A T FIVE-THIRTY IN the evening, our train rumbled out of the old Nairobi train station heading west for Kisumu. Jane had decided to stay behind, but the rest of the family was on board-Kezia, Zeituni, and Auma in one compartment; Roy, Bernard, and myself in the next. While everyone busied themselves with storing their luggage, I jiggled open a window and looked out at the curve of the tracks behind us, a line of track that had helped usher in Kenya’s colonial history.
The railway had been the single largest engineering effort in the history of the British Empire at the time it was built-six hundred miles long, from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean to the eastern shores of Lake Victoria. The project took five years to complete, as well as the lives of several hundred imported Indian workers. When it was finished, the British realized there were no passengers to help defray the costs of their conceit. And so the push for white settlers; the consolidation of lands that could be used to help lure newcomers; the cultivation of cash crops like coffee and tea; the necessity of an administrative apparatus that could extend as far as the tracks, into the heart of an unknown continent. And missions and churches to vanquish the fear that an unknown land produced.
It seemed like ancient history. And yet I knew that 1895, the year that the first beams were laid, had also been the year of my grandfather’s birth. It was the lands of that same man, Hussein Onyango, to which we were now traveling. The thought made the history of the train come alive for me, and I tried to imagine the sensations some nameless British officer might have felt on the train’s maiden voyage, as he sat in his gas-lit compartment and looked out over miles of receding bush. Would he have felt a sense of triumph, a confidence that the guiding light of Western civilization had finally penetrated the African darkness? Or did he feel a sense of foreboding, a sudden realization that the entire enterprise was an act of folly, that this land and its people would outlast imperial dreams? I tried to imagine the African on the other side of the glass window, watching this snake of steel and black smoke passing his village for the first time. Would he have looked at the train with envy, imagining himself one day sitting in the car where the Englishman sat, the load of his days somehow eased? Or would he have shuddered with visions of ruin and war?
My imagination failed me, and I returned to the present landscape, no longer bush but the rooftops of Mathare stretching into the foothills beyond. Passing one of the slum’s open-air markets, I saw a row of small boys wave to the train. I waved back, and heard Kezia’s voice, speaking in Luo, behind me. Bernard yanked on my shirt.
“She says you should keep your head inside. Those boys will throw stones at you.”
One of the train’s crew came in to take our bedding order and tell us that food service had started, and so we all went into the dining car and found ourselves a table. The car was a picture of faded elegance-the original wood paneling still intact but dull, the silver real but not perfectly matched. The food was just fine, though, and the beer served cold, and by the end of the meal I was feeling content.
“How long will it take to get to Home Square?” I asked, wiping the last bit of sauce off my plate.
“All night to Kisumu,” Auma said. “We’ll take a bus or matatu from there-another five hours, maybe.” “By the way,” Roy said to me, lighting a cigarette, “it’s not Home Square. It’s Home Squared.” “What does that mean?”
“It’s something the kids in Nairobi used to say,” Auma explained. “There’s your ordinary house in Nairobi. And then there’s your house in the country, where your people come from. Your ancestral home. Even the biggest minister or businessman thinks this way. He may have a mansion in Nairobi and build only a small hut on his land in the country. He may go there only once or twice a year. But if you ask him where he is from, he will tell you that that hut is his true home. So, when we were at school and wanted to tell
somebody we were going to Alego, it was home twice over, you see. Home Squared.”
Roy took a sip of his beer. “For you, Barack, we can call it Home Cubed.”
Auma smiled and leaned back in her seat, listening to the rhythm of the train on the tracks. “This train brings back so many memories. You remember, Roy, how much we used to look forward to going home? It is so beautiful, Barack! Not at all like Nairobi. And Granny-she’s so much fun! Oh, you will like her, Barack.
She has such a good sense of humor.”
“She had to have a good sense of humor,” Roy said, “living with the Terror for so long.” “Who’s the Terror?”
Auma said, “That’s what we used to call our grandfather. Because he was so mean.”
Roy shook his head and laughed. “Wow, that guy was mean! He would make you sit at the table for dinner, and served the food on china, like an Englishman. If you said one wrong thing, or used the wrong fork-pow! He would hit you with his stick. Sometimes when he hit you, you wouldn’t even know why until the next day.”
Zeituni waved them off, unimpressed. “Ah, you children knew him only when he was old and weak. When he was younger, aay! I was his favorite, you know. His pet. But still, if I did something wrong, I would hide from him all day, I would be so scared! You know, he was strict even with his guests. If they came to his house, he would kill many chickens in their honor. But if they broke custom, like washing their hands before someone who was older, he would have no hesitation in hitting them, even the adults.”
“Doesn’t sound like he was real popular,” I said.
