By Biko Zulu
Warning: Long post ahead (2,500 words), read in
bed. Or at your virtual beach.
This will sound mad. But do you sometimes wake up
in the dead of the night and lie there, anxious that
perhaps there is a book out there you will die without
reading? A book that was “written for you”? No? OK,
what about a play? A painting? A movie? A small
movie about a boy in Basra who dreamt of a life
beyond herding goats. A boy who tried to wrestle free
of that life, but – tragically – never left. Wouldn’t you
want to be a part of that boy’s departed dream?
Do you think of those things at 3am, when the dogs
outside have out-barked themselves and the still and
the blackness of the night has turned into a cliché?
Aren’t you curious that out there exists some body of
art that shifts, albeit a little, your whole existence?
Well, I’m sure it’s out there. An undiscovered author,
or musician or painter or, or, or someone who created
a piece of art so profound it seems to know you exist.
I think about shit like that at 3am. When I can’t sleep.
It fills me with a harrowing sense of foreboding. This
question about my existence and mortality and tasks
and experiences that will never cross my path. It’s
just me, right? Say it.
Well I found that book. Rather, it found me.
A little background. For the longest time I read
books. Then I stopped. You know the way you pull
chairs for a chic you have just started dating then
after a while you stop, not because you don’t fancy
her anymore but just because you stopped? That’s
what happened to me and books.
Then, circa 2009, I started reading magazines,
because that was my new literary cool: GQ, Esquire,
Vanity Fair, Men’s Health, The New Yorker,
RollingStone, Time, National Geographic…Ate them
up. Then early this year I stopped pulling chairs for
magazines. My lasts obsession, UK’s Sunday Times,
stopped floating my steamer too. I became a literary
orphan. Then last week I remembered Nick Hornby. I
discovered Nick way back in 2008 and he had a large
impact on me with the fluidity of his prose, his dry
English wit and his crusty sentences that hardly ever
went over 17 words.
So I went to that bookshop at Yaya Center to seek
nostalgia. They didn’t have any of Nick’s books but
the book attendant recommended some chap called
Peter Biddlecombe, who sounded more like a
beekeeper than a writer. But who was I to turn my
nose; I was a literary orphan as it were.
So I bought one of his books called Never Feel A
Stranger, which – I’m sorry to disappoint you – isn’t
creepy as its title suggests. It’s actually a travel book,
funny-ish, and quite sarcastic. And the clincher? It’s
written in the first-person. I can’t stand books written
in the third-person. This was the first book I was
reading in three years. Excuse me, I’ve been busy.
On Friday I land in Zanzibar to 1) Interview this top
fashion designer who is supposedly a big deal
internationally and locally. Then 2) I sat down with
this amiable tycoon who owns a one-month old
restaurant called Six Degrees South in Stone Town,
an elaborately snazzy eatery set by the sea. Over
wine and honey-glazed prawns I sat with this tycoon
(he’s called Saleh) and he rattled on about the
restaurant and the dream preceding it. It always
stems from a dream.
Then we talked about his toys- private plane and his
Range Rovers and his small three door Japanese job
that he uses in the island and all his glittery
trappings that come with boatful of dough. Then,
because I’m obsessed about opening people’s
“vaults”, I asked him what money hasn’t been able to
buy for him so far and he sipped his Sauvignon Blanc
blithely and said simply that he “has been very
lucky.” The ocean groaned.
Next morning, together with Mr. Biddlecombe and
his dry wit, I hopped onto a small plane to Dar es
Salaam for this Chef’s challenge thing, which Diana,
Nick and the very cool cameraman, Moses, were to
cover for Dstv’s Mashariki Mix.
When I got into a Wi-fi area, I saw this email, from a
pal of mine called Kish. She was enquiring about my
health and my miraa addiction (jokes) and informing
me that she had found a writer who writes like me, a
John Green. Have I read his work? I wrote back and
said no. She then emailed me this e-book called “The
Fault in Our Stars.” Honestly, I didn’t really care to
read it. But the moment I read the first paragraph, it
was like breaking my literary hymen and
immediately I belonged, to, uhm, something. Like my
literary bereavement ceased. Am I making sense?
