My sister thinks my daughter looks like me now more than ever. So does my mom, and the missus, and my mechanic. And that cat who came to fix the instant hot shower- the one who I wished hadn’t removed his shoes.
I disagree with all of them. I disagree with them because you don’t want your daughter looking like a man. Because that would mean she is an ongongo. For those who are not very conversant with this backstreet lingo, an ongongo is a crude term drunken men use to refer to a woman who isn’t very easy on the eyes (but who, as it always turns out, has a great heart).
I will be honest. I have quite a forehead -it’s a forehead that you can golf on. Looking for somewhere to tee off? Here, call Biko. No other forehead in sub-Saharan Africa matches my forehead; it’s dome shaped, it’s large and it sits there like a cow in its last trimester*. Most people who want to be mean to me will go for the lowest (and cheapest) hanging fruit and make fun of my forehead. I will laugh too, not at their joke but at their uncreativity. It’s like making fun of Trump’s hair or Besigye’s red lips. It’s obvious. It’s lazy. It’s too easy.
I suspect that inherited my forehead from one of my maternal uncles. One of my nephews has it as well. The Forehead Crew, that’s what we are. As it turns out, my daughter got my forehead too, but on her small delicate features it doesn’t look like the 7th hole on the golf course; it’s tapered nicely, it calms her eyes and makes her lips (definitely her mother’s) sink into some beatific symmetry. She makes that forehead look good. On my little girl, my forehead is finally redeemed.
But on the other hand if your daughter looks like you, it could mean you look like a woman – which is something that won’t serve you well if you find yourself locked up in Industrial Area Prison. I’m just saying. But I think your child should look like you in a way; mannerism or physically. Someone should not look at you and your daughter and think, “The new constitution sure made it easy to adopt!”
So it came with great horror and angst this past term to stand before one of my daughter’s teachers and prove that I was her father! Thing is, unless you go for one of those parents/teachers things, you wont meet all the teachers. I normally drop her off but she is picked up by the help at the end of the day. Once in a while I will pick her up, but it’s rare because at 3pm everybody is always shaking the bushes. Now her school, like many schools in Nairobi, will not hand a child to someone they don’t know, unless one of the parents has given prior notice. So when I showed up and the matronly looking lady said – no, sorry, from our records here, only three people can pick Tamisha up – I was like, yes, I’m one of those three.
“Who are you to her?” she asked cynically.
“The father,” I said, like I deserved a four-gun salute.
She grunted and said she had never seen me in the school before. Is she blahdy kiddin’ me?! I thought to myself.
“OK, where is teacher Louise?” I asked. Teacher Louise is her class teacher.
“She is unwell today,” she said, and then asked, “Which class is she in?”
“Who, teacher Louise?”
She ignored the joke and stared a hole in me. I knew she would at that instant knock me down then sit on my chest and cut off my air supply so I added quickly, “ Oh, you mean my daughter? She’s in pre-unit.” I said it with just the right amount of conceit, a natural province of fathers and Asian watch repairers.
“We have three classes in pre-unit, which one exactly?” she asked.
“Sunny Yellow.” I smiled smugly because I was sure she would apologize in a few when she realised her mistake.
“Tamisha is not in Sunny Yellow,” she said calmly and I looked at her like she was the craziest person I had ever met. “She is,” I said defensively and she repeated she wasn’t in Sunny Yellow. We are standing at this door where the kids walk out from to meet their parents or whoever has come to pick them up. The parents gathered there started looking at me accusatorily, like I was a child abductor. Like I was those delinquents who steal children and make them slave in a farm in Kilgoris.
“Look, call her out here and ask her if I’m not the father. That child looks like me, you’ll see!” I whined. She shook her head and said she wasn’t going to do any such thing. I even offered to show her a picture from my wallet. She shook her head, “Sorry, we can’t release this child to you, sir.” then turned on her matronly heels and huffed back into the building. At least she called me sir, I thought to myself, even a child abductor deserves some respect, I guess!
I grinned nervously at the now gawking parents and whipped out my phone and called up the missus. “Can you believe they won’t allow me to pick up Tamms from school because apparently I’m not her father, kwani whose name did you put in the list as the father? I mean, I’m the father right?”
She sighed. “Which teacher is there?”
“I wouldn’t call her a teacher, per se; she looks more like a Gestapo cateress.”
“Where is teacher Louise?”
“Probably buried in the cateress’ shamba as we speak,” I mumbled into the phone, “Look, she isn’t working today. Please make calls or else these parents will lynch me here. I don’t like the way they are looking at me.”
“Okay, chill there.” Before she hanged up I asked, “By way, isn’t Tamms in Sunny Yellow?”
“She was, for two weeks. Now she is in Maroon Bells.”
Maroon Bells? Jesus! That’s the thing with modern education: they want to make everything fancy. What happened to naming classes Red, Green, Yellow, Blue? Or north, south, west? Or Jupiter, Mars, Pluto? Simple names you don’t have to save on your phone to remember. Now they have Sunny Yellows and Golden Apples, Apple Greens, Silver Bells… The easiest way to die now is not even at a Gor match but when you go pick your daughter in school and end up mixing up your oranges and apples. You shall be lynched by irate parents and groundsmen.
Headline: Man lynched while trying to steal a 4yr old girl from school. He screamed,” Apples! Apples!” as a roaring fire engulfed him. Onlooking parents and teachers cheered wildly as they munched on apples.”
