By Patrick Ngugi
His warm and tender embrace melts away all the anxiety of the past six years. In his arms nothing matters. Suddenly his six year disappearance means nothing.
After the forever hug we hold each other in at arms’ length and our eyes take over, narrating the long long story in a flash.
‘’Philo, I can’t believe I have finally found you!’’ he takes the words off my mouth.
‘’And me… how did you just disappear, just like that?’’ I exhale.
Before he responds, he looks inside the car behind me.
‘’First, tell me, who is that handsome boy over there?’’ Benedict asks staring at Julius.
‘’Oh him… It’s a long story Benedict, we need to sit down.’’ I say.
He looks around and says, ‘’Why don’t we go back into the restaurant, we can have a drink as we talk.’’
‘’Good idea,’’ I say as I open the car door to let Julius out. Benedict picks him up and as they bond, I release the driver.
We go back into the hotel and sit down.
‘’Okay, now will you introduce me to this young man?’’ Benedict asks smiling at Julius.
I do not know where to start. All I can remember is how Julius and I had landed at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport this morning, straight from Lusaka, Zambia.
‘’Come Gichinga, let’s go,’’ I told my five year old son as we followed other passengers disembark the plane. We were finally home.
It was, in fact, the first time Julius, my son, was setting foot on the land of his forefathers, having been born in Zambia, where I was lucky to get a job as a schoolmistress after horrifying experience from my brothers back home.
I would have loved Julius to see his grandfather, the man he was named after, but now it was too late. He would only see the old man in photos, I thought as my heart skipped a beat when I realized that I too would never see my dad again.
And all this was because of my brothers.
Yes I was back home after over half a decade, but it was not something to celebrate about. I was coming to pay my last respects to my father, Mzee Jason Gichinga, by placing wreaths on his month old grave. It pained me greatly that my brothers had gone ahead and buried him without even informing me about his death. They had not even denied me the chance to see his body. In fact it was by chance that I came to learn about his death.
‘’Come Julius, come this way,’’ I told my son leading him towards the gangway, as the cool, and Nairobi air brushed against our faces. On any other day, it would have been exhilarating and refreshing, but now so many memories invaded my mind, some with nostalgia, and others with regret.
I got a taxi to a hotel in the city to freshen ourselves, before embarking on the journey to Nyandarua, where Julius and I would place the wreath Mzee’s grave, and then take the shortest time possible and back to Lusaka. I did not want any dealings with my brothers anymore.
We grew up as a happy lot of four siblings
Julius kept on falling asleep and waking up while on the trip to Ol Kalou. When awake, he would excitedly watch various sceneries and landscapes, while my mind flashed back and forth the time I left home almost six years ago after landing a job in Lusaka, far away from annoying relatives.
We grew up as a happy lot of four siblings, I as the eldest, followed by three brothers. My late mother who had been a school teacher passed on seven years ago, and that is when all hell broke loose.
My mother, Gertrude Nyaguthii, bless her soul, had been the anchor of the home, but after her demise through diabetic complications, my father who had been a hands-off parent all along, was unable to keep my brothers in check, as he concentrated on his massive wealth in farms and business.
Shortly after mother’s death, dad started showing signs of ill health, and this is when I started to notice change of attitude on the part of my brothers towards me. It was as if they expected dad to die at any time and they arrogantly kept reminding me that as a woman I would not inherit any property, and the earlier I knew about that the better. It mattered not whether I was their eldest sibling or not.
All my brothers had arrogantly dropped out of college arguing that they had no reason to study since they were heirs to our parents’ property. They would collect rent from the various residential houses and shops dad owned, and would squander it in alcohol and luxury.
Due to his debilitating ailment, dad could do nothing, and my paternal relatives watched from safe distance, as culture dictated that only the male siblings had a say into succession matters and to my dismay even encouraged me to get married since my inheritance would come from my future husband.
