Three years ago I had a decent job and a rotating chair. My office was at the furthest end of the block on the top floor and so, yes, privacy and majesty were my portion too. I was fresh from two places, college, and the village. This must be the reason I used the lift up and down the office, took photos taking tea and kept a small secret in the staff kitchen because I had a phobia for electricity.
I don’t like this life. Every day I must be up very early, sometimes 4, sometimes 3. I need those hours with myself to get the lines right. My director is one quick guy who does not like what he calls sluggards. So I get up and pace in that room, repeating the new lines and making sure the old ones remain intact. On weekends I talk alone. The shopkeeper says I need a wife.
But do you just marry because you are talking alone? Will the wife eat your words? That shop keeper is crazy. Nowadays even words cannot sweet talk a woman. Wads do. Marrying just because you speak words is foolish, and it is more foolish if the words you speak are also foolish. You fix yourself in a problem you can’t buy yourself out. You get stuck like rich people get stuck in the traffic jam at the Jogoo Road – Outerring Road junctions.
For those who hate jams, being at a Jogoo Road – Outerring Road roundabout is not the friendly thing you’ll keep a straight face over. Every second that comes carries with it a long painful drag in the heart. You feel He was sadist to create man without wings so they soar you in the air and take you home on Thursday evenings. But again wouldn’t there be bird jams in the air? Like, you are only as little as a sunbird and we have eagles from Kakamega with big chests and muscular legs. Or rude vultures from Mombasa meeting the hornbill while all are running from the storm. It’d be hell. We would knock heads upon heads and that doesn’t hurt, yes?
So better just to remain humans without wings. Humans without wings can talk and greet each other. They can persevere the loud music in a bus at a Jogoo Road – Outerring Road roundabout. They can turn to the seatmate, see their own frustration in the seatmate’s face, smile, and think silently: we are one.
That’s the jam where you choose to pass time by staring outside through the window. You find comfort in seeing that frustrated look on other motorists also stuck in the same fix. A small smile curves at the edge of your sad lips. They, these people, took loans and bought click cars, but here we are, all consumed in the shit. It doesn’t matter where we shall each spend the night – what matters is that presently we are equal and humbled, the tall and the short. God, I don’t want wings.
At such moments you will look outside longer. You particularly fix your look at the young driver in the Toyota Prado on lane two. The metal has a commanding presence in the jam and this power sieves itself into the lone occupant. You can’t see her face very well in the dark glasses, but you place her at 23, which is the age of all city chics anyway. You try to imagine what she is thinking. Is she going to see her parents or she is going to her house? Is she called Laura? Can she love a man from Kayole still dodging his landlord at midmonth? You take in one deep breath and decide that she is good looking, in a league of her own, and that you can’t get her. You frown and look away.
Then you spot Erickson.
Erickson, if that is his name. He sits in his wheelchair and wears a beaten look. I know wearing a beaten look for a boy yet to reach ten is illegal, but? In his right hand is a plastic bowl that contains a few coins. The sun is setting and so you can’t really tell if those coins are shinny or not. But Erickson’s look is not shinny at all. His face is gray from the sun and the dust. He has a faded brownish-yellow shirt slightly torn at the edge of each shoulder. The wheels to his Beast are slanting outwards on the upper part. He looks down.
Right above Erickson’s head is a manila paper written Erickson’s name and the call to help raise his school fees. Even the handwriting is tired, mixing upper and lower case and with tails of Q and G going in the wrong directions.
My seatmate touches my shoulder and points her sad lips at the woman pushing the wheelchair. I look at her and feel the hopelessness she must be going through. Waking up with the daily realisation that it is another day to take care of Erickson. Perhaps Erickson’s father is dead. Perhaps he ran away from the trouble of being father to a wheelchair lad. They do. They will run away many times. I am not a religious person but I know the stories of temptation.
Perhaps they have no place to live. If she spends her days pushing Ericson’s wheelchair for school fees, where does she get the time to hustle her landlord’s dues? Those words on the manila paper must have been written in haste, probably from a city council toilet and the security guy just couldn’t allow Mama Erickson to complete writing. And food? Erickson himself looks like his last meal was taken some recent day, if he had any. An awful sight, to cut the words.
It is the woman next to my seat that wakes me from this dream. She taps at my shoulder again and this time points at Erickson’s mother with her index finger. Then she funnels her palms around my ears and leans to shout above the noise of the bus.
“Look at this woman,” she says. Even in the loud music of the bus, you can feel the contempt in her voice.
I look at the mother pushing the wheelchair. I see it.
Unlike Erickson, Mama Erickson is clean. Her hair is neatly done, stretching back to form an average but neat ponytail. She has a white shirt and a black pair of trousers. Her shoes look about three weeks old. Her body, I now see, is different. Looks like she had two lunches today. She is either lower middle or upper lower class. That is the contrast I did not initially see.
