I went down to the city by the lake for a meeting last week. After the meeting, and since my flight was later in the evening, I decided to surprise my grandmother. I got there at 2pm.
The compound was still and quiet and the sun shone fiercely. The tree I have known since I was a boy stood in front of her stone house.
There was an old car in the compound, left rotting under a tree. One of my cousins left it there for whatever reason. Hens stopped to stare at me with revulsion as I got out of the car.
Hens from the village don’t see cars often but when they see a car it doesn’t spell good news because it means that they might get slaughtered.
The front door was open. The veranda where my grandfather’s casket was placed on a table during his wake in 1994 was now bare, save a heap of dry maize cobs in the corner.
I stepped into the cool living room. There was not a sound. An old clock, they call it a Grandfather clock, ticked on the wall. I stood there and called out her name. I heard her say, “Err, Abiki? Is that you?” and then heard her coming, her feet shuffling slowly, followed by the tapping of a walking stick.
Then there she was, walking through the door, smiling so brightly it lit everything in the room and filled my heart with love. She’s the remaining matriarch in my family.
She has buried her husband, sons and daughter and granddaughters and friends. She knows loss but she also knows life.
I fell into her embrace. Her skin felt warm against my cheek.
I could feel the warmth of her smile on her cheeks. She asked what on earth I was doing there. Why didn’t I call? Have I eaten? Let us pray. And she held my hand and she prayed.
When she was done, she hugged me again and laughed and asked what if I didn’t find her, and I said I would have just been happy coming home.
You look great, Dani, I said. How old are you now? She said 85. I said there is no way you are 85, you must be 70. She beamed. Oh boy, even at 85 they love to hear they look younger than they are.
On the wall were rows of pictures. Pictures of her when she was only a young lady. Pictures of my grandfather when he was a strapping man in the 60s, wearing thin ties and black suits.
DEAD AUNTS AND UNCLES
There were pictures of my dead aunts and dead uncles and of my dead maternal grandparents and of some aunts who are still alive and of my father on his graduation in the 70s, the first to go to university in the village.
That wall was full of dead people and it gave the living a certain air, like it was a mausoleum of sort. It was a bit sad for her, I imagined, to be one of the last few waiting for death, living in that house alone, reading your Bible and just, I don’t know, waiting.
We laughed a bit. I gave her my book. She was thrilled and proud even though she thought I’d write in it my mother tongue.
I had to start heading back, I told her after 30 minutes and after eating groundnuts. She struggled to her feet and, leaning on her walking stick, she bowed her head and said, “Wa’lem.” Then she prayed while I looked at her and felt terrible to be leaving her in this quiet.
The truth is every time I leave her I always wonder if it’s the last time I will see her and I try to make the best of it even though I have to run and climb back onto the hamster wheels of life.
On my drive back – with a small bag of groundnuts – I thought about growing old and about death and about life and what it means. We want to live longer and so we try to eat right, exercise and live right by God and by man. And then God gives us life and we live to 80 and the downside of living to 80 is that you see many people’s graves, people you loved.
I thought I wouldn’t want to live in a house like that alone in my old age. I would go crazy. I would beg God to take me away in my sleep.
A life where you wake up and you hang around the house, reading your Bible and napping and walking to your hen pen to count your hens and hoping that a visitor walks through the door, any visitor at all, because everybody else, your kith and kin are away in the city living their lives and chasing their dreams.
When I got to the airport I knew I was not going to wait for death in the village if God grants me a lot of time on earth. I will want to be here, in this metropolis, so that I can dip in once in a while to feel its energy and electricity and feed off its life a little. When I arrived back in Nairobi, I called her and I said I had arrived and she said God is great. She sounded happy but I suspect her hens were happier.