Zeituni shook her head. “Actually, he was well respected because he was such a good farmer. His compound in Alego was one of the biggest in the area. He had such a green thumb, he could make anything grow. He had studied these techniques from the British, you see. When he worked for them as a cook.”
“I didn’t know he was a cook.”
“He had his lands, but for a long time he was a cook for wazungu in Nairobi. He worked for some very important people. During the World War he served a captain in the British army.”
Roy ordered another beer. “Maybe that’s what made him so mean.”
“I don’t know,” Zeituni said. “I think my father was always that way. Very strict. But fair. I will tell you one story I remember, from when I was only a young girl. One day a man came to the edge of our compound with a goat on a leash. He wanted to pass through our land, because he lived on the other side, and he didn’t want to walk around. So your grandfather told this man, ‘When you are alone, you are always free to pass through my land. But today you cannot pass, because your goat will eat my plants.’ Well, this man would not listen. He argued for a long time with your grandfather, saying that he would be careful and that the goat would do no harm. This man talked so much your grandfather finally called me over and said, ‘Go bring me Alego.’ That’s what he called his panga, you see-”
“Yes, his machete. He had two that he kept very, very sharp. He would rub them on a stone all day. One panga he called Alego. The other he called Kogelo. So I ran back to his hut and brought him the one he called Alego. And now your grandfather tells this man, ‘See here. I have already told you that you should not pass, but you are too stubborn to listen. So now I will make a bargain with you. You can pass with your goat. But if even one leaf is harmed-if even one half of one leaf of my plants is harmed-then I will cut down your goat also.’
“Well, even though I was very young at the time, I knew that this man must be so stupid, because he accepted my father’s offer. We began to walk, the man and his goat in front, me and the old man following closely behind. We had walked maybe twenty steps when the goat stuck out its neck and started nibbling at a leaf. Then-Whoosh! My dad cut one side of the goat’s head clean through. The goat owner was shocked, and started to cry out. ‘Aalieey! Aaiieey! What have you done now, Hussein Onyango.’ And your grandfather just wiped off his panga and said, ‘If I say I will do something, I must do it. Otherwise how will people know that my word is true?’ Later, the owner of the goat tried to sue your grandfather before the council of elders. The elders all felt pity for the man, for the death of a goat was not such a small thing. But when they heard his story, they had to send him away. They knew that your grandfather was right, because the man had been warned.”
Auma shook her head. “Can you imagine, Barack?” she said, looking at me. “I swear, sometimes I think that the problems in this family all started with him. He is the only person whose opinion I think the Old
Man really worried about. The only person he feared.”
By this time, the dining car had emptied and the waiter was pacing back and forth impatiently, so we all decided to turn in. The bunks were narrow, but the sheets were cool and inviting, and I stayed up late listening to the trembling rhythm of the train and the even breath of my brothers, and thinking about the stories of our grandfather. It had all started with him, Auma had said. That sounded right somehow. If I could just piece together his story, I thought, then perhaps everything else might fall into place.
I finally fell asleep, and dreamed I was walking along a village road. Children, dressed only in strings of beads, played in front of the round huts, and several old men waved to me as I passed. But as I went farther along, I began to notice that people were looking behind me fearfully, rushing into their huts as I passed. I heard the growl of a leopard and started to run into the forest, tripping over roots and stumps and vines, until at last I couldn’t run any longer and fell to my knees in the middle of a bright clearing. Panting for breath, I turned around to see the day turned night, and a giant figure looming as tall as the trees, wearing only a loincloth and a ghostly mask. The lifeless eyes bored into me, and I heard a thunderous voice saying only that it was time, and my entire body began to shake violently with the sound, as if I were breaking apart….
I jerked up in a sweat, hitting my head against the wall lamp that stuck out above the bunk. In the darkness, my heart slowly evened itself, but I couldn’t get back to sleep again.
We arrived in Kisumu at daybreak and walked the half mile to the bus depot. It was crowded with buses and matatus honking and jockeying for space in the dusty open-air lot, their fenders painted with names like “Love Bandit” and “Bush Baby.” We found a sad-looking vehicle with balding, cracked tires that was heading our way. Auma boarded first, then stepped back out, looking morose.
“There are no seats,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” Roy said as our bags were hoisted up by a series of hands to the roof of the bus. “This is Africa, Auma…not Europe.” He turned and smiled down at the young man who was collecting fares. “You can find us some seats, eh, brother?”
The man nodded. “No problem. This bus is first-class.”
An hour later Auma was sitting on my lap, along with a basket of yams and somebody else’s baby girl.
“I wonder what third-class looks like,” I said, wiping a strand of spittle off my hand.
Auma pushed a strange elbow out of her face. “You won’t be joking after we hit the first pothole.”
