BY FLORENCE BETT-KINYATTI
What would you do if you found out through his Tinder app that your son was gay?
Me? I honestly don’t know what I’d do. I’d probably take a minute or more – maybe even a night, maybe a weekend or a season of three months – to sleep on it. To process the news and sift through the chuff of fact, emotions and consequences.
I’m not good at thinking on my feet. It’s one of my weaknesses, my Achilles heels, the softest spot in my underbelly. I’m the kind of person that needs to step back and take some time away from the context of a situation to process it wholesomely. Alone, just me and my thoughts, and the decision at hand. I like to draw tables of pros and cons, flow charts of what-next and if-else, Venn diagrams of the good, the bad, the ugly and where the three collide. I crunch numbers in Excel worksheets and use pens of different ink colours to track the journey on paper.
I’ve seen it also with my art, my writing. My major point of weakness is that I can’t write stories on the beat. I can’t write you a story of something that’s happening now or that happened this morning. Hell, not even yesterday evening. I need processing time. I’m like an IBM mainframe computer from the 60s.
That’s why I wouldn’t make a good newspaper reporter or scoop journalist, I’m better for a features writer. Feature stories have a longer shelf life than news stories, they usually don’t get run over by time and left for dead on the road.
“Bett, where’s the copy for Ngirita’s second day in court?”
“I’m sending it to you right now. Like right now! It’ll be in your inbox by the time you put your phone down.”
Someone in the background yells about a Page-3 story. The newsroom is like this – it has the urgency of an surgeon’s operating room. As if lives will be lost if everything isn’t treated like an emergency.
“You know what, Bett, don’t bother. Just kill it! We’ve already gone to press.”
“So the story won’t run?”
“No it won’t. Atleast not yours. I’ve run with Stella Cherono’s instead.”
“Jesus. Can I just send you wh…?” Long beep. “Hallo? Hallo?”
In my phone, I have some pictures from Easter and others from my Christmas trip to Kaplong that I’m still sitting on to write short stories about on my social media. (Although, I wouldn’t credit that to my lengthy processing time, that’s simply about being downright damn lazy. Hahha.)
So yeah, I don’t know what I’d do if I found out through his Tinder app that my son was gay.
Don’t even pretend that you would. And not just your son, but also your pal.
I’m a parent and I’m married. Muna is only two and a half years old, though.
She’s our baby. Hell, she’s still a baby.
I want her to be happy.
That reminds me: I remember when kina GB’s people were coming over to mine. It was mid 2015 and I was glowing in my second trimester. GB was coming over to declare that I was his girl and he’d like to ride away with me to the hills of Murang’a.
Before the entourage checked in, my folks and I were in the kitchen combing through the nitty gritties of such traditional ceremonies. Si you know how it goes? So the storo of dowry came up and my Ol’Man went through the pains of explaining to us – me, my Mum and our spokesman Uncle, in his terrible jacket – that dowry is a token exchanged between families, it’s not a exorbitant gift or cash kitty where we try to squeeze out every coin as we possibly can. Neither is it a business transaction that boils down to negotiating the deal on the table, from market price to best price – dowry isn’t bride price.
My Ol’Man then turned to me and said very gently and earnestly, stressing every word, he said, “Fra, I want you to be happy.”
I was stunned. That was the first time in my entire life my Ol’Man was sharing such sappy sentiments. I’d never heard him speak with such raw tenderness, not to me or to anyone I knew. Not even to my Mum. It was too much of a show of emotions for him, an African man of his generation, so he hastily cleared his throat and straightened his tie, went back to being all buttoned up and shit. He turned to my Uncle and bolted out of the kitchen, saying, “Yes, Koech, nyon kengalal….”
I didn’t comprehend the weight of his words until I got a child of my own. I also want Muna to be happy. I really do. I want to raise her to make informed mature decisions and to see her decisions through. I want her to bear their consequences on her shoulders.
I want her to live by some of my maxims. Like the maxim that you clean up after yourself. And I’m not just talking about taking your dirty dishes to the kitchen sink, I’m also talking about burying a body where the CID won’t find it.
And if she ever chooses to loot, I wouldn’t want her to loot the way the Ngirita’s have with NYS – foolishly, greedily, with poorly drawn eyebrows on. I want her to be a smart looter, to exercise some restraint, to align herself with the wind and not play Chinese whispers. Mostly, to look classy while at it. (Hahha. What am I saying? If you ever get to read this Muna, whether from a jail cell or from exile or from the beach of a tax haven, don’t loot – don’t take what’s not yours, child! Remember to reread Robert Fulghum’s ‘All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten’.)
I also don’t want to be the type of parents that tells their kid, ‘I told you’. Because I hate it when someone tells it to my face, doesn’t matter how shit has turned out.
