When you have a new book out, it comes with the great virtue of shamelessness. The ability to sell it anywhere and to anyone who can read their name. So there we were, with the Duke Of Gatanga at The Gastro Bar in Westlands. I had made him hold up my book to his face and I was taking a photo like in one of those ransom photos where the abductee is forced to hold up the day’s newspaper. We were seated at the well-lit bar, outside it was drizzling hesitantly on the sad-looking traffic building up slowly.
Suddenly two younger ladies, probably in their early 30s from what I could tell from their chins, came over, one looking quite bashful, as if she had been dragged to us by the collar. She was blushing furiously, not sure what to do with her hands. The first lady, the leader, the confident one with a small tattoo at the base of her thumb, says, “Hi!” She does an introduction and asks if we are doing okay, having a good time and all. We say, ‘Yeah, it’s peachy, how about you, girls?’ We are thinking they will say, ‘Er, guys you two are actually seated at our spot,’ instead they stand there, leaning onto each other like a couple of trees in the forest that grew too close, making small talk and then finally say, well OK, then you gentlemen enjoy yourselves. Then they just walk away. It was a very brief, intense and odd interaction.
“Maybe they wanted your book,” Duke of Gatanga explained piously.
“No, they didn’t want my book.” I chuckled.
Anyway, after a while one of the ladies comes back and says, “about that earlier, my friend thinks you gentlemen look great. She’s wondering if you guys are single.”
“Funny you should ask, we were just talking about that,” I tell her, “because he is single.”
“Oh yeah?” She says.
“Yeah, but hang on,” I say, now the official spokesperson. “Why are you asking for your friend? Are you not interested yourself? Are you single?”
“I am,” she says, touching her neck coquettishly like she is in the pictures. “But I’m a lady, I prefer to be pursued.” Then she swings away sassily as we laugh.
“And you say you can’t find someone to date?” I told him incredulously. “Come on.”
You remember the Duke of Gatanga’s story. Nine years ago he married a girl called Betty, a petite girl, almost half his size. But then they couldn’t get a baby and so started a tiresome journey of Intrauterine Insemination which involved him sitting in a small cubicle with a magazine of girls with big dark nipples and a tub to fill with sperm which would then be physically inserted in her when her ovulation calendar is synchronized. It’s an expensive and draining exercise.
Anyway, eventually they conceived and because the Lord of Abraham is the Lord of abundance he sent them not one, not two but three babies. Triplets! They were overcome with joy but also worried because, remember she was a petite girl. Would she be able to carry triplets in her small body? Was the Lord’s temple big enough to do His bidding?
Anyway, one night she wakes up and says she can’t breathe. She’s pacing up and down the living room, the lights burning brightly. It’s 2am, just before the hour of the devil. He calls a doctor friend, who says that it could be an embolism and that he should call an ambulance right away. However, before the ambulance gets there she’s dead. Things get even trickier; it takes about eight minutes to save unborn babies after the death of their mother. They took fifteen minutes to get to the Emergency doors at Mater Hospital. The babies died along the deserted Mombasa road. His wife, wearing a brown deera, was pushed away in a trolley, her feet shoeless. He was later to see things nobody ever wants to see; his dead babies lying in the cold morgue. He was alone in there with just his three babies who were placed side by side on lime green cover. Two girls and one boy. The boy lay between his sisters. Imani, Keith and Neema. Each one of them weighed 1.8 kgs. They were all naked. The only time they would wear clothes they would be buried in them. Their fists were closed tight. They could have been asleep. He stood over them thinking, of course they would wake up and they would start crying because of the cold and he would wrap them up in something warm and he would take them home to their room that they had decorated in readiness of their arrival. You don’t know the horror of the expression ‘dead on arrival’ until you see your three newborn babies in a morgue.
That night he went back home alone to an empty house, empty rooms and an empty bed with the shape of his dead wife still imprinted in it. He curled in her shape and hoped death would take him too. That he would sleep and journey on to his wife and children.
He buried them in Gatanga, his village. They were all buried together – like they lived – in the same coffin. One baby was placed on his wife’s chest and the other two in the crook of each arm. She was setting off on another voyage with her babies. They covered the coffin with soil on a dark and ugly afternoon. The air seemed not to stir. It felt like death had descended on earth and had only chosen him. He stood over the grave and realised how much he hated God at that moment. He had prayed for children and waited for eight years for them and then He had given him three children and then changed His mind and taken all of them again. What brand of cruelty was He capable of?
