the history of our age is written, when its meagre feats and mean spirit
are illuminated for posterity, our collective lives trawled for meaning
and the sum of all these arranged into a halfway palatable fable, some
conscientious historian may add in a brief addendum perhaps, or a footnote
or endnote, that it was indeed a curious age, when we had required to
a very great degree certain pictures of certain people, their minds
and their coats.
these, all manner of men had presented themselves, each proffering his
truth, each truth aspiring to be the last word, each a reflection more
of the man who had made it than of the men being made
what had seemed an honourable pursuit had turned gradually poisonous,
devolving at last into a pitched battle running from monograph to monograph
in which decency and decent language were early on shown the door.
for the results, they will be seen to occupy that spectrum between ingenuousness
and such ingenuity as stretched even the credulity of a famously credulous
people. We will wonder then how such bilge had ever been respectable but
other than that it will be agreed, the less said the better.
Kimani, himself thoroughly respectable, was of a mind.
he said. "All of it. Bilge water."
of course he did not think of his own contributions in that dim light.
But seeing as he was engaged just then in fashioning a new coat, his impartiality
was not beyond reproach. I found him in his study poring over an old pattern
and brandishing a pair of scissors in a most alarming fashion. But his
mind was clearly elsewhere.
you think he'll show?" he asked me at length.
didn't know and I told him so.
going to save him anyway," he said. "Whether he likes it or not." Prof.
Kimani was dead set on keeping a dead man alive. That was why after so
many years he had come back home.
began to prepare, trusting fate to be kind though she never had been before.
He had come a long way and spent a long time trying to find this man.
study was nothing like his old one. It was large and sparsely though tastefully
furnished. He had had his books sent over and already some of them were
on the shelves. All his books, even the ones that had caused him so much
trouble so many years ago.
years, I had had the study next to his old one, mine every bit as cramped
and shabby. It was still cramped and shabby and had grown more so in the
twenty years that Prof. Kimani had been gone. There was a man behind the
battered desk, a young man of about thirty-five who regarded us with a
distinct lack of interest.
Kimani was used to being recognised. That that recognition was generally
been followed by unpleasantness was not the point. The point was the recognition.
That much he considered his due.
to Prof. Kimani's well known face, the young man presented his blank one
for a few moments before asking who we were.
I help you?" he asked again when Prof. Kimani refused to state the obvious.
the stimulus of his face, Prof. Kimani now added the stimulus of his name.
It was bound to be extravagant.
wasn't. The young man was consistent. His face retained its lack of expression.
who?" he asked at last, a hint of irritation creasing his brow.
seeing the look on Prof. Kimani's face, he tried to be more polite.
sorry," he apologised. "Were you expected? Because…" He flicked through
an appointment book. "No, I'm afraid there's nothing in here," he said,
and then trailed off to watch with honest fascination the succession of
expressions that came and went across the famous visage. Their general
theme was anger.
Kimani had thus far been unable to register a reply. Always a better writer
than speaker, he was still at a loss for words. If he only had pen and
paper, he might have been able to redeem himself. Who was his equal in
polemic? His rhetoric though was wanting. He remained dumbstruck. A loaded,
an oppressive silence followed.
retrieved his tongue from its hiding place, Prof. Kimani managed to sputter
"Home Front." It was the title of his most famous work. "Among the Mickey
Mice," he continued, his voice gradually rising as he recited his lengthy
bibliography until it was a bellow of rage and injured pride.
quality of fascination on the young man's face had changed to that of
one who is watching a man go mad before his eyes, a man who insists on
furnishing proof of the fact, and none too quietly.
at last he had exhausted the riches of his mind and pen, Prof. Kimani
paused for breath before ending with, "This is my office, you know."
office?" the man, who we learned was called Muraya, sniggered. Here was
corroboration, if any had been required.
used to be my office. Years ago." Suddenly exhausted, Prof. Kimani sat
down without being asked.
Kimani? The Professor Kimani?"
been paying attention," Prof. Kimani observed.
laughed, a short embarrassed laugh. "I've heard of you of course," he
admitted, "Who hasn't? But weren't you out of the country for a little
was kind of him to put it so delicately, to refrain from saying, "But
weren't you hustled out of the country?" and "How on earth did you manage
to get back in?"
with recognition dawned a recognition of potential danger. Abruptly, panic
replaced the fascination on his face. He much preferred the "voluble madman."
tell me, what do you want? Why did you come here?" He crossed the small
room in two strides and shut and locked the door.
sent you?" Panic had crept into his voice.
haven't read any of my books," Prof. Kimani accused.
