R OY AND ABO BOTH woke up with bad headaches, and along with Kezia stayed in Kendu for another day. In slightly better shape, I decided to make the trip back to Home Squared with Sayid and Bernard by bus, a decision I soon regretted. We had to stand for most of the way, our heads forced down by the bus’s low roof. To make matters worse, I’d come down with a case of the runs. My stomach lurched with every bump. My head throbbed with each wayward turn. And so it was in a cautious trot that I first appeared to Granny and Auma upon our return, offering them a curt wave before racing across the backyard, around an errant cow, and into the outhouse.
Twenty minutes later I emerged, blinking like a prisoner in the light of the early afternoon. The women were gathered on straw mats under the shade of a mango tree while Granny braided Auma’s hair and Zeituni braided the hair of a neighbor’s girl.
“Did you have a nice time?” Auma said, trying not to smile.
“Wonderful.” I sat down beside them and watched as a skinny old woman came out of the house and took a spot next to Granny. The old woman was in her early seventies, I guessed, but was dressed in a bright pink sweater; she folded her legs to the side like a bashful schoolgirl. She peered at me and spoke to Auma in Luo.
“She says you don’t look so well.”
The old woman smiled at me, revealing two missing bottom front teeth.
“This is our grandfather’s sister, Dorsila,” Auma continued. “The last child of our great-grandfather
Obama. She lives in another village, but when she heard-Ow! I tell you, Barack, you are lucky you don’t have braids to undo. What was I saying? Yah…Dorsila says that when she heard that we had come she walked all the way to see us. She brings greetings from all the people of her village.”
Dorsila and I shook hands, and I mentioned that I’d met her older brother in Kendu Bay. She nodded and spoke again.
“She says her brother is very old,” Auma translated. “When he was younger, he looked just like our grandfather. Sometimes even she couldn’t tell them apart.”
I agreed and took out my lighter. As I pulled at the flame, our great-aunt hooted and spoke rapidly to Auma.
“She wants to know where the fire comes from.”
I handed Dorsila the lighter and showed her how it worked as she continued to speak. Auma explained, “She says that things are changing so fast it makes her head spin. She says that the first time she saw television, she assumed the people inside the box could also see her. She thought they were very rude, because when she spoke to them they never answered back.”
Dorsila chuckled at herself good-humoredly, while Zeituni went into the cooking hut. A few minutes later, Zeituni came out with a mug in her hand. I asked her what had happened to Sayid and Bernard. “They’re asleep,” she said, handing me the cup. “Here. Drink this.” I took a sniff of the steaming green liquid. It smelled like a swamp.
“What is it?”
“It’s made from a plant that grows here. Trust me…it will firm up your stomach in a jiffy.”
I took a tentative first sip. The brew tasted as bad as it looked, but Zeituni stood over me until I had gulped down the last drop. “That is your grandfather’s recipe,” she said. “I told you he was a herbalist.”
I took another puff from my cigarette and turned to Auma. “Ask Granny to tell me more about him,” I said. “Our grandfather, I mean. Roy says that he actually grew up in Kendu, then moved to Alego on his own.”
Granny nodded to Auma’s translation. “Does she know why he left Kendu?”
Granny shrugged. “She says that originally his people came from this land,” Auma said.
I asked Granny to start from the beginning. How did our great-grandfather Obama come to live in Kendu? Where did our grandfather work? Why did the Old Man’s mother leave? As she started to answer, I felt the wind lift, then die. A row of high clouds crossed over the hills. And under the fanning shade of the mango tree, as hands wove black curls into even rows, I heard all our voices begin to run together, the sound of three generations tumbling over each other like the currents of a slow-moving stream, my questions like rocks roiling the water, the breaks in memory separating the currents, but always the voices returning to that single course, a single story….
First there was Miwiru. It’s not known who came before. Miwiru sired Sigoma, Sigoma sired Owiny, Owiny sired Kisodhi, Kisodhi sired Ogelo, Ogelo sired Otondi, Otondi sired Obongo, Obongo sired Okoth, and Okoth sired Opiyo. The women who bore them, their names are forgotten, for that was the way of our people.
Okoth lived in Alego. Before that, it is known only that families traveled a great distance, from the direction of what is now Uganda, and that we were like the Masai, migrating in search of water and grazing land for great herds of cattle. In Alego, the people settled and began to grow crops. Other Luo settled by the lake and learned to fish. There were other tribes, who spoke Bantu, already living in Alego when the Luo came, and great wars were fought. Our ancestor Owiny was known as a great warrior and leader of his people. He helped to defeat the Bantu armies, but the Bantu were allowed to stay on and marry Luo, and taught us many things about farming and the new land.
Once people began to settle and farm, the land in Alego became crowded. Opiyo, son of Okoth, was a younger brother, so perhaps that is why he decided to move to Kendu Bay. When he moved there, he was landless, but in the custom of our people, a man could use any unused land. What a man did not use reverted to the tribe. So there was no shame in Opiyo’s situation. He worked in the compounds of other men and cleared the land for his own farm. But before he could prosper, he died very young, leaving behind two wives and several children. One wife was taken in by Opiyo’s brother, as was the custom then-she became the brother’s wife, her children his children. But the other wife also died, and her oldest son, Obama, was orphaned when still a boy. He, too, lived with his uncle, but the resources of the family were strained, and so as Obama grew older, he began to work for other men as his father had done before him.
The family he worked for was wealthy, with many cattle. But they came to admire Obama, for he was enterprising and a very good farmer. When he sought to marry their oldest daughter, they agreed, and the uncles in this family provided the necessary dowry. And when this eldest daughter died, they agreed that Obama could marry the younger daughter, whose name was Nyaoke. Eventually Obama had four wives, who bore him many children. He cleared his own land and became prosperous, with a large compound and many cattle and goats. And because of his politeness and responsible ways, he became an elder in Kendu, and many came to seek his advice.
Your grandfather, Onyango, was Nyaoke’s fifth son. Dorsila, who sits here, was the last child of Obama’s last wife.
This is the time before the white man came. Each family had their own compound, but they all lived under the laws of the elders. Men had their own huts, and were responsible for clearing and cultivating their land, as well as protecting the cattle from wild animals and the raids of other tribes. Each wife had her own vegetable plot, which only she and her daughters would cultivate. She cooked the man’s food, drew water, and maintained the huts. The elders regulated all plantings and the harvests. They organized families to rotate their work, so that each family helped the other, in doing these things. The elders distributed food to widows or those who had fallen on hard times, provided cattle as dowry for those men who had no cattle themselves, and settled all conflicts. The words of the elders were law and strictly followed-those who disobeyed would have to leave and start anew in another village.
The children did not go to school, but learned alongside their parents. The girls would accompany their mothers and learn how to grind the millet into porridge, how to grow vegetables and pack clay for the huts. The boys learned from their fathers how to herd and work pangas and throw spears. When a mother died, another would take the child in and suckle him as her own. At night, the daughters would eat with their mothers, while the sons would join their father in his hut, listening to stories and learning the ways of our people. Sometimes a harpist would come, and the entire village would come to listen to his songs. The harpists sang of great deeds of the past, the great warriors and wise elders. They would praise men who were good farmers, or women who were beautiful, and rebuke those who were lazy or cruel. All were recognized in these songs for their contributions to the village, good and bad, and in this way the traditions of the ancestors stayed alive in all who heard. When the children and women were gone, the men in the village would gather together and decide on the village affairs.
Even from the time that he was a boy, your grandfather Onyango was strange. It is said of him that he had ants up his anus, because he could not sit still. He would wander off on his own for many days, and when he returned he would not say where he had been. He was very serious always-he never laughed or played games with the other children, and never made jokes. He was always curious about other people’s business, which is how he learned to be a herbalist. You should know that a herbalist is different from a shaman-what the white man calls a witch doctor. A shaman casts spells and speaks to the spirit world. The herbalist knows various plants that will cure certain illnesses or wounds, how to pack a special mud so that a cut will heal. As a boy, your grandfather sat in the hut of the herbalist in his village, watching and listening carefully while the other boys played, and in this way he gained knowledge.
When your grandfather was still a boy, we began to hear that the white man had come to Kisumu town. It was said that these white men had skin as soft as a child’s, but that they rode on a ship that roared like thunder and had sticks that burst with fire. Before this time, no one in our village had seen white men-only Arab traders who sometimes came to sell us sugar and cloth. But even that was rare, for our people did not use much sugar, and we did not wear cloth, only a goatskin that covered our genitals. When the elders heard these stories, they discussed it among themselves and advised the men to stay away from Kisumu until this white man was better understood.
Despite this warning, Onyango became curious and decided that he must see these white men for himself. One day he disappeared, and no one knew where he had gone. Then, many months later, while Obama’s other sons were working the land, Onyango returned to the village. He was wearing the trousers of a white man, and a shirt like a white man, and shoes that covered his feet. The small children were frightened, and his brothers didn’t know what to make of this change. They called Obama, who came out of his hut, and the family gathered ’round to stare at Onyango’s strange appearance.
