Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. – (Luke 15:32, KJV)
In the old days, a son returning home was celebrated. The Kikuyu people did not celebrate with the slaughtering of a fattened calf, like the Jews of old, but they slaughtered a goat instead. But things have changed- in my part of the city, at least- returned sons get wary smiles and uneasy back-pats as their pockets get picked. Sons who return with empty hands get the cold shoulder.
I returned with empty hands. My mother embraced me. Tukutenderesa!
My mum sat on a stool outside her house. She was poised delicately, leaning over the charcoal brazier, with only two legs of the stool touching the ground. The stool's third leg jutted out of its seat at an unlikely angle- broken. Like dreams in this neighbourhood. The fourth leg was missing; gone for as long as I can remember. Like many sons in this neighbourhood.
“Thanks and praises to the almighty...” My mother yelled as she reached out to me her calloused palms touching my face. The stool tumbled over an edge of its seat hitting her unshod heel before finding the pebbled ground. In its rapid descent, the stool spun slightly and knocked over a plastic bowl of uncooked sukumawiki. “Welcome home my son...” mother said putting her arms around me. At that moment, the charcoal brazier she had been coaxing came to life. The measly bits of charcoal burst into low, dancing flames sending sparks all around us even threatening to set the palm fronds placed against the kitchen wall on fire.
It was Palm Sunday and this place was my Jerusalem. Would I last through Easter before the local chief crucifies me, for a crime I have not committed? I thought to myself.
“Where did you go to, Potash?” My mum asked her eyes squinted somewhere between joy and pent up concern.
“I have been around and about, mami... here in Nairobi.”
“So how comes you never came to see us, at all... did you move out of home and not tell me... is it a girl that kept you away from us; we that have always loved you?”
“What are you talking about mami? ...I was busy. Working.”
“What kind of work is this, Potash, ...work, work, work..., for twenty four hours a day, seven days a week? Even muhindis give you a Sunday off, once in a while.”
“I cannot make you understand, mami, but that is what it is: I have been very busy. With work.”
“So you have money... you really need to give me some. Look at this house, this place... look at my roof... over there... can I tell anyone that my son is out there working?” My mum started to sob but could not stop talking. “... my son, Potash, all you are, I made you... and if you got married and didn't tell me, hmmm....”
I had no money and no girl. Not here not now. In the year and a half since I left this place, there has been money- not much, but a lot for where I am coming from- and there have been girls. But now I have nothing. How could I make my mum understand that I had done my best, at least tried to, in most cases, to make a better life for me and in the broader scheme of things, for them too? Here I was, with nothing, and yet I had done my best- in love and in labour.
I stepped out of my mum's embrace and stared at all of the horizon that I could see beyond the low-lying cluster of tin roofs. Dusk was creeping, rapidly, upon this neighbourhood. My mind wandered into the nights of a distant past. Nights filled with rancorous yells; muffled grunts, of both pain and pleasure. Illicit pleasure. Sobs of a two year old flower plucked. Some times the nights smothered you with an eerie silence. A silence punctured by gunshots and the wailing from the vigil of another son.
It is the vibrating urgency of my cellphone that brought me back to the living. I pulled out my phone. Flipped it open expectantly. Maybe someone, from the world I had left a few hours earlier- a world of affected conversations: the craft of writing and the proper use of a semicolon; construction and deconstructions of the 'other'; positive ethnicity and the role of the writer, over exotic cuisines, Scottish whiskey and South African wines- was inviting me back.
“Eiiii, nice phone, baba Potashi...” Karis, my brother's son, Exclaimed. “... ni ya camera, eh? ...Photo me!”
I could barely hear him as I brought up the phones screen to my face while fumbling with the 'answer' button.
“Hmmm, is that one of those people you left us for, ii? ... you know, Potash, and I have told you this many times before, the book of Isaiah tells us that blessed is the man that does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners... those there friends of yours are nothing more than chaff in the wind...” she punctuated her sermon by brushing spit off the corner of her mouth with one hand and waving the other about to mimic the wind. “...but here son, in this house, no matter how much we use poverty to light the jiko, Jehovah knows our way. And our way is righteous. Stay here, with us, where you belong and the lord will make you like a tree planted planted by the water's side...”
It was not one of those 'sinners' calling, just a reminder I had set two days before. A reminder to go home today, no matter what. But I had remembered to come home and here I was. What I should have remembered was to tell someone- anyone- to call me and summon me out of this place. But who was there to tell, anyway- the writers I was walking away from or the the girls who had walked away from me?
The sound of thunder reaches us from a distance and above us cumulus clouds swiftly steal the sun's thunder. A drop of water lands on my face and then another and another in quick succession. “Come inside, Potash...” my mum whispers and I can feel the soft, kind pleasure of her hand on my elbow. “... I have to put something on the floor under the leaking roof...
...remember when you were very young and I left you sleeping alone in the house and went to the market...? ” My mum smiles into my eyes.
“Mami, I can never forget, that day... but I will never believe that it is the wind that blew away the iron sheet from our roof. Baba Njenga stole it...”