When I think about it, the most pivotal moments of my career have been shaped by someone asking me, “Can you sing?” The first one was Chizi. Everyone knew Chizi. It was hard to miss him, always walking around campus like his feet weren’t even touching the ground. During the day, he was just another Architecture student; the ubiquitous T-Squares, books and rolls of drawings, but when evening came, he morphed into a different person. An arafat around his shoulders, ear studs glistening in the evening light, a guitar strapped on his back like a backpack, and a spring in his step as he walked out of Mamlaka Halls, dreadlocks struggling to germinate from beneath a black fedora hat, angled on one side.
He was in fourth year, and I was a fresher, and every time I saw him at, say, lunch time, I would turn to my friends and ask them for the three hundredth time, “Do you know who that is?” I mean, yes, everybody knew him, but did they like know know him, or did they just see him around? He was a singer in a band, and they would put up shows around town, and there was nothing I wanted more than to be in his band. I do not know what happened, but at the dawn of the last decade, it was either you were in a band, or you were a disappointment.
But then here is the other thing about me that you will learn from this story; I have never really learned how to ask for things I want. I always come close and, and then when the time comes, my throat grows molds, and my intentions remain caged in a prison of words unsaid.
Then one day this man strides into our class, stands at the front, sweeps his eyes across the room and then begins walking in my direction. He stops in front of my desk and asks, “Are you Adel?”
“Ye…” I looked around to make sure it was me he was addressing, “Ye–yesss?” It was more of a question than an answer.
“I have been told you can sing, can you sing?”
“Come to Ufangamano House – you know it, the brick building near the hostels? Meet me there after class, at 5pm.”
Turns out, after the 301st do you know him? one of my friends got fed up and went up to Chizi, because he knew I was never going to do it myself. He told him that he’d have heard me sing at karaoke, but most importantly, he were tired of being asked to identify this Chizi dude like he was a murder suspect at a lineup.
5pm found me at Ufangamano House with Chizi trying my voice out. He said “sing this.” I sang. “Sing this.” I sang. “And this?” I sang that too. And after three songs, he said, “OK, sawa, you are in. We have rehearsals in about five minutes, can you stay?”
Could I stay? Pssssssh. Is fire hot?
***This one time we were rehearsing at Kijiji Records studios in South C with the band when some loud jamaas walked in. I knew one of them because we had met before, but I doubt he could remember me.
First time I saw him was back in 2005. I was in Form 3, and he was pretty much in the same neighbourhood. We were at music festivals, provincials, being held at Ditchez (Dagoretti High), and you know how when your competition is on stage singing, and you chungulia to watch, hoping that they tank? They didn’t. If anything, those boys from Upperhill High had harps for voices. One of them stood out, though; he was tall and had an oblong face, and there is a way he nodded his head slightly when hitting a high note.
Next time I saw him, it was evening, and we had already boarded the Kenya High school bus, waiting for the driver to take us back to school. Then this boy showed up at my window. I cannot quite remember what brought him to my window, but boys lurking around girls’ buses after funkies was not uncommon. That was the time scented missives were exchanged and promises to see each other during holz.
This one extended his arm and said, “Hi, my name is Bien.”
The way he pronounced the letter s was funny.
“Bien? What kind of name is Bien?”
He turned around and shouted at one of his schoolmates walking past, “Oyaaaaa, kwani nikuulize, jina yangu ni?”
“Si Bien?” came the response.
Then he turned back to me and said, “Sikudanganyi…me naitwa Bien.”
“OK, fine. I am Adel. But my friends call me Ade.”
Whatever conversation that was held after disappeared where old memories go to hide.
Next time I saw him again, we did not speak, really. We had a Music Day at Kenya High and boys from Upperhill showed up. I do not remember them being invited, they must have heard about it from the assortment of letters that crisscrossed high schools; the original social media platform before Facebook and Twitter.
They were about four or five of them, but of course the one that stood out then is the same one that stood out from the group of boys who interrupted our rehearsal session at Kijiji Records, years later. Bien. He found me messing around the keyboard and asked me that familiar question, “Can you sing?” His voice was the kind that took up too much space in the room.
“Yes,” I responded, rather meekly.
“You can sing and play?” He sounded like he couldn’t believe it.
“Si you play something bas?”
