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.
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.
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!
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.
Mud slides, on the other hand, were unsanctioned and terribly illegal. How else do you suppose we were so utterly drawn to them? Picture this. It’s 10am, on a rainy school day in May. It’s just the beginning of the 2nd school term. You’re barely back in classwork and homework mode, and in addition to that, you got rained on this AM. Your normal 35 min walk, dissolved into a series of puddles, and unsuccessful attempts to keep your shoes dry. The entire soccer field is one giant pond. Grass has overgrown after its 3 weeks hiatus from being trampled on by several hundred primary school pupils. The standard 7 boys started it. It’s always the class 7’s who did. One moment everyone is extremely languid and irritable, and the next moment there is a crowd cheering a number of daredevils achieving feats on their bare feet you could never dream of on a pair of skis. These boys are answering their true calling. They were born to perform. The sticky, grey clay soil does not disappoint. It offers them a stage.
Mud skidding is an art as much as it is a science. The first thing you need is a slope, the steeper the better. At school, however, even a nice gentle one will do. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Once you’ve got a nice slope going, you need to flood it with water until it oozes a sleek, molten clay. Now you can begin smoothing it over. You walk back a few meters, jog, then break into a sprint, before letting your feet glide over the clay. This is a thrill like no other! Real artists can skid on one foot, and contort the rest of their bodies into impossible shapes. Real clowns, those who do it for the applause, would run, sprint, and finish off on their knees. The mud slide has now turned into an arena. The crowd now speaks as one, and they are asking for more. A bell rings in the administration block to signal the end of our morning break. It barely registers as an echo to this mob. The teacher on duty is puzzled. How come half the school seems to be missing? It won’t be long now before she makes her way to the sports field. Suddenly, like a pin pricking your finger nail, you remember that this is school, after all. That there are consequences to waltzing into class late. We all run past the teacher on duty who, knowing she can’t convict every willing observer, zeroes in on the performers. It’s not hard to identify them. They’re caked in slimy clay from head to toe. Their school uniforms are undecipherable. They may as well be in camo. She gasps and prods these muddy goblins forward. They are marched to the staff room. Aside from trying to reason with adults who have long since accepted a sedentary lifestyle, our group of artistes will also be the unwilling recipients of several strokes of the cane. The rest of their nightmare will unfold this evening, as soon as the house help or the mother spots them sneaking into the house to change out of their clay costume. And yet, all of this is more than worth their 5 minutes of glory.
You didn’t wait for Physical Ed. class to get a football game going. Kicking the ball around was the default activity whenever we had more than 3 minutes of unstructured time. This could be in class, if a teacher was absent and there was no substitute; it could be during our tea or lunch break; or right after school as we all walked home. Pick-up soccer was not always innocuous. Chobo Ua was, as it names suggests, deadly. At first glance it looks like a run-of-the-mill soccer game. 2 sides are attempting to score in their opponent’s goal – usually two rocks placed a few feet apart. What made Chobo Ua a game that separated the boys from the men was that during dribbling, it was taboo to let a fellow player squeeze a ball between your legs. If you were so unlucky as to forget and let this happen, the party responsible would quickly remind you by shouting, “Chobo!” At this point, it was best if you could invoke the cheetah inside you. The only way to escape an onslaught of slaps and punches to your back and head was to run, very fast, jumping over legs set up to trip your, or dodging arms stretched wide to hinder your escape. If successful, you’d make your way to a previously designated safe refuge, often the fence on the other side of the sports field to give your pursuers maximum capacity to capture you. It is only after touching one of the fence posts that you were now considered clean, and could return to the game, eager to dribble the ball through the next victim so you could get your payback. Suffice it to say that many a young man’s tears were shed during Chobo Ua. I knew enough not to attempt anything that required quantities of courage I could only fantasize about ever possessing. And yet even non-Chobo footie games could sometimes degenerate into ape-like chest thumping. This sports field nurtured dreams of masculinity and molded personalities in ways we never fully appreciated. My run-in with Mureu was one such instant. Perhaps I’d fouled him; I forget. He was, however, irked enough by my behavior to challenge me to a fight. This, during a low-key afternoon soccer game seemed wholly over the top. I went into my default, backing down from the confrontation, but kept on playing making sure to stay away from the kid out to kick my ass. Eventually we moved beyond the incident, staying in touch long after we’d both outgrown Ngong Hills Academy. At the end of term, however, knowing that I had bested him in academic standing was good enough consolation. I may not have fought back on the soccer pitch, but every test and every exam we took the rest of that school term was just one more battle ground for me to demonstrate who was really the -ish!
