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A Tender Childhood

People change. Time passes by. People I once knew have grown older, moved away, some have died. But the land I grew up on remains the same. It is the same red earth road that leads home and the same giant trees that sway high up – many times, their dry branches crackle and fall off, offering us firewood.
Everyone had a small plot of land in the village: for the house, the maize and beans, the cows and chickens. Mine was a childhood filled with sound from the moment dawn broke: a man humming as he tilled the land, groups of women laughing as they carried jerricans of water back from the river, dogs barking, chickens scurrying and clucking. There were hardly any machines, and we relied on our bodies to get tasks done. My father would carry his jembe to the shamba and dig till he was done. He lugged large timber posts on his narrow shoulders and thrust them into holes he had dug on the ground, constructing fences. Him and his brothers easily fell a bull and slaughtered it when the occasion demanded. I wanted to grow up and be as strong as them. I wanted to be able to hold a machete and hack large bundles of Napier grass.

I grew up in a house with a scanty roof that was deficient in protecting us from the rain. My siblings and I would stand by a corner of the room during a downpour, waiting for the rain to subside so my mother could start mopping. We would wait for her to drain out the water and place pieces of cardboard boxes on the wet floor for us to lie on, and try and sleep again. It was the type of destitution meant to surrender us to hopelessness, the kind of despair that could easily have shattered my sense of self; only because of my mother’s fortitude did I keep intact.

When I was in grade six, my father packed a small suitcase, and after a simple breakfast of tea and boiled sweet potatoes, told us he was moving to Nairobi, where he would seek work and send home the wages he received. From the money he sent, we bought sugar, paraffin and cooking oil. We met our monthly needs. He could only come home in December, a steely-eyed grim man whose first order of business was to see how well the home had been run when he was away. One holiday, he clutched a green carrier bag with the gifts he had for me—khaki pants, a plaid shirt, a new pair of shoes—and asked whether I had been disciplined at school. I looked down, unsure what to say. Of course I had been good. I had attended all my classes and had been late only once or twice. He read my mind.

“You’ve been late, right?” he asked.
I nodded. He held up the carrier bag.
“These will go to your brother instead.”

I couldn’t care less. I was in the village and my torn clothes were enough. All I wanted were the carefree conversations with my mother and grandmother, long tales by the fire where I would be told about the amanani, giant ogres that wandered through the village at midnight, peeping through windows till they spotted the fattest
child in the village to carry away and eat. I wanted to climb the guava trees at home, to eat their soft crimson fruits alongside the birds that cherished them. I wanted to swim in the river with my friends. I yearned to secretly pee in the water and laugh aloud at this act of mischief.
A year or so later, my father and I sat outside the house on chopped logs of wood, taking the tea Mother had served us. He was just about to leave for Nairobi.

“You didn’t even mind it when I didn’t give you your gift,” he said.
I shrugged, though I was shaken inside, astounded he still remembered the event.
“I sense some rebellious spirit in you,” he continued.
“I mean if you wanted to give me the gift, you would have given it to me,” I said. “I didn’t see the need to beg for it.”

Light withdrew from his face and I held my breath, knowing I had pushed a boundary. The same light withdrew again over a decade later when I told him I was in love with Alex.
My mother’s warmth was a respite. She was always smiling. Not just with her lips but with her eyes. She let me do what I wanted and welcomed me into what I understood to be the mystifying aspects of her womanhood: she let me plait her hair and scrub her face; she taught me to make chapati in her kitchen. At night, she would sit on a stool and wait for me to sleep, telling me anecdotes from her childhood, that
she’d been a star netball player. I would pretend to sleep so she could lean in and give me a kiss before covering me with a blanket. She took me to play netball at the local grounds, saying it was a good way of expending my youthful energy. Sports, to her, was a way to play with the world and to render it malleable. She taught me I could always create a life that accommodated me, as I was, and as I wanted to be.
My mother would often go knocking door to door, asking for a plot of land to farm or clothes to wash for money. I hated seeing her humiliate herself in front of our neighbors in this manner: her hands folded, her head bent, her words so soft and polite, even when she was answered back rudely. Once, I hung around a neighbor’s gate long enough to hear her laugh at my mother, calling her a barefoot beggar! I walked home so angry, so eager to turn back and beat that person up! At home, Mother asked why I looked so dejected. I told her what the person said and started crying. She waited for me to calm down before she spoke.
“It is O.K. Sam. I can be a barefoot beggar so long as you get to eat.”

It was this thing about her—an effortless way of coping with shame—that fostered in me a capability to cope and push back on any unyielding demands from my community. My mother taught me to imagine beyond societal restrictions. She reminded me never to worry too much. She said the quickest way out of any frustration was to choose and stand by what made me happy. She empowered me, so that when I met Alex I was bold enough to love him and to tell him I did.

My father quit working in Nairobi when I was sixteen. He came back to the farm just as he had left, with the same suitcase, with clothes that looked the same. He hadn’t added or lost weight. But his face was now the face of a much older man. The crow’s feet around his eyes had deepened. He called me outside the house and held my shoulder. I felt pinned to the spot. He smiled and his wrinkles spread out.

“You know you are my son. You will take after me.”

I looked down. I wondered if I could admit to him my budding attraction to men. That I couldn’t stop thinking about the boy in school who played basketball; that I was always sitting by the court to watch him dribble, shirtless, the muscles on his shoulders rippling. These feelings were innate and spontaneous. It was the early 2000s, before I had access to Facebook and the various types of social media.

“I will be a good son,” I said.

I didn’t have anything else to say. Or rather I felt if I said anything else I wouldn’t be understood. It was easier being afraid of him: his hard eyes, how his voice rose and grated when he was angry. To me, being a man meant being ungentle. The masculine was firm and hard as my father was. I didn’t know how to be a man who loved other men.

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