My grandmother worked my roots with the vigour of a woman who meant business. She dug her fingernails into my ‘fro and when she discovered dandruff she pulled out her clippers and said, ‘Waryaa, fix up! Hadiikale, I shall shave you cleaner than a baby’s ass.’
‘Ayeeyo, I want to be braided not be given a bloody sermon.’
‘Hododo!’ she clapped her hands, ‘you’ve mastered the art of backchat. Now learn the basics of hygiene.’
‘Is it not true? And furthermore, this business of me braiding your hair has to stop. You’re a boy not a lady-boy.’
‘You know you love me,’ I smiled, ‘besides, what’s wrong with being a lady-boy? It’s a good look.’
She pulled my hair and said, ‘Waryaa, if you grow up to be gay, walaahi I will do saar.’
‘Saar’ was a brand of Somali exorcism. The ‘possessed’ – which was code for the mentally unstable – were put through their paces. Healers would beat drums to release spirits from the possessed, who would shimmy and shake, and if they got too frisky, would face the kind of beat-down usually reserved for criminals. Such superstition has always been rife in the bush and my gran, a country gal through and through, knew its effectiveness at deterring unacceptable behaviour.
I smiled now as she flexed my follicles. My grandmother did not know that I was gay and that I’ve always loved being gay. Sure, Kenya was not exactly queer nation but my sexuality gave me joy. I was young, not so dumb and full of cum. There was no place for me in heaven but I was content munching devil’s pie here on earth.
I was seventeen and I specialized in two things: weed and sex. And there was only one person in my neighbourhood who served both those dishes on a steaming plate for me.
But I’ve missed a beat, my bambinos. A narrative without a back-story is like meat with no bone; there’s no juice to it. So let me take two steps back.
My family moved to Kenya in ’91, after my dad hauled our asses from Mogadishu. I don’t remember much about Somalia – I was only a toddler when we fled – but over the years Mogadishu assumed mythical status in our lives. It became the kind of place that could only truly flourish in selective memory. It was years later that I learnt the precise term for what my family and millions of other Somalis had experienced during the war: post-traumatic stress.
But my father was not one for wasting time. He got to work and started amassing a small fortune by selling blankets and medicine to NGOs headed for Mogadishu. My mum did her bit and became a pharmacist in Hurlingham. Whilst baba na mama made money, my gran took care of home.
All that changed in ‘94. My parents were driving home from Trattoria Restaurant one night when they got stopped by the police. The cops ordered them to get out of the car but my dad refused. Kenyan police are the shiftiest crooks this side of the Sahara. If they want to extort you, nobody can stop them. If they want to make you disappear, no one can prevent it. My father knew this so he refused to get out. Without missing a beat, the police fired three shots in his head. Then they blasted my mother’s brains out when she started screaming. Their bodies were found floating in Athi River the next day. I was seven years old.
Whilst my gran’s peers were settling quietly into old age, she now had to support both of us. We owned our small maisonette, so housing wasn’t an issue. My parents had taken out life insurance but it wasn’t enough for us to live on. My grandmother took half the cash and invested it in a small import/export business she ran out of our living room. The rest went into my education.
As the years passed, gran decided she needed help around the house. She found it difficult to bend over and clean floors and cook three meals a day, raise a teenager and run a business. She didn’t want another woman in her home. She wanted a man who was strong enough to cook, clean and carry water to the tank. She wanted a man to protect us from burglaries. Basically, she wanted a budget superhero: a blank canvas she could mould into a domestic god.
Boniface was from Burundi and my grandma dug this. She dug the fact that he was a refugee like us but I was more impressed with his muscle mass. While she saw enough brawn to carry three sacks of bariis at once, I saw prime beefcake. Papi was beautiful and he looked like he was packing. I licked my lips and locked and loaded.
Every day I’d go to my window and watch him wash clothes outside. When it became humid, he’d remove his shirt, fold it and place it on the ground. His pectorals would be slick with sweat. Whenever he saw me, he’d smile and wink. I’d stick my tongue out. He’d make a fist and pretend to punch himself. I’d flip him the finger. He’d gasp.