Strolling home from school has always been an event in its own right. The pupils from Ngong’ Hills had all kinds of daily commutes. There was Karuri, who lived literally two houses down from school. He and his younger brother went home for lunch. I’d swear they could probably smell whatever their parents or guardians were prepping for their midday meal from class! Fred had the same short commute. Fred’s family lived opposite Karuri’s house. It never ceased to amaze me, however, how these two kids somehow always managed to get to school late or after I did. It probably had to do with the fact that we become complacent when the object of our pursuit seems so close. Unfortunately for Fred, his parents moved the family two towns over when he was in grade 5. Taking public transport to and from Matasia was a pain. Even I did not envy him. There was a large group of kids whose commute was in the 10-15 min range. Mureu, Kevin, Martin, Irene, Mary, Joram, and Chris all had a pretty sweet time walking to school. I certainly wished to be in their shoes whenever it was raining. A whole bunch of kids who lived farther away from school got dropped off by their parents or chauffeurs at the entrance. My crowd had no such luck. We were clearly the students from the inner city making our way each morning into rich suburbia for our daily does of pomp and luxury. Nyamnyak, Samuel, Stella, Paul, Steve, Barbara, Anne, Esther, Jane and a few others forded rivers and summited hills daily to get to school. Literally. And I was right there with them every step of the way. There were a number of ways to get home. Sometimes I’d accompany Agnes and her elder brother and we’d walk together after school. They lived closer to school than I did, so they’d waltz through their main gate and after quick goodbyes, leave me to my fate. Bob’s house was usually empty by the time he and his elder brother arrived home from school. I’d walk in with them for a quick drink of water. And then we’d spend a few minutes petting the rabbits or doves housed in their backyard. Or I’d walk with Eric, taking a more round-about route home. I’d accompany him up their tree-shaded driveway which lay halfway up a gentle slope. Sometimes I was successful in enticing Mureu to drop by my house. Usually on Fridays when it didn’t matter too much if we got home late. He’d drop off his school bag at home and then we’d head out – stopping ever so often to pick up succulent weeds for my pet rabbits. Keeping rabbits was the in-thing, and any boy worth his salt had at least a few does and a buck. We were learning about all kinds of animal husbandry in Mr. Ogola’s Science & Agriculture classes. We could recognize Chinchillas by their grey fur coats, and New Zealand whites with the super pink eyes. Charlie came by my house, too, sometimes. He and his 2 younger siblings were a morbid fascination for me. They’d lost their mother a few months before enrolling at Ngong Hills. I couldn’t fathom what that must have been like. Their dad had taken pains to re-create the family as best he could for his kids’ benefit, but it’s impossible to replace a mother. Our friendship rested as much on my curiosity about the new apartment building they lived in as it did on Charlie’s interest in a more rural part of Ngong.
