Anyiko Owoko - Remembering Dad
Remembering Dad on our Birthday

I’ve never thought about even trying to remember the days leading up to my father’s burial or even the burial itself.

This is because, even at that point when I was only 9 years, I was very worried about how my mother would get through life by herself, without the jolly good fellow who my father was. On top of supporting his wife and kids, he always brought in laughter, joy and drinks to any occasion. It was always a party when he was around, it didn’t matter what day of the week it was.

But this sober Friday, when they brought my father to sleep at home one last time before the funeral (according to the Luo customs) was the most silent and poignant of all the Fridays I had spent with him. Most people were dressed in black. They were crying, wailing and it was the first time I saw my mother crying in my life. She must have been overtaken by the outpouring love and support from the family, relatives and people from Molo town.

It was such a struggle to carry the coffin through the two gates leading into my parent’s home. After they passed through, I noticed that they ruined the flowerbeds that had roses and carnations beautifying the path towards our home. This damage was forever because after the funeral, mum never took care of the flowerbeds like she used to. All the flowers withered and eventually died.

They put my father’s coffin on the corridor just outside our house and all his friends, family and people he might have touched once in his life had come to Molo, for a final chance to look at him and say goodbye. All this while, mum was making sure that I was fine; asking me to go sleep if I was tired but I really didn’t want to sleep a wink because I felt like I had to spend this one last time and night with my father. After the viewing, the crowd left and it was only close friends and relatives who stayed behind ahead of a journey that would start the next day at 4 AM towards Ugunja the place of the final bow—granny’s homestead in Western Kenya.

Around 1 AM I think some people decided that they would put my father in the house because it was cold outside, or for some other reason. So they carried the coffin into the house and there was a long table in our living room where they placed his coffin. I remember on top of it was a picture of him. To me, Dad was perfect. I had never seen anyone with skin so smooth, light and kind of creamy in colour. My Dad was so handsome, so when they brought him in and opened the little glass window on top of the coffin, I remember running to him and standing right there next to him. I must have spent the night there, hoping that he would open his eyes and say hello or goodbye.

He was lying there so silent and calm. He looked just as good as he did in life. He has passed away peacefully in his sleep. He had died from a lung failure and pneumonia. In this moment, he looked to me just like the last time I had seen him at hospital asleep. I couldn’t imagine that such a perfect body would have to be buried; so I had to stay with him on this night and enjoy my last moment with Dad. I think I overheard my mum talking with my aunt, overlooking us, “Look at her, she keeps touching her father. She’s not even afraid. She thinks he will wake up.”

I stood there until someone brought me a stool to sit right next to Dad. I touched his hands and played with them. It was different this time, because he wasn’t hugging me like he loved to. He would always embrace me in his arms, especially in the early mornings when I would go visit him in my parent’s bedroom. At some point, I think I feel asleep on the stool holding his hand and mum carried me to the bedroom.

It was only a few hours later when mum woke me up. We wore our funeral outfits, all black for my siblings and I. Mum had a white outfit. We were all stylish. The girls outfits were all black skirts, white shirts and black half coats. My (only) brother wore a black suit. Thinking about it now, I don’t know why mum wore white, could it have been a replay of their wedding? Till death do us part? Would that have been her statement that even in death, “I will still remain loyal to you?”

The journey to Dala (home in Luo) was long. It was always long even when Dad was alive because he would always make several stops, along the way. We would be grabbing tea in Kericho, Lunch in Kisumu, views along the way and then always arrive in Dala so late in the evening. This time, I think it took a long time because of the funeral entourage—always diving slowly. After driving for around 7 hours, we finally arrived around 12:30 PM and I remember an entire village meeting us on the road. Carrying twigs, stumping the ground, men and women wailing so loud, praising my father and the life he had lived. Who was my father? I wondered how one man left such an impression.

