I return from a two-week trip away from home to find my little daughter at the door as I enter the house. I bend down to give her a hug but she is not too keen on it. I was expecting her to grab my leg and declare how much she missed me while I was away. Instead, she is only briefly interested in my suitcase before she runs back into the living room. I hear her mother calling after her, “Come back baby, come say hello to Daddy properly.”
I have come to accept that my daughter is not like those kids on YouTube videos who wait expectantly behind glass doors and start jumping up and down in excitement at the sight of their fathers returning home. It is one of the first lessons I picked up as a parent. Children are different. My relationship with my children is not predicated on the things that please me. The power to parent lies in accepting your children as they are.
I remember when my daughter was only seven months old and we were moving to Amsterdam from Nairobi. We arrived at Schiphol airport in the early morning and made our way off the plane. I had her strapped to my chest in a baby carrier, facing forward. A middle-aged white woman in front of us in the queue kept turning back and making faces at her, trying to tease out a laugh, a smile, something. My daughter did not respond to her gestures. I could not imagine what was going through her little brain and wanted to tell the stranger to tone it down.
“She just got off her first transcontinental flight. She is calibrating new information.”
When she started going to day-care in the new country, her teacher said to me one evening when I arrived to pick her up: Your daughter does not show much emotion. Which I thought was odd. She was one of the few foreign nationals in her class, and I noted the emphasis placed on having her integrate into Dutch schooling life. We arrived home and my little girl burst through the door bubbling. At night, at 2am, alone in her cot, my wife and I heard her giggling. She giggled sporadically and then broke into a long laugh. It was a laugh of joy, drawn from her belly. One of the most beautiful sounds to wake up to in the middle of the night.
She was only a year and a half old and she had already learned how to close up in those spaces where she felt unseen.
In my former life, as a single man and a mainstream newspaper columnist, I used to be that chap who gave great parenting advice. Now I am the father of two little girls, trying to raise them in Europe, the epicentre of the pandemic, and I realise now why no one follows their own great advice. Experience has transformed my attitude to one of subordination to the insights of children and the young people around me.
Know Your Children As They Are is a book by Caleb Gattegno, one of the most influential educators of the twentieth century. The book begins with this statement.
Parents love their children. But do they understand them?
We are often blind to the emotional needs of our children just as our parents were blind to our needs as children.
Time was the one positive consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gaining it. The city of Amsterdam shut down and the authorities encouraged us to work from home. We used to complain that our busy lives did not allow us to spend quality time with our children. Now, for some fathers, the lockdown period was like extended paternity leave.
The first month of the hard lockdown late in the autumn of 2020 required radical adjustments. Cooped up in the house for long hours, I worried that my daughter was watching too much television. Our outdoor life was limited. We were still too new in the country and did not yet have a circle of friends with children. The Dutch winter too was new to us.
I started taking my daughter to the park daily. It was usually empty and when there were other parents, they kept to themselves. We were living in a 1.5-metre-social-distance society. I would trail my little girl around the playground, on the lookout for littered hazards like discarded cigarette butts, examining what grabbed her attention. Sometimes, there were other children in the park, with only adults as their playmates. This was new for me but by following my child’s lead, I began to focus on what held her interest and worried less about my expectations of the ideal environment for child’s play.
Charlie, a good friend of mine, once said over lunch, “Fatherhood is confrontational,’’ and I found myself mulling over that statement. Indeed, I have had to confront my own past and the need to dominate as a parent.
The first month of the hard lockdown late in the autumn of 2020 required radical adjustments.
I initially approached parenting with a written script of best intentions. Parents of multiple children confess that the first child is usually a bag full of nerves. We over-index on all fronts, trying to be model parents. When the second baby arrives, we are a little more resigned to the reality and worry less about what we cannot control.
Dr Gabor Maté is the author of Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers and a respected voice in the fields of addiction and trauma. Drawing from his own personal experience of fatherhood, he talks about the challenges of fathering his son. Not having known how to be there for his son, he reasoned that he needed to wait for his children to become older so that he could engage with them intellectually.
Dr Maté asserts that the first three years of a child’s life are foundational. How many fathers are absent in the early stages of infancy only to return bearing gifts and engaging in remedial parenting in the hope of catching up on the lost years over a series of fun weekends? Dr Maté explains that children have an attachment need and in the absence of a nurturing adult to latch on to, they tend to fill the void with a peer group.
So, how do we remain aware of the emotional needs of young children in the midst of a pandemic that is upending our lives?
I have had to recall my past and return to a time when everyone believed Armageddon had arrived. I survived a previous pandemic in my youth – HIV/AIDS, the bogeyman that loomed over my teenage years. My parents never talked about AIDS in the way we talk about COVID-19 to the young. AIDS was a private illness but its manifestation and the death that often ensued were public. HIV/AIDS came shrouded in moral language and its victims, it was said, were merely succumbing to the inevitable consequences of their immorality. But when the innocent started to die, loyal and faithful wives and newborn babies, everyone became a victim. The culture of shaming matured into one of silence and benign denial.
In the death notices in the obituary pages of newspapers, a phrase would become commonplace:
“Passed away after a long illness bravely borne, surrounded by loving family members.”
