He doesn’t want me to “over describe” his mother. So I will venture a more restrained version. Everybody has called her “Madhe” for so long her real name is of little consequence. If humans were elements of nature she would be a hurricane. No obstacle built by man has ever stood in her way. She has blown through bureaucracy, through stubborn bosses, through ill-mannered and entitled relatives, through teenage delinquency. If you are brave (or in this case, foolish) enough to stand before her and what she wants she will blast a hole through you. There is a word that was specifically invented to describe her personality; gargantuan. She’s of average height but built like a granary. Her arms are thick, like seven wooden pestles tied together -those traditional ones for crushing millet. Her thick neck has rings, and in a most agitated way (which is her most dangerous) she’s always wiping the back of her neck with a handkerchief. And breathing hard. And saying things like, “An ngato ok bi tugo koda!” She’s Luo. She’s a revered figure back in shags. Folk pussyfoot around her, like you would step around a lactating hippo. If you are her enemy she will crush you.
“When we were growing up she worked in the municipal council offices as a lowly clerk, one of the few women in that position,” he says. “Even though she was a mere clerk, you could tell that she wielded power in that office. People treated her delicately.”
His father, on the other hand- and as you would expect – was a mild man whose voice you never heard. He moved around the house like a shadow, silently blending into the furniture. He liked nothing better than to sit in the corner of the living room and read a newspaper as Madhe made a ruckus in the house: Why is this table dusty? Who wiped this table, and did they use their hands or their hair? And why are those dishes not dried? If you boys want me to dry those dishes I will. John! John! Bring me my black rubbers (ngomas) from my bedroom! And also, I won’t repeat that I want that bathroom clean! John, did I not say white rubbers? These are black rubbers! Don’t argue with me, I know what I said, white rubbers. Why am I paying your school fees if you can’t tell white from black?
He laughs when he recalls his childhood.
“There was one time when I was maybe 11-years old, one of my uncles had died and my dad’s family was trying to harass the widow during the funeral. During the eulogy Madhe – who was not in the list of people to speak – took to the podium and told them off. All of them. This was back in the early 80s when women were never allowed to speak that way, especially not where village elders were seated. Hell, even now it would take some guts to speak before ‘jodongo’ like that. It was a long, brave, famous speech that is referenced to date.”
“You could always count on her to be fair and fearless. She would not sit back if she disagreed with you, was never one to shy away from a confrontation, not even a physical one if it came to it. One day when my big brother was in high school he dared talk back at her. She rushed across the room like lightening and grabbed him by the neck, slamming him against the wall. “Oh, you think you are a man now that your voice is broken? Eh?” she seethed. “Are you a man?!” And that was that, any dissidence was quashed. Fear and order reigned.
Their house was testosterone-filled; they were four boys. But nothing was ever broken like in most houses with boys because if you broke something, Madhe would break you. Although they had a maid, over the holidays she would be sent away. It was up to them to clean the house, wash clothes, cook, iron and even go to the market. “I’m very good at picking tomatoes and kitungu and even fish. Do you know how you pick fresh fish from the market?” he asks me.
I’m honestly offended. I hate it when other Luos try to calibrate your Luoness to see if you are fit to be Luo. For what purpose, I know not; so that they can act more superior in the hierarchy of Luos? Is there a medal being awarded somewhere for the “most Luo” chaps in 2019?
“Of course I know how to gauge the freshness of fish; you look at the gills. If they are bright red it’s fresh fish, if they are pinkish they are not so fresh,” I tell him.
“Impressive!” he says, but doesn’t clap for me.
“Also,” I plough on, incessed that he would dare question my fish knowledge. “The smaller fish generally taste better than the bigger fish.”
“Is it?” he asks.
“It is,” I tell him proudly.
