The sun sits on Tim Odero’s scalp. Tim is balding. But then again he’s 42-years old, a husband and a father of two. Make that three. His first born was with a lady who relocated to the United States with his son, who is now 11-years old. He suspects their relationship ended because he wasn’t “stable” financially; he was in between jobs, freelancing in advertising agencies, trying to fill his pot with a sieve. The relationship ended at JKIA where he had rushed to, following a tip that she was leaving the country with his son. He arrived to find her family bidding her goodbye, with the plane humming somewhere in the background.
“I have never known what happened,” he admits. “I called and emailed many times for an explanation, nothing.” It matters little now because the sun sits on Tim Odero’s scalp and it’s a gorgeous day. It’s a wonderful time to be alive and to have a job and to have a family and to be healthy.
There are men who look like old librarians when they start balding. Tim isn’t one of them. His baldness seems to be in conflict with his face and body which still retain prime youthfulness, making the baldness look like a misplaced metaphor on his head. He’s in a fitting red polo shirt and jeans. His biceps speak of time spent in the gym curling weights before a mirror. Men with big biceps like nothing but curling weights before the mirror. He is dark – like wet coal. He has a strip of well-tended beard. By well-tended I don’t mean that he’s one of those guys who run a comb through their beard before they start driving but I suspect he oils it once in awhile even though he will eat his hat before he admits it.
We are at The Grove which is a bar and restaurant at the rooftop of The Executive Residence, Best Western’s new apartments at the junction of Riverside Drive and Riverside Grove. It’s one of those clean-cut modern furnished apartments for people who want to live and work in a place that is quiet and leafy. We’ve got a lovely view of the treetops of the leafy suburb. The Grove have this business lunch deal going for 1,500 per pax for a three course meal. It’s a place you would take a client who’s sitting on the fence.
The restaurant is quiet and bright and they don’t charge for the view even though they should. We skip the business lunch and order from the menu. Tim, who is an Art Director at Creative Young and Rubicam (Y&R) goes for the Lamb Ragout braised with seasonal root vegetables and I order the Moroccan chicken, grilled and basted in gulf spices.
Out there, floating over the treetops from a mosque somewhere, a muezzin calls the Muslim faithfuls to prayer as I ask Tim what the biggest things that pop up in his 40s are, and he mentions his roles as a father, his career, and his relationship with his father-in-law. Father-in-law?
Indeed. So he tells me about how he visited his wife’s parents to ask for her hand in marriage some years back. She is Kikuyu and Tim, as you can guess from his last name, is Luo. Large gazebos were erected for the occasion in his wife’s home in Malindi. Her relatives – ageing Kikuyu men and women came to Malindi in a hired van to hold court. His family members, wearing their best clothes, also came from shags. They all gathered under the gazebos; the groom’s family on one side and the bride’s family – the hosts – on the other side. The air was charged with protocol and officiousness. Of course they had heard that the Luos were coming and someone included fish in the menu and, because people are who they are, there may also have been some warus in the menu somewhere.
“It was a big deal for the family because their daughter was the first one who was going to have a white wedding,” Tim says. “The first born who lives abroad is not married and the last born didn’t have a formal wedding so I got the feeling that this was it, the first white wedding in the family so it had to be done right.”
If you haven’t been to such negotiations, the way it happens is that the father of the bride and the father of the groom never speak. They just sit there in their conservative suits, sipping warm sodas, listening to the proceedings and acting like they couldn’t be bothered less. Truth is, they are not allowed to speak, I guess because that might show their hand or something and affect future relations. Instead, appointed speakers from both sides – usually uncles or some senior members of the family with grey hairs – handle the talks because they possess excellent oratory skills, wisdom and experience in navigating these occasions. Once in awhile the uncle from the other side will lean and whisper in the ear of the bride’s father and he will nod, wearing his poker face as he tells him, “Look at their spokesman’s shoes; these guys can’t afford 400 goats. I say we cut it to 250 goats.” The womenfolk, the mothers of both parties, even though the most influential in the grand scheme of things, never say a word. They sit in the shadows of the proceedings.
Malindi heat simmered from the ground that morning as speakers spoke and messages were passed from one tent to the next. The fathers, the respective patriarchs, sat across from each other avoiding eye contact and the mothers sat with their hands on their laps, Tim’s mom, I can almost picture, sporting a massive African headwrap.
