Kabi finds my body swinging. I watch my sister press her back against the wall and slide to the ground.
My mother shouts, “Kabi! Nyokabi!”
“Why are you not answering? Can you bring that brother of yours!”
My sister is paralyzed, she cannot speak, she cannot move, except for the shivers that take hold of her spine and reverberate through the rest of her without permission. She is thinking No, no, no, no, no.
But the word is not passing her lips which only open and close soundlessly. Mum is coming down the stairs.
Pata – pata- pata.
Slippers hitting the wooden floorboards in regular succession. In this space between life and after, everything is somehow felt more viscerally. Mum is not quiet like Kabi. Mum screams, “My child… Woiiiiii woiiii woiiiiiiiiiiiiii! Mwana wakwa. What have you done?”
She tugs, unties the knot, and wails as I fall limp to the ground. She puts her ear on my heart. “Kabi. Call an ambulance! Kabi- I hear his life; it is not gone, quick, Kabi quick.”
Kabi does not move; cannot move. She is telling herself to stand, telling her feet to work but there is miscommunication between her mind and the rest of her.
Mum screams at her to no avail. Mum does not want to leave my body. She feels if she is not touching me, the life will finish and the cold will seep in. Death is always cold. She wraps me in a shuka. It does not make sense but she drags my body down the hall to the table where she left her phone. “Ngai Mwathani, save my child.” She begs, “You are here; save my child.”
She calls an ambulance. They are coming— telling her to remain calm. She screams at them, “Is it your child hovering between life and death? Do not; do not tell me to stay calm!”
She calls my father. When she hears his voice she is incoherent but he understands he must come.
• • • •
The hospital walls are stark white. There are pictures hanging on one wall, taken over sixty years ago, before our country’s independence. White missionary nurses smiling into the lens, holding little black children; some with their ribs sticking out. This is what fascinates Kabi— she cannot stop staring at the black and white photos. The doctor comes to the waiting room area and Kabi looks away. She knows it in her spirit; she cannot feel me.
It is not until my mother begins to wail that the absence beats the breath out of her. Kabi feels dizzy. The ground comes up to meet her and dad is holding mum so he does not catch Kabi in time. The doctor keeps saying, “I am sorry. I am sorry. I am so sorry.”
For Kabi, the sounds fade but just before they do, somewhere in her subconscious she thinks she will find me in the darkness. Yes, she is coming to look for me.
But I am not there.
• • • •
Funerals are for the living, not the dead. Grief captures lovers and beloved in waves; constricting lungs, restricting airflow, and then when and only when it is willing to go does it go. Kabi tries to hold back tears— to be
Visitors stream in and out. She serves them tea; microwaves the samosas and mandazis that aunty made then transitions into polite hostess.
“Yes, God’s timing is best.
No, as you can imagine we are not okay but we will be.
Yes, we are so grateful you have come to show your support.
No, mum is not able to come downstairs. She is feeling a bit low but I am sure she will be fine.
Yes, I will make sure to feed her the bone marrow soup. I know it is good for strength.
No, we have not lost faith.”
But sometimes; sometimes she is in the middle of a handshake, or a hug, or a sentence when grief takes her captive;
binding her sound,
squeezing her lungs,
“Wasted tears.” The lady, one of mum’s cousins: second? Or third? Clicks and shakes her head. How long has she been standing there?
I open my mouth, shut. Open again, silence; can only lick my wounds and move away. There is really nothing to say after that dismissal. I shift, angling my body away from her, lifting my half open silver notebook off the bathroom counter. The bathroom door, slightly ajar, is calling me to the space between its bark and the wall. I will not beg for sympathy. The pen drops and I swear I see a spark as it hits the ground. Can you see sound?
“Shit.” The word slips out before I realize who I am in the room with. I pick up the pen and attempt to squeeze past her body which is covering the space I saw as my escape route.
A sucking in of teeth. “Kabi, wait!”
I turn my head slightly back. She asks, “What does gone mean for you?”
