Tamms likes snakes.
Kim jumps at insects, chickens and cats. When a cat passes under a table Kim is sitting on, he raises his feet in the air, like the cat is a flood washing under the table.
This in itself presents an interesting dichotomy of parenting. Who can you growl at and who can’t you? (Answer, both). But surely, you can’t raise these two children the same way, can you? One belongs in a jungle, the other can’t stand flies. How can two people from the same womb be so unalike? When she visited the museum last year, she sent me a photo of her handling a snake, the damn thing was curled around her neck and she was staring at its flat sinister head. I felt so faint I had to support myself against the kitchen counter. Then I never looked at that photo again. I can’t stand snakes. I could never look at a snake. Tamms, on the other hand, thinks they are “beautiful and mysterious” and that she loves the “patterns on them.”
But she also loves gazelles and giraffes, lions and hyenas. She loves dogs. We had a conversation and I presented some careers aligned to what she loved, mostly in veterinary or wildlife conservation. The world seems open to careers like that; a marine biologist, ecologist, wildlife program coordinator, wildlife rehabilitator, or wildlife research analyst. She’d spend loads of time in the bush or with people who spend a lot of time in the bush, talking about – and to – animals and their behaviour and ecosystem. Maybe she’d own more pairs of boots than high heels and love sticking her elbow out of Land Rovers and she’d say things like, ‘The smell of sunset in the Mara is quite different from the smell of sunset in the Okavango desert.’ And only I would see through that bullshit. Maybe one day I’d see her on TV bemoaning the fate of some animal on the Red List of threatened species. Maybe she’d be talking about a pangolin. I saw it in my head. I thought, great, she knows what she wants to do, at least we have that out of the way.
Then she went to high school and it must have been something in the water they drink there because sometime last year when I picked her up from school at dawn for school holidays she casually said she wanted to become a lawyer. I thought, law? Where did that come from? I’m sure countless lawyers love snakes but I don’t know many quiet, introverted lawyers. The ones I know stand on tables and shout. With bullhorns. I wanted to ask, but what happened to Pangolins? And snakes? Who will fight for baboons? Instead, I asked how she stumbled on law.
Turns out some professionals went over to their school for Career Day and she was particularly taken by the arguments of some hotshot female lawyer. Career Days now are what the “a teacher is better than a doctor” school debates were in our time.
The lawyer was a women’s rights lawyer. “I think I want to fight for the rights of girls and women,” she said. Women’s rights are fine, I thought to myself, but what about the rights of animals who can’t run fast? Er? Who should fight for their rights? Like tortoises for instance? Do you know how many people see those massive tortoises and sit on their backs?
As it was turning out, animals and conservation were relegated to the back burner because this female lawyer had made a striking impression on her. She said she exuded confidence and charisma. She was eloquent and confident and was dressed like power was her heirloom. So I imagined her in a severe navy blue skirt with a screeching white dress shirt with a stiff collar and, of course, a stern look. She must have stood, balancing all these on the tiny surface area of very high heels. The girls must have breathlessly gulped down this look. She must have paced up and down before these enthralled girls, chin straight, looking each one of them in the eye and telling them that they are enough, that they matter and later shouting, “Are we or or are we not BeyHive?” And there was a thunderous, crashing response. The girls went apeshit. The hall shook. The headmistress raised her hand and pleaded, “Girls! Girls! Order! Order!”
Anyway, I guess she, understandably, loves women more than she loves snakes. I can’t fight that, a good number of people do. There was also still a tiny chance she could just become a wildlife advocate or animal rights lawyer – killing two birds with one stone, to use an inappropriate analogy in this context. These things should remain open. The following end term I checked in to see if the situation had changed. She still wanted to study law and it had even taken some shape, family law. The next holiday season I checked in again and nothing had changed. Goodbye pangolins.
