Parents Day began with one of those lazy kind of mornings where no serious work got done, but everyone busily pretended to do it anyway. Teachers were itching for the ordeal to be over. One could tell from the numerous, often conflicting, instructions we received.
-Head over towards the sports fields!
Then a few minutes later …
-Hey you! Just where do you think you’re going? I said all students should stay in class!
In between haphazard adult supervision, we kids squeezed in rehearsals of the songs and dances we’d be performing for our families that afternoon. Mr. Mike’s A-Capella belted out Luhya lullabies and tuned their voices through a series of vowel sounds. It was essential that they bring their A-game, given that they’d lead everyone in singing the National Anthem. If you weren’t singing, or practicing your drama skits, you were tasked with decorating the classrooms and hallways. This is where all those boing art & craft lessons came into play. We twisted colored ribbons and hung the patterns from doorways and windows. Colored chalked adorned the blackboards with words of welcome: Welcome To Ngong Hills Academy; Strive to Excel; Karibuni Wazazi; We Love You. Everyone tried to leave their mark on the mosaic; later, as you shyly walked your parent/guardian through the room, you’d not only point out where you sat during class, but also which part of the collage you’d contributed to.
After lunch, we were corralled into the sports field, and essentially put into lock down. School prefects had total supremacy over us from that point on. No one would be let through the gate till the day’s events were over. To get to the restrooms, cleaned out from the usual fecal and urine mess that permanently covered the floors, you had to walk behind the classes. Each step of the way you were under the Nazi supervision of class 8 prefects. The sadistic bastards. From the field to the loos, you trotted. Strolling, and peeking to see the ceremony’s proceedings, would either earn you a scolding, or you’d lose your chance to walk to the bathroom. The boys resolved this conundrum by simply making use of the shrubs that grew alongside the sports field fence. The girls had to be more creative.
To be honest though, Prize Giving Day wasn’t half bad if you were performing on stage. You had freedom of movement, unlike the sorry bunch stuck in the field with no hydration and no shade. But the event was especially superb if you were receiving an academic award. This is why Juliet and I feuded so bitterly. The chance to walk up to the headmistress, in front of all the parents, plus some of your peers, was great. For one, it assured you a seat in one of the classes next to where the ceremony was taking place. At the appropriate time, a teacher would herd the lot of you behind the stage. From there, you’d wait till your name was called by the master of ceremony, usually Mr. David, because of his polished accent. You’d straighten your school uniform one last time, walk in measured steps up the dais, and cross over to Mrs Mureithi’s outstretched hands. While maintaining eye contact, you’d shake her hand, receive your trophy, smile appreciatively and walk off. As a prize winner, and hence a serious student, you were allowed the privilege of hanging around until the awards ceremony ended. At which point you’d do one of two things: locate your family for a tour of the school, and claim possession of several sodas (Fantas and Cokes being the most popular choice) plus as many biscuits as the servers would allow you. Not necessarily in that order. The losers in the field would have to wait a few more minutes before the goodies slowly made their way to them. More often, the impatient students would push and shove through the field gate, overpower the prefects and the teacher on duty and bulldoze their way to their parents’ side. Lesson learnt: never stand between a hungry school kid and her snacks. She will go around you, or through you, but either way she’s unstoppable!
Prize Giving Day was also a nice culmination of the efforts learners and educators had put in over the past academic year. For instance, there was Mr. Kariuki’s math tutoring. By the time we were in grade 7 and 8, less than 2 years from a major Kenyan examination that would determine much of our future prospects, Kariuki had made arrangements for private tutoring. A group of us would pay about 500 KSHS a month for the privilege of working with him after hours. Saying it that way makes it ridiculous that a teacher has to be compensated for additional time with his students. And yet this had become the norm in Kenyan education. Schools operated on budgets just above minimum, and the way to keep costs low was to suppress teacher salaries. As a private school employee, Kariuki actually had it better than his counterparts paid by the government to teach in public schools. Who can begrudge him a little bit more income? AND his tutorial work was pretty effective. We’d spend about 30 minutes working on math problems from past Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exams; the last half of our time together was spent going over the solutions. If I wasn’t consistently great at algebra and geometry, I could at least improveme through continuous practice.