I am confused by the question; have no time for old woman foolishery. Already there is Tata Shi shouting my name in the kitchen. “Yes?” I answer because I must be
Always in that order. No time for my grief, no time for mama’s cousin, second? Or third? To sit with and dismiss my grief. The first ‘yes’ was not heard so I shout again, hearing my voice transverse rooms. “Yes Tata?”
And the response: “Chai inaisha, kuna maziwa mahali?”
How to leave politely, because respect; to mumble under my breath something about going to make tea for the guests.
“You have not answered my question.”
I sigh, in a hurry to leave, “What was the question?”
“Gone, child— these terms that talk circles around death: gone, no longer with us, passed away, passed on— what do you think they mean?”
“NYOKABI?” Tata is sounding irritated now, she is trying not to but you can always tell when she is.
“COMING!” I scream back, and to the woman in front of me, “Gone is… not here.”
“Aha, you see but not here does not mean not anywhere.”
This woman is talking madness now. I mumble, “Nimeitwa na Tata Shi, I have to attend to the guests now.”
She smiles. “I know you are trying to dismiss me Kairetu but here, take this.”
She slips a little bottle into my hand just as I widen the door to leave. She says, “a little remedy for sleep. There are dark circles around your eyes.”
I slip the bottle into the pocket of my skirt and run to the kitchen, no time to look or to ask, no time to wonder or to wander, no time to be anywhere or to be anything but the
This is how to not think about dying when you are alive: look at colours, every colour, attach them to memory. The sky in July is blue into grey like the Bahari on certain days. Remember the time the whole family took a trip to Mombasa, and Kabi and you swam in the ocean until even the waves were tired. Kabi insisted that you could not go to Mombasa and not eat authentic coast-erean food, so even though everyone else was lazy and dad had paid for full-board at White Sands Hotel, the whole family packed themselves into his blue Toyota and drove to the closest, tiny, dusty Swahili restaurant you could find. It smelled like incense, Viazi Karai, and Biryani. Are these the smells of authentic coast-erean food?
This is how to not think about dying when you are alive: take note of smell, like the first time you burned your skin and smelled it. The charring flesh did not feel like death; in fact it reminded you of mum’s burned pilau; attach feeling to memory.
“Tutafanya nini na mtoto yako?” dad never shouted, but he didn’t need to.
“What do you mean? Did I make him by myself? He is your son as well.” Mum was chopping vegetables for Kachumbari.
“Yes, but you allowed him to be too soft.” Her hand, still holding the knife, stopped mid-air, its descent interrupted, and she turned around to face him, her eyes watery and red from the sting of the onions.
“Too soft? Ken? Too soft? Did you see him? Have you seen your son? The fight he was involved in today… he can barely see through one eye. How is that softness?” Baba looked away, mum’s loudness overcompensating for his soft-spoken articulation.
“Lakini Mama Kabi, why was he wearing that thing to school?”
She dropped the knife. “Have you asked him? When was the last time you even talked to him Ken? Ehe? ”
Quick breaths. “We went to the church meeting for fathers and sons. I spend time with him.”
“Ken, you talk to everyone else about him, and you talk at him but you never talk to him. Maybe if you were here more…”
“Don’t tell me what I do and do not do in my own house Mama Nyokabi. Do I not take care of the needs of this house? Nani analipa school fees hapa? You will not make so it looks like I do not take my responsibilities seriously. If there is a problem with that boy it is not because of me!”
Smoke started rising from the sufuria. You reacted, pushing yourself from behind the door, forgetting you were not supposed to be in such close vicinity to this conversation. “Mum, chakula chinaungua!”
She rushed to the stove, turned off the gas, and then realized you were in the room, looked down, ashamed that they were caught gossiping. The smell of burned pilau.
This is how to not think of dying when you are alive. Move your body; like the first time you punched Ian in the face.
Fist moving in slow motion, blood rushing through your veins, knuckles-connecting-to-jaw-line, adrenaline taking over: alive,alive,alive,alive,alive. This is how to be alive. This is how to not think about dying when you’re alive.
