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Chapter 2. Gumption
Gently floating on the Indian Ocean by the shore of Lamu Island, Kenya 1984- Maskat’s Age: 12 years
Some moments are simply much more full than others. Maskat Zemunke learned that very early on when he was taught how to sail the Dhow; The African fishing boat that was typical of the crystal picturesque beaches of Lamu Island, Kenya, where he grew up. His grandfather was a most respectable army general and later in life, a very talented and well-known Dhow craftsman. He had built more than a hundred Dhow boats out of the lush barks of the ever-growing mango trees of the vibrant Swahili coast.
The Dhow resembled a very tiny whale in Maskat’s mind. It was made of a narrow canoe carved out of a single tree trunk, with planks going across for rowing, and one last piece of wood used as a mast, from which the iconic triangular lateen sail flung. He spent a lot of his summers sailing and fishing in many different versions of the boat with his grandfather.
His grandfather was known to him as Babu, the Swahili name for your mother’s father.
The smell of the tropical mangoes was sweeter than any other time of the season and the salty sea breeze balanced with every whoosh of the boat into a splashing wave. Over the summers, Maskat learned that despite what their plans were, the currents and winds don’t always sing to their Dhow’s tune.
Maskat and his grandfather had a very special connection. “You both have the same kind eyes” people would tell them. Maskat was introduced to the full emotional spectrum through Babu’s face. Babu was either bursting with laughter or weeping with sorrow and tears readily came to his eyes on both occasions. There was rarely a moment during their fishing trips where he was not pointing out a soaring pelican, a colorful toucan, a rolling wave, or a wide smile on someone’s face on a nearby boat.
Babu loved people and loved telling stories about them. He spent many mornings and nights on the Dhow, recounting how he won Maskat's grandmother's heart in the Congo and how dangerous that was. He had countless stories of camaraderie and trust during the army years and an endless stream of made-up tales about heroes and goofballs going to great lengths or climbing up the highest mountains. The protagonists always eventually walked into a huge pile of shit or the villains found really creative ways to take a massive dump on the heroes. Listeners would crack up every time.
Maskat’s favorite stories were the bedtime ones, where the heroes would frequently get distracted from their journeys by falling into a random hole that would take them to a magical universe. His grandpa had a wild imagination, and in those universes, he never failed to make up the most bizarre scenarios with talking flowers that had world-dominating ambitions, animals that played music, and people that were made out of clay and were terrified of water.
Maskat basked in the glory of his grandfather’s creative flow. He felt like they blasted him off from reality into a vast wide outer space of possibility and wonder. Babu’s prose and timing were so masterful that Maskat would always listen intently, regardless of how many times he had heard them before.
Babu was born to a conservative Muslim Swahili household, but he loved recounting and ridiculing the rules under which he grew up in.
“When I was your age, boys and girls were treated very differently, Maskat. Since I was the oldest son and the only boy in a family of 6 children, I would always be seated at the table first before my 5 sisters” His grandfather would say with a chuckle and laugh that ridiculed the story he was telling. “I would get a whole chicken to myself and only after I was done eating, would the 5 girls be allowed to join the table.”
Despite growing up with his masculinity being paraded and celebrated this way, Maskat’s grandfather had a profound respect for everything feminine in life. Internally, his emotions were raw, present, and uncensored. His tears were faucets of compassion inexorably connected to the outer world. He cried for beauty, sadness, and happiness. Above all, he showed extreme kindness to both himself and his wife. He held her as the utmost priority in his life, and never refrained to say how much he loved her.
Grandma, aka Bibi, was quite the disciplinary and had strict expectations about house rules, which Babu playfully respected. He would always joke around with Maskat and his cousins calling her The Government. Whenever they’d be hanging out with him in the garage and Bibi would call them for supper, he would shout out
“Hide Kids! The government is coming, and the government always gets what it wants!”
Maskat’s friend from school, Jay Shabani, would join them on the Dhow fishing trips every once in a while. Jay loved sticking his face in the water while they rode the wind and although it scared Maskat, his grandfather always found that hilarious. One day, Babu bought Jay a pair of snorkeling goggles and Jay said that it had changed his life forever.
“Your friend Jay is crazy, but he has a great soul.” he would always tell Maskat. The boat rides were usually filled with Babu’s lighthearted wisdom.
“You kids must get a hobby” was the one he would recite to them the most on their morning fishing trips. “Everything in life will eventually fade away, your job, your loved ones, and even your opinions. Your hobby will be what ultimately remains.”
Later in life, when Maskat experienced what it means to be a soldier at war firsthand, he always wondered how Babu overcame the strong military facade and made space for so much art, love, and acceptance in his life.
Babu's tears and laughs radiated a deeper knowing, a connection with the cosmos so powerful that made every moment feel important and of a higher quality. “Alright now pull the sails! Duck down! We’re tacking back to shore!” His grandfather screamed at them while standing at the helm with a deep gentle smile on the edges of his mouth as if he knew something that no one else did.