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.

 

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Sheila, My Love

Sheila was the bane of my existence. I loved her. Deeply, in that teenage boyish fashion. Sheila’s beauty was a little bit physical; she was short, dark, curvy yet lean. Her hair was always tied in a pony tail, blow dried. She mostly wore pants, denim, with a plaid jumper just a size too big. But this simply added to the allure; it made me imagine what lay underneath. Mostly though, she was just cool, and suave. In a way I could never hope to be. Her eyes had this way of passing over you that left you feeling both the luckiest man alive, and also the sorriest human anywhere! It was bittersweet. It was a drug that I could not get enough of. And I craved for my daily fix: every weekday evening on my way home from school.

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Mostly though, she was just cool, and suave. In a way I could never hope to be.

After getting off the bus at Embulbul terminus, I’d walk through the one-street town. The main road splits the shopping center in half. Right next to the tarmac was a government-sponsored water project which in addition to selling portable water to local households, also had a tree and flower nursery going. You could buy trees every rainy season to fulfill your part in the national drive towards reforestation. The plot next to the tree nursery was empty, offering space for events as varied as evangelical Christian crusades, or open-air film screenings courtesy of the Kenya Film Commission. I only attended these night events once or twice, but I knew the routine well: action flick projected onto a white sheet, powered by a rowdy generator. Once the cowboy, or more recently, Kung Fu picture was over, you could expect the violence to migrate from the screen to the audience. Rotten eggs, moldy and smelly vegetables, and sometimes human feces, would fly in between rivals gangs: boys with grand dreams of thug-dom.

Fittingly, the opposite side of the road housed Embulbul’s bastion of peace: the Catholic Church. It was still under construction, a mabati structure that was a sizeable upgrade from the timber church a few blocks down. The congregation had expanded, enough to afford the architecturally ambitious edifice for which we were forever contributing donations and performing funds drives. There was even a 3-D model displayed at the church’s main entrance. Right next to the fountain containing Holy Water. Our future cathedral promised to be a scenic upgrade in a town where half the homes were still built of mud and wattle.

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After getting off the bus at Embulbul terminus, I’d walk through the one-street town. The main road splits the shopping center in half.

An avenue branched off to the left towards Wa-Job’s shop. He was our family grocer. He extended us credit, as well as other smaller favors. I could deposit my gumboots in his shop if it had been raining on my way to school in the morning. Two blocks down, on the same side of the street, was the local Masjid, the mosque. The Muslim community was not that large, so their white and green structure would not need an upgrade for another decade or more. I’d branch off the main street and weave in between narrow footpaths, past Peninah’s house, and John Mzungu’s compound. Peninah was cute, but she had nothing on Sheila. Sheila was a bad girl, Peninah was just nice. Mugumo-ini Bar and Restaurant was at the edge of town, just where the nascent municipal council ceded authority, and plots were actually titled. D.O., as the proprietor of Mugumo-ini was called, having been a former District Office, had opened a beer and nyama choma joint. It was frequented by some of our neighbors, at least on those off days when, lacking cash, they needed credit and could not visit the more popular watering holes such as Jamba Square.

Past Mugumo-ini you go down hill, with two local tycoons’ homes on your right: Jimmy’s first, then Kirui’s. Both men made their money from quarrying stones in the area. This was Embulbul’s version of industrial magnates. Opposite Kirui’s house was a large real estate development that had been built in the late 80s. It probably held close to a hundred 1 and 2-bedroom apartments, all single storied. For some reason, however, Kamunya’s private development never took off. Most of the houses were empty, despite the formidable stone wall that fenced the entire estate. This was in contrast to an 8-roomed affair that always had tenants right opposite the main entrance to Kamunya’s property. The wooden structures of this two-rowed apartments were already aging by the late 90s, but that did not detract potential tenants. And right next door lived Sheila, with her mother and elder brother.

Mama Sigidi, as Sheila’s mother, ran a small vegetable stall right at their front gate. The structure was hurriedly knocked together using Eucalyptus poles, poached from Oloolua Forest, gunny sacks, and one piece of mabati to keep away the elements. The mabati mostly failed in its duties. The produce was often sitting in the sun, or had to be shelved away whenever it rained. Sheila ran the stall. As children are expected to. She’d open shop in the evenings, just in time to catch the work crowd hurrying home to prepare supper. Kale was on offer, so too was spinach, tomatoes, onions, sometimes even a few roots of garlic. There were also fruits, depending on what was in season: avocado, bananas, oranges, and plums. Other than plums, the rest could be bought wholesale at Mkulima’s farm –  a big operation on the next ridge.

