I only own two suits. A black one and a blue one. Both are nice suits; one is from the designer Nick Ondu – Sartorial who, although – like most fundis will take 300 years to finish your suit – does a pretty decent job of it. The other was an unworn gift from Ramah of Le’ Kasri a young man taking the chance with a thimble and making bespoke suits inspired by the great African kings and leaders who walked before us. This particular suit is from his latest collection called Linda Ufalme – or protect the Kingdom.
The night before I’m scheduled to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta I retrieved the suit-carrier from the darkest depths of my wardrobe, lay it on my bed and unzipped it slowly like you would a body bag.
I raised the suit up to the light and closely inspected his handiwork as I mulled over how the most abused attire is not even happy socks, but the suit. If you are under 50 there is never any reason to wear a suit that looks like you are about to parachute off a plane. Big, baggy and flappy things with large turn-ups at the bottom. Suits that would horrify even MC Hammer.
When I told a friend that I was going to meet the president and I was going to wear a suit she asked, “A suit? Isn’t that excessive? I don’t think Uhuru is the kind of guy who would care if you showed up in jeans. He’s easy.” True, I said, the president might be easy but the Office of The President might not be.
I grew up in the Nyayo era where we would be made to line up for hours only to catch a 4-second glimpse of Baba Moi hurtling past in his indomitable motorcade. Moi was mythical. He was baba and he was mama and he gave us free milk. Lore in our school’s playground had it that no man alive would ever look into Moi’s eyes for too long. That his gaze was so powerful mere mortals wouldn’t dare stare into his depths. He shrivelled your soul. Moi was the sun. And so the president was like folk-lore, fantastical. He didn’t fart or shower like us, neither did he use toothpicks. Maybe we were just young but the president was immortal, an extraterrestrial. It didn’t help that when we were born we found Moi and he was there through our childhood and teenage right up until we became adults. Some of us even became fathers and mothers while he ruled. So he was all we knew; a looming monument of our lives. And because I’m from that generation, I was excited at the prospect of meeting the president.
As night fell I remember trying out my blue suit to make sure it fit. Ramah calls it an Osei Tutu blue, a blue that represents calmness and tranquility – neither of which I felt. Infact I felt anxious.
I tried it on with a white shirt, then removed the white shirt and tried it on with a plain blue shirt, then thought Naah, I look like a medical insurance broker. I then tried it on with a red-checked shirt which made me look like those men who drink cocktails through a straw. I was starting to feel like a girl going for her first date but I didn’t care because you don’t meet the president daily.
Undeterred, I tried on my suit with a striped blue shirt and addressed my reflection in the mirror: “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr President.” Pause. “It’s an honor to meet you, your Excellency.” Clear throat, “It’s a great pleasure to meet you, Mr President, you are much taller in person than you are on TV, could it be your shoes?” Then laughed alone like a maniac.
I retired to bed and settled to watch his Youtube interviews with Julie Gichuru on African Leadership Dialogues and Folly Bah Thibault of Al Jazeera and the one with Richard Quest who pronounced his name like my grandmother does, “Ohuru.” (Without the twang).
I noticed how – during interviews – the president often starts answering a question before the interviewer has fully completed the question which could be anything from impatience to confidence. So I got up and went to my desk and reviewed my six questions again and tweaked and reworked them so that they didn’t run more than 20 words per question. Once they were good and ready – running into short solid sentences – I mouthed them off to hear how they sounded. They were perfect.
I climbed back in bed at 11:02pm and lay on my back staring at the ceiling my mind alive with possibilities: What if he wakes up in a lousy mood because he remembered something nasty someone in NASA had said? What if one of his kids pisses him off and he’s all fire and brimstone before the interview? What if he has a hangie? I hoped that no security situation happened that night to keep him up all night. I told God, “Lord, make Ohuru sleep well tonight, tuck him in early and please ensure that he doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night to go pee. Please give him a solid seven-hour sleep because I want him in a mint and happy condition tomorrow morning.”
