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MANTALK: Wrestling with grief

Saturday March 9 2019

I don’t remember him saying much, but I remember him saying something like as long as we are alive we have to contend with death. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

I don’t remember him saying much, but I remember him saying something like as long as we are alive we have to contend with death. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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When I visited the village recently, I wandered into my neighbour’s shamba.

I was driven more by boredom really, and not curiosity. I had seen the man seated under a stunted mango tree looking out at the lake.

He had on brown trousers that had been hastily cut off at the knees to turn them into work shorts.

He was perched there on a stone having what seemed like a private moment, which I was about to intrude on.

He had that hard weathered face that villagers have, a face that knows all the secrets of the sun. His hair was sparse, his forehead higher than mine, and a bone that ran over his eyes lower as if to shade his eyes from the sun.

He looked up at me as I stood next him, hands extended. We greeted each other, his voice warm like sand at sunset. I said I was the neighbour.

He told me his name; something with many consonants, a name that fills your mouth. He wasn’t from around my village; he was a farmhand, someone who had come to take care of my neighbour’s shamba.

He said I looked younger than he thought. I said I was older than I looked.


We slipped into a mundane conversation that one can only have under a mango tree.

A conversation about his shamba, or rather the shamba that belonged to his boss. A conversation on how he struggled to keep grazing animals off it, the mischief of local boys always coming in at night to try and harvest sand; and the local women who cut through his fence because the fencing of that shamba had inconvenienced them by making them go around the shamba instead of through it.

He occasionally slipped half his fingers in his breast pocket reflexively as if searching for something — words, an idea, a thought.

Behind him, the shamba rose towards a ragged gorge and dropped away momentarily before rising again like a wave, and atop it sat a shiny mabati structure, a two-door dwelling facing the lake. Next to it was a stone toilet with lesos as doors.

I pointed at his dwelling with my chin and said that he had a nice view, and he ignored me, mostly because only people from the city see views, besides nobody ate a view.

We were speaking in Swahili and my Swahili, if you know anything about me, is as interesting as overnight tea, and so I was struggling with it; fumbling over it like an idiot.


As we spoke I saw a figure in a leso bearing towards us. The leso flattered in the breeze, she looked to be floating and not walking, like a character in a Nigerian movie.

Finally, a rotund lady set two plates atop each other at his feet. He introduced her as his wife.

I marvelled at how she had the same face as him, only more delicate, and which lend credence to the belief that married people at some point start resembling each other physically.

She handed him a little plastic bag of salt and said to me, “don’t leave I will get you some food”.

I protested and said I was going to be joining some other people for lunch. She couldn’t hear anything of it. “You have to taste our food. It would be rude if you didn’t”. The man said, “yes, it would be rude, you have to”.

So she brought me vegetables cooked in sour milk, and I sat next to the man under that stunted tree. We ate through a spattering of conversation, the lake before us.

After we finished and sat there with the ugali drying on our hands, I didn’t want to leave him.

I felt his ease in his old clothes and his deep kind eyes seemed to embrace me. I trusted him. I told him that I had just lost my best friend.

He died from a cracked spine in a road accident and I was surprised at how sad I felt, how grave my loss ran inside my body like a wild river trying to find its lake.

He didn’t even say much; he didn't say that God knows best. He just asked me questions about him while he looked out at the lake, and I told him about him.

He just seemed like the kind of person who understood friendships and death, and everything in between that we didn’t have a name for.

Him with his torn shorts and his clear gaze. I don’t remember him saying much, but I remember him saying something like as long as we are alive we have to contend with death. It didn’t make me feel better, but coming from him it felt like a truth that the world hides from us.

I didn’t know why I sat there with him and felt comforted just the same way I don’t know why I’m writing this in a relationship column about men and women.