Baba (my paternal grandfather) had a small bead shop on Bondeni road in Mombasa, with the typically Arab wooden shutter doors that were so common on the older streets of Mombasa, Lamu and Zanzibar. No metal studs were embedded into the front of the door, just smooth wooden panels, etched following the grain of the wood with indented squares, three to a side. The store window, in contrast to the dark brown wood, was a burst of colour: a multitude of large red beads, the size of butter beans, gathered together on a string, hanging loosely; other strings of turquoise blue beads slightly larger than a grain of sand coiled on a black velvet tray; and the religiously symbolic colours of the yellow, orange, green, maroon, and brown akik, displayed in their own separate shelf, absorbing the glow from the sunlight and the street lights.
Another section of the window was dedicated to tasbis (strings of prayer beads) – all sizes, all colours and all stones. Some were engraved with the names of the Panjatan (the five members of Prophet Mohammed’s family: Prophet Mohammed, Hazrat Ali, Hazrat Fatimah and Hassan and Husein), others were the rounded stones of fruits, threaded together in batches of 33 and 99 with an imam (similar to the peak of a minaret) at the start where the ministrations would start and end, marking the 100th prayer in the sequence. A small plume of thread or beads hung off the end which I often played with as a child, braiding the threads into a small fat plait or dividing up the number and colour of threads to make many small ones with a particular colour weaving through.
Baba’s shop with its woody, earthy smell was a haven for my sister and me. Sheltered from the heat of the coastal city, it was cool and dark. Its corners and crevices a hideaway. Its many coloured and textured beads a playground. And the spiritual importance of the tasbis added a reverence that prevented us from concocting any real mischief within its walls. But as much fun as it was to sit in a dark and dusty corner with its musty smells playing with the forgotten multi-coloured beads, we also loved to sit closer to the entrance with its wooden doors wide open allowing the sunlight to stream in, smiling up at the friendly faces that stopped by to greet Baba, eavesdropping on their adult conversations in a way that only children can, watching the words escape first one face and then the other, trying to decrypt the sounds of speech.
We would either sit on a three-legged jalebi stool (which had a small doughnut cushion placed on top of it and a long material skirt all around hiding three bony wooden legs) rocking back and forth on one leg or cross legged on the floor, our red Bata slippers folding to the curve of our feet, pretending to play with the beads in front of us.
And there we would stay until noon waiting for the ceremonious closing of the store with its large interlocking iron bars, then driving to Tudor for a hot lunch of chapati and curry in Baba’s grey Peugeot KAF 621 which he drove in a slow and leisurely manner. My sister would be in front with the window wound down all the way, imitating Baba even then by leaning back in her seat and watching the streets from the window; I would be in the back with my body squeezed in between the two front seats, just behind the hand brake, gripping both head rests to hold myself steady, eager not to miss a single word of their conversation.
And then after a heavy lunch, we would head back to the shop at around four in the afternoon, still a little sleepy-eyed after a hot siesta. We would clamber into the car with tendrils of hair stuck to our sweaty necks and foreheads, and arrive at the shop in anticipation of leaving it again. And the slow stroll around the neighbouring shops that would follow where Baba would buy cookies covered with a dollop of colourful icing that we would first lick off the biscuit, and then quietly suffer through the actual biscuit before being allowed to take the icing off another. Hard crunchy icing in pink, green and yellow colours but all with the same flavour, which if you were lucky and you pried very gently came off the biscuit intact, so you could slowly nibble away without the fear that the biscuit would crumble in your sweaty palms.
And then with our fingers and mouths sticky with colourful icing paste, we would stop at the fruit market and drink a freshly cut madaf (green coconut) from a mkokoteni (hand cart), scooping out the rambe rambe from the inside with a spoon fashioned from the husk of the coconut. We would lean as far forward as possible without toppling over, holding the coconut far from our cotton dresses so that none of the liquid would stain our clothes. Slippery silver slivers of rambe rambe would drip down our chins adding to the gooey mess of icing, and small brown shavings from the madaf would cling to our soft cheeks.
