Why do people look for their fathers? You grow up without one, you lead a normal enough life, get children of your own and yet you still feel the urge to look for a man you never knew. Possibly a dead man, in my case. He isn’t going to pick you up from school. He isn’t going to teach you how to drive. He isn’t going to give you advice before your wedding. So why look for the man? My pals would ask me over pints, ‘what are you missing, man?’ ‘What good will this bring to your life now, in your forties? Chasing after the memories of your [possibly] dead father?’ I don’t know, man. I’d mumble blowing froth from my beer. I don’t know why the hell I was excavating history. I don’t know why people look for their fathers. But maybe they are not even looking for their fathers; maybe they are looking for themselves! Yeah, maybe I was looking for myself.
So anyway, I rock up deep inside Ndhiwa, at a place called Kanyamwa. Also, I don’t speak a lick of Dholuo. I’m only armed with ‘koro, bwana,” “onge, bwana,” “nyako maber kabisa, bwana.” I don’t suppose I will be using the latter in Ndhiwa. I have a friend called Onyash who advised me that I wouldn’t have trouble in Ndhiwa at all because all Luos spoke English, even in the villages. I also don’t know the village where this man hailed from. I have no names, except my father’s two names. I held them in my hands like charms, the names of a possibly dead man because in my quick estimation my dad would be around 80 years old. But I wanted to see where he came from, where a part of me comes from. I wanted a glimpse into his lineage, which was my lineage. I had kids in the US and kids here, like I had mentioned earlier, children I had dragged into my complicated heritage, shrouded in lies and mystery. I was doing this partly for them.
The first person I asked about my father was the first person I ran into at a shopping center; a cocky boda-boda guy sporting a cap pulled low over his face, with “FBI” boldly written on it. He looked at me like you would a stool with one missing leg; with barely passing interest. It was sweltering. Some goats had gathered under the verandah of a shop nearby, chewing cud and rudely eavesdropping on our conversation. The guy had never heard of my father. He wouldn’t have; he looked 20. He offered to take me to a home belonging to an old man. At a fee. ‘He knows everyone here,” he said. I left the car I had borrowed from a friend in Kisumu and hopped on the boda and we maneuvered our way through dusty paths, often ducking the shrubs that scratched my arm. The boda guy was playing very loud Dholuo music. The man who ‘knew everyone’ was very old with a cataract in one eye and also half deaf. He also couldn’t speak English [Onyash had lied] or Kiswahili and just like that my boda guy got a job as a translator for the day.
We sat under a mango tree in the old man’s boma where I’d say, ‘my name is someone someone and my father’s name is Okello someone someone.”
The boda guy would turn to the old man and shout something in Dholuo about ten times: ” ero bwana gino bwana Okello someone someone, ginene onge blah blah blah.”
The old man would lean closer and ask, “eeh?” and the boda guy would shout louder, “ero bwana ero bwana gino matek Okello someone someone ginene onge blah blah blah.”
The old man would cringe, his face in deep thought, his forehead folding like blankets, and then while seeming to chew something, would ask, “ero bwana gino matek maber bwana mit Okello someone someone, maduong maduong?”
The boda guy would turn to me and ask, “do you know who the father of Okello someone someone was?”
Now, if I barely knew my father, surely I wouldn’t know who his father was. So I’d say, no and he’d turn to the old man and say, “matek onge bwana maduong!” and the old man would sigh and draw a shape on the floor with his stick and then say ‘eeh?’ It was frustrating, this back and forth and shouting and sometimes the old man tossing his head on the side and spitting. We ended up visiting a few villages and asking questions and coming up short. I left my phone numbers everywhere and promised that whoever got me my father’s village would get a” handsome reward.” Then I drove to Kisumu through the darkness of the night.
Six months passed.
