she purred. ‘One of the last pleasures left to an old woman like me. What you do for fun?’ Her voice sounded breathy and Semambo was uncomfortable. He was no prude, but these were uncertain times, and with her perfume and cigarette smell, her drunkenness and incoherence, she promised nothing less than the loss of control. She poured herself another shot. Jimmy appeared from behind one of the two doors. Semambo was developing a grudging regard for the boy – most teenagers would have taken on a long suffering sullenness with a mother like that. Jimmy treated her like a slightly loopy older sister. ‘Mum. The professor and I need to talk.’ Her face went blank for a while, and the mouth trembled. ‘I’m going to bed. You men are no fun at all.’ She went through the door that the boy had come from and slammed it. The TV now showed a soldier in fatigues creeping against a wall and then shooting down two young men. ‘I need some air,’ Semambo said. Jimmy beckoned and opened the other door. A small room gave on to a narrow balcony that overlooked the parking lot. Semambo crossed over into the open and looked down at his hulking Land Cruiser. Some distance away, towards Kangemi, fires burned into the night, black smoke billowing towards the City Centre. The screams in the air were faint, the gunshots muted, as if coming from another country. Semambo looked out, listening, and shook his head. ‘While some fuss about whether to eat chicken or beef tonight, many won’t see tomorrow morning. We are in the abyss and the abyss is in us.’ He turned and removed his dark glasses. The face was thick and flabby, layered with dark pudge, and there were two large scars running down his neck. Jimmy felt that he needed to back away from the balcony. ‘Do you think that it will get much worse?’ he asked. ‘Only when you see the fires in your parking lot.’ ‘I never thought that the end of our world could happen so slowly. This all started when Sebastian fell sick. Can you teach me to talk to him?’ ‘That might not be possible. His time might be nearer than we think. Just like ours. Maybe I can tell him how you feel. Let us go see him.’ Now the screams and wails began on the Langata side of the city. By the time they were near the Nairobi Animal Orphanage, their faces were lit up in the cabin of the Land Cruiser by the fire on Kibera plain. They sped down Mbagathi Way, turned up Langata Road and past Carnivore restaurant as if driving around in hell. Figures danced in the road, yelling and waving pangas, grotesque in the firelight. ‘Hide in the back and whatever you do, don’t come out. You will only excite them.’ Once they were clear, Jimmy jumped into the back seat. ‘What do you talk about with Sebastian?’ ‘Can you imagine what Sebastian has seen of man since he was born?’ They had reached the gate of the orphanage. ‘Get back into the boot and hide.’ A guard came up to the Land Cruiser smiling brightly and peered into the car. ‘Habari, Professor. What brings you here at this time of the night.’ ‘My old friend is dying, and I need to see him.’ ‘Yes, he hasn’t eaten today.’ Jimmy sat back up as they drove in. In the orphanage, the animals’ nocturnal sounds drowned out the sounds of fighting from the neighbouring slum. Then, for a while, everything was quiet. ‘I don’t think Sebastian has long. Living by Kibera has aged him impossibly. Nothing alive can take the past he has come from and then have to repeat it in old age.’ When they finally got to the gorilla pit, Sebastian lay on his side, heaving. Semambo rushed to where the wall was at its lowest and jumped into the enclosure, landing as silently as a cat. Jimmy passed him his bag through the front metal bars. Semambo went back to the gorilla, crooning all the while. Sebastian tried getting up. A huge light climbed up in the sky, followed by a large explosion. Sebastian twitched and lay back with a giant sigh. Semambo removed a long syringe from his bag and filled it with fluid. ‘Goodbye, old friend.’ Jimmy ran to the back wall and scrambled to where Semambo had jumped down. When he hit the ground inside the cage he felt something give in his left ankle. He hobbled to the middle – Sebastian had stopped moving. Semambo removed a small razor from his bag and shaved the left side of Sebastian’s thick chest. Semambo plunged the long needle into the small, naked spot and pressed the syringe home, and in that single motion the gorilla sat up immediately. He started clawing at his chest where the injection had gone in, roaring madly and beating his chest until the rest of the animals joined in, drowning out the din of man, and fire and death. Sebastian whirled his arms like windmills. Semambo stood without moving, then Sebastian wrapped his arms around him, roaring enough to drown out the rest of the world. Jimmy had scrambled away to the edge of the cage and Semambo’s face turned apoplectic, red, crisscrossed with blood vessels. His glasses fell off, and his light eyes turned darker as the two figures became one.
Saturday, September 13, 2014
