Two Televisions

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I was 15 years old and had thousands of parasites in my blood. Malaria. I was greatly fatigued, I was running a fever, I had a bitch of a headache and my joints felt like termites were building a nest in them. I was alone in the whole dormitory which was deathly quiet because it was almost 5 pm and the whole school was out in the field for the mandatory games. I was curled in bed, head covered, my body temperature high but also feeling extremely cold. 

At some point, I was woken up by what I first thought were sobs. If you’ve had malaria you’d know that sometimes it makes you hallucinate (the fever, I guess) and so I momentarily thought it was just going crazy with the parasite, but then I realised the sobs were coming from the bottom bunk bed I shared with another student. We lived four in a small cubicle. I stayed still and listened to him sob. He was in Form Three. Form Threes never cried, that was for the province of crybaby Form Ones who cried for their mommies because someone had stolen their bar of soap. Again. After what seemed like a while listening to him sob, I leaned over the edge of the bed and said, “What’s wrong?” I started him. He didn’t think I was in the room. He wiped his tears with the back of his and tried to compose himself. “What are you doing in the dorm?” He asked suspiciously. The metallic bed squeaked as he stood up and busied himself with packing. 

His box (metallic suitcase) was open and he threw folded clothes in it. At first, I thought he had been suspended but nobody there would have been a prefect standing over him supervising the move out. And nobody cried after suspension unless they were those crybaby Form Ones who cried for their mommies because someone stole their bar of soap. But you had to be a villainous character to be suspended in Form One.

“Are you going home?” I asked him, almost enviously, because we all craved an excuse to go back home. He nodded and continued packing. I stayed there watching him pack in silence, his back to me, my chin on the edge of the bed, feeling the metal through our mattresses that were never any thicker than a slice of bread. Sleep was not something you engaged actively in high school, it always felt like you were only allowed to sleep because it was night and dark. 

“Something happened?” I pressed. He didn’t say anything. He ignored me, opening the drawer, stuffing folded clothes in a small backpack, wedging bathroom sandals in his box. Then his shoulders sagged and they started shaking and eventually, he stopped packing, and as he stood holding the edges of his opened box, dissolved in loud sobs. This time without restraint. He sat down on his bed and sobbed in his palms. “My mom died.” He said eventually. “Oh shit!” I said. That’s the only language of condolence I knew at that age. What did we know about death and loss and grief? We were too young to be losing our parents. He eventually stood up and finished packing, with little defiance this time. Then he padlocked his box, threw his backpack on his back, and said bye without looking at me and then he was gone. His footsteps echoed down the long corridor as he went to bury his mother. But I recall feeling sorry for him, yes, but then I recall making it about me. I started feeling fearful for myself; what if it had been me who had been fetched with the news of my mother’s death? What would I do? How would life even continue? What would that mean for my future? From then on for the rest of high school, I had a morbid anxiety that someone from home would fetch me with the news that my mom had died. It didn’t like surprise visits, relatives popping in to visit. (Very rare). I just hoped I wouldn’t have to pack my shit when everybody was in the dorm, milling around pretending to acknowledge the fact that I was crying uncontrollably. Thank God, it never happened. Not in high school, at least, but it happens it doesn’t matter when. 

I don’t know if my dorm-mate remembers the details of that fateful evening in the dorm the way I remember it because you always remember the day death came. 

When I heard the news I was at my desk at home. I was working on a storyline from a pre-interview I had done with Nyashinski. To be fair I was also watching some interviews on nudists and people with weird fetishes on Soft White Underbelly. (I try to fill my time with constructive content). News was that a military chopper had gone down in the bushes of Pokot. There was a rumour that the general, the highest-ranking military officer, was in it. I thought, Ah, there is no way and went back to watching an interview with Adam, an adult baby diaper lover. An hour later, the news channels had confirmed it. General Ogolla was in the chopper. It felt very dire, important, and grave, a flag-at-half-mast kind of event.  

