The president doesn’t know this, but he could just be keeping my farmhand, Boy, on a job. He’s been naughty, dishonest and not entirely productive, and I’ve been meaning to go down to shags and have a hard talk with him, probably even send him off his way – for good this time. But this partial lock-down, man. It’s a real cock-blocker because each time the president extends the famed 21-days, he postpones this looming meeting and over time my stand on Boy’s transgressions softens. The speech I had come up with for him looks silly now, out of touch, perhaps even petty. He, of course, is oblivious of this storm brewing and wakes up daily to feed his chicken while whistling under his breath. No worry in the world, at all. All hunky-dory. Meanwhile his only job – to keep the bloody grass green – isn’t going according to plan, at least not my plan. I’m not privy of his. It’s amazing how much grief grass can cause one. I’m in the grass-period of my life and I can’t seem to grow the grass I have in my mind. In my head grows a meadow, in real life grows a patch of failure. And because of this, I have new found respect for anyone keeping a green lawn.
Nobody should ever take credit for a green lawn in Limuru. That’s like taking credit for a baby’s first steps. I think you have to be a really horrible person to kill grass in Limuru. But Nyanza? That’s where your grass mettle is truly tested.
Anyhow, I blame myself because when the President stepped up to the podium in his gregarious shirt last Saturday there was no way he was going to hand any good news. No good news can come from a shirt like that. After he instructed that we all stay put, I thought to myself, What powerful prayers are these that Boy is praying back in the village? Because I’m tired of holding the axe over my head. Travelling plans dashed, I found myself talking to a guy I know, who we had been drinking with after lunch as we waited for the announcement. Let’s call him Willy. He was on beer. I had been on whisky for a minute and I was a bit pissy after the president’s announcement. How dare he choose human life over my grass?
Willy’s in banking and finance. A numbers guy. World social- economics guy. You must know the type; a bit pompous, a bit knowy, got some lip on him. Generally a typical beer guy. Typically, I don’t speak much and if I sit next to someone who loves to speak I will never bother to sneak a word edgewise. I’m happy to listen and nod and say, “no way!” Or, “Bollocks!” You can’t imagine telling someone “Bollocks!” just fires them up. And as long as someone won’t shut up, I see them as a potential story. This works for me.
Our drinks were sharing a stool between our seats and so it was only a matter of time before he got off.
“So, you’re a creative, right?” He started. He had almost put away six-packs already, so his forehead was shiny and his eyes danced a little like a night animal that had picked up a scent. I was three-doubles in and when I’m three doubles in, I’m in the phase of calm, I feel my soul stretched out before me. He asked. “What do you think your responsibility to young writers is?”
“Responsibility?” I asked a bit testily. Remember I was still sore from not being able to go to shags for another 30 days.
“Yeah,” he said, “To these young writers who look up to you!”
“I’m not responsible for anyone, my friend.” I said. [I truly believe that calling someone “My friend”, is derogatory]
“You don’t have a responsibility to elevate writing!?” He asked incredulously.
“No!” I growled, crossing my legs and then quickly uncrossing them after remembering that an Osteopath (This Is Nuts.. ) said one of my testicles was older than the other because of such habits like crossing of legs. “Don’t add responsibilities on my plate, my friend, I already have too much. I don’t need that weight. If what I do inspires someone to write, I’m happy, but it’s not my responsibility to – what did you say?- elevate writing? Jesus. You accountants!”
“I’m not an accountant,” he protested. “I’m in banking and finance.”
“Yeah, get a plaque.” I poured a drink. “Do you want some of this?” I raised my bottle.
