I don’t recall exactly when I started addressing my father by his first name. It must have been sometime after 2000 though, because I distinctly remember calling him baba at least once that year. I was in standard seven.
It was a hot August Friday, a week before the start of the third school term. I had spent much of the year pestering him to show me where he worked. When he had finally relented, I asked if Esther could come along, not telling him that it was really for her sake that I had badgered him all along.
And so, that morning, dressed in the lightest clothes we could find, we piled into the back of the old Beetle and rattled along the straight road to Chemelil. The sun had come out strong, and the tarmac was already shimmering in the heat. The road passed through endless sugarcane fields. Tractors drawing trailers, full and empty, lumbered noisily in both directions.
He drove in silence while Esther and I chatted about the asteroid that we had heard was coming to end life on earth. We called it a big rock, and my father didn’t correct us. We also talked about how we had waited for the president at the roadside for half a day the previous term, standing in the sun with other pupils from our school, waving little flags while the teachers kept us in order, only to learn the next day that the president had taken a helicopter.
My father was an engineer. He worked at the sugar factory, which stood smack in the middle of Chemelil, a small, well-planned town east of Awasi. It was a tall and impossibly long hulking structure covered in blue corrugated iron sheets. From inside it came the sound of clanging metal and hissing steam. A constant low sound hummed in the background.
Tractors turned at the entrance. Off to the right, a crane with dangling metal claws lifted sugarcane off their trailers into a giant conveyor belt. Men in stained overalls and brilliant yellow hardhats darted about, fixing things, scribbling on brown clipboards, shouting at one another. Some of them had rolled down the tops of their overalls to their waists, exposing their sweat-soaked vests. The heavy smell of sugar hung in the air.
We drove past the tractors, through a second iron gate, into a parking lot at the other end of the factory. It was much quieter there, the only sound being that of idling lorries receiving bags of sugar from forklifts with flashing lights. We waited on a wooden bench as my father dashed into a changing room. When he came out, his pair of trousers and white shirt were gone. In their place, overalls and a hardhat turned him into someone I had only seen in pictures.
He handed us two small hardhats, strung visitor tags around our necks and walked us through a metal door into the belly of the beast. The first thing that hit me was the heat. The metal hull of the factory combined with the hot machines inside and the humidity to turn the space into a giant oven. It hit us in the face like a warm wet blanket.
My mind instantly brought up a picture of the small church with iron-sheet walls and roof off the marketplace in Awasi. It was always packed full of people on Sundays. Men in suits that had been pressed until they were shiny. Women with sleeping children secured across their backs with lessos, multicoloured shawls. They put their large black speakers outside the door, and the pastor preached so loud we could hear him from our house, a kilometre away. I had always wondered how all those people could spend hours inside that space without fainting.
After the heat of the factory came the noise. It was as if someone had turned up the dial on the clanging metals and hissing steam and low humming sound we had heard from outside. Esther and I had to shout every word across my father’s abdomen. And then shout it again because the response was invariably a loud “Eh?” After multiple rounds of this, we gave up and walked along mutely, holding my father’s hand on either side.
He walked down a number of gangways and up steep stairs. Everything was made of brown metal. It occurred to me that they may have painted it that colour so no one would know when it rusted. Finally, we walked into a room with a giant glass window looking out on the factory floor. A long panel with dials and switches and meters and blinking lights ran along the wall under the window. A number of men sat on high stools, tinkering with the fixtures.
They all looked up when we walked in, pulled down the brilliant yellow earmuffs they had on, and, in an overlapping cascade, said, “Good morning sir.”
The phrase bounced a few times inside my head, then it exploded in a torrent of realisation. In school, you didn’t call your fellow pupils sir. Not even the ones in standard eight, whose smug faces showed they had only a few months of primary school left. No, we only called teachers and visiting government education officers sir. There had to be a substantial difference in status for someone to call another sir.
Yet all those men had just called my father sir. My father, the quiet shy fellow who always seemed unable to tell anyone to do anything. I couldn’t believe it, but only one explanation made sense. My father was the boss here. He called the shots, he told these clever-looking men what to do. I had badgered him to bring me here out of curiosity and a desire to show it to Esther, and now I realised why he had been so reluctant to do it.
I felt pride welling up inside me as I heard my father respond awkwardly to the greeting. My father, the boss of all these men! Who would have known? Esther and I exchanged a knowing glance as he asked one of them, a young man with an innocent smile and the name Simon stuck to his chest on a badge, to show us around.
The tour took an hour, and we would have kept going if we had been able to handle the heat longer. But it was just too much. And so, after walking along the rims of giant vats filled with stinky bubbling liquids and peering into red-hot furnaces that singed the hair on our arms, while Simon said things I would only understand years later in high school chemistry classes, we stumbled back to the room with the large window, sweating like soaked mattresses.
The first thing I asked was, “Baba, can we go outside?”
He gave us each a hundred shillings, and Simon escorted us out into the town. We flapped our clothes to dry off the sweat, fanned our faces with our hands. We bought ice-cream cones at a stall and licked them under a giant cypress in the small park down the road from the factory. Then we strolled aimlessly around the town, Simon a few metres behind us like a chaperone.
“You didn’t tell me your father was a big man,” Esther said at some point.
I puffed out my chest involuntarily. “I meant to surprise you.”
She turned to me. It had been four years since our first meeting. Four years, in the life of a child, is a stark difference in height. But she was still shorter than me, and looking at me meant tilting her head up a little. I liked it when she did that. Because I got to look at her face from above, at the dimples that dug into her cheeks when she smiled, at the smooth nut-brown skin with the little black dot under her left eye, at the thick lower lip that hung just right when she smiled, at the shadow her chin cast on her neck.
Her eyes were large and shiny black, like her mother’s. Her eyelashes had grown thick, and they flapped like dragonfly wings when she blinked. The arch of the brows above them was unbelievably perfect. Her hair was still in an afro, which she got to keep at school because the teachers knew her father worked at the district office. Most of the other girls were clean-shaven.
“No you didn’t.” She dug her knuckles into my ribs, a mischievous look playing in her eyes.
“Yes I did,” I insisted, although I knew this was a lost battle.
“You should have seen your face in the control room. I bet you didn’t know he was the boss either.”
Later that afternoon, on our way back, as we passed over a bridge at the bottom of a steep valley that hid the sun, I asked my father what the river under the bridge was called. “Nyando,” he said. After a short pause, he added, “It’s the same one that passes through Ahero.” Ahero was very far away from that place, and we were impressed a river could be this long. We both knew the Nile was the longest river in the world, but Nyando surely couldn’t be too far behind it.
“Baba,” I said again after some time.
We had summited the valley, and the weak red rays of the giant setting sun streamed into the car. He grunted, didn’t take his eyes off the road.
“Thank you for bringing us along today.”
And he grunted again. Esther placed her hand on top of mine. And we completed the drive in silence. That’s the last time I remember calling my father baba. My next clear memory is of a year later, when I called him John. It was the day my past started to end. But I didn’t know it then, because it took years to fall apart.
This is the fifth preview chapter of a new novel I’m writing. Read the other chapters here.
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