I knew that if Ma found out about Boeta and me, she would probably lock me up. My mother had never liked the Groenewalds. She always said that they were evil people and that we shouldn’t mix with that sort. ‘Meng jou met die semels en die varke vreet jou op’ — that’s what Ma says about people she thinks are sinful. Boeta used to hand me letters under the desk in Afrikaans class. I never guessed that I would fall in love with ‘Boeta the Mail Boy’. But nou ja, I do not question our stolen times together. It was so secret neither my sisters nor God knew. He told me that he wanted to build houses like his father who had built the klipkerkie in Dempers Street. I liked talking to him and listening to his ideas about life. Sometimes we just went to go and sit at the vlei and talk. No one visited it anymore and it was close to church so I would always have an excuse if Ma asked. For a long time we only held hands. Then, after a few weeks, Boeta let me rest my head on his shoulders or sometimes he lay on my lap and we would talk about all kinds of things. About exams and about life here in Strandtjiesvlei. When Hellie wrote to me about the bright lights in Cape Town, I showed him the letter. In it my sister had included a R5 note and a picture of her and a handsome man. She was wearing a pink dress and sandals and he was wearing high-waist pants and a tucked shirt and sun-glasses. He was a mechanic and he had a car which he drove her around in. Boeta smiled and said he would make an even better life for us. My heart began to beat really fast when our fingers gently crossed into each other’s. When we kissed for the first time, he looked at me smiling. ‘What?’ I asked. ‘Do you know our eyes are the same’? I did not know what to say. He rubbed his nose against mine. When I got home, I went straight to my bedroom. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. It was our secret. There was a knock on my door. It was Ma. ‘I got Mrs Williams at the shop, Father Williams’ wife.’ My eyes went big in my head; immediately I thought, ‘Oh my God she found out!’ Why else would the Pastor’s wife be speaking to her? I could hear my heart beat in my chest. ‘Father Williams wants to see you tomorrow.’ ‘Oh, thank you Ma.’ ‘Just don’t be late, it sounds important.’ I felt relief. My secret about Boeta was still safe. I knew why Father Williams was looking for me. He was helping me apply for the teaching college in Wellington. Father Williams was hoping I would get a bursary, but we both knew it was going to be difficult. This was another secret I was keeping from Ma. I knew she would not have approved. She would have thought I was reaching above my station. Boeta. The bursary. When had I started to keep so much from my mother? I woke up the next morning. I was almost late for my duties at the church. If Ma had not woke me up so violently I would have overslept. ‘What is it with you?’ I was rushing to get dressed and to gather my things together. ‘That shirt is not ironed.’ She scowled. ‘No child of mine walks about in town with a creased shirt. What will the people say? We are gossiped about enough. Het jy muisneste in jou kop?’ ‘No Ma’, I replied fixing my cardigan. When I got to the church and Father Williams’ study I knocked very gently. I was shivering from nerves like a wet dog. ‘Come inside Lieda, have a seat.’ ‘Good morning.’ Father William’s eyes look concerned. We had been waiting for a response for some time now. I took the brown envelope. It had my address on it. ‘Well go on,’ he said, ‘it is not going to open itself.’ I opened the letter, hands shivering. ‘Dear Miss Aploon’ I began to read. The letter made me feel so important. I had never been called a Miss before. ‘I got in and the bursary too.’ ‘Congratulations Lieda. I know you have your concerns but you must tell your mother. I’m sure she will be delighted.’ ‘Maybe if you tell her, Father Williams, she will understand. ’ ‘It is not my place, Lieda. I am very sorry. You will have to tell her yourself.’ ‘How? She will never listen to me. Look what happened to my sisters.’ Ma had stopped talking to my sisters when they moved to Cape Town. ‘Why don’t you write her a letter?’ ‘Letter? I will think about it. Thank you, Father.’ ‘Good luck Lieda.’ As I walked home I tried to think about all that was happening to me. Boeta. Our love. And now Wellington next year if I did well enough in my exams. I knew I would pass them. I had been studying very hard, and I got As for most of my subjects during the year. But I was scared about telling Ma this news. I knew she wanted me to work for Miss Wilkenson. To settle down here and look after her. She always complained about her hands and feet. I didn’t want to be like Ma. I didn’t want to die in Strandjiesfontuin. On the day our exam results were due, all of the Standard 10s got up early to wait for Oom Japie to deliver Die Burger. I knew my name would not be so hard to look for because it’s fifth on the class list. We thought we could buy it from Oom Japie directly, but he said it belonged to the shop. So we had to wait until Mr. Ford came to open up the shop. The newspaper was R1. We clubbed together and bought a newspaper and Hans Olivier read out the names: ‘Cindy Abrahams, Johan Abrahams… Lieda Aploon.’ Boeta was so happy he ran towards me. But realizing what he was about to do, he stopped and walked towards me and shook my hands. We didn’t want the rest of the class to know that we were seeing each other. ‘Congratulations, Lieda.’ Boeta said, trying to hide his smile. ‘See you at youth practice tonight, Boeta.’ My friends Bettie, Sheila and Dawn gathered around to congratulate me. They already found work, working as flower packers like their mothers. They seemed to be excited working as blomme meisies. Later that day, I could not keep my eyes off Boeta at Youth Practice. I watched him laughing with his friends, hands in his white pants’ side pockets and blue tucked-in shirt. Father Williams brought along a camera and we all stood huddled up together trying to get into the picture. The boys were sitting on their knees with big afros, the girls with pastel coloured cardigans and of course Lennie the youth league’s clown, lying on his side, with his tongue sticking out. Everyone was busy playing dominoes and cards when Boeta asked if he could have a word outside. I could see Adam sticking his elbow into Paul’s ribs, but I tried to give them no attention. We went out the back and stood in the corner between the toilets and the big guava tree. It was quiet and the night air was warm and there was not a single cloud in the sky. I was shivering so badly not because I was cold, but because I was so nervous. He gave me his leather jacket. ‘Daarso, just like Michael Jackson’s.’ ‘Boeta?’ ‘Yes?’ ‘Do you think we will always recognise each other, like we do now? Even after I go to Wellington?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘It’s just that this, what we have – I don’t even know what to call it –’ ‘Love,’ he interrupted. ‘Yes, love.’ I agreed, half smiling. Suddenly my smile disappeared, ‘Boeta, I don’t want keep this secret anymore. It feels wrong to lie to Ma.’ ‘I agree, so what do we do?’ ‘I don’t know Boeta, really I don’t.’ ‘Well if she chases you away you can stay with us.’ ‘No, that would break Ma’s heart. You know how she feels about your family.’ ‘So keep the secret rather?’ ‘Yes, let’s.’ Two more weeks passed. Boeta and I saw each other whenever we could. Soon it would be time for me to leave for Wellington. I had already packed my suitcase along with my diary, my photo album, Ouma’s brooch and the photo of the youth league. I had pushed it under my bed, out of Ma’s sight. I hadn’t yet found the courage to tell her about the bursary, but I wrote her a letter explaining why I was going. I was checking the suitcase was still out of sight when Ma called me from the back. ‘Would you do the groceries today? The list is on the kitchen table.’ ‘Yes, Ma.’ She went on tending to her asters, stink Afrikaners and daisies. Ma was totally unaware of me and my new life waiting for me and Boeta, I thought as I walked to the shop. We, her three children always knew not to ask questions, just trust and obey, I thought. Ma can keep her secrets I don’t want to know why she doesn’t like the Groenewalds. I looked down at the shopping list. Fish oil, butter, eggs, sugar and some moerkoffie — usual stuff — and of course some Sunlight Soap which was always on the list. Ma washes every day of her life. When I got home, Ma was sitting in the living room with a letter lying on the table. ‘Who is this boy writing to you?’ ‘Where did Ma get that?’ ‘Count your words, girlie. Don’t play around. If you want to screw around, you do that under your own roof, not under my roof. Do you want to end up like your sisters? They put me to shame.’ ‘It’s not like that Ma, I say. We are not… he is a kind person, he makes me happy.’ ‘I want to meet this Boeta. Invite him over for dinner.’ ‘Yes Ma, you will like him, he lives in…’ ‘I am sure he can explain himself to me and also explain why he did not have the decency to ask me for permission.’ I ran out of the house towards Dempers Street number two. When I got to the house, Boeta’s father was standing over the hekkie, smoking tobacco out of his pipe. ‘Good afternoon, Uncle Ouboeta, is Boeta home?’ ‘Sak Sarel,Gedorie, don’t choke on your spit. Boeta is not here, girlie. He went to Hermanus for that building job. He is planning on learning from the boss himself.’ ‘When will he be back, Oom?’ ‘Six or seven I think, yes six or seven.’ ‘Uhm, my Ma invited him to dinner.’ ‘Ne? Julle klogoed van vandag.’ He chuckled. Ma made cabbage bredie, with lamb pieces, rice and beetroot made with a bit of vinegar and sugar. We sat at the kitchen table looking at the candle burning. My mother believed that you never eat without the guest so we just sat here, waiting for Boeta. I didn’t mind — I had a lot on my mind and it seemed Ma did too, sitting across the table. We heard the hekkie go open and Ma got up to answer the door. ‘Oh,’ I heard Ma say in the kitchen, ‘who are you looking for?’ ‘My dad said you invited me.’ It was Boeta’s voice. I got up and went to stand a few steps behind my mother in the kitchen. Boeta was still standing in the doorway. Ma looked from him to me and froze. ‘May I come in?’ He asked, politely. ‘No, never are you allowed to come here, get out of here. Don’t ever come near my daughter, you bastard!’ ‘I don’t understand, Mrs Aploon?’ ‘Did your father put you up to this? He probably did. The bastard!’ ‘Ma what is going on?’ I had never seen my mother behave this way before. ‘You stay out of this, Lieda. Go to your room!’ ‘You and your father are sick people! How could you do this to me and my daughter? Have you no shame. Your father broke my heart, all those years ago and now he wants to do the same, using his children.’ ‘Excuse me ma’am I have no idea what you are talking about. I love your daughter I was going to ask you if I could marry Lieda.’ ‘WHAT?!’ She screams, ‘Sit jy op die paal, mytjie?’ She slammed the door in Boeta face. ‘Huh? No, Ma. No! How can you even ask me that? He would never…’ But Ma was so angry I was scared to approach her. She slumped down at the kitchen table. When she looked up I saw that she was white as a laken. ‘He would, he would, and that’s what his father did. He said we were going to get married.’ Her voice was trembling and so was she. ‘What?’ I asked, ‘Who were you going to marry?’ Ma looked at me, straight into my face. The tears were sliding down her cheeks now. ‘Boeta’s father.’ she whispered. ‘We were, until his cousin told me he was married already. I gave myself for him. He left me to suffer by myself — my husband had died a year ago, and he was my comfort. He left me alone to suffer in 1975. I had three children. And he had the audacity to come live here with his family. It shred me to pieces, but I got a job at missies and raised my children by myself. You. I raised you by myself, without his help. Now that bastard and his son come here and try and mess up my life!’ ‘I’m sure you have the wrong person in mind,’ I say. Boeta’s father… you… we are… that would make Boeta.’ ‘Yes, you are, you are… kyk bietjie, your eyes, they are the same. It’s his… George Groenewald’s eyes.’ I sat with my back against the wall, too shocked to cry. I could see Boeta’s eyes gleaming. Did he know. Did Boeta know. He could not have known. ‘I had to protect you. From them. Now you can see why I told not to mix with them.’ ‘THEY DIDN’T KNOW MA. THEY DIDN’T KNOW. UNCLE OUBOETA DIDN’T KNOW MA, YOU DIDN’T TELL HIM.’ She walked past me, to her room, and prayed loudly. I got up. My whole body ached. My heart was broken. I went to my room and took out my suitcase from under the bed and walked over to Father Williams’ house. I didn’t say anything to Ma. I didn’t tell her where I was going. Mrs Williams welcomed me. ‘May I stay here for the night, it’s probably better as we leaving early tomorrow morning for college.’ ‘Hi kint, have you been crying, is it your mother?’ ‘She doesn’t want you to go?’ I just nodded my head and let Mrs Williams take my suitcase. ‘Ag, she will come by, once she understands. Every mother is scared for her children’s well-being.’
Friday, September 12, 2014
(A lost chapter from One Day I Will Write About This Place) 11 July, 2000. This is not the right version of events. Hey mum. I was putting my head on her shoulder, that last afternoon before she died. She was lying on her hospital bed. Kenyatta. Intensive Care. Critical Care. There. Because this time I will not be away in South Africa, fucking things up in that chaotic way of mine. I will arrive on time, and be there when she dies. My heart arrives on time. I am holding my dying mother’s hand. I am lifting her hand. Her hand will be swollen with diabetes. Her organs are failing. Hey mum. Ooooh. My mind sighs. My heart! I am whispering in her ear. She is awake, listening, soft calm loving, with my head right inside in her breathspace. She is so big – my mother, in this world, near the next world, each breath slow, but steady, as it should be. Inhale. She can carry everything. I will whisper, louder, in my minds-breath. To hers. She will listen, even if she doesn’t hear. Can she? Mum. I will say. Muum? I will say. It grooves so easy, a breath, a noise out of my mouth, mixed up with her breath, and she exhales. My heart gasps sharp and now my mind screams, sharp, so so hurt so so angry. “I have never thrown my heart at you mum. You have never asked me to.” Only my mind says. This. Not my mouth. But surely the jerk of my breath and heart, there next to hers, has been registered? Is she letting me in? Nobody, nobody, ever in my life has heard this. Never, mum. I did not trust you, mum. And. I. Pulled air hard and balled it down into my navel, and let it out slow and firm, clean and without bumps out of my mouth, loud and clear over a shoulder, into her ear. “I am a homosexual, mum.” July, 2000. This is the right version of events. I am living in South Africa, without having seen my mother for five years, even though she is sick, because I am afraid and ashamed, and because I will be thirty years old and possibly without a visa to return here if I leave. I am hurricaning to move my life so I can see her. But she is in Nakuru, collapsing, and they will be rushing her kidneys to Kenyatta Hospital in Nairobi, where there will be a dialysis machine and a tropical storm of experts awaiting her. Relatives will rush to see her and, organs will collapse, and machines will kick into action. I am rushing, winding up everything to leave South Africa. It will take two more days for me to leave, to fly out, when, in the morning of 11 July 2000, my uncle calls me to ask if I am sitting down. “ She’s gone, Ken.” I will call my Auntie Grace in that family gathering nanosecond to find a way to cry urgently inside Baba, but they say he is crying and thundering and lightning in his 505 car around Nairobi because his wife is dead and nobody can find him for hours. Three days ago, he told me it was too late to come to see her. He told me to not risk losing my ability to return to South Africa by coming home for the funeral. I should not be travelling carelessly in that artist way of mine, without papers. Kenneth! He frowns on the phone. I cannot risk illegal deportation, he says, and losing everything. But it is my mother. I am twenty nine. It is 11 July, 2000. I, Binyavanga Wainaina, quite honestly swear I have known I am a homosexual since I was five. I have never touched a man sexually. I have slept with three women in my life. One woman, successfully. Only once with her. It was amazing. But the next day, I was not able to. It will take me five years after my mother’s death to find a man who will give me a massage and some brief, paid-for love. In Earl’s Court, London. And I will be freed, and tell my best friend, who will surprise me by understanding, without understanding. I will tell him what I did, but not tell him I am gay. I cannot say the word gay until I am thirty nine, four years after that brief massage encounter. Today, it is 18 January 2013, and I am forty three. Anyway. It will not be a hurricane of diabetes that kills mum inside Kenyatta Hospital Critical Care, before I have taken four steps to get on a plane to sit by her side. Somebody. Nurse? Will leave a small window open the night before she dies, in the July Kenyatta Hospital cold. It is my birthday today. 