Slow Burn

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I wonder how I will die. I pray I don’t have a drawn-out death. A disease that hacks away at my bones or heart. Something relentless and brutalising and demeaning to my quality of life. I don’t want people to sit by my bed with flowers, words of encouragement and Ribena. I don’t want to languish in a white room with a TV hanging from the corner of a wall, the sound of the world moving on in the news. I don’t want tubes stuck in me, or to be conveyed through a long tube, the pounding of the MRI reverberating through my brain. I don’t want the last thing I see to be nurses, no matter how attractive or sympathetic, dutiful or hippy. I don’t mind a silly death. The other day I was at the coast and I looked up at a palm tree and thought, what if that coconut fell on my head? I wouldn’t mind dying like that. 

What happened to Biko? 

A coconut fell on his head.

What?

Yeah.

A coconut?

That’s what I said. 

Is that a metaphor?

No, a coconut literally fell on his head. No metaphor. 

Wait, what? What was he doing under a coconut tree?

A coconut tree is called a palm tree. But yeah, he was seated under it. Reading a book. 

What book?

Child of God, Cormac McCarthy. He was on page 43. 

Do you think it hurt?

What, the book?

No, the coconut. 

I think it stuns you when it lands on your head. But then I think your brain implodes – gradually⁠—and you see stars and before you can think, what the fck, your book is slipping from your limp hand, yawning darkness rushing towards you and by the time you slip on the ground you are a goner. 

Poor Biko.

How is he poor? He felt no pain. He must have gone out like a light. He’s at peace. He will never wonder what happened to the 2GB data he bought yesterday. 

Still. A coconut, bana. That’s nuts!

Worse things have happened.

Like what?

I dunno, like dying with food in your mouth. 

How is that worse than having a coconut fall on your head?

Because that means you were killed by food.  Oh come on…take the right at that next turn. Your car smells of marathon feet, by the way.  

I have just Googled. Not all Palm trees bear coconut fruits. Some species don’t. Which means you can’t call all palm trees coconut trees but you can call a coconut tree a palm tree. 

What’s your point, Einstein? 

If you can’t see my point then perhaps you survived a coconut falling on your head. 

Whatever. You can park over there under that tree. 

I’m not parking under any tree, boss. Being under trees is turning out to be hazardous. 

Some I know died. I met him a few years ago when he organised an interview with his boss. We didn’t become friends but we had drinks twice and spoke on the phone and on Whatsapp several times. He wanted to write. [Everybody wants to write but nobody wants to start writing]. I used to tell him, “It’s easy to want something. Anybody can want something, everybody wants something, but nobody wants to get something.” He was a very long-winded fellow, quite verbose. He never got to the point fast on phone calls and it would exhaust me because I think phone calls should not last more than a minute. [Niceties; 12 secs; the point of the call, 48 secs.] He would just meander with his talk until my ears would start smoking. Amiable fellow, though. 

The guy I interviewed called me and informed me of his death. It affected me more than I thought it should have. He was found dead in his house, he told me. He lived alone with a cactus plant. They found him lying peacefully on the couch as if he had had a big brunch and was indulging in a little siesta. No signs of struggle. No signs of foul play. He suspected a clot. Or heart failure. He died in his sleep. It seemed peaceful. 

When we hung up, I wondered how many missed calls his phone had when they discovered him. I imagined messages kept coming in the WhatsApp groups he was in that morning, even after his body had long lost its heat and rigor mortis had set in. Ping Ping Ping. Messages he would never read or reply to. He had been muted like some of the messages had been muted. A police van ferried his body. His family must have taken away his belongings. The cactus plant now belongs to someone. Or maybe it was left in the room for the next tenant to love and nourish. 

He was cremated. 

Kariokor. 

I don’t know what happened to his powdery remains. I always imagine they hand the remains to the family in an urn. You live life, you love, you wash daily and run a dairy, you dream and accumulate possessions and you love your children, give bits of yourself to them but you finally end up in an urn. I found it distressing. I can’t picture myself⁠—or my bones⁠—in an urn. The thought is unpalatable. 