“What has happened to you?” Obama asked. “Why do you wear these strange skins?” Onyango said nothing, and Obama decided that Onyango must be wearing trousers to hide the fact that he was circumcised, which was against Luo custom. He thought that Onyango’s shirt must be covering a rash, or sores. Obama turned to his other sons and said, “Don’t go near this brother of yours. He is unclean.” Then he returned to his hut, and the others laughed and shunned Onyango. Because of this, Onyango returned to Kisumu, and would remain estranged from his father for the rest of his life.
Nobody realized then that the white man intended to stay in the land. We thought that they had come only to trade their goods. Some of their customs we soon developed a taste for, like the drinking of tea. With tea, we found that we needed sugar, and teakettles, and cups. All these things we bought with skins and meat and vegetables. Later we learned to accept the white man’s coin. But these things did not affect us deeply. Like the Arabs, the white men remained small in number, and we assumed they would eventually return to their own land. In Kisumu, some white men stayed on and built a mission. These men spoke of their god, who they said was all-powerful. But most people ignored them and thought their talk silly. Even when white men appeared with rifles, no one resisted because our lives were not yet touched by the death such weapons could bring. Many of us thought the guns were just fancy ugali stirrers.
Things began to change with the first of the white man’s wars. More guns arrived, along with a white man who called himself district commissioner. We called this man Bwana Ogalo, which meant “the Oppressor.” He imposed a hut tax that had to be paid in the white man’s money. This forced many men to work for wages. He conscripted outright many of our men into his army to carry provisions and build a road that would allow automobiles to pass. He surrounded himself with Luos who wore clothes like the white man to serve as his agents and tax collectors. We learned that we now had chiefs, men who were not even in the council of elders. All these things were resisted, and many men began to fight. But those who did so were beaten or shot. Those who failed to pay taxes saw their huts burned to the ground. Some families fled farther into the countryside to start new villages. But most people stayed and learned to live with this new situation, although we now all realized that it had been foolish to ignore the white man’s arrival.
During this time, your grandfather worked for the white man. Few people could speak English or Swahili in those days-men didn’t like to send their sons to the white man’s school, preferring that they work with them on the land. But Onyango had learned to read and write, and understood the white man’s system of paper records and land titles. This made him useful to the white man, and during the war he was put in charge of road crews. Eventually he was sent to Tanganyika, where he stayed for several years. When he finally returned, he cleared land for himself in Kendu, but it was away from his father’s compound and he rarely spoke to his brothers. He didn’t build a proper hut for himself, but instead lived in a tent. People had never seen such a thing and they thought he was crazy. After he had staked his claim, he traveled to Nairobi, where a white man had offered him a job.
In those days, few Africans could ride the train, so Onyango walked all the way to Nairobi. The trip took him more than two weeks. Later he would tell us of the adventures he had during this journey. Many times he chased away leopards with his panga. Once he was chased into a tree by an angry buffalo and had to sleep in the tree for two days. Once he found a drum lying in the middle of the forest path and when he opened it, a snake appeared and slid between his feet into the bush. But no harm came to him, and he eventually arrived in Nairobi to begin his work in the white man’s house.
He was not the only one who moved to town. After the war, many Africans began working for wages, especially those who had been conscripted or lived near the cities or had joined the white missions. Many people had been displaced during and immediately following the war. The war had brought famine and disease in its wake, and it brought large numbers of white settlers, who were allowed to confiscate the best land.
The Kikuyu felt these changes the most, for they lived in the highlands around Nairobi, where white settlement was heaviest. But the Luo also felt the white man’s rule. All persons had to register with the colonial administration and hut taxes steadily increased. This pressured more and more men to work as laborers on the big white farms. In our village, more families now wore the white man’s clothes, and more fathers agreed to send their children to mission school. Of course, even those who went to school could not do the things the white man did. Only whites were allowed to buy certain land or run certain businesses. Other enterprises were reserved by law for the Hindus and the Arabs.
Some men began to try to organize against these policies, to petition and hold demonstrations. But their numbers were few, and most people just struggled to live. Those Africans who did not work as laborers stayed in their villages, trying to maintain the old ways. But even in the villages, attitudes changed. The land was crowded, for with new systems of land ownership, there was no longer room for sons to start their own plots-everything was owned by someone. Respect for tradition weakened, for young people saw that the elders had no real power. Beer, which once had been made of honey and which men drank only sparingly, now came in bottles, and many men became drunks. Many of us began to taste the white man’s life, and we decided that compared to him, our lives were poor.
By these standards, your grandfather prospered. In his job in Nairobi, he learned how to prepare the white man’s food and organize the white man’s house. Because of this, he was popular with employers and worked in the estates of some of the most important white men, even Lord Delamere. He saved his wages and bought land and cattle in Kendu. On these lands, he eventually built himself a hut. But the way he kept his hut was different from other people. His hut was so spotless, he would insist that people rinse their feet or take off their shoes before entering. Inside, he would eat all his meals at a table and chair, under mosquito netting, with a knife and a fork. He would not touch food that had not been washed properly and covered as soon as it had been cooked. He bathed constantly, and washed his clothes every night. To the end of his life he would be like this, very neat and hygienic, and he would become angry if you put something in the wrong place or cleaned something badly.
And he was very strict about his property. If you asked him, he would always give you something of his-his food, his money, his clothes even. But if you touched his things without asking, he would become very angry. Even later, when his children were born, he would tell them always that you do not touch other people’s property.
The people of Kendu thought his manners strange. They would come to his house because he was generous with his food and always had something to eat. But among themselves, they would laugh because he had neither wives nor children. Perhaps Onyango heard this talk, for he soon decided that he needed a wife. His problem was, no woman could maintain his household the way he expected. He paid dowry on several girls, but whenever they were lazy or broke a dish, your grandfather would beat them severely. It was normal among the Luo for men to beat their wives if they misbehaved, but even among Luos
Onyango’s attitude was considered harsh, and eventually the women he took for himself would flee to their fathers’ compounds. Your grandfather lost many cattle this way, for he would be too proud to ask for the return of his dowry.
Finally, he found a wife who could live with him. Her name was Helima. It isn’t known how she felt toward your grandfather, but she was quiet and polite-and most important, she could maintain your grandfather’s high housekeeping standards. He built a hut for her in Kendu, where she spent most of her time. Sometimes he would bring her to Nairobi to stay in the house where he worked. After a few years had passed, it was discovered that Helima could not bear any children. Among the Luo, this was normally proper grounds for divorce-a man could send a barren wife back to his in-laws and ask that his dowry be returned. But your grandfather chose to keep Helima, and in that sense, he treated her well.
Still, it must have been lonely for Helima, for your grandfather worked all the time and had no time for friends or entertainment. He did not drink with other men, and he did not smoke tobacco. His only pleasure was going to the dance halls in Nairobi once a month, for he liked to dance. But he also was not such a good dancer-he was rough, and would bump into people and step on their feet. Most people did not say anything about this because they knew Onyango and his temper. One night, though, a drunken man began to complain about Onyango’s clumsiness. The man became rude, and told your grandfather, “Onyango, you are already an older man. You have many cattle, and you have a wife, and yet you have no children. Tell me, is something the matter between your legs?”
People who overheard the conversation began to laugh, and Onyango beat this man severely. But the drunk man’s words must have stayed with your grandfather, for that month he set out to find another wife. He returned to Kendu and inquired about all the women in the village. Finally he made up his mind on a young girl named Akumu, who was well regarded for her beauty. She was already promised to another man, who had paid her father six cattle in dowry, promising to deliver six more in the future. But Onyango knew the girl’s father and he convinced him to send back these six cattle. In return, Onyango gave him fifteen cattle on the spot. The next day, your grandfather’s friends captured Akumu while she was walking in the forest and dragged her back to Onyango’s hut.
The young boy, Godfrey, appeared with the washbasin, and we all washed our hands for lunch. Auma.
stood up to stretch her back, her hair still half undone, a troubled look on her face. She said something to Dorsila and Granny, and drew a lengthy response from both women.
“I was asking them if our grandfather took Akumu by force,” Auma told me, spooning some meat onto her plate.
“What did they say?”
“They say that this thing about grabbing the woman was part of Luo custom. Traditionally, once the man pays the dowry, the woman must not seem too eager to be with him. She pretends to refuse him, and so the man’s friends must capture her and take her back to his hut. Only after this ritual do they perform a proper marriage ceremony.” Auma took a small bite of her food. “I told them that in such a custom some women might not have been pretending.”
Zeituni dipped her ugali into the stew. “Yah, Auma, it was not as bad as you say. If her husband behaved badly, the girl could always leave.”
“But what good was that if her father would only end up choosing someone else for her? Tell me, what would happen if a woman refused her father’s choice of a suitor?”
Zeituni shrugged. “She shamed herself and her family.”
“You see?” Auma turned to ask Granny something, and whatever it was that Granny said in response made Auma hit Granny-only half playfully-on the arm.
“I asked her if the man would force the girl to sleep with him the night of her capture,” Auma explained, “and she told me that no one knew what went on in a man’s hut. But she also asked me how a man would know if he wanted the whole bowl of soup unless he first had a taste.”