So get this, Embulbul has a sizeable farmers’ market, where you could find all kinds of fresh produce. In my pubescent infatuation, I would however, walk right past all these offerings, just to go buy a banana, at Sheila’s stall. And if I was feeling particularly wealthy I’d throw in an avocado. The 3-minute interaction I’d have with Sheila was absolutely worth it. That I was also getting a healthy daily serving of fruits was just an added bonus. I’d say hello, my school bag slung on my left shoulder. Looking cool even as my heart fluttered. I’d stretch my arm, snaking it past the small window where customers handed in their cash. I’d point to the banana I wanted her to sell me. Having chosen an avocado that was just ripe, I’d reach for my wallet in right back pocket. If I was lucky our fingers would graze as she accepted the cash. Heaven was finding her in a good mood so that we could chat for a few minutes longer.

The magazines I’d read about girls told me it was quite important to establish what their hobbies were. Sheila’s were reading novels (Danielle Steele), traveling, and swimming. In hindsight, we all had those canned responses. Borne out of strange fantasies to connect with foreign pen pals who would revel us with news about the west, perhaps send us expensive books and electronics at Christmas, or possibly airlift us out of Moi’s austerity-prone autocracy into legal adoption, free tertiary education, and a Green Card. And so we all listed swimming as a hobby. Even though we could not have seen a swimming pool but once, or twice, and even then only on TV.

Often I was unlucky. And the girl of my dreams would be sitting with one of the tenants who rented a room from Mama Sigidi. While I didn’t hold grudges against the lady, given that I didn’t even know her name, I did grow to loathe her. She seemed alive merely to thwart my romantic aspirations. She would impatiently stare at me while Sheila counted out my change, as though I was the intruder. I resented those looks! And I envied her easy familiarity with Sheila, that she lived right next door to the woman I wanted to take out for a date. Since I could not genuinely hate her, I transferred my dislike to her diseased ear lobe. She had a tumor the size of a golf ball growing off the top cartilage in her right ear. It was ripe and shiny, swollen tight. And sometimes I could spot a dribble of pus making its way down past her ear lobe. Probably an ear piercing gone wrong. I never found out, and had no sympathy. The universe, on my behalf, had served her poetic justice for her rude interruptions.

The best part about having teenage infatuations is meeting these people, fifteen years later, and seeing how much or how little they’ve changed. Sheila is still good looking. We’ll walk past each other, like ships in the night, perhaps once every time I’m in Kangawa. Cheers to our younger selves!

 

My Aga Khan Academy Years – Fashionable!

I accumulated my cash slowly. I took to carrying lunch from home. Mother would boil rice for my sisters and I in the evening. Often the dish would be sprinkled with tomatoes, or carrots. Mostly with potatoes, since these were cheaper. Taking lunch to school was tricky business. A dish of plain rice, flavored with leek onions, salt, and a spoonful of oil could not compete against the sumptuous dishes served at the Aga Khan cafeteria. There were all kinds of goodies to be had: half chicken with fries, burgers, meat, chicken, and veggie pies, beef sausages, and pizza. For drinks, you had a choice of smoothies, soda, fruit juice, or chocolate milk. But all these goodies cost money: more cash than my lunch allowance. It wasn’t too difficult acknowledging that this diet would not be for me. I grudgingly accepted my simple bowl of rice. Gradually becoming less and less embarrassed about joining my peers at the cafeteria bandas while they feasted on juicy chicken thighs. I watched my piggy bank grow, even though once in a while I’d indulge in a bottle of Picana mango soda.

Finally, one Monday, after receiving my weekly bus and lunch money it seemed like I had enough cash for my RENKs. I put aside what I’d need for my five-day commute, feeling very rich. But I chose to bid my time. It was better to wait till Friday, or at least Thursday, in case it rained and my bus ticket went up which would have skewed my calculations. School couldn’t end early enough on the Friday afternoon I picked up my boots. All through Social Studies I dreamt about that new shoe smell. I skipped my evening library session that day, and dashed out the gate as soon as we were let out. One matatu later, I was speed walking from Odeon Cinema towards King’s Collection.

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I woke up to prepare for the first service at Embulbul Mother of God Catholic Church.

Most of these shops are owned by Asian Kenyans, with a black labor force. The black guy watches you for a bit once you enter the store. You’ll probably have to leave your back pack at the entrance with the guard. In his store keeper’s coat, the salesman looks short for his height. The shop is plugged with an aroma of ubani, Indian incense; other exciting spices mingle in the air. But I hadn’t walked in to exercise my olfactory muscles. I made straight for the boots, pointing them out and inhaling deeply as the salesperson placed them on the counter in front of me. This is a big ticket item. The guy doesn’t know whether to begin anticipating a nice commission or to indulge my obviously overpriced dreams. He plays along when I ask to try on the shoes. I sit at a bench, emblazoned with a scale that customers could use to determine their shoe size, and take off my black and dusty school shoes. The fellow comes around from behind his counter; what the hell, his demeanor suggests , it’s a slow afternoon after all, I have a few moments to indulge this kid.