We became the generation of condoms, safe sex, VCT centres, (Voluntary Counselling and Testing) and HIV statuses, fated by our hormones to be a high-risk group. Condoms, once associated with family planning clinics, became at once symbols of responsibility and immorality in a society that warned its young to suppress their urges and abstain from sex. But most people did not trust the government and were unwilling to accept that an encounter with a virus that had no cure meant an inevitable death.
I have had to recall my past and return to a time when everyone believed Armageddon had arrived.
The HIV/AIDS pandemic was exacerbated by the storm of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) imposed by the IMF and the World Bank to mitigate the economic crises of the 90s. The late Malawian intellectual Thandika Mkandawire compared the economic period that Africa endured under the SAPs in the 90s to the Great Depression of 1930s America. I lived through the collapse of the Kenyan economy, the disruption of the middle class, the decline of standards in higher education and the pulverisation of the public health systems. Citizens were hung out to dry and poverty became widespread as the middle class crumbled under the weight of a new disease.
By the end of the 90s, HIV/AIDS had wrought devastation in all areas of our lives.
Rural villages in my home county of Siaya became haunted spaces where frail grandmothers raised orphaned grandchildren. The funeral came to occupy a central place within the community, a place from which to draw strength in the midst of perpetual grief. Three decades on, it is near impossible to find in my country a family that was not affected, either directly or by association. Yet, in the beginning, no one thought it would last this long.
Our parents did not talk to us about how to live. They only whispered about the shame of dying.
I check my twitter notifications. Polycarp Otieno, also known as Fancy Fingers, is about to drop an album. Polycarp is the fourth member of the popular music group Sauti Sol, an afro-pop band from Kenya. The other band members, Bien-Aimé Baraza, Delvin Savara Mudigi and Willis Chimano have distinct, established vocal styles. The affable Polycarp built his reputation as the band’s talented guitarist, content to be in the background. No one had heard him sing outside a chorus. Polycarp has broken his decade-long silence with a delicately crafted debut album titled Father Studies about his journey through fatherhood, dedicated to his son. His voice is rich and his lyrics are stirring.
Our parents did not talk to us about how to live. They only whispered about the shame of dying.
I was drawn to the image on the promotional poster. Polycarp has his son, Sulwe, strapped to his back using a length of cloth that we call shuka in Kiswahili. It is a traditional African woman’s way of carrying a baby, common among mothers of young children. That image of Polycarp and his son is one of the most symbolic and sincere pleas for conscious fatherhood that I have seen.
Polycarp emerged out of silence determined to tell a different story about fathering and celebrating his commitment to the role.
The COVID-19 hard lockdown was for many first-time Kenyan fathers an unofficial paternity leave. With social life cut off, men had to confront the reality of a baby-nurturing life that we had been socialised to conveniently evade using our professional and social obligations, in keeping with our gendered roles as providers.
The young fathers that Polycarp represents appear to be navigating this crisis differently. They are talking about fatherhood loudly, with their chests. They are using art to make sense of it and writing their own stories about the ongoing pandemic. They have simply refused to turn to despair.
I wish our parents had been open to the power of the arts in a crisis.
I hear more young Kenyan men talking about the kind of fathers they would like to be, moving away from the previous standard of exaggerated machismo to one of conscious parenting. It is true what they say: Hurting people, hurt people. One has to be willing to break the cycle.
This generation of babies born during the coronavirus pandemic will have to unearth the stories of grandparents and parents who died suddenly and were hurriedly carted away in body bags to be disposed of as potential biohazards by men wearing protective hazmat suits.
I wish our parents had been open to the power of the arts in a crisis.
Unlike in the AIDS era, this should not be the single story of the pandemic. Young people should continue to re-imagine their worlds and paint them in radiant colours.
Polycarp Otieno seems to embody Mother Teresa’s enduring message,
“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”
I know that I too have to navigate this epoch differently as I prepare my children to meet the future. One that is bound to be occupied by new variants, lockdown syndromes, pandemic exhaustion, vaccine boosters, racial profiling, testing and death.
But I remain hopeful, because our artists are not sleeping through the pandemic.
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The Charles Mugane Njonjo I Knew
Much will be said and written about Charles Njonjo. The Charles Njonjo I knew was a steadfast friend and a man of his word without hesitation.
A lot has been written and a lot more will be written about the late Charles Mugane Njonjo who has passed away. I would like to tell my own personal story. I never knew him as a bureaucrat or politician. Indeed, our paths crossed immediately I left high school in 1983. Together with colleagues, we had written a play and planned to perform it for the public. We searched our minds for a public figure who would agree to come as guest of honour on opening night. We sought someone who would attract public attention to what we were doing, but more importantly for us 17-year-olds, someone who would agree to show up. Charles Njonjo’s name was all over the news at the time. His political career had just been truncated amid the prolonged political drama of the “traitor affair”. He was a figure of great public fascination for a variety of colourful reasons. We also had the names of other public figures on our list and I was tasked with reaching out to them.
Frankly, I wrote to Charles Njonjo not expecting to hear from him. He replied immediately, though, and accepted the invitation to be guest of honour at the opening night of our play, The Human Encounter, at Saint Mary’s School in Nairobi. Once he accepted the invitation, we excitedly proceeded with preparations for the opening night. A few days later, however, we were informed that, unfortunately, the authorities had deemed Mr Njonjo’s presence at our event unacceptable and the decision was not negotiable. I informed my colleagues and we decided that since we had worked hard on the production we would obey the orders from above and proceed with our play without Mr Njonjo. There was no need for a fuss. I then had the embarrassing duty of disinviting Mr Njonjo when he had already accepted to be our guest of honour.
