When he called me Uncle Mwangi, was he telling me I was old?

Over the years since, we laughed at that incident a number of times, and it became our little joke

In Summary

• Vanity in one's thirties leads to awkward encounter with a nephew

We like to cling to our youth
We like to cling to our youth

I had a great uncle, in the sense of my grandmother’s brother. He could get very prickly if we referred to him as old or with respectful terms, such as mzee or, worse yet, grandad.

If he had his way, my mother and her siblings would have called him by his first name and his grandchildren, my cousins and I, would have referred to him as uncle and not “guuka”, which translates to grandpa in Gikuyu.

This story is not about him as such but about how one of my nephews (you know how we Africans and our extended families have many more brothers and sisters and cousin brothers and cousin sisters than most other people). The nephew once made me behave like Great Uncle Eliab by prompting me to make him promise never to refer to me as “Uncle Mwangi” again in public.

We hadn’t fallen out or anything quite as dramatic as that. It just so happened that in 2006, he was working as a reporter, too. We had bumped into each other on the beat and he had called out, “Hi, Uncle Mwangi!”

We had both been sent to Nairobi Hospital to report on the admission of former President Daniel arap Moi after a highway accident. Even though it was dark as there had been a power blackout in the car park, I felt as though all eyes were suddenly on me.

I was in my 30s at the time and he was an intern or a cub reporter at a radio station, though I am ready to be corrected on that point. Anyway, being called “uncle” by a colleague in the field was not a good look for me and he got it, though I think privately he must have thought it was all very silly and unnecessary on my part. Which, in hindsight, it may have been. But if you’ve been young, you understand the vanity.

It made me feel old to see this fellow whom I had first known when he was barely a toddler just a few years prior to this, or so it seemed, now on the same beat as I was. When you are in your 30s, the last thing you are or want to feel, is old.

Over the years since, we laughed at that incident a number of times, and it became our little joke.

I had seen him in July when I was last in Nairobi after my mother died, and he was in top form and hopeful about life in general. So you can imagine the shock of hearing that a few days short of his 34th birthday, he had died after a sudden and vicious bout of acute pneumonia.

Worse yet, a mother has lost her only child in a cruel mockery of the way life should be, where children bury their parents and not the other way around. 

There are many tributes to Nditu/D2/Nderitu, but to his mother Mary, all I can offer is my love and friendship and a shoulder to lean on whenever possible. To the rest of you, love and cherish those close to you and always let them know it.