‘I’ll tell ayeeyo,’ His eyes glinted.
‘Tell her,’ I laughed.
‘She shall thup you,’ he warned.
‘And I shall thup you,’
‘Bring it,’ he said, flexing his muscles.
‘Ever tasted the flying fist of Judah?’ I asked.
‘More like the flying fist of foolishness.’
‘Are you challenging me?’
‘I believe I am,’ he said.
‘Then it’s on. Tonight. Backyard.’
He laughed. ‘We shall see who thups who.’
We sneaked into the backyard that evening. My grandmother was asleep so we tried to keep it quiet.
All I wanted was to feel his body against mine and if it took a wrestling match to achieve this, I was game. I thought he’d go easy on me but he lifted me up like a ragdoll, ready for a literal smack down.
‘Put me down,’ I yelled, wriggling in his arms.
‘What do you say?’
‘Now, now,’ he said, tightening his grip. ‘I’ll let you down on one condition.’
‘Are you sure?’ he asked, ‘It involves a treat.’
My ears pricked up. ‘What kind of treat?’
He put me down and reached into his pocket. He removed a spliff – purple haze. I eyed it greedily.
‘I never smoke alone,’ he said. ‘So I was wondering – ’
‘Yes,’ I said, quickly. ‘I’ll puff with you.’
‘But if ayeeyo busts us you take the blame.’
‘Toka,’ I scoffed.
‘I know you want some,’ he dangled the spliff.
I wiped my drool and said, ‘It’s a deal. But I get to light it.’
We went to his quarters and smoked up. Boniface’s room used to be a storage space but he’d transformed it with paint and posters. There was a cassette player and a stack of bootleg tapes on the bedside table. The cassettes were by artists like Koffi Olomide and Papa Wemba.
‘Don’t you have any hip-hop?’ I asked.
‘Hip-hop is shit,’ he said. ‘Check this out.’ He pulled out a cassette, ejected the tape recorder and slid it in. He then sprawled on the bed and passed me the joint.
The weed hit me the moment the music started playing. It was an old soul record. The singer sang in a tone that made me feel slinky. I got up and snaked my hips. Boniface looked on. He smiled and stroked his chest. I walked over and lay next to him. He didn’t inch away. Instead he examined my face, ran his calloused palm across my cheek. I noticed a beauty spot under his right eye. I touched it. His skin was soft.
I placed the joint on a nearby ashtray. I pulled my t-shirt over my head and slid out of my shorts. He kissed me, tongue tasting of weed. He broke the kiss to unbutton his shirt. His abdomen was cut like slabs of chocolate. He removed his trousers and wasn’t wearing underwear. His thighs were thick, dick hard. I bent down and deep-throated him. He smelt of soap. He pushed his hips back and forth. I stopped to come up for air. He helped me out of my underwear and spread my limbs, licked every inch of me until I was sex-funky. He then reached for the joint and took a long pull. He blew the smoke in my mouth. I was open.
That night we fucked until the bed threatened to collapse. After we came, we went into the kitchen and made Spanish omelettes and tea. We wolfed the food down and went back to his room to smoke some more.
As we puff-puff-passed, I considered what had happened. Sure, I’d fooled around with boys before but this was different. Boniface was a man who fucked like he ate: greedily. I relished the thought of him feasting on me. I went to bed, dreaming of bubbles that could never burst.
After school the next day, I ran inside the house to find Boniface making dinner. Ayeeyo was in the kitchen, smoking sheesha.
‘What’s this haraka business?’ she asked. ‘Usually, I have to drag you in by force. What gives?’
‘I just wanted to see you,’ I kissed her.
She gave me a look that said, ‘wacha mchezo.’ She continued steaming up the kitchen with smoke. Boniface glanced at me and I smiled. Ayeeyo noticed but said nothing.
‘Boniface, serve this boy his dinner. He needs to do his homework.’
