Read, To Promote World Peace

In my current Caribbean Literature course, my students and I just finished reading V. S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street. I’ve loved this book since I was in high school. In some ways, it was surreal to be using the same copy I read back at home, while teaching at a state university I never knew existed until just a few years ago. The humor in the text still entertains, and the depictions of violence that Naipaul deploys are just as troubling.

Lincoln, Nebraska is not your grandmother’s holiday destination. In the public eye, especially to folks in the North East or the West coast, this is the middle of nowhere. Literally. And there may be some truth to that. Whenever I’m in Kenya, friends and family always ask me where I currently reside. In college, when I said I lived in Pennsylvania, that made sense. Miami was the cause of envy during my stay there for graduate school. I’d often get concerns about how I was EVER able to study while living so close to the beach and all the debauchery that Hollywood portrays about South Florida. None of that happens now that I’ve moved to Lincoln. More often people are just confused about where on the U.S. map they’d locate  Nebraska. For me though, what’s most remarkable is that there’s always something familiar about the unknown.

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The humor in the text still entertains, and the depictions of violence that Naipaul deploys are just as troubling.

We read Naipaul’s Miguel Street but we didn’t simply turn pages. We also listened to Calypso by Harry Belafonte and Calypso Rose. The novel has so many allusions to music it would have been crazy not to. Looking to better understand how humor works in Trinidad, we watched drama by Learie Joseph on YouTube. We engaged with Trinidad and Tobago’s history vis-a-vis Caribbean institutions of slavery, the production of sugar and rum, and foreign occupation. This last one came under many forms: Spanish, Dutch, and French dominion, British colonialism, and even American military installations during WWII. In other words, we approached “reading” from a very expansive point of view. My intent was to make familiar a small island nation in the Caribbean that most students may not have previously heard of. And for those who had, this was more often under familiar narratives of tourism–and the paradise waiting to be discovered in Trinidad–or third world poverty–and the hungry, naked children in need of western charity. Rarely would western media highlight the creativity in the region: poets, musicians, or even Carnival attendees.

It’s easy for me to find commonalities with strangers. As a child, I grew up plugged in to a diverse range of global cultural production. While I physically didn’t leave Kenya until I was 18, for years before that I’d intellectually explored North America, Britain and parts of continental Europe, India, Australia, and South Africa. How did this happen? By reading.

Growing up, whatever disposable income my family had was geared towards funding our education. And even then it was often not enough. Hence, toys were mostly out of the question. I got a bright red tricycle when I was three. Once I out grew that, that was the end of me having a bike at home. I loved wristwatches. To get one, however, I’d often have to bargain with my mother, and the purchase was conditional upon me performing really well at school. Our TV set was a 14″ black and white tube for the longest time. But even though toys and cool electronic gadgets were rare at home, the trappings of middle class respectability that really got me green with envy were BOOKS.

I especially loved detective stories. And Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series was absolutely at the top of that list. Following the adventures of four kids and a dog solving crime in the English countryside left me feeling like I’d just travelled with them. Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys had the same effect. Caroline Keene’s and Franklin Dixon’s books, respectively, helped me map out the United States long before I ever set foot here for college. I crisscrossed Europe with TinTin’s eponymous protagonist, his pet dog Snowy, and his occasional companions: the Captain and the two professors. Right alongside Asterix and Obelix, two cartoon characters, I fought colonizing 1st century Romans, rooting for the Gauls. Obviously.

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Caroline Keene’s and Franklin Dixon’s books, respectively, helped me map out the United States long before I ever set foot here for college.

Reading such a wide range of stories was great. It was, as I’ve also come to discover, terribly one-sided. Keene and Dixon each have about 65 books in their series. I can count on one hand the number of characters who are people of color. Between the two of them, these authors wrote an America that was white-washed to the extreme! Unintentionally, on their part, that glaring omission actually speaks volumes. It is wholly representative of how the American nation has historically reacted to communities of color. But in some ways The Adventures of Tintin was actually worse. Belgian Cartoonist Georges Remi DID feature Native Americans and even Congolese Africans in his work. But these appearances were soaked in racial stereotypes. “Red Indians” attempted to scalp Tintin, while big-lipped Congolese savages cooked him in a pot.

