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A likely story 

Monday 16 November 2009, by Andia Kisia

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When the history of our age is written, when its meagre feats and mean spirits are illuminated for posterity, when our collective lives are trawled for meaning and the sum of these arranged into a halfway palatable fable, some conscientious historian may add in a brief addendum perhaps, or a footnote or endnote, that it was indeed a curious age, when we had required to a very great degree, certain pictures of certain people; their minds and their coats.
To provide these, all manner of men had presented themselves, each proffering his truth, each truth aspiring to be the last word, each a reflection more of the man who had made it than of the men being made.
Then what had seemed an honourable pursuit had turned gradually poisonous, devolving at last into a pitched battle running from monograph to monograph in which decency and decent language were early on shown the door.
As for the results, they will be seen to occupy that spectrum between ingenuousness and such ingenuity as stretched even the credulity of a famously credulous people. We will wonder then how such bilge had ever been respectable but other than that it will be agreed:
The less said the better.

Prof. Kimani, himself thoroughly respectable, was of a mind.
"Bilge,"he said. "All of it. Bilge water."
Though of course he did not think of his own contributions in that dim light. But seeing as he was engaged just then in fashioning a new coat, his impartiality was not beyond reproach. I found him in his study poring over an old pattern and brandishing a pair of scissors in a most alarming fashion.
But his mind was clearly elsewhere.
"Do you think he’ll show?" he asked me at length.
I didn’t know and I told him so.
Prof. Kimani had spent twenty years out of the country and had come back only because he had determined that this time, he would meet his dead man if it was the last thing he did.
He began to prepare, trusting fate to be kind enough though she never had been before. He had come a long way and spent a long time trying to find this man.
The study was large and sparsely though tastefully furnished. He had had his books sent over and already some of them were on the shelves. All his books, even the ones that had caused him so much trouble so many years ago.
Some things had changed.
His study on campus had been cramped and shabby. It was still cramped and had grown shabbier in the twenty years that Prof. Kimani had been away. There was a man behind the battered desk, a young man of about thirty-five who regarded us with a distinct lack of interest. It was not a promising start.
Prof. Kimani was used to being recognised. That that recognition was generally followed by unpleasantness was not the point. The point was the recognition. That much he considered his due.
But to Prof. Kimani’s well-known face, the young man presented his blank one for a few moments before asking who we were.
"Can I help you?" he asked again when Prof. Kimani refused to state the obvious.
To the stimulus of his face, Prof. Kimani now added the stimulus of his name. It was bound to be extravagant.
It wasn’t. The young man was consistent. His face retained its lack of expression.
"Kimani who?" he asked at last, a hint of irritation creasing his brow.
Then, seeing the look on Prof. Kimani’s face, he tried to be more polite.
"I’m sorry," he apologised. "Were you expected? Because..." He flicked through an appointment book. "No, I’m afraid there’s nothing in here," he said, and then trailed off to watch with honest fascination the succession of expressions that came and went across the famous visage. Their general theme was anger.
Prof. Kimani had thus far been unable to register a reply. Always a better writer than speaker, he was still at a loss for words. If only he had pen and paper, he might have been able to redeem himself. Who was his equal in polemic? His rhetoric though was wanting. He remained dumbstruck. A loaded silence followed.
Having retrieved his tongue from its hiding place, Prof. Kimani managed to sputter "Homefront." It was the title of his most famous work. "Among the Mickey Mice," he continued, his voice gradually rising as he recited his lengthy bibliography until it was a bellow of rage and injured pride.
The quality of fascination on the young man’s face had changed to that of one who is watching a man go mad before his eyes, a man who insists on furnishing proof of the fact, and none too quietly.
When at last he had exhausted the riches of his mind and pen, Prof. Kimani paused for breath before ending with, "This is my office, you know."
"Your office?" the man, who we learned was called Muraya, sniggered. Here was corroboration if any had been required.
"It used to be my office. Years ago." Suddenly exhausted, Prof. Kimani sat down without beeing asked.
Recognition came suddenly.
"Professor Kimani? The Professor Kimani?"
"You’ve been paying attention," Prof. Kimani observed.
Muraya laughed, a short embarrassed laugh. "I’ve heard of you of course," he admitted, "Who hasn’t? But weren’t you out of the country for a little while?"
It was kind of him to put it so delicately, to refrain from saying "But weren’t you hustled out of the country?" and "How on earth did you manage to get back in?"
But with recognition dawned recognition of potential danger. Abruptly, panic replaced the fascination on his face. He much preferred the "voluble madman."
