Words: Biko Zulu
When I think of Josaya Wasonga I think of a lone and embattled wolf separated from the pack. We worked together for the same publisher in the late 2000s. We were both features writer’s; him for Twende Magazine and me for Adam. He spoke very little. He was always a furtive figure, like a modern-day Zorro, going about the office with little detection and noise. He seemed to walk through walls. His writing – unsurprisingly – was in contrast to the man. It was bright, loud, vivid in description and often laced with strings and strands of wonderful imagery and large looming storeyed columns of metaphors and a hybrid turn of phrase. Of course I greatly admired and respected his writing. I still do. The funniest I ever read was a travel log of him running over someone’s chicken in Luhya-land and the ensuing conversation with the irked villagers who had gathered around their beloved dead chicken in the middle of the road. Traffic was halted until that chicken was accorded the appropriate justice. The story – told with a beautiful tongue-in-cheek was hysterical and in complete departure from the silent man who sat not many desks away from mine. His humour would spring from nowhere in his pieces like a predatory cat in waiting.
I’d see him around the office, lumbering around with those heavy-set and slightly bowed shoulders, shoulders of a man who seemed to have spent many years in the gym as a young-un, lifting stones as we all did at some point in our youth. He spoke softly, his voice sounding like a ball of cotton in the wind. He’d stop by my desk and we’d have conversations as he headed to see my editor – Oyunga Pala- who sometimes offered him assignments. It’s only in Oyunga’s office that I would be surprised to hear him laugh heartily and I’d turn around on my seat to confirm if indeed the laughter came from his own lungs. (Oyunga was the patriarch, our sensei, and we all sat at his feet and learnt).
There are some people who, if cops came asking you questions about them under suspicion of a crime like espionage or a coup, human trafficking or poaching, you would be completely shocked and go, “John? Hell no, he would never do that!”
Josaya Wasonga was not one of those guys. That’s because I always got the feeling that I didn’t really know him. That he didn’t let you in. You couldn’t breach him. He was a layered man and we could never seem to access his emotional raw material.
Life eventually separated us and we were set on different paths. He got a column in the Daily Nation on Wednesdays while I got a column in the Saturday Nation. We were both new fathers to daughters and he would write flourishly about his daughter (Pudd’ng) on his column while I would bang on about mine here on my blog. Once in awhile we would exchange a phone call, or ask for a contact on sms, otherwise it was quiet for the most part.
Then his wife left him. I know because he wrote about it in his column and I thought, “Whoa!” He was 41 years old. His intro for that particular story had his beautiful signature. He wrote: “Oh shoot, this is not working.” Then he continued further down. …My wife and I are not living together. Ah, let us take that again, slowly. My. Wife. And. I. Are. Not. Living. Together. Today is our third week of separation…”
I remember being so envious, not of his wife leaving, but his courage, that blinded valor of opening his hemorrhaging heart to the whole world. (OK, maybe not the whole world but people who read newspapers). I didn’t know whether to call him and tell him , “pole” or “good for you,” but that decision was quickly taken away from my hands when he wrote about it again in his next column. And the next.
Tenderoni – as he calls her – had indeed exited stage left.
He wrote things like, “Love is the core of my faith…my love should be a reflection, not a refraction.”
That period, his column was peppered with pieces about affliction that were undisguised, near-weepy and quite embarrassing for me to read at some point. A festering chronicle of hurt. I remember smsing him and telling him, “Chief, it shall be well, sit it out” as if someone had died. I pictured him writing these lonely heart pieces in his shorts and barefeet after he had put his daughter to bed, the midnight overhead light glowing harshly on the exposed scalp of this marital orphanage. Nonetheless, as a writer I knew it for what it was; he was reaching out to the healing power of catharsis, I recognised it because it wasn’t any much different from me coming here to moan and grieve for for four years after my beloved mother breathed her last and turned into a mere “body.” He was grieving; how a man expresses his grief, loss and pain is a man’s business.
