1. How to talk to a fox
My grandfather was always telling us how he had climbed Kilimanjaro in his twenties. He would stop midway through swirling his ugali through his stew and declare that none of us had ever known real cold. “We got to the base camp, and once there, none of us showered.“ His cheeks would glisten and his eyes would glint. “Let me tell you, me I didn’t even drink the water on Kilimanjaro; it was too cold!” Having said this, he would proceed to regale us with stories of his mountain-climbing exploits, as if we hadn’t heard the stories several times before.
In hearing and rehearing this story, what stuck with me wasn’t a picture of my grandfather as an all-conquering mountaineer, but rather images of my grandmother’s face as she welcomed home the stink of this unshowered man. “Eh, Wuod Patila, was there no water? What will people say if they smell you like this? Dhiang’, today is the day I leave you.” In my imaginings of the two of them, my grandmother was the slick, sassy, no-holds-barred one. In another version of this story, my grandfather claims she was to climb the mountain with him, but, once in Arusha, remained holed up in the hotel, defeated by the cold. I don’t know which version of my grandmother is more real, or which one I prefer to be real.
2. What language does a fox dream in?
My grandfather refuses to sleep in our house. He will be in Kisumu for a conference, but he will stay in a hotel, because it is taboo to sleep in his son’s house. “Wuon Omolo,” he sneers at my father. “Did I not raise you right? Or will you turn around and sleep in Omolo’s house when he has built his simba and bedded a woman?”
3. I saw a fox in my dream, once, and it talked to me.
My aunt comes to Kenya for a work visit that is also a holiday, and on her last day here we go for lunch at a posh hotel in Nairobi— me, her, my grandmother, and my grandfather. This hotel, from whose lobby Lord Delamare, Colonel Grogan and other white men shot at protestors trying to free Harry Thuku in 1922, is so white that our little table is the only enclave of blackness in the room. There are the waiters, of course, but one must never notice these things. My grandfather asks for a glass of mango juice, but only after the order is taken do we remember that my father is diabetic and, since all the juice in this city has sugar in it, he won’t be able to take the juice. My grandmother ordered a mango juice too and my aunt is having sparkling water, which my grandfather maintains is not water, so I shall trade him my still water for his mango juice.
When our drinks arrive, we get to talking. I don’t like Carey Francis, and I express the sentiment to my grandfather.
“But why don’t you like him? He was a great mathematician!”
I mumble something about Jaramogi, and besides he was a white colonialist.
“Pfff. Achana na Oginga. He just had his grudges with the man. Carey Francis was a good man, he and Archbishop Owen. And so what that he was a white man? All the mzungu were hated at the time because they were destroying the country!”
My grandfather is a loud man, and my aunt glances around to make sure none of the mzungus near our table heard her father’s words.
4. What is the love language of foxes?
On my way to ushago, I pass by the Royal Swiss International Hotel. The Royal International Swiss Hotel is a mabati structure painted bright yellow, more a roadside shack and less a hotel, more the village chag’aa den and less international, more Midesa than Swiss, and the only thing royal about it is the royal blue cups in which they serve uji. It is a hot day and the wind is in my face and I am on a bodaboda and the bodaboda man is complaining about the broken promises by the area MP.
“Every time he tells us the national government is fixing this road, that the journey to Oyugis will be nywee. But wapi? Ongee!”
I wonder whether I could ever stay in a hotel when in Midesa. Not the Royal Swiss International Hotel, of course. Somewhere with a less showy name. Somewhere I can have sex without fearing that I am breaking some ancient taboo. I wonder what my grandfather would say if I dared suggest that maybe I should stay in a hotel. “Hotel? My eldest grandchild? Why would we throw away our money like that?” My grandfather, chair of the board at Midesa Primary School, chair of the board at Midesa Secondary School, head elder at Midesa SDA Church. Our money.