I wouldn’t want to be cremated. If I’m going to hell, I can’t burn here on earth and then burn in hell. And if I’m going to heaven, I wouldn’t want cremation to be foreplay to heaven. I’m not hot about that. I was watching Troy again this weekend, Achilles being cremated on a high bed of stilts, two coins covering his eyes. Cremation isn’t for me. I want to be buried next to my mother, at the corner of the fence in our boma. I know what you are thinking; but you are dead, as if anybody knows what the dead feel like. And the burial has to be in my village, not Langata next to a horde of strangers. 

As I grow older and I near my expiry date on earth, my affinity for the village increases. Which means like [some of] my peers I’m setting up base in the village. Somewhere I will eventually recede for the better part of the year when the language of the city is no longer something I want to speak. A place of smallness and intimacy and of peace. A place with trees and grass. I think I mentioned that I had trouble with grass for what seemed like the longest period of my life. Grass almost made me go mad. I made numerous trips to the village and each time I’d be heartbroken by the state of the grass I had grown. I thought I had been cursed, that I would never grow grass. My grass just wasn’t growing, and it was not from lack of trying. I changed landscapers. I learnt that landscapers are not any different from tailors. They all lie and make promises. I spent many occasions at Simlaw on Kijabe street, listening to someone tell me about grass and which one would do better this time. Sending seeds back to the village. Waiting for rain. Buying manure. Being told I didn’t need cow manure, but that of sheep. Getting sheep manure. Nothing. I tried Paspalum and Penncross and Durban grass. They all died. Someone⁠—a villager⁠—told me, it’s the soil. This soil is cursed. I asked him who cursed the soil. He said someone might have died there a long time ago. I told him people died in every spot a long time ago. 

We need to cleanse it. The man said. He had a walking stick even though he wasn’t old. I asked him how? I was willing to try everything, even slaughter a white ram. He said he needed 10K to seek the help of a few old men around. I told him I would take my chances with seeds. 

But then God sent some chap called Duncan Wan’gombe my way. A chap who constantly wore a cap. I never saw him without a cap. I sent him down to do a postmortem on my grass and he came back and said, “We have to remove everything, all the grass and dig the whole place afresh. Really dig it. Then manure it again”  He then added, “Plus I need to go down with some workers who know about grass. I know how your people work, no offence but farming is not something that they love doing.” He meant that they started late, took long lunches and left early. I knew that, and had experienced it. So he went down and got some village young bloods who tilled it and manured it.  He then shipped in five madhes from Nyeri⁠—grassperts⁠—and they took a week planting the grass, a breed called Maadi river. These women didn’t know what a break was. They toiled in the sweltering heat, never complaining and never stopping until sunset. It was deranged. Turns out Maadi river is the Seal Team of grasses. It doesn’t blink in a staring contest between the sun and itself. It outcompetes weeds. It grows by creeping, on its belly. But you have to water it. And mow it. All the time. And talk to it. But it takes its time because good grass takes time. You can’t rush good grass. 

Now my grass is thriving and when your grass is thriving few things can perturb you. Right? 

Wrong.

Fundis. Masons. Devils in pants. One built an outside toilet for me. Like a place campers can use as a bathroom. Very simple. Four walls. A roof. Men’s and women’s. Showers. He sent photos after it was done. First, if you are building anything in the village, local fundis will say they don’t have smartphones to send photos. So someone will be sent for, who has a smartphone and he will send photos which will make the toilet look like a dungeon where torture frequently happens. Otherwise it looked okay. Until I went down.

The countertops were all done wrong. The distance between the outside sinks and the entrance was so small that you’d have to starve and lose all weight to squeeze past the tiny gap. When I turned on the shower, the water flowed back towards the door, not towards the floor trap. This meant that the tiles would have to be removed and the floor sloped. Wastage. I was slowly going crazy. The mistake that finally got my panties in a bunch was the urinal, which I noticed immediately was higher than humanly possible. You’d have to be Goliath to pee in there. Or stand on a stool. I wondered if it was a urinal or a top shelf for storing urea. Maybe I was mistaken. Maybe this was a new design of toilets. 

