Thursday, June 27, 2013

Baba, We Miss You

Exactly one year ago I received the call that woke me up from sleep, a life wakeup call of sorts. Up until then I lived in the reassurance of you in my life, in our life. Yes, you were not well, and for a long time. But we had you, Baba, we could still call home and ask to speak to you, to hear your voice, to have you chide us for this or that, and make us laugh.

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.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Words

It was the Youth Day holiday in South Africa yesterday. My wife, being the young and ambitious politician she is, was away the whole day, leaving me to figure out what to do with time that seemed drearily interminable. I didn’t feel the urge to go out, so I shuffled around in the study room reading blogs, news, and played some chess online. I followed the chess games at the Tal Memorial Tournament currently underway in Moscow, and played through games from the just concluded Spicenet Tanzania Chess Tournament. By the end of the day my head was protesting, yet that great constant that has withstood its own test so far – Time – still needed to be spent.

So as I waited for pizza (which always somehow reprimands me for my culinary laziness) at the local complex, I drifted to the movie rental store. The Anna Karenina movie immediately caught my eye, and I impulsively grabbed at the DVD cover as if in competition with someone. A queue at the pay point encouraged me to browse more titles, and that’s when I saw The Words, whose simple and innocuous cover belied an interesting plot summary displayed on its back about a writer at the pinnacle of literary success who has to face the consequences of stealing another man’s work.

I decided to take both before I glanced at the time – 8 p.m.–and the rain check I took forced a difficult choice on me. Since I have delusions of being a writer, I decided on The Words, and it wasn’t disappointing.

Starring Bradley Cooper as Rory Jansen, the exotic Zoe Saldana as Rory’s wife Dora, and Dennis Quaid (whose goofy smile never ceases to surprise) as Clayton Hammond, The Words is astounding in its poesy and profundity. The words and phrases used, as well as the tone and the acting, are delightful to the literary mind. It is as uniquely relevant to aspiring writers as it is to junkies of the romance genre. Officially a romantic drama, it is a poignant tale of choice and consequences, and the emotional motivations behind them.

It begins with Clayton Hammond, a successful writer, preparing for a public reading of his new novel – The Words. He looks at himself in the mirror, as though to look into his soul and figure himself out, before stepping out to the podium. There he tells the story of Rory Jansen, a struggling writer in New York facing rejection after rejection from publishing houses for his literary troubles. Forced to take on a day job and temporarily abandon his literary ambitions, Rory is in love with Dora, whom he marries, and they proceed to Paris for a honeymoon simple enough to accommodate his shoestring budget. They buy a seemingly nondescript antique leather briefcase in which, later back in New York, he discovers a manuscript containing a story– the kind he has always wished he could write but couldn’t.

The story in the manuscript is of an American man in the army in Paris during the Second World War, who falls in love with a French lady and marries her. They have a daughter, who however falls ill and dies. This tragedy in the young couple’s lives forces a schism between them, and they separate. The young man, emotionally scarred, writes his story, and puts the manuscript in – you guessed it – a leather briefcase, which he sends to his wife. The deeply emotional manuscript reunites husband and wife, but the wife, on her way back to the husband, forgets the briefcase – and the manuscript in it – in the train. The young American man is irretrievably disconsolate, and leaves his wife.

In short, Rory is so taken by this manuscript that he, urged on by his unsuspecting wife Dora, submits it and accepts the offer to publish it. It becomes a literary commercial and critical success. An Old Man however comes to him and reveals that HE wrote that manuscript, that he WAS in Paris during the Second World War, and that it was his wife and daughter in that story.

The plot in the movie is revealed in a sweeping, almost epic, multilayered way. Yet the deep emotional sentiments are captured in a very vivid and stark manner. Rory is forced to confront himself as the Old Man apparently only wished to let him know who the author of the manuscript is and the story behind it. Rory wants to relinquish all rights of the novel to the Old Man, but he won’t let him. Here the Old Man’s utter regret comes to the fore – the story he wrote became dearer to him than the woman who inspired it. He made his choice, and has lived with the consequence ever since. He reveals that he has never been able to write again, and that he had seen his wife only once again, but she had remarried and had a son.

Rory also finally makes his choice – he keeps his secret. In that particular scene he is doing a public reading, announcing – staring straight at me with blue eyes lacking in conviction – the author as Rory Jansen. Dora has apparently forgiven him, or so I thought.

The movie took me back to Clayton Hammond at his public reading. He finishes and retires to his place with a much younger lady he has just met at the reading – Daniella, played by Olivier Wilde. As he gets some wine Hammond again confronts himself in the mirror. Deep blue eyes stare back at him. Daniella is impatient and wants Hammond to reveal what really happened in the end to Rory Jansen. Hammond wants her to read it, but Daniella prods. Hammond challenges Daniella to predict. She powerfully drives the point home that Rory – and the way she said it I was pretty sure she was talking about Hammond himself – had robbed himself of self-discovery as a writer; that by stealing someone else’s work and achieving success with it, he would never ever know his true capabilities, no matter how much or well he subsequently wrote and published.

For a fleeting moment I could see the “busted” look on Hammond’s blue eyes. Perhaps he had told his own story? Perhaps he is suffering from the consequences of his choice (assuming that he is indeed Rory Jansen)?

