One afternoon 28 years ago, while I was still crawling, dad left home and never returned. It is fair to say that I never saw him or more aptly, never had the opportunity to see him. Growing up, I never felt deprived of any childhood opportunities, thanks to a strong mother who, in my eyes, is more than a dad and mum combined. I never thought of my childhood as incomplete because Mum brought us up exceptionally well, with great zeal and determination.
All my life I heard about my father and what he stood for, what he has been known for, and it always made me proud even though I don’t even know what he looked like. Well, except in a photo. Many of those who knew him or who brushed sides with him helped me in one way or another, as I grew up, as a recompense to him. Those were the marks he left. He was a man who always put a smile on the faces of people around him (at least that is what they always tell me). I always wanted to ask more, but I somehow never had the courage to ask more questions. As a child I never felt comfortable having conversations with adults.
But mention of him never moved or evoked anything in me.
There is a saying in the Somali language which goes: ‘you either be a 2-year-old or a camel herder for the news of a relative’s death.’ Those are two categories of people who will never be affected by death although the latter is wrongly (or jokingly) put here. They say a child will not know the pain of losing a relative because he is too young for it and the camel herder is least bothered by anything, other than his camels. And I think it is because he died while I was a toddler that I have never felt disturbed by my father’s death or the mention of it.
But sometimes, I think about him. Not in a way that makes me feel grief, but to wonder how he would have treated us, brought us up, guided us as the head of the family and most importantly, how, as his only son, he would have initiated me, had he lived. Would he have brought us up with good virtues and all? Would he have been a tough and ruthless dad? Would he have been lenient? How has he used to treat mum? How has he used to treat his children?
We had only one photo of him. There was a big family album that had more than 200 photos of my extended family at home, but his photo, somehow, was not in the album. That photo, which was of dad and a friend, both clad in the Kenya police uniform, used to lay in the drawer of my mother’s bed. He was a short, dark man with a broad face. He looked like the type of dad who, both in frustration and happiness, would hug his child and give him a big shoulder rub. He never looked intimidating in that photo. There was something about him that showed a sweet demeanour towards other people. And it always gave me a mixed feeling. The last time I saw that photo was in 2004 when I was in seventh grade. I don’t know how it disappeared and I never asked mum.
Standing at 6’1”, I didn’t take after dad who, judging by that photo and how people describe him, was around 5’7”. I have taken after one of my maternal uncles physically. My eyes, the way I talk and even my lankiness all are similar to that uncle’s. There are still no physical similarities between dad and me though some people have told me I got his behaviour and character. And I wonder what conclusions about our similarities and differences I would have drawn had he been alive.
Dad ventured into business after he hung up his uniform and retired from the Kenya police, and this made him even more popular among the people. A woman once offered me half a litre of milk and told me, “Drink it; your dad once gave me and my two bags of potatoes a lift in his Land Rover.” I was surprised. His grey Land Rover was apparently a darling in the road and those he knew well would sure get a free ride from one point to another.
But it was this business that would later drive him to his death. Dad started buying and selling cattle after he retired and made a fortune until he travelled abroad for further transactions. He went to Somalia to buy cattle from their vast animal markets, to bring them back to Kenya and sell them. I don’t know whether he bought the cattle or not, but he never made it home. Since it was the first year of the civil war, he was presumed to have been killed while on the road. Death is even more painful when a loved one dies in a foreign land. And still worse, when you don’t get the opportunity to bury them at home or at least, to see them one last time before burying. We never saw him again, and we never got the opportunity to bury him or view his body before burying him.
His death was a blow to many but not the toddler me who knew nothing of what was going around him. I know it was painful especially for mum but for some reason, I have never questioned her regarding his death. I have heard all about it from other people and I never found it appropriate to ask her. Sometime last week, I remembered the photo of dad and I felt like asking mum how it disappeared, or when was the last time she saw it, but the courage somehow evaporated. I felt uneasy and let it pass. Of course, she was devastated by his death, but she tied her waist tightly and gave us the best treatment. Through this, I think, she redefined motherhood and gave it a gold decoration. If there was an accolade for motherhood I would, without blinking, award it to her. But then, most everyone would reward their own mum for a motherhood accolade.
I have a black scar on my right hand between the wrist and my thumb, and mum once told me it is as a result of a burn I sustained after putting my hand in flask full of tea which dad had just poured tea from. She told me that I was very agile and destructive kid and one morning, while dad was taking breakfast, I crawled towards the table, clung on it and put my hand in the thermos (dad had opened it and put the lid down before pouring himself the tea). Everything happened so fast that I put my hand in the thermos before dad could even put the lid back on it. The scar is still there and very visible. And it sometimes reminds me of him. That scar, just like the only photo we had of him, became dad’s memento. When I sometimes look at it and remember him, I say to myself: “he didn’t live to see it.” Would he feel guilty seeing a scar on his son’s hand just because he opened the thermos and didn’t put the lid back quickly? Maybe yes, maybe no.
I came to realise that being brought up by a single parent is the same as being brought up by both parents, if that single parent is hardworking and responsible. If that single parent is selfless enough to sacrifice everything for you. But even though I was brought up by a caring and responsible mum, I still sometimes think about him because I carry one of his mementos on my hand. And because he is the father I loved to see and lean on, if only through the eyes of others, as I grew up.