It’s Been An Honour, Jackson

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What do you see in the first picture, uhm, apart from the line running down the man’s trousers? Talking of which. This was in the late 40’s or early 50s and so a line down your pants was how men were expected to wear their trousers. It was cool back then. However, do you sometimes go for a meeting and there is this guy with a line running down his pants and you have to force yourself not to check the calendar to see if it’s not 1945 and World War II just ended? Lines down pants irritate me. They shouldn’t, but they do. And when I meet someone with a sharp line down their pants it distracts me from the conversation. Makes me wonder what kind of childhood they had. How were they socialised? Are they happy? Do they eat cereal with fruits? How do they squeeze their toothpaste? What are they most afraid of in life because obviously it’s not that line? What line can they absolutely not cross? It’s even worse if it’s on jeans. In fact, there is nothing as dreadful as those who iron their jeans. I think it’s the hallmark of impending sociopath tendencies to iron your jeans. I think it’s also lonely. People who iron their jeans are calling out for help and all we do is tweet.

That chap in the picture wasn’t calling out for help, though. That’s my grandfather. Nobody’s quite sure when this picture was taken. The few who would have been able to place the exact date of it are dead. It’s not dated but it’s obviously dated. Look at the edges of the picture, frayed, like time has nibbled on it. A time when cameras weighed more than a bale of hay. When photographers took pictures with burning cigarettes dangling from the corner of their lips. Now they grow fancy beards and dress like Kanye West.

My grandfather wasn’t a gentry ranking below a knight, or a shield bearer but he was an Esquire. He’s called Jackson, but he always pronounced his name as Jackshon, so for purposes of this article we will not address him in any other way but Esq. Jackshon, sawa?

In this picture you can tell Esq Jackshon is a bit on the dandy side with his checked shirt and a two button blazer, dutifully buttoned. Look at how he thrusts his right hand in his pocket, as if he’s waiting for the train and he’s just too cool to show his hand. Men stopped dressing with pride. Now we wear something with an African print in it and we think we have done our cool act of the day. (Martin Keino and Nelson Aseka, I’m not talking about you guys.)

Right before this picture was taken Esq. Jackshon had just come back from Egypt, fighting a white man’s war. He was a hero because he outlived the war and he came back to the village to a rousing welcome, swaggering around, head cocked proudly to the side, right hand thrust in trousers pocket (few cats wore trousers then), showing his fancy haircut and speaking weird. Men and chicken gathered under mango trees on hot Sunday afternoons to hear gory but gallant tales of the war from Esq. Jackshon’s lips, of course peppered with hyperbole. Women dreamt of him ravaging them in his army uniform. Men borrowed his bowtie. There was a talk of a gun he came back with, a long rifle with a bayonet at its tip that he kept hidden in the roof of the house, according to the lore. I could see him telling some girls washing clothes by the river, “I can show you my gun if you want.” They wanted.

After a few months, Jackshon called the lady in the picture, his wife, and told her, “Selina [that was her name] iron your clothes and get ready, after the next sabbath I will be taking you to the city to take a photograph.” Selina was over the moon. How things have changed. Back then it only took a promise of a photograph in a studio to get a woman excited. So Selina packed Esq. Jackshon’s clothes in an old battered suitcase that still smelled of war and together they set off for Nairobi, a three day journey, using train and buses. A journey that ended there, in this studio.

I saw this picture recently in shags, hanging from a frame. We were all gathered in Esq. Jackshon’s living room for prayers and as I stared at it I thought, What the hell is Esq. Jackshon’s elbow doing on my grandmother’s shoulder? Look at him all cocky in his bowtie, a 6’4’’ tall war hero in his two-button jacket, and that sharp line down his pants that can kill a fly should it land on it. Esq. Jackshon leaning on my poor grandmother. But look at her. She looks bemused. She doesn’t look like someone who is glad to be in a studio in Nairobi. She doesn’t appreciate what Esq. Jackshon has done for her, bringing her to Nairobi to take a photo. Does she even know how many women would have killed to be in Nairobi to take a photo in a studio with a war veteran?

Because he studied English Literature I showed my dad this picture and asked him what it means to him and he studied it for a while before saying, “He looks comfortable.” Wow, how insightful! I thought. Of course he looks comfortable that’s why he’s leaning on her. Then I asked my brother and he said he looked sort of proud. And why wouldn’t he be? He had just come back from abroad. Not many men had gone abroad in those days. He had interacted with white men and fought other white men. Whilst Selina looks humble, domesticated and abiding next to him he looks like one of those summer bunnies who come down and expect us to spread our shirts for the them to step on as they walk into the pub. You see a glint of that in Esq. Jackshon in this picture.