“Let me finish my beers first, I think I still have two more left.” He said, shaking his can. “Look, you are a writer, a creative and I don’t know how that world is. But I want to know how your world is because I have two younger siblings that have taken this creative path and I don’t understand it and I need to understand seeing as I’m paying their way. I don’t think it will go anywhere, this creative pursuit, not in this country it won’t.” He shook his head. He had a neat fresh haircut, he seemed like the crazy type that cuts their own hair. “They can go to Europe and try it out there, maybe it will work, but here? Naah. I don’t think the creative work here pays. We are not there yet. ” He sipped his drink leaving a thin beach of froth over his upper lips. “Thing is,” he continued, “I don’t want to waste my money on something like this if it won’t pay off and beca-.”
“Pay off to whom?” I headbutted in his diatribe.
“Besides, I’m their brother, not their father,” he said, ignoring me, “I should be putting my money on things that will fetch me results. Things have a promise in this market!”
“Like finance?” I asked wearing my most sour expression, like overnight milk.
“Not necessarily, but something that is realistic and has a future!”
“Because creativity has no future,” I mumbled sarcastically, attempting to smile ruefully. “Bottom of the barrel.”
“Now look, JB, don’t get annoyed or take offense.” He calls me JB, which I like. “The reason we are having this conversation is for me to understand from someone like you who has been at it for a few years. I want to understand how this goes.”
“I don’t think you want to understand.” I told him. “I think you have made up your mind. To be ignorant.”
“I haven’t! Trust me. I’m a very open-minded guy. But I know what can work in this market and what can’t.” He said. He had on a very white t-shirt. Spotless. I made a mental note to ask him later how he launders his t-shirts.
“You know we all can’t be in banking and finance.” I said, crossing my legs and thinking, oh screw that ageing testical, I have two kids already, I don’t need it, it can age all it wants. “Not all of us can be good at things that are marketable.” I scratched the air in quotes. “Some of us just want to play a guitar or paint or make pots or write movies. It will never make sense to anyone else but them. And you don’t have to understand it. You really don’t. That’s too much pressure on you.”
“Aaahh JB, don’t get pissed. Let’s talk like intellectuals.” He said, leaning in with an oily smile, knowing that he’d found my buttons.
“I’m not an intellectual. I’m…a creative.” I said. “The intellectual is over there,” I pointed at my brother who was engaged in a very intellectual task of pouring tonic water in his whisky.
We proceeded to have a two hour long argument about career, happiness and choice. He stuck to his guns and I stuck to mine but we shared a whisky and a very beautiful conversation mostly fueled by his ignorance of the lure and beauty of artistry and my frustration and silent scorn at his ilk who use calculators at work. I was also the one with a chip on his shoulder, I will admit. He was a mostly livelier debater who used long endless paragraphs without commas. I told him that perhaps he needed to listen more and speak less if he wanted to learn about people like me and he said, he didn’t need to listen if he was on the side of reason and I sighed dramatically and said, “Well, this conversation is akin to seducing a goat.”
I don’t know what that meant. I didn’t have time to think about it. I just said it. Have you not said something ridiculous during an argument that didn’t make sense? At that moment, I was distinctly aware as we fenced that I would write a letter to people like him the next day.
So here goes.
DEAR YOU, YES YOU, THE NON-BELIEVER OF CREATIVES.
There is a boy I mentor called Eddy Ashioya. Twenty six years old, thin as the devil’s shadow. He goes about his life in those very skinny jeans, torn in parts, and doesn’t reach his ankles. He describes himself as an “Urban post-industrialist metro-sexual straight black male” but twists his nose at men who drink Tusker Cider. He wears a wrought silver ring on his little finger. His hair is a thick, wild mangrove left to find its true qi. You wouldn’t mistake him for an ultrasound technician.
He’s got a long narrow face, framed between bones of secrets. A face between a boy and a man, just at the casp of blossoming into full manhood but just shy of it. A reluctant face.
He rides Safe Boda and lugs a mysterious rucksack on his back everywhere he goes. It could well be a parachute, who knows? Whatever it is, I’m always afraid to ask. He’s a lover. I can tell a lover. They are too weary in the hearts, too thin under their chests. They are capsules of fear and insecurity because they give too much and they never could define enough.