I haven't," Muraya agreed. "And I can prove it." He indicated the bookshelf.
It was almost bare. Prof. Kimani walked up to inspect it.
contained three copies of the bible in three different languages, a phone
book five years out of date and an atlas. This mind had not been unduly
taxed. It had been spared the pollution of unwholesome texts.
now," he continued indicating the door, "I would really appreciate it
if you would leave."
Kimani did what he always did when presented with a hostile door. He resisted.
threatened to call the police. Prof. Kimani called his bluff and stood
his ground to the extent of pulling up the chair and sitting down again.
the police arrived, what should have been a touching reunion grew ugly.
The arresting officer was the same man who had arrested Prof. Kimani twenty
years before in this very office. But absence had bred nothing like fondness
and Prof. Kimani launched himself at the offending policeman with a cry
of sheer venom.
became assault and in a flash of inspiration, attempted murder. Some things
had not changed.
Kimani had been obsessed with this dead man for years, had read about
him and written about him until little by little, it had become his life's
work, unwittingly I suspected, though he had taken to it with a characteristic
single mindedness. He had set to as a young undergraduate with all a young
man's illusions and he was now an old man with only this one illusion
left to him.
years of unstinting effort had yielded little result, unless misunderstanding
or a generalised suspicion be considered results. These he had in abundance.
It didn't bother him. When once Prof. Kimani's sights were set upon any
course, he would pursue it to the end, whatever that might prove to be,
enduring anything in the interregnum, which was fortunate since he had
been required in those forty years to endure almost everything. Through
all his tribulations, he had clung to his Marxist anti-hero the way some
Christians cling to the promise of salvation. It had got him through everything.
wife had left him. At least people said she had. In reality, the way things
happened, it was impossible to tell who had left whom.
was very early on in their marriage when Prof. Kimani had begun the slow
descent into overwork from which he would only rarely emerge and from
which his wife had gradually stopped trying to retrieve him. We had both
of us had just began teaching at the university. I had the office next
saw more of him than she did.
might have forgiven him his chronic absenteeism if he had been a better
provider, a better father. Indeed, if he had shown even a passing interest
his domestic responsibilities. Of his many failures in this regard, his
most glaring fault was his antipathy for acquisition, an inexcusable weakness
in a man with dependents. He maintained that his behaviour was not so
much a vote for penury as the result of an innate inability to acquire.
He had tried it and failed. Besides, he had better things to do. But I
wasn't the one he had to convince.
(for that was his wife's name) had returned to her job as a school teacher
and the children had gradually weaned themselves off their father. She
found that leaving him had greatly simplified her life all round, although
she never lost her resentment at being abandoned for another man.
had taken everything when she left. There wasn't much to take. The children,
a few odds and ends and a small but loyal army of debtors.
doesn't understand," he had said. "And why should she? No one else does."
day, the C.I.D had called to let Prof. Kimani know he was being watched.
To prove it, they recounted to him intimate details of his life and his
family's lives, many of were news to him. They told him where he lived,
in a house in Kilimani. In reality, he spent most of his time in his office,
but the premise was sound. They told him his wife's name, where she shopped,
what she bought, adding that it was never very much. They told him the
names of his children, where and when and how they went to school. When
and how they got back home. This last gave rise to a heated dispute.
had described to him the movements of four children. He said he had only
three. They insisted on four, he stuck to three and a lengthy back and
had evidence. They had a name, they had pictures. They could tell him
with absolute certainty the day though not the hour of vagitus. The child
was certainly his, at least it was his wife's. He was helpless against
so unforgiving a tide of evidence.
point they had been trying to make was that he should be careful. He should
watch what he said. He should watch what he wrote. He should watch what
he did. Or else.
general menace of their tone notwithstanding, he could not but be grateful
for this intelligence.
you know I had four children?" he asked me later that day. "When did that
happen? I can't imagine how it could have happened."
his son had died, Prof. Kimani had been out of the country and hadn't
been told. By the time he did find out, the child had been buried a month
or more and surely it was too late for the boy's father to turn up?
knows what excuses Sheila had made for him, what stories she had told.
In the end he didn't go. Couldn't go.
that he had talked about children as irritants who got in the way of his
work. His work would carry on his name. He had no use for them.
the reading and the writing, there was plenty of time to remember. To
think about the dead boy and the family that was as good as dead to him.
And later, he told me, after he left, he had often thought about his dead
country though I never knew if he had cried as he had cried once for his
was easier to keep working. The more he worked, the less likely he was
to take up the life and the people he had abandoned, the farther it drifted
away until finally it was no longer an option he could exercise.
