Turbulence in My Own Field Work: On Writing, Inheritance & Rites of Passage

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Field Work: On writing, inheritance & rites of passage
by George Njoroge (Guest Contributor, Liberator Magazine)

“Yet out of the decay and the dung there is always a new flowering. Perhaps it helps to know that…”
-Ayi Kwei Armah, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born

Field Work is a term often deployed by Africanist graduate students, specifically those stationed in the social sciences arena, signaling the year-long tenure where they set off to an African country to gather the raw materials and pool all the necessary resources for their dissertations. The journey is often undertaken with infinite optimism, an optimism that ebbs and flows with all the unperceived turbulence that greets anyone outside their native country. At least, this is what they tell me. As a history graduate student, weary of taking unnecessary history seminars, I’ve quietly anticipated the day that I will embark upon my field work, back in the comforts of ‘home’, to mediate and examine aspects of Kenya’s past that continue to puzzle and arouse an analytically driven curiosity in me. The prospect of fishing through the Kenyan archives for the past of my country or peeling the thickly layered memory of older Kenyans is the kind of manual labor I have anticipated will be manifest in my field work. Despite this charge of anticipation, I’ve decided in the last couple of months to temporarily abandon the path of training as an historian for another, more practical discipline: Public Health. Consequently and unexpectedly, I find myself presently confronting a different kind of field work, with its own different set of demands.

My first acquaintance with the phrase was not in historical monographs, which I did not indulge in meaningfully until my senior year of college, but rather, it was when I read Seamus Heaney’s fifth book of poetry titled “Field Work.” As a senior at Florida State, I spent most of my time tucked within the narrow aisles lining the fifth floor of Strozier Library, which housed a majority of the books on literature. For an hour or so, I would assume a strange lotus position -- that would offend any Yoga instructor -- on the frosty floor of the library and leaf through the works of African and Caribbean writers. Save for Chinua Achebe, I was not acquainted with any of the other writers. Kenya’s foremost writer, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, was yet unknown to me. I read most of the books with a hastiness borne out of the slow gathering awareness that my life as a young college African student, deep in the throes of a homesickness, was the stuff of fiction. I was certain that Armah’s line in his first novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, “In the center of the oval was a single flower, solitary, unexplainable, and very beautiful,” was written with me in mind. I would even add that it was during this library excursions that I hatched the idea that my life would be better served if it existed only as a life of the mind enterprise. A life of the mind enterprise that was stalked with its menace of loneliness as J.M. Coetzee wrote in his fictionalized memoir, Youth, “Will our solitariness lift, or is the life of the mind its own reward?”

I am uncertain as to how I came across Seamus Heaney’s work. If my memory serves me with certainty, even a skeletal one, I think I first encountered him by the way of his collected poems book Opened Ground. Something about those two words stirred a nerdy curiosity in me. Perhaps, it is because I lived in a kind of den life at twenty two, caged in solitude, yet to fully understand what my rites of passage were nor how to erect a construction of manhood bent to my personality and affinities, that the words “opened” and “ground” compelled me to lift the book from its uppermost position on the overcrowded shelf.

The book was rather fleshy, truncating Heaney’s extensive oeuvre into a singular book. Of the many poems I read, I only understood three of them fully. At the time, I found Heaney poems, although in retrospect very accessible, to be rather obdurate. His lexicon of rural island was something wholly foreign to my ears. What the hell was a “Bog Land” anyways? I felt like I was reading Joyce’s A Potrait of the Artist as a Young Man, again. Argh, the agony!

Heaney’s language was overwhelmed, I thought, with too many lines sponsored by Irish idioms and accents. How was a Kenyan boy, with an unseasoned reading mind, supposed to make sense of all this? I didn’t have such difficulty plowing through Whitman’s American Landscape, or even Yeats. With my ahistorical reading of an Irish poet chronicling the debris of war against their neighbors and the quotidian realities of the rural Irish geography, it is rather obvious why I had such difficulties.
Of the three poems I understood, the one that I could personally and readily identify with was, “Digging” his most famous poem to date.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.

I'll dig with it.
- from Death of a Naturalist (1966)

Any African child who grew up in the countryside is well-acquainted with the concept of digging, particularly under the harsh streaks of the Kenyan sun and the perpetual errand sending -- the business of taking orders from our elders.

The only man who has ever been a father to me was my grandfather. Of all his grandchildren, I am the one I spent of most time with, partly because my mother was residing in America and my guardian, my mother’s older sister, wanted to hand the responsibility of feeding a young boy with an insatiable appetite to another family member. In her defense, I devoured everything without putting on weight. Thus, every year when the primary school term came to an end, I found myself in the Njoroges’ four-acre farm, sitting next to my grandfather, who in retrospect, was perhaps affording me the male guidance that my absentee father could not provide. This he did with a stubborn silence, which I now understand as love. Even his demanding of me that I accompany him to church and sit quietly on the row behind him. This, too, was love. His way of loving.

Although I was not the best worker, I was also not the worst and could expand my energies in a fruitful manner, if under the right supervision and ass-whopping threats. My grandfather never hit me, never barked a word towards me, but by God, did I fear the man. I feared him, not God.

Working on the farm was difficult work, unrewarding to a young boy. On most mornings, I helped my grandfather in his swineherd labor, feeding his litter of pigs and selling them to butchers from far away in Nairobi. Other mornings, we were both armed with an arsenal rakes, sackings, cord, used to glean the loose straw from the corn stalks, which served as litter for the livestock. During the afternoons, we dug up the land to plant beans, much to the chagrin of my grandmother, who did not think I was serious at doing anything. The first exile I ever felt was being banished from my grandmother’s plot of land for killing her plants. Farm work was no joke, as one could be exiled for destroying a couple of plants and to my grandmother who had long abandoned her sense of humor.

Nonetheless, my grandfather and I were inseparable. Here, we were, two generations of Njoroges, namesakes, twinned in unassuming disposition and dark tinted hues, accompanied by each other’s presence, with its raw and living silences sealing his love for me. The younger Njoroge, following the older Njoroge’s every move like a puppet, steeped in his shadow, aping everything he did. These were my first rites of passage. This was our Field Work.

Although unknowingly, I have grown to resemble my grandfather in a number of ways. Two years ago, when I went back home after a decade long spell in the states, my grandmother, with an ironical smile, marveled at how much I reminded her of her long dead husband. Apart from the physical similarities, I had also assumed his reticent manner, his subtle sense of humor and his economy with words.

Inheritances are seldom visible. Only on the lower frequencies can we discern them, just like disinheritances.

Despite the inheritances, there are also present absences. Foremost amongst these are my failure to assume his industry, his inexhaustible labor, his authority. For all his faults, the man was hardworking, with an indefatigable and unflagging work ethic. A powerhouse of a man.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.

So, as I struggle to develop into a coherent writer, amid being challenged with turbulence in my own field work, I find the memory of my grandfather’s industry, diligence, persistence and his patience with me, creeping into my present, his shadow affixed on my remembering of the present. Perhaps, this is the silt of remembrance, reminding me, as my grandfather would manage to utter to me without irony: keep on digging, my boy, for the day is still young.

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