I met him at Under The Radar restaurant where he was eating steak with his bare hands. Like an animal. Like a neanderthal man. Quirky guy with very thin eyebrows and a low forehead, he tore into the flesh, hunched forward to fully deliberate on this act that was both graphic and charming. You don’t see someone eating steak with his bare hands often. It’s the inverse of eating a burger with a fork and knife. Only much worse. He kept licking his fingers as he spoke because he was enjoying himself immensely and because he had just turned 48 and he didn’t care about norms or buttoning his shirt properly. [He had missed two buttons. Yeah, I counted]. I had already eaten but I never thought someone licking his fingers would ignite my own hunger.
When he was done demolishing his poor steak, he wiped his hands roughly on a small serviette and asked. “Where do I begin?” I said, anywhere, really.
Reaching for a toothpick, he stifled a belch with a closed fist. “I will begin with the lies my mother told me.” He said.
My mother told me that my father drowned in a river. That he’d travelled to the village and the river was swollen because it had rained heavily the last two days and as he crossed over a makeshift bridge he slipped and plunged into that river and he was never found. I was seven when she told me this tale. She said he had died when I was six months old.
I don’t have my father’s last name. When I was ten I asked her again what happened to my father. I asked her early in the morning when we were preparing to leave for school. It had rained outside. What she didn’t know was that rain reminded me of my father because it was rain that had somehow led to his death.
I was tying my shoelaces in the living room, she was fussing around the house, shouting at someone, rummaging through her handbag looking for God-knew-what. I said, “mom, which day of the week did my father die?” And her head jerked up from her handbag like I had sent an electric current through her. In her surprise, her mouth opened slightly, enough for a fly to pass through. I wasn’t testing her. I was a child. A curious child.
“Why?” she demanded, almost aggressively.
“Because.” I told her.
“Because what?” She barked. She looked like she was about to slap me, which wouldn’t have been weird at all because we were smacked over the head for the most minute offenses. In hindsight, I think my mom was very angry.
“Because I just want to know.” I said. I was already a bit of a smartass.
“There is nothing to know.” She mumbled, returning to her handbag. “If you are not ready by the time I’m wearing my shoes, you will remain behind in this house and do housework today.” We did not have help. My brother and I did all the household chores. We cleaned and mopped and did dishes and stuff. We learnt how to cook in lower primary. Seldomly my mom would leave for an odd weekend – for a church thing – and I would be the one to take care of my younger brother. I’d make sure he was fed and cleaned. She was always tired, my mother, raising two boys without a father.
As we stood at the bus stage that morning, she said suddenly, “I don’t know what date your father died. All I know is that he was hit by a car and he died.”
“Was he hit by a car in the river?” I asked. I wasn’t being a smartass. I was a child.
She turned and glared at me. The heat of my mom’s glare can melt plastic. “What nonsense are you asking me?” She hissed, trying not to cause a fuss at the bus stop. “Have you ever heard of anyone being hit by a car in a river? Eh? Why am I paying school fees for you to ask such questions?” Then she clicked her mouth and looked ahead, trying to kill that conversation but I was having none of it.
“But you told me he died in a river.”
“When did I tell you he died in a river?”
“When I was seven years old.” I said.
She looked at me closely, trying to remember. Obviously, she had forgotten the river story because it was a bloody lie. But kids don’t forget. They catalog these stories and keep them away.
“I must have mixed up the stories?” She looked away, suddenly disinterested in this conversation.
“So who died in the river?”
“Your uncle, Moses.”
“I had an uncle called Moses? You’ve never talked about him.”
“That’s because he’s dead.” She said with finality.
I didn’t know what to believe; did my father die in the river or was he hit by a car? I chose to believe that he’d died in the river because I didn’t want to imagine him being hit by a car. I didn’t want to imagine anyone dying like that. There was never a single picture of my father in our family albums. And we had many albums in the house; of my mom, her family and us mostly. Mom in flowery dresses and afros holding me or my brother. Mom with her siblings at a party. Mom at a teacher’s seminar, sipping a soda. Mom at a burial. Mom and her friends. Mom and her two sisters. Mom and her cousins and parents. Us as toddlers. Tonnes of pictures of myself and my brother and mom. Grainy pictures.Not one picture of my father. Not one picture of my father’s family. No paternal uncles. No paternal aunts. So I never knew what my dad looked like. I would fantasise about how he looked; big and bearded with a booming voice. Maybe he owned a loud motorbike. As I grew older, this image seemed to change. I tinkered with it at will.