We are at Le Grenier à Pain, the French restaurant on Riverside Drive, his venue of choice. I’m having the deux oeufs au choix, which is something I would not dare pronounce even under extreme duress, intimidation or intoxication. He’s more cultured, digging into a saumon fumè. These things sound complicated when named in French, but in English they are pretty normal, so I won’t translate. After all, this is Madhe’s son I’m interviewing, he would be appalled if I translated it and made him look “ordinary.”
Because they were not treated in any special way as children, doing chores and all, he grew up knowing that there were no chores for women or chores for men because his mom, seated on the sofa knitting, would “lift her feet up for you to pass the duster under.” When you were done she would do an inspection, pointing out the spots you missed. And you’d repeat it, without grumbling. Madhe’s presence always loomed large over their heads and later penetrated all aspects of their lives; their choice of high schools, the choice of courses they took in the university, the jobs they picked, their habits. “Because she was always so confident and powerful, we automatically sought her approval on important matters.”
“And so it wasn’t altogether surprising when Madhe told me that it was a bad idea to marry my kuyo girlfriend,” he says. Let’s call her Njeri because Njeri is the most generic of Kikuyu names. He had first seen her in the university mess, queuing to pay for her food. Although he doesn’t want to me to overdescribe Madhe, he gives me the carte blanche (befitting phrase given our locale) to describe her as much as I want. She was very light-skinned (surprising), so light she seemed to darken every colour around her. So light that if you stood close to her (without passing out) you would see a little web of capillaries beneath her eyelids. She also had very wide hips. “Luhya hips,” he says.
“Problem was,” he says, “she had a boyfriend.”
“Problem for who?” I ask and we have a good laugh at that.
“As it quickly turned out, I became that guy’s problem,” he says. “He was doing architecture in uni but he was unable to build a good case to be retained.”
“I see what you did there,” I say.
So they started dating when he was in third year and right into his first job when he decided that he would ask her to marry him. She said yes. The whole time he was dating her, he never dared to take her to meet the folks because, one, back in the late 80s and early 90s you never took a girl home. Your parents assumed you were a virgin. And, two, she was Kikuyu. But then when he proposed he had to bite the bullet and introduce her to Madhe, who by this time was semi-retired and living in those old government houses with big compounds. “’I’m the last born, by the way,” he says. “That introduction didn’t go so well. I was a ball of nerves because I was afraid Madhe would say something blunt as she is wont to do. But she did something worse; she completely ignored her when she learnt her last name.”
He’s pushing aside the red onions on his plate. “My mom started working with the government as early as the mid-70s and for as long as I can remember, she would always be moaning about kuyos, you guy. Yawa Okuyu gi thago wa tich, yawa Okuyu gi timbe gi richo, yawa Okuyu ng’ama rach! You can imagine how we grew up; thinking that kuyos were only to be trusted as far as you could throw them. I remember not quite understanding what was with Madhe and kuyos. And all through my childhood, it was a rule that none of us would ever marry a Kikuyu. She would say ‘Bring me anything to this house, anything at all, even a Congolese, but don’t bring Okuyu. Shit was serious bwana. Then I show up with Njeri! Waah!” He laughs.
He tried to wait it out and see if she would come around. Tribe is a long shadow, as he discovered. “She simply said, no, you won’t marry her. She kept saying that she knew better, she knew what love was and marriage was not about love and there was a reason why she was against the marriage even when I told her that Njeri was different. She would shake her head and say, aah aah, nyathi okuyu en okuyu,” he says. “Remember that growing up we never really argued with Madhe, her word was always law. So I was in a catch-22 situation because here I was in love with Njeri and there was my mother, for whom I would do anything.”
“What about Njeri’s people?”
“Oh, it was better because she only had her mother who was a single parent of three children, with Njeri being the first born. Although her mother wasn’t excited about me, she wasn’t overt about it, she was at least cordial. Her siblings were easy because they were younger. But her relatives were terrible, kwanza her aunties, waah! One asked her why she would sleep with an uncircumcised man, kwani umekosa wanaume na hiyo urembo yako yote? A kahì? Ashaa!”
