Sometimes jaber cruises us down Thika Road in her Toyota Cami. It is a small car and when the needle slides past 80, it registers a formal complaint. It starts trembling the way a normal person would when under pressure. Shaky and fragile, but it does the job. It gets us to where we are going – Kiambu – to chill with some of her family over wine, food, the occasional laughter and the Central Kenya cold which makes a smoker of all of us.
The last time we were in Kiambu I found myself in the company of people who had travelled from the US to hold a concert here. Soft music leaked ever so delicately from the Sony speakers and made itself at home in between our conversations. At some point in the evening, as basic social courtesies demand, we had to introduce ourselves. The host, resting on a single seat that must have been fitted specifically for his frame, raised his voice above the rest of us and said, “Uhm, I think it would be great if we got to know each other properly. I mean, nothing complicated. Just tell us who you are and what you do.”
Of course I knew what he meant. When someone asks you to introduce yourself, what they mean to ask is, fill in the following blank spaces, “My name is _________ and I am a ______ with _____ Company” and if you choose to go further, you say “I am a husband/wife to __________.” But really, it is never that simple. There is nothing simple about a person’s identity. At least when it comes my identity it is not, because that in itself is a story. If you are to ask me to tell you who I am, I would take it to mean that you want me to define myself. This here is what I will tell you.
I am a boy on his way to becoming a man. My story begins just the same way everyone’s story begins – with a pregnant mother. I was born in the morning of March 12th 1991 on a stretcher in the hallways leading to the Maternity ward of Aga Khan Hospital. I came out as a boy even though my mom had been hoping that I would be a girl. So it is safe to say that from the get-go, I have always been a surprise. An unexpected guest.
Since my mum was expecting me to be a girl, she had planned to call me Joan. You cannot really blame her for expecting me to be a girl because my mother is a very practical human being. Her first born was a boy, Nimrod. Then came a girl, Regina. Then another boy, Deogratias. So going by that trajectory, you can see the logic. You can see why she had started knitting little pink socks for her last born, donge?
March 12 also marks the day my father’s uncle died; George Magunga is the man who had paid for my father’s education, and to honour his memory in true African fashion, he decided to name me after him. But there was a problem.My dad had been greedy with the naming thing. He had named all the siblings before me and so when my mother was heavy with her fourth child, they’d struck a deal. She also had someone she wanted to remember for the rest of her life; her favorite uncle – John Opinya. ‘Our forefathers will have to share this one’, they’d agreed. That is how my birth certificate ended up with George Opinya on it as my official name.
So you could say that I was born a compromise; one that would be used as a constant reminder of dead people who meant something to those left living.
I never ended up using that name George Opinya. The day I was registered in school my father went behind my mother’s back and made sure that I was registered as George Magunga and I grew up knowing that those were my names. By the time Mother Karua found out about my dad’s cheekiness, it was already too late.
But then for the longest time I resented my surname. Magunga sounded too bush. Especially for a kid growing up in Kisumu where, by some unwritten ordinance, every other person had two English names. Like Samora Innocent Machel, Isaac Newton Omondi, Winnie Johnsons Madikizela Anyango, Alfred Simpons Otieno, Kevin Johnson Onyango, David Winston Churchill Ochieng’. Yet there I was. Stuck with a name that sounded like a brand of flour. It had no class. No eloquence. It did not evoke the kind of reactions I wanted it to. Many people could not even say Magunga correctly. It was too much work, that name. Everything was wrong with it. When people asked me who I was, I said George. But in this world, people never accept just one name. They always asked ‘George who?’
‘Ma –what?” and this answer always pissed me off because now I had to spell it out.
‘MA-GU-NG-A. Get it?’
‘Yeah. Maguga, yes?’
‘Just call me George.’
Imagine they never just called me George. They insisted on Magunga – or their different versions of it. All through my school years, I was called by the name I loathed. I hoped that when I got baptized, they would give me a different name, like it was the norm. I was wrong. At the end of my catechism classes at Kibuye Catholic Church, they drew an oily cross on my forehead, sprinkled me with Holy water, but then refused to give me a new name. They said George was a Christian name already. So I took matters to my own hands and baptized myself Patrick Williamson. Williamson meaning the son of William (my father). Patrick – well, I just liked that name Patrick and the way when shortened in the Kenyan lingo, it became Pato.
That is why the class six end of mid-term results of 2002 were delayed because my class teacher went through hell trying to figure out who the hell Patrick Williamson was, yet she had no recollection of a newly admitted student.
And so I for a long time, I was that weird kid who was trying to be another person.
