The first time I met my father, I was a boy of twelve going thirteen.
The year is 2005, and I am walking from the classes towards the gate after a long day of seemingly unending lessons when someone with the voice that is a prolonged bad cough calls me to the side and tells me that he is my father. I look at him, squinting in the sun whose rays threaten to blind me, regarding his face that is hidden behind a forest of facial hair. His eyes, glistening like two pairs of wet stones when struck by the sun rays, stare back, and I can see my reflection in them. I feel small in the presence of this stranger who calls himself my father. He speaks up again, repeating the same words, and I want to tell him, “I know.” but the words are a knot in my throat, and so they stay there, fold and fall back to the pits where they belong. Instead, I nod. The man is not a complete stranger; I have seen him before, twice, in our house. Both times he was drunk, and he came in at night (well past 11pm) and left in the morning. Both times, I did not know that he was my father.
A few days before this encounter, my mother calls me to her bedside and tells me about my father. This is the first time we are talking about him. Rather, it’s the first time she is telling me about him. She tries to describe him, but I don’t seem to recall his face and so she says, “The one who came that night with chicken and chips and woke you guys up and then you fell asleep on the couch.” I nod several times to say, I do remember now. It’s as if that act, so singular in its nature, is a memory enough to piece everything together. Sitting by her bedside, clawing into the floral bedsheets with my bitten nails, I wonder what has made her tell me this piece of information that she has managed to tuck away so neatly and kept from me for twelve years. Looking back, I think she might have known that he was coming – a premonition of sorts – and so she decided it was better if I heard the truth from her first. And so she looks at me sitting there, and she tells me everything.
Standing before this man as he tells me what I already know makes me tremble in a way that reflects the kind of fear I have. His presence is a blizzard. I want to grab my school bag firmly and run away until I get home and fall safely in my mother’s arms, my head resting on her bosom and her heartbeat telling me, “You are safe.” I don’t. I stand there and listen to him speak. Words tumble out of his mouth and he sounds like a song of lost memories. I zone out and keep going back, oscillating between the memory of the present (him telling me this) and the not-too-distant past (my mother telling me that), and I do not realise that he has stopped talking until he asks if I am ready to leave. I nod.
No words pass between us as we walk along the dusty, untarred road that leads away from the school. As we move further, the school becomes a small patch of blue and white that seems to drift in the dancing afternoon heat. Walking next to this man whose face is an accelerated aged version mine, I feel exhausted. We walk so close yet there is a distance the size of the Rift Valley between us. I listen to the screeching sound of the matatus as they zoom past, a cloud of dust trailing them. To the delighted squeals of the children running around in the playground of the other primary school. To the thud-thud-thud of my heart as it beats inside my head.
I remember wishing that we wouldn’t meet any of my friends from school or home, for then, they would ask me who he is. Would I have been able to say, “My father”? We trudge on, my head hanging low like a drooping flower, and my eyes stay fixed on my feet that are looking for pebbles to kick. I kick the stones and the puffs of red dust rise and cling to my socks that have folded around my ankle. I will get in trouble for this, I think to myself.
Outside the gate, he stops and pats me on the head. He tells me goodbye and leaves me with the promise to come and see me again soon. He asks me to say hello to my mother. And just like that, he walks away towards the road we just came from, his six foot figure becoming a silhouette that appears to be distorted in the evening sun. I let out a deep sigh and get into the compound.
My mother is watching something on the television. She turns to me and asks me how school was. “I saw him today.” I tell her.
“The man you said is my father.”
She sinks further in the couch and asks, “What did he say?”
“That he is my father.”
I have met my father twice after this encounter.
The year is 2008, and I am a form two student at Chianda High School. The Mathematics teacher has just walked out of class after a double lesson, when a boy with hair that looks like sheep droppings glued to his scalp sticks his head through the door and says, “Troy Onyango is being called.” Now, in high school, when someone says you are ‘being called,’ the mind can only imagine that you are in trouble. On our way to the staffroom, I try to get answers from him.
“Who is calling me?”
“The teacher on duty.”
Silence. The sound of our feet hitting the black cotton soil. A bell ringing to mark the beginning or the end of some break. The sound of air forcing itself out of my nostrils. In my head, I am recollecting – piecing together shards in a jigsaw with no clue – the events to see what I may have done wrong. Mr. Ng’uono isn’t exactly known to be vicious (malicious?) but when the mind is conditioned to think the worst, that’s all it can do.
“Do you know why he’s calling me?”
The boy half-turns to look at me then shrugs his shoulders in a way that’s meant to say, “How the fuck should I know?”
At the door of the staffroom, I mumble a prayer to a deity I am learning to no longer believe in and walk in. The boy has disappeared like he was never there to begin with. I see him rushing towards the form one block and that’s when I know he truly has no idea which teacher is calling me.
Sitting next to Mr. Ng’uono is the man I last saw in 2005. He has aged in a way no one else ages in three years, and his face is now no longer mine. His sunken eyes still have their shine in them but even I can see the fire is dying out. What is he doing here?
“Do you know this man?”
“Who is he?”
“My father.” An answer I still don’t know how I feel about till today. Mr. Ng’uono turns to him and tells him that since it is not visiting day, he can only allow us thirty minutes. To me, that seems like an eternity.
