Monthly Archives: August 2016

you have to understand…


You have to understand, by that point we had been drinking so much for so long that we were incapable of logical reasoning, the only ammo in our arsenal was emotional reaction.

I just got paid / and I got a little money to burn.

The lyrics from one of my favourite songs slid towards us through the air. In the back of my mind I knew I should go and watch TOK give their first performance in Kenya, but that stray nerve was stayed by the beauty in front of me.


I still couldn’t believe that I was this close to her. For that I thanked the shots of vodka she had poured down her throat as if she was planning to set her bowels on fire later that night. Every shot I bought her came with a kiss, a fumbling, fuming searching, bittersweet kiss. Not bittersweet in the way of a goodbye where there was both sadness and joy, here the bitterness of the alcohol and the sweet taste of tongue mixed together to bring me a feeling that I hadn’t felt until then. I was in love the upheaval in my stomach and the tightening of my trouser were all I needed to be sure that this is what the poets had missed out on when they spent their time writing.


The music continued to get louder than we wanted it. We weren’t talking with words but our bodies seemed to be vibrating on the same frequency so that when she took my hand and led me to the outer fields where there was nothing but grass and darkness I wasn’t surprised. It seemed like the inevitable endpoint of this dance we had begun as soon as we saw each other earlier in the night. I had looked at her and felt my eyes drawn into hers, an almost physical tug and when I held her hand to ask her to dance she gave me such a wide smile that all our friends had melted away.


We continued on into the darkness. On the floor beneath us were bottles of discarded beer, in the dark they looked black like oil stains amongst the grass. The grass itself was sent into sharp relief by the shadows it cast, things so vivid they wouldn’t move even if the wind rustled the stalks. In that darkness of shadow and bottle the  grass looked green, not the green they possessed in  the sunlight-that colour was too faded and limp-this was a real green. The one Adam and Eve had given up as soon as they left Eden.


I think it was cold but I had been dancing for hours now and I was still waiting to catch my breath. Also she was by my side, a hot presence that I could feel through my tee-shirt. My skin turned into a radar that could paint out an outline of her body if I went blind at that time. We were holding hands chastely as if we had just left a church. Shyly looking away from each other as our thumbs desperately played with each other. Round and round and round. The only part of our body that we allowed at that time to betray how we were really feeling.


Then I slipped. Or rather slid on one of those oil stain bottles. I hadn’t been paying attention, I was drunk, I was looking for an excuse to get her on top of me. Probably all three. Anyway we both fell down and she somehow landed exactly where I wanted her to. Her hair fell onto my face. The moment was perfect except the grass was wet with dew,  I could feel it on my neck and it distracted me from where I was. I put down what was left of my beer on the ground and held her behind her neck and pulled her closer to me. Just before our lips connected she stopped and made me wait, she played for some time with my lips and then we started kissing and the dew of the grass disappeared from my thoughts.


We stayed like that for a while, I’m not sure how long. Then she began to retch (vodka like the Russians who produce it is not known for staying down.) she brought a hand to her mouth as it began to gush out and I thought that she really was a lady to the end. Some of it sprayed on me but she managed to avert most of the damage. She then got off me quickly and lay on the grass on all fours. The dim memory of a movie made me grab her hair and pull it back. It was greasy and my hands were soon very oily. This was a tiny inconvenience though, she was in the midst of pain. Coughing and spluttering and vomiting all that she had put into her body. I patted her back alternating my left hand between that and holding onto her hair. Murmuring the whole time not saying  anything of consequence just making low pitched sounds that communicated comfort and acceptance.


When she was done she wiped the rest of it off and blew mucous out of her nose. Then very daintily she picked a handkerchief from her pocket and proceeded to wipe away the evidence as if she had just eaten a meal at the Hilton. Something moved in me right then. No idea what it was but if I had thought earlier was love then there was no word for what I felt right then. Our activities had made us feel somewhat more sober. It was a false sobriety though, anyone who has had an extended session of drinking or drank a lot in one session knows this false plateau. If you stay on it you can calm back down to earth but the slightest bit of alcohol shoots you back up to where you were before.


