Read, To Promote World Peace

In my current Caribbean Literature course, my students and I just finished reading V. S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street. I’ve loved this book since I was in high school. In some ways, it was surreal to be using the same copy I read back at home, while teaching at a state university I never knew existed until just a few years ago. The humor in the text still entertains, and the depictions of violence that Naipaul deploys are just as troubling.

Lincoln, Nebraska is not your grandmother’s holiday destination. In the public eye, especially to folks in the North East or the West coast, this is the middle of nowhere. Literally. And there may be some truth to that. Whenever I’m in Kenya, friends and family always ask me where I currently reside. In college, when I said I lived in Pennsylvania, that made sense. Miami was the cause of envy during my stay there for graduate school. I’d often get concerns about how I was EVER able to study while living so close to the beach and all the debauchery that Hollywood portrays about South Florida. None of that happens now that I’ve moved to Lincoln. More often people are just confused about where on the U.S. map they’d locate  Nebraska. For me though, what’s most remarkable is that there’s always something familiar about the unknown.

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The humor in the text still entertains, and the depictions of violence that Naipaul deploys are just as troubling.

We read Naipaul’s Miguel Street but we didn’t simply turn pages. We also listened to Calypso by Harry Belafonte and Calypso Rose. The novel has so many allusions to music it would have been crazy not to. Looking to better understand how humor works in Trinidad, we watched drama by Learie Joseph on YouTube. We engaged with Trinidad and Tobago’s history vis-a-vis Caribbean institutions of slavery, the production of sugar and rum, and foreign occupation. This last one came under many forms: Spanish, Dutch, and French dominion, British colonialism, and even American military installations during WWII. In other words, we approached “reading” from a very expansive point of view. My intent was to make familiar a small island nation in the Caribbean that most students may not have previously heard of. And for those who had, this was more often under familiar narratives of tourism–and the paradise waiting to be discovered in Trinidad–or third world poverty–and the hungry, naked children in need of western charity. Rarely would western media highlight the creativity in the region: poets, musicians, or even Carnival attendees.

It’s easy for me to find commonalities with strangers. As a child, I grew up plugged in to a diverse range of global cultural production. While I physically didn’t leave Kenya until I was 18, for years before that I’d intellectually explored North America, Britain and parts of continental Europe, India, Australia, and South Africa. How did this happen? By reading.

Growing up, whatever disposable income my family had was geared towards funding our education. And even then it was often not enough. Hence, toys were mostly out of the question. I got a bright red tricycle when I was three. Once I out grew that, that was the end of me having a bike at home. I loved wristwatches. To get one, however, I’d often have to bargain with my mother, and the purchase was conditional upon me performing really well at school. Our TV set was a 14″ black and white tube for the longest time. But even though toys and cool electronic gadgets were rare at home, the trappings of middle class respectability that really got me green with envy were BOOKS.

I especially loved detective stories. And Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series was absolutely at the top of that list. Following the adventures of four kids and a dog solving crime in the English countryside left me feeling like I’d just travelled with them. Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys had the same effect. Caroline Keene’s and Franklin Dixon’s books, respectively, helped me map out the United States long before I ever set foot here for college. I crisscrossed Europe with TinTin’s eponymous protagonist, his pet dog Snowy, and his occasional companions: the Captain and the two professors. Right alongside Asterix and Obelix, two cartoon characters, I fought colonizing 1st century Romans, rooting for the Gauls. Obviously.

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Caroline Keene’s and Franklin Dixon’s books, respectively, helped me map out the United States long before I ever set foot here for college.

Reading such a wide range of stories was great. It was, as I’ve also come to discover, terribly one-sided. Keene and Dixon each have about 65 books in their series. I can count on one hand the number of characters who are people of color. Between the two of them, these authors wrote an America that was white-washed to the extreme! Unintentionally, on their part, that glaring omission actually speaks volumes. It is wholly representative of how the American nation has historically reacted to communities of color. But in some ways The Adventures of Tintin was actually worse. Belgian Cartoonist Georges Remi DID feature Native Americans and even Congolese Africans in his work. But these appearances were soaked in racial stereotypes. “Red Indians” attempted to scalp Tintin, while big-lipped Congolese savages cooked him in a pot.

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Keene and Dixon each have about 65 books in their series. I can count on one hand the number of characters who are people of color.

India featured large in my childhood. There were Asians in Nairobi shops, some of whom were newly-emigrated, but many of whom were third and fourth generation Kenyans. But even more exciting were Bollywood films on national TV every Sunday afternoon. Yes, these movies were sappy, and the characters broke into song every ten minutes. But the storylines were great. Recreations of the Hindu epic, Ramayana, had small boys naming themselves Hanuman and re-creating the struggle to save Sita during lunch break at school. There was much that was strange about this cinema, but there was so much more that we found intriguing and cool. India might have been far away, but it was portrayed to seem much closer. Perceptions of distance shrunk. Home and Away, an Australian TV show broadcast the land Down Under straight into my living room on weekday evenings.

