When I get to City Market I don’t know where stall number one is. I linger at the entrance facing Muindi Mbingu street like a pickpocket. It smells of fresh roses and Maasai carvings, bibelot and curious, touristic paraphernalia. It’s 1:42pm and I’m to meet a 90-year old man at 1:45pm. It’s Saturday and I’m in my dirty trainers and track-pants after a morning of cycling with my kids at Karura forest. I could have gone back home for a quick shower and a change of clothes and looked presentable but that would mean being late and the gentleman I’m meeting didn’t sound like the kind who took kindly to tardiness.
I ask a vendor where stall number one is and at that exact time I start to hear the tapping of a walking cane. I turn and I see the back of an old man walking further inside the market. He’s whistling. I instinctively knew it was him. “Is that Mzee Nthenge?” So I catch up with him and I introduce myself. He doesn’t stop walking, neither does he stop whistling. He doesn’t turn to look at me, he keeps shuffling along slowly, his walking stick tapping the floor. Then he stops whistling and says, “Is it you who called? Follow me.” And we slowly amble along to the tap of his walking stick and the music from his lips. Stall number one is a big forest of Maasai artefacts. He lowers himself into a seat next to a table at the corner and points at a stool with his walking stick. I take that gesture to mean sit, so I sit like a good dog. I sit next to a handful of spears and an old man in a canoe, who is holding his chin. I avoid the eyes of the old man – er, the wooden one.
Mzee G. G. W Nthenge regards me slowly. His eyes are rheumy, the colour of honey. His eyebrows have been eaten away by age, leaving behind wisps of hair. His complexion is more fair than it is dark. A white crown. His face looks like those Khoisans we learnt about in primary school. In contrast to my shabby self, he’s in a red tie, white shirt, a cream coat and navy blue pants. Dressed like he’s about to stand on a podium. “What did you say your name was?” I tell him Jackson Biko. He says, “my sister in law has a son called Biko. Anyway, how do you know Matthew?” I tell him I don’t. “He emailed me and mentioned you are an interesting person to interview.” (His exact words were, “He [my dad] will rough up your feathers.”)
“So you want to know about my life?”
He stares at me. He’s doing this thing which some people – especially much older/ wealthy/ powerful men – do during interviews where they just sit and regard you for a while, looking directly into your eyes and into you, trying yo make you uncomfortable. It’s simply a male domination thing in which they try to establish a pecking order. The trick is never to look away. You look away you lose ground from the first moment in the interview and you don’t want that. So I simply stare back with a small smile. He finally grunts and stomps his cane on the ground with finality and says. “What do you want to know from me?” I tell him to tell me everything. “How was your childhood in the 30’s?
“I was born in Machakos on 8 August, 1927. Educated in Mumbuni in 1933 to 1940, then Mangu where I was expelled in form 3…”
“Because I was too good in mathemarics,”[ that’s how he pronounces mathematics, mathemarics]. One teacher, a father, found out that I was better than him and he hated me for that. It was jealousy. So I went to St Mary’s Tabora in Tanzania where Mzee Julius Nyerere was my teacher for two terms before leaving to study in Britain for his degree. In 1949 we couldn’t sit our exams because Nyerere was gone and the teacher who took over from him died of cancer….”
He really gets into it; the mundane details of that time. Meanwhile, I’m uncomfortable on that stool after an early morning 12 km run earlier and cycling for another two hours. Well, half of which I would get off and push Kim’s bicycle when he whined everytime we got to a hill. So my back is sore and the stool is killing the last nerves on my ass because the bike I hired had a hard saddle; it was like sitting on an activist’s resolve. Plus I’m starving. Unsurprisingly I drift off during the parts of the narration that I find unnecessary. At some point when I come up for air I catch “I was one of the first 30 African elected members of the Lancaster house.” That piques my interest. I ask, “How many of the 30 are still alive?”
“There is Daniel Arap Moi member for Baringo and there is GGW Nthenge member for Machakos and both of us are still grounded…”
“Why do you think you lived that long?”
