Now I Could Face My Family with Pride.

So in February 2002 the Education Ministry finally released our Kenya Certificate of Secondary Examination results. This is the worst time ever. You’ve been out of school for almost three months, you’re used to sleeping in and going to bed late. As a high school graduate, you’re now accustomed to a certain amount of freedom. It’s OK for you to date more openly, but certainly not wantonly. You’re an adult now, and don’t have to account for your every move to your parents. Perhaps you’ve even acquired a national ID. You can go drinking. Or you could go to jail. Then the exams are out and it all comes rushing back: you’re still a student. You still have a whole future to worry about: college, getting a job, finding a partner, getting married, making babies, looking after your aging parents. #adultingishard

I spruced up the morning after the results were announced. This was nerve-wracking work, the least I could do was look good. I called the school’s front desk to inquire about my exam grades. I’m dialing at one those simu ya jamii public phone booths. It’s hard to hear from my end; I’m beside a busy street and there’s all kinds of matatu, and market-related chaos happening around me. So I’m having to shout. Then I also want a modicum of privacy. Some space from the prying eyes of the proprietor who’s eyeing me with that ka-I-know-you-failed-so-stop-pretending-otherwise look. Argh!

As children, Kenyan society grooms us for a never ending rat race. Everything is a fucking contest. Getting into a public vehicle has winners (those who can shove and nudge their way onto a seat) and losers (suckers who believe pregnant women, kids, and the aged should board first). Your class 8 national exams have winners (hoisted onto teachers’ shoulders and celebrated with song and dance) and losers (folks who get shunted into bush schools with no indoor plumbing). KCSE is the biggest contest of all. Top male and female performers are interviewed live on national TV, their proud parents looking on, and making hand gestures that suggest they have a direct line to God – else, how do you explain His generosity in the form of a child who has avoided drug abuse (if a boy) or teenage pregnancy (if a girl) and has gone on to best her entire cohort of peers. Nationally! The singing, the jubilation is well deserved. The Kenyan educational system demands lots of smarts to survive, leave alone to thrive. And yet, the celebrations, if not prepared for you, leave you feeling like a good-for-nothing shit. Hence the drunk father will return home that evening and say “Ona! Wale wengine wanapita mtihani na wewe uko hapa ni Tv tu!” Others have succeeded where you failed! Occupied as you are with the TV! It is then that kids all of a sudden belong entirely to the mother. “Hawa watoto wako ni wajinga kama wewe!” Your kids are just as stupid as you. It must run in the family!

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Now I could face my family with pride. I’d done my part; the ball was now squarely back in my parents’ side of the pitch.

I was not top-national-performer-hoisted-onto-shoulders material. But I still pulled my weight. I had a track record of success but you never know with these things. It ain’t over until it’s over. When I finally got through to the school receptionist and explained why I was calling, I had to hold my breath and cross my fingers. Silly superstition that wouldn’t have changed exam grades assigned almost a week prior. Emotions trump logic. I twisted my fingers and squeezed my sphincter tighter as she repeated my name, “Peter, right?”

Yes, I said.

Oh, you scored an A-.

Phew, I could breathe now! That was a good score; now I could face my family with pride. I’d done my part; the ball was now squarely back in my parents’ side of the pitch: mother’s turn to do her thing and get me into college. I could now move on to other important matters, like figuring out whom I’d bested in which subjects, and who might have bested me. Did I mention Kenyan society revolves around competition?

I could now more calmly take the matatu to Aga Khan. I reflected on the fact that top performers at school every year had their names placed on a placard, right as you walked into the main administration block. How often had I strolled by  and looked up at surnames such as Manji, Patel, and Singh? Our school was attended by majority Ismaili families, and the accolades won reflected that bias. Kids who’d made their way to top universities in the U.K. and the United States had space on the placards with Harvard, Leeds, LSE, Oxford, and Cambridge next to their names.

