He lives On
Folk today we have a guest writer for the blog — my sister Janet Adongo.
His was my first close encounter with death.
We had lost uncles, aunts, cousins and even my grandfather before him, but it never cut as close. My mother had successfully shielded us from life’s sorrows. We only realized just how much she was carrying when he died — twenty years ago today. When we were pushed and shoved as we tried to take our place during the funeral rites. When our faces were plastered on the papers and our grief turned more into an agonizing battle than a peaceful send-off.
But those few days can never erase the years before that though they try to.
Dad was the real definition of a gentle giant — in every way. To the world he was a fiery leader. A one-of-a-kind defender of teachers’ rights. A committed unionist who once made the error of rubbing the former president the wrong way. The result being a series of random calls being made to our landline and mysterious vehicles tracking him. Later on they kissed and made up and all was fair and lovely in both their worlds.
My most favorite memories of my dad were definitely our Sunday afternoons spent at Sportsview hotel in Kasarani. There we would eat roast potatoes and nyama choma and play on the rusty merry-go-round while he and mum tapped their feet to the sound of the resident bands benga tunes. Nothing made us happier.
It was dad that got me and my brother into the prestigious Hill School in Eldoret where we were primed by the wonderful British couple Mr and Mrs Scott — or Bisc and Mabisc to us. On opening day, our height-endowed driver Odhiambo Jack would chauffeur us — with dad being the proverbial critic on the co-driver’s seat. KYG 024. A Peugeot 505 was our choice ride to and from Hillo. Mom and I sat in the middle but the boys had all the fun at the back seat. Later, he would fall in love with the Volvos and those are what he drove to the end. KAA 032C and KAM 240 M — if my memory hasn’t been seared by the years.
It was dad who introduced us to Midlands hotel’s roast chicken on the way up to Eldoret and Stem hotel’s nyama choma on the way back home. He made us count the eleven bridges along the highway so we knew when we were getting closer to our destination.
Now that I think about it, my dad loved life. He enjoyed every moment and gave us the best memories of all. When he had conferences or workshops in the Coast he carried us along. On one such occasion, our train derailed on the way back and our journey ended up taking twelve hours. We arrived back late at night and despite his fame and accolades, he dashed out into the busy Railways public transport hub and returned with a London taxi for us to ride home in.
And then dad — he loved mom. I remember Thursdays were their “date” nights. They would go and watch Les Wanyika band and return with their cassettes. It’s from over-playing those two-song tapes that I know all the words to the song “Afro.” Salimia ndugu na wazazi wako mama eh popote walipo… And all Les Wanyika lovers said? AFRO!
Dad was the softer-landing in the parenting duo. Even his bark wasn’t that bad. I remember watching him on TV announce the first-ever teachers strike in 1997 despite several threats from the presidency to call it off. Dad was committed to the cause. He was all in when it came to his family of teachers — having been one himself. Actually most people referred to him only as Japuonj — teacher. Might explain why he was a stickler for all things rules and discipline.
Dad loved his ugali and osuga or apoth. And I loved being the “chosen one” that would be given the tiny sufuria to make his ugali if he came home after we had eaten. I also perfected making his sunny-side up eggs in the morning. Breakfast was almost always his eggs, paw paw and wimbi porridge served generously in an agwata.
All this came to an abrupt halt when he suffered a stroke some time in late December of 2000. My medical understanding of it all was limited at the time so all I knew was that he had to have brain surgery. I now consider myself more knowledgeable thanks to a surgeon brother and an obstetrician sister.
Our Sunday afternoons were no longer spent on merry-go-rounds. Instead the hallways of The Nairobi Hospital became our abode. And that bed became his home of sorts. It was hard to make sense of it all so we took our queues from mom. If you thought Dad was tough, you didn’t know Margaret. She bore it all and carried her pain in stride. As did he. After one of his surgeries, he whined about his discomfort and kept touching the huge bandage on his head while mom tried to get his hand off amidst his defiant protests. They were fun to watch those two.
I was in my hostel room at Daystar university when the call came in from mom. Dad was gone. It didn’t quite sink in. Death had never been this close. As if in disbelief I turned on my Sony radio cassette player (another one of his gifts that still exists to date). Sure enough the 9 o’clock morning news announced it. “The Kenya National Union of Teachers secretary-general Ambrose Adeya Adongo is dead.”
And just like that, our light had gone off. No second chances. No long road trips filled with history lessons and exciting stopovers. No more random world cup team choices (he loved Denmark for some reason — weird).
The ensuing pizzazz that accompanied his state funeral made it even harder for us to absorb the loss. How do you mourn a “public figure” in private? We spent the entire period fighting for our space instead of actually reflecting on the loss and processing it. It would be years later when the grief would finally set in and leave my body in a barrage of tears on the shoulders of my then father-figure and friend Rev Tom Otieno and his wife Susan.
Dad lived. And because he did, we did.
I sometimes wonder how he would react to us now. If he would approve of our choices — none of us drives a Volvo or roots for Denmark in the world cup. None of us is a teacher or anything close to an academician. We still make noise on the corridor of the house — his pet peeve. He would be happy to know we all got his unionist DNA — some more than others. Right upto his grandkids who are big Black Lives Matter supporters.
So perhaps, just perhaps, The Ambrose Adeya Adongo in all of us lives on.