He was 37 and a widower.
Now here we are, at a bar six years after we had last met and nine years since he buried his wife and children. The ten-year anniversary is fast bearing down on him. He has always done something on each anniversary. He has donated books or sanitary pads. Once, in Thailand, he sent a note to his dead wife during the Loi Krathong Festival. In Diani he wrote a love letter, and placed it in a bottle which he set out into the ocean. (Did it wash ashore somewhere and someone shirtless read the note and thought, what strange handwriting this bereaved man has?)
He belonged to a Whatsapp group for Widowers, eight chaps who have buried their wives. “Two of three of these guys have remarried. One remarried and got divorced. We still maintain the group. It’s not as busy because life is busier but it’s there for when someone needs to lean on someone.” He said.
He still lives in the same house in Nyayo estate, where his wife died, where his dead children’s toys still remained, never touched. “I still live there because I own the house,” he said. “Also, I never saw any reason to move out, to run away from what happened there.” The thing with not moving out is that each time you open the door you have to face the fear, the emptiness within and the horror that comes with a loss like that. “This here was her side of the bed, her drawer with her things, an earring, a hair clip.” He says. “You run into these things and they hurt you and you cry a lot the first couple of years.”
Over time, slowly, the tide of life washes away these things. He gave away her clothes. His own mother took her wedding ring. The babies’ room remains largely untouched; the walls are still painted purple, the decorations still there; the stars faded on the wall, stars that never shone on his babies. He gave his sister one of the babies’ beds when she was expecting. He gave a friend another. He sold the remaining one to a couple whose child would sleep in the cot of a dead baby. Sometimes when he walks into the babies’ room even now, he will stand there and stare at the walls momentarily, as if trying to remember an old nightmare. Her wedding dress still hangs in her wardrobe, a white exclamation mark accentuating a past littered with pain. He occasionally thinks of his babies, how old they would be, he wonders what kind of children they would have been, what kind of mischief they would get up to if they stayed alive to be teenagers. He wonders what colours they would be drawn towards.
He has a daughter, five years old. Got her during the throes of grief. “She lives with her mother,” he said. “We are co-parenting.” What kind of a father is he? I ask him. He wonders if he is doing enough. If he is spending enough time with her. “Have I been available? Am I doing more? Does she feel it’s enough? What does enough look like?”
It’s been eight years. A lot has happened but amazingly nothing has happened. He has dated, yes, as short as a week and as long as a year plus. “When you lose someone like that you try to look for her in other people.” He said. So he dated petite girls, girls with a gap between their teeth, girls with robust laughter. “Then at some point you just stop looking for her in other women. You let her go.”
He finds himself single now and content. “I’m worried that I’m too comfortable with this arrangement, being single, living alone, doing my own thing.” His sisters (he is the only boy) are concerned. They want him to marry. He isn’t too keen, neither is he in a hurry.
“What’s out there [girls] isn’t very satisfactory. What is sold is never what you get and that can increasingly wear you out.” He says. “Girls see you for what they can get from you, not what they can add to your life. And as I grow older, I find it harder to compromise. I want what I want and that someone has to somehow fit into my life.”
“What do you like?”
“I’m attracted to people who can write properly,” he says and I’m hoping he isn’t referring to me because he’s not my type by a whole gender. “I like a girl who doesn’t write shortened words, someone with good grammar. I like someone who loves to travel. Someone who keeps their nails neat. A sense of humour.”
I asked him if he ever wonders about why he lost his wife and babies. Why did it happen to you?
He sits there contemplating this question briefly. He was having some sort of a cake, which now looked damaged and crumbled. The fork lies on its back, satiated, its teeth stained with sugar and cream. “I don’t think of why it happened to me, otherwise those kinds of thoughts would just send me to a pit.” He says. “There are a couple of things I don’t believe in. First I don’t believe in thoughts like that. Number two, I don’t believe in karma. I don’t think when things happen to someone they are being punished for something they did. They are people who do horrible things but they live on forever. How old was Mobutu when he died? Look at Moi. All these guys did things that affected many people adversely yet they lived without punishment. So, no, I don’t believe in karma, things just happen to people.”