‘Yes, mama,’ said Boniface. He piled some pasta onto my plate. He was wearing tight shorts and a Beasties tee. As I admired his legs, my grandmother watched me. She kept quiet. Boniface poured sauce on my pasta and gave me the plate. I sat on the veranda and waited for Ayeeyo to leave the kitchen.
She didn’t leave until midnight. By then, I had gone to bed. Boniface had also retired to his room. I could hear Ayeeyo playing Ludo alone, dice clacking against board. I knew she was afraid to go to sleep, afraid of being haunted by nightmares. She had clung onto my parents because they were all she had. It was years after their deaths before she finally accepted her loss. I now had to take their place. She was afraid that once I left home for college, I too would never return. I tried consoling her but she didn’t want pity. She wanted a guarantee. I couldn’t give her that.
Eventually the dice stopped rolling and she went to sleep. That’s when I heard a tap on my window. I jumped up and opened the curtains. Boniface was outside, grinning. I told him I’d meet him in his room. When I got there, he was sprawled naked on his bed, puffing a joint. I bent down, kept his dick wet. He pulled me up, laid me on my back. I unbuttoned my shirt, loosened my belt. He opened me up using lips, fingertips, tongue-tricks. He grabbed some lube, slipped on a condom and fucked me until I was sticky with sweat. After we came, we wiped ourselves clean, and continued smoking.
‘Boniface,’ I said, ‘what do you dream about?’
‘Leaving Kenya,’ he replied.
‘Where would you go?’
‘Somewhere exotic like England.’
‘But what would you do there?’ I asked.
‘I’d become an engineer. That’s what I studied in Burundi. I could use that degree.’
‘You have a degree?’ I asked.
‘Yah man, I did three years in college before the war began,’ he said.
I imagined Boniface as an academic. He’d do well in England.
‘Na wewe?’ he asked. ‘What do you dream of?’
‘Love,’ I replied.
‘But you are loved,’ he said. ‘By me, your grandmother – ’
‘You don’t love me,’ I smiled.
‘Haki! Otherwise I wouldn’t be thinking of you kila siku.’
I played the coquette. ‘Hata mimi nakupenda.’
‘Course you do,’ he grinned. ‘It’s hard not to.’
I punched him lightly. He hugged me tight. I left his quarters high on happiness and heat. As I tiptoed to my room, I noticed that Ayeeyo’s light was switched on, door slightly ajar. I went to bed, praying that she didn’t know what had happened.
I woke up the next morning to find Ayeeyo making breakfast. I greeted her but she didn’t reply.
‘Where’s Boniface?’ I asked. ‘He usually makes breakfast.’
Ayeeyo didn’t look at me. She silently added pepper and tomatoes to the eggs in the frying pan. When she finished cooking, she turned off the stove, slopped the eggs onto my plate and said, ‘Eat up. Your bus will be here soon.’
Her voice dripped with contempt. I knew better than to say anything, so I took the plate and ate the eggs right there. Ayeeyo waited for me to finish. When I was done, she gave me a napkin and told me to go.
‘Ayeeyo – ‘ I began.
‘You’ll miss your bus,’ she said.
I grabbed my backpack and left the house. I couldn’t concentrate at school that day. I was petrified that Ayeeyo had discovered my affair with Boniface. What would she do? Had she fired him? Would she kick me out of the house? These fears swirled in my head and by the time I returned home that afternoon, I was a wreck.
I walked into the kitchen to find Ayeeyo cooking dinner. I was afraid to ask the obvious but I had to know.
‘Where’s Boniface?’ I said.
‘He’s not here,’ she replied, chirpily.
‘You sound happy about that.’
‘Of course, I am. The man was a thief.’
‘What did he steal?’ I asked.
‘Something that can’t be replaced,’ was her reply.
‘Does it matter,’ she snapped. ‘The fact is the man is a thief and I don’t tolerate thieves in my house. Or drug addicts for that matter.’
‘Boniface is not a drug addict. What the hell are you talking about?’
She looked at me and smirked, ‘Then why were the two of you smoking weed in his room last night? And the night before?’
