I’d never join a book club. I’d be kicked out. The leader of the book cult would say, sarcastically, like a villain in a dark story where characters carry shovels into the woods at night, “Biko, maybe this isn’t for you, which is a great irony because you are a writer.” I’d agree. In fact, I’d beg to leave before I’m humiliated over a vote. This is because I’m a slow reader. A very slow reader. I read only two books a month. I’m slow because when I read a good paragraph or chapter, I will pause and close my eyes and tilt my head back so that all those beautiful words I have seen with my eyes can slide down to my heart where I can trap them. I’m slow because when I’m out of the house, driving or pinching avocados in a market alley, I will think of nothing but the book waiting for me back at home. It’s like being on your honeymoon in Zanzibar and you are out exploring the local village while your new spouse opted to remain at the resort because you married someone who likes to lounge by the pool all day and cover their eyes with a book. Or round slices of cucumber. So you are out there exploring but not even having that much fun because you are thinking of your spouse and you can’t wait to go back and eat that cucumber. That’s how I am with a great book I’m reading. I think of it when I’m not reading it. I want to devour its words, I want all the beautiful sentences to transport me to a place with no language, just emotions. And when I go back to the house, I will go back and re-read parts that I enjoyed. That slows me the hell down.
I’m also slow because when I’m reading a great book I never want to finish it. I want to stay with the book forever. Finishing a good book is an unimaginable loss, it’s endless grief, a corridor of darkness. It’s a brutal breakup. So I take my time with great books. I want to constantly see it on my bed stand when I wake up. I want to carry it into planes and cafes. I carry it to every room in the house. I spill things on it. I dog-ear it. You will find scraps of paper in it. Plane tickets. Receipts. A feather. A flattened grain of rice. I highlight the hell out of lines and paragraphs. I draw smiley faces on pages. Because a book is a relationship and you have to leave yourself in a relationship, to allow it to take from you as much as you give it.
I turn my nose at those sanctimonious people who treat their books like an only child. Babying their books. How they get seizures when they see pages folded. Or God-forbid, should they see you writing notes on a book. Why on earth would you want to finish reading a book and leave it looking as good as new? Nobody is carrying a book to heaven, I can tell you that. Or hell, for that matter. My books look read. They look like someone – a human, not an OCD robot – actually handled the book. They tell their own story of the relationship with the owner. If you picked a book I’ve read you will know, first that it was read and second, that the person who read it loved chapos. Also I don’t lend out my books. It’s like lending out your socks. I can buy someone the same book but I won’t lend them mine. People should own books, not borrow books. Books are not loans.
“Bad books” on the other hand, bring out something ugly in me. I’m unforgiving of bad books. No second chances. I don’t give these sorta books time, time to show me their heart, time to find themselves or find me or find us. Two chapters in and I’m telling them that this is all them, not me. And I’m looking for my raincoat where I hang it on the hook by the door and I’m saying, ‘I’d rather catch pneumonia than open another page of your story.’ And I’m slamming the door on them because I know I’m not going back. [I went back once for ‘Fates and Furies’ by Lauren Groff because Obama made noise about it. I didn’t regret it]. So, yeah I don’t give bad books the time of day. Life is too short to cuddle with a bad book. Which brings me, contradictorily, to this bad book trope; there are no bad books, just books that weren’t written for you. Don’t call books bad. That’s someone’s labour of love. It’s like calling someone’s baby ugly. Also, sometimes books will seduce you back. With words.
I just finished reading this book; ‘TAKE MY ADVICE, letters to the next generation’ by James Harmon. It’s pieces of advice from almost 300 people. It’s a snappy read. Some of the advice in there you are aware of, but it’s great to see it said, written, out loud or illustrated through storytelling. Some advice in there makes you sit up.
When possible turn off the sound. Don’t be overly concerned by being happy. Try to need less, to find work that doesn’t demean you. Read more, talk less. Try to raise your children without television. When despair sets in, as it will, sit quietly and wait it out in silence.
A friend told me she wanted to send me something because I had failed to read someone right and they blindsided me, tried to torch down my hut while I slept in it. She said, “Biko, you should have seen this coming.” I gave her my address. She’s in the fragrance and happiness business so I thought she was sending a sample of fragrance and happiness. One evening when I had just showered and was looking for my old evening shorts in the drawer, the intercom rang and Jackson, the security guy, said, “Kuna lorry hapa, wanasema wanakuja kwako.”
“Ati lorry?” I asked, standing in the corridor half naked, holding my shorts in one hand like a hare I had just hunted and caught in the woods.
“Er, lorry,” he said.
“Aii, sio kwangu,” I said, pressing the phone against my ear with my shoulder, I hopped around like a rabbit as I slipped into the pair of shorts. “Pengine kuna mtu ana hama.”
“Wamesema ni kwako.”
“Wangoje, nacome,” I said.