I don’t know the General anymore than I know Steve Zhao, the CEO of Nairobi Expressway but it felt very close. It felt like someone you knew had died, or someone who looked like someone you knew. As news streamed in, about the crash, and the videos of the wreckage up in flames, I felt mournful like he was a relative. A distant relative, one of those distant relatives you don’t talk to, but who you meet at funerals and have brief small talks with: Oh, you are Symon’s son! You are already a grown man, I last saw you when you were a child, you might not remember. What do you do nowadays? How’s that working for you? OK, nice to see you again, let me find a bottle of water. 

I couldn’t work anymore. I went and sat on the balcony and scrolled the internet obsessively. I read up about him and sought videos of him. Suddenly this man was of interest. He looked like a decent fellow (I don’t know how one can look decent in photos), someone infallible but with a decent core. Someone with great discipline, with an impregnable routine. Someone who stood for something. Someone who went to shags once in a while and lived in a massive house with a grey roof. He reminded me of some massive homes in our village of ‘important’ people back in Nairobi who come in for a day or two and head back. Nobody knows them that well, but they hold important positions in public spaces. So they are legends. I bet the villagers of Ngi’ya were proud of the general. They must have frequently pointed at his boma and told visitors proudly, “That’s General Ogolla’s home,” because everybody wants to warm against the fire of greatness. 

I sat there and thought to imagine that after an illustrious career, after rising to the top of a formidable institution like the military, it ends with some local Pokot herdsmen pulling your body from the wreckage and laying you on the dusty grass-patched ground. Those Pokot herdsmen not knowing whose bodies they were standing over? Lying at their feet were sons, fathers, husbands, and someone who had the ears of the president on military matters. It all didn’t matter, now they would be referred to as remains in the media. These people whose tubs of toothpaste still retained the shape of their thumps from a few hours before, their phones with reminders, meetings for later that evening, all that would not be honoured. Now they had been reduced to just bodies at the dusty sandaled feet of herdsmen. 

I stared at my ferns on my balcony, half of them dead or dying (I’m tired of the neediness of plants), and imagined frantic phone calls being made, men with shiny medals on their chests being pulled out of meetings, faces grave with disbelief, choppers carrying men with guns rising off from military bases and then someone in boots standing over the bodies next to the burning chopper and saying on the phone, “Yes, sir, it’s him.” And Duale, the CS, slowly sank in his chair and told whoever was in the room, ‘Please give me a moment.’

I remember thinking, ‘Where are his spectacles? Where were the General spectacles?” Did they find them? He went about his whole day, his life, in spectacles, but they must have been knocked off his face in the horrible moment preceding the crash. Did someone find his spectacles?! I pictured them with shattered lenses, lying in that tragic poetry of death. 

That shit remained with me, and I grieved for this stranger. On Friday, I went for a drink with Ben who is from Ngi’ya and I was relieved to find out that I wasn’t the only one who was mourning like he knew him. We drank whisky and shook our heads at the tragedy that had befallen this man and his family. Subliminally, we were talking about our mortality because sooner or later, some people will talk about us in a bar while drinking whisky. 

Later, soaked with grief, I attended a Book Club by She’s Mercedes as a guest author. They had picked my latest book as their read of the month. It was a room full of lawyers, business women, bankers, entrepreneurs, engineers, medics, mothers, spinsters, wives, sisters, and girlfriends, who all love reading and who all drive Mercedes and also engage in CSR activities. And to read books and meet to talk about books means they also talk about life. And when you talk about life, you will find new ways of living it. Hopefully, better ways. And they took issue with the main character who doesn’t tell his friends when he falls on hard times. It didn’t seem like a big deal seeing as how most men just brave their problems on their own. We think it’s gallant to go down with our sinking ship. “What do the men in the book clubs you attend think about that?” someone asked and I said that I have never attended one book club for me because I have been invited to exactly none. Men don’t do book clubs. That’s like asking us to sit in a circle and hold hands for the whole evening. Read a book and gather around to talk about Samora the protagonist. 

Those book clubs are usually fun but you need a drink in hand to go through an evening with a room full of ladies. The She’s Mercedes were nice though, and Laura, their chairlady, sent me off with a bottle of my favourite whisky. Quite unprecedented. May they get more Mercidie (plural of Mercedes) in their lives. 