I tried on the size 9s; they were a bit too small. I had no wriggle room at the back of my foot. The attendant suggested I try a size 10. the second pair fit a lot better. With a pair of socks on, they were just snug. I concluded that’s the pair I’d be taking home with me. It was now time to see  if I could squeeze a discount out of the Mhindi. I asked again about the price as I put my school shoes back and stood up. The sales attendant repeated the original sticker price. I’d shopped with my mom often enough to know that the shop would offer me a small discount if I persisted. I looked at the main boss, seating behind the register in a sleeveless cardigan, holding his unshaved face in his left arm. Bored. He dismissively interjected and gave a slightly lower final price, only KSHS 50 discounted. I figured I should take what I got. The shopkeeper suddenly  got a lot more animated when I moved to pull out my wallet. He was glad I hadn’t simply been wasting their time window shopping out my price range.

I handed over the cash. The manager rang up the till, deposited the cash, and handed my receipt to his clerk. The sales attendant looked at the receipt, confirmed that indeed I’d paid for my boots in full, even though he’d witnessed the whole transaction. Bureaucracy! He  then proceeded to pack my boots into their box, carefully extracting the old bunched newspapers which had been used to help keep the shoes in shape. After being deposited in a cardboard box, the shoes were placed in a plastic shopping bag. The big shiny kind that you take with you on your annual trip to the folks upcountry. This is the kind of plastic bag that declares its modernity; it screams of middle class luxury and is content in its ostentatiousness. It calls attention to itself. You cannot face it and not marvel at its holder. I walked out feeling richer than I’d walked in. And isn’t that the marvel of consumerism? You spend your hard-earned money and walk out feeling as though you’ve just made a billion dollar investment.

This was Friday. I couldn’t wait for Sunday mass. I woke up to prepare for the first service at Embulbul Mother of God Catholic Church. I always went for the 8am service. I liked how efficient it was: one hour, in and out, and you’re salvaged from eternal damnation. It was such a good deal, I usually threw in a Wednesday evening service at half past six on my way home from school. Another great bargain: you got served prayers, worship songs, AND Holy Communion, in under 30 minutes. Sunday eventually, slowly, rolled in. I might have been headed to church, but I was dressed to kill. My pants were tailor-made; the material had a brown sheen to it, like velvet, but not quite. I wore my trousers above the waist at the time. It was a classic mode made endearing to us by Congolese Lingala musicians. I paired it with a white t-shirt, with yellow arm bands. Then I had my boots; I was looking hot.

I got to church on time, and mass went on without a hitch. There was one girl I’d been eyeing for a month or so now. She usually sang with the youth choir, and also served as the liaison between the youth group and the parish administration, including Father Kevin, the in-house priest. It was with much dismay that I realized she’d missed first mass this morning. Perhaps I’d run into her on the way out, I consoled my disappointed self. Once we exited the church, back under a clear blue sky, with the sun already promising another hot equatorial afternoon, I forgot all about Ciku. I was off chasing another skirt; one who lived much closer to my house. I’d spotted Waithera sitting on the other side of the church from me. She was not an early morning kind of person, so this was my one opportunity to chat her up as we walked back home together. This was going to be exciting! I’d almost walked towards her to say hello, when I remembered I had some shopping to do before going home. Argh! My Casanova role was immediately replaced by the butler in me. It was off to the grocer’s for sugar, salt, and flour. If I was quick, I thought, I might yet catch up with Waithera. Needless to say, that walk back to my house was hurried, and fruitless; either the girl was too fast for me, or she took an entirely different route home. What a waste of an entirely handsome outfit!

My Aga Khan Academy Years – Boots Edition

By the time I spent my ill-gotten wealth on the camera, I’d been dreaming about it for several months. On my way from Odeon Cinema, where the passenger vans from Aga Khan/Highridge dropped you off, to the bus station where I’d get onto a 111, there was a photo studio. The first floor had a shop window facing busy Ronald Ngara where you could buy film, flash, and cameras. I chose an MDx610. It came in a crispy blue box, with dark grey corners. The camera itself was made of plastic. There was a shutter button on the top right, and a sliding lever to open the lens cover on the bottom left. This was a big purchase. I knew my mom would ask where I’d gotten the money. I did not want to get into trouble. I was happy committing the crime, but had no intention of doing the time. I spoke with my cousin, Wainaina, to figure out what to do.

Wainaina lived with us at the time. He was the day-to-day manger on our family quarrying operation. He doubled as a laborer while also managing the books. As a result, he always had cash on him. I talked him into agreeing to convince my mother that he’d fronted me the money to buy a camera, and that I’d pay him back with time. Mother did not bring it up with me; if she did follow up with Wainaina, it was behind my back. I began my photography career taking portraits of quarry workers. I knew them through my cousin, and given how notoriously bad they are at repaying debt, it was important to have some sort of relationship that I could lean on when it came time to collect. Each copy was KSHS 25. Men would pose shirtless, holding steel rivets and stone mallets, or with the 30 foot hand-held drill bits used to prepare cliff walls for blasting.