I have been looking at this picture for a while and each time I look at it it evokes a new emotion. Sometimes he looks domineering, which is apt because it was the 50s and men were conditioned to be domineering, especially if they had a gun. (Men who have guns now just show them to yellow yellows as foreplay)

But when you look at this picture closely you will see that Esq. Jackshon isn’t leaning on my grandmother, he just placed his arm on her. Like you would place your elbow on a shelf. His weight is elsewhere on his right leg. But he’s saying something with that left arm. He’s saying: I’m that guy who brings his woman to Nairobi to “beat” a photo. What have you done lately? Have you fought the Germans? Have you worn a two-button jacket? Do you have a bowtie? Then step aside.

But maybe the true story of this picture is not even Esq. Jackshon and his pose, it’s my dear grandmother, Selina. She is many things here; she could be showing submissiveness by the way her hands stiffly hang by her body, but then she could very well be the strength here. She could be the rock on which Esq.Jackshon leans. And a rock she was; she saw him marry three other wives after her and that can’t be easy for even a woman in the 40’s to accept. Selina is stoic here. She knows something Esq. Jackshon doesn’t know. Selina is a snipper.

Esq. Jackshon was buried two weeks ago. His 18 children came, children who bore him about 45 grandchildren. A few bulls were slaughtered. Goats’ eyes rolled over in death. A choir sang each night until he was laid in the dust. Only one of his wives buried him. The rest, he buried. He was buried behind his house, where Selina rested in 1988. My aunt Alice told me that he had actually pointed out where he wanted to rest. He died in his mid 90’s.

Luos always put the casket in the verandah at night, and leave it open. Then a bunch of old women swathed in lesos and men bearing walking sticks sit around the coffin the whole night, talking in mumbles. On one of these nights, I sat next to my grandmother and asked her, “how many close people have you buried in your life,” and she said seventeen; her children and her grandchildren. I asked her which death she has never quite recovered from and she sat there for a long time, staring at the coffin and at some point I thought she either had not heard my question or she wasn’t going to answer me but then just when I was giving up she said three cousins of mine, orphans, who all died in a timespan of two months. We continued to stare at the coffin wrapped in our own thoughts.

It was a very expensive coffin, about 106K. The most beautiful coffin I ever saw. The coffin was bought by two of my aunts – Aunt Helen and Aunt Alice – which is testimony that it’s our daughters who will give us a dignified send off, not our sons. So all you dad’s out there, take your daughters to school so that they can buy you expensive hearing aids and put you in a dignified coffin when you die. My mom was buried in a golden coffin that I found too tacky. An ugly coffin. I looked at it at the morgue and thought, I didn’t know we have kaos in the family. But this coffin looked posh, with it’s silver handles and dark rich painted wood. Grandpa, Esq. Jackshon, slept there. I could see the tip of his pale nose from where I sat. He wore the same long white kanzu that he was baptised in when he was young, a kanzu that one of my aunts bought. He looked so pale, like he has just come from working in one of those old posho mills and he had lay down to take a nap without showering.

I asked Aunt Helen what she remembers about Esq Jackshon when growing up and she said she remembers lots and lots of people coming to their boma to seek for help, people with school fees, medical problems. She remembers hungry people waiting for Esq to hand them alms (he was a councillor). Es. Jackshon had a big heart and generous to a fault. I remember his humility the most and his kind eyes.

But he lived for so long. I don’t want to live until I’m 90. The last few years you had to sit near his good ear and literally shout: jaduong! An Biko!!!!

Ngawa? [who?]

Biko!!!!

Otiko? [ticket]

Ah, ahh…Biko… wuod Jane!!

Jane?

Er…Biko!

Ohh…Jiko?

So you move to the other ear and try it again. Repeat 45,000 times.

I asked my other aunt Alice what she remembers about him while growing up and she said she never once knew which wife’s house he had spent the night in. She says her childhood memory of him, was him waking up so damned early before anyone else and sitting in the middle of the boma under a tree and clearing his throat loudly. (He was a very tall man with a robust voice) and once he did that the boma would awaken and someone would get him warm water to wash his face or uji or whatever. That’s what she carried with her; him clearing his throat loudly at dawn.

Polygamy, if we are to learn anything from him, is a royal mess. There is always someone fighting someone. There is competition. There is bile. You marry two wives and it’s horror, you marry four and you are buried in it chin-high. I’m surprised he outlived all but one of his wives. But I don’t think polygamy worked for him, I wish I asked him if it did but then the prospect of shouting that particular conversation in his ears didn’t exactly entice me. That conversation could have lasted until the next general election.

