Uncle Limisi boarded a flight back to Nairobi two days after attending Diana Ross’s last concert with The Supremes. The concert was his last hurrah in America. He’d received a first degree and two master’s degrees, the second one after his PhD dream fizzled. He’d say those Americans didn’t like him knowing more than them. Uncle arrived from Detroit bearing The Supremes’ albums. Uncle and Daddy played these albums in sequence on Daddy’s Grundig record player, at Daddy’s house. On Friday nights and weekends they’d have friends over. Uncle regaled them with his America stories. Uncle was the possessive minder of the records and record player, selecting the records, blowing dust off them, and polishing them. He constantly wiped the surfaces of the faux wood panelling of the record player, following the gradient lines and ensuring that there were no fingerprints or drink stains on it. He demonstrated the precise art of lifting and placing a needle on a record but resisted delegating this task to anyone who offered to help. Uncle adored manning the sound system, proud that his records had no scratches.

Daddy—not yet married, not yet a father—had a good job in an office, and a very good record player. The latest! He was waiting for his dance partner, Mama, to transfer from her job at the teachers’ college at Maseno. Mama’s the one who taught Daddy how to dance. Before her, he was stiff on the dancefloor, she’d say. The record player was for her, more than him, and that’s why while she was away, Uncle more or less owned it.  

Daddy liked his cousin’s new music, and enjoyed hosting his cousin from America, this cousin turning Daddy’s house into a popular stop. Those days, Daddy said, his cousin was full of ideas. Radical ideas. This cousin had gone abroad just when Daddy was joining Kenyatta College for his A-levels. Daddy went to Dar Es Salaam after, returned to Nairobi with a degree, and stories about that time women and men in mini dresses and bell bottom trousers couldn’t cross the border at Namanga unless they wrapped kangas around their waists. The government there didn’t care about the fun in twisting on the dance floor with fabric whirling, swishing and flaring around good platform shoes. Daddy told this story often, twisting his stiff body and cajoling Mama about her mini dresses and skirts which she wore everywhere. Their laughter always ended in a real dance next to that Grundig record player. 

After Uncle, Daddy was the most educated person from their village. 

Years later when Daddy and Mama had me and Gilbert, Uncle still visited. He and Daddy played the old records and talked about Diana Ross and how she was doing as a solo act. The Supremes, they mused, never recovered from Diana’s departure. Of the original group, it was only Mary who was left. It wasn’t the real Supremes. But Diana, she flourished! There’s no song that Diana Ross had sung that Uncle didn’t know. When he saw other musicians, he’d say they were just bad copies, incapable of matching her standard. 

Uncle gifted Mama a new Diana Ross album. It was the one called Upside Down. Maybe he wanted to bring her into their circle. She hadn’t travelled abroad like him, or even across the border like Daddy, but Mama said that was no reason to act haughty as if years had not passed with him living in Nairobi like everybody else. Your uncle’s thinking is upside down, she’d say. She knew he’d bought that album for himself, so that he could have more of his kind of music to listen to when he visited with his bottles of beer and Embassy cigarettes, still commanding Mama’s record player as if he’d bought it.  

Daddy considered Docteur Nico’s music sacred. When listening to his Docteur Nico albums, he’d be entranced by the music, singing along even though he didn’t know the language. Even when Daddy wasn’t on his feet dancing, the music coursed through his body causing him to tap, to snap his finger and look in the distance, contemplative. Thanks to Mama we hadn’t been named after Daddy’s musicians, names that invited you to party hard instead of working hard. We were just normal Lilly and Gilbert. 

When Docteur Nico died, Daddy wept. His bitter silence weighed down the house. When he did speak, his words were low grunts. His face stayed hidden behind newspapers searching for more news on Docteur Nico. Daddy blamed Franco. Why else would Franco call himself a sorcerer? He suspected Rochearau had something to do with it too. Daddy said that Docteur Nico died because he refused to compromise himself. He said this in bursts as we had meals together, and while playing Docteur Nico albums when all Gilbert and I wanted was to watch cartoons on television, so that we’d have things to tell our friends in school. Mama warned us to stay out of the way and let Daddy be. We suffered.

Then Uncle came visiting and found ways to turn the conversation back to The Supremes and Diana Ross. Daddy’s unassuaged grief was nothing to him. Uncle just didn’t care for Daddy’s musicians, he didn’t even acknowledge their existence. Uncle was never sad. Uncle was like a big brother to Daddy, maybe that’s why Daddy let his callousness pass. That time it served us all good, Daddy thawed. 

