Some folk think it’s gotten too dark in here. They say that lately I write only stories of death and suffering and gnashing of teeth. (Okay, that I added. It has been awhile since I used it). They say they don’t want to have to come here and read things that make them have a bad day. They ask, why can’t you just write “happy things” with “good endings?” Which made me seriously consider writing about gardening. Or recipes for smoothies. I even got an email from a pastor. A pastor for chrissake! A first for me.
I was convinced that he was one because he started the email by saying, “Greetings, Brother Jackson.” Brother Jackson! Well, I have been called worse, I have been called Bwana Biko. This pastor wrote to invite me to church. He said – “We are all serving the Lord in different ways. I think you are doing God’s work in a different way than I am. However, I feel that because you write about suffering you also need to cleanse your spirit once in a while to lighten the burden.” (To be honest, I don’t feel burned, just a little stung by being called Brother Jackson). He invited me for a prayer session “for just a few hours and then lunch.” I wrote back and said, “Thanks, pastor, you are kind but where is your church, tell me a little about your ministry.” He wrote back and said it was in Embu, 12km from the town, and it’s a small church that they like to call a “family of faithfuls” not a church. He also said that he studied literature in Uni before starting this church and so perhaps I can also help him reach out to many through his ministry.
I was wary. I didn’t go. Not that I don’t like a good prayer from a man of God, I do as much as the next guy. I wasn’t adequately seduced by the words “small” and “family of faithfuls” because it conjured up an image of a small church of about 27 people, perched atop a hill in Embu with a pastor who always wears a colourful wide tie and walks around with a blade of glass sticking from the corner of his mouth. I was enticed by the lunch though, which I was sure would have warus in it. Also there was the element of time.
There has also been the occasional email or comment about the misery that lately abounds on this blog. Stories of people losing loved ones, of people eating human flesh, of children – children! – dying leaving bereft and hollow-eyed parents. It’s not exactly a groundswell, but the concerns have been expressed in some quarters. “Biko, why so dark? Are you sure you can’t find happy stories that we can enjoy reading?” a reader emailed.
Happy stories? Like of what? Should I interview red-nosed clowns who entertain children in restaurants with bouncy castles? What was your ambition growing up and are you surprised that you are here making children laugh? Or rather, children laughing at you? / What have you learnt about modern parenting through your interaction with these children? / Do you do this job because it’s there or does it appeal to a little child in you? What kind of childhood did you have and when you entertain these fat spoilt rich kids, do you feel sorry about your childhood or are you glad of your own childhood? Do you have children?…I disagree, being 26 years is not an excuse not to have children…I think you are scared of children, Mr Clown…no, let me finish…you hide behind that red nose and make children laugh but in essence you are just repairing your own broken childho…oh come back, the interview is not over…come on….I’m sorry….I was only joki…oh, stop kicking that kid what has he done apart from eat everything?…James, come back….
No, seriously. Should I interview a construction worker? Or a guy who comes around from Kenya Power to disconnect the meter and flirt with house helps while at it? One reader said, “Interview people who have a passion for something.” Who are these people with passion? Auditors? Fashion bloggers? Foodies? Gym instructors? Choir masters? Some say, interview “normal people!”
Well, you might not believe this but “normal people” are boring!
Here is an example of the life of a normal person.
The story will start with how he was born in South C. (That in itself will drive me mad because he will feel compelled to bring up E-Sir at some point. RIP.) He would have grown up in a well adjusted environment. His father would either be a engineer or worked in an Insurance company like Kenindia back in the day and his mother – a “very solid” mother – who, in the 80s, worked in a bank when few mothers were working in banks but as teachers and secretaries. There will be a very happy childhood marked by sausages at breakfast every weekend, being dropped in school by Dad or (gulp) Mom. (Anybody whose mom drove in the 80s led a fairly privileged life). He would be like the same kids we saw in high school; kids who came with two suitcases instead of metallic boxes, never ran out of BlueBand, always had big jars of peanut butter, had seven school shirts and half a dozen pants, and when they got a flu, there was a driver always waiting at the headmaster’s office to pick them up to get a better medical attention that the school dispensary couldn’t provide.