Apenji Otieno,” I asked him, slightly stepping aside so he could appreciate his handiwork. 

“This urinal, who do you think will use it?”

He said confidently that anybody will use it. 

I said, would you categorise yourself as anybody?

[Sidenote: The fundis from my village insist on speaking English to you]

He said, yes, indeed. I’m not paraphrasing, I’m reporting this verbatim. I repeat. I asked him, would you categorise yourself as anybody and he said, “Yes indeed,” like this was some court session. I think in his head he’s a barrister of sorts. Someone who has read many books and learnt the many ways of this world. 

I said, do you mind peeing on the urinal to see if it’s working?

He thought for a second and said he would have to have water first. 

Water for what?

For drinking. I’m short of urine right now, jatelo. 

I told him that there was no way he would be able to comfortably pee in that urinal. 

It is possible, he said.

Possible as in, it’s possible to pee in that urinal or it’s possible that there is no way you can pee in that urinal?

The former, he said. 

I wanted to slap him across the face. I was quite cross. 

We were gathered before the small urinal. The scene of the crime, as I like to call it. He had his measuring tape. They are always walking about with a measuring tape in their hands to portray the deceptive air of professionalism. I wanted to take the measuring tape and measure the circumference of his brain. 

I stepped up to the urinal and tried to take a leak. I would have had to stand on my tiptoes to comfortably pee in the urinal. 

Otieno. I’m taller than you, do we both agree?

He nodded. 

Yet, I struggle to pee in this urinal, I said, zipping my pants. And, tall as I am, if I’m struggling to pee in this urinal, what do you think will happen if you tried peeing here?

He stared at the urinal with keen interest, like a puzzle he suddenly had the stomach to solve. 

Why would you build something like this knowing that it’s not practical? I asked him. Only giants can pee here, bwana. Do you know any giants, Otieno?

He mumbled that it was a slight miscalculation. 

Slight? I spat. How is this slight? You have a penis like I do. Right? This is not a foreign member. You are a man who has used urinals before. Yet you build this thing which nobody can use. When you were mounting it, didn’t you stop to think, hang on, how long do I have to be to pee here? 

He sighed. His brow creased. We stood there staring at the urinal for a long time. 

And that was just the toilet. I haven’t even started on the trials and tribulations of building a house. Even a small one. 

It’s enough to make you start yoga. 

***

We are leaving town for the creative writing masterclass. Going to frolic in words at Enashipai Resort for two nights and three days. And have Singleton cocktails in the evenings as we stare into a bonfire under a starless sky. Maybe someone will sing. Maybe not. Silence is also good. Register for the class HERE.

Or maybe, to get DRUNK before THURSDAY, click HERE.

 

 

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58 Comments
  1. And that was just the toilet. I haven’t even started on the trials and tribulations of building a house. Even a small one.

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  2. Biko!! Only you can start writing about death, seamlessly transit to grass and beautifully culminate in urinal matters while keeping us glued the entire time!!

    The only reason some of us exist on Tuesdays is for these posts. You’re what youngins refer to as a G.O.A.T.

    Ps- That urinal segment had me giggling really loudly and I was in a washroom. Smh

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    1. That’s a whole load of privacy I’d wish to have. Meanwhile I read this sitting in an open public area alone and in stitches. Stifling laughter is a major rumour.

  3. Ha ha ha ha. The rule of the thumb is never try building anything while you are away. Take time off and supervise. I laughed out loud at the thought of measuring the circumference of his head.

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  4. Moi closed down technical institutions and turned polytechnics into places for cramming theory. Now anybody is a fundi.. I know one who told me that once opened, a bag of cement has to be used immediately, probably because left overnight, it grows moulds and giant worms crawl out of it.

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  5. The key to fundis is baby sitting…all of them. Like your grass, get your fundi a faithful babysitter, Biko.

