The day I picked Muthoni from the Cape Town International Airport and drove her to my home wasn’t particularly a sad one. I didn’t know who she was. I didn’t know she would reawaken in me ghosts so threatening; ghosts so importunate.
We drove to Somerset West in silence, through the sprawling picturesque winelands of Cape Town. I let Muthoni commune in the magic of Somerset West. Strangely, It didn’t even cross my mind she was from Kenya. All I had was a name.
I had placed a request at Somerset University’s accommodation department to take in two international students. The first one was Ananswe from Zambia. He was studying something to do with chemistry. Then came Muthoni...a student of theatre and drama.
It was not until a month later that my wife Mpho called to tell me who Muthoni was. I was working on Johannes’ farm.
Johannes’ horses and cattle had multiplied tremendously. He was making a fortune from his dairy and recreational horse-riding business and he needed me.
I had made a name as the most available vet in the winelands. It seemed I was chasing a lost dream that Mother kept singing about. The dream of the ranch, the lost ranch.
Mpho has a way with people. She just called and said I should be home early for dinner. I left Johannes’ ranch early evening and drove my bakki straight home to Mpho. There I found them, Muthoni and Mpho.
They had cooked a delicious meal from a new recipe. We were enjoying the meal, talking about the weather and the beautiful winelands when Muthoni almost ruined everything.
‘‘Hey Danieles, Mpho just told me that your family lived in Kenya for some time...’’ she said merrily.
Kenya...the land of my pain...the land of my childhood....
I was lost for words.
‘‘Well, I’m from Kenya. From the Nyandarua plains; near Mount Kenya,’’ Muthoni went on.
I felt numb in my soul. I tried to see Muthoni anew. I tried to mould her features in my mind, to see if she would fit in the images of my childhood, the images of the people I knew. Was she Mama’s daughter? Or just one of the girls from the villages...This was confusing.
She wasn’t born then. But surely, I must have met her mother or her father along the village paths...Do they remember us? They used to call us the Kaburus, the Boers.
‘‘Father’s bones lie abandoned in Kenya, in Nyandarua...’’ I almost said to her.
‘‘It’s alright…my dear. Let’s not talk about Kenya tonight,’’ Mpho intervened.
She began talking about some Congolese fabrics. Their talk went hollow; their laughter revealed their tension, their eyes glowed with guilt.
I was a wounded soul. I was a hunted eland. The hideouts were diminishing at an alarming rate. The world had unwrapped itself. Somerset West was no longer a hidden corner from the rest of Africa.
Somerset West is where the birds in flight patched. It is where, in 1963, we found calmness when the trekking through the wilderness ended.
Mother, my sister Jenica and my elder brother Shakir. We had fled; we had abandoned Father’s bones in the plains of Nyandarua, in Kenya.
There were promises that our ranch would be sold, that the money would be sent to us. Thirty years later, no single cent has reached us here in Somerset. I thought I had forgotten about Kenya. It was many years ago. I was just a child when it happened. Was I six or seven? Mother never stopped talking about it.
‘‘Daniele, you were seven...’’ Mother would keep harping on that string.
‘‘Son, you didn’t see much. Shakir held your mouth and I held Jenica’s mouth. From the hideout, Shakir and I watched your father hacked to death...The freedom soldiers were roaming the land.’’
I remember Mother’s fears vividly. It was 1959. The robust wind of freedom was blowing again. A whirlwind.
We sat there and wondered where we would flee to when the freedom soldiers come calling in Somerset West, our last corner in the world. We had escaped from one internecine war to another protracted war.
There’s no single day that Mother ever fully narrated that traumatic encounter. She always ended up gazing into emptiness. She always hummed a tune soaked in sorrow. But she never wept. There we were, struggling with life in Somerset West, surrounded by affluent Afrikaners. And, if Shakir had been lucky to bring home something to eat, Mother would for the umpteenth time remind us, in her lingeringly deep voice: ‘‘My children, we had a ranch in Kenya, in the Nyandarua plains, in the shadow of Mt Kenya....’’
I never had the courage to ask Shakir what he saw in Kenya. I was young then. The memories of the ranch were completely remote.
I remembered my playmates, Ndirangu and his younger sister Muthoni. They were the children of our herdsman, Kamau and our nanny whom we simply called Mama. Our childhood bond was suddenly severed by the freedom war.
It is mother who ensured I never forgot the children on the ranch. Once in a while she would confront me with melancholic questions:
‘‘Daniele, do you remember Ndirangu and Muthoni? They must be as tall as you are now. I wonder what happened to Mama…That woman dotted on you...’’
Try as hard as I could, I never really managed to picture Mama in my mind. The form was there, an apron, hands that used to lift me up in the air, but completely blurred. It was a pity I lied to poor Mother that if I met Mama anywhere in the world, I could point her out.
But the landscape never left me. The towering snowy mountain in the distance, its tremendous sovereign shadow crawling over the land..... And the songs and dances and drumming in the villages during circumcision ceremonies...father’s horses and innumerable cows and bulls—their mowing and bellowing and neighing... The ducks that swam in the pond near our bungalow....
Funny I used to think the horses and the cattle belonged to Kamau, and the ducks belonged to Mama...How I used to ride on the horse with Kamau... And Father would clap and wave and burst out laughing.
And in the evenings Ndirangu, Muthoni, Mama and I, would go picking eggs laid by the ducks and store them until the ducks were ready for brooding. All these memories had receded to the shores of amnesia.
Though inundated with alienation, we had chosen Somerset West. We had chosen to soldier on. We learnt to be natives of the land. True, we always felt that the people of Somerset West could read our spiritual rootlessness.
Their eyes seemed to see that we were lonely, empty, wounded, submerged in desires for a land beyond us. Yet Somerset West had become our home. It was home.
That night I discovered Muthoni was from Nyandarua, from Kenya. I was swallowed in a nightmare. I dreamt I was young again. I was playing with Ndirangu and Muthoni. Then five men appeared. They were familiar. Our truck drivers. But they looked menacing. They headed straight to the house.
Ndirangu, Muthoni, and I peeped through the window. We saw father stand up to welcome them, but with a grave look on his face. We saw the five men attack Father. Father wailed. We ran for our lives. We hid in the caves by River Chania.
We could see the attackers sniffing our tracks. They disappeared into the forest that stretched to the peak of Mt Kenya. I broke down and wept. I wept in my dreams.