I’m battling and braving prostate cancer.
It is a very personal journey to go through a terminal illness.
People rarely share this profound experience about human frailty and mortality.
I found a small book on cancer.
This will sound mad.
But do you sometimes wake up
in the dead of the night and lie there, anxious that
perhaps there is a book out there you will die without
A book that was “written for you”?
OK, what about a play?
A small movie about a boy in Basra who dreamt of a life
beyond herding goats.
A boy who tried to wrestle free
of that life, but – tragically – never left.
Wouldn’t you want to be a part of that boy’s departed dream?
Do you think of those things at 3am, when the dogs
outside have out-barked themselves and the still and
the blackness of the night has turned into a cliché?
Aren’t you curious that out there exists some body of
art that shifts, albeit a little, your whole existence?
Well, I’m sure it’s out there.
An undiscovered author,
or musician or painter or, or, or someone who created
a piece of art so profound it seems to know you exist.
I think about things like that at 3am.
When I can’t sleep.
It fills me with a harrowing sense of foreboding.
This question about my existence and mortality and tasks
and experiences that will never cross my path.
It’s just me, right?
Well I found that book.
Rather, it found me.
A little background.
For the longest time I read
Then I stopped.
You know the way you pull
chairs for a chic you have just started dating then
after a while you stop, not because you don’t fancy
her anymore but just because you stopped?
That’s what happened to me and books.
Then, circa 2009, I started reading magazines,
because that was my new literary cool: GQ, Esquire,
Vanity Fair, Men’s Health, Time, National Geographic…Ate them
Then early this year I stopped pulling chairs for
My lasts obsession, Sunday Nation,
stopped floating my steamer too.
I became a literary
Then last week I remembered Nick Hornby.
I discovered Nick way back in 2008 and he had a large
impact on me with the fluidity of his prose, his dry
English wit and his crusty sentences that hardly ever
went over 17 words.
So I went to that downtown Nairobi bookshop at Yaya Center to seek
They didn’t have any of Nick’s books but
the book attendant recommended some chap called
Peter Biddlecombe, who sounded more like a
beekeeper than a writer.
But who was I to turn my
nose; I was a literary orphan as it were.
So I bought one of his books called Never Feel A
Stranger, which – I’m sorry to disappoint you – isn’t
creepy as its title suggests.
It’s actually a travel book,
funny-ish, and quite sarcastic.
And the clincher?
It’s written in the first-person.
I can’t stand books written
in the third-person.
This was the first book I was
reading in three years.
Excuse me, I’ve been busy.
On Friday I landed in Zanzibar.
I sat down with
this amiable tycoon who owns a one-month old
restaurant called Six Degrees South in Stone Town,
an elaborately snazzy eatery set by the sea.
Over wine and honey-glazed prawns I sat with this tycoon
(he’s called Saleh) and he rattled on about the
restaurant and the dream preceding it.
It always stems from a dream.
Then we talked about his toys- private plane and his
Range Rovers and his small three door Japanese job
that he uses in the island and all his glittery
trappings that come with boatful of dough.
Then,because I’m obsessed about opening people’s
“vaults”, I asked him what money hasn’t been able to
buy for him so far and he sipped his Sauvignon Blanc
blithely and said simply that he “has been very
The ocean groaned,a big tidal wave rose to greet his “Luck”.
Next morning, together with Mr. Biddlecombe and
his dry wit, I hopped onto a small plane to Dar es
When I got into a Wi-fi area, I saw this email, from a
pal of mine called Kijo.
She was enquiring about my
health and my miraa(Khat) addiction (jokes) and informing
me that she had found a writer who writes like me, a
Have I read his work?
I wrote back and
She then emailed me this e-book called “The
Fault in Our Stars.”
Honestly, I didn’t really care to
But the moment I read the first paragraph, it
was like breaking my literary hymen and
immediately I belonged, to, uhm, something.
Like my literary bereavement ceased.
Am I making sense?
The book is about this extremely witty 17yr old girl
called Hazel, a stage 4 thyroid cancer patient, who
carts about this oxygen concentrate tank wherever
She spends her time at the cancer support
group, movies with her pals and to visit this boy she
likes, Augustus Waters (Gus), who is also a cancer
survivor with one prosthetic leg and talks like an
intern at J.P Morgan.
