Mother loved eating stones when she was heavy with my late sister. Her legs would swell and the basin hidden under her bed was almost always a quarter full with vomit. Losing a child must feel like death in a breathing body. She had already lost the boy who came before me. He lasted only a day. I arrived a year later, then a miscarriage before holding our first born girl.
Her frequent fatigue bouts slowed her down. I will never experience a foetus developing inside me, but watching my mother grapple with the heaviness of child was tangling; round ligament pains, distressing contractions, unending backaches, and horrendous heartburns – all part of a nine month process that seemed intolerable. If this is what a woman has to go through to bring one child into the world, then both my grandmothers deserve to be live saints for spawning eight each.
Many men are not versed with what it took to shape them into stable human beings. We grow up and it’s like we forget that someday we couldn’t move with our feet. That our mothers had to laboriously carry us on their backs everywhere they went, teach us the first words we ever uttered, feed us even when we didn’t want anything down our throats and take us to clinic for frequent health check-ups.
We lived in Huruma Estate when mother taught me how to do ugali. She had been the sole instructor of how I managed house chores. I hated doing dishes, especially the night ones. I’ll never forget the ngotos that rained on my head that evening I burned my first chapati. I almost swore never to eat anything she cooked ever again. She taught me how to wash and rinse clothes, how to spread my bed, how to iron, how to brush my brown teeth, how to talk to strangers and just about all I know pertaining respect. Mother made us.
Having a violent father sent me into a lot of emotional conflict. Seeing him throw her clothes outside the balcony, grabbing her onto floors with her hair, bruising her tender face as the blows kept punching, threw me aloof. The dreary nights when she’d kneel down to pray for her estranged husband, wailing to the heavens for better days, seemed endless. He’d beat her up and she would fight back. He would come home drunk like a prodigal son and ask for food yet he didn’t leave money behind for supper. She’d yell at him for neglecting us. It never seemed like he cared because two-three days or a week after an incident, another would follow. Worse. We lived on the edge waiting for any form of disaster to take place. You’d never know who would kill who when. It was that bad. When you’re witnessing your folks holding knives against each other and hurling unprintable insults in the air, you stop being a child. You become a soldier in a war you have no power to cease.
It was only natural that I’d side with mother most of the time. It didn’t matter whether she was wrong or right. At that tender age, I could tell she was not supposed to be abused. I grew up resenting dad for his deplorable arrogance. I feared him more than I respected him. The growing bitterness was to be my undoing in later teenage years and early twenties. But violence was that one form of expression my system refused to accept.
I’ve lacked exemplary father figures around me who would teach me how to carry myself out as a man. My uncles, many as they were, could not fit the bill. With constant moving and having to earn new neighbours so frequently, it was very hard to trust anybody and that has followed me to date. I don’t think society knows the paramount need for emotionally stable men to thrive, because it doesn’t matter how financially successful a man is if he cannot respect his wife and children or be decent enough to be present in their lives. Marriage wouldn’t make sense if none of this was primary.
I never understood why mother kept coming back even when she promised not to. It must be hard deciding to leave a marriage in which you have given your all, leaving the house God gave you, having your children grow up without their father around and facing the scorn of the immediate community for being a runner. It must have been hard for her to just wake up and leave. I didn’t know whether it meant that she loved father deep inside her or she just couldn’t leave us behind. But I could see she was tired. She wanted out so bad. Out of the uncertainty that came with long noisy nights of arguments, threat calls from strange women, the unappreciation of being a good wife and an able mother, and the unpredictable heated physical fights that killed her little by little. She was fading away.
It would have been easy for me to dive into alcoholism to ‘heal’ my anger. Running away from home several times was my attempts to say I needed help. I was dying. Nobody cared to listen. I was suicidal by the time I was 16, completely beat. Being a first born with two other siblings looking up to me has felt like being on drugs. You are high on pain yet you’ve got to hold yourself together because the moment you lose it, everything falls apart. I don’t know what would have become of me if it wasn’t for my faith and the church. Perhaps I’d have gone deeper into using sex for emotional sedation. I was already doing badly in my early twenties, seeing women as toys, nothing to feel for them.
But mother would still say, ‘‘Respect your father regardless.’’
Those words have never died. He would have harsher opinions of her. The fact that she tried to remain intact for us while dad gave in to easier options to channel out his frustrations made me get attracted to her light. She was the priest at home. She was church. Her frantic efforts to hold us together through prayer is the one thing that kept us afloat for the longest time. That’s a woman you would respect.
Coming to understand the world, it saddens me that women continue to be marginalized even in developed civilizations. The people who gave birth to us. Society keeps teaching me that women are sex objects. They are to be subjects of my wants. Men have taken advantage of cultural favours to stamp their authority in major life sectors. They misunderstood patriarchy. They thought it was a thing that made them invincible, such that in Luo tradition, a woman is forbidden from eating certain parts of a chicken. That if her husband is not around, then the firstborn son partakes. But why should we segregate women even in food? Why should we segregate them at all?
Somehow, just somehow, mother has tolerated her marriage. I do not know if she counts herself happy. The battles she has fought for us were planes that lifted us into our present. Probably none of us would be here. She stood the test of time quite unnaturally. It takes more than the flesh. Even with all her problems, when you hear her laugh, it’s like a gong that struck. So loud, so soulful. If I will never see God, I have seen Him here, in her.
I have since healed from the bitterness. It never affects me anymore as it used to. Seeing mama agitated because of him still gets to me, but now I understand much. I am more in control of my emotions. It took a lot of Grace. To learn to comprehend what Scripture means when it says in Ephesians 5:25; husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, had to take all of me. If you’re going to love someone so deeply to be ready to die for them, they have to be very special. You have to love them like they’re the only loveable thing you could see. It has to burn your ego. You need courage and wisdom. You need Christ.
I celebrate my mother for fighting that long, and dad too at least for not running away. Some men have killed their families in feuds. We are still here with intact limbs. I pray for all of them persistently that they would get to a point of peace someday. I am on the way to starting my own family. I know I will need them. I will need everyone who understands what it means to be committed to someone for life.
Eric Onyango Otieno is a Kenyan poet, born and bred in Nairobi. He is the Co-Founder of Fatuma’s Voice, a literary forum that tackles societal matters using poetry, music, dance, motivational speaking and other forms of art. He is also involved in mentoring young poets across East Africa and is a social media executive when he is not creating poems.
You can check out his blog at http://www.rixpoetmshairi.blogspot.co.ke/