I played him an original that was work in progress then. It never made it anywhere though, but it got me an invite to go to Alliance Française the next Monday after class. 5pm.
It was at Alliance that I became Dela – the one everyone knows. Things moved pretty fast after this. Most of them are now a haze. When I met Bien that Monday, I think they must have been organizing some kind of singing competition at the French School grounds. He put me to be part of a group with some two girls and two boys to enter the contest. We did, and we lost. One of the boys left for Korea soon after. The remaining two girls and one dude would later form a singing group called Elani. Three of the boys from Upperhill got together with one other guitarist and formed Sauti Sol. And I would go back to singing BGV for people; Chizi, Stano, Achieng Abura, The Villagers Band, Eric Wainaina and even Wahu.
It was a time for bands, I told you, and I was not a disappointment. I was a voice for hire. Sometimes I would even stand in for Delvo because he had to go back to uni in Eldoret, and I would sing his voice during Sauti Sol gigs when he was not around. It was during this time that a record label with what would later be an apt name, came calling; PENYA. They signed Stano. They signed Sauti Sol. We did Mama Papa together with the Sol boys. Then this one time I opened for them at a concert with a cover of Golden by Chrissette Michelle. The suits at PENYA were there when they had me sing for the first time, and later on after the performance, one of them came over and said, “You can sing. How about an album?”
I signed on the dotted line. Paukwa was born and so was a star. In 2009 PENYA artists went on a Euro Tour. In 2010, I failed terribly at school because music was taking up space that group work and school projects were supposed to take. While other 3rd year architecture students were in the lab, I was either in the studio, or on a stage. A choice had to be made. I chose music, and deferred from uni. I would catch up with them later.
But then life chooses the most interesting of moments to happen. After making this choice, that is when music took a dip. And when things decide to go wrong, they do so together, and all of a sudden. Almost as if they got a brief to change direction. Things happened at PENYA the way we all hate to recall it did. I could not get another album out of me. School had moved on without me. Failure stalked me like a shadow under the midday sun; closely. Life was for the living, and it did not seem like I was one of them. I did not want to be.
It also did not help that there was that other thing I had buried since 1995. And when depression sets in, it unearths everything that you believe is wrong with you. I had never told anyone about it, because it is one of those things I wish I had dreamed up. I wish I made it up.
But some memories are stubborn things.
They stick like stains.
And there is not enough tequila that can wash them away. Not even when you scrub them with lime wedges and salt.
One of the most difficult situations to be in is when you have a lot to say, but you lack the strength to speak those words. And so you find yourself standing next to someone you have been saving words for ever since you realized that what he did to you was wrong, digging in deep to find the right ones, but instead all the wrong ones come out. Instead, you look at him and smile when he fills the awkward silence with a greeting and an inquisition about your health, school and music. You say you are fine. Everything is fine. Just dandy. He pulls you over and starts showing you the piece of land in Nakuru where he now lives with his family. He tells you how, ever since your father went back to the soil, he has been taking care of the land for you. Like a good uncle. Tilling it and harvesting maize, and holding it until his brother’s children are of age.
“That is what he would have wanted,” he says. Which is a little bit confusing, because what your father would have wanted was already written in his final will and testament. And that will does not say he would have wanted his children locked out of that land. In fact, it gives the land to them.
He speaks as though you are supposed to be grateful to him for this. Yet, you have heard a different story from your mother. About how, after the old man passed away, his side of the bloodline were quick to quote Kisii cultures and traditions. Women do not inherit property. They simply do not possess the appropriate appendage required for this sort of thing.
Fair enough. In that case then, why not give it to your younger brother? When the road accident that took your father away happened, your little brother was still in your mother’s stomach. But he did not stay there forever. And he has the prerequisite accessories to inherit his father’s property.
Of course you do not tell him these things, because, one there is really no point, and two, this is not what you wanted to talk to him about in the first place. Uncle Thomas has done a lot of things during his tenure on earth, but that is not the worst of them all. Not close. Not even nearly.
If we are to bring that up, then we would have to go back to 1995. You were around six years old, and in Class 1. It is a time in a child’s life when she is cloaked in innocence. Your biggest problem is trying to remember the name of the fruit you were taught in school the previous day. The beginning of your days are spent in school, and then later on in the dirt, and then in the evening, Daddy is going to walk into the house with that massive briefcase, while mom will be saturating the house with the smell of frying onions. Other people will be in the house; like your sister and other relatives from shagz you are supposed to call Uncle and Aunty, even though you have no idea how you are related.
