Monday, June 30, 2014

A Love Recalled


Babuuu! Fatima is harassing me!’ comes Hussein’s half entreaty, half-wail. This boy, six-years old, petulant, soft-spoken, thoughtful, introverted, worries me. I wonder when he will learn to stand up for himself against his feisty four-year old sister.

Wewe Fatima! Stop it!’ I admonish her in half-jest. She darts a naughty glance at me, a twinkle in her eye and a smile playing on her lips, every bit as spirited and tongue-in-cheek as her mother—my daughter Zuwena. Even now, she has disappeared in the vast multitude here at the beach, cheekily leaving me to tend to her kids while she presumably catches up with some long lost friend. She would come back, as I know from past experience, with excited chatter about something obscure—I have never failed to fall for it—and the question wouldn’t be raised altogether.

I do not mind however, I quite like to play mediator between the feisty and the petulant. Sometimes I would even indulge them with magical stories of the past, or play with them—occasions that Fatima takes as freedom to bully me somehow, pulling my beard, or grabbing my cap and trotting off with it, shrieking with delight as I curse and chase after her. Hussein would join in the chase, emboldened, and more often than not we would end up in a squealing heap on the ground—or to be more precise, Hussein and Fatima would be squaring off upon my chest and stomach in what I expect to be a timeless sibling duel.

Today, however, I prefer to just sit under the shade and drown in the salty warmth of the breeze, blown in tandem with the tide’s swish and hush, whistling calm tales and memories of times past. As usual, a carnival atmosphere hangs around the beach. I resent this crowd. I yearn for the quiet and peace of the beach I knew as a young boy accompanying my father to fish in the sea, when the green of the swaying palm trees was truly green, and the blue of the sea and sky was truly blue. It never failed to take my breath away, this beach—its expanse, white sands, fishes washed ashore, salt in the air, and the mystery of jinns lurking in the shadows of a full moon. It is here where the sunlight was glorious but now somehow isn’t, and where the moonlight shone on Christine’s wide-eyed chance glance upon me.

Zuwena remarked the other day that I have become more thoughtful lately. I presume this is expected in one’s sunset years—age seems to weigh down on one more and more, becoming progressively difficult for life to carry. One can see it in the slight stoop of my shoulders and upper back, in the slow deliberateness of my trudge, in the relieved sighs I heave when I sit, and in the strength I draw from a supporting hand. My wife Aisha used to make fun of me—and I of her—and it was easy, even bearable, but now she rests, may Allah grant her jannah.

Now Fatima faces me—eyes wide, nose flaring, and catching her breath, ready to make a damning reportage, most likely of some tit-for-tat miscreant deed by Hussein. Even at her young age, I can see Aisha already in her curious and restless eyes, her mischief, beauty, and tough love, apparent only after she bullies her object of affection. Aisha’s eyes, when we first met through a calculating uncle, seemed to know that our fate was already sealed, and she smiled as though to say I was a pretty good pick. I was well read in Deen, my family was well known and respected for its staunch faith, and I believe she thought I was good looking. We both knew it wasn’t really up to us—these considerations had already been taken into account by both families, and a ‘chance’ introduction was a trivial formality. She might have known about Christine—she was from the island, but word travelled fast even in those days—but she never once raised this subject. We took a great liking to each other, one that developed into profound love and companionship over the years. I terribly miss her now.

Fatima thinks I am ignoring her, and pulls my beard. ‘Babu! Look at Hussein playing with a stranger!’ Which is to say she is jealous. Indeed Hussein has made a new friend, and together they are engrossed in building a sand castle. I hear him mumbling something about Fort Jesus, to which his father, constantly away on business in Dubai, took him last month.

‘Hussein!’

Naam Babu!’

‘Come get your sister and play together.’ I turn to Fatima with a playful smile and say, ‘Go, show your brother how to build a better castle, that one looks bad!’ She brightens up at this implicit compliment, a nod to her belief that she should be in charge. She runs off, her whiff of jealousy gone, and soon they are all getting along.

