Last borns are meant to remain home. It is the way of our people. Last born sons, that is. that is. Luo tradition says that the girls get married and leave to go start their own homes. The other fellas will also leave to go beat homes with other people’s daughters. But the last born son is allowed to stay behind, so that even when the parents are gone, the homestead does not turn into a gunda. There should always be someone at home. The same way there must always be a Stark at Winterfell.
Our lives as last borns are lives of privilege. We came into this world when our parents were older and softer. We got whatever we wanted. Whenever the other siblings wanted money for roadside chips from Mama Daddy, we are the ones sent to make the petition. Because there was no way the old man could say no to us. And we weren’t beaten for the things the others were beaten for. We were spoilt, ruined, like milk that has stayed out for too long.
What we did not know – what I did not know – is that these privileges come at a cost . Since you were the last to be born, you are the last to stay behind. You have the option of leaving – and many last borns do leave the homestead – but even then you will always be the one required to stay behind. It is not a cost I regret or loathe. It just gets lonely sometimes. Especially during times like these.
See, the first to leave was my father. He went back to the soil about a decade and a half ago.. Then my sister, Regina, left for the States for uni. She comes back every December but I doubt she will come back to live here permanently. She brings me shoes,. Not out of tradition that we inherited from our forefathers, but out of one we made. The old man used to buy us shoes for Christmas, but after he died, she took it up and has never really stopped. So before she buys her plane ticket every December, she buys my shoes first.
The first brother, Nimrod, has always been away. He was in boarding school when I was in primary school. Then in uni when I was in high school. Then he was working when I was in uni. By the time I was out of uni, he was working in Wajir, then in Kakamega, a short stint in Nairobi, then flew out to Yemen for a spell, came back a few months,. Now he works in Sudan. It is always so crazy how he is the one I am closest to, yet he is the one I have never truly lived with.
And there is Deo. If there is any sibling that knows me, or one that I took through hell, it is this one. always a class above me. This one time while in Class 3, I think, I pulled out the buttons from my shorts while playing. Was scared to tell Mother Karua, so the next morning, I put them on and wrapped a cello tape around the shorts like a belt. Class teacher found out and called him, asking the poor Class 4 brother, if things were alright at home and whether our parents were getting a divorce. I am not even sure he knew what a divorce was at the time.
Deo was sort of a pace setter for me. I passed KCPE because I wanted to be better than him (I wasn’t). I was taken to Maranda High School because that is where he was admitted in. First days of school, he’d come to my dorm to help me make my bed, prepare for breakfast, morning duties and assembly. He did that all of first term. Throughout high school, I never really worried about anything coz I knew he was there. I did better than him in KCSE, but only by a point – and also because he was sitting a national exam in Luo Nyanza in the year of Post Elections Violence.
Last year, Deo got married and moved to Uganda with his new family.
I do have other siblings, but we do not speak much, really. We don’t hate each other, we are just not close. Polygamy has its teeth.
Sometimes this city feels lonely. But then you see, it wasn’t at all that bad because Mother Karua was always around. Then on the day after my birthday, the first coronavirus patient was announced in Kenya. It had already been causing havoc in the States, but Regina said they were alright. It came right on the heels of an uprising in Sudan, back when people were posting blue pictures in solidarity with Sudan – and we kept talking to Nimrod – constantly asking him if he was OK, if he was safe. I know it kinda pissed him off a little, because here was a man who had done two years in Wajir and another year and some in Yemen. He was fine. Corona came to alleviate him of these constant worries for his safety, and now turned those incessant ramblings to us.
Especially Mother Karua, who turned 60 this year and is diabetic. From everything we were told, she was a prime prey to this new virus. I was in Malindi when that virus set foot in Kenya, and soon as I got back, I mobilized Lakwan, my cousins and in laws to go clean up Karua’s house. We scrubbed it clean, stocked it with three different types of disinfectants and foodstuff. I was one of those panic shoppers you saw on TV, but I couldn’t care less. I wasn’t taking chances with the only family I have left in this city. I’d rather save my mother than save face.
She did not stay in that house for long after that. About two days later, she said she wanted to go to shagz. She did. And soon as she settled in there, President Uhuru locked down the city and then issued a countrywide dusk-to-dawn curfew.
And then I was left alone.
It was not how I had imagined last borns are supposed to be left behind, but then here I was, locked away from my mother. We only spoke on phone and WhatsApp. She could as well be in America with Regina, or in Sudan with Nimrod, or in Uganda with Deo. It wouldn’t make a difference. Once in a while, I go to her house to clean it, just in case President Uhuru decides to lift the lockdown.
On the first days, I couldn’t miss the daily briefings from the Ministry of Health. I watched everything, and kept tabs on every new case that came back positive. But the pandemic started beating on us like the rain – slowly at first, then in torrents. With each new case and each contact not yet traced, they were going to keep me away from my mother.
I said to myself, perhaps it is for the best. She was safer in Siaya than in Nairobi. If corona caught on to her body, she wouldn’t last long.
Then that video came out.
In it, three ghosts riding in a white government pick-up truck show up in a village down in Siaya County. Eyes glowing in the dark like a pack of hyenas. They drag out a body from the back of the truck, also covered in white, and dump it in a shallow hole. Around them, women are wailing while asking questions, making accusations and apologizing all at the same time. Some are directed at the three ghosts, others to nobody in particular.