He’s been dating the same girl for six years, to mean since he was 20. A girl called Nincy. A girl with no piercings, who loves purple – like he does. She’s the practical one and he’s the romantic. He thinks he’s hilarious but what people think of themselves is their business. He‘s a copywriter in an ad agency. He lives in a bedsitter that he loves. Understands gadgets. Calls me “pops,” because he thinks I’m very old but I don’t care because I know more about life than he does and that is more useful that knowing what an SEO is. Or what Application you can use to sign a document from your phone.
He loves words, Eddy. He’s so passionate about words sometimes I think words might come out of his nose as blood. I admire his hunger. I recognize his hunger and I’m secretly envious of it. It’s beautiful and raw and he thinks words are like rocket propelled missiles that can make holes through walls. And they can. He keeps sending me his work to read but even when I don’t he keeps sending more. Determination. Commitment. He hides between his sentences, showing his reluctance to truly believe he’s a writer, afraid to fully succumb to his love because great love sometimes comes with great heartbreaks. So, he uses his words to dance with his reflection. His words are his mirror. That’s how he sees himself.
Last week he said, Biko, I’d like to see you. So he came over to my house with his knapsack clinging on his back like a pet monkey. He was supposed to be over at 11 but he came an hour late. I gave him an old barbed speech about time keeping, about respecting your time and others time yadda yadda yadda. He wore what looked like a grin because he seems to wear a grin all the time. It’s how he shows his cynicism to the world. Plus, he’s a millennial. They are born brave, aren’t they?
He apologized and said, “I was late because I was looking for your favorite drink.” He retrieved my favorite single malt from his knapsack of secrets and said, “I made some money on the side and I wanted to say thank you for holding my hand.” If I was a girl I would have said, “Awwww.”
Instead I looked at him, feeling my heart swell with something weird; pride, gratitude, whatever. I struggled with expressing this feeling; the natural thing would have been to hug him, a man hug, the rough type where you slap each other on the back until someone swallows their tongue. But I’m not really that guy who hugs, it just doesn’t come easy. I wasn’t hugged. I especially don’t know how to hug men.
“You shouldn’t have,” I kept saying and he kept saying, “No, I wanted to,” and I said, “You need the money,” and he said, “I do, but I also need this.” And I felt a great sense of gratitude, not because of the whisky but because of his gesture, the thought behind it. He’s 26 years old, he could have done a million things with that money, but he bought me my favorite drink. I removed the bottle from the box and held it by her waist, looked at it adoringly, feeling her weight in my hands and thinking to myself, “your weight is perfect, you are seductive af. I could drink you right here, right now, before this boy. But I won’t.”
“What did you do with the rest of the money you made?” I asked him.
“I paid my rent and did house shopping for my girlfriend.”
“You romantic racoon!” I joshed. “You responsible, romantic weasel.”
He grinned cynically. He has a strong grin, covered in layers and layers of wit, cynicism and sarcasm. But you need a shovel to see all that.
“Do you think this writing thing will work?” He asked me at the end of our chat, avoiding my eyes, because he’s still at the sad artistic stage of erroneously confusing insecurity for betrayal.
“Do you want it to work?” I countered.
“Yes, of course!” He said. “You know I want it to work.”
“Then it will work.” I said. “You are a good writer. I think I have told you this before.”
He’s a very sensitive boy, Eddy. But art is sensitivity. It’s who you are. It’s you without your skin. Without bullshit. The sun shines directly on your heart .
There are boys like Eddy, scores of them standing at this great shore of decisions, this rubicon of artistry, wondering if they should take the plunge and swim across and if they will make it safely to the other side. It’s the question some of them grapple with every night; if this will work. If this is the path. If they can do it. If it’s the “right choice.” And sometimes it only takes one wrong word of rebuke to upset the balance of the weaker ones. Then they tumble and end up working in procurement.