“It’s because I was good to human beings, I was very kind to people. I was doing what God wanted and I was very good to my parents, I educated their children, I planted a lot of coffee trees and gave them lots of chicken to lay eggs for sale. I was kind. I even gave Tom Mboya, my classmate, a seat that was meant to be mine.” And just like that he launches back into the politics. This time round I’m determined not to let him go deep into those woods because that’s timber I don’t need. When I say, “I like what you said about, you know, taking care of your parents and the Tom Mboya bit, does that mean then that the rewards of selflessness have brought you even bigger fortunes?”
He says testily. “Did you not come here so that I can tell you my story?”
“Then you have to sit and listen, if you interrupt me I will stop talking…you want a story so you have to listen.”
I’m 40 now, I can’t remember the last time anybody talked to me like that so I’m stung. Don’t forget my sore back and suffering ass. I took a deep breath and told myself, “Don’t let him make you cry. He can’t break you.” I half-hear him run through his career at Tabora law courts, teaching at Premier college etc. “I was a very rich man, I had a wood carving business that I started in 1950 with capital of 20 shillings. In 1958 I was the richest boy in Nairobi driving the best car in the city, an automatic car for that matter. Have you ever heard of the Studebaker vehicle?”
“No,” I mumble. I’m sulking a little. He’s hurt my feelings and the way I bruise easy.
“You people don’t know anything nowadays, you don’t know a Studebaker?!” He looks at me like I’m mad. I honestly don’t care what a bloody Studebaker is at this point. Has anyone here heard of what a Studebaker is?
“It was an American car. It was brought by some Americans who had come from Congo and were heading out back home, so I bought it off them. It was the best car around. Anyway, my business stopped doing as well when I went into politics. In 1963 I was nominated by Kenyatta as one of the eight members of the electoral commision, which I was up to ‘69, and then I become the MP for Kamukunji until ‘79 when Moi started fighting me…” And just like that he launches back into politics. He goes on for so long and I’m sitting there thinking, how do I bring him back to what I need from him without him biting off my head? I’m still reeling from his last admonishing so the wounds are still fresh. I have to be cautious here. I get a small window when he says he retired from parliament in 1997. I ask him how old he was and he thrusts his walking cane to me to read, it was a gift from the then director of education. It has inscriptions that are barely legible.
“…..something something retired 1997,” I read it out loud like a child learning to read.
“Read it from the beginning…” he commands but I can’t make out some of the words because this walking cane is 20-years old, older than most people on Snapchat. I hold the stick closer to my face and it frustrates him. “The information is there, don’t be silly, you are younger than me yet your eyes can’t see? You want me to show you how to do things, it’s written there that I was 70.”
My face flushes with irritation or embarrassment. I breathe in deeply and say to myself, “You are a professional, this is a test, when they go low, you go high…” I also make a mental note never to come for an interview hungry. And also to avoid sitting on stools.
“What do you miss in that past era?” I ask.
“What? I can’t hear you.”
I move closer to him. “What do you miss about that past era?” I say loudly. Behind him is an array of masks on a wall. Did I tell you how much I hate masks? African masks to be precise. I can never be comfortable in a hotel room with African masks on the wall. I always feel like masks possess the spirits of the gods of the woods and sometimes they come alive, especially at night.
“I miss freedom of people and justice and, you people, you blacks have let me down…” he stomps his cane on the floor to accentuate each thought as he speaks, “We didn’t chase away the British for this. They had better administration, they would make five mistakes yet now you are making 15, you are selfish, you are in bunge three days a week and you want more more money, why?!” Stomps his cane on the floor. He is visibly upset now. I want to tell him I don’t spend any time in bunge, that I have never been to bunge, that I’m a lowly writer with a sore ass and a wrecked back at this moment, and please stop shouting at me, you are scaring me.
“You don’t want to serve people, you want to earn money!” he spits. “You want to increase your income, do you know how much they earn now these people for sitting three days in bunge?”