“The first meeting went fine but then the second meeting never happened,” Tim says. “We couldn’t get a wedding date from their end and whenever we did, they would cancel it without any reason. At some point I realised that Roselyn’s father wasn’t keen on this marriage and it was because I was a Luo.” (FYI, he still is a Luo, he hasn’t converted.)
How did Roselyn feel about all this? “She was devastated,” he tells me. “Of course she was. I mean everybody wants both their parents to approve their choice, to bless them. Besides she was the closest to her father of all her sisters and so that rift isn’t something that she wanted.”
After this impasse lasted for months without any clear solution, the matriarchs on both sides stepped in and took a hold of the negotiations. His mother and her mother started contacting each other with the arrangements and things moved fast.
A wedding date was set.
But then the bride’s father put a kibosh on the plans when he said he would not attend the wedding. “It put a strain on Roselyn because in addition to being her father he was her business partner. It was a bit of a tricky situation.” Since the father was to walk her down the aisle and he wasn’t having any of that, they came up with a plan B; someone else who would hand her over to Tim. Meanwhile, her mother continued working on getting her father to change his mind because mothers always just want people to get along, don’t they?
I picture them having tea in the verandah of their house in Malindi, the leaves of the palm trees rustling in the evening breeze, a boy clutching at his shorts to keep them from falling as he runs outside the boma.
“Baba Roselyn, why do you have to do this to your daughter, why can’t you soften your heart?”
“I’m not doing anything to her,” he growls. “She is doing this all to herself.”
“How is she doing this to herself, surely? She has met a man she loves and she just wants to be happy.”
“She can be happy, nobody is stopping her,” he mumbles. “I have no problem with her being happy.” He looks away and stares at nothing in particular, then he adds with his head still turned away from his wife. “Of all the men in this country you mean to tell me she couldn’t find a good man from our own community to marry? Instead she brings home that, that boy from Nyanza!”
She doesn’t say anything but pours more tea into his cup and stirs two sugars in it. The radio on the stool next to him plays a Christian channel at low volume.
“Give it a chance,” she says gently. “Soften your heart, these children are like that nowadays, they just need our support.”
“Never!” He spits. “Tigana nake. Niwe ureririre kūhikīra mūjaruo ūcio. Gakiyoha niko koī urīa karīina!”
The mother just sighs and stares at him patiently like you would a petulant child.
He then asks a crude question, “Wina ma Kimundu kiu ti kihii?
She gasps and says, “Nakaī nīngaruona ii! Riū ūruu nigūo ūgūraga mūtu?”
He mumbles something, gets up and disappears into the house, an equivalent of storming out in protest. A door bangs somewhere in the house. She just sits there and calmly sips her tea because he might bang doors but ultimately she holds the trump card. The charm of a woman is like a slow- working poison in your blood because on the day of the wedding, the patriarch shows up in a suit with his hair combed. It is a garden wedding at a place called House In Bloom along Kiambu Road, where, long after everybody on the Mugithi train has collapsed in their seats from exhaustion, Tim’s grandmother is still doing her jig, shaming the younger people with her stamina.
“What was his expression and demeanor like, when he walked her down the aisle and handed her over to you? Did you guys have a brief cordial conversation?” I ask.
“It was awkward.” Tim admits forking one poor chip and absentmindedly dragging it in the bowl of his mutton curry. He doesn’t eat it, just sort of leaves the poor chip to drown in that curry as he relives that moment. It bothers me, that chip. “We didn’t exchange any words. I don’t remember him making eye contact with me. I think he must have felt real bad handing his daughter to a Luo.”
The wedding ended and a baby came. (Not to imply the baby came at the wedding reception, but yeah). A little firebrand boy called Adrian, a burst of energy, a bullet that ricochets off walls. Everybody was elated but it didn’t soften the patriarch’s heart. “I found it disturbing, to be honest,” he says. “He loves his grandson; they play and he buys him toys and shows him so much affection and yet he doesn’t even recognise my existence. It’s almost like he’s not the same person – to hold such affection for my son and yet also show such unabating coldness towards me.”
“Does the rejection sting?” I ask.
He shrugs his heavy shoulders. He doesn’t seem to want to admit that it stings because that would perhaps expose his vulnerability. Instead he says, “There was a time we went down to visit and this time I sat at the same table with him and my mother-in-law who is cool, by the way. Throughout the lunch he addressed only my mother-in-law and when lunch was over he stood up and left without recognising that there was someone else seated at the table.” He had become invisible. Air.
