Last night I had the dream of fish again, in which my departed mother
Petrobia is a young woman throwing a party in the afternoon. All the
people of God are coming to our house in Jerusalem estate, and she
is a whirlwind of movement, shouting get-ready get-ready, how can
the visitors find you so dirty as if there is no woman in this house
and you are orphans, washing and ironing and scrubbing the courtyard
with soap and water, brandishing the broom of my childhood, the long
thin sticks tied together with strips of tyre from the abandoned lorry
that leaned drunkenly against the outside of the courtyard wall, its
axles resting on crumbling construction bricks. The smell of frying
fish on the fire in the stone-slab stove in the corner tickles my
nostrils. Then the guests begin to arrive, the men of the church and
their wives in their stiff Salvation Army suits with their black Bibles,
propping their bicycles against the courtyard wall in the hot afternoon
sunlight. The only place the sun does not intrude is our small living
room, crowded with new wooden chairs, their backs draped with crocheted
vitambaa, Jesus on the wall, his hands extended in blessing. And there
is singing and clapping, the fried fish sizzling in the centre of
this circle of the people of God and all of them, all these people
who died so long ago, are calling me by my childhood name, smiling
and saying, eat, Sylvanius, eat, and Petrobia my mother picks up the
fish and holds it out towards me and I am ravenous and radiant like
her in my spanking new clothes and I reach for it. And then, suddenly,
I am an old man again, my face sagging and creased, my guitar-playing
fingers gnarled and bent, and there are blue-bottle flies buzzing
over the fish, and Martha is sitting next to me. The people of God
are still smiling kindly and saying eat, Sylvanius, eat. Then their
faces melt, become skeletal. Even in the dream, it is at this point
that I know I am going to die soon.
was woken up this morning, the eve of our nation’s 40th independence
anniversary, with the gift of an old jacket and a song of freedom.
A delegation from the community arrived at my front door, surprising
me with a long-forgotten song I had composed in my youth as the leader,
lead vocalist and lead guitarist of our neighbourhood group, Comrade
Lemma and the Black Jerusalem Boys Band. They were singing Joka, a
song I stitched together from sleepless nights spent with my ear against
my departed mother Petrobia’s shortwave radio, when the shrrr-shrrr
of static would part like clouds after the rain and allow some music
through, the little transistor shivering at the forbidden sounds coming
from a thousand miles away with the shaky faraway voice from a sad,
sweet heavenly place singing: “Ayeee Afrika-e/Ayee Afrika-e…”
Then you couldn’t hear the rest because of the shrrr-shrrr of
radio quarrels and the announcer’s Queen’s English interrupting
them in an in-out whisper, like a man calling out from a well that
is being opened and shut.
those forbidden faraway songs called up by my mother Petrobia’s
transistor radio, there was one in particular that had me in fits
and sweats of how can this be? Who is this god of music whom I have
never heard of? Every night at the same time, the transistor clouds
would part for long enough to allow a voice from the pits of hell
to cry out in the accents of the damned:
There is a train from Beira!/
There is a train from Namibia!/
There is a train from Zimbabwe!/
then the voice would make the choo-choo sounds of a train and the
clouds would close again, the train’s shrieking whistle fading
into shrrr-shrrr-shrrr-you-are listening-to-shrrr-shrrr. As the train
sounds faded, I would close my eyes tight and travel to lands I had
only heard of in my geography class in Primary 6, from which I dropped
out because Mr Clarke, the headmaster wanted to separate me from my
departed mother Petrobia and send me away to a boarding school, and
then who would take care of my sickly departed mother who had already
lost so many children to small-pox and influenza? I would soar over
the clouds and find myself riding in a train of doom from Beira, the
wailing voice chasing behind, like so many demons escaped from hell.
was a time when words were heavy as stones and could get you into
trouble. Certain words especially, certain names, were only whispered.