5. The fox went to town with Mr. Brown
“And he said to me, a black African in his country, ‘Sir, will you require some help with your bags?’ That is how you know you have arrived, when a white man pays for your airfare, another white man pays for your accommodation, and a third white man carries your bags up to your room like the slave he is.”
6. Are there any foxes in Kenya?
I am in Kisumu and having a conversation with my father.
“When grandad went to visit Uncle A in Florida,” I ask, “where did he stay? With Uncle A? Or in a hotel?”
My father pauses. Remembers. “He stayed with Uncle A. Sometimes, these cultures don’t make sense, and even he understands.”
I wonder if my father will ever deign to stay in my house. I turn to him again. “What about when he visited Aunt E in London? Where did he stay?”
My father is always thinking about his words. His spectacles are old, and he adjusts them before he speaks. “In a hotel.”
7. What about the fur of the fox, does he brush it?
Uncle A is in the country and we go visit one of my uncles, one of his brothers, in the hospital. They are a big family, five brothers and three sisters, and one mother. When we get to the hospital, everybody hugs everybody, and we sit and start comparing hospitals.
“Last year, when he was in hospital,” my aunt goes, “I had to pull him from his room after three days. I was paying sixty G’s per night, as if it’s a hotel.”
Uncle A’s eyebrows go up in wonder. “This is Nairobi Hospital?”
My aunt nods. “You would think it was a hotel. I moved him to a twenty-five G’s a night room, and he complained. Aga Khan is better. We’re only paying forty G’s per night and this is Princess Zahra Pavillion.”
The patient, groggy from his drip, catches up with the conversation. “There is a 120k-a-night room at Nairobi Hospital. With a conference room ensuite.”
Uncle A starts. “A conference room? Why? What’s the point?”
My aunt answers. “It’s for the big men. So that when you’re dying you can have a meeting with your board and sign whatever needs to be signed.”
8. Where do the fox’s friends gossip about him?
At the hospital again. Uncle A, my aunt and I huddled around Mr. Sickman’s bed. Mr. Sickman and his wife are trying to remember the early days of their courtship.
My aunt: “You people should have warned me that marrying into your family is marrying into sickness. These are the things that ought to be made clear early on.”
Mr. Sickman: “But you knew! Barely a week after we started going out, I was admitted.”
My aunt: “Ai, me I didn’t know that.”
Mr. Sickman: “Remember, before we went to Maasai Mara, I was admitted. You even came to see me in hospital. That’s where you met Musyoka.
My aunt: No, I met Musyoka at a wedding. I remember us going to Maasai Mara, but I can’t remember anything about a hospital.”
Uncle A and I exchange bemused glances.
My aunt: “You guys should have warned me about this. And also about how loud you guys are. A week after our wedding, the two of you and your two brothers and your father were in the next room talking about sijui what. You were shouting at each other and I came running into the room expecting to find you at each other’s throats. Instead, you guys were all laughing with each other.
Uncle A: “When my parents came to visit me in Florida, my dad tried to goad me into having this argument with him. But I was tired and didn’t want to engage. So he went up to sleep. My mum came to my room later on and asked me, ‘Why don’t you respond to him? Can’t you see he wants to talk to you?’”
My aunt: Maybe that’s his love language.
9. Foxes can fly sometimes
At my grandmother’s funeral, my father and his brothers stood huddled on one side, his sisters on another, and my grandfather sat with his peers in a position of prominence. The sky was blue, the air was crisp and there was a murmur of discontent moving through the crowd. The choir sang When We All Get to Heaven, the preacher thanked the Lord for the blessing of my mother’s soul, and my grandfather’s in-laws accused him of killing their daughter. My grandfather got up, removed the preacher from his microphone, walked to his in-laws’ tent, and addressed them, “This is a service for my wife and you are disturbing the peace. Let he who thinks he is a person speak again, and have himself thrown out. Even if you are shemeji, you cannot bring nyokonyoko to my home and expect not to be dealt with.” He handed the mic back to the preacher and the sky was blue, the crowd quiet, and the choir sang.
