I met two interesting folk this past week. I say interesting because they both showed me their broken parts. (That sounds mad, but stay with me) And I like broken parts. I like to nose in there, pry them open further and shine a torch therein, because it’s in those dark, broken places that you see the true character of man. One conversation was with a man. The other was with a woman. They are both in their 50s. Both are high achieving jetsetters with grown children, some of whom are married, with their own young families. Both had framed pictures of those said children. I met one in their office and the other in their home. Both very tasteful and affluent spaces – the caves of the rich.
The lady lives and works in North Africa and was in town for a minute. She’s worked with the UN and some multinationals and has lived around the world. Her interview came from upstairs. So this is how it works: Some interviews come from the suits upstairs. Either the big boss of the gazeti calls me and says, “Biko I would like you to sit down with this person.” Or they they come through an email from my editor who got an email from a PR or the person above her who sometimes got a call from the big boss of the gazeti. You never quite know what the river will bring downstream. When I receive such emails I like to follow the trail to see where the wind is blowing from because when you know where the wind is blowing from you know how to tread the gangplank.
This one came from an email from upstairs. From the email trail I could see that the request came from their PR people called Africapractice, it went upstairs then it was sent down to my immediate editor who forwarded me the email then called me and said, “Are you available tomorrow?” and I said, “No, tomorrow is bad, my day is in the shitters.” I suspect she called the PR people and said tomorrow is bad (she can’t use shitters, she’s conservative) and they called the subject and she said, “Can he come over to my house on Saturday morning,” and the editor called me and said, “Saturday?” and I thought, “Argh, Saturdays are for my children and the eldest had said she wanted to go ride a bike at Karura and if that doesn’t happen I can only imagine how much moodier she will be. (If it’s possible for her to get any moodier).” Also, I’m SDA, we only rescue sheep that have fallen in pits on Sabbath. So I said, “Is she not available on Monday or something?” And the editor said, “Nope, it’s Saturday or we lose her.” So I thought, if I look at this assignment as sheep that has fallen in a pit, surely God can work with me, no? Besides, it’s not like the moody one is training for Tour De France. So I said, “Ask them if 10am is okay with her.”
She lives in Kitisuru. Nobody lives in a servant’s quarter past a certain invisible line after Spring Valley. Well, except “home managers”, which the rest of us peasants know only as “The Help.” This means you won’t see anyone walking to the stage. Wait, what stage? She lives in a posh cluster of townhouses off a cabro road not too far from Peponi School. The kind of places where when you pull up at a carved wooden gate, a courteous, uniformed guard leans in your window and offers, “Good morning, sir, whose guest are you?” You know you are in a different address when the guard uses the word “guest” and not “visitor” or “mgeni.”
The house itself is something straight out of an interior decor magazine. The main door looks like something that was built by the same guys who build doors for Rolls Royce. It’s like opening a tomb. At the threshold is a carpet that looks like what a medieval king would cover himself with when addressing his subjects in a piazza. The room opened widely and tastefully, ending at a wall to wall, sliding glass door that overlooked a swimming pool, sparkling blue but uninviting in the wintry 16 degrees outside. From a regal and elaborate U-shaped settee, my subject holds court with her company’s head of communications, a Gabonese with a G-flat major name called Fleur.
I have to mention the rug in that house. It’s whitish and looks like it has pieces of wood shavings thrown all over it. It looked so white and clean and expensive that for a moment I wondered if I was required to remove my shoes to step on it because if you grew up in a lower middle-class family – like I did – you never stepped on the carpet with shoes.
I unperch my newsboy hat as they rise from their seats to say hello. Even if I didn’t know that it was good manners to remove your hat when meeting a lady/ ladies, her very presence would have urged me to remove my hat. There are women who, by the very fact that their eyes are open, wring the chivalry out of you.
The email had come with her picture and my editor – Diana – had remarked how beautiful she looked. Actually in person she was more beautiful. She looked imperial. Courtly. She looked like on her downtime she took long bubble baths, burning scented Jo Malone candles while she read a cerebral book like “You Are Not Your Brain” By Jeffrey Schwarz.
Plus, she’s ageing like a Chateau Lafite 1787.
In the room too is Lennox, the associate consultant from Africapractice, an amiable young chap with a good head on his shoulders. You know those very ambitious types? I could feel his energy straining against the leash, wanting to be let to go to take a big bite of the world. I say hello to Fleur (don’t bother trying to pronounce this name, by the way.) Then I say hello to my subject. Of course she has that unwavering eye contact. And an assured handshake. She’s friendly but she’s also officious. She’s petite, so her hands are small and warm like the paws of an African wildcat. She smiles but before you catch it completely, before you warm against it, she takes it away. She’s a paradox.
I choose to sit with my back to the swimming pool, next to a stool with a very small book with hundreds of African sayings like “In Africa, when an old man dies it’s like a library is burning. – Amadou Hampate. (1900 to 1991). There are African fabrics and African art on the wall. Walls curve into more spaces with more artefacts and more nice things. She sits to my right, crosses her right leg over left and turns her body slightly to face me. (Good sign for an interview). Lennox and Fleur sit directly opposite me. I’m never hot about PR or Comms people sitting in my interviews – that’s like someone staring at you intensely as you eat. But everybody has a job to do, right? Behind her, on a small table, I see a cluster of photos of herself and her kids when they were young.
There is a fireplace and from it crackles a beautiful, nice fire that warms the whole room and creates an intimacy around the moment. There is tea and cookies from expensive porcelain crockery. She says she hasn’t done a single interview in all of her career, which spans tens of years; this is her first. Well, she did one in London years back and she hated it because the journalist completely “misread” and “misrepresented” her. I want to say, “Well, now you are with a writer, not a journalist, so you will be fine.” But it’s too soon, so instead I opt for a more colourless response, I say “That won’t happen in this case, I can assure you.”
