“Closing Day,” Or Chivalry on Display

I clearly remember the day; I think  it was in class 4. Judith had been absent most of the school term. I understood that. She could have been sick that entire time, but I simply took it as her parents were having trouble paying tuition, which at Ngong Hills Academy back in the Nineties could add up to a tidy sum. I’d been there. I got it; but my empathy did not prevent me from identifying an opportunity! With Judith at home, I suddenly had a really good shot of being top of my class. Judith and I were rivals, see. I’m not even sure she registered this, but I certainly perceived her as an enemy to my academic standing. I was happy to win in a fair fight, but if the headmistress had taken it upon herself to eliminate my arch rival, who was I to demure from ascending to victory?

End of term exams were conducted on Mondays through Wednesday, then students would stay at home on Thursday as teachers finished grading. On Friday, the whole school would get together for a phenomenon called “Closing Day.” This was a fete. A carnival. A celebration to forget the last 3 months of getting up early, scolding and spankings for unfinished homework, and to usher in the holidays. Holidays meant TV all day, including cartoons very early in the morning, and action movies late at night. The break also meant travelling to shags, the countryside, where grandparents and all kinds of extended family networks lived. My Ngong Hills compatriots and I would descend upon them every April, August, and December, eager to show off our suave manners.

The no-spanking-for-incomplete-homework thing was a pretty big deal. Teachers were notorious for corporal punishment, none more so than Mr. Mike Mwaka, RIP. Mr. Mike, was a terror. He was the music teacher, tasked with turning, and tuning, our breaking voices into melodies worthy of God’s paradise and the accompaniments of His angel’s golden harps. This was an impossible task. And to accomplish it, he’d show up to school hang over as hell, and stinking to high heaven of whatever illegal brews he’d been imbibing the previous night. Chang’aa was his rumored favorite libation, a distilled spirit that burned your lips and throat as it went down. You drank it in shots, and not too many were needed to render you positively beyond tipsy. In this frame of mind, he’d walk into in class to teach us such things as the musical instruments of Kenya, staff notation, quavers, semi-quavers, demi-semi-quavers, and hemi-demi-semi-quavers. The last are such short notes, they must be what a humming bird produces as it flies in reverse. And it didn’t end there; there were often exercises we had to take home and complete before the next lesson. He once assigned homework, on his way out of class to go for a smoke break behind the garage. Him, Mr. Kariuki, Mr Rapando, and a bunch of others would chimney it up for a few minutes between classes or during break.

Mr. Mike stepped into class the day after and thundered, “I remember, I gave you some work. If you know you haven’t finished, go to the front!” And planet earth imploded, and this marked the end of the human race. No, really; Mr. Mike’s pronouncement might as well have been the end of the world. We knew we were in for it. The class had been going particularly bad. None of our teenage brains could compute  what notes were meant to go where on the G-clef or F-clef staff notations. Woe unto us. I had tried copying homework responses from one of my buddies, but her answers were so clearly incorrect, I simply didn’t bother. I was seriously regretting that omission now, as I made my way to the front. About 12 of us ended up at the chalkboard. Mr. Mike fumed. He marched out of class towards the staff room, returning minutes later with a cane worthy of our transgressions. With our backs to him, hands holding onto the blackboard, he walked past us several times. Each time he went by you, he’d vigorously connect the electric wire switch with your back, and it stung like hell. By the end of class, given our teary eyes and the running noses, the class resembled a therapy session.

Small wonder, then, that Closing Day was such a big deal. It announced about 3 weeks during which one would be safe from Mr. Mike’s anger. Kids would arrive at school decked out for a party. The uniform code was only half-heartedly enforced. Since school ended by noon, lunch was not served. Parents would give you some cash for snacks, or you’d pack an assortment of candy, biscuits, chocolate, soda, fruit juice, and a whole host of other junk food. McDonald’s, KFCs, and Nandos might have been a decade or so into our Kenyan future, but we already knew that fast food was the way to demonstrate social status. A system of barter would then ensue, with kids swapping what they didn’t care for in their stash, for something else a parent or house help overlooked to pack. With school ending early, we could also meander off the beaten path, sometimes going into Ngong town, the opposite direction from my route home, because why not!