Kimani had the following vision of his man
idealism, self-sacrifice, vision (preferably of a socialist utopia).
accidents of chance, miscellaneous imperfections (though human) and any
other inconvenient facts
some ways, he felt himself further away from the truth all these years
later than he had been when he had begun. Sometimes, as hard as he tried
to shed some light on his subject, the harder others tried to obscure
The man would not come into focus. No amount of scrutiny and study seemed
able to shed the slightest light on the matter. The babel of opposition
as well as the inconvenience of fact stood resolutely in the way. He continued
the perverse cat and mouse game he had played with his biographer, remained
inscrutable, enigmatic, hidden behind a carapace of truths. For the first
time since he had began to carry this cross, Prof. Kimani knew despair.
For a brief moment, the possibility of defeat insinuated itself into his
mind. It was quickly banished to its ante room and the work resumed, though
slowly, with a little less assurance and all the old lack of success.
to say that it was going badly would be to fall far short of the mark.
To say that it was going very badly indeed would be to reach and gain
no purchase, to have the thing in hand and have it slip through one's
fingers etc. It was going execrably.
dead man lay sprawled in several critical volumes on the cluttered desk
before him, mangled, said Prof. Kimani, out of all recognition.
the ken of kith or kin," he said, "and even possibly of the best forensic
he despised liars and those others who had never bothered to disguise
their antagonism for his subject, nothing distressed him more than those
well-intentioned bunglers who obfuscated even as they tried to illuminate.
had read him all wrong, they had got it all wrong. They had reached and
gained no purchase, they had had the thing in hand and had it slip through
their fingers etc. They had read him execrably. Here then was an end to
the myth that it is better to be misread than not read at all. "Imagine
if you will," he said , "that Carrothers was read as fact or Ngugi as
fiction." It was a sobering thought.
he continued. "To equivocate is to pass off bilge as truth."
had made this point before as I had driven him into town not a week ago
and he had stared out of the window with eyes that had hungered twenty
years for this scene. I had picked him up at Kenyatta International Airport
and we had driven into the city along Kenyatta Avenue past Kenyatta teaching
and referral hospital and several other badly built monuments to self
indulgence. All the folly of a man who has begun to believe in the story
he had said, "Men live, die and are forgotten in the benign march of the
years. No one can tell to what use their lives will be put. Only a very
few are lucky enough to reinvent themselves for the years ahead."
we looked, one man had planted the seeds of his own remembrance, as if
this was all there had ever been, as if we were to know nothing more.
portrait had been constructed as follows:
"suffering without bitterness"
remnants of dilettante, womanising past.
various rivals for the spotlight
and serve. We came to the crossroads of Moi and Kenyatta Avenues. In towns
across the country, the two men meet with unvarying politeness. They have
learned to coexist peaceably enough. The one has allowed the other his
name and his legend. He has allowed him the broad avenue where years before
spans of oxen made their wide turns and contented himself with the less
genteel thoroughfare. He would never be as great, but he would never be
as damned. He would inhabit the space between the two extremes, untouched.
He would walk in the wake of a greater man, a greater good or a greater
evil in relative peace. In this we are accessaries. We allow the fantasy
to outweigh the facts. But then all manner of shady deals are cut every
day in the ante-room of our history. He had drifted into one of his reveries
but becoming gradually aware of my presence, he turned his attention in
my direction. I was seized by a sudden urge to be somewhere, anywhere
else. Prof. Kimani was one of those men who would be martyred to history
and I did not want to be on the pyre when it went up in flames. I was
going to save myself if I could. Another such man stared resolutely back
at me from his cheap picture frame in the upper gallery of the national
archives, hanging between portraits of colonial governors and naked tribesmen.
The dead man who had lain on Prof. Kimani's table, still alive, still
holding his own (but only just) against the tide of denial. Underneath
it, the legend said simply "Kimathi in the forest." The wall opposite
was covered in the paraphernalia of forgetfulness. There were faded pictures
of Pio Pinto and Mboya and the mustachioed McKenzie. There were the dates
of birth and dates of death for each as well as a convenient lack of elaboration
as to the method (of despatch). The picture hangs slightly askew, hung
with same the benign neglect as everything else. Though it is stained
and faded, at least it is unambiguous. Here is the evidence that we did
not dream him up, that he was not merely the creation of our insecurities
and our fears. That under the accretions of words and of years there was
something all its own. What that was I couldn't tell by looking at him.