I look at the floor. This is unfair, I’m taking the heat for politicians. There is an M-Pesa shop inside this curio shop, a few customers are gathered around the counter. A tanned mzungu lady in shorts is browsing through the shop. I let him compose himself. I look at him looking at people passing outside his shop and I think, hang on a second, this man is 90-years old, surely that must come with some privilege, if he wants to abuse you and poke your (empty) stomach with his cane, then let him.
“If you were to go back to a certain period of your life, what period would that be?” I ask more boldly now. I’m no longer scared of his wrath.
“I don’t understand,” he offers.
“If you were to go back to a period of your life when you had the best time of your life, which period would that be?”
“When we were fighting the British. But after uhuru of 1963 things started going down,” he stomps his cane on the floor, only this time it accidentally lands on my toes. “Didn’t I tell you blacks let me down? You blacks have done nothing since 1963.”
I chuckle. I’m amused at his reference of “you blacks.” But to his credit I’m blacker than him. I change the subject quickly and talk about marriage. I ask him what advice he’d give a young man looking to get married now.
“Deal with your grandparents, ask them what kind of a family this girl comes from, get her background, because she comes from somewhere…where do you come from?” He asks it so pointedly that I’m afraid if I tell him where I come from it might just be the wrong answer.
“I’m from Nyanza.”
“I know Samuel Anyango Ayodo, do you know him?” I shake my head. “Anyway, are there bad families in South Nyanza?”
“I’m sure there are.”
“Exactly, your grandparents would know which family this woman comes from. You can’t just look at a girl and like her from the way she dances and acts…aargh, you people, a wife is the brain, a husband is the brain, I have obeyed these rules, I have had two wives and neither of them has complained about me and neither have I complained about them because I checked them out through my grandparents…”
“But times have changed now, mzee,” I say fearlessly. “You can’t meet a girl here in the city and ask your grandmother in the village about her family…”
“Then ask your parents, ask your father and mother…let me show you my wife…” he stuffs his hand into the inside pocket of his coat, papers rustle, he retrieves a document and hands it to me. It’s a very old passport, a first generation passport, it looks like a collector’s item. “Read it,” he says. I read out the details; it’s his wife’s passport, she was born in 1939. “She married me and we stayed well and on our 25th wedding anniversary I flew her to Europe for a tour because she had good character. Check up the women you want to marry with your older relatives, they will tell you her character.”
I drop this subject and plough on with some level of amusement and a dark masochism.
“How many times have you been in love?” I ask and brace myself. What he says I don’t prepare for.
“When my wife with ten children died…did I tell you I lost this wife with eight children in a car accident? You didn’t know this?” I shake my head. “Aarh, you are really a young person…the biggest thing that happened in 1978 [stomps his cane on floor repeatedly[ was me losing my wife and 10 children in a car accident between Nairobi and Machakos. It was the biggest news!”
“How do you move on from something like that?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean how do you deal with that kind of loss?”
He grimaces, either from that sad memory or from the foolishness of my question -we will never know, will we? “You have seen my son here, that’s my second born, he was in America when that accident happened, the one who was in the car got affected badly so he isn’t right and the other has a shop behind this shop and is married to a rich man, her husband died the other day. Two sons and one daughter. When I was admitted in hospital with three broken ribs (I was the one driving) God told me, ‘You see your friend, Engineer Nderitu? He has tried getting a baby with his wife but they don’t have any, you are better off than him because you might have lost 10 children and your wife but you still have three left. So when people came crying in hospital I had already been consoled by God.”
“Why do you think God saved your life and took away the lives of your children and your wife?”
He stares at me and for a moment I’m sure he’s going to hit me with the walking stick and I’ll pass out which seems like a better idea than the feeling of my ass getting numb slowly. He ignores my question, moves on like I didn’t ask it and I’m so amused I want to chuckle. “After I left hospital my father in law brought me a cow and told me to remarry. I was 51-years old.” He continues.