The Lord works in mysterious ways he took away my sleep and gave it to Uhuru because I hardly slept at night. I tossed and turned and freaked out that I would oversleep and miss the interview. I had small, fragmented and utterly useless dreams. One particular one was of the President walking into the interview room with a towel tied around his waist, kicking a tin of Kimbo lying on the floor and screaming, “Wakenya wenzangu, I have said this over and over again, I DO NOT WANT BLUE BAND on my bread!” I almost woke up screaming myself: NO BLUE BAND ON THE PRESIDENT’S BREAD!
I wake up early and do 120 push-ups, 100 crunches, stand under a hot shower then pop one Seven Seas Omega tablet. I avoid breakfast because you don’t want your stomach making funny noises as you sit with the president because you decided to take leftover beans and chapos.
My mind is crisp and clear, I feel healthy and youthful and I’ve never been more ready for an interview. I have mastered the questions in my head and can deliver them in two different ways, each not exceeding 7 seconds. I’m as ready as instant soup.
6:20 am exactly, finds me -together with the rest of the crew – at Gate D of State House. Gate D is where the watus and vegetable deliveries come through. Onions and things. School vans as well. VIPs and dignitaries use other gates. Life is an animal farm.
I thought the red beret security at the gate would be brutish and gruff instead they are professional and friendlier than I imagined they would be.
There is waiting involved, after all everybody waits to see the president. Standing there in the cold, I feel like those chaps who wait outside factories in Industrial Area for a muhindi to open the gate and ask [ thick indian voice], “nani iko na kitambulisho?…wewe kuja…wewe baki…wewe kuja...”
After what seems like two months we are finally cleared by security. I feel both excitement and anxiety. We all drive in. State House is massive and immaculate. We drive down a winding road, through picturesque grounds of green lawns and well tended gardens. We pass a massive white house. There are more houses. Even the trees sway in a stately way. The parking is full of cars. I wonder what time the president’s day starts since the parking is already full so early in the morning. Everybody seems to want to see the president. Does he remember all faces and requests? Or does an aide whisper in his ear before a meeting, “So this next guy is the guy whose twelve granaries were eaten by termites. He has been writing letters to see you for two years now.”
“What does he want?” The president asks. “Do we keep insecticides here?”
“No, we don’t Mr President, but he was your father’s good friend.”
“Is that so?”
“He says he farmed with your father before -”
“My father never farmed, he was a carpenter first.”
“Of course, Mr President, but he says he went to school in Russia with your father, he has some very old papers to prove that he attended The Communist University of the Toilers in Moscow with him.”
The president for the first time turns to look at his aide.
“Just how old is he?”
“Very old, he’s in a wheelchair. He can’t see properly. His hands shake. He’s accompanied by his son, and, er [the aide hesitates] he’s wearing a suit with a KANU flag.”
The president chuckles and says, “Blast from the past, ey? Oh, memories.” Then goes back to being serious. “You said his granaries were eaten by termites?”
“Yes, sir. In 1968. He says your father promised to help him.”
“Does he know this is 2017?”
“No, Mr. President. I’m afraid not. I suspect he thinks you are, your father.”
The president adjusts his tie and pats his hair. (His hair,not the aide’s hair).
“Wamekunywa chai?” He inquires. “Did you guys serve them breakfast?”
“We did, sir.”
“OK, great. Send him in.”
We walk from the parking heading to the main State House building. We pass a man trimming a hedge with a large pair of shears. Everything is so clean and orderly. We pass a group of presidential outriders standing in a cluster, leaning and joshing around and having a cackle. Off their imposing powerful motorcycles, without their helmets on and their luminous jackets unbuttoned they look disappointingly like humans. They are like us; they are fathers, boyfriends, brothers, they send money back home to mend leaking roofs and holes in fences. I feel cheated because when you see them in those bikes, clearing the way, they look like cyborgs; robotic, efficient, cold.
Men in suits walk about the grounds. It seems like every other person is in a dark suit. Across the lawn, a tall skinny security man in an oversized suit prowls around carrying an automatic weapon. He probably is in an elite squad, proficient in all manner of weaponry and warfare. I bet he can jump off planes, diffuse bombs and swim for kilometers with his hands tied behind his back. The kind of guy who can immobilize a threat with his thumb. What does a guy like that fear?