  6. Wait till you use the village electrician and your bulbs keep blowing up and short circuits happen.

    But why did the landscaper have to import the planters?

  7. “Fundis are like Luo husbands, especally from Nyakach. You can only trust them when you are next to them” ~ Anonymous

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  8. I enjoyed this read. I find these more hilarious than accounts of people real life experiences. Particularly loved the coconut death. I too will not be cremated. Never. The idea of ashes being scattered sijui on some mountain or river is crazy to me. Alafu on the day of resurrection when the trumpet is sounded, my left will be hopping around looking for my torso and the head is floating on some river… Apana. I want to be intact when I rise.

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    1. Much as I’m with you on this, wanting to have a specific burial place next to loved ones on the ancestral land; this earth and all it’s elements will burn to cinders. Everything will go up in smoke, and there will be a new earth and a new heavens. So let’s not get all hang up about burial places and not wanting to be cremated because technically everyone’s bones will go up in smoke.‍♀️

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  9. 10K to cleanse the grass.. Lol.
    I’m a first time reader on here, and among your newest subscribers. Biko, you are an obsession. I was glued to this story the whole time. I laughed, and enjoyed reading your perspective on life.

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  10. I am here laughing my ass off and temporarily forgetting my fuel troubles! The boda boda guys think I am losing it.

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  11. Yep…Best wishes !
    Slowed down when a door viewer was placed one head above me – and I asked this young jatelo — “How do you intend to have this used? .. And he looks at me innocently ….

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  12. When you’re spending your hard-earned cash and have to keep on re-doing construction work; forget about loyalty to your village-mates, and trying to create employment for folks who start late, take long lunchbreaks and leave early.
    Import the best from whichever county and get work done once and for all.

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    1. Yes kindly do so. You will get the exact output you envisioned for the worth of your money. Get high quality artisans for construction, plumbing, tiling, painting, electricity installation and ensure that you have a house plan even though ni ushago with a good contractor who can translate the blue print of the plan to a spectacular house.. lastly be very involved and make several trips to the village if possible otherwise you will be like Biko. Prioritise on your budget too while still seeking quality work.

  13. Thank you Biko for the great read. And do keep putting colour in between the lines even while away in Enashipai Resort.

  14. This article has made my day. I havent laughed so loud in a while. I loved the part where you wanted to take the measuring tape and measure the circumferenceof his head. lol! where do you come up with this things..

  15. This article has made my day. I havent laughed so loud in a while. I loved the part where you wanted to take the measuring tape and measure the circumference of his head. lol! where do you come up with this things..

  16. You sound exactly like my teacher,he says usitengeneze urinal yenye mtu akitaka kutumia lazima awe katkati ‘majaribu’
    I have laughed.
    I always enjoy your writing.

  17. Here making a small dance with “Da Coconut Nut” song lyrics playing on repeat in my head as I enjoy this read.But again, I will now never feel safe under a coconut tree 🙁

  18. I have a theory that that some things are better done under supervision more so if the chap you’ve entrusted to a task will not be the end user.

    Case in point, when we built our house 20 odd years ago the toilet fundi put the toilet roll holder 5 feet off the ground and a foot and a half behind the actual toilet bowl. Thankfully this snafu was caught before we moved in but I cant begin to imagine what sorts of ambidextrous maneuvers would have been required to tear off the necessary squares after finishing ones business!!

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  19. Someone once told me that you haven’t accomplished your purpose until you start toying with the idea of death when you are in good health.

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  20. The coconut story reminded me of popular meme someone is hit by coconut fruit and his computer “brain” shuts off. Nice read, got quite urinal fundi alot, building out of plan and they can’t even support their decision made white doing the work

  21. Hah. Finally someone has been worked to his last nerve by the village fundis. Those people are scum. The only thing they can do is defy common sense.

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  22. i have not laughed this hard in a while i know i am a month too late and no one will read this but oh well why not.Thanks for the laugh Biko.

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