Dedan Kimathi Waciuri, General Mathenge. But most of all it was Comrade
Lemma, the founder of the liberation struggle, who strode into our
boyhood games of war, carrying away the children, the cowards, the
irritating little girls who wanted to play boy games on the street
on which our dusty, pink mud-brick flats were located in Nairobi’s
African quarter. Our mothers used his name as weapons against us,
as in if you don’t come in now Comrade Lemma will come and take
you to the forest and eat you up. At night he would invade my dreams
wearing his long, brown leather jacket, his shaggy knotted hair obscuring
delegation from the community was chanting in rapid verse, their younger
members cutting the air like those exponents of martial arts in the
makeshift cinema halls in my neighbourhood, cutting the air and chanting
‘Nairobi Kambi ya Utumwa’, and in doing so, taking me
back to a long time ago.
heard of other places that people went to; and they would return dispossessed
of the gift of speech during the day so that only during their nightmares
could they tell stories of the quicksand torture of the prison camps,
of how the earth had swallowed them, them and the stranger next to
you, Prisoner Number 1234 - No Afande Sir I am not belonging to the
proscribed group otherwise known as Mau Mau, Afande - and all you
saw was an acre of heads and eyes, heads and eyes, and all the time
the earth sucking and swallowing, like shitting in reverse. One night
my father failed to come home and my mother started to grow old.
I became a musician, leader, lead vocalist and lead guitarist of Comrade
Lemma and the Black Jerusalem Boys Band, and composer of Joka, the
song that the nation has long forgotten after so many years of its
being banned. And now I wake up to hear my neighbours singing it as
if to mock me first thing in the morning after my premonition of my
own death. Franco and Stish, the grandsons of Martha, my next door
neighbour and friend indeed over these gruesome years, are a pair
of teenage poets whose rapid verses of our life here beneath the bridge,
beside the river, regularly bring tears to my eyes when I remember
my own youth of saying heavy things from the side of my mouth. I usually
treat the sounds of their rapid verse with the contempt they deserve
because it is a parody of music and to encourage it is to repudiate
all those years of my youth. And so I am especially wounded by their
mannerless mistreatment of Joka:
Kutoka Kwale hadi Kampala/
Mwendo wa Joka siyo halaka/
Kutoka Kisumu hadi Kisauni/
Joka linanyonya nyinyi wahuni/
Linatambaa, hili gari la moshi/
Linasafisha Reserve,linakausha ardhi /
Linawabwaga wahuni jijini/
Huku Nairobi kampi ya utumwa
remember how I became a musician as clearly as the evening of our
nation’s independence day, when my departed mother Petrobia
was ex-communicated from the Army of God for forgetting herself and
simulating the tribal dancing of her people from the west of the country,
thus forcing us to leave our one-roomed Jerusalem flat in disgrace
and begin our journey to the banks of the river where I buried her.
But that was much later, when my musical career was already flourishing.
My career began on the same day that we saw Comrade Lemma for the
first time. A photograph on the front page of the East African Standard,
showed a man of about 40, his head resting peacefully beside his bullet-riddled
torso in the Ngong Hills, the victim, said the report, of a group
dispute over dinner.
usual on that night of my adolescence, I had my mother Petrobia’s
radio glued to my ear, my borrowed Salvation Army guitar cradled in
my arms, a tentative Ten Cent cigarette drooping from my mouth and
pen and paper at the ready just in case the clouds parted long enough
for me to decipher the music beyond. The god of music began speaking
in my ear in that terrible voice of there is a train from Zimbabwe.
But he was not taking me to the mines of Johannesburg. Instead, as
he chased me through the clouds, his voice ripping through the heavenly
peace, and I watched down below my fellow Africans from Kisumu to
Kwale and Kampala to Kisauni climbing into train carriages. Regard
them, said the voice, with their life’s possessions wrapped
in bedsheets, arriving in the city for a better life. But that was
not yet a song. But my heart damn near burst out of my chest.
I was back in my room writing to the music coming from the transistor,
the strident church voices of Southern Africa accompanied by the penny-whistle
tunes that evoked so much sadness. I also wrote to the hypnotic guitar
rhythms of Dr Nico and Le Grand Kalle, those Congolese gentlemen who
were especially favoured on the transistor. I wrote a chanting chorus
from the drumbeats of my childhood spent under the umbrella of the
Salvation Army, which promised hell on earth and victory in heaven.