“Are you circumcised, by the way?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “But neither are 70 percent of all the men in the world above 15-years old.”
After four or so years of dating, Njeri got pregnant and conceived a baby boy. He was sure that a grandson from her last born would soften Madhe’s heart. His son was born at about 4.5kgs heavy, a chubby infant who came out with a toothpick in his mouth. When his mother came to see the baby in hospital, she was visibly elated. She cradled the baby in her arms, rocked him and spoke to him in Luo. “She was completely in love with my son but she couldn’t love Njeri,” he says. “And at some point it started frustrating Njeri because his mother would never reciprocate or even acknowledge her acts of kindness. Madhe simply ignored her most days.’”
“What was your dad’s opinion of this marriage?”
“Oh, I forgot to tell you that the fact that Njeri’s mom was single was a big deal for Madhe. She said that women eventually model their mothers and Njeri didn’t have the right example of what a wife should be, and precedence was a powerful thing.”
“And your dad?”
“Oh yeah, my dad….my dad is that guy who never has problems with people. I have never seen him get into a skirmish with anyone. So whenever my mom would give me grief about Njeri, he would say, ‘He’s a man now, let him make his own decisions.’”
Njeri wasn’t hot on this come-we-stay arrangement. She had always wanted to walk down the aisle in a white dress. But he just couldn’t do a wedding without his mother. That would not be a blessed wedding. He hoped Madhe would change her mind and fall in love with Njeri, but she remained distant as Njeri became more disgruntled and isolated. “Eventually it was too much for her and when my son was three we split up and she moved to the US with him on a Green Card.”
It wasn’t an acrimonious breakup but it was a difficult one. She simply wanted to belong and she wasn’t going to fight Madhe because, remember, Madhe was the hurricane. Years passed. He met someone, a Kalenjin girl who Madhe loved. “She’s a very tall, very beautiful lady. But what stood out about her is that she’s the kind you can give 10 bob and she will turn it into 100 bob by December. Very enterprising.”
They married in church. Two years later they had a baby girl, and another two years down the line, another baby girl. They bought an apartment at a fairly decent address. His career was flourishing. On the other end of the globe Njeri also met, dated and married a gentleman in a small church in misty Minnesota, a Mtu wa Nyumba. Life settled into what life settles into; marriage, children, work, traffic, birthday celebrations, a child’s tooth falls out, you lie to them about the Tooth Fairy, a bank loan, a project, the project stalls, fights at home, make-ups at home, a new car, wife gets a promotion at work, Easter in shags, Easter in coasto, family party in December, hangover on 1st January, etc etc.
“Were you talking to your son through this time?”
“At the beginning no, but Madhe kept telling me that my child is my child and I have to create a relationship with him regardless of where he is. So later, I tracked them down and we started having phone calls. All the while, I’d hardly talk to Njeri. I can count the number of times we spoke in all those years. It was always an odd email or sometimes she’d answer the house phone when I called my son.
One time Njeri emailed him; she was in Nairobi to visit her estranged father who was on his deathbed with kidney problems. “I remember going to meet her for coffee at Yaya center after her hospital visit. She was having a hot chocolate. She was still hot kabisa. When she stood up to hug me I noticed that she had a small bump, she was pregnant.”
She looked happy. She said she was excited to be expecting a baby and that her marriage was okay. He showed her the picture of his two daughters. “They are gorgeous,” she said. She showed him the picture of his son, who was now a teenager. They talked about his son, about life in Minnesota and about her father. “We spoke from midday to after 7pm. We sat for so long that she had to walk up and down the corridor to stretch her legs. We had lunch, 4pm tea and early dinner, then I dropped her off.” That night he felt strange things crawling up his body, like those crawling plants. These things grew towards his heart and settled there. He was confused about these feelings.