10. A farmer shot a fox and now the fox has no tail
My father and I find out we are travelling to Nairobi on the same bus a few hours before we are due to leave.
“What seat are you?” my father asks.
I am washing the dishes. “Seat 5D. Not too back, not too in the front. Hapo tu katikati.”
My father puts his glass in the sink. I am seat 1A. I need space to stretch my legs, you see.”
We reach Nairobi at 3 am. My father alights first, and waits for me. His hotel is in the CBD and he is walking there. “Shall we go?” he asks.
I demur, announce that I am taking a cab to my house, and murmur something about not wanting to be mugged. My father bids me goodbye and walks away. After a few minutes, he calls, asking if I have money for the cab fare. I am already on Thika Road at this point and tell him that I am fine. When I get to my house and get into bed, I think of my father walking away. Maybe I should have walked with him.
11. What are the migratory patterns of foxes?
“…The Plaza in New York, Hotel Ritz in Paris, the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, and once, in ’64, when we were in London to negotiate the handover of the Ministry of Agriculture to the country, Claridge’s.”
12. What are the masturbatory habits of foxes?
Here’s a story. Once, a man climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Then the man’s oldest son climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Now, the man’s oldest grandson is planning to climb Kilimanjaro, and is running every day and hiking the hills around Nairobi in preparation.
13. What is the guiding philosophy of foxes?
The two angels arrived in Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to greet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and go on your way early in the morning.”
“No,” they answered. “We will spend the night in the square.”
But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, breaking bread without yeast, and they ate.
14. When a fox loses its mate, is it still a fox?
My grandfather’s house in Nairobi was falling apart, and he travelled to Nairobi from Midesa to fix the problems. In Nairobi, he gave a porter his luggage and the porter walked too fast for my grandfather to keep up. Or, in other words, the story of how my grandfather lost his sphygmomanometer. Then, months later, the government digitized its tax records, and my grandfather, and other people born before the Second World War lost their records. Or, in other words, the story of how my grandfather lost his existence.
15. What is another guiding philosophy for foxes?
My grandfather recently started reading The New Yorker. In the issue he was reading, there was a story about Iran and France, about how the two countries had had a tiff in Paris about the Iranian diplomats’ refusal to have alcohol in the room with them, and the Frenchies’ insistence that they couldn’t have a meal without wine. After reading the article, my grandfather turned to me.
“Omolo, ng’isa, who between the host and the guest is king?”
We were in Kisumu, and my father and brother were in the room with us and uninterested in the conversation.
I swallowed my ugali and contemplated my grandfather. “The guest. A good host must cater for his guest’s needs.”
My grandfather turned to his son. “Mayoo, Wuon Omolo, who is this you are raising? This your son will want the white man to take everything because he is a guest.”
My father smiled and went on reading his newspaper. My grandfather turned to me again. “Omolo, so a foreigner should come into my house and tell me I can’t drink my wine? Eh, Omolo, is this your thinking?”
“No,” I said. “The host’s needs should take priority, of course.”
My grandfather swooped in for the kill. “So, now that I am in your father’s house he can order me around because he is the host? Awuoro!”
My father’s eyes gleamed above the newspaper he was reading.
16. How much water do foxes need to survive?
Then Aunt E got married and we all flew down to Diani for the wedding. We were staying at Moon N Soil, an exclusive resort on the beach. Ever evening, before dinner, my grandfather would walk down the beach in his sandals, his hands folded behind his back. I wondered what he was thinking about, walking down that beach, his back arched, his solitude profound in a way that communicated his unwillingness to be disturbed. He walked the beach that first evening, alone, but then on the second it rained, and I found him sitting forlorn in the restaurant by the lobby, staring at the rain outside. I wondered how it felt, he who had been born near Lake Victoria in the twenties, he who as a child had never imagined a bigger water than the lake, seated in this resort, looking at the Indian Ocean, his youngest child getting married. I considered going to sit with him, but then I considered, realized that I could not intrude into the old man’s sadness.