I asked Granny how old she had been when she married our grandfather. The question amused her so much that she repeated it to Dorsila, who giggled and slapped Granny on the leg.
“She told Dorsila that you wanted to know when Onyango seduced her,” Auma said.
Granny winked at me, then told us she had been just sixteen when she married; our grandfather was a friend of her father’s, she said. I asked if that had bothered her, and she shook her head.
“She says that it was common to marry an older man,” Auma said. “She says in those days, marriage involved more than just two people. It brought together families and affected the whole village. You didn’t complain, or worry about love. If you didn’t learn to love your husband, you learned to obey him.”
At this point, Auma and Granny began to speak at length, and Granny said something that again made the others laugh. Everyone except Auma, who stood up and began to stack the dishes. “I give up,” Auma said, exasperated.
“What did Granny say?”
“I asked her why our women put up with the arranged marriages. The way men make all the decisions. The wife-beating. You know what she said? She said that often the women needed to be beaten, because otherwise they would not do everything that was required of them. You see how we are? We complain, but still we encourage men to treat us like shit. Look at Godfrey over there. You think, when he hears these things Granny and Dorsila have said, that this won’t affect his own attitudes?”
Granny couldn’t understand the precise meaning of Auma’s words, but she must have caught the tone, for her voice suddenly became serious.
“Much of what you say is true, Auma,” she said in Luo. “Our women have carried a heavy load. If one is a fish, one does not try to fly-one swims with other fish. One only knows what one knows. Perhaps if I were young today, I would not have accepted these things. Perhaps I would only care about my feelings, and falling in love. But that’s not the world I was raised in. I only know what I have seen. What I have not seen doesn’t make my heart heavy.”
I leaned back on the mat and thought about what Granny had said. There was a certain wisdom there, I supposed; she was speaking of a different time, another place. But I also understood Auma’s frustration. I knew that, as I had been listening to the story of our grandfather’s youth, I, too, had felt betrayed. My image of Onyango, faint as it was, had always been of an autocratic man-a cruel man, perhaps. But I had also imagined him an independent man, a man of his people, opposed to white rule. There was no real basis for this image, I now realized-only the letter he had written to Gramps saying that he didn’t want his son marrying white. That, and his Muslim faith, which in my mind had become linked with the Nation of Islam back in the States. What Granny had told us scrambled that image completely, causing ugly words to flash across my mind. Uncle Tom. Collaborator. House nigger.
I tried to explain some of this to Granny, asking her if our grandfather had ever expressed his feelings about the white man. Just then, Sayid and Bernard emerged, groggy-eyed, from the house, and Zeituni directed them to the plates of food that had been set aside for them. It wasn’t until they had settled down to eat, and Auma and the neighbor’s girl resumed their positions in front of the older women, that Granny returned to her story.
I also did not always understand what your grandfather thought. It was difficult, because he did not like people to know him so well. Even when he spoke to you, he would look away for fear that you would know his thoughts. So it was with his attitude towards the white man. One day he would say one thing, and the next day it was as if he was saying something else. I know that he respected the white man for his power, for his machines and weapons and the way he organized his life. He would say that the white man was always improving himself, whereas the African was suspicious of anything new. “The African is thick,” he would sometimes say to me. “For him to do anything, he needs to be beaten.”
But despite these words, I don’t think he ever believed that the white man was born superior to the African. In fact, he did not respect many of the white man’s ways or their customs. He thought many things that they did were foolish or unjust. He himself, he would never allow himself to be beaten by a white man. This is how he lost many jobs. If the white man he worked for was abusive, he would tell the man to go to hell and leave to find other work. Once, an employer tried to cane him, and your grandfather grabbed the man’s cane and thrashed him with it. For this he was arrested, but when he explained what had happened, the authorities let him off with a fine and a warning.
What your grandfather respected was strength. Discipline. This is why, even though he learned many of the white man’s ways, he always remained strict about Luo traditions. Respect for elders. Respect for authority. Order and custom in all his affairs. This is also why he rejected the Christian religion, I think. For a brief time, he converted, and even changed his name to Johnson. But he could not understand such ideas as mercy towards your enemies, or that this man Jesus could wash away a man’s sins. To your grandfather, this was foolish sentiment, something to comfort women. And so he converted to Islam-he thought its practices conformed more closely to his beliefs.
In fact, it was this hardness that caused so many problems between him and Akumu. By the time I came to live with him, she had already borne Onyango two children. The first was Sarah. Three years later came your father, Barack. I did not know Akumu well, for she and her children lived with Helima on your grandfather’s compound in Kendu, while I stayed with him in Nairobi, to help him with his work there. But whenever I accompanied your grandfather to Kendu, I could see that Akumu was unhappy. Her spirit was rebellious, and she found Onyango too demanding. He would always complain that she kept a bad house. Even in child rearing, he was strict with her. He told her to keep the babies in cribs and dress them in fancy clothes that he brought from Nairobi. Whatever the babies touched had to be even cleaner than before. Helima tried to help Akumu, and cared for the children as if they were her own, but it didn’t help. Akumu was only a few years older than me, and the pressure on her was great. And perhaps Auma is right…perhaps she still loved the man she was to have wed before Onyango took her away.
Whatever it was, more than once she tried to leave Onyango. Once after Sarah was born, and again after Barack. Despite his pride, Onyango followed her both times, for he believed that the children needed their mother. Both times, Akumu’s family took his side, so she had no choice but to return. Eventually she learned to do what was expected of her. But she quietly clung to her bitterness.
Life became easier for her when the Second World War came. Your grandfather went overseas as the cook to the British captain, and I came to live with Akumu and Helima, helping both with the children and their crops. We did not see Onyango for some time. He traveled widely with the British regiments-to Burma and Ceylon, to Arabia, and also somewhere in Europe. When he returned three years later, he came with a gramophone and that picture of the woman he claimed to have married in Burma. The pictures you see on my wall-they are taken from this time.
Onyango was now almost fifty. More and more, he thought of quitting his work for the white man and returning to farm the land. He saw, though, that the land surrounding Kendu was crowded and overgrazed. So his mind went back to Alego, the land that his grandfather had abandoned. One day he came to his wives and told us that we should prepare ourselves to leave for Alego. I was young and adaptable, but the news came as a shock to Helima and Akumu. Both of their families lived in Kendu, and they had become accustomed to living there. Helima especially feared that she would be lonely in this new place, for she was almost as old as Onyango and had no children of her own. So she refused to go. Akumu also refused to go at first, but again her family convinced her that she must follow her husband and care for her children.
When we arrived in Alego, most of this land that you now see was bush, and life was hard for all of us.
But your grandfather had studied modern farming techniques while in Nairobi and he put his ideas to work. He could make anything grow, and in less than a year he had grown enough crops to sell at market. He smoothed out the earth to make this wide lawn, and cleared the fields where his crops grew high and plentiful. He planted the mango and banana and pawpaw trees that you see today.
He even sold most of his cattle because he said that their grazing made the soil poor and caused it to wash away. With this money, he built large huts for Akumu and myself and a hut of his own. He had brought back a crystal set from England that he displayed on a shelf, and on his gramophone he played strange music late into the night. When my first children, Omar and Zeituni, were born, he bought them cribs and gowns and separate mosquito nets, just as he had for Barack and Sarah. In the cooking hut, he built an oven in which he baked bread and cakes like you buy in a store.
His neighbors in Alego had never seen such things. At first they were suspicious of him and thought he was foolish-especially when he sold his cattle. But soon they came to respect his generosity, as well as what he taught them about farming and herbal medicines. They even came to appreciate his temper, for they discovered that he could protect them from witchcraft. In those days, shamans were consulted often and were widely feared. It was said that they could give you a love potion for the one you desired and other potions that would cause your enemies to fall dead. But your grandfather, because he had traveled widely and read books, didn’t believe in such things. He thought they were tricksters who stole people’s money.
Even now, many in Alego can tell you about the day that a shaman from another province came to kill one of our neighbors. This neighbor had courted a girl from nearby, and the families had agreed that they should be wed. However, another man hungered for this girl, and so the jealous suitor hired a shaman to kill his rival. When our neighbor heard of this plan, he became very afraid, and came to Onyango asking for advice. Your grandfather listened to the man’s story, then picked up his panga and a hippo-hide whip, and went to wait for the shaman at the foot of the road.
Before long, Onyango saw the shaman approaching, carrying a small suitcase of potions in one hand. When the shaman was within shouting distance, your grandfather stood in the center of the road and said, “Go back to where you come from.” The shaman didn’t know who Onyango was, and made like he was going to pass, but Onyango blocked his way and said, “If you are as powerful as you claim, you must strike me now with lightning. If not, you should run, for unless you leave this village now, I will have to beat you.” Again, the shaman made as if he was going to pass, but before he could take another step, Onyango had beaten him to the ground, taken his suitcase, and returned with it to his compound.
