The place Rough Hands took me to


If I should tell you this story, then I should begin with hands, rough hands on my shoulders, and the smell of honest sweat. I am really small. Just four years old and it is early morning. The ground is wet with dew. I am standing before our kitchen door, staring at ants trailing a path, busy with their mundane affairs. Rough Hands is telling me about the ants because I asked. But I do not want to know about the ants. I am only asking because I am scared. I am scared because I have just run home from nursery school with my packed lunch. He tells me not to worry, that Mum will understand. Still, when Mum walks out of the kitchen, a feeling of cold scales passes up my back. Lady Gay, that is the scent Mum has on. Mum and Rough hands talk. Adult talk. Nothing that I can understand. Rough Hands kneels and tells me softly, “I am taking you back to school”. He holds my hand.

Memory fails me.

I am in class two. I am watching television. Black and White television. Rough Hands is outside spraying our cattle. He knocks at the door and demands that I get out, saying that a boy my age should walk out more and see the world. I keep quiet. I am watching She-Ra and He-Man wielding magical swords, fighting forces of darkness. My mind is engrossed. Rough Hands opens the door and orders me to get out. He says, “sitakupembeleza”. I walk out sulking. He takes me out of the gate and down a narrow, winding road, which goes past Kapsio, to the edge of the Kerio valley.

There are thick shrubs everywhere, and wild fruits which he tells me to eat-siriek, tabirbir, komolik,lamaiywek. We walk on. I am afraid that I am going to fall because the edge of the valley is so close. He tells me to man up. I start crying. He lifts me up on his shoulders and walks to the valley’s precipice. Its vast panorama opens up and my heart swells with joy. I am no longer afraid. I am baffled by its play of shadow and colour; at its endlessness. He points at Lake Kamnarok, and tells me that the elephants are now drinking its water. I struggle to see those elephants, but I only see the valley’s colours change from blue, to green, to brown. I ask if the brown colors are the elephants and he nods. A path reveals at the valley’s precipice. A path I had never seen. It winds down the cliff like a ribbon in the hands of a child. I tell Rough Hands that we are going to fall but he snorts and walks down. Squirrels and hyraxes skitter from our path. In the distance, Colobus monkeys swing about from rock to rock. Their grace is effortless. I see a baby Colobus monkey on its mother’s back. I want to hold it.

Rough Hands tells me stories as we go down; how there were many lions in the valley many years before I was born; how they would line up on the rocks in immense prides, sunning. This memory ends with him walking me to his friend’s house at the bottom of the valley. They do the adult talk again. I understand nothing. He holds his container of busaa at me asking if I want to take a sip. I taste and spit it out. The two men laugh.

I am taller than him. I have finished school and I am working. He still passes by once in a while when I visit home. But he does not have the strength to do heavy chores. Mum gives him the simplest tasks to do when he asks. We give him lunch and take him to hospital when he coughs a lot. He looks so old and pale. Mum tells me that he does not eat. He spends all his wages on drink. We give him all the spare clothes that we can find. He never washes them. When you stand close to him, you can see lice crawling on them. I fear even shaking his hand. I am afraid I will catch some disease. He walks to me and asks what I have brought him from Nairobi. I smile and wonder which old sweater I can pass on to him. He asks me for 100 bob. I know he is going to spend it all on cheap drink, so I give him only 50. He looks at me with such sorrowful eyes. I look away. I grit my teeth as he starts coughing.

He died a month later. Mum called to tell me. I asked if I could see the grave. She said that his body was picked by his brothers and buried in a faraway district. She asks if I am okay. I keep silent, sifting through my emotions, searching for a word. I wonder why I am seeing a baby Colobus monkey, riding on its mother’s back.