It is not uncommon for Uncles and Aunties to come stay at your house. Your house is some kind of halfway house where relatives from shagz come to live in for a few months before they transition elsewhere; like college or marriage.
And so when Uncle Thomas comes to live with you, it is not strange. And he was a true uncle – Daddy’s smaller brother. You take a special liking to him because he is unlike the others before him; he likes to play, he likes watching cartoons with you, sometimes he brings you Toffee from the shop, he is not as strict as Daddy, and he smiles like there is nothing that could ever go wrong. Not that Daddy is strict or quick to anger – in fact, he never beat you up, not even once. It is just that Uncle Thomas is nicer in the way many true uncles always tend to be nicer than parents.
So the day he first calls you to sit on his lap when watching television, it is not strange. He is Uncle Thomas. Your small sister is also there in the sitting room, staring at the screen in the wall unit, Mummy is in the kitchen, and Daddy is upstairs like he always is after work. Everything is normal. What is not normal is the way Uncle Thomas covers you with a shawl as you sit on his lap, and then you start to feel fingers climbing up your legs. Until they get to the junction of your thighs. Like, it is not normal, but it is not strange either. He is Uncle Thomas – always showing you things.
It doesn’t happen only once. If anything, it becomes a game. A game between just the two of you. A secret. Good girls do not tell secrets. And you are a good girl, Adel, aren’t you? A good six year old girl.
On weekends you wake up earlier than everyone else. It is always confusing why grown-ups like to sleep so much on Sundays. When you try to go to Daddy and Mummy’s bedroom, they tell you to come back later. So you go looking for anyone else who is awake at the time. The room down the hall is where Uncle Thomas sleeps in. You push the door, it is not locked. The creak from the hinges wakes him up, and you see him open his eyes. He tells you to come in and close the door. You do that, and when you tell him to get up you go watch TV, he tells you to wait. Then he picks you up with his big strong hands and puts you on the bed.
He pulls up your nightie and says, “Panty yako ni mzuri? Nani alikununulia?”
“Mummy!” You say. It is one of your favorites because it has flowers.
He starts to play again. He removes it, but not completely, just until it gets to your knees, and then his fingers find their way. He only ever uses his fingers. He puts one in where susu comes out from, and it hurts.
The game doesn’t last long.
Then there is that time when you refused to eat. You cannot remember exactly what you were throwing a tantrum about – your brain refused to record that part. What you recall is that you stormed out of the living and into your bedroom, and threw yourself on the bed, crying. Crying loudly the way kids often do when they are not really in pain, but in need of attention. And who did they send to come get you? Uncle Thomas, of course. You two are so close, he is better off soothing you to come back to the dinner table.
“Huyo anapenda sana uncle yake,” they always say.
So he walks in and kneels next to the bed where you lay, drenching the sheets with tears. He turns you over and kisses you, on the mouth. Not a peck like the ones in cartoons. This one is long and his tongue is in your mouth and even now, decades later, when you close your eyes you can still taste his tongue on yours. It tastes of ugali and skuma wiki that has been chewed but not swallowed.
You go back to the dinner table, but not with him.
***Months later, Uncle Thomas comes home with another woman, Aunty Fiona. You are told that they are going to get married. And you do not like her because she has come to take your uncle away – to go live with him somewhere else that is not here. You do not know that it is actually a good thing for you.
And there are many things you didn’t know, Adeline.
You did not know that Uncle Thomas was not supposed to be touching you the way he used to. That the game was a bad game. You did not have the mind to wonder why it is only him who used to do that, and not even your mother who bathed you. You did not know how so many people did not notice. You were six years old, goddamit! You are not supposed to know complicated things at that age. And even as you grew older and kept remembering what had happened in ’95, you had no idea what to do with that memory. You did not know who to tell, or how. And so sometimes you blamed yourself, told yourself that perhaps you are the one who had a crush on him – you allowed him to play those games with you.
One day you asked your sisters if Uncle Thomas had done anything to them, and when they shook their heads in shock because it is a weird question to ask, your chest fell in relief. At least you were the only one.