18 January 2013. Two years ago, on 11 July 2011, my father had a massive stroke and was brain dead in minutes. Exactly eleven years to the day my mother died. His heart beat for four days, but there was nothing to tell him. I am five years old. He stood there, in overalls, awkward, his chest a railway track of sweaty bumps, and little hard beads of hair. Everything about him is smooth-slow. Bits of brown on a cracked tooth, that endless long smile. A good thing for me the slow way he moves, because I am transparent to people’s patterns, and can trip so easily and fall into snarls and fear with jerky people. A long easy smile, he lifts me in the air and swings. He smells of diesel, and the world of all other people’s movements has disappeared. I am away from everybody for the first time in my life, and it is glorious, and then it is a tunnel of fear. There are no creaks in him, like a tractor he will climb any hill, steadily. If he walks away, now, with me, I will go with him forever. I know if he puts me down my legs will not move again. I am so ashamed, I stop myself from clinging. I jump away from him and avoid him forever. For twentysomething years, I even hug men awkwardly. There will be this feeling again. Stronger, firmer now. Aged maybe seven. Once with another slow easy golfer at Nakuru Golf Club, and I am shaking because he shook my hand. Then I am crying alone in the toilet because the repeat of this feeling has made me suddenly ripped apart and lonely. The feeling is not sexual. It is certain. It is overwhelming. It wants to make a home. It comes every few months like a bout of malaria and leaves me shaken for days, and confused for months. I do nothing about it. I am five when I close my self into a vague happiness that asks for nothing much from anybody. Absent-minded. Sweet. I am grateful for all love. I give it more than I receive it, often. I can be selfish. I masturbate a lot, and never allow myself to crack and grow my heart. I touch no men. I read books. I love my dad so much, my heart is learning to stretch. I am a homosexual.
Friday, September 5, 2014
I had meant to summon my father only long enough to see what his head looked like, but now he was here and I did not know how to send him back. It all started the Thursday that Father Ignatius came from Immaculate Conception in Kitgum. The old women wore their Sunday frocks, and the old men plucked garlands of bougainvillea from the fence and stuck them in their breast pockets. One old man would not leave the dormitory because he could not find his shikwarusi, and when I coaxed and badgered, he patted his hair and said, “My God, do you want the priest from Uganda to think that I look like this every day?” I arranged chairs beneath the avocado tree in the front yard, and the old people sat down and practiced their smiles. A few people who did not live at the home came too, like the woman who hawked candy in the Stagecoach bus to Mathari North, and the man whose oneroomed house was a kindergarten in the daytime and a brothel in the evening, and the woman whose illicit brew had blinded five people in January. Father Ignatius came riding on the back of a bodaboda, and after everyone had dropped a coin in his hat, he gave the bodaboda man fifty shillings and the bodaboda man said, “Praise God,” and then rode back the way he had come. Father Ignatius took off his coat and sat down in the chair that was marked, “Father Ignatius Okello, New Chaplain,” and the old people gave him the smiles they had been practicing, smiles that melted like ghee, that oozed through the corners of their lips and dribbled onto their laps long after the thing that was being smiled about went rancid in the air. Father Ignatius said, “The Lord be with you,” and the people said, “And also with you,” and then they prayed and they sang and they had a feast; dipping bread slices in tea, and when the drops fell on the cuffs of their woollen sweaters, sucking at them with their steamy, cinnamon tongues. Father Ignatius’ maiden sermon was about love: love your neighbour as you love yourself, that kind of self-deprecating thing. The old people had little use for love, and although they gave Father Ignatius an ingratiating smile, what they really wanted to know was what type of place Kitgum was, and if it was true that the Bagisu people were savage cannibals. What I wanted to know was what type of person Father Ignatius thought he was, instructing others to distribute their love like this or like that, as though one could measure love on weights, pack it inside glass jars and place it on shelves for the neighbours to pick as they pleased. As though one could look at it and say, “Now see: I have ten loves in total. Let me save three for my country and give all the rest to my neighbours.” It must have been the way that Father Ignatius filled his mug – until the tea ran over the clay rim and down the stool leg and soaked into his canvas shoe – that got me thinking about my own father. One moment I was listening to tales of Acholi valour, and the next, I was stringing together images of my father, making his limbs move and his lips spew words, so that in the end, he was a marionette and my memories of him were only scenes in a theatrical display. Even as I showed Father Ignatius to his chambers, cleared the table, put the chairs back inside, took my purse, and dragged myself to Odeon to get a matatu to Uthiru, I thought about the millet-coloured freckle in my father’s eye, and the fifty cent coins he always forgot in his coat pockets, and the way each Saturday morning men knocked on our front door and said things like, “Johnson, you have to come now; the water pipe has burst and we are filling our glasses with shit,” and, “Johnson, there is no time to put on clothes