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Keene and Dixon each have about 65 books in their series. I can count on one hand the number of characters who are people of color.

India featured large in my childhood. There were Asians in Nairobi shops, some of whom were newly-emigrated, but many of whom were third and fourth generation Kenyans. But even more exciting were Bollywood films on national TV every Sunday afternoon. Yes, these movies were sappy, and the characters broke into song every ten minutes. But the storylines were great. Recreations of the Hindu epic, Ramayana, had small boys naming themselves Hanuman and re-creating the struggle to save Sita during lunch break at school. There was much that was strange about this cinema, but there was so much more that we found intriguing and cool. India might have been far away, but it was portrayed to seem much closer. Perceptions of distance shrunk. Home and Away, an Australian TV show broadcast the land Down Under straight into my living room on weekday evenings.

Reading will not singlehandedly stop WWIII. But fiction, music, cinema, poetry and a range of other cultural artifacts are a great way to begin conversations with “strangers.” Reading, widely defined, inspires the imagination. We begin to seek new connections that emphasis curiosity over prejudice, understanding over antagonism. Reading is not an end by itself, but it’s a pretty good first step. White Allies of the BLM movement have been directed to online reading lists. Reading might seem passive and solitary, but regimes that ban literature know this is absolutely not true. Reading can also mobilize communities of resistance. So go on, find a book, song, or film from a place you know absolutely nothing about, and make the strange familiar. Alternatively, dig a little deeper into someone, something, or somewhere you know pretty well, and discover aspects of their existence you’d never imagined. Make the familiar strange.

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A Series of Unfortunate Crushes

In third grade, Teacher Emily’s class, I sat next to a girl called Virginia. She was so birdlike, I couldn’t help but have a crush on her. She was kinda shy, but also talkative around friends. She expressed herself in little flighty movements. Not quite a damsel in distress, but enough to awaken the knight-in-shining armor within me. Even if just for a minute. Naturally, as a third grader, I sought Virginia’s attention by playing a prank on her. Around this time, canvas book bags were the in thing. These sacks were pretty barebones, but sturdy as hell. They could serve you from Mt. Everest and back, no problem. They were also made in Kenya, so they came in cheap. The downside was that the were no where as colorful as the plastic stuff just beginning to arrive from China. Dull, durable canvas spelt poor, while the fancy but shoddily manufactured imported items signaled money. Virginia’s rucksack was so identical to mine, it wasn’t until you’d used the sucker for a while and stained it that you could differentiate the two items. So, one evening I had the bright idea of swopping her bag with mine. I did the switcheroo just before the end of class, as we came back from Physical Ed in our dusty soccer pitch. Virginia never noticed the difference. Not till she went to pull out her math textbooks for that evening’s homework did she realize what had happened. The next morning I arrived at school earlier than usual, having sufficiently practiced my fake indignation at being pranked. As soon as Teacher Emily walked into the room, I went up to her and explained what had happened. Virginia hadn’t arrived yet, so I got to control the narrative from the start. I explained at length how I believed we’d been pranked by some of the naughty boys, no names mentioned – wink-wink hint-hint – just before the entire class went for PE the previous afternoon. I was generally out of trouble, so Tr. Emily had every reason to accept my version of the events. It was indeed very sad, she agreed, that silly boys had played this prank on us. She excused the fact that neither Virginia nor I had obviously had the chance to complete our homework assignments. I went to my assigned desk and sat down. Although I’d already deposited Virginia’s ruck sack on her chair, I still held onto its perfume scent. I felt that much closer to her for having interacted with her books and her pencil set the night before. That girly smell lingered on my fingers. Virginia finally got to class, and we swopped back our bags. She too expressed her astonishment to Tr. Emily. Unfortunately my prank never truly got us any closer. I never asked Virginia out, and in the end she transferred to another school.

