If journalism was a tailored suit, it would have looked perfect on Ndege. The coat especially would fall perfectly on his shoulders and not fade with age. The lining inside would not shrink and make the pockets puffy after several trips to the dry cleaners. The fabric would not cringe during the short drive between his house and the studio. What I am trying to say is that Ndege is the right build for journalism. However, in spite of the attire of journalism looking good, perhaps it would squeeze a little too tight on the armpits, the lapels would fall out of symmetry and he resents dress shoes. Simply put, the two are an impossible couple despite the promise of looking good together.
“Aki mbona hukufanya Journa? You are a natural.” I asked when we met in Embu in 2017.
Embu is a fairly small town which largely depends on agriculture and administration to keep its economic bearings greasy. A gateway to the more populous and bigger Meru, Embu defines a rural town. The administrators formed the cream. They ran the show by owning, besides powerful positions in the government, most of the big businesses in the town. They dictate which side the cyclone blows. In Embu, there are two cyclones; the political cyclone that carries money and stops right at the gates of the rich and the other one that carries dust and papers through the ghetto and dies in the farms. The farmers formed the lower part in the society but not without differences amongst themselves. Some farmers united to gain influence and power and they started operating on the same level as the administrators. The other group of farmers, compelled to unity by destituteness, formed the lowest layer. Sometimes a stir would develop and particles from the base would rise up. Ndege was such a pickle but instead of settling in one of the groups, he kept oscillating the three zones. People pointed fingers and called him the lost one.
“Children of the eighties had limited choices when it came to school. We were cajoled to choose the fiercest course our secondary school grades could get us into,” he said calmly.
“We schooled in a time when journalism was a reserve for children of Jomo who could pronounce L and R differently. My parents said that such a course was a waste of money. My father would not listen to anything concerning school if it didn’t involve economics or accountancy since I had missed out on Engineering and Medicine.” He talked of his father with an elevated reverence.
I wonder what strength our father’s voices have over us. If you grew up in an African home where a dog and a cat are considered the guard and pesticide respectively, your mother insulted you daily. She called you names of despicable wild animals and weird creatures of imagination. We believed she saw nothing good in us but that had no effect on our esteem, it was weightless. On the other hand, if our fathers said something bad about us, it stuck and clouded our paths for ages. A father’s approval was something to savour and when it did come, it illuminated our paths for eternity.
A customer interrupted us. It was a few weeks to Christmas and Ndege, a government civil servant at the county health offices, could afford few hours to inspect work at his hardware shop. The customer had just bought several bags of cement and iron sheets and needed them delivered at his house past the district hospital.
“Si uwache nikimbize mzigo hapa juu nikam but kama hutamind tunaweza ishia na wewe unisaidie kushukisha,” he spoke quickly as he threw a dustcoat over his polo shirt.
“Twende,” I accepted the offer and he snatched another dust coat from an hanger near the counter.
“Njuki, nimeondoka,” he called to an employee who was serving another customer.
The customer we were dropping goods for was the son of a long serving dentist at the district hospital. He was an accountant in Nairobi and was renovating his father’s house over the holidays and had dropped by for the weekly inspection. Ndege informed me that the accountant had married a girl from the coast and the dentist was not very comfortable with that arrangement.
“Hii nyumba ni ya kunyamazisha mzee. Unajua wazazi wanasema wasichana wa Mombasa ni moto wa kuotea mbali,” Ndege talked as we followed the dentist’s son who drove a wine red Toyota Wish.
The doctor’s son had interned at the then Embu district’s health office in the department that Ndege works in. They became good friends and Ndege was the best man at his wedding. If you get my vibe, Embu is interconnected and good deeds went round fast. Ndege had offered to oversee the work at the dentist’s house but the accountant was using the opportunity to show his father that wasichana wa coast si wabaya.
I admit that offloading hardware goods is not a simple task. Ndege’s hands worked tirelessly, he didn’t seem the accomplished civil service worker I had met at the office, or the owner of the big hardware in town. Here he wore another suit, one of a casual labourer seeking to please the foreman.
“Unaona, this hardware is my lifeline. The government job doesn’t pay much, but the little they gave me, I combined it with my wife’s savings and a kaloan and we started selling electricals. Such guys, they come from rich homes and you need to sometimes behave like you need their money and do the hard job yourself. My point is, it is simple yet difficult out here.”
In 2016 when we buried Ndege’s father, he challenged men by giving a powerful speech about fatherhood. Here is the piece that had most impact.
Fathers need to be actively involved in the lives of their children more so those who have sons. We are living in times where the boys are more sensitive than the girls. Words, that either build or demolish, have a lasting effect on the lives of children. The worst words that a father can use on his children is being absent in their lives when you are alive by rejecting them and by so doing your responsibilities. You may have legitimate reasons for being absent but from a child’s point of view, it means,” You leaving us because you are ashamed of us. We are not good enough.” And when they grow, the sentiment changes to,” I am doing badly but I do not have to try, after all I have been a disappointment all my life.” Father, as you lay down tonight, you may have said many things, some I came to understand and make peace with, but thank you for not saying the ultimate words that didn’t need you to open your mouth. Thank you for staying.
“We have a very vibrant men’s group in our church. We are open to men of all ages, denominations and religions. We receive and work with all men including those who do not believe because fatherhood goes beyond everything. It determines the direction a whole society will take.”
We stopped at a restaurant for an evening cup of tea. He was definitely a commoner since he greeted most of the patrons and waiters before tucking in his seat. I admired his aura and charisma. He was magical in how he blended in with people. He fitted in all social classes in Embu and thrived in them.
“So to answer your question, my father was right. The title journalist would have condemned me to cameras and studios and make me miss out on this important section of my life. I still fit the definition but it doesn’t define me. Such is life.”