Saturday, my sister went to get some plants from a farm in Machakos. A place called Zamar Springs is an events space on the slopes of Mua Hills. We talked about the tragedy of the General the whole time. “You work your whole life, and a year before you retire, your chopper falls off the sky and you die.” She’s got eight years to retire herself. The gardener at Zamar seemed to be showing off a bit with all the plants and things. I wouldn’t have imagined that Machakos would have plants I would wow over even though I’ve reached the end of my rope with house plants. I saw some ferns in the nursery and looked away, lest they recognise me. It came down in big buckets on our way back. 

I went to the gym on Sunday. It was almost empty. There are two TVs in the gym, one showing the general’s burial while the other a cricket match. I, together with a handful of chaps, stood watching the 19-gun salute burial with sweaty brows while a handful of Indians watched the cricket match. I mentioned this dichotomy to someone who said, “But that’s what death does, it reminds the living to keep living.”

I don’t think Death wears black. I don’t think Death has a forked tail and goes about with a pitchfork, poking people with it. I don’t think it has red fiery eyes and fangs for teeth. I think Death has black gloves, though, because there is hair on his knuckles and he’s embarrassed by them because he’s vain. I actually think death has a pleasant facial bone structure, something a sketch artist would find fascinating. I think in good light, when he looks away slightly, I think death has a face one would  describe as handsome, with little shadows trapped by those cheekbones. I think death is gentle but sometimes when he comes for you, his actions can be violent. I think sometimes he might even be apologetic as if to say, ‘Look, this is not personal, I’m simply doing my job.’ I think when he’s upon us we fight and resist because we don’t want to go because we feel like we still have stuff left to do, goodbyes to say, so we kick and scream but he grips your hand with the grip of death, with his gloved hand and he says, “stop it, stop it, we are going” and we are crying and saying, “please, let me tell my children goodbye, let me write my will,” but he pulls you away easily because he’s stronger than he looks like. So you have no choice but to go. Sometimes, in that process, he knocks off your spectacles.

***

Because we are still here, this is the final call for the registration of the Masterclass. We have one seat left. Grab it HERE. Or grab just a BOOK

 

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43 Comments
  1. Hi Biko 🙂
    Aki I thought you had forgotten us.
    Kept asking my colleagues at work “Kwani what day is today” when it got to 11am with no buzz from my phone notifying me that you had posted.

    Oh Biko.
    Thanks for this post.
    I was speaking to my mom some time back and she was telling me how a lot of people back at my village were dying and how she’s scared cos she might be next.
    Made me see how human she is.

    I don’t know how this is going to come off. I’m going to say it anyway.
    Biko if you die before me, I’ll mourn you like I knew you.
    I met you once at a Rotaract meeting but I every time I read your posts, I feel like we have some sort of connection. Sigh. You make me laugh when I’m feeling grumpy, and whenever I’m bored, I go read your old posts for entertainment.

    I’m gonna stop here before I embarrass myself any further.
    I’m grateful for you and your art Biko.
    Bye!

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    1. What a twist in your line of thought,
      Just imagining such news brought tears to my eyes.
      Gosh..
      I can’t imagine.

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    2. Hahaa, Tushy! This is a welcoming space. Express as much as you would like to. But all in all, thank you for connecting with me and my work as much as you have. Truly, there would be no Bikozulu without all of you.

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  2. I like how you have infused different mini stories in here and how they ultimately speak in one accord- about life and the end of it. It’s interesting how after someone dies, we often feel compelled to explore their lives more deeply and uncover aspects of them that we might not have known before. The General’s death and those of the nine mighty soldiers has reminded me that Death isn’t an ending, it’s a transformation. The physical form may return to the dust, but the love, the laughter, the echo of a life well-lived ripples through time. It lives on in the tear-stained cheeks, the whispered stories, the flickering memories that become a testament to a life that mattered. So let death not be a cause for dread, but a catalyst for love. Let it whisper of the importance of embracing each sunrise, of cherishing the connections that bind us. For in the end, it’s not the length of the story, but the depth of the emotions it evokes that truly matters.