They bring me so much joy, these two. Alhamdulillah, I have been blessed and lucky to have such a warm family: from my late grandparents and parents; my brothers, sisters and extended family; and to Aisha and our children and grandchildren. Zuwena, a doting daughter to say the least, never wanted us—Aisha and I—out of her sight. She decided to stay close to us, especially as her brother Mustapha decided to settle in Nairobi, that clever city. I must pressure him to marry—the boy is taking too long. I must see more grandchildren. But where will he find a suitable Muslim wife in that big city? I have asked him to spend more time here at the Coast, but he seems reluctant. Like Hussein, he is thoughtful and inward, a little different, much like me in my youth.

Yet, as happy and lucky as I have been, I can’t help but wonder how it would have been with Christine. Her of the arresting hazel eyes and teeth as white as the sand on the beach, of the pretty nose perched with a sculptor’s precision upon her pretty face, of the high cheekbones and deep dimples, and of the long eyelashes and thin, smiling lips. As the moonlight shone on her that night a great many years ago—under a palm tree I have revisited countless times, her dress fluttering with the warm breeze, standing there, graceful, fair-skinned, smiling—I became aware of a warmth I had never felt before.

Salaam…’ I stopped in my accustomed greeting, as, in my slow awakening from a befuddlement, I realized she couldn’t be Muslim—she had no hijab on. I must have hesitated as I searched for the right salutation, for she giggled—a high-pitched, melodious giggle that sounded sweet as a bird’s song. Conscious of my awkwardness, I laughed too.

‘Such a lovely night!’ her voice sang. I had never heard such a beautiful voice. It carried an irresistible cheer, inviting me to a conversation. I made a step towards her and away from the boat, to which my father had sent me to fetch the last fish harvest of the day.

‘Yes, it’s always lovely here in Diani. We are used to this.’ Thinking these words to be inappropriate, perhaps belittling her observation, I hastily emphasised, ‘Yes! Yes, very lovely indeed.’ I glanced at her, nervous. She was lost in the beauty of the full moon shining upon the calm waters of the sea. She sighed, her eyes dreamy and absently happy.

‘We don’t get to see this where we are from,’ she remarked. ‘Back there it’s always the mountain and the cold and endless plantations of coffee.’ She turned to regard me, her eyes casting a helpless befuddlement again upon me. I had to say something—she seemed to be a natural conversationalist. My anxiety increased, for I tended to ponder before talking.

‘You are very lucky to live here—you can’t imagine the cold in Nyeri! I’m so glad we have moved here,’ she continued.

‘Ah, you are most welcome. You will love this place. I’ll show you around,’ I ventured, more relaxed. Something about her set me at ease.

‘Great!’ She turned again, a question forming on her lips. ‘Is it safe to swim at night?’

I feigned seriousness. ‘Actually, I wanted to warn you. You shouldn’t be alone outside like this. There are jinns,’ I whispered. Her eyes widened in contemplation, searching my face. We both burst out laughing.

‘You are very funny,’ she laughed. Although I dramatized my seriousness, I wasn’t sure the question of jinns was entirely funny, as I knew one or two people who could swear to have seen them. But having made her laugh, I was loath to further contemplate this question.

She enrolled in the local High School where we all went to—it was the only one in Diani at the time, and the next six years were among the happiest of my life. We were inseparable, doting on each other like lovebirds. Many thought it was a great friendship, platonic and harmless, and we quite didn’t mind putting a name to it—we made each other happy, and not much else mattered. Apart, we would fret and worry about the other; together, we would lose ourselves in bliss, unaware of the passage of time, or of people around us. Whether in silence, during which we pondered with great sighs the magnitude of what we shared, or in passionate conversation, we found a happy and undeclared harmony, a natural coming together of souls.