even; just come the way you are. The maid gave birth in the night and flushed the baby down the toilet.” Every day after work, I bought an ear of street-roasted maize and chewed it one kernel at a time, and when I reached the house, I wiggled out of the muslin dress and wore dungarees and drank a cup of masala chai. Then I carried my father’s toolbox to the bathroom. I chiselled out old broken tiles from the wall, and they fell onto my boots, and the dust rose from them and exploded in the flaring tongues of fire lapping through chinks in the stained glass. This time, as I did all those things, I thought of the day I sat at my father’s feet and he scooped a handful of groundnuts and rubbed them between his palms, chewed them, and then fed the mush to me. I was of a curious age then; old enough to chew with my own teeth, yet young enough to desire that hot, masticated love, love that did not need to be doctrinated or measured in cough syrup caps. The Thursday Father Ignatius came from Kitgum, I spent the entire night on my stomach on the sitting room floor, drawing my father. In my mind I could see his face, see the lines around his mouth, the tiny blobs of light in his irises, the crease at the part where his ear joined his temple. I could even see the thick line of sweat and oil on his shirt collar, the little brown veins that broke off from the main stream of dirt and ran down on their own. I could see all these things, yet no matter what I did, his head refused to appear within the borders of the paper. I started off with his feet and worked my way up and in the end my father’s head popped out of the edges of the paper and onto scuffed linoleum and plastic magnolias and the wet soles of bathroom slippers. I showed Bwibo some of the drawings. Bwibo was the cook at the old people’s home, with whom I had formed an easy camaraderie. “My God!” Bwibo muttered, flipping through them. “Simbi, this is abnormal.” The word ‘abnormal’ came out crumbly, and it broke over the sharp edge of the table and became clods of loam on the plastic floor covering. Bwibo rested her head on her palm, and the bell sleeves of her cream-coloured caftan swelled as though there were pumpkins stacked inside them. I told her what I had started to believe, that perhaps my father had had a face but no head at all. And even if my father had had a head, I would not have seen it: people’s heads were not a thing that one often saw. One looked at a person, and what one saw was their face: a regular face-shaped face, that shrouded a regular head-shaped head. If the face was remarkable, one looked twice. But what was there to draw one’s eyes to the banalities of another’s head? Most times when one looked at a person, one did not even see their head there at all. Bwibo stood over the waist-high jiko, poured cassava flour into a pot of bubbling water and stirred it with a cooking oar. “Child,” she said, “how do you know that the man in those drawings is your father? He has no head at all, no face.” “I recognize his clothes. The red corduroys that he always paired with yellow shirts.” Bwibo shook her head. “It is only with a light basket that someone can escape the rain.” It was that time of day when the old people fondled their wooden beads and snorted off to sleep in between incantations. I allowed them a brief, bashful siesta, long enough for them to believe that they had recited the entire rosary. Then I tugged at the ropes and the lunch bells chimed. The old people sat eight to a table, and with their mouths filled with ugali, sour lentils and okra soup, said things like, “Do not buy chapati from Kadima’s Kiosk— Kadima’s wife sits on the dough and charms it with her buttocks,” or, “Did I tell you about Wambua, the one whose cow chewed a child because the child would not stop wailing?” In the afternoon, I emptied the bedpans and soaked the old people’s feet in warm water and baking soda, and when they trooped off to mass I took my purse and went home. The Christmas before the cane tractor killed my father, he drank his tea from plates and fried his eggs on the lids of coffee jars, and he retrieved his Yamaha drum-set from a shadowy, lizardy place in the back of the house and sat on the veranda and smoked and beat the drums until his knuckles bled. One day he took his stool and hand-held radio and went to the veranda, and I sat at his feet, undid his laces and peeled off his gummy socks. He wiggled his toes about. They smelt slightly fetid, like sour cream. My father smoked and listened to narrations of famine undulating deeper into the Horn of Africa, and when the clock chimed eight o’clock, he turned the knob and listened to the death news. It was not long before his ears caught the name of someone he knew. He choked on the smoke trapped in his throat. My father said, “Did you hear that? Sospeter has gone! Sospeter, the son of Milkah, who taught Agriculture in Mirere Secondary. My God, I am telling you, everyone is going. Even me, you shall hear me on the death news very soon.” I brought him his evening cup of tea. He smashed his cigarette against the veranda, then he slowly brought the cup to his lips. The cup was filled just the way he liked it, filled until the slightest trembling would have his fingers and thighs scalded. My father took a sip of his tea and said, “Sospeter was like a brother to me. Why did I have to learn of his death like this, over the radio?” Later, my father lay on the fold-away sofa, and I sat on the stool watching him, afraid that if I looked away, he would go too. It was the first time I imagined his death, the first time I mourned. And yet it was not my father I was mourning. I was mourning