Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Pain from an Old Wound

Mbaraka Mwinshehe. PHOTO | Daily Nation.
In September this year, my neighbor lost her grandson.
I was called over to her smokey, traditional kitchen just after 8 A.M. where I found her three sons and her nephew taking tea. Immediately I walked in, and following the usual countryside pleasantries, I was offered a steaming cup of 'ndubia'. After all, and in line with my 'kuumira kuumira' culture, "ng'aragu ndihoyagwo uhoro."

"I've just asked Muchiri to call you because we've been met with some sad news." Mama Kimani started. I saw her pause to wipe a tear from her eye, and she then proceeded: "I bet you do know Gitau, whose mother we buried just a few years ago and whose son we buried just the other day?"

"Yes I do." was my reply.

"Well, Gitau is no more. Someone please tell me, why do I have to bury my daughter, my great grandson and now my grandson all within a decade?" She asked, and broke down in painful sobs.

Her sons and I, other than incessant appeals for her to hold it together and be strong, had nothing to say. It was painful for us all, given that Gitau had died following a short illness at only 35.
At an age when life hasn't even started for a significant majority.

That incidence really got me thinking.

* * *

I am a great fan of Malcolm Gladwell and have taken time to read almost all his longform articles in the New Yorker and Slate.
Much as Peter Thiel would rather someone convinces Gladwell to change his theories, I remain a fan.

In the last three years, I've avidly taken time to listen to Gladwell's 'Revisionist History' podcast. It is a second look at past events that were either misunderstood, ignored or failed to get due attention. In Gladwell's words, "sometimes, the past deserves a second chance."

There are two podcast episodes that resonate very well with this particular post:
One is 'The Big Man Can't Shoot' and the other 'Hallelujah,' both from Season 1.

In 'The Big Man Can't Shoot,' Malcolm looks back at the unconventional, underhanded shooting skill of Wilt Chamberlain. The premise of the episode is something Gladwell had covered back in the New Yorker, in an article on Thresholds of Violence. One take away from both the article and podcast episode is how and why we change from what is clearly working, to what doesn't produce the best results only because it happens to be what's popular and acceptable.
Creativity and what happens when it takes time to fully manifest itself is what 'Hallelujah' is about. This particular episode reprises Gladwell's message in his 'Late Bloomers' article in the New Yorker, where he asks: "Why do we equate genius with precocity?"

When I look back at people that were well known to me but passed on at an age many of us consider the prime of one's life, I cannot help wondering if what they had already achieved at the time of death was commensurate with their potential.
Or more important, and sadly, if they hadn't even begun to exploit their potential.

For the purposes of this post, I have in mind several of my High School and University classmates who all died in their late 20s and early 30s. Sospeter Juma died soon after we sat our KCSE examinations. Daniel Gitau Muigai passed on well before his Engineering career path took shape following graduation at JKUAT.
Whilst Fred Onkoba died a Medical Doctor and Martin Njuma a pilot, I still think it was all too early in their chosen career fields to say they had really done much professionally.
What if the true genius of these guys was not already established as Pablo Picasso's was at an early age, but barely just taking shape as Cezanne's?

And here's something that might shock you, if only to illustrate just how transient life is: Mbaraka Mwinshehe died at the age of only 34.

* * *

The Pointer Sisters are known for great songs that were produced several decades ago. Among these are 'Automatic,' 'Should I do it?' and 'I'm so Excited.'
In August 1996, someplace in Limuru as I while time away over school holidays, I got to first listen to 'Slow Hand' by The Pointer Sisters. The song was on heavy rotation, part of a handful of songs on a new FM radio station that was conducting test transmissions in Nairobi and its environs. Here is a jingle at that station that plays to this day:

"The guarantee: The Best Music of Music,
The frequency: 98.4,
The station: Capital FM."

I often look back during deeply nostalgic moments that crowd my often solitary life. And unlike a significant number whose past is inundated by things they'd rather forget, mine is both vivid and filled with happy thoughts.

I have surprisingly clear memories of things, people and situations that I encountered in the past decade. Even two decades. Which is a blessing, given that a significant part of my current writing demands an accurate recollection of days, years and decades past.

Meanwhile, have you ever wondered how it would feel to go back to witness, at your current age and understanding, your past life? Would you enjoy the life and let it be or there would be much to adjust?
In the 'Walking Distance' episode of The Twilight Zone, an advertising man gets an opportunity to do just that - Martin finds himself back in his childhood and gets to meet his parents, walks around in his neighborhood and engages with people from his past.

A Walking Distance has interesting parallels with the one scene in TV that best captures the essence of nostalgia. This is The Carousel pitch in Madmen's last episode of season one. Here is Don Draper pitching to Kodak executives:

The way I see it, our past is much closer than a walking distance.
I personally feel this irresistible, gnawing urge to go back occasionally and reminisce. Good thing is, we share a good number of these memories with you. Yes, we do, even in instances where we didn't interact directly.

* * *

Throughout 2019, I shall be writing my High School and University memoirs.
For those that I occasionally interact with, particularly in the respective WhatsApp groups, I'll be publishing exclusive write-ups on occasion.

But worry not, having not schooled with me doesn't exclude you looking back in time with me. There is so much else to share from this eventful life we get to live at the rate of 86,400 seconds per day. Each day. Every day.

So keep it here. You definitely wanna be around when I get the next twinge in my heart.


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