"But tell me, what do you want? Why did you come here?" He crossed the small room in two strides and shut and locked the door.
"Who sent you?" Panic had crept into his voice.
"You haven’t read any of my books," Prof. Kimani accused.
"No I haven’t, " Muraya agreed. "And I can prove it." He indicated the bookshelf. It was almost bare. Prof. Kimani walked up to inspect it.
It contained three copies of the bible in three different languages, a phone book five years out of date and an atlas. This mind had not been unduly taxed. It had been spared the pollution of unwholesome texts.
"And now," he continued indicating the door, "I would really appreciate it if you would leave."
Prof. Kimani did what he always did when presented with a hostile door. He resisted.
Muraya threatened to call the police. Prof. Kimani called his bluff and stood his ground to the extent of pulling up the chair and sitting down again.
When the police arrived, what should have been a touching reunion grew ugly. The arresting officer was the same man who had arrested Prof. Kimani twenty years ago before in this very office. But absence had bred nothing like fondness and Prof. Kimani launched himself at the offending officer with a cry of sheer venom.
Trespassing became assault and in a flash of inspiration, attempted murder. Some things had not changed.

Prof. Kimani had been obsessed with this dead man for years, had read about him and written about him until little by little, it had become his life’s work, unwittingly I suspected, though he had taken to it with a characteristic single mindedness. He had set to as a young undergraduate with all a young man’s illusions and he was now an old man with only this one illusion left to him.
Forty years of unstinting effort had yielded little result, unless misunderstanding or a generalised suspicion be considered results. These he had in abundance. It didn’t bother him. When once Prof. Kimani’s sights were set upon a course, he would pursue it to the end, whatever that might prove to be, enduring anything in the interregnum, which was fortunate since he had been required in those forty years to endure almost everything. Through all his tribulations, he had clung to his Marxist anti-hero the way some Christians cling to the promise of salvation. It had got him through everything.
His wife had left him. At least people said she had. In reality, the way things happened, it was impsossible to tell who had left whom.
It was very early on in their marriage when Prof. Kimani had begun the slow descent into overwork from which he would only rarely emerge and from which his wife had gradually stopped trying to retrieve him. We had both of us just began teaching at the university. I had the office next door.
I saw more of him than she did.
She might have forgiven him his chronic absenteeism if he had been a better provider, a better father. Indeed, if he had shown even a passing interest in his domestic responsibilities. Of his many failures in this regard, his most glaring fault was his antipathy for acquisition, an inexcusable weakness in a man with dependents. He maintained that his behaviour was not so much a vote for penury as the result of an innate inability to acquire. He had tried it and failed. Besides, he had better things to do. But I wasn’t the one he had to convince.
Sheila (for that was his wife’s name) had returned to her job as a schoolteacher and the children had gradually weaned themselves from their father. She found that leaving him had greatly simplified her life all round, although she never lost her resentment at being abandoned for a dead man.
She had taken everything when she left. There wasn’t much to take. The children, a few odds and ends and a small but loyal army of debtors.
"She doesn’t understand," he had said. "And why should she? No one else does."
One day, the C.I.D had called to let Prof. Kimani know he was beeing watched. To prove it, they recounted to him intimate details about his life and his family’s lives, many of which were news to him. They told him where he lived, in a house in Kilimani. In reality, he spent most of his time in his office, but the premise was sound. They told him his wife’s name, where she shopped, what she bought, adding that it was never very much. They told him the names of his children, where and when and how they went to school. When and how they got back home. This last gave rise to a heated dispute.
They had described to him the movements of four children. He said he had only three. They insisted on four, he stuck to three and a lengthy back and forth ensued.
They had evidence. They had a name, they had pictures. They could tell him with absolute certainty the day though not the hour of vagitus. The child was certainly his, at least it was his wife’s. He was helpless against so unforgiving a tide of evidence.
The point they had been trying to make was that he should be careful. He should watch what he said. He should watch what he wrote. He should watch what he did.
Or else.
The general menace of their tone notwithstanding, he could not but be grateful for this intelligence.
"Did you know I had four children?" he asked me later that day. "When did that happen? I can’t imagine how it could have happened."
When his son had died, Prof. Kimani had been out of the country and hadn’t been told. By the time he did find out, the child had been buried a month or more and surely it was too late for the boy’s father to turn up?
Who knows what excuses Sheila had made for him, what stories she had told. In the end he didn’t go. Couldn’t go.