Fortunately, the highway was well paved, the landscape mostly dry bush and low hills, the occasional cinder-block house soon replaced by mud huts with thatched, conical roofs. We got off in Ndori and spent the next two hours sipping on warm sodas and watching stray dogs snap at each other in the dust, until a matatu finally appeared to take us over the dirt road heading north. As we drove up the rocky incline a few shoeless children waved but did not smile, and a herd of goats ran before us, to drink at a narrow stream. Then the road widened and we finally stopped at a clearing. Two young men were sitting there, under the shade of a tree, and their faces broke into smiles as they saw us. Roy jumped out of the matatu to gather the two men into his arms.
“Barack,” Roy said happily, “these are our uncles. This is Yusuf,” he said, pointing to the slightly built man with a mustache. “And this,” he said, pointing to the larger, clean-shaven man, “this is our father’s youngest brother, Sayid.”
“Ah, we have heard many great things about this one,” Sayid said, smiling at me. “Welcome, Barry.
Welcome. Come, let me have your bags.”
We followed Yusuf and Sayid down a path running perpendicular to the main road, until we crossed a wall of tall hedges and entered a large compound. In the middle of the compound was a low, rectangular house with a corrugated-iron roof and concrete walls that had crumbled on one side, leaving their brown mud base exposed. Bougainvillea, red and pink and yellow with flowers, spread along one side in the direction of a large concrete water tank, and across the packed earth was a small round hut lined with earthenware pots where a few chickens pecked in an alternating rhythm. I could see two more huts in the wide grass yard that stretched out behind the house. Beneath a tall mango tree, a pair of bony red cows looked up at us before returning to feed.
“Eh, Obama!” A big woman with a scarf on her head strode out of the main house drying her hands on the sides of her flowered skirt. She had a face like Sayid’s, smooth and big-boned, with sparkling, laughing eyes. She hugged Auma and Roy as if she were going to wrestle them to the ground, then turned to me and grabbed my hand in a hearty handshake.
“Halo!” she said, attempting English.
“Musawa!” I said in Luo.
She laughed, saying something to Auma.
“She says she has dreamed about this day, when she would finally meet this son of her son. She says you’ve brought her a great happiness. She says that now you have finally come home.”
Granny nodded and pulled me into a hug before leading us into the house. Small windows let in little of the afternoon light, and the house was sparsely furnished-a few wooden chairs, a coffee table, a worn couch. On the walls were various family artifacts: the Old Man’s Harvard diploma; photographs of him and of Omar, the uncle who had left for America twenty-five years ago and had never come back. Beside these were two older, yellowing photographs, the first of a tall young woman with smoldering eyes, a plump infant in her lap, a young girl standing beside her; the second of an older man in a high-backed chair. The man was dressed in a starched shirt and a kanga; his legs were crossed like an Englishman’s, but across his lap was what appeared to be some sort of club, its heavy head wrapped in an animal skin. His high cheekbones and narrow eyes gave his face an almost Oriental cast. Auma came up beside me.
“That’s him. Our grandfather. The woman in the picture is our other grandmother, Akumu. The girl is Sarah. And the baby…that’s the Old Man.”
I studied the pictures for some time, until I noticed one last picture on the wall. It was a vintage print, the kind that grace old Coca-Cola ads, of a white woman with thick dark hair and slightly dreamy eyes. I asked what the print was doing there, and Auma turned to Granny, who answered in Luo.
“She says that that is a picture of one of our grandfather’s wives. He told people that he had married her in Burma when he was in the war.”
Roy laughed. “She doesn’t look very Burmese, eh, Barack?” I shook my head. She looked like my mother.
We sat down in the living room and Granny made us some tea. She explained that things were well, although she had given away some of the land to relatives, since she and Yusuf could not work it all by themselves. She made up the lost income by selling lunches to the children at the nearby school and bringing goods from Kisumu to the local market whenever she had some spare cash. Her only real problems were with the roof of the house-she pointed to a few threads of sunlight that ran from the ceiling to the floor-and the fact that she hadn’t heard anything from her son Omar in over a year. She asked if I had seen him, and I had to say no. She grunted something in Luo, then started to gather up our cups.
“She says when you see him, you should tell him she wants nothing from him,” Auma whispered. “Only that he should come visit his mother.”
I looked at Granny, and for the first time since our arrival, her age showed on her face.
After we unpacked our bags, Roy gestured for me to follow him out into the backyard. At the edge of a neighboring cornfield, at the foot of a mango tree, I saw two long rectangles of cement jutting out of the earth like a pair of exhumed coffins. There was a plaque on one of the graves: HUSSEIN ONYANGO OBAMA, B. 1895. D. 1979. The other was covered with yellow bathroom tiles, with a bare space on the headstone where the plaque should have been. Roy bent down and brushed away a train of ants that marched along the length of the grave.