You spend years wishing you could confront him, but it is never the right time. Never mind that he is always around. At every family function. He is a nightmare that comes back every night. But you are supposed to pretend, to smile at him and shake his hand and feel the grip of those fingers over and over again. And you cannot refuse because you are scared people will ask why not, and the more time passes, the more you are unable to say why not, because now he has given you cousins, and what would that do to them?
Now you are left with the weight of choice; to out him and hand your cousins the burden of knowing that their Daddy is a pedophile, or to keep it to yourself and let that fire burn only you.
You volunteer as tribute.
Until one Easter weekend, when you are now thriving as a musician and in university, one of your cousins say that you should go to Nakuru for Saturday lunch with Uncle Thomas. Everyone will be there, she said. You say to yourself that this is it. You ask to speak to him privately. He agrees. Both of you step aside, away from where curious ears do not follow. But when you open your mouth to speak, your voice betrays you. So he fills the awkward silence with a greeting and an inquisition about your health, school and music.
And appendages you do not have.
Show me an artist who has never created anything using real life experiences, and I will show you someone who has never created anything, period. These things we create are not invented. Everyone does it. And if not, then the best do. There was this chap I dated for a hot minute. He was a model; fairly tall with shoulders that went on and on. You know the type; the kind that was created as if God was trying to prove a point. Sometimes, he would appear in ads and campaigns when corporates were looking for someone that was made to be admired. The relation lasted for about nine months. While he was a person to remember, the relationship wasn’t.
The only part worth space in my head is this one time he came up to me, and next to him was a girl I had known to be my friend. They told me that they were now together, and because of the kinship that they both had with me personally, they felt like they owed me this truth. Calm down, by this time, me and the dude had long parted ways.
It was a mature thing for them to do. The only thing is that there was always going to be that nagging itch at the nape of my neck, wondering, when did this begin? Of course, they swore there was nothing going on when me and Mr. Shoulders were together.
I said sawa, and sometimes they would come up to my shows and sit at the front. Both of them tall and conspicuous. Holding each other’s hands, him looking at her with eyes that once looked at me the same way, as I serenaded them with songs from Paukwa like a mariachi for hire. But because the show must go on, I’d grab the mic, close my eyes and pretend they weren’t the ones I saw behind my eyelids, and I would go;
La la la la la laaaaaaa
(you take me away)
Adamu na Hawa, Romeo na Julia
Wakipendana wawili, kugeuza dunia
Na nishakupenda, nakuombea dua
Usibadili nia we, nikuenzi my dear.
You make me go
Ooh la la la la la la la laaaaaa
I did what anyone else in my position would do; I wrote a song about it. Of course, I exaggerated a little bit. By this time I was signed to Taurus Musik, and we were trying out something different. To see if I could do something more than just ballads. All through my music career, I had been the kind of musician who only needs a mic and a stage. No histrionics. No ikibamba sana wapi nduru weweeeee. None of that.
I had been worried that when the song came out, people would bother me with questions like; who was this about? I was acutely misled. They were wondering, what is happening to this woman? They said, “but you are a songstress, Dela. What is this Mafeelings type of music you are onto of late?”
Boy, wasn’t I glad to hear it. Those were easy questions with an easy answer to hide behind; diversity. The truth, however, is that the music in Paukwa does not buy you lunch easily in this town, and a girl has to eat, fam.
Lakini Mafeelings was not only important because it got me booked, but also because it was my first time writing autobiographically.
When darkness approaches, it seldom makes a sound. It just creeps silently towards you like a cloud of smoke, and you only know it has arrived when it begins to choke. Suddenly, you can neither breathe nor see shit. By any reasonable measure, I was doing rather well. I was getting booked shows, the cover of Hello that I did with Polycarp of Sauti Sol (he produced it) had gone viral, I was being read in abroad magazines like Elle and Harper’s Bazaar. But the truth is, the people who only saw this were not quite looking. Underneath the surface, I was slipping back to a place I had known all too well. I was questioning the music I was putting out, and how I was putting it out. I didn’t even want to listen to music at all – at home, we only watched Netflix, and in case we went anywhere, we drove in silence.
My art was breaking me apart. And you know how these feelings go. Depression is African – when it visits it comes with its relatives. Mine had a particular favorite from ’95. At first, I thought I could handle all these pressures – work through them. It worked for a spell, until fatigue found its way into this cocktail of emotions, and I guess that is when the glass in my head holding all these things, shattered.