Before that he had talked about children as irritants who got in the way of his work. His work would carry on his name. He had no use for them.
Between the reading and the writing, there was plenty of time to remember. To think about the dead boy and the family that was as good as dead to him. And later, he told me, after he left, he had often thought about his dead country though I never knew if he had cried as he had cried once for his son.
It was easier to keep working. The more he worked, the less likely he was to take up the life and the people he had abandoned, the farther it drifted away until finally it was no longer an option he could exercise.

Prof. Kimani had the following vision of his man:
A man.
Add: idealism, self-sacrifice, vision (preferably of a socialist utopia).
Remove: accidents of chance, miscellaneous imperfections (though human) and any other inconvenient facts.
Blend thoroughly.
Serve as required.
In some ways, he felt himself further away from the truth all these years later than he had been when he had begun. Sometimes, as hard as he tried to shed some light on his subject, the harder others tried to obscure it.
The man would not come into focus. No amount of scrutiny and study seemed able to shed the slightest light on the matter. The babel of opposition as well as the inconvenience of fact stood resolutely in the way.
The man continued the perverse cat and mouse game he had played with his biographer, remained inscrutable, enigmatic, hidden behind a crapace of truths. For the first time since he had began to carry his cross, Prof. Kimani knew despair. For a brief moment, the possibility of defeat insinuated itself into his mind. It was quickly banished to its anteroom and the work resumed, though slowly, with a little less assurance and all the old lack of success.
Still, to say that it was going badly would be to fall short of the mark. To say that it was going very badly indeed would be to reach and gain no purchase, to have the thing in hand and have it slip through one’s fingers etc. It was going execrably.
His dead man lay sprawled in several critcal volumes on the cluttered desk before him, mangled, said Prof. Kimani, out of all recognition.
"Beyond the ken of kith or kin," he said, "and even possibly of the best forensic pathologists."
Though he despised liars and those others who had never bothered to disguise their antagonism for his subject, nothing distressed him more than those well-intentioned bunglers who obfuscated even as they tried to illuminate.
They had read him all wrong, they had got it all wrong. They had reached and gained no purchase, they had had the thing in hand and had it slip between their fingers etc. They had read him execrably. Here then was an end to the myth that it is better to be misread than not read at all. "Imagine if you will," he said, "that Carrothers was read as fact or Ngugi as fiction."
It was a sobering thought.
"No," he continued. "To equivocate is to pass off bilge as truth."
He had made this point before as I had driven him into town not a week ago and he had stared out of the window with eyes that had hungered twenty years for this scene. I had picked him up at Kenyatta International Airport and we had driven into the city along Kenyatta Avenue, past Kenyatta teaching and referral hospital and several other badly built monuments to self-indulgence.
All the folly of a man who had begun to believe in the story of himself.
Then he had said, "Men live, die and are forgotten in the benign march of the years. No one can tell to what use his life will be put. Only a very few are lucky enough to reinvent themselves for the years ahead."
Everywhere we looked, one man had planted the seeds of his own remembrance, as if this was all there had ever been, as if we were to know nothing more.
His portrait had been constructed as follows:
Add : « Suffering without Bitterness »
Omit: remnants of dilettante, womanising past.

Remove: various rivals for the spotlight
Blend and serve.
We came to the crossroads of Moi and Kenyatta Avenues. In towns across the country, the two men met with unvarying politeness. They have learned to coexist peaceably enough. The one has allowed the other his name and his legend. He has allowed him the broad avenue where years before spans of oxen made their wide turns and contented himself with the less genteel thoroughfare. He would never be as great, but he would never be as damned. He would inhabit the space between the two extremes, untouched. He would walk in the wake of a greater man, a greater good or a greater evil in relative peace. In this we are accessories. We allow fantasy to outweigh the facts. But then all manner of shady deals are cut every day in the ante-room of our history.
Prof. Kimani had drifted into one of his reveries but becoming gradually aware of my presence, he turned his attention in my direction. I was seized by a sudden urge to be somewhere, anywhere else. He was one of those man who would be martyred by history and I did not want to be on the pyre when it went up in flames. I was going to save myself if I could.
Another such man stared resolutely back at me from his cheap picture frame in the upper gallery of the national archives, hanging between portraits of colonial governors and naked tribesmen. The dead man who had lain on Prof. Kimani’s table, still alive, still holding his own (but only just) against the tide of denial.
