My father hates Nairobi. He says it’s become uninhabitable – his words. There are two things that make him come to Nairobi; a death or a wedding. Over the weekend he was around for the latter and whenever he’s around I’m tasked with the thankless, and most colorless, task of driving him around. I say colorless because he hasn’t learnt to shut it while you drive him. He gives instructions; don’t go too close to such trucks, they always slide back on hills. Let that matatu go if he wants to go, they are mad (as opposed to?) Biko, why don’t you use that road, it will get us there faster (Yes, it used to get people there faster in 1989, now it will lead us into a wall.) Then he has this habit of turning down the volume of my music, I hate when a passenger turns down the volume of my music. Don’t turn down the volume of my music. Then every time he’s around he usually moans about the demise of the city; “Nairobi has changed very much, it’s become ugly. Nairobi is not what it used to be.” And I’m tempted to tell point out that nothing is what it used to be, that everything has changed, that everything has to change; it’s the dynamism of life. Hell, I wanted to tell him that he has changed himself; I mean he never used to finish his phone conversations with, “God bless you.”
His name is Simon. But the five of us call him “Daddy.” We have always called him daddy. Simon never keeps his hair. He shaves close to the scalp. He wears stubble, peppered with white hair. He has always worn Gillette Aftershave, never cologne. He has worn Gillette since God was a boy. I can smell out Gillette Aftershave anywhere in a crowded street and it always reminds me of the old man.
He wears spectacles – a rogue gene all the men in our family picked from him. He turned 61yrs in March this year; I didn’t call him to wish him a happy birthday. I didn’t call him because I didn’t know it was his birthday. You see, growing up we didn’t cherish birthdays. We didn’t go hoo-haa over birthdays. We didn’t blow candles or cut cakes. We didn’t buy each other gifts and cards during birthdays. It was not a part of our socialization process. It was never in the constitution of my family. Consequently I have never thought much of the whole birthday brouhaha. If you forget my birthday I will not get a hernia. I will not demand for a white forest cake bearing my picture or threaten to kill a hostage every half hour. I’m easy, it’s just a birthday.
My father is a scholar- an academician. He’s well read. His specialty is history and literature, that’s all he has lectured all his life. That’s all he has known all his life. I know nobody who reads voraciously, I know nobody who is fascinated more with Karl Marx and Lenin and Elechi Amadi. Growing up, while most households had a huge wall-unit (those relics which housed those cutlery for “wageni” hehe) we had a huge bookshelf creaking with novels and memoirs and bland history books that smelled of another era. He arranged those books meticulously and he would know by just standing before the bookshelf if one book was missing from that forest. And he encouraged us to read those books. The presence of that bookshelf, a simple wooden structure, intimidated me more than he did. It was a constant reminder of what I had to top and although he never came out and created a career path for any of us, that bookshelf represented the mountain we had to climb to be half the man he was. It was a monument of Simon, it embodied the man. I felt pressured.
My father has never laid a hand on me, or any of our siblings. Our neighbor when we were growing up – an irate Kisii man – always flogged his boys whenever they erred and I was always grateful for my old man for not being like him. He left the dirty work to my mother who I think got a self esteem boost from beating us up, Hehehe. That woman would beat you up as if you were venomous.
But at 6’1’’ tall my old man is an intimidating guy. He has the look of a man who is only two heartbeats from violence. He has large hands. He has wide shoulders. Since he is a teetotaler he never really grew a paunch. He swam. He played squash. He played soccer. He was always fit. He is a man who could take you on. And he has cold eyes. You knew you were out of line when he shot you a cold snake-like look. He would coolly look at you for a few endless seconds, then he would slowly look away. Then you knew better than not repeat whatever you did. I never once thought I could step up to my father, not when I was a cocky teenager, not when I was a young adult, and certainly not now when I’m a father because Simon is a different kind of animal. His presence might be silent but fills a room, his authority is subtle but obsolete. He’s a man’s man.
I have a friend of mine who has twin boys. The two rascals are two years old now and together they wreck havoc in that house. They tear down anything that was built by man. They stick cookies in the DVD player. They try to feed the dog their mom’s heels. They pee in the potted plant. They are a twin force of nature. And they are fat. I always tell my homeboy, “Chief, you are 35yrs old, join a gym for chrissake, trust me you will thank me later because trust me those boys will one day hit puberty – weaned on Youtube and Terrific Tuesday pizza – and one day, one fateful day, one of them will step up to you and stare you down. Then what? Then what when you are fat and wobbly and you throw a punch like a female dog? But if you are a fit sonofagun you will be able to draw the line on the sand when that happens, you will make it clear as to who runs that ship, as to who pays the damn rent in that house and if you miss that opportunity to stamp authority the politics of power would have irredeemably shifted in your household and things will never be the same.” He always laughs when I tell him that, saying I’m being too dramatic, but you wait. Pato, you wait. You’re going down.
