He’s notably tall. So tall you could bungee jump off him. I look up at him, OK, I don’t but he’s a good head taller than me, so I sort of feel like he can see the tip of my head. No man should ever have to see the tip of another man’s head. It’s humiliating. He folds himself in a chair, like you would fold a rope. His legs disappear and run under the table like fibre cables.
I turn to the barman at Artcaffe Gastro Bar and ask, “hey, what happened to Suji?” “Suji left,” he says. Oh, what a pity. I liked Suji. He was quite personable. “Who is Suji?” Tall asks. Even his short sentences seem longer than my legs. “Suji was a barman here who I first met while he was bartending at Beit é Selam, the bar and restaurant in Westlands which probably has the best men’s room in the whole wide world. It’s all bohemian herringbone tiles in there, very ritzy,” I tell Tall. “You could stand around and drink in the men’s room.”
“I checked out the ladies room to compare,” I tell him. “It doesn’t.”
He tells me that he doesn’t want to antagonise some relatives with this story, his cousins. He wants me to be sensitive to that, to family dynamics. “You understand, don’t you?” He also doesn’t want to appear to be blowing his trumpet. For a very tall guy his mien is very apologetic. He’s kinda nervous as if we are on a date. “Where do we start?” He asks, wiping his large hands against his thighs under the table.
“We start by ordering a drink,” I say.
He orders a whisky sour. I order a chilled Malbec.
I don’t remember my parents. There are not too many photos of my mom to start with. She was chubby with very rounded cheeks and large, bright eyes. In her photos, she always looked stunned, as if she was not quite ready to have her photo taken. She looked like she would have loved to touch up her afro better or smoothen her dress. She looked ready to giggle, like bubbles of giggles were trapped in her mouth. She also looked kind but aloof, someone who isn’t comfortable sharing much about herself. Kept it all under her hat.
There are a few photos of my father in university in the 80s. He sported a beard and brown pants and jackets with massive collars, like big leaves sunbathing. He looked like someone on the cover of an old album sleeve jacket. He was thin and intense. There is a photo of him leaning against a blue car. A photo of him in a hallway attempting a smile, half his palm thrust into a pocket, an attempt at coolness. I’m told he loved cars and women, which isn’t saying much because what else do most men love more than cars and women?
I don’t remember the house we lived in but there are a few photos of it, rather photos of people in it; parties I don’t remember, gatherings, occasions that were hosted by my mother who apparently liked to host. There are photos of my aunties and uncles, photos of them laughing and hugging my parents and pretending to be great human beings. Photos of my two sisters, always standing so close together, heads cocked as if they were animals, their sixth sense already aware of impending calamity. I have looked at these photos a lot, because they represent the brief happier days of my childhood.
I don’t remember my father falling sick. I remember the coughs though, he was constantly coughing. The sound of his coughs hacked at the air, slicing it into pieces, wracking coughs that I would hear through walls. Amazingly, I could still hear him cough in the bathroom even though I must have been four. Then he wasn’t there. Unbeknownst to me, he had been admitted to the ward and he withered away for months before he died. I don’t recall the funeral to be honest, even though I should. I recall my mother telling me that he had flown off on the back of a white horse.
I recall my mother falling sick maybe a few years later. I was now six years or so and had just joined primary school. I wasn’t allowed to go visit her in the hospital. My big sister would leave the house every evening with a flask of uji and spend the whole night at the hospital, leaving me with my other sister. I remember crying a lot, asking when my mother would come back. I would come back from school and go straight to her bedroom, with my bags and all, hoping to find her folding clothes but her room remained empty and silent, the curtains drawn tight together like a secret. Then it just became normal; mom being away in hospital and me living with my two sisters. They made up stories for my benefit. They’d tell me that there was a garden at the hospital with lots of flowers where mom sat the whole day, focusing on getting better. They told me that she still loved to sing and she often sang for other patients at the hospital. So when I think of my mom away at the hospital, I don’t think of a woman wasting away with AIDS, probably scared of dying and leaving her children alone, I think of someone who spent time sitting in a garden full of flowers, head resting on the back of the chair, the sun on her cheeks. I know she probably turned into a pile of bones before she died, her cheeks rising in a heap of cheekbones, her eyes white as the face of a full moon, her thin and dry lips sealed in the silence of impending death, gasping, wide eyed, afraid, nurses touching her with gloves and waiting for her death because that’s what happened when you had AIDS in those days. Death waited on you.
