Heard of Tog Wajaale? It’s a small dusty border town in Somaliland, right at the nose of Ethiopia. Goats sit under trees, chewing gum, squinting in the heat. It’s a bustling town, forever gushing with trade. Men haggle at the market. Women move mad cash. I’m currently here, courtesy of Trademark East Africa to interview these women in trade. My translator – Liibaan- is a skinny 26-year-old wearing very skinny pants that you normally would see on Otile Brown. This information, of course, is useless but it makes me feel complete to share it.
I’ve recently been in and out of 254, no time to interview anyone for the blog. When the dust settles ( dust? Dust?) we shall resume normal programming, unless it’s December which then means we shall place our hats on the table and order drinks.
Holding forte this week is Eddy who obviously has daddy issues.
Eddy, please tell us how you feel (again) about your daddy.
My father loathes pictures. Absolutely abhors them. We have a family portrait, all 8 of my siblings crumpled in there, and only he is not smiling. He looks like an overworked ICT manager forced into a company photograph. But a family photo is not complete without the man of the house.
There are approximately two photos that I own of my father. One is his passport photo, clean-shaven and law-abiding, in sorrowful bewilderment, like the ghost of some barnacled ship’s captain, eyes wide, drooped bony shoulders — and the other is a photo we took two weeks to me dismantling my KCSE exams, and he had come bearing gifts: a furrowed newspaper and a mouth full of advice. Yeah. Spits wisdom, that one. He is the kind of guy to leave something in you, not for you. In said photo, he is, you guessed it, not smiling. Which is a damn shame because as a family, we have envy-inducing smiling genes. Have you seen me smile? Catastrophic.
He joined Facebook recently which was cue for me to abandon that app. His first profile pic was my sisters, then a shot of my brothers, followed by that one odd time he put an Arsenal shirt as his avatar (midlife crisis?), which further cemented my resolve to leave that app. For some reason, he’s never put me as his profile pic. I’m not ati jealous, I’m just pointing out the inconsistencies. Besides, who even goes to Facebook anymore?
Oh. I just remembered. I have another photo of my father. But it’s one I don’t like looking at. In it, his eyes are gushing red. I know that look. I’ve seen it twice. The first time was when my grandmother (his mother) died, and that was devastating. This was in 2005. I was in class 5, and I dug the cross into the grave. The air was thick with grief, because at the end of the day, loss is what defines our humanity. I looked up and my eyes met his. He didn’t so much cry as he burst into tears. I remember him wanting to jump into the grave. I remember the tears smudging his face. And I remember him sobbing into the night. I have that image tattooed on my brain and stitched in my heart. See, whether your parents are the heroes or villains in your story, nothing grasps your imagination until you see them physically aging or breaking down. That’s when you realise they are people too, with their own dreams, hopes and histories, complex human beings. Individuals. That’s when you understand that they are people too, fragile and brittle. That’s when you pity them.
The photo? Oh yeah. It’s when my younger brother died. 2017. That was the only other time I have seen him cry. When the maw of life had placed him between its jaws. I don’t like looking at that photo. He looked so weak. Emaciated. Effete. I don’t know how it feels like to bury a child, but I know how it feels like to bury a brother. I’ve learned that the only thing that can fill you with more regret than love is death. And so, I buried the pain deep in the unmarked grave of my heart. I don’t talk about it often because I don’t have words to talk about it. That photo is a classic Greek tragedy, the hero aware of his fate but unable to avert it. Neither of us can see the wood for the trees. I don’t talk about it, because he doesn’t talk about it.
But truth be told: we almost never talk about anything. Nada. Zero. Zilch. Sometimes, we’d have a conversation, start talking, teeter at the cusp of him getting real, you know, say what he is really thinking, then he’d mutter, “I’ll call you back.” Arrrrgh. Gets me every time. Irks me. Short temper. When people begin conversations, and then say, “Ama never mind,” I fume, bwana. Irks me to bits.
It’s tough to talk to my father. Not because he is a tough man, contrary, he is the literal coconut, hard and sturdy on the outside, but soft and mellow deep down. It’s just that…we run out of things to say to each other. Trust me, I try. But the words, coherent and flowing in my head, somehow, always, invariably, come out in staccato, choking me.
Sometimes I think the silence bonds us. You know? Like I can differentiate when he is silent because he is angry, when he is silent because he is hungry, and when he is silent because he is broke. Which, if you are an African father, that should be all the time. If you ask someone’s daughter, she’ll tell you that I also use silence as a weapon in the relationship. I know it’s a bad habit, but look, what’s that thing Chinua Achebe says? When mother cow is chewing grass, its young ones watch its mouth. I’m not much of a talker. I’d rather apologise with actions. Besides, when we are both shouting, who’s listening out for the landlord? Mmh? Someone has to balance the scales, zig her zag, yin her yang. You know? Stay Taliban?
