Tamms is in high school. It’s wild, I know. She was literally born in this blog, in the very small fragile hours of the morning of 11th January 2008. She was handed to me immediately when she came out; like a parcel I had been waiting for expectantly. She weighed little more than a very large pumpkin. I could see her ribs as she cried, the inside of her mouth was not any different from the inside of a fish’s mouth. It suddenly made sense why they call it the ‘buccal cavity.’ Her skin was folded. She might not have had teeth but her cries had a bite. They placed her naked on a weighing scale, under a bulb that kept her warm. Outside, while Kenyans burned each other in churches in the ensuing post election violence, my heart burned with love. I thought to myself, damn, I made a baby! Me, who can’t even find his socks! Sometimes even now, two children later, I sometimes still suffer from imposter syndrome. Like someone, someone with a mustache and a tucked in shirt, will come and say, “OK, thanks, Biko. I’ll take it from here.”
What happened immediately after Tamms was born was that I just started writing about her. All the bloody time. I could be writing about a waterfall and find a way to throw her in the waterfall. She was content, or a low hanging pumpkin, if you will. There is nobody I’ve written about more prolifically or consistently than I have about Tamms in this blog since it started around 2009. She’s the constant character; crawling, walking, starting kindergarten in her little pink rounded toe shoes, joining primary school bewildered and enthused, then time simply swallowing her and suddenly she’s grown very tall and very silent and having her own agency, ditching pink as her favorite colour, frowning at my taste in clothes, growing breasts and starting to hug me sideways [footnote hugs], getting her period and her goddamn cramps and saying things like, “Can we go buy essentials, papa?”
Essentials, for crying the love of Mike!
Then she went to high school.
She didn’t want to board, of course. Nobody wanted her to, except me. Kim asked me, “Why is Tash going away, did she do something wrong?” I said, “Yeah, she’s going to work on her hugs.” He said, “What?” I said, “What?”
But I [tried] to prepare her for boarding. Rather, I tried. Two years prior, I took them to my former high school; Maseno School. It was a school holiday so only a few workers milled about, trimming a hedge here, or fixing a doorway there. Someone pushed a loud mower through a patch of very green grass. The bricks on the classrooms were still bright but aged. The dormitories—we called them Houses—were now shut down, grass overgrowing in the lawns around them. The paved walkways were vacant, pavements that feet would run on during sessions. Boarding schools heal during holidays. They heal from the collective teenage angst. From the ghosts that haunt the young minds of boys.
“There was a telephone booth right over there,” I pointed at a charming small brick bookstore. “If you wanted to call home, you used that phone.”
“It was charging there?” Kim asked. He was six years old.
“No, there were no mobile phones, just a telephone booth where you made phone calls. It used coins.”
“Coins?” Tamms asked. “How?”
So I Googled a phone booth and showed them how it worked. Kim looked away, disinterested in archaic objects from the Dark Ages. We passed through the main square where assemblies were held. The assemblies were addressed by prefects. “Prefects ran the school.” I said. “So form ones would stand here and form fours at the back.” I didn’t tell them that prefects would occasionally beat you if they had to. That they were law.
We gathered under one of the notorious school bells, an ancient chunk of metal hanging from an even older tree. I said to the gathering, “When I think of high school. I think of this bell. It went off at 5-am each morning. It was very loud. The toughest thing in high school was hearing this bell and waking up in the cold. It was very miserable. Very very miserable.” Kim looked up at the bell and asked, “Can you ring it?” I said, it wouldn’t be appropriate. But I thought about it but I was afraid it would awaken the demons of those years. You know how a song evokes a memory, I wondered what nostalgic memories the bell would bring.
I took them to the school kitchen. The big dark boilers where they cooked, er, boiled, food still stood. We’d line up here, I said, get our food and eat in the dining hall. The food was dreadful. If you haven’t been to jail yet, the food tastes something like that. Before avocado got in vogue, became gentrified and changed its name to guacamole, we were already smashing it in our githeri back in high school. I didn’t tell them that I had a crush on the cateress when I was in Form Two. That wherever I saw her I’d feel dizzy with desire. But then again at 16 you would have a crush on a cactus if they strapped a bra on it.
