Celebrating East African Writing!
Written by Alvin Kathembe
People never seem to believe me when I tell them my name. This week our Teacher Joy was introducing the new English teacher – Mrs. Kuta – to us. She made everyone in class stand up and say their name. When it was my turn, Mrs. Kuta’s eyes grew wide as saucers.
“Nangoye?” she asked. The whole class was looking at me. “Of the famous Nangoye family?”
Teacher Joy whispered something in Mrs. Kuta’s ear. She nodded, and looked at me strangely. She asked me to sit down, and Brian introduced himself next. His family is not famous.
The man in the coffin is my father. He is dead.
He doesn’t look dead though. He looks like he is sleeping. His eyes are closed peacefully, and his hands are folded across his chest. He is wearing a very smart suit. There is a big, smiling photograph of him on the coffin. There was a long line of people who wanted to look at Father’s body. We joined the line. I had to stand on tiptoe to look into the casket..
We are seated near the back of the church. We came early, but they still made us sit right at the back. They said that the front seats were reserved for the family of the diseased. I tried to tell them that Father wasn’t diseased any more – that he was dead. Nobody would listen. Mother was very angry. I have never seen those men before. Maybe they didn’t know who we were. They were very rude.
This is the biggest church that I have ever seen. The ceiling is all the way up there and there are beautiful pictures of Jesus in the windows. I wonder why the windows are painted over. Maybe it’s to stop people from being distracted, and staring out at the sky. I do that in class, a lot. I like to see what interesting shapes the clouds are making. Maybe the same thing happens during the Sermon. Maybe they paint over the windows to remind people that Jesus is watching them. I ask Mother.
“Be quiet!” she says, harshly.
There are many people here. I have never seen so many people at a church service before. All of them are dressed in black, and all of them are looking at us strangely. They are pointing. Whispering. Staring. Maybe they are feeling sorry for us. Mother pretends not to notice.
Mother is still very angry.
People are going up to the microphone now. They are saying very nice things about Father.
Father was a great man. He had many businesses and lots and lots of money. I am proud that such a great man is my father. I wish that I could have seen him more often. Mother always told me that he was a busy man. The few times that I did see him, he asked me about school. I am usually first or second in my class. My greatest rival is a girl called Esther Mwai. But I beat her, most times.
“Good boy,” Father says, patting my shoulder. “Good boy.”
Father never stayed for long. Sometimes he stayed for a whole evening or afternoon. Then he would leave again, and we wouldn’t see him for weeks. Now Father is dead. He won’t be coming to visit any more. Mother says that he has gone to Heaven, to be with Jesus. Father was always going away.
“…I would like to extend my condolences to Hector’s family;” the speaker says.
“To his loving widow, who has been at his side through thick and thin; and to his three little children, who have suffered such a great tragedy at such a young age. May the good Lord comfort you.”
People clap. I wonder why – that guy obviously had no clue what he was talking about. Father only has one child: me.
They announce that the late Hector Nangoye’s widow would like to say a few words. I look at Mother expectantly. She shows no signs of moving. Her jaw is clenched and her hands have balled into fists. Her whole body is tense. She has a dangerous look in her eye. I know that look well; it’s the look she gives me when I have done something wrong. Usually when she gets that look she asks me to bring her the belt. It is a terrible look. But this time it is not directed at me. I know better than to say anything.
Three men help a lady up to the podium. She’s dressed all in black, and a heavy black veil hides her face. She is crying. I can barely hear her speech through all the sobbing. I thought a ‘widow’ means the wife of someone who has died. I must be wrong. Mother is still sitting beside me. Maybe it means the sister of someone who has died. I have never met any of Father’s sisters. She must be my aunt. I almost ask Mother, but she still has The Look in her eye.
They help her from the stage, finally. People rush to shake her hand and to tell her pole. Nobody has offered to console Mother, or asked her to say a word. Maybe that’ll come at the very end, the way the Headmistress is always the last to speak at Assembly.
“…and now we will have presentations from Hector’s children.”