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I often never got paid for my portraiture. Quarry workers are experts at getting rid of creditors.

I might have had the hardware, but the skills were still lacking. Pressing the shutter release button was easy enough. Making sure the image was properly focused, and that the lighting would not mess up the portrait was a lot harder. To get better, I began diligently perusing the photography books and magazines that our school library stocked. In one part of our library, closest to the entrance, the staff had arranged glossy copies of PC Magazine, Digital Photography, National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, Time, Economics, and Newsweek. These material was meant to complement our studies and open us to a global stage full of opportunities. It worked to varying degrees amongst the student body, but it certainly gave me a better idea of what I was aiming for in my photography. Alongside portraiture, I began to venture into landscape shots. The 35mm lens, however, was ill-suited for the kind of wide-angled composition I imagined in my head. I’d take images to document the environmental degradation in Oloolua Forest, courtesy of a rampant quarrying industry, and the resulting work came out looking weird. Instead of expansive vistas, my developed pictures would mostly have ghostly-looking bushes with objects out of focus.

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I began to venture into landscape shots.

To make matters worse, I often never got paid for my portraiture. Quarry workers are experts at getting rid of creditors. By tradition, they get an advance on Wednesday evening, and their weekly pay is calculated on Saturday afternoon. They are paid by the feet. Say they’ve cut 400 feet of 9×9 stones, 600 feet of 6×9 stones, and 250 feet of 4×9 stones. Each of these will be compensated at  different rates, with 9×9 stones fetching the highest price. As stone masons are wont to do, they let slip from their minds that they got an advance just three days before. When their weekly paycheck is tallied up, and the cash they got on Wednesday deducted, they always walk away with a feeling of being robbed. They were rather impossible fellows to please because if you ever suggested doing away with the mid-week advance ritual they were sure to howl oppression and bloody murder! What all these boils down to is that quarry workers are rather hard to part from their hard-earned cash. It must have to do with the back-breaking work they do all day, crushing rocks, and cutting quarry chips. I was not the only one to suffer this fate. Quarry workers eat 3 meals a day, at work, after breakfast in their own homes, and they fully anticipate a heavy dinner in the evening. Suffice it to say they run up a pretty tab at the lunch shacks they frequent. The understanding is that the ladies who own this establishments advance them credit under expectations of receiving an advance on Wednesday, and for all accounts to be cleared on Saturday. Since the men have to eat every day, these ladies had a better chance of recovering their debts. I only saw these fellows on Saturdays, by which time they’d be in a great big hurry to get home, take a shower, and hit the town for a round of drinks with friends and colleagues. Many of these Saturday night debacles left the fellows quite penniless by Monday morning. If you didn’t get your money on Saturday evening, you might as well forget it till next weekend. I was too often faced with this scenario that I soon came to the conclusion I’d never turn a profit from this kind of photography.

Turns out I was as unsuccessful a photographer as I was a pick-pocket. I still remember the time I got caught. I’d just replaced a wallet I’d hoped to fish some cash from. The thing was empty, so I put it back in the back left pocket, folded the pants as I recalled finding them, and turned to exit from the changing room. And that’s when several form two boys walked in. Fortunately, they found no evidence on me. Unfortunately, that did not stop them. They had very strong suspicions of what I’d been doing, and they simply ran with that. They questioned me, demanding to know whether I’d been stealing from them. I objected. They did not take kindly to my resistance. Georgie began to look unsure, maybe I really was as innocent as I claimed. Moha ignored any doubts. Stano had the most resolve in this gang of three. He wanted answers, yesterday! His open hand connected with the right side of my face. I winced, but did not give them the satisfaction of seeing my tears. They grabbed my collar and threatened even more violence. But I knew I had them; I stood my ground. Eventually they pushed me out of the changing room. I walked out silently vowing revenge.

The next morning, I went straight to the Dean of Students’ office. I knew that Stano and his buddies were often in trouble. However guilty I might have been, I resented being bullied. Combined with the fact that I always came across as a goodie-two-shoes, I knew that in a he-said-they-said contest, the school administration would side with me. The Dean of students was a 50-something Asian lady; I laid out my complaint: three form two boys had bullied me. Aga Khan was a private school, where parents paid a tidy sum to get their students a cushy high school education. Physical violence was not tolerated, not even if it was only directed at the poor scholarship kids. Dean Prajani was mad. Georgie, Moha, and Stano were summoned to her office.  I repeated my complaint. They brought up the whole pick-pocketing thing. But they had no evidence, and a long record of delinquency. I had a nice row of A’s and B’s on my report card. I won. They were pissed! And I could empathize. They had basically caught me red handed, yet they had ended up being reprimanded. All because I came across as a good boy; I never forgot the power of perceptions.

