25

The Magunga

Long before I knew what bathrooms were invented for, I used to think they are for showering. But that was a such a long time ago when I was still this high; a stubborn kid with an insatiable itch for mischief. On those days we stayed in Migosi Estate. It was still raw. Those numerous apartment buildings had not been erected. The place they now call Lolwe Estate was an endless field of thorny bushes that we called Museveni. I have no idea where that name originated from, it just happened. We would go hunting for honey deep inside Museveni, and more often than not, we came back home with swollen faces and lame excuses. On slow Sunday afternoons we would go swimming in Kapenesa – a green filthy pond where cows came to irrigate their throats and sometimes, fertilize the water with hot dung. For the longest time, I used to believe that Kapenesa was green because of the many drops of cow dung that had been deposited at the bottom.

My childhood was a colorful one. Fun, but full of injuries. Most of them from stupid accidents like when we decided to jump off the second floor of unfinished buildings, trying to become what we thought Tarzan was. Other injuries were from fights. We fought for respect. If you wanted to earn respect, you would have to earn it at Pab Remo -the field of blood, and the ultimate way of doing so was pushing down your opponent, sitting on his chest and then stuffing sand in his mouth. With parents who left in the morning and came back in the evening, we were left to grow up on our own.

I had different personalities; George and Magunga. George was this cool kid on the block who could talk to girls. He had his first sexual encounter when he was eight; he was caught by his uncle, pants down while on top of a neighbor’s daughter. His uncle beat the living daylights out of him and then later on reported the matter to his mother, who was too shocked to do anything.  Which was weird, because when it came to Mother Karua everything was punishable. If you broke her glass plate, she would light you on fire. If you dropped from position 9 in the first term to position 20 in the second term, even Jesus would not save you from the hell that waited for you at home. But when she was told that her last born son was caught having sex under the stairs of their apartment building, the shock must have numbed her reflexes.

See, if you know Marianne Williamson, then you know that only a few men know how a light touch of the tongue, running from a girl’s toes to her ears, lingering in the softest way possible in various places in between, given often enough and sincerely enough, would add immeasurably to world peace. At the age of eight, I was the first sibling in my family to experience that kind of peace. Or rather, something close to it.

Then there was Magunga. The kid who always had an elder brother in school to protect him. He was weak, but that was only because kids from Manyatta, Kondele, Mosque and Arina were huge. So he was bullied a lot. Picked on because of his small build. He was too shy to have a girlfriend in school, so he only admired the girls from afar. But since our God is a fair God, whatever Magunga lacked for in physical strength, he made up for with a good head on his shoulders. That is why Magunga could afford to play around, not complete assignments, make noise in class and still pass exams. But even with exams, Magunga had one trouble; Mathematics. To make the point clear, here is a scenario: In class four, Magunga got 12% in Maths and 98% in English (50/50 in Grammar and 48/50 in Composition) and became number 12 out of 106.

Sidebar: If your child brought home such results consistently, why would you bother burdening him with the pressure of becoming a doctor or engineer or lawyer?

The Magunga
My first time in Nairobi. #UhuruPark

*

I was living a normal childhood, having a ball, without a single care in the world until I joined Form One and my boyhood was interrupted. The interruption came in the form of an anticipated visit by my brother, Nimrod. I do not know how it is these days, but back in 2005, Form One North was the nearest class to the Maranda High School administration block. My spot was a window spot that I loved because from there, I could see the staff room and could know whenever the teacher on duty was patrolling. On the afternoon of 9th March 2005, I had just sat for my History paper, and as usual, we were having one of those post-exam kamkunjis where students discuss how they’d tackled certain questions. Then Mr. Odipo came to my window. I had not seen him coming, and for the life of me I knew we were going for panel beating for being noisemakers.  I expected a slap. And Mr Odipo’s slaps were the kind that came like lightning; swift and fiery. They left finger prints on your cheeks and a ringing in your ears – a soundtrack that blocked out everything else. When Mr. Odipo slapped you, the earth stood still.

Only that he did not slap me. Instead, he gave me a leaveout chit to fill in my name and registration number. This left me wondering what the hell was going on, because people only signed leave out chits when going home for a particular reason. Either a sick leave, suspension, to fetch school fees etc. I was not sick and neither was my school fees in arrears. I started panicking. I thought I was being suspended. But for what? For making noise? Damn. I was fucked. How was I to explain to Karua and my father that I got suspended on my first term in high school, and during exam period no less?

