Small Dog


Folklore has it that when the white man showed up in my village they found my great-grandfather, Okeyo, naked. He was herding cattle on a hill in Kendu Bay, leaning on a staff. He might or might not have had a blade of grass sticking out his mouth. He most definitely was wearing a very languorous look for the tedium of herding cattle saps even the stoic of men. Only he wasn’t quite a man yet, he was 16 years old, already tall, with a wider narrow face and widening shoulders. I don’t know what dreams he nursed out there in the hills under those blue skies of Karachuonyo. Neither am I privy of the fears that stood in the way of his silent dreams. Maybe the hills beyond held some charm or evoked a sense of curiosity for him. Maybe he wasn’t curious at all. Maybe he was happy with his life herding cattle like other boys his age, maybe attending an occasional wrestling gala or a colourful funeral. This was before he got married and got a dozen children, one of them my grandfather. 

He had heard rumours that there were some Bognos around, which is what they called the white man in that period. Bogono (I might be spelling it all wrong) is Luo for a newborn baby who has very light skin. Talk was that these strange people had set up tents at the bottom of the lake with permission of a village elder. 

Now it was a rumour anymore; they were standing right before him. This was his very first time to see a white person. Of course he thought, ‘my, what strange, bloodless creatures these people are.  I can see blood flowing under their skin.’ Unlike him who was bone naked, they were covered in some sort of clothing. Their noses resembled the beaks of hawks, he noted with fascination. He wondered how they drunk porridge with those long protrusions.  

As they approached he placed the piece of skin before his groin to cover his nakedness. This piece of skin was called A’ngwola. When approaching someone, one would use it to cover their groin area and then their backside as they passed each other.

I don’t know how many white men they were but they could have been at least two, maybe three because this was new, unknown territory and these naked people could be savages. There was no telling how they would react to seeing them. One of them cleared their throats and offered a smile. “How do you do, dear young native. My name is Smith, this right here is Jack, and that’s Charles. We are here at the behest of the queen and we come in peace.”

My great-grandfather stared at them because he thought he heard someone speak but it could have been the wind coming out of this pale fellow’s nose. And what the hell was behest? Okeyo spat on the ground and kept a keen eye on the one standing behind the spokesman. He looked like a rabble rouser, a hell raiser. The men looked at each other when he didn’t say boo. The quiet air was punctuated by the clanging of the cowbell and bleating of goats in the shrubs. One of them, Jack, stepped forward and told Smith, “Here, please permit me to have a stab at him.” He smiled at Okeyo, cleared his throat while adjusting his leather belt. “We set up camp, down yonder by the lake, which by the way we have decided to name Lake Victoria, because well, we saw it first. Anyway, like my mate Smith has mentioned, we are good people and we merely want to be friends. Perhaps share a word of peace that we bring.” 

One of the men suddenly struck something and fire lept from it. Okeyo took a step back. He’d never seen someone make fire like that. He watched as smoke trailed  from the firemaker’s nose and lips. ‘These fellows must be witches’, he thought. He must have been nervous but he didn’t show it as he’d seen worse…OK, he hadn’t, maybe a massive hyena chasing someone. He kept a wary eye on the one who was sucking on a gadget that emitted smoke, waiting for him to make any sudden movement to which he would shove the staff in his eye and leg it home to get reinforcement. 

“Fear not. We merely come in peace, our dear young friend.” Smith raised his arm, chuckling. He turned to Charles and growled, “put off the bloody pipe, Charles. You are scaring the lad with it.”  

“Oh bloody hell,” Charles mumbled and snuffed off his pipe with his long nose. 

The one with the ginger beard with bread crumbs trapped on it said, “What is your name?” My great-grandfather heard the question mark in his words without knowing what question he had asked. 

He stared at them, not saying a word. Their language sounded primitive. They looked pale, their eyebrows a weird colour, their lips the colour of a cow’s teats. They were also sweating profusely and constantly wiping the back of their necks with a piece of cloth. They sighed a lot, obviously frustrated by the heat which, Okeyo, thought meant they weren’t awfully smart, wearing all those clothes in that weather. 

