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Monday, 7 September 2020

An Uncle Like No Other

My uncle was like no other, a father figure when my dad was busy building a career. I first got to know of him when a strapping young lad, with a spring to his walk, appeared to our iron gate. As usual, I was outside, playing to my heart’s content, covered in dust and childhood vigor. He had a small bag with him and smiled easily. I immediately liked him as he walked in and sat in the sitting room.

“Who are you?” I asked inquisitively.  

“I am your Uncle.” He retorted.

I scanned his face: the prominent eyes, bushy eyebrows, rounded jaw, average height, and handsome in a tribal way.

“What is your name?” I continued with the cross-examination.

“Fred is my name,” and he put out his hand for a handshake. Aware he hadn’t done it before. I chuckled and greeted him. His eyes were looking around the house, even as my nanny brought him tea and quickly retreated to the kitchen.

“Where are you from?”

“Are you asking me whose brother I am?”

I nodded.

“I am your mother’s younger brother,”

I took a moment to take that in.

Her determination was in his eyes, and they shared the same lean forehead and skin tone. I nodded in agreement.

“How old are you?”

“Hey! Edwin whats with the questions.” But he still answered.

“20 years old,”

“I don’t know any 20-year-old,” I said, thinking about it, as I scratched my dusty elbow.   

Luckily at that very moment, my mother walked in with her white nurse’s uniform that was always so clean.

“Fred!” she said animatedly. Fred looked relieved as he rose and met his sister halfway. They shook hands and hugged. Immediately jumping into a coded conversation about family, in a different and strange language. I lost interest and wandered off. 

My uncle was brash and had a sharp mind. To be honest, at six years, I didn’t know any other 20-year-old who cared to have a conversation with me that lasted longer than the cursory.

Fred brought along his love of music, introducing me to Michael Jackson, and Thriller. A song that would traumatize me for the three years he came visiting or stayed for elongated periods.

The first time I listened to Thriller, the album, it was a tape he brought home. It was evening when ‘thriller’ came on. I vividly remember the opening of a creaking door. The footsteps of a man walking. The howl of distant wolves and the diabolic voice of Vincent Price. I still remember his words.

The foulest stench is in the air
The funk of forty thousand years
And grizzly ghouls from every tomb
Are closing in to seal your doom
And though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of the thriller

It then ended with a burst of devilish heart-shattering laughter. Leaving me traumatized in my bed, using my thin blanket as protection from unseen demons. I remember my uncle’s light snoring as I battled with the shadows of the night, and slept late from sheer exhaustion.

This routine became habitual that when he was away, I would find myself playing thriller, and scaring myself. I still don’t know why I did that.    

I never felt it right to call him by name. The same reason I never called my father or mother by their names. I always felt a deep respect for the man. Knowing he shaped me more than I cared to confess.

In those early days, he was a trainee teacher, a first job he took at a high school I walked by on my way to school daily. In the morning, I would walk along the main road. Past the Asian quarters to the left and the school, my uncle taught in, to the right.  The school had a thick bush for a fence running along the road. The school’s gate had a giant board at the top declaring to the inattentive and illiterate the name of the school.

I wondered what kind of a teacher my uncle was. Was he fun to be around? Was he a beloved teacher? A flash of my own teacher went past my mind, and I squirmed. 

I shook my head, my uncle was just too ‘dope.’ The students must love him. I convinced myself. I also saw how hard he strove to be a better teacher. I found recorded cassettes of him recording himself preparing for his classes. He was testing his voice and looking for the right words to empower and share information with his students. I listened in awe, making sure to only listen to the tapes when he wasn’t around. I can’t say I understood what he was saying. Still, it sounded brilliant, even as it went beyond my comprehension.

“Edwin lets go.”

“Where to uncle,”

“I will show you.”

“Wear your rubber shoes,”

I scrambled to find my shoes and put them on, as I looked at him, in his exercise attire.

This is how Fred introduced me to physical exercise.

We went running.

I kept looking behind. My mother was not chasing, nor were my friends racing me. It felt strange.

“Follow me. And breath deeply as you run.”

We ran around a field and sweat broke from my forehead. I was seeing rainbow colors forming as I blinked to find composure. I was out of breath, my chest was burning, and I felt faint.

 “Uncle I need to sit down,”

He didn’t hear me and kept running. I fell on my bums and then lay flat on my back.

I then observed his frenzied behavior for the following 30 minutes. He was running up and down, here and there in the open field.

When he had enough of it, he came and sat beside me, drenched in sweat. A fleeting thought came that he was trying to get me to lose weight. I looked at my belly and stocky legs.  I was mindful of being a ‘well-rounded’ child who would roll like a barrel to school and back. It was customary back then for me to fall because I lacked balance.  

I sighed and got up.

“Let's run again. Uncle.”

He looked up and laughed heartily in a toothy way that only he could.

That day we ran some more, and I contended with all my muscles aching for the next few days. He taught me the value of exercise that I keep with me to this very day. 

It became a routine for us. As soon as Uncle Fred came from school, we would get into our exercise ‘clothes’ and go out. For me, that was a shirt that had lost all semblance of shape, shorts and old North Star rubber shoes.

One day, he came home with a smooth square ply board. He had a ruler and markers and drew lines across with shaded and unshaded boxes alternating. He then brought out the bottle tops. 

“I want to teach you a game, it is called drafts, or checkers.” He said with a smile.

I nodded, excited there was something new to learn.

“The principle is simple. You do this.” He showed me arranging a set of coke bottle tops, at one end, and Fanta bottle tops on the other end.

“These are yours,” he said, pointing to my end.

“You win when you take my bottle tops. Like this!” He showed me, as he ‘ate’ my bottle tops. Laughing heartily as he did so. I looked at him strangely, not understanding his sense of humor.

Fred won the game that day. I failed to understand the concept for a few weeks, and when I did, I had to contend with an uncle who never allowed me to win.

“How will you learn to be strong in a world where you get everything you want?” He insisted comically.  

I guess it’s the reason I got better as I got older, winning my first game three years later.

“Edwin, you know there is nothing you can’t do?” he would tell me, as he won another round.  

I would nod and arrange the board again for another game.

Those were the same days, I would attend Class One, and face a senseless and challenging class teacher. Fred’s presence gave me a sense of normalcy. Him saying I was Okay, despite the mistreatment I felt at school, saved my self-worth, for a while. 

“You are a brilliant mind, and soon you will know why,” he would say, even as he saw my report card which reported for the umpteenth time I was last in my class.

He would ignore it, and ask we play a game of checkers, or he would play some music.

He loved reggae music. Called it Roots & Culture. And through him, I discovered Cocoa Tea, Burning Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bob Marley. Bob Marley had a profound effect, just as Michael Jackson. Reggae made me feel more intelligent than my report card stated. I remember once I brought a particular lousy report, and my uncle put on Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up.

Get up, stand up
Stand up for your right
Get up, stand up
Don't give up the fight

I sang this line for two weeks straight until my mother asked my uncle to play less of that music. Deep down, I wanted to stand up to Mr Gitembe, back at school, who was nothing close to what Uncle Fred was.   

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