Reading will not singlehandedly stop WWIII. But fiction, music, cinema, poetry and a range of other cultural artifacts are a great way to begin conversations with “strangers.” Reading, widely defined, inspires the imagination. We begin to seek new connections that emphasis curiosity over prejudice, understanding over antagonism. Reading is not an end by itself, but it’s a pretty good first step. White Allies of the BLM movement have been directed to online reading lists. Reading might seem passive and solitary, but regimes that ban literature know this is absolutely not true. Reading can also mobilize communities of resistance. So go on, find a book, song, or film from a place you know absolutely nothing about, and make the strange familiar. Alternatively, dig a little deeper into someone, something, or somewhere you know pretty well, and discover aspects of their existence you’d never imagined. Make the familiar strange.

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Beating the Odds

I loved beating the odds. In the first semester of Form 3 (grade 11), I’d missed an incredible number of classes due to an illness. My right leg had gotten infected with an ulcer, and it got so bad I couldn’t walk to school. I took myself to a subsidized medical clinic attached to a Hindu temple right behind the Nairobi Kenya Bus terminal. The nurse on duty helped me to wash the wound using hydrogen peroxide. The wound oozed and steamed. I nearly fainted from disgust. But this intense wound cleaning session did not help. The ulcer kept on eating into my calf muscles and nerves. I was soon using a walking stick to get around. Not only was the wound smelly and dripping pus, hence very annoying, it was also incredibly painful.

 

I believe this was my body’s way of mourning my Grandma’s death. Grandma had lived it up since the Fifties. She’d travelled, worked as a trade unionist, and single-mothered four kids. As the eldest, it was also her responsibility to educate her younger siblings, and hook them up with permanent employment. #blacktax Somewhere along the way, she’d also started smoking. Fast forward to 2000, and all that nicotine had come back to haunt her, in a big way. The destruction in her lungs started off as a dry cough. She saw a general practitioner who misdiagnosed it as TB. 18 months later, grandma had lost weight – and she was already pretty slim to begin with. Her appetite was gone, and even when she could eat, she’d barely keep any of it down.

It got so bad that Mother moved Grandma to our house, closer to medical specialists in Nairobi. I watched her body betray her, helpless and horrified. This dry-skinned emaciated figure sitting across from me in our living room had no resemblance to the smiling woman who always visited bringing passion fruit and guavas for my sisters and I. When Grandma visited, she took over my room; and it was always such a pleasure. With her in town, my parents and I would spend the evenings seated around a jiko in our kitchen, warming our legs and yarning tales. Those were good times. In her current form, Grandma had no energy to draw up a chair and talk long into the night. Her illness had turned her into a recluse who spent most of her time indoors, lying on my bed.
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Grandma had lived it up since the Fifties. She’d travelled, worked as a trade unionist, and single-mothered four kids.

From bad to worse. By the time Grandma sought help, there was little that could be done except alleviate her pain and wait for the end. My parents got her admitted at a Dagoretti hospital that focused on respiratory health. This was on a Tuesday and she’d been doing pretty well since Sunday. It seemed like there might be hope, after all. False promises. Father says that once Grandma got into the ward and was shown to her bed, she accepted this new development resignedly. Totally makes sense. Grandma was a very private person. When on errands to buy her cigarettes I was always under strict instructions to come right back, and most definitely not to share this info with my rather loud-mouthed cousins. And come to think of it, although she’d spend several days when she visited Ngong, and I’m sure she’d sneak out for a ciggy, I never saw her do it. And she made pretty sure neither did my sisters. For her to then be left at the mercy of government health workers would have been detestable.
Mom and dad went back the next day to check in on her. Turns out her improvement had been anything but; she’d passed on later that night. By the time Mother got back home with the news, a bunch of ladies from the neighborhood had stopped by, just to check in. Before she could break the news to them, Mother had to tell me first. So we’re all seated in the living room, and Mother is asking me to step outside for a minute. I don’t put two and two together, so I’m actually kinda pissed. It’s a hell of a pain to hobble around on my right leg, ulcer and all, and I can’t for the life of me imagine why she’s insisting I go through with this. I limped my way through the kitchen and into the yard, and it’s then that Mother broke the news. Grandma was gone. I could only picture granny fallen on the ground, and struggling to get up. That chronic illness had taken away the matriarch I loved long before, this was simply the last, inevitable, blow. But it was still impossible to let go.
Numbed, I followed Mother back indoors. She relayed the sad news to our neighbors. It was now all about funeral arrangements. We had people drop by in the evenings, but it was not a full-on wake. There was no fire blazing; no night vigil with hymns, plus the occasional drunk. There was a constant river of tea, and an exercise book where funeral donations were carefully noted, but there weren’t any plates of boiled, salted maize and beans passed around at midnight for well-wishers to snack on. All that was reserved for Grandma’s Juja home.
I never made it to the funeral; my leg wound took care of that. It was raining buckets, and I could not even put on a pair of shoes, let alone the requisite pair or rubber gumboots. From what I hear, digging the grave was a disaster. Not even the customary dish of Ugali accompanied with matumbo was enough compensation for the labor required. This was like digging a well in the middle of the ocean. Drilling an oil rig in the Indian Ocean would have been more fun. Grave diggers had to take frequent breaks to bail water out. Even worse, it rained the previous night before the funeral. And it kept on raining even once the funeral procession got to Juja. The extended family still talks about that rain in awe. Shoes were lost in the black cotton soil. 4WD vehicles gave up the ghost in the middle of swamps. The coffin had to be hand carried the last one kilometer to the house. This was a long, wet day.
I sat at home, thinking farewell to Grandma. When everybody got back home from the funeral, life went on as best it could. There was a void, but such is mortality. I moved back into my room. Mother and I went to see Dr. Wanene – this famous GP who back in the early Nineties had treated by great grandmother. He did nothing more than wash the wound with Dettol and dress it with fresh bandages. He advised I do that twice daily. I was unimpressed. This fellow was telling me the exact thing I’d been doing all along! Surprisingly, Dr. Wanene’s touch was magic. The wound turned around; the flesh at the edges regained a healthy pink glow. It was healing. I still limped, but the pus discharge had abated. I could go back to school. A few weeks later, end of semester exams were due. I did them with no expectations; I’d missed almost half the term. When our final grades were released, it was clear I might have missed classes, but I wasn’t just lying on my ass either. It was a nice ending to what had been a tough three months. Although I’d attended the least number of classes, I walked away with the highest scores. Poetic justice. Or simply Grandma smiling down at me to continue her streak of academic prowess?