I also learnt my lesson: crime does not pay. I scrimped lunch money for my next purchase. On Tom Mboya street, there was a clothes emporium called the King’s Collection. It sold everything from colored pairs of socks, to pocket handkerchiefs, dress shirts, suits, blankets, and rain jackets. On their display window, they had a dazzling pair of brown boots. I loved those shoes, and the day I purchased them, with cash from my own savings, was so fulfilling! They had a thick rubber sole, black. The label, RENK, was embroidered in yellow letters on the outer side of each shoe. They had laces and a metal buckle. And imitation felt cushion at the top. I desired those boots more than I’d ever wanted anything else. I salivated over them. I stood opposite  the display window and imagined the kinds of adventures such boots would lead me to. I conquered the world wearing those shoes. I beat off school and village bullies while donning those boots. And, of course, I swept gorgeous ladies off their sexy feet and skinny legs in those brown RENKs. It was clear I had to own them and add them to my wardrobe. They were a good KSHS1,500. My lunch allowance was KSHS50 per day. This was going to be one long month!

 

Aga Khan Academy – Prison Break

My parents might not have placed any silver spoons in our mouths at birth, but they did try their best to instill high morals. Essentially, even though cash was sometimes hard to come by, the little they had was acquired by honest means. One would expect their son to have inherited the same values. But alas, it was not always so.

Aga Khan Academy had a swimming pool; and in our first year, Mr. Mdogo the Physical Ed teacher, took it upon himself to teach whichever one of us villagers who still couldn’t swim. I’d of course previously done the usual accompany-other-village-boys-to-the-river thing in Kangawa. We’d undress to our undies and jump  in. Some of the kiddos actually knew enough to float and kick in the right direction. But it was such a high bravado activity, the boys as intent on getting wet as they were to wow the group of girls watching, that I normally shied away. Not to mention that we often went to Ngai Ndeithia, as the pool was called, on our way home from the forest to gather firewood. I’d already be feeling inadequate that my load was the lightest compared to the other boys, no pun intended. The last thing I wanted was to display one more area where they excelled better than myself. And there was also the potential for trouble. No one quite knew how deep the pool went, or what debris was underneath the water. Hence the aptly chosen Gikuyu moniker, God-Help-Me.

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Mr. Mdogo the Physical Ed teacher, took it upon himself to teach whichever one of us villagers who still couldn’t swim.

So Mdogo got us into the pool. We were a gang of four: Muthama, Orora, Bajaber, and myself. This was humiliating work. We were out there on the shallow end treading water, holding onto the ropes for dear life while other folks performed fish-like tumble turns. Learning to swim is like being re-born. All of a sudden you’re in a new dimension of the universe where you’re expected to keep your mouth open, breath, and kick ALL at the same time. No wonder newborns look so damn grouchy. And it was probably worse for the other three because they were all very skilled footballers; I wasn’t. I was just as likely to score past my own goalie as not. But I did have a tenacity and stubbornness when it came to “marking my man” that made me a formidable defender – when I put my mind to it. For me, swimming was a new skill; for them, every second spent inside that Chlorine soup was psychological torture designed to keep them away from their first love: the soccer pitch. I also suspect that Mato and Pato couldn’t swim, and never learnt, but they were hardened Don’t-Cares so Mdogo might just have given up! There was also a future Miss Kenya in the group of novices. But for her it made sense; soon to be clad in two-piece bikinis, it would be a good thing that she didn’t drown during a photo shoot.

That was us on the shallow end. On the opposite side, acting like they’d literally been born in water were Hussein and a bunch of form two boys. Man, those guys were good! From the effortless dive into a pool, to the strokes, to the turn around, they all made taking laps look as easy as eating buttered bread. Needless to say, I was envious. And I vowed that even if I couldn’t do a perfect butterfly, I’d at least make sure I learnt enough not to drown. So I practiced during Physical Ed: that one hour break we got once or twice a week in order to exercise our pubescent bodies. And I practiced after school. At 3:30pm, with classes over, one could go jump in the pool, as long as there was a lifeguard present. Sometimes I even practiced during lunchtime. I was slowly making headway. Even though I couldn’t do it for more than five strokes, I at least understood the concept behind bringing my head up to breath, rather than making a complete halt just to fill my lungs with precious oxygen.