Thus, it was an inescapable fact that I was bound to announce to my father my wish to spend the rest of my life with Christine. We had just finished our A-levels, and I thought of myself as a man, according myself the right to approach him in a way I had never attempted before.

A stern faced man, my father surprised me when he settled back in his favourite chair and let out a soft, benign laugh. I was thrown off-balance, as I had expected a tongue lashing of sorts, for which I had prepared myself.

‘Ahmed, my son, you know it’s not going to happen,’ he said in a steady voice whose resolve was stark, and whose rebuke was greater than what a berating voice could possibly carry.

Habibi,’ my mother, sitting next to my father, began. ‘She is a good girl. We quite like her, but you know our ways, habibi, we have taught you well. Think about your family.’ She spoke in a calm voice, but I could see her eyes carried a fear—the very possibility that a son might betray and dishonor the family and Deen seemed too terrible to contemplate.

In the agony of the weeks that followed, I tried to remain steadfast in my wish, which I made obvious to the rest of the family, and which the neighbourhood came to know of. What I had imagined became the subject of hushed discussions, and once, even of a Friday sermon at the local Masjid. I sat through dissuading family meetings, petulant and stubborn. Soon, however, the overpowering implausibility of my aspiration began to unfold before me, and when Christine informed me one Sunday afternoon, tearful and hysterical, that her parents were sending her abroad to study, I knew it was altogether impossible. In her hysteria she mentioned—though I am not quite sure—that they were anxious to get her away from the all the tension and from me.

Well, not that all this matters now. I have had Aisha and a glorious family, I have been happy, and I couldn’t wish for anything more. I look to my right in search of Hussein and Fatima, and I can’t see them. A mild panic comes over me, and I look again, left, right, but they are nowhere to be seen. Frantic now, I sit up and look behind me, and there, releasing excitement pent up while waiting for me to turn and find them, as they knew I would, they let out massive and delighted squeals.

‘Enhe! Huo ndio mchezo, eh?’ I get up and run after them. A large tidal wave hits the shore, unexpected, and surprised and excited screams from the crowd rend the air. I bump into a few people rushing for the next wave, and catch up with the feisty and petulant pair. I feel exalted, my spirits soar. I let myself fall on the sand, and they immediately pounce upon me. Hussein is quite heavy as he tries to restrain Fatima from pulling my beard. I laugh and mock, they shriek with relish.

If Christine chances upon this scene, I’m quite certain she wouldn’t feel missed.

Picture credit: Wetcanvas

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Running Mate


I had always thought of Mr. Makokha – his Christian name is Peter but he has always been known by his traditional name, perhaps because he evokes an austere and dignified demeanor associated with Wanga royalty – as a straightforward man. He has just resigned as the Principal of Kakamega High School in order to run for Governor of Kakamega County. This move, though shocking to fellow teachers who know him, is not entirely so for me. In fact, the more I think of our first meeting ten years ago, the more I realize that this should quite be expected. I recall meeting him at an inter-school drama festival to which I had accompanied my lead drama teacher and our students whose performance, despite our best efforts, was poor. Mr. Makokha’s students on the other hand had performed beyond expectations, including his own – much to his delight of course – as he admitted to me then.

I had approached him to offer my congratulations on such a stirring performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I wasn’t the only one vying for his attention, I recall, and he struck me as a restrained man, unused to the gushing scrutiny he suddenly faced. He had the sort of face which one could tell didn’t smile often, and thus, having to smile to endless accolades coming his way, it looked strained. He stood out from among the hoard of teachers, almost six-foot tall, and with a complexion darker than most – it seemed to me the result of many younger years in the sun tending to vast fields of land and crop. As I gently pushed my way towards him, I noticed that his grey suit jacket was a tad too large, its collar worn and sporting a faint shade of brown, and hung heavy on him, perhaps weighed down by a large bunch of keys in its pockets.

