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How a father should write his memoirs

Tuesday August 31 2010




“I wish you were the one who was dead so I’d tell the world about you.” That’s what a mourner told my father this February the thirteenth, then started quoting pages from my father’s memoirs.

This wasn’t a blooper, I learnt, but a wry compliment, twisted as it sounded.

Here are pages from those memoirs. It is 1969, after the assassination of Tom Mboya.

There’s tribal tension in the capital. My relatives in Nairobi and its environs flood our council house, a one bedroom pad, which is now a refugee camp. My father foots all the bills, each day.

Ma cooks as much as 45 kilos of maize meal, without whining, without downing her utensils, without “raising her nose”.

Early 1986. Place: the village, Got Regea, Gem. Time: dead of the night. My father is shot at point-blank, the bullet tearing through the right side of his face, by a person he had gone to help against hugs.

The shooter is the late Apollo Ohanga, the first African Minister, who upon realising his blunder, changes the story and claims my Mzee was a thug. For this, my father goes to prison.

When pop’s acquitted, he doesn’t press any charges for damages-which would’ve have seen him do cartwheels all the way to the offertory, for giving was, still is, his calling. That’s not the half of it.

Our house in Eastlands was a bed-n-board, a halfway house, a launching pad. It was a pit stop for relatives from wherever, scores of heads would show up unannounced.

“A ladder,” for that’s what some called house number AA10-5459 since it has ‘produced’ doctors, engineers, teachers, pastors, the whole shebang.

It was this February. One day to Valentine’s. That’s when I learnt how, ideally, a father should write his memoirs. We were saying goodbye to my mother.

Yet during eulogies, I learnt about ‘living’ memoirs, accounts about an ordinary father who did extraordinary stuff, yet to him this was ordinary, like a five o’clock shadow on Esau.

A father should write his memoirs not by writing, but by living his values, using his gifts as indelible ink to enrich others’ pages. My father isn’t loaded – after Ma’s burial, he told us that he wanted no tombstone on his grave – but I can’t say the same for the lives he has touched.

Pop depends on his paltry pension to make ends meet, yet the stuff he has written in people’s lives, in his children’s lives, will earn him emotional royalties for generations to come.

About that tombstone, dad’s epitaph is carved in many people’s roaring existence. Here’s the nine-figure deal. My works will trail me to the unlikeliest of places like, for instance, my wake where I will be lying stiff and cold, unable to acknowledge or disavow the platitudes mourners heap on the deceased.

And that’s why it’s imperative to start ‘writing’ my memoirs today. No, day before yesterday, under this rented roof by giving my fatherhood job, which is the biggest responsibility in the world, the seriousness it deserves.

Fatherhood is leadership personified; the acid test that, to a large extent, determines whether I’ve correctly, (not satisfactorily), answered the sixty-four thousand dollar question: Why am I here, really?

In writing his memoirs, good work after another, bumper-to-bumper, my father was unwittingly, gleaning morals from columnist Erma Bombeck’s rulebook: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and I could say, ‘I used everything You gave me’.”

A memoir like my father’s cannot be eroded by time or the elements. People, even one’s biological offspring, can have selective amnesia, but a Godly name is akin to what my father calls chiel manumu – Dholuo for, a green bush fence – which he swears can’t go up in smoke.

On that sweltering Saturday when I heard clergymen speaking well of my father, revelling in a side of this bereaved old salt that I always shunted, when I saw Apollo’s son condole him, when I heard my uncles reeling off glowing chapters from his memoirs, I knew, as I huddled beside Ma’s shellac-shined brown sealed coffin, that I had no option but to do a masterpiece sequel ... or be damned.

When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and my two girls, someone, anyone could sigh, “he used everything You gave him”.