I even got mother to buy me a pair of swimming trunks. Nylon biker shorts, really; blue, with some floral patterns in white, they definitely looked somewhat feminine. I didn’t let that stop me. I’d change in the bathrooms located right next to the pool. We all did. Boys had their own changing/shower space where you’d don your swimming costumes, or your soccer kit. There weren’t any lockers so we’d just leave our bags in there. It was then that I started going through people’s school bags, looking for their wallets. I’d identify a rich-looking bag, quickly rifle through the pants and pull out any cash I came across. After returning the clothes same way I found them, I’d walk out trying to act normal. I did this a couple of times without getting caught, and used the stolen money to buy my first film camera.

I’d always been into photography, and was at that time obsessed with Mo’ Amin. Amin was a legendary Kenyan-Asian photojournalist. He’d been to all the hotspots in the region, from Somalia, to Zanzibar during a coup in the early 60s. When he had his arm blown off during an assignment, he recovered, got a prosthetic, and kept on working. His tragic death in a 1996 plane crash was surreal. The Ethiopian Airlines flight he’d boarded to Nairobi was hijacked, only to run out of fuel off the Comoros coast. I would look at Amin’s photobooks and dream of travelling as much as he had. A camera seemed to be the magic wand to make that happen, and I was eager to acquire one. Getting my parents to buy me one was out of the question. I could have saved my lunch money, KSHS 50 daily, and accumulated enough for the camera. But that would have taken several weeks, and, after all, forbidden fruit tastes sweetest. I was experimenting with being a thug, and chose to go all the way in.

My Aga Khan Academy Years – The Flood

There were multiple reasons why I’d get home late, some more legit than others. For instance, there was this one weekday in 1998 when I got home at 11pm – soaking wet, tired, hungry, and so reluctant to be getting up at 5am the next morning to do it all over again! This was how El Nino came to be on everyone’s tongue.

This was an evening shared with about 120 other commuters on an old, rickety, route 111 Kenya Bus Service. It took us 3 hours to move from the terminal to Nyayo House, a distance of not more than 1 mile. It was pure torture.  Body odors went beyond overpowering. Forget personal space; there was barely enough room for everyone who was determined to get home that night. About 10 men hang on from the back and front doors. Their limbs going numb after they’d clutched a foothold for over an hour. It was a miserable experience that succinctly epitomized how derelict Nairobi as a city had become. Our dysfunctional urban infrastructure was plainly visible.

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And the rains came down hard

And yet, it had begun so well. By now, about eight months into my high school career, I’d already become adept at swinging in and out of moving vehicles. It’s a skill that comes in handy in Nairobi’s CBD. You can skip out of a bus in motion and possibly save whatever bus fare the conductor was going to ask from you. But even if you had no qualms paying your ticket, the ability to drop off at will could save you a long walk. This particular evening, I’d skillfully caught a bus as it rounded the corner onto Ronald Ngala Avenue and just past a 1930s Sikh temple. The bus kept on towards Tom Mboya St, belching a cloud of diesel smoke as it passed a photographers’ studio where I often had my film processed and developed. We swung right at the Moi Avenue intersection, crawling through a vehicular bottleneck between two very busy bus stops: Ambassador to our right, and KenCom on our left.

As always, the bus stopped at KenCom to pick up passengers. No one got off since nobody takes a bus from KBS to Kencom, but clearly tons of people couldn’t be bothered to walk down to the terminus to catch a bus. For their laziness, they were rewarded with a vehicle that was nearly always full. More often than not, by the time route 111 got to KenCom, it was standing room only, and this evening was no exception. I had managed to get one of the last seating spaces left, at the back row, squeezing myself amongst six other passengers. At this point the Kenyan transit industry was still the Wild West, and proprietors could get away with anything. Buses were packed like one of those mtumba bales that came in from abroad with second hand clothing, tight and to the brim. After all the seats were occupied, passengers began filling the center aisle. As that got jam packed, too, passengers would begin sliding into the seats. By the time the bus was considered to be a full capacity, every seat had three passengers. Never mind that it was designed for two. There’d be two people seated, and one person standing in between them. Each time the bus lurched sideways, the standing passenger would bump his or her rump into the two people behind him. Forget privacy. That was a luxury reserved for the well-to-do who drove a personal vehicle.

The bus slowly made its way out and onto City-Hall Way. The first couple of rain drops sounded like we were sheltering underneath a mabati house. The splashes were fat and heavy:  lazily landing on the roof as if to merely announce their presence, and the imminent arrival of a much bigger delegation. They were the liquid version of Kenya’s J J Kamotho and Cyrus Jirongo, sycophants who swept into dusty towns in rural Kenya to whip up enthusiasm for a Moi entourage, and attendant presidency, upon which everyone wished nothing but a quick demise. This was going to be a large gathering, as the dark, heavy and pregnant clouds had predicted all day. Our driver soon had to turn on his wipers. The sun-cracked rubber squeegeed its way across the wide glass, dutifully policing an earlier accumulation of dust. Water flowed down the sides of the bus; each braking sent a river down the front, and each acceleration a smaller stream down the back. The men hanging out the doors had given up looking brave. It was clear this was a deluge to rival all others. Ten minutes into our ride, as we all leaned left, to counter balance the vehicle’s right turn onto Parliament Road, the hanger-on’s had been transformed into a sorry bunch of bedraggled rats. There’s nothing cool about getting wet on your commute home; no come-back whatsoever when Mother Nature pisses all over your used suit, warping the already over-sized jacket into a bloated version of its former self. Newspapers, duly saved earlier that day to be shared with eager spouses later that evening, were damped onto the roadside. Soaked, and with their ink running, there was no one waiting to be lifted into the realms of middle class respectability by association with these ghostly markers of urbanity.