All I could see in his face was distance. Remote and unknowable, his face
mocked us across the unbridgeable years. It isn't that all his life is
in question. Enough people have sniffed around the remnants of his living,
searching out the facts, even to the most trivial detail. In fact most
of it is an open book, and not a particularly good one at that. Village
bully, pig farmer and petty thief in turn. It was a life devoid of promise
or which promised disaster at least. But then, as if out of nowhere, there
had come five magical years, redeeming everything that had come before.
Here then is the sole unchanging phrase in the inconstant conversation
of which it is a part. It is a story in which some sing songs of praise
and others of damnation. Where the same breath speaks of cowardice and
heroism. Where the articulation of deity is met with the retort of butcher.
What was one to think?
"Whatever you want, no doubt. You will have your black heroes." Sir Michael
Blundell said this in his best modulated tones, boomed across the State
House grounds, including everyone in what had been an intimate discussion.
"And in defiance of any and all evidence to the contrary." This last wasn't
quite intended as a reproach. Sir Blundell admired tenacity and considered
that attribute as the only vantage point from which admiration for Prof.
Kimani could be attempted. Besides, he belonged to a people whose history
was an object lesson in thinking what you liked and doing the same. "Besides,"
he continued, "you already know what I'm going to say." Now this required
none of those powers of divination that mind reading might imply. For
some time now, Sir Michael had only ever had one thing to say. He said
it often and he said it now for the benefit of those present who had never
heard it before (i.e no one). "Africa presses on all sides. One can feel
her. Smell her even. There but for the grace of God go you." True to form,
Prof. Kimani's cutting reply stuck in his throat. It was Kenyatta Day
again and on the expansive lawns of State House the usual vagrants had
gathered to celebrate. The surrounding fence was draped in lengths of
greying calico flag, enjoying their annual airing. All was as it usually
was. The subterfuge continued apace. For the likes of Prof. Kimani, it
was a bittersweet day. The celebration of a time and of a man of whom
he had never wholly approved, of whom he strongly disapproved in fact.
A man who had appropriated for himself an entire revolution and then refused
to let the "hooligans" have any part of his country. He had never been
able to adequately explain why he came here every year. For the likes
of Sir Michael, it was a bittersweet day, the celebration of a time and
a group of men of whom he had never wholly approved. Insensible to progress,
they had squirmed like errant school boys under the Pax Britannica and
succeeded finally in squirming right out from under it and into the uncharted
territory of their own devices. It was presumption of a kind that he found
hard to forgive though he could draw comfort from the knowledge that they
had soon had cause to regret their impetuousness. As the editor of the
"Rift Valley Standard," he had made known his views on what he called
"the thinly veiled threat of independence" and its proponents. Only Prof.
Kimani had escaped his wrath. Although Sir Michael was not the man to
discriminate, he had great respect for intrepidity and Prof. Kimani had
always been a man ahead of his time, easily attaining and then surpassing
the level to which other Africans were being brought at a more moderate
pace. Every week in those truculent pages he had raged against Africa's
greatest enemies - the Africans themselves and their reckless ideas. Some
of them might work well enough in Ghana or Zambia, but everything had
limits, and the Kenyan border was one. The poisons of Pan -Africanism,
or communism or conscientism or whatever other "ism" would not seep through.
He reminded us that everything we were, we had been made into. Everything
we had, we had been given. He even suggested that behind all the sound
and the fury of independence there was merely "a longing still for skins
and skirmishes." It was an attitude that had only mildly altered with
time. This aside, his invitation to what was after all a national, not
to say nationalist celebration, had arrived faithfully in the mail every
year for forty years in pursuance of the peculiarly African tradition
of forgetting the unforgettable and forgiving the unconscionable. (Had
not the Orkoiyot's own grandson lunched with Meinertzhagen? And had Meinertzhagen
at any point during that interview had cause to fear for his life or his
person, or anything else for that matter?) It made one sick to the stomach,
this penchant for truth and reconciliation and goodwill towards men. Sir
Michael continued to enjoy his tea and he continued to rail. Soon he was
talking about Nakuru. Kenyatta's "forgive and forget" speech at Nakuru.
