[It was just after 3pm and he was doing dishes. His wife was on a Zoom call in the living room, saying, “I think this demand-driven approach will not work in the long-term.” He could never understand half the stuff she said on Zoom. Her Zoom calls always sounded like people showing off their cryptic language. People trying so hard not to say what they mean. A diabolic contest of rhetoric. She’s a data scientist. Her boss—a pudgy white fellow whose face always fills her screen—sat across the Atlantic. He’s a trained architect who designs outdoor spaces, mostly landscaping. He likes plants and flowers and mulch and the smell of soil. He also likes making furniture—small quirky things; wooden ashtrays, a wooden dwarf ladder that nobody would ever use, a lampshade that looks like a robot, just random things that normally make his wife roll her eyes. He’s also a pseudo-farmer. He had just come out of a ‘pig’ phase’. The ‘pig-phase’ is the phase of life where otherwise normal people—completely unprovoked—decide to rear pigs as a business. Maybe it stems from loving sausages a lot. Maybe it’s the devil.
They had met many years earlier at the moody entrails of Black Diamond Club in Westlands. She had a fresh accent from Oakland, CA. He had refreshing chutzpah from Buru-Buru, Phase One. He had locks reaching right here [points at spine] but that evening he had bound them and stuffed them in an embroidered hat. She later told him that he reminded him of one of The Wailers. It was bound to end in tears, only it didn’t. It ended in a 12year old marriage and a child out of wedlock.
Anyway, his phone rang as he was drying a green side plate. It was his mother. “I have some terrible news,” she said, voice trembling, “Your father just died.” He had been in hospital the last three weeks; Covid. His lungs had looked like tarmac. A yawning hole in a soul. After he hung up the phone, he continued drying the wet cutlery. He then wiped down the worktop with hot water, carried and disposed of the trash outside. He put fresh polythene paper in the bin. He soaked the kitchen towel in hot water and some Jik. He boiled some water and made some herbal tea, which he sipped as he stood leaning against the kitchen counter. His father dead. What a moment. When he heard his wife signing out of the call, he made her a cup and placed it next to her computer. He said, “Michael is dead.”
“Oh my God!” She gasped, pushing back her chair.
He sat and draped one arm on the backrest.
“Are you OK?” she asked..
“Yeah,” he mumbled, “why wouldn’t I be?”
We sat watching his son play in the big play area at Under The Radar restaurant. It was cold but later the sun would come out and we would shrug off our jackets. His son stood at the top of a slide and waved at us as if he was at the top of an airstair and was about to take a long flight on a one-way ticket. We waved back. The boy looked like he was stenciled from him; the shape of his head (a mango), his walk, his complexion and his general mien. He was telling me about growing up in Buruburu with what struck me as nostalgia but with more bitterness than sweetness. He grew up with two other siblings. Middle-class family. Mom, a nurse, dad worked in the government. “There was always a driver waiting in the car outside the gate for dad. He was an important man, I guess. A bossman. Always wore a suit and tie. Always carried a black briefcase. He was very neat and walked with a limp. What I remember was his irregular footsteps walking in the house. We had wooden floors, so you would hear him if you were upstairs. He took time coming upstairs, almost like he was dragging that leg.” His eyes followed his son who was now about to crawl into a tunnel. “I feared him. I feared him because he was very tough on me, he made me feel small. He would shout at me when he came home drunk, mostly on Fridays. He would snap at me for the smallest of things. I was never enough for him, no matter what I did—and I tried to be enough for him. I wasn’t like my siblings who were way smarter than me academically. You know those kids who are always in the top three?”
“Yeah, the annoying type who always remembered to comb their hair,” I said.