Then a call came in from someone who said they knew who my father was. He sounded elderly and he spoke English slowly, deliberately, like he was a man who had been ailing for months and was trying to learn how to walk again. “You knew my father?” I asked, trying not to get excited. He said he knew him. He knew his village. He had known his father – my grandfather – who he had grown up with. He could take me to their village where some of my uncles still lived. I was excited. Finally. Maybe there would be an album to see, I thought on the flight to Kisumu. A face to put to a man who had died in the river, been hit by a car, fallen off a ferry and perhaps resurrected and gone to the US.
When I got there, this elderly gentleman took me to my father’s boma where two men awaited me. One looked like a drunkard. The other looked like a street preacher. My heart sunk. These were my uncles? They were both thin as rails. A very thin brown leather belt studiously snaked itself around the street preacher’s waif-like waist. He cast a despondent image even with the old Bible clutched in his bony hands. We prayed first. Ignoring my polite protest, tea was then served which the drunkard ignored. His tone was aggressive, as if he didn’t believe that I was one of them, an impostor. He treated me like I was there to rob them of my claim of my inheritance. They said my father had died and so before anything else, we had to go stand over his grave and pray. So we bowed our heads and stood over my father’s grave, which lay among other graves behind the house. He died in 2009.
Did they have photos? Of course they did. A child was sent inside the stone house to fetch the album which seemed to be older than me. It was falling apart like meat that had been boiled for too long. My heart started racing as the drunkard [he seemed to be the older of the two] thumped through the album with one gnarled thumb, looking for my father. Finally, he handed me an open page and glared at me as I looked at a picture of a man in a photo studio in Kisumu. He was young, and thin as good intentions in a brothel. I studied his face keenly. It didn’t look like mine. I flipped the page looking for more photos – there were not very many and the few I saw were grainy. I asked questions. Many. Turned out this man never went to a teacher’s college. And he never could have met my mother when she said they met. But then again my mother had proven to be a liar so…But of most importance, this man was illiterate,never having gone past class 4.
He wasn’t my father.
You want to know the truth but often you realise you don’t want the truth, you want the illusion of it, its shadow. The truth often might open a different Pandora’s box, revealing its bright harshness and hidden hurt. And so I was sort of relieved when the man turned out to be a dud. It made me wonder whether I really wanted to find my father.
I came back to Nairobi confused and emotionally worn out. That night, lying naked in bed next to the woman I was seeing then, she interrogated my motivation for finding this man. She was smarter than me, but she grew up in a well-adjusted family. Her father would call her “sweetheart” at 38, hug her and send her memes. So, as Bernie Mac would have told her, ‘you don’t understand!” Eddy, on the other hand, thought it was charming and “bewitching”, me ‘running across the country chasing the ghost of a man.” He also found it a bit amusing and he’d gently rib me over it.
Anyway. I sort of put a pin on it then went and got another baby. That’s baby number five, in case you are counting. A daughter, this time. I now had four sons and one daughter. Two boys in the US who I talked to and video-called as frequently as their mothers would allow me, one boy with the married woman who went back to her husband to make a happy home on her bed of deceit. That’s the son I don’t talk to or see. He’s growing up a secret. Maybe one day he will start looking for me too and the circle will go on and on through generations of men looking for their fathers. Then there was another boy I had after that short marriage stint that made me realise I was as good at marriage as I was at playing backgammon. And now I had a daughter with a lady I was seeing but not living with. Having a daughter changes you. It made me feel, I don’t know, accountable?
Time passed. I turned 44 then I turned 45.
One day I got a lead. Rather, an idea. It happened after I was driving home from the bar after two beers. It was 7pm and I remember thinking, wait, if they met at a teacher’s college his records must be there! So I went to the teacher’s college and of course the records of students who passed through there in the late 60s and early 70s were all gone. But there was this one lecturer who was still alive, I was told. I found him. In Shanzu. Goddamn Shanzu. Guys, just have a relationship with your children. Don’t let them go looking for you in places like Shanzu. It’s sorcery.