So when I called him for this interview last week – about three years since we last spoke – the first thing I asked him was if the wife ever came back. “She did,” he told me, “just before our 10th anniversary.” I could hear the smile in his voice. Oh Wasonga, I thought to myself, such a lover.
I had called him because Judy, who works for Standard, had Whatsapped me and told me he had a story to tell that I should look for him. And that’s how we came to be sitting at Kiza Lounge on Galana Road. It’s after 6pm on a Friday and the terrace is filling up fast.
“You writing about your wife was about really standing close to the ledge,” I tell him.
“I had sat on it for five weeks, but then when I wrote about it I felt better,” he admits. “My friends and family were surprised because they thought the marriage was working out.”
A waiter comes. He orders orange juice. (He’s a teetotaller). I order water, not because Sabbath has officially started but because I’m running in Karura Forest at dawn the next morning.
“What did you learn from that separation?” I ask.
“It took only the two of us to iron out our issues; nobody was involved, not the in-laws, not a counsellor, or a church leader, just the two of us. It was necessary because the problem was ours. Her mother knows her as a daughter, not a wife and my siblings know me as a brother not a husband, so when outsiders – so to speak – come to mediate they come with certain perspectives of the two of you which can sometimes do more harm than good. You get what I’m saying?”
“The best thing that happened to my marriage was that separation,” he continues. “It was going to happen, I’m glad it happened then, and not when I’m 50.”
“Why did she leave, or that is personal?” I ask.
He laughs and says of course it’s personal.
“But things are back to normal now? You guys are happy? Joy has once again settled in Josaya’s household?” I ask.
“Yes. Things are great. It has made us stronger.”
A bright light beams against my left cheek and I turn to the sight of the flaming ball of sun falling behind a construction crane that – with the sun’s bright energy and light – looks like a one-armed scarecrow floating on the metropolis’s skyline. Gotham city. The view is awe-inspiring. “Look at that sun behind that crane! ” I tell Josaya and we just sit there in silence and stare at the sunset for a moment.
Then truth is Josaya isn’t sitting here because I’m keen to talk about his marriage. He’s sitting there because I was told he was raped when he was a child. Raped by another man. Now I don’t know how to broach this subject in a sensitive way because when I called I didn’t specify that I wanted us to discuss that. How do you ask a man to tell you about being molested by another man? So as we stare at the sun I think to myself; do I just jump in or do I start by being cryptic.
So when I eventually turn to him I tell him, “You were molested when you were young. What exactly happened, was it a relative?”
“No,” he says. “It was by a stranger. So I grew up in Jericho Lumumba. I remember that when it happened my mom had just come back from shags and was cooking dinner. At around 7:30pm she sends me to go get some money she had loaned to one guy who was known simply as Macho Nne who lived in Makadara. I was 11-years old.”
To get to Makadara he had to cross Jogoo road at a place called Hamza dividing Jericho Lumumba and Makadara. It was still not late to walk around. Across the road, in a field there was a man standing under a long pole. Even after seeing the strange man he felt no fear. “When you grow up in Jericho very few things faze you at a very young age. So seeing a strange man standing in my path at night wasn’t something that worried me. I was from Jeri after all, right?” He says.
“I was carrying this stick and as I passed him he grabbed my hand and took the stick from my hand and asked me to lie down.” He sips his juice. “Now don’t forget that this was pre-internet, pre-anything. This was like 1983 or thereabouts when the world was closed out and nobody knew about anything like rape or things like that, of even talked about it. My world was limited to where I lived and where I went to school. Naturally I thought this guy wanted to cane me. Things happened so fast after because I remember him roughly pulling down my shorts and raping me. I was numb of course because I couldn’t comprehend his actions. It happened so fast.”
He remembers running back home, knocking on their door and his mom opening the door and “knowing immediately that something so horrible had happened to me.” He remembers the smell of his favourite meal – matoke – coming out of the house as his mom stood in the doorway with that worried look. He remembers brushing past her and running to the bathroom to shower because he felt “slimy on my butt.”
After that he blocked it.
