I interview John Sibi Okumu in his house, up in his study which sits in an attic, where the roof plunges and rises like a wave. His whole study is a woodland of books. Hundreds and hundreds of books on shelves, some in boxes, books bent away from us with their spines showing. I want to run my hand along those spines. There is one row on the shelf full of VCR tapes. I even see floppy disks in one box! A floppy disk! Seeing a floppy disk and VCR tapes these days is like seeing an extinct animal.
My voice recorder runs between us. His eye contact is intense, his words arranged in columns. A musical note. Sibi is talking, talking and talking, but when the man speaks it isn’t exactly words you hear, it’s an audio composition. He says things like, ”Going out and mingling, that isn’t exactly my bag, I prefer to stay in and listen to Shakespeare,” and “I like to meet with my friends and just gas over a tipple,” and I’m jotting the words “gas” and “bag” down in my notepad. The first time I heard the word ‘prong’ used in a sentence was when I interviewed him eight years ago: “If you dissect keenly, the issue is pronged in these arguments…”
Anyway, it’s almost 3pm and I’m supposed to pick Tamms up from school because Tuesday is her ‘Junk Day’, because it’s Terrific Tuesday and the girl loves her BBQ Steak pizza. It’s also the time when I take opportunity to fish for information about any boys trying to get close to her so that I can hunt them down with Polonium. I don’t want to interrupt Sibi because we are on full throttle, but I also don’t want to keep her waiting because she is as impatient as I am, and I know if I keep her waiting for too long she will be all sulky, which means I will get monosyllabic answers in the car.
“Did you guys swim today, by the way?”
“Oh that sucks, why?”
“The teacher didn’t tell you?”
What are other kids saying about your new water bottle by the way?”
“Just nice? I think it’s fabulous!”
I interrupt Sibi and tell him that I have to make a quick call because I was supposed to pick my daughter up. I step out and call Mama Tamms, “I’m running late, I’m in an interview, if I pick up madam [she calls her that] at 3:30 do you think she will be very pissed off?” and she says, “Ahh, don’t worry, sometimes I even go at 4:15pm.” (Mothers get away with murder). So I finish the interview and drive like a maniac to school where I find her waiting in the shade with other kids, doing homework. Her socks are dirty as hell and her lips are dry. She surprisingly hugs me as I say, “I’m sorry I’m late, I was interviewing someone and my God that guy kept talking and talking and talking even when I told him, ‘Let me goooo, I’m going to pick Tamms up’, he kept talking and talking and talking…”
She laughs and says, “Who is he?” and I say “Oh, remember Simba in TingaTinga Tales?” And she’s like, “Yeah, was he wearing the outfit he was wearing that day?” and I laugh and say, “No, I made him remove it.” And she grinned and looked out the window and perhaps thought, “Jeez, my dad is strong, he can make Simba remove his mane!”
Anyway, thing is I keep buying Tamms these books but she just hasn’t picked up the habit of reading. I have bought books with big pictures, I have bought books with big fonts because someone told me to make it fun, but she still isn’t excited about books yet, but then someone else said don’t relent, bang on and on about books and one day she will pick up the habit.
“So, have you finished reading the book I bought you?” I ask her as we drive. The good thing with her is that she never bullshits me about reading, if she hasn’t read the book, she will say she hasn’t. Her answer, “I haven’t read it this week.”
I whine, “Why not?” and she says, “Because I had a lot of homework.” I don’t want to sound obsessive, hard or deranged so I say in a casual, friendly voice, the voice of an ice cream man, “Darling you have to find time to read even just a page a day, even before you sleep, OK? What did I tell you about girls who read?”
“They are intelligent and they speak well.”
“And what else?”
“…uhm, that they are confident?”
“Exactly, don’t you want to be like that? Will you try and read?” And she says yes, I then ensnare her by changing topic and saying, “It was so overcast this morning,” and she will ask, “What is overcast?” I will tell her what it means, only for her to forget two days later, so I will remind her again and then ask her after another week, only for her to forget yet again. I will tell her what it is again then ask her after yet another week, only this time she will remember, and she will NEVER again forget what “overcast” means as long as she lives. Ever. Then I will introduce another word and repeat it again and again and again. By the time I’m done with her and she leaves for college she will have a head full of words. She will speak well and other girls will gather in her room and bask in the warmth of her brilliant eloquence, and when boys write her messages using words like “hae” she will block them promptly because ain’t nobody got time for a boy who can’t even spell a word as simple as “Hi.”
