I wake up very early on Sabbath. It’s quiet and drizzling lightly outside. Perfect morning; the phone isn’t ringing yet, the people on Whatsapp Groups who have an opinion on everything haven’t woken up yet, the neighbour who plays Dolly Parton is still asleep, the only occasional sound is the gurgling of the water dispenser in the kitchen.
I read a few chapters of Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime then toss my Kindle aside and just lie still for a bit. There was a point not long ago when I was internalising the teachings of Russell Simmons, music mogul, in his book Success Through Stillness, which teaches the benefits of staying still, something I struggle with greatly. In the book is a passage I love:
In meditation we experience the silence from which all creativity springs. The act of creation—whether from a blank page to a poem, an empty space to a building, a thought to a song or film—starts with a void. The more intimate a relationship we can build with that silent void, the more clearly the art can shine through and spring forth. Meditation is the vehicle to connect to that silence…
Well, it didn’t help me because I don’t know how to stay in a void of silence. I want to fill it with things; sounds, words, music, another human voice. But I try to sit in silence once in awhile, especially in mornings like this. It centres you, Rusell promised. Everybody needs some centering, ey? So I lie facing up, hands stretched by my side, and remain as still as a stone. I try to take his advice and empty my mind. Things tumble off the creaky wagon; deadlines, passages that I horde, unstable December holiday plans, mats for my car that need changing, a pending debt that I need to collect, pending client report, a watch I need to pick from the repair shop…they all come chugging out and the void starts coming together.
But just as I’m getting into this zen mode my phone vibrates. I ignore it, but it keeps twisting and writhing on the bedside table. Finally it stops and there is silence. More debris tumbles out of my mind. My eyes are closed. I’m feeling so zen I start thinking that maybe I should stop wearing formal clothes and walk around in robes like Buddhists. I’d throw it over my shoulders at an ATM, gather it to get into the car…but how would I pee? I think in panic, then I realise I’m losing my zen again, my void is getting filled again so I will myself to think of the silence outside the window, and a small gurgling sound of the distant stream not too far from my window.
Then my phone starts vibrating again.
Oh, screw Russell – he’s a multimillionaire, he can afford to stay still for ages. I’m a small cog in a massive wheel, I can’t be missing money calls at 7am because I want to be still. So I reach out and grab the phone. It’s a strange number. Hello? It’s my aunt in shags. First thing she says is “ Abiki? Goch’na!” and hangs up. I’m irritated as hell; these people from shags, don’t they know it’s rude to call someone at 7am when they are trying to get into their void? But it’s Sabbath. I call back with a chip on my shoulder. She’s friendly. She asks how I slept. How am I doing? And the children? How old are they now? Oh, she is a big girl now, I last saw her when she was only three years old! She asks how work is. Do I still write for gaset? She asks if I will be going to church later on. She asks how Nairobi is. She says God is great. We thank God. No, actually she says, “Nyasaye duong”, which isn’t the same thing as God is great, it’s more like God is big, in size and stature. It softens me up a bit, because nobody ever asks you how you are when they call, they just say, “Biko, that book you mentioned that day at Motor Sport, what’s its title?” Or “Biko, what’s up? Listen, what are you doing on 23rd?” Or “Biko, do you have the number to that guy you interviewed who breeds rabbits?” Nobody ever calls to ask, “Hey Biko, how are you?” People are busy with life.
So yes, I’m softened up some. The chip falls off my shoulder. Then she asks for money. By this time I can easily thrown in a pint of my blood as well if she is AB +. And the thing with people in shags is that when they ask for money they don’t ask for much from you, they ask for some ridiculous amount like 500 bob. It’s always an odd number; never 400 or 800 or 200. When they ask I always try and equate that amount to the amount I’d buy a single of whisky for, which is usually 500 bob. That way I feel guilt and send more because whisky you will pee but money to shags, especially to a woman in shags, is school fees, it’s food for a week, it’s a one-off delicacy like meat, it’s a new pair of rubber sandals, it’s money for harvest, it’s money to mend a leaking roof or medicine for typhoid.