My words burned with blasphemy. I woke up in the morning full of the
joy of a religious conversion and the realisation that my voice had
been transformed overnight from the lilt of puberty into the deep
tones of my lost father’s Salvation Army choir’s voice.
was Humphrey, one of those bullies from my childhood who, together
with Tairero and Solomon now constituted the popular neighbourhood
band known as the Black Jerusalem Boys Band, saw the possibilities
of my song Joka. In fact, he intervened when Tairero threatened to
beat me up when I suggested that I join the band. Humphrey was the
vocalist, both Solomon and Tairero played guitar in the frenzied high-pitched
tunes of those days.
“Hold on,” he said lazily, leaning against the old lorry
next to our courtyard wall. Humphrey and I were neighbours. Our mothers
detested each other. They waged a never-ending war over which religion
was superior and you Salvation Army people are so primitive, marching
about like a herd of sheep and you Catholics pray in unwashed clothes,
we are God’s true army, we wear uniforms.
him sing his song at the end of our show tonight,” Humphrey
said. “The crowd will laugh him out of Jerusalem. That will
Ben’s bar in the shopping centre had the dubious reputation
of staying open long after the beginning of Curfew. Mr Ben was partners
with a police sergeant who made sure that his men went deaf to the
noisy bands that played in the bar after 6.00 pm, the onset of Curfew.
Mr Ben was a respected member of the community, being the only African
licensed to sell beer.
I was quite nervous. The small bar was packed. There were customers
squeezed on the narrow, wooden benches, standing and smoking at the
dimly-lit counter, leaning against the dirty windows, blocking the
corridor that led to the toilet at the back. I gagged on account of
the pungent scents of Ten Cent cigarettes and Roosters, and the odours
that blended with the flavours of beer and urine. The fat barmaids
sweated as they delivered orders, and would scream dramatically when
the drunken men reached for their breasts. Behind the counter, Mr
Ben was yelling orders to his skinny assistant, his balding head glistening.
were calling out Francisca, another round here, and don’t forget
my change this time, Anna. Nobody saw how uncertainly I held Humphrey’s
guitar. I closed my eyes and went to Beira.
was the sound of a man weeping that made me realise that something
strange was happening on that night in Mr Ben’s bar. My fingers
were racing over the guitar strings like a reckless soldier on the
run. Then I was in Nairobi there were people weeping and clapping,
weeping and clapping and I was singing Joka again. After that night,
Joka was always the last song we played because, as Mr Ben, whose
paunch grew steadily bigger, once said, it keeps the customers drinking.
disappeared after that night. We heard he had got a job as a music
librarian at the Voice of Kenya.
took the name Comrade Lemma, not so much to honour that man with the
burning eyes in the newspaper photograph, but to prevent my mother
Petrobia from hearing that her son was a bar-room singer on Saturday
nights. Every Saturday people came to Mr Ben’s to weep, people
from all over the African quarter, from Pangani and Kaloleni and Ziwani
and Bahati. Mr Ben continued to insist that it was a mortal sin, boys,
a mortal sin, to pay musicians any more than they could reasonably
drink on a single night.
about me grew. I was a Mau Mau leader disguised as a musician. No,
no, no, he is actually a South African who sailed to Mombasa where
he learned Kiswahili from the ghosts in the Old Town and come to Nairobi
to steal the souls of respectable city residents, like us. And on
and on. I wore my black cap lower, fearing my mother’s wrath.
we began to smell freedom, Joka was being seriously discussed as a
contender for the new national anthem. By this time, however, I had
been cut loose from the song.
the first year of the new independent government’s life, the
song was banned. It was said that the song’s disturbing lyrics
had annoyed the new leader.
Ben became uncomfortable with us, and paid us off with enough money
to launch Tairero’s career as a drunk, and finance Solomon’s
trip back home to Uganda, and transform me into a vegetable dealer
who, during those slow times in between customers, would read anything
he could get his hands on and especially the classics of Charles Dickens.
Then my mother Petrobia danced in church. We moved to the empty land
by the river.