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Each time you thought it was over, the downpour began with renewed vigor

We painfully inched past the Holy Family Basilica on our right, glancing briefly to see if there was any salvation coming from that end. None. Even God had closed shop for the day and deserted Nairobi to its own sodden demise. It was now half past six. We’d boarded the bus an hour ago, and barely moved a kilometer since. Within the confines of nauseating body odor, someone made a comment about arriving home just in time for a quick shower tomorrow morning and the commute back to the office. We all privately digested this humor but furtively avoided eye contact. We’d obviously be home before dawn, we secretly insisted, but no one would publicly venture to predict when that would be.

We edged past the Intercontinental Hotel and Casino. Tonight, I wasn’t particularly concerned with what happened in its confines, as I did most evenings. I simply wanted to get home. Right onto Kaunda Street, and left on Koinange Street. We’d navigated three sides of the Basilica yet the main occupant was nowhere to be seen. Things were thick. The rain was now coming down in sheets. Visibility had dwindled to less than a 100 meters and our driver could barely navigate by following the brake lights in front of him. At least those private car occupants had space. We had to make do with less square footage than is allocated chickens on their way from up country to Nairobi – housed as they are in coops made of twigs and trussed up on the roof of a Mbukoni matatu. It was wet outside the bus, and wet inside from passenger sweat. We turned left on Kenyatta Avenue and the bus wheezed into the Posta bus stop. Sure the vehicle was full, but that was no reason why we couldn’t try to squeeze in one or two more commuters.

It was almost half past eight by the time we maneuvered past the Nyayo House round about. Uhuru Park had now transformed into a veritable rice paddy. Gone were the lunch time idlers who chewed on air burgers, unsuccessfully trying to quell the pangs  in their bellies with faith rather than a meal. Gone, too, were the itinerant preachers who set up shop on the pavements, promising fire and brimstone to idolaters, adulterers, and murders, but not daring say squat about corrupt government officials. Speaking of bribe-fueled politics, even Moi’s commemorative statue in the middle of the park seemed extra heavy tonight. The water coming down from the heavens had soured its usually autocratic air even more.

This was a commute for the ages. We eventually got out of the CBD and made it to a stretch of Ngong Road that had less traffic. But none of it was smooth sailing. We stopped at Milimani Courts, Kenyatta Hospital, Mimosa, Adams Arcade, and eventually Dagoretti Corner. At each stop the commuters trying to board the bus outnumbered those alighting. Folks who normally walk to and fro work tried to stay dry by catching a ride home. Needless to say, many of them were dramatically unsuccessful on both fronts.

I didn’t get off that bus till about 10:30pm that evening. And I took the road less travelled. Normally I can disembark from a matatu at Em Bul Bul and walk to my house. But with the heavy rains all afternoon, I knew I’d be facing a raging river, in the dark. Under such conditions, it’s always advisable to take the Vet route. It’s basically the next stage after Bul Bul, a little longer, but much more convenient. By the time I knocked on our door at 11pm, I was fed up with commuting to school up to here! And yes, I could look forward to doing all over again tomorrow; lucky me.

My Aga Khan Academy Years – The Beginning

I knew of Nation Center before, obviously, I did read the Sunday paper quite diligently, but I’d never actually walked into Nation Newspapers’ company HQ where all the magic happened. Mother and I went in, past the security guard, and up the elevator to, as we’d been directed at the receptionist downstairs, the 10th floor. Auntie Maggie was already waiting for us. She’d been buzzed over the phone. We shook hands before mom explained what the friendly visit was all about: I was on my way to Aga Khan Academy for my first day of high school, and we needed Auntie to pay her rent on grandmother’s Kariobangi South apartment so we could get money to buy my school uniform.