I’m a word voodoo wizard. I’m turning words into smoke and blowing them into her ears, filling her head with that shit. The other week she asked me what an ‘exhauster’ was and I didn’t know. Does anyone here know what an ‘exhauster’ is? I guess now I have smoke in my head as well.
Talking of words and books. On Saturday afternoon, I found myself seated in a classroom with some children in Deep Sea Slums in Westlands. I bet you didn’t know there is a slum in Westy called Deep Sea. On a bench against a wall sat about seven girls, dressed in brown tatters, no shoes on most feet, dirty knees but such eager eyes. At the end of the bench sat this half-dressed toddler, chubby and puffy, legs in rings, seated next to her elder, but still small sister who was babysitting her. I was reading them a book called In The Land Of The Kitchen by Oluoch Madiang, a crazy book where sufurias fight with the jiko and the rolling pin and the spoons chant. Kids love it! As I read aloud, feeling like that guy who used to be on Kiini Macho, these girls (there was no single boy) sat there and asked questions like “What is to “sigh”? and I would sigh loudly and tell them, that is a sigh, can anyone try and spell the word “sigh” and someone would say, “it’s S-A-I” and I would correct them. This girl, this 9-year old girl would write them all down in this old dog-eared Karatasi exercise book. On a bench outside, a lady called Joan was reading to another group of kids. In the next room, Tamms and some other kids were taking turns to read to a group of other children.
I was surprised at the thirst for books those girls from the slums had. I was invited by a lady called Sonia and her pal Yvonne who started this children’s book club for their kids and their friends’ kids. They bring kids together every fortnight or so, where they meet and exchange books, read them, then write reports on what they read. Later, they are taken to that slum and they mingle and read to kids there.
It’s amazing what people do with their time over the weekend. I was like whoa, while most of us go heave ourselves onto stools and drink, some go to Consolata Shrine and read storybooks to slum children. And the effect on our kids is phenomenal because most of our children are entitled. Tamms asked me after we left the slum:
“Do those children have parents?”
“Of course, they do!”
“Why don’t their parents buy them shoes?”
“Because they don’t have money, Tamms. Some people don’t have money to buy shoes…so you have to be grateful for what you have.”
“What is grateful?”
“You have to thank God, that you are lucky.”
“So if you don’t have money you go stay in the slum?”
“Yes, kind of.”
Then she sits there in silence and says, “Do they have TV in slums?”
“What about beds?”
“No, some don’t.”
“Where do they sleep?”
“On the floor.”
“With a pillow?”
“No, no pillow.”
Then she went quiet and for the longest time she didn’t say anything else and when she finally spoke, she didn’t mention that story again. There, I blow smoke and I blow fear. I’m the Dooms-king.
Earlier on in that week I had sat in another classroom at County Girls High School in Ngara. If you saw my Instagram jana I mentioned it. It’s a school that sits on a bedrock of turmoil; drugs, thuggery, poverty and all the ills that you can imagine. Often thugs getting chased by cops would scale the walls of the school and get shot right there in the playground. That was before when it was a mixed school, they decided to make it an all girl’s school, did away with the thuggish boys.
Before me sat close to a dozen girls from that school all sponsored by Ecobank. These are not all smart girls, actually they are average academically, but all of them want a shot at changing their lives. The narrative of where they come from is marred with pain, abuse, poverty, absent parents and a rich mix of confusion and peril. They are either orphans or from broken homes. All are from poor backgrounds.
If you are reading this while in your office wondering what, if anything, you can do to change someone’s life, there is a lot. Often it will only cost you two hours of your time a month but those two hours mean the world to these children. You can read books to children. You can donate books to children. You can offer to mentor children through organisations like Global Give Back Circle and KCDF (Talk to Melvine Chibole), and if you work in a bank, you can do what Ecobank is doing, don’t just pay fees, money doesn’t solve all problems. Be there. Listen. People just want someone to talk to, I have learnt.
There was a girl (orphaned) who when I asked if she was happy said she wasn’t happy because she’s lonely, and when I asked why she said it was because she didn’t have any friends. She didn’t have friends because she doesn’t know how to reach out, and other girls thought she was aloof, so they left her, and she stewed in her loneliness, sinking deeper into herself, locking out the world. That girl made me a little sad especially when Jacquie from the Comm’s department of the bank, later pulled her aside for a chat and draped her hands around her shoulders and they whispered together intimately as women do, and she had that thousand-yard look in her eyes, lips drawn into a sad half-moon.
That girl needs education, yes, but she also need someone to talk to, like a mentor, a rock. She needs a hand on a shoulder, a whispered word of encouragement. Because poverty is lonely.