But then he shoots back at Daniella with the same passion and accusing tone, “What if Rory, Dora, and the Old Man are just characters I created in the book?” He agitatedly tells Daniella that there is a thin line between fiction and real life, and that the two never cross. She seems to believe him, and both succumb to the attraction they have felt since they met. But then he pulls back. She wonders why as she recalls he had told her he is separated from his wife, and had evaded her pointed question as to why he still had his ring on.

And then Hammond faced me directly with those haunted blue eyes. There is a flashback showing Rory saying sorry to Dora. Hammond’s blue eyes faced me again. And the movie ended.

That ending was particularly pleasing as I had to think for myself. I had to debate whether Hammond in fact told his own story and was living with the consequences faced by his character, Rory. I had to figure out whether Dora, who had thought that she had had a peek into her husband’s soul after reading the deeply emotional manuscript which Rory initially didn’t tell her is not his, forgave Rory and what happened to their marriage. This was no spoon feeding movie.

Well, you too have to watch it and figure out for yourself.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

To Write....or Not.

So now I have an inclination towards writing.

From early on I possessed a tentative love of reading - tentative as it was a stuttering, on again off again kind of reading. It was in keeping with my very nature, a quiet, independent minded and laid back boy, yet annoyingly aloof and dispassionate about anything in particular. As soon as I would get really into something, I would grow tired of it and gradually develop slight antipathy towards it, as though I was trying to maintain my independence.
The earliest books I recall reading were the "Moses" series of novels by the late Barbara Kimenye, God bless her soul, although I remember nothing in particular about the storylines which at the time I found very interesting. Next was Chinua Achebe's "A Man of the People", whose predicaments facing the main character resonated somewhat with some of the more affluent folks I knew in Lutonyi area of Kakamega town, where I grew up. I half-read "Things Fall Apart", partly because there was already a television series chronicling the famous life of Okonkwo.
As I grew up I became a familiar face at the Provincial Library in Kakamega, curiously located just across the fence from my local school, Kakamega Primary School. There, I discovered crime and thriller fiction of the mould of James Hadley Chase and Sidney Sheldon, which my neighbour - the popular-with-ladies Evans - endlessly supplied. I was soon popular with my English teacher in my final year at the Kakamega Primary School, the late (again, God bless her soul) Mrs. Dolorose, due to my "compositions" which sufficiently impressed her. The fact that I achieved a perfect score in English KCPE national examination must have pleased her immensely.
However, being me I soon grew tired of crime fiction, and sought to dabble in more "serious" writings. I became obsessed with writings on religion, driven by a subjective quest to confirm my misgivings arising from the events in the Middle East and sectarian violence within Islam, which I found bizarre to say the least. Atheism dangerously beckoned, but that too I found bizarre. Into my confused adolescent mind I fed tentative convictions that were always somehow refuted, to the extent that I settled on an aloof stance that rode on a self-constructed ambivalent wave of Islam. Readings on religion and spiritual matters, as well as those on evolution and creationism, achieved a predictability that always becomes apparent as soon as I grow tired of anything.
I recall the day I laid my hands on Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina", which, in my excited mind, separated the men from the boys. Tolstoy, much like Achebe much earlier on, introduced me to literary fiction that portrayed real societal issues. I followed it up with "War and Peace", which admittedly I took almost six months to read through. By then I was an impressionable youth at the University of Nairobi excitedly confused by Dialectical Materialism, Marxism, and Realism, which were essential tools for pleasing hard-nosed and ideologically biased Professors. I wrote - apart from the necessary dissertations and reports - very sparingly, surprisingly managing to get a commentary published on a reputable website.
And then, inexplicably, I stopped reading.

Perhaps academic reading drained me. Perhaps the job I landed in Nairobi, a city with enough hustle and bustle to discourage a dispassionate mind like mine, drained me too. Perhaps even the posting to Pretoria didn't have the desired effect. Reading became a necessary activity to keep abreast of current affairs, more like a cumbersome and onerous task meant to gather enough facts to impress conversationists and appear knowledgeable in tandem with the job description. The writing too was much similar - official briefs and reports which were good enough to earn me a decent reputation in the corridors of the work place. Personal writing became something I did under emotional distress, more of therapy, after which I always felt so relieved as to post on Facebook, pleased with myself. Reading and enjoying literary fiction became a nostalgic memory.
Until recently, that is.

A dispassionate mind has reclaimed a lost passion. I could perhaps credit the Caine Prize for African Writing's annual short story shortlists. Maybe NoViolet (yes, recently I met a Zimbabwean lady called Asset, and she didn't know why her dad, who passed before she was born, named her so) Bulawayo's "Hitting Budapest", or Elnathan John's "Bayan Layi" inspired me. Most certainly Pede Hollist's "Foreign Aid", which I dare bet will win this year's Caine Prize, has had a decisive effect. The first few chapters of Adichie's "Americanah" spar me on. Delightful African literary fiction with themes one can relate to.
With the reading comes a prodding to write. And hence my inclination towards writing. But should I write? What would I write? Politics? Fiction? Social commentary? A little bit of everything? Perhaps. Let's see how this goes.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to my blog