On 8 January in an introductory piece for the Men and Marriage series I wrote about a little spat I had with my best mate in our investment Whatsapp Group. You can read it here. (http://bit.ly/2IproFg ). I was driving past Parklands Police Station at about 11am, headed for a meeting on 3rd Parklands avenue when he called me. He was bemused that I had written about him, that I had mentioned his marriage. “You had no right,” he said. He wasn’t particularly angry, just disappointed. I protested that I didn’t mention his name. “I called you X!” I said. “Do you know anyone called X in this town?” He said it was still shit. Over the next few days it became a storm in the teacup that is our Investment Whatsapp group until my bro Julius, who is the treasurer, and Paul, the secretary, eventually called for order. A kangaroo court was quickly convened on the following Saturday in a banda at Motor Sport Club in South C where we normally hold our meetings. I sat in the accused’s box while X sat scowling in the plaintiff’s box. He had a writhing case against me. His grouse; it was disloyal and disingenuous to write about his personal matter without his consent. It betrayed the friendship.
The other buggers nodded gravely.
After a terse and sober discussion it was agreed that I had crossed a line; you don’t bloody write about people here and their issues and if X feels that you crossed his line then you did. They had a point. I didn’t have legs to stand on. I had no right to mention him and his marriage even in anonymity. I apologised to him and extended an olive branch which he gracefully took because he always was the better man. He said, “It’s cool. We are cool.” We shook hands. Then we talked about him and his situation, and resolutions were made to keep the communication channels open. We cracked a bottle of whisky and touched glasses to brotherhood then drunk and joshed until late.
Almost a month later, X drove his car into the back of a stationary trailer at 140km/hr. You can’t imagine what happens to a car when you ram into a stationary object at 140km/hr. The bonnet – even of the high-strength steel variety of his car – crumples like a deflated heart. It was a Mercedes E-250 and the launched dual two-stage airbags resembled deflated parachutes. The gear lever area showed a few cracks from the impact from pictures, but somehow the front seat area, apart from broken shards of glass, looked relatively undamaged. He survived, with a fractured spine, but lay in hospital paralysed neck down. We gathered around him in his hospital bed. He was coherent, still cheeky. I remember making a long joke about his stubble and him chuckling and saying he’s now ready to join a Congolese band with that beard. His left eye was bloodshot. There was dry blood on his teeth.
The next week I was driving a rickety ass hired car from Homabay for some personal assignment. The evening sun was behind me, creating that beautiful glow of the golden hour in the car. I had just got off the phone with Charles my car hire chap from Kisumu to bitch about the state of the car he had given me when another call came in. It was one of my uncles. The conversation went something like this.
“I’m so sorry. I heard about your friend.”
“Yeah, it was a bad one,” I said. “But he was in surgery today, he should be okay.”
There was a small pause on his end. My uncle is 75-years old, but a very “woke” one. He knew X.
“No, I heard he left us.”
It was my turn to pause. I didn’t fully comprehend what he just said. The sound of the engine felt louder, like I was driving a ship on the road.
“He’s dead?” I mumbled, afraid to utter those words fully in case I gave them life.
“Yeah. Poleni sana.”
“How? What time did he die? Who told you?”
“Julius just called me.”
I’m 41-years old and of course I’ve experienced the loss of many people; uncles, aunts, distant relatives, cousins, but with the exception of my mother, none drilled a crater in me like hearing the news of X’s death. I remember exactly that moment, the smell of the air, the music I was listening to in the car, the intensity of that evening light, the sparkling of the lake in that evening sun beyond the road, clusters of Homa hills looming green in the background like a heap of clothes, the broken yellow line on the road, rushing under my car, the little ache on my tailbone that time as a result of my stubborn, bitchy-ass muscle spasm, the feeling of not inhabiting my own body but also being aware of my shallow breaths and the lingering reverence of death’s chutzpah. I remember these feelings with a bright clarity.
It was surreal. Because there are people who you can’t imagine would die. Not at 39. Not with three children. Not with their sense of humour. Not with all their abundance of self. Not at the starting whistle. The car went on auto-drive because my mind immediately left my body, left the car and just floated around, searching for meaning. Later in shags I sat on the verandah at night and thought, no way is X dead. No way. My Dad was also in shock.
The following day, unable to sleep, I got off the bed and without taking a shower, drove to Kisumu – one and a half hours away – in pitch darkness, and hopped onto the first flight out. I stared out the window the whole time because it is above the clouds that we seem to be closest to God but also furthest from any truth. When I landed I Ubered straight to the morgue with my hand luggage. It was a Friday. They had laid him on a cold slab, covered his torso with a white sheet that had spurts of blood on some parts. He was shoeless because in death you also lose your shoes. A name tag hung from his toe. I held it to read it, as if to confirm that this person lying here was not my friend but someone else. I stared at his feet for a long time. He had stubble. It was him all right. X was indeed dead and if X could die, I thought, then indeed we are all dying.
