A Short Biography of Remmy: Clifton Gachagua

A Short Biography of Remmy

December has always been a curious month for me. I’m at home in a dark room with my father. Upstairs where all the windows remain closed and the air is dump and heavy with the smell of his sickness. On his request I have taken out the white bulbs, the one hanging from the ceiling and the one in the bedside lamp. If there’s sunlight outside I cannot tell, only a soft darkness lingers in here from the light in the hallway. Every object, except my father’s eyes, the brilliant whiteness of them, has lost the sharpness of its edges. It’s a few days after Jamhuri Day. For a while now it has been constantly gray outside, the days and nights long and cold. Gray skies that make the earth feel smaller. At night I wake up to the sound of rain on the rooftop and hold Rahel, who always sleeps naked, closer, her long hair the smell of tangawizi and something chemical and pungent and strangely comforting. Even in the coldest of nights her body is always somehow warmer than mine. Sometimes I wake up alone and search for her body only to find the cold sheets. Endless music streams in from downstairs, day and night. Franz Liszt, Dizzie Gillespie. Orchestra Baobab. The task of replacing records whenever I’m asleep falls to Rahel, who has made up her mind that she will never leave the house. I have come to find comfort in the fact that none of us wants to live in a house without the constant sound of music. There’s a bearable silence that lingers to certain songs. So this becomes the place I have come to call home. Rahel, her humming, food always cooking, shisha, songs mingling into others so that I cannot tell them apart, especially the West Africans. The days drag on and on, the continuous drizzle a soundtrack that becomes part of everyday noise so that you rarely notice it is there.

Today feels like one of those mornings after a concert, crows picking at the garbage, paper cups and plates all over the lawn. Rahel has fallen in love with Pepe Kale’s Rain On and will not stop playing it. Maybe it is meant as an admonition to me. If she has things to tell me she’ll have to do better. Still, the song goes on and on and I feel like I have to get out of the house before I start breaking things. From the kitchen I can hear her move about, can smell the coffee and scrambled eggs.

Father is watching me, his eyes like an animal that hunts at night, waiting for me to say something. A cravat around his neck hides the sick skin. He blinks. In an instant he loses that toughness, the assumed authority, that comes with old age and a tough life. He might be a much younger man with his eyes closed in that moment. His eyes open again, big white question marks, returning him to himself, returning him to the room, to Zephyrion, to me. I don’t know what to tell him. How do I pack two decades into a single conversation? He puts one leg on top of the other, staring at the hands on his knees, touching the gold around his fingers.

“Brazzaville. 1986,” he says. He offers me the ring.

A bait.

What I remember about 1986 is that it was the year after I was born. All of that seems inconsequential now, a different lifetime.

He takes out the last ring, silver and shiny, and offers it to me. He lets it slip from his fingers and onto the table. We both watch the ring circle around the teak, and it feels like it will keep circling until the end of man, when it finally settles into the silence of the room and we look up to meet each other’s eyes. The lattice work on the ring is intricate.

“Constance gave that to me.”

Ma’ is in another town leaving the last years of her lives as well. Early onset Alzheimer’s. Both my brother and I take turns visiting her, but it is my brother she remembers. A part of me is glad because her forgetfulness absolves me. But I also cannot help feeling jealous it is my brother her mind has chosen to hold on to. Still, it is better to be forgotten. Half my life I have spent worrying that she worries about me too much. Now, in her big house, the only company a live-in nurse who she has almost adopted as the daughter she never had, she’s always smiling, always calm, moving around the room with patience and grace. Constance had always left behind dust storms in her wake, in her walking and talking and looks, the most temperamental person I had ever known, prone to so much violence sometimes she’d ask her sisters to take me in for a week because she feared her own unpredictable anger. It is the one thing I have (will?) inherit from her, that which I feared most.

“Ulitembelea mathe lini last?”

I don’t know what to tell him, how to look at him, so I play with the ring, try it on. It won’t fit in any of my fingers.

For a we go through the rings, there are more in a small velvet pouch he brings from a suitcase. I notice that he has still not unpacked, will probably never do so. Apart from the robe and pajamas and hotel slippers he wears nothing else. Except for an occasional trip downstairs and to the toilet, he rarely leaves the room, content in that carve with the curtains drawn. His body is weak and tired but his fingers are adept. That and the eyes, those haunting, scary eyes, glowing with whatever fire remains of his life. I imagine those long, thin fingers playing bass in Tokyo nightclubs at the prime of his life, those surgeon fingers picking through all the food in his life. He’s the only person I’ve ever known who never used cutlery, not even to stir his tea. There’s a perverse way he stirs tea and licks his fingers while maintaining eye contact with whomever he’s in the company of. Every ring on his fingers no doubt tells a story, like the story of Constance.