Mama wanted Uncle to marry, we’d never been to his house. So when Uncle mentioned Adelaide, Mama insisted that they should visit together. She wore sequined dresses and new hairstyles always, while Uncle was just the same, in his usual clothes like that leather jacket which he’d bought in America. They discoed together often turning up tipsy at our house. Daddy promised Mama that he’d talk to Uncle—tell him that it was bad for us children to see them like that—but Uncle had fixed his routine. Instead, he was urging Mama and Daddy to go dancing with them, and not understanding when they didn’t. 

At our house, Aunty Adelaide sat with Daddy and Uncle. She was quiet and closed off, only standing up to empty the ashtray, refill Uncle’s glass or open more bottles. Gilbert and I liked that she brought us sausages, making Sunday breakfast extra special. 

Mama disliked Daddy’s being so loyal to his cousin. All they shared was a clan name, an ancestral tree with many blank spaces. She was the happiest on Uncle’s and Aunty Adelaide’s wedding day. She looked forward to visiting them in their house. I was a flower girl in a white lace-trimmed dress with a purple ribbon belt and many purple ribbons in my hair. Gilbert wore a suit and bowtie, and we marched just the way we had practised with Aunty Adelaide, Aunty Adelaide’s sister and Mama. It was the best day of my life! 

Uncle found a new job as a quality control person after he was forced to stop teaching chemistry—his bitterness oozing out all the time. He still planned to do that PhD. 

Dr Coreen Limisi and her daughter Liandra Mwana arrived from Detroit, a year after Uncle and Aunty Adelaide’s wedding. I was eight. Liandra was twelve years old. Aunty Coreen said that when Uncle left Detroit, he’d said he was going to tell his people about his new family: a wife and the baby. Uncle was going to bring them to Nairobi once he got a place to stay. Daddy let out a slow whistle, Mama cupped her mouth. They were shocked!  

Aunty Coreen, in a flowery chiffon dress and flat shoes, didn’t dress like Diana Ross even though she had the same complexion. She was shorter than we imagined Diana Ross was. But Aunty Coreen spoke just like Diana Ross, so soft and sweet, Mama told us more than once, ‘Stop staring!’ But our eyes followed Aunty Coreen’s long wavy hair. It was a marvel. Her normal clothing told us she couldn’t be Diana Ross, but we wished it.  

Aunty Coreen said she’d found us through Daddy’s other cousin John who still lived in America. John had been a witness at Uncle and Aunty Coreen’s wedding. Liandra and Uncle’s resemblance was obvious. Those eyes, that chin, even the shape of her eyebrows was Uncle’s. Daddy said that Liandra looked exactly like her aunt, Uncle’s older sister who died in childhood after a snakebite on her way from school. Liandra couldn’t be denied, he said. Aunty Coreen and Liandra slept in the bedroom I shared with Gilbert, and Benedicta, our maid. I wondered when Uncle would visit us. 

Daddy and Mama didn’t tell Aunty Coreen where Uncle lived and worked. They just said he was a teacher but had lost that job. Mama sent Gilbert and I on errands, maybe worrying that we’d say the wrong thing to Aunty Coreen or Liandra. Daddy and Mama wanted to give Uncle a chance to prepare for this big surprise. Daddy said, “Maybe it’s a trap. Those Americans, see what they did to him and his PhD?” Mama just shook her head, reminding him that Liandra looked more like her father with every passing hour. 

Daddy telephoned Uncle from his office to warn him about the visitors. Uncle, escaping to the village, told his employer he had a funeral to attend. He took the OTC night bus. In those days people went away for weeks, even months, for funerals. There were no telephones in the village. It was a perfect escape. 

At home, Aunty Coreen asked Daddy when he’d take her to Uncle’s house. 

“Don’t you know where he lives?” 

Mama and Daddy made excuses, inventing customs and hoping she could wait a little longer. They said Uncle’s mother would have to travel from the village to receive Liandra “the baby” before she could go to Uncle’s house. This is our culture, they insisted. Mama later said that it was obvious Uncle hadn’t been serious with Aunty Coreen, there was no logical reason to name his American child Mwana. “How can Child be a real name?” He could have named her Khalahi after his late sister, or even Diana since he was so obsessed with that name. Mama played Diana Ross’ albums for Aunty Coreen and listened to her talking about her home in America. Mama said it lacked the glamour that Uncle had projected. When Uncle said he had lived in an apartment building with elevators, he left out how small the apartment was. Aunty Coreen said our house was nice and roomy.  