My sole confidant then was Benedict Rotich, my college boyfriend, and he was the one who gave me sanity most of the time when I was low. I had just graduated with a degree in BA Education, while had just clinched a scholarship to pursue Master of Science in medicine at a college in Germany he was leaving soon and I knew that I would miss him though he promised he would write as soon as he arrived.
I had just discovered that I was pregnant
A few months after mother’s burial I was lucky to get a job at a private school in Nairobi, and I was happy at least I was getting away from the intricacies of home. I only worried about dad, and I would visit him once in a while to make sure he was keeping up with his medication. I even hired a nurse, Rosia, to make sure dad got the much needed care despite interferences from my three brothers.
But while visiting one day, I found that Rosia had left abruptly and when I inquired my brother Absalom he told me point blank that there was no need to hire outsiders to look for dad, and that his wife Scotia, would henceforth take care of him.
It was shortly after this that I got the Zambian job. Our previous Principal at Hewani School had left shortly after I had joined, to take a new position at St Pritchet, in Kitwe. She and I had stricken good relationship the short period I we had come to know each other, and three months after she had settled in Kitwe she sent for me, saying a position similar to mine was available, if I was interested.
I had just discovered that I was pregnant, and Benedict had not written a whole month after he left. I accepted the offer for the new job perks and benefits.
Only Benedict’s silence worried me as I would really have wished him to know that he had planted in me a seed of our love, which was growing daily.
And here I was, almost six years later going to place wreaths on my father’s grave.
I directed the driver through a one way track that left the main dirt road that led to our homestead. I could see our neighbours’ homesteads and the changes that they had undergone in the five years I had been away. I recognized some of the kids, who were literally children when I left, but were not in their early teens.
We arrived at the homestead and got out of the vehicle
Some of them stared at the car and recognized me and waved, I waved back though I did not want to cause a scene since my visit here would be very brief. I did not want any confrontations with my brothers since I was through with them, and gone on with my life. I had only come to bid my father the final farewell.
We arrived at the homestead and got out of the vehicle. Everything was quiet and apparently deserted.
I guessed the grave would be next to mother’s, which was behind the main house, which my brother Absalom had inherited. We left the taxi driver parking the car as I held Julius’ hand and led him towards the back of the house.
The path which looked freshly beaten led us to the site, about 50 metres away. There it was. A freshly covered grave next to my mother’s, with a wooden cross at its head, reading RIP JASON GICHINGA ; SUNRISE 1914 – 2018. Withered wreaths were strewn about it, apparently no one had been here since they buried him, I thought.
My heart skipped a beat, but I had to be strong as I did not want Julius to see me cry. ‘’Come, come lets pray at your grandfather’s grave,’’ I told the little boy as I gripped his hand, more to support myself this time, and we moved nearer to the graves.
We stood silently as images of happy days with him and my mother, throughout my life, flashed through my minds eyes. I saw him frowning at me when I played mischief as little girl, I remembered the glorious days when he visited me at school, when he encouraged me when I was down and many other beautiful moments. I could not help but shed a tear. I felt Julius’s little hand grip mine firmly, and I looked down at him. He was looking at me with kind eyes that tried to reassure me.
‘’Hello Mama Nyaguthii,’’ I greeted her
‘’It’s okay, son, we’ll be all right,’’ I told him. ‘’Please take these flowers lets place them on the grave,’’ I told him.
We placed our wreaths on the grave and I said a short prayer, then we turned to leave.
When we came back we found Scotia carrying what I thought was her youngest child, standing beside the car, speaking to the driver.
‘’Hello Mama Nyaguthii,’’ I greeted her.
‘’Hello Philo, so it is you’’ she asked, genuinely surprised and looking me over, as if I had just disembarked from an alien ship.
‘’Yes, we could not find anyone when we arrived, so I took my son to see his grandfather’s grave.’’ I said.
‘’Oh, is this your son, he looks cute,’’ she said forcing a smile. ‘’Why don’t you come in?’’ She asked, but I hesitated. Looking at the state her baby was in, the littered compound, and possibly her husband, my brother could still be half drunk, and asleep in the house, I declined. There was too much negative atmosphere.