Anyway, I went down to Shanzu and met another very old man. He must have been 200 years old. I always say that the reason that man hadn’t died was because he was waiting for me to find my father through him. That was his life’s purpose. It’s inconceivable that he would even remember my father. The only reason he remembered him was because he still remembered my mother, because she had gotten pregnant and if you got pregnant before marriage in the 60s or 70s you might as well have been a leper. People would point at you and twist their noses judgementally because you dared to have sex before marriage. Oh the travesty. So in essence, puritanism helped me find my father because this old man remembered the distressed young lady who quit college after she couldn’t bear the lowkey taunting and rumours – something my mom never told me. [Of course she didn’t].
The old man, sympathising with her, briefly kept in touch with my mother after she took off. They exchanged a few letters before she stopped replying to him, but not after she told him that my father had tried to leave for America. Now I had three names for my father. I called someone from the government who called someone from the government’s deep machinery who got my father’s ID number and his ID led to his son [yup!] and this led me to a door in Langata one fine early Saturday morning.
When the door opened and a man stood there, a younger man than I am, I knew I had found my half brother, and by extension, found my father. We looked alike. We had the same facial structure, the same body density. We displaced air the same way. He was a big guy like I am, more muscular for sure. Like me, he stood with his back slightly hunched, like he had spent a great deal of time carrying gunias on his back. He was a hairy chap, as am I. I could see the hair peeking out from the top of his saggy old V-neck t-shirt, one that he probably slept in. And he instantly knew I was his relative the moment he saw me standing there.
I stepped over toys as I found a place to sit in his living room. It looked like a nursery. His house was chaotic because he had many children. I think it runs in our blood. I counted four children almost the same age sprawled on the carpet watching cartoons in their pyjamas. I heard another one – a toddler – screech in the bedroom. Our curse seemed to be making children and not knowing when to stop. We sneezed around you and you got pregnant. We talked about our lives, through the family tree. It was complex. He was intrigued. He chuckled and shook his head. But he was intrigued. He kept saying, “shit!” and every time he said that one of his children turned around and asked, “stop saying the bad word.”
His wife came out in a deera to say hello. The poor woman looked like she hadn’t slept a wink; she was haggard and tired and sad. She seemed to stagger and sigh as she stepped over the scattered toys. That house was an obstacle course. I think her breast milk was leaking because her chest was wet. She looked irritated, so we left and stood downstairs, leaning on a car that I hoped belonged to him. He said yes, my father was still alive. He hadn’t drowned in a river or got knocked over by a car or fallen off a ferry. I don’t know how I felt, knowing that I could see him the next day if I wanted to, the elusive phantom turned to flesh.
How is he? What kind of a man is he? Is he tall or big, I asked. He was old now, quite, and sickly, and he was living with his second wife in Kericho. [Yeah, he opened his chapter with a Kalenjin and he was closing it with one]. My half brother said he had four siblings and my father took off with wife number two with whom he had three kids. So I had eight brothers and sisters in total. I only had to add four more children of my own and I’d beat his record, I thought darkly.
Of course he gave me my father’s number. We promised to stay in touch. [And we have]. I kept my father’s number in my phone for months, often just looking at it, trying to breach the uncertainty of calling it. I would show it to my woman and she’d say, “just call it” as if it was as easy as calling a plumber. One day, after a few beers, I gathered the courage and called the number. It rang so many times until a woman picked it. I quickly hung up. I felt like a teenager.
When I called it the next time a man picked it up. Here is how that conversation went, my very first conversation with my father.
Hallo, it’s Boris. I said like an idiot, like he knew who Boris was.
I’m your son. Boris.
Uhm…my mother is Peris.
Oh, okay. How are you?
That is good. He said.
I didn’t know what to say next. His nonchalance had thrown me off. I thought, shit perhaps this man had people calling him every other month saying they were his children and now he was done with that shit.
I asked him if I could go see him and he said, and I quote, “It’s fine. .our home is open to visitors” That has become a running joke in my home now. My woman likes to tell people, “our home is open to visitors” as she looks at me and we burst out laughing and people don’t get it. And they shouldn’t.
