Sometime in early November 2007, a bunch of 20-odd, eager freshmen sat in room 116 of Education Building at the University of Nairobi’s Main Campus.
The air about campus was crisp, clear and cheerful. One of those bright Tuesdays, where nothing can go wrong. The students were gathered for an “Introduction to Poetry” class. The lecturer was Dr Masumi Odari, a Japanese-Kenyan, an extremely humble and encouraging teacher, almost to a fault. She had asked the students, what every Professor asks students in small classes: “Why did you pick this course?” in this case, Literature.
It was a riot.
The answers. I mean.
The class packed one of the most talented pool to have ever sat in a class in a university anywhere in the universe. There were published, or soon to be published writers and journalists. There was a published illustrator and cartoonist who will become one of the pioneer animators in the country. Nearly half the class, were good poets, only that by 2007, poetry was dead. Had it been in 1850, or 1930, the class would have churned poets who will define a generation like T.S Eliot or Dylan Thomas. Two of those gathered would become the presidents of SONU, the student body of the University of Nairobi. Everyone in that class was talented, and was in the right place, at the right time. Man.
JAB in their equalizing act had brought us together, from Alliance, Starehe, Moi Girls, Maranda, Ambira, Maryhill, and top provincial schools and day schools from around the country. This class became a family, because of the intimacy built, since it was a small class, compared to, say the Sociology class that had 1,000 students.
Some joined later. Mostly doing inter-faculty or inter-universities transfers.
Only about 25 percent of those who joined the university through the Joint-Admission Board got the courses of their dreams, they signed for while in high school. Your grade was always too weak for the course you wanted, so it was mostly your third or fourth choice that you got, usually in a university you detested. Even worse, if you did not pick a course that responded with your marks, you would be sent to Maseno University to study Forestry with IT.
Lucky ones ended up in the University of Nairobi to study BA. Or like me, I made that my first, second and third choice when picking a course and university. I didn’t want to give the JAB folks ideas that would consign to Moi or Egerton University. Under BA, one had a variety of choices to pick, often with the guidance of their jobless or sometimes working older cousins. Most wannabes, went for Economics, to make up for their silly dreams of becoming doctors. More wannabes took Political Science. Those who wanted to be unique, went for Psychology. And the undecided had Sociology, Communication and such to pick from. Linguistics was by dead by then with just two or three students.
And then, there was Literature.
Literature was the only Discipline that you picked because you truly loved the subject and wanted to dedicate the rest of your four years reading dead, and often overrated European writers. We were up to it.
We were walking in the hallowed corridors in the department that Ngugi wa Thiong’o transformed from a Euro-centric centre to one that put African languages and literature at the forefront. Greater African writers and philosophers had blessed the corridors, from Taban lo Liyong, to Okot p’Bitek, to John Ruganda, to Chris Wanjala, to Henry Owuor Anyumba, among other luminaries. And in that class, many wanted to be the future Achebe, the future p’Bitek and JP Clark, and Wole Soyinka, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. How far have they chased the dreams, only God knows.
Nowadays, death news always surfaces on Social Media. On Facebook or WhatsApp. That is, if you are active, but if you are one of those mature types, who quit social media, or rarely checks, you will learn four months later that your once bosom friend died and was buried.
You will be scrolling Facebook, and you see someone’s picture beaming at you, and you don’t have to read the post…It is always someone talking about the last time they spent together, bla bla bla…before the heartbreaking conclusion: RIP. Go well pal’. Shine on your way… and many other death farewell clichés that have become ubiquitous on social media.
You immediately hate yourself. Because you didn’t reply their last Facebook message, you didn’t deem it worthy to even send an emoji for their stale joke on WhatsApp, or you ignored the Sh 2,000 ‘favour’ they wanted from you. You hate yourself, the more because, it wasn’t exactly intentional, and now, you can’t raise them from the dead to say sorry. You hate yourself because they had invited you to their homes, had called you for drinks, but because of your anti-social behaviour, you have never been available. Or worse, you were too busy…
And so, you go to the comments section looking for what killed them, when they were so young. Rarely do you find a reason in the first 200 comments. And it heightens the mystery. But he is gone.
On April 20, Saturday Evening, one of my classmates posted in our Literature class group our buddy, Silvanos Anthony Ogalo had died. Few things can ruin your quiet Saturday evening as death of young person, you knew all too well.
Ironically, the group had been formed by Silvanos, six months earlier in a move and gesture that will warm our hearts forever.
We graduated in 2011. And nobody has ever deemed it worth to form a group for the class, despite the earlier tight bonds, that have grown weaker over the years as the vagaries of bills, aging and responsibilities take over.