“That was rough.” I say.
“Yeah. I thought we would get somewhere, me and him.” he says. “ I thought that time and age might mellow him a bit, you know, as they say but he seems adamant despite all the avenues my wife has tried to get him to accept me.” He finally puts the soggy chip in his mouth. I almost want to say, ‘Hooray! The chip finally gets eaten,” but I resist the urge. “He’s one of those prominent members of the church in town and my wife has even tried involving the priests to try and resolve this but he remains unmoved.”
I finish eating before him – I always finish eating before everybody else. Sheila clears away my plates. I ask him what fatherhood is like for him and he tells me about their four year old son – Adrian – who is dyslexic and the challenges that come with getting the right schools for him and teachers who understand the condition. He then tells me about the time when his wife was pregnant with their second born. They went for a scan and they were told that the fetus had Joubert Syndrome.
“What’s that?” I ask as the remainder of the plates are cleared.
“Would you guys like dessert?” Sheila asks us and we both say nyet. Desserts are what the devil uses to lure unsuspecting men and women.
“It’s a brain development disorder,” Tim explains when Sheila leaves. “It’s a malformed brain stem, this part here [he holds the base of his neck] that connects the brain and spinal cord. This part controls balance and coordination and is called the cerebellar vermis. It was the first case they ever saw at Aga Khan hospital when we did the scan at 8 months and they really didn’t understand it then. There was no known documented case of Joubert Syndrome in Kenya and maybe only like 1000 cases in the world. We were given some scary scenarios, that there were high chances the baby would come out severely malformed; three hands or a deformed face, one eye, two toes that kind of thing.”
They were especially worried because earlier on, his wife had lost another baby at 8 months. “The baby we lost had underdeveloped organs and so this news filled us with trepidation. We were told that should we see blood we had a maximum of two hours to get to the hospital or we would lose the baby. My life from that point on was filled with doing a lot of math in my head, calculating distances to the nearest hospital and mapping out routes.”
Thankfully she carried the baby to term and when she was due Tim went in the theater with her. “ I was going to be the one to see the baby first before her and I was scared and anxious to see just how deformed he would be. I was prepared for the very worst.”
“How was that for you, waiting for your son knowing that he might come out with one leg or a cleft lip or no ears?”
“What do you do?” He poses. “What can you do but wait and hope it’s not that bad?”
He continues, “So when the baby came out, baby Morgan, he was handed to me first and I remember quickly counting his hands and fingers and eyes and ears to see if there was any anomaly and Roselyn kept asking me if he was okay, if he was normal.”
Morgan was born with one kidney and his condition – Joubert Syndrome – means that he, now at eight months, doesn’t have the same milestones as other babies his age. It is only now that he is learning to hold his head up on his own and can only sit up with support. His eyesight isn’t good because he has little control of his eye.
“You know how we take some things for granted, like how we automatically hold up our head straight? He can’t do that. His head just collapses down.” He says.
“What causes it?”
“It’s 60% recessive genes in parents and 40% unknown. It’s a very rare condition so there isn’t a lot of information around it. You know how you can google a disease and get millions of results? With this disease we would google and only a few pages come up. He is a case study at Aga Khan University because he’s the first case there and they want to learn as much as they can from his condition.” The care of the baby takes a lot of their time as parents because Morgan needs special care and so fatherhood for him is twice as demanding what with work and physio by a special nurse and by them. There is a lot of play involved, stimulation, talking to him and using psychedelic coloured gadgets to help him focus because his eyesight is weak.
“Do you ever wonder why you? I mean, this is a rare condition and it landed right at your doorstep.” I ask.
He thinks about it. “I actually never asked myself why me because I didn’t see it as a problem. We were more worried about if he was going to be a normal child and how we will be able to take care of him. When he was born we didn’t think he would live this long, and so it continues to surprise us every time he celebrates another month. All his small achievements and milestones mean so much to us – they become our milestones and achievements and we forget to ask ourselves why us. You get?”
“But I worry how he will grow up,” he continues. “I wonder if he will fit in and if people, society, will accept him the way we have. I worry what will happen to him if we aren’t around him, who will take care of him in that case.”
“What space are you in now, as a 42-year old?”