As age lowers its veil over my father, one of the few ways to penetrate his fog is his health. He’s going gray, and that means he got a bit sick. He got a foot injury recently. Coincidentally, my other brother too has a foot injury. And here’s the kicker, pardon the pun, I too have a foot injury. Ha. Life, eh? Now we have something to talk about, one more thing to bond over. “How’s your leg,” I prod. “Ni kung’ang’ana,” he’d say. Silence. Silence. “How’s Jr’s leg?” “Anang’ang’ana…,” get the drift?
The first time I told my dad “I love you”, I almost got a heart attack. I ng’ang’anad. My systems were on fire. What? What have I just done? Isn’t it funny how easy it is to meet a stranger, a siren, and tell her ‘I love you, Mitchelle’ yet choke on the same words when talking to your father as if they are coming from a different brain? During such times, it’s much easier to imagine myself in an electric chair.
But that’s not what I’m driving at. I mean, surely, why is it so hard to tell my father that I love them? There’s no downside. Is there?
See, someone once asked me to describe my relationship with my father. Huh, I said. Ha, they replied. I have his dark skin, his famous short temper and patellar reflex. Never mind the blunt force of his honest opinion. Where do I start? I wondered. It’s like being plonked down in Switzerland with a notepad and asked to map the alps. The sheer vastness of it all takes your breath away. He is a disciplined man, that one, is all I say. Monday to Saturday he is up at 430AM. Sunday is his ‘cheat day’, where he relaxes a bit, which means he is up at 6AM. If you grew up in a Kenyan household, that means when your old man wakes up, everyone wakes up. It doesn’t matter if you have nothing to do—there’s always something to do in a Kenyan home—why are you asleep? In this economy, are you normal? He’d find you in bed at 8AM and he’d wear the look of a man who had just found a millipede in his morning tea and contemplates pulling out every one of its legs, one by one. So now someone’s daughter might complain we don’t cuddle enough in the morning, but if only she knew where I am from. Sigh.
His eccentricities? FUBU tees that hang on to him like a taut sail. And collecting Bob Marley vinyl discs. He has a bunch of them. And look how that turned out? Two of his sons have dreadlocks, including yours truly. Thanks a lot, buda.
Over the course of our conversations, I once asked him what his biggest fear was. He was coy. He’d find something to do. He made sure he never stayed somewhere long enough for that glint of fear to materialise. Nostalgia is an opium, dulling the pain but deepening the problem. Over time, he acquiesced. Confessed that I should not trust my uncle with money (never did anyway), that he smoked in class, that he once got into an altercation, okay, he beat up his boss. (Shoutout Biko).
The last time I visited my father, in March, we took a bunch of selfies, cherished memories I carry everywhere. It is amazing to see someone lose twenty years right before your eyes. Did he just break character? The man was booming with laughter, heart brimming with joy. He smiled (finally!). He took me to town on his boda, swindled me out of a few notes, and advised me to say hi to someone’s daughter. Hi. I treasure those pictures for I know he is a hard man to love.
I got to my place to find his text waiting for me. “I love you too, son,” it whispered. I keep that in my back pocket. I call it emergency motivation. That’s better than any smiling picture. It’s like selling Elvis to buy The Beatles. In that sense, he became something between a cheerleader and a chaperone. Love is both a many splendored and splintered thing, I guess.
My father’s story isn’t a glamorous Hollywood tale. Neither is it a grimy BBC documentary. It’s quite simply a man who chooses to cut across the grass and could not be bothered with the path. That some plants can bloom in the shadows, that watched pots don’t boil any faster. It’s the thing about the path from promise to promised land—it must be forged. Following someone else’s path hardly work.s My father, the Don Draper of Individualism. That a man just is. That he is his secrets. That his secrets are him. Or in millennial slang: Do You. It’s dad-ism. A lesson in manhood: Even when you’re damned, you press on. Good judgement comes from experience. And a lot of that comes from bad judgement. Really, the hombre is clear-eyed and wise over a pint of Pilsner.
I’m almost 30 now—gasps—and despite how it sounds, I’m not sad. Or angry. Or ‘manifesting’. I have a lot of questions for my old man, but do we have enough time? Yes, that part is sad. But first I had to learn to see him as an adult, an individual, rather than as simply my father. Then, I learned how to separate my emotions that I carry with me from my childhood. You know, do things that indicate I love them even if I don’t say it. It’s what they say: You move to Runda, but your problems move with you.
But I love writing about my father. He is my well. Like a bucket with holes, I keep drawing from this well, with sentences left unsaid, seeping through the cracks, hoping, praying, that I can stitch enough words together to paint a picture of the man I hope to be half of.
The registration for the December creative writing masterclass is officially open. Dates: 13th to 17th. Get your slot HERE.
If not, just buy my books HERE.