Clifton Gachagua: Remembering

About what’s past, Hold on when you can, I used to say,
And when you can’t, let go, as if memory
were one of those mechanical bulls, easily dismountable,
should the ride turn rough. I lived, in those days, at the forest’s edge—
metaphorically, so it can sometimes seem now,
though  the forest was real, as my life beside it was…
“Wild is the Wind,” Carl Phillips.


As if memory.


“Do you ever see yourself in your dreams?”

“What do you mean? They are mine? Ni zangu.”


Beat. Another cigarette. Adept at striking matches. Starting fires. Always the cigarettes. I’m not sure why they let her smoke. Then again,  she has always been able to find a way to get her way.

“Not the point.”

“See yourself as one of the characters. One of the people in them. I know we don’t get to remember most faces, but have you ever seen your face in a dream? I think that’s what I mean?”

“I see.”

“I think that’s when you know you are starting to die. Are dying. Are dead, maybe.”

“Dreams mean nothing.”


As if memory.


“Dreams have no meaning, is how you should phrase that if you want to have a serious conversation with me.”

I’d really like to just tell her to fuck off; instead I say: “You should not be smoking.”

“You’ve lost weight again,” she replies.

This is her way of telling me I’ve been drinking again. And although I’ve brought her packets of Marlboros as a kind of apology for staying away for too long, for a flash second I’m not sorry she finds herself here.

Three hours earlier –  as if memory –   leaving him in bed, I drove to the Shell along Rabai Road, full tank. The two-hour trip uneventful. How many times we’ve been on the road to Nakuru! In Naks I had the mind to turn back and go back home, forget the trip, forget it all, the possibilities of shame and despair and the gnashing of teeth and nightmares that would follow. Where does responsibility end, or guilt, or complicity? As if memory. Four shots of a Black Label in Afya convince me to take the turn to where Susan has decided to make her last resting place. This is like her. Always inconveniencing us, even in her death. Sixth time I’m making this trip. And everytime I come out of it I feel the same way I did when I drowned when I was six; a blackness shrouding me. Always the same: an argument with him the night before the trip, me drinking too much, aspirin and whiskey for breakfast, Rabai Road, Monrovia Street for cigarettes, the highway and its attendant memories.


And what are memories? Shadows? Water?


As if memory.


“I spent

much of my time listening to the sounds of random, un-

knowable things dropping or being dropped from, variously,

a middling height or a great one until, by winter, it was

just the snow falling, each time like a new, unnecessary

taxonomy or syntax for how to parse what’s plain, snow

from which the occasional lost hunter would emerge

every few or so seasons, and—just once—a runaway child

who I gave some money to and told no one about,”


Indulging? Gears and the tarmac I understand. Memory is water? This sounds like something Susan would say. Like the shit with the faces in dreams.

“I’m now a character in my own subconscious, seeing myself in a dream, ulizaliwa na malaya,” she says, eyeing my backpack, hoping I’ll give her the cigarettes and just leave.

“I think that’s repetitive, as if memory.” I challenge her, although the doctors have told me not to encourage her whims. “Saying you are you in you.”

“You’ve always been a slow child,” she says.

Which is true.

I’m the only one among my siblings who still lives in the big house, her house, and with him to add. I should have brought one of her precious scarves and strangled her with it in her sleep.

“I mean being aware you are out there, part of the many faces that mean nothing. Being aware of it, seeing yourself buy smokies and samosa za waru ama nyama ya paka, seeing yourself as part of the crowd.”


I remember when she first started bringing the scarves home. As if memory. Water? My God how beautiful and intricate they were. Still are. Some silk. Hundreds of them are still in her room, hanging from anything that can support fabric. Scarves, weaves on mannequin-heads, mannequins, boxes and boxes of makeup, shoes, dresses, kimonos. I don’t think Ole Duma Road had ever seen a woman quite like Susan. Although only seen at night. She might have made it to one or two Parents Teachers, but that was for my older siblings, and I’m too young to remember. Only that there was a stirring in Buru One Primary when she was dropped off in the old Mercedes, chauffeur with the cap. The scarves. She says they are all from a different man. Lover is how she puts it. But in the hundreds? The scarves.

