Not all who wander are lost

I was, by all accounts, a very naughty and inquisitive child. And impatient, quite impatient. So, combine these three qualities and what happened next will come as no surprise.

I attended primary school 30 minutes away from home, and a school bus would collect us in the morning, drop us off at school, and collect us again in the early afternoon for the return journey. This routine repeated itself for years, and so we came to count on the bus’ arrival everyday, like clockwork. We knew that after the final bell rang, we had just enough time to run to the nearby kiosk and buy mabuyu/ baobab seed candy or maembe pilipili/ peppered mango before we headed back home.

I still remember that afternoon, it was sunny, the endless blue sky promising a warm welcome when we got home. After an unusually long wait, we heard that the bus would be delayed. My friend Cheruto and I, after about 30 more minutes of waiting, decided, in our nine year old infinite wisdom, to trek home. I mean, how far could it be, it took the bus half an hour, so, in our minds, it would take us one hour tops. That’s how confident we were. And so, armed with our backpacks and Cheruto’s brown trench coat, we set off in the general direction of our homes. 

I can’t say for sure when the folly of our decision started to dawn on me. Maybe it was when we had to sneak away from the other children, or maybe it was when we almost immediately realized that to get to the main road that would lead us home, we had to walk past a Muslim cemetery, which we did, screaming at the top of our voices, and to use a common English composition phrase, running as fast as our skinny legs would carry us, lest the dead rose and came after us for being naughty children. 

We walked up winding roads, arriving at the Eldoret airstrip, and it was at this point that Cheruto pointed at the very thick forest across from it, whispering, “We need to be very quiet, I heard that people are murdered in that forest.” She delivered this news in a matter of fact tone, and at this point, an hour into our journey, and having barely survived unseen ghosts at the cemetery,  I was starting to get really tired, but the prospect of being murdered and buried in that forest injected much needed adrenalin in my legs, so I joined Cheruto as she sprinted up the hill. At this point, I was definitely regretting my decision to join this hair raising trek. 

Fifteen or so minutes later, when we had cleared the forest of unseen bloodthirsty hands, still very much alive, we soldiered on, spending the next hour walking on relatively flat and murder-free terrain. I asked Cheruto how she came about her forest news, and she shrugged, as one does when asked about a commonly known fact. You get to know someone really well when you are on an unplanned hike, having survived what seemed like near death experiences to a hyperbolic nine year old mind. I was an imaginative child, so, in my mind, we had just escaped ghoul and fiend. Let nine year old me be.

Cheruto’s mother was a cateress, and this girl was prepared. She had all kinds of fruit in her backpack, so we had enough snacks to last us for a few more hours. Everything was finally starting to work out, the two of us sharing Cheruto’s snacks, shooting the breeze, when unbeknownst to us, the clouds above us had entered into a quarrel, causing the erstwhile clear blue sky to have a change of heart and gather its squad of angry clouds the likes of which can only be found in Eldoret. There’s a little known fact about Eldoret. Sure, it’s produced more Olympic marathon athletes than I can count, but it also has a little secret. Hidden in its high altitude depths is the fact that Eldoret does not do wimpy rain, no ma’am, it puts on a spectacular show. Go big or go home. It doesn’t just  rain, it produces hailstones the size of a small golf ball, and if you happen to survive the concussion you are sure to receive should one of nature’s spheres land on your noggin, then there’s the lighting and thunderstorms to contend with. The phrase ‘when it rains it pours’ was literally coined in Eldoret. No? You don’t agree? I said what I said.

And so, when the angry clouds reached the zenith of their fight thousands of feet above our heads, the skies opened, releasing torrential rain. And this is not my hyperbolic nine year old mind speaking. It was so wet, Cheruto and I ran to a nearby kiosk to shelter from the deluge, her brown trench coat impotent in the face of Eldoret rain. About half an hour later, when the squabbling skies had vented their spleens and the rain had reduced to what Americans like to call a sprinkle, we resumed our journey. To say that we were cold is an understatement. We were soaked to the bone. I could barely feel my feet. Our brown uniform clung to our skin, our fingers raisined by the frigid rain.

Many hours after we set off on our fool’s adventure, and having survived plagues of biblical proportions like ghosts, murderers, potential floods and hailstones, we finally walked up to the gates that would lead us home. Not the pearly gates just to be clear. We had lost our body temperature, not our minds. To add insult to injury, the school bus drove past us, splashing water from a puddle on the road. We deserved it. When I got home that day, my mother, seeing my state, gave me an actual hot bath, and not the barely lukewarm temperature her elbow, which had been checking water temperature for decades, usually decided was best. To this day, I will go out of my way to avoid being cold, the hours of trekking in cold, soaked leather shoes all those years ago firmly imprinted in my brain as a do not repeat zone.

Here’s to all the intrepid little girls out there. May your adventures come with good friendships and warm endings.

When we die

He died in a car crash. This kid, who was my youngest brother’s classmate in primary school, now a grown man in his thirties, who had been a brilliant student and a thriving engineer, died in a tragic accident as January drew to a close.

The ideal natural order of life is that we are born, we grow up, start families, or end up single- whether by choice or fate, find a career, or a trade, and eventually retire, and after we have bored our families to death with tales of our glory days, wearing our grey crowns, our bodies give up and we are done. But death does not bend to our whims, it doesn’t care for schedules or sequence; it adds our names to its grim list from the moment we are born, waiting to pounce and rob us of our lives, sometimes hiding in plain sight.

But for most of us, the grim reaper is the final death. Most of us die young, really young. Our bodies are alive, our mouths speak. We eat, we drink, we laugh, we cry, we sleep, but we aren’t really alive. You see, we die when we give up on our dreams, when we stop listening to our hearts and what they seek. Talk to any kid, they have grand dreams, they are alive, their bright future illuminating their eyes. And then somewhere along the way, someone or something, a set of circumstances, takes that child’s dreams and tramples upon them, leaving shards where hope once bloomed.

