He’s born in 1972 while Kenyatta is president. They are poor, the kind of poverty that doesn’t need an adjective to describe. But poverty was a common denominator in the village then, the rich were the odd ones out. His Mom is a dynamite. She’s the reason “when mama prays’ was written.
Soon, he’s supposed to start school. It’s the 20th century, there’s no kindergarten and sijui baby class and pre-primary. You just arc your hand over your head and touch the other ear. If your fingers don’t reach the ears, you’re not old enough to go draw on the sand and make chapati with mud. When his tiny chubby fingers touch his ears, he’s enrolled into nursery school. School is fun because it’s all play, dance and making pick-up trucks from wires and spectacle frames from maize stalks. There’s no homework and they go home at midday. He likes it.
Then he progresses to higher classes and starts learning sounds and spelling three-letter words. This stuff is difficult, he can’t imagine there are people smart enough to spell ‘child’. That pronunciation doesn’t make any sense to him. If it were up to him, he’d spell it as ‘chaod’. But it’s not up to him, it’s up to the teacher with a long stick in front of the mud classroom. That teacher is my Mom.
He soon realizes that this rocket science of counting numbers backwards from 20 is too difficult. He starts to miss school. His teacher is heavily invested in him, for many reasons but top of the list being, he’s her nephew. She and his mother are cousins, she loves his mother, she has seen them struggle, and she knows education is that master key that will open all those troves of money stored somewhere in the future.
She makes it her life goals to smoke him out of home when he doesn’t come to school. He soon learns that running home from school is like running to a police station after robbing a bank. He begins to play truant but is careful not to go home. One time, a search party of two determined women is called, they comb the village and search the whole compound wondering what nook he’s hiding in this time. They play hide and seek, lifting banana leaves, shaking bushes, peeking under the beds made of sticks joined with sisal, the boy can’t be found.
Exhausted, they decide to make lunch instead and head to the shamba to get a few vegetables as they ponder where else to look. The shamba is being prepared for coffee planting. If you haven’t seen coffee planting holes, they are the size of a shallow grave. And who do they find inside one of the coffee holes? The truant, comfortably sleeping having fooled the two elderly cousins.
He’s smoked out like bees during honey-harvesting. He’s given a beating of his life and warned against ever skipping school again. He goes back to school, intermittently. Playing truant once and showing up the next day. They push him by his butt and pull by his ears until he learns to love school. And when he does, he can’t be stopped. He’s miraculously good in class. He studies and is soon done with primary school. He goes on to high school and does well. He seems to like books now, probably because the coffee was planted and the coffee holes filled up, there’s nowhere to hide. It’s actually that coffee that is paying for the most of his school fees. But with 8 other siblings, it’s barely enough.
He’s soon done with high school to the joy of his parents and his auntie – my Mom. He secures a slot to study Land Survey in a college in the city. He doesn’t have much for clothes and transport, his auntie gives him a few coins – she’s a primary school teacher with loans that stretch all the way to Mars. His Mom and dad tops up where they can. He hawks boiled eggs in his hometown and makes some money, enough to take him to Nairobi.
College starts, he’s living with relatives. They are not exactly nice and he’s really struggling with food, transport and accommodation. The relatives he’s staying with don’t even give him food, and especially on the nights when they have made chapati. Like a stray cat that knows it’s unwanted, he sneaks to the kitchen at night to steal some food when the hunger pangs are unbearable. Sometimes, his auntie carries maize and beans and flour and everything the shamba can produce and takes them to him in Kenya poly. Maybe he cooks them or he sells them, I really can’t remember.
His auntie’s husband – my dad – lives and works in Nairobi. When the life with his relatives are unbearable, she takes him and shows up with him at the door. She tells him, “This is so-and-so, he’ll be living here with us from now on.” The uncle – my dad – really can’t say much. He looks at him and decides he really needs some food and maybe a shower. He lets him stay. Of course he knows who he is, but my dad had a way of feigning ignorance to test your anger limits.
Life in our Nairobi home in easier and less stressful. There’s no one to deny him food, his night ninja skills are no longer needed. He studies well and soon is done with schooling. The village welcomes one of its very first Land Surveyors. From the word go, he’s bent on establishing his own firm. He gets an office. He also needs someone he trusts and who can hustle with him on his first days. He picks my sister – his sister – fresh from high school. She’s equipped with the knowledge of titration, distillation and how to do proper back-stitches from her home science class, but being a secretary can’t be that hard now, can it? She hacks it like a bawse.
His firm starts like an old car with a faulty starter and an old engine. It grunts and coughs and jerks back and forth, but eventually, it starts. It moves slowly and eventually picks up speed. He begins to get clients and make some money. He’s motivated by the poverty behind him, running so fast and always looking over his shoulder that the poverty doesn’t catch up with him again.
One time he tells me, “I see the poverty behind me and run like a crazy man.”
He makes it, the youngins today would say, “akaomoka.” He soon starts making money, enough for people to notice. He demolishes his Mom’s mud house and builds her a nice bungalow, complete with solar panels in the middle of a village that’s always covered in darkness. Their home, the one that was always a landmark of poverty, is now the North Star in this sleepy village. He takes his brothers and sisters through school making sure they are all stable. He marries a wonderful woman from the slopes and they get two wonderful boys and a little cherry on top. The cherry is the very apple of his eye, little princess who adores him.
He builds a humongous house for his family, a house that would swallow the kind of house he lived in. He designed it himself, can you imagine how a house designed by a surveyor would look like? It has rooms that look like they were made by the big bang theory, they just fell into place. He doesn’t care, he wanted a big house and he got it. He keeps dairy cows, cows the size of buffaloes. He loves cows like he’s Indian, only he doesn’t worship them, he milks them. He teaches his sons the way of the cows, boys who are on snapchat and are so modern they think WiFi is air can still sit under a cow and milk it dry. Perfect parenting 101.
He’s the kind of person that is on everyone’s speed dial. He helps people without discrimination, he’s in all the committees you can think — weddings, funerals, harambees, church building, church planting, school board of directors — all of them. He’s generous with his knowledge, experience and pockets. He remembers how he was literally pulled out of a hole, making fun of it on most days but making effort to pull people out of holes every day. His auntie, the one who pulled him out of coffee holes, is beaming with pride and satisfaction. He’s is always visiting with goodies — sometimes shopping, sometimes a pick up full of firewood. He makes sure she lacks nothing. He’s my brother, and he plays the big brother role so well. When my dad dies, he tells me, “Mercy, we need to build a fence for Mom, now that she’s alone”. I agree.
A couple of weeks ago, I call him and say, “Dude, we need to tell your life story on my blog. The bit I know is not enough, can we have an interview you fill me in?” He laughs. Then he says, “Yes, that would be nice, call me tomorrow?”
I call the following day. He says, “Ayiayia, I went to get some grass for the cows and then the grass came loose and fell allover the tarmac. I’m picking it up to tie again back to the car, call me tomorrow morning?
I laugh at his lack of dexterity in tying nappier grass and say, “Sawa, kesho”
I call the following morning and he doesn’t pick up. I imagine he’s gotten an early client that needs their land subdivided pronto. I let him be. We don’t talk again for a few days. But he’d been unwell for a little while. As men are wont to do, he downplays whatever it is he’s feeling. He calls my sister, the one who was his secretary and gets some prescriptions. She’s now a medic. He takes them for a while but his wife calls again and says, “This dude is not looking OK.” She pushes with all her mountain strength and he agrees to hospital.
I wake up on the morning of Saturday, September 5th and as usual check my Whatsapp messages. Someone has shared a screenshot from Facebook to our family Whatsapp group.
My heart stops, I actually hear it stop for a few seconds before it starts thumping again at way above what my biology teacher told me was normal. I start screaming and ugly crying and calling everyone. I call his bro, he confirms it. They were waiting to tell everyone and the news hadn’t found its way to me yet.
My brother logged out of the world at 2 AM the previous night and I found out via a Facebook screenshot! He died when another Kenyatta is president. My heart is shattered to confetti.