The next year, in fourth grade, I met Asya Changu. Asya had one big thing going for her: she was smart and would often kick my ass in math quizzes. Virginia, while super cute, was not the sharpest blade in the set. So I always had some misgivings about asking her out, dating her, getting married, raising a family, rising in our respective career fields, and just generally being an all-round awesome power couple. Plus, Asya was from the coast; she had that lilting Swahili accent that lulls you into affirming your own emasculation.

“Ewe Kaka, naomba kukukata!”

“Buddy, may I castrate you?”

To which, under the assault of coconut-scented hair oil, long curly eyelashes, henna-ed and manicured long, slim fingers, you’d dreamily nod yes.

“Take me now; I’m all yours! If this is what it takes to enter the inner sanctum of your harem, do it!”

Add to all that eleven-year-old sexiness a brain that was quick-witted, and it was clear Asya and I were destined to go places. Of course the problem with meeting the angel of your dreams in real life, is that you’re still mortal. And she is too heavenly. It’s impossible to approach her and make a proposition, in the highly likely event she rejects you, and yet impossible to look away. Instead of getting to know Asya closer, I spent most of my time that school year dreaming about our offspring: these brood of infants who’d be so smart, they’d probably have PhDs by the time they were eighteen. I should have dreamt less, and acted more. In less than three semesters, Asya had transferred to another school; her family had moved and she was no longer my classmate. Bah! I knew this was too good to be true.

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Add to all that eleven-year-old sexiness a brain that was quick-witted, and it was clear Asya and I were destined to go places.

Where Asya was ethereal, Peninah, my grade five crush, was only too real in the flesh. Hers was not to conquer the heights of intellect, but rather the baser nature in all pubescent boys. She was curvy and on the cusp of womanhood. She was ripening in a way only fully captured by the Swahili word, Kubhaleghe. It means both a human, and hence utterly expected, physical transition, but one that also unfolds in ways that whet desire and drip with sin. Peninah was baleghe-ing to the full extent of her hormones, and we boys could not have enough of her. To baleghe is not a thing you speak of in polite company; heavens no! You save such titillating details for the whispered exchanges between confidants, preferably in the shadows. We were drawn to Peninah likes bees to honey. Hers was a heady concoction that hit us right below the gut, and we could never have too much. You offered to do Peninah’s homework, or else the rest of your sorry earthly existence was wholly futile. You stood so Peninah could seat, otherwise you deserved to be struck by lighting – after drowning. You stayed alert for the whiff of her perfume, just a hint, to confirm you were still within the realm of the living and had not descended into Hades due to longing and a broken heart.

With Peninah around, you couldn’t think long term. This was neither the time to pen bucket lists, nor to ponder on your future career. How could you, faced with a budding chest, and swinging hips? There was no time for tomorrow. It was all about the present: this smile, this touch, this wink, possibly even this hug; after which you could die in peace. Where Juliet, my arch academic rival, pretended to let me win, Peninah took no prisoners and suffered no fools. She was slaying our adolescent minds long before the concept existed. I envied whoever she spoke to. And I hated any boy who seemed close to her. And while I may not have cried myself to sleep missing her, Peninah’s face was the last thing I saw every night, and the first thing I saw every morning. This went on for three weeks, an eternity for a boy such as myself, who measured time in terms of romantic fantasies. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before my heart was smitten by someone else.

Or rather, I should say, two new girls: Irene and Caroline. They were sisters. Irene, the younger one, was in my class. Her sister was a grade above us. I never could fully decide on which one of them to invest my emotional energy. Caroline, being in class eight, was clearly way above my pay grade, but a boy can hope! She was a bad girl before Angelina Jolie. She had this Je n’ai sais quoi elegance about her. She was sometimes rowdy, laughing out loud, messing with the boys. She broke the rules. Her hair was braided in fascinating ways. When we read about Delilah and Jezebel in Christian Religious Education, I empathized with Samson. Against such charms, the sucker had no chance. Whatsoever.  And neither did I. Caroline was only too aware of her looks; she was gorgeous and totally in your face about it. There was to be none of that shy, cute, femininity for this queen. She owned this joint, and did not care who was watching. And the boys loved it. They flocked to her like moths to fire. And I watched as they crashed and burned. We kids in the lower grade gossiped about who was interested in her, who got dissed, and who hang on.

Irene was in the same class as I was. Sometimes we even sat together. Talk about bliss. As a boy, when you get to sit next to your crush it’s butterflies 24/7. You don’t wanna gawk, because then you’re just weird, but you can’t simply play aloof. You want to subtly let her know that you’re interested, but not in a creepy way. Aargh! So many emotions. What a juggling act. You watch her during break to see who she hangs out with. How she comfortably laughs, and teases, with Hilda, her best friend. They whisper to each other. You know it has something to do with using feminine products. They seem embarrassed, but also grown up. They’re on the cusp of adulthood and their bodies are maturing. You’ve learnt about this in Home Science, but it’s an entirely different thing to consider it from the perspective of someone you know. You want to reach out and say it’s OK. How do you step into this circle they’ve created for themselves? This intimacy where they share love letters, delivered through third parties, from forlorn boys in school? Irene has this neon green toy, a slinky. You watch her play with it. She sometimes leaves it on her wrist like a bangle. You envy that cheap Chinese toy; it has felt the kind of physical contact you’d die to experience.

The waiting game is fine, but as often happens, past a certain length the attraction fizzles out. Through the end of primary school, Irene was permanently at the edge of my awareness when it came to girls. She was a rung higher than Mary W., but not as friendly or approachable.

On the other hand, Mary S. was smart, chatty, perhaps even flirtatious with me. And while outwardly polite, she had a rebellious streak deep within her that startled even Mr. Kariuki, one of the strictest teachers we had at Ngong Hills. Karis was being a faculty member, possibly throwing his weight around – mark you most teachers did that. Well, Mary S. had had enough of that crap. She drew a line, Mr. Kariuki stepped over it, and they almost came to blows. Scandalous! A pupil refusing to submit to a teacher’s corporal punishment? What was the world coming to?

Mary’s partner in crime, Silvia, was this lithe cat. She had long Nilotic limbs, the kind you could imagine pharaohs fighting over. She was languid, easy going. Not to say you could mess with her, but rather that she was long suffering. Yet when cornered, she was a formidable foe. She had a strong personality, in the way quiet people do. They don’t talk much, not because they have nothing to say, but because they’re quite content in themselves and have no need to convince anyone. Nor do they need to justify their lives or their choices. Even clothed in thinning school uniform, Silvia was so graceful. If she even went into modelling, she’d be great – so regal!

Njoki on the Weekends – II

I’m glad I persisted; Njoki and I ended up being pretty close. We had a routine. We’d meet up on Sunday afternoons and take walks, sometimes holding hands, into Oloolua Forest. If we discovered a meadow of some sort, or a spot by the river, we’d seat and chat about anything and everything. We shared an interest in Reggae music, UB40 especially. Even now, I can’t hear “Cheerio, cheerio Baby” without thinking back to those conversations. We knew the same people, so we gossiped about them: who committed what crime; who was dating whom; who died.

If not strolling through Eucalyptus trees, we’d sit at an old bridge long into the night, whispering sweet nothings. Njoki fascinated me. She was more mature, but that never came across as condescension. Our friendship puzzled onlookers. She was also really good with animals. She had a pet dog, Mickey, who followed her everywhere and would have defended her with his life. Mickey eventually accepted me. He’d lie down at the foot of an old culvert, while we sat on a low reinforcement wall. One evening, we’d sat so long it had gotten dark. Several pedestrians walked by; they could tell there were two people on the bridge, but they couldn’t see our faces well enough to recognize us. The spot was renowned for muggings. Women hurrying home from errands looked in the general direction they heard our voices and sped away in fear. Mickey quietly kept watch while Njoki and I continued chatting. A little after, a rowdy drunk passed by. I recognized him from his slurry speech. It was Sancho, a young no-gooder who was involved in several robberies in the neighborhood. To make matters worse, he was known to openly smoke weed. If no one openly challenged him about his behavior, it was only because they feared a violent retaliation.