Well, this was a very serious matter, especially when your grandfather refused to return the shaman’s potions. The next day, the council of elders gathered beneath a tree to resolve the dispute, and Onyango and the shaman were both told to appear and state their case. First the shaman stood and told the elders that if Onyango did not return the suitcase at once, a curse would be brought on the entire village. Then Onyango stood, and he repeated what he had said earlier. “If this man has strong magic, let him curse me now and strike me dead.” The elders leaned away from Onyango, fearful that the spirits might miss their target. But they soon saw that no spirits came. So Onyango turned to the man who had hired the shaman and said, “Go and find yourself a new woman, and let this other woman be with the one to whom she is promised.” And to the shaman Onyango said, “Go back to where you came from, because there will be no killings in this place.”
To these things, all the elders agreed. But they insisted that Onyango must also return the shaman’s suitcase, for they did not want to take any chances. Onyango also agreed, and when the meeting was finished, he brought the shaman to his hut. He told me to slaughter a chicken so the shaman could eat, and even gave the shaman money so that his trip to Alego would not have been wasted. But before your grandfather let the shaman leave, he made the man show him the contents of his suitcase and explain the properties of every potion, so that he would know all the tricks that the shaman performed.
Even if Onyango had used one of these potions on Akumu, I don’t think he could have made her happy. No matter how much he beat her, she would argue with him. She was also proud and scornful of me, and often refused to help in the household chores. She had a third child-named Auma, like this one sitting here-and as she nursed this new baby, she secretly planned her escape. One night, when Sarah was twelve and Barack was nine, she made her move. She woke up Sarah and said that she was running away to Kendu. She told Sarah that it was too difficult a journey for children to make at night, but said that they should follow her as soon as they were older. Then she disappeared with her baby into the darkness.
When Onyango found out what had happened, he was furious. At first he thought he should finally let Akumu go, but when he saw that Barack and Sarah were still young, and that even I, with two children of my own, was little more than a girl, he again went to Akumu’s family in Kendu and asked that she be returned. But this time the family refused. In fact, they had already accepted dowry for Akumu’s remarriage to another man, and together Akumu and her new husband had left for Tanganyika. There was nothing Onyango could do, so he returned to Alego. He said to himself, “It does not matter,” and he told me that I was now the mother of all his children.
Neither he nor I knew of Akumu’s last visit to Sarah. But Sarah had remembered her mother’s instructions, and only a few weeks passed before she woke up Barack in the middle of the night, just as her mother had done to her. She told Barack to be quiet, helped him get dressed, and together they began to walk down the road to Kendu. I still wonder that they both survived. They were gone for almost two weeks, walking many miles each day, hiding from those who passed them on the road, sleeping in fields and begging for food. Not far from Kendu, they became lost, and a woman finally saw them and took pity on them, for they were filthy and almost starved. The woman took them in and fed them, and asked them their names; and when she realized who they were she sent for your grandfather. And when Onyango came to get them, and saw how badly they looked, this is the only time that anyone ever saw him cry.
The children never tried to run away again. But I don’t think they ever forgot this journey they made. Sarah kept a careful distance from Onyango, and in her heart remained loyal to Akumu, for she was older, and perhaps had seen how the old man had treated her mother. I believe she also resented me for taking her mother’s place. Barack reacted differently. He could not forgive his abandonment, and acted as if Akumu didn’t exist. He told everyone that I was his mother, and although he would send Akumu money when he became a man, to the end of his life he would always act coldly towards her.
The strange thing was that in many ways Sarah was most like her father in personality. Strict, hardworking, easy to anger. Whereas Barack was wild and stubborn like Akumu. But of course such things one does not see in one’s self.
As you might expect, Onyango was very strict with his children. He worked them hard, and would not allow them to play outside the compound, because he said other children were filthy and ill-mannered. Whenever Onyango went away, I would ignore these instructions, because children must play with other children, just as they must eat and sleep. But I would never tell your grandfather what I did, and I would have to scrub the children clean before your grandfather came home.
This was not easy, especially with Barack. That boy was so mischievous! In Onyango’s presence, he appeared well-mannered and obedient, and never answered back when his father told him to do something. But behind the old man’s back, Barack did as he pleased. When Onyango was away on business, Barack would take off his proper clothes and go off with other boys to wrestle or swim in the river, to steal the fruit from the neighbors’ trees or ride their cows. The neighbors were afraid to go directly to Onyango, so they would come to me and complain about these things. But I could not get mad at Barack, and would always cover up his foolishness from Onyango, for I loved him as my own son.
Although he did not like to show it, your grandfather was also very fond of Barack, because the boy was so clever. When Barack was only a baby, Onyango would teach him the alphabet and numbers, and it was not long before the son could outdo the father in these things. This pleased Onyango, for to him knowledge was the source of all the white man’s power, and he wanted to make sure that his son was as educated as any white man. He was less concerned with Sarah’s education, although she was also quick like Barack. Most men thought educating their daughters was a waste of money. When Sarah was finished with primary school, she came to Onyango begging for school fees to go on to secondary school. He said to her, “Why should I spend school fees on you when you will come to live in another man’s house? Go help your mother and learn how to be a proper wife.”
This created more friction between Sarah and her younger brother, especially because she knew that Barack was not always serious about his studies. Everything came too easily to him. At first he went to the mission school nearby, but he came back after the first day and told his father that he could not study there because his class was taught by a woman and he knew everything she had to teach him. This attitude he had learned from his father, so Onyango could say nothing. The next closest school was six miles away, and I began to walk him to this school every morning. His teacher there was a man, but Barack discovered this didn’t solve his problems. He always knew the answers, and sometimes would even correct the teacher’s mistakes before the whole class. The teacher would scold Barack for his insolence, but Barack would refuse to back down. This caused Barack many canings at the hand of the headmaster. But it also might have taught him something, because the next year, when he switched to a class with a woman teacher, I noticed that he didn’t complain.
Still, he was bored with school, and when he became older, he would stop going to school altogether for weeks at a time. A few days before exams, he would find a classmate and read through the lessons. He could sit down and teach himself everything in just a few days, and when the marks came in, he would always be first. The few times he did not come in first, he came to me in tears, for he was so used to being the best. But this happened only once or twice-usually he would come home laughing and boasting of his cleverness.
Barack did not mean his boasts cruelly-he was always good-natured towards his classmates, and would help them whenever they asked. His boasts were like those of a child who discovers that he can run fast or hunt well. So he did not understand that others might resent his ease. Even as a man, he did not understand such things. In a bar or a restaurant, he would see classmates of his who were now ministers or businessmen, and in front of everybody he would tell them their ideas were silly. He would say to them, “Oy, I remember that I had to teach you arithmetic, so how can you be such a big man now?” Then he would laugh and buy these men beers, for he was also fond of them. But these fellows would remember their school days, and know what Barack had said was true, and although they might not show it, his words made them angry.
By the time your father was a teenager, things were changing rapidly in Kenya. Many Africans had fought in the Second World War. They had carried arms and distinguished themselves as great warriors in Burma and Palestine. They had seen the white man fight his own people, and had died beside white men, and had killed many white men themselves. They had learned that an African could work the white man’s machines and had met blacks from America who flew airplanes and performed surgery. When they returned to Kenya, they were eager to share this new knowledge and were no longer satisfied with the white man’s rule.
People began to talk about independence. Meetings and demonstrations were held, and petitions were presented to the administration complaining about land confiscation and the power of chiefs to commission free labor for government projects. Even Africans who had been educated in mission schools now rebelled against their home churches and accused whites of distorting Christianity to demean everything African. As before, most of this activity centered in Kikuyuland, for that tribe bore the white man’s yoke most heavily. But the Luo, too, were oppressed, a main source of forced labor. Men in our area began to join the Kikuyu in demonstrations. And later, when the British declared their Emergency, many men were detained, some never to be seen again.
Like other boys, your father would be influenced by the early talk of independence, and he would come home from school talking about the meetings he had seen. Your grandfather agreed with many of the demands of the early parties like KANU, but he remained skeptical that the independence movement would lead to anything, because he thought Africans could never win against the white man’s army. “How can the African defeat the white man,” he would tell Barack, “when he cannot even make his own bicycle?” And he would say that the African could never win against the white man because the black man only wanted to work with his own family or clan, while all white men worked to increase their power. “The white man alone is like an ant,” Onyango would say. “He can be easily crushed. But like an ant, the white man works together. His nation, his business-these things are more important to him than himself. He will follow his leaders and not question orders. Black men are not like this. Even the most foolish black man thinks he knows better than the wise man. That is why the black man will always lose.”
Despite his attitude, your grandfather would once find himself detained. An African who worked for the district commissioner was jealous of your grandfather’s lands. This man had once been rebuked by your grandfather because he would collect excessive taxes and pocket the money for himself. During the Emergency, this man placed Onyango’s name on a list of KANU supporters and told the white man that Onyango was a subversive. One day, the white man’s askaris came to take Onyango away, and he was placed in a detention camp. Eventually he received a hearing, and he was found innocent. But he had been in the camp for over six months, and when he returned to Alego he was very thin and dirty. He had difficulty walking, and his head was full of lice. He was so ashamed, he refused to enter his house or tell us what had happened. Instead, he called me to boil him water and bring him one of his razors. He shaved off his hair, and I had to help him bathe for a very long time, just where you are now sitting. And from that day on, I saw that he was now an old man.