“Six years,” Roy said. “Six years, and there’s still nothing to say who is buried here. I tell you now, Barack-when I die, you make sure that my name is on the grave.” He shook his head slowly before heading back toward the house.
How to explain the emotions of that day? I can summon each moment in my mind almost frame by frame. I remember Auma and myself joining Granny at the afternoon market, the same clearing where the matatu had first dropped us off, only now full of women who sat on straw mats, their smooth brown legs sticking straight out in front of them from under wide skirts; the sound of their laughter as they watched me help Granny pick stems off collard greens that she’d brought from Kisumu, and the nutty-sweet taste of a sugarcane stalk that one of the women put into my hand. I remember the rustle of corn leaves, the concentration on my uncles’ faces, the smell of our sweat as we mended a hole in the fence bounding the western line of the property. I remember how, in the afternoon, a young boy named Godfrey appeared in the compound, a boy who Auma explained was staying with Granny because his family lived in a village where there was no school; I remember Godfrey’s frantic steps as he chased a big black rooster through the banana and papaya trees, the knot in his young brow as the bird kept flapping out of his reach, the look in his eyes when finally Granny grabbed the rooster from behind with one hand and unceremoniously drew her knife across the bird’s neck-a look that I remembered as my own.
It wasn’t simply joy that I felt in each of these moments. Rather, it was a sense that everything I was doing, every touch and breath and word, carried the full weight of my life; that a circle was beginning to close, so that I might finally recognize myself as I was, here, now, in one place. Only once that afternoon would I feel that mood broken, when, on our way back from the market, Auma ran ahead to get her camera, leaving Granny and me alone in the middle of the road. After a long pause, Granny looked at me and smiled. “Halo!” she said. “Musawa!” I said. Our mutual vocabulary exhausted, we stared ruefully down at the dirt until Auma finally returned. And Granny then turned to Auma and said, in a tone I could understand, that it pained her not to be able to speak to the son of her son.
“Tell her I’d like to learn Luo, but it’s hard to find time in the States,” I said. “Tell her how busy I am.”
“She understands that,” Auma said. “But she also says that a man can never be too busy to know his own people.”
I looked at Granny, and she nodded at me, and I knew then that at some point the joy I was feeling would pass and that that, too, was part of the circle: the fact that my life was neither tidy nor static, and that even after this trip hard choices would always remain.
Night fell quickly, the wind making swift tracks through the darkness. Bernard, Roy, and I went to the water tank and bathed ourselves in the open air, our soapy bodies glowing from the light of an almost full moon. When we returned to the house, the food was waiting for us, and we ate purposefully, without words. After dinner, Roy left, muttering that he had some people he wanted to visit. Yusuf went to his hut and brought back an old transistor radio that he said had once belonged to our grandfather. Fiddling with the knob, he caught a scratchy BBC newscast, fading in and out of range, the voices like hallucinatory fragments from another world. A moment later we heard a strange, low-pitched moan off in the distance. “The night runners must be out tonight,” Auma said.
“What are night runners?”
“They’re like warlocks,” Auma said. “Spirit men. When we were children, these people here”-she pointed at Granny and Zeituni-would tell us stories about them to make us behave. They told us that in daylight the night runners are like ordinary men. You might pass them in the market, or even have them to your house for a meal, and never know their true natures. But at night they take on the shape of leopards and speak to all the animals. The most powerful night runners can leave their bodies and fly to faraway places. Or hex you with only a glance. If you ask our neighbors, they will tell you that there are still many night runners around here.”
“Auma! You act as if it is not true!”
In the flickering light of the kerosene lamp, I couldn’t tell if Zeituni was joking. “Let me tell you, Barry,” she said, “When I was young the night runners caused people many problems. They would steal our goats. Sometimes they took even our cattle. Only your grandfather was not afraid of them. I remember one time he heard his goats bleating in their pen, and when he went to check on them, he saw what looked like a huge leopard standing on its hind legs, like a man. It had a baby goat in its jaws, and when it saw your grandfather, it cried out in Luo before running into the forest. Your grandfather chased it deep into the hills, but just as he was about to strike it with his panga, the night runner flew up into the trees. Luckily, it dropped the goat when it jumped, and the goat suffered only a broken leg. Your grandfather brought the goat back to the compound and showed me how to make a splint. I cared for that goat myself until it was back to health.”
We became quiet again; lamplight grew low and people began drifting off to bed. Granny brought out blankets and a twin-sized cot for Bernard and me, and we arranged ourselves on the narrow bed before blowing out the lamp. My body ached from exhaustion; inside Granny’s bedroom, I could hear the murmur of her and Auma talking. I wondered where Roy had gone to, and thought about the yellow tiles on the Old Man’s grave.
“Barry,” Bernard whispered. “Are you awake?”
“Did you believe what Zeituni told you? About night runners?”
“I don’t know.”
