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Thursday, January 27, 2011

the house

Last Saturday we had a huge party, I knew it was a huge party because we bought 120 plastic glasses and 2 hours into a 8 hour party they were all finished, I know it was a huge party because there were so many footprints on the floor it was bitching(there usually are footprints on a beach.), I know it was huge because when one of my friends said, “ stop acting stupid are you a-insert xenophobic stereotype-“ and –xenophobic stereotype- was actually there foaming at the mouth at the injustice of it all. I know it was a strange party because when the morning light began sneaking in people weren’t chased away by putting off the music or anything comparably tame but by dismantling the chairs and beds on which they were sleeping and taking them outside the house.

this was the party we threw before we finally moved house.

Last year I had been away from home for 7 weeks. I was in another country or two and while there I missed the house so much more than I thought possible, in a matter of years you can come to know every part of a house and every scar it possesses and I would sleep and see it in all its fallen glory. There was a part of the house where the roof had been worked through, over the corridor the roof was made of plaster, the type that makes casts and maybe because of rain it fell through. I have no idea whether this happened piecemeal or all at once and if it happened all at once so I have no story to tell about that particular roof.

However once years in the past when I was too young to count or know better my brother decided to teach me (to count, knowing better came later). My father had come home with this brand new car. The paint was still gleaming so much it looked like the sun was reflecting it. It was to this car I was taken and given my first lesson in blind following, he handed me a needle point and watched as I took a turn learning to write the numbers on this paint, scratching away. When my father came home he gave me a lesson in knowing better that I have never forgotten. That’s not true actually. I’m sure I was caned repeatedly but I can’t remember the actual caning and until recently I thought I had imagined the whole incident but my brother confirmed the truth of it. Maybe the pain of the beating was blocked out to protect me from becoming a psycho; I still believe that this incident is why I have a horrible handwriting.

A little later in life when I was old enough to count hell I was old enough to know what ratios were but not yet old enough to realize that cooking a good meal is one of the best dates there is, we 3 men were left alone in the house.. My older brother is the kind of guy who when he has a girl over he buys the ingredients and shows her to the kitchen, the he goes to watch TV with a shouted instruction that she should call when the food is ready. Ok I exaggerate but only about the TV part, when girls come over he actually has them cook the food and my dad put his cooking days behind him on the day he paid that dowry. So the responsibility fell on me. All I new about cooking at that point was that rice had to be mixed in a ratio of 1:2 to be cooked properly. I had an idea how to put on the gas and so I carefully measured out a cup of rice and 2 of water till the pan was full. Then I let the water boil without any thought to flavour or salt. I sat back satisfied with myself especially when I opened the lid at the end and saw the little craters that always signify success and that is when I learned that looks can be deceiving. Have you ever had a good meal? The kind when your stomach is rumbling in anticipation and when you walk into the arena (food that good deserves to be epic) the smell assaults every part of you till you feel that your own soul is nothing but an extension of that smell. Then your base atheistic ideas about what a soul constitutes given religion by the first sensation of taste that crosses your tongue. It was nothing like that. In fact it was the opposite. A meal of quiet desperation. That’s when I decided to learn how to cook.


I read in that house for KCSE, for anyone who doesn’t know those are the Kenya secondary examinations that in the mind of most of us were this end all for life. Pass and the golden ticket to a life of no more want gets handed to you on a silver platter. Fail and meniality is the only adjective you can apply to your life. For a year of your life your whole body and mind is conditioned to think that the world ends with a pass or fail. Towards the end of the year there is an insane amount of stress and pressure. Shouting matches are as common as sleepless nights, as it nears the tension rises until you’re nearly broken. And this house was where I went through all these ups and downs. There is a table where I used to burn my pencils. I can’t be sure why I had a box of matches near me but I did and regularly I would set fire to the pencils because granite expands faster than wood as a result the pencil would break from the inside like a man’s spirit, something that if you’re not careful KCSE could do. I think that exam is a sinister version of Santa clause for Kenyans. As long as you’re young you believe in it and its importance then you grow up and look back at your naïveté with wonder.

This was the house I stumbled home to drunk back when I flirted with alcoholism so much I always went to bed with drink in me. Whenever I was out beyond 9:30 pm I knew there was 17 minute walk ahead of me before I got home. This was a road I have been trudging since before Nairobi had streetlights. Back then it was scary. Dark as the back of your mouth and just as endless. The only light that ever shone was a car coming by. In a few years I knew that only the guards on motorcycles would ever give you a lift home if they saw you staggering hopelessly from another night on the tiles. The end of that road was a moment of triumph as you got into the house and pulled the blankets over you to shelter from all that’s outside.

In this house I did all my firsts. Every mistake or source of pride was carried back here either to be shared or hidden.


We always called the servant’s quarters the dark room. This was because all it had in the way of ventilation was a little window in the corner that let in almost no light. I have had a parade of uncles living there as long as I can remember and as a result of those facts confluencing it always had that distinctive male smell that any girl with brothers knows. It visits your room in the morning as result of all the testosterone you let go while you sleep. However, when you wake you open the window it is quickly diffused. However the dark room was different. The window was too small to let all that masculinity escape. Maybe this is why we used the room for so much clandestine activity. The first time I took a girl there I remember worrying about the lack of distraction, a radio or TV that could fill the silences between us that I was so scared would result when we were lying back spent. Back then I was too young to know that during such sessions silence was the last cavity you would have to worry about filling.

That house holds more memories than can be remembered it had seen me at my worst and at my lowest. Rarely at my best because then I felt like I needed to spread the joy. It has held enough secrets that Dan Brown could write a book about it. Public joys and private tears have all been given way to there and hundreds of guest maybe even thousands by now have walked through it all leaving a small part of themselves in the house. At times it was more alive most human beings.

But everything marches to the beat of progress. I tried, deliberately not to know that would happen to the house when we left but this was not possible. It’s going to be torn down and now am feeling so sentimental that I want to go back there and pick up a stone for a souvenir. The truth is if the walls and roof and floor were alive they would know me better than anyone else. I wanted to write a symphony of sorrow for the house that I grew up in. that I spent all my life in. that has been a home to dozens of loved ones over the years as well as a passage for hundreds o souls on their way through life. But I don’t feel I could write well enough to capture all this house meant to me. It was almost a family member and at times more than a home, a symbol of all that was constant and dependable but things change.

It’s true that change is inevitable but that its good may be something human beings tell themselves just so they can deal with the former.