A Flurry of Activity, both Academic and Romantic

My last year in high school was a flurry of activity, both academic and romantic. At home, I was making eyes at Eunice and Mercy. Eunice was in college; and being a young professional woman, she was attractive to a lot of guys. Tony and his younger brother were both jostling to ask her out. My only real chance was in the evenings when I went to pick up milk from a local farmer. If I was lucky, I’d have timed my journey at just about the same time Eunice was heading back home. She spent her days at the Nairobi Institute of Business Studies, studying Information Technology. As a kid in high school, she was a role model. And easy on the eyes.

The trick was practicing my Casanova moves on Eunice, without prematurely ending my chances with Mercy. A tough juggling act given that the two women lived on opposite sides of the same street. I was bad at this. Tony, older than me and thus with several more years of flirting experience, beat me at my own game. I didn’t know this then, and it’s not until recently that Tony confessed, but he’d managed to have his cake and eat it, too. He’d spend his afternoons making out with Mercy, only to switch allegiances in the evening – and profess his undying Love for Eunice. He kept the whole act up and running for 3 months. When Eunice came home early one afternoon, and discovered that her and Mercy had actually been sharing details about the same sweetheart, the two dupes combined forces and dumped the T-Man simultaneously.

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The two dupes combined forces and dumped the T-Man simultaneously.

I didn’t have much time for mourning. I was once again in love, and this time it was for real! The lady had an alluring name: Sonia. And her beauty was everything you could imagine someone with such a moniker would possess. And more. She was Indian; so she came with standard issue copper skin, and long flowing black hair. She was a little more bronze than her Indian friends, as though she was racially mixed. I desperately hoped that she was. I figured that if her dad was Kenyan, meaning black, perhaps I had more of a shot. I never found out. I preferred to dream about the subject of my crush from a distance. I did chat with her once or twice, but I was too nervous not to say the wrong thing.

I changed tactics. I decided to approach Sonia through a third party, her friend Lucille. Lucille was gorgeous in her own way, and, thinking back, very personable. She could clearly see that I was smitten, and she did not begrudge me information about my intended. Lucille gave me tips on where Sonia hang out over the weekends, Sarit Center, a new mall that had just come up in Nairobi’s wealthy Westlands. Lucille also suggested ice cream and movies as a possible first date activity. And my heart was willing, but my wallet was weak. Sarit was the kind of place you drove to. Sure, there was public transport available, but it was totally not the same totally. I let my family’s financial background limit my imagination of what I could or could not achieve, and who I could or could not be friends with. Perhaps rashly so. Sonia was a hot cake. Boys were scrambling to woo her. We joked that an angel such as herself never had bowel movements; and if she did, it was only to eject perfect baked chocolate truffles.