I was therefore in a furious mood this morning by the time I had put
on my usual trousers, my brilliant white kanzu from those days of
Rehema, an old flame of my active years who had come to comfort me
as I mourned my poor departed mother Petrobia’s death from tuberculosis
and shame, and who had left a few months ago convinced that my mourning
period was over, and my sandals which I designed myself from strips
of abandoned lorry tyres to accommodate the crisis of my twisted feet.
I have a distaste for mimics as I have suffered greatly because of
them, and I therefore intended to reprimand these young men. I was
instead met by cheers of ‘Comrade Lemma! Comrade Lemma!’
and Martha herself staining the newspaper page in her hand with her
at you!” she exclaims accusingly, her voice quivering with an
emotion I have never witnessed in all these years of our friendship.
She brings the page close to my eyes as only she and a very select
few know of the special problems of my eyes. There is a grainy picture
of three young men, dressed in the band outfits of my youth. Next
to it, incredibly, is a passport-sized photo of myself with my Comrade
Lemma locks and all the stains and distortions of my advancing years.
The headline reads: COMRADE LEMMA FOUND! And then there is a sentence
below that takes me a moment to decipher because of the special problems
of my eyes and the fact that my spectacles have been missing ever
since the mysterious early morning departure of Rehema some years
back. I am just able to make out the sentence below: ‘Independence
Musician and National Hero Lives In Nairobi Slum Squalor’.
me are the shining faces of my neighbours, regarding me as if I were
a stranger, even after all these years of our collective struggle
for a better life. I was once told, in private, that when reading,
an amused expression comes to my face, as if I were laughing at a
private joke. I can feel Martha’s gaze boring into me, confusing,
like she always does, my squint for a smile, because why else would
you be smiling if you were not staring at that picture and recalling
the heroic years of your youth.
is a long pause. They peer at me. I squint my way across the tear-stained
page, recognising, in one paragraph the lyrics of Joka that I wrote
those many years ago, and how my poor departed mother Petrobia, on
discovering that I was Comrade Lemma on the day of our country’s
independence, had begun her retreat into shame and silence.
“Ni yeye!” It’s him, declares Martha, her voice
quivering, fading eyes alight with something I shall have to investigate
later. There is a roar of approval. Franco and Stish, her poetic grandsons,
are already chanting, in their youthful rapid verse, Joka! Joka! and
it is soon answered by the feminine response of ‘Mwendo wa Com-ra-dé
siyo halaka’ and an impromptu festival of cheering and rapid
verse takes over the normal morning noises of my narrow street. Another
young man has taken up a tin and a stick and is beating out a rhythm,
and I find myself hoisted up in the air, on the shoulders of my neighbours,
my kanzu flapping ridiculously about me like a flag that is looking
for an anthem.
put me down long enough for Martha to hold an old black jacket against
me. “It fits you,” she says. Inakushika. The way she undresses
the word provokes a stir in me that I experienced last with Rehema.
“It’s from Marehemu George, a present for you.”
She is dressing me with her deft housewife’s hands and undressing
me with her look. “He says you must look presentable for today’s
meeting.” Her faded eyes sparkle in the morning light, and take
her back to the days when, I now strongly suspect, she was the unintended
tormentor of young men. I am hoisted up again.
so I begin a new journey with my old song.
George has pulled out another miracle from his little bag of imported
hand-me-downs. A year ago, he arrived on foot in our neighbourhood
with a bale of second-hand clothes. They were a donation, he said,
from a rich, departed American named George, for whom he acted as
a special local agent. And so we took to calling this young man Marehemu,
the late George, who provided us with dead people’s clothes
at a discount price. But a resurrection has taken place in Marehemu
George’s personal circumstances in the months since he embarked
on a new project to dispense free condoms to poor people. He is now
an evangelist of new afflictions and beware the next victim could
be you, you are never too young or too old to die.