“Myself, I think there is no such thing as a night runner. They are probably just thieves who use these stories to make people afraid.” “You may be right.” There was a long pause.
“What made you finally come home?”
“I’m not sure, Bernard. Something told me it was time.”
Bernard rolled over onto his side without answering. A moment later, I heard his soft snores beside me, and I opened my eyes to the darkness, waiting for Roy to return.
In the morning, Sayid and Yusuf suggested that Auma and I take a tour of the lands. As we followed them across the backyard and down a dirt path, through fields of corn and millet, Yusuf turned to me and said, “It must seem very primitive to you, compared to farms in America.”
I told him that I didn’t know much about farming but that, as far as I could tell, the land seemed quite fertile.
“Yes, yes,” Yusuf said, nodding. “The land is good. The problem is that people here are uneducated. They don’t understand much about development. Proper agricultural techniques and so forth. I try to explain to them about capital improvements and irrigation, but they refuse to listen. The Luo are very stubborn in this way.”
I noticed Sayid frowning at his brother, but he said nothing. After a few minutes we came to a small, brown stream. Sayid shouted out a warning, and two young women emerged on the opposite bank, wrapped in their kangas, their hair still gleaming from their morning baths. They smiled shyly and stepped behind an island of rushes, and Sayid pointed to the hedges running alongside the water.
“This is where the land ends,” he said. “Before, when my father lived, the fields were much bigger. But as my mother said, much of the land has now been given away.”
Yusuf decided to go back at this point, but Sayid led Auma and me along the stream for a while, then across more fields, past the occasional compound. In front of some huts, we saw women sorting through millet spread across square strips of cloth, and we stopped to talk to one of them, a middle-aged woman in a faded red dress and red, laceless sneakers. She set aside her work to shake our hands and told us that she remembered our father-they had herded goats together as children, she said. When Auma asked how life had been treating her, she shook her head slowly.
“Things have changed,” she said in a flat voice. “The young men leave for the city. Only the old men, women, and children remain. All the wealth has left us.” As she spoke, an old man with a rickety bicycle came up beside us, then a spindly man whose breath smelled of liquor. They immediately picked up the woman’s refrain about the hardness of life in Alego, and the children who had left them behind. They asked if we might give them something to tide them over, and Auma dropped a few shillings into each of their hands before we excused ourselves and started back toward the house.
“What’s happened here, Sayid?” Auma said after we were out of earshot. “There never used to be such begging.”
Sayid leaned down and cleared away a few fallen branches from between the rows of corn. “You are right,” he said. “I believe they have learned this thing from those in the city. People come back from Nairobi or Kisumu and tell them, ‘You are poor.’ So now we have this idea of poverty. We didn’t have this idea before. You look at my mother. She will never ask for anything. She has always something that she is doing. None of it brings her much money, but it is something, you see. It gives her pride. Anyone could do the same, but many people here, they prefer to give up.”
“What about Yusuf?” Auma asked. “Couldn’t he do more?”
Sayid shook his head. “My brother, he talks like a book, but I’m afraid he does not like to lead by example.”
Auma turned to me. “You know, Yusuf was doing really well for a time. He did well in school, didn’t he, Sayid? He received several good job offers. Then, I don’t know what happened. He just dropped out. Now he just stays here with Granny, doing small chores for her. It’s as if he’s afraid to try to succeed.”
Sayid nodded. “I think perhaps education doesn’t do us much good unless it is mixed with sweat.”
I thought about what Sayid had said as we continued to walk. Perhaps he was right; perhaps the idea of poverty had been imported to this place, a new standard of need and want that was carried like measles, by me, by Auma, by Yusuf’s archaic radio. To say that poverty was just an idea wasn’t to say that it wasn’t real; the people we’d just met couldn’t ignore the fact that some people had indoor toilets or ate meat every day, any more than the children of Altgeld could ignore the fast cars and lavish homes that flashed across their television sets.
But perhaps they could fight off the notion of their own helplessness. Sayid was telling us about his own life now: his disappointment at having never gone to the university, like his older brothers, for lack of funds; his work in the National Youth Corps, assigned to development projects around the country, a threeyear stint that was now coming to an end. He had spent his last two holidays knocking on the doors of various businesses in Nairobi, so far without any success. Still, he seemed undaunted by his circumstances, certain that persistence would eventually pay off.
“To get a job these days, even as a clerk, requires that you know somebody,” Sayid said as we approached Granny’s compound. “Or you must grease the palm of some person very heavily. That’s why I would like to start my own business. Something small only. But mine. That was your father’s error, I think. For all his brilliance, he never had something of his own.” He thought for a moment. “Of course, there’s no point wasting time worrying about the mistakes of the past, am I correct? Like this dispute over your father’s inheritance. From the beginning, I have told my sisters to forget this thing. We must get on with our lives. They do not listen to me, though. And in the meantime, the money they fight over goes where? To the lawyers. The lawyers are eating very well off this case, I believe. How does the saying go? When two locusts fight, it is always the crow who feasts.”