“Haha, yeah, those were my brother and sister. I was OK in school. I was average, you know. But I was streetsmart. Whereas my siblings never really interacted with people in the estate, I was known by everyone. I talked to people. [Ma] Kanges knew me. That guy who roasted maize by the roadside knew me. The shoemaker knew me. The guy who fixed bicycles knew me. I stopped to speak to them. Mtu wa watu. You could say my siblings had no time for that, they were always studying. They took life very seriously but I guess that’s who they were. I wasn’t that kind of person, I liked the arts and people.”
His father made him believe in many ways, through his actions at the beginning and later his strong language, that he wasn’t going to amount to much because he wasn’t as academically endowed as the rest. He loved sports; football mostly. He could wipe your butt at the pool table. But sports were frowned upon by his father. It was a petri dish of failure. He thought little of sportsmen. “He would say, only failures fell back on sports. Remember this was the early 90s. He killed my sports ambition even though I was very good at football. ” Then he started exploring his artistic side and soon discovered that he was better with his hands than the average person. He had a knack for art and design, for shapes and colours, for form and angles. “He stifled that too. He asked me if I wanted to be like those people who beat drums at the National Theater.” He chuckled.
He recalls one night during the school holidays when he was 16 years old when his father hit him. “We were having supper. My mom was being a mom, making noise at me and my brother for not having showered before dinner.” His mom could create a storm in a shot glass. His father walked into the house from work and went to the bedroom to remove his shoes and socks. When he came back he asked, “Why do you boys not do what your mom tells you to do?” Nobody answered because it was a rhetorical question. Parenthood of the 80s and 90s was defined by rhetorical questions; Do you want me to pay your fees and study for you? Would you be happy if I died from the stress of repeating myself in this house? Are you people waiting for the holy ghost to come and remove those plates from the table? Etc. Passive aggression.
Anyway, his father comes and stands at the table and repeats the question; “Why do you boys not do what your mom wants you to do? “Without any warning, he slapped me so hard at the back of my head, so hard that my head slammed into my plate. It was violent. It shocked everybody at the table. He had never hit any of us before. I recall my sister shouting at him, ‘DAD!!’” His mom, who was in the kitchen, came out holding a wet cloth and looked at me holding the back of my head. She told him harshly, Michael, what are you doing that for, surely? Why do you have to beat this child? His father walked away to the bedroom.
He sat staring at his plate, close to tears. His sister who was 14 years old then started sobbing. His brothers were silent. The dinner had been invaded by violence and was now ruined. Their mom followed their dad into the bedroom and they could hear them arguing. “I couldn’t eat. I carried my plate to the kitchen. I was embarrassed and hurt. I wanted to cry. I mean, why pick on me. Why had he not beaten my brother, who was a year older than me? As I passed their bedroom door, I heard my father say in anger words that changed my life, ‘I did not ask you to bring him to this home!”
The next morning after his father had left and his mom prepared to go to work, he went to her bedroom. She was in a nurse’s uniform, rummaging through a drawer for her stockings. Without a preamble, he confronted her, “Is he my real father?” She stood up and blinked. He asked again, “Is he, my real father?” She said, “What is this about, what are you talking about?” He said, “Tell me the truth mom, tell me the truth.” She said she was late for work, that they would discuss it in the evening. Then he asked her, “Are you my real mother?” She sat on the bed and sighed. She suddenly looked older. She patted the space next to her, “Please sit here, son.”
“When people talk about events that shaped their lives, that morning was it for me,” he said. “It turned my life upside down. I feel like after that conversation with my mom, I led my life walking upside down. Nothing made sense but also everything suddenly made sense, does that make sense?”
