For the longest time he thought he had nightmares, but they were actually night terrors. Bad people wanting to kill him with long knives, tumbling down deep dark wells, evil stalking him, death in the hands of wickedness. He’d wake up in a panic, breathless, eyes wide and glassy like they just saw Lucifer peel potatoes. Sometimes he’d be told that he was trying to wedge open the grill of the bedroom window in his sleep, to escape or to let the evil in the room escape.
We first met three years ago in George, South Africa, where we had both gone for work. He’s a writer as well but one of those serious writers who write about governance and geopolitics. The type that read “real” books and not Kindle. A quick chat later, I learnt that he was born-again, but not the stuffy overbearing type who are always inviting you to their church to “invite the beauty of Christ into your life.” He had said, “This is a divine meeting, Biko, because I have been thinking and wondering how I could reach you and now here you are at my disposal for three days of free consultation.” Well, who said you can serve Christ in only one way? He was younger than me, brilliant and curious and driven, and he had fine taste in clothes – something we writers are not known for.
Once in a while we’d do lunch (his Jesus frowned on drinks) and he’d recommend books for me to read; heavy and dull reads about Africa. He loved politics. He could talk about the new imperialism for hours if I let him. He seemed to be very unhappy in his job and was standing at the familiar crossroads of whether to quit and go it alone or to dig his heels in and earn a paycheck every month. His greatest sadness seemed to throb from his job. And Jesus didn’t have solutions. Nobody did.
A week or so before Christmas he called me and said he had committed himself at Bustani, a wellness center in Braeside Gardens, Muthangari Road that caters to all types of psychiatric disorders. He said he had been diagnosed with ADHD and would be spending his Christmas there. Together with a friend I went to visit him the day before Christmas. I expected someone with shaggy hair and a blade of grass in his mouth but instead he was bright-eyed and bushy tailed. I said, “Boss, isn’t ADHD a white middle-class thing?”
That day my friend told us how the counsellors there had opened him up like an old car engine, opened his past and poked in there with a stick and how he had cried for hours, reliving that past, and how surprised he was that his insomnia and night terrors all came from his childhood, 30 years back. He grew up dirt poor, in the village. They were seven children. His father – a cop – worked in Nairobi but came to the village often and when he was in the village he came bearing hell. He recalls his childhood as extremely violent, with his father kicking and punching his mother. “My mother would be screaming ‘Just kill me already, I’m ready to die, kill me!’ and we would be screaming and pleading with him not to kill our mother. So when we were not going to bed hungry our house was always war-torn, full of screams and beatings,” he says. “My father is not a good man. He is a cruel man. He constantly dehumanised my mother right before us. He would call her stupid because she didn’t finish KCSE. He never drunk a drop of alcohol but I remember how he would taunt my siblings, picking fights and calling them useless and foolish and then the beatings. I was his favorite because I was always top of my class, but I, too, lived in fear of him.”
One day his father brought home an educated second wife to help his mother raise them because she was not “smart or educated enough to raise children on her own.” His mother resisted having another woman come to help her raise her children and she would fight with the second wife. Because his mother is petite and with those wrists that you can snap like a twig, she frequently got a walloping. “My mother now walks with a limp – my father broke her hip bone.”
“I’m a product of chance,” he says. “ I somehow managed to get scholarships through primary and secondary and ended up in Daystar and got an education courtesy of my big brother who came to Nairobi and did menial jobs, started his own company and made his money.”
He wears great suits, this guy. Well-cut suits. He looks like he was born in a suit. I have seen him stand before a roomful of people giving talks about governance, beaming immense confidence and knowledge, prowling the room with that assurance of a mountain cat. But we all hide great flaws with great clothes, don’t we? Clothes not only hide who we really are, they dress our past and hide the great damage that lives there.
“I have learnt that you can never run away from your past,” he told me. “If it is not resolved it will come back. Our politics is full of men who want to plunder and pilfer because of how they were socialised. Greed has a root. I learnt through my therapy session here that my night terrors were as a result of the violence I saw in my childhood. The chicken were coming home to roost. I learnt that watching my own mother dehumanised, beaten daily, turned me into a very sympathetic man. I’m sympathetic of women and as a result I have gravitated towards and attracted broken women who I can save because I couldn’t save my own mother from the tyranny of my father. My ex-girlfriend had a mood disorder. Before that was a woman who would cut herself. I have dated girls with great unresolved issues with their own fathers. I attract these women. Imagine someone marrying someone like me if I hadn’t come here to seek help? Can you imagine what they would be taking on unknowingly? Can you imagine the kind of children I would involve in this narrative? Abuse is a culture that keeps giving. Even at my job, I endured the corporate abuse and I couldn’t leave. Biko, do you know the story of the pharisee and the blind man?”
“When Jesus gave sight to a man who was born blind and the pharisee – convinced Jesus was a sinner – refused to believe it and asked the man to discount him [Jesus], he said, ‘Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know is that I was blind but now I can see.’ Look, I have heard many things about Dr. Frank Njenga. I don’t care if they are true or false, what I know is that I have been living in a maze and he has led me out. I was a runaway train without brakes but he stopped me, otherwise I was going to derail and hurt a lot of people.”
The first thing he did when he got out was to go to shags to fetch his big brother who had lost everything in Nairobi; his business and family, and was now drinking his life away in shags, a shell of a man. He brought him and checked him in at the center. “I’m trying to undo what my father did. We can’t be sound men or sound husbands when we carry the scars of our father. I’m opening the wounds of the family because sometimes this is what healing is about, opening bad wounds to heal and I think my brother’s wounds haunt him.”
Of course I asked if I could speak to his brother. He set it up after a few days and I went back to Bustani.