She calls me back to say thank you and says God will replenish where that came from a million times and I lie there feeling good about myself and the decisions I have made so far and it’s not even midday yet. I don’t need Russell to stay still, prayers sent your way is the African version of zen.
So I’m lying there under a blanket of her blessings, feeling mighty good about her words, when I think of my mom because she just reminded me of my mom. My mother has been dead for a little over five years now but, relax, this isn’t another sad story. We are not doing sad until next year.
There is this thing I do at least once a year; I call my mom’s number, still saved as “Mum” on my phone.It’s always been mteja [off], of course. I don’t know why I have never deleted it. I like it there. It’s my thing. Grief has died, there is no more pain, just the occasional sorrow and self pity: Oh, look at me, my mommy is dead and I’m all alone in this bad big world. There was a time I went to fetch my logbook from the post office. It had stayed for so long that they sent me to the Postmaster’s desk at Huduma center and this woman gave me such shit and I remember telling her jokingly that she shouldn’t be so hard on me because my mother is dead and I have no one to defend me in this bad world and she laughed at that and my logbook was found miraculously without a bribe. So yeah, sometimes it’s just silly self pity.
Anyway I don’t know why but I call my mom’s number, for the first time this year. I expect the recorded message saying the subscriber is no longer in service like it has done the past five years…
Only, the phone rings!
I quickly sit up and prop myself against the headboard. I’m freaking startled! I put it on speaker and stare at it ring. The playback music is a muslim chap reciting one of those Islamic poems called Gabay. It’s still so surreal, even morbid. I’m calling a dead person and her phone is ringing. I’m thinking, snap, Mom gone turned Muslim in heaven, whodathot? I know I have to hang up, that’s the right thing to do, but I don’t. I can’t. It’s foolish but I want to know if somehow in a twilight twist of things she will pick up and we will have a conversation with lots of static and I will tell my siblings later that I called Mom and she picked and she’s fine, she didn’t say whether she is in heaven or in a holding area but she said she is fine and her heart is no longer swollen with disease and that the chama idea is a wonderful idea but only if some people (cough cough) commit to pay the contribution on bloody time! They will laugh it off and I will insist that I spoke to her. I will swear. They will try my mom’s number and it will be off and they will gossip about me and my mental health outside the Family Whatsapp group and say that perhaps I’m losing it and who would be the best person to suggest psychiatric help.
Anyway it keeps ringing but Mom isn’t picking. Maybe she’s out on the verandah having tea. She loved tea. Maybe wherever she is – heaven I bet – she has kept chicken like she did here now that the new wife inherited all her chicken and her bed and her sofas, and she’s out there at the chicken pen, leso around her waist, scattering grains for the brood of chicken clucking around her feet. Maybe she’s reading the Bible in the bedroom and her phone is in the living room but, surely, why read a Bible when you are already in heaven? I don’t think there are Bibles in heaven, I think once you have made it to heaven you just sit whole day eating grapes and smelling flowers and listening to someone play the harp. Nobody wants to read the Old Testament in heaven, surely.
Then the phone is answered.
I swear I’m not making this up but the first thing I hear is a goat bleating before the voice of a man says “Hello?” I can tell it’s a Somali or Borana voice, which is as spooky as it gets if you have the backstory to this story. Two things are immediately clear; I have not reached heaven, not that Somalis or Borana are not in heaven, but I can tell that I haven’t reached heaven because of that goat. When I think of heaven I never think of a goat being in heaven. I think of horses. White horses. I think of men stroking the hind thighs of white horses in green meadows. I think of antelopes walking around. I’m sorry for cow lovers but I just don’t see cows in heaven. There is milk yes, but there are no cows. It’s heaven, for chrissake, of course there is milk but in heaven milk doesn’t necessarily come from cows. When you get served milk in heaven you don’t ask, “Ala, na hii maziwa imetoka wapi na sijaona ng’ombe?” You just take your damn tea.