Of-course this was right after Ian had called you shoga for wearing eyeliner to school and then said, “Ama huelewi? Do you want me to say it in English so you understand F-A-
“Go fuck yourself!” you screamed and punched simultaneously. And of-course this singular punch was right before Ian punched you back and did not stop punching you back over and over and over but God-knows you kicked and you moved, and you were alive.
On the night before the funeral,
I am exhausted but I cannot sleep. There is shouting upstairs. I close my eyes as if that will block my ears from hearing the sound. A door is banged. I hear footsteps shuffling down the stairway.
I should go and check if everything is okay but I do not want to. I cover my head with my pillow and count one to ten times a hundred but I still cannot sleep.
I switch on my phone: so many missed calls, and “are you okay?” texts. I see past them, my mind stuck on a thought. Could I have known?
• • • •
Offered list by WebMD:
- Excessive sadness or moodiness
- Sleep problems
Things I have now, things everyone has at some point. I can hear them whispering in the hallway. The main lights are off so they do not know I am in his room. Mum has been looking for every opportunity to pick a fight with anyone and everyone since Baraka…
I switch on the bedside lamp, look around the room, and feel the need to clean, to purge, to burn, everything reminds me of him. I notice the skirt I left on the dark brown carpet, tufts fraying in the corner of the fabric, a bottle peeking out—bluish with dark liquid and I remember the old lady; mum’s cousin, twice removed, or thrice? What have I to lose? I pick at the skirt, unfolding its fabric until I get to the bottle stuck in the pocket. It is a strange little thing, heavier than it should be. I try and decipher the inscrutable handwriting on the white label. One teaspoon? I think it says, but can’t be too sure. I open the lid, sniff it, and wrinkle my nose. The scent is thick, bitter; touching the sense that is in-between taste and smell. All I can think is I am so very exhausted and I do not want to wake up tomorrow. Can I skip time? I throw my head back, taking down a gulp. Its consistency is thick like honey but it burns like pili-pili.
At first, nothing. I close the lid and drop the bottle. I should have known, probably nothing more than a crazy lady’s herbs. Could I have known? I should have known. I should have bloody known. I punch the pillow and fall into it, exhausted.
And this is how it went. On this day that Baraka came home from school with a dark eye and a face that told a thousand different versions of the same story, on this day that mama Kabi burned pilau on the stove, on this day I begin again.
They wake up on different sides of the same house with different versions of time past. Kabi, with her head a little heavy, feeling somewhat detached from her body, hears singing in the shower and thinks she is imagining it. Her bed, her covers, her furniture. “Who moved me to my room?”
Smells wafting from the kitchen and mum is shouting, “Baraka! You’re going to be late for school, get out of the shower!”
Has she finally gone mad? Hearing voices… a coping mechanism? Two minutes later the door is pushed in and there he is with a towel around his waist, hair wet, and the boyish lanky frame barely dried off.
“Sheesh Kabi, you look like you’ve seen a ghost! It’s just eyeliner, what do you think?”
She cannot move and she thinks this is familiar, searching her mind for memory, and then she thinks this is a dream. Closing her eyes she whispers, “not real, not real, not real, not real,”
“Kabi, you’re freaking me out. Are you okay?
He smells like cocoa butter. A scent she would recognize a kilometre away, attached to him like water to plants on early mornings. She opens her eyes and he is still there, an orange hue finding its way through the window sill, refracting off his skin where the sun made a love pact with melanin, beautiful light dancing, and she makes a noise that is somewhere between a gasp and a scream.
“Muuuuuuummmmmmmmmmm! Kabi is acting weird!”
“Baraka stop disturbing your sister and get ready for school, if the bus leaves you ni shauri yako. I am not going to interrupt my morning to drop you!”
He walks towards the mirror in Kabi’s room and poses, “Sis, don’t make this a big deal okay. I know you said not to touch your stuff but I don’t know, I’ve been feeling kinda weird lately, like low, you know? I just thought trying something different with my look today would make me feel better.”
She croaks, “Baraka?”
He looks at her, eyes big and brown, outlined by the black kohl, more precious than anything she has ever encountered and she wants to run to him but she is scared she will reach for him and grab air, scared that he is not really there. So instead she stays still and says, “I love you.” Hoping the words will become tangible things that will keep this moment in continuum.
