My father was a storyteller. He had a penchant for horror and could spin tales with astounding hyperbole. His stories would likely involve a 20-feet-long, black cobra or an antsy lioness with day-old cubs. He sat squarely on the pedestal of an African father, which tells you two things. First, that he was not one to listen. The role of telling him something important was bounced around until it fell on whoever drew the short straw. Second, that conversation with him was a one-way affair and only he steered the wheel. He gave orders around the home, and when we didn’t anticipate his needs, he bellowed them out, often with a false sense of urgency. Because this happened a lot in my childhood, my feelings towards him were ambivalent.
It wasn’t as grim as it sounds though. I grew up to Soukous and Makossa music. This was in the era of AM stations, before FM stations came along and swept us up with Sisqo and Puff Daddy. My dad was a big fan of the Congolese and Cameroonians. We didn’t just listen to the likes of Pepe Kalle, Kanda Bongo Man and Aurlus Mabele – we danced. I have fond memories of playing ball and dancing with my father. He would buy these cassettes and we’d pop them into our VCR in the evenings. Then we would put the tables and stools on the sofas to make room for dancing.
Shakira hadn’t ruined belly dancing for women so ‘shaking it like you have no spine’ was not yet in. There were no stories for backbreaker. The only spines mamas were breaking those days were the spines of Mills and Boons books. We watched the original Zangalewa video and tried to outdo each other imitating the costumes. It was a battle of who could stuff the most clothes up their t-shirt and down their shorts and create a caricature of a chief. It was art and we got the best laughs from it. My, we laughed.
Those songs were seven minutes long. Seven minutes. Music had substance and tenacity. If you ask an artist to produce a seven-minute song today, they’ll exhaust all of their career’s lyrics. When a song is seven minutes long, you can only eat so many KDFs. At one point or another, you had to shout out to the Pan-African movement. If your president appointed a corrupt minister, you would call him out on it. You would tell him his patrón was crushing the people under his boot just as the white man did. If the youth were making bad decisions in the name of love, you would tell them, “You must calculer.” Because Mandela was still in jail, you would pay homage to him. And to Winnie Mandela and South Africans you would say, “The rest of Africa is with you.” It didn’t matter whether you were from Congo, Cameroon or Senegal.
My all-time favorite was San Fam Thomas, a Cameroonian. In his videos he was nursing this fro and ‘stache that was hot in the 80s. He wore jeans well, and this was when jeans were tough, rigid denim, not this adulterated spandex version we have now. You could tell he was a real cool fella by the way he folded his t-shirt sleeves up his ripped arms. Cool Tom with the five o’clock shadow beard. His lips beat LL cool J’s (hands down) and he didn’t even have to lick them once. When he was singing, he would raise an eyebrow and I promise you have never seen a man wear forehead lines better than he does. Now add this tooth gap that kuyos fondly call a njarumi and you are finished. Finito!
I don’t know how he smelled but I can tell you for sure it wasn’t like Downys or Nivea. Men those days didn’t use lotion. It was just their raw musk and you either liked it or not. His signature dance move was this graceful waist flick and finger snap that would put daggering to shame. In one scene, he’d be perched atop a sina taabu in a suit (no tie) tapping his foot. In another, he’d be bobbing his head to the side, coat flipped back and hand in his pocket. I have never seen anything more macho.
All you men who manage to get a lovely bird out, and then spend the whole night dancing in your chairs, make this your move. Snap your fingers, move your shoulders, and if your tummy jiggles then let it because there are worse things than a jiggling tummy. Oddly thin legs for example. If you have those please remain seated. Tutakuita odi dance ikianza.
Cool Tom was only in his 30s, but he looked like he’d figured manhood out. What says you’ve figured out manhood better than a leather jacket with its collar flipped up, and a guitar on your thighs? Probably a great many other things, but not to me.
My father had a similar jacket and guitar. To top it off he wore a black, woolen, fedora hat we used to call a god papa. Music transformed him. When we danced, we were friends. Sometimes he would pick up his guitar and break out a tune. He would tell us about the ‘70s when he was a strapping, young, college lad in bell-bottom pants and muscle shirts. We would bring out the old, photo albums that smelled like mothballs and try to relive those days with him. He had these sideburns akin to Hugh Jackman’s sideburns in Wolverine.
My mother’s pictures from around the same time were of her in a checked mini-skirt and strappy wedges. Sharing in that music is the warmest and most content I remember being as a child. It made me feel like I got to know my father the man, not the father figure. This is what I learnt manhood was. This is what stuck with me.
Now enter Henry Kagwe stage right. When we met, there was a click. You could feel it in the cosmos. You could feel it in the energy between us. It felt like I had known him my whole life. Hold on, not in that fairy tale, destined-to-be way. It felt like that because I had known some version of him my whole life, the original version – my father’s version.
When he was not wearing his epaulettes, which are arguably the best part of his uniform, he donned this black jacket and fedora. He liked Rhumba. He was without airs, or perhaps had less airs than you would expect of a pilot. He had my father’s hands. Si everyone knows we marry our parents? He was my childhood ideal of manhood packed, sealed and delivered.
When I, a besotted Njambi, feverishly talked about him, people asked me, “What do you like about him?”
I’d give the same answer each time. “He’s just intriguing, you know?”
If I really had to answer though, I would say that for the most part being with him elicits the feelings I had when I danced with my father. He makes me feel warm, safe and content. Some women like to be whisked off on romantic dates and getaways. Others like to be chased and wooed and serenaded. Others can’t stand a man who doesn’t make them laugh. But others still, like me, who live in a constant state of disquietude, just want to feel taken care of. And Kagwe takes care of me.
Here’s the kicker. Like my father, Kagwe also withdraws at will. I don’t much enjoy those days. They are wintery and biting in a particularly punishing way. I find myself thrust back into my childhood reliving the same wistful longing for warmth. He has my father’s mulish nature, which means that he does what he wants and there is no persuading him. He is blunt – doesn’t spare anyone’s feelings. Our days are sometimes littered with poignant moments when I wish he wouldn’t say exactly what was on his mind. He doesn’t always talk about what’s going on with him – his work situation, for instance – but he takes care of things.
Which woman doesn’t want a man who takes care of things? He is decisive. He is a man of his word. He only says what he means, which makes what he says valuable and reliable. I like that certainty. The qualities that make him charming are also the ones that drive me crazy. This is where I am at. Before we try for another baby, I find that I have to ask myself, Would I have it any other way? If I had to do it over again, would I choose a man like my father?11