 

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Mickey quietly kept watch while Njoki and I continued chatting.

Sancho heard us talking, and he took it upon himself to investigate. He ambled towards our general direction, swaying. Mickey’s ears went upright, cocked towards this intruder. Sancho took a few more steps towards us, and Mickey knew it was on; this is exactly what he’d been born to do. He was about to be a star. Sancho approached where we sat; he was no more than a few meters away. Mickey was positioned between us and Sancho; he’d now stood up on all fours. I could hear him growling low in his throat, but Sancho had not yet realized the adversary he was walking into. The moment Sancho made the final step, closing the gap between him and us, Mickey erupted into a frenzy of barking and growling. I’d never seen him on the defense before, so I was shocked at how vicious he’d suddenly become. Sancho was taken unawares; he stumbled back, attempting to flee from what might as well have been a lion now right up in his face. He tried to simultaneously turn around and run; while his mind might have been shocked into soberness, his body was still not fully functional. His escape failed, landing him flat on his face. He groaned loudly, probably having grazed himself on rocks. I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. I couldn’t believe that Sancho’s famous bravado had been reduced to whimpering. Njoki had a hard enough time calling off Mickey who, like myself, seemed to truly enjoy terrorizing Sancho into further hysteria. When Sancho finally got back on his feet, he was terribly disoriented. He veered off in what was certainly the wrong direction. And the loud splash that followed confirmed my observation. Sancho was now fully present, yanked back from whatever substance-induced paradise he’d ben enjoying. He cursed, loud and long, something that included both dogs and mothers. But that only added icing to what had become a veritable comedic cake. Sancho knew as much. He waded out of the murky river, shot one last “fuck you” in our general direction, and hurried away from lion-inspired dogs and dark pools that terminated your buzz. Njoki and I figured we’d had sacrificed enough blood to the resident mosquito population. We hugged goodnight, and went our separate ways.

Njoki on the Weekends – I

If I failed horribly at sweet talking Sheila during the week, I more than compensated over the weekends. Sunday afternoons were spent with Njoki, another star in the constellation of village girls that I dreamt about dating. Sheila was definitely the  morning star, brightest of the bunch, and wholly out of my league. I consoled myself with the fact that Sheila never went to high school – I was too good for her, I concluded. Then there was Shiku, her neighbor. Shiku did go to high school. In fact, her and I attended sister institutions; I was at the Aga Khan Academy, she was at the Aga Khan High School. In the ‘academy’ lies all the difference. Her school was clearly a charity case, mine was the real deal – never mind that I was no more than a scholarship student. Shiku had that advantage over Sheila, but she was also way too wild for me. I’d see her hanging out with the boys I knew better than to associate with. These kids were partying, drinking and smoking, way before I even knew to worry about whether I was still too old to be a virgin. This was the crowd your parents went to church for, hoping and praying that you do not fall in with . These fellows skirted at the edges of the Anglican Church of Embulbul Youth Group; but it was quite obvious their suave moves were not confined to merely accompanying good, pious, Christian girls down the aisle. They had designs that were way more sinister, and the wickedness to target impressionable girls in the congregation. Someone shout “Safe sex!”

I convinced myself that Shiku didn’t really mean to be with this kiddos. I simultaneously dreaded and craved for a chance meeting on our dusty village footpaths. But such luck only opened further conundrums: whom should I look at when we passed each other. Should I stare at her face and ignore the guys jockeying around her like young lions? Would that not be interpreted as competition, and possibly get me an ass whooping? Sure, I wanted the girl, but not if I had to fight a pack of village thugs. In any case, the boys were their own downfall; they were too successful with the ladies. And so, inevitably, they’d get bored with Shiku and move on to the next conquest.