Barack was away at the time and only learned about this detention later. He had taken the district examination, and had been admitted to Maseno Mission School, some fifty miles south, near the equator. This should have been a great honor for Barack, because few Africans were allowed to get secondary education, and only the best students got into Maseno, but your father’s rebellious nature caused the school much grief. He would sneak girls into his dormitory, for he could always talk very sweetly to girls and promise them all that they dreamed. He and his friends would raid nearby farms for chickens and yams, because they did not like the dormitory food. The teachers at the school overlooked many of these infractions, for they saw how smart he was. But eventually Barack went too far with his mischief and was finally expelled.
Onyango was so furious when he found out, he beat Barack with a stick until Barack’s back was bleeding. But Barack refused to run or cry out, or even explain himself to his father. Finally, Onyango told Barack, “If you cannot behave properly in my compound, I have no use for you here!” The following week, Onyango told Barack that he had arranged for him to travel to the coast, where he would work as a clerk. “You will learn the value of education now,” the old man said. “I will see how you enjoy yourself, earning your own meals.”
Barack had no choice but to obey his father. He went to Mombasa and took the job, in the office of an Arab merchant. But after a short time, he had an argument with the Arab and left without collecting his pay. He found another clerk’s job, but it paid much less. He was too proud to ask his father for help or admit that he had been wrong. Nevertheless, word got back to Onyango, and when Barack came home for a visit, his father shouted to him that he would amount to nothing. Barack tried to tell Onyango that the new job paid much better than the one Onyango had arranged. He said that he was earning one hundred and fifty shillings every month. So Onyango said, “Let me see your wage book, if you are such a wealthy man.” And when Barack said nothing, Onyango knew that his son had lied. He went into his hut and told Barack to go away because he had brought shame on his father.
Barack moved to Nairobi and found a job working as a clerk for the railway. But he was bored, and he became distracted by the politics of the country. The Kikuyu had begun their warfare in the forests. Everywhere there were rallies calling for Kenyatta’s release from prison. Barack began to attend political meetings after work and came to know some of the KANU leadership. At one of these meetings, the police came, and Barack was arrested for violating the meeting law. He was jailed, and sent word to his father that he needed money for bail. But Onyango refused to give Barack the money he’d asked for, and told me that his son needed to learn his lesson well.
Because he was not a leader in KANU, Barack was released after a few days. But there was no happiness in his release, for he had begun to think that perhaps what his father had said was true-that he would amount to nothing. He was a man of twenty and what did he have? He had been fired from his railway job. He was estranged from his father, without money or prospects. And he now had a wife and a child. He had met Kezia when he was only eighteen. She lived in Kendu with her family then. He was struck by her beauty, and after a brief courtship he decided that he would marry her. To do so, he knew that his father would have to help him with the dowry payment, and so he asked me to intercede on his behalf. At first Onyango resisted, and Sarah, who had moved back to Alego after her first husband died, also disapproved. She told your grandfather that Kezia only wanted to live off the family’s wealth. But I told Onyango that it would be improper for Barack to have to beg from other relatives for a dowry when everyone knew he was the son of a well-off man. Onyango saw that I spoke the truth, and he relented. One year after Barack and Kezia were married, Roy was born. Two years later came Auma.
To support this family, Barack had to take any work he could find, and he finally convinced another Arab, named Suleiman, to take him on as an office boy. But Barack remained deeply depressed, almost desperate. Many of his age-mates from Maseno, the ones who were not as gifted as him, were already leaving for Makarere University in Uganda. Some had even gone to London to study. They could expect big jobs when they returned to a liberated Kenya. Barack saw that he might end up working as the clerk of these men for the rest of his life.
Then, good fortune struck, in the form of two American women. They were teaching in Nairobi, connected to some religious organization, I think, and one day they came into the office where Barack was working. Your father struck up a conversation with them, and soon these women became his friends. They loaned him books to read and invited him to their house, and when they saw how smart he was, they told him that he should go to a university. He explained that he had no money and no secondary school certificate, but these women said they could arrange for him to take a correspondence course that would give him the certificate he needed. If he was successful, they said, they would try to help him get into a university in America.
Barack became very excited and immediately wrote away for this correspondence course. For the first time in his life he worked diligently. Every night, and during his lunch hours, he would study his books and do the lessons in his notebooks. A few months later, he sat for the exam at the American embassy. The exam took several months to score, and during this wait he was so nervous he could barely eat. He became so thin that we thought he would die. One day, the letter came. I was not there to see him open it. I know that when he told me the news, he was still shouting out with happiness. And I laughed along with him, for it was just as things had been so many years before, when he used to come home after school to boast about his marks.
He still had no money, though, and no university had yet accepted him. Onyango had softened towards his son when he saw that he was becoming more responsible, but even he could not raise the money to pay university fees and transport abroad. Some in the village were willing to help, but many were afraid that if Barack went off with their money they would never see him again. So Barack wrote to universities in America. He wrote and he wrote. Finally, a university in Hawaii wrote back and told him they would give him a scholarship. No one knew where this place was, but Barack didn’t care. He gathered up his pregnant wife and son and dropped them off with me, and in less than a month he was gone.
What happened in America, I cannot say. I know that after less than two years we received a letter from Barack saying that he had met this American girl, Ann, and that he would like to marry her. Now, Barry, you have heard that your grandfather disapproved of this marriage. This is true, but it is not for the reasons you say. You see, Onyango did not believe your father was behaving responsibly. He wrote back to Barack, saying, “How can you marry this white woman when you have responsibilities at home? Will this woman return with you and live as a Luo woman? Will she accept that you already have a wife and children? I have not heard of white people understanding such things. Their women are jealous and used to being pampered. But if I am wrong in this matter, let the girl’s father come to my hut and discuss the situation properly. For this is the affairs of elders, not children.” He also wrote to your grandfather Stanley and said many of these same things.
As you know, your father went ahead with the marriage. He only told Onyango what had happened after you were born. We are all happy that this marriage took place, because without it we would not have you here with us now. But your grandfather was very angry at the time, and threatened to have Barack’s visa revoked. And because he had lived with white people, perhaps Onyango did understand the white people’s customs better than Barack did. For when Barack finally returned to Kenya, we discovered that you and your mother had stayed behind, just as Onyango had warned.
Soon after Barack came, a white woman arrived in Kisumu looking for him. At first we thought this must be your mother, Ann. Barack had to explain that this was a different woman, Ruth. He said that he had met her at Harvard and that she had followed him to Kenya without his knowledge. Your grandfather didn’t believe this story and thought that again Barack had disobeyed him. But I wasn’t so sure, for, in fact, Barack did seem reluctant to marry Ruth at first. I’m not sure what finally swayed him. Maybe he felt Ruth would be better suited to his new life. Or maybe he heard gossip that Kezia had enjoyed herself too much during his absence, even though I told him that this gossip was not true. Or maybe he just cared for Ruth more than he liked to admit.
Whatever the reason, I know that once Barack agreed to marry Ruth, she could not accept the idea of his having Kezia as a second wife. That is how the children went to live with their father and his new wife in Nairobi. When Barack brought Auma and Roy back to visit, Ruth would refuse to accompany him and would not let Barack bring David or Mark. Onyango did not discuss this directly with Barack. But he would say to his friends, in such a way that Barack could hear him, “My son is a big man, but when he comes home his mother must cook for him instead of his wife.”
The others have told you what happened to your father in Nairobi. We saw him rarely, and he would usually stay only a short time. Whenever he came, he would bring us expensive gifts and money and impress all the people with his big car and fine clothes. But your grandfather continued to speak harshly to him, as if he were a boy. Onyango was now very old. He walked with a cane and was almost blind. He could not even bathe without my help, which I think caused him shame. But age did not soften his temper.
Later, when Barack fell from power, he would try to hide his problems from the old man. He continued to bring gifts that he could no longer afford, although we noticed that he arrived in a taxi instead of in his own car. Only to me would he confide his unhappiness and disappointments. I would tell him he was too stubborn in his dealings with the government. He would talk to me about principles, and I would tell him that his principles weighed heavily on his children. He would say I didn’t understand, just as his father had said to me. So I stopped giving advice and just listened.
That is what Barack needed most, I think-someone to listen to him. Even after things had improved again for him, and he had built this house for us, he remained heavy-hearted. With his children, he behaved just as Onyango had behaved towards him. He saw that he was pushing them away, but there was nothing he could do. He still liked to boast and laugh and drink with the men. But his laughter was empty. I remember the last time he visited Onyango before the old man died. The two of them sat in their chairs, facing each other and eating their food, but no words passed between them. A few months later, when Onyango finally went to join his ancestors, Barack came home to make all the arrangements. He said very little, and it is only when he sorted through a few of the old man’s belongings that I saw him begin to weep.
Granny stood up and brushed the grass off her skirt. The yard was hushed, the silence broken only by a bird’s anxious trill. “It’s going to rain,” she said, and we all gathered up the mats and cups and carried them into the house.