Marehemu George has pulled out another miracle from his little bag
of imported hand-me-downs. A year ago, he arrived on foot in our neighbourhood
with a bale of second-hand clothes. They were a donation, he said,
from a rich, departed American named George whose organisation he
worked for. And so we took to calling this young man Marehemu, the
late George, who provided us with dead people’s clothes at a
discount price. But a resurrection has taken place in Marehemu George’s
personal circumstances in the months since his organisation embarked
on a new project to dispense free condoms. He is now an evangelist
of new afflictions and beware the next victim could be YOU, you are
never too young or too old to die.
is only from my perch on the shoulders of friends and neighbours that
I realise how my neighbourhood has grown in the years since I moved
here to bury my departed mother Petrobia near the river so that her
soul would be carried away from this city of misfortune. We head deeper
into this valley of cardboard walls and tin roofs and the greenish
sludge of sewers running like snot-nosed kids on a Saturday morning.
It occurs to me that all these years, my world of narrow streets and
afternoon chats with Martha about how are your late daughter’s
boys doing, that is a good colour for a growing boy’s cardigan,
have been this neighbourhood that is Kwa Lemma, where the city’s
newest immigrants have always settled.
was the first one here, so they named it after me. Now I can see at
least eight distinct Kwa Lemmas, collapsing against each other like
a completed game of dominoes. There is the bridge, belching with the
arrogance of city traffic, the old stadium in the smoky distance where
all those years ago they played the first football match of an independent
nation. We are singing Joka, and the women with their clutched babies
hanging from them like an extra, cheering hand, are peeping out of
their tin-roofed shacks. Spirals of charcoal smoke rise in the early
morning air. In my present mood of a conquering neighbourhood hero
and without my spectacles, I see a phoenix rising from the ashes.
For the first time in many years, I welcome the chemicals and plastic
stench of the river.
by the smart wooden office at the end of the street, I recognise the
immaculate four-wheel-drive vehicle that Marehemu George has taken
to driving. Then I see other vehicles, untidily parked. Suddenly,
my narrow street has become a cul-de-sac: unmarked saloons and pick-ups,
dark blue Government of Kenya vehicles block off the side that leads
to the open field where we have our football matches. A small horde
of journalists brandishing biros, notebooks, cameras and complicated
electronic equipment. This unexpected sight has the quite embarrassing
effect of making me fart, briefly and pungently, on my new porters.
realise Marehemu George has a hand in this morning’s unexpected
events. I had mentioned to him on several occasions that while condoms
were very much appreciated, we must also bring to the attention of
the authorities that many people here also fall victim, often even
die, to the hidden diseases of our polluted river water. That it is
not enough to dispense rubber for the protection of our people during
their nocturnal embraces when the same prophylactics end up clogging
our already overworked drains in the morning and floating on our river
in a most unacceptable manner, especially as this is the same river
we all depend on for our domestic needs. It is a subject that I have,
in fact, written extensively about. Being one of the more literate
individuals in our community, I took it upon myself some time ago
to agitate, through the press, for external assistance to help us
resolve this problem. Curiously, and it might have something to do
with the deteriorating handwriting of an old man with special problems
of the eyes, these lengthy articles were never published.
were seated in my darkened parlour, Marehemu George and I, sipping
his mineral water on the evening of our potable water discussion when
his attention was diverted to the collection of framed photographs
by my bed honouring my departed mother Petrobia. Among them is a misplaced
photo of the band outiside Mr Ben’s bar and it is the one that
has Marehemu George’s attention.
are these people, Mzee?”
“Oh, nobody really. It’s just an old picture.”
“Yes, a very old picture. Is one of these young men you?”
wanted to get back to the subject at hand so I told him impatiently
that, yes, I was one of them.
one?” Marehemu can be very persistent.
“Isn’t it obvious? The one in the middle, with the guitar
and the hat.”
“That’s you? Mzee, I never would have…”
“What was the name of your band?”
“Comrade Lemma and…”
“… The Black Jerusalem Boys Band! My God, I’ve found
George is a big, imposing figure, a man of quick ideas. He has put
on a lot of weight since he joined us. Now he is excited like a little
boy. He is gesticulating hugely, so that his fingertips brush the
walls, telling me how till the day he died, Mzee, my late father always
talked about your band.
that song of yours, remind me, Mzee what it was called…”
it!” He snaps his fingers. “He said Joka had changed the
way he looked at the world. My family owes you a debt, Mzee. Which
one were you, if I may ask?”
am Comrade Lemma.”
looked at me intently for a few moments, then, I am afraid, he removed
his scented, white handkerchief and carefully wiped a waiting tear
at the base of one of his eyes. Then he said in the voice of a man
in a Charles Dickens novel: “And so, this is what it comes to.”