That night as we sat huddled by the coffin, listening to the choir drone on under the naked bulbs in the tents, I asked my grandmother a childish question. I mean it just came out. I had had a double of whisky to keep away the cold, that’s my excuse. I asked her if she thinks my grandfather had finally met my mom up there and she was asked him how we were all doing back here. And she looked at me like I was a clown. She said when people die, it’s the air supply that is cut. The body remains on earth until the second coming when everybody will resurrect and face judgement. In short, nobody is meeting anyone. What my grandmother didn’t know is that sometimes you want people to just lie to you. Is that asking for too much? Like when Tamms asks me if there are pirates in Mombasa and I lie that they are because she looks like she really wants me to say they exist. And she asks why we can’t see them and I say they are deep in the sea and she asks if they are good people and I tell her, they are only good when they are full not when they are hungry. And she stares at me to see if I will blink and I don’t.

Not to name-drop but Sir Charles Njonjo called me while I was in shags. He has been meaning for us to have tea to say asante for that story I did, (he said I was a gentleman and a journalist, something I want to frame and hang in my hall of fame) but my schedule has been totally mad. So I kept putting it off. When he calls he says, [insert that old man voice], “Mr Biko, did I call you or did you call me?” [Hehe]

You called me sir, how are you?

I’m fine..[pause], I’m ringing to find out when we can have the pleasure of that tea. You were to ring me last week to confirm.

I did, sir.

Did you now?

Yes, I did but you did not pick. I left a short message. Did you not find it?

Did you use this number?

Yes, sir.

Oh,[mumbles] I don’t know how to operate this things. When can we meet?

I’m in ushago now. Why don’t I call you to schedule when I get back?

Okay, that’s fine. You do that. Is everything fine in ushago?

Yes, all is well. I’m here to bury my grandfather.

Oh, I’m terribly sorry. How old was he?

Now, I didn’t want to tell him he was in his mid-nighties like him because then I would have brought the reality of death too close to his doorstep and maybe he was a having a swell day and that just might have ruined it for him. I didn’t know what to do, so I just mumbled that he had lived his life very well. Then he said gravely (no pun), “You know, in the African tradition it’s actually an honour to bury your grandfather, so treat it as such, an honour.”

Well, it’s been an honour, Esq. Jackshon.

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114 Comments
  1. Truly an honor…. Lon live Esq. Jackshon …. Till the second Advent…

    And that comment from Sir Njonjo – The one you would frame, Is worth all the comments you will ever get in this world…. 🙂

    Great read as usual.

  2. Since it seems I am still alone here, let me say this is a gem. Years from now when I am old, I will want to take out my tablet or capsule, or whatever the hell gadget we will be using then, and re-read this piece. Great!!!

    1. hahaha Charles if you live till about the age of Esq. Jackshon you will sure re-read this on your “capsule”.
      n

  3. This is very well written Biko. Good work. I loved the conversation with sir Charles:
    When he calls he says, [insert that old man voice], “Mr Biko, did I call you or did you call me?” [Hehe]
    You called me sir, how are you?

  4. R.I.P Jackshon.
    it’s true that polygamy is a royal mess. Pod akia all my cousins, they are about 306 and counting. My old man used to tell me I might marry one!

  5. I’m looking at the photo and he has rested his arm on his wife the way you rest your arm on a newly acquired automobile. It can’t be a Probox or a VITZ, none of those blasphemous things. It’s a car like the Outback so you rest your arm on the window while driving and look at folk smugly like, look at the prize I got what do you have? With a name like Esq Jackshon and a life well lived he will surely RIP.

  6. 1. Truly an honor, Esq Jackshon
    2. Nice photo…especially the arm on Selina (got to try the arm thing on my wife soon)
    3. The line on jeans (100% with you Biko on that)
    ….a great piece as always!

  7. “…Makes me wonder what kind of childhood they had. How were they socialised? Are they happy? Do they eat cereal with fruits? How do they squeeze their toothpaste? What are they most afraid of in life because obviously it’s not that line? What line can they absolutely not cross?

    Waah! Biko yawa, you ‘finish’ me.

  8. Selina. She is many things here; she could be showing submissiveness by the way her hands stiffly hang by her body, but then she could very well be the strength here. She could be the rock on which Esq.Jackshon leans. And a rock she was;
    To see that in a woman: Biko i think i speak for all female readers when i say it is an honor

  9. Great write up Biko. Buried my uncle 3 weeks ago. Those guys had a blast in those early years, you should see his portrait with a fedora tilted on the side and of course a 3 piece suit. Just pure class.