So that goat threw me off.
I ask the man, “Hi, what’s your name?” He says he’s called Suleiman. “Nani wewe?” He asks. I tell him I’m Biko.
“Habari yako Suleiman, umeamka sawa?”
The damn goat is still bleating in the background. It’s a needy goat. Some goats are like that, they can’t be independent, self-sustaining. I want to tell him, Suleiman, be a man and control your goat but it’s too soon.
“Where are you, Suleiman?l
“Tana River,” he says.
“Are you Somali?”
He laughs and says nabaath and says something else in that way that Soms speak. He says it fast. Like he’s eating all the words before they become words.
I tell him, “Listen, Suleiman, this might sound strange but that number belonged to my mother. And she’s dead.” He’s quiet. I don’t think he’s shocked by the mention of death, but he must be surprised that someone would call him at 7am on a Saturday morning to tell him that this number belonged to his dead mother while he is busy getting out to attend to his needy goat. I can picture him taking the call in the plains, acacia trees scattered in the background of gutted land. I can hear, through the phone, the vast open space and the blue cloudless sky. I can hear the rustle of thorny shrubs and a bell, probably tied to either the same needy goat or another goat. It’s a nomadic sound, that bell. It spells movement. A bell that now tolls for Suleiman.
To kill the awkwardness, I ask him what he does and he says he doesn’t have a job. I ask him his age (33) and what he’s doing at this moment and he says he is taking his animals to graze.
“How far do you take your animals to graze?”
“Far,” he says.
“Do you carry food for the day?”
“I carry bread, sometimes.”
“What about water?”
“I drink the water my animals drink,” he says.
He has goats and camels. I picture a camel craning its neck to listen to our conversation. Nosy-ass camel. I want to ask him if they name their camels and if so, what name do they give them. Is there a camel called Rambo, for instance? I ask him if he has children and I ask him how many and he laughs and says rather vaguely that he has many many children. “Iko wengi sana.”
“Kama ngapi? Kumi na tano? Ishirini na mbili?” He cackles.
I tell him, I was just calling this number, curious to see if Safaricom has finally given it away and then it rang and here we are talking, that’s all, I come in peace. He says, “Hakuna shida, ndugu, shukran.” Then I hang up. Then I send him some Mpesa because I was feeling some type of way. Plus. I’m sure my mom would have approved. “If you don’t give you will never get.” She liked to say.
I figured Suleiman might find some use for it. Maybe he was going to use it to buy his child medicine. Maybe he had woken up that day and told God, “God, my back is against the wall here, help me with something,” and God sent my aunt to call me at dawn and that spurred my thoughts of my mom and the phone call happened then Suleiman’s prayers got answered. We are God’s pawns after all, aren’t we?
Suleiman doesn’t call to say he received the money. But I call this Somali chick and I tell her, “Can you believe who has my mom’s number?”
She says, “I thought you mom was dead?”
I say, “Yeah, but her number has resurrected, and it’s now owned by a Somali.”
She laughs and says, “What are the odds?”
I say, “I know!”
Then I call my big sister and she doesn’t pick and when I go on Whatsapp to send her a message I find her online (does that piss you off or what?)and I ask her, “Ala, you are online and you aren’t picking my calls?”
She writes, “I’m in class!” (She’s doing her PhD or something, she is always studying, God knows for what. Enough already!)
I write, “Are you in an online class?”
“ Haha. Kinda. What’s up?”
“I called Mom’s number.”
Melvine is typing….
“I don’t know. I just called. To see if it’s working.”
Melvine is typing….
“I don’t think Safaricom has assigned it to someone…”
“Kwani you have called it before?”
Melvine is typing…
“Yeah, but kitambo. So is it still off?”
“No, someone picked. I don’t think they were in heaven because there was a goat…”
Melvine is typing….
Melvine is still typing….
