The parapsychological definition of empathy being the ability to psychically reading another person’s emotions, I can proudly associate my personality with it. As I was seated at the second last row in the middle column in church, a very old man walked in with a crutch. I noticed he oppositely held the crutch unlike how it is supposed to be held.
The crosspiece at the top of the crutch faced forward meaning his elbow wasn’t in it. He held the handle in the middle as it faced him. I thought that was a very wrong way to hold the crutch as it was meant to transfer the weight from the legs to the upper part of the body. The crutch characteristically shook for each step he lurched. His face looked like he had experienced every woe this world could ever offer. He was however clean-shaven and his white beard looked combed. He wore a grey coat that was stained with dots of black dirt. Inside his coat was a brown polo t-shirt that also looked unclean. On the breast pocket of his coat was a pen firmly tucked. His long trouser was very decent but un-ironed. My eyes followed him as he tried to find a seat. He used the path directly in front of the row I was seated. He stopped suddenly and stooped low in a pant. He took out a very clean handkerchief and wiped his right teary eye. From the proximity of my seat to where he stooped panting, my olfactory detected a tolerably unpleasant body odor. I was moved with compassion like I have never been moved before. I sprang up and signaled him, ‘Have a seat mzee.’ He wryly smiled and took the seat.
‘So from now on, we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.’ This was the Bible verse read in our hearing by the preacher from 2 Corinthians 5:16. I thought that verse was ideal for anyone who looked at that mzee from a worldly point of view from how he appeared.
I wouldn’t have forgiven myself if I hadn’t struck a conversation with an old man over lunch hour. I acted detective for a moment and located the mzee. He was sumptuously enjoying rice and green grams with watermelon and a banana on the edges of the plate. He was seated alone. I politely asked to join him.
‘Habari ya leo mzee?’
‘Mzuri sana!’ he responded jubilantly. The paradox of his outward situation.
‘Jina langu ni Orina. Lako je?’
‘Peter. Peter Kivilundu.’ He responded expressing a desire for a conversation. I was glad he was willing to speak to me.
‘You come to this church often?’ I asked.
‘Oh Yes, I do! I have found a home here. The people are warm. Look at you, you don’t know me yet you are here saying hello to me.’
I noticed his right eye tear again and he used his clean white handkerchief. The right eye was somewhat different from the left. It was scarlet red and a bit smaller than the right. I thought of the eye conditions related to that such as Bell’s palsy, Sjogren’s syndrome, chronic sinus infections, thyroid problems, and rheumatoid arthritis. I couldn’t guess the one mzee suffered from.
‘My hometown is Nyamira. Yours?’ I asked.
‘I am from the ethnic group of Maragoli from Vihiga. We are the second largest ethnic group of the Abaluhya community. Did you know that?’
I said no.
He continued, ‘I was born and raised in western Kenya. Now old age has caught up with me.’
‘What is the meaning of Maragoli?’ I queried.
‘It is a name that came from our descendant who was called Mulogooli. He is believed to have descended from Kintu and led the progenitors of the Luhya from Misri to the current areas they have settled.’
I tried to recall my origin and the only name that popped up in my mind was Otenyo Nyamaterere. A warrior back in the colonial time. I once read that he was killed in 1908 and it is believed his head is still in a British museum.
‘What happened to your legs mzee?’
He stared on straight ahead as if he did not hear me. I was almost repeating my question when he answered.
‘I was involved in a road accident. The one they refer to as hit and run. I remember the vehicle was a Subaru Forester. The young man driving it knocked me hard and I sprawled by the roadside along Ngong Road. His car was with loud music and I guess he was drunk because I was crossing at a marked pedestrian crossing.’
I recalled my tutor at driving school say, as a driver if you knock a pedestrian on a zebra crossing, it is the equivalent of intentional killing. ‘Did you do anything about it?’
‘How could I have done anything, my good brother?’
I realized there was nothing much he could have done. I looked at his feet one more time, I noticed the left one was fitted with the prosthesis of an artificial leg. I didn’t ask anything else as I felt deeply sad. A moment of silence ensued between us as I thought of the difficulties he must have tholed to get to church.
‘Where do you live here in Nairobi mzee?’
‘Kanungaga. I come from Kanungaga.’
‘I beg your pardon. Where?’
‘Where is that?’
‘It is near a place called Kawangware. You have heard of the place?’
‘Yes, yes I have heard of the place.’
In all fairness, I told him where I lived also. At that point, social relationships experts would say we had built a rapport.
‘How do you find the leadership of this country mzee?’ I ignited a political conversation.
‘It is okay. However, I am unhappy with the third President of this country.’
‘Why so? I thought he is the best President we have had so far mzee.’
‘You asked me what I think… During his reign, I had retired from formal employment and went to claim the NSSF benefits. I was turned away 16 times. Reason? We were told the President had instructed that those funds be transferred from the Central Bank of Kenya to the Kenya Commercial Bank. The Kenya Commercial Bank since then has never facilitated the remission of those funds to this day. I gave up on following up. I hope I’ll get those funds someday.’
‘President Jomo Kenyatta was a good man. President Moi was a great man. President Uhuru is a boisterous young leader.’
I thought mzee was playing safe as from history, a lot of bad has been said about the former presidents.
I switched gears.
‘What of the BBI?’
‘It is a great initiative. We have a lot of stability now. I am glad that Raila and Uhuru are now in good terms. One problem though, if these guys want to just keep throwing the leadership mantle between the two families, it wouldn’t be the right thing. Can’t you be a president yourself? … How I wish previous leaders like Thomas Joseph Odhiambo Mboya and Josiah Mwangi Kariuki were still alive. Those guys would have had our country counted among the first world economies. Sad though that they are not here. Let us hope that a crop of leadership such as one of that time would emerge again. Corruption lately has been rising tremendously in the recent past and it is a worrying trend. We must talk about it. Do you know Malcolm X? He once said, “You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.” Now, leadership is what you make it. Have I answered you?’
‘Elaborately mzee.’ I affirmed. It is always a trend that these guys who most of the time look shabby are the ones who always are informed. I have never read anything about Malcolm X. I did not know Tom Mboya was also called Odhiambo. I mastered the courage to ask one last question.
‘What do you do currently mzee?’
‘I have nothing to do. In Kanungaga, I live in a shack. My items were stolen from me a while ago when I had the accident. My family dispersed. I have that young man with me who helps me do everything. During the week, I try to seek help from well-wishers. I hope to see the sunrise every day.’
My heart was broken. I wished I had the capability. But I whispered a silent prayer that God would be with that old man. He struggled to rise from the seat and the young man he had pointed to me rushed to help him up. He held the crutch the opposite way and it bothered me once more. He gave back his empty plate to a lady who expressed immense gratitude.
‘Mzee, could we take a selfie?
‘Thank you for your time. I hope to see you again.’
‘Thank you Orina. May God bless you. May you live to be of age like myself. Remember, the future belongs to those who prepare for it.’
He struggled walking away.
“Count your age by friends, not years. Count your life by smiles, not tears” John Lenon