the image of myself inside the impossible aura of my father’s death. I was imagining what it all would be like: the death news would say that my father had drowned in a cess pit, and people would stare at me as though I were a monitor lizard trapped inside a manhole in the street. I imagined that I would be wearing my green dress when I got the news – the one with red gardenias embroidered in its bodice –and people would come and pat my shoulder and give me warm Coca Cola in plastic cups and say, “I put my sorrow in a basket and brought it here as soon as I heard. How else would your father’s spirit know that I am innocent of his death?” Bwibo had an explanation as to why I could not remember the shape of my father’s head. She said, “Although everyone has a head behind their face, some show theirs easily; they turn their back on you and their head is all you can see. Your father was a good man and good men never show you their heads; they show you their faces.” Perhaps she was right. Even the day my father’s people telephoned to say that a cane tractor had flattened him on the road to Shibale, no one said a thing about having seen his head. They described the rest of his body with a measured delicacy: how his legs were strewn across the road, sticky and shiny with fresh tar, and how one foot remained inside his tyre sandal, pounding the pedal of his bicycle, and how cane juice filled his mouth and soaked the collar of his polyester shirt, and how his face had a patient serenity, even as his eyes burst and rolled in the rain puddles. And instead of weeping right away when they said all those things to me, I had wondered if my father really had come from a long line of obawami, and if his people would bury him seated in his grave, with a string of royal cowries round his neck. “In any case,” Bwibo went on, “what more is there to think about your father, eh? That milk spilled a long time ago, and it has curdled on the ground.” I spent the day in the dormitories, stripping beds, sunning mattresses, scrubbing PVC mattress pads. One of the old men kept me company. He told me how he came to spend his sunset years at the home – in August of 1998 he was at the station waiting to board the evening train back home to Mombasa. When the bomb went off at the American Embassy, the police trawled the city and arrested every man of Arab extraction. Because he was seventy-two and already rapidly unravelling into senility, they dumped him at the old people’s home, and he had been there ever since. “Did your people not come to claim you?” I asked, bewildered. The old man snorted. “My people?” “Everyone has people that belong to them.” The old man laughed. “Only the food you have already eaten belongs to you.” Later, the old people sat in drooping clumps in the yard. Bwibo and I watched from the back steps of the kitchen. In the grass, ants devoured a squirming caterpillar. The dog’s nose, a translucent pink doodled with green veins, twitched. Birds raced each other over the frangipani. One tripped over the power line and smashed its head on the moss–covered electricity pole. Wasps flew low over the grass. A lizard crawled over the lichen that choked a pile of timber. The dog licked the inside of its arm. A troupe of royal butterfly dancers flitted over the row of lilies, their colourful gauze dancing skirts trembling to the rumble of an inaudible drum beat. The dog lay on its side in the grass, smothering the squirming caterpillar and the chewing ants. The dog’s nipples were little pellets of goat shit stuck with spit onto its furry underside. Bwibo said, “I can help you remember the shape of your father’s head.” I said, “Now what type of mud is this you have started speaking?” Bwibo licked her index finger and held it solemnly in the air. “I swear, Bible red! I can help you and I can help you.” Let me tell you: one day you will renounce your exile, and you will go back home, and your mother will take out the finest china, and your father will slaughter a sprightly cockerel for you, and the neighbours will bring some potluck, and your sister will wear her navy blue PE wrapper, and your brother will eat with a spoon instead of squelching rice and soup through the spaces between his fingers. And you, you will have to tell them stories about places not-here, about people that soaked their table napkins in Jik Bleach and talked about London as though London was a place one could reach by hopping onto an Akamba bus and driving by Nakuru and Kisumu and Kakamega and finding themselves there. You will tell your people about men that did not slit melons up into slices but split them into halves and ate each of the halves out with a spoon, about women that held each other’s hands around street lamps in town and skipped about, showing snippets of grey Mother’s Union bloomers as they sang: Kijembe ni kikali, param-param Kilikata mwalimu, param-param You think that your people belong to you, that they will always have a place for you in their minds and their hearts. You think that your people will always look forward to your return. Maybe the day you go back home to your people you will have to sit in a wicker chair on the veranda and smoke alone because, although they may have wanted to have you back, no one really meant for you to stay. My father was slung over the wicker chair in the veranda, just like in the old days, smoking and watching the handheld radio. The death news rose from the radio, and it became a mist, hovering low, clinging to the cold glass of the sitting room window. My father’s shirt flapped in the wind, and tendrils of smoke snapped before his face. He whistled to himself. At first the tune