“Is that a Luo expression?” I asked. Sayid’s face broke into a bashful smile.
“We have similar expressions in Luo,” he said, “but actually I must admit that I read this particular expression in a book by Chinua Achebe. The Nigerian writer. I like his books very much. He speaks the truth about Africa’s predicament. The Nigerian, the Kenyan-it is the same. We share more than divides us.”
Granny and Roy were sitting outside the house and talking to a man in a heavy suit when we returned. The man turned out to be the principal of the nearby school, and he had stopped to share news from town and enjoy the chicken stew left over from the night before. I noticed that Roy had his bag packed, and asked him where he was going.
“To Kendu Bay,” he said. “The principal here is going that way, so myself, Bernard, and my mum, we’re going to go catch a ride with him and bring Abo back here. You should come, too, and pay your respects to the family there.”
Auma decided to stay back with Granny, but Sayid and I went to gather a change of clothes and piled into the principal’s old jalopy. The drive to Kendu turned out to be several hours long by the main highway; to the west, Lake Victoria appeared intermittently, its still, silver waters tapering off into flat green marsh. By late afternoon we were pulling down Kendu Bay’s main street, a wide, dusty road lined with sand-colored shops. After thanking the principal, we caught a matatu down a maze of side streets, until all signs of town had disappeared and the landscape was once again open pasture and cornfields. At a fork in the road, Kezia signaled for us to get off, and we began walking along a deep, chalk-colored gully at the bottom of which flowed a wide, chocolate-brown river. Along the riverbank, we could see women slapping wet clothes against exposed rock; on a terrace above, a herd of goats chewed on the patches of yellow grass, their black, white, and roan markings like lichen against the earth. We turned down a narrower footpath and came to the entrance of a hedged-in compound. Kezia stopped and pointed to what looked like a random pile of rocks and sticks, saying something to Roy in Luo.
“That’s Obama’s grave,” Roy explained. “Our great-grandfather. All the land around here is called K’Obama-‘Land of the Obama.’ We are Jok’Obama-‘the people of Obama.’ Our great-great-grandfather was raised in Alego, but he moved here when he was still a young man. This is where Obama settled, and where all his children were born.”
“So why did our grandfather go back to Alego?”
Roy turned to Kezia, who shook her head. “You have to ask Granny that question,” Roy said. “My mum thinks maybe he didn’t get along with his brothers. In fact, one of his brothers is still living here. He’s old now, but perhaps we can see him.”
We came to a small wooden house where a tall, handsome woman was sweeping the yard. Behind her, a young shirtless man sat on the porch. The woman shaded her eyes with her forearm and began to wave, and the young man slowly turned our way. Roy went up to shake hands with the woman, whose name was Salina, and the young man stood up to greet us.
“Eh, you people finally came for me,” Abo said, hugging each of us in turn. He reached for his shirt. “I had heard you were coming with Barry so long ago!”
“Yah, you know how it is,” Roy said. “It took us a while to get organized.”
“I’m just glad you came. I’m telling you, I need to get back to Nairobi.”
“You don’t like it here, eh?”
“It’s so boring, man, you would not believe it. No TV. No clubs. These people in the country, I think they are slow. If Billy hadn’t shown up, I would have gone crazy for sure.” “Billy’s here?”
“Yah, he’s around somewhere….” Abo waved his hand vaguely, then turned to me and smiled. “So,
Barry. What have you brought me from America?”
I reached into my bag and pulled out one of the portable cassette players that I had bought for him and Bernard. He turned it over in his hands with a thinly disguised look of disappointment.
“This brand is not a Sony, is it?” he said. Then, looking up, he quickly recovered himself and slapped me on the back. “That’s okay, Barry. Thank you! Thank you.”
I nodded at him, trying not to get angry. He was standing beside Bernard and their resemblance was striking: the same height, the same slender frame, the same smooth, even features. Just shave off Abo’s mustache, I thought to myself, and they could almost Pass as twins. Except for…what? The look in Abo’s eyes. That was it. Not just the telltale redness of some sort of high but something deeper, something that reminded me of young men back in Chicago. An element of guardedness, perhaps, and calculation. The look of someone who realizes early in life that he has been wronged.
We followed Salina inside the house, and she brought in a tray of sodas and biscuits. As she set down the tray, a strapping, mustached young man, as good-looking as Salina and as tall as Roy, walked through the door and let out a yell.
“Roy! What are you doing here?”
Roy stood up and they embraced. “You know me. Just looking for a meal. I should ask you the same thing.”
