They met in church. He saw her over numerous heads in the pews, under the high elaborate ceilings of the church and over the chiming chorus of the choir. The year was 2000. He was only 25. What did he know about love? Not much, but he knew he had to know her name. So after church, with sweaty palms he walked over to her while she stood at the bottom of the staircase amongst a cluster of friends. She seemed to trap the afternoon sun with her long black hair, tied with a small rubber band. She had on proper shoes, wooden at the heels. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed her previously. You won’t believe what her name was. Rose. Like the flower. So he plucked her from her cluster of friends and got her number. A year later, after a whirlwind romance, they said “I do” in the very church he saw her.
“Such a calm and simple woman.” Allan Kisa says. “Not quarrelsome, always smiled.” A baby came three months after the wedding. A son. Emmanuel. One day when they got back home they found him very sick. “He was struggling to breathe, I think the house help had stayed with him on the balcony for too long and the cold had gotten into his lungs.” They called a cab, owned by his brother- in-law, who was also the best man at his wedding. His sister who lived nearby also came, together with the house help. His wife sat in front, the three of them piled at the back. He carried his son, wrapped in a shawl.
After a few minutes into the ride, he noticed that the baby’s weight had become all weird. “It’s almost like he had become too, I don’t know, flexible.” He remembers with that faraway look. “I just knew my son had died. I just knew it by how the body felt in my arms. My sister who was on my right also noticed, because she looked at me and I could see in her eyes that she knew that Emmanuel was dead.”
He couldn’t tell his wife. She was going to go apeshit. So they rode in silence. Dusk had descended, the car’s headlights showed the path ahead which now promised gloom, a life without their son. “My son was turning a weird colour in my hands. Some shade of grey,” he says. “I sat there and I stared at his small face, he could have been sleeping save for that colour and that weird weight of death. I couldn’t cry. It was like I wasn’t in that car, like this wasn’t happening to me, not three months after our wedding. And to think my wife was seated there in front of me, not knowing that I was carrying her dead son wrapped in a shawl! I was so scared of what would happen when we reached the hospital.”
Hell broke loose at Metropolitan Hospital. She screamed and howled and she hurled herself on the ground and she wanted to kill the house help, wanted to bite her with her teeth for killing her son. Allan restrained her. The hospital didn’t have a morgue, it was after 11PM, so they took the dead baby back to his best man’s house. It was shortly after midnight, on a Sunday. They placed Emmanuel on the three seater sofa and opened the window above it. It had just rained. A few church people came, stood around the room and prayed for the soul of his departed son and left. They sat around the sitting room. He cried uncontrollably. His wife cried constantly. They sat in the house the whole night, snatching bits of troubled sleep, Emmanuel lying there in rigor mortis. Dawn seemed so far, not that they waited for it. When your child dies, time stops making sense.
“When dawn came, I woke up from my seat and went over to look at him hoping he was awake,” he says, “I was hoping that it was a dream and we had all woken up from it. I stood over him on that seat and I asked God why He would do that to me, I was just starting my life, a wife, a baby…but it wasn’t a dream. He was dead.”
Allan works at Alpine Coolers as an account manager. I had parked my car at their plant off Road A, Industrial Area, and we took a ten minute leisurely walk to the Tuskys Supermarket along Enterprise Road. It was his lunch break. We sat at a small tacky sitting area in the supermarket that is served by a paltry pastry shop manned by a lady who didn’t look any more excited than her pastries. At the corner was a garbage can. Flies kept us company.
He’s now having a Fanta and a chocolate muffin. I’m having water and a coconut muffin. He’s seated facing a large window, looking at cars and foot traffic along Enterprise Road. The sun is out but there are dark clouds overhead. It might rain later.
“Did your cover his head?” He turns to look at me. “What?” He asks. “His head,” I repeat, “did you cover Emmanuel’s head as he lay on the sofa?” He tries to remember, his brow creased. “No. I thought there was a good chance he was not dead and that he would wake up,” he says, “I still believed that God would give us a miracle.”
“It’s ironic that He took a boy called Emmanuel – God with us,” I say.