“I never quite dealt with it. I blocked it. I blocked it from my mom until she died. She never knew that I was raped that night but she suspected that something bad might have happened to me. Mothers just have a way of knowing.” he says.
There is a big office birthday happening next to us. One of those office shindigs where the office accountant sits there like he swallowed a plastic toy, hoping the bill doesn’t overshoot his allocated budget. There is a whoop as a small cake is brought out and candles are blown and singing is done. Old school jams play. The sky looks bruised. Day is quickly dying.
“This thing happened just as you were about to get into your teenage. Did that conflict your sexuality?” I ask.
He looks at a spot on the table in thought and says, “No. No. But it conflicted my spirituality.” He leans in and says, “you know, I used to sing in the church choir, I later went and became a choir conductor at my church and won certain awards back then and I remember asking God why he would let something like that happen to me when he knew I was serving him. But you have to realise that I didn’t know how to deal with it consciously, so I blocked it for over 15-years because I couldn’t comprehend it.”
“Do you think that experience informed the kind of teenager you eventually became? Were you truant, did you rebel or did you withdraw?”
“I don’t know if it did, but I suspect that it might have,” he says in thought. “I remember partying hard and drinking and going to the gym fervently, I remember lifting weights to become big and strong.”
He pauses. “But then again, most boys my age lifted weights and drunk and partied hard. So I don’t know if the rape informed my teenage. It must have in ways that I’m not aware of.”
He continues. “There is a verse; Luke 12: 48 that says something to the effect that, for everyone that is given much, much will be demanded and for those that are entrusted with much, much more will be asked. You know that verse?
“I have heard it, yes. So what do you think was entrusted to you, or given to you?”
“Pain.” he says.
Before he can say anything else, Ali of Kiza Lounge floats over to our table in his purple Kaftan to say hello. He stares at my water suspiciously and asks why I’m not drinking, “have drinks on me,” he says. I tell him thanks but I’m on water this evening. “This is my pal, Josaya.” They shake hands. “Have you seen our new African fine dining restaurant? “He asks me. I tell him I haven’t. “ Oh you should,it’s come together very nicely. Listen, when you are done here please let me know I show you around the restaurant. I will be sitting over there. Tell me when you are done, OK?”
And off he goes, Ali the showman.
“I don’t want to be called a rape victim,” Josaya tells me. “I want to be called a rape thriver. I prefer to thrive in it.”
“When did you start processing the rape?” I ask.
He thinks about it. “I think I blocked it off for many years but then in my 30’s I started sort of trying to figure out things. It’s only in my 40’s that I think I have clearly put it into a scope which I can say is constructive and coherent, if you will.”
“Do you think about the guy who did it and when you do, what emotions dominate those thoughts now?”
“When you are raped the pain can’t be measured because it comes with other things, other emotions. If that guy walked through those doors I wouldn’t recognise him but recently I prayed for him, I asked God to rid him of guilt he might harbour. I forgave him yes, but I still find it so hard to forget what he did to me. I think there is a pill one can take to forget, no?”
“No, I heard there is a pill that wipes off all memories.”
“I doubt. In fact, I don’t think there is any.” I say.
We sit in brief silence, look around the now buzzing terrace. The music is a notch higher. My eyes lethargically follow a tall high-heeled girl walking across the floor with the lazy, self-assured grace of a lioness, she’s sporting a disturbing weave that flows to within an inch from the small of her back.
“Someone told me that it’s only in heaven that we will forget everything that happened to us on earth.” Josaya says.
I think about that for a second. I like it.
Josaya is turning 45 in not so long. I asked him how he he finds 4o’s now and he says that it’s quieter than he thought it would be. “Quiet and reflective,” he mumbles. “ I can stay in the house for days. I find that I reflect a lot now than before. I’m also reaching out for my dreams more now. Does this rape define my life? No, but in a way I suspect my life has been defined in many ways by it.”
“You mentioned the verse – where much is given, much is demanded – and you said you were given pain. Is the rape the pain you are referring to?”