I spent a whole night drafting the letter and in the end, my late father told me not to agonise excessively, “Njonjo likes to be told the truth directly.” So I wrote the disinvitation letter as clearly and as respectfully as I could. I asked a friend of his to pass it on to him and did not expect to ever hear from him again. The message I received promptly back surprised me. Njonjo expressed his deepest appreciation for the invitation and explained that he fully understood why it had been withdrawn. He asked that we remain in touch. I was deeply relieved. Over the years, he would reach out to me through family and friends and we would interact jovially, remembering the letter I had written retracting his invitation as guest of honour. “No one has ever done that to me,” he would joke over tea.
In the early 1990s, as political pluralism was returning to Kenya, violence broke out in Nyanza, Western and Rift Valley provinces. At one point, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans were displaced as our elites arm-wrestled for power. I travelled to Laikipia and then to Burnt Forest and was aghast at the state of the internally displaced that had been forced from their homes by the violence. Together with Dr David Ndii and Mutahi Ngunyi we launched the “Kenyans in Need” appeal. The then chief editor of the Daily Nation, Wangethi Mwangi, gave us free advertising space to mobilise resources for the displaced – especially those in Ol Kalou who had been evicted from Ng’arua in Laikipia. The late Archbishop Nicodemus Kirima of the Archdiocese of Nyeri agreed to use the relief infrastructure of Catholic Church to distribute any donations that came our way. Laikipia fell under Kirima’s remit.
The response to the appeal was surprising in its scale. People donated second-hand clothes, books, shoes and cash to the appeal. We received around KSh1 million worth of donations over the following months. We delivered the first batch directly to the philosophical Archbishop Kirima at his official residence in Nyeri, unique because of its specially built library full of the books he clearly loved. Our biggest and most consistent donor throughout the entire enterprise was Charles Njonjo. He was not keen to have his name mentioned but we would sit at his home drinking tea and reflecting on the political situation in the country.
When I joined government in 2003, Njonjo remained one of my steadfast providers of moral support. When news broke that I had been moved from the Office of the President to the Ministry of Justice, the first call I received was from Charles Njonjo. “You’re going to resign immediately, aren’t you?” he asked in his typically direct way. In the end, I didn’t. I sometimes wistfully recall his advice at the time. We kept in close touch.
When my situation in the Kibaki government went belly up in 2005 – as he had predicted to me many times – and I found myself in exile, Charles Njonjo became an even more steadfast friend. He stayed in touch and whenever he called, he would always enquire about my personal circumstances. He was a most interesting person in that way, loyal to his friends to a fault. Once you were his friend, he stood by you no matter how atrocious the circumstances. He would call to tell me he was coming to London and we would spend the day together simply walking the city, chatting and drinking tea. Back home I found out he was in constant touch with my family, offering moral and any other kind of support that might be needed.
When I returned from exile, one of the very first people to invite me for tea and a catch-up was Charles Njonjo and we took up from where we had left off in 2005. His observations on politics and about certain politicians were often wryly hilarious. His capacity to read people accurately was something I learnt. We would sit in his Westlands office and I would seek his opinion on this or that political interlocutor and in typical fashion he was always direct – “solid fellow”; “believe only half so-and-so says”; “take that one seriously”, etc. He was particularly dismissive of ethnic chauvinists and insisted that they held Kenya back in fundamental ways.
Charles Njonjo and I kept our friendship quiet. In part, this was because some of his diehard enemies were also my very good friends – the late legal giant Achhroo Ram Kapila SC among others. So, we didn’t discuss his enemies; he advised me on mine. Much will be written about Charles Njonjo and even though there was much we totally disagreed on politically, the Njonjo I knew since I was a teenager was a man of his word. He was a dear friend in ways I have never been able to share. There is not a personal problem that I raised with Charles Njonjo that he didn’t immediately seek to solve in his no-nonsense style. Njonjo could be a very funny man, full of jokes and insightful observations without a taint of bitterness. To me he was funniest when he joked in Gikuyu, which some people thought he couldn’t speak.
As I have said, much will be said and a lot will be written about Charles Njonjo. The Charles Njonjo I knew was a steadfast friend and a man of his word. I have lost a dear friend and wish his family succour as they mourn him at this time.
The African Tourist
Hoping to mingle with the locals in Amsterdam, Jamaa stepped out of his comfort zone and found himself sharing a Belgian beer with an astute observer of Dutch life.
It was the time before corona.
Jamaa, a regional technology sales leader, often travelled from Nairobi to the head office in Stockholm. While on these annual trips, he never ventured beyond the confines of the head office or his hotel on his own. His spirit of adventure was limited to packaged city tours. He concluded that he could only handle Europe in small doses and usually, after a week, he was eager to return to the familiarity of Nairobi.
But after a generous company bonus, and with the urging of a senior executive who had subtly reminded him to prioritise his mental health, Jamaa decided to do something selfish – take a three-day solo holiday in Amsterdam. Before this, his experience of Amsterdam was limited to Schiphol airport, a transit point. This would be his first trip into the city.