My mother was a teacher. She taught at the school I went to. It was horrible. It was horrible because people made fun of me. They said my mother was a warthog because she never smiled. Yes, she never smiled but she didn’t look anything like a warthog. She went about her duties with a stern face, never one to have an amiable disposition. I guess being a single parent in the early 80s was hugely ostracising and perhaps her sternness was a defense mechanism.
If you were a student and she ran into you doing something bad, in or out of school, she’d slap you or pinch you or pick the nearest branch and cane you. These were the good old days when kids could be caned in schools. Nobody threatened to sue. She didn’t have many friends at the school. In the staffroom she’d be seated alone, head bowed, marking books while sipping tea. I avoided her in school. Whenever she’d meet me in school she’d act like she wasn’t my mother. She’d call me by my two names, like I belonged to someone else. At home she’d call me by my first name. When she was the teacher on duty for that week, as we prepared to leave the house, she’d warn me, “I will come to your class each day this week and if I find your name on the noisemakers list, I will break your arm.” One day she found my name on the noisemakers list and she broke my arm. I kid you not. My classmates were shocked. They were convinced she wasn’t my mother. I started suspecting that maybe she wasn’t my mother.
Was I shown love? Yeah. Of course. I was fed. She bought me clothes. She wouldn’t allow me to leave the house without a sweater on when it was cold. Sometimes when we were going to church she’d bend and rub my face with her saliva. Whenever there were visitors she’d let us drink soda and scones and she never shouted at us. A few times I’d find her crying in her room and I’d ask her what was wrong and she’d say, ‘you and Eddy are my world.’ Then she’d touch my face as if she was reading braille. My mother wasn’t a hugger or a toucher but she’d express her love by touching my face. I imagined that this was the greatest form of expression of love; and so when I’d grow up and become a man I would not feel the need to be hugged and touched, but I touched my woman’s face to express my deep affection. I will tell you now that I have had a long string of failed relationships. But I will come to that. Maybe.
When I got into form one, I was already 5’11” and strong. One day a boy in third form with whom I had attended primary school called me a bastard, an illegitimate child. I floored him by hitting him hard on the side of his head and creating a dent there. When my mother was called, we all sat in the headmaster’s office; me, mom, the boy with the dent on his head and his father, a well-to-do, pompous ass who wore a bowtie and glared at me like he wanted to have a go at me. It was the first time my mom stood in my corner. She told the headmaster that unless the boy could prove that I was a bastard, I was not going to do any punishment. When the boy’s father tried to defend his son my mother cut him off, ‘If you are raising a latrine mouth,” she said pointing at his son, “then do so, but I don’t want fecal matter on my son.” That was the first time I knew fecal was another word for shit. And it was yet another reminder that my mother was not scared of anyone.
But that bastard word stuck with me like a fecal smell. Bastard; an illegitimate child.
Over the holidays, because I was now knocking at manhood and craving an identity, I asked my mother if I could visit my father’s people. She said I couldn’t because he was Ugandan and Idi Amin had chased his people away and killed a lot of them. Another lie. My mother would have made a great fiction writer. But because I was almost a grown man now and I was not scared of her beating me up, I told her that she had been telling me all these stories about my father and I didn’t believe them. “I’m no longer a child,” I told her. “You can tell me the truth now.”
I remember I was doing dishes when I told her this and she was cutting meat on the kitchen counter. She turned towards me with the bloodied knife in her hand. I think she was thinking, ‘what would happen if I stabbed this boy and stopped this nonsensical interrogation once and for all?’ She then turned her back on me and continued cutting meat.
“Why do you want to know the truth now? I don’t see Eddy stressing about this like you do!” She asked evenly.
I explained that Eddy and I were different. Actually, we really were. I was taller and bigger than Eddy even though I was only two years older than him. We were both dark but our stature differentiated us. I liked the kind of contact sports that would allow me to push or headbutt someone if I had to. Eddy liked games that you played sitting on your ass, like chess. Games that involved the intellect. I once heard – from my cousins – that my father was a Luo. My mother is a Kalenjin.
“Eddy doesn’t want to know. I do.” I said, digging my heels in.
Anyway, she – while avoiding my eyes – spun a long tale about how my father had died in a ferry in Mombasa where he had gone to look for work. His body was never recovered. [So yeah, at least it was drowning]. He was Luo. His family never wanted him to marry a Kalenjin woman, etc etc. I asked her if this was the truth and the only truth. She said yes.
“Do you swear, mom?” I asked.
“Don’t be childish, we are Christians, we don’t swear.” She growled.
I asked who uncle Moses was? She asked, “who?” I said, “Uncle Moses, who slipped and fell into a swollen river?” She said she didn’t know what I was talking about.
