A melancholic soul that found solace in words from childhood

Wednesday January 23 2019

The land was quiet; birds kept to their nests and refused to sing.

The land was quiet; birds kept to their nests and refused to sing. PHOTO | WILLIAM RUTHI 

WILLIAM RUTHI
By WILLIAM RUTHI
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When I fled the city, what I was looking for, even without my knowledge, was my second wind.

Later, while describing the place to strangers and readers, I would throw in that near-sacred term preferred by travel writers who have been to unbearably beautiful places: Shangri la (this is a fictional mystical place where everything is beautiful and where you can get away with anything).

It was a bit of a stretch, but if you have cooled your coal-burnt feet in the healing waters of a slow-running river; or sat on the banks of Africa’s fastest river while listening to the endless chatter of weaver birds, Shangri la doesn’t sound too far off.

I fled the concrete soul and din of urban dwelling for the quiet air of the country in Eastern Othaya in Nyeri, where I’d spent my boyhood, in mid-July of 2017. I arrived dead smack in what would turn out to be the most baleful, disagreeable weather in recent memory. The weather was a metaphor for my life.

SEARCHING

My flight came in the wake of a devastating personal episode that had grabbed me by the hand and taken me to the edge of a short pier looking out at an endless oil-dark ocean. I was not entirely blameless, and the hand that had guided me to this place — this cliff — was more of an accomplice than the business end of a gun held to the head.

When I left the capital city, I was looking for my boomerang. I had run out of road, and among my belongings was a terse, lawyerly worded cleave-letter announcing the sudden end of a career in corporate communications. The end was the final swing of a mallet, the judge’s gavel. I was in recovery from a self-made affliction; an addict of OTC (over the counter) medication and a relapse was the last thing I hoped for. Plus, I was out of work.

When I went back home, I had lived on the farm only sporadically, mostly during breaks from work. The terrain had changed drastically, and unlike the lyrics in the song, I’m coming home, there was no kingdom awaiting my return.

DISCOVERY AND MOULTING

From the gate, it’s important that I issue a disclaimer: despite the first-person narrative, this story is about lessons that one must learn on their own. It’s about peeling the eyes for a sliver of light; it’s about discovery and moulting, a truce. It’s about farewells.

It was the rehab I needed. A few months before I left the city, I walked into a music store in downtown Nairobi and walked out with a vinyl record player. The shop owner, a jolly man, who smelled of fresh cigarettes, thrust a box full of old records and told me to choose five — at no cost. I took Charley Pride, Abba and the Bee Gees and also Joseph Kamaru and one whose name escapes me.

I slowly settled in the village, the air thickening with fog through the first two weeks of August. The land was quiet; birds kept to their nests and refused to sing. When the sun finally returned, the land took on a rebirth. Dawn broke to birdsong, and now when I woke up, I looked out at the jarringly beautiful sight of Mt Kenya — the mountain of God as the old people called it.

My two nieces set out their bird traps and insisted I wait out the catch, and on evenings demanded for the basketball I had carried with me. The derelict backboard clanged with the sound of the ball.

My writing desk and vinyl record player.

My writing desk and vinyl record player. PHOTO | WILLIAM RUTHI

HIDDEN TREASURES

For some time, I had submitted stories, was occasionally published, but in the aftermath of my relocation the rhythm had taken a beating; I was no longer getting these gifts from God. But now as September came, I occasionally fished out a book and while sitting up at night, I felt the tug of restless words.

I had found solace in words since childhood; it was partly because of my melancholy and introverted disposition. Now when I sat at night, the stories came to me, there was no order to the pattern; at times I would kneel at the confessional and own up, other times I typed out notes about my lineage.

It dawned on me that everything is a story; everyone has a story. I sought out elderly people who had lived through the colonial times. Soon I had material enough for a coffee-table top booklet. The soundtrack to those eventful nights was the ribald laughter of a bushbaby, a monkey-like animal that had taken refuge among the trees behind the house.

When we sheared the trees of their branches, the animal simply skipped to the neighbour’s and the cackle punctuated the nights.

SEASONS CHANGED

The city receded and so did the calls from people I had once known. It was the wheel of life clanking, the changing of seasons.

All along I knew my affair with self-medication — the painkillers — was an armed truce. One slip-up and I would be back to the beginning, back to the end.

And so I established a routine: a short jog in the morning, some gardening, and later as the sun sunk into the horizon, a trip to the rivers down a dirt road.

At night, I loaded a record onto the player and lifted the needle onto the contours. The music was full of meaning: just between you and me, Charley Pride sang; and Abba’s “Move On” needled me to wellness.

October through November, the rains came and the land lambed with a riot of the velvety purple of the jacaranda. I was aware that I had seen the land in purple before, but I was now seeing it for the first time.

As the days beaded into months and then a year and some, my singed soul repaired. The rivers were refreshingly loud, the birdsong carried meaning. I felt no need to filter my life or to edit it to my former, as a corporate communications copy writer. I found kinship among folks I barely knew.

At the shore, I allowed the tide to carry me. I was no longer playing a cameo in the motion picture of my life; I was experiencing it at full bottle.

FAREWELLS

I have come full circle, and with it, an eventual parting. I am ready for the concrete endlessness of urban living.

Sometimes you have to first go back and pick a piece of the puzzle of your life. When I fled the city, what I was looking for — even without my knowledge — was my second wind. I found it in the unlikeliest of places: sheared of what I used to be, I found who I should have been all along.

Yes, I will miss the countryside air, and the morning sight of the magisterial mountain of God, Mt Kenya.

I will even miss the devil laughter of the bushbaby.

I’ll miss the menthol of cedar, the distant sound of an axe busy in the hands of a woodcutter.

We’ve got holes in our lives, and holes in our hearts, but we emerge from our nights better, and more tolerant, and completely denuded of pride and the foolishness of it all.

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