They moved in together in 2003. They were campus sweethearts. She studied engineering while he studied economics. She was the serious one, the one who knew where she was going in life, hell, the one who knew where he was going in life. He was the guy who liked to have a good time; sports and beer. They struggled because that’s what most people do after university, rummaging through the dustbins of employment, trying to get their ducks in a row and constantly discovering that those aren’t even ducks, they are sheep. They had their daughter in 2006 after a particularly rough pregnancy. When the baby came, he was away in shags, supervising the harvest of maize, his side hustle to supplement his meagre income. He worked at a struggling financial institution with stifling work culture. “I shared a small, cramped, windowless room with three other guys,” he says. “Our boss would open the door and shout at us like slaves on a ship.” He wanted them to row faster, to get to the land of milk and honey faster.
We are at Under The Radar, on a bright morning. We are looking at the children’s playground, now desolate, children are in school, in their masks, learning how to count to ten. Such a hard time to be a child – you have to bathe yourself after school on top of that. Life’s so tough.
His maize business was doing okay until it wasn’t. While his business was getting weak in the knees his wife’s career was taking off into the stratosphere. She was smart and driven and focused and she had taken a marketing course soon after campus. She knocked down obstacles with her head, ramming into them like a territorial ram. “I on the other hand, man, I was struggling with the maize business and with my day job,” he sips his beer. He’s one of those Kenyans who drink beer at 11am. “I was also struggling with the idea of employment, that someone would just open the door and shout at me then pay me 45K a month. Every end month I would weigh the damage the job was doing to my self-esteem – what people have now given a serious name – ‘mental health’, I guess,” he chuckles, “and wonder if it was worth hanging on. But I had a child. I needed the job so I hung on, taking that shit from my boss.”
When their daughter was 5 years old, he was still in that airless room and his wife was now working for a good firm, travelling across the East Africa region. He found himself stepping in to fill the parenting role more. “I was now spending a lot of time with my daughter because my wife was away working, sijui Arusha, mara Kampala. To be honest, I was excited for her, but at the same time I was also worried for myself,” he chuckles, “Worried that she was leaving me behind, you know how it is, right?” I nod. That’s how us men talk. Just because you are a man you automatically assume the other man knows exactly what you are talking about. I do it all the time as well, especially when I don’t want to spell out what I‘m talking about. You just say, “Ah, si you know what I’m talking about?’ or “Si you just know?” or “You know how these things go”, And somehow most guys just do. Or I think they do. It’s a way of not being vulnerable. And so much important shit gets lost in that process of assumption.
When their daughter was preparing to join grade one, they had their first major row. “She wanted her to attend a very expensive school, I wanted a more affordable school. I didn’t want to put her in a school that I couldn’t afford, but because she was making a ton more than I was, she was insisting on this other school and I remember what broke the camel’s back was I kept telling her, I can’t afford this damn school, it’s beyond us! And she said, it’s beyond you, and that just changed shit, man.”
“How so?” I ask, staring at his beer and thinking, the only thing that looks good sweaty is a beer.
“How so? Are you kidding me?” he takes a swig, “Because it showed the simmering resentment of my diminished financial contribution to the family. I thought it was only in my head, but now it was out. That’s the thing with chics when they start making more than you; they want to put their foot on your neck. They want to say what goes. Boss, me I’m from Kitale.”
He says that and doesn’t expound. I thought about that long after the interview. Kwani how are guys from Kitale? I started going through my Rolodex to find out who I knew from Kitale but couldn’t come up with one name. I asked my boy, Hezzy, if he knows anybody from Kitale he said, nope, why? I said, because they know what we don’t. It’s the way he said it, I said, okay, they must raise a different breed of men in Kitale. Boss, me I’m from Kitale. No more. Don’t men from Kitale hold their penis while peeing like the rest of us? Don’t they bleed like us? Don’t they hurt like us? Ye, great men from Kitale, what thine manly secrets do you keep from the rest of us?
“I told her, if she’s going to be paying the fees then she should take our daughter to that school,” he continues, “It was a test. She paid for it and our daughter joined the school and for me that drew a line in the sand. She disregarded my opinion. Overruled me, you know? I mean. But I didn’t fully understand this affront until much later. It’s only when I grew older that I realised that those who make the most tend to influence the decisions. I don’t care what anyone else says.”
But what it also did was it made him realise that he would never have a voice if he was making less. “And if you are fighting for power in your own house, yes that’s what it was, when you are fighting to remain ‘relevant’,” he makes quotation marks, “You can’t be a good parent at the same time. It distracts you. You know why?”
“Why?” I want to add, ‘man from Kitale’ but this is serious.
“Because it’s about ego,” he leans closer, “Let me ask you, Biko, do you think if your ego was punctured you’d still get a hard-on?”
“Yes.” I say without thinking because that’s how manhood works, you never say you can’t get a hard-on. Especially to another man.
“I’m telling you, you can’t!” he says, “You haven’t been there, trust me, you won’t. The first thing a woman who wants to finish you does is she kills your ego. You can’t stand on your two feet.”
“Where is this going?”
“I couldn’t stay in that marriage. So I left. You know why I left? To build myself!” he jabs at his chest violently, “Besides, I wanted to have a son and the doctor had said she would not be able to have other children without seriously risking her life. I knew I wanted to have a son.”
“Why was it important?”
“Because we don’t have sons in my family. I just wanted one, I have always wanted a boy of my own.”
“Boys come from men,” I tell him, “the Y chromosomes?”
“I used to skive biology classes,” he grins, “Can I smoke?”
“Yeah, just blow it away from me.” (I hate smoke on my beard).
