If I have learned anything in my three decades of death-defying experience it’s that the three things I would take with me to a desert island are: a god to pray to, a people to love, and a woman to hold. And if I’m allowed only one more thing it would be a woman to hold close.
21st June was my birthday for 14 years before I took a look at my birth certificate and realised that the official record of who I am differs both in name and age. For some unfathomable reason I chose to go with the official records. Perhaps it was recognition even at that age that there are powers we should not fight against. The shelter of family is amazing but it does not withstand the fury of government and it’s not fair to ask that of them if you don’t need it.
So yesterday was also my birthday, kind of. I had a date yesterday and I was excited. Then on my way home it started raining and I was excited. I was in one of those matatus where the front window can only be opened by the driver, I wanted him to close it but leave a little sliver. From that crescent shaped hole smells wafted in. Scents I had nearly forgotten about. There was that heady mixture of asphalt and wet. The rain changed the day from sunny exuberance to something darker immediately. Drops of heavenly dew fell all around me. It made me feel like maybe god still takes that day as my birthday, after all in my heart of hearts I know that the first prayer and the most important one has always been for rain. Life comes carried on billowing puffs of white and mist and nourishes the earth, it makes us live, it makes all that we kill live, it is magic and to be given this boon is always a good thing.
Yet for all of its divinity the rain does not mix with the city. Masses of humanity as are gathered together in urban areas are unable to consider its mystery and instead only get its chaos. In all gifts after all there is also something taken. So when she sent me a text promising lateness it was expected. It didn’t matter at that point though. The rain had come and my star had dusted off itself to exert its influence on humanity, I wanted to leave, I had to go. So I went anyway.
I got myself to Kenyatta Hospital, and then began to make my way to Impala. I had been saved from any considerations of time and so I could see. I had on a waterproof jacket and little specks of drizzle accompanied my steps. I was just going to walk a little to catch a matatu but the stage got further and further and I kept walking like a Gump. My heart beat faster because it was dark and I was painfully aware at some of the mud-turned stretches of walkway that I was giving the grim-reaper one last chance at me before I got to three-0.
This is because I have been filled with visions of death this last year. Does everyone feel it I wonder? For a time I crossed roads so carefully because I was sure, I mean sure, that my death was coming by accident. I could see the car, hear the screech. It shook me but there was nothing I could do about it. I’ve been worried I wouldn’t make it to thirty. It seems like a big number and it is. It’s not as big as some, sure, but tis nothing to scoff at and I wasn’t going to dirty this achievement and show of grace by belittling the fact that I was almost there, just almost.
This must be what bothers people so much about turning thirty. It’s just a number but it feels like the first really big number. By the time we get here we are all intimate with death and her capriciousness. We all know that it’s not our choice, when we go or how. I know that even sitting here writing this the earth could open up and swallow me like an Old Testament sinner because we also know that anything is possible. So people start examining their lives and asking if they are worth living. They begin to think about legacy in terms of remembrance. They want children so that something of them remains. They want success so that something they build can still be seen after the winds of change have carried them away. They ask themselves if what they have done so far is deserving of these things, these labels of permanence, and for most of us the answer is no. If you have no children and have not made built your towers the world tells you that you are late. If you have a horde and a Babel to leave to them you still feel a niggling feeling that you aren’t in control, that death and chance could come and wipe all this away. (As if to confirm this electricity disappeared a minute or two after I was done with this paragraph and forced me to stop writing, -desktops mehn-). It is intimations of mortality in a body still shot through with youth and a mind still supple enough to change the path and look for that immortality elsewhere that gets us. Our man Jesus was after all thirty when he went and turned himself into something that will be carried forth by humanity for longer than anyone who saw him could imagine.
My first sighting on the road was Nairobi Baptist church. I had been there many times in the past. I had gone to pray for and pursue my twin ambitions: beauty and peace. I felt that it was a holy place. All these place of worship are holy places. In each of them no matter how dirtied and corrupted the teachings, selfish and greedy the leaders, mean and petty the congregants in at least one heart there is a genuineness in prayer. There is a seeking and searching in at least one heart for that thing we have all been told is up there. What exactly that thing is we don’t know and I’ve never been able to figure out and I think I’d be happy with never slating that curiosity. It must be though a feeling of confirmation that the world is a bad place. That where we have found ourselves is not right, we can all tell it’s not right. Leonard Cohen sung that everybody’s got a broken feeling like their father or their dog just died. These places of worship acknowledge the broken feeling, they admit that we can’t do anything about it; we can stop wars but not death, cure diseases but not souls, fill stomachs but not emptiness. And prayer, for me at least, has always been about surrender of control, or acknowledgement that even without that surrender we will never have control. And in these holy places that one heart surrenders its control and does what it believes will right the world. It seeks for a restoration of a broken relationship between god and man and believes that there is a place where that healing occurs. With this light of hope and faith in its heart it shines out on the world, and even if it doesn’t on average the world is lighter because one of us is. So I like the holy places.