“I’m at a point in my career where I feel that I need to do more than I am doing now. I think I have plateaued out.” He says. “ But on the same token when I look back I think this is a great place to be because when I was younger I wanted to do more in a short period of time. There is a restlessness that comes with being young, you think you can cram a lot of achievements into a year. I have since learnt to take very small steps because when you take small steps and you focus on those steps you end up achieving much more.”
“When was the last time you spoke to your father-in-law?” I ask.
“I can’t remember,” he says. “ He is convinced that we are being punished.”
“For what?” I ask.
“For going against his wishes and getting married, more so in a garden wedding as opposed to a Catholic mass. He believes it’s a curse.” He says.
“Has he seen Morgan?”
“No,” he shakes his head. “ He hasn’t. He hasn’t set foot in my house.”
“Does that bother you?”
“It does, of course,” he says. “I mean personally I have come to terms with the fact that he will never accept me, but what bothers me is what it’s doing to his daughter. It hurts her when he comes to town and doesn’t come to see the newborn. When my wife’s cousins call her and say “ala, kumbe mzee is in town” and she has no idea, it hurts her. It’s not a great situation. And she tries to build fences, she tries to make sure that she keeps both sides happy.”
The expression “burning a candle on both ends” comes to mind.
“That must be gutting.”
“It is what it is,” he says. “You wonder why things just can’t flow.”
“What has raising children with special needs taught you?” I ask.
“I look at Morgan and how he draws people to him. Maybe it’s because he looks like a 4 month old baby and people always wonder how big he is.” He laughs. “The thing with him is that when he’s undergoing physiotherapy he works so hard, he tries so hard to overcome his limitations and he’s always smiling, 99% of the time he’s so happy, so oblivious of his condition. Sometimes when I’ve had a rough day at work and I go back home and I look at this boy with this rare condition and he’s smiling so hard, my problems just fade in comparison. I don’t have any reason to beat myself up with my small problems.”
“Do you feel overwhelmed by it?”
“You know the difference between women and men?” A very foolish and extremely ridiculous answer comes to mind that I would give him if it wasn’t a rhetorical question. “My wife can sometimes meet the mother of a child with special needs on Facebook and they meet for lunch or tea and talk for hours and I ask myself, they just met, how can they talk for so long?! I think that helps women deal with issues and situations. For us, men, we just ride it out alone.”
The sun has moved from Tim’s scalp, hiding behind a ball of grey clouds. A stinging wind blows through, the kind of wind that still has the smell of July on it. I zip up my jumper. I’d love nothing more than to sit there on that rooftop for ages but Tim has to go to work, Art Directors don’t just while away their whole afternoon on Rooftop restaurants, they have shit to sell to the masses.
“Are you happy in the marriage or has this thing with your father-in-law become a tumour in the marriage?”
“Initially it posed a potential danger that could affect the marriage, and I suppose it did in some small ways,” he says. “But it got to a point where we had to make a decision on what’s best for us as a family first. So we decided to focus on the marriage first and make everything else secondary.”
We call an Uber.
Have you noticed how the pictures of Uber guys look like they are the type that can abduct you and lock you in a grim dungeon with damp walls and feed you fungus-smelling Sunblest and water? There is not one picture of an Uber guy that looks like someone who loves kittens. Uber should take better pictures of those drivers. Tony is finishing up a trip nearby, the App tells us, which can mean he’s finishing up tying the hands and feet of the previous client in a nearby dungeon and telling him, “you can scream if you want, nobody will hear you.”
As we leave the restaurant I ask Tim, “How much space does this impasse with your father-in-law take in your life?”
“When you are rejected because you come from the wrong tribe you wonder if there is something else you can do to be accepted because unfortunately you can’t change your tribe but you can change other things,” he says with a creased brow. “Is there something else you can do for this guy to see you beyond your last name? Is there any adjustment you can make to accommodate him? My wife has tried everything she can and she still tries. I have done everything I could do to have him accept me but it hasn’t worked, so I guess I have stepped back because sometimes we try so hard to achieve something not knowing that the time isn’t right, that the moment isn’t ours and it might never even be ours.”
The Uber guy pulls over at the main entrance. Disappointingly he doesn’t look anything like a guy with a dark dungeon. Tim Odero will be fine. He has big biceps after all.
Ps: September’s Writing Masterclass is now full and registration is closed. Please hold the emails, it’s stressing Bett. Apparently.