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Sunday, 13 September 2020

My Relatives Who Lived Nearby

We lived in a town where relatives were like the holidays. They were few, far in between, and not very close. It surprised me when we traveled to the village. On arrival after a whole day of traveling, instead of resting, we would find dozens of uncles, aunties, cousins, nephews and nieces, waiting to welcome us. Happy to see my father, who was much loved, and his offspring, who looked out of place. Being there felt comforting. Knowing you shared a grandfather with a stranger.  

Even so, we had relatives in Nanyuki. And they lived a kilometer or two away. Theirs was a different universe. They lived in flats, we in bungalows. They lived in a church compound, we lived across the road from a bar. In the 80s bars were few, and far in between. This bar was so close we sampled the music they played at night, and our neighboring compound housed the finer ecosystem of the bar, who lived in one-room apartments.  

 Let's get back to the comparison.

My parents were career government employees. My Uncle and Aunt worked for global blue-chip companies. My father loved Kaunda suits, and for the length of my childhood, I rarely saw him in a formal suit. Not so, my Uncle. My mother was always in sparkling white and a dark blue cardigan. Her wardrobe was rich in white and blue.   

The first time I saw my Uncle was the first time I also saw his wife, my Aunt. I have no recollection of anything that stood out. He was and still is an intensely private man. I remember the inquisitive eyes behind round turtle glasses. Back then, I saw very few people in glasses. It was a rare group to be in. I always assumed only the most intelligent of people wore them. Mr Gitembe, my class one teacher didn’t have a pair. I dared not suspect my Uncle to be a teacher.

Uncle had a hearty laugh that exploded at a moment’s notice and threatened to engulf you in a sea of joy. Uncle was refined, slender and handsome. He was also a teetotaler.    

Uncle spoke little at first. He took time to warm up to new people. But when he did, his conversations were enlightening and sobering. My relatives lived a different existence. Theirs was an expansive church complex with trees, birds chirping and a saintly aura permeating through the compound. To get to their flat from where I lived, there were two paths, I could use. One passed farmlands with head high maize fields. The other ran along a sea of bungalows, past a famous bar, and besides a major road.  

As soon as I had these two routes hard-coded in my brain, I made it a point to do excursions to my Uncle’s house, once every few weeks, more frequently when I could.   

The church compound had a large gate, with an archway leading to ‘heaven’—the guards would as well have been in white. I would walk past the large church with a prominent cross and airy interior—a structure with a strong European influence. On the driveway feeling the gravel on my feet, pass a small row of offices, and suddenly appear before a three-floor housing complex.

The houses were beautiful, probably inspired by an architect. I would chuckle remembering our mason/carpenter/foreman who frequently and dubiously looked for projects in our house.

“Mzee, you know we can build a wall here, and this room can be used for more activity.”

Or

“Mzee, we need to fill this place with another room, we can’t waste this space.”

This housing complex was well thought out. There was a fire extinguisher, behind the flight of stairs and the finishing was pleasing to the eyes.  As I bounded up the stairs, I wondered what voodoo the mason had over my father.  

There was a bell, Of course, and I rang it. A moment of silence, and then feet behind the door shuffled. And the door was opened. Right there stood my Aunt, a sage and quiet woman, who I rarely heard say much. But when she did, you could hear the strength of her conviction. She never wasted her words.

 “Edwin!” She said pleasantly. I smiled shyly and walked in just in time, to sit down and watch color TV.

Yap! That was the main reason I made those trips. I was mesmerized by color television.

“Do you want some fruits?”

“Yes please,” I said meekly.

We both knew I loved to eat—a lot. That was the other reason I was there, for me, this house was an oasis.

Once I got past my false modesty, the questions started.  

 “Uncle, what do you do?”

“I am a banker,”

“What is a banker?” I asked, feeling those words in my tongue.  

He laughed warmly, genuinely. A signature I came to associate with my mother’s brothers.

“A banker is someone who takes money from people and then keeps it for them for a while, and then gives it back to them.”

“Why can’t they keep it for themselves?”

“Because it can get lost or stolen.”

“Can’t someone put it under a bed or somewhere no one else knows,”

“Maybe, but people trust banks to keep their money safe, its been like that for so long people have accepted it,”

I shrugged my shoulders.

I imagined swimming in a tub full of coins like Scrooge McDuck.

“Do banks have a big building they keep their money in, and someone can swim in it,”

My Uncle looked amused.

“No Edwin there is no Scrooge McDuck building which we fill with coins. And you know you can’t swim in coins?”

“Oh!”

Soon after.

“Can you swim?”

And on and on my quick-fire questions went on.

I came for the color television and food. I ended up becoming taken by my Uncle's perspectives in life and his brilliant mind. He enjoyed watching documentaries, and since there was a VCR, we watched them together. He was the fresh air my mind needed from the labor of daily repetitive learning at school.

He never once asked about my classwork. Then again, I was just in Class Two. My history with Mr Gitembe, my Class one teacher, was firmly behind me, physically, and mentally. Yet I struggle to remember who my teacher in Class Two was. She mainly because she did what was expected of her, and nothing more.

“Do you like animals, Edwin?”

“I think so, Uncle. I mean we have Tumbo,”

He looked at me quizzically. Tumbo was an Alsatian my father had bought when I was still a toddler. He was the closest I had to a friend.  

“My dog Uncle. We have some cats that moved into the compound, and I tolerate them because they have kittens I play with. I also love the chicken we keep since I can chase them all day long. So yes, I love animals.”

“OK. Let me show you something.” He said, pulling a VHS tape, and slotting it into the video player.

“In the Maasai Mara,” started the announcer. The voice was strangely foreign, deep and rich. English was native to the speaker, and his voice was commanding. If you were passing by a building and heard this voice, you would turn away from your path and walk into the building to hear the man speak.

Yet he wasn’t in the video as it panned into a vast expanse of savanna teeming with all manner of wild animals. I was instantly spellbound.

“This is the wildebeest, and it's just traveled from land yonder,”

The man was telling a story and educating the uneducated.

“Uncle, the man sounds strange, is he from that place?”

“No, Edwin, he is a white man. They colonized us, and are teaching us about what we have known all along.”

“If we have known all along, why are we listening to him.”

“Because we have allowed the white man to tell us our story.”

The video panned to a pride. A lion and lionesses were spread out on the grass basking, and scanning the wildebeest.

“The pride is satisfied this morning, having eaten the night before.” Said the foreign presenter.

“A lot of us have never been to a national park in our lives. There is even one right outside our door.” Pointed Uncle.  

“When you are outside, look towards Mount Kenya, and the whole area is a national park full of wildlife.” He continued.  

I opened my eyes wide, stunned by this revelation.

We both watched as the cogs in my mind started to turn.

“I want to visit the national park,” I blattered out.

My Uncle laughed in his usual way.

“You need to ask Mommy and Daddy, and they will probably make it happen.”

I fell silent, as a cloud came over me. I knew it was going to be a challenge convincing my mother. She was always so busy, and daddy was always out of town.

“I will find a way,” I told myself.

As I walked back home from my Uncle’s house, I felt refreshed there was always something new to learn from him—a man who gave me his ear and spoke kindly despite my many questions. Uncle’s wisdom added to the allure of the evening as I walked out of the church compound, past the famous bar, and into the sea of bungalows.

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