The book is about this extremely witty 17yr old girl
called Hazel, a stage 4 thyroid cancer patient, who
carts about this oxygen concentrate tank wherever
she goes. She spends her time at the cancer support
group, movies with her pals and to visit this boy she
likes, Augustus Waters (Gus), who is also a cancer
survivor with one prosthetic leg and talks like an
intern at J.P Morgan. This book is book about three or
so teenagers battling cancer with admirable humour.
It’s also about some book they are reading that they
keep talking about, a book written by an egghead
prick of an author. Look, you got to read it.
In the opening paras Hazel says:
When you read a cancer booklet or website or
wherever, they always list depression as among the
side effect of cancer. But in fact depression is not the
side effect of cancer. Depression is the side effect of
dying (Cancer is also the side effect of dying, almost
I was sold. I read it at any given possible opportune.
And it drained my emotions, that book. I thought of
little else than Hazel. I dove into her world full of pain
and bravery and disease and oxygen tanks and the
boy she likes- Gus, who in spite of his one leg, will
often make your laugh out loud.
Later, I, together with Diana, Nick, Moses went to this
chef’s thing, which was being held at the Southern
Sun’s garden. It had stalls with lots of wine and food
and cheese and folk milled about clutching on plastic
cups of booze or soda and nibbling on something
greasy and making small talk. The only thing louder
than the music there was the MC. It was another
odiero event, brimming with the glitterati of Dar; the
fashionistas and all these folk who genuinely
believed they were important to the eco-system. It
was like Blankets and Wine rolled together with the
fashion high tea. Certainly not my milieu. I feel lonely
in big crowds, in places where women wear those
extraordinarily large hats and large shades and the
men prattle about Formula One.
Through this entire highbrow hubbub, I thought of
Hazel. And her oxygen tank. And Gus and his
prosthetic leg. Eventually I stepped out of the garden
area and sat under an umbrella and read the book
from my phone. There is this point where Hazel is
There will come a time, when all of us are dead.
When there are no human beings remaining to
remember that anyone ever existed or our species
ever did anything. There will be no one left to
remember Cleopatra or Aristotle, let alone you.
Everything we did and built and wrote and thought
and discovered will be forgotten and all these – she
gestures encompassing – will have been for naught.
Maybe that time is coming soon, maybe it’s a million
years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our
sun, we will not survive forever…and if the human
oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it.
God knows that’s what everyone does.
Tell me you don’t love that kid.
I told Diana I was leaving, going back to my hotel-
Slipway Hotel- some 25mins away in an area that
was supposed to be their Lavington. I read the book
in the cab, and successfully – almost – ignored the
chatty cabbie. He informed me – helpfully- that
Kenyans love beer, choma and women and asked me
if I wanted a girl. I grinned and told him I have one
already, she is five. He laughed and went back to the
road. I went back to Hazel.
At Slipway, which is this mall by the waterfront, I sat
in this café called Classico Café and ordered this
thing called Chicken Saltimbocca, which is chicken
wrapped with bacon and fresh herbs then served
with mashed potatoes, baby vegetables and cheese
sauce. TSH, 18,000. Best. Meal. I. Had. In. Dar.
Hazel was talking about a time when she was in
remission and the doctors had tried these drugs that
weren’t working and she had fluid in her lungs and
she was in ICU with pneumonia and waiting for her
death and his dad was standing by her bed, trying
not to cry and losing that fight and when he did she
describes his cries like “am earthquake” and his
mom is kneeling next to her bed, holding her hand
and whispering to her, “Are you ready sweetie?” and
she nods, saying she is ready to die. Then the mother
breaks down in her father’s chest and whispers to
him, “ I will not be a mom anymore.” And it kills her
(not literally), and she says she tries to let go, to
embrace death, but her cancerous lungs wouldn’t let
go, and it struggles for air…
I quickly looked up. Because I felt this deep distress
and sorrow flooding my system. Excruciating
passage. And I felt so sad, and I looked out in the sea,
at the small little boats bobbing in the sparking
midafternoon sunshine and I did something I have
been avoiding to think about since I stared the book;
Tamms. And I think how I would handle if I had a sick
terminally sick child who was in pain and shit. How
that would literally create a crater the size of a
stadium in my heart. And I feel a bit angry with
myself for allowing those thoughts.