At the age 9, I hadn’t got to know so much about my Dad as he worked and lived away from home and would only visit over periods or weekends. So when he died, I heard that he was a man of the people, among many other stories that still are recounted to me even today. Having been a Literature and Geography teacher, high school principal and district commissioner of education, over a 15-years tenure, he had crossed paths with many people, even adopting some along the way. All these people came to the funeral to pay their last tribute.

This Saturday was the most jumbled of all the days of my life. I had never seen so many people at my granny’s home and just so many people saddened by my father’s death. This day, I knew that my father was special and that he left a mark in many people’s lives. This day, I felt so strong and inspired by the legacy he left. This day, I didn’t shed one real tear. I was busy observing what was happening and all that while, I just wanted to be with mum and hug her and just tell her that I will take care of her. I knew that no one would ever fill the gap of losing her husband, a great man, someone she really loved and gave up everything to be with and start a family with. I wanted to tell mum, sorry. She was very sad and at the very same time, quite strong. At some point I thought she would fall down because she hadn’t been eating and I think an aunty of mine would always be by her side holding her. She stood strong. I don’t remember her speech much but I remember my late Grandfather’s. Mum’s father stood up to tell off relatives who had already started bullying my mum, whispering words of discontent, saying that she wouldn’t be capable of taking care of her 5 kids and that they would be the ones to take over my father’s estates and will and such things.

On the day of the funeral, my mind was in the future. I knew that all the great times we had had with some relatives was over. It was going to be my mum’s personal effort to see her kids flourish. I knew that she would have to work so hard to take care of us without Dad who had been the main breadwinner at the point of passing away. Mum was also a teacher and a farmer, “and now she’s going to have to work harder” –I thought. I also thought of the loneliness that mama and I would suffer once everything is over. Once everyone has left, we would have to go back to Molo and just be there alone—just the two of us. At this point, two of my sisters (Jackie and Emma) were in boarding school and Pollyne was working in Mombasa. My brother Bon was studying in India.

Amidst all these thoughts, I looked around me and saw that the ceremony had moved from the speeches to the burial site. I was taken care of in the sense that everyone made sure that the little girl, the last born, was at the front of all the commotion and fracas, to say her goodbye by throwing a flower and pinch of soil into the grave where they lowered the coffin. It was a reality hard to take and because I was trying so hard to understand how this could be the last time I am seeing my father, I just didn’t cry or feel sad at this point. I remember forcing myself to cry so that people would see me cry and know that I was at loss.

Looking back at that moment, I just didn’t know what grief was. It’s a thing that you carry with you throughout your life. I am now 32 and it still feels like I am 9 years old and just lost my father. Nothing could ever replace his love and presence. Unlike others who might not have had great parents, my Dad and Mum were so perfect to me and for me. Until today, my siblings and I recall stories of trips I missed that Dad would take them to and games we would play at home there was a power blackout and Dad was using shadows to make silhouette of animals. I miss Dad. I never felt like I was over his departure. I am sometimes afraid of expressing this because I feel like because it’s been a lot of years passed, I should be over it. Is it just me or it feels the same with everyone who has lost someone?

In the following years, I would have several dreams of Dad bringing me rose flowers. In one dream that occurred to me several times from when I was around 10 years old, he would always walk with me down a hill and there was beautiful house below and he would give me a beautiful bunch of flowers. The sun was always shining bright and the grass around us was green and yellowish in colour—just like in the movies. Mum always said that Dad and I had a special bond and that’s why he would always visit me in my dreams. This was a way of him guiding me and assuring me of a bright future, despite his departure, mum said. For about 14 years now, I haven’t dreamt of him again. Mum says it’s because he knows I am fine now and that I don’t need any guidance. She says that before, Dad was around watching over my life as a guardian angel.

I wrote this for my dear friend Silas Miami, who writes films and was researching on the concept of loss and the last 24 hours before a burial and on the day. He said that I should share this on my birthday (today) as a tribute to my Dad whom I share a birthday with.  I wrote all this as a one take, in prose and profuse tears and only today I have read it and did some slight edits. Thank you Silas for reminding me of this memory.

Happy Birthday Dad.