Category Archives: Life Encounters

Ever Lost A Parent? Losing A Child Is Twice As Painful.

Just over two years ago, I lost my dad and saw the world crush in my eyes. I have a rather low threshold for tears, of joy or pain, but I had (and have) never cried as I did then. A heavyset seven- footer athlete, my dad had been battling hypertension quietly for preceding two years. He was on medication, watched his diet and had a regular fitness schedule at home and away. It was his problem and he had never made it an issue to the rest of the family except for the occasional mention that all was fine. In the month prior to his demise, he had visited his Physician more frequently. Dosages were adjusted, tests done and new instructions given.  All would be fine, the doctor hoped.

This optimism did not last. One fateful night, dad woke up in the middle of the night paralysed waist down. By morning, he had no function of all limbs. At the hospital that morning, he slipped in and out of total memory loss, then coma. In exactly 24 hours since he was last fine, dad was no more.

I had been away in Los Angeles for an exam. After my paper, I suddenly went off moods. I was sullen, withdrawn and disinterested in everything for no good reason. We had planned an after party with the rest of my colleagues but I opted out. I was just not in the mood. Little did I know dad was battling a war back home that he would soon lose. My phone had gone off after the battery drained during the daylong exam. I did not have a charger with me until over 600 km away in San Francisco where I was staying for the duration of this trip. However, when I turned on my phone, it came on briefly and I listened to a voice message from dad asking me to call him. I did and he sounded in his usual element for the first few seconds then went of a tangent in his speech. Someone from the rest of the family spoke to me and gave me an account of the events. Dad, in their assessment had made as remarkable an improvement as the deterioration had been. They hoped to leave the hospital in hours.

I was not convinced. My heart raced, tears welled and a drop fell to my phone. I was in a trance. The world seemed to spin slower by the minute and curtains were drawing! I had a strong feeling my dad was not going to come out of such a major stroke. I saw him on a wheelchair, sagging facial skin, drooling saliva and having all his activities of daily living tended to by others. An athletic man full of vigour and with an ever commanding presence reduced to a toddler all over again. I could not hold back my tears. I cried like a burst dam. I knew he faced certain disability or probable death.

We embarked on our road trip back to SF. All the beautiful stops that had made us opt for 6 hour road trip over a 2hour flight made no sense to me or the rest of the party. A few friends cried with me; the rest just slumped into their seats and drowned in their own thoughts. By the time we arrived, dad was in a coma. It was seven o’clock in the evening, about midnight in Kenya time. Nearly 6 hours later, he was no more.

To date, I have never known what words to tell anyone who has lost a loved one. I was told all manner of kind words but they made no meaning to me. The feeling of loss at that time was beyond any words or acts of consolation. Nothing made meaning if my dad would remain dead. I cried all night. My friends embarked on searching for a flight back to Kenya. They were crying between words as they spoke to the airline contact. She cried with them too on learning why I needed a flight in such a short notice. She put me on the next available flight that would connect to Nairobi quickest. I was grateful but my tears would not stop. I arrived at SFO in tears and after a couple of ‘dry’ quick connections in Chicago, JFK, Heathrow and JKIA, the reality dawned on landing at Kisumu.

I had flashbacks of moments when my dad would pray for us every night before he went to bed long after we had been in bed. The moments of quiet counsel. The moments of harsh punishment. The school visiting days. The gifts. His corner at the church and in the house. His mere presence in our minds even when we were not physically together. I have never really overcome his absence. It gets lighter with the passage of time but no one can condole me for this life changing loss. Perhaps quietly known to us as a family, we never tried to condole each other. I could not describe my loss and I knew my mum and siblings could not describe theirs either. We just mourned together undisturbed.

Looking back, I now think it was fair my dad died before any of his children; it is only fair that way. I cannot imagine what my dad would have felt to be the one mourning my death. The loss is much bigger. I have a nearly-two-year-old daughter with whom I have already made so much attachment. Her death in my life would devastate me. This is why even though I cannot pretend to comprehend Raila’s loss at Fidel Odinga’s sudden demise, I know the loss for him and his wife is beyond description.

The Bible captures the demise of King David’s seven-day old new-born in moving detail in 2 Samuel 12:18-23. King David fasted, wept and did not speak to his servants as he immersed himself in prayer for the life of his ailing new born. When it died on the seventh day, the servant could not muster the energy and courage to break the sad news to the King.

19 But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, David understood that the child was dead. And David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” – 2 Samuel 12:19

King David grieved solemnly. He had cried enough, fasted and sulked in prayer while the baby ailed. For Raila and spouse, there was no luxury of time. They just woke up to a dead son. The devastation is beyond any words of consolation. No condolences will make meaning. They will grieve in their own way and live with this loss for the rest of their lives. The loss of a child by a parent is an unnatural event. It deflates and nearly takes meaning out of all you worked for and hoped for your child and their future. It puts a sudden stop to what ought to be a lifetime journey. It kills a parent’s soul. I can only wish them and all other parents in their shoes the strength that God gave King David.

23 “But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” –2 Samuel 12:23

loss

RIP Fidel Odinga

Home Abroad: Language

It has been one whole year since I left Kenya for my studies in Europe. A lot has happened in this period. Some occurrences had me think of myself as a Johnny-come-lately into this Western world (and I was) while others had me feel so sorry for my hosts.  The 10-country tour has been a most thought provoking period for me. In all, I have learnt a lot outside the lecture rooms than I anticipated but I also remain with several unanswered questions; some older than myself and others more recent.