‘’Sorry, but we have to go. Maybe next time…’’ I said as I took my son’s hand to shoo him towards the car. But something made me stop and I looked at the baby in Scotia’s arms.
‘’What’s the baby’s name?’’ I asked.
Scotia smiled coyly, I wondered why. The baby looked malnourished, and it seemed that it was not the only one she had, as she had just delivered a second baby boy when I left five years ago.
I did not want Absalom to find me here
‘’I gave birth to you, Philo,’’ she said after her smile faded.
‘’My girl’s name is Philomena Wangeci,’’ she said.
Warm tears run down my cheeks. In our culture’s naming system she had to name me, being the eldest sister-in-law, after naming her mother-in-law and her own mother.
I was torn between getting out of here as fast as I could, and grabbing my niece and hugging her. I was overcome by emotion, feeling sorry that my namesake would have to spend such a miserable life her drunkard father could offer.
‘’That is wonderful,’’ I said as I moved closer to Scotia and patted the little girl’s cheeks. No, I could not stay any further. I did not want Absalom to find me here. I opened my purse and fished out two one thousand shillings notes. I saw Scotia’s eyes widen with glee and greed when she saw the cash.
‘’Here… this is for the baby,’’ I said handing her the money. She grabbed it and smiled sheepishly, quickly hiding it under her blouse, beneath the bra. She’d better, I thought, since I knew her husband would take the money away from her if he knew she had it.
‘’We have to go…’’ I said as I held Julius’ hand and made to go to the vehicle.
‘’Thank you very much, go well,’’ she said with an inexplicable expression in her eyes. Under different circumstances, I felt like Scotia and I would have made very good friends.
As we were getting into the car, she called me, ‘’Philo…’’
My heart thumped with curiosity as I waited
‘’Yes?’’ I wondered what she wanted to say as I looked at my watch.
‘’A man was here a week ago… Looking for you…’’ she said.
‘’A man? Who and what did he want?’’
‘’I don’t know him … but he left a card… It’s in the house, let me bring it,’’ she said.
My heart thumped with curiosity as I waited, and as I did, my heart sunk when I saw Absalom, staggering into the compound with unkempt and dirty clothes. Apparently he hadn’t bathed for some time. I honestly would not introduce my son to him as his uncle.
‘’And who are these… in my compound without permission?’’ he bellowed as he strode towards the car.
‘’Mom, who is this?’’ asked a frightened Julius.
‘’Don’t worry Gichinga, he will not do you any harm.’’ I tried to reassure him as I tried to control my anger.
As he neared the car, Scotia came out of the house. Apparently little Philo had gone to sleep since she came out without her. She was holding a piece of paper in her hand, which I suspected to be the card.
‘’What is wrong with you Baba Nyaguthii…? Can’t you see these are visitors? Why are you making a fool of yourself?’’ Scotia shouted at her husband.
I came out of the car and motioned to her to hurry up and hand me the piece of paper. That is when my brother saw me and stared at me without recognizing or believing I was here.
I impatiently looked at the card
‘’What have you come for?’’ he bellowed once he recognized me.
I ignored him and briskly walked to his wife, took the paper and quickly got into the car, ‘’let’s go,’’ I told the driver as my brother shouted his drunken insults reminding me to get lost and not come back since I had no inheritance here.’’
Shortly we were out of the homestead, and I impatiently looked at the card.
I could not believe my eyes; it said Dr Benedict Rotich…. Senior Surgeon, Government Hospital, Dusseldorf, Germany. With my heart racing, I turned the card. It had a local telephone number, and the name of Tropical Breeze Hotel, Nairobi, written by hand.
With trembling hands I dialed the number… my heart beat faster and louder as I listened to the ringing tone the other end, anxiety building as it went on ringing without an answer.
I tried again, and again, and again, and then I gave up. Hopefully he would call when he finds missed calls, I thought as I looked at the card again.
Benedict Rotich… so he had been in Germany all this time. I thought as I bit my lower lip.