Smith, he noted, was clutching something under his right armpit which, unbeknownst to my great-grandfather, was called the holy Bible. Eventually, they’d convince my great-grandfather that praying to the rising sun was primitive and that the only true God was the God of Abraham. They taught him their ways; changed his fashion sense which largely consisted of that patch of skin, taught him their language, gave him shoes. He eventually became a teacher. All these transformations greatly vexed his father, Midamba, who felt his son was being brainwashed. But what to do? Change was knocking and just like that SDA came to that hill in my village and my great grandfather started a church which his sons and daughters became a part of and which, now in retirement, my dad finds himself doing the Lord’s work for.

Perhaps like most of you, prayer was the same for us. There are two phrases I have always heard since I was a child: Wa’wee a lwet Nyasaye – translated directly, we leave it in God’s hands. This is when shit has hit the fan and nobody knows what to do. The modern version of this, I guess, is ‘Jesus take the wheel’. The other phrase is: wakete e lemo, to mean, we put it in prayer

And we pray over everything: you buy a new car, you have to have it prayed for. You start a new job, you put it in prayer so that you don’t find yourself working with wolves in sheeps clothing or a boss who comes to work on a flying broom. You get a new baby, same thing, put that bouncing baby in prayer. And so this is why my dad was around over the weekend to pray for my brother’s new house. 

He came with his new sweetheart. It being Sabbath he was in a proper suit. There were nieces and nephews, my dad’s cousins, senior citizens, one who’s the patriarch of the family, knocking 80 but looks 60. My 20-something year old niece was there with her boyfriend who is a Muslim from the coast and who was put in prayer. For my niece he prayed that she remains a woman of virtue who should not be corrupted by the new ways of the world. He particularly mentioned the wearing of jeans torn around the knees because the very root of evil is to show your knees through your jeans. He prayed for me because lowkey I suspect he imagines I’m a lost soul. He prayed for my two sisters and for my brother’s daughter, Kayla, who is sitting for exams, made her read verses out loud. He prayed for good health for us and for us to know God and not focus on material things for he who knows God knows peace. 

Then he prayed for my brother’s house which meant he prayed for peace in his house because what’s a house without peace in it? What good is a wooden staircase if you can’t go up it to your own bedroom because you prefer to sleep on the couch downstairs? What use is a fireplace when no amount of wood can warm the winter of your marriage? What use is a pantry if everything you keep there rots because who has the appetite in a house full of turmoil, strife and someone shouting; “I swear I will take you back to your mother!” What’s a house if the very thought of coming back home at the end of the day fills you with anxiety and dread because the marriage has become a contest in verbal affront and silence, the two points it oscillates from? To mean he also prayed for my sister-in-law’s continued grace, generosity, health and for keeping my brother rooted. He prayed for the food we just ate. We pray for food too. We put everything in prayer. 

I like when my dad prays because he keeps it pithy. None of that windy two-hour Bible thumping and frothing in the mouth. It bores me, that level of exhibition, the religious gung-ho. It bores me when you have to read 150 verses and sing 1,200 songs and have the collection basket passed around thrice. It bores me. Thankfully, he normally keeps it short and sweet, which is what he did. I don’t think God minds an hour of prayer and praise. Besides, doesn’t He need to rush off and stand over all those poor children battling cancer? 

After prayers came a brief round of speeches after which, when it was all done, some of us went to the front yard and poured a drink – which is something very un-SDA. Doesn’t help that he’s a teetotaller, my dad, never touched a drop of booze. Out of respect, we have always hidden while drinking. We still hide – all of us grown adults with children. So I instinctively hid my glass under my chair like a teenager and when he wandered out at some point I almost kicked my glass under the car with my heels. 

As dusk loomed and the guests prepared to leave my aunt, Leah, said, “We are going to this place called Ka’Ndonga, wanna come?” 

“Where’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a dingy bar in South B shopping center,” she said, “but it’s a riot.”

She got me at dingy. Besides, South B was off the highway on my way home, so I figured why not? Also, a different bar to review in the Business Daily. 

So we went; her and my three elderly uncles who were aged 60 something, 70 something and the patriarch,  79. My aunt is in her 50s. One of my uncles had just had prostate surgery so was frail and recovering but life is short. The other one was dressed in all white like Puff Daddy. 