The immigration officer who picked him out of the crowd of travellers asked for his passport.
What brings you to Amsterdam?
He thought about it and replied,
Oh! A conference on tourism in Amsterdam?
No! I have come to Amsterdam as a tourist.
He repeated slowly as he flipped through the passport. He stopped and examined the Schengen visa and then handed him back the passport and with a stiff smile and said,
Enjoy your visit to Amsterdam, sir!
From previous travelling experience, he knew not to spread himself too thin by running through a checklist of attractions. He desired an upmarket experience in keeping with his new status in the company, away from the cliché tourist traps of the past. So he called Gili for a recommendation. Gili is a relative on his mother’s side who had worked in Europe’s hotel industry for decades and had recently returned home to Kenya for good. She had lived in Holland for many years.
She suggested a trip to Maastricht, a city in the south of the country strategically located between Belgium and Germany. Maastricht is where the Treaty on European Union was signed in 1992.
Even just saying it, sounds gisty! Maastrichtttt. . . she added.
Jamaa thought it sounded remote.
I want something more posh and not far from Schiphol.
Okay, look up Hotel Twenty Eight.
That name does not sound posh.
It is in a posh area. You will feel it in your pocket.
A few days later, Jamaa checked into the apartment hotel in the south of Amsterdam that Gili had recommended, happy with his decision to spoil himself a little. The apartment overlooked a town square lined with birch trees and decorated with suspended stone sculptures depicting various athletic disciplines. Around the square were sleek apartment buildings. Below them, at street level, he could see a bakery, a flower shop, a supermarket, a cosmetics shop and a few bars and restaurants. It gave off the vibe of an upmarket mall in one of those leafy suburbs of Nairobi where expatriates live.
Across the road, over a tramline was the inspiration of the area – the Olympic Stadium built for the 1928 Summer Olympics. At the entrance to the stadium stood a tall tower where the first modern Olympic flame was lit for the very first time, a prestigious national monument.
He desired an upmarket experience in keeping with his new status in the company, away from the cliché tourist traps of the past.
The stadium has since evolved into a multi-functional venue. One of its prime annual events is the Amsterdam marathon. Jamaa discovered that the first Kenyan to win the Amsterdam marathon was Joseph Jebet, in 1996. Since then, Kenya has produced the highest number of winners in the Amsterdam marathon. Had he arrived three weeks earlier, he would have witnessed another Kenyan taking pole position in the men’s event.
On his first day, he went on a long leisurely walk through the neighbourhood, admiring the architecture, the parks and the manicured green spaces along the canals. Back at the hotel later in the day, he stopped at a restaurant on the ground floor. The long bar was empty and two waiters stood in the corner engaged in conversation. He allowed them time to notice him but they did not acknowledge his presence. Just as he was about to draw their attention, he saw a blonde-haired young woman in a branded white shirt walking towards him.
She said something to him in Dutch and he asked her to repeat it in English.
Of course. . . I was saying can I help you? Are you looking for something?
He did not understand why she would ask him that question as he was seated on a bar stool waiting to make an order. He felt irritation rising but kept his cool.
Can I get a beer?
She stared at him blankly for a brief moment and then switched to a professional tone,
Of course, what beer would you like?
A dark one.
As she walked hurriedly back to fetch the order, Jamaa began to wonder what she saw when she saw him.
On the second day, he followed another Gili tip and rented an e-bike for the day. It was a comfortable bike, designed to make it easier to ride against the wind. He found a leafy public park called Vondelpark that reminded him of the old Uhuru Park in Nairobi during public holidays – a place where people come to see and to be seen.
Later in the evening, emboldened by his newfound sense of adventure, Jamaa returned to the recognizable Olympic square. He found the lively bar that he had seen from his hotel window and anticipated the opportunity of mingling with the locals.
He found a bicycle parking rack nearby, locked his e-bike and put the key in his pocket. As he pushed the door to the bar open, he remembered that he had forgotten to chain the bike. Gili had warned him to chain the bicycle to something immovable like a lamppost and never to rely only on the bike lock.
They will steal your bicycle in Amsterdam, be sure.
Everyone chains their bicycles with a thick chain, the kind that you would use to secure a metal gate in Nairobi’s industrial area. Even old rusty bicycles. He found it strange that bicycles are not safe in a country that is closing down its prisons.
A middle-aged man with a round bald patch wearing geeky spectacles parked his bicycle next to Jamaa’s; it was branded with the Rent-a-bike company logo. He also used an extra chain. Probably a tourist, thought Jamaa.
The middle-aged man complimented Jamaa’s bicycle and they walked into the bar together and sat by the counter, leaving two stools between them. They both waited a long time to be served. The four employees behind the counter were busy doing their separate tasks. After some time, the bespectacled man leaned over the bar and demanded service politely but firmly and a young woman who had been arranging glasses turned her attention to him. When she approached, she found Jamaa ready with his order.
I would like to have what that gentleman just ordered, the dark one. I cannot pronounce it, my tongue is heavy.
Zatte tripel, Brouwerij ‘tij
Yes, that is what I am looking for. The dark one.
