By Eddy Ashioya
My mother, Saumu Rajab W. had wonderful hair. Has wonderful hair. Long, wayward hair as if her thoughts can’t be contained by her head. She had got me early and she had got me with my father, a twenty-something-year-old man then with a great job, beautiful manners, and a tongue dipped in honey. My mother, Saumu Rajab W. had found a man among men. As soon as she had me, she didn’t want any other kid— or at least that’s what she says, until she had my sister, which plastered an ever-present eye-roll in me— her way of announcing to the world her man was a man of substance.
I don’t know how my father fell for my mother, but I think I have a hunch. Looking at the history of my former flames, they all look strikingly like my mother: short, light-skinned and with a Cobraesque venom of a tongue. Yes, I like them fiery, because someone has to tell the waiter I never ordered matumbo. But, if I scan even further at all my flames, they all had nice hair, such were my salad days. I am my father’s son after all.
I stumbled upon letters my father wrote to my mother— and many other women too. The boy was smooth, or in the way he puts it, “men wanted to be him, and women wanted to be with him.” He could switch it off with the same insouciant shrug he would turn it on with. In a letter to my mother, he had channeled Shakespear, professing his “undying, unadulterated” love, and described how her hair smelled— like ordering the sky from a florist— and all he wanted was a chance to take her out to Afraha Stadium for a walk. Would she make his day by saying yes? Make his day she did, and I know this because the result of that successful meeting is typing these words. In other words, he was her type, as she was his. I know his type because my father has never been one to draw circles with his feet about his type, and actually used those words, “my type.” He liked them fantamaglorious, almost a model but not quite. My mother looked like she could have sung for TLC if she had more attitude (fact is she can’t sing but never let facts get in the way of a good story). She was all that. And then some.
She had large eyes which were not bright, and her conversations veered on annoyance, the default African mom power play, the human equivalent of the smug “really?” emoji guy with the arched left eyebrow that forced you to bend the knee and submit to her leadership. She looked like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, with a devastating smile that registers on the Richter scale. She had popped me out when she was in her early 20s, an asterisk that came at the beginning of her script, just when she had started going to Disco Matangas near sugarcane plantations. And she, if not a fuddy-duddy, fun-loving giddy lass, was naïve at best, a silly young woman, easily duped. Oh, the folly of youth.
She’s always been more lightning than thunder, our conversations punctuated with spooky silences, eerie awkwardness rushing in to fill the cracks where our words can’t. Our moments of clarity are punctuated with ‘mmhhss’ and ‘aaahhs’ and ‘eehhs’ — that dim hum buzz sound that we’ve always been aware of, the soundtrack of our lives, the hum of our mortality. She has this long dry look, a look that holds your gaze, a look that contains a certain amount of pain. A certain amount? A lot. I see her as something of a hornet’s nest—I don’t want to poke at it, for fear of what might emerge. I’d want to take her out, buy her favorite coconut wine and watch her whine about my father’s lack of taste in shoes (I agree) and listen to her big dreams. She was a girl with big dreams, I can tell.
I have this picture of my mother in my album— remember albums? I’m what? Three? It’s 16th March 1997, and my mother, with her big brown eyes is ogling at me, and me, shy as a KRA intern, staring intently at the camera, here only under duress, like a KRA intern. My hair is channelling rich African scion, giving pseudo-Jeff Koinange, gelled and shiny, while my left hand is on my mother’s shoulder, stroking her hair from behind. My mother’s hair is blow-dried or straightened with the hot comb, shining like that of a young boy— crinkled and crisp as wet spinach— flaunting off that East African forehead. I look at her and think, with that hair she would have made a good mafia don wife, running the women’s guild of the Mendellin Cartel, which is a secret cartel set up to rid African kitchens of cockroaches. Ha ha? And then I look at that forehead and I am like, maybe not.
My mother has never been fancy with her hair. One time, she had an afro in the early 00’s but that was just it. She had a fling with cornrows too, but that forehead man. It was a plotline in major self-esteem issues, so that was quickly abandoned. When it came to her head, she kept it simple. She was willing to select, modify, and incorporate all other eccentricities in her life; but to abjure her hair— never!