“Me, I am only visiting my mother. If I don’t come so often, she begins to complain.” He kissed Salina on the cheek and took my hand in a crushing handshake. “So I see you’ve brought my American cousin! I’ve heard so much about you, Barry, I cannot believe you are now here.” He turned to Salina. “Have you given Barry food?”
“Soon, Billy. Soon.” Salina took Kezia’s hand and turned to Roy. “You see what mothers must put up with? How is your granny, anyway?”
She nodded thoughtfully. “That is not so bad,” she said.
Together with Kezia, she went out of the room, and Billy fell onto the couch beside Roy.
“So, you still crazy, bwana? Look at you now! Well-fed, like a prize bull! You must be enjoying yourself in the States.”
“It’s okay,” Roy said. “How’s Mombasa? I hear you’re working at the post office.”
Billy shrugged. “The pay is all right. Not too much thinking, you know, but steady.” He turned to me. “Let me tell you, Barry, this brother of yours, he was wild! Truthfully, we were all wild back then. We spent most of our time chasing the bush meat, eh Roy!” He slapped Roy on the thigh and laughed. “So tell me, how are these American women?”
Roy laughed, but he seemed relieved when Salina and Kezia brought in dinner. “You see, Barry,” Billy said, setting down his plate on the low table in front of him, “your father and my father were age-mates. Very close. When Roy and I were growing up, we were also age-mates, so naturally we became very close. Let me tell you, your father, he was a very great man. I was closer to him than to my own father. If I was in trouble, it was my Uncle Barack that I went to first. And Roy, you would also go to my father, I believe.”
“The men in our family were very good to other people’s children,” Roy said quietly. “With their own, they didn’t want to look weak.”
Billy nodded and licked his fingers. “You know, Roy, I think there’s truth in what you say. Myself, I don’t want to make the same mistakes. I don’t want to mistreat my family.” With his clean hand, Billy pulled his wallet out of his pocket and showed me a picture of his wife and their two young children. “I swear, bwana, marriage takes you! You should see me now, Roy. I’ve become so calm. A family man. Of course, there are limits to what a man should take. My wife, she knows not to cross me too often. What do you say, Sayid?”
I realized that Sayid hadn’t spoken much since we arrived. He washed his hands now before turning to
“I am not yet married,” he said, “so perhaps I should not speak. But I admit, I have been giving these matters some thought. I have concluded that the problem that is most serious for Africa is what?” He paused to look around the room. “This thing between men and women. Our men, we try to be strong, but our strength is often misplaced. Like this business with having more than one woman. Our fathers had many wives, so we also must have many women. But we do not stop and look at the consequences. What happens with all these women? They become jealous. The children, they are not close to their fathers. It is-”
Sayid caught himself suddenly and smiled. “Of course, I have not even one wife, so I shouldn’t carry on so. Where there is no experience, I believe the wise man is silent.” “Achebe?” I asked.
Sayid laughed and clutched my hand. “No, Barry. That one was only me.”
It was dark by the time we finished dinner, and, after thanking Salina and Kezia for the food, we followed Billy outside onto a narrow footpath. Walking under a full moon, we soon came to a smaller house where the shadows of moths fluttered against a yellow window. Billy knocked on the door, and a short man with a scar along his forehead answered, his lips smiling but his eyes darting around like those of a man about to be struck. Behind him sat another man, tall, very thin, dressed in white and with a wispy goatee and mustache that made him look like an Indian sadhu. Together, the two men began shaking our hands feverishly, speaking to me in broken English.
“Your nephew!” the white-haired man said, pointing to himself.
The short one laughed and said, “His hair is white, but he calls you uncle! Ha-ha. You like this English?
They led us to a wooden table set with an unlabeled bottle of clear liquid and three glasses. The whitehaired man held up the bottle, then carefully poured what looked like a couple of shots into each glass. “This is better than whiskey, Barry,” Billy said as he lifted his glass. “It makes a man very potent.” He threw the drink down his throat, and Roy and I followed suit. I felt my chest explode, raining down shrapnel into my stomach. The glasses were refilled, but Sayid took a pass, so the short man held the extra drink in front of my eyes, his face distorted through the glass.
“Not right now,” I said, suppressing a cough. “Thanks.”
“You may perhaps have something for me?” the white-haired man said. “T-shirt maybe? Shoes?” “I’m sorry…I left everything back in Alego.”
The short man kept smiling as if he hadn’t understood and again offered me a drink. This time Billy pushed the man’s hand away.
“Leave him be!” Billy shouted. “We can drink more later. First we should see our grandfather.”
The two men led us into a small back room. There, in front of a kerosene lamp, sat what looked like the oldest man I had ever seen. His hair was snow-white, his skin like parchment. He was motionless, his eyes closed, his fleshless arms propped on the armrests of his chair. I thought perhaps he was asleep, but when Billy stepped forward the old man’s head tilted in our direction, and I saw a mirror image of the face I’d seen yesterday in Alego, in the faded photograph on Granny’s wall.