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These fellows skirted at the edges of the Anglican Church of Embulbul Youth Group; but it was quite obvious their suave moves were not confined to merely accompanying good, pious, Christian girls down the aisle.

In Sheila’s social circle, there was also Sara and Emily. They were sisters; separated by an almost 10 year age gap. For some reason, Sara, the younger one, shared a Christian name with their mother. The older Sarah had a mental illness, and thanks to village prejudice, she was more commonly known as Mad Sarah. Mental illness ran in the family. At least two of the girls’ uncles were eccentric to the extreme. One of them, Wachira, was actually under medication; he would often disappear for a week or two. Upon his return we’d learn he’d been admitted at Mathare Hospital, Nairobi’s main mental health institution. Mwangi, the other uncle, was not under any treatment. He’d drink and turn into an entirely different person, physically violent. I watched Sara and Emily closely. I was fascinated by the lives of their extended family. How does one navigate such outrageous characters in the home, I wondered?

Mental illness was rather familiar, but not in any personal way. Walking to Ngong Hills Academy, I’d often run into Brownie and Njeri, our resident mad man and woman. Njeri was old, probably in her late 40s or early 50s by the time I started noticing her. You could go for months without sighting either of them, and then she’d be seated by the road, with a sack of her belongings. She was homeless, as far as I could tell, with minimal opportunities to shower and change her clothes. She held continuous conversations, either with herself, or with invisible companions. Njeri would gesture and her face would contort assent or dissent, as the dialogue progressed. Her right arm, missing a sweater sleeve, would point sideways, and then she’d burst out laughing, only to stop just as abruptly. Dressed haphazardly – a sweater missing buttons, tucked on top of a zipless coat, and underneath which you could see a floral dress – she was more to be pitied than to be feared. Brownie was known for walking. You could never see him seating. He was ever on the move. One day you’d see him at Ngong market, nonchalantly walking past the stalls filled with fruit and veggies. None bothered him. The next weekend you’d be driving past Karen, three kilometers away, and there would be Brownie, still on his walkabout.

The girls, Sara and Emily, were gorgeous. They set many hearts on fire. Mine included. Unfortunately, Sara was in class eight at Embul bul primary. I may have been a randy young he-goat, but even I knew that a high schooler such as myself could not be seen dating someone that much younger. Instead, I set my sights on her sister. Emily was older than me, more worldly. Her and Sheila frequented The Nest Pub & Restaurant when this joint first opened. The Nest was a spot filled with fast money. Matatu crews and young professionals, both just coming of age, would congregate here on weekends. Nest was THE place to see and to be seen. Shiku and her crowd of male peacocks were frequent customers. This was a lifestyle of partying that I could neither afford, nor explain to my parents. I was still in high school after all. And although I had undergone the customary rite of circumcision, I knew not to push my new found independence too far. If I couldn’t party with Emily, I appealed to her romantic side. Running into her one Sunday afternoon by the bridge that straddles a seasonal Kangawa river, I said “Sasa.” She paused mid step, and replied, “Poa, niaje!” We were walking in opposite directions, so we stood facing each other. She just stared back at me, letting me stew under the gaze her elongated eyelashes. I squirmed, willing my brain to not fail me at such crucial a moment. And, before my courage zapped out, I quickly blurted out my proposal “would you be my girl friend?” Although our greetings had been in Sheng, my appeal was delivered in English, of course. The Queen’s language was the surest way to a girl’s heart, so I’d learnt. She smiled, I think, then proceeded to reject my interest in her. She was too hot for me; in many ways I could have predicted her response. In any case, I may have been down, but I was not out, yet. There was still Njoki, Emily’s aunt, for me to proposition. I was hell bent on having a girl friend; I felt the deep urge to catch up with my compatriots. Having survived one let down, I was not too frightened by the prospect of another.

 

My Aga Khan Academy Years – Fashionable!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vertigo & Yellow, Sticky Juice

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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.

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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