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  3. As always, your stories leave me with loads of food for thought. Live, laugh and love for life is so precious.
    Thank you.

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  4. Good stuff as always Biko. Tell your editor to get his eyes back in the game though….

    “He looked like a decent fellow (I don’t know how one can look decent in photos), someone infallible but with a decent core”

    “At first, I thought he had been suspended but nobody there would have been a prefect standing over him supervising the move out.”

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  5. I am excited to be in this space and glad to have met you through the She’s Merc book club.
    Your writing is refreshing and extremely thought provoking. Keep Soaring Biko.

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  6. Great, as always. I will join the Masterclass someday. Every time I click on Here, go to the fourth question, see 4 and 4 zeros, then remember I am 3 zeros short!

  7. death is cruel. I saw the plane crash news and saw the news about the boat that sunk and took away lives of innocent youth with a whole lot of life ahead of them. it reminded me of Vincent, a son to my colleague. He died on a road accident 5minutes after alighting his father’s car to get into a friend’s and die. The dad was right behind them only to get to the scene and see his son squeezed between the dashboard and the seat lying lifeless. That is death. it has no mercy.

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  8. Man! That’s it. You have have just described the feelings of those who were his associates. It’s so sad that the demon had to go for him after achieving the highest rank in the military, I still recall a story he told me at the club house at MAB, how he almost missed going to France for the degree course that catapulted his career. People who are self made face a lot of handicaps along the way. It’s like the devil is always on the prowl to bring you down.

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    1. It could be those handicaps that make the success sweet, don’t you think? But General was a formidable force. God rest his soul.

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  9. The first story, reminds me of our own loss. My youngest brother was in S.3, boarding school, when our Mother died. It was my second sibling who picked him from school. Sometimes I wonder how he broke the news to him, we have never talked about it but I vividly remember him getting back from school into the house to the sight of his mother, our mother, lying lifeless in a coffin in our living room.
    The dormitory scene might be similar to what my Little brother went through when he had to pack a few of his belongings to return home for Mama’s burial.
    ***
    Gen Ogolla, true, sometimes we mourn public figures like we know them personally.

    Death be not proud – John Donne

  10. in high school i dreaded the call by the TOD for the same reason as you, but it caught up with me in 2008 on a lousy Friday when my dad passed on, and in 2023 on a Saturday morning when grandma passed on. nothing prepares you for death, not to the one dying or us left behind, it is painful but i think for the departed, it may be better, i guess. nice read as always, thank you for the life lessons

  11. Many people feel that death will take something away from them. If you are wise you will realize that death is constantly giving you something. Death gives meaning to your life. If you are living every experience fully, then death doesn’t take anything from you. If you knew that you were to die in the next few minutes, you wouldn’t hold onto your grudges, you would love more, smile more, try to be free and listen carefully to the conversations around because that may be the last time you are listening to them. Generali looked like he lived every experience fully, may his soul rest in perfect peace.

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  12. Nice description of death, bitter reality, “Knocks off the spectacles”. I laughed all the way as much as its also sad.

  13. Biko, a very nice read on the reality of death. A death, especially a sudden, unexpected and tragic one like happened to the General and his colleagues, is always very difficult and hard, especially for the families. Tough that we lost a humble and nice man with such an illustrious career and impact.

  14. You took me waay back in highschool, i relate with that Boy, i was in form 4 when my Aunt came to pick me from school, the burial was the following day, Men. Was telling a friend the other day i never got a chance to properly mourn my Mother.

  15. Yet another gem. Death is as formidable as it sounds. Comes knocking when you least expect it. Befalls the last person you’d imagine. Leaving behind disturbed,nay broken hearts and teary eyes in it’s wake. May his soul be liberated to rest in the proverbial eternal tranquil. Death aside, I particularly envied your subtle sense of homour Biko. Of how you couldn’t bring yourself to hold your gaze with the ferns from Machakos;for you well knew the sorry state you’d left your back home.

  16. Phew! I’m totally relieved to know that I’m not that lone soul that mourned the General from a distant. Our General…a stranger-friend. I was totally riveted to HisStory. What a life…lived to the brim!