I recall foggy shards of my mom’s funeral. The wailing. My sisters wearing matching shoes. The brown casket that contained her remains sitting on a table under a tree or a verandah of some sort. Or maybe the tree was next to the verandah. I wasn’t allowed to see her body, or whatever was left of her. I recall one of my sisters, the one I follow, Betty, staying with me as my mother was being buried. I don’t recall being sad or being afraid or being anxious. Those were my sisters’ feelings to bear.
We were orphans. I have known many identities, but the enduring one, the one that every other identity I have gathered through life sits on, is orphan. It defined how people saw me and in return how I saw myself.
I recall the events that succeeded my parents dying. First, I’m told my uncle and aunts came with a truck and took away everything in our house to share the spoils of death. I don’t recall that. I don’t recall any truck coming to our house, I should have, seeing as I love cars like my dad. I was whisked off to live with one of my aunts, my sister, Judith, was taken by another aunt and my other sister Betty, was taken by yet another aunt. Judith remembers how helpless and heart wrenching it was for her to see her siblings that she felt responsible for, taken to different homes like lost baggage.
I don’t know how who-went-with-who was decided. They must have gone behind the tent during the funeral and said, “Ok, I will take Andrew. I think you should take Betty because you have more room in your house.” Maybe someone objected, “why do I have to take Betty, she is a handful, I think you are the man you should be able to handle her.” And someone else said, “no, he needs to stay with Andrew because they have children his age.” “But who will take Judith? Because I can’t. I don’t have a stable income now, besides, I’m already staying with my sick mother in law.” “Guys, Judith has to stay somewhere.”
My uncle’s wife was a darling, she really was but then my uncle had to ruin it by marrying another wife and that turned his wife into a raging, mean and sadistic woman. It didn’t help that he was never there and so she turned her ire on me. As if I knew where my uncle was. There isn’t anything that woman didn’t do to me. She starved me, she beat me with sticks and belts and, one time, a can of Doom that split my forehead. She then made me hold tissue paper against the cut but the bleeding wouldn’t stop, the blood sogged a whole roll of tissue. I’d often slept on the floor with a leso for cover. It was much colder then than it is now, so I developed a lot of respiratory complications because of that. I developed asthma. I still wheeze, if you stand close to me you will think the wind is blowing through a small aperture in my neck. I had pneumonia once and when hospitalised I asked the nurses to take me to the garden with flowers where my mother liked to sit because I was convinced I’d find her there.
I did all the house chores while my three cousins, who were slightly older than me, sat watching TV. She made me serve them food and wash their hands as well with a basin of water and a jug. Never mind there was a washing sink in the living room. One of my cousins, Vera, Oh God bless Vera, would not allow me to wash her hands or serve her or she would try to help me do the chores and her mother would scream at her for that. I remember Vera telling her mom one time, “Mom, you are being cruel to Andrew. You will kill him. He is tired.” The rest never did anything, they looked away.
The saving grace was that I would see my sister, Betty, in school and everyday I would confide in her about what I was going through at home and she just wouldn’t stop crying. ‘Oh my dear brother, oh my dear brother’, she would cry. At the end of the day she would be waiting for me outside my classroom without fail and she would just hug me, her hug conveying the depth of how scared we were. Judith had gone off to high school and she would write letters through the headmistress, which she allowed because she knew we didn’t have parents. Whenever we received a letter Betty would read the letters out loud to me every day. I never got bored of hearing one letter repeatedly for weeks. And the excitement of seeing her hold an unopened letter from Judith! Her hands would literally shake while opening it.