was a faceless, pitiful thing, like an old bottle that someone found on the path and kicked all the way home. Then the tune caught fragments of other tunes inside it, and it lost its free-spirited falling and rising. My father had a head. I could see it now that I had the mind to look for it. His head was shaped like a butternut squash. Perhaps that was the reason I had forgotten all about it; it was a horrible, disconcerting thing to look at. My father had been a plumber. His fingernails were still rimmed with dregs from the drainage pipes he tinkered about in, and his boots still squished with ugali from nondescript kitchen sinks. Watching him, I remembered the day he found a gold chain tangled in the fibres of someone’s excrement, and he wiped the excrement off against his corduroys and sold the chain at Nagin Pattni, and that evening, hoisted high upon his shoulders, he brought home the red Greatwall television. He set it in the corner of the sitting room and said, “Just look how it shines, as though it is not filled with shit inside.” And every day I plucked a bunch of carnations and snipped their stems diagonally and stood them in a glass bowl and placed the glass bowl on top of the television so that my father would not think of shit while he watched the evening news. I said to Bwibo, “We have to send him back.” Bwibo said, “The liver you have asked for is the one you eat.” “But I did not really want him back, I just wanted to see his head.” Bwibo said, “In the end, he came back to you and that should account for something, should it not?” Perhaps my father’s return accounted for nothing but the fact that the house already smelt like him – of burnt lentils and melting fingernails and the bark of bitter quinine and the sourness of wet rags dabbing at broken cigarette tips. I threw things at my father; garlic, incense, salt, pork, and when none of that repelled him, I asked Father Ignatius to bless the house. He brought a vial of holy water, and he sprinkled it in every room, sprinkled it over my father. Father Ignatius said that I would need further protection, but that I would have to write him a cheque first. One day I was buying roast maize in the street corner when the vendor said to me, “Is it true what the vegetable-sellers are saying, that you finally found a man to love you but will not let him through your door?” That evening, I invited my father inside. We sat side by side on the fold-away sofa, and watched as a fly crawled up the dusty screen between the grill and the window glass. It buzzed a little as it climbed. The ceiling fan creaked, and it threw shadows across the corridor floor. The shadows leapt high and mounted doors and peered through the air vents in the walls. The wind upset a cup. For a few seconds, the cup lay lopsided on the windowsill. Then it rolled on its side and scurried across the floor. I pulled at the latch, fastened the window shut. The wind grazed the glass with its wet lips. It left a trail of dust and saliva, and the saliva dribbled down slowly to the edge of the glass. The wind had a slobbery mouth. Soon its saliva had covered the entire window, covered it until the rosemary brushwood outside the window became blurry. The jacaranda outside stooped low, scratched the roof. In the next room, doors and windows banged. I looked at my father. He was something at once strange and familiar, at once enthralling and frightening – he was the brittle, chipped handle of a ceramic tea mug, and he was the cold yellow stare of an owl. My father touched my hand ever so lightly, so gently, as though afraid that I would flinch and pull my hand away. I did not dare lift my eyes, but he touched my chin and tipped it upwards so that I had no choice but to look at him. I remembered a time when I was a little child, when I stared into my father’s eyes in much the same way. In them I saw shapes; a drunken, talentless conglomerate of circles and triangles and squares. I had wondered how those shapes had got inside my father’s eyes. I had imagined that he sat down at the table, cut out glossy figures from colouring books, slathered them with glue, and stuck them inside his eyes so that they made rummy, haphazard collages in his irises. My father said, “Would you happen to have some tea, Simbi?” I brought some, and he asked if his old friend Pius Obote still came by the house on Saturdays, still brought groundnut soup and pumpkin leaves and a heap of letters that he had picked up from the post office. I said, “Pius Obote has been dead for four years.” My father pushed his cup away. He said, “If you do not want me here drinking your tea, just say so, instead of killing-killing people with your mouth.” My father was silent for a while, grieving this man Pius Obote whose name had always made me think of knees banging against each other. Pius Obote used to blink a lot. Once, he fished inside his pocket for a biro and instead withdrew a chicken bone, still red and moist. My father said to me, “I have seen you. You have offered me tea. I will go now.” “Where will you go?” “I will find a job in a town far from here. Maybe Eldoret. I used to have people there.” I said, “Maybe you could stay here for a couple of days, Baba.” Okwiri Oduor was born in Nairobi, Kenya. Her novella The Dream Chasers was highly commended in the Commonwealth Book Prize 2012. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The New Inquiry, Kwani?, Saraba, FEMRITE, and African Writing Online. She recently directed the inaugural Writivism Festival in Kampala, Uganda. She teaches creative writing to young girls at her alma mater in Nairobi, and is currently working on her first full-length novel.