At the Aide De Camp we stop at the security check where we surrender our phones through a small window. We then go through a metal detector where a mute, unsmiling man in a suit runs his hands against our bodies. His hands are tough and big. He must body-search dozens of bodies in a day, looking for something that juts or protrudes, something not allowed in the president’s space.
How does a guy like that touch his wife after a long day of patting down people? Does he touch her and say, “ Brenda, your hipbone feels funny today, are you OK?” and the wife is like, “What do you mean funny?” And he says, there is a slight shift when I touch it. Then the wife is like, “Maybe it likes you.” Then he laughs and says, “No, really. Are you sure it’s not painful?” Then the wife sighs heavily in the dark and says, “Look, do you want to spend the next hour talking about my hip bone, because if that’s the case then I will leave you to it.”
We are led into a very plush waiting room; Lounge 10. It’s got a bright red luxurious carpet the colour of anger. The seats are deep tanned brown leather. There is a fireplace, fresh roses in a massive urn and, above us, fancy wrought-iron chandeliers like drops of Jupiter. A TV plays with the volume turned low. The room is stately and it demands silence and reverence. The president with too much makeup smiles at us from a portrait photo above the fireplace. I silently wonder if Emmanuel Jambo took that particular photo and who powdered the president’s nose for it. The air is thick and charged with power. You can feel it, you can smell it against the oaky smell of age and tradition. The “ghosts” of presidents past still linger.
The room leads out to a small courtyard with a fountain gurgling in the center. The grass there looks impossibly green.
We sit there in relative silence. I go through my questions in my head. They are beautiful questions, it’s a beautiful day and I will have a beautiful interview, I tell myself. The universe is rooting for me.
Chatter and laughter drift from across the courtyard. I look outside and secretly hope to see the president come out of a doorway and roam in the courtyard, maybe smoking a cigarette (if he does), pacing about in deep thought. None of that happens instead a suited man passes outside the room and looks at me. Five minutes later the same man passes again and looks at me. I start getting paranoid that maybe he knows something about me. I suppose they do background checks on guests. After all, the government knows everything the government wants to know, innit?
I start thinking that perhaps that man knows that I’m always late in filing my tax returns. That I’m one of those guys who KRA will have to put up billboards for, all over the place to remind them of the 30th June deadline and the 20K penalty. The look that man gave me as he passed was a look of reproach, as if I’m letting the country down by not being patriotic enough to file my tax returns on time. That I’m not what KRA now calls Mkenya Mtrue because Mkenya Mtrue hulipa ushuru.
If he passes again and looks at me I plan to mouth the word, “ I will pay, I promise! Mimi ni Mkenya Mtrue!”
We are ushered into another room that I suppose is a dining room. There we are served breakfast of chicken wings, eggs, baked beans, toasted bread, freshly squeezed juice and a large platter of fruits. We are served by men in suits. Somewhere within the building, the president waits.
My mind fragments into a million thoughts. I have questions that are unrelated to the interview swimming in my head. I want to ask the president if he’s on Whatsapp. And if sometimes he wakes up and finds that some uncle from Kiambu has suddenly added him to a group he doesn’t want to be in.What dreams did he have growing up? What are the disadvantages of overabundance?
I want to ask him how it was growing in the State House and if he finds it surreal that he is there again as an adult (as the president now). I want to ask him what his whisky of choice is and if he has ever had a drink with an umbrella on it. I want to ask him what was his favourite room in the State House was when he was 9 years old. Does he see the memes people make of him and does he find them funny or just old? What does he fear the most?
I want to ask him about his teenage dating years and if he ever brought back a chick to State House to watch movies. I want to ask him to kindly empty his pockets (and hopefully nothing else falls out hehe) to see how much he carries in pocket change. I want to ask him if he has ever driven himself since he was the president. Or if he has ever used M-banking. I want to ask him if it’s lonely being a president. Or exhausting. Or boring. And since he has been in and around power all his life, what is his formula for picking out friends who like him for him or who like him for being close to power. Or what “personal space” means to him now as a president.