Mr. Rapando contained his English grammar work to class time. No one was willing to pay extra for private classes on how to conjugate verbs or identify gerunds. Mr. Malelu’s GHC classes were epic! He taught a course that combined geography, history, and civics, focusing especially on the Kenya, and the African continent. The subject matter was essentially designed to give pupils a sense of place. So we’d begin by focusing on our small locality, then we’d learn more about the Rift Valley province, before discussing Kenya as an entirety. Navigating between both human and physical geography meant that on any given day we might be discussing climate, terrain, or a community’s primary economic activity: fishing, pastoralism, agriculture, etc. If there is anywhere in the Kenyan public sphere were stereotypes are recycled and propagated, it must be in GHC classes. We learnt where each ‘tribe’ is from. Dholuos are from Nyanza, and Gikuyus are from Central. We ingested the mainstream narrative about the independence struggle from British colonialism. We did not question. Malelu would thunder into class and begin a lecture on freedom struggles in the rest of the African continent. His favorite resistance must have been Mozambique’s. He’d end each class with the phrase “A Luta?” And we’d promptly respond, “Continua!”
Yet if Malelu could dramatize the resistance in front of our teenage eyes, Mr. Stanley fired up our imagination with the course material. Stanley told stories; and he did it really well! I remember his rendition of the Wangu wa Makeri saga. Essentially, the Gikuyu community got tired of living in a monarchy. They overthrew the king and installed Wangu as the leader. Turns out this was a big mistake. Wangu lorded it over the men, having them carry her on their backs, as well as bending on all fours so she could sit on them. The literal and metaphoric meanings of these acts were not lost on us. The Gikuyu men, Stanley continued, came together to determine the best way forward. Their solution revolved around biology. They all conspired to make their wives pregnant. Then on a pre-arranged day, they revolted and carried out a coup d’etat. Thrashing their pregnant and incapacitated women, the men took over government, and since then the community has always been led by a council of elders. Such stories featured in many of our lessons with Stanley. In fact, even his lectures seemed to me quite a kin to story telling. And his story telling was that much more memorable because of his accent. Small wonder that at some point kids composed a rhyme in his honor. You knew it, but would never admit that you did, and woe unto anyone ever caught chanting:
In our country!
The major century!
A Mr. Stanley!
The song’s aim was to prolong that last consonant, just like Stanley always did.
Tr. Priscilla was nice, and there was kindness in her eyes behind those large Eighties glasses. We missed her when she left. More so because her Arts & Crafts lessons were handed over to some taciturn newbie. Tr. Lucy was fire. She was kinda pretty, and she certainly knew her material. But she was also on a power trip, and would suffer no fools. She often taught well, but even when she didn’t, you better pay attention to dove-tail joints, and T joints, and mortise and tendon joints, and tongue and grove joints. God, the lectures were dry! And it was all theory with absolutely no workshop space for us to practice. Yet Lucy would have none of that; she was teaching, and we had to learn. Failure to comply resulted in corporal punishment, and she was very skilled at leaving your palms red, bruised, and on fire using a stout, dry twig. Wincing from pain, our only consolation was to murmur “bitch!” and “devil!” out of her earshot. We also totally enjoyed spreading malicious gossip about her. There was one story circulating that Tr. Lucy had been caught in an affair with one of our classmate’s dad. Scandalous!
Not all teachers relied on the rod to mold our growing minds. And even when they did, it seemed entirely justified. Tr. Veronica seemed to truly enjoy her job teaching science and agriculture. Her and I got along pretty well. I didn’t even resent her when she punished me for fighting a fellow grade 5 classmate. On this particular day, one of our teachers was absent and we’d been asked to entertain ourselves. Eric Karuthiru insulted me, and got me mad. We started duking it out right there in the middle of class, stumbling past desks and chairs. Our classmates loved the show: great entertainment! Veronica was teaching in the room next door. We never even saw her approach. Next thing I knew, she’d hauled us back to her class and she caned our hands in front of everyone else.
