By Biko Zulu
It’s highly unlikely you will live to see 90. In fact, you
will be lucky to see 63. You will die from heart
diseases. Or hypertension. Or diabetes. Or cancer. Or
HIV/AIDS. At this rate it’s also possible you will die in
your beloved Subaru. Crushed in there, like a can of
soda, music still playing as you breath your last
through you bloodied mouth. If you don’t die from
any of the above mentioned, you will still die. So will
I. And everybody else I know. You will die whether
you have 50 or 45,000 followers on Twitter because,
ultimately, death has the most followers. When your
heart has stopped beating, your Facebook account
will have droves of “friends” professing your high
virtue on your wall. Folk will tag you on pictures you
took together while you were a mortal.
Death’s certainty is as indiscriminate as it is
absolute. You will die whether you take a latte at Art
Café or a chai masala at Kwa Njuguna’s in Dagoretti.
It doesn’t even matter that you can spell “croissant”.
You will die. We imagine that when we live, we are
stalked by the insecurities of modern living when all
along we are stalked by the prince of Death. The dark
knight, always waiting. Always glancing at his watch.
My grandpa has one foot in his grave. He’s 90. God
have given him 20 more years over the 70yrs he has
accorded us to live. But sometimes, at that age, life
seems like a punishment, not a privilege.
Last weekend I went to shags to see him because
he’s been asking, for ages, for us to go. He had three
wives, grandpa. Two have since been reaped by
death. He has been on the record for saying
polygamy was one of the hardest – and most
regretful- things in his life. He lives alone in his – now
departed – first wife’s house. I – together with my
small brother – got there at noon.
When we walk we find him slumped in this chair that
looks older than anyone who goes to The Mingle. All
around him the room frantically clings onto history.
The chairs are old and well worn. Those very old
chairs that had sisal stuffing and springs underneath
them. They are dutifully covered with vitambas. On
the wall hang framed black and white photos. Also
old. Photos from the 60’s and 70’s and early 80’s,
when he was a strapping young man; good looking,
bolstered with life, shaven studiously complete with
a cut running across his hair. The essence of 60’s
cool. There are pictures of him and his first wife,
before the devil of polygamy asked him for dinner.
There is a picture of the entire Kenyatta’s
government; Tom Mboya grins back. There is an old
saggy bookshelf with old yellowed books. The
window is open, bringing in light and the sound of
chicken rummaging outside. By his side coughs an
old Phillips radio. A cat takes a nap on one of the
I can’t see a Bible anywhere, that’s because he’s half
When we walk in he doesn’t show any indication that
he has registered that entrance. He sits there, half
asleep, half awake. My grandma announces us by
shouting that we are home. He arouses slowly. He’s
also half deaf. So she has to shout our names about
“Jaduong, Biko gi Jim ose chopo!” [Biko and Jim are
“Ehhh?” he growls.
“Biko gi Jim osechopo!” She shouts louder.
“Biko gi Jim!” She’s now shouting an inch from his
right ear. His good ear, apparently. Poor guy, I think.
My kid bro, insensitively, finds this slightly amusing.
So do I. Unfortunately.
“Biko?” He asks, like he has never heard of me. But
he’s only tying to register the name in his dated 90-
“Ehh, en gi Jim!” My grandma shouts, still haunched
over his left ear.
“Ohhh, Biko gi Jim?” Bingo! The coin has finally
He smiles. Then without a word, he reaches for his
cane by his side, painfully struggles to his feet then
says “walem.” Then he prays; haunched over and
leaning and clutching at this wooden cane so tightly
the veins at the back of his scrawny hands pop out.
But he casts a very defiant pose, like he is telling old
age, “F***k you!” Although his body is a shell, his
voice remains uncannily strong, deep and
commanding and he uses these colourful analogies
to praise God in that way that old folk in shags do in
prayer. Prayer, in shags is a poetic narrative, where
words are danced and twirled to give prayer this
high-art narrative that even God has to take notice of
no matter how distracted he might be with Syria. In
shags a prayer is a serenade of words. It’s sculpture
He’s always been taller than me, grandpa, but old
age shrinks your bones. Now he’s shorter than my
kid bro. It’s almost as if age is constantly pulling you
back to the ground as your grow older. Back to soil.
After this crispy prayer he sits back down and shakes
our hands. He hangs onto our hands for long,
grinning wildly. I can feel his hand shake a bit. His
eyes, now covered by white cataract, are wide and
searching trying to focus on images. Old age cuts
deep valleys into his face. He coughs once in a while,
a long drawn cough that makes you feel like
coughing too. He is thrilled we are home. He asks
about the rest of my siblings who are on their way.
He asks about “nyar Okuyu” (he seemed slightly
chaffed that she hasn’t left me. So am I) and then
asks about Tamms, who he calls “Tamsh.” He
suffixes “h” on all his “s”, so it’s “Nyashaye”, not
“Nyasaye”. It’s “sherisoushly” not, “seriously.” If he
were living in Kile he would carry some Shiroc-Vodka
to Blanketsh and Wine.
It’s the most laboured conversation, ours, because
we take turns to talk to him, and you have to sit right
next to him, to his left, and lean into his good ear and
shout your ass out. It’s exhausting because no
matter how hard you shout, he doesn’t get what you
are saying in the first shout, so you have to say it
twice or thrice. Sometimes he doesn’t get it at all,
and it makes you sad. Sad for him, yes, but also sad
for yourself because you know that’s your fate should
you live as long as he has.
And he hears words differently, for instance he asks
what I’m doing now and I tell him I write. Which in
Luo is “ndiko.” But he doesn’t hear ndiko; he hears
“ochiko,” which means “nine.” Sherisoushly? But you
shout again, and again until you he finally gets it and
you can’t help smiling with affection. But my smile is
short lived because he asks what I write about and
you can imagine how long an explanation that is, half
of which is lost on re-shouts. When it’s my brother’s
turn to take the hot seat, I happily wander out and go
look at the graves in the shamba, and even from
there I can hear my brother shouting, explaining to
him why he isn’t married. I smile.
My grandpa doesn’t do anything whole day but sit,
listen to his radio, eat a meal and nap. Day in, day
out. He’s waiting for death. But sometimes death
keeps you waiting for long because death is a
politician. And the waiting is appalling because you
sit and every function of your body degenerates into
gross malfunction. Like an old car, all your parts fall
off with time.
After Westgate, I have been thinking a lot about
death and the process of dying. You must think about
how those people died, and what thoughts they
harboured when they knew they were dying. How
they – with a gun in their faces – prayed and asked
for God’s intervention and how that never came. You
have to think about God and question him. You can
question God, right? He won’t mind and smite you,
Still, I don’t want to die scared. Or too old to chew. Or
in my sleep either. Or, worse, in an electric chair. I
don’t want to die drunk. Or while drinking. I don’t
want it to painful or sad, or laughable, like dying
while laughing at a joke and you choke on a steak. I
certainly don’t want to die after my daughter.
But before then, before we all depart, we live life. We
eat and drink and curse and Instagram and eat fruits
and forget to watch the sunset. Someone once said
“life does not cease to be funny when people die any
more that it ceases to be serious when people
laugh.” That person is dead.
But if there ever is something to smile about today,
right this moment- 7th Oct 2013- is that it’s Toni
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