This chap will pass his KCSE exams and then he will fly to the States or join USIU or UoN and then he will graduate and get a job after two months of “tarmacking” which in his case means sitting around the house watching TV as Dad talks to his mates over at the country club about his employment prospects. He will get a job and then move up the ladder because – fortunately – he is smart or because he is lucky or because, I don’t know, but he just moves up.
He will meet a girl who didn’t grow up in South C, but in Kitui or Narok or Machakos or Banana. (By the way, I’ve never met anyone who grew up in Banana, where do they hang out? What kind of people are they? Do you know?) He will meet this girl during a work cocktail function at the ballroom of a hotel. They will date. He will take this Banana chick to Dubai for the first time in her life. They will break up briefly when one of his exes (who grew up in South C) comes back briefly and they have a dalliance of sorts and she will be so mad because he had said there was nothing there but a “childhood hangover.” But once this South C chick goes back she will cool off and they will get together and get married in a garden wedding where all the groomsmen will don Ray Bans and hangovers.
They will have three children who we will all know about because they post it – and everything about their charmed lives – online. He will have his job, his mom and dad will have retired but will still be living in the city, maybe in a gated community along Kiambu road. His mom will be active in church, his father will be consulting whenever he feels like it, driving a Discovery 4 and playing golf whenever. They will have barbeques “over at the folks’” every so often. (You will know this if you are on social media.)
This is the guy who will sit before me as my voice recorder runs and he will tell me with some unmasked pride that his “mother-tongue is not good at all” because “we really didn’t speak it at home.” He will think that’s a cool thing; to be unable to speak your mother tongue.
Now that’s a normal interview I don’t want to do. Because what will we talk about; which restaurant serves the best crepes in town? When I ask him – as I stab wildly in the dark for a yelp from a story – when in his life he felt most insecure and out of his comfort zone he will say “When I broke my leg in two places in a horse-riding accident. My wife and I were celebrating our fourth anniversary and we went to this lodge in Laikipia and this mad horse, which the hotel swore was their best, simply tossed me in the air and at that point – mid-air – I really thought I was going to die. Anyway, when I was in hosi, recuperating, I wondered what would have happened to my kids had this accident been worse.”
I’d ask disappointedly, “Oh, so you only broke your leg?”
I don’t want to interview this guy. Or his Banana wife. Why? Because I don’t think I would want to read his story. It’s too “normal.”
But consider this twist in the tale above.
If one Saturday morning when he was in form 3, he opened their gate to find three gentlemen waiting, a humming lorry behind them. One of the men, a slim guy in a Hawaii shirt asked, “Is your dad home?” And he said, “Uhm yeah,” and the men had walked into the house and his father came out of the bedroom tying his bathrobe, confusion and fear in his eyes, and these auctioneers reversed the lorry and took away everything they owned because of a defaulted loan or whatever, and they had to move from that house to a small house in Makadara from where they eked life until his father sunk into alcoholism and did nothing the whole day but read old newspapers, talked constantly about his big job as an engineer, drunk copiously and quarrelled with anyone with a pulse. And his mother stepped up and fed, clothed, schooled the family and when he graduated from uni and joined a big-ass auditing firm, he bought his mom a house in Lavington. Imagine what this guy will tell you about moving from South C to Makadara and what he will tell you about his father and how his character and the family environment shaped the man he has become. This guy never married a chick from Banana because they are too alike, instead they meet girls who hail from Bomet or Nyamasaria but somehow made their way abroad for education and later came back with one accent and two degrees and now work as an HR officer for a non-profit organisation.
Now that is a story I would want to write about. Because it’s not “normal.”
You know who else would be nice to interview?
A girl who, while growing up, would help her mother brew muratina in Nyeri by night and then go to school by day. A girl whose mother would ask her to go look for her father at sunset and she would set off along the darkening narrow paths of the village trails, looking out for her father’s foot sticking out from the hedges and she would later find him seated on his ass, his pants wet from urine, and she would walk him home with his hands draped around her small shoulder as he sang unintelligible mugithi songs. A girl who later went to Starehe Girls, buried her father just before she sat her 4th form and when she scored A- instead of an A in KCSE she cried for two days and felt like she had failed herself and her mother. Now she and her pal have their own law firm with 27 employees.
