I stared at my dad’s elbows. They looked like a turtle’s chin. All aging people’s elbows look like a turtle’s chin. The wrinkles have wrinkles of their own. The bones look soft underneath. He was watering a bush of flowers using a water pipe. The bottom of his trousers were a darker shade, wet by the spray of the water pipe. He wore old sandals on his feet, like the ones Cushites wear to cross great spans of unforgiving deserts. He shuffled around, his back slightly stooped, splashing water on his bush of flowers, life and gravity finally keeling him over slowly. His dog, an unremarkable dog tethered under a tree, followed his master’s movement with a look of great tedium.
Everytime I go to shags there is a new dog. Or puppies. Then the next time I visit, they are gone. They are all nameless because he doesn’t consider them to be an extension of himself and his boma. He sees them like everybody sees dogs in the village; as dogs. I had never seen this particular dog before, a dog that avoided eye contact as if it couldn’t trust its conscience. Maybe it was one of those puppies that grew into themselves. Maybe it wasn’t. The village is a landscape of dogs that simply pass through their dog lives; unrecognised, un-named, and loved simply by the act of being fed leftover scraps from the table.
He finishes watering the bush and wedges the pipe between two tall trees. He’s scrupulously neat. My late mom scrubbed everything, washed everything, polished everything to within an inch of their lives. You could chop onions from our floor. Boil an egg from our kitchen sink. My father’s neatness carries on after her death; the boma is neat and organised. The hedges trimmed. No dead leaves rustling in the breeze. No old planks of wood left haphazardly sticking out. The trees in the compound are tended, flowers pruned, the kitchen garden fenced off, complete with a sturdy wooden gate. He’s a man of great routine, of studious order. It’s a wonder I’m his son because I’m his opposite; my space is chaotic, I drop things all over, I don’t return things to their rightful places, so you might find a cooking spoon in my potted plant, a corkscrew in my desk drawer or underwear behind the microwave – underwear that might or might not belong to me. Things belong where things find themselves. I never understand people who store sugar in jars labelled “sugar.” What fun is that? You want to open a jar and find salt or even find nothing because nothing is not necessarily the absence of something.
My father’s life has always been fairly neat. It got messy for two years when I was in university, as a man’s life will tend to get messy once in a while, otherwise he has kept a fairly clean nose. Before us at least. This reflects in the boma that looks like a well-run camp. He doesn’t do chaos. He doesn’t want any creases on his sheet of life.
Whenever I’m in shags like I am as I write this, I find him awake early on Saturdays. Actually, he wakes up early everyday, but on Saturdays, on Sabbath, he wakes up earlier, sits on a chair in the verandah, his spectacles as old as my seven-year-old son perched on his nose. He reads what SDA people know as ‘lessons” – pronounced, ‘leson.” I suspect they are scriptures, teachings, readings. With a pen and a dog-eared exercise book he reads and scribbles notes, often raising his head as if to let the teachings drain into his body, this body of Christ that he never once fed alcohol, weed, cigarettes or any form of intoxicants. He has been a complete teetotaller all his life, which simply means I’ve never seen him out of his element.
Church has always been important to him. I feel like I spent the whole of my childhood, the whole of the 80s, in one SDA church or the other. Church was compulsory in our house. You didn’t say, ‘you guys run along, I think I will sleep in today.” Unless you were on your deathbed, you went to church and it started in the morning, by 8:30 am and dragged on painfully like a Choo Choo train until 2pm, and by this time you were famished and weak, your lips chapped, your soul resentful and your spirit nursing a runny nose. Repeat next Saturday. That wasn’t spiritual nourishment—it felt like subjugation of the spirit.
And it was traumatic. I remember sitting there thinking, when I grow up nobody will ever make me sit in a pew against my will again. I will lounge about in my underwear every Saturday, because surely, have I not paid my debt to God my whole childhood? Adulthood? I remember my dad’s dedication to Sabbath. How he would carry many bibles; one in English and the other in DhoLuo—maybe to confirm that the white man hadn’t misquoted the good Lord. I don’t know if there is any Luo who reads Swahili bibles. Show me one and I will show you a liar. He’d always wear a tie to church—even when we went to shags. I guess it dignified him before the Lord. I remember how tall he seemed, standing in church next to my mom, singing hymns, turning the pages piously, delicately as if any sound from that action might upset God.
