It changed on that day. "Baba ametuwacha", Mama's trembling voice chilled the one a.m. winter night even further. I couldn't sleep again. I felt guilty that I was sleeping while you were drifting away. I got up as if to go somewhere. My wife asked me where I was going, and I felt silly. I felt helpless, I was so far away. I didn't know what to do, or what to think. It was a curious feeling, one that I had never felt before. I tried to force my mind to confront the fact, but it was numb, disbelieving. It was weird– receiving the news in the dead of the night, thousands of miles away, having little else to do other than try to get my mind, and my shuddering heart, around it. I just lay there, eyes staring straight ahead in the darkness. Daylight finally came, and I sought the quiet refuge of my living room. There, in my solitude, I finally broke down; surrendering to heaving, convulsing sobs that escaped from within me with a force I didn't know I had.
One year later, I miss you Baba. My earliest memory of you was as a kid in Mumias, our first home. I recall the trip we made to Kisumu for a specialist to check my red, watery and itchy eyes. You were driving that green Government GK Land-rover. I remember buying fish on our way back – the doctor said it was good for my eyes, you said. I've enjoyed fish enthusiastically since then. We stopped at Ekero on our way back for nyama choma.
Much later you made us laugh, telling me that every time you dropped me off at nursery school, I always came back home immediately as it didn't feel right if Mama didn't take me. You made fun of me as I had a mute friend and you were worried I was also never going to speak. You always had a good laugh recalling the way I would come home from school, unbutton my heavy khaki short and let it drop upright, step out of it delicately and run off to play. You were always in stitches as you recalled how I used to ask for margarine to be applied on my bread: tia nga nga nga, I used to say.
We moved to Kakamega. I remember your bemused face when you took me for the "cut". By then you had bought that old, purple Peugeot 404 with back lights the shape of rabbit ears. You took us to school every morning with it. And we came to recognize the sound of its engine which reflected your mood. We would promptly run off to our bedrooms when we heard it loud and belaboured –we knew you had had one too many at the Joyland bar and it would be best to stay out of sight.
It was around that time – 1993 – that you first became unwell. All I remember is that you disappeared for a while, and Mama wouldn't say where you were. When you came back you were much slimmer, not the heavy, imposing figure that I had become accustomed to. Much later you told us some thought it was the end of you. But your fiery temper was still there, your humour amidst any tension, and your reassuring voice that coerced respect from us. It's the same temper and voice that compelled us to go to Madrassa. We complained that Maalims caned us a lot, but if we came back home we had to face you, and the canes seemed much better.
Our visit to Mombasa to see my aunt in 1994 is still fresh in my mind. I remember Port Reitz, Fort Jesus, Likoni ferry, and fresh mango juice made the Swahili way. I recall your restlessness in the long bus ride – you were never one to sit at one place for too long.
You were always upset when you came back from work and found me in the kitchen. It's not the place for men, you said. You called me time and again to come and sit with you. We were just the two of us in a sea of women –Mama and my sisters. You were worried I would grow up to be a sissy boy. You always asked me to join the men in your tipper truck that supplied building materials.
You worked hard. We never lacked for the things we needed. We all went through Primary and High school through your small government salary. I remember you as our pillar of strength when Mama suffered a stroke in 1999. Your silent and knowing composure assuaged our fears. It happened when we were in, or about to join, High School, and I continue to draw inspiration from your resourcefulness. And when we passed our examinations, your pride was bare for all to see.
Baba, a lump always comes to my throat when I recall that day. You were in hospital again – you were always in and out. There were riots in Kakamega. The people did not want "Project Uhuru". I'm sure as you look down upon us you can see it succeeded anyway. Nevertheless on that day main streets were impassable, and I had to use back streets to see you before I travelled to Nairobi for my first day in Campus. October 7, 2002. The previous day, right there in hospital, you had signed off your piece of land, given to you by your dad. It broke my heart. But you reassured me. You said I must go and study, that I must not worry about you, that I must focus. I must not fail. I was dazed as I left you there, not knowing if I would see you again. But thank God you were always a fighter.
I recall those nights I spent with you there. Once in the quiet of the night a man on the bed next to yours passed away. It was all so bleak. But you remained cheerful, and all the patients, doctors and nurses knew you. The patients congregated around you for your never ending storytelling. You always had something to say, Baba. Perhaps it made you cope with situations. It most definitely gave us strength as we looked after you in the most difficult moments.