Nine years ago, I interviewed a gentleman called Njoroge Regeru, an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and the founding and senior Partner of Njoroge Regeru and Company Advocates. He’s a top dispute resolution lawyer, commercial law expert, and an A-lister for complex disputes, like presidential petitions. I remembered him because he wasn’t your typical stiff-upper-lipped lawman. He was warm, bouncy, and charming and he smelled like I imagined one would smell if one put a lot of money in a Nutribullet and blended it. He wore, I learned (because I asked why he was smelling so damn good) Allure Homme Sport by Chanel. But anybody can wear Allure Homme but not many are imaginative enough to mix it with Fahrenheit by Christian Dior like he did. The result was intoxicating. (It’s there in the article I wrote for the Business Daily). It lingered flirtatiously around the room, creating mystique and intrigue around him and in his chambers. The smell framed his legal stature, for a scent is a language.
When I was rifling through my Rolodex to see who might help give her legal ambition some form, I landed on him and sent him a smoke signal. Would they be kind enough to have her over for the December school holidays, you know, for her to see how the sausage is made? Part of the reason, apart from exposing her to the intrigues of law, was for her to experience humans in their natural habitat. Because the world is a tough and unkind place and humans can be unkind, duplicitous, and shit. I was hoping that she would learn while there, somehow, that nobody owes her anything. That what you see is not always what you get. I wanted to strip any romance she had about work, about people, by sending her into the eye of a storm and letting it toss her about like a ragdoll in a washing machine. I wanted someone – there is always that office prick – to say something that cut her a bit. So that she can go to the loo and cry when she is 25 years old and tell her friend about that time a guy with short arms hurt her feelings when she was 15 and interning at a law firm. I hoped that she quickly learns that not everything is as easy as ordering food on Uber Eats. People break their long nails digging the ground to plant a career. That out there people hunt and gather and sometimes you go back home with a spear lodged on the side of your stomach. But the next day you just go back to the battle with that spear still in you.
OK, I think you get the general idea.
I wasn’t there on her first day of internship. I texted her from my hotel room in New York, the heater humming. I was standing at the window looking at a bunch of tourists filing into a black van below. Winter loomed over everything.
“How was the Uber ride?”
“It was okay.”
“Did you sit at the back?”
“Yes.” She texted. “How’s New York?”
“Cold. I haven’t seen a single bird.” I believe in nonsensical details that don’t help anyone. “Did you sit behind the driver?”
“No, I sat back left.”
“Always safer to sit behind the driver if you can.”
“OK. What time is it there?”
“It’s a little after 9 am. I’ve just had breakfast. Their bacon strip is the length of Kim’s arm. You’d thrive here.”
She sent a laughing emoji.
We talked about the first day of the internship. She said something about orientation, being taken around the office; the washrooms are down that hallway, that’s the office plant, she’s called Marjo, don’t be shy to tell her nice things, she’s had a rough year, that’s the kitchen, feel free to make yourself a cup of hot chocolate whenever you want but don’t use the yellow mug, that belongs to Mark, he has been in jail before. That kind of thing.
“The floor above is where the guys who go to court sit,” she said, “they do litigation.”
“So they look very serious and scary.”
I was proud that words like ‘litigation’ were flowing out of her mouth. It already sounded so exciting and suited up. She was under Zetty and Ruth. I met Zetty on the last day of the two-week internship; young, cheerful, zestful, and very confident. She had great accessories.
Anyway, I came back from the US and she told me “I don’t think law is my thing.” I asked why and she said, “It’s kind of boring.”
“Kind of means there is still a chance it might be your thing?”
She said she wasn’t sure.
“What percentage are you currently convinced it’s not your thing?”
“50% for now,” she said.
“Sawa. Let’s review when you finish.”
When she finished it was at 70%. At the end, we sat down in a small boardroom for a ‘closing statement’ with Zetty and one of the partners, Mr Mwangi who seemed to be more of a philosopher and thinker than a lawyer. Well, it seemed that she wasn’t feeling that law story. “I understand where she is coming from,” Mwangi said with his wry smile, “the idea of law being about drama and someone shouting “Objection” is only on TV. I can’t recall the last time I heard that in court myself.”
During her time she attended both the virtual court session and a physical one at the magistrate courts. Both, she said, “were not what I expected.”
