MRS. SHAW - Mukoma wa Ngugi
“Hey! You there! You know what you need? A white mother.”
I must be mistaken. I whirl around to face the voice. “What did you just say?” I ask.
“I said you what you need is a white mother.”
It’s her. For a year or so now, almost every weekend I find her here. She is British. I am African. From bar-gossip I know that in the 1950’s she lived in my country, lost her husband to our war for independence, taught African history at the University of Wisconsin and now that she’s retired, she spends most of her time in bars. I assume that bar-gossip has offered the same skeletal details about me; where I’m from, that I am in political exile, work at the local UPS hub loading trucks and like her I have a penchant for drink. In a year we haven’t talked, not even a hello, yet I feel that we are always aware of each other.
She is old, probably in her seventies, maybe even eighties. She is white, very thin though not frail. Her make up does little to hide her deep wrinkles or the brown age spots on her face. Her red hair is cropped short, but even in the bar light I can tell it has been dyed. She is wearing a thick red sweater and blue jeans that she has tucked into flaming red cowboy boots. I expect to find her smoking but with a thickly veined hand she is twirling a little umbrella that came with her vodka tonic. Her tone is not confrontational, insulting or bitter. She is telling me I need a white mother in the same way I would give a stranger directions to the nearest bus-stop or restaurant.
It is a few minutes into the New Year and a new millennium and it has been exceptionally quiet at the Eagle’s Bar. Before her interruption I had been staring at the Billie Holiday photograph on the wall. It is not an original and her uneven autograph is too glossy to have been from her own hand. The other photographs that cover the wall are all copies of a photograph of the original, too. Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis – martyrs, victims and survivors of this country I have called home for the last ten years.
Billie’s photograph - side profile - make up, even in this black and white photograph, barely covering her bad skin, short hair in black curls, a map of veins along her neck stretched taut like guitar strings, glittering brown eyes half-open to close, smooth hard jaws with skin stretched to an open mouth hungry for the microphone a few inches away – she is pulling back as if taking a deep breath…and my narration ends there. I always wonder what it is she is going to sing – without the song she sings the photograph is incomplete, it always leaves me hungry.
I take a long drink, and lugging my remaining beer skip the three or four barstools between us I sit next old white woman. Early into New Years Day, we are the only patrons in the bar – everyone else has a home to go to. This is an exceptionally dastardly time to be alone. We do not speak for a while. The bar-tender and owner of Eagle’s Bar looks over to see if we need drinks and then turns his attention to the muted TV tuned to some millennium celebration in New York. He is a former college football quarterback who is ageing like the cliché, and he’s a jazz aficionado who delights in reciting names of musicians he met (he can’t have - he seems to be in his thirties). He doesn’t like me because when I get tired of staring at the dead imitations of the dead, I remind him the photographs are photocopies of the original and that the live recordings he pipes through his expensive Boss system have lost some of their original groove in the machinery of mass production. It is a symbiotic dysfunctional relationship – I am the asshole drinker and he is the asshole bartender.
A home away from home.
“What would make you say such a thing?” I finally ask, feigning annoyance because I am supposed to. I cannot bring myself to hurl an insult at her. There is something about her that reminds me of grandmothers. Old people and children radiate infectious warmth in the same strange way, I have found. Is it the vulnerability that cannot be hidden? There are also aspects of one’s culture that remain no matter journeys taken. We do not insult our elders (though to be quite fair some people shoot them for their land, their money, because they are old, for a host of reasons) and a few choice words that normally would have ended this conversation are of no use. In addition to her British accent authenticating a relationship that neither she nor I have any control over, I have revealed my hand by moving to sit next to her. I become aware that she knows all these things. I cannot leave until I have heard what she has to say.
“I have watched you for a long time watching our old friend Billie. What you really need is a white mother.”
I know exactly what she is doing - she is offering her credentials.
“Why do you say that?”
“Only a white mother can you tell you what happened in your white family. The father, your white father, was a colonizer but you see within the family, he was a husband, a son and father. I can help you understand him,” she says.
Coming from any other person these would have been fighting words. Even at another time I would not have taken it but it is New Year’s, a new millennium at that, I am alone, lonely, homesick, drunk and hungry for the touch of words.