To begin with, I suddenly was without a language on arrival in Amsterdam. My main language of communication, English, is only spoken spatteringly and unenthusiastically by the locals. All signs, products and general conversation are in Dutch. It felt awkward to me that these people did not need to learn a language to transact their lives. A number of my friends take pride in their mastery of what they call the ‘Queen’s Language’. Here I was in a land with her own Queen, her own language and whose citizens frowned upon having to speak in any other language. All the 16 million of them! My own native Luo instantly found a new relevance in my mind. Unfortunately, 9000 miles away, I could only converse in my Luo in my mind. It was a fleeting pride, all in the mind. With great difficulty, I learnt to do my shopping using the graphics on the products as my only language. Bees on a jar would mean honey and pastures on a tetra-pack would mean milk. On many occasions, this never worked right. In my quest to keep the relevance of Ugali in my life, I severally bought packets with maize graphics only to realize they were other maize products like cornstarch, which do not make Ugali. This language barrier followed me in every country I went and in every sphere of life; in public transport, at the airports, in restaurants and even once at church.

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As a true Kenyan believer, I quickly found my SDA church within the month. My first attendance was marked with the joy of being in familiar company for the first time in many days. Nearly 100% of the congregation was African. Ghanaians made about 80% of the nearly 100-person congregation. A significant portion of the rest were Nigerians. The remaining few were I and a few Dutch associated with the rest through marriage. The language thing reared its head in a strange way. All the children in the congregation only spoke Dutch. Nearly all the adults spoke Dutch too but in addition, the Africans also spoke Ibo and Twi. Twi is one of the main local languages in Ghana and was the official language of communication in this church. What I thought would be a normal church session turned into a mini UN Conference. The children had their service separately in Dutch since they did not speak any other language. The main service was in Twi since they were the majority. A translator was available to translate Twi to Dutch which nearly everyone at the congregation understood anyway. And as if it was not already too complex, there were booths with translators into English, French and Spanish! I have never been back for nothing else but the logistics of language.

At my apartment, my next-door neighbors are two African brothers. Immigrated to Holland from Angola at the height of the civil war as children, the two brothers have been in Holland for 12 years. Naturally, I was glad to have someone from ‘home’ close bye. In my elation, it missed me that Angolans speak Portuguese. So here I was with my wonderful neighbors who only spoke Dutch and Portuguese. Friendships know no languages, so they say, but conversations become rough and hard when half the time all you do is nod and hum at each other. It was not until much later that I met a Kenyan and a South Sudanese classmates who both spoke Kiswahili. My classes and faculty were all in English, for the avoidance of doubt.

I was however to be confronted with another novelty. The ‘personal space’ here is a hallowed possession not to be intruded, or so I think. Coming from a country where I would initiate and reply to tens of greetings a day, I was to rudely learn that things don’t always stay the same. I have met really cheerful people, black and white, who received and said greetings and other social pleasantries like any Kenyan does. However, many are the times I got the cold shoulder for my pleasantries. Grudgingly, I learnt to keep my distance and silence. It became a really cold world of my known friends and acquaintances only. I started wondering how it is that Kenyan strangers in a bus, on the street, in the shops or in a pub could strike a conversation and hold on so easily. I questioned my social skills and my general outlook. Was I repulsive or was it them? While my language handicap limited how interactive I could get, I realized this general coldness had little to do with me as an individual. In the buses, as everywhere else, it is standard fare that no one talks to the other. People almost fear each other. The silence is louder than the bus’ huge engines. The distance is vast and the coldness is biting. Everyone comes with their friends to all public places and leaves with them. A large number just come alone and leave alone.

In this silence, I always raised questions in my mind. How is for Africans who move over to settle in this environment? How do they manage the transition? I am lucky to have travelled back to Kenya thrice over the last year but I know of colleagues who never did. How forlorn did they get? On chit chat with my Angolan neighbors, I asked them how it had been to be away from their family in Africa for 12 years. It was obvious they were grateful to have escaped the war. They felt safe and had a chance at that tender age to attend school and grow like kids. However, I felt empathetic at the sadness in their tones when they recounted the difficulty of being torn away from loved ones all those years. It was most difficult knowing their parents and siblings were in certain danger while they were safely away.  Having no family or friends in a foreign country and culture was a tall hurdle they had jumped. 12 years later, they still do not feel part of the Dutch social fabric despite having mastered the language and many other aspects in between. The one thing they cannot change about themselves is their African appearance and that has put a distance between them and their hosts. When one brother visited Angola last year, the changes that have happened since were too much to handle. Starting life all over again in Angola is a task too herculean with their subsistence wages in Holland. The assumptions back home do not help matters either. They are therefore caught between two worlds. An Angola that accepts and loves them but which they do not understand and a Netherlands that they very well understand but in which they have hit a glass ceiling in all spheres. Their plight makes me cherish my Kenya. She does not match many European countries in many aspects of convenience but I have learnt that being in one’s country is in itself a reason for pride. There is an inexplicable feeling of home and contentment in one’s own country where you speak your first language and buy your food with certainty.