I drove to Kericho that weekend. I went with my woman. She insisted, in case it “goes so badly you are unable to drive back.” while driving down she kept looking at me and asking, ‘how are you feeling?” I was nervous as hell but I didn’t want her to interrogate me further so I’d tell her, ‘I’m dead inside.”
I left her at the Tea Hotel in Kericho with specific instructions, “drink as much tea as you can. On me.” My father lived in a massive house with a big green compound on a sloped hill. The view was so stunning, I stood there for half a minute and took it all in when I got out of the car. I had seen a curtain part in the living room as I parked and then there was a most pleasant lady coming to meet me at the car with the whitest teeth you ever saw. She was the opposite of my mother; short and plumb and happy. My mother is tall and skinny and grumpy. She said hello and led me to the house. Mzee is napping, she said. It was 11am.
We sat out in the verandah and had tea. When I told her who I was she seemed very surprised. Visibly surprised. “Oh, I’m sorry, who were you expecting?” I asked her, suddenly uncomfortable with the idea that I had intruded on her happy life here, an undesirable ghost from the past. She said “mzee” [she kept calling him that] had mentioned that it was someone from the teachers service commission. That man had done lost his damn mind. “I didn’t tell him I was from TSC,” I protested, suddenly feeling like I was the liar. She reached out and covered my left hand with hers and said with a reassuring smile, “don’t worry about it, mzee’s memory is not the best now.” She had heard of me, yes. Mzee had mentioned that he had had a child back when he was a very young man. She was interested to know about me, my family, what I did for a living. She kept replenishing my tea, trying to get me drunk. I loved her homeliness so I spilled my guts. I told her everything and she never once seemed to judge me. When I told her I had left my woman at the Tea Hotel she was very disappointed and mortified. Oh she was. She admonished me. How could I leave her guest in a hotel? How! I tried to say she was fine, I had told her to have as much tea as she could on me but she wouldn’t listen. She sent me off immediately to go fetch her. I’m sure if there was a cane near her she would have grabbed it and caned me.
I brought my woman back. She was bashful when she came out of the car but my step-mom held her close in a hug that I felt warm just from watching it. I was in love with this woman. My woman was served tea. She looked like she wanted to protest but I shot her a warning look of ‘if we are going to die from drinking tea today then we die today.’ At around 1pm my father woke up from his nap. He suddenly appeared in the verandah. He was very very old, walking with the help of those two ubiquitous walkers old people use to walk. He had a big sweater that covered his neck. He had white hair and a white scraggly beard. My woman would later describe him as sexy. “Now I see why he got many children.”
I stood up, we all did, as he ambled into the verandah not looking at us. My stepmom rearranged the pillow in his seat, covered him with a leso and served him tea, which I guess is a starter – and I would soon discover – dessert for Kalenjins. I studied my dad, this man who thought I was with the Teachers Service Commission. When I told him who I was, rather, when my stepmom told him, gently and patiently, he looked at me long and hard and said, “how is Peris” and I said Peris was fine. He mumbled something inaudible and my stepmom looked at us with a warm smile. Over the next two hours, before he turned in for his next nap, I asked him how he met my mom and if he went to the US (he did, for four years). He told me that he met my mom when he was ‘a young person with no sense” and never expounded on that. Forty-five years of my life was explained by that simple sentence. I took it as an apology. He wasn’t curious about me. That hurt me. That really hurt me. There were framed pictures of his three children in the house and one family, one of the other four who, I was told, often came to visit him. There was no picture of me. That hurt me too. He never asked what I did for a living. Never asked me about my kids. He never engaged my woman, she sat there like a court stenographer. That hurt me. The two women at the table saw me struggle with these feelings because they were more emotionally adept and they tried to make it light but I was feeling damaged inside, and bereft. I regretted coming. But I was glad I met my stepmother.