Once inside, I asked Granny if she had anything left of the Old Man’s or our grandfather’s. She went into her bedroom, sorting through the contents of an old leather trunk. A few minutes later, she emerged with a rust-colored book the size of a passport, along with a few papers of different colors, stapled together and chewed at an angle along one side.
“I’m afraid this is all I could find,” she said to Auma. “The rats got to the papers before I had a chance to put them away.”
Auma and I sat down and set the book and papers on the low table in front of us. The binding on the red book had crumbled away, but the cover was still legible: Domestic Servant’s Pocket Register, it read, and in smaller letters, Issued under the Authority of the Registration of Domestic Servant’s Ordinance, 1928 , Colony and Protectorate of Kenya. On the book’s inside cover, we found a two-shilling stamp above Onyango’s left and right thumbprints. The swirls were still clear, like an imprint of coral. The box was empty where the photograph once had been.
The preamble explained: The object of this Ordinance is to provide every person employed in a domestic capacity with a record of such employment, and to safeguard his or her interests as well as to protect employers against the employment of persons who have rendered themselves unsuitable for such work.
The term servant was defined: cook, house servant, waiter, butler, nurse, valet, bar boy, footmen, or chauffeur, or washermen. The rules governing the carrying of such passbooks: servants found to be working without such books, or in any way injuring such books, are liable to a fine not exceeding one hundred shillings or to imprisonment not exceeding six months or to both. And then, the particulars of said Registered Servant, filled out in the elegant, unhurried script of a nameless clerk:
Name: Hussein II Onyango.
Native Registration Ordinance No.: Rwl A NBI 0976717.
Race or Tribe: Ja’Luo.
Usual Place of Residence When Not Employed: Kisumu.
Height and Build: 6'0" Medium.
Teeth: Six Missing.
Scars, Tribal Marks, or Other Peculiarities: None.
Toward the back of the book, we found the particulars of employment, signed and testified to by various employers. Capt. C. Harford of Nairobi’s Government House said that Onyango performed his duties as personal boy with admirable diligence. Mr. A. G. Dickson found his cooking excellent-he can read and write English and follows any recipes…apart from other things his pastries are excellent. He no longer needed Onyango’s services since I am no longer on Safari. Dr. H. H. Sherry suggested that Onyango is a capable cook but the job is not big enough for him. On the other hand, Mr. Arthur W. H. Cole of the East Africa Survey Group says that after a week on the job, Onyango was found to be unsuitable and certainly not worth 60 shillings per month.
We moved to the stack of letters. They were from our father, addressed to various universities in the States. There were more than thirty of them, to the presidents of Morgan State, Santa Barbara Junior College, San Francisco State.
Dear President Calhoun, one letter began. I have heard of your college from Mrs. Helen Roberts of Palo Alto, California, who is now in Nairobi here. Mrs. Roberts, knowing how much desirous I am to further my studies in the United States of America, has asked me to apply to your esteemed college for admission. I shall therefore be very much pleased if you will kindly forward me your application form and information regarding the possibility of such scholarships as you may be aware of. Attached to several letters were recommendations from Miss Elizabeth Mooney, a literacy specialist from Maryland. It is not possible to obtain Mr. O’Bama’s school transcripts, she wrote, since he has been out of school for some years. However, she expressed confidence in our father’s talents, noting that she had observed him making use of algebra and geometry. She added that there was a great need in Kenya for capable and dedicated teachers and that, given Mr. O’Bama’s desire to be of service to his country, he should be given a chance, perhaps on a one-year basis.
This was it, I thought to myself. My inheritance. I rearranged the letters in a neat stack and set them under the registry book. Then I went out into the backyard. Standing before the two graves, I felt everything around me-the cornfields, the mango tree, the sky-closing in, until I was left with only a series of mental images, Granny’s stories come to life.
I see my grandfather, standing before his father’s hut, a wiry, grim-faced boy, almost ridiculous in his oversized trousers and his buttonless shirt. I watch his father turn away from him and hear his brothers laugh. I feel the heat pour down his brow, the knots forming in his limbs, the sudden jump in his heart. And as his figure turns and starts back down the road of red earth, I know that for him the path of his life is now altered irreversibly, completely.
He will have to reinvent himself in this arid, solitary place. Through force of will, he will create a life out of the scraps of an unknown world, and the memories of a world rendered obsolete. And yet, as he sits alone in a freshly scrubbed hut, an old man now with milky eyes, I know that he still hears his father and brothers laughing behind him. He still hears the clipped voice of a British captain, explaining for the third and last time the correct proportion of tonic to gin. The nerves in the old man’s neck tighten, the rage buildshe grabs his stick to hit at something, anything. Until finally his grip weakens with the realization that for all the power in his hands and the force of his will, the laughter, the rebukes, will outlast him. His body goes slack in the chair. He knows that he will not outlive a mocking fate. He waits to die, alone.
The picture fades, replaced by the image of a nine-year-old boy-my father. He’s hungry, tired, clinging to his sister’s hand, searching for the mother he’s lost. The hunger is too much for him, the exhaustion too great; until finally the slender line that holds him to his mother snaps, sending her image to float down, down into the emptiness. The boy starts to cry; he shakes off his sister’s hand. He wants to go home, he shouts, back to his father’s house. He will find a new mother. He will lose himself in games and learn the power of his mind.
But he won’t forget the desperation of that day. Twelve years later, at his narrow desk, he will glance up from a stack of forms toward the restless sky and feel that same panic return. He, too, will have to invent himself. His boss is out of the office; he sets the forms aside and from an old file cabinet pulls out a list of addresses. He yanks the typewriter toward him and begins to type, letter after letter after letter, typing the envelopes, sealing the letters like messages in bottles that will drop through a post office slot into a vast ocean and perhaps allow him to escape the island of his father’s shame.
How lucky he must have felt when his ship came sailing in! He must have known, when that letter came from Hawaii, that he had been chosen after all; that he possessed the grace of his name, the baraka, the blessings of God. With the degree, the ascot, the American wife, the car, the words, the figures, the wallet, the proper proportion of tonic to gin, the polish, the panache, the entire thing seamless and natural, without the cobbled-together, haphazard quality of an earlier time-what could stand in his way?
He had almost succeeded, in a way his own father could never have hoped for. And then, after seeming to travel so far, to discover that he had not escaped after all! To discover that he remained trapped on his father’s island, with its fissures of anger and doubt and defeat, the emotions still visible beneath the surface, hot and molten and alive, like a wicked, yawning mouth, and his mother gone, gone, away….
I dropped to the ground and swept my hand across the smooth yellow tile. Oh, Father, I cried. There was no shame in your confusion. Just as there had been no shame in your father’s before you. No shame in the fear, or in the fear of his father before him. There was only shame in the silence fear had produced. It was the silence that betrayed us. If it weren’t for that silence, your grandfather might have told your father that he could never escape himself, or re-create himself alone. Your father might have taught those same lessons to you. And you, the son, might have taught your father that this new world that was beckoning all of you involved more than just railroads and indoor toilets and irrigation ditches and gramophones, lifeless instruments that could be absorbed into the old ways. You might have told him that these instruments carried with them a dangerous power, that they demanded a different way of seeing the world. That this power could be absorbed only alongside a faith born out of hardship, a faith that wasn’t new, that wasn’t black or white or Christian or Muslim but that pulsed in the heart of the first African village and the first Kansas homestead-a faith in other people.
The silence killed your faith. And for lack of faith you clung to both too much and too little of your past. Too much of its rigidness, its suspicions, its male cruelties. Too little of the laughter in Granny’s voice, the pleasures of company while herding the goats, the murmur of the market, the stories around the fire. The loyalty that could make up for a lack of airplanes or rifles. Words of encouragement. An embrace. A strong, true love. For all your gifts-the quick mind, the powers of concentration, the charm-you could never forge yourself into a whole man by leaving those things behind….
For a long time I sat between the two graves and wept. When my tears were finally spent, I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close. I realized that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America-the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago-all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brothers’ questions. Their struggle, my birthright.
A light rain began to fall, the drops tapping on the leaves above. I was about to light a cigarette when I felt a hand on my arm. I turned to find Bernard squatting beside me, trying to fit the two of us under a bentup old umbrella.
“They wanted me to see if you were okay,” he said.
I smiled. “Yeah. I’m okay.”
He nodded, his eyes squinting at the clouds. He turned back to me, and said “Why don’t you let me have a cigarette, and I will sit and smoke with you.”
I looked at his smooth, dark face, and put the cigarette back in the box. “I need to quit,” I said. “Come on, let’s take a walk instead.”
We stood up and started toward the entrance to the compound. The young boy, Godfrey, was standing beside the cooking hut, one leg propped like a crane’s against the mud wall. He looked at us and offered a tentative smile.
“Come on,” Bernard said, waving to the boy. “You can walk with us.” And so the three of us made our way over the widening dirt road, picking at leaves that grew along the way, watching the rain blow down across the several valleys.