The last time I cried was seven years ago when my mom died, but that day I cried. Everybody in that morgue cried. Eventually everybody left the morgue, leaving his only brother, an older relative of theirs who was holding the said brother and myself. The mortician leaned in a corner, nonchalantly going through his phone, waiting to bring in another body for viewing. Just another day in the office. X’s brother was crying. It was the kind of cry that words can’t paint. He was saying, “You have left me all alone my brother. All alone, my brother. What will I do now?” And we couldn’t stop crying. It was horrible. Just horrible. From the morgue I went to get my Friday haircut and the wash girl asked me, “Why are your eyes red, Biko?”I said, “I have been crying. My best friend died.” She said “Gosh! Aki I’m sorry.” We locked eyes in the mirror and I thought, if this woman doesn’t stop looking at me with that woiye-look I will cry again, so I looked away. Goodness, I was gutted by his death, cut open like a line fish.
We buried him in Ugenya, in Siaya, behind his mother’s house, under the long shadow of a stumpy hill called Got Rembo.
Because weddings and all those public functions exhaust my soul, I have attended only three weddings in my life; X’s wedding soon after Uni where we met, my brother’s wedding and lastly Bett’s – the writing masterclass admin’s – wedding. I was in X’s lineup one of the couple of times I’ve been forced into a bloody suit. I looked like a penguin in a tie. Years later, I made the mistake of introducing X to my brother and some of my friends. They made him their best friend, so much so that he was my brother’s best man at his wedding. They claimed him as theirs. My sisters loved him. My late mother adored him. He made my father chuckle. (That’s something.) My cousins became his friend. Everywhere he went he forged strong friendships. He built relationships. If you met him once you would not forget him because he had that spirit that enveloped yours.
A very spiritual guy, a gaggle of Catholic Men’s Association members rocked up from Nairobi for his funeral, some leaning on canes inscribed “Man Enough.” (Those chaps can sing!) He was that guy who could drink until late but still show up in church in the morning, taking care of the church’s business. He was a great believer. Hordes of his friends came, chaps who swore on their closeness. Chaps I never met before. I thought to myself, who the hell are all these chaps claiming this guy and why had I not met them before? It was like he was running numerous parallel close friendships. There were half a dozen Kikuyu chaps – his former classmates in university – who had travelled all the way from Central Kenya for two days. We were all in university together. I recognised some of them. It was their first time in that part of deep Nyanza and they were bludgeoned by the sheer distance to get there and somewhat bewildered by our burial rites. I mentioned to them that it must have been a long journey coming all the way and they said they would have ridden on bicycles to come bury X. We stood there, a few feet from his fresh grave, at the very fringe of life and death, against the wall of the echoing chorus of wails, the sound of spades still shovelling soil rising above this grim cacophony and we reminisced about our days with X in university.
I was amazed at how many of these chaps thought of him as their best friend. How they all carried small intimate tales about him. It’s because he gave everybody his best side. After the burial I came to the realisation that you couldn’t own X as your best friend, you could only share him.
On 16th March 2019, we left him to rest under that charismatic hill.
Grief only belongs to the robbed and death had robbed us violently. He was our brother and our chairman. We still talk about him in our Whatsapp group. We share pieces and moments of him that he left with us, His death has brought such immense vulnerability in us as men. We have started questioning ourselves, our lives, our choices and our feelings in an open and non-judgmental way. All of a sudden we are not just sharing intense political moments in that group, or memes, funny videos, cars, inspirational forwards or of the occasional pictures of tits and ass, we are talking to each other. The “to”, here, emphasized.
We talk about him constantly because deep down we know we failed him. We failed our friendship. We failed to read his signs of pain. Failed to heed his moments of torment. Failed to gather around him in his months of darkness. We didn’t light a fire in his darkness. But our biggest and gravest mistake is that we expected him to reach out to us, to come to us during these moments of pain, when it was for us to go to him, to seek him constantly, even if he wasn’t willing to let us in because he didn’t have the language to express his feelings of hurt and turmoil. I’m personally riddled with guilt because he was my friend before all these chaps lay claim on him. It’s me who ate beans and chapos with him in university daily. Before these chaps knew his dreams, I knew how they were formed because we would do it together in the bleakly broke existence of campus life. I was the initial bridge between them and him but I wasn’t a strong bridge. I didn’t do enough by him. Muslims say “it was written” but still, this is a dreadful ending to this book because it’s left us all holding fistfuls of regrets in our fists. A tragic poetry.
If chaps in the other-world can read stuff, I hope he reads this and sees what ruins he left behind, how gutted and sorry we are and most importantly that I hope there are good barbers up there.