They buried Emmanuel in shags. It was a small grave. “Losing a child feels like someone took a saw and cut you across your stomach right here,” he runs his hand across his lower abdomen, “ and everything, all your insides, are falling out of you. I constantly asked myself why God would take away my first born.”
After the burial, grief got he and his closer. They mourned together because they understood the pain that most people didn’t.
“What happened to the house help?”
“She had to go, for us to heal,” he says, “but I told her that it wasn’t her fault that our son died. It was God’s will.”
“Have you heard from her since?”
The following year they conceived again. Isaac was born in 2004. He came with both fear and joy. “God had remembered us again,” he says. He’s a slim man, almost gaunt, with very white eyes. He’s wearing a tie with a knot the size of a mature mango. He’s articulate; words that come out of his mouth are all deliberate, and well-coiffed before they are uttered.
When Isaac was nine months old his wife fell sick. One evening she complained that she couldn’t hold her urine in. That night she woke him up frenzied, shouting. “She kept saying she didn’t want to die. She was like a mad person, talking gibberish and stammering.” So they prayed. He made her repeat the repentance prayer. She deteriorated during the night up to a point she could only speak in sign language. “ I got very scared. I called my brother in-law and my sister and we agreed to wait until morning to take her to hospital.”
She was admitted in Kenyatta Hospital the next morning. He stayed with her until midday and went to work. He went back in the evening, and she was better, talking, laughing. He came back the next morning and they chatted a bit. When he went back in the evening he found an empty bed. He asked the matron where his wife was and he was told she had died: diabetes and high blood pressure, they said.
He stood there thinking, impossible! “She can’t die, we have a nine-month old baby. She can’t just die.” He says this softly, supporting his head with his left hand. He stares out the window. I swat a fly from his soda. The hardest part was going to the morgue to see her. “It was like she was sleeping, Rose…” he says, then stops. He’s going to cry…but he doesn’t. He just stares outside the window, with that faraway look.
“Did you touch her?” It’s a freakish and selfish question from my own dark days when I saw my mother in a morgue and I touched her cold forehead and the feeling has refused to leave my head.
“I touched her feet, and her face,” Allan says. “I cried so much I felt pain in my ears. I asked her why she would leave me with Isaac. How was I to take care of a child without her?”
He buried his flower in shags, next to Emmanuel. Plants had started growing over Emmanuel’s small grave but at least he now had a rose near him. There, now you have your mother next to you and I have nothing but pain. He came back to Nairobi a widower with a baby and a house full of ghosts. It was a confusing moment, he says. The baby cried constantly. He spent hours just sitting, feeling like he was in a different world and he was a different person and this wasn’t his life. This was someone’s life and one day he would knock on his door and take back his life. He felt like he was walking in a vacuum filled with pain. He complained to God. “I didn’t want to meet or see anyone from church. I was born again and concerned about what people in church were saying, I had stood in the church thrice now; as a groom, as a man who had lost his son and now as a man who had lost his wife. I was like Job in the Bible who was righteous and when things happened to him people wondered what he had done to deserve his problems.”
His sister took away the baby for a few weeks to let him “find his head.” His head was full of images and memories and sometimes he would lie in bed and wish there was a direct line to wherever dead people went to, a small two minute window, where he would ask Rose why she couldn’t just hang on. Isaac was given back to him a month later. He got a maid. He changed diapers. He slept with the baby on some days. He was the father and he was the mother. One Sunday while he was in church and looking for a place to change the crying baby’s diapers, a woman walked up to him and offered to change the baby after which she shooed him off to go sleep. He took her number. Her name was Judy.
“I called her that week and invited her over to my place,” he says.
“Oh, you don’t waste time, do you?” I say. “No coffee or lunch, just come to my place and let’s cut to the chase.”
“Well, did she come?”
“No, but she came two weeks later,” he says. She had a child from another relationship that went pear-shaped.
While he was romancing this new flame, six months after burying his wife, his mother died. Whoa! “I know,” he says, “I don’t even know how to explain that anymore. It seems like some sort of story in a book.” He travelled to shags and buried his mother, not too far from where his son and wife lay. That evening it rained and he looked on as the rain came down on his mother’s grave and his wife’s grave and his son’s grave.