Underneath it, the legend said simply "Kimani in the forest." The wall opposite was covered in the paraphernalia of forgetfulness. There were faded pictures of Pio Pinto and Mboya and the mustachioed McKenzie. There were the dates of birth and dates of death for each as well as a convenient lack of elaboration as to the method (of dispatch).
The picture hangs slightly askew, hung with the same benign neglect as everything else. Though it is stained and faded, at least it is unambiguous. Here is the evidence that we did not dream him up, that he was not merely the creation of our insecurities and our fears; that under the accretions of words and years there was something all its own. What that was I couldn’t tell by looking at him. All I could see in his face was distance. Remote and unknowable, his face mocked us across the unbridgeable years.
It isn’t that all his life is in question. Enough people have sniffed around the remnants of his living, searching out the facts, even to the most trivial detail. In fact most of it is an open book, and not a particularly good one at that. Village bully, pig farmer and petty thief in turn. It was a life devoid of promise or which promised disaster at least. But then, as if out of nowhere, there had come five magical years, redeeming everything that had come before.
Here then is the sole unchanging phrase in the inconstant conversation of which it is a part. It is a stroy in which some sing songs of praise and others of damnation, where the same breath speaks of cowardice and heroism, where the articulation of deity is met with the retort of butcher. What was one to think?

"Whatever you want, no doubt. You will have your black heroes."
Sir Michael said this in his best-modulated tones, boomed acroos the State House grounds including everyone in what had been an intimate discussion.
"And in defiance of any and all evidence to the contrary."
This last wasn’t quite intended as a reproach. Sir Michael admired tenacity and considered that attribute as the only vantage point from which admiration for Prof. Kimani could be attempted. Besides, he belonged to a people whose history was an object lesson in thinking what you liked and doing the same.
"Besides," he continued, "you already know what I’m going to say."
Now this required none of these powers of divination that mind reading might imply. For some time now, Sir Michael had only ever had one thing to say. He said it often and he said it now for the benefit of those present who had never heard it before (i.e. no one).
"Africa presses on all sides. One can feel her. Smell her even. There but for the grace of God go you."
True to form, Prof. Kimani’s cutting reply stuck in his throat.
It was Kenyatta Day again and on the expansive lawns of State House the usual vagrants had gathered to celebrate. The surrounding fence was draped in lengths of greying calico flag, enjoying their annual airing. All was as it usually was. The subterfuge continued apace.
For the likes of Prof. Kimani, it was a bittersweet day. The celebration of a time and of a man of wom he had never wholly approved, of whom he strongly disapproved in fact: a man who had appropriated for himself an entire revolution and then refused to let the "hooligans" have any part of his country. Prof. Kimani was not able to adequately explain why he was here.
For the likes of Sir Michael, it was a bittersweet day, the celebration of a time and a group of men of whom he had never wholly approved. Insensible to progress, they had squirmed right out like errant schoolboys under the Pax Britannica and succeeded finally in squirming right out from under it into the uncharted territory of their own devices. It was a presumption of a kind that he found hard to forgive though he could draw comfort from the knwoledge that they had soon had cause to regret their impetuousness.
As the editor of the "Rift Valley Standard", he had made known his views on what he called "the thinly veiled threat of independence" and its proponents. Only Prof. Kimani had escaped his wrath. Although Sir Michael was not the man to discriminate, he had great respect for intrepidity and Prof. Kimani had always been a man ahead of his time, easily attaining and then surpassing the level to which other Africans were being brought at a more moderate pace.
Every week in those truculent pages he had raged against Africa’s greatest enemies – the Africans themselves and their reckless ideas. Some of them might well work well enough in Ghana or Zambia, but everything had limits, and the Kenyan border was one. The poisons of Pan-Africanism, or communism or conscientism or whatever other "ism" would not seep through. He reminded us that everything we were, we had been made into. Everything we had, we had been given. He even suggested that behind all the sound and fury of independence there was merely "a longing still for skins and skirmishes." It was an attitude that had only mildly altered with time.
This aside, his invitation to what was after all a national, not to say nationalist celebration, had arrived faithfully in the mail every year for forty years in pursuance of the peculiarly African tradition of forgetting the unforgettable and forgiving the unconscionable. (Had not the Orkoiyot’s own grandson lunched with Meinertzhagen? And had Meinertzhagen at any point during that interview had cause for fear of his life and person, or anything else for that matter?) It made one sick to the stomach, this penchant for truth and reconciliation and goodwill towards men.
Sir Michael continued to enjoy his tea and he continued to rail. Soon he was talking about Nakuru. Kenyatta’s "forgive and forget" speech at Nakuru. It was his other topic of conversation.