He lights a cigarette. I keep interviewing men who smoke a lot lately.
“I had stopped smoking in my third year, but then I picked it up during the stressful days of farming,” he says. “Farming can drive you insane. You can put in 400k and lose everything because of something like pests.” While he was working on himself he met a girl who was also working on herself and they dated after her fiance called off the wedding. They moved in together; two ships with broken masts, desperate to find their way through choppy waters.
Enter baby momma numero dos.
After a year or two she got pregnant and gave birth to another girl. “Honestly, I don’t want to imply that I wasn’t grateful for my baby, because I was. I’m very very proud of my children and I love them, but I was sort of disappointed that it wasn’t a boy. Right now it’s not politically correct to say that you are looking for a son, but f**k it, people want what people want and I wanted a son and when I didn’t get a son I was deflated.” He says.
“Did she know you wanted a son?”
“Of course not,” he dismissively waves off the hand with a burning cigarette, “She didn’t need to. Too much pressure on her for nothing.”
His father had two wives – his mom is the second wife. They are eight children, two of whom are boys. “My mom worked in the city, where she met my dad, a civil servant and a failed politician, just as well,” he chuckles. His lips are sort of dark, like he’s been kissing cooking pots his whole adult life. He has an interesting face, those faces that come out nicely when you take profiles of them; angular boned, strong chinned, generous eyebrows, intense eyes and very dark skin. If you don’t immediately notice his face you will notice his wrists; they are big. The girth of a goalpost. “The politics of polygamy is interesting,” he says, “My dad wasn’t a poor man, but if you have eight children and two women, you can’t prosper and I don’t think you will find happiness. There was always a lot of strife at home, competition, malice, and scandal and my father was always caught up in this crossfire. I don’t think he was happy. How could you be with eight children and two wives? My mom worked in the city and my stepmom remained in the village but still, her presence was felt in the city. She gave that man hell, and rightfully so. I like her.” He chuckles, taps the cigarette against an ashtray. “I don’t know if there is anything in my childhood that informs me now.”
His agribusiness flourished. He also got into supplying manure and cow feed. By the time his second daughter was three he had long quit formal employment and was making “decent money” as a businessman. He then got into real estate but only in small towns; making money in darkness, he called it. “My second marriage didn’t work out because of money again,” he says, “Which is, what is that word that we used to use in English in school?…”
“Yes! Irony!” He snaps his finger. “My first marriage ended because I was broke, right? But ironically, my second ended because I had money. I was a terrible father and husband. I started a relationship in Nakuru with this young thing in Uni, fourth year, because I could afford it and I was looking for trouble to invest in. I rented her a house and all, bought her a small second-hand car. I’m saying this because it’s an open secret now, that storm blew over. I was paying her fees and all. She knew of my domestic situation but my wife didn’t. Then she got pregnant just after university like I wanted her to and man, when she gave birth it was another girl. So now three girls. My wife found out at some point and she takes no prisoners, so she packed up and left. She also denied me access to my daughter. I think I have seen my daughter no more than five times since.”
After three years, the Nakuru girl got pregnant again, another girl. Four kids and counting, all girls. “At this point, I wasn’t even seeing my first child that much nor paying for upkeep and to punish me, her mom would make me jump through fire to see her. She also told her that I was no good – “
“Or maybe she just saw it for herself,” I say.
“Well, I disagree. If she gave me a chance I think I would be a better father to her, but she poisoned her with falsehoods about me. She started withdrawing from me, getting cold, so I stopped bothering them.” He says. “Anyway, before long I also realised that this new one wasn’t a good mother or she wasn’t ready to be. She drank a lot, she liked going out, not being attentive to the children and all. So we broke up. Rather, I said, screw this, I can’t deal.”
I chuckle. “What do you think is your role in all these relationships breaking down?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, do you ever wonder if you had a role in getting where you are?”
“No,” he leans back.
“You just had rotten luck with three women and four children later.”
“That’s how I see it.”
I look at him to see if he’s serious, and it turns out he is.
“How often do you see your kids?” I ask.
“I only see the last two kids…a few times, it gets complicated when another man is involved” he says, “But my ex started dating someone else, some rich chap, so I guess she is fine.”
“Are you still looking to get another kid, a son?”
“Yes, I think I will get a son.”
“After how many attempts, when will you say, okay, enough? After child number 10? Maybe 13?”
He doesn’t answer that question, instead, he orders another beer and lights another cigarette and we talk about the time he went to Rusinga Island and how amazing the place is because it has palm trees and all. I don’t want to talk about Rusinga Island for 30 minutes to be honest, I want to know what happens when he eventually gets a boy. Will he hang him on the wall like a certificate? A memento?
“How will your life change if you get a son?” I ask. “Describe that life for me?”
He mulls over this briefly, smoking, before mumbling a few things about completion of a family circle or something like that. After the interview, I wonder what the story here is, and if it’s not a cliche of sorts; man burning, cutting down the lush land of uteri in his search for a son, and leaving in his wake a trail of mostly estranged children. I phoned him. He was driving. I asked, “If you had a second crack at this fatherhood journey, what would you do?”
He paused a bit. I could picture him steering his big-ass car with one hand, his seats smelling of smoke, a packet lying on the passenger seat next to a diary stuffed with receipts. He said, “I think I’d make better choices.”
“Maybe pick the woman I have a child with better.”
I was even more confused. I made a mental note to find other chaps from Kitale to get a better perspective.
There are no announcements here, nothing to do with polio or a bridge that’s been swept away. But if you have a motherhood or fatherhood story, ping me on [email protected] and also buy my new book if you have some loose coins. See Marketplace, here.