As private school kids, marked by our red and white checkered shirts, we were easy prey for village bullies. Anxiety about social mobility in the region manifested itself in many ways. Being kids, our experience involved getting waylaid by herds boys who went to local primary schools. Having got home sometime in the afternoon, the boys would grab lunch, then release the family cattle from wherever they were tethered. During the dry season, goats and cows would simply be let loose in empty fields, fending for themselves in the morning by chewing on dry maize stalks and short shrubs. The swampy area by the river always had some green grass available, even in the middle of a drought. This marsh made it ideal for juvenile herders to water and feed their animals. Come evening, if the cows were not well fed, their milk production would starkly demonstrate inadequate herding. At best, that would result in a tongue lashing. Sometimes that could easily degenerate into a spanking, combined in a mother’s mind, as it often would be, with last week’s attempts to steal from the sugar dish, unfinished household chores, and street fights with other kids. I don’t recall these kidos being more than 3 or 4. And they were just as puny as we were. What they lacked in stamina, they made up by arming themselves with sticks and knobberies. Plus they exuded this bad boy appeal, while we in our private school cocoons reacted by propitiating them and avoiding confrontation. We rebutted their “I-don’t-care” attitude with a kowtowing of our own. Like zebras, we’d approach the riverside apprehensively, expecting to be pounced upon at any moment. They got a hard-on from preying on our fear. They’d stop us in the middle of the foot path, ask us our names, our ages, whether we had any cash on us, and generally make us feel extremely tiny. If we were lucky, they’d spot an adult approaching, and they’d cut short their machismo displays with a warning that we shouldn’t use that path again. Otherwise, we were held up for more than 10 minutes, and put in our places – despite what the sparkling new uniforms suggested. At some point I decided this was all too ridiculous. And I took to carrying a nail cutter with me to school. The idea was to use the file to either scare away our tormentors, or to fight my way out of one such encounter. Still not sure what was more hilarious, the original problem, or my imagined solution.
Over time, I came to accept that I really enjoyed school work. This was a big deal. Acknowledging my own nerdy tendencies happened slowly. I resisted the process every step of the way wishing, instead, that I was more macho. In the first and second grade, thankfully, I had not yet developed such inhibitions.
My Standard 2 class teacher, Miss Grace, groomed me to self-confidence. This was despite my very reserved nature. Her and I came to an understanding where I’d do extra homework and she’d review it next time we met in class. Taking on parts of the syllabus we hadn’t tackled in our lessons, or completing more than the assigned homework assignments felt great. The more I practiced my math and English skills the better I got, and this increased my sense of accomplishment. I could clearly tell that I was good at school. This compensated for many things. For one, I was pretty mediocre at many of the activities boys my age engaged in. I couldn’t slay birds with a catapult, score goals in soccer, or swim at a pond in our neighborhood river. Although tall, I was still kinda puny, and had no fighter spirit in me. But the hours I spent hurdled over grammar exercises wiped all those inadequacies away.
Being a private school, our curriculum often meandered from the government regulations adhered to by public institutions. Nowhere was this more apparent than in our English classes. We read from, and worked through, overseas grammar textbooks with glossy hard covers. These texts were imported and cost a pretty penny. Consequently, I’d often spend the first half of the school term borrowing my friends’ copy of Better English or looking over their shoulder. My coping mechanism, other than enviously wishing I had access to all the resources my peers did, was to make the most of the few times I could get my hands on a book. More than once I’d stay behind at my desk during Physical Ed, finishing my homework assignments using a classmate’s textbook. This way, I could hand it back to her when she returned after an hour spent running, jumping rope, or playing hide and seek in the school’s outdoor gymnasium: a grassy field. Other times, Tr. Grace would let me take home her Haydn Richards’s Junior English. I have a really fond place in my heart for her and Tr. Ones, my grade 3 class teacher.
It’s not until many years later, when I was completing my Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education, as well as the International Baccalaureate, that I knew the luxury of having all my textbooks provided for. In retrospect, this is really how education should happen, but back then it simply seemed magical. Free textbooks? Sign me up! Through college and graduate school, I wouldn’t have been caught dead without my course books. In addition to signaling me out as an unprepared student, I always felt that sharing texts with my colleagues drew unnecessary attention to my socio-economic background. Now, as I stand in front of, and conduct, my own courses, I cannot fathom student behavior when they appear in class empty-handed. It’s bad enough that they show up in a literature class without the primary resources – kinda like turning up at the lab without your lab coat, long pants, and closed shoes. Yet to make matters worse, my students will simply sit, taking no initiative to get their hands on a copy. As one colleague after another reads a page from the day’s assigned text, the student in question will keep squirming. Finally, when I ask them to read – naturally, I must put them in the spotlight to passive-aggressively point out their showing up in my class unprepared – they’ll murmur something about not having a book with them. Argh! Often, I’ll notice that 1 or 2 students are staring off into space as the rest of us reads and I’ll enquire where their texts are. “I don’t have my book today.” I will inwardly roll my eyes at this juvenile behavior, before asking them to move and share with a peer. Clearly, these kids lack my own prowess at finding resources by hook or by crook. That’s a luxury I cannot identify with.
