I found something remotely sardonic about Tony; the way he spoke about his father’s demise like it was one of those things. There was no smoke in his voice, he did not choke on his words. He spoke with unflagging vitality- and for a moment there I did not know whether to feel sad, angry or jealous.
Every Friday, a group of young turks hold court at PAWA Hub for an event put together by a regiment of poets and artist dabbed Fatuma’s Voice. It is the kind of show where people meet to simply talk, listen to performances and then later they break bread. Last Friday’s talk was themed Daddy Issues, and this newly made friend of mine Tony had taken the mic. He was talking about his father, the way he was a broken reed. A once upon a time boxer from Makerere University who never skipped an opportunity to remind his kids that he once schooled with the big cheese in government now.
His tales were rather hilarious- how the old timer in his inebriated stupor, once picked a fight with his teacher, and got beaten. How he once pissed on a portrait of Moi in 1991 back when Moi ruled with an iron rod, and got three years in the cubes for that. But then there were other stories that really cut to the quick- like when his friends laughed at him every time his father drunk his way into the trenches. Alcohol seemed to make sleep the sweet sanctuary it could never be with the touch of a woman’s warm body. It gave him, in a twisted way, immeasurable peace.
Even though he laced his tales with jokes and regaling histrionics, it was rather evident that he did not have fun growing up. In between the unsaid was a naked reality that his father doubted Tony was his. Those two were chalk and cheese. And his dad harbored this belief that his wife had pulled a fast one on him; that he had been born on the wrong side of the blanket.
I felt jealous of him. At least he had a father to speak of. I didn’t.
I grew up in a family in which my dad had to be away in order for us to eat. He was a taxman. While we stayed in Kisumu, he worked in Busia. So he would only stop by for a weekend to hang out, and when the stars aligned themselves to our fortune, he would stick around for a fortnight. Those were the halcyon days. Until his kidneys betrayed him, and he finally gave up his ghost just as I clocked fourteen.
Here is the thing. A young male creeping into adulthood needs a father, or a father figure. Such a man is wet behind the ears on things happening to him, these sudden urges that tickle the cockles of his debauchery every time a lassie passes by.
Raising a man lies squarely in the province of a father. He needs someone to teach him how to talk to a lady, how to walk with his chin up, how to shave a beard and when to choose whether to walk from a fight or hold your ground. A fourteen year old needs to hear these things from his old man; that it is not a good thing for a man to cry. Especially in front of other people. But once in a while, regardless of how bushy your beard is, no matter how tall you’ve grown or how well you can wear a condom in the dark, a man has to cry sometimes. Because, if tears are the windows to a man’s soul, then once in a while, they have to be cleansed. A father needs to be there to tell this to his son that the true test of being a man is not by how well you hold your tears from rolling, but by how you keep your woman’s tears from falling.
I did not have anyone to give me these pieces of advice. And to be fair, neither did Tony. In one of his stories he told us that his father refused to pay his form one fees until he killed something. Now when it comes to taking life, Tony is chicken shit.
“I am not taking a child to secondary school,” his father bellowed. “If you are not man enough to kill that chicken, then you are not man enough to ask me for education.” Tony didn’t pick that knife. His defiance made the old man’s hackles rise, so he grabbed the chicken, and in demonstration sliced the neck in Tony’s face- spraying chicken blood all over his defiant face.
Later on when he was asleep under a shade, Tony picked that same bloody knife and placed it on his throat, held him down, slapped him awake and said; “If you ever touch me again I swear I will cut your drunken throat, and the last thing you will see is the sight of me enjoying it.”
By Jove I swear I am not making this up. He actually did it.
A diseased liver would finally take his father’s life when he was seer and yellow. Tony felt nothing, no remorse. Childhood scars never heal, you never grow out of bad parenting. Age is no shield against trauma.
I do not know how I will raise my brats. Raising a kid is hard work as it is. It does not come with a manual or user’s handbook- even the advice on magazines do not quite cut it. So naturally, people tend to raise kids the same way they were raised. But then questions abound in our case; how do you father a child when you have no clue about how to, and when you were never fathered in the first place? Chances of me ever being a good dad are fat in the fire, because I will have to do so by the seat of my pants, hoping that he turns out just fine by fluke.
Tony and I were not raised to be men, life made us men. But we are different, because I remember my old man with reverence. I remember him because he was buried on my birthday and there is no escaping that. But I also remember him because, in his absence, he taught me the one thing some people do not get about fatherhood- that sometimes you do not have to be there to be a good father. It is okay to be absent.
One of these days, I intend to make that long overdue trip down to Alego Siaya where he lies. It would be good to carry flowers, but I knew my dad. He is not jolly about flowers and the mushy stuff. He was a goon, a goon who loved a good time.
So I will carry him something from Scotland. A fine, creamy, delicately honeyed drink with lingering waves of wood fruit and light, sweet smoke. With Okatch Biggy’s jingles providing the necessary noise, I would pour him a glass of Scotch whisky created for moment of genuine celebration; and we will just kick it. Listening to Okatch was his favorite pastime, and sometime when things get really cranky, I find solace in reminiscing him singing “ng’ama no tho kachode ni uywagone ga ang’o? Kara datho da thi sulu.”
Later on when the sun crawls over to nod, I will get up and walk away into the gathering treacherous darkness with my head held high and my shoulders pushed back like I saw him walk. Like he would have taught me to walk. Like a Johnnie Walker. Like a man.
Over to you gentlemen.