He laughs. Their ‘I love you’s’ are present but more unsaid than said. “I guess the new look does make me more likeable.”
“BARAKA, if I have to call you one more time!”
“Yoh, gotta go, mum’s about to break something, or someone.” When he reaches the doorway he turns around, “But just so you know nakupenda pia.” and then he is gone.
Okay, she thinks, looks at her phone, notices I am different from what she expected. The thoughts running through her mind, okay, she thinks, hopes? Maybe Baraka dying was just a nightmare? And this is what’s real but no, too many days went by.
She collects herself and moves, taking the steps down two by two; she almost trips, steadies herself on the railing and reaches the last step just in time to catch the conversation taking place in the kitchen.
“Not in my house!”
“Ayii mum, it’s not that big a deal!”
Mama Kabi, never one to consider her words before they come out says, “What will you be wearing next? Ehh? Lipstick? Dresses? If God wanted me to have another girl he would not have put that soldier hanging between your legs.”
Baraka is mortified, “Muuum!”
“What? It is the truth.” She sees her daughter lurking. “Nyokabi, can you talk to this brother of yours. I do not understand what behaviour he is trying.”
—And how small this detail is in the scheme of everything. Does she know he was dead?! Will be dead? But how can she know?—
“Sometimes I swear God gave me children to punish me. Mwathani, what did I do wrong?! Eeh?! Why do you want my blood pressure to finish?”
Baraka did not expect her reaction to be positive but he expected… well, he does not know what he expected, just not this, not the overwhelming despair this reaction brings up inside of him; if he had just slipped by unnoticed—but he didn’t slip by unnoticed and they are here now and he knows with his mother it is a battle of the will so he tries to reflect strong will on his face but his eyes are glistening.
“Wipe it off.”
Nyokabi takes the chance to intervene. “Mum maybe…”
“Stay out of this, Nyokabi!”
Kabi works her jaw, measuring her words. “So you only want me to speak when I am on your side.”
Their mother gives her a look and she goes silent.
When he is gone, the black liner sufficiently cleared off his face, another tube stubbornly and comfortably tucked into his pocket, saved for the bathrooms at school, the unfinished conversation hangs in the air between the glances traded back and forth.
“Usiniangalia hivo, I do it for his own good.” Mama Kabi looks at her daughter about to add something but changes her mind, busies herself with clearing dishes, signalling she is done with the conversation.
Kabi thinks of the words to tell her, to explain what is happening, but they do not come. How to say, —your son will die by his own hand and I know this because I found his body hanging from the ceiling in the future—
Something clicks. “Mum there is a lady; your second or third cousin, I can’t remember her name but she has long dreadlocks and big arms.”
She is distracted. “What are you talking about? Kwanza don’t you also need to go to work Kabi?”
“Mum, LISTEN! This is important!”
Mama Nyokabi looks at her daughter hard. “Nyokabi, you may be an adult but you do not shout at me under my roof, ehh?! Remember I still carried you for nine months. Umenisikia?”
Nyokabi restrains herself from throwing something, anything. Deep breaths. “Okay, I just need to know how to find the lady?
She’s your cousin, the one who always carries cowrie shells.”
Mama goes back to cleaning the counter, silent for a moment and then, “Are you talking about mad-ma-Nyasi?”
“Mad-ma-Nyasi. Well, she is named Njeri, after our Maitu; we started calling her Ma-Nyasi because after her daughter died she left the city for up country, went to live in the grass, and started calling herself a prophetess of God.”
For a moment Kabi’s mother is lost in thought. Does she know? And then she remembers she is in the middle of conversation, “Anyway, why do you want to know about her?”
“I just, I just do. Can I get in touch with her?”
“Ha! Does that woman look like she is reachable? I’m even surprised you remember her. She only comes when she wants to be seen but that is probably for the best. She carries a bad omen, that one. Anacheza na uchawi.”
The dishes cleared, she wipes her hands and moves away. “Anyway I have a chamaa to go to and I suggest if your plan is still to save enough money to leave this house eventually, that you get to work on time.”