And Baba would hold our sticky little hands in his large ones as we walked back to the car. One on each side. H*******’s two daughters.
Baba was a big man. He was 5ft 10 inches tall and broad shouldered, and often wore a light brown or cream coloured Kaunda suit with large checks and faint lines, which made him look even more formidable. He had strongly etched features with a flaring nose, deep black eyes as shiny as obsidian, and a broad lipped mouth. But for all his size and presence, he was a quiet man who spoke fathoms without saying a word. Everything in his home ran according to his dictate without a raised word from him. And he loved his grandchildren. And because my sister and I were the two who lived in Mombasa, we were privileged in being able to spend more time with him. My sister and I would spend hours sitting on his lap as he sat in his favourite chair in Tudor, curled with our head on his shoulder, our feet dangling at the side of his waist, falling asleep and waking up hours later to find him as still as before, looking down at our sleeping figures.
My parents have so many stories about him. My mother’s are about how his patriarchal role in the family kept everyone in line and even kept her difficult marriage going; about his silent strength as he sat in his chair near the dining table; about the meal time routines that Maa (my grandmother) would religiously follow every day, how she put in extra care when preparing his favourite dish, chicken akhni (a chicken rice dish) with khurdi (a milk based lamp chop soup), and always saved the best part of the meal for him: the largest slice of the omelette, an extra glass of juice, the biggest helping of dessert.
My father’s are about his childhood: the mischievous parakrams (antics) that he and his younger brother M****** would get up to and how Baba would be either indulgent or strict as the two wreaked havoc in their Z***** building home.
I don’t remember much about myself at that age but from photographs and stories, I have created memories. Most of them are in the third person, so it is always me as an adult standing in the room, watching myself doing something as a child. And in these memories, I have a large round, batetu (potato) shaped head as my mother describes it, precariously balanced on my thin body, my head lolling slightly to the side because it was too heavy for my neck to support.
But in my memories of Baba, they begin in the third person where I see myself standing on his feet and then shift to ones where I can see from my own eyes and so I know they are real. I am looking down and I can see my small, nutmeg brown, splayed feet on his, my big toe and little toe gripping the sides of his larger ones. I barely reach his waist but my hands are coiled around his elbows, balancing myself. And as he lifts his feet, mine lift with them – up and down, bending at my knobbly knees. And suddenly I am dancing. I look up and I am sure there is an expression of glee on my face because he is looking down at me, smiling, eyes twinkling. It is one of the happiest and most poignant memories that I have of him.
The strength of Baba’s presence was only felt after he left us. To this day, my sister tells us that Baba confided in her the day before he died. He told her that he was going but that she shouldn’t be sad and she shouldn’t cry, and that when she had told my mother that evening, we had all assumed that Baba was going on a trip. It was only months later after some of the sorrow had dissipated that we remembered what M***** had told us, and how he really did have a premonition about his death and that he chose to share it with her. It speaks of the special relationship that they shared; how even as a little girl, she tried to imitate everything he did, down to her dislike of green peas and the way she would roll them to the left side of her plate if one ever trespassed in.
My sister M was always close to Baba. She would follow him around everywhere, imitating his walk with the right and left foot at 45-degree angles to the path. There is a picture of her standing in the Tudor compound, with one of the large asmini (jasmine) pots on each side of her. She is in a pair of blue dungarees with a white shirt, probably around 5 or 6 years old. Hand in pockets, her feet are spaced exactly like Baba’s … and you can almost see his shadow standing next to her. She still walks like that, stubbing her feet on any piece of nearby furniture.
After Baba died in 1986, his children sold his bead shop. It was one of the first permanent steps to admitting that he was gone. And it was a painful one. Felt by everyone in the little town of Mombasa, whichever name they called him by: Y****, Y******* kaka, Bawaji or Baba, because of the kind of person he was and how central a place he and his shop held in their lives and their hearts. The loss was no less painful for us, the children who grew up in his bead-filled shop and in which his memory continued to live.
Every time we pass by, we fight the instinctive urge to peer into its cool dark interior and catch a glimpse of his ghostly self sitting at the desk and our childhood selves playing in the corner.
February 15 2012