My dad is retired. He’s happy in shagz. Happier than anyone thought he would be. We thought he would wilt. He wakes up and drives his battered – but much loved – 1984 Peugeot 505 some odd twenty clicks to some teachers college where he lectures part-time. He fills his days tending to his trees, he loves trees. He fills his days pruning flowers or cutting hedges. In the afternoons, when it’s hot, he sits in the verandah reading a book or listening to BBC or Ramogi FM, while my mom lies on the matt (or par, as we call it in Luo) trying to get his attention with some measly village gossip. He ignores her. And as the sun goes down, he helps the herds-boy herd in the cows in the kraal.
My old man doesn’t suffer small time, something I picked from him. He doesn’t know the art of small talk, so invariably – and perhaps because he’s a teetotaler – he hardly leave his home to visit other homes, maybe to visit his mother across the hill, or go to church. He talks only when he feels that the exchange will bring him value. He has the sense of humor of an exhaust pipe but he is nice to talk to because you always learn something new something deep. I have never heard him say he’s sorry, a very proud man and a bit of a snob. But everybody respects him. And the few who don’t respect him fear him.
I’m not close to my father. I’m not close to him because he handled fatherhood like it was an aristocracy. There was always a cloak around him, an air of supremacy. He provided. He was there. But he was never a friend. I don’t know how to be my father’s friend. I admire him immensely, I love him but I don’t know how to be his friend. To his credit he made an effort; every Sunday he took the whole family for lunch and we
sat around the table and he asked us about school (he always asked about school) but those conversations, those meetings felt so sanitized, so stripped off warmth. I guess my mother always saw the weakness and filled it with her irrepressible humor and irretrievable sarcasm. But still I always wonder whether I would have turned out differently had the old man treated us like his pal, you know, bit more open to laughter. Me not being my father’s friend is not as hopeless as it sounds, I can assure you it’s not it’s just that I wish I could talk to him, confide in him, like I talk to my mom. I desperately want to be his friend, but I don’t know how to at this age.
There was a time Joseph Bonyo (business writer) and I were having a chat in Maasai Mara about our fathers and I remember telling me how close they are with his father, how they talk on phone for long, how they often go to the bar together and drink like they are brothers and I felt like pushing him in the swimming pool. I felt a little loss. I envied him. I have always suspected that men who are close to their fathers always posses a slightly stronger compass for finding the heart of their manhood. That those men posses more pronounced traits of manhood. I don’t know, I’m no Dr. Phil.
There are only three occasions my dad has betrayed emotions before me. One was when he hugged me (for the very first time) when I graduated. Second when I saw tears in his eyes when my mom was in ICU and lastly this time I was 11yrs old. It was on a Saturday, we were dressing up for church when my zipper caught my foreskin. Shit. A heartbreak is not painful; in fact the only thing more painful than a zipper on your foreskin is cancer. I yelled like a little girl. I didn’t call my mom, I called him. He came and spent half hour trying to free my foreskin from the blood zip, dabbing it with cotton wool dipped in methylated spirit. I have never seen him more worried. Two years later – iwe funzo kwa foreskin wengine wenye tabia kama hayo*– I went under the knife to the damned foreskin chopped off.
My old man always banged on two drums; the importance of education and the power of self discipline. He believed that as a man you were nothing if you didn’t have any sound education, if you lacked in education you invariably lacked in statue. But also he felt that if you didn’t respect yourself as a man, if you don’t have self discipline then you have no reason calling yourself a man. Once in a while when we go down shagz he will always roll out some nugget of wisdom. He’s always rolling out stuff like, “The only way you are going to get wisdom from your woman is if you pull your weight.” Or “The moment you stop paying your rent and sending your kid to school, that’s the day you will lose your voice in the house. Never lose your voice; it’s all you have as a man.” Or “Never look at the floor when you are walking, it’s weak.”
But it’s naive to sit here and bang on about my father and review his style of fatherhood because fatherhood is complex. He raised five, I’m struggling with one. But the little I’ve learnt is that like everything else in life, fatherhood is about finding the right equilibrium. And to find it you have face questions like; how much do you love and how far can you go in love before it starts being toxic to the kid? And how the hell do you instill values? When do you punish and how? And what the hell is quality time? How do you balance it when you leave work at 11pm and when you have a moment you just want to close your eyes for a shut-eye? How do you want your child to remember you? And when you take her to the hospital and the pediatrician asks you, “how does her stool smell like?” What are you supposed to say? I mean, what does stool smell like where you come from Doc? Does it smell like fresh grapes? Because where I come from stool smells like shit.
So jana as I drove old man around, he asked about the new job and I handed him the latest magazine. He studiously perused through it, reading and occasionally grunting.
“What’s your readership?” he growled. I told him. He continued reading occasionally taking an interest in a particular article before flipping over a page. Finally he announced, “Good edit, it’s a sound read.” But what about my forwarding piece, read my forwarding piece, I whined. So he went back and read my piece, more closely. He nodded at some point then finally closed it and said, “It’s nice, but always remember that you have to capitalize the first word after a colon only if it’s a proper noun or the start of a complete sentence and also not that colons go outside quotation marks unless they are part of the quoted material.”
“Huh?!” I asked.
“Watch that matatu, they are mad.”
Happy belated Fatherday to all the struggling fathers reading this.