This was also around the same time when I’d risen to the top of the mchongoano game. To win, you had to be a master wordsmith. You needed to slay your opponent with choice language about a range of traits: his parents, his cowardice, his intellect, his body weight, etc. In ways we did not appreciate then, we were carriers of an ancient art on the continent: oral story telling. Within our hushed voices, barely loud enough to carry over the intervals of laughter that marked a fatal blow from your opponent, we practiced what griots have undertaken for centuries. If previous griots were praise-singers, our own currency was shame. You’d start out slow, tip-toeing around your opponent. It wasn’t until you were ready to strike them down that you’d use really personal information, or their performance in the most recent continuous assessment test, or their tears last time a teacher whooped their behind.
With such verbal skills, it was only natural that I soon graduated to print journalism. Tr. David gathered an outfit of students who were charged with editing and publishing the school’s first newsletter. The very first edition was essentially an anthology of collected works. It had not only poems – in both English and Swahili, but also stories, and essays. All these was nicely framed by a letter from the headmistress. In her short piece, Mrs. Mureithi narrated the humble beginnings of her educational experiment before laying out lofty goals that both teachers and pupils should aspire to. My own contribution was a rendition of the “How Tortoise Cracked His Shell” story. I handwrote the first draft, before handing it in for additional editing and proofreading by Tr. David. It was with a certain level of giddiness that I read my very first byline once the magazine, dubbed The Hill, finally appeared in all its black and white glory.
You just had to love our NHA teachers. There was Tr. Agnes, our class 4 GHC teacher, who once asked me whether I thought I had suddenly morphed into a university professor. She was rather exasperated by my cheeky behavior, aside from the fact that I was talking over her during a lecture. I rather disapproved of her sarcasm, but I got the point. Then there was Mr. Ogola. Ogola loved playing favorites, and Charity – who often performed best in our end of term exams – was his pet. During one particular lesson on weeds that hamper crop production, Ogola launched into the specifics of black jack. He then asked for the weed’s local name. Unfortunately, it happened to be one of those lazy kind of afternoons, where the Ugali you had at lunch simply sits in your belly and totally drains your brain of its thinking capacity. No one answered Ogola, and he grew feisty. As usual, he turned to Charity who replied that black jack is also called Miceege in Gikuyu. Ogola went on to make some snide remark about Charity having to not only teach us science, but also Gikuyu. This was not meant to reflect positively on us – a sorry bunch! But Tr. Jacinta topped the list of colorful characters. She taught Home Science – taking us through lessons on how to wash a baby, sew an apron, remove stains, and plan a balanced diet. After work, she concerned herself with a brood of almost 10 children. OK, perhaps they weren’t that many but even a family of 6 kids seemed ridiculously large to us, fed as we were, on a staple diet of family planning and the public acceptance of ideally 2, maximum 3, kids per family.
Good times these. But none surpasses my memory of being wrongly punished by Mrs. Mureithi. I think I was in fifth or sixth grade. I had been given some cash by my parents to pay tuition. Rather than hand in the money as soon as I got to school, I’d kept in my pocket through break time. Per usual, I’d then gone to the sport field to play, and promptly proceeded to lose the cash. This was carelessness of the highest level, given how scarce financial resources were at school. Yikes! My mother was mad. So angry she decided to have someone else handle my punishment. That evening I explained that I’d lost the money while playing at school. My misfortune was soon interpreted as theft, since I’d been given tuition many times before and it had never gone missing. Why now, my parents wanted to know? The next day mom showed up at school. I was pulled from class, and met her in Mrs. Mureithi’s office. Neither woman believed my “money got lost” story. Mrs. Mureithi proceeded to cane the truth out of me, using a piece of plastic water piping. The beating didn’t change my excuse, for the simple reason that it was the entire truth. The cash had dropped out of my pocket as I carelessly played during our morning break. I seriously resented them both for that unwarranted punishment.