Then I dialed Tamm’s number and it was off. So I sent
her a whatsapp message to her phone and it stayed
on one tick for ages. It’s still on one tick. Kids!
When Hazel goes to her cancer support group, she
often has to go up the light of stairs (she’s a very self
sufficient young lady), and I find myself wanting to
get into the book and helping her with her oxygen
tank. Or her purse. I really do. I would carry Hazel’s
purse from River road to Riara Road. And I’m anti-
I finish lunch. Then as I wait for the bill, I think of my
departed mom. Nowadays thinking of mom doesn’t
strike me with that nauseating sorrow it used to, just
this inexplicably profound loss. I get jealous when I
see someone with their mom. Or when they look at
their ringing phone and go, “let me take this, it’s
madhe.” It sickens me up with jealousy.
Before I showered, I sat on the edge of my bed and
read. I read slowly. I try to soak in paragraphs. I often
repeat pages and sentences that impress me, or I re-
read dialogues that I find sexy. I take notes on my
phone. I obsess over new smart phrases. At some
point the sun started to set and from the hotel room
the oranges drown the room, so I Instagrammed the
Then I stepped into the shower. I whatsapped Diana
and excused myself to the rest from some plan to see
the town by night. I wanted to find a nice bar to
review, and on recommendation I took a cab to The
Cape Town Fish Market along Msasani Bay. No bar
comes close to this bar in Nairobi: set by the sea, it’s
done in whites and blues and it serves great south
I sat at the bar, ordered this glass of pinotage called
Fat Fish then I bowed my head to my phone and did
To my right was a gentleman on a first or second
date. I know because he was trying so hard to be cool
and likeable and he was speaking too much English,
which in TZ is invariably bad English. Most
Tanzanians can’t speak English to save them from
gout. But one would excuse him for really digging in
his oars if you cast a glance at his date; she was a
To my left were three japs having Sake. To my
immediate right were two odiero ladies who looked
like they came to Africa to fight Malaria. Or Poverty.
Since there was WIFI I Whatsapp Kish and thanked
her for the amazing book and went on to enthuse at
how this was the best book I’ve read since God was a
boy blah blah blah. I went on and on about it (I can
be dramatic) until I realized I was whatsapping alone
because she had either slept or passed out.
Back to the book: Gus’s best mate – a cancer survivor
too- loses his eyesight and his girlfriend and it gets
real teary in the book. For me that angst is helped by
a breeze blowing through from the ocean and then
they start playing Big Yellow Taxi by Counting Crows.
When was the last time you heard that track? Then
they played John Mayer’s “Heartbreak hotel” and all
these songs followed, songs that you’d hear in One
Tree Hill and it set a spooky soundtrack for the book.
I would frequently come up for air, to find the
“English” Tanzanian guy has ordered another
cocktail for the chic, the chemical warfare was on.
Assad would have been proud. He spoke more than
the lady, but I silently rooted for him, even though
his English didn’t.
After two glasses of wine, I settle the tab, climbed off
the bar stool and took a quick glance at how
“English” Man was fairing. The tide didn’t look to
wash for him. She was tediously supporting her head
on her hand, and not in that rapt attention way, but
that stoic tolerant way. And the level of her drink
hadn’t gone down much. English man was at sea
without a sail and as the cab pulled away into the
night I prayed he had an ace up his sleeve.
This book is a nirvana. It’s a painful book – if you
open yourself to pain – because really cancer is
painful. But the author makes cancer charming, he
almost romanticizes it. Almost. It has many laughs,
but it’s a different kind of laugh, like when you were
a kid and you knocked your shin and it hurt like hell
but people were watching and you didn’t want to cry,
so you laughed. A pain-peppered laughter. But a
I’m on chapter 11. I dread finishing it, because then I
will feel like an orphan again. Here is something
Hazel wrote, that struck a chord:
…. Sometimes you read a book and it fills you with
this weird and evangelic zeal and you become
convinced that the shattered world will never be put
together unless and until all the human beings read
that book, and then there are books so special and
rare and yours that advertising your affection for it
feels like a betrayal.
That kid is talking to me.
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