Legs shuffle downstairs. Rahel dancing to Wemba. I wonder if I’ll hurt her the same way father hurt Constance, if I’ve already hurt her.

I want to run out of the room and into her arms and tell her I’m sorry for everything, sorry for taking her so far away from her family and home to a place whose language she does not speak.

Finally father puts the rings away. I want to hear about Brazzaville. Kinshasa. Kigali. Tokyo. All the places he has played. So far all I have are the records and postcards he has sent over the years, some newspaper clippings from when he played in Nairobi. I want to answer his question so that he can answer mine. He moves across the room to where I am, but not close enough to make me uncomfortable. My eyes stay focused on the silver ring on the table – has he left it there on purpose? – how odd and beautiful it looks.

“Mathe ako tu sawa,” I lie.


Sunday: Reggae night. A busy night in Paris, a small pub near my house. It seems that all faces take up the light of the place the same way, so that everyone looks similar. All the city has come out to play. Small and big-time gangsters and their small and big light-skinned women, street gangs, thin, scar-faced men, women who just want some khat and Del Monte Mango Juice, women who understand there are no happy endings in a place like this. Men who drink alone and keep an eye on near exits. A man who is always in a crisp suit and worn out shoes, maybe a waiter in a five-star hotel elsewhere. A failed actor who will not shut up. Today a SJ from Ghetto radio is the main act.

Today I find myself sitting at the bar, before last call, alone, watching how the light plays on the drinks on display. The green Gordon’s and pink gins and brown whiskies. Maybe a few other quiet souls across the bar. Apart from the slow Glen Washington the entire place stands still in time. A man stares straight ahead at me, unblinking, his zip open, a young girl under his table, asking him for a cigarette to get rid of the taste of milk.

Night turns into day, and if there’s a point where this turning happens it is forever lost to me. From when I step into Paris around 11 p.m to dawn I can always sense the change in days, but as long as I stay inside time becomes other people’s problem.

At dawn I drag my tired body back home to Rahel. She opens the door and lets me crash on the couch as she brews coffee. I tell her about the blue rat. She’s the only one who understands, mostly because I’m talking in Sheng and she understands little of it, but we’ve agreed to talk in my language so that she can learn. I have told her the story so many times but she still listens. I discovered a blue rat in the Gents at Paris. Turns out it had fallen into a can of paint when they were renovating the place, adding a new wing near the Gents. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter where I am, I find myself going back to that blue rat, pregnant, no doubt. The rat always reminds me of those old days in the lab, with Ossip Kanyora, and later with Prufrock, the endless hours we spent with small rodents, killing them slowly for science, and I cannot help feel the sting of losing so much of that life, giving it all up. And for what? A domestic life with Rahel? Taking care of my sick father, the melanoma a Roscharc on his beautiful, aging, supple skin? Sometimes my eyes tear up on the way home, sometimes I don’t even know how I got into the house. On the nights that I cry I can’t stand to look at myself in the mirror later in the day. Today, though, a drizzle outside, I wash my face, dry it with a towel, avoid the bathroom mirror, walk to the kitchen to find coffee and Rahel. She’s always there, open arms, a stranger to me in so many ways, hands warm from kneading the dough in hot water, but there still.

“So angry. Talk to man, aliniambia uende juu leo” she says.

“Man anaweza jitomba akitaka,” I reply.

“Marl, familia yako.” It’s more a plea than a statement.


It’s raining outside and I need to kill my father. Find something quick and painless. A contact from my old days at KEMRI tells me where I might be able to find something but he cannot promise me it will be painless. At the back of my mind I wonder if father would mind the pain. His body is so frail, so not there, only a repository for eyes and fingers, I fear it might not even have the capacity for pain.