My relationship with my father hasn’t moved past greetings and small talk about his farm and his spoilt tractor or rain. I have found no great value in finding him but I’m still glad I did. I’m glad I searched for him. Because he died in June and was buried hurriedly in a cemented grave with a small clutch of people around that grave. In death, as in life, he remained a stranger to me. I found no great answers to who I was through him, but at the same time, looking for him and finding him has made it possible for me to trace my lineage to Ndhiwa, Kanyamwa, to people who have accepted me. “All you wanted was to belong,” that’s what my woman says. True. Because I have never belonged, or never felt like I belonged anywhere. Now I have an extended paternal family. I know their names. They know my name. I’m learning Dholuo, albeit in my forties. I know more than, “onge, bwana” and “nyako maber kabisa.” I know stuff like, “adwaro chiemo,” and what Biko has just taught me, “we chamo steak ka ondiek.” I want to learn Dholuo because I am Luo first, and then I’m Kalenjin. I knew it naturally, inherently, like I knew how to pee standing even when I used to visit my maternal shags at the edge of Chemosit river. My paternal genetic gong echoed loud within me. I belong to that soil, the land of my forefathers. It’s important to me that I belong there. Someone like Eddy, my half-bro, would not understand. He can be anything that his environment is but that’s not me.
Looking for my father opened my life to many relations, a whole bunch of half-brothers and sisters. They are great people; open-minded and willing to embrace me as much as adults can embrace another adult. A few have invited me to their homes for meals. I have kissed their children and washed my hands in their sinks. And broken bread with them. A few have introduced me as “my brother.” And that’s all good.
But the most beautiful thing that has come out of this was finding my stepmother. My stepmother is everything my mother isn’t. It’s a horrible thing to say, but it’s also a true thing to say. She has loved me, or made me feel loved in more ways than I have felt loved by my own mother. She sends me vegetables and beans and maize to Nairobi, puts them on a bus. She sends me mursik that nourishes me and my family. She has three kids of her own and two grandchildren yet she calls me every other day and asks how I’m doing. Mom never does that. Mom hates talking on the phone. Hates talking generally. She lives in a big house and whenever I go there, although we are always welcomed, the house always feels like a freezer. It’s very silence makes it cold. We hardly talk, we eat in silence. In contrast, whenever I drive down to see my step-mother she stands outside the steps to receive us, always wearing a big smile, always trying to drown us with tea. Her house, even in widowhood, is always full of people laughing because she’s always laughing and giving of herself to others. She loves unconditionally. And she keeps loving. I now have a mother I never had and I’m clinging onto her and wishing her a very long life.
Allow me to just say this, without leading a conversation here. I enjoyed hearing and writing this man’s story, mostly because I’m a father (of two, only) and I also have a father who half the time feels like a stranger to me. It’s an enduring lesson for me. Actually, all these stories I write are selfish acts because I want to intrude into them and fish life’s lessons from them.
Something struck me while I was writing this guy’s story and I stopped the sentence I was banging midway and called him on the telephone. I said, “You know what, Boris?” He said, “what?” I told him that it just occurred to me that perhaps he wasn’t looking for his father all this time. He was looking for a mother. Fine, it took five women and a litter of children but this was always about finding a mother, never about finding his father. “You were deprived of that motherly love.” I said. “And you went looking for it under the innocent guise of looking for your father.”
He was silent for a while before saying. “Damn. You think?” I said, “I don’t know, man. I don’t know. But I know you should eat your steak with a fork and knife.”
I will be away here for the next two Tuesdays. I’m off to a deeply wooded and silent place to do lots of uninterrupted writing. We will have two guest writers here until my return. Please be nice to them, serve them tea with cups for wageni. The ones in the upper left corner of the Wall Unit. Nya’Ugenya knows where the keys are hidden. Lastly, the creative writing masterclass for November is open. Register by sending an email of interest to [email protected]
Until then, sayonara, gang.