This man’s death was a reminder. A reminder to resurrect ourselves while we still breathe, exhume our dreams from the graves we consigned them to, find a way to follow our hearts, live fully, truly, so when the grim reaper comes calling, we will have emptied ourselves of all we had to share in this life.

May he rest in peace.

Forefathers

Picture a Luo man. Tall. Dark. Handsome. Son of Ogutu. Blessed with the charm to toa nyako pangoni. Now picture that this tall, dark, handsome and charming Luo man is also the wealthiest man in the village. He marries his first wife, his Mikayi, and charms her sister into marrying him, making her wife number two, his Nyachira. His charm gets him wife number three, Reru, and her sister to boot. This pattern repeats itself not three, not four, not five but twenty-eight times. You read that right. The man’s charm offensive bagged him fifty-six wives. And in accordance with Luo culture, he paid dowry to their families, fifty-six times, and was still wealthy enough to provide for all fifty-six wives and their children, who numbered in the hundreds. A man that charming also had to have conflict resolution skills rivaling Kofi Annan’s, for it was not unheard of for wives to stage a coup against a woefully outnumbered husband making his life a living hell. He managed to avoid this fate a whopping fifty-six times. This dashing charmer marshaled his considerable family into farming the land around them, which made him even wealthier, for in those days, the bigger your granaries and herds, the wealthier you were. And this man, my great- grandfather Nyalwalo, was very successful in that regard. So successful in fact that a village, KaNyalwalo, was named for him.

One of the hundreds of children, Ojwang’, was raised at KaNyalwalo amid a sea of siblings, his mother Adowo NyarKanyinek one of the youngest of the fifty-six wives. The Italian Catholic missionaries descended upon this village during Ojwang’s childhood and embarked upon a baptism mission, branding Luo babies with the names of long-dead Italians. Think Abednego, Abscondita. He was lucky. They named him Pius, a name which his village mates pronounced as pee-oooos. A naturally fastidious person, Pius attended the local Catholic village school run by strict Italian priests and nuns. As a young man, he would relocate to Tororo, Uganda, for a job with the East African Railways, no mean feat in those days, and an achievement his larger than life ego would bask in.  Tororo, where the skirts were very short and the legs very long, was a natural hunting ground for Pius, as he had inherited his father’s charm and affinity for the ladies. After a few years of chasing skirts, he settled down and started a family with my grandmother Asin, a long-legged, slender, Luo woman, welcoming their four sons. A naturally generous man, Pius was a natural host, welcoming family and friends, serving them kong’ oseke, a traditional brew drank via straw. As a child, one of my older brothers claims to have wandered into the room that housed kong’ oseke and partaken of the drink. His excuse? He mistook it for “strong smelling porridge”. A taller tale you will not find East of Timbuktu. Pius was a gregarious grandfather, and introduced my older brothers to ojuri, a traditional vinegar tasting dish you have to Google to believe, which was supposed to be exclusively eaten by grown men, but one he shared with his male grandchildren anyway, rules be damned.

Not too far away, a very tall gentleman named Ogutu, born to a clan of men who flirted with the seven foot height mark, married his brother’s widow Ogaja in accordance with Luo tradition; and together they had their first son Keya. When Ogutu married Ogaja, he was under the mistaken belief that like all the men in his family, he would marry a second wife, one he chose himself. Ogaja had different plans. Ogutu and his second wife Oiro found themselves migrating to a new village due to Ogaja’s refusal to accept Oiro, and in no small measure due to her acerbic criticism of Oiro, who, fearing for the safety of her child, fled with her husband. Imagine that you are that gentle giant known as Ogutu, patting yourself on the back for rescuing your chosen wife Oiro and your young daughter Onyango from the stereotypical step-mother, finally free to live your best lives away from the looming shadow of Ogaja, planting your grains, shooting the breeze, marveling at the ordeal you endured, when your worst nightmare shows up at your doorstep. You ask yourself a few questions. Was I a thief in my previous life? What did I do to the ancestors? Why me? But these questions go unanswered because Ogaja is here to stay and since there can only be one wife in your life, your chosen wife Oiro, says ‘ah ah. I am not an orphan, I am going back to my people. Peace out.” And that is how you end up spending the rest of your life with your first wife and any time you think about marrying another, the thought of packing up and starting over anew, when it will only be a matter of time before Ogaja finds you, deflates any hope of escape. But you are a grown man and your glass is always full, so you stick it out with Ogaja and you raise many children together. But your glass is not so full as to blind you, so you wisely place your daughter by your second wife in the care of your daughter-in-law, and since you all live in the same homestead, you get to raise all of your children.

Remember the first tall, dark handsome gentleman at the beginning of this story? Well, he was not the only one. My grandfather Keya was a gentle giant who stood head and shoulders above his peers in intellect, wisdom and humor. He was raised in a very traditional patriarchal society but had the prescience to impel his daughters to pursue their academic potential at a time when his peers viewed daughters simply as beasts of burden and a pathway to wealth and dowry. Soon after he married Dana Athieno, he was drafted to fight the white man’s war, over squabbles roused in lands far away from him, and served honorably, applying the world view he received during his deployment to Egypt, Pakistan, India and the UK as fuel to galvanize his children to want more than the village life. He believed in women’s rights before women’s rights were a thing. Kwara Keya, realizing the importance of the empowerment of women, taught his wife to read at a time when most men believed that to teach a woman to read was a dangerous thing, and also selfishly because he did not want other men reading the letters he wrote to his wife Athieno, stealing his lines and not paying him royalties. Other men chose not to teach their wives how to read, creating a steady income for the men who could read deployed soldiers’ letters to their waiting wives.