Prosperity Institute 032

As I sat down for my first exam paper in that 4th grade class, I tried not to smile too widely while relishing Judith’s absence. Clearly, this Closing Day was destined to be one that I’d remember for a long time yet. I always got a present from mother if my performance at school  was superb. And this time I was looking forward to a wrist watch. I’d projected onto that wrist watch all the macho dreams I’d picked up on TV, and come next week I’d be its proud owner. The mathematics exam sheets had just been handed out. Then we heard a knock on the door, and one of the administrative assistants in the headmistress’s office walked through. In tow was Judith, arch enemy numero uno, and a detractor of my impressive intellect. I could neither believe my eyes, nor the taste of defeat that immediately flooded my mouth! Well, Judith waltzed in after missing more than half of the school term and comfortably proceeded to trounce me. She regained her position at the top of the class. Even in my disappointment, I could do nothing but totally admire such poise!

“Closing!” was also the day when boys settled scores. This is how it worked. Say Duke pissed you off at the beginning of the term. Instead of immediately wrecking havoc to his face, you’d bide your time. You would nurse your anger and hurt pride, but indicating things were far from OK with the ominous words, “we utaniona closing!” The logic made sense. If you sought vengeance during the course of the school term, chances were high your opponent would call on his parents, plus enroll the teachers or even Mrs. Mureithi, the headmistress, to his aid. None of those outcomes were worth it. You’d be punished, and the scheme to prove your supremacy thwarted. Patiently waiting till the last day of school, however, paid off massively. There was minimal risk that your foe would call on his class teacher for help – given that the school would be completely empty, except perhaps for the security patrol. Once everybody had received their report forms, sufficiently agonized over their academic performance, and attended the last school gathering, it was open season. All rules of decorum were suspended the minute you walked out the school gate. Long forgotten slights were unburied. It was time to re-establish dominance, and there were major dividends for the kid who claimed the title of “First body.” Come next semester, boys would whisper in awe, enquiring, “Who’s first body in your class?”

Most fights would start fairly innocently, with a push, a shove, and a slightly awkward punch. Others were major sports events, complete with a PR team. The grapevine would let it be known that Leiyan and Duke would be battling it out after our final school assembly. Boys would nonchalantly saunter out the school compound, seemingly going in random directions but actually making their way to a pre-arranged destination. In some ways, these performances were extremely sad. Having excited your peer’s expectations, you couldn’t back out of the engagement simply because you had a change of heart. There was surely no easier way to kill your social rank than openly admitting to cowardice. At the very least, it was better to put in a half-hearted fight and lose in actual combat rather than slinking away, tail between your legs, leaving your opponent to crow unchallenged. No, that simply wouldn’t do. And in any case, you’d promised the boys some entertainment, and by god they’d get some! This was chivalry on display, and as a true gentleman, you were expected to punctually attend your duel, cuff your contender, or honorably get walloped. Those were your only options.

Being healthy, active teenagers, our fights lasted no more than 10 minutes. A confusion of blows and badly-aimed kicks were often followed by ear and hair pulling. This was rounded off with some wrestling, during which you aimed to tear your adversary’s school uniform. TV episodes of the North American World Wrestling Federation matches had taught us well: entertainment and showmanship counted for much more than combat skills. Unless we had managed to squirrel ourselves in a really uninhabited part of town, we were often interrupted by adults, who would break off our fights and send us packing. Usually we’d not even wait for them to get close enough for that. Brought up on a  it-takes-a-village mindset, we were apprehensive that every older member of the neighborhood would consider it their sacred duty to butt their nose into our business. Perhaps they wouldn’t, then again perhaps they would. Rather than wait to find out how far this particular individual would pursue their communal obligations, we’d scatter as soon as an adult was spotted approaching. By ill luck it might be one of our teachers, or some grown-up choleric enough to haul us in front of the school administration for tarnishing the institution’s good name. The audience was often the first to seek cover, leaving behind two poor suckers putting up a show of machismo for no one but shadows.