We stood before the imposing church, the oldest church in the area, built in 1906 or something crazy like that. I hated going to church on Sundays. [I didn’t tell them that because they’d hear, “I hate God.”] The ceilings were so high, the beams felt like they were ladders floating from heaven. Even though it was still, I could still hear the piano. Something about a piano, man. It lingers in your bones for long. We strolled past a big well where we’d line up to fetch water sometimes. It still looked untouched, its rotund torso whitewashed. Memories came crashing at me; of very cold dawns when I’d join other hapless boys and stand there in a queue, shivering, my sleep severed off violently by that bell, waiting to fetch water to brush my teeth. Floating above our heads, mist from our breath.
We stood outside my former House called Bowers—the only storied House in those days – and peeked through the windows at cubicles with bare beds where boys retired their bodies and dreamt their impossible dreams. High school suddenly felt like yesterday; the smell of Protex soap, the sound of metallic boxes opening and shutting and padlocks locking and the creaking beds and feet, boys’ nimble feet running for preps, running for dinner, running for games, running for class, running, running….we grew old but we never stopped running.
Later, as we stood before the rugby pitch I told them that high school was rough and tumble but if I was to do it again, I’d still go back to the same school and do it exactly the same way. “Why?” Tamms asked. I said—and this is a speech I’d practiced to sell her the idea of boarding school—because it builds your character, you learn to live with all manner of people, some very strange, some selfish, rich, poor, some kind, thieves, generous—and you learn to take care of yourself and besides, a little discomfort is not bad at all. Kim didn’t care. I think in his head he knows he will skip high school and do something else with his life.
When Tamms went off to high school it felt like she was going to war with a gun she hadn’t learnt to use properly. A war that she had to fight alone. That morning I taught her how to tie a tie from my muscle memory. She looked both mature and a child in her blazer. She was already a young woman but also when you looked at her closely she was just a child. She wore her shoes. We took pictures. I felt like she was leaving home, leaving us forever, and it’s true she is. You always hear that you have a small window with children, that once they hit teenage they are gone. Her ecosystem will no longer be around her family, it will grow wider and wider and the world will claim her. The world eventually claims her children.
On our way we stopped at a cafe to have breakfast and give her a pep talk. The mom said to her, “We already had our conversation, there is nothing more I can add now. Just work hard.” I was next. I don’t recall what I said exactly but I was very grave, you have to be grave as a father sometimes. I lowered my tone for effect. Three things for me, I started off: hard work, humility and discipline. I banged on about those three things for a while. Then I went to peer pressure. There is nothing wrong with being different, I told her. You don’t need anybody to complete you, only you can ever complete yourself. You are enough. You will meet some rich kids in that school, remember who you are and where you are from. You are not rich, you are not like them, you are sacrificed for. Greatly. I wanted to add, like my mom did, that I can’t remember the last time I bought a shoe for myself but then I recalled that she has seen my shoe rack.
Keep your head straight, I said slowly feeling a Luther King rising in me. This is your moment, don’t squander it. Try out everything in school, that’s the only way you will know what you want and what you don’t want. Also, be ready to fail and fall. Many many times. You will make many bad mistakes, and that’s okay, that’s how you will learn about life and about yourself. So make them. Fall. Fail. Fail again and again. I’m still making mistakes and failing at my age, imagine that. Mistakes aren’t you, they are just mistakes. Then I finished it off with something I have always told her, that I love her, that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, she will ever do that will disappoint me so much that will change that love. And that there is no jam she will ever get into that I won’t be able to fix. Just tell me when you are in trouble, or tell your mom. I patted her hand and smiled. From the corner of my eye I saw her mom turn and probably think, OK, Olivia Pope. She then turned to Kim, “Kim, do you have any advice for Tamms?”
Kim looked up from his fish fingers. His lips were oily. He let us wait as he chewed thoughtfully wondering which piece of advice Tamms would greatly benefit from because he had a lot. He has gathered a lot of sage gems in his eight years on earth. Finally, after wiping his hands with a serviete he said, “Be humble and work hard.”
I rolled my eyes, “I already told her that. Be original.”
“And pray.” He added.
It’s surreal when your child suddenly goes away. There is a disconnect. Suddenly you don’t see them, don’t hear from them. You wonder how they are adjusting to living alone. With other people who grew up in other households and you wonder what habits she will pick. Of course you try to take them to a boarding school that won’t make them resentful or too unhappy, just a little discomfort without it feeling punitive. Most importantly, a place that will grow their confidence, that will tap all their potential because I’d rather have a very confident daughter than one who gets straight As. A few weeks later her mom went for Mother-Daughter day and she called me on the phone. She was very unhappy. She didn’t like boarding. It was too tough, she said. She missed home. I told her it gets better. She cried a lot.