He was raised Catholic but did not buy into the blonde haired blue eyed Jesus story, deciding to worship in a manner that was authentic to his Luo spirit. His wit was dwarfed only by his wisdom. Case in point, when my uncle was a teenager, he met a lovely lass and decided to sneak her into his simba. Like most teenagers, he thought he knew everything, and could outwit his father Keya. Well, since Keya was once a teenager, he caught on to what my uncle was up to pretty quickly and decided to have fun with it. Because why suffer through teenage drama if you can’t at least get an occasional good laugh out of it? So my very dignified grandfather decided to go for a walk, passing outside my uncle’s simba, casually asking if all was well. My uncle, panicking at the thought of being caught entertaining a young lady in his simba, blurted “anyamo niang’” translation, ‘I am chewing sugarcane’. My grandfather chuckled, walked away, and returned after a few minutes, cheekily calling out to my uncle, “podi inyamo niang’?”, translation, ‘are you still chewing sugarcane?’ A sulky teenager emerged, alone, as his lady love had taken off the minute the coast was clear, her reputation intact, her departure dashing my uncle’s raging hormone-fueled hopes.

“Jolly Joe”, my father’s nickname, was a very generous and resilient man, who passed his phenomenal whistling skills on to me. Raising six boys is no joke. You have to lay down the law, otherwise you are inviting chaos and anarchy into your home. And my father did not do chaos. Or anarchy. While he was a strict parent, because I was named after his mother Asin, he would call me mama. Thanks to my uncanny resemblance to his mother as I got older, he changed tack from the tried and true spare the rod method he had used on all of us, to long lectures about my actions and their consequences.

Sons are prized in African culture, but my father never favored my brothers over me, and had the same high expectations for all of us. It is said that Kiswahili was born in Tanzania, died in Kenya and was buried in Uganda. And my father, who was born and raised in Tororo, Uganda, spoke Kiswahili like a true Ugandan. Oswahili has nothing on Ugandan Kiswahili, and my sincere apologies to Kiswahili for calling what Ugandans speak Kiswahili (As the daughter of a Uganda born man, I am family, so Ugandans please don’t come for me). Words like ‘wosha’ for wash and referring to everything as ‘huyo’ whether it was living or inanimate, or sprinkling Luganda into conversations, were very common occurrences in our household. To get us to rinse our mouths after meals, he would tell us tales of blood sucking monsters who came to smell sleeping children’s mouths while they slept, and if our mouths were not clean, the nyang’au would suck all our blood. Needless to say, I religiously brush my teeth before bed to this day.  His version of ‘be prepared’, “Mbio ikitokea”, has been a humorous yet valuable life lesson.

An academically gifted student, he was admitted to a National School, Mang’u High School back in the day, and would have completed his secondary school education and gone on to university had life not dealt him blows that forced him to drop out. Resilience ran in his blood, and brilliance cannot be suppressed, so, undeterred, he secured a job with Bata, the shoe company, saving his money to pay for a clerk’s course which he successfully completed, securing a Senior Clerical Officer job at the then East African Community (EAC). When the EAC collapsed, he took his severance package and started a timber importing business which would see him travel back and forth between his native Uganda and his ancestral Kenya, sharing his success with his extended family. Any of his extended family who needed tuition, medical fees, living expenses, you name it, could count on my father. Here’s to a man who was a feminist before feminism was thing, encouraging my mother’s academic pursuits when most men of his generation still used such archaic phrases as “a woman’s place”.

Rest in Peace Baba.

An Ode to my Foremothers

To that resilient, young Ugandan widow, who, when her brother-in-law sold her two sons to the Arab slave traders, despite her grief, fled the land of her ancestors with her remaining child, a daughter, journeying for months in the hope of seeing her sons again, finally arriving in Mbita, her journey to a new land possible because of the kindness of strangers. For that force of nature who, upon the realization that her sons were forever lost to her, forged ahead, making a home in a strange land, raising her daughter, even though her heart bled for her missing boys.

To the widow’s daughter, who, having lost her father and two brothers in a very short space of time, trekked for months under extremely difficult circumstances, settled in Mbita, maturing to adulthood and raising a family of her own in Kalenjuok, Alego, including a daughter she named Akelo.

To Akelo “Ogaja”, my maternal great-grandmother who, like her Ugandan grandmother, was a petite force of nature, born in Kalenjuok, Alego. She who stood out like a sore thumb because of the yellow skin she inherited from her Ugandan forebears, but whose scathing tongue deterred any mention of her foreignness in that Luo village of sun-kissed ebony beauties, earning her the nickname “Ogaja”. She who would be widowed as a young bride and go on to marry her husband’s brother, a tall gentleman named Ogutu, who would go on to marry a second wife in line with Luo culture, and to his chagrin, find out that Ogaja did not share husbands. She who would go on to bear and bury many children, but, like her foremothers, would forge ahead, heartrendingly mourning and then bearing life’s tragedies with stoic resilience. She who patiently waited for the return of her son Keya from his deployment with the King’s African Rifles (KAR), hoping and praying, like all mothers of military men and women do, that their children will return home safe from the horrors of war.

To Adera, my maternal great-grandmother, a very kind-hearted, no-nonsense woman who bore my maternal grandmother Athieno, and who was the founder of the cheek pinching tradition that would be passed down to her daughters and granddaughters, keeping mischievous children in line one pinched cheek at a time.