“Interesting” I say, trying to be sarcastic as I take a sip of my beer. “So the mother and the son plot against the father. Only I possibly can’t be your son.”
I reach for my wallet, flip it open and point to an old photograph of my father and mother. I point the photographs out to her.
“See, these are my parents. I am as black as them. But I’ll tell you what, we can make a strategic alliance.”
On the other side of the wallet is a photograph of Wambui. My own personal Billie Holiday. Why do I still have her photograph in my wallet? It has been ten years. I order two beers for myself. She doesn’t order another drink; she sits poised, waiting for me to ready myself for what she has to say.
“Alliances! That’s the trouble with the world today. Alliances don’t work. I am offering…only intimate spaces… a family will work. No plots and counter-plots.”
She pauses for a moment, reaches out for her drink and then changes her mind.
“You can be the mother and I the son if you like. It really doesn’t matter” she adds with calculated carelessness.
Probably my father could play the role of her son better than me. His wife, my mother, died in car accident a year after I was born. I do not remember her, though I recognize her in this vague feeling of growing up without balance, as if I had a phantom leg that worked. He told me years later he’d been planning to divorce her. But her death turned him into a widower and this came with duties that he could not pass on to anyone else.
I always wondered what went through his mind as he dutifully tended her grave, planting rose after rose until there was no more space left in the graveyard. His betrayal of her weighed on his conscience because she died before their divorce. Sometimes I feel that he brought me up in the same way he looked after her grave – doing something that was expected of him – doing his duty. How often has he reminded me that he has done his duty by me?
It was from him that I learned of our past. With a school teacher’s zeal, maps, historical documents and a magnifying glass on a ping-pong table that he converted into a general’s desk, he would point, pontificate, drill, query, and pull my ear until I understood our history. His version of it at least. He has a favourite maxim – “Love is knowledge, knowledge is love.”
Yet in spite of it all I don’t think he ever quite believed that the colonizers did what they did to us – put us in concentration camps, poisoned water holes, cut off hands, lips and ears and threw the rest of us in their plantations and mines.
Tracing a colonial map along the River Nile he would pause over a poisoned well and ask himself “But how could they do this to another human being?”
Yet just a few moments before, he had told me how we were not human beings to them. At other times he would tell me how we lost our land. Often he took me there. The way he held the soil that had been his father’s and let it course through his fingers told me that he took me there to remind himself that it was all true, that it had all happened. Yes, I very well understood this trail of broken treaties. I had been walking it since I was born. In fact, I had walked it right into exile.
Unlike my father, I never doubted what I knew to be true – that the same hands that embrace one’s child will squeeze the life out of a neighbour’s child when war comes, that the same colonizer who built a church to save the native, did not hesitate to burn it down when it housed rebels and that my leaders black like me, speaking my language and praying to the same God had sanctioned my torture by night and driven their children to school in the morning. Perhaps I was better than my father in that I knew all these things to be true, or I was worse off, more jaded and more tragic. If in my realism I had lost faith in my neighbor, how could I have faith in myself?
But I did learn a lot from my father. I can see him now, telling me how right from the beginning of colonization, there had been skirmishes between whites and blacks. “It is not true that we did not fight back” he was quick to remind me. Movements were formed and banned, leaders jailed, killed or exiled, and whole villages of people put in concentration camps.
“Pretty much the same as it is now for your generation only your leaders are black” he would say.
The ebb and flow of resistance and repression continued until…
“Happy New Year!!” the bartender yells to a passing friend through the large glass windows. She waves back with a gloved hand. My thoughts interrupted, I turn my attention back to the old white woman.
“Listen, I don’t think even my father qualifies to be your son.” I say to her.
“Oh! But he does. He didn’t believe what he saw with his own eyes and even though you think you’re different, neither do you.”
Damn it! Had I been speaking out aloud? She reaches into her red handbag which I notice for first time dangling down the bar stool. She pulls out a red lipstick, pouts her lips and I catch a flash of her as a young woman, sexy, confident and self-assured, years before history caught up with her.