She was in Nairobi for two weeks and he met her every day of the last 10 days. On her last night they met for dinner at Fogo Gaucho. It was a warm night and she came wearing a bright yellow scarf around her neck. She had one of those pregnancies that make one glow. Her cheekbones looked as smooth as a pebble. They both had wedding bands and anyone would have thought they were a married couple sorting domes because at some point she started crying and she was saying, “No, please no.”
He had told her that he wanted her back. That he had never stopped loving her. That he had never stopped thinking about her. That he wanted her to leave her husband and come back home to him. That he would end his marriage at the drop of a hat. For her.
She said it was impossible. That the ship had sailed. That his mother still hated her. That she had a life in the US and it wasn’t a bad life. That she was content.
“But are you happy?” he kept asking her, and she kept saying, “Stop it, I don’t have to be happy, I just have to be content.”
“I don’t care what my mom wants anymore,” he told her. “I married the wife she wanted, now I want to marry the wife I love.”
“I’m pregnant!” she exclaimed. “I’m carrying another man’s child!”
“I don’t care,” he said. “I want you and that child.”
The evening didn’t go so well and not only because they hardly touched their food but also because nobody ordered dessert. Njeri was teary. She stood, picked up her purse and said, “I’m sorry, but I have to go.” He followed her outside where they waited for her Uber in silence.
“I don’t remember her saying bye,” he says. “She flew out the following day without a word. I emailed her, a long email and told her to think about it, and that I was serious.” She never responded to that email. Or to the next one he sent. He went back to his domesticity, to the mundane rigmarole of life, but she never left his mind. “I thought about her all the time. It was insane.” He kept sending her emails periodically, love emails, begging to have her back. They all went unresponded to. It was like sending God an email. Then one day, three years later, he got an email from her requesting his phone number. They started video-calling. He never took his foot off the pedal. His own marriage was neglected. “I wasn’t putting anything into my marriage and it was suffering. It’s like in the wild, when a lion tastes human meat, he will always want that meat so it has to be put down. I had to be put down, man. Or someone had to feed me what I wanted.”
One day she succumbed. She was willing to walk away from her life in the US, walk away from her husband, from her job, uproot her children from what they knew and bring them to Africa, to uncertainty, to the unfamiliar.
“Did you stop to think, whoaaa! Hang on, let me think this through?”
“I don’t know. What I knew was that I was not afraid.”
“And your wife, when were you planning to tell her?”
“That was the big question. I agonised over that for weeks. I wasn’t unhappy in my marriage. But I wasn’t happy either. I had settled. My wife wasn’t a bad woman because it would have been easy if she was a bad wife, but she wasn’t. But there was no love. We were raising children and I wanted to be more than just a father. I wanted to feel love again.”
“But love ends,” I say.
“True love doesn’t,” he says, “it just transforms.”
“Yes, but how do you know? It’s like someone handing you a parachute and saying, ‘Here, jump off the plane with it. We haven’t used the parachute in 10-years so we don’t know if it works, but hopefully it should launch’.”
“I think it’s belief. You have to believe in love for it to launch. How do you think Jesus walked on water? He believed.”
“I don’t know, man.”
Anyway, one day he told his wife about Njeri. She had heard about her, of course, and she just sat there and stared at him like she was hearing folklore. She asked, “You want to leave this and be with someone’s wife?” She asked what in the marriage wasn’t working for him. She asked him questions for days. And she cried every day. Then she told Madhe, who called him and asked, “You want to leave your wife and family to be with someone’s wife? Wiyi rach, nyathini? Yawa wuoda ng’ama ochieni?”
“I wasn’t scared of Madhe anymore,” he says. “I wasn’t willing to make her happy at the expense of my own happiness. If she was going to banish me from shags, so be it.”
He was summoned to the village where he went, hat in hand, and was asked why. Why?! Why?! His parents thought it was either mid-life crisis or modern day sorcery. Amazingly, nobody thought it was both. Why can’t it be both? Anyway, he refused to budge. He came to Nairobi and told his wife that he would leave everything to her; the house, the investments, everything except his clothes and his car. “She cried a lot,” he says somberly. “It felt horrible, but I had to do me, man.” They went through counselling. Pastors prayed for him.