More than once, after our hot cup of tea around 10am, I’d head back to class to wrap up a few more math or English comprehension passages for Tr. Ones. A few hours later, after the rotation of dishes that made up our lunch menu – ugali and beans, rice and beans, boiled potatoes and cabbage – I’d make my way to the dreaded Ngong Hills Academy lavatory facilities before heading back to class. Mother had brought home a thick, bound writing pad. I carefully split each page into two with a straight line down the middle, and proceeded to cram it with extra grammar activities. Each pupil had 2 exercise books, one for classwork, and another for homework. It made sense for me to have a third that compiled my own solitary attempts through the syllabus. Sometimes there’d be play: a game of cops and robbers. With thumb cocked, and the two-finger barrel pointed at an adversary, we’d recreate last night’s TV episode of Tausi, Superman, or Renegade. But I was just as likely to be found sitting alone, working through some work of fiction. The NHA school library was actually well-stocked, for its day. It had, unfortunately, more been designed as a lockable room to store valuable resources, than as an open space when students could freely interact with books. One might have needed an ID or a teacher’s permission to walk in, I forget which. A ridiculous regulation from when colonial Kenya policed its subjects’ access to knowledge. There was a long boardroom-style table in the middle, with about 15 to 20 chairs around it. The walls, however, were a sight from heaven. Floor to ceiling shelves filled with books. It smelled like paradise. And not even the devilish librarian, who’d much sooner that we’d not stepped into her domain could ruin the atmosphere. In any case, it was easy to forgive her. She was sharply dressed, in her early twenties, and fascinating to our 10-year-old eyes. One collection in the library held stories from the United States about a young black girl. On the one hand, these were the rather expensive books our greasy hands were only permitted to handle with extreme care. On the other, the texts must have been the first attempts at representing diversity. They were barely captivating, despite their foreign setting, and more often off-putting for their prosaic nature.
Football was a fully-sanctioned playtime activity. Boys would bring home-made balls to school in the morning. The compressed rolls of plastic bags were wound together so tight, they actually bounced. Depending on the skill of the fellow who made it, the outermost layer would be a web made of red and yellow tough nylon string. These balls were a precious commodity. As replacements to the more expensive inflatable soccer equipment, they helped popularize the sport to kids in all social milieus. Teachers understood this perfectly. Staff on duty would happily confiscate a soccer ball, stashing it in the staff room as punishment for some infraction or other. Any student brave enough to venture into that lair of male and female educators, asking after his prized possession, must have had a death wish. Some kids could pull it off. Most, however, only got their balls back after receiving several strokes of the cane for their trouble. During P.E., we’d be separated by gender. I never saw girls play soccer. Often, we’d start the class with a co-ed circle of game songs. Each student sat on the grass, and 1 randomly selected pupil would walk around on the outside as we all joined her in singing “I sent a letter to my father…” At the end of the song, as the walker chose the individual who’d found the lost letter, we’d all perk up. “It wasn’t you! It wasn’t you! It wasn’t you! But. It. Was. YOU!” The person tagged last, and the tagger, would run in opposite directions. The goal was to return to the empty spot before your opponent, in which case you’d get to sit as they walked around the circle for another round of the game. It helped to tag one of the unfit kids.