“Look, I know more than you think I do… I know after your husband finished raping his slave, he rested for a bit and then turned on you. Many white sons and daughters out there are children of rape. In town he was cheap and a drunk, and in the fields he was a murderer. At home he was much worse because he could not kill, so he learnt to torture his wife and children without leaving scars. Whatever little game you are playing here, know that I see you,” I say.
“And I am also judging you” I add more for effect, because it sounded good.
I notice I am clutching my glass tightly and I take a deep breath. Or maybe she is the one loosing it because she turns her back and beckons the bar-tender for another drink. The bar-tender returns with a vodka gin and tonic too soon. We both could have used a break from the conversation. She beckons me to continue talking. Instead I walk over to Juke Box and play Kool and the Gang’s Celebration: What the hell its New Year’s after all and the song reminds me of home. The bartender annoyed by the sudden intrusion of sound turns the music down. I knew he would do that, music other than jazz is only OK for young college kids. I ask for another drink. Perhaps she can tell I’m stalling because she is watching my transactions with a look of amusement. Finally I sit down and continue from where I had left off.
“It must have been much worse for you. Our mothers had us when they returned from your homes where they worked as maids, nurses, cooks and gardeners. But you, whom did you have? You had no place to return, no sanctuary. Everyone you would have known would have --” For the first time, she interrupts me. I am doing well; I have hit something so I let her continue. But oddly enough she does not jump right into the conversation. She hesitates, reaches into her bag once again and removes some Wrigley’s gum. She offers me one and carefully unwraps one for herself. I can tell she used to smoke by the way her little movements fill nervous space.
“Perhaps it was worse for me. But I wonder if your father let your mother back into the house knowing what my husband had just done to her. He is a man after all. Men speak the same language” she said emphasizing each word in the last two sentences.
“Had it been my father, I think he would have understood that he had no choice. We are talking about metaphorical fathers and mothers, aren’t we?” I ask but do not wait for her to answer. “He would have beaten her up, and the kids too, and kicked the cat and the dog but he would have had no choice but to take it, until he was tired of it and decided to fight back –he had no choice. Nor did our mothers, nor any of us…well, some of us.”
We must look quite odd. The whole world is celebrating and here we are, a young black man sitting next to an old white woman in a bar called Eagle’s. I wonder if the bartender can distinguish our accents, mine weighed down my Gikuyu yet trained to sound like hers; and hers proper English infected with a Midwestern drawl. Or to him, a typical American we are both foreigners to be watched.
“You are right but also wrong. I had your mother. Yes, I passed your mother on my stairs as she climbed into my bedroom…She saw the beatings and the rapes on the lily white sheets. She might have thought that I did not see her, that I left the bloody sheets and underwear there because I thought a human machine was washing my clothes. Maybe that is what she would have told you. I don’t know. I don’t think so. It was my SOS written in blood. There is no way she could have mistaken it... as a woman”
Celebration has come to an end. The bartender walks over to the Juke-Box, puts in some coins and starts flipping through the albums. “Why are we speaking in metaphors? I tell you about my life and you tell me about mothers and fathers. We’ve shared this space for a year without speaking. Let’s catch up” she says in irritation. She has a good point there I concede to myself.
“I can’t speak for my mother. She died when I was very small.” I wait for her to say how sorry she is that she dragged my mother into this, or for her death, but she says nothing. “But you want to know what I think? I think she would have hated you. She had her own problems you know…without yours. And you, you would have held on to your white skin. It still would have shielded you from some things…like you never went hungry. But I can only speak for the living; at least they stand a chance to defend themselves.” The conversation feels out of hand and uncomfortable. But given where I’d been a few minutes before – in front of Billie Holiday – I’m happy talking with her. The bartender’s first selection has kicked in. I can’t tell which of Miles’ songs it is but I know his voice, a trumpet sound that reminds me of bouncing smooth pebbles off the surface of a pond.
“Listen, why don’t you tell me your story, surely, surely we won’t get anywhere like this” I say, going for broke as Wambui would say. It feels good to use her words. Ten years and her stock phrases still spill out of me.
“Take me home young man, and I will teach you a thing or two” she says in mock flirtation. She jumps off the bar-stool and offers me her hand. I accept, and pretend to climb down my bar stool. We both laugh for the first time and I feel her warm but vodka laden breath on my face. I ask the bartender if I can buy something to take home. He refuses. I promise him a book on Charlie Parker, a biography. He agrees and we haggle over the price. Eventually the old woman and I stagger out of Eagles Bar. It’s just as well we left. It was almost time to close anyway.