To Athieno, my very petite and very formidable maternal grandmother, daughter of Adera and Makuda, born in Kaugagi Nina, mkhana Munyala, whose foremothers were Gohe and Muka. She who had a very naughty childhood but grew into a serious woman, married a military man, and ran her household with military precision. She who like many military wives, found herself being the primary parent, and whose husband Keya taught her how to read so “other men wouldn’t read the letters he wrote to his wife”. She who, because her husband traveled to Egypt, India, Pakistan and England while deployed with the KAR, spent long stretches of time alone with her mother-in-law Ogaja, and cared for her as one would their own mother. The kind-hearted mother who would go on to raise many children, those she bore and the motherless, and love them as her own, raising them in her very particular and quiet way, teaching them to speak AbaLuhya on the sly, as her Luo husband had forbidden it, but he was away frequently in service of the Crown, and when the cat’s away and all that. She who abhorred untidiness, frumpiness, and the mixing of cups used for tea and porridge, yes, even when clean. A teacup was a teacup and a porridge cup was a porridge cup and never the twain shall meet under Athieno’s watch. She who would have me pleat, not fold her blankets at the end of the day, because folded blankets just didn’t cut it, and who even when bent with old age, would have me walk ahead of her while climbing stairs because “you are a child and I need to watch over you”. She who, in her final years, would have me move Othith (palm fronds) from the sun to the shade and back and forth until she was satisfied with the suppleness of the Othith she used for weaving. She from who I inherited my pottery and weaving skills, and who would regale us with tales from her childhood including when processed sugar came to her village and only the naughty girls would eat it.

To my paternal grandmother Asin, Nyar Kakan, that phenomenal woman for who I was named and whose foremothers were Asiya and Achieng’. She who married young, and with her husband, moved to Uganda and, as was the tragedy of those days, bore and buried twin daughters. She would bear many sons, and though her daughters did not live, her granddaughters and great grand daughters would bear her name, Asin. She who made a new home in Uganda and would return to her husband’s ancestral village, Seje, to ensure that her sons received their fair share of their inheritance during the division of the ancestral land. She who, like another woman in a distant village, did not believe that husbands were communal property, ejected her husband’s second wife from the family home. She who was in equal parts extremely kindhearted and formidable, who was known as one you would not want to cross, for to step on Asin’s toes was to start a war that she would win, and on her own terms. To the woman who blessed me with my facial features and my physique. The woman who, even though she pre-deceased me, I am told I bear an uncanny resemblance to.

To Amolo, my grandmother Asin’s little sister and my adopted grandmother, who called me Nyaminwa, sister. For, she would remind me that not only was I named after her sister, but I looked, sounded and shared many of her sister’s personality traits. She who always had a gleam in her eye, whose laugh would brighten up even the gloomiest day, belying the blows life had dealt her. She who found humor in the ordinary, and always made the time to travel from her marital home, Mariwa to visit us, never afraid to get down to our level and play with us. I would call her on Saturday mornings my time, which was evening her time, and she would regale me with the goings on in her village. We gossiped like sisters and we would laugh and laugh about everyone and everything. She who I called Dana, Nyaminwa, osiepna, for our relationship transcended generations. She was my grandmother, my sister and above all, my friend.

To my mother, Supermom, Professor Rosebella Ogutu Onyango, who we are all truly fortunate to call mom. She, the first born of Athieno and Keya, and blessed with both beauty and brains, who flexed her intellectual prowess early in life. She whose father quickly realized that farming was not her strength, advised her that the pen was her jembe, and against the norm of the times, encouraged her, a girl, to pursue her academic journey “until there was no class ahead”, who graduated with her Bachelor’s and Masters degrees while raising seven children. She who was widowed while pursuing her PhD and did not quit, a testament to her spine of steel, also making her the first PhD in her entire village, earning her instant and enduring celebrity status. She who lives her deep Catholic faith, a phenomenal woman, whose quiet strength and sense of humor have steered our family through life’s turbulence. She who has survived near death experiences, and lived to tell the tale, and in her humorous way, imparting her timeless wisdom to us and the many grandchildren who are blessed to call her Dana. She who, when we stepped out of line as children, would, arms akimbo, exclaim “Choke!” which was our warning that the verbal part of that conversation was over, and a pinching was coming to cheeks near you. I, being the naughtiest of the last three children, was frequently on the receiving end. In my defense, I did inherit the naughtiness from several of my foremothers, it just skipped my mother, and seeing as I am the last in this venerable line of phenomenal women, I received a triple dose of it. She who embodied the gardening, and not carpenter parenting style, recognizing early on that we were our own people, and that her role was to enable us to be our best selves. Whose kindness to the numerous students she has taught over the years has earned her the name Mama. Whose birthday tributes are a testament to the impact she has made on many, whose former students still visit her decades after she taught them. Whose reassuring presence is the glue that holds our family together.

Here’s to the phenomenal women from whom I descend.

For the daughters of Uganda, For wakhana wa Kaugagi Nina Adera and Athieno, For Nyar Kalenjuok Ogaja, For Nyi Kakan Asin gi Amolo and for Nyar Uhanya, Supermom.

Bright Ones

“If you had told me, the guy who graduated at the top of my primary school class, attended Alliance High School, passed K.C.S.E with a straight A, and this was back when an A meant something, that I would be here today, I would have laughed at you and asked you to seek help for your mental issues.” He sighs deeply.

“But life has a way of taking your dreams into the palms of its hands and crushing them, and when you fall to your knees in surrender, grabbing you by your ankles and dragging you through thorns, bleeding, and only letting you be when it has robbed you of your last ounce of dignity.” He rubs his eyes, bloodshot and heavily bagged from years of working overnight shifts and sleeplessness, and staring at me from a face wrinkled long before its time.

“She was a CU girl, Christian Union, very saved, very very Christian. I met her during my first semester at the University of California, Berkeley. I was there on an academic scholarship, she, on a soccer scholarship. We were two kids, far away from home, and even though I’ve never bought into Christianity, it sounds like a con job to me, I went to church with her because it was important to her. I even ditched my girlfriend back home for this girl. We did everything together, and because we were on full scholarships, we didn’t have to work odd jobs to survive. Life was good. Easy,” His phone beeps, he shows me the screen, a photo of two identical boys, “my mom is raising them, I haven’t seen them in three years.” He lowers his head, the weight of the world on his shoulders.

