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.

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