Outside the bar everything is covered in snow. It’s beautiful. The snow makes everything brighter. It’s cold enough to announce winter on uncovered skin, but not oppressively so. A mild wind is riling the snow off the lamp-posts, roof-tops and magazine stands to make a second showing of the snow-fall – an encore. A police office driving up the street slowly comes to a crawl when he spots us. The old lady slips her hand under my arm and laughs. The officer nods his head from side to side, steps on the gas and the car swerves dangerously before it finds a foothold and drives off.
We walk in silence, occasionally slipping into each other on the ice that has formed beneath the snow. Sometimes she slips away from me and I feel an urgent tug of her arm on my elbow. By the time we get to her home, we are no longer familiar strangers. Once the veneer of mutual suspicion had been removed, we find we already knew a lot about each other. From the outside, her house doesn’t look like much but it’s cozy inside. Not at all what I would have expected had I had more time to think about it. It doesn’t have that stale smell that is peculiar to old people’s houses. I notice that the lamps have shades made out of stained glass – the kind one would find on church windows. Her wall has all sorts of art on it, all original, she says, with figures contorting in pain or pleasure.
It’s hard to tell.
As I’m about to sit on a couch in the dining room, I notice she has a photograph of a Maasai Warrior. I think about Kiliko Town, and remembering how I had escaped into exile disguised as one, I want to check if it was me. Some tourists who gave me ride couldn’t get over having met what they took to be a real live Maasai and they took a lot of photographs of me – a Kikuyu disguised as a Maasai. The absurd, comical, tragic, revolutionary all rolled up in one. I have always felt that I will come across one of those photos in the United States but I’m too tired to get up and check. On the drunkenness count, I’m relieved to find I’m more tired than drunk.
She puts on some Masekela and as his voice booms “There is a train…” before she turns the volume down. Now that’s strange. The only people I know who listen to Masekela are the African exile types. I open the bottle of Jack and place it between us. She takes a swig and passes it to me. I do the same and we settle in for a long silence. It feels like we are speaking even in the silence. Or maybe we’re just making space for room to speak, because she suddenly makes a sweeping impatient gesture and begins telling me about her husband.
“About the violence, you’re right. He couldn’t leave his work at the office. He delighted in bringing it home.” I know what he did even before she says it.
“I loved him at first” she says. I feel like she is trying to convince herself. “But what you need to know is that he was a Colonial District Officer. I have often wondered why I really followed him. Perhaps you can tell me later. Even after all these years I still do not know. For what I went through, love couldn’t have been enough”. I wonder along with her. She doesn’t strike me as the type to fall in love and follow her husband around the world nor, for that matter, does she seem the Florence Nightingale type. It should have been the other way round – her husband following her, but years pass and people change for the better or worse, some become weaker and others stronger: into what had I mutated? Afraid of what’s coming, I walk over to her stereo and turn the music up slightly, just so I can have a cushion, something to soften the harshness of whatever is coming. I sit back down, take a swig of the whisky, and pass the bottle to her. Our hands brush and she smiles politely. Placing the bottle back between us, she leans back. She moves forward again only when she starts speaking.
“As a Colonial District Officer he was also in charge of security in his area. So when what we called the little troubles and what you called the uprisings began, he was in charge of collecting information. But his love for what was to become his life’s work started even before he came to your country.” She said life’s work with a twist of her mouth. “He was a large man, about your height but very large, very blue eyes too. It was his eyes … When we were dating, he once told me that he liked to hunt and kill deer because he enjoyed seeing the colour of their eyes change from brightness to a dull stare. Nothing should have come as a surprise after that. He was trained to collect information by an expert on African Affairs - Dr. Joseph Howard. You might have heard of him, or read some of his history books. Dr. Howard spoke six or seven different African languages and was an expert of the African mind. In his books, he never revealed how he got his information, but he taught my husband everything”.
She pauses, taking another swig from the bottle. I know the types she is talking about, they are still walking around as if they own the continent. Only in Africa, it is written on trucks and buses. How does it feel to be studied, poked with needles and theories and talked about as if invisible?