  17. Thank you Biko. It is always exciting to see that email notification.
    Recently, a lady sat next to me in a matatu while on my way to work. She was reading an article from her phone which I peeped and realized it was one of Biko’s. I was excited since I had read the article the day before. Before we alighted, I asked her ‘So you are a fun of Biko’s work?’
    ‘Yeah, I am. Have you read this article?’
    ‘Yes. I read it yesterday.’ That was Wednesday last week.

    Reading through your article and the comments reminded me of when my dad’s oldest brother called me while I was in my fourth year in campus and broke the sad news that my aunt (his sister) had passed on. He went further to note that I was the one to break the news to my cousin (my auntie’s son) who was in a college in Kabete. I was on my way to Biblica, Dennis Pritt Road when he called. How could I do that? How do you break such news to a person? That his mom. whom he had a meeting with three days ago is no longer there. I remember asking the bookstore manager at Biblica how one breaks such news. He was in his 50s and sure his advice was helpful. Eventually, I broke the news to my cousin while taking a walk in a football field that afternoon. He went silent. I further told him that I was not leaving without him and we were heading home together that evening. I even asked for his class rep’s contact to notify her of what had happened and that my cousin would not sit for the exams in the following week.

  18. Oh my God! I remember thinking the exact same thoughts! “Where are his specs”
    & had a discussion with a friend why I was mourning the general like I knew him. At first my response was – one day I will find the right words & they will be simple. But added we grieve people we never met coz:
    1. Their work (or rather how they lived) helped us get through a difficult time in our lives.
    2. Their work/lives inspired our dreams & goals
    3. They modelled possibility (this was it with General for me)
    & today I add:
    4. Their death triggers our grief of previous loss
    5. Their passing activates our fear around death

  19. A whole tribute for the General.
    I, also mourned the man like I knew him personally. Like he was a buddy who I’d left on read on WhatsApp the previous night.
    I had known of him and read about him since he was a Brigadier in the Airforce. I had watched a news special of how the military prepares for airshows display on public holidays.
    Maybe his death hit hard because he represents so much of what we aspire to be, or what I aspire to be. Just a good man, a good husband to the wife and a good father to the kids. Someone who does their best for themself, his loved ones and his community. Someone who is steadfast in his faith and someone whom we can obviously guess where he goes next.
    It was tragic, a loss of monumental proportions. May the good man go well.
    Rest in Peace, General Francis Omondi Ogolla.

  20. The news about General Ogolla’s death hit me hard as well. I shed a tear even though I had never met him personally, just on TV. It was painful partly because he had gone against all odds to be appointed CDF, given the circumstances surrounding the last elections; and also the fact that he was just a decent man. We have truly lost a national hero. Whether his death was by accident or by design, may all Kenyans who felt the pain of his death find peace!

  21. I thought I was the only one who was hit hard by the General’s demise as if he was my close relative. With the way he lived (How people eulogised him) I picked a couple of lessons;
    1. In everything we do, we should do it in humility. The good book says, “Humble yourself and you shall be exalted.”
    2. When you love, love wholly. Whether it’s love for family, friends or country.
    3. Each passing day, we should think of our legacy. What legacy do you want to leave behind when you transition to the greater beyond?

    I love the name of the book club She’s Mercedes and the fact that they all drive a Mercedes (My fav car brand). When I grow up….

    Nice read always.

  22. A couple of my maternal older cousins previously worked in the military. They were longtime friends of General Ogolla, they tell me they last met with him over the December holidays. I didn’t know him, but he sounds like a man of greatness, of good work ethic and integrity. I like that he was a believer in Christ. So we don’t say goodbye, rather we say we’ll meet again in the beautiful city of God.

    I think since 2020, we have all been reminded about death and dying, and the temporality of this life and the permanence of the next. This world is not our home. We are just passers-by.
    Our prayer is that we may have room to plan for it, rather than be yanked abruptly into the next life.

    “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” – Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie.

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  23. As Biko described death, did the guy who plays Lucifer come to mind? No? Okay.
    RIP Generali and the fallen soldiers.