I got to school and walked to the Bursar’s office to pick up my exam slip. I was pleased to see that my name was already up on the placard. But I was disturbed that three other names had found their way there, too. Argh! How could this be. I went to review my compatriots grades, publicly displayed in a locked glass cabinet in one of the student hallways. Nothing like a Federal Educational Records Privacy Act in play here. In Kenya, your educational highs and lows are publicly displayed for all to witness. I think that works fine when you do well. But I would hate for my failures to be aired in public. Perhaps that’s part of why cheating in national exams has been such a perennial challenge. Conversely, if your low academic grades were always hang out to dry in front of crowds, you either developed anxiety and possibly depression – both of which, though underdiagnosed, are quite common – or you develop such a thick skin you are pretty much set for success the rest of your life. Looking back, it’s often those who didn’t do well in school who take risks and build empires. I remember my dad speaking to one of his schoolmates from high school and they remarked on how those who got C and D grades now employ those who earned As and Bs in school.

There was a good reason why multiple names were at the top of the 2001 KCSE placard. The national examination council had recently change how it calculated a student’s mean grade. While the mean grade had previously been calculated using 8 grades, they had reduced that to 7. And was this important? Yes, very! Your KCSE mean grade determines whether you can go to a 4-year college or not. At the time, there were only enough university spots in public universities for about 30% of those who completed their KCSE exams. The rest were asked to fend for themselves. Medicine was only offered to students who had an A. The rest of you were shunted into Bachelor’s of Commerce courses around the country. I ended up with an invite to study B.Sc. In Biological Sciences at campus in Njoro. I never showed up. But I still sought supremacy. We’d sat for 8 different subject exams, with the government using 7 for the mean grade, they simply dropped your lowest score. I calculated my mean grade and found that even if calculated across all 8 I still ended up with an A-. My competitors did not. Now, I was happy. Clearly I’d still bested them, despite government interference. This is why I advocate for small government. The administration should stay the fuck out of my pocket book, and my grade book.

I went back home. It was time to start planning the next move: getting into the International Baccalaureate program at Aga Khan Academy. Over my fours years at Aga Khan, I’d been relentlessly told about the merits of the IB. It was meant to be a curriculum that was much more responsive to the demands of a 21st century economy than the KCSE. The IB was supposedly a better training ground for innovation and creativity than the KCSE, which focused on rote learning and memorization. The IB was a global system, it had the word “international” in its title, for God’s sake. This was an education for the elites, for those going places! And I wanted in. But between me and my ambitions lay an insurmountable tuition bill. Since KCSE only gave you access to national opportunities, while the IB turned the world into your oyster, it came with a much cheaper sticker price. If I could never have footed the KCSE bill, there was no way in hell I’d pull off paying out of pocket for the IB. I needed a benefactor. So I went to see the White Man.

His name was Dr. John Pragnell. He was British, as they often are, and in a previous life he was a Chemical Engineering PhD. He’d taught high schools rather than going into higher education, and that’s how he’d made his way into the Aga Khan Group of Schools. He was Head of School for Aga Khan Academy, Nairobi. The jewel in the Aga Khan network. I had faith he would quickly and effortlessly sought out the minor bump on my desire for an IB diploma.

I first checked in with two of Dr. Pragnell’s direct reports Mr. Mbuthi and Mrs. Mutsune, dean of students and dean of studies, respectively. I figured they could help coach my appeal in a more desirable way than simply “I want to study, and I need the school to pay for it!” Their advice? For me to first schedule time through his secretary. After that, during my sit down with the head, I was encouraged to showcase my leadership qualities and my contributions to the school over the course of 4 years. I rehearsed accordingly, listing down my involvement in the three areas that an IB diploma asks for: Creativity, Action, and Service.