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Ode to the Wanderlust – Part III (Road Trip Edition)

(1) Riding a Cargo Truck

As any adventurous boy will have you know, the best spot to sit when riding a lorry is up on the roof. You sit amongst the cargo, balancing yourself with whatever is closest. As the truck dips in and out of pot holes and ruts on the road, you swing along, all the while hoping that nothing comes crushing down on you.

This is how I remember our moving trip from Gikambura to Em Bul Bul in June 1990. I don’t remember anything about the packing, but there certainly must have been some since the truck was full by the time it rolled out. Moving companies were unknown back then. You relied upon your friends and family to help you out. If you were really lucky, you got a bunch of people to work with you on loading the truck, and also accompany you to your final destination so they could assist you in the offloading. In return, you were expected to offer lunch.

From Gikambura to Kangawa, most of the road is paved; but there were several spots where you had to watch out for hanging branches eager to slap you across the face, or gouge your eyes out. The fun thing to do was see how long you could wait before you ducked out of harm’s way. The longer you waited before evading impending bodily harm the tougher and cooler you were. I mostly lost to my more daring age mates.

Unloading the truck is a pain in the neck, and trying to fit into the neighborhood is even worse. I have minimal tough guy skills in me, and the band of brothers whom we moved amongst immediately figured that out. There were 4 of them, and the youngest 2 were the most spoiled. Unlike myself, they could always rely on their elder siblings to back them up and rescue them out of any scuffle. I was all I had, unless I wished to commit social suicide by appealing to my parents, or even worse, my younger sisters.

K and T loved to torment me. There was a path that cut across their farm leading to our house. We all used it, but my presence on it irked them way out of proportion. To re-calibrate the balance of power in their favor, and to avenge all other trespassers whom they could do nothing about, they focused all their energy on me. Sometimes they’d  throw stones at me from the safety of their home. Those were the polite moments. When they felt more emboldened, they’d accost me on the path, and begin to interrogate me. I can’t recall the essence of the interrogations but like all bullies, I’m sure they weren’t lost for insults – real or perceived – that I had to atone for.

To this day, relations have never quite warmed between our two families. I suppose in many ways, we’ll always be the ‘settlers’ who occupy their land. Never mind that K’s and T’s parents were involved in the sale of their later brother’s land to us.

(2) Datsun KQW 047

To this day, there’s something extremely alluring about antique cars. I love the sense that these vehicles have enjoyed a full life before arriving in my own. But even more, I love the capacity to coax them back to health, repair them, mend them, and give them a new shine. If there’s ever a car I’d love to own it would have to be my grand uncle’s Datsun KQW 047. The thing was a dark cream/beige/yellow. I’m sure someone would claim it was brown. But brown says nothing of the promise that this vehicle held for me as a small boy.

It probably has something to do with how this very car delivered to me a pair of twin sisters, with my mom in tow from wherever she’d disappeared to for a couple of days. Mostly, however, my looks of awe at this Datsun have to do with the fact that we used it often on trips to visit my maternal grandmother in Juja.

(3) 5-Door Nissan Sunny

Nowadays hatch-back vehicles are all the craze, despite most families owning several cars and hence having no real need for the extra space. Back in my day, the cargo space offered by a 5-door Nissan Sunny was perfect for stashing the kids on a long road trip. Because of this, our first stop was always the Ngong Road Uchumi Hyper – after all you can’t go to Shagz without sugar, vegetable oil, tea leaves, salt, unga, etc. – and the groceries would be stashed into the back, alongside our skinny adolescent bodies.

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In my adult life I have continued to love the road trip adventure. Folks are always asking me why/how I can enjoy driving more than 6 hours. When I tell them of my trip, in a truck no less, from Miami to Durham, North Carolina, and then in a sedan to Nashville and on to Kentucky they just stare back. They shake their head in that you’re-mad kinda way. But the truth that I truly enjoy the open road. I’ve driven out in Aussie from Adelaide, back towards Victoria (unknowingly), only to end up in the most fascinating small towns, farmland and abandoned homes. The American South was great for an autumn road trip. I started off in Indianapolis, non-stop to Nashville, and on to Birmingham. From there I criss-crossed Montgomery, Selma, Tuscaloosa, Jacksonville, Mississippi, Little Rock, Arkansas and on to Memphis, Tennessee.