They were on midterm this past weekend. She had sent word through a teacher—they are called Homeroom teacher—for me not to forget to pick her early the next morning. I texted the teacher back, “Tell her my phone is off :-)” She said she would like to be picked at 5am. That would mean waking up at 3:45am, I thought.
By 5:01am I was there, signing her out. It was cold. I joined a small group of parents under a tent, in heavy jackets, gathered in the gloom of the breaking dawn, waiting as we heard their names called out from a loudspeaker inside the school compound. Through the partitioning fence, the shadows of girls ran around. Somehow it reminded me darkly of Auschwitz. The girls came out one by one and fell into the embrace of their parents. You could hear giggles and laughs and the oohs and aaahs. Bags were taken off their hands. Hands thrown over their shoulders.
I had bought her flowers the previous night—a bunch of white mums and a single stemmed red rose. I have always bought her flowers because I’m not very verbally expressive, I struggle with saying things like I love you and I miss you verbally, I’d rather write them. She, on the other hand, is very verbal about that and slowly she has given me the permission to express those feelings verbally. Kids teach you things. ‘We raise them and they raise us,’ as my editor here says. And so I hope the flowers say more than I can ever say. Although she normally loves the flowers I didn’t think she would appreciate me standing there waiting for her with flowers. She doesn’t like drama. I don’t think she wants to start her time in school as being that girl whose dramatic father shows up with flowers. So I left them in the car.
She finally showed up with her luggage. She didn’t look famished or faint or pale. She still had ten fingers. Nobody had gouged out her eyes. She was even smiling. We hugged longer than we have ever hugged. I could smell her hair. It smelled like her hair. At the car I gave her the flowers and said ‘Taduuum’ which was really unnecessary and childish but I was happy. She brought them to her nose and said brightly, “Oh thank you!”.
Tell me everything! I said as we drove out. She isn’t much of a talker, like me, so she gave me the bones of it. The mornings are really early, by 5am they are up. You shower and leave for morning preps by 5:45pm. “The water isn’t hot and so not all girls shower,” she said. Oh poor kids, cold water at 5am. Such a travesty. Will they ever be okay or are they ruined forever? Class starts at 8am, she told me. There are breaks where they have tea and snacks. [Yeah, school is so difficult). Lunch. Afternoon classes, tea and snacks [again!] Games and clubs time. Dinner at 6, I think. Evening preps. Snacks before bed.
“You have snacks before bedtime?” I asked incredulously. “Why?!”
“How are your teachers?”
“They are good.”
“You like them?”
It was still dark and my headlights were still on.
“Made any new friends?”
“Yeah, they are nice girls.” She said, “But there are a lot of fights in school.”
“No, just verbal.”
I said, oh, hoping she wouldn’t hear the disappointment in my voice.
I eased onto a dual carriageway. The sun was just coming out but hidden behind a thick wool of clouds. It was going to be an overcast day. “A girl hit on me.” She announced. She said it casually like it happens to her a lot. Just another day. I tried to match her nonchalance by keeping the car from drifting over the continuous yellow line. I said, “Really?” She said yeah. A Form Three girl.
“Look at that,” I said.
“I told her I’m straight.” She said.
“Was she crushed?”
“She was.” She said, “Did you have gay people during your time in high school?”
Gay people have always been there, I said. “We had some in our school but they were very lowkey.” She then talked about how tough boarding is and how she misses home constantly. I told her I missed home for two years when I was boarding but finally it got better and I started enjoying it. “You are lucky the food is good,” I told her, “Can you imagine missing home while constantly hungry?”
Talking of which, she wanted a big burger from Big Square. She’d been craving it, dreaming it; something double stacked, with bacon and cheese and pickles. Something that immediately clogs your arteries by just looking at its picture in the menu. There was no store open at that time, though. Kim called. “Have you picked Tash?” I said, sure, almost there. He said, “Yes.” Then hang up.
As we drove through the estate barrier she said something that I felt she wanted to save for last. She said, “There is a girl in school who looks exactly like me,”
“Really?” I turned to look at her.
“Yes, she is in Form three. Even other students agree that we could be sisters.”
“Do you think you look like her?”
“Yes, we really look alike.” She said, “We even became good friends.”
“Well, maybe that’s my other daughter,” I said chuckling, “You never know, Tamms.”
I made a point to meet this girl next time and ask her who her mom is. Because…you never know…
Have you got a copy of my books? To get DRUNK or THURSDAY, click HERE.