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Dismas Okombo | Home

for S.O.

You still listen to the same Ohangla music we enjoyed in childhood, booming from the same Sony radio –now yellowed with dust and held together by a rubber band. I remember your dance moves, your dusty feet planted in the dirt as you gyrate your buttocks to the fast tempo of Osogo Winyo’s Agengo. At the climax of the song, when the frenzied drums give way to a soul-trembling piano combination, your body would quiver with pure ecstasy. And then, with the glare of the midday sun glistening beads of sweat on your dark skin, you would close your eyes and shake your head; possessed with the magic of rhythm and beats.

Over fifteen years and your dancing, spontaneous, easy and beautiful, still haunts me. I think of it every evening when I’m stuck in traffic; the blaring horns and sooty fumes setting off a thudding headache that threatens to detonate my skull. I try to imitate it on weekends in rowdy Nairobi bars; when my blood is warm with Tusker and a beautiful lady is giving me flinty side glances. Of course, I only manage a few pathetic sways before my feet become heavy with awkwardness and I resume my seat.

It’s not that I’ve never tried to really-really master the moves. I have, you know I have. But at every attempt there’s this voice in my head, a voice that eerily resembles my mother’s, insisting that I am being ridiculous. ‘Look at you. You look like a puny, three-legged dog in heat trying to mount a disinterested bitch. Pathetic.’ You know my mother better than I do –because unlike her son, you haven’t felt the need to escape to the city. So, you know that were it not for her religion, that woman’s tongue would be dripping thick sarcasm, right?

I will say it: A religion that only allows mechanical standing up and robotic singing of hymns –any other music and any other way of enjoying music is the devil’s– tends to open up its members to either extremism or fatalism. And man, I confess: I’m on the verge of the latter. Remember how I used to cruise through my studies while you had to take a class twice, sometimes thrice, before narrowly making it to the next? Well, this is what has become of all that: The limitless dreams of childhood transitioned into uncertainties of youth, which in turn delivered me over to the vicious, suffocating anxieties of adulthood. Now my heart is loosening its hold on hope, joy is beginning to feel strange and heavy, the river of laughter is trickling down to a dry chuckle. And I don’t know how to dance!

You still stroll the fields we played football in, take baths in river Ayoro, and run after goats through the shrubs. And, of course, as long as you roam the village, Baba Okello‘s sugarcanes will never be safe from your scheming and stealth. I’m jealous, man, I’m mad jealous of your contentment with the corner of the world you found yourself in, never torturing yourself with the endless becoming; the insatiable desire to be someone new; the unquenchable urge to exhaust the possibilities of life. Your simple joys and sorrows, supplied by a world you have intimately known since childhood –a world you can control– seem to carry their own weight. Out here, ambition, anticipation, and imagination all conspire to torture me, until nothing else is as real as this heavy anxiety lodged in my heart.

I envy how you belonged, and still do, in the place of our childhood. I have never felt like I belonged there; much of what that life demanded of us never came to me as naturally as it did to you. Your glibness and your swiftness to action, your reckless courage and open vulgarity; even in childhood you seemed sure of your place in life. And adults admired you –used you as a reference point, and every kid wanted to play with you. While I scampered to see and belong in the fast-changing world, you were soaking your soul in Ohangla –borrowing, dissecting, and owning the witty lyrics. While I scoured books to master English, you were confident and contented with Luo –always careless with words, especially words that made the adults squirm.

But mastering English –mastering it so well that sometimes I fancy myself its gatekeeper, impatient with those who fumble over pronunciations and confuse tenses– demanded without my knowing that I lose the language of my soul. Ah, it is so easy to lose what you don’t know you are losing! And now, far from the straightforwardness of childhood; far from the safety of home; far from the simplicity of village life, I realize that the names and words in me lack weight. Sugarcane strictly implies sweetness, unlike niang’ which stirs up memories of childhood mischiefs. River is abstractly that, flowing water, while aora awakens the feel of cool water gliding off the skin on a hot, sunny day.

Perhaps these anxieties would be bearable were I able to express them in Luo. Perhaps. Man, I want you to teach me, teach me how to bare my soul in words that mean something to me. Would you show me the way back home?

———-

Image:  Javier Allegue Barros Unsplash remix

Dismas Okombo
Dismas Okombo
Dismas Okombo is a storyteller from Kenya. He is a former Pen Africa Resident, and his creative non-fiction piece was shortlisted for the 2020 African Writers Awards. His writing has appeared in Brittle Paper, The Kalahari Review, and Writers Guild-Kenya.

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