28 Oct bikozulu at Writers Guild Kenya; In the Presence of a Storyteller
By Wr. Dismas Okombo
The boardroom was greatly tense with anticipation. That, in the immediate moment Gabriel and the facilitator stepped into the room, the enthusiastic faces around the tables turned in an almost-perfect accord towards the door. Except for mine. For, amid the shift from the pages of Saturday’s Daily Nation, my eyes caught the sight of my reflection on the blank television screen perched on the opposite wall. The obscure outline of my image therein conveyed intriguingly strange formlessness.
‘Ladies and gentlemen…’ Perhaps the spilling excitements in Gabriel’s voice portrayed exactly the irrepressible eagerness in our hearts at that moment. His face beamed, his smile widened: ‘…I present to you Jackson Biko(bikozulu) in the flesh.’ And an animated murmuring followed his words. I closely studied the man who shoulders Gabriel had pat with tender affection while introducing.
Seated almost at the far end, to my left, on the other side of the table, he appeared slightly timid. An impression I attribute to the dark grey cap that made it hard to establish proper eye contact with him. And, consequently, his face now hard to remember. Only his meticulously trimmed beards are distinct in my memory. Through his white long-sleeved shirt, at the arms, heavy triceps formed a bulging outline. And, for the sake of the chilly morning, he had a dark windbreaker on; although I very much doubt if he cared either way.
On the wall above him, hanged a portrait of Mary passionately kissing baby Jesus on the forehead. A picture I found myself constantly glancing at, at every gentle mention of his late mother.
In the present moment, I cannot pinpoint his very first words; most likely they were lost in the heartfelt laughter that immediately ensued the introductions. Every heart in the room journeyed with him as he narrated, in spontaneous humor, the creation of the brand bikozulu. And in similar jollity, every heart in the room awed the steel determination of his desires; although, throughout the session, he would constantly credit his blessed endeavors to his mother’s prayers and luck.
Even while narrating his own life story he opted for the position of an observer. A trait he emphasized, with a bold grin of a seasoned writer, has helped him in the development of brilliant ‘man-eat-dog’ narrations. Properly put in his own words; ‘…the problem with standing in the middle of the room is that you become part of the narrative and there the power to tell the story of that room is perpetually stripped off you’. I was greatly fascinated to observe that this approach to storytelling expands the dimensions of the narration and spurs the plotline beyond the narrow perspective of the writer.
He told of his father, a lecturer then, who, opposed to his shift from a career in sciences to literature, urgently summoned him and phrasing his decision as ‘wild chase at happiness’, advised that ‘…happiness was a woman’s thing.’ But even so, Biko’s determination could not accept any of it; selling all of his belonging, he traveled to Uganda to study. Something he mildly argues that he cannot currently consider, since, only the act of writer truly qualifies a person to be a writer.
It was in this jovial and passionate manner that he revealed to us his most revered secret to writing; WRITING. The discipline of facing the blank screen and actually doing the writing. The concept is that simple, and perhaps not new either, yet many times it is harder than it sounds. The perplexity of it prompted Vera to inquire of him: ‘Does it ever get better with time.’ To which his response, in firm humility, was: ‘No, it doesn’t. One only gets used to the cycle of writing, and in the process, builds confidence. And so, whether you have just written a good story or a bad one, write another. And another. And another.’
When the scheduled two hours with us ended, the earlier untamed eagerness on the faces around the tables had been replaced with calm resolute smiles. I gazed at my reflection on the blank television screen and as his every word took divine proportion in my mind and as the charisma of his presence imprinted its memory in my heart, the strange formlessness of my image dissolved into a concrete outline.
A day with the King it was! The writer of our time.
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