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The First Seven Years of my Life

The First Seven Years of my Life

Uncle Mark would call me Sibuor mang’ang’a. Meaning “the great lion”. He bought me my first toy car. It was a huge tough plastic thing I loved so much.

I was born at Pumwani Hospital on the 15th of June, 1988. It was a Wednesday evening. 7pm, mama said. Hence my name “Otieno” which means “a son born at night”. My father was born at night too. So my real name is Otieno Otieno.

My English name, Eric, was given to me by my mother. She said the name belonged to some guy in their high school who was kind and helped people with their group work. She gave birth to me at 20. Onyango is my paternal grandfather’s name. A man I barely knew much about until later in life. He had a few coffee trees behind the village. One day he brewed me sweet black coffee. It was the sweetest thing I had drunk. And the only intimate moment I remember sharing with him. Once when we were leaving for the city from Ugenya, my father handed me a ten-shilling note that I should go give him.

I was the second child to have occupied mum’s blessed womb having lost the first kid. They don’t talk about him. They don’t talk about death at home. Once a person is gone, they’re gone. Or maybe I was just a child and the adults found a way to grieve that they didn’t show me.

We lived in Kitengela, 100 meters behind Tarino Bar, where dad drunk himself senseless on Friday and Saturday nights. I had a metal bed with a thin mattress next to my parents’ in the bedroom we shared. Sometimes I wonder how they had sex considering how close our beds were. But I’ve always been a heavy sleeper I guess I’d barely hear any action. Heck, you could even steal my dreams from me because of how heavy I sleep.

I was chubby those early years of my life. I drunk a lot of uji and I laughed loudly. I had a beautiful wide smile and my teeth were still white. My mom had these favourite green seat covers she had crocheted that made our home look neat.

The apartment we lived in felt like a village. Everyone got along so well. I had great friends. Thega – whose parents bought the first colour tv in 1994 in that place; Willy, who had a sister whose name I can’t recall and were our immediate neighbours; Gathiru, whose parents were friends with mine and with whom we played Priest conducting masses in our houses wearing seat covers for robes, Mama Jenny’s family – her daughters were my best friends and she was close to mum. Mama Jenny’s last born was Venna. Venna Adhiambo; my first sweetheart. We acted out weddings and played kalongolongo and kissed. My mum would go watch “No One But You” and “Wild Rose” and “The Rich also Cry” and “The Bold and the Beautiful” at their house before (I think) dad got embarrassed and bought a TV. Its make was “Supasonic”.

I just remembered how I loved Sonic the cartoon, thinking it has a relation with the make of our TV. I’d wake up at 5am on Saturdays, waiting for KBC to open so I could read the day’s TV program and wait for the cartoons. And stay up to midnight to watch the national anthem play as they closed.

Venna and I were sure we’d grow to marry each other. She was sweet and kind and taller than me. And older by a year. We pasted ugali with Blueband and held weddings in our houses. We sung loudly to TV advertisements word for word.

Daddy was a church leader at St. Monica Catholic Church Noonkporir. It is where I did my nursery year too. Every Sunday I walked between mum and dad as they held my hands on our way to church. It felt so good seeing dad making after-mass announcements. But still confusing because he was often brought home carried by his friends drunk the previous night. But I just watched.

Aunty Florence, mum’s favourite cousin, visited us a lot from Nairobi. She’d always bring me fries with tomato sauce and I loved her so much. She lived in Makongeni. Her husband had died early into their marriage and she had three kids. Linda, Ray and Marion.

We lived with Aunty Fridah. Nobody in this world I’ve met has a laughter as loud as hers. Her laughter is so infectious she’d make an insect crack. One day she was ironing and the iron box fell on my wrist by accident. I still have the scar on my right hand. She was extremely kind and loved stories. Even the darkness would make her laugh. Always smiling. She was mum’s younger sister.

Mum and dad met in Kajiado. But dad’s father moved to Ugenya after he retired. Both my grandfathers worked at the Kenya Railways. My maternal grand dad was the Kajiado station master. His house had those old telephones which you’d roll the numbers when you wanted to make a call. It was so cool. He made sure they made me eggs each time I visited. It explains why I love eggs so bad to date.

Whenever my maternal uncles took me for a walk, I loved the smell of the railway oil and looking at the humongous train cabins parked by the station. It’s buffling I never had been on a moving train until I was much older. Kajiado felt so peaceful and welcoming.

My maternal grandma worked at the Post Office in Kajiado. Her English was crisp to the tip. She had a big pair of glasses for her eyes and wit. Strict and friendly. My mother’s family loved stories. They had a big TV that had a big behind by their living room. They told stories late into the night. Giggled and chuckled the hours away.

In Kitengela, dad would take me for walks in the evenings. We met his friends along the way. He was quite a famous teacher, plying his trade at Athiriver Prisons Primary School where I began my primary school education. He had a bicycle. His father had so many of them in his Ugenya village and they always fascinated me.

My family loved this music program on KBC hosted by Fred Obach Machoka called Music Time. It was the best thing. Dad had a little Sanyo radio from which he played a lot of Soukouss music, placing me on a table and telling me to dance for him. I loved it.

Mum worked at the Mining company in Kitengela by day and sold sukuma wiki by evening. I always ran to her whenever she approached home and she’d hoist me to the air.

One day I noticed she was quite bigger than I was used to. Nobody explained to me but I later understood she was heavy with child. She had a pink basin below their bed in which she’d puke all the time. She ate stones and her legs swelled.

My first sister, Jael, was born on 28th August, 1994. I remember the day mum brought her home. Everyone in the apartment sang like the Messiah had come. Every child was welcomed like that. We were a community.

Jael was named after my maternal grandma. Jael Apondi. She was brown and had purple-ish lips. Very bright eyes. I just loved hanging around when she was being fed to pounce on the mashed fruits once she’d signal she was full. And the cerelac.

One day as she was being fed, the food slipped into her windpipe, or somewhere it wasn’t supposed to. I thought it was funny at first when she started coughing. Then it got worse. The house manager, Akinyi, tried to blow her forehead while gently tapping her back to get her coughing the piece of food out but in vain. Went on for about 5 minutes.

Then she stopped.

But her eyes never opened again.

Onyango Otieno

Onyango Otieno is a cultural designer ardent in maximizing the power of storytelling for healing and connection. Onyango believes in the potent spirit of humanity collectively creating safe spaces for interaction, development, business and movement, for a more cohesive world.

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