Dirty Old Tent

“Marikuwa mutu ya watu makiambia yeye mutoto hana school fees malikuwa manaita watu kama hivi manasaidiana watoto manaenda shule….” (He used to be a man of the people. He used to help children who were able to afford schools fees, therefore he got people together to ensure our children went to school).
She crowned my night. An old dame from I don’t know where who came to attend the fund raising of her hero….my grandfather….. I can’t remember how the MC introduced her. So for the sake of this piece, let’s call her ‘Marikuwa’.

The night is chilly. We are seated under an old, supposedly white tent but time has stolen its glory. Its weather beaten. I ask why it wasn’t cleaned. “Surely there is so much water”
“It was donated by a neighbour and he had to use it before us.” I don’t ask any further questions. I fear the silence response of a cousin wondering why I never came early to clean it anyway. Or the sneaky look of the house help concerned about my irate self these days.


This night caps the many restless ones that I haven’t found peace. Insomnia got a new meaning ever since I heard of the news of my grandfathers passing in a faraway village named Qunu. I’m in South Africa covering Mandela’s burial. Tata passed away a day before the worlds icon was laid to rest.

It is a chilly morning. I’m taking a walk to collect my computer from an old friend. It was the safest way to ensure that I did not have luggage. I anticipated, in fact, most of us dreaded the idea of not been able to access Qunu Museum from where we would cover this burial. So on this Saturday, I wake early to be on time lest the place is flooded with journos and I miss my chance.

Qunu. A beautiful village that I guess God chose to carpet with lush green grass and rolling hills so that we, the ‘newcomers’ can be reminded that awesome can be felt, touched, breathed. Qunu, the place where the worlds Icon, Nelson Mandela is now resting should have been called Mrembo… Qunu must be a lady for her beauty, her tenacity, her ability to hold such immense power and still afford a shy but inviting allure beats me.

‘Hi. I’m sorry to inform you that tata has gone to be with the lord’. The words of a sms that I haven’t gotten over sting like a bee. I take a deep breath to digest. I give in. Weeping like a little child. I am trying to conceal this sting. I am trying to suppress my voice. I don’t want others to hear or see me. I don’t understand. …. really? Is that how men die? Just like that? One day they are fine the next day they are dead? Is death also for me? Again? Weeping.

A good old friend is in town too….covering the same burial. Can’t remember what we talked about but I think, summed up his words were ‘It shall be well’. Robert disappeared in the embrace of the Chinese. Its difficult to keep track these days but I appreciate that he is in Qunu at the right time.

Now under this dirty old tent, a chilly night and mosquitoes to boot, his friends, my family have come together so that, in the words of his friend Joe Aketch and a man we have always called ‘Buda’, ‘ Give him a decent send off.’ A part of me wonders how much of this is just a way of getting together? It is a Ziwani tradition. Night vigils and contributions for the departed are a must. That’s how I found it.

I’m looking at their faces…I am reminded of my childhood in this estate when it was devoid of mabati (corrugated iron sheets) extensions…Ziwani…the place I played as a child. It was the place I learnt to play tandarobo and kati (dodge ball) and hide and seek….many childhood games were honed here. To some it’s a ghetto…it birthed some of the worst gangsters of our time…..to some it is the place where legends are either born or bred. Some find their way there by chance. Ask me I know. Lest you forget, the late Tanzanian President Nyerere once lived in this hood…and so did Uganda’s Milton Obote…Phoebe Asiyo, I hear, too, was a neighbour at some point…Mzee Tamaa surely you must know him no?

It birthed my uncle Dino Kitavi. He played football and I remember the name from an old radio set that my grandma owned. She would sit by it waiting to hear that name of her son from the speakers…it went something like this ….anakwenda anakwenda anakwenda….Dino Kitavi…amechenga pale…anakwenda…..goooooaaaaaaalllllll ….and on and on and on….I have forgotten the expression on her face. But soon there would be people milling around asking…’Umeskia hiyo?’ (Have you heard?)….I imagine sometimes they credited him with goals that he did not score.

You see, my grandfather, Daniel Mawathe Kitavi was a politician…I don’t quite remember him as a councillor or a commissioner all I know is that our house was always awash with people,..visitors….mostly they came from Gikomba or Kariakor. It was not always that we appreciated these visitors but we had no choice. We learnt early to share him with others. I see why now. Clearly so. His death has brought all these people back to our lives in a special way. You see, the thing about death is that it has a finality to it that is disturbing…haunting….defeatist. It puts you in a position of hopelessness. At least these are the emotions I have battled with. I have wondered, sometimes aloud if I did enough, I laughed enough, talked enough. I wonder what went through my grandfather’s head that day he fell in the bathroom. Did he like know, that I loved him? That he had people around him who cared? Is it humanly possible to know these things? It’s distressing.

But under this old dirty tent I am reminded of certain things we often take for granted. Human relations. They have defined me in every possible way. Growing up in an extended family that was caring and loving is no mean feat in Kenya’s urban myth. It is exemplified under this old dirty tent where we are meeting to send off this man, who, like a cord, ties us together. I have seen the guy who owned the kiosk where we bought milk and bread. Sometimes we took stuff on credit because there was someone who would foot the bill later.

And the lady who was always tagging along with his grand-daughters? That one I must remember. They were two pretty girls. I never knew their mother though. I guess I noted them because in more ways than one, my sister and I, were them. I wonder what became of them. The old lady is here alone wearing a white kitenge. Mama…a salute for you.
There is Joe Aketch here too. He is an old friend of grandpa’s. He has talked politics till his voice went horse. He has a new flame though whom the crowd has nicknamed, switihearti…I swear that is what the old lady…Marikuwa…called her. Switihearti and the man who makes your heart leap beats….Salute….
There is Kanyundo also. Salute. I never asked why he was nick-named Kanyundo. I guess it’s his height. If you know me, you wouldn’t ask what nickname to give me right?

My uncles appear okay. My mum and auntie look different for some reason however. I haven’t seen them so distraught…so distant…it is disheartening. There is a flame that is slowly fading. I hate the fact that I can do nothing to stop it. For the Mawathe girls, it is a reality check of sorts. They were my grandfather’s daughters. They were loved beyond measure. And so were the children they birthed. Us. They must be thinking…’’Who will fight for us’’ Or maybe it’s my mind going paragasha. You see, as single mothers these girls withstood the test of all time. Their children, us, were often reminded that they were less…father.
Us. We never lucked on our part. I perhaps may never know what it means to have a father. But I know a child doesn’t stop to grow because they have none. We all grew and were fortunately or unfortunately ‘spoiled’ by this man who has brought us here today. He fought all those fights. To the Mawathe girls…it’s a big salute. You should be proud. We are fine.

It’s a salute to all of these people all the same…. seated here making me feel homesick. This was the life. There was community. Whatever became of that? Maybe Nyumba Kumi is a good idea after all?

You must remind me if I seem to forget the people or the places that have shaped me. By end of the night we have laughed, shared and remembered the man who did not only give me a name but made life what it is today. RIP Mawathe.

© Anne Mawathe

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