At 7, you were probably still riding your bike with the training wheels on. At 7 you hold a grudge for 4 minutes and forget about it. You have a favorite princess dress that you will wear any chance people are going out and at 7, a football was your best friend. At age 7, Julian Wagumba was returned to the gates of Nairobi’s New Life Children Center.
He doesn’t remember much about this specific time other than the cologne of his then ex-foster father, a smell that follows him till today. He remembers a call from a social worker he calls Nancy. He was 8. She had found a family that wanted a boy and she had convinced them to take him. They wanted a younger boy but Nancy had talked him up to them. All she wanted from him was that he behaved this time. No more trouble. Was he trouble? I ask. He says he does not remember. I think he was. He says he was happy. He had a family once again. No more bunk beds or mass cooked food.
Julian recalls the gates. Every time he remembers the gates. How they opened to let him in or closed to keep him out. The Kilonzos had a yellow gate with little white arrows at the top. When it opened, he marveled at the lush green lawn. He vowed to be on his best behavior. He was there for five months then he was back at New Lifes gates. “Nobody wants to adopt an eight year-old. All they want are the young ones. You know?” I nod as if I do. “They say the older kids are trouble. They know too much. They will start asking questions soon and they know who aren’t their parents.” By the time he was 10 years old, Julian had to come to terms with the fact that he would never have a family. He convinced himself that no one would ever love him. That he was not the kind of kid that could call a brother for M-pesa or beat up a boy who messed with his sister. He accepted this. Accepted himself. Then he met Uncle Z.
Julian has eyes that hide more than his words reveal. His eyes never dart away when you look at him. He gazes back and you find yourself in a staring conquest that you know from the word go you could never triumph. He looks at the world like he knows secrets hidden from the government. Like he is in cahoots with some alien species that is soon taking over and he can only tell you with his eyes and not his words.
“Where are they?”
“Who?” he asks
When he talks about Uncle Z, he first makes you feel like he is talking about an old best friend who drifted apart but still hits him up for some nyama choma in Kitengela. He says that the first time he saw Uncle Z was at right after he came from the Kilonzos. That was not the first time Uncle Z saw him.
What was it like? Going back there when he were sure he wouldnt?
“I’ll admit it wasnt pretty. I hated everyone and everything around me. I spent most days feeling shitty and making sure everyone who talked to me felt the same way. It was not easy, you know. Being the only big kid there, especially when all your friends have families that love them and end up forgetting to come see you like they promised they would.”
He remembers Freddy in particular. When Nancy came for Freddy, they made a pact to be brothers for life. Freddy promised to come every Sunday to see him. His brother. He came once then never again. He forgot about him, just like everyone did. Everyone but Uncle Z. He talks about Freddy with venom on his tongue. I asked him how old Freddy was at the time.
“Does it matter?”
“He was 5…or 3.”
Julian met Uncle Z formerly on his way from school when he was 10. He remembers because it was around the time when the sisters at New Life wanted to take him to boarding school. He hated the idea of boarding school, but he loathed the home even more. He remembers a man calling to him. A man who looked familiar and only introduced himself as Uncle Z and who said he was a friend of his parents. Did he know his parents? Yes, a long time ago. Where? When? Uncle Z could not answer. He said that if the home had any idea of the whereabouts of his parents, they would have to give him back. Julian wanted to be given back. Maybe his parents would give him the love that the Kilonzos couldnt.
Uncle Z always had a smell about him that Julian could not place with the naivety of a 10 year-old. It became daily routine that Uncle Z would wait for him at his schools gate and they would walk to New Life together. He longed for those 10 minutes. He lived for them. Soon, he was running errands for Uncle Z and their 10 minute-walk became fifteen, then twenty then an hour. The detours began. Lets take the long way, Uncle Z would say. Pass by a friends. Pick that up, take this there.
Whenever Julian asked about his parents, Uncle Z would brush him off and send him for a pack of cigarettes or a bottle wrapped in newspaper. Most days it was the bottle. Then he asked if Julian was getting any pocket money but the sisters only gave him money enough for his lunch. There was never any need for additional pocket money since he went straight from the home to school and back. The next day Uncle Z was not waiting. Julian stood at the school gates until everyone was out and till it was dark. He cried all the way home. Day after that he saved his lunch money till evening. He got out of class with the bell and waited at the gate. The watchman asked him what the problem was, and, that if he wanted to wait for his father on the bench, instead of standing at the gate, he could. “He’s not my father.” The watchman stared at him in silence.
“Uncle Z is not my father,” he tells me as if I had refuted the claim.
The man said they looked alike. That they had a resemblance only fathers and their sons possess. They even walked the same. Julian says that the walk was because he copied Uncle Zs walk. They did not have the same walk. As he was sitting there, watching his classmates, he spotted Uncle Z and ran to him. Life was good after all.
He told Uncle Z about money as they walked to their after school rendezvous. That he had saved and would keep saving incase Uncle Z was ever in need of money. Uncle Z smiled at him for the very first time. He seemed proud and that made little Julian happy. When the bottle was bought that day, Julian got to sip. Uncle Z said you never buy and not drink. It was an unwritten rule. Julian says he felt his throat melt. He choked on the bottle and almost spilled the contents. He thought he had died. Uncle Z was smiling at him. Who would smile when someone was on their last breath? Youll get better at it. No other word was spoken that evening.
Julian was sure Uncle Z would like it if he could have the bottle and not choke so he began going on solo rehearsal sessions the very next day. He rushed from school during lunch hour and got a wrapped bottle for himself. He felt queasy after a few sips and lay down to rest for a little while. The first thing Julian remembers of waking up after his first real drink is being butt naked. The breeze had made his buttocks numb. It was dark, save for a security light in the distance and he felt he was beginning a new chapter of his life. Your own Garden of Eden, dripping with water of life, I say. I don’t think he gets it.
He ran to the home and told the sisters he had been robbed. He even cried. Those sisters were suckers for tears he says. A little waterworks and they let you go to your room to pray and be on your own. They let him have a lot of alone time and that is what fueled his first few months of drinking. He would come straight from school to the liquor store and to his room. The sisters found empty liquor bottles under his bed when they were cleaning a few months later. He was outside, 11 years old and drunk as a skunk. They prayed for him and he promised to stop. But that is not a promise you make when you are intoxicated. The next time he was busted, he ran away. He went to the Kilonzos but they refused to take him in. They told him that his father was alive and had sent them threats when they had him. “Find your father Julian,” Mr. Kilonzo had said with his hand on his shoulder, like a father would talk to a broken son. The yellow gates closed.
He refuses to talk about who his father is, but I have a feeling I already know.
The streets accepted him at age 16, with the clothes on his back and a jacket that was two sizes too big. He sleeps in pavements and begs from passersby when the sun is out.
“What do you do with the money you get?
He smiles and shows me a bottle wrapped in newspaper.