“Then the little troubles began, the blacks started slapping back and everything changed” she says. I am struck by the way we come to share language. The little troubles –outside how we met, our tragedies, our histories, our stories, those words would have had no meaning. I understand her so well. I understand the words underneath those words. I too am here because of present day little troubles, related to her little troubles. It was the increasing frequency of my little troubles that brought me here. And there are so many all over the world whose lives ebb and flow with little troubles
“He enjoyed, no wait…he loved his work. He couldn’t get enough of it. I was always the chaser after the main course. Work slowed down, I became the main course. We had a garden boy, an old man really…his name was David”. I am about to take offense at an old man being called a boy, then I remember we use the same terms, boy, girl or sometimes just an anonymous rude you.
“I can’t remember his African name. I was sitting outside with my husband and I was looking at David – nothing sexual, he was just there so I was looking at him. I didn’t hear him leap from his chair. Why are you looking at him? You want to fuck him? You want to fuck him. I woke up later in bed, swollen all over. It excited him to think of me and David. He couldn’t even wait for me regain consciousness. Poor David lost his job. Had it been a few months later, my husband would have killed him”. I needed a break. I asked her where her bathroom was, went in and washed my face in the sink. My heart was pounding violently. It was quite simple, I was afraid of what this old woman was going to tell me. But even as I thought that, I knew I was going to listen so I walked back to the table. She continued as if there had been no interruption.
“I had to wear dark sunglasses most of the time. Once we had a picnic party where all the women showed up in white dresses, white pearls around their necks, white tennis shows and hats and sunglasses. And we laughed and sipped our wine.” She lifts her pinkie finger up gingerly, pretending she’s delicately holding the stem of a wine glass. “We talked about our husbands and the little troubles that our maids and servants were giving us. We were a sea of whiteness but underneath…only tears. I do not know what the men were talking about but as they got louder our laughter grew louder too. It became a mad house. We were all mad. We needed a whole lot of shrinks.” She lets out a laugh that in exile I have come to hear. It ends abruptly, a sudden burst of gas escaping a pressure cooker.
“One morning I woke up knowing I was going to kill my husband when he came home. I was tired. It was getting worse. An epidemic had broken out among our men and the cure was our bodies…My neighbour stopped visiting me, I knew why. Underneath the glasses and white dresses...” I felt her voice waver, as if it was going to break. “And who knew what the black men would do to us when…” she was adding softly.
I can’t let her finish. I’ve been nice enough and played along. But this is too much. It was they who came to our country and they, woman and man, alike got what they deserved. I have no empathy. I need it all for myself. I have to do something, before I lose it. I’ve come too far. I’m almost healed. I’m going home in a year. Wounds have been slowly closing to form scars. What I and others had sacrificed for had finally come to pass. In the next year elections will take place. The dictator will be elected out of office and my exile will be over because the party I had joined at its inception is going to win the elections. But now, more than opening her wounds for me to see, this old woman is also opening mine, and she doesn’t seem to care. I just need to survive another year and I can return and these things will be behind me. People like her are always taking. She is still taking, always taking…
“Jesus Christ!!! Can’t you see you are still taking? You are a taker and have always been a taker” I shout, interrupting my own thoughts with speech. “Can’t you see you what you are doing?”
“What I am doing?” She asks this very calmly. “Didn’t I tell you that you don’t know everything?”
“Stories are what my grandmother told me at bed time. This is torture. You deserved your husband!!” I realize too late what I have shouted. She says nothing letting the silence gnaw me into guilt. I reach for the bottle take a swig and wait.
“Please, sit down.” It is half plea, half command.
“Look, things are not as simple as you are making them out to be. It was not just you and your husband. Can’t you see that it was not all about you?” I am feeling calmer now.
“Explain yourself”. She leans back into her chair and folds her arms across her chest. I go on anyway.
“For starters we had our own lives too… my grandparents worried about their children; they talked about their history, prayed to their God, they kept developing their own philosophies and sense of justice. They did not stop living because you came - that is what you hated most about them. Also, let’s face it; you guys were not as scientific as you try to make it sound, colonialism did not move in a straight line – lots of massacres, accidents and lies. Did you know that your Henry Morton was a liar and a cheat?” I pause to catch my breath.