“What’s your angle?” she asks. I tell her I never come with an angle. I come to talk.
Interviews are like dates. The general rule of dates is that the lady is supposed to talk more on a date. But you have to prod her. You have to peel her off like an onion without it bringing tears to your eyes – or hers. You have to be really interested in what she’s saying, even if it’s dead boring and all they want to talk about is their last visit to bloody Dubai. Another desert safari! Or their MBA…good grief! People doing MBAs should know that we are happy for them but we don’t care. And if she goes on about MB-bloody A, and they bang on about that for dog years – my MBA this, my MBA that – you have to smile and nod and chuckle and say things like, “That is remarkable, you must have had a wild time,” and off they go again about more MBA stuff that can be used as anaesthesia to bring down a grown elephant. Some dates, like some interviews go well, and some go badly. The trick is never to yawn or look at your watch or say, “What?! Your father sounds like an undertaker!”
So, no angle. You just go. You go to talk but mostly to be talked to.
I fiddle with my phone to find my voice recorder. Sometimes I can’t find that damn thing. I find it and I put the phone on Plane-Mode and slide it next to her. Now, I never have set questions to ask because I’m not that studious kind of writer who stays up all night rummaging through the 12th page of Google. I just look at their bio, peek into their Linkedin profile and show up. The first question is always the one that determines the rest of the questions. As I write this I’m just from interviewing a wealthy, 74-year old Asian guy whose great-great-great-grandfather came to Africa on a dhow in 1897 when my people were still removing their six lower teeth and your people were making fire rubbing two sticks together to boil warus. He was a bit cold and suspicious at the beginning as you would be if you were sitting down with someone from magazeti. When people are cold you warm them with a nice, dull first question like, “So what do you do here, in short?” or “Twenty years running this business, I’m sure you can write a lot about running a business and longevity and such like things.” Then they prattle on about that because it’s easy and safe and you are establishing a relationship. The elderly guy (with whom I had a grand time) at some point answering the first question mentioned something about living in this house in Parklands with his son and four generations of his family under that one roof and immediately my ears shot up and I asked, “How does that work in mediation when your son’s wife hates and fights with his brother’s wife, isn’t there like some mad friction in that house?” And he laughed at that and the ice was broken.
Back in Kitisuru, I briefly turn to look at the fire burning in the fireplace and I hear the fire telling me, “Ask her if she is fire or water…ask her!” So I ask her, “So, are you fire or water?” She thoughtfully stares into the fire and says, “If I’m fire, then I’m a spark…but in life, I’m more of water. I flow. I flow towards the things that need me. And when things are stuck, I come and let things flow…” those words immediately sparked our conversation and it burst into flames.
She said many profound and lovely things that I loved. Words that you could place in a vase to beautify a room without needing watering. She spoke with intellect and depth and she unpacked her life at work and at home with introspection and sincerity. She said things like, “Fear is mental construct while bravery is a construct of the heart.” She didn’t bullshit me with corporate spiel.
And after 45 minutes I said, “I think I have asked you all my questions,” and she said, “No, you haven’t asked me about marriage.” Then she said talked about that. She said, “My marriage didn’t fail, my marriage ended.” I wrote that pull-quote on my notepad and put a smiley on it. (Sometimes I draw cartoons when people are talking. It makes me feel balanced. You wouldn’t understand.) Then we talked about the politics of the wife earning more than the husband. And what distance does to couples. She dismantled the old notion of work/home balance, then constructed it back again in a new format. She kept unravelling nuggets, opening doors to her private life, speaking from somewhere different, surprising us with her vulnerability. She was a river and we were all in a boat navigating that river and she took us where she wanted to take us with her, sometimes through rapid falls but most times through calm waters which no doubt ran deep below.
The previous day I had interviewed the man and during the interview he had asked me, “Do you think people who commit suicide are weak or brave because they decided to kill themselves? And are the ones who don’t go through suicide weak because they couldn’t go through with it or brave as a result?” And I didn’t have an answer, so I pose the same question to her now. As she navigates this rubik’s conundrum Lennox rises and throws some logs into the fire, stokes it a bit and a fresh burst of flames lick upwards, the fire cracking like little slivers of thunder, the flames dancing in our eyes. More tea comes. Nobody touches the poor cookies. They just stare at us like step children. We speak for an hour and 15 mins on the record and another hour off the record.
After the interview we stand on her driveway and make small talk. The Gabonese lady is off to catch her plane. The Lennox guy is off to the office. It’s quite cold now, but not as cold as I might find Tamms later when I tell her no biking will be happening in this cold. She hugs all of us because she’s a hugger and because we have all shared a special moment. In the car I think, “f**k, how am I going to compress all this beautiful content into 1250 words? What do I leave out and what do I have in because everything is so precious and so layered and comes with such lessons? As I drive out, I ring my editor and I tell her, “I need more space for this interview. And this is why…”
Listen, I will tell you about the man in the next blog post. I promise. I have run out of time. I have to get some shit down asap. Why am I telling you this story? Who is this woman? Why should you care about what she has to say? Why is this particular interview important? Are we even decent humans for ignoring the cookies? Why do we buy cookies and then ignore them? Why can’t we just buy grapes and apples, then? Why lead on these poor cookies? Have we not learnt anything about rejection to give us empathy?
These are all important questions. I think it’s a good story. It’s unapologetic. It’s says I’ve done so many successful things, but I have also made mistakes along the way. There are warts and nuggets. I think it’s a story I would want my own daughter to read one day because she will leave with lessons. I did. You will too. So pick up the Business Daily this Friday, or find it online. Then read it. Better still, do me a favour, read it while munching on a cookie. Right our wrong.