Another favorite group activity was “nyama, nyama, nyama.” Everybody stands, one student facing the rest of the group. He chants “Nyama! Nyama! Nyama!” And the group replies, “Nyama!” The soloist will then reel out a list of edible meats. “Ya ng’ombe?” “Nyama!” “Ya kuku?” “Nyama!” “Ya kondoo?” “Nyama!” Expert players would then rush their audiences through a quick succession of edible meats: chicken, mutton, camel, goat, and each time the group as a whole would jump and shout “Nyama!” Yes, indeed, that particular animal is edible. The point of the game was to trick a member of the audience into jumping and affirming edible an animal that was known to be anything but. Having lulled his listeners into a soothing pattern of palatable meats, the leader would throw in “Ya paka?” If you were alert you’d stay standing and shout back “Sio nyama!” If you’d been duped into jumping and shouting that cat meat is eatable, you’d get laughed at, and have to swop positions with the chanter. You were it. Not until later did we appreciate the fact that cat, dog, donkey, zebra, and many more besides, are all delicacies in spaces outside our Ngong Hills experience.
Following this, the girls would go off on one side to play Kati, while the boys would walk towards the goal posts for a match. Renowned players always got to be captains. Let’s just say I was never captain. These two would then get to pick their team, strategically trying to get the best men on their side before the other side did. There was never much hurry to pick me. If given a choice I’d more happily have walked off the pitch. Under a teacher’s duress, however, I was content to play defense. I accepted my handicap as a forward striker, and would rarely attempt anything so skillful. But I was a dogged defender, left or right, but more often right. I could mark my man, and really throw myself into the scuffle until my opponent either lost or passed the ball. There was a stubbornness associated with defense work that I truly enjoyed. A certain risk-taking did not hurt either. It was not uncommon to collide with your opponent’s shin, boot, or knee. Often we played barefoot. Cleats and shin guards were completely unheard of. Meanwhile, the girls would be playing 1 or 2 simultaneous games of dodgeball. Two girls would stand in a line, and everyone else would stand in the middle. The girls at the end would throw a small fist-sized ball between them. Their objective was to hit one of the girls in the middle. Those in the middle strove to either dodge or catch the ball without dropping it, before sending it back to a thrower at either end. It made sense to pick the low-lying fruit first. Any girls who were even slightly overweight and challenged in the fitness department were eliminated first. Expert players could crouch, jump, and swerve in acrobatic moves that defied the throwing capacities of the strikers at each end. These would be declared the winners.
We’d just moved house in June 1990. We were now living about 4km from Ngong town and it was time for me enroll back in school. The 2nd academic term runs from early May through end of July; after catching up, I’d have almost 6 weeks before the end-of-term assessments. That first week, I was accompanied by my mother who helped me figure out the bus route. We boarded a 111 matatu at Bulbul Market on its way from Nairobi. During peak hours, passenger vehicles heading to Nairobi would be crowded with private employees and civil servants on their way to offices in the CBD. Squashed next to each other, passengers suffered the indignity of smelling unwashed armpits, stale breath, and rancid week-old socks. Given than we were heading in the opposite direction, it was easy to get a seat. As soon as we boarded, the van drove downhill past a former meat processing plant. At Vet, a bus stop named after the agricultural and veterinary extension farm that ran beside the road, a few older women got in and sat in front of us. Given their baskets made of recycled nylon sacks, they were headed to the Ngong Market. Just past the PCEA Enchoro-Muny church, and before the matatu got to its last stop, my mom and I alighted.
We’d walk the rest of the way to school; 5 minutes later, she pointed out where one of her uncles lived. With time, this would be my favorite alternative after-school destination. But for now, I focused my energy on getting the hang of this new community: Ngong Hills Academy. A place I’d eventually call home for the next 8 years. Mr. and Mrs. Mureithi, the proprietors of the school, had turned the institution into a brand name associated with academic excellence. The private school education did not come cheap. But both parents and faculty understood that the hefty investment in a child’s future would certainly pay off.
That first day, we walked into the receptionist’s office. Mom and I met Mrs. Mureithi, the headmistress, and I was led to my class by a staff member. I was enrolled in Standard One with Teacher Christine. The thing about Tr. Christine is that she was cute, in that attractive aunty kind of way. She presided over her quota of 6 and 7-year-olds with magnanimity. I was assigned to a large table where I sat on a wooden chair and avoided eye contact with the other 3 kids who, already seated, preferred to stare instead of crayoning within the line. Like mine, their chairs were painted in the primary hues of the color wheel: red, blue, yellow. This vibrant background helped highlight our school uniforms.
