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!!!!
Ah, ahh…Biko… wuod Jane!!
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?
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.