“It is unfair to use children. Chances are that that is not her child in the first place,” shouts my seatmate above the noise.
The jam has eased a bit on lane two, and my good Laura has moved some two or three metres ahead. I can now only see the butt of her metal. It is so big she shouldn’t be riding there all by herself. And why should she when such good men as myself are on offer for free? Laura, I can protect you. I can stand by you. I can sing you songs from the kingdom and massage your toes. I can love you the love a good woman deserves and many things more. But I know. At her age, Laura is perhaps married to a tycoon who comes to bed twice in December, once in February and nothing more. Or she is chasing after a nice gospel singer who is in turn praying for God to give him Beyoncé. Everyone targeting up in an absurd twist of nature.
Maybe I should start a funds drive to get Laura. Call all my folks and tell them I am finally marrying. Then when everyone is still celebrating, I tell them I need a 2M start-up to initialise the campaign. Or I go buy a wooden bowl and tie my heels on my waist for a cripple. Then locate a good street near a church or something. The metal looked too empty with just Laura alone.
“Did you see in the news? A man adopted and used two crippled children to raise funds. Said it was to meet the child’s bills and flight to India for spinal surgery. When he collected 3.7M what did he do? He ran to Guangzhou and his accomplice wife reported to the police after realising how she had been used. People like to misuse trust.” A talker she is, this woman.
I think she is as frustrated as I. All these words and she isn’t tired yet! She is frustrated that she doesn’t have any spare coin to pay Erickson’s fees. We are all poor in this city. Even those who board Flight 520 at JKIA are still poor machines automated by society to run errands for the real owners. We are all poor. Poor. Being on a bus does not mean we have paid rent. It doesn’t mean we can sacrifice a meal to afford paying a poor boy’s fees. It doesn’t mean we can even spare some fare to go check what is up at college ever since they said our marks were missing. I am only an actor expecting my first salary in December. You can’t know who did what for me to be on this bus today.
Why would you use a child to get money, anyway? Children, God’s bits of wood, are citizens that should make us all wake up, roll our sleeves and head to work. It doesn’t matter what the work is. Just get out, walk in the streets: you will find something to do. It might not be decent, it might not be your choice, it might not bring a lot of money. But it will bring something altogether. If it doesn’t bring money, it will bring life, which is what we all seek. Otherwise, go back to the village.
Most of the people in the city are struggling. The population of Emba, Buru, Doni or Umo can a hundred times be outdone by the population of Mathare alone. Yet there are many Mathares in Nairobi’s Eastlands. There are at least fifteen of them for every one Emba. But those people work! They wake up very early in the morning and pour themselves into the frenzy of the city. They work at Indian firms and sometimes the machines eat their fingers. They hawk panties and rat poison along River Road. They roast maize by the roadside. They spend the whole day standing on stage rehearsing lines and pray that the director gives them fare home, and when this happens, they meet needy children looking for school fees.
Last December was not a good month for me. I was broke like Greece. Then one evening I am walking from the CBD to go to Eastleigh where I was living at the time. This girl comes. I am at Jamia, now approaching Nation Centre. She is like five or six. She stretches her hand and asks that I give her something for dinner. I can’t even answer. I have no fare home and still after the walk I will roll my blanket and sleep in the corner on an empty stomach. She insists I give her something. I assume again and walk ahead faster. When she scratches my hand for attention, I get really overwhelmed. I turn and give her a light not-so-light slap on the shoulder. I want her mother who is obviously watching from somewhere to see. Then I shout at her to go tell her mother this is bad manners. Of course she doesn’t even run. She turns and stretches the hand to the next passer-by as if it were a well-rehearsed script.
And why would Mama Erickson need school fees when all public schools are free? In fact, most of the city’s schools for the handicapped offer other incentives to the young lads there. Couldn’t she be creative enough to conjure a better trap? Or does she mean Erickson, son of a beggar, must go to a fancy private school while the sons to the begged go to free public schools?
It is poverty. It is poverty frustrating the potential giver and the given alike. We all know all these cases are genuine, one way or the other. Even if Erickson’s mother isn’t seeking school fees, she is in another battle with poverty. You won’t find a rich beggar on the streets. It is the uncertainty of getting tomorrow’s meal that pushes them there. Every morning she prays that the traffic jam intensifies and holds the passengers longer from reaching Kayole. She must buy that new shoe, you know. She prays that big buses break down so she gets access to a bigger mass. She’s among those that pray we don’t be given feathers and wings. And we all get mad at them because of poverty, ours and theirs. It is the inner shame that we cannot afford a ten bob coin for Mama Erickson to go to the salon in the name of seeking school fees. It is the bitter realisation that we won’t see Laura again, and if we saw her we won’t afford the ring in her ear even with our year’s earnings.