“One thing led to another, and before we knew it, she was pregnant. A CU girl, pregnant. You know that Biblical story about Moses parting the red sea? That’s how our so-called friends scattered. We became pariahs. Fornication is a sin, and they were not going to associate with us, fornicators who were now bringing illegitimate life into this world. In Berkeley of all places, can you believe it?” He shakes his head, still bewildered by the fickleness of humanity.

“Anyway, because she was a CU girl, she decided to keep it. To say that we were terrified would be an understatement. She was the first born, the torch bearer of her family. The first to go to university, let alone travel outside the country. She is from Mugirango Chache, and told me that her father’s temper was legendary, which is saying something, coming from a place where fiery tempers are as common as a sneeze. He once broke the arm of a boy who dared show his face at his house, ‘like a twig’. And so we decided to keep the news quiet.” He pauses, typing into his phone. “My mom needs more money for the boys, they are outgrowing their clothes, and money to pay the nanny. Let me send her some cash.”

“And so, we found ourselves trying to figure out how to keep our scholarships and raise a family. Because when it rains it pours, we found out we were having twins. Twins! They don’t run in our families, but, like I said, life. Anyway, we had to sort out our living arrangements once the babies arrived, we couldn’t live in the hostels anymore, not with babies. I manned up, swallowed my pride and got a job at a gas station, working nights for minimum wage. It was a rude awakening, a humbling one. I grew up in Lavington, but you see, my parents are not the kind you go to with your problems, or so I thought. Plus, my dad had just retired so cash was tight. But the truth is I was a pampered kid. I didn’t realize how expensive life was. Over the next few months, I attended classes by day and worked at the gas station by night, trying to study and squeeze in some sleep during slow hours. Often, my classmates would stop by on their way from the club and some of them were really cruel, you know, ‘how the mighty have fallen’ was written all over the smirking faces. But there is no shame in being a man and providing for your family. And so I soldiered on.”

“Days turned into months and I saved enough for us to rent a room in a house. It was tiny, but the landlady was a kind old lady, and so we moved in one month to our due date. Amazingly, the birth of our boys was complication free, a blessing in itself because I’m not sure how we would have afforded a C-Section. I should mention that in the months leading up to the birth of our sons, she had become more and more distant, and by the time they were born, we were barely speaking. I hoped that the birth of the children would bond us, and I realize I am in the minority here, as most teenage boys don’t stick around. Some of my classmates asked me why I didn’t just leave her, I was nineteen, with the rest of my life ahead of me, and so many fish in the sea. But they didn’t understand. They didn’t understand that this girl had given up everything to have these children. She lost her soccer scholarship immediately because she suffered from severe morning sickness and couldn’t play anymore. It had been her dream to become a US citizen and maybe even play professionally. That door was now closed to her because she was no longer in school, and had violated the terms of her student visa. She had been ostracized by her Christian friends. Save for me, she was alone in this strange country. And she had a fire breathing dragon of a father back home, so she couldn’t even lean on her family for emotional support, and she certainly could not tell them that she had joined the ranks of international students who move to the United States to pursue a degree only to drop out of school, forever relegated to working grueling shift jobs under the table, playing hide and seek with immigration authorities.”

“Whoever coined the phrase ‘sleep like a baby’ had never met a newborn. They don’t sleep. The sleep deprivation, perpetual brokeness and isolation we were experiencing fueled the lava of insanity that finally erupted one fine morning just as I was wrapping up my overnight shift at the gas station. My landlady called me, frantically trying to say something my sleep addled mind couldn’t comprehend. All I heard was ‘come home now’. Luckily for me, my boss was there and I was able to hightail it out of there. When I arrived at the house, I found my landlady cradling my boys, and I ran to our room looking for her.” He pauses, the look on his face so broken, his bloodshot eyes swimming with tears. “You know, back home, we, men, are told not to cry, to ‘take it like a man’.” He holds his head in both hands, his words muffled, “She left us. Without a word. She packed all her things, and I mean everything. Even her spoons. She erased herself from our lives. My landlady, once she calmed down, told me she woke up to screaming babies, and to the sight of their mother dragging her two suitcases out of the house and into a waiting taxi. I don’t know where she found the cash, but she found it and left us. I didn’t know where to start looking. Here I was, a single father at twenty. Life, man, life will take a big nyahunyo and whip you, and just when you think you can’t take any more, life will send a truck to run you over. But even between the treads of those truck tires, life will sometimes grant you reprieve, and if there is such a thing as angels, mine was my land lady. That woman saved our lives. She went into mom mode, watching my kids while I went to school and worked nights. But it became clear to me that this situation was a bandaid at best. After two months, I swallowed my pride and called home. I cried to my mother like a baby. Mothers, man, mothers will love you when the whole world has turned its back against you. When you have no one left, your mother will be there for you. My mom sent me a plane ticket, and just like that, I took my boys home. My mom raised me, and now she’s raising my boys. It’s not been easy. Just when I was almost done, Rona hit, like I said, life and its nyahunyo. The silver lining is, with school closed, I’ve been able to put in more hours at the gas station so I have quite a bit saved up. I’m finally graduating this coming year, I’m getting my computer science degree. I already have a couple job offers lined up. The clouds are finally parting.”

I ask him where she is, the mother of his children.

“Well, thanks to social media, I found out she went back home. She went to university there and is also waiting to graduate next year. I sent her photos of our boys and she blocked me. I reached out to her sister, who told me that she was warned about me, a stalker who is trying to force myself and my sons on her. We are dead to her. It pains me, I don’t know what to tell my boys. But once I get a steady job and a place of my own, I am going home and I’m bringing them here. I’m their dad. I love them and I’m never abandoning them.”

Dia De Los Muertos

This weekend, many cultures around the world will hold days of prayer and remembrance for the departed. All Saints day is followed by All Souls day, which coincides with Día de Los Muertos, a day of remembrance observed by our Mexican brethren. Dia de Los Muertos is beautifully depicted in the film Coco, if you haven’t watched it, do yourself a favor and watch it. It will enrich your life.