When he was a few days old he was found abandoned in the streets of Nairobi, wrapped in a leso. He was found in one of the alleys on Sheikh Karume road. His mom, who was working in a different hospital, was told about him by a nurse friend and later adopted him. She gave him a name and a home and a family. His sister was born not long after him. This discovery set him on the path of years of rebellion. “I became defiant and angry. I often ran away from home. I got into what I was told was self-loathing. I also resented him [foster father], I refused anything from him, if he bought us shoes from his travels I would never wear mine. I wanted to hurt him like he hurt me. I felt like a reject, you know, something that was not wanted. Something that was discarded and thrown away. I didn’t perform well in my KCSE because I was so distracted. I didn’t care anymore. The world was suddenly a big lie to me. My brother was sent off to the US on a government scholarship, so was my sis when her time came, but because I had become so problematic, and because he was doing me a favour, he sent me to USIU. You know, it’s because he hated long hair that I started growing dreadlocks. I was also smoking weed. Meanwhile, my mom fought for me, she never stopped, man. She prayed and fought for me. She would look for me whenever I refused to go back home. One time—just after high school—I was running around with some bad boys from Ziwani. Some really problematic boys. She suddenly showed up at the door of this house we used to spend time in. At midnight! Ha-ha. I told her, mom, how did you get here, this place isn’t safe, you can get killed here! She said, yeah, where are your shoes, we are going home. Ha-ha.”
“Did you ever stop calling her mom?”
“Never. That woman has done everything for me. Imagine how much compassion you have to have to take a baby that was left in the streets, a baby you don’t know, they could have bad genes, they could come from a family of witches, and you bring him home and tell your husband, we are keeping this baby. Imagine that level of love. She is the only person on earth who loves me unconditionally. It took me a while to accept this. And now because I’m the only one who lives in the country, I’m the one taking care of her. I go over to see her every week. She loves the beach. We take holidays to the coast together once a year, mostly alone, on occasion with the wife. I take her to the beach. She is that kind of mom. Ha-ha. She’s in her early 60s now. I call her Beach Girl because she likes to walk on the beach with a bottle of beer—a warm Pilsner—in hand. Very ratchet but very badass. Very mom.”
His relationship with his brother changed, though. He always felt like his brother never had his back. “But my sister and I are heart, man.”
“Yeah, you know how people say you are blood because you come from the same mom or dad or grandfather? She has a heart. Heart is deeper than blood because the heart controls the blood. My mom and sister are heart. My sister—she lives abroad—would send me money when I was hustling doing my art and things. My brother and I aren’t close. We never were close.”
“Somehow I just knew that I was different from my siblings. I was taller and darker. I didn’t look like my father or my mother or my siblings. I used to think I looked like one of my uncles but now in hindsight, it was me wanting to fit in. In retrospect there was a way my relatives treated me, not with ati hostility but, I don’t know…they were always too careful around me. I should have thought something was up. Michael obviously didn’t like me from the word-go. I think he felt like he had to put his resources into me and he never stopped reminding me how lucky I was to be getting the education he gave me. He was forced by my mom to do these things for me.”
“Does this change your idea of love?”
He paused for a while, staring at his son. “It changes everything, really. It changes who you are or who you thought you were. You question everything. For a very brief period of my life I used to wonder who my mom was, very brief period. But then I realised that it didn’t matter. I didn’t want to know her, to be in her world. I was found in an alley in Sheikh Karume road, I don’t know which one. There are like a few alleys leading into Luthuli and whatever. She could have been a trader, a mama mboga, a teenage hooker, someone who was headed upcountry and didn’t want to take the journey with a baby she resented, baggage. I don’t know. I’m not curious who my parents are, which is okay because I know I will not like them. Who would like someone who throws away their baby? Michael provided a roof and school for me, was that love? Is it love when he gave me all these with one hand but also took away my self-esteem with the other? Made me feel unwanted? The damage Michael inflicted on my esteem, I feel like I have been building slowly for the past 20 years, and I’m still building on it. Someone who ruins your self-confidence ruins you. I question love. My wife will tell you better. I have always been afraid of being left by a woman.”
“Like your mom did.”
“Yeah. I was a bad boy for a while and bad boys don’t say, I’m going to be a bad boy, it’s the circumstance. I never treated girls like people who would stay. I saw them as a flight risk as my therapist told me once. I started seeing a therapist just before I married my wife because she insisted. I thought therapy was for white folk, something she picked in Oakland. But well, it has its uses.”