This book is book about three or
so teenagers battling cancer with admirable humour.
It’s also about some book they are reading that they
keep talking about, a book written by an egghead
prick of an author.
Look, you got to read it.
In the opening paragraphs Hazel says:
When you read a cancer booklet or website or
wherever, they always list depression as among the
side effect of cancer.
But in fact depression is not the
side effect of cancer.
Depression is the side effect of
dying (Cancer is also the side effect of dying, almost
I was sold.
I read it at any given possible opportune.
And it drained my emotions, that book.
I thought of
little else than Hazel.
I dove into her world full of pain
and bravery and disease and oxygen tanks and the
boy she likes- Gus, who in spite of his one leg, will
often make your laugh out loud.
Later, I, together with Daisy, went to this food fesyt thing, which was being held at the Southern
It had stalls with lots of wine and food
and cheese and folk milled about clutching on plastic
cups of booze or soda and nibbling on something
greasy and making small talk.
The only thing louder
than the music there was the MC.
It was another
Grand event, brimming with the glitterati of Dar; the
fashionistas and all these folk who genuinely
believed they were important to the eco-system.
It was like Blankets and Wine rolled together with the
fashion high tea.
Certainly not my forte.
I feel lonely
in big crowds, in places where women wear those
extraordinarily large hats and large shades and the
men prattle about Formula One.
Through this entire highbrow hubbub, I thought of
And her oxygen tank.
And Gus and his
Eventually I stepped out of the garden
area and sat under an umbrella and read the book
from my phone.
There is this point where Hazel is
There will come a time, when all of us are dead.
When there are no human beings remaining to
remember that anyone ever existed or our species
ever did anything.
There will be no one left to
remember Cleopatra or Aristotle, let alone you.
Everything we did and built and wrote and thought
and discovered will be forgotten and all these – she
gestures encompassing – will have been for naught.
Maybe that time is coming soon, maybe it’s a million
years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our
sun, we will not survive forever…and if the human
oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it.
God knows that’s what everyone does.
Tell me you don’t love that kid.
I told Daisy I was leaving, going back to my hotel-
Slipway Hotel- some 25mins away in an area that
was supposed to be their Lavington.
I read the book
in the cab, and successfully – almost – ignored the
He informed me – helpfully- that
Kenyans love beer, choma and women and asked me
if I wanted a girl.
I grinned and told him I have one
already, she is twenty five-my first born daughter,born out of wedlock,and now a clinical officer in Toronto,Canada.
He laughed and went back to the
I went back to Hazel.
At Slipway, which is this mall by the waterfront, I sat
in this café called Classico Café and ordered this
thing called Chicken Saltimbocca, which is chicken
wrapped with bacon and fresh herbs then served
with mashed potatoes, baby vegetables and cheese
TSH, 18,000. Best. Meal. I. Had. In. Dar.
Hazel was talking about a time when she was in
remission and the doctors had tried these drugs that
weren’t working and she had fluid in her lungs and
she was in ICU with pneumonia and waiting for her
death and his dad was standing by her bed, trying
not to cry and losing that fight and when he did she
describes his cries like “am earthquake” and his
mom is kneeling next to her bed, holding her hand
and whispering to her, “Are you ready sweetie?” and
she nods, saying she is ready to die.
Then the mother
breaks down in her father’s chest and whispers to
him, “ I will not be a mom anymore.”
And it kills her
(not literally), and she says she tries to let go, to
embrace death, but her cancerous lungs wouldn’t let
go, and it struggles for air…
I quickly looked up.
Because I felt this deep distress
and sorrow flooding my system.
And I felt so sad, and I looked out in the sea,
at the small little boats bobbing in the sparking
midafternoon sunshine and I did something I have
been avoiding to think about since I stared the book;
And I think how I would handle if I had a sick
terminally sick child who was in pain and shit.
For the first time in my life,i was thankful that it is me who has this cancer thing,and not my beautiful daughter!
Now, that would literally create a crater the size of a
Football stadium in my heart.
And I feel a bit angry with
myself for allowing those thoughts.