We have all known the pain of losing a loved one. And though they are physically gone from our lives, their memories live on in us. I hope you will find the time to remember your departed loved ones too, and keep their memory alive.

Today, we remember, not how we lost them, but much better this world was with them in it.

We remember:

The mother whose laughter filled her house with joy, who toiled tirelessly to single-handedly raise her children. That formidable woman whose firm disciplinarian parenting built in her children resilience that has seen them through life’s challenges; and who carried herself with dignity and unfailing grace even as she fought her final battle.

The father whose quiet strength carried his family through unimaginable adversity. He who steered his wife and children to safety in a war-torn land, and once their safety was assured, returning to fight to defend the land of his forefathers to the bitter end.

The grandmother whose harshness melted away when she held her first grandchild in her arms, to the disbelief of her own children. She who, while she birthed no children of her own, lovingly raised other people’s children, so they called her mother and grandmother because love transcends blood.

The grandfather whose steady love for his family fomented in them an urge to always put family first in everything they did.

The sister who always had a ready smile, making every guest feel right at home. Whose wanderlust led her to travel the world, seeing for herself the beauty it holds.

The brother who always looked out for his tribe of misfits. For though they were condemned to homelessness, he taught them that family is bonded by love.

The teacher who taught selflessly, hoping for a bright future for all of her students. And those students, fueled by her belief in them, scaled seemingly unattainable heights, always hearing her voice spurring them on “You can do it. Never give up!”

The nanny under whose loving care many children were raised, she who was there to clean scrapes and kiss pain away.

The children tragically lost before they took their first breath, their lives over before they began, borne on angel wings.

May they rest in peace, and may they live on in our hearts.

Winged Cacophony

I am an optimistic person. Yes, it’s 2020, a.k.a The Ten Plagues of Egypt- The Sequel. And so, when we planned a family vacation for early September, it was in the hope that even in this year of elevated racial strife, endless fires and Coronavirus, we would find relief in an idyllic glamping site in California. We made reservations weeks in advance, not knowing that extremely destructive fires were on the horizon. On the eve of our departure, a new fire was started by a couple who decided to throw a gender reveal party by launching a pyrotechnic device. No word on what gender is represented by fire and smoke. I have some name suggestions: Fire, Smoke, Flame, Fuego, Calor, Mach, Liet, Wang (the last three being fire, hot and burn in my native DhoLuo, a language you might want to learn for its poetry)

Not be deterred by the fiery gender reveal and other ongoing fires, we departed on Monday afternoon and arrived at our destination in under two hours. The sky was much clearer than the smoky skies we left behind, and things were finally starting to look up.

Now, I love being in nature as much as the next person, but camping is just not for me. Sleeping on the ground, practically a snack for whatever python, bear, lion, tiger or cheetah (or, all the above in my overactive imagination) that strolls by is not my idea of a relaxing time. The views of the night sky and crisp air are amazing, but they are not to die for, literally.

I know, I know, it runs in people’s families etc. etc., it did in mine too, before we had houses, and beds, and indoor plumbing. Come on people.  

We entered our tent, which I must say was very nicely laid out, and came with an en-suite bathroom. It even had a fan, which was very nice considering the 115F (46.1C) fry-your-egg-on-the-pavement temperature.

We left the tent door and window vents open to expedite the cooling process, alas, it would prove to be a costly mistake. Once the sun set, we sat outside gazing at the night sky, the pitch blackness of the night offering a mesmerizing array of dazzling stars. My husband and son went into the tent for their showers while I continued to be dazzled by the glittering sky. I was so enthralled by the view that I did not notice the SEAL unit of mosquitoes who, upon finally finding a human target, descended on me like a mute blanket. It was only when a particularly thirsty one bit me particularly hard that I snapped out of my reverie to find myself covered in bite marks.

People, we are living in the end times. Mosquitoes do not like me. Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining. Rumor has it that they too have a preference when it comes to the buffet that is human blood types, mine being at the very bottom of their list. They will literally attack everyone around me before they take a very grudging sip of my unappealing blood. I can only assume that due to very limited options brought about by lock-down, these mosquitoes cannot afford to be choosers, seeing as they don’t exactly get their pick of targets. I immediately ran inside the tent and we closed the door. Little did I know that Mosquito SEAL Unit 2 lay in wait, their shift about to start. As soon as I settled in, they descended on my head, biting my neck, ears and even my scalp, my scalp! My family had wisely completely covered their heads with their blankets, so the mosquitoes, once again, had to sink to the lows of targeting me. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

Temperatures had dropped to around 68F (20C) when I finally started to drift off to sleep with my mosquito-chewed head covered in a cloyingly perfumed blanket (which would normally be a problem, but was now my only defense from the ravenous SEAL Unit 3 which I was certain was on its way to suck whatever was left of my blood). I may have slept for five minutes before I was rudely awakened by a dueling cacophony of bird noises. You see, long before we arrived at the glamping site, a simmering rivalry between a resident rooster and horn-bill had reached a crescendo, and seeing as I am not a coma level sleeper like the rest of my family, I was the lucky person to receive a front row seat to the screaming match of September 2020. I am not sure what time zone that rooster operates in. Actually, I think that rooster might be an import from the farms of upstate New York, seeing as it started its exuberant crowing at 1am Pacific (4am Eastern) and would not stop until almost four hours later. Not to be outdone, the cantankerous horn-bill responded to the crowing at a decibel level carefully curated to keep me awake, but not loud enough to, say, cause real damage, like rupture my eardrums. Hand-crafted artisanal cacophony, was what it was.

To say that I was groggy the next morning is an understatement. Add to that winds changing direction and bringing with them ashes from far flung fires, so that white specks of ash were now falling on my mosquito mangled flesh while we toasted in the glow of an eerily orange sun, and we decided to cut our losses and return home posthaste.

