The closest I have come to fatherhood, was when a girl I liked, said she was not into P2. This was after we had engaged in uuuuuuuhm, how do I say this. We did bad manners.
“What do you mean?” I asked after she said that.
“Mimi simezi P2,” she answered. Her tone communicating the finality of her decision. Insisting that raising a child with a poor man (me) was preferable to emergency contraception. That was long before my ignorant self understood what P2 does to the female body. I was tempted to push her into it. But I am, unfortunately, soft especially when I like someone. To the extent that if you mention her name when I am within earshot, I blush uncontrollably. My cheeks taking the hue of a well-marinated steak. Boran(a) to be specific. So I did what any reasonable man caught in this situation would do. I started planning on how I was gonna raise a child with her. Never mind that I was still a college student with a bank account more accustomed to withdrawals than deposits.
Our daughter (I have a feeling it would have been a girl) had we had her, would be 4 years old today. She would have spent the whole day at home, alone, because mama and papa are working. She would have opened the door for me pissed as hell when I got home at 5:40 in the evening. Pissed, because we are both outdoor people and she hates staying home all day. She would have demanded that papa take her out for a walk. Never mind I have spent the whole day fending for her. And I would have caved. Remember, I am soft when I like my girls. I have a feeling Karimi (as I would have named her) would know daddy’s softest spots. The knowledge of how to press them ingrained in her by the angels before they sent her to me.
Karimi goes quickly into her bedroom, pulls out the red dress mum bought for her for special occasions and wears it. She pairs it with a dainty little handbag that aunty Ciku bought last Christmas. Caps her ensemble with a pair of shoes that goes Ka Ka Ka when she walks. Only then, can we go!
We step out together, Karimi asks the house-help if she needs anything. The yaya wants chocolate. Karimi assures her she will bring it. Never mind that this is my money she is dishing out.
She prefers to go down the stairs on her own. A painfully long process given we live on the fourth floor of my building. She’s made a science of it. Grabbing the railing that she can barely reach with her left hand. Motioning papa to bring his right hand, then jumping from step to step. When we get to the ground floor, she changes tact. Asking papa to carry her.
“Lakini si you are a big girl?”
She is, but not so big that she does not enjoy being carried around. I cave again. Hoisting her onto my left arm. Like the princess that she is, she makes herself comfortable. Asking me to carry her handbag for her. I do. The estate kids (whose parents don’t give a damn about coronavirus) wave as she passes. She ignores them. She only waves to her friends. Who excitedly come to say hello, ignoring me. They are happy to see her.
“Utakuja kucheza ball Karimi?” they ask.
She tells them no. She understands why papa and mum don’t want her to play outside. We will shortly get to Baba Njuguna’s shop. The shopkeeper, a kind gentleman who runs the only shop in the estate, greets her by name. He knows her and is surprised that I do not know my daughter is famous. She wants 2 bars of chocolate. Cadbury’s. One with nuts, the other one with milk, for yaya. I get those for her. She does not want to eat her chocolate at home.
“Baba tunaweza kaa hapa nje?”
We find a stone, I turn it over, she lets me sit on it. She then makes herself home on my lap. Spending the next half hour telling me what she did today. Apparently, yaya, as she calls our house help loves movies too much. She only starts cleaning when it is almost time for papa to come home. She did her spelling homework today. She asks me when she can take it to school for teacher to mark. I have no answer to that. Karimi also feels like she doesn’t see mum much these days. I try to explain that mum has to work late.
“Lakini daddy, si wewe unakuja kwa nyumba mapema. Mum hawezi?”
A difficult question. One I cannot answer without breaking into explanations of contracts, labor laws, and other employment nitty gritties. But the simple fact is that mama makes more money. Her time is more valuable. So she gets to come home a little later than me.
“Karimi, si you know we both still love you?”
She nods. A careless nod. One that says “I’ve heard that multiple times.” I am tempted to give her a lecture on how “I love you” was foreign to my father’s tongue. Only, she sees her mother’s car driving through the estate gate. The little tyrant bursts from my arms on her way to “maaaami, maaami, maaami!” Leaving me with a bar and a half of chocolate on one hand and her red handbag in the other.
I hear a siren. A police car attempting to scare the remaining citizens into their houses. It is 7 pm, the beginning of curfew. It shakes me out of my daydream. Depositing me back into the present. In my single room, alone, childless, the girl I liked now liking another. My mind trip above, midwifed by a conversation I had last month with a friend. Discussing of all things, fatherhood. Our experience of it. A topic that is seemingly coming to the center of my generation’s discourse. Fueled by age and pressure from our families to settle down. Tales of women and their derrieres are disappearing. That space taken, by conversations on whether one should go public or private when it comes to education for their child. Or how to raise moral children in the age of social media.
My friend, however, shakes things up a bit. Telling me that his father recently told him, “I love you.” Had it been my own father, I would have assumed he was drunk, broke and with a newfound love for snotting heroin and cocaine. Resulting in hallucinations that cause him to act out of character. See, we are the last generation born of fathers who did not tuck in their children and kiss our foreheads goodnight. Fathers who were unfamiliar with the notion of bedtime stories or spending quality time with us. Fathers whose love language was; “Si I feed you? Si I clothe you? Do you have a roof? Do you go to school? What more do you want?” We are struggling to chart out our own manual of fatherhood that is alive to the times. Aware that we will raise kids who will need more than canes and whips, maybe chocolate and crisps.
My friend tells me that he senses a change is happening in his own father. A suspicion that the old man in perhaps softening. Age finally thawing the image of masculinity in his father’s mind. My friend loves it. This softer version of his papa. A part of him wishes it came sooner. Perhaps he would not have spent the last 3 decades of his life chasing achievement. Academics, degrees, jobs. All ghosts that he hoped, subconsciously, would finally lead him to the inner sanctum of his father’s psyche. Where he would finally hear approval in his father’s voice. Maybe hear him say that “I am proud of you; you are a good son and I love you.” But life hardly ever comes at us as we would like it to. Instead, the words we’ve spent our lives seeking, are spoken in a hurried moment. An accident. “I love you son.” Spoken so quickly, that by the time you hear them, they are gone. Yet, when you look at papa, you see something different. The curtain that creates the separation of man and son torn. You see him, as he exists, a man. Seeking also, the approval of his son.
It reminds me of a poem I love by Amiri Baraka that speaks of softening. Only, its discussion of softening is in itself tender. As if the art of softening is something to be proud of. A loosening of the hardness that the world places on the shoulders of men. Leaving in that space goodness. Sweetness. And a certain tenderness that I hope my father had, and that I pray, my daughter will experience.
“I think about a time when I will be relaxed.
When flames and non-specific passion wear themselves away.
And my eyes and hands and mind can turn and soften,
and my songs will be softer and lightly weight the air.”
PC: Philip Boakye – Pexels
Are you staying home this Coronavirus season? I hope so. Meanwhile, keep your loved ones close and love them hard. We will get through this.