He kept on repeating, “So you are the Comrade Lemma?”
and standing up and sitting down, trying to catch up with his accelerating
thoughts. By the time he was leaving, he had the look of a man who
has found his destiny.
day, in the afternoon, when the light is especially good by the river
at the back of my house, Marehemu George took me to meet a straggly-bearded
man with dead eyes, a bush-jacket and a camera. You must look broken,
Comrade, Marehemu George had said, with all the years of suffering
etched on your face.
George appeared at my door the following evening with a copy of the
newspaper under his arm and a knowing smile. As we sat down to our
drink of mineral water, Marehemu George spread out the newspaper.
On one of the inside pages was a photograph of me the day before,
the shimmering river hiding its dirty secrets through a trick of sunlight
so that we appeared to be in a better part of town, out in the countryside.
Above my name was the question of ‘Who is this Man?’
as we speak, Comrade, the nation is scratching its head in bafflement.
Who is this man, indeed, Comrade, indeed,” said Marehemu George,
tapping the photograph with his hand of shiny rings. Underneath the
photograph, there was the hint of amazing prizes to be won, and you
could be the lucky winner of a year’s supply of Careful Love
condoms, a donation from the American organisation Marehemu George
next day, I was visited by an overweight and sweating young woman
clearly experiencing difficulty with her luggage. She spoke with a
strange accent, a little like Marehemu George in those first day when
he was explaining “No folks, you just don’t get it, I’ve
just come home from America. I’ve been living there for the
last two years!”. She described herself with the curious statement
that she was “in radio”. I invited her into my house where
she took out a complicated array of electronic gadgets, attached one
to my kanzu and asked me to laugh. I finally managed to emit a long
drawn out croak. She said thank you and left.
little boy woke me the following evening with the message that Marehemu
George wanted to see me. The big desk in his office had been cleared
of everything but a big radio, from which a young lady whom I thought
sounded like my visitor of the previous morning was shouting as if
her house was being robbed, saying you are listening to Clouds-Aif-Aim-Ninety-Eight-Point-Five
and reporting on the chaos of evening traffic. Marehemu George told
me to sit down, Comrade, our plan is taking shape.
was a pause in the music. Then a machine voice said, “Whose
laugh is this?”
the woman said: “Okay-so-it’s-the-moment-you’ve-all-been-waiting-for.
It’s time for ‘Whose Laugh is This?” There was the
sound of clapping and cheering from the audience. “For two-thousand-five-hundred-shillings,
a year’s supply of condoms from Careful Lurve condoms, two bottles
of Count Pushkin Vodka, a Coke and a Smile, can you guess which celebrity
was a drum roll and then the sound of a frog in distress.
right, folks. Call me on foar-foar-foar-foar-double-foar and tell
me ‘Whose Laugh is This’” Again there was the sound
of clapping and cheering from the studio audience.
later, there was a telephone call and an uncertain voice said: “Could
it be the President?”
sheep bleated and the audience laughed mockingly. Then the disembodied
voice of the machine said: “Kondoo! You-are-as-dumb-as-a-sheep.”
the young lady said dismissively: “Wrong! Next caller, please.”
I had the impression of a long line of people at a telephone booth,
waiting patiently for their chance to call in and become sheep.
next caller suffered the same fate when he suggested the laugh belonged
to the Minister of Finance. The prize went up to for five thousand
shillings tomorrow, a year’s supply of Careful Lurve condoms,
four bottles of Count Pushkin Vodka, a Coke and a Smile, whose laugh-is-this?
George’s teeth flashed in the evening gloom, like a block of
white flats in a run-down neighbourhood.
you outdid yourself!” he said. “Even I wouldn’t
have recognised that laugh as yours.”
of course, Comrade. You remember laughing for a pretty lady yesterday
George informed me that I was now officially on the nation’s
celebrity list. For the modest sum of ten thousand shillings, which
he had personally pledged, my laugh of a frog in labour would be identified
in a few days when he, Marehemu George, made a call to the studio
and became the surprise winner of ‘Whose-Laugh-Is-This?’.
is all about knowing people, Comrade. But I digress. At that point,
Comrade, the whole nation will be asking, ‘Who is Comrade Lemma?’
