Here is how Maureen remembers it. It was a weekend – and this she knows because she was not in school. She was eight years old, you see, and that is how eight-year-olds break down days of the week. Her father had just come back from another work trip, arrived the Friday evening before, then on that Saturday morning, he had left for the office. It was not uncommon for her father to be at work, or for public officers to be working on Saturdays. This was 1969 when many government workers were still true patriots – they worked because of the fire that burned inside their chests. People who had been raised during the colonial era, dreamt for many a night for a day when they would be free to run their own country, and then it had happened. So for people like her father, work was not something they did just to put food on the table. It was an obligation of want, not need.
They were in the house when the phone rang shortly after lunch, and it is her mother – Pamela – who answered. The call did not take long. She hung up immediately, put on shoes in a hurry, grabbed her handbag and told Maureen (the eldest of the children), “I am going to the hospital, someone has injured your father.”
This was July 5th 1969.
Being eight, she must’ve thought it was probably just a stomach upset or a road accident. What she did not know is that what had just happened was an event that would change her life forever. Because, you see, her father was no ordinary man. He was Thomas Joseph Odhiambo Mboya. At least that is what everyone else knew him as. Though if you ask his people – they will tell you that his name is actually Adhiambo (named after one of his mother’s kinsmen) and Mbuya (a clan name).
When her mother came back home that evening, she told them that their dad was not coming back, and that they would be staying with their family friends for a while. And so for what she remembers as two weeks, they stayed at a friend of the family’s place and would only go to see their mother once for an afternoon or so at their home in Lavington. When they’d get there, they’d find so many people in their house – strangers Maureen had never seen, met or heard of before.
Then one day they were put in a car and they drove for so long, with several stops along the way. At some point, they got into a ferry, and their car floated across a lake. When they got to the other side, they were driven into a homestead and put inside the house. She does not remember much of her father’s burial day, but if you watch the clips you will see her. She is the little girl holding on to her mother’s hands. She is dressed in matching clothes with one of her siblings, and they are struggling to climb over a mound of soil. Her mother, dressed in black, is supported to the right by her uncle – Alphonce Okuku – the younger brother to her father, and the person who would (after a few months) inherit her mother as per Luo customs and traditions.
Unlike everyone else in that video, she is not crying. Blissfully unaware that the old man standing on a raised platform, dressed in mourning garb, singing dirges and waving a fly whisk, summoning the ancestors to accept Tom into their realm and let his spirit roam free like the waters of Nam Lolwe…is none other than the former Vice President, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
What she remembers, however, are the men who came into their house hours after the funeral. Them with painted their faces, wearing leaves and twigs, running around hitting the roof of their house and chanting strange things in a language she could barely understand yet. These men drove two cows into their house, some of them blew whistles, while the others cried until it hurt.
They were chasing away the spirit of death from their homestead. But it seems like they did not do a clean job of it because one her siblings would – years later – follow their father to the soil.
I feel like if we are friends and you come from a well-known family, that is the first thing you should tell me when we meet. I am not talking about YouTube-celebrity kind of well-known…I mean well-known for ‘your parents are constantly in the news’. I get that people are much more than their surnames, but I don’t care bana. I need to know. Case in point: Diana. When I met this lady, I had only known her as that person on Twitter who was fawning over my then girlfriend’s poetry. We had driven to her place one evening in 2015 and she had made cupcakes. Then one thing led to another, and before we knew it, we were boyz. Hanging out at my place, shooting a YouTube show together, going for brunch, organizing the baking of a Bruno Mars themed birthday cake, me cooking for her fish and her often washing dishes at my place…you know?
Then one day – and I cannot remember exactly how this happened – she carelessly mentioned that she is Tom Mboya’s granddaughter.
She did it so casually, as if is one of those things people say as a by the way. “By-the-way things” are supposed to be little unimportant details like I am pregnant or Have you heard Beyonce’s new album? But if you are related to someone I read about in a Malkiat Singh textbook, then that my friend is a date one detail. Especially if the said person also happens to be the one who designed the Kenyan flag, and has an entire major street named after him in the capital city.
Surely, how does one even hide something like that for years? Or even at all? Listen, if I was Tom Mboya’s grandson, this Nairobi would never know peace. In fact, not even grandson. That is even too close. If Tom Mboya happened to be grandfather’s uncle’s dormmate when they were in high school, those people who take pictures in front of my relative’s statue in town would have to pay me royalties first. And those royalties must be accompanied by a copy of their birth certificate, certified copies of their bank statements dating back six months, a letter of recommendation from their chief, and a recent certificate of good conduct from the Criminal Investigations Department.
And that is just for taking pictures. We have not even started talking about those who sit hapo karibu na Mr. Price and National Archives, waiting for acrobats and pastors who can cure leukaemia. But then God, omniscient as He is, understood the risk of making me even remotely related to the first elected member of the LegCo. So he gave that privilege to people like Diana.