There was a blue truck humming outside the gate. The driver, with his ashy elbows sticking out the window, looked bored and listless. His turnboy, cheeks swollen like a gourd, chewed something intensely. They said they had been sent by my friend. Arrh. Sawa. I told the security guy to open the gate then stood aside as they reversed the truck in. The turnboy jumped out and opened the back.
Guess what was in there?
No, come on, guess.
A book! ‘The Laws of Human Nature’ by Robert Greene.
They brought the book in a truck because it’s a humongous book. It weighed a ton. The driver and Jackson held both ends and the turn-boy and myself held the two other ends and together we hauled it up the staircase. We were panting when we finally dragged it inside the house. “Where do you want it?” The driver asked breathlessly, looking around the house. “There,” I pointed at a corner next to the dining table. “Just leave it there until I find space for it.”
I gave them bananas and they left.
Boy is it a big book or what? It’s not a book you read for leisure. It’s a book you read to live better with other humans and you can’t achieve that if you don’t understand humans or even yourself. It also explains why people do certain shit. For instance I always buy groceries at this store and this attendant always helps me choose and carry the purchase to my car. I always tip him. This one time I didn’t tip him and so the next time I went to the store he pretended not to notice me. I was glass to him. Never said hello. It disoriented me. I wanted to find out what the Kayapa that was all about, so I went back home and flipped through the chapters of this book to find an explanation to this strange behaviour. I read chapter 4; determine the strength of people’s character to try and decode that man’s behaviour. It’s a useful book. A matatu driver almost drives you off the road? Read chapter 9; confront your dark side. Your girl says some shit that gets your goat? Read chapter 3, see through people’s masks. You went on a date and the man never called back? Chapter 10; beware of the fragile ego. They called back but they now speak to you like you went to Toastmasters together? Chapter 5, become an elusive object of desire. Your best mate didn’t invite you to their party? Chapter 3; see through people’s masks.
It’s not a book you read to finish. It’s a book you refer to. Like the Bible, but without anybody cutting your long locks of hair while you sleep. It’s a partner you bounce things off of. It also looks great on your desk. It makes you look like you have found your purpose in life. People treat you differently when you read this book. It’s certainly better for your image than ‘Make your Bed’ by William McRaven (good book). If all else fails, you can’t read this book. You can use it for many things considering its weight; You can stop a bullet with it. You can smash a man’s skull with it in case of a home invasion. If a guest suddenly passes out after eating your chicken in mushroom sauce, you can tuck it under their feet. You can use it as a hammer to drive in nails.
Sometime last year my phone rang, “Hi, is this Jackson Biko?” I said yeah in my phone voice. (Everybody has a phone voice.) The man said, “this is Baba – ”
“Yeah, Dr Teju Baba.”
He had one of those accents that sound French and African at the same time. He said he was referred by someone I know and that he wanted to meet up. I said, ‘OK’. I was heading to the petrol station on Lenana road to have my car washed. He was in the neighbourhood so we agreed to meet at the Java at Astrol. So he comes and he’s very tall, athletic, friendly and he’s carrying a man bag. “Are you a real doctor?” I asked, looking at his man bag. Because he didn’t look like a real doctor. Maybe his doctorate was in fashion.
“Yes I am,” he emitted a wide chuckle. “I’m also a health economist.”
He had on these very bohemian spectacles that I dug. “I love your spectacles!” I told him. Then I told him of the day I was in Paris and I bought some tourist merchandise from this street vendor in a mobile kiosk and he had on the same spectacles. Sort of. I asked him where I could get them and he gave me the address of a man who crafted them, bespoke, but it would take three weeks which I didn’t have because I was leaving the next day. He says, “funny, I bought this in France.”
So what does this guy do? He removes the specs and says, “you can have them.” I laughed and said, “No, I can’t have them.” He said, “No, please have them, I have dozens of spectacles.” I said, “come on, no, no, that’s mad.” He said, “you love them more than I do, at least try them on.” So I did and he said, “they look better on you,” which was a lie. I returned them and said, “no, they are yours. Besides, how will you see without them? You will walk into chairs and fall down the stairs and break your neck.” Imagine the irony, ‘a health economist fell down a flight of stairs yesterday, breaking his neck’… A writer is in custody.
He removed a new pair from his man bag and said, “There. Please keep them. A gift.” I said, “really?” He said, “really, have them.” So I took them. When I wear them, I think in French.
Dr Teju Baba has travelled to 27 African countries for work and leisure, researching a book about African Pioneers since 1880. He then wrote this book about 50 African pioneers in Arts, literature, sports, health, governance and whatnot. It’s an easy to read book and features shorts stories of, say, the first African woman to be admitted to the English bar, the first Sub-Saharan woman to direct a commercial film, first black female African Olympic champion, first African pilot on a commercial flight, first woman from East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate [our own Wangari Maathai), first gynaecologist in Somali. It’s a book you leave in your balcony for visitors to flip through as you fetch them another cocktail, or a book your children would read for general knowledge or in the magazine stand in the washroom because who doesn’t like reading on the loo? I have some great literature in my loo.