On that very day, my friend the editor assures me that your identity
in the photograph competition will also be revealed. Then the action
will really begin.” Later, as we sat there on his veranda, he
wondered aloud what it would take to mobilise the community, Comrade,
you know these people better than anyone else, then reached into his
pocket and presented me with some money, saying, no please accept
it, Comrade, as a small token of my respect for a figure of national
Things started to happen very fast from the time we got back to my
street. The newspeople moved quickly towards our party of throbbing,
gyrating youths honouring an old man in his hour of glory. For a moment,
I forgot my aching back, twisted feet and fading eyesight in the flash
of lights, the click and whirr of cameras and rapid-fire orders, of
stop there so that we can take a picture, sir, no right there so that
these shacks form a backdrop for your remarkable face, isn’t
it remarkable, and more calls of exactly like that, Comrade, yes,
that’s right, that’s perfect, sir. The years of heaviness,
and the price paid for saying heavy things, fell away as I recognised
that I, Comrade Lemma, was being honoured, finally, for services rendered
to the republic. I stood alone, in this broken down neighbourhood
that had been my home for all these years, in my old kanzu and my
morning gift of a black jacket, and shed tears.
I opened my eyes, I was alone in the middle of my narrow street, the
glorious vision replaced by dust, screaming and chaos and the throb
of a helicopter overhead. I could dimly discern that the crowd, as
well as the newspeople, had diverted their attention to the helicopter
landing in the dusty field next to our neighbourhood.
George said he was expecting a Cabinet Minister.” I was startled
by Martha’s voice behind me. I turned to face her. She was smiling.
wonder which Minister. I lost track of them in the late `60s.”
I must admit, I was putting on a brave face. I had not expected that
my moment of glory would be so brief.
said maybe the Minister of Culture. But it doesn’t matter. You
are the man of the moment. Even the Minister is here to honour you.”
I found her hand in mine for the first time in all the years I had
known her. I was astonished to discover how tender her eyes could
become, how they could, in moments like this, defy her grief of burying
your own daughter, this world can be cruel.
forget your neighbours now that you are famous. I will cook your favourite
meal tonight. Come.” And she was gone. In front of me, the surging
mass of people were trying to get a glimpse of the Minister and meeting
instead the solid resistance of the police, who were clearing the
way for the Minister with threats of whipping and shouts of ‘Ondokeni!
Ondokeni!, and arranging the crowd into a wave of placards in front
of Marehemu George’s office.
veranda of the radio broadcast had been turned into a museum in my
honour. The photograph of me by our shimmering river taken the other
day was a huge poster covering the main window of the office and overlooking
the table, now draped in a brilliant red cloth. The poster said in
big, bold lettering: ‘Careful Lover presents Comrade Lemma,
a genuine Kenyan hero. Careful Lovers Last Longest’. Then there
was a line at the bottom: ‘Careful Lover Condoms Supports the
Search for a National Hero’.
were smaller posters on the walls and windows, all with ‘Careful
Lovers Last Longest’ emblazoned beneath my photograph. This
irritated me because I have sometimes suspected that Rehema of my
active years left out of frustration at my impatience in these matters.
Minister of Culture is a gentleman of the first order. To the utter
astonishment of Marehemu George and others, he refused to take the
high chair reserved for him and instead left it for me, saying that
this was my day and besides, I was the older man.
was unsure of how to behave after so many years out of the limelight.
I was the hero, the man of the moment, and yet I had the distinct
impression of being a servant to this event amid all the clicks and
whirrs and like that, mzee, right there, and the attending minister
and the welcoming flash of teeth of a grave and resplendent Marehemu
George, more spectacularly dressed than ever. My face felt tight and
dry with the effort of suppressing my need for the toilet. His ease
around all these strangers and their gadgets acted like an anti-laxative
and I relaxed beside him. I was, however, struck by the unnecessary
thought that his lips were so close to the cluster of microphones
that he appeared to be performing unspeakable acts to several men
at the same time, without the protection of Careful Lover condoms.
he started speaking, the veranda went quiet. Even the crowd on the
street strained to hear what he was saying.
was once a young man who wanted to change the world through music.