And if you think noisemaking is such a silly misdemeanor that you cannot get suspended for, then clearly you never attended Maranda High School, because three years later while in Form 3, I was suspended. For sleeping in class. During dawn preps. On a Saturday morning.

I was still frying in the stew of my own guilt when Mr. Odipo came back to my window and asked me to go to the dormitory, put my things away, and then head straight to the teacher on duty’s office. I was being sent home.

I did. By the time I was approaching the teacher on duty’s desk, I had started trembling, thinking of ways to apologize for making noise. Then I saw him. Nimrod. Sitting outside the staff room. Relief. Clearly it was something else. Nothing big.

“We are going for Onyi’s graduation,” he said.

Onyi is my eldest brother. He was at Maseno University then.

“But I am sitting for exams?”

“Ah. Daddy insisted that you have to be there. Even Deo is coming.”

“And the school agreed?”

“Yes.”

Then Deo appeared. He did not look bothered. It was almost as if he already knew that Nimrod was coming.  But what the hell. I was getting some free time off from school. Who wouldn’t want that? Plus my parents did not seem bothered with exams. I was too excited to care. Too happy to walking out of Maranda gates for the first time in like 2 months. I had missed home.

When we got to the stage, Nimrod told Deo to go wait for a matatu from Usenge. If any approached, he would let us know. “I need to talk to George.” Deo left and crossed the road to the other side. He still did not seem to be excited about this break. Perhaps that is because he had gone home just a few weeks before on a sick leave. But still, he was being too grumpy.

“By the way, you know this Sato was supposed to be visiting day?” I told Nimrod when we were finally alone.

“Oh really?”

“Yeah. And guess what?”

“What?”

“Come on, guess.”

“I do not know what to guess, George. Look, there is something…”

“Ah. Wewe wacha. Si you guess?”

“You tell me. I do not know what you want me to guess.”

“It is about this same Sato.”

“What about it?”

“You have forgotten, haven’t you?”

“Okay. Remind me then.”

“It is the 12th of March.”

“Listen, G,” Nimrod calls me G when he is trying to appease me. Otherwise it is George.  He did not allow me to tell him what I wanted to say. He began talking about other things. About my father. But even as he spoke, he was uncertain. He was trying to find words, which is so unlike him. Words tripped from his mouth. Whatever he said was filled with eeerrs and uuuhhmms and was punctuated with a lot of pauses.

“You know dad has been sick for a while, yeah? Well, uhm, a few weeks ago he fell sick again. Si you know how it is with dad? He goes into Mater and he comes out.”
Actually, I didn’t. Mother Karua used to just tell us that my father was admitted but then he recovered, like it was one of those things. We all knew my father was sick. Everybody knew that. He went in and out of hospital so many times, it became like his second home.

“This time, they took him to the ICU…but…and…” his voice trailed off. He was not looking at me anymore. He was looking at Deo on the other side of the road. He was hoping that a matatu would come and make us postpone this conversation for a later time. He was scared. And there is nothing as scary to a 14 year old kid as a scared elder brother.

“I am so sorry, G…” and just then all the hints started flooding together. Deo had been home a few weeks ago. Deo had been grumpy ever since he came back. I was not allowed to see the leave out chit. I was being sent home in the middle of exam period.

“We are not going to a graduation…”

He nodded.

“When is the burial?”

“Saturday.”

“Which one?”

“This Saturday.”

And then a matatu pulled up. I started crying all the way to the matatu. Nimrod tried to hold me and I refused. The people in the matatu looked at me with concern. Even when I faced down and watch drops of water fall on my shoes, I could feel their eyes on me.

“Why is he crying Is he okay?” a market woman asked nobody in particular, and nobody answered. It is incredible how that question, “Are you okay?” is always a reminder that you are not. I sniffed and my shoulders shook. I cried all the way to Kisumu, trying to imagine the last time I saw my father. Sometime during the two-hour journey, I slept.

*

When we got home, there were visitors in the  compound. People I had never even seen. They hung out in small groups, whispering among themselves. There were aunts and uncles and cousins and some people I usually saw in shagz but never really understood how we were related. I walked straight through them and went into the house. I thought I would find privacy there. But visitors were all over. The first person I saw, however, was Mother Karua. There she was, in the middle of other women with swollen eyes. The moment I walked in, she stood up and looked at me. For the second time in my life after the sex incident, I saw her freeze. She was uncertain what to do with me. I looked around and recognized nobody and without even a hello, I made for my room.

Karua followed me.