He asks me about school. “It’s alright.” The school fees. “All paid.” Asks about my mother, “She’s okay.” We stand by the school canteen and drink the soda in silence. The man who sells at the canteen asks us if we need a bench to sit on. I object. I am here to spend the minimum time possible with this man. The amount of hatred I harbour for him is on the surface and no matter how hard I try to suppress it, I am unable to.
The meeting ends when I tell him I have to go back to class. He hands me a crisp thousand shillings note and I run towards the classrooms, past, all the way to the toilets where I lean on the wall that has “FUCK PREFECTS” written in a bold red. My eyes are the banks of a river that can no longer hold the water in.
The last time I saw my father was seven years ago.
The year is 2010, and I am in my final year of high school. I am a member of the drama club and we are at the Madiang’ Grounds presenting a dance to celebrate Madaraka Day. The dance we are presenting is about the 2007/2008 post-election violence. As soon as we are done, one of the dancers walks up to me and tells me, “There is a man here looking for you.” I head over to the taps and wash off the markings on my face. I remove the sisal skirt from around my waist and wear my school trousers. I borrow someone’s half sweater and throw it on top of the costume. I follow the guy who leads me past the classes towards the edge of the school compound. There, I find the man I last saw two years before, standing there.
As if he is a part of the trees that lined up the school fence, I do not see him when I first got there. The dancer, the one who told me a man was looking for me, holds me by the shoulder and points out, “That’s him. There.” I move away and his hand falls to his side. My father emerges like a villain in a bad dream and his chapped lips turned upwards in a crooked smile. I do not return the smile. The sweltering heat is starting to itch my skin so I move towards the shade under a tree. We stand there in silence. The awkwardness is a stench that hangs in the air, making the nose twitch in disgust. I want to turn and leave. I should leave. I must leave.
“I didn’t know you were in these drama things.” His voice, still the same as I remember it from the first encounter. The way he says things as if this place that I have found solace among the misfits isn’t supposed to be more than a thing. I want to go back to the things. I’d rather be with the things where I feel complete and myself than be with this stranger who I am supposed to call father.
I DON’T HAVE TO.
Not if I don’t want to.
“How is school?”
“I am sitting for KCSE this year.”
“Oh wow! You are in form four already? I didn’t know that.” The exclamation causes an annoyance in me. An irritation that starts small in the pit of my stomach and swells outward like an oil spill. The volcano inside me is about to erupt and I want to tell him, “You know nothing about me.” I shift the weight of my body to my left leg and stay silent.
“How’s everything else?”
“How’s everyone back at home?”
“My mother? She is alright.” I want to add that she is now remarried. To a man who doesn’t beat her up like the other one she was married to for close to eight years. A man who doesn’t come back home at midnight reeking of a mixture of stale sweat and badly brewed chang’aa. A man who doesn’t keep my sister and I hungry till he comes back with half a kilo of meat wrapped in a soggy newspaper. I want to tell him that my mother, she is happy. Or tries to be.
I don’t. I listen instead to the sound of birds as they leave the trees to go (where?) interspersed by the loud cheers for the district commissioner (or some other government official) as he makes a speech. Otherwise, silence.
“Is it true that you raped her?” I only realise that I have asked this when I see his face ashen and the sweat that had formed on his forehead rolls down his face like drops of glycerine, some clinging to his beard. My mouth stays open as if I want to swallow the words that have leapt out, but I can’t; not even if I wanted to. I stare at his face, not knowing where the courage to ask him this thing that I have put a lid on since the night my mother called me to her bedroom and told me everything has come from. Has it grown too big for the small airtight container that I have been keeping it in? I need an answer. Answers.
“You don’t understand.”
“Did you rape my mother?”
“Things are not as black-and-white as you want to put them. We were young. We were dating. We loved each other. You won’t understand. You are still a child.”
“I am seventeen. I am not a child anymore.”
“But you won’t understand.”
This was all the confession I needed. My heart clenches into a fist of steel and it threatens to rip out of my chest. The tears that are beckoning must be locked away. This is not the moment to show weakness. I blink, twice, and I do not see myself as I walk away. I do not hear him calling my name. I do not…everything is a blur.
PRESCRIBED FORM 1 (a)
a set of questions for the child (cross where applicable)
What is your father’s name? Maurice Otieno
How old is your father?
E. [61 and above]
Does he know the pain he has caused you?
Do you want him in your life?
PRESCRIBED FORM 1(b)
Does your father like tea?
Does he snore in his sleep?
Do his feet stink when he takes off his shoes?
Does he like to watch the 9pm news?
Does he read the newspaper?
Does he watch football?
Does he take long showers?
Does he like listening to music?
If Yes, what genre? ____N/A______________
Is he alive?
PRESCRIBED FORM 2(a)
a set of questions for the father (cross where applicable)
What is your child’s name? ______________________
How old is your child?
D. [31 and above]
F. [Not sure]
When did you last see your child?
A. [<1 year]
B. [<5 years]
C. [<10 years]
D. [>10 years]
Do you regret the things you have done that hurt him?
If given a chance, what would you do differently? ______________________
PRESCRIBED FORM 2(b)
to be availed in case the father feels the conviction to write an apology.
FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY