BOOKS: ROOTS BEFORE BRANCHES 

The Magunga bookstore was recently featured in the New Yorker, a great achievement by all accounts. A little Kenyan start-up fuelled by passion for literature, they only stock books by African authors. But of course the mzungus cried foul. Reverse racism, they claimed. How could the New Yorker encourage such blatant fissions in literature, which is meant to be the great unifier of all, they asked. How could they not, is my reply.

I am hopelessly drawn to bookstores, so half my afternoons in town are spent browsing shelves, updating my to-read list and fawning over book covers. I have done this all my life. When I was growing up, the book section of Nakumatt might as well have been my second home. I didn’t have the agency to roam about and explore different stores as I do now, which means that shopping days were my most favourite thing in the world.

We’d go as a family, late at night when the mall was mostly empty. We’d walk in and I’d immediately wander to the book section, my mother calling out after me, “Na usipotee.” Don’t get lost. This caution was unnecessary seeing as I’d be by myself, except for an attendant or two, too enchanted to leave the  minimal square footage that comprised the book section. An hour of bliss, skimming over title after title; and if a book didn’t have that pesky plastic wrapping over it, I’d start to read.  Some of the attendants knew me by name and they’d leave me alone. Once, one even got me a plastic stool to sit on. I don’t remember ever seeing a book by an African author. Not even the Pacesetters and Trendsetters I grew to dislike.

When it was time to leave, my sister would come to get me and I’d carry the cheapest book I could find, Enid Blyton or something, and squeeze it through the side of the trolley then stand as far from my parents as I could. They’d get to it and my mother would scan the blurb and sigh. It was only 450 shillings; of course they’d get it.

 I’d read it in one night, regardless of the thickness. Stories with blue-eyed, blonde-haired heroines and their rugged little mutts; their brave friends and indulging teachers who had endless bags of gold stars and candy for the kids who were nice. Or Huckleberry-like boys who teased girls and stole pennies. 

I knew those stories by heart and dreamt of them with my eyes open. I retreated into a shell where I could make my world what I wanted it to be. Sometimes, all by myself, I would have conversations with them. I left the cha-mama and cha-baba kimbo tins to my non-blued eyed peers. Playing house was not as fun when the other children insisted on things I considered crude, things I was sure the teachers in my books would punish with a time-out. I didn’t learn how to ride a bike when others did, or play kati. I had the entire Baby Sitter’s Club series, and seeing as my nose was forever buried in a book, those were my friends. I liked Kristie, the tomboy. She was a leader. But I wanted to be Dawn, the pretty one. Or Mary-Anne, with the long legs, almond eyes and tragedies that always got fixed at the end of the book. The one book I had that was authored by an African, I wish I could remember who, was a collection of comic strips about a white man who sails to a new land and deceives the native into trading away his gold in exchange for a bible, and even this was purchased at a non-descript little bookshop in the middle of nowhere.

After I transferred schools, I finally met Wole Soyinka,  Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o in the library. The Lion and the Jewel, Weep Not Child and A Grain of Wheat were devoured. I was starving. I only fully understood them later, but my nine year old self was enraptured by the way those words came to life in my mind. Of course, the stories felt foreign to me. I could not really harmonize the worlds in my head. I was accustomed to the neat lines and perfection of tiled floors in my Eurocentric books and Achebe wanted me to accept mud huts, numerous gods and the cruelty of reality. I disliked Social Studies, then History. The walls I erected firmly around my fantasies kept me sheltered well enough from reality. I did not fit in much. All my social cues picked up from foreign books with glossy covers, when I asked a crying classmate, “What is the matter?” I got laughed at because the way those words rolled off my tongue made me different, foreign from the rest of the class one students.

I loved The River Between in high school (Not more than An Enemy of the People, but still). I loved it because it had moments of truth and inspired interesting debate with my friends about whether faced with the same choices; we’d be Nyambura or Muthoni. But for all its goodness, it still didn’t match up to the Shakespeare books we stole from the library and read into the night instead of cramming the workings of an a.c./d.c. generator. Tony Mochama’s columns as Smitta, Wahome Mutahi and The Surgeon’s Diary are possibly the only African writing I allowed to charm me. 

 And then Chimamanda happened. Her stories pulled the rug from beneath my feet. She opened my eyes to the possibilities I had been missing out on. It suddenly wasn’t enough anymore to read of manic-depressive pixie girls idolized by quirky but otherwise conventionally attractive boys. I had been buried in books that made me long for a world I could only have beneath closed eyelids. The thought of having to confine myself only to books that edited out my identity, or were told from a perspective which I could only empathize with after stripping myself of my history became a travesty.  She healed me, and without knowing my name, saved me. She wrote me an alternative, and it just happened to be the best kind.

This gateway opened for me a world of unprecedentedness. This is not to be mistaken for an absolute shunning of all books not authored by Africans. I have favorites, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger for example, which I go back to every few months, and my bookshelf is as diverse as humanity is. The very nature of literature is such as to enable you to empathize and identify with stories of people who could be as different from you as the night is from day, and by doing this, showing you that we really aren’t that different after all. The thing that I imagine the Magunga bookstore is trying to do is open up the continent. There is so much magic being brought into existence throughout and publishing is already such a chore, so why not help the process by providing writers with a channel through which their books can reach new audiences? If there are children growing up like myself, essentially ‘coconuts’, (white on the inside) is it not the right thing to do to give them access to their own stories? In the wake of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s recent discussion as organized by Jalada where he likened a person without language to a tree without roots, I see no reason why we should not be obsessively proud of all the stories coming out of the continent. The same way that a child’s first language is important, so should their first exposure to history be the truth lest we risk raising a generation ignorant of all the culture that has defined us.  

It is only after I embraced books written by my own that I gained an interest in history, and not the kind in textbooks either because even that has been tailored and dumbed down.  After opening my mind to the past, only then was I able to unlearn the colonial mindset that would otherwise have shackled me to an eternal adoration of the white man. 

Adan Ibubakar,  who has grown on me (author of Season of Crimson Blossoms) said in his speech, Dreams and Other Dangerous Pursuits,”I realised that literature, as an art form, can be used for individual gratification, but at the same time, it lends itself to a far greater cause, that of our collective humanity. It became clear that what I really wanted to do was to immortalise us, so that when the future excavates us, it will see, beyond the newspaper headlines that reflect the damage we inflict on ourselves and one another, that we lived and loved, that we dreamed and aspired and failed, that we rose and continued, that despite the wars, the violence, the immeasurable harm we perpetrated, our resilience and strength and our humanity still shone through the dark mist.” 

Magunga is immortalizing us, by telling our stories and making sure they’re read. His is a safe space of sorts, where beautiful African-authored literature is encouraged to thrive. So, buy books, find your roots and talk about our literature because reverse racism is not a thing. 

MUFASA: THE PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST

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Source: Mufasa Poet - Facebook Timeline

I asked him why his eyes seemed so sad. He was not expecting it at all.
That wasn’t the question that I wanted to ask, that I had intended to ask. Here was a man whose poetry performances moved me to tears, I had been preparing for this meeting for a long time. I had a list of questions lined up in my head. I was going to push him into an interview, dig deep into his self and perhaps find the coal that was being turned into diamonds by the weight he wore on his shoulders. I was going to ask about his mother and his writing process, the course he did in university and his first love, the books that he read and how he had first experienced God… I stopped him, introduced myself and shook his hand. Polite, gentle. I looked up at his ever-present hat and rearranged my thoughts. Deciding then that I was ready, I looked into his eyes and forgot about my list.
They are a veteran soldier’s eyes, with war hidden in them. A mother’s eyes,  with a history of sacrifice peering through the veil. A boy’s eyes, with passion staring out of them. Smouldering. That’s the word for those eyes. Smouldering. You can see a fire burning in them, but whether it’s dying down or just about to roar into flames I wasn’t sure.
He was not expecting it at all. It’s probably not the kind of question he gets asked by his fans. In his hesitation, I could sense the calculations he was making in his head. He could have dismissed me with a laugh and a crafty reply then left, his secrets remaining with him and I would have been none the wiser. Yet he didn’t. I must have caught him at a good time, without all the walls and the suited armour because he paused first before saying, “I’ve been through so much, you don’t even know. ” Then he laughed. A quiet, almost disbelieving laugh, as if he himself doubted his own past. You can tell volumes about a man from his interjecting laughs.
Mufasa didn’t look me in the eye after my follow-up question.” Are you happy? Like, have you ever experienced happiness comparable to the intensity of your sadness? ” I was absolutely free balling. His gaze fixated on a point far behind me, falling somewhere in the shadows and he laughed, again. The same uncertain, high-register vibration. Then he said,” No. Not really. ”
It was ten o’clock in the night, he had to leave. In the few following minutes that I could have pestered another meeting out of him, I instead offered a hug. He asked if I wanted a selfie, I told him I didn’t really like photos, and he said,” Me too! ” I offered to buy him coffee sometime in the near future, then we parted ways.
A week later I watched him perform again and ladies and gentlemen, Mufasa is a revolution.
It had been a long day, I was exhausted. Alliance Francaise was packed, Fete de la Musique was a success. I had opted to sit on the steps, which turned out to be a mistake. It was cold, it was late and believe me, listening to more than ten spoken word acts wears you out. Then Mufasa’ turn was up.
He went on stage and in his usual manner, first performed safe poetry, lulling the audience into a false sense of security with love and niceties and the blended vocals of some madly talented musicians. Just when I started to think that he was feeling soft, and that I’d go home ears ringing with a serenade that wasn’t mine, an up and coming band, The Movement, that had been backing him this whole time started to whip up the crowd into a frenzy. Violin, saxophone, drums, electric guitars and keyboard, all of them conjuring up ghosts I had long buried deep inside.
Mufasa’s voice was controlled, his eyes closed, the microphone merely an extension of his arm with the background instrumentals barely registering over the sound of his voice. The poetry this time wasn’t a lullaby, it was both altar call and war cry. Equal parts deliverance and witch-hunt. He’d go on for three minutes or so then pause and with back turned to the audience scream and the instrumentals would rise to a crescendo and for a minute there I’d forget how to breathe. The fatigue in my shoulders sloughed off me like dead skin.
The audience was wild, they screamed along with him and roared with the drums. I was a small sunken island in the midst of it all, still seated on the steps. I don’t know how to listen to Mufasa on my feet. He transfixes me to my spot, and I could swear the rhythm of my blood seeks out the pauses in his oration and pumps to that.
Over and over and over, he and his band of genius drew me in, pulled me close and reminded me what it meant, means, to be alive. It was hypnosis, the kind that you get back from more conscious. It was in the air like a stench, but one that you associate with home. It was on people’s faces like a scar, but one that somehow looks like it always belonged. Now I know what a revolution feels like, tastes like…
Mufasa is a revolution. His sets are a call to honour tears as the balancing side of laughter. They feel like permission, like a grant to transcend yourself. I don’t know, I wish you were there.
I haven’t done him justice with this, because he is a poet. Words are a strange gift to give to a poet, because they deserve so much more. Perhaps I will have a second chance, this time to meet both Kibet and Mufasa because he is the embodiment of this quote, “There are poets who sing you to sleep and poets who ready you for war and I want to be both. ” – Ashe Vernon.
Mufasa is both.

MY QUARTER-LIFE CRISIS

He probably prays before bed every night, this man. On the edge of his bed, he just slightly comes short of getting on his knees and clasping his hands in supplication. When he is done, he kisses his rosary like mother showed him when he was five, then tucks himself in.
He is bespectacled and immaculate. All the three times I’ve seen him he’s been in black trousers and a white shirt. Part of his uniform I suppose. A tiny shiny golden metallic plaque identifies him as Jeremy.
He looks like he’s always wanted to try kayaking, but those glasses cost him thirty five grand, just for the frames. He isn’t one to flush money down the loo, or down the Sagana river for that matter. He’s thought about getting contact lenses but his glasses feel like an extra wall separating him from the world. That’s how he likes it.
His car, probably a silver Toyota Avensis, despite being two years old still looks Iike it would fit right into a showroom with new cars. He loves it, but his ex loved it even more than she did him. He’s single now and hasn’t thought of dating in a while. Trying to  understand females makes his head hurt.
Jeremy speaks well. His voice is low and soothing and he maintains eye contact like a proper man. He answers questions the way my teacher of English would have liked; precise and affirmative. That’s probably why he is the supervisor at this coffeehouse I like in the CBD.
See, he and I met while I was having dinner with a friend. In a manner peculiar to only me, I decided to ask our waiter if I could get a job at the place. You could have picked the waiter’s jaw off the floor. I guess I’m the first customer who didn’t act like they could buy the whole joint, with a side of salad please, just for the kicks. It is a swanky place, that one. Usually packed with professional-looking folks with their tablets and PC’s, latte’s and pasta salads. The nice waiter sent the supervisor, Jeremy, my way. A little tete a tete that’s neither here nor there and we decided I’d hand in a handwritten application letter and CV for consideration.
With the way I belaboured over that letter, you’d have thought I was getting hired purely based on the curve of my y’s and the swell of my b’s. Like I would walk into the interview and introduce myself, and the HR guys would say something like, “Your penmanship is remarkable… get yourself a tray already Miss, you’re hired. ” I am convinced I was two strokes of the pen away from a broken wrist by the time I was done.
My curriculum vitae makes out a nerd who would have much more luck applying for a job as a librarian, but this didn’t deter me. You know how hope is, the bastard. Hope is like that ka-guy who just won’t quit hotline bling-ing you. (No? No? Okay. Sorry) You refused to date him two years ago. You didn’t say no for any particular reason, just that his name is Zablon and there’s no way in hell your wedding cards are reading Asena weds Zablon, you know? There’s just too many hard-hitting consonants in that name. You can’t even say it to your children because it’s a potential choking hazard. Like, put that away before the baby chokes on it.
So hope, accompanied by Jeremy’s assurance that they could offer me some training, led me to deliver the application.
One week without a call and I was a bundle of nerves walking a tightrope. Two weeks in and I was two minutes away from strangling myself with that tightrope I’d been on. I was a woman scorned. All that hell hath no fury stuff? Understatement.
Later, after hemming and hawing to all who’d listen and sympathise, I reasoned through my frustration.
Jeremy is a professional. He could lose his job if he hires a complete bumbling idiot, namely me, who would proceed to break five plates, serve soup right into the lap of a customer and perhaps even mix up orders and cause a poor lactose intolerant lady to spend all morning cursing in the ladies’ room. All this done before the lunch crowd starts to show. Self-preservation (a a lot of common sense) demands that he says no.
I am eighteen, I know. There’s no need for all this brouhaha about jobs and employment. But I’m having my quarter-life crisis a little earlier than I expected.
Law school is no place for dreamers, is what I have come to realise. It is no place to sit in class and write rhymes on the margin of the page. Or go off at four into the library and get lost reading poetry only to get startled at 10 that they are closing up for the day. The brick buildings are cold and desperate to fit in, the books bulky and unforgiving.
My lecturers are okay by all reasonable standards, but that’s only if your standards are so low the devil probably uses them to get his barbeque going. Ha, I exaggerate. Let’s be honest though, as I write this, one of them is in class. His ethnic peculiarities have a chokehold grip on his admittedly impressive intellect. As such, his lectures always come off a little like the asphyxiated ramblings of a cynic who long gave up on the country. At the start of the lecture my back is ramrod straight and I stare right at the bridge of his glasses; shows I’m listening without prompting him to call on me by making eye contact. My demeanor gives off the general impression that I live on meat pies and the constitution. But I promise you, I couldn’t care less about all he is professing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all important, all interesting… but when he mentions Achieng Oneko, the question I want to ask isn’t how he contributed to the democratization of the republic. I want to ask about how he felt, what he thought of every night, did he cry into his wife’s lap fearing that he’d die without ever seeing his babies make something of themselves. Sigh.
Jeremy seems so happy. His visage is arranged into the polite disinterest of a service industry employee, sure. But you look him in the eye and there’s a glint behind his glasses. His inner child is ridiculously happy. He has an easy, dimpled smile and his wrists (which are very delicate, for a man) are relaxed. You can feel the contentment rolling off him in bucketfuls from across the room. Ernest Hemingway writes about T.S. Eliot in ‘A Movable Feast’. Eliot was stuck working at a bank and so had insufficient time and bad hours to function as a poet, and kina Ernest were trying to raise money to help him out of his career and into full-time writing. (Calling writers by their first names is so personal. Makes them sound so human and real, like they eat mandazi for breakfast and crave samosas at 12 in the night but the street vendor packs up at 10 and so they have to wait till morning because you can’t cheat on your samosa guy just like that) Do you see my point? I am frighteningly single-minded, and I do not want to have to choose between careers.
I just want to be Jeremy. With his sneaky smiles and contented life ..but no one will hire an eighteen year old. Their reason is this pesky little thing called Experience.

TRACING MY ROOTS

My father was an unfortunate man. A child of two worlds and yet at the time of my birth a man of none. He was a sort of mis-creation that did not know where to stand when the whole world seemed to be deceptively on its feet.

My father was a sad man. Hunching over behind the counter of his little store (for it was never ours, it was his not because of him being mean but because of us not wanting to be associated with the shop) or looking desperately at his shelves that were always understocked.

My father was a desperate man. He had been a sickly, weak child that always clung onto my grandmother. He suckled till he was 7, something the British women awed at but the others found a source of derision. His eyes were large, extreme and avid and with one look, made all others uncomfortable.

My father was a cowardly man. He hid from the war and he hid from the peace. What was worse is that his cowardice could not be shrouded by cunning or by tact. It was like an ugly scar, nothing could be done to shield it, to mitigate it. His cowardice was like an aura around him.

My father was an ignorant man. Cicero, Soyinka, Al Mazrui, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Angelou scared him. They demanded things from him he did not have and would never have. Gumption, gusto, evil, love, empathy were against my father’s nature. He did not read because they demanded that he give himself , and there was nothing there.

My father was an unloved man. Only my mother loved him, and her love helped him seem more human. She gave herself devotedly to him, the village coward the one who did not bow at the feet of education and worship.

Her death left him bereft and for days he wept openly for the one who had seen him at all.

My father was a man who would have crawled back into the womb if given a chance.

My mother was a mighty bitch. Even her smile was incomplete, reflecting the meanness that had laid roots and grown in her as steadily as the bubonic plague. She did not care about our neighbours, who wanted to lay foundations for friendship and sewing sessions and exchanging recipes.

My mother was a strong bitch. She had wrestled her way out of the womb and was destined to wrestle till death (her mother had wanted an abortion but my mother resisted all the drugs sent her way to kill her). She embodied Dylan Thomas’ poem, Rage Against The Dying Of The Night.

My mother was a clever bitch. She taught me how to read and to write and how to tell the difference between poisonous mushrooms and the others. When I asked her where babies came from, she skinned two rabbits and explained what sex was. I was seven.  She found the supermarket theory rather hilarious and subconsciously escapist of parents.

My mother was a hard worker. She wrestled with thirty acres of bare sand and forced it to give her an annual bumper yield of corn, wheat and rye. She built the stables with her own hands (since no one wanted to help or be hired to a gypsy woman). She broke in all our horses, some strays, but most from the slopes of the Andes, where her ancestry was. Her hands were calloused, but still had the effective charm of a dancer.

My mother was the desert wind, hot, dangerous, empty and unrelenting. She raised me with no preconceived ideas. She loved me with all the ruthlessness in her soul and in her chiseled cheekbones and in her wild mane of hair and with her mordant wit and her morbid humour and her chocolate skin and her love of whisky over wine.

She loved me with all her fire.

PS..The author of this piece is a brilliant human with bottle-green eyes and wit so charming I could marry her. Her posts on this blog will be identified by the tag Silverwisp at the end of the piece; until she concedes to have her identity made public.

WHAT DOTH SEPTEMBER BRING?

When you start a blog you smile and think yourself brave. You check your stats daily and clean out the cobwebs, polish the silverware and set out the Now Open sign. Then you sit at the door, cookies in hand waiting for young men scouring the web with Vaseline jars in hand to stumble upon your feed. You imagine that your earthy humour will definitely make them stay in spite of the chronic lack of the exact sort of entertainment the internet promises horny teenagers. You fall asleep at the kitchen table, disappointed yet still waiting for these promised Messiahs. Asleep, and sometimes even wide awake, you dream of imbibing grandfather Biko’s wisdom over coffee one day and plan meticulously how you will make your debut jab at his forehead because that will mean you made it and are now on soul brother terms with a legend.
You post your link everywhere. And by everywhere, I mean everywhere. Even as you apply for your ID you pay no heed to the miniscule boxes nagging you to assert your sex. Male? Female? No, Writer. And below that you dot your I’s and cross your T’s and hope someone will think you funny and look up your blog.
You start to hide your laptop from your mother because even though you consider yourself Aleya Kassam reincarnate, you’re still mummy’s little girl and if she stumbles upon an article and doesn’t just lose her headscarf as she rolls on the ground with  laughter, that will be the end of all literary pursuits on your part. So you update your password from LoveMrDarcy to something gmail will post up on their wall of fame as the world’s strongest password. Something badass with echoes of the souls of freedom fighters and Bob Marley’s dreadlocks, perhaps with a mention of the Holy Grail. A password so strong they’ll have to ask you to prove you aren’t a computer.
You start to see stories everywhere and everything becomes a punchline. Your phone starts to live in your hand, perpetually opened to the WordPress app and your mother, poor thing,  cannot understand why you keep stopping mid-statement to type furiously and then thirty seconds later go back to the conversation with a self satisfied smirk reminiscent of a toddler who’s just evacuated his bowels right into the diaper.
And that’s really what your writing feels like, bowel evacuation. Pouring out the lexicon buildup in your mind onto a page and hoping that the stench of your words will not keep people away.
You develop urges as a side effect. Exhibitionist urges. You become obsessed with flashing people.  Not with your body, of course, but your mind. Every single conversation you have with people (and inanimates) strays from normalcy. You dig deep into people’s souls and come out with hands either coated in dark, grimy grease or glitter and honey. It terrifies you, and for a while you stop asking questions you don’t want answers to. Until you realize that there’s a thrill to uncovering the human ego and deciphering its psyche that can simply not be found anywhere else.
You find one particular reader who is always there, and you engage over the internet. You eat cake while he sips coffee on his side of the planet. You show him the skeletons in your closet and he lets you meet his demons. Every night you go out on dates like this and talk about Memoirs of A Geisha and you agree never to meet because the levels to which you have undressed each other’s minds cannot simply be dismissed.
You get critics. And you only accord them one line because ‘they jus’ hatin’. And these niggas can’t hold you back.’
You drown in writer’s block every once so often and end up writing about the manic depressive pixie dream girl who is really just you in your fantasy life and you realise that you’ve drifted so far from your debut self deprecating writing and turned into a narcissist.
You contemplate shutting down this whole charade of thinking yourself a writer after rereading David Copperfield and seeing the ease with which Dickens writes a whole paragraph without punctuation yet still managing to make his point. But you can’t because you’re now a through and through narcissist who is convinced that Thursday could never be the same for your readers without your post.
You scout other people’s blogs and realise with dawning horror that you haven’t a love story of your own, or even a one night stand to brag about because you happen to be a prude. A single prude. You think of making one up but two sentences after describing the perfect tall stranger you realise that you really don’t know if he says please before taking your bra off or if he simply ravishes you in a Mills and Boon fashion giving no mind to the coffee table which he is sure to break if he is in keeping with the script.
They tell you that you should add pretty pictures to make your stuff more palatable and for approximately 1.34 seconds this sounds like a great idea. Until you realise that you’re a writer, goddamit, not a painter. Or a sketch artist. And if your words aren’t painting enough of a picture then you’re going to slave over the keyboard until they do. Plus, you’re writing for a mature audience. Not people who only read books with pictures in them.
When you start a blog you make plans, about just how good you will be in a few months. But after a while, it stops being about the stats. You realise that just the opportunity to write frequently, and the growth you experience is more than enough. You write a bunch of articles and get a bunch of ghost readers and it is enough. You cross it off your bucket list, because it’s September and it’s time for new dreams.
I hope September is kind to you. And perhaps one of these fine days we’ll meet and have coffee and talk about life and writers and dating and The Drunk Dial Project(which will be revealed soon. All interested writers can reach me then at  jejoasena@gmail.com).

OF CRUSHES, KITTENS AND SPONGEBOB

It baffles me, it really does.
When we are making friends, it’s really not that hard. You just meet someone and it doesn’t take you very long to decide whether you like them or not. Sometimes they’re just not your type, case closed. They end up being the type of acquaintances you meet on the street and discover you have nothing to say to past, “Hi! Unafanya nini huku?” Then you awkwardly smile as you mutter a hurried, “Okay, I’ll see you around,” and you’re nearly tripping over your air of composure that has just crumbled around you because you can’t get away fast enough. And then you curse under your breath when you do see them around…around that same area a couple of hours later and this time the smile is even more awkward because you had lied to the poor fellow that you were rushing to attend your great-aunt’s memorial service in Rongai. You don’t even bother to stop for pointless small talk because when you talked about the weather and the size of the pavements in Nairobi, you covered all the bases.
Other acquaintances are the ones you can actually have a decent conversation with, and you will at least know their names and estimate ages. Maybe even their general places of residence. For some you will take it up a notch and you will be privy to details such as whether their fathers are related to the governor of Machakos or whose brother was a small-time thief and hopeless drunk in Naivasha before he reformed and became a man of the cloth; an apostle, no less, who went on to plant a church with a long name somewhere along the lines of Christ The Son of God is Lord of Abundance and is Coming Soon in Glory Full Gospel Centre.
But there is always that other category. Of people you meet, think are cool because they like SpongeBob, like and proceed to form a lifetime bond with, based on, well, nothing really. Well at least that’s how I’ve made most of my friends. And don’t even try to act like you don’t think SpongeBob is cool too.
These people don’t have to be a certain height or a certain complexion. They don’t have to have an inner Ronaldinho just waiting for an opportunity to shine (by the way, I only recently found out the spelling of that name and when I compared it to the pronunciation, I think for a moment there my soul left my body). People we choose to be our friends don’t have to have dreams of world domination (okay, at least they don’t intend to do all the work of getting up and chasing those dreams…they are perfectly satisfied to just imagine that the world would be a much better place if they were made president because their first task when they got into power would be to ensure every part of the world had wifi) and some don’t even have a clue what their dreams are. They just are. And we take them, subconsciously pledge allegiance to them, point out their flaws and make a joke of them; we fight in their corner, lose bets to them and just take it easy.
So why is it so different when we’re dealing with romantic relationships?
If you’re like me, and you would be lucky and wise not to be, you must have quite a time when it comes to this thing, romance. When I like a guy, I keep him around me for a while as I try to convince myself that it’s just a crush, it will go away as soon as I find something wrong with him. And what happens, when I do find out that black spot, you ask? Nothing. Except that I magnify that one flaw until it’s all I can focus on when I see this person. Example, if it’s his teeth I have a problem with (gosh, I am so petty and shallow), then all I will see instead of him is a giant set of teeth that look like they belonged to a T-rex with a penchant for Italian cigars that ate too many sweet little stone age girls, and got cavities as a result.
And that’s how I have managed to avoid a relationship for all 18 years of my life.
I’ve liked two guys in my long and fulfilling life. I am now on my third, and I’m at that stage where he’s the most awesome thing since Sherlock Holmes and everything he says is the funniest thing I ever heard and  my friends don’t know that I have a new pet kitten because instead of texting them about it I was gushing about Hello Kitty to You-Know-Who. No, I don’t have a new pet kitten but if You-Know-Who gave me a pet kitten I’d be married to him, living in a quaint sea-side cottage and expecting my eighth daughter before I even noticed whether the creature had a tail or not. And my friends would probably still not know about it. And yes, I would name my kitten Hello Kitty. Or Puss in Boots. Or Cat-astrophe. Not Garfield because I think there is no room on one planet for more than one of those.
Now, despite how smitten I am, I have all these fears and insecurities characteristic of a woman in love, which makes it near impossible to enjoy his attention and willingness to traverse Nairobi town to come see me. I keep thinking that maybe he will get bored of me, or develop a bad habit that will put me off, or turn out to be an alien right off the set of Men in Black, or join a terrorist militia…sigh. Or he might end up being one of those damnable men who just want to ‘tap that’ and then leave me as high and dry as the branches of the tree right outside our house. Seriously, you can’t even walk by that tree without fearing that the air currents you will generate as you move will bring an avalanche of dead wood crashing down upon you…SMH.
I ask myself a trillion and forty-six times, whether I’ll be making the wrong decision if I choose to commit to him, whether I’ll get my heart trampled on. I wonder whether he’s the right one, whether he’s focused enough, whether my mother will find him brilliant and driven enough for me, whether I will ever get bored of him…Why? Shouldn’t I just decide I like this one, take him and take it easy? Shouldn’t it be like something very close to how I choose my other friends? *cue the old school jam, “…how can we be lovers if we can’t be friends?” *
Why do I think it so complicated?
And for the record, he does like SpongeBob. That’s good enough, right?
-Michelle

MR. MIYAGI URGENTLY NEEDED

My brother is a sprightly young lad. All gangly limbs, knobbly knees and cauliflower ears very much like my own. He is afflicted with the same light skin that is taken to be synonymous with attractiveness. And much to the disappointment of the whole family, failed to dodge the genetic bullet and as a result, has to walk around in glasses to correct his myopia. All these notwithstanding, he’s sharper than a pencil point and the workings of his mind are a sight to behold. Over various suppers, it has been decided that he’ll charm one too many unsuspecting lasses in his time. (Of course, this will have to wait until after he concedes that not all girls are the devil’s advocates)
This brother of mine, named after a particularly muscly biblical character  is in his final year, thank God, at one of those primary schools where the teachers know no better than to try and instill the fear of God (as well as fear of failure and fear of trying, simultaneously) into kids by the business end of a long rod. I have found this method to be counterproductive seeing as there’s no direct relation between the gluteus maximus and the medulla oblongata. They call it positive punishment. But this is besides my point.
He came home the other day, visiting weekend. Per usual, he tore through the house touching this, nibbling at that, asking this, wondering at that. He practically inhaled half the food in the house before he finally settled down and tried to cram four months worth of The Simpsons, as well as a gazillion movies into six hours of TV watching. It wasn’t until after my father showed up that the whole point of this post unfolded.
He started gingerly, dropping his voice from the usual vuvuzela baritone to a sublime above-a-whisper. He fidgeted with his glasses and tucked his feet beneath his body on the couch. “There are boys in my class who took my composition and insha books.” Pause. My father, lying on his back, flips to the next page of his newspaper. “They keep mocking me.” My father sits up, turns down the volume of Homer Simpson dissing Gwyneth Paltrow on the TV. “Ati these boys do what?” “I found my composition book hidden in one of the stalls of the boys’ bathrooms.” “And the other book?” My father is speaking English now. Never a good sign. The newspaper lies forgotten on the coffee table. I pause my hair manipulation efforts and move closer to the living room.
“Ya Insha?” He’s self-conscious now, stammering in Swahili. “I… Sijaipata bado. They keep turning everyone against me. ” “How many are they? Have they hurt you physically? ” “They are spread out in all classes. ” His school has five streams. Orange, Yellow, Blue, Red and Green. “No, hawajaniumiza. But mentally and emotionally it is hurtful.” He is fourteen years old, this boy. Something I can only assume to be my heart clenches at this. He has no business knowing what emotional pain is.
There’s a four year difference between us and sibling rivalry has long been part of our mutual existence. I have never been fond of babies, and in all his toddler years I can count on one hand the number of times I was nice to him. Affection in my family is not displayed by the expected hugs and kisses. We choose humour. Having fun at each other’s expense is the well favoured pass-time, mocking the world is another. He and I have fought in the past, never physically, although on more than one occasion I have flung various objects at him. Quite unsuccessfully I should add; hand-eye coordination has never been my forte. We’ve never insulted each other. Our fights are civil, ending in a slamming of the door and being resolved by mutual appreciation of a particularly hilarious American Dad episode.
I marvel at just how in-sync we are sometimes. Bonding over everything from Flash, the superhero to the series about the-bunch-of-Hispanic-women-who-are-obviously-too-beautiful-to-be-househelps-and-who-spend-more-time-gossipping-than-they-do-cleaning. He is so intelligent it is intimidating. You should listen to him reason through Inception, the movie. Or quote Confucius. Yes. The long dead one with infinite wisdom. His report forms are the stuff parents’ dreams are made of.
Now here I was, listening as my only brother narrated how hellish his life was at a private school into which my parents have paid a small fortune. Nearly enough money to buy a small island with. He tiptoed around his words, barely avoiding using the word ‘bullied’. But if it barks like a dog, looks like dog, walks like dog, then you get it a kennel and a goddamn leash because IT IS a dog.
I should mention that just a few days earlier I had been to that school to give a motivational talk. My blood boiled at the thought that I had smiled and been nice to bullies. What a laugh they must have had, all at my expense. I even gave them candy!!! And why in the name of Bob Marley’s shampooed dreadlocks would anyone pick on a smart kid? I’m not saying that other less gifted kids should bear this burden, bullying is a terrible thing. I just fail to understand what the end game is here; Terrify him out of his wits? Literally?
Matter of fact is, bullying is one of the most resilient human flaws in recorded history. Expecting that a piece by a mostly obscure blogger will tip the scale for the better is a long shot. But perhaps we can talk to our kids, our siblings. Bullies are the kinds of people that eventually grow into entitled politicians, overly dictating bosses, abusive partners and rude front desk workers who bark in monosyllables and refuse to understand anything that isn’t from the age of cavemen. Confidence, courage and sometimes a little taekwondo (we need a Mr. Miyagi) goes a long way in beating them.
I suppose there had been some warning signs… He was home a lot, taking frequent trips to the doctor. He had developed ulcers. His answer to, “how was school?’ was perpetually “Poa tu.” (The use of Swahili and the immediate change of topic afterwards should have been a telltale).
I have been preparing him for high school. Telling him about the Pentagon in Alliance, talking to him about homosexuality and drugs. . . Painting this wonderful canvas of his life for him, and forgetting to check if the surface was right.
I couldn’t post last Thursday because every single time I tried to type, a bunch of expletives I didn’t even know I knew would flourish out of my pen and I would have to sit down and remind myself that I am a child of God whose spot in heaven will surely be put in jeopardy if I killed somebody’s child.
The teacher said he was on top of the matter. Splendid, I thought, in no time at all I will have at least seven heads of those miscreants hanging on the living room wall. They should make for a very appropriate conversation-starter piece. But the teacher begged to differ. He said that forwarding the matter to the principal would only bring more hatred. I admit he does have a point. But I know if within a week this Insha book hasn’t been found, and the damned culprit shamed to within an inch of his life, my spell casting abilities aren’t as pathetic as my hand-eye coordination.
No one takes care of family like family does.

LIFE’S SENTENCES.

Sometimes I feel suicidal. I get up and make particularly wrong decisions; Cut my fruit with a steak knife, use wet bathroom slippers around the slippery tiles, cross roads without saying the Lord’s Prayer or looking both ways… idiotic things like that because somehow I am convinced that it’s the little things that kill us.
See we all have grandiose plans about how we’ll die. . . Surrounded by loving family in  a blue room with white pillows and sunny flowers by the window. A weeping spouse at our side to kiss us goodbye, children holding on to our arthritic hands and begging us not to go. All this is fine and dandy until you watch your friends die at 30 from choking on a goat rib, and another from an allergic reaction. Once you have wept, beat the ground with your fists at about five different funerals(and one cremation) and changed your religion thrice you realise what life really is all about. It’s not about walking into the light at the end of the tunnel, or holding onto passing facades with all the determination of a leech. Life teaches us how to die and lesson number one is don’t fight it. When the last breath fights its way out of your lungs, you owe it to yourself to have the dignity to have a smile on your face. (Well, of course with the obvious exception of if you’re in the nude. Some things cannot be unseen and you’d much rather not traumatize whoever finds you there in all your birthday suit splendor)
My friend Danny says that at about 80, on a ridiculously hot afternoon, he’ll be limping around his library when a misstep will cause him to fall forward and get impaled on his shiny Nobel Peace Prize Award. Straight through the heart. (I don’t know how sharp the award will have to be, or how paper thin and frail his body will have to be for this to happen.) He’s big on metaphors this one, death by peace? A peaceful death?
Why would I be suicidal, you ask. But the better question would be, why wouldn’t I be my loves? Between the zombie apocalypse that’s bound to take us all out, the failing economy and threats of the Antichrist, there isn’t much to live for anymore. We might as well just retire to our balconies as early as now and watch as the world falls to shambles. Of course, a couple of Hail Mary’s are perfunctory, to ensure we get on the right train to heaven, or is that not how this works?
I have come to terms with my mortality, and if suicide won’t be the way I go out, then perhaps we can have it unfold as follows…
I’m walking on a crowded street when the shots ring out. One, two, three in quick succession. It’s one of those mornings which can hardly be described as spectacular. The sky, blue, hangs low as if intending to kiss the earth but hesitates because the damned pavements are dirty. The buildings stand tall and the homeless hang their faces low in subtle corners. The bullets meet their target, one, two three… Head, Shoulder, Knee… as if reciting the nursery rhyme.
There is a pause in the timeline as witnesses grapple with the seemingly abstract reality. A mother gathers up her child and hugs him to her chest, a startled young lady in heels so high they might have as well been stilts checks her bag, whips out a phone; a young man flies past me and crosses the road to watch at a safe distance. The shots rang out, but who is dead? Or dying?
With the same careful consideration with which I lived my life, I crumble to the sidewalk like a cookie crushed in a toddler’s hand. I make a mental note, the sky was right, the ground is filthy.
A sweeping wave of unconsciousness dulls the pain and as I fade out I can see feet scurrying past me at a wide berth. Something crosses my mind and I smile, I’m not sure if it’s the dawning realisation that life goes on or the immutable certainty that I will haunt the dreams of those passersby for months on end. That they’ll look over their shoulders wondering why I was killed, and if the shooter was coming for them next.
The sky, now a patchwork of blue and white, still hangs low. Unable to reconcile itself to the reality that romancing with the ground will never be possible. My body is carried away. The shooter is never identified.

I LOST THE POINT

Some days, your eyes open and you stretch, and as your senses come alive, you become aware that it is indeed a new day. A clean slate, another chance.
And that’s as far as it goes.
Then you feel your body going limp under your covers and your eyes slowly shut and in your mind, which is still trying to bring back to life that dream about going for a picnic with the president of the US that day has just shattered into nothingness, only one question stands prominent.
What is the point?
Today was one such day. Okay, considering I’m still in bed and the morning is still kind of young, (fine, not young. If it were a person it would be going through midlife crisis), I should probably use present tense. Today IS one such day. I’ve been lying in bed since the time my biological clock’s alarm component went off at 7:00 am. Or was it 6:30? Yeah, I’m an early bird like that. Beware all ye worms! Mwahahaha! * sky in the background suddenly darkens and lightning flashes with all the aim of inflicting terror on all worms of generations past and generations to come. Because all the ones of the current generation were caught when this early bird woke up*
So there I was, lying prostrate in bed…alright, no, I wasn’t. I just really wanted to say prostrate because… never mind. So in bed I was, staring at the floor and wondering if my greatest fear was going to finally catch up with me and reduce me to all I’ve been arduously striving to not become. Mediocre. And yes, I did mean staring at the floor. Because any ordinary run-of-the-mill guy or girl can stare at the ceiling while pondering upon their lives and it takes real guts to take rebellion so far as to stare at the floor without feeling like you’re looking down upon it. And yes, that conjectures that all you ceiling-starers are looking up to it. Now I don’t even remember what I was saying before.
Oh, lying in bed, right. The summary of what I am slowly and definitely not surely amounting to is what was going through my head. You know, those times when you begin to doubt everything you built your convictions upon and you think your whole life is founded on a lie because maybe you’re not  the stuff awesomeness is made of after all. Then you suddenly want to shrink to the size of a safety pin and go on to spend the rest of your days in utter reclusion, gathering dust in an old lady’s musty purse, with only her dead husband’s tooth to keep you company.
Somewhere in that place where dreams are made, I lost the point. The worst thing about losing something is that you don’t know where to start looking because even if you were to start retracing your steps, half the time you don’t remember what steps you took and the other half, your steps have been…uh…overstepped (for lack of a better word) by so many other people’s steps, and it’s such a muddle of steps and stepping stones and that is really what the director of Step Up experienced just before the idea for the movie came along.
Now with all these feelings clogging up my thinking veins, (yes, I have thinking veins, that’s how I can have a think tank all by myself) I did what any intelligent girl would do. I pulled up the covers, closed my eyes and banked on the very logical belief that if I concentrated hard enough I could will the day to morph into night, and then into tomorrow. Then I would say in a Mufasa voice, “And there was evening and there was morning, and that was the first day.” If you don’t know what a Mufasa voice is then you are probably a goat living in Nepal.
Well, it is still today, and it’s still morning, albeit a morning that is one and a half hours older by now, so I guess I didn’t concentrate hard enough. My powers of concentration are yet to attain the prefix ‘super’.
The good news is, I’m here, I’m typing this and I stopped trying to wish the day away. I haven’t found the point yet…I’m hoping I’ll sit down somewhere and get up immediately with a yelp because I’d have accidentally sat down on the lost point. Or I’ll just get a new one. Either way, courage is being able to get out of bed and hope to make something out of the day, even without a point.
-Michelle –

SUN DON’T SHINE NO MORE

“How long have you been following me?”
Eight days six hours and forty five minutes, I wanted to say. Yes, I had counted the days. Right down to each second. I had counted the number of days when I woke up next to her and thought to myself that she looked like light. Not the two-in-the-afternoon light which casts angry shadows. Or the midday sun that makes your skin clammy and wet. No, she looked like the soft kind of light that sneaks in through half-opened curtains in the early morning and warms your skin, filling the room with a suspended kind of beauty that makes you think that it will be a good day.
“What is wrong with you? Can’t you just be normal?”
No! No, I cried out in my head. No, I can’t be normal. I cannot be normal because of you. You affect me in ways no one else does. You enter the room and your scent floods my senses and I close my eyes to savour it and in that moment nothing matters to me but committing to memory the whisper of vanilla on tangy lemon that is your shampoo. Or your woodsy cinnamon fragrance that would be sickening on any other person but is divinely arresting on you.
“Can’t you just go away? I’m tired of having you keeping tabs on my every move. Following me around like some lost love-sick puppy!”
I won’t, can’t, let go, were the words just poised on the edge of my tongue anxious to roll off. I haven’t been able to let go since the very first time I saw you at the library, grazing your fingers ever so lightly against the spines of books by Emily Bronte and Charles Dickens. You hesitated over Pride and Prejudice but then instead went for the older wispier looking Sense and Sensibilities. You pulled it off the shelf and lightly sniffed its worn yellow pages and just then smiled to yourself, a small almost-not-there Monalisa smile, as though you knew a secret we didn’t. At that moment, I looked at you and my mind went blank. I felt as though you were a test I had stayed up too late studying for. One whose answers however, I could not for the life of me, remember. The paleness of your skin and the centuries hidden in your veins I could see beneath, and I knew that even if it killed me, my life’s purpose would be to decipher the book of you.
“Here’s the deal, you and I were a mistake. One that had gone on far too long. A misgiving on my part, one I can’t reverse. We were not meant to be and I’m sorry we didn’t work out. Move on, I already have. ”
How could she! I wanted to ask her how I was to get on by without the half of my heart that I had given to her but which, she with great gusto had flung to the end of the rainbow. I wanted to know how we could have been a mistake. Since when did mistakes make eyes light up in pure unmasked joy? How could we have been a mistake if for the first time I didn’t wake up drenched in sweat from the horrors of the old ghosts of my past? I wanted to tell her all these and much more. To convince her to look at me once more as she used to, as though I was a jar of golden sunshine wrapped in silk and hidden beneath a pillow during winter. I wanted to draw her pictures in the sky with words so divine they’d make cupid blush. To describe to her in detail my love like religion, my love like sacrifice, my love like reverence, my love like two hearts beating us one and two bodies, one soul. But she wouldn’t listen.
She was full of contrasts and perhaps that is why I loved her. A sharp mind and a soft heart; Laughter that was at the same time warm and perplexing; Eyes that begged you to come in while at the same time warning you to stay out. When she made me laugh, I laughed like I meant it, because that girl was straight-up hilarious. She was one big metaphor, leather and lace, and I’m still trying to figure out what she meant when she left me a note on the fridge in April saying, ”You are my jihad.”
Perhaps a girl like her wasn’t meant to be loved by a person like me. She is at the same time the drought and the tide; you simply cannot be prepared for her. And I know now that every day of my life I will re-live that moment in which I watched her walk away. I have experienced loss, and awakened from my dream.
Loss is getting up from a dream in which you were loved.