I’ve never met anyone whose father went to prison. Actually I don’t know anyone – friend, acquaintance, neighbour – who has been a guest of the Government Of Kenya. Wait, my cousin Farouk went to prison. Actually two of my cousins have gone to prison in the past ten years. But I don’t know anyone whose father actually went to prison.
Last week I spoke to an 18-year old girl for to mark Safaricom @18. Then a friend called me and said, “Biko, I think you might want to speak to this boy; he’s 18-years old and he’s a bit troubled about his father.” I said, “most of us are.” She said, “But you are not 18-years old.” I said, OK, let’s have his number.
We met at a cafe in Lavington. He comes carrying a knapsack. They all seem to carry knapsacks, these boys, don’t they? He’s got a hard exterior but you can see the softness of his youth. He sits unapologetically, with his legs spread under the table. He stares at the menu like one would a list of genocide perpetrators; with beautiful disdain, almost revulsion, as if the very act of being made to choose what he has to eat is beneath him. His knapsack sits on the chair beside him. When I ask him what’s in the knapsack he answers, “Things,” and that is that. I love it, I love his beauty. His beauty is in his disregard of people, of things, of moments, of me and my act of saying to the waitress, “Orange juice, large, and a cake.” No, thank you, no please. He isn’t trying to be rude, but he’s at that point in life where norms and people who set them just bother him. A point where you want to go to a place without humans, just you and your music and headphones and a knapsack with mysterious contents and maybe a fridge stocked with food. He doesn’t care if this place has a shower. Water is for pussies.
He’s got a scar on his left cheek. Maybe he got it in urban warfare. Maybe he’s a spy for the Ethiopians. We will never know his mystery, we will never understand the shadows of teenagehood from where he lurks. He’s complicated but only because the world is so annoyingly simple. He turned 18 in February. There was no party, no balloon, no cake, just math and chemistry and school. Talking to an 18-year old is like playing Sudoku. Our conversation often feels like I’m driving and he’s riding shotgun and the car stalls and we sit there for a moment in silence until I look at him and ask “Do you want to get out and push?” He says no, rather emphatically, so I sigh and put the car on neutral and I push it from the door frame of the driver’s side and when it gathers momentum I jump in and the engine sputters to life and we drive like this for a while until it stalls again and when I’m about to come out he says, “I will push it.”
It goes something like this. I ask him, “What do you remember about primary school now that makes you feel that you were completely naive in retrospect?” He chews on his cake, something dark, like chocolate cake or something, and he says thoughtfully, almost to himself, “I don’t remember very much of primary school. I was just a child.”
“What do you generally remember as a child?”
“What do I remember as a child?”
He chuckles. He chuckles not that he has remembered something funny but I suspect he chuckles at how lacklustre and one dimensional that question is to him. Then he says, “My childhood was boring. The usual.”
“What’s the usual? My usual and your usual could be two different usuals.”
“What’s your usual?”
I say, “Family of five, a badass mother, no birthday cakes to cut, no overt expressions of love. Do you tell your mother you love her?”
“Does she tell you?”
Pause. “Yeah, when she’s telling me off.”
“Like how, I love you but you are a piece of shit for not taking your studies seriously?”
“Ha-ha. Not like that.”
He sips his juice and looks at his phone. I wait. His brow furrows, making him look older than 18. It must be the Ethiopians checking in with him. He finally comes up for air. He looks 18-years again.
He seems to have forgotten my question, so I ask if he and his siblings tell each other loving words.
The waiter comes and asks if we would like anything else. I say no, thanks. The waiter and I both look at him but he’s looking out across the parking. “Would you like something else?” I ask him. He looks at the waiter and says, “No.”
He then says, “My parents took me to boarding school when I was in class 4.”
“Oh,” I say, getting excited that he’s finally offered something I didn’t ask. “How was that?”
“It was fucked up, man.”
“What was fucked up about it?”
He says the cold mornings [it was in Central] and the food was “horrendous,” and he was mostly miserable and homesick.
Was there any good that came out of it?
“Yeah, it taught me not to give a fuck.”
“About what, the bad food or the cold?”
He laughs. “No, about everything. About people. And, you know, stuff. I can survive anywhere!”
[Note: even Ethiopia.]
“Is not giving a fuck about people and situations a good thing? Does it make you cold inside?”
“No, it makes me strong. Not many things will affect me. If someone did something bad to me I will finish that friendship and won’t feel bad about it. That’s what I mean.”
“And you learned all this in boarding school.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Girls are stress, man.”
I laugh. Yeah. You must look back at your boarding school life and feel grateful that you went through that experience?
“No, I wish I didn’t. It was bad, man. I was only 9-years old when I went. I think my parents wanted to live their lives without me that’s why they took me to boarding school.”
Live their lives?
“Yeah, party and all. I don’t remember seeing my father much, and my mother was always out with her friends. So I think they took me to boarding because they didn’t have time for me.”
Or maybe they wanted to give you a different experience, I say, sounding like Oprah.
“What experience? Who takes their 9-year old son to boarding school? Would you take your nine year old to boarding school?”
I shake my head. I ask if he’s mad at them for doing that.
“Of course I am! Who does that! I would never take my child to a boarding school in primary, it’s just fucked up.”