Sometimes you look back into your past and say the old girl and her boy are the best. The trouble they had to endure, the sacrifice and all. Those are things you ask whether you could do for yourself, leave alone your kids.
Do we assume our parents lived in another age? Yet there were vehicles as are vehicles now. There were computers as are computers now. There were rental houses as are rental houses today. The truth is that we’ve lived in the same world with our parents. The only difference is that one group consists of strong-willed humans while the other consists mostly of irrational jumpy two-legged creatures masquerading as parents.
Are you a good father?
Parenting is a tough course. You will see life’s scars on the necks of those who have been there. You have to take the blows of life. You must always rise again, dust yourself and assume nothing is wrong. I remember how we used to plan mischief in the house: that is the shit you have to go through every day. You have to solve problems and make amends with the neighbour because your son mentioned a vulgar word to their daughter and they are sure you are the mastermind. You have to tell stories when the time comes; and be a master at it. You have to answer questions till midnight….
A friend tells me his wife is expecting. He is specific: the pregnancy is eight months and two weeks. He says he is worried. He says there is fear in him. He says he is happy. That anxiety is eating on him. He doesn’t actually know what is happening to him. He doesn’t understand what he is feeling nor what he should feel. He wants help.
Okay, how does it feel getting the first born? This is a question we have to be very direct and ask only those who sleep naked. You don’t ask those hit-and-run boys who pretend to be fathers – those who are only fathers because Darwin lied so and nothing more. We must ask only those that share a roof with a third citizen who chooses any hour of the night to experiment with his lungs and yell till dawn. If you want blood, you break the skin of an animal, not a guava. So, o ye who are blessed with naked nights, what did it feel when she one day said she was bringing a life to the world? Did you jump up and announce it to the surprised cashier at the restaurant? Did you walk away and say it was not your making? Did you blame the contraceptives guy? How was the feeling?
How does one feel when a new member finally arrives?
When in college, there is this guy who almost died because his brown girl thinned into the air. He goes to their home and meets an arrogant father who is least willing to help. He even threatens to arrest my friend. Then she reappears eight months later. She simply texts that let’s meet at point x. So the guy asks us and we say why not. We man him from a respectable distance because a woman who disappears for eight months can do anything in one second at point x. then Mademoiselle comes. She is more beautiful than last time and her skin glows like the Orion. Her ethereal head seems to glide over her neck every time she makes a movement. And she puts on this pink dress that sweeps the ground and the sight too. In that dress lies a bulge. In that bulge lies a life. That is the life that is to be denied by the Darwinian father a few moments after the owner of the dress sits down for a talk. I need not talk more of that story. If Jesus wept, that girl rained, and my friend made himself an ocean when he came to think of it. Sad climax.
People will run away from being first-time fathers.
Is parenting such a scare that we should run away from? This is an area I think TV has failed terribly. Parenting mums are portrayed as some camps of human sorrow who make the fathers go through hell to put a smile on their faces. Whereas this could be the case in Antarctica, there is this air around it that movie guys and lifestyle magazines overexploit to scare will-be parents.
All the same, parenting is not your idea of a joke. Leave alone the second or third born. Let’s talk of the first thing that ever has your rabbit ears, your mother’s protruding ankles or your step sister’s flat face. It is serious business. Waking up and knowing it is another day the Lord has given you to be in charge of another rude, egocentric and indifferent piece of nature that takes after your appetite. You wake up and feel the magnetism to this calling, this responsibility to always be there through thick and thin. Every time you hear those infant sounds you know you are bound in this house forever: you can’t go hiking on Kilimanjaro with other freaks; you can no longer throw your money the way you used to; you can no longer overstay out on Friday evenings nor go to the stadium on Saturday afternoons. Business gone sour. You feel like running away but the magnetism always drags you back home.
Sometimes you wake up and find your kid playing at the balcony. Since you have not bought it any monkey toy to toy with, it comes to play with its own. It is naked and healthy. You guys are still sleeping and the only play partners are the people walking down the block. So Kiddo extracts its member and pees down at the gateman giving directions to another elderly man. You find Baby in the middle of the act and it is merry all over. You don’t know whether to take a stick or rush down to the man and apologise. You don’t know whether to hide and assume you are unaware of the boy’s conduct. You feel like calling your brother to ask what he does when his kid pees on old men but you realise your brother is younger to you and elders are not supposed to ask toddlers about parenting.
First parenting is tough.