Ever the charmer, friendly, sober and wiser, he introduced the group as:
“Hey guys, I hope you have all been keeping well. I know we had a similar group that died the death associated with distance, time and the different tangents our lives have taken. It is normal… (sic) but not entirely ACCEPTABLE (caps, mine). However there’s someone in our class I was speaking to yesterday and she said something that touched me in a profound way…”
And so, he introduced the reason for the group. One of our classmates had not been feeling well, and the purpose of the group was to visit her, carry some gifts, you know, flowers, you know. For ol’ time sake. Our presence would warm her heart.
Silvanos, or OG, as we called him, executed the mandate of the mission with exquisite precision and it felt good, reminding us that we don’t have to be too busy, as not to check on each other.
Fast forward to April 17, OG leaves the group and nobody notices. And on April 20, the sad news.
OG joined the Literature class rather late, if my memory serves me right. He had transferred from Egerton, where he had been sent to pursue some Engineering course. But he was a poet at heart. And a brilliant poet, at it.
When he joined us, we learnt that he was from Starehe Boys, the first boy from Starehe I ever met. He was eloquent, affable and amiable. He fit into the class like skin. In the Poetry class, those of the poetic bent used to compose some really good poems. Not in anyway, to flatter or overhype them, they always baffled me with their depth. I considered myself a writer, but poetry was an abstract thing, after the four years of miseducation in high school.
OG was one of the four consistent poets in the class. We would regularly attend the Kwani? Open Mic sessions at Club Soundd that was on the second floor of Hamilton House, on Wabera St (It was one of the best clubs in the CBD, but it is now as you guessed it, just another Somali restaurant). Those were the good days, and I think I remember OG reading a poem or two, to the drunken crowds who hardly followed through. But we were rocking the city. To be first years, reading poems in a top bar/club in Nairobi, was proof of our boundless ambitions.
OG became my intellectual friend. We had deep and mutual respect for each other. He was widely read, and anytime we bumped into each we would talk, many hours on end, on matters pertaining Literature and just about everything on earth. Funny, that I am writing this in past tense.
Our friendship went beyond intellectual stuff. When I got money to buy my first laptop, he connected me with a friend of his, an imposing dude called Peter, or Biggie, who ran a shop on Moi Avenue. I bought my first laptop, a powerful HP, with an ugly design. A Shylock would later take it, for reasons I can’t divulge. I bought two or three more computers from Biggie man, in the early 2010s.
But the best gift OG ever gave me was to introduce me to one of my favourite author.
In May 2010, the University of Nairobi went on strike, over contested student election. Around and about the time, OG gave me this Nelson DeMille novel, Plum Island and recommended it highly, knowing how I write, he said I would enjoy it. The novel had a slow start, but once it caught on, it was the funniest, most unforgettable novel, even to date. The novel introduced me a detective, John Corey who is investigating a murder. The detective is an anti-PC, witty, full of wisecracks and an unusual way of solving mysteries. I have since read , nearly all of DeMille’s books. Two years ago I recommended it to some eager fat(is this politically correct?) girl in the street who was buying a novel from my vendor, and I hope she enjoyed it as much as I did.
I never returned the novel to OG. No way I would return the novel to him. No freaking way.
But as students of serious Literature which frowns upon popular Literature, and OG was as literary as they come, he didn’t rate the DeMille novel as highly as another one that he passed on to me: The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michael Faber. He said, I would enjoy the book for its literary merit, and I took him by his word.
Unfortunately, the novel is over 1,000 pages and one of those books that you have to engage all your senses, for you to internalise it. And nine years down the line I have not read it, but it is consistently in the front row of my bookshelf and I hope to read it one day, when I have a long holiday. I will have to read it this year. In his honour.
After campus we did keep in touch and once or twice, did grab some coffee. He wanted his book back (the Michael Faber one), but I dodged him, hoping to read it someday, and give it back to him.
In the mid-2010s, he wanted to start writing for newspapers, but it was at the worst of times and newspapers had cut off all pages that deal with literary reviews. I remember being honest with him and encouraging to release an anthology of his poems or start a blog. There was no future in the newspapers.
In 2015, I left to States for my Master’s. And since I came back, as I tried to integrate, we rarely kept in touch, as we both got busy with adulting.
And when the news of death came, it was crushing, because, even though we had rarely kept in touch, he is one guy you always knew, come the right time, you can always grab one for the road. For his intellect. For his humour. And it will be like he never left.
And seeing him in a coffin, in a quiet poise, was very educative about the brevity of life. Later in his funeral, I saw his son, distributing the funeral programs, and said a silent prayer, for no kid should grow without the love and the vision of their loving father.
Pick the call. Pick your phone. Call a friend. Have a drink regularly. Invite them to your home. Even for a meal of sukuma wiki and catch up. You will treasure the memories, or they will treasure the memories for the good times you had.
I will remember OG for his gesture to our classmate. For his poetry, which somehow has disappeared as his Facebook page disappeared too. Wish I could get some of the gems he penned. For his friendliness. And for the great talks we had. And for the books he gave me.
Goodbye Papa OG.