So he got married again in 1979 and got four sons, one of whom is called Matthew, the one who emailed me. Matthew is the 16th born. He looks at my voice recorder and says, “Is this thing recording?” I tell him it is. “Ask your questions,” he says.
“Y0u have had two wives and have been married longer than I have lived,” I say. “What is the secret of a happy wife, how does a man keep his wife very happy?”
“Don’t ignore her physical needs,” he says.
Well, he didn’t say it in those words, I have PGd it a bit because his exact words seemed so ugly from his stately lips. Not knowing what to say to that I nod like I completely understand. He has killed every question in my head, turned them into powder. “And few men know how to take care of their wive’s physical needs well,” he continues. “Do you have a woman?” he asks. “If you do bring her over, I will buy you a cup of tea and tell you how to do it on condition that you don’t tell anyone.”
I’m now laughing and for the first time he’s chuckling. I take advantage of that and ask. “And who taught you that skill, Mzee?”
“Wakuza Serewano from Uganda,” he says, “he trained me.” Then he gets into this explanation on how to satisfy a woman that I can’t print here. I’m chuckling through all this. “Who is this Wakuza Serewano?” I ask him and he becomes serious again. “Anyway,” he says, “ you didn’t come here for these stupid ideas.” He’s got a foxy look now. Oh, and for the gentlemen, don’t bother googling Wakuza Serewano, I did, it has only 79 results which means he’s either dead or that was his bedroom nickname.
“What is your greatest joy at 90?”
He leans on his stick and looks around the shop. “You finished your work, you go now…go with that. We can talk until the cows come home. I only came to meet you because I’m a gentleman. Where do you live?” I tell him. He says, “ I want to write a book, but someone wrote it and messed me. We finished but he said he wanted to be the president of Kenya but he never became president, neither did we publish my book.”
“He’s Dr Mailu, you know him? Where is he now, is he alive?” I tell him I hope so. “Can I please get ten more minutes with you?”I ask, afraid that he will stop the interview. I’m not hungry anymore, my stool is no longer an issue.
“I don’t want to be kept a full day.”
“Just ten minutes, please.”
“Ask your questions,” he grunts.
“Do you remember all the names of all your 17 children?” I ask him.
“Of course,” he says, “were they not born one day? They grew up with us, I was not the type of man who works in the city and leaves his kids and wives in the village. I know all their names because I lived with them.”
For 90 he looks pretty good. He looks 70-something. He’s articulate. Whereas some old men have skins that look like hide, his skin looks well-nourished and healthy. I ask him how he remains fit and he says it’s because he’s a scientist, was the best in mathemarics and sciences, he uses his brain. When you stop using your brain you grow old. He got sick at 40, he says, a back problem and he was advised to change his mattress and his bed and his lifestyle. So he started cycling. “You can’t keep going by car everywhere, you have to walk!”
“Do you know the secret to a happy life?” I ask him.
“Being honest and kind. I have sent a lot of people to America for education, some are professors, you want me to ring them now?”
“No, it’s fine,” I say. “What do you regret the most in life?”
He sighs and closes his eyes then he says he won’t answer that question. I ask him why and he says it’s because he already answered it. I say no, you couldn’t have answered it when I didn’t ask it. “You didn’t ask but I answered you!” he insists. “You should have listened while I was talking, my answer was there. When you type your story you will see it.”
I just sit there smiling and I guess he feels sorry for me because he says. “I hate people who are unfair, I hate injustice.” (He’s talking about you blacks, I guess).
“But that’s what you hate,” I say. “It’s not the same as what you regret.”
“Do you think I’m happy I lost my children and wife in that car accident?” he asks. “Do you think anybody would be happy? Then you are very bad. I regret that.”
“ What are your hopes now at 90?”
“I hope to die when I’m clean. I have no problems with anybody. No problems with God. I get my holy communion, I live comfortably.”
“If you were to apologise to one person now, who would that be?” I ask.
“I have never offended anyone,” he says. “Do you know someone I have offended?”