I REMAINED IN KENYA FOR two more weeks. We all returned to Nairobi and there were more dinners, more arguments, more stories. Granny stayed in Auma’s apartment, and each night I fell asleep to their whispering voices. One day we gathered at a photography studio for a family portrait, and all the women wore flowing African gowns of bright greens and yellows and blues, and the men were all tall and shaven and neatly pressed, and the photographer, a slight Indian man with bushy eyebrows, remarked on what a handsome picture we made.
Roy flew back to Washington, D.C., shortly after that; Granny returned to Home Squared. The days suddenly became very quiet, and a certain melancholy settled over Auma and me, as if we were coming out of a dream. And maybe it was the sense that we, too, would soon be returning to our other lives, once again separate and apart, that made us decide one day to go to see George, our father’s last child.
It turned out to be a painful affair, arranged hastily and without the mother’s knowledge: we simply drove with Zeituni to a neat, single-story schoolhouse, where a group of schoolchildren were playing in a wide, grassy field. After a brief conversation with the teacher supervising the recess, Zeituni led one of the children over to us. He was a handsome, roundheaded boy with a wary gaze. Zeituni leaned down and pointed at Auma and me.
“This is your sister,” she said to the boy, “who used to play with you on her knee. This is your brother, who has come all the way from America to see you.”
The boy shook our hands bravely but kept glancing back at games he’d just left. I realized then that we’d made a mistake. Soon the principal of the school emerged from her office to say that unless we had the mother’s permission, we would have to leave. Zeituni began to argue with the woman, but Auma said, “No, Auntie, she’s right. We should go.” From the car, we watched George return to his friends, quickly indistinguishable from the others with round heads and knobby knees who were chasing a scuffed football through the grass. I found myself suddenly remembering then my first meeting with the Old Man, the fear and discomfort that his presence had caused me, forcing me for the first time to consider the mystery of my own life. And I took comfort in the fact that perhaps one day, when he was older, George, too, might want to know who his father had been, and who his brothers and sisters were, and that if he ever came to me I would be there for him, to tell him the story I knew.
That evening, I asked Auma if she knew of any good books on the Luo, and she suggested we go visit a former history teacher of hers, a tall, willowy woman named Dr. Rukia Odero, who had been a friend of the Old Man’s. When we arrived at her house, Dr. Odero was about to sit down for dinner, and she insisted that we join her. Over a meal of tilapia and ugali, the professor insisted I call her Rukia, then asked me about my impressions of the country. Had I been disappointed? she wondered. I told her that I hadn’t, although I was leaving with as many questions as answers.
“That’s good,” Rukia said, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “That’s how we historians make a living, you know. All day long we sit, trying to find new questions. It can be very tiresome, actually. It requires a temperament for mischief. You know, young black Americans tend to romanticize Africa so. When your father and I were young, it was just the opposite-we expected to find all the answers in America.
Harlem. Chicago. Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. That’s where we drew our inspiration. And the Kennedys-they were very popular. The chance to study in America was very important. A hopeful time. Of course, when we returned we realized that our education did not always serve us so well. Or the people who had sent us. There was all this messy history to deal with.”
I asked her why she thought black Americans were prone to disappointment when they visited Africa. She shook her head and smiled. “Because they come here looking for the authentic,” she said. “That is bound to disappoint a person. Look at this meal we are eating. Many people will tell you that the Luo are a fish-eating people. But that was not true for all Luo. Only those who lived by the lake. And even for those Luo, it was not always true. Before they settled around the lake, they were pastoralists, like the Masai. Now, if you and your sister behave yourself and eat a proper share of this food, I will offer you tea. Kenyans are very boastful about the quality of their tea, you notice. But of course we got this habit from the English. Our ancestors did not drink such a thing. Then there’s the spices we used to cook this fish. They originally came from India, or Indonesia. So even in this simple meal, you will find it very difficult to be authentic-although the meal is certainly African.”
Rukia rolled a ball of ugali in her hand and dipped it into her stew. “You can hardly blame black Americans, of course, for wanting an unblemished past. After the cruelties they’ve suffered-still suffer, from what I read in the newspapers. They’re not unique in this desire. The European wants the same thing. The Germans, the English…they all claim Athens and Rome as their own, when, in fact, their ancestors helped destroy classical culture. But that happened so long ago, so their task is easier. In their schools, you rarely hear about the misery of European peasants throughout most of recorded history. The corruption and exploitation of the Industrial Revolution, the senseless tribal wars-it’s shameful how the Europeans treated their own, much less colored peoples. So this idea about a golden age in Africa, before the white man came, seems only natural.”
“A corrective,” Auma said.
“Truth is usually the best corrective,” Rukia said with a smile. “You know, sometimes I think the worst thing that colonialism did was cloud our view of our past. Without the white man, we might be able to make better use of our history. We might look at some of our former practices and decide they are worth preserving. Others, we might grow out of. Unfortunately, the white man has made us very defensive. We end up clinging to all sorts of things that have outlived their usefulness. Polygamy. Collective land ownership. These things worked well in their time, but now they most often become tools for abuse. By men. By governments. And yet, if you say these things, you have been infected by Western ideology.”
“So how should we adapt?” Auma said.
Rukia shrugged. “I leave such answers up to policy makers. I’m only a historian. But I suspect that we can’t pretend that the contradictions of our situation don’t exist. All we can do is choose. For example, female circumcision is an important Kikuyu custom. With the Masai also. To a modern sensibility, it is barbaric. Perhaps we could arrange to have all these operations performed in hospitals and cut down on the death rate. Keep the bleeding to a minimum. But you cannot really have half a circumcision. This leaves no one satisfied. So we must choose. The same is true of the rule of law, the notion of independent inquirythese things may conflict with tribal loyalties. You cannot have rule of law and then exempt certain members of your clan. What to do? Again you choose. If you make the wrong choice, then you learn from your mistakes. You see what works.”
I licked my fingers and washed my hands. “But isn’t there anything left that is truly African?”
“Ah, that’s the thing, isn’t it?” Rukia said. “There does seem to be something different about this place.
I don’t know what it is. Perhaps the African, having traveled so far so fast, has a unique perspective on time. Or maybe it is that we have known more suffering than most. Maybe it’s just the land. I don’t know. Maybe I am also the romantic. I know that I cannot stay away from here too long. People still talk to each other here.
When I visit the States, it seems a very lonely place-”
Suddenly, all the lights in the house went out. Rukia sighed-blackouts were becoming more common, she said-and I handed her my lighter to light the candles she kept on the mantelpiece. Sitting in the darkness, I remembered the stories Zeituni had told us, and remarked that the night runners must be out. Rukia lit the candles, their glow shaping her face into a mask of laughter.
“You know about the night runners, then! Yes, they are very powerful in the darkness. There used to be many in our area, back home. It was said they walked with the hippos at night. I remember once-”
As suddenly as they had died, the light bulbs popped back on. Rukia blew out the candles and shook her head. “Alas, in the city the lights do come on eventually. My daughter, she has no use for night runners. You know, her first language is not Luo. Not even Swahili. It is English. When I listen to her talk with her friends, it sounds like gibberish to me. They take bits and pieces of everything-English, Swahili, German, Luo. Sometimes, I get fed up with this. Learn to speak one language properly, I tell them.” Rukia laughed to herself. “But I am beginning to resign myself-there’s nothing really to do. They live in a mixed-up world. It’s just as well, I suppose. In the end, I’m less interested in a daughter who’s authentically African than one who is authentically herself.”
It was getting late; we thanked Rukia for her hospitality and went on our way. But her words would stay with me, bringing into focus my own memories, my own lingering questions. On the last weekend of my stay, Auma and I took the train to the coast and stayed at an old beachfront hotel in Mombasa that had once been a favorite of the Old Man’s. It was a modest, clean place, in August filled mostly with German tourists and American sailors on shore leave. We didn’t do much, just read and swam and walked along the beach, watching pale crabs scurry like ghosts into their sandy holes. The following day we visited
Mombasa’s Old Town and climbed the worn stairs of Fort Jesus, first built by the Portuguese to consolidate control of trade routes along the Indian Ocean, later overrun by the swift Omani fleets, later still a beachhead for the British as they moved inland in search of ivory and gold, now an empty casing of stone, its massive walls peeling like papier-mâché in strips of pale orange and green and rose, its dormant cannons pointing out to a tranquil sea where a lone fisherman cast out his net.
On the way back to Nairobi, Auma and I decided to splurge, buying tickets on a bus line that actually assigned seats. The feeling of luxury was short-lived; my knees were pinched by a passenger who wanted his money’s worth from the reclining seats, and a sudden rainstorm sent water streaming through leaks in the roof, which we tried-unsuccessfully-to plug up with tissue.