Being a proper academy, Mrs. Mureithi’s institution set itself apart in many ways. Not for her pupils the earthy brown, dark green, and slimy pink that public schools in the region mandated as school uniform. Instead, she chose a blue sweater, red and white checked shirt and grey shorts for boys, or red and white plaid dresses for girls. These were crowned using grey socks with blue, white, and yellow stripes at the top. Footwear was standard issue, black or brown. In the right conditions, this combo reeked of middle-class dreams and anxieties about one-upping your neighbors. It was the perfect advertising strategy.
I began my Ngong Hills education with a bang and I blame it all on Wakori. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill story. Classroom bully always seeking attention. Spies fresh prey on whom to exercise his power games. Pounces. The victim strikes back, viciously. Bully, totally stunned, sees his young life flash before him, and vows to reform his ways. Everyone lives happily ever after. And that’s the way it went down between Wakori and I. Almost. Except for the part about me standing up to my tormentor.
This is how it really went down. It was right after lunch, a bowl of boiled rice and bean stew. As usual, Tr. Christine prepped her class for the daily arithmetic exercises. I was nervous, and really wanted my penmanship to be perfect. This was a new school after all, and first impressions count. I pressed the pencil too hard into the square-lined exercise book and it buckled under pressure. A few seconds later, the lead point on my HB no. 2 flew half way across the table. I stood up to bend forward and stretch my short arms towards a pack of freshly sharpened pencils in the middle. Wakori saw this, smiled smugly, and went into action! I sat back down, expecting my chair to be exactly where my bum had left it a few moments before, Instead, I met nothing but a void. As I lost my balance and scrambled on the table’s edge to regain composure, I had that sinking feeling that accompanies public humiliation. A few sniggles later, with more wounded pride than broken bone, I pulled my chair back into place and concentrated on the task at hand. Tr. Christine was aghast. Wakori had been caught picking on the new kid! She not only gave him a good talking to, but may also have spanked him. At least I like to think she did. In my 7-yearr old imagination, Tr. Christine immediately transformed into a saving angel. And did I mention that she was cute, in that attractive-aunty kind of way?
My Bombolulu is made of green mangoes – large, juicy fruits sagging branches down to the red earth nourishing the roots. The dark brown stems inhibit my teenage attempts to scale to the ripe prizes beckoning me from up high. I am not to be deterred. I persist, and I’m rewarded with vertigo and yellow sticky juice running off the mango seed and down my elbows. Beneath the overhanging trees, amongst the sparse brush and undergrowth, I step over pungent, fermenting rotting fruit. I’m too ignorant to be scared of snakes. In this warm weather, I should be.
For three days that December, my sisters and I joined a horde of fancy-talking, Swahili-cultured kids. These are the kind of teenagers who’ll insult you in such titillating language that at the end of the verbal harangue you’ll smile back and nod in appreciation of the poetry. The rounded vowels slide out in quick succession, sculpting the jagged consonants into street poetry. We formed a company of troublemakers, the older kids evading the younger ones as we engaged in various escapades. My youngest cousin, Tim, was one of the toddlers we’d leave behind whenever we wanted to head out to the streets. BMX bikes would get pulled out of storage, sandals donned, and parental instructions discarded. Hours later, when we returned home dusty, hungry, and thoroughly grimy, we’d sneak into my aunt’s kitchen for a quick snack before catching a shower. One of my cousin’s friends was a tomboy – a gorgeous bod who could spit, fight, climb trees, and curse with the best of them. Though slightly younger, her maturity led me to worship her and the confidence she exuded.
Eventually, my father picked us up from Bombolulu and we went to live with him in Likoni. Dad arranged for an extra room for us through one of his buddies. The house was rectangular, Swahili architecture, complete with the white-washed limestone exterior walls. There was a hallway running down the middle – splitting the interior into two. The tin roof was nailed onto mangrove poles which extended into eaves where local goats rested in the hot and sticky afternoons. The interior was entirely open. Lacking a ceiling, and because the interior walls did not extend high enough, the rafters enabled the sharing of late night conversations, and daily cuisines. Meat frying in one room would translate into a salivating neighbor in another. A couple’s quarrel would result in knowing glances shot across the courtyard the next morning.