I leave Rahel and father in the house and take a matatu to Biafra. Father was downstairs, his robe open, sipping coffee from my cup, mistaking mine for his. He looked anxious today. There is no point in me staying in the house, I’ll only want to break more things. So I leave. Not that they talk much, except for when she takes him his meals and tea, but I worry about what they talk about with her limited Swa. Her childhood French is all but forgotten; father’s Lingala leaning as far away from French as it can. Not that father needs language to impress. It is one of those things that come so easily to him, even at his current state, this ability to disarm, to charm, to make everyone around him feel at ease, to make his own face so safe and homely so that conversation is not really necessary, that he can bring to life other energies you didn’t yet know you possessed but can now make use of so that even you are surprised at how wonderful the world it, how unfortunate you are for just now finding this out, yet so eternally grateful that you have. Everyone around him, excluding myself, having put up guards after picking up on this from my early teens, falls for his spells. So Rahel will be fine then.

The 9.45am train pulls up just as soon as I’m in Makadara. I’m in a warm jacket and flat shoes, the city cold and wet and unfamiliar. Nothing of the old city remains. Down Kiik Road. Standard Street. City Hall. Mika Avenue now houses the migrants and the un-houseable, those caught between travel documents and finding a new home. Mothers who have no citizenship and children who use immunization cards to get meals at the Free Zones. I count my steps, something I do to calm myself down. Post Avenue. Women sell puddings in cups that are more beet root than mango-pawpaw-banana-nanasi. What dosage would work best, I’d forgotten to ask my friend. At Short Street I call him but the call goes unanswered. From the grills outside the Indian shops selling beef samosas, sausages on sticks, and chipo mwitu I can smell charcoal burning. A family of seven sit outside a store, wrapped in shawls and blankets so that they appear to be performing from under a tent, doing a cover of Freshly’s Stella, this tent like a house made of cymbals and broken drums and untuned guitars and a saxophone that sounds like it has collected a decade’s worth of phlegm in its tubes, all this stitched together with the kind of hope these parts of the city no longer offers. Down Cardinal Otunga I count the steps. Walking makes things easier. Walking is what I will do. Kirima Road. Girls shout from inside the upper floors of the buildings: mdomo mia, kuma mia mbili, kama ni kuma yako jisugue. A pot-bellied man in a blue half-coat hangs upside down from the fifth floor of Meja Building, red panties around his head. What happens to those who cannot pay? Down Central Division and into the feared alleys of Black River, I keep counting the steps, deciding 80 milligrams will work. Marsh House. Already the smell of bodies in motion. Shisha. Cigarette smoke laced with something that makes it linger longer in the air. Bint el Sudan.

In Biafra it takes me almost half an hour to locate the building. An old ten storey that looks like it’ll collapse into itself if a feather landed on the rooftop. I take the elevator underground, down a couple of floors, feel the air heavy in my lungs. A guard sits next to me reading China Daily, dated a year old. On the spread is a woman with what looks like white chalk on her face. The man turns to me. He has one eye, and in the other empty socket he stares at me. I will not show it, I know what fear can do here, but I’m scared of that unseeing eye, how delicate the skin around it looks, thin eyelashes hanging above it like an old, torn umbrella. He shifts just enough for me to see what he’s carrying under his jacket. I try to concentrate on why I’m here; why I’m taking the elevator to The Marshes; why this night already feels different, the rain above me now a distant number like in dreams where I can hear a child crying from a distant; why I’m not prepared for a man like the one who sits next to me, reading, obviously carrying a gun under his belt. When he inhales, the smoke from his cigarette sips into the thinner membranes of his brain and comes out from the empty eye socket. It’s hard to explain the movement of the smoke. It travels slowly, maybe echoes through the hole. He flips the page just as the doors open. I step out of the elevator and into the lobby. When I turn back I see he is now standing, holding the elevator door with his foot, half looking at me, smiling, his China Daily now an umbrella spread over his head, rain pouring into the elevator. He will probably drown as the elevator fills up with water, unless someone not so much unlike myself, a man who has to kill his father, and I highly doubt anyone wants to, takes the elevator down, where the water will drain out into the backstreets where street mothers feed and wash their children. I turn away from his stare and take a left turn down the hall.

All the doors are unmarked, shaking from the loud bass of the music inside. I know the door I’m looking for. They’re all red but this particular door is a certain shade of red that reminds me of the pink red resin fresh flesh of her vagina, on that first night she showed it to me. I knock at the door and wait. It’s never the same person who opens the door, and one person never marks the door more than once. The place has been in business for a decade.

An hour later I’m still waiting. The air in the lobby is still, unmoving, like in photographs. Rahel, my wife, has taught me everything I know about silence. And this is not the greatest silence I know. All silence begins with Rahel, and on rare nights when I enter her I hear the greatest silence. The silence of a rainy night, when no one is outside and the lights are barely visible.