There wasn’t much time to mop about Sonia. Our end of year Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exams were fast approaching. These were scheduled for mid-October through early November. By June, we’d worked our way through the entire syllabus in most of our classes: Social Ethics, English and Swahili literature, Chemistry, and Maths. We still had a chunk of work to do in Physics. Partly because we’d had to switch teachers in 10th grade. But we soldiered on. In July, we sat for a big exam that mimicked what we’d encountered in our finals. I did well. On our last day of classes, as we embarked on our August school holidays, I went home feeling accomplished. As usual, at 4pm, I went to the bus stop and waited for a number 11 matatu. These plied the Odeon-Highridge/Parklands route. I tried to not be too bothered by the fact that my peers were chauffeured home daily. I’d gotten used to their privilege. And for once, I may have been using public transport, but I was doing so with an impressive array of grades in my back pocket. Boo yeah!

Herds Boy Tales

One school holiday, after spending all term making puppy eyes at Irene – to no avail – I went to stay with Grandma. It couldn’t be a school holiday without going to Ocha in Juja. Grandma’s was great! First of all there was tons of milk, weather permitting. And for lunch, she’d often make thoroko. These vegetables are great in fiber, which I couldn’t have known back then. But thoroko have such strange texture; they’re really chewy. You could masticate on a mouthful for 5 minutes, and still not have sucked out all that juiciness. As a little boy, chewing on these strange tasting veggies was such a delight. Then there was always the chance of taking grandma’s dog for a hunt, and returning home with a rabbit or a young antelope – both delicious game meats.

In April, during the rainy season, Juja floods. This meant herding grandma’s livestock shod in gumboots or plastic sandals. Turns out you get terrible heat burn when you do that. For an 11-year old boy, the best part about living away from your mother for 3 weeks is that you don’t have to shower every single evening. Hence, all of a sudden, I had more time in the evening to challenge Njoro, my uncle, and grandma’s youngest kid, into farting contests. This being just a few years after the 1st American adventure in Iraq and Kuwait, our flatulence was appropriately named SCUD missiles and RPGs.

Our evening competitions over, we’d go to bed. Or rather I should say, I swam to bed. I was one of those kids who didn’t stop wetting their beds till really late. I mean like 10 or 11-years-old-late. My mother took me to see a sleep specialist. But that didn’t help. And once she quit her job, out went health insurance. I never returned to see the doctor. Instead, I went through a ridiculous number of mattresses, each lasting only slightly longer than the previous one as I doused them nightly with urine. In the middle, where a puddle would form each night, was usually the first spot to wear thin. Then a large tear would appear, eventually making its way to one of the corners, and thus rendering the mattress quite useless. With time, it made more sense that I use the hand-me-down mattresses that either my parents or my sisters had worn thin. That way it wasn’t such a loss to witness the mattress shrink and shrivel a la my nocturnal activities. It did, however, mean that I’d have to make several trips each morning taking out individual bedding pieces to dry in the sun. Usually I’d try and hang them out of sight; that way no neighborhood kids would ask awkward questions.

When I spent the holidays at Grandmas, I’d sleep in the living room, on the couch – my uncle Njoro having had it till up here with my nightly liquid adventures. We tried all kinds of tricks. One night I was banned from drinking tea just before going to bed. That didn’t help. Then I was asked not to drink any water after sundown. The next morning my couch was still soaked. As a list ditch attempt, Njoro woke me up around 3am to pee outside. I staggered out the door, eyes half-closed, tried not to pee on my feet, then stumbled back to bed. I woke up to even more pee than usual; this time not only had I wet the couch and the cushions, the floor was also flooded. Peeing in bed was like a curse! I started to worry that someone with an evil eye had indeed bewitched me, jealous that I was doing so well in school. Grandma and Njoro resigned themselves to the daily stink. And like clockwork, the sun would rise on me and my soggy beddings. December days are usually pretty warm and dry in Juja. That was lucky, because then my cushions would be dry by the evening when I brought them back inside.

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When school was out, in addition to cows and goats, they’d also send him young boys to help in tracking and corralling the animals.

Having laid out my beddings and cleaned up, I’d quickly do breakfast – often a plate of whatever was left over from dinner last night – and head out to meet Wa Ngoiri, our herdsman. Folks in the community sent him their livestock daily, and he’d look after them for a fee. When school was out, in addition to cows and goats, they’d also send him young boys to help in tracking and corralling the animals. And this is how I met Githu; he and I were assigned as Wa Ngoiri’s helpers. We’d get together first, merge our cattle, and drive them towards the larger herd. The rest of the day was spent sitting, whistling after errant goats, and stoning any village dogs that came too close to the sheep. While our supervisor may not have allowed it, we’d certainly have tried to initiate a bull fight between our largest animal, a light brown steer named Kilonzi, and smaller young males from competing herds. At lunch time, we’d find some shade, and while the animals chewed curd, we’d munch on ugali – soggy from sitting in sukuma wiki stew.