I look at Mother in panic. Presentations? Nobody told me about any presentations! What will I do? In front of all these people? This isn’t fair! I haven’t practiced! I have a horrible image of me, standing on the podium with all eyes on me. Even Jesus is watching, from the windows. I start to sweat. I look at Mother – she is still staring at the podium with The Look in her eye. I bite my tongue and slouch very low in my seat. Maybe they won’t see me.
Three girls have been led to the front. They are all younger than me. They are dressed in matching black dresses. They are wearing black shoes. They have black ribbons in their hair. They look like ballerinas, dressed all in black.
They begin to sing. They have nice voices.
Who are these girls? Are they my sisters? No, they can’t be. Mother has no other children. I am an only child. How could Father have any other children? Mother was Father’s wife. That is how a family is. A husband, a wife, and children.
The song is finished. Now the biggest of the three girls is reciting a poem. It is long, and full of difficult words. It has something to do with spring and winter, flowers blossoming and dying. Winter is the season where it’s really cold and snow falls down from the sky, instead of rain. It never snows in Nairobi, everybody knows that. When she finishes, everyone claps.
The service is over at last. We’re among the first ones out. Mother takes my hand and leads me towards the car. A long, black vehicle is blocking our way. Mother will not be able to drive out without hitting it. She can’t reverse either, because we’re parked at the fence. We wait. Mother is very nervous. There’s no driver in the black car. There is gold lettering on the side of the car –
CHARIOT OF FIRE HEARSES – BE CARRIED OFF TO GLORY IN STYLE.
Mother takes my hand, and starts to lead me away.
“Come, Leo, let’s wait somewhere else before –”
“What is that BITCH doing here?”
The voice rings across the churchyard. Everyone stops talking and turns towards the voice.
The veiled woman is standing in the huge doorway of the church, surrounded by many people. The three girls who sang are with her. She has thrown away the veil – it is lying in the dust. She is staring right at us, pointing at Mother.
She has said a bad word.
“You dare show your face here? You DARE?! Eh? You dare show your face here, you whore?”
Her eyes are almost popping out of her head. Her nostrils are flared, big and round like a bull’s. She looks like she is about to charge. The people with her are trying to hold her back, but she shrugs them off easily.
“YOU! You dare insult my husband’s memory by bringing this – this – this little bastard here! No, no, I won’t stand for this! Apana, let me go, this woman, look at her –” three strong men are trying to hold her back now. If they let go of her she will run straight at us. Mother’s face has turned a bright pink. Usually her face is the colour of manila paper but now it’s bright pink.
The woman is still screaming.
“You whore! Get out of my sight! You think your lawyers will help you? Eh? You think you are entitled to my husband’s property because you were sleeping with him? Who are you? Just a bloody secretary – no, leave me alone – who are you, eh?” she is fending off the three men all by herself. She is very strong.
“You think that little bastard will see a cent of Hector’s money? Eh? Not as I live! Even if you give him our name, he will never be a part of this family. Never! You hear? Never!”
Finally they manage to drag her away. Everyone is looking at us. Mother is crying. Nobody makes an attempt to talk to us. I take Mother’s hand. I am scared. I don’t understand what that woman was saying.
“Why is she so angry at us, mum?” I whisper. “What have we done?”
They are still staring at us. I see the girl – the one who read the poem – looking at us. I catch her eye. Finally someone moves the Chariot of Fire Hearse. We get into the car. We are driving away. I wave at the girl. She waves back. Mother is still crying.
“What was that woman saying?” I ask Mother. “Why does she hate us so much?”
I have never seen Mother cry before. I don’t know what to do. I feel like crying too. Mother says that real men don’t cry. I’m too old for crying. I am eight years old. Mother says that I am the man of the house.
She pulls over to the side of the road, and holds me close.
“He loved you,” she whispered. “He…he loved us. That’s all that matters. But there is no way that woman will cheat you of your inheritance.”
Her voice is strong now, strong and angry.
“You are your father’s son. I won’t let them steal your name.”
We sit there like that for a long time. Finally Mother pulls away, kisses my cheek, and starts the engine. It is night already; I can’t see the clouds through the window.
My name is Leo Nangoye.