I’m thinking about my father, at home, alone in my bed, occupying the upper rooms, my wife and I downstairs, living in the kitchen and in proximity of death, eating canned mackerel and drinking cold beers and playing Texas Hold ‘Em – if he dies in daytime I take the pot, if at night she takes it. I’m thinking about the relief and gladness that sweeps over me as I imagine him as a no more and no longer here, as an absence. It’s for this reason that I must wait in the hall.

Two hours.

Two hours 45 minutes.

To distract myself and buy some time, I step back into the hall, hoping the elevator doors have closed shut.

I see him there, the man with one eye, eating his flesh, his fist in his mouth, almost choking, the other hand still holding the umbrella. He manages a smile and curtsies. Stupid, I wave back and return to my door. It won’t be long until he dies now. I don’t want to be the last person he sees before he dies.

The doors open and a woman in a nightgown motions for me to enter. In the dim light I can make out a face covered in white chalk. She smells like a nice, sweet cocktail. Maybe a hint of sweat. She asks me if I’m sure about what I’m about to do. I nod. I’m not sure, but someone has to do something about my father. I cannot ask Rahel to do it, even after she volunteered. She’s too young for this type of grief. She has to settle, instead, for living off my grief. She’s mentioned before how my body weighs heavily over hers in certain moods. I’ve seen her face covered in white chalk too. The woman takes my hand. She moves quickly.

I step into the room. Remmy is playing.

Further into another room with red and blue bulbs. The woman with the white face takes my arm and kisses the back of my hand. She goes on her knees. Something hardens under my pants. She sniffs my groin and ass, making sounds like a puppy’s, her neck jerking to and fro, a pecking bird. She sniffs the entire length of my body as she rises to her feet, takes my hand and ushers me deeper into the house. Red walls, no windows, more doors, leather furniture, too many Venetian blinds, slight variations in the smells of sex and sexual enhancement drugs. I can’t see much in the shisha fog. Some lucky slow motion bodies move to the rhythm of something that is not music. The woman with the white face leads me to a back room of blinding white light.

I see that she is the same woman in the China Daily. She sits there, staring, not a single word is exchanged. I stare back.

I meet three pairs of twins, six bowlegged Nigerian men along the alley, talking over each other, excited about something. They walk past me as if I’m made of things with no color.

The elevator is empty when I step back into it, only a cutting of the paper that shows the woman with the white face remains.


Monday: Rhumba. The old men of the sea come out. They don’t talk to the women. They buy as much beer and spirits as the women want, sharing a table and nothing else, exchanging looks. Then they will fuck them later in the night, quietly, no eye contact, no condoms. They’re after youth. Also present are a couple of young men. This group will move their bodies with abandon but fuck with caution. They want to have longer lives. Business is slow even though the beer is cheaper. This is where I have learnt to love Remmy.

I hover around my house for a while, marking time, thinking, hoping, worrying. Paris has always been the place to go to do my worrying. I order a beer from a girl who looks like she’d rather be somewhere else. Remmy is playing. A few more patrons in the bar, faces I have learnt to tell apart, eyes that seek you out in the dark. I always avoid eye contact here, even when ordering. Bars line the ground floors of buildings in the entire street, lodgings the upper floors. Further upwards are the homes of working class couples. Men, in different states of being dead or alive, but mostly dirty, half passed out half sleeping men, litter the street, chicken pecking their ears and genitals for lice.

For the moment I’m in the bar time has paused for all of us as we put down our costumes for some reprieve: Dante who spends all night packaging congealed blood into the intestines of goats and cows so that his customers can enjoy mutura all day. Soup for those with a hangover. Mama Peris who waits with SDA pamphlets for drunkards staggering home. Mama Peris, who owns a shop right in the middle of the street. I’ve been to her shop. It’s not a shop. There’s a door at the back, a door everyone must think long and hard before opening. Once I went in that door I knew it would take some kind of miracle for me to stop going there. I am healed now. The young men in the dark corners waiting with knives and grinning teeth, cheap vodka to protect them from the cold nights. The women from Huruma and Bangla, squatting in the alleys, maiming and killing each other for territory.


Tuesday: Locals. I find a clown shitting in a dark alley. He looks at me, burdening me with the task of embarrassment, and in a way I find myself looking away. He farts as I walk away, laughing, quickly frog-walking towards me. Sometimes he scuffles, then he jumps. Then he shits. All the while laughing and screaming something that sounds like my name.