Anyway, the Gestapo teacher finally came out with another teacher who – thankfully- I knew and we all exchanged nervous laughters and shook hands and made some lousy small talk as the on-looking parents reluctantly returned their wheel spanners, clubs, Somali swords, a tyre and petrol back to their cars and everybody exhaled.
My little girl was brought out shortly after, totally oblivious to the fact that her father almost got killed by an irate mob baying for his blood – and apples. Now, there is a moment of glee when I go to pick her up from school and she isn’t expecting me, and as she walks out (obviously deep in thought about some weighty issues in her mind) and sees me, she rewards me with this terrific smile that melts my bones. Then she is running, her bag dragged behind her, and then she is in my arms in a hug; smelling of grime and asking about fifty questions for every answer I manage to miraculously squeeze edgewise: are we going to buy pizza? Did you see Terryanne (her best friend)? Where is auntie (the help)? And Ngugi? (the cabbie guy) Have you seen our sandpit? Why do boys like Ben 10? Are you a boy or a girl? (I get asked that a lot, Tamms) I drunk a red soda, can I show you my tongue? And it goes on like this, a whirlwind of questions that will only abate when I stick a newspaper in her mouth.
And she is dirty. Her socks, which were white in the morning, now look like a politician’s conscience. Her tie is gone, so is her sweater, all stuffed in her bag. Her hair has sand, or what I want to believe is sand. And sometimes she will have a small graze on her cheek or knee. And she smells of cigarettes…OK, not. But even though she looks like a homeless child, she still warms your heart with her bubbliness, with her repressive good cheer. And when I finally stop by a Mobil on the Run for what she loves most; chicken and chips, she ends up pointing at everything she wants, including the wide-eyed store attendant winking at her.
Here is the thing, she normally knows that when I pick her up she will get a treat; mostly it’s that two-piecer box that comes with chicken, fries and some lousy bun. Then she will pick a soda and some crisps and maybe a lollipop. Now sometimes I don’t have any money to indulge her monstrous appetite but with children you can’t strike a deal and say, “look, you can’t have chicken today, how about you take a soda and some half loaf and we will be on our way?” With them it’s either all or all.
So this day I pick her up and in my wallet I only have my fuel money for the next day. Bad idea. So as we leave the school gate I take a left (right turn normally leads to Mobil on the Run). From the corner of my eye, I see her looking around, disturbed, like I’m abducting her, like she is going home against her freewill. Finally, when she can’t sit on it any longer she speaks up.
“ Where are we going?”
“Home.” I say guiltily.
“I want soda and chips,” she says with a trembling voice and inside I’m like, “F@£$!”
“I will buy you tomorrow. I will buy you anything you want tomorrow, okay baby?” That’s my broke-ass trying to weasel my way out of it.
“But I want it oday!” she whines staring out the window, like she just can’t believe that of all the fathers a child could get she got me, one who can’t buy her chips and soda and chicken. Life sure looked glum from her seat. And from mine too, believe me.
“The shop is closed today, they will be open tomorrow.” I lie.
“Okay,” she mumbles, almost in tears now. And she looks away, like she can’t stand the very sight of me. Like she is disgusted by a father who can’t buy her fries, like if she doesn’t make it in life, or falls pregnant at 15, it’s all because of me not being able to buy her fries when she wanted fries.
Now here is the thing, Oprah would probably say, come on Biko communicate with your child. Make your child understand money and its dynamics. But the truth is, having a child is like the initial stages of seduction, when honesty is not absolute (is it ever?), when you don’t expose your flaws too much because you have an agenda. So you stretch the truth a tad and protect the object of your desire until they are ready to handle the truth, or its derivative. Absolute honesty has its usefulness, yes, but not when there is a baby in question. OK my point is; it’s excruciatingly gutting to deny your four-year-old food by telling her you are broke. It’s insane.
Anyway, so guilt starts eating my brain and then it goes to my heart and I say, aww the hell with it, tomorrow will take care of itself and I make the next turn and start heading to Mobil.
“Where are we going?” she asks innocently.
“To buy chicken.”
“But it’s closed.”
“Well, I think they are open now. What time is it?”
“The time, baby, not your weight.” And I laugh, not because I think I’m hilarious but because she can’t get the weight joke (she’s 15kgs) and if she did she would be grossly offended, like any woman would. Here is the thing, I bought all that stuff and I was left with about Ksh 135 bob in my hands which can still fuel a Vitz and a Probox) but when I saw the way she jumped into that box of chicken with her elbows, feet and a wide smile, it didn’t matter that I didn’t know how I was going to leave the house the next day.As any father would tell you, very little matters then, apart from her joyous look. And anyway, you always leave the house the next day. Somehow.
Kids have now closed school. For me, the whole term is condensed into this small A3 envelope – all her work during the term. In there are numerous paintings and letter writing and shapes and colouring and things. And lastly there is a small hand-made card, an Easter card shaped like some smiley animal that looks like a cross-breed of sea lion and penguin, coloured gaudily in a pink crayon and made to mom and dad with her name written shakily at the bottom, like she wrote if after too much end-of-term celebratory wine. Most times fatherhood feels like trying to solve an equation you aren’t too sure of. One day you feel like you are on the right track and the next day you wake up in a desert of self-doubt and desperation. But sometimes things happen that show you that you will be just fine, that she will be just fine, things that make everything all the worthwhile. For me, it was that Easter card. It makes fatherhood worthwhile. Most importantly, it makes me feel that I won’t be lynched by other parents, after all.
Happy Holidays to all fathers out there, and to the Gang, enjoy the short holidays.
Ps. I’m taking a break too and will resume with this mindless conversation on the 16th. So long, Gang.