‘Congratulations, Mr. Makokha!’ I intoned in a reverent voice as soon as I reached him. He turned to face me, and his eyes, although I am not so sure now due to the passage of time, unsettled me for a fleeting moment: they seemed to burn with an intensity I could not place immediately. I have thought more about it in recent times, and now I believe it to be something akin to ambition. In hindsight, had I reflected more on the cause of this fleeting unsettling, I would have been more circumspect in my impressions of him. I suppose I forgot about it as soon as he spoke to me with his rich, baritone voice that possessed surprising warmth.

‘Thank you my brother, I didn’t expect them to do so well myself. I am truly proud of them, I must say,’ he said as he grabbed my hand to deliver that typical strong and enthusiastic Luhya handshake, typified more by his hard, callused hands. Towering above me – I am just five-foot-six tall – he was a little wiry for his height. He wore a short but untidy beard that skirted around his thin, hardened lips. His accent confirmed him as a thoroughbred Luhya.

‘How did you inspire them? Mr. Lutta and I tried quite hard with our students,’ I asked.

‘Ah! But it’s easy my brother, just believe in the story. All you have to do is believe in the story, they will catch the inspiration too.’ As he spoke these words, his affected smile disappeared, and his eyes misted a little in fervency. I was at once inspired by his remarkable commitment, as it seemed to me, which went beyond understanding the play. Indeed, I later tried to make this point to Mr. Lutta, my lead drama teacher, but he appeared not to fully understand its import. Mr. Makokha recovered almost immediately, and yet another felicitating teacher seized his attention.

I recall contacting Mr. Makokha more and more in the months following our first meeting, and a friendship of sorts developed between us. I say of sorts because, as straightforward as I have thought him to be, I still do not know much about Mr. Makokha’s past beyond our first meeting. I know that he is married to two wives and has numerous children, as can be expected of such a traditional man. I know his home village is Nyapora in Mumias, just neighboring St. Peter’s Mumias High School where I am the Principal. I have had numerous occasions therefore to pay him courtesy calls over the years, and I have come to be on good terms with his family. However, I have always sensed a certain limit to Mr. Makokha’s friendship, a certain reluctance to reveal more than is necessary. I haven’t particularly had a problem with this – in fact, his well-known candor in our teaching profession more than made up for this deficiency – but now that I think of it, it strikes me as a little odd.

Of course, Mr. Makokha has made quite a remarkable transformation since this rather inauspicious first encounter. If one meets him today, one would have trouble reconciling his image from ten years ago to the one he cuts now. I have heard glowing remarks on his immaculate suits, his Toyota Camry, and his two houses, one for each wife. I have seen him embrace the publicity that he seemed to eschew on our first encounter, and slowly begin to cultivate it to endear himself. I haven’t had a problem with this either. I have come to think of it as a natural transformation of an ambitious man who is well known for his prodigious concern for the welfare of teachers. I was not surprised at all when he was elected to the National Executive Council of the Kenya National Union of Teachers about three years ago.

I remember that those heady days of the campaign were made easier by our strike then in protest against our appalling salaries. I was particularly involved in the mobilization in our County, as was Mr. Makokha, who was a rising star in the County structures. His election was most natural – I am not trying to belittle his achievements. However, that clear-skied day three years ago has stuck in a chamber of my memory, hidden and lurking as a wild dog would in the dark.

The long strike was still on, and I had whiled the afternoon with a couple of colleagues at Ekero Club. I might have consumed a couple of beers too many, perhaps, and my senses may have been lulled further by copious amounts of nyama choma. I recall humming a happy tune as I walked on the dusty road towards the school, where my house was. Often I was forced to stand on the side for a sugarcane-laden tractor to pass, spewing smoke and dust in my wake. Dusty children with tattered clothes often gave chase, grabbing canes, giggling and chuckling in delight as the drivers swore obscenities. The wind whipped up more dust in the hot and dry January late afternoon, creating little tornadoes as if portending a gathering storm. Bicycle and motorbike taxis ferried people back and forth, many of who carried foodstuffs and a few struggled with live chicken. An older man, wearing what I thought looked like new jeans trousers, a sweatshirt with FILA emblazoned on the front, and equally matching FILA sneakers, obviously flush with sugarcane money, walked hand in hand with a young girl I thought to be his daughter, but from the way he was looking at her, I wasn’t sure.