If I’d been anywhere as cavalier as Edgar Mwadilo, I’d have cared a lot less about the caning. Mwadilo joined Ngong Hills Academy rather late in his KCPE career, but in a short amount of time, he rose to almost cartel kingpin status. One thing going for him was his physique. He was tallest in our class and bulky in build. This served him quite well on the football field. He could maneuver through our adolescent bodies like they simply didn’t exist – making his way to the goalpost – before sending a striker’s volley that always forced the opposing goalkeeper to cringe and step aside. There could have been no surer way to fame than prowess on the pitch! His athletic capabilities also manifested as leadership potential. In some ways, this gained him some respect among the teachers, most of whom were quite unimpressed by his performance in class. It was always a comical scene whenever a teacher attempted to administer corporal punishment on Mwadilo. Being so big, there was always the chance that he could strike back, even if just unwittingly as he defended himself from a teacher’s blows. He was almost Mr. Kariuki’s size, and there was more than one awkward moment when Mwadilo would tower over a furious Kariuki who was really trying to cower him, but really only succeeded in manifesting just how ridiculous the whole caning business was. Mwadilo wasn’t alone in this. Shiro once fought back against a teacher who was hell bent on striking her. She protested. Her actions did not go down well – followed as they were by reports to her parents that she’d gotten pig-headed and that her proverbial horns needed some serious trimming.
Ngong Hills was an institution filled with young hope and the outlook of a bright future. True to the Kenyan 8-4-4 educational system, we were there to read books, graduate, and go on to jenga taifa, “build the nation.” Amongst ourselves we saw future teachers, doctors, lawyers, pilots, and engineers; hell, I even fancied myself a potential carpenter and furniture designer – until my dear old mother sternly talked such nonsense out of me! Future woodworkers or not, death was the furthest thing in our minds. In our youth, we circumscribed illness and mortality to grannies, grandpas, and of course, someone like Mr. Mike whose alcohol addiction was evident to all. But life is such that tragedy eventually strikes. I was in class 7 when a boy from the grade ahead of me died. It was a rather short illness, I forget the prognosis, but the entire school was cloaked in mourning. After Alex’s death was announced at our morning school assembly, his classmates adopted a more somber, less cheeky, attitude. Eight graders, well aware that they were almost at the end of their primary school career, were prone to rowdy gestures and belligerent behavior. In observance of the sad loss of one on their cohort, they perceptibly toned down their bluster. Alex’s twin brother didn’t attend school for an entire week; he was home as part of the funeral preparations. At school, we too did our part. Mrs. Mureithi authorized for the school bus to ferry students to Alex’s home on the afternoon of the requiem ceremony. We arrived at about 2pm, dressed in our school uniform, and we were shown to our assigned seats in the tent set up for guests. We sang a number of songs as part of the funeral proceedings. I remember looking around in reverence, feeling a bit like a voyeur at someone else’s grief.
The kisses. Many and often. Passionate, in a plastic kind of way. Self-conscious smooches that ride on the back of the Queen’s English to spread a Latter Day Pax Britannica. Frail, in the end; yet effective. These scrounged lips and bared teeth mole their way into teenage minds in Nairobi. They are suave and chic, and in the peri-urban Ngong area, as provincially anxious as we were of our small town roots, we lapped these up. It helped, too, that the token black girl was cute. Long flowing hair, heat treated to decorum. An upper middle-class sheen dominates the arrangement of hair ties and pins. The front bob is uppity personified. We eat it all up.
Not just the possibility, but the actuality of being anyone, anywhere. On the back of his white, middle class ancestry, he rode on to be a pilot, a surgeon, a fireman, an engineer, a college professor, sometimes even an actor. This genius, was, as I’d later come to appreciate, an apt manifestation of privilege, and the mobility that accompanies it.
Hence, given the politics, this was a vision of life that was wholly seductive. And also adaptive. We marveled, in our school boy yarns, at his use of mobile phones. Plus, at a deeper level, a more guttural, instinctual, eat-meat-raw-and-bloody moment, we understood him as men. His pursuer was a Jezebel – a wickedly beautiful tormentor none of us could resist, even if we’d tried. And yet he attempted, always no more than a step ahead of her long grasping nails. Barely out of reach. And yet, getting captured by this modern day Delilah, would it really have been such an awful thing? That was how blinding her sex appeal.