“How do you love her?”
“How do I love her?”
“Hmm, she likes being done for things, as she puts her feet up; she is a queen. Ha-ha. She loves cooking, I love cleaning up, dishes, building stuff, improvising things, tending our makeshift garden, making a home. She likes when I do things for her, and I like using my hands.”
“That’s what he said.”
We laugh. His son comes over.
He’s hungry. Of course, he’s hungry, kids are always eating. Or saying they are hungry. He drapes his small spindly arms around his father’s neck and whispers in his ear- like he’s sharing a family secret. He holds his small hand to the bathroom to susu then later he settles to feast on his [now] cold fries. He picks them carefully with the tip of his fingers, one by one, as if he’s an emperor carefully handpicking his soldiers. His head is just at the same level as the table, floating slightly above it, so he looks like he’s hiding while eating. He’s six. He smiles a lot. He’s got charming eyes and mouth and a small nose that acts as a comma to his innocence. I wink at him. He smiles, a megawatt smile. A child’s smile fills your own lungs with baby gas, it makes your lungs float inside your chest. They converse as he picks on his chips, kiddie stuff; can you jump from there? [Points with his small forefinger]; John has a red car with two doors; what is the name of that bird? Can it eat chips?
Bored with his chips, he stands and holds his father’s face and whispers something else in his ears. He wants to get on a swing. I watch his father push him on a swing. As he goes up he squeals, “Uuuuuuuuuu,” and ‘Wiiiiiii” as he comes down. So it’s, “uuuuuuu wiiiiiiii” like Snoop Dogg likes to say. Maybe he will remember this moment when he’s an adult, how his father pushed him on a swing on a beautiful sunny day, shoes off, jacket on, his chips left at the table with that man who he suspects might taste them. He’s a child of love, not a love child. He’s the chosen one.
“When I met my wife, she was categorical: she didn’t want children,” he tells me when he’s back. “I honestly always wanted children so that I could have someone I was related to by blood.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way;” I say, “You have nobody you know who you are related to by blood, just by heart.”
“Exactly. So I wanted a child who would carry my name; a girl or boy, didn’t matter to me. But then also I was in love with this chic from the other side of the river.”
“Ha-ha. Yeah. I was really into her mix. So what do I do, I told her, it’s fine we don’t have to have children. She said, ‘Are you sure, because I’m not going to change my mind,’ I said I was sure. Wouldn’t you?”
‘I’d even sign with my own blood. Twice.”
“Ha-ha. Marriage can’t hide who you are or what you want, it just puts it on hold because at some point you can no longer ignore the things you want or be who you are. I have always wanted a child. A few years into the marriage I started getting restless, so I brought up the baby thing and it caused a major row. She was adamant, she still didn’t want to have a baby. She felt I was moving goalposts, which I was. Was there a way this marriage would continue under those circumstances?”
It was a difficult, drawn-out conversation that lasted years. And it was never resolved. The participants left the negotiation table and took a long tea break, leaving the issues on the table unattended. Only that he went and had a baby with someone else. That lovely boy now swinging over there like a monkey.
“The hardest part was confessing to my wife. The very hardest thing I’ve had to do by far. It was complete mayhem, real shitty affair and it dragged on for years. It nearly ended the marriage, it came this close. My mother-in-law fought on my side, that helped. That’s a whole different story altogether. But now we are good, she accepted my son, she loves him, but women never forget betrayal. I know I will pay. I just don’t know how.”
“Yes, and when.” He looks over at his son like Moses looked yonder at the Promised Land. He never attended his foster father’s funeral even though his wife begged him to go. To let things go, to free himself from hatred. He didn’t see it that way. He told her, “I was thrown in a bin to die and he had an opportunity not to love me, but at least show me compassion instead he constantly took away my self-worth even knowing my circumstance. I buried him long before he died.”