Eventually, the rain stopped, and we found ourselves looking on a barren landscape of gravel and shrub and the occasional baobab tree, its naked, searching branches decorated with the weaver bird’s spherical nests. I remembered reading somewhere that the baobab could go for years without flowering, surviving on the sparsest of rainfall; and seeing the trees there in the hazy afternoon light, I understood why men believed they possessed a special power-that they housed ancestral spirits and demons, that humankind first appeared under such a tree. It wasn’t merely the oddness of their shape, their almost prehistoric outline against the stripped-down sky. “They look as if each one could tell a story,” Auma said, and it was true, each tree seemed to possess a character, a character neither benevolent nor cruel but simply enduring, with secrets whose depths I would never plumb, a wisdom I would never pierce. They both disturbed and comforted me, those trees that looked as if they might uproot themselves and simply walk away, were it not for the knowledge that on this earth one place is not so different from another-the knowledge that one moment carries within it all that’s gone on before.
It’s been six years since that first trip to Kenya, and much in the world has changed.
For me, it’s been a relatively quiet period, less a time of discovery than of consolidation, of doing the things that we tell ourselves we finally must do to grow up. I went to Harvard Law School, spending most of three years in poorly lit libraries, poring through cases and statutes. The study of law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedure to an uncooperative reality; a sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power-and that all too often seeks to explain, to those who do not, the ultimate wisdom and justness of their condition.
But that’s not all the law is. The law is also memory; the law also records a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its conscience.
We hold these truths to be self-evident. In those words, I hear the spirit of Douglass and Delany, as well as Jefferson and Lincoln; the struggles of Martin and Malcolm and unheralded marchers to bring these words to life. I hear the voices of Japanese families interned behind barbed wire; young Russian Jews cutting patterns in Lower East Side sweatshops; dust-bowl farmers loading up their trucks with the remains of shattered lives. I hear the voices of the people in Altgeld Gardens, and the voices of those who stand outside this country’s borders, the weary, hungry bands crossing the Rio Grande. I hear all of these voices clamoring for recognition, all of them asking the very same questions that have come to shape my life, the same questions that I sometimes, late at night, find myself asking the Old Man. What is our community, and how might that community be reconciled with our freedom? How far do our obligations reach? How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love? The answers I find in law books don’t always satisfy me-for every Brown v. Board of Education I find a score of cases where conscience is sacrificed to expedience or greed. And yet, in the conversation itself, in the joining of voices, I find myself modestly encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately, prevail.
That faith, so different from innocence, can sometimes be hard to sustain. Upon my return to Chicago, I would find the signs of decay accelerated throughout the South Side-the neighborhoods shabbier, the children edgier and less restrained, more middle-class families heading out to the suburbs, the jails bursting with glowering youth, my brothers without prospects. All too rarely do I hear people asking just what it is that we’ve done to make so many children’s hearts so hard, or what collectively we might do to right their moral compass-what values we must live by. Instead I see us doing what we’ve always done-pretending that these children are somehow not our own.
I try to do my small part in reversing this tide. In my legal practice, I work mostly with churches and community groups, men and women who quietly build grocery stores and health clinics in the inner city, and housing for the poor. Every so often I’ll find myself working on a discrimination case, representing clients who show up at my law firm’s office with stories that we like to tell ourselves should no longer exist. Most of these clients are slightly embarrassed by what’s happened to them, as are the white co-workers who agree to testify on their behalf; no one wants to be known as a troublemaker. And yet at some point both plaintiff and witness decide that a principle is at stake, that despite everything that has happened, those words put to paper over two hundred years ago must mean something after all. Black and white, they make their claim on this community we call America. They choose our better history.
I think I’ve learned to be more patient these past few years, with others as well as myself. If so, it’s one of several improvements in my character that I attribute to my wife, Michelle. She’s a daughter of the South Side, raised in one of those bungalow-style houses that I spent so many hours visiting during my first year in Chicago. She doesn’t always know what to make of me; she worries that, like Gramps and the Old Man, I am something of a dreamer. Indeed, in her eminent practicality and midwestern attitudes, she reminds me not a little of Toot. I remember how, the first time I took her back to Hawaii, Gramps nudged my ribs and said Michelle was quite “a looker.” Toot, on the other hand, described my bride-to-be as “a very sensible girl”-which Michelle understood to be my grandmother’s highest form of praise.
After our engagement, I took Michelle to Kenya to meet the other half of my family. She was an immediate success there as well, in part because the number of Luo words in her vocabulary very soon surpassed mine. We had a fine time in Alego, helping Auma on a film project of hers, listening to more of Granny’s stories, meeting relatives I’d missed the first time around. Away from the countryside, though, life in Kenya seemed to have gotten harder. The economy had worsened, with a corresponding rise in corruption and street crime. The case of the Old Man’s inheritance remained unresolved, and Sarah and Kezia were still not on speaking terms. Neither Bernard, nor Abo, nor Sayid had yet found steady work, although they remained hopeful-they were talking about learning how to drive, perhaps purchasing a used matatu together. We tried again to see George, our youngest brother, and were again unsuccessful. And Billy, the robust, gregarious cousin I’d first met in Kendu Bay, had been stricken with AIDS. He was emaciated when I saw him, prone to nodding off in the middle of conversations. He seemed calm, though, and happy to see me, and asked that I send him a photograph of the two of us during better days. He died in his sleep before I could send it.
There were other deaths that year. Michelle’s father, as good and decent a man as I’ve ever known, died before he could give his daughter away. Gramps died a few months later, after a prolonged bout with prostate cancer. As a World War II veteran, he was entitled to be interred at Punchbowl National Cemetery, on a hill overlooking Honolulu. It was a small ceremony with a few of his bridge and golf partners in attendance, a three-gun salute, and a bugle playing taps.
Despite these heartaches, Michelle and I decided to go ahead with our wedding plans. Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., performed the service in the sanctuary of Trinity United Church of Christ, on Ninetyfifth and Parnell. Everyone looked very fine at the reception, my new aunts admiring the cake, my new uncles admiring themselves in their rented tuxedos. Johnnie was there, sharing a laugh with Jeff and Scott, my old friends from Hawaii and Hasan, my roommate from college. So were Angela, Shirley, and Mona, who told my mother what a fine job she’d done raising me. (“You don’t know the half of it,” my mother replied with a laugh.) I watched Maya politely fending off the advances of some brothers who thought they were slick but who were, in fact, much too old for her and should have known better, but when I started to grumble, Michelle told me to relax, my little sister could handle herself. She was right, of course; I looked at my baby sister and saw a full-grown woman, beautiful and wise and looking like a Latin countess with her olive skin and long black hair and black bridesmaid’s gown. Auma was standing beside her, looking just as lovely, although her eyes were a little puffy-to my surprise she was the only one who cried during the ceremony. When the band started to play, the two of them sought out the protection of Michelle’s five- and six-year-old cousins, who impressively served as our official ring-bearers. Watching the boys somberly lead my sisters out onto the dance floor, I thought they looked like young African princes in their little kente-cloth caps and matching cumberbunds and wilted bow ties.
The person who made me proudest of all, though, was Roy. Actually, now we call him Abongo, his Luo name, for two years ago he decided to reassert his African heritage. He converted to Islam, and has sworn off pork and tobacco and alcohol. He still works at his accounting firm, but talks about moving back to Kenya once he has enough money. In fact, when we saw each other in Home Squared, he was busy building a hut for himself and his mother, away from our grandfather’s compound, in accordance with Luo tradition. He told me then that he had moved forward with his import business and hoped it would soon pay enough to employ Bernard and Abo full-time. And when we went together to stand by the Old Man’s grave, I noticed there was finally a plaque where the bare cement had been.
Abongo’s new lifestyle has left him lean and clear-eyed, and at the wedding, he looked so dignified in his black African gown with white trim and matching cap that some of our guests mistook him for my father. He was certainly the older brother that day, talking me through prenuptial jitters, patiently telling me for the fifth and sixth time that yes, he still had the ring, nudging me out the door with the observation that if I spent any more time in front of the mirror it wouldn’t matter how I looked because we were sure to be late.
Not that the changes in him are without tension. He’s prone to make lengthy pronouncements on the need for the black man to liberate himself from the poisoning influences of European culture, and scolds Auma for what he calls her European ways. The words he speaks are not fully his own, and in his transition he can sometimes sound stilted and dogmatic. But the magic of his laughter remains, and we can disagree without rancor. His conversion has given him solid ground to stand on, a pride in his place in the world. From that base I see his confidence building; he begins to venture out and ask harder questions; he starts to slough off the formulas and slogans and decides what works best for him. He can’t help himself in this process, for his heart is too generous and full of good humor, his attitude toward people too gentle and forgiving, to find simple solutions to the puzzle of being a black man.
Toward the end of the wedding, I watched him grinning widely for the video camera, his long arms draped over the shoulders of my mother and Toot, whose heads barely reached the height of his chest. “Eh, brother,” he said to me as I walked up to the three of them. “It looks like I have two new mothers now.” Toot patted him on the back. “And we have a new son,” she said, although when she tried to say “Abongo” her Kansas tongue mangled it hopelessly. My mother’s chin started to tremble again, and Abongo lifted up his glass of fruit punch for a toast.
“To those who are not here with us,” he said.
“And to a happy ending,” I said.
We dribbled our drinks onto the checkered-tile floor. And for that moment, at least, I felt like the luckiest man alive.