I kept walking with every intention to avail myself of transport. I got to the place where Kilonzo and Company Advocates is. I haven’t thought about that great man in a while but I remember that when he died I couldn’t get enough of his life and his lions. He had lions, probably not at thirty but having lions is an achievement at any age. I went there once for one of the shortest interviews I have ever had. His son sat me down and in the time it would take to read my one page CV dismissed my value to the law firm. Work is important to a human being. Work finds us our purpose. We are told this over and over in all the holy books and in the mouths of all the wise there is a promise that work will give us a sense of purpose. The book of Ecclesiastes which distils the wisdom of wise King Solomon after his attempts to find peace in flesh and beauty failed him seems to have a couple of lessons. One of which is everything we do is useless. Another that we should find pleasure in work.
I’m asked a lot why I became a lawyer. My father is a lawyer and almost every boy wants to be like his father. There’s a reason that that is chosen as the metaphor for god in the most successful religion yet. Also I read so many books about lawyers as a young’un and the life they promised: a life of intellectual engagement, emotional variance, and if not spiritual satisfaction at least struggle with moral questions was a life that drew me. Those books didn’t steer me wrong because I can say without a shadow of doubt that I find pleasure in my work. That the mundane and repetitive aspects of it please me more than signing autographs could possibly please Beyonce. I like the slow crawl of it and the teachings of patience it imparts. I love feeling close to justice, feeling like its possible to make a difference. And I like talking and I like writing and this is what this work entails: talking and writing. There have been moments when I’d receive a salary and be writing submissions and wonder to myself how it’s possible that I was getting paid for this. I remember the first time I did a cross-examination and the wash of adrenaline at the end of it. A drug like that I would give up all else for. That wonderful hit, oh. Still I really hate wearing suits.
Just after those offices is the turning from Ngummo. When I was young we all used to go to NPC. After the service we’d squeeze ten people into a saloon car and the rest would go take buses and then go to my aunt’s place. Every week there was this immense family gathering. Food cooked like for a party. Work being done by everyone (except the boys-this is still Africa we’d get sent back and forth for things) from 1 to 7. Every Sunday. I was too young to appreciate it and of course I took it for granted. I thought this is what life entailed. A family of cousins and uncles and aunts seeing each other every week after worship. That house was my second home. I’d spend holidays there because at least there was social contact. I’ve luckily had a tradition to be in a family where everyone’s home was everyone else’s home. Sleepovers sudden and surprise were encouraged and could go on for weeks. We lived with each other in a way that may be lost as we become more and more. Those cousins have families now and I am blessed with the presence and vitality that real youth brings. Children of all ages who I see, not every week, but fairly regularly, who talk to me like I’m their equal and shout and laugh and play with me when we do meet. It’s that well the Samaritan woman was looking for, a place that you go to in order to heal. This is what family feels like to me, that well. A place where no matter how broken up you are it can put you back together. So while I don’t have children I feel that I have some of the joy of them. The way they run when they hear you coming home, and their unvarnished joy at seeing you, and their incessant questions because the world is new, and their deep affection and trust for the things around them, and their deep, deep wisdom that is available for anyone who bends a knee and approaches them as they would a friend. These things I feel I have experienced and it gladdens my heart to even think of them.
So I had been walking for quite a while at this point. Quite a while. My breath is heaving more than usual. The slight drizzle kept me cool and I had the company of all these people also walking back home. My sense of place in the world has never been fully developed. Situational awareness and locational knowledge escape me. I had no idea how far I had gone, I had no idea how much further Impala was. But I had time to walk and to consider the life I had led up to that point. I had time to remember that what I was doing right then, walking to Impala was something I had done for years on the Saturday near my birthday. I never had to organise a party all I had to do was go for Safari Sevens and there awaiting me was my party. In high school I watched Femi Kuti perform on those grounds, young but still me enough that when the performance started I gave it all of me until it ended. When they moved it away from June and from Impala I felt like we had lost the spring rites of Nairobi and that the urban gods were angry that we took their sacrifice away from them.
There was this girl I met the night Femi Kuti performed. I was in fourth form and had put on weight for the first time in my life. I can’t remember much except that she showed me her belly button and the ring nestling there. I didn’t have a phone and so that chance encounter, that one time thing was all there was. There’s been a lot of casual love in my life. I can remember my uncle telling me as I was peeking down the throat of the twenties that it’s important not to get used to sex without love because it becomes hard to turn back to sex with love. The theme of the twenties seems to have been “I don’t doubt the experienced when they tell me all they know of love and lust, it’s just that these lessons are sweeter when delivered from the hands of a beautiful woman than from the mouth of an old man.”