  10. RIP Esq Jackshon. so apart from his name, you also took his forehead! This was such a wonderful piece. So smooth, so flawless.

  11. This is so true…. “You know, in the African tradition it’s actually an honour to bury your grandfather……”

    I remember when we buried mine in 2011, that is something that will live with me forever.

    Nice piece Biko!

  12. a three day journey for a photograph not just a photograph!thank you for the memories oh but why the arm on mama selina not quite eh how do you say it?

  13. a photograph that shows different leanings depending on the angle of view is nt a photograph,ni urogi wa kijaluo

  14. Great read, as always! So very true about ironing jeans. Keep it up. I always look forward to tuesdays. RIP Esquire Jackshon.

  15. Biko, great piece. One of my favorite. I see the infamous forehead was not inherited from your late grandpa. This is as close I come to seeing how you probably look. I really like the picture on your twitter account.

  16. ‘In fact, there is nothing as dreadful as those who iron their jeans….’
    its so funny because its true.I build a disturbing mental picture that involves carbon steel underpants when i see them…hahahaa

  17. …. when I meet someone with a sharp line down their pants it distracts me from the conversation. Makes me wonder what kind of childhood they had. How were they socialised? Are they happy? Do they eat cereal with fruits? How do they squeeze their toothpaste? What are they most afraid of in life because obviously it’s not that line? What line can they absolutely not cross? It’s even worse if it’s on jeans. In fact, there is nothing as dreadful as those who iron their jeans. I think it’s the hallmark of impending sociopath tendencies to iron your jeans. I think it’s also lonely. People who iron their jeans are calling out for help and all we do is tweet.
    Hahahahaha *Real tears*

  18. Pole to the family…
    Eih Biko yawa, do u have to kill me all the time?
    I am just imagining how the conversation would go when you ask him whether polygamy worked for him…

    1. This cracked me up too….. Till the next elections!! You are just hilarious. Now am curious about that interview with Mma Tamms. Some insight into you.

  19. I turn my jeans inside out and iron them them.
    You should see when I catch the house chic ironing the outside!
    I am no teenager, thirty five

  20. This reminds me of my late grandfather, died last year at 94yrs. A war veteran. Tall, very tall even with his bent back. died blind and deaf from old age. RIP to your grandfather

  21. Dude,you killed it.Its indeed been an honour to sbare his life and times via this piece,RIP esq jackshon

  22. I can now see where your forehead came from, sorry no pun meant. In Africa we always say if you’re named after a person you tend to take after him or her. Finally sorry for the demise however old he was I know everyone still loved him.

  23. Biko,
    You are a legend in the making. Your articles evoke emotions in all of us .. Cherish that gift and create a legend that our children will be singing about .. Remember that not all can keep other legends as Sir Njonjo waiting coz we are busy! I would give anything to be a fly on the wall of the room he is in …
    RIP Esq . Jackshon, we have known his legacy through his second generation .. He may be smiling at this article ..proudly … or so I hope so.
    Cheers!

  24. I didn’t read anything, I just saw photos and headliners; and scrolled down; have to ask…Yawa…. ango ma rach?

  25. This tribute is for the Patriarch’s and matriarch’s whether alive or departed that have given themselves beyond self for years and years for their families and ended up rising generations. Leaving behind a rich heritage for their descendants.My condolences biko

  26. “I could see him telling some girls washing clothes by the river, “I can show you my gun if you want.” They wanted.”…i see what you did there hehehe. R.I.P Esq. Jackson, a life well lived. and pole sana biko

  27. Before I even finish reading the post…this line ‘Now they grow fancy beards and dress like Kanye West.’ shots fired!! 😀

  28. Biko Biko….i can leave a comment for each paragraph…but they’ll probably be exhausted around the next general elections. In short, great piece!
    RIP Esq. Jackshon!

  29. So I also buried mine just over a week ago and it hurt so much because I had a chance to go see him a day before he left but blew it. Guka Duncan was a good chap too, unmatched wisdom & humour and he went to Alliance High School in the 40s! They will have a lot to talk about with Esq. Jackshon, the least not being polygamy.

  30. That convo between you and jaduong had me in stitches LOL! At those ages especially with a bad ear that is inevitable. I can just imagine the look on your face. Mzee ni yaye!! But the ng’awa? Jiko? Otiko…hehehe such a cracker!She says her childhood memory of him, was him waking up so damned early before anyone else and sitting in the middle of the boma under a tree and clearing his throat loudly. (He was a very tall man with a robust voice) and once he did that the boma would awaken and someone would get him warm water to wash his face or uji or whatever. That’s what she carried with her; him clearing his throat loudly at dawn. Hehehe Wuod Jane,this your grandps was a champ! Great piece as usual.