Assuming that she would fall in love with the law, I had earlier organised a meet-up with my friend, Nyambura, whose son attends Strathmore University. She had mentioned that her son has friends studying law who might chat with her about that. But now that she wasn’t keen, it felt like more of an intervention, which it wasn’t. She’s only 15, she can have ten careers in her life.
Nyambura lived out in Tigoni, a gated community eclipsed by tea farms, chimneyed homes, and greenery. The kind of place where they interrogate and then waterboard you at the main gate. (“Umesema anakujua?”) The husband slid open the low gate when we arrived. Looming before us was a three-storied maisonette, large glass windows, and a covetous green lawn. A fancy dog called Ivah barked incessantly at us. (Ivah is a female name but Ivah is a male dog that identifies as a bitch). They had cats too, one called Mimi who I learned had spent months in a cat hospital when she had fallen off a window and broken her leg. Now she walks with a slight limp like the villain Jimmy Darmondy on the TV show, ‘Boardwalk Empire’. There was another orange cat called Nina. The cats ignored us altogether. They just looked at us briefly and looked away theatrically with great disinterest. They probably thought, “Oh, more plebeians visiting.” No love lost really, cats can kiss my ass.
We shook hands with M, her husband (a deep introvert), and stumbled through a short patchy road of small talk before I released him to drift off to the safety of things that don’t speak. He was building a speaker box for their son’s car. He had a drill machine and everything. I was surprised he didn’t have a pencil stuck behind his ear. He’s one of those DIY people. I’m not one of those DIY people. I couldn’t be bothered to try and figure out a Kinder-Joy toy. I watched him work in silence in the patch of sun on the lawn. “He’s like my brother, always finding something to do in the house!” I whispered to Nyambura. My general rule is; that if you go looking for something to do in the house, you will find it. So I don’t but when I do, I call someone who comes around with a pencil stuck behind their ear.
“This place is so far out, you come out here on Friday and you don’t leave until Monday, ” I told M, making conversation because Nyambura had gone into the house to fetch something, “I’d die out here.” He chuckled, rising (he’s a tall fellow). “Oh, you will find something to do. It forces you to learn a new skill.”
Nyambura took me to the study upstairs to admire M’s formidable gramophone and vinyl collection. There was a whole shelf against a wall full of them. Every man has something in his house you don’t touch, this was his wall of fame. I stood apart and looked at the hundreds of sleeves of albums, from Tupac and Peabo to the Commodores and The Temptations.
Their son later drove in with his friends; three girls and a boy with hair that looked like a young Don King. It felt like he had been electrocuted in the car, his hair seemed to emit static. He had on silver earrings. He looked like an NBA basketballer but I’m sure at night you could also mistake him for a pimp. He walked with a slow gait as if his legs were something he had to use. He’s studying law. The girls wearing tops that hated covering their navels all exuded the brand of confidence young people exude now. They spoke while looking you in the eye. Later Tamms went off with this band of law students to sit in a garden in the back and talk.
“He looks like he could do very well in the drug trade with a mustache like that,” I told Nyambura about her son, a smart introverted boy. He reminded me of how men in the 70s would wear their facial hair.
After lunch, Tamms went for a chat session with the girls and boys while Nyambura took me on a tour around the community. (I’m afraid to call it estate). Ivah came with us on a leash and barked at neighbours. When we got back M was seated silently on the patio, playing Youtube soul music from his son’s big boombox. He was staring straight at their beautiful live hedge fence and probably thinking, something I would never think about in my life; I wonder how long the 36V lithium batteries for the cordless hedge trimmers last?
The final attempt to rail this impending legal train crash failed, I learned while we drove back home. She was not convinced it was for her. “That’s cool,” I said. “It will come to you when it comes to you. Writing didn’t come to me until I was 22.”
So, maybe pangolins have a chance after all. The lesson in this piece, if you are wondering, is NEVER dismiss pangolins.
My third book is coming out at the end of this month. (If the printers don’t screw things up). Please keep 1,600* from your salos this month.