I said hello to the receptionist and explained I had an 11am appointment. She asked me to sit and wait for a few minutes as the head wrapped up a conversation with a parent. Fifteen minutes later, I walked into Dr. Pragnell’s office and found him seated behind his desk. He had a white matching cup and saucer just to the left of his work space: that explained the strong smell of coffee. We shook hands and I took a seat opposite him. I explained that I’d just received my KCSE results a week prior, and he congratulated me on my performance. I then laid out my interest in the IB, and why I believed I could do well, given my involvement in school until then. He listened patiently, and once I was done talking laid out some of the challenges of joining the IB class mid-year. Since the IB school year runs from September to May, joining in February would have meant having about 5 months worth of academic work to catch up on. I nodded before earnestly spelling out that if given the chance I’d work hard and make the transition. Heck, I even believed myself. In the end though, joining late was not the main issue, cash was. The head made it clear he had no discretionary funds to cover full rides to the IB. He had a few scholarships, one offered 50% tuition, while the other covered 75%. I had hoped he would offer to cover the remaining balance. I knew that 25% of a KSHS 200, 000 annual bill was not something my parents could afford. This was clearly the end of the road. When it sank in that Dr. Pragnell was either unable or unwilling to help, I was crestfallen. This felt like a betrayal. I’d kept up my end of the bargain, and done well in my final exams, but I felt that he’d reneged on an unspoken promise: do well and doors will open, regardless of financial ability. On my way out of the office, I swung by Mrs. Mutsune’s office to report that I’d failed. That 10 minute visit would change the entire course of my life.

Sun & Sand

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We’d packed our bags the night before. After a few last minute instructions to Njoro on what to do while we were away for ten days, we embarked on our journey. Destination: Mombasa!

Leaving home that December morning, we were dressed to kill. My sisters, as usual, were in matching dresses. The yellow and brown flower designs on their dresses multiply disappeared into sharply ironed pleats. The twins’ attire was rounded off tastefully with pale green sweaters, machine-knitted by my mom, and white stockings sheltered in the pair of black shoes they’d each received last Christmas.  I was in what I’d termed my “Bermuda” shorts – fashioned to look like a fabric mosaic that comprised of different shades of brown. I also had on a t-shirt, and a heavy cardigan that was made from metallic green and charcoal black yarn. The rest of our small wardrobes had been packed into school bags. Anything that was too big was placed in a large travel bag that had expandable double bottoms. The purple and light blue suitcase was full, its four roller wheels barely more than a few centimeters off the ground as I half-wheeled half-pushed it through the living room.

Traveling by road from Nairobi to Mombasa is a patriotic duty. This ordeal needs to be at the very top of a 50-things-Kenyans-must-do-before-they-die list. It all starts on River Road, a busy commercial street in Nairobi’s less sophisticated district. You’re free to reserve your seat a day or two in advance, but this in no way guarantees the timely departure of your bus. The coach, often with bold, glittering graffiti on its side, will start the journey when the crew ascertain there are enough passengers on board. Mash Poa, Coast Bus, and Tawafiq are some of the big brand names that ply the Nairobi-Mombasa route. These are 50-seater coaches that have become increasingly fancier over the years. Now, many of the bus lines entice passengers with in-door plumbing, free bottled water and Wi-Fi access. Back when my family and I made the trip, none of those trappings existed.

Departing from the River Road terminal does not necessarily mean starting the journey. We still had to weave through Nairobi’s mid-morning gridlock. You swing by St Peter’s Xavier, heading up Haile Selassie towards Uhuru Highway. A left at the round about takes you through Industrial Area, with the Railway museum to your left, and the Railway Golf Course on your right. Before getting into Inda, as the city’s historic manufacturing district is affectionately known, you’ll see a cemetery commemorating Commonwealth soldiers who died during the first and second world wars. Once you pass Nyayo National Stadium you’re now on Mombasa Road; between you and salty breezes of that Indian Ocean port lay about 500 kilometers of open road. Sit back and enjoy the ride. If you’re lucky, perhaps travelling on a weekend or a public holiday, you should leave bumper-to-bumper traffic behind you even before you get to South B estates. However, if the gods have not decided in your favor, prepare to crawl through Embakasi, all the way past Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Beyond this point you’re scot free.

Your Somali conductor will visibly relax, probably pull out a bottle of Sprite, pop a hole on the bottle top, and take a swig. All these while expertly stripping the bark off a miraa twig using his front teeth, and instructing the driver not to stop for any of those asshole traffic cops who station themselves somewhere before Kitengela.