I won’t ask her about success because that’s boring. I will take her down that rabbit hole and ask her if she remembers the recipe for muratina, ask her if she sometimes now wakes up to the smell of burning wood used to boil that stuff and how losing her father to alcoholism informed her relationship with alcohol and if that experience also dictated her choice of partner, who it turns out, she married after breaking up with the first South C guy who can’t speak his mother tongue. She won’t tell me that she wasn’t keen to date the kind of man whose drinking almost reminded her of her father’s drinking in some ways. Especially the happy songs after a night at the bar. I will ask her what she remembers fondly about her father and what character trait she inherited from him, apart from his nose. She will be a strong woman but with a ragged past and that’s where the story is, not in her law firm. People prefer not to look at their pasts but we are all built from the bricks of our past.
Now that’s a story with legs.
I love underdogs that triumph. In movies I love the bad guys because they always have more character than the good guys. In The Lone Survivor Mark Wahlberg and his band of American marines are trapped behind Taliban lines up in the unforgiving hills of Afghanistan and they are being butchered and plummeted and shot and they plunge down cliffs and break their skulls and ribs and the Taliban keep coming with bullets, phantoms of the mountains. I rooted for those Talibans. They had character! In Inglourious Basterds, I loved Brad Pitt as a Nazi hunter because he was ruthless with his knife, yes, but I also loved the Nazi general, Hans Landa, especially in the opening scene dialogue where he drinks milk with the Frenchman hiding Jews under his wooden house. His face is Lucifer’s face but he’s a poetic lucifer, measured and wrathful. He says things I want to frame.
In the series Tyrant, I loved Jamal with his bald head, getting blowjobs in roaring Ferraris, married to a manipulative (but very sexy) woman with a fat son who hates him, evil to a fault, erratic like a cornered cat, wild and free and eventually dies like a dog in the high prison of his egoistic excesses. And when he died, I saw no point of watching it further because all that was left was his brother Barry, a character who was handsome and American (obviously) and safe and very virtuous and married to a dutiful blonde who bruised easy, and with two (fairly) all-American childre, and all Barry wanted to do was save the world and be a great guy while doing it. Plus he was a doctor who could shoot an AK 47 with great precision like only an American doctor can. Completely exciting. In Mad Men I loved Don Draper because he had no humour but in its place he had a closet full of ghosts from his past and he struggled as a father and as a man and he was always a complicated lover, ruined and beautiful and cast on a dark doom of creativity.
I love such stories and characters that bleed on the page. I love stories where the protagonists let go of their own fate. Stories of pain and heartbreak and of loss, deep loss, and of how the human spirit fights to gain traction again amidst that emotional carousel. I love when men lose. Then they stand at a window and they wonder if they will ever rise again. Well, we will never know, but what we know is that at least they are standing. I love when shit doesn’t work out for characters even when they try. I particularly love characters who don’t hesitate to walk away from things, from people, from ideas and they walk alone. I’m attracted to characters who are vulnerable; men who cry, women who clutch their strength in their fists as they get knocked about by a barrage of life.
Grit is a boner.
I seek stories that leave me feeling a little scared. That make me think or make me anxious and uncomfortable, stories that challenge me and challenge dogma. I want to learn something new when I hear someone’s story. If I can’t project a story on the storyboard of my own life then it doesn’t pique my interest. I want to see the revelation of a human spirit show me it’s hand, show me how long the shadow it casts is. It’s selfish of me and so you will forgive me if I dislike normal stories of normal men who marry girls from Banana.
I’m bored of smart people who are successful and are married to smart women and have great studious children who always say please and thank you, ma’am, and have pastors over frequently for brunch in their garden and are so normal they look like an ad for a toothpaste. I would like to be in the company of broken people who are fighting to stay up. Daily. People who have been around the block. Or are struggling with going around this block. To be clear, I don’t want to hear just stories of death and suffering, no. I want to see the true heart of man, not the heart they put up on social media.
But what do I know? I’d like to hear what you think, what you like to read about. In fact, for shits and giggles, how about we first interview someone who grew up in Banana? I think that might be revelatory.
If you grew up in Banana could you kindly step forward and drop me a line – firstname.lastname@example.org. The world would like to hear how you turned out and what it was growing up in a place named after a fruit.