It’s highly unlikely you will live to see 90. In fact, you will be lucky to see 63. You will die from heart diseases. Or hypertension. Or diabetes. Or cancer. Or HIV/AIDS. At this rate it’s also possible you will die in your beloved Subaru. Crushed in there, like a can of soda, music still playing as you breath your last through you bloodied mouth. If you don’t die from any of the above mentioned, you will still die. So will I. And everybody else I know. You will die whether you have 50 or 45,000 followers on Twitter because, ultimately, death has the most followers. When your heart has stopped beating, your Facebook account will have droves of “friends” professing your high virtue on your wall. Folk will tag you on pictures you took together while you were a mortal.
Death’s certainty is as indiscriminate as it is absolute. You will die whether you take a latte at Art Café or a chai masala at Kwa Njuguna’s in Dagoretti. It doesn’t even matter that you can spell “croissant”. You will die. We imagine that when we live, we are stalked by the insecurities of modern living when all along we are stalked by the prince of Death. The dark knight, always waiting. Always glancing at his watch.
My grandpa has one foot in his grave. He’s 90. God has given him 20 more years over the 70yrs he has accorded us to live. But sometimes, at that age, life seems like a punishment, not a privilege.
Last weekend I went to shags to see him because he’s been asking, for ages, for us to go. He had three wives, grandpa. Two have since been reaped by death. He has been on the record for saying polygamy was one of the hardest – and most regretful- things in his life. He lives alone in his – now departed – first wife’s house. I – together with my small brother – got there at noon.
When we walk we find him slumped in this chair that looks older than anyone who goes to The Mingle. All around him the room frantically clings onto history. The chairs are old and well worn. Those very old chairs that had sisal stuffing and springs underneath them. They are dutifully covered with vitambaas. On the wall hang framed black and white photos. Also old. Photos from the 60’s and 70’s and early 80’s, when he was a strapping young man; good looking, bolstered with life, shaven studiously complete with a cut running across his hair. The essence of 60’s cool. There are pictures of him and his first wife, before the devil of polygamy asked him for dinner. There is a picture of the entire Kenyatta’s government; Tom Mboya grins back. There is an old saggy bookshelf with old yellowed books. The window is open, bringing in light and the sound of chicken rummaging outside. By his side coughs an old Phillips radio. A cat takes a nap on one of the chairs.
I can’t see a Bible anywhere, that’s because he’s half blind.
When we walk in he doesn’t show any indication that he has registered that entrance. He sits there, half asleep, half awake. My grandma announces us by shouting that we are home. He arouses slowly. He’s also half deaf. So she has to shout our names about 200 times.
“Jaduong, Biko gi Jim ose chopo!” [Biko and Jim are here].
“Ehhh?” he growls.
“Biko gi Jim osechopo!” She shouts louder.
“Biko gi Jim!” She’s now shouting an inch from his right ear. His good ear, apparently. Poor guy, I think. My kid bro, insensitively, finds this slightly amusing. So do I. Unfortunately.
“Biko?” He asks, like he has never heard of me. But he’s only tying to register the name in his dated 90-year-old CPU.
“Ehh, en gi Jim!” My grandma shouts, still haunched over his left ear.
“Ohhh, Biko gi Jim?” Bingo! The coin has finally dropped.
He smiles. Then without a word, he reaches for his cane by his side, painfully struggles to his feet then says “walem.” Then he prays; haunched over and leaning and clutching at this wooden cane so tightly the veins at the back of his scrawny hands pop out. But he casts a very defiant pose, like he is telling old age, “F***k you!” Although his body is a shell, his voice remains uncannily strong, deep and commanding and he uses these colourful analogies to praise God in that way that old folk in shags do in prayer. Prayer, in shags is a poetic narrative, where words are danced and twirled to give prayer this high-art narrative that even God has to take notice of no matter how distracted he might be with Syria. In shags a prayer is a serenade of words. It’s sculpture of words.
He’s always been taller than me, grandpa, but old age shrinks your bones. Now he’s shorter than my kid bro. It’s almost as if age is constantly pulling you back to the ground as your grow older. Back to soil. Back home.
After this crispy prayer he sits back down and shakes our hands. He hangs onto our hands for long, grinning wildly. I can feel his hand shake a bit. His eyes, now covered by white cataract, are wide and searching trying to focus on images. Old age cuts deep valleys into his face. He coughs once in a while, a long drawn cough that makes you feel like coughing too. He is thrilled we are home. He asks about the rest of my siblings who are on their way. He asks about “nyar Okuyu” (he seemed slightly chaffed that she hasn’t left me. So am I) and then asks about Tamms, who he calls “Tamsh.” He suffixes “h” on all his “s”, so it’s “Nyashaye”, not “Nyasaye”. It’s “sherisoushly” not, “seriously.” If he were living in Kile he would carry some Shiroc-Vodka to Blanketsh and Wine.
It’s the most laboured conversation, ours, because we take turns to talk to him, and you have to sit right next to him, to his left, and lean into his good ear and shout your ass out. It’s exhausting because no matter how hard you shout, he doesn’t get what you are saying in the first shout, so you have to say it twice or thrice. Sometimes he doesn’t get it at all, and it makes you sad. Sad for him, yes, but also sad for yourself because you know that’s your fate should you live as long as he has.
And he hears words differently, for instance he asks what I’m doing now and I tell him I write. Which in Luo is “ndiko.” But he doesn’t hear ndiko; he hears “ochiko,” which means “nine.” Sherisoushly? But you shout again, and again until you he finally gets it and you can’t help smiling with affection. But my smile is short lived because he asks what I write about and you can imagine how long an explanation that is, half of which is lost on re-shouts. When it’s my brother’s turn to take the hot seat, I happily wander out and go look at the graves in the shamba, and even from there I can hear my brother shouting, explaining to him why he isn’t married. I smile.
My grandpa doesn’t do anything whole day but sit, listen to his radio, eat a meal and nap. Day in, day out. He’s waiting for death. But sometimes death keeps you waiting for long because death is a politician. And the waiting is appalling because you sit and every function of your body degenerates into gross malfunction. Like an old car, all your parts fall off with time.
After Westgate, I have been thinking a lot about death and the process of dying. You must think about how those people died, and what thoughts they harboured when they knew they were dying. How they – with a gun in their faces – prayed and asked for God’s intervention and how that never came. You have to think about God and question him. You can question God, right? He won’t mind and smite you, will he?
Still, I don’t want to die scared. Or too old to chew. Or in my sleep either. Or, worse, in an electric chair. I don’t want to die drunk. Or while drinking. I don’t want it to painful or sad, or laughable, like dying while laughing at a joke and you choke on a steak. I certainly don’t want to die after my daughter.
But before then, before we all depart, we live life. We eat and drink and curse and Instagram and eat fruits and forget to watch the sunset. Someone once said “life does not cease to be funny when people die any more that it ceases to be serious when people laugh.” That person is dead.
But if there ever is something to smile about today, right this moment- 7th Oct 2013- is that it’s Toni Braxton’s birthday.