“I don’t dream anymore,” I tell her.

“That’s because you have no imagination, as if memory,” she says.

This is true. He also says I have no imagination. I feel this is a thing people close to you say when they’ve failed to bend you into submission, bend you in ways where your bones are just about to break but not just yet.

“How are they?” She means my siblings, Brutus and Diana.

I shrug. As if memory.

“Keep family close.”

There’s a woodpecker in one of the trees; it’s just above her head, so that it looks like I’m looking at her while she’s talking, although she’s more concerned about flicking specks of fluff and tobacco ash off her dress.

“I wore this for you,” she says.

“It’s nice,” I say. It’s the dress she says she wants to be buried in.

“You brother and sister,” she adds. “They are well?”

This is meant more as a statement of fact. As if memory.

I don’t know much about Brutus. Last I heard he’d gone chasing ghosts in the Nubian pyramids of Sudan, one of those places without a government but not quite sovereign. But he’s such a romantic that no government would stop him from chasing ghosts. Concerning Diana: she’s always fucking someone rich, Kensingston type, the kind who win tenders and end up killing their partners in hotels and offing themselves. No one will kill her. She has Susan’s cursed medicine in her veins. A more potent variant of it. More primal. One of those viruses buried deep in the tundra. She’s the most sober one amongst us. Will probably outlive us all by a thousand years. She’ll be shepherding cockroaches after the apocalypse.

“Usiende. Get a room in town. Have something for you,” Susan offers.

She does this kind of thing. Offerings as condiment.

“Ma’, niko na shughuli mjini,” I protest.

“Kukaa kwa nyumba yangu bila kitu ya kufanya?”

Ah. Susan. There you are. As if memory.

She’s wearing the turquoise scarf.

“I told you. About this.” She says.

I don’t know if this is a question. It really is a beautiful piece. Rare.

“Woven in a forest on a sunken island,” she adds.

“We don’t have any sunken islands off East Africa.” The doctors should lock me up instead.

“Mbilia Bel.”

I want to tie a bell around her neck and watch her walk into the ocean. A last act of care. Love.

“She gave it to me.”

I’m sure she gave it to you, you fuck, I want to say.

“You still don’t believe, child, that’s your problem,” she adds. “You’ve never been able to believe.”

You believe too much, I want to say.


  1. Thika Road. Mbilia Bel is performing in Nairobi. Susan is part of the dance troupe. This she uses to lay claim that she can state anything as fact whenever the question of Bel comes up. As if memory.

“Bru ako wapi?”

“Bru ako sawa.”

“Bru anajua dunia.” If I’m hurt by this, it is only by her predictability.

I like Brutus. He’s the only one amongst us who is not sick. To mean he will die first, maybe even before Susan, God taking the beautiful ones amongst us first and all.

“Uko na mtu?” She asks.

Ah. Susan. She always does this. Of course niko na mtu. Always. I have him. Should I tell her this?

“Uko na fegi za kutosha?” Maybe this will earn me a reprieve.

“Diana?” Last time they talked Diana swore never to speak to her again.

“Diana ako sawa.”

“Diana anajua dunia.” Clockwork.

Anajua dunia and lack of imagination are among the few phrases she has learnt to use to hurt me. Among others:

Job inaendelea aje?

Bado uko Ole Duma?

Uko na mtu?

Utarudi kesho?



Bado unaandika zile vitu zako?


And I’ve been lost. God. I’ve been. In municipalities, bureaucracies of the absurd. In this house, in Ole Duma, in the hanging scarves. I should be dangling from the scarves. Me, him. Slow clinks against each other. Chiming. Without the sound. Thuds. Bags of sand.

“Diana ako Nanyuki analea farasi,” I lie.

“Your sister has an imagination.”

Susan. As if memory.