After a week in our house, furious Aunty Coreen left. She’d located a Professor friend who taught at the University to host her. The Professor friend telephoned our house for help finding Uncle, but Daddy spoke to her at length without committing to anything apart from lists of names and places. Even Mama, in the years of being married to Daddy, had never heard these. Finally, speaking in Kiswahili, Daddy told the Professor about Aunty Adelaide, and that he and Mama didn’t want to break his new marriage. He had taken so long to settle, they said. 

It turned out that Aunty Coreen had maps with her, and when Daddy refused to help her with directions she and her friend went to find Uncle on their own. Aunty Coreen proved she was cleverer than Uncle. Meaning she was also cleverer than Daddy. When we visited the village months after the Aunty Coreen fiasco, our relatives referred to her as khakhali khasungu. The ‘white’ woman. Aunty Coreen had arrived in a car driving herself, with her Professor friend, and Liandra. “Wah!” they said. The car was trailed by an entourage of curious onlookers she’d asked for directions once she got close to the village. They wanted to know what had brought those two women and their child passenger all this way. Whenever they spoke about Aunty Coreen and Liandra, they mimicked their walk, their accent, and how Aunty Coreen brushed aside her long tresses. Everyone said it was true, Liandra looked just like her late aunt Khalahi. Liandra became Khalahi. 

Aunty Coreen had gifted Uncle’s parents with more supplies than Uncle ever took home to them, and new items from America which they proudly displayed. She’d shown them photos of her simple wedding and demoted Aunty Adelaide who everyone was already against for being so closed off and delaying with the babies. It was a big celebration, made even bigger when Uncle reemerged from his hiding. They didn’t care that he’d failed Aunty Coreen, instead they congratulated him for capturing an American woman. 

Uncle who’d been known for being Americanized, appeared lacklustre and less American next to Aunty Coreen. He embraced Liandra and tried to carry her. She was excited to meet the father who’d only been a photograph until then. Though Aunty Coreen greeted him, they saw in her face and her manner, she was disappointed. “Why?” she asked him, but Uncle rubbed his neck, mumbling in that accent they hadn’t heard in years, and tried to laugh his shame away. 

Aunty Coreen and cousin Liandra Mwana Khalahi never returned to our house to say goodbye. We learnt that they’d returned to America one month after entering our lives. Uncle resumed work at his job in quality control but he and Aunty Adelaide didn’t stay together anymore. Daddy and Mama tried to bring them back together. When Uncle resumed his record-playing afternoon visits to our house, Benedicta whispered that Aunty Adelaide had also gone to America. 

Mama was less accepting of Uncle’s visits; she joined them in the sitting room now also smoking her cigarettes and drinking her beers with them. She insisted on playing Sengula, an old song which she and Daddy liked long before they ever met. The singer came from her village, and she boasted about it because Daddy’s and Uncle’s village didn’t produce musicians or any famous people. She’d remind them that this singer was known around the world even though he’d never travelled out. Though he’d died so young, at least he’d left something meaningful. Something that made her proud of her village. 

Daddy got up singing and dancing with Mama, while Uncle sat there clutching his beer with nobody to dance with. Exhibiting her prowess at the record player, Mama selected the records, playing Rochereau, Franco, and Mbilia Bel whom she liked more than anyone else. She dared not play Docteur Nico records as those songs still made Daddy sad. Mama nudged Daddy to tell her again about that time he’d been in Paris on a work trip and then watched Franco at a concert. 

Daddy lit up telling Mama about that show, lingering on every detail from the instruments in the band, to their alluring outfits, and their dancing. He told her she was a better dancer. He said, they’d one day see these musicians together. They were dreaming about Daddy’s scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in London. Daddy had been overjoyed telling us how he’d go visiting the places in the story books he read when he was a little older than me. Daddy and Mama danced to Franco’s Très impoli holding hands and laughing into each other’s chests. Uncle’s America was a memory he couldn’t continue dredging up. I held that image of Daddy and Mama in happier times, wishing their love had lasted forever.  


*Photo by Arthur Edelmans on Unsplash

Lutivini Majanja

Lutivini Majanja is a writer from Kenya. Her writing has appeared in Transition, Adi Magazine, Obsidian, Best Microfiction and elsewhere.