The story of fatherhood and reversed roles we have to play 35 years later

Cynthia Abdallah

Poet Cynthia Abdallah hosts a public reading of poems from her two books at Soma Nami Books bookshop at Greenhouse Mall in Nairobi on December 15, 2021. 

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • Cynthia Abdallah’s loud reading of ‘My Father’, the first poem in The Author’s Feet is not only dramatic but also very emotional.
  • It is a candid reminiscence of a childhood during which the persona adores, ‘worships’ and fully depends on the father.

The moment I step into the Soma Nami Bookshop auditorium, Cynthia Abdallah recognises me. She points at me, waves and signals me to cross over to where she is.

Amid laughter, she confesses that upon setting her eyes on me, she had suffered what my communications teacher at journalism school calls expectancy violation. She had expected a taller, ‘bigger’ and more muscular man than the one standing before her. And in an age when ‘six pack’ is as much the in thing as it is an obsession, it is most likely that she had expected that kind of a sight.

Her observation gets us laughing. It is our first physical encounter but we share a mutual feeling of a pair that has spent ages together because Cynthia is an easy character.

She ushers me to a seat and I find myself in good company. I am sandwiched between two ladies. Forget about the beautiful young lady on my right. She barely says anything. It’s the elderly lady on my left hand side who starts a conversation.

Anne is her name, she says. She is here to savour Cynthia’s poetry. Unlike the rest of us, however, her attendance of this public poetry reading session draws motivation from something else – Her daughter, Olivia Ambani, a musician, is gracing the event as a guest artiste and she is here to watch her perform. She is well-travelled. The discernible exotic accent in her speech gives her away. She is equally well-read – She talks about books.

Someone offers me a paper cup full of the globally much sought after Kenyan coffee. I have barely taken the first sip when the speakers boom to life. It is time for action. And that is how an evening whose memories will remain with me for a long time begins.

We are treated to performances that easily swing from poetry to music and back! Around me are ‘weird’ people. How else would you describe a people who easily strike you as non-conformists? Their dressing, hairstyles and artistic expressions are the embodiments of their ways. And majority are young. Or youthful if you may.

We listen to poems and songs that explore the fears and troubles of youthhood. In a promotional statement, Cynthia had promised the attendees of her event something. She had said the live performances would not only bring the featured literary pieces to life but also make them more relatable. We experience exactly that! In their stage appearances, the youthful musicians and poets and poetesses relay their fear of failure and heartbreak. They reflect, too, on the psychological wellbeing of the young.

It is not until Cynthia takes the microphone that I experience a surge of emotions. She returned home (from abroad) a few days ago. Granted the opportunity, it is my guess that many a Kenyan lady her age would gladly switch places with her. Isn’t it every young person’s desire to travel the world?

In spite of her sojourns, Cynthia has her fears, too. It is these fears, in my view, that tickle the creative vein in her. The title of her first poetry chapbook, My Six Little Fears, lends credence to my reasoning.

Anyway, Cynthia recently published a poetry anthology. She calls it The Author’s Feet. She describes it as a collection of voices from a distant land. The feet in the poem symbolically refer to her sojourns – the places she has travelled to and from, collecting stories and scents. It is by tracing her feet that the reader of her poems gets to sample the glories and gloom of the yonder worlds.

Cynthia’s loud reading of ‘My Father’, the first poem in The Author’s Feet is not only dramatic but also very emotional. It is a candid reminiscence of a childhood during which the persona adores, ‘worships’ and fully depends on the father.

In the eyes of the persona, the father is invincible, indefatigable and mystic. He is exceptionally strong. He is a matchless disciplinarian – He holds his Maasai whip in a tight grip and his scary eyes push his children into unwavering obedience. He is an authoritative father who barks orders, with his head slightly tilted to his left, shoulders rocking from side to side.

The persona in the poem remembers a father who, during their formative days, worked during the day and sometimes, at night. Their father would often come home with a small package in his hands, a simple grin plastered across his serious face.

All that was 35 years ago….

Today, the persona’s father’s youthfulness is no more. It has waned, withered with age. These days, the father merely smiles with his eyes. The father’s once youthful face has transformed into a haven of wrinkles. In place of his once imposing and intimidating demeanour is a tiny shell.

Nowadays, the persona’s father only hugs them, the persona and their siblings, when they arrive home, after months and sometimes, years of absence. It is time for the father to trade stories of the childhood he spent in Mlimani, Turbo, for those his children have brought home from their sojourns around the world.

For the persona, the age-beaten father’s eyes are still sharp but teary. He still speaks authoritatively, head tilted slightly to the left and shoulders rocking from side to side. All these, he does, albeit, differently from how he once did them.

35 years later, there is a reversal of roles – A father on whom the persona and their siblings once entirely depended now depends on them.

Later on in the night as I cruise along Thika Road on my way home, I can only think of one man – My old man. He is in his early 60s. I am in my late 30s. Isn’t this the story of our lives? Let’s reflect on our future – 35 years later!