My Feet Hasten: A Letter to my Grandfather

Intertwined fingers and loud whispers, I learnt about love in a living room overlooking a river and a forest, in the outskirts of a city that fakes peace. You would sit in an armchair in the corner of that living room, its pillows worn out by hours spent narrating lost histories, weathered with the exhaustion and satisfaction of carrying a generation’s hopes in your fingers. You crossed oceans to unshackle yourself from the prospects of an uneducated future in a world that spits on those unable to turn pen into power, paper into gold. You secured futures and presents, but you never claimed to have Midas’ touch; you never claimed to hold power or gold, just pen and paper and a desire to move futures.

1963, you faced open skies with the taste of bittersweet lemons under your tongue. You stood in that departure lobby willing God to unveil his master plan, begging Him to turn a dream into buttered bread and five cultured children who stood in that very same lobby twenty years in the future. You: standing and waving, swaying into ambiguity, them: turning and walking into certain success. In that moment you became accustomed to sweet uncertainty, you tasted failure and triumph simultaneously. As you hugged your children, your mouth wanted to form something between “goodbye, I am crossing oceans to fight for a better future” and “goodbye, you will learn about me through anecdotes, not through long drives in the tea estates near my village”. They would eventually learn about you through tattered pictures and absence.

You kissed your wife goodbye and looked towards a future that had the power to turn tears into nothingness. And so your strides widened.

Your first winter and every gust of wind reminded you that the ground beneath your freezing feet was not yours. In this place your mother tongue felt too sacred to be uttered and yet you did not like how those English platitudes sounded in your mouth – too Kenyan, too African, too foreign. And there were days when you tried to turn foreignness into home, into presence, but how do you live in the moment when your heart did not cross those oceans with you? How do you own the present when the past is where you wish to reside? You wrote letters to your family, warm Januaries and mixed chai on your mind and you saw the irony of reassuring them whilst being uncertain; you knew the humor in missing the past as a result of pursuing the future.

But you knew you were being prepared for the missing you would have to do later on days that really mattered; you were being equipped for the nostalgia that would plague your every breath. You knew what it was to crave Midas’ touch and instead watch as everything turned into hazy memories of a time when sacrifice had felt like honor and burning patriotism, of moments when sacrifice had reminded you of Uhuru, of freedom instead of empty rooms that should have been occupied by both your present and future.

The wind was weaving itself through the clothes on your back, so your feet hastened.

My hand was shaking when mummy told me you were gone. It was 6 am, yet I knew what news those fucking incessant knocks on my door brought. I knelt on the ground, words escaping me, anxiety paralyzing my feet, and I wailed. A wave of fatigue weighed me down; it forced me to feel pain, to feel angry even though I knew the Alzheimer’s was finally gone, that your memory was fully restored. How do you rationalize being floored by a death you were waiting for – a loss you sometimes prayed for?

The night before, I was battling with what it means to be black and woman in a time when it is still taboo to be all those things and angry. These days my words have an American twang, the sound of home hidden under months of being asked to repeat what I said - months of being dismissed before a second word leaves my lips. I had been convincing myself that I could own this land, that I would be able to call this place home one day. But when I heard mummy’s shaky voice and felt the emptiness that comes with the prospects of grieving alone, I was reminded of the oceans that separate me from the ability to hold mama’s hand or kiss your grieving wife goodbye for you and I remembered that this was not home.

And so my steps quickened and the weight of absence plagued my every move.

It’s been two weeks and I am sitting in silence on the other side of the very same ocean you crossed all those years ago. Everything has changed. Uncertainty is born from innumerable possibilities and opportunities, not the pain that comes with choosing between two realities, two responsibilities. And me, I have seen Midas’ touch, it has touched my life. I have witnessed it turn doubt into futures that you could have never dreamt of, gold. And yet here I am, tears filling my eyes because I missed death and yet you stood on Western plains not too far from here, missing life, contemplating dreamlessness if it meant that you would be able to sew up the holes your absence had created. You left us with buttered bread and the certainty that comes with knowing that this pain is nothing new; you left us with the comfort that comes with knowing that someone prepared this ground for us.

I write this to say thank you for those lonely nights you spent with the vision of a future you didn’t even know could exist.

Guka, Koma thaiyo. Lala Salama. Rest in Peace.

Until we meet again, my feet hasten as yours did.

by Mumbi Kanyogo

Mumbi Kanyogo