When you departed from Nairobi at half past ten, your stomach still contained the remnants of last night’s dinner: ugali and sukuma wiki. On top of that, you’d added a cup of Ketepa and 3 slices of bread  -spread with jam and margarine, of course. All that, plus the adrenaline rush from embarking on a cross-country voyage, was adequate sustenance. But now, 30 kilometers from Nairobi, on the outskirts of Machakos town, hunger pangs have welcomed themselves into your Mombasa experience. The novelty of trees, vehicles, pedestrians, and cattle flashing by on the other side of your window is no longer as exhilarating. The only visions you can presently subscribe to involve all that cake, mandazi, chocolate, and biscuits that you spotted behind display counters at various eateries on Tom Mboya St. The drops of condensation that were forming on the outside of yoghurt packs, the Delamare’s Farm logo brilliantly displayed, have returned to haunt you. Their very absence enables them to claw that much deeper into your imagination. What you wouldn’t give for a cool soda, chased with some fresh, warm doughnuts! Unfortunately, it won’t be until Mtito Andei, a good 200 KMS from Nairobi CBD, that the bus driver will pull over. Often, they’ll stop at a restaurant where they’ve pre-arranged to receive discounts, or even free meals, for every bus load of hungry passengers they deliver at the restaurant’s door.

The hungry horde of Mombasa-bound travelers gets off the bus. Limbs are cramped, and need shaking before they can return to life. Eyes half closed. The sun is blindingly bright, after 3 hours inside the bus. The more adventurous among us, eager to get on with the serious business of  consuming a Mombasa holiday, don sunglasses. Gone are the heavy Nairobi sweaters and jackets, to be replaced by t-shirts and shorts and sandals. Where is the sand? We trudge into the restaurant. Already salivating at the aromas of grilled chicken, lamb biryani, mutton pilau, mandazi, deep-fried Farmers’ Choice Sausage, and greasy chips doused in tomato sauce. You can see eyes darting between the cold drinks in the CoCa-Cola refrigerator and the display counter with steaming food where a server beckons. Decisions, decisions. Lost in choice, passengers don’t even notice time slipping away. In another 5 minutes, the driver will be impatiently honking and revving the engine. He and his crew are pros at this; they can polish off a solid meal in under 15 minutes, and still find time to squeeze in their 1pm ablutions and prayers. The driver’s assistant begins to corral passengers back onto the bus, take-away meals hastily packed, and with several folks foregoing their change. The restaurant, however, ensures no one leaves without clearing their check.

Back on the road again, the bus is now a cornucopia of competing flavors. Every dish smells better than the last. Indigestion. Flatulence. As we approach Voi, our fellow passengers are gliding in and out of an afternoon nap. The view outside the window now is blurry. It’s difficult to distinguish reality from dreamland. Are those Acacia trees by the roadside or just in my mind? And is that one-street-town over-populated on market day, teeming with goats, cattle, and fresh fruit, no more than a figment of my imagination? Maungu. Maji ya Chumvi. Mazeras. We’re finally in Mikindani, passing Chamgamwe and the oil refinery. This is Makupa. An elderly lady with her 4 kids is the first to ditch the couch, eager to get home. Her luggage is deposited beside her on the dusty sidewalk. 3 assorted suitcases, bursting at the seams. The eldest kid is holding onto a red-feathered jogoo, Christmas dinner. The conductor hurtles back into the bus just as the driver swings onto the tarmac, engulfing the family in a cloud of thick smoke and ashy dust.  Finally, the two tusks monument, just as I’ve always seen them on the back of the KSHS 50 note. The bus pulls into a makeshift shed. We’re here: Kongowea. This is the end of the road, and the beginning of my Mombasa adventure. There’s dad and his friend, Shaka, waving at us. Five hundred kilometers later, the family is reunited again.

That first night, we had dinner in town. All of us arranged around a wooden dining table. Made from roughly cut timber, the table slanted to the left. The polyester covering, which had been nailed to the top, barely improved this piece’s overall appeal. Not a big deal. Clientele at the “Mombasa Raha Restaurant” did not walk in for the décor and ambiance. Like many others, we too were after the chapatis rolled around fried eggs, flushed down with mugs of hot spicy chai. The scent of tangawizi blended with conversation as my parents shared news and caught up on what been happening since they last saw each other. These were, after all, the days before mobile telephony and short messages only came via snail mail. The rest of dinner involved grilled chicken, fried rice, and soda. More tea for the adults.