To think that that first story in January opening to Men and Marriage would end up here (a eulogy of sorts) is unfathomable. But over these series I’ve learnt many lessons. I have learnt that most, if not all, of our problems as men are deeply engraved in our need to provide, in how much we have. You take that away and we are left dangling like a useless catch of the day. I have learned that what people think a happy marriage should be is completely removed from any reality. It’s almost silly. When I did a story about my dentist and his happy marriage I got a flurry of female friends saying, ‘What the f*ck? Is that the best happy marriage you could get?” Because we imagine that a happy marriage is a perfect marriage. It’s not. There is immense beauty in imperfection but only if we bother to look. Off the back of that I have interrogated what happiness is and what it means for different people. Happiness is a journey and it often comes at a price. Happiness is compromise. Happiness is sacrifice. Happiness is a chapo. You define yours, leave the rest to own theirs. That’s what I have learnt.
I have learnt that most men just want to be affirmed. They will sleep on an unmade bed and they will eat food that has more salt than necessary if they are affirmed. That if given a choice between being loved and being respected they will go for the respect. And to be told that they intelligent, or hardworking, or loved, or good in bed or so strong or so powerful or that [insert cooing voice] your beard is so sexy!
I also learnt that sometimes we bark up the wrong tree when it comes to women because we don’t know their language of love. We buy them gifts when all they want is to spend quality time. We jump through hoops to serve when all they really need to feel loved is to be touched. I have learnt that knowing your woman’s language of love saves you a lot of time and energy.
I have learnt that marriages are all very different. That there are chaps that go home at 5 am and don’t walk into a shit storm. Then there are those who don’t dare. There are men who iron their own clothes then there are those who step out of the bathroom to find their clothes ironed and placed on the bed. I met a guy who said he has never used the microwave since he got married, because his food gets heated on the stove, by his wife or domestic manager, not only because microwaves cause cancer but also because he says that’s just the kind of husband he is. There are men who change diapers. Then there are those who don’t. Men who have a joint bank account with their wives and those who don’t. My brother occasionally mops the house, cleans his daughters and goes to the market to buy meat for the week. When drinking we always tease him, we say, “Julius, we hope you don’t have meat in the car.” He doesn’t give a shit about what we say because he knows what we don’t. That’s the husband he chooses to be and that’s what works for him. And so I have learnt that your marriage is your marriage, you run it the way that works for you both – what one man does in his marriage is his business and will not necessarily work in yours.
I have also learnt that nobody should prescribe his secrets of marriage to anyone because wives don’t come from one assembly plant, Batch C3, line 4. Ironically, I have also learnt from talking to most of these men that most marriages are the same, we tend to split hairs over the same things. The other day a friend sent me a screenshot of his wife making noise that he couldn’t remember all his children’s birthdays. She was really going at him on Whatsapp. (He works out of the country.) He asked me exhaustingly, “How do I get out of this one?” I laughed and said, “First, perhaps you should stop digging when you are in a hole?” Because sometimes I often forget if my son was born in 2013 or 2012. The other day while filling a liability waiver form at the Trampoline Park at Village Market, I turned to ask Tamms, “were you born in 2008 or 2009?” I know, Father of the year! Does that make me a horrible father? Maybe not, a horrible father doesn’t know his 10-year old child is left-handed and is allergic to peanuts.
My biggest lesson in this men and marriage series is that we should talk as men. We should be able to say, “Boss, I’m really struggling here with this thing” without feeling like the other man has an extra testicle over you. We should reach out to other men when we see them drowning. Because you are not going to go through something so unique in marriage that no other man has gone through. I have learnt that we should allow ourselves to be vulnerable, saying you have a problem is not a weakness. I have learnt that we should strive to do better by ourselves, by our women and by our children, even if we keep coming up short over and over again. Key is to recognise that we are not perfect, that we might commit grave sins and possess great flaws as men but that we are not defined by our shortcomings. We are enough if we choose to be enough. And even more pressing is that as men, sometimes we can solve a whole lot of problems if we listen to (not hear) our women even though sometimes it’s so hard to listen when they are banging on and on about something. Lastly, I have learnt from these men that nobody has figured this thing out, man. That you keep doing, trying, f*kng up, trying again, learning, and you keep going, because it’s a long ass journey. And also that if it ends, it ends. And it ending is no failure on your part or hers, it’s just an end.
Lastly, for the young chaps reading this, one piece of advice from me; don’t marry before 30.And marry your friend, not the one with the big hips. It would be nice, though, if your friend has big hips.
To all the men who took their time to meet me to contribute to this conversation, thank you for your time and for your story. To all the chaps who sent emails requesting for an interview and I didn’t get around to them, easy, and thanks for writing. To you, Gang, who came here to contribute to this series, asanteni sana. I’m very keen to know what lesson you picked from this series in the comment section. Don’t write a book, please. Just a few tight paragraphs.
And to my good friend X, may you rest in peace as we – your friends – find peace in your untimely departure.