“Can you describe this period to me?” I ask him. A Borana-looking guy with gelled hair pulls up a chair and joins us on the table. I didn’t know people still gelled their hair. I thought to myself – this guy reminds me of someone, but who? He joins our table like it’s the most natural thing. He doesn’t ask if he can join us. He simply sits with his two queen cakes and juice and eats his lunch in silence. Allan is unbothered, so I also ignore our visitor and his gelled hair.
“This kind of grief is quite abnormal,” he says. “It’s like layers of pain piled one on top of another and at the end of it you aren’t sure which pain belongs to which death.”
“Like a pain sandwich,” I say inappropriately. I don’t even say it as a joke, I just say it because in my head it sounds like a pain sandwiched within more pain.
One and a half years after burying his wife he stood before the same church and exchanged wedding vows with Judy, second woman, same church. “Speaking of which, how long can one wait to get married after losing a spouse?” I ask him. “I think for me that period was acceptable, but then I’m a man. I don’t think society would have seen it as proper had a woman remarried in the same time,” he says. “Society expects women to mourn forever. I think if you meet someone you like and you feel it’s right, go ahead.”
His son Andrew is born. For two and a half years they live happily together. Memories of other deaths fade in this new marital bliss. He’s a wonderful child who doesn’t fall sick or cry too much. When Andrew is one and a half years old, Judy dies of meningitis after two months of sickness. That’s exactly how he tells me of the death. He doesn’t even prepare me with a story of sickness. I sit back in my chair and put down my phone. The café – if you are generous enough to call it that – is now full. Everybody is drinking soda and the pastries from the lady without a smile. I suddenly remember who this gelled haired man reminds of me; one of the Isley Brothers!
Allan stares at the window, not through it, and I stare at the cashier and then at the Isley Brother. Allan’s abandoned muffin sits forlornly before us, scratched at the crown, like a rat ate it and said, oh sod this, I can’t deal with these calories. The Isley Brother doesn’t even stop eating his queen cakes amidst these announcements of many deaths. “I wanted the earth to swallow me,” Allan says. Rumours swirled. That he was cursed. That he had HIV. That he was killing all these people. People at the church talked even more. He had stood in that church twice to marry two women and twice to eulogise them and once to eulogise his son. There were dark forces involved, they said.
He goes on cruise control. He just floats through life, not feeling much, hearing voices of condolence, food doesn’t taste like food, sleep isn’t even sleep, it’s a temporary state filled with dreams and when the sun comes up he can’t even get out of bed, he just lies there and focuses on listening to his breath. Life becomes bland. He doesn’t notice the sun rise or set. He puts one foot forward and then another and it feels like the ground is swallowing him and he welcomes it.
He goes to shags and buries his second wife next to his first wife and his first son. These graves aren’t too far from the grave of his mother. He doesn’t remember the funeral other than him throwing a fistful of soil in the grave and hearing the grains hit the wooden coffin. He comes back to Nairobi and he doesn’t even question God anymore, he doesn’t even try to ask Him why; he cedes into His will. Of course people talk; friends, family, the church. Some friends stop being friends. Some friends try to be closer to him. Things happen and he can’t remember all of them. People thought, okay, things can’t possibly get any worse for Allan.
Actually they could. Because his son Andrew, remember him? The boy who didn’t cry a lot, the one who didn’t complain, the good boy? He dies of a blood disorder. He dies four months after his mother dies. When he dies, he sits at the foot of his bed in hospital and he can’t cry anymore. He cries, yes, but it’s the kind of cry without tears, the one that you feel that all your organs in your body are failing, everything about your body is shutting down from deep, deep grief. He sits at the foot of his bed with his head bowed as everybody else wails. This life was beating him like a wave, over and over again, sending the black prince his way.
“Death followed me. I asked God for an explanation, wondered what this curse of death was that He kept sending my way.” He remembers going to shags in the funeral convoy, sitting between two people he can’t remember, getting home and going through the motions like a sub-human and burying Andrew next to his mother; two wives and two sons. Surely if God wanted an even number he had it now. Let it stop, Lord. Let these deaths stop. How much more can you make me take? I don’t ask him any more details of the post-burial period of Andrew because really, what do you expect the man to say at this point? How much more can he describe loss and grief?