At the time, there was a war on and his people were dying in their
hundreds and being detained for their opinions and their defence of
a struggle for national liberation. Yet this young man ignored the
dangers of subversion and sang his heart out…”
exertion is affecting me. Look at me, the hero of the nation, the
old warrior battling to stay awake. My eyes won’t remain open
and my mouth hangs embarrassingly as Marehemu George weaves his way
in and out of my story.
I can see Humphrey that night so long ago when he surprised me after
so many months of being away, in that suit of the new, upcoming African
manager, made to measure by the Indian tailors on Biashara street.
Lemma,” he announced grandly, “I am going to get you on
radio. You will be a national hero. I will make you rich beyond your
dreams.” As he was leaving, he asked me for the words of Joka.
“It has become my favourite song. I hum it on my drive to work.
Now I want to be able to sing it.” I wrote them down for him.
And he was gone. And then later, on that first morning as an independent
nation, putting on the radio to hear: “And now the song the
nation is dancing to, Joka, by Humphrey W. Gatonye, the man of the
eyes jerk open to find Marehemu George killing off all my old friends
and band members.
for Comrade Lemma, who survived death on numerous occasions, all the
other members of the Black Jerusalem Boys Band died heroically in
the service of the nation. For two years he was a detainee in Hola…”
talks of my long and traumatic experience in several detention camps,
where quicksand torture was liberally applied (I was considering suing
the British Government for the crimes of torture and illegal confinement),
of how Tairero Omondi died at the hands of thugs after a Comrade Lemma
concert in the City Stadium; of how Solomon Olimba died trying during
a Colonial police interrogation after his arrest for subversion; and
Humphrey W. Gatonye, in a British Army bombing raid in the Aberdares
as Mau Mau soldiers wept with sheer joy at his vocal talents.
on the eve of our 40th anniversary as a free nation, and under the
new leader of a truly democratic government, Careful Love condoms
is proud to return a national hero to his rightful place in society!”
smell of fish begins to invade my nostrils.
have difficulty recalling in exact detail what happened when I stood
up during the question and answer session on Careful Lover condoms’
role in the search for a national hero, and went looking into the
eyes of the seated newspeople, of the Minister for Culture, for the
owner of the fish, my muttering growing louder and louder until I
was screaming in my hoarse, old man’s voice, I am not Comrade
Lemma, Comrade Lemma is dead, over and over and there was a roaring
in my ears like that of the doomed train from Beira. And I was seizing
one of the microphones from Marehemu George and I could see them as
if they were written in the air in front of me, those words of the
last verse of Joka, which had eluded me for all these years and the
sound of an old man who is speaking out after so many decades of silence,
was fading in and out as if from a well that is being opened and shut.
And I was saying kifo ni rahisi, death is easy, it is living in silence
that is difficult, which one will you choose my brother, in these
days of bondage, don’t be an old man who can’t explain
why he didn’t die young or why his children walk in chains.
And I remember seeing Martha’s eyes so clearly in the middle
of that surging crowd, please understand why I have to do this, and
hearing the commotion of chairs falling over and the smell of gunpowder
and asking why were you there, Martha, in the dream of fish.
own understanding of the riot, Inspector, is as follows: as the event
wore on and the people began to tire, Martha’s grandson, Franco,
decided to check that his money from Marehemu George’s early
morning payment was still intact, and realised that his pocket had
been picked. It is therefore incorrect to assume that the ensuing
cry of ‘Mwizi’ ‘thief’ and all the commotion
had anything to do with accusations levelled against me on the podium
by Marehemu George that why did I want to wreck his event after he
had paid me such a large advance. The late Martha, being an elderly
woman and ignorant of how to get out of the way during a stampede,
was therefore a victim of circumstances.
Yes, Martha is dead, and I, I am still alive. But the stench of rotting
fish is everywhere now.
ole Kantai is a journalist from Kenya.