The day Wa Ngoiri “called in sick” Githu and I took charge. There were no cell phones so we didn’t know our lead herdsman won’t be at work till he sent a neighbor’s five-year old boy to my grandma early that morning. Granny explained that we’d have to make sure we keep the cattle in the old sisal plantations; this was the area with the most grass. I was also directed that in the afternoon we slowly make our way to the usual watering dam so the cows and goats could drink. Ever dutiful, I made sure Githu did all that. Finally, at 3pm, when the air is filled with bees shuttling back and forth to their hives, we sat down for lunch. We chose a rocky formation, giving us a good vantage over the resting animals. Today’s menu was cold rice, cooked in a broth of onions, tomatoes, and potatoes. This was 5-star dining and Githu wanted in. I was not too happy to share, especially since in return I only got his githeri stew. I took a few spoonfuls of the watery lunch and gave up.

Lunch over, we nestled in the grass to digest our food. Our backs rested against the rock, mimicking the animals when they wanted to scratch an itch. Lazily, we ended up on our backs, staring up at the sky. My hands wondered first, on to his pants, and eventually slid in under the loose elastic waistband. He sported neither undies nor boxers. No surprise there, he was a village boy to the core – after all. He took his penis in his right hand, grinning, and lanced my hand with it. I accepted the challenge, drawing forth my own weapon in preparation for this close quarter duel. Githu sat straddling me, his legs on either side of mine. I lay on my back, gazing through at the clouds when not engaged in the sword play we’d invented. I also kept an eye out for any intruder. Although we couldn’t exactly name whatever we were doing, we’d been socialized well enough to anticipate that adults would not appreciate our nudity. Eventually our curiosity abated; the mutual exploration ended and we got dressed. The sun was sinking in the horizon and it was time to lead the cattle back home.

A Series of Unfortunate Crushes

In third grade, Teacher Emily’s class, I sat next to a girl called Virginia. She was so birdlike, I couldn’t help but have a crush on her. She was kinda shy, but also talkative around friends. She expressed herself in little flighty movements. Not quite a damsel in distress, but enough to awaken the knight-in-shining armor within me. Even if just for a minute. Naturally, as a third grader, I sought Virginia’s attention by playing a prank on her. Around this time, canvas book bags were the in thing. These sacks were pretty barebones, but sturdy as hell. They could serve you from Mt. Everest and back, no problem. They were also made in Kenya, so they came in cheap. The downside was that the were no where as colorful as the plastic stuff just beginning to arrive from China. Dull, durable canvas spelt poor, while the fancy but shoddily manufactured imported items signaled money. Virginia’s rucksack was so identical to mine, it wasn’t until you’d used the sucker for a while and stained it that you could differentiate the two items. So, one evening I had the bright idea of swopping her bag with mine. I did the switcheroo just before the end of class, as we came back from Physical Ed in our dusty soccer pitch. Virginia never noticed the difference. Not till she went to pull out her math textbooks for that evening’s homework did she realize what had happened. The next morning I arrived at school earlier than usual, having sufficiently practiced my fake indignation at being pranked. As soon as Teacher Emily walked into the room, I went up to her and explained what had happened. Virginia hadn’t arrived yet, so I got to control the narrative from the start. I explained at length how I believed we’d been pranked by some of the naughty boys, no names mentioned – wink-wink hint-hint – just before the entire class went for PE the previous afternoon. I was generally out of trouble, so Tr. Emily had every reason to accept my version of the events. It was indeed very sad, she agreed, that silly boys had played this prank on us. She excused the fact that neither Virginia nor I had obviously had the chance to complete our homework assignments. I went to my assigned desk and sat down. Although I’d already deposited Virginia’s ruck sack on her chair, I still held onto its perfume scent. I felt that much closer to her for having interacted with her books and her pencil set the night before. That girly smell lingered on my fingers. Virginia finally got to class, and we swopped back our bags. She too expressed her astonishment to Tr. Emily. Unfortunately my prank never truly got us any closer. I never asked Virginia out, and in the end she transferred to another school.

The next year, in fourth grade, I met Asya Changu. Asya had one big thing going for her: she was smart and would often kick my ass in math quizzes. Virginia, while super cute, was not the sharpest blade in the set. So I always had some misgivings about asking her out, dating her, getting married, raising a family, rising in our respective career fields, and just generally being an all-round awesome power couple. Plus, Asya was from the coast; she had that lilting Swahili accent that lulls you into affirming your own emasculation.

“Ewe Kaka, naomba kukukata!”

“Buddy, may I castrate you?”

To which, under the assault of coconut-scented hair oil, long curly eyelashes, henna-ed and manicured long, slim fingers, you’d dreamily nod yes.

“Take me now; I’m all yours! If this is what it takes to enter the inner sanctum of your harem, do it!”