I want to ask him who he thinks is the funniest person in NASA, someone he wouldn’t mind catching a pint with and having a laugh. Does he find that State House sometimes echoes with the presence of his father? When Mzee Kibaki left did they have to buy a new bed for him or he’s using that same bed? I want to ask him if his father were to show up in the courtyard for five minutes and he had a chance to get one piece of advice out of him about running the country what would that one question to him be? Or what his father would be least impressed with on how he runs the country. I want to ask him if when he was dating he ever was heartbroken by a woman and if he sent her gushy messages in the middle of the night saying, “you have done something horrible, you have not only broken my heart, you have broken the heart of a nation.” (Then the chick sends back an emoji rolling her eyes with the words, “Oh please. Just go to sleep, Muigai).
All these mad questions are swimming in my head but I know I can’t ask them because this isn’t that interview.
Then something dreadful happens.
The door to the left bursts open and someone comes bearing an apology; the President is very sorry but he has to run, perhaps we can reschedule? My heart sinks. I didn’t think I would be so crashed with disappointment, but I am. I tell myself it’s no big deal, but a small voice laughs and says, “Oh yes it is!”
Actually I feel so terrible, like something important has been taken away from me. In contrast, the rest take it so well. I slump in my chair with defeat and stare at my chicken wing which now has no meat in it.
He was practically in the next room! I think to myself. So close yet so far! As in, had he sneezed we would all have caught a presidential cold.
We silently clear out of the room like soldiers wounded from a lost war, dragging heavy carcasses of disappointment and dashed dreams. I find myself with a new predicament: My suit. I wonder what I should do with it; should I wear it throughout the day and have people ask me “who died?” or should I go home and slip into my usual jeans? These are decisions I didn’t think of 20mins ago. Life had temporarily handed me lemons but I was in no mood for lemonade. I decide to keep the suit on and show it off to my daughter later when I pick her up from school.
I also had another problem; I had ran my mouth off to a few friends that I was going to interview the president so I was dreading putting my phone back on because now I had pals waiting to hear how it went; how he was like in person, was he funny?
At 3:30 I go to pick Tamms in my suit because she has never seen me wear a full suit in her 9-years of living. Plus she has previously made it clear that I wear clothes that embarrass her before her friends in school. That I don’t dress like “other dads” who show up in white dress shirts and ties, fathers with proper jobs. This is my chance to redeem my image before her friends, as a well adjusted father who is perhaps in a gainful occupation.
It’s a hot day and I even sacrifice and leave the coat on but when she walks out of the classroom, – bag slung behind her, purple water bottle in hand – and finds me standing there she doesn’t even complement my goddamn suit! She gives it a quick look and doesn’t as much as acknowledge it. Business as bloody usual. I mean how nasty and insensitive can a child be? Who does this child take after anyway? I ask myself. Are these my recessive genes by any chance? Does she not know what a disappointing day I have had? Can she not read her father’s mood? Why can’t she be kind to my feelings like I am to hers?
Funny thing is that when the president cancelled the meeting I thought nothing worse could top that. Clearly I had forgotten I had cold hearted child!
In the car she finally asks me if I met Uhuru. I say no. She asks me, “Why?” I say because he is busy and he had to go. She asks, “Go where?” And I smile because it sounded like she was asking where the president would run that was so important he couldn’t meet her father. But knowing Tamms that’s not what she meant, she was only curious because she doesn’t care about my ambition. I tell her he had to go to campaign. She asks what a campaign is and I regret using that word because I’m too tired and I’ve had a long day to explain what a bloody campaign is. But I do and thankfully she’s a sharp girl so she gets it and I don’t have to use many words.
She stares ahead in silence. (She’s a thinker, that one). For a while we happily drive in silence.
“He will probably call us back,” I tell her.
“He has your number?” She asks her voice betraying mild admiration.
“No, darling, but he’s the president – if he wants anyone’s number he can get it.”
“I don’t know, maybe call Bob?”
“Who is Bob?”
Then my head begins to throb.
Ps. Our 40s Series resumes next week. Men, please write up. Ladies, do you know of men who have gone through the rabbit hole and come out triumphant. Or are still in the hole.
Email me on firstname.lastname@example.org