She took me to her bedroom. This room was usually out of bounds for anyone other than her and my father. But she took me there and held me until I stopped shaking. Regina appeared with a bottle of Fanta, then Nimrod appeared with Deo. We sat there, the five of us, in silence, until I spoke.

I pulled mucus up my nostrils and asked, “Why are you burying him on Saturday?”

“Why?”

“It is his birthday,” Deo said.

The magunga
Dee and Gee

*

It has been eleven years since that birthday. In between finishing my Form One end of first term History paper and that Saturday, things happened so fast. I can only remember bits and pieces. I remember so many people in our house. I remember my friends at home being scared of speaking to me. I remember the shopkeeper giving us so much on credit. I remember that Thursday night sitting with Regina and her telling me “You guys need to cry now. Cry now and let it all out. So that you don’t cry again.” I remember wondering whether someone can ever cry enough for their dead father.

I remember that Friday. I remember taking my father home. I remember arriving at the village. I remember cars hooting. I remember Deo holding my hand. I remember people rushing to the hearse carrying my mother and father, I cannot forget how they yelled and wailed and stomped the ground so hard that loose dust rose to the sky. I remember how my mother cries because it is also the first time I see my mother cry. She is wearing a black dress. The hearse stops and she gets out and throws herself to the ground. If I close my eyes and remember just right, I remember some women picking her up. I remember her saying, “I am so sorry, my people. I am so sorry. I tried. I really tried. I am sorry I failed you.” I remember her crying so badly, so shamelessly, so freely, so painfully that I too start crying.

I remember that Saturday. How we are made to dress up in black and white. I remember the speeches. I remember my grandmother’s tears. I remember the grave; how the gravedigger is almost beaten up for digging a grave too small for my father’s coffin. “You had just one job, you stupid man,” the villagers yell at the poor old man, calling him uncelebrated domestic animals like dog, cow, cat, and goat. I remember the priest officiating the ceremony performing his rites and then leaving us to our devices. I remember God forsaking me at that moment. I remember the young boys expanding the grave. I remember the look on Deo’s face. The lines on his face. Nimrod is wearing shades. I remember the people lowering the casket to ground. I can see them, the four of them, each holding a rope tied to the four corners of the casket. I remember the muscles straining out of their skin as the casket descended.

I see the rope on the left snap and the casket hit the ground. Hard. I hear my mother’s scream replace the thunder of the fallen casket; it is long and piercing, the kind of scream that comes from the bed of her stomach. I see the casket open and then I see my father one last time. He is wearing a cream suit and a tie and there is cotton in his nose and ears. His face is swollen, like he has been in a fight that he lost, and his skin is turning white. I remember an old man talking to my father, telling him that he has to go. That his time here is done. I remember them removing my father’s tie, claiming that my father has said he does not want to be buried in a tie. I remember wondering why. Why won’t he speak to me? Why does he only speak to these people? If he does not want to go, then why are they forcing? Why? Why can’t they leave him alone? He is an adult, isn’t he?

I remember my father obeying the old man. I remember the casket in the hole. I remember wanting so much to jump in. Then the soil. Then my mother’s hands on my shoulders. I remember standing there, looking at the heap of soil and the plastic flowers.

I am alone, with the taste of death on my lips.

*

I am turning 25 today. It is a Saturday. Again. People are wishing me a happy birthday, but they do not understand. It cannot be happy for me. It has not been for the past eleven years. Every year between February 25th (when my father died) and March 12th when they buried him, a darkness falls over me. I do not function properly. I am damaged goods. I spend too much time in the shower, trying to wash away these memories. But it never works. I am stained with the thoughts of the people I have lost; my second mother, my little sister and my father. How could we be so careless? I am stained with the reminiscence of how empty our house was after my birthday of 2005, how people never visited anymore. After the burial, everyone just disappeared.

I weep a lot, but only when nobody is looking. When people are around, I put on a show like a clown. I pretend to be fine, but I am not fine. Even now, more than a decade later, I do not know how to be OK. When I see people with their fathers, it makes me long for mine. And there is nothing that pains more than yearning for something you once had but can never have anymore. The finality of death makes it impossible to have do-overs.

Long before I knew what bathrooms were invented for, I used to think are for showering. But that was such a long time ago, before I grew up and realized that they are for soaking in memories. On these days between Feb 25th and March 12th, overcome with grief, I find myself naked, under the rains of a hot shower. Crying.

So if you will excuse me, I think I need to shower.

25 via @theMagunga

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