Even without her hair my mother would have been noticeable. She was short, barely tall, and with deep searching eyes that masked her distaste for tea without milk. She loved to talk. She loves to talk. But it is in her hair where her power resides, long and silky, like a presentation of that long-running act, her face. When she’d go to sleep she’d put matuta, as testament to the fact that I learned plaiting said matuta, and I occasionally use it as a knife in my Swiss army effrontery to charm someone’s daughter into sleeping with me. Works every time. Men, take it from me: women love a man who is good with his hands. Ni me nakushow.
You want to know what also works? Every day when I would get home from school, I’d find mother making uji (yuck), and tuning in to 95.6 KBC English Service’s Sundowner, 6PM to 7PM on our Panasonic with Catherine Ndonye. That time, all I wanted to listen to was E-Sir and Nameless and Mr Lenny, Mr Googz, Vinny Banton and ‘Wasee tumetoka Githurai!’ because my primary school crush, Sharon lived in Githurai.
This was her ritual— my mom, not Sharon— and gently I eased into it. Unquestioned, and unquestionable, her Rosetta stone, an article of faith, like the wall unit that housed her Sahani ya wageni. And then Dolly Parton’s Coat of many colours would play, Roger Whittaker’s ‘My Land Is Kenya’ would soon follow and make me love my mama, and mamaland even more. The hits would take over: Kenny Roger’s ‘The Gambler’ and ‘Coward of the County’ were a staple, in between Ndonye’s mellow voice that would tell me to go to hell in a manner that I would look forward to going there. The Desiderata would always play, and sometimes, Bette Midler’s “God is watching us from a distance…” But nothing would make my day like when Don Williams, with a voice like warm chocolate, would start talking about “Back in the innocent days; There was a young Cowboy; Who was in love with a Mexican girl; Only she didn’t know it.” I didn’t know shit about cowboys, and I was certain Sharon wasn’t Mexican based on her heavy Meru accent, but that didn’t stop me from dreaming of making her my senorita. That song made me feel things, and was probably the reason I became a Casanova in high school (I’ve since reformed. I think?). That song makes you miss a love you never had.
I watched my mother from a distance. I never told her these things, never opened up. Never let her know. Always taking the path of most resistance. It’s too horrible to think about. So we never do. We never talk about how the past lives in the present. As a society, we just can’t go there. Sometimes, though, it seems that God or Darwin— whichever came first— hardwired the wrong sort of instructions into the wrong bodies; while women want to know everything, men just want to know things. Perhaps, there is beauty in the unknown. Knowing is not a gift, but a punishment. Do not be angry with rain, they say. It simply does not know how to fall upwards.
What I do know is that mother’s hair, like Kenya’s, is greying now. Even when she turns 60 some 11 years from now, it will be still silky, still flowing. Our relationship has changed over the years, but the hair has remained constant. Just like the album she keeps at home, documenting our years on earth, which she proudly removes and shows guests, saying this is ‘Boyi.” I am boyi, but don’t call me that. Maybe Kenya needs an album too. Didn’t we just turn 60 the other day? I guess that’s what NCBA Bank with their #NCBATwendeMbele campaign are doing, giving us a moment to glimpse at the past, while remaining focused on the future. They even created a playlist that you can listen to and add songs to, here. I already know the first song I’d put in the playlist and blast on my Sanyo radio, okay JBL but comme ci, comme ça. It’s by Kakai Kilonzo “Huu wimbo ninaimba oh, si wimbo ni maombi. Ewe Kenya nchi yangu ewe Kenya mama yangu ooh sitakuacha milele.”
Kenya, nchi yangu. Kenya, mama yangu.
Everyone cleaves to their mama. That’s why I keep my hair long because a) it reminds me of my mother and b). nothing beats the feeling of someone’s daughter running her hands through my scalp and saying, “Aki you have nice hair.”
Thanks, I say, I got it from my mama.