I wasn’t drinking, to mean I was drinking red wine. 

Ka’Ndonga is not more of a bar than a space behind the shops at South B shopping center, a rectangular space of sorts where someone very enterprising brings out plastic tables and chairs and sets them up along the wall. Rhumba music was blaring from two raised speakers when we got there. The place consisted of 98% men (I counted one woman) of average age 65. The collective age must have been 2,310.5 years. They wore jackets and hats and spectacles. These are men who hold or once held important positions in private and public sectors. Most are retired, children married off with grandchildren, now they have time to not worry about fees and stuff. My aunt would lean in and tell me, ‘you know that guy? He was the so-and-so of bluh bluh bluh. And that one in a nice cape? He is the CEO of So and so. But surely you know him, he’s so and so’s bodyguard.’ 

The table featured an army of beer bottles. I saw, standing on a table, someone I recognised; Johnny Walker. I waved, ‘Hey Johnny looking very black tonight.’ There was a blue thermos flask with a red top, of course there was a thermos flask. The official language was Dholuo and English for there was a sprinkling of Luhyas present. Someone had parked a dark sleek Mercedes in the middle of the grassy rectangular area. There is always someone parking their Mercedes right in front of where people are drinking because there are people who want to drink while looking at their car. Sorry, their Mercedes. 

A small bar served this troupe of revellers. 

“Let me introduce you to the deejay,” my aunt said, “he’s called Small Dog.”

Small Dog turned out to be anything but small. He was a tall, burly fellow wearing massive jeans and no jacket in the bleeding cold. He also had an American accent. I turned to look at my aunt who explained that he was a returnee, he was in the US for dog years. (See what I did there?). I didn’t want to ask my aunt why this mammoth fellow was called Small Dog. Sometimes it’s better to seek only the answers that the universe can provide, not man.  

Everybody on that table knew each other or of each other. It was a camaraderie, a kinship of having made it through life and now nearing the sunset years. It felt celebratory, a bar you went to because you made your bones. It didn’t feel like a bar you wandered in for a random drink. You have had to be invited by one of these people and when you showed up you were introduced properly to the people sitting closest to you and they asked where you are from and what your family name is. Most likely they know someone from your shags you don’t know. 

The sweet smell of bovine flesh assaulted me, someone was roasting meat in a spit nearby. A cousin who lived nearby joined us shortly after and sat next to me, hadn’t seen him in three or so years. My aunt sent for a bottle of red wine from a nearby liquor store and when it came we drank it from tiny wine glasses. There is a devil that gets risen in men when ‘Mayday’ by Fally Ipupa plays. The men swayed in their seats. One stood up and danced. He had an insane rhythm, these old men look old until they stand up to dance and then they aren’t. Hawkers occasionally drifted by selling shoes, duvets, kitchen towels, hats, bathing scrubbers, jackets, socks, trousers, and those are just what I could see. 

Small Dog, drunk with everybody else and would stand up to check on his deejay deck or to dance. He danced more than anybody else there. A brilliant and agile dancer, the men cheered when he danced for he could move all that body mass with great ease. 

I caught up with my cousin. He lost his job this year so he lamented how quiet his phone had become. “It can go so silent I have to check if it’s working. I have only received two calls today,” he said, sipping his beer, “yours and aunt Leah’s.” Aunt Leah put a reassuring hand on his knee and said, “Don’t worry, God will open a way.” We leave it all in God’s hands.

I asked if at least his love life was better than work life. He told me a story about how one time he went to visit this girl he thought he was exclusive with but when he got outside her apartment door he found a man’s shoe. But they just weren’t a man’s shoes, they were the biggest pair of shoes he had ever seen. So he turned right back and went back home. I laughed so hard, the man next to me asked me what was so funny. My cousin said, “there are fights you fight and there are fights you lose before you fight. This was one of them. I lost the fight to a shoe.”

“How big was that shoe, kwani?” I asked him. 

“That shoe was massive, Biko,” he said looking around as if trying to find something massive to liken the shoe with. 

“You saw it and said, not today saitan.”