"I was there, and I heard him speak. I don’t have to tell you how important that day was, for all of us. And he made it a good one. There was always something about him, something you couldn’t help but admire."
One could feel the gods of revisionism smiling tenderly down on us at that very moment.
Of course, Prof. Kimani did not, could not, agree.
"Nak-uru," as Sir Michael pronounced it, pausing slightly to suggest the inverted commas, not to be mistaken with Nakuru without. "Nak-uru" was to him a blot on our conscience, the long-drop point of our existence. In defiance of this fact, however, everything had managed to be downhill from there. He had not been near the place since.
"Don’t let’s start, shall we?" he said as Prof. Kimani spluttered his indignation. "You have your Kimani and I have my Johnstone."
It pained Prof. Kimani to hear the two spoken in the same breath, as if they were the same kind of man. But of course, in some quarters they were. In those quarters, they had simply been Kikuyu, and after all, a nig nog was a nig nog, and a Kikuyu was the worst example of one, so Kenyatta, by denouncing Mau Mau at Kiambu was needlessly splitting hairs. But you could never believe anything an African said. Her majesty’s court at Kapenguria found it difficult to suspend its disbelief at any rate, and Kenyatta was jailed for having his tongue firmly in his cheek the whole time.
It was not difficult to see why Sir Michael was one three stock characters that ran like an infectious disease through Prof. Kimani’s oeuvre. Although he appeared in different guises each time, each was perfectly transparent to anyone who knew him even in passing.
Each was recognisable as Sir Michael very thinly disguised.
He had been a Kenya Regiment carporal, a Soysamba sheep rancher, a colonial administrator and a dissolute aristocrat in turn. Each of these men had in common a legendary spleen the depth of a Nairobi ditch. In the course of many misadventures, each managed invariably to lose either his life or his character or both. Sir Michael, recognising himself as easily as the next person and objecting to his repeated demise had construed this as an indication of Prof. Kimani’s intentions towards him and used it as evidence to apply for and obtain a restraining order against him.
Certainly it was not an equitable arrangement. Where Prof. Kimani had an audience of some hundreds of thousands to whom he could (and did) make his point and before whom he could (and did) assassinate characters with abandon, Sir Michael had only the close confines of the bar at Karen or Muthaiga. He had found much sympathy there among those Africans who had never yet met a white man they didn’t like. They would listen to his eloquent lament and drive back home to Kiambu pondering the injustice of the world.
But for all that, their relationship was not and had never been anything other than cordial and with the benefit of years had grown post-cordial at last. Even then, there was always a hint of menace in their yearly sparring, especially as now the latest novel had just appeared. Sir Michael showed every intention of avenging himself.
Prof. Kimani was forced to defend himself. In such matters, it is well known that attack is the best defence and that of all the forms of attack, a moral attack is best. To suggest, and to suggest vilely, and to hope by this stratagem to touch some random vein of conscience capable of arresting the enemy in his tracks.
Happily for him, Sir Michael had no such encumbrances. Sir Michael was an old colonial. He had had to do things in his lifetime such as no conscience could hope to survive. He was inured to anything that life or mortality could throw at a man. It was this facility above all that had made him the man that he was. Prof. Kimani knew this as well as anybody, better perhaps than anybody. Attack was contemplated.
Attack was discarded. Pity was the thing.
"We can all agree can’t we, that my faith hasn’t gotten me very far?" he said trying for mournfulness and succeeding. Sir Michael was mollified. He transferred his attentions to the Minister who had been attempting an anonymous exit.
"What do you think old chap?" he asked pointedly. The old chap raised his glass to his mouth and drank convulsively, looking pleadingly at Prof. Kimani.
"What’s the point of this obsession with the past?" someone asked.
"If you want to know what I think," someone else piped up.
"I’m sure we don’t."
"I think he was a good man."
"Of course," Sir Michael agreed ironically. He then inquired into the modalities of transfiguration. "Tell me if you would," he asked, "how a terrorist goes up a mountain and comes down a martyr?"
Prof. Kimani, recognising opportunity, seized it with both hands. "Surely you should ask Mr. Henderson that question?" he asked. "Surely Mr. Henderson has the authority on his own transformation?"
One had to concede game, set and match to Prof. Kimani.
The government man was silent.

I continued to wait, a wait that corresponded to the opening hours, which were 8:00 am to 5:30 pm and passed the time studying the displays for the hundredth time. The archivist appeared as the clock struck the half hour. The book had not been found but we could try again tomorrow. He said this in a way that suggested a hope that some epiphany or misfortune would pre-empt my ability to return the next day or any other day.