Njeri landed in Kenya circa 2012, in cold July, six months before her father succumbed to kidney failure. She came with her daughter. Her son, who was around 18-years, remained with her ex-husband to go to college in the US.
“That year was extremely difficult for us,” he says. “I exhausted all my savings and my parents and siblings thought I had gone completely mad. I was an outcast and remained an outcast for two years.” They were tested as a couple.
“It has not been easy. Making a decision like that is the hardest thing I will ever have to do; you know, disrupting my daughters’ idyllic family life, breaking my wife’s heart to pursue my own happiness, leaving everything I owned, man, and starting afresh in my 40s. Basically it was learning how to drive before you learn how to walk. It was very difficult but even in the most difficult of periods, I never once thought I’d made a mistake.”
“This is the wildest story I have ever heard.”
He laughs. “I know you think I’m crazy.”
“I really do,” I say. “Are you happy? Was it worth it?”
“It is, even in our worst days, it’s still worth it. It’s going on seven years now. Even if one day all of this ends and she leaves me and everybody laughs at me, I will not have any regrets about the decision. And one other important thing this has taught me, Biko, is that we are so afraid to lose what we own. As in how many pieces of land do you have? How much do you have saved in stocks or treasury bills or in the money market? It doesn’t matter, imagine. We really cling onto these material things and we let status define us. I started over with nothing. I had only my car when I ended my marriage. Everybody thought I was mad. I even had to stop going to my wife’s church because I could see the judgment in their eyes. I moved into a one-bedroom flat in Langata, a neighbourhood I wouldn’t have imagined I would live in based on how far I had moved in life. The flats had only young people who blast music at night and come home drunk; it felt like a hostel. It was astonishing. But I knew what I wanted and what I didn’t want. You can never make a big move without a big sacrifice.”
“You should start a YouTube channel.” I say. “Name it, Big Move, Big Sacrifice.”
“How does this work?” I ask.
“Well, we are the full blended family. I have two girls with my ex- wife, they stay with her, but I sometimes have them over. My ex-wife and I are not really on talking terms, understandably, and I hope one day she will forgive me. I live with Njeri now and our daughter from her ex-husband. My son came to visit for the first time last year. He is now an adult, working and all.”
“And this guy, your wife’s ex, he just let go of her and the child without a tussle?”
“Oh, it was a big fight, she tells me, but you can’t stand in the way of true love, Biko. You can for a while, but eventually love breaks down all resistance. We have spoken over the phone twice. It was a very grown up conversation. He sounded like a really decent chap to be honest. He was very rational, and even though he was very angry, he never once insulted me. The second time we spoke was when he was trying to reach her when her phone was spoilt.”
Two years after Njeri arrived, they tied the knot at the AG’s and later had a small intimate reception at a friend’s house. Madhe didn’t attend. She said she was ill. His father and his brothers were there. “I didn’t feel bad about it even though I wish she would have come.” Madhe was convinced that he would see the error of his ways and go back to his wife. It has been six years and he’s not going back. Last year Madhe came to visit them.
“She stayed in the SQ for a week,” he says. “It’s amazing how Njeri has always acted towards her. Even when my mom was at her nastiest in showing her that she wasn’t welcome, she never said an unkind word about her, not to me. She was always respectful, she kept trying and trying until she couldn’t and even when she gave up, she would always wish that she would like her. So when Madhe was here visiting, I’d sometimes come home to find them talking in the living room, or sometimes Njeri would go to her SQ to make sure that her beddings were okay and she would stay there for 30 minutes with Madhe, just talking. Madhe hasn’t completely come around, and she might not fully come around because she is also good friends with my ex-wife. I think she feels that she is betraying her. Also, she must just be very suspicious that this kuyo woman will one day ruin her son. But it’s baby steps, man, a day at a time.”
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