We all can’t work in a bloody bank. Or build bridges and strong beams. We can’t all be good at strategic thinking, whatever the hell that is. Or look into mouths and teeth the whole day. Or midwife babies. Or “build capacity.” Or listen to people’s chest through stethoscopes. We all can’t hang a lanyard around our necks and have proper email signatures and “out of office” messages.
Some of us, boys and girls like Eddy, will want to take a different path. They want to make trousers and dresses with their hands. They want to carry guitars on their backs because their hearts echo with relentless music. They are hounded by their own ache to make things with their hands and minds and spirits. They want to make films and furniture and apps that think for you. They want to draw, animate, make Youtube videos of cats and shit. They want to illustrate the world through cameras and paint emotions only they can read on canvas. They want to be “gamers.” To mean, they want to choose their own happiness. And choosing your own happiness, one that people don’t understand, is scary shit as it is.
And when we tell them, “You are so smart, why the hell do you want to write about food! You can do anything!” You are telling them that what they love isn’t something. That it isn’t enough, they aren’t enough. But you don’t have to understand their happiness or their choice. And no one should dictate anyone’s happiness. So what if there has never been another food writer who made it in this market? It could be them. So what if making jewellery “doesn’t pay”? Maybe they will be the one to change that, maybe not. Should people who heed calls of creativity give up because there lack credible precedence?
As we debated with Willy last Saturday, Nyashinski’s jam, “Free” started playing from his playlist. I said, “Do you know this guy’s history?” He shook his head dismissively. “We used to listen to this guy in Kleptomaniacs, remember? When they had those bad over-sized clothes we used to wear?” I said. “Then Nyashinki took off to the US for a sojourn and when he came back he came back with birds in his belly, these beautiful birds that sang so well? Did you ever imagine that he’d be this good today? I don’t know his story but art is a journey, my friend. It’s stew. Some take ages, some are ready immediately. Some get slapped in, others don’t. It’s fight or flight. And the difficult things are the ones we fight for never the easy ones.”
How can we, for instance, play songs of artists we love, that bring us joy and create memories, yet we don’t look at them as vital? As necessary? Art, creativity isn’t something you “do in your spare time.” It’s your very core because it brings you happiness.
Tamms loves cooking now. She bakes decent muffins. OK, they are not ati kick-ass, but she’s getting there. She also makes burger patties and rice and guacamole. “How did you learn to make cinnamon rolls?” I asked her the other day and she said, “Er, YouTube?” then looked at me closely to see if I knew what YouTube was. She never wanted to be a chef. She wanted to be an actor when she was 9, then a singer at some point and then a doctor, then she wanted to be a mother [yeah, I know] and now, for the past two years she wants to be chef. Who knows what she will want to be when she’s 15, or 20. Maybe she will want to make pots or grow medicinal weed. Maybe she will want to pursue shit that I don’t understand, shit that makes me afraid for her “future.” Or maybe she won’t even know what she wants to be; she will just sit in her room after high school, tweeting crazy shit about the climate change. Or she will buy binoculars to follow migratory birds all over Africa and I will ask her mom, “Is there a white story in your family tree? Maybe someone down the line, a child of a Mau Mau, who went to work for white settler as undercover?”
But I will not question her choices that bring her happiness, I will not discourage her ( but I will bitch about it in bars over drinks). I will support her even though I will not understand those creative pursuits. Because only the very brave beat their own path. And that shit is lonely. And often it takes time, commitment and great passion. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Like everything else.
It’s not easy. They need affirmation. They need validation. We all do, but when you are a budding artist who has chosen a path most might think is ludicrous you need someone to say something as simple as, “yes, you can do it.” You need an ally, a positive whisper in your ear. It’s not only a validation to your art, but to your love. Because we tend to love the people who love the things we love, not those who fight and break them.
Also, does anybody know what makes grass happy?