Then a couple of months ago Ngartia called me for a writing job. They (Too Early For Birds) were staging another show, and this time it would focus on the life and times of Tom Mboya. I wanted to reject it. Because (if you have been paying attention) I haven’t written shit on this blog for the past two months. It never occurred to me that I would be the kind of person with this kind of problem. There was a time I could even post on here twice a week. Nowadays I am lucky to meet a work deadline for a mere 800 words. I mean what is 800 words? That is like my introduction when I was writing Unusual Units. Then somewhere in 2018 the urge to write started to disappear. I would sit on my comp and nothing would come out. Not ati I do not have a story to write, or that I lack the words. Uh-uh. It became a chore. I did everything I could to get out of it. I traveled it. Gave it a rest. Slept on it. Slept around on it. Drowned it in alcohol. Cried it out. Basically, tried everything in the book.
It was all so tiring. Many a time I sat up late, hoping that at some point, either I or the spiraling of control would end. Whichever way, rest would come.
And so by the time Ngartia was calling me to write for the Tom Mboya edition of Too Early For Birds, I was experiencing a drought. Unfortunately, this is the kind of drought that cannot be helped by relief food or a Paybill Number.
Then there is also the fact that this was for Tom Mboya. Generally, as a writer, there are no stories you are allowed to fuck up. But there are some that are excusable. A stage play for Tom Mboya is not one of those. Pair that with the fact that I have never written a play before, then I had drifted too far from the shore.
But then I said yes. Partly because I need to write otherwise I will sleep hungry in this cruel town. And partly because there will probably never be another time someone will offer me a Tom Mboya story.
So we started working. There were five of us working on that script. And that was the first problem. Writing is a solo project. You give me a story and I decide how I am going to handle it; from structure to style. And now here I was, sharing a story with four other people, half the time thinking to myself this can’t be right. Something about all this feels absolutely wrong. You see, all my writing life, I have always treated my writing the way I treat my car; I do not share.It was during this time that I called Diana and asked if I could speak to her mother, Maureen. I had questions. Like, what happened to Tom’s Mercedes Benz? It was sold. I think it belongs to a museum. What happened to their house at Convent Drive in Lavington? It was sold. Why did he go into a chemist to buy a lotion? Whoever does that? People buy lotions from supermarkets, not pharmacies. This was not just any other lotion. It is called Keri. Maureen showed it to me when I spoke to her at her house. Their lineage has this condition that makes their skin very dry. Tom had it. Maureen’s siblings had it. One of her children have it. A kind of heirloom passed down generation to the chosen few. On July 5th 1969, Tom Mboya dismissed his bodyguard at around noon and then drove his KME 627 Mercedes Benz down the then Government Road, parked it next to an Ismaili hotel, and walked into Channis Pharmacy. As he stepped out, two bangs rang out. Some say they were three. But only two bullets pierced his body and he fell onto the hands of the Indian lady who ran the pharmacy. As he slid down her body, a waterfall of blood pouring out of his chest, his grip relaxed to let go of the bottle of Keri lotion in his hand, and it rolled off into the gathering crowd.
They rushed him to Nairobi Hospital, his life hanging on by a spit and a prayer, but by the time they got there, he was too far gone.
I do not think I have ever actually been scared writing a show like I did when writing this one. At some point we stopped and asked each other, are we even supposed to know all this? I mean we did not even have to meet some masked stranger using a distorted voice software in some dingy motel out of town. We gathered information from published materials. Public record. This is shit anyone who cared enough could simply look and find. And if you use your head for more than just a cabinet for teeth, then you could see everything that ever went wrong for Tom Mboya.
But when I met Maureen, I was not concerned about any of that. I wanted to know other ‘less important’ things: how do you grieve for a man the whole world is grieving for? And does that overshadow your grief? And is the pain greater because you are feeling it twofold? As a child losing a father and also a citizen losing a statesman? And how do you move on? Where do you find the closure when the person(s) responsible for your father’s assassination have never been found…and even worse, investigated? When I met Maureen, I knew she was a judge of the high court of Kenya, and I was curious if she had ever revisited her father’s case in search of the truth. I know I would. Wouldn’t you?
She hasn’t. You know what she said about all that? About the truth? She asked, “What is the truth, and at this point, who will it help?” Her mother – Pamela – sought after the truth of Tom Mboya’s death until the day she ran out of air. Would it be fair to expect Maureen and her siblings to also pursue the same? She has four children to take care of. “The ones left behind had to continue with the business of living,” she said.
It was not a long meeting. Took an hour and some change. But by the time I was walking out of her house, I was jealous of her. She seemed to have moved on from that loss – I mean, it has been fifty years now – but many of us haven’t. I know I haven’t. And revisiting this story in the writing process for the play was a refresher course on that betrayal.
Then there is that question she shot that has stuck on to me like a spell. What is the truth, and at this point, who will it help? I have been thinking about it a lot. What the truth is and if it even matters. Truth is not the same as fact, is it? That is why you have people talking about their personal truths. But facts can never be personal. Facts are stubborn universal things.
If you are coming for the show, please do not come looking for the truth about Tom Mboya. Come for the facts about how he lived and died.
Then make your own truth.
This year, Rusinga Festival is commemorating 50 years since the death of Tom Mboya. His home was Rusinga Island, and so the theme of this year’s festival is #TheIslandRemembers. I am giving away a pair of tickets to the Too Early For Birds play to two lucky winners. Simply comment below with something you know about Tom Mboya and I may gift you with a tciket.
Welcome back to the blog. I guess?