Even after I completed my studies, you still went out of your way to make sure I didn't sit back. You always suggested that I must talk to so and so to get me a job. Your determination was infectious and inspiring. When I landed a job, you said I must be humble, and I must look after my sisters. Family is important, you stressed. I could see, for the first time in my life, relaxation and contentment in your eyes. Quiet pride. You had succeeded. When I was home we would walk the greater Bomatogether. Your eyesight was failing, and I held your hand, always. You proudly said to everyone we met, this is my son. You were so cheerful. You would insist that I buy something small for everyone to say thank you, for raising a child is a collective affair. You were a man of the people, and everyone knew you.
Today, a year ago, I had to gather myself and be courageous as you taught me. You were a strong man. I didn't see you cry when Nyanya –your mom – passed away, but I could see the pain in your eyes as you sat alone, as you often did, in the verandah of our home. In your eyes I could always see you journey back in time, staring ahead into nothingness. You always talked to us about Babu, who passed away when I was just a week old. Sometimes you spoke nostalgically about your own childhood. I recalled your courage, and I had to make the journey home.
I saw you at five in the morning when I arrived. I was numb. I looked at you, confused. You seemed so peaceful. It was unreal. How could it be that while you were with us, you were in pain, but now that you left us, you were so at peace? I wanted to call out your name. I wanted to touch you. We said a dua. As I walked back I was dazed. But I had to gather myself and comfort Mama and my sisters.
Just a few weeks before, Mama had called me, telling me you had asked to speak to me. You had asked for days, and you were anxious. We spoke, and all you wanted was to hear my voice. You called me baaba. They say people have premonitions. I didn’t think much of it, and we even spoke again after that. But it seems you knew the end was coming.
We washed you. You always liked warm water. Tears welled in my eyes as I knew you couldn't feel whether the water was warm or cold. I touched you but you couldn't feel me. Before we wrapped you I felt your face one last time. Then we laid you on a mat in our living room, the same living room I saw you for the last time in September 2011.
You had looked at me tentatively then, sitting on your wheelchair in your green sweater, next to the doorway leading to the rest of the house. I recall at that time Mama would call me to coax you into eating after everyone had tried and failed. Somehow I was able to break through your stubborn and proud exterior. It was your most frustrating time – normal movements became impossible for you. Mama bore the brunt of your legendary temper. But after you calmed down you were always the sweetest dad.
It is the same living room where we shared many happy and sad moments. We always had dinner there as a family, after which we would sit and chat. Sometimes you would do a small dance to make us laugh before you went to bed. As I left on that day – September 23rd – for Nairobi and then Pretoria as my leave was coming to an end, I was sure I was going to see you again. You had fought this thing for 18 years.
But here I was, watching you as you lay there on the mat, unaware of people coming in and out to see you. My last born sister, Latifah, kissed your forehead as she sobbed. Mama came from her bedroom and looked at you one last time, a broken woman. She had journeyed with you throughout your diabetic affliction, and after all that she simply had to let you go. Razia was there looking at you, puzzled. Uncles, aunts and cousins were all there – you were loved by all.
And when the time came, time for you to leave your home, to leave us, for us never to see you again, it was as if we were all not prepared for it, even though we knew it was coming. Farida broke down. Shila stared in silent, uncomprehending grief. I was in the thick of it all. We carried you in that casket and took you to the Mosque, where we performed a Salatfor you. Memories of going to Jumu’ah with you came back. You always walked to Mosque even though you had a problematic right foot. You loved the cap I bought you, and it made you look like you came from the Islamic aristocracy.
I was the last to hold you as we lowered you into your final resting place. I was in there, Baba. I saw you coming head first from the casket. We held you and lowered you. We faced you towards the Qibla. I remember making sure your head was comfortable. Everyone else climbed out, and I climbed out last. I left you in that cold and dark place. We would no longer be there to bring a blanket, to wash you, to switch on the light, to keep you company. We left you in there, all alone.
They told me I was strong. It felt strange, walking back to a home without you. I went through the motions with people around me. But when I was alone, I yielded, time and time again.
A year later, we continue praying for you. We also pray for your daughter and our sister, Amina, who has joined you. We miss your laughter, your caring personality, your determination and resourcefulness, even your temper.You will always be in our hearts, Baba.