And when the house is empty, Kabi texts in that she is sick, and sits in front of her computer, researching,
Skips Articles offered by:
How To Change The Past Without a Time Machine: The Power Is Real
How You Can Alter Your Past Or Your Future – And Change Your Present Life
The Philosopher’s Magazine
Sorry, Time Travellers: You Can’t Change the Past
Over and over again, unhelpful papers, essays, conspiracy theorists until she stumbles on,
Time in Traditional African Thought
I take as my point of departure for this paper the thesis of Professor John Mbiti that in African traditional thought a prominent feature of time is the virtual absence of any idea of the future… Time is not an ontological entity in its own right, but is composed of actual events which are experienced. Such events may have occurred (past), may be in the process of being experienced (present), or may be certain to occur in the rhythm of nature. The latter are not properly future; they are ‘inevitable or potential time’ (3). Consequently time in African traditional thought is ‘two dimensional’, having a ‘long past, a present, and virtually no future’. Actual time is ‘what is present and what is past and moves “backward” rather than “forward”… -John Parratt
And more and more she reads until she thinks she knows what she must do, and then she starts to feel tired, so so tired and she rests her head, closing her eyes, thinking, it is possible, not tomorrow, not after, only yesterday and now. But I dare say the ‘what if’ cannot always exist in the same realm as the ‘what is.’
And somewhere on a different side of the city the ‘what is’ is a boy, is a blessing, a blessing moving and breathing and feeling and loving and punching and suffocating and choosing and chasing after what it means to stay alive.
This is how I felt it: for a moment during the night Kabi was not here and I was not fully here either—wherever here is for those who exist after life but before forever— and I cannot remember how or where but we were together. Me in death and her in life met somewhere in the middle of time where the division had not taken place. And maybe this is why on this morning before my body is to be lowered into a casket, she sleeps with a half-smile on her face. Baba finds her in my room and gently taps her; there are dark shadows on his face and under his eyes but I do not feel guilt or pain for him. “Kabi, sweetie, we cannot be late. Wake up.”
Half still in sleep, she asks, “Late for what?”
“Today is the burial.”
She yawns and stretches. “What? Which one?”
He clears his throat and repeats himself, “The funeral mpenzi. We need to get ready to leave.”
The expression on her face shifts, she shakes her head, “No, no burial, he is alive.”
Baba is terrified; does not know what to do when his strong collected daughter loses her reason. “It’s okay baby, we all, uhh, we all wish he was still alive, uhm, but today,” he places his palm at the back of his head, rubbing his neck compulsively, “Today let us give him a proper send-off, ehen?”
“No baba, he is alive. I saw him. He was alive.”
He holds her, rubbing her back, “Hush,
It was a dream mpenzi. Be strong now, you have to be strong also for your mother.”
Nyokabi’s face turns bitter. “That woman can be strong for herself!”
“Ayii yawah, daughter, don’t say things like that. I know things have been hard but she is grieving.”
“No, she is the reason Baraka was so unhappy. She always looks for a reason to be angry, disappointed.”
“As much as I wish I could blame anyone more than myself Nyokabi, that is just not true. Your mother’s responses always have a valid justification.”
“That is just her trying to get into your mind. She is always blaming everyone else but herself…”
“And do not think I did not hear her shouting at you. Aren’t you also allowed to be in mourning?! You are a grown man! No one, least of all you, should be taking her shit.”
“I said enough, Nyokabi!” his voice barely raised but firm, “You will not speak of my wife that way in my house okay? I know you are angry but today is, today is a day for us to come together. Not to fall apart.”
Kabi’s jaw hardens. “You want to talk about coming together but even you, you were a problem. You and mum both.” She shifts her body up, not making eye contact. “You never let him just be himself, everything that made him him, you had a problem with. You were afraid he would be one of those boys you and the other fathers gossip about, the ones that bring shame—” her voice cracks, “and now somewhere inside of you there is a sense of relief because you never have to find out.”
Rushing of air, palm-on-cheek.