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Dusk in Nairobi’s CBD

After 8 years of “striving to excel” at Ngong Hills Academy, I’d made the big break. With 595 points out of a possible 700, I was leading our 1997 KCPE cohort. In an ideal world, that should have assured me a spot at one of the top national or at least provincial secondary schools in Kenya. But there was a little snag. My name visibly outed me as a member of the Gikuyu community, living in what was supposed to be a Masai enclave. A long legacy of colonial divide and rule, plus the self-serving politics of our 1st and 2nd presidents had led to a mentality of ethnic balkanization. Kenya in the 1990s was a nation only in name. In reality, it was us versus them, the teams pre-determined based on which ethnicity you identified with. Deeper questions about social inequality, wealth and land re-distribution, etc. were all subsumed under the omniscient god of tribes. Western media happily played along. The ultimate consequence of all this was that my high school application was thrown into a 2nd tier, 3rd tier, and eventually a 4th tier school. My notification letter informed me that I was destined for Ol Kejuado High School.

This was devastating. I was only 5 points short of a 600/700 pass grade that could have assured me entry into any top government school: Alliance Boys, Mang’u High, and Njoro Boys. And now this, entry into a school my dad’s youngest brother had dropped out of in form 2? Horrible. I wondered about my application to Starehe Boys Center –  a beacon of academic excellence. Mother went to inquire; she was informed by the principal, Dr. Geoffrey W. Griffin – an old white fellow who’d been the head of the school since its beginning, that my choice of Starehe as a 2nd option demonstrated I wasn’t serious enough about the institution. He was more interested in what I had not done, rather than my future potential as a scholar. This still left me tied to OHS.

In the midst of all this, father comes home inebriated. Mother reminds him that I’ve done my part: I passed my exams well. It’s now up to him to ensure I get into a school whose caliber is commensurate with my efforts. Father slurs. He wobbles and balances on the kitchen stool, leaning heavily enough on the table to move it and his progressively cold plate of ugali. The subtext in between his interrupted snores, and his now startled alertness, does not bode well for me. This is a man who has abandoned all hope. With his once booming matatu business currently in financial jeopardy, he seeks solace in more liquid realms.

Fortunately, mother’s capacity to dream has not been exhausted. One Sunday afternoon, a year or two prior to this whole fiasco, mother had taken me to watch a musical at Starehe Boys Center. I suppose that in some ways this expedition was meant to inspire me in the upcoming KCPE exams. Think college tour before sending out applications. The journey worked; I was sufficiently impressed by the huge theater hall, the neat shrubbery, and the well-behaved ushers who led us to seats. Everything seemed so proper, not least the well-ironed black blazers and blue shorts for which the institution is famous. After Ragtime the musical was over – no idea why the boys would have performed such a quintessentially American drama – we left and headed back home. Turns out those efforts were all in vain; I couldn’t make it past Dr. Griffin’s gruffness into the venerated Starehe halls, and it was back to the drawing board.

I’ve personally never seen this advertisement, but my mother was made aware of a scholarship opportunity printed in one of the local dailies. The proposal was quite simple: a full ride, including books and school supplies, for up to 4 students who’d garnered more than 575 KCPE points. Mother had diligently submitted my application, and lo and behold, I’d been invited to enroll at the Aga Khan Academy immediately. The scholarship, however, did not cover school uniform, field trips, or any part of the caution money – a type of security deposit. So here we were, Auntie Maggie chatting and catching up with mother, before reaching into her purse. She handed my mother some cash and we left for Uniform Distributors, a clothing emporium where you can buy uniform to virtually any Kenyan institution.

Over the course of my 4 years at AKA, I’d often return to Nation Center and drop in on Auntie Maggie. Right about 5pm, instead of heading straight to Bus Station to catch a 111 home, I’d waltz up the elevators to Maggie’s office. We’d say hi, and she would ask me how school was going. We’d chat for a bit, and before leaving she’d remind me to say hi to my folks. Then the best part: she always gave me about KSHS1000 in pocket money. Sometimes it would just be 500/=, but even that kind of cash inevitably left me feeling rich. My one week allowance was usually 500/=. And sometimes even this small amount was hard to come by. Given to me in lump sum, I was entrusted with making sure it lasted me 5 days – taking care of both fare and lunch. So you can imagine that receiving 2 extra week’s worth of cash was just pure magic!

On several occasions I’d meet up with her, and I’d go for a sleepover. She stayed in South B at the time, with her husband and daughter. I’d wait for her at the reception before she wrapped up with work. Then we’d walk to her husband’s office before driving home together. We’d find her house help with Ashley, their 2 year old. Dinner would be ready, so I’d eat and then settle down to watching movies. Late night movies were my thing, because on weekend mornings, Ashley would claim the TV for hours on end, watching Teletubbies. She’d literally view re-runs of the same recording over and over. 24 hours with her and you too would be singing the entire sound track by heart.

On such occasions I’d not get home till Saturday evening. Those were the days before cell phones. And since we didn’t have a land line connection to our home, there was really no way for me to inform my parents exactly where I’d be spending my Friday night. I’d just not show up in the evening, and everyone was cool with that.