It was a Sato, in 2015, when I showed up at an ex boyfriend’s house. We had separated because he drank too much, but on that particular day, the thing I resented most about him is the very thing I needed. He allowed me in, and did not ask many questions. Only made me promise to go see a psychiatrist hapo Doctors Plaza that coming Monday. We opened a boti of something golden and burned sunlight, and moonlight.
Monday morning, was supposed to be a meeting with the suits at Taurus to go over the Public Demand album we were doing together, but I called in sick. The Office, refused. He knew I was not sick – at least not the regular malaria or typhoid kind of sickness. He wanted to know what was going on, because “you have not been yourself of late.” And that sentence is funny; ati I had not been myself. What does that even mean? Who had I been then? Or was my name not Dela Maranga, of late?
The Ex said we would go to the shrink first, and then to office, but he would wait in the car at the parking. This was meant to be an in and out thing. The best laid plans of mice and men went the way they often go. The Office insisted on knowing what was going on. He was not buying work pressure as an excuse because work pressure has always existed, ever since I signed with them.
I was so tired of lying, and then lying to cover up the first lie. So I said the truth. I told him everything. He waited until I was done then he called my mother to ask her to come to the office. From the way he spoke, I knew that she was struggling to understand what was happening. There had never been a time when she was called to come to the office. Sounded like a parent being called to her kid’s school. Nothing good ever comes from such phone calls.
I sat with Mummy on the couch in the lounge area of his office. I could not speak while looking at her in the face, so I stared at my feet in shame as I began speaking.
“Mummy, I haven’t been feeling well….and…. eeerr…and I think it must be coz of what happened to me as a child. You did not know. You could not have suspected…”
It all came out. Sometimes pouring, sometimes stumbling, many times sniffling; but whatever way it did, the whole point was that it did. I did not care how. I looked at my Mummy. She was trying desperately to hold back her tears as she listened. I saw how the salt burned her eyes. She is a trained social worker, and there’s a stint she did when she was posted in Kibera where she’d heard all kinds of horror stories. Many even worse than mine. It must’ve been her training kicking in on impulse, so she kept quiet throughout.
But even then, none of that training could have prepared her for this. Nothing readies a mother to listen to her daughter talk about being violated by someone she welcomed into her home, when she was just next door. No matter how stoic the masquerade, those walls finally came crumbling down, and through her eyes, her heart bled like a waterfall.
She cried like only a wounded mother can.
If there was one relief that came from this, it was not in Mummy knowing, but rather, in her believing. She did not (at that point, or ever since) doubt what I told her, or ask “are you sure?” The only thing she wanted to know was what the psychiatrist had said and I showed her the prescription that had been written. She told me not to take those drugs. “We will find someone else for you,” she said.
The Ex who had been waiting all this time at the parking lot, is the one who drove her back to work, and then dropped me home.
Mummy would later tell me that she finally did what was I was unable to do; confront Uncle Thomas about ’95 in front of other relatives during one of those functions in shagz. Of course he denied it. What was he supposed to do? Say “yes, I was touching my brother’s six year old daughter”?
It is not exactly how I had imagined this would go. All this time, I had imagined that the day he finds out that I remember, he would beg for forgiveness, and I would refuse to give it to him. I wanted the guilt to strangle him, to squeeze air from his lungs until he begged for mercy. I wanted him to feel the way I felt. To live the way I had lived all these years. Wondering who else knows? I wanted him feel small like I have, to know what it feels like to have your power taken from you, to sometimes sit in a room and feel the walls inch closer to one another. I wanted that darkness for him. That African depression.
It would only be fair.
But with a simple denial, he’d swatted me away like a fly.
Last year, the phone vibrates and a Facebook message appears. It is from someone who says they are making a movie, and need a score for it, and would I be open to the idea? I say, “Why not?… But then I would need to see the script first.” He says, “No problem.”
He sends it via email.
HER EYES is a short film about a primary school girl who’s haunted by a pair of eyes. As I read through the script, I already know that I am going to do the soundtrack. I already know the song I am going to sing. I sit up from my couch and I scribble down things as they come to my mind;
Ole ole, nani atanisikia?
Pole pole nazidi zama kwa giza
Makovu, ya kisaikolojia
Mfungwa bila hatia…..
Jinamizi, niende wapi nikihama
Chui mla ndama….
Then I call Polycarp.