The two strangers raised their glasses to each other and moved closer, finding affability in a beer and a shared language. The bespectacled man soon launched into a complaint about the standard of service in Dutch bars. He found it too slow and made a diagnosis. Most bars are staffed with temporary employees who are not trained professionals. They simply do not care about your feelings.
The Dutch like to say they are direct but I find many of them rude! But they treat you better once you become a regular at a bar.
He informed Jamaa that they were not drinking a dark beer but a strong blonde beer from Belgium. He went to great lengths to explain its production characteristics and its taste. Jamaa would normally have settled for the recognizable Heineken beer and he was glad to discover and enjoy a drinking experience outside his comfort zone. And then the bespectacled man touched on a sensitive subject.
You speak very good English.
Jamaa was not sure whether to read that as a compliment or as patronising ignorance. In his younger days, his response would have been immediately militant, but the years had toned him down as he had grown weary of assuming a defensive posture every time he came across prejudice in white spaces. He preferred to counter it with sarcastic wit.
I am from Kenya, the Queen’s favourite colony.
A little disclaimer, I am English.
Of all the Europeans Jamaa had interacted with, it was the British that he was best acquainted with. He had played rugby against them in Nairobi, stayed at safari camps run by khaki-wearing conservationists and mingled with their corporate executives in private members’ clubs. He knew the reputation of the young and restless soldiers at the British army base in Nanyuki and the old, broke “wazungu kimbos” stuck in Mtwapa along the Kenyan coast. He had hoped to strike up a rapport with a native Dutch speaker and get intimate with the culture. All was not lost. The Englishman was an astute observer of Dutch life.
The two strangers raised their glasses to each other and moved closer, finding affability in a beer and a shared language.
Do you live in Amsterdam? Jamaa asks the Englishman out of curiosity.
No, I am from London, here for business. What about you, do you live here?
No, I live in Nairobi.
What brings you to Amsterdam? Work?
You are a tourist? And where are you staying?
Across the road?
At the Hotel Twenty Eight.
The Englishman looked genuinely surprised and offered unsolicited advice.
That is expensive. You can get a much better deal where I am staying at the Olympic Hotel just behind the stadium.
But I like it. It doesn’t feel too much like a hotel.
There was a lull in the conversation as the two men returned to the beers.
What did you say you are here for? asked the Englishman.
For a tourism conference in Amsterdam South?
No, I am a tourist.
Jamaa could sense the Englishman was trying to get something off his chest and eventually he did,
Forgive me for being so forward, how long did it take you to plan for this holiday?
So you must be rich?
Not in my country.
The Englishman returned to his beer and took a generous gulp.
Is this your first time in Europe?
Jamaa decided to nod; he was enjoying the perplexed expression on the Englishman’s face.
You will love it here, the architecture, the history, the art, roads that date back to the sixteenth century still exist.
I look forward to it. . . Have you been to Africa?
Never been and I wouldn’t go.
Jamaa noticed the fidgety eyes and did not press for details but instead changed the topic.
What should I know about the Dutch?
At this, the Englishman perked up and dropped his eyes as one does when about to gossip.
I have been coming here for five years. Everything is expensive compared to London. Be blunt, they don’t trust overly friendly people, and Amsterdam is not the Netherlands.
Forget the liberalism you see in Amsterdam. They have a Bible Belt. Just like in America. Some parts are so conservative, the women do not wear trousers. Ever heard of black stocking churches?
Jamaa was not sure whether to read that as a compliment or as patronising ignorance.
The Englishman continued to entertain Jamaa with his travel tales, answering all his questions about popular Dutch national stereotypes, the people, the country and its history. Eventually, Jamaa realised he was running late for a scheduled phone call to his family in Nairobi and bade his acquaintance goodbye after paying for the drinks.
The Englishman was surprised by his generosity and offered to buy a last round. Jamaa declined as he slipped into his warm jacket ready to leave.
I am sorry, I never asked your name?
My name is Jamaa.
Jamaa. . . Does it mean anything in your native language?
It means a regular guy.
He looked at Jamaa unconvinced.
There is nothing regular here! You are posh!
Finding Uncle Ben’s Daughter
Yoki was the insurance against Uncle Ben’s mortality. I held her for far too short a time to have any memory of her beyond the truth of her existence.
At the end of this story, you will realize that it is impossible to find Uncle Ben’s daughter. Not because she is mythical. She is real. I held her on my lap in 1995. I was only 13, preparing for my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education. My sisters Jackie and Belinda were also preparing for the same examination. And other cousins too. I held her on my lap. Her brown eyes were bright. Full of life and questions. Her little fingers curled around mine as she smiled, innocent of what was happening in the world around her.
Uncle Ben, Bernard Ogowe Ojuondo, lay on the bed that we sometimes shared, tired, looking at us, his head propped up by a thin pillow. He was worn out by the constant cough that robbed him of sleep and reduced his diaphragm to a web of bones wrapped tightly in dry, scaly skin. I was home from boarding school for midterm break. A few days earlier, my mother had sent word to Uncle Ben’s girlfriend to come and see him. And help care for him. That is why she was here. I don’t remember her name. The people who should remember her name also don’t. You will know why shortly. Uncle Ben had craved their presence. Also, whatever remained of him then needed delicate care that only an intimate partner could provide. It was fragile, threatening to fall over and break into pieces, disappearing into the world beyond. It needed rejuvenation. The girlfriend did not stay long. Taking care of a dying man needs a bond deeper than that of boyfriend and girlfriend.