For the next year he kept his head down, in shame and fear. He avoided interacting with people. “I heard the kind of hurtful rumours that were circulating in church and it made me feel so isolated, and cast away.”
Then in 2012 he met Carol. She was 25 years old. When you meet someone you like after those misfortunes you are afraid to even pursue it, but life is for the living and the heart wants what the heart wants. “Did you tell her about your earlier misfortunes?” I ask.
“She knew some of it because she was part of the church community when I was marrying my second wife, and then of course she had heard about the rest,” he says. One night he told her the whole story and she sat there listening to his tale of death and misfortune. She agreed to date him.
They got a first child, a daughter, his first. He was overjoyed and hopeful that perhaps it was a girl who was sent to break the ill fate that had followed him. They then got a son who is now two years old. His other child, from Judy’s previous relationship, lives with his in-laws. “Carol has been my strength in many ways, she held things together, things that were previously falling apart. My life felt like this thing you build but when you get half way it all falls apart. She is the glue that holds all these parts together. She also represents hope, she could have taken off after hearing what had happened to me, but she stayed and she has given me children.” Another pause. “Nothing has happened so far, nobody has died.” He says this with an attempt at a smile. “We are happy together.”
“How did you reconcile with God?” I ask. He thinks this through for a bit. “ I don’t know.” Pause. “After burying all these members of my family, I just didn’t know how else to relate to Him. I prayed and I stopped and I started again. At some point you just let Him do what He deems best.”
“Do you fear that it was a curse and it might visit you again? That the angel of death is nearby…”
“You can’t live in fear,” he says. “Man can’t live in fear. You live in hope. You pray. You look forward to good things happening to you, not bad things happening to you.”
It’s past 2pm now, time for him to head back to work but his muffin is hardly eaten. “What is the biggest lesson you have learnt in all this, losing and burying two wives and two children in your 20s and 30s?” I ask him.
“Many things.” He picks his muffin up and turns it in his hand as if deciding which part to bite first. “That people talk, people will talk, but then if you move on they also have to stop talking and move on. My church stopped talking about me when I stopped paying attention to all the rumours and lived my life. If you give rumours attention it fuels them. I have also learnt that life continues; you can have the greatest tragedy, like I did, but life continues despite of your grief. People come and tell you pole and shake their heads for an hour then they go back to their lives and you go back to yours. It’s your responsibility to move on with yours. It’s hard, obviously, but the other option is to feel sorry for yourself.” He eats his muffin and I wait.
“I would have gone so far in life by now,” he continues, “death sets you back, many deaths set you way back; emotionally and financially…we built a house with my second wife and a week before we were to move into it, she passed on and only got into that house as a corpse. It took me long to accept that house as mine.”
We are now walking back to the plant. We chat about other things, a bit of politics and how it’s affected business in Industrial area, he points out factories as we pass – that one makes ice cream, that one makes paints, that makes chilli sauce, that restaurant closed down – and he’s happy to tell me about why their water, at Alpine Coolers, is unique because they don’t distill or treat it with chemicals. “Unlike everybody else we purify our water, which means a small baby can drink our water without any harm.”
I buy maize from a man roasting maize by the roadside. (Think of it as dessert.) I spread that lemon chilli on it (I know you have salivated) and I eat it as we stroll along. The sun feels beautiful, life feels beautiful and Allan agrees. We stand by my car. “How did you learn of me?” he asks. “ A lady called Namukabo Werungah emailed me, and suggested I talk to you, I tell him. We shake hands. I thank him for his time and promise that I will try out their water next time I buy water. He laughs and says it’s the best. Before I leave I ask him what he most looks forward to achieving in his 40s, and he stands there with his head cocked to one side, thinking.
“I want to raise my children,” he says. “I would love to see my children grow into adults. That’s all I ask of God now.”
Before I start the car, I write that down on my phone: I want to raise my children; I would love to see my children grow into adults. I love it for its simplicity. It’s so understated you can almost miss its layered message. I love it because it’s what we take for granted, that our children will grow. That our spouses will always be there to help us raise them. That next week we won’t be burying our loved ones. I thought that line would be my opening for this article, but then in the evening I thought I’d open it with that Isley Brother, then the following morning I decided to open it with Rose.
So they met in church.
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