It’s a little difficult to remember the exact moment when I first met Susan. Memory is water. And as much as I remember her beating me up for drowning, that is not even one of the many ways she wanted to teach me one in many of the lessons that would come to define my life. There’s a river, that’s for sure. Regarding this first meeting. A bubbling. A gurgling. Maybe choking. What I know for sure is that you will never find me anywhere near large bodies of water. And this falling back, folding back into the gills sensation, this golgoglgol feel of her voice, it’s very much still there from the chords, even now, when she should be dead. Clear as thawing stalagmites in a midmorning shot in some documentary, when the sun finally comes out after months of night. And her voice is beautiful, I regret to admit. Kind of voice you want to hold you after a nightmare. After it sung you into the same preceding sleep. So as I sit here next to her withholding cigarettes, watching the woodpecker, watching the beating of blood in her neck veins, I want to come back kesho. Dis(re)membering Susan.

“Ma’. Umekua ukikunywa dawa?” I ask.

“Utarudi kesho?”

Ah. Susan.


There are a few theories regarding Susan’s madness. Most people call it just that. Amechizi. Uyo ametuwacha. Once, in the middle of the night, the family sneaked her out to a Korino priest who after hours of prayer and kigoco bowed and kissed her feet, and danced and danced, better than David, and declared his undying love for her. Proposed marriage. A padre had once been invited. He didn’t make it past the main door of the house, dropping everything and running for his life. His incense is still locked up somewhere in her room. Burning. The doctors, the few specialists who can still claim that title here,  call it something technical, something in the DCM manual. They charge for it, and as long as the diagnosis holds they keep getting paid, and they are happy that this stays as is, and they are happy to keep her here in Nakuru. Brutus and Diana say she’s just being dramatic, that she misses the adventures and attentions of her younger years, intimations of a youth spoilt by us, that it will pass and she will soon be back at Ole Duma (and this last bit they add to let me know I need to move out and make a life for myself). They are too busy living to want to come to terms with Susan’s haunting. Who can blame them? They probably knew a different Susan, the one from Parents Teachers at Buru One. As for me. What do I think of it all? Memory is water. There’s a picture of my grandmother in delirium. Behind her is Susan, plaiting her own hair, her face so at home. A diagnosis holding. Withholding? A smile forming. An invitation to temptation. St. Anthony’s nude.

I leave her with the Marlboros. Susan has this brilliant kiondo. And her medication. Half full. She has never let anyone near it. Red and pink latticework. More coming apart than held together. A contrast to her knowing victory smile as she stands.

“Mom. Kesho,” I say my goodbye.

“Bru na Nana?” She pleads.

Susan did not give me a nickname. The possibilities. Considering I was named after two British collaborators, a Greek god, and a Norse god.

The humid sick choking heat-leather smell of the car is much better than the music of that fucking woodpecker. An hour later I’m somewhere outside Nakuru, somewhere between Njoro and Mau Narok. The beauty of the road. The smoke from houses down in the valley. The mist. The lack of visibility that causes breaking news casualties. The escarpment, that it’s possible this bit of God’s earth is separating from the greater continent, from the Red Sea. What possibilities of water. Of memory lost. Of flooding. Everything has already been lost, don’t you see, Susan? No point in wishing it all back. You wish all the cars would just drop into the oblivion of these hills, you wish time would stand still and lions and leopards would maul passengers, truck drivers. Midway between these two places is a secret place Brutus introduced me to –  he’s good for something –  somewhere you can get whatever kind of flight you want. Tonight I plan to turn myself into water, into memory. One cannot drown into one’s self if one is one’s self: isn’t this Susan’s argument?

The next day I’m back on the highway on my way home. The only thought on my mind is Ole Duma. Brutus will find his pyramids. He will probably marry some local girl and herd goats, and win some big award, become a global citizen. I know for a fact he will never return to Rabai Road. Diana. She will probably end up in a scandal about illegal arms trade and the IMF. Fuck Susan. I gave her the scarf. Did my duty as the diligent, present son, the one who stayed. Unlike water. I’ll return home to him, and we will be hanging down from trees.

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