It was his other topic of conversation. "I was there, and I heard him
speak. I don't have to tell you how important that day was, for all of
us. And he made it a good one. There was always something about him, something
you couldn't help but admire." One could feel the gods of revisionism
smiling tenderly down on us at that very moment. Of course Prof. Kimani
did not, could not, agree. "Nak-uru," as Sir Michael pronounced it, pausing
slightly to suggest the inverted commas, not to be mistaken with Nakuru,
without. "Na-kuru" was to him a blot on our conscience, the long-drop
bottom point of our existence. In defiance of this fact, however, everything
had managed to be downhill from there. He had not been near the place
since. "Don't let's start, shall we?" he said as Prof. Kimani spluttered
his indignation. "You have your Kimathi and I have my Johnstone." It pained
Prof. Kimani to hear the two spoken of in the same breath, as if they
were the same kind of man. But of course in some quarters they were. In
those quarters, they had simply been Kikuyu, and after all, a nig nog
was a nig nog and a Kikuyu was the worst example of one, so Kenyatta,
by denouncing Mau Mau at Kiambu was needlessly splitting hairs. But you
could never believe anything an African said. Her majesty's court at Kapenguria
found it difficult to suspend its disbelief at any rate, and Kenyatta
was jailed for having his tongue firmly in his cheek the whole time. It
was not difficult to see why Sir Michael was one of three stock characters
who ran like an infectious disease through Prof. Kimani's oeuvre. Although
he appeared in a different guise each time, each was perfectly transparent
to anyone who knew him even in passing. Each was recognisable as Sir Michael
very thinly disguised. He had been a Kenya Regiment corporal, a Soysambu
sheep rancher, a colonial administrator and a dissolute aristocrat in
turn. Each of these men had in common a legendary spleen and all the depth
of a Nairobi ditch. In the course of many misadventures, each managed
invariably to lose either his life or his character or both. Sir Michael,
recognising himself as easily as the next person and objecting to his
repeated demise had construed this as an indication of Prof. Kimani's
intentions towards him and used it as evidence to apply for and obtain
a restraining order against him. Certainly it was not an equitable arrangement.
Where Prof. Kimani had an audience of some hundreds of thousands to whom
he could (and did) make his point and before whom he could (and did) assassinate
characters with abandon, Sir Michael had only the close confines of the
bar at Karen or Muthaiga. He had found much sympathy there among those
Africans who had never yet met a white man they didn't like. They would
listen to his eloquent lament and drive back home to Kiambu pondering
the injustice of the world. But for all that, their relationship was not
and had never been anything other than cordial and with the benefit of
years had grown post-cordial at last. Even then, there was always a hint
of menace in their yearly sparring, especially when as now the latest
novel had just appeared. Sir Michael showed every intention of avenging
himself. Prof. Kimani was forced to defend himself. In such matters, it
is well known that attack is the best defence and that of all the forms
of attack, a moral attack is best. To suggest, and to suggest vilely and
to hope by this stratagem to touch some random vein of conscience capable
of arresting the enemy in his tracks. Happily for him, Sir Michael had
no such encumbrances. Sir Michael was an old colonial. He had had to do
things in his lifetime such as no conscience could hope to survive. He
was inured to anything that life or morality could throw at a man. It
was this facility above all that had made him the man that he was. Prof.
Kimani knew this as well as anybody, better perhaps than anybody. Attack
was contemplated. Attack was discarded. Pity was the thing. "We can all
agree can't we, that my faith hasn't gotten me very far?" he said trying
for mournfulness and succeeding. Sir Michael was mollified. He transferred
his attentions to the Minister who had been attempting an anonymous exit.
"What do you think old chap?" he asked pointedly. The old chap raised
his glass to his mouth and drank convulsively, looking pleadingly at Prof.
Kimani. "What's the point of this obsession with the past?" some one asked.
"If you want to know what I think," someone else piped up. "I'm sure we
don't." "I think he was a good man." "Of course," Sir Michael agreed ironically.
He then inquired into the modalities of transfiguration. "Tell me if you
would," he asked, "how a terrorist goes up a mountain and comes down a
martyr?" Prof. Kimani, recognising opportunity, seized it with both hands.
"Surely you should ask Mr. Henderson that question?" he asked. "Surely
Mr. Henderson is the authority on his own transformation?" One had to
concede game, set and match to Prof. Kimani. The government man was silent.
I continued to wait, a wait which corresponded to the opening hours which
were 8:00 am to 5:30 pm and passed the time studying the displays for
the hundredth time. The archivist appeared as the clock struck the half
hour. The book had not been found but we could try again tomorrow. He
said this in a way that suggested a hope that some epiphany or misfortune
would pre-empt my ability to return the next day or any other day. The
next day proved a wait corresponding to the opening hours which were 8:00
am to 5:30 pm, the appointed hour for the archivist's reappearance. He
again sidled into view and empty handed, although he had the goodness
to look ashamed. He had opened his mouth to suggest no doubt that I return
the next day when a half masticated page fell out of it and onto the floor.
