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My father and the picture on my wall

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Without fear, he walked with us
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My father and the picture on my wall

Peter! I am sorry

Footprints in the sands of history

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 AUGUST 3, 2011

We all always
have jaded memories of our parents. But in our revering our parents, we all always create such utopian parents that if they were still alive they would look like angelic fairies always holdings our hands and leading us to greener green gardens under which rivers always flow. My jaded memory of my parents only always comes into vivid focus when I reflect on their solemn moments, happy and sad times, and mostly the questions they always deferred to “when you are older I will tell you”. My father was the most ardent at giving this response, to the extent that it always became a chorus we sang for him whenever he scratched his head before responding.

Mum is a memory of this pretty patrician black woman in whose bosom we would find warmth, and to whose skirts we would hold on to dear life when the man she called darling wanted to give us a serious spanking. It often did not take much to upset her darling. A simple omission like not watering the garden or even lazing in his favoured sofa, would invoke in him the sense that the wrath of his leather belt should descend on us. But, there was always mum’s skirt to intercede.

A vivid memory of mum are the times this sweet woman we loved so much would abandon us to go and work at a women’s group in the community distant from our middle class environment. Well, there were no upper class areas then. It was either you lived kumayadi, the low density green residential areas, or the compound, the high density not so green residential areas.

From our infantile rationalisations, it was not fair at all that mum would leave us to go and work in the compounds! But of course, in our minds, there were also the times this sweet woman turned into a hideous creature. Then, my father would be our darling too. These were mostly the times, she would holler so loud that our ear drums would nearly burst. All because we were still playing hide and seek or kicking the hide off a soccer ball way after dusk. She would round us up, march us into the bathtub, and give us a scrubbing that in our little minds felt like we would leave the bathtub without our skin. Our new darling would then come to soothe us with the chocolate sweets we had hoped he would give us when he knocked off from work.

Ah! In my mind it is clear how at other times the “chocolate sweet” saga unfolded. Sometimes after getting tired of kicking the hide off the soccer ball early, we would keep sentry on the plush porch, looking out for my father. We did not have prison-like wall fences then. A sighting would see us rush to the gate to greet my father, walk with him a bit hoping he will give us chocolate sweets. We always believed, we could smell them on him. When the sweets were not forthcoming, we would run into the house and crowd around his favourite sofa. The sofa always had a clandestine thing about it. And yet, when he walked in, his first destination was the kitchen.

We would sulk, walk out, and in the local language, say, "gosh that woman is a spoiler. Now she will ask if we have already bathed”. And my father would retort, "I don’t allow that criminal language in my house". Those were the days!

My father was a stern man, who seldom smiled, but liked the sound of his voice. His worst moments were when politicians came to visit our town. His position in the office always meant that he had to attend without fail, else the wrath of the Party would fall on him. And he would bulldoze us to accompany him. Did we glow, looking up at my father up on the podium, next to all those big Party comrades! Yet, he did not smile. If anything his face got sterner and contorted as if angry. It always got worse, when the political creatures from the Capital started eulogising nothingness for development. No different from the incident when one day my father came home seething, neck bursting to the seams.

“Woman,” he shouted at mum. “Some Party chairman and his cadres rudely walk into my office without knocking, to simply come and tell me that he has a report that I do not respect the President. Why? Because the President’s picture hangs behind my seat. What nonsense.” And he walked out ranting. The next we saw him was deep in the night, smelling like a brewery. The next day, he apologised to mum, and gave us a lecture on cretins pretending to work for the people. Why can’t they learn from Jesus, he surmised. Who exactly is this guy he always talks about, we would always ask ourselves. Whoever Jesus was, he seemed to be fixated in my father’s life.

That brings me to the few instances, my father smiled. The most vivid instances that seemed to light my father’s face like an angel were when in the presence of mum, and when in a huge building with frosted crystal-like glass and a huge cross on top. The huge building with frosted crystal-like glass and a huge cross on top is one building we dreaded. We associated it with early Sunday morning serious scrubbing from mum.

On Sundays, we would be frog matched proudly, in our Sunday best, to this monstrous building, inside was his favourite guy on the Cross. And when, the Hail Marias and Pater nosters started, my father would beam like a full moon on a dark night and hail along. The guy on the Cross always struck a weak cord in us. Despite looking eerily solemn and melancholic, it was always like he was calling out to us or even reading our thoughts at the time. He really made us very uncomfortable. We would look around agitated, wishing we were kicking the hide off the soccer ball, and not having some guy on the Cross interrogating our inner fears. We could never wait to bolt from the place.