I was contemplating this when I heard guttural noises coming from a thatched hut to my left. I might have been alarmed – I am not quite sure why I made my way through the small guava thicket, through grass and leaves covered with brown dust, to investigate. As I approached a small window came into my view, and through it I saw Mr. Makokha sprawled on the floor, facing up, his body jerking and the whites of his eyes showing. An old woman, her back hunched, and wearing a sisal skirt and her torso crisscrossed by a bright red, flowery kanga as well as laces of beads and bones, walked around him, dipping a flywhisk in an open gourd and sprinkling some liquid on him, talking a strange language in that guttural voice.

Kukhu! Someone is looking!’ A shrill child’s voice called out to her grandmother, cutting through my dazed transfixion, and the old woman suddenly turned her head from her reverie and her terrible eyes settled on mine. I am quite sure she had a bad case of cataracts, but growing up I had heard tales of such kinds of eyes throwing invisible bad omens. I turned away, swift, but not before I realized Mr. Makokha too had noticed me.

This particular incident has since remained unspoken, even as Mr. Makokha paid me a courtesy call earlier today to make a profound request, which has compelled me to recall it. Mr. Makokha was quite genial today, and was straightforward as usual regarding the ills that faced Kakamega County.

‘You know Wekesa, my brother,’ he started as soon as our longwinded pleasantries had come to an end. ‘We need to revive our County. Too much time has been wasted on politics and not much development has happened. Look at this dusty road,’ he referred to the road leading to my school. It had the inadvertent effect of bringing to life that incident buried from long ago.

‘For how long has it remained like this? Dusty in the dry season, muddy in the rainy season? How many roads in Kakamega County are like this? How many hospitals are poorly managed, how many schools are falling apart? This County is a laughing stock! As Shakespeare says: confusion now hath made its masterpiece. Right here in our County!’ Mr. Makokha sounded indignant.

‘Indeed, so much more can be done. We need better leadership to move our County forward. Look at Governor Wafula and his team. Total idiots! No sense of direction at all!’ I shared his indignation, as I truly believe our current leadership is atrocious.

‘Yes, my brother, this is why, as you are already aware, I am running for Governor. And I want you to be my running mate.’

I suppose I was nonplussed, for he continued, insistent, excited. ‘Think about it! Two non-politicians, well-known teachers, KNUT officials, squeaky clean, fresh ideas! We both have great reputations, brother! We have the networks, and there is sufficient time to mobilize our people. It’s our time!’

He paused to catch his breath, and his eyes shone with the same unsettling intensity as ten years ago. I regarded him with an uncertain wariness, which I tried to hide, although I am not sure I was successful.

‘I don’t know, Mr. Makokha, I’ll have to think about it.’ I offered in a tight voice.

‘Sure! We have plenty of time, no pressure, my brother. Remember Shakespeare!’ He proceeded to quote from Macbeth in quite dramatic fashion:

“I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
And falls on the other.”

So, as you can surmise, I have been compelled to reflect upon Mr. Makokha because of his request that I be his running mate. I am not quite sure. Being Deputy Governor would of course not be a modest achievement. I imagine it comes with a lot of power and fair measure of glory, not to mention considerably greater financial means, although this, I suppose, shouldn’t be a major preoccupation. Most important would be the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to this County, the land of my birth, and of my ancestors. Mr. Makokha seems sufficiently popular – it appears, barring some monumental machinations by Governor Wafula’s unpopular regime, he will easily become the next Governor. It would be a welcome breath of fresh intellectual vigor to have a Shakespeare-quoting, development minded and charismatic Governor, and even better to work with one.