Add to all that eleven-year-old sexiness a brain that was quick-witted, and it was clear Asya and I were destined to go places. Of course the problem with meeting the angel of your dreams in real life, is that you’re still mortal. And she is too heavenly. It’s impossible to approach her and make a proposition, in the highly likely event she rejects you, and yet impossible to look away. Instead of getting to know Asya closer, I spent most of my time that school year dreaming about our offspring: these brood of infants who’d be so smart, they’d probably have PhDs by the time they were eighteen. I should have dreamt less, and acted more. In less than three semesters, Asya had transferred to another school; her family had moved and she was no longer my classmate. Bah! I knew this was too good to be true.

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Add to all that eleven-year-old sexiness a brain that was quick-witted, and it was clear Asya and I were destined to go places.

Where Asya was ethereal, Peninah, my grade five crush, was only too real in the flesh. Hers was not to conquer the heights of intellect, but rather the baser nature in all pubescent boys. She was curvy and on the cusp of womanhood. She was ripening in a way only fully captured by the Swahili word, Kubhaleghe. It means both a human, and hence utterly expected, physical transition, but one that also unfolds in ways that whet desire and drip with sin. Peninah was baleghe-ing to the full extent of her hormones, and we boys could not have enough of her. To baleghe is not a thing you speak of in polite company; heavens no! You save such titillating details for the whispered exchanges between confidants, preferably in the shadows. We were drawn to Peninah likes bees to honey. Hers was a heady concoction that hit us right below the gut, and we could never have too much. You offered to do Peninah’s homework, or else the rest of your sorry earthly existence was wholly futile. You stood so Peninah could seat, otherwise you deserved to be struck by lighting – after drowning. You stayed alert for the whiff of her perfume, just a hint, to confirm you were still within the realm of the living and had not descended into Hades due to longing and a broken heart.

With Peninah around, you couldn’t think long term. This was neither the time to pen bucket lists, nor to ponder on your future career. How could you, faced with a budding chest, and swinging hips? There was no time for tomorrow. It was all about the present: this smile, this touch, this wink, possibly even this hug; after which you could die in peace. Where Juliet, my arch academic rival, pretended to let me win, Peninah took no prisoners and suffered no fools. She was slaying our adolescent minds long before the concept existed. I envied whoever she spoke to. And I hated any boy who seemed close to her. And while I may not have cried myself to sleep missing her, Peninah’s face was the last thing I saw every night, and the first thing I saw every morning. This went on for three weeks, an eternity for a boy such as myself, who measured time in terms of romantic fantasies. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before my heart was smitten by someone else.

Or rather, I should say, two new girls: Irene and Caroline. They were sisters. Irene, the younger one, was in my class. Her sister was a grade above us. I never could fully decide on which one of them to invest my emotional energy. Caroline, being in class eight, was clearly way above my pay grade, but a boy can hope! She was a bad girl before Angelina Jolie. She had this Je n’ai sais quoi elegance about her. She was sometimes rowdy, laughing out loud, messing with the boys. She broke the rules. Her hair was braided in fascinating ways. When we read about Delilah and Jezebel in Christian Religious Education, I empathized with Samson. Against such charms, the sucker had no chance. Whatsoever.  And neither did I. Caroline was only too aware of her looks; she was gorgeous and totally in your face about it. There was to be none of that shy, cute, femininity for this queen. She owned this joint, and did not care who was watching. And the boys loved it. They flocked to her like moths to fire. And I watched as they crashed and burned. We kids in the lower grade gossiped about who was interested in her, who got dissed, and who hang on.

Irene was in the same class as I was. Sometimes we even sat together. Talk about bliss. As a boy, when you get to sit next to your crush it’s butterflies 24/7. You don’t wanna gawk, because then you’re just weird, but you can’t simply play aloof. You want to subtly let her know that you’re interested, but not in a creepy way. Aargh! So many emotions. What a juggling act. You watch her during break to see who she hangs out with. How she comfortably laughs, and teases, with Hilda, her best friend. They whisper to each other. You know it has something to do with using feminine products. They seem embarrassed, but also grown up. They’re on the cusp of adulthood and their bodies are maturing. You’ve learnt about this in Home Science, but it’s an entirely different thing to consider it from the perspective of someone you know. You want to reach out and say it’s OK. How do you step into this circle they’ve created for themselves? This intimacy where they share love letters, delivered through third parties, from forlorn boys in school? Irene has this neon green toy, a slinky. You watch her play with it. She sometimes leaves it on her wrist like a bangle. You envy that cheap Chinese toy; it has felt the kind of physical contact you’d die to experience.

The waiting game is fine, but as often happens, past a certain length the attraction fizzles out. Through the end of primary school, Irene was permanently at the edge of my awareness when it came to girls. She was a rung higher than Mary W., but not as friendly or approachable.

On the other hand, Mary S. was smart, chatty, perhaps even flirtatious with me. And while outwardly polite, she had a rebellious streak deep within her that startled even Mr. Kariuki, one of the strictest teachers we had at Ngong Hills. Karis was being a faculty member, possibly throwing his weight around – mark you most teachers did that. Well, Mary S. had had enough of that crap. She drew a line, Mr. Kariuki stepped over it, and they almost came to blows. Scandalous! A pupil refusing to submit to a teacher’s corporal punishment? What was the world coming to?