I stopped confiding in her about my mistreatment at home. I hated to hurt her, to worry her. She really was helpless, just a child herself, besides, I learnt later that she was also being mistreated by my father’s own sister but not on the scale to which I was being mistreated. We actually compared notes later in life: did she make you clean the toilet bowl with your hands? Mine did. Did she let you eat only after everybody else had eaten? Oh, mine would serve me and have me eat alone in the kitchen while they sat at the dining table as a family. Were you ever beaten by the pointy tip of a red high-heel? No, just the bottom of the can of Doom. I only had a pair of shorts for two years. Did you think of killing yourself just to join mom and dad? Yeah, a few times. Why didn’t you? Oh, I couldn’t bear to leave you alone . What about you? I couldn’t find a rope. Also, I was scared of dying.
We would compare the evils set upon us.
My aunt, perhaps from frustration or need to upstage my uncle for taking on another wife, started spending a lot of time out partying and drinking. It was my job to stay up and wait to open the door for her when she got home. Drunk, she’d rant at me about my uncle and my family in general while she struggled to remove her bra through the sleeves of her blouse. She hiccuped a lot. I would stand before her (I was not allowed to sit on the sofa) tired, sleepy and trying my best not to yawn and risk offending her. I was always fearful of offending her, I made myself as small as possible, walking against walls.
Eventually, she contracted AIDS as well and she went away to the hospital. I was in Class 6. I had been there before, and I was scared of what would happen next. And with my uncle missing for the most part, I didn’t know what would happen to me again. Anyway, she died when I was in class 7. I remember everything, the day she died and how much my cousins cried for her. I was amazed at how much they loved her abundantly, this same person who was so cruel and heartless. I didn’t cry but I was deeply saddened and worried for my cousin Vera who had always had my back. The rest wore black during the funeral but I didn’t have anything black to wear so I wore whatever I used to wear every Sunday.
With my aunt dead it was for my uncle to come back home and take us with him. Only, his second wife refused to take on “all those children.” So what he did, he continued paying rent where we lived and he would show up every other day to make sure the house had not razed down with us in it. My uncle’s callousness was astounding. I still cooked and cleaned. This new living arrangement proved very detrimental in the long run (of course it did), seeing as all my cousins were teenagers. What happened very quickly was that one of my cousins started doing drugs and smoking pot in the house, another one stopped going to school and ran away and Verah got pregnant in form 3. The chips were falling where they were supposed to fall.
I went off to boarding school in form one and I was relieved to escape. I was smart, top ten of my class. I went to a very good and well regarded national school. OK, I went to Alliance High but who needs another voice from someone from Alliance? It also helped that as soon as my big sister Judith joined university, a real hustler, juggling school and side hustle, she took all of us, my sister Betty and I, and we moved into a one-roomed apartment in Githurai. We had near nothing but we also had everything; we had each other.
Alliance pretty much brought me back from the brink of the despair that was threatening to engulf me. I met amazing teachers who were actually concerned and committed. I felt that they were rooting for me. That they really wanted me to succeed. You can attain academic excellence if you are smart, but you can be smart but completely ruined which would not serve anyone, least of all, yourself. Many smart people do many dumb things. And I would have headed there were it not for one man called Mr Mutua. His wife ran a small tuck shop where we would take goods on credit. I was very withdrawn then, moving about like a wounded and homeless dog, zero eye contact, no confidence. I remember thinking that I was below everybody I met, that I needed to serve them because that’s all I did at my aunt’s house. I didn’t know this but this lady noticed that I needed help and she sent me to her husband who ran a small hardware store and the man offered me a job to work for him part time. And through that job, he constantly talked to me, not in the form of a sit-down but random conversations as we worked. They must have recognised how damaged and rudderless I was and he took it upon himself to repair me, bit by bit, word by word, by taking me under his wings under the guise of being my employer. He taught me important lessons but the most important of them was self worth, which is the best gift anyone can give you. He affirmed me as much as he could, constantly, never saying one hurtful word towards me even when I messed up in the shop.