Yet this unsettling feeling is hard to ignore. Mr. Makokha, standing there on my doorway as he departed, a resolute chin struck forward, made it quite clear that he wasn’t turning back by delivering yet another quote:

“I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.”

I have studied Macbeth again since his visit earlier today, and it appears to me that Mr. Makokha’s fervent obsession with this tragedy is altogether alarming. The more I reflect on this matter, the more a mission unfolds before me, one weightier than our wars with the government over our salaries, one greater than the mobilization and networking that we have undertaken over the years.

I have to stop him.

Picture Credit: chriscormieranimation

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

One Year of Blogging: Thank You


A year ago I started this blog. From that tentative first post and through the highs and lows of the year, it has become an ambivalent girlfriend whose ambivalence is only matched by mine. I have deserted and came back to it many times. One would think that it is always there, as I did at first, to be forgotten and remembered at capricious whims. It however has a trump card of its own – words. It is somehow in sinful collusion with the blank word document, mocking white, blemished only with that blinking, laughing, and pointing-a-finger-in-vindicated-mirth cursor. Inviting and mocking at the same time, quietly screaming, “look, I’m all yours, give me your best shot,” it dares and comforts, rewards and punishes, validates and fulfills, all in harmonious measure.

It is a journey that didn’t start a year ago, but from primary school days when the English teacher’s stringent “five minutes!” was a call to draw up speedy conclusions to those ubiquitous “compositions” written in surrendered and frenzied fervor. Remember them? Those in which you wrote of “adventures in forests”, two-headed ogres, and dips in local rivers that raised the teacher’s eyebrows as you and your friends had skived just a week earlier. Once in my final year I was tempted to write about a girl sitting in the front row (boys, we always sat at the back) who had taken to smiling at me as if saying she had waited for me for eight years, and once this charade of KCPE is over it’s you and me. I think I figured that wouldn’t have been appropriate.

I’m curious to read my compositions now, they always seemed full of outrageous and overblown similes, metaphors, and big (we called them “bombastic”) words intended to impress. They were repeated over and over again, I wonder why teachers never got bored with them. Yet we practiced them religiously, lest we forgot before the main KCPE show. We defensively covered our scripts from prying eyes. It was funny how the classroom bully would insist on sitting next to a composition champ during the tests.

Those challenged in this department made grand and alluring promises of “ice”, samosas and sukari nguru during lunch break in solicitation for help; others made offers you couldn’t refuse especially if they were good at something you weren’t (geometry and Business Education were particularly annoying for me). You could tell the challenged ones who, whenever you looked up from furious scribbling, you would find them staring at the ceiling or at those writing, as if in stupefying wonder where they got the words from. Eyes would meet at a terribly awkward moment, when one would wonder what exactly is the other writing so earnestly, while the other would resist a sudden temptation to burst out laughing. And it was gratifying when your composition was read aloud to the rest of the class, but annoying at the same time as you felt like you now had to come up with new tricks.

It was from this juvenile competitiveness that this journey started, and it’s a journey that is far from complete, like a self-perpetuating epic story. I can feel the echoes even now. Sometimes I catch myself staring at the ceiling as if I’m about to invent word mining from there, and I burst out laughing. Life comes full circle. Yet we are unable to escape the beauty words can paint, the emotions they can bring, and the stories they can weave. We read to appreciate and wonder at beauties painted; to go on a roller coaster of emotions created; and to be enchanted by stories weaved. And we write to try and do the same.

In this blogging episode I have made new virtual friends whom I have only met through the written word. Friendships whose lives crop out of a shared fascination with the written word are as good as any. I have solidified many more. I am still learning what works, and what doesn’t. But most of all, I am comforted by your readership and your comments, and by your virtual companionship in this journey under these starry skies.

So here’s to many more years of reading and writing, and to you the reader. Thank you for coming back again and again in the past year.

Picture credit: shesgotsystems.com