On the way back home, we would ask my father who the solemn looking person on the Cross was. “Jesus, and he loves you”, he would reply, lovingly patting our heads. “But why is he on the Cross”, my elder brother would ask. “He is the son of God, and he was crucified. He loves us so much that he decided to die for our sins”.

“Who is God?”
“Papa, what is sin?”
“And what kind of guy would want to die for all of us?”
“Come on papa, how can someone love people he does not know?”

The questions would rain on him like rain falls during a thunderstorm. In his usual manner, my father would resort to the best answer he seemed to always have.

“When you are older I will tell you”. As we entered the teens, my father tried to explain, but it all always seemed like a fairy tale. God, Jesus, mother Mary seemed so distant to our reality as children. If anything, Church was just a building where, every Sunday, adults like my father dragged children to against their will.

Many years later, in my adulthood, my father, then retired, came visiting. I had just moved into my flat. It was still scantily furnished. In the living room, there were only two stringy straw chairs, two three-legged traditional stools, a heavily tobacco stained coffee table, a poorly stocked bookshelf, and a television set on the floor. On the wall behind the television set, hang a picture of an iconic person whose story I held in awe. I even had several books on him. In the few times I sat pretending to watch TV, I think I spent more time looking at the picture than watching TV.
It is an inspirational picture, this picture on my wall.
The distance he stares at. The dreams of freedom he longed for peoples of all creed.
This picture on my blank wall is a melancholic palimpsest of the road I walk. I see so much pain, I see so much sadness. If only.

My father sat in one of the stringy straw chairs, beaming like he was sitting in a King’s throne. Little did he know that I was worried sick that he might want to spend the night. The flat was gravely Spartan that the beds were simply cheap single mattresses on the floor, and it was only two bedroomed. My sister was staying with me at the time.

From the stool, I cringed and watched him. He, strangely, did not talk much. He just sat straight-backed, pensively looking at the picture above the TV set. Later, he continued looking at the picture as he ate his super.

When it dawned on me that he was indeed spending the night, I offered him my room. It was going to be a rough night, as I would have to sleep on the floor.

“And where are you going to sleep?” He asked.
“Don’t worry dad, I will manage,” was my sheepish reply.
“Hey I am lean. I won’t take much space in your bed,” he simply replied, laughing. “You do not need to be ashamed that you think you do not have enough to share. I say this because you do, but in your heart you deny it.” He added.

Indeed that night my father and I spent the night on the single mattress on the floor! And he slept so peacefully that I did not even feel he was in my bed. I spent most of the night thinking I need to do something about my Spartan existence.

When I woke up, my father was already in the living room.

“There are people who are much worse off than you, my son,” my father simply said, immediately I walked into the living room. He, then again, pensively locked his eyes on the picture above the TV set.

“Who is he?” He asked.
“Ernesto Che Guevara,” I proudly replied. My father did not know Che!
“Why is he on your wall?” I explained.
“And he left his well-off life to fight for others?”
“Then I know him, too.”
“You do?” My father did not answer. He paused and asked another question instead.

“How can someone love people he does not know?” My father suddenly asked. The ground below me seemed to give in. I looked away, remembering a time when I had asked the very same question.

“He may not be Jesus, but at least from what you have told me, his ways could be admirable. Humane, but he can not be Jesus,” my father solemnly said.

Later in the day, he bid us farewell, and his departing words till today always hang around my deepest thoughts.

“Are your ways like the man on your wall,” he had asked. “As humans, do we really care for those we do not know? He had added.

My father, always an enigma, a solemn reminder of our deepest fears. We are always afraid to care beyond those we know, beyond those we love. And yet we claim to know God.

The guy on the Cross in the building of my childhood Sundays is a testament of what our existence should be. A greater love beyond our inner fears that we should know we can be able to love beyond those we know. That tomorrow we should look back and say: “Those are my footprints, and many that could not walk with me, that fell besides me, and those that came after me found the footprints to be the light that shone an existence of hope for them”.

That if, tomorrow my father walked with me again, I would proudly say: “I now know love.”

And I write this today, because looking back I now know my father and the picture on my wall revealed a truism by which we should all live. That is, my father is an anachronism, whose meaning is only deciphered today. And, Jesus the son of God that was fixated in my father’s life is a testimony whose meaning lives beyond time, and indeed beyond our religious affiliations, for love has no religious hegemony.



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