By now it was late in the evening. The land-bound breeze coming in from across the Indian Ocean engulfed us warmly. Our up-country noses wrinkled at the brine in the air. We’d also catch whiffs of fresh fish, coconut-laced cuisine, and raw sewage. In time, once my dad’s employees had shut down their taxi operation for the day, we drove to Bombolulu. We were going to visit one of my mom’s cousin and her two kids for a few days before re-joining dad after Shaka’s family got into town.

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Song & Dance

ndege wathie ũtũme marũa,

wĩre baba ũke naihenya,

unibomu yakwa nĩ  thiru,

ĩthireire haha mũkũnyũ,

kamũcũrũge! Kanyita ngũkũ! gaikia mũkũnyũ! ĩtikaganu!

Gĩkũyũ Children’s Play Song

Thinking back, I ingested a peculiarly diverse range of cultural artifacts during my childhood. The play songs, rhyming teases, songs on radio, TV series, and movies that I consumed as a kid originated from all over the cultural map. There were Gĩkũyũ couplets that are probably older than my grandparents. Childhood jibs in Sheng were more recent, perhaps a few decades old. While the Congolese rhumba that dominated Kenyan airwaves was from the 90s, even more recent were TV series from the UK, the United States, and Australia. Some of the items recycled much older narratives. For instance, the movie series Gods Must be Crazy, filmed in southern Africa, retold prejudice against black peoples instituted during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Hanuman, his monkeys, and Sita who showed up on my TV screen on Sunday afternoons were revisions of the ancient Ramayana text.

Gĩkũyũ couplets – from my house to the main road, made of dirt and unpaved, you have two options. One is to weave around quarried lands, up a steep slope of dumped concrete and construction waste, to Barabara ya Najuu: the upper road. The other is to walk downhill, using the now official driveway, previously a stone quarry. Baba Shiro owned the small farm closest to the main road. Between his house and ours, the land had been sold by one of his brothers to a family friend. For almost a decade after we moved from Gĩkambura to Ngong’, this area was uncultivated, and overgrown with bushes. As a result, the half acre plot of land was home to a variety of wild mammals. Squirrels were in the majority, but so too were mongooses. Walking down the path, I’d see a number of bushy tails dash up a tree and then listen in amusement as their owners held a conversation up in the canopies. The mongoose family, however, was not known for speed or beauty. What they lacked in these two criteria they compensated for in cunning and sheer evil. Our mongoose neighbors established their presence by the number of chickens they devoured. Actually, not even devoured, just simply massacred.

Around dusk, or even later in the night, we’d hear our hens complain. Their clacking and crooning would indicate that an intruder had entered their coop. Often, the assailant mongoose would break an egg from one of the hens’ laying nests, and help itself to a meal. The shell and some remnants of the yolk would be visible the next morning. A loud bang on the chicken coop’s tin roofing would send its residents scrambling and the intruder would be forced into a hasty get-away.

More cunningly sometimes, the mongoose would not reveal its presence till the next morning. We’d go into the shed to feed and water the birds only to see a stiff hen on the floor. Closer inspection would reveal that its neck was punctured. This was how the mongoose had attacked it, using an incision wound on its neck to drink up its blood. Much like a vampire. The body would often be cold by the time we discovered it: carrion. At this point there was no choice but to bury the dead hen, or perhaps cut it up and prep it for the family dog. But this was generally discouraged. Feed the pet canine chicken on one too many occasions and the next thing you know, she’ll walk into the coop and grab a meal for herself. After all, why wait until the bloody mongoose had killed it first? Unsurprisingly, the mongoose’s wastefulness – it never feeds on the meat, just the blood – made its way into a children’s rhyme song.

