(In loving memory of my grandmother, Lonah Etago. The fire that burnt within you, is beginning to manifest on the edges of my skin)
I still do not have a clear memory as to why on that hot afternoon of December 2014, all of us, my mother, younger sister and I, were all in my mother’s bedroom. Catching up, maybe. Filling in the blank spaces, maybe. Changing bed-sheets, maybe. Or as usual, my mother filling us in on all the village gossip we had missed out on.
What is still clear on my mind is the vibration of my then phone against my laps, the lighting of the screen, and the gentle but hard words from my father:
‘Ambia Lonah namesake wake ameaga dunia.’
In case you are wondering what the heck kuaga is, my dad speaks perfect Swahili. Writes perfect Swahili. Yells at you in perfect Swahili. He is one of those who will say, ‘Kikombe changu ukikipeleka huko jikoni, uhakikishe kiko salama.’
Ah, we have gotten used to that. We no longer laugh whenever it sounds absurd. We mix our Swahili and English as carelessly as we want, and wait for that ‘hicho ni Kiswahili kipi mnazungumza? Mnaniletea fedheha’ from him.
I read the text, but something about it doesn’t sit in place. Surely, my grandmother could not be dead. She has never been sick, ever since I got to know her. How can she die? I want to text back and ask how, but I realize if this is true, then my father has lost his favorite woman on earth, his mother, and it would be insensitive to ask that.
I stand up and move to where my mother sits. I show her the text.
My sister moves closer, and the moment she sees the text, something dark covers the air around her. She doesn’t say a thing. She doesn’t gasp. She, slowly, walks away towards her own room.
My mother and I say or do nothing. I do not immediately know how I feel. Or what to think. I head back to our bedroom to find my sister in her bed, crying her heart out.
I do not remember much from the funeral, apart from my father speaking so beautifully about his mother, in a language so beautiful I guess most of the mourners did not understand. I remember the sadness on my sister’s face, maybe fighting tears, as she carried flowers to the grave. I remember my grandmother’s face, calm in death as she was in life. I remember my cousins, most of who I was seeing for the first time since we were kids, staring at me whispering, and my father telling me later, that they referred to me as mzungu. Why? Because melanin in that side of our family is the order of the day.
Still, I remember how distant I was during the entire process. I distanced myself from the reality that she was no more. A woman who was fierce and proud of herself. A woman who did not need validation from anyone. A woman who loved her thirteen children in equal measure, and raised a great chunk of my cousins, without a single complaint whatsoever. A woman who spoke to us entirely in Maragoli, even though we only understood bits and pieces of the language.
A woman who punctuated her words with laughter, perhaps at our ignorance of the language, or at the happiness we brought her. A woman who toiled in the stone mountains in search of herbs whenever our stomachs rumbled.
A woman who made my father so proud of us, his daughters.
I distanced myself, even more, from my father because I dreaded seeing him sad. Or anxious. Or helpless. Or hopeless. I distanced myself from everyone and everything I felt would remind me of where I was.
I resorted to isolated corners, watching from a distance as my sister grieved for the rest of us all.
Since then, I realized escaping, sometimes, brings me the kind of healing, peace and tenderness I crave when overwhelmed. I realize it is safer, for me, watching from a distance, allowing myself to be in the moment, but disentangle myself from all the pain and memories.
Sometimes, when I start keeping my distance, I think of my grandmother and how much her death impacted my thinking, my understanding, of people and things, my actions, my reactions, towards people and things.
I think of her, and realize the brittleness of life. I realize that even in her death, she still oozed of love and confidence, and I am still not sure whether in my life, I will get to achieve her levels of self-confidence.
I think of her, and I am reminded that every day below the sun, I get to choose what I want, who I want, what I need, what makes me happy. What calms my nerves. What brings fear to my bones, what breaks my heart. What gives me freedom. And even if things do not go as planned, it is okay to distance myself, if that is the only way towards healing.
Sometimes, my mum calls and when I tell her I haven’t left the house for two weeks, she wants to get on the next bus and find me. But no, I tell her I am fine. I am taking my time away from people. I am de-cluttering my mind, because for me to grow, I need space.
I am staying away from places that do not give me the peace I need. I am staying away from people who continue to hurt my feelings, and I grow weaker and weaker with every fake smile I flash at them.
Does she understand? No. But I am her daughter, and she trusts me to do that which pleases me. Sometimes, she thinks I am strange, but strangeness is the one thing everyone is endowed with, only that they haven’t realized it yet.
Sometimes, it gets hard to explain why you are suddenly not showing up to places. Why, suddenly, you are not willing to mix with people. Why you are trying to find your peace within yourself. Why? Because inward peace is a reality most people are yet to come into terms with. It is a rarity which remains foreign to most people, just like the sudden death of a beloved.
I am still learning to mourn my grandmother in ways I did not get to do in 2014. Because it easier now, seeing that most of the people around me have found ways to deal with the gap. Most of the people around me have found their happiness. Most of their lives have gone back on track. They no longer weep when they hear her name, because a number of my cousins are named after her.
I am finding ways to escape whenever I can, because peace is so divine to my soul.