I remembered the last time she had seen him at the departures, when I had seen him off when he left for his masters’ medicine scholarship.
I remembered the agonizing time I spent waiting for his mail so that I could give him the good news of having gotten pregnant, but no later came, and I left for Zambia where I gave birth to our son.
‘’Mum, I’m hungry,’’ Julius said, tagging at my blouse and bringing me back to the present. If only you knew what I was thinking about, I found myself thinking as I looked at him.
I was about to give up when the phone was answered
We were nearing Ol Kalou town, and I leaned over and asked the driver to stop at a restaurant where I could buy my son a snack.
Then I took her phone and tried the number again as the driver went around the small town looking for a restaurant.
I was about to give up when the phone was answered by a tired feminine voice.
‘’Hello,’’ the woman said.
‘’Hello, can I speak to Benedict?’’
‘’Benedict… You mean the owner of this phone?’’ the lady asked.
‘’Yyes,’’ I replied hesitantly.
‘’Where is Kipkorir?’’ she asked off the phone, then I heard some exchange of words on the other side. Then the lady came back.
‘’I am sorry but he forgot his phone at the hotel, and he is not in at the moment,’’ the lady said. There was still some hope, he hadn’t returned to Germany, I thought.
‘’When do you expect him back?’’
‘’May be tomorrow. He is out of Nairobi. Who is calling?’’
‘’Can you take a message?’’
What is it?’’ I asked
I left a message saying that I would be checking on him at the hotel the next day, but if he came back in time, I asked him to check me at the Hotel Green Post, where I would be staying for next few days.
I finished speaking on phone and realized Julius and the driver had left the car and were standing outside the restaurant. We would only get a take-away snack and off we would go. I did not want to waste any time on the way. The nearer I was to Benedict the better.
I bought half chicken and chips for myself and Julius plus some yoghurt, while the driver took a doughnut and a cup of coffee – the kind they put in a plastic cup that can’t pour while you drive. We were back into the car when I saw the driver hesitate after switching on the engine.
‘’What is it?’’ I asked.
‘’One of the waitresses at the restaurant is calling me, I don’t know what she wants,’’ he said. Give me a minute, he said as he placed his cup of coffee and doughnut on the dashboard. He switched off the engine and walked out, meeting a uniformed waitress at the door.
She seemed to gesticulate pointing at someone in the vehicle. I could not hear what they were saying and I saw the driver briefly look at me and Julius, then walk into the restaurant. I started worrying and looking at the watch. What was this all about, I wondered.
Before I tore our meal open, I saw the driver come out again, this time accompanied by a man in jeans and a cap. As they strolled towards the car, the man removed the cap, and I could not believe my eyes.
Benedict! With bated breath, I scrolled the windows down.
‘’Benedict… My God!’’ I screamed as I threw the food package on the seat, opened the door and jumped out, and into my long lost lover’s arms, as Julius stared from inside the car lost for words.
‘’You mean this little boy here is my son?’’ he seems to hiss with excitement.
‘’Yes… Benedict… this is your son…’’
I feel warm tears roll down my cheeks as Benedict stands up and picks up Julius and gives him a tight hug and a long smooch, as Julius grins widely. I can see Benedict’s eyes shimmering as he puts him on his lap and looks at me.
‘’I am sorry but I didn’t know how to reach you… All those years,’’ Benedict said.
‘’My luggage mysteriously disappeared on the plane, and I lost all the contacts. At first the airline told me it had inadvertently been loaded into another craft and they would contact me as soon as it was rescheduled back to Bonn. It never came back, and I had difficulties identifying myself at the college.
‘’By the time I settled and managed to call your old school I was told that you had left for another school outside the country, but no one knew where.
‘’I came back for holidays, and decided to come to Ol Kalou looking for you. I left my card with I think your sister in law.’’
‘’Yes. She gave the card this afternoon when I went there.’’
But it never mattered and we were even not listening to each other. We were all excited to finally get united. Benedict, Julius and me.