“The unreal is more powerful than the real, because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it. Because it is only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die. But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.”

I got a call from my Uncle today. He is one of those people in my life, for whom I feel awe mixed with affection. In a way he is the traditional African man, the authority figure in his home, the one no one questions. We have a name for that kind of man in our family. Ki-rion. Actually that just means a fierce lion, with the prefix added to indicate large size, and the ‘r’ replacing the ‘l’ in lion in the common kikuyu accent.

There has been another ki-rion in the village my mother grew up in. But unlike my uncle that ki-rion was a reckless drunkard, who used his fierce temper to thwart any questioning from his family when he misappropriated family funds.

My uncle is on the other hand, though fear inspiring, loved his kids. I remember August holidays on the farm when his kids and I would scramble to switch off the TV and grab a book to pretend we were reading as prescribed for the holiday afternoon, when we heard the tremble of his Chevrolet pickup truck coming down the hill towards the house. I can’t tell you how many times someone would be wincing from a bang on the shin while scrambling to the huge dining table where we used to study from. And uncle would smile, and greet us, hug his favorite daughter, pat my head and then go sit in his favorite chair at the corner of the living room and switch on the TV. Somehow, I think he knew what we had been up to.

But we all knew not to cross him. He was the toughest disciplinarian. When it came to house rules, chores and respect, we all knew where we stood. He greatly valued education, insisting that his kids, and any of his nieces and nephews staying over the holidays, study for at least two hours every afternoon. Then on Saturday, he would treat us to ka-mbuzi choma and soda. But only if we had behaved well during the week.

I remember that the very first watch I ever owned arrived by courier at school, on the morning I was to sit my Standard Eight mock exams. I was nervous as hell, but the note that came with the watch, a note I still have, said,

‘You can be the best you want to be.’

It put a smile on my face and calmed the butterflies in my stomach.

I think Uncle was the very first one in the entire family outside of my mother and big brother who understood when I was really young that I wanted to be a writer. When I look back I can see him trying to impress on me the need to be extremely responsible with my writing. When I was 15 or 16, I remember sitting with him poring over history books, discussing events that happened when he was just a boy, talking about things that older kikuyu men probably never talked about with the young women in their communities. He introduced me to older relatives from across the river, pointed out older men I could talk to about events of the colonial era, or just things that older people would have a different perspective on.

It is extremely easy for me, as it might be for pretty much everyone else, to focus on all the worst things that have ever happened to me. Lately, I have found it particularly easier to complain, about the money not ever being enough to buy the meds and buy the gadgets I feel I need for my work. About the disorder that forces me to constantly take medication that sometimes does not take away the pain and discomfort. About the past that haunts me. About the loves that I have lost, or not gained.

But when I look clearly, I am actually very fortunate, to have the people in my life who have encouraged my dreams, who have supported my efforts, who have made me strong though I am weak.

So my uncle called me today, to rave about a topic I had written about a few months ago; he only just saw the article today when he was browsing on his phone. I don’t know which makes me happier; that he finally learnt how to send text messages and then graduated to a more complicated phone, or that he read my article, loved it and called me to tell me about it.

© Juliet Maruru 2009


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