The sounds of the concert had died away and all we could hear was each other breathing and gulping down the beer. And all we could see was the vast dark of space as we lay back looking at the sky. And all we could feel was our thumbs finding each other and then our bodies and tongues. The blood rushed out of my head. The lust was on me and it would not stop until it was sated. I’m glad she felt the same way. We pressed against each other, tore at each other’s clothes and held each other close.


I threw caution to the wind and slipped myself between her legs. Through that mix of sweat, pleasure, paradise and disbelief a harsh voice broke through.

“Mnafanya nini hapa! Wacha niwaitie polisi!” (What are you doing here, let me call the police!)


I knew it was a watchman and in a better frame of mind I would have stopped and stood up ready to bribe. What happened however was….

You have to understand, by that point we had been drinking so much for so long that we were incapable of logical reasoning, the only ammo in our arsenal was emotional reaction.

“Umeshatushika we wacha tumalize tu alafu uite hao polisi” (you’ve already caught us, just let us finish and then call those police.)



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Grief can be treated like a demon. I went for a funeral recently. Took that long bus ride to the edge of Homa Bay County, a constituency known as Gwassi and a village called Rasira. This is where my father grew up. This is where, when asked, I say i’m from. Nairobi is after all only where I grew up. The beauty in this place is breathtaking. From my father’s house there is an unimpeded view of the lake. During the day the waters are different hues of blues turning darker as you look further. As evening approaches the sun drops into the lake. Before it does this it loses some of its power. It gets to a point where the clouds obscuring it are so thick that you can look at that white ball as it makes its way into the belly of the beast. It’s a place that’s different from Nairobi. Different from Meru. Life is slowed down there hewing to ancient rhythms instead of modern clocks. It is the kind of place where you can exorcise a demon.


Exorcisms need time and intensity. They need a place that seems magical and a people who are willing to believe in that magic. So we, my people, Luos treat grief like a demon.


There is another way to treat grief. You can let it be a ghost. These are both dead things, demons and ghosts. Visitors from elsewhere, and so is grief. It’s hard to describe how grief feels;  the numbness and pain, the shock and disbelief. It is like nothing else in this life and the fact that it comes at the end of it almost convinces me that it isn’t of this life. It is of death. It stinks, it is rotten, it is corrupt and it is necessary only so that we may move past it. Grief is a part of life like death is. A part we should not wallow too long in. A part we would rather not have.


A demon is a malevolent energy. It seeks destruction. It is a whirlwind.  A demon will pick things up and turn them into pieces. A demon will turn your eyes black and take over your soul. It doesn’t care for this mortal body or any of the earthly things we enjoy because it cannot remember them. A demon if it stays in you long enough will kill you. It will kill you quick and bloody. It is earnest in its task.


A ghost will try to trick you. A ghost will move the television. Then let you catch a glimpse of it. A ghost will play with your head before it does anything else. You won’t be sure that there is a ghost because it is a shade, a mist around you, something at the corner of your eye. Where a demon is earnest a ghost is ironic. Where a demon depends on destruction a ghost will go for attrition. Slowly leaking you. With a ghost you can sit and have a drink. By the time it materialises and becomes real you are used to its presence. You can feel that it was always there and so it won’t startle you and so you will pour a drink for you and your ghost without blinking an eye. Still a ghost is dangerous because of this, attrition has worn down mountains. A ghost will still kill you.


In the end though it’s either you or it. The ghost must be banished, the demon exorcised or the human buried.


We treat grief like a demon. There is the two week period before the burial. A time used to collect money and to “budho.” The closest translation for this is wait with. The most universal example I can think of is from the book of job. When god had let satan kill his servant’s children and take away his riches and give him boils so painful the glance of the sun hurt him, his three friends came and sat with him. They sat for days before they began to talk. Their way of saying we are here. Their acknowledgement that for grief there are no words.