I think it was mostly the flowing hair, perfectly fanned and billowed into a cinematographic sculpture. There was, too, the dark green truck. I don’t know why green, when my TV set was black and white. But dark leafy hues best suggest the wild and untamed look he projected, assisted by a faithful companion. These were two men bonded in nature and violence, and not broken by any mountains. The poise between expansive outdoors and close-quarter combat.
Modern day cowboys. American Indians who seemingly preferred to not stay dead. Bobby-Six-Killer never sounded more poetic. A private eye duo that cleansed crime from a land wholly condemned of the original sin. The settlers on the land quipped, ” we shall miscege-Nation our way to Americanness;” successfully burrowing into claims of autochthony that 30, 000 years of settlement decried. But who’s counting?
It was a millisecond moment that promised a whole life of adventure. Just that exact moment as the soundtrack began, and the TV series title appeared. Before, as it were, the blonde, bronzed limbs of Brooks Shields and her uber-suburban community unfolded. Way in advance of, it turns out, the bedroom misdemeanors that had had the program relegated to 2130 hours: post-national news hour, when adult supervision could be counted on. And if absent, not Kenya Broadcasting Corporation’s care.
The click from the shutter, opening, not closing, uncountable doors in the visual world. I birthed by dreams of dying a photographer midwifed by a Hollywood lens that peddled American sex, drugs, and violence. Could that I had belonged, even as an afterthought, in this pristinely white movie set. Scrubbed entirely of, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights. This was the Nineties, after all, and heaven forbid that the bitter aftertaste of history trouble our determined march towards the future of a new millennium. This is how it was, to be Bold & Beautiful.
This is the monk who became a daddy. And the son flails in tight upper cuts and round houses, achieving a sense of release unrecoverable since that moment of birth. What weighs this family down, and together, is the impossible search for mother. Mother earth, and Wife earth, absent. This unholy crime-busting trinity is incomplete. The quest is incarnate, as spirit. And so we have before us, ladies and gentlemen, the father, the son, and the searching spirit. There may, too, have been whiffs of whiskey in that deep-pocketed shoulder bag slang on top of a trench coat above the old man’s shoulders. A rebellious spirit this. A spirit of color. A spirit with color.
Another publication that suffered from serious malnutrition in representing people of color was the Tintin collection. Instead, the comic series made up for this dearth via numerous stereotypical depictions of Native Americans and Asians. When Tintin finally chose to include Africans, the caricatures were more than offensive. They were over the top; the author dug deep into Europe’s stock of racist African images and paraded these within the covers. Cannibals wielding a humongous pot seeking to make a meal of Tintin and his pet Snowy? Check. A jungle seething with venomous snakes and vicious wildlife? Check. Naked, bone-clad witch doctors? Check. Tintin Au Congo had all these and more. It’s quite wild when you think about it, really The Congo, after bearing the brunt of Belgium and French colonial occupation, was subsequently subjected to cartoonist Georges Remi’s civilizing pen. Remi, more well-known as Herge’, reverts to 18th century iconography in portraying Africans. Herge’s Congolese characters are, much like Joseph Conrad’s, brutes with vaguely human features.
Working with literature in high school was a joy. I had the privilege of learning under teachers who truly enjoyed language and what it could achieve. Kiswahili literature, Fasihi, was taught to us by Misters Ruo and Sarara. Shamba la Wanyama, a Swahili translation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, was just annoying. The language seemed archaic. There was little about the diction that was creative, flippant, and dynamic, attributes I associated with Kenya’s street and vernacular languages. Rather, Shamba felt heavily weighed down by grammatical structure. The ideas therein made much sense, however. I could wholly identify with the key questions raised about distribution of national resources and the elitism that accompanied political office. Aside from that, the rest was simply too lofty.