“There is something I want to show you.” She says as if whatever she wants to show me will rest all my doubts.
She walks into another room. I hear a drawer open and close. Whatever it is, she’s not fumbling for it.
It could be a gun.
I think of leaving, even though deep down I know I won’t. She walks back into the dining room carrying something that round like a soccer ball, covered in expensive-looking rainbow colored batik cloth. She places it on the table. Like a magician, she ceremoniously unfurls it. Something clatters onto the dining table, its jarring sound mixing in with her chuckles. When it finally settles and I lock my shaking eyes on it, I realize it is a human skull. I let out a quick sharp scream.
“What is this? What the fuck is this?” I stand up abruptly knocking against the table and the skull and bottle dance crazy hula-hoops. “What the fuck?” I notice my right hand instinctively stretched to save the dancing bottle is trembling. I have broken into a thin light sweat and with my knees feeling foreign I find my seat but then stand up again.
“This is the price of freedom!” She says lightly, now laughing in pure delight. I can’t reconcile her with the old woman at the bar. She looks young.
I can’t help it, I start laughing too. I reach for the bottle and take such a long swig that she reaches across the table and gently takes it away from me. She takes an equally long swig. She picks the skull up, gives it a kiss, cradles it in the crook of her elbow, and sashays around the dining room, “Well son, this here is my husband” she says in an American Southern drawl.
In this madness, my father’s history lesson: The ebb and flow and resistance and repression had gone on for years. Then the Africans made one bold move that changed everything. They kidnapped the head of British National Security, a former District Commissioner who had proved to be very able in Native Pacification Campaigns. They held him for a few days and when there was no sign that the white government would cease its campaign, they killed and buried him in an unmarked grave. The colonial government went on a rampage and killed hundreds of blacks as it searched for the “black terrorists” (my father would say terrorists this with a wink). This in turn sparked a nationwide movement that gave birth to the Peoples Freedom Party, the political wing of the Peoples Freedom Army that eventually forced the white government into a stalemate. And from the stalemate came a still born independence and betrayal of the nation by People’s Freedom Party. My father’s version was much longer than I cared to remember at this point, but the general point was that the kidnapping and killing of the national security head was the watershed for the first independence. But here he is right before me – the Head of National Security.
“Is this Oliver Shaw? The one and only Oliver Shaw?” I ask as if meeting him for the first time and also announcing his entrance into a boxing ring.
“Yes, this is him.” She runs her hand over the smooth skull. “The one and only” she adds.
“What happened to him?”
“He was drunk when he came home. I tied him to his arm chair and sat up all night waiting for him to wake up.” She says this like she had been waiting for a loved one to wake up from an illness. “Then I killed him.”
“He woke up at about 7:00 in the morning. I opened up the curtain and told him to look at the rising sun. It was red and beautiful. I told him to look at it well because I was going to kill him. He didn’t ask why. He was a soldier only doing what was the best for his family and country. He was only doing his duty. Do you love what you do? I asked him. He said yes. Can I have a glass of water and a cigarette? His blue eyes darting from side to side like that… Isn’t that more you do for the Africans? He said that wasn’t true, I always offer a glass of water and cigarette. And the ones who do not smoke? He grunted nothing. I didn’t give him any water. I took a cigarette from his shirt-pocket, lit it for him and put it in his mouth. For the first time since we were married, he said thank you. I took his gun off his belt, placed it on his forehead and shot him.” The she adds, “I’ve always hated cigarettes since then.”
I sit down. As I reach over for the bottle I see for the first time the neat hole that went through the forehead, so neat that it looks like it’s been filed. I imagine she was dressed in white.
“How did you get away with it?”
“I fed him to the lions and hyenas he loved to kill.”
“What about his skull?”
“British soldiers used to cut off heads belonging to Chiefs who resisted. They would boil them until the flesh came off. I have since read elsewhere that it was to keep the victory alive, that to cradle the skull of your enemy is to savor the victory forever.”
“You were never suspected? How did you get away with it?” I ask again.
“I waited for a few days, put on my pearl necklace, white dress and shoes, and went to the police station to report my husband missing”.