Billy explained who was there, and the old man nodded and began to speak in a low, quaking voice that seemed to rise out of a chamber beneath the floor.
“He says that he is glad you have come,” Roy translated. “He was your grandfather’s brother. He wishes you well.”
I said that I was happy to see him, and the old man nodded again.
“He says that many young men have been lost to…the white man’s country. He says his own son is in America and has not come home for many years. Such men are like ghosts, he says. When they die, no one will be there to mourn them. No ancestors will be there to welcome them. So…he says it is good that you have returned.”
The old man raised his hand and I shook it gently. As we got up to leave, the old man said something else, and Roy nodded his head before closing the door behind us.
“He says that if you hear of his son,” Roy explained, “you should tell him that he should come home.”
Perhaps it was the effects of the moonshine, or the fact that the people around me were speaking in a language I didn’t understand. But when I try to remember the rest of that evening, it’s as if I’m walking through a dream. The moon hangs low in the sky, while the figures of Roy and the others merge with the shadows of corn. We enter another small house and find more men, perhaps six, perhaps ten, the numbers constantly changing as the night wears on. In the center of a rough wooden table sit three more bottles, and the men begin pouring the moonshine into the glasses, ceremoniously at first, then faster, more sloppily; the dull, labelless bottle passed from hand to hand. I stop drinking after two more shots, but no one seems to notice. Old faces and young faces all glow like jack-o’-lanterns in the shifting lamplight, laughing and shouting, slumped in dark corners or gesticulating wildly for cigarettes or another drink, anger or joy pitching up to a crest, then just as quickly ebbing away, words of Luo and Swahili and English running together in unrecognizable swirls, the voices wheedling for money or shirts or the bottle, the voices laughing and sobbing, the outstretched hands, the faltering angry voices of my own sodden youth, of Harlem and the South Side; the voices of my father.
I’m not sure how long we stayed. I know that at some point, Sayid came up and shook my arm.
“Barry, we are going,” he said. “Bernard is not feeling well.”
I said I’d go with them, but as I stood up, Abo leaned over to me and grabbed my shoulders.
“Barry! Where are you going?”
“To sleep, Abo.”
“You must stay here with us! With me! And Roy!”
I looked up to see Roy slumped on the couch. Our eyes met, and I nodded toward the door. It seemed then that the entire room became silent, as if I were watching the scene on television and the sound had gone off. I saw the white-haired man fill Roy’s glass, and I thought about pulling Roy out of the room. But Roy’s eyes slid away from mine; he laughed and poured the drink down his throat to much cheering and applause, cheering that I still could hear even after Sayid, Bernard, and I had started making our way back toward Salina’s house.
“Those people were too drunk,” Bernard said weakly as we walked across the field.
Sayid nodded and turned to me. “I’m afraid Roy is too much like my eldest brother. You know, your father was very popular in these parts. Also in Alego. Whenever he came home, he would buy everyone drinks and stay out very late. The people here appreciated this. They would tell him, ‘You are a big man, but you have not forgotten us.’ Such words made him happy, I think. I remember once, he took me to Kisumu town in his Mercedes. On the way, he saw a matatu picking up passengers, and he said to me, ‘Sayid, we will be matatu drivers this evening!’ At the next matatu stop, he picked up the remaining people and told me to collect the regular fare from them. I think we squeezed eight people into his car. He took them not only to Kisumu but to their houses, or wherever they needed to go. And when each of them got out, he gave them all their money back. The people didn’t understand why he did this thing, and I also didn’t understand at the time. After we were done, we went to the bar, and he told the story of what we had done to all of his friends.
He laughed very well that night.”
Sayid paused, choosing his words carefully.
“This is what made my brother such a good man, these things. But I think also that once you are one thing, you cannot pretend that you are something else. How could he be a matatu driver, or stay out all night drinking, and also he is writing Kenya’s economic plan? A man does service for his people by doing what is right for him, isn’t this so? Not by doing what others think he should do. But my brother, although he prided himself on his independence, I also think that he was afraid of some things. Afraid of what people would say about him if he left the bar too early. That perhaps he would no longer belong with those he’d grown up with.”
“I don’t want to be that way,” Bernard said.
Sayid looked at his nephew with something like regret. “I did not mean to speak so freely, Bernard. You must respect your elders. They clear the way for you so that your path is easier. But if you see them falling into a pit, then you must learn to what?” “Step around,” Bernard said.
“You are right. Diverge from that path and make your own.”Sayid put his arm over the younger man’s shoulders. As we approached Salina’s house, I looked back behind me. I could still see the dim light of the old man’s window, and sense his blind eyes staring out into the darkness.