He accompanied my sisters for my school events. He listened to me when I was frustrated. He always asked me, “what do you want, Andrew” and then he would say, “then let’s get it.”
Mr Mutua held my hand through what would have been impossible teenage years when I really needed a man to lead me.
Of course I turned out alright. When I was leaving for Germany to study biomedical engineering we had a small get together in his house because he was the man who had always been there. They- his wife and him -were as excited as you would be for your own child. My uncle came. He looked defeated by life, sad and pessimistic. He came dragging his wife who I was only meeting for the second time since she had rejected the idea of us living with her. I harboured no anger towards her, I pitied them actually. Mr Mutua gave a rousing speech while looking at me. He never stopped looking at me while he spoke. I cried. I cried before my sisters and before my few friends and before everybody else who had come. I cried because I realised how lucky I was, how close I had come to turning out destitute had Alliance not admitted me, had Mr Mutua and his lovely wife not held my hand, had my two amazing sisters, the best things I have really, not held me close to them, loved me even when I didn’t understand what love was.
Of course I went and took my undergraduate and masters and I got a good job in Munich where I struggled to meet someone because I had so much baggage, so much hurt that I didn’t know where to place it. I dated a few women – mostly white women – but they weren’t seeing me. I felt like a dog dating wolves. It was also difficult to date, I ran away at the slightest sign of problems. If things got serious, I would run for the hills. If you wanted to end my relationship with you, all you had to tell me was that you loved me. Years later, I met a Nigerian civil engineer at a party I didn’t want to attend, a party thrown by a friend of a girl I was trying to date. I learnt on the second date that she was also an orphan and even though our circumstances were so different because she was literally raised by a battery of her loving relatives after her parents died, she could still see me and the demons I came with. She understood me. I was like glass before her, she saw me. We got married two years later and had two children.
I haven’t completely healed. It’s taken me so long to say those words; that my parents died from AIDS. It always felt flagrant. I haven’t completely healed from the mistreatment I suffered under my aunt who I grew up in great fear of. I was actually terrified of her and that level of terror just sits somewhere in you and comes out whenever it wants. All these have had a great impact on me as a person.
I have always struggled telling my wife or anybody else what I want. I still do. My needs remain embarrassing to me. I’m also only just learning how to defend myself against injustices. Europe is organised so I don’t experience moments where I have to stand up for myself, but on a recent visit to Kenya, we were standing in a queue to pay for parking when someone literally jumped ahead of us. I would have let them go ahead and pay because these are small beans but my wife, who has no problem speaking up being a Yoruba, was immediately on the guy, almost collaring him. It’s not even her country.
I don’t think I know how to process any other emotions other than fear. I still literally jump at a banging door. I hate when someone whistles because my auntie liked to whistle. She really was a diabolical woman. Ha-ha. At buffet dinner tables, I let everybody serve first before I do. My wife is always holding my hand down when I try to stand up to serve people. When my kids are up watching television I could never sleep because I have to wait until they have gone to bed so that I make sure that all lights have been switched off. That was my duty to my aunt. A light left burning would send her in a rageful fit. I hate confrontations. I hate when people go to hospitals because I’m convinced that they will never get back, like my parents and aunt. I hate going to hospitals.
Judith and Betty turned out all right. Judith works in insurance, Betty is a paediatrician. Do we talk about the past? Not usually, it feels like a long time ago. Besides, talking about it feels like honouring or acknowledging it. So we don’t dwell on it too much. They both carry scars. We all do. How can one not?
When Mr Mutua was sick with prostate cancer I brought him to Germany for treatment. First time he was ever on a plane. First time abroad. He lived with us for two months. We took long walks around the pond in the park. He loved to see the ducks float on water. He loved ice cream. He always wore two pairs of socks. Ha-ha. I video called him twice daily when he came back and was hospitalised. And when his doctor told him he didn’t have long to live, I got on a plane and flew down. When I landed, my phone pinged with messages from my sisters and I knew he had died even before they said it. Yes, maybe people go to hospitals and don’t come back.
He was buried on a clear day. My sisters didn’t wear matching shoes.
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