This also is true. That my mom experimented with coconut for cooking. She went native, taking time to grate the inside of 2 brown halves and extract the meaty pulp. She rinsed the grated powder to get rid of excess oil, and left the white powder out on a sieve to dry. I sat outside on the cement verandah, finishing a Barbara Kimenye smugglers’ tale. Using my peripheral vison, I kept an eye on a mother hen with her chicks, ready to jump and shoo them away any time she and her flock veered too close to the coconut. That evening we had rice for dinner. It turned a bit too rich in coconut oil; the equivalent of dressing your meal with coconut hair oil. The thick aroma did not leave your tongue until long after the meal itself was digested. Not to mention the permeating smell in the rest of the house after frying onions, garlic, clover, and coconut gratings together.
But Mombasa is much more than fresh fruit and delicious cuisine. Fort Jesus is a mainstay tourist spot. You haven’t seen Mombasa if you haven’t seen this 16th century Portuguese outpost. Originally a bastion of Lisbon’s territorial ambitions in the Indian Ocean, it sheltered numerous navigators and explorers, including one Vasco da Gama. My family and my dad’s friends, the Shaka’s, visited the museum one slightly windy afternoon. As the 2 families went about the fortress, listening to the guide’s presentation, we gasped on cue at human skeletal remains, and craned our necks into the well where occupants got fresh water during an Arab or British siege. Our parents looked on as the kids scrambled up and down the rusted canons. As usual, there was a local photographer at hand. We were corralled into various smiling permutations: just the kids; then boys only; then girls standing behind the canons; then each family together; and finally, the adults – alternating man and woman. Ever the salesmen, our now resident photographer extended his assignment by suggesting we continue our shoot by the ferry. For envious neighbors back in Nairobi, nothing says Mombasa more than the quintessential family portrait which captures Likoni ferry in the background.
That evening, we capped our day’s adventures by dining out. Coursing with energy than we knew what to do with, we kids cleared our meal in record time. “Mysterious Cat” had been ferrying us around all day. And we rushed headlong into it to practice the upward mobility that had been so well displayed by our parents all day. The boys made for the driver’s set, at which point I invoked my right as the eldest kid to sit on the driver’s seat. Swinging the locked steering wheel, while pressing on the brakes, was never more enjoyable. In control, we gave no thought either to our parents still chilling and drinking inside the restaurant, or to passing motorists who were repeatedly thrown off by the flashing brake lights and the possibility that the vehicle was backing out onto the road.
A few days later, on a Sunday morning, we drove out to the Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary. Time for a true safari. We were a 2-van convoy, the kids running amok and excited in Shaka’s Nissan, while the adults rode with my dad and his matatu crew. The area around Mwaluganje sanctuary is known as Shimba Hills, named after the lions that formerly roamed wild. Most of these big cats are gone. They’ve been pushed back as more and more of their habitat has been brought under cultivation by cashew nut and coconut plantations. The elephant population has also dwindled, yet they often make their presence known either through fatal encounters with humans, or by destroying crops and property that now lays across their ancient migratory routes. The drive from Likoni takes about 2 hours. We got to the main gate around midday, paid our entrance fees and began weaving in and out of the dirt paths hoping to spot a ndovu. We didn’t have long to wait. The elephant’s majesty is impressive. Especially when a herd of them flap their ears no more than a 100 meters from the glass and aluminum that ferried you to its habitat. Vehicles never seemed so flimsy as when compared to the trunk legs and wrinkled hides of an elephant bull. On the way back, I have distinct memories of a rowdy conversation in the adults’ van. We’d stopped at a wayside inn for a quick snack before the long ride back to Likoni. Sodas were quickly distributed amongst the kids, while the dads knocked back Tuskers, and the mothers tea. My mom was the main participant. I remember wondering whether she was simply thrilled at the family’s time together, or whether she too, for once, had tasted some of what Bachus offers mortals.