Home, sweet home, where the mosquitoes, roosters and horn-bills are not.

The Swift Escape

California is burning. There is not a delicate way to say this. No euphemism to mask the horror of watching homes engulfed in dark plumes of smoke and roaring flames, of seeing your fellow citizens rendered homeless. It is hazy outside, with ashes falling from the sky. In the evening, the setting sun casts an eerie orange glow on everything and everyone, making us all look like a certain occupant of the White House.

This latest series of unfortunate events all started last weekend when we were awoken by loud claps of thunder. Lightning lit the dark sky, accompanied by a few raindrops, but there wasn’t enough rain to prevent the lightning from lighting California’s vast parks and foothills ablaze. And so, all week, we have been checking in on friends, and checking our phones for evacuation notices. So far, thankfully, our home and those surrounding it have been spared.

My friend Zara and her husband are originally from Louisiana and have lived in California for a few years now. They both work in Silicon Valley, and when Coronavirus struck and we were all placed on lock-down, they, like most Californians, followed the Governor’s directive and hunkered down to help flatten the curve, unlike other who chose to disregard all medical and scientific evidence, and continue to live like we all did pre-Covid.

A few weeks ago, they casually mentioned that they were considering moving back to Louisiana to be closer to family since they were on lock-down.

You see, every state in this country has its natural disasters. New York has its hurricanes and winter storms. Georgia and Florida have tornadoes and hurricanes. California has fires and earthquakes. Occasionally, mother nature will feel super ornery and decide to throw floods into the mix. Let’s hope this is not that year.

This year’s fires hastened Zara’s decision, seeing as they presented her family with two choices. Stay in California and inhale noxious fumes with a side of Coronavirus, or go home to Louisiana and eat beignets while breathing fresh air, and also maybe contract Coronavirus. After much hand wringing, gnashing of teeth and debating, they decided that they would move to Louisiana within a month.

On the week of their departure, they were watching TV at home when a commercial came on.

“Did you know that wearing masks protects you from Coronavirus? Did you also know that masks will protect your lungs from fire related pollution?” and while they processed that information, another commercial came on “are you prepared for earthquakes?”

That was the last straw. How many disasters were they supposed to be prepared for? It was at that point that Zara and her husband decided that those were three disasters too many, packed up their bags and left the land of the iPhone posthaste.

I hope that the people of Louisiana think of us as they bite into fresh beignets while inhaling ash-free fresh air, and not worrying about earthquakes.

TYSON

I was six years old when I experienced my fist lock-down. Every morning, we would walk a short distance to the street where our school bus would pick us up for the half hour ride to school. We had made our own short cut (or panya route in common parlance), through the grass as we didn’t want to follow the slightly longer paved path. For the uninitiated, a panya route is a foot-trodden path similar to a narrow hiking trail. Our panya route was partially obscured by overgrown grass, but the dewy grass wasn’t enough of a deterrent to motivate us to use the proper path. Taking the panya route had consequences. The most obvious being that our shiny polished brown leather school shoes would acquire debris from the unpaved path, leading to a panicked emergency shoe-shining session when we finally got to school. The shoe shining was facilitated by using the sock-clad opposite foot to quickly shine each shoe, restoring it to its former glory. The second consequence, as you can guess, was that the bottom of our socks now carried the panya route debris and pocked the soles of our feet all day, but hey, our shoes shone and met the school’s rigorous shoe cleanliness standards set by a long departed colonialist. Had I had an entrepreneurial bone in my body, I would have come up with a shoe-shining business. I would have trademarked “Panya Route’s Shoe Shining”. Business would’ve been booming, I would have been a tycoon at the tender age of 6, retired at thirteen, but alas, my entrepreneurial bones were yet to be formed.

It is common for some Kenyan families to keep guard dogs, usually German Shepherd Dogs. I love GSDs. They are highly intelligent, beautiful and loyal. They are very gentle with babies, but extremely fierce against adversaries. They are your ride or die canine.

One of our neighbors had a GSD named Tyson. Now, Tyson was no ordinary dog. He was a dog among dogs. He was a huge dog whose reputation preceded him. He was the kind of dog all female dogs wanted to mate with, because that superior gene pool had to be passed onto little Tysons. He was extremely ferocious and because of that, he was kept under lock and key during the day and left to roam at night. But since we were always indoors at night, we never encountered Tyson.

In Kenya, if one was found wandering outside late at night, the Kenyan police would typically ask one to confirm if they were:

  1. A dog
  2. A prostitute
  3. A thief
  4. A policeman

The unseen option above, written in invisible ink, was an offer you could not refuse, to spend the night in a jail cell, offering you a space to cool your heels until dawn. This courtesy was funded by the very generous Kenyan taxpayer and supplemented by you because you had to bribe your way out of the jail cell. You would be motivated to do so because of the company in the cell, which comprised of actual prostitutes, thieves, and a very odorous bucket that served the purpose of a toilet.

Anyway, all was well in my little academia suburb until one day, Tyson went missing. To say that we were gripped with fear is an understatement. The thought of running into Tyson’s gigantic teeth kept us inside. Even indoors, any sudden noises caused immense anxiety. I have always had a vivid imagination, and in my mind, Tyson may have snuck into our house when we opened one of the doors. I was a dyed in the wool mischievous tomboy, but the specter of Tyson’s bark and bite kept me indoors. My partners in crime and I were under no illusion about what would happen to us if we ran into him.

The fear of Tyson transformed us into the most paved-route-abiding children known to man and woman. Call us Dini ya Pavement (Religion of the Pavement). Like new converts to Christianity, we left our heathen panya route ways behind us, walking in groups, eyes peeled for any tell-tale signs of the missing canine terror. Conversation was kept to a minimum, lest Tyson hear us badmouthing him and pounce upon us, and in my overactive imagination, tearing our limbs apart, leaving our parents bereft. I am not sure if there is an afterlife for newly reformed Panya route users, but I imagine we would gain entry due to the Damascene conversion we had just experienced.