At some point, we’d be separated to join the children’s service at the back of church with thousands of other children clucking like hens. It was bedlam; children everywhere, some in goddamn bow-ties. Do you know how cruel you have to be to stick a bow-tie on your child’s neck? It was easy to get lost or stolen in that melee of a crusade but nobody stole children back then because people had an average of five children each so why bother stealing others? Where would you keep them? Also, I don’t think my parents would have noticed if one of us went missing until after we had piled up in the car after service and my mom turned back in her seat to do a headcount and ask, “Where is Biko? Go back and look for him. Tell him if he’s not here in one minute he will see.”
While my mom ran our house like it was a Russian Gulag—threats, intimidation, and corporal punishment—my dad led by stony silence. He said little. He sat in his favourite chair, the throne, behind his veil of books, newspapers, and rhumba music, dispensing a daily dose of mystery. He hardly got involved in the normal noisy domestics of the day, but when a case escalated to him, a case for which my mom had raised her hands in surrender, you knew shit had hit the fan. He would put you in your place with a withering stare and a scathing rebuke that would be like a furious gale that had blown through you, disorienting your organs and disarranging your feelings, then as suddenly as it had come, it would be gone. This was directed towards myself and my two brothers, never towards my two sisters, who I never heard him raise his voice towards or rebuke. Mostly he was silent, it’s my mom who couldn’t shut up.
His silence felt like it was both his weapon and his armour. In contrast I would sit with my mom a lot and she was a talker, a storyteller, full of hyperbole and funny quips. Her sarcasm would slice through a tree. Sitting with her and talking to her opened a window that allowed me to see who she was beyond being my mother; her insecurities and weaknesses as a person. I have no single recollection of sitting with my father to shoot the breeze—save for the brief conversations at the end of term about my performance; me standing stiff like a guard by his seat, him poring (disapprovingly) over my report form, asking me calmly why I keep failing in Math.
I don’t want to use the word enigma on him, it’s a word that casts too long a shadow. But he was a small mystery. I didn’t know his dreams or fears. I didn’t know what he felt about certain things, like about his own father, his own mother, his siblings, his work, his passion. What I knew of him was what was on the outside, the shell he showed the world, not what was inside of him. While he (and us alike) fed off from the tall mast of my mother’s sense of humor, he provided security, that knowledge that he was in charge, that we wouldn’t be breached from the outside. That it was all going to be okay. That was how he expressed his love, I guess. Men in those days loved differently. To be fair, I don’t know anybody we grew up with who sat with their fathers to talk or shared great laughs together. Fathers were like male buffaloes kicked out of the herd; you just didn’t dither around them too long. You always kept them at arms-length. It was how we were all taught to respect them, by giving them a wide berth.
But then I grew up, slowly and gradually and I started seeing him as a man more and more. I saw the clay feet to his golden statue. And perhaps because he started seeing me as a man, he started giving me space to find my manhood and that translated to me as this chasm of silence that kept growing and growing. He started looking like a ship that was receding towards the horizon, only its big bellow of smoke marking its presence. I didn’t see this as a bad thing, I just saw it as how men interacted with their fathers. The natural order of things. Once in university, a guy I know was visited by his dad and they drank together the whole night till 8 am in the morning. I was confused. It’s the first time I saw fathers differently. “The hell do you speak to your father about for a whole night?” Leave alone drinking together.
When my mother died, the bridge that connected me to my father collapsed into the water. Now we had to talk, to communicate, but we were already old dogs incapable of learning new tricks. So the relative silence ensued but now it wasn’t a silence that I probed, I was already used to it. I was already a father myself, groping about in that darkness of fatherhood, his influence in this equation looming large over me. He married again, another very clean woman. I was in the village over this weekend and I looked at the carpet and wondered if she irons it daily. It looked abnormally clean and prim. He is happy again. It’s there in his steps, if you look.
