DEAR SON: Why we smeared you with evil-repellent jelly

Friday October 13 2017

I kept the photos from the day you were first

I kept the photos from the day you were first shaved. Only your grandmother (my mother) could do it, they said. ILLUSTRATION| IGAH 


Dear Jijee,

I kept the photos from the day you were first shaved. Only your grandmother (my mother) could do it, they said. Needless to say, you were unimpressed by the cold metal blade and the strange sound the scissors made. You cried your heart out.

A Kisii child, I got to understand, has to be shaved by their grandmother — if she is alive. And the grandmother has to be bought something for performing that important function. After that shave, your hair that had been growing like it was on some imported fertilizer all of a sudden started growing in slow motion.

Then when you were seven months old, your mother took you to her mother’s place and you stayed there for some time. When you left, you were given a chicken to bring home.

A Kisii boy, I was told, does not leave the home of his grandmother (from the mother’s side) without a living chicken. The first chick you ever got from your grandma was bullied terribly by other chickens at our rural home but by the time I was writing this, the poor, timid white bird was finding its place in the ranks.


And whenever you were being taken on a trip, mum applied on your face a formula passed down through generations. This formula was apparently made of pig fat and other substances. Its role was to protect you against the bad eyes of people.

A common fear among parents from our rural home was that there were people whose eyes possessed a certain kind of witchcraft such that when they looked at  your child, the poor kid would later in the day start itching and may die if traditional medication was not applied. And it was not mere speculation as I had personally witnessed the black magic at work.

Then there was a time we travelled with you to the countryside and reached home late in the evening. Your grandmother, ever the doting caregiver, ventured out into the dark night with a torch to look for some plant. It took her quite some time to get it and uproot it. Upon her return, she bit the root, chewed a bit then blew at various parts of your tiny torso with the root still in her mouth.

It was a form of massage for the long journey, she said.

And because you were named after my grandfather, every time my grandmother held you she referred to you as if you were her late husband. She would stroke your cheek while asking what time you wanted to get up at night to go plough the shamba.

Or she would hoist you by the armpits and ask why you were not worried about your cows down in the field. And the ignoramus you would just look at her and wear the most disarming smile since the one Delilah used to emasculate Samson.

Growing up, there was a superstition that transferring a baby from your hands to another person’s hands should not happen through a fence or a window; that the baby would become a thief when they grew up.


So you will imagine the guilt I was feeling while writing this. A few days before writing here, I had handed you over to your uncle through a matatu window. He had boarded the shuttle and was about to leave but he wanted to hold you for a while.

Of course you couldn’t agree to have him hold you for more than 1.492 seconds.

Your liking for strange faces was almost identical to the way petrol likes mixing with water.

 But the deed was done and here I was blaming myself that I had handed over my firstborn child through the window and that he risked becoming the biggest thief since Matheri.

But I have prayed hard that whatever tiny “curse” that arose from the action — I believe there was none — be nullified in Jesus’ name.

And I wait for you to grow to perform the responsibilities our culture bestows on a firstborn, like being the first to taste the ugali made from the freshly harvested maize in case your father is away or the one to eat the gizzard and back of any chicken slaughtered in the homestead in case your father is absent.

You will also be required to — damn, this one is hard to contemplate — be the one to fetch that mound of earth for my grave and throw it on my coffin after it has rested at the bottom of the hole before everyone else can throw soil at me to actualise the words of the poet William Cullen Bryant: “Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim thy growth.”


This series brings you writings by PETER MOGAMBI, a Nairobi residentwho became a father in January 2017. By the time his son is old enough to read and comprehend, which is at least 11 years from today, a lot of water will have passed under the bridge. So, he has decided to preserve happenings in black and white so that when the boy can finally comprehend, he will get to follow his father’s feelings.