The next day proved a wait corresponding to the opening hours that were 8:00 am to 5:30 pm, the appointed hour for the archivist’s reappearance. He again sidled into view and empty handed, although he had the goodness to look ashamed. He had opened his mouth to suggest no doubt that I return the next day when a half masticated page fell out of it and onto the floor. Astonishment kept his mouth open and his body rooted to the spot so that I got to it first.
The print, though by now smeared and barely legible, revealed it to be page 38 of the fugitive book. He grew more shamefaced. Pages 1-37 had, he admitted at length, met the same fate, along with pages 115-128, 143-153, page 161 and all of chapter ten, which had been consumed out of turn because of their greater sensitivity.
Chapter ten had been particularly hard on him, he said. Hard to take in and even harder to digest and showing evey indication of being even harder to believe. The orders, he said, came from above, the third floor to be exact on my way where he trailed me, dissuading me the while.
The director, a small man of about 40, regarded me with the sort of keen suspicion that was otherwise reserved for the books in his care. On his face, suspicion battled a resigned discomfort for dominance. The discomfort was the result of his chronic indigestion.He was a hardworking man after all and took his work seriously. He it was who had dispatched the most inconvenient texts of all, trusting no one else enough to delegate. He had single-handedly relieved the collection of some thousands of books, including the ones we sought. There was a large volume on his desk with half its pages missing. He would not divulge the letter of his meal. He conveyed this reluctance as well as his conviction that public records were not a matter of public concern.
But reprieve was near at hand. In one of those propitious coincidences, an old acquaintance of Dr. Kimani’s had an old acquaintance of his own who had old acquaintances in a chain stretching to a certain venerable old man who knew things which could possibly be of some assistance.
When we finally found him, he would not co-operate. He had had enough of his brains being picked and the pickings fashioned into tales that were no longer recognisable to him who had told them.
"Besides," he said with unanswerable logic, "the thing about secret societies is that they’re secret."
Unlike the fifty-year rule, they had no expiry date and he did not want to risk the retribution of the oaths he had sworn. But Prof. Kimani being Prof. Kimani assailed this bit of unassailable reasoning at such length and with such a variety of devices that at long last a breach was achieved, one large enough to admit a man of just his dimensions with myself in tow. He agreed to speak to us the next day and in the meantime attempt to assemble his scattered faculties.
The next day he assured us that there had indeed been a manifesto and that he knew where it was.
Just one. The last of the lot. One which had escaped confication and fire, one copy only which he had buried along with his most treasured possessions; his bible and Napoleon’s book of charms.
"A bible?" Prof. Kimani frowned. "What use had he for a bible? If he could waver between gods, why shouldn’t the gods themselves waver?"
The old man shrugged. Did we want them or not? If we did, he knew where they had been buried. There was no need for a map. He knew the forest like the back of his gnarled old hand. It seemed a wasted effort to go to all this trouble. Prof. Kimani knew what he would find. He knew the contents of the document by heart though he had never laid eyes on it.
He led the way with an agility that was surprising in a man of his years, talking all while. "They rose, we fell, we rose, we fell... By rights, we should rise and they fall. Or the other way round?"
His blood was up but alas, the trail was cold and a difficult three-hour march terminated at the point of departure. When another attempt produced a similar result, one had to question his knowledge of his own anatomy. This result gave him pause. He looked around as if he were having trouble believing his eyes. We had believed them to our detriment.
"Ngai!" he cried at last, exasperated. "I have the treacherous’st memory of any man I know." We had to agree.
He had received a knock on the head not long ago. Perhaps it had scrambled his memory. He grew pensive and after a few minutes of meditation pronounced that,
"Time is a disused panya route, leading nowhere."
He was in imminent danger of receiving another knock on the head.
Since he could not remember what he had sworn he could could he tell us something, anything about the man himself?
He could he said. His description gave the following:
Head: admirable
Hair: less so
Height: medium
Girth: unremarkable
There were no doubt many men of handsome head, unmentionable hair and medium height in the graves at Kamiti and no doubt these clues could prove very slim indeed. Still, it was important to try.

The large covered dais designed for distinguished guests was filled with dark coloured suits (pinstripes or no) and a smattering of the incongruous red party-shirts, and above these, row upon row of faces in which no trace of distinction was to be found. Directly opposite, a seething mass of have-nots sweltered in the sun.