Mary’s partner in crime, Silvia, was this lithe cat. She had long Nilotic limbs, the kind you could imagine pharaohs fighting over. She was languid, easy going. Not to say you could mess with her, but rather that she was long suffering. Yet when cornered, she was a formidable foe. She had a strong personality, in the way quiet people do. They don’t talk much, not because they have nothing to say, but because they’re quite content in themselves and have no need to convince anyone. Nor do they need to justify their lives or their choices. Even clothed in thinning school uniform, Silvia was so graceful. If she even went into modelling, she’d be great – so regal!

Njoki on the Weekends – II

I’m glad I persisted; Njoki and I ended up being pretty close. We had a routine. We’d meet up on Sunday afternoons and take walks, sometimes holding hands, into Oloolua Forest. If we discovered a meadow of some sort, or a spot by the river, we’d seat and chat about anything and everything. We shared an interest in Reggae music, UB40 especially. Even now, I can’t hear “Cheerio, cheerio Baby” without thinking back to those conversations. We knew the same people, so we gossiped about them: who committed what crime; who was dating whom; who died.

If not strolling through Eucalyptus trees, we’d sit at an old bridge long into the night, whispering sweet nothings. Njoki fascinated me. She was more mature, but that never came across as condescension. Our friendship puzzled onlookers. She was also really good with animals. She had a pet dog, Mickey, who followed her everywhere and would have defended her with his life. Mickey eventually accepted me. He’d lie down at the foot of an old culvert, while we sat on a low reinforcement wall. One evening, we’d sat so long it had gotten dark. Several pedestrians walked by; they could tell there were two people on the bridge, but they couldn’t see our faces well enough to recognize us. The spot was renowned for muggings. Women hurrying home from errands looked in the general direction they heard our voices and sped away in fear. Mickey quietly kept watch while Njoki and I continued chatting. A little after, a rowdy drunk passed by. I recognized him from his slurry speech. It was Sancho, a young no-gooder who was involved in several robberies in the neighborhood. To make matters worse, he was known to openly smoke weed. If no one openly challenged him about his behavior, it was only because they feared a violent retaliation.

 

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Mickey quietly kept watch while Njoki and I continued chatting.

Sancho heard us talking, and he took it upon himself to investigate. He ambled towards our general direction, swaying. Mickey’s ears went upright, cocked towards this intruder. Sancho took a few more steps towards us, and Mickey knew it was on; this is exactly what he’d been born to do. He was about to be a star. Sancho approached where we sat; he was no more than a few meters away. Mickey was positioned between us and Sancho; he’d now stood up on all fours. I could hear him growling low in his throat, but Sancho had not yet realized the adversary he was walking into. The moment Sancho made the final step, closing the gap between him and us, Mickey erupted into a frenzy of barking and growling. I’d never seen him on the defense before, so I was shocked at how vicious he’d suddenly become. Sancho was taken unawares; he stumbled back, attempting to flee from what might as well have been a lion now right up in his face. He tried to simultaneously turn around and run; while his mind might have been shocked into soberness, his body was still not fully functional. His escape failed, landing him flat on his face. He groaned loudly, probably having grazed himself on rocks. I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. I couldn’t believe that Sancho’s famous bravado had been reduced to whimpering. Njoki had a hard enough time calling off Mickey who, like myself, seemed to truly enjoy terrorizing Sancho into further hysteria. When Sancho finally got back on his feet, he was terribly disoriented. He veered off in what was certainly the wrong direction. And the loud splash that followed confirmed my observation. Sancho was now fully present, yanked back from whatever substance-induced paradise he’d ben enjoying. He cursed, loud and long, something that included both dogs and mothers. But that only added icing to what had become a veritable comedic cake. Sancho knew as much. He waded out of the murky river, shot one last “fuck you” in our general direction, and hurried away from lion-inspired dogs and dark pools that terminated your buzz. Njoki and I figured we’d had sacrificed enough blood to the resident mosquito population. We hugged goodnight, and went our separate ways.

Njoki on the Weekends – I

If I failed horribly at sweet talking Sheila during the week, I more than compensated over the weekends. Sunday afternoons were spent with Njoki, another star in the constellation of village girls that I dreamt about dating. Sheila was definitely the  morning star, brightest of the bunch, and wholly out of my league. I consoled myself with the fact that Sheila never went to high school – I was too good for her, I concluded. Then there was Shiku, her neighbor. Shiku did go to high school. In fact, her and I attended sister institutions; I was at the Aga Khan Academy, she was at the Aga Khan High School. In the ‘academy’ lies all the difference. Her school was clearly a charity case, mine was the real deal – never mind that I was no more than a scholarship student. Shiku had that advantage over Sheila, but she was also way too wild for me. I’d see her hanging out with the boys I knew better than to associate with. These kids were partying, drinking and smoking, way before I even knew to worry about whether I was still too old to be a virgin. This was the crowd your parents went to church for, hoping and praying that you do not fall in with . These fellows skirted at the edges of the Anglican Church of Embulbul Youth Group; but it was quite obvious their suave moves were not confined to merely accompanying good, pious, Christian girls down the aisle. They had designs that were way more sinister, and the wickedness to target impressionable girls in the congregation. Someone shout “Safe sex!”