Then I dialed my daughter’s number and it was off.
So I sent her a whatsapp message to her phone and it stayed
on one tick for ages.
It’s still on one tick.
When Hazel goes to her cancer support group, she
often has to go up the light of stairs (she’s a very self
sufficient young lady), and I find myself wanting to
get into the book and helping her with her oxygen
Or her purse.
I really do.
I would carry Hazel’s
purse from River road to Riara Road.
And I’m anti-carrying-purses.
I finish lunch.
Then as I wait for the bill, I think of my
Nowadays thinking of mom doesn’t
strike me with that nauseating sorrow it used to, just
this inexplicably profound loss.
I get jealous when I
see someone with their mom.
Or when they look at
their ringing phone and go, “let me take this, it’s
It sickens me up with jealousy.
Before I showered, I sat on the edge of my bed and
I read slowly.
I try to soak in paragraphs.
repeat pages and sentences that impress me, or I re-
read dialogues that I find sexy.
I take notes on my
I obsess over new smart phrases.
point the sun started to set and from the hotel room
the oranges drown the room, so I Instagrammed the
Then I stepped into the shower.
I whatsapped Daisy
and excused myself to the rest from some plan to see
the town by night.
I wanted to find a nice bar to
review, and on recommendation I took a cab to The
Cape Town Fish Market along Msasani Bay.
comes close to this bar in Nairobi: set by the sea, it’s
done in whites and blues and it serves great south
I sat at the bar, ordered this glass of pinotage called
Fat Fish then I bowed my head to my phone and did
To my right was a gentleman on a first or second
I know because he was trying so hard to be cool
and likeable and he was speaking too much English,
which in TZ is invariably bad English.
Most Tanzanians can’t speak English to save them from
But one would excuse him for really digging in
his oars if you cast a glance at his date; she was a
To my left were three japs having Sake.
To my immediate right were two Amazon ladies who looked
like they came to Africa to fight Malaria.
Since there was WIFI I Whatsapped Kijo and thanked
her for the amazing book and went on to enthuse at
how this was the best book I’ve read since Adam was a
boy blah blah blah.
I went on and on about it (I can
be dramatic) until I realized I was whatsapping alone
because she had either slept or passed out.
Back to the book: Gus’s best mate – a cancer survivor
too- loses his eyesight and his girlfriend and it gets
real teary in the book.
For me that angst is helped by
a breeze blowing through from the ocean and then
they start playing Big Yellow Taxi by Counting Crows.
When was the last time you heard that track?
Then they played John Mayer’s “Heartbreak hotel” and all
these songs followed, songs that you’d hear in One
Tree Hill and it set a spooky soundtrack for the book.
I would frequently come up for air, to find the
“English” Tanzanian guy has ordered another
cocktail for the chic, the chemical warfare was on.
Assad would have been proud.
He spoke more than
the lady, but I silently rooted for him, even though
his English didn’t.
After two glasses of wine, I settle the tab, climbed off
the bar stool and took a quick glance at how
“English” Man was fairing.
The tide didn’t look to
wash for him.
She was tediously supporting her head
on her hand, and not in that rapt attention way, but
that stoic tolerant way.
And the level of her drink
hadn’t gone down much.
English man was at sea
without a sail and as the cab pulled away into the
night I prayed he had an ace up his sleeve.
This book is a nirvana.
It’s a painful book – if you
open yourself to pain – because really cancer is
But the author makes cancer charming, he
almost romanticizes it.
It has many laughs,
but it’s a different kind of laugh, like when you were
a kid and you knocked your shin and it hurt like hell
but people were watching and you didn’t want to cry,
so you laughed.
A pain-peppered laughter.
But a laugh nonetheless.
I’m on chapter 11.
I dread finishing it, because then I
will feel like an orphan again.
Here is something
Hazel wrote, that struck a chord:
…. Sometimes you read a book and it fills you with
this weird and evangelic zeal and you become
convinced that the shattered world will never be put
together unless and until all the human beings read
that book, and then there are books so special and
rare and yours that advertising your affection for it
feels like a betrayal.
That kid is talking to me.
Just some random thoughts that came to my mind….