Astonishment kept his mouth open and his body rooted to the spot so that
I got to it first. The print, though by now smeared and barely legible,
revealed it to be page 38 of the fugitive book. He grew more shamefaced.
Pages 1-37 had, he admitted at length, met the same fate, along with pages
115-128, 143-153, page 161 and all of chapter ten, which had been consumed
out of turn because of their greater sensitivity. Chapter ten had been
particularly hard on him, he said. Hard to take in and even harder to
digest and showing every indication of being even harder to believe. The
orders, he said, came from above, the third floor to be exact on my way
where he trailed me, dissuading me the while. The director, a small man
of about 40, regarded me with the sort of keen suspicion that was otherwise
reserved for the books in his care. On his face, suspicion battled a resigned
discomfort for dominance. The discomfort was the result of his chronic
indigestion. He was a hardworking man after all and took his work seriously.
He it was who had dispatched the most inconvenient texts of all, trusting
no one else enough to delegate. He had single handedly relieved the collection
of some thousands of books, including the ones we sought. There was a
large volume on his desk with half its pages missing. He would not divulge
the letter of his meal. He conveyed this reluctance as well as his conviction
that public records were not a matter of public concern. But reprieve
was near at hand. In one of those propitious coincidences, an old acquaintance
of Dr. Kimani's had an old acquaintance of his own who had old acquaintances
in a chain stretching to a certain venerable old man who knew things which
could possible be of some assistance. When we finally found him, he would
not co-operate. He had had enough of his brains being picked and the pickings
fashioned into tales that were no longer recognisable to him who had told
them. "Besides," he said with unanswerable logic, "the thing about secret
societies is that they're secret." Unlike the fifty year rule, they had
no expiry date and he did not want to risk the retribution of the oaths
he had sworn. But Prof. Kimani being Prof. Kimani assailed this bit of
unassailable reasoning at such length and with such a variety of devices
that at long last a breach was achieved, one large enough to admit a man
of just his dimensions with myself in tow. He agreed to speak to us the
next day and in the meantime attempt to assemble his scattered faculties.
The next day he assured us that there had indeed been a manifesto and
that he knew where it was. Just one. The last of the lot. One which had
escaped confiscation and fire, one copy only which he had buried along
with his most treasured possessions; his bible and Napoleon's book of
charms. "A bible?" Prof. Kimani frowned. "What use had he for a bible?
If he could waver between gods, why shouldn't the gods themselves waver?"
The old man shrugged. Did we want them or not? If we did, he knew where
they had been buried. There was no need for a map. He knew the forest
like the back of his gnarled old hand. It seemed a wasted effort to go
to all this trouble. Prof. Kimani knew what he would find. He knew the
contents of the document by heart though he had never laid eyes on it.
He led the way with an agility that was surprising in a man of his years,
talking all the while. "They rose, we fell, we rose, we fell…..By rights,
we should rise and they fall. Or is it the other way round?" His blood
was up but alas, the trail was cold and a difficult three hour march terminated
at the point of departure. When another attempt produced a similar result,
one had to question his knowledge of his own anatomy. This result gave
him pause. He looked around him as if he were having trouble believing
his eyes. We had believed them to our detriment. "Ngai!" he cried at last,
exasperated. "I have the treacherous'st memory of any man I know." We
had to agree. He had received a knock on the head not very long ago. Perhaps
it had scrambled his memory. He grew pensive and after a few minutes of
meditation pronounced that, "Time is a disused panya route, leading nowhere."
He was in imminent danger of receiving another knock on the head. Since
he could not remember what he had sworn he could, could he tell us something,
anything about the man himself? He could he said. His description gave
the following: Head: admirable Hair: less so Height: medium Girth: unremarkable
There were no doubt many men of handsome head, unmentionable hair and
medium height in the graves at Kamiti and no doubt these clues would prove
very slim indeed. Still, it was important to try.