I want say “Me! Are you kidding me, Mzee? You called me silly and almost made me cry!” He doesn’t seem to be in the mood for a joke now, so I let it rest. Plus there are spears an arm’s length from him. I ask him about food, what he eats to stay healthy and strong. He says fruits. “Pawpaws are the second best fruits in the world, do you know what’s the first?” I want to say kiwi but then I don’t want to get it wrong and he kills the interview abruptly so I say I don’t know and he says, “Kiwi,” and I kick myself.
“What about alcohol,” I ask, “Do you drink?
“No,” he says. “Some people drink others, well, have other interests.”
Haha. I’m dying.
“So at what age does a man stop functioning sexually?”
“It depends on how you take care of yourself. It depends on you.”
I’m now firing questions quickly because my time is up.
“Do you believe in true love?”
“I have shown you her picture, haven’t I?”
“Why do you walk around with her passport?”
“Because young women and men like you keep asking me about my wife, so I show you.”
“Why don’t you walk with your second wife’s passport?”
“Because she’s not dead!” he shrieks. “This is a useless passport…..you don’t use a passport when you die!” Good point, heaven don’t need a passport. Talking of which…
“Do you fear death?” I ask.
“No. I don’t fear death,” he says. “I have no debts. I’m not worried about anything. I don’t owe anything. I don’t walk with bodyguards like politicians, it’s ridiculous, who is trying to kill you if you have been honest?”
“You made a lot of money at some point, tell me something about wealth.”
“You have to come with your woman for that lesson. I will teach you to be rich.”
“Is money a good thing or a bad thing?”
“What do you think? Is it a bad thing or a good thing?”
“OK, let’s put it this way, do you think your life will change for the better if I gave you ten million shillings now?”
“I’m worth a lot of money, you don’t know me.”
“So what do you use money for now?”
“Food, educating my grandchildren, my last son has finished PhD….”
“Do you know what the internet is?”
“ I hear about it but I don’t want to learn more because I will get high blood pressure. My wife, took me the doctor and he was surprised that my blood pressure was better than his, a man young enough to be my son. I want to keep it that way, so I don’t need to know more than I already know.”
“What do you fear now?”
“I fear nothing.” Pause. “I fear making mistakes.”
“What do you wish God would have given you?”
“Exactly what he gave me. In school I was the best in mathemarics and science. I don’t look at someone and wish I had the talent they have, I don’t, that would be making God’s work worthless. I look at my talents and I’m happy with them. I was the best in mathemarics and science in Mangu, I told you? That’s why the teacher expelled me…jealousy!”
“Next week is Valentine’s Day for lovers, will you buy your wife flowers?”
“Me? Am I mad?” I’m laughing. He isn’t. “ My wife is a retired teacher, has a Masters in counselling psychology we have been married over 35-years, I can’t start buying flowers now. That’s for you people.”
I’m almost tempted to ask, “We people being us blacks?” But my time is almost up, even for jokes.
“What’s your definition of happiness?”
He plants his walking stick on the ground firmly and struggles to his feet, a sign that my time is indeed over. “You will come another day, you can go, you are out of questions, now you are just chatting.” I stand up and scamper out of his way, dragging my stool out of his way. I tell him, “Thanks a lot for your time, mzee, I appreciate it,” but he doesn’t say boo, never looks at me, I might as well be a talking African mask, he just taps taps out of the shop, wobbling out, he’s whistling again. Just like he had no preamble, he has no farewell. I’m completely fascinated by that, his lack of ceremony, his forthrightness, his complete lack of fucks, his colourful language and memory and the fact that he’s still on his feet at 90 and he has outlived many and he still wakes up and wears a tie and he carries an old passport in his pocket and he thinks I’m silly and he tells me to my face and doesn’t write it on Facebook or Twitter. He lives honestly.
He never looks back to see if I’m still seated on that stool. When I call my Taxify I hear him whistling away, the tapping of his walking cane receding into the depths of City Market, swallowed by the yawns of the African masks.