In class eight, they refused to register us for KCPE national exams with just two names. George Magunga was not enough. So for the sake of the Kenyan government, I took my father’s names and I became Oduor George Williams Magunga. That is what ended up being on my National ID, and after this struggle with the Immigration Office at Nyayo House, that is what they wrote on my Kenyan Passport.
But then you see, I have never been the kind to believe that my name defines me. Because none of those four names are mine. They refer to me, yes, but they are not mine. They do not belong to me in as much as I respond to them. Come to think of it, William Oduor is my dad. George Magunga was my dad’s uncle. Opinya was my mom’s uncle. I do not have a name that I can proudly call my own. Patrick Williamson died shortly after he was invented. His tomb; M.M. Shah Primary School dustbin. So to say that my names define who I am is to say that I am nothing but my father and grandfather. Which I am not. I am my own person. They are just a part of me, that’s all. They are but two chips in an otherwise huge block of chips that make me who I am.
“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance in this life or the next – Russell Crow.”
What I am is also part of who I am. You would know this if you have watched the movie, Gladiator, when Russell Crowe introduces himself to the butcher of his family in a voice heavy with grief and flaming anger, “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance in this life or the next.” Similarly I have been a lot of things to many people. I am a distant memory to some of my exes, and an asshole according to others. I am a friend to bunch of drifters. I am a brother to a total of nine siblings – one of whom died too soon. I have been a son to one man and two mothers. Polygamous families are complicated.
I was supposed to be a lawyer. When you are an African child and you graduate with an A grade from High School, you are lied to that the world is your oyster. That you can be whatever you want. What they really mean is that you can be one of five things; a lawyer, a doctor, a businessman, an accountant/banker or an architect. They never mean you can be a poet or footballer or a writer. That would be a waste of a good grade. So when I graduated from Maranda High School with an A-, I went through the list and settled on Law at the University of Nairobi, from which I then graduated with a Second Class Honours, Upper Division (there was only one person with a First Class).
I was educated to be a lawyer. But then somewhere along the way, I changed direction and decided to become a writer. So in the eyes of my mother, I am a disappointment. That is why she never showed up for my graduation. In the eyes of other people, I am a rebel. I am also not currently employed. I am a freelancer, but when you ask the rest of the society what that means, it will tell you that I am jobless.
It is a very lonely thing being a rebel. Many people never understand it. They do not get why I can’t just tow the line like the rest. I have 5000 friends on Facebook. So you can say I am a sociable person, but the truth is, I do not know more than half of them. Being a rebel makes you lonely. It makes you miserable. Rebellion is exile – a cold place from which the warmth of a mother’s love is withdrawn. Sometimes all I really want to do is share a beer with my mother at Nairobi West, and tell her that I am doing just fine being who I am. I want to tell her that from the moment I crawled out of her on that Aga Khan stretcher, she should have known what an impatient and stubborn person I was destined to be. The moment I arrived into this world as a boy and not the girl she hoped for, she should have known that I was going to disappoint her so many times. I was literally born to do that. To be a disappointment to my mother.
So sometimes I sit and scroll through my timeline, looking at what my 5000 friends on Facebook and 2658 followers on Twitter are doing. It is impossible to miss the hiss of ego and vanity ringing on those social media streets. Lakini most of the times I envy my virtual friends. Especially this past week when Safaricom decided to reward every person I know with goodies to mark their 15th anniversary. I watched them happy, showing off their new tablets, phones, airtime, food and the free bus fare courtesy of Safaricom, and I smiled in their direction. I liked their photos and retweet their tweets. Their lives have been a party this entire week. And it is incredible to realize that Safaricom has been here for only 15 years when it feels like they are as old as breathing itself. Occasionally, I joined in the revelry of their celebrations because to them, I am a loyal customer.
But then there’s this girl who wakes up next to me. She has dreadlocks on her hair, and when she holds them back, her face is revealed. Something of a rare beauty who wears her smile like lingerie. This jaber also adds another button to my coat. She makes a me a boyfriend. And for the life of me, I have no idea what is like to be my girlfriend. To be my woman. Sometimes I say something and she laughs, and I look at her and I wonder, “Damn. I can’t imagine I had something to do with that.”
Look, the point here is that I am a lot of things. I am everything. And I am nothing at all in the grand scheme of things. Human beings are never just about one thing. When you invite me to your home and ask me to introduce myself, I feel like telling you this story over again. We do not have time for that. So let’s just skip the introductions and dive straight into the part we open that 12 year old Glenlivet for you and a sweating bottle of cold Tusker Malt for me. At least those chaps think that I am a legend.
Aside: Shit man. This should be a TED Talk.