I go to the loo. Take a piss. Come back to find her message.
“Haha. They had a goat on their profile picture or?”
I stare at the message and think, is this chick doing a PhD or certificate in metalwork?
“No, there was a goat bleating in the background. So it wasn’t heaven. The guy with the phone is in Tana River and he is Somali.”
“Hahaaha. Oh boy.”
“Acha I call you after class,” she writes, but doesn’t go offline. She remains online. Maybe she is in one of those Whatsapp groups for women and they are talking about shoes or men or errant husbands. I’m slightly stung that she doesn’t want to hear about my goat stories. Then she goes offline.
I get up, take a shower, wear my running gear and go for this Stanchart event at Parklands Sports Club where people are running with Henry Wanyoike while blindfolded. (Have you registered by the way? The marathon is this Sunday). I want to go to Wanyoike and say hello to him and tell him that I’m Biko and I interviewed him some months ago but I change my mind because I’m thinking he might ask, “Biko? I thought you play rugby?” and I may say, “Forget that Biko, I’m the guy who interviewed you at Sankara remember?” and he will cock his head and say “Ohh” without conviction and I will tell him, “Okay, touch my beard, it might make you remember” but then he will ask, “Did I touch your beard when you interviewed me last time?” and I will say “Eh,no,” then he will laugh and say, “Biko, did you say you are called Biko? It doesn’t work that way. I have to have touched your beard to remember you by your beard.” Then I will say, “Arrh, then why have I been giving visually impaired people so much credit? I thought you have mad powers!” Then he’ll laugh and ask for his white cane which he’ll use to hit me over the head.
So I didn’t go to say hello. Wanyoike if you are reading this, hello!
In the evening I meet my friends at the bar. We are having drinks seated at the terrace, the music is great, the weather is warm and it’s all fun times, right? At around 10pm my phone rings. I’m not those people who put their phones on the table. So when it rings I feel it purr in my pocket and I remove it by its neck and look at the screen, guess who I see calling?
I almost fall off my seat because I had completely forgotten the events of the morning. The last time my phone had rung with the name “Mum” on the screen was 2012! Maybe it’s the effect of alcohol but I was completely thrown off, I stare at it ring in my hands, my brain quickly trying to connect the dots, trying to comprehend whether this is 2012 or 2017. Glenmorangie is working against those efforts.
Hezzy who is seated on my left looks at my phone in my palms and he sees “Mum” on it and he looks at me but I don’t know if he is even aware of what’s going on because he knows my mom is dead but maybe even he is thinking that it’s 2012 because he’d had a few.
I pick the call and walk to the gardens, which is quieter. It’s Suleiman. He’s saying thank you for the money. We make small talk. He asks me if I’m in Nairobi. He asks me what I do. He asks me if I have children too. I tell him “Mingi sana, mingi.” He laughs. I move away from the music because well, he’s Muslim and I don’t necessarily want him to think I’m in a haram place. I ask him if the children are asleep and he says yes, they are, except one, his son. What is he doing? He says he’s talking to his mother. “Yeye anapenda mama yake sana.” I tell him most people love their mothers. I ask him what the poem that plays on his phone says, that poem and he says it’s gratitude to God, for the gift of life.
“Are you grateful?” I ask him.
He says “Alhamdulillah,” and then repeats, “Alhamdulillah.”
I want to ask him about the needy goat and if it’s asleep but he might think I’m not a serious Kenyan and I want him to think I’m a serious Kenyan even though I’m not so serious a Kenyan.
We bid each other goodbye. And hang up.
I go back to our table and I decide that I have to delete my mom’s number even though I have memorised it. You don’t forget your mother’s number, do you? But then I don’t delete it. I can’t delete it on the Sabbath, I will delete it in the morning, I tell myself.
In the morning I don’t delete it. I lie on my bed instead and I wonder how Suleiman’s goat slept.
The registration for the writing masterclass is still open. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to lock down a slot.