The large covered dais reserved for distinguished guests was filled with
dark coloured suits (pinstripes or no) and a smattering of the incongruous
red party-shirts, and above these, row upon row of faces in which no trace
of distinction was to be found. Directly opposite, a seething mass of
have-nots sweltered in the sun. On a trip to a neighbouring state, (in
fact a dictatorship in the bud, but now a bastion of despotism in full
and healthy bloom), our old man had been astonished to discover that a
dictator of just such a brutal stripe could wave the flag of revolution
in the face of a downtrodden populace with no consequence to himself,
that in fact the airing of the tattered revolutionary standard would redirect
the collective bile to other targets. To this end, remembrance was being
forced down our throats. Dead men were being dusted off and put back up
on our pedestals for our admiration. But first they had to be retrieved
from the dishonourable graves in which they lay. In that regard at least,
we were lucky. Whatever else we might lack, we had the luxury of revolt
behind us. I had no idea what nascent black nations with nary a whisper
of revolution to boast of, who had had independence handed to them on
a silver platter, did for heroes, and if they could contrive none, how
they were able to make their way in the world without them. Certain long
lost files had been retrieved and consulted for clues. The unhappy archivist
had been hard put to explain the large holes in the collection. The propaganda
machine began its slow turn again and promised a resurrection. A huge
crowd had trooped to the prison grounds to watch. The whole thing caught
Prof. Kimani by surprise. Having spent his entire adult life pushing against
an irresistible force, it was disconcerting to have it suddenly removed.
He accordingly fell flat on his face. It was an occasion for celebration,
for the sort of expansive bonhomie that will forgive almost anything.
For this reason, the father had prepared his bosom to receive the prodigal,
but Prof. Kimani, scorning such allowances as had been made for his accommodation,
took his place in the sun among the men he had liked to call his brethren.
They did not recognise him as such however. They had not read his books,
they had attended none of his lectures. They had no notion of the special
place they occupied in his heart, and Prof. Kimani did not trouble himself
to explain. They took him rather for a plainclothes policeman and watched
him closely lest he should attempt any of those offices by which Kenyan
policemen have made themselves infamous. Prof. Kimani had been used to
extending to his people (as he had called them then) the benefit of the
doubt. So often in fact and so generously, that it was bound one day to
be over extended. That day had come when he had been carted away to the
hospitality of the state, and every friend he had ever had had suddenly
disappeared. To a man. Prof. Kimani had been surprised and even a little
upset, though one could certainly understand how introspection might be
scorned by a nation whose concern lay rather with prospecting. Some had
suggested gently that he cease to mind his brothers' welfare and look
to his own, if only for a time. He was a destitute messiah, stripped of
any illusion of the sanctity of his mission and confronted with the unblemished
prurience of his flock. At present, theirs was a commerce of mutual suspicion
and dislike, the one from an Olympian height toward a humanity in full
exercise of its prerogative of imperfection, the other from the depths
of that imperfection and with no real desire for improvement. So he had
done as they had asked and left them to their low devices though he had
never ceased to wonder how a man will leave paradise and never look back.
He had returned to the uncomplicated company of the dead. Here at least
there was little possibility of disappointment. Long before circumstances
had contrived to enforce his solitude, Professor Kimani had been alone
so that he barely noticed the lack of human company later on. If there
was a crowd gathered anywhere, Prof. Kimani had only to appear for it
to disappear, to melt slowly away. Walking down even the most crowded
street in town, a large thoroughfare would open up before him. He was
alone as usual the day before he left, having been briefly allowed on
the premises to remove his personal effects from his office. Whatever
he left behind, he was told, would be destroyed. His office was exactly
as he had left it and his things filled only two small cardboard boxes.
Most of his books had been taken as evidence in his trial the year before.
He carried one and I the other. His name tag was still on the door. Across
the street the Sunset Bar was packed and full of noise on a Friday afternoon,
the beginning of the weekend bender. Fifteen minutes later, it was empty.
Njuguna the owner came up to take our order, a strained smile on his face.
No ordinary waiter could be entrusted with the task. He said, "Professor,
so good to see you," with a transparent lack of sincerity. Prof. Kimani's
custom had lost him a good deal more. If he couldn't see the damage he
was causing, he would point it out. There was a limit to everything. Forestalling
the inevitable, I ordered two beers and asked Njuguna if he had heard
the news. He hadn't. "The professor is leaving us soon," I said. The smile
he gave was one of pure relief. There would be no unpleasantness after
all. "Really?" he asked. "When? For how long? But you musn't go, professor!"
The beer was on the house. It was a small price to pay for peace and regular
custom. And then he was gone. And it was better that it had happened that
way. That he hadn't given me the chance to leave him because I would have.
I would have had to. I had neither seen nor heard from him until he had
come back home. Prof. Kimani's exile was the state's last resort. When
he had begun the digging into unpleasantness and encouraging others to
do the same, initially polite requests to cease and desist, which he flatly
refused to acknowledge, had given way to a variety of more forceful suggestions.