Because age is breaching him, and because he is my own living parent, I decided to try to speak to him, but it’s difficult. Conversations trickled out after niceties. It’s about the rain, or my kids, or his locum, a lecturing gig he does at a teachers’ college in the nearest town or often he sits there listening to his radio and reading his bible and I sit there on my phone watching a video of someone almost breaking his neck rescuing a cat. We can also go weeks without speaking and it’s not abnormal, the silence is no longer a mirror we are afraid to look at.
The one thing, the only thing I know my dad loved more than anything else is not only cars, but driving. I remember all his cars because of how he treated them. First, there was a Yamaha Enduro KJZ 731, a motorbike that he rode while sporting his big beard and tight shirts of the early 80s. Then came a blue Volkswagen KDJ 571, with its engine at the back. He washed it all the time. Then came a Peugeot 404 KNF 134, that looked like a finned animal. He washed it too all the time. Then a Peugeot 505, KYB 195, his retirement car, an old jalopy, that he used diligently until birds started living in it. He washed that as well, all the time. When I think of his cars, I think of how clean his cars always were.
Because his language of love is cars, one-time last year I visited shags and after my stay, after prayers, bags in the boot, we stood saying goodbyes by the car he assumed was one of the usual car hires I would normally pick from Kisumu. I gave him the car keys and told him, “It’s yours.” I had waited so long for this moment. I had wondered what he’d say, what emotion he would show, because remember, I hadn’t known him to show emotion. He was in shorts, he had woken up early to cut grass around the boma. He looked at the keys, confused. I said, “It’s your car.” He looked at the car and looked at me and he chuckled. “You bought me a car?” I said I did. He shook my hand and said “Ruoth omedi.” I was with two friends of mine and later one of them said, “Your dad is gangsta, man. Never betraying one emotion.” It was at that moment that I realized something—something that has been obvious from the beginning—that we are so alike, my dad and I; emotions embarrass us. And that we express gratitude and happiness in our own way. He washes that car all the time.
On Father’s Day, I was going through our SMS correspondences and I realised that we don’t even talk on messages that much. Most are Saturday scriptures, Bible verses he sends after which he wishes me good health and messages of him thanking me for MPESAs I send him. I realise that my messages to him are a direct response to his messages and hardly ever out of my own volition. I think as he grows older, I want to know that I took care of him, filling the silence with acts of generosity. Our language of communication, it is apparent, is through MPESA.
He’s 72. He’s growing old and frail. It’s evident. His face is what you would describe as elderly. As I grow older, I understand my father’s silence more. It’s no longer loud. It’s muted now. Like watching someone play the violin under the lake. I have learned acceptance, that we are not meant to be friends. That he is who he is and I am who I am, which in great parts is an extension of who he is. So I am who he is, without being all he is. You spend your whole life trying to look at people in the way that you want to see them and you miss seeing who they actually are. And it’s your tragedy, not theirs.
I never imagine that I will one day grow old like my dad. When I was in my teens, 30-year-olds looked ancient. Don’t even get me started on the 40-year-olds; they seemed to be on the edge of their graves. Now, at 43, I look at my father at 73 and can’t even fathom that I will get there. I imagine youth to be my heirloom. But I will get there if God allows and I hope my children don’t relate to me like we relate to my father; at a distance, a cautious relationship without a language. I hope I don’t sit in a verandah waiting for Tamms and Kim to call, or to show up with a bottle of whisky, tiptoeing around me, conversations strained, feeling like poking a dead lion with a stick.
I hope when I’m gone and someone asks my children; did you know him, what kind of a man was he? I hope they don’t stare blankly at a wall for long periods of time and then whisper, “You know, I really don’t know.”
Happy Father’s Day (I wrote this on Sunday, so it’s still Father’s Day in my head) to my pops, if he ever reads this, and to all the dads reading this.
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