They call the thing being buried, baba and accuse it of swelling their heads in embarrassment. Then they beg this baba to come back to them. Then they call on to their mothers. Then screech some more – crying in sounds that tear the night apart. Then they ask this baba to send greetings to their fathers. They ask the ghosts, but what is that you are carrying? Who is this you are burying in this compound? Is that a dog or a man? Then they apologize to baba – they say they are sorry it is being buried that way.
The questions do not make sense, because the grief does not make sense. And neither does watching your husband being buried in a shallow grave at 2am by evil spirits dressed in white.
The three ghosts do not seem to listen, or care. They work the way you imagine ghosts works; in silence, swiftly, and then they are gone. Red lights winking as they are swallowed into the night.
That video did its rounds in WhatsApp groups, but soon as it landed it landed in our family group, my heart tripped. That man, that baba, was not just anyone to us. He was an uncle. Someone I never knew or met or even heard of until he was buried by those three evil omens. When people describe relations in shagz, they say mano wat ni. There is no such thing as a distant relative. All that matters is that there is a relation. Distance does not exist when it comes to blood line.
Here’s the thing. My father’s cousin is Uncle Philip. We all knew Uncle Philip. We all knew Uncle Philip’s wife, Mariana. Uncle Philip beat his home about a hundred meters or so away from where my father beat his home. The people we didn’t know were Mariana’s family. Aunty Mariana’s sister is the one you will hear wailing in that video – because that baba being buried is her husband.
While Uncle Philip does not walk this earth anymore, Aunty Mariana still does. She went to that burial; most likely she was also asking those difficult questions. When news came into the family WhatsApp group about baba being our uncle, it was also accompanied with other news that Aunty Mariana (together with other family attendees) were whisked away into mandatory quarantine.
Now, you have to understand, we knew nothing about this virus. All we knew was that if they take you into quarantine, then most likely you had it. And if Aunty Mariana was suspected to have it, then what were the chances that Mother Karua didn’t? They were in shagz, anyway. You know how shagz is – anybody can walk in and out of your home at any time. Nobody calls ahead to say they are in the neighborhood. It is not rude to just show up. And if Mother Karua was in shagz, a hundred meters from Aunty Mariana, then anybody could have transmitted the virus to my mother.
My chest couldn’t sit still. Naturally, I am a worrier. I imagine the worst case for any scenario. So imagine how I was for about two hours after receiving this news and I couldn’t reach my mother. In my mind, those three ghosts had picked her up, preparing to dump her in some hole in the dead of the night.
When she called back, I did not let her speak. I yelled. I yelled because I was both relieved and scared. I gave her ultimatums. Do not let anyone into that compound. Lock it. I do not care if your crops because you stopped going to the farm., I will feed you myself. I will send you money. Are you even sanitizing?
I was in the bedroom, pacing around with one hand pressing the phone on my ears and the other one waving around, gesturing, as if she could see it through the audio call. I lectured her like she was a kid. Like she would lecture us as kids.
Then she said, George stop shouting at me. Me I will be OK. And if this corona takes me, then let it take me. For now my God will protect me.
That is where I lost it.
Your…your God? GOD? Did you see God anywhere in that video? Where was God when they buried that man like a stray dog. God? GOOOOD? I DO NOT GIVE A FUCK ABOUT YOUR….
I did not finish that sentence, but it was already too late. She kept silent over the phone. I could hear her breathing, yet saying nothing. I wanted to tell her so many things at that moment, but I had already fucked things up.
I wanted to apologize for raising my voice at her. For cursing at her. And at her God. I didn’t mean to, it just slipped. I wanted to explain that I was scared. That I have never felt this alone since everyone left me in this city. That if anything was to happen to her, her God forbid, I would be the one to bury her. That they would give me 24 hours to get a permit, travel to Siaya, organize a funeral, bury her. That Nimrod, Regina and Deo would not be able to come because no passenger planes are bringing people in. That I would be put in charge of things, and I would suck and make a mess of everything. I wanted to tell her that I do not want three ghosts with government badges to throw my mother in a pit not even deep enough to plant a banana, at two in the morning. Nobody would do timo neno for her. Nobody would do tero buru for her. I’d have one hour to say goodbye to someone I have known for three decades.
I did not want my mother to be one of those people the CS for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, speaks of when he is on TV. I hated the way he speaks; in spurts of three of four words, as if running out of air. He would call my mother’s demise an issue, her name would be a body and her body remains to be disposed. ‘Disposed’ – as in, she is a piece of litter.
I wanted to say that I lost my cool because I am not ready to be left alone. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. I know last borns are supposed to be eventually left behind. It is my destiny. It is our culture. But damn it, can’t culture wait for just a little longer?
I didn’t say any of those things. I did not say anything at all.
When she spoke she said, My bone, my God will protect me. Then she hang up.
We haven’t spoken about that exchange since. We do not always do that with arguments. We move on. Our arguments are things we leave hanging like incomplete sentences. So long as I said my piece and she said hers.
I have been waiting for President Uhuru to lift the lockdown. Mother Karua says she needs to come back to the city. Tomorrow is supposed to be the last day of the lockdown. If he opens up the barriers, Nairobi will be a disco – people will knock glasses of beer and dance in the streets. But not me. For me, the car is serviced and fueled up. The moment they open up, I am gone.
If they do not, then I will know that this thing has truly turned the world inside out.