Liverpool loses Champion’s League final? I told you. The Uber arrives after cancelling with five others before him? I told you. I finally admit that my tummy needs gym? I told you. Avengers Infinity War really wasn’t all that? I told you. Kendrick wins the Pulitzer for his album ‘D.A.M.N.’? I told you. Everyone in this town wants to get DRUNK? I told you.
But like I said, Muna is only two and a half years old. I’m speaking in abstract sometime-in-the-future terms. Terms that’ll probably take a different course altogether when she and I get to that bridge to cross it.
I’m a homophobe.
My homophobia isn’t informed by anything you can chew on. It’s informed by my cowardice and ignorance.
You got that right: I’m a homophobe because of burying my head in the sand.
When you ask me what sexuality is, I’ll tell you it’s about boys doing mostly masculine things, girls doing mostly feminine things, and boys screwing girls and girls, boys. Period.
It’s that simple-minded. That linear. That conservative. That demarcated in black and white. There are no gray areas for me as far as sexuality goes. No maybes or some hows, nothing liquid or ambiguous, nothing abstract.
Yet it’s in between the spaces of these obsolete ethos that my ignorance and cowardice stems.
I haven’t read enough about sexuality to reconcile myself with gays and lesbians and the entirety of the LGBTQIA community. I don’t have answers to the questions, questions like, is it nature or nurture? Are the sexual needs of a lesbian similar to mine? What drives girls to seek intimacy – sexual, physical, emotional, intellectual – in other girls, and dudes to seek similar intimacy in other dudes? Is it because gay chicks are attracted to the masculine form in their female partners? If so, why not just date a dude then?
And if I’m thinking along these parallel lines, what attracts a gay dude to another dude – is it the feminine form or is it the masculine form in his male partner?
Taking a step back, are these same-sex relationships anchored in the intrinsic human need for companionship and the modern need of being with someone who undeniably makes you feel good? Someone who is good to you? Someone who is a good person? Someone with upstanding morals and beliefs, is both religious and spiritual, someone who grows you into a better version of yourself?
What’s it in the eyes of God?
I don’t have the answers to these questions.
I know I’ll find them when I explore the subject. What I need to do is to do is some in-depth research about it, as if I’m sitting an exam or writing a term paper. Or a novella, ahem.
Because I don’t know what the future will bring for me and GB and any other kids we’ll have besides Muna. I want to be ready for Muna to be happy if she comes to me 17 years from today and tells me, “Mummy, meet my girlfriend, Carolyne. Carolyne, Mummy.”
I’ll pull Muna aside and hiss into her ear, “Why would you date a girl with a such a terrible name?”
What I’ve seen in our society thus far is this: The biggest irony is that the folk that have ‘come out of the closet’ – whether as lesbians or gays – and are comfortable being who they are (or what they’ve chosen to be, or what nature has thrust upon them, I don’t know) are no longer troubled. When they come out, the trouble isn’t theirs anymore, it’s no longer their burden to carry, the burden transfers from them to the society. It’s for us to do with that info as we please. What they’re saying is, “This is me. I have told you and shown you who I am. You can either accept me or you can keep burdening yourself with your prejudice.”
For someone that hasn’t come out, however, we pity those folk for having a problem. That they are the problem. Society feels that their hands have been washed off it. So you see us asking them questions like, “Are you sure this is who you are? Could it be a phase? So why don’t you just come out? What do you care what people think? What are you so afraid so? Why aren’t you embracing who you are?”
It’s a complex subject. I can’t even begin to scratch the surface here. Anything I tell you about it now is underscored by my guesses, theories and limited observations. This isn’t a discussion that ought to be dictated by that.
It deserves more.
This story is really about a book, ‘Speak No Evil’ by Uzodinma Iweala.
You read it?
Here’s how I stumbled upon Uzodinma: It was a Sato evening late March. I’d just put Muna to bed and we were drinking and chilling in the living; me, GB, my in-laws and our pal. Polite tu, nothing serious.
We wanted to watch a movie and some genius (hey, Wangui) suggested, “Let’s watch ‘Beasts of No Nation’. It’s a nice movie.”
I was sceptical. I’d seen the title page in the Netflix Originals menu and it didn’t seem like a nice movie.
I asked Wangui, “What do you mean ‘nice’? Is it nice like ‘Hitch’? ‘Brave’? ‘Catch Me If You Can’? ‘The Devil Wears Prada’?
I’m discerning about what I watch because I’m emotionally sensitive and, as I mentioned up there, I process and over-process the stuff I consume. Especially stuff I read and watch.
I see it as malleable as clay – clay that my mind can stretch, punch, knead and mould into something different from what I’d initially perceived.
Against my better judgement, I watched with the others ‘Beasts of No Nation’. I should have gone right to bed as soon as the guns in the movie started going off but I didn’t.
It was a long-ish graphic movie of blood, pain and children suffering in a rebel’s war in the rainforests of West Africa.
