Alone in the Dark

In the past few months, my little brother’s eyes have grown somewhat…older. In many ways, Terence is still the same. He’s still dwarfed by many of his classmates, and still hides behind the nearest wall when visitors come over until someone drags him out into the open, then, after a bashful ‘Hi,’ flies up the stairs and slams the door of his bedroom shut. But even though gaps still show in his mouth where little teeth used to be, and he still finds sweet things irresistible and study a recurring nightmare (sometimes, when he’s told to revise for his exams, he even cries), there’s something different about him nowadays.

Ever since my youngest sister, Eleanor, was born, he’s had to give up the lastborn privileges – she is now the two-year-old queen of the Nyiha household. Her subjects? A doting father, a caring mother, a wise, cheerful maid and five insane siblings. For my part, I can’t help it: her innocence just shines out from her, glorious and pure and unpretentious, digging deep into my heart and, by the contrast, so vividly showing me my own interior darkness and complication that I feel ashamed. Often, I turn away so the tears don’t well up; maybe you’ve felt the same way before. And nowadays, when Terence looks at her as they run shouting all over the house, there’s a hint of a protector inside his boyish eyes.

I still remember those nights when he and I used to sleep in the same room. He’d yank the door open and patter across the landing to my parents’ bedroom.

“I’m scared!” His wide eyes would glisten in the half-light coming in through the curtains.

My dad would murmur in a voice thick with sleep, “Mm…what are you scared of?”

“Monsters!” He’d think he’d heard them lurking in the dark …

Remember your old childhood fear.

Alone in the darkness, surrounded by her emptiness, your clothes and your own body heat the only sensations against your skin, she would haunt you. She’d echo every distant sound and long after the silence had settled, she’d whisper it in your ears. She’d compel your imagination to fill her emptiness with all sorts of strange noises and movements. She’d set your heart racing with fear. She’d slow down the passing of time itself. But worst of all was the blindness, and the thoughts that came along with it, that anything could be hiding in your wardrobe, under your bed, right next to you, and you’d never know until it was too late.

Alone in the dark, you yearned for light.

For anyone who’s seen a bit more of life, though, that fear has a slightly different tone. Ask anyone caught out of his home after 7:00 p.m., and you’ll realise that darkness is to be feared. Only, it isn’t monsters we’re afraid of now…

Darkness, coldness, emptiness… it’s all the same, isn’t it?

Well, I used to think so too, until I started noticing kids more. Working in a school makes you notice them, no matter how aloof or absent-minded you may be. I like to look at the boys falling all over and screaming their heads off (just the younger ones, mind you; the older ones have lost their innocence). Every morning, they shout like it’s the first day of school, they play football with bottle tops and paper bags, they climb onto the monkey-bar and race each other back and forth, their eyes shining with delight, fear, and the thrill of being 1.5 metres above the ground – I guess that’s a huge drop for the little guys. And I think, “All of these also came from darkness.”

For nine months, they were sheltered in their mothers’ wombs where they were never alone, not even for a single moment. The darkness was never empty. There was no chilling silence because, even while she slept, her breathing accompanied them in the blackness. Though they could never see her or feel her touch, they knew she was there. And she always loved them.

The world is a mother’s womb.

We are inside it, immersed in darkness, in emptiness, in cold, in bitterness, in lies. You don’t need to go as far back as the World Wars. You don’t even need to go to the morning paper. Just look inside yourself, and if you’re honest, you’ll see it’s true.

Yes, in the world we find laughter, excitement, adventure, beautiful sunsets, the ocean’s hiss on the shore, the rain’s whisper in the trees… There are also tears, hatred, corruption, anguish, cynicism and despair. But we are not alone.

God looks upon us with a mother’s love.

… Then, why do we suffer?

Well, when I hear this question, I remember two closely connected things:

The first is a smile on a black face. (When I say black, I mean black.)

Joy coaxes all that darkness into gentle curves and sets the eyes gleaming with a light all at once familiar and mysterious. It seems to have no source, but suffuses the whole face, the way the twilight sun lights up the sky even though the sun has disappeared beyond the horizon. All sternness, all scars of time disappear in that strange glow of youth, vigour, hope and life.

Suddenly, a light fills the darkness.

The second is the Pope’s address to the youth in the Kasarani Stadium during his visit to Kenya two years ago.

Manuel, one of the youths chosen to ask the Pope a question, asked, “How can we realize that God is our Father? How can we see God’s hand in the tragedies of life?”