We sit in the garden, overlooking a volleyball pitch below, on the same bench I had earlier seen a boy with a hood over his head, looking out to the neighbouring grassy patch land of unused land, deep in thought. A therapist sits with a patient under a tree nearby. The patient has a box of tissues, which she reaches for, amidst tears. A mother who – from the looks of the red mud on her shoes – must have travelled from far to visit her child or sibling, naps on a leso spread on the grass, shoes kicked off. A young man hangs clothes on a line. (Washing your own clothes is part of the regime here,” my pal had told me). An Asian man walks around the perimeter, as if counting his steps. Birds chirp on the trees above us.
My friend’s brother is thin. He’s 40-years old with premature balding, the type that most alcoholics sport. He sits slumped next to me on the bench, like someone who has no plans of ever getting up, fiddling with his kabambe phone that stopped ringing ages ago. People stop calling you when you are an alcoholic. Unless for drinks. If you are buying.
“This man is not my father” he tells me quietly. “Not my real father, at least. My mom came with me from a different relationship. He has never accepted me. I don’t think he has, and it’s not from not trying to be a good son to him…well…” he sighs. “Here we are. I don’t regret it.” He shrugs.
“I never went to school because he refused to pay my school fees. When I came to Nairobi to live with him, I was 13-years or so. He had quit the police force and was working in a private security firm. I started doing manual work, hauling sand from trucks, working in construction sites, the works. I was very good with tiling. Eventually I was hired at Tile And Carpet where I worked for eight years. All the good things that happened in my life happened while I was at Tile And Carpet. Suddenly I was making my own money, I was responsible, I was doing things that my father couldn’t do- like paying school fees for my siblings. I took all my siblings through school on my own. I then quit and started my own tiling business. We had a big godown in industrial area. I was making a lot of money.”
Things started going awry in his business five years ago when one of his partners took off with 14 million of their money and disappeared to China to start a new life with his family. (I thought to myself, what kind of a person disappears to China to start a life?) Then his marriage started floundering. He then decided to take a break to shags, where he started drinking heavily and didn’t stop.
“Are you and your father, stepfather, alike in any way?” I ask him.
“What do you mean?” he turns to look at me.
“Do you sometimes see some of him in yourself?”
“No. Never. He doesn’t drink. I drink. I’m not violent. He was. No. We are not the same.”
“How do you think he influenced your adult life?” I ask.
He looks down at his phone and absent-mindedly scrolls through his phone as if the answer is in an SMS therein.
“I think my marriages have all failed because of him,” he says. “I blame him for that.”
“Because he could never approve of any woman I married,” he says. “They were just not good enough for him. They always had a fault…or something.”
He was married to his first wife for two years before they separated. He separated from her because he felt that she was not welcomed by his father. So he met another lady. She was “hardworking and focused” and they fell in love so madly and so deeply that Savage Garden sung about it in his song “deeply madly.” You might have heard that song. The only problem that his father had with this lady was that she was older than him. He taunted him about it; that he was married to a woman “as old as your mother.” But he didn’t care. They had children. Later, his father felt that since he was responsible for all his siblings the lady was not going to understand having his siblings live with them. They began to drift apart and eventually broke up. “He told me that perhaps I was better off getting a woman from our tribe, someone who understood what it meant for the first son to take responsibility for the whole family.” So he found a woman from his tribe. Another hardworking and focused woman. This time Savage Garden was done with that story, so he didn’t sing. They had more children.
“At some point my wife felt like perhaps we should move to Germany where her siblings were and start a new life there. I think she was trying to run away from the influence of my father and mother in our marriage,” he says. “But how could I leave my siblings on their own here in Kenya? So I said no.” They fought a lot and he opted to move to shags since business was bad in Nairobi anyway. From 2015 to last year he was drinking a lot. “I only realised coming here that I was sick. I have a problem with alcohol. I was drinking because I was sad but the funny thing was a drink would stop the sadness but when I sobered up I would realise that I was slightly sadder than I was before the last drink and so the trick was to not be sober because when you sober up you plunge further into sadness.”
“Do you think your drinking and your past are connected?”
“Yes,” he says. “Before I didn’t, but now I see how they are connected. My marriages failed because of me. Before I used to make excuses about why things are the way they are, but I see that the problem was me.”
“How did you fail your marriage, your wives?”
He thinks about it. The sun is in his face – what people call, ‘my good side.”
“I wasn’t strong enough.” Pause. “I wasn’t strong enough to choose my wives and stand by them. To say ‘This is my decision and I stand by it. I stand by her.’ I have not been firm in my life. I have let my father dictate who I be. I also never provided for my family as a husband should. My wife lost respect for me, I think, because of my irresponsibility and my drinking. It wasn’t her fault. Before coming here I thought it was her fault, that she was just finding ways to frustrate me.”
“Are you ever going to confront your dad with a conversation about the past and the present?”
“No,” he says. “I know him better than all my siblings do. I know how he thinks and how he reacts. It won’t matter. We have never gotten along. So why should I bother now?”
“For yourself, maybe?”
“No,” he says firmly.
“What about your real father? Do you ever wonder about him? Have you ever tried looking for him?”
He sighs like I just asked another foolish question. He says evenly “What will finding him achieve? Why should I look for him when he has never tried looking for me? I try to look for and talk to my children that I don’t live with. I’m not interested in him.”
The therapist, he says, told him that he is also depressed and his depression and alcoholism are also because of his lack of an income and goes as far back as his relationship with his step-father. They will be transferring him to a rehab center to clean up.
“What is the first thing you will do when you are finally done with rehab?”
He says, “I will try and put my family back together. I will have a talk with my current wife and see if she can allow me to work things out with her.”
I left him sitting at the bench with that thousand yard stare. That look that goes over buildings and trees and goes and goes and goes until it stops being a stare and becomes something that just doesn’t hold an emotion.