Mantalk: Father, son, and the curse of silence

Father, son, and the curse of silence. Photo | Photosearch

What you need to know:

What I learned from my dad is that silence is a weapon. The problem with weapons is that he who lives by one dies by one

Have I told you guys my father is growing old? Well, my father is growing old. He has an everyman face, two of the 200 people or so you see every day. That means I have an ordinary face too but praise Jesus Nairobi ghels only look at a man’s wallet! And you know what wakongwe wa Nai say? The ugliness of a man is in his pocket.

I bring to your attention the curious case of my old man because I have realised we only talk when we have to. This year, so far, eight times. Actually, seven. The last time he called I was in a precarious position (not to overshare, but constipation) and promised to call him back. “Kata nitakupigia,” was what I said. Like a proper Nairobian, I never called back.

I think of what I would have said if I called him back. I have self-diagnosed myself and concluded I have phonenxiety. I have to practice what I would say, imagine his responses, and counter them. If he says something not in my Rolodex of replies, thus throwing a spanner into the works, it’s kaput for me. Sometimes, I think our silence speaks better for us, filling in the cracks in our relationship.

Like my father, I too an emotionally aloof. I wonder how many children went to their babas through their mamas? My mother was my conduit. You can say I am no different than those ‘tuma kwa hii number’ Kamiti cons. That is the husbandry school of Kenya. 

The first time I wrote about my father was in a composition class by Tr Jerusha entitled ‘My Father.’ I finished the composition with, ‘…out of all the rest, my father is the best.’ Little white lies?

Fathers are Rubik’s cubes. Asking mine to open up is akin to asking the Queen for her bra size. Or inviting the Pope to a strip club. We learn to ape. Maybe if I act more like him, I could understand him? Fake him till you become him, the Jeevanjee lawyers would advise.

Or maybe the distance keeps us closer.

There is a vacuum in father-son relationships, at least my father-son relationship, a human-sized shaped hole that is filled by late-night M-Pesa messages, “Mteja-hapatikani” and “Mama yako amekusalimia” texts. I would prefer if he said much more, lingered a little longer, his words reaching for the parts of me that I know aren’t said very often. This is a pain that I understand. It’s something we share. I’ve never known who my father is to me, and more importantly, who I am to him.

When people ask me about him, I use the analogy of the armed forces. Some are boisterous, like the Kenya Police. Others are disciplined like the military. Us? Sisi we are the secret service. Our relationship thrives in hushed tones. Ndogo ndogos get it. Every time I write about fatherhood, I feel like I am exorcising the demons of my childhood so that this new phoenix can rise from the ashes. (There’s a joke in there if you squint). My heart bleeds on paper, every word an incision against my arteries, cauterised by that cathartic feeling of deliverance. Perhaps it’s true. Beautiful words cover the ugly truth.

My father the gazeti man. How could a man who loves words say so little?  

Silence I imagine is my father’s soft power. His moxie. It requires a black belt in detachment and it’s what I picked up. Boy, can I build a wall so strong those people who marched in Jericho cannot break it down? Silence is the carapace under which our father-son interactions take place. The cracking of the carapace, showing the stitching underneath the surface reveals one flaw: we are just two gooey mismatched individuals. I don’t like what it says. About him. About us. About me. It is like lifting off the corner of the universe and peeking at what’s underneath.

From our scattered conversations, I have been able to piece up a caricature of the man. If he says “Nitakupigia”He won’t. If he calls on a Friday night to ask you “Mbona umenyamaza,” he misses you. If he says “Your mother wants to talk”; he wants to talk. The problem is, these calls are far apart, on and off, like Nairobi’s mixed-signals weather—and relationships. 

My father’s relationship with silence was like his father’s and him. If my relationship with my father is fickle, my relationship with my grandfather is a hologram. What I learned from my father is that silence is a weapon. The problem with weapons is that he who lives by one dies by one. And thus, in my relationships, when someone goes silent, I get defensive. What are you plotting? What’s your deal? What’s your game? To me, silence is my Swiss army knife—I could cut you up in many different ways. And once I find the right blade—whew boy. I am an apex predator.

Problem is, what all Kenyan girls want to do is talk. Talk to me. Say something. What are you thinking? Talk, babe, talk.

“Talk? The eff I’m gonn—?”

You know what I mean? Typical Kenyan male experience. Implicit in that too is an assertion of control and individual impregnability: My problems are my problems. They’re nobody else’s problems. And so sometimes I feel my world caving in. The sense of, underneath all that thick, calloused whale skin, lies a soft underbelly. The silent treatment is a pyrrhic victory, but a victory nonetheless. 

So my language of love is to send money. And ask how is kukadoing? And Johnny? Njoki? Dide? I never ask about him because his answer is always the same. Plus, it sounds artificial, like a beauty pageant contestant pledging world peace. As you can see, this apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.

Thing is, I look like my father, move like my father, talk like my father. I see young men cracking jokes, or doing TikTok videos with their fathers and I feel like a ngwaci is stuck in my throat. You mean, people do this? How? More importantly, why? So I choose to write about him. Speak about him. I just never write to him. Or speak to him. The price is heavy. To claim the prize of adulthood, you must vanquish the god of your childhood.

It’s also why I keep postponing fatherhood. Because you don’t give a toddler silent treatment. They will shout and scream and wail their way to a conversation. To them, the show must go on. I don’t think the first words I should be telling a child is “Shut up!”

My old man is turning 48, I think. Life has smoothened his rough edges, making him softer, as life does eventually to all of us. But there will always be words left unsaid between the two of us, babies unkissed, hands unshaken. I made peace. Have you? We are an urgent but faraway sneeze. I look at him in horror: my father represents the ghost of my own future.

I love him, and I fear him, but I have never understood him. And, I am afraid, neither has he.