An Erudite Man, Well spoken and Highly Intelligent

Early March, 2018

Back in Nairobi, determined not to be reliant on others any more, I persuaded my daughter to lend me her car for a debut drive in the atrocious traffic conditions of the city. A good opportunity was a visit to my friend, John Sibi-Okumu, only just up the road from where I was staying.

John s-okumu

“It’s only ten minutes’ walk,” John told me over the phone. “My block of flats is opposite a land-mark pub. Call me when you get to my road.”

It might take him ten minutes to walk, I thought, but I’m old enough to be his mother; and I didn’t want to be knocked down while crossing the street, or to have my bag snatched…

It was midday, so the traffic was light, and I drove without mishap into the road John named. But I couldn’t see the pub anywhere. I’m no good on the mobile phone – can’t hear it at the best of times. I stopped, and compelling traffic to pause, did a three-point turn, eventually pulling into a nearby block of flats. I addressed an askari at the gate.

“The pub is down that road,” he said, pointing to a turn opposite.

I drove to the very end and stopped at some more gates to take out my mobile phone.

“Ask the askari for the mwalimu, (teacher),” John told me. “Then you walk to the top floor. There’s no lift.”

Puffing a little, I entered a large, well designed abode. John’s wife Kaari is a professional designer when she isn’t helping her mother to look after her disabled sister. John left me with Kaari for a while and we had plenty to talk about. She’d read both my books and had a question:

“What happened to Maina in Grass Shoots – perhaps he could be the subject of your next book…?” I pulled a face. I’ve resisted all thoughts of writing yet another Africa book, I don’t think I have the energy.

Kaari disappeared into their spacious kitchen while John showed me round the flat. He led me upstairs into his lair, a wonderful room lined with books. No – he hasn’t read them all, he told me in answer to my unspoken question. Everyone asks it. A lot of them are books handed to him as a good home by people who’ve left the country.

He showed me an adjoining study where he helps students to cram for their French exams. Then we sat in comfortable armchairs surrounded by the books and chatted. My eyes wandered along the shelves, and I saw several familiar titles. Dust was there, by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, a beautiful Kenyan read; and, by contrast, When the Crocodile Eats the Sun, a disturbing account of Zimbabwe’s past history, by Peter Godwin. John’s preferences are biographies and autobiographies. Although he has authenticated specified chapters of my two Africa books, he hasn’t read either of them through to the end! His favourite read is poetry, and he reads a poem every night before going to sleep.

He’s just emerged from a period in hospital and is not allowed to drive because of the medication. An erudite man, well-spoken and highly intelligent, he told me about plans to set up his study into a sound-proof room for reading talking-books for a US company. This would be much cheaper than him flying to the US, which charges a fortune and pays the reader only a meagre amount. John, with his thespian skills, would make a wonderful reader of Breath of Africa, I tell him.

He has written several plays, produced locally to full houses, but no publisher has wanted to take them on; so he’s thinking of writing a novel instead. But he also has an idea for yet another play, he wanted advice on the plot and especially the ending. I have a feeling he is full of enthusiasm and ideas, but wonder how many will come to fruition, given his health problems.

I asked him for his thoughts on my two novels becoming set books in Kenya schools. Not a chance, he replied. Wazungus (white people) writing about Africans is not PC in Kenya. But the Aga Khan Academies have their own curriculum, so there may be a chance there, although the sales wouldn’t be so good.

“What are the chances of them being published locally?” I asked. John offered to initiate steps and got straight onto his mobile phone to an editor friend,  who was busy. He tried another contact, then – always ready to help if he can – he suggested I leave copies of my books and if he finds a local publisher interested, he can send them over.

We could have gone on talking for hours, but I had to leave at 2pm to hand the car back to my daughter. John chivvied Kaari in the kitchen and lunch was finally produced. Delicious baked chicken joints, kachumbari – made with avocado, tomato and onions – and roast sweet potatoes, salad and gravy; followed by fruit salad.

We paused for a quiet prayer and I managed to eat my lunch and get away in time.


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