  31. It indeed is an honour seeing that I never got to bury mine.Awesome piece and how you transition your thoughts is just legendary…They don’t make them like this any more!

  32. Looking forward for a continuation from the arm rest. I feel there’s totalneed for delving deeper…an honour it was Esq. Jackshon, mine passed on at 95!!!

  33. I could see him telling some girls washing clothes by the river, “I can show you my gun if you want.” They wanted…I see what you did there Biko…
    May Esq . Jackshon rest in peace, mine died few months ago but it still hurt a lot; he died of cancer.

  34. Click open bikozulu.co.ke; scroll to the newest post don’t read, nah , scroll further to the comments, laugh like a fool, then realize, damn, I haven’t read the story yet, go back , read, laugh, cry, laugh again, love Biko!!

  35. This is good writing. I’d read a book written in this way. Speaking of which, Biko, how’s the book coming along?!

  36. This was a great piece as usual.When I saw the picture I
    noticed the hand on her shoulder.It looks domineering.
    One of my grandpas is seventy and has most of his teeth
    intact.The other one I never met him just hear stories.
    yes its an honor to bury your grandpa. I am also
    waiting for the book.

  37. Biko
    Otiko [ticket]
    ooh jiko?
    So you move to the other ear and try it again. Repeat 45,000 times
    Boss i am an advocate and read this in court….i just left court after a slap for contempt. I will do it again and again. Good stuff

  38. ooh I buried my Grandma 2 weeks ago in Siaya,she was 90…I relate well to the shouting in the ear thing,,it was annoying especially with my Nairobi luo accent,,hehehe good read Biko.

  39. Oh Biko, you have such a gift for describing things…
    Takes me back to the days when we used cameras with film so you had to be ready for the picture so as not to waste the expensive film.

  40. RIP Esq Jackshon… i know its very had to move on but biko i suggest you see a bereavement counselor as i think you need to talk a bout the effect it had on losing your mother. i read your article your mum will break your heart… however this line caught me off guard…
    I asked her if she thinks my grandfather had finally met my mom up there …. sometimes the ramifications that is happening in our subconscious mind need to be released and seeing a counselor will help you cope better up rather than double whisky drunk utterance which bring out what is in our deepest thoughts…. just a concern.
    for Esq Jackshon what a life lived well RIP.

      1. Remember physical death is just but a separation.
        Absent in the flesh, present with The Lord..
        Your mum is very much alive in the sweet by and by…, she’s healthy and whole there…no more sickness or pain..if that’s of any comfort Bikozulu.

  41. May Esq. Jackshon rest in peace. To me in the picture it looks like he is marking his territory. After all, he had come from war and may have heard that there were a few chaps circling his boma.Your post imenichekesha tu sana.

  42. “…he came back to the village to a rousing welcome, swaggering around, head cocked proudly to the side, right hand thrust in trousers pocket (few cats wore trousers then), showing his fancy haircut and speaking weird. Men and chicken gathered under mango trees….” you have reminded me of those old days when as kids we actually used to gather under trees and regale our adventures, some of which included cutting up green maize stalks which taste like sugar cane, to the ire of the grown ups, or coming out of thickets after wild fruit hunting with hairy caterpillars all over your clothes… kids are really missing out these days.

    RIP Esq Jackshon.

  43. Lovely tribute, Esq. Jackshon ate life with a big spoon, may his soul RIP. Biko i see where you got your forehead genes from (no pun intended).

  44. I thought I was the only one noticing this fancy beard thingy with photographers…hahaha! And Kaos don’t know colour gold hata. Gween, red and yellow

    Rest in peace senior Jackshon

  45. line down the pants- my dad is a millitary man. that is how we iron our clothes. thats how dad showed us, thats what am gonna teach my kids, thats how i iron mine. its not a throw back to the 50’s its just regular parenting i suppose. i think its kinda funny how it throws you off though. its my first comment but i love your blog. as a professional marketer am just wondering, you are a good writer, you have exposure so where are all the adverts bro? just asking……

  46. Its amazing how you can write so many words from just one photo. May your granddaddy be happy in the after life. And i hope they have photo studios there, he does look good on camera

  47. Great read Biko! I have a similar photo of my grandparents and his arm is resting on my grandmother just as EsqJackshon’s is the only difference is my grandmother didn’t wear shoes i think she used to think they made her look weak she always wanted to appear tough and oh my grandfather was shorter than her(maybe the reason she left out the shoes).My grandfather was a war hero too his stories were about Barma we buried him 2yrs ago… RIP Esq Jackshon