17. Papa Fox was a Rolling Stone
Once, when I was eight or nine, I had a fight with my mother. We were in ushago, in Midesa, and she wanted to punish me for something I hadn’t done. In a huff, I ran off into the bush near the compound, sat on a rock for two hours and cried. My grandfather found me there, took me in his arms, and carried me home. The next day, he walked to the local shops and bought me a second-hand copy of Treasure Island.
18. Grief is the thing with foxes
Before my grandfather was Baba A, he was called Japuonj: the teacher. The teacher was a suave young man who had eaten the book, and who filled the heads of the children of Midesa with knowledge. The story of my radicalization begins with Japuonj’s books. While he had piles of Christian literature — the Ellen G. Whites and Elaine Pagels and St. Augustine’s — he also had a treasure trove of what, in his time, had been considered subversive literature : Oginga Odinga’s Not Yet Uhuru, W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, and, tucked away behind the piles of old newspapers from the sixties and seventies, a worn copy of The Communist Manifesto. After the birth of his first child, A, my grandfather had gone to Wellington in New Zealand to study agriculture, and, upon his return, embarked on a life-long civil service career so unremarkable that there was no one way his employers suspected that the kindly young man who deferred to them owned a copy of the little red book.
19. What happens to a fox when its dreams are deferred?
According to www.therealworldoffoxes.com, foxes are extremely versatile when it comes to their habitats. Sometimes, they live underground. Sometimes, they live in abandoned dwellings and gardens in cities. Rarely, do they live in Kenya. The fact that they can eat many different types of food enables them to flit between different environments in the way they do. Some people, they consider the African wild dog, Lycaon pictus, a fox, but they are not. My grandfather is a real fox, Vulpes Vulpes, and is considered one of the world’s most invasive species. Whenever Vulpes Vulpes lives near a city, they are rarely sighted, and apart from the disappearance of a house pet from time to time, one never knows they are around. It is unclear whether these pet snatchers — according to www.theactualrealworldoffoxes.com, they prefer cats — are males or females. Males are sometimes more aggressive, but my grandfather never was. Female foxes sometimes prefer to hitch up in the abandoned dens of other animals, especially when nursing. Or, they get a room at a hotel.
20. A fox drunk a pitcher of beer, and got drunk
My grandfather does not drink alcohol. Neither does my father. Neither do I.
21. Foxes die too
Our dead are always with us. I can still see my grandmother, Mama A, filling my plate with a mountain of ugali, handpicking for me the choicest chicken parts, giving me a fat mug of sour milk that had curdled overnight, and declaring that no grandson of hers was going to go around looking like dead bones. Auntie J laughs at this statement, Auntie J who died from liver cirrhosis, and whose dead body was only discovered after the bellhop at The Hilton wondered when she would come down to retrieve her messages. On another side of the room sits Uncle M, or Uncle M as I imagine him, Uncle M who died before I was born, and whose old postcard I found my grandfather crying over. Outside the house, Onditi and Opiyo Janyuka talk about politics, and ask each other whether Jakom is taking this thing. Our dead are always with us, and I wonder if Japuonj’, the original Omolo after whom I am named, will remain with me. Or, I wonder how he will look like when he remains with me.
22. What if God was a fox?
My grandfather is in Kisumu again. I am also in Kisumu, having decided to go back home to spend Christmas with the folks. My grandfather is staying at Donna Hotel, down the road from our house. In the evenings, he and I walk to Kondele, buy mutura, and walk back to the house for dinner. Yesterday, as we walked home, a dog ran past us, and disappeared into the bushes. At least that’s what my grandfather, Japuonj’, thinks it was. Japuonj wasn’t wearing his spectacles and it was too dark for him to have seen anything anyway, spectacles or no spectacles. Maybe what ran past us was a dog. Maybe it was large cat. Or maybe, just maybe, it was a fox.