“Yeah, had one look at that shoe and just knew the owner was trouble. Turned and went back home and watched TV.” 

I cackled. 

It was particularly funny because my cousin lifted weights for many years so he’s got a wide chest and heavy shoulders. He’s beefy and walks like a bouncer. Also, you wouldn’t say he’s someone averse to violence. His teenage years and early 20s were full of scraps and fistcuffs. And so to picture him standing outside the door, looking down at Goliath’s shoes and thinking, how massive is the man behind this door and turning back was hilarious. If his shoe is the size of a canoe, he must have thought, what’s the size of his fist? No amount of romance was worth finding out.

Small Dog came and asked me what song I would like to listen to. Any song at all. I felt like it was a test. I said ‘Blandine’ by Werrason. He was impressed. He shook my hand vigorously with his massive paw and said, “that’s a good song, that’s a good song.” I felt like my whole arm would dislodge from the shoulder. That’s the thing with Ka’ndonga, the deejay will play anything you want. And the deejay isn’t live streaming it, or doing reels for social media, or combing his beard, he’s drinking with everybody else and dancing more than anybody else because this party is his. 

It got really cold. A jiko was brought under a table. More men came in with their hats and their hands thrust in their jackets and addressed each other with their nicknames and pet names and village names. The night sky turned a pale grey then it got covered by a thin layer of mist. The table got louder. Men drunk, removed their hats momentarily and ran their hands through their hair. More beers came to the table. Johnny Walker fell on his side. I wanted to do an Irish Exit but I felt I owed my aunt a goodbye so I leaned in and told her, “in a few minutes I will disappear. Good to see you again, auntie.” When I left Small Dog was doing big dog things; dancing to cheers.


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  1. My name is Arthur Carscallen. We have come from Karungu. We want to set up a church on this hill. Do you mind joining us

    JoSDA don’t smoke. So, Mr. Smith didn’t smoke.

  2. Just a century ago and so much has changed. We abandoned Ang’wola, pien nyadiel, and assorted customs. Abandoned Were Nyakalaga, and embraced a new ‘God’. Change is truly constant.

  3. Out of respect, we have always hidden while drinking. We still hide – all of us grown adults with children. So I instinctively hid my glass under my chair like a teenager and when he wandered out at some point I almost kicked my glass under the car with my heels. – My tribe . Only we take ,not alcohol, in tea cups.

  4. Biko, next time you are in Shoppy and you pass by Kwa Ndong’a, take a left turn upitie Kwa Shosh, another lovely motley crew you will find there (yours truly hang up his drinking mug but you will find the successors merrily quaffing hooch by the barrel being jolly).

  5. someday I hope I will be this flawless. you’re amazing with words Man! maybe I should be in the September class.

  6. Beautiful analogy of how our society even though it has gone through the transformation of the Bogono and bears stakingly most of his hallmarks, has somewhat remained true to its communal nature as shown by your family’s congregating at your brothers “house warming” and your assembling under the stars at a ramshackle watering hole. Long live our ways, whatever remains of them.

  7. Oh my… now I remember the song “ask my shoe”… Weuh!!
    It’s insightful and so refreshing why one joints make it while they don’t have the look or strategy of “four seasons”… they are made by men (and women) who have weathered the real four seasons of life. Amazing!!

  8. Oh my… now I remember the song “ask my shoe”… Weuh!!
    It’s insightful and so refreshing why one joints make it while they don’t have the look or strategy of “four seasons”… they are made by men (and women) who have weathered the real four seasons of life. Amazing!!

  9. Had to you tube Blandine. To check out what song sang by artist Werrason. Thought it would be some pretensious white music.. Alas!! its Lingala sang by a very black man

  10. “Yeah, had one look at that shoe and just knew the owner was trouble. Turned and went back home and watched TV.”

  11. This piece is warm, nostalgic and easy! How you swing from spiritual to worldly is amazing. Apart from death stories, your social analogies come a close second. Keep it up, man.

  12. waah, your dad is a pastor, tena of SDA,,and you despise that faith, at the expense of life’s fleeing pleasures…if only you knew

  13. I have this innate fear that I’m getting old and leaving my youth, but pieces like this reassure me that there’s still a lot of life left in me.