Uncle Ben’s daughter is called Yolanda Denise. That is the name she went by 27 years ago. She may have been three when I last saw her so she is probably 30 now. Her nickname was Yoki. I held her for far too short a time to have any memory of her beyond the truth of her existence. The truth that becomes clearer in my mind with each passing day. One that I have wanted to realize and whose contours I have wanted to touch. And confirm that I am not crazy.
Uncle Ben was the first to qualify for university in my great-grandfather’s large family of twelve wives and many children. My great-grandfather, Paul Opiyo Manyala, was a chief and a medicine man. Uncle Ben attended Egerton University in Njoro. He had retaken his “A” levels in order to qualify for university. He was mostly inspired by my father, his brother in-law, who had become a high school principal at a very young age, fresh out of Kenyatta University. My mother would be the second one from a big traditional family to go to university. She would join the university the same year I did, in 2001. At 40 years of age. These details are important. Firstly, because Uncle Ben was the reason a few of my other uncles and aunties did not see the value of education. They reasoned that education took a lot of time and resources, and the potential outcome of joblessness would lead to depression and self-destruction. They had taken the time to study Uncle Ben, and their conclusion was that his degree had contributed to suffering and a painful demise. That education had set his ambition to an unattainable high, yet the reality of the Moi government was one of unemployment, a stagnating economy, and gradual decay,
Uncle Ben graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology in the early 90s, right when the World Bank had arm-twisted the Kenyan government into forced restructuring through the infamous structural adjustment programmes – the SAPs. The government was shrinking to allow for rapid and focused privatization of government parastatals, although there was no significant investment in the private sector to sustain this rapid privatization. The economy was shrinking. President Moi and his cronies were grabbing everything. What they couldn’t grab, they killed. Or sent to exile. Degrees were becoming nothing beyond the beautiful photos of graduates in gowns surrounded by their hopeful families. Unless one knew people in high office. Or you were planning to join the ruling party, KANU. A degree held no weight in the dying economy.
Uncle Ben died without having found a job. His résumé, typed on one of those old typewriters, did not list any post-university professional experience. He did not have any. He was, like many others, a professional job seeker. A charismatic one. Tall. Athletic. Handsome. His death from HIV in the early nineties threw my mother into one of the deepest economic crises of my lifetime. Probably worse than the one the World Bank had thrown the Kenyan economy into. And worse than the government would throw graduates with unmarketable courses such as Uncle Ben. My grandfather warned me against studying that cursed course. Never study sociology when you go to university, he said emphatically, his eyes, always red, glowing in their orbits.
My grandfather believed that the sociology degree was to blame for Uncle Ben’s unemployment. When Uncle Ben went to university, self-sponsored access to public university education was not yet available. Later, self-sponsored B-grade students from well-to-do families would go to medical school with government-sponsored students from poorer families who had attained straight As. But my grandfather, a driver in the Ministry of Agriculture, could not have afforded the cost of a self-sponsored university education even were the option available. Uncle Ben received the full government sponsorship that was available for university students before funding for higher education was restructured to accommodate the demands of the World Bank.
Please become a teacher
Uncle Ben should have studied education. At least the government was employing teachers. Or at any rate the school boards of governors were – when the government stopped employing teachers for extended periods. Many graduates from Uncle Ben’s cohort, not finding any prospects for employment, went back to university for something called in-service. Graduates would go to Kenya Science Teachers College for short courses that would prepare them for a career in teaching. They took the courses while teaching as untrained teachers, surviving on the meagre salaries paid by the school boards.
Never study sociology when you go to university, he said emphatically, his eyes, always red, glowing in their orbits.
Uncle Ben did not want to become a teacher like my mum, his sister. He did not want to be confined to a routine, trapped in the rural areas with students. He hoped for the bright lights of Nairobi. Or Kisumu. He hoped for a government job that came with a government driver and a Land Rover. Such as a District Officer. After all, his father was driving a graduate at the Ministry of Agriculture. But he did not mind receiving money from his sister when times were tough. My mum, with her tiny salary and carrying the heavy burden of a first-born, was educating both us, her children, as well as her siblings. Sustaining my grandmother. Sending handouts to my grandfather. And saving Uncle Ben.
When the reality of permanent joblessness hit Uncle Ben, when he saw the government for what it was, a wilting mess of bureaucracy, tribalism, and corruption, he thought of becoming a policeman. He had done his national youth service before going to university. He was tall and athletic. His eyes were blood shot. He was a perfect fit. After all, no one was calling him back from the many offices where his resume was stacked in a pile with those of other job seekers. Or in the dustbin, waiting to be burned along with other useless papers.
The tragedy of a single mark
Everything was fine as Uncle Ben prepared for recruitment in the national police service. Except for that prominent mark on his buttocks. The knife mark extended from his lower back to his buttocks. It was black and pronounced, like a fat earthworm. Or a little black snake. That mark disqualified him. At least that was the excuse the police recruiters gave him. We knew he failed because my grandfather did not know anyone in the police force. And he was not wealthy enough to buy the limited slots that were left after Moi’s cronies had gorged themselves full. Youth employment in the police force was used by politicians to win elections. It was currency. And President Moi’s people were entitled to the first cut.
One day, my aunty Catherine, the most beautiful one, the light-skinned one, the sassy one, came back home screaming at the top of her lungs. Her high-pitched voice tore the afternoon silence into tiny shreds. She was inconsolable. We would later learn that her lover had assaulted her. He had met her by the communal well where she was fetching water and had proceeded to take his anger out on her for jilting him. Uncle Ben was enraged. He was his sister’s protector and wanted to send a clear message as such. In a hurry, with his diaphragm swollen with anger, he set off to look for the assaulter. He charged at him when they met. They locked bodies and tussled. An unemployed graduate and village riff raff met at that junction of anger, frustration and testosterone. The assaulter drew a knife and slashed Uncle Ben in the back, drawing down to his buttocks. A crooked cut. It left a permanent scar. His chances of joining the armed forces or the police force disappeared with that scar. His sister and the man reconciled and rekindled their young love soon thereafter. For Uncle Ben, just like the degree in sociology, that scar took some of the blame for his unravelling life. The scar. Sociology. President Moi and the World Bank were all summoned and declared guilty when Uncle Ben’s joblessness came for up for discussion.
Saving Uncle Ben
My mother, Belliah is one stubborn woman. If she sets her mind to do something, in most cases she succeeds. She had set her mind to save Uncle Ben’s life. In the early 90s, it was impossible to save anyone from HIV/AIDS in rural Kenya. The complexities of the disease were compounded when one was surviving on a teacher’s salary. The salary was little. It came late and heavily deducted. My sister Jackie and I also depended on this salary for our education at the primary boarding school where we were enrolled. The local public primary schools in Ringa where my parents taught hardly took anyone to a good secondary school. The local boys and male primary school teachers were also neck-and-neck in a very stiff competition in the Olympics of impregnating teenage schoolgirls. We were shipped to boarding school to give us a good education and save us from the many local distractions.
There were no ARVs for ordinary people. Not in rural Kenya. Maybe for Magic Johson in America. In rural Kenya, there were sick humans, bony humans, coughing their lungs out on the floors of Russia hospital. Or on reed mats in homes. Surrounded by family and prayer. And traditional healers with their concoctions, and spirits.
For Uncle Ben, just like the degree in sociology, that scar took some of the blame for his unravelling life.
Uncle Ben and I shared a bed at one point. On many nights I would see him dig into that tin of paracetamol, scoop and toss a handful of tablets in his mouth. I lost count of the empty tins of paracetamol. I also lost count of the number of times we used wire cloth hangars to puncture holes in his leather belt to keep pace with his rapidly diminishing waistline. Something had to hold those jeans in place for that hospital visit. And the next one. Only that there was not much left to hold with each passing day.
I remember when I was in lower primary school and Uncle Ben was a full human, oozing life. I remember perching on Uncle Ben’s shoulders, his right hand holding my sister Jackie’s left hand as we watched movies at the open-air cinema at the local market. I remember going back to school the following day feeling cool, discussing my nocturnal adventure with the older boys who were brave enough to go to the cinema. Or when Uncle Ben explained to my aunties how to make chapatis. You put flour first. Then water. If you put water first, and it is in excess, you run the risk of running out of flour before you have a firm dough for good chapati. He called it logical sequence of events. Flour. Then water. In that order. He told us he had learned it in a course called critical thinking at Egerton University.
Or when he would ask me for a list of the most beautiful female teachers in my primary school. Which I readily shared, receiving a Big G chewing gum in reward, only realizing later that I was receiving increased care and attention from the teachers I had informed Uncle Ben about. Or when he would talk to me about university life. About freedom. About justice and the strikes they participated in to keep Moi’s government in check. Or when Uncle Ben, my father and I would watch World Cup soccer through the night in the late 80s. Then spend the day playing soccer, practicing Maradona’s dribbles. His presence filled my childhood the way a sweet smell can pervade a room, so that if the sweet scent fades away, then the room is different. The room is lost, until that sweet scent is back.
We are broke
You do not need to be told that your mother is struggling. Or that there isn’t enough money anymore because the disease is quickly draining away those savings. As quickly as the virus is feasting upon Uncle Ben’s body. The first signs are the slim shopping list. Luxuries like Tree Top mango juice and Blue Band margarine give way to medicine. Numerous bottles and tins of painkillers. And creams to deal with random body rashes. The two kilogrammes of cooking oil become one. The diet slowly changes into a healthy vegetarian one full of sukuma wiki and ugali. Daily. Then we started carrying a note to the local shopkeeper, to get us sugar on credit. Payment was mostly at the end month when the teachers were paid their salaries. Then the payment to the shopkeeper delayed because teachers’ salaries were not paid on time because of some budget deficit. Or some delayed loan to the Kenyan government.
The shopkeeper says something curt as he flips through his record book. He is impatient with me. He tells me there is no sugar in his shop. And while I am standing there, barely a teenager, he sells sugar to someone who has cash. I manage to force the questions out of my tightening throat. I ask. He retorts, “Tell your mother to pay last month’s debt first.” I walk back home confused. I start to hate his son who was a class behind me and never talk to him again. What was hidden to the world was that all the money was going to Uncle Ben’s medication. But one cannot cure death, as my grandmother would eventually say.