On a trip to a neighbouring state, (in fact a dictatorship in the bud, but now a bastion of despotism in full and healthy bloom), our old man had been astonished to discover that a dictator of just such a brutal stripe could wave the flag of revolution in the face of a downtrodden populace with no consequence to himself, that in fact the airing of the tattered revolutionary standard would redirect the collective bile to other targets.
To this end, remembrance was being forced down our throats. Dead men were being dusted off and put back up on our pedestals for our admiration. But first they had to be retrieved from the dishonourable graves in which they lay. In that regard at least, we were lucky. Whatever else we might lack, we had the luxury of revolt behind us.
I had no idea what nascent black nations with nary a whisper of revolution to boast of, who had had independence handed down to them on a silver platter, did for heroes, and if they could contrive none, how they were able to make their way in the world without them.
Certain long lost files had been retrieved and consulted for clues. The unhappy archivist had been hard put to explain the large holes in the collection. The propaganda machine began its slow turn again and promised a resurrection. A huge crowd had trooped to the prison grounds to watch.
The whole thing caught Prof. Kimani by surprise. Having spent his entire adult life pushing against an irresistible force, it was disconcerting to have it suddenly removed. He accordingly fell flat on his face.
It was an occasion for celebration, for the sort of expansive bonhomie that will forgive almost anything. For this reason, the father had prepared his bosom to receive the prodigal, but Prof. Kimani, scorning such allowances as had been made for his accommodation, took his place in the sun among the men he had liked to call his brethren.
They did not recognise him as such however. They had not read his books, they had attended none of his lectures. They had no notion of the special place they occupied in his heart, and Prof. Kimani did not trouble himself to explain. They took him rather for a plainclothes policeman and watched him closely lest he should attempt any of those offices by which Kenyan policemen have made themselves infamous.
Prof. Kimani had been used to extending to his people (as he had called them before) the benefit of the doubt. So often in fact and so generously, that it was bound one day to be overextended. That day had come when he had been carted away to the hospitality of the state, and every friend he had ever had had suddenly disappeared.
To a man.
Prof. Kimani had been surprised and even a little upset, though one could certainly understand how introspection might be scorned by a nation whose concern lay rather with prospecting. Some had suggested gently that he cease to mind his brothers’ welfare and look to his own, if only for a time. He was a destitute messiah, stripped of any illusion of the sanctity of his mission and confronted with the unblemished prurience of his flock. At present, theirs was a commerce of mutual suspicion and dislike, the one from an Olympian height toward a humanity in full exercise of its prerogative of imperfection, the other from the depths of that imperfection and with no real desire for improvement.
So he had done as they had asked and left them to their low devices though he had never ceased to wonder how a man will leave paradise and never look back. He had returned to the uncomplicated company of the dead.
Here at least there was little possibility of disappointment.
Long before circumstances had contrived to enforce his solitude, Professor Kimani had been alone so that he barely noticed the lack of human company later on.
If there was a crowd gathered anywhere, Prof. Kimani had only to appear for it to melt slowly away. Walking down even the most crowded street in town, a large thoroughfare would open up before him.
He was alone as usual the day before he left and his things filled only two small cardboard boxes. Most of his books had been taken as evidence in his trial before. He carried one and I the other. His tag name was still on the door.
Across the street the Sunset Bar was packed and full of noise on a Friday afternoon, the beginning of the weekend bender. Fifteen minutes later, it was empty.
Njuguna the owner came up to take our order, a strained smile on his face. No ordinary waiter could be entrusted with the task. He said, "Professor, so good to see you," with a transparent lack of sincerity. Prof. Kimani’s custom had lost him a good deal more. If he couldn’t see the damage he was causing, he would point it out.
There was a limit to everything.
Forestalling the inevitable, I ordered two beers and asked Njuguna if he had heard the news. He hadn’t.
"The professor is leaving us soon," I said.
The smile he gave was one of pure relief. There would be no unpleasantness after all.
"Really?" he asked. "When? For how long? But you mustn’t go, professor!"
The beer was on the house. It was a small price to pay for peace and regular custom.
And then he was gone. And it was better that it had happened that way. That he hadn’t given me the chance to leave him because I would have. I would have had to. I had neither seen nor heard from him until he had come back home.
Prof. Kimani’s exile was the state’s last resort. When he had begun digging into unpleasantness and encouraging others to do the same, initially polite requests to cease and desist, which he flatly refused to acknowledge, had given way to a variety of more forceful suggestions. In the end, the big stick of detention without trial had been wielded; it proved in this particular case sadly unequal to its task. From his solitary cell, there continued to issue a steady stream of the most unsanitary of our dirty laundry, highly embarrassing and highly seditious and for which he would undoubtedly have been punished if he wasn’t being punished already.