Immediately the kid is born, your wife begins to take more time with the boy, diverting the attention she previously had for you. You feel the unwanted prince in your own kingdom. You used to receive hugs at the doorway. You used to take supper from the kitchen in each other’s laps. You used to be told stories with laughter and happiness. That shit is now long gone. Sometimes you go without food and nobody realises. Hugs are officially illegal now. You start updating statuses to vent your frustration. What makes it more frustrating is that she doesn’t even seem to notice your sulking. You pretend to be unwell and she can’t even say your temperature is high. Man, your government has been toppled.
This is the time you miss your mom the most. At a point you will give up and dial that number miles and miles away.
“Halo Nyawando.” (Well, insert there the name you call your mother).
“Much silence, mum. How is Shianda?”
“We are doing great. Your uncle’s cow gave birth last Thursday and that calf is very healthy. Turufosa’s child is this weekend getting married to a doctor from Tanzania. I was planning to send someone with a present though we are very broke. The new shamba boy is good. He doesn’t take alcohol and he has even brought home his second wife. They are living with us….” You let her talk on and on. That voice is the medicine for now. Until you interject after twenty minutes.
“Yes son. How is my husband?”
“The chap is fine, mum. Are you in the kitchen?”
“No, I’ve gone to Turufosa’s shop to measure a new dress for your aunt. I’m still waiting for her to come back from Mumias.” Silence. “You seem quiet today.”
“Actually…. Err…. Ummh…. Mum?”
“I love you.”
“Ayie! Have you been arrested again?”
“Is it the landlord, then?”
“Mum, my problem is not….”
“What is it you want this time? Maiko I thought….”
“Just wanted to say that I miss you. I love you so much….”
“Are you drinking again? Oh my God Maiko I thought your uncle talked to….”
“Mum I am okay…. Mum…. Mother….”
The other end is long dead. Enough is enough. You go to the kitchen and lock the door behind you. You take a sharp knife in your right hand and hold it firm. You then grab an onion in the left hand. You use tool x on item y below your eye, cry all the hell out and curse Sigmund the sexing Freud. Oh, it is Saturday and tyrant and his mother have gone to the salon. You sit down on the floor, spread your legs and cry more.
One morning you wake up late. The sun rays are penetrating your windows. You don’t realise another guy has crawled into the room. You only hear a sharp sound that makes you jump. Turning, you see a small African on the fours. He calls again and smiles. It is that smile that kills your earlier fright and cushions your pulse. Baba, the call comes again. Then smile, smile. Hands are outstretched. You look at the thing down there with two white teeth. It mumbles something again, this time flapping its small wings in excitement. You drop the shaving machine and take a moment taking it in. For the first time you’re being called a genuine Baba. You kill the small distance between you and the next thing is that your son is in your arms. You hold it tight onto your bare chest. Your soul crashes into the baby’s, and the baby’s into yours. You bond into one. You even don’t care as the baby lets loose its bladders on you to mark the ritual. You forget that you are late for work and the only thing you want now is a camera crew from CNN.
But that lasts only like a blink. Now listen
Despite you doing the donkeywork, check where the credit goes. She will post photos on Instagram and Facebook. People will laud her impeccable mothering and handsome genes. You will post a photo and people will say your wife must be a good mother. As you are busy at the office, she will walk with the boy to the salon, to her home, to her x and to her place of work; all the time people will attribute the goodness in the kid to her. You will be left in the dark; a non-existent object in a non-existent world. Even men will be there to praise her as if kids are made in handbags these days. They can’t even say the forehead is yours.
Now he is three. Boy makes abnormal demands. Last evening it was a zombie he wanted for a toy. Today he wants a monkey for a pet. He has this powerful pair of lungs for backup just in case. And when he makes those demands, the ninja, who is your wife, shoots at you this look that defines whose side she is on. You feel betrayed. There is no shop that sells monkey toys. If he insists, you will organise to have a live monkey around. The monkey father can come stay with the monkey daughter to entertain a monkey grandson that wants a monkey for a pet. Case closed. Clerk!
The demands never end. Before you realise, it is time to go buy that big cake because mum says it is the fourth birthday. And before you pull off the grey hair it will be the sixth or tenth. The unfortunate thing for you in that house is that you cannot say no because there is an army after your ass. She is the commander, and when she is the commander, the only way to remain alive is to play captive and know you will never win any war here. Again, you are alone.
But above all, the hustles, the frustrations, the sulking and the sobbing are the things a father will die for. Men want power, and fatherhood provides you with subjects that can never change allegiance. You become a headman and your status rises. The bad experiences give you that unique pride that at least you can dine with men. When you go back to the village and they want someone to split firewood, they will not come for you. When a boy has stopped going to school and the parents feel he needs advice, it is you they will come for, for fatherhood initiates you into that completeness of life.