The old man
I refused to drink with my grandfather when the opportunity presented itself one afternoon. I sat across from him at Ulimwengu Bar, the small local drinking hole he owned. It also acted as his quasi-office and meeting point where his friends would gather to share with him the little money he had brought back from Kisumu. He worked as a driver at the Ministry of Agriculture. His bar is in a small town called Pap Onditi. In a place called Nyakach, which is famous for having produced Ochuka and a few other men who are remembered for the infamous attempted coup d’état of 1982.
On that day, in 2008, I sat across my grandfather and his friends, and bought them rounds of Tusker, while I sipped a warm Coca Cola. It wasn’t that I was a teetotaller. Not really. I was a drinker and quite in the chaotic loop of post-college partying. I had made it to university too. And I had a job. On this day, I wanted to leave his company before he got drunk on my charity. I also did not want my shoulders to sag with the weight of knowing that it was my money that inspired the drunken anger that he was known to sometimes unleash on my grandmothers. I excused myself, amidst his protests, and left. I promised to MPesa him once I arrived in Kisumu.
His presence filled my childhood the way a sweet smell can pervade a room, so that if the sweet scent fades away, then the room is different.
My grandfather, John Ojuondo, died in 2013 from the complications of a stroke. In my mind, he had existed in two spaces. The space before Uncle Ben died. And the space after Uncle Ben’s death. In the latter he was without glitter in his eyes. It was a complex existence where he was mostly lost in thought. One that I did not get enough time to know and to talk to him about finding Uncle Ben’s daughter. Or his choices. Like, why did he marry two sisters? Was he emulating Jacob in the bible? Did he find acceptance in the church with this choice, like Jacob finds amongst Christians, even though Jacob too, married two sisters. And still became the father of Israel. How did Uncle Ben’s death impact him? And what about my aunty Millie who was murdered by people hired by the wife of her lover. She was a young nursing student at Kakamega Medical Training College. Uncle Ben had promised to revive the cold case and find justice. If only he could get a job. Or become a policeman.
The reality of my grandfather’s demise and the missed opportunities hit me hard as my mother and I sat in my grandmother’s house. The local catholic priest sat across from us, on the green seat where my grandfather used to sit. The priest was being difficult, debating the boundaries of one being born a Catholic, versus one living life as a Catholic. My grandfather was born a Catholic, although the local church records indicated that he last took Holy Communion 48 years before his death. He did not live as a Catholic. He did not desire to live as a Catholic. But here we were, imposing religion on him when he could hardly defend himself. Smelling the strong odour of our desperation, the Catholic priest took a piece of paper and scribbled the amount he felt was owed to the church, payable before the church would oversee my grandfather’s burial; 48 years’ worth of missed holy communions. The negotiated price of posthumous salvation. The church had us in a corner. Just as joblessness had had Uncle Ben in a coma. My siblings and I paid.
I am not sure if my grandfather had much memory of Uncle Ben’s daughter. During the preparations for Uncle Ben’s burial, the old men of the community had come together and decreed that Uncle Ben was to be buried behind his mother’s house. His mother did not have a house since she had separated from my grandfather when Uncle Ben was a baby and become married elsewhere. Uncle Ben was raised by my grandmother. The Luo community are notorious for making a tough situation even tougher by invoking old traditions to appease some real or imagined spirits. A house was hastily put up to fulfil tradition. Uncle Ben’s mother came for the night vigil and the burial. Uncle Ben’s girlfriend and Yoki also came.
The search continues
In the past few years, I have taken an interest in finding out about Yoki. I have talked to my mother. My grandmothers. Uncle Ben’s stepsister. Uncle Ben’s mother. But there seems to be a major collective failure of memory. Also, time continues to chip away at any remote memory that is left. It is like everyone accepted and moved on. There are no photos of Yoki. And no photos of Yoki’s mother. She left hastily with Yoki after Uncle Ben’s burial and disappeared in the wind. Everyone closed that chapter. There are no leads on Facebook and Twitter worth following either. Time seems to have dulled the magic of social media and the line seems to be dead at that end too.
What was hidden to the world was that all the money was going to Uncle Ben’s medication.
I have kept this chapter open because there is something that stays with you as a young man, stuck in boarding school, afraid of coming home and finding your friend gone forever. It also becomes more real when you eventually live that fear. In the last few years, I have worked on constructing the memory of my time with Uncle Ben, block by block, like a Lego building of sadness and nostalgia. I have learned that the anchoring block of my most profound memories with Uncle was learning about Yoki, during those nights when Uncle Ben’s pain kept him awake. Those nights when we passed time between the handfuls of paracetamols that he tossed to the back of his throat. My young mind was afraid to ask many questions then. I listened mostly, occasionally thinking about the upcoming KCPE examinations and my disdain for primary boarding school. And hearing his fear of imminent death pounding through his chest, cracking the silence of the night, before him mentioning Yoki, followed by calmness. The mention of Yoki was the last call for hope during those long nights. It was a signal that the night was wasted, and we should catch sleep before the roosters signalled the break of dawn. That name, Yoki, was the insurance against mortality from HIV/AIDS. Uncle Ben’s mortality.
Yolanda Denise. Yoki. I hope you are out there. When you get to read this, let me know.