“I can remember the beating as if it happened this morning. He kicked, slapped and dragged me on the grass and for a moment I thought he would go on forever. To be honest I didn’t even understand why he was so furious. I also didn’t understand why he [a stranger] was beating me. I was more in shock and confusion than I was in pain. I kept on screaming for my mother to save me from this ‘visitor’ who has decided to turn violent on me. She just stood a safe distance pleading with him not to kill me…
Earlier that week when he arrived at our home, my mother had introduced him to me as my baba. I didn’t think much about it because where I come from all uncles and distant uncles are considered ‘baba’ pronounced ‘fafa’ to mean father or sometimes lesser father. So this man (the visitor) who looked antisocial and was always staring at me silently as if he knew me from somewhere, was just a relative coming to check on us. In the first few days we didn’t talk much and I avoided making eye contact as I found him scary. He and my mother would speak in short sentences and most of their conversations were one way with my mother doing most of the talking. He seemed different from all our relatives who I had by now come to accept as irritatingly noisy and somewhat obnoxious. He definitely was not one of ours.
On this fateful day he motioned me over to where he was sitting under the shade of the granary’s thatched roof. He reached into his coat and produced a couple of ndururu (colonial era 10 cent coins) which he instructed me to take to my uncle next door to pay for a long standing milk debt. I took the money and hurried off to my uncle. I was seven years old and as you would guess, I quickly got distracted by my childish curiosities along the way. I got to my uncle and threw the coins into his giant hand and waited for him to confirm that it was all there.
“Is this all?” he barked.
“I gave you the money as I was given by fafa” I responded as I played with his puppies.
He waved me off impatiently and instructed me to tell fafa that he would come to see him later in the day. Little did I know what would follow that afternoon would change my life forever.
I was playing in the dirt when I saw my uncle charge into our homestead mumbling incoherently with his fists clenched tightly. I could tell he was very angry. He shouted for my mother asking her where Mwangi (fafa) was. My mother came out of the kitchen visibly surprised by my uncle’s tone. In a rather calm tone, she tried to inquire what the cause of his anger was and whether she could help but my uncle was taking none of it. She pointed to the direction where fafa was working in the farm planting cassava and helplessly watched my uncle march there like a raging buffalo. My mother and I were silent for the next few minutes as the two men’s interaction spiralled into a huge argument. All I could hear was fafa saying something about being sure he had paid the right amount and my uncle shouting back that fafa was lying to him. After what seemed like an endless shouting match, there was silence and then I heard fafa calling me.
“Did you give fafa (now uncle) all the money I gave you?” he hissed.
“I gave him all the money you gave me” I replied.
“How much did I give you?” he asked in a suspicious manner.
“I don’t know, I didn’t count” I responded in a shaky voice.
” Did you stop to play at any one point on your way to your fafa?” he asked the trick question in a low tone.
My reaction gave me away. I couldn’t lie and by now I knew I was in deep trouble. I wasn’t sure if and where I had dropped some of the coins but something inside me told me that I had been careless. In a flash of lightning, Fafa descended on me with kicks and blows like a dog as he interrogated me to know where I had lost the rest of the money. I had been beaten before by my mother who was an outstanding disciplinarian but there was something different about this beating. I felt I was being beaten by a total stranger while my uncle and mother looked on. At some point the beating got so bad that I started screaming that fafa was not my father and that he had no business beating me. Immediately I saw my mother cover her mouth with her hands in what seemed like a mixture of fear and astonishment. It was also the same instant when all hell broke loose. My father beat me until I was numb with shock. We spent the night cutting down all the bushes along the path I had taken to my uncle’s house in a bid the lost ndururu. In the end we never found the money but that is how I knew fafa was my biological father and in the years that followed we became best friends until the day he died.
You see my father had been detained during the emergency just around the same time I was born; he was released after seven years of hard labor in the worst conditions imaginable. A lot of men and women in that period were tortured in detention and their experiences changed them forever. In the emergency period many mothers were left in the reservations with young children to look after and they had to take up the roles of fathers as well. They were tough and resilient because that was the only option they had. This meant providing, caring and disciplining their children who were growing up without father figures. Many of my age-mates also got to know their fathers after the emergency years; many still did not get their parents back as they died in the camps. We still turned out alright do you agree?”
This is one of the many stories that my father told my brother and I on a road trip last weekend. I filled in some parts creatively to give it a little kick. It feels good to be writing again.