The Panya route was completely abandoned, seeing as the sand colored grass may have been harboring a sand colored Tyson. I imagine that the grasshoppers and ants who had to run (and hop) for their lives upon our arrival on the panya route each morning must have had a block party, dancing the night away into the morning with no fear of being trodden upon by scofflaw school children. They must have remarked upon the beauty of the dewed grass and gotten to know each other better, perhaps even planned for the permanent liberation of the panya route from marauding feet. I should say that I also recognize that Tyson’s disappearance would have marked the demise of my imaginary yet flourishing Panya Route’s Shoe Shining enterprise.

After school, we again coalesced into the newly formed Dini Ya Pavement. We went straight home from school, meaning, my mischievous tom-boy self could not play in the mud and climb trees freely, lest I meet Tyson on a tree branch. Yes, we believed that Tyson could climb trees, swim, fly, squeeze under doors and materialize out of thin air.

Two long days later, to the jubilation of all, a nonchalant Tyson wandered back to his home, unaware of the terror his disappearance had caused. Where had Tyson been? What had he seen? Had he eloped with a lush GSD female only to realize that life on the run was not for him? We will never know. But since Tyson did not speak human and we didn’t speak bark, he took that secret to his grave. Also, we valued our lives so we were not going to approach him.

In case you are wondering, we quickly backslid to our panya route ways, Dini Ya Panya route abandoned.

Sartorial Chronicles

“How you dey? I will make you the most beautiful dresses you have ever seen ooooo. I am well known back home you know! God don butta my bread. The President’s relatives were my customers, I can even show you photos of the clothes I made them. When you see your dresses, you will not believe it!” This animated proclamation was made to Abeni, a bride to be, and her two sisters. With a month to go before the wedding, the siblings wanted to believe that this time they would be lucky. They nodded slowly, hopeful that this tailor, or “Telo”, as tailors were known locally, would be true to his word.

The last two Telos they had worked with had stolen their fabric and vanished into thin air, in that order. But since they needed to have their dresses made, they had no choice but to keep on trying. After all, a girl’s broken heart could hope once more, especially when Presidential service was dangled before them.

“Which relatives did you sew for?” asked Abeni’s younger sister Abioye, envisioning herself in a regal dress, custom made by Telo to the President’s relatives.

“Sorry?” the Telo asked.

“Which of the President’s relatives did you sew clothes for?” she repeated.

“Oh, right, right! the President’s brothers and sisters. Yes, I made all of their clothes”

“I thought that the President was an only son? I didn’t know that he had brothers” Ayomide, the third sister, questioned. For one whose name meant “my joy has come”, she sure asked a lot of questions, and not those of the joyous kind.

“Why you dey give me wahala? In Africa, brothers be cousins and cousins be brothers, all join.” the Telo laughed nervously. Ayomide was not impressed. But like her sisters, she was stuck between the Telos who stole from them and this self-aggrandizing Telo. In other words, they were stuck between a rock and a hard place.

He took their measurements in record time, not stopping to write them down. They left, assured that in two weeks he would have their clothes ready for their first fitting.

Exactly two weeks later, they listened as the Telo told them that he had not gotten to their dresses because he was fasting.

Abeni and Abioye were stunned into silence. Not so Ayomide.

“What did you say? When did you decide to start fasting?”

“Listen well well, young lady, this is why you no get husband ooo”

“I am here to ask about dresses, not husbands! When will your fast end?” she asked the Telo.

He shrugged, as if he had no idea when he would eat again. Just then, he let out a loud belch.

“Fasting, huh?” Ayomide countered. “What is that stuck in your teeth? It looks like meat to me.”

“Make you no vex me ooooo. I never chop all week!” the Telo, caught in a lie, became defiant.

The three sisters looked at each other, wondering what to do. They were at this “fasting” man’s mercy, and he knew it. When asked if he had any questions about measurements and design, he was so offended by their lack of faith in his abilities that he reminded them once again that he had clients in high places and was not fazed by their inquisition.

“Is there any way you can make our dresses in a week?” Abeni, the bride to be and the family peacemaker, gently asked. The thought of not having new clothes to wear at her wedding reception filled her with disappointment. She had lost a lot of weight for the wedding, and none of her previously made dresses would fit her as is. She fully expected to gain the weight back after her wedding because she was marrying a “big man” and as the wife of a rich man, thinness was an indicator of suffering.

One week later, they returned, and to their profound shock, found their dresses complete. When Abeni tried her dress on, it fit perfectly, which was shocking considering that  the Telo had not written down any of their measurements.

“You know say, my head dey there. Writing na for fools.” He bragged.

Abioye’s dress fit perfectly as well. But when Ayomide, who had called the Telo out on his “fasting” a week earlier tried hers on, the top half was too baggy and the short half was too tight.

“It doesn’t fit!” she exclaimed.

“Look at this one. She has been eating a lot  and became fat ooo. Ehe! Ehe! You ask me, a whole me, if I dey tell you the truth when I tell you say I never chop! And now you come back bigger than you were and blaming me. I did not put the food in your mouth ooo. I am done ooo, pay me for the two dresses, you can have yours for half price.”

“I’m not giving you a penny for this hot mess!” Ayomide countered.

For the sake of peace, Abeni intervened and they finally settled on paying for the two well made dresses and only a quarter of the price for Ayomide’s catastrophic dress. The Telo told them that the dresses used up all the fabric they brought, and nothing, not even scraps, were left over.

The man had stayed true to his word. When they first met him, he told them that when they saw their dresses, they would not believe it. Those words proved prophetic for Ayomide’s dress.

Ayomide was seething when they left. She found another Telo to adjust the disastrous dress and looked radiant at Abeni’s wedding later that month. With the fixed dress, maybe she would find a husband so people like the Telo would get off her back. The day was young.