So like everyone else, there were mistakes. A whole bunch of mistakes. Mistakes upon mistakes. In areas of love I have been as a thirsty man who moves away from the chalice seeking instead the sweet solace and waters of oasis. In every point it was demanded I gave only half my heart away, in giving it away so quickly and carelessly and regularly it must have seemed to the world that I gave it all. It’s something I can accept now that to refuse to give all is to refuse to accept plenty and to thus deny yourself access to another of the magic wells of world. I know also from my talks with children and from the books I’ve read and my interactions with the world as a whole that everybody here knows what they should be doing. That this knowledge is just hidden away by all the shit that life carries on its back. The reason writers seem to have this deep wisdom is because their craft practised right is about digging through all the junk, looking at it unflinchingly and throwing the hand of their soul into the shit to see what else lurks there. It is a painful profession and one that I don’t think I have the discipline for. I want her, writing, as a mistress not as a wife and employer. I want to turn to her to see light in times of darkness. I want to ignore her and do other things but come back and find her waiting. I can accept the law as my wife because she gives me things the mistress does but also as a necessity demands more because the loving of her is not restricted to my times before a computer. It is affected by the turning of the world, the whole world.
I was still walking and I stopped to ask for directions. One guy told me to just go ahead to Adams and keep going. I wanted kilometres so that I would know how far I had walked instead he spoke in landmarks. I could recognise the landmarks but had no idea how far spaced they were. I came to Adams Arcade soon enough. There was once a girl who lived down the road, she has a child and a husband now. They all seem to have one or the other, these women of my youth. Kibera Law Courts is also down that way. God, I love that place. When I was in Meru I would hear snatches of Luo as I went about my day. I would turn and point my ears to what I then considered the most beautiful language I had ever heard. I still do. Look, instead of Oyawre meaning good morning as most people are told it means “has it opened up?” and the answer also Oyawre means “it has.” What is it? The sky, the smile of God, another beautiful day. No matter because here is a language that begins your day with poetry. Then I went to Kibera Law courts earlier this year and that was the language of the streets. Beauty being bandied without being dirtied.
There is a part of me that I feel I have neglected in my life so far. This is the part that insists that who my ancestors were is who I am too. The part carried in language and myth. The part preserved in story and legend. The part that has been calling out for nothing more than the Luo Creation Story just to start off. I can’t pretend to know what’s wrong with Kenya. Part of it is that we so easily made our ethnic affiliations into sources of evil. Part of it is that we so easily forgot what bore those ethnic affiliations. We turned our backs on the gods, and if you forget to pray for the angel then the angel forgets to pray for you. Even stripped of any of the mysticism I find much more interesting that a purely scientific consideration of the world, losing our gods means we don’t know why we do the things we do. The customs are empty without the holiness that they need. They are disrespected and the exchange of bride price can turn from an occasion for binding two families to one for impoverishing two (the man’s old and new family.)
Eventually I get to the area around Impala. Here the road narrows and I decide to walk on the field. Immediately, I mean immediately, I sink into the ground. It had just rained and the mud was fresh. It had just rained and my shoes just gobbled up the chance to become wider. I’m immediately sliding and laughing at my foolishness. Mud, if it exists, finds its way to me. I get out of there and wipe away the mud with tissue. My shoes still look horrible and this is really no state in which to go for a date. But even this act makes me feel young, even this act seems like something out of my past. The rain water I walked in from Zambia to Zimbabwe and back earlier in the year, the rain splashing out of the sky as I walked to university, snow dropping around me in Norway, that rain that waited until I was leaving Egypt and carried with it mud so that my clothes got dirty immediately it landed on me. All of this rain and mud combinations felt like a fitting conclusion to the long decade known as the twenties.
A sign told me that just to the right was Makini School. I used to go there. We used to leave school in hordes and walk to Impala to swim, I never learned to swim. Once I got tired of waiting to be picked up and I just left the school. I must have been six or seven years. I started walking home and was found along the way. I wasn’t beaten but a new rule was instituted about children not being able to just walk out of the gates. That school has the best uniform for people of that age. Polo shirts, no ties. This is important as modern life will “force a man to put a knife against his own neck and tie a noose around his own neck” so there’s absolutely no reason to begin with the nooses so young. I still think that a woman can wear nothing more beautiful than a red dress because of all that red the girls used to wear. Its seared itself in me as what covers beauty. I definitely need to look for more red.
When I finally got to Impala I found it was a private member’s club so I turned around to go to Harlequins’ Bar. There was a pathway I could jump to that I saw, you know those places between a ditch that have been worn by years of the laziness of man? One of those. I got on it so that I could jump and instead of anything else I began sliding down, down, down, then I jumped off and landed in mud again. A few metres in front of me was the road in.
The woman who had given me the gift of that walk was not there. The rain does get in the way of many things. Perhaps getting the answer to a prayer that I knew I always had and the surprise gift of that walk was enough. It’s not meet to be too greedy in this world.
Here’s a worry I have about being thirty though, it feels like adolescence. The twenties were a whirl of confusion but in teenage I felt like I knew. Now I feel like I know. I’m glad that I’ve had the experience of realising that I know nothing at all and if there is something I want to take with me and it’s only one thing it would be that. The realisation that I don’t really know anything even though I think I do. Luckily Bikozulu is doing a series on people turning 40 and that helps. In fact I would recommend to anyone turning thirty that what they need is to read or talk to people who have just turned 40.
With that I’m outtie.
Oh there’s a little more, I wrote it as a note on my phone as I went home last night and just remembered I forgot to make space for it: the world, she opens up to me and all I need do is stop and stare, if this I cannot manage I am undeserving of beauty.