I convinced myself that Shiku didn’t really mean to be with this kiddos. I simultaneously dreaded and craved for a chance meeting on our dusty village footpaths. But such luck only opened further conundrums: whom should I look at when we passed each other. Should I stare at her face and ignore the guys jockeying around her like young lions? Would that not be interpreted as competition, and possibly get me an ass whooping? Sure, I wanted the girl, but not if I had to fight a pack of village thugs. In any case, the boys were their own downfall; they were too successful with the ladies. And so, inevitably, they’d get bored with Shiku and move on to the next conquest.

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These fellows skirted at the edges of the Anglican Church of Embulbul Youth Group; but it was quite obvious their suave moves were not confined to merely accompanying good, pious, Christian girls down the aisle.

In Sheila’s social circle, there was also Sara and Emily. They were sisters; separated by an almost 10 year age gap. For some reason, Sara, the younger one, shared a Christian name with their mother. The older Sarah had a mental illness, and thanks to village prejudice, she was more commonly known as Mad Sarah. Mental illness ran in the family. At least two of the girls’ uncles were eccentric to the extreme. One of them, Wachira, was actually under medication; he would often disappear for a week or two. Upon his return we’d learn he’d been admitted at Mathare Hospital, Nairobi’s main mental health institution. Mwangi, the other uncle, was not under any treatment. He’d drink and turn into an entirely different person, physically violent. I watched Sara and Emily closely. I was fascinated by the lives of their extended family. How does one navigate such outrageous characters in the home, I wondered?

Mental illness was rather familiar, but not in any personal way. Walking to Ngong Hills Academy, I’d often run into Brownie and Njeri, our resident mad man and woman. Njeri was old, probably in her late 40s or early 50s by the time I started noticing her. You could go for months without sighting either of them, and then she’d be seated by the road, with a sack of her belongings. She was homeless, as far as I could tell, with minimal opportunities to shower and change her clothes. She held continuous conversations, either with herself, or with invisible companions. Njeri would gesture and her face would contort assent or dissent, as the dialogue progressed. Her right arm, missing a sweater sleeve, would point sideways, and then she’d burst out laughing, only to stop just as abruptly. Dressed haphazardly – a sweater missing buttons, tucked on top of a zipless coat, and underneath which you could see a floral dress – she was more to be pitied than to be feared. Brownie was known for walking. You could never see him seating. He was ever on the move. One day you’d see him at Ngong market, nonchalantly walking past the stalls filled with fruit and veggies. None bothered him. The next weekend you’d be driving past Karen, three kilometers away, and there would be Brownie, still on his walkabout.

The girls, Sara and Emily, were gorgeous. They set many hearts on fire. Mine included. Unfortunately, Sara was in class eight at Embul bul primary. I may have been a randy young he-goat, but even I knew that a high schooler such as myself could not be seen dating someone that much younger. Instead, I set my sights on her sister. Emily was older than me, more worldly. Her and Sheila frequented The Nest Pub & Restaurant when this joint first opened. The Nest was a spot filled with fast money. Matatu crews and young professionals, both just coming of age, would congregate here on weekends. Nest was THE place to see and to be seen. Shiku and her crowd of male peacocks were frequent customers. This was a lifestyle of partying that I could neither afford, nor explain to my parents. I was still in high school after all. And although I had undergone the customary rite of circumcision, I knew not to push my new found independence too far. If I couldn’t party with Emily, I appealed to her romantic side. Running into her one Sunday afternoon by the bridge that straddles a seasonal Kangawa river, I said “Sasa.” She paused mid step, and replied, “Poa, niaje!” We were walking in opposite directions, so we stood facing each other. She just stared back at me, letting me stew under the gaze her elongated eyelashes. I squirmed, willing my brain to not fail me at such crucial a moment. And, before my courage zapped out, I quickly blurted out my proposal “would you be my girl friend?” Although our greetings had been in Sheng, my appeal was delivered in English, of course. The Queen’s language was the surest way to a girl’s heart, so I’d learnt. She smiled, I think, then proceeded to reject my interest in her. She was too hot for me; in many ways I could have predicted her response. In any case, I may have been down, but I was not out, yet. There was still Njoki, Emily’s aunt, for me to proposition. I was hell bent on having a girl friend; I felt the deep urge to catch up with my compatriots. Having survived one let down, I was not too frightened by the prospect of another.