I guess because I was dealing with my own adolescent issues, I never again broached the topic of my father. It seemed settled. He was dead. He and I didn’t share any strong connection save for perhaps, a blood group. Besides, I was battling what all teenage boys battle with; aggression, love, identity, girls, acceptance. I was an average student but a great athlete and I won a sports scholarship to go study Agriculture at the University of Delaware. My mother and Eddy saw me off. That was the first time we ever hugged her. Rather, I hugged her, she just put one limp hand on my back.
I was in America for ten years. I left behind two children, each by a different white woman. They are both men now, adding to the complication of their heritage and family tree. I told them who they are, where I come from. I told them that my own father fell and drowned in a swollen river because the ferry seemed commonplace and unAfrican. I wanted to mystify his death. I had turned into the liar my mom was.
When I turned 33-years old I had a child with a married woman. It was purely by mistake. She was 38-years old and had separated from her husband. Rather, she had moved out of her matrimonial home briefly as they sorted out their issues. She met me when she was broken and she needed reassurance. I’m not one to reassure anyone, I can tell you that. I was dealing with my own issues of unemployment and living with my mother at 33. Anyway, I touched her face and touched her breasts and the affair raged on until she got pregnant. She was already back with her husband when she got pregnant. The affair ended when I got a job and moved out of my mom’s. I didn’t want to date an older married woman when I now had many options of dating younger women with less baggage. So two years later, at 36 I think, I got this girl pregnant. She was 30. I married her. Rather, she moved in with her bags and these paper-mache models she was making for exhibitions. Yeah, an artist. I now had four children. When I finally broke up with the paper mache girl it was because of finances. She was not contributing at all to the family coffers. I was living hand to mouth, drowning in debt. We fought all the time until I left her the house with the seats and everything else. I moved back in with my mother who was greatly displeased. She said, “you are turning out like your father.”
At 41, two related life-changing things happened to me. One, Eddy, my brother fell very ill and was hospitalised. When I went to see him, lying unconscious in bed after surgery, I found a man there looking quite distraught. He was whispering with my mother. He looked like someone I’d met before but I couldn’t quite place him. My mother never introduced us. I stood there staring at him, trying to wonder where we had met until it finally dawned on me with great horror that I hadn’t met him before. Not quite. But I had met someone who looked exactly like him.
It turned out that he was Eddy’s father. My mother, maybe because of age and because she was tired of the secrets and lies while her son lay there dying, decided to come clean. We sat at the small gift shop that sells flowers at Aga Khan hospital and she turned my world on its head. In order to tell me the truth about Eddy’s father, she had to tell me the truth about my own father. Anyway, what’s important in this story is that my father was alive. The guy hadn’t been hit by a car. Or drowned in a river. Or died in a ferry. He was not Ugandan either. I asked her who he was and I held my breath, hoping she wouldn’t say he was Congolese because most people imagine I’m Congolese, because of my often flashy choice of clothes and love of rhumba. She said he was a Luo man. When she got pregnant he abandoned her because he wasn’t ready for marriage and he wanted to further his studies abroad. He didn’t want things tying him back at home. Things like children. “He was young, he wanted more.” She said ruefully. Besides, his parents would not allow him to bring home a Kalenjin. I asked her what he was like, my father, what kind of a man was he? “I don’t know. He was like any other 21 year old. I don’t know if he will be able to tell you how he was at 20.” She didn’t know if he was alive or dead. If he left for the US or not. If he was in the country or not. She didn’t know shit.
Because this is not Eddy’s story (he survived the health scare) I won’t get into who his father is because that’s his story to tell.
Suddenly Eddy was my step-brother and I had a real father who was living out there. Eddy never quite accepted his father. He’s the stubborn and practical type. I’m the romantic type. After his recovery, we sat down together and discussed this new development. I told him he would always be my brother. He said, ‘it matters little now. The past is irrelevant.” That’s how much he spoke of that matter. A man of few words. His own father disappeared back into the shadows he came from after realising that Eddy wasn’t keen on starting a relationship with him. Good riddance, I guess because Eddy had his own family and children. He didn’t need to start a new relationship with someone who had been missing his entire life, only to show up at his deathbed.
I, on the other hand, got onto a different tangent with this new information. Between the ages of 41 and 45 years I was looking for my father. My mother said she had not spoken to him since he had absconded parental responsibility. It felt like my whole life’s purpose was geared towards finding this man. I started off by visiting his village in a place called Kanyamwa, which I’m certain you haven’t heard of. It’s in a place called Ndhiwa which you might remember is where Joshua Ojode came from. These are places I had never heard of in my life. I didn’t speak dholuo. I didn’t have a picture of the man. I had his two names and the village he told my mother he hailed from. Off I went. On a wild goose chase.
To be continued….