“Yes.” he nods. “ God apportions different people different things. Some are given pain others are given talent. Some get both. Some are given five talents and two pains or one pain and three talents and He expects us to know what to trade with. But he knows what to give you and at what time. There are people he gives little pain and some lots of pain because he knows who can handle what – that’s why some men kill themselves when Arsenal loses. Those are people who can’t handle the pain they were given. But the thing is we all have to be accountable for the pain and talent we are given and so one day God will ask me what I did with my pain”.
There is a misconception that people who are hurt end up hurting other people, people who use their pain to give others pain. If that were the case I would have ended up raping children or women. You don’t dish what was dished.”
“So what are you doing with your pain?” I ask.
“Oh he also gave me talent. I can write. I knew I could write before I was raped. I did very well in my compositions and all my teachers would commend me so it was very clear what my path in life would be. So He gave me pain and a pen. I’ve been trying to crack the theater and TV writing scene for a while now, however, it’s very difficult. Whatever the case, I think I’m ready to write a musical now. It will be titled something like “What was happening in heaven the night I was raped.”’ Because I have always wanted to understand what God was doing that night he allowed another man to violate me. Me, his child, who praised him in church and sang for him and worshipped him. I want to know what he was doing when I was raped.”
So his 40’s is about his passion of writing and of his pain. He wants to delve into scriptwriting for movies and theater as well as asking questions that will eventually exonerate him from the chains and balls of that dark night by a pole in a field. He mentions to me an interview Madonna did and the interviewer asked her if she is re-inventing herself and she says she isn’t reinventing herself but revealing herself.
“Like Madonna I’m also revealing myself. So this interview is not a re-invention,” he says. “It’s a revelation of myself to myself.”
My phone then dies. Your phone will always die when you are getting deep into things. I borrow his phone, open his notes and continue taking notes from it.
“When did you tell your wife about the rape; before or after the marriage?”
“You can’t reveal such things before.” he laughs.
“What was her reaction?”
“She said she would walk with me. She said she was glad I told her because it explained so much about me; that I’m sensitive and very protective of the people around me.”
“Are there low moments after the rape that you cried?”
He looks right through me, like I’m glass, and says, “You can’t cry rape out. It’s something that stays with and within you.” He takes a pause. “You know when you get raped once, you somehow feel like you were raped your whole life. It’s effect stays with you.”
From the blues he tells me a story about cats. “We have this neighbourhood cat who loves me,” he says. “She will see me and run and rub herself against me. My wife hates cats. She will see the cat and banish it, saying cats have a bad spirit.” He laughs. “But I have always loved cats since I was a child.”
I’m not a cat person. I hate how they emit a humming sound like they have a generator in them. Plus, I can’t look at a cat in the eye.
I get up and walk over to where Ali is seated with the bearded Alexandre of Moet Hennessy whose boss I had interviewed earlier in the week. They are speaking French. “You speak French?” I ask Ali and Alex sighs, “He speaks everything, even Chinese.” We laugh. I tell Alex about the 40’s series I’m doing and that I have just finished one with the gentleman back there. Is there a loose bottle of champagne I can hand to this guy to celebrate him? They confer briefly in brief French – oui oui – then Ali calls a waiter who goes to fetch us a bottle of Moet Imperial for Josaya to take home.
After we have toured Kiza’s fine dining African restaurant (I fancied the chef’s table) and said bye to him, we find ourselves waiting for the elevator just the two of us.
“Why did you tell me about the cat?”
“That story about the cat. Your neighbourhood cat that likes you,” I tell him. “Why did you tell me that story? Is it tied to something in your life?”
He stands there looking up as the numbers above the lift illuminates as the the car ascends towards us on the 8th floor. He finally turns towards me, “I think they can tell.” He says.
“I think cats know people who are hurt.”
Ping! Comes the sound of the lift as it yawns wide open to swallow Josaya’s far-reaching words before I can fully appreciate them.
Post first published on @BikoZulu’s blog. Click below to read more posts from Biko.