My stomach dropped. ‘We weren’t smoking,’ I said. ‘We were just listening to music.’
‘I can forgive a little marijuana but the two of you were doing something else in that room. Something that makes me want to retch.’
I was about to shit a brick but I kept my ass in check. ‘Tell me, Ayeeyo, what were we doing in his room?’
She steadied herself on the sink, as if literally gagging on the words. ‘I will not let a fanya kazi corrupt you. You will not become a…a –'
‘Go on, Ayeeyo, you can say it,’ I snarled. ‘I will not become a khaniis? A shoga? A faggot? Well, tough luck. My ass is a khaniis. I am a shoga, a faggot.’
She smacked me so hard across the face that I lost my balance and fell onto the ground. I got up and said, ‘I will leave this house one day and you will die a lonely, embittered old woman.’
She looked like she had been punched. Her eyes welled up but she wouldn’t allow me to see tears. So she left the kitchen and went to her bedroom. She didn’t come out for four days.
My relationship with my grandmother was never the same again. She stopped speaking to me altogether and we became two strangers bound by blood and bad history. When I finished high school she didn’t show up to my graduation ceremony. When I got a scholarship to Central Saint Martins in England she didn’t congratulate me. On the day that I was leaving for London, she didn’t wish me luck. She didn’t whisper comforting words or urge me to come home soon. I got on that plane with a suitcase of painful memories and little else.
I called Ayeeyo regularly from London but she never picked up the phone. I began to be afraid that something might have happened to her. I called Nairobi every day for four years and there was never a response. One day I called and a woman picked up. I jumped with excitement.
‘Hi, I’m looking for my grandmother,’ I said. ‘Is she home?’
‘I’m really sorry, son,’ the woman said. ‘Your grandmother passed away a week ago but we found her body last night. She’s been taken to the morgue. I was her nurse.’
The air felt like it had been sucked out of the room. I sat down on the ground and breathed slowly. ‘How did she die?’ I asked.
‘She had a stroke. I’m really sorry.’
‘But you were her nurse,’ I shouted. ‘Where were you?’
‘Your grandmother told me to take the week off.’
‘Are you serious?’ I screamed. ‘You left a sick eighty-year-old woman by herself?’
I wanted to strangle her but was more livid with myself. I was the one who had hurt my grandmother. I was the one who had abandoned her. She had died alone and it broke my heart. After I spoke to the nurse, I contacted some relatives in Kenya and asked them if they would bury her. In Islam, the funeral has to happen immediately after the person’s death. I wired my savings to my relatives and they buried my grandmother that afternoon.
The next few months were spent in a self-destructive haze of alcohol and weed. I skipped classes, missed assignments and almost got expelled. I took a leave of absence from college and got a job as a bartender in a dingy club in Soho. It was there that I met Ignacio, a Colombian émigré who taught me to how to make caipirinhas. We spent every evening after work in his bedsit, sipping cocktails and sucking cock.
One night Ignacio played an old school soul record that made my heart skip a beat. It was a melody from another time and place. It was the song that Boniface played for me when we first made love.
‘What’s this tune called?’ I asked Ignacio.
‘All I Do,’ he replied, lighting up a joint. ‘Stevie Wonder.’
I took the joint from him, lay down on the bed and opened my legs wide. Ignacio smiled.
As he fucked me, I closed my eyes and imagined Boniface in his place, working me, tightening me like a knot before giving me release. I imagined Ayeeyo in her grave in Nairobi. I imagined my mother and my father. I imagined our modest home in Nairobi in all its glory: the baobab and jacaranda trees in the backyard, the quiet veranda at the front. My whole life zigged and zagged in my head. When I came, I cried. Ignacio thought I was emotional from sexual satisfaction.
I didn’t tell him about my loss. Instead, I said, ‘Insha Allah, everything will work out.’ He looked at me quizzically. But I kept repeating this statement louder and louder until it created an incantatory effect. I repeated this statement until it shifted from mantra to fact, until it became something I could hold onto, something I could believe in.
Photography by HANS ERIC OLSON.