Ken Walibora’s Siku Njema was more my thing. The romance novel was, in retrospect, not very politically ambitious. It adopted a neoliberal outlook without much in the way of critical engagement. Characters were poor and impoverished not due to the economic policies instituted at the national level, but because of their own individual circumstances. Nevertheless, the text approached language with a reverence I appreciated. And communities were not merely pawns in an expansive game of chess, but actually individual subjects whose dreams, desires, and fears were worth understanding. The novel might have been utopian, but unlike Orwell’s Shamba La Wanyama, it did not limit human lives to production and labor. Creativity was a vital part of Walibora’s world. The lyricism in his language was refreshing; it paid homage to the great poetic tradition in Kiswahili. More importantly, his word choice enabled him to better tug at our teenage heartstrings. Sometimes the characters underwent extremely sad experiences; for instance, the protagonist was mistreated by his guardian, an aunt who accommodated him after he was orphaned. Other times there was fear, so palpable it vaulted from off the page. Like when the main character runs for his life, pursued by a knife-wielding childhood rival. And, of course, there was love. Lots of love: the innocent kind of love between young friends exploring their new physical awareness; the sellable kind of love that was transacted between characters; and the unrequited love that Walibora’s hero repeatedly got invitations to, each time fleeing in the opposite direction.
Leading us in English literary studies was Joshua Musee, a man who has remained my friend to this day. There was much that we read together, but The Burdens by John Ruganda and Margaret Ogola’s The River and the Source stood out. Musee’s class readings of Ruganda’s play dramatized the work into our classroom space. He basically performed the text with his voice. Ogola’s novel was phenomenal. In the 2 years that I used it for my fourth form national exams, I must have re-read it about 10 times. There were many passages I could recite, especially the refrains that occur in the text and which Ogola composes as a chorus to the larger narrative. Akoko Obanda, the protagonist, came alive to me in the form of my maternal grandmother. Her great granddaughter, Vera, was a role model. I lived, breathed, and identified with these personalities. There was nothing abstract about this fiction. Ogola’s was a true novel. Becky, Vera’s sister, a young woman who vigorously wielded her sexuality, eventually succumbs to AIDS. This hit close to home. My mom’s eldest brother, after whom I’m named, had passed away about 4 years prior, due to complications with HIV/AIDS. These were the early days of the disease, at least in Kenya. A diagnosis, if there ever was one, often came very late, and was publicly understood to be a death sentence. I witnessed family friends, 2 couples in fact, die in the same manner; first the wives, then the husbands. Add to that list one of my dad’s younger sister, Aunty Wanjiku – a really funny, vibrant woman. A literary examination of Ogola’s narrative wasn’t so much a close reading analysis as a reflection on the lives my community and extended family lived.
Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword affected me in ways I had not anticipated. On the one hand there was a great sense of adventure, as a group of children travelled across the Bavarian countryside fleeing from Nazi Germany. In this way, The Silver Sword sowed an interest in understanding World War II that has endured since then. And yet, there was horror. Lots of it. Though certainly written as a children’s book, and hence void of the graphic brutality that other WWII narratives such as Saving Private Ryan depict, Serraillier’s work had an underlying sense of fear that was palpable. I understood the Polish family’s misery as they fought starvation and the elements, all while fleeing the SS and evading capture. There is certainly the sense that this is a group of siblings who have been torn apart; and when healing finally arrives, it will only cover emotional wounds that are too deep to ever forget.
Both the picaresque and the humor of Wind in the Willows made it a truly remarkable text. Toad, the protagonist, sets off on a voyage down the river he has lived beside for many years. Many exploits await (him?) her in the journey ahead. What drew me to this book most, however, was the sense of travel and freedom. The world was truly Toad’s oyster and he went about savoring it. The inquisitiveness and curiosity that are behind Toad’s acquisition of a boat, preparation for the trip, and finally saying goodbye to friends before heading out are the same feelings I experience before each trip, even today. Each day on the road presents itself as a new opportunity to re-invent myself. That’s a rare gift we nomads have; routines have a way of wearing us down to a monotonous set of habits. Thankfully, the open road beckons!