[To order daktari’s book; https://www.myafricancliches.com/book/?v=5c6dc3d43650
I have a farm store in shags. You know, for keeping farm implements, construction materials and sometimes for hiding the bodies of my enemies.
Last year the shamba-boy called and said two pigeons had moved in there. I said, “That’s fantastic! I love pigeons! What colour are they?” He said the male was brown and the female was white. Of course, trust the female to pick white. I wanted to ask him how he knew the gender, but that was going to slow down the good news. Instead I asked, “what do they eat?” He said, grain and sometimes bread crumbs. Or just things in the grass.
“And they just showed up?” I asked suspiciously, because they could be spies, you know. “They just showed up,” he said. I was overjoyed. What great luck that was! What blessings. “Give them everything they need,” I instructed him. Hot showers and things. Get them pillows, if they want.
When I travelled down to shags I saw them. They lived humbly amongst bags of cement, wheelbarrows and angle lines of steel. Just the two of them. They perched on the roof, their thick necks pulsing. They roamed the garden, beaks pecking on the ground. As the sun set they trotted into the dark store then we locked the door. They filled my heart with such love. I had carried one of those bird-feeders I bought from Ngong Road and we hung it on a branch of the acacia tree right outside the store. OK, he climbed and hung it, I’m not crazy, I’m 45, I’m not going to fall and break my neck climbing trees. I came back to Nairobi and after two months I went back to shags and found out that they were expecting two babies. Do you know what a baby pigeon is called?
Anybody in class?
But I won’t call it a squab because that sounds like something you use to clean a toilet. Let’s just go with baby pigeons. Here is what their routine was. The male would wake up very early and go feed for like 20 minutes then he would be back to sit on the eggs relieving the female who would roam about the whole day, going to do her nails and to bars to have cocktails with her girlfriends. In the evening she would come back and the male would have 20 mins before dusk to go feed and stretch his limbs and maybe smoke a cigarette while the female settled on the eggs for the night. Male pigeons are the true feminists.
Anyway, the shamba boy called one day and said they got two baby pigeons. I was like, that’s fantastic! “What colour are they?” I asked and he said, “white and brown.” Uhm, OK, still I was overjoyed. Four pigeons. Then they got three more because what do pigeons do all day but mate? Now we had seven pigeons. In December I went to shags and found the shamba-boy had not cut my beloved grass even when I had sent money a few days ago for fuel for the lawnmower. I was livid. He was on his way to Kakamega for Christmas. I called him and I told him this was not working for me. Told him to have a merry Christmas and a happy new life.
I got a new shamba-boy at the beginning of this year, a very young, lanky fellow who looks more like a Gengentone artist than a gardener. He favours skinny jeans., I told him my non-negotiable. I told him, “you can smoke weed and drink changaa and roll in the hay with the village girls and I will not care, but if you don’t take care of my grass I will send you packing. That’s all I ask of you; Take. Care. Of. My. Damn. Grass. Water it every evening. Cut it when it needed to be cut. Talk to it. That’s all.”
I like this new guy, but then again, I always like them when they start. He spoke calmly, like a preacher. It’s with this tone that he called me recently and told me, ‘njiwa wawili walikulwa na mburkenge jana usiku.”
I said, “ati?!”
“Njiwa wawili walikulwa na Mburkenge jana usiku.”
I thought, what the hell is the fellow on about?
“Njiwa ni nini, Mato?” I asked.
I was crushed. I thought what the hell? Mburkenge! I always thought Mburkenge was an abuse, not something that actually roamed the land and ate pigeons! I thought Mburkenge was actually some sort of a fox or wild dog. I said, how the hell did Amburkenge get inside the store?! [Where I’m from we call it Amburkenge, with an A.)
I felt defeated. My poor birds. How scared they must have been when that damn beast hunted them in the darkness of that store. How terrified they were hearing that damn devil eat, not one, but two of them. How in the morning what remained of their family members were feathers. I was completely defeated.
Anyway, I had a carpenter build a pigeon house complete with doors which are locked at night. We then hung it under the awning of the store, away from the reach of Amburkenges and other beasts that might want to make soup of my pigeons. I was in shags a few weeks ago and the pigeons looked mighty happy in their new home. I suspect we might be getting more babies soon.
I asked Mato – my Genge-gardener – if he had spotted the Amburkenge lurking about lately. He said no, the bastard had not shown tail there. “Good,” I said. “If you see him, hit him over the head with a rock until he dies. Then hang him on a tree and leave him there until I come back from Nairobi.”
I want to go back and find him swinging from a branch and look at his dead dark eye and whisper, “so you like munching other people’s birds, huh?”
The registration of the Creative Writing Masterclass is closed. We are full. We shall open it again in April.