Baba has never touched Kabi before today. How dare he? She holds her face where it is hot and he gasps at what he has done, “Kabi baby. I’m sorry.” He moves to hold her tighter but she pulls away. “You just,” He lifts his hands in exasperation, “You’re saying that I wished my son dead. Do you think any parent wishes this for their child? ehh?”
Kabi does not look at him.
“I would do anything to bring him back, Kabi, believe me— any and every version of him. I didn’t understand him but… but God knows I loved him.”
“Just,” she whispers, head down, “he was alive.” Her eyes well up. “I could have saved him but I didn’t.”
Baba stands up. “Darling, we all could have saved him, but none of us knew how.” He walks toward the door. “Get dressed, I expect you ready in thirty minutes.” He sighs. “I know it doesn’t feel like it right now mpenzi but we will get through this. Somehow, we will get through this.”
When he is no longer in the room, Kabi drops to the floor, on her hands and knees, frantically searching until she finds it.
As she tips her head back, her hand stops mid-way and she rethinks her decision. Bringing the bottle back down, she dresses in her black trousers and cotton shirt and places the bottle discreetly in the corner of her pocket. She fiddles with it all the way to the service.
“Baraka used to say that one of the reasons we are here is for here and now. He advocated for fully living in the present moment and I…”
Can’t finish. The tears closing my throat come out in a sob on stage in front of this collection of friends and strangers. I’ve been better about holding my tears, keeping them for when I am alone but,
“I just, I just can’t talk about the here and now without talking about yesterday.” There is mucus running from my nose and I feel the weight of this grief will bring me to the ground. It is not pretty. I look at mum and she does not look at me. Her eyes are hidden behind dark shades and even though I can’t see them, I feel her gaze elsewhere. My hands are shaking almost as much as my voice. I can’t talk. “I can’t talk about the here and now without talking about the absence that exists in tomorrow.”
Yesterday tomorrow, yesterday tomorrow, yesterday tomorrow. I close my eyes and he is there behind my lids in the darkness, I see him, and I curse him and I want to say, “How dare you make me write your eulogy?”
But instead I say pretty words, “God’s timing and Baraka means blessing and I”
Can’t finish. And suddenly there are arms around me and I think it is him but I open my eyes and it is Baba and I fall into him and I stop pretending that I have the energy to be strong and I wail into his shirt and he takes the half open silver notebook in my hand and reads on my behalf and I am led to a chair to sit and I close my eyes and I count to ten times one hundred, fiddling with the bottle in my pocket, and I remind myself how to breathe and I open my eyes and wish I didn’t have to so I draw it up to my lips and swallow. It is more than halfway gone; let me go with it. This time I can save him, I know I can. This time he will stay alive.
This is how to not think about being alive when you are dead. Do not watch the living. Do not attach memory to feeling. Do not attach memory to feeling but of the things that reminded you what it means to be alive:
Music. Sound and rhythm interrupting silence taught you how to move; you learned, even the most basic beat,
ta tadata ta-ta
ta tarata ta-ta,
And you didn’t pray to be different and you didn’t pray to be better and you didn’t pray to be other and all you prayed is that it wouldn’t rain and all you prayed is that you would get to listen to Sauti Sol play. And sometimes prayers are like music, and sometimes someone listens and is moved, and this time the sun unpredicted teased its way out of hiding and this time the grass was greener on this side and this time you stood with Kabi out under the still partly cloudy sky and sang Lazizi word for word at the top of your lungs and this time you let the music carry you and you took Kabi by the hand and she said, just this once, and you laughed, and you danced until even the ground was tired of holding you up.
Do not attach memory to feeling, do not watch the living but as you watch her swallow the liquid that burns her tongue, you think, she is coming to find me, somewhere between life and after, in the middle of time, she is coming to find me.
And this is how it went. On this day when Kabi first became paralyzed with a grief she had never thought possible, on this day when Mama Nyokabi screamed at a paramedic on the phone and screamed at God for more of me, on this day when Baraka decided to die, I begin again.
They both wake up with different memories of time passing. The clock: a tool tick-tocking its way into later vibrates and Kabi opens her eyes. He is singing in the shower and now she knows she is not imagining.