When at last the government had exhausted its not inconsiderable repertoire of tortures and its not considerable imagination, Prof. Kimani had once more been released into the world, somewhat the worse for wear, bent, but far from broken.
Now he was to shake the laterite of Kenya from his boots and proceeded into exile, never again to set eyes on the land of his birth and the depths of inhumanity. With nothing but his inability to take instruction and the shirt on his back, he had vanished into the frigid North and the warm embrace of the white liberal establishment.
But now here he was, precisely where he had sworn never to be again.
Between the dais and the swelling, seething crowd was a small expanse of scrubby grass upon which five men had set with hoes, breaking up the clods of earth. As holes go, it was said to be the most important one we would ever dig, more important even than the one we had been digging ourselves into for the last 40 years, which was saying something.
Here we were at last, on the verge of facing up to ourselves. Perhaps what we found today would save us from ourselves. But two hours of steady digging yielded only an old army issue boot, a few rusty nails and a Taita charm of such malevolence that no one would go near it. These oddments were entirely unsatisfactory. They would not sustain a nation. They were inadequate for the support even of a minor principality. They were wanting in every regard. They would not do.
The young men with the matted hair and restless eyes predictably grew restless. The mournful little archivist upon whose narrow shoulders reposed the responsibility for this farce cast a wild look about him and clutched at his neck.
At the third hole, a roar of expectation rose to the exhumation of a brace of bones. Prof. Kimani had the look on his face of a man about to meet his idee fixe.
We were presented instead with two skeletons, more or less intact, hands still bound behind them, a single bullet hole at the base of each skull and not a whiff of odeur of saintite. Of course, a certain negligence had to be admitted in the disposal of patriots, freedom fighters, intellectuals and independent thinkers, so it was impossible to divine to whom the bones had belonged or where were the ones we sought. The archivist hazarded a guess and again the digging commenced at another site.
When we left, Prof. Kimani and I, it was already dark but the digging was still going on. The field was littered with open pits. We walked slowly to a dirty little bar on the way to the main road. The bar was half full with people just in from watching the farce. The owner served us our beer and asked us what it was about.
"I mean, who cares about so many dead men?" he asked at last. "What has it to do with anything? Whether I have something to eat or my children go to school?"
Even Prof. Kimani was too tired to explain. He finished his beer in silence and walked out to catch the bus into town.
Back at home he had said: "All one has to do is to insinuate oneself into the inexorable logic of events and men, to find oneself a little room to manoeuvre. It’s really that simple, to infiltrate the litany which holds that. Kenya is the BEAA and the IBEA. Kenya is white man’s country and the dual mandate.
"Kenya is breathtaking sunssets and endless spaces. Kenya is Eliot, Delamere, Grogan, Blixen. Kenya is the Lewa Downs, the White Highlands. Kenya is Karen, polo and four o’clock tea. Kenya is Australia or Canada: England, cum water, cum sky.
"Kenya is Mary Wanjiru, James Gichuru, Koinange, Kenyatta. Kenya is YKA, KCA, KAU, Mau Mau.
"To be Kenyan is to sneer at one’s neighbours, to condescend to Ujamaa, to mock Amin. To be Kenyan is to be an African Socialist, whatever that may be. To be Kenyan is to cling to these borders as if we would have been worse off if we had been Uganda, or Tanzania, or all the three .
"To be Kenyan is to indict Indians and send out the jury on whites. To be Kenyan is to refuse culpability, to plead one’s innocence and to plead for alms. Kenya is learning to make do. Other people’s clothes, other people’s ideas. To be Kenyan is always to dream of better things.
"Kenya is the place between propserity and destitution, not a good place, granted, but one from where one can appreciate how things could be infinitely worse."
He stopped to catch his breath and laughed, a short, harsh laugh.
"So you see, that’s all you have to do. It’s not the truth that matters, it’s only that they believe it. You can tell them anything, tell them what they want to hear. Tell them a likely story."
He himself had not the energy for it. Barely a month after that, he put all his books back in their boxes and shipped them back where they had come from. He had not been able to look what he saw as a failure in the face, and so he had left. It is a year since he died and this is the first time I have been able to write this, to think about him without a sense of utter despair. Maybe I can be of small service to him.
Maybe I can tell the story.

© Andia Kisia, 2003.

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