I’m lucky to find Dante has just opened shop. A hundred goat heads on the grill. They’ve been boiled so long the meat is like snails under my teeth. Remind me of the smoothness at the back of my throat when I swallowed fish eyes as a child.

I turn the knob and my father is the first thing I see, sitting behind Rahel, plaiting her hair. I walk straight to the kitchen and drink straight from the tap. No hellos. Rahel comes to me, asks if I have the thing. I kiss her on the cheek and walk into the living room, where my father is standing like a statue of a dictator, holding her hair in his hands. I take the hair from him. He holds my hand and says it needs to be done. I ask him if he’d like to have some whiskey. He declines.

The couch receives the weight of his old body. He takes out an old White Elephant kiko from his jacket, adds some tobacco, lights it up after some difficulty with the switch on the lighter, he’s finger bones worn out by an advanced arthritis, smacks his lips and inhales deeply. He stares into the nothingness beyond the windows as he lets the smoke fill his lungs with warmth and I remember the man with one eye, expecting smoke to come out of my father’s eyes, but finally he lets it all out through the mouth, smacking his lips. In a very brief moment I see he is really my father.

Rahel comes to me. She sits down between my legs and I take over the plaiting. Her hair is soft and oily under my fingers. I like pulling it in bed, but tonight this is a different kind of force between us.


Wednesday: Naija night. When I go home at 4am, put my finger under my wife’s nightgown so that she can wake up screaming and punish me with less affection and intimacy in the coming days. I have a picture of Yemi Alade that makes it quick and, as it turns out, doesn’t make me hate myself. I go back to Paris and drink.

The man who cuts my hair is Rwandese. He’s been in Nairobi long enough to be Kenyan, so that you have to train your ear to hear the forgotten accent, tells me he also works as a hired clown. He’s knows this place better than anyone else. He tells me he does not remember anything about Rwanda, says he does not have a family, that it does not matter. He shows me a picture of his girlfriend on his phone, says they are thinking of starting their own Kinyozi.

The most beautiful Igbo man.

Who is quite ugly and talks with food – boiled egg, chapatti, kachumbari, beef sausage – in his mouth. He is arguing with two Kambas, says he can’t believe they’ll not let him eat on credit for just this one day; he’s been a loyal customer long enough. One of the Kambas flip chapatis on the pan. The other rolls the dough, flattens it to the thinnest film possible, throws it on to the pan, where they are cooked in cheap, hydrogenated fats. The Igbo wants to know if they’ll at least let him have some tea then, his accent growing thicker and his desperation showing, white pus on his chin. Does he go to the same Kinyozi? He says he will work for his food, all Igbo men love work. A chapatti is flipped. The Igbo man threatens he will take his business elsewhere. One of the Kamba men shouts at a street kid: I see you here again I’ll fry you alive. The Igbo man turns to the street kid, who in turn shows him the middle finger. The Igbo man says he’ll give them his passport as guarantee, but of course he has no passport. Shauri yako. A female waiter carrying a bucketful of murk steps out onto the curb. The Igbo man changes tactics, smiles at her. She empties the bucket into a drainage that passes under the hotel, spits, wipes her sweaty forehead and disappears back into the hotel, her ass, the Igbo man can’t help but notice, big and shaky. You think she’s wearing any panties? He wants to know.

Thursday: Lingala night. 5am. Although the DJ has played more than a hundred songs all night, all I hear is Frankline Boukaka’s La Bucheron.

All day, the sun is out, I dream that my head has turned into a goat’s and on the table is my original head, and I’m cutting out the tongue and dropping it into my mouth, warm and grainy and tangy.

As Karola plays I want to tell her how much the song makes me want to love her, want her. I want to tell her I’m sorry, to apologize for the past, for the future. None of this will matter, however much I plead with her. After waiting overnight, we will call the police, take his body to Lee Funeral, cremate it. In a will he asks we spread his ashes in the back garden where, he adds, him and Constance spent most of their time together. I will not have his ashes at Zephyrion, I will not have what remains of his body soaked up by the hydrangeas and petunias. Rahel and I will build a life together, dance to Rain On as many times as she wats, until it drives us mad, we will watch and listen to the December rain, brew coffee, scramble eggs, cuddle under duvets, watch documentaries about the war in her birth country, sipping dry reds as we watch her childhood neighborhoods go up in flames, and afterwards fuck in our own detached way, tired strangers, we will ask nothing of life, nothing say for our long dark, endless December days of Remmy and Dizzy and Wemba.

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