Visibly moved, he replied:

“There is only one answer: no, there is no answer. There is only a way: to look to the Son of God.

God delivered his Son to save us all. God let himself get hurt. God let himself be destroyed on the cross. So when the moment comes when you don’t understand, when you’re in despair and the world is tumbling down all around you, look to the cross!

There we see the failure of God; there we see the destruction of God. But there we also see a challenge to our faith: the challenge of hope. Because that story didn’t end in failure. There was the resurrection, which made all things new.”

Goodness from evil.

Life from death.

Light from darkness.

Bittersweet

Recently, maybe mid-February, I was having dinner somewhere with some friends. I wish that I could say more about the place – the lighting, the decorations hung on the walls, the general atmosphere, the general atmosphere – but none of those things struck me that night. I didn’t notice any particular attention to detail in the folding of the napkins, in the choice of colours (not that it wasn’t there, though.) What did strike me was the dessert: a spongecake, golden brown, topped with coconut shavings dyed green, like a field of grass. Bright strawberries stood blushing at its corners, and in the warm light, you could see their juicy wetness.

As it went round, I tried to start some small talk with the man next to me, resisting looking at the thing, but in between words, my eyes kept darting left, as if drawn by a magnet. I’ve never lived a longer three minutes in my life!

Finally, it arrived. I served a (*ahem) reasonable portion onto my plate. Slowly, I dug in the spoon; the cake gave in under the pressure, I felt its airy softness. Then, the first taste. At once, a warm sweetness filled my mouth – the strawberry’s tartness was a burst of soul and vigour. But underneath it all, whisky’s bitterness rose, full and fiery, engulfing everything. It was so…poetic!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about that dish: bittersweet, and yet the bitterness was so full, so rich! It was like a little slice of life served on a plate…

It’s there in youths thrilled by the brilliant glamour of their dreams of success. For some, the bitterness comes when they take their first few steps and, dismayed at the realisation of the sacrifices they have to make, they falter and fail. Others endure, then encounter setbacks and fall,never quite mustering the strength and courage to get back on their feet. A few make it all the way to the end, but over the years, grow tired of it all, of working aimlessly all their lives, of having all the money they desired, and they begin to wonder what the point of life is if all you do is work for no reason for half your life, then retire, then die and leave all that effort behind… They seek something…fuller to satisfy that inner restlessness.

It’s there in newly-weds burning with ardent passion. At first, their bliss dwarfs all challenges and fears, and before its splendour, pain, sorrow, loneliness, and suffering seem to be just so much dust. But after a few weeks, reality slaps them hard in the face. Frictions that their passion had smoothed over become like sawblades digging deep. Pockets run empty. Stress kicks in. The in-laws enter the mix. They’re overwhelmed by a loss of that (so-called) freedom they used to have… The time has come to let go of the tinsel of good feelings and find that something deeper.

It’s there in Kenya, this country of ours, born of rivers of blood and countless tears, of soaring hope, borne in the memories of our elders and dying in the hearts of so many of her children. The skies in which their hope soared have clouded over, their horizons are veiled, the sun has sunk and in the darkness of corruption, hatred and cold, they fumble for light.

But what makes life’s bitterness full and rich, like whisky?

In the words of a wise priest, “Love is the best reason for doing anything.” Love makes everything worthwhile. Only in forgetting ourselves and thinking about others, about those next to us, in trying to serve them (all of them, even that person you just can’t stand, everyone) do we begin to find happiness.

Yes, life is bittersweet, and in her bitterness, we can find that deeper sweetness.

Blinded – Searching (Inner Restlessness)

Outside, the rain descending softly whispers;
Within, the tempest roars.
From the window, into haze like misty wedding veil I pore,
Lifting with my eyes the folds of marless clouds with hope unsure
Of touching with my gaze the peerless face, the radiance of her eyes.
Though now immured, I see her – still she lingers in my mind.
She is Life, she is Freedom,
She is Joy forevermore –
She ventures not within the confines of these walls.

“Love” – The Feeling

…naught but dust.

Smouldering, O fruit of married spark and withered branches,
Flickering, like sunrise born anew, life’s breath pervading,
Vehement, to frigid limbs and hearts thy warmth imparting,
Ardour, O inflaming of the blood, O sanest madness:

Life’s breath steals away; the embers’ light to mortal pallor fades,
Leaving naught but dust.