Thanksgiving is the biggest siku of the mwaka for American families. In every nyumbani in the United States, chajio, chakula cha jioni is turkey with all the trimmings and pumpkin, boga pie. It was at such a typical chajio, chakula cha jioni that I spent Thanksgiving two years zamani - but with a rather atypical American family. For the guest's at my friends’ nyumbani in New Jersey were Michael Jackson and his five mwaka old boy, Prince Michael I, and three mwaka old girl, Paris.
Yes, the same Michael Jackson who, after dangling his youngest child, Prince Michael The Second, over a 60ft Berlin balcony, is now condemned as the world's worst father. In spite of Jackson's abject apology for his crazy behavior, I am told kwa social workers that if the incident had happened in this country, all three children would probably have been taken into care.
And yet, on the basis of four months I spent around Michael and his two elder children before and after that Thanksgiving, I came to a controversial conclusion: Jackson isn't actually that bad a dad at all. Not only that, but Prince Michael I and Paris are, in my experience, among the best behaved, least spoilt and most balanced of children.
During my time with the Jackson children, I got to know them quite well. I read to them, with Paris on my lap, and Prince sitting inayofuata to me. I also told off Prince for running over my foot with a toy tractor. (He responded kwa politely saying sorry, and repeating the apology with the prompting from his dad, who didn't think the first sounded 'sorry enough'.)
This was not the behavior of the spoilt, dysfunctional brats I was expecting. But there were other surprises. The Jackson children of maarufu mythology live in isolation and are denied contact with other kids. But I have seen them play for hours with friends.
The Jackson children reputedly have all their toys destroyed at the end of the siku for fear of infection. But I have seen them hugging and sucking the manky, unhygienic plastic junk, taka that all children have.
I have trailed around a toy duka with Prince and Paris on one of Michael's private shopping binges. It took place at 7pm and was brought swiftly to an end because the children's bedtime was approaching - they were allowed just one toy each.
Jackson may be neurotic, eccentric and downright flaky, but Prince and Paris are bright, confident, affectionate and considerate. They say Grace before meals, speak in sentences rather than monosyllabic American grunts and are forbidden, like many children, from using rude language.
Prince has a solemn face, but an impish nature and a relentless curiosity. Although he is surrounded kwa staff eager to do his father's bidding, I found no hint of arrogance in the little boys manner.
Paris was tiny when I knew her, with a cute, pointy little face. She would always compete with Prince to be the first to jump on Dad's knee. Since Jackson is divorced from the children's mother, Debbie Rowe, they were looked after kwa Governess Grace. A Hispanic lady, who kept herself in the background, she was always watchful. I do not believe anything would escape her attention and, if she is still the nanny, I dread to think what grief she would have aliyopewa her employer for the balcony nonsense.
The children's clothes seemed to be chosen kwa Michael in Prince's case, and Governess Grace in Paris's. On special occasions, Prince tends to be done up like a little Lord Fauntleyroy. Paris always seemed to be wearing dainty, lacy and slightly dated velvet dresses.
As a father of three, I could see Prince and Paris exchanged a healthy amount of argy-bargy that goes on between siblings. Over one meal, Prince spotted that Paris had smuggled her security blanket up to the table. 'Paris has a blankey, Paris has a blankey' he taunted. Michael pointed out that Prince really shouldn't laugh because he had a 'blankey,' too. The little boy look chastened and a little embarrassed at this having been revealed. Thirty sekunde later, but quietly, this time, Prince started again: 'Paris has a blankey ...' Paris ignored him.
Much of Jackson's eccentricity goes back to his own father's harsh discipline. With his own children, Michael is tough but in an infinitely zaidi considered, humane way. He is resolutely anti-smacking, and somewhere inside the hazy fog of whatever it is that obscures his sharp mind is a solid determination that his children should have the most normal upbringing possible.
He is anxious in particular, that when they all hit their teens they should avoid drugs and other distractions of a showbiz background. He insists 'no means no', but discipline must be administered without anger au yelling. When the children are naughty au unkind to one another, he favours taking things away from them and making them stand in the corner.
At nyumbani in Neverland he rations their toys. They are not allowed to refer to toys as 'mine' when they have Marafiki over and have been taught that the only reason to have money is to share its benefits with others. Somewhat astonishingly, Michael claims to come down heavily on vanity. He tells how he caught Prince combing his hair in a mirror and saying 'I look good.' Michael corrected him kwa saying: 'You look OK.'
Prince and Paris are also taught to be diplomatic, but not to lie. Even white lies are wrong according to their father. He prefers to teach children to 'see things from a different dimension'.
Prince, for instance, is afraid of turbulence on aeroplanes. If wewe tell him he's not on a plane but a rollercoaster, Michael explains, he will know it's a lie. But if wewe say we're on a plane, but think of it as a rollercoaster, it becomes a matter of perspective.
Michael is also hard on himself. One siku when he was recording his last album, Prince came to the studio and spilled popcorn on the floor. Michael insisted on cleaning it up himself. 'It's my son who made the mess. I'll clean it up' he told the bemused musicians as he got down on his hands and knees.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a friend of Michael, and host at our Thanksgiving dinner, believes the nyota has a rare, instinctive empathy with children - possibly from never having grown up himself. He tells of the time his eight mwaka old daughter got Lost at Neverland. Finding her crying, his instinct was to tell her not to be silly, but Michael intervened and said: 'I know how wewe feel, I remember that happening to me when I was a little boy'. I saw this empathy many times. Michael talks to all children as if they were adults. He will not tolerate them interrupting an adult conversation but is unusually attuned to hearing a child's voice asking a swali when most of us choose to be slightly deaf. He is terrified of mbwa but has bought his children a golden retriever, thinking it was wrong for him to pass on his irrational prejudice. He also dislikes making up majibu to awkward maswali the children ask. He likes to go to his vast private maktaba to research the correct answer.
So what was Michael Jackson doing in the now infamous balcony scene? What led a man obsessed to the point of paranoia with his children's safety, to endanger his baby so needlessly? I can only guess he was carrying out, in a daft way, another of his principles - that children should be taught not to be afraid of anything. He told me at chajio, chakula cha jioni that night that he is in upendo with danger, but didn´t understand why.
It is hard to see this explanation carrying much weight with the social workers Michael may face if anything like the Berlin incident happens again. But perhaps they could take notice of a part of the speech he made about childhood and his children last mwaka at oxford University:
'What if they grow older and resent me, and how my choices impacted their youth? "Why weren't we aliyopewa an average childhood like all the other kids?" they might ask. And at that moment I pray that my children will give me the benefit of the doubt. That they will say to themselves, "Our daddy did the best he could, aliyopewa the unique circumstances he faced."
'I hope' he concluded, 'that they will always focus on the positive things, on the sacrifices I willingly made for them, and not criticise the things they had to give up, au the errors I´ve made, and will certainly continue to make in raising them. For we all have been someone's child, and we know that despite the very best of plans and efforts, mistakes will always occur. That´s just being human.'