Mr. Airplane please send this letter

Ask my father to return home ASAP

My school uniform is torn

It’s tattered right at the belly button

That mongoose! Stole a chicken! Stuffed it in it’s mouth! How very naughty!

We live on the flight path that commercial planes take on their approach to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta and Wilson airports. The hum of an airplane engine, fifteen thousand feet above us, would send kids running and shouting. They’d send their voices high up, shouting messages to be communicated to their fathers who were far away, physically or emotionally.

There’s precedence here. A well-known folk tale from Central Kenya narrates the use of a dove to send a message from a wife to her husband. The man, so the story goes, had left behind an expectant wife and travelled far away to practice his trade as a blacksmith. In his absence, an ogre moved in and usurped authority it kept the pregnant woman well-fed so her and her unborn child would grow fat, and make for a sumptuous meal. To avert this disaster, the comely wife befriended a dove and trained it to send a message to her husband. This was a win-win deal. The dove got some of those delicious castor oil seeds; and the wife was saved when her man returned home and slaughtered the cannibal ogre.

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Mr. Airplane, please send this letter.

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Mbili fanana/ moja inanuka/ mavi ya kuku!

Two look-alikes/ one’s smelly-smelly/ chicken shit!

Childhood teasing – we’re 3 siblings in my family. Aside from the other illegitimate children my dad has never disclosed to us. Just kidding! I have two younger sisters, twins. Despite all evidence to the contrary, most people who meet them are convinced the two of them are identical. Actually, they’re just fraternal twins. When they were younger, and my mom invested in the habit of dressing them alike, they DID seem identical. As they’ve grown older however, their personalities have fleshed out in unique ways. They’re two different people.

We’d be walking across the village, the two of them dressed in similar costumes, and out of nowhere you’d hear kids shouting “mbili fanana!” The tune would conclude by suggesting that one of the two look-alikes smells of chicken poop. I never inquired from my sisters what they made of these taunts. In many ways, they weren’t malicious. But in their position, I’d have been horrified of all the additional attention.

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tangu lini doggy kava longi, na under?

When did dogs start wearing trousers and under pants?

Rhumba – sexy, jazzy sounds from the Democratic Republic of Congo, previously Zaire, have received ample play time on Kenyan radio since the late Fifties. Joseph Kabasellah’s “Independence Cha Cha” was as much a hit in Kinshasa as in Nairobi. Stars such as Mbilia Bel, Papa Wemba, Franco, Koffi Olomide, and many others have huge fan clubs across Kenya. In the 1990’s, Congolese “Ndombolo” took over the Kenyan entertainment scene like wild fire. The dance moves were borderline explicit, more often crossing into mature adult content. We loved it! Kanda Bongoman was not just a big time DRC musician with fanatic crowds in Brussels, Nairobi, and Paris, but also the self-given moniker by one of the milk hands in my neighborhood. This guy was as skilled in belting out Bongoman songs as he was in hand milking 7 heads of dairy cattle.

It goes without saying that as kids we did our best to karaoke Ndombolo lyrics. That we could neither speak, nor hear Lingala – the language in which most DRC music is composed – did not stop us. If we couldn’t get the lyrics right, we could at least create a re-mix. We made them up in our own way. The end result may not have stayed faithful to the original meanings, and I’m afraid we may have exercised that whole poetic license just a bit too much. There’s one particular remix that I especially associate with my time at Ngong Hills Academy. The licentious lyrics evoke memories of the terrible latrines we frequented as school boys. Those pits of disease were NEVER kept clean. Part of that certainly had to do with the fact that among a horde of 4 to 14 year olds there will be several who do not aim quite right when making a deposit. They’d then leave a nasty package on the latrine floor. The remnants looked like modern art exhibitions or the final products of a culinary experience involving omelets. Either way, these piles of shit were nothing pleasant to look at. And they stank to high heaven. Such incidents aside, they do not explain why many of the doors were often broken and in unhinged. Privacy was a rare commodity when you had a number 2 in mind. It is from that background that we began questioning fashion choices in dog world: what heralded the trouser-donning canines. Obviously, and memorably, this was done to the tune of the latest Ndonbolo track.