I carried those gory scenes with me everywhere for the next few days. I couldn’t shake them off. I even had to tell myself that it was just a movie and those were just characters in the movie.
The main character is this kid called Agu (he gave a great performance, by the way). His family is killed and he runs to hide in the forest, he’s captured by the rebels to become a child soldier. He narrates the story in a voice-over.
Idris Alba plays the war lord, the Commandant. In his low slung beret and black aviator mirrors, he walks with a swag reserved for a 90s music video of Puff Daddy and Mase.
I remembered the scene where Agu experienced his first bridge raid and the Commandant had one of the captives – stripped down to his white underwear, hands tied behind his back – brought over for Agu to kill with a machete. And the Commandant, in that God-awful West African accent he’d adopted, said, “These are the men who killed your father, Agu. I want you to slice his head like it’s a water melon.” And that guy said tearfully, “I’m not a government soldier, I’m an engineering student from the capital, we’ve been sent to fix the bridge.” Then Agu, trembling and hesitant, whacked him in the top of his head. And whacked and whacked and whacked.
I remembered where the rebels chanted as they approached the capital city. They were naked and smeared in war paint, melanin popping like Bien from Sauti Sol. And their schlongs were knocking against the insides of their thighs and bouncing about. These African men with African schlongs – large, menacing, a throbbing vein running the length to the tip.
I also remembered how the Second Commandant, the 2IC, would bellow to the battalion to stand at ease then ask, “How does your Commandant look?” and the rebels would bellow back, ‘Alright, Sir!” “How does your Commandant look?” “Alright, Sir!”
And how, before the rebels attacked the capital city and were laying in wait at the brow of the borders, Idris/the Commandant hummed a war song and bounced on the balls of his feet with the flair of a street dancer in New York. Then he went around feeling the hearts of the soldiers and pulling forward the ones whose hearts weren’t beating hard, the ones who weren’t afraid of the senseless death that awaited them.
I also remembered when the rebels had reached the capital city and stormed a house and separated a mother from her toddler, then, Good Lord, proceeded to stomp the toddler to death and raped the mother.
And where Agu’s pals were making fun of him, of how nervous he was after they’d captured him in the forest and he met the Commandant for the first time. Those were one of the few scenes where Agu laughed like the child he were.
Or that scene where the Commandant Invited Agu to his sleeping quarters, then, after snotting some cocaine or whatever – they called it brown brown – unbuckled his belt saying, “Agu, please kneel down.” The next scene is of Agu coming down the stairs limping, in tears, and his pal, Strika, stumbling over his feet to go put his arm around him because he too had been the Commandent’s bitch before.
I needed to get the scenes out of my head so I went down the rabbit hole.
I went online and read reviews in the New York Times and Rotten Tomatoes. I also read interviews of the directors and producers. I watched the trailer and behind the scenes footage.
It’s from this little adventure that I discovered the movie was based on a book by Uzodinma Iweala. Movies that are adopted from books are never as captivating as the book itself – writers do imaginative things with words that filmmakers can’t do with their fancy tools.
I was fortunate to find Uzodinma’s on Kindle. Kindle rarely stocks African titles (I’m happy that Bikozulu’s DRUNK is stocked, though). I downloaded a sample but didn’t go far because the book (‘Beasts of No Nation’) is written in that ‘rebel’ English that Agu speaks in – broken, uneducated, somewhat idiotic. I don’t recall him speaking like that in the movie. Or if he did, I forgave him because his performance was top drawer.
It’s here that that I downloaded the sample of ‘Speak No Evil’, loved it and purchased the book.
In the book, Niru’s Dad is furious when he learns from Niru’s Tinder app that Niru is gay. “Who is Ryan?” he asks, frothing at the corner of his mouth. He’s sitted at the kitchen table waiting, Niru’s Samsung in his hand. Niru had somehow forgotten his phone at home that day and his Dad happened to be horsing around the kitchen when Niru’s Tinder pinged.
Niru’s Dad does what any African man and father would do: he tells Niru that he’s been possessed by evil spirits and must be prayed for by the Reverend for cleansing. He says that Niru has been Americanised – becoming gay is what happens when you live in America for all of your 18 years.
Then he blames Niru’s Mum. He tells her, “He’s become a woman because you’ve been treating him like a woman!”
I’m reading the book slowly and putting it aside every few minutes so I can think through the weighty issues. Issues that logic and flowcharts won’t advise.
I’m empathising with Niru as a young man coming of age in a Western society that’s more accepting of same-sex relationships yet is also not a place he will call his home. I’m also empathising with Niru’s Dad because I’m a parent myself, I can’t judge him for reacting the way he does. I see a little of myself in him. I also see a little of myself in Niru’s Mum.
I want to be less ignorant about sexuality when I finish reading this book.
Because you never know when these same issues will come knocking at my front door.