In the end, the big stick of detention without trial had been wielded,
it proved in this particular case sadly unequal to its task. From his
solitary cell, there continued to issue a steady stream of the most unsanitary
of our dirty laundry, highly embarrassing and highly seditious and for
which he would undoubtedly have been punished if he wasn't being punished
already. When at last the government had exhausted its not inconsiderable
repertoire of tortures and its not considerable imagination, Prof. Kimani
had once more been released into the world, somewhat the worse for wear,
bent, but far from broken. Now he was to shake the laterite of Kenya from
his boots and proceeded into exile, never again to set eyes on the land
of his birth and the depths of inhumanity. With nothing but his inability
to take instruction and the shirt on his back, he had vanished into the
frigid North and the warm embrace of the white liberal establishment.
But now here he was, precisely where he had sworn never to be again. Between
the dais and the swelling, seething crowd was a small expanse of scrubby
grass upon which five men had set to with hoes, breaking up the clods
of earth. As holes go, it was said to be the most important one we would
ever dig, more important even than the one we had been digging ourselves
into for the last 40 years, which was saying something. Here we were at
last, on the verge of facing up to ourselves. Perhaps what we found today
would save us from ourselves. But two hours of steady digging yielded
only an old army issue boot, a few rusty nails and a Taita charm of such
malevolence that no one would go near it. These oddments were entirely
unsatisfactory. They would not sustain a nation. They were inadequate
for the support even of a minor principality. They were wanting in every
regard. They would not do. The young men with the matted hair and restless
eyes predictably grew restless. The mournful little archivist upon whose
narrow shoulders reposed the responsibility for this farce cast a wild
look about him and clutched at his neck. At the third hole, a roar of
expectation rose to the exhumation of a brace of bones. Prof. Kimani had
the look on his face of a man about to meet his idee fixe. We were presented
instead with two skeletons, more or less intact, hands still bound behind
them, a single bullet hole at the base of each skull and not a whiff of
odeur de saintite. Of course, a certain negligence had to be admitted
in the disposal of patriots, freedom fighters, intellectuals and independent
thinkers, so it was impossible to divine to whom the bones had belonged
or where were the ones we sought. The archivist hazarded a guess and again
the digging commenced at another site. When we left, Prof. Kimani and
I, it was already dark but the digging was still going on. The field was
littered with open pits. We walked slowly to a dirty little bar on the
way to the main road. The bar was half full with people just in from watching
the farce. The owner served us our beer and asked us what it was about.
"I mean, who cares about so many dead men?" he asked at last. "What has
it to do with anything? Whether I have something to eat, or my children
go to school? " Even Prof. Kimani was too tired to explain. He finished
his beer in silence and walked out to catch the bus into town. Back at
home he had said: "All one has to do is to insinuate oneself into the
inexorable logic of events and men, to find oneself a little room to manoeuvre.
It's really that simple, to infiltrate the litany which holds that. Kenya
is the BEAA and the IBEA. Kenya is white man's country and the dual mandate.
"Kenya is breathtaking sunsets and endless space. Kenya is Eliot, Delamere,
Grogan, Blixen. Kenya is the Lewa Downs, the White Highlands. Kenya is
Karen, polo and four o'clock tea. Kenya is Australia or Canada: England,
cum water, cum sky. "Kenya is Mary Wanjiru, James Gichuru, Koinange, Kenyatta.
Kenya is YKA, KCA, KAU, Mau Mau. "To be Kenyan is to sneer at one's neighbours,
to condescend to Ujamaa, to mock Amin. To be Kenyan is to be an African
Socialist, whatever that may be. To be Kenyan is to cling to these borders
as if we would have been worse off if we had been Uganda, or Tanzania,
or all three. "To be Kenyan is to indict Indians and send out the jury
on whites. To be Kenyan is to refuse culpability, to plead one's innocence
and to plead for alms. Kenya is learning to make do. Other people's clothes,
other people's ideas. To be Kenyan is always to dream of better things.
"Kenya is the place between prosperity and destitution, not a good place,
granted, but one from where we can appreciate how things could be infinitely
worse." He stopped to catch his breath and laughed, a short, harsh laugh.
"So you see, that's all you have to do. It's not the truth that matters,
it's only that they believe it. You can tell them anything, tell them
what they want to hear. Tell them a likely story." He himself had not
the energy for it. Barely a month after that, he put all his books back
in their boxes and shipped them back where they had come from. He had
not been able to look what he saw as failure in the face, and so he had
left. It is a year since he died and this is the first time I have been
able to write this, to think about him without a sense of utter despair.
Maybe I can be of some small service to him. Maybe I can tell the story.