I’m sure it was out of love.
“No, it was out of selfishness.”
Have you discussed with your parents about this? Have you unpacked this, I ask.
I feel so phony using that word unpack. I feel completely pretentious. Everybody seems to be using this word lately, it’s the buzz word that suggests that we are people who are in touch with their deepest feelings and are brave to have a glimpse into that side of our humanity. I want to burt thinking that I’ve now become someone who uses the word unpack. I was doing so well. I had only less than two weeks to the end of the year and I would have said that I was the only person in nairobi who hasn’t used that word. Not anymore. Now, I’m just like the rest of them. I’m ashamed.
“No, not really. I asked my mom when I was in Form 2 and she said that she took me there because it was a great school.”
You don’t believe her.
Did you ask your father?
Sigh. “My dad is in jail.”
Here is how these things go. Half the time you are just shooting the breeze. The conversation just meanders around topics like a lazy village river. It’s like shooting in the dark. You ask this, the person says that. You ask that, the other person says this. There is a faint scent but you don’t know of what. You poke in holes to see if a rabbit is there and mostly there is no rabbit. You shake bushes. Turn stones. Then suddenly a hare darts out of a hole you weren’t even poking into and for a moment you are stunned by that very event, you remain immobile thinking, what the hell? Is that…is that a hare? At that moment you know that the hunt has changed irredeemably. So you chase the damned hare, sometimes you catch it, other times it darts into another hole and you poke into that hole but it never comes out.
Only that he doesn’t want to talk about his father. He looks away from my questions, he growls and grunts into them, he spits with his eyes at the mention of his father, he grinds his teeth, an action that shows against his cheeks when he thinks about him. I get little fragments of information about his father; reading his father’s name in the newspaper in the school library as one of the men who were in custody over graft or something to do with corruption. Seeing his last name in the paper and wondering how surreal that was and how nobody in the whole school connected the dots because nobody read the newspapers in the library. Him going to the library daily to check the progress of the case and finally learning of a jail-term. Then waiting for the mother to come to school to deliver the news and her not coming and even the first day he went home for holidays her not saying that your dad is not coming back home tonight because he’s being hosted by the government of Kenya. But even when she mentioned it the following day, he stared at her blankly and “felt nothing because I didn’t really know him.”
Have you gone to visit him?
Have you thought of visiting him?
If you were to visit him what would you ask him?
“I would not visit him.”
Are you mad at him?
“No. How can you be mad at someone you barely know? He hasn’t participated in raising me.”
He paid for your roof and clothes and fees.
“A sponsor can do that. Children in orphanage get roofs and clothes and fees from donors, are they their father?”
You are mad at him. Maybe you are afraid to invest emotion in him.
He rolls his eyes.
“What I’m afraid of is becoming like him.”
And what’s that?
He folds his hands across his chest and sighs, picking the most acerbic words necessary to describe this man.
“Selfish. Greedy.” Pause. “A thief.”
I take pluck the side of his cake and taste it. It’s moist, like fungus. Not that I’ve eaten fungus. A thief. What do you say to that? I demolish a side of his cake and eat it while he checks something with his base commander in Addis. Maybe some new intel. Maybe a new job. Who knows? Who knows anything anymore? Who knows what’s in that knapsack? Or in that heart. He keeps everything under his hat.
What men do you look up to?
“We had a mentorship program in school, there a gentleman who is a doctor, what’s his name…” his brows furrow again, “I forget his name.”
You have forgotten your mentor’s name. He won’t be thrilled.
“I doubt he remembers my name. He’d come around twice a term this year and sit down with a group of us, maybe ten boys?”
What did you learn about those sessions?
“Nothing much. Just career and life…stuff.”
What did he tell you about life?
He thinks about it and rubs his arm, pursing his lips. “ I honestly don’t remember.”
Now he seems bored. I might have taken too much of his time. He fidgets, he leans over the balcony and looks at the roofs of cars parked downstairs. He looks at the door of the cafe, as if he’s expecting someone – Ethiopian secret agents. The spaces between his fingers are ashen, like he was writing on the blackboard before coming here. He plays with his spoon. I stare at his hands, they are still a boy’s hands because he’s still a boy but coming into a man. He has opinions. He has fears. He has anger. He hates his father. Or he thinks he does. Or it’s disappointment. I ask him a few questions but he’s already left the room and left his body before the half eaten cake.
As I run my debit card he asks me if I remember when I was his age. I say, I don’t. Not really. I remember being hungry all the time. And the talent to eat a whole loaf of bread. And being shy and awkward and silent. When we parted I felt like I should have done more for him. That I should have told him something that could put him in a different path.
But then you are here and you might have a piece of advice to tell an 18-year old. What would you tell your own 18-year old self?
Also, I doubt I will write a post next week. My head is somewhere far with sand and birds and someone asking, “do you want it with ice?” It’s been a great year. We are healthy and alive and blessed and most importantly we are not allergic to guacamole. Thanks for being here this year. Don’t drink and drive. Use a condom. Give the poor and the least fortunate. Kiss your children, one day they will not want to be kissed. The last person here should switch the lights off.
See you on the 8th January. Inshallah.