“You did not choke?” I’m leaning into the dinner table. With her leaning forward as well, I imagine we make an arc across the table. I want to know more. I nod impatiently for her to continue.
“No I did not…Remember our white dresses and hats? I stayed on. I was there when the Union Jack was lowered. Did you know that it was done in the dark so as not to shame the Prince?” She asked. My father never tired of telling me this.
“I left when your new president, Samuel Johnston Mburu – that was his full name before he became African again – called to say that I would still get my widow’s pension. I could continue farming. Even though he couldn’t say this in public, he felt my husband, while cruel, still embodied greatness. I asked him why he would say such a thing. I think he was shocked but I didn’t care. His answer? He disagreed with my husband’s racism but they had in common a belief in protection of property, law and order. When he vowed to find my husband’s killers, I knew it was time to leave. Not because I would be caught…that was Africa for me. You want to know who bought my husband’s farm? The President’s oldest son, Daniel Muigai Mburu. Was that his name?” I think he changed his English name to an African name that means freedom or liberty. But I am not sure so I let her continue.
“Do you judge my act as revolutionary? But what does it matter? I am part of history even though history doesn’t know it.”
“And the skull?” I continue with my questions ignoring hers. I want to know the rest of her story.
“No one stopped me at the airport. Once again I was dressed in white.”
“Which version of that history did you teach?”
“Your people’s version, the only known version. Who would believe me anyway?” She says as though considering the option. “I told you I’m a martyr in more ways than one” She adds dismissively.
“There’s DNA testing” I offer.
“What makes you think I want people to know? My history…this is a private party for a single gal. Let the dead remain buried.” Underneath the light-hearted tone, I can tell she is serious.
“I disagree. No matter what, people deserve to know how their history was made” I counter even though I know it was pointless. A secret this big would never be let out, it would remain buried. There was a lot that was buried, all the secret deals that were made, that had made a mess out of things, the assassinations, illegal arms, grab lands, bank accounts in Switzerland and power sharing deals. This would be just one of them. “But where do I fit in all this?” I ask.
“I told you. You are my son” She says seriously.
“No. That cannot be. I have a father and mother. I am not an orphan, not even of history.”
“You can only reject me. I mid-wifed your history and died for it.”
“Independence would have happened anyway. No. I cannot accept your offer.”
“It’s not yours to accept…”
I stare at the bottle. “Look” I say “We make good drinking friends…The rest…in the course of time we shall figure it out,” I offer. At the end of it all, she’s just another lonely old lady and I…I’m not sure what I am except that in a year I will wear the punishing moniker of returnee.
There is silence for a while. “…And we already have a skull and a bottle of Jack between us. We are pirates,” I say. We laugh so hard my belly aches.
“Now, it’s you turn to tell me your story. My grandmother told me bed time stories too. I don’t want that kind” she says as our laughter dies. Our eyes meet, hold for a few seconds and then past exhaustion, I look at the time; it’s 7:00AM. I take a swig from the bottle and pass it to her.
“If you are leaving there is no point” She says waving the bottle away. “Come and visit me again, but only if you come bearing gifts” she says, sending a wink toward the bottle which I am still holding out to her. She writes down her number and house address on a piece of paper, one arm resting on her skull.
“You kept it?” I’m surprised when I see the name on the piece of paper.
“Like the skull, it’s a reminder. Being called my name is like rubbing a genie bottle, the thing that pops out reminds me of my victory. These independences are elusive. Do you think we are going to lose again?”
“No, Mrs. Shaw.” At the sound of her name she smiles a deep gratified smile. It’s like a retired general being called by his war name one last time. “I don’t think we will lose again.” I stand and put on my winter jacket. “Mine is Kamau Wa Mwangi” I say as I tuck the bottle into my pocket. Hearing no answer, I look to find her passed out. Not the most comfortable position to sleep in. I lift her up and stagger with her to the couch, surprised at how heavy she is. I leave her there; make up, red boots and everything still on– a feisty grandmother sleeping off too much booze. I walk back to the kitchen and turn off the stereo which has been playing dead air for a while and leave.
Outside it had started snowing again. It’s January 1st and people are going to work. I feel happy and light. I stagger home and go to sleep.
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