After this the body goes back home. To Rasira in this case. By the time we were entering the village there was a huge caravan of cars following the hearse. Buses and four wheel drives and one or two salon cars because our national road programs have stubbornly refused to reach to Rasira. At a certain point everyone begins to hoot. The bus driver who is usually an initiate into these rites is told to go along with it. To drive slowly, at walking pace and hoot. Sounds clash and people get out of the cars to walk on foot. The people for whom this actually is home also join in. They knew the deceased or they didn’t but they know pain.


The sobbing begins here. The noise doesn’t distract you from it. The noise adds poignancy as you begin walking along all these other people who are so sad that a death has happened. And for the last kilometre or so you walk through the Nyanza sun and on the Nyanza sand.


When you get to the compound the wailing begins. Old women hold on to each other and scream into the air. Why did you leave? You killed me!! How can you expect me to go on? Why? Why? Why? It splits the air when this many people scream. Something passed over us at that moment a sadness so deep that it’s felt behind the eyes. And still people cry. The old men not as emotive as the women but you will see damp eyes, the shock at mortality has not left them either. People keep coming in streaming into the compound and crying and crying. Unable to stand still and crying. Raging at the gods or at life or at death and crying and crying and crying. The sound can shake the most stone hearted person.


There is a cynical interpretation to all this mourning that I have often heard. That people are paid to do it or that they do it in expectation of a meal. Being there this is not what I felt. I felt that people were sad, so sad that somebody had died. This unimaginable thing that we have all become so used to had happened. A person stopped existing and all that we had of them was in the past. Memories is what remains of the dead. The end of life is an occasion of such importance that it must be grieved. And if we cannot find it in ourselves to grieve then a show of grief, an indication that we are willing to bow down before death and kiss his finger is necessary. A life, anyone’s is the most precious thing we have. And then it ends and none of us knows why this happens or why it has to. None of us is fine with it, with death. When somebody dies we may as well scream and roll on the ground and beat out chests.


That night the body is sat with in the compound. After supper we sit up for as long as we can. The grave is dug or songs are sung or drinks are drunk. It’s a good time to share stories about the dead because the body is right there, right amongst you. Nobody will begrudge you going to look at it and crying. Not on this night.


The next day is the funeral proper. It began quite early ten or maybe eleven. And then it went on. There is no rush to bury the dead here. The service is kept short. The priest is not bereaved and it is not for him to talk all day about the dead or death. Time is given to whoever wants it. There were as I remember some of the normal cursory remarks about hurrying up but it was never really enforced. One old man introduced everyone he had travelled with. A huge bevy of women, always reminding them to tell us where they cook eggs now. Bringing them back if they forgot jesting with them and them jesting back as feisty and witty as he was.


The family, the immediate family gets to speak as long as they want. To break down in the middle of speeches and go on. And when they speak you can sob into your hands or your program because no matter what you feel it is worse for them. There are times, even here where wailing is frowned upon.


Then there is the burial. The lowering of the coffin. The grasping of sand and throwing it after. The laying of roses and wreaths. And always the crying, the sobbing, the wailing, the grief.


Yes there’s a party that night. Wouldn’t we need it after all that. The demon isn’t all gone but he almost is. And after the contact of so much death what is needed is life. After hearing all these wails there needs to be the sound of laughter and lust and joy. Music is played into the witching hours and I think this is designed a reminder to the family that sadness isn’t the only emotion left in the world. After immersing yourself so heavily in all this for so long you need to get drunk, or to dance or to hear people do it.


Insensitive people say that we are happy when someone dies because of this night. How can anyone be happy when a person dies? When a member of their family dies? But with all the grief that came before it is important to feel joy. The truth of it is that for us as for almost all human beings we would stop partying forever if that would buy off death, send him to warmer or colder climes far, far away from us. But that option is never, ever on the table.

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